{tocify}

Nicholas Nickleby

Chapter

Book

first_page
play_arrow
last_page
00:00
00:00
volume_down_alt volume_up


CHAPTER 6

In which the Occurrence of the Accident mentioned in the last Chapter, affords an Opportunity to a couple of Gentlemen to tell Stories against each other

‘Wo ho!’ cried the guard, on his legs in a minute, and running to the leaders’ heads. ‘Is there ony genelmen there as can len’ a hond here? Keep quiet, dang ye! Wo ho!’

‘What’s the matter?’ demanded Nicholas, looking sleepily up.

‘Matther mun, matter eneaf for one neight,’ replied the guard; ‘dang the wall-eyed bay, he’s gane mad wi’ glory I think, carse t’coorch is over. Here, can’t ye len’ a hond? Dom it, I’d ha’ dean it if all my boans were brokken.’

‘Here!’ cried Nicholas, staggering to his feet, ‘I’m ready. I’m only a little abroad, that’s all.’

‘Hoold ‘em toight,’ cried the guard, ‘while ar coot treaces. Hang on tiv’em sumhoo. Well deane, my lod. That’s it. Let’em goa noo. Dang ‘em, they’ll gang whoam fast eneaf!’

In truth, the animals were no sooner released than they trotted back, with much deliberation, to the stable they had just left, which was distant not a mile behind.

‘Can you blo’ a harn?’ asked the guard, disengaging one of the coach-lamps.

‘I dare say I can,’ replied Nicholas.

‘Then just blo’ away into that ‘un as lies on the grund, fit to wakken the deead, will’ee,’ said the man, ‘while I stop sum o’ this here squealing inside. Cumin’, cumin’. Dean’t make that noise, wooman.’

As the man spoke, he proceeded to wrench open the uppermost door of the coach, while Nicholas, seizing the horn, awoke the echoes far and wide with one of the most extraordinary performances on that instrument ever heard by mortal ears. It had its effect, however, not only in rousing such of their fall, but in summoning assistance to their relief; for lights gleamed in the distance, and people were already astir.

In fact, a man on horseback galloped down, before the passengers were well collected together; and a careful investigation being instituted, it appeared that the lady inside had broken her lamp, and the gentleman his head; that the two front outsides had escaped with black eyes; the box with a bloody nose; the coachman with a contusion on the temple; Mr Squeers with a portmanteau bruise on his back; and the remaining passengers without any injury at all—thanks to the softness of the snow-drift in which they had been overturned. These facts were no sooner thoroughly ascertained, than the lady gave several indications of fainting, but being forewarned that if she did, she must be carried on some gentleman’s shoulders to the nearest public-house, she prudently thought better of it, and walked back with the rest.

They found on reaching it, that it was a lonely place with no very great accommodation in the way of apartments—that portion of its resources being all comprised in one public room with a sanded floor, and a chair or two. However, a large faggot and a plentiful supply of coals being heaped upon the fire, the appearance of things was not long in mending; and, by the time they had washed off all effaceable marks of the late accident, the room was warm and light, which was a most agreeable exchange for the cold and darkness out of doors.

‘Well, Mr. Nickleby,’ said Squeers, insinuating himself into the warmest corner, ‘you did very right to catch hold of them horses. I should have done it myself if I had come to in time, but I am very glad you did it. You did it very well; very well.’

‘So well,’ said the merry-faced gentleman, who did not seem to approve very much of the patronising tone adopted by Squeers, ‘that if they had not been firmly checked when they were, you would most probably have had no brains left to teach with.’

This remark called up a discourse relative to the promptitude Nicholas had displayed, and he was overwhelmed with compliments and commendations.

‘I am very glad to have escaped, of course,’ observed Squeers: ‘every man is glad when he escapes from danger; but if any one of my charges had been hurt—if I had been prevented from restoring any one of these little boys to his parents whole and sound as I received him—what would have been my feelings? Why the wheel a-top of my head would have been far preferable to it.’

‘Are they all brothers, sir?’ inquired the lady who had carried the ‘Davy’ or safety-lamp.

‘In one sense they are, ma’am,’ replied Squeers, diving into his greatcoat pocket for cards. ‘They are all under the same parental and affectionate treatment. Mrs. Squeers and myself are a mother and father to every one of ‘em. Mr. Nickleby, hand the lady them cards, and offer these to the gentleman. Perhaps they might know of some parents that would be glad to avail themselves of the establishment.’

Expressing himself to this effect, Mr. Squeers, who lost no opportunity of advertising gratuitously, placed his hands upon his knees, and looked at the pupils with as much benignity as he could possibly affect, while Nicholas, blushing with shame, handed round the cards as directed.

‘I hope you suffer no inconvenience from the overturn, ma’am?’ said the merry-faced gentleman, addressing the fastidious lady, as though he were charitably desirous to change the subject.

‘No bodily inconvenience,’ replied the lady.

‘No mental inconvenience, I hope?’

‘The subject is a very painful one to my feelings, sir,’ replied the lady with strong emotion; ‘and I beg you as a gentleman, not to refer to it.’

‘Dear me,’ said the merry-faced gentleman, looking merrier still, ‘I merely intended to inquire—’

‘I hope no inquiries will be made,’ said the lady, ‘or I shall be compelled to throw myself on the protection of the other gentlemen. Landlord, pray direct a boy to keep watch outside the door—and if a green chariot passes in the direction of Grantham, to stop it instantly.’

The people of the house were evidently overcome by this request, and when the lady charged the boy to remember, as a means of identifying the expected green chariot, that it would have a coachman with a gold-laced hat on the box, and a footman, most probably in silk stockings, behind, the attentions of the good woman of the inn were redoubled. Even the box-passenger caught the infection, and growing wonderfully deferential, immediately inquired whether there was not very good society in that neighbourhood, to which the lady replied yes, there was: in a manner which sufficiently implied that she moved at the very tiptop and summit of it all.

‘As the guard has gone on horseback to Grantham to get another coach,’ said the good-tempered gentleman when they had been all sitting round the fire, for some time, in silence, ‘and as he must be gone a couple of hours at the very least, I propose a bowl of hot punch. What say you, sir?’

This question was addressed to the broken-headed inside, who was a man of very genteel appearance, dressed in mourning. He was not past the middle age, but his hair was grey; it seemed to have been prematurely turned by care or sorrow. He readily acceded to the proposal, and appeared to be prepossessed by the frank good-nature of the individual from whom it emanated.

This latter personage took upon himself the office of tapster when the punch was ready, and after dispensing it all round, led the conversation to the antiquities of York, with which both he and the grey-haired gentleman appeared to be well acquainted. When this topic flagged, he turned with a smile to the grey-headed gentleman, and asked if he could sing.

‘I cannot indeed,’ replied gentleman, smiling in his turn.

‘That’s a pity,’ said the owner of the good-humoured countenance. ‘Is there nobody here who can sing a song to lighten the time?’

The passengers, one and all, protested that they could not; that they wished they could; that they couldn’t remember the words of anything without the book; and so forth.

‘Perhaps the lady would not object,’ said the president with great respect, and a merry twinkle in his eye. ‘Some little Italian thing out of the last opera brought out in town, would be most acceptable I am sure.’

As the lady condescended to make no reply, but tossed her head contemptuously, and murmured some further expression of surprise regarding the absence of the green chariot, one or two voices urged upon the president himself, the propriety of making an attempt for the general benefit.

‘I would if I could,’ said he of the good-tempered face; ‘for I hold that in this, as in all other cases where people who are strangers to each other are thrown unexpectedly together, they should endeavour to render themselves as pleasant, for the joint sake of the little community, as possible.’

‘I wish the maxim were more generally acted on, in all cases,’ said the grey-headed gentleman.

‘I’m glad to hear it,’ returned the other. ‘Perhaps, as you can’t sing, you’ll tell us a story?’

‘Nay. I should ask you.’

‘After you, I will, with pleasure.’

‘Indeed!’ said the grey-haired gentleman, smiling, ‘Well, let it be so. I fear the turn of my thoughts is not calculated to lighten the time you must pass here; but you have brought this upon yourselves, and shall judge. We were speaking of York Minster just now. My story shall have some reference to it. Let us call it

THE FIVE SISTERS OF YORK

After a murmur of approbation from the other passengers, during which the fastidious lady drank a glass of punch unobserved, the grey-headed gentleman thus went on:

‘A great many years ago—for the fifteenth century was scarce two years old at the time, and King Henry the Fourth sat upon the throne of England—there dwelt, in the ancient city of York, five maiden sisters, the subjects of my tale.

‘These five sisters were all of surpassing beauty. The eldest was in her twenty-third year, the second a year younger, the third a year younger than the second, and the fourth a year younger than the third. They were tall stately figures, with dark flashing eyes and hair of jet; dignity and grace were in their every movement; and the fame of their great beauty had spread through all the country round.

‘But, if the four elder sisters were lovely, how beautiful was the youngest, a fair creature of sixteen! The blushing tints in the soft bloom on the fruit, or the delicate painting on the flower, are not more exquisite than was the blending of the rose and lily in her gentle face, or the deep blue of her eye. The vine, in all its elegant luxuriance, is not more graceful than were the clusters of rich brown hair that sported round her brow.

‘If we all had hearts like those which beat so lightly in the bosoms of the young and beautiful, what a heaven this earth would be! If, while our bodies grow old and withered, our hearts could but retain their early youth and freshness, of what avail would be our sorrows and sufferings! But, the faint image of Eden which is stamped upon them in childhood, chafes and rubs in our rough struggles with the world, and soon wears away: too often to leave nothing but a mournful blank remaining.

‘The heart of this fair girl bounded with joy and gladness. Devoted attachment to her sisters, and a fervent love of all beautiful things in nature, were its pure affections. Her gleesome voice and merry laugh were the sweetest music of their home. She was its very light and life. The brightest flowers in the garden were reared by her; the caged birds sang when they heard her voice, and pined when they missed its sweetness. Alice, dear Alice; what living thing within the sphere of her gentle witchery, could fail to love her!

‘You may seek in vain, now, for the spot on which these sisters lived, for their very names have passed away, and dusty antiquaries tell of them as of a fable. But they dwelt in an old wooden house—old even in those days—with overhanging gables and balconies of rudely-carved oak, which stood within a pleasant orchard, and was surrounded by a rough stone wall, whence a stout archer might have winged an arrow to St Mary’s Abbey. The old abbey flourished then; and the five sisters, living on its fair domains, paid yearly dues to the black monks of St Benedict, to which fraternity it belonged.

‘It was a bright and sunny morning in the pleasant time of summer, when one of those black monks emerged from the abbey portal, and bent his steps towards the house of the fair sisters. Heaven above was blue, and earth beneath was green; the river glistened like a path of diamonds in the sun; the birds poured forth their songs from the shady trees; the lark soared high above the waving corn; and the deep buzz of insects filled the air. Everything looked gay and smiling; but the holy man walked gloomily on, with his eyes bent upon the ground. The beauty of the earth is but a breath, and man is but a shadow. What sympathy should a holy preacher have with either?

‘With eyes bent upon the ground, then, or only raised enough to prevent his stumbling over such obstacles as lay in his way, the religious man moved slowly forward until he reached a small postern in the wall of the sisters’ orchard, through which he passed, closing it behind him. The noise of soft voices in conversation, and of merry laughter, fell upon his ears ere he had advanced many paces; and raising his eyes higher than was his humble wont, he descried, at no great distance, the five sisters seated on the grass, with Alice in the centre: all busily plying their customary task of embroidering.

‘“Save you, fair daughters!” said the friar; and fair in truth they were. Even a monk might have loved them as choice masterpieces of his Maker’s hand.

‘The sisters saluted the holy man with becoming reverence, and the eldest motioned him to a mossy seat beside them. But the good friar shook his head, and bumped himself down on a very hard stone,—at which, no doubt, approving angels were gratified.

‘“Ye were merry, daughters,” said the monk.

‘“You know how light of heart sweet Alice is,” replied the eldest sister, passing her fingers through the tresses of the smiling girl.

‘“And what joy and cheerfulness it wakes up within us, to see all nature beaming in brightness and sunshine, father,” added Alice, blushing beneath the stern look of the recluse.

‘The monk answered not, save by a grave inclination of the head, and the sisters pursued their task in silence.

‘“Still wasting the precious hours,” said the monk at length, turning to the eldest sister as he spoke, “still wasting the precious hours on this vain trifling. Alas, alas! that the few bubbles on the surface of eternity—all that Heaven wills we should see of that dark deep stream—should be so lightly scattered!”

‘“Father,” urged the maiden, pausing, as did each of the others, in her busy task, “we have prayed at matins, our daily alms have been distributed at the gate, the sick peasants have been tended,—all our morning tasks have been performed. I hope our occupation is a blameless one?’

‘“See here,” said the friar, taking the frame from her hand, “an intricate winding of gaudy colours, without purpose or object, unless it be that one day it is destined for some vain ornament, to minister to the pride of your frail and giddy sex. Day after day has been employed upon this senseless task, and yet it is not half accomplished. The shade of each departed day falls upon our graves, and the worm exults as he beholds it, to know that we are hastening thither. Daughters, is there no better way to pass the fleeting hours?”

‘The four elder sisters cast down their eyes as if abashed by the holy man’s reproof, but Alice raised hers, and bent them mildly on the friar.

‘“Our dear mother,” said the maiden; “Heaven rest her soul!”

‘“Amen!” cried the friar in a deep voice.

‘“Our dear mother,” faltered the fair Alice, “was living when these long tasks began, and bade us, when she should be no more, ply them in all discretion and cheerfulness, in our leisure hours; she said that if in harmless mirth and maidenly pursuits we passed those hours together, they would prove the happiest and most peaceful of our lives, and that if, in later times, we went forth into the world, and mingled with its cares and trials—if, allured by its temptations and dazzled by its glitter, we ever forgot that love and duty which should bind, in holy ties, the children of one loved parent—a glance at the old work of our common girlhood would awaken good thoughts of bygone days, and soften our hearts to affection and love.”

‘“Alice speaks truly, father,” said the elder sister, somewhat proudly. And so saying she resumed her work, as did the others.

‘It was a kind of sampler of large size, that each sister had before her; the device was of a complex and intricate description, and the pattern and colours of all five were the same. The sisters bent gracefully over their work; the monk, resting his chin upon his hands, looked from one to the other in silence.

‘“How much better,” he said at length, “to shun all such thoughts and chances, and, in the peaceful shelter of the church, devote your lives to Heaven! Infancy, childhood, the prime of life, and old age, wither as rapidly as they crowd upon each other. Think how human dust rolls onward to the tomb, and turning your faces steadily towards that goal, avoid the cloud which takes its rise among the pleasures of the world, and cheats the senses of their votaries. The veil, daughters, the veil!”

‘“Never, sisters,” cried Alice. “Barter not the light and air of heaven, and the freshness of earth and all the beautiful things which breathe upon it, for the cold cloister and the cell. Nature’s own blessings are the proper goods of life, and we may share them sinlessly together. To die is our heavy portion, but, oh, let us die with life about us; when our cold hearts cease to beat, let warm hearts be beating near; let our last look be upon the bounds which God has set to his own bright skies, and not on stone walls and bars of iron! Dear sisters, let us live and die, if you list, in this green garden’s compass; only shun the gloom and sadness of a cloister, and we shall be happy.”

‘The tears fell fast from the maiden’s eyes as she closed her impassioned appeal, and hid her face in the bosom of her sister.

‘“Take comfort, Alice,” said the eldest, kissing her fair forehead. “The veil shall never cast its shadow on thy young brow. How say you, sisters? For yourselves you speak, and not for Alice, or for me.”

‘The sisters, as with one accord, cried that their lot was cast together, and that there were dwellings for peace and virtue beyond the convent’s walls.

‘“Father,” said the eldest lady, rising with dignity, “you hear our final resolve. The same pious care which enriched the abbey of St Mary, and left us, orphans, to its holy guardianship, directed that no constraint should be imposed upon our inclinations, but that we should be free to live according to our choice. Let us hear no more of this, we pray you. Sisters, it is nearly noon. Let us take shelter until evening!” With a reverence to the friar, the lady rose and walked towards the house, hand in hand with Alice; the other sisters followed.

‘The holy man, who had often urged the same point before, but had never met with so direct a repulse, walked some little distance behind, with his eyes bent upon the earth, and his lips moving as if in prayer. As the sisters reached the porch, he quickened his pace, and called upon them to stop.

‘“Stay!” said the monk, raising his right hand in the air, and directing an angry glance by turns at Alice and the eldest sister. “Stay, and hear from me what these recollections are, which you would cherish above eternity, and awaken—if in mercy they slumbered—by means of idle toys. The memory of earthly things is charged, in after life, with bitter disappointment, affliction, death; with dreary change and wasting sorrow. The time will one day come, when a glance at those unmeaning baubles will tear open deep wounds in the hearts of some among you, and strike to your inmost souls. When that hour arrives—and, mark me, come it will—turn from the world to which you clung, to the refuge which you spurned. Find me the cell which shall be colder than the fire of mortals grows, when dimmed by calamity and trial, and there weep for the dreams of youth. These things are Heaven’s will, not mine,” said the friar, subduing his voice as he looked round upon the shrinking girls. “The Virgin’s blessing be upon you, daughters!”

‘With these words he disappeared through the postern; and the sisters hastening into the house were seen no more that day.

‘But nature will smile though priests may frown, and next day the sun shone brightly, and on the next, and the next again. And in the morning’s glare, and the evening’s soft repose, the five sisters still walked, or worked, or beguiled the time by cheerful conversation, in their quiet orchard.

