Mr. and Mrs. Quilp resided on Tower Hill. Mr. Quilp’s occupations were numerous. He collected the rents of whole colonies of filthy streets and alleys by the water-side, advanced money to the seamen and petty officers of merchant vessels, and made appointments with men in glazed hats and round jackets pretty well every day. On the southern side of the river was a small rat-infested dreary yard called “Quilp’s Wharf,” in which were a little wooden house. There were nearby a few fragments of rusty anchors; several large iron rings; some piles of rotten wood; and two or three heaps of old sheet copper, crumpled, cracked, and battered. On Quilp’s Wharf, Daniel Quilp was a ship-breaker. The dwarfs lodging on Tower Hill had a sleeping-closet for Mrs. Quilp’s mother, who resided with the couple.
That day besides these ladies there were present some half-dozen ladies of the neighbourhood who had come just about tea-time. The ladies felt an inclination to talk and linger.
A stout lady opened the inquired, with an air of great concern and sympathy, how Mr. Quilp was; whereunto Mr. Quilp’s wife’s mother replied sharply,
“Oh! he is well enough, ill weeds are sure to thrive.”
All the ladies then sighed in concert, shook their heads gravely, and looked at Mrs. Quilp as at a martyr.
Poor Mrs. Quilp coloured, and smiled. Suddenly Daniel Quilp himself was observed to be in the room, looking on and listening with profound attention.
“Go on, ladies, go on,” said Daniel. “Mrs. Quilp, pray ask the ladies to stop to supper.”
“I didn’t ask them to tea, Quilp,” stammered his wife. “It’s quite an accident.”
“So much the better, Mrs. Quilp: these accidental parties are always the pleasantest,” said the dwarf, rubbing his hands very hard. “What? Not going, ladies? You are not going, surely?”
“And why not stop to supper, Quilp,” said the old lady, “if my daughter had a mind? There’s nothing dishonest or wrong in a supper, I hope?”
“Surely not,” returned the dwarf. “Why should there be?”
“My daughter’s your wife, Mr. Quilp, certainly,” said the old lady.
“So she is, certainly. So she is,” observed the dwarf.
“And she has a right to do as she likes, I hope, Quilp,” said the old lady trembling.
“Hope she has! Oh! Don’t you know she has? My dear,” said the dwarf, turning round and addressing his wife, “why don’t you always imitate your mother, my dear? She’s the ornament of her sex, your father said so every day of his life, I am sure he did.”
“Her father was a blessed man, Quilp, and worth twenty thousand of some people, twenty hundred million thousand.”
“I dare say,” remarked the dwarf, “he was a blessed man then; but I’m sure he is now. It was a happy release. I believe he had suffered a long time?”
The guests went down-stairs. Quilp’s wife sat trembling in a corner with her eyes fixed upon the ground, the little man planted himself before her, at some distance, and folding his arms looked steadily at her for a long time without speaking.
“Oh you nice creature!” were the words with which he broke silence. “Oh you precious darling! oh you delicious charmer!”
Mrs. Quilp sobbed, knowing that his compliments are the most extreme demonstrations of violence.
“She’s such,” said the dwarf, with a ghastly grin, “such a jewel, such a diamond, such a pearl, such a ruby, such a golden casket set with gems of all sorts! She’s such a treasure! I’m so fond of her!”
The poor little woman shivered from head to foot; and raising her eyes to his face, sobbed once more.
“The best of her is,” said the dwarf; “the best of her is that she’s so meek, and she’s so mild, and she has such an insinuating mother!”
Mr. Quilp stooped slowly down, and down, and down, until came between his wife’s eyes and the floor.
“Am I nice to look at? Am I the handsomest creature in the world, Mrs. Quilp?”
Mrs. Quilp dutifully replied, “Yes, Quilp.”
“If ever you listen to these witches, I’ll bite you.”
Mr. Quilp made her clear the tea-board away, and bring the rum. Then he ordered cold water and the box of cigars; and after that he settled himself in an arm-chair with his little legs planted on the table.
The next day the dwarf was at the Quilp’s Wharf.
“Here’s somebody for you,” said the boy to Quilp.
“I don’t know.”
“Ask!” said Quilp. “Ask, you dog.”
A little girl presented herself at the door.
“What, Nelly!” cried Quilp.
“Yes,” said the child; “it’s only me, sir.”
“Come in,” said Quilp. “Now come in and shut the door. What’s your message, Nelly?”
