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Nicholas Nickleby

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CHAPTER 16

Nicholas seeks to employ himself in a New Capacity, and being unsuccessful, accepts an engagement as Tutor in a Private Family

The first care of Nicholas, next morning, was, to look after some room in which, until better times dawned upon him, he could contrive to exist, without trenching upon the hospitality of Newman Noggs, who would have slept upon the stairs with pleasure, so that his young friend was accommodated.

The vacant apartment to which the bill in the parlour window bore reference, appeared, on inquiry, to be a small back-room on the second floor, reclaimed from the leads, and overlooking a soot-bespeckled prospect of tiles and chimney-pots. For the letting of this portion of the house from week to week, on reasonable terms, the parlour lodger was empowered to treat; he being deputed by the landlord to dispose of the rooms as they became vacant, and to keep a sharp look-out that the lodgers didn’t run away. As a means of securing the punctual discharge of which last service he was permitted to live rent-free, lest he should at any time be tempted to run away himself.

Of this chamber, Nicholas became the tenant; and having hired a few common articles of furniture from a neighbouring broker, and paid the first week’s hire in advance, out of a small fund raised by the conversion of some spare clothes into ready money, he sat himself down to ruminate upon his prospects, which, like the prospect outside his window, were sufficiently confined and dingy. As they by no means improved on better acquaintance, and as familiarity breeds contempt, he resolved to banish them from his thoughts by dint of hard walking. So, taking up his hat, and leaving poor Smike to arrange and rearrange the room with as much delight as if it had been the costliest palace, he betook himself to the streets, and mingled with the crowd which thronged them.

Although a man may lose a sense of his own importance when he is a mere unit among a busy throng, all utterly regardless of him, it by no means follows that he can dispossess himself, with equal facility, of a very strong sense of the importance and magnitude of his cares. The unhappy state of his own affairs was the one idea which occupied the brain of Nicholas, walk as fast as he would; and when he tried to dislodge it by speculating on the situation and prospects of the people who surrounded him, he caught himself, in a few seconds, contrasting their condition with his own, and gliding almost imperceptibly back into his old train of thought again.

Occupied in these reflections, as he was making his way along one of the great public thoroughfares of London, he chanced to raise his eyes to a blue board, whereon was inscribed, in characters of gold, ‘General Agency Office; for places and situations of all kinds inquire within.’ It was a shop-front, fitted up with a gauze blind and an inner door; and in the window hung a long and tempting array of written placards, announcing vacant places of every grade, from a secretary’s to a foot-boy’s.

Nicholas halted, instinctively, before this temple of promise, and ran his eye over the capital-text openings in life which were so profusely displayed. When he had completed his survey he walked on a little way, and then back, and then on again; at length, after pausing irresolutely several times before the door of the General Agency Office, he made up his mind, and stepped in.

He found himself in a little floor-clothed room, with a high desk railed off in one corner, behind which sat a lean youth with cunning eyes and a protruding chin, whose performances in capital-text darkened the window. He had a thick ledger lying open before him, and with the fingers of his right hand inserted between the leaves, and his eyes fixed on a very fat old lady in a mob-cap—evidently the proprietress of the establishment—who was airing herself at the fire, seemed to be only waiting her directions to refer to some entries contained within its rusty clasps.

As there was a board outside, which acquainted the public that servants-of-all-work were perpetually in waiting to be hired from ten till four, Nicholas knew at once that some half-dozen strong young women, each with pattens and an umbrella, who were sitting upon a form in one corner, were in attendance for that purpose: especially as the poor things looked anxious and weary. He was not quite so certain of the callings and stations of two smart young ladies who were in conversation with the fat lady before the fire, until—having sat himself down in a corner, and remarked that he would wait until the other customers had been served—the fat lady resumed the dialogue which his entrance had interrupted.

‘Cook, Tom,’ said the fat lady, still airing herself as aforesaid.

‘Cook,’ said Tom, turning over some leaves of the ledger. ‘Well!’

‘Read out an easy place or two,’ said the fat lady.

‘Pick out very light ones, if you please, young man,’ interposed a genteel female, in shepherd’s-plaid boots, who appeared to be the client.

‘“Mrs. Marker,”’ said Tom, reading, ‘“Russell Place, Russell Square; offers eighteen guineas; tea and sugar found. Two in family, and see very little company. Five servants kept. No man. No followers.”’

‘Oh Lor!’ tittered the client. ‘That won’t do. Read another, young man, will you?’

‘“Mrs. Wrymug,”’ said Tom, ‘“Pleasant Place, Finsbury. Wages, twelve guineas. No tea, no sugar. Serious family—“’

‘Ah! you needn’t mind reading that,’ interrupted the client.

‘“Three serious footmen,”’ said Tom, impressively.

‘Three? did you say?’ asked the client in an altered tone.

‘Three serious footmen,’ replied Tom. ‘“Cook, housemaid, and nursemaid; each female servant required to join the Little Bethel Congregation three times every Sunday—with a serious footman. If the cook is more serious than the footman, she will be expected to improve the footman; if the footman is more serious than the cook, he will be expected to improve the cook.”’

‘I’ll take the address of that place,’ said the client; ‘I don’t know but what it mightn’t suit me pretty well.’

‘Here’s another,’ remarked Tom, turning over the leaves. ‘“Family of Mr Gallanbile, MP. Fifteen guineas, tea and sugar, and servants allowed to see male cousins, if godly. Note. Cold dinner in the kitchen on the Sabbath, Mr. Gallanbile being devoted to the Observance question. No victuals whatever cooked on the Lord’s Day, with the exception of dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Gallanbile, which, being a work of piety and necessity, is exempted. Mr. Gallanbile dines late on the day of rest, in order to prevent the sinfulness of the cook’s dressing herself.”’

‘I don’t think that’ll answer as well as the other,’ said the client, after a little whispering with her friend. ‘I’ll take the other direction, if you please, young man. I can but come back again, if it don’t do.’

Tom made out the address, as requested, and the genteel client, having satisfied the fat lady with a small fee, meanwhile, went away accompanied by her friend.

As Nicholas opened his mouth, to request the young man to turn to letter S, and let him know what secretaryships remained undisposed of, there came into the office an applicant, in whose favour he immediately retired, and whose appearance both surprised and interested him.

This was a young lady who could be scarcely eighteen, of very slight and delicate figure, but exquisitely shaped, who, walking timidly up to the desk, made an inquiry, in a very low tone of voice, relative to some situation as governess, or companion to a lady. She raised her veil, for an instant, while she preferred the inquiry, and disclosed a countenance of most uncommon beauty, though shaded by a cloud of sadness, which, in one so young, was doubly remarkable. Having received a card of reference to some person on the books, she made the usual acknowledgment, and glided away.

She was neatly, but very quietly attired; so much so, indeed, that it seemed as though her dress, if it had been worn by one who imparted fewer graces of her own to it, might have looked poor and shabby. Her attendant—for she had one—was a red-faced, round-eyed, slovenly girl, who, from a certain roughness about the bare arms that peeped from under her draggled shawl, and the half-washed-out traces of smut and blacklead which tattooed her countenance, was clearly of a kin with the servants-of-all-work on the form: between whom and herself there had passed various grins and glances, indicative of the freemasonry of the craft.

This girl followed her mistress; and, before Nicholas had recovered from the first effects of his surprise and admiration, the young lady was gone. It is not a matter of such complete and utter improbability as some sober people may think, that he would have followed them out, had he not been restrained by what passed between the fat lady and her book-keeper.

‘When is she coming again, Tom?’ asked the fat lady.

‘Tomorrow morning,’ replied Tom, mending his pen.

‘Where have you sent her to?’ asked the fat lady.

‘Mrs. Clark’s,’ replied Tom.

‘She’ll have a nice life of it, if she goes there,’ observed the fat lady, taking a pinch of snuff from a tin box.

Tom made no other reply than thrusting his tongue into his cheek, and pointing the feather of his pen towards Nicholas—reminders which elicited from the fat lady an inquiry, of ‘Now, sir, what can we do for you?’

Nicholas briefly replied, that he wanted to know whether there was any such post to be had, as secretary or amanuensis to a gentleman.

‘Any such!’ rejoined the mistress; ‘a-dozen-such. An’t there, Tom?’

‘I should think so,’ answered that young gentleman; and as he said it, he winked towards Nicholas, with a degree of familiarity which he, no doubt, intended for a rather flattering compliment, but with which Nicholas was most ungratefully disgusted.

Upon reference to the book, it appeared that the dozen secretaryships had dwindled down to one. Mr. Gregsbury, the great member of parliament, of Manchester Buildings, Westminster, wanted a young man, to keep his papers and correspondence in order; and Nicholas was exactly the sort of young man that Mr. Gregsbury wanted.

‘I don’t know what the terms are, as he said he’d settle them himself with the party,’ observed the fat lady; ‘but they must be pretty good ones, because he’s a member of parliament.’

Inexperienced as he was, Nicholas did not feel quite assured of the force of this reasoning, or the justice of this conclusion; but without troubling himself to question it, he took down the address, and resolved to wait upon Mr. Gregsbury without delay.

‘I don’t know what the number is,’ said Tom; ‘but Manchester Buildings isn’t a large place; and if the worst comes to the worst it won’t take you very long to knock at all the doors on both sides of the way till you find him out. I say, what a good-looking gal that was, wasn’t she?’

‘What girl?’ demanded Nicholas, sternly.

‘Oh yes. I know—what gal, eh?’ whispered Tom, shutting one eye, and cocking his chin in the air. ‘You didn’t see her, you didn’t—I say, don’t you wish you was me, when she comes tomorrow morning?’

Nicholas looked at the ugly clerk, as if he had a mind to reward his admiration of the young lady by beating the ledger about his ears, but he refrained, and strode haughtily out of the office; setting at defiance, in his indignation, those ancient laws of chivalry, which not only made it proper and lawful for all good knights to hear the praise of the ladies to whom they were devoted, but rendered it incumbent upon them to roam about the world, and knock at head all such matter-of-fact and un-poetical characters, as declined to exalt, above all the earth, damsels whom they had never chanced to look upon or hear of—as if that were any excuse!

Thinking no longer of his own misfortunes, but wondering what could be those of the beautiful girl he had seen, Nicholas, with many wrong turns, and many inquiries, and almost as many misdirections, bent his steps towards the place whither he had been directed.

Within the precincts of the ancient city of Westminster, and within half a quarter of a mile of its ancient sanctuary, is a narrow and dirty region, the sanctuary of the smaller members of Parliament in modern days. It is all comprised in one street of gloomy lodging-houses, from whose windows, in vacation-time, there frown long melancholy rows of bills, which say, as plainly as did the countenances of their occupiers, ranged on ministerial and opposition benches in the session which slumbers with its fathers, ‘To Let’, ‘To Let’. In busier periods of the year these bills disappear, and the houses swarm with legislators. There are legislators in the parlours, in the first floor, in the second, in the third, in the garrets; the small apartments reek with the breath of deputations and delegates. In damp weather, the place is rendered close, by the steams of moist acts of parliament and frouzy petitions; general postmen grow faint as they enter its infected limits, and shabby figures in quest of franks, flit restlessly to and fro like the troubled ghosts of Complete Letter-writers departed. This is Manchester Buildings; and here, at all hours of the night, may be heard the rattling of latch-keys in their respective keyholes: with now and then—when a gust of wind sweeping across the water which washes the Buildings’ feet, impels the sound towards its entrance—the weak, shrill voice of some young member practising tomorrow’s speech. All the livelong day, there is a grinding of organs and clashing and clanging of little boxes of music; for Manchester Buildings is an eel-pot, which has no outlet but its awkward mouth—a case-bottle which has no thoroughfare, and a short and narrow neck—and in this respect it may be typical of the fate of some few among its more adventurous residents, who, after wriggling themselves into Parliament by violent efforts and contortions, find that it, too, is no thoroughfare for them; that, like Manchester Buildings, it leads to nothing beyond itself; and that they are fain at last to back out, no wiser, no richer, not one whit more famous, than they went in.

Into Manchester Buildings Nicholas turned, with the address of the great Mr. Gregsbury in his hand. As there was a stream of people pouring into a shabby house not far from the entrance, he waited until they had made their way in, and then making up to the servant, ventured to inquire if he knew where Mr. Gregsbury lived.

The servant was a very pale, shabby boy, who looked as if he had slept underground from his infancy, as very likely he had. ‘Mr. Gregsbury?’ said he; ‘Mr. Gregsbury lodges here. It’s all right. Come in!’

Nicholas thought he might as well get in while he could, so in he walked; and he had no sooner done so, than the boy shut the door, and made off.

This was odd enough: but what was more embarrassing was, that all along the passage, and all along the narrow stairs, blocking up the window, and making the dark entry darker still, was a confused crowd of persons with great importance depicted in their looks; who were, to all appearance, waiting in silent expectation of some coming event. From time to time, one man would whisper to his neighbour, or a little group would whisper together, and then the whisperers would nod fiercely to each other, or give their heads a relentless shake, as if they were bent upon doing something very desperate, and were determined not to be put off, whatever happened.

As a few minutes elapsed without anything occurring to explain this phenomenon, and as he felt his own position a peculiarly uncomfortable one, Nicholas was on the point of seeking some information from the man next him, when a sudden move was visible on the stairs, and a voice was heard to cry, ‘Now, gentleman, have the goodness to walk up!’

So far from walking up, the gentlemen on the stairs began to walk down with great alacrity, and to entreat, with extraordinary politeness, that the gentlemen nearest the street would go first; the gentlemen nearest the street retorted, with equal courtesy, that they couldn’t think of such a thing on any account; but they did it, without thinking of it, inasmuch as the other gentlemen pressing some half-dozen (among whom was Nicholas) forward, and closing up behind, pushed them, not merely up the stairs, but into the very sitting-room of Mr. Gregsbury, which they were thus compelled to enter with most unseemly precipitation, and without the means of retreat; the press behind them, more than filling the apartment.

‘Gentlemen,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, ‘you are welcome. I am rejoiced to see you.’

For a gentleman who was rejoiced to see a body of visitors, Mr. Gregsbury looked as uncomfortable as might be; but perhaps this was occasioned by senatorial gravity, and a statesmanlike habit of keeping his feelings under control. He was a tough, burly, thick-headed gentleman, with a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed.

‘Now, gentlemen,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, tossing a great bundle of papers into a wicker basket at his feet, and throwing himself back in his chair with his arms over the elbows, ‘you are dissatisfied with my conduct, I see by the newspapers.’

‘Yes, Mr. Gregsbury, we are,’ said a plump old gentleman in a violent heat, bursting out of the throng, and planting himself in the front.

‘Do my eyes deceive me,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, looking towards the speaker, ‘or is that my old friend Pugstyles?’

‘I am that man, and no other, sir,’ replied the plump old gentleman.

‘Give me your hand, my worthy friend,’ said Mr. Gregsbury. ‘Pugstyles, my dear friend, I am very sorry to see you here.’

‘I am very sorry to be here, sir,’ said Mr. Pugstyles; ‘but your conduct, Mr. Gregsbury, has rendered this deputation from your constituents imperatively necessary.’

‘My conduct, Pugstyles,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, looking round upon the deputation with gracious magnanimity—‘my conduct has been, and ever will be, regulated by a sincere regard for the true and real interests of this great and happy country. Whether I look at home, or abroad; whether I behold the peaceful industrious communities of our island home: her rivers covered with steamboats, her roads with locomotives, her streets with cabs, her skies with balloons of a power and magnitude hitherto unknown in the history of aeronautics in this or any other nation—I say, whether I look merely at home, or, stretching my eyes farther, contemplate the boundless prospect of conquest and possession—achieved by British perseverance and British valour—which is outspread before me, I clasp my hands, and turning my eyes to the broad expanse above my head, exclaim, “Thank Heaven, I am a Briton!”’

The time had been, when this burst of enthusiasm would have been cheered to the very echo; but now, the deputation received it with chilling coldness. The general impression seemed to be, that as an explanation of Mr. Gregsbury’s political conduct, it did not enter quite enough into detail; and one gentleman in the rear did not scruple to remark aloud, that, for his purpose, it savoured rather too much of a ‘gammon’ tendency.

‘The meaning of that term—gammon,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, ‘is unknown to me. If it means that I grow a little too fervid, or perhaps even hyperbolical, in extolling my native land, I admit the full justice of the remark. I am proud of this free and happy country. My form dilates, my eye glistens, my breast heaves, my heart swells, my bosom burns, when I call to mind her greatness and her glory.’

‘We wish, sir,’ remarked Mr. Pugstyles, calmly, ‘to ask you a few questions.’

‘If you please, gentlemen; my time is yours—and my country’s—and my country’s—’ said Mr. Gregsbury.

This permission being conceded, Mr. Pugstyles put on his spectacles, and referred to a written paper which he drew from his pocket; whereupon nearly every other member of the deputation pulled a written paper from his pocket, to check Mr. Pugstyles off, as he read the questions.

This done, Mr. Pugstyles proceeded to business.

‘Question number one.—Whether, sir, you did not give a voluntary pledge previous to your election, that in event of your being returned, you would immediately put down the practice of coughing and groaning in the House of Commons. And whether you did not submit to be coughed and groaned down in the very first debate of the session, and have since made no effort to effect a reform in this respect? Whether you did not also pledge yourself to astonish the government, and make them shrink in their shoes? And whether you have astonished them, and made them shrink in their shoes, or not?’

