The Old Curiosity Shop

Chapter 11

Charles Dickens

QUIET and solitude were destined to hold uninterrupted rule no longer, beneath the roof that sheltered the child. Next morning, the old man was in a raging fever accompanied with delirium; and sinking under the influence of this disorder he lay for many weeks in imminent peril of his life. There was watching enough, now, but it was the watching of strangers who made a greedy trade of it, and who, in the intervals in their attendance upon the sick man huddled together with a ghastly good-fellowship, and ate and drank and made merry; for disease and death were their ordinary household gods.

Yet, in all the hurry and crowding of such a time, the child was more alone than she had ever been before; alone in spirit, alone in her devotion to him who was wasting away upon his burning bed; alone in her unfeigned sorrow, and her unpurchased sympathy. Day after day, and night after night, found her still by the pillow of the unconscious sufferer, still anticipating his every want, still listening to those repetitions of her name and those anxieties and cares for her, which were ever uppermost among his feverish wanderings.

The house was no longer theirs. Even the sick chamber seemed to be retained, on the uncertain tenure of Mr. Quilp’s favour. The old man’s illness had not lasted many days when he took formal possession of the premises and all upon them, in virtue of certain legal powers to that effect, which few understood and none presumed to call in question. This important step secured, with the assistance of a man of law whom he brought with him for the purpose, the dwarf proceeded to establish himself and his coadjutor in the house, as an assertion of his claim against all comers; and then set about making his quarters comfortable, after his own fashion.

To this end, Mr. Quilp encamped in the back parlour, having first put an effectual stop to any further business by shutting up the shop. Having looked out, from among the old furniture, the handsomest and most commodious chair he could possibly find (which he reserved for his own use) and an especially hideous and uncomfortable one (which he considerately appropriated to the accommodation of his friend) he caused them to be carried into this room, and took up his position in great state. The apartment was very far removed from the old man’s chamber, but Mr. Quilp deemed it prudent, as a precaution against infection from fever, and a means of wholesome fumigation, not only to smoke, himself, without cessation, but to insist upon it that his legal friend did the like. Moreover, he sent an express to the wharf for the tumbling boy, who arriving with all despatch was enjoined to sit himself down in another chair just inside the door, continually to smoke a great pipe which the dwarf had provided for the purpose, and to take it from his lips under any pretence whatever, were it only for one minute at a time, if he dared. These arrangements completed, Mr. Quilp looked round him with chuckling satisfaction, and remarked that he called that comfort.

The legal gentleman, whose melodious name was Brass, might have called it comfort also but for two drawbacks: one was, that he could by no exertion sit easy in his chair, the seat of which was very hard, angular, slippery, and sloping; the other, that tobacco-smoke always caused him great internal discomposure and annoyance. But as he was quite a creature of Mr. Quilp’s and had a thousand reasons for conciliating his good opinion, he tried to smile, and nodded his acquiescence with the best grace he could assume.

This Brass was an attorney of no very good repute, from Bevis Marks in the city of London; he was a tall, meagre man, with a nose like a wen, a protruding forehead, retreating eyes, and hair of a deep red. He wore a long black surtout reaching nearly to his ankles, short black trousers, high shoes, and cotton stockings of a bluish grey. He had a cringing manner, but a very harsh voice; and his blandest smiles were so extremely forbidding, that to have had his company under the least repulsive circumstances, one would have wished him to be out of temper that he might only scowl.

Quilp looked at his legal adviser, and seeing that he was winking very much in the anguish of his pipe, that he sometimes shuddered when he happened to inhale its full flavour, and that he constantly fanned the smoke from him, was quite overjoyed and rubbed his hands with glee.

“Smoke away, you dog,” said Quilp, turning to the boy; “fill your pipe again and smoke it fast, down to the last whiff, or I’ll put the sealing-waxed end of it in the fire and rub it red hot upon your tongue.”

Luckily the boy was case-hardened, and would have smoked a small lime-kiln if anybody had treated him with it. Wherefore, he only muttered a brief defiance of his master, and did as he was ordered.

“Is it good, Brass, is it nice, is it fragrant, do you feel like the Grand Turk?” said Quilp.

Mr. Brass thought that if he did, the Grand Turk’s feelings were by no means to be envied, but he said it was famous, and he had no doubt he felt very like that Potentate.

“This is the way to keep off fever,” said Quilp, “this is the way to keep off every calamity of life! We’ll never leave off, all the time we stop here—smoke away, you dog, or you shall swallow the pipe!”

“Shall we stop here long, Mr. Quilp?” inquired his legal friend, when the dwarf had given his boy this gentle admonition.

“We must stop, I suppose, till the old gentleman up stairs is dead,” returned Quilp.

“He he he!” laughed Mr. Brass, “oh! very good!”

