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“Not one other word did Bradley utter all that night. Not once did he change his attitude, or loosen his hold upon his wrist. Rigid before the fire, as if it were a charmed flame that was turning him old, he sat, with the dark lines deepening in his face, its stare becoming more and more haggard, its surface turning whiter and whiter as if it were being overspread with ashes, and the very texture and colour of his hair degenerating.”
As the words rang out in Estella’s clear voice, they seemed to be reflected in the silent figure sitting before her. That lovely young voice might have been the voice of a magician working Bradley Headstone’s doom upon him, the words shriveling him into the gaunt shadow of himself.
“Not until the—” The voice broke off abruptly as the reader was jolted by a sudden bump from behind her. Dropping the book on the table, she whirled to face the man who had stumbled against her. Her delicate brows drew together in a look of scorn at the luckless fellow, who stepped back at the sight.
“Beg pardon,” he muttered in a thick voice. “Getting more wine . . .” He sketched a vague gesture in the direction of the bar at the front of the room, manned by a large, sleepy-looking man with a very red face.
Estella recognized the younger man who stood slouching apologetically before her as the stranger who had been sitting in the corner, whom she had glimpsed as he passed her on his way in. She also recognized that since that time, he had become very drunk. Her pretty lip curled and, without a word, she turned away again, drawing her skirts close around her.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Headstone.”
The schoolmaster made no answer. Sitting in the exact posture in which she had last seen him—head bowed, fists clenched, and eyes fixed upon the table—he did not even seem to have noticed the little scene that had just taken place. With a shrug, Estella stretched out her hand to take up the book.
It was not there.
With a start, the girl stared at the table, glanced at the unnoticing Bradley Headstone, and then looked confusedly around her. Her gaze fell upon the man with whom she had just been speaking, now lounging in a shadowy corner by the bar, and upon a ragged but sprightly young boy who was just in the act of handing him a tattered book. The man slipped a coin into the boy’s hand, then looked up and met Estella’s astonished eyes, and raised the book as if in a small salute. She even thought she could make out an amused expression on his face.
The beautiful eyes narrowed. With a perfunctory “Excuse me, Mr. Headstone,” Estella swept across the room, descending like vengeance personified upon the man leaning against the bar. The boy took one look at her and, sensibly, darted off, but the man remained where he was.
“What does this mean?” The tone of her voice might have frozen the contents of every jug and bottle behind the bar.
“Only that I should like a word with you, Miss . . . Estella, was it?” Though Sydney Carton was filling a new glass, the effects of the previous glasses seemed to have lost their hold upon him. His hand was steady and his voice no longer slurred, but the young lady’s expression was no less disdainful for that. With one long, eloquent look, she took in his outdated costume and rumpled appearance, then lifted her proud eyes to his again.
“What could you possibly have to say to me?” she asked, with an ever-so-slight emphasis on possibly. “And why approach me in this roundabout manner?”
“Ah! well, you see,” returned Carton, “I had to await my opportunity. Our host—” he glanced back to where he had been sitting—“was so very attentive to me, and solicitous for my comfort, that it took some time. I had to feign near-stupor to satisfy him, and even then I could not make my escape until he was distracted.”
Estella followed his eyes to the other side of the room, where Uriah Heep and Mr. Pecksniff stood talking with—or rather, listening to—a short, dark-haired, fierce-looking woman with a dagger at her belt and, incongruously, a piece of knitting clutched in her hand. The men appeared to be having some trouble understanding her voluble French, but Estella’s quick ear caught the words for aristocrats and revolutionary.
She looked back at Carton, who had the audacity to wink at her. “I don’t say that I may not have helped the distraction along, with a few words in her ear as she passed. Then I got hold of young Charley Bates over there, and explained what I needed him to do—and here we are.”
He paused thoughtfully. “It’s fortunate that our genial hosts have had time only to skim our books, or they’d have known it would take much more wine than they provided to reduce me to the state they desired.”
A trace of bitterness flavored his last few words. He stared down into his glass, turning it slowly in his fingers.
