Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens - HTML preview
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Mr and Mrs Squeers at Home
Mr Squeers, being safely landed, left Nicholas and the boys standing with the luggage in the road, to amuse themselves by looking at the coach as it changed horses, while he ran into the tavern and went through the leg-stretching process at the bar. After some minutes, he returned, with his legs thoroughly stretched, if the hue of his nose and a short hiccup afforded any criterion; and at the same time there came out of the yard a rusty pony-chaise, and a cart, driven by two labouring men.
'Put the boys and the boxes into the cart,' said Squeers, rubbing his hands; 'and this young man and me will go on in the chaise. Get in, Nickleby.' Nicholas obeyed. Mr. Squeers with some difficulty inducing the pony to obey also, they started off, leaving the cart-load of infant misery to follow at leisure. 'Are you cold, Nickleby?' inquired Squeers, after they had travelled some distance in silence.
'Rather, sir, I must say.'
'Well, I don't find fault with that,' said Squeers; 'it's a long journey this weather.' 'Is it much farther to Dotheboys Hall, sir?' asked Nicholas.
'About three mile from here,' replied Squeers. 'But you needn't call it a Hall down here.'
Nicholas coughed, as if he would like to know why.
'The fact is, it ain't a Hall,' observed Squeers drily.
'Oh, indeed!' said Nicholas, whom this piece of intelligence much astonished. 'No,' replied Squeers. 'We call it a Hall up in London, because it sounds better, but they don't know it by that name in these parts. A man may call his house an island if he likes; there's no act of Parliament against that, I believe?' 'I believe not, sir,' rejoined Nicholas.
Squeers eyed his companion slyly, at the conclusion of this little dialogue, and finding that he had grown thoughtful and appeared in nowise disposed to volunteer any observations, contented himself with lashing the pony until they reached their journey's end.
'Jump out,' said Squeers. 'Hallo there! Come and put this horse up. Be quick, will you!'
While the schoolmaster was uttering these and other impatient cries, Nicholas had time to observe that the school was a long, cold- looking house, one storey high, with a few straggling out-buildings behind, and a barn and stable adjoining. After the lapse of a minute or two, the noise of somebody unlocking the yard-gate was heard, and presently a tall lean boy, with a lantern in his hand, issued forth. 'Is that you, Smike?' cried Squeers.
'Yes, sir,' replied the boy.
'Then why the devil didn't you come before?'
'Please, sir, I fell asleep over the fire,' answered Smike, with humility. 'Fire! what fire? Where's there a fire?' demanded the schoolmaster, sharply. 'Only in the kitchen, sir,' replied the boy. 'Missus said as I was sitting up, I might go in there for a warm.'
'Your missus is a fool,' retorted Squeers. 'You'd have been a deuced deal more wakeful in the cold, I'll engage.'
By this time Mr Squeers had dismounted; and after ordering the boy to see to the pony, and to take care that he hadn't any more corn that night, he told Nicholas to wait at the front-door a minute while he went round and let him in. A host of unpleasant misgivings, which had been crowding upon Nicholas during the whole journey, thronged into his mind with redoubled force when he was left alone. His great distance from home and the impossibility of reaching it, except on foot, should he feel ever so anxious to return, presented itself to him in most alarming colours; and as he looked up at the dreary house and dark windows, and upon the wild country round, covered with snow, he felt a depression of heart and spirit which he had never experienced before.
'Now then!' cried Squeers, poking his head out at the front-door. 'Where are you, Nickleby?'
'Here, sir,' replied Nicholas.
'Come in, then,' said Squeers 'the wind blows in, at this door, fit to knock a man off his legs.'
Nicholas sighed, and hurried in. Mr Squeers, having bolted the door to keep it shut, ushered him into a small parlour scantily furnished with a few chairs, a yellow map hung against the wall, and a couple of tables; one of which bore some preparations for supper; while, on the other, a tutor's assistant, a Murray's grammar, half-a-dozen cards of terms, and a worn letter directed to Wackford Squeers, Esquire, were arranged in picturesque confusion.
They had not been in this apartment a couple of minutes, when a female bounced into the room, and, seizing Mr Squeers by the throat, gave him two loud kisses: one close after the other, like a postman's knock. The lady, who was of a large raw-boned figure, was about half a head taller than Mr Squeers, and was dressed in a dimity night-jacket; with her hair in papers; she had also a dirty nightcap on, relieved by a yellow cotton handkerchief which tied it under the chin. 'How is my Squeery?' said this lady in a playful manner, and a very hoarse voice. 'Quite well, my love,' replied Squeers. 'How's the cows?'
'All right, every one of'em,' answered the lady.
'And the pigs?' said Squeers.
'As well as they were when you went away.'
'Come; that's a blessing,' said Squeers, pulling off his great-coat. 'The boys are all as they were, I suppose?'
'Oh, yes, they're well enough,' replied Mrs Squeers, snappishly. 'That young Pitcher's had a fever.'
'No!' exclaimed Squeers. 'Damn that boy, he's always at something of that sort.' 'Never was such a boy, I do believe,' said Mrs Squeers; 'whatever he has is always catching too. I say it's obstinacy, and nothing shall ever convince me that it isn't. I'd beat it out of him; and I told you that, six months ago.'
'So you did, my love,' rejoined Squeers. 'We'll try what can be done.' Pending these little endearments, Nicholas had stood, awkwardly enough, in the middle of the room: not very well knowing whether he was expected to retire into the passage, or to remain where he was. He was now relieved from his perplexity by Mr Squeers.
'This is the new young man, my dear,' said that gentleman.
'Oh,' replied Mrs Squeers, nodding her head at Nicholas, and eyeing him coldly from top to toe.
'He'll take a meal with us tonight,' said Squeers, 'and go among the boys tomorrow morning. You can give him a shake-down here, tonight, can't you?' 'We must manage it somehow,' replied the lady. 'You don't much mind how you sleep, I suppose, sir?'
No, indeed,' replied Nicholas, 'I am not particular.'
'That's lucky,' said Mrs Squeers. And as the lady's humour was considered to lie chiefly in retort, Mr Squeers laughed heartily, and seemed to expect that Nicholas should do the same.
After some further conversation between the master and mistress relative to the success of Mr Squeers's trip and the people who had paid, and the people who had made default in payment, a young servant girl brought in a Yorkshire pie and some cold beef, which being set upon the table, the boy Smike appeared with a jug of ale.
Mr Squeers was emptying his great-coat pockets of letters to different boys, and other small documents, which he had brought down in them. The boy glanced, with an anxious and timid expression, at the papers, as if with a sickly hope that one among them might relate to him. The look was a very painful one, and went to Nicholas's heart at once; for it told a long and very sad history.
It induced him to consider the boy more attentively, and he was surprised to observe the extraordinary mixture of garments which formed his dress. Although he could not have been less than eighteen or nineteen years old, and was tall for that age, he wore a skeleton suit, such as is usually put upon very little boys, and which, though most absurdly short in the arms and legs, was quite wide enough for his attenuated frame. In order that the lower part of his legs might be in perfect keeping with this singular dress, he had a very large pair of boots, originally made for tops, which might have been once worn by some stout farmer, but were now too patched and tattered for a beggar. Heaven knows how long he had been there, but he still wore the same linen which he had first taken down; for, round his neck, was a tattered child's frill, only half concealed by a coarse, man's neckerchief. He was lame; and as he feigned to be busy in arranging the table, glanced at the letters with a look so keen, and yet so dispirited and hopeless, that Nicholas could hardly bear to watch him.
'What are you bothering about there, Smike?' cried Mrs Squeers; 'let the things alone, can't you?'
'Eh!' said Squeers, looking up. 'Oh! it's you, is it?'
'Yes, sir,' replied the youth, pressing his hands together, as though to control, by force, the nervous wandering of his fingers. 'Is there--'
'Well!' said Squeers.
'Have you--did anybody--has nothing been heard--about me?'
'Devil a bit,' replied Squeers testily.
The lad withdrew his eyes, and, putting his hand to his face, moved towards the door.
'Not a word,' resumed Squeers, 'and never will be. Now, this is a pretty sort of thing, isn't it, that you should have been left here, all these years, and no money paid after the first six--nor no notice taken, nor no clue to be got who you belong to? It's a pretty sort of thing that I should have to feed a great fellow like you, and never hope to get one penny for it, isn't it?'
The boy put his hand to his head as if he were making an effort to recollect something, and then, looking vacantly at his questioner, gradually broke into a smile, and limped away.
'I'll tell you what, Squeers,' remarked his wife as the door closed, 'I think that young chap's turning silly.'
'I hope not,' said the schoolmaster; 'for he's a handy fellow out of doors, and worth his meat and drink, anyway. I should think he'd have wit enough for us though, if he was. But come; let's have supper, for I am hungry and tired, and want to get to bed.'
This reminder brought in an exclusive steak for Mr Squeers, who speedily proceeded to do it ample justice. Nicholas drew up his chair, but his appetite was effectually taken away.
'How's the steak, Squeers?' said Mrs S.
'Tender as a lamb,' replied Squeers. 'Have a bit.'
'I couldn't eat a morsel,' replied his wife. 'What'll the young man take, my dear?' 'Whatever he likes that's present,' rejoined Squeers, in a most unusual burst of generosity.
'What do you say, Mr Knuckleboy?' inquired Mrs Squeers.
'I'll take a little of the pie, if you please,' replied Nicholas. 'A very little, for I'm not hungry.'
Well, it's a pity to cut the pie if you're not hungry, isn't it?' said Mrs Squeers. 'Will you try a bit of the beef?'
'Whatever you please,' replied Nicholas abstractedly; 'it's all the same to me.' Mrs Squeers looked vastly gracious on receiving this reply; and nodding to Squeers, as much as to say that she was glad to find the young man knew his station, assisted Nicholas to a slice of meat with her own fair hands. 'Ale, Squeery?' inquired the lady, winking and frowning to give him to understand that the question propounded, was, whether Nicholas should have ale, and not whether he (Squeers) would take any.
'Certainly,' said Squeers, re-telegraphing in the same manner. 'A glassful.' So Nicholas had a glassful, and being occupied with his own reflections, drank it, in happy innocence of all the foregone proceedings.
'Uncommon juicy steak that,' said Squeers, as he laid down his knife and fork, after plying it, in silence, for some time.
'It's prime meat,' rejoined his lady. 'I bought a good large piece of it myself on purpose for--'
'For what!' exclaimed Squeers hastily. 'Not for the--'
'No, no; not for them,' rejoined Mrs Squeers; 'on purpose for you against you came home. Lor! you didn't think I could have made such a mistake as that.' 'Upon my word, my dear, I didn't know what you were going to say,' said Squeers, who had turned pale.
'You needn't make yourself uncomfortable,' remarked his wife, laughing heartily. 'To think that I should be such a noddy! Well!'
This part of the conversation was rather unintelligible; but popular rumour in the neighbourhood asserted that Mr Squeers, being amiably opposed to cruelty to animals, not unfrequently purchased for by consumption the bodies of horned cattle who had died a natural death; possibly he was apprehensive of having unintentionally devoured some choice morsel intended for the young gentlemen. Supper being over, and removed by a small servant girl with a hungry eye, Mrs Squeers retired to lock it up, and also to take into safe custody the clothes of the five boys who had just arrived, and who were half-way up the troublesome flight of steps which leads to death's door, in consequence of exposure to the cold. They were then regaled with a light supper of porridge, and stowed away, side by side, in a small bedstead, to warm each other, and dream of a substantial meal with something hot after it, if their fancies set that way: which it is not at all improbable they did.
Mr Squeers treated himself to a stiff tumbler of brandy and water, made on the liberal half-and-half principle, allowing for the dissolution of the sugar; and his amiable helpmate mixed Nicholas the ghost of a small glassful of the same compound. This done, Mr and Mrs Squeers drew close up to the fire, and sitting with their feet on the fender, talked confidentially in whispers; while Nicholas, taking up the tutor's assistant, read the interesting legends in the miscellaneous questions, and all the figures into the bargain, with as much thought or consciousness of what he was doing, as if he had been in a magnetic slumber. At length, Mr Squeers yawned fearfully, and opined that it was high time to go to bed; upon which signal, Mrs Squeers and the girl dragged in a small straw mattress and a couple of blankets, and arranged them into a couch for Nicholas. 'We'll put you into your regular bedroom tomorrow, Nickelby,' said Squeers. 'Let me see! Who sleeps in Brooks's's bed, my dear?'
'In Brooks's,' said Mrs Squeers, pondering. 'There's Jennings, little Bolder, Graymarsh, and what's his name.'
'So there is,' rejoined Squeers. 'Yes! Brooks is full.'
'Full!' thought Nicholas. 'I should think he was.'
'There's a place somewhere, I know,' said Squeers; 'but I can't at this moment call to mind where it is. However, we'll have that all settled tomorrow. Good-night, Nickleby. Seven o'clock in the morning, mind.'
'I shall be ready, sir,' replied Nicholas. 'Good-night.'
'I'll come in myself and show you where the well is,' said Squeers. 'You'll always find a little bit of soap in the kitchen window; that belongs to you.'
Nicholas opened his eyes, but not his mouth; and Squeers was again going away, when he once more turned back.
'I don't know, I am sure,' he said, 'whose towel to put you on; but if you'll make shift with something tomorrow morning, Mrs Squeers will arrange that, in the course of the day. My dear, don't forget.'
'I'll take care,' replied Mrs Squeers; 'and mind YOU take care, young man, and get first wash. The teacher ought always to have it; but they get the better of him if they can.'
Mr Squeers then nudged Mrs Squeers to bring away the brandy bottle, lest Nicholas should help himself in the night; and the lady having seized it with great precipitation, they retired together.
Nicholas, being left alone, took half-a-dozen turns up and down the room in a condition of much agitation and excitement; but, growing gradually calmer, sat himself down in a chair, and mentally resolved that, come what come might, he would endeavour, for a time, to bear whatever wretchedness might be in store for him, and that remembering the helplessness of his mother and sister, he would give his uncle no plea for deserting them in their need. Good resolutions seldom fail of producing some good effect in the mind from which they spring. He grew less desponding, and--so sanguine and buoyant is youth--even hoped that affairs at Dotheboys Hall might yet prove better than they promised.
He was preparing for bed, with something like renewed cheerfulness, when a sealed letter fell from his coat pocket. In the hurry of leaving London, it had escaped his attention, and had not occurred to him since, but it at once brought back to him the recollection of the mysterious behaviour of Newman Noggs. 'Dear me!' said Nicholas; 'what an extraordinary hand!'
It was directed to himself, was written upon very dirty paper, and in such cramped and crippled writing as to be almost illegible. After great difficulty and much puzzling, he contrived to read as follows:--
My dear young Man.
I know the world. Your father did not, or he would not have done me a kindness when there was no hope of return. You do not, or you would not be bound on such a journey.
If ever you want a shelter in London (don't be angry at this, I once thought I never should), they know where I live, at the sign of the Crown, in Silver Street, Golden Square. It is at the corner of Silver Street and James Street, with a bar door both ways. You can come at night. Once, nobody was ashamed--never mind that. It's all over.
Excuse errors. I should forget how to wear a whole coat now. I have forgotten all my old ways. My spelling may have gone with them.
P.S. If you should go near Barnard Castle, there is good ale at the King's Head. Say you know me, and I am sure they will not charge you for it. You may say Mr Noggs there, for I was a gentleman then. I was indeed.
It may be a very undignified circumstances to record, but after he had folded this letter and placed it in his pocket-book, Nicholas Nickleby's eyes were dimmed with a moisture that might have been taken for tears.
Of the Internal Economy of Dotheboys Hall
A ride of two hundred and odd miles in severe weather, is one of the best softeners of a hard bed that ingenuity can devise. Perhaps it is even a sweetener of dreams, for those which hovered over the rough couch of Nicholas, and whispered their airy nothings in his ear, were of an agreeable and happy kind. He was making his fortune very fast indeed, when the faint glimmer of an expiring candle shone before his eyes, and a voice he had no difficulty in recognising as part and parcel of Mr Squeers, admonished him that it was time to rise. 'Past seven, Nickleby,' said Mr Squeers.
'Has morning come already?' asked Nicholas, sitting up in bed.
'Ah! that has it,' replied Squeers, 'and ready iced too. Now, Nickleby, come; tumble up, will you?'
Nicholas needed no further admonition, but 'tumbled up' at once, and proceeded to dress himself by the light of the taper, which Mr Squeers carried in his hand. 'Here's a pretty go,' said that gentleman; 'the pump's froze.'
'Indeed!' said Nicholas, not much interested in the intelligence.
'Yes,' replied Squeers. 'You can't wash yourself this morning.'
'Not wash myself!' exclaimed Nicholas.
'No, not a bit of it,' rejoined Squeers tartly. 'So you must be content with giving yourself a dry polish till we break the ice in the well, and can get a bucketful out for the boys. Don't stand staring at me, but do look sharp, will you?' Offering no further observation, Nicholas huddled on his clothes. Squeers, meanwhile, opened the shutters and blew the candle out; when the voice of his amiable consort was heard in the passage, demanding admittance. 'Come in, my love,' said Squeers.
Mrs Squeers came in, still habited in the primitive night-jacket which had displayed the symmetry of her figure on the previous night, and further ornamented with a beaver bonnet of some antiquity, which she wore, with much ease and lightness, on the top of the nightcap before mentioned.
'Drat the things,' said the lady, opening the cupboard; 'I can't find the school spoon anywhere.'
'Never mind it, my dear,' observed Squeers in a soothing manner; 'it's of no consequence.'
'No consequence, why how you talk!' retorted Mrs Squeers sharply; 'isn't it brimstone morning?'
'I forgot, my dear,' rejoined Squeers; 'yes, it certainly is. We purify the boys' bloods now and then, Nickleby.'
'Purify fiddlesticks' ends,' said his lady. 'Don't think, young man, that we go to the expense of flower of brimstone and molasses, just to purify them; because if you think we carry on the business in that way, you'll find yourself mistaken, and so I tell you plainly.'
'My dear,' said Squeers frowning. 'Hem!'
'Oh! nonsense,' rejoined Mrs Squeers. 'If the young man comes to be a teacher here, let him understand, at once, that we don't want any foolery about the boys. They have the brimstone and treacle, partly because if they hadn't something or other in the way of medicine they'd be always ailing and giving a world of trouble, and partly because it spoils their appetites and comes cheaper than breakfast and dinner. So, it does them good and us good at the same time, and that's fair enough I'm sure.'
Having given this explanation, Mrs Squeers put her head into the closet and instituted a stricter search after the spoon, in which Mr Squeers assisted. A few words passed between them while they were thus engaged, but as their voices were partially stifled by the cupboard, all that Nicholas could distinguish was, that Mr Squeers said what Mrs Squeers had said, was injudicious, and that Mrs Squeers said what Mr Squeers said, was 'stuff.'
A vast deal of searching and rummaging ensued, and it proving fruitless, Smike was called in, and pushed by Mrs Squeers, and boxed by Mr Squeers; which course of treatment brightening his intellects, enabled him to suggest that possibly Mrs Squeers might have the spoon in her pocket, as indeed turned out to be the case. As Mrs Squeers had previously protested, however, that she was quite certain she had not got it, Smike received another box on the ear for presuming to contradict his mistress, together with a promise of a sound thrashing if he were not more respectful in future; so that he took nothing very advantageous by his motion.
'A most invaluable woman, that, Nickleby,' said Squeers when his consort had hurried away, pushing the drudge before her.
'Indeed, sir!' observed Nicholas.
'I don't know her equal,' said Squeers; 'I do not know her equal. That woman, Nickleby, is always the same--always the same bustling, lively, active, saving creetur that you see her now.'
Nicholas sighed involuntarily at the thought of the agreeable domestic prospect thus opened to him; but Squeers was, fortunately, too much occupied with his own reflections to perceive it.
'It's my way to say, when I am up in London,' continued Squeers, 'that to them boys she is a mother. But she is more than a mother to them; ten times more. She does things for them boys, Nickleby, that I don't believe half the mothers going, would do for their own sons.'
'I should think they would not, sir,' answered Nicholas.
Now, the fact was, that both Mr and Mrs Squeers viewed the boys in the light of their proper and natural enemies; or, in other words, they held and considered that their business and profession was to get as much from every boy as could by possibility be screwed out of him. On this point they were both agreed, and behaved in unison accordingly. The only difference between them was, that Mrs Squeers waged war against the enemy openly and fearlessly, and that Squeers covered his rascality, even at home, with a spice of his habitual deceit; as if he really had a notion of someday or other being able to take himself in, and persuade his own mind that he was a very good fellow.
'But come,' said Squeers, interrupting the progress of some thoughts to this effect in the mind of his usher, 'let's go to the schoolroom; and lend me a hand with my school-coat, will you?'
Nicholas assisted his master to put on an old fustian shooting- jacket, which he took down from a peg in the passage; and Squeers, arming himself with his cane, led the way across a yard, to a door in the rear of the house. 'There,' said the schoolmaster as they stepped in together; 'this is our shop, Nickleby!'
It was such a crowded scene, and there were so many objects to attract attention, that, at first, Nicholas stared about him, really without seeing anything at all. By degrees, however, the place resolved itself into a bare and dirty room, with a couple of windows, whereof a tenth part might be of glass, the remainder being stopped up with old copy-books and paper. There were a couple of long old rickety desks, cut and notched, and inked, and damaged, in every possible way; two or three forms; a detached desk for Squeers; and another for his assistant. The ceiling was supported, like that of a barn, by cross-beams and rafters; and the walls were so stained and discoloured, that it was impossible to tell whether they had ever been touched with paint or whitewash. But the pupils--the young noblemen! How the last faint traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around! Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!
