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The Old Curiosity Shop
by Charles Dickens
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes

Dickens, and frontispiece to the original novel.

(London, 1840)

'The Old Curiosity Shop' was begun by Dickens in his new weekly publication called 'Master Humphrey's Clock', in 1840. It was immediately and stupendously popular. The lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible, companions, took the hearts of readers by storm, and the death of Little Nell moved thousands to tears, though Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said that; 'One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.'

For more works by Dickens, see The Index
Abridged: GH/JH

The Old Curiosity Shop

I.--Little Nell and Her Grandfather

The shop was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of London. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour, rusty weapons of various kinds, tapestry, and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams.

The haggard aspect of a little old man, with long grey hair, who stood within, was wonderfully suited to the place. Nothing in the whole collection looked older or more worn than he.

Confronting the old man was a young man of dissipated appearance, and high words were taking place.

"I tell you again I want to see my sister," said the younger man. "You can't change the relationship, you know. If you could, you'd have done it long ago. But as I may have to wait some time I'll call in a friend of mine, with your leave."

At this he brought in a companion of even more dissolute appearance than himself.

"There, it's Dick Swiveller," said the young fellow, pushing him in.

"But is the old min agreeable?" said Mr. Swiveller in an undertone. "What is the odds so long as the fire of soul is kindled at the taper of conviviality, and the wing of friendship never moults a feather! But, only one little whisper, Fred--is the old min friendly?"

Mr. Swiveller then leaned back in his chair and relapsed into silence; only to break it by observing, "Gentlemen, how does the case stand? Here is a jolly old grandfather, and here is a wild young grandson. The jolly old grandfather says to the wild young grandson, 'I have brought you up and educated you, Fred; you have bolted a little out of the course, and you shall never have another chance.' The wild young grandson makes answer, 'You're as rich as can be, why can't you stand a trifle for your grown up relation?' Then the plain question is, ain't it a pity this state of things should continue, and how much better it would be for the old gentleman to hand over a reasonable amount of tin, and make it all right and comfortable?"

"Why do you persecute me?" said the old man, turning to his grandson. "Why do you bring your profligate companions here? I am poor. You have chosen your own path, follow it. Leave Nell and me to toil and work."

"Nell will be a woman soon," returned the other; "She'll forget her brother unless he shows himself sometimes."

The door opened, and the child herself appeared, followed by an elderly man so low in stature as to be quite a dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for the body of a giant.

Mr. Swiveller turned to the dwarf and, stooping down, whispered audibly in his ear. "The watchword to the old min is--fork."

"Is what?" demanded Quilp, for that--Daniel Quilp--was the dwarf's name.

"Is fork, sir, fork," replied Mr. Swiveller, slapping his pocket. "You are awake, sir?"

The dwarf nodded; the grandson, having announced his intention of repeating his visit, left the house accompanied by his friend.

"So much for dear relations," said Quilp, with a sour look. He put his hand into his breast, and pulled out a bag. "Here, I brought it myself, as, being in gold, it was too large and heavy for Nell to carry. I would I knew in what good investment all these supplies are sunk. But you are a deep man, and keep your secret close."

"My secret!" said the old man, with a haggard look. "Yes, you're right--I keep it close--very close."

He said no more, but, taking the money, locked it in an iron safe.

That night, as on many a night previous, Nell's grandfather went out, leaving the child in the strange house alone, to return in the early morning.

Quilp, to whom the old man had again applied for money, learnt of these nocturnal expeditions, and sent no answer, but came in person to the old curiosity shop.

The old man was feverish and excited as he impatiently addressed the dwarf.

"Have you brought me any money?"

"No," returned Quilp.

"Then," said the old man, clenching his hands, "the child and I are lost. No recompense for the time and money lost!"

"Neighbour," said Quilp, "you have no secret from me now. I know that all those sums of money you have had from me have found their way to the gamingtable."

"I never played for gain of mine, or love of play," cried the old man fiercely. "My winnings would have been bestowed to the last farthing on a young sinless child, whose life they would have sweetened and made happy. But I never won."

"Dear me!" said Quilp. "The last advance was £70, and it went in one night. And so it comes to pass that I hold every security you could scrape together, and a bill of sale upon the stock and property."

So saying, he nodded, deaf to all entreaties for further loans, and took his leave.

The house was no longer theirs. Mr. Quilp encamped on the premises, and the goods were sold. A day was fixed for their removal.

"Grandfather, let us begone from this place," said little Nell; "let us wander barefoot through the world, rather than linger here."

"We will," answered the old man. "We will travel afoot through the fields and woods, and by the side of rivers and trust ourselves to God. Thou and I together, Nell, may be cheerful and happy yet, and learn to forget this time, as if it had never been."

II.--Messrs. Codlin and Short

The sun was setting when little Nell and her grandfather, who had been wandering many days, reached the wicket gate of a country churchyard.

Two men were seated in easy attitudes on the grass by the church--two men of the class of itinerant showmen, exhibitors of the freaks of Punch--and they had come there to make needful repairs in the stage arrangements, for one was engaged in binding together a small gallows with thread, while the other was fixing a new black wig upon the head of a puppet.

