The Old Curiosity Shop

Chapter 4

Charles Dickens

MR AND MRS QUILP resided on Tower Hill; and in her bower on Tower Hill Mrs. Quilp was left to pine the absence of her lord, when he quitted her on the business which he had already seen to transact.

Mr. Quilp could scarcely be said to be of any particular trade or calling, though his pursuits were diversified and his occupations numerous. He collected the rents of whole colonies of filthy streets and alleys by the waterside, advanced money to the seamen and petty officers of merchant vessels, had a share in the ventures of divers mates of East Indiamen, smoked his smuggled cigars under the very nose of the Custom House, and made appointments on Change with men in glazed hats and round jackets pretty well every day. On the Surrey side of the river was a small rat-infested dreary yard called “Quilp’s Wharf,” in which were a little wooden counting-house burrowing all awry in the dust as if it had fallen from the clouds and ploughed into the ground; a few fragments of rusty anchors; several large iron rings; some piles of rotten wood; and two or three heaps of old sheet copper, crumpled, cracked, and battered. On Quilp’s Wharf, Daniel Quilp was a ship-breaker, yet to judge from these appearances he must either have been a ship-breaker on a very small scale, or have broken his ships up very small indeed. Neither did the place present any extraordinary aspect of life or activity, as its only human occupant was an amphibious boy in a canvas suit, whose sole change of occupation was from sitting on the head of a pile and throwing stones into the mud when the tide was out, to standing with his hands in his pockets gazing listlessly on the motion and on the bustle of the river at high-water.

The dwarf’s lodging on Tower hill comprised, besides the needful accommodation for himself and Mrs. Quilp, a small sleeping-closet for that lady’s mother, who resided with the couple and waged perpetual war with Daniel; of whom, notwithstanding, she stood in no slight dread. Indeed, the ugly creature contrived by some means or other—whether by his ugliness or his ferocity or his natural cunning is no great matter—to impress with a wholesome fear of his anger, most of those with whom he was brought into daily contact and communication. Over nobody had he such complete ascendance as Mrs. Quilp herself—a pretty little, mild-spoken, blue-eyed woman, who having allied herself in wedlock to the dwarf in one of those strange infatuations of which examples are by no means scarce, performed a sound practical penance for her folly, every day of her life.

It has been said that Mrs. Quilp was pining in her bower. In her bower she was, but not alone, for besides the old lady her mother of whom mention has recently been made, there were present some half-dozen ladies of the neighborhood who had happened by a strange accident (and also by a little understanding among themselves) to drop in one after another, just about tea-time. This being a season favourable to conversation, and the room being a cool, shady, lazy kind of place, with some plants at the open window shutting out the dust, and interposing pleasantly enough between the tea table within and the old Tower without, it is no wonder that the ladies felt an inclination to talk and linger, especially when there are taken into account the additional inducements of fresh butter, new bread, shrimps, and watercresses.

Now, the ladies being together under these circumstances, it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannize over the weaker sex, and the duty that developed upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity. It was natural for four reasons: firstly, because Mrs. Quilp being a young woman and notoriously under the dominion of her husband ought to be excited to rebel; secondly, because Mrs. Quilp’s parent was known to be laudably shrewish in her disposition and inclined to resist male authority; thirdly, because each visitor wished to show for herself how superior she was in this respect to the generality of her sex; and fourthly, because the company being accustomed to scandalise each other in pairs, were deprived of their usual subject of conversation now that they were all assembled in close friendship, and had consequently no better employment than to attack the common enemy.

Moved by these considerations, a stout lady opened the proceedings by inquiring, with an air of great concern and sympathy, how Mr. Quilp was; whereunto Mr. Quilp’s wife’s mother replied sharply, “Oh! He was well enough—nothing much was every the matter with him—and ill weeds were sure to thrive.” All the ladies then sighed in concert, shook their heads gravely, and looked at Mrs. Quilp as a martyr.

“Ah!” said the spokeswoman, “I wish you’d give her a little of your advice, Mrs. Jiniwin”—Mrs Quilp had been a Miss Jiniwin it should be observed—“nobody knows better than you, ma’am, what us women owe to ourselves.”

“Owe indeed, ma’am!” replied Mrs. Jiniwin. “When my poor husband, her dear father, was alive, if he had ever ventured a cross word to me, I’d have—” The good old lady did not finish the sentence, but she twisted off the head of a shrimp with a vindictiveness which seemed to imply that the action was in some degree a substitute for words. In this light it was clearly understood by the other party, who immediately replied with great approbation, “You quite enter into my feelings, ma’am, and it’s jist what I’d do myself.”

“But you have no call to do it,” said Mrs. Jiniwin. “Luckily for you, you have no more occasion to do it than I had.”

“No woman need have, if she was true to herself,” rejoined the stout lady.

“Do you hear that, Betsy?” said Mrs. Jiniwin, in a warning voice. “How often have I said the same words to you, and almost gone down my knees when I spoke ’em!”

