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The Old Curiosity Shop

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CHAPTER 21

Kit turned away and very soon forgot the pony, and the chaise, and the little old lady, and the little old gentleman, and the little young gentleman to boot, in thinking what could have become of his late master and his lovely grandchild, who were the fountain-head of all his meditations. Still casting about for some plausible means of accounting for their non-appearance, and of persuading himself that they must soon return, he bent his steps towards home, intending to finish the task which the sudden recollection of his contract had interrupted, and then to sally forth once more to seek his fortune for the day.

When he came to the corner of the court in which he lived, lo and behold there was the pony again! Yes, there he was, looking more obstinate than ever; and alone in the chaise, keeping a steady watch upon his every wink, sat Mr Abel, who, lifting up his eyes by chance and seeing Kit pass by, nodded to him as though he would have nodded his head off.

Kit wondered to see the pony again, so near his own home too, but it never occurred to him for what purpose the pony might have come there, or where the old lady and the old gentleman had gone, until he lifted the latch of the door, and walking in, found them seated in the room in conversation with his mother, at which unexpected sight he pulled off his hat and made his best bow in some confusion.

‘We are here before you, you see, Christopher,’ said Mr Garland smiling.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Kit; and as he said it, he looked towards his mother for an explanation of the visit.

‘The gentleman’s been kind enough, my dear,’ said she, in reply to this mute interrogation, ‘to ask me whether you were in a good place, or in any place at all, and when I told him no, you were not in any, he was so good as to say that—’

‘—That we wanted a good lad in our house,’ said the old gentleman and the old lady both together, ‘and that perhaps we might think of it, if we found everything as we would wish it to be.’

As this thinking of it, plainly meant the thinking of engaging Kit, he immediately partook of his mother’s anxiety and fell into a great flutter; for the little old couple were very methodical and cautious, and asked so many questions that he began to be afraid there was no chance of his success.

‘You see, my good woman,’ said Mrs Garland to Kit’s mother, ‘that it’s necessary to be very careful and particular in such a matter as this, for we’re only three in family, and are very quiet regular folks, and it would be a sad thing if we made any kind of mistake, and found things different from what we hoped and expected.’

To this, Kit’s mother replied, that certainly it was quite true, and quite right, and quite proper, and Heaven forbid that she should shrink, or have cause to shrink, from any inquiry into her character or that of her son, who was a very good son though she was his mother, in which respect, she was bold to say, he took after his father, who was not only a good son to his mother, but the best of husbands and the best of fathers besides, which Kit could and would corroborate she knew, and so would little Jacob and the baby likewise if they were old enough, which unfortunately they were not, though as they didn’t know what a loss they had had, perhaps it was a great deal better that they should be as young as they were; and so Kit’s mother wound up a long story by wiping her eyes with her apron, and patting little Jacob’s head, who was rocking the cradle and staring with all his might at the strange lady and gentleman.

When Kit’s mother had done speaking, the old lady struck in again, and said that she was quite sure she was a very honest and very respectable person or she never would have expressed herself in that manner, and that certainly the appearance of the children and the cleanliness of the house deserved great praise and did her the utmost credit, whereat Kit’s mother dropped a curtsey and became consoled. Then the good woman entered in a long and minute account of Kit’s life and history from the earliest period down to that time, not omitting to make mention of his miraculous fall out of a back-parlour window when an infant of tender years, or his uncommon sufferings in a state of measles, which were illustrated by correct imitations of the plaintive manner in which he called for toast and water, day and night, and said, ‘don’t cry, mother, I shall soon be better;’ for proof of which statements reference was made to Mrs Green, lodger, at the cheesemonger’s round the corner, and divers other ladies and gentlemen in various parts of England and Wales (and one Mr Brown who was supposed to be then a corporal in the East Indies, and who could of course be found with very little trouble), within whose personal knowledge the circumstances had occurred. This narration ended, Mr Garland put some questions to Kit respecting his qualifications and general acquirements, while Mrs Garland noticed the children, and hearing from Kit’s mother certain remarkable circumstances which had attended the birth of each, related certain other remarkable circumstances which had attended the birth of her own son, Mr Abel, from which it appeared that both Kit’s mother and herself had been, above and beyond all other women of what condition or age soever, peculiarly hemmed in with perils and dangers. Lastly, inquiry was made into the nature and extent of Kit’s wardrobe, and a small advance being made to improve the same, he was formally hired at an annual income of Six Pounds, over and above his board and lodging, by Mr and Mrs Garland, of Abel Cottage, Finchley.

It would be difficult to say which party appeared most pleased with this arrangement, the conclusion of which was hailed with nothing but pleasant looks and cheerful smiles on both sides. It was settled that Kit should repair to his new abode on the next day but one, in the morning; and finally, the little old couple, after bestowing a bright half-crown on little Jacob and another on the baby, took their leaves; being escorted as far as the street by their new attendant, who held the obdurate pony by the bridle while they took their seats, and saw them drive away with a lightened heart.

‘Well, mother,’ said Kit, hurrying back into the house, ‘I think my fortune’s about made now.’

‘I should think it was indeed, Kit,’ rejoined his mother. ‘Six pound a year! Only think!’

‘Ah!’ said Kit, trying to maintain the gravity which the consideration of such a sum demanded, but grinning with delight in spite of himself. ‘There’s a property!’

Kit drew a long breath when he had said this, and putting his hands deep into his pockets as if there were one year’s wages at least in each, looked at his mother, as though he saw through her, and down an immense perspective of sovereigns beyond.

‘Please God we’ll make such a lady of you for Sundays, mother! such a scholar of Jacob, such a child of the baby, such a room of the one up stairs! Six pound a year!’

‘Hem!’ croaked a strange voice. ‘What’s that about six pound a year? What about six pound a year?’ And as the voice made this inquiry, Daniel Quilp walked in with Richard Swiveller at his heels.

‘Who said he was to have six pound a year?’ said Quilp, looking sharply round. ‘Did the old man say it, or did little Nell say it? And what’s he to have it for, and where are they, eh!’

The good woman was so much alarmed by the sudden apparition of this unknown piece of ugliness, that she hastily caught the baby from its cradle and retreated into the furthest corner of the room; while little Jacob, sitting upon his stool with his hands on his knees, looked full at him in a species of fascination, roaring lustily all the time. Richard Swiveller took an easy observation of the family over Mr Quilp’s head, and Quilp himself, with his hands in his pockets, smiled in an exquisite enjoyment of the commotion he occasioned.

‘Don’t be frightened, mistress,’ said Quilp, after a pause. ‘Your son knows me; I don’t eat babies; I don’t like ‘em. It will be as well to stop that young screamer though, in case I should be tempted to do him a mischief. Holloa, sir! Will you be quiet?’

Little Jacob stemmed the course of two tears which he was squeezing out of his eyes, and instantly subsided into a silent horror.

‘Mind you don’t break out again, you villain,’ said Quilp, looking sternly at him, ‘or I’ll make faces at you and throw you into fits, I will. Now you sir, why haven’t you been to me as you promised?’

‘What should I come for?’ retorted Kit. ‘I hadn’t any business with you, no more than you had with me.’

‘Here, mistress,’ said Quilp, turning quickly away, and appealing from Kit to his mother. ‘When did his old master come or send here last? Is he here now? If not, where’s he gone?’

‘He has not been here at all,’ she replied. ‘I wish we knew where they have gone, for it would make my son a good deal easier in his mind, and me too. If you’re the gentleman named Mr Quilp, I should have thought you’d have known, and so I told him only this very day.’

‘Humph!’ muttered Quilp, evidently disappointed to believe that this was true. ‘That’s what you tell this gentleman too, is it?’

‘If the gentleman comes to ask the same question, I can’t tell him anything else, sir; and I only wish I could, for our own sakes,’ was the reply.

Quilp glanced at Richard Swiveller, and observed that having met him on the threshold, he assumed that he had come in search of some intelligence of the fugitives. He supposed he was right?

‘Yes,’ said Dick, ‘that was the object of the present expedition. I fancied it possible—but let us go ring fancy’s knell. I’ll begin it.’

‘You seem disappointed,’ observed Quilp.

‘A baffler, Sir, a baffler, that’s all,’ returned Dick. ‘I have entered upon a speculation which has proved a baffler; and a Being of brightness and beauty will be offered up a sacrifice at Cheggs’s altar. That’s all, sir.’

