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The Old Curiosity Shop

The Old Curiosity Shop

Charles Dickens

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1

  • Night is generally my time for walking. In the summer I often leave home earl_n the morning, and roam about fields and lanes all day, or even escape fo_ays or weeks together; but, saving in the country, I seldom go out unti_fter dark, though, Heaven be thanked, I love its light and feel th_heerfulness it sheds upon the earth, as much as any creature living.
  • I have fallen insensibly into this habit, both because it favours my infirmit_nd because it affords me greater opportunity of speculating on the character_nd occupations of those who fill the streets. The glare and hurry of broa_oon are not adapted to idle pursuits like mine; a glimpse of passing face_aught by the light of a street-lamp or a shop window is often better for m_urpose than their full revelation in the daylight; and, if I must add th_ruth, night is kinder in this respect than day, which too often destroys a_ir-built castle at the moment of its completion, without the least ceremon_r remorse.
  • That constant pacing to and fro, that never-ending restlessness, tha_ncessant tread of feet wearing the rough stones smooth and glossy—is it not _onder how the dwellers in narrows ways can bear to hear it! Think of a sic_an in such a place as Saint Martin's Court, listening to the footsteps, an_n the midst of pain and weariness obliged, despite himself (as though it wer_ task he must perform) to detect the child's step from the man's, th_lipshod beggar from the booted exquisite, the lounging from the busy, th_ull heel of the sauntering outcast from the quick tread of an expectan_leasure-seeker—think of the hum and noise always being present to his sense, and of the stream of life that will not stop, pouring on, on, on, through al_is restless dreams, as if he were condemned to lie, dead but conscious, in _oisy churchyard, and had no hope of rest for centuries to come.
  • Then, the crowds for ever passing and repassing on the bridges (on those whic_re free of toil at last), where many stop on fine evenings looking listlessl_own upon the water with some vague idea that by and by it runs between gree_anks which grow wider and wider until at last it joins the broad vas_ea—where some halt to rest from heavy loads and think as they look over th_arapet that to smoke and lounge away one's life, and lie sleeping in the su_pon a hot tarpaulin, in a dull, slow, sluggish barge, must be happines_nalloyed—and where some, and a very different class, pause with heaver load_han they, remembering to have heard or read in old time that drowning was no_ hard death, but of all means of suicide the easiest and best.
  • Covent Garden Market at sunrise too, in the spring or summer, when th_ragrance of sweet flowers is in the air, over-powering even the unwholesom_treams of last night's debauchery, and driving the dusky thrust, whose cag_as hung outside a garret window all night long, half mad with joy! Poor bird!
  • the only neighbouring thing at all akin to the other little captives, some o_hom, shrinking from the hot hands of drunken purchasers, lie drooping on th_ath already, while others, soddened by close contact, await the time whe_hey shall be watered and freshened up to please more sober company, and mak_ld clerks who pass them on their road to business, wonder what has fille_heir breasts with visions of the country.
  • But my present purpose is not to expatiate upon my walks. The story I am abou_o relate, and to which I shall recur at intervals, arose out of one of thes_ambles; and thus I have been led to speak of them by way of preface.
  • One night I had roamed into the City, and was walking slowly on in my usua_ay, musing upon a great many things, when I was arrested by an inquiry, th_urport of which did not reach me, but which seemed to be addressed to myself, and was preferred in a soft sweet voice that struck me very pleasantly. _urned hastily round and found at my elbow a pretty little girl, who begged t_e directed to a certain street at a considerable distance, and indeed i_uite another quarter of the town.
  • It is a very long way from here,' said I, 'my child.'
  • 'I know that, sir,' she replied timidly. 'I am afraid it is a very long way, for I came from there to-night.'
  • 'Alone?' said I, in some surprise.
  • 'Oh, yes, I don't mind that, but I am a little frightened now, for I had los_y road.'
  • 'And what made you ask it of me? Suppose I should tell you wrong?'
  • 'I am sure you will not do that,' said the little creature,' you are such _ery old gentleman, and walk so slow yourself.'
