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Nicholas Nickleby

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CHAPTER 21

Madam Mantalini finds herself in a Situation of some Difficulty, and Miss Nickleby finds herself in no Situation at all

The agitation she had undergone, rendered Kate Nickleby unable to resume her duties at the dressmaker’s for three days, at the expiration of which interval she betook herself at the accustomed hour, and with languid steps, to the temple of fashion where Madame Mantalini reigned paramount and supreme.

The ill-will of Miss Knag had lost nothing of its virulence in the interval. The young ladies still scrupulously shrunk from all companionship with their denounced associate; and when that exemplary female arrived a few minutes afterwards, she was at no pains to conceal the displeasure with which she regarded Kate’s return.

‘Upon my word!’ said Miss Knag, as the satellites flocked round, to relieve her of her bonnet and shawl; ‘I should have thought some people would have had spirit enough to stop away altogether, when they know what an incumbrance their presence is to right-minded persons. But it’s a queer world; oh! it’s a queer world!’

Miss Knag, having passed this comment on the world, in the tone in which most people do pass comments on the world when they are out of temper, that is to say, as if they by no means belonged to it, concluded by heaving a sigh, wherewith she seemed meekly to compassionate the wickedness of mankind.

The attendants were not slow to echo the sigh, and Miss Knag was apparently on the eve of favouring them with some further moral reflections, when the voice of Madame Mantalini, conveyed through the speaking-tube, ordered Miss Nickleby upstairs to assist in the arrangement of the show-room; a distinction which caused Miss Knag to toss her head so much, and bite her lips so hard, that her powers of conversation were, for the time, annihilated.

‘Well, Miss Nickleby, child,’ said Madame Mantalini, when Kate presented herself; ‘are you quite well again?’

‘A great deal better, thank you,’ replied Kate.

‘I wish I could say the same,’ remarked Madame Mantalini, seating herself with an air of weariness.

‘Are you ill?’ asked Kate. ‘I am very sorry for that.’

‘Not exactly ill, but worried, child—worried,’ rejoined Madame.

‘I am still more sorry to hear that,’ said Kate, gently. ‘Bodily illness is more easy to bear than mental.’

‘Ah! and it’s much easier to talk than to bear either,’ said Madame, rubbing her nose with much irritability of manner. ‘There, get to your work, child, and put the things in order, do.’

While Kate was wondering within herself what these symptoms of unusual vexation portended, Mr. Mantalini put the tips of his whiskers, and, by degrees, his head, through the half-opened door, and cried in a soft voice—

‘Is my life and soul there?’

‘No,’ replied his wife.

‘How can it say so, when it is blooming in the front room like a little rose in a demnition flower-pot?’ urged Mantalini. ‘May its poppet come in and talk?’

‘Certainly not,’ replied Madame: ‘you know I never allow you here. Go along!’

The poppet, however, encouraged perhaps by the relenting tone of this reply, ventured to rebel, and, stealing into the room, made towards Madame Mantalini on tiptoe, blowing her a kiss as he came along.

‘Why will it vex itself, and twist its little face into bewitching nutcrackers?’ said Mantalini, putting his left arm round the waist of his life and soul, and drawing her towards him with his right.

‘Oh! I can’t bear you,’ replied his wife.

‘Not—eh, not bear me!’ exclaimed Mantalini. ‘Fibs, fibs. It couldn’t be. There’s not a woman alive, that could tell me such a thing to my face—to my own face.’ Mr. Mantalini stroked his chin, as he said this, and glanced complacently at an opposite mirror.

‘Such destructive extravagance,’ reasoned his wife, in a low tone.

‘All in its joy at having gained such a lovely creature, such a little Venus, such a demd, enchanting, bewitching, engrossing, captivating little Venus,’ said Mantalini.

‘See what a situation you have placed me in!’ urged Madame.

‘No harm will come, no harm shall come, to its own darling,’ rejoined Mr Mantalini. ‘It is all over; there will be nothing the matter; money shall be got in; and if it don’t come in fast enough, old Nickleby shall stump up again, or have his jugular separated if he dares to vex and hurt the little—’

‘Hush!’ interposed Madame. ‘Don’t you see?’

Mr. Mantalini, who, in his eagerness to make up matters with his wife, had overlooked, or feigned to overlook, Miss Nickleby hitherto, took the hint, and laying his finger on his lip, sunk his voice still lower. There was, then, a great deal of whispering, during which Madame Mantalini appeared to make reference, more than once, to certain debts incurred by Mr Mantalini previous to her coverture; and also to an unexpected outlay of money in payment of the aforesaid debts; and furthermore, to certain agreeable weaknesses on that gentleman’s part, such as gaming, wasting, idling, and a tendency to horse-flesh; each of which matters of accusation Mr. Mantalini disposed of, by one kiss or more, as its relative importance demanded. The upshot of it all was, that Madame Mantalini was in raptures with him, and that they went upstairs to breakfast.

Kate busied herself in what she had to do, and was silently arranging the various articles of decoration in the best taste she could display, when she started to hear a strange man’s voice in the room, and started again, to observe, on looking round, that a white hat, and a red neckerchief, and a broad round face, and a large head, and part of a green coat were in the room too.

‘Don’t alarm yourself, miss,’ said the proprietor of these appearances. ‘I say; this here’s the mantie-making consarn, an’t it?’

‘Yes,’ rejoined Kate, greatly astonished. ‘What did you want?’

The stranger answered not; but, first looking back, as though to beckon to some unseen person outside, came, very deliberately, into the room, and was closely followed by a little man in brown, very much the worse for wear, who brought with him a mingled fumigation of stale tobacco and fresh onions. The clothes of this gentleman were much bespeckled with flue; and his shoes, stockings, and nether garments, from his heels to the waist buttons of his coat inclusive, were profusely embroidered with splashes of mud, caught a fortnight previously—before the setting-in of the fine weather.

Kate’s very natural impression was, that these engaging individuals had called with the view of possessing themselves, unlawfully, of any portable articles that chanced to strike their fancy. She did not attempt to disguise her apprehensions, and made a move towards the door.

‘Wait a minnit,’ said the man in the green coat, closing it softly, and standing with his back against it. ‘This is a unpleasant bisness. Vere’s your govvernor?’

‘My what—did you say?’ asked Kate, trembling; for she thought ‘governor’ might be slang for watch or money.

‘Mister Muntlehiney,’ said the man. ‘Wot’s come on him? Is he at home?’

‘He is above stairs, I believe,’ replied Kate, a little reassured by this inquiry. ‘Do you want him?’

‘No,’ replied the visitor. ‘I don’t ezactly want him, if it’s made a favour on. You can jist give him that ‘ere card, and tell him if he wants to speak to me, and save trouble, here I am; that’s all.’

With these words, the stranger put a thick square card into Kate’s hand, and, turning to his friend, remarked, with an easy air, ‘that the rooms was a good high pitch;’ to which the friend assented, adding, by way of illustration, ‘that there was lots of room for a little boy to grow up a man in either on ‘em, vithout much fear of his ever bringing his head into contract vith the ceiling.’

After ringing the bell which would summon Madame Mantalini, Kate glanced at the card, and saw that it displayed the name of ‘Scaley,’ together with some other information to which she had not had time to refer, when her attention was attracted by Mr. Scaley himself, who, walking up to one of the cheval-glasses, gave it a hard poke in the centre with his stick, as coolly as if it had been made of cast iron.

‘Good plate this here, Tix,’ said Mr. Scaley to his friend.

‘Ah!’ rejoined Mr. Tix, placing the marks of his four fingers, and a duplicate impression of his thumb, on a piece of sky-blue silk; ‘and this here article warn’t made for nothing, mind you.’

From the silk, Mr. Tix transferred his admiration to some elegant articles of wearing apparel, while Mr. Scaley adjusted his neckcloth, at leisure, before the glass, and afterwards, aided by its reflection, proceeded to the minute consideration of a pimple on his chin; in which absorbing occupation he was yet engaged, when Madame Mantalini, entering the room, uttered an exclamation of surprise which roused him.

‘Oh! Is this the missis?’ inquired Scaley.

‘It is Madame Mantalini,’ said Kate.

‘Then,’ said Mr. Scaley, producing a small document from his pocket and unfolding it very slowly, ‘this is a writ of execution, and if it’s not conwenient to settle we’ll go over the house at wunst, please, and take the inwentory.’

Poor Madame Mantalini wrung her hands for grief, and rung the bell for her husband; which done, she fell into a chair and a fainting fit, simultaneously. The professional gentlemen, however, were not at all discomposed by this event, for Mr. Scaley, leaning upon a stand on which a handsome dress was displayed (so that his shoulders appeared above it, in nearly the same manner as the shoulders of the lady for whom it was designed would have done if she had had it on), pushed his hat on one side and scratched his head with perfect unconcern, while his friend Mr. Tix, taking that opportunity for a general survey of the apartment preparatory to entering on business, stood with his inventory-book under his arm and his hat in his hand, mentally occupied in putting a price upon every object within his range of vision.

Such was the posture of affairs when Mr. Mantalini hurried in; and as that distinguished specimen had had a pretty extensive intercourse with Mr Scaley’s fraternity in his bachelor days, and was, besides, very far from being taken by surprise on the present agitating occasion, he merely shrugged his shoulders, thrust his hands down to the bottom of his pockets, elevated his eyebrows, whistled a bar or two, swore an oath or two, and, sitting astride upon a chair, put the best face upon the matter with great composure and decency.

‘What’s the demd total?’ was the first question he asked.

‘Fifteen hundred and twenty-seven pound, four and ninepence ha’penny,’ replied Mr. Scaley, without moving a limb.

‘The halfpenny be demd,’ said Mr. Mantalini, impatiently.

‘By all means if you vish it,’ retorted Mr. Scaley; ‘and the ninepence.’

‘It don’t matter to us if the fifteen hundred and twenty-seven pound went along with it, that I know on,’ observed Mr. Tix.

‘Not a button,’ said Scaley.

‘Well,’ said the same gentleman, after a pause, ‘wot’s to be done—anything? Is it only a small crack, or a out-and-out smash? A break-up of the constitootion is it?—werry good. Then Mr. Tom Tix, esk-vire, you must inform your angel wife and lovely family as you won’t sleep at home for three nights to come, along of being in possession here. Wot’s the good of the lady a fretting herself?’ continued Mr. Scaley, as Madame Mantalini sobbed. ‘A good half of wot’s here isn’t paid for, I des-say, and wot a consolation oughtn’t that to be to her feelings!’

With these remarks, combining great pleasantry with sound moral encouragement under difficulties, Mr. Scaley proceeded to take the inventory, in which delicate task he was materially assisted by the uncommon tact and experience of Mr. Tix, the broker.

‘My cup of happiness’s sweetener,’ said Mantalini, approaching his wife with a penitent air; ‘will you listen to me for two minutes?’

‘Oh! don’t speak to me,’ replied his wife, sobbing. ‘You have ruined me, and that’s enough.’

Mr. Mantalini, who had doubtless well considered his part, no sooner heard these words pronounced in a tone of grief and severity, than he recoiled several paces, assumed an expression of consuming mental agony, rushed headlong from the room, and was, soon afterwards, heard to slam the door of an upstairs dressing-room with great violence.

‘Miss Nickleby,’ cried Madame Mantalini, when this sound met her ear, ‘make haste, for Heaven’s sake, he will destroy himself! I spoke unkindly to him, and he cannot bear it from me. Alfred, my darling Alfred.’

With such exclamations, she hurried upstairs, followed by Kate who, although she did not quite participate in the fond wife’s apprehensions, was a little flurried, nevertheless. The dressing-room door being hastily flung open, Mr. Mantalini was disclosed to view, with his shirt-collar symmetrically thrown back: putting a fine edge to a breakfast knife by means of his razor strop.

‘Ah!’ cried Mr. Mantalini, ‘interrupted!’ and whisk went the breakfast knife into Mr. Mantalini’s dressing-gown pocket, while Mr. Mantalini’s eyes rolled wildly, and his hair floating in wild disorder, mingled with his whiskers.

‘Alfred,’ cried his wife, flinging her arms about him, ‘I didn’t mean to say it, I didn’t mean to say it!’

‘Ruined!’ cried Mr. Mantalini. ‘Have I brought ruin upon the best and purest creature that ever blessed a demnition vagabond! Demmit, let me go.’ At this crisis of his ravings Mr. Mantalini made a pluck at the breakfast knife, and being restrained by his wife’s grasp, attempted to dash his head against the wall—taking very good care to be at least six feet from it.

‘Compose yourself, my own angel,’ said Madame. ‘It was nobody’s fault; it was mine as much as yours, we shall do very well yet. Come, Alfred, come.’

Mr. Mantalini did not think proper to come to, all at once; but, after calling several times for poison, and requesting some lady or gentleman to blow his brains out, gentler feelings came upon him, and he wept pathetically. In this softened frame of mind he did not oppose the capture of the knife—which, to tell the truth, he was rather glad to be rid of, as an inconvenient and dangerous article for a skirt pocket—and finally he suffered himself to be led away by his affectionate partner.

After a delay of two or three hours, the young ladies were informed that their services would be dispensed with until further notice, and at the expiration of two days, the name of Mantalini appeared in the list of bankrupts: Miss Nickleby received an intimation per post, on the same morning, that the business would be, in future, carried on under the name of Miss Knag, and that her assistance would no longer be required—a piece of intelligence with which Mrs. Nickleby was no sooner made acquainted, than that good lady declared she had expected it all along and cited divers unknown occasions on which she had prophesied to that precise effect.

‘And I say again,’ remarked Mrs. Nickleby (who, it is scarcely necessary to observe, had never said so before), ‘I say again, that a milliner’s and dressmaker’s is the very last description of business, Kate, that you should have thought of attaching yourself to. I don’t make it a reproach to you, my love; but still I will say, that if you had consulted your own mother—’

‘Well, well, mama,’ said Kate, mildly: ‘what would you recommend now?’

‘Recommend!’ cried Mrs. Nickleby, ‘isn’t it obvious, my dear, that of all occupations in this world for a young lady situated as you are, that of companion to some amiable lady is the very thing for which your education, and manners, and personal appearance, and everything else, exactly qualify you? Did you never hear your poor dear papa speak of the young lady who was the daughter of the old lady who boarded in the same house that he boarded in once, when he was a bachelor—what was her name again? I know it began with a B, and ended with g, but whether it was Waters or—no, it couldn’t have been that, either; but whatever her name was, don’t you know that that young lady went as companion to a married lady who died soon afterwards, and that she married the husband, and had one of the finest little boys that the medical man had ever seen—all within eighteen months?’

Kate knew, perfectly well, that this torrent of favourable recollection was occasioned by some opening, real or imaginary, which her mother had discovered, in the companionship walk of life. She therefore waited, very patiently, until all reminiscences and anecdotes, bearing or not bearing upon the subject, had been exhausted, and at last ventured to inquire what discovery had been made. The truth then came out. Mrs. Nickleby had, that morning, had a yesterday’s newspaper of the very first respectability from the public-house where the porter came from; and in this yesterday’s newspaper was an advertisement, couched in the purest and most grammatical English, announcing that a married lady was in want of a genteel young person as companion, and that the married lady’s name and address were to be known, on application at a certain library at the west end of the town, therein mentioned.

‘And I say,’ exclaimed Mrs. Nickleby, laying the paper down in triumph, ‘that if your uncle don’t object, it’s well worth the trial.’

Kate was too sick at heart, after the rough jostling she had already had with the world, and really cared too little at the moment what fate was reserved for her, to make any objection. Mr. Ralph Nickleby offered none, but, on the contrary, highly approved of the suggestion; neither did he express any great surprise at Madame Mantalini’s sudden failure, indeed it would have been strange if he had, inasmuch as it had been procured and brought about chiefly by himself. So, the name and address were obtained without loss of time, and Miss Nickleby and her mama went off in quest of Mrs. Wititterly, of Cadogan Place, Sloane Street, that same forenoon.

Cadogan Place is the one slight bond that joins two great extremes; it is the connecting link between the aristocratic pavements of Belgrave Square, and the barbarism of Chelsea. It is in Sloane Street, but not of it. The people in Cadogan Place look down upon Sloane Street, and think Brompton low. They affect fashion too, and wonder where the New Road is. Not that they claim to be on precisely the same footing as the high folks of Belgrave Square and Grosvenor Place, but that they stand, with reference to them, rather in the light of those illegitimate children of the great who are content to boast of their connections, although their connections disavow them. Wearing as much as they can of the airs and semblances of loftiest rank, the people of Cadogan Place have the realities of middle station. It is the conductor which communicates to the inhabitants of regions beyond its limit, the shock of pride of birth and rank, which it has not within itself, but derives from a fountain-head beyond; or, like the ligament which unites the Siamese twins, it contains something of the life and essence of two distinct bodies, and yet belongs to neither.

Upon this doubtful ground, lived Mrs. Wititterly, and at Mrs. Wititterly’s door Kate Nickleby knocked with trembling hand. The door was opened by a big footman with his head floured, or chalked, or painted in some way (it didn’t look genuine powder), and the big footman, receiving the card of introduction, gave it to a little page; so little, indeed, that his body would not hold, in ordinary array, the number of small buttons which are indispensable to a page’s costume, and they were consequently obliged to be stuck on four abreast. This young gentleman took the card upstairs on a salver, and pending his return, Kate and her mother were shown into a dining-room of rather dirty and shabby aspect, and so comfortably arranged as to be adapted to almost any purpose rather than eating and drinking.

