The Old Curiosity Shop

Chapter 21

Charles Dickens

KIT turned away and very soon forgot the pony, and the chaise, and the little old lady, and the little old gentleman, and the little young gentleman to boot, in thinking what could have become of his late master and his lovely grandchild, who were the fountain-head of all his meditations. Still casting about for some plausible means of accounting for their non-appearance, and of persuading himself that they must soon return, he bent his steps towards home, intending to finish the task which the sudden recollection of his contract had interrupted, and then to sally forth once more to seek his fortune for the day.

When he came to the corner of the court in which he lived, lo and behold there was the pony again! Yes, there he was, looking more obstinate than ever; and alone in the chaise, keeping a steady watch upon his every wink, sat Mr. Abel, who, lifting up his eyes by chance and seeing Kit pass by, nodded to him as though he would have nodded his head off.

Kit wondered to see the pony again, so near his own home too, but it never occurred to him for what purpose the pony might have come there, or where the old lady and the old gentleman had gone, until he lifted the latch of the door, and walking in, found them seated in the room in conversation with his mother, at which unexpected sight he pulled off his hat and made his best bow in some confusion.

“We are here before you, you see, Christopher,” said Mr. Garland smiling.

“Yes, sir,” said Kit; and as he said it, he looked towards his mother for an explanation of the visit.

“The gentleman’s been kind enough, my dear,” said she, in reply to this mute interrogation, “to ask me whether you were in a good place, or in any place at all, and when I told him no, you were not in any, he was so good as to say that—”

“—That we wanted a good lad in our house,” said the old gentleman and the old lady both together, “and that perhaps we might think of it, if we found everything as we would wish it to be.”

As this thinking of it, plainly meant the thinking of engaging Kit, he immediately partook of his mother’s anxiety and fell into a great flutter; for the little old couple were very methodical and cautious, and asked so many questions that he began to be afraid there was no chance of his success.

“You see, my good woman,” said Mrs. Garland to Kit’s mother, “that it’s necessary to be very careful and particular in such a matter as this, for we’re only three in family, and are very quiet regular folks, and it would be a sad thing if we made any kind of mistake, and found things different from what we hoped and expected.”

To this, Kit’s mother replied, that certainly it was quite true, and quite right, and quite proper, and Heaven forbid that she should shrink, or have cause to shrink, from any inquiry into her character or that of her son, who was a very good son though she was his mother, in which respect, she was bold to say, he took after his father, who was not only a good son to his mother, but the best of husbands and the best of fathers besides, which Kit could and would corroborate she knew, and so would little Jacob and the baby likewise if they were old enough, which unfortunately they were not, though as they didn’t know what a loss they had had, perhaps it was a great deal better that they should be as young as they were; and so Kit’s mother wound up a long story by wiping her eyes with her apron, and patting little Jacob’s head, who was rocking the cradle and staring with all his might at the strange lady and gentleman.

When Kit’s mother had done speaking, the old lady struck in again, and said that she was quite sure she was a very honest and very respectable person or she never would have expressed herself in that manner, and that certainly the appearance of the children and the cleanliness of the house deserved great praise and did her the utmost credit, whereat Kit’s mother dropped a curtsey and became consoled. Then the good woman entered in a long and minute account of Kit’s life and history from the earliest period down to that time, not omitting to make mention of his miraculous fall out of a back-parlour window when an infant of tender years, or his uncommon sufferings in a state of measles, which were illustrated by correct imitations of the plaintive manner in which he called for toast and water, day and night, and said, “don’t cry, mother, I shall soon be better;” for proof of which statements reference was made to Mrs. Green, lodger, at the cheesemonger’s round the corner, and divers other ladies and gentlemen in various parts of England and Wales (and one Mr. Brown who was supposed to be then a corporal in the East Indies, and who could of course be found with very little trouble), within whose personal knowledge the circumstances had occurred. This narration ended, Mr. Garland put some questions to Kit respecting his qualifications and general acquirements, while Mrs. Garland noticed the children, and hearing from Kit’s mother certain remarkable circumstances which had attended the birth of each, related certain other remarkable circumstances which had attended the birth of her own son, Mr. Abel, from which it appeared that both Kit’s mother and herself had been, above and beyond all other women of what condition or age soever, peculiarly hemmed in with perils and dangers. Lastly, inquiry was made into the nature and extent of Kit’s wardrobe, and a small advance being made to improve the same, he was formally hired at an annual income of Six Pounds, over and above his board and lodging, by Mr. and Mrs. Garland, of Abel Cottage, Finchley.

