The Old Curiosity Shop

Chapter 67

Charles Dickens

UNCONSCIOUS of the proceedings faithfully narrated in the last chapter, and little dreaming of the mine which had been sprung beneath him (for, to the end that he should have no warning of the business a-foot, the profoundest secrecy was observed in the whole transaction), Mr. Quilp remained shut up in his hermitage, undisturbed by any suspicion, and extremely well satisfied with the result of his machinations. Being engaged in the adjustment of some accounts—an occupation to which the silence and solitude of his retreat were very favourable—he had not strayed from his den for two whole days. The third day of his devotion to this pursuit found him still hard at work, and little disposed to stir abroad.

It was the day next after Mr. Brass’s confession, and consequently, that which threatened the restriction of Mr. Quilp’s liberty, and the abrupt communication to him of some very unpleasant and unwelcome facts. Having no intuitive perception of the cloud which lowered upon his house, the dwarf was in his ordinary state of cheerfulness; and, when he found he was becoming too much engrossed by business with a due regard to his health and spirits, he varied its monotonous routine with a little screeching, or howling, or some other innocent relaxation of that nature.

He was attended, as usual, by Tom Scott, who sat crouching over the fire after the manner of a toad, and, from time to time, when his master’s back was turned, imitating his grimaces with a fearful exactness. The figure-head had not yet disappeared, but remained in its old place. The face, horribly seared by the frequent application of the red-hot poker, and further ornamented by the insertion, in the tip of the nose, of a tenpenny nail, yet smiled blandly in its less lacerated parts, and seemed, like a sturdy martyr, to provoke its tormentor to the commission of new outrages and insults.

The day, in the highest and brightest quarters of the town, was damp, dark, cold and gloomy. In that low and marshy spot, the fog filled every nook and corner with a thick dense cloud. Every object was obscure at one or two yards’ distance. The warning lights and fires upon the river were powerless beneath this pall, and, but for a raw and piercing chillness in the air, and now and then the cry of some bewildered boatman as he rested on his oars and tried to make out where he was, the river itself might have been miles away.

The mist, though sluggish and slow to move, was of a keenly searching kind. No muffling up in furs and broadcloth kept it out. It seemed to penetrate into the very bones of the shrinking wayfarers, and to rack them with cold and pains. Everything was wet and clammy to the touch. The warm blaze alone defied it, and leaped and sparkled merrily. It was a day to be at home, crowding about the fire, telling stories of travellers who had lost their way in such weather on heaths and moors; and to love a warm hearth more than ever.

The dwarf’s humour, as we know, was to have a fireside to himself; and when he was disposed to be convivial, to enjoy himself alone. By no means insensible to the comfort of being within doors, he ordered Tom Scott to pile the little stove with coals, and, dismissing his work for that day, determined to be jovial.

To this end, he lighted up fresh candles and heaped more fuel on the fire; and having dined off a beefsteak, which he cooked himself in somewhat of a savage and cannibal-like manner, brewed a great bowl of hot punch, lighted his pipe, and sat down to spend the evening.

At this moment, a low knocking at the cabin-door arrested his attention. When it had been twice or thrice repeated, he softly opened the little window, and thrusting his head out, demanded who was there.

“Only me, Quilp,” replied a woman’s voice.

“Only you!” cried the dwarf, stretching his neck to obtain a better view of his visitor. “And what brings you here, you jade? How dare you approach the ogre’s castle, eh?”

“I have come with some news,” rejoined his spouse. “Don’t be angry with me.”

“Is it good news, pleasant news, news to make a man skip and snap his fingers?” said the dwarf. “Is the dear old lady dead?”

“I don’t know what news it is, or whether it’s good or bad,” rejoined his wife.

“Then she’s alive,” said Quilp, “and there’s nothing the matter with her. Go home again, you bird of evil note, go home!”

“I have brought a letter,” cried the meek little woman.

“Toss it in at the window here, and go your ways,” said Quilp, interrupting her, “or I’ll come out and scratch you.”

