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Nicholas Nickleby

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CHAPTER 46

Throws some Light upon Nicholas’s Love; but whether for Good or Evil the Reader must determine

After an anxious consideration of the painful and embarrassing position in which he was placed, Nicholas decided that he ought to lose no time in frankly stating it to the kind brothers. Availing himself of the first opportunity of being alone with Mr. Charles Cheeryble at the close of next day, he accordingly related Smike’s little history, and modestly but firmly expressed his hope that the good old gentleman would, under such circumstances as he described, hold him justified in adopting the extreme course of interfering between parent and child, and upholding the latter in his disobedience; even though his horror and dread of his father might seem, and would doubtless be represented as, a thing so repulsive and unnatural, as to render those who countenanced him in it, fit objects of general detestation and abhorrence.

‘So deeply rooted does this horror of the man appear to be,’ said Nicholas, ‘that I can hardly believe he really is his son. Nature does not seem to have implanted in his breast one lingering feeling of affection for him, and surely she can never err.’

‘My dear sir,’ replied brother Charles, ‘you fall into the very common mistake of charging upon Nature, matters with which she has not the smallest connection, and for which she is in no way responsible. Men talk of Nature as an abstract thing, and lose sight of what is natural while they do so. Here is a poor lad who has never felt a parent’s care, who has scarcely known anything all his life but suffering and sorrow, presented to a man who he is told is his father, and whose first act is to signify his intention of putting an end to his short term of happiness, of consigning him to his old fate, and taking him from the only friend he has ever had—which is yourself. If Nature, in such a case, put into that lad’s breast but one secret prompting which urged him towards his father and away from you, she would be a liar and an idiot.’

Nicholas was delighted to find that the old gentleman spoke so warmly, and in the hope that he might say something more to the same purpose, made no reply.

‘The same mistake presents itself to me, in one shape or other, at every turn,’ said brother Charles. ‘Parents who never showed their love, complain of want of natural affection in their children; children who never showed their duty, complain of want of natural feeling in their parents; law-makers who find both so miserable that their affections have never had enough of life’s sun to develop them, are loud in their moralisings over parents and children too, and cry that the very ties of nature are disregarded. Natural affections and instincts, my dear sir, are the most beautiful of the Almighty’s works, but like other beautiful works of His, they must be reared and fostered, or it is as natural that they should be wholly obscured, and that new feelings should usurp their place, as it is that the sweetest productions of the earth, left untended, should be choked with weeds and briers. I wish we could be brought to consider this, and remembering natural obligations a little more at the right time, talk about them a little less at the wrong one.’

After this, brother Charles, who had talked himself into a great heat, stopped to cool a little, and then continued:

‘I dare say you are surprised, my dear sir, that I have listened to your recital with so little astonishment. That is easily explained. Your uncle has been here this morning.’

Nicholas coloured, and drew back a step or two.

‘Yes,’ said the old gentleman, tapping his desk emphatically, ‘here, in this room. He would listen neither to reason, feeling, nor justice. But brother Ned was hard upon him; brother Ned, sir, might have melted a paving-stone.’

‘He came to—’ said Nicholas.

‘To complain of you,’ returned brother Charles, ‘to poison our ears with calumnies and falsehoods; but he came on a fruitless errand, and went away with some wholesome truths in his ear besides. Brother Ned, my dear Mr. Nickleby—brother Ned, sir, is a perfect lion. So is Tim Linkinwater; Tim is quite a lion. We had Tim in to face him at first, and Tim was at him, sir, before you could say “Jack Robinson.”’

‘How can I ever thank you for all the deep obligations you impose upon me every day?’ said Nicholas.

‘By keeping silence upon the subject, my dear sir,’ returned brother Charles. ‘You shall be righted. At least you shall not be wronged. Nobody belonging to you shall be wronged. They shall not hurt a hair of your head, or the boy’s head, or your mother’s head, or your sister’s head. I have said it, brother Ned has said it, Tim Linkinwater has said it. We have all said it, and we’ll all do it. I have seen the father—if he is the father—and I suppose he must be. He is a barbarian and a hypocrite, Mr. Nickleby. I told him, “You are a barbarian, sir.” I did. I said, “You’re a barbarian, sir.” And I’m glad of it, I am very glad I told him he was a barbarian, very glad indeed!’

By this time brother Charles was in such a very warm state of indignation, that Nicholas thought he might venture to put in a word, but the moment he essayed to do so, Mr. Cheeryble laid his hand softly upon his arm, and pointed to a chair.

‘The subject is at an end for the present,’ said the old gentleman, wiping his face. ‘Don’t revive it by a single word. I am going to speak upon another subject, a confidential subject, Mr. Nickleby. We must be cool again, we must be cool.’

After two or three turns across the room he resumed his seat, and drawing his chair nearer to that on which Nicholas was seated, said:

‘I am about to employ you, my dear sir, on a confidential and delicate mission.’

‘You might employ many a more able messenger, sir,’ said Nicholas, ‘but a more trustworthy or zealous one, I may be bold to say, you could not find.’

‘Of that I am well assured,’ returned brother Charles, ‘well assured. You will give me credit for thinking so, when I tell you that the object of this mission is a young lady.’

‘A young lady, sir!’ cried Nicholas, quite trembling for the moment with his eagerness to hear more.

‘A very beautiful young lady,’ said Mr. Cheeryble, gravely.

‘Pray go on, sir,’ returned Nicholas.

‘I am thinking how to do so,’ said brother Charles; sadly, as it seemed to his young friend, and with an expression allied to pain. ‘You accidentally saw a young lady in this room one morning, my dear sir, in a fainting fit. Do you remember? Perhaps you have forgotten.’

‘Oh no,’ replied Nicholas, hurriedly. ‘I—I—remember it very well indeed.’

‘She is the lady I speak of,’ said brother Charles. Like the famous parrot, Nicholas thought a great deal, but was unable to utter a word.

‘She is the daughter,’ said Mr. Cheeryble, ‘of a lady who, when she was a beautiful girl herself, and I was very many years younger, I—it seems a strange word for me to utter now—I loved very dearly. You will smile, perhaps, to hear a grey-headed man talk about such things. You will not offend me, for when I was as young as you, I dare say I should have done the same.’

‘I have no such inclination, indeed,’ said Nicholas.

‘My dear brother Ned,’ continued Mr. Cheeryble, ‘was to have married her sister, but she died. She is dead too now, and has been for many years. She married her choice; and I wish I could add that her after-life was as happy as God knows I ever prayed it might be!’

A short silence intervened, which Nicholas made no effort to break.

‘If trial and calamity had fallen as lightly on his head, as in the deepest truth of my own heart I ever hoped (for her sake) it would, his life would have been one of peace and happiness,’ said the old gentleman calmly. ‘It will be enough to say that this was not the case; that she was not happy; that they fell into complicated distresses and difficulties; that she came, twelve months before her death, to appeal to my old friendship; sadly changed, sadly altered, broken-spirited from suffering and ill-usage, and almost broken-hearted. He readily availed himself of the money which, to give her but one hour’s peace of mind, I would have poured out as freely as water—nay, he often sent her back for more—and yet even while he squandered it, he made the very success of these, her applications to me, the groundwork of cruel taunts and jeers, protesting that he knew she thought with bitter remorse of the choice she had made, that she had married him from motives of interest and vanity (he was a gay young man with great friends about him when she chose him for her husband), and venting in short upon her, by every unjust and unkind means, the bitterness of that ruin and disappointment which had been brought about by his profligacy alone. In those times this young lady was a mere child. I never saw her again until that morning when you saw her also, but my nephew, Frank—’

Nicholas started, and indistinctly apologising for the interruption, begged his patron to proceed.

‘—My nephew, Frank, I say,’ resumed Mr. Cheeryble, ‘encountered her by accident, and lost sight of her almost in a minute afterwards, within two days after he returned to England. Her father lay in some secret place to avoid his creditors, reduced, between sickness and poverty, to the verge of death, and she, a child,—we might almost think, if we did not know the wisdom of all Heaven’s decrees—who should have blessed a better man, was steadily braving privation, degradation, and everything most terrible to such a young and delicate creature’s heart, for the purpose of supporting him. She was attended, sir,’ said brother Charles, ‘in these reverses, by one faithful creature, who had been, in old times, a poor kitchen wench in the family, who was then their solitary servant, but who might have been, for the truth and fidelity of her heart—who might have been—ah! the wife of Tim Linkinwater himself, sir!’

Pursuing this encomium upon the poor follower with such energy and relish as no words can describe, brother Charles leant back in his chair, and delivered the remainder of his relation with greater composure.

It was in substance this: That proudly resisting all offers of permanent aid and support from her late mother’s friends, because they were made conditional upon her quitting the wretched man, her father, who had no friends left, and shrinking with instinctive delicacy from appealing in their behalf to that true and noble heart which he hated, and had, through its greatest and purest goodness, deeply wronged by misconstruction and ill report, this young girl had struggled alone and unassisted to maintain him by the labour of her hands. That through the utmost depths of poverty and affliction she had toiled, never turning aside for an instant from her task, never wearied by the petulant gloom of a sick man sustained by no consoling recollections of the past or hopes of the future; never repining for the comforts she had rejected, or bewailing the hard lot she had voluntarily incurred. That every little accomplishment she had acquired in happier days had been put into requisition for this purpose, and directed to this one end. That for two long years, toiling by day and often too by night, working at the needle, the pencil, and the pen, and submitting, as a daily governess, to such caprices and indignities as women (with daughters too) too often love to inflict upon their own sex when they serve in such capacities, as though in jealousy of the superior intelligence which they are necessitated to employ,—indignities, in ninety-nine cases out of every hundred, heaped upon persons immeasurably and incalculably their betters, but outweighing in comparison any that the most heartless blackleg would put upon his groom—that for two long years, by dint of labouring in all these capacities and wearying in none, she had not succeeded in the sole aim and object of her life, but that, overwhelmed by accumulated difficulties and disappointments, she had been compelled to seek out her mother’s old friend, and, with a bursting heart, to confide in him at last.

‘If I had been poor,’ said brother Charles, with sparkling eyes; ‘if I had been poor, Mr. Nickleby, my dear sir, which thank God I am not, I would have denied myself (of course anybody would under such circumstances) the commonest necessaries of life, to help her. As it is, the task is a difficult one. If her father were dead, nothing could be easier, for then she should share and cheer the happiest home that brother Ned and I could have, as if she were our child or sister. But he is still alive. Nobody can help him; that has been tried a thousand times; he was not abandoned by all without good cause, I know.’

‘Cannot she be persuaded to—’ Nicholas hesitated when he had got thus far.

‘To leave him?’ said brother Charles. ‘Who could entreat a child to desert her parent? Such entreaties, limited to her seeing him occasionally, have been urged upon her—not by me—but always with the same result.’

‘Is he kind to her?’ said Nicholas. ‘Does he requite her affection?’

‘True kindness, considerate self-denying kindness, is not in his nature,’ returned Mr. Cheeryble. ‘Such kindness as he knows, he regards her with, I believe. The mother was a gentle, loving, confiding creature, and although he wounded her from their marriage till her death as cruelly and wantonly as ever man did, she never ceased to love him. She commended him on her death-bed to her child’s care. Her child has never forgotten it, and never will.’

‘Have you no influence over him?’ asked Nicholas.

‘I, my dear sir! The last man in the world. Such are his jealousy and hatred of me, that if he knew his daughter had opened her heart to me, he would render her life miserable with his reproaches; although—this is the inconsistency and selfishness of his character—although if he knew that every penny she had came from me, he would not relinquish one personal desire that the most reckless expenditure of her scanty stock could gratify.’

‘An unnatural scoundrel!’ said Nicholas, indignantly.

‘We will use no harsh terms,’ said brother Charles, in a gentle voice; ‘but accommodate ourselves to the circumstances in which this young lady is placed. Such assistance as I have prevailed upon her to accept, I have been obliged, at her own earnest request, to dole out in the smallest portions, lest he, finding how easily money was procured, should squander it even more lightly than he is accustomed to do. She has come to and fro, to and fro, secretly and by night, to take even this; and I cannot bear that things should go on in this way, Mr. Nickleby, I really cannot bear it.’

Then it came out by little and little, how that the twins had been revolving in their good old heads manifold plans and schemes for helping this young lady in the most delicate and considerate way, and so that her father should not suspect the source whence the aid was derived; and how they had at last come to the conclusion, that the best course would be to make a feint of purchasing her little drawings and ornamental work at a high price, and keeping up a constant demand for the same. For the furtherance of which end and object it was necessary that somebody should represent the dealer in such commodities, and after great deliberation they had pitched upon Nicholas to support this character.

‘He knows me,’ said brother Charles, ‘and he knows my brother Ned. Neither of us would do. Frank is a very good fellow—a very fine fellow—but we are afraid that he might be a little flighty and thoughtless in such a delicate matter, and that he might, perhaps—that he might, in short, be too susceptible (for she is a beautiful creature, sir; just what her poor mother was), and falling in love with her before he knew well his own mind, carry pain and sorrow into that innocent breast, which we would be the humble instruments of gradually making happy. He took an extraordinary interest in her fortunes when he first happened to encounter her; and we gather from the inquiries we have made of him, that it was she in whose behalf he made that turmoil which led to your first acquaintance.’

Nicholas stammered out that he had before suspected the possibility of such a thing; and in explanation of its having occurred to him, described when and where he had seen the young lady himself.

‘Well; then you see,’ continued brother Charles, ‘that he wouldn’t do. Tim Linkinwater is out of the question; for Tim, sir, is such a tremendous fellow, that he could never contain himself, but would go to loggerheads with the father before he had been in the place five minutes. You don’t know what Tim is, sir, when he is aroused by anything that appeals to his feelings very strongly; then he is terrific, sir, is Tim Linkinwater, absolutely terrific. Now, in you we can repose the strictest confidence; in you we have seen—or at least I have seen, and that’s the same thing, for there’s no difference between me and my brother Ned, except that he is the finest creature that ever lived, and that there is not, and never will be, anybody like him in all the world—in you we have seen domestic virtues and affections, and delicacy of feeling, which exactly qualify you for such an office. And you are the man, sir.’

‘The young lady, sir,’ said Nicholas, who felt so embarrassed that he had no small difficulty in saying anything at all—‘Does—is—is she a party to this innocent deceit?’

‘Yes, yes,’ returned Mr. Cheeryble; ‘at least she knows you come from us; she does not know, however, but that we shall dispose of these little productions that you’ll purchase from time to time; and, perhaps, if you did it very well (that is, very well indeed), perhaps she might be brought to believe that we—that we made a profit of them. Eh? Eh?’

In this guileless and most kind simplicity, brother Charles was so happy, and in this possibility of the young lady being led to think that she was under no obligation to him, he evidently felt so sanguine and had so much delight, that Nicholas would not breathe a doubt upon the subject.

All this time, however, there hovered upon the tip of his tongue a confession that the very same objections which Mr. Cheeryble had stated to the employment of his nephew in this commission applied with at least equal force and validity to himself, and a hundred times had he been upon the point of avowing the real state of his feelings, and entreating to be released from it. But as often, treading upon the heels of this impulse, came another which urged him to refrain, and to keep his secret to his own breast. ‘Why should I,’ thought Nicholas, ‘why should I throw difficulties in the way of this benevolent and high-minded design? What if I do love and reverence this good and lovely creature. Should I not appear a most arrogant and shallow coxcomb if I gravely represented that there was any danger of her falling in love with me? Besides, have I no confidence in myself? Am I not now bound in honour to repress these thoughts? Has not this excellent man a right to my best and heartiest services, and should any considerations of self deter me from rendering them?’

Asking himself such questions as these, Nicholas mentally answered with great emphasis ‘No!’ and persuading himself that he was a most conscientious and glorious martyr, nobly resolved to do what, if he had examined his own heart a little more carefully, he would have found he could not resist. Such is the sleight of hand by which we juggle with ourselves, and change our very weaknesses into stanch and most magnanimous virtues!

Mr. Cheeryble, being of course wholly unsuspicious that such reflections were presenting themselves to his young friend, proceeded to give him the needful credentials and directions for his first visit, which was to be made next morning; and all preliminaries being arranged, and the strictest secrecy enjoined, Nicholas walked home for the night very thoughtfully indeed.

The place to which Mr. Cheeryble had directed him was a row of mean and not over-cleanly houses, situated within ‘the Rules’ of the King’s Bench Prison, and not many hundred paces distant from the obelisk in St George’s Fields. The Rules are a certain liberty adjoining the prison, and comprising some dozen streets in which debtors who can raise money to pay large fees, from which their creditors do not derive any benefit, are permitted to reside by the wise provisions of the same enlightened laws which leave the debtor who can raise no money to starve in jail, without the food, clothing, lodging, or warmth, which are provided for felons convicted of the most atrocious crimes that can disgrace humanity. There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.

