Described as a ‘tragedy of sorrows’, the story tells of Nell uprooted from a secure and innocent childhood and cast into a world where evil takes many shapes, the most fascinating of which is the stunted, lecherous Quilp. Blending realism with non-realistic genres such as fairy-tale, allegory, and pastoral, the tale of Nell’s tragedy contains some of Dickens’s most memorable comic and grotesque creations, including the dwarf Daniel Quilp, Dick Swiveller, and Kit Nubbles.
Night is generally my time for walking. In the summer I often leave home early in the morning, and roam about fields and lanes all day, or even escape for days or weeks together; but, saving in the country, I seldom go out until after dark, though, Heaven be thanked, I love its light and feel the cheerfulness it sheds upon the earth, as much as any creature living.
I have fallen insensibly into this habit, both because it favours my infirmity and because it affords me greater opportunity of speculating on the characters and occupations of those who fill the streets. The glare and hurry of broad noon are not adapted to idle pursuits like mine; a glimpse of passing faces caught by the light of a street-lamp or a shop window is often better for my purpose than their full revelation in the daylight; and, if I must add the truth, night is kinder in this respect than day, which too often destroys an air-built castle at the moment of its completion, without the least ceremony or remorse.
That constant pacing to and fro, that never-ending restlessness, that incessant tread of feet wearing the rough stones smooth and glossy–is it not a wonder how the dwellers in narrows ways can bear to hear it! Think of a sick man in such a place as Saint Martin’s Court, listening to the footsteps, and in the midst of pain and weariness obliged, despite himself (as though it were a task he must perform) to detect the child’s step from the man’s, the slipshod beggar from the booted exquisite, the lounging from the busy, the dull heel of the sauntering outcast from the quick tread of an expectant pleasure-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 all his restless dreams, as if he were condemned to lie, dead but conscious, in a noisy churchyard, and had no hope of rest for centuries to come.
Then, the crowds for ever passing and repassing on the bridges (on those which are free of toil at last), where many stop on fine evenings looking listlessly down upon the water with some vague idea that by and by it runs between green banks which grow wider and wider until at last it joins the broad vast sea–where some halt to rest from heavy loads and think as they look over the parapet that to smoke and lounge away one’s life, and lie sleeping in the sun upon a hot tarpaulin, in a dull, slow, sluggish barge, must be happiness unalloyed–and where some, and a very different class, pause with heaver loads than they, remembering to have heard or read in old time that drowning was not a hard death, but of all means of suicide the easiest and best.
Covent Garden Market at sunrise too, in the spring or summer, when the fragrance of sweet flowers is in the air, over-powering even the unwholesome streams of last night’s debauchery, and driving the dusky thrust, whose cage has 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 of whom, shrinking from the hot hands of drunken purchasers, lie drooping on the path already, while others, soddened by close contact, await the time when they shall be watered and freshened up to please more sober company, and make old clerks who pass them on their road to business, wonder what has filled their breasts with visions of the country.
But my present purpose is not to expatiate upon my walks. The story I am about to relate, and to which I shall recur at intervals, arose out of one of these rambles; 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 usual way, musing upon a great many things, when I was arrested by an inquiry, the purport 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. I turned hastily round and found at my elbow a pretty little girl, who begged to be directed to a certain street at a considerable distance, and indeed in quite 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 lost my 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 a very old gentleman, and walk so slow yourself.’
I cannot describe how much I was impressed by this appeal and the energy with which it was made, which brought a tear into the child’s clear eye, and made her 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 her cradle, and we trudged away together; the little creature accommodating her pace to mine, and rather seeming to lead and take care of me than I to be protecting her. I observed that every now and then she stole a curious look at my face, as if to make quite sure that I was not deceiving her, and that these glances (very sharp and keen they were too) seemed to increase her confidence at every repetition.
For my part, my curiosity and interest were at least equal to the child’s, for child she certainly was, although I thought it probably from what I could make out, that her very small and delicate frame imparted a peculiar youthfulness to her appearance. Though more scantily attired than she might have been she was dressed with perfect neatness, and betrayed no marks of poverty or neglect.