And yet this scene, painful as it was, had its grotesque features, which, in a less interested observer than Nicholas, might have provoked a smile. Mrs Squeers stood at one of the desks, presiding over an immense basin of brimstone and treacle, of which delicious compound she administered a large instalment to each boy in succession: using for the purpose a common wooden spoon, which might have been originally manufactured for some gigantic top, and which widened every young gentleman's mouth considerably: they being all obliged, under heavy corporal penalties, to take in the whole of the bowl at a gasp. In another corner, huddled together for companionship, were the little boys who had arrived on the preceding night, three of them in very large leather breeches, and two in old trousers, a something tighter fit than drawers are usually worn; at no great distance from these was seated the juvenile son and heir of Mr Squeers--a striking likeness of his father--kicking, with great vigour, under the hands of Smike, who was fitting upon him a pair of new boots that bore a most suspicious resemblance to those which the least of the little boys had worn on the journey down--as the little boy himself seemed to think, for he was regarding the appropriation with a look of most rueful amazement. Besides these, there was a long row of boys waiting, with countenances of no pleasant anticipation, to be treacled; and another file, who had just escaped from the infliction, making a variety of wry mouths indicative of anything but satisfaction. The whole were attired in such motley, ill-assorted, extraordinary garments, as would have been irresistibly ridiculous, but for the foul appearance of dirt, disorder, and disease, with which they were associated.
'Now,' said Squeers, giving the desk a great rap with his cane, which made half the little boys nearly jump out of their boots, 'is that physicking over?' 'Just over,' said Mrs Squeers, choking the last boy in her hurry, and tapping the crown of his head with the wooden spoon to restore him. 'Here, you Smike; take away now. Look sharp!'
Smike shuffled out with the basin, and Mrs Squeers having called up a little boy with a curly head, and wiped her hands upon it, hurried out after him into a species of wash-house, where there was a small fire and a large kettle, together with a number of little wooden bowls which were arranged upon a board. Into these bowls, Mrs Squeers, assisted by the hungry servant, poured a brown composition, which looked like diluted pincushions without the covers, and was called porridge. A minute wedge of brown bread was inserted in each bowl, and when they had eaten their porridge by means of the bread, the boys ate the bread itself, and had finished their breakfast; whereupon Mr Squeers said, in a solemn voice, 'For what we have received, may the Lord make us truly thankful!'
-and went away to his own.
Nicholas distended his stomach with a bowl of porridge, for much the same reason which induces some savages to swallow earth--lest they should be inconveniently hungry when there is nothing to eat. Having further disposed of a slice of bread and butter, allotted to him in virtue of his office, he sat himself down, to wait for school-time.
He could not but observe how silent and sad the boys all seemed to be. There was none of the noise and clamour of a schoolroom; none of its boisterous play, or hearty mirth. The children sat crouching and shivering together, and seemed to lack the spirit to move about. The only pupil who evinced the slightest tendency towards locomotion or playfulness was Master Squeers, and as his chief amusement was to tread upon the other boys' toes in his new boots, his flow of spirits was rather disagreeable than otherwise.
After some half-hour's delay, Mr Squeers reappeared, and the boys took their places and their books, of which latter commodity the average might be about one to eight learners. A few minutes having elapsed, during which Mr Squeers looked very profound, as if he had a perfect apprehension of what was inside all the books, and could say every word of their contents by heart if he only chose to take the trouble, that gentleman called up the first class.
Obedient to this summons there ranged themselves in front of the schoolmaster's desk, half-a-dozen scarecrows, out at knees and elbows, one of whom placed a torn and filthy book beneath his learned eye.
'This is the first class in English spelling and philosophy, Nickleby,' said Squeers, beckoning Nicholas to stand beside him. 'We'll get up a Latin one, and hand that over to you. Now, then, where's the first boy?'
'Please, sir, he's cleaning the back-parlour window,' said the temporary head of the philosophical class.
'So he is, to be sure,' rejoined Squeers. 'We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a- n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of book, he goes and does it. It's just the same principle as the use of the globes. Where's the second boy?'
'Please, sir, he's weeding the garden,' replied a small voice.
'To be sure,' said Squeers, by no means disconcerted. 'So he is. B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, bottin, n-e-y, ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants. When he has learned that bottinney means a knowledge of plants, he goes and knows 'em. That's our system, Nickleby: what do you think of it?'
'It's very useful one, at any rate,' answered Nicholas.
'I believe you,' rejoined Squeers, not remarking the emphasis of his usher. 'Third boy, what's horse?'
'A beast, sir,' replied the boy.
'So it is,' said Squeers. 'Ain't it, Nickleby?'
'I believe there is no doubt of that, sir,' answered Nicholas.
'Of course there isn't,' said Squeers. 'A horse is a quadruped, and quadruped's Latin for beast, as everybody that's gone through the grammar knows, or else where's the use of having grammars at all?'
'Where, indeed!' said Nicholas abstractedly.
'As you're perfect in that,' resumed Squeers, turning to the boy, 'go and look after MY horse, and rub him down well, or I'll rub you down. The rest of the class go and draw water up, till somebody tells you to leave off, for it's washing-day tomorrow, and they want the coppers filled.'
So saying, he dismissed the first class to their experiments in practical philosophy, and eyed Nicholas with a look, half cunning and half doubtful, as if he were not altogether certain what he might think of him by this time. 'That's the way we do it, Nickleby,' he said, after a pause.
Nicholas shrugged his shoulders in a manner that was scarcely perceptible, and said he saw it was.
'And a very good way it is, too,' said Squeers. 'Now, just take them fourteen little boys and hear them some reading, because, you know, you must begin to be useful. Idling about here won't do.'
Mr Squeers said this, as if it had suddenly occurred to him, either that he must not say too much to his assistant, or that his assistant did not say enough to him in praise of the establishment. The children were arranged in a semicircle round the new master, and he was soon listening to their dull, drawling, hesitating recital of those stories of engrossing interest which are to be found in the more antiquated spelling-books.
In this exciting occupation, the morning lagged heavily on. At one o'clock, the boys, having previously had their appetites thoroughly taken away by stir-about and potatoes, sat down in the kitchen to some hard salt beef, of which Nicholas was graciously permitted to take his portion to his own solitary desk, to eat it there in peace. After this, there was another hour of crouching in the schoolroom and shivering with cold, and then school began again.
It was Mr Squeer's custom to call the boys together, and make a sort of report, after every half-yearly visit to the metropolis, regarding the relations and friends he had seen, the news he had heard, the letters he had brought down, the bills which had been paid, the accounts which had been left unpaid, and so forth. This solemn proceeding always took place in the afternoon of the day succeeding his return; perhaps, because the boys acquired strength of mind from the suspense of the morning, or, possibly, because Mr Squeers himself acquired greater sternness and inflexibility from certain warm potations in which he was wont to indulge after his early dinner. Be this as it may, the boys were recalled from house- window, garden, stable, and cow-yard, and the school were assembled in full conclave, when Mr Squeers, with a small bundle of papers in his hand, and Mrs S. following with a pair of canes, entered the room and proclaimed silence. 'Let any boy speak a word without leave,' said Mr Squeers mildly, 'and I'll take the skin off his back.'
This special proclamation had the desired effect, and a deathlike silence immediately prevailed, in the midst of which Mr Squeers went on to say: 'Boys, I've been to London, and have returned to my family and you, as strong and well as ever.'
According to half-yearly custom, the boys gave three feeble cheers at this refreshing intelligence. Such cheers! Sights of extra strength with the chill on. 'I have seen the parents of some boys,' continued Squeers, turning over his papers, 'and they're so glad to hear how their sons are getting on, that there's no prospect at all of their going away, which of course is a very pleasant thing to reflect upon, for all parties.'
Two or three hands went to two or three eyes when Squeers said this, but the greater part of the young gentlemen having no particular parents to speak of, were wholly uninterested in the thing one way or other.
'I have had diappointments to contend against,' said Squeers, looking very grim; 'Bolder's father was two pound ten short. Where is Bolder?'
'Here he is, please sir,' rejoined twenty officious voices. Boys are very like men to be sure.
'Come here, Bolder,' said Squeers.
An unhealthy-looking boy, with warts all over his hands, stepped from his place to the master's desk, and raised his eyes imploringly to Squeers's face; his own, quite white from the rapid beating of his heart.
'Bolder,' said Squeers, speaking very slowly, for he was considering, as the saying goes, where to have him. 'Bolder, if you father thinks that because--why, what's this, sir?'
As Squeers spoke, he caught up the boy's hand by the cuff of his jacket, and surveyed it with an edifying aspect of horror and disgust.
'What do you call this, sir?' demanded the schoolmaster, administering a cut with the cane to expedite the reply.
'I can't help it, indeed, sir,' rejoined the boy, crying. 'They will come; it's the dirty work I think, sir--at least I don't know what it is, sir, but it's not my fault.' 'Bolder,' said Squeers, tucking up his wristbands, and moistening the palm of his right hand to get a good grip of the cane, 'you're an incorrigible young scoundrel, and as the last thrashing did you no good, we must see what another will do towards beating it out of you.'
With this, and wholly disregarding a piteous cry for mercy, Mr Squeers fell upon the boy and caned him soundly: not leaving off, indeed, until his arm was tired out.
'There,' said Squeers, when he had quite done; 'rub away as hard as you like, you won't rub that off in a hurry. Oh! you won't hold that noise, won't you? Put him out, Smike.'
The drudge knew better from long experience, than to hesitate about obeying, so he bundled the victim out by a side-door, and Mr Squeers perched himself again on his own stool, supported by Mrs Squeers, who occupied another at his side. 'Now let us see,' said Squeers. 'A letter for Cobbey. Stand up, Cobbey.' Another boy stood up, and eyed the letter very hard while Squeers made a mental abstract of the same.
'Oh!' said Squeers: 'Cobbey's grandmother is dead, and his uncle John has took to drinking, which is all the news his sister sends, except eighteenpence, which will just pay for that broken square of glass. Mrs Squeers, my dear, will you take the money?'
The worthy lady pocketed the eighteenpence with a most business-like air, and Squeers passed on to the next boy, as coolly as possible.
'Graymarsh,' said Squeers, 'he's the next. Stand up, Graymarsh.'
Another boy stood up, and the schoolmaster looked over the letter as before. 'Graymarsh's maternal aunt,' said Squeers, when he had possessed himself of the contents, 'is very glad to hear he's so well and happy, and sends her respectful compliments to Mrs Squeers, and thinks she must be an angel. She likewise thinks Mr Squeers is too good for this world; but hopes he may long be spared to carry on the business. Would have sent the two pair of stockings as desired, but is short of money, so forwards a tract instead, and hopes Graymarsh will put his trust in Providence. Hopes, above all, that he will study in everything to please Mr and Mrs Squeers, and look upon them as his only friends; and that he will love Master Squeers; and not object to sleeping five in a bed, which no Christian should. Ah!' said Squeers, folding it up, 'a delightful letter. Very affecting indeed.'
It was affecting in one sense, for Graymarsh's maternal aunt was strongly supposed, by her more intimate friends, to be no other than his maternal parent; Squeers, however, without alluding to this part of the story (which would have sounded immoral before boys), proceeded with the business by calling out 'Mobbs,' whereupon another boy rose, and Graymarsh resumed his seat. 'Mobbs's step-mother,' said Squeers, 'took to her bed on hearing that he wouldn't eat fat, and has been very ill ever since. She wishes to know, by an early post, where he expects to go to, if he quarrels with his vittles; and with what feelings he could turn up his nose at the cow's-liver broth, after his good master had asked a blessing on it. This was told her in the London newspapers--not by Mr Squeers, for he is too kind and too good to set anybody against anybody--and it has vexed her so much, Mobbs can't think. She is sorry to find he is discontented, which is sinful and horrid, and hopes Mr Squeers will flog him into a happier state of mind; with which view, she has also stopped his halfpenny a week pocket-money, and given a double-bladed knife with a corkscrew in it to the Missionaries, which she had bought on purpose for him.'
'A sulky state of feeling,' said Squeers, after a terrible pause, during which he had moistened the palm of his right hand again, 'won't do. Cheerfulness and contentment must be kept up. Mobbs, come to me!'
Mobbs moved slowly towards the desk, rubbing his eyes in anticipation of good cause for doing so; and he soon afterwards retired by the side-door, with as good cause as a boy need have.
Mr Squeers then proceeded to open a miscellaneous collection of letters; some enclosing money, which Mrs Squeers 'took care of;' and others referring to small articles of apparel, as caps and so forth, all of which the same lady stated to be too large, or too small, and calculated for nobody but young Squeers, who would appear indeed to have had most accommodating limbs, since everything that came into the school fitted him to a nicety. His head, in particular, must have been singularly elastic, for hats and caps of all dimensions were alike to him. This business dispatched, a few slovenly lessons were performed, and Squeers retired to his fireside, leaving Nicholas to take care of the boys in the schoolroom, which was very cold, and where a meal of bread and cheese was served out shortly after dark.
There was a small stove at that corner of the room which was nearest to the master's desk, and by it Nicholas sat down, so depressed and self-degraded by the consciousness of his position, that if death could have come upon him at that time, he would have been almost happy to meet it. The cruelty of which he had been an unwilling witness, the coarse and ruffianly behaviour of Squeers even in his best moods, the filthy place, the sights and sounds about him, all contributed to this state of feeling; but when he recollected that, being there as an assistant, he actually seemed--no matter what unhappy train of circumstances had brought him to that pass--to be the aider and abettor of a system which filled him with honest disgust and indignation, he loathed himself, and felt, for the moment, as though the mere consciousness of his present situation must, through all time to come, prevent his raising his head again.
But, for the present, his resolve was taken, and the resolution he had formed on the preceding night remained undisturbed. He had written to his mother and sister, announcing the safe conclusion of his journey, and saying as little about Dotheboys Hall, and saying that little as cheerfully, as he possibly could. He hoped that by remaining where he was, he might do some good, even there; at all events, others depended too much on his uncle's favour, to admit of his awakening his wrath just then.
One reflection disturbed him far more than any selfish considerations arising out of his own position. This was the probable destination of his sister Kate. His uncle had deceived him, and might he not consign her to some miserable place where her youth and beauty would prove a far greater curse than ugliness and decrepitude? To a caged man, bound hand and foot, this was a terrible idea--but no, he thought, his mother was by; there was the portrait-painter, too--simple enough, but still living in the world, and of it. He was willing to believe that Ralph Nickleby had conceived a personal dislike to himself. Having pretty good reason, by this time, to reciprocate it, he had no great difficulty in arriving at this conclusion, and tried to persuade himself that the feeling extended no farther than between them.
As he was absorbed in these meditations, he all at once encountered the upturned face of Smike, who was on his knees before the stove, picking a few stray cinders from the hearth and planting them on the fire. He had paused to steal a look at Nicholas, and when he saw that he was observed, shrunk back, as if expecting a blow.
'You need not fear me,' said Nicholas kindly. 'Are you cold?'
'You are shivering.'
'I am not cold,' replied Smike quickly. 'I am used to it.'
There was such an obvious fear of giving offence in his manner, and he was such a timid, broken-spirited creature, that Nicholas could not help exclaiming, 'Poor fellow!'
If he had struck the drudge, he would have slunk away without a word. But, now, he burst into tears.
'Oh dear, oh dear!' he cried, covering his face with his cracked and horny hands. 'My heart will break. It will, it will.'
'Hush!' said Nicholas, laying his hand upon his shoulder. 'Be a man; you are nearly one by years, God help you.'
'By years!' cried Smike. 'Oh dear, dear, how many of them! How many of them since I was a little child, younger than any that are here now! Where are they all!' 'Whom do you speak of?' inquired Nicholas, wishing to rouse the poor half-witted creature to reason. 'Tell me.'
'My friends,' he replied, 'myself--my--oh! what sufferings mine have been!' 'There is always hope,' said Nicholas; he knew not what to say.
'No,' rejoined the other, 'no; none for me. Do you remember the boy that died here?'
'I was not here, you know,' said Nicholas gently; 'but what of him?' 'Why,' replied the youth, drawing closer to his questioner's side, 'I was with him at night, and when it was all silent he cried no more for friends he wished to come and sit with him, but began to see faces round his bed that came from home; he said they smiled, and talked to him; and he died at last lifting his head to kiss them. Do you hear?'
'Yes, yes,' rejoined Nicholas.
'What faces will smile on me when I die!' cried his companion, shivering. 'Who will talk to me in those long nights! They cannot come from home; they would frighten me, if they did, for I don't know what it is, and shouldn't know them. Pain and fear, pain and fear for me, alive or dead. No hope, no hope!'
The bell rang to bed: and the boy, subsiding at the sound into his usual listless state, crept away as if anxious to avoid notice. It was with a heavy heart that Nicholas soon afterwards--no, not retired; there was no retirement there-followed--to his dirty and crowded dormitory.
Of Miss Squeers, Mrs Squeers, Master Squeers, and Mr Squeers; and of various Matters and Persons connected no less with the Squeerses than Nicholas Nickleby
When Mr Squeers left the schoolroom for the night, he betook himself, as has been before remarked, to his own fireside, which was situated--not in the room in which Nicholas had supped on the night of his arrival, but in a smaller apartment in the rear of the premises, where his lady wife, his amiable son, and accomplished daughter, were in the full enjoyment of each other's society; Mrs Squeers being engaged in the matronly pursuit of stocking-darning; and the young lady and gentleman being occupied in the adjustment of some youthful differences, by means of a pugilistic contest across the table, which, on the approach of their honoured parent, subsided into a noiseless exchange of kicks beneath it.
And, in this place, it may be as well to apprise the reader, that Miss Fanny Squeers was in her three-and-twentieth year. If there be any one grace or loveliness inseparable from that particular period of life, Miss Squeers may be presumed to have been possessed of it, as there is no reason to suppose that she was a solitary exception to an universal rule. She was not tall like her mother, but short like her father; from the former she inherited a voice of harsh quality; from the latter a remarkable expression of the right eye, something akin to having none at all.
Miss Squeers had been spending a few days with a neighbouring friend, and had only just returned to the parental roof. To this circumstance may be referred, her having heard nothing of Nicholas, until Mr Squeers himself now made him the subject of conversation.
'Well, my dear,' said Squeers, drawing up his chair, 'what do you think of him by this time?'
'Think of who?' inquired Mrs Squeers; who (as she often remarked) was no grammarian, thank Heaven.
'Of the young man--the new teacher--who else could I mean?'
'Oh! that Knuckleboy,' said Mrs Squeers impatiently. 'I hate him.'
'What do you hate him for, my dear?' asked Squeers.
'What's that to you?' retorted Mrs Squeers. 'If I hate him, that's enough, ain't it?' 'Quite enough for him, my dear, and a great deal too much I dare say, if he knew it,' replied Squeers in a pacific tone. 'I only ask from curiosity, my dear.' 'Well, then, if you want to know,' rejoined Mrs Squeers, 'I'll tell you. Because he's a proud, haughty, consequential, turned-up-nosed peacock.'
Mrs Squeers, when excited, was accustomed to use strong language, and, moreover, to make use of a plurality of epithets, some of which were of a figurative kind, as the word peacock, and furthermore the allusion to Nicholas's nose, which was not intended to be taken in its literal sense, but rather to bear a latitude of construction according to the fancy of the hearers.
Neither were they meant to bear reference to each other, so much as to the object on whom they were bestowed, as will be seen in the present case: a peacock with a turned-up nose being a novelty in ornithology, and a thing not commonly seen.
'Hem!' said Squeers, as if in mild deprecation of this outbreak. 'He is cheap, my dear; the young man is very cheap.'
'Not a bit of it,' retorted Mrs Squeers.
'Five pound a year,' said Squeers.
'What of that; it's dear if you don't want him, isn't it?' replied his wife. 'But we DO want him,' urged Squeers.
'I don't see that you want him any more than the dead,' said Mrs Squeers. 'Don't tell me. You can put on the cards and in the advertisements, "Education by Mr Wackford Squeers and able assistants," without having any assistants, can't you? Isn't it done every day by all the masters about? I've no patience with you.' 'Haven't you!' said Squeers, sternly. 'Now I'll tell you what, Mrs Squeers. In this matter of having a teacher, I'll take my own way, if you please. A slave driver in the West Indies is allowed a man under him, to see that his blacks don't run away, or get up a rebellion; and I'll have a man under me to do the same with OUR blacks, till such time as little Wackford is able to take charge of the school.' 'Am I to take care of the school when I grow up a man, father?' said Wackford junior, suspending, in the excess of his delight, a vicious kick which he was administering to his sister.
'You are, my son,' replied Mr Squeers, in a sentimental voice.
'Oh my eye, won't I give it to the boys!' exclaimed the interesting child, grasping his father's cane. 'Oh, father, won't I make 'em squeak again!'
It was a proud moment in Mr Squeers's life, when he witnessed that burst of enthusiasm in his young child's mind, and saw in it a foreshadowing of his future eminence. He pressed a penny into his hand, and gave vent to his feelings (as did his exemplary wife also), in a shout of approving laughter. The infantine appeal to their common sympathies, at once restored cheerfulness to the conversation, and harmony to the company.
'He's a nasty stuck-up monkey, that's what I consider him,' said Mrs Squeers, reverting to Nicholas.
'Supposing he is,' said Squeers, 'he is as well stuck up in our schoolroom as anywhere else, isn't he?--especially as he don't like it.'
'Well,' observed Mrs Squeers, 'there's something in that. I hope it'll bring his pride down, and it shall be no fault of mine if it don't.'
Now, a proud usher in a Yorkshire school was such a very extraordinary and unaccountable thing to hear of,--any usher at all being a novelty; but a proud one, a being of whose existence the wildest imagination could never have dreamed--that Miss Squeers, who seldom troubled herself with scholastic matters, inquired with much curiosity who this Knuckleboy was, that gave himself such airs.
'Nickleby,' said Squeers, spelling the name according to some eccentric system which prevailed in his own mind; 'your mother always calls things and people by their wrong names.'
'No matter for that,' said Mrs Squeers; 'I see them with right eyes, and that's quite enough for me. I watched him when you were laying on to little Bolder this afternoon. He looked as black as thunder, all the while, and, one time, started up as if he had more than got it in his mind to make a rush at you. I saw him, though he thought I didn't.'
'Never mind that, father,' said Miss Squeers, as the head of the family was about to reply. 'Who is the man?'