  • I cannot describe how much I was impressed by this appeal and the energy wit_hich it was made, which brought a tear into the child's clear eye, and mad_er slight figure tremble as she looked up into my face.
  • 'Come,' said I, 'I'll take you there.'
  • She put her hand in mind as confidingly as if she had known me from he_radle, and we trudged away together; the little creature accommodating he_ace to mine, and rather seeming to lead and take care of me than I to b_rotecting her. I observed that every now and then she stole a curious look a_y face, as if to make quite sure that I was not deceiving her, and that thes_lances (very sharp and keen they were too) seemed to increase her confidenc_t every repetition.
  • For my part, my curiosity and interest were at least equal to the child's, fo_hild she certainly was, although I thought it probably from what I could mak_ut, that her very small and delicate frame imparted a peculiar youthfulnes_o her appearance. Though more scantily attired than she might have been sh_as dressed with perfect neatness, and betrayed no marks of poverty o_eglect.
  • 'Who has sent you so far by yourself?' said I.
  • 'Someone who is very kind to me, sir.'
  • 'And what have you been doing?'
  • 'That, I must not tell,' said the child firmly.
  • There was something in the manner of this reply which caused me to look at th_ittle creature with an involuntary expression of surprise; for I wondere_hat kind of errand it might be that occasioned her to be prepared fo_uestioning. Her quick eye seemed to read my thoughts, for as it met mine sh_dded that there was no harm in what she had been doing, but it was a grea_ecret—a secret which she did not even know herself.
  • This was said with no appearance of cunning or deceit, but with a_nsuspicious frankness that bore the impress of truth. She walked on a_efore, growing more familiar with me as we proceeded and talking cheerfull_y the way, but she said no more about her home, beyond remarking that we wer_oing quite a new road and asking if it were a short one.
  • While we were thus engaged, I revolved in my mind a hundred differen_xplanations of the riddle and rejected them every one. I really felt ashame_o take advantage of the ingenuousness or grateful feeling of the child fo_he purpose of gratifying my curiosity. I love these little people; and it i_ot a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us. As I ha_elt pleased at first by her confidence I determined to deserve it, and to d_redit to the nature which had prompted her to repose it in me.
  • There was no reason, however, why I should refrain from seeing the person wh_ad inconsiderately sent her to so great a distance by night and alone, and a_t was not improbable that if she found herself near home she might tak_arewell of me and deprive me of the opportunity, I avoided the mos_requented ways and took the most intricate, and thus it was not until w_rrived in the street itself that she knew where we were. Clapping her hand_ith pleasure and running on before me for a short distance, my littl_cquaintance stopped at a door and remaining on the step till I came u_nocked at it when I joined her.
  • A part of this door was of glass unprotected by any shutter, which I did no_bserve at first, for all was very dark and silent within, and I was anxious (as indeed the child was also) for an answer to our summons. When she ha_nocked twice or thrice there was a noise as if some person were movin_nside, and at length a faint light appeared through the glass which, as i_pproached very slowly, the bearer having to make his way through a great man_cattered articles, enabled me to see both what kind of person it was wh_dvanced and what kind of place it was through which he came.
  • It was an old man with long grey hair, whose face and figure as he held th_ight above his head and looked before him as he approached, I could plainl_ee. Though much altered by age, I fancied I could recognize in his spare an_lender form something of that delicate mould which I had noticed in a child.
  • Their bright blue eyes were certainly alike, but his face was so deepl_urrowed and so very full of care, that here all resemblance ceased.
  • The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of thos_eceptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners o_his town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealous_nd distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here an_here, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons o_arious kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams. Th_aggard aspect of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; h_ight have groped among old churches and tombs and deserted houses an_athered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the whol_ollection but was in keeping with himself nothing that looked older or mor_orn than he.
  • As he turned the key in the lock, he surveyed me with some astonishment whic_as not diminished when he looked from me to my companion. The door bein_pened, the child addressed him as grandfather, and told him the little stor_f our companionship.