“Smoke away!” cried Quilp. “Never stop! You can talk as you smoke. Don’t lose time.”

“He he he!” cried Brass faintly, as he again applied himself to the odious pipe. “But if he should get better, Mr. Quilp?”

“Then we shall stop till he does, and no longer,” returned the dwarf.

“How kind it is of you, Sir, to wait till then!” said Brass. “Some people, Sir, would have sold or removed the goods—oh dear, the very instant the law allowed ’em. Some people, Sir, would have been all flintiness and granite. Some people, sir, would have—”

“Some people would have spared themselves the jabbering of such a parrot as you,” interposed the dwarf.

“He he he!” cried Brass. “You have such spirits!”

The smoking sentinel at the door interposed in this place, and without taking his pipe from his lips, growled,

“Here’s the gal a comin’ down.”

“The what, you dog?” said Quilp.

“The gal,” returned the boy. “Are you deaf?”

“Oh!” said Quilp, drawing in his breath with great relish as if he were taking soup, “you and I will have such a settling presently; there’s such a scratching and bruising in store for you, my dear young friend! Aha! Nelly! How is he now, my duck of diamonds?”

“He’s very bad,” replied the weeping child.

“What a pretty little Nell!” cried Quilp.

“Oh beautiful, sir, beautiful indeed,” said Brass. “Quite charming.”

“Has she come to sit upon Quilp’s knee,” said the dwarf, in what he meant to be a soothing tone, “or is she going to bed in her own little room inside here? Which is poor Nelly going to do?”

“What a remarkable pleasant way he has with children!” muttered Brass, as if in confidence between himself and the ceiling; “upon my word it’s quite a treat to hear him.”

“I’m not going to stay at all,” faltered Nell. “I want a few things out of that room, and then I—I—won’t come down here any more.”

“And a very nice little room it is!” said the dwarf looking into it as the child entered. “Quite a bower! You’re sure you’re not going to use it; you’re sure you’re not coming back, Nelly?”

“No,” replied the child, hurrying away, with the few articles of dress she had come to remove; “never again! Never again.”

“She’s very sensitive,” said Quilp, looking after her. “Very sensitive; that’s a pity. The bedstead is much about my size. I think I shall make it MY little room.”

Mr. Brass encouraging this idea, as he would have encouraged any other emanating from the same source, the dwarf walked in to try the effect. This he did, by throwing himself on his back upon the bed with his pipe in his mouth, and then kicking up his legs and smoking violently. Mr. Brass applauding this picture very much, and the bed being soft and comfortable, Mr. Quilp determined to use it, both as a sleeping place by night and as a kind of Divan by day; and in order that it might be converted to the latter purpose at once, remained where he was, and smoked his pipe out. The legal gentleman being by this time rather giddy and perplexed in his ideas (for this was one of the operations of the tobacco on his nervous system), took the opportunity of slinking away into the open air, where, in course of time, he recovered sufficiently to return with a countenance of tolerable composure. He was soon led on by the malicious dwarf to smoke himself into a relapse, and in that state stumbled upon a settee where he slept till morning.

Such were Mr. Quilp’s first proceedings on entering upon his new property. He was, for some days, restrained by business from performing any particular pranks, as his time was pretty well occupied between taking, with the assistance of Mr. Brass, a minute inventory of all the goods in the place, and going abroad upon his other concerns which happily engaged him for several hours at a time. His avarice and caution being, now, thoroughly awakened, however, he was never absent from the house one night; and his eagerness for some termination, good or bad, to the old man’s disorder, increasing rapidly, as the time passed by, soon began to vent itself in open murmurs and exclamations of impatience.

Nell shrank timidly from all the dwarf’s advances towards conversation, and fled from the very sound of his voice; nor were the lawyer’s smiles less terrible to her than Quilp’s grimaces. She lived in such continual dread and apprehension of meeting one or other of them on the stairs or in the passages if she stirred from her grandfather’s chamber, that she seldom left it, for a moment, until late at night, when the silence encouraged her to venture forth and breathe the purer air of some empty room.

One night, she had stolen to her usual window, and was sitting there very sorrowfully—for the old man had been worse that day—when she thought she heard her name pronounced by a voice in the street. Looking down, she recognised Kit, whose endeavours to attract her attention had roused her from her sad reflections.

“Miss Nell!” said the boy in a low voice.

“Yes,” replied the child, doubtful whether she ought to hold any communication with the supposed culprit, but inclining to her old favourite still; “what do you want?”

“I have wanted to say a word to you, for a long time,” the boy replied, “but the people below have driven me away and wouldn’t let me see you. You don’t believe—I hope you don’t really believe—that I deserve to be cast off as I have been; do you, miss?”