Now, in the ordinary course of things, and according to all authentic descriptions of high life, as set forth in books, Mrs. Wititterly ought to have been in her boudoir; but whether it was that Mr. Wititterly was at that moment shaving himself in the boudoir or what not, certain it is that Mrs. Wititterly gave audience in the drawing-room, where was everything proper and necessary, including curtains and furniture coverings of a roseate hue, to shed a delicate bloom on Mrs. Wititterly’s complexion, and a little dog to snap at strangers’ legs for Mrs. Wititterly’s amusement, and the afore-mentioned page, to hand chocolate for Mrs. Wititterly’s refreshment.

The lady had an air of sweet insipidity, and a face of engaging paleness; there was a faded look about her, and about the furniture, and about the house. She was reclining on a sofa in such a very unstudied attitude, that she might have been taken for an actress all ready for the first scene in a ballet, and only waiting for the drop curtain to go up.

‘Place chairs.’

The page placed them.

‘Leave the room, Alphonse.’

The page left it; but if ever an Alphonse carried plain Bill in his face and figure, that page was the boy.

‘I have ventured to call, ma’am,’ said Kate, after a few seconds of awkward silence, ‘from having seen your advertisement.’

‘Yes,’ replied Mrs. Wititterly, ‘one of my people put it in the paper—Yes.’

‘I thought, perhaps,’ said Kate, modestly, ‘that if you had not already made a final choice, you would forgive my troubling you with an application.’

‘Yes,’ drawled Mrs. Wititterly again.

‘If you have already made a selection—’

‘Oh dear no,’ interrupted the lady, ‘I am not so easily suited. I really don’t know what to say. You have never been a companion before, have you?’

Mrs. Nickleby, who had been eagerly watching her opportunity, came dexterously in, before Kate could reply. ‘Not to any stranger, ma’am,’ said the good lady; ‘but she has been a companion to me for some years. I am her mother, ma’am.’

‘Oh!’ said Mrs. Wititterly, ‘I apprehend you.’

‘I assure you, ma’am,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, ‘that I very little thought, at one time, that it would be necessary for my daughter to go out into the world at all, for her poor dear papa was an independent gentleman, and would have been at this moment if he had but listened in time to my constant entreaties and—’

‘Dear mama,’ said Kate, in a low voice.

‘My dear Kate, if you will allow me to speak,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, ‘I shall take the liberty of explaining to this lady—’

‘I think it is almost unnecessary, mama.’

And notwithstanding all the frowns and winks with which Mrs. Nickleby intimated that she was going to say something which would clench the business at once, Kate maintained her point by an expressive look, and for once Mrs. Nickleby was stopped upon the very brink of an oration.

‘What are your accomplishments?’ asked Mrs. Wititterly, with her eyes shut.

Kate blushed as she mentioned her principal acquirements, and Mrs. Nickleby checked them all off, one by one, on her fingers; having calculated the number before she came out. Luckily the two calculations agreed, so Mrs Nickleby had no excuse for talking.

‘You are a good temper?’ asked Mrs. Wititterly, opening her eyes for an instant, and shutting them again.

‘I hope so,’ rejoined Kate.

‘And have a highly respectable reference for everything, have you?’

Kate replied that she had, and laid her uncle’s card upon the table.

‘Have the goodness to draw your chair a little nearer, and let me look at you,’ said Mrs. Wititterly; ‘I am so very nearsighted that I can’t quite discern your features.’

Kate complied, though not without some embarrassment, with this request, and Mrs. Wititterly took a languid survey of her countenance, which lasted some two or three minutes.

‘I like your appearance,’ said that lady, ringing a little bell. ‘Alphonse, request your master to come here.’

The page disappeared on this errand, and after a short interval, during which not a word was spoken on either side, opened the door for an important gentleman of about eight-and-thirty, of rather plebeian countenance, and with a very light head of hair, who leant over Mrs Wititterly for a little time, and conversed with her in whispers.

‘Oh!’ he said, turning round, ‘yes. This is a most important matter. Mrs Wititterly is of a very excitable nature; very delicate, very fragile; a hothouse plant, an exotic.’

‘Oh! Henry, my dear,’ interposed Mrs. Wititterly.

‘You are, my love, you know you are; one breath—’ said Mr. W., blowing an imaginary feather away. ‘Pho! you’re gone!’

The lady sighed.

‘Your soul is too large for your body,’ said Mr. Wititterly. ‘Your intellect wears you out; all the medical men say so; you know that there is not a physician who is not proud of being called in to you. What is their unanimous declaration? “My dear doctor,” said I to Sir Tumley Snuffim, in this very room, the very last time he came. “My dear doctor, what is my wife’s complaint? Tell me all. I can bear it. Is it nerves?” “My dear fellow,” he said, “be proud of that woman; make much of her; she is an ornament to the fashionable world, and to you. Her complaint is soul. It swells, expands, dilates—the blood fires, the pulse quickens, the excitement increases—Whew!”’ Here Mr. Wititterly, who, in the ardour of his description, had flourished his right hand to within something less than an inch of Mrs. Nickleby’s bonnet, drew it hastily back again, and blew his nose as fiercely as if it had been done by some violent machinery.

‘You make me out worse than I am, Henry,’ said Mrs. Wititterly, with a faint smile.

‘I do not, Julia, I do not,’ said Mr. W. ‘The society in which you move—necessarily move, from your station, connection, and endowments—is one vortex and whirlpool of the most frightful excitement. Bless my heart and body, can I ever forget the night you danced with the baronet’s nephew at the election ball, at Exeter! It was tremendous.’

‘I always suffer for these triumphs afterwards,’ said Mrs. Wititterly.

‘And for that very reason,’ rejoined her husband, ‘you must have a companion, in whom there is great gentleness, great sweetness, excessive sympathy, and perfect repose.’

Here, both Mr. and Mrs. Wititterly, who had talked rather at the Nicklebys than to each other, left off speaking, and looked at their two hearers, with an expression of countenance which seemed to say, ‘What do you think of all this?’

‘Mrs. Wititterly,’ said her husband, addressing himself to Mrs. Nickleby, ‘is sought after and courted by glittering crowds and brilliant circles. She is excited by the opera, the drama, the fine arts, the—the—the—’

‘The nobility, my love,’ interposed Mrs. Wititterly.

‘The nobility, of course,’ said Mr. Wititterly. ‘And the military. She forms and expresses an immense variety of opinions on an immense variety of subjects. If some people in public life were acquainted with Mrs Wititterly’s real opinion of them, they would not hold their heads, perhaps, quite as high as they do.’

‘Hush, Henry,’ said the lady; ‘this is scarcely fair.’

‘I mention no names, Julia,’ replied Mr. Wititterly; ‘and nobody is injured. I merely mention the circumstance to show that you are no ordinary person, that there is a constant friction perpetually going on between your mind and your body; and that you must be soothed and tended. Now let me hear, dispassionately and calmly, what are this young lady’s qualifications for the office.’

In obedience to this request, the qualifications were all gone through again, with the addition of many interruptions and cross-questionings from Mr. Wititterly. It was finally arranged that inquiries should be made, and a decisive answer addressed to Miss Nickleby under cover of her uncle, within two days. These conditions agreed upon, the page showed them down as far as the staircase window; and the big footman, relieving guard at that point, piloted them in perfect safety to the street-door.

‘They are very distinguished people, evidently,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, as she took her daughter’s arm. ‘What a superior person Mrs. Wititterly is!’

‘Do you think so, mama?’ was all Kate’s reply.

‘Why, who can help thinking so, Kate, my love?’ rejoined her mother. ‘She is pale though, and looks much exhausted. I hope she may not be wearing herself out, but I am very much afraid.’

These considerations led the deep-sighted lady into a calculation of the probable duration of Mrs. Wititterly’s life, and the chances of the disconsolate widower bestowing his hand on her daughter. Before reaching home, she had freed Mrs. Wititterly’s soul from all bodily restraint; married Kate with great splendour at St George’s, Hanover Square; and only left undecided the minor question, whether a splendid French-polished mahogany bedstead should be erected for herself in the two-pair back of the house in Cadogan Place, or in the three-pair front: between which apartments she could not quite balance the advantages, and therefore adjusted the question at last, by determining to leave it to the decision of her son-in-law.

The inquiries were made. The answer—not to Kate’s very great joy—was favourable; and at the expiration of a week she betook herself, with all her movables and valuables, to Mrs. Wititterly’s mansion, where for the present we will leave her.






CHAPTER 22

Nicholas, accompanied by Smike, sallies forth to seek his Fortune. He encounters Mr. Vincent Crummles; and who he was, is herein made manifest

The whole capital which Nicholas found himself entitled to, either in possession, reversion, remainder, or expectancy, after paying his rent and settling with the broker from whom he had hired his poor furniture, did not exceed, by more than a few halfpence, the sum of twenty shillings. And yet he hailed the morning on which he had resolved to quit London, with a light heart, and sprang from his bed with an elasticity of spirit which is happily the lot of young persons, or the world would never be stocked with old ones.

It was a cold, dry, foggy morning in early spring. A few meagre shadows flitted to and fro in the misty streets, and occasionally there loomed through the dull vapour, the heavy outline of some hackney coach wending homewards, which, drawing slowly nearer, rolled jangling by, scattering the thin crust of frost from its whitened roof, and soon was lost again in the cloud. At intervals were heard the tread of slipshod feet, and the chilly cry of the poor sweep as he crept, shivering, to his early toil; the heavy footfall of the official watcher of the night, pacing slowly up and down and cursing the tardy hours that still intervened between him and sleep; the rambling of ponderous carts and waggons; the roll of the lighter vehicles which carried buyers and sellers to the different markets; the sound of ineffectual knocking at the doors of heavy sleepers—all these noises fell upon the ear from time to time, but all seemed muffled by the fog, and to be rendered almost as indistinct to the ear as was every object to the sight. The sluggish darkness thickened as the day came on; and those who had the courage to rise and peep at the gloomy street from their curtained windows, crept back to bed again, and coiled themselves up to sleep.

Before even these indications of approaching morning were rife in busy London, Nicholas had made his way alone to the city, and stood beneath the windows of his mother’s house. It was dull and bare to see, but it had light and life for him; for there was at least one heart within its old walls to which insult or dishonour would bring the same blood rushing, that flowed in his own veins.

He crossed the road, and raised his eyes to the window of the room where he knew his sister slept. It was closed and dark. ‘Poor girl,’ thought Nicholas, ‘she little thinks who lingers here!’

He looked again, and felt, for the moment, almost vexed that Kate was not there to exchange one word at parting. ‘Good God!’ he thought, suddenly correcting himself, ‘what a boy I am!’

‘It is better as it is,’ said Nicholas, after he had lounged on, a few paces, and returned to the same spot. ‘When I left them before, and could have said goodbye a thousand times if I had chosen, I spared them the pain of leave-taking, and why not now?’ As he spoke, some fancied motion of the curtain almost persuaded him, for the instant, that Kate was at the window, and by one of those strange contradictions of feeling which are common to us all, he shrunk involuntarily into a doorway, that she might not see him. He smiled at his own weakness; said ‘God bless them!’ and walked away with a lighter step.

Smike was anxiously expecting him when he reached his old lodgings, and so was Newman, who had expended a day’s income in a can of rum and milk to prepare them for the journey. They had tied up the luggage, Smike shouldered it, and away they went, with Newman Noggs in company; for he had insisted on walking as far as he could with them, overnight.

‘Which way?’ asked Newman, wistfully.

‘To Kingston first,’ replied Nicholas.

‘And where afterwards?’ asked Newman. ‘Why won’t you tell me?’

‘Because I scarcely know myself, good friend,’ rejoined Nicholas, laying his hand upon his shoulder; ‘and if I did, I have neither plan nor prospect yet, and might shift my quarters a hundred times before you could possibly communicate with me.’

‘I am afraid you have some deep scheme in your head,’ said Newman, doubtfully.

‘So deep,’ replied his young friend, ‘that even I can’t fathom it. Whatever I resolve upon, depend upon it I will write you soon.’

‘You won’t forget?’ said Newman.

‘I am not very likely to,’ rejoined Nicholas. ‘I have not so many friends that I shall grow confused among the number, and forget my best one.’

Occupied in such discourse, they walked on for a couple of hours, as they might have done for a couple of days if Nicholas had not sat himself down on a stone by the wayside, and resolutely declared his intention of not moving another step until Newman Noggs turned back. Having pleaded ineffectually first for another half-mile, and afterwards for another quarter, Newman was fain to comply, and to shape his course towards Golden Square, after interchanging many hearty and affectionate farewells, and many times turning back to wave his hat to the two wayfarers when they had become mere specks in the distance.

‘Now listen to me, Smike,’ said Nicholas, as they trudged with stout hearts onwards. ‘We are bound for Portsmouth.’

Smike nodded his head and smiled, but expressed no other emotion; for whether they had been bound for Portsmouth or Port Royal would have been alike to him, so they had been bound together.

‘I don’t know much of these matters,’ resumed Nicholas; ‘but Portsmouth is a seaport town, and if no other employment is to be obtained, I should think we might get on board some ship. I am young and active, and could be useful in many ways. So could you.’

‘I hope so,’ replied Smike. ‘When I was at that—you know where I mean?’

‘Yes, I know,’ said Nicholas. ‘You needn’t name the place.’

‘Well, when I was there,’ resumed Smike; his eyes sparkling at the prospect of displaying his abilities; ‘I could milk a cow, and groom a horse, with anybody.’

‘Ha!’ said Nicholas, gravely. ‘I am afraid they don’t keep many animals of either kind on board ship, Smike, and even when they have horses, that they are not very particular about rubbing them down; still you can learn to do something else, you know. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’

‘And I am very willing,’ said Smike, brightening up again.

‘God knows you are,’ rejoined Nicholas; ‘and if you fail, it shall go hard but I’ll do enough for us both.’

‘Do we go all the way today?’ asked Smike, after a short silence.

‘That would be too severe a trial, even for your willing legs,’ said Nicholas, with a good-humoured smile. ‘No. Godalming is some thirty and odd miles from London—as I found from a map I borrowed—and I purpose to rest there. We must push on again tomorrow, for we are not rich enough to loiter. Let me relieve you of that bundle! Come!’

‘No, no,’ rejoined Smike, falling back a few steps. ‘Don’t ask me to give it up to you.’

‘Why not?’ asked Nicholas.

‘Let me do something for you, at least,’ said Smike. ‘You will never let me serve you as I ought. You will never know how I think, day and night, of ways to please you.’

‘You are a foolish fellow to say it, for I know it well, and see it, or I should be a blind and senseless beast,’ rejoined Nicholas. ‘Let me ask you a question while I think of it, and there is no one by,’ he added, looking him steadily in the face. ‘Have you a good memory?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Smike, shaking his head sorrowfully. ‘I think I had once; but it’s all gone now—all gone.’

‘Why do you think you had once?’ asked Nicholas, turning quickly upon him as though the answer in some way helped out the purport of his question.

‘Because I could remember, when I was a child,’ said Smike, ‘but that is very, very long ago, or at least it seems so. I was always confused and giddy at that place you took me from; and could never remember, and sometimes couldn’t even understand, what they said to me. I—let me see—let me see!’

‘You are wandering now,’ said Nicholas, touching him on the arm.

‘No,’ replied his companion, with a vacant look ‘I was only thinking how—’ He shivered involuntarily as he spoke.

‘Think no more of that place, for it is all over,’ retorted Nicholas, fixing his eyes full upon that of his companion, which was fast settling into an unmeaning stupefied gaze, once habitual to him, and common even then. ‘What of the first day you went to Yorkshire?’

‘Eh!’ cried the lad.

‘That was before you began to lose your recollection, you know,’ said Nicholas quietly. ‘Was the weather hot or cold?’

‘Wet,’ replied the boy. ‘Very wet. I have always said, when it has rained hard, that it was like the night I came: and they used to crowd round and laugh to see me cry when the rain fell heavily. It was like a child, they said, and that made me think of it more. I turned cold all over sometimes, for I could see myself as I was then, coming in at the very same door.’

‘As you were then,’ repeated Nicholas, with assumed carelessness; ‘how was that?’

‘Such a little creature,’ said Smike, ‘that they might have had pity and mercy upon me, only to remember it.’

‘You didn’t find your way there, alone!’ remarked Nicholas.

‘No,’ rejoined Smike, ‘oh no.’

‘Who was with you?’

‘A man—a dark, withered man. I have heard them say so, at the school, and I remembered that before. I was glad to leave him, I was afraid of him; but they made me more afraid of them, and used me harder too.’

‘Look at me,’ said Nicholas, wishing to attract his full attention. ‘There; don’t turn away. Do you remember no woman, no kind woman, who hung over you once, and kissed your lips, and called you her child?’

‘No,’ said the poor creature, shaking his head, ‘no, never.’

‘Nor any house but that house in Yorkshire?’

‘No,’ rejoined the youth, with a melancholy look; ‘a room—I remember I slept in a room, a large lonesome room at the top of a house, where there was a trap-door in the ceiling. I have covered my head with the clothes often, not to see it, for it frightened me: a young child with no one near at night: and I used to wonder what was on the other side. There was a clock too, an old clock, in one corner. I remember that. I have never forgotten that room; for when I have terrible dreams, it comes back, just as it was. I see things and people in it that I had never seen then, but there is the room just as it used to be; that never changes.’

‘Will you let me take the bundle now?’ asked Nicholas, abruptly changing the theme.

‘No,’ said Smike, ‘no. Come, let us walk on.’

He quickened his pace as he said this, apparently under the impression that they had been standing still during the whole of the previous dialogue. Nicholas marked him closely, and every word of this conversation remained upon his memory.

