He executed his commission with great promptitude and dispatch, only calling at one public-house for half a minute, and even that might be said to be in his way, for he went in at one door and came out at the other; but as he returned and had got so far homewards as the Strand, Newman began to loiter with the uncertain air of a man who has not quite made up his mind whether to halt or go straight forwards. After a very short consideration, the former inclination prevailed, and making towards the point he had had in his mind, Newman knocked a modest double knock, or rather a nervous single one, at Miss La Creevy's door.
It was opened by a strange servant, on whom the odd figure of the visitor did not appear to make the most favourable impression possible, inasmuch as she no sooner saw him than she very nearly closed it, and placing herself in the narrow gap, inquired what he wanted. But Newman merely uttering the monosyllable 'Noggs,' as if it were some cabalistic word, at sound of which bolts would fly back and doors open, pushed briskly past and gained the door of Miss La Creevy's sitting-room, before the astonished servant could offer any opposition.
'Walk in if you please,' said Miss La Creevy in reply to the sound of Newman's knuckles; and in he walked accordingly.
'Bless us!' cried Miss La Creevy, starting as Newman bolted in; 'what did you want, sir?'
'You have forgotten me,' said Newman, with an inclination of the head. 'I wonder at that. That nobody should remember me who knew me in other days, is natural enough; but there are few people who, seeing me once, forget me NOW.' He glanced, as he spoke, at his shabby clothes and paralytic limb, and slightly shook his head.
'I did forget you, I declare,' said Miss La Creevy, rising to receive Newman, who met her half-way, 'and I am ashamed of myself for doing so; for you are a kind, good creature, Mr Noggs. Sit down and tell me all about Miss Nickleby. Poor dear thing! I haven't seen her for this many a week.'
'How's that?' asked Newman.
'Why, the truth is, Mr Noggs,' said Miss La Creevy, 'that I have been out on a visit—the first visit I have made for fifteen years.'
'That is a long time,' said Newman, sadly.
'So it is a very long time to look back upon in years, though, somehow or other, thank Heaven, the solitary days roll away peacefully and happily enough,' replied the miniature painter. 'I have a brother, Mr Noggs—the only relation I have—and all that time I never saw him once. Not that we ever quarrelled, but he was apprenticed down in the country, and he got married there; and new ties and affections springing up about him, he forgot a poor little woman like me, as it was very reasonable he should, you know. Don't suppose that I complain about that, because I always said to myself, "It is very natural; poor dear John is making his way in the world, and has a wife to tell his cares and troubles to, and children now to play about him, so God bless him and them, and send we may all meet together one day where we shall part no more." But what do you think, Mr Noggs,' said the miniature painter, brightening up and clapping her hands, 'of that very same brother coming up to London at last, and never resting till he found me out; what do you think of his coming here and sitting down in that very chair, and crying like a child because he was so glad to see me—what do you think of his insisting on taking me down all the way into the country to his own house (quite a sumptuous place, Mr Noggs, with a large garden and I don't know how many fields, and a man in livery waiting at table, and cows and horses and pigs and I don't know what besides), and making me stay a whole month, and pressing me to stop there all my life—yes, all my life—and so did his wife, and so did the children—and there were four of them, and one, the eldest girl of all, they—they had named her after me eight good years before, they had indeed. I never was so happy; in all my life I never was!' The worthy soul hid her face in her handkerchief, and sobbed aloud; for it was the first opportunity she had had of unburdening her heart, and it would have its way.
'But bless my life,' said Miss La Creevy, wiping her eyes after a short pause, and cramming her handkerchief into her pocket with great bustle and dispatch; 'what a foolish creature I must seem to you, Mr Noggs! I shouldn't have said anything about it, only I wanted to explain to you how it was I hadn't seen Miss Nickleby.'
'Have you seen the old lady?' asked Newman.
'You mean Mrs Nickleby?' said Miss La Creevy. 'Then I tell you what, Mr Noggs, if you want to keep in the good books in that quarter, you had better not call her the old lady any more, for I suspect she wouldn't be best pleased to hear you. Yes, I went there the night before last, but she was quite on the high ropes about something, and was so grand and mysterious, that I couldn't make anything of her: so, to tell you the truth, I took it into my head to be grand too, and came away in state. I thought she would have come round again before this, but she hasn't been here.'
'About Miss Nickleby—' said Newman.
'Why, she was here twice while I was away,' returned Miss La Creevy. 'I was afraid she mightn't like to have me calling on her among those great folks in what's-its-name Place, so I thought I'd wait a day or two, and if I didn't see her, write.'
'Ah!' exclaimed Newman, cracking his fingers.
'However, I want to hear all the news about them from you,' said Miss La Creevy. 'How is the old rough and tough monster of Golden Square? Well, of course; such people always are. I don't mean how is he in health, but how is he going on: how is he behaving himself?'
'Damn him!' cried Newman, dashing his cherished hat on the floor; 'like a false hound.'
'Gracious, Mr Noggs, you quite terrify me!' exclaimed Miss La Creevy, turning pale.
'I should have spoilt his features yesterday afternoon if I could have afforded it,' said Newman, moving restlessly about, and shaking his fist at a portrait of Mr Canning over the mantelpiece. 'I was very near it. I was obliged to put my hands in my pockets, and keep 'em there very tight. I shall do it some day in that little back-parlour, I know I shall. I should have done it before now, if I hadn't been afraid of making bad worse. I shall double-lock myself in with him and have it out before I die, I'm quite certain of it.'
'I shall scream if you don't compose yourself, Mr Noggs,' said Miss La Creevy; 'I'm sure I shan't be able to help it.'
'Never mind,' rejoined Newman, darting violently to and fro. 'He's coming up tonight: I wrote to tell him. He little thinks I know; he little thinks I care. Cunning scoundrel! he don't think that. Not he, not he. Never mind, I'll thwart him—I, Newman Noggs. Ho, ho, the rascal!'
Lashing himself up to an extravagant pitch of fury, Newman Noggs jerked himself about the room with the most eccentric motion ever beheld in a human being: now sparring at the little miniatures on the wall, and now giving himself violent thumps on the head, as if to heighten the delusion, until he sank down in his former seat quite breathless and exhausted.
'There,' said Newman, picking up his hat; 'that's done me good. Now I'm better, and I'll tell you all about it.'
It took some little time to reassure Miss La Creevy, who had been almost frightened out of her senses by this remarkable demonstration; but that done, Newman faithfully related all that had passed in the interview between Kate and her uncle, prefacing his narrative with a statement of his previous suspicions on the subject, and his reasons for forming them; and concluding with a communication of the step he had taken in secretly writing to Nicholas.
Though little Miss La Creevy's indignation was not so singularly displayed as Newman's, it was scarcely inferior in violence and intensity. Indeed, if Ralph Nickleby had happened to make his appearance in the room at that moment, there is some doubt whether he would not have found Miss La Creevy a more dangerous opponent than even Newman Noggs himself.
'God forgive me for saying so,' said Miss La Creevy, as a wind-up to all her expressions of anger, 'but I really feel as if I could stick this into him with pleasure.'
It was not a very awful weapon that Miss La Creevy held, it being in fact nothing more nor less than a black-lead pencil; but discovering her mistake, the little portrait painter exchanged it for a mother-of-pearl fruit knife, wherewith, in proof of her desperate thoughts, she made a lunge as she spoke, which would have scarcely disturbed the crumb of a half-quartern loaf.
'She won't stop where she is after tonight,' said Newman. 'That's a comfort.'
'Stop!' cried Miss La Creevy, 'she should have left there, weeks ago.'
'—If we had known of this,' rejoined Newman. 'But we didn't. Nobody could properly interfere but her mother or brother. The mother's weak—poor thing—weak. The dear young man will be here tonight.'
'Heart alive!' cried Miss La Creevy. 'He will do something desperate, Mr Noggs, if you tell him all at once.'
Newman left off rubbing his hands, and assumed a thoughtful look.
'Depend upon it,' said Miss La Creevy, earnestly, 'if you are not very careful in breaking out the truth to him, he will do some violence upon his uncle or one of these men that will bring some terrible calamity upon his own head, and grief and sorrow to us all.'
'I never thought of that,' rejoined Newman, his countenance falling more and more. 'I came to ask you to receive his sister in case he brought her here, but—'
'But this is a matter of much greater importance,' interrupted Miss La Creevy; 'that you might have been sure of before you came, but the end of this, nobody can foresee, unless you are very guarded and careful.'
'What CAN I do?' cried Newman, scratching his head with an air of great vexation and perplexity. 'If he was to talk of pistoling 'em all, I should be obliged to say, "Certainly—serve 'em right."'
Miss La Creevy could not suppress a small shriek on hearing this, and instantly set about extorting a solemn pledge from Newman that he would use his utmost endeavours to pacify the wrath of Nicholas; which, after some demur, was conceded. They then consulted together on the safest and surest mode of communicating to him the circumstances which had rendered his presence necessary.
'He must have time to cool before he can possibly do anything,' said Miss La Creevy. 'That is of the greatest consequence. He must not be told until late at night.'