'Why, your father has got some nonsense in his head that he's the son of a poor gentleman that died the other day,' said Mrs Squeers.
'The son of a gentleman!'
'Yes; but I don't believe a word of it. If he's a gentleman's son at all, he's a fondling, that's my opinion.'
'Mrs Squeers intended to say 'foundling,' but, as she frequently remarked when she made any such mistake, it would be all the same a hundred years hence; with which axiom of philosophy, indeed, she was in the constant habit of consoling the boys when they laboured under more than ordinary ill-usage. 'He's nothing of the kind,' said Squeers, in answer to the above remark, 'for his father was married to his mother years before he was born, and she is alive now. If he was, it would be no business of ours, for we make a very good friend by having him here; and if he likes to learn the boys anything besides minding them, I have no objection I am sure.'
'I say again, I hate him worse than poison,' said Mrs Squeers vehemently. 'If you dislike him, my dear,' returned Squeers, 'I don't know anybody who can show dislike better than you, and of course there's no occasion, with him, to take the trouble to hide it.'
'I don't intend to, I assure you,' interposed Mrs S.
'That's right,' said Squeers; 'and if he has a touch of pride about him, as I think he has, I don't believe there's woman in all England that can bring anybody's spirit down, as quick as you can, my love.'
Mrs Squeers chuckled vastly on the receipt of these flattering compliments, and said, she hoped she had tamed a high spirit or two in her day. It is but due to her character to say, that in conjunction with her estimable husband, she had broken many and many a one.
Miss Fanny Squeers carefully treasured up this, and much more conversation on the same subject, until she retired for the night, when she questioned the hungry servant, minutely, regarding the outward appearance and demeanour of Nicholas; to which queries the girl returned such enthusiastic replies, coupled with so many laudatory remarks touching his beautiful dark eyes, and his sweet smile, and his straight legs--upon which last-named articles she laid particular stress; the general run of legs at Dotheboys Hall being crooked--that Miss Squeers was not long in arriving at the conclusion that the new usher must be a very remarkable person, or, as she herself significantly phrased it, 'something quite out of the common.' And so Miss Squeers made up her mind that she would take a personal observation of Nicholas the very next day.
In pursuance of this design, the young lady watched the opportunity of her mother being engaged, and her father absent, and went accidentally into the schoolroom to get a pen mended: where, seeing nobody but Nicholas presiding over the boys, she blushed very deeply, and exhibited great confusion. 'I beg your pardon,' faltered Miss Squeers; 'I thought my father was--or might be-dear me, how very awkward!'
'Mr Squeers is out,' said Nicholas, by no means overcome by the apparition, unexpected though it was.
'Do you know will he be long, sir?' asked Miss Squeers, with bashful hesitation. 'He said about an hour,' replied Nicholas--politely of course, but without any indication of being stricken to the heart by Miss Squeers's charms. 'I never knew anything happen so cross,' exclaimed the young lady. 'Thank you! I am very sorry I intruded, I am sure. If I hadn't thought my father was here, I wouldn't upon any account have--it is very provoking--must look so very strange,' murmured Miss Squeers, blushing once more, and glancing, from the pen in her hand, to Nicholas at his desk, and back again.
'If that is all you want,' said Nicholas, pointing to the pen, and smiling, in spite of himself, at the affected embarrassment of the schoolmaster's daughter, 'perhaps I can supply his place.'
Miss Squeers glanced at the door, as if dubious of the propriety of advancing any nearer to an utter stranger; then round the schoolroom, as though in some measure reassured by the presence of forty boys; and finally sidled up to Nicholas and delivered the pen into his hand, with a most winning mixture of reserve and condescension.
'Shall it be a hard or a soft nib?' inquired Nicholas, smiling to prevent himself from laughing outright.
'He HAS a beautiful smile,' thought Miss Squeers.
'Which did you say?' asked Nicholas.
'Dear me, I was thinking of something else for the moment, I declare,' replied Miss Squeers. 'Oh! as soft as possible, if you please.' With which words, Miss Squeers sighed. It might be, to give Nicholas to understand that her heart was soft, and that the pen was wanted to match.
Upon these instructions Nicholas made the pen; when he gave it to Miss Squeers, Miss Squeers dropped it; and when he stooped to pick it up, Miss Squeers stopped also, and they knocked their heads together; whereat five-andtwenty little boys laughed aloud: being positively for the first and only time that half-year.
'Very awkward of me,' said Nicholas, opening the door for the young lady's retreat.
'Not at all, sir,' replied Miss Squeers; 'it was my fault. It was all my foolish--a--a-good-morning!'
'Goodbye,' said Nicholas. 'The next I make for you, I hope will be made less clumsily. Take care! You are biting the nib off now.'
'Really,' said Miss Squeers; 'so embarrassing that I scarcely know what I--very sorry to give you so much trouble.'
'Not the least trouble in the world,' replied Nicholas, closing the schoolroom door. 'I never saw such legs in the whole course of my life!' said Miss Squeers, as she walked away.
In fact, Miss Squeers was in love with Nicholas Nickleby.
To account for the rapidity with which this young lady had conceived a passion for Nicholas, it may be necessary to state, that the friend from whom she had so recently returned, was a miller's daughter of only eighteen, who had contracted herself unto the son of a small corn-factor, resident in the nearest market town. Miss Squeers and the miller's daughter, being fast friends, had covenanted together some two years before, according to a custom prevalent among young ladies, that whoever was first engaged to be married, should straightway confide the mighty secret to the bosom of the other, before communicating it to any living soul, and bespeak her as bridesmaid without loss of time; in fulfilment of which pledge the miller's daughter, when her engagement was formed, came out express, at eleven o'clock at night as the corn-factor's son made an offer of his hand and heart at twenty-five minutes past ten by the Dutch clock in the kitchen, and rushed into Miss Squeers's bedroom with the gratifying intelligence. Now, Miss Squeers being five years older, and out of her teens (which is also a great matter), had, since, been more than commonly anxious to return the compliment, and possess her friend with a similar secret; but, either in consequence of finding it hard to please herself, or harder still to please anybody else, had never had an opportunity so to do, inasmuch as she had no such secret to disclose. The little interview with Nicholas had no sooner passed, as above described, however, than Miss Squeers, putting on her bonnet, made her way, with great precipitation, to her friend's house, and, upon a solemn renewal of divers old vows of secrecy, revealed how that she was-- not exactly engaged, but going to be--to a gentleman's son--(none of your corn-factors, but a gentleman's son of high descent)--who had come down as teacher to Dotheboys Hall, under most mysterious and remarkable circumstances--indeed, as Miss Squeers more than once hinted she had good reason to believe, induced, by the fame of her many charms, to seek her out, and woo and win her.
'Isn't it an extraordinary thing?' said Miss Squeers, emphasising the adjective strongly.
'Most extraordinary,' replied the friend. 'But what has he said to you?' 'Don't ask me what he said, my dear,' rejoined Miss Squeers. 'If you had only seen his looks and smiles! I never was so overcome in all my life.' 'Did he look in this way?' inquired the miller's daughter, counterfeiting, as nearly as she could, a favourite leer of the corn-factor.
'Very like that--only more genteel,' replied Miss Squeers.
'Ah!' said the friend, 'then he means something, depend on it.'
Miss Squeers, having slight misgivings on the subject, was by no means ill pleased to be confirmed by a competent authority; and discovering, on further conversation and comparison of notes, a great many points of resemblance between the behaviour of Nicholas, and that of the corn-factor, grew so exceedingly confidential, that she intrusted her friend with a vast number of things Nicholas had NOT said, which were all so very complimentary as to be quite conclusive. Then, she dilated on the fearful hardship of having a father and mother strenuously opposed to her intended husband; on which unhappy circumstance she dwelt at great length; for the friend's father and mother were quite agreeable to her being married, and the whole courtship was in consequence as flat and common-place an affair as it was possible to imagine. 'How I should like to see him!' exclaimed the friend.
'So you shall, 'Tilda,' replied Miss Squeers. 'I should consider myself one of the most ungrateful creatures alive, if I denied you. I think mother's going away for two days to fetch some boys; and when she does, I'll ask you and John up to tea, and have him to meet you.'
This was a charming idea, and having fully discussed it, the friends parted. It so fell out, that Mrs Squeers's journey, to some distance, to fetch three new boys, and dun the relations of two old ones for the balance of a small account, was fixed that very afternoon, for the next day but one; and on the next day but one, Mrs Squeers got up outside the coach, as it stopped to change at Greta Bridge, taking with her a small bundle containing something in a bottle, and some sandwiches, and carrying besides a large white top-coat to wear in the nighttime; with which baggage she went her way.
Whenever such opportunities as these occurred, it was Squeers's custom to drive over to the market town, every evening, on pretence of urgent business, and stop till ten or eleven o'clock at a tavern he much affected. As the party was not in his way, therefore, but rather afforded a means of compromise with Miss Squeers, he readily yielded his full assent thereunto, and willingly communicated to Nicholas that he was expected to take his tea in the parlour that evening, at five o'clock.
To be sure Miss Squeers was in a desperate flutter as the time approached, and to be sure she was dressed out to the best advantage: with her hair--it had more than a tinge of red, and she wore it in a crop--curled in five distinct rows, up to the very top of her head, and arranged dexterously over the doubtful eye; to say nothing of the blue sash which floated down her back, or the worked apron or the long gloves, or the green gauze scarf worn over one shoulder and under the other; or any of the numerous devices which were to be as so many arrows to the heart of Nicholas. She had scarcely completed these arrangements to her entire satisfaction, when the friend arrived with a whity-brown parcel--flat and three- cornered--containing sundry small adornments which were to be put on upstairs, and which the friend put on, talking incessantly. When Miss Squeers had 'done' the friend's hair, the friend 'did' Miss Squeers's hair, throwing in some striking improvements in the way of ringlets down the neck; and then, when they were both touched up to their entire satisfaction, they went downstairs in full state with the long gloves on, all ready for company.
'Where's John, 'Tilda?' said Miss Squeers.
'Only gone home to clean himself,' replied the friend. 'He will be here by the time the tea's drawn.'
'I do so palpitate,' observed Miss Squeers.
'Ah! I know what it is,' replied the friend.
'I have not been used to it, you know, 'Tilda,' said Miss Squeers, applying her hand to the left side of her sash.
'You'll soon get the better of it, dear,' rejoined the friend. While they were talking thus, the hungry servant brought in the tea- things, and, soon afterwards, somebody tapped at the room door.
'There he is!' cried Miss Squeers. 'Oh 'Tilda!'
'Hush!' said 'Tilda. 'Hem! Say, come in.'
'Come in,' cried Miss Squeers faintly. And in walked Nicholas.
'Good-evening,' said that young gentleman, all unconscious of his conquest. 'I understood from Mr Squeers that--'
'Oh yes; it's all right,' interposed Miss Squeers. 'Father don't tea with us, but you won't mind that, I dare say.' (This was said archly.)
Nicholas opened his eyes at this, but he turned the matter off very coolly--not caring, particularly, about anything just then--and went through the ceremony of introduction to the miller's daughter with so much grace, that that young lady was lost in admiration.
'We are only waiting for one more gentleman,' said Miss Squeers, taking off the teapot lid, and looking in, to see how the tea was getting on.
It was matter of equal moment to Nicholas whether they were waiting for one gentleman or twenty, so he received the intelligence with perfect unconcern; and, being out of spirits, and not seeing any especial reason why he should make himself agreeable, looked out of the window and sighed involuntarily. As luck would have it, Miss Squeers's friend was of a playful turn, and hearing Nicholas sigh, she took it into her head to rally the lovers on their lowness of spirits.
'But if it's caused by my being here,' said the young lady, 'don't mind me a bit, for I'm quite as bad. You may go on just as you would if you were alone.' ''Tilda,' said Miss Squeers, colouring up to the top row of curls, 'I am ashamed of you;' and here the two friends burst into a variety of giggles, and glanced from time to time, over the tops of their pocket-handkerchiefs, at Nicholas, who from a state of unmixed astonishment, gradually fell into one of irrepressible laughter-- occasioned, partly by the bare notion of his being in love with Miss Squeers, and partly by the preposterous appearance and behaviour of the two girls. These two causes of merriment, taken together, struck him as being so keenly ridiculous, that, despite his miserable condition, he laughed till he was thoroughly exhausted.
'Well,' thought Nicholas, 'as I am here, and seem expected, for some reason or other, to be amiable, it's of no use looking like a goose. I may as well accommodate myself to the company.'
We blush to tell it; but his youthful spirits and vivacity getting, for the time, the better of his sad thoughts, he no sooner formed this resolution than he saluted Miss Squeers and the friend with great gallantry, and drawing a chair to the teatable, began to make himself more at home than in all probability an usher has ever done in his employer's house since ushers were first invented. The ladies were in the full delight of this altered behaviour on the part of Mr Nickleby, when the expected swain arrived, with his hair very damp from recent washing, and a clean shirt, whereof the collar might have belonged to some giant ancestor, forming, together with a white waistcoat of similar dimensions, the chief ornament of his person.
'Well, John,' said Miss Matilda Price (which, by-the-bye, was the name of the miller's daughter).
'Weel,' said John with a grin that even the collar could not conceal. 'I beg your pardon,' interposed Miss Squeers, hastening to do the honours. 'Mr Nickleby--Mr John Browdie.'
'Servant, sir,' said John, who was something over six feet high, with a face and body rather above the due proportion than below it.
'Yours to command, sir,' replied Nicholas, making fearful ravages on the bread and butter.
Mr Browdie was not a gentleman of great conversational powers, so he grinned twice more, and having now bestowed his customary mark of recognition on every person in company, grinned at nothing in particular, and helped himself to food.
'Old wooman awa', bean't she?' said Mr Browdie, with his mouth full. Miss Squeers nodded assent.
Mr Browdie gave a grin of special width, as if he thought that really was something to laugh at, and went to work at the bread and butter with increased vigour. It was quite a sight to behold how he and Nicholas emptied the plate between them.
'Ye wean't get bread and butther ev'ry neight, I expect, mun,' said Mr Browdie, after he had sat staring at Nicholas a long time over the empty plate. Nicholas bit his lip, and coloured, but affected not to hear the remark. 'Ecod,' said Mr Browdie, laughing boisterously, 'they dean't put too much intiv'em. Ye'll be nowt but skeen and boans if you stop here long eneaf. Ho! ho! ho!' 'You are facetious, sir,' said Nicholas, scornfully.
'Na; I dean't know,' replied Mr Browdie, 'but t'oother teacher, 'cod he wur a learn 'un, he wur.' The recollection of the last teacher's leanness seemed to afford Mr Browdie the most exquisite delight, for he laughed until he found it necessary to apply his coat-cuffs to his eyes.
'I don't know whether your perceptions are quite keen enough, Mr Browdie, to enable you to understand that your remarks are offensive,' said Nicholas in a towering passion, 'but if they are, have the goodness to--'
'If you say another word, John,' shrieked Miss Price, stopping her admirer's mouth as he was about to interrupt, 'only half a word, I'll never forgive you, or speak to you again.'
'Weel, my lass, I dean't care aboot 'un,' said the corn-factor, bestowing a hearty kiss on Miss Matilda; 'let 'un gang on, let 'un gang on.'
It now became Miss Squeers's turn to intercede with Nicholas, which she did with many symptoms of alarm and horror; the effect of the double intercession was, that he and John Browdie shook hands across the table with much gravity; and such was the imposing nature of the ceremonial, that Miss Squeers was overcome and shed tears.
'What's the matter, Fanny?' said Miss Price.
'Nothing, 'Tilda,' replied Miss Squeers, sobbing.
'There never was any danger,' said Miss Price, 'was there, Mr Nickleby?' 'None at all,' replied Nicholas. 'Absurd.'
'That's right,' whispered Miss Price, 'say something kind to her, and she'll soon come round. Here! Shall John and I go into the little kitchen, and come back presently?'
'Not on any account,' rejoined Nicholas, quite alarmed at the proposition. 'What on earth should you do that for?'
'Well,' said Miss Price, beckoning him aside, and speaking with some degree of contempt--'you ARE a one to keep company.'
'What do you mean?' said Nicholas; 'I am not a one to keep company at all--here at all events. I can't make this out.'
'No, nor I neither," rejoined Miss Price; 'but men are always fickle, and always were, and always will be; that I can make out, very easily.'
'Fickle!' cried Nicholas; 'what do you suppose? You don't mean to say that you think--'
'Oh no, I think nothing at all,' retorted Miss Price, pettishly. 'Look at her, dressed so beautiful and looking so well--really ALMOST handsome. I am ashamed at you.'
'My dear girl, what have I got to do with her dressing beautifully or looking well?' inquired Nicholas.
'Come, don't call me a dear girl,' said Miss Price--smiling a little though, for she was pretty, and a coquette too in her small way, and Nicholas was good-looking, and she supposed him the property of somebody else, which were all reasons why she should be gratified to think she had made an impression on him,--'or Fanny will be saying it's my fault. Come; we're going to have a game at cards.' Pronouncing these last words aloud, she tripped away and rejoined the big Yorkshireman.
This was wholly unintelligible to Nicholas, who had no other distinct impression on his mind at the moment, than that Miss Squeers was an ordinary-looking girl, and her friend Miss Price a pretty one; but he had not time to enlighten himself by reflection, for the hearth being by this time swept up, and the candle snuffed, they sat down to play speculation.
'There are only four of us, 'Tilda,' said Miss Squeers, looking slyly at Nicholas; 'so we had better go partners, two against two.'
'What do you say, Mr Nickleby?' inquired Miss Price.
'With all the pleasure in life,' replied Nicholas. And so saying, quite unconscious of his heinous offence, he amalgamated into one common heap those portions of a Dotheboys Hall card of terms, which represented his own counters, and those allotted to Miss Price, respectively.
'Mr Browdie,' said Miss Squeers hysterically, 'shall we make a bank against them?'
The Yorkshireman assented--apparently quite overwhelmed by the new usher's impudence--and Miss Squeers darted a spiteful look at her friend, and giggled convulsively.
The deal fell to Nicholas, and the hand prospered.
'We intend to win everything,' said he.
''Tilda HAS won something she didn't expect, I think, haven't you, dear?' said Miss Squeers, maliciously.
'Only a dozen and eight, love,' replied Miss Price, affecting to take the question in a literal sense.
'How dull you are tonight!' sneered Miss Squeers.
'No, indeed,' replied Miss Price, 'I am in excellent spirits. I was thinking YOU seemed out of sorts.'
'Me!' cried Miss Squeers, biting her lips, and trembling with very jealousy. 'Oh no!'
'That's well,' remarked Miss Price. 'Your hair's coming out of curl, dear.' 'Never mind me,' tittered Miss Squeers; 'you had better attend to your partner.' 'Thank you for reminding her,' said Nicholas. 'So she had.'
The Yorkshireman flattened his nose, once or twice, with his clenched fist, as if to keep his hand in, till he had an opportunity of exercising it upon the features of some other gentleman; and Miss Squeers tossed her head with such indignation, that the gust of wind raised by the multitudinous curls in motion, nearly blew the candle out.
'I never had such luck, really,' exclaimed coquettish Miss Price, after another hand or two. 'It's all along of you, Mr Nickleby, I think. I should like to have you for a partner always.'
'I wish you had.'
'You'll have a bad wife, though, if you always win at cards,' said Miss Price. 'Not if your wish is gratified,' replied Nicholas. 'I am sure I shall have a good one in that case.'
To see how Miss Squeers tossed her head, and the corn-factor flattened his nose, while this conversation was carrying on! It would have been worth a small annuity to have beheld that; let alone Miss Price's evident joy at making them jealous, and Nicholas Nickleby's happy unconsciousness of making anybody uncomfortable.
'We have all the talking to ourselves, it seems,' said Nicholas, looking goodhumouredly round the table as he took up the cards for a fresh deal. 'You do it so well,' tittered Miss Squeers, 'that it would be a pity to interrupt, wouldn't it, Mr Browdie? He! he! he!'
'Nay,' said Nicholas, 'we do it in default of having anybody else to talk to.' 'We'll talk to you, you know, if you'll say anything,' said Miss Price. 'Thank you, 'Tilda, dear,' retorted Miss Squeers, majestically.
'Or you can talk to each other, if you don't choose to talk to us,' said Miss Price, rallying her dear friend. 'John, why don't you say something?'
'Say summat?' repeated the Yorkshireman.
'Ay, and not sit there so silent and glum.'
'Weel, then!' said the Yorkshireman, striking the table heavily with his fist, 'what I say's this--Dang my boans and boddy, if I stan' this ony longer. Do ye gang whoam wi' me, and do yon loight an' toight young whipster look sharp out for a brokken head, next time he cums under my hond.'
'Mercy on us, what's all this?' cried Miss Price, in affected astonishment. 'Cum whoam, tell 'e, cum whoam,' replied the Yorkshireman, sternly. And as he delivered the reply, Miss Squeers burst into a shower of tears; arising in part from desperate vexation, and in part from an impotent desire to lacerate somebody's countenance with her fair finger-nails.
This state of things had been brought about by divers means and workings. Miss Squeers had brought it about, by aspiring to the high state and condition of being matrimonially engaged, without good grounds for so doing; Miss Price had brought it about, by indulging in three motives of action: first, a desire to punish her friend for laying claim to a rivalship in dignity, having no good title: secondly, the gratification of her own vanity, in receiving the compliments of a smart young man: and thirdly, a wish to convince the corn-factor of the great danger he ran, in deferring the celebration of their expected nuptials; while Nicholas had brought it about, by half an hour's gaiety and thoughtlessness, and a very sincere desire to avoid the imputation of inclining at all to Miss Squeers. So the means employed, and the end produced, were alike the most natural in the world; for young ladies will look forward to being married, and will jostle each other in the race to the altar, and will avail themselves of all opportunities of displaying their own attractions to the best advantage, down to the very end of time, as they have done from its beginning.
'Why, and here's Fanny in tears now!' exclaimed Miss Price, as if in fresh amazement. 'What can be the matter?'
