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The Old Curiosity Shop

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CHAPTER 26

Almost broken-hearted, Nell withdrew with the schoolmaster from the bedside and returned to his cottage. In the midst of her grief and tears she was yet careful to conceal their real cause from the old man, for the dead boy had been a grandchild, and left but one aged relative to mourn his premature decay.

She stole away to bed as quickly as she could, and when she was alone, gave free vent to the sorrow with which her breast was overcharged. But the sad scene she had witnessed, was not without its lesson of content and gratitude; of content with the lot which left her health and freedom; and gratitude that she was spared to the one relative and friend she loved, and to live and move in a beautiful world, when so many young creatures—as young and full of hope as she—were stricken down and gathered to their graves. How many of the mounds in that old churchyard where she had lately strayed, grew green above the graves of children! And though she thought as a child herself, and did not perhaps sufficiently consider to what a bright and happy existence those who die young are borne, and how in death they lose the pain of seeing others die around them, bearing to the tomb some strong affection of their hearts (which makes the old die many times in one long life), still she thought wisely enough, to draw a plain and easy moral from what she had seen that night, and to store it, deep in her mind.

Her dreams were of the little scholar: not coffined and covered up, but mingling with angels, and smiling happily. The sun darting his cheerful rays into the room, awoke her; and now there remained but to take leave of the poor schoolmaster and wander forth once more.

By the time they were ready to depart, school had begun. In the darkened room, the din of yesterday was going on again: a little sobered and softened down, perhaps, but only a very little, if at all. The schoolmaster rose from his desk and walked with them to the gate.

It was with a trembling and reluctant hand, that the child held out to him the money which the lady had given her at the races for her flowers: faltering in her thanks as she thought how small the sum was, and blushing as she offered it. But he bade her put it up, and stooping to kiss her cheek, turned back into his house.

They had not gone half-a-dozen paces when he was at the door again; the old man retraced his steps to shake hands, and the child did the same.

‘Good fortune and happiness go with you!’ said the poor schoolmaster. ‘I am quite a solitary man now. If you ever pass this way again, you’ll not forget the little village-school.’

‘We shall never forget it, sir,’ rejoined Nell; ‘nor ever forget to be grateful to you for your kindness to us.’

‘I have heard such words from the lips of children very often,’ said the schoolmaster, shaking his head, and smiling thoughtfully, ‘but they were soon forgotten. I had attached one young friend to me, the better friend for being young—but that’s over—God bless you!’

They bade him farewell very many times, and turned away, walking slowly and often looking back, until they could see him no more. At length they had left the village far behind, and even lost sight of the smoke among the trees. They trudged onward now, at a quicker pace, resolving to keep the main road, and go wherever it might lead them.

But main roads stretch a long, long way. With the exception of two or three inconsiderable clusters of cottages which they passed, without stopping, and one lonely road-side public-house where they had some bread and cheese, this highway had led them to nothing—late in the afternoon—and still lengthened out, far in the distance, the same dull, tedious, winding course, that they had been pursuing all day. As they had no resource, however, but to go forward, they still kept on, though at a much slower pace, being very weary and fatigued.

The afternoon had worn away into a beautiful evening, when they arrived at a point where the road made a sharp turn and struck across a common. On the border of this common, and close to the hedge which divided it from the cultivated fields, a caravan was drawn up to rest; upon which, by reason of its situation, they came so suddenly that they could not have avoided it if they would.

It was not a shabby, dingy, dusty cart, but a smart little house upon wheels, with white dimity curtains festooning the windows, and window-shutters of green picked out with panels of a staring red, in which happily-contrasted colours the whole concern shone brilliant. Neither was it a poor caravan drawn by a single donkey or emaciated horse, for a pair of horses in pretty good condition were released from the shafts and grazing on the frouzy grass. Neither was it a gipsy caravan, for at the open door (graced with a bright brass knocker) sat a Christian lady, stout and comfortable to look upon, who wore a large bonnet trembling with bows. And that it was not an unprovided or destitute caravan was clear from this lady’s occupation, which was the very pleasant and refreshing one of taking tea. The tea-things, including a bottle of rather suspicious character and a cold knuckle of ham, were set forth upon a drum, covered with a white napkin; and there, as if at the most convenient round-table in all the world, sat this roving lady, taking her tea and enjoying the prospect.

It happened that at that moment the lady of the caravan had her cup (which, that everything about her might be of a stout and comfortable kind, was a breakfast cup) to her lips, and that having her eyes lifted to the sky in her enjoyment of the full flavour of the tea, not unmingled possibly with just the slightest dash or gleam of something out of the suspicious bottle—but this is mere speculation and not distinct matter of history—it happened that being thus agreeably engaged, she did not see the travellers when they first came up. It was not until she was in the act of getting down the cup, and drawing a long breath after the exertion of causing its contents to disappear, that the lady of the caravan beheld an old man and a young child walking slowly by, and glancing at her proceedings with eyes of modest but hungry admiration.

‘Hey!’ cried the lady of the caravan, scooping the crumbs out of her lap and swallowing the same before wiping her lips. ‘Yes, to be sure—Who won the Helter-Skelter Plate, child?’

‘Won what, ma’am?’ asked Nell.

‘The Helter-Skelter Plate at the races, child—the plate that was run for on the second day.’

‘On the second day, ma’am?’

‘Second day! Yes, second day,’ repeated the lady with an air of impatience. ‘Can’t you say who won the Helter-Skelter Plate when you’re asked the question civilly?’

‘I don’t know, ma’am.’

‘Don’t know!’ repeated the lady of the caravan; ‘why, you were there. I saw you with my own eyes.’

Nell was not a little alarmed to hear this, supposing that the lady might be intimately acquainted with the firm of Short and Codlin; but what followed tended to reassure her.

‘And very sorry I was,’ said the lady of the caravan, ‘to see you in company with a Punch; a low, practical, wulgar wretch, that people should scorn to look at.’

‘I was not there by choice,’ returned the child; ‘we didn’t know our way, and the two men were very kind to us, and let us travel with them. Do you—do you know them, ma’am?’

‘Know ‘em, child!’ cried the lady of the caravan in a sort of shriek. ‘Know them! But you’re young and inexperienced, and that’s your excuse for asking sich a question. Do I look as if I know’d ‘em, does the caravan look as if it know’d ‘em?’

‘No, ma’am, no,’ said the child, fearing she had committed some grievous fault. ‘I beg your pardon.’

It was granted immediately, though the lady still appeared much ruffled and discomposed by the degrading supposition. The child then explained that they had left the races on the first day, and were travelling to the next town on that road, where they purposed to spend the night. As the countenance of the stout lady began to clear up, she ventured to inquire how far it was. The reply—which the stout lady did not come to, until she had thoroughly explained that she went to the races on the first day in a gig, and as an expedition of pleasure, and that her presence there had no connexion with any matters of business or profit—was, that the town was eight miles off.

This discouraging information a little dashed the child, who could scarcely repress a tear as she glanced along the darkening road. Her grandfather made no complaint, but he sighed heavily as he leaned upon his staff, and vainly tried to pierce the dusty distance.

The lady of the caravan was in the act of gathering her tea equipage together preparatory to clearing the table, but noting the child’s anxious manner she hesitated and stopped. The child curtseyed, thanked her for her information, and giving her hand to the old man had already got some fifty yards or so away, when the lady of the caravan called to her to return.

‘Come nearer, nearer still,’ said she, beckoning to her to ascend the steps. ‘Are you hungry, child?’

‘Not very, but we are tired, and it’s—it is a long way.’

‘Well, hungry or not, you had better have some tea,’ rejoined her new acquaintance. ‘I suppose you are agreeable to that, old gentleman?’

The grandfather humbly pulled off his hat and thanked her. The lady of the caravan then bade him come up the steps likewise, but the drum proving an inconvenient table for two, they descended again, and sat upon the grass, where she handed down to them the tea-tray, the bread and butter, the knuckle of ham, and in short everything of which she had partaken herself, except the bottle which she had already embraced an opportunity of slipping into her pocket.

‘Set ‘em out near the hind wheels, child, that’s the best place,’ said their friend, superintending the arrangements from above. ‘Now hand up the teapot for a little more hot water, and a pinch of fresh tea, and then both of you eat and drink as much as you can, and don’t spare anything; that’s all I ask of you.’