The child handed him a letter; Mr. Quilp began to read it. Little Nell stood timidly by and waited for his reply.
“Nelly!” said Mr. Quilp.
“Do you know what’s inside this letter, Nell?”
“Are you sure, quite sure, quite certain?”
“Quite sure, sir.”
“Well!” muttered Quilp. “I believe you. Hm! Gone already? Gone in four-and-twenty hours. What the devil has he done with it? That’s the mystery!”
He began to bite his nails.
“You look very pretty today, Nelly, charmingly pretty. Are you tired, Nelly?”
“No, sir. I’m in a hurry to get back.”
“There’s 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. Mr. Quilp hastened to explain his meaning more distinctly.
“To be Mrs. Quilp the second, when Mrs. Quilp the first is dead, sweet Nell,” said Quilp, “to be my wife, my little cherry-cheeked, red-lipped wife. Say that Mrs. Quilp lives five years, or only four, you’ll be just the proper age for me. Ha ha! Be a good girl, Nelly, a very good girl, and see one day you will become Mrs. Quilp of Tower Hill.”
The child shrunk from him, and trembled. Mr. Quilp only laughed.
“You will come with me to Tower Hill, and see Mrs. Quilp, that is, directly,” said the dwarf. “She’s very fond of you, Nell, though not so fond as I am. You will come home with me.”
“I must go back indeed,” said the child. “My grandfather told me to return directly I had the answer.”
“But you haven’t it, Nelly,” retorted the dwarf, “and won’t have it, and can’t have it, until we’re home, so you must go with me. Give me my hat, my dear, and we’ll go directly.”
With that, Mr. Quilp went outside, and saw two boys struggling.
“It’s Kit!” cried Nelly, clasping her hands, “poor Kit who came with me! Oh pray stop them, Mr. Quilp!”
“I’ll stop them,” cried Quilp, going into the little house and returning with a thick stick. “I’ll stop them. Now, my boys, I’ll fight you both. I’ll take both of you, both together, both together!”
With this the dwarf began to beat the fighters with his stick.
“I’ll beat you to a pulp, you dogs,” said Quilp. “I’ll bruise you till you’re copper-coloured, I’ll break your faces, I will!”
“Come, you drop that stick or it’ll be worse for you,” said the boy.
“Come a little nearer, and I’ll drop it on your skull, you dog,” said Quilp with gleaming eyes; “a little nearer; nearer yet.”
But the boy declined the invitation: Quilp was as strong as a lion.
“Never mind,” said the boy, nodding his head and rubbing it at the same time; “I will never strike anybody again because they say you’re an uglier dwarf than can be seen anywhere for a penny, that’s all.”
“Do you mean to say, I’m not, you dog?” returned Quilp.
“No!” retorted the boy.
“Then what do you fight on my wharf for, you villain?” said Quilp.
“Because he said so,” replied the boy, pointing to Kit, “not because you aren’t.”
“Then why did he say,” bawled Kit, “that Miss Nelly was ugly, and that she and my master were his servants? Why did he say that?”
“He said what he did because he’s a fool, and you said what you did because you’re very wise and clever, Kit,” said Quilp with great suavity in his manner, but still more of quiet malice about his eyes and mouth. “Here’s sixpence for you, Kit. Always speak the truth. At all times, Kit, speak the truth. Lock the house, you dog, and bring me the key.”
The other boy, to whom this order was addressed, did as he was told. Then Mr. Quilp departed, with the child and Kit in a boat.
The sound of Quilp’s footsteps roused Mrs. Quilp at home. Her husband entered, accompanied by the child; Kit was down-stairs.
“Here’s Nelly Trent, dear Mrs. Quilp,” said her husband. “A glass of wine, my dear, and a biscuit, for she has had a long walk. She’ll sit with you, my soul, while I write a letter.”
Mrs. Quilp followed him into the next room.
“Mind what I say to you,” whispered Quilp. “Get out of her anything about her grandfather, or what they do, or how they live, or what he tells her. You women talk more freely to one another than you do to us. Do you hear?”
“Go, then. What’s the matter now?”
“Dear Quilp.” faltered his wife, “I love this child and I don’t want to deceive her…”
The dwarf muttered a terrible oath.
“Do you hear me?” whispered Quilp, nipping and pinching her arm; “let me know her secrets; I know you can. I’m listening, recollect. If you’re not sharp enough I’ll creak the door. Go!”