The dwarf eyed Richard with a sarcastic smile, but Richard, who had been taking a rather strong lunch with a friend, observed him not, and continued to deplore his fate with mournful and despondent looks. Quilp plainly discerned that there was some secret reason for this visit and his uncommon disappointment, and, in the hope that there might be means of mischief lurking beneath it, resolved to worm it out. He had no sooner adopted this resolution, than he conveyed as much honesty into his face as it was capable of expressing, and sympathised with Mr Swiveller exceedingly.

‘I am disappointed myself,’ said Quilp, ‘out of mere friendly feeling for them; but you have real reasons, private reasons I have no doubt, for your disappointment, and therefore it comes heavier than mine.’

‘Why, of course it does,’ Dick observed, testily.

‘Upon my word, I’m very sorry, very sorry. I’m rather cast down myself. As we are companions in adversity, shall we be companions in the surest way of forgetting it? If you had no particular business, now, to lead you in another direction,’ urged Quilp, plucking him by the sleeve and looking slyly up into his face out of the corners of his eyes, ‘there is a house by the water-side where they have some of the noblest Schiedam—reputed to be smuggled, but that’s between ourselves—that can be got in all the world. The landlord knows me. There’s a little summer-house overlooking the river, where we might take a glass of this delicious liquor with a whiff of the best tobacco—it’s in this case, and of the rarest quality, to my certain knowledge—and be perfectly snug and happy, could we possibly contrive it; or is there any very particular engagement that peremptorily takes you another way, Mr Swiveller, eh?’

As the dwarf spoke, Dick’s face relaxed into a compliant smile, and his brows slowly unbent. By the time he had finished, Dick was looking down at Quilp in the same sly manner as Quilp was looking up at him, and there remained nothing more to be done but to set out for the house in question. This they did, straightway. The moment their backs were turned, little Jacob thawed, and resumed his crying from the point where Quilp had frozen him.

The summer-house of which Mr Quilp had spoken was a rugged wooden box, rotten and bare to see, which overhung the river’s mud, and threatened to slide down into it. The tavern to which it belonged was a crazy building, sapped and undermined by the rats, and only upheld by great bars of wood which were reared against its walls, and had propped it up so long that even they were decaying and yielding with their load, and of a windy night might be heard to creak and crack as if the whole fabric were about to come toppling down. The house stood—if anything so old and feeble could be said to stand—on a piece of waste ground, blighted with the unwholesome smoke of factory chimneys, and echoing the clank of iron wheels and rush of troubled water. Its internal accommodations amply fulfilled the promise of the outside. The rooms were low and damp, the clammy walls were pierced with chinks and holes, the rotten floors had sunk from their level, the very beams started from their places and warned the timid stranger from their neighbourhood.

To this inviting spot, entreating him to observe its beauties as they passed along, Mr Quilp led Richard Swiveller, and on the table of the summer-house, scored deep with many a gallows and initial letter, there soon appeared a wooden keg, full of the vaunted liquor. Drawing it off into the glasses with the skill of a practised hand, and mixing it with about a third part of water, Mr Quilp assigned to Richard Swiveller his portion, and lighting his pipe from an end of a candle in a very old and battered lantern, drew himself together upon a seat and puffed away.

‘Is it good?’ said Quilp, as Richard Swiveller smacked his lips, ‘is it strong and fiery? Does it make you wink, and choke, and your eyes water, and your breath come short—does it?’

‘Does it?’ cried Dick, throwing away part of the contents of his glass, and filling it up with water, ‘why, man, you don’t mean to tell me that you drink such fire as this?’

‘No!’ rejoined Quilp, ‘Not drink it! Look here. And here. And here again. Not drink it!’

As he spoke, Daniel Quilp drew off and drank three small glassfuls of the raw spirit, and then with a horrible grimace took a great many pulls at his pipe, and swallowing the smoke, discharged it in a heavy cloud from his nose. This feat accomplished he drew himself together in his former position, and laughed excessively.

‘Give us a toast!’ cried Quilp, rattling on the table in a dexterous manner with his fist and elbow alternately, in a kind of tune, ‘a woman, a beauty. Let’s have a beauty for our toast and empty our glasses to the last drop. Her name, come!’

‘If you want a name,’ said Dick, ‘here’s Sophy Wackles.’

‘Sophy Wackles,’ screamed the dwarf, ‘Miss Sophy Wackles that is—Mrs Richard Swiveller that shall be—that shall be—ha ha ha!’

‘Ah!’ said Dick, ‘you might have said that a few weeks ago, but it won’t do now, my buck. Immolating herself upon the shrine of Cheggs—’

‘Poison Cheggs, cut Cheggs’s ears off,’ rejoined Quilp. ‘I won’t hear of Cheggs. Her name is Swiveller or nothing. I’ll drink her health again, and her father’s, and her mother’s; and to all her sisters and brothers—the glorious family of the Wackleses—all the Wackleses in one glass—down with it to the dregs!’

‘Well,’ said Richard Swiveller, stopping short in the act of raising the glass to his lips and looking at the dwarf in a species of stupor as he flourished his arms and legs about: ‘you’re a jolly fellow, but of all the jolly fellows I ever saw or heard of, you have the queerest and most extraordinary way with you, upon my life you have.’

This candid declaration tended rather to increase than restrain Mr Quilp’s eccentricities, and Richard Swiveller, astonished to see him in such a roystering vein, and drinking not a little himself, for company—began imperceptibly to become more companionable and confiding, so that, being judiciously led on by Mr Quilp, he grew at last very confiding indeed. Having once got him into this mood, and knowing now the key-note to strike whenever he was at a loss, Daniel Quilp’s task was comparatively an easy one, and he was soon in possession of the whole details of the scheme contrived between the easy Dick and his more designing friend.

‘Stop!’ said Quilp. ‘That’s the thing, that’s the thing. It can be brought about, it shall be brought about. There’s my hand upon it; I am your friend from this minute.’

‘What! do you think there’s still a chance?’ inquired Dick, in surprise at this encouragement.

‘A chance!’ echoed the dwarf, ‘a certainty! Sophy Wackles may become a Cheggs or anything else she likes, but not a Swiveller. Oh you lucky dog! He’s richer than any Jew alive; you’re a made man. I see in you now nothing but Nelly’s husband, rolling in gold and silver. I’ll help you. It shall be done. Mind my words, it shall be done.’

‘But how?’ said Dick.

‘There’s plenty of time,’ rejoined the dwarf, ‘and it shall be done. We’ll sit down and talk it over again all the way through. Fill your glass while I’m gone. I shall be back directly—directly.’

With these hasty words, Daniel Quilp withdrew into a dismantled skittle-ground behind the public-house, and, throwing himself upon the ground actually screamed and rolled about in uncontrollable delight.

‘Here’s sport!’ he cried, ‘sport ready to my hand, all invented and arranged, and only to be enjoyed. It was this shallow-pated fellow who made my bones ache t’other day, was it? It was his friend and fellow-plotter, Mr Trent, that once made eyes at Mrs Quilp, and leered and looked, was it? After labouring for two or three years in their precious scheme, to find that they’ve got a beggar at last, and one of them tied for life. Ha ha ha! He shall marry Nell. He shall have her, and I’ll be the first man, when the knot’s tied hard and fast, to tell ‘em what they’ve gained and what I’ve helped ‘em to. Here will be a clearing of old scores, here will be a time to remind ‘em what a capital friend I was, and how I helped them to the heiress. Ha ha ha!’

In the height of his ecstasy, Mr Quilp had like to have met with a disagreeable check, for rolling very near a broken dog-kennel, there leapt forth a large fierce dog, who, but that his chain was of the shortest, would have given him a disagreeable salute. As it was, the dwarf remained upon his back in perfect safety, taunting the dog with hideous faces, and triumphing over him in his inability to advance another inch, though there were not a couple of feet between them.

‘Why don’t you come and bite me, why don’t you come and tear me to pieces, you coward?’ said Quilp, hissing and worrying the animal till he was nearly mad. ‘You’re afraid, you bully, you’re afraid, you know you are.’

The dog tore and strained at his chain with starting eyes and furious bark, but there the dwarf lay, snapping his fingers with gestures of defiance and contempt. When he had sufficiently recovered from his delight, he rose, and with his arms a-kimbo, achieved a kind of demon-dance round the kennel, just without the limits of the chain, driving the dog quite wild. Having by this means composed his spirits and put himself in a pleasant train, he returned to his unsuspicious companion, whom he found looking at the tide with exceeding gravity, and thinking of that same gold and silver which Mr Quilp had mentioned.





