Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens - HTML preview
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Containing some Romantic Passages between Mrs Nickleby and the Gentleman in the Small-clothes next Door
Ever since her last momentous conversation with her son, Mrs Nickleby had begun to display unusual care in the adornment of her person, gradually superadding to those staid and matronly habiliments, which had, up to that time, formed her ordinary attire, a variety of embellishments and decorations, slight perhaps in themselves, but, taken together, and considered with reference to the subject of her disclosure, of no mean importance. Even her black dress assumed something of a deadly-lively air from the jaunty style in which it was worn; and, eked out as its lingering attractions were; by a prudent disposal, here and there, of certain juvenile ornaments of little or no value, which had, for that reason alone, escaped the general wreck and been permitted to slumber peacefully in odd corners of old drawers and boxes where daylight seldom shone, her mourning garments assumed quite a new character. From being the outward tokens of respect and sorrow for the dead, they became converted into signals of very slaughterous and killing designs upon the living.
Mrs Nickleby might have been stimulated to this proceeding by a lofty sense of duty, and impulses of unquestionable excellence. She might, by this time, have become impressed with the sinfulness of long indulgence in unavailing woe, or the necessity of setting a proper example of neatness and decorum to her blooming daughter. Considerations of duty and responsibility apart, the change might have taken its rise in feelings of the purest and most disinterested charity. The gentleman next door had been vilified by Nicholas; rudely stigmatised as a dotard and an idiot; and for these attacks upon his understanding, Mrs Nickleby was, in some sort, accountable. She might have felt that it was the act of a good Christian to show by all means in her power, that the abused gentleman was neither the one nor the other. And what better means could she adopt, towards so virtuous and laudable an end, than proving to all men, in her own person, that his passion was the most rational and reasonable in the world, and just the very result, of all others, which discreet and thinking persons might have foreseen, from her incautiously displaying her matured charms, without reserve, under the very eye, as it were, of an ardent and too-susceptible man?
'Ah!' said Mrs Nickleby, gravely shaking her head; 'if Nicholas knew what his poor dear papa suffered before we were engaged, when I used to hate him, he would have a little more feeling. Shall I ever forget the morning I looked scornfully at him when he offered to carry my parasol? Or that night, when I frowned at him? It was a mercy he didn't emigrate. It very nearly drove him to it.'
Whether the deceased might not have been better off if he had emigrated in his bachelor days, was a question which his relict did not stop to consider; for Kate entered the room, with her workbox, in this stage of her reflections; and a much slighter interruption, or no interruption at all, would have diverted Mrs Nickleby's thoughts into a new channel at any time.
'Kate, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby; 'I don't know how it is, but a fine warm summer day like this, with the birds singing in every direction, always puts me in mind of roast pig, with sage and onion sauce, and made gravy.'
'That's a curious association of ideas, is it not, mama?'
'Upon my word, my dear, I don't know,' replied Mrs Nickleby. 'Roast pig; let me see. On the day five weeks after you were christened, we had a roast--no, that couldn't have been a pig, either, because I recollect there were a pair of them to carve, and your poor papa and I could never have thought of sitting down to two pigs--they must have been partridges. Roast pig! I hardly think we ever could have had one, now I come to remember, for your papa could never bear the sight of them in the shops, and used to say that they always put him in mind of very little babies, only the pigs had much fairer complexions; and he had a horror of little babies, to, because he couldn't very well afford any increase to his family, and had a natural dislike to the subject. It's very odd now, what can have put that in my head! I recollect dining once at Mrs Bevan's, in that broad street round the corner by the coachmaker's, where the tipsy man fell through the cellar-flap of an empty house nearly a week before the quarter-day, and wasn't found till the new tenant went in--and we had roast pig there. It must be that, I think, that reminds me of it, especially as there was a little bird in the room that would keep on singing all the time of dinner--at least, not a little bird, for it was a parrot, and he didn't sing exactly, for he talked and swore dreadfully: but I think it must be that. Indeed I am sure it must. Shouldn't you say so, my dear?'
'I should say there was not a doubt about it, mama,' returned Kate, with a cheerful smile.
'No; but DO you think so, Kate?' said Mrs Nickleby, with as much gravity as if it were a question of the most imminent and thrilling interest. 'If you don't, say so at once, you know; because it's just as well to be correct, particularly on a point of this kind, which is very curious and worth settling while one thinks about it.' Kate laughingly replied that she was quite convinced; and as her mama still appeared undetermined whether it was not absolutely essential that the subject should be renewed, proposed that they should take their work into the summerhouse, and enjoy the beauty of the afternoon. Mrs Nickleby readily assented, and to the summer- house they repaired, without further discussion.
'Well, I will say,' observed Mrs Nickleby, as she took her seat, 'that there never was such a good creature as Smike. Upon my word, the pains he has taken in putting this little arbour to rights, and training the sweetest flowers about it, are beyond anything I could have--I wish he wouldn't put ALL the gravel on your side, Kate, my dear, though, and leave nothing but mould for me.'
'Dear mama,' returned Kate, hastily, 'take this seat--do--to oblige me, mama.' 'No, indeed, my dear. I shall keep my own side,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'Well! I declare!'
Kate looked up inquiringly.
'If he hasn't been,' said Mrs Nickleby, 'and got, from somewhere or other, a couple of roots of those flowers that I said I was so fond of, the other night, and asked you if you were not--no, that YOU said YOU were so fond of, the other night, and asked me if I wasn't--it's the same thing. Now, upon my word, I take that as very kind and attentive indeed! I don't see,' added Mrs Nickleby, looking narrowly about her, 'any of them on my side, but I suppose they grow best near the gravel. You may depend upon it they do, Kate, and that's the reason they are all near you, and he has put the gravel there, because it's the sunny side. Upon my word, that's very clever now! I shouldn't have had half as much thought myself!'
'Mama,' said Kate, bending over her work so that her face was almost hidden, 'before you were married--'
'Dear me, Kate,' interrupted Mrs Nickleby, 'what in the name of goodness graciousness makes you fly off to the time before I was married, when I'm talking to you about his thoughtfulness and attention to me? You don't seem to take the smallest interest in the garden.'
'Oh! mama,' said Kate, raising her face again, 'you know I do.'
'Well then, my dear, why don't you praise the neatness and prettiness with which it's kept?' said Mrs Nickleby. 'How very odd you are, Kate!'
'I do praise it, mama,' answered Kate, gently. 'Poor fellow!'
'I scarcely ever hear you, my dear,' retorted Mrs Nickleby; 'that's all I've got to say.' By this time the good lady had been a long while upon one topic, so she fell at once into her daughter's little trap, if trap it were, and inquired what she had been going to say.
'About what, mama?' said Kate, who had apparently quite forgotten her diversion. 'Lor, Kate, my dear,' returned her mother, 'why, you're asleep or stupid! About the time before I was married.'
'Oh yes!' said Kate, 'I remember. I was going to ask, mama, before you were married, had you many suitors?'
'Suitors, my dear!' cried Mrs Nickleby, with a smile of wonderful complacency. 'First and last, Kate, I must have had a dozen at least.'
'Mama!' returned Kate, in a tone of remonstrance.
'I had indeed, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby; 'not including your poor papa, or a young gentleman who used to go, at that time, to the same dancing school, and who WOULD send gold watches and bracelets to our house in gilt-edged paper, (which were always returned,) and who afterwards unfortunately went out to Botany Bay in a cadet ship--a convict ship I mean--and escaped into a bush and killed sheep, (I don't know how they got there,) and was going to be hung, only he accidentally choked himself, and the government pardoned him. Then there was young Lukin,' said Mrs Nickleby, beginning with her left thumb and checking off the names on her fingers--'Mogley--Tipslark-- Cabbery--Smifser--' Having now reached her little finger, Mrs Nickleby was carrying the account over to the other hand, when a loud 'Hem!' which appeared to come from the very foundation of the garden-wall, gave both herself and her daughter a violent start. 'Mama! what was that?' said Kate, in a low tone of voice.
'Upon my word, my dear,' returned Mrs Nickleby, considerably startled, 'unless it was the gentleman belonging to the next house, I don't know what it could possibly--'
'A--hem!' cried the same voice; and that, not in the tone of an ordinary clearing of the throat, but in a kind of bellow, which woke up all the echoes in the neighbourhood, and was prolonged to an extent which must have made the unseen bellower quite black in the face.
'I understand it now, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby, laying her hand on Kate's; 'don't be alarmed, my love, it's not directed to you, and is not intended to frighten anybody. Let us give everybody their due, Kate; I am bound to say that.' So saying, Mrs Nickleby nodded her head, and patted the back of her daughter's hand, a great many times, and looked as if she could tell something vastly important if she chose, but had self-denial, thank Heaven; and wouldn't do it. 'What do you mean, mama?' demanded Kate, in evident surprise. 'Don't be flurried, my dear,' replied Mrs Nickleby, looking towards the gardenwall, 'for you see I'm not, and if it would be excusable in anybody to be flurried, it certainly would--under all the circumstances--be excusable in me, but I am not, Kate--not at all.'
'It seems designed to attract our attention, mama,' said Kate.
'It is designed to attract our attention, my dear; at least,' rejoined Mrs Nickleby, drawing herself up, and patting her daughter's hand more blandly than before, 'to attract the attention of one of us. Hem! you needn't be at all uneasy, my dear.' Kate looked very much perplexed, and was apparently about to ask for further explanation, when a shouting and scuffling noise, as of an elderly gentleman whooping, and kicking up his legs on loose gravel, with great violence, was heard to proceed from the same direction as the former sounds; and before they had subsided, a large cucumber was seen to shoot up in the air with the velocity of a sky-rocket, whence it descended, tumbling over and over, until it fell at Mrs Nickleby's feet.
This remarkable appearance was succeeded by another of a precisely similar description; then a fine vegetable marrow, of unusually large dimensions, was seen to whirl aloft, and come toppling down; then, several cucumbers shot up together; and, finally, the air was darkened by a shower of onions, turnipradishes, and other small vegetables, which fell rolling and scattering, and bumping about, in all directions.
As Kate rose from her seat, in some alarm, and caught her mother's hand to run with her into the house, she felt herself rather retarded than assisted in her intention; and following the direction of Mrs Nickleby's eyes, was quite terrified by the apparition of an old black velvet cap, which, by slow degrees, as if its wearer were ascending a ladder or pair of steps, rose above the wall dividing their garden from that of the next cottage, (which, like their own, was a detached building,) and was gradually followed by a very large head, and an old face, in which were a pair of most extraordinary grey eyes: very wild, very wide open, and rolling in their sockets, with a dull, languishing, leering look, most ugly to behold.
'Mama!' cried Kate, really terrified for the moment, 'why do you stop, why do you lose an instant? Mama, pray come in!'
'Kate, my dear,' returned her mother, still holding back, 'how can you be so foolish? I'm ashamed of you. How do you suppose you are ever to get through life, if you're such a coward as this? What do you want, sir?' said Mrs Nickleby, addressing the intruder with a sort of simpering displeasure. 'How dare you look into this garden?'
'Queen of my soul,' replied the stranger, folding his hands together, 'this goblet sip!'
'Nonsense, sir,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'Kate, my love, pray be quiet.'
'Won't you sip the goblet?' urged the stranger, with his head imploringly on one side, and his right hand on his breast. 'Oh, do sip the goblet!'
'I shall not consent to do anything of the kind, sir,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'Pray, begone.'
'Why is it,' said the old gentleman, coming up a step higher, and leaning his elbows on the wall, with as much complacency as if he were looking out of window, 'why is it that beauty is always obdurate, even when admiration is as honourable and respectful as mine?' Here he smiled, kissed his hand, and made several low bows. 'Is it owing to the bees, who, when the honey season is over, and they are supposed to have been killed with brimstone, in reality fly to Barbary and lull the captive Moors to sleep with their drowsy songs? Or is it,' he added, dropping his voice almost to a whisper, 'in consequence of the statue at Charing Cross having been lately seen, on the Stock Exchange at midnight, walking armin-arm with the Pump from Aldgate, in a riding-habit?'
'Mama,' murmured Kate, 'do you hear him?'
'Hush, my dear!' replied Mrs Nickleby, in the same tone of voice, 'he is very polite, and I think that was a quotation from the poets. Pray, don't worry me so-you'll pinch my arm black and blue. Go away, sir!'
'Quite away?' said the gentleman, with a languishing look. 'Oh! quite away?' 'Yes,' returned Mrs Nickleby, 'certainly. You have no business here. This is private property, sir; you ought to know that.'
'I do know,' said the old gentleman, laying his finger on his nose, with an air of familiarity, most reprehensible, 'that this is a sacred and enchanted spot, where the most divine charms'--here he kissed his hand and bowed again--'waft mellifluousness over the neighbours' gardens, and force the fruit and vegetables into premature existence. That fact I am acquainted with. But will you permit me, fairest creature, to ask you one question, in the absence of the planet Venus, who has gone on business to the Horse Guards, and would otherwise--jealous of your superior charms--interpose between us?'
'Kate,' observed Mrs Nickleby, turning to her daughter, 'it's very awkward, positively. I really don't know what to say to this gentleman. One ought to be civil, you know.'
'Dear mama,' rejoined Kate, 'don't say a word to him, but let us run away as fast as we can, and shut ourselves up till Nicholas comes home.'
Mrs Nickleby looked very grand, not to say contemptuous, at this humiliating proposal; and, turning to the old gentleman, who had watched them during these whispers with absorbing eagerness, said:
'If you will conduct yourself, sir, like the gentleman I should imagine you to be, from your language and--and--appearance, (quite the counterpart of your grandpapa, Kate, my dear, in his best days,) and will put your question to me in plain words, I will answer it.'
If Mrs Nickleby's excellent papa had borne, in his best days, a resemblance to the neighbour now looking over the wall, he must have been, to say the least, a very queer-looking old gentleman in his prime. Perhaps Kate thought so, for she ventured to glance at his living portrait with some attention, as he took off his black velvet cap, and, exhibiting a perfectly bald head, made a long series of bows, each accompanied with a fresh kiss of the hand. After exhausting himself, to all appearance, with this fatiguing performance, he covered his head once more, pulled the cap very carefully over the tips of his ears, and resuming his former attitude, said,
'The question is--'
Here he broke off to look round in every direction, and satisfy himself beyond all doubt that there were no listeners near. Assured that there were not, he tapped his nose several times, accompanying the action with a cunning look, as though congratulating himself on his caution; and stretching out his neck, said in a loud whisper,
'Are you a princess?'
'You are mocking me, sir,' replied Mrs Nickleby, making a feint of retreating towards the house.
'No, but are you?' said the old gentleman.
'You know I am not, sir,' replied Mrs Nickleby.
'Then are you any relation to the Archbishop of Canterbury?' inquired the old gentleman with great anxiety, 'or to the Pope of Rome? Or the Speaker of the House of Commons? Forgive me, if I am wrong, but I was told you were niece to the Commissioners of Paving, and daughter-in-law to the Lord Mayor and Court of Common Council, which would account for your relationship to all three.' 'Whoever has spread such reports, sir,' returned Mrs Nickleby, with some warmth, 'has taken great liberties with my name, and one which I am sure my son Nicholas, if he was aware of it, would not allow for an instant. The idea!' said Mrs Nickleby, drawing herself up, 'niece to the Commissioners of Paving!' 'Pray, mama, come away!' whispered Kate.
'"Pray mama!" Nonsense, Kate,' said Mrs Nickleby, angrily, 'but that's just the way. If they had said I was niece to a piping bullfinch, what would you care? But I have no sympathy,' whimpered Mrs Nickleby. 'I don't expect it, that's one thing.' 'Tears!' cried the old gentleman, with such an energetic jump, that he fell down two or three steps and grated his chin against the wall. 'Catch the crystal globules--catch 'em--bottle 'em up--cork 'em tight--put sealing wax on the top-seal 'em with a cupid--label 'em "Best quality"--and stow 'em away in the fourteen binn, with a bar of iron on the top to keep the thunder off!'
Issuing these commands, as if there were a dozen attendants all actively engaged in their execution, he turned his velvet cap inside out, put it on with great dignity so as to obscure his right eye and three-fourths of his nose, and sticking his arms a-kimbo, looked very fiercely at a sparrow hard by, till the bird flew away, when he put his cap in his pocket with an air of great satisfaction, and addressed himself with respectful demeanour to Mrs Nickleby.
'Beautiful madam,' such were his words, 'if I have made any mistake with regard to your family or connections, I humbly beseech you to pardon me. If I supposed you to be related to Foreign Powers or Native Boards, it is because you have a manner, a carriage, a dignity, which you will excuse my saying that none but yourself (with the single exception perhaps of the tragic muse, when playing extemporaneously on the barrel organ before the East India Company) can parallel. I am not a youth, ma'am, as you see; and although beings like you can never grow old, I venture to presume that we are fitted for each other.' 'Really, Kate, my love!' said Mrs Nickleby faintly, and looking another way. 'I have estates, ma'am,' said the old gentleman, flourishing his right hand negligently, as if he made very light of such matters, and speaking very fast; 'jewels, lighthouses, fish-ponds, a whalery of my own in the North Sea, and several oyster-beds of great profit in the Pacific Ocean. If you will have the kindness to step down to the Royal Exchange and to take the cocked-hat off the stoutest beadle's head, you will find my card in the lining of the crown, wrapped up in a piece of blue paper. My walking-stick is also to be seen on application to the chaplain of the House of Commons, who is strictly forbidden to take any money for showing it. I have enemies about me, ma'am,' he looked towards his house and spoke very low, 'who attack me on all occasions, and wish to secure my property. If you bless me with your hand and heart, you can apply to the Lord Chancellor or call out the military if necessary--sending my toothpick to the commander-in-chief will be sufficient--and so clear the house of them before the ceremony is performed. After that, love, bliss and rapture; rapture, love and bliss. Be mine, be mine!'
Repeating these last words with great rapture and enthusiasm, the old gentleman put on his black velvet cap again, and looking up into the sky in a hasty manner, said something that was not quite intelligible concerning a balloon he expected, and which was rather after its time.
'Be mine, be mine!' repeated the old gentleman.
'Kate, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby, 'I have hardly the power to speak; but it is necessary for the happiness of all parties that this matter should be set at rest for ever.'
'Surely there is no necessity for you to say one word, mama?' reasoned Kate. 'You will allow me, my dear, if you please, to judge for myself,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'Be mine, be mine!' cried the old gentleman.
'It can scarcely be expected, sir,' said Mrs Nickleby, fixing her eyes modestly on the ground, 'that I should tell a stranger whether I feel flattered and obliged by such proposals, or not. They certainly are made under very singular circumstances; still at the same time, as far as it goes, and to a certain extent of course' (Mrs Nickleby's customary qualification), 'they must be gratifying and agreeable to one's feelings.'
'Be mine, be mine,' cried the old gentleman. 'Gog and Magog, Gog and Magog. Be mine, be mine!'
'It will be sufficient for me to say, sir,' resumed Mrs Nickleby, with perfect seriousness--'and I'm sure you'll see the propriety of taking an answer and going away--that I have made up my mind to remain a widow, and to devote myself to my children. You may not suppose I am the mother of two children--indeed many people have doubted it, and said that nothing on earth could ever make 'em believe it possible--but it is the case, and they are both grown up. We shall be very glad to have you for a neighbour--very glad; delighted, I'm sure--but in any other character it's quite impossible, quite. As to my being young enough to marry again, that perhaps may be so, or it may not be; but I couldn't think of it for an instant, not on any account whatever. I said I never would, and I never will. It's a very painful thing to have to reject proposals, and I would much rather that none were made; at the same time this is the answer that I determined long ago to make, and this is the answer I shall always give.'
These observations were partly addressed to the old gentleman, partly to Kate, and partly delivered in soliloquy. Towards their conclusion, the suitor evinced a very irreverent degree of inattention, and Mrs Nickleby had scarcely finished speaking, when, to the great terror both of that lady and her daughter, he suddenly flung off his coat, and springing on the top of the wall, threw himself into an attitude which displayed his small-clothes and grey worsteds to the fullest advantage, and concluded by standing on one leg, and repeating his favourite bellow with increased vehemence.
While he was still dwelling on the last note, and embellishing it with a prolonged flourish, a dirty hand was observed to glide stealthily and swiftly along the top of the wall, as if in pursuit of a fly, and then to clasp with the utmost dexterity one of the old gentleman's ankles. This done, the companion hand appeared, and clasped the other ankle.
Thus encumbered the old gentleman lifted his legs awkwardly once or twice, as if they were very clumsy and imperfect pieces of machinery, and then looking down on his own side of the wall, burst into a loud laugh.
'It's you, is it?' said the old gentleman.
'Yes, it's me,' replied a gruff voice.
'How's the Emperor of Tartary?' said the old gentleman.
'Oh! he's much the same as usual,' was the reply. 'No better and no worse.' 'The young Prince of China,' said the old gentleman, with much interest. 'Is he reconciled to his father-in-law, the great potato salesman?'
'No,' answered the gruff voice; 'and he says he never will be, that's more.' 'If that's the case,' observed the old gentleman, 'perhaps I'd better come down.' 'Well,' said the man on the other side, 'I think you had, perhaps.'
One of the hands being then cautiously unclasped, the old gentleman dropped into a sitting posture, and was looking round to smile and bow to Mrs Nickleby, when he disappeared with some precipitation, as if his legs had been pulled from below.
Very much relieved by his disappearance, Kate was turning to speak to her mama, when the dirty hands again became visible, and were immediately followed by the figure of a coarse squat man, who ascended by the steps which had been recently occupied by their singular neighbour.
'Beg your pardon, ladies,' said this new comer, grinning and touching his hat. 'Has he been making love to either of you?'
'Yes,' said Kate.
'Ah!' rejoined the man, taking his handkerchief out of his hat and wiping his face, 'he always will, you know. Nothing will prevent his making love.'
'I need not ask you if he is out of his mind, poor creature,' said Kate. 'Why no,' replied the man, looking into his hat, throwing his handkerchief in at one dab, and putting it on again. 'That's pretty plain, that is.'
'Has he been long so?' asked Kate.
'A long while.'
'And is there no hope for him?' said Kate, compassionately
'Not a bit, and don't deserve to be,' replied the keeper. 'He's a deal pleasanter without his senses than with 'em. He was the cruellest, wickedest, out-andouterest old flint that ever drawed breath.'
'Indeed!' said Kate.
'By George!' replied the keeper, shaking his head so emphatically that he was obliged to frown to keep his hat on. 'I never come across such a vagabond, and my mate says the same. Broke his poor wife's heart, turned his daughters out of doors, drove his sons into the streets; it was a blessing he went mad at last, through evil tempers, and covetousness, and selfishness, and guzzling, and drinking, or he'd have drove many others so. Hope for HIM, an old rip! There isn't too much hope going' but I'll bet a crown that what there is, is saved for more deserving chaps than him, anyhow.'
With which confession of his faith, the keeper shook his head again, as much as to say that nothing short of this would do, if things were to go on at all; and touching his hat sulkily--not that he was in an ill humour, but that his subject ruffled him--descended the ladder, and took it away.
During this conversation, Mrs Nickleby had regarded the man with a severe and steadfast look. She now heaved a profound sigh, and pursing up her lips, shook her head in a slow and doubtful manner.
'Poor creature!' said Kate.
'Ah! poor indeed!' rejoined Mrs Nickleby. 'It's shameful that such things should be allowed. Shameful!'
'How can they be helped, mama?' said Kate, mournfully. 'The infirmities of nature--'
'Nature!' said Mrs Nickleby. 'What! Do YOU suppose this poor gentleman is out of his mind?'
'Can anybody who sees him entertain any other opinion, mama?'
'Why then, I just tell you this, Kate,' returned Mrs Nickleby, 'that, he is nothing of the kind, and I am surprised you can be so imposed upon. It's some plot of these people to possess themselves of his property--didn't he say so himself? He may be a little odd and flighty, perhaps, many of us are that; but downright mad! and express himself as he does, respectfully, and in quite poetical language, and making offers with so much thought, and care, and prudence--not as if he ran into the streets, and went down upon his knees to the first chit of a girl he met, as a madman would! No, no, Kate, there's a great deal too much method in HIS madness; depend upon that, my dear.'
Illustrative of the convivial Sentiment, that the best of Friends must sometimes part
The pavement of Snow Hill had been baking and frying all day in the heat, and the twain Saracens' heads guarding the entrance to the hostelry of whose name and sign they are the duplicate presentments, looked--or seemed, in the eyes of jaded and footsore passers-by, to look--more vicious than usual, after blistering and scorching in the sun, when, in one of the inn's smallest sitting-rooms, through whose open window there rose, in a palpable steam, wholesome exhalations from reeking coach-horses, the usual furniture of a tea-table was displayed in neat and inviting order, flanked by large joints of roast and boiled, a tongue, a pigeon pie, a cold fowl, a tankard of ale, and other little matters of the like kind, which, in degenerate towns and cities, are generally understood to belong more particularly to solid lunches, stage-coach dinners, or unusually substantial breakfasts.
Mr John Browdie, with his hands in his pockets, hovered restlessly about these delicacies, stopping occasionally to whisk the flies out of the sugar-basin with his wife's pocket-handkerchief, or to dip a teaspoon in the milk-pot and carry it to his mouth, or to cut off a little knob of crust, and a little corner of meat, and swallow them at two gulps like a couple of pills. After every one of these flirtations with the eatables, he pulled out his watch, and declared with an earnestness quite pathetic that he couldn't undertake to hold out two minutes longer. 'Tilly!' said John to his lady, who was reclining half awake and half asleep upon a sofa.
