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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 44
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The Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 44 Post by :SandyBaby Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Dickens Date :June 2011 Read :590

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The Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 44

CHAPTER 44


The throng of people hurried by, in two opposite streams, with no
symptom of cessation or exhaustion; intent upon their own affairs;
and undisturbed in their business speculations, by the roar of
carts and waggons laden with clashing wares, the slipping of
horses' feet upon the wet and greasy pavement, the rattling of the
rain on windows and umbrella-tops, the jostling of the more
impatient passengers, and all the noise and tumult of a crowded
street in the high tide of its occupation: while the two poor
strangers, stunned and bewildered by the hurry they beheld but had
no part in, looked mournfully on; feeling, amidst the crowd, a
solitude which has no parallel but in the thirst of the shipwrecked
mariner, who, tost to and fro upon the billows of a mighty ocean,
his red eyes blinded by looking on the water which hems him in on
every side, has not one drop to cool his burning tongue.

They withdrew into a low archway for shelter from the rain, and
watched the faces of those who passed, to find in one among them a
ray of encouragement or hope. Some frowned, some smiled, some
muttered to themselves, some made slight gestures, as if
anticipating the conversation in which they would shortly be
engaged, some wore the cunning look of bargaining and plotting,
some were anxious and eager, some slow and dull; in some
countenances, were written gain; in others, loss. It was like
being in the confidence of all these people to stand quietly there,
looking into their faces as they flitted past. In busy places,
where each man has an object of his own, and feels assured that
every other man has his, his character and purpose are written
broadly in his face. In the public walks and lounges of a town,
people go to see and to be seen, and there the same expression,
with little variety, is repeated a hundred times. The working-day
faces come nearer to the truth, and let it out more plainly.

Falling into that kind of abstraction which such a solitude
awakens, the child continued to gaze upon the passing crowd with a
wondering interest, amounting almost to a temporary forgetfulness
of her own condition. But cold, wet, hunger, want of rest, and
lack of any place in which to lay her aching head, soon brought her
thoughts back to the point whence they had strayed. No one passed
who seemed to notice them, or to whom she durst appeal. After some
time, they left their place of refuge from the weather, and mingled
with the concourse.

Evening came on. They were still wandering up and down, with fewer
people about them, but with the same sense of solitude in their own
breasts, and the same indifference from all around. The lights in
the streets and shops made them feel yet more desolate, for with
their help, night and darkness seemed to come on faster. Shivering
with the cold and damp, ill in body, and sick to death at heart,
the child needed her utmost firmness and resolution even to creep
along.

Why had they ever come to this noisy town, when there were peaceful
country places, in which, at least, they might have hungered and
thirsted, with less suffering than in its squalid strife! They
were but an atom, here, in a mountain heap of misery, the very
sight of which increased their hopelessness and suffering.

The child had not only to endure the accumulated hardships of their
destitute condition, but to bear the reproaches of her grandfather,
who began to murmur at having been led away from their late abode,
and demand that they should return to it. Being now penniless, and
no relief or prospect of relief appearing, they retraced their
steps through the deserted streets, and went back to the wharf,
hoping to find the boat in which they had come, and to be allowed
to sleep on board that night. But here again they were
disappointed, for the gate was closed, and some fierce dogs,
barking at their approach, obliged them to retreat.

'We must sleep in the open air to-night, dear,' said the child in
a weak voice, as they turned away from this last repulse; 'and
to-morrow we will beg our way to some quiet part of the country,
and try to earn our bread in very humble work.'

'Why did you bring me here?' returned the old man fiercely. 'I
cannot bear these close eternal streets. We came from a quiet
part. Why did you force me to leave it?'

'Because I must have that dream I told you of, no more,' said the
child, with a momentary firmness that lost itself in tears; 'and we
must live among poor people, or it will come again. Dear
grandfather, you are old and weak, I know; but look at me. I never
will complain if you will not, but I have some suffering indeed.'

'Ah! poor, houseless, wandering, motherless child!' cried the old
man, clasping his hands and gazing as if for the first time upon
her anxious face, her travel-stained dress, and bruised and swollen
feet; 'has all my agony of care brought her to this at last! Was
I a happy man once, and have I lost happiness and all I had, for
this!'

'If we were in the country now,' said the child, with assumed
cheerfulness, as they walked on looking about them for a shelter,
we should find some good old tree, stretching out his green arms as
if he loved us, and nodding and rustling as if he would have us
fall asleep, thinking of him while he watched. Please God, we
shall be there soon--to-morrow or next day at the farthest--and
in the meantime let us think, dear, that it was a good thing we
came here; for we are lost in the crowd and hurry of this place,
and if any cruel people should pursue us, they could surely never
trace us further. There's comfort in that. And here's a deep old
doorway--very dark, but quite dry, and warm too, for the wind
don't blow in here--What's that!'

Uttering a half shriek, she recoiled from a black figure which came
suddenly out of the dark recess in which they were about to take
refuge, and stood still, looking at them.

'Speak again,' it said; 'do I know the voice?'

'No,' replied the child timidly; 'we are strangers, and having no
money for a night's lodging, were going to rest here.'