Poor Mrs. Quilp, who had looked in a state of helplessness from one face of condolence to another, coloured, smiled, and shook her head doubtfully. This was the signal for a general clamour, which beginning in a low murmur gradually swelled into a great noise in which everybody spoke at once, and all said that she being a young woman had no right to set up her opinions against the experiences of those who knew so much better; that it was very wrong of her not to take the advice of people who had nothing at heart but her good; that it was next door to being downright ungrateful to conduct herself in that manner; that if she had no respect for herself she ought to have some for other women, all of whom she compromised by her meekness; and that if she had no respect for other women, the time would come when other women would have no respect for her; and she would be very sorry for that, they could tell her. Having dealt out these admonitions, the ladies fell to a more powerful assault than they had yet made upon the mixed tea, new bread, fresh butter, shrimps, and watercresses, and said that their vexation was so great to see her going on like that, that they could hardly bring themselves to eat a single morsel.

“It’s all very fine to talk,” said Mrs. Quilp with much simplicity, “but I know that if I was to die to-morrow, Quilp could marry anybody he pleased—now that he could, I know!”

There was quite a scream of indignation at this idea. Marry whom he pleased! They would like to see him dare to think of marrying any of them; they would like to see the faintest approach to such a thing. One lady (a widow) was quite certain she should stab him if he hinted at it.

“Very well,” said Mrs. Quilp, nodding her head, “as I said just now, it’s very easy to talk, but I say again that I know—that I’m sure—Quilp has such a way with him when he likes, that the best looking woman here couldn’t refuse him if I was dead, and she was free, and he chose to make love to her. Come!”

Everybody bridled up at this remark, as much as to say, “I know you mean me. Let him try—that’s all.” and yet for some hidden reason they were all angry with the widow, and each lady whispered in her neighbour’s ear that it was very plain that said widow thought herself the person referred to, and what a puss she was!

“Mother knows,” said Mrs. Quilp, “that what I say is quite correct, for she often said so before we were married. Didn’t you say so, mother?”

This inquiry involved the respected lady in rather a delicate position, for she certainly had been an active party in making her daughter Mrs. Quilp, and, besides, it was not supporting the family credit to encourage the idea that she had married a man whom nobody else would have. On the other hand, to exaggerate the captivating qualities of her son-in-law would be to weaken the cause of revolt, in which all her energies were deeply engaged. Beset by these opposing considerations, Mrs. Jiniwin admitted the powers of insinuation, but denied the right to govern, and with a timely compliment to the stout lady brought back the discussion to the point from which it had strayed.

“Oh! It’s a sensible and proper thing indeed, what Mrs. George has said!” exclaimed the old lady. “If women are only true to themselves!—But Betsy isn’t, and more’s the shame and pity.”

“Before I’d let a man order me about as Quilp orders her,” said Mrs. George, “before I’d consent to stand in awe of a man as she does of him, I’d—I’d kill myself, and write a letter first to say he did it!”

This remark being loudly commended and approved of, another lady (from the Minories) put in her word:


“Mr Quilp may be a very nice man,” said this lady, “and I supposed there’s no doubt he is, because Mrs. Quilp says he is, and Mrs. Jiniwin says he is, and they ought to know, or nobody does. But still he is not quite a—what one calls a handsome man, nor quite a young man neither, which might be a little excuse for him if anything could be; whereas his wife is young, and is good-looking, and is a woman—which is the greatest thing after all.”

This last clause being delivered with extraordinary pathos, elicited a corresponding murmer from the hearers, stimulated by which the lady went on to remark that if such a husband was cross and unreasonable with such a wife, then—

“If he is!” interposed the mother, putting down her tea-cup and brushing the crumbs out of her lap, preparatory to making a solemn declaration. “If he is! He is the greatest tyrant that every lived, she daren’t call her soul her own, he makes her tremble with a word and even with a look, he frightens her to death, and she hasn’t the spirit to give him a word back, no, not a single word.”

Notwithstanding that the fact had been notorious beforehand to all the tea-drinkers, and had been discussed and expatiated on at every tea-drinking in the neighbourhood for the last twelve months, this official communication was no sooner made than they all began to talk at once and to vie with each other in vehemence and volubility. Mrs. George remarked that people would talk, that people had often said this to her before, that Mrs. Simmons then and there present had told her so twenty times, that she had always said, “No, Henrietta Simmons, unless I see it with my own eyes and hear it with my own ears, I never will believe it.” Mrs. Simmons corroborated this testimony and added strong evidence of her own. The lady from the Minories recounted a successful course of treatment under which she had placed her own husband, who, from manifesting one month after marriage unequivocal symptoms of the tiger, had by this means become subdued into a perfect lamb. Another lady recounted her own personal struggle and final triumph, in the course whereof she had found it necessary to call in her mother and two aunts, and to weep incessantly night and day for six weeks. A third, who in the general confusion could secure no other listener, fastened herself upon a young woman still unmarried who happened to be amongst them, and conjured her, as she valued her own peace of mind and happiness to profit by this solemn occasion, to take example from the weakness of Mrs. Quilp, and from that time forth to direct her whole thoughts to taming and subduing the rebellious spirit of man. The noise was at its height, and half the company had elevated their voices into a perfect shriek in order to drown the voices of the other half, when Mrs. Jiniwin was seen to change colour and shake her forefinger stealthily, as if exhorting them to silence. Then, and not until then, Daniel Quilp himself, the cause and occasion of all this clamour, was observed to be in the room, looking on and listening with profound attention.