'Well, John!' retorted her husband, impatiently. 'Dost thou feel hoongry, lass?' 'Not very,' said Mrs Browdie.
'Not vary!' repeated John, raising his eyes to the ceiling. 'Hear her say not vary, and us dining at three, and loonching off pasthry thot aggravates a mon 'stead of pacifying him! Not vary!'
'Here's a gen'l'man for you, sir,' said the waiter, looking in.
'A wa'at for me?' cried John, as though he thought it must be a letter, or a parcel. 'A gen'l'man, sir.'
'Stars and garthers, chap!' said John, 'wa'at dost thou coom and say thot for? In wi' 'un.'
'Are you at home, sir?'
'At whoam!' cried John, 'I wish I wur; I'd ha tea'd two hour ago. Why, I told t'oother chap to look sharp ootside door, and tell 'un d'rectly he coom, thot we war faint wi' hoonger. In wi' 'un. Aha! Thee hond, Misther Nickleby. This is nigh to be the proodest day o' my life, sir. Hoo be all wi' ye? Ding! But, I'm glod o' this!' Quite forgetting even his hunger in the heartiness of his salutation, John Browdie shook Nicholas by the hand again and again, slapping his palm with great violence between each shake, to add warmth to the reception.
'Ah! there she be,' said John, observing the look which Nicholas directed towards his wife. 'There she be--we shan't quarrel about her noo--eh? Ecod, when I think o' thot--but thou want'st soom'at to eat. Fall to, mun, fall to, and for wa'at we're aboot to receive--'
No doubt the grace was properly finished, but nothing more was heard, for John had already begun to play such a knife and fork, that his speech was, for the time, gone.
'I shall take the usual licence, Mr Browdie,' said Nicholas, as he placed a chair for the bride.
'Tak' whatever thou like'st,' said John, 'and when a's gane, ca' for more.' Without stopping to explain, Nicholas kissed the blushing Mrs Browdie, and handed her to her seat.
'I say,' said John, rather astounded for the moment, 'mak' theeself quite at whoam, will 'ee?'
'You may depend upon that,' replied Nicholas; 'on one condition.'
'And wa'at may thot be?' asked John.
'That you make me a godfather the very first time you have occasion for one.' 'Eh! d'ye hear thot?' cried John, laying down his knife and fork. 'A godfeyther! Ha! ha! ha! Tilly--hear till 'un--a godfeyther! Divn't say a word more, ye'll never beat thot. Occasion for 'un--a godfeyther! Ha! ha! ha!'
Never was man so tickled with a respectable old joke, as John Browdie was with this. He chuckled, roared, half suffocated himself by laughing large pieces of beef into his windpipe, roared again, persisted in eating at the same time, got red in the face and black in the forehead, coughed, cried, got better, went off again laughing inwardly, got worse, choked, had his back thumped, stamped about, frightened his wife, and at last recovered in a state of the last exhaustion and with the water streaming from his eyes, but still faintly ejaculating, 'A godfeyther-a godfeyther, Tilly!' in a tone bespeaking an exquisite relish of the sally, which no suffering could diminish.
'You remember the night of our first tea-drinking?' said Nicholas.
'Shall I e'er forget it, mun?' replied John Browdie.
'He was a desperate fellow that night though, was he not, Mrs Browdie?' said Nicholas. 'Quite a monster!'
'If you had only heard him as we were going home, Mr Nickleby, you'd have said so indeed,' returned the bride. 'I never was so frightened in all my life.' 'Coom, coom,' said John, with a broad grin; 'thou know'st betther than thot, Tilly.' 'So I was,' replied Mrs Browdie. 'I almost made up my mind never to speak to you again.'
'A'most!' said John, with a broader grin than the last. 'A'most made up her mind! And she wur coaxin', and coaxin', and wheedlin', and wheedlin' a' the blessed wa'. "Wa'at didst thou let yon chap mak' oop tiv'ee for?" says I. "I deedn't, John," says she, a squeedgin my arm. "You deedn't?" says I. "Noa," says she, a squeedgin of me agean.'
'Lor, John!' interposed his pretty wife, colouring very much. 'How can you talk such nonsense? As if I should have dreamt of such a thing!'
'I dinnot know whether thou'd ever dreamt of it, though I think that's loike eneaf, mind,' retorted John; 'but thou didst it. "Ye're a feeckle, changeable weathercock, lass," says I. "Not feeckle, John," says she. "Yes," says I, "feeckle, dom'd feeckle. Dinnot tell me thou bean't, efther yon chap at schoolmeasther's," says I. "Him!" says she, quite screeching. "Ah! him!" says I. "Why, John," says she--and she coom a deal closer and squeedged a deal harder than she'd deane afore-"dost thou think it's nat'ral noo, that having such a proper mun as thou to keep company wi', I'd ever tak' opp wi' such a leetle scanty whipper-snapper as yon?" she says. Ha! ha! ha! She said whipper-snapper! "Ecod!" I says, "efther thot, neame the day, and let's have it ower!" Ha! ha! ha!'
Nicholas laughed very heartily at this story, both on account of its telling against himself, and his being desirous to spare the blushes of Mrs Browdie, whose protestations were drowned in peals of laughter from her husband. His goodnature soon put her at her ease; and although she still denied the charge, she laughed so heartily at it, that Nicholas had the satisfaction of feeling assured that in all essential respects it was strictly true.
'This is the second time,' said Nicholas, 'that we have ever taken a meal together, and only third I have ever seen you; and yet it really seems to me as if I were among old friends.'
'Weel!' observed the Yorkshireman, 'so I say.'
'And I am sure I do,' added his young wife.
'I have the best reason to be impressed with the feeling, mind,' said Nicholas; 'for if it had not been for your kindness of heart, my good friend, when I had no right or reason to expect it, I know not what might have become of me or what plight I should have been in by this time.'
'Talk aboot soom'at else,' replied John, gruffly, 'and dinnot bother.' 'It must be a new song to the same tune then,' said Nicholas, smiling. 'I told you in my letter that I deeply felt and admired your sympathy with that poor lad, whom you released at the risk of involving yourself in trouble and difficulty; but I can never tell you how greateful he and I, and others whom you don't know, are to you for taking pity on him.'
'Ecod!' rejoined John Browdie, drawing up his chair; 'and I can never tell YOU hoo gratful soom folks that we do know would be loikewise, if THEY know'd I had takken pity on him.'
'Ah!' exclaimed Mrs Browdie, 'what a state I was in that night!'
'Were they at all disposed to give you credit for assisting in the escape?' inquired Nicholas of John Browdie.
'Not a bit,' replied the Yorkshireman, extending his mouth from ear to ear. 'There I lay, snoog in schoolmeasther's bed long efther it was dark, and nobody coom nigh the pleace. "Weel!" thinks I, "he's got a pretty good start, and if he bean't whoam by noo, he never will be; so you may coom as quick as you loike, and foind us reddy" --that is, you know, schoolmeasther might coom.'
'I understand,' said Nicholas.
'Presently,' resumed John, 'he DID coom. I heerd door shut doonstairs, and him a warking, oop in the daark. "Slow and steddy,' I says to myself, "tak' your time, sir
-no hurry." He cooms to the door, turns the key--turns the key when there warn't nothing to hoold the lock--and ca's oot 'Hallo, there!"--"Yes," thinks I, "you may do thot agean, and not wakken anybody, sir." "Hallo, there," he says, and then he stops. "Thou'd betther not aggravate me," says schoolmeasther, efther a little time. "I'll brak' every boan in your boddy, Smike," he says, efther another little time. Then all of a soodden, he sings oot for a loight, and when it cooms--ecod, such a hoorly-boorly! "Wa'at's the matter?" says I. "He's gane," says he,--stark mad wi' vengeance. "Have you heerd nought?" "Ees," says I, "I heerd street-door shut, no time at a' ago. I heerd a person run doon there" (pointing t'other wa'-eh?) "Help!" he cries. "I'll help you," says I; and off we set--the wrong wa'! Ho! ho! ho!'
'Did you go far?' asked Nicholas.
'Far!' replied John; 'I run him clean off his legs in quarther of an hoor. To see old schoolmeasther wi'out his hat, skimming along oop to his knees in mud and wather, tumbling over fences, and rowling into ditches, and bawling oot like mad, wi' his one eye looking sharp out for the lad, and his coat-tails flying out behind, and him spattered wi' mud all ower, face and all! I tho't I should ha' dropped doon, and killed myself wi' laughing.'
John laughed so heartily at the mere recollection, that he communicated the contagion to both his hearers, and all three burst into peals of laughter, which were renewed again and again, until they could laugh no longer.
'He's a bad 'un,' said John, wiping his eyes; 'a very bad 'un, is schoolmeasther.' 'I can't bear the sight of him, John,' said his wife.
'Coom,' retorted John, 'thot's tidy in you, thot is. If it wa'nt along o' you, we shouldn't know nought aboot 'un. Thou know'd 'un first, Tilly, didn't thou?' 'I couldn't help knowing Fanny Squeers, John,' returned his wife; 'she was an old playmate of mine, you know.'
'Weel,' replied John, 'dean't I say so, lass? It's best to be neighbourly, and keep up old acquaintance loike; and what I say is, dean't quarrel if 'ee can help it. Dinnot think so, Mr Nickleby?'
'Certainly,' returned Nicholas; 'and you acted upon that principle when I meet you on horseback on the road, after our memorable evening.'
'Sure-ly,' said John. 'Wa'at I say, I stick by.'
'And that's a fine thing to do, and manly too,' said Nicholas, 'though it's not exactly what we understand by "coming Yorkshire over us" in London. Miss Squeers is stopping with you, you said in your note.'
'Yes,' replied John, 'Tilly's bridesmaid; and a queer bridesmaid she be, too. She wean't be a bride in a hurry, I reckon.'
'For shame, John,' said Mrs Browdie; with an acute perception of the joke though, being a bride herself.
'The groom will be a blessed mun,' said John, his eyes twinkling at the idea. 'He'll be in luck, he will.'
'You see, Mr Nickleby,' said his wife, 'that it was in consequence of her being here, that John wrote to you and fixed tonight, because we thought that it wouldn't be pleasant for you to meet, after what has passed.'
'Unquestionably. You were quite right in that,' said Nicholas, interrupting. 'Especially,' observed Mrs Browdie, looking very sly, 'after what we know about past and gone love matters.'
'We know, indeed!' said Nicholas, shaking his head. 'You behaved rather wickedly there, I suspect.'
'O' course she did,' said John Browdie, passing his huge forefinger through one of his wife's pretty ringlets, and looking very proud of her. 'She wur always as skittish and full o' tricks as a--'
'Well, as a what?' said his wife.
'As a woman,' returned John. 'Ding! But I dinnot know ought else that cooms near it.'
'You were speaking about Miss Squeers,' said Nicholas, with the view of stopping some slight connubialities which had begun to pass between Mr and Mrs Browdie, and which rendered the position of a third party in some degree embarrassing, as occasioning him to feel rather in the way than otherwise. 'Oh yes,' rejoined Mrs Browdie. 'John ha' done. John fixed tonight, because she had settled that she would go and drink tea with her father. And to make quite sure of there being nothing amiss, and of your being quite alone with us, he settled to go out there and fetch her home.'
'That was a very good arrangement,' said Nicholas, 'though I am sorry to be the occasion of so much trouble.'
'Not the least in the world,' returned Mrs Browdie; 'for we have looked forward to see you--John and I have--with the greatest possible pleasure. Do you know, Mr Nickleby,' said Mrs Browdie, with her archest smile, 'that I really think Fanny Squeers was very fond of you?'
'I am very much obliged to her,' said Nicholas; 'but upon my word, I never aspired to making any impression upon her virgin heart.'
'How you talk!' tittered Mrs Browdie. 'No, but do you know that really--seriously now and without any joking--I was given to understand by Fanny herself, that you had made an offer to her, and that you two were going to be engaged quite solemn and regular.'
'Was you, ma'am--was you?' cried a shrill female voice, 'was you given to understand that I--I--was going to be engaged to an assassinating thief that shed the gore of my pa? Do you--do you think, ma'am--that I was very fond of such dirt beneath my feet, as I couldn't condescend to touch with kitchen tongs, without blacking and crocking myself by the contract? Do you, ma'am--do you? Oh! base and degrading 'Tilda!'
With these reproaches Miss Squeers flung the door wide open, and disclosed to the eyes of the astonished Browdies and Nicholas, not only her own symmetrical form, arrayed in the chaste white garments before described (a little dirtier), but the form of her brother and father, the pair of Wackfords.
'This is the hend, is it?' continued Miss Squeers, who, being excited, aspirated her h's strongly; 'this is the hend, is it, of all my forbearance and friendship for that double-faced thing--that viper, that--that--mermaid?' (Miss Squeers hesitated a long time for this last epithet, and brought it out triumphantly as last, as if it quite clinched the business.) 'This is the hend, is it, of all my bearing with her deceitfulness, her lowness, her falseness, her laying herself out to catch the admiration of vulgar minds, in a way which made me blush for my--for my--' 'Gender,' suggested Mr Squeers, regarding the spectators with a malevolent eye
-literally A malevolent eye.
'Yes,' said Miss Squeers; 'but I thank my stars that my ma is of the same--' 'Hear, hear!' remarked Mr Squeers; 'and I wish she was here to have a scratch at this company.'
'This is the hend, is it,' said Miss Squeers, tossing her head, and looking contemptuously at the floor, 'of my taking notice of that rubbishing creature, and demeaning myself to patronise her?'
'Oh, come,' rejoined Mrs Browdie, disregarding all the endeavours of her spouse to restrain her, and forcing herself into a front row, 'don't talk such nonsense as that.'
'Have I not patronised you, ma'am?' demanded Miss Squeers.
'No,' returned Mrs Browdie.
'I will not look for blushes in such a quarter,' said Miss Squeers, haughtily, 'for that countenance is a stranger to everything but hignominiousness and red-faced boldness.'
'I say,' interposed John Browdie, nettled by these accumulated attacks on his wife, 'dra' it mild, dra' it mild.'
'You, Mr Browdie,' said Miss Squeers, taking him up very quickly, 'I pity. I have no feeling for you, sir, but one of unliquidated pity.'
'Oh!' said John.
'No,' said Miss Squeers, looking sideways at her parent, 'although I AM a queer bridesmaid, and SHAN'T be a bride in a hurry, and although my husband WILL be in luck, I entertain no sentiments towards you, sir, but sentiments of pity.' Here Miss Squeers looked sideways at her father again, who looked sideways at her, as much as to say, 'There you had him.'
'I know what you've got to go through,' said Miss Squeers, shaking her curls violently. 'I know what life is before you, and if you was my bitterest and deadliest enemy, I could wish you nothing worse.'
'Couldn't you wish to be married to him yourself, if that was the case?' inquired Mrs Browdie, with great suavity of manner.
'Oh, ma'am, how witty you are,' retorted Miss Squeers with a low curtsy, 'almost as witty, ma'am, as you are clever. How very clever it was in you, ma'am, to choose a time when I had gone to tea with my pa, and was sure not to come back without being fetched! What a pity you never thought that other people might be as clever as yourself and spoil your plans!'
'You won't vex me, child, with such airs as these,' said the late Miss Price, assuming the matron.
'Don't MISSIS me, ma'am, if you please,' returned Miss Squeers, sharply. 'I'll not bear it. Is THIS the hend--'
'Dang it a',' cried John Browdie, impatiently. 'Say thee say out, Fanny, and mak' sure it's the end, and dinnot ask nobody whether it is or not.'
'Thanking you for your advice which was not required, Mr Browdie,' returned Miss Squeers, with laborious politeness, 'have the goodness not to presume to meddle with my Christian name. Even my pity shall never make me forget what's due to myself, Mr Browdie. 'Tilda,' said Miss Squeers, with such a sudden accession of violence that John started in his boots, 'I throw you off for ever, miss. I abandon you. I renounce you. I wouldn't,' cried Miss Squeers in a solemn voice, 'have a child named 'Tilda, not to save it from its grave.'
'As for the matther o' that,' observed John, 'it'll be time eneaf to think aboot neaming of it when it cooms.'
'John!' interposed his wife, 'don't tease her.'
'Oh! Tease, indeed!' cried Miss Squeers, bridling up. 'Tease, indeed! He, he! Tease, too! No, don't tease her. Consider her feelings, pray!'
'If it's fated that listeners are never to hear any good of themselves,' said Mrs Browdie, 'I can't help it, and I am very sorry for it. But I will say, Fanny, that times out of number I have spoken so kindly of you behind your back, that even you could have found no fault with what I said.'
'Oh, I dare say not, ma'am!' cried Miss Squeers, with another curtsy. 'Best thanks to you for your goodness, and begging and praying you not to be hard upon me another time!'
'I don't know,' resumed Mrs Browdie, 'that I have said anything very bad of you, even now. At all events, what I did say was quite true; but if I have, I am very sorry for it, and I beg your pardon. You have said much worse of me, scores of times, Fanny; but I have never borne any malice to you, and I hope you'll not bear any to me.'
Miss Squeers made no more direct reply than surveying her former friend from top to toe, and elevating her nose in the air with ineffable disdain. But some indistinct allusions to a 'puss,' and a 'minx,' and a 'contemptible creature,' escaped her; and this, together with a severe biting of the lips, great difficulty in swallowing, and very frequent comings and goings of breath, seemed to imply that feelings were swelling in Miss Squeers's bosom too great for utterance. While the foregoing conversation was proceeding, Master Wackford, finding himself unnoticed, and feeling his preponderating inclinations strong upon him, had by little and little sidled up to the table and attacked the food with such slight skirmishing as drawing his fingers round and round the inside of the plates, and afterwards sucking them with infinite relish; picking the bread, and dragging the pieces over the surface of the butter; pocketing lumps of sugar, pretending all the time to be absorbed in thought; and so forth. Finding that no interference was attempted with these small liberties, he gradually mounted to greater, and, after helping himself to a moderately good cold collation, was, by this time, deep in the pie.
Nothing of this had been unobserved by Mr Squeers, who, so long as the attention of the company was fixed upon other objects, hugged himself to think that his son and heir should be fattening at the enemy's expense. But there being now an appearance of a temporary calm, in which the proceedings of little Wackford could scarcely fail to be observed, he feigned to be aware of the circumstance for the first time, and inflicted upon the face of that young gentleman a slap that made the very tea-cups ring.
'Eating!' cried Mr Squeers, 'of what his father's enemies has left! It's fit to go and poison you, you unnat'ral boy.'
'It wean't hurt him,' said John, apparently very much relieved by the prospect of having a man in the quarrel; 'let' un eat. I wish the whole school was here. I'd give'em soom'at to stay their unfort'nate stomachs wi', if I spent the last penny I had!'
Squeers scowled at him with the worst and most malicious expression of which his face was capable--it was a face of remarkable capability, too, in that way--and shook his fist stealthily.
'Coom, coom, schoolmeasther,' said John, 'dinnot make a fool o' thyself; for if I was to sheake mine--only once--thou'd fa' doon wi' the wind o' it.'
'It was you, was it,' returned Squeers, 'that helped off my runaway boy? It was you, was it?'
'Me!' returned John, in a loud tone. 'Yes, it wa' me, coom; wa'at o' that? It wa' me. Noo then!'
'You hear him say he did it, my child!' said Squeers, appealing to his daughter. 'You hear him say he did it!'
'Did it!' cried John. 'I'll tell 'ee more; hear this, too. If thou'd got another roonaway boy, I'd do it agean. If thou'd got twonty roonaway boys, I'd do it twonty times ower, and twonty more to thot; and I tell thee more,' said John, 'noo my blood is oop, that thou'rt an old ra'ascal; and that it's weel for thou, thou be'est an old 'un, or I'd ha' poonded thee to flour when thou told an honest mun hoo thou'd licked that poor chap in t' coorch.'
'An honest man!' cried Squeers, with a sneer.
'Ah! an honest man,' replied John; 'honest in ought but ever putting legs under seame table wi' such as thou.'
'Scandal!' said Squeers, exultingly. 'Two witnesses to it; Wackford knows the nature of an oath, he does; we shall have you there, sir. Rascal, eh?' Mr Squeers took out his pocketbook and made a note of it. 'Very good. I should say that was worth full twenty pound at the next assizes, without the honesty, sir.' ''Soizes,' cried John, 'thou'd betther not talk to me o' 'Soizes. Yorkshire schools have been shown up at 'Soizes afore noo, mun, and it's a ticklish soobjact to revive, I can tell ye.'
Mr Squeers shook his head in a threatening manner, looking very white with passion; and taking his daughter's arm, and dragging little Wackford by the hand, retreated towards the door.
'As for you,' said Squeers, turning round and addressing Nicholas, who, as he had caused him to smart pretty soundly on a former occasion, purposely abstained from taking any part in the discussion, 'see if I ain't down upon you before long. You'll go a kidnapping of boys, will you? Take care their fathers don't turn up--mark that--take care their fathers don't turn up, and send 'em back to me to do as I like with, in spite of you.'
'I am not afraid of that,' replied Nicholas, shrugging his shoulders contemptuously, and turning away.
'Ain't you!' retorted Squeers, with a diabolical look. 'Now then, come along.' 'I leave such society, with my pa, for Hever,' said Miss Squeers, looking contemptuously and loftily round. 'I am defiled by breathing the air with such creatures. Poor Mr Browdie! He! he! he! I do pity him, that I do; he's so deluded. He! he! he!--Artful and designing 'Tilda!'
With this sudden relapse into the sternest and most majestic wrath, Miss Squeers swept from the room; and having sustained her dignity until the last possible moment, was heard to sob and scream and struggle in the passage. John Browdie remained standing behind the table, looking from his wife to Nicholas, and back again, with his mouth wide open, until his hand accidentally fell upon the tankard of ale, when he took it up, and having obscured his features therewith for some time, drew a long breath, handed it over to Nicholas, and rang the bell.
'Here, waither,' said John, briskly. 'Look alive here. Tak' these things awa', and let's have soomat broiled for sooper--vary comfortable and plenty o' it--at ten o'clock. Bring soom brandy and soom wather, and a pair o' slippers--the largest pair in the house-- and be quick aboot it. Dash ma wig!' said John, rubbing his hands, 'there's no ganging oot to neeght, noo, to fetch anybody whoam, and ecod, we'll begin to spend the evening in airnest.'
Officiates as a kind of Gentleman Usher, in bringing various People together The storm had long given place to a calm the most profound, and the evening was pretty far advanced--indeed supper was over, and the process of digestion proceeding as favourably as, under the influence of complete tranquillity, cheerful conversation, and a moderate allowance of brandy-and-water, most wise men conversant with the anatomy and functions of the human frame will consider that it ought to have proceeded, when the three friends, or as one might say, both in a civil and religious sense, and with proper deference and regard to the holy state of matrimony, the two friends, (Mr and Mrs Browdie counting as no more than one,) were startled by the noise of loud and angry threatenings below stairs, which presently attained so high a pitch, and were conveyed besides in language so towering, sanguinary, and ferocious, that it could hardly have been surpassed, if there had actually been a Saracen's head then present in the establishment, supported on the shoulders and surmounting the trunk of a real, live, furious, and most unappeasable Saracen.
This turmoil, instead of quickly subsiding after the first outburst, (as turmoils not unfrequently do, whether in taverns, legislative assemblies, or elsewhere,) into a mere grumbling and growling squabble, increased every moment; and although the whole din appeared to be raised by but one pair of lungs, yet that one pair was of so powerful a quality, and repeated such words as 'scoundrel,' 'rascal,' 'insolent puppy,' and a variety of expletives no less flattering to the party addressed, with such great relish and strength of tone, that a dozen voices raised in concert under any ordinary circumstances would have made far less uproar and created much smaller consternation.
'Why, what's the matter?' said Nicholas, moving hastily towards the door. John Browdie was striding in the same direction when Mrs Browdie turned pale, and, leaning back in her chair, requested him with a faint voice to take notice, that if he ran into any danger it was her intention to fall into hysterics immediately, and that the consequences might be more serious than he thought for. John looked rather disconcerted by this intelligence, though there was a lurking grin on his face at the same time; but, being quite unable to keep out of the fray, he compromised the matter by tucking his wife's arm under his own, and, thus accompanied, following Nicholas downstairs with all speed. The passage outside the coffee-room door was the scene of disturbance, and here were congregated the coffee-room customers and waiters, together with two or three coachmen and helpers from the yard. These had hastily assembled round a young man who from his appearance might have been a year or two older than Nicholas, and who, besides having given utterance to the defiances just now described, seemed to have proceeded to even greater lengths in his indignation, inasmuch as his feet had no other covering than a pair of stockings, while a couple of slippers lay at no great distance from the head of a prostrate figure in an opposite corner, who bore the appearance of having been shot into his present retreat by means of a kick, and complimented by having the slippers flung about his ears afterwards.
The coffee-room customers, and the waiters, and the coachmen, and the helpers--not to mention a barmaid who was looking on from behind an open sash window--seemed at that moment, if a spectator might judge from their winks, nods, and muttered exclamations, strongly disposed to take part against the young gentleman in the stockings. Observing this, and that the young gentleman was nearly of his own age and had in nothing the appearance of an habitual brawler, Nicholas, impelled by such feelings as will influence young men sometimes, felt a very strong disposition to side with the weaker party, and so thrust himself at once into the centre of the group, and in a more emphatic tone, perhaps, than circumstances might seem to warrant, demanded what all that noise was about.