‘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 the little creature with an involuntary expression of surprise; for I wondered what kind of errand it might be that occasioned her to be prepared for questioning. Her quick eye seemed to read my thoughts, for as it met mine she added that there was no harm in what she had been doing, but it was a great secret–a secret which she did not even know herself.
This was said with no appearance of cunning or deceit, but with an unsuspicious frankness that bore the impress of truth. She walked on as before, growing more familiar with me as we proceeded and talking cheerfully by the way, but she said no more about her home, beyond remarking that we were going quite a new road and asking if it were a short one.
While we were thus engaged, I revolved in my mind a hundred different explanations of the riddle and rejected them every one. I really felt ashamed to take advantage of the ingenuousness or grateful feeling of the child for the purpose of gratifying my curiosity. I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us. As I had felt pleased at first by her confidence I determined to deserve it, and to do credit 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 who had inconsiderately sent her to so great a distance by night and alone, and as it was not improbable that if she found herself near home she might take farewell of me and deprive me of the opportunity, I avoided the most frequented ways and took the most intricate, and thus it was not until we arrived in the street itself that she knew where we were. Clapping her hands with pleasure and running on before me for a short distance, my little acquaintance stopped at a door and remaining on the step till I came up knocked at it when I joined her.
A part of this door was of glass unprotected by any shutter, which I did not observe 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 had knocked twice or thrice there was a noise as if some person were moving inside, and at length a faint light appeared through the glass which, as it approached very slowly, the bearer having to make his way through a great many scattered articles, enabled me to see both what kind of person it was who advanced 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 the light above his head and looked before him as he approached, I could plainly see. Though much altered by age, I fancied I could recognize in his spare and slender 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 deeply furrowed and so very full of care, that here all resemblance ceased.
The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams. The haggard aspect of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have groped among old churches and tombs and deserted houses and gathered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the whole collection but was in keeping with himself nothing that looked older or more worn than he.
As he turned the key in the lock, he surveyed me with some astonishment which was not diminished when he looked from me to my companion. The door being opened, the child addressed him as grandfather, and told him the little story of our companionship.
‘Why, bless thee, child,’ said the old man, patting her on the head, ‘how couldst 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 did so. The door was closed and locked. Preceding me with the light, he led me through the place I had already seen from without, into a small sitting-room behind, in which was another door opening into a kind of closet, where I saw a little bed that a fairy might have slept in, it looked so very small and was so prettily arranged. The child took a candle and tripped into this little room, leaving the old man and me together.
‘You must be tired, sir,’ said he as he placed a chair near the fire, ‘how can I thank you?’
‘By taking more care of your grandchild another time, my good friend,’ I replied.
‘More care!’ said the old man in a shrill voice, ‘more care of Nelly! Why, who ever loved a child as I love Nell?’
He said this with such evident surprise that I was perplexed what answer to make, and the more so because coupled with something feeble and wandering in his manner, there were in his face marks of deep and anxious thought which convinced 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 might be, to express more affection than the dealer in curiosities did, in these four words. I waited for him to speak again, but he rested his chin upon his hand 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 the child returned, her light brown hair hanging loose about her neck, and her face flushed with the haste she had made to rejoin us. She busied herself immediately in preparing supper, and while she was thus engaged I remarked that the old man took an opportunity of observing me more closely than he had done yet. I was surprised to see that all this time everything was done by the child, and that there appeared to be no other persons but ourselves in the house. I took advantage of a moment when she was absent to venture a hint on this point, to which the old man replied that there were few grown persons as trustworthy or as careful as she.
‘It always grieves me, ‘ I observed, roused by what I took to be his selfishness, ‘it always grieves me to contemplate the initiation of children into the ways of life, when they are scarcely more than infants. It checks their confidence and simplicity–two of the best qualities that Heaven gives them–and demands that they share our sorrows before they are capable of entering into our enjoyments.’
‘It will never check hers,’ said the old man looking steadily at me, ‘the springs are too deep. Besides, the children of the poor know but few pleasures. 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 was poor. I save nothing–not a penny–though I live as you see, but’–he laid his hand upon my arm and leant forward to whisper–‘she shall be rich one of these days, and a fine lady. Don’t you think ill of me because I use her help. She gives it cheerfully as you see, and it would break her heart if she knew that I suffered anybody else to do for me what her little hands could undertake. I don’t consider!’–he cried with sudden querulousness, ‘why, God knows that this one child is there thought and object of my life, and yet he never prospers me–no, never!’