Estella was watching him with a frown. “That still doesn’t explain why you wanted to talk to me,” she reminded him impatiently.
“Have you not wondered why they might be so eager for you to read that young man over there into a state of homicidal rage? Or why they should want to goad me into a drunken fury, for that matter?” As she started to reply, he held up a hand. “No, I’m sure you haven’t wondered about me. But think about yourself. For what purpose might they be using you?”
Observing her carefully as he spoke, Carton did not miss a small flicker far down in Estella’s eyes at the word using. But her voice was as frosty as before. “I suppose they have told you about this Mr. Dickens?”
At his nod, she went on. “Then you know their purpose. And know this as well—no one uses me, sir. I chose to help them of my own accord.”
“Because they convinced you that this man has too much control over you. But if they destroy him, what then? These men aren’t interested in anyone’s freedom, only their own power. Do you think your life would be better under their control?”
For the first time Estella looked faintly uncertain. Her gaze slowly, almost reluctantly traveled back to the undulating Uriah Heep, his hands writhing over and under each other like a nest of snakes as he carefully attempted to enunciate some French phrase or other for the benefit of the fierce-looking woman, who appeared unimpressed. A shudder ran through Estella’s slender frame.
Her voice had lost a little of its coldness when she finally responded. “And so what are you suggesting I do?”
Carton leaned close and spoke rapidly in a lower tone. Though the girl’s expression did not change, her eyes never left his face as he talked.
The shouts and entreaties that had accompanied Mr. Guppy’s precipitous exit faded into silence—a silence exceedingly profound and ominous to Mr. Dickens, as five pairs of eyes sought his.
It was Jenny Wren who broke it. “Mr. Dickens!” she snapped, “these children of yours show an alarming tendency to run off and gather in taverns. I should think a little discipline is called for. Naughty children must be kept on a short leash, as I know too well.”
Her words shattered the spell that seemed to have descended on the dazed author. Mr. Dickens blinked, like a man waking from a long sleep.
Looking around at his anxious characters, he felt suddenly and deeply moved. These people—people that he had made and brought here, however it had happened—were ready to risk everything for his sake. Finding themselves among strangers in a situation unutterably strange, they had quickly adapted themselves to the inexplicable and banded together to help their creator. The rapidness with which all these events had developed made him wonder if perhaps a spark of his own boundless energy had been planted inside each of them.
But in any event, they had given him their loyalty, and he owed them his aid and his leadership. Never mind that he still felt himself groping wildly in the dark for some way to make sense of this incomprehensible muddle—he must do his best for their sakes, and trust in Providence to bring them all through.
Mr. Dickens drew a long breath, pulled himself together, and turned to Esther Summerson.
“My dear,” he questioned her, “the man you met said his name was Nicholas Nickleby? Are you sure?”
“Yes,” faltered Esther. “I hope . . . oh, Mr. Dickens, it was safe to leave the boy with him, wasn’t it? Ought I to have gone with them?”
“No, no, you did quite right,” Dickens assured her. “Otherwise we should not have known of the Dodger’s situation, or found out about the tavern. But I am worried about the boy, nonetheless. It sounds as if his wound was severe indeed. Mr. Pickwick—you know where Nicholas lives?’
“Oh, yes. It is not far at all.”
“Then, if you would, I should like for you and Miss Summerson to go and ascertain that the Dodger is all right, and see if he has any idea who might have followed and shot him. You might take Miss Clare with you as well. And Jenny.” Mr. Dickens disliked the thought of gentle Ada being anywhere near the violence that might erupt once his villains saw him. As for Jenny Wren—his lips twitched as he acknowledged to himself that he was a little afraid for those same villains, should they find themselves facing her wrath.
“Rick can come with me to investigate this tavern,” he went on. “I don’t know if we can catch up with that foolish young man, but at all events we must follow him. Rick, go find a couple of carriages—and I shall inspect the drivers carefully this time, to make sure they include no characters who wish us harm.”
“But that is only two of you!” Ada exclaimed, sending a nervous glance after Richard as he ran to obey. “We don’t know how large their numbers may be by now.”
