The child shed tears of delight on hearing this, and accompanied the old woman willingly. They had not gone far, when they stopped before a shabby little house in a dirty little lane. Opening the door with a key she took out of her pocket, Mrs. Brown pushed the child into a back room, where there was a great heap of rags lying on the floor, a heap of bones, and a heap of sifted dust. But there was no furniture at all, and the walls and ceiling were quite black.
The child became so terrified, that she was stricken speechless, and looked as though about to swoon.
"Now, don't be a young mule," said Good Mrs. Brown, reviving her with a shake. "I'm not a' going to keep you, even above an hour. Don't vex me. If you don't, I tell you, I won't hurt you. But if you do, I'll kill you. I could have you killed at any time—even if you was in your own bed at home. Now let's know who you are, and what you are, and all about it."
The old woman's threats and promises, and Florence's habit of being quiet, and repressing what she felt, enabled her to tell her little history. Mrs. Brown listened attentively until she had finished.
"I want that pretty frock, Miss Dombey," said Good Mrs. Brown, "and that little bonnet, and a petticoat or two, and those shoes, Miss Dombey, and anything else you can spare. Come! take 'em off."
Florence obeyed as fast as her trembling hands could allow, keeping all the while, a frightened eye on Mrs. Brown, who examined each article of apparel at leisure, and seemed tolerably well satisfied with their quality and value; she then produced a worn-out girl's cloak, and the crushed remnants of a girl's bonnet, as well as other tattered things. In this dainty raiment she instructed Florence to dress herself, and as this seemed a prelude to her release, the child complied as fast as possible. Mrs. Brown then resumed her seat on the bones, and smoked a very short, black pipe, after which she gave the child a rabbit-skin to carry, that she might appear like her ordinary companion, and led her forth into the streets; but she cautioned her, with threats of deadly vengeance in case of disobedience, to go directly to her father's office in the city, also to wait at the street corner where she would be left, until the clock struck three, and these directions Florence promised faithfully to observe.
At length Mrs. Brown left her changed and ragged little friend at a corner, where, true to her promise, she remained until the steeple rang out three o'clock, when after often looking over her shoulder, lest the all-powerful spies of Mrs. Brown should take offence at that, she hurried off as fast as she could in her slipshod shoes, holding the rabbit-skin tight in her hand.
Tired of walking, stunned by the noise and confusion, anxious for her brother and the nurses, terrified by what she had undergone, and what was yet before her, Florence once or twice could not help stopping and crying bitterly, but few people noticed her, in the garb she wore, or if they did, believed that she was tutored to excite compassion, and passed on. It was late in the afternoon when she peeped into a kind of wharf, and asked a stout man there if he could tell her the way to Dombey & Son's.
The man looked attentively at her, then called another man, who ran up an archway, and very soon returned with a blithe-looking boy who he said was in Mr. Dombey's employ.
Hearing this, Florence felt re-assured; ran eagerly up to him, and caught his hand in both of hers.
"I'm lost, if you please!" said Florence. "I was lost this morning, a long way from here—and I have had my own clothes taken away since—and my name is Florence Dombey, and, oh dear, take care of me, if you please!" sobbed Florence, giving full vent to her childish feelings.
"Don't cry, Miss Dombey," said young Walter Gay, the nephew of Solomon Gills, in a transport of enthusiasm. "What a wonderful thing for me that I am here. You are as safe now as if you were guarded by a whole boat's crew of picked men from a man-of-war. Oh, don't cry!"
"I won't cry any more," said Florence. "I'm only crying for joy."
"Crying for joy!" thought Walter, "and I'm the cause of it. Come along, Miss Dombey, let me see the villain who will molest you now!"
So Walter, looking immensely fierce, led off Florence looking very happy; and as Mr. Dombey's office was closed for the night, he led her to his uncle's, to leave her there while he should go and tell Mr. Dombey that she was safe, and bring her back some clothes.
"Halloa, Uncle Sol," cried Walter, bursting into the shop; "Here's a wonderful adventure! Here's Mr. Dombey's daughter lost in the streets, and robbed of her clothes by an old witch of a woman—found by me—brought home to our parlor to rest—Here—just help me lift the little sofa near the fire, will you, uncle Sol?—Cut some dinner for her, will you, uncle; throw those shoes under the grate, Miss Florence—put your feet on the fender to dry—how damp they are!—Here's an adventure, uncle, eh?—God bless my soul, how hot I am!"
Solomon Gills was quite as hot, by sympathy; and in excessive bewilderment, he patted Florence's head, pressed her to eat, pressed her to drink, rubbed the soles of her feet with his pocket-handkerchief, heated at the fire, followed his locomotive nephew with his eyes and ears, and had no clear perception of anything except that he was being constantly knocked against, and tumbled over by that excited young gentleman, as he darted about the room, attempting to accomplish twenty things at once, and doing nothing at all.
"Here, wait a minute, uncle," he continued, "till I run upstairs and get another jacket on, and then I'll be off. I say, uncle, isn't this an adventure?"
"My dear boy," said Solomon, "it is the most extraordinary—"
"No, but do, uncle, please—do, Miss Florence—dinner, you know, uncle."
"Yes, yes, yes," cutting instantly into a leg of mutton, as if he were catering for a giant. "I'll take care of her, Wally! Pretty dear! Famished, of course. You go and get ready. Lord bless me! Sir Richard Whittington, thrice Mayor of London!"
While Walter was preparing to leave, Florence, overcome by fatigue, had sunk into a doze before the fire and when the boy returned, she was sleeping peacefully.
"That's capital!" he whispered, "Don't wake her, uncle Sol!"
"No, no," answered Solomon, "Pretty child!"
"Pretty, indeed!" cried Walter, "I never saw such a face! Now I'm off."
Arriving at Mr. Dombey's house, and breathlessly announcing his errand to the servant, Walter was shown into the library, where he confronted Mr. Dombey.
"Oh! beg your pardon, sir," said Walter, rushing up to him; "but I'm happy to say, it's all right, sir. Miss Dombey's found!"
"I told you she would certainly be found," said Mr. Dombey calmly, to the others in the room. "Let the servants know that no further steps are necessary. This boy who brings the information is young Gay from the office. How was my daughter found, sir? I know how she was lost." Here he looked majestically at Richards. "But how was she found? Who found her?"
It was quite out of Walter's power to be coherent, but he rendered himself as explanatory as he could, in his breathless state, and told why he had come alone.
"You hear this, girl?" said Mr. Dombey sternly, to Susan Nipper. "Take what is necessary and return immediately with this young man to fetch Miss Florence home. Gay, you will be rewarded to-morrow."
"Oh! thank you, sir," said Walter. "You are very kind. I'm sure I was not thinking of any reward sir."
"You are a boy," said Mr. Dombey, almost fiercely; "and what you think of, or what you affect to think of, is of little consequence. You have done well, sir. Don't undo it."
Returning to his uncle's with Miss Nipper, Walter found that Florence, much refreshed by sleep, had dined and come to be on terms of perfect confidence and ease with old Sol. Miss Nipper caught her in her arms, and made a very hysterical meeting of it. Then, converting the parlor into a private tiring-room, she dressed her in proper clothes, and presently led her forth to say farewell.
"Good-night," said Florence to the elder man, "you have been very good to me."
Uncle Sol was quite delighted, and kissed her like her grandfather.
"Good-night, Walter," she said, "I'll never forget you, No! Indeed I never will. Good-by!"
The entrance of the lost child at home made a slight sensation, but not much. Mr. Dombey kissed her once upon the forehead, and cautioned her not to wander anywhere again with treacherous attendants. He then dismissed the culprit Polly Richards, from his service, telling her to leave immediately, and it was a dagger in the haughty father's heart to see Florence holding to her dress, and crying to her not to go. Not that he cared to whom his daughter turned, or from whom turned away. The swift, sharp agony struck through him as he thought of what his son might do.
His son cried lustily that night, at all events; and the next day a new nurse, Wickam by name, took Polly's place.
She lavished every care upon little Paul, yet all her vigilance could not make him a thriving boy. When he was nearly five years old, he was a pretty little fellow, but so very delicate that Mr. Dombey became alarmed about him, and decided to send him at once to the seashore.
So to Brighton, Paul and Florence and nurse Wickam went, and boarded with a certain Mrs. Pipchin there. On Saturdays Mr. Dombey came down to a hotel near by, and Paul and Florence would go and have tea with him, and every day they spent their time upon the sands, and Florence was always content when Paul was happy.
While the children were thus living at Brighton, a warrant was served upon old Solomon Gills, by a broker, because of a payment overdue upon a bond debt. Old Sol was overcome by the extent of this calamity, which he could not avert, and Walter hurried out to fetch Captain Cuttle to discuss the situation. To the lad's dismay, the Captain insisted upon applying to Mr. Dombey at once for the necessary loan which would help old Sol out of his difficulty. So Walter proceeded with him to Brighton as fast as coach horses could carry them, and on a Sunday morning while Mr. Dombey was at breakfast, Florence came running in, her face suffused with a bright color, and her eyes sparkling joyfully, and cried:
"Papa! Papa! here's Walter, and he won't come in!"
