{tocify}

Nicholas Nickleby

Chapter

Book

first_page
play_arrow
last_page
00:00
00:00
volume_down_alt volume_up


CHAPTER 41

Containing some Romantic Passages between Mrs. Nickleby and the Gentleman in the Small-clothes next Door

Ever since her last momentous conversation with her son, Mrs. Nickleby had begun to display unusual care in the adornment of her person, gradually superadding to those staid and matronly habiliments, which had, up to that time, formed her ordinary attire, a variety of embellishments and decorations, slight perhaps in themselves, but, taken together, and considered with reference to the subject of her disclosure, of no mean importance. Even her black dress assumed something of a deadly-lively air from the jaunty style in which it was worn; and, eked out as its lingering attractions were; by a prudent disposal, here and there, of certain juvenile ornaments of little or no value, which had, for that reason alone, escaped the general wreck and been permitted to slumber peacefully in odd corners of old drawers and boxes where daylight seldom shone, her mourning garments assumed quite a new character. From being the outward tokens of respect and sorrow for the dead, they became converted into signals of very slaughterous and killing designs upon the living.

Mrs. Nickleby might have been stimulated to this proceeding by a lofty sense of duty, and impulses of unquestionable excellence. She might, by this time, have become impressed with the sinfulness of long indulgence in unavailing woe, or the necessity of setting a proper example of neatness and decorum to her blooming daughter. Considerations of duty and responsibility apart, the change might have taken its rise in feelings of the purest and most disinterested charity. The gentleman next door had been vilified by Nicholas; rudely stigmatised as a dotard and an idiot; and for these attacks upon his understanding, Mrs. Nickleby was, in some sort, accountable. She might have felt that it was the act of a good Christian to show by all means in her power, that the abused gentleman was neither the one nor the other. And what better means could she adopt, towards so virtuous and laudable an end, than proving to all men, in her own person, that his passion was the most rational and reasonable in the world, and just the very result, of all others, which discreet and thinking persons might have foreseen, from her incautiously displaying her matured charms, without reserve, under the very eye, as it were, of an ardent and too-susceptible man?

‘Ah!’ said Mrs. Nickleby, gravely shaking her head; ‘if Nicholas knew what his poor dear papa suffered before we were engaged, when I used to hate him, he would have a little more feeling. Shall I ever forget the morning I looked scornfully at him when he offered to carry my parasol? Or that night, when I frowned at him? It was a mercy he didn’t emigrate. It very nearly drove him to it.’

Whether the deceased might not have been better off if he had emigrated in his bachelor days, was a question which his relict did not stop to consider; for Kate entered the room, with her workbox, in this stage of her reflections; and a much slighter interruption, or no interruption at all, would have diverted Mrs. Nickleby’s thoughts into a new channel at any time.

‘Kate, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby; ‘I don’t know how it is, but a fine warm summer day like this, with the birds singing in every direction, always puts me in mind of roast pig, with sage and onion sauce, and made gravy.’

‘That’s a curious association of ideas, is it not, mama?’

‘Upon my word, my dear, I don’t know,’ replied Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Roast pig; let me see. On the day five weeks after you were christened, we had a roast—no, that couldn’t have been a pig, either, because I recollect there were a pair of them to carve, and your poor papa and I could never have thought of sitting down to two pigs—they must have been partridges. Roast pig! I hardly think we ever could have had one, now I come to remember, for your papa could never bear the sight of them in the shops, and used to say that they always put him in mind of very little babies, only the pigs had much fairer complexions; and he had a horror of little babies, too, because he couldn’t very well afford any increase to his family, and had a natural dislike to the subject. It’s very odd now, what can have put that in my head! I recollect dining once at Mrs. Bevan’s, in that broad street round the corner by the coachmaker’s, where the tipsy man fell through the cellar-flap of an empty house nearly a week before the quarter-day, and wasn’t found till the new tenant went in—and we had roast pig there. It must be that, I think, that reminds me of it, especially as there was a little bird in the room that would keep on singing all the time of dinner—at least, not a little bird, for it was a parrot, and he didn’t sing exactly, for he talked and swore dreadfully: but I think it must be that. Indeed I am sure it must. Shouldn’t you say so, my dear?’

‘I should say there was not a doubt about it, mama,’ returned Kate, with a cheerful smile.

‘No; but do you think so, Kate?’ said Mrs. Nickleby, with as much gravity as if it were a question of the most imminent and thrilling interest. ‘If you don’t, say so at once, you know; because it’s just as well to be correct, particularly on a point of this kind, which is very curious and worth settling while one thinks about it.’

Kate laughingly replied that she was quite convinced; and as her mama still appeared undetermined whether it was not absolutely essential that the subject should be renewed, proposed that they should take their work into the summer-house, and enjoy the beauty of the afternoon. Mrs. Nickleby readily assented, and to the summer-house they repaired, without further discussion.

‘Well, I will say,’ observed Mrs. Nickleby, as she took her seat, ‘that there never was such a good creature as Smike. Upon my word, the pains he has taken in putting this little arbour to rights, and training the sweetest flowers about it, are beyond anything I could have—I wish he wouldn’t put all the gravel on your side, Kate, my dear, though, and leave nothing but mould for me.’

‘Dear mama,’ returned Kate, hastily, ‘take this seat—do—to oblige me, mama.’

‘No, indeed, my dear. I shall keep my own side,’ said Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Well! I declare!’

Kate looked up inquiringly.

‘If he hasn’t been,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, ‘and got, from somewhere or other, a couple of roots of those flowers that I said I was so fond of, the other night, and asked you if you were not—no, that you said you were so fond of, the other night, and asked me if I wasn’t—it’s the same thing. Now, upon my word, I take that as very kind and attentive indeed! I don’t see,’ added Mrs. Nickleby, looking narrowly about her, ‘any of them on my side, but I suppose they grow best near the gravel. You may depend upon it they do, Kate, and that’s the reason they are all near you, and he has put the gravel there, because it’s the sunny side. Upon my word, that’s very clever now! I shouldn’t have had half as much thought myself!’

‘Mama,’ said Kate, bending over her work so that her face was almost hidden, ‘before you were married—’

‘Dear me, Kate,’ interrupted Mrs. Nickleby, ‘what in the name of goodness graciousness makes you fly off to the time before I was married, when I’m talking to you about his thoughtfulness and attention to me? You don’t seem to take the smallest interest in the garden.’

‘Oh! mama,’ said Kate, raising her face again, ‘you know I do.’

‘Well then, my dear, why don’t you praise the neatness and prettiness with which it’s kept?’ said Mrs. Nickleby. ‘How very odd you are, Kate!’

‘I do praise it, mama,’ answered Kate, gently. ‘Poor fellow!’

‘I scarcely ever hear you, my dear,’ retorted Mrs. Nickleby; ‘that’s all I’ve got to say.’ By this time the good lady had been a long while upon one topic, so she fell at once into her daughter’s little trap, if trap it were, and inquired what she had been going to say.

‘About what, mama?’ said Kate, who had apparently quite forgotten her diversion.

‘Lor, Kate, my dear,’ returned her mother, ‘why, you’re asleep or stupid! About the time before I was married.’

‘Oh yes!’ said Kate, ‘I remember. I was going to ask, mama, before you were married, had you many suitors?’

‘Suitors, my dear!’ cried Mrs. Nickleby, with a smile of wonderful complacency. ‘First and last, Kate, I must have had a dozen at least.’

‘Mama!’ returned Kate, in a tone of remonstrance.

‘I had indeed, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby; ‘not including your poor papa, or a young gentleman who used to go, at that time, to the same dancing school, and who would send gold watches and bracelets to our house in gilt-edged paper, (which were always returned,) and who afterwards unfortunately went out to Botany Bay in a cadet ship—a convict ship I mean—and escaped into a bush and killed sheep, (I don’t know how they got there,) and was going to be hung, only he accidentally choked himself, and the government pardoned him. Then there was young Lukin,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, beginning with her left thumb and checking off the names on her fingers—‘Mogley—Tipslark—Cabbery—Smifser—’

Having now reached her little finger, Mrs. Nickleby was carrying the account over to the other hand, when a loud ‘Hem!’ which appeared to come from the very foundation of the garden-wall, gave both herself and her daughter a violent start.

‘Mama! what was that?’ said Kate, in a low tone of voice.

‘Upon my word, my dear,’ returned Mrs. Nickleby, considerably startled, ‘unless it was the gentleman belonging to the next house, I don’t know what it could possibly—’

‘A—hem!’ cried the same voice; and that, not in the tone of an ordinary clearing of the throat, but in a kind of bellow, which woke up all the echoes in the neighbourhood, and was prolonged to an extent which must have made the unseen bellower quite black in the face.

‘I understand it now, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, laying her hand on Kate’s; ‘don’t be alarmed, my love, it’s not directed to you, and is not intended to frighten anybody. Let us give everybody their due, Kate; I am bound to say that.’

So saying, Mrs. Nickleby nodded her head, and patted the back of her daughter’s hand, a great many times, and looked as if she could tell something vastly important if she chose, but had self-denial, thank Heaven; and wouldn’t do it.

‘What do you mean, mama?’ demanded Kate, in evident surprise.

‘Don’t be flurried, my dear,’ replied Mrs. Nickleby, looking towards the garden-wall, ‘for you see I’m not, and if it would be excusable in anybody to be flurried, it certainly would—under all the circumstances—be excusable in me, but I am not, Kate—not at all.’

‘It seems designed to attract our attention, mama,’ said Kate.

‘It is designed to attract our attention, my dear; at least,’ rejoined Mrs Nickleby, drawing herself up, and patting her daughter’s hand more blandly than before, ‘to attract the attention of one of us. Hem! you needn’t be at all uneasy, my dear.’

Kate looked very much perplexed, and was apparently about to ask for further explanation, when a shouting and scuffling noise, as of an elderly gentleman whooping, and kicking up his legs on loose gravel, with great violence, was heard to proceed from the same direction as the former sounds; and before they had subsided, a large cucumber was seen to shoot up in the air with the velocity of a sky-rocket, whence it descended, tumbling over and over, until it fell at Mrs. Nickleby’s feet.

This remarkable appearance was succeeded by another of a precisely similar description; then a fine vegetable marrow, of unusually large dimensions, was seen to whirl aloft, and come toppling down; then, several cucumbers shot up together; and, finally, the air was darkened by a shower of onions, turnip-radishes, and other small vegetables, which fell rolling and scattering, and bumping about, in all directions.

As Kate rose from her seat, in some alarm, and caught her mother’s hand to run with her into the house, she felt herself rather retarded than assisted in her intention; and following the direction of Mrs. Nickleby’s eyes, was quite terrified by the apparition of an old black velvet cap, which, by slow degrees, as if its wearer were ascending a ladder or pair of steps, rose above the wall dividing their garden from that of the next cottage, (which, like their own, was a detached building,) and was gradually followed by a very large head, and an old face, in which were a pair of most extraordinary grey eyes: very wild, very wide open, and rolling in their sockets, with a dull, languishing, leering look, most ugly to behold.

‘Mama!’ cried Kate, really terrified for the moment, ‘why do you stop, why do you lose an instant? Mama, pray come in!’

‘Kate, my dear,’ returned her mother, still holding back, ‘how can you be so foolish? I’m ashamed of you. How do you suppose you are ever to get through life, if you’re such a coward as this? What do you want, sir?’ said Mrs. Nickleby, addressing the intruder with a sort of simpering displeasure. ‘How dare you look into this garden?’

‘Queen of my soul,’ replied the stranger, folding his hands together, ‘this goblet sip!’

‘Nonsense, sir,’ said Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Kate, my love, pray be quiet.’

‘Won’t you sip the goblet?’ urged the stranger, with his head imploringly on one side, and his right hand on his breast. ‘Oh, do sip the goblet!’

‘I shall not consent to do anything of the kind, sir,’ said Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Pray, begone.’

‘Why is it,’ said the old gentleman, coming up a step higher, and leaning his elbows on the wall, with as much complacency as if he were looking out of window, ‘why is it that beauty is always obdurate, even when admiration is as honourable and respectful as mine?’ Here he smiled, kissed his hand, and made several low bows. ‘Is it owing to the bees, who, when the honey season is over, and they are supposed to have been killed with brimstone, in reality fly to Barbary and lull the captive Moors to sleep with their drowsy songs? Or is it,’ he added, dropping his voice almost to a whisper, ‘in consequence of the statue at Charing Cross having been lately seen, on the Stock Exchange at midnight, walking arm-in-arm with the Pump from Aldgate, in a riding-habit?’

‘Mama,’ murmured Kate, ‘do you hear him?’

‘Hush, my dear!’ replied Mrs. Nickleby, in the same tone of voice, ‘he is very polite, and I think that was a quotation from the poets. Pray, don’t worry me so—you’ll pinch my arm black and blue. Go away, sir!’

‘Quite away?’ said the gentleman, with a languishing look. ‘Oh! quite away?’

‘Yes,’ returned Mrs. Nickleby, ‘certainly. You have no business here. This is private property, sir; you ought to know that.’

‘I do know,’ said the old gentleman, laying his finger on his nose, with an air of familiarity, most reprehensible, ‘that this is a sacred and enchanted spot, where the most divine charms’—here he kissed his hand and bowed again—‘waft mellifluousness over the neighbours’ gardens, and force the fruit and vegetables into premature existence. That fact I am acquainted with. But will you permit me, fairest creature, to ask you one question, in the absence of the planet Venus, who has gone on business to the Horse Guards, and would otherwise—jealous of your superior charms—interpose between us?’

‘Kate,’ observed Mrs. Nickleby, turning to her daughter, ‘it’s very awkward, positively. I really don’t know what to say to this gentleman. One ought to be civil, you know.’

‘Dear mama,’ rejoined Kate, ‘don’t say a word to him, but let us run away as fast as we can, and shut ourselves up till Nicholas comes home.’

Mrs. Nickleby looked very grand, not to say contemptuous, at this humiliating proposal; and, turning to the old gentleman, who had watched them during these whispers with absorbing eagerness, said:

‘If you will conduct yourself, sir, like the gentleman I should imagine you to be, from your language and—and—appearance, (quite the counterpart of your grandpapa, Kate, my dear, in his best days,) and will put your question to me in plain words, I will answer it.’

If Mrs. Nickleby’s excellent papa had borne, in his best days, a resemblance to the neighbour now looking over the wall, he must have been, to say the least, a very queer-looking old gentleman in his prime. Perhaps Kate thought so, for she ventured to glance at his living portrait with some attention, as he took off his black velvet cap, and, exhibiting a perfectly bald head, made a long series of bows, each accompanied with a fresh kiss of the hand. After exhausting himself, to all appearance, with this fatiguing performance, he covered his head once more, pulled the cap very carefully over the tips of his ears, and resuming his former attitude, said,

‘The question is—’

Here he broke off to look round in every direction, and satisfy himself beyond all doubt that there were no listeners near. Assured that there were not, he tapped his nose several times, accompanying the action with a cunning look, as though congratulating himself on his caution; and stretching out his neck, said in a loud whisper,

‘Are you a princess?’

‘You are mocking me, sir,’ replied Mrs. Nickleby, making a feint of retreating towards the house.

‘No, but are you?’ said the old gentleman.

‘You know I am not, sir,’ replied Mrs. Nickleby.

‘Then are you any relation to the Archbishop of Canterbury?’ inquired the old gentleman with great anxiety, ‘or to the Pope of Rome? Or the Speaker of the House of Commons? Forgive me, if I am wrong, but I was told you were niece to the Commissioners of Paving, and daughter-in-law to the Lord Mayor and Court of Common Council, which would account for your relationship to all three.’

‘Whoever has spread such reports, sir,’ returned Mrs. Nickleby, with some warmth, ‘has taken great liberties with my name, and one which I am sure my son Nicholas, if he was aware of it, would not allow for an instant. The idea!’ said Mrs. Nickleby, drawing herself up, ‘niece to the Commissioners of Paving!’

‘Pray, mama, come away!’ whispered Kate.

‘“Pray mama!” Nonsense, Kate,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, angrily, ‘but that’s just the way. If they had said I was niece to a piping bullfinch, what would you care? But I have no sympathy,’ whimpered Mrs. Nickleby. ‘I don’t expect it, that’s one thing.’

‘Tears!’ cried the old gentleman, with such an energetic jump, that he fell down two or three steps and grated his chin against the wall. ‘Catch the crystal globules—catch ‘em—bottle ‘em up—cork ‘em tight—put sealing wax on the top—seal ‘em with a cupid—label ‘em “Best quality”—and stow ‘em away in the fourteen binn, with a bar of iron on the top to keep the thunder off!’