'But he'll be in town between six and seven this evening,' replied Newman. 'I can't keep it from him when he asks me.'
'Then you must go out, Mr Noggs,' said Miss La Creevy. 'You can easily have been kept away by business, and must not return till nearly midnight.'
'Then he will come straight here,' retorted Newman.
'So I suppose,' observed Miss La Creevy; 'but he won't find me at home, for I'll go straight to the city the instant you leave me, make up matters with Mrs Nickleby, and take her away to the theatre, so that he may not even know where his sister lives.'
Upon further discussion, this appeared the safest and most feasible mode of proceeding that could possibly be adopted. Therefore it was finally determined that matters should be so arranged, and Newman, after listening to many supplementary cautions and entreaties, took his leave of Miss La Creevy and trudged back to Golden Square; ruminating as he went upon a vast number of possibilities and impossibilities which crowded upon his brain, and arose out of the conversation that had just terminated.
Relating chiefly to some remarkable Conversation, and some remarkable Proceedings to which it gives rise
'London at last!' cried Nicholas, throwing back his greatcoat and rousing Smike from a long nap. 'It seemed to me as though we should never reach it.'
'And yet you came along at a tidy pace too,' observed the coachman, looking over his shoulder at Nicholas with no very pleasant expression of countenance.
'Ay, I know that,' was the reply; 'but I have been very anxious to be at my journey's end, and that makes the way seem long.'
'Well,' remarked the coachman, 'if the way seemed long with such cattle as you've sat behind, you MUST have been most uncommon anxious;' and so saying, he let out his whip-lash and touched up a little boy on the calves of his legs by way of emphasis.
They rattled on through the noisy, bustling, crowded street of London, now displaying long double rows of brightly-burning lamps, dotted here and there with the chemists' glaring lights, and illuminated besides with the brilliant flood that streamed from the windows of the shops, where sparkling jewellery, silks and velvets of the richest colours, the most inviting delicacies, and most sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in rich and glittering profusion. Streams of people apparently without end poured on and on, jostling each other in the crowd and hurrying forward, scarcely seeming to notice the riches that surrounded them on every side; while vehicles of all shapes and makes, mingled up together in one moving mass, like running water, lent their ceaseless roar to swell the noise and tumult.
As they dashed by the quickly-changing and ever-varying objects, it was curious to observe in what a strange procession they passed before the eye. Emporiums of splendid dresses, the materials brought from every quarter of the world; tempting stores of everything to stimulate and pamper the sated appetite and give new relish to the oft-repeated feast; vessels of burnished gold and silver, wrought into every exquisite form of vase, and dish, and goblet; guns, swords, pistols, and patent engines of destruction; screws and irons for the crooked, clothes for the newly-born, drugs for the sick, coffins for the dead, and churchyards for the buried—all these jumbled each with the other and flocking side by side, seemed to flit by in motley dance like the fantastic groups of the old Dutch painter, and with the same stern moral for the unheeding restless crowd.
Nor were there wanting objects in the crowd itself to give new point and purpose to the shifting scene. The rags of the squalid ballad-singer fluttered in the rich light that showed the goldsmith's treasures, pale and pinched-up faces hovered about the windows where was tempting food, hungry eyes wandered over the profusion guarded by one thin sheet of brittle glass—an iron wall to them; half-naked shivering figures stopped to gaze at Chinese shawls and golden stuffs of India. There was a christening party at the largest coffin-maker's and a funeral hatchment had stopped some great improvements in the bravest mansion. Life and death went hand in hand; wealth and poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid them down together.
But it was London; and the old country lady inside, who had put her head out of the coach-window a mile or two this side Kingston, and cried out to the driver that she was sure he must have passed it and forgotten to set her down, was satisfied at last.
Nicholas engaged beds for himself and Smike at the inn where the coach stopped, and repaired, without the delay of another moment, to the lodgings of Newman Noggs; for his anxiety and impatience had increased with every succeeding minute, and were almost beyond control.
There was a fire in Newman's garret; and a candle had been left burning; the floor was cleanly swept, the room was as comfortably arranged as such a room could be, and meat and drink were placed in order upon the table. Everything bespoke the affectionate care and attention of Newman Noggs, but Newman himself was not there.
'Do you know what time he will be home?' inquired Nicholas, tapping at the door of Newman's front neighbour.
'Ah, Mr Johnson!' said Crowl, presenting himself. 'Welcome, sir. How well you're looking! I never could have believed—'
'Pardon me,' interposed Nicholas. 'My question—I am extremely anxious to know.'
'Why, he has a troublesome affair of business,' replied Crowl, 'and will not be home before twelve o'clock. He was very unwilling to go, I can tell you, but there was no help for it. However, he left word that you were to make yourself comfortable till he came back, and that I was to entertain you, which I shall be very glad to do.'
In proof of his extreme readiness to exert himself for the general entertainment, Mr Crowl drew a chair to the table as he spoke, and helping himself plentifully to the cold meat, invited Nicholas and Smike to follow his example.
Disappointed and uneasy, Nicholas could touch no food, so, after he had seen Smike comfortably established at the table, he walked out (despite a great many dissuasions uttered by Mr Crowl with his mouth full), and left Smike to detain Newman in case he returned first.
As Miss La Creevy had anticipated, Nicholas betook himself straight to her house. Finding her from home, he debated within himself for some time whether he should go to his mother's residence, and so compromise her with Ralph Nickleby. Fully persuaded, however, that Newman would not have solicited him to return unless there was some strong reason which required his presence at home, he resolved to go there, and hastened eastwards with all speed.
Mrs Nickleby would not be at home, the girl said, until past twelve, or later. She believed Miss Nickleby was well, but she didn't live at home now, nor did she come home except very seldom. She couldn't say where she was stopping, but it was not at Madame Mantalini's. She was sure of that.
With his heart beating violently, and apprehending he knew not what disaster, Nicholas returned to where he had left Smike. Newman had not been home. He wouldn't be, till twelve o'clock; there was no chance of it. Was there no possibility of sending to fetch him if it were only for an instant, or forwarding to him one line of writing to which he might return a verbal reply? That was quite impracticable. He was not at Golden Square, and probably had been sent to execute some commission at a distance.
Nicholas tried to remain quietly where he was, but he felt so nervous and excited that he could not sit still. He seemed to be losing time unless he was moving. It was an absurd fancy, he knew, but he was wholly unable to resist it. So, he took up his hat and rambled out again.
He strolled westward this time, pacing the long streets with hurried footsteps, and agitated by a thousand misgivings and apprehensions which he could not overcome. He passed into Hyde Park, now silent and deserted, and increased his rate of walking as if in the hope of leaving his thoughts behind. They crowded upon him more thickly, however, now there were no passing objects to attract his attention; and the one idea was always uppermost, that some stroke of ill-fortune must have occurred so calamitous in its nature that all were fearful of disclosing it to him. The old question arose again and again—What could it be? Nicholas walked till he was weary, but was not one bit the wiser; and indeed he came out of the Park at last a great deal more confused and perplexed than when he went in.
He had taken scarcely anything to eat or drink since early in the morning, and felt quite worn out and exhausted. As he returned languidly towards the point from which he had started, along one of the thoroughfares which lie between Park Lane and Bond Street, he passed a handsome hotel, before which he stopped mechanically.
'An expensive place, I dare say,' thought Nicholas; 'but a pint of wine and a biscuit are no great debauch wherever they are had. And yet I don't know.'
He walked on a few steps, but looking wistfully down the long vista of gas-lamps before him, and thinking how long it would take to reach the end of it and being besides in that kind of mood in which a man is most disposed to yield to his first impulse—and being, besides, strongly attracted to the hotel, in part by curiosity, and in part by some odd mixture of feelings which he would have been troubled to define—Nicholas turned back again, and walked into the coffee-room.
It was very handsomely furnished. The walls were ornamented with the choicest specimens of French paper, enriched with a gilded cornice of elegant design. The floor was covered with a rich carpet; and two superb mirrors, one above the chimneypiece and one at the opposite end of the room reaching from floor to ceiling, multiplied the other beauties and added new ones of their own to enhance the general effect. There was a rather noisy party of four gentlemen in a box by the fire-place, and only two other persons present—both elderly gentlemen, and both alone.
Observing all this in the first comprehensive glance with which a stranger surveys a place that is new to him, Nicholas sat himself down in the box next to the noisy party, with his back towards them, and postponing his order for a pint of claret until such time as the waiter and one of the elderly gentlemen should have settled a disputed question relative to the price of an item in the bill of fare, took up a newspaper and began to read.
He had not read twenty lines, and was in truth himself dozing, when he was startled by the mention of his sister's name. 'Little Kate Nickleby' were the words that caught his ear. He raised his head in amazement, and as he did so, saw by the reflection in the opposite glass, that two of the party behind him had risen and were standing before the fire. 'It must have come from one of them,' thought Nicholas. He waited to hear more with a countenance of some indignation, for the tone of speech had been anything but respectful, and the appearance of the individual whom he presumed to have been the speaker was coarse and swaggering.
