'Sweet, indeed!' said Mrs Wititterly, with a sigh. 'So voluptuous, is it not—so soft?'
'Yes, I think it is,' replied Kate, gently; 'very soft.'
'Close the book, Miss Nickleby,' said Mrs Wititterly. 'I can hear nothing more today; I should be sorry to disturb the impression of that sweet description. Close the book.'
Kate complied, not unwillingly; and, as she did so, Mrs Wititterly raising her glass with a languid hand, remarked, that she looked pale.
'It was the fright of that—that noise and confusion last night,' said Kate.
'How very odd!' exclaimed Mrs Wititterly, with a look of surprise. And certainly, when one comes to think of it, it WAS very odd that anything should have disturbed a companion. A steam-engine, or other ingenious piece of mechanism out of order, would have been nothing to it.
'How did you come to know Lord Frederick, and those other delightful creatures, child?' asked Mrs Wititterly, still eyeing Kate through her glass.
'I met them at my uncle's,' said Kate, vexed to feel that she was colouring deeply, but unable to keep down the blood which rushed to her face whenever she thought of that man.
'Have you known them long?'
'No,' rejoined Kate. 'Not long.'
'I was very glad of the opportunity which that respectable person, your mother, gave us of being known to them,' said Mrs Wititterly, in a lofty manner. 'Some friends of ours were on the very point of introducing us, which makes it quite remarkable.'
This was said lest Miss Nickleby should grow conceited on the honour and dignity of having known four great people (for Pyke and Pluck were included among the delightful creatures), whom Mrs Wititterly did not know. But as the circumstance had made no impression one way or other upon Kate's mind, the force of the observation was quite lost upon her.
'They asked permission to call,' said Mrs Wititterly. 'I gave it them of course.'
'Do you expect them today?' Kate ventured to inquire.
Mrs Wititterly's answer was lost in the noise of a tremendous rapping at the street-door, and before it had ceased to vibrate, there drove up a handsome cabriolet, out of which leaped Sir Mulberry Hawk and his friend Lord Verisopht.
'They are here now,' said Kate, rising and hurrying away.
'Miss Nickleby!' cried Mrs Wititterly, perfectly aghast at a companion's attempting to quit the room, without her permission first had and obtained. 'Pray don't think of going.'
'You are very good!' replied Kate. 'But—'
'For goodness' sake, don't agitate me by making me speak so much,' said Mrs Wititterly, with great sharpness. 'Dear me, Miss Nickleby, I beg—'
It was in vain for Kate to protest that she was unwell, for the footsteps of the knockers, whoever they were, were already on the stairs. She resumed her seat, and had scarcely done so, when the doubtful page darted into the room and announced, Mr Pyke, and Mr Pluck, and Lord Verisopht, and Sir Mulberry Hawk, all at one burst.
'The most extraordinary thing in the world,' said Mr Pluck, saluting both ladies with the utmost cordiality; 'the most extraordinary thing. As Lord Frederick and Sir Mulberry drove up to the door, Pyke and I had that instant knocked.'
'That instant knocked,' said Pyke.
'No matter how you came, so that you are here,' said Mrs Wititterly, who, by dint of lying on the same sofa for three years and a half, had got up quite a little pantomime of graceful attitudes, and now threw herself into the most striking of the whole series, to astonish the visitors. 'I am delighted, I am sure.'
'And how is Miss Nickleby?' said Sir Mulberry Hawk, accosting Kate, in a low voice—not so low, however, but that it reached the ears of Mrs Wititterly.
'Why, she complains of suffering from the fright of last night,' said the lady. 'I am sure I don't wonder at it, for my nerves are quite torn to pieces.'
'And yet you look,' observed Sir Mulberry, turning round; 'and yet you look—'
'Beyond everything,' said Mr Pyke, coming to his patron's assistance. Of course Mr Pluck said the same.
'I am afraid Sir Mulberry is a flatterer, my lord,' said Mrs Wititterly, turning to that young gentleman, who had been sucking the head of his cane in silence, and staring at Kate.
'Oh, deyvlish!' replied Verisopht. Having given utterance to which remarkable sentiment, he occupied himself as before.
'Neither does Miss Nickleby look the worse,' said Sir Mulberry, bending his bold gaze upon her. 'She was always handsome, but upon my soul, ma'am, you seem to have imparted some of your own good looks to her besides.'
To judge from the glow which suffused the poor girl's countenance after this speech, Mrs Wititterly might, with some show of reason, have been supposed to have imparted to it some of that artificial bloom which decorated her own. Mrs Wititterly admitted, though not with the best grace in the world, that Kate DID look pretty. She began to think, too, that Sir Mulberry was not quite so agreeable a creature as she had at first supposed him; for, although a skilful flatterer is a most delightful companion if you can keep him all to yourself, his taste becomes very doubtful when he takes to complimenting other people.
'Pyke,' said the watchful Mr Pluck, observing the effect which the praise of Miss Nickleby had produced.
'Well, Pluck,' said Pyke.
'Is there anybody,' demanded Mr Pluck, mysteriously, 'anybody you know, that Mrs Wititterly's profile reminds you of?'
'Reminds me of!' answered Pyke. 'Of course there is.'
'Who do you mean?' said Pluck, in the same mysterious manner. 'The D. of B.?'
'The C. of B.,' replied Pyke, with the faintest trace of a grin lingering in his countenance. 'The beautiful sister is the countess; not the duchess.'
'True,' said Pluck, 'the C. of B. The resemblance is wonderful!'
'Perfectly startling,' said Mr Pyke.
Here was a state of things! Mrs Wititterly was declared, upon the testimony of two veracious and competent witnesses, to be the very picture of a countess! This was one of the consequences of getting into good society. Why, she might have moved among grovelling people for twenty years, and never heard of it. How could she, indeed? what did THEY know about countesses?
The two gentlemen having, by the greediness with which this little bait was swallowed, tested the extent of Mrs Wititterly's appetite for adulation, proceeded to administer that commodity in very large doses, thus affording to Sir Mulberry Hawk an opportunity of pestering Miss Nickleby with questions and remarks, to which she was absolutely obliged to make some reply. Meanwhile, Lord Verisopht enjoyed unmolested the full flavour of the gold knob at the top of his cane, as he would have done to the end of the interview if Mr Wititterly had not come home, and caused the conversation to turn to his favourite topic.
'My lord,' said Mr Wititterly, 'I am delighted—honoured—proud. Be seated again, my lord, pray. I am proud, indeed—most proud.'
It was to the secret annoyance of his wife that Mr Wititterly said all this, for, although she was bursting with pride and arrogance, she would have had the illustrious guests believe that their visit was quite a common occurrence, and that they had lords and baronets to see them every day in the week. But Mr Wititterly's feelings were beyond the power of suppression.
'It is an honour, indeed!' said Mr Wititterly. 'Julia, my soul, you will suffer for this tomorrow.'
'Suffer!' cried Lord Verisopht.
'The reaction, my lord, the reaction,' said Mr Wititterly. 'This violent strain upon the nervous system over, my lord, what ensues? A sinking, a depression, a lowness, a lassitude, a debility. My lord, if Sir Tumley Snuffim was to see that delicate creature at this moment, he would not give a—a—THIS for her life.' In illustration of which remark, Mr Wititterly took a pinch of snuff from his box, and jerked it lightly into the air as an emblem of instability.
'Not THAT,' said Mr Wititterly, looking about him with a serious countenance. 'Sir Tumley Snuffim would not give that for Mrs Wititterly's existence.'
Mr Wititterly told this with a kind of sober exultation, as if it were no trifling distinction for a man to have a wife in such a desperate state, and Mrs Wititterly sighed and looked on, as if she felt the honour, but had determined to bear it as meekly as might be.
'Mrs Wititterly,' said her husband, 'is Sir Tumley Snuffim's favourite patient. I believe I may venture to say, that Mrs Wititterly is the first person who took the new medicine which is supposed to have destroyed a family at Kensington Gravel Pits. I believe she was. If I am wrong, Julia, my dear, you will correct me.'
'I believe I was,' said Mrs Wititterly, in a faint voice.
As there appeared to be some doubt in the mind of his patron how he could best join in this conversation, the indefatigable Mr Pyke threw himself into the breach, and, by way of saying something to the point, inquired—with reference to the aforesaid medicine—whether it was nice.
'No, sir, it was not. It had not even that recommendation,' said Mr W.
'Mrs Wititterly is quite a martyr,' observed Pyke, with a complimentary bow.
'I THINK I am,' said Mrs Wititterly, smiling.
'I think you are, my dear Julia,' replied her husband, in a tone which seemed to say that he was not vain, but still must insist upon their privileges. 'If anybody, my lord,' added Mr Wititterly, wheeling round to the nobleman, 'will produce to me a greater martyr than Mrs Wititterly, all I can say is, that I shall be glad to see that martyr, whether male or female—that's all, my lord.'
Pyke and Pluck promptly remarked that certainly nothing could be fairer than that; and the call having been by this time protracted to a very great length, they obeyed Sir Mulberry's look, and rose to go. This brought Sir Mulberry himself and Lord Verisopht on their legs also. Many protestations of friendship, and expressions anticipative of the pleasure which must inevitably flow from so happy an acquaintance, were exchanged, and the visitors departed, with renewed assurances that at all times and seasons the mansion of the Wititterlys would be honoured by receiving them beneath its roof.
That they came at all times and seasons—that they dined there one day, supped the next, dined again on the next, and were constantly to and fro on all—that they made parties to visit public places, and met by accident at lounges—that upon all these occasions Miss Nickleby was exposed to the constant and unremitting persecution of Sir Mulberry Hawk, who now began to feel his character, even in the estimation of his two dependants, involved in the successful reduction of her pride—that she had no intervals of peace or rest, except at those hours when she could sit in her solitary room, and weep over the trials of the day—all these were consequences naturally flowing from the well-laid plans of Sir Mulberry, and their able execution by the auxiliaries, Pyke and Pluck.