To the row of houses indicated to him by Mr. Charles Cheeryble, Nicholas directed his steps, without much troubling his head with such matters as these; and at this row of houses—after traversing a very dirty and dusty suburb, of which minor theatricals, shell-fish, ginger-beer, spring vans, greengrocery, and brokers’ shops, appeared to compose the main and most prominent features—he at length arrived with a palpitating heart. There were small gardens in front which, being wholly neglected in all other respects, served as little pens for the dust to collect in, until the wind came round the corner and blew it down the road. Opening the rickety gate which, dangling on its broken hinges before one of these, half admitted and half repulsed the visitor, Nicholas knocked at the street door with a faltering hand.

It was in truth a shabby house outside, with very dim parlour windows and very small show of blinds, and very dirty muslin curtains dangling across the lower panes on very loose and limp strings. Neither, when the door was opened, did the inside appear to belie the outward promise, as there was faded carpeting on the stairs and faded oil-cloth in the passage; in addition to which discomforts a gentleman Ruler was smoking hard in the front parlour (though it was not yet noon), while the lady of the house was busily engaged in turpentining the disjointed fragments of a tent-bedstead at the door of the back parlour, as if in preparation for the reception of some new lodger who had been fortunate enough to engage it.

Nicholas had ample time to make these observations while the little boy, who went on errands for the lodgers, clattered down the kitchen stairs and was heard to scream, as in some remote cellar, for Miss Bray’s servant, who, presently appearing and requesting him to follow her, caused him to evince greater symptoms of nervousness and disorder than so natural a consequence of his having inquired for that young lady would seem calculated to occasion.

Upstairs he went, however, and into a front room he was shown, and there, seated at a little table by the window, on which were drawing materials with which she was occupied, sat the beautiful girl who had so engrossed his thoughts, and who, surrounded by all the new and strong interest which Nicholas attached to her story, seemed now, in his eyes, a thousand times more beautiful than he had ever yet supposed her.

But how the graces and elegancies which she had dispersed about the poorly-furnished room went to the heart of Nicholas! Flowers, plants, birds, the harp, the old piano whose notes had sounded so much sweeter in bygone times; how many struggles had it cost her to keep these two last links of that broken chain which bound her yet to home! With every slender ornament, the occupation of her leisure hours, replete with that graceful charm which lingers in every little tasteful work of woman’s hands, how much patient endurance and how many gentle affections were entwined! He felt as though the smile of Heaven were on the little chamber; as though the beautiful devotion of so young and weak a creature had shed a ray of its own on the inanimate things around, and made them beautiful as itself; as though the halo with which old painters surround the bright angels of a sinless world played about a being akin in spirit to them, and its light were visibly before him.

And yet Nicholas was in the Rules of the King’s Bench Prison! If he had been in Italy indeed, and the time had been sunset, and the scene a stately terrace! But, there is one broad sky over all the world, and whether it be blue or cloudy, the same heaven beyond it; so, perhaps, he had no need of compunction for thinking as he did.

It is not to be supposed that he took in everything at one glance, for he had as yet been unconscious of the presence of a sick man propped up with pillows in an easy-chair, who, moving restlessly and impatiently in his seat, attracted his attention.

He was scarce fifty, perhaps, but so emaciated as to appear much older. His features presented the remains of a handsome countenance, but one in which the embers of strong and impetuous passions were easier to be traced than any expression which would have rendered a far plainer face much more prepossessing. His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone, but there was something of the old fire in the large sunken eye notwithstanding, and it seemed to kindle afresh as he struck a thick stick, with which he seemed to have supported himself in his seat, impatiently on the floor twice or thrice, and called his daughter by her name.

‘Madeline, who is this? What does anybody want here? Who told a stranger we could be seen? What is it?’

‘I believe—’ the young lady began, as she inclined her head with an air of some confusion, in reply to the salutation of Nicholas.

‘You always believe,’ returned her father, petulantly. ‘What is it?’

By this time Nicholas had recovered sufficient presence of mind to speak for himself, so he said (as it had been agreed he should say) that he had called about a pair of hand-screens, and some painted velvet for an ottoman, both of which were required to be of the most elegant design possible, neither time nor expense being of the smallest consideration. He had also to pay for the two drawings, with many thanks, and, advancing to the little table, he laid upon it a bank note, folded in an envelope and sealed.

‘See that the money is right, Madeline,’ said the father. ‘Open the paper, my dear.’

‘It’s quite right, papa, I’m sure.’

‘Here!’ said Mr. Bray, putting out his hand, and opening and shutting his bony fingers with irritable impatience. ‘Let me see. What are you talking about, Madeline? You’re sure? How can you be sure of any such thing? Five pounds—well, is that right?’

‘Quite,’ said Madeline, bending over him. She was so busily employed in arranging the pillows that Nicholas could not see her face, but as she stooped he thought he saw a tear fall.

‘Ring the bell, ring the bell,’ said the sick man, with the same nervous eagerness, and motioning towards it with such a quivering hand that the bank note rustled in the air. ‘Tell her to get it changed, to get me a newspaper, to buy me some grapes, another bottle of the wine that I had last week—and—and—I forget half I want just now, but she can go out again. Let her get those first, those first. Now, Madeline, my love, quick, quick! Good God, how slow you are!’

‘He remembers nothing that she wants!’ thought Nicholas. Perhaps something of what he thought was expressed in his countenance, for the sick man, turning towards him with great asperity, demanded to know if he waited for a receipt.

‘It is no matter at all,’ said Nicholas.

‘No matter! what do you mean, sir?’ was the tart rejoinder. ‘No matter! Do you think you bring your paltry money here as a favour or a gift; or as a matter of business, and in return for value received? D—n you, sir, because you can’t appreciate the time and taste which are bestowed upon the goods you deal in, do you think you give your money away? Do you know that you are talking to a gentleman, sir, who at one time could have bought up fifty such men as you and all you have? What do you mean?’

‘I merely mean that as I shall have many dealings with this lady, if she will kindly allow me, I will not trouble her with such forms,’ said Nicholas.

‘Then I mean, if you please, that we’ll have as many forms as we can, returned the father. ‘My daughter, sir, requires no kindness from you or anybody else. Have the goodness to confine your dealings strictly to trade and business, and not to travel beyond it. Every petty tradesman is to begin to pity her now, is he? Upon my soul! Very pretty. Madeline, my dear, give him a receipt; and mind you always do so.’

While she was feigning to write it, and Nicholas was ruminating upon the extraordinary but by no means uncommon character thus presented to his observation, the invalid, who appeared at times to suffer great bodily pain, sank back in his chair and moaned out a feeble complaint that the girl had been gone an hour, and that everybody conspired to goad him.

‘When,’ said Nicholas, as he took the piece of paper, ‘when shall I call again?’

This was addressed to the daughter, but the father answered immediately.

‘When you’re requested to call, sir, and not before. Don’t worry and persecute. Madeline, my dear, when is this person to call again?’

‘Oh, not for a long time, not for three or four weeks; it is not necessary, indeed; I can do without,’ said the young lady, with great eagerness.

‘Why, how are we to do without?’ urged her father, not speaking above his breath. ‘Three or four weeks, Madeline! Three or four weeks!’

‘Then sooner, sooner, if you please,’ said the young lady, turning to Nicholas.

‘Three or four weeks!’ muttered the father. ‘Madeline, what on earth—do nothing for three or four weeks!’

‘It is a long time, ma’am,’ said Nicholas.

‘You think so, do you?’ retorted the father, angrily. ‘If I chose to beg, sir, and stoop to ask assistance from people I despise, three or four months would not be a long time; three or four years would not be a long time. Understand, sir, that is if I chose to be dependent; but as I don’t, you may call in a week.’

Nicholas bowed low to the young lady and retired, pondering upon Mr. Bray’s ideas of independence, and devoutly hoping that there might be few such independent spirits as he mingling with the baser clay of humanity.

He heard a light footstep above him as he descended the stairs, and looking round saw that the young lady was standing there, and glancing timidly towards him, seemed to hesitate whether she should call him back or no. The best way of settling the question was to turn back at once, which Nicholas did.

‘I don’t know whether I do right in asking you, sir,’ said Madeline, hurriedly, ‘but pray, pray, do not mention to my poor mother’s dear friends what has passed here today. He has suffered much, and is worse this morning. I beg you, sir, as a boon, a favour to myself.’

‘You have but to hint a wish,’ returned Nicholas fervently, ‘and I would hazard my life to gratify it.’

‘You speak hastily, sir.’

‘Truly and sincerely,’ rejoined Nicholas, his lips trembling as he formed the words, ‘if ever man spoke truly yet. I am not skilled in disguising my feelings, and if I were, I could not hide my heart from you. Dear madam, as I know your history, and feel as men and angels must who hear and see such things, I do entreat you to believe that I would die to serve you.’

The young lady turned away her head, and was plainly weeping.

‘Forgive me,’ said Nicholas, with respectful earnestness, ‘if I seem to say too much, or to presume upon the confidence which has been intrusted to me. But I could not leave you as if my interest and sympathy expired with the commission of the day. I am your faithful servant, humbly devoted to you from this hour, devoted in strict truth and honour to him who sent me here, and in pure integrity of heart, and distant respect for you. If I meant more or less than this, I should be unworthy his regard, and false to the very nature that prompts the honest words I utter.’

She waved her hand, entreating him to be gone, but answered not a word. Nicholas could say no more, and silently withdrew. And thus ended his first interview with Madeline Bray.






CHAPTER 47

Mr. Ralph Nickleby has some confidential Intercourse with another old Friend. They concert between them a Project, which promises well for both

‘There go the three-quarters past!’ muttered Newman Noggs, listening to the chimes of some neighbouring church ‘and my dinner time’s two. He does it on purpose. He makes a point of it. It’s just like him.’

It was in his own little den of an office and on the top of his official stool that Newman thus soliloquised; and the soliloquy referred, as Newman’s grumbling soliloquies usually did, to Ralph Nickleby.

‘I don’t believe he ever had an appetite,’ said Newman, ‘except for pounds, shillings, and pence, and with them he’s as greedy as a wolf. I should like to have him compelled to swallow one of every English coin. The penny would be an awkward morsel—but the crown—ha! ha!’

His good-humour being in some degree restored by the vision of Ralph Nickleby swallowing, perforce, a five-shilling piece, Newman slowly brought forth from his desk one of those portable bottles, currently known as pocket-pistols, and shaking the same close to his ear so as to produce a rippling sound very cool and pleasant to listen to, suffered his features to relax, and took a gurgling drink, which relaxed them still more. Replacing the cork, he smacked his lips twice or thrice with an air of great relish, and, the taste of the liquor having by this time evaporated, recurred to his grievance again.

‘Five minutes to three,’ growled Newman; ‘it can’t want more by this time; and I had my breakfast at eight o’clock, and such a breakfast! and my right dinner-time two! And I might have a nice little bit of hot roast meat spoiling at home all this time—how does he know I haven’t? “Don’t go till I come back,” “Don’t go till I come back,” day after day. What do you always go out at my dinner-time for then—eh? Don’t you know it’s nothing but aggravation—eh?’

These words, though uttered in a very loud key, were addressed to nothing but empty air. The recital of his wrongs, however, seemed to have the effect of making Newman Noggs desperate; for he flattened his old hat upon his head, and drawing on the everlasting gloves, declared with great vehemence, that come what might, he would go to dinner that very minute.

Carrying this resolution into instant effect, he had advanced as far as the passage, when the sound of the latch-key in the street door caused him to make a precipitate retreat into his own office again.

‘Here he is,’ growled Newman, ‘and somebody with him. Now it’ll be “Stop till this gentleman’s gone.” But I won’t. That’s flat.’

So saying, Newman slipped into a tall empty closet which opened with two half doors, and shut himself up; intending to slip out directly Ralph was safe inside his own room.

‘Noggs!’ cried Ralph, ‘where is that fellow, Noggs?’

But not a word said Newman.

‘The dog has gone to his dinner, though I told him not,’ muttered Ralph, looking into the office, and pulling out his watch. ‘Humph!’ You had better come in here, Gride. My man’s out, and the sun is hot upon my room. This is cool and in the shade, if you don’t mind roughing it.’

‘Not at all, Mr. Nickleby, oh not at all! All places are alike to me, sir. Ah! very nice indeed. Oh! very nice!’

The parson who made this reply was a little old man, of about seventy or seventy-five years of age, of a very lean figure, much bent and slightly twisted. He wore a grey coat with a very narrow collar, an old-fashioned waistcoat of ribbed black silk, and such scanty trousers as displayed his shrunken spindle-shanks in their full ugliness. The only articles of display or ornament in his dress were a steel watch-chain to which were attached some large gold seals; and a black ribbon into which, in compliance with an old fashion scarcely ever observed in these days, his grey hair was gathered behind. His nose and chin were sharp and prominent, his jaws had fallen inwards from loss of teeth, his face was shrivelled and yellow, save where the cheeks were streaked with the colour of a dry winter apple; and where his beard had been, there lingered yet a few grey tufts which seemed, like the ragged eyebrows, to denote the badness of the soil from which they sprung. The whole air and attitude of the form was one of stealthy cat-like obsequiousness; the whole expression of the face was concentrated in a wrinkled leer, compounded of cunning, lecherousness, slyness, and avarice.

Such was old Arthur Gride, in whose face there was not a wrinkle, in whose dress there was not one spare fold or plait, but expressed the most covetous and griping penury, and sufficiently indicated his belonging to that class of which Ralph Nickleby was a member. Such was old Arthur Gride, as he sat in a low chair looking up into the face of Ralph Nickleby, who, lounging upon the tall office stool, with his arms upon his knees, looked down into his; a match for him on whatever errand he had come.

‘And how have you been?’ said Gride, feigning great interest in Ralph’s state of health. ‘I haven’t seen you for—oh! not for—’

‘Not for a long time,’ said Ralph, with a peculiar smile, importing that he very well knew it was not on a mere visit of compliment that his friend had come. ‘It was a narrow chance that you saw me now, for I had only just come up to the door as you turned the corner.’

‘I am very lucky,’ observed Gride.

‘So men say,’ replied Ralph, drily.

The older money-lender wagged his chin and smiled, but he originated no new remark, and they sat for some little time without speaking. Each was looking out to take the other at a disadvantage.

‘Come, Gride,’ said Ralph, at length; ‘what’s in the wind today?’

‘Aha! you’re a bold man, Mr. Nickleby,’ cried the other, apparently very much relieved by Ralph’s leading the way to business. ‘Oh dear, dear, what a bold man you are!’

‘Why, you have a sleek and slinking way with you that makes me seem so by contrast,’ returned Ralph. ‘I don’t know but that yours may answer better, but I want the patience for it.’

‘You were born a genius, Mr. Nickleby,’ said old Arthur. ‘Deep, deep, deep. Ah!’

‘Deep enough,’ retorted Ralph, ‘to know that I shall need all the depth I have, when men like you begin to compliment. You know I have stood by when you fawned and flattered other people, and I remember pretty well what that always led to.’

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ rejoined Arthur, rubbing his hands. ‘So you do, so you do, no doubt. Not a man knows it better. Well, it’s a pleasant thing now to think that you remember old times. Oh dear!’

‘Now then,’ said Ralph, composedly; ‘what’s in the wind, I ask again? What is it?’

‘See that now!’ cried the other. ‘He can’t even keep from business while we’re chatting over bygones. Oh dear, dear, what a man it is!’

‘Which of the bygones do you want to revive?’ said Ralph. ‘One of them, I know, or you wouldn’t talk about them.’

‘He suspects even me!’ cried old Arthur, holding up his hands. ‘Even me! Oh dear, even me. What a man it is! Ha, ha, ha! What a man it is! Mr Nickleby against all the world. There’s nobody like him. A giant among pigmies, a giant, a giant!’

Ralph looked at the old dog with a quiet smile as he chuckled on in this strain, and Newman Noggs in the closet felt his heart sink within him as the prospect of dinner grew fainter and fainter.

‘I must humour him though,’ cried old Arthur; ‘he must have his way—a wilful man, as the Scotch say—well, well, they’re a wise people, the Scotch. He will talk about business, and won’t give away his time for nothing. He’s very right. Time is money, time is money.’

‘He was one of us who made that saying, I should think,’ said Ralph. ‘Time is money, and very good money too, to those who reckon interest by it. Time is money! Yes, and time costs money; it’s rather an expensive article to some people we could name, or I forget my trade.’

In rejoinder to this sally, old Arthur again raised his hands, again chuckled, and again ejaculated ‘What a man it is!’ which done, he dragged the low chair a little nearer to Ralph’s high stool, and looking upwards into his immovable face, said,

‘What would you say to me, if I was to tell you that I was—that I was—going to be married?’

‘I should tell you,’ replied Ralph, looking coldly down upon him, ‘that for some purpose of your own you told a lie, and that it wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last; that I wasn’t surprised and wasn’t to be taken in.’

‘Then I tell you seriously that I am,’ said old Arthur.

‘And I tell you seriously,’ rejoined Ralph, ‘what I told you this minute. Stay. Let me look at you. There’s a liquorish devilry in your face. What is this?’

‘I wouldn’t deceive you, you know,’ whined Arthur Gride; ‘I couldn’t do it, I should be mad to try. I, I, to deceive Mr. Nickleby! The pigmy to impose upon the giant. I ask again—he, he, he!—what should you say to me if I was to tell you that I was going to be married?’

‘To some old hag?’ said Ralph.