CHAPTER 22

The remainder of that day and the whole of the next were a busy time for the Nubbles family, to whom everything connected with Kit’s outfit and departure was matter of as great moment as if he had been about to penetrate into the interior of Africa, or to take a cruise round the world. It would be difficult to suppose that there ever was a box which was opened and shut so many times within four-and-twenty hours, as that which contained his wardrobe and necessaries; and certainly there never was one which to two small eyes presented such a mine of clothing, as this mighty chest with its three shirts and proportionate allowance of stockings and pocket-handkerchiefs, disclosed to the astonished vision of little Jacob. At last it was conveyed to the carrier’s, at whose house at Finchley Kit was to find it next day; and the box being gone, there remained but two questions for consideration: firstly, whether the carrier would lose, or dishonestly feign to lose, the box upon the road; secondly, whether Kit’s mother perfectly understood how to take care of herself in the absence of her son.

‘I don’t think there’s hardly a chance of his really losing it, but carriers are under great temptation to pretend they lose things, no doubt,’ said Mrs Nubbles apprehensively, in reference to the first point.

‘No doubt about it,’ returned Kit, with a serious look; ‘upon my word, mother, I don’t think it was right to trust it to itself. Somebody ought to have gone with it, I’m afraid.’

‘We can’t help it now,’ said his mother; ‘but it was foolish and wrong. People oughtn’t to be tempted.’

Kit inwardly resolved that he would never tempt a carrier any more, save with an empty box; and having formed this Christian determination, he turned his thoughts to the second question.

‘You know you must keep up your spirits, mother, and not be lonesome because I’m not at home. I shall very often be able to look in when I come into town I dare say, and I shall send you a letter sometimes, and when the quarter comes round, I can get a holiday of course; and then see if we don’t take little Jacob to the play, and let him know what oysters means.’

‘I hope plays mayn’t be sinful, Kit, but I’m a’most afraid,’ said Mrs Nubbles.

‘I know who has been putting that in your head,’ rejoined her son disconsolately; ‘that’s Little Bethel again. Now I say, mother, pray don’t take to going there regularly, for if I was to see your good-humoured face that has always made home cheerful, turned into a grievous one, and the baby trained to look grievous too, and to call itself a young sinner (bless its heart) and a child of the devil (which is calling its dead father names); if I was to see this, and see little Jacob looking grievous likewise, I should so take it to heart that I’m sure I should go and list for a soldier, and run my head on purpose against the first cannon-ball I saw coming my way.’

‘Oh, Kit, don’t talk like that.’

‘I would, indeed, mother, and unless you want to make me feel very wretched and uncomfortable, you’ll keep that bow on your bonnet, which you’d more than half a mind to pull off last week. Can you suppose there’s any harm in looking as cheerful and being as cheerful as our poor circumstances will permit? Do I see anything in the way I’m made, which calls upon me to be a snivelling, solemn, whispering chap, sneaking about as if I couldn’t help it, and expressing myself in a most unpleasant snuffle? on the contrary, don’t I see every reason why I shouldn’t? just hear this! Ha ha ha! An’t that as nat’ral as walking, and as good for the health? Ha ha ha! An’t that as nat’ral as a sheep’s bleating, or a pig’s grunting, or a horse’s neighing, or a bird’s singing? Ha ha ha! Isn’t it, mother?’

There was something contagious in Kit’s laugh, for his mother, who had looked grave before, first subsided into a smile, and then fell to joining in it heartily, which occasioned Kit to say that he knew it was natural, and to laugh the more. Kit and his mother, laughing together in a pretty loud key, woke the baby, who, finding that there was something very jovial and agreeable in progress, was no sooner in its mother’s arms than it began to kick and laugh, most vigorously. This new illustration of his argument so tickled Kit, that he fell backward in his chair in a state of exhaustion, pointing at the baby and shaking his sides till he rocked again. After recovering twice or thrice, and as often relapsing, he wiped his eyes and said grace; and a very cheerful meal their scanty supper was.

With more kisses, and hugs, and tears, than many young gentlemen who start upon their travels, and leave well-stocked homes behind them, would deem within the bounds of probability (if matter so low could be herein set down), Kit left the house at an early hour next morning, and set out to walk to Finchley; feeling a sufficient pride in his appearance to have warranted his excommunication from Little Bethel from that time forth, if he had ever been one of that mournful congregation.

Lest anybody should feel a curiosity to know how Kit was clad, it may be briefly remarked that he wore no livery, but was dressed in a coat of pepper-and-salt with waistcoat of canary colour, and nether garments of iron-grey; besides these glories, he shone in the lustre of a new pair of boots and an extremely stiff and shiny hat, which on being struck anywhere with the knuckles, sounded like a drum. And in this attire, rather wondering that he attracted so little attention, and attributing the circumstance to the insensibility of those who got up early, he made his way towards Abel Cottage.

Without encountering any more remarkable adventure on the road, than meeting a lad in a brimless hat, the exact counterpart of his old one, on whom he bestowed half the sixpence he possessed, Kit arrived in course of time at the carrier’s house, where, to the lasting honour of human nature, he found the box in safety. Receiving from the wife of this immaculate man, a direction to Mr Garland’s, he took the box upon his shoulder and repaired thither directly.

To be sure, it was a beautiful little cottage with a thatched roof and little spires at the gable-ends, and pieces of stained glass in some of the windows, almost as large as pocket-books. On one side of the house was a little stable, just the size for the pony, with a little room over it, just the size for Kit. White curtains were fluttering, and birds in cages that looked as bright as if they were made of gold, were singing at the windows; plants were arranged on either side of the path, and clustered about the door; and the garden was bright with flowers in full bloom, which shed a sweet odour all round, and had a charming and elegant appearance. Everything within the house and without, seemed to be the perfection of neatness and order. In the garden there was not a weed to be seen, and to judge from some dapper gardening-tools, a basket, and a pair of gloves which were lying in one of the walks, old Mr Garland had been at work in it that very morning.

Kit looked about him, and admired, and looked again, and this a great many times before he could make up his mind to turn his head another way and ring the bell. There was abundance of time to look about him again though, when he had rung it, for nobody came, so after ringing it twice or thrice he sat down upon his box, and waited.

He rang the bell a great many times, and yet nobody came. But at last, as he was sitting upon the box thinking about giants’ castles, and princesses tied up to pegs by the hair of their heads, and dragons bursting out from behind gates, and other incidents of the like nature, common in story-books to youths of low degree on their first visit to strange houses, the door was gently opened, and a little servant-girl, very tidy, modest, and demure, but very pretty too, appeared. ‘I suppose you’re Christopher, sir,’ said the servant-girl.

Kit got off the box, and said yes, he was.

‘I’m afraid you’ve rung a good many times perhaps,’ she rejoined, ‘but we couldn’t hear you, because we’ve been catching the pony.’

Kit rather wondered what this meant, but as he couldn’t stop there, asking questions, he shouldered the box again and followed the girl into the hall, where through a back-door he descried Mr Garland leading Whisker in triumph up the garden, after that self-willed pony had (as he afterwards learned) dodged the family round a small paddock in the rear, for one hour and three quarters.

The old gentleman received him very kindly and so did the old lady, whose previous good opinion of him was greatly enhanced by his wiping his boots on the mat until the soles of his feet burnt again. He was then taken into the parlour to be inspected in his new clothes; and when he had been surveyed several times, and had afforded by his appearance unlimited satisfaction, he was taken into the stable (where the pony received him with uncommon complaisance); and thence into the little chamber he had already observed, which was very clean and comfortable: and thence into the garden, in which the old gentleman told him he would be taught to employ himself, and where he told him, besides, what great things he meant to do to make him comfortable, and happy, if he found he deserved it. All these kindnesses, Kit acknowledged with various expressions of gratitude, and so many touches of the new hat, that the brim suffered considerably. When the old gentleman had said all he had to say in the way of promise and advice, and Kit had said all he had to say in the way of assurance and thankfulness, he was handed over again to the old lady, who, summoning the little servant-girl (whose name was Barbara) instructed her to take him down stairs and give him something to eat and drink, after his walk.

Down stairs, therefore, Kit went; and at the bottom of the stairs there was such a kitchen as was never before seen or heard of out of a toy-shop window, with everything in it as bright and glowing, and as precisely ordered too, as Barbara herself. And in this kitchen, Kit sat himself down at a table as white as a tablecloth, to eat cold meat, and drink small ale, and use his knife and fork the more awkwardly, because there was an unknown Barbara looking on and observing him.

