THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP
THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP
Night is generally my time for walking. In the summer I often leave
home early in the morning and roam about fields and lanes all day
or even escape for days or weeks together; but saving in the
country I seldom go out until after dark though Heaven be
thanked I love its light and feel the cheerfulness it sheds upon the
earth as much as any creature living.
I have fallen insensibly into this habit both because it favours my
infirmity and because it affords me greater opportunity of speculating
on the characters and occupations of those who fill the streets. The
glare and hurry of broad noon are not adapted to idle pursuits like
mine; a glimpse of passing faces caught by the light of a street-lamp
or a shop window is often better for my purpose than their full
revelation in the daylight; and if I must add the truth night is kinder
in this respect than day which too often destroys an air-built castle
at the moment of its completion without the least ceremony or remorse.
That constant pacing to and fro that never-ending restlessness that
incessant tread of feet wearing the rough stones smooth and glossy--is it
not a wonder how the dwellers in narrows ways can bear to hear
it! Think of a sick man in such a place as Saint Martin's Court
listening to the footsteps and in the midst of pain and weariness
obliged despite himself (as though it were a task he must perform)
to detect the child's step from the man's the slipshod beggar from
the booted exquisite the lounging from the busy the dull heel
of the sauntering outcast from the quick tread of an expectant
pleasure-seeker--think of the hum and noise always being present to his
sense and of the stream of life that will not stop pouring on on on
through all his restless dreams as if he were condemned to lie
dead but conscious in a noisy churchyard and had no hope of rest
for centuries to come.
Then the crowds for ever passing and repassing on the bridges (on
those which are free of toil at last) where many stop on fine
evenings looking listlessly down upon the water with some vague
idea that by and by it runs between green banks which grow wider
and wider until at last it joins the broad vast sea--where some halt to
rest from heavy loads and think as they look over the parapet that to
smoke and lounge away one's life and lie sleeping in the sun upon a
hot tarpaulin in a dull slow sluggish barge must be happiness
unalloyed--and where some and a very different class pause with
heaver loads than they remembering to have heard or read in old
time that drowning was not a hard death but of all means of suicide
the easiest and best.
Covent Garden Market at sunrise too in the spring or summer when
the fragrance of sweet flowers is in the air over-powering even the
unwholesome streams of last night's debauchery and driving the
dusky thrust whose cage has hung outside a garret window all night
long half mad with joy! Poor bird! the only neighbouring thing at all
akin to the other little captives some of whom shrinking from the
hot hands of drunken purchasers lie drooping on the path already
while others soddened by close contact await the time when they
shall be watered and freshened up to please more sober company
and make old clerks who pass them on their road to business
wonder what has filled their breasts with visions of the country.
But my present purpose is not to expatiate upon my walks. The story
I am about to relate and to which I shall recur at intervals arose
out of one of these rambles; and thus I have been led to speak of
them by way of preface.
One night I had roamed into the City and was walking slowly on in
my usual way musing upon a great many things when I was
arrested by an inquiry the purport of which did not reach me but
which seemed to be addressed to myself and was preferred in a soft
sweet voice that struck me very pleasantly. I turned hastily round
and found at my elbow a pretty little girl who begged to be directed
to a certain street at a considerable distance and indeed in quite
another quarter of the town.
It is a very long way from here' said I 'my child.'
'I know that sir' she replied timidly. 'I am afraid it is a very long
way for I came from there to-night.'
'Alone?' said I in some surprise.
'Oh yes I don't mind that but I am a little frightened now for I
had lost my road.'
'And what made you ask it of me? Suppose I should tell you wrong?'
'I am sure you will not do that' said the little creature' you are such
a very old gentleman and walk so slow yourself.'
I cannot describe how much I was impressed by this appeal and the
energy with which it was made which brought a tear into the child's
clear eye and made her slight figure tremble as she looked up into
'Come' said I 'I'll take you there.'
She put her hand in mind as confidingly as if she had known me
from her cradle and we trudged away together; the little creature
accommodating her pace to mine and rather seeming to lead and
take care of me than I to be protecting her. I observed that every
now and then she stole a curious look at my face as if to make quite
sure that I was not deceiving her and that these glances (very sharp
and keen they were too) seemed to increase her confidence at every
For my part my curiosity and interest were at least equal to the
child's for child she certainly was although I thought it probably
from what I could make out that her very small and delicate frame
imparted a peculiar youthfulness to her appearance. Though more
scantily attired than she might have been she was dressed with
perfect neatness and betrayed no marks of poverty or neglect.