Issuing these commands, as if there were a dozen attendants all actively engaged in their execution, he turned his velvet cap inside out, put it on with great dignity so as to obscure his right eye and three-fourths of his nose, and sticking his arms a-kimbo, looked very fiercely at a sparrow hard by, till the bird flew away, when he put his cap in his pocket with an air of great satisfaction, and addressed himself with respectful demeanour to Mrs. Nickleby.

‘Beautiful madam,’ such were his words, ‘if I have made any mistake with regard to your family or connections, I humbly beseech you to pardon me. If I supposed you to be related to Foreign Powers or Native Boards, it is because you have a manner, a carriage, a dignity, which you will excuse my saying that none but yourself (with the single exception perhaps of the tragic muse, when playing extemporaneously on the barrel organ before the East India Company) can parallel. I am not a youth, ma’am, as you see; and although beings like you can never grow old, I venture to presume that we are fitted for each other.’

‘Really, Kate, my love!’ said Mrs. Nickleby faintly, and looking another way.

‘I have estates, ma’am,’ said the old gentleman, flourishing his right hand negligently, as if he made very light of such matters, and speaking very fast; ‘jewels, lighthouses, fish-ponds, a whalery of my own in the North Sea, and several oyster-beds of great profit in the Pacific Ocean. If you will have the kindness to step down to the Royal Exchange and to take the cocked-hat off the stoutest beadle’s head, you will find my card in the lining of the crown, wrapped up in a piece of blue paper. My walking-stick is also to be seen on application to the chaplain of the House of Commons, who is strictly forbidden to take any money for showing it. I have enemies about me, ma’am,’ he looked towards his house and spoke very low, ‘who attack me on all occasions, and wish to secure my property. If you bless me with your hand and heart, you can apply to the Lord Chancellor or call out the military if necessary—sending my toothpick to the commander-in-chief will be sufficient—and so clear the house of them before the ceremony is performed. After that, love, bliss and rapture; rapture, love and bliss. Be mine, be mine!’

Repeating these last words with great rapture and enthusiasm, the old gentleman put on his black velvet cap again, and looking up into the sky in a hasty manner, said something that was not quite intelligible concerning a balloon he expected, and which was rather after its time.

‘Be mine, be mine!’ repeated the old gentleman.

‘Kate, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, ‘I have hardly the power to speak; but it is necessary for the happiness of all parties that this matter should be set at rest for ever.’

‘Surely there is no necessity for you to say one word, mama?’ reasoned Kate.

‘You will allow me, my dear, if you please, to judge for myself,’ said Mrs Nickleby.

‘Be mine, be mine!’ cried the old gentleman.

‘It can scarcely be expected, sir,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, fixing her eyes modestly on the ground, ‘that I should tell a stranger whether I feel flattered and obliged by such proposals, or not. They certainly are made under very singular circumstances; still at the same time, as far as it goes, and to a certain extent of course’ (Mrs. Nickleby’s customary qualification), ‘they must be gratifying and agreeable to one’s feelings.’

‘Be mine, be mine,’ cried the old gentleman. ‘Gog and Magog, Gog and Magog. Be mine, be mine!’

‘It will be sufficient for me to say, sir,’ resumed Mrs. Nickleby, with perfect seriousness—‘and I’m sure you’ll see the propriety of taking an answer and going away—that I have made up my mind to remain a widow, and to devote myself to my children. You may not suppose I am the mother of two children—indeed many people have doubted it, and said that nothing on earth could ever make ‘em believe it possible—but it is the case, and they are both grown up. We shall be very glad to have you for a neighbour—very glad; delighted, I’m sure—but in any other character it’s quite impossible, quite. As to my being young enough to marry again, that perhaps may be so, or it may not be; but I couldn’t think of it for an instant, not on any account whatever. I said I never would, and I never will. It’s a very painful thing to have to reject proposals, and I would much rather that none were made; at the same time this is the answer that I determined long ago to make, and this is the answer I shall always give.’

These observations were partly addressed to the old gentleman, partly to Kate, and partly delivered in soliloquy. Towards their conclusion, the suitor evinced a very irreverent degree of inattention, and Mrs. Nickleby had scarcely finished speaking, when, to the great terror both of that lady and her daughter, he suddenly flung off his coat, and springing on the top of the wall, threw himself into an attitude which displayed his small-clothes and grey worsteds to the fullest advantage, and concluded by standing on one leg, and repeating his favourite bellow with increased vehemence.

While he was still dwelling on the last note, and embellishing it with a prolonged flourish, a dirty hand was observed to glide stealthily and swiftly along the top of the wall, as if in pursuit of a fly, and then to clasp with the utmost dexterity one of the old gentleman’s ankles. This done, the companion hand appeared, and clasped the other ankle.

Thus encumbered the old gentleman lifted his legs awkwardly once or twice, as if they were very clumsy and imperfect pieces of machinery, and then looking down on his own side of the wall, burst into a loud laugh.

‘It’s you, is it?’ said the old gentleman.

‘Yes, it’s me,’ replied a gruff voice.

‘How’s the Emperor of Tartary?’ said the old gentleman.

‘Oh! he’s much the same as usual,’ was the reply. ‘No better and no worse.’

‘The young Prince of China,’ said the old gentleman, with much interest. ‘Is he reconciled to his father-in-law, the great potato salesman?’

‘No,’ answered the gruff voice; ‘and he says he never will be, that’s more.’

‘If that’s the case,’ observed the old gentleman, ‘perhaps I’d better come down.’

‘Well,’ said the man on the other side, ‘I think you had, perhaps.’

One of the hands being then cautiously unclasped, the old gentleman dropped into a sitting posture, and was looking round to smile and bow to Mrs. Nickleby, when he disappeared with some precipitation, as if his legs had been pulled from below.

Very much relieved by his disappearance, Kate was turning to speak to her mama, when the dirty hands again became visible, and were immediately followed by the figure of a coarse squat man, who ascended by the steps which had been recently occupied by their singular neighbour.

‘Beg your pardon, ladies,’ said this new comer, grinning and touching his hat. ‘Has he been making love to either of you?’

‘Yes,’ said Kate.

‘Ah!’ rejoined the man, taking his handkerchief out of his hat and wiping his face, ‘he always will, you know. Nothing will prevent his making love.’

‘I need not ask you if he is out of his mind, poor creature,’ said Kate.

‘Why no,’ replied the man, looking into his hat, throwing his handkerchief in at one dab, and putting it on again. ‘That’s pretty plain, that is.’

‘Has he been long so?’ asked Kate.

‘A long while.’

‘And is there no hope for him?’ said Kate, compassionately

‘Not a bit, and don’t deserve to be,’ replied the keeper. ‘He’s a deal pleasanter without his senses than with ‘em. He was the cruellest, wickedest, out-and-outerest old flint that ever drawed breath.’

‘Indeed!’ said Kate.

‘By George!’ replied the keeper, shaking his head so emphatically that he was obliged to frown to keep his hat on. ‘I never come across such a vagabond, and my mate says the same. Broke his poor wife’s heart, turned his daughters out of doors, drove his sons into the streets; it was a blessing he went mad at last, through evil tempers, and covetousness, and selfishness, and guzzling, and drinking, or he’d have drove many others so. Hope for him, an old rip! There isn’t too much hope going, but I’ll bet a crown that what there is, is saved for more deserving chaps than him, anyhow.’

With which confession of his faith, the keeper shook his head again, as much as to say that nothing short of this would do, if things were to go on at all; and touching his hat sulkily—not that he was in an ill humour, but that his subject ruffled him—descended the ladder, and took it away.

During this conversation, Mrs. Nickleby had regarded the man with a severe and steadfast look. She now heaved a profound sigh, and pursing up her lips, shook her head in a slow and doubtful manner.

‘Poor creature!’ said Kate.

‘Ah! poor indeed!’ rejoined Mrs. Nickleby. ‘It’s shameful that such things should be allowed. Shameful!’

‘How can they be helped, mama?’ said Kate, mournfully. ‘The infirmities of nature—’

‘Nature!’ said Mrs. Nickleby. ‘What! Do you suppose this poor gentleman is out of his mind?’

‘Can anybody who sees him entertain any other opinion, mama?’

‘Why then, I just tell you this, Kate,’ returned Mrs. Nickleby, ‘that, he is nothing of the kind, and I am surprised you can be so imposed upon. It’s some plot of these people to possess themselves of his property—didn’t he say so himself? He may be a little odd and flighty, perhaps, many of us are that; but downright mad! and express himself as he does, respectfully, and in quite poetical language, and making offers with so much thought, and care, and prudence—not as if he ran into the streets, and went down upon his knees to the first chit of a girl he met, as a madman would! No, no, Kate, there’s a great deal too much method in his madness; depend upon that, my dear.’






CHAPTER 42

Illustrative of the convivial Sentiment, that the best of Friends must sometimes part

The pavement of Snow Hill had been baking and frying all day in the heat, and the twain Saracens’ heads guarding the entrance to the hostelry of whose name and sign they are the duplicate presentments, looked—or seemed, in the eyes of jaded and footsore passers-by, to look—more vicious than usual, after blistering and scorching in the sun, when, in one of the inn’s smallest sitting-rooms, through whose open window there rose, in a palpable steam, wholesome exhalations from reeking coach-horses, the usual furniture of a tea-table was displayed in neat and inviting order, flanked by large joints of roast and boiled, a tongue, a pigeon pie, a cold fowl, a tankard of ale, and other little matters of the like kind, which, in degenerate towns and cities, are generally understood to belong more particularly to solid lunches, stage-coach dinners, or unusually substantial breakfasts.

Mr. John Browdie, with his hands in his pockets, hovered restlessly about these delicacies, stopping occasionally to whisk the flies out of the sugar-basin with his wife’s pocket-handkerchief, or to dip a teaspoon in the milk-pot and carry it to his mouth, or to cut off a little knob of crust, and a little corner of meat, and swallow them at two gulps like a couple of pills. After every one of these flirtations with the eatables, he pulled out his watch, and declared with an earnestness quite pathetic that he couldn’t undertake to hold out two minutes longer.

‘Tilly!’ said John to his lady, who was reclining half awake and half asleep upon a sofa.

‘Well, John!’

‘Well, John!’ retorted her husband, impatiently. ‘Dost thou feel hoongry, lass?’

‘Not very,’ said Mrs. Browdie.

‘Not vary!’ repeated John, raising his eyes to the ceiling. ‘Hear her say not vary, and us dining at three, and loonching off pasthry thot aggravates a mon ‘stead of pacifying him! Not vary!’

‘Here’s a gen’l’man for you, sir,’ said the waiter, looking in.

‘A wa’at for me?’ cried John, as though he thought it must be a letter, or a parcel.

‘A gen’l’man, sir.’

‘Stars and garthers, chap!’ said John, ‘wa’at dost thou coom and say thot for? In wi’ ‘un.’

‘Are you at home, sir?’

‘At whoam!’ cried John, ‘I wish I wur; I’d ha tea’d two hour ago. Why, I told t’oother chap to look sharp ootside door, and tell ‘un d’rectly he coom, thot we war faint wi’ hoonger. In wi’ ‘un. Aha! Thee hond, Misther Nickleby. This is nigh to be the proodest day o’ my life, sir. Hoo be all wi’ ye? Ding! But, I’m glod o’ this!’

Quite forgetting even his hunger in the heartiness of his salutation, John Browdie shook Nicholas by the hand again and again, slapping his palm with great violence between each shake, to add warmth to the reception.

‘Ah! there she be,’ said John, observing the look which Nicholas directed towards his wife. ‘There she be—we shan’t quarrel about her noo—eh? Ecod, when I think o’ thot—but thou want’st soom’at to eat. Fall to, mun, fall to, and for wa’at we’re aboot to receive—’

No doubt the grace was properly finished, but nothing more was heard, for John had already begun to play such a knife and fork, that his speech was, for the time, gone.

‘I shall take the usual licence, Mr. Browdie,’ said Nicholas, as he placed a chair for the bride.

‘Tak’ whatever thou like’st,’ said John, ‘and when a’s gane, ca’ for more.’

Without stopping to explain, Nicholas kissed the blushing Mrs. Browdie, and handed her to her seat.

‘I say,’ said John, rather astounded for the moment, ‘mak’ theeself quite at whoam, will ‘ee?’

‘You may depend upon that,’ replied Nicholas; ‘on one condition.’

‘And wa’at may thot be?’ asked John.

‘That you make me a godfather the very first time you have occasion for one.’

‘Eh! d’ye hear thot?’ cried John, laying down his knife and fork. ‘A godfeyther! Ha! ha! ha! Tilly—hear till ‘un—a godfeyther! Divn’t say a word more, ye’ll never beat thot. Occasion for ‘un—a godfeyther! Ha! ha! ha!’

Never was man so tickled with a respectable old joke, as John Browdie was with this. He chuckled, roared, half suffocated himself by laughing large pieces of beef into his windpipe, roared again, persisted in eating at the same time, got red in the face and black in the forehead, coughed, cried, got better, went off again laughing inwardly, got worse, choked, had his back thumped, stamped about, frightened his wife, and at last recovered in a state of the last exhaustion and with the water streaming from his eyes, but still faintly ejaculating, ‘A godfeyther—a godfeyther, Tilly!’ in a tone bespeaking an exquisite relish of the sally, which no suffering could diminish.

‘You remember the night of our first tea-drinking?’ said Nicholas.

‘Shall I e’er forget it, mun?’ replied John Browdie.

‘He was a desperate fellow that night though, was he not, Mrs. Browdie?’ said Nicholas. ‘Quite a monster!’

‘If you had only heard him as we were going home, Mr. Nickleby, you’d have said so indeed,’ returned the bride. ‘I never was so frightened in all my life.’

‘Coom, coom,’ said John, with a broad grin; ‘thou know’st betther than thot, Tilly.’

‘So I was,’ replied Mrs. Browdie. ‘I almost made up my mind never to speak to you again.’

‘A’most!’ said John, with a broader grin than the last. ‘A’most made up her mind! And she wur coaxin’, and coaxin’, and wheedlin’, and wheedlin’ a’ the blessed wa’. “Wa’at didst thou let yon chap mak’ oop tiv’ee for?” says I. “I deedn’t, John,” says she, a squeedgin my arm. “You deedn’t?” says I. “Noa,” says she, a squeedgin of me agean.’

‘Lor, John!’ interposed his pretty wife, colouring very much. ‘How can you talk such nonsense? As if I should have dreamt of such a thing!’

‘I dinnot know whether thou’d ever dreamt of it, though I think that’s loike eneaf, mind,’ retorted John; ‘but thou didst it. “Ye’re a feeckle, changeable weathercock, lass,” says I. “Not feeckle, John,” says she. “Yes,” says I, “feeckle, dom’d feeckle. Dinnot tell me thou bean’t, efther yon chap at schoolmeasther’s,” says I. “Him!” says she, quite screeching. “Ah! him!” says I. “Why, John,” says she—and she coom a deal closer and squeedged a deal harder than she’d deane afore—“dost thou think it’s nat’ral noo, that having such a proper mun as thou to keep company wi’, I’d ever tak’ opp wi’ such a leetle scanty whipper-snapper as yon?” she says. Ha! ha! ha! She said whipper-snapper! “Ecod!” I says, “efther thot, neame the day, and let’s have it ower!” Ha! ha! ha!’

Nicholas laughed very heartily at this story, both on account of its telling against himself, and his being desirous to spare the blushes of Mrs. Browdie, whose protestations were drowned in peals of laughter from her husband. His good-nature soon put her at her ease; and although she still denied the charge, she laughed so heartily at it, that Nicholas had the satisfaction of feeling assured that in all essential respects it was strictly true.

‘This is the second time,’ said Nicholas, ‘that we have ever taken a meal together, and only third I have ever seen you; and yet it really seems to me as if I were among old friends.’

‘Weel!’ observed the Yorkshireman, ‘so I say.’

‘And I am sure I do,’ added his young wife.

‘I have the best reason to be impressed with the feeling, mind,’ said Nicholas; ‘for if it had not been for your kindness of heart, my good friend, when I had no right or reason to expect it, I know not what might have become of me or what plight I should have been in by this time.’

‘Talk aboot soom’at else,’ replied John, gruffly, ‘and dinnot bother.’

‘It must be a new song to the same tune then,’ said Nicholas, smiling. ‘I told you in my letter that I deeply felt and admired your sympathy with that poor lad, whom you released at the risk of involving yourself in trouble and difficulty; but I can never tell you how grateful he and I, and others whom you don’t know, are to you for taking pity on him.’

