The Old Curiosity Shop

Chapter 42

Charles Dickens

IT behoves us to leave Kit for a while, thoughtful and expectant, and to follow the fortunes of little Nell; resuming the thread of the narrative at the point where it was left, some chapters back.

In one of those wanderings in the evening time, when, following the two sisters at a humble distance, she felt, in her sympathy with them and her recognition in their trials of something akin to her own loneliness of spirit, a comfort and consolation which made such moments a time of deep delight, though the softened pleasure they yielded was of that kind which lives and dies in tears—in one of those wanderings at the quiet hour of twilight, when sky, and earth, and air, and rippling water, and sound of distant bells, claimed kindred with the emotions of the solitary child, and inspired her with soothing thoughts, but not of a child’s world or its easy joys—in one of those rambles which had now become her only pleasure or relief from care, light had faded into darkness and evening deepened into night, and still the young creature lingered in the gloom; feeling a companionship in Nature so serene and still, when noise of tongues and glare of garish lights would have been solitude indeed.

The sisters had gone home, and she was alone. She raised her eyes to the bright stars, looking down so mildly from the wide worlds of air, and, gazing on them, found new stars burst upon her view, and more beyond, and more beyond again, until the whole great expanse sparkled with shining spheres, rising higher and higher in immeasurable space, eternal in their numbers as in their changeless and incorruptible existence. She bent over the calm river, and saw them shining in the same majestic order as when the dove beheld them gleaming through the swollen waters, upon the mountain tops down far below, and dead mankind, a million fathoms deep.

The child sat silently beneath a tree, hushed in her very breath by the stillness of the night, and all its attendant wonders. The time and place awoke reflection, and she thought with a quiet hope—less hope, perhaps, than resignation—on the past, and present, and what was yet before her. Between the old man and herself there had come a gradual separation, harder to bear than any former sorrow. Every evening, and often in the day-time too, he was absent, alone; and although she well knew where he went, and why—too well from the constant drain upon her scanty purse and from his haggard looks—he evaded all inquiry, maintained a strict reserve, and even shunned her presence.

She sat meditating sorrowfully upon this change, and mingling it, as it were, with everything about her, when the distant church-clock bell struck nine. Rising at the sound, she retraced her steps, and turned thoughtfully towards the town.

She had gained a little wooden bridge, which, thrown across the stream, led into a meadow in her way, when she came suddenly upon a ruddy light, and looking forward more attentively, discerned that it proceeded from what appeared to be an encampment of gipsies, who had made a fire in one corner at no great distance from the path, and were sitting or lying round it. As she was too poor to have any fear of them, she did not alter her course (which, indeed, she could not have done without going a long way round), but quickened her pace a little, and kept straight on.

A movement of timid curiosity impelled her, when she approached the spot, to glance towards the fire. There was a form between it and her, the outline strongly developed against the light, which caused her to stop abruptly. Then, as if she had reasoned with herself and were assured that it could not be, or had satisfied herself that it was not that of the person she had supposed, she went on again.

But at that instant the conversation, whatever it was, which had been carrying on near this fire was resumed, and the tones of the voice that spoke—she could not distinguish words—sounded as familiar to her as her own.

She turned, and looked back. The person had been seated before, but was now in a standing posture, and leaning forward on a stick on which he rested both hands. The attitude was no less familiar to her than the tone of voice had been. It was her grandfather.

Her first impulse was to call to him; her next to wonder who his associates could be, and for what purpose they were together. Some vague apprehension succeeded, and, yielding to the strong inclination it awakened, she drew nearer to the place; not advancing across the open field, however, but creeping towards it by the hedge.

In this way she advanced within a few feet of the fire, and standing among a few young trees, could both see and hear, without much danger of being observed.

There were no women or children, as she had seen in other gipsy camps they had passed in their wayfaring, and but one gipsy—a tall athletic man, who stood with his arms folded, leaning against a tree at a little distance off, looking now at the fire, and now, under his black eyelashes, at three other men who were there, with a watchful but half-concealed interest in their conversation. Of these, her grandfather was one; the others she recognised as the first card-players at the public-house on the eventful night of the storm—the man whom they had called Isaac List, and his gruff companion. One of the low, arched gipsy-tents, common to that people, was pitched hard by, but it either was, or appeared to be, empty.