They might perhaps have carried out the lady’s wish, if it had been less freely expressed, or even if it had not been expressed at all. But as this direction relieved them from any shadow of delicacy or uneasiness, they made a hearty meal and enjoyed it to the utmost.

While they were thus engaged, the lady of the caravan alighted on the earth, and with her hands clasped behind her, and her large bonnet trembling excessively, walked up and down in a measured tread and very stately manner, surveying the caravan from time to time with an air of calm delight, and deriving particular gratification from the red panels and the brass knocker. When she had taken this gentle exercise for some time, she sat down upon the steps and called ‘George’; whereupon a man in a carter’s frock, who had been so shrouded in a hedge up to this time as to see everything that passed without being seen himself, parted the twigs that concealed him, and appeared in a sitting attitude, supporting on his legs a baking-dish and a half-gallon stone bottle, and bearing in his right hand a knife, and in his left a fork.

‘Yes, Missus,’ said George.

‘How did you find the cold pie, George?’

‘It warn’t amiss, mum.’

‘And the beer,’ said the lady of the caravan, with an appearance of being more interested in this question than the last; ‘is it passable, George?’

‘It’s more flatterer than it might be,’ George returned, ‘but it an’t so bad for all that.’

To set the mind of his mistress at rest, he took a sip (amounting in quantity to a pint or thereabouts) from the stone bottle, and then smacked his lips, winked his eye, and nodded his head. No doubt with the same amiable desire, he immediately resumed his knife and fork, as a practical assurance that the beer had wrought no bad effect upon his appetite.

The lady of the caravan looked on approvingly for some time, and then said,

‘Have you nearly finished?’

‘Wery nigh, mum.’ And indeed, after scraping the dish all round with his knife and carrying the choice brown morsels to his mouth, and after taking such a scientific pull at the stone bottle that, by degrees almost imperceptible to the sight, his head went further and further back until he lay nearly at his full length upon the ground, this gentleman declared himself quite disengaged, and came forth from his retreat.

‘I hope I haven’t hurried you, George,’ said his mistress, who appeared to have a great sympathy with his late pursuit.

‘If you have,’ returned the follower, wisely reserving himself for any favourable contingency that might occur, ‘we must make up for it next time, that’s all.’

‘We are not a heavy load, George?’

‘That’s always what the ladies say,’ replied the man, looking a long way round, as if he were appealing to Nature in general against such monstrous propositions. ‘If you see a woman a driving, you’ll always perceive that she never will keep her whip still; the horse can’t go fast enough for her. If cattle have got their proper load, you never can persuade a woman that they’ll not bear something more. What is the cause of this here?’

‘Would these two travellers make much difference to the horses, if we took them with us?’ asked his mistress, offering no reply to the philosophical inquiry, and pointing to Nell and the old man, who were painfully preparing to resume their journey on foot.

‘They’d make a difference in course,’ said George doggedly.

‘Would they make much difference?’ repeated his mistress. ‘They can’t be very heavy.’

‘The weight o’ the pair, mum,’ said George, eyeing them with the look of a man who was calculating within half an ounce or so, ‘would be a trifle under that of Oliver Cromwell.’

Nell was very much surprised that the man should be so accurately acquainted with the weight of one whom she had read of in books as having lived considerably before their time, but speedily forgot the subject in the joy of hearing that they were to go forward in the caravan, for which she thanked its lady with unaffected earnestness. She helped with great readiness and alacrity to put away the tea-things and other matters that were lying about, and, the horses being by that time harnessed, mounted into the vehicle, followed by her delighted grandfather. Their patroness then shut the door and sat herself down by her drum at an open window; and, the steps being struck by George and stowed under the carriage, away they went, with a great noise of flapping and creaking and straining, and the bright brass knocker, which nobody ever knocked at, knocking one perpetual double knock of its own accord as they jolted heavily along.





CHAPTER 27

When they had travelled slowly forward for some short distance, Nell ventured to steal a look round the caravan and observe it more closely. One half of it—that moiety in which the comfortable proprietress was then seated—was carpeted, and so partitioned off at the further end as to accommodate a sleeping-place, constructed after the fashion of a berth on board ship, which was shaded, like the little windows, with fair white curtains, and looked comfortable enough, though by what kind of gymnastic exercise the lady of the caravan ever contrived to get into it, was an unfathomable mystery. The other half served for a kitchen, and was fitted up with a stove whose small chimney passed through the roof. It held also a closet or larder, several chests, a great pitcher of water, and a few cooking-utensils and articles of crockery. These latter necessaries hung upon the walls, which, in that portion of the establishment devoted to the lady of the caravan, were ornamented with such gayer and lighter decorations as a triangle and a couple of well-thumbed tambourines.

The lady of the caravan sat at one window in all the pride and poetry of the musical instruments, and little Nell and her grandfather sat at the other in all the humility of the kettle and saucepans, while the machine jogged on and shifted the darkening prospect very slowly. At first the two travellers spoke little, and only in whispers, but as they grew more familiar with the place they ventured to converse with greater freedom, and talked about the country through which they were passing, and the different objects that presented themselves, until the old man fell asleep; which the lady of the caravan observing, invited Nell to come and sit beside her.

‘Well, child,’ she said, ‘how do you like this way of travelling?’

Nell replied that she thought it was very pleasant indeed, to which the lady assented in the case of people who had their spirits. For herself, she said, she was troubled with a lowness in that respect which required a constant stimulant; though whether the aforesaid stimulant was derived from the suspicious bottle of which mention has been already made or from other sources, she did not say.

‘That’s the happiness of you young people,’ she continued. ‘You don’t know what it is to be low in your feelings. You always have your appetites too, and what a comfort that is.’

Nell thought that she could sometimes dispense with her own appetite very conveniently; and thought, moreover, that there was nothing either in the lady’s personal appearance or in her manner of taking tea, to lead to the conclusion that her natural relish for meat and drink had at all failed her. She silently assented, however, as in duty bound, to what the lady had said, and waited until she should speak again.

Instead of speaking, however, she sat looking at the child for a long time in silence, and then getting up, brought out from a corner a large roll of canvas about a yard in width, which she laid upon the floor and spread open with her foot until it nearly reached from one end of the caravan to the other.

‘There, child,’ she said, ‘read that.’

Nell walked down it, and read aloud, in enormous black letters, the inscription, ‘JARLEY’S WAX-WORK.’

‘Read it again,’ said the lady, complacently.

‘Jarley’s Wax-Work,’ repeated Nell.

‘That’s me,’ said the lady. ‘I am Mrs Jarley.’

Giving the child an encouraging look, intended to reassure her and let her know, that, although she stood in the presence of the original Jarley, she must not allow herself to be utterly overwhelmed and borne down, the lady of the caravan unfolded another scroll, whereon was the inscription, ‘One hundred figures the full size of life,’ and then another scroll, on which was written, ‘The only stupendous collection of real wax-work in the world,’ and then several smaller scrolls with such inscriptions as ‘Now exhibiting within’—‘The genuine and only Jarley’—‘Jarley’s unrivalled collection’—‘Jarley is the delight of the Nobility and Gentry’—‘The Royal Family are the patrons of Jarley.’ When she had exhibited these leviathans of public announcement to the astonished child, she brought forth specimens of the lesser fry in the shape of hand-bills, some of which were couched in the form of parodies on popular melodies, as ‘Believe me if all Jarley’s wax-work so rare’—‘I saw thy show in youthful prime’—‘Over the water to Jarley;’ while, to consult all tastes, others were composed with a view to the lighter and more facetious spirits, as a parody on the favourite air of ‘If I had a donkey,’ beginning,

If I know’d a donkey wot wouldn’t go
To see Mrs JARLEY’S wax-work show,
    Do you think I’d acknowledge him? Oh no no!
             Then run to Jarley’s—

—besides several compositions in prose, purporting to be dialogues between the Emperor of China and an oyster, or the Archbishop of Canterbury and a dissenter on the subject of church-rates, but all having the same moral, namely, that the reader must make haste to Jarley’s, and that children and servants were admitted at half-price. When she had brought all these testimonials of her important position in society to bear upon her young companion, Mrs Jarley rolled them up, and having put them carefully away, sat down again, and looked at the child in triumph.