“No, but please, Quilp—do hear me speak,” urged his submissive wife, in tears. “Please do!”

“Speak then,” growled the dwarf with a malicious grin. “Be quick and short about it. Speak, will you?”

“It was left at our house this afternoon,” said Mrs. Quilp, trembling, “by a boy who said he didn’t know from whom it came, but that it was given to him to leave, and that he was told to say it must be brought on to you directly, for it was of the very greatest consequence.—But please,” she added, as her husband stretched out his hand for it, “please let me in. You don’t know how wet and cold I am, or how many times I have lost my way in coming here through this thick fog. Let me dry myself at the fire for five minutes. I’ll go away directly you tell me to, Quilp. Upon my word I will.”

Her amiable husband hesitated for a few moments; but, bethinking himself that the letter might require some answer, of which she could be the bearer, closed the window, opened the door, and bade her enter. Mrs. Quilp obeyed right willingly, and, kneeling down before the fire to warm her hands, delivered into his a little packet.

“I’m glad you’re wet,” said Quilp, snatching it, and squinting at her. “I’m glad you’re cold. I’m glad you lost your way. I’m glad your eyes are red with crying. It does my heart good to see your little nose so pinched and frosty.”

“Oh Quilp!” sobbed his wife. “How cruel it is of you!”

“Did she think I was dead?” said Quilp, wrinkling his face into a most extraordinary series of grimaces. “Did she think she was going to have all the money, and to marry somebody she liked? Ha ha ha! Did she?”

These taunts elicited no reply from the poor little woman, who remained on her knees, warming her hands, and sobbing, to Mr. Quilp’s great delight. But, just as he was contemplating her, and chuckling excessively, he happened to observe that Tom Scott was delighted too; wherefore, that he might have no presumptuous partner in his glee, the dwarf instantly collared him, dragged him to the door, and after a short scuffle, kicked him into the yard. In return for this mark of attention, Tom immediately walked upon his hands to the window, and—if the expression be allowable—looked in with his shoes: besides rattling his feet upon the glass like a Banshee upside down. As a matter of course, Mr. Quilp lost no time in resorting to the infallible poker, with which, after some dodging and lying in ambush, he paid his young friend one or two such unequivocal compliments that he vanished precipitately, and left him in quiet possession of the field.

“So! That little job being disposed of,” said the dwarf, coolly, “I’ll read my letter. Humph!” he muttered, looking at the direction. “I ought to know this writing. Beautiful Sally!”

Opening it, he read, in a fair, round, legal hand, as follows:

“Sammy has been practised upon, and has broken confidence. It has all come out. You had better not be in the way, for strangers are going to call upon you. They have been very quiet as yet, because they mean to surprise you. Don’t lose time. I didn’t. I am not to be found anywhere. If I was you, I wouldn’t either. S. B., late of B. M.”

To describe the changes that passed over Quilp’s face, as he read this letter half-a-dozen times, would require some new language: such, for power of expression, as was never written, read, or spoken. For a long time he did not utter one word; but, after a considerable interval, during which Mrs. Quilp was almost paralysed with the alarm his looks engendered, he contrived to gasp out,

“If I had him here. If I only had him here—”

“Oh Quilp!” said his wife, “what’s the matter? Who are you angry with?”

“—I should drown him,” said the dwarf, not heeding her. “Too easy a death, too short, too quick—but the river runs close at hand. Oh! if I had him here! just to take him to the brink coaxingly and pleasantly,—holding him by the button-hole—joking with him,—and, with a sudden push, to send him splashing down! Drowning men come to the surface three times they say. Ah! To see him those three times, and mock him as his face came bobbing up,—oh, what a rich treat that would be!”

“Quilp!” stammered his wife, venturing at the same time to touch him on the shoulder: “what has gone wrong?”

She was so terrified by the relish with which he pictured this pleasure to himself that she could scarcely make herself intelligible.