"Who?" cried Mr. Dombey, "What does she mean,—what is this?"
"Walter, Papa," said Florence timidly; "who found me when I was lost!"
"Tell the boy to come in," said Mr. Dombey. "Now, Gay, what is the matter?"
Tremblingly Walter Gay stood in the presence of his proud employer, and made known his uncle's distress, and when he ceased speaking, Captain Cuttle stepped forward, and clearing a space among the breakfast cups at Mr. Dombey's elbow, produced a silver watch, ready money to the amount of thirteen pounds and half a crown, two teaspoons and a pair of battered sugar-tongs, and piling them up into a heap, that they might look as precious as possible, said:
"Half a loaf is better than no bread, and the same remark holds good with crumbs. There's a few. Annuity of one hundred pounds p'rannum also ready to be made over!"
Florence had listened tearfully to Walter's sad tale and to the captain's offer of his valuables, and little Paul now tried to comfort her; but Mr. Dombey, watching them, saw only his son's wistful expression, thought only of his pleasure, and after taking the child on his knee, and having a brief consulation with him, he announced pompously that Master Paul would lend the money to Walter's uncle. Young Gay tried to express his gratitude for this favor, but Mr. Dombey stopped him short. Then, sweeping the captain's property from him, he added, "Have the goodness to take these things away, sir!"
Captain Cuttle was so much struck by the magnanimity of Mr. Dombey, in refusing treasures lying heaped up to his hand, that when he had deposited them in his pockets again, he could not refrain from grasping that gentleman's right hand in his own solitary left, before following Walter out of the room, and Mr. Dombey shivered at his touch.
Florence was running after them, to send some message to old Sol, when Mr. Dombey called her back, bidding her stay where she was, and so the episode ended.
When the children had been nearly twelve months at Mrs. Pipchin's, Mr. Dombey decided to send Paul to Dr. Blimber's boarding-school where his education would be properly begun. Accordingly, Paul began his studies in that hot-bed of learning, where the dreamy, delicate child with his quaint ways soon became a favorite with teachers and pupils. The process of being educated was difficult for one so young and frail, and he might have sunk beneath the burden of his tasks but for looking forward to the weekly visit to his sister at Mrs. Pipchin's.
Oh, Saturdays! Oh, happy Saturdays! When Florence always came for him at noon, and never would in any weather stay away: these Saturdays were Sabbaths for at least two little Christians among all the Jews, and did the holy Sabbath work of strengthening and knitting up a brother's and a sister's love.
Seeing her brother's difficulty with his lessons, Florence procured books similar to his, and sat down at night to track his footsteps through the thorny ways of learning; and being naturally quick, and taught by that most wonderful of masters, Love, it was not long before she gained upon Paul's heels, and caught, and passed him.
And high was her reward, when one Saturday evening she sat down by his side and made all that was so dark, clear and plain before him. It was nothing but a startled look in Paul's wan face—a flush—a smile—and then a close embrace—but God knows how her heart leaped up at this rich payment for her trouble.
"Oh, Floy!" he cried, "how I love you!"
He said no more about it, but all that evening sat close by her, very quiet; and in the night he called out from his little room, three or four times, that he loved her. Regularly after that Florence sat down with him on Saturday night, and assisted him through so much as they could anticipate together of his next week's work.
And so the months went by, until the midsummer vacation was near at hand, and the great party which was to celebrate the breaking up of school, was about to come off. Some weeks before this, Paul had had a fainting turn, and had not recovered his strength, in consequence of which, he was enjoying complete rest from lessons, and it was clear to every one, that, once at home, he would never come back to Dr. Blimber's or to any school again, and to no one was the sad truth more evident than to Florence.
On the evening of the great party Florence came, looking so beautiful in her simple ball dress, with her fresh flowers in her hand, that she was the admiration of all the young gentlemen of the school, and particularly of Mr. Toots, the head boy; a simple youth with an engaging manner, and the habit of blushing and chuckling when addressed. Mr. Toots had made Paul his especial favorite and charge, and was well repaid for his devotion to the boy by the gracious appreciation which Florence showed him for it, and it was to the care of Mr. Toots that Paul, when leaving, intrusted the dog Diogenes, who had never received a friend into his confidence before Paul had become his companion.
The brother and sister remained together for a time at Mrs. Pipchin's, then went back to their home in London, where little Paul's life ebbed away, and his father's hopes were crushed by the blow.
There was a hush through Mr. Dombey's great mansion when the child was gone, and Florence;—was she so alone in the bleak world that nothing else remained to her except her little maid? Nothing.
At first, when the house subsided into its accustomed course she could do nothing but weep, and wander up and down, and sometimes, in a sudden pang of desolate remembrance, fly to her own chamber, lay her face down on her bed, and know no consolation. But it is not in the nature of pure love to burn so fiercely and unkindly long. Soon, in the midst of the dismal house, her low voice in the twilight slowly touched an old air to which she had so often listened with Paul's head upon her arm. And after that, and when it was quite dark, a little strain of music trembled in the room, repeated often, in the shadowy solitude; and broken murmurs of the strain still trembled on the keys when the sweet voice was hushed in tears.
One day Florence was amazed at receiving a visit from Mr. Toots, who entered the room with much hesitation, and, with a series of chuckles, laughs, and blushes, informed her that he had brought her little Paul's pet, the dog Diogenes, as a companion in her loneliness.
"He ain't a lady's dog, you know," said Mr. Toots, "but I hope you won't mind that. If you would like to have him, he's at the door."
In fact, Diogenes was at that moment staring through the window of a hackney cabriolet, into which he had been ensnared on a false pretence of rats among the straw. Sooth to say, he was as unlike a lady's dog as dog might be; and in his gruff anxiety to get out, gave short yelps, and overbalancing himself by the intensity of his efforts, tumbled down into the straw, and then sprung up panting again, putting out his tongue, as if he had come express to a Dispensary to be examined for his health.
But though Diogenes was as ridiculous a dog as one would meet with on a summer's day; a blundering, ill-favored, clumsy, bullet-headed dog, continually acting on the wrong idea that there was an enemy in the neighborhood whom it was meritorious to bark at; and though he was far from good-tempered, and certainly was not clever, and had hair all over his eyes, and a comical nose, and an inconsistent tail, and a gruff voice,—he was dearer to Florence, in virtue of Paul's parting remembrance of him, and that request that he might be taken care of, than the most valuable and beautiful of his kind. So dear, indeed, was this same ugly Diogenes, and so welcome to her, that she kissed the hand of Mr. Toots in her gratitude. And when Diogenes, released, came tearing up the stairs and, bouncing into the room, dived under all the furniture, and wound a long iron chain that dangled from his neck round legs of chairs and tables, and then tugged at it until his eyes nearly started out of his head; and when he growled at Mr. Toots, who affected familiarity, Florence was as pleased with him as if he had been a miracle of discretion.
Mr. Toots was so overjoyed by the success of his present, and so delighted to see Florence bending over Diogenes, smoothing his coarse back with her little delicate hand—Diogenes graciously allowing it from the first moment of their acquaintance—that he felt it difficult to take leave, and would, no doubt have been a much longer time in making up his mind to do so, if he had not been assisted by Diogenes himself, who suddenly took it into his head to bay at Mr. Toots, and to make short runs at him with his mouth open. Not exactly seeing his way to the end of these demonstrations, Mr. Toot with chuckles, lapsed out of the door, and got away.
"Come, then, Di! Dear Di! Make friends with your new mistress. Let us love each other, Di!" said Florence, fondling his shaggy head. And Di, the rough and gruff, as if his hairy hide were pervious to the tear that dropped upon it, and his dog's heart melted as it fell, put his nose up to her face and swore fidelity.
A banquet was immediately provided for him, and when he had eaten and drunk his fill, he went to Florence, rose up on his hind legs, with his awkward fore-paws on her shoulders, licked her face and hands, nestled his great head against her heart, and wagged his tail till he was tired Finally, he coiled himself up at her feet, and went to sleep.
That same night Susan Nipper told her mistress that Mr. Dombey was to leave home the next day for a trip,—which piece of news filled Florence with dismay, and she sat musing sadly until midnight.
She was little more than a child in years,—not yet fourteen—and the loneliness and gloom of such an hour in the great house might have set an older fancy brooding on vague terrors. But her innocent imagination was too full of one theme to admit them. Nothing wandered in her thought but love; a wandering love indeed, and cast away, but turning always to her father.
She could not go to bed, without making her nightly pilgrimage to his door. The moment she touched it she found that it was open, and there was a light within. The first impulse of the timid child—and she yielded to it—was to retire swiftly. A next, to go back, and to enter. She turned back, urged on by the love within her, and glided in.
Her father sat at his old table, in the middle of the room. His face was turned towards her. It looked worn and dejected, and in the loneliness surrounding him, there was an appeal to Florence that struck home, but when she spoke to him, the sternness of his glance and words so overcame her that she shrank away,—and sobbing, silently ascended to her room again.
Diogenes was broad awake, and waiting for his little mistress.
