Kit—for it happens at this juncture, not only that we have breathing-time to follow his fortunes, but that the necessities of these adventures so adapt themselves to our ease and inclination as to call upon us imperatively to pursue the track we most desire to take—Kit, while the matters treated of in the last fifteen chapters were yet in progress, was, as the reader may suppose, gradually familiarising himself more and more with Mr. and Mrs. Garland, Mr. Abel, the pony, and Barbara, and gradually coming to consider them one and all as his particular private friends, and Abel Cottage, Finchley, as his own proper home.
Stay—the words are written, and may go, but if they convey any notion that Kit, in the plentiful board and comfortable lodging of his new abode, began to think slightingly of the poor fare and furniture of his old dwelling, they do their office badly and commit injustice. Who so mindful of those he left at home—albeit they were but a mother and two young babies—as Kit? What boastful father in the fulness of his heart ever related such wonders of his infant prodigy, as Kit never wearied of telling Barbara in the evening time, concerning little Jacob? Was there ever such a mother as Kit’s mother, on her son’s showing; or was there ever such comfort in poverty as in the poverty of Kit’s family, if any correct judgment might be arrived at, from his own glowing account!
Look at Home.
And let me linger in this place, for an instant, to remark that if 237 ever household affections and loves are graceful things, they are graceful in the poor. The ties that bind the wealthy and the proud to home may be forged on earth, but those which link the poor man to his humble hearth are of the truer metal and bear the stamp of Heaven. The man of high descent may love the halls and lands of his inheritance as a part of himself: as trophies of his birth and power; his associations with them are associations of pride and wealth and triumph; the poor man’s attachment to the tenements he holds, which strangers have held before, and may to-morrow occupy again, has a worthier root, struck deep into a purer soil. His household gods are of flesh and blood, with no alloy of silver, gold, or precious stone; he has no property but in the affections of his own heart; and when they endear bare floors and walls, despite of rags and toil and scanty fare, that man has his love of home from God, and his rude hut becomes a solemn place.
Oh! if those who rule the destinies of nations would but remember this—if they would but think how hard it is for the very poor to have engendered in their hearts, that love of home from which all domestic virtues spring, when they live in dense and squalid masses where social decency is lost, or rather never found,—if they would but turn aside from the wide thoroughfares and great houses, and strive to improve the wretched dwellings in by-ways where only Poverty may walk,—many low roofs would point more truly to the sky, than the loftiest steeple that now rears proudly up from the midst of guilt, and crime, and horrible disease, to mock them by its contrast. In hollow voices from Workhouse, Hospital, and Jail, this truth is preached from day to day, and has been proclaimed for years. It is no light matter—no outcry from the working vulgar—no mere question of the people’s health and comforts that may be whistled down on Wednesday nights. In love of home, the love of country has its rise; and who are the truer patriots or the better in time of need—those who venerate the land, owning its wood, and stream, and earth, and all that they produce? or those who love their country, boasting not a foot of ground in all its wide domain?
Kit knew nothing about such questions, but he knew that his old home was a very poor place, and that his new one was very unlike it, and yet he was constantly looking back with grateful satisfaction and affectionate anxiety, and often indited square-folded letters to his mother, inclosing a shilling or eighteen-pence or such other small remittance, which Mr. Abel’s liberality enabled him to make. Sometimes being in the neighbourhood, he had leisure to call upon her, and then, great was the joy and pride of Kit’s mother, and extremely noisy the satisfaction of little Jacob and the baby, and cordial the congratulations of the whole court, who listened with admiring ears to the accounts of Abel Cottage, and could never be told too much of its wonders and magnificence.
Although Kit was in the very highest favour with the old lady and 238 gentleman, and Mr. Abel, and Barbara, it is certain that no member of the family evinced such a remarkable partiality for him as the self-willed pony, who, from being the most and opinionated pony on the face of the earth, was, in his hands, the meekest and most tractable of animals. It is true that in exact proportion as he became manageable by Kit he became utterly ungovernable by anybody else (as if he had determined to keep him in the family at all risks and hazards), and that, even under the guidance of his favourite, he would sometimes perform a great variety of strange freaks and capers, to the extreme discomposure of the old lady’s nerves; but as Kit always represented that this was only his fun, or a way he had of showing his attachment to his employers, Mrs. Garland gradually suffered herself to be persuaded into the belief, in which she at last became so strongly confirmed, that if, in one of these ebullitions, he had overturned the chaise, she would have been quite satisfied that he did it with the very best intentions.
Besides becoming in a short time a perfect marvel in all stable matters, Kit soon made himself a very tolerable gardener, a handy fellow within doors, and an indispensable attendant on Mr. Abel, who every day gave him some new proof of his confidence and approbation. Mr. Witherden the notary, too, regarded him with a friendly eye; and even Mr. Chuckster would sometimes condescend to give him a slight nod, or to honour him with that peculiar form of recognition which is called “taking a sight,” or to favour him with some other salute combining pleasantry with patronage.
One morning Kit drove Mr. Abel to the notary’s office, as he sometimes did, and having set him down at the house, was about to drive off to a livery stable hard by, when this same Mr. Chuckster emerged from the office-door, and cried “Woa-a-a-a-a-a!”—dwelling upon the note a long time, for the purpose of striking terror into the pony’s heart, and asserting the supremacy of man over the inferior animals.
“Pull up, Snobby,” cried Mr. Chuckster, addressing himself to Kit. “You’re wanted inside here.”
“Has Mr. Abel forgotten anything, I wonder?” said Kit as he dismounted.
“Ask no questions, Snobby,” returned Mr. Chuckster, “but go and see. Woa-a-a then, will you? If that pony was mine, I’d break him.”
“You must be very gentle with him, if you please,” said Kit, “or you’ll find him troublesome. You’d better not keep on pulling his ears, please. I know he won’t like it.”
To this remonstrance Mr. Chuckster deigned no other answer, than addressing Kit with a lofty and distant air as “young feller,” and requesting him to cut and come again with all speed. The “young feller” complying, Mr. Chuckster put his hands in his pockets, and tried to look as if he were not minding the pony, but happened to be lounging there by accident.239
Inquiries from the Single Gentleman.
Kit scraped his shoes very carefully (for he had not yet lost his reverence for the bundles of papers and the tin boxes), and tapped at the office-door, which was quickly opened by the notary himself.
“Oh! come in, Christopher,” said Mr. Witherden.
“Is that the lad?” asked an elderly gentleman, but of a stout, bluff figure—who was in the room.
“That’s the lad,” said Mr. Witherden. “He fell in with my client, Mr. Garland, sir, at this very door. I have reason to think he is a good lad, sir, and that you may believe what he says. Let me introduce Mr. Abel Garland, sir—his young master; my articled pupil, sir, and most particular friend:—my most particular friend, sir,” repeated the notary, drawing out his silk handkerchief and flourishing it about his face.
“Your servant, sir,” said the stranger gentleman.
“Yours, sir, I’m sure,” replied Mr. Abel mildly. “You were wishing to speak to Christopher, sir?”
“Yes, I was. Have I your permission?”
“By all means.”
“My business is no secret; or I should rather say it need be no secret here,” said the stranger, observing that Mr. Abel and the notary were preparing to retire. “It relates to a dealer in curiosities with whom he lived, and in whom I am earnestly and warmly interested. I have been a stranger to this country, gentlemen, for very many years, and if I am deficient in form and ceremony, I hope you will forgive me.”
“No forgiveness is necessary, sir;—none whatever,” replied the notary. And so said Mr. Abel.
“I have been making inquiries in the neighbourhood in which his old master lived,” said the stranger, “and I learn that he was served by this lad. I have found out his mother’s house, and have been directed by her to this place as the nearest in which I should be likely to find him. That’s the cause of my presenting myself here this morning.”
“I am very glad of any cause, sir,” said the notary, “which procures me the honour of this visit.”
“Sir,” retorted the stranger, “you speak like a mere man of the world, and I think you something better. Therefore, pray do not sink your real character in paying unmeaning compliments to me.”
“Hem!” coughed the notary. “You’re a plain speaker, sir.”
“And a plain dealer,” returned the stranger. “It may be my long absence and inexperience that lead me to the conclusion; but if plain speakers are scarce in this part of the world, I fancy plain dealers are still scarcer. If my speaking should offend you, sir, my dealing, I hope, will make amends.”
Mr. Witherden seemed a little disconcerted by the elderly gentleman’s mode of conducting the dialogue; and as for Kit, he looked at him in open-mouthed astonishment: wondering what kind of language 240 he would address to him, if he talked in that free and easy way to a notary. It was with no harshness, however, though with something of constitutional irritability and haste, that he turned to Kit and said—
“If you think, my lad, that I am pursuing these inquiries with any other view than that of serving and reclaiming those I am in search of, you do me a very great wrong, and deceive yourself. Don’t be deceived, I beg of you, but rely upon my assurance. The fact is, gentlemen,” he added, turning again to the notary and his pupil, “that I am in a very painful and wholly unexpected position. I came to this city with a darling object at my heart, expecting to find no obstacle or difficulty in the way of its attainment. I find myself suddenly checked and stopped short, in the execution of my design, by a mystery which I cannot penetrate. Every effort I have made to penetrate it, has only served to render it darker and more obscure; and I am afraid to stir openly in the matter, lest those whom I anxiously pursue, should fly still farther from me. I assure you that if you could give me any assistance, you would not be sorry to do so, if you knew how greatly I stand in need of it, and what a load it would relieve me from.”
There was a simplicity in this confidence which occasioned it to find a quick response in the breast of the good-natured notary, who replied, in the same spirit, that the stranger had not mistaken his desire, and that if he could be of service to him he would, most readily.
Kit was then put under examination and closely questioned by the unknown gentleman, touching his old master and the child, their lonely way of life, their retired habits, and strict seclusion. The nightly absence of the old man, the solitary existence of the child at those times, his illness and recovery, Quilp’s possession of the house, and their sudden disappearance, were all the subjects of much questioning and answer. Finally, Kit informed the gentleman that the premises were now to let, and that a board upon the door referred all inquirers to Mr. Sampson Brass, solicitor, of Bevis Marks, from whom he might perhaps learn some further particulars.
“Not by inquiry,” said the gentleman shaking his head. “I live there.”
“Live at Brass’s the attorney’s!” cried Mr. Witherden in some surprise: having professional knowledge of the gentleman in question.
“Aye,” was the reply. “I entered on his lodgings t’other day, chiefly because I had seen this very board. It matters little to me where I live, and I had a desperate hope that some intelligence might be cast in my way there, which would not reach me elsewhere. Yes, I live at Brass’s—more shame for me, I suppose?”
“That’s a mere matter of opinion,” said the notary, shrugging his shoulders. “He is looked upon as rather a doubtful character.”
“Doubtful?” echoed the other. “I am glad to hear there’s any 241 doubt about it. I supposed that had been thoroughly settled, long ago. But will you let me speak a word or two with you in private?”
Inquiries from Mr. Swiveller.
Mr. Witherden consenting, they walked into that gentleman’s private closet, and remained there, in close conversation, for some quarter of an hour, when they returned into the outer office. The stranger had left his hat in Mr. Witherden’s room, and seemed to have established himself in this short interval on quite a friendly footing.
“I’ll not detain you any longer now,” he said, putting a crown into Kit’s hand, and looking towards the notary. “You shall hear from me again. Not a word of this, you know, except to your master and mistress.”
“Mother, sir, would be glad to know—” said Kit, faltering.
“Glad to know what?”
“Anything—so that it was no harm—about Miss Nell.”
“Would she? Well then, you may tell her if she can keep a secret. But mind, not a word of this to anybody else. Don’t forget that. Be particular.”
“I’ll take care, sir,” said Kit. “Thank’ee, sir, and good morning.”
Now, it happened that the gentleman, in his anxiety to impress upon Kit that he was not to tell anybody what had passed between them, followed him out to the door to repeat his caution, and it further happened that at that moment the eyes of Mr. Richard Swiveller were turned in that direction, and beheld his mysterious friend and Kit together.