'Oh! you don't know, miss, of course you don't know. Pray don't trouble yourself to inquire,' said Miss Squeers, producing that change of countenance which children call making a face.
'Well, I'm sure!' exclaimed Miss Price.
'And who cares whether you are sure or not, ma'am?' retorted Miss Squeers, making another face.
'You are monstrous polite, ma'am,' said Miss Price.
'I shall not come to you to take lessons in the art, ma'am!' retorted Miss Squeers. 'You needn't take the trouble to make yourself plainer than you are, ma'am, however,' rejoined Miss Price, 'because that's quite unnecessary.' Miss Squeers, in reply, turned very red, and thanked God that she hadn't got the bold faces of some people. Miss Price, in rejoinder, congratulated herself upon not being possessed of the envious feeling of other people; whereupon Miss Squeers made some general remark touching the danger of associating with low persons; in which Miss Price entirely coincided: observing that it was very true indeed, and she had thought so a long time.
''Tilda,' exclaimed Miss Squeers with dignity, 'I hate you.'
'Ah! There's no love lost between us, I assure you,' said Miss Price, tying her bonnet strings with a jerk. 'You'll cry your eyes out, when I'm gone; you know you will.'
'I scorn your words, Minx,' said Miss Squeers.
'You pay me a great compliment when you say so,' answered the miller's daughter, curtseying very low. 'Wish you a very good- night, ma'am, and pleasant dreams attend your sleep!'
With this parting benediction, Miss Price swept from the room, followed by the huge Yorkshireman, who exchanged with Nicholas, at parting, that peculiarly expressive scowl with which the cut-and- thrust counts, in melodramatic performances, inform each other they will meet again.
They were no sooner gone, than Miss Squeers fulfilled the prediction of her quondam friend by giving vent to a most copious burst of tears, and uttering various dismal lamentations and incoherent words. Nicholas stood looking on for a few seconds, rather doubtful what to do, but feeling uncertain whether the fit would end in his being embraced, or scratched, and considering that either infliction would be equally agreeable, he walked off very quietly while Miss Squeers was moaning in her pocket-handkerchief.
'This is one consequence,' thought Nicholas, when he had groped his way to the dark sleeping-room, 'of my cursed readiness to adapt myself to any society in which chance carries me. If I had sat mute and motionless, as I might have done, this would not have happened.'
He listened for a few minutes, but all was quiet.
'I was glad,' he murmured, 'to grasp at any relief from the sight of this dreadful place, or the presence of its vile master. I have set these people by the ears, and made two new enemies, where, Heaven knows, I needed none. Well, it is a just punishment for having forgotten, even for an hour, what is around me now!' So saying, he felt his way among the throng of weary-hearted sleepers, and crept into his poor bed.
How Mr Ralph Nickleby provided for his Niece and Sister-in-Law
On the second morning after the departure of Nicholas for Yorkshire, Kate Nickleby sat in a very faded chair raised upon a very dusty throne in Miss La Creevy's room, giving that lady a sitting for the portrait upon which she was engaged; and towards the full perfection of which, Miss La Creevy had had the street-door case brought upstairs, in order that she might be the better able to infuse into the counterfeit countenance of Miss Nickleby, a bright salmon flesh- tint which she had originally hit upon while executing the miniature of a young officer therein contained, and which bright salmon flesh- tint was considered, by Miss La Creevy's chief friends and patrons, to be quite a novelty in art: as indeed it was.
'I think I have caught it now,' said Miss La Creevy. 'The very shade! This will be the sweetest portrait I have ever done, certainly.'
'It will be your genius that makes it so, then, I am sure,' replied Kate, smiling. 'No, no, I won't allow that, my dear,' rejoined Miss La Creevy. 'It's a very nice subject--a very nice subject, indeed--though, of course, something depends upon the mode of treatment.'
'And not a little,' observed Kate.
'Why, my dear, you are right there,' said Miss La Creevy, 'in the main you are right there; though I don't allow that it is of such very great importance in the present case. Ah! The difficulties of Art, my dear, are great.'
'They must be, I have no doubt,' said Kate, humouring her good- natured little friend.
'They are beyond anything you can form the faintest conception of,' replied Miss La Creevy. 'What with bringing out eyes with all one's power, and keeping down noses with all one's force, and adding to heads, and taking away teeth altogether, you have no idea of the trouble one little miniature is.'
'The remuneration can scarcely repay you,' said Kate.
'Why, it does not, and that's the truth,' answered Miss La Creevy; 'and then people are so dissatisfied and unreasonable, that, nine times out of ten, there's no pleasure in painting them. Sometimes they say, "Oh, how very serious you have made me look, Miss La Creevy!" and at others, "La, Miss La Creevy, how very smirking!" when the very essence of a good portrait is, that it must be either serious or smirking, or it's no portrait at all.'
'Indeed!' said Kate, laughing.
'Certainly, my dear; because the sitters are always either the one or the other,' replied Miss La Creevy. 'Look at the Royal Academy! All those beautiful shiny portraits of gentlemen in black velvet waistcoats, with their fists doubled up on round tables, or marble slabs, are serious, you know; and all the ladies who are playing with little parasols, or little dogs, or little children--it's the same rule in art, only varying the objects--are smirking. In fact,' said Miss La Creevy, sinking her voice to a confidential whisper, 'there are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk; and we always use the serious for professional people (except actors sometimes), and the smirk for private ladies and gentlemen who don't care so much about looking clever.'
Kate seemed highly amused by this information, and Miss La Creevy went on painting and talking, with immovable complacency.
'What a number of officers you seem to paint!' said Kate, availing herself of a pause in the discourse, and glancing round the room.
'Number of what, child?' inquired Miss La Creevy, looking up from her work. 'Character portraits, oh yes--they're not real military men, you know.' 'No!'
'Bless your heart, of course not; only clerks and that, who hire a uniform coat to be painted in, and send it here in a carpet bag. Some artists,' said Miss La Creevy, 'keep a red coat, and charge seven-and-sixpence extra for hire and carmine; but I don't do that myself, for I don't consider it legitimate.' Drawing herself up, as though she plumed herself greatly upon not resorting to these lures to catch sitters, Miss La Creevy applied herself, more intently, to her task: only raising her head occasionally, to look with unspeakable satisfaction at some touch she had just put in: and now and then giving Miss Nickleby to understand what particular feature she was at work upon, at the moment; 'not,' she expressly observed, 'that you should make it up for painting, my dear, but because it's our custom sometimes to tell sitters what part we are upon, in order that if there's any particular expression they want introduced, they may throw it in, at the time, you know.'
'And when,' said Miss La Creevy, after a long silence, to wit, an interval of full a minute and a half, 'when do you expect to see your uncle again?'
'I scarcely know; I had expected to have seen him before now,' replied Kate. 'Soon I hope, for this state of uncertainty is worse than anything.'
'I suppose he has money, hasn't he?' inquired Miss La Creevy.
'He is very rich, I have heard,' rejoined Kate. 'I don't know that he is, but I believe so.'
'Ah, you may depend upon it he is, or he wouldn't be so surly,' remarked Miss La Creevy, who was an odd little mixture of shrewdness and simplicity. 'When a man's a bear, he is generally pretty independent.'
'His manner is rough,' said Kate.
'Rough!' cried Miss La Creevy, 'a porcupine's a featherbed to him! I never met with such a cross-grained old savage.'
'It is only his manner, I believe,' observed Kate, timidly; 'he was disappointed in early life, I think I have heard, or has had his temper soured by some calamity. I should be sorry to think ill of him until I knew he deserved it.'
'Well; that's very right and proper,' observed the miniature painter, 'and Heaven forbid that I should be the cause of your doing so! But, now, mightn't he, without feeling it himself, make you and your mama some nice little allowance that would keep you both comfortable until you were well married, and be a little fortune to her afterwards? What would a hundred a year for instance, be to him?' 'I don't know what it would be to him,' said Kate, with energy, 'but it would be that to me I would rather die than take.'
'Heyday!' cried Miss La Creevy.
'A dependence upon him,' said Kate, 'would embitter my whole life. I should feel begging a far less degradation.'
'Well!' exclaimed Miss La Creevy. 'This of a relation whom you will not hear an indifferent person speak ill of, my dear, sounds oddly enough, I confess.' 'I dare say it does,' replied Kate, speaking more gently, 'indeed I am sure it must. I--I--only mean that with the feelings and recollection of better times upon me, I could not bear to live on anybody's bounty--not his particularly, but anybody's.' Miss La Creevy looked slyly at her companion, as if she doubted whether Ralph himself were not the subject of dislike, but seeing that her young friend was distressed, made no remark.
'I only ask of him,' continued Kate, whose tears fell while she spoke, 'that he will move so little out of his way, in my behalf, as to enable me by his recommendation--only by his recommendation--to earn, literally, my bread and remain with my mother. Whether we shall ever taste happiness again, depends upon the fortunes of my dear brother; but if he will do this, and Nicholas only tells us that he is well and cheerful, I shall be contented.'
As she ceased to speak, there was a rustling behind the screen which stood between her and the door, and some person knocked at the wainscot.' 'Come in, whoever it is!' cried Miss La Creevy.
The person complied, and, coming forward at once, gave to view the form and features of no less an individual than Mr Ralph Nickleby himself.
'Your servant, ladies,' said Ralph, looking sharply at them by turns. 'You were talking so loud, that I was unable to make you hear.'
When the man of business had a more than commonly vicious snarl lurking at his heart, he had a trick of almost concealing his eyes under their thick and protruding brows, for an instant, and then displaying them in their full keenness. As he did so now, and tried to keep down the smile which parted his thin compressed lips, and puckered up the bad lines about his mouth, they both felt certain that some part, if not the whole, of their recent conversation, had been overheard.
'I called in, on my way upstairs, more than half expecting to find you here,' said Ralph, addressing his niece, and looking contemptuously at the portrait. 'Is that my niece's portrait, ma'am?'
'Yes it is, Mr Nickleby,' said Miss La Creevy, with a very sprightly air, 'and between you and me and the post, sir, it will be a very nice portrait too, though I say it who am the painter.'
'Don't trouble yourself to show it to me, ma'am,' cried Ralph, moving away, 'I have no eye for likenesses. Is it nearly finished?'
'Why, yes,' replied Miss La Creevy, considering with the pencil end of her brush in her mouth. 'Two sittings more will--'
'Have them at once, ma'am,' said Ralph. 'She'll have no time to idle over fooleries after tomorrow. Work, ma'am, work; we must all work. Have you let your lodgings, ma'am?'
'I have not put a bill up yet, sir.'
'Put it up at once, ma'am; they won't want the rooms after this week, or if they do, can't pay for them. Now, my dear, if you're ready, we'll lose no more time.' With an assumption of kindness which sat worse upon him even than his usual manner, Mr Ralph Nickleby motioned to the young lady to precede him, and bowing gravely to Miss La Creevy, closed the door and followed upstairs, where Mrs Nickleby received him with many expressions of regard. Stopping them somewhat abruptly, Ralph waved his hand with an impatient gesture, and proceeded to the object of his visit.
'I have found a situation for your daughter, ma'am,' said Ralph.
'Well,' replied Mrs Nickleby. 'Now, I will say that that is only just what I have expected of you. "Depend upon it," I said to Kate, only yesterday morning at breakfast, "that after your uncle has provided, in that most ready manner, for Nicholas, he will not leave us until he has done at least the same for you." These were my very words, as near as I remember. Kate, my dear, why don't you thank your--'
'Let me proceed, ma'am, pray,' said Ralph, interrupting his sister- in-law in the full torrent of her discourse.
'Kate, my love, let your uncle proceed,' said Mrs Nickleby.
'I am most anxious that he should, mama,' rejoined Kate.
'Well, my dear, if you are anxious that he should, you had better allow your uncle to say what he has to say, without interruption,' observed Mrs Nickleby, with many small nods and frowns. 'Your uncle's time is very valuable, my dear; and however desirous you may be--and naturally desirous, as I am sure any affectionate relations who have seen so little of your uncle as we have, must naturally be to protract the pleasure of having him among us, still, we are bound not to be selfish, but to take into consideration the important nature of his occupations in the city.'
'I am very much obliged to you, ma'am,' said Ralph with a scarcely perceptible sneer. 'An absence of business habits in this family leads, apparently, to a great waste of words before business--when it does come under consideration--is arrived at, at all.'
'I fear it is so indeed,' replied Mrs Nickleby with a sigh. 'Your poor brother--' 'My poor brother, ma'am,' interposed Ralph tartly, 'had no idea what business was--was unacquainted, I verily believe, with the very meaning of the word.' 'I fear he was,' said Mrs Nickleby, with her handkerchief to her eyes. 'If it hadn't been for me, I don't know what would have become of him.'
What strange creatures we are! The slight bait so skilfully thrown out by Ralph, on their first interview, was dangling on the hook yet. At every small deprivation or discomfort which presented itself in the course of the four-and-twenty hours to remind her of her straitened and altered circumstances, peevish visions of her dower of one thousand pounds had arisen before Mrs Nickleby's mind, until, at last, she had come to persuade herself that of all her late husband's creditors she was the worst used and the most to be pitied. And yet, she had loved him dearly for many years, and had no greater share of selfishness than is the usual lot of mortals. Such is the irritability of sudden poverty. A decent annuity would have restored her thoughts to their old train, at once.
'Repining is of no use, ma'am,' said Ralph. 'Of all fruitless errands, sending a tear to look after a day that is gone is the most fruitless.'
'So it is,' sobbed Mrs Nickleby. 'So it is.'
'As you feel so keenly, in your own purse and person, the consequences of inattention to business, ma'am,' said Ralph, 'I am sure you will impress upon your children the necessity of attaching themselves to it early in life.'
'Of course I must see that,' rejoined Mrs Nickleby. 'Sad experience, you know, brother-in-law.--Kate, my dear, put that down in the next letter to Nicholas, or remind me to do it if I write.'
Ralph paused for a few moments, and seeing that he had now made pretty sure of the mother, in case the daughter objected to his proposition, went on to say: 'The situation that I have made interest to procure, ma'am, is with --with a milliner and dressmaker, in short.'
'A milliner!' cried Mrs Nickleby.
'A milliner and dressmaker, ma'am,' replied Ralph. 'Dressmakers in London, as I need not remind you, ma'am, who are so well acquainted with all matters in the ordinary routine of life, make large fortunes, keep equipages, and become persons of great wealth and fortune.'
Now, the first idea called up in Mrs Nickleby's mind by the words milliner and dressmaker were connected with certain wicker baskets lined with black oilskin, which she remembered to have seen carried to and fro in the streets; but, as Ralph proceeded, these disappeared, and were replaced by visions of large houses at the West end, neat private carriages, and a banker's book; all of which images succeeded each other with such rapidity, that he had no sooner finished speaking, than she nodded her head and said 'Very true,' with great appearance of satisfaction.
'What your uncle says is very true, Kate, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'I recollect when your poor papa and I came to town after we were married, that a young lady brought me home a chip cottage- bonnet, with white and green trimming, and green persian lining, in her own carriage, which drove up to the door full gallop;--at least, I am not quite certain whether it was her own carriage or a hackney chariot, but I remember very well that the horse dropped down dead as he was turning round, and that your poor papa said he hadn't had any corn for a fortnight.'
This anecdote, so strikingly illustrative of the opulence of milliners, was not received with any great demonstration of feeling, inasmuch as Kate hung down her head while it was relating, and Ralph manifested very intelligible symptoms of extreme impatience.
'The lady's name,' said Ralph, hastily striking in, 'is Mantalini-- Madame Mantalini. I know her. She lives near Cavendish Square. If your daughter is disposed to try after the situation, I'll take her there directly.'
'Have you nothing to say to your uncle, my love?' inquired Mrs Nickleby. 'A great deal,' replied Kate; 'but not now. I would rather speak to him when we are alone;--it will save his time if I thank him and say what I wish to say to him, as we walk along.'
With these words, Kate hurried away, to hide the traces of emotion that were stealing down her face, and to prepare herself for the walk, while Mrs Nickleby amused her brother-in-law by giving him, with many tears, a detailed account of the dimensions of a rosewood cabinet piano they had possessed in their days of affluence, together with a minute description of eight drawing-room chairs, with turned legs and green chintz squabs to match the curtains, which had cost two pounds fifteen shillings apiece, and had gone at the sale for a mere nothing. These reminiscences were at length cut short by Kate's return in her walking dress, when Ralph, who had been fretting and fuming during the whole time of her absence, lost no time, and used very little ceremony, in descending into the street.
'Now,' he said, taking her arm, 'walk as fast as you can, and you'll get into the step that you'll have to walk to business with, every morning.' So saying, he led Kate off, at a good round pace, towards Cavendish Square.
'I am very much obliged to you, uncle,' said the young lady, after they had hurried on in silence for some time; 'very.'
'I'm glad to hear it,' said Ralph. 'I hope you'll do your duty.'
'I will try to please, uncle,' replied Kate: 'indeed I--'
'Don't begin to cry,' growled Ralph; 'I hate crying.'
'It's very foolish, I know, uncle,' began poor Kate.
'It is,' replied Ralph, stopping her short, 'and very affected besides. Let me see no more of it.'
Perhaps this was not the best way to dry the tears of a young and sensitive female, about to make her first entry on an entirely new scene of life, among cold and uninterested strangers; but it had its effect notwithstanding. Kate coloured deeply, breathed quickly for a few moments, and then walked on with a firmer and more determined step.
It was a curious contrast to see how the timid country girl shrunk through the crowd that hurried up and down the streets, giving way to the press of people, and clinging closely to Ralph as though she feared to lose him in the throng; and how the stern and hard- featured man of business went doggedly on, elbowing the passengers aside, and now and then exchanging a gruff salutation with some passing acquaintance, who turned to look back upon his pretty charge, with looks expressive of surprise, and seemed to wonder at the ill-assorted companionship. But, it would have been a stranger contrast still, to have read the hearts that were beating side by side; to have laid bare the gentle innocence of the one, and the rugged villainy of the other; to have hung upon the guileless thoughts of the affectionate girl, and been amazed that, among all the wily plots and calculations of the old man, there should not be one word or figure denoting thought of death or of the grave. But so it was; and stranger still--though this is a thing of every day-- the warm young heart palpitated with a thousand anxieties and apprehensions, while that of the old worldly man lay rusting in its cell, beating only as a piece of cunning mechanism, and yielding no one throb of hope, or fear, or love, or care, for any living thing.
'Uncle,' said Kate, when she judged they must be near their destination, 'I must ask one question of you. I am to live at home?'
'At home!' replied Ralph; 'where's that?'
'I mean with my mother--THE WIDOW,' said Kate emphatically.
'You will live, to all intents and purposes, here,' rejoined Ralph; 'for here you will take your meals, and here you will be from morning till night--occasionally perhaps till morning again.'
'But at night, I mean,' said Kate; 'I cannot leave her, uncle. I must have some place that I can call a home; it will be wherever she is, you know, and may be a very humble one.'
'May be!' said Ralph, walking faster, in the impatience provoked by the remark; 'must be, you mean. May be a humble one! Is the girl mad?'
'The word slipped from my lips, I did not mean it indeed,' urged Kate. 'I hope not,' said Ralph.
'But my question, uncle; you have not answered it.'
'Why, I anticipated something of the kind,' said Ralph; 'and--though I object very strongly, mind--have provided against it. I spoke of you as an out-of-door worker; so you will go to this home that may be humble, every night.'
There was comfort in this. Kate poured forth many thanks for her uncle's consideration, which Ralph received as if he had deserved them all, and they arrived without any further conversation at the dressmaker's door, which displayed a very large plate, with Madame Mantalini's name and occupation, and was approached by a handsome flight of steps. There was a shop to the house, but it was let off to an importer of otto of roses. Madame Mantalini's shows-rooms were on the first-floor: a fact which was notified to the nobility and gentry by the casual exhibition, near the handsomely curtained windows, of two or three elegant bonnets of the newest fashion, and some costly garments in the most approved taste.
A liveried footman opened the door, and in reply to Ralph's inquiry whether Madame Mantalini was at home, ushered them, through a handsome hall and up a spacious staircase, into the show saloon, which comprised two spacious drawing-rooms, and exhibited an immense variety of superb dresses and materials for dresses: some arranged on stands, others laid carelessly on sofas, and others again, scattered over the carpet, hanging on the cheval-glasses, or mingling, in some other way, with the rich furniture of various descriptions, which was profusely displayed.
They waited here a much longer time than was agreeable to Mr Ralph Nickleby, who eyed the gaudy frippery about him with very little concern, and was at length about to pull the bell, when a gentleman suddenly popped his head into the room, and, seeing somebody there, as suddenly popped it out again. 'Here. Hollo!' cried Ralph. 'Who's that?'
At the sound of Ralph's voice, the head reappeared, and the mouth, displaying a very long row of very white teeth, uttered in a mincing tone the words, 'Demmit. What, Nickleby! oh, demmit!' Having uttered which ejaculations, the gentleman advanced, and shook hands with Ralph, with great warmth. He was dressed in a gorgeous morning gown, with a waistcoat and Turkish trousers of the same pattern, a pink silk neckerchief, and bright green slippers, and had a very copious watch-chain wound round his body. Moreover, he had whiskers and a moustache, both dyed black and gracefully curled.
'Demmit, you don't mean to say you want me, do you, demmit?' said this gentleman, smiting Ralph on the shoulder.
'Not yet,' said Ralph, sarcastically.
'Ha! ha! demmit,' cried the gentleman; when, wheeling round to laugh with greater elegance, he encountered Kate Nickleby, who was standing near. 'My niece,' said Ralph.
'I remember,' said the gentleman, striking his nose with the knuckle of his forefinger as a chastening for his forgetfulness. 'Demmit, I remember what you come for. Step this way, Nickleby; my dear, will you follow me? Ha! ha! They all follow me, Nickleby; always did, demmit, always.'
