The child, in her confidence with Mrs Quilp, had but feebly described the sadness and sorrow of her thoughts, or the heaviness of the cloud which overhung her home, and cast dark shadows on its hearth. Besides that it was very difficult to impart to any person not intimately acquainted with the life she led, an adequate sense of its gloom and loneliness, a constant fear of in some way committing or injuring the old man to whom she was so tenderly attached, had restrained her, even in the midst of her heart’s overflowing, and made her timid of allusion to the main cause of her anxiety and distress.
For, it was not the monotonous days unchequered by variety and uncheered by pleasant companionship, it was not the dark dreary evenings or the long solitary nights, it was not the absence of every slight and easy pleasure for which young hearts beat high, or the knowing nothing of childhood but its weakness and its easily wounded spirit, that had wrung such tears from Nell. To see the old man struck down beneath the pressure of some hidden grief, to mark his wavering and unsettled state, to be agitated at times with a dreadful fear that his mind was wandering, and to trace in his words and looks the dawning of despondent madness; to watch and wait and listen for confirmation of these things day after day, and to feel and know that, come what might, they were alone in the world with no one to help or advise or care about them—these were causes of depression and anxiety that might have sat heavily on an older breast with many influences at work to cheer and gladden it, but how heavily on the mind of a young child to whom they were ever present, and who was constantly surrounded by all that could keep such thoughts in restless action!
And yet, to the old man’s vision, Nell was still the same. When he could, for a moment, disengage his mind from the phantom that haunted and brooded on it always, there was his young companion with the same smile for him, the same earnest words, the same merry laugh, the same love and care that, sinking deep into his soul, seemed to have been present to him through his whole life. And so he went on, content to read the book of her heart from the page first presented to him, little dreaming of the story that lay hidden in its other leaves, and murmuring within himself that at least the child was happy.
She had been once. She had gone singing through the dim rooms, and moving with gay and lightsome step among their dusty treasures, making them older by her young life, and sterner and more grim by her gay and cheerful presence. But, now, the chambers were cold and gloomy, and when she left her own little room to while away the tedious hours, and sat in one of them, she was still and motionless as their inanimate occupants, and had no heart to startle the echoes—hoarse from their long silence—with her voice.
In one of these rooms, was a window looking into the street, where the child sat, many and many a long evening, and often far into the night, alone and thoughtful. None are so anxious as those who watch and wait; at these times, mournful fancies came flocking on her mind, in crowds.
She would take her station here, at dusk, and watch the people as they passed up and down the street, or appeared at the windows of the opposite houses; wondering whether those rooms were as lonesome as that in which she sat, and whether those people felt it company to see her sitting there, as she did only to see them look out and draw in their heads again. There was a crooked stack of chimneys on one of the roofs, in which, by often looking at them, she had fancied ugly faces that were frowning over at her and trying to peer into the room; and she felt glad when it grew too dark to make them out, though she was sorry too, when the man came to light the lamps in the street—for it made it late, and very dull inside. Then, she would draw in her head to look round the room and see that everything was in its place and hadn’t moved; and looking out into the street again, would perhaps see a man passing with a coffin on his back, and two or three others silently following him to a house where somebody lay dead; which made her shudder and think of such things until they suggested afresh the old man’s altered face and manner, and a new train of fears and speculations. If he were to die—if sudden illness had happened to him, and he were never to come home again, alive—if, one night, he should come home, and kiss and bless her as usual, and after she had gone to bed and had fallen asleep and was perhaps dreaming pleasantly, and smiling in her sleep, he should kill himself and his blood come creeping, creeping, on the ground to her own bed-room door! These thoughts were too terrible to dwell upon, and again she would have recourse to the street, now trodden by fewer feet, and darker and more silent than before. The shops were closing fast, and lights began to shine from the upper windows, as the neighbours went to bed. By degrees, these dwindled away and disappeared or were replaced, here and there, by a feeble rush-candle which was to burn all night. Still, there was one late shop at no great distance which sent forth a ruddy glare upon the pavement even yet, and looked bright and companionable. But, in a little time, this closed, the light was extinguished, and all was gloomy and quiet, except when some stray footsteps sounded on the pavement, or a neighbour, out later than his wont, knocked lustily at his house-door to rouse the sleeping inmates.