It was quite an accident, and the way in which it came about was this. Mr. Chuckster, being a gentleman of a cultivated taste and refined spirit, was one of that Lodge of Glorious Apollos whereof Mr. Swiveller was Perpetual Grand. Mr. Swiveller, passing through the street in the execution of some Brazen errand, and beholding one of his Glorious Brotherhood intently gazing on a pony, crossed over to give him that fraternal greeting with which Perpetual Grands are, by the very constitution of their office, bound to cheer and encourage their disciples. He had scarcely bestowed upon him his blessing, and followed it with a general remark touching the present state and prospects of the weather, when, lifting up his eyes, he beheld the single gentleman of Bevis Marks in earnest conversation with Christopher Nubbles.
“Hallo!” said Dick, “who is that?”
“He called to see my Governor this morning,” replied Mr. Chuckster; “beyond that, I don’t know him from Adam.”
“At least you know his name?” said Dick.
To which Mr. Chuckster replied, with an elevation of speech becoming a Glorious Apollo, that he was “everlastingly blessed” if he did.
“All I know, my dear feller,” said Mr. Chuckster, running his fingers through his hair, “is, that he is the cause of my having stood here twenty minutes, for which I hate him with a mortal and undying 242 hatred, and would pursue him to the confines of eternity if I could afford the time.”
While they were thus discoursing, the subject of their conversation (who had not appeared to recognise Mr. Richard Swiveller) re-entered the house, and Kit came down the steps and joined them; to whom Mr. Swiveller again propounded his inquiry with no better success.
“He is a very nice gentleman, sir,” said Kit, “and that’s all I know about him.”
Mr. Chuckster waxed wroth at this answer, and without applying the remark to any particular case, mentioned, as a general truth, that it was expedient to break the heads of Snobs, and to tweak their noses. Without expressing his concurrence in this sentiment, Mr. Swiveller after a few moments of abstraction inquired which way Kit was driving, and, being informed, declared it was his way, and that he would trespass on him for a lift. Kit would gladly have declined the proffered honour, but as Mr. Swiveller was already established in the seat beside him, he had no means of doing so, otherwise than by a forcible ejectment, and therefore drove briskly off—so briskly indeed, as to cut short the leave-taking between Mr. Chuckster and his Grand Master, and to occasion the former gentleman some inconvenience from having his corns squeezed by the impatient pony.
As Whisker was tired of standing, and Mr. Swiveller was kind enough to stimulate him by shrill whistles, and various sporting cries, they rattled off at too sharp a pace to admit of much conversation: especially as the pony, incensed by Mr. Swiveller’s admonitions, took a particular fancy for the lamp-posts and cart-wheels, and evinced a strong desire to run on the pavement and rasp himself against the brick walls. It was not, therefore, until they had arrived at the stable, and the chaise had been extricated from a very small doorway, into which the pony dragged it under the impression that he could take it along with him into his usual stall, that Mr. Swiveller found time to talk.
“It’s hard work,” said Richard. “What do you say to some beer?”
Kit at first declined, but presently consented, and they adjourned to the neighbouring bar together.
“We’ll drink our friend what’s-his-name,” said Dick, holding up the bright frothy pot; “—that was talking to you this morning, you know—I know him—a good fellow, but eccentric—very—here’s what’s-his-name!”
Kit pledged him.
“He lives in my house,” said Dick; “at least in the house occupied by the firm in which I’m a sort of a—of a managing partner—a difficult fellow to get anything out of, but we like him—we like him.”
“I must be going, sir, if you please,” said Kit, moving away.
“Don’t be in a hurry, Christopher,” replied his patron, “we’ll drink your mother.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“An excellent woman that mother of yours, Christopher,” said Mr. Swiveller. “Who ran to catch me when I fell, and kissed the place to make it well? My mother. A charming woman. He’s a liberal sort of fellow. We must get him to do something for your mother. Does he know her, Christopher?”
Kit shook his head, and glancing slyly at his questioner, thanked him, and made off before he could say another word.
Mr. Swiveller’s new Policy.
“Humph!” said Mr. Swiveller pondering, “this is queer. Nothing but mysteries in connection with Brass’s house. I’ll keep my own counsel, however. Everybody and anybody has been in my confidence as yet, but now I think I’ll set up in business for myself. Queer—very queer!”
After pondering deeply and with a face of exceeding wisdom for some time, Mr. Swiveller drank some more of the beer, and summoning a small boy who had been watching his proceedings, poured forth the few remaining drops as a libation upon the gravel, and bade him carry the empty vessel to the bar with his compliments, and above all things to lead a sober and temperate life, and abstain from all intoxicating and exciting liquors. Having given him this piece of moral advice for his trouble (which, as he wisely observed, was far better than halfpence) the Perpetual Grand Master of the Glorious Apollos thrust his hands into his pockets and sauntered away: still pondering as he went.
All that day, though he waited for Mr. Abel until evening, Kit kept clear of his mother’s house, determined not to anticipate the pleasures of the morrow, but to let them come in their full rush of delight; for to-morrow was the great and long-looked-for epoch in his life—tomorrow was the end of his first quarter—the day of receiving, for the first time, one fourth part of his annual income of Six Pounds in one vast sum of Thirty Shillings—to-morrow was to be a half-holiday devoted to a whirl of entertainments, and little Jacob was to know what oysters meant, and to see a play.
All manner of incidents combined in favour of the occasion: not only had Mr. and Mrs. Garland forewarned him that they intended to make no deduction for his outfit from the great amount, but to pay it him unbroken in all its gigantic grandeur; not only had the unknown gentleman increased the stock by the sum of five shillings, which was a perfect god-send and in itself a fortune; not only had these things come to pass which nobody could have calculated upon, or in their wildest dreams have hoped; but it was Barbara’s quarter too—Barbara’s quarter, that very day—and Barbara had a half-holiday as 244 well as Kit, and Barbara’s mother was going to make one of the party, and to take tea with Kit’s mother, and cultivate her acquaintance.
To be sure Kit looked out of his window very early that morning to see which way the clouds were flying, and to be sure Barbara would have been at hers too, if she had not sat up so late overnight, starching and ironing small pieces of muslin, and crimping them into frills, and sewing them on to other pieces to form magnificent wholes for next day’s wear. But they were both up very early for all that, and had small appetites for breakfast and less for dinner, and were in a state of great excitement when Barbara’s mother came in, with astonishing accounts of the fineness of the weather out of doors (but with a very large umbrella notwithstanding, for people like Barbara’s mother seldom make holiday without one), and when the bell rung for them to go up-stairs and receive their quarter’s money in gold and silver.
Well, wasn’t Mr. Garland kind when he said “Christopher, here’s your money, and you have earned it well;” and wasn’t Mrs. Garland kind when she said “Barbara, here’s yours, and I’m much pleased with you;” and didn’t Kit sign his name bold to his receipt, and didn’t Barbara sign her name all a trembling to hers; and wasn’t it beautiful to see how Mrs. Garland poured out Barbara’s mother a glass of wine; and didn’t Barbara’s mother speak up when she said, “Here’s blessing you, ma’am, as a good lady, and you, sir, as a good gentleman, and Barbara, my love to you, and here’s towards you, Mr. Christopher;” and wasn’t she as long drinking it as if it had been a tumblerful; and didn’t she look genteel, standing there with her gloves on; and wasn’t there plenty of laughing and talking among them as they reviewed all these things upon the top of the coach; and didn’t they pity the people who hadn’t got a holiday?
But Kit’s mother, again—wouldn’t anybody have supposed she had come of a good stock and been a lady all her life? There she was, quite ready to receive them, with a display of tea-things that might have warmed the heart of a china-shop; and little Jacob and the baby in such a state of perfection that their clothes looked as good as new, though Heaven knows they were old enough! Didn’t she say before they had sat down five minutes that Barbara’s mother was exactly the sort of lady she expected, and didn’t Barbara’s mother say that Kit’s mother was the very picture of what she had expected, and didn’t Kit’s mother compliment Barbara’s mother on Barbara, and didn’t Barbara’s mother compliment Kit’s mother on Kit, and wasn’t Barbara herself quite fascinated with little Jacob, and did ever a child show off when he was wanted, as that child did, or make such friends as he made?
“And we are both widows too!” said Barbara’s mother. “We must have been made to know each other.”
“I haven’t a doubt about it,” returned Mrs. Nubbles. “And what a pity it is we didn’t know each other sooner.”245
A Holiday indeed.
“But then, you know, it’s such a pleasure,” said Barbara’s mother, “to have it brought about by one’s son and daughter, that it’s fully made up for. Now, an’t it?”
To this, Kit’s mother yielded her full assent, and tracing things back from effects to causes, they naturally reverted to their deceased husbands, respecting whose lives, deaths, and burials, they compared notes, and discovered sundry circumstances that tallied with wonderful exactness; such as Barbara’s father having been exactly four years and ten months older than Kit’s father, and one of them having died on a Wednesday and the other on a Thursday, and both of them having been of a very fine make and remarkably good-looking, with other extraordinary coincidences. These recollections being of a kind calculated to cast a shadow on the brightness of the holiday, Kit diverted the conversation to general topics, and they were soon in great force again, and as merry as before. Among other things, Kit told them about his old place, and the extraordinary beauty of Nell (of whom he had talked to Barbara a thousand times already); but the last-named circumstance failed to interest his hearers to anything like the extent he had supposed, and even his mother said (looking accidentally at Barbara at the same time) that there was no doubt Miss Nell was very pretty, but she was but a child after all, and there were many young women quite as pretty as she; and Barbara mildly observed that she should think so, and that she never could help believing Mr. Christopher must be under a mistake—which Kit wondered at very much, not being able to conceive what reason she had for doubting him. Barbara’s mother too, observed that it was very common for young folks to change at about fourteen or fifteen, and whereas they had been very pretty before, to grow up quite plain; which truth she illustrated by many forcible examples, especially one of a young man, who, being a builder with great prospects, had been particular in his attentions to Barbara, but whom Barbara would have nothing to say to; which (though everything happened for the best) she almost thought was a pity. Kit said he thought so too, and so he did honestly, and he wondered what made Barbara so silent all at once, and why his mother looked at him as if he shouldn’t have said it.
However, it was high time now to be thinking of the play; for which great preparation was required, in the way of shawls and bonnets, not to mention one handkerchief full of oranges and another of apples, which took some time tying up, in consequence of the fruit having a tendency to roll out at the corners. At length, everything was ready, and they went off very fast; Kit’s mother carrying the baby, who was dreadfully wide awake, and Kit holding little Jacob in one hand, and escorting Barbara with the other—a state of things which occasioned the two mothers, who walked behind, to declare that they looked quite family folks, and caused Barbara to blush and say, “Now don’t, mother!” But Kit said she had no call to mind 246 what they said; and indeed she need not have had, if she had known how very far from Kit’s thoughts any love-making was. Poor Barbara!
At last they got to the theatre, which was Astley’s: and in some two minutes after they had reached the yet unopened door, little Jacob was squeezed flat, and the baby had received divers concussions, and Barbara’s mother’s umbrella had been carried several yards off and passed back to her over the shoulders of the people, and Kit had hit a man on the head with the handkerchief of apples for “scrowdging” his parent with unnecessary violence, and there was a great uproar. But, when they were once past the pay-place and tearing away for very life with their checks in their hands, and, above all, when they were fairly in the theatre, and seated in such places that they couldn’t have had better if they had picked them out, and taken them beforehand, all this was looked upon as quite a capital joke, and an essential part of the entertainment.
Dear, dear, what a place it looked, that Astley’s; with all the paint, gilding, and looking-glass; the vague smell of horses suggestive of coming wonders; the curtain that hid such gorgeous mysteries; the clean white sawdust down in the circus; the company coming in and taking their places; the fiddlers looking carelessly up at them 247 while they tuned their instruments, as if they didn’t want the play to begin, and knew it all beforehand! What a glow was that, which burst upon them all, when that long, clear, brilliant row of lights came slowly up; and what the feverish excitement when the little bell rang and the music began in good earnest, with strong parts for the drums, and sweet effects for the triangles! Well might Barbara’s mother say to Kit’s mother that the gallery was the place to see from, and wonder it wasn’t much dearer than the boxes; well might Barbara feel doubtful whether to laugh or cry, in her flutter of delight.
Astley’s and Oysters.