‘Ecod!’ rejoined John Browdie, drawing up his chair; ‘and I can never tell you hoo gratful soom folks that we do know would be loikewise, if they know’d I had takken pity on him.’

‘Ah!’ exclaimed Mrs. Browdie, ‘what a state I was in that night!’

‘Were they at all disposed to give you credit for assisting in the escape?’ inquired Nicholas of John Browdie.

‘Not a bit,’ replied the Yorkshireman, extending his mouth from ear to ear. ‘There I lay, snoog in schoolmeasther’s bed long efther it was dark, and nobody coom nigh the pleace. “Weel!” thinks I, “he’s got a pretty good start, and if he bean’t whoam by noo, he never will be; so you may coom as quick as you loike, and foind us reddy”—that is, you know, schoolmeasther might coom.’

‘I understand,’ said Nicholas.

‘Presently,’ resumed John, ‘he did coom. I heerd door shut doonstairs, and him a warking, oop in the daark. “Slow and steddy,” I says to myself, “tak’ your time, sir—no hurry.” He cooms to the door, turns the key—turns the key when there warn’t nothing to hoold the lock—and ca’s oot “Hallo, there!”—“Yes,” thinks I, “you may do thot agean, and not wakken anybody, sir.” “Hallo, there,” he says, and then he stops. “Thou’d betther not aggravate me,” says schoolmeasther, efther a little time. “I’ll brak’ every boan in your boddy, Smike,” he says, efther another little time. Then all of a soodden, he sings oot for a loight, and when it cooms—ecod, such a hoorly-boorly! “Wa’at’s the matter?” says I. “He’s gane,” says he,—stark mad wi’ vengeance. “Have you heerd nought?” “Ees,” says I, “I heerd street-door shut, no time at a’ ago. I heerd a person run doon there” (pointing t’other wa’—eh?) “Help!” he cries. “I’ll help you,” says I; and off we set—the wrong wa’! Ho! ho! ho!’

‘Did you go far?’ asked Nicholas.

‘Far!’ replied John; ‘I run him clean off his legs in quarther of an hoor. To see old schoolmeasther wi’out his hat, skimming along oop to his knees in mud and wather, tumbling over fences, and rowling into ditches, and bawling oot like mad, wi’ his one eye looking sharp out for the lad, and his coat-tails flying out behind, and him spattered wi’ mud all ower, face and all! I tho’t I should ha’ dropped doon, and killed myself wi’ laughing.’

John laughed so heartily at the mere recollection, that he communicated the contagion to both his hearers, and all three burst into peals of laughter, which were renewed again and again, until they could laugh no longer.

‘He’s a bad ‘un,’ said John, wiping his eyes; ‘a very bad ‘un, is schoolmeasther.’

‘I can’t bear the sight of him, John,’ said his wife.

‘Coom,’ retorted John, ‘thot’s tidy in you, thot is. If it wa’nt along o’ you, we shouldn’t know nought aboot ‘un. Thou know’d ‘un first, Tilly, didn’t thou?’

‘I couldn’t help knowing Fanny Squeers, John,’ returned his wife; ‘she was an old playmate of mine, you know.’

‘Weel,’ replied John, ‘dean’t I say so, lass? It’s best to be neighbourly, and keep up old acquaintance loike; and what I say is, dean’t quarrel if ‘ee can help it. Dinnot think so, Mr. Nickleby?’

‘Certainly,’ returned Nicholas; ‘and you acted upon that principle when I meet you on horseback on the road, after our memorable evening.’

‘Sure-ly,’ said John. ‘Wa’at I say, I stick by.’

‘And that’s a fine thing to do, and manly too,’ said Nicholas, ‘though it’s not exactly what we understand by “coming Yorkshire over us” in London. Miss Squeers is stopping with you, you said in your note.’

‘Yes,’ replied John, ‘Tilly’s bridesmaid; and a queer bridesmaid she be, too. She wean’t be a bride in a hurry, I reckon.’

‘For shame, John,’ said Mrs. Browdie; with an acute perception of the joke though, being a bride herself.

‘The groom will be a blessed mun,’ said John, his eyes twinkling at the idea. ‘He’ll be in luck, he will.’

‘You see, Mr. Nickleby,’ said his wife, ‘that it was in consequence of her being here, that John wrote to you and fixed tonight, because we thought that it wouldn’t be pleasant for you to meet, after what has passed.’

‘Unquestionably. You were quite right in that,’ said Nicholas, interrupting.

‘Especially,’ observed Mrs. Browdie, looking very sly, ‘after what we know about past and gone love matters.’

‘We know, indeed!’ said Nicholas, shaking his head. ‘You behaved rather wickedly there, I suspect.’

‘O’ course she did,’ said John Browdie, passing his huge forefinger through one of his wife’s pretty ringlets, and looking very proud of her. ‘She wur always as skittish and full o’ tricks as a—’

‘Well, as a what?’ said his wife.

‘As a woman,’ returned John. ‘Ding! But I dinnot know ought else that cooms near it.’

‘You were speaking about Miss Squeers,’ said Nicholas, with the view of stopping some slight connubialities which had begun to pass between Mr. and Mrs. Browdie, and which rendered the position of a third party in some degree embarrassing, as occasioning him to feel rather in the way than otherwise.

‘Oh yes,’ rejoined Mrs. Browdie. ‘John ha’ done. John fixed tonight, because she had settled that she would go and drink tea with her father. And to make quite sure of there being nothing amiss, and of your being quite alone with us, he settled to go out there and fetch her home.’

‘That was a very good arrangement,’ said Nicholas, ‘though I am sorry to be the occasion of so much trouble.’

‘Not the least in the world,’ returned Mrs. Browdie; ‘for we have looked forward to see you—John and I have—with the greatest possible pleasure. Do you know, Mr. Nickleby,’ said Mrs. Browdie, with her archest smile, ‘that I really think Fanny Squeers was very fond of you?’

‘I am very much obliged to her,’ said Nicholas; ‘but upon my word, I never aspired to making any impression upon her virgin heart.’

‘How you talk!’ tittered Mrs. Browdie. ‘No, but do you know that really—seriously now and without any joking—I was given to understand by Fanny herself, that you had made an offer to her, and that you two were going to be engaged quite solemn and regular.’

‘Was you, ma’am—was you?’ cried a shrill female voice, ‘was you given to understand that I—I—was going to be engaged to an assassinating thief that shed the gore of my pa? Do you—do you think, ma’am—that I was very fond of such dirt beneath my feet, as I couldn’t condescend to touch with kitchen tongs, without blacking and crocking myself by the contract? Do you, ma’am—do you? Oh! base and degrading ‘Tilda!’

With these reproaches Miss Squeers flung the door wide open, and disclosed to the eyes of the astonished Browdies and Nicholas, not only her own symmetrical form, arrayed in the chaste white garments before described (a little dirtier), but the form of her brother and father, the pair of Wackfords.

‘This is the hend, is it?’ continued Miss Squeers, who, being excited, aspirated her h’s strongly; ‘this is the hend, is it, of all my forbearance and friendship for that double-faced thing—that viper, that—that—mermaid?’ (Miss Squeers hesitated a long time for this last epithet, and brought it out triumphantly at last, as if it quite clinched the business.) ‘This is the hend, is it, of all my bearing with her deceitfulness, her lowness, her falseness, her laying herself out to catch the admiration of vulgar minds, in a way which made me blush for my—for my—’

‘Gender,’ suggested Mr. Squeers, regarding the spectators with a malevolent eye—literally A malevolent eye.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Squeers; ‘but I thank my stars that my ma is of the same—’

‘Hear, hear!’ remarked Mr. Squeers; ‘and I wish she was here to have a scratch at this company.’

‘This is the hend, is it,’ said Miss Squeers, tossing her head, and looking contemptuously at the floor, ‘of my taking notice of that rubbishing creature, and demeaning myself to patronise her?’

‘Oh, come,’ rejoined Mrs. Browdie, disregarding all the endeavours of her spouse to restrain her, and forcing herself into a front row, ‘don’t talk such nonsense as that.’

‘Have I not patronised you, ma’am?’ demanded Miss Squeers.

‘No,’ returned Mrs. Browdie.

‘I will not look for blushes in such a quarter,’ said Miss Squeers, haughtily, ‘for that countenance is a stranger to everything but hignominiousness and red-faced boldness.’

‘I say,’ interposed John Browdie, nettled by these accumulated attacks on his wife, ‘dra’ it mild, dra’ it mild.’

‘You, Mr. Browdie,’ said Miss Squeers, taking him up very quickly, ‘I pity. I have no feeling for you, sir, but one of unliquidated pity.’

‘Oh!’ said John.

‘No,’ said Miss Squeers, looking sideways at her parent, ‘although I am a queer bridesmaid, and SHAN’T be a bride in a hurry, and although my husband will be in luck, I entertain no sentiments towards you, sir, but sentiments of pity.’

Here Miss Squeers looked sideways at her father again, who looked sideways at her, as much as to say, ‘There you had him.’

‘I know what you’ve got to go through,’ said Miss Squeers, shaking her curls violently. ‘I know what life is before you, and if you was my bitterest and deadliest enemy, I could wish you nothing worse.’

‘Couldn’t you wish to be married to him yourself, if that was the case?’ inquired Mrs. Browdie, with great suavity of manner.

‘Oh, ma’am, how witty you are,’ retorted Miss Squeers with a low curtsy, ‘almost as witty, ma’am, as you are clever. How very clever it was in you, ma’am, to choose a time when I had gone to tea with my pa, and was sure not to come back without being fetched! What a pity you never thought that other people might be as clever as yourself and spoil your plans!’

‘You won’t vex me, child, with such airs as these,’ said the late Miss Price, assuming the matron.

‘Don’t Missis me, ma’am, if you please,’ returned Miss Squeers, sharply. ‘I’ll not bear it. Is this the hend—’

‘Dang it a’,’ cried John Browdie, impatiently. ‘Say thee say out, Fanny, and mak’ sure it’s the end, and dinnot ask nobody whether it is or not.’

‘Thanking you for your advice which was not required, Mr. Browdie,’ returned Miss Squeers, with laborious politeness, ‘have the goodness not to presume to meddle with my Christian name. Even my pity shall never make me forget what’s due to myself, Mr. Browdie. ‘Tilda,’ said Miss Squeers, with such a sudden accession of violence that John started in his boots, ‘I throw you off for ever, miss. I abandon you. I renounce you. I wouldn’t,’ cried Miss Squeers in a solemn voice, ‘have a child named ‘Tilda, not to save it from its grave.’

‘As for the matther o’ that,’ observed John, ‘it’ll be time eneaf to think aboot neaming of it when it cooms.’

‘John!’ interposed his wife, ‘don’t tease her.’

‘Oh! Tease, indeed!’ cried Miss Squeers, bridling up. ‘Tease, indeed! He, he! Tease, too! No, don’t tease her. Consider her feelings, pray!’

‘If it’s fated that listeners are never to hear any good of themselves,’ said Mrs. Browdie, ‘I can’t help it, and I am very sorry for it. But I will say, Fanny, that times out of number I have spoken so kindly of you behind your back, that even you could have found no fault with what I said.’

‘Oh, I dare say not, ma’am!’ cried Miss Squeers, with another curtsy. ‘Best thanks to you for your goodness, and begging and praying you not to be hard upon me another time!’

‘I don’t know,’ resumed Mrs. Browdie, ‘that I have said anything very bad of you, even now. At all events, what I did say was quite true; but if I have, I am very sorry for it, and I beg your pardon. You have said much worse of me, scores of times, Fanny; but I have never borne any malice to you, and I hope you’ll not bear any to me.’

Miss Squeers made no more direct reply than surveying her former friend from top to toe, and elevating her nose in the air with ineffable disdain. But some indistinct allusions to a ‘puss,’ and a ‘minx,’ and a ‘contemptible creature,’ escaped her; and this, together with a severe biting of the lips, great difficulty in swallowing, and very frequent comings and goings of breath, seemed to imply that feelings were swelling in Miss Squeers’s bosom too great for utterance.

While the foregoing conversation was proceeding, Master Wackford, finding himself unnoticed, and feeling his preponderating inclinations strong upon him, had by little and little sidled up to the table and attacked the food with such slight skirmishing as drawing his fingers round and round the inside of the plates, and afterwards sucking them with infinite relish; picking the bread, and dragging the pieces over the surface of the butter; pocketing lumps of sugar, pretending all the time to be absorbed in thought; and so forth. Finding that no interference was attempted with these small liberties, he gradually mounted to greater, and, after helping himself to a moderately good cold collation, was, by this time, deep in the pie.

Nothing of this had been unobserved by Mr. Squeers, who, so long as the attention of the company was fixed upon other objects, hugged himself to think that his son and heir should be fattening at the enemy’s expense. But there being now an appearance of a temporary calm, in which the proceedings of little Wackford could scarcely fail to be observed, he feigned to be aware of the circumstance for the first time, and inflicted upon the face of that young gentleman a slap that made the very tea-cups ring.

‘Eating!’ cried Mr. Squeers, ‘of what his father’s enemies has left! It’s fit to go and poison you, you unnat’ral boy.’

‘It wean’t hurt him,’ said John, apparently very much relieved by the prospect of having a man in the quarrel; ‘let’ un eat. I wish the whole school was here. I’d give’em soom’at to stay their unfort’nate stomachs wi’, if I spent the last penny I had!’

Squeers scowled at him with the worst and most malicious expression of which his face was capable—it was a face of remarkable capability, too, in that way—and shook his fist stealthily.

‘Coom, coom, schoolmeasther,’ said John, ‘dinnot make a fool o’ thyself; for if I was to sheake mine—only once—thou’d fa’ doon wi’ the wind o’ it.’

‘It was you, was it,’ returned Squeers, ‘that helped off my runaway boy? It was you, was it?’

‘Me!’ returned John, in a loud tone. ‘Yes, it wa’ me, coom; wa’at o’ that? It wa’ me. Noo then!’

‘You hear him say he did it, my child!’ said Squeers, appealing to his daughter. ‘You hear him say he did it!’

‘Did it!’ cried John. ‘I’ll tell ‘ee more; hear this, too. If thou’d got another roonaway boy, I’d do it agean. If thou’d got twonty roonaway boys, I’d do it twonty times ower, and twonty more to thot; and I tell thee more,’ said John, ‘noo my blood is oop, that thou’rt an old ra’ascal; and that it’s weel for thou, thou be’est an old ‘un, or I’d ha’ poonded thee to flour when thou told an honest mun hoo thou’d licked that poor chap in t’ coorch.’

‘An honest man!’ cried Squeers, with a sneer.

‘Ah! an honest man,’ replied John; ‘honest in ought but ever putting legs under seame table wi’ such as thou.’

‘Scandal!’ said Squeers, exultingly. ‘Two witnesses to it; Wackford knows the nature of an oath, he does; we shall have you there, sir. Rascal, eh?’ Mr. Squeers took out his pocketbook and made a note of it. ‘Very good. I should say that was worth full twenty pound at the next assizes, without the honesty, sir.’

‘’Soizes,’ cried John, ‘thou’d betther not talk to me o’ ‘Soizes. Yorkshire schools have been shown up at ‘Soizes afore noo, mun, and it’s a ticklish soobjact to revive, I can tell ye.’

Mr. Squeers shook his head in a threatening manner, looking very white with passion; and taking his daughter’s arm, and dragging little Wackford by the hand, retreated towards the door.

‘As for you,’ said Squeers, turning round and addressing Nicholas, who, as he had caused him to smart pretty soundly on a former occasion, purposely abstained from taking any part in the discussion, ‘see if I ain’t down upon you before long. You’ll go a kidnapping of boys, will you? Take care their fathers don’t turn up—mark that—take care their fathers don’t turn up, and send ‘em back to me to do as I like with, in spite of you.’

‘I am not afraid of that,’ replied Nicholas, shrugging his shoulders contemptuously, and turning away.

‘Ain’t you!’ retorted Squeers, with a diabolical look. ‘Now then, come along.’

‘I leave such society, with my pa, for Hever,’ said Miss Squeers, looking contemptuously and loftily round. ‘I am defiled by breathing the air with such creatures. Poor Mr. Browdie! He! he! he! I do pity him, that I do; he’s so deluded. He! he! he!—Artful and designing ‘Tilda!’

With this sudden relapse into the sternest and most majestic wrath, Miss Squeers swept from the room; and having sustained her dignity until the last possible moment, was heard to sob and scream and struggle in the passage.

