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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 42
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The Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 42 Post by :jaakko Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Dickens Date :June 2011 Read :1470

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The Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 42

CHAPTER 42


It behoves us to leave Kit for a while, thoughtful and expectant,
and to follow the fortunes of little Nell; resuming the thread of
the narrative at the point where it was left, some chapters back.

In one of those wanderings in the evening time, when, following the
two sisters at a humble distance, she felt, in her sympathy with
them and her recognition in their trials of something akin to her
own loneliness of spirit, a comfort and consolation which made such
moments a time of deep delight, though the softened pleasure they
yielded was of that kind which lives and dies in tears--in one of
those wanderings at the quiet hour of twilight, when sky, and
earth, and air, and rippling water, and sound of distant bells,
claimed kindred with the emotions of the solitary child, and
inspired her with soothing thoughts, but not of a child's world or
its easy joys--in one of those rambles which had now become her
only pleasure or relief from care, light had faded into darkness
and evening deepened into night, and still the young creature
lingered in the gloom; feeling a companionship in Nature so serene
and still, when noise of tongues and glare of garish lights would
have been solitude indeed.

The sisters had gone home, and she was alone. She raised her eyes
to the bright stars, looking down so mildly from the wide worlds of
air, and, gazing on them, found new stars burst upon her view, and
more beyond, and more beyond again, until the whole great expanse
sparkled with shining spheres, rising higher and higher in
immeasurable space, eternal in their numbers as in their changeless
and incorruptible existence. She bent over the calm river, and saw
them shining in the same majestic order as when the dove beheld
them gleaming through the swollen waters, upon the mountain tops
down far below, and dead mankind, a million fathoms deep.

The child sat silently beneath a tree, hushed in her very breath by
the stillness of the night, and all its attendant wonders. The
time and place awoke reflection, and she thought with a quiet hope--
less hope, perhaps, than resignation--on the past, and present,
and what was yet before her. Between the old man and herself there
had come a gradual separation, harder to bear than any former
sorrow. Every evening, and often in the day-time too, he was
absent, alone; and although she well knew where he went, and why--
too well from the constant drain upon her scanty purse and from his
haggard looks--he evaded all inquiry, maintained a strict reserve,
and even shunned her presence.

She sat meditating sorrowfully upon this change, and mingling it,
as it were, with everything about her, when the distant
church-clock bell struck nine. Rising at the sound, she retraced
her steps, and turned thoughtfully towards the town.

She had gained a little wooden bridge, which, thrown across the
stream, led into a meadow in her way, when she came suddenly upon
a ruddy light, and looking forward more attentively, discerned that
it proceeded from what appeared to be an encampment of gipsies, who
had made a fire in one corner at no great distance from the path,
and were sitting or lying round it. As she was too poor to have
any fear of them, she did not alter her course (which, indeed, she
could not have done without going a long way round), but quickened
her pace a little, and kept straight on.

A movement of timid curiosity impelled her, when she approached the
spot, to glance towards the fire. There was a form between it and
her, the outline strongly developed against the light, which caused
her to stop abruptly. Then, as if she had reasoned with herself
and were assured that it could not be, or had satisfied herself
that it was not that of the person she had supposed, she went on
again.

But at that instant the conversation, whatever it was, which had
been carrying on near this fire was resumed, and the tones of the
voice that spoke--she could not distinguish words--sounded as
familiar to her as her own.

She turned, and looked back. The person had been seated before,
but was now in a standing posture, and leaning forward on a stick
on which he rested both hands. The attitude was no less familiar
to her than the tone of voice had been. It was her grandfather.

Her first impulse was to call to him; her next to wonder who his
associates could be, and for what purpose they were together. Some
vague apprehension succeeded, and, yielding to the strong
inclination it awakened, she drew nearer to the place; not
advancing across the open field, however, but creeping towards it
by the hedge.

In this way she advanced within a few feet of the fire, and
standing among a few young trees, could both see and hear, without
much danger of being observed.

There were no women or children, as she had seen in other gipsy
camps they had passed in their wayfaring, and but one gipsy--a
tall athletic man, who stood with his arms folded, leaning against
a tree at a little distance off, looking now at the fire, and now,
under his black eyelashes, at three other men who were there, with
a watchful but half-concealed interest in their conversation. Of
these, her grandfather was one; the others she recognised as the
first card-players at the public-house on the eventful night of the
storm--the man whom they had called Isaac List, and his gruff
companion. One of the low, arched gipsy-tents, common to that
people, was pitched hard by, but it either was, or appeared to be,
empty.