"Oh, Di! Oh, dear Di! Love me for his sake!"
Diogenes already loved her for his own, and did not care how much he showed it. So he made himself vastly ridiculous by performing a variety of uncouth bounces, and concluded, when poor Florence was at last asleep, by scratching open her bedroom door; rolling up his bed into a pillow; lying down on the boards at the full length of his tether with his head toward her; and looking lazily at her, upside down, out of the tops of his eyes, until, from winking and blinking, he fell asleep himself, and dreamed with gruff barks, of his enemy.
About this time Walter Gay was informed by Mr. Dombey of his appointment to a junior position in the firm's counting house in the Barbadoes. The boy ever since he first saw Florence had thought of her with admiration and compassion, pitying her loneliness; and now when he was about to cross the ocean, his first thought was to seek audience with her little maid, to tell her of his going, to say to her that his uncle had had an interest in Miss Dombey ever since the night when she was lost, and always wished her well and happy, and always would be proud and glad to serve her, if she should need that service.
Upon receiving the message, Florence hastened with Susan Nipper to the old Instrument-maker's Shop, and they passed into the parlor so suddenly that Uncle Sol, in surprise at seeing them, sprang out of his own chair and nearly tumbled over another, as he exclaimed, "Miss Dombey!"
"Is it possible!" cried Walter, starting up in his turn. "Here!"
"Yes," said Florence, advancing to him. "I was afraid you might be going away, and hardly thinking of me. And, Walter, there is something I wish to say to you before you go, and you must call me Florence, if you please, and not speak like a stranger. My dear brother before he died said that he was very fond of you, and said, 'remember Walter'; and if you will be a brother to me, Walter, now that I have none on earth, I'll be your sister all my life, and think of you like one, wherever we may be!"
In her sweet simplicity, she held out both her hands, and Walter, taking them, stooped down and touched the tearful face; and it seemed to him in doing so, that he responded to her innocent appeal beside the dead child's bed.
After Walter's departure, Florence lived alone as before, in the great dreary house, and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone.
No magic dwelling-place in magic story, shut up in the heart of a thick wood, was ever more solitary and deserted to the fancy than was her father's mansion in its grim reality. The spell upon it was more wasting than the spell which used to set enchanted houses sleeping once upon a time, but left their waking freshness unimpaired. But Florence bloomed there, like the King's fair daughter in the story. Her books, her music, and her daily teachers were her only real companions, except Susan Nipper and Diogenes, and she lived within the circle of her innocent pursuits and thoughts, and nothing harmed her. She could go down to her father's rooms now without fear of repulse. She could put everything in order for him, binding little nosegays for his table, changing them as they withered, and he did not come back, preparing something for him every day, and leaving some timid mark of her presence near his usual seat. Waking in the night, perhaps, she would tremble at the thought of his coming home and angrily rejecting it, and would hurry down and bring it away. At another time she would only lay her face upon his desk, and leave a kiss there, and a tear.
Still no one knew of this. Her father did not know—she held it from that time—how much she loved him. She was very young, and had no mother, and had never learned, by some fault or misfortune, how to express to him that she loved him. She would try to gain that art in time, and win him to a better knowledge of his only child.
Thus Florence lived alone in the deserted house, and day succeeded day in a monotony of loneliness until yielding to Susan Nipper's constant request Florence consented to pay a visit to some friends who lived at Fulham on the Thames.
Just at this time she learned that Walter's ship was overdue, and no news had been received of her, and, her mind filled with sad forebodings, she went to see old Sol, She found him tearful and desolate, broken down by the weight of his anxiety, refusing to be comforted even by the hopeful words of Captain Cuttle. So it was with a heavy heart that she went to pay her visit, accompanied by her little maid.
There were some other children staying at the Skettleses. Children who were frank and happy, with fathers and mothers. Children who had no restraint upon their love, and showed it freely. Florence thoughtfully observed them, sought to find out from them what simple art they knew, and she knew not; how she could be taught by them to show her father how she loved him, and to win his love again. But all her efforts failed to give her the secret of the nameless grace she sought, among the youthful company who were assembled in the house, or among the children of the poor, whom she often visited.
Of Walter she thought constantly. Her tears fell often for his sufferings, but rarely for his supposed death, and never long. Thus matters stood with Florence on the day she went home, gladly, to her old secluded life.
"You'll be glad to go through the old rooms, won't you, Susan," said Florence as they turned into the familiar street.
"Well, Miss," returned the Nipper, "I wont deny but what I shall, though I shall hate them again to-morrow, very likely!"—adding breathlessly—"Why gracious me, where's our house?"—
There was a labyrinth of scaffolding raised all around the house. Loads of bricks and stones, and heaps of mortar, and piles of wood, blocked up half of the broad street. Ladders were raised against the walls; men were at work upon the scaffolding; painters and decorators were busy inside; great rolls of paper were being delivered from a cart at the door; an upholsterer's wagon also stopped the way; nothing was to be seen but workmen, swarming from the kitchens to the garret. Inside and outside alike; bricklayers, painters, carpenters, masons; hammer, hod, brush, pickaxe, saw, trowel: all at work together, in full chorus.
Florence descended from the coach, half doubting if it could be the right house, until she recognized Towlinson, the butler, standing at the door to receive her. She passed him as if she were in a dream, and hurried upstairs. Her own room was not yet touched within, but there were beams and boards raised against it without. She went up swiftly to that other bedroom, where her brother's little bed was; and a dark giant of a man, with a pipe in his mouth, and his head tied up in a pocket handkerchief, was staring in at the window.
It was here that Susan Nipper found her, and said would she go downstairs to her papa, who wished to speak to her?
"At home! and wishing to speak to me!" cried Florence, pale and agitated, hurrying down without a moment's hesitation. She thought upon the way down, would she dare to kiss him? Her father might have heard her heart beat when she came into his presence. He was not alone. There were two ladies there. One was old, and the other was young and very beautiful, and of an elegant figure.
"Edith," said Mr. Dombey, "this is my daughter. Florence, this lady will soon be your mamma."
The girl started, and looked up at the beautiful face in a conflict of emotions, among which the tears that name awakened struggled for a moment with surprise, interest, admiration, and an indefinable sort of fear. Then she cried out, "Oh, papa, may you be happy! May you be very, very happy all your life!" then fell weeping on the lady's bosom.
The beautiful lady held her to her breast, and pressed the hand with which she clasped her, as if to reassure and comfort her, and bent her head down over Florence and kissed her on the cheek.
And now Florence began to hope that she would learn from her new and beautiful mamma how to gain her father's love. And in her sleep that night her own mother smiled radiantly upon the hope, and blessed it.
Even in the busy weeks before the wedding-day, the bride-elect had time to win the heart of the lonely girl, and Florence responded to her advances with trustful love, and was happy and hopeful, while the new mother's affection deepened daily. But it soon became evident that the affection aroused Mr. Dombey's keen jealousy, and his wife thought it best to repress her feelings for Florence.
The girl soon became aware that there was no real sympathy between her father and his second wife, and that the happiness in their home, of which she had dreamed, would never be a reality. In truth the cold, proud man with all his wealth and power, could not win from his wife one smile such as she had often bestowed upon Florence in his presence, and this added to his dislike for the girl.
Once only, as Mr. Dombey sat and watched his daughter, the sight of her in her beauty, now almost changed into a woman, roused within him a fleeting feeling of regret at having had a household spirit bending at his feet, and of having overlooked it in his stiff-necked pride. He felt inclined to call her to him; the words were rising to his lips, when they were checked by the entrance of his wife, whose haughty bearing and indifference to him caused the gentle impulse to flee from him, and it never returned.
The breach between husband and wife was daily growing wider, when one morning, riding to the city, Mr. Dombey was thrown from his horse, and being brought home, he gloomily retired to his own rooms, where he was attended by servants, not approached by his wife. Late that night there arose in Florence's mind the image of her father, wounded and in pain, alone, in his own home.
With the same child's heart within her as of old, even as with the child's sweet, timid eyes and clustering hair, Florence, as strange to her father in her early maiden bloom as in her nursery days, crept down to his room and looked in. The housekeeper was fast asleep in an easy-chair before the fire. All was so very still that she knew he was asleep. There was a cut upon his forehead. One of his arms, resting outside of the bed, was bandaged up, and he was very white. After the first assurance of his sleeping quietly, Florence stole close to the bed, and softly kissed him and put the arm with which she dared not touch him, waking, round about him on the pillow, praying to God to bless her father, and to soften him towards her, if it might be so.
On the following day Susan Nipper braced herself for a great feat which she had long been contemplating; forced an entrance into Mr. Dombey's room, and told him in most emphatic language what she thought of his treatment of the motherless little girl who had so long been her charge. Speechless with rage and amazement, Mr. Dombey attempted to summon some one to protect him from her flow of language, but there was no bell-rope near, and he could not move, so he was forced to listen to her tirade until the entrance of the housekeeper cut it short. Susan Nipper was then instantly discharged, and bestirred herself to get her trunks in order, sobbing heartily as she thought of Florence, but exulting at the memory of Mr. Dombey's discomfiture. Florence dared not interfere with her father's commands, and took a sad farewell of the faithful little maid, who had for so long been her companion.