Then the play itself! the horses which little Jacob believed from the first to be alive, and the ladies and gentlemen of whose reality he could be by no means persuaded, having never seen or heard anything at all like them—the firing, which made Barbara wink—the forlorn lady, who made her cry—the tyrant, who made her tremble—the man who sang the song with the lady’s-maid and danced the chorus, who made her laugh—the pony who reared up on his hind-legs when he saw the murderer, and wouldn’t hear of walking on all fours again until he was taken into custody—the clown who ventured on such familiarities with the military man in boots—the lady who jumped over the nine-and-twenty ribbons and came down safe upon the horse’s back—everything was delightful, splendid, and surprising! Little Jacob applauded till his hands were sore; Kit cried “an-kor” at the end of everything, the three-act piece included; and Barbara’s mother beat her umbrella on the floor, in her ecstasies, until it was nearly worn down to the gingham.
In the midst of all these fascinations, Barbara’s thoughts seemed to have been still running on what Kit had said at tea-time; for, when they were coming out of the play, she asked him, with an hysterical simper, if Miss Nell was as handsome as the lady who jumped over the ribbons.
“As handsome as her?” said Kit. “Double as handsome.”
“Oh Christopher! I’m sure she was the beautifullest creature ever was,” said Barbara.
“Nonsense!” returned Kit. “She was well enough, I don’t deny that; but think how she was dressed and painted, and what a difference that made. Why you are a good deal better-looking than her, Barbara.”
“Oh Christopher!” said Barbara, looking down.
“You are, any day,” said Kit,—“and so’s your mother.”
What was all this though—even all this—to the extraordinary dissipation that ensued, when Kit, walking into an oyster-shop as bold as if he lived there, and not so much as looking at the counter or the man behind it, led his party into a box—a private box fitted up with red curtains, white table-cloth, and cruet-stand complete, and ordered a fierce gentleman with whiskers, who acted as waiter and called him, him Christopher Nubbles, “sir,” to bring three dozen of his 248 largest-sized oysters, and to look sharp about it! Yes, Kit told this gentleman to look sharp, and he not only said he would look sharp, but he actually did, and presently came running back with the newest loaves, and the freshest butter, and the largest oysters, ever seen. Then said Kit to this gentleman, “a pot of beer”—just so—and the gentleman, instead of replying, “Sir, did you address that language to me?” only said, “Pot o’ beer, sir? Yes, sir,” and went off and fetched it, and put it on the table in a small decanter-stand, like those which blind-men’s dogs carry about the streets in their mouths, to catch the halfpence in; and both Kit’s mother and Barbara’s mother declared as he turned away that he was one of the slimmest and gracefullest young men she had ever looked upon.
Then they fell to work upon the supper in earnest; and there was Barbara, that foolish Barbara, declaring that she could not eat more than two, and wanting more pressing than you would believe before she would eat four: though her mother and Kit’s mother made up for it pretty well, and ate and laughed and enjoyed themselves so thoroughly that it did Kit good to see them, and made him laugh and eat likewise from strong sympathy. But the greatest miracle of the night was little Jacob, who ate oysters as if he had been born and bred to the business—sprinkled the pepper and the vinegar with a discretion beyond his years—and afterwards built a grotto on the table with the shells. There was the baby too, who had never closed an eye all night, but had sat as good as gold, trying to force a large orange into his mouth, and gazing intently at the lights in the chandelier—there he was, sitting up in his mother’s lap, staring at the gas without winking, and making indentations in his soft visage with an oyster-shell, to that degree that a heart of iron must have loved him! In short, there never was a more successful supper; and when Kit ordered in a glass of something hot to finish with, and proposed Mr. and Mrs. Garland before sending it round, there were not six happier people in all the world.
But all happiness has an end—hence the chief pleasure of its next beginning—and as it was now growing late, they agreed it was time to turn their faces homewards. So, after going a little out of their way to see Barbara and Barbara’s mother safe to a friend’s house where they were to pass the night, Kit and his mother left them at the door, with an early appointment for returning to Finchley next morning, and a great many plans for next quarter’s enjoyment. Then, Kit took little Jacob on his back, and giving his arm to his mother, and a kiss to the baby, they all trudged merrily home together.249
Full of that vague kind of penitence which holidays awaken next morning, Kit turned out at sunrise, and, with his faith in last night’s enjoyments a little shaken by cool daylight and the return to everyday duties and occupations, went to meet Barbara and her mother at the appointed place. And being careful not to awaken any of the little household, who were yet resting from their unusual fatigues, Kit left his money on the chimney-piece, with an inscription in chalk calling his mother’s attention to the circumstance, and informing her that it came from her dutiful son; and went his way, with a heart something heavier than his pockets, but free from any very great oppression notwithstanding.
Oh these holidays! why will they leave us some regret? why cannot we push them back, only a week or two in our memories, so as to put them at once at that convenient distance whence they may be regarded either with a calm indifference or a pleasant effort of recollection? why will they hang about us, like the flavour of yesterday’s wine, suggestive of headaches and lassitude, and those good intentions for the future, which, under the earth, form the everlasting pavement of a large estate, and, upon it, usually endure until dinner-time or thereabouts?
Who will wonder that Barbara had a headache, or that Barbara’s mother was disposed to be cross, or that she slightly underrated Astley’s, and thought the clown was older than they had taken him to be last night? Kit was not surprised to hear her say so—not he. He had already had a misgiving that the inconstant actors in that dazzling vision had been doing the same thing the night before last, and would do it again that night, and the next, and for weeks and months to come, though he would not be there. Such is the difference between yesterday and to-day. We are all going to the play, or coming home from it.
However, the Sun himself is weak when he first rises, and gathers strength and courage as the day gets on. By degrees, they began to recall circumstances more and more pleasant in their nature, until, what between talking, walking, and laughing, they reached Finchley in such good heart, that Barbara’s mother declared she never felt less tired or in better spirits. And so said Kit. Barbara had been silent all the way, but she said so too. Poor little Barbara! She was very quiet.
They were at home in such good time that Kit had rubbed down the pony and made him as spruce as a racehorse, before Mr. Garland came down to breakfast; which punctual and industrious conduct the old lady, and the old gentleman, and Mr. Abel, highly extolled. At his usual hour (or rather at his usual minute and second, for he was 250 the soul of punctuality) Mr. Abel walked out, to be overtaken by the London coach, and Kit and the old gentleman went to work in the garden.
This was not the least pleasant of Kit’s employments. On a fine day they were quite a family party; the old lady sitting hard by with her work-basket on a little table; the old gentleman digging, or pruning, or clipping about with a large pair of shears, or helping Kit in some way or other with great assiduity; and Whisker looking on from his paddock in placid contemplation of them all. To-day they were to trim the grape-vine, so Kit mounted half-way up a short ladder, and began to snip and hammer away, while the old gentleman, with a great interest in his proceedings, handed up the nails and shreds of cloth as he wanted them. The old lady and Whisker looked on as usual.
“Well, Christopher,” said Mr. Garland, “and so you have made a new friend, eh?”
“I beg your pardon, sir?” returned Kit, looking clown from the ladder.
“You have made a new friend, I hear from Mr. Abel,” said the old gentleman, “at the office!”
“Oh! Yes sir, yes. He behaved very handsome, sir.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” returned the old gentleman with a smile. “He is disposed to behave more handsomely still, though, Christopher.”
“Indeed, sir! It’s very kind in him, but I don’t want him to, I’m sure,” said Kit, hammering stoutly at an obdurate nail.
“He is rather anxious,” pursued the old gentleman, “to have you in his own service—take care what you’re doing, or you will fall down and hurt yourself.”
“To have me in his service, sir?” cried Kit, who had stopped short in his work and faced about on the ladder like some dexterous tumbler. “Why, sir, I don’t think he can be in earnest when he says that.”
“Oh! But he is indeed,” said Mr. Garland. “And he has told Mr. Abel so.”
“I never heard of such a thing!” muttered Kit, looking ruefully at his master and mistress. “I wonder at him; that I do.”
“You see, Christopher,” said Mr. Garland, “this is a point of much importance to you, and you should understand and consider it in that light. This gentleman is able to give you more money than I—not, I hope, to carry through the various relations of master and servant, more kindness and confidence, but certainly, Christopher, to give you more money.”
“Well,” said Kit, “after that, sir——”
“Wait a moment,” interposed Mr. Garland. “That is not all. You were a very faithful servant to your old employers, as I understand, and should this gentleman recover them, as it is his purpose to attempt doing by every means in his power, I have no doubt that you, being in his service, would meet with your reward. Besides,” added the old 251 gentleman with stronger emphasis, “besides having the pleasure of being again brought into communication with those to whom you seem to be very strongly and disinterestedly attached. You must think of all this, Christopher, and not be rash or hasty in your choice.”
Kit did suffer one twinge, one momentary pang, in keeping the resolution he had already formed, when this last argument passed swiftly into his thoughts, and conjured up the realisation of all his hopes and fancies. But it was gone in a minute, and he sturdily rejoined that the gentleman must look out for somebody else, as he did think he might have done at first.
“He has no right to think that I’d be led away to go to him, sir,” said Kit, turning round again after half a minute’s hammering. “Does he think I’m a fool?”
“He may, perhaps, Christopher, if you refuse his offer,” said Mr. Garland gravely.
“Then let him, sir,” retorted Kit; “what do I care, sir, what he thinks? why should I care for his thinking, sir, when I know that I should be a fool, and worse than a fool, sir, to leave the kindest master and mistress that ever was or can be, who took me out of the streets a very poor and hungry lad—indeed poorer and hungrier perhaps than even you think for, sir—to go to him or anybody? If Miss Nell was to come back, ma’am,” added Kit, turning suddenly to his mistress, “why that would be another thing, and perhaps if she wanted me, I might ask you now and then to let me work for her when all was done at home. But when she comes back, I see now that she’ll be rich as old master always said she would, and being a rich young lady, what could she want of me? No, no,” added Kit, shaking his head sorrowfully, “she’ll never want me any more, and bless her, I hope she never may, though I should like to see her too!”
Here Kit drove a nail into the wall, very hard—much harder than was necessary—and having done so, faced about again.
“There’s the pony, sir,” said Kit—“Whisker, ma’am (and he knows so well I’m talking about him that he begins to neigh directly, sir),—would he let anybody come near him but me, ma’am? Here’s the garden, sir, and Mr. Abel, ma’am. Would Mr. Abel part with me, sir, or is there anybody that could be fonder of the garden, ma’am? It would break mother’s heart, sir, and even little Jacob would have sense enough to cry his eyes out, ma’am, if he thought that Mr. Abel could wish to part with me so soon, after having told me, only the other day, that he hoped we might be together for years to come——”
There is no telling how long Kit might have stood upon the ladder, addressing his master and mistress by turns, and generally turning towards the wrong person, if Barbara had not at that moment come running up to say that a messenger from the office had brought a note, which, with an expression of some surprise at Kit’s oratorical appearance, she put into her master’s hand.
“Oh!” said the old gentleman after reading it, “ask the messenger 252 to walk this way.” Barbara tripping off to do as she was bid, he turned to Kit and said that they would not pursue the subject any further, and that Kit could not be more unwilling to part with them, than they would be to part with Kit; a sentiment which the old lady very generously echoed.
“At the same time, Christopher,” added Mr. Garland, glancing at the note in his hand, “if the gentleman should want to borrow you now and then for an hour or so, or even a day or so, at a time, we must consent to lend you, and you must consent to be lent.—Oh! here is the young gentleman. How do you do, sir?”
This salutation was addressed to Mr. Chuckster, who, with his hat extremely on one side, and his hair a long way beyond it, came swaggering up the walk.
“Hope I see you well, sir,” returned that gentleman. “Hope I see you well, ma’am. Charming box this, sir. Delicious country to be sure.”
“You want to take Kit back with you, I find?” observed Mr. Garland.
“I have got a chariot-cab waiting on purpose,” replied the clerk. “A very spanking grey in that cab, sir, if you’re a judge of horse-flesh.”
Declining to inspect the spanking grey, on the plea that he was but poorly acquainted with such matters, and would but imperfectly appreciate his beauties, Mr. Garland invited Mr. Chuckster to partake of a slight repast in the way of lunch. That gentleman readily consenting, certain cold viands, flanked with ale and wine, were speedily prepared for his refreshment.