It was, by this time, within an hour of noon, and although a dense vapour still enveloped the city they had left, as if the very breath of its busy people hung over their schemes of gain and profit, and found greater attraction there than in the quiet region above, in the open country it was clear and fair. Occasionally, in some low spots they came upon patches of mist which the sun had not yet driven from their strongholds; but these were soon passed, and as they laboured up the hills beyond, it was pleasant to look down, and see how the sluggish mass rolled heavily off, before the cheering influence of day. A broad, fine, honest sun lighted up the green pastures and dimpled water with the semblance of summer, while it left the travellers all the invigorating freshness of that early time of year. The ground seemed elastic under their feet; the sheep-bells were music to their ears; and exhilarated by exercise, and stimulated by hope, they pushed onward with the strength of lions.

The day wore on, and all these bright colours subsided, and assumed a quieter tint, like young hopes softened down by time, or youthful features by degrees resolving into the calm and serenity of age. But they were scarcely less beautiful in their slow decline, than they had been in their prime; for nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own; and from morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, is but a succession of changes so gentle and easy, that we can scarcely mark their progress.

To Godalming they came at last, and here they bargained for two humble beds, and slept soundly. In the morning they were astir: though not quite so early as the sun: and again afoot; if not with all the freshness of yesterday, still, with enough of hope and spirit to bear them cheerily on.

It was a harder day’s journey than yesterday’s, for there were long and weary hills to climb; and in journeys, as in life, it is a great deal easier to go down hill than up. However, they kept on, with unabated perseverance, and the hill has not yet lifted its face to heaven that perseverance will not gain the summit of at last.

They walked upon the rim of the Devil’s Punch Bowl; and Smike listened with greedy interest as Nicholas read the inscription upon the stone which, reared upon that wild spot, tells of a murder committed there by night. The grass on which they stood, had once been dyed with gore; and the blood of the murdered man had run down, drop by drop, into the hollow which gives the place its name. ‘The Devil’s Bowl,’ thought Nicholas, as he looked into the void, ‘never held fitter liquor than that!’

Onward they kept, with steady purpose, and entered at length upon a wide and spacious tract of downs, with every variety of little hill and plain to change their verdant surface. Here, there shot up, almost perpendicularly, into the sky, a height so steep, as to be hardly accessible to any but the sheep and goats that fed upon its sides, and there, stood a mound of green, sloping and tapering off so delicately, and merging so gently into the level ground, that you could scarce define its limits. Hills swelling above each other; and undulations shapely and uncouth, smooth and rugged, graceful and grotesque, thrown negligently side by side, bounded the view in each direction; while frequently, with unexpected noise, there uprose from the ground a flight of crows, who, cawing and wheeling round the nearest hills, as if uncertain of their course, suddenly poised themselves upon the wing and skimmed down the long vista of some opening valley, with the speed of light itself.

By degrees, the prospect receded more and more on either hand, and as they had been shut out from rich and extensive scenery, so they emerged once again upon the open country. The knowledge that they were drawing near their place of destination, gave them fresh courage to proceed; but the way had been difficult, and they had loitered on the road, and Smike was tired. Thus, twilight had already closed in, when they turned off the path to the door of a roadside inn, yet twelve miles short of Portsmouth.

‘Twelve miles,’ said Nicholas, leaning with both hands on his stick, and looking doubtfully at Smike.

‘Twelve long miles,’ repeated the landlord.

‘Is it a good road?’ inquired Nicholas.

‘Very bad,’ said the landlord. As of course, being a landlord, he would say.

‘I want to get on,’ observed Nicholas, hesitating. ‘I scarcely know what to do.’

‘Don’t let me influence you,’ rejoined the landlord. ‘I wouldn’t go on if it was me.’

‘Wouldn’t you?’ asked Nicholas, with the same uncertainty.

‘Not if I knew when I was well off,’ said the landlord. And having said it he pulled up his apron, put his hands into his pockets, and, taking a step or two outside the door, looked down the dark road with an assumption of great indifference.

A glance at the toil-worn face of Smike determined Nicholas, so without any further consideration he made up his mind to stay where he was.

The landlord led them into the kitchen, and as there was a good fire he remarked that it was very cold. If there had happened to be a bad one he would have observed that it was very warm.

‘What can you give us for supper?’ was Nicholas’s natural question.

‘Why—what would you like?’ was the landlord’s no less natural answer.

Nicholas suggested cold meat, but there was no cold meat—poached eggs, but there were no eggs—mutton chops, but there wasn’t a mutton chop within three miles, though there had been more last week than they knew what to do with, and would be an extraordinary supply the day after tomorrow.

‘Then,’ said Nicholas, ‘I must leave it entirely to you, as I would have done, at first, if you had allowed me.’

‘Why, then I’ll tell you what,’ rejoined the landlord. ‘There’s a gentleman in the parlour that’s ordered a hot beef-steak pudding and potatoes, at nine. There’s more of it than he can manage, and I have very little doubt that if I ask leave, you can sup with him. I’ll do that, in a minute.’

‘No, no,’ said Nicholas, detaining him. ‘I would rather not. I—at least—pshaw! why cannot I speak out? Here; you see that I am travelling in a very humble manner, and have made my way hither on foot. It is more than probable, I think, that the gentleman may not relish my company; and although I am the dusty figure you see, I am too proud to thrust myself into his.’

‘Lord love you,’ said the landlord, ‘it’s only Mr. Crummles; he isn’t particular.’

‘Is he not?’ asked Nicholas, on whose mind, to tell the truth, the prospect of the savoury pudding was making some impression.

‘Not he,’ replied the landlord. ‘He’ll like your way of talking, I know. But we’ll soon see all about that. Just wait a minute.’

The landlord hurried into the parlour, without staying for further permission, nor did Nicholas strive to prevent him: wisely considering that supper, under the circumstances, was too serious a matter to be trifled with. It was not long before the host returned, in a condition of much excitement.

‘All right,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I knew he would. You’ll see something rather worth seeing, in there. Ecod, how they are a-going of it!’

There was no time to inquire to what this exclamation, which was delivered in a very rapturous tone, referred; for he had already thrown open the door of the room; into which Nicholas, followed by Smike with the bundle on his shoulder (he carried it about with him as vigilantly as if it had been a sack of gold), straightway repaired.

Nicholas was prepared for something odd, but not for something quite so odd as the sight he encountered. At the upper end of the room, were a couple of boys, one of them very tall and the other very short, both dressed as sailors—or at least as theatrical sailors, with belts, buckles, pigtails, and pistols complete—fighting what is called in play-bills a terrific combat, with two of those short broad-swords with basket hilts which are commonly used at our minor theatres. The short boy had gained a great advantage over the tall boy, who was reduced to mortal strait, and both were overlooked by a large heavy man, perched against the corner of a table, who emphatically adjured them to strike a little more fire out of the swords, and they couldn’t fail to bring the house down, on the very first night.

‘Mr. Vincent Crummles,’ said the landlord with an air of great deference. ‘This is the young gentleman.’

Mr. Vincent Crummles received Nicholas with an inclination of the head, something between the courtesy of a Roman emperor and the nod of a pot companion; and bade the landlord shut the door and begone.

‘There’s a picture,’ said Mr. Crummles, motioning Nicholas not to advance and spoil it. ‘The little ‘un has him; if the big ‘un doesn’t knock under, in three seconds, he’s a dead man. Do that again, boys.’

The two combatants went to work afresh, and chopped away until the swords emitted a shower of sparks: to the great satisfaction of Mr. Crummles, who appeared to consider this a very great point indeed. The engagement commenced with about two hundred chops administered by the short sailor and the tall sailor alternately, without producing any particular result, until the short sailor was chopped down on one knee; but this was nothing to him, for he worked himself about on the one knee with the assistance of his left hand, and fought most desperately until the tall sailor chopped his sword out of his grasp. Now, the inference was, that the short sailor, reduced to this extremity, would give in at once and cry quarter, but, instead of that, he all of a sudden drew a large pistol from his belt and presented it at the face of the tall sailor, who was so overcome at this (not expecting it) that he let the short sailor pick up his sword and begin again. Then, the chopping recommenced, and a variety of fancy chops were administered on both sides; such as chops dealt with the left hand, and under the leg, and over the right shoulder, and over the left; and when the short sailor made a vigorous cut at the tall sailor’s legs, which would have shaved them clean off if it had taken effect, the tall sailor jumped over the short sailor’s sword, wherefore to balance the matter, and make it all fair, the tall sailor administered the same cut, and the short sailor jumped over his sword. After this, there was a good deal of dodging about, and hitching up of the inexpressibles in the absence of braces, and then the short sailor (who was the moral character evidently, for he always had the best of it) made a violent demonstration and closed with the tall sailor, who, after a few unavailing struggles, went down, and expired in great torture as the short sailor put his foot upon his breast, and bored a hole in him through and through.

‘That’ll be a double encore if you take care, boys,’ said Mr. Crummles. ‘You had better get your wind now and change your clothes.’

Having addressed these words to the combatants, he saluted Nicholas, who then observed that the face of Mr. Crummles was quite proportionate in size to his body; that he had a very full under-lip, a hoarse voice, as though he were in the habit of shouting very much, and very short black hair, shaved off nearly to the crown of his head—to admit (as he afterwards learnt) of his more easily wearing character wigs of any shape or pattern.

‘What did you think of that, sir?’ inquired Mr. Crummles.

‘Very good, indeed—capital,’ answered Nicholas.

‘You won’t see such boys as those very often, I think,’ said Mr. Crummles.

Nicholas assented—observing that if they were a little better match—

‘Match!’ cried Mr. Crummles.

‘I mean if they were a little more of a size,’ said Nicholas, explaining himself.

‘Size!’ repeated Mr. Crummles; ‘why, it’s the essence of the combat that there should be a foot or two between them. How are you to get up the sympathies of the audience in a legitimate manner, if there isn’t a little man contending against a big one?—unless there’s at least five to one, and we haven’t hands enough for that business in our company.’

‘I see,’ replied Nicholas. ‘I beg your pardon. That didn’t occur to me, I confess.’

‘It’s the main point,’ said Mr. Crummles. ‘I open at Portsmouth the day after tomorrow. If you’re going there, look into the theatre, and see how that’ll tell.’

Nicholas promised to do so, if he could, and drawing a chair near the fire, fell into conversation with the manager at once. He was very talkative and communicative, stimulated perhaps, not only by his natural disposition, but by the spirits and water he sipped very plentifully, or the snuff he took in large quantities from a piece of whitey-brown paper in his waistcoat pocket. He laid open his affairs without the smallest reserve, and descanted at some length upon the merits of his company, and the acquirements of his family; of both of which, the two broad-sword boys formed an honourable portion. There was to be a gathering, it seemed, of the different ladies and gentlemen at Portsmouth on the morrow, whither the father and sons were proceeding (not for the regular season, but in the course of a wandering speculation), after fulfilling an engagement at Guildford with the greatest applause.

‘You are going that way?’ asked the manager.

‘Ye-yes,’ said Nicholas. ‘Yes, I am.’

‘Do you know the town at all?’ inquired the manager, who seemed to consider himself entitled to the same degree of confidence as he had himself exhibited.

‘No,’ replied Nicholas.

‘Never there?’

‘Never.’

Mr. Vincent Crummles gave a short dry cough, as much as to say, ‘If you won’t be communicative, you won’t;’ and took so many pinches of snuff from the piece of paper, one after another, that Nicholas quite wondered where it all went to.

While he was thus engaged, Mr. Crummles looked, from time to time, with great interest at Smike, with whom he had appeared considerably struck from the first. He had now fallen asleep, and was nodding in his chair.

‘Excuse my saying so,’ said the manager, leaning over to Nicholas, and sinking his voice, ‘but what a capital countenance your friend has got!’

‘Poor fellow!’ said Nicholas, with a half-smile, ‘I wish it were a little more plump, and less haggard.’

‘Plump!’ exclaimed the manager, quite horrified, ‘you’d spoil it for ever.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘Think so, sir! Why, as he is now,’ said the manager, striking his knee emphatically; ‘without a pad upon his body, and hardly a touch of paint upon his face, he’d make such an actor for the starved business as was never seen in this country. Only let him be tolerably well up in the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, with the slightest possible dab of red on the tip of his nose, and he’d be certain of three rounds the moment he put his head out of the practicable door in the front grooves O.P.’

‘You view him with a professional eye,’ said Nicholas, laughing.

‘And well I may,’ rejoined the manager. ‘I never saw a young fellow so regularly cut out for that line, since I’ve been in the profession. And I played the heavy children when I was eighteen months old.’

The appearance of the beef-steak pudding, which came in simultaneously with the junior Vincent Crummleses, turned the conversation to other matters, and indeed, for a time, stopped it altogether. These two young gentlemen wielded their knives and forks with scarcely less address than their broad-swords, and as the whole party were quite as sharp set as either class of weapons, there was no time for talking until the supper had been disposed of.

The Master Crummleses had no sooner swallowed the last procurable morsel of food, than they evinced, by various half-suppressed yawns and stretchings of their limbs, an obvious inclination to retire for the night, which Smike had betrayed still more strongly: he having, in the course of the meal, fallen asleep several times while in the very act of eating. Nicholas therefore proposed that they should break up at once, but the manager would by no means hear of it; vowing that he had promised himself the pleasure of inviting his new acquaintance to share a bowl of punch, and that if he declined, he should deem it very unhandsome behaviour.

‘Let them go,’ said Mr. Vincent Crummles, ‘and we’ll have it snugly and cosily together by the fire.’

Nicholas was not much disposed to sleep—being in truth too anxious—so, after a little demur, he accepted the offer, and having exchanged a shake of the hand with the young Crummleses, and the manager having on his part bestowed a most affectionate benediction on Smike, he sat himself down opposite to that gentleman by the fireside to assist in emptying the bowl, which soon afterwards appeared, steaming in a manner which was quite exhilarating to behold, and sending forth a most grateful and inviting fragrance.

But, despite the punch and the manager, who told a variety of stories, and smoked tobacco from a pipe, and inhaled it in the shape of snuff, with a most astonishing power, Nicholas was absent and dispirited. His thoughts were in his old home, and when they reverted to his present condition, the uncertainty of the morrow cast a gloom upon him, which his utmost efforts were unable to dispel. His attention wandered; although he heard the manager’s voice, he was deaf to what he said; and when Mr. Vincent Crummles concluded the history of some long adventure with a loud laugh, and an inquiry what Nicholas would have done under the same circumstances, he was obliged to make the best apology in his power, and to confess his entire ignorance of all he had been talking about.

‘Why, so I saw,’ observed Mr. Crummles. ‘You’re uneasy in your mind. What’s the matter?’

Nicholas could not refrain from smiling at the abruptness of the question; but, thinking it scarcely worth while to parry it, owned that he was under some apprehensions lest he might not succeed in the object which had brought him to that part of the country.

‘And what’s that?’ asked the manager.

‘Getting something to do which will keep me and my poor fellow-traveller in the common necessaries of life,’ said Nicholas. ‘That’s the truth. You guessed it long ago, I dare say, so I may as well have the credit of telling it you with a good grace.’

‘What’s to be got to do at Portsmouth more than anywhere else?’ asked Mr Vincent Crummles, melting the sealing-wax on the stem of his pipe in the candle, and rolling it out afresh with his little finger.

‘There are many vessels leaving the port, I suppose,’ replied Nicholas. ‘I shall try for a berth in some ship or other. There is meat and drink there at all events.’

‘Salt meat and new rum; pease-pudding and chaff-biscuits,’ said the manager, taking a whiff at his pipe to keep it alight, and returning to his work of embellishment.

‘One may do worse than that,’ said Nicholas. ‘I can rough it, I believe, as well as most young men of my age and previous habits.’

‘You need be able to,’ said the manager, ‘if you go on board ship; but you won’t.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because there’s not a skipper or mate that would think you worth your salt, when he could get a practised hand,’ replied the manager; ‘and they as plentiful there, as the oysters in the streets.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Nicholas, alarmed by this prediction, and the confident tone in which it had been uttered. ‘Men are not born able seamen. They must be reared, I suppose?’

Mr. Vincent Crummles nodded his head. ‘They must; but not at your age, or from young gentlemen like you.’

There was a pause. The countenance of Nicholas fell, and he gazed ruefully at the fire.

‘Does no other profession occur to you, which a young man of your figure and address could take up easily, and see the world to advantage in?’ asked the manager.

‘No,’ said Nicholas, shaking his head.

‘Why, then, I’ll tell you one,’ said Mr. Crummles, throwing his pipe into the fire, and raising his voice. ‘The stage.’

‘The stage!’ cried Nicholas, in a voice almost as loud.

‘The theatrical profession,’ said Mr. Vincent Crummles. ‘I am in the theatrical profession myself, my wife is in the theatrical profession, my children are in the theatrical profession. I had a dog that lived and died in it from a puppy; and my chaise-pony goes on, in Timour the Tartar. I’ll bring you out, and your friend too. Say the word. I want a novelty.’

‘I don’t know anything about it,’ rejoined Nicholas, whose breath had been almost taken away by this sudden proposal. ‘I never acted a part in my life, except at school.’

‘There’s genteel comedy in your walk and manner, juvenile tragedy in your eye, and touch-and-go farce in your laugh,’ said Mr. Vincent Crummles. ‘You’ll do as well as if you had thought of nothing else but the lamps, from your birth downwards.’

Nicholas thought of the small amount of small change that would remain in his pocket after paying the tavern bill; and he hesitated.

‘You can be useful to us in a hundred ways,’ said Mr. Crummles. ‘Think what capital bills a man of your education could write for the shop-windows.’

‘Well, I think I could manage that department,’ said Nicholas.

‘To be sure you could,’ replied Mr. Crummles. ‘“For further particulars see small hand-bills”—we might have half a volume in every one of ‘em. Pieces too; why, you could write us a piece to bring out the whole strength of the company, whenever we wanted one.’