Now Florence was quite alone. She had grown to be seventeen; timid and retiring as her solitary life had made her, it had not embittered her. A child in innocent simplicity: a woman in her modest self-reliance and her deep intensity of feeling, both child and woman seemed at once expressed in her fair face and fragile delicacy of shape; in her thrilling voice, her calm eyes, and sometimes in a strange ethereal light that seemed to rest upon her head.
Mrs. Dombey she seldom saw, and the day soon came when she lost her entirely. The wife's supreme indifference to himself and his wishes, stung Mr. Dombey more than any other kind of treatment could have done, and he determined to bend her to his will. She was the first person who had ever ventured to oppose him in the slightest particular;—their pride, however different in kind, was equal in degree, and their flinty opposition struck out fire which consumed the tie between them—and soon the final separation came.
One evening after a dispute with her husband, Mrs. Dombey went out to dinner, and did not return. In the confusion of that dreadful night, compassion for her father was the first distinct emotion that overwhelmed Florence. At daybreak she hastened to him with her arms stretched out, crying, "Oh, dear, dear papa!" as if she would have clasped him around the neck. But in his frenzy he answered her with brutal words, and lifted up his cruel arm and struck her, with that heaviness, that she tottered on the marble floor. She did not sink down at his feet; she did not shut out the sight of him with her trembling hands; she did not utter one word of reproach. But she looked at him, and a cry of desolation issued from her heart. She saw she had no father upon earth, and ran out, orphaned, from his house. Another moment and Florence, with her head bent down to hide her agony of tears, was in the street.
In the wildness of her sorrow, shame, and terror, the forlorn girl hurried through the sunshine of a bright morning as if it were the darkness of a winter night. Wringing her hands and weeping bitterly, she fled without a thought, without a hope, without a purpose, but to fly somewhere—anywhere. Suddenly she thought of the only other time she had been lost in the wide wilderness of London—and went that way. To the home of Walter's uncle.
Checking her sobs and endeavoring to calm the agitation of her manner, so as to avoid attracting notice, Florence was going more quietly when Diogenes, panting for breath, and making the street ring with his glad bark, was at her feet.
She bent down on the pavement, and laid his rough loving foolish head against her breast, and they went on together.
At length the little shop came into view. She ran in and found Captain Cuttle, in his glazed hat, standing over the fire, making his morning's cocoa. Hearing a footstep and the rustle of a dress, the captain turned at the instant when Florence reeled and fell upon the floor.
The captain, pale as Florence, calling her by his childhood's name for her, raised her like a baby, and laid her upon the same old sofa upon which she had slumbered long ago.
"It's Heart's Delight!" he exclaimed; "It's the sweet creetur grow'd a woman!"
But Florence did not stir, and the captain moistened her lips and forehead, put back her hair, covered her feet with his own coat, patted her hand—so small in his, that he was struck with wonder when he touched it—and seeing that her eyelids quivered and that her lips began to move, continued these restorative applications with a better heart.
At last she opened her eyes, and spoke: "Captain Cuttle! Is it you? Is Walter's uncle here?"
"Here, Pretty?" returned the captain. "He a'n't been here this many a long day. He a'n't been heer'd on since he sheered off arter poor Wal'r. But," said the captain, as a quotation, "Though lost to sight, to memory dear, and England, home, and beauty!"
"Do you live here?" asked Florence.
"Yes, my Lady Lass," returned the captain.
"Oh, Captain Cuttle!" cried Florence, "Save me! Keep me here! Let no one know where I am! I will tell you what has happened by and by, when I can. I have no one in the world to go to. Do not send me away!"
"Send you away, my Lady Lass!" exclaimed the captain; "you, my Heart's Delight!—Stay a bit! We'll put up this dead-light, and take a double turn on the key."
With these words the captain got out the shutter of the door, put it up, made it all fast, and locked the door itself.
"And now," said he, "You must take some breakfast, Lady Lass, and the dog shall have some too, and after that you shall go aloft to old Sol Gill's room, and fall asleep there, like an angel."
The room to which the captain presently carried Florence was very clean, and being an orderly man, and accustomed to make things ship-shape, he converted the bed into a couch by covering it with a clean white drapery. By a similar contrivance he converted the little dressing-table into a species of altar, on which he set forth two silver teaspoons, a flower-pot, a telescope, his celebrated watch, a pocket-comb and a song-book, as a small collection of rareties that made a choice appearance.
Having darkened the window, the captain walked on tiptoe out of the room, and from sheer exhaustion Florence soon fell asleep.
When she awoke the sun was getting low in the West, and after cooling her aching head and burning face in fresh water, she made ready to go downstairs again. What to do or where to live, she—poor, inexperienced girl!—could not yet consider. All was dim and clouded to her mind. She only knew that she had no father upon earth, and she said so many times, with her suppliant head hidden from all but her Father who was in Heaven. Then she tried to calm her thoughts and stay her tears, and went down to her kind protector.
The captain had cooked the evening meal and spread the cloth with great care, and when Florence appeared he dressed for dinner, by taking off his glazed hat and putting on his coat. That done, he wheeled the table against her on the sofa, said Grace, and did the honors of the table.
"My Lady Lass," said he, "Cheer up, and try to eat a bit. Stand by, dearie! Liver wing it is. Sarse it is. Sassage it is. And potato!"
All of these delicacies the captain ranged symetrically on the plate, pouring hot gravy on the whole and adding: "Try and pick a bit, my Pretty. If Wal'r was here—"
"Ah! If I had him for my brother now!" cried Florence.
"Don't take on, my Pretty," said the captain: "awast, to obleege me. He was your nat'r'l born friend like, wa'n't he, Pet? Well, well! If our poor Wal'r was here, my Lady Lass—or if he could be—for he's drowned, a'n't he?—As I was saying, if he could be here, he'd beg and pray of you, my precious, to pick a leetle bit, with a look-out for your own sweet health. Whereby, hold your own, my Lady Lass, as if it was for Wal'r's sake, and lay your pretty head to the wind!"
Florence essayed to eat a morsel for the captain's pleasure, but she was so tired and so sad that she could do scant justice to the meal, and was glad indeed when the time came to retire.
She slept that night in the same little room, and the next day sat in the small parlor, busy with her needle, and more calm and tranquil than she had been on the day preceding. The captain, looking at her, often hitched his arm chair close to her, as if he were going to say something very confidential, and hitched it away again, as not being able to make up his mind how to begin. In the course of the day he cruised completely around the parlor in that frail bark, and more than once went ashore against the wainscot, or the closet door, in a very distressed condition.
It was not until deep twilight that he fairly dropped anchor at last by the side of Florence, and began to talk connectedly. He spoke in such a trembling voice, and looked at Florence with a face so pale and agitated that she clung to his hand in affright, and her color came and went as she listened.
"There's perils and dangers on the deep, my Beauty," said the captain; "and over many a brave ship, and many and many a bold heart the secret waters has closed up, and never told no tales. But there's escapes upon the deep, too, and sometimes one man out of a score—ah! maybe out of a hundred, Pretty, has been saved by the mercy of God, and come home, after being given over for dead, and told of all hands lost, I—I know a story, Heart's Delight," stammered the captain, "o' this natur', as was told to me once; and being on this here tack, and you and me sitting by the fire, maybe you'd like to hear me tell it. Would you, deary?"
Florence, trembling with an agitation which she could not control or understand, involuntarily followed his glance, which went behind her into the shop where a lamp was burning. The instant that she turned her head, the captain sprung out of his chair, and interposed his hand.
"There's nothing there, my Beauty," said the captain. "Don't look there!"
Then he murmured something about its being dull that way, and about the fire being cheerful. He drew the door ajar, which had been standing open until now, and resumed his seat. Florence looked intently in his face.
"The story was about a ship, my Lady Lass," began the captain, "as sailed out of the port of London, with a fair wind and in fair weather, bound for—Don't be took aback my Lady Lass, she was only out'ard. Pretty, only out'ard bound!"
The expression on Florence's face alarmed the captain, who was himself very hot and flurried, and showed scarcely less agitation than she did.
"Shall I go on, Beauty?" said the captain.
"Yes, yes, pray!" cried Florence.
The captain made a gulp as if to get down something that was stuck in his throat, and nervously proceeded:
"That there unfortunate ship met with such foul weather, out at sea, as don't blow once in twenty year, my darling. There was hurricanes ashore as tore up forests and blowed down towns, and there was gales at sea, even in them latitudes, as not the stoutest wessel ever launched could live in. Day arter day, that there unfort'nate ship behaved noble, I'm told, and did her duty brave, my Pretty, but at one blow a'most her bulwarks was stove in, her masts and rudder carried away, her best men swept overboard, and she left in the mercy of the storm as had no mercy, but blowed harder and harder yet, while the waves dashed over her, and beat her in, and every time they come a thundering at her, broke her like a shell. Every black spot in every mountain of water that rolled away was a bit of the ship's life, or a living man, and so she went to pieces, Beauty, and no grass will never grow upon the graves of them as manned that ship."