At this repast, Mr. Chuckster exerted his utmost abilities to enchant his entertainers, and impress them with a conviction of the mental superiority of those who dwelt in town; with which view he led the discourse to the small scandal of the day, in which he was justly considered by his friends to shine prodigiously. Thus, he was in a condition to relate the exact circumstances of the difference between the Marquis of Mizzler and Lord Bobby, which it appeared originated in a disputed bottle of champagne, and not in a pigeon-pie, as erroneously reported in the newspapers; neither had Lord Bobby said to the Marquis of Mizzler, “Mizzler, one of us two tells a lie, and I’m not the man,” as incorrectly stated by the same authorities; but “Mizzler, you know where I’m to be found, and damme, sir, find me if you want me”—which, of course, entirely changed the aspect of this interesting question, and placed it in a very different light. He also acquainted them with the precise amount of the income guaranteed by the Duke of Thigsberry to Violetta Stetta of the Italian Opera, which it appeared was payable quarterly, and not half-yearly, as the public had been given to understand, and which was exclusive, and not inclusive, (as had been monstrously stated,) of jewellery, perfumery, hair-powder for five footmen, and two daily changes of kid-gloves for 253 a page. Having entreated the old lady and gentleman to set their minds at rest on these absorbing points, for they might rely on his statement being the correct one, Mr. Chuckster entertained them with theatrical chit-chat and the court circular; and so wound up a brilliant and fascinating conversation which he had maintained alone, and without any assistance whatever, for upwards of three-quarters of an hour.
Social Qualities of Mr. Chuckster.
“And now that the nag has got his wind again,” said Mr. Chuckster rising in a graceful manner, “I’m afraid I must cut my stick.”
Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Garland offered any opposition to his tearing himself away, (feeling, no doubt, that such a man could ill be spared from his proper sphere of action,) and therefore Mr. Chuckster and Kit were shortly afterwards upon their way to town; Kit being perched upon the box of the cabriolet beside the driver, and Mr. Chuckster seated in solitary state inside, with one of his boots sticking out at each of the front windows.
When they reached the notary’s house, Kit followed into the office, and was desired by Mr. Abel to sit down and wait, for the gentleman who wanted him had gone out, and perhaps might not return for some time. This anticipation was strictly verified, for Kit had had his dinner, and his tea, and had read all the lighter matter in the Law List, and the Post-Office Directory, and had fallen asleep a great many times, before the gentleman whom he had seen before, came in; which he did at last in a very great hurry.
He was closeted with Mr. Witherden for some little time, and Mr. Abel had been called in to assist at the conference, before Kit, wondering very much what he was wanted for, was summoned to attend them.
“Christopher,” said the gentleman, turning to him directly he entered the room, “I have found your old master and young mistress.”
“No, sir! Have you, though?” returned Kit, his eyes sparkling with delight. “Where are they, sir? How are they, sir? Are they—are they near here?”
“A long way from here,” returned the gentleman, shaking his head. “But I am going away to-night to bring them back, and I want you to go with me.”
“Me, sir?” cried Kit, full of joy and surprise.
“The place,” said the strange gentleman, turning thoughtfully to the notary, “indicated by this man of the dogs, is how far from here—sixty miles?”
“From sixty to seventy.”
“Humph! If we travel post all night, we shall reach there in good time to-morrow morning. Now, the only question is, as they will not know me, and the child, God bless her, would think that any stranger pursuing them had a design upon her grandfather’s liberty, can I do better than take this lad, whom they both know and will readily remember, as an assurance to them of my friendly254
“Certainly not,” replied the notary. “Take Christopher by all means.”
“I beg your pardon, sir,” said Kit, who had listened to this discourse with a lengthening countenance, “but if that’s the reason, I’m afraid I should do more harm than good—Miss Nell, sir, she knows me, and would trust in me, I am sure; but old master—I don’t know why, gentlemen; nobody does—would not bear me in his sight after he had been ill, and Miss Nell herself told me that I must not go near him or let him see me any more. I should spoil all that you were doing if I went, I’m afraid. I’d give the world to go, but you had better not take me, sir.”
“Another difficulty!” cried the impetuous gentleman. “Was ever man so beset as I? Is there nobody else that knew them, nobody else in whom they had any confidence? Solitary as their lives were, is there no one person who would serve my purpose?”
“Is there, Christopher?” said the notary.
“Not one, sir,” replied Kit. “Yes, though—there’s my mother.”
“Did they know her?” said the single gentleman.
“Know her, sir! why, she was always coming backwards and forwards. They were as kind to her as they were to me. Bless you, sir, she expected they’d come back to her house.”
“Then where the devil is the woman?” said the impatient gentleman, catching up his hat. “Why isn’t she here? Why is that woman always out of the way when she is most wanted?”
In a word, the single gentleman was bursting out of the office, bent upon laying violent hands on Kit’s mother, forcing her into a post-chaise, and carrying her off, when this novel kind of abduction was with some difficulty prevented by the joint efforts of Mr. Abel and the notary, who restrained him by dint of their remonstrances, and persuaded him to sound Kit upon the probability of her being able and willing to undertake such a journey on so short a notice.
This occasioned some doubts on the part of Kit, and some violent demonstrations on that of the single gentleman, and a great many soothing speeches on that of the notary and Mr. Abel. The upshot of the business was, that Kit, after weighing the matter in his mind and considering it carefully, promised, on behalf of his mother, that she should be ready within two hours from that time to undertake the expedition, and engaged to produce her in that place, in all respects equipped and prepared for the journey, before the specified period had expired.
Having given this pledge, which was rather a bold one, and not particularly easy of redemption, Kit lost no time in sallying forth, and taking measures for its immediate fulfilment.255
Kit made his way through the crowded streets, dividing the stream of people, dashing across the busy roadways, diving into lanes and alleys, and stopping or turning aside for nothing, until he came in front of the Old Curiosity Shop, when he came to a stand; partly from habit and partly from being out of breath.
It was a gloomy autumn evening, and he thought the old place had never looked so dismal as in its dreary twilight. The windows broken, the rusty sashes rattling in their frames, the deserted house a dull barrier dividing the glaring lights and bustle of the street into two long lines, and standing in the midst, cold, dark, and empty,—presented a cheerless spectacle which mingled harshly with the bright prospects the boy had been building up for its late inmates, and came like a disappointment or misfortune. Kit would have had a good fire roaring up the empty chimneys, lights sparkling and shining through the windows, people moving briskly to and fro, voices in cheerful conversation, something in unison with the new hopes that were astir. He had not expected that the house would wear any different aspect—had known indeed that it could not—but coming upon it in the midst of eager thoughts and expectations, it checked the current in its flow, and darkened it with a mournful shadow.
Kit, however, fortunately for himself, was not learned enough or contemplative enough to be troubled with presages of evil afar off, and, having no mental spectacles to assist his vision in this respect, saw nothing but the dull house, which jarred uncomfortably upon his previous thoughts. So, almost wishing that he had not passed it, though hardly knowing why, he hurried on again, making up by his increased speed for the few moments he had lost.
“Now, if she should be out,” thought Kit, as he approached the poor dwelling of his mother, “and I not able to find her, this impatient gentleman would be in a pretty taking. And sure enough there’s no light, and the door’s fast. Now, God forgive me for saying so, but if this is Little Bethel’s doing, I wish little Bethel was—was farther off,” said Kit checking himself, and knocking at the door.
A second knock brought no reply from within the house; but caused a woman over the way to look out and inquire who that was, a wanting Mrs. Nubbles.
“Me,” said Kit. “She’s at—at Little Bethel, I suppose?”—getting out the name of the obnoxious conventicle with some reluctance, and laying a spiteful emphasis upon the words.
The neighbour nodded assent.
“Then pray tell me where it is,” said Kit, “for I have come on a pressing matter, and must fetch her out, even if she was in the pulpit.”
It was not very easy to procure a direction to the fold in question, 256 as none of the neighbours were of the flock that resorted thither, and few knew anything more of it than the name. At last, a gossip of Mrs. Nubbles’s, who had accompanied her to chapel on one or two occasions when a comfortable cup of tea had preceded her devotions, furnished the needful information, which Kit had no sooner obtained than he started off again.
Little Bethel might have been nearer, and might have been in a straighter road, though in that case the reverend gentleman who presided over its congregation would have lost his favourite allusion to the crooked ways by which it was approached, and which enabled him to liken it to Paradise itself, in contradistinction to the parish church and the broad thoroughfare leading thereunto. Kit found it, at last, after some trouble, and pausing at the door to take breath that he might enter with becoming decency, passed into the chapel.
It was not badly named in one respect, being in truth a particularly little Bethel—a Bethel of the smallest dimensions—with a small number of small pews, and a small pulpit, in which a small gentleman (by trade a Shoemaker, and by calling a Divine) was delivering in a by no means small voice, a by no means small sermon, judging of its dimensions by the condition of his audience, which, if their gross amount were but small, comprised a still smaller number of hearers, as the majority were slumbering.
Among these was Kit’s mother, who, finding it matter of extreme difficulty to keep her eyes open after the fatigues of last night, and feeling their inclination to doze strongly backed and seconded by the arguments of the preacher, had yielded to the drowsiness that overpowered her, and fallen asleep; though not so soundly but that she could, from time to time, utter a slight and almost inaudible groan, as if in recognition of the orator’s doctrines. The baby in her arms was as fast asleep as she; and little Jacob, whose youth prevented him from recognising in this prolonged spiritual nourishment anything half as interesting as oysters, was alternately very fast asleep and very wide awake, as his inclination to slumber, or his terror of being personally alluded to in the discourse, gained the mastery over him.
“And now I’m here,” thought Kit, gliding into the nearest empty pew which was opposite his mother’s, and on the other side of the little aisle, “how am I ever to get at her, or persuade her to come out? I might as well be twenty miles off. She’ll never wake till it’s all over, and there goes the clock again! If he would but leave off for a minute, or if they’d only sing——”
But there was little encouragement to believe that either event would happen for a couple of hours to come. The preacher went on telling them what he meant to convince them of before he had done, and it was clear that if he only kept to one-half of his promises and forgot the other, he was good for that time at least.
The Sheep in the Fold.
In his desperation and restlessness Kit cast his eyes about the chapel, and happening to let them fall upon a little seat in front of 257 the clerk’s desk, could scarcely believe them when they showed him Quilp!
He rubbed them twice or thrice, but still they insisted that Quilp was there, and there indeed he was, sitting with his hands upon his knees, and his hat between them on a little wooden bracket, with the accustomed grin on his dirty face, and his eyes fixed upon the ceiling. He certainly did not glance at Kit or at his mother, and appeared utterly unconscious of their presence; still Kit could not help feeling, directly, that the attention of the sly little fiend was fastened upon them, and upon nothing else.
But, astounded as he was by the apparition of the dwarf among the Little Bethelites, and not free from a misgiving that it was the forerunner of some trouble or annoyance, he was compelled to subdue his wonder and to take active measures for the withdrawal of his parent, as the evening was now creeping on, and the matter grew serious. Therefore, the next time little Jacob woke, Kit set himself to attract his wandering attention, and this not being a very difficult task (one sneeze effected it), he signed to him to rouse his mother.
Ill-luck would have it, however, that, just then, the preacher, in a forcible exposition of one head of his discourse, leaned over upon the pulpit-desk so that very little more of him than his legs remained inside; and, while he made vehement gestures with his right-hand, and held on with his left, stared, or seemed to stare, straight into little Jacob’s eyes, threatening him by his strained look and attitude—so it appeared to the child—that if he so much as moved a muscle, he, the preacher, would be literally, and not figuratively, “down upon him” that instant. In this fearful state of things, distracted by the sudden appearance of Kit, and fascinated by the eyes of the preacher, the miserable Jacob sat bolt upright, wholly incapable of motion, strongly disposed to cry but afraid to do so, and returning his pastor’s gaze until his infant eyes seemed starting from their sockets.
“If I must do it openly, I must,” thought Kit. With that he walked softly out of his pew and into his mother’s, and as Mr. Swiveller would have observed if he had been present, “collared” the baby without speaking a word.
“Hush, mother!” whispered Kit. “Come along with me, I’ve got something to tell you.”
“Where am I?” said Mrs. Nubbles.
“In this blessed Little Bethel,” returned her son, peevishly.
“Blessed indeed!” cried Mrs. Nubbles, catching at the word. “Oh, Christopher, how have I been edified this night!”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said Kit hastily, “but come along, mother, everybody’s looking at us. Don’t make a noise—bring Jacob—that’s right!”
“Stay, Satan, stay!” cried the preacher, as Kit was moving off.