It did not appear, however, that there was anything remarkably tremendous about this strange Barbara, who having lived a very quiet life, blushed very much and was quite as embarrassed and uncertain what she ought to say or do, as Kit could possibly be. When he had sat for some little time, attentive to the ticking of the sober clock, he ventured to glance curiously at the dresser, and there, among the plates and dishes, were Barbara’s little work-box with a sliding lid to shut in the balls of cotton, and Barbara’s prayer-book, and Barbara’s hymn-book, and Barbara’s Bible. Barbara’s little looking-glass hung in a good light near the window, and Barbara’s bonnet was on a nail behind the door. From all these mute signs and tokens of her presence, he naturally glanced at Barbara herself, who sat as mute as they, shelling peas into a dish; and just when Kit was looking at her eyelashes and wondering—quite in the simplicity of his heart—what colour her eyes might be, it perversely happened that Barbara raised her head a little to look at him, when both pair of eyes were hastily withdrawn, and Kit leant over his plate, and Barbara over her pea-shells, each in extreme confusion at having been detected by the other.





CHAPTER 23

Mr Richard Swiveller wending homeward from the Wilderness (for such was the appropriate name of Quilp’s choice retreat), after a sinuous and corkscrew fashion, with many checks and stumbles; after stopping suddenly and staring about him, then as suddenly running forward for a few paces, and as suddenly halting again and shaking his head; doing everything with a jerk and nothing by premeditation;—Mr Richard Swiveller wending his way homeward after this fashion, which is considered by evil-minded men to be symbolical of intoxication, and is not held by such persons to denote that state of deep wisdom and reflection in which the actor knows himself to be, began to think that possibly he had misplaced his confidence and that the dwarf might not be precisely the sort of person to whom to entrust a secret of such delicacy and importance. And being led and tempted on by this remorseful thought into a condition which the evil-minded class before referred to would term the maudlin state or stage of drunkenness, it occurred to Mr Swiveller to cast his hat upon the ground, and moan, crying aloud that he was an unhappy orphan, and that if he had not been an unhappy orphan things had never come to this.

‘Left an infant by my parents, at an early age,’ said Mr Swiveller, bewailing his hard lot, ‘cast upon the world in my tenderest period, and thrown upon the mercies of a deluding dwarf, who can wonder at my weakness! Here’s a miserable orphan for you. Here,’ said Mr Swiveller raising his voice to a high pitch, and looking sleepily round, ‘is a miserable orphan!’

‘Then,’ said somebody hard by, ‘let me be a father to you.’

Mr Swiveller swayed himself to and fro to preserve his balance, and, looking into a kind of haze which seemed to surround him, at last perceived two eyes dimly twinkling through the mist, which he observed after a short time were in the neighbourhood of a nose and mouth. Casting his eyes down towards that quarter in which, with reference to a man’s face, his legs are usually to be found, he observed that the face had a body attached; and when he looked more intently he was satisfied that the person was Mr Quilp, who indeed had been in his company all the time, but whom he had some vague idea of having left a mile or two behind.

‘You have deceived an orphan, Sir,’ said Mr Swiveller solemnly.’

‘I! I’m a second father to you,’ replied Quilp.

‘You my father, Sir!’ retorted Dick. ‘Being all right myself, Sir, I request to be left alone—instantly, Sir.’

‘What a funny fellow you are!’ cried Quilp.

‘Go, Sir,’ returned Dick, leaning against a post and waving his hand. ‘Go, deceiver, go, some day, Sir, p’r’aps you’ll waken, from pleasure’s dream to know, the grief of orphans forsaken. Will you go, Sir?’

The dwarf taking no heed of this adjuration, Mr Swiveller advanced with the view of inflicting upon him condign chastisement. But forgetting his purpose or changing his mind before he came close to him, he seized his hand and vowed eternal friendship, declaring with an agreeable frankness that from that time forth they were brothers in everything but personal appearance. Then he told his secret over again, with the addition of being pathetic on the subject of Miss Wackles, who, he gave Mr Quilp to understand, was the occasion of any slight incoherency he might observe in his speech at that moment, which was attributable solely to the strength of his affection and not to rosy wine or other fermented liquor. And then they went on arm-in-arm, very lovingly together.

‘I’m as sharp,’ said Quilp to him, at parting, ‘as sharp as a ferret, and as cunning as a weazel. You bring Trent to me; assure him that I’m his friend though I fear he a little distrusts me (I don’t know why, I have not deserved it); and you’ve both of you made your fortunes—in perspective.’

‘That’s the worst of it,’ returned Dick. ‘These fortunes in perspective look such a long way off.’

‘But they look smaller than they really are, on that account,’ said Quilp, pressing his arm. ‘You’ll have no conception of the value of your prize until you draw close to it. Mark that.’

‘D’ye think not?’ said Dick.

‘Aye, I do; and I am certain of what I say, that’s better,’ returned the dwarf. ‘You bring Trent to me. Tell him I am his friend and yours—why shouldn’t I be?’

‘There’s no reason why you shouldn’t, certainly,’ replied Dick, ‘and perhaps there are a great many why you should—at least there would be nothing strange in your wanting to be my friend, if you were a choice spirit, but then you know you’re not a choice spirit.’

‘I not a choice spirit?’ cried Quilp.

‘Devil a bit, sir,’ returned Dick. ‘A man of your appearance couldn’t be. If you’re any spirit at all, sir, you’re an evil spirit. Choice spirits,’ added Dick, smiting himself on the breast, ‘are quite a different looking sort of people, you may take your oath of that, sir.’

Quilp glanced at his free-spoken friend with a mingled expression of cunning and dislike, and wringing his hand almost at the same moment, declared that he was an uncommon character and had his warmest esteem. With that they parted; Mr Swiveller to make the best of his way home and sleep himself sober; and Quilp to cogitate upon the discovery he had made, and exult in the prospect of the rich field of enjoyment and reprisal it opened to him.

It was not without great reluctance and misgiving that Mr Swiveller, next morning, his head racked by the fumes of the renowned Schiedam, repaired to the lodging of his friend Trent (which was in the roof of an old house in an old ghostly inn), and recounted by very slow degrees what had yesterday taken place between him and Quilp. Nor was it without great surprise and much speculation on Quilp’s probable motives, nor without many bitter comments on Dick Swiveller’s folly, that his friend received the tale.

‘I don’t defend myself, Fred,’ said the penitent Richard; ‘but the fellow has such a queer way with him and is such an artful dog, that first of all he set me upon thinking whether there was any harm in telling him, and while I was thinking, screwed it out of me. If you had seen him drink and smoke, as I did, you couldn’t have kept anything from him. He’s a Salamander you know, that’s what he is.’

Without inquiring whether Salamanders were of necessity good confidential agents, or whether a fire-proof man was as a matter of course trustworthy, Frederick Trent threw himself into a chair, and, burying his head in his hands, endeavoured to fathom the motives which had led Quilp to insinuate himself into Richard Swiveller’s confidence;—for that the disclosure was of his seeking, and had not been spontaneously revealed by Dick, was sufficiently plain from Quilp’s seeking his company and enticing him away.

The dwarf had twice encountered him when he was endeavouring to obtain intelligence of the fugitives. This, perhaps, as he had not shown any previous anxiety about them, was enough to awaken suspicion in the breast of a creature so jealous and distrustful by nature, setting aside any additional impulse to curiosity that he might have derived from Dick’s incautious manner. But knowing the scheme they had planned, why should he offer to assist it? This was a question more difficult of solution; but as knaves generally overreach themselves by imputing their own designs to others, the idea immediately presented itself that some circumstances of irritation between Quilp and the old man, arising out of their secret transactions and not unconnected perhaps with his sudden disappearance, now rendered the former desirous of revenging himself upon him by seeking to entrap the sole object of his love and anxiety into a connexion of which he knew he had a dread and hatred. As Frederick Trent himself, utterly regardless of his sister, had this object at heart, only second to the hope of gain, it seemed to him the more likely to be Quilp’s main principle of action. Once investing the dwarf with a design of his own in abetting them, which the attainment of their purpose would serve, it was easy to believe him sincere and hearty in the cause; and as there could be no doubt of his proving a powerful and useful auxiliary, Trent determined to accept his invitation and go to his house that night, and if what he said and did confirmed him in the impression he had formed, to let him share the labour of their plan, but not the profit.

