The Old Curiosity Shop

Chapter 61

Charles Dickens

LET moralists and philosophers say what they may, it is very questionable whether a guilty man would have felt half as much misery that night, as Kit did, being innocent. The world, being in the constant commission of vast quantities of injustice, is a little too apt to comfort itself with the idea that if the victim of its falsehood and malice have a clear conscience, he cannot fail to be sustained under his trials, and somehow or other to come right at last; “in which case,” say they who have hunted him down, “—though we certainly don’t expect it—nobody will be better pleased than we.” Whereas, the world would do well to reflect, that injustice is in itself, to every generous and properly constituted mind, an injury, of all others the most insufferable, the most torturing, and the most hard to bear; and that many clear consciences have gone to their account elsewhere, and many sound hearts have broken, because of this very reason; the knowledge of their own deserts only aggravating their sufferings, and rendering them the less endurable.

The world, however, was not in fault in Kit’s case. But Kit was innocent; and knowing this, and feeling that his best friends deemed him guilty—that Mr. and Mrs. Garland would look upon him as a monster of ingratitude—that Barbara would associate him with all that was bad and criminal—that the pony would consider himself forsaken—and that even his own mother might perhaps yield to the strong appearances against him, and believe him to be the wretch he seemed—knowing and feeling all this, he experienced, at first, an agony of mind which no words can describe, and walked up and down the little cell in which he was locked up for the night, almost beside himself with grief.

Even when the violence of these emotions had in some degree subsided, and he was beginning to grow more calm, there came into his mind a new thought, the anguish of which was scarcely less. The child—the bright star of the simple fellow’s life—she, who always came back upon him like a beautiful dream—who had made the poorest part of his existence, the happiest and best—who had ever been so gentle, and considerate, and good—if she were ever to hear of this, what would she think! As this idea occurred to him, the walls of the prison seemed to melt away, and the old place to reveal itself in their stead, as it was wont to be on winter nights—the fireside, the little supper table, the old man’s hat, and coat, and stick—the half-opened door, leading to her little room—they were all there. And Nell herself was there, and he—both laughing heartily as they had often done—and when he had got as far as this, Kit could go no farther, but flung himself upon his poor bedstead and wept.

It was a long night, which seemed as though it would have no end; but he slept too, and dreamed—always of being at liberty, and roving about, now with one person and now with another, but ever with a vague dread of being recalled to prison; not that prison, but one which was in itself a dim idea—not of a place, but of a care and sorrow: of something oppressive and always present, and yet impossible to define. At last, the morning dawned, and there was the jail itself—cold, black, and dreary, and very real indeed.

He was left to himself, however, and there was comfort in that. He had liberty to walk in a small paved yard at a certain hour, and learnt from the turnkey, who came to unlock his cell and show him where to wash, that there was a regular time for visiting, every day, and that if any of his friends came to see him, he would be fetched down to the grate. When he had given him this information, and a tin porringer containing his breakfast, the man locked him up again; and went clattering along the stone passage, opening and shutting a great many other doors, and raising numberless loud echoes which resounded through the building for a long time, as if they were in prison too, and unable to get out.

This turnkey had given him to understand that he was lodged, like some few others in the jail, apart from the mass of prisoners; because he was not supposed to be utterly depraved and irreclaimable, and had never occupied apartments in that mansion before. Kit was thankful for this indulgence, and sat reading the church catechism very attentively (though he had known it by heart from a little child), until he heard the key in the lock, and the man entered again.

“Now then,” he said, “come on!”

“Where to, Sir?” asked Kit.

The man contented himself by briefly replying “Wisitors;” and taking him by the arm in exactly the same manner as the constable had done the day before, led him, through several winding ways and strong gates, into a passage, where he placed him at a grating and turned upon his heel. Beyond this grating, at the distance of about four or five feet, was another exactly like it. In the space between, sat a turnkey reading a newspaper, and outside the further railing, Kit saw, with a palpitating heart, his mother with the baby in her arms; Barbara’s mother with her never-failing umbrella; and poor little Jacob, staring in with all his might, as though he were looking for the bird, or the wild beast, and thought the men were mere accidents with whom the bars could have no possible concern.

But when little Jacob saw his brother, and, thrusting his arms between the rails to hug him, found that he came no nearer, but still stood afar off with his head resting on the arm by which he held to one of the bars, he began to cry most piteously; whereupon, Kit’s mother and Barbara’s mother, who had restrained themselves as much as possible, burst out sobbing and weeping afresh. Poor Kit could not help joining them, and not one of them could speak a word. During this melancholy pause, the turnkey read his newspaper with a waggish look (he had evidently got among the facetious paragraphs) until, happening to take his eyes off for an instant, as if to get by dint of contemplation at the very marrow of some joke of a deeper sort than the rest, it appeared to occur to him, for the first time, that somebody was crying.

“Now, ladies, ladies,” he said, looking round with surprise, “I’d advise you not to waste time like this. It’s allowanced here, you know. You mustn’t let that child make that noise either. It’s against all rules.”