“The gentleman says you’re to stay, Christopher,” whispered his mother.258
“Stay, Satan, stay!” roared the preacher again. “Tempt not the woman that doth incline her ear to thee, but hearken to the voice of him that calleth. He hath a lamb from the fold!” cried the preacher, raising his voice still higher and pointing to the baby. “He beareth off a lamb, a precious lamb! He goeth about, like a wolf in the night season, and inveigleth the tender lambs!”
Kit was the best-tempered fellow in the world, but considering this strong language, and being somewhat excited by the circumstances in which he was placed, he faced round to the pulpit with the baby in his arms, and replied aloud,
“No, I don’t. He’s my brother.”
“He’s my brother!” cried the preacher.
“He isn’t,” said Kit indignantly. “How can you say such a thing? And don’t call me names if you please; what harm have I done? I shouldn’t have come to take ’em away, unless I was obliged, you may depend upon that. I wanted to do it very quiet, but you wouldn’t let me. Now, you have the goodness to abuse Satan and them, as much as you like, sir, and to let me alone if you please.”
So saying, Kit marched out of the chapel, followed by his mother and little Jacob, and found himself in the open air, with an indistinct recollection of having seen the people wake up and look surprised, and of Quilp having remained, throughout the interruption, in his old attitude, without moving his eyes from the ceiling, or appearing to take the smallest notice of anything that passed.
“Oh Kit!” said his mother, with her handkerchief to her eyes, “what have you done? I never can go there again—never!”
“I’m glad of it, mother. What was there in the little bit of pleasure you took last night that made it necessary for you to be low-spirited and sorrowful to-night? That’s the way you do. If you’re happy or merry ever, you come here to say, along with that chap, that you’re sorry for it. More shame for you, mother, I was going to say.”
“Hush, dear!” said Mrs. Nubbles; “you don’t mean what you say I know, but you’re talking sinfulness.”
“Don’t mean it? But I do mean it!” retorted Kit. “I don’t believe, mother, that harmless cheerfulness and good-humour are thought greater sins in Heaven than shirt-collars are, and I do believe that those chaps are just about as right and sensible in putting down the one as in leaving off the other—that’s my belief. But I won’t say anything more about it, if you’ll promise not to cry, that’s all; and you take the baby that’s a lighter weight, and give me little Jacob; and as we go along (which we must do pretty quick) I’ll give you the news I bring, which will surprise you a little, I can tell you. There—that’s right. Now you look as if you’d never seen Little Bethel in all your life, as I hope you never will again; and here’s the baby; and little Jacob, you get atop of my back and catch hold of me tight round the neck, and whenever a Little Bethel parson calls you a precious lamb or says your brother’s one, you tell him it’s the truest 259 thing he’s said for a twelvemonth, and that if he’d got a little more of the lamb himself, and less of the mint-sauce—not being quite so sharp and sour over it—I should like him all the better. That’s what you’ve got to say to him, Jacob.”
Mrs. Nubbles starts on a Journey.
Talking on in this way, half in jest and half in earnest, and cheering up his mother, the children, and himself, by the one simple process of determining to be in a good humour, Kit led them briskly forward; and on the road home, he related what had passed at the notary’s house, and the purpose with which he had intruded on the solemnities of Little Bethel.
His mother was not a little startled on learning what service was required of her, and presently fell into a confusion of ideas, of which the most prominent were that it was a great honour and dignity to ride in a post-chaise, and that it was a moral impossibility to leave the children behind. But this objection, and a great many others, founded on certain articles of dress being at the wash, and certain other articles having no existence in the wardrobe of Mrs. Nubbles, were overcome by Kit, who opposed to each and every of them, the pleasure of recovering Nell, and the delight it would be to bring her back in triumph.
“There’s only ten minutes now, mother”—said Kit when they reached home. “There’s a bandbox. Throw in what you want, and we’ll be off directly.”
To tell how Kit then hustled into the box all sorts of things which could, by no remote contingency, be wanted, and how he left out everything likely to be of the smallest use; how a neighbour was persuaded to come and stop with the children, and how the children at first cried dismally, and then laughed heartily on being promised all kinds of impossible and unheard-of toys; how Kit’s mother wouldn’t leave off kissing them, and how Kit couldn’t make up his mind to be vexed with her for doing it; would take more time and room than you and I can spare. So, passing over all such matters, it is sufficient to say that within a few minutes after the two hours had expired, Kit and his mother arrived at the notary’s door, where a post-chaise was already waiting.
“With four horses I declare!” said Kit, quite aghast at the preparations. “Well you are going to do it, mother! Here she is, sir. Here’s my mother. She’s quite ready, sir.”
“That’s well,” returned the gentleman. “Now don’t be in a flutter, ma’am; you’ll be taken great care of. Where’s the box with the new clothing and necessaries for them?”
“Here it is,” said the notary. “In with it, Christopher.”
“All right, sir,” replied Kit. “Quite ready now, sir.”
“Then come along,” said the single gentleman. And thereupon he gave his arm to Kit’s mother, handed her into the carriage as politely as you please, and took his seat beside her.
Up went the steps, bang went the door, round whirled the wheels, 260 and off they rattled, with Kit’s mother hanging out at one window waving a damp pocket-handkerchief and screaming out a great many messages to little Jacob and the baby, of which nobody heard a word.
Kit stood in the middle of the road, and looked after them with tears in his eyes—not brought there by the departure he witnessed, but by the return to which he looked forward. “They went away,” he thought, “on foot with nobody to speak to them or say a kind word at parting, and they’ll come back, drawn by four horses, with this rich gentleman for their friend, and all their troubles over! She’ll forget that she taught me to write——”
Whatever Kit thought about after this, took some time to think of, for he stood gazing up the lines of shining lamps, long after the chaise had disappeared, and did not return into the house until the notary and Mr. Abel, who had themselves lingered outside till the sound of the wheels was no longer distinguishable, had several times wondered what could possibly detain him.261
It behoves us to leave Kit for a while, thoughtful and expectant, and to follow the fortunes of little Nell; resuming the thread of the narrative at the point where it was left, some chapters back.
In one of those wanderings in the evening time, when, following the two sisters at a humble distance, she felt, in her sympathy with them and her recognition in their trials of something akin to her own loneliness of spirit, a comfort and consolation which made such moments a time of deep delight, though the softened pleasure they yielded was of that kind which lives and dies in tears—in one of those wanderings at the quiet hour of twilight, when sky, and earth, and air, and rippling water, and sound of distant bells, claimed kindred with the emotions of the solitary child, and inspired her with soothing thoughts, but not of a child’s world or its easy joys—in one of those rambles which had now become her only pleasure or relief from care, light had faded into darkness and evening deepened into night, and still the young creature lingered in the gloom; feeling a companionship in Nature so serene and still, when noise of tongues and glare of garish lights would have been solitude indeed.
The sisters had gone home, and she was alone. She raised her eyes to the bright stars, looking down so mildly from the wide worlds of air, and, gazing on them, found new stars burst upon her view, and more beyond, and more beyond again, until the whole great expanse sparkled with shining spheres, rising higher and higher in immeasurable space, eternal in their numbers as in their changeless and incorruptible existence. She bent over the calm river, and saw them shining in the same majestic order as when the dove beheld them gleaming through the swollen waters, upon the mountain-tops down far below, and dead mankind, a million fathoms deep.
The child sat silently beneath a tree, hushed in her very breath by the stillness of the night, and all its attendant wonders. The time and place awoke reflection, and she thought with a quiet hope—less hope, perhaps, than resignation—on the past, and present, and what was yet before her. Between the old man and herself there had come a gradual separation, harder to bear than any former sorrow. Every evening, and often in the day-time too, he was absent, alone; and although she well knew where he went, and why—too well from the constant drain upon her scanty purse and from his haggard looks—he evaded all inquiry, maintained a strict reserve, and even shunned her presence.
She sat meditating sorrowfully upon this change, and mingling it, as it were, with everything about her, when the distant church-clock bell struck nine. Rising at the sound, she retraced her steps, and turned thoughtfully towards the town.262
She had gained a little wooden bridge, which, thrown across the stream, led into a meadow in her way, when she came suddenly upon a ruddy light, and looking forward more attentively, discerned that it proceeded from what appeared to be an encampment of gipsies, who had made a fire in one corner at no great distance from the path, and were sitting or lying round it. As she was too poor to have any fear of them, she did not alter her course, (which, indeed, she could not have done without going a long way round,) but quickened her pace a little, and kept straight on.
A movement of timid curiosity impelled her, when she approached the spot, to glance towards the fire. There was a form between it and her, the outline strongly developed against the light, which caused her to stop abruptly. Then, as if she had reasoned with herself and were assured that it could not be, or had satisfied herself that it was not that of the person she had supposed, she went on again.
But at that instant the conversation, whatever it was, which had been carrying on near this fire was resumed, and the tones of the voice that spoke—she could not distinguish words—sounded as familiar to her as her own.
She turned, and looked back. The person had been seated before, but was now in a standing posture, and leaning forward on a stick on which he rested both hands. The attitude was no less familiar to her than the tone of voice had been. It was her grandfather.
Her first impulse was to call to him; her next to wonder who his associates could be, and for what purpose they were together. Some vague apprehension succeeded, and, yielding to the strong inclination it awakened, she drew nearer to the place; not advancing across the open field, however, but creeping towards it by the hedge.
In this way she advanced within a few feet of the fire, and standing among a few young trees, could both see and hear, without much danger of being observed.
There were no women or children, as she had seen in other gipsy camps they had passed in their wayfaring, and but one gipsy—a tall athletic man, who stood with his arms folded, leaning against a tree at a little distance off, looking now at the fire, and now, under his black eyelashes, at three other men who were there, with a watchful but half-concealed interest in their conversation. Of these, her grandfather was one; the others she recognised as the first card-players at the public-house on the eventful night of the storm—the man whom they had called Isaac List, and his gruff companion. One of the low, arched gipsy-tents, common to that people, was pitched hard by, but it either was, or appeared to be, empty.
“Well, are you going?” said the stout man, looking up from the ground where he was lying at his ease, into her grandfather’s face. “You were in a mighty hurry a minute ago. Go, if you like. You’re your own master, I hope?”263
The Old Man and the Card-sharpers.
“Don’t vex him,” returned Isaac List, who was squatting like a frog on the other side of the fire, and had so screwed himself up that he seemed to be squinting all over; “he didn’t mean any offence.”
“You keep me poor, and plunder me, and make a sport and jest of me besides,” said the old man, turning from one to the other. “Ye’ll drive me mad among ye.”
The utter irresolution and feebleness of the grey-haired child, contrasted with the keen and cunning looks of those in whose hands he was, smote upon the little listener’s heart. But she constrained herself to attend to all that passed, and to note each look and word.
“Confound you, what do you mean?” said the stout man rising a little, and supporting himself on his elbow. “Keep you poor! You’d keep us poor if you could, wouldn’t you? That’s the way with you whining, puny, pitiful players. When you lose, you’re martyrs; but I don’t find that when you win, you look upon the other losers in that light. As to plunder!” cried the fellow, raising his voice—“Damme, what do you mean by such ungentlemanly language as plunder, eh?”264
The speaker laid himself down again at full length, and gave one or two short, angry kicks, as if in further expression of his unbounded indignation. It was quite plain that he acted the bully, and his friend the peacemaker, for some particular purpose; or rather, it would have been to anyone but the weak old man; for they exchanged glances quite openly, both with each other and with the gipsy, who grinned his approval of the jest until his white teeth shone again.
The old man stood helplessly among them for a little time, and then said, turning to his assailant—
“You yourself were speaking of plunder just now, you know. Don’t be so violent with me. You were, were you not?”
“Not of plundering among present company! Honour among—among gentlemen, sir,” returned the other, who seemed to have been very near giving an awkward termination to the sentence.
“Don’t be hard upon him, Jowl,” said Isaac List. “He’s very sorry for giving offence. There—go on with what you were saying—go on.”
“I’m a jolly old tender-hearted lamb, I am,” cried Mr. Jowl, “to be sitting here at my time of life giving advice when I know it won’t be taken, and that I shall get nothing but abuse for my pains. But that’s the way I’ve gone through life. Experience has never put a chill upon my warm-heartedness.”
“I tell you he’s very sorry, don’t I?” remonstrated Isaac List, “and that he wishes you’d go on.”
