The Old Curiosity Shop

Chapter 58

Charles Dickens

MR. SWIVELLER and his partner played several rubbers with varying success, until the loss of three sixpences, the gradual sinking of the purl, and the striking of ten o’clock, combined to render that gentleman mindful of the flight of Time, and the expediency of withdrawing before Mr. Sampson and Miss Sally Brass returned.

“With which object in view, Marchioness,” said Mr. Swiveller gravely, “I shall ask your ladyship’s permission to put the board in my pocket, and to retire from the presence when I have finished this tankard; merely observing, Marchioness, that since life like a river is flowing, I care not how fast it rolls on, ma’am, on, while such purl on the bank still is growing, and such eyes light the waves as they run. Marchioness, your health. You will excuse my wearing my hat, but the palace is damp, and the marble floor is—if I may be allowed the expression—sloppy.”

As a precaution against this latter inconvenience, Mr. Swiveller had been sitting for some time with his feet on the hob, in which attitude he now gave utterance to these apologetic observations, and slowly sipped the last choice drops of nectar.

“The Baron Sampsono Brasso and his fair sister are (you tell me) at the Play?” said Mr. Swiveller, leaning his left arm heavily upon the table, and raising his voice and his right leg after the manner of a theatrical bandit.

The Marchioness nodded.

“Ha!” said Mr. Swiveller, with a portentous frown. “’Tis well. Marchioness!—but no matter. Some wine there. Ho!” He illustrated these melodramatic morsels by handing the tankard to himself with great humility, receiving it haughtily, drinking from it thirstily, and smacking his lips fiercely.

The small servant, who was not so well acquainted with theatrical conventionalities as Mr. Swiveller (having indeed never seen a play, or heard one spoken of, except by chance through chinks of doors and in other forbidden places), was rather alarmed by demonstrations so novel in their nature, and showed her concern so plainly in her looks, that Mr. Swiveller felt it necessary to discharge his brigand manner for one more suitable to private life, as he asked,

“Do they often go where glory waits ’em, and leave you here?”

“Oh, yes; I believe you they do,” returned the small servant. “Miss Sally’s such a one-er for that, she is.”

“Such a what?” said Dick.

“Such a one-er,” returned the Marchioness.

After a moment’s reflection, Mr. Swiveller determined to forego his responsible duty of setting her right, and to suffer her to talk on; as it was evident that her tongue was loosened by the purl, and her opportunities for conversation were not so frequent as to render a momentary check of little consequence.

“They sometimes go to see Mr. Quilp,” said the small servant with a shrewd look; “they go to a many places, bless you!”

“Is Mr. Brass a wunner?” said Dick.

“Not half what Miss Sally is, he isn’t,” replied the small servant, shaking her head. “Bless you, he’d never do anything without her.”

“Oh! He wouldn’t, wouldn’t he?” said Dick.

“Miss Sally keeps him in such order,” said the small servant; “he always asks her advice, he does; and he catches it sometimes. Bless you, you wouldn’t believe how much he catches it.”

“I suppose,” said Dick, “that they consult together, a good deal, and talk about a great many people—about me for instance, sometimes, eh, Marchioness?”

The Marchioness nodded amazingly.

“Complimentary?” said Mr. Swiveller.

The Marchioness changed the motion of her head, which had not yet left off nodding, and suddenly began to shake it from side to side, with a vehemence which threatened to dislocate her neck.

“Humph!” Dick muttered. “Would it be any breach of confidence, Marchioness, to relate what they say of the humble individual who has now the honour to—?”

“Miss Sally says you’re a funny chap,” replied his friend.

“Well, Marchioness,” said Mr. Swiveller, “that’s not uncomplimentary. Merriment, Marchioness, is not a bad or a degrading quality. Old King Cole was himself a merry old soul, if we may put any faith in the pages of history.”

“But she says,” pursued his companion, “that you an’t to be trusted.”

“Why, really Marchioness,” said Mr. Swiveller, thoughtfully; “several ladies and gentlemen—not exactly professional persons, but tradespeople, ma’am, tradespeople—have made the same remark. The obscure citizen who keeps the hotel over the way, inclined strongly to that opinion to-night when I ordered him to prepare the banquet. It’s a popular prejudice, Marchioness; and yet I am sure I don’t know why, for I have been trusted in my time to a considerable amount, and I can safely say that I never forsook my trust until it deserted me—never. Mr. Brass is of the same opinion, I suppose?”