‘Go on to the next one, my dear Pugstyles,’ said Mr. Gregsbury.

‘Have you any explanation to offer with reference to that question, sir?’ asked Mr. Pugstyles.

‘Certainly not,’ said Mr. Gregsbury.

The members of the deputation looked fiercely at each other, and afterwards at the member. ‘Dear Pugstyles’ having taken a very long stare at Mr. Gregsbury over the tops of his spectacles, resumed his list of inquiries.

‘Question number two.—Whether, sir, you did not likewise give a voluntary pledge that you would support your colleague on every occasion; and whether you did not, the night before last, desert him and vote upon the other side, because the wife of a leader on that other side had invited Mrs. Gregsbury to an evening party?’

‘Go on,’ said Mr. Gregsbury.

‘Nothing to say on that, either, sir?’ asked the spokesman.

‘Nothing whatever,’ replied Mr. Gregsbury. The deputation, who had only seen him at canvassing or election time, were struck dumb by his coolness. He didn’t appear like the same man; then he was all milk and honey; now he was all starch and vinegar. But men are so different at different times!

‘Question number three—and last,’ said Mr. Pugstyles, emphatically. ‘Whether, sir, you did not state upon the hustings, that it was your firm and determined intention to oppose everything proposed; to divide the house upon every question, to move for returns on every subject, to place a motion on the books every day, and, in short, in your own memorable words, to play the very devil with everything and everybody?’ With this comprehensive inquiry, Mr. Pugstyles folded up his list of questions, as did all his backers.

Mr. Gregsbury reflected, blew his nose, threw himself further back in his chair, came forward again, leaning his elbows on the table, made a triangle with his two thumbs and his two forefingers, and tapping his nose with the apex thereof, replied (smiling as he said it), ‘I deny everything.’

At this unexpected answer, a hoarse murmur arose from the deputation; and the same gentleman who had expressed an opinion relative to the gammoning nature of the introductory speech, again made a monosyllabic demonstration, by growling out ‘Resign!’ Which growl being taken up by his fellows, swelled into a very earnest and general remonstrance.

‘I am requested, sir, to express a hope,’ said Mr. Pugstyles, with a distant bow, ‘that on receiving a requisition to that effect from a great majority of your constituents, you will not object at once to resign your seat in favour of some candidate whom they think they can better trust.’

To this, Mr. Gregsbury read the following reply, which, anticipating the request, he had composed in the form of a letter, whereof copies had been made to send round to the newspapers.

‘My Dear Mr Pugstyles,

‘Next to the welfare of our beloved island—this great and free and happy country, whose powers and resources are, I sincerely believe, illimitable—I value that noble independence which is an Englishman’s proudest boast, and which I fondly hope to bequeath to my children, untarnished and unsullied. Actuated by no personal motives, but moved only by high and great constitutional considerations; which I will not attempt to explain, for they are really beneath the comprehension of those who have not made themselves masters, as I have, of the intricate and arduous study of politics; I would rather keep my seat, and intend doing so.

‘Will you do me the favour to present my compliments to the constituent body, and acquaint them with this circumstance?

‘With great esteem, ‘My dear Mr. Pugstyles, ‘&c.&c.’

‘Then you will not resign, under any circumstances?’ asked the spokesman.

Mr. Gregsbury smiled, and shook his head.

‘Then, good-morning, sir,’ said Pugstyles, angrily.

‘Heaven bless you!’ said Mr. Gregsbury. And the deputation, with many growls and scowls, filed off as quickly as the narrowness of the staircase would allow of their getting down.

The last man being gone, Mr. Gregsbury rubbed his hands and chuckled, as merry fellows will, when they think they have said or done a more than commonly good thing; he was so engrossed in this self-congratulation, that he did not observe that Nicholas had been left behind in the shadow of the window-curtains, until that young gentleman, fearing he might otherwise overhear some soliloquy intended to have no listeners, coughed twice or thrice, to attract the member’s notice.

‘What’s that?’ said Mr. Gregsbury, in sharp accents.

Nicholas stepped forward, and bowed.

‘What do you do here, sir?’ asked Mr. Gregsbury; ‘a spy upon my privacy! A concealed voter! You have heard my answer, sir. Pray follow the deputation.’

‘I should have done so, if I had belonged to it, but I do not,’ said Nicholas.

‘Then how came you here, sir?’ was the natural inquiry of Mr. Gregsbury, MP. ‘And where the devil have you come from, sir?’ was the question which followed it.

‘I brought this card from the General Agency Office, sir,’ said Nicholas, ‘wishing to offer myself as your secretary, and understanding that you stood in need of one.’

‘That’s all you have come for, is it?’ said Mr. Gregsbury, eyeing him in some doubt.

Nicholas replied in the affirmative.

‘You have no connection with any of those rascally papers have you?’ said Mr. Gregsbury. ‘You didn’t get into the room, to hear what was going forward, and put it in print, eh?’

‘I have no connection, I am sorry to say, with anything at present,’ rejoined Nicholas,—politely enough, but quite at his ease.

‘Oh!’ said Mr. Gregsbury. ‘How did you find your way up here, then?’

Nicholas related how he had been forced up by the deputation.

‘That was the way, was it?’ said Mr. Gregsbury. ‘Sit down.’

Nicholas took a chair, and Mr. Gregsbury stared at him for a long time, as if to make certain, before he asked any further questions, that there were no objections to his outward appearance.

‘You want to be my secretary, do you?’ he said at length.

‘I wish to be employed in that capacity, sir,’ replied Nicholas.

‘Well,’ said Mr. Gregsbury; ‘now what can you do?’

‘I suppose,’ replied Nicholas, smiling, ‘that I can do what usually falls to the lot of other secretaries.’

‘What’s that?’ inquired Mr. Gregsbury.

‘What is it?’ replied Nicholas.

‘Ah! What is it?’ retorted the member, looking shrewdly at him, with his head on one side.

‘A secretary’s duties are rather difficult to define, perhaps,’ said Nicholas, considering. ‘They include, I presume, correspondence?’

‘Good,’ interposed Mr. Gregsbury.

‘The arrangement of papers and documents?’

‘Very good.’

‘Occasionally, perhaps, the writing from your dictation; and possibly, sir,’ said Nicholas, with a half-smile, ‘the copying of your speech for some public journal, when you have made one of more than usual importance.’

‘Certainly,’ rejoined Mr. Gregsbury. ‘What else?’

‘Really,’ said Nicholas, after a moment’s reflection, ‘I am not able, at this instant, to recapitulate any other duty of a secretary, beyond the general one of making himself as agreeable and useful to his employer as he can, consistently with his own respectability, and without overstepping that line of duties which he undertakes to perform, and which the designation of his office is usually understood to imply.’

Mr. Gregsbury looked fixedly at Nicholas for a short time, and then glancing warily round the room, said in a suppressed voice:

‘This is all very well, Mr—what is your name?’

‘Nickleby.’

‘This is all very well, Mr. Nickleby, and very proper, so far as it goes—so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. There are other duties, Mr Nickleby, which a secretary to a parliamentary gentleman must never lose sight of. I should require to be crammed, sir.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ interposed Nicholas, doubtful whether he had heard aright.

‘—To be crammed, sir,’ repeated Mr. Gregsbury.

‘May I beg your pardon again, if I inquire what you mean, sir?’ said Nicholas.

‘My meaning, sir, is perfectly plain,’ replied Mr. Gregsbury with a solemn aspect. ‘My secretary would have to make himself master of the foreign policy of the world, as it is mirrored in the newspapers; to run his eye over all accounts of public meetings, all leading articles, and accounts of the proceedings of public bodies; and to make notes of anything which it appeared to him might be made a point of, in any little speech upon the question of some petition lying on the table, or anything of that kind. Do you understand?’

‘I think I do, sir,’ replied Nicholas.

‘Then,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, ‘it would be necessary for him to make himself acquainted, from day to day, with newspaper paragraphs on passing events; such as “Mysterious disappearance, and supposed suicide of a potboy,” or anything of that sort, upon which I might found a question to the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Then, he would have to copy the question, and as much as I remembered of the answer (including a little compliment about independence and good sense); and to send the manuscript in a frank to the local paper, with perhaps half-a-dozen lines of leader, to the effect, that I was always to be found in my place in parliament, and never shrunk from the responsible and arduous duties, and so forth. You see?’

Nicholas bowed.

‘Besides which,’ continued Mr. Gregsbury, ‘I should expect him, now and then, to go through a few figures in the printed tables, and to pick out a few results, so that I might come out pretty well on timber duty questions, and finance questions, and so on; and I should like him to get up a few little arguments about the disastrous effects of a return to cash payments and a metallic currency, with a touch now and then about the exportation of bullion, and the Emperor of Russia, and bank notes, and all that kind of thing, which it’s only necessary to talk fluently about, because nobody understands it. Do you take me?’

‘I think I understand,’ said Nicholas.

‘With regard to such questions as are not political,’ continued Mr Gregsbury, warming; ‘and which one can’t be expected to care a curse about, beyond the natural care of not allowing inferior people to be as well off as ourselves—else where are our privileges?—I should wish my secretary to get together a few little flourishing speeches, of a patriotic cast. For instance, if any preposterous bill were brought forward, for giving poor grubbing devils of authors a right to their own property, I should like to say, that I for one would never consent to opposing an insurmountable bar to the diffusion of literature among the people,—you understand?—that the creations of the pocket, being man’s, might belong to one man, or one family; but that the creations of the brain, being God’s, ought as a matter of course to belong to the people at large—and if I was pleasantly disposed, I should like to make a joke about posterity, and say that those who wrote for posterity should be content to be rewarded by the approbation of posterity; it might take with the house, and could never do me any harm, because posterity can’t be expected to know anything about me or my jokes either—do you see?’

‘I see that, sir,’ replied Nicholas.

‘You must always bear in mind, in such cases as this, where our interests are not affected,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, ‘to put it very strong about the people, because it comes out very well at election-time; and you could be as funny as you liked about the authors; because I believe the greater part of them live in lodgings, and are not voters. This is a hasty outline of the chief things you’d have to do, except waiting in the lobby every night, in case I forgot anything, and should want fresh cramming; and, now and then, during great debates, sitting in the front row of the gallery, and saying to the people about—‘You see that gentleman, with his hand to his face, and his arm twisted round the pillar—that’s Mr Gregsbury—the celebrated Mr. Gregsbury,’—with any other little eulogium that might strike you at the moment. And for salary,’ said Mr Gregsbury, winding up with great rapidity; for he was out of breath—‘and for salary, I don’t mind saying at once in round numbers, to prevent any dissatisfaction—though it’s more than I’ve been accustomed to give—fifteen shillings a week, and find yourself. There!’

With this handsome offer, Mr. Gregsbury once more threw himself back in his chair, and looked like a man who had been most profligately liberal, but is determined not to repent of it notwithstanding.

‘Fifteen shillings a week is not much,’ said Nicholas, mildly.

‘Not much! Fifteen shillings a week not much, young man?’ cried Mr Gregsbury. ‘Fifteen shillings a—’

‘Pray do not suppose that I quarrel with the sum, sir,’ replied Nicholas; ‘for I am not ashamed to confess, that whatever it may be in itself, to me it is a great deal. But the duties and responsibilities make the recompense small, and they are so very heavy that I fear to undertake them.’

‘Do you decline to undertake them, sir?’ inquired Mr. Gregsbury, with his hand on the bell-rope.

‘I fear they are too great for my powers, however good my will may be, sir,’ replied Nicholas.

‘That is as much as to say that you had rather not accept the place, and that you consider fifteen shillings a week too little,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, ringing. ‘Do you decline it, sir?’

‘I have no alternative but to do so,’ replied Nicholas.

‘Door, Matthews!’ said Mr. Gregsbury, as the boy appeared.

‘I am sorry I have troubled you unnecessarily, sir,’ said Nicholas.

‘I am sorry you have,’ rejoined Mr. Gregsbury, turning his back upon him. ‘Door, Matthews!’

‘Good-morning, sir,’ said Nicholas.

‘Door, Matthews!’ cried Mr. Gregsbury.

The boy beckoned Nicholas, and tumbling lazily downstairs before him, opened the door, and ushered him into the street. With a sad and pensive air, he retraced his steps homewards.

Smike had scraped a meal together from the remnant of last night’s supper, and was anxiously awaiting his return. The occurrences of the morning had not improved Nicholas’s appetite, and, by him, the dinner remained untasted. He was sitting in a thoughtful attitude, with the plate which the poor fellow had assiduously filled with the choicest morsels, untouched, by his side, when Newman Noggs looked into the room.

‘Come back?’ asked Newman.

‘Yes,’ replied Nicholas, ‘tired to death: and, what is worse, might have remained at home for all the good I have done.’

‘Couldn’t expect to do much in one morning,’ said Newman.

‘Maybe so, but I am sanguine, and did expect,’ said Nicholas, ‘and am proportionately disappointed.’ Saying which, he gave Newman an account of his proceedings.

‘If I could do anything,’ said Nicholas, ‘anything, however slight, until Ralph Nickleby returns, and I have eased my mind by confronting him, I should feel happier. I should think it no disgrace to work, Heaven knows. Lying indolently here, like a half-tamed sullen beast, distracts me.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Newman; ‘small things offer—they would pay the rent, and more—but you wouldn’t like them; no, you could hardly be expected to undergo it—no, no.’

‘What could I hardly be expected to undergo?’ asked Nicholas, raising his eyes. ‘Show me, in this wide waste of London, any honest means by which I could even defray the weekly hire of this poor room, and see if I shrink from resorting to them! Undergo! I have undergone too much, my friend, to feel pride or squeamishness now. Except—’ added Nicholas hastily, after a short silence, ‘except such squeamishness as is common honesty, and so much pride as constitutes self-respect. I see little to choose, between assistant to a brutal pedagogue, and toad-eater to a mean and ignorant upstart, be he member or no member.’

‘I hardly know whether I should tell you what I heard this morning, or not,’ said Newman.

‘Has it reference to what you said just now?’ asked Nicholas.

‘It has.’

‘Then in Heaven’s name, my good friend, tell it me,’ said Nicholas. ‘For God’s sake consider my deplorable condition; and, while I promise to take no step without taking counsel with you, give me, at least, a vote in my own behalf.’

Moved by this entreaty, Newman stammered forth a variety of most unaccountable and entangled sentences, the upshot of which was, that Mrs Kenwigs had examined him, at great length that morning, touching the origin of his acquaintance with, and the whole life, adventures, and pedigree of, Nicholas; that Newman had parried these questions as long as he could, but being, at length, hard pressed and driven into a corner, had gone so far as to admit, that Nicholas was a tutor of great accomplishments, involved in some misfortunes which he was not at liberty to explain, and bearing the name of Johnson. That Mrs. Kenwigs, impelled by gratitude, or ambition, or maternal pride, or maternal love, or all four powerful motives conjointly, had taken secret conference with Mr. Kenwigs, and had finally returned to propose that Mr. Johnson should instruct the four Miss Kenwigses in the French language as spoken by natives, at the weekly stipend of five shillings, current coin of the realm; being at the rate of one shilling per week, per each Miss Kenwigs, and one shilling over, until such time as the baby might be able to take it out in grammar.

‘Which, unless I am very much mistaken,’ observed Mrs. Kenwigs in making the proposition, ‘will not be very long; for such clever children, Mr Noggs, never were born into this world, I do believe.’

‘There,’ said Newman, ‘that’s all. It’s beneath you, I know; but I thought that perhaps you might—’

‘Might!’ cried Nicholas, with great alacrity; ‘of course I shall. I accept the offer at once. Tell the worthy mother so, without delay, my dear fellow; and that I am ready to begin whenever she pleases.’

Newman hastened, with joyful steps, to inform Mrs. Kenwigs of his friend’s acquiescence, and soon returning, brought back word that they would be happy to see him in the first floor as soon as convenient; that Mrs Kenwigs had, upon the instant, sent out to secure a second-hand French grammar and dialogues, which had long been fluttering in the sixpenny box at the bookstall round the corner; and that the family, highly excited at the prospect of this addition to their gentility, wished the initiatory lesson to come off immediately.

And here it may be observed, that Nicholas was not, in the ordinary sense of the word, a young man of high spirit. He would resent an affront to himself, or interpose to redress a wrong offered to another, as boldly and freely as any knight that ever set lance in rest; but he lacked that peculiar excess of coolness and great-minded selfishness, which invariably distinguish gentlemen of high spirit. In truth, for our own part, we are disposed to look upon such gentleman as being rather incumbrances than otherwise in rising families: happening to be acquainted with several whose spirit prevents their settling down to any grovelling occupation, and only displays itself in a tendency to cultivate moustachios, and look fierce; and although moustachios and ferocity are both very pretty things in their way, and very much to be commended, we confess to a desire to see them bred at the owner’s proper cost, rather than at the expense of low-spirited people.

Nicholas, therefore, not being a high-spirited young man according to common parlance, and deeming it a greater degradation to borrow, for the supply of his necessities, from Newman Noggs, than to teach French to the little Kenwigses for five shillings a week, accepted the offer with the alacrity already described, and betook himself to the first floor with all convenient speed.

Here, he was received by Mrs. Kenwigs with a genteel air, kindly intended to assure him of her protection and support; and here, too, he found Mr Lillyvick and Miss Petowker; the four Miss Kenwigses on their form of audience; and the baby in a dwarf porter’s chair with a deal tray before it, amusing himself with a toy horse without a head; the said horse being composed of a small wooden cylinder, not unlike an Italian iron, supported on four crooked pegs, and painted in ingenious resemblance of red wafers set in blacking.