"Are you going to show 'em to-night? Are you?" said the old man.

"That's the intention, governor, and unless I'm much mistaken, my partner, Tommy Codlin, is a-calculating at this minute what we've lost through your coming upon us. Cheer up, Tommy, it can't be much."

To this Mr. Codlin replied in a surly, grumbling manner, "I don't care if we haven't lost a farden, but you're too free. If you stood in front of the curtain, and see the public's faces as I do, you'd know human natur' better."

"Ah! it's been the spoiling of you, Tommy, your taking to that branch," rejoined his companion. "When you played the ghost in the reg'lar drama in the fairs, you believed in everything--except ghosts. But now you're a universal mistruster."

"Never mind," said Mr. Codlin, with the air of a discontented philosopher; "I know better now; p'r'aps I'm sorry for it. Look here, here's all this Judy's clothes falling to pieces again."

The child, seeing they were at a loss for a needle and thread, timidly proposed to mend it for them, and even Mr. Codlin had nothing to urge against a proposal so reasonable.

"If you're wanting a place to stop at," said Short, "I should advise you to take up at the same house with us. That's it, the long, low, white house there. It's very cheap."

The public-house was kept by a fat old landlord and landlady, who made no objection to receiving their new guests, but praised Nelly's beauty, and were at once prepossessed in her behalf.

"We're going on to the races," said Short next morning to the travellers. "If that's your way, and you'd like to have us for company, let us go together. If you prefer going alone, only say the word, and we shan't trouble you."

"We'll go with you," said the old man. "Nell--with them, with them."

They stopped that night at an ancient roadside inn called the Jolly Sandboys, and supper being in preparation, Nelly and her grandfather had not long taken their seats by the kitchen fire before they fell asleep.

"Who are they?" whispered the landlord.

"No-good, I suppose," said Mr. Codlin.

"They're no harm," said Short, "depend upon that. It's very plain, besides, that they're not used to this way of life. Don't tell me that handsome child has been in the habit of prowling about as she's done these last two or three days. I know better. The old man ain't in his right mind. Haven't you noticed how anxious he is always to get on--furder away--furder away? Mind what I say, he has given his friends the slip, and persuaded this delicate young creatur all along of her fondness for him to be his guide--where to, he knows no more than the man in the moon. I'm not a-going to stand that!"

"You're not a-going to stand that!" cried Mr. Codlin, glancing at the clock, and counting the minutes to supper time.

"I," repeated Short, emphatically and slowly, "am not a-going to stand it. I am not a-going to see this fair young child a-falling into bad hands. Therefore, when they develop an intention of parting company from us, I shall take measures for detaining of 'em, and restoring 'em to their friends, who, I dare say, have had their disconsolation pasted up on every wall in London by this time."

"Short," said Mr. Codlin, looking up with eager eyes, "it's possible there may be uncommon good sense in what you've said. If there should be a reward, Short, remember that we're partners in everything!"

Before Nell retired to rest in her poor garret she was a little startled by the appearance of Mr. Thomas Codlin at her door.

"Nothing's the matter, my dear; only I'm your friend. Perhaps you haven't thought so, but it's me that's your friend--not him. I'm the real, open-hearted man. Short's very well, and seems kind, but he overdoes it. Now, I don't."

The child was puzzled, and could not tell what to say.

"Take my advice; as long as you travel with us, keep as near me as you can. Recollect the friend. Codlin's the friend, not Short. Short's very well as far as he goes, but the real friend is Codlin--not Short."

III.--Jarley's Waxwork

Codlin and Short stuck so close to Nell and her grandfather that the child grew frightened, especially at the unwonted attentions of Mr. Thomas Codlin. The bustle of the racecourse enabled them to escape, and once more the travellers were alone.

It was a few days later when, as the afternoon was wearing away, they came upon a caravan drawn up by the roadside. It was a smart little house upon wheels, not a gipsy caravan, for at the open door sat a Christian lady, stout and comfortable, taking her tea upon a drum covered with a white napkin.

"Hey!" cried the lady of the caravan, seeing the old man and the child walking slowly by. "Yes, to be sure I saw you there with my own eyes! And very sorry I was to see you in company with a Punch; a low, practical, wulgar wretch that people should scorn to look at."

"I was not there by choice," returned the child. "We don't know our way, and the two men were very kind to us, and let us travel with them. Do you know them, ma'am?"

"Know 'em, child! Know them! But you're young and inexperienced. Do I look as if I knowed 'em? Does the caravan look as if it knowed 'em?"

"No, ma'am, no. I beg your pardon."

It was granted immediately. And then the lady of the caravan, finding the travellers were hungry, handed them a tea-tray with bread-and-butter and a knuckle of ham; and finding they were tired, took them into the caravan, which was bound for the nearest town, some eight miles off.

As the caravan moved slowly along, its owner began to talk to Nell, and presently pulled out a large roll of canvas. "There child," she said, "read that!"

Nell read aloud the inscription, "Jarley's Waxwork."

