Chapter 66

ON AWAKING IN THE MORNING, Richard Swiveller became conscious by slow degrees of whispering voices in his room. Looking out between the curtains, he espied Mr Garland, Mr Abel, the Notary, and the single gentleman, gathered round the Marchioness, and talking to her With great earnestness but in very subdued tones — fearing, no doubt, to disturb him. He lost no time in letting them know that this precaution was unnecessary, and all four gentlemen directly approached his bedside. Old Mr Garland was the first to stretch out his hand, and inquire how he felt.

Dick was about to answer that he felt much better, though still as weak as need be, when his little nurse, pushing the visitors aside and pressing up to his pillow as if in jealousy of their interference, set his breakfast before, him, and insisted on his taking it before he underwent the fatigue of speaking or of being spoken to. Mr Swiveller, who was perfectly ravenous, and had had, all night, amazingly distinct and consistent dreams of mutton chops, double stout, and similar delicacies, felt even the weak tea and dry toast such irresistible temptations, that he consented to eat and drink upon one condition.

‘And that is,’ said Dick, returning the pressure of Mr Garland’s hand, ‘that you answer me this question truly, before I take a bit or drop. Is it too late?’

‘For completing the work you began so well last night?’ returned the old gentleman. ‘No. Set your mind at rest upon that point. It is not, I assure you.’

Comforted by this intelligence, the patient applied himself to his food with a keen appetite, though evidently not with a greater zest in the eating than his nurse appeared to have in seeing him eat. The manner of this meal was this — Mr Swiveller holding the slice of toast or cup of tea in his left hand, and taking a bite or drink as the case might be, constantly kept, in his right, one palm of the Marchioness tight locked; and to shake, or even to kiss this imprisoned hand, he would stop every now and then, in the very act of swallowing, with perfect seriousness of intention, and the utmost gravity. As often as he put anything into his mouth, whether for eating or drinking, the face of the Marchioness lighted up beyond all description; but whenever he gave her one or other of these tokens of recognition, her countenance became overshadowed, and she began to sob. Now, whether she was in her laughing joy, or in her crying one, the Marchioness could not help turning to the visitors with an appealing look, which seemed to say, ‘You see this fellow — can I help this?’ — and they being thus made, as it were, parties to the scene, as regularly answered by another look, ‘No. Certainly not.’ This dumb-show taking place during the whole time of the invalid’s breakfast, and the invalid himself, pale and emaciated, performing no small part in the same, it may be fairly questioned whether at any meal, where no word, good or bad, was spoken from beginning to end, so much was expressed by gestures in themselves so slight and unimportant.

At length — and to say the truth before very long — Mr Swiveller had despatched as much toast and tea as in that stage of his recovery it was discreet to let him have. But the cares of the Marchioness did not stop here; for, disappearing for an instant and presently returning with a basin of fair water, she laved his face and hands, brushed his hair, and in short made him as spruce and smart as anybody under such circumstances could be made; and all this in as brisk and business-like a manner, as if he were a very little boy, and she his grown-up nurse. To these various attentions, Mr Swiveller submitted in a kind of grateful astonishment beyond the reach of language. When they were at last brought to an end, and the Marchioness had withdrawn into a distant corner to take her own poor breakfast (cold enough by that time), he turned his face away for some few moments, and shook hands heartily with the air.

‘Gentlemen,’ said Dick, rousing himself from this pause, and turning round again, ‘you’ll excuse me. Men who have been brought so low as I have been, are easily fatigued. I am fresh again now, and fit for talking. We’re short of chairs here, among other trifles, but if you’ll do me the favour to sit upon the bed —’

‘What can we do for you?’ said Mr Garland, kindly.

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