‘How do you do, Mr. Johnson?’ said Mrs. Kenwigs. ‘Uncle—Mr. Johnson.’

‘How do you do, sir?’ said Mr. Lillyvick—rather sharply; for he had not known what Nicholas was, on the previous night, and it was rather an aggravating circumstance if a tax collector had been too polite to a teacher.

‘Mr. Johnson is engaged as private master to the children, uncle,’ said Mrs Kenwigs.

‘So you said just now, my dear,’ replied Mr. Lillyvick.

‘But I hope,’ said Mrs. Kenwigs, drawing herself up, ‘that that will not make them proud; but that they will bless their own good fortune, which has born them superior to common people’s children. Do you hear, Morleena?’

‘Yes, ma,’ replied Miss Kenwigs.

‘And when you go out in the streets, or elsewhere, I desire that you don’t boast of it to the other children,’ said Mrs. Kenwigs; ‘and that if you must say anything about it, you don’t say no more than “We’ve got a private master comes to teach us at home, but we ain’t proud, because ma says it’s sinful.” Do you hear, Morleena?’

‘Yes, ma,’ replied Miss Kenwigs again.

‘Then mind you recollect, and do as I tell you,’ said Mrs. Kenwigs. ‘Shall Mr. Johnson begin, uncle?’

‘I am ready to hear, if Mr. Johnson is ready to commence, my dear,’ said the collector, assuming the air of a profound critic. ‘What sort of language do you consider French, sir?’

‘How do you mean?’ asked Nicholas.

‘Do you consider it a good language, sir?’ said the collector; ‘a pretty language, a sensible language?’

‘A pretty language, certainly,’ replied Nicholas; ‘and as it has a name for everything, and admits of elegant conversation about everything, I presume it is a sensible one.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Mr. Lillyvick, doubtfully. ‘Do you call it a cheerful language, now?’

‘Yes,’ replied Nicholas, ‘I should say it was, certainly.’

‘It’s very much changed since my time, then,’ said the collector, ‘very much.’

‘Was it a dismal one in your time?’ asked Nicholas, scarcely able to repress a smile.

‘Very,’ replied Mr. Lillyvick, with some vehemence of manner. ‘It’s the war time that I speak of; the last war. It may be a cheerful language. I should be sorry to contradict anybody; but I can only say that I’ve heard the French prisoners, who were natives, and ought to know how to speak it, talking in such a dismal manner, that it made one miserable to hear them. Ay, that I have, fifty times, sir—fifty times!’

Mr. Lillyvick was waxing so cross, that Mrs. Kenwigs thought it expedient to motion to Nicholas not to say anything; and it was not until Miss Petowker had practised several blandishments, to soften the excellent old gentleman, that he deigned to break silence by asking,

‘What’s the water in French, sir?’

‘L’eau,’ replied Nicholas.

‘Ah!’ said Mr. Lillyvick, shaking his head mournfully, ‘I thought as much. Lo, eh? I don’t think anything of that language—nothing at all.’

‘I suppose the children may begin, uncle?’ said Mrs. Kenwigs.

‘Oh yes; they may begin, my dear,’ replied the collector, discontentedly. ‘I have no wish to prevent them.’

This permission being conceded, the four Miss Kenwigses sat in a row, with their tails all one way, and Morleena at the top: while Nicholas, taking the book, began his preliminary explanations. Miss Petowker and Mrs Kenwigs looked on, in silent admiration, broken only by the whispered assurances of the latter, that Morleena would have it all by heart in no time; and Mr. Lillyvick regarded the group with frowning and attentive eyes, lying in wait for something upon which he could open a fresh discussion on the language.






CHAPTER 17

Follows the Fortunes of Miss Nickleby

It was with a heavy heart, and many sad forebodings which no effort could banish, that Kate Nickleby, on the morning appointed for the commencement of her engagement with Madame Mantalini, left the city when its clocks yet wanted a quarter of an hour of eight, and threaded her way alone, amid the noise and bustle of the streets, towards the west end of London.

At this early hour many sickly girls, whose business, like that of the poor worm, is to produce, with patient toil, the finery that bedecks the thoughtless and luxurious, traverse our streets, making towards the scene of their daily labour, and catching, as if by stealth, in their hurried walk, the only gasp of wholesome air and glimpse of sunlight which cheer their monotonous existence during the long train of hours that make a working day. As she drew nigh to the more fashionable quarter of the town, Kate marked many of this class as they passed by, hurrying like herself to their painful occupation, and saw, in their unhealthy looks and feeble gait, but too clear an evidence that her misgivings were not wholly groundless.

She arrived at Madame Mantalini’s some minutes before the appointed hour, and after walking a few times up and down, in the hope that some other female might arrive and spare her the embarrassment of stating her business to the servant, knocked timidly at the door: which, after some delay, was opened by the footman, who had been putting on his striped jacket as he came upstairs, and was now intent on fastening his apron.

‘Is Madame Mantalini in?’ faltered Kate.

‘Not often out at this time, miss,’ replied the man in a tone which rendered “Miss,” something more offensive than “My dear.”

‘Can I see her?’ asked Kate.

‘Eh?’ replied the man, holding the door in his hand, and honouring the inquirer with a stare and a broad grin, ‘Lord, no.’

‘I came by her own appointment,’ said Kate; ‘I am—I am—to be employed here.’

‘Oh! you should have rung the worker’s bell,’ said the footman, touching the handle of one in the door-post. ‘Let me see, though, I forgot—Miss Nickleby, is it?’

‘Yes,’ replied Kate.

‘You’re to walk upstairs then, please,’ said the man. ‘Madame Mantalini wants to see you—this way—take care of these things on the floor.’

Cautioning her, in these terms, not to trip over a heterogeneous litter of pastry-cook’s trays, lamps, waiters full of glasses, and piles of rout seats which were strewn about the hall, plainly bespeaking a late party on the previous night, the man led the way to the second story, and ushered Kate into a back-room, communicating by folding-doors with the apartment in which she had first seen the mistress of the establishment.

‘If you’ll wait here a minute,’ said the man, ‘I’ll tell her presently.’ Having made this promise with much affability, he retired and left Kate alone.

There was not much to amuse in the room; of which the most attractive feature was, a half-length portrait in oil, of Mr. Mantalini, whom the artist had depicted scratching his head in an easy manner, and thus displaying to advantage a diamond ring, the gift of Madame Mantalini before her marriage. There was, however, the sound of voices in conversation in the next room; and as the conversation was loud and the partition thin, Kate could not help discovering that they belonged to Mr and Mrs. Mantalini.

‘If you will be odiously, demnebly, outr_i_geously jealous, my soul,’ said Mr. Mantalini, ‘you will be very miserable—horrid miserable—demnition miserable.’ And then, there was a sound as though Mr. Mantalini were sipping his coffee.

‘I am miserable,’ returned Madame Mantalini, evidently pouting.

‘Then you are an ungrateful, unworthy, demd unthankful little fairy,’ said Mr. Mantalini.

‘I am not,’ returned Madame, with a sob.

‘Do not put itself out of humour,’ said Mr. Mantalini, breaking an egg. ‘It is a pretty, bewitching little demd countenance, and it should not be out of humour, for it spoils its loveliness, and makes it cross and gloomy like a frightful, naughty, demd hobgoblin.’

‘I am not to be brought round in that way, always,’ rejoined Madame, sulkily.

‘It shall be brought round in any way it likes best, and not brought round at all if it likes that better,’ retorted Mr. Mantalini, with his egg-spoon in his mouth.

‘It’s very easy to talk,’ said Mrs. Mantalini.

‘Not so easy when one is eating a demnition egg,’ replied Mr. Mantalini; ‘for the yolk runs down the waistcoat, and yolk of egg does not match any waistcoat but a yellow waistcoat, demmit.’

‘You were flirting with her during the whole night,’ said Madame Mantalini, apparently desirous to lead the conversation back to the point from which it had strayed.

‘No, no, my life.’

‘You were,’ said Madame; ‘I had my eye upon you all the time.’

‘Bless the little winking twinkling eye; was it on me all the time!’ cried Mantalini, in a sort of lazy rapture. ‘Oh, demmit!’

‘And I say once more,’ resumed Madame, ‘that you ought not to waltz with anybody but your own wife; and I will not bear it, Mantalini, if I take poison first.’

‘She will not take poison and have horrid pains, will she?’ said Mantalini; who, by the altered sound of his voice, seemed to have moved his chair, and taken up his position nearer to his wife. ‘She will not take poison, because she had a demd fine husband who might have married two countesses and a dowager—’

‘Two countesses,’ interposed Madame. ‘You told me one before!’

‘Two!’ cried Mantalini. ‘Two demd fine women, real countesses and splendid fortunes, demmit.’

‘And why didn’t you?’ asked Madame, playfully.

‘Why didn’t I!’ replied her husband. ‘Had I not seen, at a morning concert, the demdest little fascinator in all the world, and while that little fascinator is my wife, may not all the countesses and dowagers in England be—’

Mr. Mantalini did not finish the sentence, but he gave Madame Mantalini a very loud kiss, which Madame Mantalini returned; after which, there seemed to be some more kissing mixed up with the progress of the breakfast.

‘And what about the cash, my existence’s jewel?’ said Mantalini, when these endearments ceased. ‘How much have we in hand?’

‘Very little indeed,’ replied Madame.

‘We must have some more,’ said Mantalini; ‘we must have some discount out of old Nickleby to carry on the war with, demmit.’

‘You can’t want any more just now,’ said Madame coaxingly.

‘My life and soul,’ returned her husband, ‘there is a horse for sale at Scrubbs’s, which it would be a sin and a crime to lose—going, my senses’ joy, for nothing.’

‘For nothing,’ cried Madame, ‘I am glad of that.’

‘For actually nothing,’ replied Mantalini. ‘A hundred guineas down will buy him; mane, and crest, and legs, and tail, all of the demdest beauty. I will ride him in the park before the very chariots of the rejected countesses. The demd old dowager will faint with grief and rage; the other two will say “He is married, he has made away with himself, it is a demd thing, it is all up!” They will hate each other demnebly, and wish you dead and buried. Ha! ha! Demmit.’

Madame Mantalini’s prudence, if she had any, was not proof against these triumphal pictures; after a little jingling of keys, she observed that she would see what her desk contained, and rising for that purpose, opened the folding-door, and walked into the room where Kate was seated.

‘Dear me, child!’ exclaimed Madame Mantalini, recoiling in surprise. ‘How came you here?’

‘Child!’ cried Mantalini, hurrying in. ‘How came—eh!—oh—demmit, how d’ye do?’

‘I have been waiting, here some time, ma’am,’ said Kate, addressing Madame Mantalini. ‘The servant must have forgotten to let you know that I was here, I think.’

‘You really must see to that man,’ said Madame, turning to her husband. ‘He forgets everything.’

‘I will twist his demd nose off his countenance for leaving such a very pretty creature all alone by herself,’ said her husband.

‘Mantalini,’ cried Madame, ‘you forget yourself.’

‘I don’t forget you, my soul, and never shall, and never can,’ said Mantalini, kissing his wife’s hand, and grimacing aside, to Miss Nickleby, who turned away.

Appeased by this compliment, the lady of the business took some papers from her desk which she handed over to Mr. Mantalini, who received them with great delight. She then requested Kate to follow her, and after several feints on the part of Mr. Mantalini to attract the young lady’s attention, they went away: leaving that gentleman extended at full length on the sofa, with his heels in the air and a newspaper in his hand.

Madame Mantalini led the way down a flight of stairs, and through a passage, to a large room at the back of the premises where were a number of young women employed in sewing, cutting out, making up, altering, and various other processes known only to those who are cunning in the arts of millinery and dressmaking. It was a close room with a skylight, and as dull and quiet as a room need be.

On Madame Mantalini calling aloud for Miss Knag, a short, bustling, over-dressed female, full of importance, presented herself, and all the young ladies suspending their operations for the moment, whispered to each other sundry criticisms upon the make and texture of Miss Nickleby’s dress, her complexion, cast of features, and personal appearance, with as much good breeding as could have been displayed by the very best society in a crowded ball-room.

‘Oh, Miss Knag,’ said Madame Mantalini, ‘this is the young person I spoke to you about.’

Miss Knag bestowed a reverential smile upon Madame Mantalini, which she dexterously transformed into a gracious one for Kate, and said that certainly, although it was a great deal of trouble to have young people who were wholly unused to the business, still, she was sure the young person would try to do her best—impressed with which conviction she (Miss Knag) felt an interest in her, already.

‘I think that, for the present at all events, it will be better for Miss Nickleby to come into the show-room with you, and try things on for people,’ said Madame Mantalini. ‘She will not be able for the present to be of much use in any other way; and her appearance will—’

‘Suit very well with mine, Madame Mantalini,’ interrupted Miss Knag. ‘So it will; and to be sure I might have known that you would not be long in finding that out; for you have so much taste in all those matters, that really, as I often say to the young ladies, I do not know how, when, or where, you possibly could have acquired all you know—hem—Miss Nickleby and I are quite a pair, Madame Mantalini, only I am a little darker than Miss Nickleby, and—hem—I think my foot may be a little smaller. Miss Nickleby, I am sure, will not be offended at my saying that, when she hears that our family always have been celebrated for small feet ever since—hem—ever since our family had any feet at all, indeed, I think. I had an uncle once, Madame Mantalini, who lived in Cheltenham, and had a most excellent business as a tobacconist—hem—who had such small feet, that they were no bigger than those which are usually joined to wooden legs—the most symmetrical feet, Madame Mantalini, that even you can imagine.’

‘They must have had something of the appearance of club feet, Miss Knag,’ said Madame.

‘Well now, that is so like you,’ returned Miss Knag, ‘Ha! ha! ha! Of club feet! Oh very good! As I often remark to the young ladies, “Well I must say, and I do not care who knows it, of all the ready humour—hem—I ever heard anywhere”—and I have heard a good deal; for when my dear brother was alive (I kept house for him, Miss Nickleby), we had to supper once a week two or three young men, highly celebrated in those days for their humour, Madame Mantalini—“Of all the ready humour,” I say to the young ladies, “I ever heard, Madame Mantalini’s is the most remarkable—hem. It is so gentle, so sarcastic, and yet so good-natured (as I was observing to Miss Simmonds only this morning), that how, or when, or by what means she acquired it, is to me a mystery indeed.”’

Here Miss Knag paused to take breath, and while she pauses it may be observed—not that she was marvellously loquacious and marvellously deferential to Madame Mantalini, since these are facts which require no comment; but that every now and then, she was accustomed, in the torrent of her discourse, to introduce a loud, shrill, clear ‘hem!’ the import and meaning of which, was variously interpreted by her acquaintance; some holding that Miss Knag dealt in exaggeration, and introduced the monosyllable when any fresh invention was in course of coinage in her brain; others, that when she wanted a word, she threw it in to gain time, and prevent anybody else from striking into the conversation. It may be further remarked, that Miss Knag still aimed at youth, although she had shot beyond it, years ago; and that she was weak and vain, and one of those people who are best described by the axiom, that you may trust them as far as you can see them, and no farther.

‘You’ll take care that Miss Nickleby understands her hours, and so forth,’ said Madame Mantalini; ‘and so I’ll leave her with you. You’ll not forget my directions, Miss Knag?’

Miss Knag of course replied, that to forget anything Madame Mantalini had directed, was a moral impossibility; and that lady, dispensing a general good-morning among her assistants, sailed away.

‘Charming creature, isn’t she, Miss Nickleby?’ said Miss Knag, rubbing her hands together.

‘I have seen very little of her,’ said Kate. ‘I hardly know yet.’

‘Have you seen Mr. Mantalini?’ inquired Miss Knag.

‘Yes; I have seen him twice.’

‘Isn’t he a charming creature?’

‘Indeed he does not strike me as being so, by any means,’ replied Kate.

‘No, my dear!’ cried Miss Knag, elevating her hands. ‘Why, goodness gracious mercy, where’s your taste? Such a fine tall, full-whiskered dashing gentlemanly man, with such teeth and hair, and—hem—well now, you do astonish me.’

‘I dare say I am very foolish,’ replied Kate, laying aside her bonnet; ‘but as my opinion is of very little importance to him or anyone else, I do not regret having formed it, and shall be slow to change it, I think.’

‘He is a very fine man, don’t you think so?’ asked one of the young ladies.

‘Indeed he may be, for anything I could say to the contrary,’ replied Kate.

‘And drives very beautiful horses, doesn’t he?’ inquired another.

‘I dare say he may, but I never saw them,’ answered Kate.

‘Never saw them!’ interposed Miss Knag. ‘Oh, well! There it is at once you know; how can you possibly pronounce an opinion about a gentleman—hem—if you don’t see him as he turns out altogether?’

There was so much of the world—even of the little world of the country girl—in this idea of the old milliner, that Kate, who was anxious, for every reason, to change the subject, made no further remark, and left Miss Knag in possession of the field.

After a short silence, during which most of the young people made a closer inspection of Kate’s appearance, and compared notes respecting it, one of them offered to help her off with her shawl, and the offer being accepted, inquired whether she did not find black very uncomfortable wear.

‘I do indeed,’ replied Kate, with a bitter sigh.