It would be difficult to say which party appeared most pleased with this arrangement, the conclusion of which was hailed with nothing but pleasant looks and cheerful smiles on both sides. It was settled that Kit should repair to his new abode on the next day but one, in the morning; and finally, the little old couple, after bestowing a bright half-crown on little Jacob and another on the baby, took their leaves; being escorted as far as the street by their new attendant, who held the obdurate pony by the bridle while they took their seats, and saw them drive away with a lightened heart.

“Well, mother,” said Kit, hurrying back into the house, “I think my fortune’s about made now.”

“I should think it was indeed, Kit,” rejoined his mother. “Six pound a year! Only think!”

“Ah!” said Kit, trying to maintain the gravity which the consideration of such a sum demanded, but grinning with delight in spite of himself. “There’s a property!”

Kit drew a long breath when he had said this, and putting his hands deep into his pockets as if there were one year’s wages at least in each, looked at his mother, as though he saw through her, and down an immense perspective of sovereigns beyond.

“Please God we’ll make such a lady of you for Sundays, mother! such a scholar of Jacob, such a child of the baby, such a room of the one up stairs! Six pound a year!”

“Hem!” croaked a strange voice. “What’s that about six pound a year? What about six pound a year?” And as the voice made this inquiry, Daniel Quilp walked in with Richard Swiveller at his heels.

“Who said he was to have six pound a year?” said Quilp, looking sharply round. “Did the old man say it, or did little Nell say it? And what’s he to have it for, and where are they, eh!”

The good woman was so much alarmed by the sudden apparition of this unknown piece of ugliness, that she hastily caught the baby from its cradle and retreated into the furthest corner of the room; while little Jacob, sitting upon his stool with his hands on his knees, looked full at him in a species of fascination, roaring lustily all the time. Richard Swiveller took an easy observation of the family over Mr. Quilp’s head, and Quilp himself, with his hands in his pockets, smiled in an exquisite enjoyment of the commotion he occasioned.

“Don’t be frightened, mistress,” said Quilp, after a pause. “Your son knows me; I don’t eat babies; I don’t like ’em. It will be as well to stop that young screamer though, in case I should be tempted to do him a mischief. Holloa, sir! Will you be quiet?”

Little Jacob stemmed the course of two tears which he was squeezing out of his eyes, and instantly subsided into a silent horror.

“Mind you don’t break out again, you villain,” said Quilp, looking sternly at him, “or I’ll make faces at you and throw you into fits, I will. Now you sir, why haven’t you been to me as you promised?”

“What should I come for?” retorted Kit. “I hadn’t any business with you, no more than you had with me.”

“Here, mistress,” said Quilp, turning quickly away, and appealing from Kit to his mother. “When did his old master come or send here last? Is he here now? If not, where’s he gone?”

“He has not been here at all,” she replied. “I wish we knew where they have gone, for it would make my son a good deal easier in his mind, and me too. If you’re the gentleman named Mr. Quilp, I should have thought you’d have known, and so I told him only this very day.”

“Humph!” muttered Quilp, evidently disappointed to believe that this was true. “That’s what you tell this gentleman too, is it?”

“If the gentleman comes to ask the same question, I can’t tell him anything else, sir; and I only wish I could, for our own sakes,” was the reply.

Quilp glanced at Richard Swiveller, and observed that having met him on the threshold, he assumed that he had come in search of some intelligence of the fugitives. He supposed he was right?

“Yes,” said Dick, “that was the object of the present expedition. I fancied it possible—but let us go ring fancy’s knell. I’ll begin it.”

“You seem disappointed,” observed Quilp.

“A baffler, Sir, a baffler, that’s all,” returned Dick. “I have entered upon a speculation which has proved a baffler; and a Being of brightness and beauty will be offered up a sacrifice at Cheggs’s altar. That’s all, sir.”