This person—so Nicholas observed in the same glance at the mirror which had enabled him to see his face—was standing with his back to the fire conversing with a younger man, who stood with his back to the company, wore his hat, and was adjusting his shirt-collar by the aid of the glass. They spoke in whispers, now and then bursting into a loud laugh, but Nicholas could catch no repetition of the words, nor anything sounding at all like the words, which had attracted his attention.
At length the two resumed their seats, and more wine being ordered, the party grew louder in their mirth. Still there was no reference made to anybody with whom he was acquainted, and Nicholas became persuaded that his excited fancy had either imagined the sounds altogether, or converted some other words into the name which had been so much in his thoughts.
'It is remarkable too,' thought Nicholas: 'if it had been "Kate" or "Kate Nickleby," I should not have been so much surprised: but "little Kate Nickleby!"'
The wine coming at the moment prevented his finishing the sentence. He swallowed a glassful and took up the paper again. At that instant—
'Little Kate Nickleby!' cried the voice behind him.
'I was right,' muttered Nicholas as the paper fell from his hand. 'And it was the man I supposed.'
'As there was a proper objection to drinking her in heel-taps,' said the voice, 'we'll give her the first glass in the new magnum. Little Kate Nickleby!'
'Little Kate Nickleby,' cried the other three. And the glasses were set down empty.
Keenly alive to the tone and manner of this slight and careless mention of his sister's name in a public place, Nicholas fired at once; but he kept himself quiet by a great effort, and did not even turn his head.
'The jade!' said the same voice which had spoken before. 'She's a true Nickleby—a worthy imitator of her old uncle Ralph—she hangs back to be more sought after—so does he; nothing to be got out of Ralph unless you follow him up, and then the money comes doubly welcome, and the bargain doubly hard, for you're impatient and he isn't. Oh! infernal cunning.'
'Infernal cunning,' echoed two voices.
Nicholas was in a perfect agony as the two elderly gentlemen opposite, rose one after the other and went away, lest they should be the means of his losing one word of what was said. But the conversation was suspended as they withdrew, and resumed with even greater freedom when they had left the room.
'I am afraid,' said the younger gentleman, 'that the old woman has grown jea-a-lous, and locked her up. Upon my soul it looks like it.'
'If they quarrel and little Nickleby goes home to her mother, so much the better,' said the first. 'I can do anything with the old lady. She'll believe anything I tell her.'
'Egad that's true,' returned the other voice. 'Ha, ha, ha! Poor deyvle!'
The laugh was taken up by the two voices which always came in together, and became general at Mrs Nickleby's expense. Nicholas turned burning hot with rage, but he commanded himself for the moment, and waited to hear more.
What he heard need not be repeated here. Suffice it that as the wine went round he heard enough to acquaint him with the characters and designs of those whose conversation he overhead; to possess him with the full extent of Ralph's villainy, and the real reason of his own presence being required in London. He heard all this and more. He heard his sister's sufferings derided, and her virtuous conduct jeered at and brutally misconstrued; he heard her name bandied from mouth to mouth, and herself made the subject of coarse and insolent wagers, free speech, and licentious jesting.
The man who had spoken first, led the conversation, and indeed almost engrossed it, being only stimulated from time to time by some slight observation from one or other of his companions. To him then Nicholas addressed himself when he was sufficiently composed to stand before the party, and force the words from his parched and scorching throat.
'Let me have a word with you, sir,' said Nicholas.
'With me, sir?' retorted Sir Mulberry Hawk, eyeing him in disdainful surprise.
'I said with you,' replied Nicholas, speaking with great difficulty, for his passion choked him.
'A mysterious stranger, upon my soul!' exclaimed Sir Mulberry, raising his wine-glass to his lips, and looking round upon his friends.
'Will you step apart with me for a few minutes, or do you refuse?' said Nicholas sternly.
Sir Mulberry merely paused in the act of drinking, and bade him either name his business or leave the table.
Nicholas drew a card from his pocket, and threw it before him.
'There, sir,' said Nicholas; 'my business you will guess.'
A momentary expression of astonishment, not unmixed with some confusion, appeared in the face of Sir Mulberry as he read the name; but he subdued it in an instant, and tossing the card to Lord Verisopht, who sat opposite, drew a toothpick from a glass before him, and very leisurely applied it to his mouth.
'Your name and address?' said Nicholas, turning paler as his passion kindled.
'I shall give you neither,' replied Sir Mulberry.
'If there is a gentleman in this party,' said Nicholas, looking round and scarcely able to make his white lips form the words, 'he will acquaint me with the name and residence of this man.'
There was a dead silence.
'I am the brother of the young lady who has been the subject of conversation here,' said Nicholas. 'I denounce this person as a liar, and impeach him as a coward. If he has a friend here, he will save him the disgrace of the paltry attempt to conceal his name—and utterly useless one—for I will find it out, nor leave him until I have.'
Sir Mulberry looked at him contemptuously, and, addressing his companions, said—
'Let the fellow talk, I have nothing serious to say to boys of his station; and his pretty sister shall save him a broken head, if he talks till midnight.'
'You are a base and spiritless scoundrel!' said Nicholas, 'and shall be proclaimed so to the world. I WILL know you; I will follow you home if you walk the streets till morning.'
Sir Mulberry's hand involuntarily closed upon the decanter, and he seemed for an instant about to launch it at the head of his challenger. But he only filled his glass, and laughed in derision.
Nicholas sat himself down, directly opposite to the party, and, summoning the waiter, paid his bill.
'Do you know that person's name?' he inquired of the man in an audible voice; pointing out Sir Mulberry as he put the question.
Sir Mulberry laughed again, and the two voices which had always spoken together, echoed the laugh; but rather feebly.
'That gentleman, sir?' replied the waiter, who, no doubt, knew his cue, and answered with just as little respect, and just as much impertinence as he could safely show: 'no, sir, I do not, sir.'
'Here, you sir,' cried Sir Mulberry, as the man was retiring; 'do you know THAT person's name?'
'Name, sir? No, sir.'
'Then you'll find it there,' said Sir Mulberry, throwing Nicholas's card towards him; 'and when you have made yourself master of it, put that piece of pasteboard in the fire—do you hear me?'
The man grinned, and, looking doubtfully at Nicholas, compromised the matter by sticking the card in the chimney-glass. Having done this, he retired.
Nicholas folded his arms, and biting his lip, sat perfectly quiet; sufficiently expressing by his manner, however, a firm determination to carry his threat of following Sir Mulberry home, into steady execution.
It was evident from the tone in which the younger member of the party appeared to remonstrate with his friend, that he objected to this course of proceeding, and urged him to comply with the request which Nicholas had made. Sir Mulberry, however, who was not quite sober, and who was in a sullen and dogged state of obstinacy, soon silenced the representations of his weak young friend, and further seemed—as if to save himself from a repetition of them—to insist on being left alone. However this might have been, the young gentleman and the two who had always spoken together, actually rose to go after a short interval, and presently retired, leaving their friend alone with Nicholas.
It will be very readily supposed that to one in the condition of Nicholas, the minutes appeared to move with leaden wings indeed, and that their progress did not seem the more rapid from the monotonous ticking of a French clock, or the shrill sound of its little bell which told the quarters. But there he sat; and in his old seat on the opposite side of the room reclined Sir Mulberry Hawk, with his legs upon the cushion, and his handkerchief thrown negligently over his knees: finishing his magnum of claret with the utmost coolness and indifference.
Thus they remained in perfect silence for upwards of an hour—Nicholas would have thought for three hours at least, but that the little bell had only gone four times. Twice or thrice he looked angrily and impatiently round; but there was Sir Mulberry in the same attitude, putting his glass to his lips from time to time, and looking vacantly at the wall, as if he were wholly ignorant of the presence of any living person.
At length he yawned, stretched himself, and rose; walked coolly to the glass, and having surveyed himself therein, turned round and honoured Nicholas with a long and contemptuous stare. Nicholas stared again with right good-will; Sir Mulberry shrugged his shoulders, smiled slightly, rang the bell, and ordered the waiter to help him on with his greatcoat.
The man did so, and held the door open.
'Don't wait,' said Sir Mulberry; and they were alone again.
Sir Mulberry took several turns up and down the room, whistling carelessly all the time; stopped to finish the last glass of claret which he had poured out a few minutes before, walked again, put on his hat, adjusted it by the glass, drew on his gloves, and, at last, walked slowly out. Nicholas, who had been fuming and chafing until he was nearly wild, darted from his seat, and followed him: so closely, that before the door had swung upon its hinges after Sir Mulberry's passing out, they stood side by side in the street together.
There was a private cabriolet in waiting; the groom opened the apron, and jumped out to the horse's head.
'Will you make yourself known to me?' asked Nicholas in a suppressed voice.
'No,' replied the other fiercely, and confirming the refusal with an oath. 'No.'
'If you trust to your horse's speed, you will find yourself mistaken,' said Nicholas. 'I will accompany you. By Heaven I will, if I hang on to the foot-board.'
'You shall be horsewhipped if you do,' returned Sir Mulberry.
'You are a villain,' said Nicholas.
'You are an errand-boy for aught I know,' said Sir Mulberry Hawk.