And thus for a fortnight matters went on. That any but the weakest and silliest of people could have seen in one interview that Lord Verisopht, though he was a lord, and Sir Mulberry Hawk, though he was a baronet, were not persons accustomed to be the best possible companions, and were certainly not calculated by habits, manners, tastes, or conversation, to shine with any very great lustre in the society of ladies, need scarcely be remarked. But with Mrs Wititterly the two titles were all sufficient; coarseness became humour, vulgarity softened itself down into the most charming eccentricity; insolence took the guise of an easy absence of reserve, attainable only by those who had had the good fortune to mix with high folks.
If the mistress put such a construction upon the behaviour of her new friends, what could the companion urge against them? If they accustomed themselves to very little restraint before the lady of the house, with how much more freedom could they address her paid dependent! Nor was even this the worst. As the odious Sir Mulberry Hawk attached himself to Kate with less and less of disguise, Mrs Wititterly began to grow jealous of the superior attractions of Miss Nickleby. If this feeling had led to her banishment from the drawing-room when such company was there, Kate would have been only too happy and willing that it should have existed, but unfortunately for her she possessed that native grace and true gentility of manner, and those thousand nameless accomplishments which give to female society its greatest charm; if these be valuable anywhere, they were especially so where the lady of the house was a mere animated doll. The consequence was, that Kate had the double mortification of being an indispensable part of the circle when Sir Mulberry and his friends were there, and of being exposed, on that very account, to all Mrs Wititterly's ill-humours and caprices when they were gone. She became utterly and completely miserable.
Mrs Wititterly had never thrown off the mask with regard to Sir Mulberry, but when she was more than usually out of temper, attributed the circumstance, as ladies sometimes do, to nervous indisposition. However, as the dreadful idea that Lord Verisopht also was somewhat taken with Kate, and that she, Mrs Wititterly, was quite a secondary person, dawned upon that lady's mind and gradually developed itself, she became possessed with a large quantity of highly proper and most virtuous indignation, and felt it her duty, as a married lady and a moral member of society, to mention the circumstance to 'the young person' without delay.
Accordingly Mrs Wititterly broke ground next morning, during a pause in the novel-reading.
'Miss Nickleby,' said Mrs Wititterly, 'I wish to speak to you very gravely. I am sorry to have to do it, upon my word I am very sorry, but you leave me no alternative, Miss Nickleby.' Here Mrs Wititterly tossed her head—not passionately, only virtuously—and remarked, with some appearance of excitement, that she feared that palpitation of the heart was coming on again.
'Your behaviour, Miss Nickleby,' resumed the lady, 'is very far from pleasing me—very far. I am very anxious indeed that you should do well, but you may depend upon it, Miss Nickleby, you will not, if you go on as you do.'
'Ma'am!' exclaimed Kate, proudly.
'Don't agitate me by speaking in that way, Miss Nickleby, don't,' said Mrs Wititterly, with some violence, 'or you'll compel me to ring the bell.'
Kate looked at her, but said nothing.
'You needn't suppose,' resumed Mrs Wititterly, 'that your looking at me in that way, Miss Nickleby, will prevent my saying what I am going to say, which I feel to be a religious duty. You needn't direct your glances towards me,' said Mrs Wititterly, with a sudden burst of spite; 'I am not Sir Mulberry, no, nor Lord Frederick Verisopht, Miss Nickleby, nor am I Mr Pyke, nor Mr Pluck either.'
Kate looked at her again, but less steadily than before; and resting her elbow on the table, covered her eyes with her hand.
'If such things had been done when I was a young girl,' said Mrs Wititterly (this, by the way, must have been some little time before), 'I don't suppose anybody would have believed it.'
'I don't think they would,' murmured Kate. 'I do not think anybody would believe, without actually knowing it, what I seem doomed to undergo!'
'Don't talk to me of being doomed to undergo, Miss Nickleby, if you please,' said Mrs Wititterly, with a shrillness of tone quite surprising in so great an invalid. 'I will not be answered, Miss Nickleby. I am not accustomed to be answered, nor will I permit it for an instant. Do you hear?' she added, waiting with some apparent inconsistency FOR an answer.
'I do hear you, ma'am,' replied Kate, 'with surprise—with greater surprise than I can express.'
'I have always considered you a particularly well-behaved young person for your station in life,' said Mrs Wititterly; 'and as you are a person of healthy appearance, and neat in your dress and so forth, I have taken an interest in you, as I do still, considering that I owe a sort of duty to that respectable old female, your mother. For these reasons, Miss Nickleby, I must tell you once for all, and begging you to mind what I say, that I must insist upon your immediately altering your very forward behaviour to the gentleman who visit at this house. It really is not becoming,' said Mrs Wititterly, closing her chaste eyes as she spoke; 'it is improper—quite improper.'
'Oh!' cried Kate, looking upwards and clasping her hands; 'is not this, is not this, too cruel, too hard to bear! Is it not enough that I should have suffered as I have, night and day; that I should almost have sunk in my own estimation from very shame of having been brought into contact with such people; but must I also be exposed to this unjust and most unfounded charge!'
'You will have the goodness to recollect, Miss Nickleby,' said Mrs Wititterly, 'that when you use such terms as "unjust", and "unfounded", you charge me, in effect, with stating that which is untrue.'
'I do,' said Kate with honest indignation. 'Whether you make this accusation of yourself, or at the prompting of others, is alike to me. I say it IS vilely, grossly, wilfully untrue. Is it possible!' cried Kate, 'that anyone of my own sex can have sat by, and not have seen the misery these men have caused me? Is it possible that you, ma'am, can have been present, and failed to mark the insulting freedom that their every look bespoke? Is it possible that you can have avoided seeing, that these libertines, in their utter disrespect for you, and utter disregard of all gentlemanly behaviour, and almost of decency, have had but one object in introducing themselves here, and that the furtherance of their designs upon a friendless, helpless girl, who, without this humiliating confession, might have hoped to receive from one so much her senior something like womanly aid and sympathy? I do not—I cannot believe it!'
If poor Kate had possessed the slightest knowledge of the world, she certainly would not have ventured, even in the excitement into which she had been lashed, upon such an injudicious speech as this. Its effect was precisely what a more experienced observer would have foreseen. Mrs Wititterly received the attack upon her veracity with exemplary calmness, and listened with the most heroic fortitude to Kate's account of her own sufferings. But allusion being made to her being held in disregard by the gentlemen, she evinced violent emotion, and this blow was no sooner followed up by the remark concerning her seniority, than she fell back upon the sofa, uttering dismal screams.
'What is the matter?' cried Mr Wititterly, bouncing into the room. 'Heavens, what do I see? Julia! Julia! look up, my life, look up!'
But Julia looked down most perseveringly, and screamed still louder; so Mr Wititterly rang the bell, and danced in a frenzied manner round the sofa on which Mrs Wititterly lay; uttering perpetual cries for Sir Tumley Snuffim, and never once leaving off to ask for any explanation of the scene before him.
'Run for Sir Tumley,' cried Mr Wititterly, menacing the page with both fists. 'I knew it, Miss Nickleby,' he said, looking round with an air of melancholy triumph, 'that society has been too much for her. This is all soul, you know, every bit of it.' With this assurance Mr Wititterly took up the prostrate form of Mrs Wititterly, and carried her bodily off to bed.
Kate waited until Sir Tumley Snuffim had paid his visit and looked in with a report, that, through the special interposition of a merciful Providence (thus spake Sir Tumley), Mrs Wititterly had gone to sleep. She then hastily attired herself for walking, and leaving word that she should return within a couple of hours, hurried away towards her uncle's house.
It had been a good day with Ralph Nickleby—quite a lucky day; and as he walked to and fro in his little back-room with his hands clasped behind him, adding up in his own mind all the sums that had been, or would be, netted from the business done since morning, his mouth was drawn into a hard stern smile; while the firmness of the lines and curves that made it up, as well as the cunning glance of his cold, bright eye, seemed to tell, that if any resolution or cunning would increase the profits, they would not fail to be excited for the purpose.
'Very good!' said Ralph, in allusion, no doubt, to some proceeding of the day. 'He defies the usurer, does he? Well, we shall see. "Honesty is the best policy," is it? We'll try that too.'
He stopped, and then walked on again.
'He is content,' said Ralph, relaxing into a smile, 'to set his known character and conduct against the power of money—dross, as he calls it. Why, what a dull blockhead this fellow must be! Dross to, dross! Who's that?'
'Me,' said Newman Noggs, looking in. 'Your niece.'
'What of her?' asked Ralph sharply.
Newman jerked his head towards his little room, to signify that she was waiting there.
'What does she want?' asked Ralph.
'I don't know,' rejoined Newman. 'Shall I ask?' he added quickly.
'No,' replied Ralph. 'Show her in! Stay.' He hastily put away a padlocked cash-box that was on the table, and substituted in its stead an empty purse. 'There,' said Ralph. 'NOW she may come in.'
Newman, with a grim smile at this manoeuvre, beckoned the young lady to advance, and having placed a chair for her, retired; looking stealthily over his shoulder at Ralph as he limped slowly out.
'Well,' said Ralph, roughly enough; but still with something more of kindness in his manner than he would have exhibited towards anybody else. 'Well, my—dear. What now?'
Kate raised her eyes, which were filled with tears; and with an effort to master her emotion strove to speak, but in vain. So drooping her head again, she remained silent. Her face was hidden from his view, but Ralph could see that she was weeping.
'I can guess the cause of this!' thought Ralph, after looking at her for some time in silence. 'I can—I can—guess the cause. Well! Well!' thought Ralph—for the moment quite disconcerted, as he watched the anguish of his beautiful niece. 'Where is the harm? only a few tears; and it's an excellent lesson for her, an excellent lesson.'
'What is the matter?' asked Ralph, drawing a chair opposite, and sitting down.
He was rather taken aback by the sudden firmness with which Kate looked up and answered him.
'The matter which brings me to you, sir,' she said, 'is one which should call the blood up into your cheeks, and make you burn to hear, as it does me to tell. I have been wronged; my feelings have been outraged, insulted, wounded past all healing, and by your friends.'
'Friends!' cried Ralph, sternly. 'I have no friends, girl.'