'Hallo!' said one of the men from the yard, 'this is somebody in disguise, this is.' 'Room for the eldest son of the Emperor of Roosher, gen'l'men!' cried another fellow.
Disregarding these sallies, which were uncommonly well received, as sallies at the expense of the best-dressed persons in a crowd usually are, Nicholas glanced carelessly round, and addressing the young gentleman, who had by this time picked up his slippers and thrust his feet into them, repeated his inquiries with a courteous air.
'A mere nothing!' he replied.
At this a murmur was raised by the lookers-on, and some of the boldest cried, 'Oh, indeed!--Wasn't it though?--Nothing, eh?--He called that nothing, did he? Lucky for him if he found it nothing.' These and many other expressions of ironical disapprobation having been exhausted, two or three of the out-of-door fellows began to hustle Nicholas and the young gentleman who had made the noise: stumbling against them by accident, and treading on their toes, and so forth. But this being a round game, and one not necessarily limited to three or four players, was open to John Browdie too, who, bursting into the little crowd--to the great terror of his wife--and falling about in all directions, now to the right, now to the left, now forwards, now backwards, and accidentally driving his elbow through the hat of the tallest helper, who had been particularly active, speedily caused the odds to wear a very different appearance; while more than one stout fellow limped away to a respectful distance, anathematising with tears in his eyes the heavy tread and ponderous feet of the burly Yorkshireman.
'Let me see him do it again,' said he who had been kicked into the corner, rising as he spoke, apparently more from the fear of John Browdie's inadvertently treading upon him, than from any desire to place himself on equal terms with his late adversary. 'Let me see him do it again. That's all.'
'Let me hear you make those remarks again,' said the young man, 'and I'll knock that head of yours in among the wine-glasses behind you there.'
Here a waiter who had been rubbing his hands in excessive enjoyment of the scene, so long as only the breaking of heads was in question, adjured the spectators with great earnestness to fetch the police, declaring that otherwise murder would be surely done, and that he was responsible for all the glass and china on the premises.
'No one need trouble himself to stir,' said the young gentleman, 'I am going to remain in the house all night, and shall be found here in the morning if there is any assault to answer for.'
'What did you strike him for?' asked one of the bystanders.
'Ah! what did you strike him for?' demanded the others.
The unpopular gentleman looked coolly round, and addressing himself to Nicholas, said:
'You inquired just now what was the matter here. The matter is simply this. Yonder person, who was drinking with a friend in the coffee-room when I took my seat there for half an hour before going to bed, (for I have just come off a journey, and preferred stopping here tonight, to going home at this hour, where I was not expected until tomorrow,) chose to express himself in very disrespectful, and insolently familiar terms, of a young lady, whom I recognised from his description and other circumstances, and whom I have the honour to know. As he spoke loud enough to be overheard by the other guests who were present, I informed him most civilly that he was mistaken in his conjectures, which were of an offensive nature, and requested him to forbear. He did so for a little time, but as he chose to renew his conversation when leaving the room, in a more offensive strain than before, I could not refrain from making after him, and facilitating his departure by a kick, which reduced him to the posture in which you saw him just now. I am the best judge of my own affairs, I take it,' said the young man, who had certainly not quite recovered from his recent heat; 'if anybody here thinks proper to make this quarrel his own, I have not the smallest earthly objection, I do assure him.'
Of all possible courses of proceeding under the circumstances detailed, there was certainly not one which, in his then state of mind, could have appeared more laudable to Nicholas than this. There were not many subjects of dispute which at that moment could have come home to his own breast more powerfully, for having the unknown uppermost in his thoughts, it naturally occurred to him that he would have done just the same if any audacious gossiper durst have presumed in his hearing to speak lightly of her. Influenced by these considerations, he espoused the young gentleman's quarrel with great warmth, protesting that he had done quite right, and that he respected him for it; which John Browdie (albeit not quite clear as to the merits) immediately protested too, with not inferior vehemence.
'Let him take care, that's all,' said the defeated party, who was being rubbed down by a waiter, after his recent fall on the dusty boards. 'He don't knock me about for nothing, I can tell him that. A pretty state of things, if a man isn't to admire a handsome girl without being beat to pieces for it!'
This reflection appeared to have great weight with the young lady in the bar, who (adjusting her cap as she spoke, and glancing at a mirror) declared that it would be a very pretty state of things indeed; and that if people were to be punished for actions so innocent and natural as that, there would be more people to be knocked down than there would be people to knock them down, and that she wondered what the gentleman meant by it, that she did.
'My dear girl,' said the young gentleman in a low voice, advancing towards the sash window.
'Nonsense, sir!' replied the young lady sharply, smiling though as she turned aside, and biting her lip, (whereat Mrs Browdie, who was still standing on the stairs, glanced at her with disdain, and called to her husband to come away). 'No, but listen to me,' said the young man. 'If admiration of a pretty face were criminal, I should be the most hopeless person alive, for I cannot resist one. It has the most extraordinary effect upon me, checks and controls me in the most furious and obstinate mood. You see what an effect yours has had upon me already.'
'Oh, that's very pretty,' replied the young lady, tossing her head, 'but--' 'Yes, I know it's very pretty,' said the young man, looking with an air of admiration in the barmaid's face; 'I said so, you know, just this moment. But beauty should be spoken of respectfully-- respectfully, and in proper terms, and with a becoming sense of its worth and excellence, whereas this fellow has no more notion--'
The young lady interrupted the conversation at this point, by thrusting her head out of the bar-window, and inquiring of the waiter in a shrill voice whether that young man who had been knocked down was going to stand in the passage all night, or whether the entrance was to be left clear for other people. The waiters taking the hint, and communicating it to the hostlers, were not slow to change their tone too, and the result was, that the unfortunate victim was bundled out in a twinkling.
'I am sure I have seen that fellow before,' said Nicholas.
'Indeed!' replied his new acquaintance.
'I am certain of it,' said Nicholas, pausing to reflect. 'Where can I have--stop!-yes, to be sure--he belongs to a register-office up at the west end of the town. I knew I recollected the face.'
It was, indeed, Tom, the ugly clerk.
'That's odd enough!' said Nicholas, ruminating upon the strange manner in which the register-office seemed to start up and stare him in the face every now and then, and when he least expected it.
'I am much obliged to you for your kind advocacy of my cause when it most needed an advocate,' said the young man, laughing, and drawing a card from his pocket. 'Perhaps you'll do me the favour to let me know where I can thank you.' Nicholas took the card, and glancing at it involuntarily as he returned the compliment, evinced very great surprise.
'Mr Frank Cheeryble!' said Nicholas. 'Surely not the nephew of Cheeryble Brothers, who is expected tomorrow!'
'I don't usually call myself the nephew of the firm,' returned Mr Frank, goodhumouredly; 'but of the two excellent individuals who compose it, I am proud to say I AM the nephew. And you, I see, are Mr Nickleby, of whom I have heard so much! This is a most unexpected meeting, but not the less welcome, I assure you.'
Nicholas responded to these compliments with others of the same kind, and they shook hands warmly. Then he introduced John Browdie, who had remained in a state of great admiration ever since the young lady in the bar had been so skilfully won over to the right side. Then Mrs John Browdie was introduced, and finally they all went upstairs together and spent the next half-hour with great satisfaction and mutual entertainment; Mrs John Browdie beginning the conversation by declaring that of all the made-up things she ever saw, that young woman below-stairs was the vainest and the plainest.
This Mr Frank Cheeryble, although, to judge from what had recently taken place, a hot-headed young man (which is not an absolute miracle and phenomenon in nature), was a sprightly, good-humoured, pleasant fellow, with much both in his countenance and disposition that reminded Nicholas very strongly of the kindhearted brothers. His manner was as unaffected as theirs, and his demeanour full of that heartiness which, to most people who have anything generous in their composition, is peculiarly prepossessing. Add to this, that he was good-looking and intelligent, had a plentiful share of vivacity, was extremely cheerful, and accommodated himself in five minutes' time to all John Browdie's oddities with as much ease as if he had known him from a boy; and it will be a source of no great wonder that, when they parted for the night, he had produced a most favourable impression, not only upon the worthy Yorkshireman and his wife, but upon Nicholas also, who, revolving all these things in his mind as he made the best of his way home, arrived at the conclusion that he had laid the foundation of a most agreeable and desirable acquaintance.
'But it's a most extraordinary thing about that register-office fellow!' thought Nicholas. 'Is it likely that this nephew can know anything about that beautiful girl? When Tim Linkinwater gave me to understand the other day that he was coming to take a share in the business here, he said he had been superintending it in Germany for four years, and that during the last six months he had been engaged in establishing an agency in the north of England. That's four years and a half--four years and a half. She can't be more than seventeen--say eighteen at the outside. She was quite a child when he went away, then. I should say he knew nothing about her and had never seen her, so HE can give me no information. At all events,' thought Nicholas, coming to the real point in his mind, 'there can be no danger of any prior occupation of her affections in that quarter; that's quite clear.'
Is selfishness a necessary ingredient in the composition of that passion called love, or does it deserve all the fine things which poets, in the exercise of their undoubted vocation, have said of it? There are, no doubt, authenticated instances of gentlemen having given up ladies and ladies having given up gentlemen to meritorious rivals, under circumstances of great high-mindedness; but is it quite established that the majority of such ladies and gentlemen have not made a virtue of necessity, and nobly resigned what was beyond their reach; as a private soldier might register a vow never to accept the order of the Garter, or a poor curate of great piety and learning, but of no family--save a very large family of children--might renounce a bishopric?
Here was Nicholas Nickleby, who would have scorned the thought of counting how the chances stood of his rising in favour or fortune with the brothers Cheeryble, now that their nephew had returned, already deep in calculations whether that same nephew was likely to rival him in the affections of the fair unknown--discussing the matter with himself too, as gravely as if, with that one exception, it were all settled; and recurring to the subject again and again, and feeling quite indignant and ill-used at the notion of anybody else making love to one with whom he had never exchanged a word in all his life. To be sure, he exaggerated rather than depreciated the merits of his new acquaintance; but still he took it as a kind of personal offence that he should have any merits at all--in the eyes of this particular young lady, that is; for elsewhere he was quite welcome to have as many as he pleased. There was undoubted selfishness in all this, and yet Nicholas was of a most free and generous nature, with as few mean or sordid thoughts, perhaps, as ever fell to the lot of any man; and there is no reason to suppose that, being in love, he felt and thought differently from other people in the like sublime condition.
He did not stop to set on foot an inquiry into his train of thought or state of feeling, however; but went thinking on all the way home, and continued to dream on in the same strain all night. For, having satisfied himself that Frank Cheeryble could have no knowledge of, or acquaintance with, the mysterious young lady, it began to occur to him that even he himself might never see her again; upon which hypothesis he built up a very ingenious succession of tormenting ideas which answered his purpose even better than the vision of Mr Frank Cheeryble, and tantalised and worried him, waking and sleeping.
Notwithstanding all that has been said and sung to the contrary, there is no wellestablished case of morning having either deferred or hastened its approach by the term of an hour or so for the mere gratification of a splenetic feeling against some unoffending lover: the sun having, in the discharge of his public duty, as the books of precedent report, invariably risen according to the almanacs, and without suffering himself to be swayed by any private considerations. So, morning came as usual, and with it business-hours, and with them Mr Frank Cheeryble, and with him a long train of smiles and welcomes from the worthy brothers, and a more grave and clerk-like, but scarcely less hearty reception from Mr Timothy Linkinwater.
'That Mr Frank and Mr Nickleby should have met last night,' said Tim Linkinwater, getting slowly off his stool, and looking round the counting-house with his back planted against the desk, as was his custom when he had anything very particular to say: 'that those two young men should have met last night in that manner is, I say, a coincidence, a remarkable coincidence. Why, I don't believe now,' added Tim, taking off his spectacles, and smiling as with gentle pride, 'that there's such a place in all the world for coincidences as London is!' 'I don't know about that,' said Mr Frank; 'but--'
'Don't know about it, Mr Francis!' interrupted Tim, with an obstinate air. 'Well, but let us know. If there is any better place for such things, where is it? Is it in Europe? No, that it isn't. Is it in Asia? Why, of course it's not. Is it in Africa? Not a bit of it. Is it in America? YOU know better than that, at all events. Well, then,' said Tim, folding his arms resolutely, 'where is it?'
'I was not about to dispute the point, Tim,' said young Cheeryble, laughing. 'I am not such a heretic as that. All I was going to say was, that I hold myself under an obligation to the coincidence, that's all.'
'Oh! if you don't dispute it,' said Tim, quite satisfied, 'that's another thing. I'll tell you what though. I wish you had. I wish you or anybody would. I would so put that man down,' said Tim, tapping the forefinger of his left hand emphatically with his spectacles, 'so put that man down by argument--'
It was quite impossible to find language to express the degree of mental prostration to which such an adventurous wight would be reduced in the keen encounter with Tim Linkinwater, so Tim gave up the rest of his declaration in pure lack of words, and mounted his stool again.
'We may consider ourselves, brother Ned,' said Charles, after he had patted Tim Linkinwater approvingly on the back, 'very fortunate in having two such young men about us as our nephew Frank and Mr Nickleby. It should be a source of great satisfaction and pleasure to us.'
'Certainly, Charles, certainly,' returned the other.
'Of Tim,' added brother Ned, 'I say nothing whatever, because Tim is a mere child--an infant--a nobody that we never think of or take into account at all. Tim, you villain, what do you say to that, sir?'
'I am jealous of both of 'em,' said Tim, 'and mean to look out for another situation; so provide yourselves, gentlemen, if you please.'
Tim thought this such an exquisite, unparalleled, and most extraordinary joke, that he laid his pen upon the inkstand, and rather tumbling off his stool than getting down with his usual deliberation, laughed till he was quite faint, shaking his head all the time so that little particles of powder flew palpably about the office. Nor were the brothers at all behind-hand, for they laughed almost as heartily at the ludicrous idea of any voluntary separation between themselves and old Tim. Nicholas and Mr Frank laughed quite boisterously, perhaps to conceal some other emotion awakened by this little incident, (and so, indeed, did the three old fellows after the first burst,) so perhaps there was as much keen enjoyment and relish in that laugh, altogether, as the politest assembly ever derived from the most poignant witticism uttered at any one person's expense. 'Mr Nickleby,' said brother Charles, calling him aside, and taking him kindly by the hand, 'I--I--am anxious, my dear sir, to see that you are properly and comfortably settled in the cottage. We cannot allow those who serve us well to labour under any privation or discomfort that it is in our power to remove. I wish, too, to see your mother and sister: to know them, Mr Nickleby, and have an opportunity of relieving their minds by assuring them that any trifling service we have been able to do them is a great deal more than repaid by the zeal and ardour you display.--Not a word, my dear sir, I beg. Tomorrow is Sunday. I shall make bold to come out at teatime, and take the chance of finding you at home; if you are not, you know, or the ladies should feel a delicacy in being intruded on, and would rather not be known to me just now, why I can come again another time, any other time would do for me. Let it remain upon that understanding. Brother Ned, my dear fellow, let me have a word with you this way.' The twins went out of the office arm-in-arm, and Nicholas, who saw in this act of kindness, and many others of which he had been the subject that morning, only so many delicate renewals on the arrival of their nephew of the kind assurance which the brothers had given him in his absence, could scarcely feel sufficient admiration and gratitude for such extraordinary consideration.
The intelligence that they were to have visitor--and such a visitor-- next day, awakened in the breast of Mrs Nickleby mingled feelings of exultation and regret; for whereas on the one hand she hailed it as an omen of her speedy restoration to good society and the almost- forgotten pleasures of morning calls and evening tea-drinkings, she could not, on the other, but reflect with bitterness of spirit on the absence of a silver teapot with an ivory knob on the lid, and a milk-jug to match, which had been the pride of her heart in days of yore, and had been kept from year's end to year's end wrapped up in wash-leather on a certain top shelf which now presented itself in lively colours to her sorrowing imagination. 'I wonder who's got that spice-box,' said Mrs Nickleby, shaking her head. 'It used to stand in the left-hand corner, next but two to the pickled onions. You remember that spice-box, Kate?'
'Perfectly well, mama.'
'I shouldn't think you did, Kate,' returned Mrs Nickleby, in a severe manner, 'talking about it in that cold and unfeeling way! If there is any one thing that vexes me in these losses more than the losses themselves, I do protest and declare,' said Mrs Nickleby, rubbing her nose with an impassioned air, 'that it is to have people about me who take things with such provoking calmness.'
'My dear mama,' said Kate, stealing her arm round her mother's neck, 'why do you say what I know you cannot seriously mean or think, or why be angry with me for being happy and content? You and Nicholas are left to me, we are together once again, and what regard can I have for a few trifling things of which we never feel the want? When I have seen all the misery and desolation that death can bring, and known the lonesome feeling of being solitary and alone in crowds, and all the agony of separation in grief and poverty when we most needed comfort and support from each other, can you wonder that I look upon this as a place of such delicious quiet and rest, that with you beside me I have nothing to wish for or regret? There was a time, and not long since, when all the comforts of our old home did come back upon me, I own, very often--oftener than you would think perhaps--but I affected to care nothing for them, in the hope that you would so be brought to regret them the less. I was not insensible, indeed. I might have felt happier if I had been. Dear mama,' said Kate, in great agitation, 'I know no difference between this home and that in which we were all so happy for so many years, except that the kindest and gentlest heart that ever ached on earth has passed in peace to heaven.'
'Kate my dear, Kate,' cried Mrs Nickleby, folding her in her arms.
'I have so often thought,' sobbed Kate, 'of all his kind words--of the last time he looked into my little room, as he passed upstairs to bed, and said "God bless you, darling." There was a paleness in his face, mama--the broken heart--I know it was--I little thought so--then--'
A gush of tears came to her relief, and Kate laid her head upon her mother's breast, and wept like a little child.
It is an exquisite and beautiful thing in our nature, that when the heart is touched and softened by some tranquil happiness or affectionate feeling, the memory of the dead comes over it most powerfully and irresistibly. It would almost seem as though our better thoughts and sympathies were charms, in virtue of which the soul is enabled to hold some vague and mysterious intercourse with the spirits of those whom we dearly loved in life. Alas! how often and how long may those patient angels hover above us, watching for the spell which is so seldom uttered, and so soon forgotten!
Poor Mrs Nickleby, accustomed to give ready utterance to whatever came uppermost in her mind, had never conceived the possibility of her daughter's dwelling upon these thoughts in secret, the more especially as no hard trial or querulous reproach had ever drawn them from her. But now, when the happiness of all that Nicholas had just told them, and of their new and peaceful life, brought these recollections so strongly upon Kate that she could not suppress them, Mrs Nickleby began to have a glimmering that she had been rather thoughtless now and then, and was conscious of something like self-reproach as she embraced her daughter, and yielded to the emotions which such a conversation naturally awakened.
There was a mighty bustle that night, and a vast quantity of preparation for the expected visitor, and a very large nosegay was brought from a gardener's hard by, and cut up into a number of very small ones, with which Mrs Nickleby would have garnished the little sitting-room, in a style that certainly could not have failed to attract anybody's attention, if Kate had not offered to spare her the trouble, and arranged them in the prettiest and neatest manner possible. If the cottage ever looked pretty, it must have been on such a bright and sunshiny day as the next day was. But Smike's pride in the garden, or Mrs Nickleby's in the condition of the furniture, or Kate's in everything, was nothing to the pride with which Nicholas looked at Kate herself; and surely the costliest mansion in all England might have found in her beautiful face and graceful form its most exquisite and peerless ornament.
About six o'clock in the afternoon Mrs Nickleby was thrown into a great flutter of spirits by the long-expected knock at the door, nor was this flutter at all composed by the audible tread of two pair of boots in the passage, which Mrs Nickleby augured, in a breathless state, must be 'the two Mr Cheerybles;' as it certainly was, though not the two Mrs Nickleby expected, because it was Mr Charles Cheeryble, and his nephew, Mr Frank, who made a thousand apologies for his intrusion, which Mrs Nickleby (having tea-spoons enough and to spare for all) most graciously received. Nor did the appearance of this unexpected visitor occasion the least embarrassment, (save in Kate, and that only to the extent of a blush or two at first,) for the old gentleman was so kind and cordial, and the young gentleman imitated him in this respect so well, that the usual stiffness and formality of a first meeting showed no signs of appearing, and Kate really more than once detected herself in the very act of wondering when it was going to begin.
At the tea-table there was plenty of conversation on a great variety of subjects, nor were there wanting jocose matters of discussion, such as they were; for young Mr Cheeryble's recent stay in Germany happening to be alluded to, old Mr Cheeryble informed the company that the aforesaid young Mr Cheeryble was suspected to have fallen deeply in love with the daughter of a certain German burgomaster. This accusation young Mr Cheeryble most indignantly repelled, upon which Mrs Nickleby slyly remarked, that she suspected, from the very warmth of the denial, there must be something in it. Young Mr Cheeryble then earnestly entreated old Mr Cheeryble to confess that it was all a jest, which old Mr Cheeryble at last did, young Mr Cheeryble being so much in earnest about it, that--as Mrs Nickleby said many thousand times afterwards in recalling the scene--he 'quite coloured,' which she rightly considered a memorable circumstance, and one worthy of remark, young men not being as a class remarkable for modesty or self-denial, especially when there is a lady in the case, when, if they colour at all, it is rather their practice to colour the story, and not themselves.
After tea there was a walk in the garden, and the evening being very fine they strolled out at the garden-gate into some lanes and bye- roads, and sauntered up and down until it grew quite dark. The time seemed to pass very quickly with all the party. Kate went first, leaning upon her brother's arm, and talking with him and Mr Frank Cheeryble; and Mrs Nickleby and the elder gentleman followed at a short distance, the kindness of the good merchant, his interest in the welfare of Nicholas, and his admiration of Kate, so operating upon the good lady's feelings, that the usual current of her speech was confined within very narrow and circumscribed limits. Smike (who, if he had ever been an object of interest in his life, had been one that day) accompanied them, joining sometimes one group and sometimes the other, as brother Charles, laying his hand upon his shoulder, bade him walk with him, or Nicholas, looking smilingly round, beckoned him to come and talk with the old friend who understood him best, and who could win a smile into his careworn face when none else could.
Pride is one of the seven deadly sins; but it cannot be the pride of a mother in her children, for that is a compound of two cardinal virtues--faith and hope. This was the pride which swelled Mrs Nickleby's heart that night, and this it was which left upon her face, glistening in the light when they returned home, traces of the most grateful tears she had ever shed.
There was a quiet mirth about the little supper, which harmonised exactly with this tone of feeling, and at length the two gentlemen took their leave. There was one circumstance in the leave-taking which occasioned a vast deal of smiling and pleasantry, and that was, that Mr Frank Cheeryble offered his hand to Kate twice over, quite forgetting that he had bade her adieu already. This was held by the elder Mr Cheeryble to be a convincing proof that he was thinking of his German flame, and the jest occasioned immense laughter. So easy is it to move light hearts.
In short, it was a day of serene and tranquil happiness; and as we all have some bright day--many of us, let us hope, among a crowd of others--to which we revert with particular delight, so this one was often looked back to afterwards, as holding a conspicuous place in the calendar of those who shared it. Was there one exception, and that one he who needed to have been most happy?
Who was that who, in the silence of his own chamber, sunk upon his knees to pray as his first friend had taught him, and folding his hands and stretching them wildly in the air, fell upon his face in a passion of bitter grief?
Mr Ralph Nickleby cuts an old Acquaintance. It would also appear from the Contents hereof, that a Joke, even between Husband and Wife, may be sometimes carried too far
There are some men who, living with the one object of enriching themselves, no matter by what means, and being perfectly conscious of the baseness and rascality of the means which they will use every day towards this end, affect nevertheless--even to themselves--a high tone of moral rectitude, and shake their heads and sigh over the depravity of the world. Some of the craftiest scoundrels that ever walked this earth, or rather--for walking implies, at least, an erect position and the bearing of a man--that ever crawled and crept through life by its dirtiest and narrowest ways, will gravely jot down in diaries the events of every day, and keep a regular debtor and creditor account with Heaven, which shall always show a floating balance in their own favour. Whether this is a gratuitous (the only gratuitous) part of the falsehood and trickery of such men's lives, or whether they really hope to cheat Heaven itself, and lay up treasure in the next world by the same process which has enabled them to lay up treasure in this--not to question how it is, so it is. And, doubtless, such book-keeping (like certain autobiographies which have enlightened the world) cannot fail to prove serviceable, in the one respect of sparing the recording Angel some time and labour.
Ralph Nickleby was not a man of this stamp. Stern, unyielding, dogged, and impenetrable, Ralph cared for nothing in life, or beyond it, save the gratification of two passions, avarice, the first and predominant appetite of his nature, and hatred, the second. Affecting to consider himself but a type of all humanity, he was at little pains to conceal his true character from the world in general, and in his own heart he exulted over and cherished every bad design as it had birth. The only scriptural admonition that Ralph Nickleby heeded, in the letter, was 'know thyself.' He knew himself well, and choosing to imagine that all mankind were cast in the same mould, hated them; for, though no man hates himself, the coldest among us having too much self-love for that, yet most men unconsciously judge the world from themselves, and it will be very generally found that those who sneer habitually at human nature, and affect to despise it, are among its worst and least pleasant samples.