'I am the son of a country gentleman,' returned Nicholas, 'your equal in birth and education, and your superior I trust in everything besides. I tell you again, Miss Nickleby is my sister. Will you or will you not answer for your unmanly and brutal conduct?'
'To a proper champion—yes. To you—no,' returned Sir Mulberry, taking the reins in his hand. 'Stand out of the way, dog. William, let go her head.'
'You had better not,' cried Nicholas, springing on the step as Sir Mulberry jumped in, and catching at the reins. 'He has no command over the horse, mind. You shall not go—you shall not, I swear—till you have told me who you are.'
The groom hesitated, for the mare, who was a high-spirited animal and thorough-bred, plunged so violently that he could scarcely hold her.
'Leave go, I tell you!' thundered his master.
The man obeyed. The animal reared and plunged as though it would dash the carriage into a thousand pieces, but Nicholas, blind to all sense of danger, and conscious of nothing but his fury, still maintained his place and his hold upon the reins.
'Will you unclasp your hand?'
'Will you tell me who you are?'
In less time than the quickest tongue could tell it, these words were exchanged, and Sir Mulberry shortening his whip, applied it furiously to the head and shoulders of Nicholas. It was broken in the struggle; Nicholas gained the heavy handle, and with it laid open one side of his antagonist's face from the eye to the lip. He saw the gash; knew that the mare had darted off at a wild mad gallop; a hundred lights danced in his eyes, and he felt himself flung violently upon the ground.
He was giddy and sick, but staggered to his feet directly, roused by the loud shouts of the men who were tearing up the street, and screaming to those ahead to clear the way. He was conscious of a torrent of people rushing quickly by—looking up, could discern the cabriolet whirled along the foot-pavement with frightful rapidity—then heard a loud cry, the smashing of some heavy body, and the breaking of glass—and then the crowd closed in in the distance, and he could see or hear no more.
The general attention had been entirely directed from himself to the person in the carriage, and he was quite alone. Rightly judging that under such circumstances it would be madness to follow, he turned down a bye-street in search of the nearest coach-stand, finding after a minute or two that he was reeling like a drunken man, and aware for the first time of a stream of blood that was trickling down his face and breast.
In which Mr Ralph Nickleby is relieved, by a very expeditious Process, from all Commerce with his Relations
Smike and Newman Noggs, who in his impatience had returned home long before the time agreed upon, sat before the fire, listening anxiously to every footstep on the stairs, and the slightest sound that stirred within the house, for the approach of Nicholas. Time had worn on, and it was growing late. He had promised to be back in an hour; and his prolonged absence began to excite considerable alarm in the minds of both, as was abundantly testified by the blank looks they cast upon each other at every new disappointment.
At length a coach was heard to stop, and Newman ran out to light Nicholas up the stairs. Beholding him in the trim described at the conclusion of the last chapter, he stood aghast in wonder and consternation.
'Don't be alarmed,' said Nicholas, hurrying him back into the room. 'There is no harm done, beyond what a basin of water can repair.'
'No harm!' cried Newman, passing his hands hastily over the back and arms of Nicholas, as if to assure himself that he had broken no bones. 'What have you been doing?'
'I know all,' interrupted Nicholas; 'I have heard a part, and guessed the rest. But before I remove one jot of these stains, I must hear the whole from you. You see I am collected. My resolution is taken. Now, my good friend, speak out; for the time for any palliation or concealment is past, and nothing will avail Ralph Nickleby now.'
'Your dress is torn in several places; you walk lame, and I am sure you are suffering pain,' said Newman. 'Let me see to your hurts first.'
'I have no hurts to see to, beyond a little soreness and stiffness that will soon pass off,' said Nicholas, seating himself with some difficulty. 'But if I had fractured every limb, and still preserved my senses, you should not bandage one till you had told me what I have the right to know. Come,' said Nicholas, giving his hand to Noggs. 'You had a sister of your own, you told me once, who died before you fell into misfortune. Now think of her, and tell me, Newman.'
'Yes, I will, I will,' said Noggs. 'I'll tell you the whole truth.'
Newman did so. Nicholas nodded his head from time to time, as it corroborated the particulars he had already gleaned; but he fixed his eyes upon the fire, and did not look round once.
His recital ended, Newman insisted upon his young friend's stripping off his coat and allowing whatever injuries he had received to be properly tended. Nicholas, after some opposition, at length consented, and, while some pretty severe bruises on his arms and shoulders were being rubbed with oil and vinegar, and various other efficacious remedies which Newman borrowed from the different lodgers, related in what manner they had been received. The recital made a strong impression on the warm imagination of Newman; for when Nicholas came to the violent part of the quarrel, he rubbed so hard, as to occasion him the most exquisite pain, which he would not have exhibited, however, for the world, it being perfectly clear that, for the moment, Newman was operating on Sir Mulberry Hawk, and had quite lost sight of his real patient.
This martyrdom over, Nicholas arranged with Newman that while he was otherwise occupied next morning, arrangements should be made for his mother's immediately quitting her present residence, and also for dispatching Miss La Creevy to break the intelligence to her. He then wrapped himself in Smike's greatcoat, and repaired to the inn where they were to pass the night, and where (after writing a few lines to Ralph, the delivery of which was to be intrusted to Newman next day), he endeavoured to obtain the repose of which he stood so much in need.
Drunken men, they say, may roll down precipices, and be quite unconscious of any serious personal inconvenience when their reason returns. The remark may possibly apply to injuries received in other kinds of violent excitement: certain it is, that although Nicholas experienced some pain on first awakening next morning, he sprung out of bed as the clock struck seven, with very little difficulty, and was soon as much on the alert as if nothing had occurred.
Merely looking into Smike's room, and telling him that Newman Noggs would call for him very shortly, Nicholas descended into the street, and calling a hackney coach, bade the man drive to Mrs Wititterly's, according to the direction which Newman had given him on the previous night.
It wanted a quarter to eight when they reached Cadogan Place. Nicholas began to fear that no one might be stirring at that early hour, when he was relieved by the sight of a female servant, employed in cleaning the door-steps. By this functionary he was referred to the doubtful page, who appeared with dishevelled hair and a very warm and glossy face, as of a page who had just got out of bed.
By this young gentleman he was informed that Miss Nickleby was then taking her morning's walk in the gardens before the house. On the question being propounded whether he could go and find her, the page desponded and thought not; but being stimulated with a shilling, the page grew sanguine and thought he could.
'Say to Miss Nickleby that her brother is here, and in great haste to see her,' said Nicholas.
The plated buttons disappeared with an alacrity most unusual to them, and Nicholas paced the room in a state of feverish agitation which made the delay even of a minute insupportable. He soon heard a light footstep which he well knew, and before he could advance to meet her, Kate had fallen on his neck and burst into tears.
'My darling girl,' said Nicholas as he embraced her. 'How pale you are!'
'I have been so unhappy here, dear brother,' sobbed poor Kate; 'so very, very miserable. Do not leave me here, dear Nicholas, or I shall die of a broken heart.'
'I will leave you nowhere,' answered Nicholas—'never again, Kate,' he cried, moved in spite of himself as he folded her to his heart. 'Tell me that I acted for the best. Tell me that we parted because I feared to bring misfortune on your head; that it was a trial to me no less than to yourself, and that if I did wrong it was in ignorance of the world and unknowingly.'
'Why should I tell you what we know so well?' returned Kate soothingly. 'Nicholas—dear Nicholas—how can you give way thus?'
'It is such bitter reproach to me to know what you have undergone,' returned her brother; 'to see you so much altered, and yet so kind and patient—God!' cried Nicholas, clenching his fist and suddenly changing his tone and manner, 'it sets my whole blood on fire again. You must leave here with me directly; you should not have slept here last night, but that I knew all this too late. To whom can I speak, before we drive away?'
This question was most opportunely put, for at that instant Mr Wititterly walked in, and to him Kate introduced her brother, who at once announced his purpose, and the impossibility of deferring it.
'The quarter's notice,' said Mr Wititterly, with the gravity of a man on the right side, 'is not yet half expired. Therefore—'
'Therefore,' interposed Nicholas, 'the quarter's salary must be lost, sir. You will excuse this extreme haste, but circumstances require that I should immediately remove my sister, and I have not a moment's time to lose. Whatever she brought here I will send for, if you will allow me, in the course of the day.'
Mr Wititterly bowed, but offered no opposition to Kate's immediate departure; with which, indeed, he was rather gratified than otherwise, Sir Tumley Snuffim having given it as his opinion, that she rather disagreed with Mrs Wititterly's constitution.
'With regard to the trifle of salary that is due,' said Mr Wititterly, 'I will'—here he was interrupted by a violent fit of coughing—'I will—owe it to Miss Nickleby.'
Mr Wititterly, it should be observed, was accustomed to owe small accounts, and to leave them owing. All men have some little pleasant way of their own; and this was Mr Wititterly's.
'If you please,' said Nicholas. And once more offering a hurried apology for so sudden a departure, he hurried Kate into the vehicle, and bade the man drive with all speed into the city.