'By the men I saw here, then,' returned Kate, quickly. 'If they were no friends of yours, and you knew what they were,—oh, the more shame on you, uncle, for bringing me among them. To have subjected me to what I was exposed to here, through any misplaced confidence or imperfect knowledge of your guests, would have required some strong excuse; but if you did it—as I now believe you did—knowing them well, it was most dastardly and cruel.'
Ralph drew back in utter amazement at this plain speaking, and regarded Kate with the sternest look. But she met his gaze proudly and firmly, and although her face was very pale, it looked more noble and handsome, lighted up as it was, than it had ever appeared before.
'There is some of that boy's blood in you, I see,' said Ralph, speaking in his harshest tones, as something in the flashing eye reminded him of Nicholas at their last meeting.
'I hope there is!' replied Kate. 'I should be proud to know it. I am young, uncle, and all the difficulties and miseries of my situation have kept it down, but I have been roused today beyond all endurance, and come what may, I WILL NOT, as I am your brother's child, bear these insults longer.'
'What insults, girl?' demanded Ralph, sharply.
'Remember what took place here, and ask yourself,' replied Kate, colouring deeply. 'Uncle, you must—I am sure you will—release me from such vile and degrading companionship as I am exposed to now. I do not mean,' said Kate, hurrying to the old man, and laying her arm upon his shoulder; 'I do not mean to be angry and violent—I beg your pardon if I have seemed so, dear uncle,—but you do not know what I have suffered, you do not indeed. You cannot tell what the heart of a young girl is—I have no right to expect you should; but when I tell you that I am wretched, and that my heart is breaking, I am sure you will help me. I am sure, I am sure you will!'
Ralph looked at her for an instant; then turned away his head, and beat his foot nervously upon the ground.
'I have gone on day after day,' said Kate, bending over him, and timidly placing her little hand in his, 'in the hope that this persecution would cease; I have gone on day after day, compelled to assume the appearance of cheerfulness, when I was most unhappy. I have had no counsellor, no adviser, no one to protect me. Mama supposes that these are honourable men, rich and distinguished, and how CAN I—how can I undeceive her—when she is so happy in these little delusions, which are the only happiness she has? The lady with whom you placed me, is not the person to whom I could confide matters of so much delicacy, and I have come at last to you, the only friend I have at hand—almost the only friend I have at all—to entreat and implore you to assist me.'
'How can I assist you, child?' said Ralph, rising from his chair, and pacing up and down the room in his old attitude.
'You have influence with one of these men, I KNOW,' rejoined Kate, emphatically. 'Would not a word from you induce them to desist from this unmanly course?'
'No,' said Ralph, suddenly turning; 'at least—that—I can't say it, if it would.'
'Can't say it!'
'No,' said Ralph, coming to a dead stop, and clasping his hands more tightly behind him. 'I can't say it.'
Kate fell back a step or two, and looked at him, as if in doubt whether she had heard aright.
'We are connected in business,' said Ralph, poising himself alternately on his toes and heels, and looking coolly in his niece's face, 'in business, and I can't afford to offend them. What is it after all? We have all our trials, and this is one of yours. Some girls would be proud to have such gallants at their feet.'
'Proud!' cried Kate.
'I don't say,' rejoined Ralph, raising his forefinger, 'but that you do right to despise them; no, you show your good sense in that, as indeed I knew from the first you would. Well. In all other respects you are comfortably bestowed. It's not much to bear. If this young lord does dog your footsteps, and whisper his drivelling inanities in your ears, what of it? It's a dishonourable passion. So be it; it won't last long. Some other novelty will spring up one day, and you will be released. In the mean time—'
'In the mean time,' interrupted Kate, with becoming pride and indignation, 'I am to be the scorn of my own sex, and the toy of the other; justly condemned by all women of right feeling, and despised by all honest and honourable men; sunken in my own esteem, and degraded in every eye that looks upon me. No, not if I work my fingers to the bone, not if I am driven to the roughest and hardest labour. Do not mistake me. I will not disgrace your recommendation. I will remain in the house in which it placed me, until I am entitled to leave it by the terms of my engagement; though, mind, I see these men no more. When I quit it, I will hide myself from them and you, and, striving to support my mother by hard service, I will live, at least, in peace, and trust in God to help me.'
With these words, she waved her hand, and quitted the room, leaving Ralph Nickleby motionless as a statue.
The surprise with which Kate, as she closed the room-door, beheld, close beside it, Newman Noggs standing bolt upright in a little niche in the wall like some scarecrow or Guy Faux laid up in winter quarters, almost occasioned her to call aloud. But, Newman laying his finger upon his lips, she had the presence of mind to refrain.
'Don't,' said Newman, gliding out of his recess, and accompanying her across the hall. 'Don't cry, don't cry.' Two very large tears, by-the-bye, were running down Newman's face as he spoke.
'I see how it is,' said poor Noggs, drawing from his pocket what seemed to be a very old duster, and wiping Kate's eyes with it, as gently as if she were an infant. 'You're giving way now. Yes, yes, very good; that's right, I like that. It was right not to give way before him. Yes, yes! Ha, ha, ha! Oh, yes. Poor thing!'
With these disjointed exclamations, Newman wiped his own eyes with the afore-mentioned duster, and, limping to the street-door, opened it to let her out.
'Don't cry any more,' whispered Newman. 'I shall see you soon. Ha! ha! ha! And so shall somebody else too. Yes, yes. Ho! ho!'
'God bless you,' answered Kate, hurrying out, 'God bless you.'
'Same to you,' rejoined Newman, opening the door again a little way to say so. 'Ha, ha, ha! Ho! ho! ho!'
And Newman Noggs opened the door once again to nod cheerfully, and laugh—and shut it, to shake his head mournfully, and cry.
Ralph remained in the same attitude till he heard the noise of the closing door, when he shrugged his shoulders, and after a few turns about the room—hasty at first, but gradually becoming slower, as he relapsed into himself—sat down before his desk.
It is one of those problems of human nature, which may be noted down, but not solved;—although Ralph felt no remorse at that moment for his conduct towards the innocent, true-hearted girl; although his libertine clients had done precisely what he had expected, precisely what he most wished, and precisely what would tend most to his advantage, still he hated them for doing it, from the very bottom of his soul.
'Ugh!' said Ralph, scowling round, and shaking his clenched hand as the faces of the two profligates rose up before his mind; 'you shall pay for this. Oh! you shall pay for this!'
As the usurer turned for consolation to his books and papers, a performance was going on outside his office door, which would have occasioned him no small surprise, if he could by any means have become acquainted with it.
Newman Noggs was the sole actor. He stood at a little distance from the door, with his face towards it; and with the sleeves of his coat turned back at the wrists, was occupied in bestowing the most vigorous, scientific, and straightforward blows upon the empty air.
At first sight, this would have appeared merely a wise precaution in a man of sedentary habits, with the view of opening the chest and strengthening the muscles of the arms. But the intense eagerness and joy depicted in the face of Newman Noggs, which was suffused with perspiration; the surprising energy with which he directed a constant succession of blows towards a particular panel about five feet eight from the ground, and still worked away in the most untiring and persevering manner, would have sufficiently explained to the attentive observer, that his imagination was thrashing, to within an inch of his life, his body's most active employer, Mr Ralph Nickleby.
Of the Proceedings of Nicholas, and certain Internal Divisions in the Company of Mr Vincent Crummles
The unexpected success and favour with which his experiment at Portsmouth had been received, induced Mr Crummles to prolong his stay in that town for a fortnight beyond the period he had originally assigned for the duration of his visit, during which time Nicholas personated a vast variety of characters with undiminished success, and attracted so many people to the theatre who had never been seen there before, that a benefit was considered by the manager a very promising speculation. Nicholas assenting to the terms proposed, the benefit was had, and by it he realised no less a sum than twenty pounds.
Possessed of this unexpected wealth, his first act was to enclose to honest John Browdie the amount of his friendly loan, which he accompanied with many expressions of gratitude and esteem, and many cordial wishes for his matrimonial happiness. To Newman Noggs he forwarded one half of the sum he had realised, entreating him to take an opportunity of handing it to Kate in secret, and conveying to her the warmest assurances of his love and affection. He made no mention of the way in which he had employed himself; merely informing Newman that a letter addressed to him under his assumed name at the Post Office, Portsmouth, would readily find him, and entreating that worthy friend to write full particulars of the situation of his mother and sister, and an account of all the grand things that Ralph Nickleby had done for them since his departure from London.
'You are out of spirits,' said Smike, on the night after the letter had been dispatched.
'Not I!' rejoined Nicholas, with assumed gaiety, for the confession would have made the boy miserable all night; 'I was thinking about my sister, Smike.'
'Is she like you?' inquired Smike.
'Why, so they say,' replied Nicholas, laughing, 'only a great deal handsomer.'
'She must be VERY beautiful,' said Smike, after thinking a little while with his hands folded together, and his eyes bent upon his friend.
'Anybody who didn't know you as well as I do, my dear fellow, would say you were an accomplished courtier,' said Nicholas.
'I don't even know what that is,' replied Smike, shaking his head. 'Shall I ever see your sister?'
'To be sure,' cried Nicholas; 'we shall all be together one of these days—when we are rich, Smike.'
'How is it that you, who are so kind and good to me, have nobody to be kind to you?' asked Smike. 'I cannot make that out.'
'Why, it is a long story,' replied Nicholas, 'and one you would have some difficulty in comprehending, I fear. I have an enemy—you understand what that is?'
'Oh, yes, I understand that,' said Smike.
'Well, it is owing to him,' returned Nicholas. 'He is rich, and not so easily punished as YOUR old enemy, Mr Squeers. He is my uncle, but he is a villain, and has done me wrong.'
'Has he though?' asked Smike, bending eagerly forward. 'What is his name? Tell me his name.'
'Ralph Nickleby,' repeated Smike. 'Ralph. I'll get that name by heart.'
He had muttered it over to himself some twenty times, when a loud knock at the door disturbed him from his occupation. Before he could open it, Mr Folair, the pantomimist, thrust in his head.
