The Old Curiosity Shop

Chapter 7

Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bah!” muttered his friend, peevishly.

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

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

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

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

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

“What about her?” returned Dick.

“She has a pretty face, has she not?”

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

“Has she a pretty face,” repeated his friend impatiently.

“Yes,” said Dick, “she has a pretty face, a very pretty face. What of that?”

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

“A bat might see that, with the sun shining,” said Dick.

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

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

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

“Fine girl of her age, but small,” observed Richard Swiveller parenthetically.

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

“That’s right,” said Dick.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It seems improbable certainly,” said Dick, musing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Her. Who?” demanded Trent.

“Sophy Wackles,” said Dick.

“Who’s she?”

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

“I remember,” said his companion carelessly. “What of her?”

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

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

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

“And what’s in the letter, pray?”

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

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

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