  • 'Why, bless thee, child,' said the old man, patting her on the head, 'ho_ouldst thou miss thy way? What if I had lost thee, Nell!'
  • 'I would have found my way back to YOU, grandfather,' said the child boldly;
  • 'never fear.'
  • The old man kissed her, then turning to me and begging me to walk in, I di_o. The door was closed and locked. Preceding me with the light, he led m_hrough the place I had already seen from without, into a small sitting-roo_ehind, in which was another door opening into a kind of closet, where I saw _ittle bed that a fairy might have slept in, it looked so very small and wa_o prettily arranged. The child took a candle and tripped into this littl_oom, leaving the old man and me together.
  • 'You must be tired, sir,' said he as he placed a chair near the fire, 'how ca_ thank you?'
  • 'By taking more care of your grandchild another time, my good friend,' _eplied.
  • 'More care!' said the old man in a shrill voice, 'more care of Nelly! Why, wh_ver loved a child as I love Nell?'
  • He said this with such evident surprise that I was perplexed what answer t_ake, and the more so because coupled with something feeble and wandering i_is manner, there were in his face marks of deep and anxious thought whic_onvinced me that he could not be, as I had been at first inclined to suppose, in a state of dotage or imbecility.
  • 'I don't think you consider—' I began.
  • 'I don't consider!' cried the old man interrupting me, 'I don't consider her!
  • Ah, how little you know of the truth! Little Nelly, little Nelly!'
  • It would be impossible for any man, I care not what his form of speech migh_e, to express more affection than the dealer in curiosities did, in thes_our words. I waited for him to speak again, but he rested his chin upon hi_and and shaking his head twice or thrice fixed his eyes upon the fire.
  • While we were sitting thus in silence, the door of the closet opened, and th_hild returned, her light brown hair hanging loose about her neck, and he_ace flushed with the haste she had made to rejoin us. She busied hersel_mmediately in preparing supper, and while she was thus engaged I remarke_hat the old man took an opportunity of observing me more closely than he ha_one yet. I was surprised to see that all this time everything was done by th_hild, and that there appeared to be no other persons but ourselves in th_ouse. I took advantage of a moment when she was absent to venture a hint o_his point, to which the old man replied that there were few grown persons a_rustworthy or as careful as she.
  • 'It always grieves me, ' I observed, roused by what I took to be hi_elfishness, 'it always grieves me to contemplate the initiation of childre_nto the ways of life, when they are scarcely more than infants. It check_heir confidence and simplicity—two of the best qualities that Heaven give_hem—and demands that they share our sorrows before they are capable o_ntering into our enjoyments.'
  • 'It will never check hers,' said the old man looking steadily at me, 'th_prings are too deep. Besides, the children of the poor know but fe_leasures. Even the cheap delights of childhood must be bought and paid for.
  • 'But—forgive me for saying this—you are surely not so very poor'—said I.
  • 'She is not my child, sir,' returned the old man. 'Her mother was, and she wa_oor. I save nothing—not a penny—though I live as you see, but'—he laid hi_and upon my arm and leant forward to whisper—'she shall be rich one of thes_ays, and a fine lady. Don't you think ill of me because I use her help. Sh_ives it cheerfully as you see, and it would break her heart if she knew tha_ suffered anybody else to do for me what her little hands could undertake. _on't consider!'—he cried with sudden querulousness, 'why, God knows that thi_ne child is there thought and object of my life, and yet he never prosper_e—no, never!'
  • At this juncture, the subject of our conversation again returned, and the ol_en motioning to me to approach the table, broke off, and said no more.
  • We had scarcely begun our repast when there was a knock at the door by which _ad entered, and Nell bursting into a hearty laugh, which I was rejoiced t_ear, for it was childlike and full of hilarity, said it was no doubt dear ol_it coming back at last.
  • 'Foolish Nell!' said the old man fondling with her hair. 'She always laughs a_oor Kit.'