Mr Folair's head was usually decorated with a very round hat, unusually high in the crown, and curled up quite tight in the brims. On the present occasion he wore it very much on one side, with the back part forward in consequence of its being the least rusty; round his neck he wore a flaming red worsted comforter, whereof the straggling ends peeped out beneath his threadbare Newmarket coat, which was very tight and buttoned all the way up. He carried in his hand one very dirty glove, and a cheap dress cane with a glass handle; in short, his whole appearance was unusually dashing, and demonstrated a far more scrupulous attention to his toilet than he was in the habit of bestowing upon it.
'Good-evening, sir,' said Mr Folair, taking off the tall hat, and running his fingers through his hair. 'I bring a communication. Hem!'
'From whom and what about?' inquired Nicholas. 'You are unusually mysterious tonight.'
'Cold, perhaps,' returned Mr Folair; 'cold, perhaps. That is the fault of my position—not of myself, Mr Johnson. My position as a mutual friend requires it, sir.' Mr Folair paused with a most impressive look, and diving into the hat before noticed, drew from thence a small piece of whity-brown paper curiously folded, whence he brought forth a note which it had served to keep clean, and handing it over to Nicholas, said—
'Have the goodness to read that, sir.'
Nicholas, in a state of much amazement, took the note and broke the seal, glancing at Mr Folair as he did so, who, knitting his brow and pursing up his mouth with great dignity, was sitting with his eyes steadily fixed upon the ceiling.
It was directed to blank Johnson, Esq., by favour of Augustus Folair, Esq.; and the astonishment of Nicholas was in no degree lessened, when he found it to be couched in the following laconic terms:—
"Mr Lenville presents his kind regards to Mr Johnson, and will feel obliged if he will inform him at what hour tomorrow morning it will be most convenient to him to meet Mr L. at the Theatre, for the purpose of having his nose pulled in the presence of the company.
"Mr Lenville requests Mr Johnson not to neglect making an appointment, as he has invited two or three professional friends to witness the ceremony, and cannot disappoint them upon any account whatever.
"PORTSMOUTH, TUESDAY NIGHT."
Indignant as he was at this impertinence, there was something so exquisitely absurd in such a cartel of defiance, that Nicholas was obliged to bite his lip and read the note over two or three times before he could muster sufficient gravity and sternness to address the hostile messenger, who had not taken his eyes from the ceiling, nor altered the expression of his face in the slightest degree.
'Do you know the contents of this note, sir?' he asked, at length.
'Yes,' rejoined Mr Folair, looking round for an instant, and immediately carrying his eyes back again to the ceiling.
'And how dare you bring it here, sir?' asked Nicholas, tearing it into very little pieces, and jerking it in a shower towards the messenger. 'Had you no fear of being kicked downstairs, sir?'
Mr Folair turned his head—now ornamented with several fragments of the note—towards Nicholas, and with the same imperturbable dignity, briefly replied 'No.'
'Then,' said Nicholas, taking up the tall hat and tossing it towards the door, 'you had better follow that article of your dress, sir, or you may find yourself very disagreeably deceived, and that within a dozen seconds.'
'I say, Johnson,' remonstrated Mr Folair, suddenly losing all his dignity, 'none of that, you know. No tricks with a gentleman's wardrobe.'
'Leave the room,' returned Nicholas. 'How could you presume to come here on such an errand, you scoundrel?'
'Pooh! pooh!' said Mr Folair, unwinding his comforter, and gradually getting himself out of it. 'There—that's enough.'
'Enough!' cried Nicholas, advancing towards him. 'Take yourself off, sir.'
'Pooh! pooh! I tell you,' returned Mr Folair, waving his hand in deprecation of any further wrath; 'I wasn't in earnest. I only brought it in joke.'
'You had better be careful how you indulge in such jokes again,' said Nicholas, 'or you may find an allusion to pulling noses rather a dangerous reminder for the subject of your facetiousness. Was it written in joke, too, pray?'
'No, no, that's the best of it,' returned the actor; 'right down earnest—honour bright.'
Nicholas could not repress a smile at the odd figure before him, which, at all times more calculated to provoke mirth than anger, was especially so at that moment, when with one knee upon the ground, Mr Folair twirled his old hat round upon his hand, and affected the extremest agony lest any of the nap should have been knocked off—an ornament which it is almost superfluous to say, it had not boasted for many months.
'Come, sir,' said Nicholas, laughing in spite of himself. 'Have the goodness to explain.'
'Why, I'll tell you how it is,' said Mr Folair, sitting himself down in a chair with great coolness. 'Since you came here Lenville has done nothing but second business, and, instead of having a reception every night as he used to have, they have let him come on as if he was nobody.'
'What do you mean by a reception?' asked Nicholas.
'Jupiter!' exclaimed Mr Folair, 'what an unsophisticated shepherd you are, Johnson! Why, applause from the house when you first come on. So he has gone on night after night, never getting a hand, and you getting a couple of rounds at least, and sometimes three, till at length he got quite desperate, and had half a mind last night to play Tybalt with a real sword, and pink you—not dangerously, but just enough to lay you up for a month or two.'
'Very considerate,' remarked Nicholas.
'Yes, I think it was under the circumstances; his professional reputation being at stake,' said Mr Folair, quite seriously. 'But his heart failed him, and he cast about for some other way of annoying you, and making himself popular at the same time—for that's the point. Notoriety, notoriety, is the thing. Bless you, if he had pinked you,' said Mr Folair, stopping to make a calculation in his mind, 'it would have been worth—ah, it would have been worth eight or ten shillings a week to him. All the town would have come to see the actor who nearly killed a man by mistake; I shouldn't wonder if it had got him an engagement in London. However, he was obliged to try some other mode of getting popular, and this one occurred to him. It's clever idea, really. If you had shown the white feather, and let him pull your nose, he'd have got it into the paper; if you had sworn the peace against him, it would have been in the paper too, and he'd have been just as much talked about as you—don't you see?'
'Oh, certainly,' rejoined Nicholas; 'but suppose I were to turn the tables, and pull HIS nose, what then? Would that make his fortune?'
'Why, I don't think it would,' replied Mr Folair, scratching his head, 'because there wouldn't be any romance about it, and he wouldn't be favourably known. To tell you the truth though, he didn't calculate much upon that, for you're always so mild-spoken, and are so popular among the women, that we didn't suspect you of showing fight. If you did, however, he has a way of getting out of it easily, depend upon that.'
'Has he?' rejoined Nicholas. 'We will try, tomorrow morning. In the meantime, you can give whatever account of our interview you like best. Good-night.'
As Mr Folair was pretty well known among his fellow-actors for a man who delighted in mischief, and was by no means scrupulous, Nicholas had not much doubt but that he had secretly prompted the tragedian in the course he had taken, and, moreover, that he would have carried his mission with a very high hand if he had not been disconcerted by the very unexpected demonstrations with which it had been received. It was not worth his while to be serious with him, however, so he dismissed the pantomimist, with a gentle hint that if he offended again it would be under the penalty of a broken head; and Mr Folair, taking the caution in exceedingly good part, walked away to confer with his principal, and give such an account of his proceedings as he might think best calculated to carry on the joke.
He had no doubt reported that Nicholas was in a state of extreme bodily fear; for when that young gentleman walked with much deliberation down to the theatre next morning at the usual hour, he found all the company assembled in evident expectation, and Mr Lenville, with his severest stage face, sitting majestically on a table, whistling defiance.
Now the ladies were on the side of Nicholas, and the gentlemen (being jealous) were on the side of the disappointed tragedian; so that the latter formed a little group about the redoubtable Mr Lenville, and the former looked on at a little distance in some trepidation and anxiety. On Nicholas stopping to salute them, Mr Lenville laughed a scornful laugh, and made some general remark touching the natural history of puppies.
'Oh!' said Nicholas, looking quietly round, 'are you there?'
'Slave!' returned Mr Lenville, flourishing his right arm, and approaching Nicholas with a theatrical stride. But somehow he appeared just at that moment a little startled, as if Nicholas did not look quite so frightened as he had expected, and came all at once to an awkward halt, at which the assembled ladies burst into a shrill laugh.
'Object of my scorn and hatred!' said Mr Lenville, 'I hold ye in contempt.'
Nicholas laughed in very unexpected enjoyment of this performance; and the ladies, by way of encouragement, laughed louder than before; whereat Mr Lenville assumed his bitterest smile, and expressed his opinion that they were 'minions'.
'But they shall not protect ye!' said the tragedian, taking an upward look at Nicholas, beginning at his boots and ending at the crown of his head, and then a downward one, beginning at the crown of his head, and ending at his boots—which two looks, as everybody knows, express defiance on the stage. 'They shall not protect ye—boy!'
Thus speaking, Mr Lenville folded his arms, and treated Nicholas to that expression of face with which, in melodramatic performances, he was in the habit of regarding the tyrannical kings when they said, 'Away with him to the deepest dungeon beneath the castle moat;' and which, accompanied with a little jingling of fetters, had been known to produce great effects in its time.
Whether it was the absence of the fetters or not, it made no very deep impression on Mr Lenville's adversary, however, but rather seemed to increase the good-humour expressed in his countenance; in which stage of the contest, one or two gentlemen, who had come out expressly to witness the pulling of Nicholas's nose, grew impatient, murmuring that if it were to be done at all it had better be done at once, and that if Mr Lenville didn't mean to do it he had better say so, and not keep them waiting there. Thus urged, the tragedian adjusted the cuff of his right coat sleeve for the performance of the operation, and walked in a very stately manner up to Nicholas, who suffered him to approach to within the requisite distance, and then, without the smallest discomposure, knocked him down.
Before the discomfited tragedian could raise his head from the boards, Mrs Lenville (who, as has been before hinted, was in an interesting state) rushed from the rear rank of ladies, and uttering a piercing scream threw herself upon the body.
'Do you see this, monster? Do you see THIS?' cried Mr Lenville, sitting up, and pointing to his prostrate lady, who was holding him very tight round the waist.
'Come,' said Nicholas, nodding his head, 'apologise for the insolent note you wrote to me last night, and waste no more time in talking.'