John Browdie remained standing behind the table, looking from his wife to Nicholas, and back again, with his mouth wide open, until his hand accidentally fell upon the tankard of ale, when he took it up, and having obscured his features therewith for some time, drew a long breath, handed it over to Nicholas, and rang the bell.

‘Here, waither,’ said John, briskly. ‘Look alive here. Tak’ these things awa’, and let’s have soomat broiled for sooper—vary comfortable and plenty o’ it—at ten o’clock. Bring soom brandy and soom wather, and a pair o’ slippers—the largest pair in the house—and be quick aboot it. Dash ma wig!’ said John, rubbing his hands, ‘there’s no ganging oot to neeght, noo, to fetch anybody whoam, and ecod, we’ll begin to spend the evening in airnest.’






CHAPTER 43

Officiates as a kind of Gentleman Usher, in bringing various People together

The storm had long given place to a calm the most profound, and the evening was pretty far advanced—indeed supper was over, and the process of digestion proceeding as favourably as, under the influence of complete tranquillity, cheerful conversation, and a moderate allowance of brandy-and-water, most wise men conversant with the anatomy and functions of the human frame will consider that it ought to have proceeded, when the three friends, or as one might say, both in a civil and religious sense, and with proper deference and regard to the holy state of matrimony, the two friends, (Mr. and Mrs. Browdie counting as no more than one,) were startled by the noise of loud and angry threatenings below stairs, which presently attained so high a pitch, and were conveyed besides in language so towering, sanguinary, and ferocious, that it could hardly have been surpassed, if there had actually been a Saracen’s head then present in the establishment, supported on the shoulders and surmounting the trunk of a real, live, furious, and most unappeasable Saracen.

This turmoil, instead of quickly subsiding after the first outburst, (as turmoils not unfrequently do, whether in taverns, legislative assemblies, or elsewhere,) into a mere grumbling and growling squabble, increased every moment; and although the whole din appeared to be raised by but one pair of lungs, yet that one pair was of so powerful a quality, and repeated such words as ‘scoundrel,’ ‘rascal,’ ‘insolent puppy,’ and a variety of expletives no less flattering to the party addressed, with such great relish and strength of tone, that a dozen voices raised in concert under any ordinary circumstances would have made far less uproar and created much smaller consternation.

‘Why, what’s the matter?’ said Nicholas, moving hastily towards the door.

John Browdie was striding in the same direction when Mrs. Browdie turned pale, and, leaning back in her chair, requested him with a faint voice to take notice, that if he ran into any danger it was her intention to fall into hysterics immediately, and that the consequences might be more serious than he thought for. John looked rather disconcerted by this intelligence, though there was a lurking grin on his face at the same time; but, being quite unable to keep out of the fray, he compromised the matter by tucking his wife’s arm under his own, and, thus accompanied, following Nicholas downstairs with all speed.

The passage outside the coffee-room door was the scene of disturbance, and here were congregated the coffee-room customers and waiters, together with two or three coachmen and helpers from the yard. These had hastily assembled round a young man who from his appearance might have been a year or two older than Nicholas, and who, besides having given utterance to the defiances just now described, seemed to have proceeded to even greater lengths in his indignation, inasmuch as his feet had no other covering than a pair of stockings, while a couple of slippers lay at no great distance from the head of a prostrate figure in an opposite corner, who bore the appearance of having been shot into his present retreat by means of a kick, and complimented by having the slippers flung about his ears afterwards.

The coffee-room customers, and the waiters, and the coachmen, and the helpers—not to mention a barmaid who was looking on from behind an open sash window—seemed at that moment, if a spectator might judge from their winks, nods, and muttered exclamations, strongly disposed to take part against the young gentleman in the stockings. Observing this, and that the young gentleman was nearly of his own age and had in nothing the appearance of an habitual brawler, Nicholas, impelled by such feelings as will influence young men sometimes, felt a very strong disposition to side with the weaker party, and so thrust himself at once into the centre of the group, and in a more emphatic tone, perhaps, than circumstances might seem to warrant, demanded what all that noise was about.

‘Hallo!’ said one of the men from the yard, ‘this is somebody in disguise, this is.’

‘Room for the eldest son of the Emperor of Roosher, gen’l’men!’ cried another fellow.

Disregarding these sallies, which were uncommonly well received, as sallies at the expense of the best-dressed persons in a crowd usually are, Nicholas glanced carelessly round, and addressing the young gentleman, who had by this time picked up his slippers and thrust his feet into them, repeated his inquiries with a courteous air.

‘A mere nothing!’ he replied.

At this a murmur was raised by the lookers-on, and some of the boldest cried, ‘Oh, indeed!—Wasn’t it though?—Nothing, eh?—He called that nothing, did he? Lucky for him if he found it nothing.’ These and many other expressions of ironical disapprobation having been exhausted, two or three of the out-of-door fellows began to hustle Nicholas and the young gentleman who had made the noise: stumbling against them by accident, and treading on their toes, and so forth. But this being a round game, and one not necessarily limited to three or four players, was open to John Browdie too, who, bursting into the little crowd—to the great terror of his wife—and falling about in all directions, now to the right, now to the left, now forwards, now backwards, and accidentally driving his elbow through the hat of the tallest helper, who had been particularly active, speedily caused the odds to wear a very different appearance; while more than one stout fellow limped away to a respectful distance, anathematising with tears in his eyes the heavy tread and ponderous feet of the burly Yorkshireman.

‘Let me see him do it again,’ said he who had been kicked into the corner, rising as he spoke, apparently more from the fear of John Browdie’s inadvertently treading upon him, than from any desire to place himself on equal terms with his late adversary. ‘Let me see him do it again. That’s all.’

‘Let me hear you make those remarks again,’ said the young man, ‘and I’ll knock that head of yours in among the wine-glasses behind you there.’

Here a waiter who had been rubbing his hands in excessive enjoyment of the scene, so long as only the breaking of heads was in question, adjured the spectators with great earnestness to fetch the police, declaring that otherwise murder would be surely done, and that he was responsible for all the glass and china on the premises.

‘No one need trouble himself to stir,’ said the young gentleman, ‘I am going to remain in the house all night, and shall be found here in the morning if there is any assault to answer for.’

‘What did you strike him for?’ asked one of the bystanders.

‘Ah! what did you strike him for?’ demanded the others.

The unpopular gentleman looked coolly round, and addressing himself to Nicholas, said:

‘You inquired just now what was the matter here. The matter is simply this. Yonder person, who was drinking with a friend in the coffee-room when I took my seat there for half an hour before going to bed, (for I have just come off a journey, and preferred stopping here tonight, to going home at this hour, where I was not expected until tomorrow,) chose to express himself in very disrespectful, and insolently familiar terms, of a young lady, whom I recognised from his description and other circumstances, and whom I have the honour to know. As he spoke loud enough to be overheard by the other guests who were present, I informed him most civilly that he was mistaken in his conjectures, which were of an offensive nature, and requested him to forbear. He did so for a little time, but as he chose to renew his conversation when leaving the room, in a more offensive strain than before, I could not refrain from making after him, and facilitating his departure by a kick, which reduced him to the posture in which you saw him just now. I am the best judge of my own affairs, I take it,’ said the young man, who had certainly not quite recovered from his recent heat; ‘if anybody here thinks proper to make this quarrel his own, I have not the smallest earthly objection, I do assure him.’

Of all possible courses of proceeding under the circumstances detailed, there was certainly not one which, in his then state of mind, could have appeared more laudable to Nicholas than this. There were not many subjects of dispute which at that moment could have come home to his own breast more powerfully, for having the unknown uppermost in his thoughts, it naturally occurred to him that he would have done just the same if any audacious gossiper durst have presumed in his hearing to speak lightly of her. Influenced by these considerations, he espoused the young gentleman’s quarrel with great warmth, protesting that he had done quite right, and that he respected him for it; which John Browdie (albeit not quite clear as to the merits) immediately protested too, with not inferior vehemence.

‘Let him take care, that’s all,’ said the defeated party, who was being rubbed down by a waiter, after his recent fall on the dusty boards. ‘He don’t knock me about for nothing, I can tell him that. A pretty state of things, if a man isn’t to admire a handsome girl without being beat to pieces for it!’

This reflection appeared to have great weight with the young lady in the bar, who (adjusting her cap as she spoke, and glancing at a mirror) declared that it would be a very pretty state of things indeed; and that if people were to be punished for actions so innocent and natural as that, there would be more people to be knocked down than there would be people to knock them down, and that she wondered what the gentleman meant by it, that she did.

‘My dear girl,’ said the young gentleman in a low voice, advancing towards the sash window.

‘Nonsense, sir!’ replied the young lady sharply, smiling though as she turned aside, and biting her lip, (whereat Mrs. Browdie, who was still standing on the stairs, glanced at her with disdain, and called to her husband to come away).

‘No, but listen to me,’ said the young man. ‘If admiration of a pretty face were criminal, I should be the most hopeless person alive, for I cannot resist one. It has the most extraordinary effect upon me, checks and controls me in the most furious and obstinate mood. You see what an effect yours has had upon me already.’

‘Oh, that’s very pretty,’ replied the young lady, tossing her head, ‘but—’

‘Yes, I know it’s very pretty,’ said the young man, looking with an air of admiration in the barmaid’s face; ‘I said so, you know, just this moment. But beauty should be spoken of respectfully—respectfully, and in proper terms, and with a becoming sense of its worth and excellence, whereas this fellow has no more notion—’

The young lady interrupted the conversation at this point, by thrusting her head out of the bar-window, and inquiring of the waiter in a shrill voice whether that young man who had been knocked down was going to stand in the passage all night, or whether the entrance was to be left clear for other people. The waiters taking the hint, and communicating it to the hostlers, were not slow to change their tone too, and the result was, that the unfortunate victim was bundled out in a twinkling.

‘I am sure I have seen that fellow before,’ said Nicholas.

‘Indeed!’ replied his new acquaintance.

‘I am certain of it,’ said Nicholas, pausing to reflect. ‘Where can I have—stop!—yes, to be sure—he belongs to a register-office up at the west end of the town. I knew I recollected the face.’

It was, indeed, Tom, the ugly clerk.

‘That’s odd enough!’ said Nicholas, ruminating upon the strange manner in which the register-office seemed to start up and stare him in the face every now and then, and when he least expected it.

‘I am much obliged to you for your kind advocacy of my cause when it most needed an advocate,’ said the young man, laughing, and drawing a card from his pocket. ‘Perhaps you’ll do me the favour to let me know where I can thank you.’

Nicholas took the card, and glancing at it involuntarily as he returned the compliment, evinced very great surprise.

‘Mr. Frank Cheeryble!’ said Nicholas. ‘Surely not the nephew of Cheeryble Brothers, who is expected tomorrow!’

‘I don’t usually call myself the nephew of the firm,’ returned Mr. Frank, good-humouredly; ‘but of the two excellent individuals who compose it, I am proud to say I am the nephew. And you, I see, are Mr. Nickleby, of whom I have heard so much! This is a most unexpected meeting, but not the less welcome, I assure you.’

Nicholas responded to these compliments with others of the same kind, and they shook hands warmly. Then he introduced John Browdie, who had remained in a state of great admiration ever since the young lady in the bar had been so skilfully won over to the right side. Then Mrs. John Browdie was introduced, and finally they all went upstairs together and spent the next half-hour with great satisfaction and mutual entertainment; Mrs. John Browdie beginning the conversation by declaring that of all the made-up things she ever saw, that young woman below-stairs was the vainest and the plainest.

This Mr. Frank Cheeryble, although, to judge from what had recently taken place, a hot-headed young man (which is not an absolute miracle and phenomenon in nature), was a sprightly, good-humoured, pleasant fellow, with much both in his countenance and disposition that reminded Nicholas very strongly of the kind-hearted brothers. His manner was as unaffected as theirs, and his demeanour full of that heartiness which, to most people who have anything generous in their composition, is peculiarly prepossessing. Add to this, that he was good-looking and intelligent, had a plentiful share of vivacity, was extremely cheerful, and accommodated himself in five minutes’ time to all John Browdie’s oddities with as much ease as if he had known him from a boy; and it will be a source of no great wonder that, when they parted for the night, he had produced a most favourable impression, not only upon the worthy Yorkshireman and his wife, but upon Nicholas also, who, revolving all these things in his mind as he made the best of his way home, arrived at the conclusion that he had laid the foundation of a most agreeable and desirable acquaintance.

‘But it’s a most extraordinary thing about that register-office fellow!’ thought Nicholas. ‘Is it likely that this nephew can know anything about that beautiful girl? When Tim Linkinwater gave me to understand the other day that he was coming to take a share in the business here, he said he had been superintending it in Germany for four years, and that during the last six months he had been engaged in establishing an agency in the north of England. That’s four years and a half—four years and a half. She can’t be more than seventeen—say eighteen at the outside. She was quite a child when he went away, then. I should say he knew nothing about her and had never seen her, so he can give me no information. At all events,’ thought Nicholas, coming to the real point in his mind, ‘there can be no danger of any prior occupation of her affections in that quarter; that’s quite clear.’

Is selfishness a necessary ingredient in the composition of that passion called love, or does it deserve all the fine things which poets, in the exercise of their undoubted vocation, have said of it? There are, no doubt, authenticated instances of gentlemen having given up ladies and ladies having given up gentlemen to meritorious rivals, under circumstances of great high-mindedness; but is it quite established that the majority of such ladies and gentlemen have not made a virtue of necessity, and nobly resigned what was beyond their reach; as a private soldier might register a vow never to accept the order of the Garter, or a poor curate of great piety and learning, but of no family—save a very large family of children—might renounce a bishopric?

Here was Nicholas Nickleby, who would have scorned the thought of counting how the chances stood of his rising in favour or fortune with the brothers Cheeryble, now that their nephew had returned, already deep in calculations whether that same nephew was likely to rival him in the affections of the fair unknown—discussing the matter with himself too, as gravely as if, with that one exception, it were all settled; and recurring to the subject again and again, and feeling quite indignant and ill-used at the notion of anybody else making love to one with whom he had never exchanged a word in all his life. To be sure, he exaggerated rather than depreciated the merits of his new acquaintance; but still he took it as a kind of personal offence that he should have any merits at all—in the eyes of this particular young lady, that is; for elsewhere he was quite welcome to have as many as he pleased. There was undoubted selfishness in all this, and yet Nicholas was of a most free and generous nature, with as few mean or sordid thoughts, perhaps, as ever fell to the lot of any man; and there is no reason to suppose that, being in love, he felt and thought differently from other people in the like sublime condition.

He did not stop to set on foot an inquiry into his train of thought or state of feeling, however; but went thinking on all the way home, and continued to dream on in the same strain all night. For, having satisfied himself that Frank Cheeryble could have no knowledge of, or acquaintance with, the mysterious young lady, it began to occur to him that even he himself might never see her again; upon which hypothesis he built up a very ingenious succession of tormenting ideas which answered his purpose even better than the vision of Mr. Frank Cheeryble, and tantalised and worried him, waking and sleeping.

Notwithstanding all that has been said and sung to the contrary, there is no well-established case of morning having either deferred or hastened its approach by the term of an hour or so for the mere gratification of a splenetic feeling against some unoffending lover: the sun having, in the discharge of his public duty, as the books of precedent report, invariably risen according to the almanacs, and without suffering himself to be swayed by any private considerations. So, morning came as usual, and with it business-hours, and with them Mr. Frank Cheeryble, and with him a long train of smiles and welcomes from the worthy brothers, and a more grave and clerk-like, but scarcely less hearty reception from Mr. Timothy Linkinwater.

‘That Mr. Frank and Mr. Nickleby should have met last night,’ said Tim Linkinwater, getting slowly off his stool, and looking round the counting-house with his back planted against the desk, as was his custom when he had anything very particular to say: ‘that those two young men should have met last night in that manner is, I say, a coincidence, a remarkable coincidence. Why, I don’t believe now,’ added Tim, taking off his spectacles, and smiling as with gentle pride, ‘that there’s such a place in all the world for coincidences as London is!’

‘I don’t know about that,’ said Mr. Frank; ‘but—’

‘Don’t know about it, Mr. Francis!’ interrupted Tim, with an obstinate air. ‘Well, but let us know. If there is any better place for such things, where is it? Is it in Europe? No, that it isn’t. Is it in Asia? Why, of course it’s not. Is it in Africa? Not a bit of it. Is it in America? you know better than that, at all events. Well, then,’ said Tim, folding his arms resolutely, ‘where is it?’