‘No, No,’ cried Arthur, interrupting him, and rubbing his hands in an ecstasy. ‘Wrong, wrong again. Mr. Nickleby for once at fault; out, quite out! To a young and beautiful girl; fresh, lovely, bewitching, and not nineteen. Dark eyes, long eyelashes, ripe and ruddy lips that to look at is to long to kiss, beautiful clustering hair that one’s fingers itch to play with, such a waist as might make a man clasp the air involuntarily, thinking of twining his arm about it, little feet that tread so lightly they hardly seem to walk upon the ground—to marry all this, sir, this—hey, hey!’

‘This is something more than common drivelling,’ said Ralph, after listening with a curled lip to the old sinner’s raptures. ‘The girl’s name?’

‘Oh deep, deep! See now how deep that is!’ exclaimed old Arthur. ‘He knows I want his help, he knows he can give it me, he knows it must all turn to his advantage, he sees the thing already. Her name—is there nobody within hearing?’

‘Why, who the devil should there be?’ retorted Ralph, testily.

‘I didn’t know but that perhaps somebody might be passing up or down the stairs,’ said Arthur Gride, after looking out at the door and carefully reclosing it; ‘or but that your man might have come back and might have been listening outside. Clerks and servants have a trick of listening, and I should have been very uncomfortable if Mr. Noggs—’

‘Curse Mr. Noggs,’ said Ralph, sharply, ‘and go on with what you have to say.’

‘Curse Mr. Noggs, by all means,’ rejoined old Arthur; ‘I am sure I have not the least objection to that. Her name is—’

‘Well,’ said Ralph, rendered very irritable by old Arthur’s pausing again ‘what is it?’

‘Madeline Bray.’

Whatever reasons there might have been—and Arthur Gride appeared to have anticipated some—for the mention of this name producing an effect upon Ralph, or whatever effect it really did produce upon him, he permitted none to manifest itself, but calmly repeated the name several times, as if reflecting when and where he had heard it before.

‘Bray,’ said Ralph. ‘Bray—there was young Bray of—no, he never had a daughter.’

‘You remember Bray?’ rejoined Arthur Gride.

‘No,’ said Ralph, looking vacantly at him.

‘Not Walter Bray! The dashing man, who used his handsome wife so ill?’

‘If you seek to recall any particular dashing man to my recollection by such a trait as that,’ said Ralph, shrugging his shoulders, ‘I shall confound him with nine-tenths of the dashing men I have ever known.’

‘Tut, tut. That Bray who is now in the Rules of the Bench,’ said old Arthur. ‘You can’t have forgotten Bray. Both of us did business with him. Why, he owes you money!’

‘Oh him!’ rejoined Ralph. ‘Ay, ay. Now you speak. Oh! It’s his daughter, is it?’

Naturally as this was said, it was not said so naturally but that a kindred spirit like old Arthur Gride might have discerned a design upon the part of Ralph to lead him on to much more explicit statements and explanations than he would have volunteered, or that Ralph could in all likelihood have obtained by any other means. Old Arthur, however, was so intent upon his own designs, that he suffered himself to be overreached, and had no suspicion but that his good friend was in earnest.

‘I knew you couldn’t forget him, when you came to think for a moment,’ he said.

‘You were right,’ answered Ralph. ‘But old Arthur Gride and matrimony is a most anomalous conjunction of words; old Arthur Gride and dark eyes and eyelashes, and lips that to look at is to long to kiss, and clustering hair that he wants to play with, and waists that he wants to span, and little feet that don’t tread upon anything—old Arthur Gride and such things as these is more monstrous still; but old Arthur Gride marrying the daughter of a ruined “dashing man” in the Rules of the Bench, is the most monstrous and incredible of all. Plainly, friend Arthur Gride, if you want any help from me in this business (which of course you do, or you would not be here), speak out, and to the purpose. And, above all, don’t talk to me of its turning to my advantage, for I know it must turn to yours also, and to a good round tune too, or you would have no finger in such a pie as this.’

There was enough acerbity and sarcasm not only in the matter of Ralph’s speech, but in the tone of voice in which he uttered it, and the looks with which he eked it out, to have fired even the ancient usurer’s cold blood and flushed even his withered cheek. But he gave vent to no demonstration of anger, contenting himself with exclaiming as before, ‘What a man it is!’ and rolling his head from side to side, as if in unrestrained enjoyment of his freedom and drollery. Clearly observing, however, from the expression in Ralph’s features, that he had best come to the point as speedily as might be, he composed himself for more serious business, and entered upon the pith and marrow of his negotiation.

First, he dwelt upon the fact that Madeline Bray was devoted to the support and maintenance, and was a slave to every wish, of her only parent, who had no other friend on earth; to which Ralph rejoined that he had heard something of the kind before, and that if she had known a little more of the world, she wouldn’t have been such a fool.

Secondly, he enlarged upon the character of her father, arguing, that even taking it for granted that he loved her in return with the utmost affection of which he was capable, yet he loved himself a great deal better; which Ralph said it was quite unnecessary to say anything more about, as that was very natural, and probable enough.

And, thirdly, old Arthur premised that the girl was a delicate and beautiful creature, and that he had really a hankering to have her for his wife. To this Ralph deigned no other rejoinder than a harsh smile, and a glance at the shrivelled old creature before him, which were, however, sufficiently expressive.

‘Now,’ said Gride, ‘for the little plan I have in my mind to bring this about; because, I haven’t offered myself even to the father yet, I should have told you. But that you have gathered already? Ah! oh dear, oh dear, what an edged tool you are!’

‘Don’t play with me then,’ said Ralph impatiently. ‘You know the proverb.’

‘A reply always on the tip of his tongue!’ cried old Arthur, raising his hands and eyes in admiration. ‘He is always prepared! Oh dear, what a blessing to have such a ready wit, and so much ready money to back it!’ Then, suddenly changing his tone, he went on: ‘I have been backwards and forwards to Bray’s lodgings several times within the last six months. It is just half a year since I first saw this delicate morsel, and, oh dear, what a delicate morsel it is! But that is neither here nor there. I am his detaining creditor for seventeen hundred pounds!’

‘You talk as if you were the only detaining creditor,’ said Ralph, pulling out his pocket-book. ‘I am another for nine hundred and seventy-five pounds four and threepence.’

‘The only other, Mr. Nickleby,’ said old Arthur, eagerly. ‘The only other. Nobody else went to the expense of lodging a detainer, trusting to our holding him fast enough, I warrant you. We both fell into the same snare; oh dear, what a pitfall it was; it almost ruined me! And lent him our money upon bills, with only one name besides his own, which to be sure everybody supposed to be a good one, and was as negotiable as money, but which turned out you know how. Just as we should have come upon him, he died insolvent. Ah! it went very nigh to ruin me, that loss did!’

‘Go on with your scheme,’ said Ralph. ‘It’s of no use raising the cry of our trade just now; there’s nobody to hear us!’

‘It’s always as well to talk that way,’ returned old Arthur, with a chuckle, ‘whether there’s anybody to hear us or not. Practice makes perfect, you know. Now, if I offer myself to Bray as his son-in-law, upon one simple condition that the moment I am fast married he shall be quietly released, and have an allowance to live just t’other side the water like a gentleman (he can’t live long, for I have asked his doctor, and he declares that his complaint is one of the Heart and it is impossible), and if all the advantages of this condition are properly stated and dwelt upon to him, do you think he could resist me? And if he could not resist me, do you think his daughter could resist him? Shouldn’t I have her Mrs. Arthur Gride—pretty Mrs. Arthur Gride—a tit-bit—a dainty chick—shouldn’t I have her Mrs. Arthur Gride in a week, a month, a day—any time I chose to name?’

‘Go on,’ said Ralph, nodding his head deliberately, and speaking in a tone whose studied coldness presented a strange contrast to the rapturous squeak to which his friend had gradually mounted. ‘Go on. You didn’t come here to ask me that.’

‘Oh dear, how you talk!’ cried old Arthur, edging himself closer still to Ralph. ‘Of course I didn’t, I don’t pretend I did! I came to ask what you would take from me, if I prospered with the father, for this debt of yours. Five shillings in the pound, six and-eightpence, ten shillings? I would go as far as ten for such a friend as you, we have always been on such good terms, but you won’t be so hard upon me as that, I know. Now, will you?’

‘There’s something more to be told,’ said Ralph, as stony and immovable as ever.

‘Yes, yes, there is, but you won’t give me time,’ returned Arthur Gride. ‘I want a backer in this matter; one who can talk, and urge, and press a point, which you can do as no man can. I can’t do that, for I am a poor, timid, nervous creature. Now, if you get a good composition for this debt, which you long ago gave up for lost, you’ll stand my friend, and help me. Won’t you?’

‘There’s something more,’ said Ralph.

‘No, no, indeed,’ cried Arthur Gride.

‘Yes, yes, indeed. I tell you yes,’ said Ralph.

‘Oh!’ returned old Arthur feigning to be suddenly enlightened. ‘You mean something more, as concerns myself and my intention. Ay, surely, surely. Shall I mention that?’

‘I think you had better,’ rejoined Ralph, drily.

‘I didn’t like to trouble you with that, because I supposed your interest would cease with your own concern in the affair,’ said Arthur Gride. ‘That’s kind of you to ask. Oh dear, how very kind of you! Why, supposing I had a knowledge of some property—some little property—very little—to which this pretty chick was entitled; which nobody does or can know of at this time, but which her husband could sweep into his pouch, if he knew as much as I do, would that account for—’

‘For the whole proceeding,’ rejoined Ralph, abruptly. ‘Now, let me turn this matter over, and consider what I ought to have if I should help you to success.’

‘But don’t be hard,’ cried old Arthur, raising his hands with an imploring gesture, and speaking, in a tremulous voice. ‘Don’t be too hard upon me. It’s a very small property, it is indeed. Say the ten shillings, and we’ll close the bargain. It’s more than I ought to give, but you’re so kind—shall we say the ten? Do now, do.’

Ralph took no notice of these supplications, but sat for three or four minutes in a brown study, looking thoughtfully at the person from whom they proceeded. After sufficient cogitation he broke silence, and it certainly could not be objected that he used any needless circumlocution, or failed to speak directly to the purpose.

‘If you married this girl without me,’ said Ralph, ‘you must pay my debt in full, because you couldn’t set her father free otherwise. It’s plain, then, that I must have the whole amount, clear of all deduction or incumbrance, or I should lose from being honoured with your confidence, instead of gaining by it. That’s the first article of the treaty. For the second, I shall stipulate that for my trouble in negotiation and persuasion, and helping you to this fortune, I have five hundred pounds. That’s very little, because you have the ripe lips, and the clustering hair, and what not, all to yourself. For the third and last article, I require that you execute a bond to me, this day, binding yourself in the payment of these two sums, before noon of the day of your marriage with Madeline Bray. You have told me I can urge and press a point. I press this one, and will take nothing less than these terms. Accept them if you like. If not, marry her without me if you can. I shall still get my debt.’

To all entreaties, protestations, and offers of compromise between his own proposals and those which Arthur Gride had first suggested, Ralph was deaf as an adder. He would enter into no further discussion of the subject, and while old Arthur dilated upon the enormity of his demands and proposed modifications of them, approaching by degrees nearer and nearer to the terms he resisted, sat perfectly mute, looking with an air of quiet abstraction over the entries and papers in his pocket-book. Finding that it was impossible to make any impression upon his staunch friend, Arthur Gride, who had prepared himself for some such result before he came, consented with a heavy heart to the proposed treaty, and upon the spot filled up the bond required (Ralph kept such instruments handy), after exacting the condition that Mr. Nickleby should accompany him to Bray’s lodgings that very hour, and open the negotiation at once, should circumstances appear auspicious and favourable to their designs.

In pursuance of this last understanding the worthy gentlemen went out together shortly afterwards, and Newman Noggs emerged, bottle in hand, from the cupboard, out of the upper door of which, at the imminent risk of detection, he had more than once thrust his red nose when such parts of the subject were under discussion as interested him most.

‘I have no appetite now,’ said Newman, putting the flask in his pocket. ‘I’ve had my dinner.’

Having delivered this observation in a very grievous and doleful tone, Newman reached the door in one long limp, and came back again in another.

‘I don’t know who she may be, or what she may be,’ he said: ‘but I pity her with all my heart and soul; and I can’t help her, nor can I any of the people against whom a hundred tricks, but none so vile as this, are plotted every day! Well, that adds to my pain, but not to theirs. The thing is no worse because I know it, and it tortures me as well as them. Gride and Nickleby! Good pair for a curricle. Oh roguery! roguery! roguery!’

With these reflections, and a very hard knock on the crown of his unfortunate hat at each repetition of the last word, Newman Noggs, whose brain was a little muddled by so much of the contents of the pocket-pistol as had found their way there during his recent concealment, went forth to seek such consolation as might be derivable from the beef and greens of some cheap eating-house.

Meanwhile the two plotters had betaken themselves to the same house whither Nicholas had repaired for the first time but a few mornings before, and having obtained access to Mr. Bray, and found his daughter from home, had by a train of the most masterly approaches that Ralph’s utmost skill could frame, at length laid open the real object of their visit.

‘There he sits, Mr. Bray,’ said Ralph, as the invalid, not yet recovered from his surprise, reclined in his chair, looking alternately at him and Arthur Gride. ‘What if he has had the ill-fortune to be one cause of your detention in this place? I have been another; men must live; you are too much a man of the world not to see that in its true light. We offer the best reparation in our power. Reparation! Here is an offer of marriage, that many a titled father would leap at, for his child. Mr. Arthur Gride, with the fortune of a prince. Think what a haul it is!’

‘My daughter, sir,’ returned Bray, haughtily, ‘as I have brought her up, would be a rich recompense for the largest fortune that a man could bestow in exchange for her hand.’

‘Precisely what I told you,’ said the artful Ralph, turning to his friend, old Arthur. ‘Precisely what made me consider the thing so fair and easy. There is no obligation on either side. You have money, and Miss Madeline has beauty and worth. She has youth, you have money. She has not money, you have not youth. Tit for tat, quits, a match of Heaven’s own making!’

‘Matches are made in Heaven, they say,’ added Arthur Gride, leering hideously at the father-in-law he wanted. ‘If we are married, it will be destiny, according to that.’

‘Then think, Mr. Bray,’ said Ralph, hastily substituting for this argument considerations more nearly allied to earth, ‘think what a stake is involved in the acceptance or rejection of these proposals of my friend.’

‘How can I accept or reject,’ interrupted Mr. Bray, with an irritable consciousness that it really rested with him to decide. ‘It is for my daughter to accept or reject; it is for my daughter. You know that.’

‘True,’ said Ralph, emphatically; ‘but you have still the power to advise; to state the reasons for and against; to hint a wish.’

‘To hint a wish, sir!’ returned the debtor, proud and mean by turns, and selfish at all times. ‘I am her father, am I not? Why should I hint, and beat about the bush? Do you suppose, like her mother’s friends and my enemies—a curse upon them all!—that there is anything in what she has done for me but duty, sir, but duty? Or do you think that my having been unfortunate is a sufficient reason why our relative positions should be changed, and that she should command and I should obey? Hint a wish, too! Perhaps you think, because you see me in this place and scarcely able to leave this chair without assistance, that I am some broken-spirited dependent creature, without the courage or power to do what I may think best for my own child. Still the power to hint a wish! I hope so!’

‘Pardon me,’ returned Ralph, who thoroughly knew his man, and had taken his ground accordingly; ‘you do not hear me out. I was about to say that your hinting a wish, even hinting a wish, would surely be equivalent to commanding.’

‘Why, of course it would,’ retorted Mr. Bray, in an exasperated tone. ‘If you don’t happen to have heard of the time, sir, I tell you that there was a time, when I carried every point in triumph against her mother’s whole family, although they had power and wealth on their side, by my will alone.’

‘Still,’ rejoined Ralph, as mildly as his nature would allow him, ‘you have not heard me out. You are a man yet qualified to shine in society, with many years of life before you; that is, if you lived in freer air, and under brighter skies, and chose your own companions. Gaiety is your element, you have shone in it before. Fashion and freedom for you. France, and an annuity that would support you there in luxury, would give you a new lease of life, would transfer you to a new existence. The town rang with your expensive pleasures once, and you could blaze up on a new scene again, profiting by experience, and living a little at others’ cost, instead of letting others live at yours. What is there on the reverse side of the picture? What is there? I don’t know which is the nearest churchyard, but a gravestone there, wherever it is, and a date, perhaps two years hence, perhaps twenty. That’s all.’

Mr. Bray rested his elbow on the arm of his chair, and shaded his face with his hand.

‘I speak plainly,’ said Ralph, sitting down beside him, ‘because I feel strongly. It’s my interest that you should marry your daughter to my friend Gride, because then he sees me paid—in part, that is. I don’t disguise it. I acknowledge it openly. But what interest have you in recommending her to such a step? Keep that in view. She might object, remonstrate, shed tears, talk of his being too old, and plead that her life would be rendered miserable. But what is it now?’

Several slight gestures on the part of the invalid showed that these arguments were no more lost upon him, than the smallest iota of his demeanour was upon Ralph.