His friend nodded again, with a cunning look which seemed to hint that Mr. Brass held stronger opinions on the subject than his sister; and seeming to recollect herself, added imploringly, “But don’t you ever tell upon me, or I shall be beat to death.”

“Marchioness,” said Mr. Swiveller, rising, “the word of a gentleman is as good as his bond—sometimes better, as in the present case, where his bond might prove but a doubtful sort of security. I am your friend, and I hope we shall play many more rubbers together in this same saloon. But, Marchioness,” added Richard, stopping in his way to the door, and wheeling slowly round upon the small servant, who was following with the candle; “it occurs to me that you must be in the constant habit of airing your eye at keyholes, to know all this.”

“I only wanted,” replied the trembling Marchioness, “to know where the key of the safe was hid; that was all; and I wouldn’t have taken much, if I had found it—only enough to squench my hunger.”

“You didn’t find it then?” said Dick. “But of course you didn’t, or you’d be plumper. Good night, Marchioness. Fare thee well, and if for ever, then for ever fare thee well—and put up the chain, Marchioness, in case of accidents.”

With this parting injunction, Mr. Swiveller emerged from the house; and feeling that he had by this time taken quite as much to drink as promised to be good for his constitution (purl being a rather strong and heady compound), wisely resolved to betake himself to his lodgings, and to bed at once. Homeward he went therefore; and his apartments (for he still retained the plural fiction) being at no great distance from the office, he was soon seated in his own bed-chamber, where, having pulled off one boot and forgotten the other, he fell into deep cogitation.

“This Marchioness,” said Mr. Swiveller, folding his arms, “is a very extraordinary person—surrounded by mysteries, ignorant of the taste of beer, unacquainted with her own name (which is less remarkable), and taking a limited view of society through the keyholes of doors—can these things be her destiny, or has some unknown person started an opposition to the decrees of fate? It is a most inscrutable and unmitigated staggerer!”

When his meditations had attained this satisfactory point, he became aware of his remaining boot, of which, with unimpaired solemnity he proceeded to divest himself; shaking his head with exceeding gravity all the time, and sighing deeply.

“These rubbers,” said Mr. Swiveller, putting on his nightcap in exactly the same style as he wore his hat, “remind me of the matrimonial fireside. Cheggs’s wife plays cribbage; all-fours likewise. She rings the changes on ’em now. From sport to sport they hurry her to banish her regrets, and when they win a smile from her, they think that she forgets—but she don’t. By this time, I should say,” added Richard, getting his left cheek into profile, and looking complacently at the reflection of a very little scrap of whisker in the looking-glass; “by this time, I should say, the iron has entered into her soul. It serves her right!”

Melting from this stern and obdurate, into the tender and pathetic mood, Mr. Swiveller groaned a little, walked wildly up and down, and even made a show of tearing his hair, which, however, he thought better of, and wrenched the tassel from his nightcap instead. At last, undressing himself with a gloomy resolution, he got into bed.

Some men in his blighted position would have taken to drinking; but as Mr. Swiveller had taken to that before, he only took, on receiving the news that Sophy Wackles was lost to him for ever, to playing the flute; thinking after mature consideration that it was a good, sound, dismal occupation, not only in unison with his own sad thoughts, but calculated to awaken a fellow-feeling in the bosoms of his neighbours. In pursuance of this resolution, he now drew a little table to his bedside, and arranging the light and a small oblong music-book to the best advantage, took his flute from its box, and began to play most mournfully.

The air was “Away with melancholy”—a composition, which, when it is played very slowly on the flute, in bed, with the further disadvantage of being performed by a gentleman but imperfectly acquainted with the instrument, who repeats one note a great many times before he can find the next, has not a lively effect. Yet, for half the night, or more, Mr. Swiveller, lying sometimes on his back with his eyes upon the ceiling, and sometimes half out of bed to correct himself by the book, played this unhappy tune over and over again; never leaving off, save for a minute or two at a time to take breath and soliloquise about the Marchioness, and then beginning again with renewed vigour. It was not until he had quite exhausted his several subjects of meditation, and had breathed into the flute the whole sentiment of the purl down to its very dregs, and had nearly maddened the people of the house, and at both the next doors, and over the way—that he shut up the music-book, extinguished the candle, and finding himself greatly lightened and relieved in his mind, turned round and fell asleep.

