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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 19
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The Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 19 Post by :kenmat Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Dickens Date :June 2011 Read :1492

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The Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 19

CHAPTER 19


Supper was not yet over, when there arrived at the Jolly Sandboys
two more travellers bound for the same haven as the rest, who had
been walking in the rain for some hours, and came in shining and
heavy with water. One of these was the proprietor of a giant, and
a little lady without legs or arms, who had jogged forward in a
van; the other, a silent gentleman who earned his living by showing
tricks upon the cards, and who had rather deranged the natural
expression of his countenance by putting small leaden lozenges into
his eyes and bringing them out at his mouth, which was one of his
professional accomplishments. The name of the first of these
newcomers was Vuffin; the other, probably as a pleasant satire upon
his ugliness, was called Sweet William. To render them as
comfortable as he could, the landlord bestirred himself nimbly, and
in a very short time both gentlemen were perfectly at their ease.

'How's the Giant?' said Short, when they all sat smoking round the
fire.

'Rather weak upon his legs,' returned Mr Vuffin. 'I begin to be
afraid he's going at the knees.'

'That's a bad look-out,' said Short.

'Aye! Bad indeed,' replied Mr Vuffin, contemplating the fire with
a sigh. 'Once get a giant shaky on his legs, and the public care no
more about him than they do for a dead cabbage stalk.'

'What becomes of old giants?' said Short, turning to him again
after a little reflection.

'They're usually kept in carawans to wait upon the dwarfs,' said Mr
Vuffin.

'The maintaining of 'em must come expensive, when they can't be
shown, eh?' remarked Short, eyeing him doubtfully.

'It's better that, than letting 'em go upon the parish or about the
streets," said Mr Vuffin. 'Once make a giant common and giants will
never draw again. Look at wooden legs. If there was only one man
with a wooden leg what a property he'd be!'

'So he would!' observed the landlord and Short both together.
'That's very true.'

'Instead of which,' pursued Mr Vuffin, 'if you was to advertise
Shakspeare played entirely by wooden legs,' it's my belief you
wouldn't draw a sixpence.'

'I don't suppose you would,' said Short. And the landlord said so
too.

'This shows, you see,' said Mr Vuffin, waving his pipe with an
argumentative air, 'this shows the policy of keeping the used-up
giants still in the carawans, where they get food and lodging for
nothing, all their lives, and in general very glad they are to stop
there. There was one giant--a black 'un--as left his carawan some
year ago and took to carrying coach-bills about London, making
himself as cheap as crossing-sweepers. He died. I make no
insinuation against anybody in particular,' said Mr Vuffin, looking
solemnly round, 'but he was ruining the trade;--and he died.'

The landlord drew his breath hard, and looked at the owner of the
dogs, who nodded and said gruffly that he remembered.

'I know you do, Jerry,' said Mr Vuffin with profound meaning. 'I
know you remember it, Jerry, and the universal opinion was, that it
served him right. Why, I remember the time when old Maunders as had
three-and-twenty wans--I remember the time when old Maunders had
in his cottage in Spa Fields in the winter time, when the season
was over, eight male and female dwarfs setting down to dinner every
day, who was waited on by eight old giants in green coats, red
smalls, blue cotton stockings, and high-lows: and there was one
dwarf as had grown elderly and wicious who whenever his giant
wasn't quick enough to please him, used to stick pins in his legs,
not being able to reach up any higher. I know that's a fact, for
Maunders told it me himself.'

'What about the dwarfs when they get old?' inquired the landlord.

'The older a dwarf is, the better worth he is,' returned Mr Vuffin;
'a grey-headed dwarf, well wrinkled, is beyond all suspicion. But
a giant weak in the legs and not standing upright!--keep him in
the carawan, but never show him, never show him, for any persuasion
that can be offered.'

While Mr Vuffin and his two friends smoked their pipes and beguiled
the time with such conversation as this, the silent gentleman sat
in a warm corner, swallowing, or seeming to swallow, sixpennyworth
of halfpence for practice, balancing a feather upon his nose, and
rehearsing other feats of dexterity of that kind, without paying
any regard whatever to the company, who in their turn left him
utterly unnoticed. At length the weary child prevailed upon her
grandfather to retire, and they withdrew, leaving the company yet
seated round the fire, and the dogs fast asleep at a humble
distance.

After bidding the old man good night, Nell retired to her poor
garret, but had scarcely closed the door, when it was gently tapped
at. She opened it directly, and was a little startled by the sight
of Mr Thomas Codlin, whom she had left, to all appearance, fast
asleep down stairs.

'What is the matter?' said the child.