Giving loose to the playfulness of his imagination, after this fashion, the gentleman led the way to a private sitting-room on the second floor, scarcely less elegantly furnished than the apartment below, where the presence of a silver coffee-pot, an egg-shell, and sloppy china for one, seemed to show that he had just breakfasted.
'Sit down, my dear,' said the gentleman: first staring Miss Nickleby out of countenance, and then grinning in delight at the achievement. 'This cursed high room takes one's breath away. These infernal sky parlours--I'm afraid I must move, Nickleby.'
'I would, by all means,' replied Ralph, looking bitterly round.
'What a demd rum fellow you are, Nickleby,' said the gentleman, 'the demdest, longest-headed, queerest-tempered old coiner of gold and silver ever was-demmit.'
Having complimented Ralph to this effect, the gentleman rang the bell, and stared at Miss Nickleby until it was answered, when he left off to bid the man desire his mistress to come directly; after which, he began again, and left off no more until Madame Mantalini appeared.
The dressmaker was a buxom person, handsomely dressed and rather goodlooking, but much older than the gentleman in the Turkish trousers, whom she had wedded some six months before. His name was originally Muntle; but it had been converted, by an easy transition, into Mantalini: the lady rightly considering that an English appellation would be of serious injury to the business. He had married on his whiskers; upon which property he had previously subsisted, in a genteel manner, for some years; and which he had recently improved, after patient cultivation by the addition of a moustache, which promised to secure him an easy independence: his share in the labours of the business being at present confined to spending the money, and occasionally, when that ran short, driving to Mr Ralph Nickleby to procure discount--at a percentage--for the customers' bills. 'My life,' said Mr Mantalini, 'what a demd devil of a time you have been!' 'I didn't even know Mr Nickleby was here, my love,' said Madame Mantalini. 'Then what a doubly demd infernal rascal that footman must be, my soul,' remonstrated Mr Mantalini.
'My dear,' said Madame, 'that is entirely your fault.'
'My fault, my heart's joy?'
'Certainly,' returned the lady; 'what can you expect, dearest, if you will not correct the man?'
'Correct the man, my soul's delight!'
'Yes; I am sure he wants speaking to, badly enough,' said Madame, pouting. 'Then do not vex itself,' said Mr Mantalini; 'he shall be horse- whipped till he cries out demnebly.' With this promise Mr Mantalini kissed Madame Mantalini, and, after that performance, Madame Mantalini pulled Mr Mantalini playfully by the ear: which done, they descended to business.
'Now, ma'am,' said Ralph, who had looked on, at all this, with such scorn as few men can express in looks, 'this is my niece.'
'Just so, Mr Nickleby,' replied Madame Mantalini, surveying Kate from head to foot, and back again. 'Can you speak French, child?'
'Yes, ma'am,' replied Kate, not daring to look up; for she felt that the eyes of the odious man in the dressing-gown were directed towards her.
'Like a demd native?' asked the husband.
Miss Nickleby offered no reply to this inquiry, but turned her back upon the questioner, as if addressing herself to make answer to what his wife might demand.
'We keep twenty young women constantly employed in the establishment,' said Madame.
'Indeed, ma'am!' replied Kate, timidly.
'Yes; and some of 'em demd handsome, too,' said the master.
'Mantalini!' exclaimed his wife, in an awful voice.
'My senses' idol!' said Mantalini.
'Do you wish to break my heart?'
'Not for twenty thousand hemispheres populated with--with--with little balletdancers,' replied Mantalini in a poetical strain.
'Then you will, if you persevere in that mode of speaking,' said his wife. 'What can Mr Nickleby think when he hears you?'
'Oh! Nothing, ma'am, nothing,' replied Ralph. 'I know his amiable nature, and yours,--mere little remarks that give a zest to your daily intercourse--lovers' quarrels that add sweetness to those domestic joys which promise to last so long--that's all; that's all.'
If an iron door could be supposed to quarrel with its hinges, and to make a firm resolution to open with slow obstinacy, and grind them to powder in the process, it would emit a pleasanter sound in so doing, than did these words in the rough and bitter voice in which they were uttered by Ralph. Even Mr Mantalini felt their influence, and turning affrighted round, exclaimed: 'What a demd horrid croaking!' 'You will pay no attention, if you please, to what Mr Mantalini says,' observed his wife, addressing Miss Nickleby.
'I do not, ma'am,' said Kate, with quiet contempt.
'Mr Mantalini knows nothing whatever about any of the young women,' continued Madame, looking at her husband, and speaking to Kate. 'If he has seen any of them, he must have seen them in the street, going to, or returning from, their work, and not here. He was never even in the room. I do not allow it. What hours of work have you been accustomed to?'
'I have never yet been accustomed to work at all, ma'am,' replied Kate, in a low voice.
'For which reason she'll work all the better now,' said Ralph, putting in a word, lest this confession should injure the negotiation.
'I hope so,' returned Madame Mantalini; 'our hours are from nine to nine, with extra work when we're very full of business, for which I allow payment as overtime.'
Kate bowed her head, to intimate that she heard, and was satisfied. 'Your meals,' continued Madame Mantalini, 'that is, dinner and tea, you will take here. I should think your wages would average from five to seven shillings a week; but I can't give you any certain information on that point, until I see what you can do.'
Kate bowed her head again.
'If you're ready to come,' said Madame Mantalini, 'you had better begin on Monday morning at nine exactly, and Miss Knag the forewoman shall then have directions to try you with some easy work at first. Is there anything more, Mr Nickleby?'
'Nothing more, ma'am,' replied Ralph, rising.
'Then I believe that's all,' said the lady. Having arrived at this natural conclusion, she looked at the door, as if she wished to be gone, but hesitated notwithstanding, as though unwilling to leave to Mr Mantalini the sole honour of showing them downstairs. Ralph relieved her from her perplexity by taking his departure without delay: Madame Mantalini making many gracious inquiries why he never came to see them; and Mr Mantalini anathematising the stairs with great volubility as he followed them down, in the hope of inducing Kate to look round,--a hope, however, which was destined to remain ungratified. 'There!' said Ralph when they got into the street; 'now you're provided for.' Kate was about to thank him again, but he stopped her.
'I had some idea,' he said, 'of providing for your mother in a pleasant part of the country--(he had a presentation to some almshouses on the borders of Cornwall, which had occurred to him more than once)--but as you want to be together, I must do something else for her. She has a little money?'
'A very little,' replied Kate.
'A little will go a long way if it's used sparingly,' said Ralph. 'She must see how long she can make it last, living rent free. You leave your lodgings on Saturday?' 'You told us to do so, uncle.'
'Yes; there is a house empty that belongs to me, which I can put you into till it is let, and then, if nothing else turns up, perhaps I shall have another. You must live there.'
'Is it far from here, sir?' inquired Kate.
'Pretty well,' said Ralph; 'in another quarter of the town--at the East end; but I'll send my clerk down to you, at five o'clock on Saturday, to take you there. Goodbye. You know your way? Straight on.'
Coldly shaking his niece's hand, Ralph left her at the top of Regent Street, and turned down a by-thoroughfare, intent on schemes of money-getting. Kate walked sadly back to their lodgings in the Strand.
Newman Noggs inducts Mrs and Miss Nickleby into their New Dwelling in the City
Miss Nickleby's reflections, as she wended her way homewards, were of that desponding nature which the occurrences of the morning had been sufficiently calculated to awaken. Her uncle's was not a manner likely to dispel any doubts or apprehensions she might have formed, in the outset, neither was the glimpse she had had of Madame Mantalini's establishment by any means encouraging. It was with many gloomy forebodings and misgivings, therefore, that she looked forward, with a heavy heart, to the opening of her new career.
If her mother's consolations could have restored her to a pleasanter and more enviable state of mind, there were abundance of them to produce the effect. By the time Kate reached home, the good lady had called to mind two authentic cases of milliners who had been possessed of considerable property, though whether they had acquired it all in business, or had had a capital to start with, or had been lucky and married to advantage, she could not exactly remember. However, as she very logically remarked, there must have been SOME young person in that way of business who had made a fortune without having anything to begin with, and that being taken for granted, why should not Kate do the same? Miss La Creevy, who was a member of the little council, ventured to insinuate some doubts relative to the probability of Miss Nickleby's arriving at this happy consummation in the compass of an ordinary lifetime; but the good lady set that question entirely at rest, by informing them that she had a presentiment on the subject--a species of second-sight with which she had been in the habit of clenching every argument with the deceased Mr Nickleby, and, in nine cases and three-quarters out of every ten, determining it the wrong way.
'I am afraid it is an unhealthy occupation,' said Miss La Creevy. 'I recollect getting three young milliners to sit to me, when I first began to paint, and I remember that they were all very pale and sickly.'
'Oh! that's not a general rule by any means,' observed Mrs Nickleby; 'for I remember, as well as if it was only yesterday, employing one that I was particularly recommended to, to make me a scarlet cloak at the time when scarlet cloaks were fashionable, and she had a very red face--a very red face, indeed.' 'Perhaps she drank,' suggested Miss La Creevy.
'I don't know how that may have been,' returned Mrs Nickleby: 'but I know she had a very red face, so your argument goes for nothing.'
In this manner, and with like powerful reasoning, did the worthy matron meet every little objection that presented itself to the new scheme of the morning. Happy Mrs Nickleby! A project had but to be new, and it came home to her mind, brightly varnished and gilded as a glittering toy.
This question disposed of, Kate communicated her uncle's desire about the empty house, to which Mrs Nickleby assented with equal readiness, characteristically remarking, that, on the fine evenings, it would be a pleasant amusement for her to walk to the West end to fetch her daughter home; and no less characteristically forgetting, that there were such things as wet nights and bad weather to be encountered in almost every week of the year.
'I shall be sorry--truly sorry to leave you, my kind friend,' said Kate, on whom the good feeling of the poor miniature painter had made a deep impression. 'You shall not shake me off, for all that,' replied Miss La Creevy, with as much sprightliness as she could assume. 'I shall see you very often, and come and hear how you get on; and if, in all London, or all the wide world besides, there is no other heart that takes an interest in your welfare, there will be one little lonely woman that prays for it night and day.'
With this, the poor soul, who had a heart big enough for Gog, the guardian genius of London, and enough to spare for Magog to boot, after making a great many extraordinary faces which would have secured her an ample fortune, could she have transferred them to ivory or canvas, sat down in a corner, and had what she termed 'a real good cry.'
But no crying, or talking, or hoping, or fearing, could keep off the dreaded Saturday afternoon, or Newman Noggs either; who, punctual to his time, limped up to the door, and breathed a whiff of cordial gin through the keyhole, exactly as such of the church clocks in the neighbourhood as agreed among themselves about the time, struck five. Newman waited for the last stroke, and then knocked. 'From Mr Ralph Nickleby,' said Newman, announcing his errand, when he got upstairs, with all possible brevity.
'We shall be ready directly,' said Kate. 'We have not much to carry, but I fear we must have a coach.'
'I'll get one,' replied Newman.
'Indeed you shall not trouble yourself,' said Mrs Nickleby.
'I will,' said Newman.
'I can't suffer you to think of such a thing,' said Mrs Nickleby.
'You can't help it,' said Newman.
'Not help it!'
'No; I thought of it as I came along; but didn't get one, thinking you mightn't be ready. I think of a great many things. Nobody can prevent that.'
'Oh yes, I understand you, Mr Noggs,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'Our thoughts are free, of course. Everybody's thoughts are their own, clearly.'
'They wouldn't be, if some people had their way,' muttered Newman. 'Well, no more they would, Mr Noggs, and that's very true,' rejoined Mrs Nickleby. 'Some people to be sure are such--how's your master?'
Newman darted a meaning glance at Kate, and replied with a strong emphasis on the last word of his answer, that Mr Ralph Nickleby was well, and sent his LOVE.
'I am sure we are very much obliged to him,' observed Mrs Nickleby. 'Very,' said Newman. 'I'll tell him so.'
It was no very easy matter to mistake Newman Noggs, after having once seen him, and as Kate, attracted by the singularity of his manner (in which on this occasion, however, there was something respectful and even delicate, notwithstanding the abruptness of his speech), looked at him more closely, she recollected having caught a passing glimpse of that strange figure before. 'Excuse my curiosity,' she said, 'but did I not see you in the coachyard, on the morning my brother went away to Yorkshire?'
Newman cast a wistful glance on Mrs Nickleby and said 'No,' most unblushingly. 'No!' exclaimed Kate, 'I should have said so anywhere.'
'You'd have said wrong,' rejoined Newman. 'It's the first time I've been out for three weeks. I've had the gout.'
Newman was very, very far from having the appearance of a gouty subject, and so Kate could not help thinking; but the conference was cut short by Mrs Nickleby's insisting on having the door shut, lest Mr Noggs should take cold, and further persisting in sending the servant girl for a coach, for fear he should bring on another attack of his disorder. To both conditions, Newman was compelled to yield. Presently, the coach came; and, after many sorrowful farewells, and a great deal of running backwards and forwards across the pavement on the part of Miss La Creevy, in the course of which the yellow turban came into violent contact with sundry foot-passengers, it (that is to say the coach, not the turban) went away again, with the two ladies and their luggage inside; and Newman, despite all Mrs Nickleby's assurances that it would be his death--on the box beside the driver.
They went into the city, turning down by the river side; and, after a long and very slow drive, the streets being crowded at that hour with vehicles of every kind, stopped in front of a large old dingy house in Thames Street: the door and windows of which were so bespattered with mud, that it would have appeared to have been uninhabited for years.
The door of this deserted mansion Newman opened with a key which he took out of his hat--in which, by-the-bye, in consequence of the dilapidated state of his pockets, he deposited everything, and would most likely have carried his money if he had had any--and the coach being discharged, he led the way into the interior of the mansion.
Old, and gloomy, and black, in truth it was, and sullen and dark were the rooms, once so bustling with life and enterprise. There was a wharf behind, opening on the Thames. An empty dog-kennel, some bones of animals, fragments of iron hoops, and staves of old casks, lay strewn about, but no life was stirring there. It was a picture of cold, silent decay.
'This house depresses and chills one,' said Kate, 'and seems as if some blight had fallen on it. If I were superstitious, I should be almost inclined to believe that some dreadful crime had been perpetrated within these old walls, and that the place had never prospered since. How frowning and how dark it looks!' 'Lord, my dear,' replied Mrs Nickleby, 'don't talk in that way, or you'll frighten me to death.'
'It is only my foolish fancy, mama,' said Kate, forcing a smile.
'Well, then, my love, I wish you would keep your foolish fancy to yourself, and not wake up MY foolish fancy to keep it company,' retorted Mrs Nickleby. 'Why didn't you think of all this before-- you are so careless--we might have asked Miss La Creevy to keep us company or borrowed a dog, or a thousand things--but it always was the way, and was just the same with your poor dear father. Unless I thought of everything--' This was Mrs Nickleby's usual commencement of a general lamentation, running through a dozen or so of complicated sentences addressed to nobody in particular, and into which she now launched until her breath was exhausted.
Newman appeared not to hear these remarks, but preceded them to a couple of rooms on the first floor, which some kind of attempt had been made to render habitable. In one, were a few chairs, a table, an old hearth-rug, and some faded baize; and a fire was ready laid in the grate. In the other stood an old tent bedstead, and a few scanty articles of chamber furniture.
'Well, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby, trying to be pleased, 'now isn't this thoughtful and considerate of your uncle? Why, we should not have had anything but the bed we bought yesterday, to lie down upon, if it hadn't been for his thoughtfulness!'
'Very kind, indeed,' replied Kate, looking round.
Newman Noggs did not say that he had hunted up the old furniture they saw, from attic and cellar; or that he had taken in the halfpennyworth of milk for tea that stood upon a shelf, or filled the rusty kettle on the hob, or collected the woodchips from the wharf, or begged the coals. But the notion of Ralph Nickleby having directed it to be done, tickled his fancy so much, that he could not refrain from cracking all his ten fingers in succession: at which performance Mrs Nickleby was rather startled at first, but supposing it to be in some remote manner connected with the gout, did not remark upon.
'We need detain you no longer, I think,' said Kate.
'Is there nothing I can do?' asked Newman.
'Nothing, thank you,' rejoined Miss Nickleby.
'Perhaps, my dear, Mr Noggs would like to drink our healths,' said Mrs Nickleby, fumbling in her reticule for some small coin.
'I think, mama,' said Kate hesitating, and remarking Newman's averted face, 'you would hurt his feelings if you offered it.'
Newman Noggs, bowing to the young lady more like a gentleman than the miserable wretch he seemed, placed his hand upon his breast, and, pausing for a moment, with the air of a man who struggles to speak but is uncertain what to say, quitted the room.
As the jarring echoes of the heavy house-door, closing on its latch, reverberated dismally through the building, Kate felt half tempted to call him back, and beg him to remain a little while; but she was ashamed to own her fears, and Newman Noggs was on his road homewards.
Whereby the Reader will be enabled to trace the further course of Miss Fanny Squeer's Love, and to ascertain whether it ran smooth or otherwise. It was a fortunate circumstance for Miss Fanny Squeers, that when her worthy papa returned home on the night of the small tea-party, he was what the initiated term 'too far gone' to observe the numerous tokens of extreme vexation of spirit which were plainly visible in her countenance. Being, however, of a rather violent and quarrelsome mood in his cups, it is not impossible that he might have fallen out with her, either on this or some imaginary topic, if the young lady had not, with a foresight and prudence highly commendable, kept a boy up, on purpose, to bear the first brunt of the good gentleman's anger; which, having vented itself in a variety of kicks and cuffs, subsided sufficiently to admit of his being persuaded to go to bed. Which he did with his boots on, and an umbrella under his arm.
The hungry servant attended Miss Squeers in her own room according to custom, to curl her hair, perform the other little offices of her toilet, and administer as much flattery as she could get up, for the purpose; for Miss Squeers was quite lazy enough (and sufficiently vain and frivolous withal) to have been a fine lady; and it was only the arbitrary distinctions of rank and station which prevented her from being one.
'How lovely your hair do curl tonight, miss!' said the handmaiden. 'I declare if it isn't a pity and a shame to brush it out!'
'Hold your tongue!' replied Miss Squeers wrathfully.
Some considerable experience prevented the girl from being at all surprised at any outbreak of ill-temper on the part of Miss Squeers. Having a half-perception of what had occurred in the course of the evening, she changed her mode of making herself agreeable, and proceeded on the indirect tack.
'Well, I couldn't help saying, miss, if you was to kill me for it,' said the attendant, 'that I never see nobody look so vulgar as Miss Price this night.'
Miss Squeers sighed, and composed herself to listen.
'I know it's very wrong in me to say so, miss,' continued the girl, delighted to see the impression she was making, 'Miss Price being a friend of your'n, and all; but she do dress herself out so, and go on in such a manner to get noticed, that--oh-well, if people only saw themselves!'
'What do you mean, Phib?' asked Miss Squeers, looking in her own little glass, where, like most of us, she saw--not herself, but the reflection of some pleasant image in her own brain. 'How you talk!'
'Talk, miss! It's enough to make a Tom cat talk French grammar, only to see how she tosses her head,' replied the handmaid.
'She DOES toss her head,' observed Miss Squeers, with an air of abstraction. 'So vain, and so very--very plain,' said the girl.
'Poor 'Tilda!' sighed Miss Squeers, compassionately.
'And always laying herself out so, to get to be admired,' pursued the servant. 'Oh, dear! It's positive indelicate.'
'I can't allow you to talk in that way, Phib,' said Miss Squeers. ''Tilda's friends are low people, and if she don't know any better, it's their fault, and not hers.' 'Well, but you know, miss,' said Phoebe, for which name 'Phib' was used as a patronising abbreviation, 'if she was only to take copy by a friend--oh! if she only knew how wrong she was, and would but set herself right by you, what a nice young woman she might be in time!'
'Phib,' rejoined Miss Squeers, with a stately air, 'it's not proper for me to hear these comparisons drawn; they make 'Tilda look a coarse improper sort of person, and it seems unfriendly in me to listen to them. I would rather you dropped the subject, Phib; at the same time, I must say, that if 'Tilda Price would take pattern by somebody--not me particularly--'
'Oh yes; you, miss,' interposed Phib.
'Well, me, Phib, if you will have it so,' said Miss Squeers. 'I must say, that if she would, she would be all the better for it.'
'So somebody else thinks, or I am much mistaken,' said the girl mysteriously. 'What do you mean?' demanded Miss Squeers.
'Never mind, miss,' replied the girl; 'I know what I know; that's all.' 'Phib,' said Miss Squeers dramatically, 'I insist upon your explaining yourself. What is this dark mystery? Speak.'
'Why, if you will have it, miss, it's this,' said the servant girl. 'Mr John Browdie thinks as you think; and if he wasn't too far gone to do it creditable, he'd be very glad to be off with Miss Price, and on with Miss Squeers.'
'Gracious heavens!' exclaimed Miss Squeers, clasping her hands with great dignity. 'What is this?'
'Truth, ma'am, and nothing but truth,' replied the artful Phib.
'What a situation!' cried Miss Squeers; 'on the brink of unconsciously destroying the peace and happiness of my own 'Tilda. What is the reason that men fall in love with me, whether I like it or not, and desert their chosen intendeds for my sake?'
'Because they can't help it, miss,' replied the girl; 'the reason's plain.' (If Miss Squeers were the reason, it was very plain.)
'Never let me hear of it again,' retorted Miss Squeers. 'Never! Do you hear? 'Tilda Price has faults--many faults--but I wish her well, and above all I wish her married; for I think it highly desirable--most desirable from the very nature of her failings--that she should be married as soon as possible. No, Phib. Let her have Mr Browdie. I may pity HIM, poor fellow; but I have a great regard for 'Tilda, and only hope she may make a better wife than I think she will.'
With this effusion of feeling, Miss Squeers went to bed.