“Such a bloodless cur!” said Quilp, rubbing his hands very slowly, and pressing them tight together. “I thought his cowardice and servility were the best guarantee for his keeping silence. Oh Brass, Brass—my dear, good, affectionate, faithful, complimentary, charming friend—if I only had you here!”

His wife, who had retreated lest she should seem to listen to these mutterings, ventured to approach him again, and was about to speak, when he hurried to the door, and called Tom Scott, who, remembering his late gentle admonition, deemed it prudent to appear immediately.

“There!” said the dwarf, pulling him in. “Take her home. Don’t come here to-morrow, for this place will be shut up. Come back no more till you hear from me or see me. Do you mind?”

Tom nodded sulkily, and beckoned Mrs. Quilp to lead the way.

“As for you,” said the dwarf, addressing himself to her, “ask no questions about me, make no search for me, say nothing concerning me. I shall not be dead, mistress, and that’ll comfort you. He’ll take care of you.”

“But, Quilp? What is the matter? Where are you going? Do say something more?”

“I’ll say that,” said the dwarf, seizing her by the arm, “and do that too, which undone and unsaid would be best for you, unless you go directly.”

“Has anything happened?” cried his wife. “Oh! Do tell me that?”

“Yes,” snarled the dwarf. “No. What matter which? I have told you what to do. Woe betide you if you fail to do it, or disobey me by a hair’s breadth. Will you go!”

“I am going, I’ll go directly; but,” faltered his wife, “answer me one question first. Has this letter any connexion with dear little Nell? I must ask you that—I must indeed, Quilp. You cannot think what days and nights of sorrow I have had through having once deceived that child. I don’t know what harm I may have brought about, but, great or little, I did it for you, Quilp. My conscience misgave me when I did it. Do answer me this question, if you please?”

The exasperated dwarf returned no answer, but turned round and caught up his usual weapon with such vehemence, that Tom Scott dragged his charge away, by main force, and as swiftly as he could. It was well he did so, for Quilp, who was nearly mad with rage, pursued them to the neighbouring lane, and might have prolonged the chase but for the dense mist which obscured them from his view and appeared to thicken every moment.

“It will be a good night for travelling anonymously,” he said, as he returned slowly, being pretty well breathed with his run. “Stay. We may look better here. This is too hospitable and free.”

By a great exertion of strength, he closed the two old gates, which were deeply sunken in the mud, and barred them with a heavy beam. That done, he shook his matted hair from about his eyes, and tried them.—Strong and fast.

“The fence between this wharf and the next is easily climbed,” said the dwarf, when he had taken these precautions. “There’s a back lane, too, from there. That shall be my way out. A man need know his road well, to find it in this lovely place to-night. I need fear no unwelcome visitors while this lasts, I think.”

Almost reduced to the necessity of groping his way with his hands (it had grown so dark and the fog had so much increased), he returned to his lair; and, after musing for some time over the fire, busied himself in preparations for a speedy departure.

While he was collecting a few necessaries and cramming them into his pockets, he never once ceased communing with himself in a low voice, or unclenched his teeth, which he had ground together on finishing Miss Brass’s note.

“Oh Sampson!” he muttered, “good worthy creature—if I could but hug you! If I could only fold you in my arms, and squeeze your ribs, as I could squeeze them if I once had you tight—what a meeting there would be between us! If we ever do cross each other again, Sampson, we’ll have a greeting not easily to be forgotten, trust me. This time, Sampson, this moment when all had gone on so well, was so nicely chosen! It was so thoughtful of you, so penitent, so good. Oh, if we were face to face in this room again, my white-livered man of law, how well contented one of us would be!”

There he stopped; and raising the bowl of punch to his lips, drank a long deep draught, as if it were fair water and cooling to his parched mouth. Setting it down abruptly, and resuming his preparations, he went on with his soliloquy.

“There’s Sally,” he said, with flashing eyes; “the woman has spirit, determination, purpose—was she asleep, or petrified? She could have stabbed him—poisoned him safely. She might have seen this coming on. Why does she give me notice when it’s too late? When he sat there,—yonder there, over there,—with his white face, and red head, and sickly smile, why didn’t I know what was passing in his heart? It should have stopped beating, that night, if I had been in his secret, or there are no drugs to lull a man to sleep, or no fire to burn him!”