'Never!' cried Mr Lenville.
'Yes—yes—yes!' screamed his wife. 'For my sake—for mine, Lenville—forego all idle forms, unless you would see me a blighted corse at your feet.'
'This is affecting!' said Mr Lenville, looking round him, and drawing the back of his hand across his eyes. 'The ties of nature are strong. The weak husband and the father—the father that is yet to be—relents. I apologise.'
'Humbly and submissively?' said Nicholas.
'Humbly and submissively,' returned the tragedian, scowling upwards. 'But only to save her,—for a time will come—'
'Very good,' said Nicholas; 'I hope Mrs Lenville may have a good one; and when it does come, and you are a father, you shall retract it if you have the courage. There. Be careful, sir, to what lengths your jealousy carries you another time; and be careful, also, before you venture too far, to ascertain your rival's temper.' With this parting advice Nicholas picked up Mr Lenville's ash stick which had flown out of his hand, and breaking it in half, threw him the pieces and withdrew, bowing slightly to the spectators as he walked out.
The profoundest deference was paid to Nicholas that night, and the people who had been most anxious to have his nose pulled in the morning, embraced occasions of taking him aside, and telling him with great feeling, how very friendly they took it that he should have treated that Lenville so properly, who was a most unbearable fellow, and on whom they had all, by a remarkable coincidence, at one time or other contemplated the infliction of condign punishment, which they had only been restrained from administering by considerations of mercy; indeed, to judge from the invariable termination of all these stories, there never was such a charitable and kind-hearted set of people as the male members of Mr Crummles's company.
Nicholas bore his triumph, as he had his success in the little world of the theatre, with the utmost moderation and good humour. The crestfallen Mr Lenville made an expiring effort to obtain revenge by sending a boy into the gallery to hiss, but he fell a sacrifice to popular indignation, and was promptly turned out without having his money back.
'Well, Smike,' said Nicholas when the first piece was over, and he had almost finished dressing to go home, 'is there any letter yet?'
'Yes,' replied Smike, 'I got this one from the post-office.'
'From Newman Noggs,' said Nicholas, casting his eye upon the cramped direction; 'it's no easy matter to make his writing out. Let me see—let me see.'
By dint of poring over the letter for half an hour, he contrived to make himself master of the contents, which were certainly not of a nature to set his mind at ease. Newman took upon himself to send back the ten pounds, observing that he had ascertained that neither Mrs Nickleby nor Kate was in actual want of money at the moment, and that a time might shortly come when Nicholas might want it more. He entreated him not to be alarmed at what he was about to say;—there was no bad news—they were in good health—but he thought circumstances might occur, or were occurring, which would render it absolutely necessary that Kate should have her brother's protection, and if so, Newman said, he would write to him to that effect, either by the next post or the next but one.
Nicholas read this passage very often, and the more he thought of it the more he began to fear some treachery upon the part of Ralph. Once or twice he felt tempted to repair to London at all hazards without an hour's delay, but a little reflection assured him that if such a step were necessary, Newman would have spoken out and told him so at once.
'At all events I should prepare them here for the possibility of my going away suddenly,' said Nicholas; 'I should lose no time in doing that.' As the thought occurred to him, he took up his hat and hurried to the green-room.
'Well, Mr Johnson,' said Mrs Crummles, who was seated there in full regal costume, with the phenomenon as the Maiden in her maternal arms, 'next week for Ryde, then for Winchester, then for—'
'I have some reason to fear,' interrupted Nicholas, 'that before you leave here my career with you will have closed.'
'Closed!' cried Mrs Crummles, raising her hands in astonishment.
'Closed!' cried Miss Snevellicci, trembling so much in her tights that she actually laid her hand upon the shoulder of the manageress for support.
'Why he don't mean to say he's going!' exclaimed Mrs Grudden, making her way towards Mrs Crummles. 'Hoity toity! Nonsense.'
The phenomenon, being of an affectionate nature and moreover excitable, raised a loud cry, and Miss Belvawney and Miss Bravassa actually shed tears. Even the male performers stopped in their conversation, and echoed the word 'Going!' although some among them (and they had been the loudest in their congratulations that day) winked at each other as though they would not be sorry to lose such a favoured rival; an opinion, indeed, which the honest Mr Folair, who was ready dressed for the savage, openly stated in so many words to a demon with whom he was sharing a pot of porter.
Nicholas briefly said that he feared it would be so, although he could not yet speak with any degree of certainty; and getting away as soon as he could, went home to con Newman's letter once more, and speculate upon it afresh.
How trifling all that had been occupying his time and thoughts for many weeks seemed to him during that sleepless night, and how constantly and incessantly present to his imagination was the one idea that Kate in the midst of some great trouble and distress might even then be looking—and vainly too—for him!
Festivities are held in honour of Nicholas, who suddenly withdraws himself from the Society of Mr Vincent Crummles and his Theatrical Companions
Mr Vincent Crummles was no sooner acquainted with the public announcement which Nicholas had made relative to the probability of his shortly ceasing to be a member of the company, than he evinced many tokens of grief and consternation; and, in the extremity of his despair, even held out certain vague promises of a speedy improvement not only in the amount of his regular salary, but also in the contingent emoluments appertaining to his authorship. Finding Nicholas bent upon quitting the society—for he had now determined that, even if no further tidings came from Newman, he would, at all hazards, ease his mind by repairing to London and ascertaining the exact position of his sister—Mr Crummles was fain to content himself by calculating the chances of his coming back again, and taking prompt and energetic measures to make the most of him before he went away.
'Let me see,' said Mr Crummles, taking off his outlaw's wig, the better to arrive at a cool-headed view of the whole case. 'Let me see. This is Wednesday night. We'll have posters out the first thing in the morning, announcing positively your last appearance for tomorrow.'
'But perhaps it may not be my last appearance, you know,' said Nicholas. 'Unless I am summoned away, I should be sorry to inconvenience you by leaving before the end of the week.'
'So much the better,' returned Mr Crummles. 'We can have positively your last appearance, on Thursday—re-engagement for one night more, on Friday—and, yielding to the wishes of numerous influential patrons, who were disappointed in obtaining seats, on Saturday. That ought to bring three very decent houses.'
'Then I am to make three last appearances, am I?' inquired Nicholas, smiling.
'Yes,' rejoined the manager, scratching his head with an air of some vexation; 'three is not enough, and it's very bungling and irregular not to have more, but if we can't help it we can't, so there's no use in talking. A novelty would be very desirable. You couldn't sing a comic song on the pony's back, could you?'
'No,' replied Nicholas, 'I couldn't indeed.'
'It has drawn money before now,' said Mr Crummles, with a look of disappointment. 'What do you think of a brilliant display of fireworks?'
'That it would be rather expensive,' replied Nicholas, drily.
'Eighteen-pence would do it,' said Mr Crummles. 'You on the top of a pair of steps with the phenomenon in an attitude; "Farewell!" on a transparency behind; and nine people at the wings with a squib in each hand—all the dozen and a half going off at once—it would be very grand—awful from the front, quite awful.'
As Nicholas appeared by no means impressed with the solemnity of the proposed effect, but, on the contrary, received the proposition in a most irreverent manner, and laughed at it very heartily, Mr Crummles abandoned the project in its birth, and gloomily observed that they must make up the best bill they could with combats and hornpipes, and so stick to the legitimate drama.
For the purpose of carrying this object into instant execution, the manager at once repaired to a small dressing-room, adjacent, where Mrs Crummles was then occupied in exchanging the habiliments of a melodramatic empress for the ordinary attire of matrons in the nineteenth century. And with the assistance of this lady, and the accomplished Mrs Grudden (who had quite a genius for making out bills, being a great hand at throwing in the notes of admiration, and knowing from long experience exactly where the largest capitals ought to go), he seriously applied himself to the composition of the poster.
'Heigho!' sighed Nicholas, as he threw himself back in the prompter's chair, after telegraphing the needful directions to Smike, who had been playing a meagre tailor in the interlude, with one skirt to his coat, and a little pocket-handkerchief with a large hole in it, and a woollen nightcap, and a red nose, and other distinctive marks peculiar to tailors on the stage. 'Heigho! I wish all this were over.'
'Over, Mr Johnson!' repeated a female voice behind him, in a kind of plaintive surprise.
'It was an ungallant speech, certainly,' said Nicholas, looking up to see who the speaker was, and recognising Miss Snevellicci. 'I would not have made it if I had known you had been within hearing.'
'What a dear that Mr Digby is!' said Miss Snevellicci, as the tailor went off on the opposite side, at the end of the piece, with great applause. (Smike's theatrical name was Digby.)
'I'll tell him presently, for his gratification, that you said so,' returned Nicholas.
'Oh you naughty thing!' rejoined Miss Snevellicci. 'I don't know though, that I should much mind HIS knowing my opinion of him; with some other people, indeed, it might be—' Here Miss Snevellicci stopped, as though waiting to be questioned, but no questioning came, for Nicholas was thinking about more serious matters.
'How kind it is of you,' resumed Miss Snevellicci, after a short silence, 'to sit waiting here for him night after night, night after night, no matter how tired you are; and taking so much pains with him, and doing it all with as much delight and readiness as if you were coining gold by it!'
'He well deserves all the kindness I can show him, and a great deal more,' said Nicholas. 'He is the most grateful, single-hearted, affectionate creature that ever breathed.'
'So odd, too,' remarked Miss Snevellicci, 'isn't he?'
'God help him, and those who have made him so; he is indeed,' rejoined Nicholas, shaking his head.
'He is such a devilish close chap,' said Mr Folair, who had come up a little before, and now joined in the conversation. 'Nobody can ever get anything out of him.'
'What SHOULD they get out of him?' asked Nicholas, turning round with some abruptness.
'Zooks! what a fire-eater you are, Johnson!' returned Mr Folair, pulling up the heel of his dancing shoe. 'I'm only talking of the natural curiosity of the people here, to know what he has been about all his life.'
'Poor fellow! it is pretty plain, I should think, that he has not the intellect to have been about anything of much importance to them or anybody else,' said Nicholas.