‘Time passed away as a tale that is told; faster indeed than many tales that are told, of which number I fear this may be one. The house of the five sisters stood where it did, and the same trees cast their pleasant shade upon the orchard grass. The sisters too were there, and lovely as at first, but a change had come over their dwelling. Sometimes, there was the clash of armour, and the gleaming of the moon on caps of steel; and, at others, jaded coursers were spurred up to the gate, and a female form glided hurriedly forth, as if eager to demand tidings of the weary messenger. A goodly train of knights and ladies lodged one night within the abbey walls, and next day rode away, with two of the fair sisters among them. Then, horsemen began to come less frequently, and seemed to bring bad tidings when they did, and at length they ceased to come at all, and footsore peasants slunk to the gate after sunset, and did their errand there, by stealth. Once, a vassal was dispatched in haste to the abbey at dead of night, and when morning came, there were sounds of woe and wailing in the sisters’ house; and after this, a mournful silence fell upon it, and knight or lady, horse or armour, was seen about it no more.

‘There was a sullen darkness in the sky, and the sun had gone angrily down, tinting the dull clouds with the last traces of his wrath, when the same black monk walked slowly on, with folded arms, within a stone’s-throw of the abbey. A blight had fallen on the trees and shrubs; and the wind, at length beginning to break the unnatural stillness that had prevailed all day, sighed heavily from time to time, as though foretelling in grief the ravages of the coming storm. The bat skimmed in fantastic flights through the heavy air, and the ground was alive with crawling things, whose instinct brought them forth to swell and fatten in the rain.

‘No longer were the friar’s eyes directed to the earth; they were cast abroad, and roamed from point to point, as if the gloom and desolation of the scene found a quick response in his own bosom. Again he paused near the sisters’ house, and again he entered by the postern.

‘But not again did his ear encounter the sound of laughter, or his eyes rest upon the beautiful figures of the five sisters. All was silent and deserted. The boughs of the trees were bent and broken, and the grass had grown long and rank. No light feet had pressed it for many, many a day.

‘With the indifference or abstraction of one well accustomed to the change, the monk glided into the house, and entered a low, dark room. Four sisters sat there. Their black garments made their pale faces whiter still, and time and sorrow had worked deep ravages. They were stately yet; but the flush and pride of beauty were gone.

‘And Alice—where was she? In Heaven.

‘The monk—even the monk—could bear with some grief here; for it was long since these sisters had met, and there were furrows in their blanched faces which years could never plough. He took his seat in silence, and motioned them to continue their speech.

‘“They are here, sisters,” said the elder lady in a trembling voice. “I have never borne to look upon them since, and now I blame myself for my weakness. What is there in her memory that we should dread? To call up our old days shall be a solemn pleasure yet.”

‘She glanced at the monk as she spoke, and, opening a cabinet, brought forth the five frames of work, completed long before. Her step was firm, but her hand trembled as she produced the last one; and, when the feelings of the other sisters gushed forth at sight of it, her pent-up tears made way, and she sobbed “God bless her!”

‘The monk rose and advanced towards them. “It was almost the last thing she touched in health,” he said in a low voice.

‘“It was,” cried the elder lady, weeping bitterly.

‘The monk turned to the second sister.

‘“The gallant youth who looked into thine eyes, and hung upon thy very breath when first he saw thee intent upon this pastime, lies buried on a plain whereof the turf is red with blood. Rusty fragments of armour, once brightly burnished, lie rotting on the ground, and are as little distinguishable for his, as are the bones that crumble in the mould!”

‘The lady groaned, and wrung her hands.

‘“The policy of courts,” he continued, turning to the two other sisters, “drew ye from your peaceful home to scenes of revelry and splendour. The same policy, and the restless ambition of—proud and fiery men, have sent ye back, widowed maidens, and humbled outcasts. Do I speak truly?”

‘The sobs of the two sisters were their only reply.

‘“There is little need,” said the monk, with a meaning look, “to fritter away the time in gewgaws which shall raise up the pale ghosts of hopes of early years. Bury them, heap penance and mortification on their heads, keep them down, and let the convent be their grave!”

‘The sisters asked for three days to deliberate; and felt, that night, as though the veil were indeed the fitting shroud for their dead joys. But, morning came again, and though the boughs of the orchard trees drooped and ran wild upon the ground, it was the same orchard still. The grass was coarse and high, but there was yet the spot on which they had so often sat together, when change and sorrow were but names. There was every walk and nook which Alice had made glad; and in the minster nave was one flat stone beneath which she slept in peace.

‘And could they, remembering how her young heart had sickened at the thought of cloistered walls, look upon her grave, in garbs which would chill the very ashes within it? Could they bow down in prayer, and when all Heaven turned to hear them, bring the dark shade of sadness on one angel’s face? No.

‘They sent abroad, to artists of great celebrity in those times, and having obtained the church’s sanction to their work of piety, caused to be executed, in five large compartments of richly stained glass, a faithful copy of their old embroidery work. These were fitted into a large window until that time bare of ornament; and when the sun shone brightly, as she had so well loved to see it, the familiar patterns were reflected in their original colours, and throwing a stream of brilliant light upon the pavement, fell warmly on the name of Alice.

‘For many hours in every day, the sisters paced slowly up and down the nave, or knelt by the side of the flat broad stone. Only three were seen in the customary place, after many years; then but two, and, for a long time afterwards, but one solitary female bent with age. At length she came no more, and the stone bore five plain Christian names.

‘That stone has worn away and been replaced by others, and many generations have come and gone since then. Time has softened down the colours, but the same stream of light still falls upon the forgotten tomb, of which no trace remains; and, to this day, the stranger is shown in York Cathedral, an old window called the Five Sisters.’

‘That’s a melancholy tale,’ said the merry-faced gentleman, emptying his glass.

‘It is a tale of life, and life is made up of such sorrows,’ returned the other, courteously, but in a grave and sad tone of voice.

‘There are shades in all good pictures, but there are lights too, if we choose to contemplate them,’ said the gentleman with the merry face. ‘The youngest sister in your tale was always light-hearted.’

‘And died early,’ said the other, gently.

‘She would have died earlier, perhaps, had she been less happy,’ said the first speaker, with much feeling. ‘Do you think the sisters who loved her so well, would have grieved the less if her life had been one of gloom and sadness? If anything could soothe the first sharp pain of a heavy loss, it would be—with me—the reflection, that those I mourned, by being innocently happy here, and loving all about them, had prepared themselves for a purer and happier world. The sun does not shine upon this fair earth to meet frowning eyes, depend upon it.’

‘I believe you are right,’ said the gentleman who had told the story.

‘Believe!’ retorted the other, ‘can anybody doubt it? Take any subject of sorrowful regret, and see with how much pleasure it is associated. The recollection of past pleasure may become pain—’

‘It does,’ interposed the other.

‘Well; it does. To remember happiness which cannot be restored, is pain, but of a softened kind. Our recollections are unfortunately mingled with much that we deplore, and with many actions which we bitterly repent; still in the most chequered life I firmly think there are so many little rays of sunshine to look back upon, that I do not believe any mortal (unless he had put himself without the pale of hope) would deliberately drain a goblet of the waters of Lethe, if he had it in his power.’

‘Possibly you are correct in that belief,’ said the grey-haired gentleman after a short reflection. ‘I am inclined to think you are.’

‘Why, then,’ replied the other, ‘the good in this state of existence preponderates over the bad, let miscalled philosophers tell us what they will. If our affections be tried, our affections are our consolation and comfort; and memory, however sad, is the best and purest link between this world and a better. But come! I’ll tell you a story of another kind.’

After a very brief silence, the merry-faced gentleman sent round the punch, and glancing slyly at the fastidious lady, who seemed desperately apprehensive that he was going to relate something improper, began

THE BARON OF GROGZWIG

‘The Baron Von Koeldwethout, of Grogzwig in Germany, was as likely a young baron as you would wish to see. I needn’t say that he lived in a castle, because that’s of course; neither need I say that he lived in an old castle; for what German baron ever lived in a new one? There were many strange circumstances connected with this venerable building, among which, not the least startling and mysterious were, that when the wind blew, it rumbled in the chimneys, or even howled among the trees in the neighbouring forest; and that when the moon shone, she found her way through certain small loopholes in the wall, and actually made some parts of the wide halls and galleries quite light, while she left others in gloomy shadow. I believe that one of the baron’s ancestors, being short of money, had inserted a dagger in a gentleman who called one night to ask his way, and it was supposed that these miraculous occurrences took place in consequence. And yet I hardly know how that could have been, either, because the baron’s ancestor, who was an amiable man, felt very sorry afterwards for having been so rash, and laying violent hands upon a quantity of stone and timber which belonged to a weaker baron, built a chapel as an apology, and so took a receipt from Heaven, in full of all demands.

‘Talking of the baron’s ancestor puts me in mind of the baron’s great claims to respect, on the score of his pedigree. I am afraid to say, I am sure, how many ancestors the baron had; but I know that he had a great many more than any other man of his time; and I only wish that he had lived in these latter days, that he might have had more. It is a very hard thing upon the great men of past centuries, that they should have come into the world so soon, because a man who was born three or four hundred years ago, cannot reasonably be expected to have had as many relations before him, as a man who is born now. The last man, whoever he is—and he may be a cobbler or some low vulgar dog for aught we know—will have a longer pedigree than the greatest nobleman now alive; and I contend that this is not fair.

‘Well, but the Baron Von Koeldwethout of Grogzwig! He was a fine swarthy fellow, with dark hair and large moustachios, who rode a-hunting in clothes of Lincoln green, with russet boots on his feet, and a bugle slung over his shoulder like the guard of a long stage. When he blew this bugle, four-and-twenty other gentlemen of inferior rank, in Lincoln green a little coarser, and russet boots with a little thicker soles, turned out directly: and away galloped the whole train, with spears in their hands like lacquered area railings, to hunt down the boars, or perhaps encounter a bear: in which latter case the baron killed him first, and greased his whiskers with him afterwards.

‘This was a merry life for the Baron of Grogzwig, and a merrier still for the baron’s retainers, who drank Rhine wine every night till they fell under the table, and then had the bottles on the floor, and called for pipes. Never were such jolly, roystering, rollicking, merry-making blades, as the jovial crew of Grogzwig.

‘But the pleasures of the table, or the pleasures of under the table, require a little variety; especially when the same five-and-twenty people sit daily down to the same board, to discuss the same subjects, and tell the same stories. The baron grew weary, and wanted excitement. He took to quarrelling with his gentlemen, and tried kicking two or three of them every day after dinner. This was a pleasant change at first; but it became monotonous after a week or so, and the baron felt quite out of sorts, and cast about, in despair, for some new amusement.

‘One night, after a day’s sport in which he had outdone Nimrod or Gillingwater, and slaughtered “another fine bear,” and brought him home in triumph, the Baron Von Koeldwethout sat moodily at the head of his table, eyeing the smoky roof of the hall with a discontented aspect. He swallowed huge bumpers of wine, but the more he swallowed, the more he frowned. The gentlemen who had been honoured with the dangerous distinction of sitting on his right and left, imitated him to a miracle in the drinking, and frowned at each other.

‘“I will!” cried the baron suddenly, smiting the table with his right hand, and twirling his moustache with his left. “Fill to the Lady of Grogzwig!”

‘The four-and-twenty Lincoln greens turned pale, with the exception of their four-and-twenty noses, which were unchangeable.

‘“I said to the Lady of Grogzwig,” repeated the baron, looking round the board.

‘“To the Lady of Grogzwig!” shouted the Lincoln greens; and down their four-and-twenty throats went four-and-twenty imperial pints of such rare old hock, that they smacked their eight-and-forty lips, and winked again.

‘“The fair daughter of the Baron Von Swillenhausen,” said Koeldwethout, condescending to explain. “We will demand her in marriage of her father, ere the sun goes down tomorrow. If he refuse our suit, we will cut off his nose.”

‘A hoarse murmur arose from the company; every man touched, first the hilt of his sword, and then the tip of his nose, with appalling significance.

‘What a pleasant thing filial piety is to contemplate! If the daughter of the Baron Von Swillenhausen had pleaded a preoccupied heart, or fallen at her father’s feet and corned them in salt tears, or only fainted away, and complimented the old gentleman in frantic ejaculations, the odds are a hundred to one but Swillenhausen Castle would have been turned out at window, or rather the baron turned out at window, and the castle demolished. The damsel held her peace, however, when an early messenger bore the request of Von Koeldwethout next morning, and modestly retired to her chamber, from the casement of which she watched the coming of the suitor and his retinue. She was no sooner assured that the horseman with the large moustachios was her proffered husband, than she hastened to her father’s presence, and expressed her readiness to sacrifice herself to secure his peace. The venerable baron caught his child to his arms, and shed a wink of joy.

‘There was great feasting at the castle, that day. The four-and-twenty Lincoln greens of Von Koeldwethout exchanged vows of eternal friendship with twelve Lincoln greens of Von Swillenhausen, and promised the old baron that they would drink his wine “Till all was blue”—meaning probably until their whole countenances had acquired the same tint as their noses. Everybody slapped everybody else’s back, when the time for parting came; and the Baron Von Koeldwethout and his followers rode gaily home.

‘For six mortal weeks, the bears and boars had a holiday. The houses of Koeldwethout and Swillenhausen were united; the spears rusted; and the baron’s bugle grew hoarse for lack of blowing.

‘Those were great times for the four-and-twenty; but, alas! their high and palmy days had taken boots to themselves, and were already walking off.

‘“My dear,” said the baroness.

‘“My love,” said the baron.

‘“Those coarse, noisy men—”

‘“Which, ma’am?” said the baron, starting.

‘The baroness pointed, from the window at which they stood, to the courtyard beneath, where the unconscious Lincoln greens were taking a copious stirrup-cup, preparatory to issuing forth after a boar or two.

‘“My hunting train, ma’am,” said the baron.

‘“Disband them, love,” murmured the baroness.

‘“Disband them!” cried the baron, in amazement.

‘“To please me, love,” replied the baroness.

‘“To please the devil, ma’am,” answered the baron.

‘Whereupon the baroness uttered a great cry, and swooned away at the baron’s feet.

‘What could the baron do? He called for the lady’s maid, and roared for the doctor; and then, rushing into the yard, kicked the two Lincoln greens who were the most used to it, and cursing the others all round, bade them go—but never mind where. I don’t know the German for it, or I would put it delicately that way.

‘It is not for me to say by what means, or by what degrees, some wives manage to keep down some husbands as they do, although I may have my private opinion on the subject, and may think that no Member of Parliament ought to be married, inasmuch as three married members out of every four, must vote according to their wives’ consciences (if there be such things), and not according to their own. All I need say, just now, is, that the Baroness Von Koeldwethout somehow or other acquired great control over the Baron Von Koeldwethout, and that, little by little, and bit by bit, and day by day, and year by year, the baron got the worst of some disputed question, or was slyly unhorsed from some old hobby; and that by the time he was a fat hearty fellow of forty-eight or thereabouts, he had no feasting, no revelry, no hunting train, and no hunting—nothing in short that he liked, or used to have; and that, although he was as fierce as a lion, and as bold as brass, he was decidedly snubbed and put down, by his own lady, in his own castle of Grogzwig.

‘Nor was this the whole extent of the baron’s misfortunes. About a year after his nuptials, there came into the world a lusty young baron, in whose honour a great many fireworks were let off, and a great many dozens of wine drunk; but next year there came a young baroness, and next year another young baron, and so on, every year, either a baron or baroness (and one year both together), until the baron found himself the father of a small family of twelve. Upon every one of these anniversaries, the venerable Baroness Von Swillenhausen was nervously sensitive for the well-being of her child the Baroness Von Koeldwethout; and although it was not found that the good lady ever did anything material towards contributing to her child’s recovery, still she made it a point of duty to be as nervous as possible at the castle of Grogzwig, and to divide her time between moral observations on the baron’s housekeeping, and bewailing the hard lot of her unhappy daughter. And if the Baron of Grogzwig, a little hurt and irritated at this, took heart, and ventured to suggest that his wife was at least no worse off than the wives of other barons, the Baroness Von Swillenhausen begged all persons to take notice, that nobody but she, sympathised with her dear daughter’s sufferings; upon which, her relations and friends remarked, that to be sure she did cry a great deal more than her son-in-law, and that if there were a hard-hearted brute alive, it was that Baron of Grogzwig.

‘The poor baron bore it all as long as he could, and when he could bear it no longer lost his appetite and his spirits, and sat himself gloomily and dejectedly down. But there were worse troubles yet in store for him, and as they came on, his melancholy and sadness increased. Times changed. He got into debt. The Grogzwig coffers ran low, though the Swillenhausen family had looked upon them as inexhaustible; and just when the baroness was on the point of making a thirteenth addition to the family pedigree, Von Koeldwethout discovered that he had no means of replenishing them.

‘“I don’t see what is to be done,” said the baron. “I think I’ll kill myself.”

‘This was a bright idea. The baron took an old hunting-knife from a cupboard hard by, and having sharpened it on his boot, made what boys call “an offer” at his throat.

‘“Hem!” said the baron, stopping short. “Perhaps it’s not sharp enough.”

‘The baron sharpened it again, and made another offer, when his hand was arrested by a loud screaming among the young barons and baronesses, who had a nursery in an upstairs tower with iron bars outside the window, to prevent their tumbling out into the moat.

‘“If I had been a bachelor,” said the baron sighing, “I might have done it fifty times over, without being interrupted. Hallo! Put a flask of wine and the largest pipe in the little vaulted room behind the hall.”

‘One of the domestics, in a very kind manner, executed the baron’s order in the course of half an hour or so, and Von Koeldwethout being apprised thereof, strode to the vaulted room, the walls of which, being of dark shining wood, gleamed in the light of the blazing logs which were piled upon the hearth. The bottle and pipe were ready, and, upon the whole, the place looked very comfortable.

‘“Leave the lamp,” said the baron.

‘“Anything else, my lord?” inquired the domestic.