Spite is a little word; but it represents as strange a jumble of feelings, and compound of discords, as any polysyllable in the language. Miss Squeers knew as well in her heart of hearts that what the miserable serving-girl had said was sheer, coarse, lying flattery, as did the girl herself; yet the mere opportunity of venting a little ill-nature against the offending Miss Price, and affecting to compassionate her weaknesses and foibles, though only in the presence of a solitary dependant, was almost as great a relief to her spleen as if the whole had been gospel truth. Nay, more. We have such extraordinary powers of persuasion when they are exerted over ourselves, that Miss Squeers felt quite high-minded and great after her noble renunciation of John Browdie's hand, and looked down upon her rival with a kind of holy calmness and tranquillity, that had a mighty effect in soothing her ruffled feelings.
This happy state of mind had some influence in bringing about a reconciliation; for, when a knock came at the front-door next day, and the miller's daughter was announced, Miss Squeers betook herself to the parlour in a Christian frame of spirit, perfectly beautiful to behold.
'Well, Fanny,' said the miller's daughter, 'you see I have come to see you, although we HAD some words last night.'
'I pity your bad passions, 'Tilda,' replied Miss Squeers, 'but I bear no malice. I am above it.'
'Don't be cross, Fanny,' said Miss Price. 'I have come to tell you something that I know will please you.'
'What may that be, 'Tilda?' demanded Miss Squeers; screwing up her lips, and looking as if nothing in earth, air, fire, or water, could afford her the slightest gleam of satisfaction.
'This,' rejoined Miss Price. 'After we left here last night John and I had a dreadful quarrel.'
'That doesn't please me,' said Miss Squeers--relaxing into a smile though. 'Lor! I wouldn't think so bad of you as to suppose it did,' rejoined her companion. 'That's not it.'
'Oh!' said Miss Squeers, relapsing into melancholy. 'Go on.'
'After a great deal of wrangling, and saying we would never see each other any more,' continued Miss Price, 'we made it up, and this morning John went and wrote our names down to be put up, for the first time, next Sunday, so we shall be married in three weeks, and I give you notice to get your frock made.' There was mingled gall and honey in this intelligence. The prospect of the friend's being married so soon was the gall, and the certainty of her not entertaining serious designs upon Nicholas was the honey. Upon the whole, the sweet greatly preponderated over the bitter, so Miss Squeers said she would get the frock made, and that she hoped 'Tilda might be happy, though at the same time she didn't know, and would not have her build too much upon it, for men were strange creatures, and a great many married women were very miserable, and wished themselves single again with all their hearts; to which condolences Miss Squeers added others equally calculated to raise her friend's spirits and promote her cheerfulness of mind.
'But come now, Fanny,' said Miss Price, 'I want to have a word or two with you about young Mr Nickleby.'
'He is nothing to me,' interrupted Miss Squeers, with hysterical symptoms. 'I despise him too much!'
'Oh, you don't mean that, I am sure?' replied her friend. 'Confess, Fanny; don't you like him now?'
Without returning any direct reply, Miss Squeers, all at once, fell into a paroxysm of spiteful tears, and exclaimed that she was a wretched, neglected, miserable castaway.
'I hate everybody,' said Miss Squeers, 'and I wish that everybody was dead--that I do.'
'Dear, dear,' said Miss Price, quite moved by this avowal of misanthropical sentiments. 'You are not serious, I am sure.'
'Yes, I am,' rejoined Miss Squeers, tying tight knots in her pocket- handkerchief and clenching her teeth. 'And I wish I was dead too. There!'
'Oh! you'll think very differently in another five minutes,' said Matilda. 'How much better to take him into favour again, than to hurt yourself by going on in that way. Wouldn't it be much nicer, now, to have him all to yourself on good terms, in a company- keeping, love-making, pleasant sort of manner?'
'I don't know but what it would,' sobbed Miss Squeers. 'Oh! 'Tilda, how could you have acted so mean and dishonourable! I wouldn't have believed it of you, if anybody had told me.'
'Heyday!' exclaimed Miss Price, giggling. 'One would suppose I had been murdering somebody at least.'
'Very nigh as bad,' said Miss Squeers passionately.
'And all this because I happen to have enough of good looks to make people civil to me,' cried Miss Price. 'Persons don't make their own faces, and it's no more my fault if mine is a good one than it is other people's fault if theirs is a bad one.' 'Hold your tongue,' shrieked Miss Squeers, in her shrillest tone; 'or you'll make me slap you, 'Tilda, and afterwards I should be sorry for it!'
It is needless to say, that, by this time, the temper of each young lady was in some slight degree affected by the tone of her conversation, and that a dash of personality was infused into the altercation, in consequence. Indeed, the quarrel, from slight beginnings, rose to a considerable height, and was assuming a very violent complexion, when both parties, falling into a great passion of tears, exclaimed simultaneously, that they had never thought of being spoken to in that way: which exclamation, leading to a remonstrance, gradually brought on an explanation: and the upshot was, that they fell into each other's arms and vowed eternal friendship; the occasion in question making the fifty-second time of repeating the same impressive ceremony within a twelvemonth.
Perfect amicability being thus restored, a dialogue naturally ensued upon the number and nature of the garments which would be indispensable for Miss Price's entrance into the holy state of matrimony, when Miss Squeers clearly showed that a great many more than the miller could, or would, afford, were absolutely necessary, and could not decently be dispensed with. The young lady then, by an easy digression, led the discourse to her own wardrobe, and after recounting its principal beauties at some length, took her friend upstairs to make inspection thereof. The treasures of two drawers and a closet having been displayed, and all the smaller articles tried on, it was time for Miss Price to return home; and as she had been in raptures with all the frocks, and had been stricken quite dumb with admiration of a new pink scarf, Miss Squeers said in high good humour, that she would walk part of the way with her, for the pleasure of her company; and off they went together: Miss Squeers dilating, as they walked along, upon her father's accomplishments: and multiplying his income by ten, to give her friend some faint notion of the vast importance and superiority of her family.
It happened that that particular time, comprising the short daily interval which was suffered to elapse between what was pleasantly called the dinner of Mr Squeers's pupils, and their return to the pursuit of useful knowledge, was precisely the hour when Nicholas was accustomed to issue forth for a melancholy walk, and to brood, as he sauntered listlessly through the village, upon his miserable lot. Miss Squeers knew this perfectly well, but had perhaps forgotten it, for when she caught sight of that young gentleman advancing towards them, she evinced many symptoms of surprise and consternation, and assured her friend that she 'felt fit to drop into the earth.'
'Shall we turn back, or run into a cottage?' asked Miss Price. 'He don't see us yet.'
'No, 'Tilda,' replied Miss Squeers, 'it is my duty to go through with it, and I will!' As Miss Squeers said this, in the tone of one who has made a high moral resolution, and was, besides, taken with one or two chokes and catchings of breath, indicative of feelings at a high pressure, her friend made no further remark, and they bore straight down upon Nicholas, who, walking with his eyes bent upon the ground, was not aware of their approach until they were close upon him; otherwise, he might, perhaps, have taken shelter himself. 'Good-morning,' said Nicholas, bowing and passing by.
'He is going,' murmured Miss Squeers. 'I shall choke, 'Tilda.'
'Come back, Mr Nickleby, do!' cried Miss Price, affecting alarm at her friend's threat, but really actuated by a malicious wish to hear what Nicholas would say; 'come back, Mr Nickleby!'
Mr Nickleby came back, and looked as confused as might be, as he inquired whether the ladies had any commands for him.
'Don't stop to talk,' urged Miss Price, hastily; 'but support her on the other side. How do you feel now, dear?'
'Better,' sighed Miss Squeers, laying a beaver bonnet of a reddish brown with a green veil attached, on Mr Nickleby's shoulder. 'This foolish faintness!' 'Don't call it foolish, dear,' said Miss Price: her bright eye dancing with merriment as she saw the perplexity of Nicholas; 'you have no reason to be ashamed of it. It's those who are too proud to come round again, without all this to-do, that ought to be ashamed.'
'You are resolved to fix it upon me, I see,' said Nicholas, smiling, 'although I told you, last night, it was not my fault.'
'There; he says it was not his fault, my dear,' remarked the wicked Miss Price. 'Perhaps you were too jealous, or too hasty with him? He says it was not his fault. You hear; I think that's apology enough.'
'You will not understand me,' said Nicholas. 'Pray dispense with this jesting, for I have no time, and really no inclination, to be the subject or promoter of mirth just now.'
'What do you mean?' asked Miss Price, affecting amazement.
'Don't ask him, 'Tilda,' cried Miss Squeers; 'I forgive him.'
'Dear me,' said Nicholas, as the brown bonnet went down on his shoulder again, 'this is more serious than I supposed. Allow me! Will you have the goodness to hear me speak?'
Here he raised up the brown bonnet, and regarding with most unfeigned astonishment a look of tender reproach from Miss Squeers, shrunk back a few paces to be out of the reach of the fair burden, and went on to say: 'I am very sorry--truly and sincerely sorry--for having been the cause of any difference among you, last night. I reproach myself, most bitterly, for having been so unfortunate as to cause the dissension that occurred, although I did so, I assure you, most unwittingly and heedlessly.'
'Well; that's not all you have got to say surely,' exclaimed Miss Price as Nicholas paused.
'I fear there is something more,' stammered Nicholas with a half- smile, and looking towards Miss Squeers, 'it is a most awkward thing to say--but--the very mention of such a supposition makes one look like a puppy--still--may I ask if that lady supposes that I entertain any--in short, does she think that I am in love with her?'
'Delightful embarrassment,' thought Miss Squeers, 'I have brought him to it, at last. Answer for me, dear,' she whispered to her friend.
'Does she think so?' rejoined Miss Price; 'of course she does.'
'She does!' exclaimed Nicholas with such energy of utterance as might have been, for the moment, mistaken for rapture.
'Certainly,' replied Miss Price
'If Mr Nickleby has doubted that, 'Tilda,' said the blushing Miss Squeers in soft accents, 'he may set his mind at rest. His sentiments are recipro--' 'Stop,' cried Nicholas hurriedly; 'pray hear me. This is the grossest and wildest delusion, the completest and most signal mistake, that ever human being laboured under, or committed. I have scarcely seen the young lady half-a-dozen times, but if I had seen her sixty times, or am destined to see her sixty thousand, it would be, and will be, precisely the same. I have not one thought, wish, or hope, connected with her, unless it be--and I say this, not to hurt her feelings, but to impress her with the real state of my own --unless it be the one object, dear to my heart as life itself, of being one day able to turn my back upon this accursed place, never to set foot in it again, or think of it--even think of it--but with loathing and disgust.'
With this particularly plain and straightforward declaration, which he made with all the vehemence that his indignant and excited feelings could bring to bear upon it, Nicholas waiting to hear no more, retreated.
But poor Miss Squeers! Her anger, rage, and vexation; the rapid succession of bitter and passionate feelings that whirled through her mind; are not to be described. Refused! refused by a teacher, picked up by advertisement, at an annual salary of five pounds payable at indefinite periods, and 'found' in food and lodging like the very boys themselves; and this too in the presence of a little chit of a miller's daughter of eighteen, who was going to be married, in three weeks' time, to a man who had gone down on his very knees to ask her. She could have choked in right good earnest, at the thought of being so humbled. But, there was one thing clear in the midst of her mortification; and that was, that she hated and detested Nicholas with all the narrowness of mind and littleness of purpose worthy a descendant of the house of Squeers. And there was one comfort too; and that was, that every hour in every day she could wound his pride, and goad him with the infliction of some slight, or insult, or deprivation, which could not but have some effect on the most insensible person, and must be acutely felt by one so sensitive as Nicholas. With these two reflections uppermost in her mind, Miss Squeers made the best of the matter to her friend, by observing that Mr Nickleby was such an odd creature, and of such a violent temper, that she feared she should be obliged to give him up; and parted from her.
And here it may be remarked, that Miss Squeers, having bestowed her affections (or whatever it might be that, in the absence of anything better, represented them) on Nicholas Nickleby, had never once seriously contemplated the possibility of his being of a different opinion from herself in the business. Miss Squeers reasoned that she was prepossessing and beautiful, and that her father was master, and Nicholas man, and that her father had saved money, and Nicholas had none, all of which seemed to her conclusive arguments why the young man should feel only too much honoured by her preference. She had not failed to recollect, either, how much more agreeable she could render his situation if she were his friend, and how much more disagreeable if she were his enemy; and, doubtless, many less scrupulous young gentlemen than Nicholas would have encouraged her extravagance had it been only for this very obvious and intelligible reason. However, he had thought proper to do otherwise, and Miss Squeers was outrageous.
'Let him see,' said the irritated young lady, when she had regained her own room, and eased her mind by committing an assault on Phib, 'if I don't set mother against him a little more when she comes back!'
It was scarcely necessary to do this, but Miss Squeers was as good as her word; and poor Nicholas, in addition to bad food, dirty lodging, and the being compelled to witness one dull unvarying round of squalid misery, was treated with every special indignity that malice could suggest, or the most grasping cupidity put upon him.
Nor was this all. There was another and deeper system of annoyance which made his heart sink, and nearly drove him wild, by its injustice and cruelty. The wretched creature, Smike, since the night Nicholas had spoken kindly to him in the schoolroom, had followed him to and fro, with an ever-restless desire to serve or help him; anticipating such little wants as his humble ability could supply, and content only to be near him. He would sit beside him for hours, looking patiently into his face; and a word would brighten up his care-worn visage, and call into it a passing gleam, even of happiness. He was an altered being; he had an object now; and that object was, to show his attachment to the only person--that person a stranger--who had treated him, not to say with kindness, but like a human creature.
Upon this poor being, all the spleen and ill-humour that could not be vented on Nicholas were unceasingly bestowed. Drudgery would have been nothing--Smike was well used to that. Buffetings inflicted without cause, would have been equally a matter of course; for to them also he had served a long and weary apprenticeship; but it was no sooner observed that he had become attached to Nicholas, than stripes and blows, stripes and blows, morning, noon, and night, were his only portion. Squeers was jealous of the influence which his man had so soon acquired, and his family hated him, and Smike paid for both. Nicholas saw it, and ground his teeth at every repetition of the savage and cowardly attack. He had arranged a few regular lessons for the boys; and one night, as he paced up and down the dismal schoolroom, his swollen heart almost bursting to think that his protection and countenance should have increased the misery of the wretched being whose peculiar destitution had awakened his pity, he paused mechanically in a dark corner where sat the object of his thoughts. The poor soul was poring hard over a tattered book, with the traces of recent tears still upon his face; vainly endeavouring to master some task which a child of nine years old, possessed of ordinary powers, could have conquered with ease, but which, to the addled brain of the crushed boy of nineteen, was a sealed and hopeless mystery. Yet there he sat, patiently conning the page again and again, stimulated by no boyish ambition, for he was the common jest and scoff even of the uncouth objects that congregated about him, but inspired by the one eager desire to please his solitary friend.
Nicholas laid his hand upon his shoulder.
'I can't do it,' said the dejected creature, looking up with bitter disappointment in every feature. 'No, no.'
'Do not try,' replied Nicholas.
The boy shook his head, and closing the book with a sigh, looked vacantly round, and laid his head upon his arm. He was weeping.
'Do not for God's sake,' said Nicholas, in an agitated voice; 'I cannot bear to see you.'
'They are more hard with me than ever,' sobbed the boy.
'I know it,' rejoined Nicholas. 'They are.'
'But for you,' said the outcast, 'I should die. They would kill me; they would; I know they would.'
'You will do better, poor fellow,' replied Nicholas, shaking his head mournfully, 'when I am gone.'
'Gone!' cried the other, looking intently in his face.
'Softly!' rejoined Nicholas. 'Yes.'
'Are you going?' demanded the boy, in an earnest whisper.
'I cannot say,' replied Nicholas. 'I was speaking more to my own thoughts, than to you.'
'Tell me,' said the boy imploringly, 'oh do tell me, WILL you go-- WILL you?' 'I shall be driven to that at last!' said Nicholas. 'The world is before me, after all.' 'Tell me,' urged Smike, 'is the world as bad and dismal as this place?' 'Heaven forbid,' replied Nicholas, pursuing the train of his own thoughts; 'its hardest, coarsest toil, were happiness to this.'
'Should I ever meet you there?' demanded the boy, speaking with unusual wildness and volubility.
'Yes,' replied Nicholas, willing to soothe him.
'No, no!' said the other, clasping him by the hand. 'Should I-- should I--tell me that again. Say I should be sure to find you.'
'You would,' replied Nicholas, with the same humane intention, 'and I would help and aid you, and not bring fresh sorrow on you as I have done here.' The boy caught both the young man's hands passionately in his, and, hugging them to his breast, uttered a few broken sounds which were unintelligible. Squeers entered at the moment, and he shrunk back into his old corner.
Nicholas varies the Monotony of Dothebys Hall by a most vigorous and remarkable proceeding, which leads to Consequences of some Importance The cold, feeble dawn of a January morning was stealing in at the windows of the common sleeping-room, when Nicholas, raising himself on his arm, looked among the prostrate forms which on every side surrounded him, as though in search of some particular object.
It needed a quick eye to detect, from among the huddled mass of sleepers, the form of any given individual. As they lay closely packed together, covered, for warmth's sake, with their patched and ragged clothes, little could be distinguished but the sharp outlines of pale faces, over which the sombre light shed the same dull heavy colour; with, here and there, a gaunt arm thrust forth: its thinness hidden by no covering, but fully exposed to view, in all its shrunken ugliness. There were some who, lying on their backs with upturned faces and clenched hands, just visible in the leaden light, bore more the aspect of dead bodies than of living creatures; and there were others coiled up into strange and fantastic postures, such as might have been taken for the uneasy efforts of pain to gain some temporary relief, rather than the freaks of slumber. A few-- and these were among the youngest of the children--slept peacefully on, with smiles upon their faces, dreaming perhaps of home; but ever and again a deep and heavy sigh, breaking the stillness of the room, announced that some new sleeper had awakened to the misery of another day; and, as morning took the place of night, the smiles gradually faded away, with the friendly darkness which had given them birth.
Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who sport on earth in the night season, and melt away in the first beam of the sun, which lights grim care and stern reality on their daily pilgrimage through the world.
Nicholas looked upon the sleepers; at first, with the air of one who gazes upon a scene which, though familiar to him, has lost none of its sorrowful effect in consequence; and, afterwards, with a more intense and searching scrutiny, as a man would who missed something his eye was accustomed to meet, and had expected to rest upon. He was still occupied in this search, and had half risen from his bed in the eagerness of his quest, when the voice of Squeers was heard, calling from the bottom of the stairs.
'Now then,' cried that gentleman, 'are you going to sleep all day, up there--' 'You lazy hounds?' added Mrs Squeers, finishing the sentence, and producing, at the same time, a sharp sound, like that which is occasioned by the lacing of stays.
'We shall be down directly, sir,' replied Nicholas.
'Down directly!' said Squeers. 'Ah! you had better be down directly, or I'll be down upon some of you in less. Where's that Smike?'
Nicholas looked hurriedly round again, but made no answer.
'Smike!' shouted Squeers.
'Do you want your head broke in a fresh place, Smike?' demanded his amiable lady in the same key.
Still there was no reply, and still Nicholas stared about him, as did the greater part of the boys, who were by this time roused.
'Confound his impudence!' muttered Squeers, rapping the stair-rail impatiently with his cane. 'Nickleby!'
'Send that obstinate scoundrel down; don't you hear me calling?'
'He is not here, sir,' replied Nicholas.
'Don't tell me a lie,' retorted the schoolmaster. 'He is.'
'He is not,' retorted Nicholas angrily, 'don't tell me one.'
'We shall soon see that,' said Mr Squeers, rushing upstairs. 'I'll find him, I warrant you.'
With which assurance, Mr Squeers bounced into the dormitory, and, swinging his cane in the air ready for a blow, darted into the corner where the lean body of the drudge was usually stretched at night. The cane descended harmlessly upon the ground. There was nobody there.
'What does this mean?' said Squeers, turning round with a very pale face. 'Where have you hid him?'
'I have seen nothing of him since last night,' replied Nicholas.
'Come,' said Squeers, evidently frightened, though he endeavoured to look otherwise, 'you won't save him this way. Where is he?'
'At the bottom of the nearest pond for aught I know,' rejoined Nicholas in a low voice, and fixing his eyes full on the master's face.
'Damn you, what do you mean by that?' retorted Squeers in great perturbation. Without waiting for a reply, he inquired of the boys whether any one among them knew anything of their missing schoolmate.
There was a general hum of anxious denial, in the midst of which, one shrill voice was heard to say (as, indeed, everybody thought):
'Please, sir, I think Smike's run away, sir.'
'Ha!' cried Squeers, turning sharp round. 'Who said that?'
'Tomkins, please sir,' rejoined a chorus of voices. Mr Squeers made a plunge into the crowd, and at one dive, caught a very little boy, habited still in his night-gear, and the perplexed expression of whose countenance, as he was brought forward, seemed to intimate that he was as yet uncertain whether he was about to be punished or rewarded for the suggestion. He was not long in doubt. 'You think he has run away, do you, sir?' demanded Squeers.
'Yes, please sir,' replied the little boy.
'And what, sir,' said Squeers, catching the little boy suddenly by the arms and whisking up his drapery in a most dexterous manner, 'what reason have you to suppose that any boy would want to run away from this establishment? Eh, sir?' The child raised a dismal cry, by way of answer, and Mr Squeers, throwing himself into the most favourable attitude for exercising his strength, beat him until the little urchin in his writhings actually rolled out of his hands, when he mercifully allowed him to roll away, as he best could.
'There,' said Squeers. 'Now if any other boy thinks Smike has run away, I shall be glad to have a talk with him.'
There was, of course, a profound silence, during which Nicholas showed his disgust as plainly as looks could show it.
'Well, Nickleby,' said Squeers, eyeing him maliciously. 'YOU think he has run away, I suppose?'
'I think it extremely likely,' replied Nicholas, in a quiet manner.
'Oh, you do, do you?' sneered Squeers. 'Maybe you know he has?' 'I know nothing of the kind.'
'He didn't tell you he was going, I suppose, did he?' sneered Squeers. 'He did not,' replied Nicholas; 'I am very glad he did not, for it would then have been my duty to have warned you in time.'