‘I was not about to dispute the point, Tim,’ said young Cheeryble, laughing. ‘I am not such a heretic as that. All I was going to say was, that I hold myself under an obligation to the coincidence, that’s all.’

‘Oh! if you don’t dispute it,’ said Tim, quite satisfied, ‘that’s another thing. I’ll tell you what though. I wish you had. I wish you or anybody would. I would so put that man down,’ said Tim, tapping the forefinger of his left hand emphatically with his spectacles, ‘so put that man down by argument—’

It was quite impossible to find language to express the degree of mental prostration to which such an adventurous wight would be reduced in the keen encounter with Tim Linkinwater, so Tim gave up the rest of his declaration in pure lack of words, and mounted his stool again.

‘We may consider ourselves, brother Ned,’ said Charles, after he had patted Tim Linkinwater approvingly on the back, ‘very fortunate in having two such young men about us as our nephew Frank and Mr. Nickleby. It should be a source of great satisfaction and pleasure to us.’

‘Certainly, Charles, certainly,’ returned the other.

‘Of Tim,’ added brother Ned, ‘I say nothing whatever, because Tim is a mere child—an infant—a nobody that we never think of or take into account at all. Tim, you villain, what do you say to that, sir?’

‘I am jealous of both of ‘em,’ said Tim, ‘and mean to look out for another situation; so provide yourselves, gentlemen, if you please.’

Tim thought this such an exquisite, unparalleled, and most extraordinary joke, that he laid his pen upon the inkstand, and rather tumbling off his stool than getting down with his usual deliberation, laughed till he was quite faint, shaking his head all the time so that little particles of powder flew palpably about the office. Nor were the brothers at all behind-hand, for they laughed almost as heartily at the ludicrous idea of any voluntary separation between themselves and old Tim. Nicholas and Mr Frank laughed quite boisterously, perhaps to conceal some other emotion awakened by this little incident, (and so, indeed, did the three old fellows after the first burst,) so perhaps there was as much keen enjoyment and relish in that laugh, altogether, as the politest assembly ever derived from the most poignant witticism uttered at any one person’s expense.

‘Mr. Nickleby,’ said brother Charles, calling him aside, and taking him kindly by the hand, ‘I—I—am anxious, my dear sir, to see that you are properly and comfortably settled in the cottage. We cannot allow those who serve us well to labour under any privation or discomfort that it is in our power to remove. I wish, too, to see your mother and sister: to know them, Mr. Nickleby, and have an opportunity of relieving their minds by assuring them that any trifling service we have been able to do them is a great deal more than repaid by the zeal and ardour you display.—Not a word, my dear sir, I beg. Tomorrow is Sunday. I shall make bold to come out at teatime, and take the chance of finding you at home; if you are not, you know, or the ladies should feel a delicacy in being intruded on, and would rather not be known to me just now, why I can come again another time, any other time would do for me. Let it remain upon that understanding. Brother Ned, my dear fellow, let me have a word with you this way.’

The twins went out of the office arm-in-arm, and Nicholas, who saw in this act of kindness, and many others of which he had been the subject that morning, only so many delicate renewals on the arrival of their nephew of the kind assurance which the brothers had given him in his absence, could scarcely feel sufficient admiration and gratitude for such extraordinary consideration.

The intelligence that they were to have a visitor—and such a visitor—next day, awakened in the breast of Mrs. Nickleby mingled feelings of exultation and regret; for whereas on the one hand she hailed it as an omen of her speedy restoration to good society and the almost-forgotten pleasures of morning calls and evening tea-drinkings, she could not, on the other, but reflect with bitterness of spirit on the absence of a silver teapot with an ivory knob on the lid, and a milk-jug to match, which had been the pride of her heart in days of yore, and had been kept from year’s end to year’s end wrapped up in wash-leather on a certain top shelf which now presented itself in lively colours to her sorrowing imagination.

‘I wonder who’s got that spice-box,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, shaking her head. ‘It used to stand in the left-hand corner, next but two to the pickled onions. You remember that spice-box, Kate?’

‘Perfectly well, mama.’

‘I shouldn’t think you did, Kate,’ returned Mrs. Nickleby, in a severe manner, ‘talking about it in that cold and unfeeling way! If there is any one thing that vexes me in these losses more than the losses themselves, I do protest and declare,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, rubbing her nose with an impassioned air, ‘that it is to have people about me who take things with such provoking calmness.’

‘My dear mama,’ said Kate, stealing her arm round her mother’s neck, ‘why do you say what I know you cannot seriously mean or think, or why be angry with me for being happy and content? You and Nicholas are left to me, we are together once again, and what regard can I have for a few trifling things of which we never feel the want? When I have seen all the misery and desolation that death can bring, and known the lonesome feeling of being solitary and alone in crowds, and all the agony of separation in grief and poverty when we most needed comfort and support from each other, can you wonder that I look upon this as a place of such delicious quiet and rest, that with you beside me I have nothing to wish for or regret? There was a time, and not long since, when all the comforts of our old home did come back upon me, I own, very often—oftener than you would think perhaps—but I affected to care nothing for them, in the hope that you would so be brought to regret them the less. I was not insensible, indeed. I might have felt happier if I had been. Dear mama,’ said Kate, in great agitation, ‘I know no difference between this home and that in which we were all so happy for so many years, except that the kindest and gentlest heart that ever ached on earth has passed in peace to heaven.’

‘Kate my dear, Kate,’ cried Mrs. Nickleby, folding her in her arms.

‘I have so often thought,’ sobbed Kate, ‘of all his kind words—of the last time he looked into my little room, as he passed upstairs to bed, and said “God bless you, darling.” There was a paleness in his face, mama—the broken heart—I know it was—I little thought so—then—’

A gush of tears came to her relief, and Kate laid her head upon her mother’s breast, and wept like a little child.

It is an exquisite and beautiful thing in our nature, that when the heart is touched and softened by some tranquil happiness or affectionate feeling, the memory of the dead comes over it most powerfully and irresistibly. It would almost seem as though our better thoughts and sympathies were charms, in virtue of which the soul is enabled to hold some vague and mysterious intercourse with the spirits of those whom we dearly loved in life. Alas! how often and how long may those patient angels hover above us, watching for the spell which is so seldom uttered, and so soon forgotten!

Poor Mrs. Nickleby, accustomed to give ready utterance to whatever came uppermost in her mind, had never conceived the possibility of her daughter’s dwelling upon these thoughts in secret, the more especially as no hard trial or querulous reproach had ever drawn them from her. But now, when the happiness of all that Nicholas had just told them, and of their new and peaceful life, brought these recollections so strongly upon Kate that she could not suppress them, Mrs. Nickleby began to have a glimmering that she had been rather thoughtless now and then, and was conscious of something like self-reproach as she embraced her daughter, and yielded to the emotions which such a conversation naturally awakened.

There was a mighty bustle that night, and a vast quantity of preparation for the expected visitor, and a very large nosegay was brought from a gardener’s hard by, and cut up into a number of very small ones, with which Mrs. Nickleby would have garnished the little sitting-room, in a style that certainly could not have failed to attract anybody’s attention, if Kate had not offered to spare her the trouble, and arranged them in the prettiest and neatest manner possible. If the cottage ever looked pretty, it must have been on such a bright and sunshiny day as the next day was. But Smike’s pride in the garden, or Mrs. Nickleby’s in the condition of the furniture, or Kate’s in everything, was nothing to the pride with which Nicholas looked at Kate herself; and surely the costliest mansion in all England might have found in her beautiful face and graceful form its most exquisite and peerless ornament.

About six o’clock in the afternoon Mrs. Nickleby was thrown into a great flutter of spirits by the long-expected knock at the door, nor was this flutter at all composed by the audible tread of two pair of boots in the passage, which Mrs. Nickleby augured, in a breathless state, must be ‘the two Mr. Cheerybles;’ as it certainly was, though not the two Mrs. Nickleby expected, because it was Mr. Charles Cheeryble, and his nephew, Mr. Frank, who made a thousand apologies for his intrusion, which Mrs. Nickleby (having tea-spoons enough and to spare for all) most graciously received. Nor did the appearance of this unexpected visitor occasion the least embarrassment, (save in Kate, and that only to the extent of a blush or two at first,) for the old gentleman was so kind and cordial, and the young gentleman imitated him in this respect so well, that the usual stiffness and formality of a first meeting showed no signs of appearing, and Kate really more than once detected herself in the very act of wondering when it was going to begin.

At the tea-table there was plenty of conversation on a great variety of subjects, nor were there wanting jocose matters of discussion, such as they were; for young Mr. Cheeryble’s recent stay in Germany happening to be alluded to, old Mr. Cheeryble informed the company that the aforesaid young Mr. Cheeryble was suspected to have fallen deeply in love with the daughter of a certain German burgomaster. This accusation young Mr. Cheeryble most indignantly repelled, upon which Mrs. Nickleby slyly remarked, that she suspected, from the very warmth of the denial, there must be something in it. Young Mr. Cheeryble then earnestly entreated old Mr. Cheeryble to confess that it was all a jest, which old Mr. Cheeryble at last did, young Mr. Cheeryble being so much in earnest about it, that—as Mrs. Nickleby said many thousand times afterwards in recalling the scene—he ‘quite coloured,’ which she rightly considered a memorable circumstance, and one worthy of remark, young men not being as a class remarkable for modesty or self-denial, especially when there is a lady in the case, when, if they colour at all, it is rather their practice to colour the story, and not themselves.

After tea there was a walk in the garden, and the evening being very fine they strolled out at the garden-gate into some lanes and bye-roads, and sauntered up and down until it grew quite dark. The time seemed to pass very quickly with all the party. Kate went first, leaning upon her brother’s arm, and talking with him and Mr. Frank Cheeryble; and Mrs Nickleby and the elder gentleman followed at a short distance, the kindness of the good merchant, his interest in the welfare of Nicholas, and his admiration of Kate, so operating upon the good lady’s feelings, that the usual current of her speech was confined within very narrow and circumscribed limits. Smike (who, if he had ever been an object of interest in his life, had been one that day) accompanied them, joining sometimes one group and sometimes the other, as brother Charles, laying his hand upon his shoulder, bade him walk with him, or Nicholas, looking smilingly round, beckoned him to come and talk with the old friend who understood him best, and who could win a smile into his careworn face when none else could.

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins; but it cannot be the pride of a mother in her children, for that is a compound of two cardinal virtues—faith and hope. This was the pride which swelled Mrs. Nickleby’s heart that night, and this it was which left upon her face, glistening in the light when they returned home, traces of the most grateful tears she had ever shed.

There was a quiet mirth about the little supper, which harmonised exactly with this tone of feeling, and at length the two gentlemen took their leave. There was one circumstance in the leave-taking which occasioned a vast deal of smiling and pleasantry, and that was, that Mr. Frank Cheeryble offered his hand to Kate twice over, quite forgetting that he had bade her adieu already. This was held by the elder Mr. Cheeryble to be a convincing proof that he was thinking of his German flame, and the jest occasioned immense laughter. So easy is it to move light hearts.

In short, it was a day of serene and tranquil happiness; and as we all have some bright day—many of us, let us hope, among a crowd of others—to which we revert with particular delight, so this one was often looked back to afterwards, as holding a conspicuous place in the calendar of those who shared it.

Was there one exception, and that one he who needed to have been most happy?

Who was that who, in the silence of his own chamber, sunk upon his knees to pray as his first friend had taught him, and folding his hands and stretching them wildly in the air, fell upon his face in a passion of bitter grief?






CHAPTER 44

Mr. Ralph Nickleby cuts an old Acquaintance. It would also appear from the Contents hereof, that a Joke, even between Husband and Wife, may be sometimes carried too far

There are some men who, living with the one object of enriching themselves, no matter by what means, and being perfectly conscious of the baseness and rascality of the means which they will use every day towards this end, affect nevertheless—even to themselves—a high tone of moral rectitude, and shake their heads and sigh over the depravity of the world. Some of the craftiest scoundrels that ever walked this earth, or rather—for walking implies, at least, an erect position and the bearing of a man—that ever crawled and crept through life by its dirtiest and narrowest ways, will gravely jot down in diaries the events of every day, and keep a regular debtor and creditor account with Heaven, which shall always show a floating balance in their own favour. Whether this is a gratuitous (the only gratuitous) part of the falsehood and trickery of such men’s lives, or whether they really hope to cheat Heaven itself, and lay up treasure in the next world by the same process which has enabled them to lay up treasure in this—not to question how it is, so it is. And, doubtless, such book-keeping (like certain autobiographies which have enlightened the world) cannot fail to prove serviceable, in the one respect of sparing the recording Angel some time and labour.

Ralph Nickleby was not a man of this stamp. Stern, unyielding, dogged, and impenetrable, Ralph cared for nothing in life, or beyond it, save the gratification of two passions, avarice, the first and predominant appetite of his nature, and hatred, the second. Affecting to consider himself but a type of all humanity, he was at little pains to conceal his true character from the world in general, and in his own heart he exulted over and cherished every bad design as it had birth. The only scriptural admonition that Ralph Nickleby heeded, in the letter, was ‘know thyself.’ He knew himself well, and choosing to imagine that all mankind were cast in the same mould, hated them; for, though no man hates himself, the coldest among us having too much self-love for that, yet most men unconsciously judge the world from themselves, and it will be very generally found that those who sneer habitually at human nature, and affect to despise it, are among its worst and least pleasant samples.

But the present business of these adventures is with Ralph himself, who stood regarding Newman Noggs with a heavy frown, while that worthy took off his fingerless gloves, and spreading them carefully on the palm of his left hand, and flattening them with his right to take the creases out, proceeded to roll them up with an absent air as if he were utterly regardless of all things else, in the deep interest of the ceremonial.

‘Gone out of town!’ said Ralph, slowly. ‘A mistake of yours. Go back again.’

‘No mistake,’ returned Newman. ‘Not even going; gone.’

‘Has he turned girl or baby?’ muttered Ralph, with a fretful gesture.

‘I don’t know,’ said Newman, ‘but he’s gone.’

The repetition of the word ‘gone’ seemed to afford Newman Noggs inexpressible delight, in proportion as it annoyed Ralph Nickleby. He uttered the word with a full round emphasis, dwelling upon it as long as he decently could, and when he could hold out no longer without attracting observation, stood gasping it to himself as if even that were a satisfaction.

‘And where has he gone?’ said Ralph.

‘France,’ replied Newman. ‘Danger of another attack of erysipelas—a worse attack—in the head. So the doctors ordered him off. And he’s gone.’

‘And Lord Frederick—?’ began Ralph.

‘He’s gone too,’ replied Newman.

‘And he carries his drubbing with him, does he?’ said Ralph, turning away; ‘pockets his bruises, and sneaks off without the retaliation of a word, or seeking the smallest reparation!’

‘He’s too ill,’ said Newman.

‘Too ill!’ repeated Ralph. ‘Why I would have it if I were dying; in that case I should only be the more determined to have it, and that without delay—I mean if I were he. But he’s too ill! Poor Sir Mulberry! Too ill!’

Uttering these words with supreme contempt and great irritation of manner, Ralph signed hastily to Newman to leave the room; and throwing himself into his chair, beat his foot impatiently upon the ground.

‘There is some spell about that boy,’ said Ralph, grinding his teeth. ‘Circumstances conspire to help him. Talk of fortune’s favours! What is even money to such Devil’s luck as this?’

He thrust his hands impatiently into his pockets, but notwithstanding his previous reflection there was some consolation there, for his face relaxed a little; and although there was still a deep frown upon the contracted brow, it was one of calculation, and not of disappointment.

‘This Hawk will come back, however,’ muttered Ralph; ‘and if I know the man (and I should by this time) his wrath will have lost nothing of its violence in the meanwhile. Obliged to live in retirement—the monotony of a sick-room to a man of his habits—no life—no drink—no play—nothing that he likes and lives by. He is not likely to forget his obligations to the cause of all this. Few men would; but he of all others? No, no!’

He smiled and shook his head, and resting his chin upon his hand, fell a musing, and smiled again. After a time he rose and rang the bell.

‘That Mr. Squeers; has he been here?’ said Ralph.

‘He was here last night. I left him here when I went home,’ returned Newman.

‘I know that, fool, do I not?’ said Ralph, irascibly. ‘Has he been here since? Was he here this morning?’

‘No,’ bawled Newman, in a very loud key.

‘If he comes while I am out—he is pretty sure to be here by nine tonight—let him wait. And if there’s another man with him, as there will be—perhaps,’ said Ralph, checking himself, ‘let him wait too.’