“I’m his poor mother, sir,”—sobbed Mrs. Nubbles, curtseying humbly, “and this is his brother, sir. Oh dear me, dear me!”

“Well!” replied the turnkey, folding his paper on his knee, so as to get with greater convenience at the top of the next column. “It can’t be helped you know. He ain’t the only one in the same fix. You mustn’t make a noise about it!”

With that he went on reading. The man was not unnaturally cruel or hard-hearted. He had come to look upon felony as a kind of disorder, like the scarlet fever or erysipelas: some people had it—some hadn’t—just as it might be.

“Oh! my darling Kit,” said his mother, whom Barbara’s mother had charitably relieved of the baby, “that I should see my poor boy here!”

“You don’t believe that I did what they accuse me of, mother dear?” cried Kit, in a choking voice.

“I believe it!” exclaimed the poor woman, “I that never knew you tell a lie, or do a bad action from your cradle—that have never had a moment’s sorrow on your account, except it was the poor meals that you have taken with such good humour and content, that I forgot how little there was, when I thought how kind and thoughtful you were, though you were but a child!—I believe it of the son that’s been a comfort to me from the hour of his birth until this time, and that I never laid down one night in anger with! I believe it of you Kit!—”

“Why then, thank God!” said Kit, clutching the bars with an earnestness that shook them, “and I can bear it, mother! Come what may, I shall always have one drop of happiness in my heart when I think that you said that.”

At this the poor woman fell a-crying again, and Barbara’s mother too. And little Jacob, whose disjointed thoughts had by this time resolved themselves into a pretty distinct impression that Kit couldn’t go out for a walk if he wanted, and that there were no birds, lions, tigers or other natural curiosities behind those bars—nothing indeed, but a caged brother—added his tears to theirs with as little noise as possible.

Kit’s mother, drying her eyes (and moistening them, poor soul, more than she dried them), now took from the ground a small basket, and submissively addressed herself to the turnkey, saying, would he please to listen to her for a minute? The turnkey, being in the very crisis and passion of a joke, motioned to her with his hand to keep silent one minute longer, for her life. Nor did he remove his hand into its former posture, but kept it in the same warning attitude until he had finished the paragraph, when he paused for a few seconds, with a smile upon his face, as who should say “this editor is a comical blade—a funny dog,” and then asked her what she wanted.

“I have brought him a little something to eat,” said the good woman. “If you please, Sir, might he have it?”

“Yes,—he may have it. There’s no rule against that. Give it to me when you go, and I’ll take care he has it.”

“No, but if you please sir—don’t be angry with me sir—I am his mother, and you had a mother once—if I might only see him eat a little bit, I should go away, so much more satisfied that he was all comfortable.”

And again the tears of Kit’s mother burst forth, and of Barbara’s mother, and of little Jacob. As to the baby, it was crowing and laughing with its might—under the idea, apparently, that the whole scene had been invented and got up for its particular satisfaction.

The turnkey looked as if he thought the request a strange one and rather out of the common way, but nevertheless he laid down his paper, and coming round where Kit’s mother stood, took the basket from her, and after inspecting its contents, handed it to Kit, and went back to his place. It may be easily conceived that the prisoner had no great appetite, but he sat down on the ground, and ate as hard as he could, while, at every morsel he put into his mouth, his mother sobbed and wept afresh, though with a softened grief that bespoke the satisfaction the sight afforded her.

While he was thus engaged, Kit made some anxious inquiries about his employers, and whether they had expressed any opinion concerning him; but all he could learn was that Mr. Abel had himself broken the intelligence to his mother, with great kindness and delicacy, late on the previous night, but had himself expressed no opinion of his innocence or guilt. Kit was on the point of mustering courage to ask Barbara’s mother about Barbara, when the turnkey who had conducted him, reappeared, a second turnkey appeared behind his visitors, and the third turnkey with the newspaper cried “Time’s up!”—adding in the same breath “Now for the next party!” and then plunging deep into his newspaper again. Kit was taken off in an instant, with a blessing from his mother, and a scream from little Jacob, ringing in his ears. As he was crossing the next yard with the basket in his hand, under the guidance of his former conductor, another officer called to them to stop, and came up with a pint pot of porter in his hand.

“This is Christopher Nubbles, isn’t it, that come in last night for felony?” said the man.

His comrade replied that this was the chicken in question.

“Then here’s your beer,” said the other man to Christopher. “What are you looking at? There an’t a discharge in it.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Kit. “Who sent it me?”

“Why, your friend,” replied the man. “You’re to have it every day, he says. And so you will, if he pays for it.”

“My friend!” repeated Kit.

“You’re all abroad, seemingly,” returned the other man. “There’s his letter. Take hold!”

Kit took it, and when he was locked up again, read as follows.

“Drink of this cup, you’ll find there’s a spell in its every drop ’gainst the ills of mortality. Talk of the cordial that sparkled for Helen! Her cup was a fiction, but this is reality (Barclay and Co.’s).—If they ever send it in a flat state, complain to the Governor. Yours, R. S.”

“R. S.!” said Kit, after some consideration. “It must be Mr. Richard Swiveller. Well, its very kind of him, and I thank him heartily.”

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