'Which no doubt you would have been devilish sorry to do,' said Squeers in a taunting fashion.
'I should indeed,' replied Nicholas. 'You interpret my feelings with great accuracy.'
Mrs Squeers had listened to this conversation, from the bottom of the stairs; but, now losing all patience, she hastily assumed her night-jacket, and made her way to the scene of action.
'What's all this here to-do?' said the lady, as the boys fell off right and left, to save her the trouble of clearing a passage with her brawny arms. 'What on earth are you a talking to him for, Squeery!'
'Why, my dear,' said Squeers, 'the fact is, that Smike is not to be found.' 'Well, I know that,' said the lady, 'and where's the wonder? If you get a parcel of proud-stomached teachers that set the young dogs a rebelling, what else can you look for? Now, young man, you just have the kindness to take yourself off to the schoolroom, and take the boys off with you, and don't you stir out of there till you have leave given you, or you and I may fall out in a way that'll spoil your beauty, handsome as you think yourself, and so I tell you.'
'Indeed!' said Nicholas.
'Yes; and indeed and indeed again, Mister Jackanapes,' said the excited lady; 'and I wouldn't keep such as you in the house another hour, if I had my way.' 'Nor would you if I had mine,' replied Nicholas. 'Now, boys!'
'Ah! Now, boys,' said Mrs Squeers, mimicking, as nearly as she could, the voice and manner of the usher. 'Follow your leader, boys, and take pattern by Smike if you dare. See what he'll get for himself, when he is brought back; and, mind! I tell you that you shall have as bad, and twice as bad, if you so much as open your mouths about him.'
'If I catch him,' said Squeers, 'I'll only stop short of flaying him alive. I give you notice, boys.'
'IF you catch him,' retorted Mrs Squeers, contemptuously; 'you are sure to; you can't help it, if you go the right way to work. Come! Away with you!' With these words, Mrs Squeers dismissed the boys, and after a little light skirmishing with those in the rear who were pressing forward to get out of the way, but were detained for a few moments by the throng in front, succeeded in clearing the room, when she confronted her spouse alone.
'He is off,' said Mrs Squeers. 'The cow-house and stable are locked up, so he can't be there; and he's not downstairs anywhere, for the girl has looked. He must have gone York way, and by a public road too.'
'Why must he?' inquired Squeers.
'Stupid!' said Mrs Squeers angrily. 'He hadn't any money, had he?' 'Never had a penny of his own in his whole life, that I know of,' replied Squeers. 'To be sure,' rejoined Mrs Squeers, 'and he didn't take anything to eat with him; that I'll answer for. Ha! ha! ha!'
'Ha! ha! ha!' laughed Squeers.
'Then, of course,' said Mrs S., 'he must beg his way, and he could do that, nowhere, but on the public road.'
'That's true,' exclaimed Squeers, clapping his hands.
'True! Yes; but you would never have thought of it, for all that, if I hadn't said so,' replied his wife. 'Now, if you take the chaise and go one road, and I borrow Swallow's chaise, and go the other, what with keeping our eyes open, and asking questions, one or other of us is pretty certain to lay hold of him.'
The worthy lady's plan was adopted and put in execution without a moment's delay. After a very hasty breakfast, and the prosecution of some inquiries in the village, the result of which seemed to show that he was on the right track, Squeers started forth in the pony- chaise, intent upon discovery and vengeance. Shortly afterwards, Mrs Squeers, arrayed in the white top-coat, and tied up in various shawls and handkerchiefs, issued forth in another chaise and another direction, taking with her a good-sized bludgeon, several odd pieces of strong cord, and a stout labouring man: all provided and carried upon the expedition, with the sole object of assisting in the capture, and (once caught) insuring the safe custody of the unfortunate Smike.
Nicholas remained behind, in a tumult of feeling, sensible that whatever might be the upshot of the boy's flight, nothing but painful and deplorable consequences were likely to ensue from it. Death, from want and exposure to the weather, was the best that could be expected from the protracted wandering of so poor and helpless a creature, alone and unfriended, through a country of which he was wholly ignorant. There was little, perhaps, to choose between this fate and a return to the tender mercies of the Yorkshire school; but the unhappy being had established a hold upon his sympathy and compassion, which made his heart ache at the prospect of the suffering he was destined to undergo. He lingered on, in restless anxiety, picturing a thousand possibilities, until the evening of next day, when Squeers returned, alone, and unsuccessful.
'No news of the scamp!' said the schoolmaster, who had evidently been stretching his legs, on the old principle, not a few times during the journey. 'I'll have consolation for this out of somebody, Nickleby, if Mrs Squeers don't hunt him down; so I give you warning.'
'It is not in my power to console you, sir,' said Nicholas. 'It is nothing to me.' 'Isn't it?' said Squeers in a threatening manner. 'We shall see!'
'We shall,' rejoined Nicholas.
'Here's the pony run right off his legs, and me obliged to come home with a hack cob, that'll cost fifteen shillings besides other expenses,' said Squeers; 'who's to pay for that, do you hear?'
Nicholas shrugged his shoulders and remained silent.
'I'll have it out of somebody, I tell you,' said Squeers, his usual harsh crafty manner changed to open bullying 'None of your whining vapourings here, Mr Puppy, but be off to your kennel, for it's past your bedtime! Come! Get out!' Nicholas bit his lip and knit his hands involuntarily, for his fingerends tingled to avenge the insult; but remembering that the man was drunk, and that it could come to little but a noisy brawl, he contented himself with darting a contemptuous look at the tyrant, and walked, as majestically as he could, upstairs: not a little nettled, however, to observe that Miss Squeers and Master Squeers, and the servant girl, were enjoying the scene from a snug corner; the two former indulging in many edifying remarks about the presumption of poor upstarts, which occasioned a vast deal of laughter, in which even the most miserable of all miserable servant girls joined: while Nicholas, stung to the quick, drew over his head such bedclothes as he had, and sternly resolved that the outstanding account between himself and Mr Squeers should be settled rather more speedily than the latter anticipated.
Another day came, and Nicholas was scarcely awake when he heard the wheels of a chaise approaching the house. It stopped. The voice of Mrs Squeers was heard, and in exultation, ordering a glass of spirits for somebody, which was in itself a sufficient sign that something extraordinary had happened. Nicholas hardly dared to look out of the window; but he did so, and the very first object that met his eyes was the wretched Smike: so bedabbled with mud and rain, so haggard and worn, and wild, that, but for his garments being such as no scarecrow was ever seen to wear, he might have been doubtful, even then, of his identity.
'Lift him out,' said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes, in silence, upon the culprit. 'Bring him in; bring him in!'
'Take care,' cried Mrs Squeers, as her husband proffered his assistance. 'We tied his legs under the apron and made'em fast to the chaise, to prevent his giving us the slip again.'
With hands trembling with delight, Squeers unloosened the cord; and Smike, to all appearance more dead than alive, was brought into the house and securely locked up in a cellar, until such time as Mr Squeers should deem it expedient to operate upon him, in presence of the assembled school.
Upon a hasty consideration of the circumstances, it may be matter of surprise to some persons, that Mr and Mrs Squeers should have taken so much trouble to repossess themselves of an incumbrance of which it was their wont to complain so loudly; but their surprise will cease when they are informed that the manifold services of the drudge, if performed by anybody else, would have cost the establishment some ten or twelve shillings per week in the shape of wages; and furthermore, that all runaways were, as a matter of policy, made severe examples of, at Dotheboys Hall, inasmuch as, in consequence of the limited extent of its attractions, there was but little inducement, beyond the powerful impulse of fear, for any pupil, provided with the usual number of legs and the power of using them, to remain.
The news that Smike had been caught and brought back in triumph, ran like wildfire through the hungry community, and expectation was on tiptoe all the morning. On tiptoe it was destined to remain, however, until afternoon; when Squeers, having refreshed himself with his dinner, and further strengthened himself by an extra libation or so, made his appearance (accompanied by his amiable partner) with a countenance of portentous import, and a fearful instrument of flagellation, strong, supple, wax-ended, and new,--in short, purchased that morning, expressly for the occasion.
'Is every boy here?' asked Squeers, in a tremendous voice.
Every boy was there, but every boy was afraid to speak, so Squeers glared along the lines to assure himself; and every eye drooped, and every head cowered down, as he did so.
'Each boy keep his place,' said Squeers, administering his favourite blow to the desk, and regarding with gloomy satisfaction the universal start which it never failed to occasion. 'Nickleby! to your desk, sir.'
It was remarked by more than one small observer, that there was a very curious and unusual expression in the usher's face; but he took his seat, without opening his lips in reply. Squeers, casting a triumphant glance at his assistant and a look of most comprehensive despotism on the boys, left the room, and shortly afterwards returned, dragging Smike by the collar--or rather by that fragment of his jacket which was nearest the place where his collar would have been, had he boasted such a decoration.
In any other place, the appearance of the wretched, jaded, spiritless object would have occasioned a murmur of compassion and remonstrance. It had some effect, even there; for the lookers-on moved uneasily in their seats; and a few of the boldest ventured to steal looks at each other, expressive of indignation and pity. They were lost on Squeers, however, whose gaze was fastened on the luckless Smike, as he inquired, according to custom in such cases, whether he had anything to say for himself.
'Nothing, I suppose?' said Squeers, with a diabolical grin.
Smike glanced round, and his eye rested, for an instant, on Nicholas, as if he had expected him to intercede; but his look was riveted on his desk.
'Have you anything to say?' demanded Squeers again: giving his right arm two or three flourishes to try its power and suppleness. 'Stand a little out of the way, Mrs Squeers, my dear; I've hardly got room enough.'
'Spare me, sir!' cried Smike.
'Oh! that's all, is it?' said Squeers. 'Yes, I'll flog you within an inch of your life, and spare you that.'
'Ha, ha, ha,' laughed Mrs Squeers, 'that's a good 'un!'
'I was driven to do it,' said Smike faintly; and casting another imploring look about him.
'Driven to do it, were you?' said Squeers. 'Oh! it wasn't your fault; it was mine, I suppose--eh?'
'A nasty, ungrateful, pig-headed, brutish, obstinate, sneaking dog,' exclaimed Mrs Squeers, taking Smike's head under her arm, and administering a cuff at every epithet; 'what does he mean by that?'
'Stand aside, my dear,' replied Squeers. 'We'll try and find out.'
Mrs Squeers, being out of breath with her exertions, complied. Squeers caught the boy firmly in his grip; one desperate cut had fallen on his body--he was wincing from the lash and uttering a scream of pain--it was raised again, and again about to fall--when Nicholas Nickleby, suddenly starting up, cried 'Stop!' in a voice that made the rafters ring.
'Who cried stop?' said Squeers, turning savagely round.
'I,' said Nicholas, stepping forward. 'This must not go on.'
'Must not go on!' cried Squeers, almost in a shriek.
'No!' thundered Nicholas.
Aghast and stupefied by the boldness of the interference, Squeers released his hold of Smike, and, falling back a pace or two, gazed upon Nicholas with looks that were positively frightful.
'I say must not,' repeated Nicholas, nothing daunted; 'shall not. I will prevent it.' Squeers continued to gaze upon him, with his eyes starting out of his head; but astonishment had actually, for the moment, bereft him of speech. 'You have disregarded all my quiet interference in the miserable lad's behalf,' said Nicholas; 'you have returned no answer to the letter in which I begged forgiveness for him, and offered to be responsible that he would remain quietly here. Don't blame me for this public interference. You have brought it upon yourself; not I.'
'Sit down, beggar!' screamed Squeers, almost beside himself with rage, and seizing Smike as he spoke.
'Wretch,' rejoined Nicholas, fiercely, 'touch him at your peril! I will not stand by, and see it done. My blood is up, and I have the strength of ten such men as you. Look to yourself, for by Heaven I will not spare you, if you drive me on!' 'Stand back,' cried Squeers, brandishing his weapon.
'I have a long series of insults to avenge,' said Nicholas, flushed with passion; 'and my indignation is aggravated by the dastardly cruelties practised on helpless infancy in this foul den. Have a care; for if you do raise the devil within me, the consequences shall fall heavily upon your own head!'
He had scarcely spoken, when Squeers, in a violent outbreak of wrath, and with a cry like the howl of a wild beast, spat upon him, and struck him a blow across the face with his instrument of torture, which raised up a bar of livid flesh as it was inflicted. Smarting with the agony of the blow, and concentrating into that one moment all his feelings of rage, scorn, and indignation, Nicholas sprang upon him, wrested the weapon from his hand, and pinning him by the throat, beat the ruffian till he roared for mercy.
The boys--with the exception of Master Squeers, who, coming to his father's assistance, harassed the enemy in the rear--moved not, hand or foot; but Mrs Squeers, with many shrieks for aid, hung on to the tail of her partner's coat, and endeavoured to drag him from his infuriated adversary; while Miss Squeers, who had been peeping through the keyhole in expectation of a very different scene, darted in at the very beginning of the attack, and after launching a shower of inkstands at the usher's head, beat Nicholas to her heart's content; animating herself, at every blow, with the recollection of his having refused her proffered love, and thus imparting additional strength to an arm which (as she took after her mother in this respect) was, at no time, one of the weakest.
Nicholas, in the full torrent of his violence, felt the blows no more than if they had been dealt with feathers; but, becoming tired of the noise and uproar, and feeling that his arm grew weak besides, he threw all his remaining strength into half-adozen finishing cuts, and flung Squeers from him with all the force he could muster. The violence of his fall precipitated Mrs Squeers completely over an adjacent form; and Squeers striking his head against it in his descent, lay at his full length on the ground, stunned and motionless.
Having brought affairs to this happy termination, and ascertained, to his thorough satisfaction, that Squeers was only stunned, and not dead (upon which point he had had some unpleasant doubts at first), Nicholas left his family to restore him, and retired to consider what course he had better adopt. He looked anxiously round for Smike, as he left the room, but he was nowhere to be seen. After a brief consideration, he packed up a few clothes in a small leathern valise, and, finding that nobody offered to oppose his progress, marched boldly out by the front-door, and shortly afterwards, struck into the road which led to Greta Bridge.
When he had cooled sufficiently to be enabled to give his present circumstances some little reflection, they did not appear in a very encouraging light; he had only four shillings and a few pence in his pocket, and was something more than two hundred and fifty miles from London, whither he resolved to direct his steps, that he might ascertain, among other things, what account of the morning's proceedings Mr Squeers transmitted to his most affectionate uncle. Lifting up his eyes, as he arrived at the conclusion that there was no remedy for this unfortunate state of things, he beheld a horseman coming towards him, whom, on nearer approach, he discovered, to his infinite chagrin, to be no other than Mr John Browdie, who, clad in cords and leather leggings, was urging his animal forward by means of a thick ash stick, which seemed to have been recently cut from some stout sapling.
'I am in no mood for more noise and riot,' thought Nicholas, 'and yet, do what I will, I shall have an altercation with this honest blockhead, and perhaps a blow or two from yonder staff.'
In truth, there appeared some reason to expect that such a result would follow from the encounter, for John Browdie no sooner saw Nicholas advancing, than he reined in his horse by the footpath, and waited until such time as he should come up; looking meanwhile, very sternly between the horse's ears, at Nicholas, as he came on at his leisure.
'Servant, young genelman,' said John.
'Yours,' said Nicholas.
'Weel; we ha' met at last,' observed John, making the stirrup ring under a smart touch of the ash stick.
'Yes,' replied Nicholas, hesitating. 'Come!' he said, frankly, after a moment's pause, 'we parted on no very good terms the last time we met; it was my fault, I believe; but I had no intention of offending you, and no idea that I was doing so. I was very sorry for it, afterwards. Will you shake hands?'
'Shake honds!' cried the good-humoured Yorkshireman; 'ah! that I weel;' at the same time, he bent down from the saddle, and gave Nicholas's fist a huge wrench: 'but wa'at be the matther wi' thy feace, mun? it be all brokken loike.' 'It is a cut,' said Nicholas, turning scarlet as he spoke,--'a blow; but I returned it to the giver, and with good interest too.'
'Noa, did 'ee though?' exclaimed John Browdie. 'Well deane! I loike 'un for thot.' 'The fact is,' said Nicholas, not very well knowing how to make the avowal, 'the fact is, that I have been ill-treated.'
'Noa!' interposed John Browdie, in a tone of compassion; for he was a giant in strength and stature, and Nicholas, very likely, in his eyes, seemed a mere dwarf; 'dean't say thot.'
'Yes, I have,' replied Nicholas, 'by that man Squeers, and I have beaten him soundly, and am leaving this place in consequence.'
'What!' cried John Browdie, with such an ecstatic shout, that the horse quite shied at it. 'Beatten the schoolmeasther! Ho! ho! ho! Beatten the schoolmeasther! who ever heard o' the loike o' that noo! Giv' us thee hond agean, yoongster. Beatten the schoolmeasther! Dang it, I loov' thee for't.'
With these expressions of delight, John Browdie laughed and laughed again--so loud that the echoes, far and wide, sent back nothing but jovial peals of merriment--and shook Nicholas by the hand meanwhile, no less heartily. When his mirth had subsided, he inquired what Nicholas meant to do; on his informing him, to go straight to London, he shook his head doubtfully, and inquired if he knew how much the coaches charged to carry passengers so far. 'No, I do not,' said Nicholas; 'but it is of no great consequence to me, for I intend walking.'
'Gang awa' to Lunnun afoot!' cried John, in amazement.
'Every step of the way,' replied Nicholas. 'I should be many steps further on by this time, and so goodbye!'
'Nay noo,' replied the honest countryman, reining in his impatient horse, 'stan' still, tellee. Hoo much cash hast thee gotten?'
'Not much,' said Nicholas, colouring, 'but I can make it enough. Where there's a will, there's a way, you know.'
John Browdie made no verbal answer to this remark, but putting his hand in his pocket, pulled out an old purse of solid leather, and insisted that Nicholas should borrow from him whatever he required for his present necessities. 'Dean't be afeard, mun,' he said; 'tak' eneaf to carry thee whoam. Thee'lt pay me yan day, a' warrant.'
Nicholas could by no means be prevailed upon to borrow more than a sovereign, with which loan Mr Browdie, after many entreaties that he would accept of more (observing, with a touch of Yorkshire caution, that if he didn't spend it all, he could put the surplus by, till he had an opportunity of remitting it carriage free), was fain to content himself.
'Tak' that bit o' timber to help thee on wi', mun,' he added, pressing his stick on Nicholas, and giving his hand another squeeze; 'keep a good heart, and bless thee. Beatten the schoolmeasther! 'Cod it's the best thing a've heerd this twonty year!'
So saying, and indulging, with more delicacy than might have been expected from him, in another series of loud laughs, for the purpose of avoiding the thanks which Nicholas poured forth, John Browdie set spurs to his horse, and went off at a smart canter: looking back, from time to time, as Nicholas stood gazing after him, and waving his hand cheerily, as if to encourage him on his way. Nicholas watched the horse and rider until they disappeared over the brow of a distant hill, and then set forward on his journey.
He did not travel far that afternoon, for by this time it was nearly dark, and there had been a heavy fall of snow, which not only rendered the way toilsome, but the track uncertain and difficult to find, after daylight, save by experienced wayfarers. He lay, that night, at a cottage, where beds were let at a cheap rate to the more humble class of travellers; and, rising betimes next morning, made his way before night to Boroughbridge. Passing through that town in search of some cheap resting-place, he stumbled upon an empty barn within a couple of hundred yards of the roadside; in a warm corner of which, he stretched his weary limbs, and soon fell asleep.
When he awoke next morning, and tried to recollect his dreams, which had been all connected with his recent sojourn at Dotheboys Hall, he sat up, rubbed his eyes and stared--not with the most composed countenance possible--at some motionless object which seemed to be stationed within a few yards in front of him.
'Strange!' cried Nicholas; 'can this be some lingering creation of the visions that have scarcely left me! It cannot be real--and yet I--I am awake! Smike!' The form moved, rose, advanced, and dropped upon its knees at his feet. It was Smike indeed.
'Why do you kneel to me?' said Nicholas, hastily raising him.
'To go with you--anywhere--everywhere--to the world's end--to the churchyard grave,' replied Smike, clinging to his hand. 'Let me, oh do let me. You are my home--my kind friend--take me with you, pray.'
'I am a friend who can do little for you,' said Nicholas, kindly. 'How came you here?'
He had followed him, it seemed; had never lost sight of him all the way; had watched while he slept, and when he halted for refreshment; and had feared to appear before, lest he should be sent back. He had not intended to appear now, but Nicholas had awakened more suddenly than he looked for, and he had had no time to conceal himself.
'Poor fellow!' said Nicholas, 'your hard fate denies you any friend but one, and he is nearly as poor and helpless as yourself.'
'May I--may I go with you?' asked Smike, timidly. 'I will be your faithful hardworking servant, I will, indeed. I want no clothes,' added the poor creature, drawing his rags together; 'these will do very well. I only want to be near you.' 'And you shall,' cried Nicholas. 'And the world shall deal by you as it does by me, till one or both of us shall quit it for a better. Come!'
With these words, he strapped his burden on his shoulders, and, taking his stick in one hand, extended the other to his delighted charge; and so they passed out of the old barn, together.
Having the Misfortune to treat of none but Common People, is necessarily of a Mean and Vulgar Character
In that quarter of London in which Golden Square is situated, there is a bygone, faded, tumble-down street, with two irregular rows of tall meagre houses, which seem to have stared each other out of countenance years ago. The very chimneys appear to have grown dismal and melancholy, from having had nothing better to look at than the chimneys over the way. Their tops are battered, and broken, and blackened with smoke; and, here and there, some taller stack than the rest, inclining heavily to one side, and toppling over the roof, seems to mediate taking revenge for half a century's neglect, by crushing the inhabitants of the garrets beneath.
