RICHARD SWIVELLER, a good-hearted, though somewhat queer young man, the clerk of Sampson Brass, a scheming lawyer, often found time hanging heavily on his hands; and for the better preservation of his cheerfulness therefore, and to prevent his faculties from rusting, he provided himself with a cribbage-board and pack of cards, and accustomed himself to play at cribbage with a dummy, for twenty, thirty, or sometimes even fifty thousand pounds a side, besides many hazardous bets to a considerable amount.
As these games were very silently conducted, notwithstanding the greatness of the interests involved, Mr. Swiveller, began to think that on those evenings when Mr. and Miss Brass were out (and they often went out now) he heard a kind of snorting or hard-breathing sound in the direction of the door, which it occurred to him, after some thought, must proceed from the small servant, who always had a cold from damp living. Looking intently that way one night, he plainly distinguished an eye gleaming and glistening at the keyhole; and having now no doubt that his suspicions were correct, he stole softly to the door and pounced upon her before she was aware of his approach.
"Oh! I didn't mean any harm indeed. Upon my word I didn't," cried the small servant, struggling like a much larger one. "It's so very dull down-stairs. Please don't you tell upon me; please don't."
"Tell upon you!" said Dick. "Do you mean to say you were looking through the keyhole for company?"
"Yes, upon my word I was," replied the small servant.
"How long have you been cooling your eye there?" said Dick.
"Oh, ever since you first began to play them cards, and long before."
Vague recollections of several fantastic exercises such as dancing around the room, and bowing to imaginary people with which he had refreshed himself after the fatigues of business; all of which, no doubt, the small servant had seen through the keyhole, made Mr. Swiveller feel rather awkward; but he was not very sensitive on such points, and recovered himself speedily.
"Well--come in," he said, after a little thought. "Here--sit down, and I'll teach you how to play."
"Oh! I durstn't do it," rejoined the small servant. "Miss Sally 'ud kill me, if she know'd I came up here."
"Have you got a fire down-stairs?" said Dick.
"A very little one," replied the small servant.
"Miss Sally couldn't kill me if she know'd I went down there, so I'll come," said Richard, putting the cards into his pocket. "Why, how thin you are! What do you mean by it?"
"It ain't my fault."
"Could you eat any bread and meat?" said Dick, taking down his hat. "Yes? Ah! I thought so. Did you ever taste beer?"
"I had a sip of it once," said the small servant.
"Here's a state of things!" cried Mr. Swiveller, raising his eyes to the ceiling. "She never tasted it--it can't be tasted in a sip! Why, how old are you?"
"I don't know."
Mr. Swiveller opened his eyes very wide and appeared thoughtful for a moment; then, bidding the child mind the door until he came back, vanished straightway.
Presently he returned, followed by the boy from the public house, who bore in one hand a plate of bread and beef and in the other a great pot, filled with some very fragrant compound, which sent forth a grateful steam, and was indeed choice purl made after a particular rule which Mr. Swiveller had given to the landlord at a period when he was deep in his books and desirous to win his friendship. Relieving the boy of his burden at the door, and charging his little companion to fasten it to prevent surprise, Mr. Swiveller followed her into the kitchen.
"There!" said Richard, putting the plate before her. "First of all, clear that off, and then you'll see what's next."
The small servant needed no second bidding, and the plate was soon empty.
"Next," said Dick, handing the purl, "take a pull at that; but moderate your delight, you know, for you're not used to it. Well, is it good?"
"Oh! isn't it?" said the small servant.
Mr. Swiveller appeared gratified beyond all expression by this reply, and took a long draught himself, steadfastly regarding his companion while he did so. These matters disposed of, he applied himself to teaching her the game, which she soon learnt tolerably well, being both sharp-witted and cunning.
"Now," said Mr. Swiveller, putting two sixpences into a saucer, and trimming the wretched candle, when the cards had been cut and dealt, "those are the stakes. If you win, you get 'em all. If I win, I get 'em. To make it seem more real and pleasant, I shall call you the Marchioness, do you hear?"
The small servant nodded.
"Marchioness," as the reader knows, is a title to a lady of very high rank, and such Mr. Swiveller chose to imagine this small servant to be.
"Then, Marchioness," said Mr. Swiveller, "fire away!"
The Marchioness, holding her cards very tight in both hands, considered which to play, and Mr. Swiveller, assuming the gay and fashionable air which such society required, took another pull at the jug and waited for her to lead in the game.