“Go on, ladies, go on,” said Daniel. “Mrs Quilp, pray ask the ladies to stop to supper, and have a couple of lobsters and something light and palatable.”

“I—I—didn’t ask them to tea, Quilp,” stammered his wife. “It’s quite an accident.”

“So much the better, Mrs. Quilp; these accidental parties are always the pleasantest,” said the dwarf, rubbing his hands so hard that he seemed to be engaged in manufacturing, of the dirt with which they were encrusted, little charges for popguns. “What! Not going, ladies, you are not going, surely!”

His fair enemies tossed their heads slightly as they sought their respective bonnets and shawls, but left all verbal contention to Mrs. Jiniwin, who finding herself in the position of champion, made a faint struggle to sustain the character.

“And why not stop to supper, Quilp,” said the old lady, “if my daughter had a mind?”

“To be sure,” rejoined Daniel. “Why not?”

“There’s nothing dishonest or wrong in a supper, I hope?” said Mrs. Jiniwin.

“Surely not,” returned the dwarf. “Why should there be? Nor anything unwholesome, either, unless there’s lobster-salad or prawns, which I’m told are not good for digestion.”

“And you wouldn’t like your wife to be attacked with that, or anything else that would make her uneasy would you?” said Mrs. Jiniwin.

“Not for a score of worlds,” replied the dwarf with a grin. “Not even to have a score of mothers-in-law at the same time—and what a blessing that would be!”

“My daughter’s your wife, Mr. Quilp, certainly,” said the old lady with a giggle, meant for satirical and to imply that he needed to be reminded of the fact; “your wedded wife.”

“So she is, certainly. So she is,” observed the dwarf.

“And she has a right to do as she likes, I hope, Quilp,” said the old lady trembling, partly with anger and partly with a secret fear of her impish son-in-law.

“Hope she has!” he replied. “Oh! Don’t you know she has? Don’t you know she has, Mrs. Jiniwin?

“I know she ought to have, Quilp, and would have, if she was of my way of thinking.”

“Why an’t you of your mother’s way of thinking, my dear?” said the dwarf, turing round and addressing his wife, “why don’t you always imitate your mother, my dear? She’s the ornament of her sex—your father said so every day of his life. I am sure he did.”

“Her father was a blessed creetur, Quilp, and worthy twenty thousand of some people,” said Mrs. Jiniwin; “twenty hundred million thousand.”

“I should like to have known him,” remarked the dwarf. “I dare say he was a blessed creature then; but I’m sure he is now. It was a happy release. I believe he had suffered a long time?”

The old lady gave a gasp, but nothing came of it; Quilp resumed, with the same malice in his eye and the same sarcastic politeness on his tongue.

“You look ill, Mrs. Jiniwin; I know you have been exciting yourself too much—talking perhaps, for it is your weakness. Go to bed. Do go to bed.”

“I shall go when I please, Quilp, and not before.”

“But please to do now. Do please to go now,” said the dwarf.

The old woman looked angrily at him, but retreated as he advanced, and falling back before him, suffered him to shut the door upon her and bolt her out among the guests, who were by this time crowding downstairs. Being left along with his wife, who sat trembling in a corner with her eyes fixed upon the ground, the little man planted himself before her, and folding his arms looked steadily at her for a long time without speaking.

“Mrs Quilp,” he said at last.

“Yes, Quilp,” she replead meekly.

Instead of pursuing the theme he had in his mind, Quilp folded his arms again, and looked at her more sternly than before, while she averted her eyes and kept them on the ground.

“Mrs Quilp.”

“Yes, Quilp.”

“If ever you listen to these beldames again, I’ll bite you.”

With this laconic threat, which he accompanied with a snarl that gave him the appearance of being particularly in earnest, Mr. Quilp bade her clear the teaboard away, and bring the rum. The spirit being set before him in a huge case-bottle, which had originally come out of some ship’s locker, he settled himself in an arm-chair with his large head and face squeezed up against the back, and his little legs planted on the table.

“Now, Mrs. Quilp,” he said; “I feel in a smoking humour, and shall probably blaze away all night. But sit where you are, if you please, in case I want you.”

His wife returned no other reply than the necessary “Yes, Quilp,” and the small lord of the creation took his first cigar and mixed his first glass of grog. The sun went down and the stars peeped out, the Tower turned from its own proper colours to grey and from grey to black, the room became perfectly dark and the end of the cigar a deep fiery red, but still Mr. Quilp went on smoking and drinking in the same position, and staring listlessly out of window with the doglike smile always on his face, save when Mrs. Quilp made some involuntary movement of restlessness or fatigue; and then it expanded into a grin of delight.

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