‘What is it now, I say,’ pursued the wily usurer, ‘or what has it a chance of being? If you died, indeed, the people you hate would make her happy. But can you bear the thought of that?’

‘No!’ returned Bray, urged by a vindictive impulse he could not repress.

‘I should imagine not, indeed!’ said Ralph, quietly. ‘If she profits by anybody’s death,’ this was said in a lower tone, ‘let it be by her husband’s. Don’t let her have to look back to yours, as the event from which to date a happier life. Where is the objection? Let me hear it stated. What is it? That her suitor is an old man? Why, how often do men of family and fortune, who haven’t your excuse, but have all the means and superfluities of life within their reach, how often do they marry their daughters to old men, or (worse still) to young men without heads or hearts, to tickle some idle vanity, strengthen some family interest, or secure some seat in Parliament! Judge for her, sir, judge for her. You must know best, and she will live to thank you.’

‘Hush! hush!’ cried Mr. Bray, suddenly starting up, and covering Ralph’s mouth with his trembling hand. ‘I hear her at the door!’

There was a gleam of conscience in the shame and terror of this hasty action, which, in one short moment, tore the thin covering of sophistry from the cruel design, and laid it bare in all its meanness and heartless deformity. The father fell into his chair pale and trembling; Arthur Gride plucked and fumbled at his hat, and durst not raise his eyes from the floor; even Ralph crouched for the moment like a beaten hound, cowed by the presence of one young innocent girl!

The effect was almost as brief as sudden. Ralph was the first to recover himself, and observing Madeline’s looks of alarm, entreated the poor girl to be composed, assuring her that there was no cause for fear.

‘A sudden spasm,’ said Ralph, glancing at Mr. Bray. ‘He is quite well now.’

It might have moved a very hard and worldly heart to see the young and beautiful creature, whose certain misery they had been contriving but a minute before, throw her arms about her father’s neck, and pour forth words of tender sympathy and love, the sweetest a father’s ear can know, or child’s lips form. But Ralph looked coldly on; and Arthur Gride, whose bleared eyes gloated only over the outward beauties, and were blind to the spirit which reigned within, evinced—a fantastic kind of warmth certainly, but not exactly that kind of warmth of feeling which the contemplation of virtue usually inspires.

‘Madeline,’ said her father, gently disengaging himself, ‘it was nothing.’

‘But you had that spasm yesterday, and it is terrible to see you in such pain. Can I do nothing for you?’

‘Nothing just now. Here are two gentlemen, Madeline, one of whom you have seen before. She used to say,’ added Mr. Bray, addressing Arthur Gride, ‘that the sight of you always made me worse. That was natural, knowing what she did, and only what she did, of our connection and its results. Well, well. Perhaps she may change her mind on that point; girls have leave to change their minds, you know. You are very tired, my dear.’

‘I am not, indeed.’

‘Indeed you are. You do too much.’

‘I wish I could do more.’

‘I know you do, but you overtask your strength. This wretched life, my love, of daily labour and fatigue, is more than you can bear, I am sure it is. Poor Madeline!’

With these and many more kind words, Mr. Bray drew his daughter to him and kissed her cheek affectionately. Ralph, watching him sharply and closely in the meantime, made his way towards the door, and signed to Gride to follow him.

‘You will communicate with us again?’ said Ralph.

‘Yes, yes,’ returned Mr. Bray, hastily thrusting his daughter aside. ‘In a week. Give me a week.’

‘One week,’ said Ralph, turning to his companion, ‘from today. Good-morning. Miss Madeline, I kiss your hand.’

‘We will shake hands, Gride,’ said Mr. Bray, extending his, as old Arthur bowed. ‘You mean well, no doubt. I am bound to say so now. If I owed you money, that was not your fault. Madeline, my love, your hand here.’

‘Oh dear! If the young lady would condescent! Only the tips of her fingers,’ said Arthur, hesitating and half retreating.

Madeline shrunk involuntarily from the goblin figure, but she placed the tips of her fingers in his hand and instantly withdrew them. After an ineffectual clutch, intended to detain and carry them to his lips, old Arthur gave his own fingers a mumbling kiss, and with many amorous distortions of visage went in pursuit of his friend, who was by this time in the street.

‘What does he say, what does he say? What does the giant say to the pigmy?’ inquired Arthur Gride, hobbling up to Ralph.

‘What does the pigmy say to the giant?’ rejoined Ralph, elevating his eyebrows and looking down upon his questioner.

‘He doesn’t know what to say,’ replied Arthur Gride. ‘He hopes and fears. But is she not a dainty morsel?’

‘I have no great taste for beauty,’ growled Ralph.

‘But I have,’ rejoined Arthur, rubbing his hands. ‘Oh dear! How handsome her eyes looked when she was stooping over him! Such long lashes, such delicate fringe! She—she—looked at me so soft.’

‘Not over-lovingly, I think,’ said Ralph. ‘Did she?’

‘No, you think not?’ replied old Arthur. ‘But don’t you think it can be brought about? Don’t you think it can?’

Ralph looked at him with a contemptuous frown, and replied with a sneer, and between his teeth:

‘Did you mark his telling her she was tired and did too much, and overtasked her strength?’

‘Ay, ay. What of it?’

‘When do you think he ever told her that before? The life is more than she can bear. Yes, yes. He’ll change it for her.’

‘D’ye think it’s done?’ inquired old Arthur, peering into his companion’s face with half-closed eyes.

‘I am sure it’s done,’ said Ralph. ‘He is trying to deceive himself, even before our eyes, already. He is making believe that he thinks of her good and not his own. He is acting a virtuous part, and so considerate and affectionate, sir, that the daughter scarcely knew him. I saw a tear of surprise in her eye. There’ll be a few more tears of surprise there before long, though of a different kind. Oh! we may wait with confidence for this day week.’






CHAPTER 48

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Vincent Crummles, and positively his last Appearance on this Stage

It was with a very sad and heavy heart, oppressed by many painful ideas, that Nicholas retraced his steps eastward and betook himself to the counting-house of Cheeryble Brothers. Whatever the idle hopes he had suffered himself to entertain, whatever the pleasant visions which had sprung up in his mind and grouped themselves round the fair image of Madeline Bray, they were now dispelled, and not a vestige of their gaiety and brightness remained.

It would be a poor compliment to Nicholas’s better nature, and one which he was very far from deserving, to insinuate that the solution, and such a solution, of the mystery which had seemed to surround Madeline Bray, when he was ignorant even of her name, had damped his ardour or cooled the fervour of his admiration. If he had regarded her before, with such a passion as young men attracted by mere beauty and elegance may entertain, he was now conscious of much deeper and stronger feelings. But, reverence for the truth and purity of her heart, respect for the helplessness and loneliness of her situation, sympathy with the trials of one so young and fair and admiration of her great and noble spirit, all seemed to raise her far above his reach, and, while they imparted new depth and dignity to his love, to whisper that it was hopeless.

‘I will keep my word, as I have pledged it to her,’ said Nicholas, manfully. ‘This is no common trust that I have to discharge, and I will perform the double duty that is imposed upon me most scrupulously and strictly. My secret feelings deserve no consideration in such a case as this, and they shall have none.’

Still, there were the secret feelings in existence just the same, and in secret Nicholas rather encouraged them than otherwise; reasoning (if he reasoned at all) that there they could do no harm to anybody but himself, and that if he kept them to himself from a sense of duty, he had an additional right to entertain himself with them as a reward for his heroism.

All these thoughts, coupled with what he had seen that morning and the anticipation of his next visit, rendered him a very dull and abstracted companion; so much so, indeed, that Tim Linkinwater suspected he must have made the mistake of a figure somewhere, which was preying upon his mind, and seriously conjured him, if such were the case, to make a clean breast and scratch it out, rather than have his whole life embittered by the tortures of remorse.

But in reply to these considerate representations, and many others both from Tim and Mr. Frank, Nicholas could only be brought to state that he was never merrier in his life; and so went on all day, and so went towards home at night, still turning over and over again the same subjects, thinking over and over again the same things, and arriving over and over again at the same conclusions.

In this pensive, wayward, and uncertain state, people are apt to lounge and loiter without knowing why, to read placards on the walls with great attention and without the smallest idea of one word of their contents, and to stare most earnestly through shop-windows at things which they don’t see. It was thus that Nicholas found himself poring with the utmost interest over a large play-bill hanging outside a Minor Theatre which he had to pass on his way home, and reading a list of the actors and actresses who had promised to do honour to some approaching benefit, with as much gravity as if it had been a catalogue of the names of those ladies and gentlemen who stood highest upon the Book of Fate, and he had been looking anxiously for his own. He glanced at the top of the bill, with a smile at his own dulness, as he prepared to resume his walk, and there saw announced, in large letters with a large space between each of them, ‘Positively the last appearance of Mr. Vincent Crummles of Provincial Celebrity!!!’

‘Nonsense!’ said Nicholas, turning back again. ‘It can’t be.’

But there it was. In one line by itself was an announcement of the first night of a new melodrama; in another line by itself was an announcement of the last six nights of an old one; a third line was devoted to the re-engagement of the unrivalled African Knife-swallower, who had kindly suffered himself to be prevailed upon to forego his country engagements for one week longer; a fourth line announced that Mr. Snittle Timberry, having recovered from his late severe indisposition, would have the honour of appearing that evening; a fifth line said that there were ‘Cheers, Tears, and Laughter!’ every night; a sixth, that that was positively the last appearance of Mr. Vincent Crummles of Provincial Celebrity.

‘Surely it must be the same man,’ thought Nicholas. ‘There can’t be two Vincent Crummleses.’

The better to settle this question he referred to the bill again, and finding that there was a Baron in the first piece, and that Roberto (his son) was enacted by one Master Crummles, and Spaletro (his nephew) by one Master Percy Crummles—their last appearances—and that, incidental to the piece, was a characteristic dance by the characters, and a castanet pas seul by the Infant Phenomenon—her last appearance—he no longer entertained any doubt; and presenting himself at the stage-door, and sending in a scrap of paper with ‘Mr. Johnson’ written thereon in pencil, was presently conducted by a Robber, with a very large belt and buckle round his waist, and very large leather gauntlets on his hands, into the presence of his former manager.

Mr. Crummles was unfeignedly glad to see him, and starting up from before a small dressing-glass, with one very bushy eyebrow stuck on crooked over his left eye, and the fellow eyebrow and the calf of one of his legs in his hand, embraced him cordially; at the same time observing, that it would do Mrs. Crummles’s heart good to bid him goodbye before they went.

‘You were always a favourite of hers, Johnson,’ said Crummles, ‘always were from the first. I was quite easy in my mind about you from that first day you dined with us. One that Mrs. Crummles took a fancy to, was sure to turn out right. Ah! Johnson, what a woman that is!’

‘I am sincerely obliged to her for her kindness in this and all other respects,’ said Nicholas. ‘But where are you going, that you talk about bidding goodbye?’

‘Haven’t you seen it in the papers?’ said Crummles, with some dignity.

‘No,’ replied Nicholas.

‘I wonder at that,’ said the manager. ‘It was among the varieties. I had the paragraph here somewhere—but I don’t know—oh, yes, here it is.’

So saying, Mr. Crummles, after pretending that he thought he must have lost it, produced a square inch of newspaper from the pocket of the pantaloons he wore in private life (which, together with the plain clothes of several other gentlemen, lay scattered about on a kind of dresser in the room), and gave it to Nicholas to read:

‘The talented Vincent Crummles, long favourably known to fame as a country manager and actor of no ordinary pretensions, is about to cross the Atlantic on a histrionic expedition. Crummles is to be accompanied, we hear, by his lady and gifted family. We know no man superior to Crummles in his particular line of character, or one who, whether as a public or private individual, could carry with him the best wishes of a larger circle of friends. Crummles is certain to succeed.’

‘Here’s another bit,’ said Mr. Crummles, handing over a still smaller scrap. ‘This is from the notices to correspondents, this one.’

Nicholas read it aloud. ‘“Philo-Dramaticus. Crummles, the country manager and actor, cannot be more than forty-three, or forty-four years of age. Crummles is not a Prussian, having been born at Chelsea.” Humph!’ said Nicholas, ‘that’s an odd paragraph.’

‘Very,’ returned Crummles, scratching the side of his nose, and looking at Nicholas with an assumption of great unconcern. ‘I can’t think who puts these things in. I didn’t.’

Still keeping his eye on Nicholas, Mr. Crummles shook his head twice or thrice with profound gravity, and remarking, that he could not for the life of him imagine how the newspapers found out the things they did, folded up the extracts and put them in his pocket again.

‘I am astonished to hear this news,’ said Nicholas. ‘Going to America! You had no such thing in contemplation when I was with you.’

‘No,’ replied Crummles, ‘I hadn’t then. The fact is that Mrs. Crummles—most extraordinary woman, Johnson.’ Here he broke off and whispered something in his ear.

‘Oh!’ said Nicholas, smiling. ‘The prospect of an addition to your family?’

‘The seventh addition, Johnson,’ returned Mr. Crummles, solemnly. ‘I thought such a child as the Phenomenon must have been a closer; but it seems we are to have another. She is a very remarkable woman.’

‘I congratulate you,’ said Nicholas, ‘and I hope this may prove a phenomenon too.’

‘Why, it’s pretty sure to be something uncommon, I suppose,’ rejoined Mr Crummles. ‘The talent of the other three is principally in combat and serious pantomime. I should like this one to have a turn for juvenile tragedy; I understand they want something of that sort in America very much. However, we must take it as it comes. Perhaps it may have a genius for the tight-rope. It may have any sort of genius, in short, if it takes after its mother, Johnson, for she is an universal genius; but, whatever its genius is, that genius shall be developed.’

Expressing himself after these terms, Mr. Crummles put on his other eyebrow, and the calves of his legs, and then put on his legs, which were of a yellowish flesh-colour, and rather soiled about the knees, from frequent going down upon those joints, in curses, prayers, last struggles, and other strong passages.

While the ex-manager completed his toilet, he informed Nicholas that as he should have a fair start in America from the proceeds of a tolerably good engagement which he had been fortunate enough to obtain, and as he and Mrs Crummles could scarcely hope to act for ever (not being immortal, except in the breath of Fame and in a figurative sense) he had made up his mind to settle there permanently, in the hope of acquiring some land of his own which would support them in their old age, and which they could afterwards bequeath to their children. Nicholas, having highly commended the resolution, Mr. Crummles went on to impart such further intelligence relative to their mutual friends as he thought might prove interesting; informing Nicholas, among other things, that Miss Snevellicci was happily married to an affluent young wax-chandler who had supplied the theatre with candles, and that Mr. Lillyvick didn’t dare to say his soul was his own, such was the tyrannical sway of Mrs. Lillyvick, who reigned paramount and supreme.

Nicholas responded to this confidence on the part of Mr. Crummles, by confiding to him his own name, situation, and prospects, and informing him, in as few general words as he could, of the circumstances which had led to their first acquaintance. After congratulating him with great heartiness on the improved state of his fortunes, Mr. Crummles gave him to understand that next morning he and his were to start for Liverpool, where the vessel lay which was to carry them from the shores of England, and that if Nicholas wished to take a last adieu of Mrs. Crummles, he must repair with him that night to a farewell supper, given in honour of the family at a neighbouring tavern; at which Mr. Snittle Timberry would preside, while the honours of the vice-chair would be sustained by the African Swallower.

The room being by this time very warm and somewhat crowded, in consequence of the influx of four gentlemen, who had just killed each other in the piece under representation, Nicholas accepted the invitation, and promised to return at the conclusion of the performances; preferring the cool air and twilight out of doors to the mingled perfume of gas, orange-peel, and gunpowder, which pervaded the hot and glaring theatre.

He availed himself of this interval to buy a silver snuff-box—the best his funds would afford—as a token of remembrance for Mr Crummles, and having purchased besides a pair of ear-rings for Mrs Crummles, a necklace for the Phenomenon, and a flaming shirt-pin for each of the young gentlemen, he refreshed himself with a walk, and returning a little after the appointed time, found the lights out, the theatre empty, the curtain raised for the night, and Mr. Crummles walking up and down the stage expecting his arrival.

‘Timberry won’t be long,’ said Mr. Crummles. ‘He played the audience out tonight. He does a faithful black in the last piece, and it takes him a little longer to wash himself.’

‘A very unpleasant line of character, I should think?’ said Nicholas.

‘No, I don’t know,’ replied Mr. Crummles; ‘it comes off easily enough, and there’s only the face and neck. We had a first-tragedy man in our company once, who, when he played Othello, used to black himself all over. But that’s feeling a part and going into it as if you meant it; it isn’t usual; more’s the pity.’

Mr. Snittle Timberry now appeared, arm-in-arm with the African Swallower, and, being introduced to Nicholas, raised his hat half a foot, and said he was proud to know him. The Swallower said the same, and looked and spoke remarkably like an Irishman.

‘I see by the bills that you have been ill, sir,’ said Nicholas to Mr Timberry. ‘I hope you are none the worse for your exertions tonight?’

Mr. Timberry, in reply, shook his head with a gloomy air, tapped his chest several times with great significancy, and drawing his cloak more closely about him, said, ‘But no matter, no matter. Come!’