'Well, are you going?' said the stout man, looking up from the
ground where he was lying at his ease, into her grandfather's face.
'You were in a mighty hurry a minute ago. Go, if you like. You're
your own master, I hope?'

'Don't vex him,' returned Isaac List, who was squatting like a frog
on the other side of the fire, and had so screwed himself up that
he seemed to be squinting all over; 'he didn't mean any offence.'

'You keep me poor, and plunder me, and make a sport and jest of me
besides,' said the old man, turning from one to the other. 'Ye'll
drive me mad among ye.'

The utter irresolution and feebleness of the grey-haired child,
contrasted with the keen and cunning looks of those in whose hands
he was, smote upon the little listener's heart. But she
constrained herself to attend to all that passed, and to note each
look and word.

'Confound you, what do you mean?' said the stout man rising a
little, and supporting himself on his elbow. 'Keep you poor!
You'd keep us poor if you could, wouldn't you? That's the way with
you whining, puny, pitiful players. When you lose, you're martyrs;
but I don't find that when you win, you look upon the other losers
in that light. As to plunder!' cried the fellow, raising his voice--
'Damme, what do you mean by such ungentlemanly language as
plunder, eh?'

The speaker laid himself down again at full length, and gave one or
two short, angry kicks, as if in further expression of his
unbounded indignation. It was quite plain that he acted the bully,
and his friend the peacemaker, for some particular purpose; or
rather, it would have been to any one but the weak old man; for
they exchanged glances quite openly, both with each other and with
the gipsy, who grinned his approval of the jest until his white
teeth shone again.

The old man stood helplessly among them for a little time, and then
said, turning to his assailant:

'You yourself were speaking of plunder just now, you know. Don't
be so violent with me. You were, were you not?'

'Not of plundering among present company! Honour among--among
gentlemen, Sir,' returned the other, who seemed to have been very
near giving an awkward termination to the sentence.

'Don't be hard upon him, Jowl,' said Isaac List. 'He's very sorry
for giving offence. There--go on with what you were saying--go
on.'

'I'm a jolly old tender-hearted lamb, I am,' cried Mr Jowl, 'to be
sitting here at my time of life giving advice when I know it won't
be taken, and that I shall get nothing but abuse for my pains. But
that's the way I've gone through life. Experience has never put a
chill upon my warm-heartedness.'

'I tell you he's very sorry, don't I?' remonstrated Isaac List,
'and that he wishes you'd go on.'

'Does he wish it?' said the other.

'Ay,' groaned the old man sitting down, and rocking himself to and
fro. 'Go on, go on. It's in vain to fight with it; I can't do it;
go on.'

'I go on then,' said Jowl, 'where I left off, when you got up so
quick. If you're persuaded that it's time for luck to turn, as it
certainly is, and find that you haven't means enough to try it (and
that's where it is, for you know, yourself, that you never have the
funds to keep on long enough at a sitting), help yourself to what
seems put in your way on purpose. Borrow it, I say, and, when
you're able, pay it back again.'

'Certainly,' Isaac List struck in, 'if this good lady as keeps the
wax-works has money, and does keep it in a tin box when she goes to
bed, and doesn't lock her door for fear of fire, it seems a easy
thing; quite a Providence, I should call it--but then I've been
religiously brought up.'

'You see, Isaac,' said his friend, growing more eager, and drawing
himself closer to the old man, while he signed to the gipsy not to
come between them; 'you see, Isaac, strangers are going in and out
every hour of the day; nothing would be more likely than for one of
these strangers to get under the good lady's bed, or lock himself
in the cupboard; suspicion would be very wide, and would fall a
long way from the mark, no doubt. I'd give him his revenge to the
last farthing he brought, whatever the amount was.'

'But could you?' urged Isaac List. 'Is your bank strong enough?'

'Strong enough!' answered the other, with assumed disdain. 'Here,
you Sir, give me that box out of the straw!'

This was addressed to the gipsy, who crawled into the low tent on
all fours, and after some rummaging and rustling returned with a
cash-box, which the man who had spoken opened with a key he wore
about his person.

