The Old Curiosity Shop

Chapter 57

Charles Dickens

MR. CHUCKSTER’S indignant apprehensions were not without foundation. Certainly the friendship between the single gentleman and Mr. Garland was not suffered to cool, but had a rapid growth and flourished exceedingly. They were soon in habits of constant intercourse and communication; and the single gentleman labouring at this time under a slight attack of illness—the consequence most probably of his late excited feelings and subsequent disappointment—furnished a reason for their holding yet more frequent correspondence; so that some one of the inmates of Abel Cottage, Finchley, came backwards and forwards between that place and Bevis Marks, almost every day.

As the pony had now thrown off all disguise, and without any mincing of the matter or beating about the bush, sturdily refused to be driven by anybody but Kit, it generally happened that whether old Mr. Garland came, or Mr. Abel, Kit was of the party. Of all messages and inquiries, Kit was, in right of his position, the bearer; thus it came about that, while the single gentleman remained indisposed, Kit turned into Bevis Marks every morning with nearly as much regularity as the General Postman.

Mr. Sampson Brass, who no doubt had his reasons for looking sharply about him, soon learnt to distinguish the pony’s trot and the clatter of the little chaise at the corner of the street. Whenever the sound reached his ears, he would immediately lay down his pen and fall to rubbing his hands and exhibiting the greatest glee.

“Ha ha!” he would cry. “Here’s the pony again! Most remarkable pony, extremely docile, eh, Mr. Richard, eh sir?”

Dick would return some matter-of-course reply, and Mr. Brass standing on the bottom rail of his stool, so as to get a view of the street over the top of the window-blind, would take an observation of the visitors.

“The old gentleman again!” he would exclaim, “a very prepossessing old gentleman, Mr. Richard—charming countenance, sir—extremely calm—benevolence in every feature, sir. He quite realises my idea of King Lear, as he appeared when in possession of his kingdom, Mr. Richard—the same good humour, the same white hair and partial baldness, the same liability to be imposed upon. Ah! A sweet subject for contemplation, sir, very sweet!”

Then Mr. Garland having alighted and gone up-stairs, Sampson would nod and smile to Kit from the window, and presently walk out into the street to greet him, when some such conversation as the following would ensue.

“Admirably groomed, Kit”—Mr Brass is patting the pony—“does you great credit—amazingly sleek and bright to be sure. He literally looks as if he had been varnished all over.”

Kit touches his hat, smiles, pats the pony himself, and expresses his conviction, “that Mr. Brass will not find many like him.”

“A beautiful animal indeed!” cries Brass. “Sagacious too?”

“Bless you!” replies Kit, “he knows what you say to him as well as a Christian does.”

“Does he indeed!” cries Brass, who has heard the same thing in the same place from the same person in the same words a dozen times, but is paralysed with astonishment notwithstanding. “Dear me!”

“I little thought the first time I saw him, Sir,” says Kit, pleased with the attorney’s strong interest in his favourite, “that I should come to be as intimate with him as I am now.”

“Ah!” rejoins Mr. Brass, brim-full of moral precepts and love of virtue. “A charming subject of reflection for you, very charming. A subject of proper pride and congratulation, Christopher. Honesty is the best policy.—I always find it so myself. I lost forty-seven pound ten by being honest this morning. But it’s all gain, it’s gain!”

Mr. Brass slyly tickles his nose with his pen, and looks at Kit with the water standing in his eyes. Kit thinks that if ever there was a good man who belied his appearance, that man is Sampson Brass.

“A man,” says Sampson, “who loses forty-seven pound ten in one morning by his honesty, is a man to be envied. If it had been eighty pound, the luxuriousness of feeling would have been increased. Every pound lost, would have been a hundredweight of happiness gained. The still small voice, Christopher,” cries Brass, smiling, and tapping himself on the bosom, “is a-singing comic songs within me, and all is happiness and joy!”

Kit is so improved by the conversation, and finds it go so completely home to his feelings, that he is considering what he shall say, when Mr. Garland appears. The old gentleman is helped into the chaise with great obsequiousness by Mr. Sampson Brass; and the pony, after shaking his head several times, and standing for three or four minutes with all his four legs planted firmly on the ground, as if he had made up his mind never to stir from that spot, but there to live and die, suddenly darts off, without the smallest notice, at the rate of twelve English miles an hour. Then, Mr. Brass and his sister (who has joined him at the door) exchange an odd kind of smile—not at all a pleasant one in its expression—and return to the society of Mr. Richard Swiveller, who, during their absence, has been regaling himself with various feats of pantomime, and is discovered at his desk, in a very flushed and heated condition, violently scratching out nothing with half a penknife.