‘So dusty and hot,’ observed the same speaker, adjusting her dress for her.

Kate might have said, that mourning is sometimes the coldest wear which mortals can assume; that it not only chills the breasts of those it clothes, but extending its influence to summer friends, freezes up their sources of good-will and kindness, and withering all the buds of promise they once so liberally put forth, leaves nothing but bared and rotten hearts exposed. There are few who have lost a friend or relative constituting in life their sole dependence, who have not keenly felt this chilling influence of their sable garb. She had felt it acutely, and feeling it at the moment, could not quite restrain her tears.

‘I am very sorry to have wounded you by my thoughtless speech,’ said her companion. ‘I did not think of it. You are in mourning for some near relation?’

‘For my father,’ answered Kate.

‘For what relation, Miss Simmonds?’ asked Miss Knag, in an audible voice.

‘Her father,’ replied the other softly.

‘Her father, eh?’ said Miss Knag, without the slightest depression of her voice. ‘Ah! A long illness, Miss Simmonds?’

‘Hush,’ replied the girl; ‘I don’t know.’

‘Our misfortune was very sudden,’ said Kate, turning away, ‘or I might perhaps, at a time like this, be enabled to support it better.’

There had existed not a little desire in the room, according to invariable custom, when any new ‘young person’ came, to know who Kate was, and what she was, and all about her; but, although it might have been very naturally increased by her appearance and emotion, the knowledge that it pained her to be questioned, was sufficient to repress even this curiosity; and Miss Knag, finding it hopeless to attempt extracting any further particulars just then, reluctantly commanded silence, and bade the work proceed.

In silence, then, the tasks were plied until half-past one, when a baked leg of mutton, with potatoes to correspond, were served in the kitchen. The meal over, and the young ladies having enjoyed the additional relaxation of washing their hands, the work began again, and was again performed in silence, until the noise of carriages rattling through the streets, and of loud double knocks at doors, gave token that the day’s work of the more fortunate members of society was proceeding in its turn.

One of these double knocks at Madame Mantalini’s door, announced the equipage of some great lady—or rather rich one, for there is occasionally a distinction between riches and greatness—who had come with her daughter to approve of some court-dresses which had been a long time preparing, and upon whom Kate was deputed to wait, accompanied by Miss Knag, and officered of course by Madame Mantalini.

Kate’s part in the pageant was humble enough, her duties being limited to holding articles of costume until Miss Knag was ready to try them on, and now and then tying a string, or fastening a hook-and-eye. She might, not unreasonably, have supposed herself beneath the reach of any arrogance, or bad humour; but it happened that the lady and daughter were both out of temper that day, and the poor girl came in for her share of their revilings. She was awkward—her hands were cold—dirty—coarse—she could do nothing right; they wondered how Madame Mantalini could have such people about her; requested they might see some other young woman the next time they came; and so forth.

So common an occurrence would be hardly deserving of mention, but for its effect. Kate shed many bitter tears when these people were gone, and felt, for the first time, humbled by her occupation. She had, it is true, quailed at the prospect of drudgery and hard service; but she had felt no degradation in working for her bread, until she found herself exposed to insolence and pride. Philosophy would have taught her that the degradation was on the side of those who had sunk so low as to display such passions habitually, and without cause: but she was too young for such consolation, and her honest feeling was hurt. May not the complaint, that common people are above their station, often take its rise in the fact of uncommon people being below theirs?

In such scenes and occupations the time wore on until nine o’clock, when Kate, jaded and dispirited with the occurrences of the day, hastened from the confinement of the workroom, to join her mother at the street corner, and walk home:—the more sadly, from having to disguise her real feelings, and feign to participate in all the sanguine visions of her companion.

‘Bless my soul, Kate,’ said Mrs. Nickleby; ‘I’ve been thinking all day what a delightful thing it would be for Madame Mantalini to take you into partnership—such a likely thing too, you know! Why, your poor dear papa’s cousin’s sister-in-law—a Miss Browndock—was taken into partnership by a lady that kept a school at Hammersmith, and made her fortune in no time at all. I forget, by-the-bye, whether that Miss Browndock was the same lady that got the ten thousand pounds prize in the lottery, but I think she was; indeed, now I come to think of it, I am sure she was. “Mantalini and Nickleby”, how well it would sound!—and if Nicholas has any good fortune, you might have Doctor Nickleby, the head-master of Westminster School, living in the same street.’

‘Dear Nicholas!’ cried Kate, taking from her reticule her brother’s letter from Dotheboys Hall. ‘In all our misfortunes, how happy it makes me, mama, to hear he is doing well, and to find him writing in such good spirits! It consoles me for all we may undergo, to think that he is comfortable and happy.’

Poor Kate! she little thought how weak her consolation was, and how soon she would be undeceived.






CHAPTER 18

Miss Knag, after doting on Kate Nickleby for three whole Days, makes up her Mind to hate her for evermore. The Causes which led Miss Knag to form this Resolution

There are many lives of much pain, hardship, and suffering, which, having no stirring interest for any but those who lead them, are disregarded by persons who do not want thought or feeling, but who pamper their compassion and need high stimulants to rouse it.

There are not a few among the disciples of charity who require, in their vocation, scarcely less excitement than the votaries of pleasure in theirs; and hence it is that diseased sympathy and compassion are every day expended on out-of-the-way objects, when only too many demands upon the legitimate exercise of the same virtues in a healthy state, are constantly within the sight and hearing of the most unobservant person alive. In short, charity must have its romance, as the novelist or playwright must have his. A thief in fustian is a vulgar character, scarcely to be thought of by persons of refinement; but dress him in green velvet, with a high-crowned hat, and change the scene of his operations, from a thickly-peopled city, to a mountain road, and you shall find in him the very soul of poetry and adventure. So it is with the one great cardinal virtue, which, properly nourished and exercised, leads to, if it does not necessarily include, all the others. It must have its romance; and the less of real, hard, struggling work-a-day life there is in that romance, the better.

The life to which poor Kate Nickleby was devoted, in consequence of the unforeseen train of circumstances already developed in this narrative, was a hard one; but lest the very dulness, unhealthy confinement, and bodily fatigue, which made up its sum and substance, should deprive it of any interest with the mass of the charitable and sympathetic, I would rather keep Miss Nickleby herself in view just now, than chill them in the outset, by a minute and lengthened description of the establishment presided over by Madame Mantalini.

‘Well, now, indeed, Madame Mantalini,’ said Miss Knag, as Kate was taking her weary way homewards on the first night of her novitiate; ‘that Miss Nickleby is a very creditable young person—a very creditable young person indeed—hem—upon my word, Madame Mantalini, it does very extraordinary credit even to your discrimination that you should have found such a very excellent, very well-behaved, very—hem—very unassuming young woman to assist in the fitting on. I have seen some young women when they had the opportunity of displaying before their betters, behave in such a—oh, dear—well—but you’re always right, Madame Mantalini, always; and as I very often tell the young ladies, how you do contrive to be always right, when so many people are so often wrong, is to me a mystery indeed.’

‘Beyond putting a very excellent client out of humour, Miss Nickleby has not done anything very remarkable today—that I am aware of, at least,’ said Madame Mantalini in reply.

‘Oh, dear!’ said Miss Knag; ‘but you must allow a great deal for inexperience, you know.’

‘And youth?’ inquired Madame.

‘Oh, I say nothing about that, Madame Mantalini,’ replied Miss Knag, reddening; ‘because if youth were any excuse, you wouldn’t have—’

‘Quite so good a forewoman as I have, I suppose,’ suggested Madame.

‘Well, I never did know anybody like you, Madame Mantalini,’ rejoined Miss Knag most complacently, ‘and that’s the fact, for you know what one’s going to say, before it has time to rise to one’s lips. Oh, very good! Ha, ha, ha!’

‘For myself,’ observed Madame Mantalini, glancing with affected carelessness at her assistant, and laughing heartily in her sleeve, ‘I consider Miss Nickleby the most awkward girl I ever saw in my life.’

‘Poor dear thing,’ said Miss Knag, ‘it’s not her fault. If it was, we might hope to cure it; but as it’s her misfortune, Madame Mantalini, why really you know, as the man said about the blind horse, we ought to respect it.’

‘Her uncle told me she had been considered pretty,’ remarked Madame Mantalini. ‘I think her one of the most ordinary girls I ever met with.’

‘Ordinary!’ cried Miss Knag with a countenance beaming delight; ‘and awkward! Well, all I can say is, Madame Mantalini, that I quite love the poor girl; and that if she was twice as indifferent-looking, and twice as awkward as she is, I should be only so much the more her friend, and that’s the truth of it.’

In fact, Miss Knag had conceived an incipient affection for Kate Nickleby, after witnessing her failure that morning, and this short conversation with her superior increased the favourable prepossession to a most surprising extent; which was the more remarkable, as when she first scanned that young lady’s face and figure, she had entertained certain inward misgivings that they would never agree.

‘But now,’ said Miss Knag, glancing at the reflection of herself in a mirror at no great distance, ‘I love her—I quite love her—I declare I do!’

Of such a highly disinterested quality was this devoted friendship, and so superior was it to the little weaknesses of flattery or ill-nature, that the kind-hearted Miss Knag candidly informed Kate Nickleby, next day, that she saw she would never do for the business, but that she need not give herself the slightest uneasiness on this account, for that she (Miss Knag), by increased exertions on her own part, would keep her as much as possible in the background, and that all she would have to do, would be to remain perfectly quiet before company, and to shrink from attracting notice by every means in her power. This last suggestion was so much in accordance with the timid girl’s own feelings and wishes, that she readily promised implicit reliance on the excellent spinster’s advice: without questioning, or indeed bestowing a moment’s reflection upon, the motives that dictated it.

‘I take quite a lively interest in you, my dear soul, upon my word,’ said Miss Knag; ‘a sister’s interest, actually. It’s the most singular circumstance I ever knew.’

Undoubtedly it was singular, that if Miss Knag did feel a strong interest in Kate Nickleby, it should not rather have been the interest of a maiden aunt or grandmother; that being the conclusion to which the difference in their respective ages would have naturally tended. But Miss Knag wore clothes of a very youthful pattern, and perhaps her feelings took the same shape.

‘Bless you!’ said Miss Knag, bestowing a kiss upon Kate at the conclusion of the second day’s work, ‘how very awkward you have been all day.’

‘I fear your kind and open communication, which has rendered me more painfully conscious of my own defects, has not improved me,’ sighed Kate.

‘No, no, I dare say not,’ rejoined Miss Knag, in a most uncommon flow of good humour. ‘But how much better that you should know it at first, and so be able to go on, straight and comfortable! Which way are you walking, my love?’

‘Towards the city,’ replied Kate.

‘The city!’ cried Miss Knag, regarding herself with great favour in the glass as she tied her bonnet. ‘Goodness gracious me! now do you really live in the city?’

‘Is it so very unusual for anybody to live there?’ asked Kate, half smiling.

‘I couldn’t have believed it possible that any young woman could have lived there, under any circumstances whatever, for three days together,’ replied Miss Knag.

‘Reduced—I should say poor people,’ answered Kate, correcting herself hastily, for she was afraid of appearing proud, ‘must live where they can.’

‘Ah! very true, so they must; very proper indeed!’ rejoined Miss Knag with that sort of half-sigh, which, accompanied by two or three slight nods of the head, is pity’s small change in general society; ‘and that’s what I very often tell my brother, when our servants go away ill, one after another, and he thinks the back-kitchen’s rather too damp for ‘em to sleep in. These sort of people, I tell him, are glad to sleep anywhere! Heaven suits the back to the burden. What a nice thing it is to think that it should be so, isn’t it?’

‘Very,’ replied Kate.

‘I’ll walk with you part of the way, my dear,’ said Miss Knag, ‘for you must go very near our house; and as it’s quite dark, and our last servant went to the hospital a week ago, with St Anthony’s fire in her face, I shall be glad of your company.’

Kate would willingly have excused herself from this flattering companionship; but Miss Knag having adjusted her bonnet to her entire satisfaction, took her arm with an air which plainly showed how much she felt the compliment she was conferring, and they were in the street before she could say another word.

‘I fear,’ said Kate, hesitating, ‘that mama—my mother, I mean—is waiting for me.’

‘You needn’t make the least apology, my dear,’ said Miss Knag, smiling sweetly as she spoke; ‘I dare say she is a very respectable old person, and I shall be quite—hem—quite pleased to know her.’

As poor Mrs. Nickleby was cooling—not her heels alone, but her limbs generally at the street corner, Kate had no alternative but to make her known to Miss Knag, who, doing the last new carriage customer at second-hand, acknowledged the introduction with condescending politeness. The three then walked away, arm in arm: with Miss Knag in the middle, in a special state of amiability.

‘I have taken such a fancy to your daughter, Mrs. Nickleby, you can’t think,’ said Miss Knag, after she had proceeded a little distance in dignified silence.

‘I am delighted to hear it,’ said Mrs. Nickleby; ‘though it is nothing new to me, that even strangers should like Kate.’

‘Hem!’ cried Miss Knag.

‘You will like her better when you know how good she is,’ said Mrs Nickleby. ‘It is a great blessing to me, in my misfortunes, to have a child, who knows neither pride nor vanity, and whose bringing-up might very well have excused a little of both at first. You don’t know what it is to lose a husband, Miss Knag.’

As Miss Knag had never yet known what it was to gain one, it followed, very nearly as a matter of course, that she didn’t know what it was to lose one; so she said, in some haste, ‘No, indeed I don’t,’ and said it with an air intending to signify that she should like to catch herself marrying anybody—no, no, she knew better than that.

‘Kate has improved even in this little time, I have no doubt,’ said Mrs Nickleby, glancing proudly at her daughter.

‘Oh! of course,’ said Miss Knag.

‘And will improve still more,’ added Mrs. Nickleby.

‘That she will, I’ll be bound,’ replied Miss Knag, squeezing Kate’s arm in her own, to point the joke.

‘She always was clever,’ said poor Mrs. Nickleby, brightening up, ‘always, from a baby. I recollect when she was only two years and a half old, that a gentleman who used to visit very much at our house—Mr. Watkins, you know, Kate, my dear, that your poor papa went bail for, who afterwards ran away to the United States, and sent us a pair of snow shoes, with such an affectionate letter that it made your poor dear father cry for a week. You remember the letter? In which he said that he was very sorry he couldn’t repay the fifty pounds just then, because his capital was all out at interest, and he was very busy making his fortune, but that he didn’t forget you were his god-daughter, and he should take it very unkind if we didn’t buy you a silver coral and put it down to his old account? Dear me, yes, my dear, how stupid you are! and spoke so affectionately of the old port wine that he used to drink a bottle and a half of every time he came. You must remember, Kate?’

‘Yes, yes, mama; what of him?’

‘Why, that Mr. Watkins, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby slowly, as if she were making a tremendous effort to recollect something of paramount importance; ‘that Mr. Watkins—he wasn’t any relation, Miss Knag will understand, to the Watkins who kept the Old Boar in the village; by-the-bye, I don’t remember whether it was the Old Boar or the George the Third, but it was one of the two, I know, and it’s much the same—that Mr. Watkins said, when you were only two years and a half old, that you were one of the most astonishing children he ever saw. He did indeed, Miss Knag, and he wasn’t at all fond of children, and couldn’t have had the slightest motive for doing it. I know it was he who said so, because I recollect, as well as if it was only yesterday, his borrowing twenty pounds of her poor dear papa the very moment afterwards.’

Having quoted this extraordinary and most disinterested testimony to her daughter’s excellence, Mrs. Nickleby stopped to breathe; and Miss Knag, finding that the discourse was turning upon family greatness, lost no time in striking in, with a small reminiscence on her own account.

‘Don’t talk of lending money, Mrs. Nickleby,’ said Miss Knag, ‘or you’ll drive me crazy, perfectly crazy. My mama—hem—was the most lovely and beautiful creature, with the most striking and exquisite—hem—the most exquisite nose that ever was put upon a human face, I do believe, Mrs Nickleby (here Miss Knag rubbed her own nose sympathetically); the most delightful and accomplished woman, perhaps, that ever was seen; but she had that one failing of lending money, and carried it to such an extent that she lent—hem—oh! thousands of pounds, all our little fortunes, and what’s more, Mrs. Nickleby, I don’t think, if we were to live till—till—hem—till the very end of time, that we should ever get them back again. I don’t indeed.’

After concluding this effort of invention without being interrupted, Miss Knag fell into many more recollections, no less interesting than true, the full tide of which, Mrs. Nickleby in vain attempting to stem, at length sailed smoothly down by adding an under-current of her own recollections; and so both ladies went on talking together in perfect contentment; the only difference between them being, that whereas Miss Knag addressed herself to Kate, and talked very loud, Mrs. Nickleby kept on in one unbroken monotonous flow, perfectly satisfied to be talking and caring very little whether anybody listened or not.

In this manner they walked on, very amicably, until they arrived at Miss Knag’s brother’s, who was an ornamental stationer and small circulating library keeper, in a by-street off Tottenham Court Road; and who let out by the day, week, month, or year, the newest old novels, whereof the titles were displayed in pen-and-ink characters on a sheet of pasteboard, swinging at his door-post. As Miss Knag happened, at the moment, to be in the middle of an account of her twenty-second offer from a gentleman of large property, she insisted upon their all going in to supper together; and in they went.

‘Don’t go away, Mortimer,’ said Miss Knag as they entered the shop. ‘It’s only one of our young ladies and her mother. Mrs. and Miss Nickleby.’