'Nothing's the matter, my dear,' returned her visitor. 'I'm your
friend. Perhaps you haven't thought so, but it's me that's your
friend--not him.'

'Not who?' the child inquired.

'Short, my dear. I tell you what,' said Codlin, 'for all his having
a kind of way with him that you'd be very apt to like, I'm the
real, open-hearted man. I mayn't look it, but I am indeed.'

The child began to be alarmed, considering that the ale had taken
effect upon Mr Codlin, and that this commendation of himself was
the consequence.

'Short's very well, and seems kind,' resumed the misanthrope, 'but
he overdoes it. Now I don't.'

Certainly if there were any fault in Mr Codlin's usual deportment,
it was that he rather underdid his kindness to those about him,
than overdid it. But the child was puzzled, and could not tell what
to say.

'Take my advice,' said Codlin: 'don't ask me why, but take it.
As long as you travel with us, keep as near me as you can. Don't
offer to leave us--not on any account--but always stick to me and
say that I'm your friend. Will you bear that in mind, my dear, and
always say that it was me that was your friend?'

'Say so where--and when?' inquired the child innocently.

'O, nowhere in particular,' replied Codlin, a little put out as it
seemed by the question; 'I'm only anxious that you should think me
so, and do me justice. You can't think what an interest I have in
you. Why didn't you tell me your little history--that about you
and the poor old gentleman? I'm the best adviser that ever was, and
so interested in you--so much more interested than Short. I think
they're breaking up down stairs; you needn't tell Short, you know,
that we've had this little talk together. God bless you. Recollect
the friend. Codlin's the friend, not Short. Short's very well as
far as he goes, but the real friend is Codlin--not Short.'

Eking out these professions with a number of benevolent and
protecting looks and great fervour of manner, Thomas Codlin stole
away on tiptoe, leaving the child in a state of extreme surprise.
She was still ruminating upon his curious behaviour, when the floor
of the crazy stairs and landing cracked beneath the tread of the
other travellers who were passing to their beds. When they had all
passed, and the sound of their footsteps had died away, one of them
returned, and after a little hesitation and rustling in the
passage, as if he were doubtful what door to knock at, knocked at
hers.

'Yes,' said the child from within.

'It's me--Short'--a voice called through the keyhole. 'I only
wanted to say that we must be off early to-morrow morning, my dear,
because unless we get the start of the dogs and the conjuror, the
villages won't be worth a penny. You'll be sure to be stirring
early and go with us? I'll call you.'

The child answered in the affirmative, and returning his 'good
night' heard him creep away. She felt some uneasiness at the
anxiety of these men, increased by the recollection of their
whispering together down stairs and their slight confusion when she
awoke, nor was she quite free from a misgiving that they were not
the fittest companions she could have stumbled on. Her uneasiness,
however, was nothing, weighed against her fatigue; and she soon
forgot it in sleep. Very early next morning, Short fulfilled his
promise, and knocking softly at her door, entreated that she would
get up directly, as the proprietor of the dogs was still snoring,
and if they lost no time they might get a good deal in advance both
of him and the conjuror, who was talking in his sleep, and from
what he could be heard to say, appeared to be balancing a donkey in
his dreams. She started from her bed without delay, and roused the
old man with so much expedition that they were both ready as soon
as Short himself, to that gentleman's unspeakable gratification and
relief.

After a very unceremonious and scrambling breakfast, of which the
staple commodities were bacon and bread, and beer, they took leave
of the landlord and issued from the door of the jolly Sandboys. The
morning was fine and warm, the ground cool to the feet after the
late rain, the hedges gayer and more green, the air clear, and
everything fresh and healthful. Surrounded by these influences,
they walked on pleasantly enough.

They had not gone very far, when the child was again struck by the
altered behaviour of Mr Thomas Codlin, who instead of plodding on
sulkily by himself as he had heretofore done, kept close to her,
and when he had an opportunity of looking at her unseen by his
companion, warned her by certain wry faces and jerks of the head
not to put any trust in Short, but to reserve all confidences for
Codlin. Neither did he confine himself to looks and gestures, for
when she and her grandfather were walking on beside the aforesaid
Short, and that little man was talking with his accustomed
cheerfulness on a variety of indifferent subjects, Thomas Codlin
testified his jealousy and distrust by following close at her
heels, and occasionally admonishing her ankles with the legs of the
theatre in a very abrupt and painful manner.

All these proceedings naturally made the child more watchful and
suspicious, and she soon observed that whenever they halted to
perform outside a village alehouse or other place, Mr Codlin while
he went through his share of the entertainments kept his eye
steadily upon her and the old man, or with a show of great
friendship and consideration invited the latter to lean upon his
arm, and so held him tight until the representation was over and
they again went forward. Even Short seemed to change in this
respect, and to mingle with his good-nature something of a desire
to keep them in safe custody. This increased the child's
misgivings, and made her yet more anxious and uneasy.