The dwarf eyed Richard with a sarcastic smile, but Richard, who had been taking a rather strong lunch with a friend, observed him not, and continued to deplore his fate with mournful and despondent looks. Quilp plainly discerned that there was some secret reason for this visit and his uncommon disappointment, and, in the hope that there might be means of mischief lurking beneath it, resolved to worm it out. He had no sooner adopted this resolution, than he conveyed as much honesty into his face as it was capable of expressing, and sympathised with Mr. Swiveller exceedingly.

“I am disappointed myself,” said Quilp, “out of mere friendly feeling for them; but you have real reasons, private reasons I have no doubt, for your disappointment, and therefore it comes heavier than mine.”

“Why, of course it does,” Dick observed, testily.

“Upon my word, I’m very sorry, very sorry. I’m rather cast down myself. As we are companions in adversity, shall we be companions in the surest way of forgetting it? If you had no particular business, now, to lead you in another direction,” urged Quilp, plucking him by the sleeve and looking slyly up into his face out of the corners of his eyes, “there is a house by the water-side where they have some of the noblest Schiedam—reputed to be smuggled, but that’s between ourselves—that can be got in all the world. The landlord knows me. There’s a little summer-house overlooking the river, where we might take a glass of this delicious liquor with a whiff of the best tobacco—it’s in this case, and of the rarest quality, to my certain knowledge—and be perfectly snug and happy, could we possibly contrive it; or is there any very particular engagement that peremptorily takes you another way, Mr. Swiveller, eh?”

As the dwarf spoke, Dick’s face relaxed into a compliant smile, and his brows slowly unbent. By the time he had finished, Dick was looking down at Quilp in the same sly manner as Quilp was looking up at him, and there remained nothing more to be done but to set out for the house in question. This they did, straightway. The moment their backs were turned, little Jacob thawed, and resumed his crying from the point where Quilp had frozen him.

The summer-house of which Mr. Quilp had spoken was a rugged wooden box, rotten and bare to see, which overhung the river’s mud, and threatened to slide down into it. The tavern to which it belonged was a crazy building, sapped and undermined by the rats, and only upheld by great bars of wood which were reared against its walls, and had propped it up so long that even they were decaying and yielding with their load, and of a windy night might be heard to creak and crack as if the whole fabric were about to come toppling down. The house stood—if anything so old and feeble could be said to stand—on a piece of waste ground, blighted with the unwholesome smoke of factory chimneys, and echoing the clank of iron wheels and rush of troubled water. Its internal accommodations amply fulfilled the promise of the outside. The rooms were low and damp, the clammy walls were pierced with chinks and holes, the rotten floors had sunk from their level, the very beams started from their places and warned the timid stranger from their neighbourhood.

To this inviting spot, entreating him to observe its beauties as they passed along, Mr. Quilp led Richard Swiveller, and on the table of the summer-house, scored deep with many a gallows and initial letter, there soon appeared a wooden keg, full of the vaunted liquor. Drawing it off into the glasses with the skill of a practised hand, and mixing it with about a third part of water, Mr. Quilp assigned to Richard Swiveller his portion, and lighting his pipe from an end of a candle in a very old and battered lantern, drew himself together upon a seat and puffed away.

“Is it good?” said Quilp, as Richard Swiveller smacked his lips, “is it strong and fiery? Does it make you wink, and choke, and your eyes water, and your breath come short—does it?”

“Does it?” cried Dick, throwing away part of the contents of his glass, and filling it up with water, “why, man, you don’t mean to tell me that you drink such fire as this?”

“No!” rejoined Quilp, “Not drink it! Look here. And here. And here again. Not drink it!”

As he spoke, Daniel Quilp drew off and drank three small glassfuls of the raw spirit, and then with a horrible grimace took a great many pulls at his pipe, and swallowing the smoke, discharged it in a heavy cloud from his nose. This feat accomplished he drew himself together in his former position, and laughed excessively.

“Give us a toast!” cried Quilp, rattling on the table in a dexterous manner with his fist and elbow alternately, in a kind of tune, “a woman, a beauty. Let’s have a beauty for our toast and empty our glasses to the last drop. Her name, come!”

“If you want a name,” said Dick, “here’s Sophy Wackles.”

“Sophy Wackles,” screamed the dwarf, “Miss Sophy Wackles that is—Mrs Richard Swiveller that shall be—that shall be—ha ha ha!”