“I shall stop at Mr. Woodcourt’s, if Mr. Pickwick will give me directions. We know from Mr. Wrayburn’s note that there are at least three men there who can go with us—I think.” Mr. Dickens could not remember whether his Our Mutual Friend reading had included an injured or an uninjured Eugene. If he had been read out of the book in his maimed state . . . well, there was no time to worry about that now. They would have to see when they got there.
“And Mr. Pickwick, if you know of any other characters of mine who live along the route and might aid us, will you write down their names and addresses? We can collect them as we go. But we must hurry!”
“Wait one moment,” Jenny broke in. “If it’s all the same to you, young man, I prefer to make one of your party.” She stepped to his side and looked up at him with eyes that were simultaneously defiant and trusting. “I should like to be with someone who knows for certain whether the people we see on our journey are innocent bystanders or Assassins in disguise.”
Mr. Dickens hesitated, then remembered that there was no time to argue with her. “Very well, Jenny.” He patted her shoulder soothingly, reflecting that perhaps she could be persuaded to remain in the carriage when they reached the tavern.
With their arrangements all made, Mr. Pickwick’s group departed and Mr. Dickens’s group prepared to follow suit. Jenny was just making sure the door was locked behind them when a tall woman in an imposing bonnet came sweeping towards Dickens, who was standing by the carriage, with a force that nearly knocked him to the ground. A stout, gray-haired gentleman, clutching a large kite, panted in her wake.
“If you please,” this lady demanded, “I was told to come to you for news of my nephew, David Copperfield. Have you seen him, sir?”
The harried Mr. Dickens restrained an impulse to clutch wildly at his hair. “My dear Miss Trotwood,” he expostulated, “I am very sorry, but we are in a great hurry—”
“Then Mr. Dick and I shall accompany you,” Betsey Trotwood declared. “Mr. Dick, please to get into the carriage.”
The man with the kite obediently climbed in and Miss Betsey followed, the two of them crowding Richard so far into the corner of the seat that he was scarcely visible at all. By this time Jenny’s little foot was tapping an impatient tattoo on the pavement.
“That must have been a very long reading of yours,” she observed tartly, as Dickens moved to lift her into the carriage, “to bring all these dozens of people here. One might guess that you were rather too fond of the sound of your own voice, young man.”
Mr. Dickens had the grace to blush.
Still intent upon their conversation, Carton and Estella both failed to notice that Bradley Headstone had finally risen slowly from his seat, one hand pressed to his head as if it ached intolerably. Swaying a little, the ashen-faced schoolmaster crossed the room to where Uriah Heep stood in close conference with Mr. Pecksniff, the two of them having pacified Madame Defarge. (Or so they thought, not realizing what was in the pattern she now knitted as she sat calmly at a nearby table.)
“Why should any of this matter to you, Mr. Carton?” Estella was saying, curiously. “You look as if you had little enough satisfaction out of life, under anyone’s direction. I suspect that you could hardly be worse off without Mr. Dickens than with him.”
Sydney studied his wine again for a long moment. “Let us say,” he answered heavily, at last, “that there are temptations that it is better I never have to face on my own.”
The haughty air that Estella had managed to maintain throughout most of the conversation had now faded into an air of open perplexity. “I don’t understand you,” she said bluntly.
“It doesn’t matter.” Sydney drained his glass and set it back on the bar. “What matters is this. These men have anything but our best interests at heart. They would use you far less scrupulously than Mr. Dickens ever has, and to worse ends. Are you willing to act in your own defense against them?”
The girl surveyed him doubtfully. Though she was ready enough to consider her own interests, she still could not see why this stranger should care about them; and it was evident, as she had remarked, that he cared but little for his own. She wondered briefly if he might be protecting someone else from the hypothetical dangers of a world without Mr. Dickens—some woman, most likely. Men and their odd obsessions, Estella thought, refraining with difficulty from rolling her eyes. She was certain she would never understand them.
As she opened her lips to reply, the noise of the door being thrown open hard enough to bang against the wall made them both look up. A hush fell over the entire room as everyone beheld the agitated young man standing upon the threshold.