He awoke in the morning, much refreshed; and having taken half an hour’s exercise at the flute, and graciously received a notice to quit from his landlady, who had been in waiting on the stairs for that purpose since the dawn of day, repaired to Bevis Marks; where the beautiful Sally was already at her post, bearing in her looks a radiance, mild as that which beameth from the virgin moon.

Mr. Swiveller acknowledged her presence by a nod, and exchanged his coat for the aquatic jacket; which usually took some time fitting on, for in consequence of a tightness in the sleeves, it was only to be got into by a series of struggles. This difficulty overcome, he took his seat at the desk.

“I say”—quoth Miss Brass, abruptly breaking silence, “you haven’t seen a silver pencil-case this morning, have you?”

“I didn’t meet many in the street,” rejoined Mr. Swiveller. “I saw one—a stout pencil-case of respectable appearance—but as he was in company with an elderly penknife, and a young toothpick with whom he was in earnest conversation, I felt a delicacy in speaking to him.”

“No, but have you?” returned Miss Brass. “Seriously, you know.”

“What a dull dog you must be to ask me such a question seriously,” said Mr. Swiveller. “Haven’t I this moment come?”

“Well, all I know is,” replied Miss Sally, “that it’s not to be found, and that it disappeared one day this week, when I left it on the desk.”

“Halloa!” thought Richard, “I hope the Marchioness hasn’t been at work here.”

“There was a knife too,” said Miss Sally, “of the same pattern. They were given to me by my father, years ago, and are both gone. You haven’t missed anything yourself, have you?”

Mr. Swiveller involuntarily clapped his hands to the jacket to be quite sure that it was a jacket and not a skirted coat; and having satisfied himself of the safety of this, his only moveable in Bevis Marks, made answer in the negative.

“It’s a very unpleasant thing, Dick,” said Miss Brass, pulling out the tin box and refreshing herself with a pinch of snuff; “but between you and me—between friends you know, for if Sammy knew it, I should never hear the last of it—some of the office-money, too, that has been left about, has gone in the same way. In particular, I have missed three half-crowns at three different times.”

“You don’t mean that?” cried Dick. “Be careful what you say, old boy, for this is a serious matter. Are you quite sure? Is there no mistake?”

“It is so, and there can’t be any mistake at all,” rejoined Miss Brass emphatically.

“Then by Jove,” thought Richard, laying down his pen, “I am afraid the Marchioness is done for!”

The more he discussed the subject in his thoughts, the more probable it appeared to Dick that the miserable little servant was the culprit. When he considered on what a spare allowance of food she lived, how neglected and untaught she was, and how her natural cunning had been sharpened by necessity and privation, he scarcely doubted it. And yet he pitied her so much, and felt so unwilling to have a matter of such gravity disturbing the oddity of their acquaintance, that he thought, and thought truly, that rather than receive fifty pounds down, he would have the Marchioness proved innocent.

While he was plunged in very profound and serious meditation upon this theme, Miss Sally sat shaking her head with an air of great mystery and doubt; when the voice of her brother Sampson, carolling a cheerful strain, was heard in the passage, and that gentleman himself, beaming with virtuous smiles, appeared.

“Mr Richard, sir, good morning! Here we are again, sir, entering upon another day, with our bodies strengthened by slumber and breakfast, and our spirits fresh and flowing. Here we are, Mr. Richard, rising with the sun to run our little course—our course of duty, sir—and, like him, to get through our day’s work with credit to ourselves and advantage to our fellow-creatures. A charming reflection sir, very charming!”

While he addressed his clerk in these words, Mr. Brass was, somewhat ostentatiously, engaged in minutely examining and holding up against the light a five-pound bank note, which he had brought in, in his hand.

Mr. Richard not receiving his remarks with anything like enthusiasm, his employer turned his eyes to his face, and observed that it wore a troubled expression.

“You’re out of spirits, sir,” said Brass. “Mr Richard, sir, we should fall to work cheerfully, and not in a despondent state. It becomes us, Mr. Richard, sir, to—”

Here the chaste Sarah heaved a loud sigh.