It is observable that when people upon the stage are in any strait involving the very last extremity of weakness and exhaustion, they invariably perform feats of strength requiring great ingenuity and muscular power. Thus, a wounded prince or bandit chief, who is bleeding to death and too faint to move, except to the softest music (and then only upon his hands and knees), shall be seen to approach a cottage door for aid in such a series of writhings and twistings, and with such curlings up of the legs, and such rollings over and over, and such gettings up and tumblings down again, as could never be achieved save by a very strong man skilled in posture-making. And so natural did this sort of performance come to Mr. Snittle Timberry, that on their way out of the theatre and towards the tavern where the supper was to be holden, he testified the severity of his recent indisposition and its wasting effects upon the nervous system, by a series of gymnastic performances which were the admiration of all witnesses.

‘Why this is indeed a joy I had not looked for!’ said Mrs. Crummles, when Nicholas was presented.

‘Nor I,’ replied Nicholas. ‘It is by a mere chance that I have this opportunity of seeing you, although I would have made a great exertion to have availed myself of it.’

‘Here is one whom you know,’ said Mrs. Crummles, thrusting forward the Phenomenon in a blue gauze frock, extensively flounced, and trousers of the same; ‘and here another—and another,’ presenting the Master Crummleses. ‘And how is your friend, the faithful Digby?’

‘Digby!’ said Nicholas, forgetting at the instant that this had been Smike’s theatrical name. ‘Oh yes. He’s quite—what am I saying?—he is very far from well.’

‘How!’ exclaimed Mrs. Crummles, with a tragic recoil.

‘I fear,’ said Nicholas, shaking his head, and making an attempt to smile, ‘that your better-half would be more struck with him now than ever.’

‘What mean you?’ rejoined Mrs. Crummles, in her most popular manner. ‘Whence comes this altered tone?’

‘I mean that a dastardly enemy of mine has struck at me through him, and that while he thinks to torture me, he inflicts on him such agonies of terror and suspense as—You will excuse me, I am sure,’ said Nicholas, checking himself. ‘I should never speak of this, and never do, except to those who know the facts, but for a moment I forgot myself.’

With this hasty apology Nicholas stooped down to salute the Phenomenon, and changed the subject; inwardly cursing his precipitation, and very much wondering what Mrs. Crummles must think of so sudden an explosion.

That lady seemed to think very little about it, for the supper being by this time on table, she gave her hand to Nicholas and repaired with a stately step to the left hand of Mr. Snittle Timberry. Nicholas had the honour to support her, and Mr. Crummles was placed upon the chairman’s right; the Phenomenon and the Master Crummleses sustained the vice.

The company amounted in number to some twenty-five or thirty, being composed of such members of the theatrical profession, then engaged or disengaged in London, as were numbered among the most intimate friends of Mr. and Mrs. Crummles. The ladies and gentlemen were pretty equally balanced; the expenses of the entertainment being defrayed by the latter, each of whom had the privilege of inviting one of the former as his guest.

It was upon the whole a very distinguished party, for independently of the lesser theatrical lights who clustered on this occasion round Mr. Snittle Timberry, there was a literary gentleman present who had dramatised in his time two hundred and forty-seven novels as fast as they had come out—some of them faster than they had come out—and who was a literary gentleman in consequence.

This gentleman sat on the left hand of Nicholas, to whom he was introduced by his friend the African Swallower, from the bottom of the table, with a high eulogium upon his fame and reputation.

‘I am happy to know a gentleman of such great distinction,’ said Nicholas, politely.

‘Sir,’ replied the wit, ‘you’re very welcome, I’m sure. The honour is reciprocal, sir, as I usually say when I dramatise a book. Did you ever hear a definition of fame, sir?’

‘I have heard several,’ replied Nicholas, with a smile. ‘What is yours?’

‘When I dramatise a book, sir,’ said the literary gentleman, ‘that’s fame. For its author.’

‘Oh, indeed!’ rejoined Nicholas.

‘That’s fame, sir,’ said the literary gentleman.

‘So Richard Turpin, Tom King, and Jerry Abershaw have handed down to fame the names of those on whom they committed their most impudent robberies?’ said Nicholas.

‘I don’t know anything about that, sir,’ answered the literary gentleman.

‘Shakespeare dramatised stories which had previously appeared in print, it is true,’ observed Nicholas.

‘Meaning Bill, sir?’ said the literary gentleman. ‘So he did. Bill was an adapter, certainly, so he was—and very well he adapted too—considering.’

‘I was about to say,’ rejoined Nicholas, ‘that Shakespeare derived some of his plots from old tales and legends in general circulation; but it seems to me, that some of the gentlemen of your craft, at the present day, have shot very far beyond him—’

‘You’re quite right, sir,’ interrupted the literary gentleman, leaning back in his chair and exercising his toothpick. ‘Human intellect, sir, has progressed since his time, is progressing, will progress.’

‘Shot beyond him, I mean,’ resumed Nicholas, ‘in quite another respect, for, whereas he brought within the magic circle of his genius, traditions peculiarly adapted for his purpose, and turned familiar things into constellations which should enlighten the world for ages, you drag within the magic circle of your dulness, subjects not at all adapted to the purposes of the stage, and debase as he exalted. For instance, you take the uncompleted books of living authors, fresh from their hands, wet from the press, cut, hack, and carve them to the powers and capacities of your actors, and the capability of your theatres, finish unfinished works, hastily and crudely vamp up ideas not yet worked out by their original projector, but which have doubtless cost him many thoughtful days and sleepless nights; by a comparison of incidents and dialogue, down to the very last word he may have written a fortnight before, do your utmost to anticipate his plot—all this without his permission, and against his will; and then, to crown the whole proceeding, publish in some mean pamphlet, an unmeaning farrago of garbled extracts from his work, to which your name as author, with the honourable distinction annexed, of having perpetrated a hundred other outrages of the same description. Now, show me the distinction between such pilfering as this, and picking a man’s pocket in the street: unless, indeed, it be, that the legislature has a regard for pocket-handkerchiefs, and leaves men’s brains, except when they are knocked out by violence, to take care of themselves.’

‘Men must live, sir,’ said the literary gentleman, shrugging his shoulders.

‘That would be an equally fair plea in both cases,’ replied Nicholas; ‘but if you put it upon that ground, I have nothing more to say, than, that if I were a writer of books, and you a thirsty dramatist, I would rather pay your tavern score for six months, large as it might be, than have a niche in the Temple of Fame with you for the humblest corner of my pedestal, through six hundred generations.’

The conversation threatened to take a somewhat angry tone when it had arrived thus far, but Mrs. Crummles opportunely interposed to prevent its leading to any violent outbreak, by making some inquiries of the literary gentleman relative to the plots of the six new pieces which he had written by contract to introduce the African Knife-swallower in his various unrivalled performances. This speedily engaged him in an animated conversation with that lady, in the interest of which, all recollection of his recent discussion with Nicholas very quickly evaporated.

The board being now clear of the more substantial articles of food, and punch, wine, and spirits being placed upon it and handed about, the guests, who had been previously conversing in little groups of three or four, gradually fell off into a dead silence, while the majority of those present glanced from time to time at Mr. Snittle Timberry, and the bolder spirits did not even hesitate to strike the table with their knuckles, and plainly intimate their expectations, by uttering such encouragements as ‘Now, Tim,’ ‘Wake up, Mr. Chairman,’ ‘All charged, sir, and waiting for a toast,’ and so forth.

To these remonstrances Mr. Timberry deigned no other rejoinder than striking his chest and gasping for breath, and giving many other indications of being still the victim of indisposition—for a man must not make himself too cheap either on the stage or off—while Mr Crummles, who knew full well that he would be the subject of the forthcoming toast, sat gracefully in his chair with his arm thrown carelessly over the back, and now and then lifted his glass to his mouth and drank a little punch, with the same air with which he was accustomed to take long draughts of nothing, out of the pasteboard goblets in banquet scenes.

At length Mr. Snittle Timberry rose in the most approved attitude, with one hand in the breast of his waistcoat and the other on the nearest snuff-box, and having been received with great enthusiasm, proposed, with abundance of quotations, his friend Mr. Vincent Crummles: ending a pretty long speech by extending his right hand on one side and his left on the other, and severally calling upon Mr. and Mrs. Crummles to grasp the same. This done, Mr. Vincent Crummles returned thanks, and that done, the African Swallower proposed Mrs. Vincent Crummles, in affecting terms. Then were heard loud moans and sobs from Mrs. Crummles and the ladies, despite of which that heroic woman insisted upon returning thanks herself, which she did, in a manner and in a speech which has never been surpassed and seldom equalled. It then became the duty of Mr. Snittle Timberry to give the young Crummleses, which he did; after which Mr. Vincent Crummles, as their father, addressed the company in a supplementary speech, enlarging on their virtues, amiabilities, and excellences, and wishing that they were the sons and daughter of every lady and gentleman present. These solemnities having been succeeded by a decent interval, enlivened by musical and other entertainments, Mr. Crummles proposed that ornament of the profession, the African Swallower, his very dear friend, if he would allow him to call him so; which liberty (there being no particular reason why he should not allow it) the African Swallower graciously permitted. The literary gentleman was then about to be drunk, but it being discovered that he had been drunk for some time in another acceptation of the term, and was then asleep on the stairs, the intention was abandoned, and the honour transferred to the ladies. Finally, after a very long sitting, Mr Snittle Timberry vacated the chair, and the company with many adieux and embraces dispersed.

Nicholas waited to the last to give his little presents. When he had said goodbye all round and came to Mr. Crummles, he could not but mark the difference between their present separation and their parting at Portsmouth. Not a jot of his theatrical manner remained; he put out his hand with an air which, if he could have summoned it at will, would have made him the best actor of his day in homely parts, and when Nicholas shook it with the warmth he honestly felt, appeared thoroughly melted.

‘We were a very happy little company, Johnson,’ said poor Crummles. ‘You and I never had a word. I shall be very glad tomorrow morning to think that I saw you again, but now I almost wish you hadn’t come.’

Nicholas was about to return a cheerful reply, when he was greatly disconcerted by the sudden apparition of Mrs. Grudden, who it seemed had declined to attend the supper in order that she might rise earlier in the morning, and who now burst out of an adjoining bedroom, habited in very extraordinary white robes; and throwing her arms about his neck, hugged him with great affection.

‘What! Are you going too?’ said Nicholas, submitting with as good a grace as if she had been the finest young creature in the world.

‘Going?’ returned Mrs. Grudden. ‘Lord ha’ mercy, what do you think they’d do without me?’

Nicholas submitted to another hug with even a better grace than before, if that were possible, and waving his hat as cheerfully as he could, took farewell of the Vincent Crummleses.






CHAPTER 49

Chronicles the further Proceedings of the Nickleby Family, and the Sequel of the Adventure of the Gentleman in the Small-clothes

While Nicholas, absorbed in the one engrossing subject of interest which had recently opened upon him, occupied his leisure hours with thoughts of Madeline Bray, and in execution of the commissions which the anxiety of brother Charles in her behalf imposed upon him, saw her again and again, and each time with greater danger to his peace of mind and a more weakening effect upon the lofty resolutions he had formed, Mrs. Nickleby and Kate continued to live in peace and quiet, agitated by no other cares than those which were connected with certain harassing proceedings taken by Mr. Snawley for the recovery of his son, and their anxiety for Smike himself, whose health, long upon the wane, began to be so much affected by apprehension and uncertainty as sometimes to occasion both them and Nicholas considerable uneasiness, and even alarm.

It was no complaint or murmur on the part of the poor fellow himself that thus disturbed them. Ever eager to be employed in such slight services as he could render, and always anxious to repay his benefactors with cheerful and happy looks, less friendly eyes might have seen in him no cause for any misgiving. But there were times, and often too, when the sunken eye was too bright, the hollow cheek too flushed, the breath too thick and heavy in its course, the frame too feeble and exhausted, to escape their regard and notice.

There is a dread disease which so prepares its victim, as it were, for death; which so refines it of its grosser aspect, and throws around familiar looks unearthly indications of the coming change; a dread disease, in which the struggle between soul and body is so gradual, quiet, and solemn, and the result so sure, that day by day, and grain by grain, the mortal part wastes and withers away, so that the spirit grows light and sanguine with its lightening load, and, feeling immortality at hand, deems it but a new term of mortal life; a disease in which death and life are so strangely blended, that death takes the glow and hue of life, and life the gaunt and grisly form of death; a disease which medicine never cured, wealth never warded off, or poverty could boast exemption from; which sometimes moves in giant strides, and sometimes at a tardy sluggish pace, but, slow or quick, is ever sure and certain.

It was with some faint reference in his own mind to this disorder, though he would by no means admit it, even to himself, that Nicholas had already carried his faithful companion to a physician of great repute. There was no cause for immediate alarm, he said. There were no present symptoms which could be deemed conclusive. The constitution had been greatly tried and injured in childhood, but still it might not be—and that was all.

But he seemed to grow no worse, and, as it was not difficult to find a reason for these symptoms of illness in the shock and agitation he had recently undergone, Nicholas comforted himself with the hope that his poor friend would soon recover. This hope his mother and sister shared with him; and as the object of their joint solicitude seemed to have no uneasiness or despondency for himself, but each day answered with a quiet smile that he felt better than he had upon the day before, their fears abated, and the general happiness was by degrees restored.

Many and many a time in after years did Nicholas look back to this period of his life, and tread again the humble quiet homely scenes that rose up as of old before him. Many and many a time, in the twilight of a summer evening, or beside the flickering winter’s fire—but not so often or so sadly then—would his thoughts wander back to these old days, and dwell with a pleasant sorrow upon every slight remembrance which they brought crowding home. The little room in which they had so often sat long after it was dark, figuring such happy futures; Kate’s cheerful voice and merry laugh; how, if she were from home, they used to sit and watch for her return scarcely breaking silence but to say how dull it seemed without her; the glee with which poor Smike would start from the darkened corner where he used to sit, and hurry to admit her, and the tears they often saw upon his face, half wondering to see them too, and he so pleased and happy; every little incident, and even slight words and looks of those old days little heeded then, but well remembered when busy cares and trials were quite forgotten, came fresh and thick before him many and many a time, and, rustling above the dusty growth of years, came back green boughs of yesterday.

But there were other persons associated with these recollections, and many changes came about before they had being. A necessary reflection for the purposes of these adventures, which at once subside into their accustomed train, and shunning all flighty anticipations or wayward wanderings, pursue their steady and decorous course.

If the brothers Cheeryble, as they found Nicholas worthy of trust and confidence, bestowed upon him every day some new and substantial mark of kindness, they were not less mindful of those who depended on him. Various little presents to Mrs. Nickleby, always of the very things they most required, tended in no slight degree to the improvement and embellishment of the cottage. Kate’s little store of trinkets became quite dazzling; and for company! If brother Charles and brother Ned failed to look in for at least a few minutes every Sunday, or one evening in the week, there was Mr Tim Linkinwater (who had never made half-a-dozen other acquaintances in all his life, and who took such delight in his new friends as no words can express) constantly coming and going in his evening walks, and stopping to rest; while Mr. Frank Cheeryble happened, by some strange conjunction of circumstances, to be passing the door on some business or other at least three nights in the week.

‘He is the most attentive young man I ever saw, Kate,’ said Mrs. Nickleby to her daughter one evening, when this last-named gentleman had been the subject of the worthy lady’s eulogium for some time, and Kate had sat perfectly silent.

‘Attentive, mama!’ rejoined Kate.

‘Bless my heart, Kate!’ cried Mrs. Nickleby, with her wonted suddenness, ‘what a colour you have got; why, you’re quite flushed!’

‘Oh, mama! what strange things you fancy!’

‘It wasn’t fancy, Kate, my dear, I’m certain of that,’ returned her mother. ‘However, it’s gone now at any rate, so it don’t much matter whether it was or not. What was it we were talking about? Oh! Mr. Frank. I never saw such attention in my life, never.’

‘Surely you are not serious,’ returned Kate, colouring again; and this time beyond all dispute.

‘Not serious!’ returned Mrs. Nickleby; ‘why shouldn’t I be serious? I’m sure I never was more serious. I will say that his politeness and attention to me is one of the most becoming, gratifying, pleasant things I have seen for a very long time. You don’t often meet with such behaviour in young men, and it strikes one more when one does meet with it.’

‘Oh! attention to you, mama,’ rejoined Kate quickly—‘oh yes.’

‘Dear me, Kate,’ retorted Mrs. Nickleby, ‘what an extraordinary girl you are! Was it likely I should be talking of his attention to anybody else? I declare I’m quite sorry to think he should be in love with a German lady, that I am.’

‘He said very positively that it was no such thing, mama,’ returned Kate. ‘Don’t you remember his saying so that very first night he came here? Besides,’ she added, in a more gentle tone, ‘why should we be sorry if it is the case? What is it to us, mama?’

‘Nothing to us, Kate, perhaps,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, emphatically; ‘but something to me, I confess. I like English people to be thorough English people, and not half English and half I don’t know what. I shall tell him point-blank next time he comes, that I wish he would marry one of his own country-women; and see what he says to that.’