“Does he wish it?” said the other.
“Ay,” groaned the old man sitting down, and rocking himself to and fro. “Go on, go on. It’s in vain to fight with it; I can’t do it; go on.”
“I go on then,” said Jowl, “where I left off, when you got up so quick. If you’re persuaded that it’s time for luck to turn, as it certainly is, and find that you haven’t means enough to try it, (and that’s where it is, for you know, yourself, that you never have the funds to keep on long enough at a sitting,) help yourself to what seems put in your way on purpose. Borrow it, I say, and, when you’re able, pay it back again.”
“Certainly,” Isaac List struck in, “if this good lady as keeps the wax-works has money, and does keep it in a tin box when she goes to bed, and doesn’t lock her door for fear of fire, it seems a easy thing; quite a Providence, I should call it—but then I’ve been religiously brought up.”
“You see, Isaac,” said his friend, growing more eager, and drawing himself closer to the old man, while he signed to the gipsy not to come between them; “you see, Isaac, strangers are going in and out every hour of the day; nothing would be more likely than for one of these strangers to get under the good lady’s bed, or lock himself in the cupboard; suspicion would be very wide, and would fall a long way from the mark, no doubt. I’d give him his revenge to the last farthing he brought, whatever the amount was.”265
The Old Temptation and New Tempters.
“But could you?” urged Isaac List. “Is your bank strong enough?”
“Strong enough!” answered the other, with assumed disdain. “Here, you sir, give me that box out of the straw!”
This was addressed to the gipsy, who crawled into the low tent on all fours, and after some rummaging and rustling returned with a cash-box, which the man who had spoken opened with a key he wore about his person.
“Do you see this?” he said, gathering up the money in his hand and letting it drop back into the box, between his fingers, like water. “Do you hear it? Do you know the sound of gold? There, put it back—and don’t talk about banks again, Isaac, till you’ve got one of your own.”
Isaac List, with great apparent humility, protested that he had never doubted the credit of a gentleman so notorious for his honourable dealing as Mr. Jowl, and that he had hinted at the production of the box, not for the satisfaction of his doubts, for he could have none, but with a view to being regaled with the sight of so much wealth, which, though it might be deemed by some but an unsubstantial and visionary pleasure, was to one in his circumstances a source of extreme delight, only to be surpassed by its safe depository in his own personal pockets. Although Mr. List and Mr. Jowl addressed themselves to each other, it was remarkable that they both looked narrowly at the old man, who, with his eyes fixed upon the fire, sat brooding over it, yet listening eagerly—as it seemed from a certain involuntary motion of the head, or twitching of the face from time to time—to all they said.
“My advice,” said Jowl, lying down again with a careless air, “is plain—I have given it, in fact. I act as a friend. Why should I help a man to the means perhaps of winning all I have, unless I considered him my friend? It’s foolish, I dare say, to be so thoughtful of the welfare of other people, but that’s my constitution, and I can’t help it; so don’t blame me, Isaac List.”
“I blame you!” returned the person addressed; “not for the world, Mr. Jowl. I wish I could afford to be as liberal as you; and, as you say, he might pay it back if he won—and if he lost——”
“You’re not to take that into consideration at all,” said Jowl. “But suppose he did, (and nothing’s less likely, from all I know of chances,) why, it’s better to lose other people’s money than one’s own, I hope?”
“Ah!” cried Isaac List rapturously, “the pleasures of winning! The delight of picking up the money—the bright, shining yellow-boys—and sweeping ’em into one’s pocket! The deliciousness of having a triumph at last, and thinking that one didn’t stop short and turn back, but went half-way to meet it! The—— But you’re not going, old gentleman?”
“I’ll do it,” said the old man, who had risen and taken two or three 266 hurried steps away, and now returned as hurriedly. “I’ll have it, every penny.”
“Why, that’s brave,” cried Isaac, jumping up and slapping him on the shoulder; “and I respect you for having so much young blood left. Ha, ha, ha! Joe Jowl’s half sorry he advised you now. We’ve got the laugh against him. Ha, ha, ha!”
“He gives me my revenge, mind,” said the old man, pointing to him eagerly with his shrivelled hand: “mind—he stakes coin against coin, down to the last one in the box, be there many or few. Remember that!”
“I’m witness,” returned Isaac. “I’ll see fair between you.”
“I have passed my word,” said Jowl with feigned reluctance, “and I’ll keep it. When does this match come off? I wish it was over.—To-night?”
“I must have the money first,” said the old man; “and that I’ll have to-morrow——”
“Why not to-night?” urged Jowl.
“It’s late now, and I should be flushed and flurried,” said the old man. “It must be softly done. No, to-morrow night.”
“Then to-morrow be it,” said Jowl. “A drop of comfort here. Luck to the best man. Fill!”
The gipsy produced three tin cups, and filled them to the brim with brandy. The old man turned aside and muttered to himself before he drank. Her own name struck upon the listener’s ear, coupled with some wish so fervent, that he seemed to breathe it in an agony of supplication.
“God be merciful to us!” cried the child within herself, “and help us in this trying hour! What shall I do to save him?”
The remainder of their conversation was carried on in a lower tone of voice, and was sufficiently concise; relating merely to the execution of the project, and the best precautions for diverting suspicion. The old man then shook hands with his tempters, and withdrew.
They watched his bowed and stooping figure as it retreated slowly, and when he turned his head to look back, which he often did, waved their hands, or shouted some brief encouragement. It was not until they had seen him gradually diminish into a mere speck upon the distant road, that they turned to each other, and ventured to laugh aloud.
“So,” said Jowl, warming his hands at the fire, “it’s done at last. He wanted more persuading than I expected. It’s three weeks ago, since we first put this in his head. What’ll he bring, do you think?”
“Whatever he brings, it’s halved between us,” returned Isaac List.
The other man nodded. “We must make quick work of it,” he said, “and then cut his acquaintance, or we may be suspected. Sharp’s the word.”
Flight from a horrible Dream.
List and the gipsy acquiesced. When they had all three amused themselves a little with their victim’s infatuation, they dismissed the 267 subject as one which had been sufficiently discussed, and began to talk in a jargon which the child did not understand. As their discourse appeared to relate to matters in which they were warmly interested, however, she deemed it the best time for escaping unobserved; and crept away with slow and cautious steps, keeping in the shadow of the hedges, or forcing a path through them or the dry ditches, until she could emerge upon the road at a point beyond their range of vision. Then she fled homeward as quickly as she could, torn and bleeding from the wounds of thorns and briars, but more lacerated in mind, and threw herself upon her bed, distracted.
The first idea that flashed upon her mind was flight, instant flight; dragging him from that place, and rather dying of want upon the roadside, than ever exposing him again, to such terrible temptations. Then, she remembered that the crime was not to be committed until next night, and there was the intermediate time for thinking, and resolving what to do. Then, she was distracted with a horrible fear that he might be committing it at that moment; with a dread of hearing shrieks and cries piercing the silence of the night; with fearful thoughts of what he might be tempted and led on to do, if he were detected in the act, and had but a woman to struggle with. It was impossible to bear such torture. She stole to the room where the money was, opened the door, and looked in. God be praised! He was not there, and she was sleeping soundly.
She went back to her own room, and tried to prepare herself for bed. But who could sleep—sleep! who could lie passively down, distracted by such terrors? They came upon her more and more strongly yet. Half undressed, and with her hair in wild disorder, she flew to the old man’s bedside, clasped him by the wrist, and roused him from his sleep.
“What’s this?” he cried, starting up, in bed, and fixing his eyes upon her spectral face.
“I have had a dreadful dream,” said the child, with an energy that nothing but such terrors could have inspired. “A dreadful, horrible dream. I have had it once before. It is a dream of grey-haired men like you, in darkened rooms by night, robbing sleepers of their gold. Up, up!” The old man shook in every joint, and folded his hands like one who prays.
“Not to me,” said the child, “not to me—to Heaven, to save us from such deeds! This dream is too real. I cannot sleep, I cannot stay here, I cannot leave you alone under the roof where such dreams come. Up! We must fly.”
He looked at her as if she were a spirit—she might have been for all the look of earth she had—and trembled more and more.
“There is no time to lose; I will not lose one minute,” said the child. “Up! and away with me!”
“To-night?” murmured the old man.
“Yes, to-night,” replied the child. “To-morrow night will be too 268 late. The dream will have come again. Nothing but flight can save us. Up!”
The old man rose from his bed: his forehead bedewed with the cold sweat of fear: and, bending before the child as if she had been an angel messenger, sent to lead him where she would, made ready to follow her. She took him by the hand and led him on. As they passed the door of the room he had proposed to rob, she shuddered and looked up into his face. What a white face was that, and with what a look did he meet hers!
She took him to her own chamber, and, still holding him by the hand as if she feared to lose him for an instant, gathered together the little stock she had, and hung her basket on her arm. The old man took his wallet from her hands and strapped it on his shoulders—his staff, too, she had brought away—and then she led him forth.
Through the strait streets, and narrow crooked outskirts, their trembling feet passed quickly. Up the steep hill too, crowned by the old grey castle, they toiled with rapid steps, and had not once looked behind.
But as they drew nearer the ruined walls, the moon rose in all her gentle glory, and, from their venerable age, garlanded with ivy, moss, and waving grass, the child looked back upon the sleeping town, deep in the valley’s shade: and on the far-off river with its winding track of light: and on the distant hills; and as she did so, she clasped the hand she held, less firmly, and bursting into tears, fell upon the old man’s neck.
Her momentary weakness past, the child again summoned the resolution which had until now sustained her, and, endeavouring to keep steadily in her view the one idea that they were flying from disgrace and crime, and that her grandfather’s preservation must depend solely on her firmness, unaided by one word of advice or any helping hand, urged him onward, and looked back no more.
While he, subdued and abashed, seemed to crouch before her, and to shrink and cower down, as if in the presence of some superior creature, the child herself was sensible of a new feeling within her, which elevated her nature, and inspired her with an energy and confidence she had never known. There was no divided responsibility now; the whole burden of their two lives had fallen upon her, and henceforth she must think and act for both. “I have saved him,” she thought. “In all dangers and distresses, I will remember that.”
The Pilgrimage renewed.
At any other time, the recollection of having deserted the friend 269 who had shown them so much homely kindness, without a word of justification—the thought that they were guilty, in appearance, of treachery and ingratitude—even the having parted from the two sisters—would have filled her with sorrow and regret. But now, all other considerations were lost in the new uncertainties and anxieties of their wild and wandering life; and the very desperation of their condition roused and stimulated her.
In the pale moonlight, which lent a wanness of its own to the delicate face where thoughtful care already mingled with the winning grace and loveliness of youth, the too bright eye, the spiritual head, the lips that pressed each other with such high resolve and courage of the heart, the slight figure firm in its bearing and yet so very weak, told their silent tale; but told it only to the wind that rustled by, which, taking up its burden, carried, perhaps to some mother’s pillow, faint dreams of childhood fading in its bloom, and resting in the sleep that knows no waking.
The night crept on apace, the moon went down, the stars grew pale and dim, and morning, cold as they, slowly approached. Then, from behind a distant hill, the noble sun rose up, driving the mists in phantom shapes before it, and clearing the earth of their ghostly forms till darkness came again. When it had climbed higher into the sky, and there was warmth in its cheerful beams, they laid them down to sleep, upon a bank, hard by some water.
But Nell retained her grasp upon the old man’s arm, and long after he was slumbering soundly, watched him with untiring eyes. Fatigue stole over her at last; her grasp relaxed, tightened, relaxed again, and they slept side by side.
A confused sound of voices, mingling with her dreams, awoke her. A man of very uncouth and rough appearance was standing over them, and two of his companions were looking on, from a long heavy boat which had come close to the bank while they were sleeping. The boat had neither oar nor sail, but was towed by a couple of horses, who, with the rope to which they were harnessed slack and dripping in the water, were resting on the path.
“Holloa!” said the man roughly. “What’s the matter here?”
“We were only asleep, sir,” said Nell. “We have been walking all night.”
“A pair of queer travellers to be walking all night,” observed the man who had first accosted “One of you is a trifle too old for that sort of work, and the other a trifle too young. Where are you going?”
Nell faltered, and pointed at hazard towards the West, upon which the man inquired if she meant a certain town which he named. Nell, to avoid more questioning, said “Yes, that was the place.”