When the night had worn away thus far (and seldom now until it had) the child would close the window, and steal softly down stairs, thinking as she went that if one of those hideous faces below, which often mingled with her dreams, were to meet her by the way, rendering itself visible by some strange light of its own, how terrified she would be. But these fears vanished before a well-trimmed lamp and the familiar aspect of her own room. After praying fervently, and with many bursting tears, for the old man, and the restoration of his peace of mind and the happiness they had once enjoyed, she would lay her head upon the pillow and sob herself to sleep: often starting up again, before the day-light came, to listen for the bell and respond to the imaginary summons which had roused her from her slumber.
One night, the third after Nelly’s interview with Mrs Quilp, the old man, who had been weak and ill all day, said he should not leave home. The child’s eyes sparkled at the intelligence, but her joy subsided when they reverted to his worn and sickly face.
‘Two days,’ he said, ‘two whole, clear, days have passed, and there is no reply. What did he tell thee, Nell?’
‘Exactly what I told you, dear grandfather, indeed.’
‘True,’ said the old man, faintly. ‘Yes. But tell me again, Nell. My head fails me. What was it that he told thee? Nothing more than that he would see me to-morrow or next day? That was in the note.’
‘Nothing more,’ said the child. ‘Shall I go to him again to-morrow, dear grandfather? Very early? I will be there and back, before breakfast.’
The old man shook his head, and sighing mournfully, drew her towards him.
”Twould be of no use, my dear, no earthly use. But if he deserts me, Nell, at this moment—if he deserts me now, when I should, with his assistance, be recompensed for all the time and money I have lost, and all the agony of mind I have undergone, which makes me what you see, I am ruined, and—worse, far worse than that—have ruined thee, for whom I ventured all. If we are beggars—!’
‘What if we are?’ said the child boldly. ‘Let us be beggars, and be happy.’
‘Beggars—and happy!’ said the old man. ‘Poor child!’
‘Dear grandfather,’ cried the girl with an energy which shone in her flushed face, trembling voice, and impassioned gesture, ‘I am not a child in that I think, but even if I am, oh hear me pray that we may beg, or work in open roads or fields, to earn a scanty living, rather than live as we do now.’
‘Nelly!’ said the old man.
‘Yes, yes, rather than live as we do now,’ the child repeated, more earnestly than before. ‘If you are sorrowful, let me know why and be sorrowful too; if you waste away and are paler and weaker every day, let me be your nurse and try to comfort you. If you are poor, let us be poor together; but let me be with you, do let me be with you; do not let me see such change and not know why, or I shall break my heart and die. Dear grandfather, let us leave this sad place to-morrow, and beg our way from door to door.’
The old man covered his face with his hands, and hid it in the pillow of the couch on which he lay.
‘Let us be beggars,’ said the child passing an arm round his neck, ‘I have no fear but we shall have enough, I am sure we shall. Let us walk through country places, and sleep in fields and under trees, and never think of money again, or anything that can make you sad, but rest at nights, and have the sun and wind upon our faces in the day, and thank God together! Let us never set foot in dark rooms or melancholy houses, any more, but wander up and down wherever we like to go; and when you are tired, you shall stop to rest in the pleasantest place that we can find, and I will go and beg for both.’
The child’s voice was lost in sobs as she dropped upon the old man’s neck; nor did she weep alone.
These were not words for other ears, nor was it a scene for other eyes. And yet other ears and eyes were there and greedily taking in all that passed, and moreover they were the ears and eyes of no less a person than Mr Daniel Quilp, who, having entered unseen when the child first placed herself at the old man’s side, refrained—actuated, no doubt, by motives of the purest delicacy—from interrupting the conversation, and stood looking on with his accustomed grin. Standing, however, being a tiresome attitude to a gentleman already fatigued with walking, and the dwarf being one of that kind of persons who usually make themselves at home, he soon cast his eyes upon a chair, into which he skipped with uncommon agility, and perching himself on the back with his feet upon the seat, was thus enabled to look on and listen with greater comfort to himself, besides gratifying at the same time that taste for doing something fantastic and monkey-like, which on all occasions had strong possession of him. Here, then, he sat, one leg cocked carelessly over the other, his chin resting on the palm of his hand, his head turned a little on one side, and his ugly features twisted into a complacent grimace. And in this position the old man, happening in course of time to look that way, at length chanced to see him: to his unbounded astonishment.
The child uttered a suppressed shriek on beholding this agreeable figure; in their first surprise both she and the old man, not knowing what to say, and half doubting its reality, looked shrinkingly at it. Not at all disconcerted by this reception, Daniel Quilp preserved the same attitude, merely nodding twice or thrice with great condescension. At length, the old man pronounced his name, and inquired how he came there.