“Well, are you going?” said the stout man, looking up from the ground where he was lying at his ease, into her grandfather’s face. “You were in a mighty hurry a minute ago. Go, if you like. You’re your own master, I hope?”

“Don’t vex him,” returned Isaac List, who was squatting like a frog on the other side of the fire, and had so screwed himself up that he seemed to be squinting all over; “he didn’t mean any offence.”

“You keep me poor, and plunder me, and make a sport and jest of me besides,” said the old man, turning from one to the other. “Ye’ll drive me mad among ye.”

The utter irresolution and feebleness of the grey-haired child, contrasted with the keen and cunning looks of those in whose hands he was, smote upon the little listener’s heart. But she constrained herself to attend to all that passed, and to note each look and word.

“Confound you, what do you mean?” said the stout man rising a little, and supporting himself on his elbow. “Keep you poor! You’d keep us poor if you could, wouldn’t you? That’s the way with you whining, puny, pitiful players. When you lose, you’re martyrs; but I don’t find that when you win, you look upon the other losers in that light. As to plunder!” cried the fellow, raising his voice—“Damme, what do you mean by such ungentlemanly language as plunder, eh?”

The speaker laid himself down again at full length, and gave one or two short, angry kicks, as if in further expression of his unbounded indignation. It was quite plain that he acted the bully, and his friend the peacemaker, for some particular purpose; or rather, it would have been to any one but the weak old man; for they exchanged glances quite openly, both with each other and with the gipsy, who grinned his approval of the jest until his white teeth shone again.

The old man stood helplessly among them for a little time, and then said, turning to his assailant:

“You yourself were speaking of plunder just now, you know. Don’t be so violent with me. You were, were you not?”

“Not of plundering among present company! Honour among—among gentlemen, Sir,” returned the other, who seemed to have been very near giving an awkward termination to the sentence.

“Don’t be hard upon him, Jowl,” said Isaac List. “He’s very sorry for giving offence. There—go on with what you were saying—go on.”

“I’m a jolly old tender-hearted lamb, I am,” cried Mr. Jowl, “to be sitting here at my time of life giving advice when I know it won’t be taken, and that I shall get nothing but abuse for my pains. But that’s the way I’ve gone through life. Experience has never put a chill upon my warm-heartedness.”

“I tell you he’s very sorry, don’t I?” remonstrated Isaac List, “and that he wishes you’d go on.”

“Does he wish it?” said the other.

“Ay,” groaned the old man sitting down, and rocking himself to and fro. “Go on, go on. It’s in vain to fight with it; I can’t do it; go on.”

“I go on then,” said Jowl, “where I left off, when you got up so quick. If you’re persuaded that it’s time for luck to turn, as it certainly is, and find that you haven’t means enough to try it (and that’s where it is, for you know, yourself, that you never have the funds to keep on long enough at a sitting), help yourself to what seems put in your way on purpose. Borrow it, I say, and, when you’re able, pay it back again.”

“Certainly,” Isaac List struck in, “if this good lady as keeps the wax-works has money, and does keep it in a tin box when she goes to bed, and doesn’t lock her door for fear of fire, it seems a easy thing; quite a Providence, I should call it—but then I’ve been religiously brought up.”

“You see, Isaac,” said his friend, growing more eager, and drawing himself closer to the old man, while he signed to the gipsy not to come between them; “you see, Isaac, strangers are going in and out every hour of the day; nothing would be more likely than for one of these strangers to get under the good lady’s bed, or lock himself in the cupboard; suspicion would be very wide, and would fall a long way from the mark, no doubt. I’d give him his revenge to the last farthing he brought, whatever the amount was.”

“But could you?” urged Isaac List. “Is your bank strong enough?”

“Strong enough!” answered the other, with assumed disdain. “Here, you Sir, give me that box out of the straw!”