"They were not all lost!" cried Florence. "Some were saved! Was one?"
"Aboard o' that there unfortunate wessel," said the captain, rising from his chair, and clenching his hand with prodigious energy and exultation, "was a lad, a gallant lad—as I've heard tell—that had loved when he was a boy to read and talk about brave actions in shipwrecks—I've heerd him!—I've heerd him!—and he remembered of 'em in his hour of need; for when the stoutest hearts and oldest hands was hove down, he was firm and cheery. It wa'n't the want of objects to like and love ashore that gave him courage; it was his nat'ral mind. I've seen it in his face when he was no more than a child—ah, many a time!—and when I thought it nothing but his good looks, bless him!"
"And was he saved?" cried Florence. "Was he saved?"
"That brave lad," said the captain,—"look at me, pretty! Don't look round—"
Florence had hardly power to repeat, "Why not?"
"Because there's nothing there, my deary," said the captain. "Don't be took aback, pretty creetur! Don't for the sake of Wal'r as was dear to all on us! That there lad," said the captain, "arter working with the best, and standing by the fainthearted, and never making no complaint nor sign of fear, and keeping up a spirit in all hands that made 'em honor him as if he'd been a admiral—that lad, alone with the second mate and one seaman, was left, of all the beatin' hearts that went aboard that ship, the only living creeturs—lashed to a fragment of the wreck, and drifting on the stormy sea."
"Were they saved?" cried Florence.
"Days and nights they drifted on them endless waters," said the captain, "until at last—no! don't look that way, Pretty!—a sail bore down upon 'em, and they was, by the Lord's mercy, took aboard, two living, and one dead."
"Which of them was dead?" cried Florence.
"Not the lad I speak on," said the captain.
"Thank God! Oh, thank God!"
"Amen!" returned the captain hurriedly. "Don't be took aback! A minute more, my Lady Lass! with a good heart!—Aboard that ship, they went a long voyage, right away across the chart (for there wa'n't no touching nowhere), and on that voyage the seaman as was picked up with him died. But he was spared, and—."
The captain, without knowing what he did, had cut a slice of bread from the loaf, and put it on his hook (which was his usual toasting fork), on which he now held it to the fire; looking behind Florence with great emotions in his face, and suffering the bread to blaze and burn like fuel.
"Was spared," repeated Florence, "and—"
"And come home in that ship," said the captain, still looking in the same direction, "and—don't be frightened, Pretty!—and landed; and one morning come cautiously to his own door to take a observation, knowing that his friends would think him drowned, when he sheered off at the unexpected—"
"At the unexpected barking of a dog?" cried Florence quickly.
"Yes!" roared the captain. "Steady, darling! courage! Don't look round yet. See there! upon the wall!"
There was the shadow of a man upon the wall close to her. She started up, looked round, and, with a piercing cry, saw Walter Gay behind her!
She had no thought of him but as a brother, a brother rescued from the grave; a shipwrecked brother, saved, and at her side,—and rushed into his arms. In all the world he seemed to be her hope, her comfort, refuge, natural protector. In his home-coming,—her champion and knight-errant from childhood's early days,—there came to Florence a compensation for all that she had suffered.
On that night within the little Shop a light arose for her that never ceased to shed its brilliance on her path. Young, strong, and powerful, Walter Gay in his chivalrous reverence and love for her, would henceforth protect her life from sadness.
Except from that one great sorrow that he could not lift;—she was estranged from her father's love and care;—but in sweet submission she bent her shoulders to the burden of that loss, and accepted the new joy of Walter's return with a lightened heart.
Years later, when Mr. Dombey by a turn of fortune's wheel, was left alone in his dreary mansion, broken in mind and body, bereft of all his wealth; deserted alike by friends and servants;—it was Florence, the neglected, spurned, exiled daughter, who came like a good household angel and clung to him, caressing him, forgetting all but love, and love that outlasts injuries.
As she clung close to him, he kissed her on the lips and lifting up his eyes, said, "Oh, my God, forgive me, for I need it very much!"
With that he dropped his head again, lamenting over her and caressing her, and there was not a sound in all the house for a long, long, time; they remaining clasped in one another's arms, in the glorious sunshine that had crept in with Florence. And so we leave them—Father and Daughter—united at last in an undying affection.
When I, Esther Summerson, was taken from the school where the early years of my childhood had been spent; having no home or parents, as had the other girls in the school, my guardian, Mr. Jarndyce, gave me a home with him, where I was companion to his young and lovely ward, Ada Clare. I soon grew deeply attached to Ada, the dearest girl in the world; to my guardian, the kindest and most thoughtful of men; and to Bleak House, my happy home.
One day, upon hearing of the death of a poor man whom we had known, and learning that he had left three motherless children in great poverty, my guardian and I set out to discover for ourselves the extent of their need. We were directed to a chandler's shop in Bell Yard, a narrow, dark alley, where we found an old woman, who replied to my inquiry for Neckett's children: "Yes, surely, Miss. Three pair, if you please. Door right opposite the stairs." And she handed me a key across the counter. As she seemed to take it for granted I knew what to do with the key, I inferred it must be intended for the children's door, so without any more questions I led the way up a dark stair.
Reaching the top room designated, I tapped at the door, and a little shrill voice inside said, "We are locked in. Mrs. Blinder's got the key!"
I applied the key, and opened the door. In a poor room, with a sloping ceiling, and containing very little furniture, was a mite of a boy, some five or six years old, nursing and hushing a heavy child of eighteen months. There was no fire, though the weather was cold; both children were wrapped in some poor shawls and tippets, as a substitute. Their clothing was not so warm, however, but that their noses looked red and pinched, and their small figures shrunken, as the boy walked up and down, nursing and hushing the child with its head on his shoulder.
"Who has locked you up here alone?" we naturally asked.
"Charley," said the boy.
"Is Charley your brother?"
"No, she's my sister, Charlotte. Father called her Charley."
"Are there any more of you besides Charley?"
"Me," said the boy, "and Emma," patting the child he was nursing, "and Charley."
"Where is Charley now?"
"Out a-washing," said the boy, beginning to walk up and down again, and even as he spoke there came into the room a very little girl, childish in figure, but shrewd and older looking in the face—pretty faced, too—wearing a womanly sort of a bonnet, much too large for her, and drying her bare arms on a womanly sort of apron. Her fingers were white and wrinkled with washing, and the soap-suds were yet smoking, which she wiped off her arms. But for this, she might have been a child, playing at washing, and imitating a poor working woman with a quick observation of the truth.
She had come running from some place in the neighborhood. Consequently, though she was very light, she was out of breath, and could not speak at first, as she stood panting and wiping her arms. "O, here's Charley!" said the boy.
The child he was nursing stretched forward its arms and cried out to be taken by Charley. The little girl took it, in a womanly sort of manner belonging to the apron and the bonnet, and stood looking at us over the burden that clung to her most affectionately.
"Is it possible," whispered my guardian, as he put a chair for the little creature, and got her to sit down with her load, the boy holding to her apron, "that this child works for the rest?
"Charley, Charley!" he questioned. "How old are you?"
"Over thirteen, sir," replied the child.
"O, what a great age!" said my guardian. "And do you live here alone with these babies, Charley?"
"Yes, sir," returned the child, looking up into his face with perfect confidence, "since father died."
"And how do you live, Charley," said my guardian, "how do you live?"
"Since father died, sir, I've gone out to work. I'm out washing to-day."
"God help you, Charley!" said my guardian. "You're not tall enough to reach the tub!"
"In pattens I am, sir," she said quickly. "I've got a high pair as belonged to mother. Mother died just after Emma was born," said the child, glancing at the face upon her bosom. "Then father said I was to be as good a mother to her as I could. And so I tried. And so I worked at home, and did cleaning, and nursing, and washing, for a long time before I began to go out. And that's how I know how, don't you see, sir?"
"And do you often go out?"
"As often as I can, sir," said Charley, opening her eyes and smiling, "because of earning sixpences and shillings!"
"And do you always lock the babies up when you go out?"
"To keep 'em safe, sir, don't you see?" said Charley. "Mrs. Blinder comes up now and then, and Mr. Gridley comes up sometimes, and perhaps I can run in sometimes, and they can play you know, and Tom ain't afraid of being locked up, are you, Tom?"
"No—o," said Tom stoutly.
"When it comes on dark, the lamps are lighted down in the courts, and they show up here quite bright—almost quite bright. Don't they, Tom?"
"Yes, Charley," said Tom, "almost quite bright."
"Then he's as good as gold," said the little creature, oh, in such a motherly, womanly way. "And when Emma's tired, he puts her to bed. And when he's tired he goes to bed himself. And when I come home and light the candle, and has a bit of supper, he sits up again and has it with me. Don't you, Tom?"
"O yes, Charley!" said Tom. "That I do!" and either in this glimpse of the great pleasure of his life, or in gratitude and love for Charley, he laid his face among the scanty folds of her frock, and passed from laughing into crying.