  • The child laughed again more heartily than before, I could not help smilin_rom pure sympathy. The little old man took up a candle and went to open th_oor. When he came back, Kit was at his heels.
  • Kit was a shock-headed, shambling, awkward lad with an uncommonly wide mouth, very red cheeks, a turned-up nose, and certainly the most comical expressio_f face I ever saw. He stopped short at the door on seeing a stranger, twirle_n his hand a perfectly round old hat without any vestige of a brim, an_esting himself now on one leg and now on the other and changing the_onstantly, stood in the doorway, looking into the parlour with the mos_xtraordinary leer I ever beheld. I entertained a grateful feeling towards th_oy from that minute, for I felt that he was the comedy of the child's life.
  • 'A long way, wasn't it, Kit?' said the little old man.
  • 'Why, then, it was a goodish stretch, master,' returned Kit.
  • 'Of course you have come back hungry?'
  • 'Why, then, I do consider myself rather so, master,' was the answer.
  • The lad had a remarkable manner of standing sideways as he spoke, an_hrusting his head forward over his shoulder, as if he could not get at hi_oice without that accompanying action. I think he would have amused on_nywhere, but the child's exquisite enjoyment of his oddity, and the relief i_as to find that there was something she associated with merriment in a plac_hat appeared so unsuited to her, were quite irresistible. It was a grea_oint too that Kit himself was flattered by the sensation he created, an_fter several efforts to preserve his gravity, burst into a loud roar, and s_tood with his mouth wide open and his eyes nearly shut, laughing violently.
  • The old man had again relapsed into his former abstraction and took no notic_f what passed, but I remarked that when her laugh was over, the child'_right eyes were dimmed with tears, called forth by the fullness of heart wit_hich she welcomed her uncouth favourite after the little anxiety of th_ight. As for Kit himself (whose laugh had been all the time one of that sor_hich very little would change into a cry) he carried a large slice of brea_nd meat and a mug of beer into a corner, and applied himself to disposing o_hem with great voracity.
  • 'Ah!' said the old man turning to me with a sigh, as if I had spoken to hi_ut that moment, 'you don't know what you say when you tell me that I don'_onsider her.'
  • 'You must not attach too great weight to a remark founded on firs_ppearances, my friend,' said I.
  • 'No,' returned the old man thoughtfully, 'no. Come hither, Nell.'
  • The little girl hastened from her seat, and put her arm about his neck.
  • 'Do I love thee, Nell?' said he. 'Say—do I love thee, Nell, or no?'
  • The child only answered by her caresses, and laid her head upon his breast.
  • 'Why dost thou sob?' said the grandfather, pressing her closer to him an_lancing towards me. 'Is it because thou know'st I love thee, and dost no_ike that I should seem to doubt it by my question? Well, well—then let us sa_ love thee dearly.'
  • 'Indeed, indeed you do,' replied the child with great earnestness, 'Kit know_ou do.'
  • Kit, who in despatching his bread and meat had been swallowing two-thirds o_is knife at every mouthful with the coolness of a juggler, stopped short i_is operations on being thus appealed to, and bawled 'Nobody isn't such a foo_s to say he doosn't,' after which he incapacitated himself for furthe_onversation by taking a most prodigious sandwich at one bite.
  • 'She is poor now'—said the old men, patting the child's cheek, 'but I sa_gain that the time is coming when she shall be rich. It has been a long tim_oming, but it must come at last; a very long time, but it surely must come.
  • It has come to other men who do nothing but waste and riot. When WILL it com_o me!'
  • 'I am very happy as I am, grandfather,' said the child.
  • 'Tush, tush!' returned the old man, 'thou dost not know—how should'st thou!'
  • then he muttered again between his teeth, 'The time must come, I am very sur_t must. It will be all the better for coming late'; and then he sighed an_ell into his former musing state, and still holding the child between hi_nees appeared to be insensible to everything around him. By this time i_anted but a few minutes of midnight and I rose to go, which recalled him t_imself.
  • 'One moment, sir,' he said, 'Now, Kit—near midnight, boy, and you still here!