“Ah!” said Dick, “you might have said that a few weeks ago, but it won’t do now, my buck. Immolating herself upon the shrine of Cheggs—”

“Poison Cheggs, cut Cheggs’s ears off,” rejoined Quilp. “I won’t hear of Cheggs. Her name is Swiveller or nothing. I’ll drink her health again, and her father’s, and her mother’s; and to all her sisters and brothers—the glorious family of the Wackleses—all the Wackleses in one glass—down with it to the dregs!”

“Well,” said Richard Swiveller, stopping short in the act of raising the glass to his lips and looking at the dwarf in a species of stupor as he flourished his arms and legs about: “you’re a jolly fellow, but of all the jolly fellows I ever saw or heard of, you have the queerest and most extraordinary way with you, upon my life you have.”

This candid declaration tended rather to increase than restrain Mr. Quilp’s eccentricities, and Richard Swiveller, astonished to see him in such a roystering vein, and drinking not a little himself, for company—began imperceptibly to become more companionable and confiding, so that, being judiciously led on by Mr. Quilp, he grew at last very confiding indeed. Having once got him into this mood, and knowing now the key-note to strike whenever he was at a loss, Daniel Quilp’s task was comparatively an easy one, and he was soon in possession of the whole details of the scheme contrived between the easy Dick and his more designing friend.

“Stop!” said Quilp. “That’s the thing, that’s the thing. It can be brought about, it shall be brought about. There’s my hand upon it; I am your friend from this minute.”

“What! do you think there’s still a chance?” inquired Dick, in surprise at this encouragement.

“A chance!” echoed the dwarf, “a certainty! Sophy Wackles may become a Cheggs or anything else she likes, but not a Swiveller. Oh you lucky dog! He’s richer than any Jew alive; you’re a made man. I see in you now nothing but Nelly’s husband, rolling in gold and silver. I’ll help you. It shall be done. Mind my words, it shall be done.”

“But how?” said Dick.

“There’s plenty of time,” rejoined the dwarf, “and it shall be done. We’ll sit down and talk it over again all the way through. Fill your glass while I’m gone. I shall be back directly—directly.”

With these hasty words, Daniel Quilp withdrew into a dismantled skittle-ground behind the public-house, and, throwing himself upon the ground actually screamed and rolled about in uncontrollable delight.

“Here’s sport!” he cried, “sport ready to my hand, all invented and arranged, and only to be enjoyed. It was this shallow-pated fellow who made my bones ache t’other day, was it? It was his friend and fellow-plotter, Mr. Trent, that once made eyes at Mrs. Quilp, and leered and looked, was it? After labouring for two or three years in their precious scheme, to find that they’ve got a beggar at last, and one of them tied for life. Ha ha ha! He shall marry Nell. He shall have her, and I’ll be the first man, when the knot’s tied hard and fast, to tell ’em what they’ve gained and what I’ve helped ’em to. Here will be a clearing of old scores, here will be a time to remind ’em what a capital friend I was, and how I helped them to the heiress. Ha ha ha!”

In the height of his ecstasy, Mr. Quilp had like to have met with a disagreeable check, for rolling very near a broken dog-kennel, there leapt forth a large fierce dog, who, but that his chain was of the shortest, would have given him a disagreeable salute. As it was, the dwarf remained upon his back in perfect safety, taunting the dog with hideous faces, and triumphing over him in his inability to advance another inch, though there were not a couple of feet between them.

“Why don’t you come and bite me, why don’t you come and tear me to pieces, you coward?” said Quilp, hissing and worrying the animal till he was nearly mad. “You’re afraid, you bully, you’re afraid, you know you are.”

The dog tore and strained at his chain with starting eyes and furious bark, but there the dwarf lay, snapping his fingers with gestures of defiance and contempt. When he had sufficiently recovered from his delight, he rose, and with his arms a-kimbo, achieved a kind of demon-dance round the kennel, just without the limits of the chain, driving the dog quite wild. Having by this means composed his spirits and put himself in a pleasant train, he returned to his unsuspicious companion, whom he found looking at the tide with exceeding gravity, and thinking of that same gold and silver which Mr. Quilp had mentioned.

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