‘Oh, indeed!’ said Mr. Mortimer Knag. ‘Ah!’

Having given utterance to these ejaculations with a very profound and thoughtful air, Mr. Knag slowly snuffed two kitchen candles on the counter, and two more in the window, and then snuffed himself from a box in his waistcoat pocket.

There was something very impressive in the ghostly air with which all this was done; and as Mr. Knag was a tall lank gentleman of solemn features, wearing spectacles, and garnished with much less hair than a gentleman bordering on forty, or thereabouts, usually boasts, Mrs. Nickleby whispered her daughter that she thought he must be literary.

‘Past ten,’ said Mr. Knag, consulting his watch. ‘Thomas, close the warehouse.’

Thomas was a boy nearly half as tall as a shutter, and the warehouse was a shop about the size of three hackney coaches.

‘Ah!’ said Mr. Knag once more, heaving a deep sigh as he restored to its parent shelf the book he had been reading. ‘Well—yes—I believe supper is ready, sister.’

With another sigh Mr. Knag took up the kitchen candles from the counter, and preceded the ladies with mournful steps to a back-parlour, where a charwoman, employed in the absence of the sick servant, and remunerated with certain eighteenpences to be deducted from her wages due, was putting the supper out.

‘Mrs. Blockson,’ said Miss Knag, reproachfully, ‘how very often I have begged you not to come into the room with your bonnet on!’

‘I can’t help it, Miss Knag,’ said the charwoman, bridling up on the shortest notice. ‘There’s been a deal o’cleaning to do in this house, and if you don’t like it, I must trouble you to look out for somebody else, for it don’t hardly pay me, and that’s the truth, if I was to be hung this minute.’

‘I don’t want any remarks if you please,’ said Miss Knag, with a strong emphasis on the personal pronoun. ‘Is there any fire downstairs for some hot water presently?’

‘No there is not, indeed, Miss Knag,’ replied the substitute; ‘and so I won’t tell you no stories about it.’

‘Then why isn’t there?’ said Miss Knag.

‘Because there arn’t no coals left out, and if I could make coals I would, but as I can’t I won’t, and so I make bold to tell you, Mem,’ replied Mrs Blockson.

‘Will you hold your tongue—female?’ said Mr. Mortimer Knag, plunging violently into this dialogue.

‘By your leave, Mr. Knag,’ retorted the charwoman, turning sharp round. ‘I’m only too glad not to speak in this house, excepting when and where I’m spoke to, sir; and with regard to being a female, sir, I should wish to know what you considered yourself?’

‘A miserable wretch,’ exclaimed Mr. Knag, striking his forehead. ‘A miserable wretch.’

‘I’m very glad to find that you don’t call yourself out of your name, sir,’ said Mrs. Blockson; ‘and as I had two twin children the day before yesterday was only seven weeks, and my little Charley fell down a airy and put his elber out, last Monday, I shall take it as a favour if you’ll send nine shillings, for one week’s work, to my house, afore the clock strikes ten tomorrow.’

With these parting words, the good woman quitted the room with great ease of manner, leaving the door wide open; Mr. Knag, at the same moment, flung himself into the ‘warehouse,’ and groaned aloud.

‘What is the matter with that gentleman, pray?’ inquired Mrs. Nickleby, greatly disturbed by the sound.

‘Is he ill?’ inquired Kate, really alarmed.

‘Hush!’ replied Miss Knag; ‘a most melancholy history. He was once most devotedly attached to—hem—to Madame Mantalini.’

‘Bless me!’ exclaimed Mrs. Nickleby.

‘Yes,’ continued Miss Knag, ‘and received great encouragement too, and confidently hoped to marry her. He has a most romantic heart, Mrs Nickleby, as indeed—hem—as indeed all our family have, and the disappointment was a dreadful blow. He is a wonderfully accomplished man—most extraordinarily accomplished—reads—hem—reads every novel that comes out; I mean every novel that—hem—that has any fashion in it, of course. The fact is, that he did find so much in the books he read, applicable to his own misfortunes, and did find himself in every respect so much like the heroes—because of course he is conscious of his own superiority, as we all are, and very naturally—that he took to scorning everything, and became a genius; and I am quite sure that he is, at this very present moment, writing another book.’

‘Another book!’ repeated Kate, finding that a pause was left for somebody to say something.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Knag, nodding in great triumph; ‘another book, in three volumes post octavo. Of course it’s a great advantage to him, in all his little fashionable descriptions, to have the benefit of my—hem—of my experience, because, of course, few authors who write about such things can have such opportunities of knowing them as I have. He’s so wrapped up in high life, that the least allusion to business or worldly matters—like that woman just now, for instance—quite distracts him; but, as I often say, I think his disappointment a great thing for him, because if he hadn’t been disappointed he couldn’t have written about blighted hopes and all that; and the fact is, if it hadn’t happened as it has, I don’t believe his genius would ever have come out at all.’

How much more communicative Miss Knag might have become under more favourable circumstances, it is impossible to divine, but as the gloomy one was within ear-shot, and the fire wanted making up, her disclosures stopped here. To judge from all appearances, and the difficulty of making the water warm, the last servant could not have been much accustomed to any other fire than St Anthony’s; but a little brandy and water was made at last, and the guests, having been previously regaled with cold leg of mutton and bread and cheese, soon afterwards took leave; Kate amusing herself, all the way home, with the recollection of her last glimpse of Mr Mortimer Knag deeply abstracted in the shop; and Mrs. Nickleby by debating within herself whether the dressmaking firm would ultimately become ‘Mantalini, Knag, and Nickleby’, or ‘Mantalini, Nickleby, and Knag’.

At this high point, Miss Knag’s friendship remained for three whole days, much to the wonderment of Madame Mantalini’s young ladies who had never beheld such constancy in that quarter, before; but on the fourth, it received a check no less violent than sudden, which thus occurred.

It happened that an old lord of great family, who was going to marry a young lady of no family in particular, came with the young lady, and the young lady’s sister, to witness the ceremony of trying on two nuptial bonnets which had been ordered the day before, and Madame Mantalini announcing the fact, in a shrill treble, through the speaking-pipe, which communicated with the workroom, Miss Knag darted hastily upstairs with a bonnet in each hand, and presented herself in the show-room, in a charming state of palpitation, intended to demonstrate her enthusiasm in the cause. The bonnets were no sooner fairly on, than Miss Knag and Madame Mantalini fell into convulsions of admiration.

‘A most elegant appearance,’ said Madame Mantalini.

‘I never saw anything so exquisite in all my life,’ said Miss Knag.

Now, the old lord, who was a very old lord, said nothing, but mumbled and chuckled in a state of great delight, no less with the nuptial bonnets and their wearers, than with his own address in getting such a fine woman for his wife; and the young lady, who was a very lively young lady, seeing the old lord in this rapturous condition, chased the old lord behind a cheval-glass, and then and there kissed him, while Madame Mantalini and the other young lady looked, discreetly, another way.

But, pending the salutation, Miss Knag, who was tinged with curiosity, stepped accidentally behind the glass, and encountered the lively young lady’s eye just at the very moment when she kissed the old lord; upon which the young lady, in a pouting manner, murmured something about ‘an old thing,’ and ‘great impertinence,’ and finished by darting a look of displeasure at Miss Knag, and smiling contemptuously.

‘Madame Mantalini,’ said the young lady.

‘Ma’am,’ said Madame Mantalini.

‘Pray have up that pretty young creature we saw yesterday.’

‘Oh yes, do,’ said the sister.

‘Of all things in the world, Madame Mantalini,’ said the lord’s intended, throwing herself languidly on a sofa, ‘I hate being waited upon by frights or elderly persons. Let me always see that young creature, I beg, whenever I come.’

‘By all means,’ said the old lord; ‘the lovely young creature, by all means.’

‘Everybody is talking about her,’ said the young lady, in the same careless manner; ‘and my lord, being a great admirer of beauty, must positively see her.’

‘She is universally admired,’ replied Madame Mantalini. ‘Miss Knag, send up Miss Nickleby. You needn’t return.’

‘I beg your pardon, Madame Mantalini, what did you say last?’ asked Miss Knag, trembling.

‘You needn’t return,’ repeated the superior, sharply. Miss Knag vanished without another word, and in all reasonable time was replaced by Kate, who took off the new bonnets and put on the old ones: blushing very much to find that the old lord and the two young ladies were staring her out of countenance all the time.

‘Why, how you colour, child!’ said the lord’s chosen bride.

‘She is not quite so accustomed to her business, as she will be in a week or two,’ interposed Madame Mantalini with a gracious smile.

‘I am afraid you have been giving her some of your wicked looks, my lord,’ said the intended.

‘No, no, no,’ replied the old lord, ‘no, no, I’m going to be married, and lead a new life. Ha, ha, ha! a new life, a new life! ha, ha, ha!’

It was a satisfactory thing to hear that the old gentleman was going to lead a new life, for it was pretty evident that his old one would not last him much longer. The mere exertion of protracted chuckling reduced him to a fearful ebb of coughing and gasping; it was some minutes before he could find breath to remark that the girl was too pretty for a milliner.

‘I hope you don’t think good looks a disqualification for the business, my lord,’ said Madame Mantalini, simpering.

‘Not by any means,’ replied the old lord, ‘or you would have left it long ago.’

‘You naughty creature,’ said the lively lady, poking the peer with her parasol; ‘I won’t have you talk so. How dare you?’

This playful inquiry was accompanied with another poke, and another, and then the old lord caught the parasol, and wouldn’t give it up again, which induced the other lady to come to the rescue, and some very pretty sportiveness ensued.

‘You will see that those little alterations are made, Madame Mantalini,’ said the lady. ‘Nay, you bad man, you positively shall go first; I wouldn’t leave you behind with that pretty girl, not for half a second. I know you too well. Jane, my dear, let him go first, and we shall be quite sure of him.’

The old lord, evidently much flattered by this suspicion, bestowed a grotesque leer upon Kate as he passed; and, receiving another tap with the parasol for his wickedness, tottered downstairs to the door, where his sprightly body was hoisted into the carriage by two stout footmen.

‘Foh!’ said Madame Mantalini, ‘how he ever gets into a carriage without thinking of a hearse, I can’t think. There, take the things away, my dear, take them away.’

Kate, who had remained during the whole scene with her eyes modestly fixed upon the ground, was only too happy to avail herself of the permission to retire, and hasten joyfully downstairs to Miss Knag’s dominion.

The circumstances of the little kingdom had greatly changed, however, during the short period of her absence. In place of Miss Knag being stationed in her accustomed seat, preserving all the dignity and greatness of Madame Mantalini’s representative, that worthy soul was reposing on a large box, bathed in tears, while three or four of the young ladies in close attendance upon her, together with the presence of hartshorn, vinegar, and other restoratives, would have borne ample testimony, even without the derangement of the head-dress and front row of curls, to her having fainted desperately.

‘Bless me!’ said Kate, stepping hastily forward, ‘what is the matter?’

This inquiry produced in Miss Knag violent symptoms of a relapse; and several young ladies, darting angry looks at Kate, applied more vinegar and hartshorn, and said it was ‘a shame.’

‘What is a shame?’ demanded Kate. ‘What is the matter? What has happened? tell me.’

‘Matter!’ cried Miss Knag, coming, all at once, bolt upright, to the great consternation of the assembled maidens; ‘matter! Fie upon you, you nasty creature!’

‘Gracious!’ cried Kate, almost paralysed by the violence with which the adjective had been jerked out from between Miss Knag’s closed teeth; ‘have I offended you?’

‘You offended me!’ retorted Miss Knag, ‘you! a chit, a child, an upstart nobody! Oh, indeed! Ha, ha!’

Now, it was evident, as Miss Knag laughed, that something struck her as being exceedingly funny; and as the young ladies took their tone from Miss Knag—she being the chief—they all got up a laugh without a moment’s delay, and nodded their heads a little, and smiled sarcastically to each other, as much as to say how very good that was!

‘Here she is,’ continued Miss Knag, getting off the box, and introducing Kate with much ceremony and many low curtseys to the delighted throng; ‘here she is—everybody is talking about her—the belle, ladies—the beauty, the—oh, you bold-faced thing!’

At this crisis, Miss Knag was unable to repress a virtuous shudder, which immediately communicated itself to all the young ladies; after which, Miss Knag laughed, and after that, cried.

‘For fifteen years,’ exclaimed Miss Knag, sobbing in a most affecting manner, ‘for fifteen years have I been the credit and ornament of this room and the one upstairs. Thank God,’ said Miss Knag, stamping first her right foot and then her left with remarkable energy, ‘I have never in all that time, till now, been exposed to the arts, the vile arts, of a creature, who disgraces us with all her proceedings, and makes proper people blush for themselves. But I feel it, I do feel it, although I am disgusted.’

Miss Knag here relapsed into softness, and the young ladies renewing their attentions, murmured that she ought to be superior to such things, and that for their part they despised them, and considered them beneath their notice; in witness whereof, they called out, more emphatically than before, that it was a shame, and that they felt so angry, they did, they hardly knew what to do with themselves.

‘Have I lived to this day to be called a fright!’ cried Miss Knag, suddenly becoming convulsive, and making an effort to tear her front off.

‘Oh no, no,’ replied the chorus, ‘pray don’t say so; don’t now!’

‘Have I deserved to be called an elderly person?’ screamed Miss Knag, wrestling with the supernumeraries.

‘Don’t think of such things, dear,’ answered the chorus.

‘I hate her,’ cried Miss Knag; ‘I detest and hate her. Never let her speak to me again; never let anybody who is a friend of mine speak to her; a slut, a hussy, an impudent artful hussy!’ Having denounced the object of her wrath, in these terms, Miss Knag screamed once, hiccuped thrice, gurgled in her throat several times, slumbered, shivered, woke, came to, composed her head-dress, and declared herself quite well again.

Poor Kate had regarded these proceedings, at first, in perfect bewilderment. She had then turned red and pale by turns, and once or twice essayed to speak; but, as the true motives of this altered behaviour developed themselves, she retired a few paces, and looked calmly on without deigning a reply. Nevertheless, although she walked proudly to her seat, and turned her back upon the group of little satellites who clustered round their ruling planet in the remotest corner of the room, she gave way, in secret, to some such bitter tears as would have gladdened Miss Knag’s inmost soul, if she could have seen them fall.






CHAPTER 19

Descriptive of a Dinner at Mr. Ralph Nickleby’s, and of the Manner in which the Company entertained themselves, before Dinner, at Dinner, and after Dinner.

The bile and rancour of the worthy Miss Knag undergoing no diminution during the remainder of the week, but rather augmenting with every successive hour; and the honest ire of all the young ladies rising, or seeming to rise, in exact proportion to the good spinster’s indignation, and both waxing very hot every time Miss Nickleby was called upstairs; it will be readily imagined that that young lady’s daily life was none of the most cheerful or enviable kind. She hailed the arrival of Saturday night, as a prisoner would a few delicious hours’ respite from slow and wearing torture, and felt that the poor pittance for her first week’s labour would have been dearly and hardly earned, had its amount been trebled.

When she joined her mother, as usual, at the street corner, she was not a little surprised to find her in conversation with Mr. Ralph Nickleby; but her surprise was soon redoubled, no less by the matter of their conversation, than by the smoothed and altered manner of Mr. Nickleby himself.

‘Ah! my dear!’ said Ralph; ‘we were at that moment talking about you.’

‘Indeed!’ replied Kate, shrinking, though she scarce knew why, from her uncle’s cold glistening eye.

‘That instant,’ said Ralph. ‘I was coming to call for you, making sure to catch you before you left; but your mother and I have been talking over family affairs, and the time has slipped away so rapidly—’

‘Well, now, hasn’t it?’ interposed Mrs. Nickleby, quite insensible to the sarcastic tone of Ralph’s last remark. ‘Upon my word, I couldn’t have believed it possible, that such a—Kate, my dear, you’re to dine with your uncle at half-past six o’clock tomorrow.’

Triumphing in having been the first to communicate this extraordinary intelligence, Mrs. Nickleby nodded and smiled a great many times, to impress its full magnificence on Kate’s wondering mind, and then flew off, at an acute angle, to a committee of ways and means.

‘Let me see,’ said the good lady. ‘Your black silk frock will be quite dress enough, my dear, with that pretty little scarf, and a plain band in your hair, and a pair of black silk stock—Dear, dear,’ cried Mrs Nickleby, flying off at another angle, ‘if I had but those unfortunate amethysts of mine—you recollect them, Kate, my love—how they used to sparkle, you know—but your papa, your poor dear papa—ah! there never was anything so cruelly sacrificed as those jewels were, never!’ Overpowered by this agonising thought, Mrs. Nickleby shook her head, in a melancholy manner, and applied her handkerchief to her eyes.

I don’t want them, mama, indeed,’ said Kate. ‘Forget that you ever had them.’

‘Lord, Kate, my dear,’ rejoined Mrs. Nickleby, pettishly, ‘how like a child you talk! Four-and-twenty silver tea-spoons, brother-in-law, two gravies, four salts, all the amethysts—necklace, brooch, and ear-rings—all made away with, at the same time, and I saying, almost on my bended knees, to that poor good soul, “Why don’t you do something, Nicholas? Why don’t you make some arrangement?” I am sure that anybody who was about us at that time, will do me the justice to own, that if I said that once, I said it fifty times a day. Didn’t I, Kate, my dear? Did I ever lose an opportunity of impressing it on your poor papa?’

