The Old Curiosity Shop

Chapter 31

Charles Dickens

WITH steps more faltering and unsteady than those with which she had approached the room, the child withdrew from the door, and groped her way back to her own chamber. The terror she had lately felt was nothing compared with that which now oppressed her. No strange robber, no treacherous host conniving at the plunder of his guests, or stealing to their beds to kill them in their sleep, no nightly prowler, however terrible and cruel, could have awakened in her bosom half the dread which the recognition of her silent visitor inspired. The grey-headed old man gliding like a ghost into her room and acting the thief while he supposed her fast asleep, then bearing off his prize and hanging over it with the ghastly exultation she had witnessed, was worse—immeasurably worse, and far more dreadful, for the moment, to reflect upon—than anything her wildest fancy could have suggested. If he should return—there was no lock or bolt upon the door, and if, distrustful of having left some money yet behind, he should come back to seek for more—a vague awe and horror surrounded the idea of his slinking in again with stealthy tread, and turning his face toward the empty bed, while she shrank down close at his feet to avoid his touch, which was almost insupportable. She sat and listened. Hark! A footstep on the stairs, and now the door was slowly opening. It was but imagination, yet imagination had all the terrors of reality; nay, it was worse, for the reality would have come and gone, and there an end, but in imagination it was always coming, and never went away.

The feeling which beset the child was one of dim uncertain horror. She had no fear of the dear old grandfather, in whose love for her this disease of the brain had been engendered; but the man she had seen that night, wrapt in the game of chance, lurking in her room, and counting the money by the glimmering light, seemed like another creature in his shape, a monstrous distortion of his image, a something to recoil from, and be the more afraid of, because it bore a likeness to him, and kept close about her, as he did. She could scarcely connect her own affectionate companion, save by his loss, with this old man, so like yet so unlike him. She had wept to see him dull and quiet. How much greater cause she had for weeping now!

The child sat watching and thinking of these things, until the phantom in her mind so increased in gloom and terror, that she felt it would be a relief to hear the old man’s voice, or, if he were asleep, even to see him, and banish some of the fears that clustered round his image. She stole down the stairs and passage again. The door was still ajar as she had left it, and the candle burning as before.

She had her own candle in her hand, prepared to say, if he were waking, that she was uneasy and could not rest, and had come to see if his were still alight. Looking into the room, she saw him lying calmly on his bed, and so took courage to enter.

Fast asleep. No passion in the face, no avarice, no anxiety, no wild desire; all gentle, tranquil, and at peace. This was not the gambler, or the shadow in her room; this was not even the worn and jaded man whose face had so often met her own in the grey morning light; this was her dear old friend, her harmless fellow-traveller, her good, kind grandfather.

She had no fear as she looked upon his slumbering features, but she had a deep and weighty sorrow, and it found its relief in tears.

“God bless him!” said the child, stooping softly to kiss his placid cheek. “I see too well now, that they would indeed part us if they found us out, and shut him up from the light of the sun and sky. He has only me to help him. God bless us both!”

Lighting her candle, she retreated as silently as she had come, and, gaining her own room once more, sat up during the remainder of that long, long, miserable night.

At last the day turned her waning candle pale, and she fell asleep. She was quickly roused by the girl who had shown her up to bed; and, as soon as she was dressed, prepared to go down to her grandfather. But first she searched her pocket and found that her money was all gone—not a sixpence remained.

The old man was ready, and in a few seconds they were on their road. The child thought he rather avoided her eye, and appeared to expect that she would tell him of her loss. She felt she must do that, or he might suspect the truth.

“Grandfather,” she said in a tremulous voice, after they had walked about a mile in silence, “do you think they are honest people at the house yonder?”

“Why?” returned the old man trembling. “Do I think them honest—yes, they played honestly.”

“I’ll tell you why I ask,” rejoined Nell. “I lost some money last night—out of my bedroom, I am sure. Unless it was taken by somebody in jest—only in jest, dear grandfather, which would make me laugh heartily if I could but know it—”

“Who would take money in jest?” returned the old man in a hurried manner. “Those who take money, take it to keep. Don’t talk of jest.”

“Then it was stolen out of my room, dear,” said the child, whose last hope was destroyed by the manner of this reply.