But the present business of these adventures is with Ralph himself, who stood regarding Newman Noggs with a heavy frown, while that worthy took off his fingerless gloves, and spreading them carefully on the palm of his left hand, and flattening them with his right to take the creases out, proceeded to roll them up with an absent air as if he were utterly regardless of all things else, in the deep interest of the ceremonial.
'Gone out of town!' said Ralph, slowly. 'A mistake of yours. Go back again.' 'No mistake,' returned Newman. 'Not even going; gone.'
'Has he turned girl or baby?' muttered Ralph, with a fretful gesture. 'I don't know,' said Newman, 'but he's gone.'
The repetition of the word 'gone' seemed to afford Newman Noggs inexpressible delight, in proportion as it annoyed Ralph Nickleby. He uttered the word with a full round emphasis, dwelling upon it as long as he decently could, and when he could hold out no longer without attracting observation, stood gasping it to himself as if even that were a satisfaction.
'And WHERE has he gone?' said Ralph.
'France,' replied Newman. 'Danger of another attack of erysipelas --a worse attack--in the head. So the doctors ordered him off. And he's gone.' 'And Lord Frederick--?' began Ralph.
'He's gone too,' replied Newman.
'And he carries his drubbing with him, does he?' said Ralph, turning away; 'pockets his bruises, and sneaks off without the retaliation of a word, or seeking the smallest reparation!'
'He's too ill,' said Newman.
'Too ill!' repeated Ralph. 'Why I would have it if I were dying; in that case I should only be the more determined to have it, and that without delay--I mean if I were he. But he's too ill! Poor Sir Mulberry! Too ill!'
Uttering these words with supreme contempt and great irritation of manner, Ralph signed hastily to Newman to leave the room; and throwing himself into his chair, beat his foot impatiently upon the ground.
'There is some spell about that boy,' said Ralph, grinding his teeth. 'Circumstances conspire to help him. Talk of fortune's favours! What is even money to such Devil's luck as this?'
He thrust his hands impatiently into his pockets, but notwithstanding his previous reflection there was some consolation there, for his face relaxed a little; and although there was still a deep frown upon the contracted brow, it was one of calculation, and not of disappointment.
'This Hawk will come back, however,' muttered Ralph; 'and if I know the man (and I should by this time) his wrath will have lost nothing of its violence in the meanwhile. Obliged to live in retirement--the monotony of a sick-room to a man of his habits--no life--no drink--no play--nothing that he likes and lives by. He is not likely to forget his obligations to the cause of all this. Few men would; but he of all others? No, no!'
He smiled and shook his head, and resting his chin upon his hand, fell a musing, and smiled again. After a time he rose and rang the bell.
'That Mr Squeers; has he been here?' said Ralph.
'He was here last night. I left him here when I went home,' returned Newman. 'I know that, fool, do I not?' said Ralph, irascibly. 'Has he been here since? Was he here this morning?'
'No,' bawled Newman, in a very loud key.
'If he comes while I am out--he is pretty sure to be here by nine tonight--let him wait. And if there's another man with him, as there will be--perhaps,' said Ralph, checking himself, 'let him wait too.'
'Let 'em both wait?' said Newman.
'Ay,' replied Ralph, turning upon him with an angry look. 'Help me on with this spencer, and don't repeat after me, like a croaking parrot.'
'I wish I was a parrot,' Newman, sulkily.
'I wish you were,' rejoined Ralph, drawing his spencer on; 'I'd have wrung your neck long ago.'
Newman returned no answer to this compliment, but looked over Ralph's shoulder for an instant, (he was adjusting the collar of the spencer behind, just then,) as if he were strongly disposed to tweak him by the nose. Meeting Ralph's eye, however, he suddenly recalled his wandering fingers, and rubbed his own red nose with a vehemence quite astonishing.
Bestowing no further notice upon his eccentric follower than a threatening look, and an admonition to be careful and make no mistake, Ralph took his hat and gloves, and walked out.
He appeared to have a very extraordinary and miscellaneous connection, and very odd calls he made, some at great rich houses, and some at small poor ones, but all upon one subject: money. His face was a talisman to the porters and servants of his more dashing clients, and procured him ready admission, though he trudged on foot, and others, who were denied, rattled to the door in carriages. Here he was all softness and cringing civility; his step so light, that it scarcely produced a sound upon the thick carpets; his voice so soft that it was not audible beyond the person to whom it was addressed. But in the poorer habitations Ralph was another man; his boots creaked upon the passage floor as he walked boldly in; his voice was harsh and loud as he demanded the money that was overdue; his threats were coarse and angry. With another class of customers, Ralph was again another man. These were attorneys of more than doubtful reputation, who helped him to new business, or raised fresh profits upon old. With them Ralph was familiar and jocose, humorous upon the topics of the day, and especially pleasant upon bankruptcies and pecuniary difficulties that made good for trade. In short, it would have been difficult to have recognised the same man under these various aspects, but for the bulky leather case full of bills and notes which he drew from his pocket at every house, and the constant repetition of the same complaint, (varied only in tone and style of delivery,) that the world thought him rich, and that perhaps he might be if he had his own; but there was no getting money in when it was once out, either principal or interest, and it was a hard matter to live; even to live from day to day.
It was evening before a long round of such visits (interrupted only by a scanty dinner at an eating-house) terminated at Pimlico, and Ralph walked along St James's Park, on his way home.
There were some deep schemes in his head, as the puckered brow and firmlyset mouth would have abundantly testified, even if they had been unaccompanied by a complete indifference to, or unconsciousness of, the objects about him. So complete was his abstraction, however, that Ralph, usually as quick-sighted as any man, did not observe that he was followed by a shambling figure, which at one time stole behind him with noiseless footsteps, at another crept a few paces before him, and at another glided along by his side; at all times regarding him with an eye so keen, and a look so eager and attentive, that it was more like the expression of an intrusive face in some powerful picture or strongly marked dream, than the scrutiny even of a most interested and anxious observer.
The sky had been lowering and dark for some time, and the commencement of a violent storm of rain drove Ralph for shelter to a tree. He was leaning against it with folded arms, still buried in thought, when, happening to raise his eyes, he suddenly met those of a man who, creeping round the trunk, peered into his face with a searching look. There was something in the usurer's expression at the moment, which the man appeared to remember well, for it decided him; and stepping close up to Ralph, he pronounced his name.
Astonished for the moment, Ralph fell back a couple of paces and surveyed him from head to foot. A spare, dark, withered man, of about his own age, with a stooping body, and a very sinister face rendered more ill-favoured by hollow and hungry cheeks, deeply sunburnt, and thick black eyebrows, blacker in contrast with the perfect whiteness of his hair; roughly clothed in shabby garments, of a strange and uncouth make; and having about him an indefinable manner of depression and degradation--this, for a moment, was all he saw. But he looked again, and the face and person seemed gradually to grow less strange; to change as he looked, to subside and soften into lineaments that were familiar, until at last they resolved themselves, as if by some strange optical illusion, into those of one whom he had known for many years, and forgotten and lost sight of for nearly as many more.
The man saw that the recognition was mutual, and beckoning to Ralph to take his former place under the tree, and not to stand in the falling rain, of which, in his first surprise, he had been quite regardless, addressed him in a hoarse, faint tone.
'You would hardly have known me from my voice, I suppose, Mr Nickleby?' he said.
'No,' returned Ralph, bending a severe look upon him. 'Though there is something in that, that I remember now.'
'There is little in me that you can call to mind as having been there eight years ago, I dare say?' observed the other.
'Quite enough,' said Ralph, carelessly, and averting his face. 'More than enough.' 'If I had remained in doubt about YOU, Mr Nickleby,' said the other, 'this reception, and YOUR manner, would have decided me very soon.' 'Did you expect any other?' asked Ralph, sharply.
'No!' said the man.
'You were right,' retorted Ralph; 'and as you feel no surprise, need express none.'
'Mr Nickleby,' said the man, bluntly, after a brief pause, during which he had seemed to struggle with an inclination to answer him by some reproach, 'will you hear a few words that I have to say?'
'I am obliged to wait here till the rain holds a little,' said Ralph, looking abroad. 'If you talk, sir, I shall not put my fingers in my ears, though your talking may have as much effect as if I did.'
'I was once in your confidence--' thus his companion began. Ralph looked round, and smiled involuntarily.
'Well,' said the other, 'as much in your confidence as you ever chose to let anybody be.'
'Ah!' rejoined Ralph, folding his arms; 'that's another thing, quite another thing.' 'Don't let us play upon words, Mr Nickleby, in the name of humanity.' 'Of what?' said Ralph.
'Of humanity,' replied the other, sternly. 'I am hungry and in want. If the change that you must see in me after so long an absence--must see, for I, upon whom it has come by slow and hard degrees, see it and know it well--will not move you to pity, let the knowledge that bread; not the daily bread of the Lord's Prayer, which, as it is offered up in cities like this, is understood to include half the luxuries of the world for the rich, and just as much coarse food as will support life for the poor--not that, but bread, a crust of dry hard bread, is beyond my reach today--let that have some weight with you, if nothing else has.'
'If this is the usual form in which you beg, sir,' said Ralph, 'you have studied your part well; but if you will take advice from one who knows something of the world and its ways, I should recommend a lower tone; a little lower tone, or you stand a fair chance of being starved in good earnest.'
As he said this, Ralph clenched his left wrist tightly with his right hand, and inclining his head a little on one side and dropping his chin upon his breast, looked at him whom he addressed with a frowning, sullen face. The very picture of a man whom nothing could move or soften.
'Yesterday was my first day in London,' said the old man, glancing at his travelstained dress and worn shoes.
'It would have been better for you, I think, if it had been your last also,' replied Ralph.
'I have been seeking you these two days, where I thought you were most likely to be found,' resumed the other more humbly, 'and I met you here at last, when I had almost given up the hope of encountering you, Mr Nickleby.'
He seemed to wait for some reply, but Ralph giving him none, he continued: 'I am a most miserable and wretched outcast, nearly sixty years old, and as destitute and helpless as a child of six.'
'I am sixty years old, too,' replied Ralph, 'and am neither destitute nor helpless. Work. Don't make fine play-acting speeches about bread, but earn it.' 'How?' cried the other. 'Where? Show me the means. Will you give them to me-will you?'
'I did once,' replied Ralph, composedly; 'you scarcely need ask me whether I will again.'
'It's twenty years ago, or more,' said the man, in a suppressed voice, 'since you and I fell out. You remember that? I claimed a share in the profits of some business I brought to you, and, as I persisted, you arrested me for an old advance of ten pounds, odd shillings, including interest at fifty per cent, or so.' 'I remember something of it,' replied Ralph, carelessly. 'What then?' 'That didn't part us,' said the man. 'I made submission, being on the wrong side of the bolts and bars; and as you were not the made man then that you are now, you were glad enough to take back a clerk who wasn't over nice, and who knew something of the trade you drove.'
'You begged and prayed, and I consented,' returned Ralph. 'That was kind of me. Perhaps I did want you. I forget. I should think I did, or you would have begged in vain. You were useful; not too honest, not too delicate, not too nice of hand or heart; but useful.'
'Useful, indeed!' said the man. 'Come. You had pinched and ground me down for some years before that, but I had served you faithfully up to that time, in spite of all your dog's usage. Had I?'
Ralph made no reply.
'Had I?' said the man again.
'You had had your wages,' rejoined Ralph, 'and had done your work. We stood on equal ground so far, and could both cry quits.'
'Then, but not afterwards,' said the other.
'Not afterwards, certainly, nor even then, for (as you have just said) you owed me money, and do still,' replied Ralph.
'That's not all,' said the man, eagerly. 'That's not all. Mark that. I didn't forget that old sore, trust me. Partly in remembrance of that, and partly in the hope of making money someday by the scheme, I took advantage of my position about you, and possessed myself of a hold upon you, which you would give half of all you have to know, and never can know but through me. I left you--long after that time, remember--and, for some poor trickery that came within the law, but was nothing to what you money-makers daily practise just outside its bounds, was sent away a convict for seven years. I have returned what you see me. Now, Mr Nickleby,' said the man, with a strange mixture of humility and sense of power, 'what help and assistance will you give me; what bribe, to speak out plainly? My expectations are not monstrous, but I must live, and to live I must eat and drink. Money is on your side, and hunger and thirst on mine. You may drive an easy bargain.'
'Is that all?' said Ralph, still eyeing his companion with the same steady look, and moving nothing but his lips.
'It depends on you, Mr Nickleby, whether that's all or not,' was the rejoinder. 'Why then, harkye, Mr--, I don't know by what name I am to call you,' said Ralph. 'By my old one, if you like.'
'Why then, harkye, Mr Brooker,' said Ralph, in his harshest accents, 'and don't expect to draw another speech from me. Harkye, sir. I know you of old for a ready scoundrel, but you never had a stout heart; and hard work, with (maybe) chains upon those legs of yours, and shorter food than when I "pinched" and "ground" you, has blunted your wits, or you would not come with such a tale as this to me. You a hold upon me! Keep it, or publish it to the world, if you like.' 'I can't do that,' interposed Brooker. 'That wouldn't serve me.'
'Wouldn't it?' said Ralph. 'It will serve you as much as bringing it to me, I promise you. To be plain with you, I am a careful man, and know my affairs thoroughly. I know the world, and the world knows me. Whatever you gleaned, or heard, or saw, when you served me, the world knows and magnifies already. You could tell it nothing that would surprise it, unless, indeed, it redounded to my credit or honour, and then it would scout you for a liar. And yet I don't find business slack, or clients scrupulous. Quite the contrary. I am reviled or threatened every day by one man or another,' said Ralph; 'but things roll on just the same, and I don't grow poorer either.'
'I neither revile nor threaten,' rejoined the man. 'I can tell you of what you have lost by my act, what I only can restore, and what, if I die without restoring, dies with me, and never can be regained.'
'I tell my money pretty accurately, and generally keep it in my own custody,' said Ralph. 'I look sharply after most men that I deal with, and most of all I looked sharply after you. You are welcome to all you have kept from me.' 'Are those of your own name dear to you?' said the man emphatically. 'If they are--'
'They are not,' returned Ralph, exasperated at this perseverance, and the thought of Nicholas, which the last question awakened. 'They are not. If you had come as a common beggar, I might have thrown a sixpence to you in remembrance of the clever knave you used to be; but since you try to palm these stale tricks upon one you might have known better, I'll not part with a halfpenny-nor would I to save you from rotting. And remember this, 'scape-gallows,' said Ralph, menacing him with his hand, 'that if we meet again, and you so much as notice me by one begging gesture, you shall see the inside of a jail once more, and tighten this hold upon me in intervals of the hard labour that vagabonds are put to. There's my answer to your trash. Take it.'
With a disdainful scowl at the object of his anger, who met his eye but uttered not a word, Ralph walked away at his usual pace, without manifesting the slightest curiosity to see what became of his late companion, or indeed once looking behind him. The man remained on the same spot with his eyes fixed upon his retreating figure until it was lost to view, and then drawing his arm about his chest, as if the damp and lack of food struck coldly to him, lingered with slouching steps by the wayside, and begged of those who passed along. Ralph, in no-wise moved by what had lately passed, further than as he had already expressed himself, walked deliberately on, and turning out of the Park and leaving Golden Square on his right, took his way through some streets at the west end of the town until he arrived in that particular one in which stood the residence of Madame Mantalini. The name of that lady no longer appeared on the flaming door-plate, that of Miss Knag being substituted in its stead; but the bonnets and dresses were still dimly visible in the first-floor windows by the decaying light of a summer's evening, and excepting this ostensible alteration in the proprietorship, the establishment wore its old appearance.
'Humph!' muttered Ralph, drawing his hand across his mouth with a connoisseurlike air, and surveying the house from top to bottom; 'these people look pretty well. They can't last long; but if I know of their going in good time, I am safe, and a fair profit too. I must keep them closely in view; that's all.'
So, nodding his head very complacently, Ralph was leaving the spot, when his quick ear caught the sound of a confused noise and hubbub of voices, mingled with a great running up and down stairs, in the very house which had been the subject of his scrutiny; and while he was hesitating whether to knock at the door or listen at the keyhole a little longer, a female servant of Madame Mantalini's (whom he had often seen) opened it abruptly and bounced out, with her blue cap- ribbons streaming in the air.
'Hallo here. Stop!' cried Ralph. 'What's the matter? Here am I. Didn't you hear me knock?'
'Oh! Mr Nickleby, sir,' said the girl. 'Go up, for the love of Gracious. Master's been and done it again.'
'Done what?' said Ralph, tartly; 'what d'ye mean?'
'I knew he would if he was drove to it,' cried the girl. 'I said so all along.' 'Come here, you silly wench,' said Ralph, catching her by the wrist; 'and don't carry family matters to the neighbours, destroying the credit of the establishment. Come here; do you hear me, girl?'
Without any further expostulation, he led or rather pulled the frightened handmaid into the house, and shut the door; then bidding her walk upstairs before him, followed without more ceremony.
Guided by the noise of a great many voices all talking together, and passing the girl in his impatience, before they had ascended many steps, Ralph quickly reached the private sitting-room, when he was rather amazed by the confused and inexplicable scene in which he suddenly found himself.
There were all the young-lady workers, some with bonnets and some without, in various attitudes expressive of alarm and consternation; some gathered round Madame Mantalini, who was in tears upon one chair; and others round Miss Knag, who was in opposition tears upon another; and others round Mr Mantalini, who was perhaps the most striking figure in the whole group, for Mr Mantalini's legs were extended at full length upon the floor, and his head and shoulders were supported by a very tall footman, who didn't seem to know what to do with them, and Mr Mantalini's eyes were closed, and his face was pale and his hair was comparatively straight, and his whiskers and moustache were limp, and his teeth were clenched, and he had a little bottle in his right hand, and a little teaspoon in his left; and his hands, arms, legs, and shoulders, were all stiff and powerless. And yet Madame Mantalini was not weeping upon the body, but was scolding violently upon her chair; and all this amidst a clamour of tongues perfectly deafening, and which really appeared to have driven the unfortunate footman to the utmost verge of distraction.
'What is the matter here?' said Ralph, pressing forward.
At this inquiry, the clamour was increased twenty-fold, and an astounding string of such shrill contradictions as 'He's poisoned himself'--'He hasn't'--'Send for a doctor'--'Don't'--'He's dying'-- 'He isn't, he's only pretending'--with various other cries, poured forth with bewildering volubility, until Madame Mantalini was seen to address herself to Ralph, when female curiosity to know what she would say, prevailed, and, as if by general consent, a dead silence, unbroken by a single whisper, instantaneously succeeded.
'Mr Nickleby,' said Madame Mantalini; 'by what chance you came here, I don't know.'
Here a gurgling voice was heard to ejaculate, as part of the wanderings of a sick man, the words 'Demnition sweetness!' but nobody heeded them except the footman, who, being startled to hear such awful tones proceeding, as it were, from between his very fingers, dropped his master's head upon the floor with a pretty loud crash, and then, without an effort to lift it up, gazed upon the bystanders, as if he had done something rather clever than otherwise. 'I will, however,' continued Madame Mantalini, drying her eyes, and speaking with great indignation, 'say before you, and before everybody here, for the first time, and once for all, that I never will supply that man's extravagances and viciousness again. I have been a dupe and a fool to him long enough. In future, he shall support himself if he can, and then he may spend what money he pleases, upon whom and how he pleases; but it shall not be mine, and therefore you had better pause before you trust him further.'
Thereupon Madame Mantalini, quite unmoved by some most pathetic lamentations on the part of her husband, that the apothecary had not mixed the prussic acid strong enough, and that he must take another bottle or two to finish the work he had in hand, entered into a catalogue of that amiable gentleman's gallantries, deceptions, extravagances, and infidelities (especially the last), winding up with a protest against being supposed to entertain the smallest remnant of regard for him; and adducing, in proof of the altered state of her affections, the circumstance of his having poisoned himself in private no less than six times within the last fortnight, and her not having once interfered by word or deed to save his life.
'And I insist on being separated and left to myself,' said Madame Mantalini, sobbing. 'If he dares to refuse me a separation, I'll have one in law--I can--and I hope this will be a warning to all girls who have seen this disgraceful exhibition.' Miss Knag, who was unquestionably the oldest girl in company, said with great solemnity, that it would be a warning to HER, and so did the young ladies generally, with the exception of one or two who appeared to entertain some doubts whether such whispers could do wrong.
'Why do you say all this before so many listeners?' said Ralph, in a low voice. 'You know you are not in earnest.'
'I AM in earnest,' replied Madame Mantalini, aloud, and retreating towards Miss Knag.
'Well, but consider,' reasoned Ralph, who had a great interest in the matter. 'It would be well to reflect. A married woman has no property.'
'Not a solitary single individual dem, my soul,' and Mr Mantalini, raising himself upon his elbow.
'I am quite aware of that,' retorted Madame Mantalini, tossing her head; 'and I have none. The business, the stock, this house, and everything in it, all belong to Miss Knag.'
'That's quite true, Madame Mantalini,' said Miss Knag, with whom her late employer had secretly come to an amicable understanding on this point. 'Very true, indeed, Madame Mantalini--hem--very true. And I never was more glad in all my life, that I had strength of mind to resist matrimonial offers, no matter how advantageous, than I am when I think of my present position as compared with your most unfortunate and most undeserved one, Madame Mantalini.' 'Demmit!' cried Mr Mantalini, turning his head towards his wife. 'Will it not slap and pinch the envious dowager, that dares to reflect upon its own delicious?' But the day of Mr Mantalini's blandishments had departed. 'Miss Knag, sir,' said his wife, 'is my particular friend;' and although Mr Mantalini leered till his eyes seemed in danger of never coming back to their right places again, Madame Mantalini showed no signs of softening.
To do the excellent Miss Knag justice, she had been mainly instrumental in bringing about this altered state of things, for, finding by daily experience, that there was no chance of the business thriving, or even continuing to exist, while Mr Mantalini had any hand in the expenditure, and having now a considerable interest in its well-doing, she had sedulously applied herself to the investigation of some little matters connected with that gentleman's private character, which she had so well elucidated, and artfully imparted to Madame Mantalini, as to open her eyes more effectually than the closest and most philosophical reasoning could have done in a series of years. To which end, the accidental discovery by Miss Knag of some tender correspondence, in which Madame Mantalini was described as 'old' and 'ordinary,' had most providentially contributed.
However, notwithstanding her firmness, Madame Mantalini wept very piteously; and as she leant upon Miss Knag, and signed towards the door, that young lady and all the other young ladies with sympathising faces, proceeded to bear her out.
'Nickleby,' said Mr Mantalini in tears, 'you have been made a witness to this demnition cruelty, on the part of the demdest enslaver and captivator that never was, oh dem! I forgive that woman.'
'Forgive!' repeated Madame Mantalini, angrily.
'I do forgive her, Nickleby,' said Mr Mantalini. 'You will blame me, the world will blame me, the women will blame me; everybody will laugh, and scoff, and smile, and grin most demnebly. They will say, "She had a blessing. She did not know it. He was too weak; he was too good; he was a dem'd fine fellow, but he loved too strong; he could not bear her to be cross, and call him wicked names. It was a dem'd case, there never was a demder." But I forgive her.'
With this affecting speech Mr Mantalini fell down again very flat, and lay to all appearance without sense or motion, until all the females had left the room, when he came cautiously into a sitting posture, and confronted Ralph with a very blank face, and the little bottle still in one hand and the tea-spoon in the other. 'You may put away those fooleries now, and live by your wits again,' said Ralph, coolly putting on his hat.
'Demmit, Nickleby, you're not serious?'
'I seldom joke,' said Ralph. 'Good-night.'
'No, but Nickleby--' said Mantalini.
'I am wrong, perhaps,' rejoined Ralph. 'I hope so. You should know best. Goodnight.'
Affecting not to hear his entreaties that he would stay and advise with him, Ralph left the crest-fallen Mr Mantalini to his meditations, and left the house quietly. 'Oho!' he said, 'sets the wind that way so soon? Half knave and half fool, and detected in both characters? I think your day is over, sir.'
As he said this, he made some memorandum in his pocket-book in which Mr Mantalini's name figured conspicuously, and finding by his watch that it was between nine and ten o'clock, made all speed home.
'Are they here?' was the first question he asked of Newman.
Newman nodded. 'Been here half an hour.'
'Two of them? One a fat sleek man?'
'Ay,' said Newman. 'In your room now.'
'Good,' rejoined Ralph. 'Get me a coach.'
'A coach! What, you--going to--eh?' stammered Newman.
Ralph angrily repeated his orders, and Noggs, who might well have been excused for wondering at such an unusual and extraordinary circumstance (for he had never seen Ralph in a coach in his life) departed on his errand, and presently returned with the conveyance.
Into it went Mr Squeers, and Ralph, and the third man, whom Newman Noggs had never seen. Newman stood upon the door-step to see them off, not troubling himself to wonder where or upon what business they were going, until he chanced by mere accident to hear Ralph name the address whither the coachman was to drive.
Quick as lightning and in a state of the most extreme wonder, Newman darted into his little office for his hat, and limped after the coach as if with the intention of getting up behind; but in this design he was balked, for it had too much the start of him and was soon hopelessly ahead, leaving him gaping in the empty street. 'I don't know though,' said Noggs, stopping for breath, 'any good that I could have done by going too. He would have seen me if I had. Drive THERE! What can come of this? If I had only known it yesterday I could have told--drive there! There's mischief in it. There must be.'
