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The Old Curiosity Shop. Charles Dickens

But my present purpose is not to expatiate upon my walks. The story I am about to relate, and to which I shall recur at intervals, arose out of one of these rambles; and thus I have been led to speak of them by way of preface.

One night I had roamed into the City, and was walking slowly on in my usual way, musing upon a great many things, when I was arrested by an inquiry, the purport of which did not reach me, but which seemed to be addressed to myself, and was preferred in a soft sweet voice that struck me very pleasantly. I turned hastily round and found at my elbow a pretty little girl, who begged to be directed to a certain street at a considerable distance, and indeed in quite another quarter of the town.

It is a very long way from here,′ said I, ′my child.′

′I know that, sir,′ she replied timidly. ′I am afraid it is a very long way, for I came from there to-night.′

′Alone?′ said I, in some surprise.

′Oh, yes, I don′t mind that, but I am a little frightened now, for I had lost my road.′

′And what made you ask it of me? Suppose I should tell you wrong?′

′I am sure you will not do that,′ said the little creature,′ you are such a very old gentleman, and walk so slow yourself.′

I cannot describe how much I was impressed by this appeal and the energy with which it was made, which brought a tear into the child′s clear eye, and made her slight figure tremble as she looked up into my face.

′Come,′ said I, ′I′ll take you there.′

She put her hand in mind as confidingly as if she had known me from her cradle, and we trudged away together; the little creature accommodating her pace to mine, and rather seeming to lead and take care of me than I to be protecting her. I observed that every now and then she stole a curious look at my face, as if to make quite sure that I was not deceiving her, and that these glances (very sharp and keen they were too) seemed to increase her confidence at every repetition.

For my part, my curiosity and interest were at least equal to the child′s, for child she certainly was, although I thought it probably from what I could make out, that her very small and delicate frame imparted a peculiar youthfulness to her appearance. Though more scantily attired than she might have been she was dressed with perfect neatness, and betrayed no marks of poverty or neglect.

′Who has sent you so far by yourself?′ said I.

′Someone who is very kind to me, sir.′

′And what have you been doing?′

′That, I must not tell,′ said the child firmly.

There was something in the manner of this reply which caused me to look at the little creature with an involuntary expression of surprise; for I wondered what kind of errand it might be that occasioned her to be prepared for questioning. Her quick eye seemed to read my thoughts, for as it met mine she added that there was no harm in what she had been doing, but it was a great secret—a secret which she did not even know herself.

This was said with no appearance of cunning or deceit, but with an unsuspicious frankness that bore the impress of truth. She walked on as before, growing more familiar with me as we proceeded and talking cheerfully by the way, but she said no more about her home, beyond remarking that we were going quite a new road and asking if it were a short one.

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