This was addressed to the gipsy, who crawled into the low tent on all fours, and after some rummaging and rustling returned with a cash-box, which the man who had spoken opened with a key he wore about his person.

“Do you see this?” he said, gathering up the money in his hand and letting it drop back into the box, between his fingers, like water. “Do you hear it? Do you know the sound of gold? There, put it back—and don’t talk about banks again, Isaac, till you’ve got one of your own.”

Isaac List, with great apparent humility, protested that he had never doubted the credit of a gentleman so notorious for his honourable dealing as Mr. Jowl, and that he had hinted at the production of the box, not for the satisfaction of his doubts, for he could have none, but with a view to being regaled with a sight of so much wealth, which, though it might be deemed by some but an unsubstantial and visionary pleasure, was to one in his circumstances a source of extreme delight, only to be surpassed by its safe depository in his own personal pockets. Although Mr. List and Mr. Jowl addressed themselves to each other, it was remarkable that they both looked narrowly at the old man, who, with his eyes fixed upon the fire, sat brooding over it, yet listening eagerly—as it seemed from a certain involuntary motion of the head, or twitching of the face from time to time—to all they said.

“My advice,” said Jowl, lying down again with a careless air, “is plain—I have given it, in fact. I act as a friend. Why should I help a man to the means perhaps of winning all I have, unless I considered him my friend? It’s foolish, I dare say, to be so thoughtful of the welfare of other people, but that’s my constitution, and I can’t help it; so don’t blame me, Isaac List.”

“I blame you!” returned the person addressed; “not for the world, Mr. Jowl. I wish I could afford to be as liberal as you; and, as you say, he might pay it back if he won—and if he lost—”

“You’re not to take that into consideration at all,” said Jowl.

“But suppose he did (and nothing’s less likely, from all I know of chances), why, it’s better to lose other people’s money than one’s own, I hope?”

“Ah!” cried Isaac List rapturously, “the pleasures of winning! The delight of picking up the money—the bright, shining yellow-boys—and sweeping ’em into one’s pocket! The deliciousness of having a triumph at last, and thinking that one didn’t stop short and turn back, but went half-way to meet it! The—but you’re not going, old gentleman?”

“I’ll do it,” said the old man, who had risen and taken two or three hurried steps away, and now returned as hurriedly. “I’ll have it, every penny.”

“Why, that’s brave,” cried Isaac, jumping up and slapping him on the shoulder; “and I respect you for having so much young blood left. Ha, ha, ha! Joe Jowl’s half sorry he advised you now. We’ve got the laugh against him. Ha, ha, ha!”

“He gives me my revenge, mind,” said the old man, pointing to him eagerly with his shrivelled hand: “mind—he stakes coin against coin, down to the last one in the box, be there many or few. Remember that!”

“I’m witness,” returned Isaac. “I’ll see fair between you.”

“I have passed my word,” said Jowl with feigned reluctance, “and I’ll keep it. When does this match come off? I wish it was over.—To-night?”

“I must have the money first,” said the old man; “and that I’ll have to-morrow—”

“Why not to-night?” urged Jowl.

“It’s late now, and I should be flushed and flurried,” said the old man. “It must be softly done. No, to-morrow night.”

“Then to-morrow be it,” said Jowl. “A drop of comfort here. Luck to the best man! Fill!”

The gipsy produced three tin cups, and filled them to the brim with brandy. The old man turned aside and muttered to himself before he drank. Her own name struck upon the listener’s ear, coupled with some wish so fervent, that he seemed to breathe it in an agony of supplication.

“God be merciful to us!” cried the child within herself, “and help us in this trying hour! What shall I do to save him!”

The remainder of their conversation was carried on in a lower tone of voice, and was sufficiently concise; relating merely to the execution of the project, and the best precautions for diverting suspicion. The old man then shook hands with his tempters, and withdrew.

They watched his bowed and stooping figure as it retreated slowly, and when he turned his head to look back, which he often did, waved their hands, or shouted some brief encouragement. It was not until they had seen him gradually diminish into a mere speck upon the distant road, that they turned to each other, and ventured to laugh aloud.