To the city they went accordingly, with all the speed the hackney coach could make; and as the horses happened to live at Whitechapel and to be in the habit of taking their breakfast there, when they breakfasted at all, they performed the journey with greater expedition than could reasonably have been expected.
Nicholas sent Kate upstairs a few minutes before him, that his unlooked-for appearance might not alarm his mother, and when the way had been paved, presented himself with much duty and affection. Newman had not been idle, for there was a little cart at the door, and the effects were hurrying out already.
Now, Mrs Nickleby was not the sort of person to be told anything in a hurry, or rather to comprehend anything of peculiar delicacy or importance on a short notice. Wherefore, although the good lady had been subjected to a full hour's preparation by little Miss La Creevy, and was now addressed in most lucid terms both by Nicholas and his sister, she was in a state of singular bewilderment and confusion, and could by no means be made to comprehend the necessity of such hurried proceedings.
'Why don't you ask your uncle, my dear Nicholas, what he can possibly mean by it?' said Mrs Nickleby.
'My dear mother,' returned Nicholas, 'the time for talking has gone by. There is but one step to take, and that is to cast him off with the scorn and indignation he deserves. Your own honour and good name demand that, after the discovery of his vile proceedings, you should not be beholden to him one hour, even for the shelter of these bare walls.'
'To be sure,' said Mrs Nickleby, crying bitterly, 'he is a brute, a monster; and the walls are very bare, and want painting too, and I have had this ceiling whitewashed at the expense of eighteen-pence, which is a very distressing thing, considering that it is so much gone into your uncle's pocket. I never could have believed it—never.'
'Nor I, nor anybody else,' said Nicholas.
'Lord bless my life!' exclaimed Mrs Nickleby. 'To think that that Sir Mulberry Hawk should be such an abandoned wretch as Miss La Creevy says he is, Nicholas, my dear; when I was congratulating myself every day on his being an admirer of our dear Kate's, and thinking what a thing it would be for the family if he was to become connected with us, and use his interest to get you some profitable government place. There are very good places to be got about the court, I know; for a friend of ours (Miss Cropley, at Exeter, my dear Kate, you recollect), he had one, and I know that it was the chief part of his duty to wear silk stockings, and a bag wig like a black watch-pocket; and to think that it should come to this after all—oh, dear, dear, it's enough to kill one, that it is!' With which expressions of sorrow, Mrs Nickleby gave fresh vent to her grief, and wept piteously.
As Nicholas and his sister were by this time compelled to superintend the removal of the few articles of furniture, Miss La Creevy devoted herself to the consolation of the matron, and observed with great kindness of manner that she must really make an effort, and cheer up.
'Oh I dare say, Miss La Creevy,' returned Mrs Nickleby, with a petulance not unnatural in her unhappy circumstances, 'it's very easy to say cheer up, but if you had as many occasions to cheer up as I have had—and there,' said Mrs Nickleby, stopping short. 'Think of Mr Pyke and Mr Pluck, two of the most perfect gentlemen that ever lived, what am I too say to them—what can I say to them? Why, if I was to say to them, "I'm told your friend Sir Mulberry is a base wretch," they'd laugh at me.'
'They will laugh no more at us, I take it,' said Nicholas, advancing. 'Come, mother, there is a coach at the door, and until Monday, at all events, we will return to our old quarters.'
'—Where everything is ready, and a hearty welcome into the bargain,' added Miss La Creevy. 'Now, let me go with you downstairs.'
But Mrs Nickleby was not to be so easily moved, for first she insisted on going upstairs to see that nothing had been left, and then on going downstairs to see that everything had been taken away; and when she was getting into the coach she had a vision of a forgotten coffee-pot on the back-kitchen hob, and after she was shut in, a dismal recollection of a green umbrella behind some unknown door. At last Nicholas, in a condition of absolute despair, ordered the coachman to drive away, and in the unexpected jerk of a sudden starting, Mrs Nickleby lost a shilling among the straw, which fortunately confined her attention to the coach until it was too late to remember anything else.
Having seen everything safely out, discharged the servant, and locked the door, Nicholas jumped into a cabriolet and drove to a bye place near Golden Square where he had appointed to meet Noggs; and so quickly had everything been done, that it was barely half-past nine when he reached the place of meeting.
'Here is the letter for Ralph,' said Nicholas, 'and here the key. When you come to me this evening, not a word of last night. Ill news travels fast, and they will know it soon enough. Have you heard if he was much hurt?'
Newman shook his head.
'I will ascertain that myself without loss of time,' said Nicholas.
'You had better take some rest,' returned Newman. 'You are fevered and ill.'
Nicholas waved his hand carelessly, and concealing the indisposition he really felt, now that the excitement which had sustained him was over, took a hurried farewell of Newman Noggs, and left him.
Newman was not three minutes' walk from Golden Square, but in the course of that three minutes he took the letter out of his hat and put it in again twenty times at least. First the front, then the back, then the sides, then the superscription, then the seal, were objects of Newman's admiration. Then he held it at arm's length as if to take in the whole at one delicious survey, and then he rubbed his hands in a perfect ecstasy with his commission.
He reached the office, hung his hat on its accustomed peg, laid the letter and key upon the desk, and waited impatiently until Ralph Nickleby should appear. After a few minutes, the well-known creaking of his boots was heard on the stairs, and then the bell rung.
'Has the post come in?'
'Any other letters?'
'One.' Newman eyed him closely, and laid it on the desk.
'What's this?' asked Ralph, taking up the key.
'Left with the letter;—a boy brought them—quarter of an hour ago, or less.'
Ralph glanced at the direction, opened the letter, and read as follows:—
'You are known to me now. There are no reproaches I could heap upon your head which would carry with them one thousandth part of the grovelling shame that this assurance will awaken even in your breast.
'Your brother's widow and her orphan child spurn the shelter of your roof, and shun you with disgust and loathing. Your kindred renounce you, for they know no shame but the ties of blood which bind them in name with you.
'You are an old man, and I leave you to the grave. May every recollection of your life cling to your false heart, and cast their darkness on your death-bed.'
Ralph Nickleby read this letter twice, and frowning heavily, fell into a fit of musing; the paper fluttered from his hand and dropped upon the floor, but he clasped his fingers, as if he held it still.
Suddenly, he started from his seat, and thrusting it all crumpled into his pocket, turned furiously to Newman Noggs, as though to ask him why he lingered. But Newman stood unmoved, with his back towards him, following up, with the worn and blackened stump of an old pen, some figures in an Interest-table which was pasted against the wall, and apparently quite abstracted from every other object.
Wherein Mr Ralph Nickleby is visited by Persons with whom the Reader has been already made acquainted
'What a demnition long time you have kept me ringing at this confounded old cracked tea-kettle of a bell, every tinkle of which is enough to throw a strong man into blue convulsions, upon my life and soul, oh demmit,'—said Mr Mantalini to Newman Noggs, scraping his boots, as he spoke, on Ralph Nickleby's scraper.
'I didn't hear the bell more than once,' replied Newman.
'Then you are most immensely and outr-i-geously deaf,' said Mr Mantalini, 'as deaf as a demnition post.'
Mr Mantalini had got by this time into the passage, and was making his way to the door of Ralph's office with very little ceremony, when Newman interposed his body; and hinting that Mr Nickleby was unwilling to be disturbed, inquired whether the client's business was of a pressing nature.
'It is most demnebly particular,' said Mr Mantalini. 'It is to melt some scraps of dirty paper into bright, shining, chinking, tinkling, demd mint sauce.'
Newman uttered a significant grunt, and taking Mr Mantalini's proffered card, limped with it into his master's office. As he thrust his head in at the door, he saw that Ralph had resumed the thoughtful posture into which he had fallen after perusing his nephew's letter, and that he seemed to have been reading it again, as he once more held it open in his hand. The glance was but momentary, for Ralph, being disturbed, turned to demand the cause of the interruption.
As Newman stated it, the cause himself swaggered into the room, and grasping Ralph's horny hand with uncommon affection, vowed that he had never seen him looking so well in all his life.
'There is quite a bloom upon your demd countenance,' said Mr Mantalini, seating himself unbidden, and arranging his hair and whiskers. 'You look quite juvenile and jolly, demmit!'
'We are alone,' returned Ralph, tartly. 'What do you want with me?'
'Good!' cried Mr Mantalini, displaying his teeth. 'What did I want! Yes. Ha, ha! Very good. WHAT did I want. Ha, ha. Oh dem!'
'What DO you want, man?' demanded Ralph, sternly.
'Demnition discount,' returned Mr Mantalini, with a grin, and shaking his head waggishly.
'Money is scarce,' said Ralph.
'Demd scarce, or I shouldn't want it,' interrupted Mr Mantalini.
'The times are bad, and one scarcely knows whom to trust,' continued Ralph. 'I don't want to do business just now, in fact I would rather not; but as you are a friend—how many bills have you there?'
'Two,' returned Mr Mantalini.
'What is the gross amount?'
'And the dates?'
'Two months, and four.'
'I'll do them for you—mind, for YOU; I wouldn't for many people—for five-and-twenty pounds,' said Ralph, deliberately.
'Oh demmit!' cried Mr Mantalini, whose face lengthened considerably at this handsome proposal.