There was a feeble lamp at no great distance; the only one in the
place, which was a kind of square yard, but sufficient to show how
poor and mean it was. To this, the figure beckoned them; at the
same time drawing within its rays, as if to show that it had no
desire to conceal itself or take them at an advantage.
The form was that of a man, miserably clad and begrimed with smoke,
which, perhaps by its contrast with the natural colour of his skin,
made him look paler than he really was. That he was naturally of
a very wan and pallid aspect, however, his hollow cheeks, sharp
features, and sunken eyes, no less than a certain look of patient
endurance, sufficiently testified. His voice was harsh by nature,
but not brutal; and though his face, besides possessing the
characteristics already mentioned, was overshadowed by a quantity
of long dark hair, its expression was neither ferocious nor bad.

'How came you to think of resting there?' he said. 'Or how,' he
added, looking more attentively at the child, 'do you come to want
a place of rest at this time of night?'

'Our misfortunes,' the grandfather answered, 'are the cause.'

'Do you know,' said the man, looking still more earnestly at Nell,
'how wet she is, and that the damp streets are not a place for
her?'

'I know it well, God help me,' he replied. 'What can I do!'

The man looked at Nell again, and gently touched her garments, from
which the rain was running off in little streams. 'I can give you
warmth,' he said, after a pause; 'nothing else. Such lodging as I
have, is in that house,' pointing to the doorway from which he had
emerged, 'but she is safer and better there than here. The fire is
in a rough place, but you can pass the night beside it safely, if
you'll trust yourselves to me. You see that red light yonder?'

They raised their eyes, and saw a lurid glare hanging in the dark
sky; the dull reflection of some distant fire.

'It's not far,' said the man. 'Shall I take you there? You were
going to sleep upon cold bricks; I can give you a bed of warm ashes
--nothing better.'

Without waiting for any further reply than he saw in their looks,
he took Nell in his arms, and bade the old man follow.

Carrying her as tenderly, and as easily too, as if she had been an
infant, and showing himself both swift and sure of foot, he led the
way through what appeared to be the poorest and most wretched
quarter of the town; and turning aside to avoid the overflowing
kennels or running waterspouts, but holding his course, regardless
of such obstructions, and making his way straight through them.
They had proceeded thus, in silence, for some quarter of an hour,
and had lost sight of the glare to which he had pointed, in the
dark and narrow ways by which they had come, when it suddenly burst
upon them again, streaming up from the high chimney of a building
close before them.

'This is the place,' he said, pausing at a door to put Nell down
and take her hand. 'Don't be afraid. There's nobody here will
harm you.'

It needed a strong confidence in this assurance to induce them to
enter, and what they saw inside did not diminish their apprehension
and alarm. In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of
iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the
external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and
roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged
in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard
elsewhere; in this gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame
and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the
burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any
one of which must have crushed some workman's skull, a number of
men laboured like giants. Others, reposing upon heaps of coals or
ashes, with their faces turned to the black vault above, slept or
rested from their toil. Others again, opening the white-hot
furnace-doors, cast fuel on the flames, which came rushing and
roaring forth to meet it, and licked it up like oil. Others drew
forth, with clashing noise, upon the ground, great sheets of
glowing steel, emitting an insupportable heat, and a dull deep
light like that which reddens in the eyes of savage beasts.

Through these bewildering sights and deafening sounds, their
conductor led them to where, in a dark portion of the building, one
furnace burnt by night and day--so, at least, they gathered from
the motion of his lips, for as yet they could only see him speak:
not hear him. The man who had been watching this fire, and whose
task was ended for the present, gladly withdrew, and left them with
their friend, who, spreading Nell's little cloak upon a heap of
ashes, and showing her where she could hang her outer-clothes to
dry, signed to her and the old man to lie down and sleep. For
himself, he took his station on a rugged mat before the
furnace-door, and resting his chin upon his hands, watched the
flame as it shone through the iron chinks, and the white ashes as
they fell into their bright hot grave below.

The warmth of her bed, hard and humble as it was, combined with the
great fatigue she had undergone, soon caused the tumult of the
place to fall with a gentler sound upon the child's tired ears, and
was not long in lulling her to sleep. The old man was stretched
beside her, and with her hand upon his neck she lay and dreamed.

It was yet night when she awoke, nor did she know how long, or for
how short a time, she had slept. But she found herself protected,
both from any cold air that might find its way into the building,
and from the scorching heat, by some of the workmen's clothes; and
glancing at their friend saw that he sat in exactly the same
attitude, looking with a fixed earnestness of attention towards the
fire, and keeping so very still that he did not even seem to
breathe. She lay in the state between sleeping and waking, looking
so long at his motionless figure that at length she almost feared
he had died as he sat there; and softly rising and drawing close to
him, ventured to whisper in his ear.

He moved, and glancing from her to the place she had lately
occupied, as if to assure himself that it was really the child so
near him, looked inquiringly into her face.

'I feared you were ill,' she said. 'The other men are all in
motion, and you are so very quiet.'

'They leave me to myself,' he replied. 'They know my humour. They
laugh at me, but don't harm me in it. See yonder there--that's my
friend.'