“So,” said Jowl, warming his hands at the fire, “it’s done at last. He wanted more persuading than I expected. It’s three weeks ago, since we first put this in his head. What’ll he bring, do you think?”

“Whatever he brings, it’s halved between us,” returned Isaac List.

The other man nodded. “We must make quick work of it,” he said, “and then cut his acquaintance, or we may be suspected. Sharp’s the word.”

List and the gipsy acquiesced. When they had all three amused themselves a little with their victim’s infatuation, they dismissed the subject as one which had been sufficiently discussed, and began to talk in a jargon which the child did not understand. As their discourse appeared to relate to matters in which they were warmly interested, however, she deemed it the best time for escaping unobserved; and crept away with slow and cautious steps, keeping in the shadow of the hedges, or forcing a path through them or the dry ditches, until she could emerge upon the road at a point beyond their range of vision. Then she fled homeward as quickly as she could, torn and bleeding from the wounds of thorns and briars, but more lacerated in mind, and threw herself upon her bed, distracted.

The first idea that flashed upon her mind was flight, instant flight; dragging him from that place, and rather dying of want upon the roadside, than ever exposing him again to such terrible temptations. Then, she remembered that the crime was not to be committed until next night, and there was the intermediate time for thinking, and resolving what to do. Then, she was distracted with a horrible fear that he might be committing it at that moment; with a dread of hearing shrieks and cries piercing the silence of the night; with fearful thoughts of what he might be tempted and led on to do, if he were detected in the act, and had but a woman to struggle with. It was impossible to bear such torture. She stole to the room where the money was, opened the door, and looked in. God be praised! He was not there, and she was sleeping soundly.

She went back to her own room, and tried to prepare herself for bed. But who could sleep—sleep! who could lie passively down, distracted by such terrors? They came upon her more and more strongly yet. Half undressed, and with her hair in wild disorder, she flew to the old man’s bedside, clasped him by the wrist, and roused him from his sleep.

“What’s this!” he cried, starting up in bed, and fixing his eyes upon her spectral face.

“I have had a dreadful dream,” said the child, with an energy that nothing but such terrors could have inspired. “A dreadful, horrible dream. I have had it once before. It is a dream of grey-haired men like you, in darkened rooms by night, robbing sleepers of their gold. Up, up!”

The old man shook in every joint, and folded his hands like one who prays.

“Not to me,” said the child, “not to me—to Heaven, to save us from such deeds! This dream is too real. I cannot sleep, I cannot stay here, I cannot leave you alone under the roof where such dreams come. Up! We must fly.”

He looked at her as if she were a spirit—she might have been for all the look of earth she had—and trembled more and more.

“There is no time to lose; I will not lose one minute,” said the child. “Up! and away with me!”

“To-night?” murmured the old man.

“Yes, to-night,” replied the child. “To-morrow night will be too late. The dream will have come again. Nothing but flight can save us. Up!”

The old man rose from his bed: his forehead bedewed with the cold sweat of fear: and, bending before the child as if she had been an angel messenger sent to lead him where she would, made ready to follow her. She took him by the hand and led him on. As they passed the door of the room he had proposed to rob, she shuddered and looked up into his face. What a white face was that, and with what a look did he meet hers!

She took him to her own chamber, and, still holding him by the hand as if she feared to lose him for an instant, gathered together the little stock she had, and hung her basket on her arm. The old man took his wallet from her hands and strapped it on his shoulders—his staff, too, she had brought away—and then she led him forth.

Through the strait streets, and narrow crooked outskirts, their trembling feet passed quickly. Up the steep hill too, crowned by the old grey castle, they toiled with rapid steps, and had not once looked behind.

But as they drew nearer the ruined walls, the moon rose in all her gentle glory, and, from their venerable age, garlanded with ivy, moss, and waving grass, the child looked back upon the sleeping town, deep in the valley’s shade: and on the far-off river with its winding track of light: and on the distant hills; and as she did so, she clasped the hand she held, less firmly, and bursting into tears, fell upon the old man’s neck.

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