‘Through the door,’ said Quilp pointing over his shoulder with his thumb. ‘I’m not quite small enough to get through key-holes. I wish I was. I want to have some talk with you, particularly, and in private. With nobody present, neighbour. Good-bye, little Nelly.’
Nell looked at the old man, who nodded to her to retire, and kissed her cheek.
‘Ah!’ said the dwarf, smacking his lips, ‘what a nice kiss that was—just upon the rosy part. What a capital kiss!’
Nell was none the slower in going away, for this remark. Quilp looked after her with an admiring leer, and when she had closed the door, fell to complimenting the old man upon her charms.
‘Such a fresh, blooming, modest little bud, neighbour,’ said Quilp, nursing his short leg, and making his eyes twinkle very much; ‘such a chubby, rosy, cosy, little Nell!’
The old man answered by a forced smile, and was plainly struggling with a feeling of the keenest and most exquisite impatience. It was not lost upon Quilp, who delighted in torturing him, or indeed anybody else, when he could.
‘She’s so,’ said Quilp, speaking very slowly, and feigning to be quite absorbed in the subject, ‘so small, so compact, so beautifully modelled, so fair, with such blue veins and such a transparent skin, and such little feet, and such winning ways—but bless me, you’re nervous! Why neighbour, what’s the matter? I swear to you,’ continued the dwarf dismounting from the chair and sitting down in it, with a careful slowness of gesture very different from the rapidity with which he had sprung up unheard, ‘I swear to you that I had no idea old blood ran so fast or kept so warm. I thought it was sluggish in its course, and cool, quite cool. I am pretty sure it ought to be. Yours must be out of order, neighbour.’
‘I believe it is,’ groaned the old man, clasping his head with both hands. ‘There’s burning fever here, and something now and then to which I fear to give a name.’
The dwarf said never a word, but watched his companion as he paced restlessly up and down the room, and presently returned to his seat. Here he remained, with his head bowed upon his breast for some time, and then suddenly raising it, said,
‘Once, and once for all, have you brought me any money?’
‘No!’ returned Quilp.
‘Then,’ said the old man, clenching his hands desperately, and looking upwards, ‘the child and I are lost!’
‘Neighbour,’ said Quilp glancing sternly at him, and beating his hand twice or thrice upon the table to attract his wandering attention, ‘let me be plain with you, and play a fairer game than when you held all the cards, and I saw but the backs and nothing more. You have no secret from me now.’
The old man looked up, trembling.
‘You are surprised,’ said Quilp. ‘Well, perhaps that’s natural. You have no secret from me now, I say; no, not one. For now, I know, that all those sums of money, that all those loans, advances, and supplies that you have had from me, have found their way to—shall I say the word?’
‘Aye!’ replied the old man, ‘say it, if you will.’
‘To the gaming-table,’ rejoined Quilp, ‘your nightly haunt. This was the precious scheme to make your fortune, was it; this was the secret certain source of wealth in which I was to have sunk my money (if I had been the fool you took me for); this was your inexhaustible mine of gold, your El Dorado, eh?’
‘Yes,’ cried the old man, turning upon him with gleaming eyes, ‘it was. It is. It will be, till I die.’
‘That I should have been blinded,’ said Quilp looking contemptuously at him, ‘by a mere shallow gambler!’
‘I am no gambler,’ cried the old man fiercely. ‘I call Heaven to witness that I never played for gain of mine, or love of play; that at every piece I staked, I whispered to myself that orphan’s name and called on Heaven to bless the venture;—which it never did. Whom did it prosper? Who were those with whom I played? Men who lived by plunder, profligacy, and riot; squandering their gold in doing ill, and propagating vice and evil. My winnings would have been from them, my winnings would have been bestowed to the last farthing on a young sinless child whose life they would have sweetened and made happy. What would they have contracted? The means of corruption, wretchedness, and misery. Who would not have hoped in such a cause? Tell me that! Who would not have hoped as I did?’
‘When did you first begin this mad career?’ asked Quilp, his taunting inclination subdued, for a moment, by the old man’s grief and wildness.
‘When did I first begin?’ he rejoined, passing his hand across his brow. ‘When was it, that I first began? When should it be, but when I began to think how little I had saved, how long a time it took to save at all, how short a time I might have at my age to live, and how she would be left to the rough mercies of the world, with barely enough to keep her from the sorrows that wait on poverty; then it was that I began to think about it.’