'Do you see this?' he said, gathering up the money in his hand and
letting it drop back into the box, between his fingers, like water.
'Do you hear it? Do you know the sound of gold? There, put it
back--and don't talk about banks again, Isaac, till you've got one
of your own.'

Isaac List, with great apparent humility, protested that he had
never doubted the credit of a gentleman so notorious for his
honourable dealing as Mr Jowl, and that he had hinted at the
production of the box, not for the satisfaction of his doubts, for
he could have none, but with a view to being regaled with a sight
of so much wealth, which, though it might be deemed by some but an
unsubstantial and visionary pleasure, was to one in his
circumstances a source of extreme delight, only to be surpassed by
its safe depository in his own personal pockets. Although Mr List
and Mr Jowl addressed themselves to each other, it was remarkable
that they both looked narrowly at the old man, who, with his eyes
fixed upon the fire, sat brooding over it, yet listening eagerly--
as it seemed from a certain involuntary motion of the head, or
twitching of the face from time to time--to all they said.

'My advice,' said Jowl, lying down again with a careless air, 'is
plain--I have given it, in fact. I act as a friend. Why should
I help a man to the means perhaps of winning all I have, unless I
considered him my friend? It's foolish, I dare say, to be so
thoughtful of the welfare of other people, but that's my
constitution, and I can't help it; so don't blame me, Isaac List.'

'I blame you!' returned the person addressed; 'not for the world,
Mr Jowl. I wish I could afford to be as liberal as you; and, as
you say, he might pay it back if he won--and if he lost--'

'You're not to take that into consideration at all,' said Jowl.

'But suppose he did (and nothing's less likely, from all I know of
chances), why, it's better to lose other people's money than one's
own, I hope?'

'Ah!' cried Isaac List rapturously, 'the pleasures of winning! The
delight of picking up the money--the bright, shining yellow-boys--
and sweeping 'em into one's pocket! The deliciousness of having a
triumph at last, and thinking that one didn't stop short and turn
back, but went half-way to meet it! The--but you're not going,
old gentleman?'

'I'll do it,' said the old man, who had risen and taken two or
three hurried steps away, and now returned as hurriedly. 'I'll
have it, every penny.'

'Why, that's brave,' cried Isaac, jumping up and slapping him on
the shoulder; 'and I respect you for having so much young blood
left. Ha, ha, ha! Joe Jowl's half sorry he advised you now.
We've got the laugh against him. Ha, ha, ha!'

'He gives me my revenge, mind,' said the old man, pointing to him
eagerly with his shrivelled hand: 'mind--he stakes coin against
coin, down to the last one in the box, be there many or few.
Remember that!'

'I'm witness,' returned Isaac. 'I'll see fair between you.'

'I have passed my word,' said Jowl with feigned reluctance, 'and
I'll keep it. When does this match come off? I wish it was over.--
To-night?'

'I must have the money first,' said the old man; 'and that I'll
have to-morrow--'

'Why not to-night?' urged Jowl.

'It's late now, and I should be flushed and flurried,' said the old
man. 'It must be softly done. No, to-morrow night.'

'Then to-morrow be it,' said Jowl. 'A drop of comfort here. Luck
to the best man! Fill!' The gipsy produced three tin cups, and
filled them to the brim with brandy. The old man turned aside and
muttered to himself before he drank. Her own name struck upon the
listener's ear, coupled with some wish so fervent, that he seemed
to breathe it in an agony of supplication.

'God be merciful to us!' cried the child within herself, 'and help
us in this trying hour! What shall I do to save him!'

The remainder of their conversation was carried on in a lower tone
of voice, and was sufficiently concise; relating merely to the
execution of the project, and the best precautions for diverting
suspicion. The old man then shook hands with his tempters, and
withdrew.

They watched his bowed and stooping figure as it retreated slowly,
and when he turned his head to look back, which he often did, waved
their hands, or shouted some brief encouragement. It was not until
they had seen him gradually diminish into a mere speck upon the
distant road, that they turned to each other, and ventured to laugh
aloud.

'So,' said Jowl, warming his hands at the fire, 'it's done at last.
He wanted more persuading than I expected. It's three weeks ago,
since we first put this in his head. What'll he bring, do you
think?'

'Whatever he brings, it's halved between us,' returned Isaac List.

The other man nodded. 'We must make quick work of it,' he said,
'and then cut his acquaintance, or we may be suspected. Sharp's
the word.'