It was the first time since our entry, that a tear had been shed among these children. The little orphan girl had spoken of their father and their mother, as if all that sorrow was subdued by the necessity of taking courage, and by her childish importance in being able to work, and by her bustling busy way. But now, when Tom cried; although she sat quite tranquil, looking quietly at us, and did not by any movement disturb a hair of the head of either of her little charges, I saw two silent tears fall down her face.
I stood at the window pretending to look out, when I found that Mrs. Blinder, from the shop below, had come in, and was talking to my guardian.
"It's not much to forgive 'em the rent, sir,—-who could take it from them!"
"Well, well!" said my guardian to us two. "It is enough that the time will come when this good woman will find that it was much, and that forasmuch as she did it to one of the least of these—! This child," he added after a few moments, "Could she possibly continue this?"
"Really, sir, I think she might," said Mrs. Blinder. "She's as handy as it's possible to be. Bless you sir, the way she tended them two children, after the mother died, was the talk of the yard! And it was a wonder to see her with him, after he was took ill, it really was!—'Mrs. Blinder,' he said to me, the very last he spoke—'Mrs. Blinder, whatever my calling may have been, I see a Angel sitting in this room last night along with my child, and I trust her to our Father!'"
From all that we had heard and seen, we felt a deep interest in the bright, self-reliant little creature, with her womanly ways and burden of family cares, and my thoughts turned towards her many times, after we had kissed her, and taken her downstairs with us, and stopped to see her run away to her work. We saw her run, such a little, little creature, in her womanly bonnet and apron, through a covered way at the bottom of the court, and melt into the city's strife and sound, like a dewdrop in an ocean.
Some weeks later, at the close of a happy evening spent at Bleak House with my guardian and my dearest girl, I went at last to my own room, and presently heard a soft tap at the door, so I said, "Come in!" and there came in a pretty little girl, neatly dressed in mourning, who dropped a curtsey.
"If you please, miss," said the little girl in a soft voice, "I am Charley."
"Why so you are," said I, stooping down in astonishment, and giving her a kiss. "How glad am I to see you, Charley!"
"If you please, miss," pursued Charley, "I'm your maid!"
"If you please, miss, I'm a present to you, with Mr. Jarndyce's love. And O, miss," says Charley, clapping her hands, with the tears starting down her dimpled cheeks, "Tom's at school, if you please, and learning so good, and little Emma, she's with Mrs. Blinder, miss, a-being took such care of! and Tom, he would have been at school—and Emma she would have been left with Mrs. Blinder—and me, I should have been here—all a deal sooner, miss; only Mr. Jarndyce thought Tom and Emma and me had better get a little used to parting, we was so small. Don't cry, if you please, miss."
"I can't help it, Charley."
"No, miss, nor I can't help it," said Charley. "And if you please, miss," said Charley, "Mr. Jarndyce's love, and he thinks you'll like to teach me now and then. And if you please, Tom and Emma and me is to see each other once a month. And I'm so happy and so thankful, miss," cried Charley with a heaving heart,—"and I'll try to be such a good maid!"
Charley dried her eyes, and entered on her functions: going in her matronly little way about and about the room, and folding up everything she could lay her hands upon. Presently she came creeping back to my side, and said:
"O don't cry, if you please, miss."
And I said again, "I can't help it."
And Charley said again, "No, miss, nor I can't help it." And so, after all, I did cry for joy indeed, and so did she—and from that night my little maid shared in all the cares and duties, joys and sorrows of her mistress, and I grew to lean heavily upon the womanly, loving, little creature.
According to my guardian's suggestion, I gave considerable time to Charley's education, but I regret to say the results never reflected much credit upon my educational powers. As for writing—it was a trying business to Charley, in whose hand every pen appeared to become perversely animated, and to go wrong and crooked, and to stop and splash, and sidle into corners, like a saddle donkey. It was very odd to see what old letters Charley's young hands had made. They, so shrivelled and tottering; it, so plump and round. Yet Charley was uncommonly expert at other things, and had as nimble little fingers as I ever watched.
"Well, Charley," said I, looking over a copy of the letter O in which it was represented as square, triangular, pear-shaped, and collapsed in all kinds of ways, "We are improving. If we only get to make it round, we shall be perfect, Charley."
Then I made one, and Charley made one, and the pen wouldn't join Charley's neatly, but twisted it up into a knot.
"Never mind, Charley. We shall do it in time."
Charley laid down her pen, opened and shut her cramped little hand; and thanking me, got up and dropped me a curtsey, asking me if I knew a poor person by the name of Jenny. I answered that I did, but thought she had left the neighborhood altogether, "So she had, miss," said Charley, "but she's come back again, and she came about the house three or four days, hoping to get a glimpse of you, miss, but you were away. She saw me a-goin' about, miss," said Charley, with a short laugh of the greatest delight and pride, "and she thought I looked like your maid!"
"Did she though, really, Charley?"
"Yes, miss!" said Charley, "really and truly." And Charley, with another short laugh of the purest glee, made her eyes very round again, and looked as serious as became my maid. I was never tired of seeing Charley in the full enjoyment of that great dignity, standing before me with her youthful face and figure, and her steady manner, and her childish exultation breaking through it now and then in the pleasantest way. And so long as she lived, the dignity of having been in my service was the greatest crown of glory to my little maid.
Although my efforts to make a scholar of Charley were never crowned with success, she had her own tastes and accomplishments, and dearly loved to bustle about the house, in her own particularly womanly way. To surround herself with great heaps of needlework—baskets-full and tables full—and do a little,—and spend a great deal of time in staring with her round eyes at what there was to do, and persuade herself that she was going to do it, were Charley's great dignities and delights.
When we went to see the woman, Jenny, we found her in her poor little cottage, nursing a vagrant boy called Jo, a crossing-sweeper, who had tramped down from London, and was tramping he didn't know where. Jenny, who had known him in London, had found him in a corner of the town, burning with fever, and taken him home to care for, Seeing that he was very ill, and fearing her husband's anger at her having harbored him, when it was time for her husband to return home, she put a few half-pence together in his hand, and thrust him out of the house. We followed the wretched boy, and pitying his forlorn condition led him home with us, where he was made comfortable for the night in a loft-room by the stable. Charley's last report was, that the boy was quiet. I went to bed very happy to think that he was sheltered, and was much shocked and grieved the next morning, when upon visiting his room we found him gone. At what time he had left, or how, or why, it seemed hopeless ever to divine, and after a thorough search of the country around, which lasted for five days, we abandoned all thought of ever clearing up the mystery surrounding the boy's departure, nor was it until some time later that the secret was discovered.
Meanwhile, poor Jo left behind him a dread and infectious disease which Charley caught from him, and in twelve hours after his escape she was very, very ill. I nursed her myself, with tenderest care, bringing her back to her old childish likeness again. Then the disease came upon me, and in my weeks of mortal sickness, it was Charley's love and care, and unending devotion that saved my life. It was Charley's hand which removed every looking-glass from my rooms, that in my convalescence I might not be shocked by the alteration which the disease had wrought in the face she loved so dearly.
When I was able, Charley and I went away together, to the most friendly of villages, and in the home which my guardian's care had provided, we enjoyed the hours of returning strength. There was a kindly housekeeper to trot after me with restoratives and strengthening delicacies, and a pony expressly for my use, and soon there were friendly faces of greeting in every cottage as we passed by. Thus with being much in the open air, playing with the village children, gossiping in many cottages, going on with Charley's education, and writing long letters to my dearest girl, time slipped away, and I found myself quite strong again.
And to Charley,—now as well, and rosy, and pretty as one of Flora's attendants, I give due credit, and the bond which binds me to my little maid is one which will only be severed when the days of Charley's happy life are over.
Although still in her earliest teens, Tilly Slowboy was a nursery-maid for little Mrs. Peerybingle's baby, and despite her extreme youth, was a most enthusiastic and unusual nursery-maid indeed.
It may be noted of Miss Slowboy that she had a rare and surprising talent for getting the baby into difficulties; and had several times imperilled its short life, in a quiet way peculiarly her own.
She was of a spare and straight shape, this young lady, insomuch that her garments appeared to be in constant danger of sliding off those sharp pegs, her shoulders, on which they were loosely hung. Her costume was remarkable for the partial development on all possible occasions, of some flannel vestment of a singular structure; also affording glimpses, in the region of the back, of a pair of stays, in color a dead green.
Being always in a state of gaping admiration at everything, and absorbed besides, in the perpetual contemplation of her mistress's perfections, and the baby's, Miss Slowboy, in her little errors of judgment may be said to have done equal honor to her head and to her heart; and though these did less honor to the baby's head, which they were the occasional means of bringing into contact with deal doors, dressers, stair-rails, bed-posts, and other foreign substances, still they were the honest results of Tilly Slowboy's constant astonishment at finding herself so kindly treated and installed in such a comfortable home. For the maternal and paternal Slowboy were alike unknown to Fame, and Tilly had been bred by public charity, a foundling; which word, though only differing from fondling by one vowel's length, is very different in meaning, and expresses quite another thing.
