'That lady had begun when I came, but she knocked too soft, so I relieved her.' As he said this, he pointed towards Mrs Quilp, who stood trembling at a little distance.
'Humph!' muttered the dwarf, darting an angry look at his wife, 'I thought it was your fault! And you, sir--don't you know there has been somebody ill here, that you knock as if you'd beat the door down?'
'Damme!' answered Dick, 'that's why I did it. I thought there was somebody dead here.'
'You came for some purpose, I suppose,' said Quilp. 'What is it you want?'
'I want to know how the old gentleman is,' rejoined Mr Swiveller, 'and to hear from Nell herself, with whom I should like to have a little talk. I'm a friend of the family, sir--at least I'm the friend of one of the family, and that's the same thing.'
'You'd better walk in then,' said the dwarf. 'Go on, sir, go on. Now, Mrs Quilp--after you, ma'am.'
Mrs Quilp hesitated, but Mr Quilp insisted. And it was not a contest of politeness, or by any means a matter of form, for she knew very well that her husband wished to enter the house in this order, that he might have a favourable opportunity of inflicting a few pinches on her arms, which were seldom free from impressions of his fingers in black and blue colours. Mr Swiveller, who was not in the secret, was a little surprised to hear a suppressed scream, and, looking round, to see Mrs Quilp following him with a sudden jerk; but he did not remark on these appearances, and soon forgot them.
'Now, Mrs Quilp,' said the dwarf when they had entered the shop, 'go you up stairs, if you please, to Nelly's room, and tell her that she's wanted.'
'You seem to make yourself at home here,' said Dick, who was unacquainted with Mr Quilp's authority.
'I AM at home, young gentleman,' returned the dwarf.
Dick was pondering what these words might mean, and still more what the presence of Mr Brass might mean, when Mrs Quilp came hurrying down stairs, declaring that the rooms above were empty.
'Empty, you fool!' said the dwarf.
'I give you my word, Quilp,' answered his trembling wife, 'that I have been into every room and there's not a soul in any of them.'
'And that,' said Mr Brass, clapping his hands once, with an emphasis, 'explains the mystery of the key!'
Quilp looked frowningly at him, and frowningly at his wife, and frowningly at Richard Swiveller; but, receiving no enlightenment from any of them, hurried up stairs, whence he soon hurried down again, confirming the report which had already been made.
'It's a strange way of going,' he said, glancing at Swiveller, 'very strange not to communicate with me who am such a close and intimate friend of his! Ah! he'll write to me no doubt, or he'll bid Nelly write--yes, yes, that's what he'll do. Nelly's very fond of me. Pretty Nell!'
Mr Swiveller looked, as he was, all open-mouthed astonishment. Still glancing furtively at him, Quilp turned to Mr Brass and observed, with assumed carelessness, that this need not interfere with the removal of the goods.
'For indeed,' he added, 'we knew that they'd go away to-day, but not that they'd go so early, or so quietly. But they have their reasons, they have their reasons.'
'Where in the devil's name are they gone?' said the wondering Dick.
Quilp shook his head, and pursed up his lips, in a manner which implied that he knew very well, but was not at liberty to say.
'And what,' said Dick, looking at the confusion about him, 'what do you mean by moving the goods?'
'That I have bought 'em, Sir,' rejoined Quilp. 'Eh? What then?'
'Has the sly old fox made his fortune then, and gone to live in a tranquil cot in a pleasant spot with a distant view of the changing sea?' said Dick, in great bewilderment.
'Keeping his place of retirement very close, that he may not be visited too often by affectionate grandsons and their devoted friends, eh?' added the dwarf, rubbing his hands hard; 'I say nothing, but is that your meaning?'
Richard Swiveller was utterly aghast at this unexpected alteration of circumstances, which threatened the complete overthrow of the project in which he bore so conspicuous a part, and seemed to nip his prospects in the bud.