‘I am not quite so confident about that,’ replied Nicholas. ‘But I dare say I could scribble something now and then, that would suit you.’

‘We’ll have a new show-piece out directly,’ said the manager. ‘Let me see—peculiar resources of this establishment—new and splendid scenery—you must manage to introduce a real pump and two washing-tubs.’

‘Into the piece?’ said Nicholas.

‘Yes,’ replied the manager. ‘I bought ‘em cheap, at a sale the other day, and they’ll come in admirably. That’s the London plan. They look up some dresses, and properties, and have a piece written to fit ‘em. Most of the theatres keep an author on purpose.’

‘Indeed!’ cried Nicholas.

‘Oh, yes,’ said the manager; ‘a common thing. It’ll look very well in the bills in separate lines—Real pump!—Splendid tubs!—Great attraction! You don’t happen to be anything of an artist, do you?’

‘That is not one of my accomplishments,’ rejoined Nicholas.

‘Ah! Then it can’t be helped,’ said the manager. ‘If you had been, we might have had a large woodcut of the last scene for the posters, showing the whole depth of the stage, with the pump and tubs in the middle; but, however, if you’re not, it can’t be helped.’

‘What should I get for all this?’ inquired Nicholas, after a few moments’ reflection. ‘Could I live by it?’

‘Live by it!’ said the manager. ‘Like a prince! With your own salary, and your friend’s, and your writings, you’d make—ah! you’d make a pound a week!’

‘You don’t say so!’

‘I do indeed, and if we had a run of good houses, nearly double the money.’

Nicholas shrugged his shoulders; but sheer destitution was before him; and if he could summon fortitude to undergo the extremes of want and hardship, for what had he rescued his helpless charge if it were only to bear as hard a fate as that from which he had wrested him? It was easy to think of seventy miles as nothing, when he was in the same town with the man who had treated him so ill and roused his bitterest thoughts; but now, it seemed far enough. What if he went abroad, and his mother or Kate were to die the while?

Without more deliberation, he hastily declared that it was a bargain, and gave Mr. Vincent Crummles his hand upon it.






CHAPTER 23

Treats of the Company of Mr. Vincent Crummles, and of his Affairs, Domestic and Theatrical

As Mr. Crummles had a strange four-legged animal in the inn stables, which he called a pony, and a vehicle of unknown design, on which he bestowed the appellation of a four-wheeled phaeton, Nicholas proceeded on his journey next morning with greater ease than he had expected: the manager and himself occupying the front seat: and the Master Crummleses and Smike being packed together behind, in company with a wicker basket defended from wet by a stout oilskin, in which were the broad-swords, pistols, pigtails, nautical costumes, and other professional necessaries of the aforesaid young gentlemen.

The pony took his time upon the road, and—possibly in consequence of his theatrical education—evinced, every now and then, a strong inclination to lie down. However, Mr. Vincent Crummles kept him up pretty well, by jerking the rein, and plying the whip; and when these means failed, and the animal came to a stand, the elder Master Crummles got out and kicked him. By dint of these encouragements, he was persuaded to move from time to time, and they jogged on (as Mr. Crummles truly observed) very comfortably for all parties.

‘He’s a good pony at bottom,’ said Mr. Crummles, turning to Nicholas.

He might have been at bottom, but he certainly was not at top, seeing that his coat was of the roughest and most ill-favoured kind. So, Nicholas merely observed that he shouldn’t wonder if he was.

‘Many and many is the circuit this pony has gone,’ said Mr. Crummles, flicking him skilfully on the eyelid for old acquaintance’ sake. ‘He is quite one of us. His mother was on the stage.’

‘Was she?’ rejoined Nicholas.

‘She ate apple-pie at a circus for upwards of fourteen years,’ said the manager; ‘fired pistols, and went to bed in a nightcap; and, in short, took the low comedy entirely. His father was a dancer.’

‘Was he at all distinguished?’

‘Not very,’ said the manager. ‘He was rather a low sort of pony. The fact is, he had been originally jobbed out by the day, and he never quite got over his old habits. He was clever in melodrama too, but too broad—too broad. When the mother died, he took the port-wine business.’

‘The port-wine business!’ cried Nicholas.

‘Drinking port-wine with the clown,’ said the manager; ‘but he was greedy, and one night bit off the bowl of the glass, and choked himself, so his vulgarity was the death of him at last.’

The descendant of this ill-starred animal requiring increased attention from Mr. Crummles as he progressed in his day’s work, that gentleman had very little time for conversation. Nicholas was thus left at leisure to entertain himself with his own thoughts, until they arrived at the drawbridge at Portsmouth, when Mr. Crummles pulled up.

‘We’ll get down here,’ said the manager, ‘and the boys will take him round to the stable, and call at my lodgings with the luggage. You had better let yours be taken there, for the present.’

Thanking Mr. Vincent Crummles for his obliging offer, Nicholas jumped out, and, giving Smike his arm, accompanied the manager up High Street on their way to the theatre; feeling nervous and uncomfortable enough at the prospect of an immediate introduction to a scene so new to him.

They passed a great many bills, pasted against the walls and displayed in windows, wherein the names of Mr. Vincent Crummles, Mrs. Vincent Crummles, Master Crummles, Master P. Crummles, and Miss Crummles, were printed in very large letters, and everything else in very small ones; and, turning at length into an entry, in which was a strong smell of orange-peel and lamp-oil, with an under-current of sawdust, groped their way through a dark passage, and, descending a step or two, threaded a little maze of canvas screens and paint pots, and emerged upon the stage of the Portsmouth Theatre.

‘Here we are,’ said Mr. Crummles.

It was not very light, but Nicholas found himself close to the first entrance on the prompt side, among bare walls, dusty scenes, mildewed clouds, heavily daubed draperies, and dirty floors. He looked about him; ceiling, pit, boxes, gallery, orchestra, fittings, and decorations of every kind,—all looked coarse, cold, gloomy, and wretched.

‘Is this a theatre?’ whispered Smike, in amazement; ‘I thought it was a blaze of light and finery.’

‘Why, so it is,’ replied Nicholas, hardly less surprised; ‘but not by day, Smike—not by day.’

The manager’s voice recalled him from a more careful inspection of the building, to the opposite side of the proscenium, where, at a small mahogany table with rickety legs and of an oblong shape, sat a stout, portly female, apparently between forty and fifty, in a tarnished silk cloak, with her bonnet dangling by the strings in her hand, and her hair (of which she had a great quantity) braided in a large festoon over each temple.

‘Mr. Johnson,’ said the manager (for Nicholas had given the name which Newman Noggs had bestowed upon him in his conversation with Mrs. Kenwigs), ‘let me introduce Mrs. Vincent Crummles.’

‘I am glad to see you, sir,’ said Mrs. Vincent Crummles, in a sepulchral voice. ‘I am very glad to see you, and still more happy to hail you as a promising member of our corps.’

The lady shook Nicholas by the hand as she addressed him in these terms; he saw it was a large one, but had not expected quite such an iron grip as that with which she honoured him.

‘And this,’ said the lady, crossing to Smike, as tragic actresses cross when they obey a stage direction, ‘and this is the other. You too, are welcome, sir.’

‘He’ll do, I think, my dear?’ said the manager, taking a pinch of snuff.

‘He is admirable,’ replied the lady. ‘An acquisition indeed.’

As Mrs. Vincent Crummles recrossed back to the table, there bounded on to the stage from some mysterious inlet, a little girl in a dirty white frock with tucks up to the knees, short trousers, sandaled shoes, white spencer, pink gauze bonnet, green veil and curl papers; who turned a pirouette, cut twice in the air, turned another pirouette, then, looking off at the opposite wing, shrieked, bounded forward to within six inches of the footlights, and fell into a beautiful attitude of terror, as a shabby gentleman in an old pair of buff slippers came in at one powerful slide, and chattering his teeth, fiercely brandished a walking-stick.

‘They are going through the Indian Savage and the Maiden,’ said Mrs Crummles.

‘Oh!’ said the manager, ‘the little ballet interlude. Very good, go on. A little this way, if you please, Mr. Johnson. That’ll do. Now!’

The manager clapped his hands as a signal to proceed, and the savage, becoming ferocious, made a slide towards the maiden; but the maiden avoided him in six twirls, and came down, at the end of the last one, upon the very points of her toes. This seemed to make some impression upon the savage; for, after a little more ferocity and chasing of the maiden into corners, he began to relent, and stroked his face several times with his right thumb and four fingers, thereby intimating that he was struck with admiration of the maiden’s beauty. Acting upon the impulse of this passion, he (the savage) began to hit himself severe thumps in the chest, and to exhibit other indications of being desperately in love, which being rather a prosy proceeding, was very likely the cause of the maiden’s falling asleep; whether it was or no, asleep she did fall, sound as a church, on a sloping bank, and the savage perceiving it, leant his left ear on his left hand, and nodded sideways, to intimate to all whom it might concern that she was asleep, and no shamming. Being left to himself, the savage had a dance, all alone. Just as he left off, the maiden woke up, rubbed her eyes, got off the bank, and had a dance all alone too—such a dance that the savage looked on in ecstasy all the while, and when it was done, plucked from a neighbouring tree some botanical curiosity, resembling a small pickled cabbage, and offered it to the maiden, who at first wouldn’t have it, but on the savage shedding tears relented. Then the savage jumped for joy; then the maiden jumped for rapture at the sweet smell of the pickled cabbage. Then the savage and the maiden danced violently together, and, finally, the savage dropped down on one knee, and the maiden stood on one leg upon his other knee; thus concluding the ballet, and leaving the spectators in a state of pleasing uncertainty, whether she would ultimately marry the savage, or return to her friends.

‘Very well indeed,’ said Mr. Crummles; ‘bravo!’

‘Bravo!’ cried Nicholas, resolved to make the best of everything. ‘Beautiful!’

‘This, sir,’ said Mr. Vincent Crummles, bringing the maiden forward, ‘this is the infant phenomenon—Miss Ninetta Crummles.’

‘Your daughter?’ inquired Nicholas.

‘My daughter—my daughter,’ replied Mr. Vincent Crummles; ‘the idol of every place we go into, sir. We have had complimentary letters about this girl, sir, from the nobility and gentry of almost every town in England.’

‘I am not surprised at that,’ said Nicholas; ‘she must be quite a natural genius.’

‘Quite a—!’ Mr. Crummles stopped: language was not powerful enough to describe the infant phenomenon. ‘I’ll tell you what, sir,’ he said; ‘the talent of this child is not to be imagined. She must be seen, sir—seen—to be ever so faintly appreciated. There; go to your mother, my dear.’

‘May I ask how old she is?’ inquired Nicholas.

‘You may, sir,’ replied Mr. Crummles, looking steadily in his questioner’s face, as some men do when they have doubts about being implicitly believed in what they are going to say. ‘She is ten years of age, sir.’

‘Not more!’

‘Not a day.’

‘Dear me!’ said Nicholas, ‘it’s extraordinary.’

It was; for the infant phenomenon, though of short stature, had a comparatively aged countenance, and had moreover been precisely the same age—not perhaps to the full extent of the memory of the oldest inhabitant, but certainly for five good years. But she had been kept up late every night, and put upon an unlimited allowance of gin-and-water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall, and perhaps this system of training had produced in the infant phenomenon these additional phenomena.

While this short dialogue was going on, the gentleman who had enacted the savage, came up, with his walking shoes on his feet, and his slippers in his hand, to within a few paces, as if desirous to join in the conversation. Deeming this a good opportunity, he put in his word.

‘Talent there, sir!’ said the savage, nodding towards Miss Crummles.

Nicholas assented.

‘Ah!’ said the actor, setting his teeth together, and drawing in his breath with a hissing sound, ‘she oughtn’t to be in the provinces, she oughtn’t.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked the manager.

‘I mean to say,’ replied the other, warmly, ‘that she is too good for country boards, and that she ought to be in one of the large houses in London, or nowhere; and I tell you more, without mincing the matter, that if it wasn’t for envy and jealousy in some quarter that you know of, she would be. Perhaps you’ll introduce me here, Mr. Crummles.’

‘Mr. Folair,’ said the manager, presenting him to Nicholas.

‘Happy to know you, sir.’ Mr. Folair touched the brim of his hat with his forefinger, and then shook hands. ‘A recruit, sir, I understand?’

‘An unworthy one,’ replied Nicholas.

‘Did you ever see such a set-out as that?’ whispered the actor, drawing him away, as Crummles left them to speak to his wife.

‘As what?’

Mr. Folair made a funny face from his pantomime collection, and pointed over his shoulder.

‘You don’t mean the infant phenomenon?’

‘Infant humbug, sir,’ replied Mr. Folair. ‘There isn’t a female child of common sharpness in a charity school, that couldn’t do better than that. She may thank her stars she was born a manager’s daughter.’

‘You seem to take it to heart,’ observed Nicholas, with a smile.

‘Yes, by Jove, and well I may,’ said Mr. Folair, drawing his arm through his, and walking him up and down the stage. ‘Isn’t it enough to make a man crusty to see that little sprawler put up in the best business every night, and actually keeping money out of the house, by being forced down the people’s throats, while other people are passed over? Isn’t it extraordinary to see a man’s confounded family conceit blinding him, even to his own interest? Why I know of fifteen and sixpence that came to Southampton one night last month, to see me dance the Highland Fling; and what’s the consequence? I’ve never been put up in it since—never once—while the “infant phenomenon” has been grinning through artificial flowers at five people and a baby in the pit, and two boys in the gallery, every night.’

‘If I may judge from what I have seen of you,’ said Nicholas, ‘you must be a valuable member of the company.’

‘Oh!’ replied Mr. Folair, beating his slippers together, to knock the dust out; ‘I CAn come it pretty well—nobody better, perhaps, in my own line—but having such business as one gets here, is like putting lead on one’s feet instead of chalk, and dancing in fetters without the credit of it. Holloa, old fellow, how are you?’

The gentleman addressed in these latter words was a dark-complexioned man, inclining indeed to sallow, with long thick black hair, and very evident inclinations (although he was close shaved) of a stiff beard, and whiskers of the same deep shade. His age did not appear to exceed thirty, though many at first sight would have considered him much older, as his face was long, and very pale, from the constant application of stage paint. He wore a checked shirt, an old green coat with new gilt buttons, a neckerchief of broad red and green stripes, and full blue trousers; he carried, too, a common ash walking-stick, apparently more for show than use, as he flourished it about, with the hooked end downwards, except when he raised it for a few seconds, and throwing himself into a fencing attitude, made a pass or two at the side-scenes, or at any other object, animate or inanimate, that chanced to afford him a pretty good mark at the moment.

‘Well, Tommy,’ said this gentleman, making a thrust at his friend, who parried it dexterously with his slipper, ‘what’s the news?’

‘A new appearance, that’s all,’ replied Mr. Folair, looking at Nicholas.

‘Do the honours, Tommy, do the honours,’ said the other gentleman, tapping him reproachfully on the crown of the hat with his stick.

‘This is Mr. Lenville, who does our first tragedy, Mr. Johnson,’ said the pantomimist.

‘Except when old bricks and mortar takes it into his head to do it himself, you should add, Tommy,’ remarked Mr. Lenville. ‘You know who bricks and mortar is, I suppose, sir?’

‘I do not, indeed,’ replied Nicholas.

‘We call Crummles that, because his style of acting is rather in the heavy and ponderous way,’ said Mr. Lenville. ‘I mustn’t be cracking jokes though, for I’ve got a part of twelve lengths here, which I must be up in tomorrow night, and I haven’t had time to look at it yet; I’m a confounded quick study, that’s one comfort.’

Consoling himself with this reflection, Mr. Lenville drew from his coat pocket a greasy and crumpled manuscript, and, having made another pass at his friend, proceeded to walk to and fro, conning it to himself and indulging occasionally in such appropriate action as his imagination and the text suggested.

A pretty general muster of the company had by this time taken place; for besides Mr. Lenville and his friend Tommy, there were present, a slim young gentleman with weak eyes, who played the low-spirited lovers and sang tenor songs, and who had come arm-in-arm with the comic countryman—a man with a turned-up nose, large mouth, broad face, and staring eyes. Making himself very amiable to the infant phenomenon, was an inebriated elderly gentleman in the last depths of shabbiness, who played the calm and virtuous old men; and paying especial court to Mrs. Crummles was another elderly gentleman, a shade more respectable, who played the irascible old men—those funny fellows who have nephews in the army and perpetually run about with thick sticks to compel them to marry heiresses. Besides these, there was a roving-looking person in a rough great-coat, who strode up and down in front of the lamps, flourishing a dress cane, and rattling away, in an undertone, with great vivacity for the amusement of an ideal audience. He was not quite so young as he had been, and his figure was rather running to seed; but there was an air of exaggerated gentility about him, which bespoke the hero of swaggering comedy. There was, also, a little group of three or four young men with lantern jaws and thick eyebrows, who were conversing in one corner; but they seemed to be of secondary importance, and laughed and talked together without attracting any attention.