'The fire?' said the child.

'It has been alive as long as I have,' the man made answer. 'We
talk and think together all night long.'

The child glanced quickly at him in her surprise, but he had turned
his eyes in their former direction, and was musing as before.

'It's like a book to me,' he said--'the only book I ever learned to
read; and many an old story it tells me. It's music, for I should
know its voice among a thousand, and there are other voices in its
roar. It has its pictures too. You don't know how many strange
faces and different scenes I trace in the red-hot coals. It's my
memory, that fire, and shows me all my life.'

The child, bending down to listen to his words, could not help
remarking with what brightened eyes he continued to speak and muse.

'Yes,' he said, with a faint smile, 'it was the same when I was
quite a baby, and crawled about it, till I fell asleep. My father
watched it then.'

'Had you no mother?' asked the child.

'No, she was dead. Women work hard in these parts. She worked
herself to death they told me, and, as they said so then, the fire
has gone on saying the same thing ever since. I suppose it was
true. I have always believed it.'

'Were you brought up here, then?' said the child.

'Summer and winter,' he replied. 'Secretly at first, but when they
found it out, they let him keep me here. So the fire nursed me--
the same fire. It has never gone out.'

'You are fond of it?' said the child.

'Of course I am. He died before it. I saw him fall down--just
there, where those ashes are burning now--and wondered, I
remember, why it didn't help him.'

'Have you been here ever since?' asked the child.

'Ever since I came to watch it; but there was a while between, and
a very cold dreary while it was. It burned all the time though,
and roared and leaped when I came back, as it used to do in our
play days. You may guess, from looking at me, what kind of child
I was, but for all the difference between us I was a child, and
when I saw you in the street to-night, you put me in mind of
myself, as I was after he died, and made me wish to bring you to
the fire. I thought of those old times again, when I saw you
sleeping by it. You should be sleeping now. Lie down again, poor
child, lie down again!'

With that, he led her to her rude couch, and covering her with the
clothes with which she had found herself enveloped when she woke,
returned to his seat, whence he moved no more unless to feed the
furnace, but remained motionless as a statue. The child continued
to watch him for a little time, but soon yielded to the drowsiness
that came upon her, and, in the dark strange place and on the heap
of ashes, slept as peacefully as if the room had been a palace
chamber, and the bed, a bed of down.

When she awoke again, broad day was shining through the lofty
openings in the walls, and, stealing in slanting rays but midway
down, seemed to make the building darker than it had been at night.
The clang and tumult were still going on, and the remorseless fires
were burning fiercely as before; for few changes of night and day
brought rest or quiet there.

Her friend parted his breakfast--a scanty mess of coffee and some
coarse bread--with the child and her grandfather, and inquired
whither they were going. She told him that they sought some
distant country place remote from towns or even other villages, and
with a faltering tongue inquired what road they would do best to
take.

'I know little of the country,' he said, shaking his head, 'for
such as I, pass all our lives before our furnace doors, and seldom
go forth to breathe. But there are such places yonder.'

'And far from here?' said Nell.

'Aye surely. How could they be near us, and be green and fresh?
The road lies, too, through miles and miles, all lighted up by
fires like ours--a strange black road, and one that would frighten
you by night.'

'We are here and must go on,' said the child boldly; for she saw
that the old man listened with anxious ears to this account.

'Rough people--paths never made for little feet like yours--a
dismal blighted way--is there no turning back, my child!'

'There is none,' cried Nell, pressing forward. 'If you can direct
us, do. If not, pray do not seek to turn us from our purpose.
Indeed you do not know the danger that we shun, and how right and
true we are in flying from it, or you would not try to stop us, I
am sure you would not.'

'God forbid, if it is so!' said their uncouth protector, glancing
from the eager child to her grandfather, who hung his head and bent
his eyes upon the ground. 'I'll direct you from the door, the best
I can. I wish I could do more.'

He showed them, then, by which road they must leave the town, and
what course they should hold when they had gained it. He lingered
so long on these instructions, that the child, with a fervent
blessing, tore herself away, and stayed to hear no more.

But, before they had reached the corner of the lane, the man came
running after them, and, pressing her hand, left something in it--
two old, battered, smoke-encrusted penny pieces. Who knows but
they shone as brightly in the eyes of angels, as golden gifts that
have been chronicled on tombs?

And thus they separated; the child to lead her sacred charge
farther from guilt and shame; the labourer to attach a fresh
interest to the spot where his guests had slept, and read new
histories in his furnace fire.

Content of CHAPTER 44 (Charles Dickens' novel: The Old Curiosity Shop)

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CHAPTER 43Her momentary weakness past, the child again summoned theresolution which had until now sustained her, and, endeavouring tokeep steadily in her view the one idea that they were flying fromdisgrace and crime, and that her grandfather's preservation mustdepend solely on her firmness, unaided by one word of advice or anyhelping hand, urged him onward and looked back no more.While he, subdued and abashed, seemed to crouch before her, and toshrink and cower down, as if in the presence of some superiorcreature, the child herself was sensible of a new feeling withinher, which elevated her nature, and inspired her with an
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