‘Let ‘em both wait?’ said Newman.

‘Ay,’ replied Ralph, turning upon him with an angry look. ‘Help me on with this spencer, and don’t repeat after me, like a croaking parrot.’

‘I wish I was a parrot,’ Newman, sulkily.

‘I wish you were,’ rejoined Ralph, drawing his spencer on; ‘I’d have wrung your neck long ago.’

Newman returned no answer to this compliment, but looked over Ralph’s shoulder for an instant, (he was adjusting the collar of the spencer behind, just then,) as if he were strongly disposed to tweak him by the nose. Meeting Ralph’s eye, however, he suddenly recalled his wandering fingers, and rubbed his own red nose with a vehemence quite astonishing.

Bestowing no further notice upon his eccentric follower than a threatening look, and an admonition to be careful and make no mistake, Ralph took his hat and gloves, and walked out.

He appeared to have a very extraordinary and miscellaneous connection, and very odd calls he made, some at great rich houses, and some at small poor ones, but all upon one subject: money. His face was a talisman to the porters and servants of his more dashing clients, and procured him ready admission, though he trudged on foot, and others, who were denied, rattled to the door in carriages. Here he was all softness and cringing civility; his step so light, that it scarcely produced a sound upon the thick carpets; his voice so soft that it was not audible beyond the person to whom it was addressed. But in the poorer habitations Ralph was another man; his boots creaked upon the passage floor as he walked boldly in; his voice was harsh and loud as he demanded the money that was overdue; his threats were coarse and angry. With another class of customers, Ralph was again another man. These were attorneys of more than doubtful reputation, who helped him to new business, or raised fresh profits upon old. With them Ralph was familiar and jocose, humorous upon the topics of the day, and especially pleasant upon bankruptcies and pecuniary difficulties that made good for trade. In short, it would have been difficult to have recognised the same man under these various aspects, but for the bulky leather case full of bills and notes which he drew from his pocket at every house, and the constant repetition of the same complaint, (varied only in tone and style of delivery,) that the world thought him rich, and that perhaps he might be if he had his own; but there was no getting money in when it was once out, either principal or interest, and it was a hard matter to live; even to live from day to day.

It was evening before a long round of such visits (interrupted only by a scanty dinner at an eating-house) terminated at Pimlico, and Ralph walked along St James’s Park, on his way home.

There were some deep schemes in his head, as the puckered brow and firmly-set mouth would have abundantly testified, even if they had been unaccompanied by a complete indifference to, or unconsciousness of, the objects about him. So complete was his abstraction, however, that Ralph, usually as quick-sighted as any man, did not observe that he was followed by a shambling figure, which at one time stole behind him with noiseless footsteps, at another crept a few paces before him, and at another glided along by his side; at all times regarding him with an eye so keen, and a look so eager and attentive, that it was more like the expression of an intrusive face in some powerful picture or strongly marked dream, than the scrutiny even of a most interested and anxious observer.

The sky had been lowering and dark for some time, and the commencement of a violent storm of rain drove Ralph for shelter to a tree. He was leaning against it with folded arms, still buried in thought, when, happening to raise his eyes, he suddenly met those of a man who, creeping round the trunk, peered into his face with a searching look. There was something in the usurer’s expression at the moment, which the man appeared to remember well, for it decided him; and stepping close up to Ralph, he pronounced his name.

Astonished for the moment, Ralph fell back a couple of paces and surveyed him from head to foot. A spare, dark, withered man, of about his own age, with a stooping body, and a very sinister face rendered more ill-favoured by hollow and hungry cheeks, deeply sunburnt, and thick black eyebrows, blacker in contrast with the perfect whiteness of his hair; roughly clothed in shabby garments, of a strange and uncouth make; and having about him an indefinable manner of depression and degradation—this, for a moment, was all he saw. But he looked again, and the face and person seemed gradually to grow less strange; to change as he looked, to subside and soften into lineaments that were familiar, until at last they resolved themselves, as if by some strange optical illusion, into those of one whom he had known for many years, and forgotten and lost sight of for nearly as many more.

The man saw that the recognition was mutual, and beckoning to Ralph to take his former place under the tree, and not to stand in the falling rain, of which, in his first surprise, he had been quite regardless, addressed him in a hoarse, faint tone.

‘You would hardly have known me from my voice, I suppose, Mr. Nickleby?’ he said.

‘No,’ returned Ralph, bending a severe look upon him. ‘Though there is something in that, that I remember now.’

‘There is little in me that you can call to mind as having been there eight years ago, I dare say?’ observed the other.

‘Quite enough,’ said Ralph, carelessly, and averting his face. ‘More than enough.’

‘If I had remained in doubt about you, Mr. Nickleby,’ said the other, ‘this reception, and your manner, would have decided me very soon.’

‘Did you expect any other?’ asked Ralph, sharply.

‘No!’ said the man.

‘You were right,’ retorted Ralph; ‘and as you feel no surprise, need express none.’

‘Mr. Nickleby,’ said the man, bluntly, after a brief pause, during which he had seemed to struggle with an inclination to answer him by some reproach, ‘will you hear a few words that I have to say?’

‘I am obliged to wait here till the rain holds a little,’ said Ralph, looking abroad. ‘If you talk, sir, I shall not put my fingers in my ears, though your talking may have as much effect as if I did.’

‘I was once in your confidence—’ thus his companion began. Ralph looked round, and smiled involuntarily.

‘Well,’ said the other, ‘as much in your confidence as you ever chose to let anybody be.’

‘Ah!’ rejoined Ralph, folding his arms; ‘that’s another thing, quite another thing.’

‘Don’t let us play upon words, Mr. Nickleby, in the name of humanity.’

‘Of what?’ said Ralph.

‘Of humanity,’ replied the other, sternly. ‘I am hungry and in want. If the change that you must see in me after so long an absence—must see, for I, upon whom it has come by slow and hard degrees, see it and know it well—will not move you to pity, let the knowledge that bread; not the daily bread of the Lord’s Prayer, which, as it is offered up in cities like this, is understood to include half the luxuries of the world for the rich, and just as much coarse food as will support life for the poor—not that, but bread, a crust of dry hard bread, is beyond my reach today—let that have some weight with you, if nothing else has.’

‘If this is the usual form in which you beg, sir,’ said Ralph, ‘you have studied your part well; but if you will take advice from one who knows something of the world and its ways, I should recommend a lower tone; a little lower tone, or you stand a fair chance of being starved in good earnest.’

As he said this, Ralph clenched his left wrist tightly with his right hand, and inclining his head a little on one side and dropping his chin upon his breast, looked at him whom he addressed with a frowning, sullen face. The very picture of a man whom nothing could move or soften.

‘Yesterday was my first day in London,’ said the old man, glancing at his travel-stained dress and worn shoes.

‘It would have been better for you, I think, if it had been your last also,’ replied Ralph.

‘I have been seeking you these two days, where I thought you were most likely to be found,’ resumed the other more humbly, ‘and I met you here at last, when I had almost given up the hope of encountering you, Mr Nickleby.’

He seemed to wait for some reply, but Ralph giving him none, he continued:

‘I am a most miserable and wretched outcast, nearly sixty years old, and as destitute and helpless as a child of six.’

‘I am sixty years old, too,’ replied Ralph, ‘and am neither destitute nor helpless. Work. Don’t make fine play-acting speeches about bread, but earn it.’

‘How?’ cried the other. ‘Where? Show me the means. Will you give them to me—will you?’

‘I did once,’ replied Ralph, composedly; ‘you scarcely need ask me whether I will again.’

‘It’s twenty years ago, or more,’ said the man, in a suppressed voice, ‘since you and I fell out. You remember that? I claimed a share in the profits of some business I brought to you, and, as I persisted, you arrested me for an old advance of ten pounds, odd shillings, including interest at fifty per cent, or so.’

‘I remember something of it,’ replied Ralph, carelessly. ‘What then?’

‘That didn’t part us,’ said the man. ‘I made submission, being on the wrong side of the bolts and bars; and as you were not the made man then that you are now, you were glad enough to take back a clerk who wasn’t over nice, and who knew something of the trade you drove.’

‘You begged and prayed, and I consented,’ returned Ralph. ‘That was kind of me. Perhaps I did want you. I forget. I should think I did, or you would have begged in vain. You were useful; not too honest, not too delicate, not too nice of hand or heart; but useful.’

‘Useful, indeed!’ said the man. ‘Come. You had pinched and ground me down for some years before that, but I had served you faithfully up to that time, in spite of all your dog’s usage. Had I?’

Ralph made no reply.

‘Had I?’ said the man again.

‘You had had your wages,’ rejoined Ralph, ‘and had done your work. We stood on equal ground so far, and could both cry quits.’

‘Then, but not afterwards,’ said the other.

‘Not afterwards, certainly, nor even then, for (as you have just said) you owed me money, and do still,’ replied Ralph.

‘That’s not all,’ said the man, eagerly. ‘That’s not all. Mark that. I didn’t forget that old sore, trust me. Partly in remembrance of that, and partly in the hope of making money someday by the scheme, I took advantage of my position about you, and possessed myself of a hold upon you, which you would give half of all you have to know, and never can know but through me. I left you—long after that time, remember—and, for some poor trickery that came within the law, but was nothing to what you money-makers daily practise just outside its bounds, was sent away a convict for seven years. I have returned what you see me. Now, Mr Nickleby,’ said the man, with a strange mixture of humility and sense of power, ‘what help and assistance will you give me; what bribe, to speak out plainly? My expectations are not monstrous, but I must live, and to live I must eat and drink. Money is on your side, and hunger and thirst on mine. You may drive an easy bargain.’

‘Is that all?’ said Ralph, still eyeing his companion with the same steady look, and moving nothing but his lips.

‘It depends on you, Mr. Nickleby, whether that’s all or not,’ was the rejoinder.

‘Why then, harkye, Mr—, I don’t know by what name I am to call you,’ said Ralph.

‘By my old one, if you like.’

‘Why then, harkye, Mr. Brooker,’ said Ralph, in his harshest accents, ‘and don’t expect to draw another speech from me. Harkye, sir. I know you of old for a ready scoundrel, but you never had a stout heart; and hard work, with (maybe) chains upon those legs of yours, and shorter food than when I “pinched” and “ground” you, has blunted your wits, or you would not come with such a tale as this to me. You a hold upon me! Keep it, or publish it to the world, if you like.’

‘I can’t do that,’ interposed Brooker. ‘That wouldn’t serve me.’

‘Wouldn’t it?’ said Ralph. ‘It will serve you as much as bringing it to me, I promise you. To be plain with you, I am a careful man, and know my affairs thoroughly. I know the world, and the world knows me. Whatever you gleaned, or heard, or saw, when you served me, the world knows and magnifies already. You could tell it nothing that would surprise it, unless, indeed, it redounded to my credit or honour, and then it would scout you for a liar. And yet I don’t find business slack, or clients scrupulous. Quite the contrary. I am reviled or threatened every day by one man or another,’ said Ralph; ‘but things roll on just the same, and I don’t grow poorer either.’

‘I neither revile nor threaten,’ rejoined the man. ‘I can tell you of what you have lost by my act, what I only can restore, and what, if I die without restoring, dies with me, and never can be regained.’

‘I tell my money pretty accurately, and generally keep it in my own custody,’ said Ralph. ‘I look sharply after most men that I deal with, and most of all I looked sharply after you. You are welcome to all you have kept from me.’

‘Are those of your own name dear to you?’ said the man emphatically. ‘If they are—’

‘They are not,’ returned Ralph, exasperated at this perseverance, and the thought of Nicholas, which the last question awakened. ‘They are not. If you had come as a common beggar, I might have thrown a sixpence to you in remembrance of the clever knave you used to be; but since you try to palm these stale tricks upon one you might have known better, I’ll not part with a halfpenny—nor would I to save you from rotting. And remember this, ‘scape-gallows,’ said Ralph, menacing him with his hand, ‘that if we meet again, and you so much as notice me by one begging gesture, you shall see the inside of a jail once more, and tighten this hold upon me in intervals of the hard labour that vagabonds are put to. There’s my answer to your trash. Take it.’

With a disdainful scowl at the object of his anger, who met his eye but uttered not a word, Ralph walked away at his usual pace, without manifesting the slightest curiosity to see what became of his late companion, or indeed once looking behind him. The man remained on the same spot with his eyes fixed upon his retreating figure until it was lost to view, and then drawing his arm about his chest, as if the damp and lack of food struck coldly to him, lingered with slouching steps by the wayside, and begged of those who passed along.

Ralph, in no-wise moved by what had lately passed, further than as he had already expressed himself, walked deliberately on, and turning out of the Park and leaving Golden Square on his right, took his way through some streets at the west end of the town until he arrived in that particular one in which stood the residence of Madame Mantalini. The name of that lady no longer appeared on the flaming door-plate, that of Miss Knag being substituted in its stead; but the bonnets and dresses were still dimly visible in the first-floor windows by the decaying light of a summer’s evening, and excepting this ostensible alteration in the proprietorship, the establishment wore its old appearance.

‘Humph!’ muttered Ralph, drawing his hand across his mouth with a connoisseur-like air, and surveying the house from top to bottom; ‘these people look pretty well. They can’t last long; but if I know of their going in good time, I am safe, and a fair profit too. I must keep them closely in view; that’s all.’

So, nodding his head very complacently, Ralph was leaving the spot, when his quick ear caught the sound of a confused noise and hubbub of voices, mingled with a great running up and down stairs, in the very house which had been the subject of his scrutiny; and while he was hesitating whether to knock at the door or listen at the keyhole a little longer, a female servant of Madame Mantalini’s (whom he had often seen) opened it abruptly and bounced out, with her blue cap-ribbons streaming in the air.

‘Hallo here. Stop!’ cried Ralph. ‘What’s the matter? Here am I. Didn’t you hear me knock?’

‘Oh! Mr. Nickleby, sir,’ said the girl. ‘Go up, for the love of Gracious. Master’s been and done it again.’

‘Done what?’ said Ralph, tartly; ‘what d’ye mean?’

‘I knew he would if he was drove to it,’ cried the girl. ‘I said so all along.’

‘Come here, you silly wench,’ said Ralph, catching her by the wrist; ‘and don’t carry family matters to the neighbours, destroying the credit of the establishment. Come here; do you hear me, girl?’

Without any further expostulation, he led or rather pulled the frightened handmaid into the house, and shut the door; then bidding her walk upstairs before him, followed without more ceremony.

Guided by the noise of a great many voices all talking together, and passing the girl in his impatience, before they had ascended many steps, Ralph quickly reached the private sitting-room, when he was rather amazed by the confused and inexplicable scene in which he suddenly found himself.

There were all the young-lady workers, some with bonnets and some without, in various attitudes expressive of alarm and consternation; some gathered round Madame Mantalini, who was in tears upon one chair; and others round Miss Knag, who was in opposition tears upon another; and others round Mr Mantalini, who was perhaps the most striking figure in the whole group, for Mr. Mantalini’s legs were extended at full length upon the floor, and his head and shoulders were supported by a very tall footman, who didn’t seem to know what to do with them, and Mr. Mantalini’s eyes were closed, and his face was pale and his hair was comparatively straight, and his whiskers and moustache were limp, and his teeth were clenched, and he had a little bottle in his right hand, and a little tea-spoon in his left; and his hands, arms, legs, and shoulders, were all stiff and powerless. And yet Madame Mantalini was not weeping upon the body, but was scolding violently upon her chair; and all this amidst a clamour of tongues perfectly deafening, and which really appeared to have driven the unfortunate footman to the utmost verge of distraction.

‘What is the matter here?’ said Ralph, pressing forward.

At this inquiry, the clamour was increased twenty-fold, and an astounding string of such shrill contradictions as ‘He’s poisoned himself’—‘He hasn’t’—‘Send for a doctor’—‘Don’t’—‘He’s dying’—‘He isn’t, he’s only pretending’—with various other cries, poured forth with bewildering volubility, until Madame Mantalini was seen to address herself to Ralph, when female curiosity to know what she would say, prevailed, and, as if by general consent, a dead silence, unbroken by a single whisper, instantaneously succeeded.

‘Mr. Nickleby,’ said Madame Mantalini; ‘by what chance you came here, I don’t know.’

Here a gurgling voice was heard to ejaculate, as part of the wanderings of a sick man, the words ‘Demnition sweetness!’ but nobody heeded them except the footman, who, being startled to hear such awful tones proceeding, as it were, from between his very fingers, dropped his master’s head upon the floor with a pretty loud crash, and then, without an effort to lift it up, gazed upon the bystanders, as if he had done something rather clever than otherwise.