“But is there no more, Nell?” said the old man; “no more anywhere? Was it all taken—every farthing of it—was there nothing left?”

“Nothing,” replied the child.

“We must get more,” said the old man, “we must earn it, Nell, hoard it up, scrape it together, come by it somehow. Never mind this loss. Tell nobody of it, and perhaps we may regain it. Don’t ask how;—we may regain it, and a great deal more;—but tell nobody, or trouble may come of it. And so they took it out of thy room, when thou wert asleep!” he added in a compassionate tone, very different from the secret, cunning way in which he had spoken until now. “Poor Nell, poor little Nell!”

The child hung down her head and wept. The sympathising tone in which he spoke, was quite sincere; she was sure of that. It was not the lightest part of her sorrow to know that this was done for her.

“Not a word about it to any one but me,” said the old man, “no, not even to me,” he added hastily, “for it can do no good. All the losses that ever were, are not worth tears from thy eyes, darling. Why should they be, when we will win them back?”

“Let them go,” said the child looking up. “Let them go, once and for ever, and I would never shed another tear if every penny had been a thousand pounds.”

“Well, well,” returned the old man, checking himself as some impetuous answer rose to his lips, “she knows no better. I ought to be thankful of it.”

“But listen to me,” said the child earnestly, “will you listen to me?”

“Aye, aye, I’ll listen,” returned the old man, still without looking at her; “a pretty voice. It has always a sweet sound to me. It always had when it was her mother’s, poor child.”

“Let me persuade you, then—oh, do let me persuade you,” said the child, “to think no more of gains or losses, and to try no fortune but the fortune we pursue together.”

“We pursue this aim together,” retorted her grandfather, still looking away and seeming to confer with himself. “Whose image sanctifies the game?”

“Have we been worse off,” resumed the child, “since you forgot these cares, and we have been travelling on together? Have we not been much better and happier without a home to shelter us, than ever we were in that unhappy house, when they were on your mind?”

“She speaks the truth,” murmured the old man in the same tone as before. “It must not turn me, but it is the truth; no doubt it is.”

“Only remember what we have been since that bright morning when we turned our backs upon it for the last time,” said Nell, “only remember what we have been since we have been free of all those miseries—what peaceful days and quiet nights we have had—what pleasant times we have known—what happiness we have enjoyed. If we have been tired or hungry, we have been soon refreshed, and slept the sounder for it. Think what beautiful things we have seen, and how contented we have felt. And why was this blessed change?”

He stopped her with a motion of his hand, and bade her talk to him no more just then, for he was busy. After a time he kissed her cheek, still motioning her to silence, and walked on, looking far before him, and sometimes stopping and gazing with a puckered brow upon the ground, as if he were painfully trying to collect his disordered thoughts. Once she saw tears in his eyes. When he had gone on thus for some time, he took her hand in his as he was accustomed to do, with nothing of the violence or animation of his late manner; and so, by degrees so fine that the child could not trace them, he settled down into his usual quiet way, and suffered her to lead him where she would.

When they presented themselves in the midst of the stupendous collection, they found, as Nell had anticipated, that Mrs. Jarley was not yet out of bed, and that, although she had suffered some uneasiness on their account overnight, and had indeed sat up for them until past eleven o’clock, she had retired in the persuasion, that, being overtaken by storm at some distance from home, they had sought the nearest shelter, and would not return before morning. Nell immediately applied herself with great assiduity to the decoration and preparation of the room, and had the satisfaction of completing her task, and dressing herself neatly, before the beloved of the Royal Family came down to breakfast.

“We haven’t had,” said Mrs. Jarley when the meal was over, “more than eight of Miss Monflathers’s young ladies all the time we’ve been here, and there’s twenty-six of ’em, as I was told by the cook when I asked her a question or two and put her on the free-list. We must try ’em with a parcel of new bills, and you shall take it, my dear, and see what effect that has upon ’em.”