‘“The room,” replied the baron. The domestic obeyed, and the baron locked the door.

‘“I’ll smoke a last pipe,” said the baron, “and then I’ll be off.” So, putting the knife upon the table till he wanted it, and tossing off a goodly measure of wine, the Lord of Grogzwig threw himself back in his chair, stretched his legs out before the fire, and puffed away.

‘He thought about a great many things—about his present troubles and past days of bachelorship, and about the Lincoln greens, long since dispersed up and down the country, no one knew whither: with the exception of two who had been unfortunately beheaded, and four who had killed themselves with drinking. His mind was running upon bears and boars, when, in the process of draining his glass to the bottom, he raised his eyes, and saw, for the first time and with unbounded astonishment, that he was not alone.

‘No, he was not; for, on the opposite side of the fire, there sat with folded arms a wrinkled hideous figure, with deeply sunk and bloodshot eyes, and an immensely long cadaverous face, shadowed by jagged and matted locks of coarse black hair. He wore a kind of tunic of a dull bluish colour, which, the baron observed, on regarding it attentively, was clasped or ornamented down the front with coffin handles. His legs, too, were encased in coffin plates as though in armour; and over his left shoulder he wore a short dusky cloak, which seemed made of a remnant of some pall. He took no notice of the baron, but was intently eyeing the fire.

‘“Halloa!” said the baron, stamping his foot to attract attention.

‘“Halloa!” replied the stranger, moving his eyes towards the baron, but not his face or himself “What now?”

‘“What now!” replied the baron, nothing daunted by his hollow voice and lustreless eyes. “I should ask that question. How did you get here?”

‘“Through the door,” replied the figure.

‘“What are you?” says the baron.

‘“A man,” replied the figure.

‘“I don’t believe it,” says the baron.

‘“Disbelieve it then,” says the figure.

‘“I will,” rejoined the baron.

‘The figure looked at the bold Baron of Grogzwig for some time, and then said familiarly,

‘“There’s no coming over you, I see. I’m not a man!”

‘“What are you then?” asked the baron.

‘“A genius,” replied the figure.

‘“You don’t look much like one,” returned the baron scornfully.

‘“I am the Genius of Despair and Suicide,” said the apparition. “Now you know me.”

‘With these words the apparition turned towards the baron, as if composing himself for a talk—and, what was very remarkable, was, that he threw his cloak aside, and displaying a stake, which was run through the centre of his body, pulled it out with a jerk, and laid it on the table, as composedly as if it had been a walking-stick.

‘“Now,” said the figure, glancing at the hunting-knife, “are you ready for me?”

‘“Not quite,” rejoined the baron; “I must finish this pipe first.”

‘“Look sharp then,” said the figure.

‘“You seem in a hurry,” said the baron.

‘“Why, yes, I am,” answered the figure; “they’re doing a pretty brisk business in my way, over in England and France just now, and my time is a good deal taken up.”

‘“Do you drink?” said the baron, touching the bottle with the bowl of his pipe.

‘“Nine times out of ten, and then very hard,” rejoined the figure, drily.

‘“Never in moderation?” asked the baron.

‘“Never,” replied the figure, with a shudder, “that breeds cheerfulness.”

‘The baron took another look at his new friend, whom he thought an uncommonly queer customer, and at length inquired whether he took any active part in such little proceedings as that which he had in contemplation.

‘“No,” replied the figure evasively; “but I am always present.”

‘“Just to see fair, I suppose?” said the baron.

‘“Just that,” replied the figure, playing with his stake, and examining the ferule. “Be as quick as you can, will you, for there’s a young gentleman who is afflicted with too much money and leisure wanting me now, I find.”

‘“Going to kill himself because he has too much money!” exclaimed the baron, quite tickled. “Ha! ha! that’s a good one.” (This was the first time the baron had laughed for many a long day.)

‘“I say,” expostulated the figure, looking very much scared; “don’t do that again.”

‘“Why not?” demanded the baron.

‘“Because it gives me pain all over,” replied the figure. “Sigh as much as you please: that does me good.”

‘The baron sighed mechanically at the mention of the word; the figure, brightening up again, handed him the hunting-knife with most winning politeness.

‘“It’s not a bad idea though,” said the baron, feeling the edge of the weapon; “a man killing himself because he has too much money.”

‘“Pooh!” said the apparition, petulantly, “no better than a man’s killing himself because he has none or little.”

‘Whether the genius unintentionally committed himself in saying this, or whether he thought the baron’s mind was so thoroughly made up that it didn’t matter what he said, I have no means of knowing. I only know that the baron stopped his hand, all of a sudden, opened his eyes wide, and looked as if quite a new light had come upon him for the first time.

‘“Why, certainly,” said Von Koeldwethout, “nothing is too bad to be retrieved.”

‘“Except empty coffers,” cried the genius.

‘“Well; but they may be one day filled again,” said the baron.

‘“Scolding wives,” snarled the genius.

‘“Oh! They may be made quiet,” said the baron.

‘“Thirteen children,” shouted the genius.

‘“Can’t all go wrong, surely,” said the baron.

‘The genius was evidently growing very savage with the baron, for holding these opinions all at once; but he tried to laugh it off, and said if he would let him know when he had left off joking he should feel obliged to him.

‘“But I am not joking; I was never farther from it,” remonstrated the baron.

‘“Well, I am glad to hear that,” said the genius, looking very grim, “because a joke, without any figure of speech, is the death of me. Come! Quit this dreary world at once.”

‘“I don’t know,” said the baron, playing with the knife; “it’s a dreary one certainly, but I don’t think yours is much better, for you have not the appearance of being particularly comfortable. That puts me in mind—what security have I, that I shall be any the better for going out of the world after all!” he cried, starting up; “I never thought of that.”

‘“Dispatch,” cried the figure, gnashing his teeth.

‘“Keep off!” said the baron. ‘I’ll brood over miseries no longer, but put a good face on the matter, and try the fresh air and the bears again; and if that don’t do, I’ll talk to the baroness soundly, and cut the Von Swillenhausens dead.’ With this the baron fell into his chair, and laughed so loud and boisterously, that the room rang with it.

‘The figure fell back a pace or two, regarding the baron meanwhile with a look of intense terror, and when he had ceased, caught up the stake, plunged it violently into its body, uttered a frightful howl, and disappeared.

‘Von Koeldwethout never saw it again. Having once made up his mind to action, he soon brought the baroness and the Von Swillenhausens to reason, and died many years afterwards: not a rich man that I am aware of, but certainly a happy one: leaving behind him a numerous family, who had been carefully educated in bear and boar-hunting under his own personal eye. And my advice to all men is, that if ever they become hipped and melancholy from similar causes (as very many men do), they look at both sides of the question, applying a magnifying-glass to the best one; and if they still feel tempted to retire without leave, that they smoke a large pipe and drink a full bottle first, and profit by the laudable example of the Baron of Grogzwig.’

‘The fresh coach is ready, ladies and gentlemen, if you please,’ said a new driver, looking in.

This intelligence caused the punch to be finished in a great hurry, and prevented any discussion relative to the last story. Mr. Squeers was observed to draw the grey-headed gentleman on one side, and to ask a question with great apparent interest; it bore reference to the Five Sisters of York, and was, in fact, an inquiry whether he could inform him how much per annum the Yorkshire convents got in those days with their boarders.

The journey was then resumed. Nicholas fell asleep towards morning, and, when he awoke, found, with great regret, that, during his nap, both the Baron of Grogzwig and the grey-haired gentleman had got down and were gone. The day dragged on uncomfortably enough. At about six o’clock that night, he and Mr. Squeers, and the little boys, and their united luggage, were all put down together at the George and New Inn, Greta Bridge.






CHAPTER 7

Mr. and Mrs. Squeers at Home

Mr. Squeers, being safely landed, left Nicholas and the boys standing with the luggage in the road, to amuse themselves by looking at the coach as it changed horses, while he ran into the tavern and went through the leg-stretching process at the bar. After some minutes, he returned, with his legs thoroughly stretched, if the hue of his nose and a short hiccup afforded any criterion; and at the same time there came out of the yard a rusty pony-chaise, and a cart, driven by two labouring men.

‘Put the boys and the boxes into the cart,’ said Squeers, rubbing his hands; ‘and this young man and me will go on in the chaise. Get in, Nickleby.’

Nicholas obeyed. Mr. Squeers with some difficulty inducing the pony to obey also, they started off, leaving the cart-load of infant misery to follow at leisure.

‘Are you cold, Nickleby?’ inquired Squeers, after they had travelled some distance in silence.

‘Rather, sir, I must say.’

‘Well, I don’t find fault with that,’ said Squeers; ‘it’s a long journey this weather.’

‘Is it much farther to Dotheboys Hall, sir?’ asked Nicholas.

‘About three mile from here,’ replied Squeers. ‘But you needn’t call it a Hall down here.’

Nicholas coughed, as if he would like to know why.

‘The fact is, it ain’t a Hall,’ observed Squeers drily.

‘Oh, indeed!’ said Nicholas, whom this piece of intelligence much astonished.

‘No,’ replied Squeers. ‘We call it a Hall up in London, because it sounds better, but they don’t know it by that name in these parts. A man may call his house an island if he likes; there’s no act of Parliament against that, I believe?’

‘I believe not, sir,’ rejoined Nicholas.

Squeers eyed his companion slyly, at the conclusion of this little dialogue, and finding that he had grown thoughtful and appeared in nowise disposed to volunteer any observations, contented himself with lashing the pony until they reached their journey’s end.

‘Jump out,’ said Squeers. ‘Hallo there! Come and put this horse up. Be quick, will you!’

While the schoolmaster was uttering these and other impatient cries, Nicholas had time to observe that the school was a long, cold-looking house, one storey high, with a few straggling out-buildings behind, and a barn and stable adjoining. After the lapse of a minute or two, the noise of somebody unlocking the yard-gate was heard, and presently a tall lean boy, with a lantern in his hand, issued forth.

‘Is that you, Smike?’ cried Squeers.

‘Yes, sir,’ replied the boy.

‘Then why the devil didn’t you come before?’

‘Please, sir, I fell asleep over the fire,’ answered Smike, with humility.

‘Fire! what fire? Where’s there a fire?’ demanded the schoolmaster, sharply.

‘Only in the kitchen, sir,’ replied the boy. ‘Missus said as I was sitting up, I might go in there for a warm.’

‘Your missus is a fool,’ retorted Squeers. ‘You’d have been a deuced deal more wakeful in the cold, I’ll engage.’

By this time Mr. Squeers had dismounted; and after ordering the boy to see to the pony, and to take care that he hadn’t any more corn that night, he told Nicholas to wait at the front-door a minute while he went round and let him in.

A host of unpleasant misgivings, which had been crowding upon Nicholas during the whole journey, thronged into his mind with redoubled force when he was left alone. His great distance from home and the impossibility of reaching it, except on foot, should he feel ever so anxious to return, presented itself to him in most alarming colours; and as he looked up at the dreary house and dark windows, and upon the wild country round, covered with snow, he felt a depression of heart and spirit which he had never experienced before.

‘Now then!’ cried Squeers, poking his head out at the front-door. ‘Where are you, Nickleby?’

‘Here, sir,’ replied Nicholas.

‘Come in, then,’ said Squeers ‘the wind blows in, at this door, fit to knock a man off his legs.’

Nicholas sighed, and hurried in. Mr. Squeers, having bolted the door to keep it shut, ushered him into a small parlour scantily furnished with a few chairs, a yellow map hung against the wall, and a couple of tables; one of which bore some preparations for supper; while, on the other, a tutor’s assistant, a Murray’s grammar, half-a-dozen cards of terms, and a worn letter directed to Wackford Squeers, Esquire, were arranged in picturesque confusion.

They had not been in this apartment a couple of minutes, when a female bounced into the room, and, seizing Mr. Squeers by the throat, gave him two loud kisses: one close after the other, like a postman’s knock. The lady, who was of a large raw-boned figure, was about half a head taller than Mr Squeers, and was dressed in a dimity night-jacket; with her hair in papers; she had also a dirty nightcap on, relieved by a yellow cotton handkerchief which tied it under the chin.

‘How is my Squeery?’ said this lady in a playful manner, and a very hoarse voice.

‘Quite well, my love,’ replied Squeers. ‘How’s the cows?’

‘All right, every one of’em,’ answered the lady.

‘And the pigs?’ said Squeers.

‘As well as they were when you went away.’

‘Come; that’s a blessing,’ said Squeers, pulling off his great-coat. ‘The boys are all as they were, I suppose?’

‘Oh, yes, they’re well enough,’ replied Mrs. Squeers, snappishly. ‘That young Pitcher’s had a fever.’

‘No!’ exclaimed Squeers. ‘Damn that boy, he’s always at something of that sort.’

‘Never was such a boy, I do believe,’ said Mrs. Squeers; ‘whatever he has is always catching too. I say it’s obstinacy, and nothing shall ever convince me that it isn’t. I’d beat it out of him; and I told you that, six months ago.’

‘So you did, my love,’ rejoined Squeers. ‘We’ll try what can be done.’

Pending these little endearments, Nicholas had stood, awkwardly enough, in the middle of the room: not very well knowing whether he was expected to retire into the passage, or to remain where he was. He was now relieved from his perplexity by Mr. Squeers.

‘This is the new young man, my dear,’ said that gentleman.

‘Oh,’ replied Mrs. Squeers, nodding her head at Nicholas, and eyeing him coldly from top to toe.

‘He’ll take a meal with us tonight,’ said Squeers, ‘and go among the boys tomorrow morning. You can give him a shake-down here, tonight, can’t you?’

‘We must manage it somehow,’ replied the lady. ‘You don’t much mind how you sleep, I suppose, sir?’

No, indeed,’ replied Nicholas, ‘I am not particular.’

‘That’s lucky,’ said Mrs. Squeers. And as the lady’s humour was considered to lie chiefly in retort, Mr. Squeers laughed heartily, and seemed to expect that Nicholas should do the same.

After some further conversation between the master and mistress relative to the success of Mr. Squeers’s trip and the people who had paid, and the people who had made default in payment, a young servant girl brought in a Yorkshire pie and some cold beef, which being set upon the table, the boy Smike appeared with a jug of ale.

Mr. Squeers was emptying his great-coat pockets of letters to different boys, and other small documents, which he had brought down in them. The boy glanced, with an anxious and timid expression, at the papers, as if with a sickly hope that one among them might relate to him. The look was a very painful one, and went to Nicholas’s heart at once; for it told a long and very sad history.

It induced him to consider the boy more attentively, and he was surprised to observe the extraordinary mixture of garments which formed his dress. Although he could not have been less than eighteen or nineteen years old, and was tall for that age, he wore a skeleton suit, such as is usually put upon very little boys, and which, though most absurdly short in the arms and legs, was quite wide enough for his attenuated frame. In order that the lower part of his legs might be in perfect keeping with this singular dress, he had a very large pair of boots, originally made for tops, which might have been once worn by some stout farmer, but were now too patched and tattered for a beggar. Heaven knows how long he had been there, but he still wore the same linen which he had first taken down; for, round his neck, was a tattered child’s frill, only half concealed by a coarse, man’s neckerchief. He was lame; and as he feigned to be busy in arranging the table, glanced at the letters with a look so keen, and yet so dispirited and hopeless, that Nicholas could hardly bear to watch him.

‘What are you bothering about there, Smike?’ cried Mrs. Squeers; ‘let the things alone, can’t you?’

‘Eh!’ said Squeers, looking up. ‘Oh! it’s you, is it?’

‘Yes, sir,’ replied the youth, pressing his hands together, as though to control, by force, the nervous wandering of his fingers. ‘Is there—’

‘Well!’ said Squeers.

‘Have you—did anybody—has nothing been heard—about me?’

‘Devil a bit,’ replied Squeers testily.

The lad withdrew his eyes, and, putting his hand to his face, moved towards the door.

‘Not a word,’ resumed Squeers, ‘and never will be. Now, this is a pretty sort of thing, isn’t it, that you should have been left here, all these years, and no money paid after the first six—nor no notice taken, nor no clue to be got who you belong to? It’s a pretty sort of thing that I should have to feed a great fellow like you, and never hope to get one penny for it, isn’t it?’

The boy put his hand to his head as if he were making an effort to recollect something, and then, looking vacantly at his questioner, gradually broke into a smile, and limped away.

‘I’ll tell you what, Squeers,’ remarked his wife as the door closed, ‘I think that young chap’s turning silly.’

‘I hope not,’ said the schoolmaster; ‘for he’s a handy fellow out of doors, and worth his meat and drink, anyway. I should think he’d have wit enough for us though, if he was. But come; let’s have supper, for I am hungry and tired, and want to get to bed.’

This reminder brought in an exclusive steak for Mr. Squeers, who speedily proceeded to do it ample justice. Nicholas drew up his chair, but his appetite was effectually taken away.

‘How’s the steak, Squeers?’ said Mrs. S.

‘Tender as a lamb,’ replied Squeers. ‘Have a bit.’

‘I couldn’t eat a morsel,’ replied his wife. ‘What’ll the young man take, my dear?’

‘Whatever he likes that’s present,’ rejoined Squeers, in a most unusual burst of generosity.

‘What do you say, Mr. Knuckleboy?’ inquired Mrs. Squeers.

‘I’ll take a little of the pie, if you please,’ replied Nicholas. ‘A very little, for I’m not hungry.’

Well, it’s a pity to cut the pie if you’re not hungry, isn’t it?’ said Mrs Squeers. ‘Will you try a bit of the beef?’

‘Whatever you please,’ replied Nicholas abstractedly; ‘it’s all the same to me.’

Mrs. Squeers looked vastly gracious on receiving this reply; and nodding to Squeers, as much as to say that she was glad to find the young man knew his station, assisted Nicholas to a slice of meat with her own fair hands.