  • Get home, get home, and be true to your time in the morning, for there's wor_o do. Good night! There, bid him good night, Nell, and let him be gone!'
  • 'Good night, Kit,' said the child, her eyes lighting up with merriment an_indness.'
  • 'Good night, Miss Nell,' returned the boy.
  • 'And thank this gentleman,' interposed the old man, 'but for whose care _ight have lost my little girl to-night.'
  • 'No, no, master,' said Kit, 'that won't do, that won't.'
  • 'What do you mean?' cried the old man.
  • 'I'd have found her, master,' said Kit, 'I'd have found her. I'll bet that I'_ind her if she was above ground, I would, as quick as anybody, master. Ha, ha, ha!'
  • Once more opening his mouth and shutting his eyes, and laughing like _tentor, Kit gradually backed to the door, and roared himself out.
  • Free of the room, the boy was not slow in taking his departure; when he ha_one, and the child was occupied in clearing the table, the old man said:
  • 'I haven't seemed to thank you, sir, for what you have done to-night, but I d_hank you humbly and heartily, and so does she, and her thanks are bette_orth than mine. I should be sorry that you went away, and thought I wa_nmindful of your goodness, or careless of her—I am not indeed.'
  • I was sure of that, I said, from what I had seen. 'But,' I added, 'may I as_ou a question?'
  • 'Ay, sir,' replied the old man, 'What is it?'
  • 'This delicate child,' said I, 'with so much beauty and intelligence—has sh_obody to care for her but you? Has she no other companion or advisor?'
  • 'No,' he returned, looking anxiously in my face, 'no, and she wants no other.'
  • 'But are you not fearful,' said I, 'that you may misunderstand a charge s_ender? I am sure you mean well, but are you quite certain that you know ho_o execute such a trust as this? I am an old man, like you, and I am actuate_y an old man's concern in all that is young and promising. Do you not thin_hat what I have seen of you and this little creature to-night must have a_nterest not wholly free from pain?'
  • 'Sir,' rejoined the old man after a moment's silence.' I have no right to fee_urt at what you say. It is true that in many respects I am the child, and sh_he grown person—that you have seen already. But waking or sleeping, by nigh_r day, in sickness or health, she is the one object of my care, and if yo_new of how much care, you would look on me with different eyes, you woul_ndeed. Ah! It's a weary life for an old man—a weary, weary life—but there i_ great end to gain and that I keep before me.'
  • Seeing that he was in a state of excitement and impatience, I turned to put o_n outer coat which I had thrown off on entering the room, purposing to say n_ore. I was surprised to see the child standing patiently by with a cloak upo_er arm, and in her hand a hat, and stick.
  • 'Those are not mine, my dear,' said I.
  • 'No,' returned the child, 'they are grandfather's.'
  • 'But he is not going out to-night.'
  • 'Oh, yes, he is,' said the child, with a smile.
  • 'And what becomes of you, my pretty one?'
  • 'Me! I stay here of course. I always do.'
  • I looked in astonishment towards the old man, but he was, or feigned to be, busied in the arrangement of his dress. From him I looked back to the sligh_entle figure of the child. Alone! In that gloomy place all the long, drear_ight.
  • She evinced no consciousness of my surprise, but cheerfully helped the old ma_ith his cloak, and when he was ready took a candle to light us out. Findin_hat we did not follow as she expected, she looked back with a smile an_aited for us. The old man showed by his face that he plainly understood th_ause of my hesitation, but he merely signed to me with an inclination of th_ead to pass out of the room before him, and remained silent. I had n_esource but to comply.
  • When we reached the door, the child setting down the candle, turned to sa_ood night and raised her face to kiss me. Then she ran to the old man, wh_olded her in his arms and bade God bless her.
  • 'Sleep soundly, Nell,' he said in a low voice, 'and angels guard thy bed! D_ot forget thy prayers, my sweet.'
  • 'No, indeed,' answered the child fervently, 'they make me feel so happy!'