“Where have you come from?” was the next question; and this being an easier one to answer, Nell mentioned the name of the village in which their friend the schoolmaster dwelt, as being less likely to be known to the men or to provoke further inquiry.270
“I thought somebody had been robbing and ill-using you, might be,” said the man. “That’s all. Good-day.”
Returning his salute and feeling greatly relieved by his departure, Nell looked after him as he mounted one of the horses, and the boat went on. It had not gone very far, when it stopped again, and she saw the men beckoning to her.
“Did you call to me?” said Nell, running up to them.
“You may go with us if you like,” replied one of those in the boat. “We’re going to the same place.”
The child hesitated for a moment. Thinking, as she had thought with great trepidation more than once before, that the men whom she had seen with her grandfather might, perhaps, in their eagerness for the booty, follow them, and, regaining their influence over him, set hers at nought; and that if they went with these men, all traces of them must surely be lost at that spot; determined to accept the offer. The boat came close to the bank again, and before she had had any more time for consideration, she and her grandfather were on board, and gliding smoothly down the canal.
The sun shone pleasantly on the bright water, which was sometimes shaded by trees, and sometimes open to a wide extent of country, intersected by running streams, and rich with wooded hills, cultivated land, and sheltered farms. Now and then, a village with its modest spire, thatched roofs, and gable-ends, would peep out from among the trees; and, more than once, a distant town, with great church-towers looming through its smoke, and high factories or workshops rising above the mass of houses, would come in view, and, by the length of time it lingered in the distance, show them how slowly they travelled. Their way lay, for the most part, through the low grounds, and open plains; and except these distant places, and occasionally some men working in the fields, or lounging on the bridges under which they passed, to see them creep along, nothing encroached on their monotonous and secluded track.
Nell was rather disheartened, when they stopped at a kind of wharf late in the afternoon, to learn from one of the men that they would not reach their place of destination until next day, and that, if she had no provision with her, she had better buy it there. She had but a few pence, having already bargained with them for some bread, but even of these it was necessary to be very careful, as they were on their way to an utterly strange place, with no resource whatever. A small loaf and a morsel of cheese, therefore, were all she could afford, and with these she took her place in the boat again, and, after half an hour’s delay during which the men were drinking at the public-house, proceeded on the journey.
Flight by Water.
They brought some beer and spirits into the boat with them, and what with drinking freely before, and again now, were soon in a fair way of being quarrelsome and intoxicated. Avoiding the small cabin, therefore, which was very dark and filthy, and to which they often 271 invited both her and her grandfather, Nell sat in the open air with the old man by her side: listening to their boisterous hosts with a palpitating heart, and almost wishing herself safe on shore again though she should have to walk all night.
They were, in truth, very rugged, noisy fellows, and quite brutal among themselves, though civil enough to their two passengers. Thus, when a quarrel arose between the man who was steering and his friend in the cabin, upon the question who had first suggested the propriety of offering Nell some beer, and when the quarrel led to a scuffle in which they beat each other fearfully, to her inexpressible terror, neither visited his displeasure upon her, but each contented himself with venting it on his adversary, on whom, in addition to blows, he bestowed a variety of compliments, which, happily for the child, were conveyed in terms, to her quite unintelligible. The difference was finally adjusted, by the man who had come out of the cabin knocking the other into it head first, and taking the helm into his own hands, without evincing the least discomposure himself, or causing any in his friend, who, being of a tolerably strong constitution and perfectly inured to such trifles, went to sleep as he was, with his heels upwards, and in a couple of minutes or so was snoring comfortably.
By this time it was night again, and though the child felt cold, being but poorly clad, her anxious thoughts were far removed from her own suffering or uneasiness, and busily engaged in endeavouring to devise some scheme for their joint subsistence. The same spirit which had supported her on the previous night, upheld and sustained her now. Her grandfather lay sleeping safely at her side, and the crime to which his madness urged him, was not committed. That was her comfort.
How every circumstance of her short, eventful life, came thronging into her mind, as they travelled on! Slight incidents, never thought of or remembered until now; faces, seen once and ever since forgotten; words, scarcely heeded at the time; scenes, of a year ago and those of yesterday, mixing up and linking themselves together; familiar places shaping themselves out in the darkness from things which, when approached, were, of all others, the most remote and most unlike them; sometimes, a strange confusion in her mind relative to the occasion of her being there, and the place to which she was going, and the people she was with; and imagination suggesting remarks and questions which sounded so plainly in her ears, that she would start, and turn, and be almost tempted to reply;—all the fancies and contradictions common in watching and excitement and restless change of place, beset the child.
She happened, while she was thus engaged, to encounter the face of the man on deck, in whom the sentimental stage of drunkenness had now succeeded to the boisterous, and who, taking from his mouth a short pipe, quilted over with string for its longer preservation, requested that she would oblige him with a song.272
“You’ve got a very pretty voice, a very soft eye, and a very strong memory,” said this gentleman; “the voice and eye I’ve got evidence for, and the memory’s an opinion of my own. And I’m never wrong. Let me hear a song this minute.”
“I don’t think I know one, sir,” returned Nell.
“You know forty-seven songs,” said the man, with a gravity which admitted of no altercation on the subject. “Forty-seven’s your number. Let me hear one of ’em—the best. Give me a song this minute.”
Not knowing what might be the consequences of irritating her friend, and trembling with the fear of doing so, poor Nell sang him some little ditty which she had learned in happier times, and which was so agreeable to his ear, that on its conclusion he in the same peremptory manner requested to be favoured with another, to which he was so obliging as to roar a chorus to no particular tune, and with no words at all, but which amply made up in its amazing energy for its deficiency in other respects. The noise of this vocal performance awakened the other man, who, staggering upon deck and shaking his late opponent by the hand, swore that singing was his pride and joy and chief delight, and that he desired no better entertainment. With a third call, more imperative than either of the two former, Nell felt obliged to comply, and this time a chorus was maintained not only by the two men together, but also by the third man on horseback, who being by his position debarred from a nearer participation in the revels of the night, roared when his companions roared, and rent the very air. In this way, with little cessation, and singing the same songs again and again, the tired and exhausted child kept them in good-humour all that night; and many a cottager, who was roused from his soundest sleep by the discordant chorus as it floated away upon the wind, hid his head beneath the bed-clothes and trembled at the sounds.
At length the morning dawned. It was no sooner light than it began to rain heavily. As the child could not endure the intolerable vapours of the cabin, they covered her, in return for her exertions, with some pieces of sail-cloth and ends of tarpaulin, which sufficed to keep her tolerably dry and to shelter her grandfather besides. As the day advanced the rain increased. At noon it poured down more hopelessly and heavily than ever, without the faintest promise of abatement.
They had, for some time, been gradually approaching the place for which they were bound. The water had become thicker and dirtier; other barges, coming from it, passed them frequently; the paths of coal-ash and huts of staring brick, marked the vicinity of some great manufacturing town; while scattered streets and houses, and smoke from distant furnaces, indicated that they were already in the outskirts. Now, the clustered roofs, and piles of buildings, trembling with the working of engines, and dimly resounding with their shrieks and 273 throbbings; the tall chimneys vomiting forth a black vapour, which hung in a dense ill-favoured cloud above the house-tops and filled the air with gloom; the clank of hammers beating upon iron, the roar of busy streets and noisy crowds, gradually augmenting until all the various sounds blended into one and none was distinguishable for itself, announced the termination of their journey.
The boat floated into the wharf to which it belonged. The men were occupied directly. The child and her grandfather, after waiting in vain to thank them, or ask them whither they should go, passed through a dirty lane into a crowded street, and stood, amid its din and tumult, and in the pouring rain, as strange, bewildered, and confused, as if they had lived a thousand years before, and were raised from the dead and placed there by a miracle.
In the Busy Town.
The throng of people hurried by, in two opposite streams, with no symptom of cessation or exhaustion; intent upon their own affairs; and undisturbed in their business speculations, by the roar of carts and waggons laden with clashing wares, the slipping of horses’ feet upon the wet and greasy pavement, the rattling of the rain on windows and umbrella-tops, the jostling of the more impatient passengers, and all the noise and tumult of a crowded street in the high tide of its occupation: while the two poor strangers, stunned and bewildered by the hurry they beheld but had no part in, looked mournfully on; feeling, amidst the crowd, a solitude which has no parallel but in the thirst of the shipwrecked mariner, who, tossed to and fro upon the billows of a mighty ocean, his red eyes blinded by looking on the water which hems him in on every side, has not one drop to cool his burning tongue.
They withdrew into a low archway for shelter from the rain, and watched the faces of those who passed, to find in one among them a ray of encouragement or hope. Some frowned, some smiled, some muttered to themselves, some made slight gestures, as if anticipating the conversation in which they would shortly be engaged, some wore the cunning look of bargaining and plotting, some were anxious and eager, some slow and dull; in some countenances, were written gain; in others, loss. It was like being in the confidence of all these people to stand quietly there, looking into their faces as they flitted past. In busy places, where each man has an object of his own, and feels assured that every other man has his, his character and purpose are written broadly on his face. In the public walks and lounges of a town, people go to see and to be seen, and there the same expression, with little variety, is repeated a hundred times. The working-day faces come nearer to the truth, and let it out more plainly.274
Falling into that kind of abstraction which such a solitude awakens, the child continued to gaze upon the passing crowd with a wondering interest, amounting almost to a temporary forgetfulness of her own condition. But cold, wet, hunger, want of rest, and lack of any place in which to lay her aching head, soon brought her thoughts back to the point whence they had strayed. No one passed who seemed to notice them, or to whom she durst appeal. After some time, they left their place of refuge from the weather, and mingled with the concourse.
Evening came on. They were still wandering up and down, with fewer people about them, but with the same sense of solitude in their own breasts, and the same indifference from all around. The lights in the streets and shops made them feel yet more desolate, for with their help, night and darkness seemed to come on faster. Shivering with the cold and damp, ill in body, and sick to death at heart, the child needed her utmost firmness and resolution even to creep along.
Why had they ever come to this noisy town, when there were peaceful country places, in which, at least, they might have hungered and thirsted, with less suffering than in its squalid strife! They were but an atom, here, in a mountain heap of misery, the very sight of which increased their hopelessness and suffering.
The child had not only to endure the accumulated hardships of their destitute condition, but to bear the reproaches of her grandfather, who began to murmur at having been led away from their late abode, and demand that they should return to it. Being now penniless, and no relief or prospect of relief appearing, they retraced their steps through the deserted streets, and went back to the wharf, hoping to find the boat in which they had come, and to be allowed to sleep on board that night. But here again they were disappointed, for the gate was closed, and some fierce dogs, barking at their approach, obliged them to retreat.
“We must sleep in the open air to-night, dear,” said the child in a weak voice, as they turned away from this last repulse; “and tomorrow we will beg our way to some quiet part of the country, and try to earn our bread in very humble work.”
“Why did you bring me here?” returned the old man fiercely. “I cannot bear these close eternal streets. We came from a quiet part. Why did you force me to leave it?”
“Because I must have that dream I told you of, no more,” said the child, with a momentary firmness that lost itself in tears; “and we must live among poor people, or it will come again. Dear grandfather, you are old and weak, I know; but look at me. I never will complain if you will not, but I have some suffering indeed.”
“Ah! poor, houseless, wandering, motherless child!” cried the old man, clasping his hands and gazing as if for the first time upon her anxious face, her travel-stained dress, and bruised and swollen feet; “has all my agony of care brought her to this at last! Was I a happy man once, and have I lost happiness and all I had, for this?”275
Flight by Land.
“If we were in the country now,” said the child, with assumed cheerfulness, as they walked on looking about them for a shelter, “we should find some good old tree, stretching out his green arms as if he loved us, and nodding and rustling as if he would have us fall asleep, thinking of him while he watched. Please God, we shall be there soon—to-morrow or next day at the farthest—and in the meantime let us think, dear, that it was a good thing we came here; for we are lost in the crowd and hurry of this place, and if any cruel people should pursue us, they could surely never trace us further. There’s comfort in that. And here’s a deep old doorway—very dark, but quite dry, and warm too, for the wind don’t blow in here—What’s that?”
Uttering a half-shriek, she recoiled from a black figure which came suddenly out of the dark recess in which they were about to take refuge, and stood still, looking at them.