‘I will, however,’ continued Madame Mantalini, drying her eyes, and speaking with great indignation, ‘say before you, and before everybody here, for the first time, and once for all, that I never will supply that man’s extravagances and viciousness again. I have been a dupe and a fool to him long enough. In future, he shall support himself if he can, and then he may spend what money he pleases, upon whom and how he pleases; but it shall not be mine, and therefore you had better pause before you trust him further.’

Thereupon Madame Mantalini, quite unmoved by some most pathetic lamentations on the part of her husband, that the apothecary had not mixed the prussic acid strong enough, and that he must take another bottle or two to finish the work he had in hand, entered into a catalogue of that amiable gentleman’s gallantries, deceptions, extravagances, and infidelities (especially the last), winding up with a protest against being supposed to entertain the smallest remnant of regard for him; and adducing, in proof of the altered state of her affections, the circumstance of his having poisoned himself in private no less than six times within the last fortnight, and her not having once interfered by word or deed to save his life.

‘And I insist on being separated and left to myself,’ said Madame Mantalini, sobbing. ‘If he dares to refuse me a separation, I’ll have one in law—I can—and I hope this will be a warning to all girls who have seen this disgraceful exhibition.’

Miss Knag, who was unquestionably the oldest girl in company, said with great solemnity, that it would be a warning to her, and so did the young ladies generally, with the exception of one or two who appeared to entertain some doubts whether such whispers could do wrong.

‘Why do you say all this before so many listeners?’ said Ralph, in a low voice. ‘You know you are not in earnest.’

‘I am in earnest,’ replied Madame Mantalini, aloud, and retreating towards Miss Knag.

‘Well, but consider,’ reasoned Ralph, who had a great interest in the matter. ‘It would be well to reflect. A married woman has no property.’

‘Not a solitary single individual dem, my soul,’ and Mr. Mantalini, raising himself upon his elbow.

‘I am quite aware of that,’ retorted Madame Mantalini, tossing her head; ‘and I have none. The business, the stock, this house, and everything in it, all belong to Miss Knag.’

‘That’s quite true, Madame Mantalini,’ said Miss Knag, with whom her late employer had secretly come to an amicable understanding on this point. ‘Very true, indeed, Madame Mantalini—hem—very true. And I never was more glad in all my life, that I had strength of mind to resist matrimonial offers, no matter how advantageous, than I am when I think of my present position as compared with your most unfortunate and most undeserved one, Madame Mantalini.’

‘Demmit!’ cried Mr. Mantalini, turning his head towards his wife. ‘Will it not slap and pinch the envious dowager, that dares to reflect upon its own delicious?’

But the day of Mr. Mantalini’s blandishments had departed. ‘Miss Knag, sir,’ said his wife, ‘is my particular friend;’ and although Mr. Mantalini leered till his eyes seemed in danger of never coming back to their right places again, Madame Mantalini showed no signs of softening.

To do the excellent Miss Knag justice, she had been mainly instrumental in bringing about this altered state of things, for, finding by daily experience, that there was no chance of the business thriving, or even continuing to exist, while Mr. Mantalini had any hand in the expenditure, and having now a considerable interest in its well-doing, she had sedulously applied herself to the investigation of some little matters connected with that gentleman’s private character, which she had so well elucidated, and artfully imparted to Madame Mantalini, as to open her eyes more effectually than the closest and most philosophical reasoning could have done in a series of years. To which end, the accidental discovery by Miss Knag of some tender correspondence, in which Madame Mantalini was described as ‘old’ and ‘ordinary,’ had most providentially contributed.

However, notwithstanding her firmness, Madame Mantalini wept very piteously; and as she leant upon Miss Knag, and signed towards the door, that young lady and all the other young ladies with sympathising faces, proceeded to bear her out.

‘Nickleby,’ said Mr. Mantalini in tears, ‘you have been made a witness to this demnition cruelty, on the part of the demdest enslaver and captivator that never was, oh dem! I forgive that woman.’

‘Forgive!’ repeated Madame Mantalini, angrily.

‘I do forgive her, Nickleby,’ said Mr. Mantalini. ‘You will blame me, the world will blame me, the women will blame me; everybody will laugh, and scoff, and smile, and grin most demnebly. They will say, “She had a blessing. She did not know it. He was too weak; he was too good; he was a dem’d fine fellow, but he loved too strong; he could not bear her to be cross, and call him wicked names. It was a dem’d case, there never was a demder.” But I forgive her.’

With this affecting speech Mr. Mantalini fell down again very flat, and lay to all appearance without sense or motion, until all the females had left the room, when he came cautiously into a sitting posture, and confronted Ralph with a very blank face, and the little bottle still in one hand and the tea-spoon in the other.

‘You may put away those fooleries now, and live by your wits again,’ said Ralph, coolly putting on his hat.

‘Demmit, Nickleby, you’re not serious?’

‘I seldom joke,’ said Ralph. ‘Good-night.’

‘No, but Nickleby—’ said Mantalini.

‘I am wrong, perhaps,’ rejoined Ralph. ‘I hope so. You should know best. Good-night.’

Affecting not to hear his entreaties that he would stay and advise with him, Ralph left the crest-fallen Mr. Mantalini to his meditations, and left the house quietly.

‘Oho!’ he said, ‘sets the wind that way so soon? Half knave and half fool, and detected in both characters? I think your day is over, sir.’

As he said this, he made some memorandum in his pocket-book in which Mr Mantalini’s name figured conspicuously, and finding by his watch that it was between nine and ten o’clock, made all speed home.

‘Are they here?’ was the first question he asked of Newman.

Newman nodded. ‘Been here half an hour.’

‘Two of them? One a fat sleek man?’

‘Ay,’ said Newman. ‘In your room now.’

‘Good,’ rejoined Ralph. ‘Get me a coach.’

‘A coach! What, you—going to—eh?’ stammered Newman.

Ralph angrily repeated his orders, and Noggs, who might well have been excused for wondering at such an unusual and extraordinary circumstance (for he had never seen Ralph in a coach in his life) departed on his errand, and presently returned with the conveyance.

Into it went Mr. Squeers, and Ralph, and the third man, whom Newman Noggs had never seen. Newman stood upon the door-step to see them off, not troubling himself to wonder where or upon what business they were going, until he chanced by mere accident to hear Ralph name the address whither the coachman was to drive.

Quick as lightning and in a state of the most extreme wonder, Newman darted into his little office for his hat, and limped after the coach as if with the intention of getting up behind; but in this design he was balked, for it had too much the start of him and was soon hopelessly ahead, leaving him gaping in the empty street.

‘I don’t know though,’ said Noggs, stopping for breath, ‘any good that I could have done by going too. He would have seen me if I had. Drive there! What can come of this? If I had only known it yesterday I could have told—drive there! There’s mischief in it. There must be.’

His reflections were interrupted by a grey-haired man of a very remarkable, though far from prepossessing appearance, who, coming stealthily towards him, solicited relief.

Newman, still cogitating deeply, turned away; but the man followed him, and pressed him with such a tale of misery that Newman (who might have been considered a hopeless person to beg from, and who had little enough to give) looked into his hat for some halfpence which he usually kept screwed up, when he had any, in a corner of his pocket-handkerchief.

While he was busily untwisting the knot with his teeth, the man said something which attracted his attention; whatever that something was, it led to something else, and in the end he and Newman walked away side by side—the strange man talking earnestly, and Newman listening.






CHAPTER 45

Containing Matter of a surprising Kind

‘As we gang awa’ fra’ Lunnun tomorrow neeght, and as I dinnot know that I was e’er so happy in a’ my days, Misther Nickleby, Ding! but I will tak’ anoother glass to our next merry meeting!’

So said John Browdie, rubbing his hands with great joyousness, and looking round him with a ruddy shining face, quite in keeping with the declaration.

The time at which John found himself in this enviable condition was the same evening to which the last chapter bore reference; the place was the cottage; and the assembled company were Nicholas, Mrs. Nickleby, Mrs Browdie, Kate Nickleby, and Smike.

A very merry party they had been. Mrs. Nickleby, knowing of her son’s obligations to the honest Yorkshireman, had, after some demur, yielded her consent to Mr. and Mrs. Browdie being invited out to tea; in the way of which arrangement, there were at first sundry difficulties and obstacles, arising out of her not having had an opportunity of ‘calling’ upon Mrs Browdie first; for although Mrs. Nickleby very often observed with much complacency (as most punctilious people do), that she had not an atom of pride or formality about her, still she was a great stickler for dignity and ceremonies; and as it was manifest that, until a call had been made, she could not be (politely speaking, and according to the laws of society) even cognisant of the fact of Mrs. Browdie’s existence, she felt her situation to be one of peculiar delicacy and difficulty.

‘The call must originate with me, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, ‘that’s indispensable. The fact is, my dear, that it’s necessary there should be a sort of condescension on my part, and that I should show this young person that I am willing to take notice of her. There’s a very respectable-looking young man,’ added Mrs. Nickleby, after a short consideration, ‘who is conductor to one of the omnibuses that go by here, and who wears a glazed hat—your sister and I have noticed him very often—he has a wart upon his nose, Kate, you know, exactly like a gentleman’s servant.’

‘Have all gentlemen’s servants warts upon their noses, mother?’ asked Nicholas.

‘Nicholas, my dear, how very absurd you are,’ returned his mother; ‘of course I mean that his glazed hat looks like a gentleman’s servant, and not the wart upon his nose; though even that is not so ridiculous as it may seem to you, for we had a footboy once, who had not only a wart, but a wen also, and a very large wen too, and he demanded to have his wages raised in consequence, because he found it came very expensive. Let me see, what was I—oh yes, I know. The best way that I can think of would be to send a card, and my compliments, (I’ve no doubt he’d take ‘em for a pot of porter,) by this young man, to the Saracen with Two Necks. If the waiter took him for a gentleman’s servant, so much the better. Then all Mrs. Browdie would have to do would be to send her card back by the carrier (he could easily come with a double knock), and there’s an end of it.’

‘My dear mother,’ said Nicholas, ‘I don’t suppose such unsophisticated people as these ever had a card of their own, or ever will have.’

‘Oh that, indeed, Nicholas, my dear,’ returned Mrs. Nickleby, ‘that’s another thing. If you put it upon that ground, why, of course, I have no more to say, than that I have no doubt they are very good sort of persons, and that I have no kind of objection to their coming here to tea if they like, and shall make a point of being very civil to them if they do.’

The point being thus effectually set at rest, and Mrs. Nickleby duly placed in the patronising and mildly-condescending position which became her rank and matrimonial years, Mr. and Mrs. Browdie were invited and came; and as they were very deferential to Mrs. Nickleby, and seemed to have a becoming appreciation of her greatness, and were very much pleased with everything, the good lady had more than once given Kate to understand, in a whisper, that she thought they were the very best-meaning people she had ever seen, and perfectly well behaved.

And thus it came to pass, that John Browdie declared, in the parlour after supper, to wit, and twenty minutes before eleven o’clock p.m., that he had never been so happy in all his days.

Nor was Mrs. Browdie much behind her husband in this respect, for that young matron, whose rustic beauty contrasted very prettily with the more delicate loveliness of Kate, and without suffering by the contrast either, for each served as it were to set off and decorate the other, could not sufficiently admire the gentle and winning manners of the young lady, or the engaging affability of the elder one. Then Kate had the art of turning the conversation to subjects upon which the country girl, bashful at first in strange company, could feel herself at home; and if Mrs. Nickleby was not quite so felicitous at times in the selection of topics of discourse, or if she did seem, as Mrs. Browdie expressed it, ‘rather high in her notions,’ still nothing could be kinder, and that she took considerable interest in the young couple was manifest from the very long lectures on housewifery with which she was so obliging as to entertain Mrs. Browdie’s private ear, which were illustrated by various references to the domestic economy of the cottage, in which (those duties falling exclusively upon Kate) the good lady had about as much share, either in theory or practice, as any one of the statues of the Twelve Apostles which embellish the exterior of St Paul’s Cathedral.

‘Mr. Browdie,’ said Kate, addressing his young wife, ‘is the best-humoured, the kindest and heartiest creature I ever saw. If I were oppressed with I don’t know how many cares, it would make me happy only to look at him.’

‘He does seem indeed, upon my word, a most excellent creature, Kate,’ said Mrs. Nickleby; ‘most excellent. And I am sure that at all times it will give me pleasure—really pleasure now—to have you, Mrs. Browdie, to see me in this plain and homely manner. We make no display,’ said Mrs Nickleby, with an air which seemed to insinuate that they could make a vast deal if they were so disposed; ‘no fuss, no preparation; I wouldn’t allow it. I said, “Kate, my dear, you will only make Mrs. Browdie feel uncomfortable, and how very foolish and inconsiderate that would be!”’

‘I am very much obliged to you, I am sure, ma’am,’ returned Mrs. Browdie, gratefully. ‘It’s nearly eleven o’clock, John. I am afraid we are keeping you up very late, ma’am.’

‘Late!’ cried Mrs. Nickleby, with a sharp thin laugh, and one little cough at the end, like a note of admiration expressed. ‘This is quite early for us. We used to keep such hours! Twelve, one, two, three o’clock was nothing to us. Balls, dinners, card-parties! Never were such rakes as the people about where we used to live. I often think now, I am sure, that how we ever could go through with it is quite astonishing, and that is just the evil of having a large connection and being a great deal sought after, which I would recommend all young married people steadily to resist; though of course, and it’s perfectly clear, and a very happy thing too, I think, that very few young married people can be exposed to such temptations. There was one family in particular, that used to live about a mile from us—not straight down the road, but turning sharp off to the left by the turnpike where the Plymouth mail ran over the donkey—that were quite extraordinary people for giving the most extravagant parties, with artificial flowers and champagne, and variegated lamps, and, in short, every delicacy of eating and drinking that the most singular epicure could possibly require. I don’t think that there ever were such people as those Peltiroguses. You remember the Peltiroguses, Kate?’

Kate saw that for the ease and comfort of the visitors it was high time to stay this flood of recollection, so answered that she entertained of the Peltiroguses a most vivid and distinct remembrance; and then said that Mr Browdie had half promised, early in the evening, that he would sing a Yorkshire song, and that she was most impatient that he should redeem his promise, because she was sure it would afford her mama more amusement and pleasure than it was possible to express.

Mrs. Nickleby confirming her daughter with the best possible grace—for there was patronage in that too, and a kind of implication that she had a discerning taste in such matters, and was something of a critic—John Browdie proceeded to consider the words of some north-country ditty, and to take his wife’s recollection respecting the same. This done, he made divers ungainly movements in his chair, and singling out one particular fly on the ceiling from the other flies there asleep, fixed his eyes upon him, and began to roar a meek sentiment (supposed to be uttered by a gentle swain fast pining away with love and despair) in a voice of thunder.

At the end of the first verse, as though some person without had waited until then to make himself audible, was heard a loud and violent knocking at the street-door; so loud and so violent, indeed, that the ladies started as by one accord, and John Browdie stopped.

‘It must be some mistake,’ said Nicholas, carelessly. ‘We know nobody who would come here at this hour.’

Mrs. Nickleby surmised, however, that perhaps the counting-house was burnt down, or perhaps ‘the Mr. Cheerybles’ had sent to take Nicholas into partnership (which certainly appeared highly probable at that time of night), or perhaps Mr. Linkinwater had run away with the property, or perhaps Miss La Creevy was taken in, or perhaps—

But a hasty exclamation from Kate stopped her abruptly in her conjectures, and Ralph Nickleby walked into the room.

‘Stay,’ said Ralph, as Nicholas rose, and Kate, making her way towards him, threw herself upon his arm. ‘Before that boy says a word, hear me.’

Nicholas bit his lip and shook his head in a threatening manner, but appeared for the moment unable to articulate a syllable. Kate clung closer to his arm, Smike retreated behind them, and John Browdie, who had heard of Ralph, and appeared to have no great difficulty in recognising him, stepped between the old man and his young friend, as if with the intention of preventing either of them from advancing a step further.

‘Hear me, I say,’ said Ralph, ‘and not him.’

‘Say what thou’st gotten to say then, sir,’ retorted John; ‘and tak’ care thou dinnot put up angry bluid which thou’dst betther try to quiet.’

‘I should know you,’ said Ralph, ‘by your tongue; and him’ (pointing to Smike) ‘by his looks.’