The ladies were gathered in a little knot by themselves round the rickety table before mentioned. There was Miss Snevellicci—who could do anything, from a medley dance to Lady Macbeth, and also always played some part in blue silk knee-smalls at her benefit—glancing, from the depths of her coal-scuttle straw bonnet, at Nicholas, and affecting to be absorbed in the recital of a diverting story to her friend Miss Ledrook, who had brought her work, and was making up a ruff in the most natural manner possible. There was Miss Belvawney—who seldom aspired to speaking parts, and usually went on as a page in white silk hose, to stand with one leg bent, and contemplate the audience, or to go in and out after Mr. Crummles in stately tragedy—twisting up the ringlets of the beautiful Miss Bravassa, who had once had her likeness taken ‘in character’ by an engraver’s apprentice, whereof impressions were hung up for sale in the pastry-cook’s window, and the greengrocer’s, and at the circulating library, and the box-office, whenever the announce bills came out for her annual night. There was Mrs. Lenville, in a very limp bonnet and veil, decidedly in that way in which she would wish to be if she truly loved Mr. Lenville; there was Miss Gazingi, with an imitation ermine boa tied in a loose knot round her neck, flogging Mr. Crummles, junior, with both ends, in fun. Lastly, there was Mrs. Grudden in a brown cloth pelisse and a beaver bonnet, who assisted Mrs. Crummles in her domestic affairs, and took money at the doors, and dressed the ladies, and swept the house, and held the prompt book when everybody else was on for the last scene, and acted any kind of part on any emergency without ever learning it, and was put down in the bills under any name or names whatever, that occurred to Mr. Crummles as looking well in print.

Mr. Folair having obligingly confided these particulars to Nicholas, left him to mingle with his fellows; the work of personal introduction was completed by Mr. Vincent Crummles, who publicly heralded the new actor as a prodigy of genius and learning.

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Miss Snevellicci, sidling towards Nicholas, ‘but did you ever play at Canterbury?’

‘I never did,’ replied Nicholas.

‘I recollect meeting a gentleman at Canterbury,’ said Miss Snevellicci, ‘only for a few moments, for I was leaving the company as he joined it, so like you that I felt almost certain it was the same.’

‘I see you now for the first time,’ rejoined Nicholas with all due gallantry. ‘I am sure I never saw you before; I couldn’t have forgotten it.’

‘Oh, I’m sure—it’s very flattering of you to say so,’ retorted Miss Snevellicci with a graceful bend. ‘Now I look at you again, I see that the gentleman at Canterbury hadn’t the same eyes as you—you’ll think me very foolish for taking notice of such things, won’t you?’

‘Not at all,’ said Nicholas. ‘How can I feel otherwise than flattered by your notice in any way?’

‘Oh! you men are such vain creatures!’ cried Miss Snevellicci. Whereupon, she became charmingly confused, and, pulling out her pocket-handkerchief from a faded pink silk reticule with a gilt clasp, called to Miss Ledrook—

‘Led, my dear,’ said Miss Snevellicci.

‘Well, what is the matter?’ said Miss Ledrook.

‘It’s not the same.’

‘Not the same what?’

‘Canterbury—you know what I mean. Come here! I want to speak to you.’

But Miss Ledrook wouldn’t come to Miss Snevellicci, so Miss Snevellicci was obliged to go to Miss Ledrook, which she did, in a skipping manner that was quite fascinating; and Miss Ledrook evidently joked Miss Snevellicci about being struck with Nicholas; for, after some playful whispering, Miss Snevellicci hit Miss Ledrook very hard on the backs of her hands, and retired up, in a state of pleasing confusion.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said Mr. Vincent Crummles, who had been writing on a piece of paper, ‘we’ll call the Mortal Struggle tomorrow at ten; everybody for the procession. Intrigue, and Ways and Means, you’re all up in, so we shall only want one rehearsal. Everybody at ten, if you please.’

‘Everybody at ten,’ repeated Mrs. Grudden, looking about her.

‘On Monday morning we shall read a new piece,’ said Mr. Crummles; ‘the name’s not known yet, but everybody will have a good part. Mr. Johnson will take care of that.’

‘Hallo!’ said Nicholas, starting. ‘I—’

‘On Monday morning,’ repeated Mr. Crummles, raising his voice, to drown the unfortunate Mr. Johnson’s remonstrance; ‘that’ll do, ladies and gentlemen.’

The ladies and gentlemen required no second notice to quit; and, in a few minutes, the theatre was deserted, save by the Crummles family, Nicholas, and Smike.

‘Upon my word,’ said Nicholas, taking the manager aside, ‘I don’t think I can be ready by Monday.’

‘Pooh, pooh,’ replied Mr. Crummles.

‘But really I can’t,’ returned Nicholas; ‘my invention is not accustomed to these demands, or possibly I might produce—’

‘Invention! what the devil’s that got to do with it!’ cried the manager hastily.

‘Everything, my dear sir.’

‘Nothing, my dear sir,’ retorted the manager, with evident impatience. ‘Do you understand French?’

‘Perfectly well.’

‘Very good,’ said the manager, opening the table drawer, and giving a roll of paper from it to Nicholas. ‘There! Just turn that into English, and put your name on the title-page. Damn me,’ said Mr. Crummles, angrily, ‘if I haven’t often said that I wouldn’t have a man or woman in my company that wasn’t master of the language, so that they might learn it from the original, and play it in English, and save all this trouble and expense.’

Nicholas smiled and pocketed the play.

‘What are you going to do about your lodgings?’ said Mr. Crummles.

Nicholas could not help thinking that, for the first week, it would be an uncommon convenience to have a turn-up bedstead in the pit, but he merely remarked that he had not turned his thoughts that way.

‘Come home with me then,’ said Mr. Crummles, ‘and my boys shall go with you after dinner, and show you the most likely place.’

The offer was not to be refused; Nicholas and Mr. Crummles gave Mrs Crummles an arm each, and walked up the street in stately array. Smike, the boys, and the phenomenon, went home by a shorter cut, and Mrs. Grudden remained behind to take some cold Irish stew and a pint of porter in the box-office.

Mrs. Crummles trod the pavement as if she were going to immediate execution with an animating consciousness of innocence, and that heroic fortitude which virtue alone inspires. Mr. Crummles, on the other hand, assumed the look and gait of a hardened despot; but they both attracted some notice from many of the passers-by, and when they heard a whisper of ‘Mr. and Mrs Crummles!’ or saw a little boy run back to stare them in the face, the severe expression of their countenances relaxed, for they felt it was popularity.

Mr. Crummles lived in St Thomas’s Street, at the house of one Bulph, a pilot, who sported a boat-green door, with window-frames of the same colour, and had the little finger of a drowned man on his parlour mantelshelf, with other maritime and natural curiosities. He displayed also a brass knocker, a brass plate, and a brass bell-handle, all very bright and shining; and had a mast, with a vane on the top of it, in his back yard.

‘You are welcome,’ said Mrs. Crummles, turning round to Nicholas when they reached the bow-windowed front room on the first floor.

Nicholas bowed his acknowledgments, and was unfeignedly glad to see the cloth laid.

‘We have but a shoulder of mutton with onion sauce,’ said Mrs. Crummles, in the same charnel-house voice; ‘but such as our dinner is, we beg you to partake of it.’

‘You are very good,’ replied Nicholas, ‘I shall do it ample justice.’

‘Vincent,’ said Mrs. Crummles, ‘what is the hour?’

‘Five minutes past dinner-time,’ said Mr. Crummles.

Mrs. Crummles rang the bell. ‘Let the mutton and onion sauce appear.’

The slave who attended upon Mr. Bulph’s lodgers, disappeared, and after a short interval reappeared with the festive banquet. Nicholas and the infant phenomenon opposed each other at the pembroke-table, and Smike and the master Crummleses dined on the sofa bedstead.

‘Are they very theatrical people here?’ asked Nicholas.

‘No,’ replied Mr. Crummles, shaking his head, ‘far from it—far from it.’

‘I pity them,’ observed Mrs. Crummles.

‘So do I,’ said Nicholas; ‘if they have no relish for theatrical entertainments, properly conducted.’

‘Then they have none, sir,’ rejoined Mr. Crummles. ‘To the infant’s benefit, last year, on which occasion she repeated three of her most popular characters, and also appeared in the Fairy Porcupine, as originally performed by her, there was a house of no more than four pound twelve.’

‘Is it possible?’ cried Nicholas.

‘And two pound of that was trust, pa,’ said the phenomenon.

‘And two pound of that was trust,’ repeated Mr. Crummles. ‘Mrs. Crummles herself has played to mere handfuls.’

‘But they are always a taking audience, Vincent,’ said the manager’s wife.

‘Most audiences are, when they have good acting—real good acting—the regular thing,’ replied Mr. Crummles, forcibly.

‘Do you give lessons, ma’am?’ inquired Nicholas.

‘I do,’ said Mrs. Crummles.

‘There is no teaching here, I suppose?’

‘There has been,’ said Mrs. Crummles. ‘I have received pupils here. I imparted tuition to the daughter of a dealer in ships’ provision; but it afterwards appeared that she was insane when she first came to me. It was very extraordinary that she should come, under such circumstances.’

Not feeling quite so sure of that, Nicholas thought it best to hold his peace.

‘Let me see,’ said the manager cogitating after dinner. ‘Would you like some nice little part with the infant?’

‘You are very good,’ replied Nicholas hastily; ‘but I think perhaps it would be better if I had somebody of my own size at first, in case I should turn out awkward. I should feel more at home, perhaps.’

‘True,’ said the manager. ‘Perhaps you would. And you could play up to the infant, in time, you know.’

‘Certainly,’ replied Nicholas: devoutly hoping that it would be a very long time before he was honoured with this distinction.

‘Then I’ll tell you what we’ll do,’ said Mr. Crummles. ‘You shall study Romeo when you’ve done that piece—don’t forget to throw the pump and tubs in by-the-bye—Juliet Miss Snevellicci, old Grudden the nurse.—Yes, that’ll do very well. Rover too;—you might get up Rover while you were about it, and Cassio, and Jeremy Diddler. You can easily knock them off; one part helps the other so much. Here they are, cues and all.’

With these hasty general directions Mr. Crummles thrust a number of little books into the faltering hands of Nicholas, and bidding his eldest son go with him and show where lodgings were to be had, shook him by the hand, and wished him good night.

There is no lack of comfortable furnished apartments in Portsmouth, and no difficulty in finding some that are proportionate to very slender finances; but the former were too good, and the latter too bad, and they went into so many houses, and came out unsuited, that Nicholas seriously began to think he should be obliged to ask permission to spend the night in the theatre, after all.

Eventually, however, they stumbled upon two small rooms up three pair of stairs, or rather two pair and a ladder, at a tobacconist’s shop, on the Common Hard: a dirty street leading down to the dockyard. These Nicholas engaged, only too happy to have escaped any request for payment of a week’s rent beforehand.

‘There! Lay down our personal property, Smike,’ he said, after showing young Crummles downstairs. ‘We have fallen upon strange times, and Heaven only knows the end of them; but I am tired with the events of these three days, and will postpone reflection till tomorrow—if I can.’






CHAPTER 24

Of the Great Bespeak for Miss Snevellicci, and the first Appearance of Nicholas upon any Stage

Nicholas was up betimes in the morning; but he had scarcely begun to dress, notwithstanding, when he heard footsteps ascending the stairs, and was presently saluted by the voices of Mr. Folair the pantomimist, and Mr Lenville, the tragedian.

‘House, house, house!’ cried Mr. Folair.

‘What, ho! within there,’ said Mr. Lenville, in a deep voice.

‘Confound these fellows!’ thought Nicholas; ‘they have come to breakfast, I suppose. I’ll open the door directly, if you’ll wait an instant.’

The gentlemen entreated him not to hurry himself; and, to beguile the interval, had a fencing bout with their walking-sticks on the very small landing-place: to the unspeakable discomposure of all the other lodgers downstairs.

‘Here, come in,’ said Nicholas, when he had completed his toilet. ‘In the name of all that’s horrible, don’t make that noise outside.’

‘An uncommon snug little box this,’ said Mr. Lenville, stepping into the front room, and taking his hat off, before he could get in at all. ‘Pernicious snug.’

‘For a man at all particular in such matters, it might be a trifle too snug,’ said Nicholas; ‘for, although it is, undoubtedly, a great convenience to be able to reach anything you want from the ceiling or the floor, or either side of the room, without having to move from your chair, still these advantages can only be had in an apartment of the most limited size.’

‘It isn’t a bit too confined for a single man,’ returned Mr. Lenville. ‘That reminds me,—my wife, Mr. Johnson,—I hope she’ll have some good part in this piece of yours?’

‘I glanced at the French copy last night,’ said Nicholas. ‘It looks very good, I think.’

‘What do you mean to do for me, old fellow?’ asked Mr. Lenville, poking the struggling fire with his walking-stick, and afterwards wiping it on the skirt of his coat. ‘Anything in the gruff and grumble way?’

‘You turn your wife and child out of doors,’ said Nicholas; ‘and, in a fit of rage and jealousy, stab your eldest son in the library.’

‘Do I though!’ exclaimed Mr. Lenville. ‘That’s very good business.’

‘After which,’ said Nicholas, ‘you are troubled with remorse till the last act, and then you make up your mind to destroy yourself. But, just as you are raising the pistol to your head, a clock strikes—ten.’

‘I see,’ cried Mr. Lenville. ‘Very good.’

‘You pause,’ said Nicholas; ‘you recollect to have heard a clock strike ten in your infancy. The pistol falls from your hand—you are overcome—you burst into tears, and become a virtuous and exemplary character for ever afterwards.’

‘Capital!’ said Mr. Lenville: ‘that’s a sure card, a sure card. Get the curtain down with a touch of nature like that, and it’ll be a triumphant success.’

‘Is there anything good for me?’ inquired Mr. Folair, anxiously.

‘Let me see,’ said Nicholas. ‘You play the faithful and attached servant; you are turned out of doors with the wife and child.’

‘Always coupled with that infernal phenomenon,’ sighed Mr. Folair; ‘and we go into poor lodgings, where I won’t take any wages, and talk sentiment, I suppose?’

‘Why—yes,’ replied Nicholas: ‘that is the course of the piece.’

‘I must have a dance of some kind, you know,’ said Mr. Folair. ‘You’ll have to introduce one for the phenomenon, so you’d better make a pas de deux, and save time.’

‘There’s nothing easier than that,’ said Mr. Lenville, observing the disturbed looks of the young dramatist.

‘Upon my word I don’t see how it’s to be done,’ rejoined Nicholas.

‘Why, isn’t it obvious?’ reasoned Mr. Lenville. ‘Gadzooks, who can help seeing the way to do it?—you astonish me! You get the distressed lady, and the little child, and the attached servant, into the poor lodgings, don’t you?—Well, look here. The distressed lady sinks into a chair, and buries her face in her pocket-handkerchief. “What makes you weep, mama?” says the child. “Don’t weep, mama, or you’ll make me weep too!”—“And me!” says the favourite servant, rubbing his eyes with his arm. “What can we do to raise your spirits, dear mama?” says the little child. “Ay, what can we do?” says the faithful servant. “Oh, Pierre!” says the distressed lady; “would that I could shake off these painful thoughts.”—“Try, ma’am, try,” says the faithful servant; “rouse yourself, ma’am; be amused.”—“I will,” says the lady, “I will learn to suffer with fortitude. Do you remember that dance, my honest friend, which, in happier days, you practised with this sweet angel? It never failed to calm my spirits then. Oh! let me see it once again before I die!”—There it is—cue for the band, before I die,—and off they go. That’s the regular thing; isn’t it, Tommy?’

‘That’s it,’ replied Mr. Folair. ‘The distressed lady, overpowered by old recollections, faints at the end of the dance, and you close in with a picture.’

Profiting by these and other lessons, which were the result of the personal experience of the two actors, Nicholas willingly gave them the best breakfast he could, and, when he at length got rid of them, applied himself to his task: by no means displeased to find that it was so much easier than he had at first supposed. He worked very hard all day, and did not leave his room until the evening, when he went down to the theatre, whither Smike had repaired before him to go on with another gentleman as a general rebellion.

Here all the people were so much changed, that he scarcely knew them. False hair, false colour, false calves, false muscles—they had become different beings. Mr. Lenville was a blooming warrior of most exquisite proportions; Mr. Crummles, his large face shaded by a profusion of black hair, a Highland outlaw of most majestic bearing; one of the old gentlemen a jailer, and the other a venerable patriarch; the comic countryman, a fighting-man of great valour, relieved by a touch of humour; each of the Master Crummleses a prince in his own right; and the low-spirited lover, a desponding captive. There was a gorgeous banquet ready spread for the third act, consisting of two pasteboard vases, one plate of biscuits, a black bottle, and a vinegar cruet; and, in short, everything was on a scale of the utmost splendour and preparation.

Nicholas was standing with his back to the curtain, now contemplating the first scene, which was a Gothic archway, about two feet shorter than Mr Crummles, through which that gentleman was to make his first entrance, and now listening to a couple of people who were cracking nuts in the gallery, wondering whether they made the whole audience, when the manager himself walked familiarly up and accosted him.

‘Been in front tonight?’ said Mr. Crummles.

‘No,’ replied Nicholas, ‘not yet. I am going to see the play.’

‘We’ve had a pretty good Let,’ said Mr. Crummles. ‘Four front places in the centre, and the whole of the stage-box.’

‘Oh, indeed!’ said Nicholas; ‘a family, I suppose?’

‘Yes,’ replied Mr. Crummles, ‘yes. It’s an affecting thing. There are six children, and they never come unless the phenomenon plays.’

It would have been difficult for any party, family, or otherwise, to have visited the theatre on a night when the phenomenon did not play, inasmuch as she always sustained one, and not uncommonly two or three, characters, every night; but Nicholas, sympathising with the feelings of a father, refrained from hinting at this trifling circumstance, and Mr. Crummles continued to talk, uninterrupted by him.

‘Six,’ said that gentleman; ‘pa and ma eight, aunt nine, governess ten, grandfather and grandmother twelve. Then, there’s the footman, who stands outside, with a bag of oranges and a jug of toast-and-water, and sees the play for nothing through the little pane of glass in the box-door—it’s cheap at a guinea; they gain by taking a box.’

‘I wonder you allow so many,’ observed Nicholas.

‘There’s no help for it,’ replied Mr. Crummles; ‘it’s always expected in the country. If there are six children, six people come to hold them in their laps. A family-box carries double always. Ring in the orchestra, Grudden!’