'Why, that leaves you fifty,' retorted Ralph. 'What would you have? Let me see the names.'
'You are so demd hard, Nickleby,' remonstrated Mr Mantalini.
'Let me see the names,' replied Ralph, impatiently extending his hand for the bills. 'Well! They are not sure, but they are safe enough. Do you consent to the terms, and will you take the money? I don't want you to do so. I would rather you didn't.'
'Demmit, Nickleby, can't you—' began Mr Mantalini.
'No,' replied Ralph, interrupting him. 'I can't. Will you take the money—down, mind; no delay, no going into the city and pretending to negotiate with some other party who has no existence, and never had. Is it a bargain, or is it not?'
Ralph pushed some papers from him as he spoke, and carelessly rattled his cash-box, as though by mere accident. The sound was too much for Mr Mantalini. He closed the bargain directly it reached his ears, and Ralph told the money out upon the table.
He had scarcely done so, and Mr Mantalini had not yet gathered it all up, when a ring was heard at the bell, and immediately afterwards Newman ushered in no less a person than Madame Mantalini, at sight of whom Mr Mantalini evinced considerable discomposure, and swept the cash into his pocket with remarkable alacrity.
'Oh, you ARE here,' said Madame Mantalini, tossing her head.
'Yes, my life and soul, I am,' replied her husband, dropping on his knees, and pouncing with kitten-like playfulness upon a stray sovereign. 'I am here, my soul's delight, upon Tom Tiddler's ground, picking up the demnition gold and silver.'
'I am ashamed of you,' said Madame Mantalini, with much indignation.
'Ashamed—of ME, my joy? It knows it is talking demd charming sweetness, but naughty fibs,' returned Mr Mantalini. 'It knows it is not ashamed of its own popolorum tibby.'
Whatever were the circumstances which had led to such a result, it certainly appeared as though the popolorum tibby had rather miscalculated, for the nonce, the extent of his lady's affection. Madame Mantalini only looked scornful in reply; and, turning to Ralph, begged him to excuse her intrusion.
'Which is entirely attributable,' said Madame, 'to the gross misconduct and most improper behaviour of Mr Mantalini.'
'Of me, my essential juice of pineapple!'
'Of you,' returned his wife. 'But I will not allow it. I will not submit to be ruined by the extravagance and profligacy of any man. I call Mr Nickleby to witness the course I intend to pursue with you.'
'Pray don't call me to witness anything, ma'am,' said Ralph. 'Settle it between yourselves, settle it between yourselves.'
'No, but I must beg you as a favour,' said Madame Mantalini, 'to hear me give him notice of what it is my fixed intention to do—my fixed intention, sir,' repeated Madame Mantalini, darting an angry look at her husband.
'Will she call me "Sir"?' cried Mantalini. 'Me who dote upon her with the demdest ardour! She, who coils her fascinations round me like a pure angelic rattlesnake! It will be all up with my feelings; she will throw me into a demd state.'
'Don't talk of feelings, sir,' rejoined Madame Mantalini, seating herself, and turning her back upon him. 'You don't consider mine.'
'I do not consider yours, my soul!' exclaimed Mr Mantalini.
'No,' replied his wife.
And notwithstanding various blandishments on the part of Mr Mantalini, Madame Mantalini still said no, and said it too with such determined and resolute ill-temper, that Mr Mantalini was clearly taken aback.
'His extravagance, Mr Nickleby,' said Madame Mantalini, addressing herself to Ralph, who leant against his easy-chair with his hands behind him, and regarded the amiable couple with a smile of the supremest and most unmitigated contempt,—'his extravagance is beyond all bounds.'
'I should scarcely have supposed it,' answered Ralph, sarcastically.
'I assure you, Mr Nickleby, however, that it is,' returned Madame Mantalini. 'It makes me miserable! I am under constant apprehensions, and in constant difficulty. And even this,' said Madame Mantalini, wiping her eyes, 'is not the worst. He took some papers of value out of my desk this morning without asking my permission.'
Mr Mantalini groaned slightly, and buttoned his trousers pocket.
'I am obliged,' continued Madame Mantalini, 'since our late misfortunes, to pay Miss Knag a great deal of money for having her name in the business, and I really cannot afford to encourage him in all his wastefulness. As I have no doubt that he came straight here, Mr Nickleby, to convert the papers I have spoken of, into money, and as you have assisted us very often before, and are very much connected with us in this kind of matters, I wish you to know the determination at which his conduct has compelled me to arrive.'
Mr Mantalini groaned once more from behind his wife's bonnet, and fitting a sovereign into one of his eyes, winked with the other at Ralph. Having achieved this performance with great dexterity, he whipped the coin into his pocket, and groaned again with increased penitence.
'I have made up my mind,' said Madame Mantalini, as tokens of impatience manifested themselves in Ralph's countenance, 'to allowance him.'
'To do that, my joy?' inquired Mr Mantalini, who did not seem to have caught the words.
'To put him,' said Madame Mantalini, looking at Ralph, and prudently abstaining from the slightest glance at her husband, lest his many graces should induce her to falter in her resolution, 'to put him upon a fixed allowance; and I say that if he has a hundred and twenty pounds a year for his clothes and pocket-money, he may consider himself a very fortunate man.'
Mr Mantalini waited, with much decorum, to hear the amount of the proposed stipend, but when it reached his ears, he cast his hat and cane upon the floor, and drawing out his pocket-handkerchief, gave vent to his feelings in a dismal moan.
'Demnition!' cried Mr Mantalini, suddenly skipping out of his chair, and as suddenly skipping into it again, to the great discomposure of his lady's nerves. 'But no. It is a demd horrid dream. It is not reality. No!'
Comforting himself with this assurance, Mr Mantalini closed his eyes and waited patiently till such time as he should wake up.
'A very judicious arrangement,' observed Ralph with a sneer, 'if your husband will keep within it, ma'am—as no doubt he will.'
'Demmit!' exclaimed Mr Mantalini, opening his eyes at the sound of Ralph's voice, 'it is a horrid reality. She is sitting there before me. There is the graceful outline of her form; it cannot be mistaken—there is nothing like it. The two countesses had no outlines at all, and the dowager's was a demd outline. Why is she so excruciatingly beautiful that I cannot be angry with her, even now?'
'You have brought it upon yourself, Alfred,' returned Madame Mantalini—still reproachfully, but in a softened tone.
'I am a demd villain!' cried Mr Mantalini, smiting himself on the head. 'I will fill my pockets with change for a sovereign in halfpence and drown myself in the Thames; but I will not be angry with her, even then, for I will put a note in the twopenny-post as I go along, to tell her where the body is. She will be a lovely widow. I shall be a body. Some handsome women will cry; she will laugh demnebly.'
'Alfred, you cruel, cruel creature,' said Madame Mantalini, sobbing at the dreadful picture.
'She calls me cruel—me—me—who for her sake will become a demd, damp, moist, unpleasant body!' exclaimed Mr Mantalini.
'You know it almost breaks my heart, even to hear you talk of such a thing,' replied Madame Mantalini.
'Can I live to be mistrusted?' cried her husband. 'Have I cut my heart into a demd extraordinary number of little pieces, and given them all away, one after another, to the same little engrossing demnition captivater, and can I live to be suspected by her? Demmit, no I can't.'
'Ask Mr Nickleby whether the sum I have mentioned is not a proper one,' reasoned Madame Mantalini.
'I don't want any sum,' replied her disconsolate husband; 'I shall require no demd allowance. I will be a body.'
On this repetition of Mr Mantalini's fatal threat, Madame Mantalini wrung her hands, and implored the interference of Ralph Nickleby; and after a great quantity of tears and talking, and several attempts on the part of Mr Mantalini to reach the door, preparatory to straightway committing violence upon himself, that gentleman was prevailed upon, with difficulty, to promise that he wouldn't be a body. This great point attained, Madame Mantalini argued the question of the allowance, and Mr Mantalini did the same, taking occasion to show that he could live with uncommon satisfaction upon bread and water, and go clad in rags, but that he could not support existence with the additional burden of being mistrusted by the object of his most devoted and disinterested affection. This brought fresh tears into Madame Mantalini's eyes, which having just begun to open to some few of the demerits of Mr Mantalini, were only open a very little way, and could be easily closed again. The result was, that without quite giving up the allowance question, Madame Mantalini, postponed its further consideration; and Ralph saw, clearly enough, that Mr Mantalini had gained a fresh lease of his easy life, and that, for some time longer at all events, his degradation and downfall were postponed.
'But it will come soon enough,' thought Ralph; 'all love—bah! that I should use the cant of boys and girls—is fleeting enough; though that which has its sole root in the admiration of a whiskered face like that of yonder baboon, perhaps lasts the longest, as it originates in the greater blindness and is fed by vanity. Meantime the fools bring grist to my mill, so let them live out their day, and the longer it is, the better.'
These agreeable reflections occurred to Ralph Nickleby, as sundry small caresses and endearments, supposed to be unseen, were exchanged between the objects of his thoughts.