‘Pray don’t think of such a thing, mama,’ returned Kate, hastily; ‘not for the world. Consider. How very—’

‘Well, my dear, how very what?’ said Mrs. Nickleby, opening her eyes in great astonishment.

Before Kate had returned any reply, a queer little double knock announced that Miss La Creevy had called to see them; and when Miss La Creevy presented herself, Mrs. Nickleby, though strongly disposed to be argumentative on the previous question, forgot all about it in a gush of supposes about the coach she had come by; supposing that the man who drove must have been either the man in the shirt-sleeves or the man with the black eye; that whoever he was, he hadn’t found that parasol she left inside last week; that no doubt they had stopped a long while at the Halfway House, coming down; or that perhaps being full, they had come straight on; and, lastly, that they, surely, must have passed Nicholas on the road.

‘I saw nothing of him,’ answered Miss La Creevy; ‘but I saw that dear old soul Mr. Linkinwater.’

‘Taking his evening walk, and coming on to rest here, before he turns back to the city, I’ll be bound!’ said Mrs. Nickleby.

‘I should think he was,’ returned Miss La Creevy; ‘especially as young Mr Cheeryble was with him.’

‘Surely that is no reason why Mr. Linkinwater should be coming here,’ said Kate.

‘Why I think it is, my dear,’ said Miss La Creevy. ‘For a young man, Mr Frank is not a very great walker; and I observe that he generally falls tired, and requires a good long rest, when he has come as far as this. But where is my friend?’ said the little woman, looking about, after having glanced slyly at Kate. ‘He has not been run away with again, has he?’

‘Ah! where is Mr. Smike?’ said Mrs. Nickleby; ‘he was here this instant.’

Upon further inquiry, it turned out, to the good lady’s unbounded astonishment, that Smike had, that moment, gone upstairs to bed.

‘Well now,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, ‘he is the strangest creature! Last Tuesday—was it Tuesday? Yes, to be sure it was; you recollect, Kate, my dear, the very last time young Mr. Cheeryble was here—last Tuesday night he went off in just the same strange way, at the very moment the knock came to the door. It cannot be that he don’t like company, because he is always fond of people who are fond of Nicholas, and I am sure young Mr. Cheeryble is. And the strangest thing is, that he does not go to bed; therefore it cannot be because he is tired. I know he doesn’t go to bed, because my room is the next one, and when I went upstairs last Tuesday, hours after him, I found that he had not even taken his shoes off; and he had no candle, so he must have sat moping in the dark all the time. Now, upon my word,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, ‘when I come to think of it, that’s very extraordinary!’

As the hearers did not echo this sentiment, but remained profoundly silent, either as not knowing what to say, or as being unwilling to interrupt, Mrs. Nickleby pursued the thread of her discourse after her own fashion.

‘I hope,’ said that lady, ‘that this unaccountable conduct may not be the beginning of his taking to his bed and living there all his life, like the Thirsty Woman of Tutbury, or the Cock-lane Ghost, or some of those extraordinary creatures. One of them had some connection with our family. I forget, without looking back to some old letters I have upstairs, whether it was my great-grandfather who went to school with the Cock-lane Ghost, or the Thirsty Woman of Tutbury who went to school with my grandmother. Miss La Creevy, you know, of course. Which was it that didn’t mind what the clergyman said? The Cock-lane Ghost or the Thirsty Woman of Tutbury?’

‘The Cock-lane Ghost, I believe.’

‘Then I have no doubt,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, ‘that it was with him my great-grandfather went to school; for I know the master of his school was a dissenter, and that would, in a great measure, account for the Cock-lane Ghost’s behaving in such an improper manner to the clergyman when he grew up. Ah! Train up a Ghost—child, I mean—’

Any further reflections on this fruitful theme were abruptly cut short by the arrival of Tim Linkinwater and Mr. Frank Cheeryble; in the hurry of receiving whom, Mrs. Nickleby speedily lost sight of everything else.

‘I am so sorry Nicholas is not at home,’ said Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Kate, my dear, you must be both Nicholas and yourself.’

‘Miss Nickleby need be but herself,’ said Frank. ‘I—if I may venture to say so—oppose all change in her.’

‘Then at all events she shall press you to stay,’ returned Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Mr. Linkinwater says ten minutes, but I cannot let you go so soon; Nicholas would be very much vexed, I am sure. Kate, my dear!’

In obedience to a great number of nods, and winks, and frowns of extra significance, Kate added her entreaties that the visitors would remain; but it was observable that she addressed them exclusively to Tim Linkinwater; and there was, besides, a certain embarrassment in her manner, which, although it was as far from impairing its graceful character as the tinge it communicated to her cheek was from diminishing her beauty, was obvious at a glance even to Mrs. Nickleby. Not being of a very speculative character, however, save under circumstances when her speculations could be put into words and uttered aloud, that discreet matron attributed the emotion to the circumstance of her daughter’s not happening to have her best frock on: ‘though I never saw her look better, certainly,’ she reflected at the same time. Having settled the question in this way, and being most complacently satisfied that in this, and in all other instances, her conjecture could not fail to be the right one, Mrs Nickleby dismissed it from her thoughts, and inwardly congratulated herself on being so shrewd and knowing.

Nicholas did not come home nor did Smike reappear; but neither circumstance, to say the truth, had any great effect upon the little party, who were all in the best humour possible. Indeed, there sprung up quite a flirtation between Miss La Creevy and Tim Linkinwater, who said a thousand jocose and facetious things, and became, by degrees, quite gallant, not to say tender. Little Miss La Creevy, on her part, was in high spirits, and rallied Tim on having remained a bachelor all his life with so much success, that Tim was actually induced to declare, that if he could get anybody to have him, he didn’t know but what he might change his condition even yet. Miss La Creevy earnestly recommended a lady she knew, who would exactly suit Mr. Linkinwater, and had a very comfortable property of her own; but this latter qualification had very little effect upon Tim, who manfully protested that fortune would be no object with him, but that true worth and cheerfulness of disposition were what a man should look for in a wife, and that if he had these, he could find money enough for the moderate wants of both. This avowal was considered so honourable to Tim, that neither Mrs. Nickleby nor Miss La Creevy could sufficiently extol it; and stimulated by their praises, Tim launched out into several other declarations also manifesting the disinterestedness of his heart, and a great devotion to the fair sex: which were received with no less approbation. This was done and said with a comical mixture of jest and earnest, and, leading to a great amount of laughter, made them very merry indeed.

Kate was commonly the life and soul of the conversation at home; but she was more silent than usual upon this occasion (perhaps because Tim and Miss La Creevy engrossed so much of it), and, keeping aloof from the talkers, sat at the window watching the shadows as the evening closed in, and enjoying the quiet beauty of the night, which seemed to have scarcely less attractions to Frank, who first lingered near, and then sat down beside, her. No doubt, there are a great many things to be said appropriate to a summer evening, and no doubt they are best said in a low voice, as being most suitable to the peace and serenity of the hour; long pauses, too, at times, and then an earnest word or so, and then another interval of silence which, somehow, does not seem like silence either, and perhaps now and then a hasty turning away of the head, or drooping of the eyes towards the ground, all these minor circumstances, with a disinclination to have candles introduced and a tendency to confuse hours with minutes, are doubtless mere influences of the time, as many lovely lips can clearly testify. Neither is there the slightest reason why Mrs Nickleby should have expressed surprise when, candles being at length brought in, Kate’s bright eyes were unable to bear the light which obliged her to avert her face, and even to leave the room for some short time; because, when one has sat in the dark so long, candles are dazzling, and nothing can be more strictly natural than that such results should be produced, as all well-informed young people know. For that matter, old people know it too, or did know it once, but they forget these things sometimes, and more’s the pity.

The good lady’s surprise, however, did not end here. It was greatly increased when it was discovered that Kate had not the least appetite for supper: a discovery so alarming that there is no knowing in what unaccountable efforts of oratory Mrs. Nickleby’s apprehensions might have been vented, if the general attention had not been attracted, at the moment, by a very strange and uncommon noise, proceeding, as the pale and trembling servant girl affirmed, and as everybody’s sense of hearing seemed to affirm also, ‘right down’ the chimney of the adjoining room.

It being quite plain to the comprehension of all present that, however extraordinary and improbable it might appear, the noise did nevertheless proceed from the chimney in question; and the noise (which was a strange compound of various shuffling, sliding, rumbling, and struggling sounds, all muffled by the chimney) still continuing, Frank Cheeryble caught up a candle, and Tim Linkinwater the tongs, and they would have very quickly ascertained the cause of this disturbance if Mrs. Nickleby had not been taken very faint, and declined being left behind, on any account. This produced a short remonstrance, which terminated in their all proceeding to the troubled chamber in a body, excepting only Miss La Creevy, who, as the servant girl volunteered a confession of having been subject to fits in her infancy, remained with her to give the alarm and apply restoratives, in case of extremity.

Advancing to the door of the mysterious apartment, they were not a little surprised to hear a human voice, chanting with a highly elaborated expression of melancholy, and in tones of suffocation which a human voice might have produced from under five or six feather-beds of the best quality, the once popular air of ‘Has she then failed in her truth, the beautiful maid I adore?’ Nor, on bursting into the room without demanding a parley, was their astonishment lessened by the discovery that these romantic sounds certainly proceeded from the throat of some man up the chimney, of whom nothing was visible but a pair of legs, which were dangling above the grate; apparently feeling, with extreme anxiety, for the top bar whereon to effect a landing.

A sight so unusual and unbusiness-like as this, completely paralysed Tim Linkinwater, who, after one or two gentle pinches at the stranger’s ankles, which were productive of no effect, stood clapping the tongs together, as if he were sharpening them for another assault, and did nothing else.

‘This must be some drunken fellow,’ said Frank. ‘No thief would announce his presence thus.’

As he said this, with great indignation, he raised the candle to obtain a better view of the legs, and was darting forward to pull them down with very little ceremony, when Mrs. Nickleby, clasping her hands, uttered a sharp sound, something between a scream and an exclamation, and demanded to know whether the mysterious limbs were not clad in small-clothes and grey worsted stockings, or whether her eyes had deceived her.

‘Yes,’ cried Frank, looking a little closer. ‘Small-clothes certainly, and—and—rough grey stockings, too. Do you know him, ma’am?’

‘Kate, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, deliberately sitting herself down in a chair with that sort of desperate resignation which seemed to imply that now matters had come to a crisis, and all disguise was useless, ‘you will have the goodness, my love, to explain precisely how this matter stands. I have given him no encouragement—none whatever—not the least in the world. You know that, my dear, perfectly well. He was very respectful, exceedingly respectful, when he declared, as you were a witness to; still at the same time, if I am to be persecuted in this way, if vegetable what’s-his-names and all kinds of garden-stuff are to strew my path out of doors, and gentlemen are to come choking up our chimneys at home, I really don’t know—upon my word I do not know—what is to become of me. It’s a very hard case—harder than anything I was ever exposed to, before I married your poor dear papa, though I suffered a good deal of annoyance then—but that, of course, I expected, and made up my mind for. When I was not nearly so old as you, my dear, there was a young gentleman who sat next us at church, who used, almost every Sunday, to cut my name in large letters in the front of his pew while the sermon was going on. It was gratifying, of course, naturally so, but still it was an annoyance, because the pew was in a very conspicuous place, and he was several times publicly taken out by the beadle for doing it. But that was nothing to this. This is a great deal worse, and a great deal more embarrassing. I would rather, Kate, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, with great solemnity, and an effusion of tears: ‘I would rather, I declare, have been a pig-faced lady, than be exposed to such a life as this!’

Frank Cheeryble and Tim Linkinwater looked, in irrepressible astonishment, first at each other and then at Kate, who felt that some explanation was necessary, but who, between her terror at the apparition of the legs, her fear lest their owner should be smothered, and her anxiety to give the least ridiculous solution of the mystery that it was capable of bearing, was quite unable to utter a single word.

‘He gives me great pain,’ continued Mrs. Nickleby, drying her eyes, ‘great pain; but don’t hurt a hair of his head, I beg. On no account hurt a hair of his head.’

It would not, under existing circumstances, have been quite so easy to hurt a hair of the gentleman’s head as Mrs. Nickleby seemed to imagine, inasmuch as that part of his person was some feet up the chimney, which was by no means a wide one. But, as all this time he had never left off singing about the bankruptcy of the beautiful maid in respect of truth, and now began not only to croak very feebly, but to kick with great violence as if respiration became a task of difficulty, Frank Cheeryble, without further hesitation, pulled at the shorts and worsteds with such heartiness as to bring him floundering into the room with greater precipitation than he had quite calculated upon.

‘Oh! yes, yes,’ said Kate, directly the whole figure of this singular visitor appeared in this abrupt manner. ‘I know who it is. Pray don’t be rough with him. Is he hurt? I hope not. Oh, pray see if he is hurt.’

‘He is not, I assure you,’ replied Frank, handling the object of his surprise, after this appeal, with sudden tenderness and respect. ‘He is not hurt in the least.’

‘Don’t let him come any nearer,’ said Kate, retiring as far as she could.

‘Oh, no, he shall not,’ rejoined Frank. ‘You see I have him secure here. But may I ask you what this means, and whether you expected this old gentleman?’

‘Oh, no,’ said Kate, ‘of course not; but he—mama does not think so, I believe—but he is a mad gentleman who has escaped from the next house, and must have found an opportunity of secreting himself here.’

‘Kate,’ interposed Mrs. Nickleby with severe dignity, ‘I am surprised at you.’

‘Dear mama,’ Kate gently remonstrated.

‘I am surprised at you,’ repeated Mrs. Nickleby; ‘upon my word, Kate, I am quite astonished that you should join the persecutors of this unfortunate gentleman, when you know very well that they have the basest designs upon his property, and that that is the whole secret of it. It would be much kinder of you, Kate, to ask Mr. Linkinwater or Mr. Cheeryble to interfere in his behalf, and see him righted. You ought not to allow your feelings to influence you; it’s not right, very far from it. What should my feelings be, do you suppose? If anybody ought to be indignant, who is it? I, of course, and very properly so. Still, at the same time, I wouldn’t commit such an injustice for the world. No,’ continued Mrs. Nickleby, drawing herself up, and looking another way with a kind of bashful stateliness; ‘this gentleman will understand me when I tell him that I repeat the answer I gave him the other day; that I always will repeat it, though I do believe him to be sincere when I find him placing himself in such dreadful situations on my account; and that I request him to have the goodness to go away directly, or it will be impossible to keep his behaviour a secret from my son Nicholas. I am obliged to him, very much obliged to him, but I cannot listen to his addresses for a moment. It’s quite impossible.’

While this address was in course of delivery, the old gentleman, with his nose and cheeks embellished with large patches of soot, sat upon the ground with his arms folded, eyeing the spectators in profound silence, and with a very majestic demeanour. He did not appear to take the smallest notice of what Mrs. Nickleby said, but when she ceased to speak he honoured her with a long stare, and inquired if she had quite finished.

‘I have nothing more to say,’ replied that lady modestly. ‘I really cannot say anything more.’

‘Very good,’ said the old gentleman, raising his voice, ‘then bring in the bottled lightning, a clean tumbler, and a corkscrew.’

Nobody executing this order, the old gentleman, after a short pause, raised his voice again and demanded a thunder sandwich. This article not being forthcoming either, he requested to be served with a fricassee of boot-tops and goldfish sauce, and then laughing heartily, gratified his hearers with a very long, very loud, and most melodious bellow.

But still Mrs. Nickleby, in reply to the significant looks of all about her, shook her head as though to assure them that she saw nothing whatever in all this, unless, indeed, it were a slight degree of eccentricity. She might have remained impressed with these opinions down to the latest moment of her life, but for a slight train of circumstances, which, trivial as they were, altered the whole complexion of the case.

It happened that Miss La Creevy, finding her patient in no very threatening condition, and being strongly impelled by curiosity to see what was going forward, bustled into the room while the old gentleman was in the very act of bellowing. It happened, too, that the instant the old gentleman saw her, he stopped short, skipped suddenly on his feet, and fell to kissing his hand violently: a change of demeanour which almost terrified the little portrait painter out of her senses, and caused her to retreat behind Tim Linkinwater with the utmost expedition.

‘Aha!’ cried the old gentleman, folding his hands, and squeezing them with great force against each other. ‘I see her now; I see her now! My love, my life, my bride, my peerless beauty. She is come at last—at last—and all is gas and gaiters!’

Mrs. Nickleby looked rather disconcerted for a moment, but immediately recovering, nodded to Miss La Creevy and the other spectators several times, and frowned, and smiled gravely, giving them to understand that she saw where the mistake was, and would set it all to rights in a minute or two.

‘She is come!’ said the old gentleman, laying his hand upon his heart. ‘Cormoran and Blunderbore! She is come! All the wealth I have is hers if she will take me for her slave. Where are grace, beauty, and blandishments, like those? In the Empress of Madagascar? No. In the Queen of Diamonds? No. In Mrs. Rowland, who every morning bathes in Kalydor for nothing? No. Melt all these down into one, with the three Graces, the nine Muses, and fourteen biscuit-bakers’ daughters from Oxford Street, and make a woman half as lovely. Pho! I defy you.’