Having revolved these things in his mind and arrived at this conclusion, he communicated to Mr Swiveller as much of his meditations as he thought proper (Dick would have been perfectly satisfied with less), and giving him the day to recover himself from his late salamandering, accompanied him at evening to Mr Quilp’s house.

Mighty glad Mr Quilp was to see them, or mightily glad he seemed to be; and fearfully polite Mr Quilp was to Mrs Quilp and Mrs Jiniwin; and very sharp was the look he cast on his wife to observe how she was affected by the recognition of young Trent. Mrs Quilp was as innocent as her own mother of any emotion, painful or pleasant, which the sight of him awakened, but as her husband’s glance made her timid and confused, and uncertain what to do or what was required of her, Mr Quilp did not fail to assign her embarrassment to the cause he had in his mind, and while he chuckled at his penetration was secretly exasperated by his jealousy.

Nothing of this appeared, however. On the contrary, Mr Quilp was all blandness and suavity, and presided over the case-bottle of rum with extraordinary open-heartedness.

‘Why, let me see,’ said Quilp. ‘It must be a matter of nearly two years since we were first acquainted.’

‘Nearer three, I think,’ said Trent.

‘Nearer three!’ cried Quilp. ‘How fast time flies. Does it seem as long as that to you, Mrs Quilp?’

‘Yes, I think it seems full three years, Quilp,’ was the unfortunate reply.

‘Oh indeed, ma’am,’ thought Quilp, ‘you have been pining, have you? Very good, ma’am.’

‘It seems to me but yesterday that you went out to Demerara in the Mary Anne,’ said Quilp; ‘but yesterday, I declare. Well, I like a little wildness. I was wild myself once.’

Mr Quilp accompanied this admission with such an awful wink, indicative of old rovings and backslidings, that Mrs Jiniwin was indignant, and could not forbear from remarking under her breath that he might at least put off his confessions until his wife was absent; for which act of boldness and insubordination Mr Quilp first stared her out of countenance and then drank her health ceremoniously.

‘I thought you’d come back directly, Fred. I always thought that,’ said Quilp setting down his glass. ‘And when the Mary Anne returned with you on board, instead of a letter to say what a contrite heart you had, and how happy you were in the situation that had been provided for you, I was amused—exceedingly amused. Ha ha ha!’

The young man smiled, but not as though the theme was the most agreeable one that could have been selected for his entertainment; and for that reason Quilp pursued it.

‘I always will say,’ he resumed, ‘that when a rich relation having two young people—sisters or brothers, or brother and sister—dependent on him, attaches himself exclusively to one, and casts off the other, he does wrong.’

The young man made a movement of impatience, but Quilp went on as calmly as if he were discussing some abstract question in which nobody present had the slightest personal interest.

‘It’s very true,’ said Quilp, ‘that your grandfather urged repeated forgiveness, ingratitude, riot, and extravagance, and all that; but as I told him “these are common faults.” “But he’s a scoundrel,” said he. “Granting that,” said I (for the sake of argument of course), “a great many young noblemen and gentlemen are scoundrels too!” But he wouldn’t be convinced.’

‘I wonder at that, Mr Quilp,’ said the young man sarcastically.

‘Well, so did I at the time,’ returned Quilp, ‘but he was always obstinate. He was in a manner a friend of mine, but he was always obstinate and wrong-headed. Little Nell is a nice girl, a charming girl, but you’re her brother, Frederick. You’re her brother after all; as you told him the last time you met, he can’t alter that.’

‘He would if he could, confound him for that and all other kindnesses,’ said the young man impatiently. ‘But nothing can come of this subject now, and let us have done with it in the Devil’s name.’

‘Agreed,’ returned Quilp, ‘agreed on my part readily. Why have I alluded to it? Just to show you, Frederick, that I have always stood your friend. You little knew who was your friend, and who your foe; now did you? You thought I was against you, and so there has been a coolness between us; but it was all on your side, entirely on your side. Let’s shake hands again, Fred.’

With his head sunk down between his shoulders, and a hideous grin over-spreading his face, the dwarf stood up and stretched his short arm across the table. After a moment’s hesitation, the young man stretched out his to meet it; Quilp clutched his fingers in a grip that for the moment stopped the current of the blood within them, and pressing his other hand upon his lip and frowning towards the unsuspicious Richard, released them and sat down.

This action was not lost upon Trent, who, knowing that Richard Swiveller was a mere tool in his hands and knew no more of his designs than he thought proper to communicate, saw that the dwarf perfectly understood their relative position, and fully entered into the character of his friend. It is something to be appreciated, even in knavery. This silent homage to his superior abilities, no less than a sense of the power with which the dwarf’s quick perception had already invested him, inclined the young man towards that ugly worthy, and determined him to profit by his aid.

It being now Mr Quilp’s cue to change the subject with all convenient expedition, lest Richard Swiveller in his heedlessness should reveal anything which it was inexpedient for the women to know, he proposed a game at four-handed cribbage, and partners being cut for, Mrs Quilp fell to Frederick Trent, and Dick himself to Quilp. Mrs Jiniwin being very fond of cards was carefully excluded by her son-in-law from any participation in the game, and had assigned to her the duty of occasionally replenishing the glasses from the case-bottle; Mr Quilp from that moment keeping one eye constantly upon her, lest she should by any means procure a taste of the same, and thereby tantalising the wretched old lady (who was as much attached to the case-bottle as the cards) in a double degree and most ingenious manner.

But it was not to Mrs Jiniwin alone that Mr Quilp’s attention was restricted, as several other matters required his constant vigilance. Among his various eccentric habits he had a humorous one of always cheating at cards, which rendered necessary on his part, not only a close observance of the game, and a sleight-of-hand in counting and scoring, but also involved the constant correction, by looks, and frowns, and kicks under the table, of Richard Swiveller, who being bewildered by the rapidity with which his cards were told, and the rate at which the pegs travelled down the board, could not be prevented from sometimes expressing his surprise and incredulity. Mrs Quilp too was the partner of young Trent, and for every look that passed between them, and every word they spoke, and every card they played, the dwarf had eyes and ears; not occupied alone with what was passing above the table, but with signals that might be exchanging beneath it, which he laid all kinds of traps to detect; besides often treading on his wife’s toes to see whether she cried out or remained silent under the infliction, in which latter case it would have been quite clear that Trent had been treading on her toes before. Yet, in the most of all these distractions, the one eye was upon the old lady always, and if she so much as stealthily advanced a tea-spoon towards a neighbouring glass (which she often did), for the purpose of abstracting but one sup of its sweet contents, Quilp’s hand would overset it in the very moment of her triumph, and Quilp’s mocking voice implore her to regard her precious health. And in any one of these his many cares, from first to last, Quilp never flagged nor faltered.

At length, when they had played a great many rubbers and drawn pretty freely upon the case-bottle, Mr Quilp warned his lady to retire to rest, and that submissive wife complying, and being followed by her indignant mother, Mr Swiveller fell asleep. The dwarf beckoning his remaining companion to the other end of the room, held a short conference with him in whispers.

‘It’s as well not to say more than one can help before our worthy friend,’ said Quilp, making a grimace towards the slumbering Dick. ‘Is it a bargain between us, Fred? Shall he marry little rosy Nell by-and-by?’

‘You have some end of your own to answer, of course,’ returned the other.

‘Of course I have, dear Fred,’ said Quilp, grinning to think how little he suspected what the real end was. ‘It’s retaliation perhaps; perhaps whim. I have influence, Fred, to help or oppose. Which way shall I use it? There are a pair of scales, and it goes into one.’

‘Throw it into mine then,’ said Trent.

‘It’s done, Fred,’ rejoined Quilp, stretching out his clenched hand and opening it as if he had let some weight fall out. ‘It’s in the scale from this time, and turns it, Fred. Mind that.’

‘Where have they gone?’ asked Trent.

Quilp shook his head, and said that point remained to be discovered, which it might be, easily. When it was, they would begin their preliminary advances. He would visit the old man, or even Richard Swiveller might visit him, and by affecting a deep concern in his behalf, and imploring him to settle in some worthy home, lead to the child’s remembering him with gratitude and favour. Once impressed to this extent, it would be easy, he said, to win her in a year or two, for she supposed the old man to be poor, as it was a part of his jealous policy (in common with many other misers) to feign to be so, to those about him.

‘He has feigned it often enough to me, of late,’ said Trent.