At this juncture, the subject of our conversation again returned, and the old men 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 I had entered, and Nell bursting into a hearty laugh, which I was rejoiced to hear, for it was childlike and full of hilarity, said it was no doubt dear old Kit coming back at last.
‘Foolish Nell!’ said the old man fondling with her hair. ‘She always laughs at poor Kit.’
The child laughed again more heartily than before, I could not help smiling from pure sympathy. The little old man took up a candle and went to open the door. 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 expression of face I ever saw. He stopped short at the door on seeing a stranger, twirled in his hand a perfectly round old hat without any vestige of a brim, and resting himself now on one leg and now on the other and changing them constantly, stood in the doorway, looking into the parlour with the most extraordinary leer I ever beheld. I entertained a grateful feeling towards the boy 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, and thrusting his head forward over his shoulder, as if he could not get at his voice without that accompanying action. I think he would have amused one anywhere, but the child’s exquisite enjoyment of his oddity, and the relief it was to find that there was something she associated with merriment in a place that appeared so unsuited to her, were quite irresistible. It was a great point too that Kit himself was flattered by the sensation he created, and after several efforts to preserve his gravity, burst into a loud roar, and so stood 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 notice of what passed, but I remarked that when her laugh was over, the child’s bright eyes were dimmed with tears, called forth by the fullness of heart with which she welcomed her uncouth favourite after the little anxiety of the night. As for Kit himself (whose laugh had been all the time one of that sort which very little would change into a cry) he carried a large slice of bread and meat and a mug of beer into a corner, and applied himself to disposing of them with great voracity.
‘Ah!’ said the old man turning to me with a sigh, as if I had spoken to him but that moment, ‘you don’t know what you say when you tell me that I don’t consider her.’
‘You must not attach too great weight to a remark founded on first appearances, 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 and glancing towards me. ‘Is it because thou know’st I love thee, and dost not like that I should seem to doubt it by my question? Well, well–then let us say I love thee dearly.’
‘Indeed, indeed you do,’ replied the child with great earnestness, ‘Kit knows you do.’
Kit, who in despatching his bread and meat had been swallowing two-thirds of his knife at every mouthful with the coolness of a juggler, stopped short in his operations on being thus appealed to, and bawled ‘Nobody isn’t such a fool as to say he doosn’t,’ after which he incapacitated himself for further conversation by taking a most prodigious sandwich at one bite.
‘She is poor now’–said the old men, patting the child’s cheek, ‘but I say again that the time is coming when she shall be rich. It has been a long time coming, 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 come to 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 sure it must. It will be all the better for coming late’; and then he sighed and fell into his former musing state, and still holding the child between his knees appeared to be insensible to everything around him. By this time it wanted but a few minutes of midnight and I rose to go, which recalled him to himself.
‘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 work to 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 and kindness.’
‘Good night, Miss Nell,’ returned the boy.
‘And thank this gentleman,’ interposed the old man, ‘but for whose care I might 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’d find 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 a stentor, 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 had gone, 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 do thank you humbly and heartily, and so does she, and her thanks are better worth than mine. I should be sorry that you went away, and thought I was unmindful 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 ask you a question?’
‘Ay, sir,’ replied the old man, ‘What is it?’
‘This delicate child,’ said I, ‘with so much beauty and intelligence–has she nobody 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 so tender? I am sure you mean well, but are you quite certain that you know how to execute such a trust as this? I am an old man, like you, and I am actuated by an old man’s concern in all that is young and promising. Do you not think that what I have seen of you and this little creature to-night must have an interest not wholly free from pain?’
‘Sir,’ rejoined the old man after a moment’s silence.’ I have no right to feel hurt at what you say. It is true that in many respects I am the child, and she the grown person–that you have seen already. But waking or sleeping, by night or day, in sickness or health, she is the one object of my care, and if you knew of how much care, you would look on me with different eyes, you would indeed. Ah! It’s a weary life for an old man–a weary, weary life–but there is a 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 on an outer coat which I had thrown off on entering the room, purposing to say no more. I was surprised to see the child standing patiently by with a cloak upon her 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 slight gentle figure of the child. Alone! In that gloomy place all the long, dreary night.