The proposed expedition being one of paramount importance, Mrs. Jarley adjusted Nell’s bonnet with her own hands, and declaring that she certainly did look very pretty, and reflected credit on the establishment, dismissed her with many commendations, and certain needful directions as to the turnings on the right which she was to take, and the turnings on the left which she was to avoid. Thus instructed, Nell had no difficulty in finding out Miss Monflathers’s Boarding and Day Establishment, which was a large house, with a high wall, and a large garden-gate with a large brass plate, and a small grating through which Miss Monflathers’s parlour-maid inspected all visitors before admitting them; for nothing in the shape of a man—no, not even a milkman—was suffered, without special license, to pass that gate. Even the tax-gatherer, who was stout, and wore spectacles and a broad-brimmed hat, had the taxes handed through the grating. More obdurate than gate of adamant or brass, this gate of Miss Monflathers’s frowned on all mankind. The very butcher respected it as a gate of mystery, and left off whistling when he rang the bell.

As Nell approached the awful door, it turned slowly upon its hinges with a creaking noise, and, forth from the solemn grove beyond, came a long file of young ladies, two and two, all with open books in their hands, and some with parasols likewise. And last of the goodly procession came Miss Monflathers, bearing herself a parasol of lilac silk, and supported by two smiling teachers, each mortally envious of the other, and devoted unto Miss Monflathers.

Confused by the looks and whispers of the girls, Nell stood with downcast eyes and suffered the procession to pass on, until Miss Monflathers, bringing up the rear, approached her, when she curtseyed and presented her little packet; on receipt whereof Miss Monflathers commanded that the line should halt.

“You’re the wax-work child, are you not?” said Miss Monflathers.

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Nell, colouring deeply, for the young ladies had collected about her, and she was the centre on which all eyes were fixed.

“And don’t you think you must be a very wicked little child,” said Miss Monflathers, who was of rather uncertain temper, and lost no opportunity of impressing moral truths upon the tender minds of the young ladies, “to be a wax-work child at all?”

Poor Nell had never viewed her position in this light, and not knowing what to say, remained silent, blushing more deeply than before.

“Don’t you know,” said Miss Monflathers, “that it’s very naughty and unfeminine, and a perversion of the properties wisely and benignantly transmitted to us, with expansive powers to be roused from their dormant state through the medium of cultivation?”

The two teachers murmured their respectful approval of this home-thrust, and looked at Nell as though they would have said that there indeed Miss Monflathers had hit her very hard. Then they smiled and glanced at Miss Monflathers, and then, their eyes meeting, they exchanged looks which plainly said that each considered herself smiler in ordinary to Miss Monflathers, and regarded the other as having no right to smile, and that her so doing was an act of presumption and impertinence.

“Don’t you feel how naughty it is of you,” resumed Miss Monflathers, “to be a wax-work child, when you might have the proud consciousness of assisting, to the extent of your infant powers, the manufactures of your country; of improving your mind by the constant contemplation of the steam-engine; and of earning a comfortable and independent subsistence of from two-and-ninepence to three shillings per week? Don’t you know that the harder you are at work, the happier you are?”

““How doth the little—’” murmured one of the teachers, in quotation from Doctor Watts.

“Eh?” said Miss Monflathers, turning smartly round. “Who said that?”

Of course the teacher who had not said it, indicated the rival who had, whom Miss Monflathers frowningly requested to hold her peace; by that means throwing the informing teacher into raptures of joy.

“The little busy bee,” said Miss Monflathers, drawing herself up, “is applicable only to genteel children.

‘In books, or work, or healthful play’

is quite right as far as they are concerned; and the work means painting on velvet, fancy needle-work, or embroidery. In such cases as these,” pointing to Nell, with her parasol, “and in the case of all poor people’s children, we should read it thus:

‘In work, work, work. In work alway
Let my first years be past,
That I may give for ev’ry day
Some good account at last.’”

A deep hum of applause rose not only from the two teachers, but from all the pupils, who were equally astonished to hear Miss Monflathers improvising after this brilliant style; for although she had been long known as a politician, she had never appeared before as an original poet. Just then somebody happened to discover that Nell was crying, and all eyes were again turned towards her.

There were indeed tears in her eyes, and drawing out her handkerchief to brush them away, she happened to let it fall. Before she could stoop to pick it up, one young lady of about fifteen or sixteen, who had been standing a little apart from the others, as though she had no recognised place among them, sprang forward and put it in her hand. She was gliding timidly away again, when she was arrested by the governess.

“It was Miss Edwards who did that, I know,” said Miss Monflathers predictively. “Now I am sure that was Miss Edwards.”