'Ay,' rejoined the actor, contemplating the effect of his face in a lamp reflector, 'but that involves the whole question, you know.'
'What question?' asked Nicholas.
'Why, the who he is and what he is, and how you two, who are so different, came to be such close companions,' replied Mr Folair, delighted with the opportunity of saying something disagreeable. 'That's in everybody's mouth.'
'The "everybody" of the theatre, I suppose?' said Nicholas, contemptuously.
'In it and out of it too,' replied the actor. 'Why, you know, Lenville says—'
'I thought I had silenced him effectually,' interrupted Nicholas, reddening.
'Perhaps you have,' rejoined the immovable Mr Folair; 'if you have, he said this before he was silenced: Lenville says that you're a regular stick of an actor, and that it's only the mystery about you that has caused you to go down with the people here, and that Crummles keeps it up for his own sake; though Lenville says he don't believe there's anything at all in it, except your having got into a scrape and run away from somewhere, for doing something or other.'
'Oh!' said Nicholas, forcing a smile.
'That's a part of what he says,' added Mr Folair. 'I mention it as the friend of both parties, and in strict confidence. I don't agree with him, you know. He says he takes Digby to be more knave than fool; and old Fluggers, who does the heavy business you know, HE says that when he delivered messages at Covent Garden the season before last, there used to be a pickpocket hovering about the coach-stand who had exactly the face of Digby; though, as he very properly says, Digby may not be the same, but only his brother, or some near relation.'
'Oh!' cried Nicholas again.
'Yes,' said Mr Folair, with undisturbed calmness, 'that's what they say. I thought I'd tell you, because really you ought to know. Oh! here's this blessed phenomenon at last. Ugh, you little imposition, I should like to—quite ready, my darling,—humbug—Ring up, Mrs G., and let the favourite wake 'em.'
Uttering in a loud voice such of the latter allusions as were complimentary to the unconscious phenomenon, and giving the rest in a confidential 'aside' to Nicholas, Mr Folair followed the ascent of the curtain with his eyes, regarded with a sneer the reception of Miss Crummles as the Maiden, and, falling back a step or two to advance with the better effect, uttered a preliminary howl, and 'went on' chattering his teeth and brandishing his tin tomahawk as the Indian Savage.
'So these are some of the stories they invent about us, and bandy from mouth to mouth!' thought Nicholas. 'If a man would commit an inexpiable offence against any society, large or small, let him be successful. They will forgive him any crime but that.'
'You surely don't mind what that malicious creature says, Mr Johnson?' observed Miss Snevellicci in her most winning tones.
'Not I,' replied Nicholas. 'If I were going to remain here, I might think it worth my while to embroil myself. As it is, let them talk till they are hoarse. But here,' added Nicholas, as Smike approached, 'here comes the subject of a portion of their good-nature, so let he and I say good night together.'
'No, I will not let either of you say anything of the kind,' returned Miss Snevellicci. 'You must come home and see mama, who only came to Portsmouth today, and is dying to behold you. Led, my dear, persuade Mr Johnson.'
'Oh, I'm sure,' returned Miss Ledrook, with considerable vivacity, 'if YOU can't persuade him—' Miss Ledrook said no more, but intimated, by a dexterous playfulness, that if Miss Snevellicci couldn't persuade him, nobody could.
'Mr and Mrs Lillyvick have taken lodgings in our house, and share our sitting-room for the present,' said Miss Snevellicci. 'Won't that induce you?'
'Surely,' returned Nicholas, 'I can require no possible inducement beyond your invitation.'
'Oh no! I dare say,' rejoined Miss Snevellicci. And Miss Ledrook said, 'Upon my word!' Upon which Miss Snevellicci said that Miss Ledrook was a giddy thing; and Miss Ledrook said that Miss Snevellicci needn't colour up quite so much; and Miss Snevellicci beat Miss Ledrook, and Miss Ledrook beat Miss Snevellicci.
'Come,' said Miss Ledrook, 'it's high time we were there, or we shall have poor Mrs Snevellicci thinking that you have run away with her daughter, Mr Johnson; and then we should have a pretty to-do.'
'My dear Led,' remonstrated Miss Snevellicci, 'how you do talk!'
Miss Ledrook made no answer, but taking Smike's arm in hers, left her friend and Nicholas to follow at their pleasure; which it pleased them, or rather pleased Nicholas, who had no great fancy for a TETE-A-TETE under the circumstances, to do at once.
There were not wanting matters of conversation when they reached the street, for it turned out that Miss Snevellicci had a small basket to carry home, and Miss Ledrook a small bandbox, both containing such minor articles of theatrical costume as the lady performers usually carried to and fro every evening. Nicholas would insist upon carrying the basket, and Miss Snevellicci would insist upon carrying it herself, which gave rise to a struggle, in which Nicholas captured the basket and the bandbox likewise. Then Nicholas said, that he wondered what could possibly be inside the basket, and attempted to peep in, whereat Miss Snevellicci screamed, and declared that if she thought he had seen, she was sure she should faint away. This declaration was followed by a similar attempt on the bandbox, and similar demonstrations on the part of Miss Ledrook, and then both ladies vowed that they wouldn't move a step further until Nicholas had promised that he wouldn't offer to peep again. At last Nicholas pledged himself to betray no further curiosity, and they walked on: both ladies giggling very much, and declaring that they never had seen such a wicked creature in all their born days—never.
Lightening the way with such pleasantry as this, they arrived at the tailor's house in no time; and here they made quite a little party, there being present besides Mr Lillyvick and Mrs Lillyvick, not only Miss Snevellicci's mama, but her papa also. And an uncommonly fine man Miss Snevellicci's papa was, with a hook nose, and a white forehead, and curly black hair, and high cheek bones, and altogether quite a handsome face, only a little pimply as though with drinking. He had a very broad chest had Miss Snevellicci's papa, and he wore a threadbare blue dress-coat buttoned with gilt buttons tight across it; and he no sooner saw Nicholas come into the room, than he whipped the two forefingers of his right hand in between the two centre buttons, and sticking his other arm gracefully a-kimbo seemed to say, 'Now, here I am, my buck, and what have you got to say to me?'
Such was, and in such an attitude sat Miss Snevellicci's papa, who had been in the profession ever since he had first played the ten-year-old imps in the Christmas pantomimes; who could sing a little, dance a little, fence a little, act a little, and do everything a little, but not much; who had been sometimes in the ballet, and sometimes in the chorus, at every theatre in London; who was always selected in virtue of his figure to play the military visitors and the speechless noblemen; who always wore a smart dress, and came on arm-in-arm with a smart lady in short petticoats,—and always did it too with such an air that people in the pit had been several times known to cry out 'Bravo!' under the impression that he was somebody. Such was Miss Snevellicci's papa, upon whom some envious persons cast the imputation that he occasionally beat Miss Snevellicci's mama, who was still a dancer, with a neat little figure and some remains of good looks; and who now sat, as she danced,—being rather too old for the full glare of the foot-lights,—in the background.
To these good people Nicholas was presented with much formality. The introduction being completed, Miss Snevellicci's papa (who was scented with rum-and-water) said that he was delighted to make the acquaintance of a gentleman so highly talented; and furthermore remarked, that there hadn't been such a hit made—no, not since the first appearance of his friend Mr Glavormelly, at the Coburg.
'You have seen him, sir?' said Miss Snevellicci's papa.
'No, really I never did,' replied Nicholas.
'You never saw my friend Glavormelly, sir!' said Miss Snevellicci's papa. 'Then you have never seen acting yet. If he had lived—'
'Oh, he is dead, is he?' interrupted Nicholas.
'He is,' said Mr Snevellicci, 'but he isn't in Westminster Abbey, more's the shame. He was a—. Well, no matter. He is gone to that bourne from whence no traveller returns. I hope he is appreciated THERE.'
So saying Miss Snevellicci's papa rubbed the tip of his nose with a very yellow silk handkerchief, and gave the company to understand that these recollections overcame him.
'Well, Mr Lillyvick,' said Nicholas, 'and how are you?'
'Quite well, sir,' replied the collector. 'There is nothing like the married state, sir, depend upon it.'
'Indeed!' said Nicholas, laughing.
'Ah! nothing like it, sir,' replied Mr Lillyvick solemnly. 'How do you think,' whispered the collector, drawing him aside, 'how do you think she looks tonight?'
'As handsome as ever,' replied Nicholas, glancing at the late Miss Petowker.
'Why, there's air about her, sir,' whispered the collector, 'that I never saw in anybody. Look at her, now she moves to put the kettle on. There! Isn't it fascination, sir?'
'You're a lucky man,' said Nicholas.
'Ha, ha, ha!' rejoined the collector. 'No. Do you think I am though, eh? Perhaps I may be, perhaps I may be. I say, I couldn't have done much better if I had been a young man, could I? You couldn't have done much better yourself, could you—eh—could you?' With such inquires, and many more such, Mr Lillyvick jerked his elbow into Nicholas's side, and chuckled till his face became quite purple in the attempt to keep down his satisfaction.
By this time the cloth had been laid under the joint superintendence of all the ladies, upon two tables put together, one being high and narrow, and the other low and broad. There were oysters at the top, sausages at the bottom, a pair of snuffers in the centre, and baked potatoes wherever it was most convenient to put them. Two additional chairs were brought in from the bedroom: Miss Snevellicci sat at the head of the table, and Mr Lillyvick at the foot; and Nicholas had not only the honour of sitting next Miss Snevellicci, but of having Miss Snevellicci's mama on his right hand, and Miss Snevellicci's papa over the way. In short, he was the hero of the feast; and when the table was cleared and something warm introduced, Miss Snevellicci's papa got up and proposed his health in a speech containing such affecting allusions to his coming departure, that Miss Snevellicci wept, and was compelled to retire into the bedroom.
'Hush! Don't take any notice of it,' said Miss Ledrook, peeping in from the bedroom. 'Say, when she comes back, that she exerts herself too much.'