“Speak again,” it said; “do I know the voice?”
“No,” replied the child timidly; “we are strangers, and having no money for a night’s lodging, were going to rest here.”
There was a feeble lamp at no great distance; the only one in the place, which was a kind of square yard, but sufficient to show how poor and mean it was. To this, the figure beckoned them; at the same time drawing within its rays, as if to show that it had no desire to conceal itself or take them at an advantage.
The form was that of a man, miserably clad and begrimed with smoke, which, perhaps by its contrast with the natural colour of his skin, made him look paler than he really was. That he was naturally of a very wan and pallid aspect, however, his hollow cheeks, sharp features, and sunken eyes, no less than a certain look of patient endurance, sufficiently testified. His voice was harsh by nature, but not brutal; and though his face, besides possessing the characteristics already mentioned, was overshadowed by a quantity of long dark hair, its expression was neither ferocious nor bad.
“How came you to think of resting there?” he said. “Or how,” he added, looking more attentively at the child, “do you come to want a place of rest at this time of night?”
“Our misfortunes,” the grandfather answered, “are the cause.”
“Do you know,” said the man, looking still more earnestly at Nell, “how wet she is, and that the damp streets are not a place for her?”
“I know it well, God help me,” he replied. “What can I do?”
The man looked at Nell again, and gently touched her garments, from which the rain was running off in little streams. “I can give you warmth,” he said, after a pause; “nothing else. Such lodging as I have, is in that house,” pointing to the doorway from which he had emerged, “but she is safer and better there than here. The fire is in a rough place, but you can pass the night beside it safely, if you’ll trust yourselves to me. You see that red light yonder?”276
They raised their eyes, and saw a lurid glare hanging in the dark sky; the dull reflection of some distant fire.
“It’s not far,” said the man. “Shall I take you there? You were going to sleep upon cold bricks; I can give you a bed of warm ashes—nothing better.”
Without waiting for any further reply than he saw in their looks, he took Nell in his arms, and bade the old man follow.
Carrying her as tenderly, and as easily too, as if she had been an infant, and showing himself both swift and sure of foot, he led the way through what appeared to be the poorest and most wretched quarter of the town; and turning aside to avoid the overflowing kennels or running waterspouts, but holding his course, regardless of such obstructions, and making his way straight through them. They had proceeded thus, in silence, for some quarter of an hour, and had lost sight of the glare to which he had pointed, in the dark and narrow ways by which they had come, when it suddenly burst upon them again, streaming up from the high chimney of a building close before them.
“This is the place,” he said, pausing at a door to put Nell down and take her hand. “Don’t be afraid. There’s nobody here will harm you.”
It needed a strong confidence in this assurance to induce them to enter, and what they saw inside did not diminish their apprehension and alarm. In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard elsewhere; in this gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any one of which must have crushed some workman’s skull, a number of men laboured like giants. Others, reposing upon heaps of coals or ashes, with their faces turned to the black vault above, slept or rested from their toil. Others again, opening the white-hot furnace-doors, cast fuel on the flames, which came rushing and roaring forth to meet it, and licked it up like oil. Others drew forth, with clashing noise, upon the ground, great sheets of glowing steel, emitting an insupportable heat, and a dull deep light like that which reddens in the eyes of savage beasts.
Flight by Fire.
Through these bewildering sights and deafening sounds, their conductor led them to where, in a dark portion of the building, one furnace burnt by night and day—so, at least, they gathered from the motion of his lips, for as yet they could only see him speak: not hear him. The man who had been watching this fire, and whose task was ended for the present, gladly withdrew, and left them with their friend, who, spreading Nell’s little cloak upon a heap of ashes, and 277 showing her where she could hang her outer-clothes to dry, signed to her and the old man to lie down and sleep. For himself, he took his station on a rugged mat before the furnace-door, and resting his chin upon his hands, watched the flame as it shone through the iron chinks, and the white ashes as they fell into their bright hot grave below.
The warmth of her bed, hard and humble as it was, combined with the great fatigue she had undergone, soon caused the tumult of the place to fall with a gentler sound upon the child’s tired ears, and was not long in lulling her to sleep. The old man was stretched beside her, and with her hand upon his neck she lay and dreamed.
It was yet night when she awoke, nor did she know how long, or for how short a time, she had slept. But she found herself protected, both from any cold air that might find its way into the building, and from the scorching heat, by some of the workmen’s clothes; and glancing at their friend saw that he sat in exactly the same attitude, looking with a fixed earnestness of attention towards the fire, and keeping so very still that he did not even seem to breathe. She lay in the state between sleeping and waking, looking so long at his motionless figure that at length she almost feared he had died as he sat there; and softly rising and drawing close to him, ventured to whisper in his ear.278
He moved, and glancing from her to the place she had lately occupied, as if to assure himself that it was really the child so near him, looked inquiringly into her face.
“I feared you were ill,” she said. “The other men are all in motion, and you are so very quiet.”
“They leave me to myself,” he replied. “They know my humour. They laugh at me, but don’t harm me in it. See yonder there—that’s my friend.”
“The fire?” said the child.
“It has been alive as long as I have,” the man made answer. “We talk and think together, all night long.”
The child glanced quickly at him in her surprise, but he had turned his eyes in their former direction, and was musing as before.
“It’s like a book to me,” he said—“the only book I ever learned to read; and many an old story it tells me. It’s music, for I should know its voice among a thousand, and there are other voices in its roar. It has its pictures too. You don’t know how many strange faces and different scenes I trace in the red-hot coals. It’s my memory, that fire, and shows me all my life.”
The child, bending down to listen to his words, could not help remarking with what brightened eyes he continued to speak and muse.
“Yes,” he said, with a faint smile, “it was the same when I was quite a baby, and crawled about it, till I fell asleep. My father watched it then.”
“Had you no mother?” asked the child.
“No, she was dead. Women work hard in these parts. She worked herself to death they told me, and, as they said so then, the fire has gone on saying the same thing ever since. I suppose it was true. I have always believed it.”
“Were you brought up here, then?” said the child.
“Summer and winter,” he replied. “Secretly at first, but when they found it out, they let him keep me here. So the fire nursed me—the same fire. It has never gone out.”
“You are fond of it?” said the child.
“Of course I am. He died before it. I saw him fall down—just there, where those ashes are burning now—and wondered, I remember, why it didn’t help him.”
“Have you been here ever since?” asked the child.
“Ever since I came to watch it; but there was a while between, and a very cold dreary while it was. It burned all the time though, and roared and leaped when I came back, as it used to do in our play-days. You may guess, from looking at me, what kind of child I was, but for all the difference between us I was a child, and when I saw you in the street to-night, you put me in mind of myself, as I was after he died, and made me wish to bring you to the fire. I thought of those old times again, when I saw you sleeping by it. You should be sleeping now. Lie down again, poor child, lie down again!”279
Flight towards the Country.
With that, he led her to her rude couch, and covering her with the clothes with which she had found herself enveloped when she woke, returned to his seat, whence he moved no more unless to feed the furnace, but remained motionless as a statue. The child continued to watch him for a little time, but soon yielded to the drowsiness that came upon her, and, in the dark strange place and on the heap of ashes, slept as peacefully as if the room had been a palace chamber, and the bed, a bed of down.
When she awoke again, broad day was shining through the lofty openings in the walls, and, stealing in slanting rays but midway down, seemed to make the building darker than it had been at night. The clang and tumult were still going on, and the remorseless fires were burning fiercely as before; for few changes of night and day brought rest or quiet there.
Her friend parted his breakfast—a scanty mess of coffee and some coarse bread—with the child and her grandfather, and inquired whither they were going. She told him that they sought some distant country place remote from towns or even other villages, and with a faltering tongue inquired what road they would do best to take.
“I know little of the country,” he said, shaking his head, “for such as I, pass all our lives before our furnace-doors, and seldom go forth to breathe. But there are such places yonder.”
“And far from here?” said Nell.
“Aye surely. How could they be near us, and be green and fresh? The road lies, too, through miles and miles, all lighted up by fires like ours—a strange black road, and one that would frighten you by night.”
“We are here and must go on,” said the child boldly; for she saw that the old man listened with anxious ears to this account.
“Rough people—paths never made for little feet like yours—a dismal blighted way—is there no turning back, my child?”
“There is none,” cried Nell, pressing forward. “If you can direct us, do. If not, pray do not seek to turn us from our purpose. Indeed you do not know the danger that we shun, and how right and true we are in flying from it, or you would not try to stop us, I am sure you would not.”
“God forbid, if it is so!” said their uncouth protector, glancing from the eager child to her grandfather, who hung his head and bent his eyes upon the ground. “I’ll direct you from the door, the best I can. I wish I could do more.”
He showed them, then, by which road they must leave the town, and what course they should hold when they had gained it. He lingered so long on these instructions, that the child, with a fervent blessing, tore herself away, and stayed to hear no more.
But, before they had reached the corner of the lane, the man came running after them, and, pressing her hand, left something in it—two old, battered, smoke-encrusted penny-pieces. Who knows but they 280 shone as brightly in the eyes of angels, as golden gifts that have been chronicled on tombs?
And thus they separated; the child to lead her sacred charge farther from guilt and shame; the labourer to attach a fresh interest to the spot where his guests had slept, and read new histories in his furnace fire.
In Master Humphrey’s Clock, Chapter the Thirty-Eighth of The Old Curiosity Shop marks the beginning of Volume II.
being the most obstinate and opinionated pony on the face of the earth
text has obstinaate
Inquiries from the Single Gentleman.
[It was thoughtful of the author to put this information in a headnote. The reader would otherwise have spent several pages figuring out that this chapter’s Stranger is the preceding chapters’ Single Gentleman.]
It was quite an accident, and the way in which it came about was this.
[If you’ll take my advice, Charles, you will make no attempt to explain your narrative coincidences. Better to rush past and hope the reader doesn’t notice.]
Who ran to catch me when I fell
[Before “M is for the many things you gave me”, before “I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad”, there was “My Mother”. It began life in 1804’s Original Poems for Infant Minds by Ann Taylor (1782–1866). The poem goes on for far more verses than most readers would find strictly necessary; somewhere around the middle is
Who ran to help me when I fell,
And would some pretty story tell,
Or kiss the place to make it well?
Unlike many of Dick Swiveller’s favorites, Ann Taylor’s work—some of it written in collaboration with her sister Jane (1783–1824)—is not entirely forgotten. Even if you’ve never heard her name, you know her poem “The Star”; “Twinkle twinkle little bat” may be the only Alice in Wonderland parody that doesn’t require a footnote.]
as an assurance to them of my friendly intentions?”
text has single for double close quote
old master . . . would not bear me in his sight after he had been ill
[Back in Chapter IX, Quilp accidentally learned from Nell that her grandfather is not a miser, as everyone assumed, but is genuinely penniless. At the time, it seemed better to let the old man think it was Kit who had betrayed him. In retrospect, this would seem to be a blunder.]
It was a gloomy autumn evening . . . . the deserted house
[In Chapter XII, when Nell and her grandfather left London, it was June. If it is now “gloomy autumn”, at least three or four months—including at least one quarter-day—have passed. Why hasn’t the house been rented to someone else by now?]
to follow the fortunes of little Nell
[Fearing lest the reader has forgotten her after an absence of several chapters, the author is forced to call her by name.]
he acted the bully, and his friend the peacemaker, for some particular purpose
[And to think that the “Good Cop, Bad Cop” terminology would not come into being until far into the 20th century.]
“Whatever he brings, it’s halved between us,” returned Isaac List.
[That takes care of Mr. Jowl. But what’s in it for the gipsy?]
childhood fading in its bloom, and resting in the sleep that knows no waking
“A pair of queer travellers to be walking all night,” observed the man who had first accosted them.
final . missing
“You know forty-seven songs,” said the man
[If memory serves, “forty-seven” is also the answer Harriet Vane gave to Lord Peter Wimsey’s first marriage proposal.]
the thirst of the shipwrecked mariner, who . . . has not one drop to cool his burning tongue
[What a shame Dick Swiveller isn’t here to quote—or at least paraphrase—The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.]
and try to earn our bread in very humble work
[In the months since they left London, Nell has figured out that begging is not their only option.]
The original of this text is in the public domain—at least in the U.S.
My notes are copyright, as are all under-the-hood elements.
If in doubt, ask.