‘Never go into the company of a filthy Punch any more,’ said Mrs Jarley, ‘after this.’

‘I never saw any wax-work, ma’am,’ said Nell. ‘Is it funnier than Punch?’

‘Funnier!’ said Mrs Jarley in a shrill voice. ‘It is not funny at all.’

‘Oh!’ said Nell, with all possible humility.

‘It isn’t funny at all,’ repeated Mrs Jarley. ‘It’s calm and—what’s that word again—critical?—no—classical, that’s it—it’s calm and classical. No low beatings and knockings about, no jokings and squeakings like your precious Punches, but always the same, with a constantly unchanging air of coldness and gentility; and so like life, that if wax-work only spoke and walked about, you’d hardly know the difference. I won’t go so far as to say, that, as it is, I’ve seen wax-work quite like life, but I’ve certainly seen some life that was exactly like wax-work.’

‘Is it here, ma’am?’ asked Nell, whose curiosity was awakened by this description.

‘Is what here, child?’

‘The wax-work, ma’am.’

‘Why, bless you, child, what are you thinking of? How could such a collection be here, where you see everything except the inside of one little cupboard and a few boxes? It’s gone on in the other wans to the assembly-rooms, and there it’ll be exhibited the day after to-morrow. You are going to the same town, and you’ll see it I dare say. It’s natural to expect that you’ll see it, and I’ve no doubt you will. I suppose you couldn’t stop away if you was to try ever so much.’

‘I shall not be in the town, I think, ma’am,’ said the child.

‘Not there!’ cried Mrs Jarley. ‘Then where will you be?’

‘I—I—don’t quite know. I am not certain.’

‘You don’t mean to say that you’re travelling about the country without knowing where you’re going to?’ said the lady of the caravan. ‘What curious people you are! What line are you in? You looked to me at the races, child, as if you were quite out of your element, and had got there by accident.’

‘We were there quite by accident,’ returned Nell, confused by this abrupt questioning. ‘We are poor people, ma’am, and are only wandering about. We have nothing to do;—I wish we had.’

‘You amaze me more and more,’ said Mrs Jarley, after remaining for some time as mute as one of her own figures. ‘Why, what do you call yourselves? Not beggars?’

‘Indeed, ma’am, I don’t know what else we are,’ returned the child.

‘Lord bless me,’ said the lady of the caravan. ‘I never heard of such a thing. Who’d have thought it!’

She remained so long silent after this exclamation, that Nell feared she felt her having been induced to bestow her protection and conversation upon one so poor, to be an outrage upon her dignity that nothing could repair. This persuasion was rather confirmed than otherwise by the tone in which she at length broke silence and said,

‘And yet you can read. And write too, I shouldn’t wonder?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ said the child, fearful of giving new offence by the confession.

‘Well, and what a thing that is,’ returned Mrs Jarley. ‘I can’t!’

Nell said ‘indeed’ in a tone which might imply, either that she was reasonably surprised to find the genuine and only Jarley, who was the delight of the Nobility and Gentry and the peculiar pet of the Royal Family, destitute of these familiar arts; or that she presumed so great a lady could scarcely stand in need of such ordinary accomplishments. In whatever way Mrs Jarley received the response, it did not provoke her to further questioning, or tempt her into any more remarks at the time, for she relapsed into a thoughtful silence, and remained in that state so long that Nell withdrew to the other window and rejoined her grandfather, who was now awake.

At length the lady of the caravan shook off her fit of meditation, and, summoning the driver to come under the window at which she was seated, held a long conversation with him in a low tone of voice, as if she were asking his advice on an important point, and discussing the pros and cons of some very weighty matter. This conference at length concluded, she drew in her head again, and beckoned Nell to approach.

‘And the old gentleman too,’ said Mrs Jarley; ‘for I want to have a word with him. Do you want a good situation for your grand-daughter, master? If you do, I can put her in the way of getting one. What do you say?’

‘I can’t leave her,’ answered the old man. ‘We can’t separate. What would become of me without her?’

‘I should have thought you were old enough to take care of yourself, if you ever will be,’ retorted Mrs Jarley sharply.

‘But he never will be,’ said the child in an earnest whisper. ‘I fear he never will be again. Pray do not speak harshly to him. We are very thankful to you,’ she added aloud; ‘but neither of us could part from the other if all the wealth of the world were halved between us.’

Mrs Jarley was a little disconcerted by this reception of her proposal, and looked at the old man, who tenderly took Nell’s hand and detained it in his own, as if she could have very well dispensed with his company or even his earthly existence. After an awkward pause, she thrust her head out of the window again, and had another conference with the driver upon some point on which they did not seem to agree quite so readily as on their former topic of discussion; but they concluded at last, and she addressed the grandfather again.

‘If you’re really disposed to employ yourself,’ said Mrs Jarley, ‘there would be plenty for you to do in the way of helping to dust the figures, and take the checks, and so forth. What I want your grand-daughter for, is to point ‘em out to the company; they would be soon learnt, and she has a way with her that people wouldn’t think unpleasant, though she does come after me; for I’ve been always accustomed to go round with visitors myself, which I should keep on doing now, only that my spirits make a little ease absolutely necessary. It’s not a common offer, bear in mind,’ said the lady, rising into the tone and manner in which she was accustomed to address her audiences; ‘it’s Jarley’s wax-work, remember. The duty’s very light and genteel, the company particularly select, the exhibition takes place in assembly-rooms, town-halls, large rooms at inns, or auction galleries. There is none of your open-air wagrancy at Jarley’s, recollect; there is no tarpaulin and sawdust at Jarley’s, remember. Every expectation held out in the handbills is realised to the utmost, and the whole forms an effect of imposing brilliancy hitherto unrivalled in this kingdom. Remember that the price of admission is only sixpence, and that this is an opportunity which may never occur again!’

Descending from the sublime when she had reached this point, to the details of common life, Mrs Jarley remarked that with reference to salary she could pledge herself to no specific sum until she had sufficiently tested Nell’s abilities, and narrowly watched her in the performance of her duties. But board and lodging, both for her and her grandfather, she bound herself to provide, and she furthermore passed her word that the board should always be good in quality, and in quantity plentiful.

Nell and her grandfather consulted together, and while they were so engaged, Mrs Jarley with her hands behind her walked up and down the caravan, as she had walked after tea on the dull earth, with uncommon dignity and self-esteem. Nor will this appear so slight a circumstance as to be unworthy of mention, when it is remembered that the caravan was in uneasy motion all the time, and that none but a person of great natural stateliness and acquired grace could have forborne to stagger.

‘Now, child?’ cried Mrs Jarley, coming to a halt as Nell turned towards her.

‘We are very much obliged to you, ma’am,’ said Nell, ‘and thankfully accept your offer.’

‘And you’ll never be sorry for it,’ returned Mrs Jarley. ‘I’m pretty sure of that. So as that’s all settled, let us have a bit of supper.’

In the meanwhile, the caravan blundered on as if it too had been drinking strong beer and was drowsy, and came at last upon the paved streets of a town which were clear of passengers, and quiet, for it was by this time near midnight, and the townspeople were all abed. As it was too late an hour to repair to the exhibition room, they turned aside into a piece of waste ground that lay just within the old town-gate, and drew up there for the night, near to another caravan, which, notwithstanding that it bore on the lawful panel the great name of Jarley, and was employed besides in conveying from place to place the wax-work which was its country’s pride, was designated by a grovelling stamp-office as a ‘Common Stage Waggon,’ and numbered too—seven thousand odd hundred—as though its precious freight were mere flour or coals!

This ill-used machine being empty (for it had deposited its burden at the place of exhibition, and lingered here until its services were again required) was assigned to the old man as his sleeping-place for the night; and within its wooden walls, Nell made him up the best bed she could, from the materials at hand. For herself, she was to sleep in Mrs Jarley’s own travelling-carriage, as a signal mark of that lady’s favour and confidence.

She had taken leave of her grandfather and was returning to the other waggon, when she was tempted by the coolness of the night to linger for a little while in the air. The moon was shining down upon the old gateway of the town, leaving the low archway very black and dark; and with a mingled sensation of curiosity and fear, she slowly approached the gate, and stood still to look up at it, wondering to see how dark, and grim, and old, and cold, it looked.