  • 'That's well; I know they do; they should,' said the old man. 'Bless thee _undred times! Early in the morning I shall be home.'
  • 'You'll not ring twice,' returned the child. 'The bell wakes me, even in th_iddle of a dream.'
  • With this, they separated. The child opened the door (now guarded by a shutte_hich I had heard the boy put up before he left the house) and with anothe_arewell whose clear and tender note I have recalled a thousand times, held i_ntil we had passed out. The old man paused a moment while it was gentl_losed and fastened on the inside, and satisfied that this was done, walked o_t a slow pace. At the street-corner he stopped, and regarding me with _roubled countenance said that our ways were widely different and that he mus_ake his leave. I would have spoken, but summoning up more alacrity than migh_ave been expected in one of his appearance, he hurried away. I could see tha_wice or thrice he looked back as if to ascertain if I were still watchin_im, or perhaps to assure himself that I was not following at a distance. Th_bscurity of the night favoured his disappearance, and his figure was soo_eyond my sight.
  • I remained standing on the spot where he had left me, unwilling to depart, an_et unknowing why I should loiter there. I looked wistfully into the street w_ad lately quitted, and after a time directed my steps that way. I passed an_epassed the house, and stopped and listened at the door; all was dark, an_ilent as the grave.
  • Yet I lingered about, and could not tear myself away, thinking of all possibl_arm that might happen to the child—of fires and robberies and even murder—an_eeling as if some evil must ensure if I turned my back upon the place. Th_losing of a door or window in the street brought me before the curiosity- dealer's once more; I crossed the road and looked up at the house to assur_yself that the noise had not come from there. No, it was black, cold, an_ifeless as before.
  • There were few passengers astir; the street was sad and dismal, and prett_ell my own. A few stragglers from the theatres hurried by, and now and then _urned aside to avoid some noisy drunkard as he reeled homewards, but thes_nterruptions were not frequent and soon ceased. The clocks struck one. Stil_ paced up and down, promising myself that every time should be the last, an_reaking faith with myself on some new plea as often as I did so.
  • The more I thought of what the old man had said, and of his looks and bearing, the less I could account for what I had seen and heard. I had a stron_isgiving that his nightly absence was for no good purpose. I had only come t_now the fact through the innocence of the child, and though the old man wa_y at the time, and saw my undisguised surprise, he had preserved a strang_ystery upon the subject and offered no word of explanation. These reflection_aturally recalled again more strongly than before his haggard face, hi_andering manner, his restless anxious looks. His affection for the chil_ight not be inconsistent with villany of the worst kind; even that ver_ffection was in itself an extraordinary contradiction, or how could he leav_er thus? Disposed as I was to think badly of him, I never doubted that hi_ove for her was real. I could not admit the thought, remembering what ha_assed between us, and the tone of voice in which he had called her by he_ame.
  • 'Stay here of course,' the child had said in answer to my question, 'I alway_o!' What could take him from home by night, and every night! I called up al_he strange tales I had ever heard of dark and secret deeds committed in grea_owns and escaping detection for a long series of years; wild as many of thes_tories were, I could not find one adapted to this mystery, which only becam_he more impenetrable, in proportion as I sought to solve it.
  • Occupied with such thoughts as these, and a crowd of others all tending to th_ame point, I continued to pace the street for two long hours; at length th_ain began to descend heavily, and then over-powered by fatigue though no les_nterested than I had been at first, I engaged the nearest coach and so go_ome. A cheerful fire was blazing on the hearth, the lamp burnt brightly, m_lock received me with its old familiar welcome; everything was quiet, war_nd cheering, and in happy contrast to the gloom and darkness I had quitted.
  • But all that night, waking or in my sleep, the same thoughts recurred and th_ame images retained possession of my brain. I had ever before me the old dar_urky rooms—the gaunt suits of mail with their ghostly silent air—the face_ll awry, grinning from wood and stone—the dust and rust and worm that live_n wood—and alone in the midst of all this lumber and decay and ugly age, th_eautiful child in her gentle slumber, smiling through her light and sunn_reams.