After uttering this rhapsody, the old gentleman snapped his fingers twenty or thirty times, and then subsided into an ecstatic contemplation of Miss La Creevy’s charms. This affording Mrs. Nickleby a favourable opportunity of explanation, she went about it straight.

‘I am sure,’ said the worthy lady, with a prefatory cough, ‘that it’s a great relief, under such trying circumstances as these, to have anybody else mistaken for me—a very great relief; and it’s a circumstance that never occurred before, although I have several times been mistaken for my daughter Kate. I have no doubt the people were very foolish, and perhaps ought to have known better, but still they did take me for her, and of course that was no fault of mine, and it would be very hard indeed if I was to be made responsible for it. However, in this instance, of course, I must feel that I should do exceedingly wrong if I suffered anybody—especially anybody that I am under great obligations to—to be made uncomfortable on my account. And therefore I think it my duty to tell that gentleman that he is mistaken, that I am the lady who he was told by some impertinent person was niece to the Council of Paving-stones, and that I do beg and entreat of him to go quietly away, if it’s only for,’ here Mrs. Nickleby simpered and hesitated, ‘for my sake.’

It might have been expected that the old gentleman would have been penetrated to the heart by the delicacy and condescension of this appeal, and that he would at least have returned a courteous and suitable reply. What, then, was the shock which Mrs. Nickleby received, when, accosting her in the most unmistakable manner, he replied in a loud and sonourous voice: ‘Avaunt! Cat!’

‘Sir!’ cried Mrs. Nickleby, in a faint tone.

‘Cat!’ repeated the old gentleman. ‘Puss, Kit, Tit, Grimalkin, Tabby, Brindle! Whoosh!’ with which last sound, uttered in a hissing manner between his teeth, the old gentleman swung his arms violently round and round, and at the same time alternately advanced on Mrs. Nickleby, and retreated from her, in that species of savage dance with which boys on market-days may be seen to frighten pigs, sheep, and other animals, when they give out obstinate indications of turning down a wrong street.

Mrs. Nickleby wasted no words, but uttered an exclamation of horror and surprise, and immediately fainted away.

‘I’ll attend to mama,’ said Kate, hastily; ‘I am not at all frightened. But pray take him away: pray take him away!’

Frank was not at all confident of his power of complying with this request, until he bethought himself of the stratagem of sending Miss La Creevy on a few paces in advance, and urging the old gentleman to follow her. It succeeded to a miracle; and he went away in a rapture of admiration, strongly guarded by Tim Linkinwater on one side, and Frank himself on the other.

‘Kate,’ murmured Mrs. Nickleby, reviving when the coast was clear, ‘is he gone?’

She was assured that he was.

‘I shall never forgive myself, Kate,’ said Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Never! That gentleman has lost his senses, and I am the unhappy cause.’

‘You the cause!’ said Kate, greatly astonished.

‘I, my love,’ replied Mrs. Nickleby, with a desperate calmness. ‘You saw what he was the other day; you see what he is now. I told your brother, weeks and weeks ago, Kate, that I hoped a disappointment might not be too much for him. You see what a wreck he is. Making allowance for his being a little flighty, you know how rationally, and sensibly, and honourably he talked, when we saw him in the garden. You have heard the dreadful nonsense he has been guilty of this night, and the manner in which he has gone on with that poor unfortunate little old maid. Can anybody doubt how all this has been brought about?’

‘I should scarcely think they could,’ said Kate mildly.

‘I should scarcely think so, either,’ rejoined her mother. ‘Well! if I am the unfortunate cause of this, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am not to blame. I told Nicholas, I said to him, “Nicholas, my dear, we should be very careful how we proceed.” He would scarcely hear me. If the matter had only been properly taken up at first, as I wished it to be! But you are both of you so like your poor papa. However, I have my consolation, and that should be enough for me!’

Washing her hands, thus, of all responsibility under this head, past, present, or to come, Mrs. Nickleby kindly added that she hoped her children might never have greater cause to reproach themselves than she had, and prepared herself to receive the escort, who soon returned with the intelligence that the old gentleman was safely housed, and that they found his custodians, who had been making merry with some friends, wholly ignorant of his absence.

Quiet being again restored, a delicious half-hour—so Frank called it, in the course of subsequent conversation with Tim Linkinwater as they were walking home—was spent in conversation, and Tim’s watch at length apprising him that it was high time to depart, the ladies were left alone, though not without many offers on the part of Frank to remain until Nicholas arrived, no matter what hour of the night it might be, if, after the late neighbourly irruption, they entertained the least fear of being left to themselves. As their freedom from all further apprehension, however, left no pretext for his insisting on mounting guard, he was obliged to abandon the citadel, and to retire with the trusty Tim.

Nearly three hours of silence passed away. Kate blushed to find, when Nicholas returned, how long she had been sitting alone, occupied with her own thoughts.

‘I really thought it had not been half an hour,’ she said.

‘They must have been pleasant thoughts, Kate,’ rejoined Nicholas gaily, ‘to make time pass away like that. What were they now?’

Kate was confused; she toyed with some trifle on the table, looked up and smiled, looked down and dropped a tear.

‘Why, Kate,’ said Nicholas, drawing his sister towards him and kissing her, ‘let me see your face. No? Ah! that was but a glimpse; that’s scarcely fair. A longer look than that, Kate. Come—and I’ll read your thoughts for you.’

There was something in this proposition, albeit it was said without the slightest consciousness or application, which so alarmed his sister, that Nicholas laughingly changed the subject to domestic matters, and thus gathered, by degrees, as they left the room and went upstairs together, how lonely Smike had been all night—and by very slow degrees, too; for on this subject also, Kate seemed to speak with some reluctance.

‘Poor fellow,’ said Nicholas, tapping gently at his door, ‘what can be the cause of all this?’

Kate was hanging on her brother’s arm. The door being quickly opened, she had not time to disengage herself, before Smike, very pale and haggard, and completely dressed, confronted them.

‘And have you not been to bed?’ said Nicholas.

‘N—n—no,’ was the reply.

Nicholas gently detained his sister, who made an effort to retire; and asked, ‘Why not?’

‘I could not sleep,’ said Smike, grasping the hand which his friend extended to him.

‘You are not well?’ rejoined Nicholas.

‘I am better, indeed. A great deal better,’ said Smike quickly.

‘Then why do you give way to these fits of melancholy?’ inquired Nicholas, in his kindest manner; ‘or why not tell us the cause? You grow a different creature, Smike.’

‘I do; I know I do,’ he replied. ‘I will tell you the reason one day, but not now. I hate myself for this; you are all so good and kind. But I cannot help it. My heart is very full; you do not know how full it is.’

He wrung Nicholas’s hand before he released it; and glancing, for a moment, at the brother and sister as they stood together, as if there were something in their strong affection which touched him very deeply, withdrew into his chamber, and was soon the only watcher under that quiet roof.






CHAPTER 50

Involves a serious Catastrophe

The little race-course at Hampton was in the full tide and height of its gaiety; the day as dazzling as day could be; the sun high in the cloudless sky, and shining in its fullest splendour. Every gaudy colour that fluttered in the air from carriage seat and garish tent top, shone out in its gaudiest hues. Old dingy flags grew new again, faded gilding was re-burnished, stained rotten canvas looked a snowy white, the very beggars’ rags were freshened up, and sentiment quite forgot its charity in its fervent admiration of poverty so picturesque.

It was one of those scenes of life and animation, caught in its very brightest and freshest moments, which can scarcely fail to please; for if the eye be tired of show and glare, or the ear be weary with a ceaseless round of noise, the one may repose, turn almost where it will, on eager, happy, and expectant faces, and the other deaden all consciousness of more annoying sounds in those of mirth and exhilaration. Even the sunburnt faces of gypsy children, half naked though they be, suggest a drop of comfort. It is a pleasant thing to see that the sun has been there; to know that the air and light are on them every day; to feel that they are children, and lead children’s lives; that if their pillows be damp, it is with the dews of Heaven, and not with tears; that the limbs of their girls are free, and that they are not crippled by distortions, imposing an unnatural and horrible penance upon their sex; that their lives are spent, from day to day, at least among the waving trees, and not in the midst of dreadful engines which make young children old before they know what childhood is, and give them the exhaustion and infirmity of age, without, like age, the privilege to die. God send that old nursery tales were true, and that gypsies stole such children by the score!

The great race of the day had just been run; and the close lines of people, on either side of the course, suddenly breaking up and pouring into it, imparted a new liveliness to the scene, which was again all busy movement. Some hurried eagerly to catch a glimpse of the winning horse; others darted to and fro, searching, no less eagerly, for the carriages they had left in quest of better stations. Here, a little knot gathered round a pea and thimble table to watch the plucking of some unhappy greenhorn; and there, another proprietor with his confederates in various disguises—one man in spectacles; another, with an eyeglass and a stylish hat; a third, dressed as a farmer well to do in the world, with his top-coat over his arm and his flash notes in a large leathern pocket-book; and all with heavy-handled whips to represent most innocent country fellows who had trotted there on horseback—sought, by loud and noisy talk and pretended play, to entrap some unwary customer, while the gentlemen confederates (of more villainous aspect still, in clean linen and good clothes), betrayed their close interest in the concern by the anxious furtive glance they cast on all new comers. These would be hanging on the outskirts of a wide circle of people assembled round some itinerant juggler, opposed, in his turn, by a noisy band of music, or the classic game of ‘Ring the Bull,’ while ventriloquists holding dialogues with wooden dolls, and fortune-telling women smothering the cries of real babies, divided with them, and many more, the general attention of the company. Drinking-tents were full, glasses began to clink in carriages, hampers to be unpacked, tempting provisions to be set forth, knives and forks to rattle, champagne corks to fly, eyes to brighten that were not dull before, and pickpockets to count their gains during the last heat. The attention so recently strained on one object of interest, was now divided among a hundred; and look where you would, there was a motley assemblage of feasting, laughing, talking, begging, gambling, and mummery.

Of the gambling-booths there was a plentiful show, flourishing in all the splendour of carpeted ground, striped hangings, crimson cloth, pinnacled roofs, geranium pots, and livery servants. There were the Stranger’s club-house, the Athenaeum club-house, the Hampton club-house, the St James’s club-house, and half a mile of club-houses to play in; and there were Rouge-Et-Noir, French hazard, and other games to play at. It is into one of these booths that our story takes its way.

Fitted up with three tables for the purposes of play, and crowded with players and lookers on, it was, although the largest place of the kind upon the course, intensely hot, notwithstanding that a portion of the canvas roof was rolled back to admit more air, and there were two doors for a free passage in and out. Excepting one or two men who, each with a long roll of half-crowns, chequered with a few stray sovereigns, in his left hand, staked their money at every roll of the ball with a business-like sedateness which showed that they were used to it, and had been playing all day, and most probably all the day before, there was no very distinctive character about the players, who were chiefly young men, apparently attracted by curiosity, or staking small sums as part of the amusement of the day, with no very great interest in winning or losing. There were two persons present, however, who, as peculiarly good specimens of a class, deserve a passing notice.

Of these, one was a man of six or eight and fifty, who sat on a chair near one of the entrances of the booth, with his hands folded on the top of his stick, and his chin appearing above them. He was a tall, fat, long-bodied man, buttoned up to the throat in a light green coat, which made his body look still longer than it was. He wore, besides, drab breeches and gaiters, a white neckerchief, and a broad-brimmed white hat. Amid all the buzzing noise of the games, and the perpetual passing in and out of the people, he seemed perfectly calm and abstracted, without the smallest particle of excitement in his composition. He exhibited no indication of weariness, nor, to a casual observer, of interest either. There he sat, quite still and collected. Sometimes, but very rarely, he nodded to some passing face, or beckoned to a waiter to obey a call from one of the tables. The next instant he subsided into his old state. He might have been some profoundly deaf old gentleman, who had come in to take a rest, or he might have been patiently waiting for a friend, without the least consciousness of anybody’s presence, or fixed in a trance, or under the influence of opium. People turned round and looked at him; he made no gesture, caught nobody’s eye, let them pass away, and others come on and be succeeded by others, and took no notice. When he did move, it seemed wonderful how he could have seen anything to occasion it. And so, in truth, it was. But there was not a face that passed in or out, which this man failed to see; not a gesture at any one of the three tables that was lost upon him; not a word, spoken by the bankers, but reached his ear; not a winner or loser he could not have marked. And he was the proprietor of the place.

The other presided over the Rouge-Et-Noir table. He was probably some ten years younger, and was a plump, paunchy, sturdy-looking fellow, with his under-lip a little pursed, from a habit of counting money inwardly as he paid it, but with no decidedly bad expression in his face, which was rather an honest and jolly one than otherwise. He wore no coat, the weather being hot, and stood behind the table with a huge mound of crowns and half-crowns before him, and a cash-box for notes. This game was constantly playing. Perhaps twenty people would be staking at the same time. This man had to roll the ball, to watch the stakes as they were laid down, to gather them off the colour which lost, to pay those who won, to do it all with the utmost dispatch, to roll the ball again, and to keep this game perpetually alive. He did it all with a rapidity absolutely marvellous; never hesitating, never making a mistake, never stopping, and never ceasing to repeat such unconnected phrases as the following, which, partly from habit, and partly to have something appropriate and business-like to say, he constantly poured out with the same monotonous emphasis, and in nearly the same order, all day long:

‘Rooge-a-nore from Paris! Gentlemen, make your game and back your own opinions—any time while the ball rolls—rooge-a-nore from Paris, gentlemen, it’s a French game, gentlemen, I brought it over myself, I did indeed!—Rooge-a-nore from Paris—black wins—black—stop a minute, sir, and I’ll pay you, directly—two there, half a pound there, three there—and one there—gentlemen, the ball’s a rolling—any time, sir, while the ball rolls!—The beauty of this game is, that you can double your stakes or put down your money, gentlemen, any time while the ball rolls—black again—black wins—I never saw such a thing—I never did, in all my life, upon my word I never did; if any gentleman had been backing the black in the last five minutes he must have won five-and-forty pound in four rolls of the ball, he must indeed. Gentlemen, we’ve port, sherry, cigars, and most excellent champagne. Here, wai-ter, bring a bottle of champagne, and let’s have a dozen or fifteen cigars here—and let’s be comfortable, gentlemen—and bring some clean glasses—any time while the ball rolls!—I lost one hundred and thirty-seven pound yesterday, gentlemen, at one roll of the ball, I did indeed!—how do you do, sir?’ (recognising some knowing gentleman without any halt or change of voice, and giving a wink so slight that it seems an accident), ‘will you take a glass of sherry, sir?—here, wai-ter! bring a clean glass, and hand the sherry to this gentleman—and hand it round, will you, waiter?—this is the rooge-a-nore from Paris, gentlemen—any time while the ball rolls!—gentlemen, make your game, and back your own opinions—it’s the rooge-a-nore from Paris—quite a new game, I brought it over myself, I did indeed—gentlemen, the ball’s a-rolling!’

This officer was busily plying his vocation when half-a-dozen persons sauntered through the booth, to whom, but without stopping either in his speech or work, he bowed respectfully; at the same time directing, by a look, the attention of a man beside him to the tallest figure in the group, in recognition of whom the proprietor pulled off his hat. This was Sir Mulberry Hawk, with whom were his friend and pupil, and a small train of gentlemanly-dressed men, of characters more doubtful than obscure.

The proprietor, in a low voice, bade Sir Mulberry good-day. Sir Mulberry, in the same tone, bade the proprietor go to the devil, and turned to speak with his friends.

There was evidently an irritable consciousness about him that he was an object of curiosity, on this first occasion of showing himself in public after the accident that had befallen him; and it was easy to perceive that he appeared on the race-course, that day, more in the hope of meeting with a great many people who knew him, and so getting over as much as possible of the annoyance at once, than with any purpose of enjoying the sport. There yet remained a slight scar upon his face, and whenever he was recognised, as he was almost every minute by people sauntering in and out, he made a restless effort to conceal it with his glove; showing how keenly he felt the disgrace he had undergone.

‘Ah! Hawk,’ said one very sprucely-dressed personage in a Newmarket coat, a choice neckerchief, and all other accessories of the most unexceptionable kind. ‘How d’ye do, old fellow?’

This was a rival trainer of young noblemen and gentlemen, and the person of all others whom Sir Mulberry most hated and dreaded to meet. They shook hands with excessive cordiality.

‘And how are you now, old fellow, hey?’

‘Quite well, quite well,’ said Sir Mulberry.

‘That’s right,’ said the other. ‘How d’ye do, Verisopht? He’s a little pulled down, our friend here. Rather out of condition still, hey?’

It should be observed that the gentleman had very white teeth, and that when there was no excuse for laughing, he generally finished with the same monosyllable, which he uttered so as to display them.

‘He’s in very good condition; there’s nothing the matter with him,’ said the young man carelessly.

‘Upon my soul I’m glad to hear it,’ rejoined the other. ‘Have you just returned from Brussels?’

‘We only reached town late last night,’ said Lord Frederick. Sir Mulberry turned away to speak to one of his own party, and feigned not to hear.