Mr. Swiveller and his partner played several rubbers with varying success, until the loss of three sixpences, the gradual sinking of the purl, and the striking of ten o'clock, combined to render that gentleman mindful of the flight of time, and the wisdom of withdrawing before Mr. Sampson and Miss Sally Brass returned.
"With which object in view, Marchioness," said Mr. Swiveller gravely, "I shall ask your ladyship's permission to put the board in my pocket, and to retire from the presence when I have finished this glass; merely observing, Marchioness, that since life like a river is flowing, I care not how fast it rolls on, ma'am, on, while such purl on the bank still is growing, and such eyes light the waves as they run. Marchioness, your health! You will excuse my wearing my hat but the palace is damp, and the marble floor is--if I may be allowed the expression--sloppy."
As a protection against this latter inconvenience Mr. Swiveller had been sitting for some time with his feet on the hob, in which attitude he now gave utterance to these apologetic observations, and slowly sipped the last choice drops of nectar.
"The Baron Sampsono Brasso and his fair sister are (you tell me) at the Play?" said Mr. Swiveller, leaning his left arm heavily upon the table, and raising his voice and his right leg after the manner of a bandit in the theater.
The Marchioness nodded.
"Ha!" said Mr. Swiveller with a portentous frown. "'Tis well, Marchioness!--but no matter. Some wine there. Ho!" He illustrated these melodramatic morsels by handing the glass to himself with great humility, receiving it haughtily, drinking from it thirstily, and smacking his lips fiercely.
The small servant, who was not so well acquainted with theatrical customs as Mr. Swiveller (having indeed never seen a play or heard one spoken of, except by some chance through chinks of doors and in other forbidden places), was rather alarmed by demonstrations so strange in their nature, and showed her concern so plainly in her looks that Mr. Swiveller felt it necessary to change his brigand manner for one more suitable to private life, as he asked:
"Do they often go where glory waits 'em, and leave you here?"
"Oh, yes; I believe they do," returned the small servant. "Miss Sally's such a one-er for that, she is."
"Such a what?" said Dick.
"Such a one-er," returned the Marchioness.
After a moment's reflection, Mr. Swiveller determined to forego his responsible duty of setting her right and to suffer her to talk on, as it was evident that her tongue was loosened by the purl and her opportunities for conversation were not so frequent as to render a momentary check of little consequence.
"They sometimes go to see Mr. Quilp," said the small servant with a shrewd look; "they go to a good many places, bless you."
"Is Mr. Brass a wunner?" said Dick.
"Not half what Miss Sally is, he isn't," replied the small servant, shaking her head. "Bless you, he'd never do anything without her."
"Oh! He wouldn't, wouldn't he?" said Dick.
"Miss Sally keeps him in such order," said the small servant; "he always asks her advice, he does; and he catches it sometimes. Bless you, you wouldn't believe how much he catches it."
"I suppose," said Dick, "that they consult together a good deal, and talk about a great many people--about me, for instance sometimes, eh, Marchioness?"
The Marchioness nodded amazingly.
"Do they speak of me in a friendly manner?" said Mr. Swiveller.
The Marchioness changed the motion of her head, which had not yet left off nodding, and suddenly began to shake it from side to side so hard as to threaten breaking her neck.
"Humph!" Dick muttered. "Would it be any breach of confidence, Marchioness, to relate what they say of the humble individual who has now the honor to----?"
"Miss Sally says you're a funny chap," replied his friend.
"Well, Marchioness," said Mr. Swiveller, "that's not uncomplimentary. Merriment, Marchioness, is not a bad or degrading quality. Old King Cole was himself a merry old soul, if we may put any faith in the pages of history."
"But she says," pursued his companion, "that you ain't to be trusted."
"Why, really, Marchioness," said Mr. Swiveller thoughtfully; "several ladies and gentlemen--not exactly professional persons, but tradespeople, ma'am, tradespeople--have made the same remark. The person who keeps the hotel over the way inclined strongly to that opinion to-night when I ordered him to prepare the banquet. It's a popular prejudice, Marchioness; and yet I am sure I don't know why, for I have been trusted in my time to a considerable amount, and I can safely say that I never forsook my trust until it deserted me--never. Mr. Brass is of the same opinion, I suppose?"
His friend nodded again, with a cunning look which seemed to hint that Mr. Brass held stronger opinions on the subject than his sister; and seeming to recollect herself, added imploringly, "But don't you ever tell upon me, or I shall be beat to death."