It was a singularly happy and united family in which Tilly's lot was cast. Honest John Peerybingle, Carrier; his pretty little wife, whom he called Dot; the very remarkable doll of a baby; the dog Boxer; and the Cricket on the Hearth, whose cheerful chirp, chirp, chirp, was a continual family blessing and good-omen;—were collectively and severally the objects of Tilly's unbounded admiration.
If ever a person or thing alarmed Tilly, she would hastily seek protection near the skirts of her pretty little mistress; or, failing that, would make a charge or butt at the object of her fright with the only offensive instrument within her reach—which usually happened to be the baby. Tilly's bump of good fortune being extraordinarily well developed, the baby usually managed to come out from the siege unharmed, to be soothed and comforted in Tilly's own peculiar fashion; her most common method of amusement being to reproduce for its entertainment scraps of conversation current in the house, with all the sense left out of them, and all the nouns changed to the plural number, as—"Did its mothers make it up a beds then! And did its hair grow brown and curly when its cap was lifted off, and frighten it, a precious Pets, a-sitting by the fire!"
It was a notable and exciting event to Miss Slowboy when she set out one day in the Carrier's cart, with her little mistress and the remarkable baby, to have dinner with Caleb Plummer's blind daughter, Bertha, who was Mrs. Dot's devoted friend.
In consequence of the departure, there was a pretty sharp commotion at John Peerybingle's, for to get the baby under weigh took time. Not that there was much of the baby, speaking of it as a thing of weight and measure, but there was a vast deal to do about it, and all had to be done by easy stages. When the baby was got, by hook and by crook, to a certain point of dressing, and you might have supposed that another touch or two would finish him off, he was unexpectedly extinguished, and hustled off to bed; where he simmered (so to speak) between two blankets for the best part of an hour, while Mrs. Peerybingle took advantage of the interval to make herself smart for the trip, and during the same short truce, Miss Slowboy insinuated herself into a spencer, of a fashion so surprising and ingenious, that it had no connection with herself, or anything else in the universe, but was a shrunken, dog's-eared, independent fact, pursuing its lonely course without the least regard to anybody. By this time, the baby, being all alive again, was invested by the united efforts of Mrs. Peerybingle and Miss Slowboy, with a cream-colored mantle for its body, and a sort of nankeen raised-pie for its head, and in course of time they all three got down to the door, where the old horse was waiting to convey them on their trip.
In reference to Miss Slowboy's ascent into the cart, if I might be allowed to mention a young lady's legs, on any terms, I would observe of her that there was a fatality about hers which rendered them singularly liable to be grazed; and that she never effected the smallest ascent or descent without recording the circumstance upon them with a notch, as Robinson Crusoe marked the days upon his wooden calendar. But as this might be considered ungenteel, I'll think of it—merely observing that when the three were all safely settled in the cart, and the basket containing the Veal-and-Ham Pie and other delicacies, which Mrs. Peerybingle always carried when she visited the blind girl, was stowed away, they jogged on for some little time in silence.
But not for long, for everybody on the road had something to say to the occupants of John Peerybingle's cart, and sometimes passengers on foot, or horseback, plodded on a little way beside the cart, for the express purpose of having a chat. Then, too, the packages and parcels for the errand cart were numerous, and there were many stoppages to take them in and give them out, which was not the least interesting part of the journey.
Of all the little incidents of the day, Dot was the amused and open-eyed spectatress from her chair in the cart; making a charming little portrait as she sat there, looking on. And this delighted John the Carrier beyond measure.
The trip was a little foggy, to be sure, in the January weather, and was raw and cold. But who cared for such trifles! Not Dot, decidedly. Not Tilly Slowboy, for she deemed sitting in a cart on any terms, to be the highest point of human joy; the crowning circumstance of earthly hopes. Not the baby, I'll be sworn; for it's not in baby nature to be warmer or more sound asleep than that blessed young Peerybingle was all the way.
In one place there was a mound of weeds burning, and they watched the fire until, in consequence, as she observed, of the smoke "getting up her nose," Miss Slowboy choked—she could do anything of that sort on the smallest provocation—and woke the baby, who wouldn't go to sleep again.
But, at that moment they came in sight of the blind girl's home, where she was waiting with keen anticipation to receive them.
Bertha had other visitors as well that day, and the picnic dinner proceeded in a very stately and dignified manner. Miss Slowboy was isolated, for the time being, from every article of furniture but the chair she sat on, that she might have nothing else to knock the baby's head against, and sat staring about her in unspeakable delight. To her the day was all too short, and when that evening John Peerybingle making his return trip, called to take them home, Miss Slowboy's regret was intense.
As long as her little mistress smiled, Tilly's face too was wreathed in smiles; but when a hidden shadow darkened the Perrybingle sky, overclouding the happiness of the little home, and Dot cried all night, Tilly's eyes were red and swollen too, the next morning.
It happened in this way. Pretty little Dot gave good John Perrybingle cause for anxiety by her actions, and the honest carrier, disturbed and misled, felt that he had reason to doubt her love for him, which almost broke his honest, faithful heart. While he was worrying over this, and over her, his little wife was merely shielding a secret belonging to Edward Plummer, Bertha's brother, who had just come back, after many year's absence in the golden South Americas.
So unaccustomed was Dot to keeping a secret that it caused her to act very strangely, and give her husband reason to misjudge her, which almost broke her loving little heart. All of which trouble Tilly Slowboy did not understand, but was deeply affected by it, and when she found her mistress alone, sobbing piteously, was quite horrified, exclaiming:
"Ow, if you please, don't! It's enough to dead and bury the baby, so it is, if you please!"
"Will you bring him sometimes, to see his father, Tilly?" inquired her mistress, drying her eyes; "when I can't live here, and have gone to my old home?"
"Ow, if you please, don't!" cried Tilly, throwing back her head and bursting out into a howl—she looked at the moment uncommonly like Boxer—"Ow, if you please, don't! Ow, what has everybody been and gone and done with everybody, making everybody else so wretched. Ow-w-w-w!"
The soft-hearted Slowboy trailed off at this juncture, into such a deplorable howl, the more tremendous from its long suppression, that she must infallibly have wakened the baby and frightened him into something serious (probably convulsions) if her attention had not been forcibly diverted from her misery for a moment, after which she stood for some time silent, with her mouth wide open; and then, posting off to the bed on which the baby lay asleep, danced in a weird, Saint Vitus manner, on the floor, and at the same time rummaged with her face and head among the bedclothes, apparently deriving much relief from those extraordinary operations.
Fortunately for all concerned in the little domestic drama, before a crisis had been reached, Edward Plummer revealed his secret, and his reasons for having been obliged to keep it. This cleared up the mystery concerning Mrs. Dot's conduct, proving her to be the same loyal, loving little wife she always was: to the exquisite satisfaction of the honest carrier, his family and friends, and last but not least, Miss Slowboy, who wept copiously for joy, and wishing to include her young charge in the general interchange of congratulations, handed round the baby to everybody in succession, as if it were something to eat or drink.
Of course it became a serious duty now, to make such a day of it as should mark these events for a high feast and festival in the Peerybingle Calendar forevermore. Accordingly, Dot went to work to produce such an entertainment as should reflect undying honor on the house and on every one concerned, and in a very short space of time everybody in the house was in a state of flutter and domestic turmoil and during the flurry of preparation, everybody tumbled over Tilly Slowboy and the baby everywhere. Tilly never came out in such force before. Her ubiquity was the theme of universal admiration. She was a stumbling-block in the passage at five-and-twenty minutes past two; a man-trap in the kitchen at half-past two precisely; and a pitfall in the garret at five-and-twenty minutes to three. The baby's head was, as it were, a test and touchstone for every description of matter,—animal, vegetable, and mineral. Nothing was in use that day that didn't come, at some time or other, into close acquaintance with it.
That was a great celebration indeed, with Dot doing the honors in her wedding-gown, her eyes sparkling with happiness, and the good carrier, so jovial and so ruddy at the bottom of the table, and all their guests aiding to make the occasion a memorable and happy one.
There was a dance in the evening, for which Bertha played her liveliest tune. Inspired by infectious joy, old and young get up and join the whirling throng. Suddenly Caleb Plummer clutches Tilly Slowboy by both hands and goes off at score, Miss Slowboy firm in the belief that diving hotly in among the couples, and effecting any number of concussions with them, is your only principle of footing it, and ecstatically glad to abandon herself to the delights of the occasion, so long as she sees joy written again on the pretty face of her beloved little mistress, and feels that happiness has been restored to honest John Peerybingle and his family.
Hark! How the Cricket on the Hearth joins in the music, with its Chirp, Chirp, Chirp, and how the kettle hums!
When I became the adopted son of my aunt, Miss Betsy Trotwood, my new clothes were marked Trotwood Copperfield, instead of the old familiar David of my childhood; and I began my new life, not only in the new name, but with everything new about me, and felt for many days like one in a dream, until I had proved the happy reality to be a fact.
My aunt's first desire was to place me in a good school at Canterbury, and, lack of education having been my chief source of anxiety, this resolve gave me unbounded delight. So it was with a flutter of joyful anticipation that I accompanied her to Canterbury to call upon her agent and friend Mr. Wickfield, and to confer with him upon the all-important subject of schools and boarding places.