Miss Ledrook eked out this speech with so many mysterious nods and frowns before she shut the door again, that a profound silence came upon all the company, during which Miss Snevellicci's papa looked very big indeed—several sizes larger than life—at everybody in turn, but particularly at Nicholas, and kept on perpetually emptying his tumbler and filling it again, until the ladies returned in a cluster, with Miss Snevellicci among them.
'You needn't alarm yourself a bit, Mr Snevellicci,' said Mrs Lillyvick. 'She is only a little weak and nervous; she has been so ever since the morning.'
'Oh,' said Mr Snevellicci, 'that's all, is it?'
'Oh yes, that's all. Don't make a fuss about it,' cried all the ladies together.
Now this was not exactly the kind of reply suited to Mr Snevellicci's importance as a man and a father, so he picked out the unfortunate Mrs Snevellicci, and asked her what the devil she meant by talking to him in that way.
'Dear me, my dear!' said Mrs Snevellicci.
'Don't call me your dear, ma'am,' said Mr Snevellicci, 'if you please.'
'Pray, pa, don't,' interposed Miss Snevellicci.
'Don't what, my child?'
'Talk in that way.'
'Why not?' said Mr Snevellicci. 'I hope you don't suppose there's anybody here who is to prevent my talking as I like?'
'Nobody wants to, pa,' rejoined his daughter.
'Nobody would if they did want to,' said Mr Snevellicci. 'I am not ashamed of myself, Snevellicci is my name; I'm to be found in Broad Court, Bow Street, when I'm in town. If I'm not at home, let any man ask for me at the stage-door. Damme, they know me at the stage-door I suppose. Most men have seen my portrait at the cigar shop round the corner. I've been mentioned in the newspapers before now, haven't I? Talk! I'll tell you what; if I found out that any man had been tampering with the affections of my daughter, I wouldn't talk. I'd astonish him without talking; that's my way.'
So saying, Mr Snevellicci struck the palm of his left hand three smart blows with his clenched fist; pulled a phantom nose with his right thumb and forefinger, and swallowed another glassful at a draught. 'That's my way,' repeated Mr Snevellicci.
Most public characters have their failings; and the truth is that Mr Snevellicci was a little addicted to drinking; or, if the whole truth must be told, that he was scarcely ever sober. He knew in his cups three distinct stages of intoxication,—the dignified—the quarrelsome—the amorous. When professionally engaged he never got beyond the dignified; in private circles he went through all three, passing from one to another with a rapidity of transition often rather perplexing to those who had not the honour of his acquaintance.
Thus Mr Snevellicci had no sooner swallowed another glassful than he smiled upon all present in happy forgetfulness of having exhibited symptoms of pugnacity, and proposed 'The ladies! Bless their hearts!' in a most vivacious manner.
'I love 'em,' said Mr Snevellicci, looking round the table, 'I love 'em, every one.'
'Not every one,' reasoned Mr Lillyvick, mildly.
'Yes, every one,' repeated Mr Snevellicci.
'That would include the married ladies, you know,' said Mr Lillyvick.
'I love them too, sir,' said Mr Snevellicci.
The collector looked into the surrounding faces with an aspect of grave astonishment, seeming to say, 'This is a nice man!' and appeared a little surprised that Mrs Lillyvick's manner yielded no evidences of horror and indignation.
'One good turn deserves another,' said Mr Snevellicci. 'I love them and they love me.' And as if this avowal were not made in sufficient disregard and defiance of all moral obligations, what did Mr Snevellicci do? He winked—winked openly and undisguisedly; winked with his right eye—upon Henrietta Lillyvick!
The collector fell back in his chair in the intensity of his astonishment. If anybody had winked at her as Henrietta Petowker, it would have been indecorous in the last degree; but as Mrs Lillyvick! While he thought of it in a cold perspiration, and wondered whether it was possible that he could be dreaming, Mr Snevellicci repeated the wink, and drinking to Mrs Lillyvick in dumb show, actually blew her a kiss! Mr Lillyvick left his chair, walked straight up to the other end of the table, and fell upon him—literally fell upon him—instantaneously. Mr Lillyvick was no light weight, and consequently when he fell upon Mr Snevellicci, Mr Snevellicci fell under the table. Mr Lillyvick followed him, and the ladies screamed.
'What is the matter with the men! Are they mad?' cried Nicholas, diving under the table, dragging up the collector by main force, and thrusting him, all doubled up, into a chair, as if he had been a stuffed figure. 'What do you mean to do? What do you want to do? What is the matter with you?'
While Nicholas raised up the collector, Smike had performed the same office for Mr Snevellicci, who now regarded his late adversary in tipsy amazement.
'Look here, sir,' replied Mr Lillyvick, pointing to his astonished wife, 'here is purity and elegance combined, whose feelings have been outraged—violated, sir!'
'Lor, what nonsense he talks!' exclaimed Mrs Lillyvick in answer to the inquiring look of Nicholas. 'Nobody has said anything to me.'
'Said, Henrietta!' cried the collector. 'Didn't I see him—' Mr Lillyvick couldn't bring himself to utter the word, but he counterfeited the motion of the eye.
'Well!' cried Mrs Lillyvick. 'Do you suppose nobody is ever to look at me? A pretty thing to be married indeed, if that was law!'
'You didn't mind it?' cried the collector.
'Mind it!' repeated Mrs Lillyvick contemptuously. 'You ought to go down on your knees and beg everybody's pardon, that you ought.'
'Pardon, my dear?' said the dismayed collector.
'Yes, and mine first,' replied Mrs Lillyvick. 'Do you suppose I ain't the best judge of what's proper and what's improper?'
'To be sure,' cried all the ladies. 'Do you suppose WE shouldn't be the first to speak, if there was anything that ought to be taken notice of?'
'Do you suppose THEY don't know, sir?' said Miss Snevellicci's papa, pulling up his collar, and muttering something about a punching of heads, and being only withheld by considerations of age. With which Miss Snevellicci's papa looked steadily and sternly at Mr Lillyvick for some seconds, and then rising deliberately from his chair, kissed the ladies all round, beginning with Mrs Lillyvick.
The unhappy collector looked piteously at his wife, as if to see whether there was any one trait of Miss Petowker left in Mrs Lillyvick, and finding too surely that there was not, begged pardon of all the company with great humility, and sat down such a crest-fallen, dispirited, disenchanted man, that despite all his selfishness and dotage, he was quite an object of compassion.
Miss Snevellicci's papa being greatly exalted by this triumph, and incontestable proof of his popularity with the fair sex, quickly grew convivial, not to say uproarious; volunteering more than one song of no inconsiderable length, and regaling the social circle between-whiles with recollections of divers splendid women who had been supposed to entertain a passion for himself, several of whom he toasted by name, taking occasion to remark at the same time that if he had been a little more alive to his own interest, he might have been rolling at that moment in his chariot-and-four. These reminiscences appeared to awaken no very torturing pangs in the breast of Mrs Snevellicci, who was sufficiently occupied in descanting to Nicholas upon the manifold accomplishments and merits of her daughter. Nor was the young lady herself at all behind-hand in displaying her choicest allurements; but these, heightened as they were by the artifices of Miss Ledrook, had no effect whatever in increasing the attentions of Nicholas, who, with the precedent of Miss Squeers still fresh in his memory, steadily resisted every fascination, and placed so strict a guard upon his behaviour that when he had taken his leave the ladies were unanimous in pronouncing him quite a monster of insensibility.
Next day the posters appeared in due course, and the public were informed, in all the colours of the rainbow, and in letters afflicted with every possible variation of spinal deformity, how that Mr Johnson would have the honour of making his last appearance that evening, and how that an early application for places was requested, in consequence of the extraordinary overflow attendant on his performances,—it being a remarkable fact in theatrical history, but one long since established beyond dispute, that it is a hopeless endeavour to attract people to a theatre unless they can be first brought to believe that they will never get into it.
Nicholas was somewhat at a loss, on entering the theatre at night, to account for the unusual perturbation and excitement visible in the countenances of all the company, but he was not long in doubt as to the cause, for before he could make any inquiry respecting it Mr Crummles approached, and in an agitated tone of voice, informed him that there was a London manager in the boxes.
'It's the phenomenon, depend upon it, sir,' said Crummles, dragging Nicholas to the little hole in the curtain that he might look through at the London manager. 'I have not the smallest doubt it's the fame of the phenomenon—that's the man; him in the great-coat and no shirt-collar. She shall have ten pound a week, Johnson; she shall not appear on the London boards for a farthing less. They shan't engage her either, unless they engage Mrs Crummles too—twenty pound a week for the pair; or I'll tell you what, I'll throw in myself and the two boys, and they shall have the family for thirty. I can't say fairer than that. They must take us all, if none of us will go without the others. That's the way some of the London people do, and it always answers. Thirty pound a week—it's too cheap, Johnson. It's dirt cheap.'
Nicholas replied, that it certainly was; and Mr Vincent Crummles taking several huge pinches of snuff to compose his feelings, hurried away to tell Mrs Crummles that he had quite settled the only terms that could be accepted, and had resolved not to abate one single farthing.
When everybody was dressed and the curtain went up, the excitement occasioned by the presence of the London manager increased a thousand-fold. Everybody happened to know that the London manager had come down specially to witness his or her own performance, and all were in a flutter of anxiety and expectation. Some of those who were not on in the first scene, hurried to the wings, and there stretched their necks to have a peep at him; others stole up into the two little private boxes over the stage-doors, and from that position reconnoitred the London manager. Once the London manager was seen to smile—he smiled at the comic countryman's pretending to catch a blue-bottle, while Mrs Crummles was making her greatest effect. 'Very good, my fine fellow,' said Mr Crummles, shaking his fist at the comic countryman when he came off, 'you leave this company next Saturday night.'