Another draught from the bowl; and, cowering over the fire with a ferocious aspect, he muttered to himself again.

“And this, like every other trouble and anxiety I have had of late times, springs from that old dotard and his darling child—two wretched feeble wanderers! I’ll be their evil genius yet. And you, sweet Kit, honest Kit, virtuous, innocent Kit, look to yourself. Where I hate, I bite. I hate you, my darling fellow, with good cause, and proud as you are to-night, I’ll have my turn.——What’s that?”

A knocking at the gate he had closed. A loud and violent knocking. Then, a pause; as if those who knocked had stopped to listen. Then, the noise again, more clamorous and importunate than before.

“So soon!” said the dwarf. “And so eager! I am afraid I shall disappoint you. It’s well I’m quite prepared. Sally, I thank you!”

As he spoke, he extinguished the candle. In his impetuous attempts to subdue the brightness of the fire, he overset the stove, which came tumbling forward, and fell with a crash upon the burning embers it had shot forth in its descent, leaving the room in pitchy darkness. The noise at the gate still continuing, he felt his way to the door, and stepped into the open air.

At that moment the knocking ceased. It was about eight o’clock; but the dead of the darkest night would have been as noon-day in comparison with the thick cloud which then rested upon the earth, and shrouded everything from view. He darted forward for a few paces, as if into the mouth of some dim, yawning cavern; then, thinking he had gone wrong, changed the direction of his steps; then stood still, not knowing where to turn.

“If they would knock again,” said Quilp, trying to peer into the gloom by which he was surrounded, “the sound might guide me! Come! Batter the gate once more!”

He stood listening intently, but the noise was not renewed. Nothing was to be heard in that deserted place, but, at intervals, the distant barkings of dogs. The sound was far away—now in one quarter, now answered in another—nor was it any guide, for it often came from shipboard, as he knew.

“If I could find a wall or fence,” said the dwarf, stretching out his arms, and walking slowly on, “I should know which way to turn. A good, black, devil’s night this, to have my dear friend here! If I had but that wish, it might, for anything I cared, never be day again.”

As the word passed his lips, he staggered and fell—and next moment was fighting with the cold dark water!

For all its bubbling up and rushing in his ears, he could hear the knocking at the gate again—could hear a shout that followed it—could recognise the voice. For all his struggling and plashing, he could understand that they had lost their way, and had wandered back to the point from which they started; that they were all but looking on, while he was drowned; that they were close at hand, but could not make an effort to save him; that he himself had shut and barred them out. He answered the shout—with a yell, which seemed to make the hundred fires that danced before his eyes tremble and flicker, as if a gust of wind had stirred them. It was of no avail. The strong tide filled his throat, and bore him on, upon its rapid current.

Another mortal struggle, and he was up again, beating the water with his hands, and looking out, with wild and glaring eyes that showed him some black object he was drifting close upon. The hull of a ship! He could touch its smooth and slippery surface with his hand. One loud cry, now—but the resistless water bore him down before he could give it utterance, and, driving him under it, carried away a corpse.

It toyed and sported with its ghastly freight, now bruising it against the slimy piles, now hiding it in mud or long rank grass, now dragging it heavily over rough stones and gravel, now feigning to yield it to its own element, and in the same action luring it away, until, tired of the ugly plaything, it flung it on a swamp—a dismal place where pirates had swung in chains through many a wintry night—and left it there to bleach.

And there it lay alone. The sky was red with flame, and the water that bore it there had been tinged with the sullen light as it flowed along. The place the deserted carcass had left so recently, a living man, was now a blazing ruin. There was something of the glare upon its face. The hair, stirred by the damp breeze, played in a kind of mockery of death—such a mockery as the dead man himself would have delighted in when alive—about its head, and its dress fluttered idly in the night wind.

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