The fowls who peck about the kennels, jerking their bodies hither and thither with a gait which none but town fowls are ever seen to adopt, and which any country cock or hen would be puzzled to understand, are perfectly in keeping with the crazy habitations of their owners. Dingy, ill-plumed, drowsy flutterers, sent, like many of the neighbouring children, to get a livelihood in the streets, they hop, from stone to stone, in forlorn search of some hidden eatable in the mud, and can scarcely raise a crow among them. The only one with anything approaching to a voice, is an aged bantam at the baker's; and even he is hoarse, in consequence of bad living in his last place.
To judge from the size of the houses, they have been, at one time, tenanted by persons of better condition than their present occupants; but they are now let off, by the week, in floors or rooms, and every door has almost as many plates or bell-handles as there are apartments within. The windows are, for the same reason, sufficiently diversified in appearance, being ornamented with every variety of common blind and curtain that can easily be imagined; while every doorway is blocked up, and rendered nearly impassable, by a motley collection of children and porter pots of all sizes, from the baby in arms and the half-pint pot, to the full-grown girl and half-gallon can.
In the parlour of one of these houses, which was perhaps a thought dirtier than any of its neighbours; which exhibited more bell- handles, children, and porter pots, and caught in all its freshness the first gust of the thick black smoke that poured forth, night and day, from a large brewery hard by; hung a bill, announcing that there was yet one room to let within its walls, though on what story the vacant room could be--regard being had to the outward tokens of many lodgers which the whole front displayed, from the mangle in the kitchen window to the flower-pots on the parapet--it would have been beyond the power of a calculating boy to discover.
The common stairs of this mansion were bare and carpetless; but a curious visitor who had to climb his way to the top, might have observed that there were not wanting indications of the progressive poverty of the inmates, although their rooms were shut. Thus, the first-floor lodgers, being flush of furniture, kept an old mahogany table--real mahogany--on the landing-place outside, which was only taken in, when occasion required. On the second story, the spare furniture dwindled down to a couple of old deal chairs, of which one, belonging to the back-room, was shorn of a leg, and bottomless. The story above, boasted no greater excess than a worm-eaten wash- tub; and the garret landing-place displayed no costlier articles than two crippled pitchers, and some broken blacking-bottles.
It was on this garret landing-place that a hard-featured square- faced man, elderly and shabby, stopped to unlock the door of the front attic, into which, having surmounted the task of turning the rusty key in its still more rusty wards, he walked with the air of legal owner.
This person wore a wig of short, coarse, red hair, which he took off with his hat, and hung upon a nail. Having adopted in its place a dirty cotton nightcap, and groped about in the dark till he found a remnant of candle, he knocked at the partition which divided the two garrets, and inquired, in a loud voice, whether Mr Noggs had a light.
The sounds that came back were stifled by the lath and plaster, and it seemed moreover as though the speaker had uttered them from the interior of a mug or other drinking vessel; but they were in the voice of Newman, and conveyed a reply in the affirmative.
'A nasty night, Mr Noggs!' said the man in the nightcap, stepping in to light his candle.
'Does it rain?' asked Newman.
'Does it?' replied the other pettishly. 'I am wet through.'
'It doesn't take much to wet you and me through, Mr Crowl,' said Newman, laying his hand upon the lappel of his threadbare coat.
'Well; and that makes it the more vexatious,' observed Mr Crowl, in the same pettish tone.
Uttering a low querulous growl, the speaker, whose harsh countenance was the very epitome of selfishness, raked the scanty fire nearly out of the grate, and, emptying the glass which Noggs had pushed towards him, inquired where he kept his coals.
Newman Noggs pointed to the bottom of a cupboard, and Mr Crowl, seizing the shovel, threw on half the stock: which Noggs very deliberately took off again, without saying a word.
'You have not turned saving, at this time of day, I hope?' said Crowl. Newman pointed to the empty glass, as though it were a sufficient refutation of the charge, and briefly said that he was going downstairs to supper. 'To the Kenwigses?' asked Crowl.
Newman nodded assent.
'Think of that now!' said Crowl. 'If I didn't--thinking that you were certain not to go, because you said you wouldn't--tell Kenwigs I couldn't come, and make up my mind to spend the evening with you!'
'I was obliged to go,' said Newman. 'They would have me.'
'Well; but what's to become of me?' urged the selfish man, who never thought of anybody else. 'It's all your fault. I'll tell you what --I'll sit by your fire till you come back again.'
Newman cast a despairing glance at his small store of fuel, but, not having the courage to say no--a word which in all his life he never had said at the right time, either to himself or anyone else--gave way to the proposed arrangement. Mr Crowl immediately went about making himself as comfortable, with Newman Nogg's means, as circumstances would admit of his being made.
The lodgers to whom Crowl had made allusion under the designation of 'the Kenwigses,' were the wife and olive branches of one Mr Kenwigs, a turner in ivory, who was looked upon as a person of some consideration on the premises, inasmuch as he occupied the whole of the first floor, comprising a suite of two rooms. Mrs Kenwigs, too, was quite a lady in her manners, and of a very genteel family, having an uncle who collected a water-rate; besides which distinction, the two eldest of her little girls went twice a week to a dancing school in the neighbourhood, and had flaxen hair, tied with blue ribbons, hanging in luxuriant pigtails down their backs; and wore little white trousers with frills round the ankles--for all of which reasons, and many more equally valid but too numerous to mention, Mrs Kenwigs was considered a very desirable person to know, and was the constant theme of all the gossips in the street, and even three or four doors round the corner at both ends.
It was the anniversary of that happy day on which the Church of England as by law established, had bestowed Mrs Kenwigs upon Mr Kenwigs; and in grateful commemoration of the same, Mrs Kenwigs had invited a few select friends to cards and a supper in the first floor, and had put on a new gown to receive them in: which gown, being of a flaming colour and made upon a juvenile principle, was so successful that Mr Kenwigs said the eight years of matrimony and the five children seemed all a dream, and Mrs Kenwigs younger and more blooming than on the very first Sunday he had kept company with her.
Beautiful as Mrs Kenwigs looked when she was dressed though, and so stately that you would have supposed she had a cook and housemaid at least, and nothing to do but order them about, she had a world of trouble with the preparations; more, indeed, than she, being of a delicate and genteel constitution, could have sustained, had not the pride of housewifery upheld her. At last, however, all the things that had to be got together were got together, and all the things that had to be got out of the way were got out of the way, and everything was ready, and the collector himself having promised to come, fortune smiled upon the occasion.
The party was admirably selected. There were, first of all, Mr Kenwigs and Mrs Kenwigs, and four olive Kenwigses who sat up to supper; firstly, because it was but right that they should have a treat on such a day; and secondly, because their going to bed, in presence of the company, would have been inconvenient, not to say improper. Then, there was a young lady who had made Mrs Kenwigs's dress, and who--it was the most convenient thing in the world-- living in the twopair back, gave up her bed to the baby, and got a little girl to watch it. Then, to match this young lady, was a young man, who had known Mr Kenwigs when he was a bachelor, and was much esteemed by the ladies, as bearing the reputation of a rake. To these were added a newly-married couple, who had visited Mr and Mrs Kenwigs in their courtship; and a sister of Mrs Kenwigs's, who was quite a beauty; besides whom, there was another young man, supposed to entertain honourable designs upon the lady last mentioned; and Mr Noggs, who was a genteel person to ask, because he had been a gentleman once. There were also an elderly lady from the back-parlour, and one more young lady, who, next to the collector, perhaps was the great lion of the party, being the daughter of a theatrical fireman, who 'went on' in the pantomime, and had the greatest turn for the stage that was ever known, being able to sing and recite in a manner that brought the tears into Mrs Kenwigs's eyes. There was only one drawback upon the pleasure of seeing such friends, and that was, that the lady in the backparlour, who was very fat, and turned of sixty, came in a low book-muslin dress and short kid gloves, which so exasperated Mrs Kenwigs, that that lady assured her visitors, in private, that if it hadn't happened that the supper was cooking at the back-parlour grate at that moment, she certainly would have requested its representative to withdraw.
'My dear,' said Mr Kenwigs, 'wouldn't it be better to begin a round game?' 'Kenwigs, my dear,' returned his wife, 'I am surprised at you. Would you begin without my uncle?'
'I forgot the collector,' said Kenwigs; 'oh no, that would never do.'
'He's so particular,' said Mrs Kenwigs, turning to the other married lady, 'that if we began without him, I should be out of his will for ever.'
'Dear!' cried the married lady.
'You've no idea what he is,' replied Mrs Kenwigs; 'and yet as good a creature as ever breathed.'
'The kindest-hearted man as ever was,' said Kenwigs.
'It goes to his heart, I believe, to be forced to cut the water off, when the people don't pay,' observed the bachelor friend, intending a joke.
'George,' said Mr Kenwigs, solemnly, 'none of that, if you please.' 'It was only my joke,' said the friend, abashed.
'George,' rejoined Mr Kenwigs, 'a joke is a wery good thing--a wery good thing-but when that joke is made at the expense of Mrs Kenwigs's feelings, I set my face against it. A man in public life expects to be sneered at--it is the fault of his elewated sitiwation, and not of himself. Mrs Kenwigs's relation is a public man, and that he knows, George, and that he can bear; but putting Mrs Kenwigs out of the question (if I COULD put Mrs Kenwigs out of the question on such an occasion as this), I have the honour to be connected with the collector by marriage; and I cannot allow these remarks in my--' Mr Kenwigs was going to say 'house,' but he rounded the sentence with 'apartments'.
At the conclusion of these observations, which drew forth evidences of acute feeling from Mrs Kenwigs, and had the intended effect of impressing the company with a deep sense of the collector's dignity, a ring was heard at the bell. 'That's him,' whispered Mr Kenwigs, greatly excited. 'Morleena, my dear, run down and let your uncle in, and kiss him directly you get the door open. Hem! Let's be talking.'
Adopting Mr Kenwigs's suggestion, the company spoke very loudly, to look easy and unembarrassed; and almost as soon as they had begun to do so, a short old gentleman in drabs and gaiters, with a face that might have been carved out of LIGNUM VITAE, for anything that appeared to the contrary, was led playfully in by Miss Morleena Kenwigs, regarding whose uncommon Christian name it may be here remarked that it had been invented and composed by Mrs Kenwigs previous to her first lying-in, for the special distinction of her eldest child, in case it should prove a daughter.
'Oh, uncle, I am SO glad to see you,' said Mrs Kenwigs, kissing the collector affectionately on both cheeks. 'So glad!'
'Many happy returns of the day, my dear,' replied the collector, returning the compliment.
Now, this was an interesting thing. Here was a collector of water- rates, without his book, without his pen and ink, without his double knock, without his intimidation, kissing--actually kissing--an agreeable female, and leaving taxes, summonses, notices that he had called, or announcements that he would never call again, for two quarters' due, wholly out of the question. It was pleasant to see how the company looked on, quite absorbed in the sight, and to behold the nods and winks with which they expressed their gratification at finding so much humanity in a tax-gatherer.
'Where will you sit, uncle?' said Mrs Kenwigs, in the full glow of family pride, which the appearance of her distinguished relation occasioned.
'Anywheres, my dear,' said the collector, 'I am not particular.'
Not particular! What a meek collector! If he had been an author, who knew his place, he couldn't have been more humble.
'Mr Lillyvick,' said Kenwigs, addressing the collector, 'some friends here, sir, are very anxious for the honour of--thank you--Mr and Mrs Cutler, Mr Lillyvick.' 'Proud to know you, sir,' said Mr Cutler; 'I've heerd of you very often.' These were not mere words of ceremony; for, Mr Cutler, having kept house in Mr Lillyvick's parish, had heard of him very often indeed. His attention in calling had been quite extraordinary.
'George, you know, I think, Mr Lillyvick,' said Kenwigs; 'lady from downstairs--Mr Lillyvick. Mr Snewkes--Mr Lillyvick. Miss Green--Mr Lillyvick. Mr Lillyvick--Miss Petowker of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Very glad to make two public characters acquainted! Mrs Kenwigs, my dear, will you sort the counters?' Mrs Kenwigs, with the assistance of Newman Noggs, (who, as he performed sundry little acts of kindness for the children, at all times and seasons, was humoured in his request to be taken no notice of, and was merely spoken about, in a whisper, as the decayed gentleman), did as he was desired; and the greater part of the guests sat down to speculation, while Newman himself, Mrs Kenwigs, and Miss Petowker of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, looked after the suppertable.
While the ladies were thus busying themselves, Mr Lillyvick was intent upon the game in progress, and as all should be fish that comes to a water-collector's net, the dear old gentleman was by no means scrupulous in appropriating to himself the property of his neighbours, which, on the contrary, he abstracted whenever an opportunity presented itself, smiling good-humouredly all the while, and making so many condescending speeches to the owners, that they were delighted with his amiability, and thought in their hearts that he deserved to be Chancellor of the Exchequer at least.
After a great deal of trouble, and the administration of many slaps on the head to the infant Kenwigses, whereof two of the most rebellious were summarily banished, the cloth was laid with much elegance, and a pair of boiled fowls, a large piece of pork, apple- pie, potatoes and greens, were served; at sight of which, the worthy Mr Lillyvick vented a great many witticisms, and plucked up amazingly: to the immense delight and satisfaction of the whole body of admirers.
Very well and very fast the supper went off; no more serious difficulties occurring, than those which arose from the incessant demand for clean knives and forks; which made poor Mrs Kenwigs wish, more than once, that private society adopted the principle of schools, and required that every guest should bring his own knife, fork, and spoon; which doubtless would be a great accommodation in many cases, and to no one more so than to the lady and gentleman of the house, especially if the school principle were carried out to the full extent, and the articles were expected, as a matter of delicacy, not to be taken away again. Everybody having eaten everything, the table was cleared in a most alarming hurry, and with great noise; and the spirits, whereat the eyes of Newman Noggs glistened, being arranged in order, with water both hot and cold, the party composed themselves for conviviality; Mr Lillyvick being stationed in a large armchair by the fireside, and the four little Kenwigses disposed on a small form in front of the company with their flaxen tails towards them, and their faces to the fire; an arrangement which was no sooner perfected, than Mrs Kenwigs was overpowered by the feelings of a mother, and fell upon the left shoulder of Mr Kenwigs dissolved in tears.
'They are so beautiful!' said Mrs Kenwigs, sobbing.
'Oh, dear,' said all the ladies, 'so they are! it's very natural you should feel proud of that; but don't give way, don't.'
'I can--not help it, and it don't signify,' sobbed Mrs Kenwigs; 'oh! they're too beautiful to live, much too beautiful!'
On hearing this alarming presentiment of their being doomed to an early death in the flower of their infancy, all four little girls raised a hideous cry, and burying their heads in their mother's lap simultaneously, screamed until the eight flaxen tails vibrated again; Mrs Kenwigs meanwhile clasping them alternately to her bosom, with attitudes expressive of distraction, which Miss Petowker herself might have copied.
At length, the anxious mother permitted herself to be soothed into a more tranquil state, and the little Kenwigses, being also composed, were distributed among the company, to prevent the possibility of Mrs Kenwigs being again overcome by the blaze of their combined beauty. This done, the ladies and gentlemen united in prophesying that they would live for many, many years, and that there was no occasion at all for Mrs Kenwigs to distress herself; which, in good truth, there did not appear to be; the loveliness of the children by no means justifying her apprehensions.
'This day eight year,' said Mr Kenwigs after a pause. 'Dear me-- ah!' This reflection was echoed by all present, who said 'Ah!' first, and 'dear me,' afterwards.
'I was younger then,' tittered Mrs Kenwigs.
'No,' said the collector.
'Certainly not,' added everybody.
'I remember my niece,' said Mr Lillyvick, surveying his audience with a grave air; 'I remember her, on that very afternoon, when she first acknowledged to her mother a partiality for Kenwigs. "Mother," she says, "I love him."'
'"Adore him," I said, uncle,' interposed Mrs Kenwigs.
'"Love him," I think, my dear,' said the collector, firmly.
'Perhaps you are right, uncle,' replied Mrs Kenwigs, submissively. 'I thought it was "adore."'
'"Love," my dear,' retorted Mr Lillyvick. '"Mother," she says, "I love him!" "What do I hear?" cries her mother; and instantly falls into strong conwulsions.' A general exclamation of astonishment burst from the company.
'Into strong conwulsions,' repeated Mr Lillyvick, regarding them with a rigid look. 'Kenwigs will excuse my saying, in the presence of friends, that there was a very great objection to him, on the ground that he was beneath the family, and would disgrace it. You remember, Kenwigs?'
'Certainly,' replied that gentleman, in no way displeased at the reminiscence, inasmuch as it proved, beyond all doubt, what a high family Mrs Kenwigs came of.
'I shared in that feeling,' said Mr Lillyvick: 'perhaps it was natural; perhaps it wasn't.'
A gentle murmur seemed to say, that, in one of Mr Lillyvick's station, the objection was not only natural, but highly praiseworthy.
'I came round to him in time,' said Mr Lillyvick. 'After they were married, and there was no help for it, I was one of the first to say that Kenwigs must be taken notice of. The family DID take notice of him, in consequence, and on my representation; and I am bound to say--and proud to say--that I have always found him a very honest, well-behaved, upright, respectable sort of man. Kenwigs, shake hands.' 'I am proud to do it, sir,' said Mr Kenwigs.
'So am I, Kenwigs,' rejoined Mr Lillyvick.
'A very happy life I have led with your niece, sir,' said Kenwigs.
'It would have been your own fault if you had not, sir,' remarked Mr Lillyvick. 'Morleena Kenwigs,' cried her mother, at this crisis, much affected, 'kiss your dear uncle!'
The young lady did as she was requested, and the three other little girls were successively hoisted up to the collector's countenance, and subjected to the same process, which was afterwards repeated on them by the majority of those present.
'Oh dear, Mrs Kenwigs,' said Miss Petowker, 'while Mr Noggs is making that punch to drink happy returns in, do let Morleena go through that figure dance before Mr Lillyvick.'
'No, no, my dear,' replied Mrs Kenwigs, 'it will only worry my uncle.' 'It can't worry him, I am sure,' said Miss Petowker. 'You will be very much pleased, won't you, sir?'
'That I am sure I shall' replied the collector, glancing at the punch-mixer. 'Well then, I'll tell you what,' said Mrs Kenwigs, 'Morleena shall do the steps, if uncle can persuade Miss Petowker to recite us the Blood-Drinker's Burial, afterwards.'
There was a great clapping of hands and stamping of feet, at this proposition; the subject whereof, gently inclined her head several times, in acknowledgment of the reception.
'You know,' said Miss Petowker, reproachfully, 'that I dislike doing anything professional in private parties.'
'Oh, but not here!' said Mrs Kenwigs. 'We are all so very friendly and pleasant, that you might as well be going through it in your own room; besides, the occasion--'
'I can't resist that,' interrupted Miss Petowker; 'anything in my humble power I shall be delighted to do.'
Mrs Kenwigs and Miss Petowker had arranged a small PROGRAMME of the entertainments between them, of which this was the prescribed order, but they had settled to have a little pressing on both sides, because it looked more natural. The company being all ready, Miss Petowker hummed a tune, and Morleena danced a dance; having previously had the soles of her shoes chalked, with as much care as if she were going on the tight-rope. It was a very beautiful figure, comprising a great deal of work for the arms, and was received with unbounded applause.
'If I was blessed with a--a child--' said Miss Petowker, blushing, 'of such genius as that, I would have her out at the Opera instantly.'
Mrs Kenwigs sighed, and looked at Mr Kenwigs, who shook his head, and observed that he was doubtful about it.
'Kenwigs is afraid,' said Mrs K.
'What of?' inquired Miss Petowker, 'not of her failing?'
'Oh no,' replied Mrs Kenwigs, 'but if she grew up what she is now,-- only think of the young dukes and marquises.'
'Very right,' said the collector.
'Still,' submitted Miss Petowker, 'if she took a proper pride in herself, you know--' 'There's a good deal in that,' observed Mrs Kenwigs, looking at her husband. 'I only know--' faltered Miss Petowker,--'it may be no rule to be sure--but I have never found any inconvenience or unpleasantness of that sort.'
Mr Kenwigs, with becoming gallantry, said that settled the question at once, and that he would take the subject into his serious consideration. This being resolved upon, Miss Petowker was entreated to begin the Blood-Drinker's Burial; to which end, that young lady let down her back hair, and taking up her position at the other end of the room, with the bachelor friend posted in a corner, to rush out at the cue 'in death expire,' and catch her in his arms when she died raving mad, went through the performance with extraordinary spirit, and to the great terror of the little Kenwigses, who were all but frightened into fits.
The ecstasies consequent upon the effort had not yet subsided, and Newman (who had not been thoroughly sober at so late an hour for a long long time,) had not yet been able to put in a word of announcement, that the punch was ready, when a hasty knock was heard at the room-door, which elicited a shriek from Mrs Kenwigs, who immediately divined that the baby had fallen out of bed. 'Who is that?' demanded Mr Kenwigs, sharply.
'Don't be alarmed, it's only me,' said Crowl, looking in, in his nightcap. 'The baby is very comfortable, for I peeped into the room as I came down, and it's fast asleep, and so is the girl; and I don't think the candle will set fire to the bedcurtain, unless a draught was to get into the room--it's Mr Noggs that's wanted.' 'Me!' cried Newman, much astonished.
'Why, it IS a queer hour, isn't it?' replied Crowl, who was not best pleased at the prospect of losing his fire; 'and they are queer- looking people, too, all covered with rain and mud. Shall I tell them to go away?'
'No,' said Newman, rising. 'People? How many?'
'Two,' rejoined Crowl.
'Want me? By name?' asked Newman.
'By name,' replied Crowl. 'Mr Newman Noggs, as pat as need be.' Newman reflected for a few seconds, and then hurried away, muttering that he would be back directly. He was as good as his word; for, in an exceedingly short time, he burst into the room, and seizing, without a word of apology or explanation, a lighted candle and tumbler of hot punch from the table, darted away like a madman.
'What the deuce is the matter with him?' exclaimed Crowl, throwing the door open. 'Hark! Is there any noise above?'
The guests rose in great confusion, and, looking in each other's faces with much perplexity and some fear, stretched their necks forward, and listened attentively.