‘No, no, mama, never,’ replied Kate. And to do Mrs. Nickleby justice, she never had lost—and to do married ladies as a body justice, they seldom do lose—any occasion of inculcating similar golden percepts, whose only blemish is, the slight degree of vagueness and uncertainty in which they are usually enveloped.

‘Ah!’ said Mrs. Nickleby, with great fervour, ‘if my advice had been taken at the beginning—Well, I have always done my duty, and that’s some comfort.’

When she had arrived at this reflection, Mrs. Nickleby sighed, rubbed her hands, cast up her eyes, and finally assumed a look of meek composure; thus importing that she was a persecuted saint, but that she wouldn’t trouble her hearers by mentioning a circumstance which must be so obvious to everybody.

‘Now,’ said Ralph, with a smile, which, in common with all other tokens of emotion, seemed to skulk under his face, rather than play boldly over it—‘to return to the point from which we have strayed. I have a little party of—of—gentlemen with whom I am connected in business just now, at my house tomorrow; and your mother has promised that you shall keep house for me. I am not much used to parties; but this is one of business, and such fooleries are an important part of it sometimes. You don’t mind obliging me?’

‘Mind!’ cried Mrs. Nickleby. ‘My dear Kate, why—’

‘Pray,’ interrupted Ralph, motioning her to be silent. ‘I spoke to my niece.’

‘I shall be very glad, of course, uncle,’ replied Kate; ‘but I am afraid you will find me awkward and embarrassed.’

‘Oh no,’ said Ralph; ‘come when you like, in a hackney coach—I’ll pay for it. Good-night—a—a—God bless you.’

The blessing seemed to stick in Mr. Ralph Nickleby’s throat, as if it were not used to the thoroughfare, and didn’t know the way out. But it got out somehow, though awkwardly enough; and having disposed of it, he shook hands with his two relatives, and abruptly left them.

‘What a very strongly marked countenance your uncle has!’ said Mrs Nickleby, quite struck with his parting look. ‘I don’t see the slightest resemblance to his poor brother.’

‘Mama!’ said Kate reprovingly. ‘To think of such a thing!’

‘No,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, musing. ‘There certainly is none. But it’s a very honest face.’

The worthy matron made this remark with great emphasis and elocution, as if it comprised no small quantity of ingenuity and research; and, in truth, it was not unworthy of being classed among the extraordinary discoveries of the age. Kate looked up hastily, and as hastily looked down again.

‘What has come over you, my dear, in the name of goodness?’ asked Mrs Nickleby, when they had walked on, for some time, in silence.

‘I was only thinking, mama,’ answered Kate.

‘Thinking!’ repeated Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Ay, and indeed plenty to think about, too. Your uncle has taken a strong fancy to you, that’s quite clear; and if some extraordinary good fortune doesn’t come to you, after this, I shall be a little surprised, that’s all.’

With this she launched out into sundry anecdotes of young ladies, who had had thousand-pound notes given them in reticules, by eccentric uncles; and of young ladies who had accidentally met amiable gentlemen of enormous wealth at their uncles’ houses, and married them, after short but ardent courtships; and Kate, listening first in apathy, and afterwards in amusement, felt, as they walked home, something of her mother’s sanguine complexion gradually awakening in her own bosom, and began to think that her prospects might be brightening, and that better days might be dawning upon them. Such is hope, Heaven’s own gift to struggling mortals; pervading, like some subtle essence from the skies, all things, both good and bad; as universal as death, and more infectious than disease!

The feeble winter’s sun—and winter’s suns in the city are very feeble indeed—might have brightened up, as he shone through the dim windows of the large old house, on witnessing the unusual sight which one half-furnished room displayed. In a gloomy corner, where, for years, had stood a silent dusty pile of merchandise, sheltering its colony of mice, and frowning, a dull and lifeless mass, upon the panelled room, save when, responding to the roll of heavy waggons in the street without, it quaked with sturdy tremblings and caused the bright eyes of its tiny citizens to grow brighter still with fear, and struck them motionless, with attentive ear and palpitating heart, until the alarm had passed away—in this dark corner, was arranged, with scrupulous care, all Kate’s little finery for the day; each article of dress partaking of that indescribable air of jauntiness and individuality which empty garments—whether by association, or that they become moulded, as it were, to the owner’s form—will take, in eyes accustomed to, or picturing, the wearer’s smartness. In place of a bale of musty goods, there lay the black silk dress: the neatest possible figure in itself. The small shoes, with toes delicately turned out, stood upon the very pressure of some old iron weight; and a pile of harsh discoloured leather had unconsciously given place to the very same little pair of black silk stockings, which had been the objects of Mrs. Nickleby’s peculiar care. Rats and mice, and such small gear, had long ago been starved, or had emigrated to better quarters: and, in their stead, appeared gloves, bands, scarfs, hair-pins, and many other little devices, almost as ingenious in their way as rats and mice themselves, for the tantalisation of mankind. About and among them all, moved Kate herself, not the least beautiful or unwonted relief to the stern, old, gloomy building.

In good time, or in bad time, as the reader likes to take it—for Mrs Nickleby’s impatience went a great deal faster than the clocks at that end of the town, and Kate was dressed to the very last hair-pin a full hour and a half before it was at all necessary to begin to think about it—in good time, or in bad time, the toilet was completed; and it being at length the hour agreed upon for starting, the milkman fetched a coach from the nearest stand, and Kate, with many adieux to her mother, and many kind messages to Miss La Creevy, who was to come to tea, seated herself in it, and went away in state, if ever anybody went away in state in a hackney coach yet. And the coach, and the coachman, and the horses, rattled, and jangled, and whipped, and cursed, and swore, and tumbled on together, until they came to Golden Square.

The coachman gave a tremendous double knock at the door, which was opened long before he had done, as quickly as if there had been a man behind it, with his hand tied to the latch. Kate, who had expected no more uncommon appearance than Newman Noggs in a clean shirt, was not a little astonished to see that the opener was a man in handsome livery, and that there were two or three others in the hall. There was no doubt about its being the right house, however, for there was the name upon the door; so she accepted the laced coat-sleeve which was tendered her, and entering the house, was ushered upstairs, into a back drawing-room, where she was left alone.

If she had been surprised at the apparition of the footman, she was perfectly absorbed in amazement at the richness and splendour of the furniture. The softest and most elegant carpets, the most exquisite pictures, the costliest mirrors; articles of richest ornament, quite dazzling from their beauty and perplexing from the prodigality with which they were scattered around; encountered her on every side. The very staircase nearly down to the hall-door, was crammed with beautiful and luxurious things, as though the house were brimful of riches, which, with a very trifling addition, would fairly run over into the street.

Presently, she heard a series of loud double knocks at the street-door, and after every knock some new voice in the next room; the tones of Mr Ralph Nickleby were easily distinguishable at first, but by degrees they merged into the general buzz of conversation, and all she could ascertain was, that there were several gentlemen with no very musical voices, who talked very loud, laughed very heartily, and swore more than she would have thought quite necessary. But this was a question of taste.

At length, the door opened, and Ralph himself, divested of his boots, and ceremoniously embellished with black silks and shoes, presented his crafty face.

‘I couldn’t see you before, my dear,’ he said, in a low tone, and pointing, as he spoke, to the next room. ‘I was engaged in receiving them. Now—shall I take you in?’

‘Pray, uncle,’ said Kate, a little flurried, as people much more conversant with society often are, when they are about to enter a room full of strangers, and have had time to think of it previously, ‘are there any ladies here?’

‘No,’ said Ralph, shortly, ‘I don’t know any.’

‘Must I go in immediately?’ asked Kate, drawing back a little.

‘As you please,’ said Ralph, shrugging his shoulders. ‘They are all come, and dinner will be announced directly afterwards—that’s all.’

Kate would have entreated a few minutes’ respite, but reflecting that her uncle might consider the payment of the hackney-coach fare a sort of bargain for her punctuality, she suffered him to draw her arm through his, and to lead her away.

Seven or eight gentlemen were standing round the fire when they went in, and, as they were talking very loud, were not aware of their entrance until Mr. Ralph Nickleby, touching one on the coat-sleeve, said in a harsh emphatic voice, as if to attract general attention—

‘Lord Frederick Verisopht, my niece, Miss Nickleby.’

The group dispersed, as if in great surprise, and the gentleman addressed, turning round, exhibited a suit of clothes of the most superlative cut, a pair of whiskers of similar quality, a moustache, a head of hair, and a young face.

‘Eh!’ said the gentleman. ‘What—the—deyvle!’

With which broken ejaculations, he fixed his glass in his eye, and stared at Miss Nickleby in great surprise.

‘My niece, my lord,’ said Ralph.

‘Then my ears did not deceive me, and it’s not wa-a-x work,’ said his lordship. ‘How de do? I’m very happy.’ And then his lordship turned to another superlative gentleman, something older, something stouter, something redder in the face, and something longer upon town, and said in a loud whisper that the girl was ‘deyvlish pitty.’

‘Introduce me, Nickleby,’ said this second gentleman, who was lounging with his back to the fire, and both elbows on the chimneypiece.

‘Sir Mulberry Hawk,’ said Ralph.

‘Otherwise the most knowing card in the pa-ack, Miss Nickleby,’ said Lord Frederick Verisopht.

‘Don’t leave me out, Nickleby,’ cried a sharp-faced gentleman, who was sitting on a low chair with a high back, reading the paper.

‘Mr. Pyke,’ said Ralph.

‘Nor me, Nickleby,’ cried a gentleman with a flushed face and a flash air, from the elbow of Sir Mulberry Hawk.

‘Mr. Pluck,’ said Ralph. Then wheeling about again, towards a gentleman with the neck of a stork and the legs of no animal in particular, Ralph introduced him as the Honourable Mr. Snobb; and a white-headed person at the table as Colonel Chowser. The colonel was in conversation with somebody, who appeared to be a make-weight, and was not introduced at all.

There were two circumstances which, in this early stage of the party, struck home to Kate’s bosom, and brought the blood tingling to her face. One was the flippant contempt with which the guests evidently regarded her uncle, and the other, the easy insolence of their manner towards herself. That the first symptom was very likely to lead to the aggravation of the second, it needed no great penetration to foresee. And here Mr. Ralph Nickleby had reckoned without his host; for however fresh from the country a young lady (by nature) may be, and however unacquainted with conventional behaviour, the chances are, that she will have quite as strong an innate sense of the decencies and proprieties of life as if she had run the gauntlet of a dozen London seasons—possibly a stronger one, for such senses have been known to blunt in this improving process.

When Ralph had completed the ceremonial of introduction, he led his blushing niece to a seat. As he did so, he glanced warily round as though to assure himself of the impression which her unlooked-for appearance had created.

‘An unexpected playsure, Nickleby,’ said Lord Frederick Verisopht, taking his glass out of his right eye, where it had, until now, done duty on Kate, and fixing it in his left, to bring it to bear on Ralph.

‘Designed to surprise you, Lord Frederick,’ said Mr. Pluck.

‘Not a bad idea,’ said his lordship, ‘and one that would almost warrant the addition of an extra two and a half per cent.’

‘Nickleby,’ said Sir Mulberry Hawk, in a thick coarse voice, ‘take the hint, and tack it on the other five-and-twenty, or whatever it is, and give me half for the advice.’

Sir Mulberry garnished this speech with a hoarse laugh, and terminated it with a pleasant oath regarding Mr. Nickleby’s limbs, whereat Messrs Pyke and Pluck laughed consumedly.

These gentlemen had not yet quite recovered the jest, when dinner was announced, and then they were thrown into fresh ecstasies by a similar cause; for Sir Mulberry Hawk, in an excess of humour, shot dexterously past Lord Frederick Verisopht who was about to lead Kate downstairs, and drew her arm through his up to the elbow.

‘No, damn it, Verisopht,’ said Sir Mulberry, ‘fair play’s a jewel, and Miss Nickleby and I settled the matter with our eyes ten minutes ago.’

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ laughed the honourable Mr. Snobb, ‘very good, very good.’

Rendered additionally witty by this applause, Sir Mulberry Hawk leered upon his friends most facetiously, and led Kate downstairs with an air of familiarity, which roused in her gentle breast such burning indignation, as she felt it almost impossible to repress. Nor was the intensity of these feelings at all diminished, when she found herself placed at the top of the table, with Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick Verisopht on either side.

‘Oh, you’ve found your way into our neighbourhood, have you?’ said Sir Mulberry as his lordship sat down.

‘Of course,’ replied Lord Frederick, fixing his eyes on Miss Nickleby, ‘how can you a-ask me?’

‘Well, you attend to your dinner,’ said Sir Mulberry, ‘and don’t mind Miss Nickleby and me, for we shall prove very indifferent company, I dare say.’

‘I wish you’d interfere here, Nickleby,’ said Lord Frederick.

‘What is the matter, my lord?’ demanded Ralph from the bottom of the table, where he was supported by Messrs Pyke and Pluck.

‘This fellow, Hawk, is monopolising your niece,’ said Lord Frederick.

‘He has a tolerable share of everything that you lay claim to, my lord,’ said Ralph with a sneer.

‘’Gad, so he has,’ replied the young man; ‘deyvle take me if I know which is master in my house, he or I.’

‘I know,’ muttered Ralph.

‘I think I shall cut him off with a shilling,’ said the young nobleman, jocosely.

‘No, no, curse it,’ said Sir Mulberry. ‘When you come to the shilling—the last shilling—I’ll cut you fast enough; but till then, I’ll never leave you—you may take your oath of it.’

This sally (which was strictly founded on fact) was received with a general roar, above which, was plainly distinguishable the laughter of Mr Pyke and Mr. Pluck, who were, evidently, Sir Mulberry’s toads in ordinary. Indeed, it was not difficult to see, that the majority of the company preyed upon the unfortunate young lord, who, weak and silly as he was, appeared by far the least vicious of the party. Sir Mulberry Hawk was remarkable for his tact in ruining, by himself and his creatures, young gentlemen of fortune—a genteel and elegant profession, of which he had undoubtedly gained the head. With all the boldness of an original genius, he had struck out an entirely new course of treatment quite opposed to the usual method; his custom being, when he had gained the ascendancy over those he took in hand, rather to keep them down than to give them their own way; and to exercise his vivacity upon them openly, and without reserve. Thus, he made them butts, in a double sense, and while he emptied them with great address, caused them to ring with sundry well-administered taps, for the diversion of society.

The dinner was as remarkable for the splendour and completeness of its appointments as the mansion itself, and the company were remarkable for doing it ample justice, in which respect Messrs Pyke and Pluck particularly signalised themselves; these two gentlemen eating of every dish, and drinking of every bottle, with a capacity and perseverance truly astonishing. They were remarkably fresh, too, notwithstanding their great exertions: for, on the appearance of the dessert, they broke out again, as if nothing serious had taken place since breakfast.

‘Well,’ said Lord Frederick, sipping his first glass of port, ‘if this is a discounting dinner, all I have to say is, deyvle take me, if it wouldn’t be a good pla-an to get discount every day.’

‘You’ll have plenty of it, in your time,’ returned Sir Mulberry Hawk; ‘Nickleby will tell you that.’

‘What do you say, Nickleby?’ inquired the young man; ‘am I to be a good customer?’

‘It depends entirely on circumstances, my lord,’ replied Ralph.

‘On your lordship’s circumstances,’ interposed Colonel Chowser of the Militia—and the race-courses.

The gallant colonel glanced at Messrs Pyke and Pluck as if he thought they ought to laugh at his joke; but those gentlemen, being only engaged to laugh for Sir Mulberry Hawk, were, to his signal discomfiture, as grave as a pair of undertakers. To add to his defeat, Sir Mulberry, considering any such efforts an invasion of his peculiar privilege, eyed the offender steadily, through his glass, as if astonished at his presumption, and audibly stated his impression that it was an ‘infernal liberty,’ which being a hint to Lord Frederick, he put up his glass, and surveyed the object of censure as if he were some extraordinary wild animal then exhibiting for the first time. As a matter of course, Messrs Pyke and Pluck stared at the individual whom Sir Mulberry Hawk stared at; so, the poor colonel, to hide his confusion, was reduced to the necessity of holding his port before his right eye and affecting to scrutinise its colour with the most lively interest.

All this while, Kate had sat as silently as she could, scarcely daring to raise her eyes, lest they should encounter the admiring gaze of Lord Frederick Verisopht, or, what was still more embarrassing, the bold looks of his friend Sir Mulberry. The latter gentleman was obliging enough to direct general attention towards her.

‘Here is Miss Nickleby,’ observed Sir Mulberry, ‘wondering why the deuce somebody doesn’t make love to her.’

‘No, indeed,’ said Kate, looking hastily up, ‘I—’ and then she stopped, feeling it would have been better to have said nothing at all.

‘I’ll hold any man fifty pounds,’ said Sir Mulberry, ‘that Miss Nickleby can’t look in my face, and tell me she wasn’t thinking so.’

‘Done!’ cried the noble gull. ‘Within ten minutes.’

‘Done!’ responded Sir Mulberry. The money was produced on both sides, and the Honourable Mr. Snobb was elected to the double office of stake-holder and time-keeper.