Whenever Kit came alone, and without the chaise, it always happened that Sampson Brass was reminded of some mission, calling Mr. Swiveller, if not to Peckham Rye again, at all events to some pretty distant place from which he could not be expected to return for two or three hours, or in all probability a much longer period, as that gentleman was not, to say the truth, renowned for using great expedition on such occasions, but rather for protracting and spinning out the time to the very utmost limit of possibility. Mr. Swiveller out of sight, Miss Sally immediately withdrew. Mr. Brass would then set the office-door wide open, hum his old tune with great gaiety of heart, and smile seraphically as before. Kit coming down-stairs would be called in; entertained with some moral and agreeable conversation; perhaps entreated to mind the office for an instant while Mr. Brass stepped over the way; and afterwards presented with one or two half-crowns as the case might be. This occurred so often, that Kit, nothing doubting but that they came from the single gentleman who had already rewarded his mother with great liberality, could not enough admire his generosity; and bought so many cheap presents for her, and for little Jacob, and for the baby, and for Barbara to boot, that one or other of them was having some new trifle every day of their lives.

While these acts and deeds were in progress in and out of the office of Sampson Brass, Richard Swiveller, being often left alone therein, began to find the time hang heavy on his hands. For the better preservation of his cheerfulness therefore, and to prevent his faculties from rusting, he provided himself with a cribbage-board and pack of cards, and accustomed himself to play at cribbage with a dummy, for twenty, thirty, or sometimes even fifty thousand pounds aside, besides many hazardous bets to a considerable amount.

As these games were very silently conducted, notwithstanding the magnitude of the interests involved, Mr. Swiveller began to think that on those evenings when Mr. and Miss Brass were out (and they often went out now) he heard a kind of snorting or hard-breathing sound in the direction of the door, which it occurred to him, after some reflection, must proceed from the small servant, who always had a cold from damp living. Looking intently that way one night, he plainly distinguished an eye gleaming and glistening at the keyhole; and having now no doubt that his suspicions were correct, he stole softly to the door, and pounced upon her before she was aware of his approach.

“Oh! I didn’t mean any harm indeed, upon my word I didn’t,” cried the small servant, struggling like a much larger one. “It’s so very dull, down-stairs, Please don’t you tell upon me, please don’t.”

“Tell upon you!” said Dick. “Do you mean to say you were looking through the keyhole for company?”

“Yes, upon my word I was,” replied the small servant.

“How long have you been cooling your eye there?” said Dick.

“Oh ever since you first began to play them cards, and long before.”

Vague recollections of several fantastic exercises with which he had refreshed himself after the fatigues of business, and to all of which, no doubt, the small servant was a party, rather disconcerted Mr. Swiveller; but he was not very sensitive on such points, and recovered himself speedily.

“Well—come in”—he said, after a little consideration. “Here—sit down, and I’ll teach you how to play.”

“Oh! I durstn’t do it,” rejoined the small servant; “Miss Sally ’ud kill me, if she know’d I come up here.”

“Have you got a fire down-stairs?” said Dick.

“A very little one,” replied the small servant.

“Miss Sally couldn’t kill me if she know’d I went down there, so I’ll come,” said Richard, putting the cards into his pocket. “Why, how thin you are! What do you mean by it?”

“It ain’t my fault.”

“Could you eat any bread and meat?” said Dick, taking down his hat. “Yes? Ah! I thought so. Did you ever taste beer?”

“I had a sip of it once,” said the small servant.

“Here’s a state of things!” cried Mr. Swiveller, raising his eyes to the ceiling. “She never tasted it—it can’t be tasted in a sip! Why, how old are you?”

“I don’t know.”

Mr. Swiveller opened his eyes very wide, and appeared thoughtful for a moment; then, bidding the child mind the door until he came back, vanished straightway.

Presently, he returned, followed by the boy from the public-house, who bore in one hand a plate of bread and beef, and in the other a great pot, filled with some very fragrant compound, which sent forth a grateful steam, and was indeed choice purl, made after a particular recipe which Mr. Swiveller had imparted to the landlord, at a period when he was deep in his books and desirous to conciliate his friendship. Relieving the boy of his burden at the door, and charging his little companion to fasten it to prevent surprise, Mr. Swiveller followed her into the kitchen.

“There!” said Richard, putting the plate before her. “First of all clear that off, and then you’ll see what’s next.”

The small servant needed no second bidding, and the plate was soon empty.

“Next,” said Dick, handing the purl, “take a pull at that; but moderate your transports, you know, for you’re not used to it. Well, is it good?”

“Oh! isn’t it?” said the small servant.

Mr. Swiveller appeared gratified beyond all expression by this reply, and took a long draught himself, steadfastly regarding his companion while he did so. These preliminaries disposed of, he applied himself to teaching her the game, which she soon learnt tolerably well, being both sharp-witted and cunning.

“Now,” said Mr. Swiveller, putting two sixpences into a saucer, and trimming the wretched candle, when the cards had been cut and dealt, “those are the stakes. If you win, you get ’em all. If I win, I get ’em. To make it seem more real and pleasant, I shall call you the Marchioness, do you hear?”

The small servant nodded.

“Then, Marchioness,” said Mr. Swiveller, “fire away!”

The Marchioness, holding her cards very tight in both hands, considered which to play, and Mr. Swiveller, assuming the gay and fashionable air which such society required, took another pull at the tankard, and waited for her lead.

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