That useful lady did as she was requested, and shortly afterwards the tuning of three fiddles was heard. Which process having been protracted as long as it was supposed that the patience of the audience could possibly bear it, was put a stop to by another jerk of the bell, which, being the signal to begin in earnest, set the orchestra playing a variety of popular airs, with involuntary variations.

If Nicholas had been astonished at the alteration for the better which the gentlemen displayed, the transformation of the ladies was still more extraordinary. When, from a snug corner of the manager’s box, he beheld Miss Snevellicci in all the glories of white muslin with a golden hem, and Mrs. Crummles in all the dignity of the outlaw’s wife, and Miss Bravassa in all the sweetness of Miss Snevellicci’s confidential friend, and Miss Belvawney in the white silks of a page doing duty everywhere and swearing to live and die in the service of everybody, he could scarcely contain his admiration, which testified itself in great applause, and the closest possible attention to the business of the scene. The plot was most interesting. It belonged to no particular age, people, or country, and was perhaps the more delightful on that account, as nobody’s previous information could afford the remotest glimmering of what would ever come of it. An outlaw had been very successful in doing something somewhere, and came home, in triumph, to the sound of shouts and fiddles, to greet his wife—a lady of masculine mind, who talked a good deal about her father’s bones, which it seemed were unburied, though whether from a peculiar taste on the part of the old gentleman himself, or the reprehensible neglect of his relations, did not appear. This outlaw’s wife was, somehow or other, mixed up with a patriarch, living in a castle a long way off, and this patriarch was the father of several of the characters, but he didn’t exactly know which, and was uncertain whether he had brought up the right ones in his castle, or the wrong ones; he rather inclined to the latter opinion, and, being uneasy, relieved his mind with a banquet, during which solemnity somebody in a cloak said ‘Beware!’ which somebody was known by nobody (except the audience) to be the outlaw himself, who had come there, for reasons unexplained, but possibly with an eye to the spoons. There was an agreeable little surprise in the way of certain love passages between the desponding captive and Miss Snevellicci, and the comic fighting-man and Miss Bravassa; besides which, Mr. Lenville had several very tragic scenes in the dark, while on throat-cutting expeditions, which were all baffled by the skill and bravery of the comic fighting-man (who overheard whatever was said all through the piece) and the intrepidity of Miss Snevellicci, who adopted tights, and therein repaired to the prison of her captive lover, with a small basket of refreshments and a dark lantern. At last, it came out that the patriarch was the man who had treated the bones of the outlaw’s father-in-law with so much disrespect, for which cause and reason the outlaw’s wife repaired to his castle to kill him, and so got into a dark room, where, after a good deal of groping in the dark, everybody got hold of everybody else, and took them for somebody besides, which occasioned a vast quantity of confusion, with some pistolling, loss of life, and torchlight; after which, the patriarch came forward, and observing, with a knowing look, that he knew all about his children now, and would tell them when they got inside, said that there could not be a more appropriate occasion for marrying the young people than that; and therefore he joined their hands, with the full consent of the indefatigable page, who (being the only other person surviving) pointed with his cap into the clouds, and his right hand to the ground; thereby invoking a blessing and giving the cue for the curtain to come down, which it did, amidst general applause.

‘What did you think of that?’ asked Mr. Crummles, when Nicholas went round to the stage again. Mr. Crummles was very red and hot, for your outlaws are desperate fellows to shout.

‘I think it was very capital indeed,’ replied Nicholas; ‘Miss Snevellicci in particular was uncommonly good.’

‘She’s a genius,’ said Mr. Crummles; ‘quite a genius, that girl. By-the-bye, I’ve been thinking of bringing out that piece of yours on her bespeak night.’

‘When?’ asked Nicholas.

‘The night of her bespeak. Her benefit night, when her friends and patrons bespeak the play,’ said Mr. Crummles.

‘Oh! I understand,’ replied Nicholas.

‘You see,’ said Mr. Crummles, ‘it’s sure to go, on such an occasion, and even if it should not work up quite as well as we expect, why it will be her risk, you know, and not ours.’

‘Yours, you mean,’ said Nicholas.

‘I said mine, didn’t I?’ returned Mr. Crummles. ‘Next Monday week. What do you say? You’ll have done it, and are sure to be up in the lover’s part, long before that time.’

‘I don’t know about “long before,”’ replied Nicholas; ‘but by that time I think I can undertake to be ready.’

‘Very good,’ pursued Mr. Crummles, ‘then we’ll call that settled. Now, I want to ask you something else. There’s a little—what shall I call it?—a little canvassing takes place on these occasions.’

‘Among the patrons, I suppose?’ said Nicholas.

‘Among the patrons; and the fact is, that Snevellicci has had so many bespeaks in this place, that she wants an attraction. She had a bespeak when her mother-in-law died, and a bespeak when her uncle died; and Mrs Crummles and myself have had bespeaks on the anniversary of the phenomenon’s birthday, and our wedding-day, and occasions of that description, so that, in fact, there’s some difficulty in getting a good one. Now, won’t you help this poor girl, Mr. Johnson?’ said Crummles, sitting himself down on a drum, and taking a great pinch of snuff, as he looked him steadily in the face.

‘How do you mean?’ rejoined Nicholas.

‘Don’t you think you could spare half an hour tomorrow morning, to call with her at the houses of one or two of the principal people?’ murmured the manager in a persuasive tone.

‘Oh dear me,’ said Nicholas, with an air of very strong objection, ‘I shouldn’t like to do that.’

‘The infant will accompany her,’ said Mr. Crummles. ‘The moment it was suggested to me, I gave permission for the infant to go. There will not be the smallest impropriety—Miss Snevellicci, sir, is the very soul of honour. It would be of material service—the gentleman from London—author of the new piece—actor in the new piece—first appearance on any boards—it would lead to a great bespeak, Mr. Johnson.’

‘I am very sorry to throw a damp upon the prospects of anybody, and more especially a lady,’ replied Nicholas; ‘but really I must decidedly object to making one of the canvassing party.’

‘What does Mr. Johnson say, Vincent?’ inquired a voice close to his ear; and, looking round, he found Mrs. Crummles and Miss Snevellicci herself standing behind him.

‘He has some objection, my dear,’ replied Mr. Crummles, looking at Nicholas.

‘Objection!’ exclaimed Mrs. Crummles. ‘Can it be possible?’

‘Oh, I hope not!’ cried Miss Snevellicci. ‘You surely are not so cruel—oh, dear me!—Well, I—to think of that now, after all one’s looking forward to it!’

‘Mr. Johnson will not persist, my dear,’ said Mrs. Crummles. ‘Think better of him than to suppose it. Gallantry, humanity, all the best feelings of his nature, must be enlisted in this interesting cause.’

‘Which moves even a manager,’ said Mr. Crummles, smiling.

‘And a manager’s wife,’ added Mrs. Crummles, in her accustomed tragedy tones. ‘Come, come, you will relent, I know you will.’

‘It is not in my nature,’ said Nicholas, moved by these appeals, ‘to resist any entreaty, unless it is to do something positively wrong; and, beyond a feeling of pride, I know nothing which should prevent my doing this. I know nobody here, and nobody knows me. So be it then. I yield.’

Miss Snevellicci was at once overwhelmed with blushes and expressions of gratitude, of which latter commodity neither Mr. nor Mrs. Crummles was by any means sparing. It was arranged that Nicholas should call upon her, at her lodgings, at eleven next morning, and soon after they parted: he to return home to his authorship: Miss Snevellicci to dress for the after-piece: and the disinterested manager and his wife to discuss the probable gains of the forthcoming bespeak, of which they were to have two-thirds of the profits by solemn treaty of agreement.

At the stipulated hour next morning, Nicholas repaired to the lodgings of Miss Snevellicci, which were in a place called Lombard Street, at the house of a tailor. A strong smell of ironing pervaded the little passage; and the tailor’s daughter, who opened the door, appeared in that flutter of spirits which is so often attendant upon the periodical getting up of a family’s linen.

‘Miss Snevellicci lives here, I believe?’ said Nicholas, when the door was opened.

The tailor’s daughter replied in the affirmative.

‘Will you have the goodness to let her know that Mr. Johnson is here?’ said Nicholas.

‘Oh, if you please, you’re to come upstairs,’ replied the tailor’s daughter, with a smile.

Nicholas followed the young lady, and was shown into a small apartment on the first floor, communicating with a back-room; in which, as he judged from a certain half-subdued clinking sound, as of cups and saucers, Miss Snevellicci was then taking her breakfast in bed.

‘You’re to wait, if you please,’ said the tailor’s daughter, after a short period of absence, during which the clinking in the back-room had ceased, and been succeeded by whispering—‘She won’t be long.’

As she spoke, she pulled up the window-blind, and having by this means (as she thought) diverted Mr. Johnson’s attention from the room to the street, caught up some articles which were airing on the fender, and had very much the appearance of stockings, and darted off.

As there were not many objects of interest outside the window, Nicholas looked about the room with more curiosity than he might otherwise have bestowed upon it. On the sofa lay an old guitar, several thumbed pieces of music, and a scattered litter of curl-papers; together with a confused heap of play-bills, and a pair of soiled white satin shoes with large blue rosettes. Hanging over the back of a chair was a half-finished muslin apron with little pockets ornamented with red ribbons, such as waiting-women wear on the stage, and (by consequence) are never seen with anywhere else. In one corner stood the diminutive pair of top-boots in which Miss Snevellicci was accustomed to enact the little jockey, and, folded on a chair hard by, was a small parcel, which bore a very suspicious resemblance to the companion smalls.

But the most interesting object of all was, perhaps, the open scrapbook, displayed in the midst of some theatrical duodecimos that were strewn upon the table; and pasted into which scrapbook were various critical notices of Miss Snevellicci’s acting, extracted from different provincial journals, together with one poetic address in her honour, commencing—

     Sing, God of Love, and tell me in what dearth
     Thrice-gifted Snevellicci came on earth,
     To thrill us with her smile, her tear, her eye,
     Sing, God of Love, and tell me quickly why.

Besides this effusion, there were innumerable complimentary allusions, also extracted from newspapers, such as—‘We observe from an advertisement in another part of our paper of today, that the charming and highly-talented Miss Snevellicci takes her benefit on Wednesday, for which occasion she has put forth a bill of fare that might kindle exhilaration in the breast of a misanthrope. In the confidence that our fellow-townsmen have not lost that high appreciation of public utility and private worth, for which they have long been so pre-eminently distinguished, we predict that this charming actress will be greeted with a bumper.’ ‘To Correspondents.—J.S. is misinformed when he supposes that the highly-gifted and beautiful Miss Snevellicci, nightly captivating all hearts at our pretty and commodious little theatre, is not the same lady to whom the young gentleman of immense fortune, residing within a hundred miles of the good city of York, lately made honourable proposals. We have reason to know that Miss Snevellicci is the lady who was implicated in that mysterious and romantic affair, and whose conduct on that occasion did no less honour to her head and heart, than do her histrionic triumphs to her brilliant genius.’ A copious assortment of such paragraphs as these, with long bills of benefits all ending with ‘Come Early’, in large capitals, formed the principal contents of Miss Snevellicci’s scrapbook.

Nicholas had read a great many of these scraps, and was absorbed in a circumstantial and melancholy account of the train of events which had led to Miss Snevellicci’s spraining her ankle by slipping on a piece of orange-peel flung by a monster in human form, (so the paper said,) upon the stage at Winchester,—when that young lady herself, attired in the coal-scuttle bonnet and walking-dress complete, tripped into the room, with a thousand apologies for having detained him so long after the appointed time.

‘But really,’ said Miss Snevellicci, ‘my darling Led, who lives with me here, was taken so very ill in the night that I thought she would have expired in my arms.’

‘Such a fate is almost to be envied,’ returned Nicholas, ‘but I am very sorry to hear it nevertheless.’

‘What a creature you are to flatter!’ said Miss Snevellicci, buttoning her glove in much confusion.

‘If it be flattery to admire your charms and accomplishments,’ rejoined Nicholas, laying his hand upon the scrapbook, ‘you have better specimens of it here.’

‘Oh you cruel creature, to read such things as those! I’m almost ashamed to look you in the face afterwards, positively I am,’ said Miss Snevellicci, seizing the book and putting it away in a closet. ‘How careless of Led! How could she be so naughty!’

‘I thought you had kindly left it here, on purpose for me to read,’ said Nicholas. And really it did seem possible.

‘I wouldn’t have had you see it for the world!’ rejoined Miss Snevellicci. ‘I never was so vexed—never! But she is such a careless thing, there’s no trusting her.’

The conversation was here interrupted by the entrance of the phenomenon, who had discreetly remained in the bedroom up to this moment, and now presented herself, with much grace and lightness, bearing in her hand a very little green parasol with a broad fringe border, and no handle. After a few words of course, they sallied into the street.

The phenomenon was rather a troublesome companion, for first the right sandal came down, and then the left, and these mischances being repaired, one leg of the little white trousers was discovered to be longer than the other; besides these accidents, the green parasol was dropped down an iron grating, and only fished up again with great difficulty and by dint of much exertion. However, it was impossible to scold her, as she was the manager’s daughter, so Nicholas took it all in perfect good humour, and walked on, with Miss Snevellicci, arm-in-arm on one side, and the offending infant on the other.

The first house to which they bent their steps, was situated in a terrace of respectable appearance. Miss Snevellicci’s modest double-knock was answered by a foot-boy, who, in reply to her inquiry whether Mrs. Curdle was at home, opened his eyes very wide, grinned very much, and said he didn’t know, but he’d inquire. With this he showed them into a parlour where he kept them waiting, until the two women-servants had repaired thither, under false pretences, to see the play-actors; and having compared notes with them in the passage, and joined in a vast quantity of whispering and giggling, he at length went upstairs with Miss Snevellicci’s name.

Now, Mrs. Curdle was supposed, by those who were best informed on such points, to possess quite the London taste in matters relating to literature and the drama; and as to Mr. Curdle, he had written a pamphlet of sixty-four pages, post octavo, on the character of the Nurse’s deceased husband in Romeo and Juliet, with an inquiry whether he really had been a ‘merry man’ in his lifetime, or whether it was merely his widow’s affectionate partiality that induced her so to report him. He had likewise proved, that by altering the received mode of punctuation, any one of Shakespeare’s plays could be made quite different, and the sense completely changed; it is needless to say, therefore, that he was a great critic, and a very profound and most original thinker.

‘Well, Miss Snevellicci,’ said Mrs. Curdle, entering the parlour, ‘and how do you do?’

Miss Snevellicci made a graceful obeisance, and hoped Mrs. Curdle was well, as also Mr. Curdle, who at the same time appeared. Mrs. Curdle was dressed in a morning wrapper, with a little cap stuck upon the top of her head. Mr Curdle wore a loose robe on his back, and his right forefinger on his forehead after the portraits of Sterne, to whom somebody or other had once said he bore a striking resemblance.

‘I venture to call, for the purpose of asking whether you would put your name to my bespeak, ma’am,’ said Miss Snevellicci, producing documents.

‘Oh! I really don’t know what to say,’ replied Mrs. Curdle. ‘It’s not as if the theatre was in its high and palmy days—you needn’t stand, Miss Snevellicci—the drama is gone, perfectly gone.’

‘As an exquisite embodiment of the poet’s visions, and a realisation of human intellectuality, gilding with refulgent light our dreamy moments, and laying open a new and magic world before the mental eye, the drama is gone, perfectly gone,’ said Mr. Curdle.

‘What man is there, now living, who can present before us all those changing and prismatic colours with which the character of Hamlet is invested?’ exclaimed Mrs. Curdle.

‘What man indeed—upon the stage,’ said Mr. Curdle, with a small reservation in favour of himself. ‘Hamlet! Pooh! ridiculous! Hamlet is gone, perfectly gone.’

Quite overcome by these dismal reflections, Mr. and Mrs. Curdle sighed, and sat for some short time without speaking. At length, the lady, turning to Miss Snevellicci, inquired what play she proposed to have.

‘Quite a new one,’ said Miss Snevellicci, ‘of which this gentleman is the author, and in which he plays; being his first appearance on any stage. Mr Johnson is the gentleman’s name.’

‘I hope you have preserved the unities, sir?’ said Mr. Curdle.

‘The original piece is a French one,’ said Nicholas. ‘There is abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, strongly-marked characters—’

‘—All unavailing without a strict observance of the unities, sir,’ returned Mr. Curdle. ‘The unities of the drama, before everything.’

‘Might I ask you,’ said Nicholas, hesitating between the respect he ought to assume, and his love of the whimsical, ‘might I ask you what the unities are?’

Mr. Curdle coughed and considered. ‘The unities, sir,’ he said, ‘are a completeness—a kind of universal dovetailedness with regard to place and time—a sort of a general oneness, if I may be allowed to use so strong an expression. I take those to be the dramatic unities, so far as I have been enabled to bestow attention upon them, and I have read much upon the subject, and thought much. I find, running through the performances of this child,’ said Mr. Curdle, turning to the phenomenon, ‘a unity of feeling, a breadth, a light and shade, a warmth of colouring, a tone, a harmony, a glow, an artistical development of original conceptions, which I look for, in vain, among older performers—I don’t know whether I make myself understood?’

‘Perfectly,’ replied Nicholas.

‘Just so,’ said Mr. Curdle, pulling up his neckcloth. ‘That is my definition of the unities of the drama.’

Mrs. Curdle had sat listening to this lucid explanation with great complacency. It being finished, she inquired what Mr. Curdle thought, about putting down their names.