‘Oh! and to me too!’ replied the dwarf. ‘Which is more extraordinary, as I know how rich he really is.’

‘I suppose you should,’ said Trent.

‘I think I should indeed,’ rejoined the dwarf; and in that, at least, he spoke the truth.

After a few more whispered words, they returned to the table, and the young man rousing Richard Swiveller informed him that he was waiting to depart. This was welcome news to Dick, who started up directly. After a few words of confidence in the result of their project had been exchanged, they bade the grinning Quilp good night.

Quilp crept to the window as they passed in the street below, and listened. Trent was pronouncing an encomium upon his wife, and they were both wondering by what enchantment she had been brought to marry such a misshapen wretch as he. The dwarf after watching their retreating shadows with a wider grin than his face had yet displayed, stole softly in the dark to bed.

In this hatching of their scheme, neither Trent nor Quilp had had one thought about the happiness or misery of poor innocent Nell. It would have been strange if the careless profligate, who was the butt of both, had been harassed by any such consideration; for his high opinion of his own merits and deserts rendered the project rather a laudable one than otherwise; and if he had been visited by so unwonted a guest as reflection, he would—being a brute only in the gratification of his appetites—have soothed his conscience with the plea that he did not mean to beat or kill his wife, and would therefore, after all said and done, be a very tolerable, average husband.





CHAPTER 24

It was not until they were quite exhausted and could no longer maintain the pace at which they had fled from the race-ground, that the old man and the child ventured to stop, and sit down to rest upon the borders of a little wood. Here, though the course was hidden from their view, they could yet faintly distinguish the noise of distant shouts, the hum of voices, and the beating of drums. Climbing the eminence which lay between them and the spot they had left, the child could even discern the fluttering flags and white tops of booths; but no person was approaching towards them, and their resting-place was solitary and still.

Some time elapsed before she could reassure her trembling companion, or restore him to a state of moderate tranquillity. His disordered imagination represented to him a crowd of persons stealing towards them beneath the cover of the bushes, lurking in every ditch, and peeping from the boughs of every rustling tree. He was haunted by apprehensions of being led captive to some gloomy place where he would be chained and scourged, and worse than all, where Nell could never come to see him, save through iron bars and gratings in the wall. His terrors affected the child. Separation from her grandfather was the greatest evil she could dread; and feeling for the time as though, go where they would, they were to be hunted down, and could never be safe but in hiding, her heart failed her, and her courage drooped.

In one so young, and so unused to the scenes in which she had lately moved, this sinking of the spirit was not surprising. But, Nature often enshrines gallant and noble hearts in weak bosoms—oftenest, God bless her, in female breasts—and when the child, casting her tearful eyes upon the old man, remembered how weak he was, and how destitute and helpless he would be if she failed him, her heart swelled within her, and animated her with new strength and fortitude.

‘We are quite safe now, and have nothing to fear indeed, dear grandfather,’ she said.

‘Nothing to fear!’ returned the old man. ‘Nothing to fear if they took me from thee! Nothing to fear if they parted us! Nobody is true to me. No, not one. Not even Nell!’

‘Oh! do not say that,’ replied the child, ‘for if ever anybody was true at heart, and earnest, I am. I am sure you know I am.’

‘Then how,’ said the old man, looking fearfully round, ‘how can you bear to think that we are safe, when they are searching for me everywhere, and may come here, and steal upon us, even while we’re talking?’

‘Because I’m sure we have not been followed,’ said the child. ‘Judge for yourself, dear grandfather: look round, and see how quiet and still it is. We are alone together, and may ramble where we like. Not safe! Could I feel easy—did I feel at ease—when any danger threatened you?’

‘True, too,’ he answered, pressing her hand, but still looking anxiously about. ‘What noise was that?’

‘A bird,’ said the child, ‘flying into the wood, and leading the way for us to follow.’ You remember that we said we would walk in woods and fields, and by the side of rivers, and how happy we would be—you remember that? But here, while the sun shines above our heads, and everything is bright and happy, we are sitting sadly down, and losing time. See what a pleasant path; and there’s the bird—the same bird—now he flies to another tree, and stays to sing. Come!’

When they rose up from the ground, and took the shady track which led them through the wood, she bounded on before, printing her tiny footsteps in the moss, which rose elastic from so light a pressure and gave it back as mirrors throw off breath; and thus she lured the old man on, with many a backward look and merry beck, now pointing stealthily to some lone bird as it perched and twittered on a branch that strayed across their path, now stopping to listen to the songs that broke the happy silence, or watch the sun as it trembled through the leaves, and stealing in among the ivied trunks of stout old trees, opened long paths of light. As they passed onward, parting the boughs that clustered in their way, the serenity which the child had first assumed, stole into her breast in earnest; the old man cast no longer fearful looks behind, but felt at ease and cheerful, for the further they passed into the deep green shade, the more they felt that the tranquil mind of God was there, and shed its peace on them.

At length the path becoming clearer and less intricate, brought them to the end of the wood, and into a public road. Taking their way along it for a short distance, they came to a lane, so shaded by the trees on either hand that they met together over-head, and arched the narrow way. A broken finger-post announced that this led to a village three miles off; and thither they resolved to bend their steps.

The miles appeared so long that they sometimes thought they must have missed their road. But at last, to their great joy, it led downwards in a steep descent, with overhanging banks over which the footpaths led; and the clustered houses of the village peeped from the woody hollow below.

It was a very small place. The men and boys were playing at cricket on the green; and as the other folks were looking on, they wandered up and down, uncertain where to seek a humble lodging. There was but one old man in the little garden before his cottage, and him they were timid of approaching, for he was the schoolmaster, and had ‘School’ written up over his window in black letters on a white board. He was a pale, simple-looking man, of a spare and meagre habit, and sat among his flowers and beehives, smoking his pipe, in the little porch before his door.

‘Speak to him, dear,’ the old man whispered.

‘I am almost afraid to disturb him,’ said the child timidly. ‘He does not seem to see us. Perhaps if we wait a little, he may look this way.’

They waited, but the schoolmaster cast no look towards them, and still sat, thoughtful and silent, in the little porch. He had a kind face. In his plain old suit of black, he looked pale and meagre. They fancied, too, a lonely air about him and his house, but perhaps that was because the other people formed a merry company upon the green, and he seemed the only solitary man in all the place.

They were very tired, and the child would have been bold enough to address even a schoolmaster, but for something in his manner which seemed to denote that he was uneasy or distressed. As they stood hesitating at a little distance, they saw that he sat for a few minutes at a time like one in a brown study, then laid aside his pipe and took a few turns in his garden, then approached the gate and looked towards the green, then took up his pipe again with a sigh, and sat down thoughtfully as before.

As nobody else appeared and it would soon be dark, Nell at length took courage, and when he had resumed his pipe and seat, ventured to draw near, leading her grandfather by the hand. The slight noise they made in raising the latch of the wicket-gate, caught his attention. He looked at them kindly but seemed disappointed too, and slightly shook his head.

Nell dropped a curtsey, and told him they were poor travellers who sought a shelter for the night which they would gladly pay for, so far as their means allowed. The schoolmaster looked earnestly at her as she spoke, laid aside his pipe, and rose up directly.

‘If you could direct us anywhere, sir,’ said the child, ‘we should take it very kindly.’

‘You have been walking a long way,’ said the schoolmaster.

‘A long way, Sir,’ the child replied.

‘You’re a young traveller, my child,’ he said, laying his hand gently on her head. ‘Your grandchild, friend?’

‘Aye, Sir,’ cried the old man, ‘and the stay and comfort of my life.’

‘Come in,’ said the schoolmaster.

Without further preface he conducted them into his little school-room, which was parlour and kitchen likewise, and told them that they were welcome to remain under his roof till morning. Before they had done thanking him, he spread a coarse white cloth upon the table, with knives and platters; and bringing out some bread and cold meat and a jug of beer, besought them to eat and drink.

The child looked round the room as she took her seat. There were a couple of forms, notched and cut and inked all over; a small deal desk perched on four legs, at which no doubt the master sat; a few dog’s-eared books upon a high shelf; and beside them a motley collection of peg-tops, balls, kites, fishing-lines, marbles, half-eaten apples, and other confiscated property of idle urchins. Displayed on hooks upon the wall in all their terrors, were the cane and ruler; and near them, on a small shelf of its own, the dunce’s cap, made of old newspapers and decorated with glaring wafers of the largest size. But, the great ornaments of the walls were certain moral sentences fairly copied in good round text, and well-worked sums in simple addition and multiplication, evidently achieved by the same hand, which were plentifully pasted all round the room: for the double purpose, as it seemed, of bearing testimony to the excellence of the school, and kindling a worthy emulation in the bosoms of the scholars.