There was an empty niche from which some old statue had fallen or been carried away hundreds of years ago, and she was thinking what strange people it must have looked down upon when it stood there, and how many hard struggles might have taken place, and how many murders might have been done, upon that silent spot, when there suddenly emerged from the black shade of the arch, a man. The instant he appeared, she recognised him—Who could have failed to recognise, in that instant, the ugly misshapen Quilp!

The street beyond was so narrow, and the shadow of the houses on one side of the way so deep, that he seemed to have risen out of the earth. But there he was. The child withdrew into a dark corner, and saw him pass close to her. He had a stick in his hand, and, when he had got clear of the shadow of the gateway, he leant upon it, looked back—directly, as it seemed, towards where she stood—and beckoned.

To her? oh no, thank God, not to her; for as she stood, in an extremity of fear, hesitating whether to scream for help, or come from her hiding-place and fly, before he should draw nearer, there issued slowly forth from the arch another figure—that of a boy—who carried on his back a trunk.

‘Faster, sirrah!’ cried Quilp, looking up at the old gateway, and showing in the moonlight like some monstrous image that had come down from its niche and was casting a backward glance at its old house, ‘faster!’

‘It’s a dreadful heavy load, Sir,’ the boy pleaded. ‘I’ve come on very fast, considering.’

‘You have come fast, considering!’ retorted Quilp; ‘you creep, you dog, you crawl, you measure distance like a worm. There are the chimes now, half-past twelve.’

He stopped to listen, and then turning upon the boy with a suddenness and ferocity that made him start, asked at what hour that London coach passed the corner of the road. The boy replied, at one.

‘Come on then,’ said Quilp, ‘or I shall be too late. Faster—do you hear me? Faster.’

The boy made all the speed he could, and Quilp led onward, constantly turning back to threaten him, and urge him to greater haste. Nell did not dare to move until they were out of sight and hearing, and then hurried to where she had left her grandfather, feeling as if the very passing of the dwarf so near him must have filled him with alarm and terror. But he was sleeping soundly, and she softly withdrew.

As she was making her way to her own bed, she determined to say nothing of this adventure, as upon whatever errand the dwarf had come (and she feared it must have been in search of them) it was clear by his inquiry about the London coach that he was on his way homeward, and as he had passed through that place, it was but reasonable to suppose that they were safer from his inquiries there, than they could be elsewhere. These reflections did not remove her own alarm, for she had been too much terrified to be easily composed, and felt as if she were hemmed in by a legion of Quilps, and the very air itself were filled with them.

The delight of the Nobility and Gentry and the patronised of Royalty had, by some process of self-abridgment known only to herself, got into her travelling bed, where she was snoring peacefully, while the large bonnet, carefully disposed upon the drum, was revealing its glories by the light of a dim lamp that swung from the roof. The child’s bed was already made upon the floor, and it was a great comfort to her to hear the steps removed as soon as she had entered, and to know that all easy communication between persons outside and the brass knocker was by this means effectually prevented. Certain guttural sounds, too, which from time to time ascended through the floor of the caravan, and a rustling of straw in the same direction, apprised her that the driver was couched upon the ground beneath, and gave her an additional feeling of security.

Notwithstanding these protections, she could get none but broken sleep by fits and starts all night, for fear of Quilp, who throughout her uneasy dreams was somehow connected with the wax-work, or was wax-work himself, or was Mrs Jarley and wax-work too, or was himself, Mrs Jarley, wax-work, and a barrel organ all in one, and yet not exactly any of them either. At length, towards break of day, that deep sleep came upon her which succeeds to weariness and over-watching, and which has no consciousness but one of overpowering and irresistible enjoyment.





CHAPTER 28

Sleep hung upon the eyelids of the child so long, that, when she awoke, Mrs Jarley was already decorated with her large bonnet, and actively engaged in preparing breakfast. She received Nell’s apology for being so late with perfect good humour, and said that she should not have roused her if she had slept on until noon.

‘Because it does you good,’ said the lady of the caravan, ‘when you’re tired, to sleep as long as ever you can, and get the fatigue quite off; and that’s another blessing of your time of life—you can sleep so very sound.’

‘Have you had a bad night, ma’am?’ asked Nell.

‘I seldom have anything else, child,’ replied Mrs Jarley, with the air of a martyr. ‘I sometimes wonder how I bear it.’

Remembering the snores which had proceeded from that cleft in the caravan in which the proprietress of the wax-work passed the night, Nell rather thought she must have been dreaming of lying awake. However, she expressed herself very sorry to hear such a dismal account of her state of health, and shortly afterwards sat down with her grandfather and Mrs Jarley to breakfast. The meal finished, Nell assisted to wash the cups and saucers, and put them in their proper places, and these household duties performed, Mrs Jarley arrayed herself in an exceedingly bright shawl for the purpose of making a progress through the streets of the town.

‘The wan will come on to bring the boxes,’ said Mrs Jarley, and you had better come in it, child. I am obliged to walk, very much against my will; but the people expect it of me, and public characters can’t be their own masters and mistresses in such matters as these. How do I look, child?’

Nell returned a satisfactory reply, and Mrs Jarley, after sticking a great many pins into various parts of her figure, and making several abortive attempts to obtain a full view of her own back, was at last satisfied with her appearance, and went forth majestically.

The caravan followed at no great distance. As it went jolting through the streets, Nell peeped from the window, curious to see in what kind of place they were, and yet fearful of encountering at every turn the dreaded face of Quilp. It was a pretty large town, with an open square which they were crawling slowly across, and in the middle of which was the Town-Hall, with a clock-tower and a weather-cock. There were houses of stone, houses of red brick, houses of yellow brick, houses of lath and plaster; and houses of wood, many of them very old, with withered faces carved upon the beams, and staring down into the street. These had very little winking windows, and low-arched doors, and, in some of the narrower ways, quite overhung the pavement. The streets were very clean, very sunny, very empty, and very dull. A few idle men lounged about the two inns, and the empty market-place, and the tradesmen’s doors, and some old people were dozing in chairs outside an alms-house wall; but scarcely any passengers who seemed bent on going anywhere, or to have any object in view, went by; and if perchance some straggler did, his footsteps echoed on the hot bright pavement for minutes afterwards. Nothing seemed to be going on but the clocks, and they had such drowzy faces, such heavy lazy hands, and such cracked voices that they surely must have been too slow. The very dogs were all asleep, and the flies, drunk with moist sugar in the grocer’s shop, forgot their wings and briskness, and baked to death in dusty corners of the window.

Rumbling along with most unwonted noise, the caravan stopped at last at the place of exhibition, where Nell dismounted amidst an admiring group of children, who evidently supposed her to be an important item of the curiosities, and were fully impressed with the belief that her grandfather was a cunning device in wax. The chests were taken out with all convenient despatch, and taken in to be unlocked by Mrs Jarley, who, attended by George and another man in velveteen shorts and a drab hat ornamented with turnpike tickets, were waiting to dispose their contents (consisting of red festoons and other ornamental devices in upholstery work) to the best advantage in the decoration of the room.

They all got to work without loss of time, and very busy they were. As the stupendous collection were yet concealed by cloths, lest the envious dust should injure their complexions, Nell bestirred herself to assist in the embellishment of the room, in which her grandfather also was of great service. The two men being well used to it, did a great deal in a short time; and Mrs Jarley served out the tin tacks from a linen pocket like a toll-collector’s which she wore for the purpose, and encouraged her assistants to renewed exertion.

While they were thus employed, a tallish gentleman with a hook nose and black hair, dressed in a military surtout very short and tight in the sleeves, and which had once been frogged and braided all over, but was now sadly shorn of its garniture and quite threadbare—dressed too in ancient grey pantaloons fitting tight to the leg, and a pair of pumps in the winter of their existence—looked in at the door and smiled affably. Mrs Jarley’s back being then towards him, the military gentleman shook his forefinger as a sign that her myrmidons were not to apprise her of his presence, and stealing up close behind her, tapped her on the neck, and cried playfully ‘Boh!’

‘What, Mr Slum!’ cried the lady of the wax-work. ‘Lot! who’d have thought of seeing you here!’

‘’Pon my soul and honour,’ said Mr Slum, ‘that’s a good remark. ‘Pon my soul and honour that’s a wise remark. Who would have thought it! George, my faithful feller, how are you?’