“I must believe it,” returned the child. “Or why would grandfather have been so angry with you?”

“I don’t know,” replied Kit. “I’m sure I never deserved it from him, no, nor from you. I can say that, with a true and honest heart, any way. And then to be driven from the door, when I only came to ask how old master was—!”

“They never told me that,” said the child. “I didn’t know it indeed. I wouldn’t have had them do it for the world.”

“Thank’ee, miss,” returned Kit, “it’s comfortable to hear you say that. I said I never would believe that it was your doing.”

“That was right!” said the child eagerly.

“Miss Nell,” cried the boy coming under the window, and speaking in a lower tone, “there are new masters down stairs. It’s a change for you.”

“It is indeed,” replied the child.

“And so it will be for him when he gets better,” said the boy, pointing towards the sick room.

“—If he ever does,” added the child, unable to restrain her tears.

“Oh, he’ll do that, he’ll do that,” said Kit. “I’m sure he will. You mustn’t be cast down, Miss Nell. Now don’t be, pray!”

These words of encouragement and consolation were few and roughly said, but they affected the child and made her, for the moment, weep the more.

“He’ll be sure to get better now,” said the boy anxiously, “if you don’t give way to low spirits and turn ill yourself, which would make him worse and throw him back, just as he was recovering. When he does, say a good word—say a kind word for me, Miss Nell!”

“They tell me I must not even mention your name to him for a long, long time,” rejoined the child, “I dare not; and even if I might, what good would a kind word do you, Kit? We shall be very poor. We shall scarcely have bread to eat.”

“It’s not that I may be taken back,” said the boy, “that I ask the favour of you. It isn’t for the sake of food and wages that I’ve been waiting about so long in hopes to see you. Don’t think that I’d come in a time of trouble to talk of such things as them.”

The child looked gratefully and kindly at him, but waited that he might speak again.

“No, it’s not that,” said Kit hesitating, “it’s something very different from that. I haven’t got much sense, I know, but if he could be brought to believe that I’d been a faithful servant to him, doing the best I could, and never meaning harm, perhaps he mightn’t—”

Here Kit faltered so long that the child entreated him to speak out, and quickly, for it was very late, and time to shut the window.

“Perhaps he mightn’t think it over venturesome of me to say—well then, to say this,” cried Kit with sudden boldness. “This home is gone from you and him. Mother and I have got a poor one, but that’s better than this with all these people here; and why not come there, till he’s had time to look about, and find a better!”

The child did not speak. Kit, in the relief of having made his proposition, found his tongue loosened, and spoke out in its favour with his utmost eloquence.

“You think,” said the boy, “that it’s very small and inconvenient. So it is, but it’s very clean. Perhaps you think it would be noisy, but there’s not a quieter court than ours in all the town. Don’t be afraid of the children; the baby hardly ever cries, and the other one is very good—besides, I’d mind ’em. They wouldn’t vex you much, I’m sure. Do try, Miss Nell, do try. The little front room up stairs is very pleasant. You can see a piece of the church-clock, through the chimneys, and almost tell the time; mother says it would be just the thing for you, and so it would, and you’d have her to wait upon you both, and me to run of errands. We don’t mean money, bless you; you’re not to think of that! Will you try him, Miss Nell? Only say you’ll try him. Do try to make old master come, and ask him first what I have done. Will you only promise that, Miss Nell?”

Before the child could reply to this earnest solicitation, the street-door opened, and Mr. Brass thrusting out his night-capped head called in a surly voice, “Who’s there!” Kit immediately glided away, and Nell, closing the window softly, drew back into the room.

Before Mr. Brass had repeated his inquiry many times, Mr. Quilp, also embellished with a night-cap, emerged from the same door and looked carefully up and down the street, and up at all the windows of the house, from the opposite side. Finding that there was nobody in sight, he presently returned into the house with his legal friend, protesting (as the child heard from the staircase), that there was a league and plot against him; that he was in danger of being robbed and plundered by a band of conspirators who prowled about the house at all seasons; and that he would delay no longer but take immediate steps for disposing of the property and returning to his own peaceful roof. Having growled forth these, and a great many other threats of the same nature, he coiled himself once more in the child’s little bed, and Nell crept softly up the stairs.

It was natural enough that her short and unfinished dialogue with Kit should leave a strong impression on her mind, and influence her dreams that night and her recollections for a long, long time. Surrounded by unfeeling creditors, and mercenary attendants upon the sick, and meeting in the height of her anxiety and sorrow with little regard or sympathy even from the women about her, it is not surprising that the affectionate heart of the child should have been touched to the quick by one kind and generous spirit, however uncouth the temple in which it dwelt. Thank Heaven that the temples of such spirits are not made with hands, and that they may be even more worthily hung with poor patch-work than with purple and fine linen!

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