In the same way, everybody who was on the stage beheld no audience but one individual; everybody played to the London manager. When Mr Lenville in a sudden burst of passion called the emperor a miscreant, and then biting his glove, said, 'But I must dissemble,' instead of looking gloomily at the boards and so waiting for his cue, as is proper in such cases, he kept his eye fixed upon the London manager. When Miss Bravassa sang her song at her lover, who according to custom stood ready to shake hands with her between the verses, they looked, not at each other, but at the London manager. Mr Crummles died point blank at him; and when the two guards came in to take the body off after a very hard death, it was seen to open its eyes and glance at the London manager. At length the London manager was discovered to be asleep, and shortly after that he woke up and went away, whereupon all the company fell foul of the unhappy comic countryman, declaring that his buffoonery was the sole cause; and Mr Crummles said, that he had put up with it a long time, but that he really couldn't stand it any longer, and therefore would feel obliged by his looking out for another engagement.
All this was the occasion of much amusement to Nicholas, whose only feeling upon the subject was one of sincere satisfaction that the great man went away before he appeared. He went through his part in the two last pieces as briskly as he could, and having been received with unbounded favour and unprecedented applause—so said the bills for next day, which had been printed an hour or two before—he took Smike's arm and walked home to bed.
With the post next morning came a letter from Newman Noggs, very inky, very short, very dirty, very small, and very mysterious, urging Nicholas to return to London instantly; not to lose an instant; to be there that night if possible.
'I will,' said Nicholas. 'Heaven knows I have remained here for the best, and sorely against my own will; but even now I may have dallied too long. What can have happened? Smike, my good fellow, here—take my purse. Put our things together, and pay what little debts we owe—quick, and we shall be in time for the morning coach. I will only tell them that we are going, and will return to you immediately.'
So saying, he took his hat, and hurrying away to the lodgings of Mr Crummles, applied his hand to the knocker with such hearty good-will, that he awakened that gentleman, who was still in bed, and caused Mr Bulph the pilot to take his morning's pipe very nearly out of his mouth in the extremity of his surprise.
The door being opened, Nicholas ran upstairs without any ceremony, and bursting into the darkened sitting-room on the one-pair front, found that the two Master Crummleses had sprung out of the sofa-bedstead and were putting on their clothes with great rapidity, under the impression that it was the middle of the night, and the next house was on fire.
Before he could undeceive them, Mr Crummles came down in a flannel gown and nightcap; and to him Nicholas briefly explained that circumstances had occurred which rendered it necessary for him to repair to London immediately.
'So goodbye,' said Nicholas; 'goodbye, goodbye.'
He was half-way downstairs before Mr Crummles had sufficiently recovered his surprise to gasp out something about the posters.
'I can't help it,' replied Nicholas. 'Set whatever I may have earned this week against them, or if that will not repay you, say at once what will. Quick, quick.'
'We'll cry quits about that,' returned Crummles. 'But can't we have one last night more?'
'Not an hour—not a minute,' replied Nicholas, impatiently.
'Won't you stop to say something to Mrs Crummles?' asked the manager, following him down to the door.
'I couldn't stop if it were to prolong my life a score of years,' rejoined Nicholas. 'Here, take my hand, and with it my hearty thanks.—Oh! that I should have been fooling here!'
Accompanying these words with an impatient stamp upon the ground, he tore himself from the manager's detaining grasp, and darting rapidly down the street was out of sight in an instant.
'Dear me, dear me,' said Mr Crummles, looking wistfully towards the point at which he had just disappeared; 'if he only acted like that, what a deal of money he'd draw! He should have kept upon this circuit; he'd have been very useful to me. But he don't know what's good for him. He is an impetuous youth. Young men are rash, very rash.'
Mr Crummles being in a moralising mood, might possibly have moralised for some minutes longer if he had not mechanically put his hand towards his waistcoat pocket, where he was accustomed to keep his snuff. The absence of any pocket at all in the usual direction, suddenly recalled to his recollection the fact that he had no waistcoat on; and this leading him to a contemplation of the extreme scantiness of his attire, he shut the door abruptly, and retired upstairs with great precipitation.
Smike had made good speed while Nicholas was absent, and with his help everything was soon ready for their departure. They scarcely stopped to take a morsel of breakfast, and in less than half an hour arrived at the coach-office: quite out of breath with the haste they had made to reach it in time. There were yet a few minutes to spare, so, having secured the places, Nicholas hurried into a slopseller's hard by, and bought Smike a great-coat. It would have been rather large for a substantial yeoman, but the shopman averring (and with considerable truth) that it was a most uncommon fit, Nicholas would have purchased it in his impatience if it had been twice the size.
As they hurried up to the coach, which was now in the open street and all ready for starting, Nicholas was not a little astonished to find himself suddenly clutched in a close and violent embrace, which nearly took him off his legs; nor was his amazement at all lessened by hearing the voice of Mr Crummles exclaim, 'It is he—my friend, my friend!'
'Bless my heart,' cried Nicholas, struggling in the manager's arms, 'what are you about?'
The manager made no reply, but strained him to his breast again, exclaiming as he did so, 'Farewell, my noble, my lion-hearted boy!'
In fact, Mr Crummles, who could never lose any opportunity for professional display, had turned out for the express purpose of taking a public farewell of Nicholas; and to render it the more imposing, he was now, to that young gentleman's most profound annoyance, inflicting upon him a rapid succession of stage embraces, which, as everybody knows, are performed by the embracer's laying his or her chin on the shoulder of the object of affection, and looking over it. This Mr Crummles did in the highest style of melodrama, pouring forth at the same time all the most dismal forms of farewell he could think of, out of the stock pieces. Nor was this all, for the elder Master Crummles was going through a similar ceremony with Smike; while Master Percy Crummles, with a very little second-hand camlet cloak, worn theatrically over his left shoulder, stood by, in the attitude of an attendant officer, waiting to convey the two victims to the scaffold.
The lookers-on laughed very heartily, and as it was as well to put a good face upon the matter, Nicholas laughed too when he had succeeded in disengaging himself; and rescuing the astonished Smike, climbed up to the coach roof after him, and kissed his hand in honour of the absent Mrs Crummles as they rolled away.
Of Ralph Nickleby and Newman Noggs, and some wise Precautions, the success or failure of which will appear in the Sequel
In blissful unconsciousness that his nephew was hastening at the utmost speed of four good horses towards his sphere of action, and that every passing minute diminished the distance between them, Ralph Nickleby sat that morning occupied in his customary avocations, and yet unable to prevent his thoughts wandering from time to time back to the interview which had taken place between himself and his niece on the previous day. At such intervals, after a few moments of abstraction, Ralph would mutter some peevish interjection, and apply himself with renewed steadiness of purpose to the ledger before him, but again and again the same train of thought came back despite all his efforts to prevent it, confusing him in his calculations, and utterly distracting his attention from the figures over which he bent. At length Ralph laid down his pen, and threw himself back in his chair as though he had made up his mind to allow the obtrusive current of reflection to take its own course, and, by giving it full scope, to rid himself of it effectually.
'I am not a man to be moved by a pretty face,' muttered Ralph sternly. 'There is a grinning skull beneath it, and men like me who look and work below the surface see that, and not its delicate covering. And yet I almost like the girl, or should if she had been less proudly and squeamishly brought up. If the boy were drowned or hanged, and the mother dead, this house should be her home. I wish they were, with all my soul.'
Notwithstanding the deadly hatred which Ralph felt towards Nicholas, and the bitter contempt with which he sneered at poor Mrs Nickleby—notwithstanding the baseness with which he had behaved, and was then behaving, and would behave again if his interest prompted him, towards Kate herself—still there was, strange though it may seem, something humanising and even gentle in his thoughts at that moment. He thought of what his home might be if Kate were there; he placed her in the empty chair, looked upon her, heard her speak; he felt again upon his arm the gentle pressure of the trembling hand; he strewed his costly rooms with the hundred silent tokens of feminine presence and occupation; he came back again to the cold fireside and the silent dreary splendour; and in that one glimpse of a better nature, born as it was in selfish thoughts, the rich man felt himself friendless, childless, and alone. Gold, for the instant, lost its lustre in his eyes, for there were countless treasures of the heart which it could never purchase.
A very slight circumstance was sufficient to banish such reflections from the mind of such a man. As Ralph looked vacantly out across the yard towards the window of the other office, he became suddenly aware of the earnest observation of Newman Noggs, who, with his red nose almost touching the glass, feigned to be mending a pen with a rusty fragment of a knife, but was in reality staring at his employer with a countenance of the closest and most eager scrutiny.
Ralph exchanged his dreamy posture for his accustomed business attitude: the face of Newman disappeared, and the train of thought took to flight, all simultaneously, and in an instant.
After a few minutes, Ralph rang his bell. Newman answered the summons, and Ralph raised his eyes stealthily to his face, as if he almost feared to read there, a knowledge of his recent thoughts.
There was not the smallest speculation, however, in the countenance of Newman Noggs. If it be possible to imagine a man, with two eyes in his head, and both wide open, looking in no direction whatever, and seeing nothing, Newman appeared to be that man while Ralph Nickleby regarded him.
'How now?' growled Ralph.
'Oh!' said Newman, throwing some intelligence into his eyes all at once, and dropping them on his master, 'I thought you rang.' With which laconic remark Newman turned round and hobbled away.
'Stop!' said Ralph.
Newman stopped; not at all disconcerted.
'I did ring.'
'I knew you did.'
'Then why do you offer to go if you know that?'
'I thought you rang to say you didn't ring,' replied Newman. 'You often do.'
'How dare you pry, and peer, and stare at me, sirrah?' demanded Ralph.
'Stare!' cried Newman, 'at YOU! Ha, ha!' which was all the explanation Newman deigned to offer.
'Be careful, sir,' said Ralph, looking steadily at him. 'Let me have no drunken fooling here. Do you see this parcel?'
'It's big enough,' rejoined Newman.
'Carry it into the city; to Cross, in Broad Street, and leave it there—quick. Do you hear?'
Newman gave a dogged kind of nod to express an affirmative reply, and, leaving the room for a few seconds, returned with his hat. Having made various ineffective attempts to fit the parcel (which was some two feet square) into the crown thereof, Newman took it under his arm, and after putting on his fingerless gloves with great precision and nicety, keeping his eyes fixed upon Mr Ralph Nickleby all the time, he adjusted his hat upon his head with as much care, real or pretended, as if it were a bran-new one of the most expensive quality, and at last departed on his errand.