George received this advance with a surly indifference, observing that he was well enough for the matter of that, and hammering lustily all the time.

‘I came here,’ said the military gentleman turning to Mrs Jarley—‘’pon my soul and honour I hardly know what I came here for. It would puzzle me to tell you, it would by Gad. I wanted a little inspiration, a little freshening up, a little change of ideas, and—‘Pon my soul and honour,’ said the military gentleman, checking himself and looking round the room, ‘what a devilish classical thing this is! by Gad, it’s quite Minervian.’

‘It’ll look well enough when it comes to be finished,’ observed Mrs Jarley.

‘Well enough!’ said Mr Slum. ‘Will you believe me when I say it’s the delight of my life to have dabbled in poetry, when I think I’ve exercised my pen upon this charming theme? By the way—any orders? Is there any little thing I can do for you?’

‘It comes so very expensive, sir,’ replied Mrs Jarley, ‘and I really don’t think it does much good.’

‘Hush! No, no!’ returned Mr Slum, elevating his hand. ‘No fibs. I’ll not hear it. Don’t say it don’t do good. Don’t say it. I know better!’

‘I don’t think it does,’ said Mrs Jarley.

‘Ha, ha!’ cried Mr Slum, ‘you’re giving way, you’re coming down. Ask the perfumers, ask the blacking-makers, ask the hatters, ask the old lottery-office-keepers—ask any man among ‘em what my poetry has done for him, and mark my words, he blesses the name of Slum. If he’s an honest man, he raises his eyes to heaven, and blesses the name of Slum—mark that! You are acquainted with Westminster Abbey, Mrs Jarley?’

‘Yes, surely.’

‘Then upon my soul and honour, ma’am, you’ll find in a certain angle of that dreary pile, called Poets’ Corner, a few smaller names than Slum,’ retorted that gentleman, tapping himself expressively on the forehead to imply that there was some slight quantity of brain behind it. ‘I’ve got a little trifle here, now,’ said Mr Slum, taking off his hat which was full of scraps of paper, ‘a little trifle here, thrown off in the heat of the moment, which I should say was exactly the thing you wanted to set this place on fire with. It’s an acrostic—the name at this moment is Warren, and the idea’s a convertible one, and a positive inspiration for Jarley. Have the acrostic.’

‘I suppose it’s very dear,’ said Mrs Jarley.

‘Five shillings,’ returned Mr Slum, using his pencil as a toothpick. ‘Cheaper than any prose.’

‘I couldn’t give more than three,’ said Mrs Jarley.

‘—And six,’ retorted Slum. ‘Come. Three-and-six.’

Mrs Jarley was not proof against the poet’s insinuating manner, and Mr Slum entered the order in a small note-book as a three-and-sixpenny one. Mr Slum then withdrew to alter the acrostic, after taking a most affectionate leave of his patroness, and promising to return, as soon as he possibly could, with a fair copy for the printer.

As his presence had not interfered with or interrupted the preparations, they were now far advanced, and were completed shortly after his departure. When the festoons were all put up as tastily as they might be, the stupendous collection was uncovered, and there were displayed, on a raised platform some two feet from the floor, running round the room and parted from the rude public by a crimson rope breast high, divers sprightly effigies of celebrated characters, singly and in groups, clad in glittering dresses of various climes and times, and standing more or less unsteadily upon their legs, with their eyes very wide open, and their nostrils very much inflated, and the muscles of their legs and arms very strongly developed, and all their countenances expressing great surprise. All the gentlemen were very pigeon-breasted and very blue about the beards; and all the ladies were miraculous figures; and all the ladies and all the gentlemen were looking intensely nowhere, and staring with extraordinary earnestness at nothing.

When Nell had exhausted her first raptures at this glorious sight, Mrs Jarley ordered the room to be cleared of all but herself and the child, and, sitting herself down in an arm-chair in the centre, formally invested Nell with a willow wand, long used by herself for pointing out the characters, and was at great pains to instruct her in her duty.

‘That,’ said Mrs Jarley in her exhibition tone, as Nell touched a figure at the beginning of the platform, ‘is an unfortunate Maid of Honour in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, who died from pricking her finger in consequence of working upon a Sunday. Observe the blood which is trickling from her finger; also the gold-eyed needle of the period, with which she is at work.’

All this, Nell repeated twice or thrice: pointing to the finger and the needle at the right times: and then passed on to the next.

‘That, ladies and gentlemen,’ said Mrs Jarley, ‘is Jasper Packlemerton of atrocious memory, who courted and married fourteen wives, and destroyed them all, by tickling the soles of their feet when they were sleeping in the consciousness of innocence and virtue. On being brought to the scaffold and asked if he was sorry for what he had done, he replied yes, he was sorry for having let ‘em off so easy, and hoped all Christian husbands would pardon him the offence. Let this be a warning to all young ladies to be particular in the character of the gentlemen of their choice. Observe that his fingers are curled as if in the act of tickling, and that his face is represented with a wink, as he appeared when committing his barbarous murders.’

When Nell knew all about Mr Packlemerton, and could say it without faltering, Mrs Jarley passed on to the fat man, and then to the thin man, the tall man, the short man, the old lady who died of dancing at a hundred and thirty-two, the wild boy of the woods, the woman who poisoned fourteen families with pickled walnuts, and other historical characters and interesting but misguided individuals. And so well did Nell profit by her instructions, and so apt was she to remember them, that by the time they had been shut up together for a couple of hours, she was in full possession of the history of the whole establishment, and perfectly competent to the enlightenment of visitors.

Mrs Jarley was not slow to express her admiration at this happy result, and carried her young friend and pupil to inspect the remaining arrangements within doors, by virtue of which the passage had been already converted into a grove of green-baize hung with the inscription she had already seen (Mr Slum’s productions), and a highly ornamented table placed at the upper end for Mrs Jarley herself, at which she was to preside and take the money, in company with his Majesty King George the Third, Mr Grimaldi as clown, Mary Queen of Scots, an anonymous gentleman of the Quaker persuasion, and Mr Pitt holding in his hand a correct model of the bill for the imposition of the window duty. The preparations without doors had not been neglected either; a nun of great personal attractions was telling her beads on the little portico over the door; and a brigand with the blackest possible head of hair, and the clearest possible complexion, was at that moment going round the town in a cart, consulting the miniature of a lady.

It now only remained that Mr Slum’s compositions should be judiciously distributed; that the pathetic effusions should find their way to all private houses and tradespeople; and that the parody commencing ‘If I know’d a donkey,’ should be confined to the taverns, and circulated only among the lawyers’ clerks and choice spirits of the place. When this had been done, and Mrs Jarley had waited upon the boarding-schools in person, with a handbill composed expressly for them, in which it was distinctly proved that wax-work refined the mind, cultivated the taste, and enlarged the sphere of the human understanding, that indefatigable lady sat down to dinner, and drank out of the suspicious bottle to a flourishing campaign.





CHAPTER 29

Unquestionably Mrs Jarley had an inventive genius. In the midst of the various devices for attracting visitors to the exhibition, little Nell was not forgotten. The light cart in which the Brigand usually made his perambulations being gaily dressed with flags and streamers, and the Brigand placed therein, contemplating the miniature of his beloved as usual, Nell was accommodated with a seat beside him, decorated with artificial flowers, and in this state and ceremony rode slowly through the town every morning, dispersing handbills from a basket, to the sound of drum and trumpet. The beauty of the child, coupled with her gentle and timid bearing, produced quite a sensation in the little country place. The Brigand, heretofore a source of exclusive interest in the streets, became a mere secondary consideration, and to be important only as a part of the show of which she was the chief attraction. Grown-up folks began to be interested in the bright-eyed girl, and some score of little boys fell desperately in love, and constantly left enclosures of nuts and apples, directed in small-text, at the wax-work door.