'If you have nothing more to say, my dear, to Mr Nickleby,' said Madame Mantalini, 'we will take our leaves. I am sure we have detained him much too long already.'
Mr Mantalini answered, in the first instance, by tapping Madame Mantalini several times on the nose, and then, by remarking in words that he had nothing more to say.
'Demmit! I have, though,' he added almost immediately, drawing Ralph into a corner. 'Here's an affair about your friend Sir Mulberry. Such a demd extraordinary out-of-the-way kind of thing as never was—eh?'
'What do you mean?' asked Ralph.
'Don't you know, demmit?' asked Mr Mantalini.
'I see by the paper that he was thrown from his cabriolet last night, and severely injured, and that his life is in some danger,' answered Ralph with great composure; 'but I see nothing extraordinary in that—accidents are not miraculous events, when men live hard, and drive after dinner.'
'Whew!' cried Mr Mantalini in a long shrill whistle. 'Then don't you know how it was?'
'Not unless it was as I have just supposed,' replied Ralph, shrugging his shoulders carelessly, as if to give his questioner to understand that he had no curiosity upon the subject.
'Demmit, you amaze me,' cried Mantalini.
Ralph shrugged his shoulders again, as if it were no great feat to amaze Mr Mantalini, and cast a wistful glance at the face of Newman Noggs, which had several times appeared behind a couple of panes of glass in the room door; it being a part of Newman's duty, when unimportant people called, to make various feints of supposing that the bell had rung for him to show them out: by way of a gentle hint to such visitors that it was time to go.
'Don't you know,' said Mr Mantalini, taking Ralph by the button, 'that it wasn't an accident at all, but a demd, furious, manslaughtering attack made upon him by your nephew?'
'What!' snarled Ralph, clenching his fists and turning a livid white.
'Demmit, Nickleby, you're as great a tiger as he is,' said Mantalini, alarmed at these demonstrations.
'Go on,' cried Ralph. 'Tell me what you mean. What is this story? Who told you? Speak,' growled Ralph. 'Do you hear me?'
''Gad, Nickleby,' said Mr Mantalini, retreating towards his wife, 'what a demneble fierce old evil genius you are! You're enough to frighten the life and soul out of her little delicious wits—flying all at once into such a blazing, ravaging, raging passion as never was, demmit!'
'Pshaw,' rejoined Ralph, forcing a smile. 'It is but manner.'
'It is a demd uncomfortable, private-madhouse-sort of a manner,' said Mr Mantalini, picking up his cane.
Ralph affected to smile, and once more inquired from whom Mr Mantalini had derived his information.
'From Pyke; and a demd, fine, pleasant, gentlemanly dog it is,' replied Mantalini. 'Demnition pleasant, and a tip-top sawyer.'
'And what said he?' asked Ralph, knitting his brows.
'That it happened this way—that your nephew met him at a coffeehouse, fell upon him with the most demneble ferocity, followed him to his cab, swore he would ride home with him, if he rode upon the horse's back or hooked himself on to the horse's tail; smashed his countenance, which is a demd fine countenance in its natural state; frightened the horse, pitched out Sir Mulberry and himself, and—'
'And was killed?' interposed Ralph with gleaming eyes. 'Was he? Is he dead?'
Mantalini shook his head.
'Ugh,' said Ralph, turning away. 'Then he has done nothing. Stay,' he added, looking round again. 'He broke a leg or an arm, or put his shoulder out, or fractured his collar-bone, or ground a rib or two? His neck was saved for the halter, but he got some painful and slow-healing injury for his trouble? Did he? You must have heard that, at least.'
'No,' rejoined Mantalini, shaking his head again. 'Unless he was dashed into such little pieces that they blew away, he wasn't hurt, for he went off as quiet and comfortable as—as—as demnition,' said Mr Mantalini, rather at a loss for a simile.
'And what,' said Ralph, hesitating a little, 'what was the cause of quarrel?'
'You are the demdest, knowing hand,' replied Mr Mantalini, in an admiring tone, 'the cunningest, rummest, superlativest old fox—oh dem!—to pretend now not to know that it was the little bright-eyed niece—the softest, sweetest, prettiest—'
'Alfred!' interposed Madame Mantalini.
'She is always right,' rejoined Mr Mantalini soothingly, 'and when she says it is time to go, it is time, and go she shall; and when she walks along the streets with her own tulip, the women shall say, with envy, she has got a demd fine husband; and the men shall say with rapture, he has got a demd fine wife; and they shall both be right and neither wrong, upon my life and soul—oh demmit!'
With which remarks, and many more, no less intellectual and to the purpose, Mr Mantalini kissed the fingers of his gloves to Ralph Nickleby, and drawing his lady's arm through his, led her mincingly away.
'So, so,' muttered Ralph, dropping into his chair; 'this devil is loose again, and thwarting me, as he was born to do, at every turn. He told me once there should be a day of reckoning between us, sooner or later. I'll make him a true prophet, for it shall surely come.'
'Are you at home?' asked Newman, suddenly popping in his head.
'No,' replied Ralph, with equal abruptness.
Newman withdrew his head, but thrust it in again.
'You're quite sure you're not at home, are you?' said Newman.
'What does the idiot mean?' cried Ralph, testily.
'He has been waiting nearly ever since they first came in, and may have heard your voice—that's all,' said Newman, rubbing his hands.
'Who has?' demanded Ralph, wrought by the intelligence he had just heard, and his clerk's provoking coolness, to an intense pitch of irritation.
The necessity of a reply was superseded by the unlooked-for entrance of a third party—the individual in question—who, bringing his one eye (for he had but one) to bear on Ralph Nickleby, made a great many shambling bows, and sat himself down in an armchair, with his hands on his knees, and his short black trousers drawn up so high in the legs by the exertion of seating himself, that they scarcely reached below the tops of his Wellington boots.'
'Why, this IS a surprise!' said Ralph, bending his gaze upon the visitor, and half smiling as he scrutinised him attentively; 'I should know your face, Mr Squeers.'
'Ah!' replied that worthy, 'and you'd have know'd it better, sir, if it hadn't been for all that I've been a-going through. Just lift that little boy off the tall stool in the back-office, and tell him to come in here, will you, my man?' said Squeers, addressing himself to Newman. 'Oh, he's lifted his-self off. My son, sir, little Wackford. What do you think of him, sir, for a specimen of the Dotheboys Hall feeding? Ain't he fit to bust out of his clothes, and start the seams, and make the very buttons fly off with his fatness? Here's flesh!' cried Squeers, turning the boy about, and indenting the plumpest parts of his figure with divers pokes and punches, to the great discomposure of his son and heir. 'Here's firmness, here's solidness! Why you can hardly get up enough of him between your finger and thumb to pinch him anywheres.'
In however good condition Master Squeers might have been, he certainly did not present this remarkable compactness of person, for on his father's closing his finger and thumb in illustration of his remark, he uttered a sharp cry, and rubbed the place in the most natural manner possible.
'Well,' remarked Squeers, a little disconcerted, 'I had him there; but that's because we breakfasted early this morning, and he hasn't had his lunch yet. Why you couldn't shut a bit of him in a door, when he's had his dinner. Look at them tears, sir,' said Squeers, with a triumphant air, as Master Wackford wiped his eyes with the cuff of his jacket, 'there's oiliness!'
'He looks well, indeed,' returned Ralph, who, for some purposes of his own, seemed desirous to conciliate the schoolmaster. 'But how is Mrs Squeers, and how are you?'
'Mrs Squeers, sir,' replied the proprietor of Dotheboys, 'is as she always is—a mother to them lads, and a blessing, and a comfort, and a joy to all them as knows her. One of our boys—gorging his-self with vittles, and then turning in; that's their way—got a abscess on him last week. To see how she operated upon him with a pen-knife! Oh Lor!' said Squeers, heaving a sigh, and nodding his head a great many times, 'what a member of society that woman is!'
Mr Squeers indulged in a retrospective look, for some quarter of a minute, as if this allusion to his lady's excellences had naturally led his mind to the peaceful village of Dotheboys near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire; and then looked at Ralph, as if waiting for him to say something.
'Have you quite recovered that scoundrel's attack?' asked Ralph.
'I've only just done it, if I've done it now,' replied Squeers. 'I was one blessed bruise, sir,' said Squeers, touching first the roots of his hair, and then the toes of his boots, 'from HERE to THERE. Vinegar and brown paper, vinegar and brown paper, from morning to night. I suppose there was a matter of half a ream of brown paper stuck upon me, from first to last. As I laid all of a heap in our kitchen, plastered all over, you might have thought I was a large brown-paper parcel, chock full of nothing but groans. Did I groan loud, Wackford, or did I groan soft?' asked Mr Squeers, appealing to his son.
'Loud,' replied Wackford.
'Was the boys sorry to see me in such a dreadful condition, Wackford, or was they glad?' asked Mr Squeers, in a sentimental manner.
'Eh?' cried Squeers, turning sharp round.
'Sorry,' rejoined his son.
'Oh!' said Squeers, catching him a smart box on the ear. 'Then take your hands out of your pockets, and don't stammer when you're asked a question. Hold your noise, sir, in a gentleman's office, or I'll run away from my family and never come back any more; and then what would become of all them precious and forlorn lads as would be let loose on the world, without their best friend at their elbers?'