‘Pray,’ said Kate, in great confusion, while these preliminaries were in course of completion. ‘Pray do not make me the subject of any bets. Uncle, I cannot really—’

‘Why not, my dear?’ replied Ralph, in whose grating voice, however, there was an unusual huskiness, as though he spoke unwillingly, and would rather that the proposition had not been broached. ‘It is done in a moment; there is nothing in it. If the gentlemen insist on it—’

‘I don’t insist on it,’ said Sir Mulberry, with a loud laugh. ‘That is, I by no means insist upon Miss Nickleby’s making the denial, for if she does, I lose; but I shall be glad to see her bright eyes, especially as she favours the mahogany so much.’

‘So she does, and it’s too ba-a-d of you, Miss Nickleby,’ said the noble youth.

‘Quite cruel,’ said Mr. Pyke.

‘Horrid cruel,’ said Mr. Pluck.

‘I don’t care if I do lose,’ said Sir Mulberry; ‘for one tolerable look at Miss Nickleby’s eyes is worth double the money.’

‘More,’ said Mr. Pyke.

‘Far more,’ said Mr. Pluck.

‘How goes the enemy, Snobb?’ asked Sir Mulberry Hawk.

‘Four minutes gone.’

‘Bravo!’

‘Won’t you ma-ake one effort for me, Miss Nickleby?’ asked Lord Frederick, after a short interval.

‘You needn’t trouble yourself to inquire, my buck,’ said Sir Mulberry; ‘Miss Nickleby and I understand each other; she declares on my side, and shows her taste. You haven’t a chance, old fellow. Time, Snobb?’

‘Eight minutes gone.’

‘Get the money ready,’ said Sir Mulberry; ‘you’ll soon hand over.’

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ laughed Mr. Pyke.

Mr. Pluck, who always came second, and topped his companion if he could, screamed outright.

The poor girl, who was so overwhelmed with confusion that she scarcely knew what she did, had determined to remain perfectly quiet; but fearing that by so doing she might seem to countenance Sir Mulberry’s boast, which had been uttered with great coarseness and vulgarity of manner, raised her eyes, and looked him in the face. There was something so odious, so insolent, so repulsive in the look which met her, that, without the power to stammer forth a syllable, she rose and hurried from the room. She restrained her tears by a great effort until she was alone upstairs, and then gave them vent.

‘Capital!’ said Sir Mulberry Hawk, putting the stakes in his pocket.

‘That’s a girl of spirit, and we’ll drink her health.’

It is needless to say, that Pyke and Co. responded, with great warmth of manner, to this proposal, or that the toast was drunk with many little insinuations from the firm, relative to the completeness of Sir Mulberry’s conquest. Ralph, who, while the attention of the other guests was attracted to the principals in the preceding scene, had eyed them like a wolf, appeared to breathe more freely now his niece was gone; the decanters passing quickly round, he leaned back in his chair, and turned his eyes from speaker to speaker, as they warmed with wine, with looks that seemed to search their hearts, and lay bare, for his distempered sport, every idle thought within them.

Meanwhile Kate, left wholly to herself, had, in some degree, recovered her composure. She had learnt from a female attendant, that her uncle wished to see her before she left, and had also gleaned the satisfactory intelligence, that the gentlemen would take coffee at table. The prospect of seeing them no more, contributed greatly to calm her agitation, and, taking up a book, she composed herself to read.

She started sometimes, when the sudden opening of the dining-room door let loose a wild shout of noisy revelry, and more than once rose in great alarm, as a fancied footstep on the staircase impressed her with the fear that some stray member of the party was returning alone. Nothing occurring, however, to realise her apprehensions, she endeavoured to fix her attention more closely on her book, in which by degrees she became so much interested, that she had read on through several chapters without heed of time or place, when she was terrified by suddenly hearing her name pronounced by a man’s voice close at her ear.

The book fell from her hand. Lounging on an ottoman close beside her, was Sir Mulberry Hawk, evidently the worse—if a man be a ruffian at heart, he is never the better—for wine.

‘What a delightful studiousness!’ said this accomplished gentleman. ‘Was it real, now, or only to display the eyelashes?’

Kate, looking anxiously towards the door, made no reply.

‘I have looked at ‘em for five minutes,’ said Sir Mulberry. ‘Upon my soul, they’re perfect. Why did I speak, and destroy such a pretty little picture?’

‘Do me the favour to be silent now, sir,’ replied Kate.

‘No, don’t,’ said Sir Mulberry, folding his crushed hat to lay his elbow on, and bringing himself still closer to the young lady; ‘upon my life, you oughtn’t to. Such a devoted slave of yours, Miss Nickleby—it’s an infernal thing to treat him so harshly, upon my soul it is.’

‘I wish you to understand, sir,’ said Kate, trembling in spite of herself, but speaking with great indignation, ‘that your behaviour offends and disgusts me. If you have a spark of gentlemanly feeling remaining, you will leave me.’

‘Now why,’ said Sir Mulberry, ‘why will you keep up this appearance of excessive rigour, my sweet creature? Now, be more natural—my dear Miss Nickleby, be more natural—do.’

Kate hastily rose; but as she rose, Sir Mulberry caught her dress, and forcibly detained her.

‘Let me go, sir,’ she cried, her heart swelling with anger. ‘Do you hear? Instantly—this moment.’

‘Sit down, sit down,’ said Sir Mulberry; ‘I want to talk to you.’

‘Unhand me, sir, this instant,’ cried Kate.

‘Not for the world,’ rejoined Sir Mulberry. Thus speaking, he leaned over, as if to replace her in her chair; but the young lady, making a violent effort to disengage herself, he lost his balance, and measured his length upon the ground. As Kate sprung forward to leave the room, Mr. Ralph Nickleby appeared in the doorway, and confronted her.

‘What is this?’ said Ralph.

‘It is this, sir,’ replied Kate, violently agitated: ‘that beneath the roof where I, a helpless girl, your dead brother’s child, should most have found protection, I have been exposed to insult which should make you shrink to look upon me. Let me pass you.’

Ralph did shrink, as the indignant girl fixed her kindling eye upon him; but he did not comply with her injunction, nevertheless: for he led her to a distant seat, and returning, and approaching Sir Mulberry Hawk, who had by this time risen, motioned towards the door.

‘Your way lies there, sir,’ said Ralph, in a suppressed voice, that some devil might have owned with pride.

‘What do you mean by that?’ demanded his friend, fiercely.

The swoln veins stood out like sinews on Ralph’s wrinkled forehead, and the nerves about his mouth worked as though some unendurable emotion wrung them; but he smiled disdainfully, and again pointed to the door.

‘Do you know me, you old madman?’ asked Sir Mulberry.

‘Well,’ said Ralph. The fashionable vagabond for the moment quite quailed under the steady look of the older sinner, and walked towards the door, muttering as he went.

‘You wanted the lord, did you?’ he said, stopping short when he reached the door, as if a new light had broken in upon him, and confronting Ralph again. ‘Damme, I was in the way, was I?’

Ralph smiled again, but made no answer.

‘Who brought him to you first?’ pursued Sir Mulberry; ‘and how, without me, could you ever have wound him in your net as you have?’

‘The net is a large one, and rather full,’ said Ralph. ‘Take care that it chokes nobody in the meshes.’

‘You would sell your flesh and blood for money; yourself, if you have not already made a bargain with the devil,’ retorted the other. ‘Do you mean to tell me that your pretty niece was not brought here as a decoy for the drunken boy downstairs?’

Although this hurried dialogue was carried on in a suppressed tone on both sides, Ralph looked involuntarily round to ascertain that Kate had not moved her position so as to be within hearing. His adversary saw the advantage he had gained, and followed it up.

‘Do you mean to tell me,’ he asked again, ‘that it is not so? Do you mean to say that if he had found his way up here instead of me, you wouldn’t have been a little more blind, and a little more deaf, and a little less flourishing, than you have been? Come, Nickleby, answer me that.’

‘I tell you this,’ replied Ralph, ‘that if I brought her here, as a matter of business—’

‘Ay, that’s the word,’ interposed Sir Mulberry, with a laugh. ‘You’re coming to yourself again now.’

‘—As a matter of business,’ pursued Ralph, speaking slowly and firmly, as a man who has made up his mind to say no more, ‘because I thought she might make some impression on the silly youth you have taken in hand and are lending good help to ruin, I knew—knowing him—that it would be long before he outraged her girl’s feelings, and that unless he offended by mere puppyism and emptiness, he would, with a little management, respect the sex and conduct even of his usurer’s niece. But if I thought to draw him on more gently by this device, I did not think of subjecting the girl to the licentiousness and brutality of so old a hand as you. And now we understand each other.’

‘Especially as there was nothing to be got by it—eh?’ sneered Sir Mulberry.

‘Exactly so,’ said Ralph. He had turned away, and looked over his shoulder to make this last reply. The eyes of the two worthies met, with an expression as if each rascal felt that there was no disguising himself from the other; and Sir Mulberry Hawk shrugged his shoulders and walked slowly out.

His friend closed the door, and looked restlessly towards the spot where his niece still remained in the attitude in which he had left her. She had flung herself heavily upon the couch, and with her head drooping over the cushion, and her face hidden in her hands, seemed to be still weeping in an agony of shame and grief.

Ralph would have walked into any poverty-stricken debtor’s house, and pointed him out to a bailiff, though in attendance upon a young child’s death-bed, without the smallest concern, because it would have been a matter quite in the ordinary course of business, and the man would have been an offender against his only code of morality. But, here was a young girl, who had done no wrong save that of coming into the world alive; who had patiently yielded to all his wishes; who had tried hard to please him—above all, who didn’t owe him money—and he felt awkward and nervous.

Ralph took a chair at some distance; then, another chair a little nearer; then, moved a little nearer still; then, nearer again, and finally sat himself on the same sofa, and laid his hand on Kate’s arm.

‘Hush, my dear!’ he said, as she drew it back, and her sobs burst out afresh. ‘Hush, hush! Don’t mind it, now; don’t think of it.’

‘Oh, for pity’s sake, let me go home,’ cried Kate. ‘Let me leave this house, and go home.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Ralph. ‘You shall. But you must dry your eyes first, and compose yourself. Let me raise your head. There—there.’

‘Oh, uncle!’ exclaimed Kate, clasping her hands. ‘What have I done—what have I done—that you should subject me to this? If I had wronged you in thought, or word, or deed, it would have been most cruel to me, and the memory of one you must have loved in some old time; but—’

‘Only listen to me for a moment,’ interrupted Ralph, seriously alarmed by the violence of her emotions. ‘I didn’t know it would be so; it was impossible for me to foresee it. I did all I could.—Come, let us walk about. You are faint with the closeness of the room, and the heat of these lamps. You will be better now, if you make the slightest effort.’

‘I will do anything,’ replied Kate, ‘if you will only send me home.’

‘Well, well, I will,’ said Ralph; ‘but you must get back your own looks; for those you have, will frighten them, and nobody must know of this but you and I. Now let us walk the other way. There. You look better even now.’

With such encouragements as these, Ralph Nickleby walked to and fro, with his niece leaning on his arm; actually trembling beneath her touch.

In the same manner, when he judged it prudent to allow her to depart, he supported her downstairs, after adjusting her shawl and performing such little offices, most probably for the first time in his life. Across the hall, and down the steps, Ralph led her too; nor did he withdraw his hand until she was seated in the coach.

As the door of the vehicle was roughly closed, a comb fell from Kate’s hair, close at her uncle’s feet; and as he picked it up, and returned it into her hand, the light from a neighbouring lamp shone upon her face. The lock of hair that had escaped and curled loosely over her brow, the traces of tears yet scarcely dry, the flushed cheek, the look of sorrow, all fired some dormant train of recollection in the old man’s breast; and the face of his dead brother seemed present before him, with the very look it bore on some occasion of boyish grief, of which every minutest circumstance flashed upon his mind, with the distinctness of a scene of yesterday.

Ralph Nickleby, who was proof against all appeals of blood and kindred—who was steeled against every tale of sorrow and distress—staggered while he looked, and went back into his house, as a man who had seen a spirit from some world beyond the grave.






CHAPTER 20

Wherein Nicholas at length encounters his Uncle, to whom he expresses his Sentiments with much Candour. His Resolution.

Little Miss La Creevy trotted briskly through divers streets at the west end of the town, early on Monday morning—the day after the dinner—charged with the important commission of acquainting Madame Mantalini that Miss Nickleby was too unwell to attend that day, but hoped to be enabled to resume her duties on the morrow. And as Miss La Creevy walked along, revolving in her mind various genteel forms and elegant turns of expression, with a view to the selection of the very best in which to couch her communication, she cogitated a good deal upon the probable causes of her young friend’s indisposition.

‘I don’t know what to make of it,’ said Miss La Creevy. ‘Her eyes were decidedly red last night. She said she had a headache; headaches don’t occasion red eyes. She must have been crying.’

Arriving at this conclusion, which, indeed, she had established to her perfect satisfaction on the previous evening, Miss La Creevy went on to consider—as she had done nearly all night—what new cause of unhappiness her young friend could possibly have had.

‘I can’t think of anything,’ said the little portrait painter. ‘Nothing at all, unless it was the behaviour of that old bear. Cross to her, I suppose? Unpleasant brute!’

Relieved by this expression of opinion, albeit it was vented upon empty air, Miss La Creevy trotted on to Madame Mantalini’s; and being informed that the governing power was not yet out of bed, requested an interview with the second in command; whereupon Miss Knag appeared.

‘So far as I am concerned,’ said Miss Knag, when the message had been delivered, with many ornaments of speech; ‘I could spare Miss Nickleby for evermore.’

‘Oh, indeed, ma’am!’ rejoined Miss La Creevy, highly offended. ‘But, you see, you are not mistress of the business, and therefore it’s of no great consequence.’

‘Very good, ma’am,’ said Miss Knag. ‘Have you any further commands for me?’

‘No, I have not, ma’am,’ rejoined Miss La Creevy.

‘Then good-morning, ma’am,’ said Miss Knag.

‘Good-morning to you, ma’am; and many obligations for your extreme politeness and good breeding,’ rejoined Miss La Creevy.

Thus terminating the interview, during which both ladies had trembled very much, and been marvellously polite—certain indications that they were within an inch of a very desperate quarrel—Miss La Creevy bounced out of the room, and into the street.

‘I wonder who that is,’ said the queer little soul. ‘A nice person to know, I should think! I wish I had the painting of her: I’D do her justice.’ So, feeling quite satisfied that she had said a very cutting thing at Miss Knag’s expense, Miss La Creevy had a hearty laugh, and went home to breakfast in great good humour.

Here was one of the advantages of having lived alone so long! The little bustling, active, cheerful creature existed entirely within herself, talked to herself, made a confidante of herself, was as sarcastic as she could be, on people who offended her, by herself; pleased herself, and did no harm. If she indulged in scandal, nobody’s reputation suffered; and if she enjoyed a little bit of revenge, no living soul was one atom the worse. One of the many to whom, from straitened circumstances, a consequent inability to form the associations they would wish, and a disinclination to mix with the society they could obtain, London is as complete a solitude as the plains of Syria, the humble artist had pursued her lonely, but contented way for many years; and, until the peculiar misfortunes of the Nickleby family attracted her attention, had made no friends, though brimful of the friendliest feelings to all mankind. There are many warm hearts in the same solitary guise as poor little Miss La Creevy’s.

However, that’s neither here nor there, just now. She went home to breakfast, and had scarcely caught the full flavour of her first sip of tea, when the servant announced a gentleman, whereat Miss La Creevy, at once imagining a new sitter transfixed by admiration at the street-door case, was in unspeakable consternation at the presence of the tea-things.

‘Here, take ‘em away; run with ‘em into the bedroom; anywhere,’ said Miss La Creevy. ‘Dear, dear; to think that I should be late on this particular morning, of all others, after being ready for three weeks by half-past eight o’clock, and not a soul coming near the place!’

‘Don’t let me put you out of the way,’ said a voice Miss La Creevy knew. ‘I told the servant not to mention my name, because I wished to surprise you.’

‘Mr. Nicholas!’ cried Miss La Creevy, starting in great astonishment. ‘You have not forgotten me, I see,’ replied Nicholas, extending his hand.

‘Why, I think I should even have known you if I had met you in the street,’ said Miss La Creevy, with a smile. ‘Hannah, another cup and saucer. Now, I’ll tell you what, young man; I’ll trouble you not to repeat the impertinence you were guilty of, on the morning you went away.’

‘You would not be very angry, would you?’ asked Nicholas.

‘Wouldn’t I!’ said Miss La Creevy. ‘You had better try; that’s all!’

Nicholas, with becoming gallantry, immediately took Miss La Creevy at her word, who uttered a faint scream and slapped his face; but it was not a very hard slap, and that’s the truth.

‘I never saw such a rude creature!’ exclaimed Miss La Creevy.

‘You told me to try,’ said Nicholas.

‘Well; but I was speaking ironically,’ rejoined Miss La Creevy.

‘Oh! that’s another thing,’ said Nicholas; ‘you should have told me that, too.’

‘I dare say you didn’t know, indeed!’ retorted Miss La Creevy. ‘But, now I look at you again, you seem thinner than when I saw you last, and your face is haggard and pale. And how come you to have left Yorkshire?’

She stopped here; for there was so much heart in her altered tone and manner, that Nicholas was quite moved.

‘I need look somewhat changed,’ he said, after a short silence; ‘for I have undergone some suffering, both of mind and body, since I left London. I have been very poor, too, and have even suffered from want.’

‘Good Heaven, Mr. Nicholas!’ exclaimed Miss La Creevy, ‘what are you telling me?’