Meanwhile, they were drawing near the town where the races were to
begin next day; for, from passing numerous groups of gipsies and
trampers on the road, wending their way towards it, and straggling
out from every by-way and cross-country lane, they gradually fell
into a stream of people, some walking by the side of covered carts,
others with horses, others with donkeys, others toiling on with
heavy loads upon their backs, but all tending to the same point.
The public-houses by the wayside, from being empty and noiseless as
those in the remoter parts had been, now sent out boisterous shouts
and clouds of smoke; and, from the misty windows, clusters of broad
red faces looked down upon the road. On every piece of waste or
common ground, some small gambler drove his noisy trade, and
bellowed to the idle passersby to stop and try their chance; the
crowd grew thicker and more noisy; gilt gingerbread in
blanket-stalls exposed its glories to the dust; and often a
four-horse carriage, dashing by, obscured all objects in the gritty
cloud it raised, and left them, stunned and blinded, far behind.

It was dark before they reached the town itself, and long indeed
the few last miles had been. Here all was tumult and confusion; the
streets were filled with throngs of people--many strangers were
there, it seemed, by the looks they cast about--the church-bells
rang out their noisy peals, and flags streamed from windows and
house-tops. In the large inn-yards waiters flitted to and fro and
ran against each other, horses clattered on the uneven stones,
carriage steps fell rattling down, and sickening smells from many
dinners came in a heavy lukewarm breath upon the sense. In the
smaller public-houses, fiddles with all their might and main were
squeaking out the tune to staggering feet; drunken men, oblivious
of the burden of their song, joined in a senseless howl, which
drowned the tinkling of the feeble bell and made them savage for
their drink; vagabond groups assembled round the doors to see the
stroller woman dance, and add their uproar to the shrill flageolet
and deafening drum.

Through this delirious scene, the child, frightened and repelled by
all she saw, led on her bewildered charge, clinging close to her
conductor, and trembling lest in the press she should be separated
from him and left to find her way alone. Quickening their steps to
get clear of all the roar and riot, they at length passed through
the town and made for the race-course, which was upon an open
heath, situated on an eminence, a full mile distant from its
furthest bounds.

Although there were many people here, none of the best favoured or
best clad, busily erecting tents and driving stakes in the ground,
and hurrying to and fro with dusty feet and many a grumbled oath--
although there were tired children cradled on heaps of straw
between the wheels of carts, crying themselves to sleep--and poor
lean horses and donkeys just turned loose, grazing among the men
and women, and pots and kettles, and half-lighted fires, and ends
of candles flaring and wasting in the air--for all this, the child
felt it an escape from the town and drew her breath more freely.
After a scanty supper, the purchase of which reduced her little
stock so low, that she had only a few halfpence with which to buy
a breakfast on the morrow, she and the old man lay down to rest in
a corner of a tent, and slept, despite the busy preparations that
were going on around them all night long.

And now they had come to the time when they must beg their bread.
Soon after sunrise in the morning she stole out from the tent, and
rambling into some fields at a short distance, plucked a few wild
roses and such humble flowers, purposing to make them into little
nosegays and offer them to the ladies in the carriages when the
company arrived. Her thoughts were not idle while she was thus
employed; when she returned and was seated beside the old man in
one corner of the tent, tying her flowers together, while the two
men lay dozing in another corner, she plucked him by the sleeve,
and slightly glancing towards them, said, in a low voice--

'Grandfather, don't look at those I talk of, and don't seem as if
I spoke of anything but what I am about. What was that you told me
before we left the old house? That if they knew what we were going
to do, they would say that you were mad, and part us?'

The old man turned to her with an aspect of wild terror; but she
checked him by a look, and bidding him hold some flowers while she
tied them up, and so bringing her lips closer to his ear, said--

'I know that was what you told me. You needn't speak, dear. I
recollect it very well. It was not likely that I should forget it.
Grandfather, these men suspect that we have secretly left our
friends, and mean to carry us before some gentleman and have us
taken care of and sent back. If you let your hand tremble so, we
can never get away from them, but if you're only quiet now, we
shall do so, easily.'

'How?' muttered the old man. 'Dear Nelly, how? They will shut me up
in a stone room, dark and cold, and chain me up to the wall, Nell--
flog me with whips, and never let me see thee more!'

'You're trembling again,' said the child. 'Keep close to me all
day. Never mind them, don't look at them, but me. I shall find a
time when we can steal away. When I do, mind you come with me, and
do not stop or speak a word. Hush! That's all.'