"Marchioness," said Mr. Swiveller, rising, "the word of a gentleman is as good as his bond--sometimes better; as in the present case, where his bond might prove but a doubtful sort of security. I am your friend, and I hope we shall play many more rubbers together in the same saloon. But, Marchioness," added Richard, stopping on his way to the door, and wheeling slowly round upon the small servant, who was following with the candle, "it occurs to me that you must be in the constant habit of airing your eye at keyholes, to know all this."
"I only wanted," replied the trembling Marchioness, "to know where the key of the safe was hid; that was all; and I wouldn't have taken much, if I had found it--only enough to squench my hunger."
"You didn't find it, then?" said Dick. "But of course you didn't, or you'd be plumper. Good-night, Marchioness. Fare thee well, and if forever, then forever fare thee well--and put up the chain, Marchioness, in case of accidents."
With this parting word, Mr. Swiveller came out from the house; and feeling that he had by this time taken quite as much to drink as promised to be good for his constitution (purl being a rather strong and heady compound), wisely resolved to betake himself to his lodgings, and to bed at once. Homeward he went therefore; and his apartments (for he still spoke of his one little room as "apartments") being at no great distance from the office, he was soon seated in his own bed-chamber, where, having pulled off one boot and forgotten the other, he fell into deep thought.
"This Marchioness," said Mr. Swiveller, folding his arms, "is a very extraordinary person--surrounded by mysteries, ignorant of the taste of beer, unacquainted with her own name (which is less remarkable), and taking a limited view of society through the keyholes of doors--can these things be her destiny, or has some unknown person started an opposition to the decrees of fate? It is a most amazing staggerer!"
When his meditations had attained this satisfactory point, he became aware of his remaining boot, of which, with great solemnity, he proceeded to divest himself; shaking his head with exceeding gravity all the time, and sighing deeply.
"These rubbers," said Mr. Swiveller, putting on his nightcap in exactly the same style as he wore his hat, "remind me of the matrimonial fireside. My old girl, Chegg's wife, plays cribbage; all-fours alike. She rings the changes on 'em now. From sport to sport they hurry her, to banish her regrets, and when they win a smile from her, they think that she forgets--but she don't. By this time, I should say," added Richard, getting his left cheek into profile, and looking complacently at the reflection of a very little scrap of whisker in the looking-glass; "by this time, I should say, the iron has entered into her soul. It serves her right."
Mr. Swiveller, it must be said had been at one time somewhat in love with a young lady: but she had left his love and married a Mr. Cheggs.
Melting from this stern and harsh into the tender and pathetic mood, Mr. Swiveller groaned a little, walked wildly up and down, and even made a show of tearing his hair, which, however, he thought better of, and wrenched the tassel from his nightcap instead. At last, undressing himself with a gloomy resolution, he got into bed.
Some men, in his blighted position, would have taken to drinking; but as Mr. Swiveller had taken to that before, he only took, on receiving the news that this girl was lost to him forever, to playing the flute; thinking, after mature consideration, that it was a good, sound, dismal occupation, not only in unison with his own sad thoughts, but tending to awaken a fellow-feeling in the bosom, of his neighbors. Following out this resolution, he now drew a little table to his bedside, and, arranging the light and a small oblong music-book to the best advantage, took his flute from its box and began to play most mournfully.
The air was "Away with melancholy"--a composition, which, when it is played very slowly on the flute in bed, with the farther disadvantage of being performed by a gentleman not fully acquainted with the instrument, who repeats one note a great many times before he can find the next, has not a lively effect. Yet for half the night, or more, Mr. Swiveller, lying sometimes on his back with his eyes upon the ceiling and sometimes half out of bed to correct himself by the book, played this unhappy tune over and over again; never leaving off, save for a minute or two at a time to take breath and talk to himself about the Marchioness and then beginning again with renewed vigor. It was not until he had quite exhausted his several subjects of meditation, and had breathed into the flute the whole sentiment of the purl down to its very dregs, and had nearly maddened the people of the house, and at both the next doors, and over the way--that he shut up the music-book, extinguished the candle, and, finding himself greatly lightened and relieved in his mind, turned round and fell asleep.
Dick continued his friendly relations towards the Marchioness, and when he fell ill with typhoid fever his little friend nursed him back to health. Just after this illness an aunt of his died and left him quite a large sum of money, a portion of which he used to educate the Marchioness, whom he afterwards married.
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