LITTLE NELL stood timidly by, with her eyes raised to the countenance of Mr Quilp as he read the letter, plainly showing by her looks that while she entertained some fear and distrust of the little man, she was much inclined to laugh at his uncouth appearance and grotesque attitude. And yet there was visible on the part of the child a painful anxiety for his reply, and consciousness of his power to render it disagreeable or distressing, which was strongly at variance with this impulse and restrained it more effectually than she could possibly have done by any efforts of her own.
That Mr Quilp was himself perplexed, and that in no small degree, by the contents of the letter, was sufficiently obvious. Before he had got through the first two or three lines he began to open his eyes very wide and to frown most horribly, the next two or three caused him to scratch his head in an uncommonly vicious manner, and when he came to the conclusion he gave a long dismal whistle indicative of surprise and dismay. After folding and laying it down beside him, he bit the nails of all his ten fingers with extreme voracity; and taking it up sharply, read it again. The second perusal was to all appearance as unsatisfactory as the first, and plunged him into a profound reverie from which he awakened to another assault upon his nails and a long stare at the child, who with her eyes turned towards the ground awaited his further pleasure.
Halloa here! he said at length, in a voice, and with a suddenness, which made the child start as though a gun had been fired off at her ear. Nelly!
Do you know whats inside this letter, Nell?
Are you sure, quite sure, quite certain, upon your soul?
Quite sure, Sir.
Do you wish you may die if you do know, hey? said the dwarf.
Indeed I dont know, returned the child.
Well! muttered Quilp as he marked her earnest look. I believe you. Humph! Gone already? Gone in four-and-twenty hours! What the devil has he done with it, thats the mystery!
This reflection set him scratching his head and biting his nails once more. While he was thus employed his features gradually relaxed into what was with him a cheerful smile, but which in any other man would have been a ghastly grin of pain, and when the child looked up again she found that he was regarding her with extraordinary favour and complacency.
You look very pretty today, Nelly, charmingly pretty. Are you tired, Nelly?
No, Sir. Im in a hurry to get back, for he will be anxious while I am away.
Theres no hurry, little Nell, no hurry at all, said Quilp. How should you like to be my number two, Nelly?
To be what, Sir?
My number two, Nelly, my second, my Mrs Quilp, said the dwarf.
The child looked frightened, but seemed not to understand him, which Mr Quilp observing, hastened to explain his meaning more distinctly.
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