Arriving at Canterbury, we stopped before a very old house, bulging out over the road, with long low latticed windows bulging out still further, and beams with carved heads on the ends bulging out too; so that I fancied the whole house was leaning forward, trying to see who was passing on the pavement below. It was quite spotless in its cleanliness. The old-fashioned brass knocker on the low arched door, ornamented with carved garlands of fruit and flowers, twinkled like a star; the two stone steps descending to the door were as white as if they had been covered with fair linen, and all the angles, and corners, and carvings, and mouldings, and quaint little panes of glass, and quainter little windows, were as pure as any snow that ever fell upon the hills.
When the pony chaise stopped at the door, we alighted and had a long conference with Mr. Wickfield, an elderly gentleman with grey hair and black eyebrows. He approved of my aunt's selection of Dr. Strong's school, and in regard to a home for me, made the following proposal:
"Leave your nephew here for the present. He's a quiet fellow. He won't disturb me at all. It's a capital house for study. As quiet as a monastery, and almost as roomy. Leave him here."
My aunt evidently liked the offer, but was delicate of accepting it, until Mr. Wickfield cried, "Come! I know how you feel, you shall not be oppressed by the receipt of favors, Miss Trotwood. You may pay for him if you like."
"On that understanding," said my aunt, "though it doesn't lessen the real obligation, I shall be very glad to leave him."
"Then come and see my little housekeeper," said Mr. Wickfield.
We accordingly went up a wonderful old staircase, with a balustrade so broad that we might have gone up that, almost as easily, and into a shady old drawing-room, lighted by three or four quaint windows which had old oak seats in them, that seemed to have come of the same trees as the shining oak floor, and the great beams in the ceiling. It was a prettily furnished room, with a piano, and some lively furniture in red and green, and some flowers. It seemed to be all odd nooks and corners; and in every nook and corner there was some queer little table, or cupboard, or bookcase, or seat, or something or other, that made me think there was not such another corner in the room, until I looked at the next one and found it equal to it if not better. On everything there was the same air of refinement and cleanliness that marked the house outside.
Mr. Wickfield tapped at a door in a corner of the panelled wall, and a girl of about my own age came quickly out and kissed him. On her face, I saw immediately the placid and sweet expression of a lady whose portrait I had seen downstairs. It seemed to my imagination as if the portrait had grown womanly, and the original had remained a child. Although her face was quite bright and happy, there was a tranquillity about it, and about her—a quiet, good, calm, spirit—that I never have forgotten; that I never shall forget.
This was his little housekeeper, his daughter Agnes, Mr. Wickfield said. When I heard how he said it, and saw how he held her hand, I guessed what the one motive of his life was.
She had a little basket-trifle hanging at her side with keys in it; and she looked as staid and discreet a housekeeper as the old house could have. She listened to her father as he told her about me, with a pleasant face; and when he had concluded, proposed to my aunt that we should go upstairs, and see my room. We all went together, she before us. A glorious old room it was, with more oak beams, and diamond panes; and the broad balustrade going all the way up to it.
I cannot call to mind where or when, in my childhood, I had seen a stained-glass window in a church. Nor do I recollect its subject. But I know that when I saw her turn round, in the grave light of the old staircase, and wait for us above, I thought of that window; and I associated something of its tranquil brightness with Agnes Wickfield ever afterwards.
My aunt was as happy as I was, in the arrangement made for me, and we went down to the drawing-room again, well pleased and gratified, and shortly after this my aunt took her departure, in consequence of which for some hours I was very much dejected. But by five o'clock, which was Mr. Wickfield's dinner hour, I had mustered up my spirits again, and was ready for my knife and fork. The cloth was only laid for us two; but Agnes was waiting in the drawing-room before dinner, and went down with her father, and sat opposite to him at table. I doubted whether he could have dined without her.
We did not stay there after dinner, but came upstairs into the drawing-room again, in one snug corner of which Agnes set glasses for her father, and a decanter of port wine. There he sat, taking his wine, while Agnes played on the piano, worked, and talked to him and me. Later Agnes made the tea, and presided over it; and the time passed away after it as after dinner, until she went to bed; when her father took her in his arms and kissed her, and, she being gone, ordered candles in his office. Then I went to bed too.
Next morning I entered on my new school life at Dr. Strong's, and began a happy existence in an excellent establishment, the character and dignity of which we each felt it our duty to maintain. We felt that we had a part in the management of the school, and learned with a good will, desiring to do it credit. We had noble games out of hours, and plenty of liberty; but were well spoken of in the town, and rarely did any disgrace by our appearance or manner, to the reputation of Dr. Strong or Dr. Strong's boys, and the Doctor himself was the idol of the whole school.
On that first day when I returned home from school, Agnes was in the drawing-room, waiting for her father. She met me with her pleasant smile, and asked me how I liked the school. I told her I should like it very much, I hoped; but I was a little strange to it at first.
"You have never been to school," I said, "have you?"
"Oh yes! every day."
"Ah, but you mean here, at your own home?"
"Papa couldn't spare me to go anywhere else," she answered smiling and shaking her head, "His housekeeper must be in his house, you know."
"He's very fond of you, I am sure," I said.
She nodded, "Yes," and went to the door to listen for his coming up, that she might meet him on the stairs. But as he was not there, she came back again.
"Mamma has been dead ever since I was born," she said in her quiet way. "I only know her picture, downstairs. I saw you looking at it yesterday. Did you think whose it was?"
I told her yes, because it was so like herself.
"Papa says so, too," said Agnes, pleased. "Hark! that's Papa now!"
Her bright calm face lighted up with pleasure as she went to meet him, and as they came in, hand in hand; and from that time as I watched her day by day, I saw no trace in Agnes of anything but single-hearted devotion to that father, whose wants she cared for so untiringly in her beautiful quiet way.
When we had dined that night, we went upstairs again, where everything went on exactly as on the previous day. Agnes set the glasses and decanters in the same corner, and Mr. Wickfield sat down to drink. Agnes played the piano to him, sat by him, and worked and talked, and played some games at dominoes with me. In good time she made tea; and afterwards, when I brought down my books, looked into them, and showed me what she knew of them (which was no slight matter, though she said it was), and what was the best way to learn and understand them. I see her, with her modest, orderly, placid, manner, and I hear her beautiful, calm voice, as I write these words. The influence for all good, which she came to exercise over me at a later time begins already to descend upon my breast. I love little Emily, and I don't love Agnes—no, not at all in that way—but I feel that there are goodness, peace, and truth wherever Agnes is; and that the soft light of the colored window in the church, seen long ago, falls on her always, and on me when I am near her, and on everything around.
The time having come for her withdrawal for the night, as I gave Mr. Wickfield my hand, preparatory to going away myself, he checked me and said; "Should you like to stay with us, Trotwood, or go elsewhere?"
"To stay," I answered quickly.
"You are sure?"
"If you please. If I may."
"Why, it's but a dull life that we lead here, boy, I'm afraid," he said.
"Not more dull for me than Agnes, sir. Not dull at all!"
"Than Agnes," he repeated, walking slowly to the great chimney-piece, and leaning against it. "Than Agnes! Now I wonder," he muttered, "whether my Agnes tires of me. When should I ever tire of her? But that's different, that's quite different."
He was musing, not speaking to me; so I remained quiet.
"A dull, old house," he said, "and a monotonous life, Stay with us, Trotwood, eh?" he added in his usual manner, and as if he were answering something I had just said. "I'm glad of it. You are company to us both. It is wholesome to have you here. Wholesome for me, wholesome for Agnes wholesome perhaps for all of us."
"I'm sure it is for me, sir," I said, "I'm so glad to be here."
"That's a fine fellow!" said Mr. Wickfield. "As long as you are glad to be here, you shall stay here."
And so I lived at Mr. Wickfield's through the remainder of my schooldays, and to Agnes, as the months went by, I turned more and more often for advice and counsel.
We saw a good deal of Dr. Strong's wife, both because she had taken a liking to me, and because she was very fond of Agnes, and was often backwards and forwards at our house, and we had pleasant evenings at the doctor's too, with other guests, when we had merry round games of cards, or music—for both Mrs. Strong and Agnes sang sweetly—and so, with weekly visits from my aunt, and walks and talks with Agnes, and the events and phases of feeling too numerous to chronicle, which make up a boy's existence, my schooldays glided all too swiftly by.
Time has stolen on unobserved. I am higher in the school and no one breaks my peace. Dr. Strong refers to me in public as a promising young scholar, and my aunt remits me a guinea by next post. And what comes now? I am the head boy! I look down on the line of boys below me, with a condescending interest in such of them as bring to my mind the boy I was myself, when I first came there. That little fellow seems to be no part of me; I remember him as something left behind upon the road of life—and almost think of him as of some one else.
What other changes have come upon me, beside the changes in my growth and looks, and in the knowledge I have garnered all this while? I wear a gold watch and chain, a ring upon my little finger, and a long-tailed coat; and twice have I been desperately in love with a fair damsel, and have twice recovered.