His reflections were interrupted by a grey-haired man of a very remarkable, though far from prepossessing appearance, who, coming stealthily towards him, solicited relief.
Newman, still cogitating deeply, turned away; but the man followed him, and pressed him with such a tale of misery that Newman (who might have been considered a hopeless person to beg from, and who had little enough to give) looked into his hat for some halfpence which he usually kept screwed up, when he had any, in a corner of his pocket-handkerchief.
While he was busily untwisting the knot with his teeth, the man said something which attracted his attention; whatever that something was, it led to something else, and in the end he and Newman walked away side by side--the strange man talking earnestly, and Newman listening.
Containing Matter of a surprising Kind
'As we gang awa' fra' Lunnun tomorrow neeght, and as I dinnot know that I was e'er so happy in a' my days, Misther Nickleby, Ding! but I WILL tak' anoother glass to our next merry meeting!'
So said John Browdie, rubbing his hands with great joyousness, and looking round him with a ruddy shining face, quite in keeping with the declaration. The time at which John found himself in this enviable condition was the same evening to which the last chapter bore reference; the place was the cottage; and the assembled company were Nicholas, Mrs Nickleby, Mrs Browdie, Kate Nickleby, and Smike.
A very merry party they had been. Mrs Nickleby, knowing of her son's obligations to the honest Yorkshireman, had, after some demur, yielded her consent to Mr and Mrs Browdie being invited out to tea; in the way of which arrangement, there were at first sundry difficulties and obstacles, arising out of her not having had an opportunity of 'calling' upon Mrs Browdie first; for although Mrs Nickleby very often observed with much complacency (as most punctilious people do), that she had not an atom of pride or formality about her, still she was a great stickler for dignity and ceremonies; and as it was manifest that, until a call had been made, she could not be (politely speaking, and according to the laws of society) even cognisant of the fact of Mrs Browdie's existence, she felt her situation to be one of peculiar delicacy and difficulty.
'The call MUST originate with me, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby, 'that's indispensable. The fact is, my dear, that it's necessary there should be a sort of condescension on my part, and that I should show this young person that I am willing to take notice of her. There's a very respectable-looking young man,' added Mrs Nickleby, after a short consideration, 'who is conductor to one of the omnibuses that go by here, and who wears a glazed hat--your sister and I have noticed him very often--he has a wart upon his nose, Kate, you know, exactly like a gentleman's servant.'
'Have all gentlemen's servants warts upon their noses, mother?' asked Nicholas. 'Nicholas, my dear, how very absurd you are,' returned his mother; 'of course I mean that his glazed hat looks like a gentleman's servant, and not the wart upon his nose; though even that is not so ridiculous as it may seem to you, for we had a footboy once, who had not only a wart, but a wen also, and a very large wen too, and he demanded to have his wages raised in consequence, because he found it came very expensive. Let me see, what was I--oh yes, I know. The best way that I can think of would be to send a card, and my compliments, (I've no doubt he'd take 'em for a pot of porter,) by this young man, to the Saracen with Two Necks. If the waiter took him for a gentleman's servant, so much the better. Then all Mrs Browdie would have to do would be to send her card back by the carrier (he could easily come with a double knock), and there's an end of it.' 'My dear mother,' said Nicholas, 'I don't suppose such unsophisticated people as these ever had a card of their own, or ever will have.'
'Oh that, indeed, Nicholas, my dear,' returned Mrs Nickleby, 'that's another thing. If you put it upon that ground, why, of course, I have no more to say, than that I have no doubt they are very good sort of persons, and that I have no kind of objection to their coming here to tea if they like, and shall make a point of being very civil to them if they do.'
The point being thus effectually set at rest, and Mrs Nickleby duly placed in the patronising and mildly-condescending position which became her rank and matrimonial years, Mr and Mrs Browdie were invited and came; and as they were very deferential to Mrs Nickleby, and seemed to have a becoming appreciation of her greatness, and were very much pleased with everything, the good lady had more than once given Kate to understand, in a whisper, that she thought they were the very best-meaning people she had ever seen, and perfectly well behaved.
And thus it came to pass, that John Browdie declared, in the parlour after supper, to wit, and twenty minutes before eleven o'clock p.m., that he had never been so happy in all his days.
Nor was Mrs Browdie much behind her husband in this respect, for that young matron, whose rustic beauty contrasted very prettily with the more delicate loveliness of Kate, and without suffering by the contrast either, for each served as it were to set off and decorate the other, could not sufficiently admire the gentle and winning manners of the young lady, or the engaging affability of the elder one. Then Kate had the art of turning the conversation to subjects upon which the country girl, bashful at first in strange company, could feel herself at home; and if Mrs Nickleby was not quite so felicitous at times in the selection of topics of discourse, or if she did seem, as Mrs Browdie expressed it, 'rather high in her notions,' still nothing could be kinder, and that she took considerable interest in the young couple was manifest from the very long lectures on housewifery with which she was so obliging as to entertain Mrs Browdie's private ear, which were illustrated by various references to the domestic economy of the cottage, in which (those duties falling exclusively upon Kate) the good lady had about as much share, either in theory or practice, as any one of the statues of the Twelve Apostles which embellish the exterior of St Paul's Cathedral. 'Mr Browdie,' said Kate, addressing his young wife, 'is the best- humoured, the kindest and heartiest creature I ever saw. If I were oppressed with I don't know how many cares, it would make me happy only to look at him.'
'He does seem indeed, upon my word, a most excellent creature, Kate,' said Mrs Nickleby; 'most excellent. And I am sure that at all times it will give me pleasure-really pleasure now--to have you, Mrs Browdie, to see me in this plain and homely manner. We make no display,' said Mrs Nickleby, with an air which seemed to insinuate that they could make a vast deal if they were so disposed; 'no fuss, no preparation; I wouldn't allow it. I said, "Kate, my dear, you will only make Mrs Browdie feel uncomfortable, and how very foolish and inconsiderate that would be!" '
'I am very much obliged to you, I am sure, ma'am,' returned Mrs Browdie, gratefully. 'It's nearly eleven o'clock, John. I am afraid we are keeping you up very late, ma'am.'
'Late!' cried Mrs Nickleby, with a sharp thin laugh, and one little cough at the end, like a note of admiration expressed. 'This is quite early for us. We used to keep such hours! Twelve, one, two, three o'clock was nothing to us. Balls, dinners, card-parties! Never were such rakes as the people about where we used to live. I often think now, I am sure, that how we ever could go through with it is quite astonishing, and that is just the evil of having a large connection and being a great deal sought after, which I would recommend all young married people steadily to resist; though of course, and it's perfectly clear, and a very happy thing too, I think, that very few young married people can be exposed to such temptations. There was one family in particular, that used to live about a mile from us--not straight down the road, but turning sharp off to the left by the turnpike where the Plymouth mail ran over the donkey--that were quite extraordinary people for giving the most extravagant parties, with artificial flowers and champagne, and variegated lamps, and, in short, every delicacy of eating and drinking that the most singular epicure could possibly require. I don't think that there ever were such people as those Peltiroguses. You remember the Peltiroguses, Kate?'
Kate saw that for the ease and comfort of the visitors it was high time to stay this flood of recollection, so answered that she entertained of the Peltiroguses a most vivid and distinct remembrance; and then said that Mr Browdie had half promised, early in the evening, that he would sing a Yorkshire song, and that she was most impatient that he should redeem his promise, because she was sure it would afford her mama more amusement and pleasure than it was possible to express.
Mrs Nickleby confirming her daughter with the best possible grace-- for there was patronage in that too, and a kind of implication that she had a discerning taste in such matters, and was something of a critic--John Browdie proceeded to consider the words of some north- country ditty, and to take his wife's recollection respecting the same. This done, he made divers ungainly movements in his chair, and singling out one particular fly on the ceiling from the other flies there asleep, fixed his eyes upon him, and began to roar a meek sentiment (supposed to be uttered by a gentle swain fast pining away with love and despair) in a voice of thunder.
At the end of the first verse, as though some person without had waited until then to make himself audible, was heard a loud and violent knocking at the streetdoor; so loud and so violent, indeed, that the ladies started as by one accord, and John Browdie stopped.
'It must be some mistake,' said Nicholas, carelessly. 'We know nobody who would come here at this hour.'
Mrs Nickleby surmised, however, that perhaps the counting-house was burnt down, or perhaps 'the Mr Cheerybles' had sent to take Nicholas into partnership (which certainly appeared highly probable at that time of night), or perhaps Mr Linkinwater had run away with the property, or perhaps Miss La Creevy was taken in, or perhaps--
But a hasty exclamation from Kate stopped her abruptly in her conjectures, and Ralph Nickleby walked into the room.
'Stay,' said Ralph, as Nicholas rose, and Kate, making her way towards him, threw herself upon his arm. 'Before that boy says a word, hear me.' Nicholas bit his lip and shook his head in a threatening manner, but appeared for the moment unable to articulate a syllable. Kate clung closer to his arm, Smike retreated behind them, and John Browdie, who had heard of Ralph, and appeared to have no great difficulty in recognising him, stepped between the old man and his young friend, as if with the intention of preventing either of them from advancing a step further.
'Hear me, I say,' said Ralph, 'and not him.'
'Say what thou'st gotten to say then, sir,' retorted John; 'and tak' care thou dinnot put up angry bluid which thou'dst betther try to quiet.'
'I should know YOU,' said Ralph, 'by your tongue; and HIM' (pointing to Smike) 'by his looks.'
'Don't speak to him,' said Nicholas, recovering his voice. 'I will not have it. I will not hear him. I do not know that man. I cannot breathe the air that he corrupts. His presence is an insult to my sister. It is shame to see him. I will not bear it.' 'Stand!' cried John, laying his heavy hand upon his chest.
'Then let him instantly retire,' said Nicholas, struggling. 'I am not going to lay hands upon him, but he shall withdraw. I will not have him here. John, John Browdie, is this my house, am I a child? If he stands there,' cried Nicholas, burning with fury, 'looking so calmly upon those who know his black and dastardly heart, he'll drive me mad.'
To all these exclamations John Browdie answered not a word, but he retained his hold upon Nicholas; and when he was silent again, spoke.
'There's more to say and hear than thou think'st for,' said John. 'I tell'ee I ha' gotten scent o' thot already. Wa'at be that shadow ootside door there? Noo, schoolmeasther, show thyself, mun; dinnot be sheame-feaced. Noo, auld gen'l'man, let's have schoolmeasther, coom.'
Hearing this adjuration, Mr Squeers, who had been lingering in the passage until such time as it should be expedient for him to enter and he could appear with effect, was fain to present himself in a somewhat undignified and sneaking way; at which John Browdie laughed with such keen and heartfelt delight, that even Kate, in all the pain, anxiety, and surprise of the scene, and though the tears were in her eyes, felt a disposition to join him.
'Have you done enjoying yourself, sir?' said Ralph, at length.
'Pratty nigh for the prasant time, sir,' replied John.
'I can wait,' said Ralph. 'Take your own time, pray.'
Ralph waited until there was a perfect silence, and then turning to Mrs Nickleby, but directing an eager glance at Kate, as if more anxious to watch his effect upon her, said:
'Now, ma'am, listen to me. I don't imagine that you were a party to a very fine tirade of words sent me by that boy of yours, because I don't believe that under his control, you have the slightest will of your own, or that your advice, your opinion, your wants, your wishes, anything which in nature and reason (or of what use is your great experience?) ought to weigh with him, has the slightest influence or weight whatever, or is taken for a moment into account.' Mrs Nickleby shook her head and sighed, as if there were a good deal in that, certainly.
'For this reason,' resumed Ralph, 'I address myself to you, ma'am. For this reason, partly, and partly because I do not wish to be disgraced by the acts of a vicious stripling whom I was obliged to disown, and who, afterwards, in his boyish majesty, feigns to--ha! ha!--to disown ME, I present myself here tonight. I have another motive in coming: a motive of humanity. I come here,' said Ralph, looking round with a biting and triumphant smile, and gloating and dwelling upon the words as if he were loath to lose the pleasure of saying them, 'to restore a parent his child. Ay, sir,' he continued, bending eagerly forward, and addressing Nicholas, as he marked the change of his countenance, 'to restore a parent his child; his son, sir; trepanned, waylaid, and guarded at every turn by you, with the base design of robbing him some day of any little wretched pittance of which he might become possessed.'
'In that, you know you lie,' said Nicholas, proudly.
'In this, I know I speak the truth. I have his father here,' retorted Ralph. 'Here!' sneered Squeers, stepping forward. 'Do you hear that? Here! Didn't I tell you to be careful that his father didn't turn up and send him back to me? Why, his father's my friend; he's to come back to me directly, he is. Now, what do you say
-eh!--now-- come--what do you say to that--an't you sorry you took so much trouble for nothing? an't you? an't you?'
'You bear upon your body certain marks I gave you,' said Nicholas, looking quietly away, 'and may talk in acknowledgment of them as much as you please. You'll talk a long time before you rub them out, Mr Squeers.'
The estimable gentleman last named cast a hasty look at the table, as if he were prompted by this retort to throw a jug or bottle at the head of Nicholas, but he was interrupted in this design (if such design he had) by Ralph, who, touching him on the elbow, bade him tell the father that he might now appear and claim his son.
This being purely a labour of love, Mr Squeers readily complied, and leaving the room for the purpose, almost immediately returned, supporting a sleek personage with an oily face, who, bursting from him, and giving to view the form and face of Mr Snawley, made straight up to Smike, and tucking that poor fellow's head under his arm in a most uncouth and awkward embrace, elevated his broad- brimmed hat at arm's length in the air as a token of devout thanksgiving, exclaiming, meanwhile, 'How little did I think of this here joyful meeting, when I saw him last! Oh, how little did I think it!'
'Be composed, sir,' said Ralph, with a gruff expression of sympathy, 'you have got him now.'
'Got him! Oh, haven't I got him! Have I got him, though?' cried Mr Snawley, scarcely able to believe it. 'Yes, here he is, flesh and blood, flesh and blood.' 'Vary little flesh,' said John Browdie.
Mr Snawley was too much occupied by his parental feelings to notice this remark; and, to assure himself more completely of the restoration of his child, tucked his head under his arm again, and kept it there.
'What was it,' said Snawley, 'that made me take such a strong interest in him, when that worthy instructor of youth brought him to my house? What was it that made me burn all over with a wish to chastise him severely for cutting away from his best friends, his pastors and masters?'
'It was parental instinct, sir,' observed Squeers.
'That's what it was, sir,' rejoined Snawley; 'the elevated feeling, the feeling of the ancient Romans and Grecians, and of the beasts of the field and birds of the air, with the exception of rabbits and tom-cats, which sometimes devour their offspring. My heart yearned towards him. I could have--I don't know what I couldn't have done to him in the anger of a father.'
'It only shows what Natur is, sir,' said Mr Squeers. 'She's rum 'un, is Natur.' 'She is a holy thing, sir,' remarked Snawley.
'I believe you,' added Mr Squeers, with a moral sigh. 'I should like to know how we should ever get on without her. Natur,' said Mr Squeers, solemnly, 'is more easier conceived than described. Oh what a blessed thing, sir, to be in a state of natur!'
Pending this philosophical discourse, the bystanders had been quite stupefied with amazement, while Nicholas had looked keenly from Snawley to Squeers, and from Squeers to Ralph, divided between his feelings of disgust, doubt, and surprise. At this juncture, Smike escaping from his father fled to Nicholas, and implored him, in most moving terms, never to give him up, but to let him live and die beside him.
'If you are this boy's father,' said Nicholas, 'look at the wreck he is, and tell me that you purpose to send him back to that loathsome den from which I brought him.'
'Scandal again!' cried Squeers. 'Recollect, you an't worth powder and shot, but I'll be even with you one way or another.'
'Stop,' interposed Ralph, as Snawley was about to speak. 'Let us cut this matter short, and not bandy words here with hare-brained profligates. This is your son, as you can prove. And you, Mr Squeers, you know this boy to be the same that was with you for so many years under the name of Smike. Do you?' 'Do I!' returned Squeers. 'Don't I?'
'Good,' said Ralph; 'a very few words will be sufficient here. You had a son by your first wife, Mr Snawley?'
'I had,' replied that person, 'and there he stands.'
'We'll show that presently,' said Ralph. 'You and your wife were separated, and she had the boy to live with her, when he was a year old. You received a communication from her, when you had lived apart a year or two, that the boy was dead; and you believed it?'
'Of course I did!' returned Snawley. 'Oh the joy of--'
'Be rational, sir, pray,' said Ralph. 'This is business, and transports interfere with it. This wife died a year and a half ago, or thereabouts--not more--in some obscure place, where she was housekeeper in a family. Is that the case?' 'That's the case,' replied Snawley.
'Having written on her death-bed a letter or confession to you, about this very boy, which, as it was not directed otherwise than in your name, only reached you, and that by a circuitous course, a few days since?'
'Just so,' said Snawley. 'Correct in every particular, sir.'
'And this confession,' resumed Ralph, 'is to the effect that his death was an invention of hers to wound you--was a part of a system of annoyance, in short, which you seem to have adopted towards each other--that the boy lived, but was of weak and imperfect intellect-- that she sent him by a trusty hand to a cheap school in Yorkshire-- that she had paid for his education for some years, and then, being poor, and going a long way off, gradually deserted him, for which she prayed forgiveness?'
Snawley nodded his head, and wiped his eyes; the first slightly, the last violently. 'The school was Mr Squeers's,' continued Ralph; 'the boy was left there in the name of Smike; every description was fully given, dates tally exactly with Mr Squeers's books, Mr Squeers is lodging with you at this time; you have two other boys at his school: you communicated the whole discovery to him, he brought you to me as the person who had recommended to him the kidnapper of his child; and I brought you here. Is that so?'
'You talk like a good book, sir, that's got nothing in its inside but what's the truth,' replied Snawley.
'This is your pocket-book,' said Ralph, producing one from his coat; 'the certificates of your first marriage and of the boy's birth, and your wife's two letters, and every other paper that can support these statements directly or by implication, are here, are they?'
'Every one of 'em, sir.'
'And you don't object to their being looked at here, so that these people may be convinced of your power to substantiate your claim at once in law and reason, and you may resume your control over your own son without more delay. Do I understand you?'
'I couldn't have understood myself better, sir.'
'There, then,' said Ralph, tossing the pocket-book upon the table. 'Let them see them if they like; and as those are the original papers, I should recommend you to stand near while they are being examined, or you may chance to lose some.' With these words Ralph sat down unbidden, and compressing his lips, which were for the moment slightly parted by a smile, folded his arms, and looked for the first time at his nephew.
Nicholas, stung by the concluding taunt, darted an indignant glance at him; but commanding himself as well as he could, entered upon a close examination of the documents, at which John Browdie assisted. There was nothing about them which could be called in question. The certificates were regularly signed as extracts from the parish books, the first letter had a genuine appearance of having been written and preserved for some years, the handwriting of the second tallied with it exactly, (making proper allowance for its having been written by a person in extremity,) and there were several other corroboratory scraps of entries and memoranda which it was equally difficult to question.
'Dear Nicholas,' whispered Kate, who had been looking anxiously over his shoulder, 'can this be really the case? Is this statement true?'
'I fear it is,' answered Nicholas. 'What say you, John?'
'John scratched his head and shook it, but said nothing at all.
'You will observe, ma'am,' said Ralph, addressing himself to Mrs Nickleby, 'that this boy being a minor and not of strong mind, we might have come here tonight, armed with the powers of the law, and backed by a troop of its myrmidons. I should have done so, ma'am, unquestionably, but for my regard for the feelings of yourself, and your daughter.'
'You have shown your regard for HER feelings well,' said Nicholas, drawing his sister towards him.
'Thank you,' replied Ralph. 'Your praise, sir, is commendation, indeed.' 'Well,' said Squeers, 'what's to be done? Them hackney-coach horses will catch cold if we don't think of moving; there's one of 'em a sneezing now, so that he blows the street door right open. What's the order of the day? Is Master Snawley to come along with us?'
'No, no, no,' replied Smike, drawing back, and clinging to Nicholas. 'No. Pray, no. I will not go from you with him. No, no.'
'This is a cruel thing,' said Snawley, looking to his friends for support. 'Do parents bring children into the world for this?'
'Do parents bring children into the world for THOT?' said John Browdie bluntly, pointing, as he spoke, to Squeers.
'Never you mind,' retorted that gentleman, tapping his nose derisively. 'Never I mind!' said John, 'no, nor never nobody mind, say'st thou, schoolmeasther. It's nobody's minding that keeps sike men as thou afloat. Noo then, where be'est thou coomin' to? Dang it, dinnot coom treadin' ower me, mun.' Suiting the action to the word, John Browdie just jerked his elbow into the chest of Mr Squeers who was advancing upon Smike; with so much dexterity that the schoolmaster reeled and staggered back upon Ralph Nickleby, and being unable to recover his balance, knocked that gentleman off his chair, and stumbled heavily upon him.
This accidental circumstance was the signal for some very decisive proceedings. In the midst of a great noise, occasioned by the prayers and entreaties of Smike, the cries and exclamations of the women, and the vehemence of the men, demonstrations were made of carrying off the lost son by violence. Squeers had actually begun to haul him out, when Nicholas (who, until then, had been evidently undecided how to act) took him by the collar, and shaking him so that such teeth as he had, chattered in his head, politely escorted him to the roomdoor, and thrusting him into the passage, shut it upon him.
'Now,' said Nicholas to the other two, 'have the goodness to follow your friend.' 'I want my son,' said Snawley.
'Your son,' replied Nicholas, 'chooses for himself. He chooses to remain here, and he shall.'
'You won't give him up?' said Snawley.
'I would not give him up against his will, to be the victim of such brutality as that to which you would consign him,' replied Nicholas, 'if he were a dog or a rat.' 'Knock that Nickleby down with a candlestick,' cried Mr Squeers, through the keyhole, 'and bring out my hat, somebody, will you, unless he wants to steal it.' 'I am very sorry, indeed,' said Mrs Nickleby, who, with Mrs Browdie, had stood crying and biting her fingers in a corner, while Kate (very pale, but perfectly quiet) had kept as near her brother as she could. 'I am very sorry, indeed, for all this. I really don't know what would be best to do, and that's the truth. Nicholas ought to be the best judge, and I hope he is. Of course, it's a hard thing to have to keep other people's children, though young Mr Snawley is certainly as useful and willing as it's possible for anybody to be; but, if it could be settled in any friendly manner--if old Mr Snawley, for instance, would settle to pay something certain for his board and lodging, and some fair arrangement was come to, so that we undertook to have fish twice a week, and a pudding twice, or a dumpling, or something of that sort--I do think that it might be very satisfactory and pleasant for all parties.'
This compromise, which was proposed with abundance of tears and sighs, not exactly meeting the point at issue, nobody took any notice of it; and poor Mrs Nickleby accordingly proceeded to enlighten Mrs Browdie upon the advantages of such a scheme, and the unhappy results flowing, on all occasions, from her not being attended to when she proffered her advice.
'You, sir,' said Snawley, addressing the terrified Smike, 'are an unnatural, ungrateful, unlovable boy. You won't let me love you when I want to. Won't you come home, won't you?'
'No, no, no,' cried Smike, shrinking back.
'He never loved nobody,' bawled Squeers, through the keyhole. 'He never loved me; he never loved Wackford, who is next door but one to a cherubim. How can you expect that he'll love his father? He'll never love his father, he won't. He don't know what it is to have a father. He don't understand it. It an't in him.' Mr Snawley looked steadfastly at his son for a full minute, and then covering his eyes with his hand, and once more raising his hat in the air, appeared deeply occupied in deploring his black ingratitude. Then drawing his arm across his eyes, he picked up Mr Squeers's hat, and taking it under one arm, and his own under the other, walked slowly and sadly out.
'Your romance, sir,' said Ralph, lingering for a moment, 'is destroyed, I take it. No unknown; no persecuted descendant of a man of high degree; but the weak, imbecile son of a poor, petty tradesman. We shall see how your sympathy melts before plain matter of fact.'
'You shall,' said Nicholas, motioning towards the door.
'And trust me, sir,' added Ralph, 'that I never supposed you would give him up tonight. Pride, obstinacy, reputation for fine feeling, were all against it. These must be brought down, sir, lowered, crushed, as they shall be soon. The protracted and wearing anxiety and expense of the law in its most oppressive form, its torture from hour to hour, its weary days and sleepless nights, with these I'll prove you, and break your haughty spirit, strong as you deem it now. And when you make this house a hell, and visit these trials upon yonder wretched object (as you will; I know you), and those who think you now a young-fledged hero, we'll go into old accounts between us two, and see who stands the debtor, and comes out best at last, even before the world.'
Ralph Nickleby withdrew. But Mr Squeers, who had heard a portion of this closing address, and was by this time wound up to a pitch of impotent malignity almost unprecedented, could not refrain from returning to the parlour door, and actually cutting some dozen capers with various wry faces and hideous grimaces, expressive of his triumphant confidence in the downfall and defeat of Nicholas.
Having concluded this war-dance, in which his short trousers and large boots had borne a very conspicuous figure, Mr Squeers followed his friends, and the family were left to meditate upon recent occurrences.