‘Nothing which need distress you quite so much,’ answered Nicholas, with a more sprightly air; ‘neither did I come here to bewail my lot, but on matter more to the purpose. I wish to meet my uncle face to face. I should tell you that first.’

‘Then all I have to say about that is,’ interposed Miss La Creevy, ‘that I don’t envy you your taste; and that sitting in the same room with his very boots, would put me out of humour for a fortnight.’

‘In the main,’ said Nicholas, ‘there may be no great difference of opinion between you and me, so far; but you will understand, that I desire to confront him, to justify myself, and to cast his duplicity and malice in his throat.’

‘That’s quite another matter,’ rejoined Miss La Creevy. ‘Heaven forgive me; but I shouldn’t cry my eyes quite out of my head, if they choked him. Well?’

‘To this end, I called upon him this morning,’ said Nicholas. ‘He only returned to town on Saturday, and I knew nothing of his arrival until late last night.’

‘And did you see him?’ asked Miss La Creevy.

‘No,’ replied Nicholas. ‘He had gone out.’

‘Hah!’ said Miss La Creevy; ‘on some kind, charitable business, I dare say.’

‘I have reason to believe,’ pursued Nicholas, ‘from what has been told me, by a friend of mine who is acquainted with his movements, that he intends seeing my mother and sister today, and giving them his version of the occurrences that have befallen me. I will meet him there.’

‘That’s right,’ said Miss La Creevy, rubbing her hands. ‘And yet, I don’t know,’ she added, ‘there is much to be thought of—others to be considered.’

‘I have considered others,’ rejoined Nicholas; ‘but as honesty and honour are both at issue, nothing shall deter me.’

‘You should know best,’ said Miss La Creevy.

‘In this case I hope so,’ answered Nicholas. ‘And all I want you to do for me, is, to prepare them for my coming. They think me a long way off, and if I went wholly unexpected, I should frighten them. If you can spare time to tell them that you have seen me, and that I shall be with them in a quarter of an hour afterwards, you will do me a great service.’

‘I wish I could do you, or any of you, a greater,’ said Miss La Creevy; ‘but the power to serve, is as seldom joined with the will, as the will is with the power, I think.’

Talking on very fast and very much, Miss La Creevy finished her breakfast with great expedition, put away the tea-caddy and hid the key under the fender, resumed her bonnet, and, taking Nicholas’s arm, sallied forth at once to the city. Nicholas left her near the door of his mother’s house, and promised to return within a quarter of an hour.

It so chanced that Ralph Nickleby, at length seeing fit, for his own purposes, to communicate the atrocities of which Nicholas had been guilty, had (instead of first proceeding to another quarter of the town on business, as Newman Noggs supposed he would) gone straight to his sister-in-law. Hence, when Miss La Creevy, admitted by a girl who was cleaning the house, made her way to the sitting-room, she found Mrs Nickleby and Kate in tears, and Ralph just concluding his statement of his nephew’s misdemeanours. Kate beckoned her not to retire, and Miss La Creevy took a seat in silence.

‘You are here already, are you, my gentleman?’ thought the little woman. ‘Then he shall announce himself, and see what effect that has on you.’

‘This is pretty,’ said Ralph, folding up Miss Squeers’s note; ‘very pretty. I recommend him—against all my previous conviction, for I knew he would never do any good—to a man with whom, behaving himself properly, he might have remained, in comfort, for years. What is the result? Conduct for which he might hold up his hand at the Old Bailey.’

‘I never will believe it,’ said Kate, indignantly; ‘never. It is some base conspiracy, which carries its own falsehood with it.’

‘My dear,’ said Ralph, ‘you wrong the worthy man. These are not inventions. The man is assaulted, your brother is not to be found; this boy, of whom they speak, goes with him—remember, remember.’

‘It is impossible,’ said Kate. ‘Nicholas!—and a thief too! Mama, how can you sit and hear such statements?’

Poor Mrs. Nickleby, who had, at no time, been remarkable for the possession of a very clear understanding, and who had been reduced by the late changes in her affairs to a most complicated state of perplexity, made no other reply to this earnest remonstrance than exclaiming from behind a mass of pocket-handkerchief, that she never could have believed it—thereby most ingeniously leaving her hearers to suppose that she did believe it.

‘It would be my duty, if he came in my way, to deliver him up to justice,’ said Ralph, ‘my bounden duty; I should have no other course, as a man of the world and a man of business, to pursue. And yet,’ said Ralph, speaking in a very marked manner, and looking furtively, but fixedly, at Kate, ‘and yet I would not. I would spare the feelings of his—of his sister. And his mother of course,’ added Ralph, as though by an afterthought, and with far less emphasis.

Kate very well understood that this was held out as an additional inducement to her to preserve the strictest silence regarding the events of the preceding night. She looked involuntarily towards Ralph as he ceased to speak, but he had turned his eyes another way, and seemed for the moment quite unconscious of her presence.

‘Everything,’ said Ralph, after a long silence, broken only by Mrs Nickleby’s sobs, ‘everything combines to prove the truth of this letter, if indeed there were any possibility of disputing it. Do innocent men steal away from the sight of honest folks, and skulk in hiding-places, like outlaws? Do innocent men inveigle nameless vagabonds, and prowl with them about the country as idle robbers do? Assault, riot, theft, what do you call these?’

‘A lie!’ cried a voice, as the door was dashed open, and Nicholas came into the room.

In the first moment of surprise, and possibly of alarm, Ralph rose from his seat, and fell back a few paces, quite taken off his guard by this unexpected apparition. In another moment, he stood, fixed and immovable with folded arms, regarding his nephew with a scowl; while Kate and Miss La Creevy threw themselves between the two, to prevent the personal violence which the fierce excitement of Nicholas appeared to threaten.

‘Dear Nicholas,’ cried his sister, clinging to him. ‘Be calm, consider—’

‘Consider, Kate!’ cried Nicholas, clasping her hand so tight in the tumult of his anger, that she could scarcely bear the pain. ‘When I consider all, and think of what has passed, I need be made of iron to stand before him.’

‘Or bronze,’ said Ralph, quietly; ‘there is not hardihood enough in flesh and blood to face it out.’

‘Oh dear, dear!’ cried Mrs. Nickleby, ‘that things should have come to such a pass as this!’

‘Who speaks in a tone, as if I had done wrong, and brought disgrace on them?’ said Nicholas, looking round.

‘Your mother, sir,’ replied Ralph, motioning towards her.

‘Whose ears have been poisoned by you,’ said Nicholas; ‘by you—who, under pretence of deserving the thanks she poured upon you, heaped every insult, wrong, and indignity upon my head. You, who sent me to a den where sordid cruelty, worthy of yourself, runs wanton, and youthful misery stalks precocious; where the lightness of childhood shrinks into the heaviness of age, and its every promise blights, and withers as it grows. I call Heaven to witness,’ said Nicholas, looking eagerly round, ‘that I have seen all this, and that he knows it.’

‘Refute these calumnies,’ said Kate, ‘and be more patient, so that you may give them no advantage. Tell us what you really did, and show that they are untrue.’

‘Of what do they—or of what does he—accuse me?’ said Nicholas.

‘First, of attacking your master, and being within an ace of qualifying yourself to be tried for murder,’ interposed Ralph. ‘I speak plainly, young man, bluster as you will.’

‘I interfered,’ said Nicholas, ‘to save a miserable creature from the vilest cruelty. In so doing, I inflicted such punishment upon a wretch as he will not readily forget, though far less than he deserved from me. If the same scene were renewed before me now, I would take the same part; but I would strike harder and heavier, and brand him with such marks as he should carry to his grave, go to it when he would.’

‘You hear?’ said Ralph, turning to Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Penitence, this!’

‘Oh dear me!’ cried Mrs. Nickleby, ‘I don’t know what to think, I really don’t.’

‘Do not speak just now, mama, I entreat you,’ said Kate. ‘Dear Nicholas, I only tell you, that you may know what wickedness can prompt, but they accuse you of—a ring is missing, and they dare to say that—’

‘The woman,’ said Nicholas, haughtily, ‘the wife of the fellow from whom these charges come, dropped—as I suppose—a worthless ring among some clothes of mine, early in the morning on which I left the house. At least, I know that she was in the bedroom where they lay, struggling with an unhappy child, and that I found it when I opened my bundle on the road. I returned it, at once, by coach, and they have it now.’

‘I knew, I knew,’ said Kate, looking towards her uncle. ‘About this boy, love, in whose company they say you left?’

‘The boy, a silly, helpless creature, from brutality and hard usage, is with me now,’ rejoined Nicholas.

‘You hear?’ said Ralph, appealing to the mother again, ‘everything proved, even upon his own confession. Do you choose to restore that boy, sir?’

‘No, I do not,’ replied Nicholas.

‘You do not?’ sneered Ralph.

‘No,’ repeated Nicholas, ‘not to the man with whom I found him. I would that I knew on whom he has the claim of birth: I might wring something from his sense of shame, if he were dead to every tie of nature.’

‘Indeed!’ said Ralph. ‘Now, sir, will you hear a word or two from me?’

‘You can speak when and what you please,’ replied Nicholas, embracing his sister. ‘I take little heed of what you say or threaten.’

‘Mighty well, sir,’ retorted Ralph; ‘but perhaps it may concern others, who may think it worth their while to listen, and consider what I tell them. I will address your mother, sir, who knows the world.’

‘Ah! and I only too dearly wish I didn’t,’ sobbed Mrs. Nickleby.

There really was no necessity for the good lady to be much distressed upon this particular head; the extent of her worldly knowledge being, to say the least, very questionable; and so Ralph seemed to think, for he smiled as she spoke. He then glanced steadily at her and Nicholas by turns, as he delivered himself in these words:

‘Of what I have done, or what I meant to do, for you, ma’am, and my niece, I say not one syllable. I held out no promise, and leave you to judge for yourself. I hold out no threat now, but I say that this boy, headstrong, wilful and disorderly as he is, should not have one penny of my money, or one crust of my bread, or one grasp of my hand, to save him from the loftiest gallows in all Europe. I will not meet him, come where he comes, or hear his name. I will not help him, or those who help him. With a full knowledge of what he brought upon you by so doing, he has come back in his selfish sloth, to be an aggravation of your wants, and a burden upon his sister’s scanty wages. I regret to leave you, and more to leave her, now, but I will not encourage this compound of meanness and cruelty, and, as I will not ask you to renounce him, I see you no more.’

If Ralph had not known and felt his power in wounding those he hated, his glances at Nicholas would have shown it him, in all its force, as he proceeded in the above address. Innocent as the young man was of all wrong, every artful insinuation stung, every well-considered sarcasm cut him to the quick; and when Ralph noted his pale face and quivering lip, he hugged himself to mark how well he had chosen the taunts best calculated to strike deep into a young and ardent spirit.

‘I can’t help it,’ cried Mrs. Nickleby. ‘I know you have been very good to us, and meant to do a good deal for my dear daughter. I am quite sure of that; I know you did, and it was very kind of you, having her at your house and all—and of course it would have been a great thing for her and for me too. But I can’t, you know, brother-in-law, I can’t renounce my own son, even if he has done all you say he has—it’s not possible; I couldn’t do it; so we must go to rack and ruin, Kate, my dear. I can bear it, I dare say.’ Pouring forth these and a perfectly wonderful train of other disjointed expressions of regret, which no mortal power but Mrs Nickleby’s could ever have strung together, that lady wrung her hands, and her tears fell faster.

‘Why do you say “if Nicholas has done what they say he has,” mama?’ asked Kate, with honest anger. ‘You know he has not.’

‘I don’t know what to think, one way or other, my dear,’ said Mrs Nickleby; ‘Nicholas is so violent, and your uncle has so much composure, that I can only hear what he says, and not what Nicholas does. Never mind, don’t let us talk any more about it. We can go to the Workhouse, or the Refuge for the Destitute, or the Magdalen Hospital, I dare say; and the sooner we go the better.’ With this extraordinary jumble of charitable institutions, Mrs. Nickleby again gave way to her tears.

‘Stay,’ said Nicholas, as Ralph turned to go. ‘You need not leave this place, sir, for it will be relieved of my presence in one minute, and it will be long, very long, before I darken these doors again.’

‘Nicholas,’ cried Kate, throwing herself on her brother’s shoulder, ‘do not say so. My dear brother, you will break my heart. Mama, speak to him. Do not mind her, Nicholas; she does not mean it, you should know her better. Uncle, somebody, for Heaven’s sake speak to him.’

‘I never meant, Kate,’ said Nicholas, tenderly, ‘I never meant to stay among you; think better of me than to suppose it possible. I may turn my back on this town a few hours sooner than I intended, but what of that? We shall not forget each other apart, and better days will come when we shall part no more. Be a woman, Kate,’ he whispered, proudly, ‘and do not make me one, while he looks on.’

‘No, no, I will not,’ said Kate, eagerly, ‘but you will not leave us. Oh! think of all the happy days we have had together, before these terrible misfortunes came upon us; of all the comfort and happiness of home, and the trials we have to bear now; of our having no protector under all the slights and wrongs that poverty so much favours, and you cannot leave us to bear them alone, without one hand to help us.’

‘You will be helped when I am away,’ replied Nicholas hurriedly. ‘I am no help to you, no protector; I should bring you nothing but sorrow, and want, and suffering. My own mother sees it, and her fondness and fears for you, point to the course that I should take. And so all good angels bless you, Kate, till I can carry you to some home of mine, where we may revive the happiness denied to us now, and talk of these trials as of things gone by. Do not keep me here, but let me go at once. There. Dear girl—dear girl.’

The grasp which had detained him relaxed, and Kate swooned in his arms. Nicholas stooped over her for a few seconds, and placing her gently in a chair, confided her to their honest friend.

‘I need not entreat your sympathy,’ he said, wringing her hand, ‘for I know your nature. You will never forget them.’

He stepped up to Ralph, who remained in the same attitude which he had preserved throughout the interview, and moved not a finger.

‘Whatever step you take, sir,’ he said, in a voice inaudible beyond themselves, ‘I shall keep a strict account of. I leave them to you, at your desire. There will be a day of reckoning sooner or later, and it will be a heavy one for you if they are wronged.’

Ralph did not allow a muscle of his face to indicate that he heard one word of this parting address. He hardly knew that it was concluded, and Mrs. Nickleby had scarcely made up her mind to detain her son by force if necessary, when Nicholas was gone.

As he hurried through the streets to his obscure lodging, seeking to keep pace, as it were, with the rapidity of the thoughts which crowded upon him, many doubts and hesitations arose in his mind, and almost tempted him to return. But what would they gain by this? Supposing he were to put Ralph Nickleby at defiance, and were even fortunate enough to obtain some small employment, his being with them could only render their present condition worse, and might greatly impair their future prospects; for his mother had spoken of some new kindnesses towards Kate which she had not denied. ‘No,’ thought Nicholas, ‘I have acted for the best.’

But, before he had gone five hundred yards, some other and different feeling would come upon him, and then he would lag again, and pulling his hat over his eyes, give way to the melancholy reflections which pressed thickly upon him. To have committed no fault, and yet to be so entirely alone in the world; to be separated from the only persons he loved, and to be proscribed like a criminal, when six months ago he had been surrounded by every comfort, and looked up to, as the chief hope of his family—this was hard to bear. He had not deserved it either. Well, there was comfort in that; and poor Nicholas would brighten up again, to be again depressed, as his quickly shifting thoughts presented every variety of light and shade before him.

Undergoing these alternations of hope and misgiving, which no one, placed in a situation of ordinary trial, can fail to have experienced, Nicholas at length reached his poor room, where, no longer borne up by the excitement which had hitherto sustained him, but depressed by the revulsion of feeling it left behind, he threw himself on the bed, and turning his face to the wall, gave free vent to the emotions he had so long stifled.

He had not heard anybody enter, and was unconscious of the presence of Smike, until, happening to raise his head, he saw him, standing at the upper end of the room, looking wistfully towards him. He withdrew his eyes when he saw that he was observed, and affected to be busied with some scanty preparations for dinner.

‘Well, Smike,’ said Nicholas, as cheerfully as he could speak, ‘let me hear what new acquaintances you have made this morning, or what new wonder you have found out, in the compass of this street and the next one.’

‘No,’ said Smike, shaking his head mournfully; ‘I must talk of something else today.’

‘Of what you like,’ replied Nicholas, good-humouredly.

‘Of this,’ said Smike. ‘I know you are unhappy, and have got into great trouble by bringing me away. I ought to have known that, and stopped behind—I would, indeed, if I had thought it then. You—you—are not rich; you have not enough for yourself, and I should not be here. You grow,’ said the lad, laying his hand timidly on that of Nicholas, ‘you grow thinner every day; your cheek is paler, and your eye more sunk. Indeed I cannot bear to see you so, and think how I am burdening you. I tried to go away today, but the thought of your kind face drew me back. I could not leave you without a word.’ The poor fellow could say no more, for his eyes filled with tears, and his voice was gone.

‘The word which separates us,’ said Nicholas, grasping him heartily by the shoulder, ‘shall never be said by me, for you are my only comfort and stay. I would not lose you now, Smike, for all the world could give. The thought of you has upheld me through all I have endured today, and shall, through fifty times such trouble. Give me your hand. My heart is linked to yours. We will journey from this place together, before the week is out. What, if I am steeped in poverty? You lighten it, and we will be poor together.’