It was Miss Edwards, and everybody said it was Miss Edwards, and Miss Edwards herself admitted that it was.

“Is it not,” said Miss Monflathers, putting down her parasol to take a severer view of the offender, “a most remarkable thing, Miss Edwards, that you have an attachment to the lower classes which always draws you to their sides; or, rather, is it not a most extraordinary thing that all I say and do will not wean you from propensities which your original station in life have unhappily rendered habitual to you, you extremely vulgar-minded girl?”

“I really intended no harm, ma’am,” said a sweet voice. “It was a momentary impulse, indeed.”

“An impulse!” repeated Miss Monflathers scornfully. “I wonder that you presume to speak of impulses to me”—both the teachers assented—“I am astonished”—both the teachers were astonished—“I suppose it is an impulse which induces you to take the part of every grovelling and debased person that comes in your way”—both the teachers supposed so too.

“But I would have you know, Miss Edwards,” resumed the governess in a tone of increased severity, “that you cannot be permitted—if it be only for the sake of preserving a proper example and decorum in this establishment—that you cannot be permitted, and that you shall not be permitted, to fly in the face of your superiors in this exceedingly gross manner. If you have no reason to feel a becoming pride before wax-work children, there are young ladies here who have, and you must either defer to those young ladies or leave the establishment, Miss Edwards.”

This young lady, being motherless and poor, was apprenticed at the school—taught for nothing—teaching others what she learnt, for nothing—boarded for nothing—lodged for nothing—and set down and rated as something immeasurably less than nothing, by all the dwellers in the house. The servant-maids felt her inferiority, for they were better treated; free to come and go, and regarded in their stations with much more respect. The teachers were infinitely superior, for they had paid to go to school in their time, and were paid now. The pupils cared little for a companion who had no grand stories to tell about home; no friends to come with post-horses, and be received in all humility, with cake and wine, by the governess; no deferential servant to attend and bear her home for the holidays; nothing genteel to talk about, and nothing to display. But why was Miss Monflathers always vexed and irritated with the poor apprentice—how did that come to pass?

Why, the gayest feather in Miss Monflathers’s cap, and the brightest glory of Miss Monflathers’s school, was a baronet’s daughter—the real live daughter of a real live baronet—who, by some extraordinary reversal of the Laws of Nature, was not only plain in features but dull in intellect, while the poor apprentice had both a ready wit, and a handsome face and figure. It seems incredible. Here was Miss Edwards, who only paid a small premium which had been spent long ago, every day outshining and excelling the baronet’s daughter, who learned all the extras (or was taught them all) and whose half-yearly bill came to double that of any other young lady’s in the school, making no account of the honour and reputation of her pupilage. Therefore, and because she was a dependent, Miss Monflathers had a great dislike to Miss Edwards, and was spiteful to her, and aggravated by her, and, when she had compassion on little Nell, verbally fell upon and maltreated her as we have already seen.

“You will not take the air to-day, Miss Edwards,” said Miss Monflathers. “Have the goodness to retire to your own room, and not to leave it without permission.”

The poor girl was moving hastily away, when she was suddenly, in nautical phrase, “brought to” by a subdued shriek from Miss Monflathers.

“She has passed me without any salute!” cried the governess, raising her eyes to the sky. “She has actually passed me without the slightest acknowledgment of my presence!”

The young lady turned and curtsied. Nell could see that she raised her dark eyes to the face of her superior, and that their expression, and that of her whole attitude for the instant, was one of mute but most touching appeal against this ungenerous usage. Miss Monflathers only tossed her head in reply, and the great gate closed upon a bursting heart.

“As for you, you wicked child,” said Miss Monflathers, turning to Nell, “tell your mistress that if she presumes to take the liberty of sending to me any more, I will write to the legislative authorities and have her put in the stocks, or compelled to do penance in a white sheet; and you may depend upon it that you shall certainly experience the treadmill if you dare to come here again. Now ladies, on.”

The procession filed off, two and two, with the books and parasols, and Miss Monflathers, calling the Baronet’s daughter to walk with her and smooth her ruffled feelings, discarded the two teachers—who by this time had exchanged their smiles for looks of sympathy—and left them to bring up the rear, and hate each other a little more for being obliged to walk together.

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