‘Ale, Squeery?’ inquired the lady, winking and frowning to give him to understand that the question propounded, was, whether Nicholas should have ale, and not whether he (Squeers) would take any.

‘Certainly,’ said Squeers, re-telegraphing in the same manner. ‘A glassful.’

So Nicholas had a glassful, and being occupied with his own reflections, drank it, in happy innocence of all the foregone proceedings.

‘Uncommon juicy steak that,’ said Squeers, as he laid down his knife and fork, after plying it, in silence, for some time.

‘It’s prime meat,’ rejoined his lady. ‘I bought a good large piece of it myself on purpose for—’

‘For what!’ exclaimed Squeers hastily. ‘Not for the—’

‘No, no; not for them,’ rejoined Mrs. Squeers; ‘on purpose for you against you came home. Lor! you didn’t think I could have made such a mistake as that.’

‘Upon my word, my dear, I didn’t know what you were going to say,’ said Squeers, who had turned pale.

‘You needn’t make yourself uncomfortable,’ remarked his wife, laughing heartily. ‘To think that I should be such a noddy! Well!’

This part of the conversation was rather unintelligible; but popular rumour in the neighbourhood asserted that Mr. Squeers, being amiably opposed to cruelty to animals, not unfrequently purchased for boy consumption the bodies of horned cattle who had died a natural death; possibly he was apprehensive of having unintentionally devoured some choice morsel intended for the young gentlemen.

Supper being over, and removed by a small servant girl with a hungry eye, Mrs. Squeers retired to lock it up, and also to take into safe custody the clothes of the five boys who had just arrived, and who were half-way up the troublesome flight of steps which leads to death’s door, in consequence of exposure to the cold. They were then regaled with a light supper of porridge, and stowed away, side by side, in a small bedstead, to warm each other, and dream of a substantial meal with something hot after it, if their fancies set that way: which it is not at all improbable they did.

Mr. Squeers treated himself to a stiff tumbler of brandy and water, made on the liberal half-and-half principle, allowing for the dissolution of the sugar; and his amiable helpmate mixed Nicholas the ghost of a small glassful of the same compound. This done, Mr. and Mrs. Squeers drew close up to the fire, and sitting with their feet on the fender, talked confidentially in whispers; while Nicholas, taking up the tutor’s assistant, read the interesting legends in the miscellaneous questions, and all the figures into the bargain, with as much thought or consciousness of what he was doing, as if he had been in a magnetic slumber.

At length, Mr. Squeers yawned fearfully, and opined that it was high time to go to bed; upon which signal, Mrs. Squeers and the girl dragged in a small straw mattress and a couple of blankets, and arranged them into a couch for Nicholas.

‘We’ll put you into your regular bedroom tomorrow, Nickelby,’ said Squeers. ‘Let me see! Who sleeps in Brooks’s bed, my dear?’

‘In Brooks’s,’ said Mrs. Squeers, pondering. ‘There’s Jennings, little Bolder, Graymarsh, and what’s his name.’

‘So there is,’ rejoined Squeers. ‘Yes! Brooks is full.’

‘Full!’ thought Nicholas. ‘I should think he was.’

‘There’s a place somewhere, I know,’ said Squeers; ‘but I can’t at this moment call to mind where it is. However, we’ll have that all settled tomorrow. Good-night, Nickleby. Seven o’clock in the morning, mind.’

‘I shall be ready, sir,’ replied Nicholas. ‘Good-night.’

‘I’ll come in myself and show you where the well is,’ said Squeers. ‘You’ll always find a little bit of soap in the kitchen window; that belongs to you.’

Nicholas opened his eyes, but not his mouth; and Squeers was again going away, when he once more turned back.

‘I don’t know, I am sure,’ he said, ‘whose towel to put you on; but if you’ll make shift with something tomorrow morning, Mrs. Squeers will arrange that, in the course of the day. My dear, don’t forget.’

‘I’ll take care,’ replied Mrs. Squeers; ‘and mind you take care, young man, and get first wash. The teacher ought always to have it; but they get the better of him if they can.’

Mr. Squeers then nudged Mrs. Squeers to bring away the brandy bottle, lest Nicholas should help himself in the night; and the lady having seized it with great precipitation, they retired together.

Nicholas, being left alone, took half-a-dozen turns up and down the room in a condition of much agitation and excitement; but, growing gradually calmer, sat himself down in a chair, and mentally resolved that, come what come might, he would endeavour, for a time, to bear whatever wretchedness might be in store for him, and that remembering the helplessness of his mother and sister, he would give his uncle no plea for deserting them in their need. Good resolutions seldom fail of producing some good effect in the mind from which they spring. He grew less desponding, and—so sanguine and buoyant is youth—even hoped that affairs at Dotheboys Hall might yet prove better than they promised.

He was preparing for bed, with something like renewed cheerfulness, when a sealed letter fell from his coat pocket. In the hurry of leaving London, it had escaped his attention, and had not occurred to him since, but it at once brought back to him the recollection of the mysterious behaviour of Newman Noggs.

‘Dear me!’ said Nicholas; ‘what an extraordinary hand!’

It was directed to himself, was written upon very dirty paper, and in such cramped and crippled writing as to be almost illegible. After great difficulty and much puzzling, he contrived to read as follows:—

My dear young Man.

I know the world. Your father did not, or he would not have done me a kindness when there was no hope of return. You do not, or you would not be bound on such a journey.

If ever you want a shelter in London (don’t be angry at this, I once thought I never should), they know where I live, at the sign of the Crown, in Silver Street, Golden Square. It is at the corner of Silver Street and James Street, with a bar door both ways. You can come at night. Once, nobody was ashamed—never mind that. It’s all over.

Excuse errors. I should forget how to wear a whole coat now. I have forgotten all my old ways. My spelling may have gone with them.

NEWMAN NOGGS.

P.S. If you should go near Barnard Castle, there is good ale at the King’s Head. Say you know me, and I am sure they will not charge you for it. You may say Mr. Noggs there, for I was a gentleman then. I was indeed.

It may be a very undignified circumstances to record, but after he had folded this letter and placed it in his pocket-book, Nicholas Nickleby’s eyes were dimmed with a moisture that might have been taken for tears.






CHAPTER 8

Of the Internal Economy of Dotheboys Hall

A ride of two hundred and odd miles in severe weather, is one of the best softeners of a hard bed that ingenuity can devise. Perhaps it is even a sweetener of dreams, for those which hovered over the rough couch of Nicholas, and whispered their airy nothings in his ear, were of an agreeable and happy kind. He was making his fortune very fast indeed, when the faint glimmer of an expiring candle shone before his eyes, and a voice he had no difficulty in recognising as part and parcel of Mr. Squeers, admonished him that it was time to rise.

‘Past seven, Nickleby,’ said Mr. Squeers.

‘Has morning come already?’ asked Nicholas, sitting up in bed.

‘Ah! that has it,’ replied Squeers, ‘and ready iced too. Now, Nickleby, come; tumble up, will you?’

Nicholas needed no further admonition, but ‘tumbled up’ at once, and proceeded to dress himself by the light of the taper, which Mr. Squeers carried in his hand.

‘Here’s a pretty go,’ said that gentleman; ‘the pump’s froze.’

‘Indeed!’ said Nicholas, not much interested in the intelligence.

‘Yes,’ replied Squeers. ‘You can’t wash yourself this morning.’

‘Not wash myself!’ exclaimed Nicholas.

‘No, not a bit of it,’ rejoined Squeers tartly. ‘So you must be content with giving yourself a dry polish till we break the ice in the well, and can get a bucketful out for the boys. Don’t stand staring at me, but do look sharp, will you?’

Offering no further observation, Nicholas huddled on his clothes. Squeers, meanwhile, opened the shutters and blew the candle out; when the voice of his amiable consort was heard in the passage, demanding admittance.

‘Come in, my love,’ said Squeers.

Mrs. Squeers came in, still habited in the primitive night-jacket which had displayed the symmetry of her figure on the previous night, and further ornamented with a beaver bonnet of some antiquity, which she wore, with much ease and lightness, on the top of the nightcap before mentioned.

‘Drat the things,’ said the lady, opening the cupboard; ‘I can’t find the school spoon anywhere.’

‘Never mind it, my dear,’ observed Squeers in a soothing manner; ‘it’s of no consequence.’

‘No consequence, why how you talk!’ retorted Mrs. Squeers sharply; ‘isn’t it brimstone morning?’

‘I forgot, my dear,’ rejoined Squeers; ‘yes, it certainly is. We purify the boys’ bloods now and then, Nickleby.’

‘Purify fiddlesticks’ ends,’ said his lady. ‘Don’t think, young man, that we go to the expense of flower of brimstone and molasses, just to purify them; because if you think we carry on the business in that way, you’ll find yourself mistaken, and so I tell you plainly.’

‘My dear,’ said Squeers frowning. ‘Hem!’

‘Oh! nonsense,’ rejoined Mrs. Squeers. ‘If the young man comes to be a teacher here, let him understand, at once, that we don’t want any foolery about the boys. They have the brimstone and treacle, partly because if they hadn’t something or other in the way of medicine they’d be always ailing and giving a world of trouble, and partly because it spoils their appetites and comes cheaper than breakfast and dinner. So, it does them good and us good at the same time, and that’s fair enough I’m sure.’

Having given this explanation, Mrs. Squeers put her head into the closet and instituted a stricter search after the spoon, in which Mr. Squeers assisted. A few words passed between them while they were thus engaged, but as their voices were partially stifled by the cupboard, all that Nicholas could distinguish was, that Mr. Squeers said what Mrs. Squeers had said, was injudicious, and that Mrs. Squeers said what Mr. Squeers said, was ‘stuff.’

A vast deal of searching and rummaging ensued, and it proving fruitless, Smike was called in, and pushed by Mrs. Squeers, and boxed by Mr. Squeers; which course of treatment brightening his intellects, enabled him to suggest that possibly Mrs. Squeers might have the spoon in her pocket, as indeed turned out to be the case. As Mrs. Squeers had previously protested, however, that she was quite certain she had not got it, Smike received another box on the ear for presuming to contradict his mistress, together with a promise of a sound thrashing if he were not more respectful in future; so that he took nothing very advantageous by his motion.

‘A most invaluable woman, that, Nickleby,’ said Squeers when his consort had hurried away, pushing the drudge before her.

‘Indeed, sir!’ observed Nicholas.

‘I don’t know her equal,’ said Squeers; ‘I do not know her equal. That woman, Nickleby, is always the same—always the same bustling, lively, active, saving creetur that you see her now.’

Nicholas sighed involuntarily at the thought of the agreeable domestic prospect thus opened to him; but Squeers was, fortunately, too much occupied with his own reflections to perceive it.

‘It’s my way to say, when I am up in London,’ continued Squeers, ‘that to them boys she is a mother. But she is more than a mother to them; ten times more. She does things for them boys, Nickleby, that I don’t believe half the mothers going, would do for their own sons.’

‘I should think they would not, sir,’ answered Nicholas.

Now, the fact was, that both Mr. and Mrs. Squeers viewed the boys in the light of their proper and natural enemies; or, in other words, they held and considered that their business and profession was to get as much from every boy as could by possibility be screwed out of him. On this point they were both agreed, and behaved in unison accordingly. The only difference between them was, that Mrs. Squeers waged war against the enemy openly and fearlessly, and that Squeers covered his rascality, even at home, with a spice of his habitual deceit; as if he really had a notion of someday or other being able to take himself in, and persuade his own mind that he was a very good fellow.

‘But come,’ said Squeers, interrupting the progress of some thoughts to this effect in the mind of his usher, ‘let’s go to the schoolroom; and lend me a hand with my school-coat, will you?’

Nicholas assisted his master to put on an old fustian shooting-jacket, which he took down from a peg in the passage; and Squeers, arming himself with his cane, led the way across a yard, to a door in the rear of the house.

‘There,’ said the schoolmaster as they stepped in together; ‘this is our shop, Nickleby!’

It was such a crowded scene, and there were so many objects to attract attention, that, at first, Nicholas stared about him, really without seeing anything at all. By degrees, however, the place resolved itself into a bare and dirty room, with a couple of windows, whereof a tenth part might be of glass, the remainder being stopped up with old copy-books and paper. There were a couple of long old rickety desks, cut and notched, and inked, and damaged, in every possible way; two or three forms; a detached desk for Squeers; and another for his assistant. The ceiling was supported, like that of a barn, by cross-beams and rafters; and the walls were so stained and discoloured, that it was impossible to tell whether they had ever been touched with paint or whitewash.

But the pupils—the young noblemen! How the last faint traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around! Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!

And yet this scene, painful as it was, had its grotesque features, which, in a less interested observer than Nicholas, might have provoked a smile. Mrs. Squeers stood at one of the desks, presiding over an immense basin of brimstone and treacle, of which delicious compound she administered a large instalment to each boy in succession: using for the purpose a common wooden spoon, which might have been originally manufactured for some gigantic top, and which widened every young gentleman’s mouth considerably: they being all obliged, under heavy corporal penalties, to take in the whole of the bowl at a gasp. In another corner, huddled together for companionship, were the little boys who had arrived on the preceding night, three of them in very large leather breeches, and two in old trousers, a something tighter fit than drawers are usually worn; at no great distance from these was seated the juvenile son and heir of Mr Squeers—a striking likeness of his father—kicking, with great vigour, under the hands of Smike, who was fitting upon him a pair of new boots that bore a most suspicious resemblance to those which the least of the little boys had worn on the journey down—as the little boy himself seemed to think, for he was regarding the appropriation with a look of most rueful amazement. Besides these, there was a long row of boys waiting, with countenances of no pleasant anticipation, to be treacled; and another file, who had just escaped from the infliction, making a variety of wry mouths indicative of anything but satisfaction. The whole were attired in such motley, ill-assorted, extraordinary garments, as would have been irresistibly ridiculous, but for the foul appearance of dirt, disorder, and disease, with which they were associated.

‘Now,’ said Squeers, giving the desk a great rap with his cane, which made half the little boys nearly jump out of their boots, ‘is that physicking over?’

‘Just over,’ said Mrs. Squeers, choking the last boy in her hurry, and tapping the crown of his head with the wooden spoon to restore him. ‘Here, you Smike; take away now. Look sharp!’

Smike shuffled out with the basin, and Mrs. Squeers having called up a little boy with a curly head, and wiped her hands upon it, hurried out after him into a species of wash-house, where there was a small fire and a large kettle, together with a number of little wooden bowls which were arranged upon a board.

Into these bowls, Mrs. Squeers, assisted by the hungry servant, poured a brown composition, which looked like diluted pincushions without the covers, and was called porridge. A minute wedge of brown bread was inserted in each bowl, and when they had eaten their porridge by means of the bread, the boys ate the bread itself, and had finished their breakfast; whereupon Mr. Squeers said, in a solemn voice, ‘For what we have received, may the Lord make us truly thankful!’—and went away to his own.

Nicholas distended his stomach with a bowl of porridge, for much the same reason which induces some savages to swallow earth—lest they should be inconveniently hungry when there is nothing to eat. Having further disposed of a slice of bread and butter, allotted to him in virtue of his office, he sat himself down, to wait for school-time.

He could not but observe how silent and sad the boys all seemed to be. There was none of the noise and clamour of a schoolroom; none of its boisterous play, or hearty mirth. The children sat crouching and shivering together, and seemed to lack the spirit to move about. The only pupil who evinced the slightest tendency towards locomotion or playfulness was Master Squeers, and as his chief amusement was to tread upon the other boys’ toes in his new boots, his flow of spirits was rather disagreeable than otherwise.

After some half-hour’s delay, Mr. Squeers reappeared, and the boys took their places and their books, of which latter commodity the average might be about one to eight learners. A few minutes having elapsed, during which Mr. Squeers looked very profound, as if he had a perfect apprehension of what was inside all the books, and could say every word of their contents by heart if he only chose to take the trouble, that gentleman called up the first class.

Obedient to this summons there ranged themselves in front of the schoolmaster’s desk, half-a-dozen scarecrows, out at knees and elbows, one of whom placed a torn and filthy book beneath his learned eye.

‘This is the first class in English spelling and philosophy, Nickleby,’ said Squeers, beckoning Nicholas to stand beside him. ‘We’ll get up a Latin one, and hand that over to you. Now, then, where’s the first boy?’

‘Please, sir, he’s cleaning the back-parlour window,’ said the temporary head of the philosophical class.

‘So he is, to be sure,’ rejoined Squeers. ‘We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of book, he goes and does it. It’s just the same principle as the use of the globes. Where’s the second boy?’

‘Please, sir, he’s weeding the garden,’ replied a small voice.

‘To be sure,’ said Squeers, by no means disconcerted. ‘So he is. B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, bottin, n-e-y, ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants. When he has learned that bottinney means a knowledge of plants, he goes and knows ‘em. That’s our system, Nickleby: what do you think of it?’

‘It’s very useful one, at any rate,’ answered Nicholas.

‘I believe you,’ rejoined Squeers, not remarking the emphasis of his usher. ‘Third boy, what’s horse?’

‘A beast, sir,’ replied the boy.

‘So it is,’ said Squeers. ‘Ain’t it, Nickleby?’

‘I believe there is no doubt of that, sir,’ answered Nicholas.

‘Of course there isn’t,’ said Squeers. ‘A horse is a quadruped, and quadruped’s Latin for beast, as everybody that’s gone through the grammar knows, or else where’s the use of having grammars at all?’

‘Where, indeed!’ said Nicholas abstractedly.

‘As you’re perfect in that,’ resumed Squeers, turning to the boy, ‘go and look after my horse, and rub him down well, or I’ll rub you down. The rest of the class go and draw water up, till somebody tells you to leave off, for it’s washing-day tomorrow, and they want the coppers filled.’