‘Now, upon my life,’ said the friend, affecting to speak in a whisper, ‘it’s an uncommonly bold and game thing in Hawk to show himself so soon. I say it advisedly; there’s a vast deal of courage in it. You see he has just rusticated long enough to excite curiosity, and not long enough for men to have forgotten that deuced unpleasant—by-the-bye—you know the rights of the affair, of course? Why did you never give those confounded papers the lie? I seldom read the papers, but I looked in the papers for that, and may I be—’

‘Look in the papers,’ interrupted Sir Mulberry, turning suddenly round, ‘tomorrow—no, next day, will you?’

‘Upon my life, my dear fellow, I seldom or never read the papers,’ said the other, shrugging his shoulders, ‘but I will, at your recommendation. What shall I look for?’

‘Good day,’ said Sir Mulberry, turning abruptly on his heel, and drawing his pupil with him. Falling, again, into the loitering, careless pace at which they had entered, they lounged out, arm in arm.

‘I won’t give him a case of murder to read,’ muttered Sir Mulberry with an oath; ‘but it shall be something very near it if whipcord cuts and bludgeons bruise.’

His companion said nothing, but there was something in his manner which galled Sir Mulberry to add, with nearly as much ferocity as if his friend had been Nicholas himself:

‘I sent Jenkins to old Nickleby before eight o’clock this morning. He’s a staunch one; he was back with me before the messenger. I had it all from him in the first five minutes. I know where this hound is to be met with; time and place both. But there’s no need to talk; tomorrow will soon be here.’

‘And wha-at’s to be done tomorrow?’ inquired Lord Frederick.

Sir Mulberry Hawk honoured him with an angry glance, but condescended to return no verbal answer to this inquiry. Both walked sullenly on, as though their thoughts were busily occupied, until they were quite clear of the crowd, and almost alone, when Sir Mulberry wheeled round to return.

‘Stop,’ said his companion, ‘I want to speak to you in earnest. Don’t turn back. Let us walk here, a few minutes.’

‘What have you to say to me, that you could not say yonder as well as here?’ returned his Mentor, disengaging his arm.

‘Hawk,’ rejoined the other, ‘tell me; I must know.’

‘Must know,’ interrupted the other disdainfully. ‘Whew! Go on. If you must know, of course there’s no escape for me. Must know!’

‘Must ask then,’ returned Lord Frederick, ‘and must press you for a plain and straightforward answer. Is what you have just said only a mere whim of the moment, occasioned by your being out of humour and irritated, or is it your serious intention, and one that you have actually contemplated?’

‘Why, don’t you remember what passed on the subject one night, when I was laid up with a broken limb?’ said Sir Mulberry, with a sneer.

‘Perfectly well.’

‘Then take that for an answer, in the devil’s name,’ replied Sir Mulberry, ‘and ask me for no other.’

Such was the ascendancy he had acquired over his dupe, and such the latter’s general habit of submission, that, for the moment, the young man seemed half afraid to pursue the subject. He soon overcame this feeling, however, if it had restrained him at all, and retorted angrily:

‘If I remember what passed at the time you speak of, I expressed a strong opinion on this subject, and said that, with my knowledge or consent, you never should do what you threaten now.’

‘Will you prevent me?’ asked Sir Mulberry, with a laugh.

‘Ye-es, if I can,’ returned the other, promptly.

‘A very proper saving clause, that last,’ said Sir Mulberry; ‘and one you stand in need of. Oh! look to your own business, and leave me to look to mine.’

‘This is mine,’ retorted Lord Frederick. ‘I make it mine; I will make it mine. It’s mine already. I am more compromised than I should be, as it is.’

‘Do as you please, and what you please, for yourself,’ said Sir Mulberry, affecting an easy good-humour. ‘Surely that must content you! Do nothing for me; that’s all. I advise no man to interfere in proceedings that I choose to take. I am sure you know me better than to do so. The fact is, I see, you mean to offer me advice. It is well meant, I have no doubt, but I reject it. Now, if you please, we will return to the carriage. I find no entertainment here, but quite the reverse. If we prolong this conversation, we might quarrel, which would be no proof of wisdom in either you or me.’

With this rejoinder, and waiting for no further discussion, Sir Mulberry Hawk yawned, and very leisurely turned back.

There was not a little tact and knowledge of the young lord’s disposition in this mode of treating him. Sir Mulberry clearly saw that if his dominion were to last, it must be established now. He knew that the moment he became violent, the young man would become violent too. He had, many times, been enabled to strengthen his influence, when any circumstance had occurred to weaken it, by adopting this cool and laconic style; and he trusted to it now, with very little doubt of its entire success.

But while he did this, and wore the most careless and indifferent deportment that his practised arts enabled him to assume, he inwardly resolved, not only to visit all the mortification of being compelled to suppress his feelings, with additional severity upon Nicholas, but also to make the young lord pay dearly for it, one day, in some shape or other. So long as he had been a passive instrument in his hands, Sir Mulberry had regarded him with no other feeling than contempt; but, now that he presumed to avow opinions in opposition to his, and even to turn upon him with a lofty tone and an air of superiority, he began to hate him. Conscious that, in the vilest and most worthless sense of the term, he was dependent upon the weak young lord, Sir Mulberry could the less brook humiliation at his hands; and when he began to dislike him he measured his dislike—as men often do—by the extent of the injuries he had inflicted upon its object. When it is remembered that Sir Mulberry Hawk had plundered, duped, deceived, and fooled his pupil in every possible way, it will not be wondered at, that, beginning to hate him, he began to hate him cordially.

On the other hand, the young lord having thought—which he very seldom did about anything—and seriously too, upon the affair with Nicholas, and the circumstances which led to it, had arrived at a manly and honest conclusion. Sir Mulberry’s coarse and insulting behaviour on the occasion in question had produced a deep impression on his mind; a strong suspicion of his having led him on to pursue Miss Nickleby for purposes of his own, had been lurking there for some time; he was really ashamed of his share in the transaction, and deeply mortified by the misgiving that he had been gulled. He had had sufficient leisure to reflect upon these things, during their late retirement; and, at times, when his careless and indolent nature would permit, had availed himself of the opportunity. Slight circumstances, too, had occurred to increase his suspicion. It wanted but a very slight circumstance to kindle his wrath against Sir Mulberry. This his disdainful and insolent tone in their recent conversation (the only one they had held upon the subject since the period to which Sir Mulberry referred), effected.

Thus they rejoined their friends: each with causes of dislike against the other rankling in his breast: and the young man haunted, besides, with thoughts of the vindictive retaliation which was threatened against Nicholas, and the determination to prevent it by some strong step, if possible. But this was not all. Sir Mulberry, conceiving that he had silenced him effectually, could not suppress his triumph, or forbear from following up what he conceived to be his advantage. Mr. Pyke was there, and Mr. Pluck was there, and Colonel Chowser, and other gentlemen of the same caste, and it was a great point for Sir Mulberry to show them that he had not lost his influence. At first, the young lord contented himself with a silent determination to take measures for withdrawing himself from the connection immediately. By degrees, he grew more angry, and was exasperated by jests and familiarities which, a few hours before, would have been a source of amusement to him. This did not serve him; for, at such bantering or retort as suited the company, he was no match for Sir Mulberry. Still, no violent rupture took place. They returned to town; Messrs Pyke and Pluck and other gentlemen frequently protesting, on the way thither, that Sir Mulberry had never been in such tiptop spirits in all his life.

They dined together, sumptuously. The wine flowed freely, as indeed it had done all day. Sir Mulberry drank to recompense himself for his recent abstinence; the young lord, to drown his indignation; and the remainder of the party, because the wine was of the best and they had nothing to pay. It was nearly midnight when they rushed out, wild, burning with wine, their blood boiling, and their brains on fire, to the gaming-table.

Here, they encountered another party, mad like themselves. The excitement of play, hot rooms, and glaring lights was not calculated to allay the fever of the time. In that giddy whirl of noise and confusion, the men were delirious. Who thought of money, ruin, or the morrow, in the savage intoxication of the moment? More wine was called for, glass after glass was drained, their parched and scalding mouths were cracked with thirst. Down poured the wine like oil on blazing fire. And still the riot went on. The debauchery gained its height; glasses were dashed upon the floor by hands that could not carry them to lips; oaths were shouted out by lips which could scarcely form the words to vent them in; drunken losers cursed and roared; some mounted on the tables, waving bottles above their heads and bidding defiance to the rest; some danced, some sang, some tore the cards and raved. Tumult and frenzy reigned supreme; when a noise arose that drowned all others, and two men, seizing each other by the throat, struggled into the middle of the room.

A dozen voices, until now unheard, called aloud to part them. Those who had kept themselves cool, to win, and who earned their living in such scenes, threw themselves upon the combatants, and, forcing them asunder, dragged them some space apart.

‘Let me go!’ cried Sir Mulberry, in a thick hoarse voice; ‘he struck me! Do you hear? I say, he struck me. Have I a friend here? Who is this? Westwood. Do you hear me say he struck me?’

‘I hear, I hear,’ replied one of those who held him. ‘Come away for tonight!’

‘I will not, by G—,’ he replied. ‘A dozen men about us saw the blow.’

‘Tomorrow will be ample time,’ said the friend.

‘It will not be ample time!’ cried Sir Mulberry. ‘Tonight, at once, here!’ His passion was so great, that he could not articulate, but stood clenching his fist, tearing his hair, and stamping upon the ground.

‘What is this, my lord?’ said one of those who surrounded him. ‘Have blows passed?’

‘One blow has,’ was the panting reply. ‘I struck him. I proclaim it to all here! I struck him, and he knows why. I say, with him, let this quarrel be adjusted now. Captain Adams,’ said the young lord, looking hurriedly about him, and addressing one of those who had interposed, ‘let me speak with you, I beg.’

The person addressed stepped forward, and taking the young man’s arm, they retired together, followed shortly afterwards by Sir Mulberry and his friend.

It was a profligate haunt of the worst repute, and not a place in which such an affair was likely to awaken any sympathy for either party, or to call forth any further remonstrance or interposition. Elsewhere, its further progress would have been instantly prevented, and time allowed for sober and cool reflection; but not there. Disturbed in their orgies, the party broke up; some reeled away with looks of tipsy gravity; others withdrew noisily discussing what had just occurred; the gentlemen of honour who lived upon their winnings remarked to each other, as they went out, that Hawk was a good shot; and those who had been most noisy, fell fast asleep upon the sofas, and thought no more about it.

Meanwhile, the two seconds, as they may be called now, after a long conference, each with his principal, met together in another room. Both utterly heartless, both men upon town, both thoroughly initiated in its worst vices, both deeply in debt, both fallen from some higher estate, both addicted to every depravity for which society can find some genteel name and plead its most depraving conventionalities as an excuse, they were naturally gentlemen of most unblemished honour themselves, and of great nicety concerning the honour of other people.

These two gentlemen were unusually cheerful just now; for the affair was pretty certain to make some noise, and could scarcely fail to enhance their reputations.

‘This is an awkward affair, Adams,’ said Mr. Westwood, drawing himself up.

‘Very,’ returned the captain; ‘a blow has been struck, and there is but one course, of course.’

‘No apology, I suppose?’ said Mr. Westwood.

‘Not a syllable, sir, from my man, if we talk till doomsday,’ returned the captain. ‘The original cause of dispute, I understand, was some girl or other, to whom your principal applied certain terms, which Lord Frederick, defending the girl, repelled. But this led to a long recrimination upon a great many sore subjects, charges, and counter-charges. Sir Mulberry was sarcastic; Lord Frederick was excited, and struck him in the heat of provocation, and under circumstances of great aggravation. That blow, unless there is a full retraction on the part of Sir Mulberry, Lord Frederick is ready to justify.’

‘There is no more to be said,’ returned the other, ‘but to settle the hour and the place of meeting. It’s a responsibility; but there is a strong feeling to have it over. Do you object to say at sunrise?’

‘Sharp work,’ replied the captain, referring to his watch; ‘however, as this seems to have been a long time breeding, and negotiation is only a waste of words, no.’

‘Something may possibly be said, out of doors, after what passed in the other room, which renders it desirable that we should be off without delay, and quite clear of town,’ said Mr. Westwood. ‘What do you say to one of the meadows opposite Twickenham, by the river-side?’

The captain saw no objection.

‘Shall we join company in the avenue of trees which leads from Petersham to Ham House, and settle the exact spot when we arrive there?’ said Mr Westwood.

To this the captain also assented. After a few other preliminaries, equally brief, and having settled the road each party should take to avoid suspicion, they separated.

‘We shall just have comfortable time, my lord,’ said the captain, when he had communicated the arrangements, ‘to call at my rooms for a case of pistols, and then jog coolly down. If you will allow me to dismiss your servant, we’ll take my cab; for yours, perhaps, might be recognised.’

What a contrast, when they reached the street, to the scene they had just left! It was already daybreak. For the flaring yellow light within, was substituted the clear, bright, glorious morning; for a hot, close atmosphere, tainted with the smell of expiring lamps, and reeking with the steams of riot and dissipation, the free, fresh, wholesome air. But to the fevered head on which that cool air blew, it seemed to come laden with remorse for time misspent and countless opportunities neglected. With throbbing veins and burning skin, eyes wild and heavy, thoughts hurried and disordered, he felt as though the light were a reproach, and shrunk involuntarily from the day as if he were some foul and hideous thing.

‘Shivering?’ said the captain. ‘You are cold.’

‘Rather.’

‘It does strike cool, coming out of those hot rooms. Wrap that cloak about you. So, so; now we’re off.’

They rattled through the quiet streets, made their call at the captain’s lodgings, cleared the town, and emerged upon the open road, without hindrance or molestation.

Fields, trees, gardens, hedges, everything looked very beautiful; the young man scarcely seemed to have noticed them before, though he had passed the same objects a thousand times. There was a peace and serenity upon them all, strangely at variance with the bewilderment and confusion of his own half-sobered thoughts, and yet impressive and welcome. He had no fear upon his mind; but, as he looked about him, he had less anger; and though all old delusions, relative to his worthless late companion, were now cleared away, he rather wished he had never known him than thought of its having come to this.

The past night, the day before, and many other days and nights beside, all mingled themselves up in one unintelligible and senseless whirl; he could not separate the transactions of one time from those of another. Now, the noise of the wheels resolved itself into some wild tune in which he could recognise scraps of airs he knew; now, there was nothing in his ears but a stunning and bewildering sound, like rushing water. But his companion rallied him on being so silent, and they talked and laughed boisterously. When they stopped, he was a little surprised to find himself in the act of smoking; but, on reflection, he remembered when and where he had taken the cigar.

They stopped at the avenue gate and alighted, leaving the carriage to the care of the servant, who was a smart fellow, and nearly as well accustomed to such proceedings as his master. Sir Mulberry and his friend were already there. All four walked in profound silence up the aisle of stately elm trees, which, meeting far above their heads, formed a long green perspective of Gothic arches, terminating, like some old ruin, in the open sky.

After a pause, and a brief conference between the seconds, they, at length, turned to the right, and taking a track across a little meadow, passed Ham House and came into some fields beyond. In one of these, they stopped. The ground was measured, some usual forms gone through, the two principals were placed front to front at the distance agreed upon, and Sir Mulberry turned his face towards his young adversary for the first time. He was very pale, his eyes were bloodshot, his dress disordered, and his hair dishevelled. For the face, it expressed nothing but violent and evil passions. He shaded his eyes with his hand; grazed at his opponent, steadfastly, for a few moments; and, then taking the weapon which was tendered to him, bent his eyes upon that, and looked up no more until the word was given, when he instantly fired.

The two shots were fired, as nearly as possible, at the same instant. In that instant, the young lord turned his head sharply round, fixed upon his adversary a ghastly stare, and without a groan or stagger, fell down dead.

‘He’s gone!’ cried Westwood, who, with the other second, had run up to the body, and fallen on one knee beside it.

‘His blood on his own head,’ said Sir Mulberry. ‘He brought this upon himself, and forced it upon me.’

‘Captain Adams,’ cried Westwood, hastily, ‘I call you to witness that this was fairly done. Hawk, we have not a moment to lose. We must leave this place immediately, push for Brighton, and cross to France with all speed. This has been a bad business, and may be worse, if we delay a moment. Adams, consult your own safety, and don’t remain here; the living before the dead; goodbye!’

With these words, he seized Sir Mulberry by the arm, and hurried him away. Captain Adams—only pausing to convince himself, beyond all question, of the fatal result—sped off in the same direction, to concert measures with his servant for removing the body, and securing his own safety likewise.

So died Lord Frederick Verisopht, by the hand which he had loaded with gifts, and clasped a thousand times; by the act of him, but for whom, and others like him, he might have lived a happy man, and died with children’s faces round his bed.

The sun came proudly up in all his majesty, the noble river ran its winding course, the leaves quivered and rustled in the air, the birds poured their cheerful songs from every tree, the short-lived butterfly fluttered its little wings; all the light and life of day came on; and, amidst it all, and pressing down the grass whose every blade bore twenty tiny lives, lay the dead man, with his stark and rigid face turned upwards to the sky.