'Were you obliged to have medical attendance?' inquired Ralph.
'Ay, was I,' rejoined Squeers, 'and a precious bill the medical attendant brought in too; but I paid it though.'
Ralph elevated his eyebrows in a manner which might be expressive of either sympathy or astonishment—just as the beholder was pleased to take it.
'Yes, I paid it, every farthing,' replied Squeers, who seemed to know the man he had to deal with, too well to suppose that any blinking of the question would induce him to subscribe towards the expenses; 'I wasn't out of pocket by it after all, either.'
'No!' said Ralph.
'Not a halfpenny,' replied Squeers. 'The fact is, we have only one extra with our boys, and that is for doctors when required—and not then, unless we're sure of our customers. Do you see?'
'I understand,' said Ralph.
'Very good,' rejoined Squeers. 'Then, after my bill was run up, we picked out five little boys (sons of small tradesmen, as was sure pay) that had never had the scarlet fever, and we sent one to a cottage where they'd got it, and he took it, and then we put the four others to sleep with him, and THEY took it, and then the doctor came and attended 'em once all round, and we divided my total among 'em, and added it on to their little bills, and the parents paid it. Ha! ha! ha!'
'And a good plan too,' said Ralph, eyeing the schoolmaster stealthily.
'I believe you,' rejoined Squeers. 'We always do it. Why, when Mrs Squeers was brought to bed with little Wackford here, we ran the hooping-cough through half-a-dozen boys, and charged her expenses among 'em, monthly nurse included. Ha! ha! ha!'
Ralph never laughed, but on this occasion he produced the nearest approach to it that he could, and waiting until Mr Squeers had enjoyed the professional joke to his heart's content, inquired what had brought him to town.
'Some bothering law business,' replied Squeers, scratching his head, 'connected with an action, for what they call neglect of a boy. I don't know what they would have. He had as good grazing, that boy had, as there is about us.'
Ralph looked as if he did not quite understand the observation.
'Grazing,' said Squeers, raising his voice, under the impression that as Ralph failed to comprehend him, he must be deaf. 'When a boy gets weak and ill and don't relish his meals, we give him a change of diet—turn him out, for an hour or so every day, into a neighbour's turnip field, or sometimes, if it's a delicate case, a turnip field and a piece of carrots alternately, and let him eat as many as he likes. There an't better land in the country than this perwerse lad grazed on, and yet he goes and catches cold and indigestion and what not, and then his friends brings a lawsuit against ME! Now, you'd hardly suppose,' added Squeers, moving in his chair with the impatience of an ill-used man, 'that people's ingratitude would carry them quite as far as that; would you?'
'A hard case, indeed,' observed Ralph.
'You don't say more than the truth when you say that,' replied Squeers. 'I don't suppose there's a man going, as possesses the fondness for youth that I do. There's youth to the amount of eight hundred pound a year at Dotheboys Hall at this present time. I'd take sixteen hundred pound worth if I could get 'em, and be as fond of every individual twenty pound among 'em as nothing should equal it!'
'Are you stopping at your old quarters?' asked Ralph.
'Yes, we are at the Saracen,' replied Squeers, 'and as it don't want very long to the end of the half-year, we shall continney to stop there till I've collected the money, and some new boys too, I hope. I've brought little Wackford up, on purpose to show to parents and guardians. I shall put him in the advertisement, this time. Look at that boy—himself a pupil. Why he's a miracle of high feeding, that boy is!'
'I should like to have a word with you,' said Ralph, who had both spoken and listened mechanically for some time, and seemed to have been thinking.
'As many words as you like, sir,' rejoined Squeers. 'Wackford, you go and play in the back office, and don't move about too much or you'll get thin, and that won't do. You haven't got such a thing as twopence, Mr Nickleby, have you?' said Squeers, rattling a bunch of keys in his coat pocket, and muttering something about its being all silver.
'I—think I have,' said Ralph, very slowly, and producing, after much rummaging in an old drawer, a penny, a halfpenny, and two farthings.
'Thankee,' said Squeers, bestowing it upon his son. 'Here! You go and buy a tart—Mr Nickleby's man will show you where—and mind you buy a rich one. Pastry,' added Squeers, closing the door on Master Wackford, 'makes his flesh shine a good deal, and parents thinks that a healthy sign.'
With this explanation, and a peculiarly knowing look to eke it out, Mr Squeers moved his chair so as to bring himself opposite to Ralph Nickleby at no great distance off; and having planted it to his entire satisfaction, sat down.
'Attend to me,' said Ralph, bending forward a little.
'I am not to suppose,' said Ralph, 'that you are dolt enough to forgive or forget, very readily, the violence that was committed upon you, or the exposure which accompanied it?'
'Devil a bit,' replied Squeers, tartly.
'Or to lose an opportunity of repaying it with interest, if you could get one?' said Ralph.
'Show me one, and try,' rejoined Squeers.
'Some such object it was, that induced you to call on me?' said Ralph, raising his eyes to the schoolmaster's face.
'N-n-no, I don't know that,' replied Squeers. 'I thought that if it was in your power to make me, besides the trifle of money you sent, any compensation—'
'Ah!' cried Ralph, interrupting him. 'You needn't go on.'
After a long pause, during which Ralph appeared absorbed in contemplation, he again broke silence by asking:
'Who is this boy that he took with him?'
Squeers stated his name.
'Was he young or old, healthy or sickly, tractable or rebellious? Speak out, man,' retorted Ralph.
'Why, he wasn't young,' answered Squeers; 'that is, not young for a boy, you know.'
'That is, he was not a boy at all, I suppose?' interrupted Ralph.
'Well,' returned Squeers, briskly, as if he felt relieved by the suggestion, 'he might have been nigh twenty. He wouldn't seem so old, though, to them as didn't know him, for he was a little wanting here,' touching his forehead; 'nobody at home, you know, if you knocked ever so often.'
'And you DID knock pretty often, I dare say?' muttered Ralph.
'Pretty well,' returned Squeers with a grin.
'When you wrote to acknowledge the receipt of this trifle of money as you call it,' said Ralph, 'you told me his friends had deserted him long ago, and that you had not the faintest clue or trace to tell you who he was. Is that the truth?'
'It is, worse luck!' replied Squeers, becoming more and more easy and familiar in his manner, as Ralph pursued his inquiries with the less reserve. 'It's fourteen years ago, by the entry in my book, since a strange man brought him to my place, one autumn night, and left him there; paying five pound five, for his first quarter in advance. He might have been five or six year old at that time—not more.'
'What more do you know about him?' demanded Ralph.
'Devilish little, I'm sorry to say,' replied Squeers. 'The money was paid for some six or eight year, and then it stopped. He had given an address in London, had this chap; but when it came to the point, of course nobody knowed anything about him. So I kept the lad out of—out of—'
'Charity?' suggested Ralph drily.
'Charity, to be sure,' returned Squeers, rubbing his knees, 'and when he begins to be useful in a certain sort of way, this young scoundrel of a Nickleby comes and carries him off. But the most vexatious and aggeravating part of the whole affair is,' said Squeers, dropping his voice, and drawing his chair still closer to Ralph, 'that some questions have been asked about him at last—not of me, but, in a roundabout kind of way, of people in our village. So, that just when I might have had all arrears paid up, perhaps, and perhaps—who knows? such things have happened in our business before—a present besides for putting him out to a farmer, or sending him to sea, so that he might never turn up to disgrace his parents, supposing him to be a natural boy, as many of our boys are—damme, if that villain of a Nickleby don't collar him in open day, and commit as good as highway robbery upon my pocket.'
'We will both cry quits with him before long,' said Ralph, laying his hand on the arm of the Yorkshire schoolmaster.
'Quits!' echoed Squeers. 'Ah! and I should like to leave a small balance in his favour, to be settled when he can. I only wish Mrs Squeers could catch hold of him. Bless her heart! She'd murder him, Mr Nickleby—she would, as soon as eat her dinner.'
'We will talk of this again,' said Ralph. 'I must have time to think of it. To wound him through his own affections and fancies—. If I could strike him through this boy—'
'Strike him how you like, sir,' interrupted Squeers, 'only hit him hard enough, that's all—and with that, I'll say good-morning. Here!—just chuck that little boy's hat off that corner peg, and lift him off the stool will you?'
Bawling these requests to Newman Noggs, Mr Squeers betook himself to the little back-office, and fitted on his child's hat with parental anxiety, while Newman, with his pen behind his ear, sat, stiff and immovable, on his stool, regarding the father and son by turns with a broad stare.
'He's a fine boy, an't he?' said Squeers, throwing his head a little on one side, and falling back to the desk, the better to estimate the proportions of little Wackford.
'Very,' said Newman.
'Pretty well swelled out, an't he?' pursued Squeers. 'He has the fatness of twenty boys, he has.'
'Ah!' replied Newman, suddenly thrusting his face into that of Squeers, 'he has;—the fatness of twenty!—more! He's got it all. God help that others. Ha! ha! Oh Lord!'