So saying, he dismissed the first class to their experiments in practical philosophy, and eyed Nicholas with a look, half cunning and half doubtful, as if he were not altogether certain what he might think of him by this time.

‘That’s the way we do it, Nickleby,’ he said, after a pause.

Nicholas shrugged his shoulders in a manner that was scarcely perceptible, and said he saw it was.

‘And a very good way it is, too,’ said Squeers. ‘Now, just take them fourteen little boys and hear them some reading, because, you know, you must begin to be useful. Idling about here won’t do.’

Mr. Squeers said this, as if it had suddenly occurred to him, either that he must not say too much to his assistant, or that his assistant did not say enough to him in praise of the establishment. The children were arranged in a semicircle round the new master, and he was soon listening to their dull, drawling, hesitating recital of those stories of engrossing interest which are to be found in the more antiquated spelling-books.

In this exciting occupation, the morning lagged heavily on. At one o’clock, the boys, having previously had their appetites thoroughly taken away by stir-about and potatoes, sat down in the kitchen to some hard salt beef, of which Nicholas was graciously permitted to take his portion to his own solitary desk, to eat it there in peace. After this, there was another hour of crouching in the schoolroom and shivering with cold, and then school began again.

It was Mr. Squeer’s custom to call the boys together, and make a sort of report, after every half-yearly visit to the metropolis, regarding the relations and friends he had seen, the news he had heard, the letters he had brought down, the bills which had been paid, the accounts which had been left unpaid, and so forth. This solemn proceeding always took place in the afternoon of the day succeeding his return; perhaps, because the boys acquired strength of mind from the suspense of the morning, or, possibly, because Mr. Squeers himself acquired greater sternness and inflexibility from certain warm potations in which he was wont to indulge after his early dinner. Be this as it may, the boys were recalled from house-window, garden, stable, and cow-yard, and the school were assembled in full conclave, when Mr. Squeers, with a small bundle of papers in his hand, and Mrs. S. following with a pair of canes, entered the room and proclaimed silence.

‘Let any boy speak a word without leave,’ said Mr. Squeers mildly, ‘and I’ll take the skin off his back.’

This special proclamation had the desired effect, and a deathlike silence immediately prevailed, in the midst of which Mr. Squeers went on to say:

‘Boys, I’ve been to London, and have returned to my family and you, as strong and well as ever.’

According to half-yearly custom, the boys gave three feeble cheers at this refreshing intelligence. Such cheers! Sights of extra strength with the chill on.

‘I have seen the parents of some boys,’ continued Squeers, turning over his papers, ‘and they’re so glad to hear how their sons are getting on, that there’s no prospect at all of their going away, which of course is a very pleasant thing to reflect upon, for all parties.’

Two or three hands went to two or three eyes when Squeers said this, but the greater part of the young gentlemen having no particular parents to speak of, were wholly uninterested in the thing one way or other.

‘I have had disappointments to contend against,’ said Squeers, looking very grim; ‘Bolder’s father was two pound ten short. Where is Bolder?’

‘Here he is, please sir,’ rejoined twenty officious voices. Boys are very like men to be sure.

‘Come here, Bolder,’ said Squeers.

An unhealthy-looking boy, with warts all over his hands, stepped from his place to the master’s desk, and raised his eyes imploringly to Squeers’s face; his own, quite white from the rapid beating of his heart.

‘Bolder,’ said Squeers, speaking very slowly, for he was considering, as the saying goes, where to have him. ‘Bolder, if you father thinks that because—why, what’s this, sir?’

As Squeers spoke, he caught up the boy’s hand by the cuff of his jacket, and surveyed it with an edifying aspect of horror and disgust.

‘What do you call this, sir?’ demanded the schoolmaster, administering a cut with the cane to expedite the reply.

‘I can’t help it, indeed, sir,’ rejoined the boy, crying. ‘They will come; it’s the dirty work I think, sir—at least I don’t know what it is, sir, but it’s not my fault.’

‘Bolder,’ said Squeers, tucking up his wristbands, and moistening the palm of his right hand to get a good grip of the cane, ‘you’re an incorrigible young scoundrel, and as the last thrashing did you no good, we must see what another will do towards beating it out of you.’

With this, and wholly disregarding a piteous cry for mercy, Mr. Squeers fell upon the boy and caned him soundly: not leaving off, indeed, until his arm was tired out.

‘There,’ said Squeers, when he had quite done; ‘rub away as hard as you like, you won’t rub that off in a hurry. Oh! you won’t hold that noise, won’t you? Put him out, Smike.’

The drudge knew better from long experience, than to hesitate about obeying, so he bundled the victim out by a side-door, and Mr. Squeers perched himself again on his own stool, supported by Mrs. Squeers, who occupied another at his side.

‘Now let us see,’ said Squeers. ‘A letter for Cobbey. Stand up, Cobbey.’

Another boy stood up, and eyed the letter very hard while Squeers made a mental abstract of the same.

‘Oh!’ said Squeers: ‘Cobbey’s grandmother is dead, and his uncle John has took to drinking, which is all the news his sister sends, except eighteenpence, which will just pay for that broken square of glass. Mrs Squeers, my dear, will you take the money?’

The worthy lady pocketed the eighteenpence with a most business-like air, and Squeers passed on to the next boy, as coolly as possible.

‘Graymarsh,’ said Squeers, ‘he’s the next. Stand up, Graymarsh.’

Another boy stood up, and the schoolmaster looked over the letter as before.

‘Graymarsh’s maternal aunt,’ said Squeers, when he had possessed himself of the contents, ‘is very glad to hear he’s so well and happy, and sends her respectful compliments to Mrs. Squeers, and thinks she must be an angel. She likewise thinks Mr. Squeers is too good for this world; but hopes he may long be spared to carry on the business. Would have sent the two pair of stockings as desired, but is short of money, so forwards a tract instead, and hopes Graymarsh will put his trust in Providence. Hopes, above all, that he will study in everything to please Mr. and Mrs Squeers, and look upon them as his only friends; and that he will love Master Squeers; and not object to sleeping five in a bed, which no Christian should. Ah!’ said Squeers, folding it up, ‘a delightful letter. Very affecting indeed.’

It was affecting in one sense, for Graymarsh’s maternal aunt was strongly supposed, by her more intimate friends, to be no other than his maternal parent; Squeers, however, without alluding to this part of the story (which would have sounded immoral before boys), proceeded with the business by calling out ‘Mobbs,’ whereupon another boy rose, and Graymarsh resumed his seat.

‘Mobbs’s step-mother,’ said Squeers, ‘took to her bed on hearing that he wouldn’t eat fat, and has been very ill ever since. She wishes to know, by an early post, where he expects to go to, if he quarrels with his vittles; and with what feelings he could turn up his nose at the cow’s-liver broth, after his good master had asked a blessing on it. This was told her in the London newspapers—not by Mr. Squeers, for he is too kind and too good to set anybody against anybody—and it has vexed her so much, Mobbs can’t think. She is sorry to find he is discontented, which is sinful and horrid, and hopes Mr. Squeers will flog him into a happier state of mind; with which view, she has also stopped his halfpenny a week pocket-money, and given a double-bladed knife with a corkscrew in it to the Missionaries, which she had bought on purpose for him.’

‘A sulky state of feeling,’ said Squeers, after a terrible pause, during which he had moistened the palm of his right hand again, ‘won’t do. Cheerfulness and contentment must be kept up. Mobbs, come to me!’

Mobbs moved slowly towards the desk, rubbing his eyes in anticipation of good cause for doing so; and he soon afterwards retired by the side-door, with as good cause as a boy need have.

Mr. Squeers then proceeded to open a miscellaneous collection of letters; some enclosing money, which Mrs. Squeers ‘took care of;’ and others referring to small articles of apparel, as caps and so forth, all of which the same lady stated to be too large, or too small, and calculated for nobody but young Squeers, who would appear indeed to have had most accommodating limbs, since everything that came into the school fitted him to a nicety. His head, in particular, must have been singularly elastic, for hats and caps of all dimensions were alike to him.

This business dispatched, a few slovenly lessons were performed, and Squeers retired to his fireside, leaving Nicholas to take care of the boys in the school-room, which was very cold, and where a meal of bread and cheese was served out shortly after dark.

There was a small stove at that corner of the room which was nearest to the master’s desk, and by it Nicholas sat down, so depressed and self-degraded by the consciousness of his position, that if death could have come upon him at that time, he would have been almost happy to meet it. The cruelty of which he had been an unwilling witness, the coarse and ruffianly behaviour of Squeers even in his best moods, the filthy place, the sights and sounds about him, all contributed to this state of feeling; but when he recollected that, being there as an assistant, he actually seemed—no matter what unhappy train of circumstances had brought him to that pass—to be the aider and abettor of a system which filled him with honest disgust and indignation, he loathed himself, and felt, for the moment, as though the mere consciousness of his present situation must, through all time to come, prevent his raising his head again.

But, for the present, his resolve was taken, and the resolution he had formed on the preceding night remained undisturbed. He had written to his mother and sister, announcing the safe conclusion of his journey, and saying as little about Dotheboys Hall, and saying that little as cheerfully, as he possibly could. He hoped that by remaining where he was, he might do some good, even there; at all events, others depended too much on his uncle’s favour, to admit of his awakening his wrath just then.

One reflection disturbed him far more than any selfish considerations arising out of his own position. This was the probable destination of his sister Kate. His uncle had deceived him, and might he not consign her to some miserable place where her youth and beauty would prove a far greater curse than ugliness and decrepitude? To a caged man, bound hand and foot, this was a terrible idea—but no, he thought, his mother was by; there was the portrait-painter, too—simple enough, but still living in the world, and of it. He was willing to believe that Ralph Nickleby had conceived a personal dislike to himself. Having pretty good reason, by this time, to reciprocate it, he had no great difficulty in arriving at this conclusion, and tried to persuade himself that the feeling extended no farther than between them.

As he was absorbed in these meditations, he all at once encountered the upturned face of Smike, who was on his knees before the stove, picking a few stray cinders from the hearth and planting them on the fire. He had paused to steal a look at Nicholas, and when he saw that he was observed, shrunk back, as if expecting a blow.

‘You need not fear me,’ said Nicholas kindly. ‘Are you cold?’

‘N-n-o.’

‘You are shivering.’

‘I am not cold,’ replied Smike quickly. ‘I am used to it.’

There was such an obvious fear of giving offence in his manner, and he was such a timid, broken-spirited creature, that Nicholas could not help exclaiming, ‘Poor fellow!’

If he had struck the drudge, he would have slunk away without a word. But, now, he burst into tears.

‘Oh dear, oh dear!’ he cried, covering his face with his cracked and horny hands. ‘My heart will break. It will, it will.’

‘Hush!’ said Nicholas, laying his hand upon his shoulder. ‘Be a man; you are nearly one by years, God help you.’

‘By years!’ cried Smike. ‘Oh dear, dear, how many of them! How many of them since I was a little child, younger than any that are here now! Where are they all!’

‘Whom do you speak of?’ inquired Nicholas, wishing to rouse the poor half-witted creature to reason. ‘Tell me.’

‘My friends,’ he replied, ‘myself—my—oh! what sufferings mine have been!’

‘There is always hope,’ said Nicholas; he knew not what to say.

‘No,’ rejoined the other, ‘no; none for me. Do you remember the boy that died here?’

‘I was not here, you know,’ said Nicholas gently; ‘but what of him?’

‘Why,’ replied the youth, drawing closer to his questioner’s side, ‘I was with him at night, and when it was all silent he cried no more for friends he wished to come and sit with him, but began to see faces round his bed that came from home; he said they smiled, and talked to him; and he died at last lifting his head to kiss them. Do you hear?’

‘Yes, yes,’ rejoined Nicholas.

‘What faces will smile on me when I die!’ cried his companion, shivering. ‘Who will talk to me in those long nights! They cannot come from home; they would frighten me, if they did, for I don’t know what it is, and shouldn’t know them. Pain and fear, pain and fear for me, alive or dead. No hope, no hope!’

The bell rang to bed: and the boy, subsiding at the sound into his usual listless state, crept away as if anxious to avoid notice. It was with a heavy heart that Nicholas soon afterwards—no, not retired; there was no retirement there—followed—to his dirty and crowded dormitory.






CHAPTER 9

Of Miss Squeers, Mrs. Squeers, Master Squeers, and Mr. Squeers; and of various Matters and Persons connected no less with the Squeerses than Nicholas Nickleby

When Mr. Squeers left the schoolroom for the night, he betook himself, as has been before remarked, to his own fireside, which was situated—not in the room in which Nicholas had supped on the night of his arrival, but in a smaller apartment in the rear of the premises, where his lady wife, his amiable son, and accomplished daughter, were in the full enjoyment of each other’s society; Mrs. Squeers being engaged in the matronly pursuit of stocking-darning; and the young lady and gentleman being occupied in the adjustment of some youthful differences, by means of a pugilistic contest across the table, which, on the approach of their honoured parent, subsided into a noiseless exchange of kicks beneath it.

And, in this place, it may be as well to apprise the reader, that Miss Fanny Squeers was in her three-and-twentieth year. If there be any one grace or loveliness inseparable from that particular period of life, Miss Squeers may be presumed to have been possessed of it, as there is no reason to suppose that she was a solitary exception to an universal rule. She was not tall like her mother, but short like her father; from the former she inherited a voice of harsh quality; from the latter a remarkable expression of the right eye, something akin to having none at all.

Miss Squeers had been spending a few days with a neighbouring friend, and had only just returned to the parental roof. To this circumstance may be referred, her having heard nothing of Nicholas, until Mr. Squeers himself now made him the subject of conversation.

‘Well, my dear,’ said Squeers, drawing up his chair, ‘what do you think of him by this time?’

‘Think of who?’ inquired Mrs. Squeers; who (as she often remarked) was no grammarian, thank Heaven.

‘Of the young man—the new teacher—who else could I mean?’

‘Oh! that Knuckleboy,’ said Mrs. Squeers impatiently. ‘I hate him.’

‘What do you hate him for, my dear?’ asked Squeers.

‘What’s that to you?’ retorted Mrs. Squeers. ‘If I hate him, that’s enough, ain’t it?’

‘Quite enough for him, my dear, and a great deal too much I dare say, if he knew it,’ replied Squeers in a pacific tone. ‘I only ask from curiosity, my dear.’

‘Well, then, if you want to know,’ rejoined Mrs. Squeers, ‘I’ll tell you. Because he’s a proud, haughty, consequential, turned-up-nosed peacock.’

Mrs. Squeers, when excited, was accustomed to use strong language, and, moreover, to make use of a plurality of epithets, some of which were of a figurative kind, as the word peacock, and furthermore the allusion to Nicholas’s nose, which was not intended to be taken in its literal sense, but rather to bear a latitude of construction according to the fancy of the hearers.

Neither were they meant to bear reference to each other, so much as to the object on whom they were bestowed, as will be seen in the present case: a peacock with a turned-up nose being a novelty in ornithology, and a thing not commonly seen.

‘Hem!’ said Squeers, as if in mild deprecation of this outbreak. ‘He is cheap, my dear; the young man is very cheap.’

‘Not a bit of it,’ retorted Mrs. Squeers.

‘Five pound a year,’ said Squeers.

‘What of that; it’s dear if you don’t want him, isn’t it?’ replied his wife.

‘But we do want him,’ urged Squeers.

‘I don’t see that you want him any more than the dead,’ said Mrs. Squeers. ‘Don’t tell me. You can put on the cards and in the advertisements, “Education by Mr. Wackford Squeers and able assistants,” without having any assistants, can’t you? Isn’t it done every day by all the masters about? I’ve no patience with you.’

‘Haven’t you!’ said Squeers, sternly. ‘Now I’ll tell you what, Mrs Squeers. In this matter of having a teacher, I’ll take my own way, if you please. A slave driver in the West Indies is allowed a man under him, to see that his blacks don’t run away, or get up a rebellion; and I’ll have a man under me to do the same with our blacks, till such time as little Wackford is able to take charge of the school.’

‘Am I to take care of the school when I grow up a man, father?’ said Wackford junior, suspending, in the excess of his delight, a vicious kick which he was administering to his sister.

‘You are, my son,’ replied Mr. Squeers, in a sentimental voice.

‘Oh my eye, won’t I give it to the boys!’ exclaimed the interesting child, grasping his father’s cane. ‘Oh, father, won’t I make ‘em squeak again!’

It was a proud moment in Mr. Squeers’s life, when he witnessed that burst of enthusiasm in his young child’s mind, and saw in it a foreshadowing of his future eminence. He pressed a penny into his hand, and gave vent to his feelings (as did his exemplary wife also), in a shout of approving laughter. The infantine appeal to their common sympathies, at once restored cheerfulness to the conversation, and harmony to the company.

‘He’s a nasty stuck-up monkey, that’s what I consider him,’ said Mrs Squeers, reverting to Nicholas.

‘Supposing he is,’ said Squeers, ‘he is as well stuck up in our schoolroom as anywhere else, isn’t he?—especially as he don’t like it.’

‘Well,’ observed Mrs. Squeers, ‘there’s something in that. I hope it’ll bring his pride down, and it shall be no fault of mine if it don’t.’

Now, a proud usher in a Yorkshire school was such a very extraordinary and unaccountable thing to hear of,—any usher at all being a novelty; but a proud one, a being of whose existence the wildest imagination could never have dreamed—that Miss Squeers, who seldom troubled herself with scholastic matters, inquired with much curiosity who this Knuckleboy was, that gave himself such airs.

‘Nickleby,’ said Squeers, spelling the name according to some eccentric system which prevailed in his own mind; ‘your mother always calls things and people by their wrong names.’