'Who has sent you so far by yourself?' said I.
'Someone who is very kind to me sir.'
'And what have you been doing?'
'That I must not tell' said the child firmly.
There was something in the manner of this reply which caused me to
look at the little creature with an involuntary expression of surprise;
for I wondered what kind of errand it might be that occasioned her to
be prepared for questioning. Her quick eye seemed to read my
thoughts for as it met mine she added that there was no harm in
what she had been doing but it was a great secret--a secret which
she did not even know herself.
This was said with no appearance of cunning or deceit but with an
unsuspicious frankness that bore the impress of truth. She walked on
as before growing more familiar with me as we proceeded and
talking cheerfully by the way but she said no more about her home
beyond remarking that we were going quite a new road and asking if
it were a short one.
While we were thus engaged I revolved in my mind a hundred
different explanations of the riddle and rejected them every one. I
really felt ashamed to take advantage of the ingenuousness or grateful
feeling of the child for the purpose of gratifying my curiosity. I love
these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they who are so
fresh from God love us. As I had felt pleased at first by her
confidence I determined to deserve it and to do credit to the nature
which had prompted her to repose it in me.
There was no reason however why I should refrain from seeing the
person who had inconsiderately sent her to so great a distance by
night and alone and as it was not improbable that if she found
herself near home she might take farewell of me and deprive me of
the opportunity I avoided the most frequented ways and took the
most intricate and thus it was not until we arrived in the street itself
that she knew where we were. Clapping her hands with pleasure and
running on before me for a short distance my little acquaintance
stopped at a door and remaining on the step till I came up knocked at
it when I joined her.
A part of this door was of glass unprotected by any shutter which I
did not observe at first for all was very dark and silent within and I
was anxious (as indeed the child was also) for an answer to our
summons. When she had knocked twice or thrice there was a noise
as if some person were moving inside and at length a faint light
appeared through the glass which as it approached very slowly the
bearer having to make his way through a great many scattered
articles enabled me to see both what kind of person it was who
advanced and what kind of place it was through which he came.
It was an old man with long grey hair whose face and figure as he
held the light above his head and looked before him as he
approached I could plainly see. Though much altered by age I
fancied I could recognize in his spare and slender form something of
that delicate mould which I had noticed in a child. Their bright blue
eyes were certainly alike but his face was so deeply furrowed and so
very full of care that here all resemblance ceased.
The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those
receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd
corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public
eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like
ghosts in armour here and there fantastic carvings brought from
monkish cloisters rusty weapons of various kinds distorted figures
in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture
that might have been designed in dreams. The haggard aspect of the
little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have
groped among old churches and tombs and deserted houses and
gathered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the
whole collection but was in keeping with himself nothing that looked
older or more worn than he.
As he turned the key in the lock he surveyed me with some
astonishment which was not diminished when he looked from me to
my companion. The door being opened the child addressed him as
grandfather and told him the little story of our companionship.
'Why bless thee child' said the old man patting her on the head
'how couldst thou miss thy way? What if I had lost thee Nell!'
'I would have found my way back to YOU grandfather' said the
child boldly; 'never fear.'
The old man kissed her then turning to me and begging me to walk
in I did so. The door was closed and locked. Preceding me with the
light he led me through the place I had already seen from without
into a small sitting-room behind in which was another door opening
into a kind of closet where I saw a little bed that a fairy might have
slept in it looked so very small and was so prettily arranged. The
child took a candle and tripped into this little room leaving the old
man and me together.
'You must be tired sir' said he as he placed a chair near the fire
'how can I thank you?'
'By taking more care of your grandchild another time my good
friend' I replied.
'More care!' said the old man in a shrill voice 'more care of Nelly!
Why who ever loved a child as I love Nell?'
He said this with such evident surprise that I was perplexed what
answer to make and the more so because coupled with something
feeble and wandering in his manner there were in his face marks of
deep and anxious thought which convinced me that he could not be
as I had been at first inclined to suppose in a state of dotage or
'I don't think you consider--' I began.
'I don't consider!' cried the old man interrupting me 'I don't consider
her! Ah how little you know of the truth! Little Nelly little Nelly!'
It would be impossible for any man I care not what his form of
speech might be to express more affection than the dealer in
curiosities did in these four words. I waited for him to speak again
but he rested his chin upon his hand and shaking his head twice or
thrice fixed his eyes upon the fire.
While we were sitting thus in silence the door of the closet opened
and the child returned her light brown hair hanging loose about her
neck and her face flushed with the haste she had made to rejoin us.