Throws some Light upon Nicholas's Love; but whether for Good or Evil the Reader must determine
After an anxious consideration of the painful and embarrassing position in which he was placed, Nicholas decided that he ought to lose no time in frankly stating it to the kind brothers. Availing himself of the first opportunity of being alone with Mr Charles Cheeryble at the close of next day, he accordingly related Smike's little history, and modestly but firmly expressed his hope that the good old gentleman would, under such circumstances as he described, hold him justified in adopting the extreme course of interfering between parent and child, and upholding the latter in his disobedience; even though his horror and dread of his father might seem, and would doubtless be represented as, a thing so repulsive and unnatural, as to render those who countenanced him in it, fit objects of general detestation and abhorrence.
'So deeply rooted does this horror of the man appear to be,' said Nicholas, 'that I can hardly believe he really is his son. Nature does not seem to have implanted in his breast one lingering feeling of affection for him, and surely she can never err.'
'My dear sir,' replied brother Charles, 'you fall into the very common mistake of charging upon Nature, matters with which she has not the smallest connection, and for which she is in no way responsible. Men talk of Nature as an abstract thing, and lose sight of what is natural while they do so. Here is a poor lad who has never felt a parent's care, who has scarcely known anything all his life but suffering and sorrow, presented to a man who he is told is his father, and whose first act is to signify his intention of putting an end to his short term of happiness, of consigning him to his old fate, and taking him from the only friend he has ever had-- which is yourself. If Nature, in such a case, put into that lad's breast but one secret prompting which urged him towards his father and away from you, she would be a liar and an idiot.'
Nicholas was delighted to find that the old gentleman spoke so warmly, and in the hope that he might say something more to the same purpose, made no reply. 'The same mistake presents itself to me, in one shape or other, at every turn,' said brother Charles. 'Parents who never showed their love, complain of want of natural affection in their children; children who never showed their duty, complain of want of natural feeling in their parents; law-makers who find both so miserable that their affections have never had enough of life's sun to develop them, are loud in their moralisings over parents and children too, and cry that the very ties of nature are disregarded. Natural affections and instincts, my dear sir, are the most beautiful of the Almighty's works, but like other beautiful works of His, they must be reared and fostered, or it is as natural that they should be wholly obscured, and that new feelings should usurp their place, as it is that the sweetest productions of the earth, left untended, should be choked with weeds and briers. I wish we could be brought to consider this, and remembering natural obligations a little more at the right time, talk about them a little less at the wrong one.'
After this, brother Charles, who had talked himself into a great heat, stopped to cool a little, and then continued:
'I dare say you are surprised, my dear sir, that I have listened to your recital with so little astonishment. That is easily explained. Your uncle has been here this morning.'
Nicholas coloured, and drew back a step or two.
'Yes,' said the old gentleman, tapping his desk emphatically, 'here, in this room. He would listen neither to reason, feeling, nor justice. But brother Ned was hard upon him; brother Ned, sir, might have melted a paving-stone.'
'He came to--' said Nicholas.
'To complain of you,' returned brother Charles, 'to poison our ears with calumnies and falsehoods; but he came on a fruitless errand, and went away with some wholesome truths in his ear besides. Brother Ned, my dear My Nickleby--brother Ned, sir, is a perfect lion. So is Tim Linkinwater; Tim is quite a lion. We had Tim in to face him at first, and Tim was at him, sir, before you could say "Jack Robinson."'
'How can I ever thank you for all the deep obligations you impose upon me every day?' said Nicholas.
'By keeping silence upon the subject, my dear sir,' returned brother Charles. 'You shall be righted. At least you shall not be wronged. Nobody belonging to you shall be wronged. They shall not hurt a hair of your head, or the boy's head, or your mother's head, or your sister's head. I have said it, brother Ned has said it, Tim Linkinwater has said it. We have all said it, and we'll all do it. I have seen the father--if he is the father--and I suppose he must be. He is a barbarian and a hypocrite, Mr Nickleby. I told him, "You are a barbarian, sir." I did. I said, "You're a barbarian, sir." And I'm glad of it, I am VERY glad I told him he was a barbarian, very glad indeed!'
By this time brother Charles was in such a very warm state of indignation, that Nicholas thought he might venture to put in a word, but the moment he essayed to do so, Mr Cheeryble laid his hand softly upon his arm, and pointed to a chair. 'The subject is at an end for the present,' said the old gentleman, wiping his face. 'Don't revive it by a single word. I am going to speak upon another subject, a confidential subject, Mr Nickleby. We must be cool again, we must be cool.' After two or three turns across the room he resumed his seat, and drawing his chair nearer to that on which Nicholas was seated, said:
'I am about to employ you, my dear sir, on a confidential and delicate mission.' 'You might employ many a more able messenger, sir,' said Nicholas, 'but a more trustworthy or zealous one, I may be bold to say, you could not find.' 'Of that I am well assured,' returned brother Charles, 'well assured. You will give me credit for thinking so, when I tell you that the object of this mission is a young lady.'
'A young lady, sir!' cried Nicholas, quite trembling for the moment with his eagerness to hear more.
'A very beautiful young lady,' said Mr Cheeryble, gravely.
'Pray go on, sir,' returned Nicholas.
'I am thinking how to do so,' said brother Charles; sadly, as it seemed to his young friend, and with an expression allied to pain. 'You accidentally saw a young lady in this room one morning, my dear sir, in a fainting fit. Do you remember? Perhaps you have forgotten.'
'Oh no,' replied Nicholas, hurriedly. 'I--I--remember it very well indeed.' 'SHE is the lady I speak of,' said brother Charles. Like the famous parrot, Nicholas thought a great deal, but was unable to utter a word.
'She is the daughter,' said Mr Cheeryble, 'of a lady who, when she was a beautiful girl herself, and I was very many years younger, I-- it seems a strange word for me to utter now--I loved very dearly. You will smile, perhaps, to hear a grey-headed man talk about such things. You will not offend me, for when I was as young as you, I dare say I should have done the same.'
'I have no such inclination, indeed,' said Nicholas.
'My dear brother Ned,' continued Mr Cheeryble, 'was to have married her sister, but she died. She is dead too now, and has been for many years. She married her choice; and I wish I could add that her after-life was as happy as God knows I ever prayed it might be!'
A short silence intervened, which Nicholas made no effort to break. 'If trial and calamity had fallen as lightly on his head, as in the deepest truth of my own heart I ever hoped (for her sake) it would, his life would have been one of peace and happiness,' said the old gentleman calmly. 'It will be enough to say that this was not the case; that she was not happy; that they fell into complicated distresses and difficulties; that she came, twelve months before her death, to appeal to my old friendship; sadly changed, sadly altered, broken-spirited from suffering and ill-usage, and almost broken- hearted. He readily availed himself of the money which, to give her but one hour's peace of mind, I would have poured out as freely as water--nay, he often sent her back for more--and yet even while he squandered it, he made the very success of these, her applications to me, the groundwork of cruel taunts and jeers, protesting that he knew she thought with bitter remorse of the choice she had made, that she had married him from motives of interest and vanity (he was a gay young man with great friends about him when she chose him for her husband), and venting in short upon her, by every unjust and unkind means, the bitterness of that ruin and disappointment which had been brought about by his profligacy alone. In those times this young lady was a mere child. I never saw her again until that morning when you saw her also, but my nephew, Frank--'
Nicholas started, and indistinctly apologising for the interruption, begged his patron to proceed.
'--My nephew, Frank, I say,' resumed Mr Cheeryble, 'encountered her by accident, and lost sight of her almost in a minute afterwards, within two days after he returned to England. Her father lay in some secret place to avoid his creditors, reduced, between sickness and poverty, to the verge of death, and she, a child,-we might almost think, if we did not know the wisdom of all Heaven's decrees -who should have blessed a better man, was steadily braving privation, degradation, and everything most terrible to such a young and delicate creature's heart, for the purpose of supporting him. She was attended, sir,' said brother Charles, 'in these reverses, by one faithful creature, who had been, in old times, a poor kitchen wench in the family, who was then their solitary servant, but who might have been, for the truth and fidelity of her heart--who might have been--ah! the wife of Tim Linkinwater himself, sir!'
Pursuing this encomium upon the poor follower with such energy and relish as no words can describe, brother Charles leant back in his chair, and delivered the remainder of his relation with greater composure.
It was in substance this: That proudly resisting all offers of permanent aid and support from her late mother's friends, because they were made conditional upon her quitting the wretched man, her father, who had no friends left, and shrinking with instinctive delicacy from appealing in their behalf to that true and noble heart which he hated, and had, through its greatest and purest goodness, deeply wronged by misconstruction and ill report, this young girl had struggled alone and unassisted to maintain him by the labour of her hands. That through the utmost depths of poverty and affliction she had toiled, never turning aside for an instant from her task, never wearied by the petulant gloom of a sick man sustained by no consoling recollections of the past or hopes of the future; never repining for the comforts she had rejected, or bewailing the hard lot she had voluntarily incurred. That every little accomplishment she had acquired in happier days had been put into requisition for this purpose, and directed to this one end. That for two long years, toiling by day and often too by night, working at the needle, the pencil, and the pen, and submitting, as a daily governess, to such caprices and indignities as women (with daughters too) too often love to inflict upon their own sex when they serve in such capacities, as though in jealousy of the superior intelligence which they are necessitated to employ,--indignities, in ninety-nine cases out of every hundred, heaped upon persons immeasurably and incalculably their betters, but outweighing in comparison any that the most heartless blackleg would put upon his groom--that for two long years, by dint of labouring in all these capacities and wearying in none, she had not succeeded in the sole aim and object of her life, but that, overwhelmed by accumulated difficulties and disappointments, she had been compelled to seek out her mother's old friend, and, with a bursting heart, to confide in him at last.
'If I had been poor,' said brother Charles, with sparkling eyes; 'if I had been poor, Mr Nickleby, my dear sir, which thank God I am not, I would have denied myself (of course anybody would under such circumstances) the commonest necessaries of life, to help her. As it is, the task is a difficult one. If her father were dead, nothing could be easier, for then she should share and cheer the happiest home that brother Ned and I could have, as if she were our child or sister. But he is still alive. Nobody can help him; that has been tried a thousand times; he was not abandoned by all without good cause, I know.'
'Cannot she be persuaded to--' Nicholas hesitated when he had got thus far. 'To leave him?' said brother Charles. 'Who could entreat a child to desert her parent? Such entreaties, limited to her seeing him occasionally, have been urged upon her--not by me--but always with the same result.'
'Is he kind to her?' said Nicholas. 'Does he requite her affection?'
'True kindness, considerate self-denying kindness, is not in his nature,' returned Mr Cheeryble. 'Such kindness as he knows, he regards her with, I believe. The mother was a gentle, loving, confiding creature, and although he wounded her from their marriage till her death as cruelly and wantonly as ever man did, she never ceased to love him. She commended him on her death-bed to her child's care. Her child has never forgotten it, and never will.'
'Have you no influence over him?' asked Nicholas.
'I, my dear sir! The last man in the world. Such are his jealousy and hatred of me, that if he knew his daughter had opened her heart to me, he would render her life miserable with his reproaches; although--this is the inconsistency and selfishness of his character--although if he knew that every penny she had came from me, he would not relinquish one personal desire that the most reckless expenditure of her scanty stock could gratify.'
'An unnatural scoundrel!' said Nicholas, indignantly.
'We will use no harsh terms,' said brother Charles, in a gentle voice; 'but accommodate ourselves to the circumstances in which this young lady is placed. Such assistance as I have prevailed upon her to accept, I have been obliged, at her own earnest request, to dole out in the smallest portions, lest he, finding how easily money was procured, should squander it even more lightly than he is accustomed to do. She has come to and fro, to and fro, secretly and by night, to take even this; and I cannot bear that things should go on in this way, Mr Nickleby, I really cannot bear it.'
Then it came out by little and little, how that the twins had been revolving in their good old heads manifold plans and schemes for helping this young lady in the most delicate and considerate way, and so that her father should not suspect the source whence the aid was derived; and how they had at last come to the conclusion, that the best course would be to make a feint of purchasing her little drawings and ornamental work at a high price, and keeping up a constant demand for the same. For the furtherance of which end and object it was necessary that somebody should represent the dealer in such commodities, and after great deliberation they had pitched upon Nicholas to support this character. 'He knows me,' said brother Charles, 'and he knows my brother Ned. Neither of us would do. Frank is a very good fellow--a very fine fellow--but we are afraid that he might be a little flighty and thoughtless in such a delicate matter, and that he might, perhaps-- that he might, in short, be too susceptible (for she is a beautiful creature, sir; just what her poor mother was), and falling in love with her before he knew well his own mind, carry pain and sorrow into that innocent breast, which we would be the humble instruments of gradually making happy. He took an extraordinary interest in her fortunes when he first happened to encounter her; and we gather from the inquiries we have made of him, that it was she in whose behalf he made that turmoil which led to your first acquaintance.'
Nicholas stammered out that he had before suspected the possibility of such a thing; and in explanation of its having occurred to him, described when and where he had seen the young lady himself.
'Well; then you see,' continued brother Charles, 'that HE wouldn't do. Tim Linkinwater is out of the question; for Tim, sir, is such a tremendous fellow, that he could never contain himself, but would go to loggerheads with the father before he had been in the place five minutes. You don't know what Tim is, sir, when he is aroused by anything that appeals to his feelings very strongly; then he is terrific, sir, is Tim Linkinwater, absolutely terrific. Now, in you we can repose the strictest confidence; in you we have seen--or at least I have seen, and that's the same thing, for there's no difference between me and my brother Ned, except that he is the finest creature that ever lived, and that there is not, and never will be, anybody like him in all the world--in you we have seen domestic virtues and affections, and delicacy of feeling, which exactly qualify you for such an office. And you are the man, sir.'
'The young lady, sir,' said Nicholas, who felt so embarrassed that he had no small difficulty in saying anything at all--'Does--is--is she a party to this innocent deceit?'
'Yes, yes,' returned Mr Cheeryble; 'at least she knows you come from us; she does NOT know, however, but that we shall dispose of these little productions that you'll purchase from time to time; and, perhaps, if you did it very well (that is, VERY well indeed), perhaps she might be brought to believe that we--that we made a profit of them. Eh? Eh?'
In this guileless and most kind simplicity, brother Charles was so happy, and in this possibility of the young lady being led to think that she was under no obligation to him, he evidently felt so sanguine and had so much delight, that Nicholas would not breathe a doubt upon the subject.
All this time, however, there hovered upon the tip of his tongue a confession that the very same objections which Mr Cheeryble had stated to the employment of his nephew in this commission applied with at least equal force and validity to himself, and a hundred times had he been upon the point of avowing the real state of his feelings, and entreating to be released from it. But as often, treading upon the heels of this impulse, came another which urged him to refrain, and to keep his secret to his own breast. 'Why should I,' thought Nicholas, 'why should I throw difficulties in the way of this benevolent and high-minded design? What if I do love and reverence this good and lovely creature. Should I not appear a most arrogant and shallow coxcomb if I gravely represented that there was any danger of her falling in love with me? Besides, have I no confidence in myself? Am I not now bound in honour to repress these thoughts? Has not this excellent man a right to my best and heartiest services, and should any considerations of self deter me from rendering them?'
Asking himself such questions as these, Nicholas mentally answered with great emphasis 'No!' and persuading himself that he was a most conscientious and glorious martyr, nobly resolved to do what, if he had examined his own heart a little more carefully, he would have found he could not resist. Such is the sleight of hand by which we juggle with ourselves, and change our very weaknesses into stanch and most magnanimous virtues!
Mr Cheeryble, being of course wholly unsuspicious that such reflections were presenting themselves to his young friend, proceeded to give him the needful credentials and directions for his first visit, which was to be made next morning; and all preliminaries being arranged, and the strictest secrecy enjoined, Nicholas walked home for the night very thoughtfully indeed.
The place to which Mr Cheeryble had directed him was a row of mean and not over-cleanly houses, situated within 'the Rules' of the King's Bench Prison, and not many hundred paces distant from the obelisk in St George's Fields. The Rules are a certain liberty adjoining the prison, and comprising some dozen streets in which debtors who can raise money to pay large fees, from which their creditors do NOT derive any benefit, are permitted to reside by the wise provisions of the same enlightened laws which leave the debtor who can raise no money to starve in jail, without the food, clothing, lodging, or warmth, which are provided for felons convicted of the most atrocious crimes that can disgrace humanity. There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.
To the row of houses indicated to him by Mr Charles Cheeryble, Nicholas directed his steps, without much troubling his head with such matters as these; and at this row of houses--after traversing a very dirty and dusty suburb, of which minor theatricals, shell-fish, ginger-beer, spring vans, greengrocery, and brokers' shops, appeared to compose the main and most prominent features--he at length arrived with a palpitating heart. There were small gardens in front which, being wholly neglected in all other respects, served as little pens for the dust to collect in, until the wind came round the corner and blew it down the road. Opening the rickety gate which, dangling on its broken hinges before one of these, half admitted and half repulsed the visitor, Nicholas knocked at the street door with a faltering hand.
It was in truth a shabby house outside, with very dim parlour windows and very small show of blinds, and very dirty muslin curtains dangling across the lower panes on very loose and limp strings. Neither, when the door was opened, did the inside appear to belie the outward promise, as there was faded carpeting on the stairs and faded oil-cloth in the passage; in addition to which discomforts a gentleman Ruler was smoking hard in the front parlour (though it was not yet noon), while the lady of the house was busily engaged in turpentining the disjointed fragments of a tent-bedstead at the door of the back parlour, as if in preparation for the reception of some new lodger who had been fortunate enough to engage it.
Nicholas had ample time to make these observations while the little boy, who went on errands for the lodgers, clattered down the kitchen stairs and was heard to scream, as in some remote cellar, for Miss Bray's servant, who, presently appearing and requesting him to follow her, caused him to evince greater symptoms of nervousness and disorder than so natural a consequence of his having inquired for that young lady would seem calculated to occasion. Upstairs he went, however, and into a front room he was shown, and there, seated at a little table by the window, on which were drawing materials with which she was occupied, sat the beautiful girl who had so engrossed his thoughts, and who, surrounded by all the new and strong interest which Nicholas attached to her story, seemed now, in his eyes, a thousand times more beautiful than he had ever yet supposed her.
But how the graces and elegancies which she had dispersed about the poorlyfurnished room went to the heart of Nicholas! Flowers, plants, birds, the harp, the old piano whose notes had sounded so much sweeter in bygone times; how many struggles had it cost her to keep these two last links of that broken chain which bound her yet to home! With every slender ornament, the occupation of her leisure hours, replete with that graceful charm which lingers in every little tasteful work of woman's hands, how much patient endurance and how many gentle affections were entwined! He felt as though the smile of Heaven were on the little chamber; as though the beautiful devotion of so young and weak a creature had shed a ray of its own on the inanimate things around, and made them beautiful as itself; as though the halo with which old painters surround the bright angels of a sinless world played about a being akin in spirit to them, and its light were visibly before him.
And yet Nicholas was in the Rules of the King's Bench Prison! If he had been in Italy indeed, and the time had been sunset, and the scene a stately terrace! But, there is one broad sky over all the world, and whether it be blue or cloudy, the same heaven beyond it; so, perhaps, he had no need of compunction for thinking as he did.
It is not to be supposed that he took in everything at one glance, for he had as yet been unconscious of the presence of a sick man propped up with pillows in an easy-chair, who, moving restlessly and impatiently in his seat, attracted his attention.
He was scarce fifty, perhaps, but so emaciated as to appear much older. His features presented the remains of a handsome countenance, but one in which the embers of strong and impetuous passions were easier to be traced than any expression which would have rendered a far plainer face much more prepossessing. His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone, but there was something of the old fire in the large sunken eye notwithstanding, and it seemed to kindle afresh as he struck a thick stick, with which he seemed to have supported himself in his seat, impatiently on the floor twice or thrice, and called his daughter by her name.
'Madeline, who is this? What does anybody want here? Who told a stranger we could be seen? What is it?'
'I believe--' the young lady began, as she inclined her head with an air of some confusion, in reply to the salutation of Nicholas.
'You always believe,' returned her father, petulantly. 'What is it?'
By this time Nicholas had recovered sufficient presence of mind to speak for himself, so he said (as it had been agreed he should say) that he had called about a pair of hand-screens, and some painted velvet for an ottoman, both of which were required to be of the most elegant design possible, neither time nor expense being of the smallest consideration. He had also to pay for the two drawings, with many thanks, and, advancing to the little table, he laid upon it a bank note, folded in an envelope and sealed.
'See that the money is right, Madeline,' said the father. 'Open the paper, my dear.'
'It's quite right, papa, I'm sure.'
'Here!' said Mr Bray, putting out his hand, and opening and shutting his bony fingers with irritable impatience. 'Let me see. What are you talking about, Madeline? You're sure? How can you be sure of any such thing? Five pounds-well, is THAT right?'
'Quite,' said Madeline, bending over him. She was so busily employed in arranging the pillows that Nicholas could not see her face, but as she stooped he thought he saw a tear fall.
'Ring the bell, ring the bell,' said the sick man, with the same nervous eagerness, and motioning towards it with such a quivering hand that the bank note rustled in the air. 'Tell her to get it changed, to get me a newspaper, to buy me some grapes, another bottle of the wine that I had last week--and--and--I forget half I want just now, but she can go out again. Let her get those first, those first. Now, Madeline, my love, quick, quick! Good God, how slow you are!'
'He remembers nothing that SHE wants!' thought Nicholas. Perhaps something of what he thought was expressed in his countenance, for the sick man, turning towards him with great asperity, demanded to know if he waited for a receipt. 'It is no matter at all,' said Nicholas.
'No matter! what do you mean, sir?' was the tart rejoinder. 'No matter! Do you think you bring your paltry money here as a favour or a gift; or as a matter of business, and in return for value received? D--n you, sir, because you can't appreciate the time and taste which are bestowed upon the goods you deal in, do you think you give your money away? Do you know that you are talking to a gentleman, sir, who at one time could have bought up fifty such men as you and all you have? What do you mean?'
'I merely mean that as I shall have many dealings with this lady, if she will kindly allow me, I will not trouble her with such forms,' said Nicholas.
'Then I mean, if you please, that we'll have as many forms as we can, returned the father. 'My daughter, sir, requires no kindness from you or anybody else. Have the goodness to confine your dealings strictly to trade and business, and not to travel beyond it. Every petty tradesman is to begin to pity her now, is he? Upon my soul! Very pretty. Madeline, my dear, give him a receipt; and mind you always do so.'
While she was feigning to write it, and Nicholas was ruminating upon the extraordinary but by no means uncommon character thus presented to his observation, the invalid, who appeared at times to suffer great bodily pain, sank back in his chair and moaned out a feeble complaint that the girl had been gone an hour, and that everybody conspired to goad him.
'When,' said Nicholas, as he took the piece of paper, 'when shall I call again?' This was addressed to the daughter, but the father answered immediately. 'When you're requested to call, sir, and not before. Don't worry and persecute. Madeline, my dear, when is this person to call again?'
'Oh, not for a long time, not for three or four weeks; it is not necessary, indeed; I can do without,' said the young lady, with great eagerness.
'Why, how are we to do without?' urged her father, not speaking above his breath. 'Three or four weeks, Madeline! Three or four weeks!'
'Then sooner, sooner, if you please,' said the young lady, turning to Nicholas. 'Three or four weeks!' muttered the father. 'Madeline, what on earth--do nothing for three or four weeks!'
'It is a long time, ma'am,' said Nicholas.
'YOU think so, do you?' retorted the father, angrily. 'If I chose to beg, sir, and stoop to ask assistance from people I despise, three or four months would not be a long time; three or four years would not be a long time. Understand, sir, that is if I chose to be dependent; but as I don't, you may call in a week.' Nicholas bowed low to the young lady and retired, pondering upon Mr Bray's ideas of independence, and devoutly hoping that there might be few such independent spirits as he mingling with the baser clay of humanity. He heard a light footstep above him as he descended the stairs, and looking round saw that the young lady was standing there, and glancing timidly towards him, seemed to hesitate whether she should call him back or no. The best way of settling the question was to turn back at once, which Nicholas did. 'I don't know whether I do right in asking you, sir,' said Madeline, hurriedly, 'but pray, pray, do not mention to my poor mother's dear friends what has passed here today. He has suffered much, and is worse this morning. I beg you, sir, as a boon, a favour to myself.'
'You have but to hint a wish,' returned Nicholas fervently, 'and I would hazard my life to gratify it.'
'You speak hastily, sir.'
'Truly and sincerely,' rejoined Nicholas, his lips trembling as he formed the words, 'if ever man spoke truly yet. I am not skilled in disguising my feelings, and if I were, I could not hide my heart from you. Dear madam, as I know your history, and feel as men and angels must who hear and see such things, I do entreat you to believe that I would die to serve you.'
The young lady turned away her head, and was plainly weeping.
'Forgive me,' said Nicholas, with respectful earnestness, 'if I seem to say too much, or to presume upon the confidence which has been intrusted to me. But I could not leave you as if my interest and sympathy expired with the commission of the day. I am your faithful servant, humbly devoted to you from this hour, devoted in strict truth and honour to him who sent me here, and in pure integrity of heart, and distant respect for you. If I meant more or less than this, I should be unworthy his regard, and false to the very nature that prompts the honest words I utter.'
She waved her hand, entreating him to be gone, but answered not a word. Nicholas could say no more, and silently withdrew. And thus ended his first interview with Madeline Bray.
Mr Ralph Nickleby has some confidential Intercourse with another old Friend. They concert between them a Project, which promises well for both 'There go the three-quarters past!' muttered Newman Noggs, listening to the chimes of some neighbouring church 'and my dinner time's two. He does it on purpose. He makes a point of it. It's just like him.'