‘No matter for that,’ said Mrs. Squeers; ‘I see them with right eyes, and that’s quite enough for me. I watched him when you were laying on to little Bolder this afternoon. He looked as black as thunder, all the while, and, one time, started up as if he had more than got it in his mind to make a rush at you. I saw him, though he thought I didn’t.’

‘Never mind that, father,’ said Miss Squeers, as the head of the family was about to reply. ‘Who is the man?’

‘Why, your father has got some nonsense in his head that he’s the son of a poor gentleman that died the other day,’ said Mrs. Squeers.

‘The son of a gentleman!’

‘Yes; but I don’t believe a word of it. If he’s a gentleman’s son at all, he’s a fondling, that’s my opinion.’

‘Mrs. Squeers intended to say ‘foundling,’ but, as she frequently remarked when she made any such mistake, it would be all the same a hundred years hence; with which axiom of philosophy, indeed, she was in the constant habit of consoling the boys when they laboured under more than ordinary ill-usage.

‘He’s nothing of the kind,’ said Squeers, in answer to the above remark, ‘for his father was married to his mother years before he was born, and she is alive now. If he was, it would be no business of ours, for we make a very good friend by having him here; and if he likes to learn the boys anything besides minding them, I have no objection I am sure.’

‘I say again, I hate him worse than poison,’ said Mrs. Squeers vehemently.

‘If you dislike him, my dear,’ returned Squeers, ‘I don’t know anybody who can show dislike better than you, and of course there’s no occasion, with him, to take the trouble to hide it.’

‘I don’t intend to, I assure you,’ interposed Mrs. S.

‘That’s right,’ said Squeers; ‘and if he has a touch of pride about him, as I think he has, I don’t believe there’s woman in all England that can bring anybody’s spirit down, as quick as you can, my love.’

Mrs. Squeers chuckled vastly on the receipt of these flattering compliments, and said, she hoped she had tamed a high spirit or two in her day. It is but due to her character to say, that in conjunction with her estimable husband, she had broken many and many a one.

Miss Fanny Squeers carefully treasured up this, and much more conversation on the same subject, until she retired for the night, when she questioned the hungry servant, minutely, regarding the outward appearance and demeanour of Nicholas; to which queries the girl returned such enthusiastic replies, coupled with so many laudatory remarks touching his beautiful dark eyes, and his sweet smile, and his straight legs—upon which last-named articles she laid particular stress; the general run of legs at Dotheboys Hall being crooked—that Miss Squeers was not long in arriving at the conclusion that the new usher must be a very remarkable person, or, as she herself significantly phrased it, ‘something quite out of the common.’ And so Miss Squeers made up her mind that she would take a personal observation of Nicholas the very next day.

In pursuance of this design, the young lady watched the opportunity of her mother being engaged, and her father absent, and went accidentally into the schoolroom to get a pen mended: where, seeing nobody but Nicholas presiding over the boys, she blushed very deeply, and exhibited great confusion.

‘I beg your pardon,’ faltered Miss Squeers; ‘I thought my father was—or might be—dear me, how very awkward!’

‘Mr. Squeers is out,’ said Nicholas, by no means overcome by the apparition, unexpected though it was.

‘Do you know will he be long, sir?’ asked Miss Squeers, with bashful hesitation.

‘He said about an hour,’ replied Nicholas—politely of course, but without any indication of being stricken to the heart by Miss Squeers’s charms.

‘I never knew anything happen so cross,’ exclaimed the young lady. ‘Thank you! I am very sorry I intruded, I am sure. If I hadn’t thought my father was here, I wouldn’t upon any account have—it is very provoking—must look so very strange,’ murmured Miss Squeers, blushing once more, and glancing, from the pen in her hand, to Nicholas at his desk, and back again.

‘If that is all you want,’ said Nicholas, pointing to the pen, and smiling, in spite of himself, at the affected embarrassment of the schoolmaster’s daughter, ‘perhaps I can supply his place.’

Miss Squeers glanced at the door, as if dubious of the propriety of advancing any nearer to an utter stranger; then round the schoolroom, as though in some measure reassured by the presence of forty boys; and finally sidled up to Nicholas and delivered the pen into his hand, with a most winning mixture of reserve and condescension.

‘Shall it be a hard or a soft nib?’ inquired Nicholas, smiling to prevent himself from laughing outright.

‘He has a beautiful smile,’ thought Miss Squeers.

‘Which did you say?’ asked Nicholas.

‘Dear me, I was thinking of something else for the moment, I declare,’ replied Miss Squeers. ‘Oh! as soft as possible, if you please.’ With which words, Miss Squeers sighed. It might be, to give Nicholas to understand that her heart was soft, and that the pen was wanted to match.

Upon these instructions Nicholas made the pen; when he gave it to Miss Squeers, Miss Squeers dropped it; and when he stooped to pick it up, Miss Squeers stooped also, and they knocked their heads together; whereat five-and-twenty little boys laughed aloud: being positively for the first and only time that half-year.

‘Very awkward of me,’ said Nicholas, opening the door for the young lady’s retreat.

‘Not at all, sir,’ replied Miss Squeers; ‘it was my fault. It was all my foolish—a—a—good-morning!’

‘Goodbye,’ said Nicholas. ‘The next I make for you, I hope will be made less clumsily. Take care! You are biting the nib off now.’

‘Really,’ said Miss Squeers; ‘so embarrassing that I scarcely know what I—very sorry to give you so much trouble.’

‘Not the least trouble in the world,’ replied Nicholas, closing the schoolroom door.

‘I never saw such legs in the whole course of my life!’ said Miss Squeers, as she walked away.

In fact, Miss Squeers was in love with Nicholas Nickleby.

To account for the rapidity with which this young lady had conceived a passion for Nicholas, it may be necessary to state, that the friend from whom she had so recently returned, was a miller’s daughter of only eighteen, who had contracted herself unto the son of a small corn-factor, resident in the nearest market town. Miss Squeers and the miller’s daughter, being fast friends, had covenanted together some two years before, according to a custom prevalent among young ladies, that whoever was first engaged to be married, should straightway confide the mighty secret to the bosom of the other, before communicating it to any living soul, and bespeak her as bridesmaid without loss of time; in fulfilment of which pledge the miller’s daughter, when her engagement was formed, came out express, at eleven o’clock at night as the corn-factor’s son made an offer of his hand and heart at twenty-five minutes past ten by the Dutch clock in the kitchen, and rushed into Miss Squeers’s bedroom with the gratifying intelligence. Now, Miss Squeers being five years older, and out of her teens (which is also a great matter), had, since, been more than commonly anxious to return the compliment, and possess her friend with a similar secret; but, either in consequence of finding it hard to please herself, or harder still to please anybody else, had never had an opportunity so to do, inasmuch as she had no such secret to disclose. The little interview with Nicholas had no sooner passed, as above described, however, than Miss Squeers, putting on her bonnet, made her way, with great precipitation, to her friend’s house, and, upon a solemn renewal of divers old vows of secrecy, revealed how that she was—not exactly engaged, but going to be—to a gentleman’s son—(none of your corn-factors, but a gentleman’s son of high descent)—who had come down as teacher to Dotheboys Hall, under most mysterious and remarkable circumstances—indeed, as Miss Squeers more than once hinted she had good reason to believe, induced, by the fame of her many charms, to seek her out, and woo and win her.

‘Isn’t it an extraordinary thing?’ said Miss Squeers, emphasising the adjective strongly.

‘Most extraordinary,’ replied the friend. ‘But what has he said to you?’

‘Don’t ask me what he said, my dear,’ rejoined Miss Squeers. ‘If you had only seen his looks and smiles! I never was so overcome in all my life.’

‘Did he look in this way?’ inquired the miller’s daughter, counterfeiting, as nearly as she could, a favourite leer of the corn-factor.

‘Very like that—only more genteel,’ replied Miss Squeers.

‘Ah!’ said the friend, ‘then he means something, depend on it.’

Miss Squeers, having slight misgivings on the subject, was by no means ill pleased to be confirmed by a competent authority; and discovering, on further conversation and comparison of notes, a great many points of resemblance between the behaviour of Nicholas, and that of the corn-factor, grew so exceedingly confidential, that she intrusted her friend with a vast number of things Nicholas had not said, which were all so very complimentary as to be quite conclusive. Then, she dilated on the fearful hardship of having a father and mother strenuously opposed to her intended husband; on which unhappy circumstance she dwelt at great length; for the friend’s father and mother were quite agreeable to her being married, and the whole courtship was in consequence as flat and common-place an affair as it was possible to imagine.

‘How I should like to see him!’ exclaimed the friend.

‘So you shall, ‘Tilda,’ replied Miss Squeers. ‘I should consider myself one of the most ungrateful creatures alive, if I denied you. I think mother’s going away for two days to fetch some boys; and when she does, I’ll ask you and John up to tea, and have him to meet you.’

This was a charming idea, and having fully discussed it, the friends parted.

It so fell out, that Mrs. Squeers’s journey, to some distance, to fetch three new boys, and dun the relations of two old ones for the balance of a small account, was fixed that very afternoon, for the next day but one; and on the next day but one, Mrs. Squeers got up outside the coach, as it stopped to change at Greta Bridge, taking with her a small bundle containing something in a bottle, and some sandwiches, and carrying besides a large white top-coat to wear in the night-time; with which baggage she went her way.

Whenever such opportunities as these occurred, it was Squeers’s custom to drive over to the market town, every evening, on pretence of urgent business, and stop till ten or eleven o’clock at a tavern he much affected. As the party was not in his way, therefore, but rather afforded a means of compromise with Miss Squeers, he readily yielded his full assent thereunto, and willingly communicated to Nicholas that he was expected to take his tea in the parlour that evening, at five o’clock.

To be sure Miss Squeers was in a desperate flutter as the time approached, and to be sure she was dressed out to the best advantage: with her hair—it had more than a tinge of red, and she wore it in a crop—curled in five distinct rows, up to the very top of her head, and arranged dexterously over the doubtful eye; to say nothing of the blue sash which floated down her back, or the worked apron or the long gloves, or the green gauze scarf worn over one shoulder and under the other; or any of the numerous devices which were to be as so many arrows to the heart of Nicholas. She had scarcely completed these arrangements to her entire satisfaction, when the friend arrived with a whity-brown parcel—flat and three-cornered—containing sundry small adornments which were to be put on upstairs, and which the friend put on, talking incessantly. When Miss Squeers had ‘done’ the friend’s hair, the friend ‘did’ Miss Squeers’s hair, throwing in some striking improvements in the way of ringlets down the neck; and then, when they were both touched up to their entire satisfaction, they went downstairs in full state with the long gloves on, all ready for company.

‘Where’s John, ‘Tilda?’ said Miss Squeers.

‘Only gone home to clean himself,’ replied the friend. ‘He will be here by the time the tea’s drawn.’

‘I do so palpitate,’ observed Miss Squeers.

‘Ah! I know what it is,’ replied the friend.

‘I have not been used to it, you know, ‘Tilda,’ said Miss Squeers, applying her hand to the left side of her sash.

‘You’ll soon get the better of it, dear,’ rejoined the friend. While they were talking thus, the hungry servant brought in the tea-things, and, soon afterwards, somebody tapped at the room door.

‘There he is!’ cried Miss Squeers. ‘Oh ‘Tilda!’

‘Hush!’ said ‘Tilda. ‘Hem! Say, come in.’

‘Come in,’ cried Miss Squeers faintly. And in walked Nicholas.

‘Good-evening,’ said that young gentleman, all unconscious of his conquest. ‘I understood from Mr. Squeers that—’

‘Oh yes; it’s all right,’ interposed Miss Squeers. ‘Father don’t tea with us, but you won’t mind that, I dare say.’ (This was said archly.)

Nicholas opened his eyes at this, but he turned the matter off very coolly—not caring, particularly, about anything just then—and went through the ceremony of introduction to the miller’s daughter with so much grace, that that young lady was lost in admiration.

‘We are only waiting for one more gentleman,’ said Miss Squeers, taking off the teapot lid, and looking in, to see how the tea was getting on.

It was matter of equal moment to Nicholas whether they were waiting for one gentleman or twenty, so he received the intelligence with perfect unconcern; and, being out of spirits, and not seeing any especial reason why he should make himself agreeable, looked out of the window and sighed involuntarily.

As luck would have it, Miss Squeers’s friend was of a playful turn, and hearing Nicholas sigh, she took it into her head to rally the lovers on their lowness of spirits.

‘But if it’s caused by my being here,’ said the young lady, ‘don’t mind me a bit, for I’m quite as bad. You may go on just as you would if you were alone.’

‘’Tilda,’ said Miss Squeers, colouring up to the top row of curls, ‘I am ashamed of you;’ and here the two friends burst into a variety of giggles, and glanced from time to time, over the tops of their pocket-handkerchiefs, at Nicholas, who from a state of unmixed astonishment, gradually fell into one of irrepressible laughter—occasioned, partly by the bare notion of his being in love with Miss Squeers, and partly by the preposterous appearance and behaviour of the two girls. These two causes of merriment, taken together, struck him as being so keenly ridiculous, that, despite his miserable condition, he laughed till he was thoroughly exhausted.

‘Well,’ thought Nicholas, ‘as I am here, and seem expected, for some reason or other, to be amiable, it’s of no use looking like a goose. I may as well accommodate myself to the company.’

We blush to tell it; but his youthful spirits and vivacity getting, for the time, the better of his sad thoughts, he no sooner formed this resolution than he saluted Miss Squeers and the friend with great gallantry, and drawing a chair to the tea-table, began to make himself more at home than in all probability an usher has ever done in his employer’s house since ushers were first invented.

The ladies were in the full delight of this altered behaviour on the part of Mr. Nickleby, when the expected swain arrived, with his hair very damp from recent washing, and a clean shirt, whereof the collar might have belonged to some giant ancestor, forming, together with a white waistcoat of similar dimensions, the chief ornament of his person.

‘Well, John,’ said Miss Matilda Price (which, by-the-bye, was the name of the miller’s daughter).

‘Weel,’ said John with a grin that even the collar could not conceal.

‘I beg your pardon,’ interposed Miss Squeers, hastening to do the honours. ‘Mr. Nickleby—Mr. John Browdie.’

‘Servant, sir,’ said John, who was something over six feet high, with a face and body rather above the due proportion than below it.

‘Yours to command, sir,’ replied Nicholas, making fearful ravages on the bread and butter.

Mr. Browdie was not a gentleman of great conversational powers, so he grinned twice more, and having now bestowed his customary mark of recognition on every person in company, grinned at nothing in particular, and helped himself to food.

‘Old wooman awa’, bean’t she?’ said Mr. Browdie, with his mouth full.

Miss Squeers nodded assent.

Mr. Browdie gave a grin of special width, as if he thought that really was something to laugh at, and went to work at the bread and butter with increased vigour. It was quite a sight to behold how he and Nicholas emptied the plate between them.

‘Ye wean’t get bread and butther ev’ry neight, I expect, mun,’ said Mr Browdie, after he had sat staring at Nicholas a long time over the empty plate.

Nicholas bit his lip, and coloured, but affected not to hear the remark.

‘Ecod,’ said Mr. Browdie, laughing boisterously, ‘they dean’t put too much intiv’em. Ye’ll be nowt but skeen and boans if you stop here long eneaf. Ho! ho! ho!’

‘You are facetious, sir,’ said Nicholas, scornfully.

‘Na; I dean’t know,’ replied Mr. Browdie, ‘but t’oother teacher, ‘cod he wur a learn ‘un, he wur.’ The recollection of the last teacher’s leanness seemed to afford Mr. Browdie the most exquisite delight, for he laughed until he found it necessary to apply his coat-cuffs to his eyes.

‘I don’t know whether your perceptions are quite keen enough, Mr. Browdie, to enable you to understand that your remarks are offensive,’ said Nicholas in a towering passion, ‘but if they are, have the goodness to—’

‘If you say another word, John,’ shrieked Miss Price, stopping her admirer’s mouth as he was about to interrupt, ‘only half a word, I’ll never forgive you, or speak to you again.’

‘Weel, my lass, I dean’t care aboot ‘un,’ said the corn-factor, bestowing a hearty kiss on Miss Matilda; ‘let ‘un gang on, let ‘un gang on.’

It now became Miss Squeers’s turn to intercede with Nicholas, which she did with many symptoms of alarm and horror; the effect of the double intercession was, that he and John Browdie shook hands across the table with much gravity; and such was the imposing nature of the ceremonial, that Miss Squeers was overcome and shed tears.

‘What’s the matter, Fanny?’ said Miss Price.

‘Nothing, ‘Tilda,’ replied Miss Squeers, sobbing.

‘There never was any danger,’ said Miss Price, ‘was there, Mr. Nickleby?’

‘None at all,’ replied Nicholas. ‘Absurd.’

‘That’s right,’ whispered Miss Price, ‘say something kind to her, and she’ll soon come round. Here! Shall John and I go into the little kitchen, and come back presently?’

‘Not on any account,’ rejoined Nicholas, quite alarmed at the proposition. ‘What on earth should you do that for?’

‘Well,’ said Miss Price, beckoning him aside, and speaking with some degree of contempt—‘you are a one to keep company.’

‘What do you mean?’ said Nicholas; ‘I am not a one to keep company at all—here at all events. I can’t make this out.’

‘No, nor I neither,’ rejoined Miss Price; ‘but men are always fickle, and always were, and always will be; that I can make out, very easily.’

‘Fickle!’ cried Nicholas; ‘what do you suppose? You don’t mean to say that you think—’

‘Oh no, I think nothing at all,’ retorted Miss Price, pettishly. ‘Look at her, dressed so beautiful and looking so well—really almost handsome. I am ashamed at you.’

‘My dear girl, what have I got to do with her dressing beautifully or looking well?’ inquired Nicholas.