‘I don’t know, my dear; upon my word I don’t know,’ said Mr. Curdle. ‘If we do, it must be distinctly understood that we do not pledge ourselves to the quality of the performances. Let it go forth to the world, that we do not give them the sanction of our names, but that we confer the distinction merely upon Miss Snevellicci. That being clearly stated, I take it to be, as it were, a duty, that we should extend our patronage to a degraded stage, even for the sake of the associations with which it is entwined. Have you got two-and-sixpence for half-a-crown, Miss Snevellicci?’ said Mr. Curdle, turning over four of those pieces of money.

Miss Snevellicci felt in all the corners of the pink reticule, but there was nothing in any of them. Nicholas murmured a jest about his being an author, and thought it best not to go through the form of feeling in his own pockets at all.

‘Let me see,’ said Mr. Curdle; ‘twice four’s eight—four shillings a-piece to the boxes, Miss Snevellicci, is exceedingly dear in the present state of the drama—three half-crowns is seven-and-six; we shall not differ about sixpence, I suppose? Sixpence will not part us, Miss Snevellicci?’

Poor Miss Snevellicci took the three half-crowns, with many smiles and bends, and Mrs. Curdle, adding several supplementary directions relative to keeping the places for them, and dusting the seat, and sending two clean bills as soon as they came out, rang the bell, as a signal for breaking up the conference.

‘Odd people those,’ said Nicholas, when they got clear of the house.

‘I assure you,’ said Miss Snevellicci, taking his arm, ‘that I think myself very lucky they did not owe all the money instead of being sixpence short. Now, if you were to succeed, they would give people to understand that they had always patronised you; and if you were to fail, they would have been quite certain of that from the very beginning.’

At the next house they visited, they were in great glory; for, there, resided the six children who were so enraptured with the public actions of the phenomenon, and who, being called down from the nursery to be treated with a private view of that young lady, proceeded to poke their fingers into her eyes, and tread upon her toes, and show her many other little attentions peculiar to their time of life.

‘I shall certainly persuade Mr. Borum to take a private box,’ said the lady of the house, after a most gracious reception. ‘I shall only take two of the children, and will make up the rest of the party, of gentlemen—your admirers, Miss Snevellicci. Augustus, you naughty boy, leave the little girl alone.’

This was addressed to a young gentleman who was pinching the phenomenon behind, apparently with a view of ascertaining whether she was real.

‘I am sure you must be very tired,’ said the mama, turning to Miss Snevellicci. ‘I cannot think of allowing you to go, without first taking a glass of wine. Fie, Charlotte, I am ashamed of you! Miss Lane, my dear, pray see to the children.’

Miss Lane was the governess, and this entreaty was rendered necessary by the abrupt behaviour of the youngest Miss Borum, who, having filched the phenomenon’s little green parasol, was now carrying it bodily off, while the distracted infant looked helplessly on.

‘I am sure, where you ever learnt to act as you do,’ said good-natured Mrs Borum, turning again to Miss Snevellicci, ‘I cannot understand (Emma, don’t stare so); laughing in one piece, and crying in the next, and so natural in all—oh, dear!’

‘I am very happy to hear you express so favourable an opinion,’ said Miss Snevellicci. ‘It’s quite delightful to think you like it.’

‘Like it!’ cried Mrs. Borum. ‘Who can help liking it? I would go to the play, twice a week if I could: I dote upon it—only you’re too affecting sometimes. You do put me in such a state—into such fits of crying! Goodness gracious me, Miss Lane, how can you let them torment that poor child so!’

The phenomenon was really in a fair way of being torn limb from limb; for two strong little boys, one holding on by each of her hands, were dragging her in different directions as a trial of strength. However, Miss Lane (who had herself been too much occupied in contemplating the grown-up actors, to pay the necessary attention to these proceedings) rescued the unhappy infant at this juncture, who, being recruited with a glass of wine, was shortly afterwards taken away by her friends, after sustaining no more serious damage than a flattening of the pink gauze bonnet, and a rather extensive creasing of the white frock and trousers.

It was a trying morning; for there were a great many calls to make, and everybody wanted a different thing. Some wanted tragedies, and others comedies; some objected to dancing; some wanted scarcely anything else. Some thought the comic singer decidedly low, and others hoped he would have more to do than he usually had. Some people wouldn’t promise to go, because other people wouldn’t promise to go; and other people wouldn’t go at all, because other people went. At length, and by little and little, omitting something in this place, and adding something in that, Miss Snevellicci pledged herself to a bill of fare which was comprehensive enough, if it had no other merit (it included among other trifles, four pieces, divers songs, a few combats, and several dances); and they returned home, pretty well exhausted with the business of the day.

Nicholas worked away at the piece, which was speedily put into rehearsal, and then worked away at his own part, which he studied with great perseverance and acted—as the whole company said—to perfection. And at length the great day arrived. The crier was sent round, in the morning, to proclaim the entertainments with the sound of bell in all the thoroughfares; and extra bills of three feet long by nine inches wide, were dispersed in all directions, flung down all the areas, thrust under all the knockers, and developed in all the shops. They were placarded on all the walls too, though not with complete success, for an illiterate person having undertaken this office during the indisposition of the regular bill-sticker, a part were posted sideways, and the remainder upside down.

At half-past five, there was a rush of four people to the gallery-door; at a quarter before six, there were at least a dozen; at six o’clock the kicks were terrific; and when the elder Master Crummles opened the door, he was obliged to run behind it for his life. Fifteen shillings were taken by Mrs. Grudden in the first ten minutes.

Behind the scenes, the same unwonted excitement prevailed. Miss Snevellicci was in such a perspiration that the paint would scarcely stay on her face. Mrs. Crummles was so nervous that she could hardly remember her part. Miss Bravassa’s ringlets came out of curl with the heat and anxiety; even Mr. Crummles himself kept peeping through the hole in the curtain, and running back, every now and then, to announce that another man had come into the pit.

At last, the orchestra left off, and the curtain rose upon the new piece. The first scene, in which there was nobody particular, passed off calmly enough, but when Miss Snevellicci went on in the second, accompanied by the phenomenon as child, what a roar of applause broke out! The people in the Borum box rose as one man, waving their hats and handkerchiefs, and uttering shouts of ‘Bravo!’ Mrs. Borum and the governess cast wreaths upon the stage, of which, some fluttered into the lamps, and one crowned the temples of a fat gentleman in the pit, who, looking eagerly towards the scene, remained unconscious of the honour; the tailor and his family kicked at the panels of the upper boxes till they threatened to come out altogether; the very ginger-beer boy remained transfixed in the centre of the house; a young officer, supposed to entertain a passion for Miss Snevellicci, stuck his glass in his eye as though to hide a tear. Again and again Miss Snevellicci curtseyed lower and lower, and again and again the applause came down, louder and louder. At length, when the phenomenon picked up one of the smoking wreaths and put it on, sideways, over Miss Snevellicci’s eye, it reached its climax, and the play proceeded.

But when Nicholas came on for his crack scene with Mrs. Crummles, what a clapping of hands there was! When Mrs. Crummles (who was his unworthy mother), sneered, and called him ‘presumptuous boy,’ and he defied her, what a tumult of applause came on! When he quarrelled with the other gentleman about the young lady, and producing a case of pistols, said, that if he was a gentleman, he would fight him in that drawing-room, until the furniture was sprinkled with the blood of one, if not of two—how boxes, pit, and gallery, joined in one most vigorous cheer! When he called his mother names, because she wouldn’t give up the young lady’s property, and she relenting, caused him to relent likewise, and fall down on one knee and ask her blessing, how the ladies in the audience sobbed! When he was hid behind the curtain in the dark, and the wicked relation poked a sharp sword in every direction, save where his legs were plainly visible, what a thrill of anxious fear ran through the house! His air, his figure, his walk, his look, everything he said or did, was the subject of commendation. There was a round of applause every time he spoke. And when, at last, in the pump-and-tub scene, Mrs. Grudden lighted the blue fire, and all the unemployed members of the company came in, and tumbled down in various directions—not because that had anything to do with the plot, but in order to finish off with a tableau—the audience (who had by this time increased considerably) gave vent to such a shout of enthusiasm as had not been heard in those walls for many and many a day.

In short, the success both of new piece and new actor was complete, and when Miss Snevellicci was called for at the end of the play, Nicholas led her on, and divided the applause.






CHAPTER 25

Concerning a young Lady from London, who joins the Company, and an elderly Admirer who follows in her Train; with an affecting Ceremony consequent on their Arrival

The new piece being a decided hit, was announced for every evening of performance until further notice, and the evenings when the theatre was closed, were reduced from three in the week to two. Nor were these the only tokens of extraordinary success; for, on the succeeding Saturday, Nicholas received, by favour of the indefatigable Mrs. Grudden, no less a sum than thirty shillings; besides which substantial reward, he enjoyed considerable fame and honour: having a presentation copy of Mr. Curdle’s pamphlet forwarded to the theatre, with that gentleman’s own autograph (in itself an inestimable treasure) on the fly-leaf, accompanied with a note, containing many expressions of approval, and an unsolicited assurance that Mr. Curdle would be very happy to read Shakespeare to him for three hours every morning before breakfast during his stay in the town.

‘I’ve got another novelty, Johnson,’ said Mr. Crummles one morning in great glee.

‘What’s that?’ rejoined Nicholas. ‘The pony?’

‘No, no, we never come to the pony till everything else has failed,’ said Mr. Crummles. ‘I don’t think we shall come to the pony at all, this season. No, no, not the pony.’

‘A boy phenomenon, perhaps?’ suggested Nicholas.

‘There is only one phenomenon, sir,’ replied Mr. Crummles impressively, ‘and that’s a girl.’

‘Very true,’ said Nicholas. ‘I beg your pardon. Then I don’t know what it is, I am sure.’

‘What should you say to a young lady from London?’ inquired Mr. Crummles. ‘Miss So-and-so, of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane?’

‘I should say she would look very well in the bills,’ said Nicholas.

‘You’re about right there,’ said Mr. Crummles; ‘and if you had said she would look very well upon the stage too, you wouldn’t have been far out. Look here; what do you think of this?’

With this inquiry Mr. Crummles unfolded a red poster, and a blue poster, and a yellow poster, at the top of each of which public notification was inscribed in enormous characters—‘First appearance of the unrivalled Miss Petowker of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane!’

‘Dear me!’ said Nicholas, ‘I know that lady.’

‘Then you are acquainted with as much talent as was ever compressed into one young person’s body,’ retorted Mr. Crummles, rolling up the bills again; ‘that is, talent of a certain sort—of a certain sort. “The Blood Drinker,”’ added Mr. Crummles with a prophetic sigh, ‘“The Blood Drinker” will die with that girl; and she’s the only sylph I ever saw, who could stand upon one leg, and play the tambourine on her other knee, like a sylph.’

‘When does she come down?’ asked Nicholas.

‘We expect her today,’ replied Mr. Crummles. ‘She is an old friend of Mrs Crummles’s. Mrs. Crummles saw what she could do—always knew it from the first. She taught her, indeed, nearly all she knows. Mrs. Crummles was the original Blood Drinker.’

‘Was she, indeed?’

‘Yes. She was obliged to give it up though.’

‘Did it disagree with her?’ asked Nicholas.

‘Not so much with her, as with her audiences,’ replied Mr. Crummles. ‘Nobody could stand it. It was too tremendous. You don’t quite know what Mrs. Crummles is yet.’

Nicholas ventured to insinuate that he thought he did.

‘No, no, you don’t,’ said Mr. Crummles; ‘you don’t, indeed. I don’t, and that’s a fact. I don’t think her country will, till she is dead. Some new proof of talent bursts from that astonishing woman every year of her life. Look at her—mother of six children—three of ‘em alive, and all upon the stage!’

‘Extraordinary!’ cried Nicholas.

‘Ah! extraordinary indeed,’ rejoined Mr. Crummles, taking a complacent pinch of snuff, and shaking his head gravely. ‘I pledge you my professional word I didn’t even know she could dance, till her last benefit, and then she played Juliet, and Helen Macgregor, and did the skipping-rope hornpipe between the pieces. The very first time I saw that admirable woman, Johnson,’ said Mr. Crummles, drawing a little nearer, and speaking in the tone of confidential friendship, ‘she stood upon her head on the butt-end of a spear, surrounded with blazing fireworks.’

‘You astonish me!’ said Nicholas.

‘She astonished me!’ returned Mr. Crummles, with a very serious countenance. ‘Such grace, coupled with such dignity! I adored her from that moment!’

The arrival of the gifted subject of these remarks put an abrupt termination to Mr. Crummles’s eulogium. Almost immediately afterwards, Master Percy Crummles entered with a letter, which had arrived by the General Post, and was directed to his gracious mother; at sight of the superscription whereof, Mrs. Crummles exclaimed, ‘From Henrietta Petowker, I do declare!’ and instantly became absorbed in the contents.

‘Is it—?’ inquired Mr. Crummles, hesitating.

‘Oh, yes, it’s all right,’ replied Mrs. Crummles, anticipating the question. ‘What an excellent thing for her, to be sure!’

‘It’s the best thing altogether, that I ever heard of, I think,’ said Mr Crummles; and then Mr. Crummles, Mrs. Crummles, and Master Percy Crummles, all fell to laughing violently. Nicholas left them to enjoy their mirth together, and walked to his lodgings; wondering very much what mystery connected with Miss Petowker could provoke such merriment, and pondering still more on the extreme surprise with which that lady would regard his sudden enlistment in a profession of which she was such a distinguished and brilliant ornament.

But, in this latter respect he was mistaken; for—whether Mr. Vincent Crummles had paved the way, or Miss Petowker had some special reason for treating him with even more than her usual amiability—their meeting at the theatre next day was more like that of two dear friends who had been inseparable from infancy, than a recognition passing between a lady and gentleman who had only met some half-dozen times, and then by mere chance. Nay, Miss Petowker even whispered that she had wholly dropped the Kenwigses in her conversations with the manager’s family, and had represented herself as having encountered Mr. Johnson in the very first and most fashionable circles; and on Nicholas receiving this intelligence with unfeigned surprise, she added, with a sweet glance, that she had a claim on his good nature now, and might tax it before long.

Nicholas had the honour of playing in a slight piece with Miss Petowker that night, and could not but observe that the warmth of her reception was mainly attributable to a most persevering umbrella in the upper boxes; he saw, too, that the enchanting actress cast many sweet looks towards the quarter whence these sounds proceeded; and that every time she did so, the umbrella broke out afresh. Once, he thought that a peculiarly shaped hat in the same corner was not wholly unknown to him; but, being occupied with his share of the stage business, he bestowed no great attention upon this circumstance, and it had quite vanished from his memory by the time he reached home.

He had just sat down to supper with Smike, when one of the people of the house came outside the door, and announced that a gentleman below stairs wished to speak to Mr. Johnson.

‘Well, if he does, you must tell him to come up; that’s all I know,’ replied Nicholas. ‘One of our hungry brethren, I suppose, Smike.’

His fellow-lodger looked at the cold meat in silent calculation of the quantity that would be left for dinner next day, and put back a slice he had cut for himself, in order that the visitor’s encroachments might be less formidable in their effects.

‘It is not anybody who has been here before,’ said Nicholas, ‘for he is tumbling up every stair. Come in, come in. In the name of wonder! Mr Lillyvick?’

It was, indeed, the collector of water-rates who, regarding Nicholas with a fixed look and immovable countenance, shook hands with most portentous solemnity, and sat himself down in a seat by the chimney-corner.

‘Why, when did you come here?’ asked Nicholas.

‘This morning, sir,’ replied Mr. Lillyvick.

‘Oh! I see; then you were at the theatre tonight, and it was your umb—’

‘This umbrella,’ said Mr. Lillyvick, producing a fat green cotton one with a battered ferrule. ‘What did you think of that performance?’

‘So far as I could judge, being on the stage,’ replied Nicholas, ‘I thought it very agreeable.’

‘Agreeable!’ cried the collector. ‘I mean to say, sir, that it was delicious.’

Mr. Lillyvick bent forward to pronounce the last word with greater emphasis; and having done so, drew himself up, and frowned and nodded a great many times.

‘I say, delicious,’ repeated Mr. Lillyvick. ‘Absorbing, fairy-like, toomultuous,’ and again Mr. Lillyvick drew himself up, and again he frowned and nodded.

‘Ah!’ said Nicholas, a little surprised at these symptoms of ecstatic approbation. ‘Yes—she is a clever girl.’

‘She is a divinity,’ returned Mr. Lillyvick, giving a collector’s double knock on the ground with the umbrella before-mentioned. ‘I have known divine actresses before now, sir, I used to collect—at least I used to call for—and very often call for—the water-rate at the house of a divine actress, who lived in my beat for upwards of four year but never—no, never, sir of all divine creatures, actresses or no actresses, did I see a diviner one than is Henrietta Petowker.’

Nicholas had much ado to prevent himself from laughing; not trusting himself to speak, he merely nodded in accordance with Mr. Lillyvick’s nods, and remained silent.

‘Let me speak a word with you in private,’ said Mr. Lillyvick.

Nicholas looked good-humouredly at Smike, who, taking the hint, disappeared.

‘A bachelor is a miserable wretch, sir,’ said Mr. Lillyvick.

‘Is he?’ asked Nicholas.

‘He is,’ rejoined the collector. ‘I have lived in the world for nigh sixty year, and I ought to know what it is.’

‘You ought to know, certainly,’ thought Nicholas; ‘but whether you do or not, is another question.’

‘If a bachelor happens to have saved a little matter of money,’ said Mr Lillyvick, ‘his sisters and brothers, and nephews and nieces, look to that money, and not to him; even if, by being a public character, he is the head of the family, or, as it may be, the main from which all the other little branches are turned on, they still wish him dead all the while, and get low-spirited every time they see him looking in good health, because they want to come into his little property. You see that?’