It was in his own little den of an office and on the top of his official stool that Newman thus soliloquised; and the soliloquy referred, as Newman's grumbling soliloquies usually did, to Ralph Nickleby.
'I don't believe he ever had an appetite,' said Newman, 'except for pounds, shillings, and pence, and with them he's as greedy as a wolf. I should like to have him compelled to swallow one of every English coin. The penny would be an awkward morsel--but the crown-- ha! ha!'
His good-humour being in some degree restored by the vision of Ralph Nickleby swallowing, perforce, a five-shilling piece, Newman slowly brought forth from his desk one of those portable bottles, currently known as pocket-pistols, and shaking the same close to his ear so as to produce a rippling sound very cool and pleasant to listen to, suffered his features to relax, and took a gurgling drink, which relaxed them still more. Replacing the cork, he smacked his lips twice or thrice with an air of great relish, and, the taste of the liquor having by this time evaporated, recurred to his grievance again.
'Five minutes to three,' growled Newman; 'it can't want more by this time; and I had my breakfast at eight o'clock, and SUCH a breakfast! and my right dinnertime two! And I might have a nice little bit of hot roast meat spoiling at home all this time--how does HE know I haven't? "Don't go till I come back," "Don't go till I come back," day after day. What do you always go out at my dinner-time for then--eh? Don't you know it's nothing but aggravation--eh?'
These words, though uttered in a very loud key, were addressed to nothing but empty air. The recital of his wrongs, however, seemed to have the effect of making Newman Noggs desperate; for he flattened his old hat upon his head, and drawing on the everlasting gloves, declared with great vehemence, that come what might, he would go to dinner that very minute.
Carrying this resolution into instant effect, he had advanced as far as the passage, when the sound of the latch-key in the street door caused him to make a precipitate retreat into his own office again.
'Here he is,' growled Newman, 'and somebody with him. Now it'll be "Stop till this gentleman's gone." But I won't. That's flat.'
So saying, Newman slipped into a tall empty closet which opened with two half doors, and shut himself up; intending to slip out directly Ralph was safe inside his own room.
'Noggs!' cried Ralph, 'where is that fellow, Noggs?'
But not a word said Newman.
'The dog has gone to his dinner, though I told him not,' muttered Ralph, looking into the office, and pulling out his watch. 'Humph!' You had better come in here, Gride. My man's out, and the sun is hot upon my room. This is cool and in the shade, if you don't mind roughing it.'
'Not at all, Mr Nickleby, oh not at all! All places are alike to me, sir. Ah! very nice indeed. Oh! very nice!'
The parson who made this reply was a little old man, of about seventy or seventy-five years of age, of a very lean figure, much bent and slightly twisted. He wore a grey coat with a very narrow collar, an old-fashioned waistcoat of ribbed black silk, and such scanty trousers as displayed his shrunken spindleshanks in their full ugliness. The only articles of display or ornament in his dress were a steel watch-chain to which were attached some large gold seals; and a black ribbon into which, in compliance with an old fashion scarcely ever observed in these days, his grey hair was gathered behind. His nose and chin were sharp and prominent, his jaws had fallen inwards from loss of teeth, his face was shrivelled and yellow, save where the cheeks were streaked with the colour of a dry winter apple; and where his beard had been, there lingered yet a few grey tufts which seemed, like the ragged eyebrows, to denote the badness of the soil from which they sprung. The whole air and attitude of the form was one of stealthy cat-like obsequiousness; the whole expression of the face was concentrated in a wrinkled leer, compounded of cunning, lecherousness, slyness, and avarice.
Such was old Arthur Gride, in whose face there was not a wrinkle, in whose dress there was not one spare fold or plait, but expressed the most covetous and griping penury, and sufficiently indicated his belonging to that class of which Ralph Nickleby was a member. Such was old Arthur Gride, as he sat in a low chair looking up into the face of Ralph Nickleby, who, lounging upon the tall office stool, with his arms upon his knees, looked down into his; a match for him on whatever errand he had come.
'And how have you been?' said Gride, feigning great interest in Ralph's state of health. 'I haven't seen you for--oh! not for--'
'Not for a long time,' said Ralph, with a peculiar smile, importing that he very well knew it was not on a mere visit of compliment that his friend had come. 'It was a narrow chance that you saw me now, for I had only just come up to the door as you turned the corner.'
'I am very lucky,' observed Gride.
'So men say,' replied Ralph, drily.
The older money-lender wagged his chin and smiled, but he originated no new remark, and they sat for some little time without speaking. Each was looking out to take the other at a disadvantage.
'Come, Gride,' said Ralph, at length; 'what's in the wind today?'
'Aha! you're a bold man, Mr Nickleby,' cried the other, apparently very much relieved by Ralph's leading the way to business. 'Oh dear, dear, what a bold man you are!'
'Why, you have a sleek and slinking way with you that makes me seem so by contrast,' returned Ralph. 'I don't know but that yours may answer better, but I want the patience for it.'
'You were born a genius, Mr Nickleby,' said old Arthur. 'Deep, deep, deep. Ah!' 'Deep enough,' retorted Ralph, 'to know that I shall need all the depth I have, when men like you begin to compliment. You know I have stood by when you fawned and flattered other people, and I remember pretty well what THAT always led to.'
'Ha, ha, ha!' rejoined Arthur, rubbing his hands. 'So you do, so you do, no doubt. Not a man knows it better. Well, it's a pleasant thing now to think that you remember old times. Oh dear!'
'Now then,' said Ralph, composedly; 'what's in the wind, I ask again? What is it?' 'See that now!' cried the other. 'He can't even keep from business while we're chatting over bygones. Oh dear, dear, what a man it is!'
'WHICH of the bygones do you want to revive?' said Ralph. 'One of them, I know, or you wouldn't talk about them.'
'He suspects even me!' cried old Arthur, holding up his hands. 'Even me! Oh dear, even me. What a man it is! Ha, ha, ha! What a man it is! Mr Nickleby against all the world. There's nobody like him. A giant among pigmies, a giant, a giant!'
Ralph looked at the old dog with a quiet smile as he chuckled on in this strain, and Newman Noggs in the closet felt his heart sink within him as the prospect of dinner grew fainter and fainter.
'I must humour him though,' cried old Arthur; 'he must have his way --a wilful man, as the Scotch say--well, well, they're a wise people, the Scotch. He will talk about business, and won't give away his time for nothing. He's very right. Time is money, time is money.'
'He was one of us who made that saying, I should think,' said Ralph. 'Time is money, and very good money too, to those who reckon interest by it. Time IS money! Yes, and time costs money; it's rather an expensive article to some people we could name, or I forget my trade.'
In rejoinder to this sally, old Arthur again raised his hands, again chuckled, and again ejaculated 'What a man it is!' which done, he dragged the low chair a little nearer to Ralph's high stool, and looking upwards into his immovable face, said, 'What would you say to me, if I was to tell you that I was--that I was--going to be married?'
'I should tell you,' replied Ralph, looking coldly down upon him, 'that for some purpose of your own you told a lie, and that it wasn't the first time and wouldn't be the last; that I wasn't surprised and wasn't to be taken in.'
'Then I tell you seriously that I am,' said old Arthur.
'And I tell you seriously,' rejoined Ralph, 'what I told you this minute. Stay. Let me look at you. There's a liquorish devilry in your face. What is this?'
'I wouldn't deceive YOU, you know,' whined Arthur Gride; 'I couldn't do it, I should be mad to try. I, I, to deceive Mr Nickleby! The pigmy to impose upon the giant. I ask again--he, he, he!--what should you say to me if I was to tell you that I was going to be married?'
'To some old hag?' said Ralph.
'No, No,' cried Arthur, interrupting him, and rubbing his hands in an ecstasy. 'Wrong, wrong again. Mr Nickleby for once at fault; out, quite out! To a young and beautiful girl; fresh, lovely, bewitching, and not nineteen. Dark eyes, long eyelashes, ripe and ruddy lips that to look at is to long to kiss, beautiful clustering hair that one's fingers itch to play with, such a waist as might make a man clasp the air involuntarily, thinking of twining his arm about it, little feet that tread so lightly they hardly seem to walk upon the ground--to marry all this, sir, this--hey, hey!'
'This is something more than common drivelling,' said Ralph, after listening with a curled lip to the old sinner's raptures. 'The girl's name?'
'Oh deep, deep! See now how deep that is!' exclaimed old Arthur. 'He knows I want his help, he knows he can give it me, he knows it must all turn to his advantage, he sees the thing already. Her name--is there nobody within hearing?'
'Why, who the devil should there be?' retorted Ralph, testily.
'I didn't know but that perhaps somebody might be passing up or down the stairs,' said Arthur Gride, after looking out at the door and carefully reclosing it; 'or but that your man might have come back and might have been listening outside. Clerks and servants have a trick of listening, and I should have been very uncomfortable if Mr Noggs--'
'Curse Mr Noggs,' said Ralph, sharply, 'and go on with what you have to say.' 'Curse Mr Noggs, by all means,' rejoined old Arthur; 'I am sure I have not the least objection to that. Her name is--'
'Well,' said Ralph, rendered very irritable by old Arthur's pausing again 'what is it?'
Whatever reasons there might have been--and Arthur Gride appeared to have anticipated some--for the mention of this name producing an effect upon Ralph, or whatever effect it really did produce upon him, he permitted none to manifest itself, but calmly repeated the name several times, as if reflecting when and where he had heard it before.
'Bray,' said Ralph. 'Bray--there was young Bray of--,no, he never had a daughter.' 'You remember Bray?' rejoined Arthur Gride.
'No,' said Ralph, looking vacantly at him.
'Not Walter Bray! The dashing man, who used his handsome wife so ill?' 'If you seek to recall any particular dashing man to my recollection by such a trait as that,' said Ralph, shrugging his shoulders, 'I shall confound him with ninetenths of the dashing men I have ever known.'
'Tut, tut. That Bray who is now in the Rules of the Bench,' said old Arthur. 'You can't have forgotten Bray. Both of us did business with him. Why, he owes you money!'
'Oh HIM!' rejoined Ralph. 'Ay, ay. Now you speak. Oh! It's HIS daughter, is it?' Naturally as this was said, it was not said so naturally but that a kindred spirit like old Arthur Gride might have discerned a design upon the part of Ralph to lead him on to much more explicit statements and explanations than he would have volunteered, or that Ralph could in all likelihood have obtained by any other means. Old Arthur, however, was so intent upon his own designs, that he suffered himself to be overreached, and had no suspicion but that his good friend was in earnest.
'I knew you couldn't forget him, when you came to think for a moment,' he said. 'You were right,' answered Ralph. 'But old Arthur Gride and matrimony is a most anomalous conjunction of words; old Arthur Gride and dark eyes and eyelashes, and lips that to look at is to long to kiss, and clustering hair that he wants to play with, and waists that he wants to span, and little feet that don't tread upon anything--old Arthur Gride and such things as these is more monstrous still; but old Arthur Gride marrying the daughter of a ruined "dashing man" in the Rules of the Bench, is the most monstrous and incredible of all. Plainly, friend Arthur Gride, if you want any help from me in this business (which of course you do, or you would not be here), speak out, and to the purpose. And, above all, don't talk to me of its turning to my advantage, for I know it must turn to yours also, and to a good round tune too, or you would have no finger in such a pie as this.' There was enough acerbity and sarcasm not only in the matter of Ralph's speech, but in the tone of voice in which he uttered it, and the looks with which he eked it out, to have fired even the ancient usurer's cold blood and flushed even his withered cheek. But he gave vent to no demonstration of anger, contenting himself with exclaiming as before, 'What a man it is!' and rolling his head from side to side, as if in unrestrained enjoyment of his freedom and drollery. Clearly observing, however, from the expression in Ralph's features, that he had best come to the point as speedily as might be, he composed himself for more serious business, and entered upon the pith and marrow of his negotiation. First, he dwelt upon the fact that Madeline Bray was devoted to the support and maintenance, and was a slave to every wish, of her only parent, who had no other friend on earth; to which Ralph rejoined that he had heard something of the kind before, and that if she had known a little more of the world, she wouldn't have been such a fool.
Secondly, he enlarged upon the character of her father, arguing, that even taking it for granted that he loved her in return with the utmost affection of which he was capable, yet he loved himself a great deal better; which Ralph said it was quite unnecessary to say anything more about, as that was very natural, and probable enough.
And, thirdly, old Arthur premised that the girl was a delicate and beautiful creature, and that he had really a hankering to have her for his wife. To this Ralph deigned no other rejoinder than a harsh smile, and a glance at the shrivelled old creature before him, which were, however, sufficiently expressive. 'Now,' said Gride, 'for the little plan I have in my mind to bring this about; because, I haven't offered myself even to the father yet, I should have told you. But that you have gathered already? Ah! oh dear, oh dear, what an edged tool you are!'
'Don't play with me then,' said Ralph impatiently. 'You know the proverb.' 'A reply always on the tip of his tongue!' cried old Arthur, raising his hands and eyes in admiration. 'He is always prepared! Oh dear, what a blessing to have such a ready wit, and so much ready money to back it!' Then, suddenly changing his tone, he went on: 'I have been backwards and forwards to Bray's lodgings several times within the last six months. It is just half a year since I first saw this delicate morsel, and, oh dear, what a delicate morsel it is! But that is neither here nor there. I am his detaining creditor for seventeen hundred pounds!' 'You talk as if you were the only detaining creditor,' said Ralph, pulling out his pocket-book. 'I am another for nine hundred and seventy-five pounds four and threepence.'
'The only other, Mr Nickleby,' said old Arthur, eagerly. 'The only other. Nobody else went to the expense of lodging a detainer, trusting to our holding him fast enough, I warrant you. We both fell into the same snare; oh dear, what a pitfall it was; it almost ruined me! And lent him our money upon bills, with only one name besides his own, which to be sure everybody supposed to be a good one, and was as negotiable as money, but which turned out you know how. Just as we should have come upon him, he died insolvent. Ah! it went very nigh to ruin me, that loss did!'
'Go on with your scheme,' said Ralph. 'It's of no use raising the cry of our trade just now; there's nobody to hear us!'
'It's always as well to talk that way,' returned old Arthur, with a chuckle, 'whether there's anybody to hear us or not. Practice makes perfect, you know. Now, if I offer myself to Bray as his son-in- law, upon one simple condition that the moment I am fast married he shall be quietly released, and have an allowance to live just t'other side the water like a gentleman (he can't live long, for I have asked his doctor, and he declares that his complaint is one of the Heart and it is impossible), and if all the advantages of this condition are properly stated and dwelt upon to him, do you think he could resist me? And if he could not resist ME, do you think his daughter could resist HIM? Shouldn't I have her Mrs Arthur Gride-- pretty Mrs Arthur Gride--a tit-bit--a dainty chick--shouldn't I have her Mrs Arthur Gride in a week, a month, a day--any time I chose to name?' 'Go on,' said Ralph, nodding his head deliberately, and speaking in a tone whose studied coldness presented a strange contrast to the rapturous squeak to which his friend had gradually mounted. 'Go on. You didn't come here to ask me that.' 'Oh dear, how you talk!' cried old Arthur, edging himself closer still to Ralph. 'Of course I didn't, I don't pretend I did! I came to ask what you would take from me, if I prospered with the father, for this debt of yours. Five shillings in the pound, six and- eightpence, ten shillings? I WOULD go as far as ten for such a friend as you, we have always been on such good terms, but you won't be so hard upon me as that, I know. Now, will you?'
'There's something more to be told,' said Ralph, as stony and immovable as ever. 'Yes, yes, there is, but you won't give me time,' returned Arthur Gride. 'I want a backer in this matter; one who can talk, and urge, and press a point, which you can do as no man can. I can't do that, for I am a poor, timid, nervous creature. Now, if you get a good composition for this debt, which you long ago gave up for lost, you'll stand my friend, and help me. Won't you?'
'There's something more,' said Ralph.
'No, no, indeed,' cried Arthur Gride.
'Yes, yes, indeed. I tell you yes,' said Ralph.
'Oh!' returned old Arthur feigning to be suddenly enlightened. 'You mean something more, as concerns myself and my intention. Ay, surely, surely. Shall I mention that?'
'I think you had better,' rejoined Ralph, drily.
'I didn't like to trouble you with that, because I supposed your interest would cease with your own concern in the affair,' said Arthur Gride. 'That's kind of you to ask. Oh dear, how very kind of you! Why, supposing I had a knowledge of some property--some little property--very little--to which this pretty chick was entitled; which nobody does or can know of at this time, but which her husband could sweep into his pouch, if he knew as much as I do, would that account for--' 'For the whole proceeding,' rejoined Ralph, abruptly. 'Now, let me turn this matter over, and consider what I ought to have if I should help you to success.' 'But don't be hard,' cried old Arthur, raising his hands with an imploring gesture, and speaking, in a tremulous voice. 'Don't be too hard upon me. It's a very small property, it is indeed. Say the ten shillings, and we'll close the bargain. It's more than I ought to give, but you're so kind--shall we say the ten? Do now, do.' Ralph took no notice of these supplications, but sat for three or four minutes in a brown study, looking thoughtfully at the person from whom they proceeded. After sufficient cogitation he broke silence, and it certainly could not be objected that he used any needless circumlocution, or failed to speak directly to the purpose. 'If you married this girl without me,' said Ralph, 'you must pay my debt in full, because you couldn't set her father free otherwise. It's plain, then, that I must have the whole amount, clear of all deduction or incumbrance, or I should lose from being honoured with your confidence, instead of gaining by it. That's the first article of the treaty. For the second, I shall stipulate that for my trouble in negotiation and persuasion, and helping you to this fortune, I have five hundred pounds. That's very little, because you have the ripe lips, and the clustering hair, and what not, all to yourself. For the third and last article, I require that you execute a bond to me, this day, binding yourself in the payment of these two sums, before noon of the day of your marriage with Madeline Bray. You have told me I can urge and press a point. I press this one, and will take nothing less than these terms. Accept them if you like. If not, marry her without me if you can. I shall still get my debt.'
To all entreaties, protestations, and offers of compromise between his own proposals and those which Arthur Gride had first suggested, Ralph was deaf as an adder. He would enter into no further discussion of the subject, and while old Arthur dilated upon the enormity of his demands and proposed modifications of them, approaching by degrees nearer and nearer to the terms he resisted, sat perfectly mute, looking with an air of quiet abstraction over the entries and papers in his pocket-book. Finding that it was impossible to make any impression upon his staunch friend, Arthur Gride, who had prepared himself for some such result before he came, consented with a heavy heart to the proposed treaty, and upon the spot filled up the bond required (Ralph kept such instruments handy), after exacting the condition that Mr Nickleby should accompany him to Bray's lodgings that very hour, and open the negotiation at once, should circumstances appear auspicious and favourable to their designs.
In pursuance of this last understanding the worthy gentlemen went out together shortly afterwards, and Newman Noggs emerged, bottle in hand, from the cupboard, out of the upper door of which, at the imminent risk of detection, he had more than once thrust his red nose when such parts of the subject were under discussion as interested him most.
'I have no appetite now,' said Newman, putting the flask in his pocket. 'I've had MY dinner.'
Having delivered this observation in a very grievous and doleful tone, Newman reached the door in one long limp, and came back again in another. 'I don't know who she may be, or what she may be,' he said: 'but I pity her with all my heart and soul; and I can't help her, nor can I any of the people against whom a hundred tricks, but none so vile as this, are plotted every day! Well, that adds to my pain, but not to theirs. The thing is no worse because I know it, and it tortures me as well as them. Gride and Nickleby! Good pair for a curricle. Oh roguery! roguery! roguery!'
With these reflections, and a very hard knock on the crown of his unfortunate hat at each repetition of the last word, Newman Noggs, whose brain was a little muddled by so much of the contents of the pocket-pistol as had found their way there during his recent concealment, went forth to seek such consolation as might be derivable from the beef and greens of some cheap eating-house. Meanwhile the two plotters had betaken themselves to the same house whither Nicholas had repaired for the first time but a few mornings before, and having obtained access to Mr Bray, and found his daughter from home, had by a train of the most masterly approaches that Ralph's utmost skill could frame, at length laid open the real object of their visit.
'There he sits, Mr Bray,' said Ralph, as the invalid, not yet recovered from his surprise, reclined in his chair, looking alternately at him and Arthur Gride. 'What if he has had the ill- fortune to be one cause of your detention in this place? I have been another; men must live; you are too much a man of the world not to see that in its true light. We offer the best reparation in our power. Reparation! Here is an offer of marriage, that many a titled father would leap at, for his child. Mr Arthur Gride, with the fortune of a prince. Think what a haul it is!'
'My daughter, sir,' returned Bray, haughtily, 'as I have brought her up, would be a rich recompense for the largest fortune that a man could bestow in exchange for her hand.'
'Precisely what I told you,' said the artful Ralph, turning to his friend, old Arthur. 'Precisely what made me consider the thing so fair and easy. There is no obligation on either side. You have money, and Miss Madeline has beauty and worth. She has youth, you have money. She has not money, you have not youth. Tit for tat, quits, a match of Heaven's own making!'
'Matches are made in Heaven, they say,' added Arthur Gride, leering hideously at the father-in-law he wanted. 'If we are married, it will be destiny, according to that.'
'Then think, Mr Bray,' said Ralph, hastily substituting for this argument considerations more nearly allied to earth, 'think what a stake is involved in the acceptance or rejection of these proposals of my friend.'
'How can I accept or reject,' interrupted Mr Bray, with an irritable consciousness that it really rested with him to decide. 'It is for my daughter to accept or reject; it is for my daughter. You know that.'
'True,' said Ralph, emphatically; 'but you have still the power to advise; to state the reasons for and against; to hint a wish.'
'To hint a wish, sir!' returned the debtor, proud and mean by turns, and selfish at all times. 'I am her father, am I not? Why should I hint, and beat about the bush? Do you suppose, like her mother's friends and my enemies--a curse upon them all!--that there is anything in what she has done for me but duty, sir, but duty? Or do you think that my having been unfortunate is a sufficient reason why our relative positions should be changed, and that she should command and I should obey? Hint a wish, too! Perhaps you think, because you see me in this place and scarcely able to leave this chair without assistance, that I am some brokenspirited dependent creature, without the courage or power to do what I may think best for my own child. Still the power to hint a wish! I hope so!'
'Pardon me,' returned Ralph, who thoroughly knew his man, and had taken his ground accordingly; 'you do not hear me out. I was about to say that your hinting a wish, even hinting a wish, would surely be equivalent to commanding.' 'Why, of course it would,' retorted Mr Bray, in an exasperated tone. 'If you don't happen to have heard of the time, sir, I tell you that there was a time, when I carried every point in triumph against her mother's whole family, although they had power and wealth on their side, by my will alone.'
'Still,' rejoined Ralph, as mildly as his nature would allow him, 'you have not heard me out. You are a man yet qualified to shine in society, with many years of life before you; that is, if you lived in freer air, and under brighter skies, and chose your own companions. Gaiety is your element, you have shone in it before. Fashion and freedom for you. France, and an annuity that would support you there in luxury, would give you a new lease of life, would transfer you to a new existence. The town rang with your expensive pleasures once, and you could blaze up on a new scene again, profiting by experience, and living a little at others' cost, instead of letting others live at yours. What is there on the reverse side of the picture? What is there? I don't know which is the nearest churchyard, but a gravestone there, wherever it is, and a date, perhaps two years hence, perhaps twenty. That's all.'
Mr Bray rested his elbow on the arm of his chair, and shaded his face with his hand.
'I speak plainly,' said Ralph, sitting down beside him, 'because I feel strongly. It's my interest that you should marry your daughter to my friend Gride, because then he sees me paid--in part, that is. I don't disguise it. I acknowledge it openly. But what interest have you in recommending her to such a step? Keep that in view. She might object, remonstrate, shed tears, talk of his being too old, and plead that her life would be rendered miserable. But what is it now?' Several slight gestures on the part of the invalid showed that these arguments were no more lost upon him, than the smallest iota of his demeanour was upon Ralph.
'What is it now, I say,' pursued the wily usurer, 'or what has it a chance of being? If you died, indeed, the people you hate would make her happy. But can you bear the thought of that?'
'No!' returned Bray, urged by a vindictive impulse he could not repress. 'I should imagine not, indeed!' said Ralph, quietly. 'If she profits by anybody's death,' this was said in a lower tone, 'let it be by her husband's. Don't let her have to look back to yours, as the event from which to date a happier life. Where is the objection? Let me hear it stated. What is it? That her suitor is an old man? Why, how often do men of family and fortune, who haven't your excuse, but have all the means and superfluities of life within their reach, how often do they marry their daughters to old men, or (worse still) to young men without heads or hearts, to tickle some idle vanity, strengthen some family interest, or secure some seat in Parliament! Judge for her, sir, judge for her. You must know best, and she will live to thank you.'
'Hush! hush!' cried Mr Bray, suddenly starting up, and covering Ralph's mouth with his trembling hand. 'I hear her at the door!'
There was a gleam of conscience in the shame and terror of this hasty action, which, in one short moment, tore the thin covering of sophistry from the cruel design, and laid it bare in all its meanness and heartless deformity. The father fell into his chair pale and trembling; Arthur Gride plucked and fumbled at his hat, and durst not raise his eyes from the floor; even Ralph crouched for the moment like a beaten hound, cowed by the presence of one young innocent girl! The effect was almost as brief as sudden. Ralph was the first to recover himself, and observing Madeline's looks of alarm, entreated the poor girl to be composed, assuring her that there was no cause for fear.