She evinced no consciousness of my surprise, but cheerfully helped the old man with his cloak, and when he was ready took a candle to light us out. Finding that we did not follow as she expected, she looked back with a smile and waited for us. The old man showed by his face that he plainly understood the cause of my hesitation, but he merely signed to me with an inclination of the head to pass out of the room before him, and remained silent. I had no resource but to comply.
When we reached the door, the child setting down the candle, turned to say good night and raised her face to kiss me. Then she ran to the old man, who folded her in his arms and bade God bless her.
‘Sleep soundly, Nell,’ he said in a low voice, ‘and angels guard thy bed! Do not 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 a hundred times! Early in the morning I shall be home.’
‘You’ll not ring twice,’ returned the child. ‘The bell wakes me, even in the middle of a dream.’
With this, they separated. The child opened the door (now guarded by a shutter which I had heard the boy put up before he left the house) and with another farewell whose clear and tender note I have recalled a thousand times, held it until we had passed out. The old man paused a moment while it was gently closed and fastened on the inside, and satisfied that this was done, walked on at a slow pace. At the street-corner he stopped, and regarding me with a troubled countenance said that our ways were widely different and that he must take his leave. I would have spoken, but summoning up more alacrity than might have been expected in one of his appearance, he hurried away. I could see that twice or thrice he looked back as if to ascertain if I were still watching him, or perhaps to assure himself that I was not following at a distance. The obscurity of the night favoured his disappearance, and his figure was soon beyond my sight.
I remained standing on the spot where he had left me, unwilling to depart, and yet unknowing why I should loiter there. I looked wistfully into the street we had lately quitted, and after a time directed my steps that way. I passed and repassed the house, and stopped and listened at the door; all was dark, and silent as the grave.
Yet I lingered about, and could not tear myself away, thinking of all possible harm that might happen to the child–of fires and robberies and even murder–and feeling as if some evil must ensure if I turned my back upon the place. The closing 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 assure myself that the noise had not come from there. No, it was black, cold, and lifeless as before.
There were few passengers astir; the street was sad and dismal, and pretty well my own. A few stragglers from the theatres hurried by, and now and then I turned aside to avoid some noisy drunkard as he reeled homewards, but these interruptions were not frequent and soon ceased. The clocks struck one. Still I paced up and down, promising myself that every time should be the last, and breaking 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 strong misgiving that his nightly absence was for no good purpose. I had only come to know the fact through the innocence of the child, and though the old man was by at the time, and saw my undisguised surprise, he had preserved a strange mystery upon the subject and offered no word of explanation. These reflections naturally recalled again more strongly than before his haggard face, his wandering manner, his restless anxious looks. His affection for the child might not be inconsistent with villany of the worst kind; even that very affection was in itself an extraordinary contradiction, or how could he leave her thus? Disposed as I was to think badly of him, I never doubted that his love for her was real. I could not admit the thought, remembering what had passed between us, and the tone of voice in which he had called her by her name.
‘Stay here of course,’ the child had said in answer to my question, ‘I always do!’ What could take him from home by night, and every night! I called up all the strange tales I had ever heard of dark and secret deeds committed in great towns and escaping detection for a long series of years; wild as many of these stories were, I could not find one adapted to this mystery, which only became the more impenetrable, in proportion as I sought to solve it.
Occupied with such thoughts as these, and a crowd of others all tending to the same point, I continued to pace the street for two long hours; at length the rain began to descend heavily, and then over-powered by fatigue though no less interested than I had been at first, I engaged the nearest coach and so got home. A cheerful fire was blazing on the hearth, the lamp burnt brightly, my clock received me with its old familiar welcome; everything was quiet, warm and 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 the same images retained possession of my brain. I had ever before me the old dark murky rooms–the gaunt suits of mail with their ghostly silent air–the faces all awry, grinning from wood and stone–the dust and rust and worm that lives in wood–and alone in the midst of all this lumber and decay and ugly age, the beautiful child in her gentle slumber, smiling through her light and sunny dreams.