This desirable impression was not lost on Mrs Jarley, who, lest Nell should become too cheap, soon sent the Brigand out alone again, and kept her in the exhibition room, where she described the figures every half-hour to the great satisfaction of admiring audiences. And these audiences were of a very superior description, including a great many young ladies’ boarding-schools, whose favour Mrs Jarley had been at great pains to conciliate, by altering the face and costume of Mr Grimaldi as clown to represent Mr Lindley Murray as he appeared when engaged in the composition of his English Grammar, and turning a murderess of great renown into Mrs Hannah More—both of which likenesses were admitted by Miss Monflathers, who was at the head of the head Boarding and Day Establishment in the town, and who condescended to take a Private View with eight chosen young ladies, to be quite startling from their extreme correctness. Mr Pitt in a nightcap and bedgown, and without his boots, represented the poet Cowper with perfect exactness; and Mary Queen of Scots in a dark wig, white shirt-collar, and male attire, was such a complete image of Lord Byron that the young ladies quite screamed when they saw it. Miss Monflathers, however, rebuked this enthusiasm, and took occasion to reprove Mrs Jarley for not keeping her collection more select: observing that His Lordship had held certain opinions quite incompatible with wax-work honours, and adding something about a Dean and Chapter, which Mrs Jarley did not understand.

Although her duties were sufficiently laborious, Nell found in the lady of the caravan a very kind and considerate person, who had not only a peculiar relish for being comfortable herself, but for making everybody about her comfortable also; which latter taste, it may be remarked, is, even in persons who live in much finer places than caravans, a far more rare and uncommon one than the first, and is not by any means its necessary consequence. As her popularity procured her various little fees from the visitors on which her patroness never demanded any toll, and as her grandfather too was well-treated and useful, she had no cause of anxiety in connexion with the wax-work, beyond that which sprung from her recollection of Quilp, and her fears that he might return and one day suddenly encounter them.

Quilp indeed was a perpetual night-mare to the child, who was constantly haunted by a vision of his ugly face and stunted figure. She slept, for their better security, in the room where the wax-work figures were, and she never retired to this place at night but she tortured herself—she could not help it—with imagining a resemblance, in some one or other of their death-like faces, to the dwarf, and this fancy would sometimes so gain upon her that she would almost believe he had removed the figure and stood within the clothes. Then there were so many of them with their great glassy eyes—and, as they stood one behind the other all about her bed, they looked so like living creatures, and yet so unlike in their grim stillness and silence, that she had a kind of terror of them for their own sakes, and would often lie watching their dusky figures until she was obliged to rise and light a candle, or go and sit at the open window and feel a companionship in the bright stars. At these times, she would recall the old house and the window at which she used to sit alone; and then she would think of poor Kit and all his kindness, until the tears came into her eyes, and she would weep and smile together.

Often and anxiously at this silent hour, her thoughts reverted to her grandfather, and she would wonder how much he remembered of their former life, and whether he was ever really mindful of the change in their condition and of their late helplessness and destitution. When they were wandering about, she seldom thought of this, but now she could not help considering what would become of them if he fell sick, or her own strength were to fail her. He was very patient and willing, happy to execute any little task, and glad to be of use; but he was in the same listless state, with no prospect of improvement—a mere child—a poor, thoughtless, vacant creature—a harmless fond old man, susceptible of tender love and regard for her, and of pleasant and painful impressions, but alive to nothing more. It made her very sad to know that this was so—so sad to see it that sometimes when he sat idly by, smiling and nodding to her when she looked round, or when he caressed some little child and carried it to and fro, as he was fond of doing by the hour together, perplexed by its simple questions, yet patient under his own infirmity, and seeming almost conscious of it too, and humbled even before the mind of an infant—so sad it made her to see him thus, that she would burst into tears, and, withdrawing into some secret place, fall down upon her knees and pray that he might be restored.

But, the bitterness of her grief was not in beholding him in this condition, when he was at least content and tranquil, nor in her solitary meditations on his altered state, though these were trials for a young heart. Cause for deeper and heavier sorrow was yet to come.

One evening, a holiday night with them, Nell and her grandfather went out to walk. They had been rather closely confined for some days, and the weather being warm, they strolled a long distance. Clear of the town, they took a footpath which struck through some pleasant fields, judging that it would terminate in the road they quitted and enable them to return that way. It made, however, a much wider circuit than they had supposed, and thus they were tempted onward until sunset, when they reached the track of which they were in search, and stopped to rest.

It had been gradually getting overcast, and now the sky was dark and lowering, save where the glory of the departing sun piled up masses of gold and burning fire, decaying embers of which gleamed here and there through the black veil, and shone redly down upon the earth. The wind began to moan in hollow murmurs, as the sun went down carrying glad day elsewhere; and a train of dull clouds coming up against it, menaced thunder and lightning. Large drops of rain soon began to fall, and, as the storm clouds came sailing onward, others supplied the void they left behind and spread over all the sky. Then was heard the low rumbling of distant thunder, then the lightning quivered, and then the darkness of an hour seemed to have gathered in an instant.

Fearful of taking shelter beneath a tree or hedge, the old man and the child hurried along the high road, hoping to find some house in which they could seek a refuge from the storm, which had now burst forth in earnest, and every moment increased in violence. Drenched with the pelting rain, confused by the deafening thunder, and bewildered by the glare of the forked lightning, they would have passed a solitary house without being aware of its vicinity, had not a man, who was standing at the door, called lustily to them to enter.

‘Your ears ought to be better than other folks’ at any rate, if you make so little of the chance of being struck blind,’ he said, retreating from the door and shading his eyes with his hands as the jagged lightning came again. ‘What were you going past for, eh?’ he added, as he closed the door and led the way along a passage to a room behind.

‘We didn’t see the house, sir, till we heard you calling,’ Nell replied.

‘No wonder,’ said the man, ‘with this lightning in one’s eyes, by-the-by. You had better stand by the fire here, and dry yourselves a bit. You can call for what you like if you want anything. If you don’t want anything, you are not obliged to give an order. Don’t be afraid of that. This is a public-house, that’s all. The Valiant Soldier is pretty well known hereabouts.’

‘Is this house called the Valiant Soldier, Sir?’ asked Nell.

‘I thought everybody knew that,’ replied the landlord. ‘Where have you come from, if you don’t know the Valiant Soldier as well as the church catechism? This is the Valiant Soldier, by James Groves—Jem Groves—honest Jem Groves, as is a man of unblemished moral character, and has a good dry skittle-ground. If any man has got anything to say again Jem Groves, let him say it to Jem Groves, and Jem Groves can accommodate him with a customer on any terms from four pound a side to forty.

With these words, the speaker tapped himself on the waistcoat to intimate that he was the Jem Groves so highly eulogized; sparred scientifically at a counterfeit Jem Groves, who was sparring at society in general from a black frame over the chimney-piece; and, applying a half-emptied glass of spirits and water to his lips, drank Jem Groves’s health.

The night being warm, there was a large screen drawn across the room, for a barrier against the heat of the fire. It seemed as if somebody on the other side of this screen had been insinuating doubts of Mr Groves’s prowess, and had thereby given rise to these egotistical expressions, for Mr Groves wound up his defiance by giving a loud knock upon it with his knuckles and pausing for a reply from the other side.

‘There an’t many men,’ said Mr Groves, no answer being returned, ‘who would ventur’ to cross Jem Groves under his own roof. There’s only one man, I know, that has nerve enough for that, and that man’s not a hundred mile from here neither. But he’s worth a dozen men, and I let him say of me whatever he likes in consequence—he knows that.’

In return for this complimentary address, a very gruff hoarse voice bade Mr Groves ‘hold his noise and light a candle.’ And the same voice remarked that the same gentleman ‘needn’t waste his breath in brag, for most people knew pretty well what sort of stuff he was made of.’

‘Nell, they’re—they’re playing cards,’ whispered the old man, suddenly interested. ‘Don’t you hear them?’

‘Look sharp with that candle,’ said the voice; ‘it’s as much as I can do to see the pips on the cards as it is; and get this shutter closed as quick as you can, will you? Your beer will be the worse for to-night’s thunder I expect.—Game! Seven-and-sixpence to me, old Isaac. Hand over.’

‘Do you hear, Nell, do you hear them?’ whispered the old man again, with increased earnestness, as the money chinked upon the table.

‘I haven’t seen such a storm as this,’ said a sharp cracked voice of most disagreeable quality, when a tremendous peal of thunder had died away, ‘since the night when old Luke Withers won thirteen times running on the red. We all said he had the Devil’s luck and his own, and as it was the kind of night for the Devil to be out and busy, I suppose he was looking over his shoulder, if anybody could have seen him.’