‘After you first came to me to get your precious grandson packed off to sea?’ said Quilp.
‘Shortly after that,’ replied the old man. ‘I thought of it a long time, and had it in my sleep for months. Then I began. I found no pleasure in it, I expected none. What has it ever brought me but anxious days and sleepless nights; but loss of health and peace of mind, and gain of feebleness and sorrow!’
‘You lost what money you had laid by, first, and then came to me. While I thought you were making your fortune (as you said you were) you were making yourself a beggar, eh? Dear me! And so it comes to pass that I hold every security you could scrape together, and a bill of sale upon the—upon the stock and property,’ said Quilp standing up and looking about him, as if to assure himself that none of it had been taken away. ‘But did you never win?’
‘Never!’ groaned the old man. ‘Never won back my loss!’
‘I thought,’ sneered the dwarf, ‘that if a man played long enough he was sure to win at last, or, at the worst, not to come off a loser.’
‘And so he is,’ cried the old man, suddenly rousing himself from his state of despondency, and lashed into the most violent excitement, ‘so he is; I have felt that from the first, I have always known it, I’ve seen it, I never felt it half so strongly as I feel it now. Quilp, I have dreamed, three nights, of winning the same large sum, I never could dream that dream before, though I have often tried. Do not desert me, now I have this chance. I have no resource but you, give me some help, let me try this one last hope.’
The dwarf shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
‘See, Quilp, good tender-hearted Quilp,’ said the old man, drawing some scraps of paper from his pocket with a trembling hand, and clasping the dwarf’s arm, ‘only see here. Look at these figures, the result of long calculation, and painful and hard experience. I must win. I only want a little help once more, a few pounds, but two score pounds, dear Quilp.’
‘The last advance was seventy,’ said the dwarf; ‘and it went in one night.’
‘I know it did,’ answered the old man, ‘but that was the very worst fortune of all, and the time had not come then. Quilp, consider, consider,’ the old man cried, trembling so much the while, that the papers in his hand fluttered as if they were shaken by the wind, ‘that orphan child! If I were alone, I could die with gladness—perhaps even anticipate that doom which is dealt out so unequally: coming, as it does, on the proud and happy in their strength, and shunning the needy and afflicted, and all who court it in their despair—but what I have done, has been for her. Help me for her sake I implore you; not for mine; for hers!’
‘I’m sorry I’ve got an appointment in the city,’ said Quilp, looking at his watch with perfect self-possession, ‘or I should have been very glad to have spent half an hour with you while you composed yourself, very glad.’
‘Nay, Quilp, good Quilp,’ gasped the old man, catching at his skirts, ‘you and I have talked together, more than once, of her poor mother’s story. The fear of her coming to poverty has perhaps been bred in me by that. Do not be hard upon me, but take that into account. You are a great gainer by me. Oh spare me the money for this one last hope!’
‘I couldn’t do it really,’ said Quilp with unusual politeness, ‘though I tell you what—and this is a circumstance worth bearing in mind as showing how the sharpest among us may be taken in sometimes—I was so deceived by the penurious way in which you lived, alone with Nelly—’
‘All done to save money for tempting fortune, and to make her triumph greater,’ cried the old man.
‘Yes, yes, I understand that now,’ said Quilp; ‘but I was going to say, I was so deceived by that, your miserly way, the reputation you had among those who knew you of being rich, and your repeated assurances that you would make of my advances treble and quadruple the interest you paid me, that I’d have advanced you, even now, what you want, on your simple note of hand, if I hadn’t unexpectedly become acquainted with your secret way of life.’
‘Who is it,’ retorted the old man desperately, ‘that, notwithstanding all my caution, told you? Come. Let me know the name—the person.’
The crafty dwarf, bethinking himself that his giving up the child would lead to the disclosure of the artifice he had employed, which, as nothing was to be gained by it, it was well to conceal, stopped short in his answer and said, ‘Now, who do you think?’
‘It was Kit, it must have been the boy; he played the spy, and you tampered with him?’ said the old man.
‘How came you to think of him?’ said the dwarf in a tone of great commiseration. ‘Yes, it was Kit. Poor Kit!’
So saying, he nodded in a friendly manner, and took his leave: stopping when he had passed the outer door a little distance, and grinning with extraordinary delight.
‘Poor Kit!’ muttered Quilp. ‘I think it was Kit who said I was an uglier dwarf than could be seen anywhere for a penny, wasn’t it. Ha ha ha! Poor Kit!’
And with that he went his way, still chuckling as he went.
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