"That's me," said the lady complacently.

"I never saw any waxwork, ma'am," said Nell. "Is it funnier than Punch?"

"Funnier!" said Mrs. Jarley, in a shrill voice. "It is not funny at all. It's calm and--what's that word again--critical? No--classical, that's it--it's calm and classical."

In the course of the journey Mrs. Jarley was so taken with the child that she proposed to engage her, and as Nell would not be separated from her grandfather, he was included in the agreement.

"What I want your granddaughter for," said Mrs. Jarley, "is to point 'em out to the company, for she has a way with her that people wouldn't think unpleasant. It's not a common offer, bear in mind; it's Jarley's Waxwork. The duty's very light and genteel, the exhibition takes place in assembly rooms or town halls. There is none of your open-air wagrancy at Jarley's, remember. And the price of admission is only sixpence."

"We are very much obliged to you, ma'am," said Nell, speaking for her grandfather, "and thankfully accept your offer."

"And you'll never be sorry for it," returned Mrs. Jarley. "So, as that's all settled, let us have a bit of supper."

The next morning, the caravan having arrived at the town, and the waxworks having been unpacked in the town hall, Mrs. Jarley sat down in an armchair in the centre of the room, and began to instruct Nell in her duty.

"That," said Mrs. Jarley in her exhibition tone, "is an unfortunate maid of honour in the time of Queen Elizabeth, who died from pricking her finger in consequence of working on a Sunday. Observe the blood which is trickling from her finger, also the gold-eyed needle of the period, with which she is at work."

Nell found in the lady of the caravan a kind and considerate person, who had not only a peculiar relish for being comfortable herself, but for making everybody about her comfortable also.

But the child noticed that her grandfather grew more and more listless and vacant, and soon a greater sorrow was to come. The passion for gambling revived in the old man one evening, when he and Nell, out walking in the country, took passing shelter from a storm in a small public-house. He saw men playing cards, and, allowed to join them, lost. The next night he went off alone, and Nell, finding him gone, followed. Her grandfather was with the card-players near an encampment of gypsies, and, to her horror, he promised to bring more money.

Flight was now the only thing possible, before her grandfather should steal. How else could he get the money?

IV.--Beyond the Pale

Flight by water! For two days they travelled on a barge, Nell sitting with her grandfather in the boat. Rugged and noisy fellows were the bargemen, and quite brutal among themselves, though civil enough to their passengers. The barge floated into the wharf to which it belonged, and now came flight by land through a strange, unfriendly town. The travellers were penniless, and at nightfall took refuge in a deep doorway.

A man, miserably clad and begrimed with smoke, found them here, and, learning they were homeless, promised them shelter by the fire of a great furnace.

A dark and blackened region was this they were in. On every side tall chimneys poured out their plague of smoke, and at night the smoke was changed to fire, and chimneys spurted flame. Struggling vegetation sickened and sank under the hot breath of kiln and furnace. The people--men, women, and children--wan in their looks and ragged in their attire, tended the engines, or scowled, half naked, from the doorless houses.

That night Nell and her grandfather lay down with nothing between them and the sky. A penny loaf was all they had had that day, and very weak and spent the child felt.

With morning she was weaker still, and a loathing of food prevented her sharing the loaf bought with their last penny. Still she dragged her weary feet on, and only at the very end of the town fell senseless to the ground.

Once in their earlier wanderings they had made friends with a village schoolmaster, and now, when all hope seemed gone, it was this schoolmaster who brought the travellers into a peaceful haven. For it was he who passed along when little Nell fell fainting to the ground, and it was he who carried her into a small inn hard by. A day's rest brought some recovery to the child, and in the evening she was able to sit up.

"I have made my fortune since I saw you last," said the schoolmaster. "I have been appointed clerk and schoolmaster to a village a long way from here at five-and-thirty pounds a year."

Then the schoolmaster insisted they must come with him, and make the journey by waggons, and that when they reached the village some occupation should be found by which they could subsist.

They agreed to go, and when the village was reached the efforts of the good schoolmaster procured a post for Nell. Someone was wanted to keep the keys of the church and show it to strangers, and the old clergyman yielded to the schoolmaster's petition.

"But an old church is a dull and gloomy place for one so young as you, my child," said the old clergyman, laying his hand upon her head and smiling sadly, "I would rather see her dancing on the green at nights than have her sitting in the shadow of our mouldering arches."

It was very peaceful in the old church, and the village children soon grew to love little Nell. At last Nell and her grandfather were beyond the need of flight.

But the child's strength was failing, and in the winter came her death. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. The traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues were gone. She had died with her arms round her grandfather's neck and "God bless you!" on her lips.

The old man never realised that she was dead. "She is asleep," he said. "She will come to-morrow."

And thenceforth every day, and all day long he waited at her grave. And people would hear him whisper, "Lord, let her come to-morrow."

The last time was on a genial day in spring. He did not return at the usual hour, and they went to seek him, and found him lying dead upon the stone.

They laid by the side of her whom he had loved so well; and in the church where they had often lingered hand in hand the child and the old man slept together.

* * * * *

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