‘Don’t speak to him,’ said Nicholas, recovering his voice. ‘I will not have it. I will not hear him. I do not know that man. I cannot breathe the air that he corrupts. His presence is an insult to my sister. It is shame to see him. I will not bear it.’

‘Stand!’ cried John, laying his heavy hand upon his chest.

‘Then let him instantly retire,’ said Nicholas, struggling. ‘I am not going to lay hands upon him, but he shall withdraw. I will not have him here. John, John Browdie, is this my house, am I a child? If he stands there,’ cried Nicholas, burning with fury, ‘looking so calmly upon those who know his black and dastardly heart, he’ll drive me mad.’

To all these exclamations John Browdie answered not a word, but he retained his hold upon Nicholas; and when he was silent again, spoke.

‘There’s more to say and hear than thou think’st for,’ said John. ‘I tell’ee I ha’ gotten scent o’ thot already. Wa’at be that shadow ootside door there? Noo, schoolmeasther, show thyself, mun; dinnot be sheame-feaced. Noo, auld gen’l’man, let’s have schoolmeasther, coom.’

Hearing this adjuration, Mr. Squeers, who had been lingering in the passage until such time as it should be expedient for him to enter and he could appear with effect, was fain to present himself in a somewhat undignified and sneaking way; at which John Browdie laughed with such keen and heartfelt delight, that even Kate, in all the pain, anxiety, and surprise of the scene, and though the tears were in her eyes, felt a disposition to join him.

‘Have you done enjoying yourself, sir?’ said Ralph, at length.

‘Pratty nigh for the prasant time, sir,’ replied John.

‘I can wait,’ said Ralph. ‘Take your own time, pray.’

Ralph waited until there was a perfect silence, and then turning to Mrs Nickleby, but directing an eager glance at Kate, as if more anxious to watch his effect upon her, said:

‘Now, ma’am, listen to me. I don’t imagine that you were a party to a very fine tirade of words sent me by that boy of yours, because I don’t believe that under his control, you have the slightest will of your own, or that your advice, your opinion, your wants, your wishes, anything which in nature and reason (or of what use is your great experience?) ought to weigh with him, has the slightest influence or weight whatever, or is taken for a moment into account.’

Mrs. Nickleby shook her head and sighed, as if there were a good deal in that, certainly.

‘For this reason,’ resumed Ralph, ‘I address myself to you, ma’am. For this reason, partly, and partly because I do not wish to be disgraced by the acts of a vicious stripling whom I was obliged to disown, and who, afterwards, in his boyish majesty, feigns to—ha! ha!—to disown me, I present myself here tonight. I have another motive in coming: a motive of humanity. I come here,’ said Ralph, looking round with a biting and triumphant smile, and gloating and dwelling upon the words as if he were loath to lose the pleasure of saying them, ‘to restore a parent his child. Ay, sir,’ he continued, bending eagerly forward, and addressing Nicholas, as he marked the change of his countenance, ‘to restore a parent his child; his son, sir; trepanned, waylaid, and guarded at every turn by you, with the base design of robbing him some day of any little wretched pittance of which he might become possessed.’

‘In that, you know you lie,’ said Nicholas, proudly.

‘In this, I know I speak the truth. I have his father here,’ retorted Ralph.

‘Here!’ sneered Squeers, stepping forward. ‘Do you hear that? Here! Didn’t I tell you to be careful that his father didn’t turn up and send him back to me? Why, his father’s my friend; he’s to come back to me directly, he is. Now, what do you say—eh!—now—come—what do you say to that—an’t you sorry you took so much trouble for nothing? an’t you? an’t you?’

‘You bear upon your body certain marks I gave you,’ said Nicholas, looking quietly away, ‘and may talk in acknowledgment of them as much as you please. You’ll talk a long time before you rub them out, Mr. Squeers.’

The estimable gentleman last named cast a hasty look at the table, as if he were prompted by this retort to throw a jug or bottle at the head of Nicholas, but he was interrupted in this design (if such design he had) by Ralph, who, touching him on the elbow, bade him tell the father that he might now appear and claim his son.

This being purely a labour of love, Mr. Squeers readily complied, and leaving the room for the purpose, almost immediately returned, supporting a sleek personage with an oily face, who, bursting from him, and giving to view the form and face of Mr. Snawley, made straight up to Smike, and tucking that poor fellow’s head under his arm in a most uncouth and awkward embrace, elevated his broad-brimmed hat at arm’s length in the air as a token of devout thanksgiving, exclaiming, meanwhile, ‘How little did I think of this here joyful meeting, when I saw him last! Oh, how little did I think it!’

‘Be composed, sir,’ said Ralph, with a gruff expression of sympathy, ‘you have got him now.’

‘Got him! Oh, haven’t I got him! Have I got him, though?’ cried Mr Snawley, scarcely able to believe it. ‘Yes, here he is, flesh and blood, flesh and blood.’

‘Vary little flesh,’ said John Browdie.

Mr. Snawley was too much occupied by his parental feelings to notice this remark; and, to assure himself more completely of the restoration of his child, tucked his head under his arm again, and kept it there.

‘What was it,’ said Snawley, ‘that made me take such a strong interest in him, when that worthy instructor of youth brought him to my house? What was it that made me burn all over with a wish to chastise him severely for cutting away from his best friends, his pastors and masters?’

‘It was parental instinct, sir,’ observed Squeers.

‘That’s what it was, sir,’ rejoined Snawley; ‘the elevated feeling, the feeling of the ancient Romans and Grecians, and of the beasts of the field and birds of the air, with the exception of rabbits and tom-cats, which sometimes devour their offspring. My heart yearned towards him. I could have—I don’t know what I couldn’t have done to him in the anger of a father.’

‘It only shows what Natur is, sir,’ said Mr. Squeers. ‘She’s rum ‘un, is Natur.’

‘She is a holy thing, sir,’ remarked Snawley.

‘I believe you,’ added Mr. Squeers, with a moral sigh. ‘I should like to know how we should ever get on without her. Natur,’ said Mr. Squeers, solemnly, ‘is more easier conceived than described. Oh what a blessed thing, sir, to be in a state of natur!’

Pending this philosophical discourse, the bystanders had been quite stupefied with amazement, while Nicholas had looked keenly from Snawley to Squeers, and from Squeers to Ralph, divided between his feelings of disgust, doubt, and surprise. At this juncture, Smike escaping from his father fled to Nicholas, and implored him, in most moving terms, never to give him up, but to let him live and die beside him.

‘If you are this boy’s father,’ said Nicholas, ‘look at the wreck he is, and tell me that you purpose to send him back to that loathsome den from which I brought him.’

‘Scandal again!’ cried Squeers. ‘Recollect, you an’t worth powder and shot, but I’ll be even with you one way or another.’

‘Stop,’ interposed Ralph, as Snawley was about to speak. ‘Let us cut this matter short, and not bandy words here with hare-brained profligates. This is your son, as you can prove. And you, Mr. Squeers, you know this boy to be the same that was with you for so many years under the name of Smike. Do you?’

‘Do I!’ returned Squeers. ‘Don’t I?’

‘Good,’ said Ralph; ‘a very few words will be sufficient here. You had a son by your first wife, Mr. Snawley?’

‘I had,’ replied that person, ‘and there he stands.’

‘We’ll show that presently,’ said Ralph. ‘You and your wife were separated, and she had the boy to live with her, when he was a year old. You received a communication from her, when you had lived apart a year or two, that the boy was dead; and you believed it?’

‘Of course I did!’ returned Snawley. ‘Oh the joy of—’

‘Be rational, sir, pray,’ said Ralph. ‘This is business, and transports interfere with it. This wife died a year and a half ago, or thereabouts—not more—in some obscure place, where she was housekeeper in a family. Is that the case?’

‘That’s the case,’ replied Snawley.

‘Having written on her death-bed a letter or confession to you, about this very boy, which, as it was not directed otherwise than in your name, only reached you, and that by a circuitous course, a few days since?’

‘Just so,’ said Snawley. ‘Correct in every particular, sir.’

‘And this confession,’ resumed Ralph, ‘is to the effect that his death was an invention of hers to wound you—was a part of a system of annoyance, in short, which you seem to have adopted towards each other—that the boy lived, but was of weak and imperfect intellect—that she sent him by a trusty hand to a cheap school in Yorkshire—that she had paid for his education for some years, and then, being poor, and going a long way off, gradually deserted him, for which she prayed forgiveness?’

Snawley nodded his head, and wiped his eyes; the first slightly, the last violently.

‘The school was Mr. Squeers’s,’ continued Ralph; ‘the boy was left there in the name of Smike; every description was fully given, dates tally exactly with Mr. Squeers’s books, Mr. Squeers is lodging with you at this time; you have two other boys at his school: you communicated the whole discovery to him, he brought you to me as the person who had recommended to him the kidnapper of his child; and I brought you here. Is that so?’

‘You talk like a good book, sir, that’s got nothing in its inside but what’s the truth,’ replied Snawley.

‘This is your pocket-book,’ said Ralph, producing one from his coat; ‘the certificates of your first marriage and of the boy’s birth, and your wife’s two letters, and every other paper that can support these statements directly or by implication, are here, are they?’

‘Every one of ‘em, sir.’

‘And you don’t object to their being looked at here, so that these people may be convinced of your power to substantiate your claim at once in law and reason, and you may resume your control over your own son without more delay. Do I understand you?’

‘I couldn’t have understood myself better, sir.’

‘There, then,’ said Ralph, tossing the pocket-book upon the table. ‘Let them see them if they like; and as those are the original papers, I should recommend you to stand near while they are being examined, or you may chance to lose some.’

With these words Ralph sat down unbidden, and compressing his lips, which were for the moment slightly parted by a smile, folded his arms, and looked for the first time at his nephew.

Nicholas, stung by the concluding taunt, darted an indignant glance at him; but commanding himself as well as he could, entered upon a close examination of the documents, at which John Browdie assisted. There was nothing about them which could be called in question. The certificates were regularly signed as extracts from the parish books, the first letter had a genuine appearance of having been written and preserved for some years, the handwriting of the second tallied with it exactly, (making proper allowance for its having been written by a person in extremity,) and there were several other corroboratory scraps of entries and memoranda which it was equally difficult to question.

‘Dear Nicholas,’ whispered Kate, who had been looking anxiously over his shoulder, ‘can this be really the case? Is this statement true?’

‘I fear it is,’ answered Nicholas. ‘What say you, John?’

John scratched his head and shook it, but said nothing at all.

‘You will observe, ma’am,’ said Ralph, addressing himself to Mrs. Nickleby, ‘that this boy being a minor and not of strong mind, we might have come here tonight, armed with the powers of the law, and backed by a troop of its myrmidons. I should have done so, ma’am, unquestionably, but for my regard for the feelings of yourself, and your daughter.’

‘You have shown your regard for her feelings well,’ said Nicholas, drawing his sister towards him.

‘Thank you,’ replied Ralph. ‘Your praise, sir, is commendation, indeed.’

‘Well,’ said Squeers, ‘what’s to be done? Them hackney-coach horses will catch cold if we don’t think of moving; there’s one of ‘em a sneezing now, so that he blows the street door right open. What’s the order of the day? Is Master Snawley to come along with us?’

‘No, no, no,’ replied Smike, drawing back, and clinging to Nicholas.

‘No. Pray, no. I will not go from you with him. No, no.’

‘This is a cruel thing,’ said Snawley, looking to his friends for support. ‘Do parents bring children into the world for this?’

‘Do parents bring children into the world for thot?’ said John Browdie bluntly, pointing, as he spoke, to Squeers.

‘Never you mind,’ retorted that gentleman, tapping his nose derisively.

‘Never I mind!’ said John, ‘no, nor never nobody mind, say’st thou, schoolmeasther. It’s nobody’s minding that keeps sike men as thou afloat. Noo then, where be’est thou coomin’ to? Dang it, dinnot coom treadin’ ower me, mun.’

Suiting the action to the word, John Browdie just jerked his elbow into the chest of Mr. Squeers who was advancing upon Smike; with so much dexterity that the schoolmaster reeled and staggered back upon Ralph Nickleby, and being unable to recover his balance, knocked that gentleman off his chair, and stumbled heavily upon him.

This accidental circumstance was the signal for some very decisive proceedings. In the midst of a great noise, occasioned by the prayers and entreaties of Smike, the cries and exclamations of the women, and the vehemence of the men, demonstrations were made of carrying off the lost son by violence. Squeers had actually begun to haul him out, when Nicholas (who, until then, had been evidently undecided how to act) took him by the collar, and shaking him so that such teeth as he had, chattered in his head, politely escorted him to the room-door, and thrusting him into the passage, shut it upon him.

‘Now,’ said Nicholas to the other two, ‘have the goodness to follow your friend.’

‘I want my son,’ said Snawley.

‘Your son,’ replied Nicholas, ‘chooses for himself. He chooses to remain here, and he shall.’

‘You won’t give him up?’ said Snawley.

‘I would not give him up against his will, to be the victim of such brutality as that to which you would consign him,’ replied Nicholas, ‘if he were a dog or a rat.’

‘Knock that Nickleby down with a candlestick,’ cried Mr. Squeers, through the keyhole, ‘and bring out my hat, somebody, will you, unless he wants to steal it.’

‘I am very sorry, indeed,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, who, with Mrs. Browdie, had stood crying and biting her fingers in a corner, while Kate (very pale, but perfectly quiet) had kept as near her brother as she could. ‘I am very sorry, indeed, for all this. I really don’t know what would be best to do, and that’s the truth. Nicholas ought to be the best judge, and I hope he is. Of course, it’s a hard thing to have to keep other people’s children, though young Mr. Snawley is certainly as useful and willing as it’s possible for anybody to be; but, if it could be settled in any friendly manner—if old Mr. Snawley, for instance, would settle to pay something certain for his board and lodging, and some fair arrangement was come to, so that we undertook to have fish twice a week, and a pudding twice, or a dumpling, or something of that sort—I do think that it might be very satisfactory and pleasant for all parties.’

This compromise, which was proposed with abundance of tears and sighs, not exactly meeting the point at issue, nobody took any notice of it; and poor Mrs. Nickleby accordingly proceeded to enlighten Mrs. Browdie upon the advantages of such a scheme, and the unhappy results flowing, on all occasions, from her not being attended to when she proffered her advice.

‘You, sir,’ said Snawley, addressing the terrified Smike, ‘are an unnatural, ungrateful, unlovable boy. You won’t let me love you when I want to. Won’t you come home, won’t you?’

‘No, no, no,’ cried Smike, shrinking back.

‘He never loved nobody,’ bawled Squeers, through the keyhole. ‘He never loved me; he never loved Wackford, who is next door but one to a cherubim. How can you expect that he’ll love his father? He’ll never love his father, he won’t. He don’t know what it is to have a father. He don’t understand it. It an’t in him.’

Mr. Snawley looked steadfastly at his son for a full minute, and then covering his eyes with his hand, and once more raising his hat in the air, appeared deeply occupied in deploring his black ingratitude. Then drawing his arm across his eyes, he picked up Mr. Squeers’s hat, and taking it under one arm, and his own under the other, walked slowly and sadly out.

‘Your romance, sir,’ said Ralph, lingering for a moment, ‘is destroyed, I take it. No unknown; no persecuted descendant of a man of high degree; but the weak, imbecile son of a poor, petty tradesman. We shall see how your sympathy melts before plain matter of fact.’

‘You shall,’ said Nicholas, motioning towards the door.

‘And trust me, sir,’ added Ralph, ‘that I never supposed you would give him up tonight. Pride, obstinacy, reputation for fine feeling, were all against it. These must be brought down, sir, lowered, crushed, as they shall be soon. The protracted and wearing anxiety and expense of the law in its most oppressive form, its torture from hour to hour, its weary days and sleepless nights, with these I’ll prove you, and break your haughty spirit, strong as you deem it now. And when you make this house a hell, and visit these trials upon yonder wretched object (as you will; I know you), and those who think you now a young-fledged hero, we’ll go into old accounts between us two, and see who stands the debtor, and comes out best at last, even before the world.’

Ralph Nickleby withdrew. But Mr. Squeers, who had heard a portion of this closing address, and was by this time wound up to a pitch of impotent malignity almost unprecedented, could not refrain from returning to the parlour door, and actually cutting some dozen capers with various wry faces and hideous grimaces, expressive of his triumphant confidence in the downfall and defeat of Nicholas.

Having concluded this war-dance, in which his short trousers and large boots had borne a very conspicuous figure, Mr. Squeers followed his friends, and the family were left to meditate upon recent occurrences.