“Dear me!” said Mr. Sampson, “you too! Is anything the matter? Mr. Richard, sir—”

Dick, glancing at Miss Sally, saw that she was making signals to him, to acquaint her brother with the subject of their recent conversation. As his own position was not a very pleasant one until the matter was set at rest one way or other, he did so; and Miss Brass, plying her snuff-box at a most wasteful rate, corroborated his account.

The countenance of Sampson fell, and anxiety overspread his features. Instead of passionately bewailing the loss of his money, as Miss Sally had expected, he walked on tiptoe to the door, opened it, looked outside, shut it softly, returned on tiptoe, and said in a whisper,

“This is a most extraordinary and painful circumstance—Mr Richard, sir, a most painful circumstance. The fact is, that I myself have missed several small sums from the desk, of late, and have refrained from mentioning it, hoping that accident would discover the offender; but it has not done so—it has not done so. Sally—Mr Richard, sir—this is a particularly distressing affair!”

As Sampson spoke, he laid the bank-note upon the desk among some papers, in an absent manner, and thrust his hands into his pockets. Richard Swiveller pointed to it, and admonished him to take it up.

“No, Mr. Richard, sir,” rejoined Brass with emotion, “I will not take it up. I will let it lie there, sir. To take it up, Mr. Richard, sir, would imply a doubt of you; and in you, sir, I have unlimited confidence. We will let it lie there, Sir, if you please, and we will not take it up by any means.” With that, Mr. Brass patted him twice or thrice on the shoulder, in a most friendly manner, and entreated him to believe that he had as much faith in his honesty as he had in his own.

Although at another time Mr. Swiveller might have looked upon this as a doubtful compliment, he felt it, under the then-existing circumstances, a great relief to be assured that he was not wrongfully suspected. When he had made a suitable reply, Mr. Brass wrung him by the hand, and fell into a brown study, as did Miss Sally likewise. Richard too remained in a thoughtful state; fearing every moment to hear the Marchioness impeached, and unable to resist the conviction that she must be guilty.

When they had severally remained in this condition for some minutes, Miss Sally all at once gave a loud rap upon the desk with her clenched fist, and cried, “I’ve hit it!”—as indeed she had, and chipped a piece out of it too; but that was not her meaning.

“Well,” cried Brass anxiously. “Go on, will you!”

“Why,” replied his sister with an air of triumph, “hasn’t there been somebody always coming in and out of this office for the last three or four weeks; hasn’t that somebody been left alone in it sometimes—thanks to you; and do you mean to tell me that that somebody isn’t the thief!”

“What somebody?” blustered Brass.

“Why, what do you call him—Kit.”

“Mr Garland’s young man?”

“To be sure.”

“Never!” cried Brass. “Never. I’ll not hear of it. Don’t tell me”—said Sampson, shaking his head, and working with both his hands as if he were clearing away ten thousand cobwebs. “I’ll never believe it of him. Never!”

“I say,” repeated Miss Brass, taking another pinch of snuff, “that he’s the thief.”

“I say,” returned Sampson violently, “that he is not. What do you mean? How dare you? Are characters to be whispered away like this? Do you know that he’s the honestest and faithfullest fellow that ever lived, and that he has an irreproachable good name? Come in, come in!”

These last words were not addressed to Miss Sally, though they partook of the tone in which the indignant remonstrances that preceded them had been uttered. They were addressed to some person who had knocked at the office-door; and they had hardly passed the lips of Mr. Brass, when this very Kit himself looked in.

“Is the gentleman up-stairs, sir, if you please?”

“Yes, Kit,” said Brass, still fired with an honest indignation, and frowning with knotted brows upon his sister; “Yes Kit, he is. I am glad to see you Kit, I am rejoiced to see you. Look in again, as you come down-stairs, Kit. That lad a robber!” cried Brass when he had withdrawn, “with that frank and open countenance! I’d trust him with untold gold. Mr. Richard, sir, have the goodness to step directly to Wrasp and Co.’s in Broad Street, and inquire if they have had instructions to appear in Carkem and Painter. That lad a robber,” sneered Sampson, flushed and heated with his wrath. “Am I blind, deaf, silly; do I know nothing of human nature when I see it before me? Kit a robber! Bah!”

Flinging this final interjection at Miss Sally with immeasurable scorn and contempt, Sampson Brass thrust his head into his desk, as if to shut the base world from his view, and breathed defiance from under its half-closed lid.

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