‘Ah!’ returned the gruff voice; ‘for all old Luke’s winning through thick and thin of late years, I remember the time when he was the unluckiest and unfortunatest of men. He never took a dice-box in his hand, or held a card, but he was plucked, pigeoned, and cleaned out completely.’

‘Do you hear what he says?’ whispered the old man. ‘Do you hear that, Nell?’

The child saw with astonishment and alarm that his whole appearance had undergone a complete change. His face was flushed and eager, his eyes were strained, his teeth set, his breath came short and thick, and the hand he laid upon her arm trembled so violently that she shook beneath its grasp.

‘Bear witness,’ he muttered, looking upward, ‘that I always said it; that I knew it, dreamed of it, felt it was the truth, and that it must be so! What money have we, Nell? Come! I saw you with money yesterday. What money have we? Give it to me.’

‘No, no, let me keep it, grandfather,’ said the frightened child. ‘Let us go away from here. Do not mind the rain. Pray let us go.’

‘Give it to me, I say,’ returned the old man fiercely. ‘Hush, hush, don’t cry, Nell. If I spoke sharply, dear, I didn’t mean it. It’s for thy good. I have wronged thee, Nell, but I will right thee yet, I will indeed. Where is the money?’

‘Do not take it,’ said the child. ‘Pray do not take it, dear. For both our sakes let me keep it, or let me throw it away—better let me throw it away, than you take it now. Let us go; do let us go.’

‘Give me the money,’ returned the old man, ‘I must have it. There—there—that’s my dear Nell. I’ll right thee one day, child, I’ll right thee, never fear!’

She took from her pocket a little purse. He seized it with the same rapid impatience which had characterised his speech, and hastily made his way to the other side of the screen. It was impossible to restrain him, and the trembling child followed close behind.

The landlord had placed a light upon the table, and was engaged in drawing the curtain of the window. The speakers whom they had heard were two men, who had a pack of cards and some silver money between them, while upon the screen itself the games they had played were scored in chalk. The man with the rough voice was a burly fellow of middle age, with large black whiskers, broad cheeks, a coarse wide mouth, and bull neck, which was pretty freely displayed as his shirt collar was only confined by a loose red neckerchief. He wore his hat, which was of a brownish-white, and had beside him a thick knotted stick. The other man, whom his companion had called Isaac, was of a more slender figure—stooping, and high in the shoulders—with a very ill-favoured face, and a most sinister and villainous squint.

‘Now old gentleman,’ said Isaac, looking round. ‘Do you know either of us? This side of the screen is private, sir.’

‘No offence, I hope,’ returned the old man.

‘But by G—, sir, there is offence,’ said the other, interrupting him, ‘when you intrude yourself upon a couple of gentlemen who are particularly engaged.’

‘I had no intention to offend,’ said the old man, looking anxiously at the cards. ‘I thought that—’

‘But you had no right to think, sir,’ retorted the other. ‘What the devil has a man at your time of life to do with thinking?’

‘Now bully boy,’ said the stout man, raising his eyes from his cards for the first time, ‘can’t you let him speak?’

The landlord, who had apparently resolved to remain neutral until he knew which side of the question the stout man would espouse, chimed in at this place with ‘Ah, to be sure, can’t you let him speak, Isaac List?’

‘Can’t I let him speak,’ sneered Isaac in reply, mimicking as nearly as he could, in his shrill voice, the tones of the landlord. ‘Yes, I can let him speak, Jemmy Groves.’

‘Well then, do it, will you?’ said the landlord.

Mr List’s squint assumed a portentous character, which seemed to threaten a prolongation of this controversy, when his companion, who had been looking sharply at the old man, put a timely stop to it.

‘Who knows,’ said he, with a cunning look, ‘but the gentleman may have civilly meant to ask if he might have the honour to take a hand with us!’

‘I did mean it,’ cried the old man. ‘That is what I mean. That is what I want now!’

‘I thought so,’ returned the same man. ‘Then who knows but the gentleman, anticipating our objection to play for love, civilly desired to play for money?’

The old man replied by shaking the little purse in his eager hand, and then throwing it down upon the table, and gathering up the cards as a miser would clutch at gold.

‘Oh! That indeed,’ said Isaac; ‘if that’s what the gentleman meant, I beg the gentleman’s pardon. Is this the gentleman’s little purse? A very pretty little purse. Rather a light purse,’ added Isaac, throwing it into the air and catching it dexterously, ‘but enough to amuse a gentleman for half an hour or so.’

‘We’ll make a four-handed game of it, and take in Groves,’ said the stout man. ‘Come, Jemmy.’

The landlord, who conducted himself like one who was well used to such little parties, approached the table and took his seat. The child, in a perfect agony, drew her grandfather aside, and implored him, even then, to come away.

‘Come; and we may be so happy,’ said the child.

‘We will be happy,’ replied the old man hastily. ‘Let me go, Nell. The means of happiness are on the cards and the dice. We must rise from little winnings to great. There’s little to be won here; but great will come in time. I shall but win back my own, and it’s all for thee, my darling.’

‘God help us!’ cried the child. ‘Oh! what hard fortune brought us here?’

‘Hush!’ rejoined the old man laying his hand upon her mouth, ‘Fortune will not bear chiding. We must not reproach her, or she shuns us; I have found that out.’

‘Now, mister,’ said the stout man. ‘If you’re not coming yourself, give us the cards, will you?’

‘I am coming,’ cried the old man. ‘Sit thee down, Nell, sit thee down and look on. Be of good heart, it’s all for thee—all—every penny. I don’t tell them, no, no, or else they wouldn’t play, dreading the chance that such a cause must give me. Look at them. See what they are and what thou art. Who doubts that we must win!’

‘The gentleman has thought better of it, and isn’t coming,’ said Isaac, making as though he would rise from the table. ‘I’m sorry the gentleman’s daunted—nothing venture, nothing have—but the gentleman knows best.’

‘Why I am ready. You have all been slow but me,’ said the old man. ‘I wonder who is more anxious to begin than I.’

As he spoke he drew a chair to the table; and the other three closing round it at the same time, the game commenced.

The child sat by, and watched its progress with a troubled mind. Regardless of the run of luck, and mindful only of the desperate passion which had its hold upon her grandfather, losses and gains were to her alike. Exulting in some brief triumph, or cast down by a defeat, there he sat so wild and restless, so feverishly and intensely anxious, so terribly eager, so ravenous for the paltry stakes, that she could have almost better borne to see him dead. And yet she was the innocent cause of all this torture, and he, gambling with such a savage thirst for gain as the most insatiable gambler never felt, had not one selfish thought!

On the contrary, the other three—knaves and gamesters by their trade—while intent upon their game, were yet as cool and quiet as if every virtue had been centered in their breasts. Sometimes one would look up to smile to another, or to snuff the feeble candle, or to glance at the lightning as it shot through the open window and fluttering curtain, or to listen to some louder peal of thunder than the rest, with a kind of momentary impatience, as if it put him out; but there they sat, with a calm indifference to everything but their cards, perfect philosophers in appearance, and with no greater show of passion or excitement than if they had been made of stone.

The storm had raged for full three hours; the lightning had grown fainter and less frequent; the thunder, from seeming to roll and break above their heads, had gradually died away into a deep hoarse distance; and still the game went on, and still the anxious child was quite forgotten.





CHAPTER 30

At length the play came to an end, and Mr Isaac List rose the only winner. Mat and the landlord bore their losses with professional fortitude. Isaac pocketed his gains with the air of a man who had quite made up his mind to win, all along, and was neither surprised nor pleased.

Nell’s little purse was exhausted; but although it lay empty by his side, and the other players had now risen from the table, the old man sat poring over the cards, dealing them as they had been dealt before, and turning up the different hands to see what each man would have held if they had still been playing. He was quite absorbed in this occupation, when the child drew near and laid her hand upon his shoulder, telling him it was near midnight.

‘See the curse of poverty, Nell,’ he said, pointing to the packs he had spread out upon the table. ‘If I could have gone on a little longer, only a little longer, the luck would have turned on my side. Yes, it’s as plain as the marks upon the cards. See here—and there—and here again.’

‘Put them away,’ urged the child. ‘Try to forget them.’