‘Come, don’t call me a dear girl,’ said Miss Price—smiling a little though, for she was pretty, and a coquette too in her small way, and Nicholas was good-looking, and she supposed him the property of somebody else, which were all reasons why she should be gratified to think she had made an impression on him,—‘or Fanny will be saying it’s my fault. Come; we’re going to have a game at cards.’ Pronouncing these last words aloud, she tripped away and rejoined the big Yorkshireman.

This was wholly unintelligible to Nicholas, who had no other distinct impression on his mind at the moment, than that Miss Squeers was an ordinary-looking girl, and her friend Miss Price a pretty one; but he had not time to enlighten himself by reflection, for the hearth being by this time swept up, and the candle snuffed, they sat down to play speculation.

‘There are only four of us, ‘Tilda,’ said Miss Squeers, looking slyly at Nicholas; ‘so we had better go partners, two against two.’

‘What do you say, Mr. Nickleby?’ inquired Miss Price.

‘With all the pleasure in life,’ replied Nicholas. And so saying, quite unconscious of his heinous offence, he amalgamated into one common heap those portions of a Dotheboys Hall card of terms, which represented his own counters, and those allotted to Miss Price, respectively.

‘Mr. Browdie,’ said Miss Squeers hysterically, ‘shall we make a bank against them?’

The Yorkshireman assented—apparently quite overwhelmed by the new usher’s impudence—and Miss Squeers darted a spiteful look at her friend, and giggled convulsively.

The deal fell to Nicholas, and the hand prospered.

‘We intend to win everything,’ said he.

‘’Tilda has won something she didn’t expect, I think, haven’t you, dear?’ said Miss Squeers, maliciously.

‘Only a dozen and eight, love,’ replied Miss Price, affecting to take the question in a literal sense.

‘How dull you are tonight!’ sneered Miss Squeers.

‘No, indeed,’ replied Miss Price, ‘I am in excellent spirits. I was thinking you seemed out of sorts.’

‘Me!’ cried Miss Squeers, biting her lips, and trembling with very jealousy. ‘Oh no!’

‘That’s well,’ remarked Miss Price. ‘Your hair’s coming out of curl, dear.’

‘Never mind me,’ tittered Miss Squeers; ‘you had better attend to your partner.’

‘Thank you for reminding her,’ said Nicholas. ‘So she had.’

The Yorkshireman flattened his nose, once or twice, with his clenched fist, as if to keep his hand in, till he had an opportunity of exercising it upon the features of some other gentleman; and Miss Squeers tossed her head with such indignation, that the gust of wind raised by the multitudinous curls in motion, nearly blew the candle out.

‘I never had such luck, really,’ exclaimed coquettish Miss Price, after another hand or two. ‘It’s all along of you, Mr. Nickleby, I think. I should like to have you for a partner always.’

‘I wish you had.’

‘You’ll have a bad wife, though, if you always win at cards,’ said Miss Price.

‘Not if your wish is gratified,’ replied Nicholas. ‘I am sure I shall have a good one in that case.’

To see how Miss Squeers tossed her head, and the corn-factor flattened his nose, while this conversation was carrying on! It would have been worth a small annuity to have beheld that; let alone Miss Price’s evident joy at making them jealous, and Nicholas Nickleby’s happy unconsciousness of making anybody uncomfortable.

‘We have all the talking to ourselves, it seems,’ said Nicholas, looking good-humouredly round the table as he took up the cards for a fresh deal.

‘You do it so well,’ tittered Miss Squeers, ‘that it would be a pity to interrupt, wouldn’t it, Mr. Browdie? He! he! he!’

‘Nay,’ said Nicholas, ‘we do it in default of having anybody else to talk to.’

‘We’ll talk to you, you know, if you’ll say anything,’ said Miss Price.

‘Thank you, ‘Tilda, dear,’ retorted Miss Squeers, majestically.

‘Or you can talk to each other, if you don’t choose to talk to us,’ said Miss Price, rallying her dear friend. ‘John, why don’t you say something?’

‘Say summat?’ repeated the Yorkshireman.

‘Ay, and not sit there so silent and glum.’

‘Weel, then!’ said the Yorkshireman, striking the table heavily with his fist, ‘what I say’s this—Dang my boans and boddy, if I stan’ this ony longer. Do ye gang whoam wi’ me, and do yon loight an’ toight young whipster look sharp out for a brokken head, next time he cums under my hond.’

‘Mercy on us, what’s all this?’ cried Miss Price, in affected astonishment.

‘Cum whoam, tell ‘e, cum whoam,’ replied the Yorkshireman, sternly. And as he delivered the reply, Miss Squeers burst into a shower of tears; arising in part from desperate vexation, and in part from an impotent desire to lacerate somebody’s countenance with her fair finger-nails.

This state of things had been brought about by divers means and workings. Miss Squeers had brought it about, by aspiring to the high state and condition of being matrimonially engaged, without good grounds for so doing; Miss Price had brought it about, by indulging in three motives of action: first, a desire to punish her friend for laying claim to a rivalship in dignity, having no good title: secondly, the gratification of her own vanity, in receiving the compliments of a smart young man: and thirdly, a wish to convince the corn-factor of the great danger he ran, in deferring the celebration of their expected nuptials; while Nicholas had brought it about, by half an hour’s gaiety and thoughtlessness, and a very sincere desire to avoid the imputation of inclining at all to Miss Squeers. So the means employed, and the end produced, were alike the most natural in the world; for young ladies will look forward to being married, and will jostle each other in the race to the altar, and will avail themselves of all opportunities of displaying their own attractions to the best advantage, down to the very end of time, as they have done from its beginning.

‘Why, and here’s Fanny in tears now!’ exclaimed Miss Price, as if in fresh amazement. ‘What can be the matter?’

‘Oh! you don’t know, miss, of course you don’t know. Pray don’t trouble yourself to inquire,’ said Miss Squeers, producing that change of countenance which children call making a face.

‘Well, I’m sure!’ exclaimed Miss Price.

‘And who cares whether you are sure or not, ma’am?’ retorted Miss Squeers, making another face.

‘You are monstrous polite, ma’am,’ said Miss Price.

‘I shall not come to you to take lessons in the art, ma’am!’ retorted Miss Squeers.

‘You needn’t take the trouble to make yourself plainer than you are, ma’am, however,’ rejoined Miss Price, ‘because that’s quite unnecessary.’

Miss Squeers, in reply, turned very red, and thanked God that she hadn’t got the bold faces of some people. Miss Price, in rejoinder, congratulated herself upon not being possessed of the envious feeling of other people; whereupon Miss Squeers made some general remark touching the danger of associating with low persons; in which Miss Price entirely coincided: observing that it was very true indeed, and she had thought so a long time.

‘’Tilda,’ exclaimed Miss Squeers with dignity, ‘I hate you.’

‘Ah! There’s no love lost between us, I assure you,’ said Miss Price, tying her bonnet strings with a jerk. ‘You’ll cry your eyes out, when I’m gone; you know you will.’

‘I scorn your words, Minx,’ said Miss Squeers.

‘You pay me a great compliment when you say so,’ answered the miller’s daughter, curtseying very low. ‘Wish you a very good-night, ma’am, and pleasant dreams attend your sleep!’

With this parting benediction, Miss Price swept from the room, followed by the huge Yorkshireman, who exchanged with Nicholas, at parting, that peculiarly expressive scowl with which the cut-and-thrust counts, in melodramatic performances, inform each other they will meet again.

They were no sooner gone, than Miss Squeers fulfilled the prediction of her quondam friend by giving vent to a most copious burst of tears, and uttering various dismal lamentations and incoherent words. Nicholas stood looking on for a few seconds, rather doubtful what to do, but feeling uncertain whether the fit would end in his being embraced, or scratched, and considering that either infliction would be equally agreeable, he walked off very quietly while Miss Squeers was moaning in her pocket-handkerchief.

‘This is one consequence,’ thought Nicholas, when he had groped his way to the dark sleeping-room, ‘of my cursed readiness to adapt myself to any society in which chance carries me. If I had sat mute and motionless, as I might have done, this would not have happened.’

He listened for a few minutes, but all was quiet.

‘I was glad,’ he murmured, ‘to grasp at any relief from the sight of this dreadful place, or the presence of its vile master. I have set these people by the ears, and made two new enemies, where, Heaven knows, I needed none. Well, it is a just punishment for having forgotten, even for an hour, what is around me now!’

So saying, he felt his way among the throng of weary-hearted sleepers, and crept into his poor bed.






CHAPTER 10

How Mr. Ralph Nickleby provided for his Niece and Sister-in-Law

On the second morning after the departure of Nicholas for Yorkshire, Kate Nickleby sat in a very faded chair raised upon a very dusty throne in Miss La Creevy’s room, giving that lady a sitting for the portrait upon which she was engaged; and towards the full perfection of which, Miss La Creevy had had the street-door case brought upstairs, in order that she might be the better able to infuse into the counterfeit countenance of Miss Nickleby, a bright salmon flesh-tint which she had originally hit upon while executing the miniature of a young officer therein contained, and which bright salmon flesh-tint was considered, by Miss La Creevy’s chief friends and patrons, to be quite a novelty in art: as indeed it was.

‘I think I have caught it now,’ said Miss La Creevy. ‘The very shade! This will be the sweetest portrait I have ever done, certainly.’

‘It will be your genius that makes it so, then, I am sure,’ replied Kate, smiling.

‘No, no, I won’t allow that, my dear,’ rejoined Miss La Creevy. ‘It’s a very nice subject—a very nice subject, indeed—though, of course, something depends upon the mode of treatment.’

‘And not a little,’ observed Kate.

‘Why, my dear, you are right there,’ said Miss La Creevy, ‘in the main you are right there; though I don’t allow that it is of such very great importance in the present case. Ah! The difficulties of Art, my dear, are great.’

‘They must be, I have no doubt,’ said Kate, humouring her good-natured little friend.

‘They are beyond anything you can form the faintest conception of,’ replied Miss La Creevy. ‘What with bringing out eyes with all one’s power, and keeping down noses with all one’s force, and adding to heads, and taking away teeth altogether, you have no idea of the trouble one little miniature is.’

‘The remuneration can scarcely repay you,’ said Kate.

‘Why, it does not, and that’s the truth,’ answered Miss La Creevy; ‘and then people are so dissatisfied and unreasonable, that, nine times out of ten, there’s no pleasure in painting them. Sometimes they say, “Oh, how very serious you have made me look, Miss La Creevy!” and at others, “La, Miss La Creevy, how very smirking!” when the very essence of a good portrait is, that it must be either serious or smirking, or it’s no portrait at all.’

‘Indeed!’ said Kate, laughing.

‘Certainly, my dear; because the sitters are always either the one or the other,’ replied Miss La Creevy. ‘Look at the Royal Academy! All those beautiful shiny portraits of gentlemen in black velvet waistcoats, with their fists doubled up on round tables, or marble slabs, are serious, you know; and all the ladies who are playing with little parasols, or little dogs, or little children—it’s the same rule in art, only varying the objects—are smirking. In fact,’ said Miss La Creevy, sinking her voice to a confidential whisper, ‘there are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk; and we always use the serious for professional people (except actors sometimes), and the smirk for private ladies and gentlemen who don’t care so much about looking clever.’

Kate seemed highly amused by this information, and Miss La Creevy went on painting and talking, with immovable complacency.

‘What a number of officers you seem to paint!’ said Kate, availing herself of a pause in the discourse, and glancing round the room.

‘Number of what, child?’ inquired Miss La Creevy, looking up from her work. ‘Character portraits, oh yes—they’re not real military men, you know.’

‘No!’

‘Bless your heart, of course not; only clerks and that, who hire a uniform coat to be painted in, and send it here in a carpet bag. Some artists,’ said Miss La Creevy, ‘keep a red coat, and charge seven-and-sixpence extra for hire and carmine; but I don’t do that myself, for I don’t consider it legitimate.’

Drawing herself up, as though she plumed herself greatly upon not resorting to these lures to catch sitters, Miss La Creevy applied herself, more intently, to her task: only raising her head occasionally, to look with unspeakable satisfaction at some touch she had just put in: and now and then giving Miss Nickleby to understand what particular feature she was at work upon, at the moment; ‘not,’ she expressly observed, ‘that you should make it up for painting, my dear, but because it’s our custom sometimes to tell sitters what part we are upon, in order that if there’s any particular expression they want introduced, they may throw it in, at the time, you know.’

‘And when,’ said Miss La Creevy, after a long silence, to wit, an interval of full a minute and a half, ‘when do you expect to see your uncle again?’

‘I scarcely know; I had expected to have seen him before now,’ replied Kate. ‘Soon I hope, for this state of uncertainty is worse than anything.’

‘I suppose he has money, hasn’t he?’ inquired Miss La Creevy.

‘He is very rich, I have heard,’ rejoined Kate. ‘I don’t know that he is, but I believe so.’

‘Ah, you may depend upon it he is, or he wouldn’t be so surly,’ remarked Miss La Creevy, who was an odd little mixture of shrewdness and simplicity. ‘When a man’s a bear, he is generally pretty independent.’

‘His manner is rough,’ said Kate.

‘Rough!’ cried Miss La Creevy, ‘a porcupine’s a featherbed to him! I never met with such a cross-grained old savage.’

‘It is only his manner, I believe,’ observed Kate, timidly; ‘he was disappointed in early life, I think I have heard, or has had his temper soured by some calamity. I should be sorry to think ill of him until I knew he deserved it.’

‘Well; that’s very right and proper,’ observed the miniature painter, ‘and Heaven forbid that I should be the cause of your doing so! But, now, mightn’t he, without feeling it himself, make you and your mama some nice little allowance that would keep you both comfortable until you were well married, and be a little fortune to her afterwards? What would a hundred a year for instance, be to him?’

‘I don’t know what it would be to him,’ said Kate, with energy, ‘but it would be that to me I would rather die than take.’

‘Heyday!’ cried Miss La Creevy.

‘A dependence upon him,’ said Kate, ‘would embitter my whole life. I should feel begging a far less degradation.’

‘Well!’ exclaimed Miss La Creevy. ‘This of a relation whom you will not hear an indifferent person speak ill of, my dear, sounds oddly enough, I confess.’

‘I dare say it does,’ replied Kate, speaking more gently, ‘indeed I am sure it must. I—I—only mean that with the feelings and recollection of better times upon me, I could not bear to live on anybody’s bounty—not his particularly, but anybody’s.’

Miss La Creevy looked slyly at her companion, as if she doubted whether Ralph himself were not the subject of dislike, but seeing that her young friend was distressed, made no remark.

‘I only ask of him,’ continued Kate, whose tears fell while she spoke, ‘that he will move so little out of his way, in my behalf, as to enable me by his recommendation—only by his recommendation—to earn, literally, my bread and remain with my mother. Whether we shall ever taste happiness again, depends upon the fortunes of my dear brother; but if he will do this, and Nicholas only tells us that he is well and cheerful, I shall be contented.’

As she ceased to speak, there was a rustling behind the screen which stood between her and the door, and some person knocked at the wainscot.’

‘Come in, whoever it is!’ cried Miss La Creevy.

The person complied, and, coming forward at once, gave to view the form and features of no less an individual than Mr. Ralph Nickleby himself.

‘Your servant, ladies,’ said Ralph, looking sharply at them by turns. ‘You were talking so loud, that I was unable to make you hear.’

When the man of business had a more than commonly vicious snarl lurking at his heart, he had a trick of almost concealing his eyes under their thick and protruding brows, for an instant, and then displaying them in their full keenness. As he did so now, and tried to keep down the smile which parted his thin compressed lips, and puckered up the bad lines about his mouth, they both felt certain that some part, if not the whole, of their recent conversation, had been overheard.

‘I called in, on my way upstairs, more than half expecting to find you here,’ said Ralph, addressing his niece, and looking contemptuously at the portrait. ‘Is that my niece’s portrait, ma’am?’

‘Yes it is, Mr. Nickleby,’ said Miss La Creevy, with a very sprightly air, ‘and between you and me and the post, sir, it will be a very nice portrait too, though I say it who am the painter.’

‘Don’t trouble yourself to show it to me, ma’am,’ cried Ralph, moving away, ‘I have no eye for likenesses. Is it nearly finished?’

‘Why, yes,’ replied Miss La Creevy, considering with the pencil end of her brush in her mouth. ‘Two sittings more will—’

‘Have them at once, ma’am,’ said Ralph. ‘She’ll have no time to idle over fooleries after tomorrow. Work, ma’am, work; we must all work. Have you let your lodgings, ma’am?’

‘I have not put a bill up yet, sir.’

‘Put it up at once, ma’am; they won’t want the rooms after this week, or if they do, can’t pay for them. Now, my dear, if you’re ready, we’ll lose no more time.’

With an assumption of kindness which sat worse upon him even than his usual manner, Mr. Ralph Nickleby motioned to the young lady to precede him, and bowing gravely to Miss La Creevy, closed the door and followed upstairs, where Mrs. Nickleby received him with many expressions of regard. Stopping them somewhat abruptly, Ralph waved his hand with an impatient gesture, and proceeded to the object of his visit.

‘I have found a situation for your daughter, ma’am,’ said Ralph.

‘Well,’ replied Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Now, I will say that that is only just what I have expected of you. “Depend upon it,” I said to Kate, only yesterday morning at breakfast, “that after your uncle has provided, in that most ready manner, for Nicholas, he will not leave us until he has done at least the same for you.” These were my very words, as near as I remember. Kate, my dear, why don’t you thank your—’

‘Let me proceed, ma’am, pray,’ said Ralph, interrupting his sister-in-law in the full torrent of her discourse.

‘Kate, my love, let your uncle proceed,’ said Mrs. Nickleby.

‘I am most anxious that he should, mama,’ rejoined Kate.

