Chapter 49

KIT’S MOTHER might have spared herself the trouble of looking back so often, for nothing was further from Mr Quilp’s thoughts than any intention of pursuing her and her son, or renewing the quarrel with which they had parted. He went his way, whistling from time to time some fragments of a tune; and with a face quite tranquil and composed, jogged pleasantly towards home; entertaining himself as he went with visions of the fears and terrors of Mrs Quilp, who, having received no intelligence of him for three whole days and two nights, and having had no previous notice of his absence, was doubtless by that time in a state of distraction, and constantly fainting away with anxiety and grief.

This facetious probability was so congenial to the dwarf’s humour, and so exquisitely amusing to him, that he laughed as he went along until the tears ran down his cheeks; and more than once, when he found himself in a bye street, vented his delight in a shrill scream, which greatly terrifying any lonely passenger, who happened to be walking on before him expecting nothing so little, increased his mirth, and made him remarkably cheerful and light-hearted.

In this happy flow of spirits Mr Quilp reached Tower Hill, when, gazing up at the window of his own sitting- room, he thought he descried more light than is usual in a house of mourning. Drawing nearer, and listening attentively, he could hear several voices in earnest conversation, among which he could distinguish, not only those of his wife and mother-in-law, but the tongues of men.

‘Ha!’ cried the jealous dwarf, ‘What’s this! Do they entertain such visitors while I’m away!’

A smothered cough from above, was the reply. He felt in his pockets for his latch-key, but had forgotten it. There was no resource but to knock at the door.

‘A light in the passage,’ said Quilp, peeping through the key-hole. ‘A very soft knock; and, by your leave, my lady, I may yet steal upon you unawares. Soho!’

A very low and gentle rap received no answer from within. But after a second application to the knocker, no louder than the first, the door was softly opened by the boy from the wharf, whom Quilp instantly gagged with one hand, and dragged into the street with the other.

‘You’ll throttle me, master,’ whispered the boy. ‘Let go, will you.’

‘Who’s upstairs, you dog?’ retorted Quilp in the same tone. ‘Tell me. And don’t speak above your breath, or I’ll choke you in good earnest.’

The boy could only point to the window, and reply with a stifled giggle, expressive of such intense enjoyment, that Quilp clutched him by the throat again and might have carried his threat into execution, or at least have made very good progress towards that end, but for the boy’s nimbly extricating himself from his grasp, and fortifying himself behind the nearest post, at which, after some fruitless attempts to catch him by the hair of his head, his master was obliged to come to a parley.

‘Will you answer me?’ said Quilp. ‘What’s going on, above?’

‘You won’t let one speak,’ replied the boy. ‘They—ha ha ha!—they think you’re—you’re dead. Ha ha ha!’

‘Dead!’ cried Quilp, relaxing into a grim laugh himself. ‘No. Do they? Do they really, you dog?’

‘They think you’re—you’re drowned,’ replied the boy, who in his malicious nature had a strong infusion of his master. ‘You was last seen on the brink of the wharf, and they think you tumbled over. Ha ha!’

The prospect of playing the spy under such delicious circumstances, and of disappointing them all by walking in alive, gave more delight to Quilp than the greatest stroke of good fortune could possibly have inspired him with. He was no less tickled than his hopeful assistant, and they both stood for some seconds, grinning and gasping, and wagging their heads at each other, on either side of the post, like an unmatchable pair of Chinese idols.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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