'Halloa! what are you up to, my dear?' said Mr Codlin, raising his
head, and yawning. Then observing that his companion was fast
asleep, he added in an earnest whisper, 'Codlin's the friend,
remember--not Short.'

'Making some nosegays,' the child replied; 'I am going to try and
sell some, these three days of the races. Will you have one--as a
present I mean?'

Mr Codlin would have risen to receive it, but the child hurried
towards him and placed it in his hand. He stuck it in his
buttonhole with an air of ineffable complacency for a misanthrope,
and leering exultingly at the unconscious Short, muttered, as he
laid himself down again, 'Tom Codlin's the friend, by G--!'

As the morning wore on, the tents assumed a gayer and more
brilliant appearance, and long lines of carriages came rolling
softly on the turf. Men who had lounged about all night in
smock-frocks and leather leggings, came out in silken vests and
hats and plumes, as jugglers or mountebanks; or in gorgeous
liveries as soft-spoken servants at gambling booths; or in sturdy
yeoman dress as decoys at unlawful games. Black-eyed gipsy girls,
hooded in showy handkerchiefs, sallied forth to tell fortunes, and
pale slender women with consumptive faces lingered upon the
footsteps of ventriloquists and conjurors, and counted the
sixpences with anxious eyes long before they were gained. As many
of the children as could be kept within bounds, were stowed away,
with all the other signs of dirt and poverty, among the donkeys,
carts, and horses; and as many as could not be thus disposed of ran
in and out in all intricate spots, crept between people's legs and
carriage wheels, and came forth unharmed from under horses' hoofs.
The dancing-dogs, the stilts, the little lady and the tall man, and
all the other attractions, with organs out of number and bands
innumerable, emerged from the holes and corners in which they had
passed the night, and flourished boldly in the sun.

Along the uncleared course, Short led his party, sounding the
brazen trumpet and revelling in the voice of Punch; and at his
heels went Thomas Codlin, bearing the show as usual, and keeping
his eye on Nelly and her grandfather, as they rather lingered in
the rear. The child bore upon her arm the little basket with her
flowers, and sometimes stopped, with timid and modest looks, to
offer them at some gay carriage; but alas! there were many bolder
beggars there, gipsies who promised husbands, and other adepts in
their trade, and although some ladies smiled gently as they shook
their heads, and others cried to the gentlemen beside them 'See,
what a pretty face!' they let the pretty face pass on, and never
thought that it looked tired or hungry.

There was but one lady who seemed to understand the child, and she
was one who sat alone in a handsome carriage, while two young men
in dashing clothes, who had just dismounted from it, talked and
laughed loudly at a little distance, appearing to forget her,
quite. There were many ladies all around, but they turned their
backs, or looked another way, or at the two young men (not
unfavourably at them), and left her to herself. She motioned away
a gipsy-woman urgent to tell her fortune, saying that it was told
already and had been for some years, but called the child towards
her, and taking her flowers put money into her trembling hand, and
bade her go home and keep at home for God's sake.

Many a time they went up and down those long, long lines, seeing
everything but the horses and the race; when the bell rang to clear
the course, going back to rest among the carts and donkeys, and not
coming out again until the heat was over. Many a time, too, was
Punch displayed in the full zenith of his humour, but all this
while the eye of Thomas Codlin was upon them, and to escape without
notice was impracticable.

At length, late in the day, Mr Codlin pitched the show in a
convenient spot, and the spectators were soon in the very triumph
of the scene. The child, sitting down with the old man close behind
it, had been thinking how strange it was that horses who were such
fine honest creatures should seem to make vagabonds of all the men
they drew about them, when a loud laugh at some extemporaneous
witticism of Mr Short's, having allusion to the circumstances of
the day, roused her from her meditation and caused her to look
around.

If they were ever to get away unseen, that was the very moment.
Short was plying the quarter-staves vigorously and knocking the
characters in the fury of the combat against the sides of the show,
the people were looking on with laughing faces, and Mr Codlin had
relaxed into a grim smile as his roving eye detected hands going
into waistcoat pockets and groping secretly for sixpences. If they
were ever to get away unseen, that was the very moment. They seized
it, and fled.

They made a path through booths and carriages and throngs of
people, and never once stopped to look behind. The bell was ringing
and the course was cleared by the time they reached the ropes, but
they dashed across it insensible to the shouts and screeching that
assailed them for breaking in upon its sanctity, and creeping under
the brow of the hill at a quick pace, made for the open fields.

Content of CHAPTER 19 (Charles Dickens' novel: The Old Curiosity Shop)

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