‘Yes,’ said the old schoolmaster, observing that her attention was caught by these latter specimens. ‘That’s beautiful writing, my dear.’

‘Very, Sir,’ replied the child modestly, ‘is it yours?’

‘Mine!’ he returned, taking out his spectacles and putting them on, to have a better view of the triumphs so dear to his heart. ‘I couldn’t write like that, now-a-days. No. They’re all done by one hand; a little hand it is, not so old as yours, but a very clever one.’

As the schoolmaster said this, he saw that a small blot of ink had been thrown on one of the copies, so he took a penknife from his pocket, and going up to the wall, carefully scraped it out. When he had finished, he walked slowly backward from the writing, admiring it as one might contemplate a beautiful picture, but with something of sadness in his voice and manner which quite touched the child, though she was unacquainted with its cause.

‘A little hand indeed,’ said the poor schoolmaster. ‘Far beyond all his companions, in his learning and his sports too, how did he ever come to be so fond of me! That I should love him is no wonder, but that he should love me—’ and there the schoolmaster stopped, and took off his spectacles to wipe them, as though they had grown dim.

‘I hope there is nothing the matter, sir,’ said Nell anxiously.

‘Not much, my dear,’ returned the schoolmaster. ‘I hoped to have seen him on the green to-night. He was always foremost among them. But he’ll be there to-morrow.’

‘Has he been ill?’ asked the child, with a child’s quick sympathy.

‘Not very. They said he was wandering in his head yesterday, dear boy, and so they said the day before. But that’s a part of that kind of disorder; it’s not a bad sign—not at all a bad sign.’

The child was silent. He walked to the door, and looked wistfully out. The shadows of night were gathering, and all was still.

‘If he could lean upon anybody’s arm, he would come to me, I know,’ he said, returning into the room. ‘He always came into the garden to say good night. But perhaps his illness has only just taken a favourable turn, and it’s too late for him to come out, for it’s very damp and there’s a heavy dew. It’s much better he shouldn’t come to-night.’

The schoolmaster lighted a candle, fastened the window-shutter, and closed the door. But after he had done this, and sat silent a little time, he took down his hat, and said he would go and satisfy himself, if Nell would sit up till he returned. The child readily complied, and he went out.

She sat there half-an-hour or more, feeling the place very strange and lonely, for she had prevailed upon the old man to go to bed, and there was nothing to be heard but the ticking of an old clock, and the whistling of the wind among the trees. When he returned, he took his seat in the chimney corner, but remained silent for a long time. At length he turned to her, and speaking very gently, hoped she would say a prayer that night for a sick child.

‘My favourite scholar!’ said the poor schoolmaster, smoking a pipe he had forgotten to light, and looking mournfully round upon the walls. ‘It is a little hand to have done all that, and waste away with sickness. It is a very, very little hand!’





CHAPTER 25

After a sound night’s rest in a chamber in the thatched roof, in which it seemed the sexton had for some years been a lodger, but which he had lately deserted for a wife and a cottage of his own, the child rose early in the morning and descended to the room where she had supped last night. As the schoolmaster had already left his bed and gone out, she bestirred herself to make it neat and comfortable, and had just finished its arrangement when the kind host returned.

He thanked her many times, and said that the old dame who usually did such offices for him had gone to nurse the little scholar whom he had told her of. The child asked how he was, and hoped he was better.

‘No,’ rejoined the schoolmaster shaking his head sorrowfully, ‘no better. They even say he is worse.’

‘I am very sorry for that, Sir,’ said the child.

The poor schoolmaster appeared to be gratified by her earnest manner, but yet rendered more uneasy by it, for he added hastily that anxious people often magnified an evil and thought it greater than it was; ‘for my part,’ he said, in his quiet, patient way, ‘I hope it’s not so. I don’t think he can be worse.’

The child asked his leave to prepare breakfast, and her grandfather coming down stairs, they all three partook of it together. While the meal was in progress, their host remarked that the old man seemed much fatigued, and evidently stood in need of rest.

‘If the journey you have before you is a long one,’ he said, ‘and don’t press you for one day, you’re very welcome to pass another night here. I should really be glad if you would, friend.’

He saw that the old man looked at Nell, uncertain whether to accept or decline his offer; and added,

‘I shall be glad to have your young companion with me for one day. If you can do a charity to a lone man, and rest yourself at the same time, do so. If you must proceed upon your journey, I wish you well through it, and will walk a little way with you before school begins.’

‘What are we to do, Nell?’ said the old man irresolutely, ‘say what we’re to do, dear.’

It required no great persuasion to induce the child to answer that they had better accept the invitation and remain. She was happy to show her gratitude to the kind schoolmaster by busying herself in the performance of such household duties as his little cottage stood in need of. When these were done, she took some needle-work from her basket, and sat herself down upon a stool beside the lattice, where the honeysuckle and woodbine entwined their tender stems, and stealing into the room filled it with their delicious breath. Her grandfather was basking in the sun outside, breathing the perfume of the flowers, and idly watching the clouds as they floated on before the light summer wind.

As the schoolmaster, after arranging the two forms in due order, took his seat behind his desk and made other preparations for school, the child was apprehensive that she might be in the way, and offered to withdraw to her little bedroom. But this he would not allow, and as he seemed pleased to have her there, she remained, busying herself with her work.

‘Have you many scholars, sir?’ she asked.

The poor schoolmaster shook his head, and said that they barely filled the two forms.

‘Are the others clever, sir?’ asked the child, glancing at the trophies on the wall.

‘Good boys,’ returned the schoolmaster, ‘good boys enough, my dear, but they’ll never do like that.’

A small white-headed boy with a sunburnt face appeared at the door while he was speaking, and stopping there to make a rustic bow, came in and took his seat upon one of the forms. The white-headed boy then put an open book, astonishingly dog’s-eared upon his knees, and thrusting his hands into his pockets began counting the marbles with which they were filled; displaying in the expression of his face a remarkable capacity of totally abstracting his mind from the spelling on which his eyes were fixed. Soon afterwards another white-headed little boy came straggling in, and after him a red-headed lad, and after him two more with white heads, and then one with a flaxen poll, and so on until the forms were occupied by a dozen boys or thereabouts, with heads of every colour but grey, and ranging in their ages from four years old to fourteen years or more; for the legs of the youngest were a long way from the floor when he sat upon the form, and the eldest was a heavy good-tempered foolish fellow, about half a head taller than the schoolmaster.

At the top of the first form—the post of honour in the school—was the vacant place of the little sick scholar, and at the head of the row of pegs on which those who came in hats or caps were wont to hang them up, one was left empty. No boy attempted to violate the sanctity of seat or peg, but many a one looked from the empty spaces to the schoolmaster, and whispered his idle neighbour behind his hand.

Then began the hum of conning over lessons and getting them by heart, the whispered jest and stealthy game, and all the noise and drawl of school; and in the midst of the din sat the poor schoolmaster, the very image of meekness and simplicity, vainly attempting to fix his mind upon the duties of the day, and to forget his little friend. But the tedium of his office reminded him more strongly of the willing scholar, and his thoughts were rambling from his pupils—it was plain.

None knew this better than the idlest boys, who, growing bolder with impunity, waxed louder and more daring; playing odd-or-even under the master’s eye, eating apples openly and without rebuke, pinching each other in sport or malice without the least reserve, and cutting their autographs in the very legs of his desk. The puzzled dunce, who stood beside it to say his lesson out of book, looked no longer at the ceiling for forgotten words, but drew closer to the master’s elbow and boldly cast his eye upon the page; the wag of the little troop squinted and made grimaces (at the smallest boy of course), holding no book before his face, and his approving audience knew no constraint in their delight. If the master did chance to rouse himself and seem alive to what was going on, the noise subsided for a moment and no eyes met his but wore a studious and a deeply humble look; but the instant he relapsed again, it broke out afresh, and ten times louder than before.