‘Well, my dear, if you are anxious that he should, you had better allow your uncle to say what he has to say, without interruption,’ observed Mrs Nickleby, with many small nods and frowns. ‘Your uncle’s time is very valuable, my dear; and however desirous you may be—and naturally desirous, as I am sure any affectionate relations who have seen so little of your uncle as we have, must naturally be to protract the pleasure of having him among us, still, we are bound not to be selfish, but to take into consideration the important nature of his occupations in the city.’

‘I am very much obliged to you, ma’am,’ said Ralph with a scarcely perceptible sneer. ‘An absence of business habits in this family leads, apparently, to a great waste of words before business—when it does come under consideration—is arrived at, at all.’

‘I fear it is so indeed,’ replied Mrs. Nickleby with a sigh. ‘Your poor brother—’

‘My poor brother, ma’am,’ interposed Ralph tartly, ‘had no idea what business was—was unacquainted, I verily believe, with the very meaning of the word.’

‘I fear he was,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, with her handkerchief to her eyes. ‘If it hadn’t been for me, I don’t know what would have become of him.’

What strange creatures we are! The slight bait so skilfully thrown out by Ralph, on their first interview, was dangling on the hook yet. At every small deprivation or discomfort which presented itself in the course of the four-and-twenty hours to remind her of her straitened and altered circumstances, peevish visions of her dower of one thousand pounds had arisen before Mrs. Nickleby’s mind, until, at last, she had come to persuade herself that of all her late husband’s creditors she was the worst used and the most to be pitied. And yet, she had loved him dearly for many years, and had no greater share of selfishness than is the usual lot of mortals. Such is the irritability of sudden poverty. A decent annuity would have restored her thoughts to their old train, at once.

‘Repining is of no use, ma’am,’ said Ralph. ‘Of all fruitless errands, sending a tear to look after a day that is gone is the most fruitless.’

‘So it is,’ sobbed Mrs. Nickleby. ‘So it is.’

‘As you feel so keenly, in your own purse and person, the consequences of inattention to business, ma’am,’ said Ralph, ‘I am sure you will impress upon your children the necessity of attaching themselves to it early in life.’

‘Of course I must see that,’ rejoined Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Sad experience, you know, brother-in-law.—Kate, my dear, put that down in the next letter to Nicholas, or remind me to do it if I write.’

Ralph paused for a few moments, and seeing that he had now made pretty sure of the mother, in case the daughter objected to his proposition, went on to say:

‘The situation that I have made interest to procure, ma’am, is with—with a milliner and dressmaker, in short.’

‘A milliner!’ cried Mrs. Nickleby.

‘A milliner and dressmaker, ma’am,’ replied Ralph. ‘Dressmakers in London, as I need not remind you, ma’am, who are so well acquainted with all matters in the ordinary routine of life, make large fortunes, keep equipages, and become persons of great wealth and fortune.’

Now, the first idea called up in Mrs. Nickleby’s mind by the words milliner and dressmaker were connected with certain wicker baskets lined with black oilskin, which she remembered to have seen carried to and fro in the streets; but, as Ralph proceeded, these disappeared, and were replaced by visions of large houses at the West end, neat private carriages, and a banker’s book; all of which images succeeded each other with such rapidity, that he had no sooner finished speaking, than she nodded her head and said ‘Very true,’ with great appearance of satisfaction.

‘What your uncle says is very true, Kate, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby. ‘I recollect when your poor papa and I came to town after we were married, that a young lady brought me home a chip cottage-bonnet, with white and green trimming, and green persian lining, in her own carriage, which drove up to the door full gallop;—at least, I am not quite certain whether it was her own carriage or a hackney chariot, but I remember very well that the horse dropped down dead as he was turning round, and that your poor papa said he hadn’t had any corn for a fortnight.’

This anecdote, so strikingly illustrative of the opulence of milliners, was not received with any great demonstration of feeling, inasmuch as Kate hung down her head while it was relating, and Ralph manifested very intelligible symptoms of extreme impatience.

‘The lady’s name,’ said Ralph, hastily striking in, ‘is Mantalini—Madame Mantalini. I know her. She lives near Cavendish Square. If your daughter is disposed to try after the situation, I’ll take her there directly.’

‘Have you nothing to say to your uncle, my love?’ inquired Mrs. Nickleby.

‘A great deal,’ replied Kate; ‘but not now. I would rather speak to him when we are alone;—it will save his time if I thank him and say what I wish to say to him, as we walk along.’

With these words, Kate hurried away, to hide the traces of emotion that were stealing down her face, and to prepare herself for the walk, while Mrs. Nickleby amused her brother-in-law by giving him, with many tears, a detailed account of the dimensions of a rosewood cabinet piano they had possessed in their days of affluence, together with a minute description of eight drawing-room chairs, with turned legs and green chintz squabs to match the curtains, which had cost two pounds fifteen shillings apiece, and had gone at the sale for a mere nothing.

These reminiscences were at length cut short by Kate’s return in her walking dress, when Ralph, who had been fretting and fuming during the whole time of her absence, lost no time, and used very little ceremony, in descending into the street.

‘Now,’ he said, taking her arm, ‘walk as fast as you can, and you’ll get into the step that you’ll have to walk to business with, every morning.’ So saying, he led Kate off, at a good round pace, towards Cavendish Square.

‘I am very much obliged to you, uncle,’ said the young lady, after they had hurried on in silence for some time; ‘very.’

‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Ralph. ‘I hope you’ll do your duty.’

‘I will try to please, uncle,’ replied Kate: ‘indeed I—’

‘Don’t begin to cry,’ growled Ralph; ‘I hate crying.’

‘It’s very foolish, I know, uncle,’ began poor Kate.

‘It is,’ replied Ralph, stopping her short, ‘and very affected besides. Let me see no more of it.’

Perhaps this was not the best way to dry the tears of a young and sensitive female, about to make her first entry on an entirely new scene of life, among cold and uninterested strangers; but it had its effect notwithstanding. Kate coloured deeply, breathed quickly for a few moments, and then walked on with a firmer and more determined step.

It was a curious contrast to see how the timid country girl shrunk through the crowd that hurried up and down the streets, giving way to the press of people, and clinging closely to Ralph as though she feared to lose him in the throng; and how the stern and hard-featured man of business went doggedly on, elbowing the passengers aside, and now and then exchanging a gruff salutation with some passing acquaintance, who turned to look back upon his pretty charge, with looks expressive of surprise, and seemed to wonder at the ill-assorted companionship. But, it would have been a stranger contrast still, to have read the hearts that were beating side by side; to have laid bare the gentle innocence of the one, and the rugged villainy of the other; to have hung upon the guileless thoughts of the affectionate girl, and been amazed that, among all the wily plots and calculations of the old man, there should not be one word or figure denoting thought of death or of the grave. But so it was; and stranger still—though this is a thing of every day—the warm young heart palpitated with a thousand anxieties and apprehensions, while that of the old worldly man lay rusting in its cell, beating only as a piece of cunning mechanism, and yielding no one throb of hope, or fear, or love, or care, for any living thing.

‘Uncle,’ said Kate, when she judged they must be near their destination, ‘I must ask one question of you. I am to live at home?’

‘At home!’ replied Ralph; ‘where’s that?’

‘I mean with my mother—The Widow,’ said Kate emphatically.

‘You will live, to all intents and purposes, here,’ rejoined Ralph; ‘for here you will take your meals, and here you will be from morning till night—occasionally perhaps till morning again.’

‘But at night, I mean,’ said Kate; ‘I cannot leave her, uncle. I must have some place that I can call a home; it will be wherever she is, you know, and may be a very humble one.’

‘May be!’ said Ralph, walking faster, in the impatience provoked by the remark; ‘must be, you mean. May be a humble one! Is the girl mad?’

‘The word slipped from my lips, I did not mean it indeed,’ urged Kate.

‘I hope not,’ said Ralph.

‘But my question, uncle; you have not answered it.’

‘Why, I anticipated something of the kind,’ said Ralph; ‘and—though I object very strongly, mind—have provided against it. I spoke of you as an out-of-door worker; so you will go to this home that may be humble, every night.’

There was comfort in this. Kate poured forth many thanks for her uncle’s consideration, which Ralph received as if he had deserved them all, and they arrived without any further conversation at the dressmaker’s door, which displayed a very large plate, with Madame Mantalini’s name and occupation, and was approached by a handsome flight of steps. There was a shop to the house, but it was let off to an importer of otto of roses. Madame Mantalini’s shows-rooms were on the first-floor: a fact which was notified to the nobility and gentry by the casual exhibition, near the handsomely curtained windows, of two or three elegant bonnets of the newest fashion, and some costly garments in the most approved taste.

A liveried footman opened the door, and in reply to Ralph’s inquiry whether Madame Mantalini was at home, ushered them, through a handsome hall and up a spacious staircase, into the show saloon, which comprised two spacious drawing-rooms, and exhibited an immense variety of superb dresses and materials for dresses: some arranged on stands, others laid carelessly on sofas, and others again, scattered over the carpet, hanging on the cheval-glasses, or mingling, in some other way, with the rich furniture of various descriptions, which was profusely displayed.

They waited here a much longer time than was agreeable to Mr. Ralph Nickleby, who eyed the gaudy frippery about him with very little concern, and was at length about to pull the bell, when a gentleman suddenly popped his head into the room, and, seeing somebody there, as suddenly popped it out again.

‘Here. Hollo!’ cried Ralph. ‘Who’s that?’

At the sound of Ralph’s voice, the head reappeared, and the mouth, displaying a very long row of very white teeth, uttered in a mincing tone the words, ‘Demmit. What, Nickleby! oh, demmit!’ Having uttered which ejaculations, the gentleman advanced, and shook hands with Ralph, with great warmth. He was dressed in a gorgeous morning gown, with a waistcoat and Turkish trousers of the same pattern, a pink silk neckerchief, and bright green slippers, and had a very copious watch-chain wound round his body. Moreover, he had whiskers and a moustache, both dyed black and gracefully curled.

‘Demmit, you don’t mean to say you want me, do you, demmit?’ said this gentleman, smiting Ralph on the shoulder.

‘Not yet,’ said Ralph, sarcastically.

‘Ha! ha! demmit,’ cried the gentleman; when, wheeling round to laugh with greater elegance, he encountered Kate Nickleby, who was standing near.

‘My niece,’ said Ralph.

‘I remember,’ said the gentleman, striking his nose with the knuckle of his forefinger as a chastening for his forgetfulness. ‘Demmit, I remember what you come for. Step this way, Nickleby; my dear, will you follow me? Ha! ha! They all follow me, Nickleby; always did, demmit, always.’

Giving loose to the playfulness of his imagination, after this fashion, the gentleman led the way to a private sitting-room on the second floor, scarcely less elegantly furnished than the apartment below, where the presence of a silver coffee-pot, an egg-shell, and sloppy china for one, seemed to show that he had just breakfasted.

‘Sit down, my dear,’ said the gentleman: first staring Miss Nickleby out of countenance, and then grinning in delight at the achievement. ‘This cursed high room takes one’s breath away. These infernal sky parlours—I’m afraid I must move, Nickleby.’

‘I would, by all means,’ replied Ralph, looking bitterly round.

‘What a demd rum fellow you are, Nickleby,’ said the gentleman, ‘the demdest, longest-headed, queerest-tempered old coiner of gold and silver ever was—demmit.’

Having complimented Ralph to this effect, the gentleman rang the bell, and stared at Miss Nickleby until it was answered, when he left off to bid the man desire his mistress to come directly; after which, he began again, and left off no more until Madame Mantalini appeared.

The dressmaker was a buxom person, handsomely dressed and rather good-looking, but much older than the gentleman in the Turkish trousers, whom she had wedded some six months before. His name was originally Muntle; but it had been converted, by an easy transition, into Mantalini: the lady rightly considering that an English appellation would be of serious injury to the business. He had married on his whiskers; upon which property he had previously subsisted, in a genteel manner, for some years; and which he had recently improved, after patient cultivation by the addition of a moustache, which promised to secure him an easy independence: his share in the labours of the business being at present confined to spending the money, and occasionally, when that ran short, driving to Mr. Ralph Nickleby to procure discount—at a percentage—for the customers’ bills.

‘My life,’ said Mr. Mantalini, ‘what a demd devil of a time you have been!’

‘I didn’t even know Mr. Nickleby was here, my love,’ said Madame Mantalini.

‘Then what a doubly demd infernal rascal that footman must be, my soul,’ remonstrated Mr. Mantalini.

‘My dear,’ said Madame, ‘that is entirely your fault.’

‘My fault, my heart’s joy?’

‘Certainly,’ returned the lady; ‘what can you expect, dearest, if you will not correct the man?’

‘Correct the man, my soul’s delight!’

‘Yes; I am sure he wants speaking to, badly enough,’ said Madame, pouting.

‘Then do not vex itself,’ said Mr. Mantalini; ‘he shall be horse-whipped till he cries out demnebly.’ With this promise Mr. Mantalini kissed Madame Mantalini, and, after that performance, Madame Mantalini pulled Mr Mantalini playfully by the ear: which done, they descended to business.

‘Now, ma’am,’ said Ralph, who had looked on, at all this, with such scorn as few men can express in looks, ‘this is my niece.’

‘Just so, Mr. Nickleby,’ replied Madame Mantalini, surveying Kate from head to foot, and back again. ‘Can you speak French, child?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ replied Kate, not daring to look up; for she felt that the eyes of the odious man in the dressing-gown were directed towards her.

‘Like a demd native?’ asked the husband.

Miss Nickleby offered no reply to this inquiry, but turned her back upon the questioner, as if addressing herself to make answer to what his wife might demand.

‘We keep twenty young women constantly employed in the establishment,’ said Madame.

‘Indeed, ma’am!’ replied Kate, timidly.

‘Yes; and some of ‘em demd handsome, too,’ said the master.

‘Mantalini!’ exclaimed his wife, in an awful voice.

‘My senses’ idol!’ said Mantalini.

‘Do you wish to break my heart?’

‘Not for twenty thousand hemispheres populated with—with—with little ballet-dancers,’ replied Mantalini in a poetical strain.

‘Then you will, if you persevere in that mode of speaking,’ said his wife. ‘What can Mr. Nickleby think when he hears you?’

‘Oh! Nothing, ma’am, nothing,’ replied Ralph. ‘I know his amiable nature, and yours,—mere little remarks that give a zest to your daily intercourse—lovers’ quarrels that add sweetness to those domestic joys which promise to last so long—that’s all; that’s all.’

If an iron door could be supposed to quarrel with its hinges, and to make a firm resolution to open with slow obstinacy, and grind them to powder in the process, it would emit a pleasanter sound in so doing, than did these words in the rough and bitter voice in which they were uttered by Ralph. Even Mr. Mantalini felt their influence, and turning affrighted round, exclaimed: ‘What a demd horrid croaking!’

‘You will pay no attention, if you please, to what Mr. Mantalini says,’ observed his wife, addressing Miss Nickleby.

‘I do not, ma’am,’ said Kate, with quiet contempt.

‘Mr. Mantalini knows nothing whatever about any of the young women,’ continued Madame, looking at her husband, and speaking to Kate. ‘If he has seen any of them, he must have seen them in the street, going to, or returning from, their work, and not here. He was never even in the room. I do not allow it. What hours of work have you been accustomed to?’

‘I have never yet been accustomed to work at all, ma’am,’ replied Kate, in a low voice.

‘For which reason she’ll work all the better now,’ said Ralph, putting in a word, lest this confession should injure the negotiation.

‘I hope so,’ returned Madame Mantalini; ‘our hours are from nine to nine, with extra work when we’re very full of business, for which I allow payment as overtime.’

Kate bowed her head, to intimate that she heard, and was satisfied.

‘Your meals,’ continued Madame Mantalini, ‘that is, dinner and tea, you will take here. I should think your wages would average from five to seven shillings a week; but I can’t give you any certain information on that point, until I see what you can do.’

Kate bowed her head again.

‘If you’re ready to come,’ said Madame Mantalini, ‘you had better begin on Monday morning at nine exactly, and Miss Knag the forewoman shall then have directions to try you with some easy work at first. Is there anything more, Mr. Nickleby?’

‘Nothing more, ma’am,’ replied Ralph, rising.

‘Then I believe that’s all,’ said the lady. Having arrived at this natural conclusion, she looked at the door, as if she wished to be gone, but hesitated notwithstanding, as though unwilling to leave to Mr. Mantalini the sole honour of showing them downstairs. Ralph relieved her from her perplexity by taking his departure without delay: Madame Mantalini making many gracious inquiries why he never came to see them; and Mr. Mantalini anathematising the stairs with great volubility as he followed them down, in the hope of inducing Kate to look round,—a hope, however, which was destined to remain ungratified.

‘There!’ said Ralph when they got into the street; ‘now you’re provided for.’

Kate was about to thank him again, but he stopped her.

‘I had some idea,’ he said, ‘of providing for your mother in a pleasant part of the country—(he had a presentation to some almshouses on the borders of Cornwall, which had occurred to him more than once)—but as you want to be together, I must do something else for her. She has a little money?’

‘A very little,’ replied Kate.

‘A little will go a long way if it’s used sparingly,’ said Ralph. ‘She must see how long she can make it last, living rent free. You leave your lodgings on Saturday?’

‘You told us to do so, uncle.’

‘Yes; there is a house empty that belongs to me, which I can put you into till it is let, and then, if nothing else turns up, perhaps I shall have another. You must live there.’

‘Is it far from here, sir?’ inquired Kate.

‘Pretty well,’ said Ralph; ‘in another quarter of the town—at the East end; but I’ll send my clerk down to you, at five o’clock on Saturday, to take you there. Goodbye. You know your way? Straight on.’

Coldly shaking his niece’s hand, Ralph left her at the top of Regent Street, and turned down a by-thoroughfare, intent on schemes of money-getting. Kate walked sadly back to their lodgings in the Strand.