'A sudden spasm,' said Ralph, glancing at Mr Bray. 'He is quite well now.' It might have moved a very hard and worldly heart to see the young and beautiful creature, whose certain misery they had been contriving but a minute before, throw her arms about her father's neck, and pour forth words of tender sympathy and love, the sweetest a father's ear can know, or child's lips form. But Ralph looked coldly on; and Arthur Gride, whose bleared eyes gloated only over the outward beauties, and were blind to the spirit which reigned within, evinced--a fantastic kind of warmth certainly, but not exactly that kind of warmth of feeling which the contemplation of virtue usually inspires.
'Madeline,' said her father, gently disengaging himself, 'it was nothing.' 'But you had that spasm yesterday, and it is terrible to see you in such pain. Can I do nothing for you?'
'Nothing just now. Here are two gentlemen, Madeline, one of whom you have seen before. She used to say,' added Mr Bray, addressing Arthur Gride, 'that the sight of you always made me worse. That was natural, knowing what she did, and only what she did, of our connection and its results. Well, well. Perhaps she may change her mind on that point; girls have leave to change their minds, you know. You are very tired, my dear.'
'I am not, indeed.'
'Indeed you are. You do too much.'
'I wish I could do more.'
'I know you do, but you overtask your strength. This wretched life, my love, of daily labour and fatigue, is more than you can bear, I am sure it is. Poor Madeline!'
With these and many more kind words, Mr Bray drew his daughter to him and kissed her cheek affectionately. Ralph, watching him sharply and closely in the meantime, made his way towards the door, and signed to Gride to follow him. 'You will communicate with us again?' said Ralph.
'Yes, yes,' returned Mr Bray, hastily thrusting his daughter aside. 'In a week. Give me a week.'
'One week,' said Ralph, turning to his companion, 'from today. Good-morning. Miss Madeline, I kiss your hand.'
'We will shake hands, Gride,' said Mr Bray, extending his, as old Arthur bowed. 'You mean well, no doubt. I an bound to say so now. If I owed you money, that was not your fault. Madeline, my love, your hand here.'
'Oh dear! If the young lady would condescent! Only the tips of her fingers,' said Arthur, hesitating and half retreating.
Madeline shrunk involuntarily from the goblin figure, but she placed the tips of her fingers in his hand and instantly withdrew them. After an ineffectual clutch, intended to detain and carry them to his lips, old Arthur gave his own fingers a mumbling kiss, and with many amorous distortions of visage went in pursuit of his friend, who was by this time in the street.
'What does he say, what does he say? What does the giant say to the pigmy?' inquired Arthur Gride, hobbling up to Ralph.
'What does the pigmy say to the giant?' rejoined Ralph, elevating his eyebrows and looking down upon his questioner.
'He doesn't know what to say,' replied Arthur Gride. 'He hopes and fears. But is she not a dainty morsel?'
'I have no great taste for beauty,' growled Ralph.
'But I have,' rejoined Arthur, rubbing his hands. 'Oh dear! How handsome her eyes looked when she was stooping over him! Such long lashes, such delicate fringe! She--she--looked at me so soft.'
'Not over-lovingly, I think,' said Ralph. 'Did she?'
'No, you think not?' replied old Arthur. 'But don't you think it can be brought about? Don't you think it can?'
Ralph looked at him with a contemptuous frown, and replied with a sneer, and between his teeth:
'Did you mark his telling her she was tired and did too much, and overtasked her strength?'
'Ay, ay. What of it?'
'When do you think he ever told her that before? The life is more than she can bear. Yes, yes. He'll change it for her.'
'D'ye think it's done?' inquired old Arthur, peering into his companion's face with half-closed eyes.
'I am sure it's done,' said Ralph. 'He is trying to deceive himself, even before our eyes, already. He is making believe that he thinks of her good and not his own. He is acting a virtuous part, and so considerate and affectionate, sir, that the daughter scarcely knew him. I saw a tear of surprise in her eye. There'll be a few more tears of surprise there before long, though of a different kind. Oh! we may wait with confidence for this day week.'
Being for the Benefit of Mr Vincent Crummles, and positively his last Appearance on this Stage
It was with a very sad and heavy heart, oppressed by many painful ideas, that Nicholas retraced his steps eastward and betook himself to the counting-house of Cheeryble Brothers. Whatever the idle hopes he had suffered himself to entertain, whatever the pleasant visions which had sprung up in his mind and grouped themselves round the fair image of Madeline Bray, they were now dispelled, and not a vestige of their gaiety and brightness remained. It would be a poor compliment to Nicholas's better nature, and one which he was very far from deserving, to insinuate that the solution, and such a solution, of the mystery which had seemed to surround Madeline Bray, when he was ignorant even of her name, had damped his ardour or cooled the fervour of his admiration. If he had regarded her before, with such a passion as young men attracted by mere beauty and elegance may entertain, he was now conscious of much deeper and stronger feelings. But, reverence for the truth and purity of her heart, respect for the helplessness and loneliness of her situation, sympathy with the trials of one so young and fair and admiration of her great and noble spirit, all seemed to raise her far above his reach, and, while they imparted new depth and dignity to his love, to whisper that it was hopeless.
'I will keep my word, as I have pledged it to her,' said Nicholas, manfully. 'This is no common trust that I have to discharge, and I will perform the double duty that is imposed upon me most scrupulously and strictly. My secret feelings deserve no consideration in such a case as this, and they shall have none.' Still, there were the secret feelings in existence just the same, and in secret Nicholas rather encouraged them than otherwise; reasoning (if he reasoned at all) that there they could do no harm to anybody but himself, and that if he kept them to himself from a sense of duty, he had an additional right to entertain himself with them as a reward for his heroism.
All these thoughts, coupled with what he had seen that morning and the anticipation of his next visit, rendered him a very dull and abstracted companion; so much so, indeed, that Tim Linkinwater suspected he must have made the mistake of a figure somewhere, which was preying upon his mind, and seriously conjured him, if such were the case, to make a clean breast and scratch it out, rather than have his whole life embittered by the tortures of remorse. But in reply to these considerate representations, and many others both from Tim and Mr Frank, Nicholas could only be brought to state that he was never merrier in his life; and so went on all day, and so went towards home at night, still turning over and over again the same subjects, thinking over and over again the same things, and arriving over and over again at the same conclusions. In this pensive, wayward, and uncertain state, people are apt to lounge and loiter without knowing why, to read placards on the walls with great attention and without the smallest idea of one word of their contents, and to stare most earnestly through shop-windows at things which they don't see. It was thus that Nicholas found himself poring with the utmost interest over a large play-bill hanging outside a Minor Theatre which he had to pass on his way home, and reading a list of the actors and actresses who had promised to do honour to some approaching benefit, with as much gravity as if it had been a catalogue of the names of those ladies and gentlemen who stood highest upon the Book of Fate, and he had been looking anxiously for his own. He glanced at the top of the bill, with a smile at his own dulness, as he prepared to resume his walk, and there saw announced, in large letters with a large space between each of them, 'Positively the last appearance of Mr Vincent Crummles of Provincial Celebrity!!!' 'Nonsense!' said Nicholas, turning back again. 'It can't be.'
But there it was. In one line by itself was an announcement of the first night of a new melodrama; in another line by itself was an announcement of the last six nights of an old one; a third line was devoted to the re-engagement of the unrivalled African Knife- swallower, who had kindly suffered himself to be prevailed upon to forego his country engagements for one week longer; a fourth line announced that Mr Snittle Timberry, having recovered from his late severe indisposition, would have the honour of appearing that evening; a fifth line said that there were 'Cheers, Tears, and Laughter!' every night; a sixth, that that was positively the last appearance of Mr Vincent Crummles of Provincial Celebrity. 'Surely it must be the same man,' thought Nicholas. 'There can't be two Vincent Crummleses.'
The better to settle this question he referred to the bill again, and finding that there was a Baron in the first piece, and that Roberto (his son) was enacted by one Master Crummles, and Spaletro (his nephew) by one Master Percy Crummles--THEIR last appearances-- and that, incidental to the piece, was a characteristic dance by the characters, and a castanet pas seul by the Infant Phenomenon--HER last appearance--he no longer entertained any doubt; and presenting himself at the stage-door, and sending in a scrap of paper with 'Mr Johnson' written thereon in pencil, was presently conducted by a Robber, with a very large belt and buckle round his waist, and very large leather gauntlets on his hands, into the presence of his former manager.
Mr Crummles was unfeignedly glad to see him, and starting up from before a small dressing-glass, with one very bushy eyebrow stuck on crooked over his left eye, and the fellow eyebrow and the calf of one of his legs in his hand, embraced him cordially; at the same time observing, that it would do Mrs Crummles's heart good to bid him goodbye before they went.
'You were always a favourite of hers, Johnson,' said Crummles, 'always were from the first. I was quite easy in my mind about you from that first day you dined with us. One that Mrs Crummles took a fancy to, was sure to turn out right. Ah! Johnson, what a woman that is!'
'I am sincerely obliged to her for her kindness in this and all other respects,' said Nicholas. 'But where are you going,' that you talk about bidding goodbye?' 'Haven't you seen it in the papers?' said Crummles, with some dignity. 'No,' replied Nicholas.
'I wonder at that,' said the manager. 'It was among the varieties. I had the paragraph here somewhere--but I don't know--oh, yes, here it is.'
So saying, Mr Crummles, after pretending that he thought he must have lost it, produced a square inch of newspaper from the pocket of the pantaloons he wore in private life (which, together with the plain clothes of several other gentlemen, lay scattered about on a kind of dresser in the room), and gave it to Nicholas to read:
'The talented Vincent Crummles, long favourably known to fame as a country manager and actor of no ordinary pretensions, is about to cross the Atlantic on a histrionic expedition. Crummles is to be accompanied, we hear, by his lady and gifted family. We know no man superior to Crummles in his particular line of character, or one who, whether as a public or private individual, could carry with him the best wishes of a larger circle of friends. Crummles is certain to succeed.' 'Here's another bit,' said Mr Crummles, handing over a still smaller scrap. 'This is from the notices to correspondents, this one.'
Nicholas read it aloud. '"Philo-Dramaticus. Crummles, the country manager and actor, cannot be more than forty-three, or forty-four years of age. Crummles is NOT a Prussian, having been born at Chelsea." Humph!' said Nicholas, 'that's an odd paragraph.'
'Very,' returned Crummles, scratching the side of his nose, and looking at Nicholas with an assumption of great unconcern. 'I can't think who puts these things in. I didn't.'
Still keeping his eye on Nicholas, Mr Crummles shook his head twice or thrice with profound gravity, and remarking, that he could not for the life of him imagine how the newspapers found out the things they did, folded up the extracts and put them in his pocket again.
'I am astonished to hear this news,' said Nicholas. 'Going to America! You had no such thing in contemplation when I was with you.'
'No,' replied Crummles, 'I hadn't then. The fact is that Mrs Crummles--most extraordinary woman, Johnson.' Here he broke off and whispered something in his ear.
'Oh!' said Nicholas, smiling. 'The prospect of an addition to your family?' 'The seventh addition, Johnson,' returned Mr Crummles, solemnly. 'I thought such a child as the Phenomenon must have been a closer; but it seems we are to have another. She is a very remarkable woman.'
'I congratulate you,' said Nicholas, 'and I hope this may prove a phenomenon too.'
'Why, it's pretty sure to be something uncommon, I suppose,' rejoined Mr Crummles. 'The talent of the other three is principally in combat and serious pantomime. I should like this one to have a turn for juvenile tragedy; I understand they want something of that sort in America very much. However, we must take it as it comes. Perhaps it may have a genius for the tight-rope. It may have any sort of genius, in short, if it takes after its mother, Johnson, for she is an universal genius; but, whatever its genius is, that genius shall be developed.' Expressing himself after these terms, Mr Crummles put on his other eyebrow, and the calves of his legs, and then put on his legs, which were of a yellowish flesh-colour, and rather soiled about the knees, from frequent going down upon those joints, in curses, prayers, last struggles, and other strong passages. While the ex-manager completed his toilet, he informed Nicholas that as he should have a fair start in America from the proceeds of a tolerably good engagement which he had been fortunate enough to obtain, and as he and Mrs Crummles could scarcely hope to act for ever (not being immortal, except in the breath of Fame and in a figurative sense) he had made up his mind to settle there permanently, in the hope of acquiring some land of his own which would support them in their old age, and which they could afterwards bequeath to their children. Nicholas, having highly commended the resolution, Mr Crummles went on to impart such further intelligence relative to their mutual friends as he thought might prove interesting; informing Nicholas, among other things, that Miss Snevellicci was happily married to an affluent young wax-chandler who had supplied the theatre with candles, and that Mr Lillyvick didn't dare to say his soul was his own, such was the tyrannical sway of Mrs Lillyvick, who reigned paramount and supreme.
Nicholas responded to this confidence on the part of Mr Crummles, by confiding to him his own name, situation, and prospects, and informing him, in as few general words as he could, of the circumstances which had led to their first acquaintance. After congratulating him with great heartiness on the improved state of his fortunes, Mr Crummles gave him to understand that next morning he and his were to start for Liverpool, where the vessel lay which was to carry them from the shores of England, and that if Nicholas wished to take a last adieu of Mrs Crummles, he must repair with him that night to a farewell supper, given in honour of the family at a neighbouring tavern; at which Mr Snittle Timberry would preside, while the honours of the vice-chair would be sustained by the African Swallower.
The room being by this time very warm and somewhat crowded, in consequence of the influx of four gentlemen, who had just killed each other in the piece under representation, Nicholas accepted the invitation, and promised to return at the conclusion of the performances; preferring the cool air and twilight out of doors to the mingled perfume of gas, orange-peel, and gunpowder, which pervaded the hot and glaring theatre.
He availed himself of this interval to buy a silver snuff-box--the best his funds would afford--as a token of remembrance for Mr Crummles, and having purchased besides a pair of ear-rings for Mrs Crummles, a necklace for the Phenomenon, and a flaming shirt-pin for each of the young gentlemen, he refreshed himself with a walk, and returning a little after the appointed time, found the lights out, the theatre empty, the curtain raised for the night, and Mr Crummles walking up and down the stage expecting his arrival.
'Timberry won't be long,' said Mr Crummles. 'He played the audience out tonight. He does a faithful black in the last piece, and it takes him a little longer to wash himself.'
'A very unpleasant line of character, I should think?' said Nicholas. 'No, I don't know,' replied Mr Crummles; 'it comes off easily enough, and there's only the face and neck. We had a first-tragedy man in our company once, who, when he played Othello, used to black himself all over. But that's feeling a part and going into it as if you meant it; it isn't usual; more's the pity.'
Mr Snittle Timberry now appeared, arm-in-arm with the African Swallower, and, being introduced to Nicholas, raised his hat half a foot, and said he was proud to know him. The Swallower said the same, and looked and spoke remarkably like an Irishman.
'I see by the bills that you have been ill, sir,' said Nicholas to Mr Timberry. 'I hope you are none the worse for your exertions tonight?'
Mr Timberry, in reply, shook his head with a gloomy air, tapped his chest several times with great significancy, and drawing his cloak more closely about him, said, 'But no matter, no matter. Come!'
It is observable that when people upon the stage are in any strait involving the very last extremity of weakness and exhaustion, they invariably perform feats of strength requiring great ingenuity and muscular power. Thus, a wounded prince or bandit chief, who is bleeding to death and too faint to move, except to the softest music (and then only upon his hands and knees), shall be seen to approach a cottage door for aid in such a series of writhings and twistings, and with such curlings up of the legs, and such rollings over and over, and such gettings up and tumblings down again, as could never be achieved save by a very strong man skilled in posture-making. And so natural did this sort of performance come to Mr Snittle Timberry, that on their way out of the theatre and towards the tavern where the supper was to be holden, he testified the severity of his recent indisposition and its wasting effects upon the nervous system, by a series of gymnastic performances which were the admiration of all witnesses. 'Why this is indeed a joy I had not looked for!' said Mrs Crummles, when Nicholas was presented.
'Nor I,' replied Nicholas. 'It is by a mere chance that I have this opportunity of seeing you, although I would have made a great exertion to have availed myself of it.'
'Here is one whom you know,' said Mrs Crummles, thrusting forward the Phenomenon in a blue gauze frock, extensively flounced, and trousers of the same; 'and here another--and another,' presenting the Master Crummleses. 'And how is your friend, the faithful Digby?'
'Digby!' said Nicholas, forgetting at the instant that this had been Smike's theatrical name. 'Oh yes. He's quite--what am I saying?-- he is very far from well.' 'How!' exclaimed Mrs Crummles, with a tragic recoil.
'I fear,' said Nicholas, shaking his head, and making an attempt to smile, 'that your better-half would be more struck with him now than ever.'
'What mean you?' rejoined Mrs Crummles, in her most popular manner. 'Whence comes this altered tone?'
'I mean that a dastardly enemy of mine has struck at me through him, and that while he thinks to torture me, he inflicts on him such agonies of terror and suspense as--You will excuse me, I am sure,' said Nicholas, checking himself. 'I should never speak of this, and never do, except to those who know the facts, but for a moment I forgot myself.'
With this hasty apology Nicholas stooped down to salute the Phenomenon, and changed the subject; inwardly cursing his precipitation, and very much wondering what Mrs Crummles must think of so sudden an explosion.
That lady seemed to think very little about it, for the supper being by this time on table, she gave her hand to Nicholas and repaired with a stately step to the left hand of Mr Snittle Timberry. Nicholas had the honour to support her, and Mr Crummles was placed upon the chairman's right; the Phenomenon and the Master Crummleses sustained the vice.
The company amounted in number to some twenty-five or thirty, being composed of such members of the theatrical profession, then engaged or disengaged in London, as were numbered among the most intimate friends of Mr and Mrs Crummles. The ladies and gentlemen were pretty equally balanced; the expenses of the entertainment being defrayed by the latter, each of whom had the privilege of inviting one of the former as his guest.
It was upon the whole a very distinguished party, for independently of the lesser theatrical lights who clustered on this occasion round Mr Snittle Timberry, there was a literary gentleman present who had dramatised in his time two hundred and forty-seven novels as fast as they had come out--some of them faster than they had come out--and who WAS a literary gentleman in consequence. This gentleman sat on the left hand of Nicholas, to whom he was introduced by his friend the African Swallower, from the bottom of the table, with a high eulogium upon his fame and reputation.
'I am happy to know a gentleman of such great distinction,' said Nicholas, politely.
'Sir,' replied the wit, 'you're very welcome, I'm sure. The honour is reciprocal, sir, as I usually say when I dramatise a book. Did you ever hear a definition of fame, sir?'
'I have heard several,' replied Nicholas, with a smile. 'What is yours?' 'When I dramatise a book, sir,' said the literary gentleman, 'THAT'S fame. For its author.'
'Oh, indeed!' rejoined Nicholas.
'That's fame, sir,' said the literary gentleman.
'So Richard Turpin, Tom King, and Jerry Abershaw have handed down to fame the names of those on whom they committed their most impudent robberies?' said Nicholas.
'I don't know anything about that, sir,' answered the literary gentleman. 'Shakespeare dramatised stories which had previously appeared in print, it is true,' observed Nicholas.
'Meaning Bill, sir?' said the literary gentleman. 'So he did. Bill was an adapter, certainly, so he was--and very well he adapted too-- considering.'
'I was about to say,' rejoined Nicholas, 'that Shakespeare derived some of his plots from old tales and legends in general circulation; but it seems to me, that some of the gentlemen of your craft, at the present day, have shot very far beyond him--'
'You're quite right, sir,' interrupted the literary gentleman, leaning back in his chair and exercising his toothpick. 'Human intellect, sir, has progressed since his time, is progressing, will progress.'
'Shot beyond him, I mean,' resumed Nicholas, 'in quite another respect, for, whereas he brought within the magic circle of his genius, traditions peculiarly adapted for his purpose, and turned familiar things into constellations which should enlighten the world for ages, you drag within the magic circle of your dulness, subjects not at all adapted to the purposes of the stage, and debase as he exalted. For instance, you take the uncompleted books of living authors, fresh from their hands, wet from the press, cut, hack, and carve them to the powers and capacities of your actors, and the capability of your theatres, finish unfinished works, hastily and crudely vamp up ideas not yet worked out by their original projector, but which have doubtless cost him many thoughtful days and sleepless nights; by a comparison of incidents and dialogue, down to the very last word he may have written a fortnight before, do your utmost to anticipate his plot--all this without his permission, and against his will; and then, to crown the whole proceeding, publish in some mean pamphlet, an unmeaning farrago of garbled extracts from his work, to which your name as author, with the honourable distinction annexed, of having perpetrated a hundred other outrages of the same description. Now, show me the distinction between such pilfering as this, and picking a man's pocket in the street: unless, indeed, it be, that the legislature has a regard for pocket-handkerchiefs, and leaves men's brains, except when they are knocked out by violence, to take care of themselves.' 'Men must live, sir,' said the literary gentleman, shrugging his shoulders. 'That would be an equally fair plea in both cases,' replied Nicholas; 'but if you put it upon that ground, I have nothing more to say, than, that if I were a writer of books, and you a thirsty dramatist, I would rather pay your tavern score for six months, large as it might be, than have a niche in the Temple of Fame with you for the humblest corner of my pedestal, through six hundred generations.' The conversation threatened to take a somewhat angry tone when it had arrived thus far, but Mrs Crummles opportunely interposed to prevent its leading to any violent outbreak, by making some inquiries of the literary gentleman relative to the plots of the six new pieces which he had written by contract to introduce the African Knife-swallower in his various unrivalled performances. This speedily engaged him in an animated conversation with that lady, in the interest of which, all recollection of his recent discussion with Nicholas very quickly evaporated. The board being now clear of the more substantial articles of food, and punch, wine, and spirits being placed upon it and handed about, the guests, who had been previously conversing in little groups of three or four, gradually fell off into a dead silence, while the majority of those present glanced from time to time at Mr Snittle Timberry, and the bolder spirits did not even hesitate to strike the table with their knuckles, and plainly intimate their expectations, by uttering such encouragements as 'Now, Tim,' 'Wake up, Mr Chairman,' 'All charged, sir, and waiting for a toast,' and so forth.
To these remonstrances Mr Timberry deigned no other rejoinder than striking his chest and gasping for breath, and giving many other indications of being still the victim of indisposition--for a man must not make himself too cheap either on the stage or off--while Mr Crummles, who knew full well that he would be the subject of the forthcoming toast, sat gracefully in his chair with his arm thrown carelessly over the back, and now and then lifted his glass to his mouth and drank a little punch, with the same air with which he was accustomed to take long draughts of nothing, out of the pasteboard goblets in banquet scenes.
At length Mr Snittle Timberry rose in the most approved attitude, with one hand in the breast of his waistcoat and the other on the nearest snuff-box, and having been received with great enthusiasm, proposed, with abundance of quotations, his friend Mr Vincent Crummles: ending a pretty long speech by extending his right hand on one side and his left on the other, and severally calling upon Mr and Mrs Crummles to grasp the same. This done, Mr Vincent Crummles returned thanks, and that done, the African Swallower proposed Mrs Vincent Crummles, in affecting terms. Then were heard loud moans and sobs from Mrs Crummles and the ladies, despite of which that heroic woman insisted upon returning thanks herself, which she did, in a manner and in a speech which has never been surpassed and seldom equalled. It then became the duty of Mr Snittle Timberry to give the young Crummleses, which he did; after which Mr Vincent Crummles, as their father, addressed the company in a supplementary speech, enlarging on their virtues, amiabilities, and excellences, and wishing that they were the sons and daughter of every lady and gentleman present. These solemnities having been succeeded by a decent interval, enlivened by musical and other entertainments, Mr Crummles proposed that ornament of the profession, the African Swallower, his very dear friend, if he would allow him to call him so; which liberty (there being no particular reason why he should not allow it) the African Swallower graciously permitted. The literary gentleman was then about to be drunk, but it being discovered that he had been drunk for some time in another acceptation of the term, and was then asleep on the stairs, the intention was abandoned, and the honour transferred to the ladies. Finally, after a very long sitting, Mr Snittle Timberry vacated the chair, and the company with many adieux and embraces dispersed.
Nicholas waited to the last to give his little presents. When he had said goodbye all round and came to Mr Crummles, he could not but mark the difference between their present separation and their parting at Portsmouth. Not a jot of his theatrical manner remained; he put out his hand with an air which, if he could have summoned it at will, would have made him the best actor of his day in homely parts, and when Nicholas shook it with the warmth he honestly felt, appeared thoroughly melted.
'We were a very happy little company, Johnson,' said poor Crummles. 'You and I never had a word. I shall be very glad tomorrow morning to think that I saw you again, but now I almost wish you hadn't come.'
Nicholas was about to return a cheerful reply, when he was greatly disconcerted by the sudden apparition of Mrs Grudden, who it seemed had declined to attend the supper in order that she might rise earlier in the morning, and who now burst out of an adjoining bedroom, habited in very extraordinary white robes; and throwing her arms about his neck, hugged him with great affection. 'What! Are you going too?' said Nicholas, submitting with as good a grace as if she had been the finest young creature in the world.
'Going?' returned Mrs Grudden. 'Lord ha' mercy, what do you think they'd do without me?'
Nicholas submitted to another hug with even a better grace than before, if that were possible, and waving his hat as cheerfully as he could, took farewell of the Vincent Crummleses.