Oh! how some of those idle fellows longed to be outside, and how they looked at the open door and window, as if they half meditated rushing violently out, plunging into the woods, and being wild boys and savages from that time forth. What rebellious thoughts of the cool river, and some shady bathing-place beneath willow trees with branches dipping in the water, kept tempting and urging that sturdy boy, who, with his shirt-collar unbuttoned and flung back as far as it could go, sat fanning his flushed face with a spelling-book, wishing himself a whale, or a tittlebat, or a fly, or anything but a boy at school on that hot, broiling day! Heat! ask that other boy, whose seat being nearest to the door gave him opportunities of gliding out into the garden and driving his companions to madness by dipping his face into the bucket of the well and then rolling on the grass—ask him if there were ever such a day as that, when even the bees were diving deep down into the cups of flowers and stopping there, as if they had made up their minds to retire from business and be manufacturers of honey no more. The day was made for laziness, and lying on one’s back in green places, and staring at the sky till its brightness forced one to shut one’s eyes and go to sleep; and was this a time to be poring over musty books in a dark room, slighted by the very sun itself? Monstrous!

Nell sat by the window occupied with her work, but attentive still to all that passed, though sometimes rather timid of the boisterous boys. The lessons over, writing time began; and there being but one desk and that the master’s, each boy sat at it in turn and laboured at his crooked copy, while the master walked about. This was a quieter time; for he would come and look over the writer’s shoulder, and tell him mildly to observe how such a letter was turned in such a copy on the wall, praise such an up-stroke here and such a down-stroke there, and bid him take it for his model. Then he would stop and tell them what the sick child had said last night, and how he had longed to be among them once again; and such was the poor schoolmaster’s gentle and affectionate manner, that the boys seemed quite remorseful that they had worried him so much, and were absolutely quiet; eating no apples, cutting no names, inflicting no pinches, and making no grimaces, for full two minutes afterwards.

‘I think, boys,’ said the schoolmaster when the clock struck twelve, ‘that I shall give an extra half-holiday this afternoon.’

At this intelligence, the boys, led on and headed by the tall boy, raised a great shout, in the midst of which the master was seen to speak, but could not be heard. As he held up his hand, however, in token of his wish that they should be silent, they were considerate enough to leave off, as soon as the longest-winded among them were quite out of breath.

‘You must promise me first,’ said the schoolmaster, ‘that you’ll not be noisy, or at least, if you are, that you’ll go away and be so—away out of the village I mean. I’m sure you wouldn’t disturb your old playmate and companion.’

There was a general murmur (and perhaps a very sincere one, for they were but boys) in the negative; and the tall boy, perhaps as sincerely as any of them, called those about him to witness that he had only shouted in a whisper.

‘Then pray don’t forget, there’s my dear scholars,’ said the schoolmaster, ‘what I have asked you, and do it as a favour to me. Be as happy as you can, and don’t be unmindful that you are blessed with health. Good-bye all!’

‘Thank’ee, Sir,’ and ‘good-bye, Sir,’ were said a good many times in a variety of voices, and the boys went out very slowly and softly. But there was the sun shining and there were the birds singing, as the sun only shines and the birds only sing on holidays and half-holidays; there were the trees waving to all free boys to climb and nestle among their leafy branches; the hay, entreating them to come and scatter it to the pure air; the green corn, gently beckoning towards wood and stream; the smooth ground, rendered smoother still by blending lights and shadows, inviting to runs and leaps, and long walks God knows whither. It was more than boy could bear, and with a joyous whoop the whole cluster took to their heels and spread themselves about, shouting and laughing as they went.

‘It’s natural, thank Heaven!’ said the poor schoolmaster, looking after them. ‘I’m very glad they didn’t mind me!’

It is difficult, however, to please everybody, as most of us would have discovered, even without the fable which bears that moral, and in the course of the afternoon several mothers and aunts of pupils looked in to express their entire disapproval of the schoolmaster’s proceeding. A few confined themselves to hints, such as politely inquiring what red-letter day or saint’s day the almanack said it was; a few (these were the profound village politicians) argued that it was a slight to the throne and an affront to church and state, and savoured of revolutionary principles, to grant a half-holiday upon any lighter occasion than the birthday of the Monarch; but the majority expressed their displeasure on private grounds and in plain terms, arguing that to put the pupils on this short allowance of learning was nothing but an act of downright robbery and fraud: and one old lady, finding that she could not inflame or irritate the peaceable schoolmaster by talking to him, bounced out of his house and talked at him for half-an-hour outside his own window, to another old lady, saying that of course he would deduct this half-holiday from his weekly charge, or of course he would naturally expect to have an opposition started against him; there was no want of idle chaps in that neighbourhood (here the old lady raised her voice), and some chaps who were too idle even to be schoolmasters, might soon find that there were other chaps put over their heads, and so she would have them take care, and look pretty sharp about them. But all these taunts and vexations failed to elicit one word from the meek schoolmaster, who sat with the child by his side—a little more dejected perhaps, but quite silent and uncomplaining.

Towards night an old woman came tottering up the garden as speedily as she could, and meeting the schoolmaster at the door, said he was to go to Dame West’s directly, and had best run on before her. He and the child were on the point of going out together for a walk, and without relinquishing her hand, the schoolmaster hurried away, leaving the messenger to follow as she might.

They stopped at a cottage-door, and the schoolmaster knocked softly at it with his hand. It was opened without loss of time. They entered a room where a little group of women were gathered about one, older than the rest, who was crying very bitterly, and sat wringing her hands and rocking herself to and fro.

‘Oh, dame!’ said the schoolmaster, drawing near her chair, ‘is it so bad as this?’

‘He’s going fast,’ cried the old woman; ‘my grandson’s dying. It’s all along of you. You shouldn’t see him now, but for his being so earnest on it. This is what his learning has brought him to. Oh dear, dear, dear, what can I do!’

‘Do not say that I am in any fault,’ urged the gentle school-master. ‘I am not hurt, dame. No, no. You are in great distress of mind, and don’t mean what you say. I am sure you don’t.’

‘I do,’ returned the old woman. ‘I mean it all. If he hadn’t been poring over his books out of fear of you, he would have been well and merry now, I know he would.’

The schoolmaster looked round upon the other women as if to entreat some one among them to say a kind word for him, but they shook their heads, and murmured to each other that they never thought there was much good in learning, and that this convinced them. Without saying a word in reply, or giving them a look of reproach, he followed the old woman who had summoned him (and who had now rejoined them) into another room, where his infant friend, half-dressed, lay stretched upon a bed.

He was a very young boy; quite a little child. His hair still hung in curls about his face, and his eyes were very bright; but their light was of Heaven, not earth. The schoolmaster took a seat beside him, and stooping over the pillow, whispered his name. The boy sprung up, stroked his face with his hand, and threw his wasted arms round his neck, crying out that he was his dear kind friend.

‘I hope I always was. I meant to be, God knows,’ said the poor schoolmaster.

‘Who is that?’ said the boy, seeing Nell. ‘I am afraid to kiss her, lest I should make her ill. Ask her to shake hands with me.’

The sobbing child came closer up, and took the little languid hand in hers. Releasing his again after a time, the sick boy laid him gently down.

‘You remember the garden, Harry,’ whispered the schoolmaster, anxious to rouse him, for a dulness seemed gathering upon the child, ‘and how pleasant it used to be in the evening time? You must make haste to visit it again, for I think the very flowers have missed you, and are less gay than they used to be. You will come soon, my dear, very soon now—won’t you?’

The boy smiled faintly—so very, very faintly—and put his hand upon his friend’s grey head. He moved his lips too, but no voice came from them; no, not a sound.

In the silence that ensued, the hum of distant voices borne upon the evening air came floating through the open window. ‘What’s that?’ said the sick child, opening his eyes.

‘The boys at play upon the green.’

He took a handkerchief from his pillow, and tried to wave it above his head. But the feeble arm dropped powerless down.

‘Shall I do it?’ said the schoolmaster.

‘Please wave it at the window,’ was the faint reply. ‘Tie it to the lattice. Some of them may see it there. Perhaps they’ll think of me, and look this way.’

He raised his head, and glanced from the fluttering signal to his idle bat, that lay with slate and book and other boyish property upon a table in the room. And then he laid him softly down once more, and asked if the little girl were there, for he could not see her.

She stepped forward, and pressed the passive hand that lay upon the coverlet. The two old friends and companions—for such they were, though they were man and child—held each other in a long embrace, and then the little scholar turned his face towards the wall, and fell asleep.

The poor schoolmaster sat in the same place, holding the small cold hand in his, and chafing it. It was but the hand of a dead child. He felt that; and yet he chafed it still, and could not lay it down.