List and the gipsy acquiesced. When they had all three amused
themselves a little with their victim's infatuation, they dismissed
the subject as one which had been sufficiently discussed, and began
to talk in a jargon which the child did not understand. As their
discourse appeared to relate to matters in which they were warmly
interested, however, she deemed it the best time for escaping
unobserved; and crept away with slow and cautious steps, keeping in
the shadow of the hedges, or forcing a path through them or the dry
ditches, until she could emerge upon the road at a point beyond
their range of vision. Then she fled homeward as quickly as she
could, torn and bleeding from the wounds of thorns and briars, but
more lacerated in mind, and threw herself upon her bed, distracted.

The first idea that flashed upon her mind was flight, instant
flight; dragging him from that place, and rather dying of want upon
the roadside, than ever exposing him again to such terrible
temptations. Then, she remembered that the crime was not to be
committed until next night, and there was the intermediate time for
thinking, and resolving what to do. Then, she was distracted with
a horrible fear that he might be committing it at that moment; with
a dread of hearing shrieks and cries piercing the silence of the
night; with fearful thoughts of what he might be tempted and led on
to do, if he were detected in the act, and had but a woman to
struggle with. It was impossible to bear such torture. She stole
to the room where the money was, opened the door, and looked in.
God be praised! He was not there, and she was sleeping soundly.

She went back to her own room, and tried to prepare herself for
bed. But who could sleep--sleep! who could lie passively down,
distracted by such terrors? They came upon her more and more
strongly yet. Half undressed, and with her hair in wild disorder,
she flew to the old man's bedside, clasped him by the wrist, and
roused him from his sleep.

'What's this!' he cried, starting up in bed, and fixing his eyes
upon her spectral face.

'I have had a dreadful dream,' said the child, with an energy that
nothing but such terrors could have inspired. 'A dreadful,
horrible dream. I have had it once before. It is a dream of
grey-haired men like you, in darkened rooms by night, robbing
sleepers of their gold. Up, up!'

The old man shook in every joint, and folded his hands like one who
prays.

'Not to me,' said the child, 'not to me--to Heaven, to save us
from such deeds! This dream is too real. I cannot sleep, I cannot
stay here, I cannot leave you alone under the roof where such
dreams come. Up! We must fly.'

He looked at her as if she were a spirit--she might have been for
all the look of earth she had--and trembled more and more.

'There is no time to lose; I will not lose one minute,' said the
child. 'Up! and away with me!'

'To-night?' murmured the old man.

'Yes, to-night,' replied the child. 'To-morrow night will be too
late. The dream will have come again. Nothing but flight can save
us. Up!'

The old man rose from his bed: his forehead bedewed with the cold
sweat of fear: and, bending before the child as if she had been an
angel messenger sent to lead him where she would, made ready to
follow her. She took him by the hand and led him on. As they
passed the door of the room he had proposed to rob, she shuddered
and looked up into his face. What a white face was that, and with
what a look did he meet hers!

She took him to her own chamber, and, still holding him by the hand
as if she feared to lose him for an instant, gathered together the
little stock she had, and hung her basket on her arm. The old man
took his wallet from her hands and strapped it on his shoulders--
his staff, too, she had brought away--and then she led him forth.

Through the strait streets, and narrow crooked outskirts, their
trembling feet passed quickly. Up the steep hill too, crowned by
the old grey castle, they toiled with rapid steps, and had not once
looked behind.

But as they drew nearer the ruined walls, the moon rose in all her
gentle glory, and, from their venerable age, garlanded with ivy,
moss, and waving grass, the child looked back upon the sleeping
town, deep in the valley's shade: and on the far-off river with its
winding track of light: and on the distant hills; and as she did
so, she clasped the hand she held, less firmly, and bursting into
tears, fell upon the old man's neck.

Content of CHAPTER 42 (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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CHAPTER 41Kit made his way through the crowded streets, dividing the streamof people, dashing across the busy road-ways, diving into lanes andalleys, and stopping or turning aside for nothing, until he came infront of the Old Curiosity Shop, when he came to a stand; partlyfrom habit and partly from being out of breath.It was a gloomy autumn evening, and he thought the old place hadnever looked so dismal as in its dreary twilight. The windowsbroken, the rusty sashes rattling in their frames, the desertedhouse a dull barrier dividing the glaring lights and bustle of thestreet into two long lines, and
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