‘Oh yes,’ replied Nicholas: ‘it’s very true, no doubt.’

‘The great reason for not being married,’ resumed Mr. Lillyvick, ‘is the expense; that’s what’s kept me off, or else—Lord!’ said Mr Lillyvick, snapping his fingers, ‘I might have had fifty women.’

‘Fine women?’ asked Nicholas.

‘Fine women, sir!’ replied the collector; ‘ay! not so fine as Henrietta Petowker, for she is an uncommon specimen, but such women as don’t fall into every man’s way, I can tell you. Now suppose a man can get a fortune in a wife instead of with her—eh?’

‘Why, then, he’s a lucky fellow,’ replied Nicholas.

‘That’s what I say,’ retorted the collector, patting him benignantly on the side of the head with his umbrella; ‘just what I say. Henrietta Petowker, the talented Henrietta Petowker has a fortune in herself, and I am going to—’

‘To make her Mrs. Lillyvick?’ suggested Nicholas.

‘No, sir, not to make her Mrs. Lillyvick,’ replied the collector. ‘Actresses, sir, always keep their maiden names—that’s the regular thing—but I’m going to marry her; and the day after tomorrow, too.’

‘I congratulate you, sir,’ said Nicholas.

‘Thank you, sir,’ replied the collector, buttoning his waistcoat. ‘I shall draw her salary, of course, and I hope after all that it’s nearly as cheap to keep two as it is to keep one; that’s a consolation.’

‘Surely you don’t want any consolation at such a moment?’ observed Nicholas.

‘No,’ replied Mr. Lillyvick, shaking his head nervously: ‘no—of course not.’

‘But how come you both here, if you’re going to be married, Mr. Lillyvick?’ asked Nicholas.

‘Why, that’s what I came to explain to you,’ replied the collector of water-rate. ‘The fact is, we have thought it best to keep it secret from the family.’

‘Family!’ said Nicholas. ‘What family?’

‘The Kenwigses of course,’ rejoined Mr. Lillyvick. ‘If my niece and the children had known a word about it before I came away, they’d have gone into fits at my feet, and never have come out of ‘em till I took an oath not to marry anybody—or they’d have got out a commission of lunacy, or some dreadful thing,’ said the collector, quite trembling as he spoke.

‘To be sure,’ said Nicholas. ‘Yes; they would have been jealous, no doubt.’

‘To prevent which,’ said Mr. Lillyvick, ‘Henrietta Petowker (it was settled between us) should come down here to her friends, the Crummleses, under pretence of this engagement, and I should go down to Guildford the day before, and join her on the coach there, which I did, and we came down from Guildford yesterday together. Now, for fear you should be writing to Mr. Noggs, and might say anything about us, we have thought it best to let you into the secret. We shall be married from the Crummleses’ lodgings, and shall be delighted to see you—either before church or at breakfast-time, which you like. It won’t be expensive, you know,’ said the collector, highly anxious to prevent any misunderstanding on this point; ‘just muffins and coffee, with perhaps a shrimp or something of that sort for a relish, you know.’

‘Yes, yes, I understand,’ replied Nicholas. ‘Oh, I shall be most happy to come; it will give me the greatest pleasure. Where’s the lady stopping—with Mrs. Crummles?’

‘Why, no,’ said the collector; ‘they couldn’t very well dispose of her at night, and so she is staying with an acquaintance of hers, and another young lady; they both belong to the theatre.’

‘Miss Snevellicci, I suppose?’ said Nicholas.

‘Yes, that’s the name.’

‘And they’ll be bridesmaids, I presume?’ said Nicholas.

‘Why,’ said the collector, with a rueful face, ‘they will have four bridesmaids; I’m afraid they’ll make it rather theatrical.’

‘Oh no, not at all,’ replied Nicholas, with an awkward attempt to convert a laugh into a cough. ‘Who may the four be? Miss Snevellicci of course—Miss Ledrook—’

‘The—the phenomenon,’ groaned the collector.

‘Ha, ha!’ cried Nicholas. ‘I beg your pardon, I don’t know what I’m laughing at—yes, that’ll be very pretty—the phenomenon—who else?’

‘Some young woman or other,’ replied the collector, rising; ‘some other friend of Henrietta Petowker’s. Well, you’ll be careful not to say anything about it, will you?’

‘You may safely depend upon me,’ replied Nicholas. ‘Won’t you take anything to eat or drink?’

‘No,’ said the collector; ‘I haven’t any appetite. I should think it was a very pleasant life, the married one, eh?’

‘I have not the least doubt of it,’ rejoined Nicholas.

‘Yes,’ said the collector; ‘certainly. Oh yes. No doubt. Good night.’

With these words, Mr. Lillyvick, whose manner had exhibited through the whole of this interview a most extraordinary compound of precipitation, hesitation, confidence and doubt, fondness, misgiving, meanness, and self-importance, turned his back upon the room, and left Nicholas to enjoy a laugh by himself if he felt so disposed.

Without stopping to inquire whether the intervening day appeared to Nicholas to consist of the usual number of hours of the ordinary length, it may be remarked that, to the parties more directly interested in the forthcoming ceremony, it passed with great rapidity, insomuch that when Miss Petowker awoke on the succeeding morning in the chamber of Miss Snevellicci, she declared that nothing should ever persuade her that that really was the day which was to behold a change in her condition.

‘I never will believe it,’ said Miss Petowker; ‘I cannot really. It’s of no use talking, I never can make up my mind to go through with such a trial!’

On hearing this, Miss Snevellicci and Miss Ledrook, who knew perfectly well that their fair friend’s mind had been made up for three or four years, at any period of which time she would have cheerfully undergone the desperate trial now approaching if she could have found any eligible gentleman disposed for the venture, began to preach comfort and firmness, and to say how very proud she ought to feel that it was in her power to confer lasting bliss on a deserving object, and how necessary it was for the happiness of mankind in general that women should possess fortitude and resignation on such occasions; and that although for their parts they held true happiness to consist in a single life, which they would not willingly exchange—no, not for any worldly consideration—still (thank God), if ever the time should come, they hoped they knew their duty too well to repine, but would the rather submit with meekness and humility of spirit to a fate for which Providence had clearly designed them with a view to the contentment and reward of their fellow-creatures.

‘I might feel it was a great blow,’ said Miss Snevellicci, ‘to break up old associations and what-do-you-callems of that kind, but I would submit, my dear, I would indeed.’

‘So would I,’ said Miss Ledrook; ‘I would rather court the yoke than shun it. I have broken hearts before now, and I’m very sorry for it: for it’s a terrible thing to reflect upon.’

‘It is indeed,’ said Miss Snevellicci. ‘Now Led, my dear, we must positively get her ready, or we shall be too late, we shall indeed.’

This pious reasoning, and perhaps the fear of being too late, supported the bride through the ceremony of robing, after which, strong tea and brandy were administered in alternate doses as a means of strengthening her feeble limbs and causing her to walk steadier.

‘How do you feel now, my love?’ inquired Miss Snevellicci.

‘Oh Lillyvick!’ cried the bride. ‘If you knew what I am undergoing for you!’

‘Of course he knows it, love, and will never forget it,’ said Miss Ledrook.

‘Do you think he won’t?’ cried Miss Petowker, really showing great capability for the stage. ‘Oh, do you think he won’t? Do you think Lillyvick will always remember it—always, always, always?’

There is no knowing in what this burst of feeling might have ended, if Miss Snevellicci had not at that moment proclaimed the arrival of the fly, which so astounded the bride that she shook off divers alarming symptoms which were coming on very strong, and running to the glass adjusted her dress, and calmly declared that she was ready for the sacrifice.

She was accordingly supported into the coach, and there ‘kept up’ (as Miss Snevellicci said) with perpetual sniffs of sal volatile and sips of brandy and other gentle stimulants, until they reached the manager’s door, which was already opened by the two Master Crummleses, who wore white cockades, and were decorated with the choicest and most resplendent waistcoats in the theatrical wardrobe. By the combined exertions of these young gentlemen and the bridesmaids, assisted by the coachman, Miss Petowker was at length supported in a condition of much exhaustion to the first floor, where she no sooner encountered the youthful bridegroom than she fainted with great decorum.

‘Henrietta Petowker!’ said the collector; ‘cheer up, my lovely one.’

Miss Petowker grasped the collector’s hand, but emotion choked her utterance.

‘Is the sight of me so dreadful, Henrietta Petowker?’ said the collector.

‘Oh no, no, no,’ rejoined the bride; ‘but all the friends—the darling friends—of my youthful days—to leave them all—it is such a shock!’

With such expressions of sorrow, Miss Petowker went on to enumerate the dear friends of her youthful days one by one, and to call upon such of them as were present to come and embrace her. This done, she remembered that Mrs. Crummles had been more than a mother to her, and after that, that Mr. Crummles had been more than a father to her, and after that, that the Master Crummleses and Miss Ninetta Crummles had been more than brothers and sisters to her. These various remembrances being each accompanied with a series of hugs, occupied a long time, and they were obliged to drive to church very fast, for fear they should be too late.

The procession consisted of two flys; in the first of which were Miss Bravassa (the fourth bridesmaid), Mrs. Crummles, the collector, and Mr Folair, who had been chosen as his second on the occasion. In the other were the bride, Mr. Crummles, Miss Snevellicci, Miss Ledrook, and the phenomenon. The costumes were beautiful. The bridesmaids were quite covered with artificial flowers, and the phenomenon, in particular, was rendered almost invisible by the portable arbour in which she was enshrined. Miss Ledrook, who was of a romantic turn, wore in her breast the miniature of some field-officer unknown, which she had purchased, a great bargain, not very long before; the other ladies displayed several dazzling articles of imitative jewellery, almost equal to real, and Mrs Crummles came out in a stern and gloomy majesty, which attracted the admiration of all beholders.

But, perhaps the appearance of Mr. Crummles was more striking and appropriate than that of any member of the party. This gentleman, who personated the bride’s father, had, in pursuance of a happy and original conception, ‘made up’ for the part by arraying himself in a theatrical wig, of a style and pattern commonly known as a brown George, and moreover assuming a snuff-coloured suit, of the previous century, with grey silk stockings, and buckles to his shoes. The better to support his assumed character he had determined to be greatly overcome, and, consequently, when they entered the church, the sobs of the affectionate parent were so heart-rending that the pew-opener suggested the propriety of his retiring to the vestry, and comforting himself with a glass of water before the ceremony began.

The procession up the aisle was beautiful. The bride, with the four bridesmaids, forming a group previously arranged and rehearsed; the collector, followed by his second, imitating his walk and gestures to the indescribable amusement of some theatrical friends in the gallery; Mr Crummles, with an infirm and feeble gait; Mrs. Crummles advancing with that stage walk, which consists of a stride and a stop alternately—it was the completest thing ever witnessed. The ceremony was very quickly disposed of, and all parties present having signed the register (for which purpose, when it came to his turn, Mr. Crummles carefully wiped and put on an immense pair of spectacles), they went back to breakfast in high spirits. And here they found Nicholas awaiting their arrival.

‘Now then,’ said Crummles, who had been assisting Mrs. Grudden in the preparations, which were on a more extensive scale than was quite agreeable to the collector. ‘Breakfast, breakfast.’

No second invitation was required. The company crowded and squeezed themselves at the table as well as they could, and fell to, immediately: Miss Petowker blushing very much when anybody was looking, and eating very much when anybody was not looking; and Mr. Lillyvick going to work as though with the cool resolve, that since the good things must be paid for by him, he would leave as little as possible for the Crummleses to eat up afterwards.

‘It’s very soon done, sir, isn’t it?’ inquired Mr. Folair of the collector, leaning over the table to address him.

‘What is soon done, sir?’ returned Mr. Lillyvick.

‘The tying up—the fixing oneself with a wife,’ replied Mr. Folair. ‘It don’t take long, does it?’

‘No, sir,’ replied Mr. Lillyvick, colouring. ‘It does not take long. And what then, sir?’

‘Oh! nothing,’ said the actor. ‘It don’t take a man long to hang himself, either, eh? ha, ha!’

Mr. Lillyvick laid down his knife and fork, and looked round the table with indignant astonishment.

‘To hang himself!’ repeated Mr. Lillyvick.

A profound silence came upon all, for Mr. Lillyvick was dignified beyond expression.

‘To hang himself!’ cried Mr. Lillyvick again. ‘Is any parallel attempted to be drawn in this company between matrimony and hanging?’

‘The noose, you know,’ said Mr. Folair, a little crest-fallen.

‘The noose, sir?’ retorted Mr. Lillyvick. ‘Does any man dare to speak to me of a noose, and Henrietta Pe—’

‘Lillyvick,’ suggested Mr. Crummles.

‘—And Henrietta Lillyvick in the same breath?’ said the collector. ‘In this house, in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Crummles, who have brought up a talented and virtuous family, to be blessings and phenomenons, and what not, are we to hear talk of nooses?’

‘Folair,’ said Mr. Crummles, deeming it a matter of decency to be affected by this allusion to himself and partner, ‘I’m astonished at you.’

‘What are you going on in this way at me for?’ urged the unfortunate actor. ‘What have I done?’

‘Done, sir!’ cried Mr. Lillyvick, ‘aimed a blow at the whole framework of society—’

‘And the best and tenderest feelings,’ added Crummles, relapsing into the old man.

‘And the highest and most estimable of social ties,’ said the collector. ‘Noose! As if one was caught, trapped into the married state, pinned by the leg, instead of going into it of one’s own accord and glorying in the act!’

‘I didn’t mean to make it out, that you were caught and trapped, and pinned by the leg,’ replied the actor. ‘I’m sorry for it; I can’t say any more.’

‘So you ought to be, sir,’ returned Mr. Lillyvick; ‘and I am glad to hear that you have enough of feeling left to be so.’

The quarrel appearing to terminate with this reply, Mrs. Lillyvick considered that the fittest occasion (the attention of the company being no longer distracted) to burst into tears, and require the assistance of all four bridesmaids, which was immediately rendered, though not without some confusion, for the room being small and the table-cloth long, a whole detachment of plates were swept off the board at the very first move. Regardless of this circumstance, however, Mrs. Lillyvick refused to be comforted until the belligerents had passed their words that the dispute should be carried no further, which, after a sufficient show of reluctance, they did, and from that time Mr. Folair sat in moody silence, contenting himself with pinching Nicholas’s leg when anything was said, and so expressing his contempt both for the speaker and the sentiments to which he gave utterance.

There were a great number of speeches made; some by Nicholas, and some by Crummles, and some by the collector; two by the Master Crummleses in returning thanks for themselves, and one by the phenomenon on behalf of the bridesmaids, at which Mrs. Crummles shed tears. There was some singing, too, from Miss Ledrook and Miss Bravassa, and very likely there might have been more, if the fly-driver, who stopped to drive the happy pair to the spot where they proposed to take steamboat to Ryde, had not sent in a peremptory message intimating, that if they didn’t come directly he should infallibly demand eighteen-pence over and above his agreement.

This desperate threat effectually broke up the party. After a most pathetic leave-taking, Mr. Lillyvick and his bride departed for Ryde, where they were to spend the next two days in profound retirement, and whither they were accompanied by the infant, who had been appointed travelling bridesmaid on Mr. Lillyvick’s express stipulation: as the steamboat people, deceived by her size, would (he had previously ascertained) transport her at half-price.

As there was no performance that night, Mr. Crummles declared his intention of keeping it up till everything to drink was disposed of; but Nicholas having to play Romeo for the first time on the ensuing evening, contrived to slip away in the midst of a temporary confusion, occasioned by the unexpected development of strong symptoms of inebriety in the conduct of Mrs. Grudden.

To this act of desertion he was led, not only by his own inclinations, but by his anxiety on account of Smike, who, having to sustain the character of the Apothecary, had been as yet wholly unable to get any more of the part into his head than the general idea that he was very hungry, which—perhaps from old recollections—he had acquired with great aptitude.

‘I don’t know what’s to be done, Smike,’ said Nicholas, laying down the book. ‘I am afraid you can’t learn it, my poor fellow.’

‘I am afraid not,’ said Smike, shaking his head. ‘I think if you—but that would give you so much trouble.’

‘What?’ inquired Nicholas. ‘Never mind me.’

‘I think,’ said Smike, ‘if you were to keep saying it to me in little bits, over and over again, I should be able to recollect it from hearing you.’

‘Do you think so?’ exclaimed Nicholas. ‘Well said. Let us see who tires first. Not I, Smike, trust me. Now then. Who calls so loud?’

‘“Who calls so loud?”’ said Smike.

‘“Who calls so loud?”’ repeated Nicholas.

‘“Who calls so loud?”’ cried Smike.

Thus they continued to ask each other who called so loud, over and over again; and when Smike had that by heart Nicholas went to another sentence, and then to two at a time, and then to three, and so on, until at midnight poor Smike found to his unspeakable joy that he really began to remember something about the text.

Early in the morning they went to it again, and Smike, rendered more confident by the progress he had already made, got on faster and with better heart. As soon as he began to acquire the words pretty freely, Nicholas showed him how he must come in with both hands spread out upon his stomach, and how he must occasionally rub it, in compliance with the established form by which people on the stage always denote that they want something to eat. After the morning’s rehearsal they went to work again, nor did they stop, except for a hasty dinner, until it was time to repair to the theatre at night.

Never had master a more anxious, humble, docile pupil. Never had pupil a more patient, unwearying, considerate, kindhearted master.

As soon as they were dressed, and at every interval when he was not upon the stage, Nicholas renewed his instructions. They prospered well. The Romeo was received with hearty plaudits and unbounded favour, and Smike was pronounced unanimously, alike by audience and actors, the very prince and prodigy of Apothecaries.