‘Try to forget them!’ he rejoined, raising his haggard face to hers, and regarding her with an incredulous stare. ‘To forget them! How are we ever to grow rich if I forget them?’

The child could only shake her head.

‘No, no, Nell,’ said the old man, patting her cheek; ‘they must not be forgotten. We must make amends for this as soon as we can. Patience—patience, and we’ll right thee yet, I promise thee. Lose to-day, win to-morrow. And nothing can be won without anxiety and care—nothing. Come, I am ready.’

‘Do you know what the time is?’ said Mr Groves, who was smoking with his friends. ‘Past twelve o’clock—’

‘—And a rainy night,’ added the stout man.

‘The Valiant Soldier, by James Groves. Good beds. Cheap entertainment for man and beast,’ said Mr Groves, quoting his sign-board. ‘Half-past twelve o’clock.’

‘It’s very late,’ said the uneasy child. ‘I wish we had gone before. What will they think of us! It will be two o’clock by the time we get back. What would it cost, sir, if we stopped here?’

‘Two good beds, one-and-sixpence; supper and beer one shilling; total two shillings and sixpence,’ replied the Valiant Soldier.

Now, Nell had still the piece of gold sewn in her dress; and when she came to consider the lateness of the hour, and the somnolent habits of Mrs Jarley, and to imagine the state of consternation in which they would certainly throw that good lady by knocking her up in the middle of the night—and when she reflected, on the other hand, that if they remained where they were, and rose early in the morning, they might get back before she awoke, and could plead the violence of the storm by which they had been overtaken, as a good apology for their absence—she decided, after a great deal of hesitation, to remain. She therefore took her grandfather aside, and telling him that she had still enough left to defray the cost of their lodging, proposed that they should stay there for the night.

‘If I had had but that money before—If I had only known of it a few minutes ago!’ muttered the old man.

‘We will decide to stop here if you please,’ said Nell, turning hastily to the landlord.

‘I think that’s prudent,’ returned Mr Groves. ‘You shall have your suppers directly.’

Accordingly, when Mr Groves had smoked his pipe out, knocked out the ashes, and placed it carefully in a corner of the fire-place, with the bowl downwards, he brought in the bread and cheese, and beer, with many high encomiums upon their excellence, and bade his guests fall to, and make themselves at home. Nell and her grandfather ate sparingly, for both were occupied with their own reflections; the other gentlemen, for whose constitutions beer was too weak and tame a liquid, consoled themselves with spirits and tobacco.

As they would leave the house very early in the morning, the child was anxious to pay for their entertainment before they retired to bed. But as she felt the necessity of concealing her little hoard from her grandfather, and had to change the piece of gold, she took it secretly from its place of concealment, and embraced an opportunity of following the landlord when he went out of the room, and tendered it to him in the little bar.

‘Will you give me the change here, if you please?’ said the child.

Mr James Groves was evidently surprised, and looked at the money, and rang it, and looked at the child, and at the money again, as though he had a mind to inquire how she came by it. The coin being genuine, however, and changed at his house, he probably felt, like a wise landlord, that it was no business of his. At any rate, he counted out the change, and gave it her. The child was returning to the room where they had passed the evening, when she fancied she saw a figure just gliding in at the door. There was nothing but a long dark passage between this door and the place where she had changed the money, and, being very certain that no person had passed in or out while she stood there, the thought struck her that she had been watched.

But by whom? When she re-entered the room, she found its inmates exactly as she had left them. The stout fellow lay upon two chairs, resting his head on his hand, and the squinting man reposed in a similar attitude on the opposite side of the table. Between them sat her grandfather, looking intently at the winner with a kind of hungry admiration, and hanging upon his words as if he were some superior being. She was puzzled for a moment, and looked round to see if any else were there. No. Then she asked her grandfather in a whisper whether anybody had left the room while she was absent. ‘No,’ he said, ‘nobody.’

It must have been her fancy then; and yet it was strange, that, without anything in her previous thoughts to lead to it, she should have imagined this figure so very distinctly. She was still wondering and thinking of it, when a girl came to light her to bed.

The old man took leave of the company at the same time, and they went up stairs together. It was a great, rambling house, with dull corridors and wide staircases which the flaring candles seemed to make more gloomy. She left her grandfather in his chamber, and followed her guide to another, which was at the end of a passage, and approached by some half-dozen crazy steps. This was prepared for her. The girl lingered a little while to talk, and tell her grievances. She had not a good place, she said; the wages were low, and the work was hard. She was going to leave it in a fortnight; the child couldn’t recommend her to another, she supposed? Instead she was afraid another would be difficult to get after living there, for the house had a very indifferent character; there was far too much card-playing, and such like. She was very much mistaken if some of the people who came there oftenest were quite as honest as they might be, but she wouldn’t have it known that she had said so, for the world. Then there were some rambling allusions to a rejected sweetheart, who had threatened to go a soldiering—a final promise of knocking at the door early in the morning—and ‘Good night.’

The child did not feel comfortable when she was left alone. She could not help thinking of the figure stealing through the passage down stairs; and what the girl had said did not tend to reassure her. The men were very ill-looking. They might get their living by robbing and murdering travellers. Who could tell?

Reasoning herself out of these fears, or losing sight of them for a little while, there came the anxiety to which the adventures of the night gave rise. Here was the old passion awakened again in her grandfather’s breast, and to what further distraction it might tempt him Heaven only knew. What fears their absence might have occasioned already! Persons might be seeking for them even then. Would they be forgiven in the morning, or turned adrift again! Oh! why had they stopped in that strange place? It would have been better, under any circumstances, to have gone on!

At last, sleep gradually stole upon her—a broken, fitful sleep, troubled by dreams of falling from high towers, and waking with a start and in great terror. A deeper slumber followed this—and then—What! That figure in the room.

A figure was there. Yes, she had drawn up the blind to admit the light when it should be dawn, and there, between the foot of the bed and the dark casement, it crouched and slunk along, groping its way with noiseless hands, and stealing round the bed. She had no voice to cry for help, no power to move, but lay still, watching it.

On it came—on, silently and stealthily, to the bed’s head. The breath so near her pillow, that she shrunk back into it, lest those wandering hands should light upon her face. Back again it stole to the window—then turned its head towards her.

The dark form was a mere blot upon the lighter darkness of the room, but she saw the turning of the head, and felt and knew how the eyes looked and the ears listened. There it remained, motionless as she. At length, still keeping the face towards her, it busied its hands in something, and she heard the chink of money.

Then, on it came again, silent and stealthy as before, and replacing the garments it had taken from the bedside, dropped upon its hands and knees, and crawled away. How slowly it seemed to move, now that she could hear but not see it, creeping along the floor! It reached the door at last, and stood upon its feet. The steps creaked beneath its noiseless tread, and it was gone.

The first impulse of the child was to fly from the terror of being by herself in that room—to have somebody by—not to be alone—and then her power of speech would be restored. With no consciousness of having moved, she gained the door.

There was the dreadful shadow, pausing at the bottom of the steps.

She could not pass it; she might have done so, perhaps, in the darkness without being seized, but her blood curdled at the thought. The figure stood quite still, and so did she; not boldly, but of necessity; for going back into the room was hardly less terrible than going on.

The rain beat fast and furiously without, and ran down in plashing streams from the thatched roof. Some summer insect, with no escape into the air, flew blindly to and fro, beating its body against the walls and ceiling, and filling the silent place with murmurs. The figure moved again. The child involuntarily did the same. Once in her grandfather’s room, she would be safe.

It crept along the passage until it came to the very door she longed so ardently to reach. The child, in the agony of being so near, had almost darted forward with the design of bursting into the room and closing it behind her, when the figure stopped again.

The idea flashed suddenly upon her—what if it entered there, and had a design upon the old man’s life! She turned faint and sick. It did. It went in. There was a light inside. The figure was now within the chamber, and she, still dumb—quite dumb, and almost senseless—stood looking on.

The door was partly open. Not knowing what she meant to do, but meaning to preserve him or be killed herself, she staggered forward and looked in. What sight was that which met her view!

The bed had not been lain on, but was smooth and empty. And at a table sat the old man himself; the only living creature there; his white face pinched and sharpened by the greediness which made his eyes unnaturally bright—counting the money of which his hands had robbed her.