Having uttered these fragmentary observations, Newman dropped upon his desk and began to write with most marvellous rapidity.
'Why, what does the man mean?' cried Squeers, colouring. 'Is he drunk?'
Newman made no reply.
'Is he mad?' said Squeers.
But, still Newman betrayed no consciousness of any presence save his own; so, Mr Squeers comforted himself by saying that he was both drunk AND mad; and, with this parting observation, he led his hopeful son away.
In exact proportion as Ralph Nickleby became conscious of a struggling and lingering regard for Kate, had his detestation of Nicholas augmented. It might be, that to atone for the weakness of inclining to any one person, he held it necessary to hate some other more intensely than before; but such had been the course of his feelings. And now, to be defied and spurned, to be held up to her in the worst and most repulsive colours, to know that she was taught to hate and despise him: to feel that there was infection in his touch, and taint in his companionship—to know all this, and to know that the mover of it all was that same boyish poor relation who had twitted him in their very first interview, and openly bearded and braved him since, wrought his quiet and stealthy malignity to such a pitch, that there was scarcely anything he would not have hazarded to gratify it, if he could have seen his way to some immediate retaliation.
But, fortunately for Nicholas, Ralph Nickleby did not; and although he cast about all that day, and kept a corner of his brain working on the one anxious subject through all the round of schemes and business that came with it, night found him at last, still harping on the same theme, and still pursuing the same unprofitable reflections.
'When my brother was such as he,' said Ralph, 'the first comparisons were drawn between us—always in my disfavour. HE was open, liberal, gallant, gay; I a crafty hunks of cold and stagnant blood, with no passion but love of saving, and no spirit beyond a thirst for gain. I recollected it well when I first saw this whipster; but I remember it better now.'
He had been occupied in tearing Nicholas's letter into atoms; and as he spoke, he scattered it in a tiny shower about him.
'Recollections like these,' pursued Ralph, with a bitter smile, 'flock upon me—when I resign myself to them—in crowds, and from countless quarters. As a portion of the world affect to despise the power of money, I must try and show them what it is.'
And being, by this time, in a pleasant frame of mind for slumber, Ralph Nickleby went to bed.
Smike becomes known to Mrs Nickleby and Kate. Nicholas also meets with new Acquaintances. Brighter Days seem to dawn upon the Family
Having established his mother and sister in the apartments of the kind-hearted miniature painter, and ascertained that Sir Mulberry Hawk was in no danger of losing his life, Nicholas turned his thoughts to poor Smike, who, after breakfasting with Newman Noggs, had remained, in a disconsolate state, at that worthy creature's lodgings, waiting, with much anxiety, for further intelligence of his protector.
'As he will be one of our own little household, wherever we live, or whatever fortune is in reserve for us,' thought Nicholas, 'I must present the poor fellow in due form. They will be kind to him for his own sake, and if not (on that account solely) to the full extent I could wish, they will stretch a point, I am sure, for mine.'
Nicholas said 'they', but his misgivings were confined to one person. He was sure of Kate, but he knew his mother's peculiarities, and was not quite so certain that Smike would find favour in the eyes of Mrs Nickleby.
'However,' thought Nicholas as he departed on his benevolent errand; 'she cannot fail to become attached to him, when she knows what a devoted creature he is, and as she must quickly make the discovery, his probation will be a short one.'
'I was afraid,' said Smike, overjoyed to see his friend again, 'that you had fallen into some fresh trouble; the time seemed so long, at last, that I almost feared you were lost.'
'Lost!' replied Nicholas gaily. 'You will not be rid of me so easily, I promise you. I shall rise to the surface many thousand times yet, and the harder the thrust that pushes me down, the more quickly I shall rebound, Smike. But come; my errand here is to take you home.'
'Home!' faltered Smike, drawing timidly back.
'Ay,' rejoined Nicholas, taking his arm. 'Why not?'
'I had such hopes once,' said Smike; 'day and night, day and night, for many years. I longed for home till I was weary, and pined away with grief, but now—'
'And what now?' asked Nicholas, looking kindly in his face. 'What now, old friend?'
'I could not part from you to go to any home on earth,' replied Smike, pressing his hand; 'except one, except one. I shall never be an old man; and if your hand placed me in the grave, and I could think, before I died, that you would come and look upon it sometimes with one of your kind smiles, and in the summer weather, when everything was alive—not dead like me—I could go to that home almost without a tear.'
'Why do you talk thus, poor boy, if your life is a happy one with me?' said Nicholas.
'Because I should change; not those about me. And if they forgot me, I should never know it,' replied Smike. 'In the churchyard we are all alike, but here there are none like me. I am a poor creature, but I know that.'
'You are a foolish, silly creature,' said Nicholas cheerfully. 'If that is what you mean, I grant you that. Why, here's a dismal face for ladies' company!—my pretty sister too, whom you have so often asked me about. Is this your Yorkshire gallantry? For shame! for shame!'
Smike brightened up and smiled.
'When I talk of home,' pursued Nicholas, 'I talk of mine—which is yours of course. If it were defined by any particular four walls and a roof, God knows I should be sufficiently puzzled to say whereabouts it lay; but that is not what I mean. When I speak of home, I speak of the place where—in default of a better—those I love are gathered together; and if that place were a gypsy's tent, or a barn, I should call it by the same good name notwithstanding. And now, for what is my present home, which, however alarming your expectations may be, will neither terrify you by its extent nor its magnificence!'
So saying, Nicholas took his companion by the arm, and saying a great deal more to the same purpose, and pointing out various things to amuse and interest him as they went along, led the way to Miss La Creevy's house.
'And this, Kate,' said Nicholas, entering the room where his sister sat alone, 'is the faithful friend and affectionate fellow-traveller whom I prepared you to receive.'
Poor Smike was bashful, and awkward, and frightened enough, at first, but Kate advanced towards him so kindly, and said, in such a sweet voice, how anxious she had been to see him after all her brother had told her, and how much she had to thank him for having comforted Nicholas so greatly in their very trying reverses, that he began to be very doubtful whether he should shed tears or not, and became still more flurried. However, he managed to say, in a broken voice, that Nicholas was his only friend, and that he would lay down his life to help him; and Kate, although she was so kind and considerate, seemed to be so wholly unconscious of his distress and embarrassment, that he recovered almost immediately and felt quite at home.
Then, Miss La Creevy came in; and to her Smike had to be presented also. And Miss La Creevy was very kind too, and wonderfully talkative: not to Smike, for that would have made him uneasy at first, but to Nicholas and his sister. Then, after a time, she would speak to Smike himself now and then, asking him whether he was a judge of likenesses, and whether he thought that picture in the corner was like herself, and whether he didn't think it would have looked better if she had made herself ten years younger, and whether he didn't think, as a matter of general observation, that young ladies looked better not only in pictures, but out of them too, than old ones; with many more small jokes and facetious remarks, which were delivered with such good-humour and merriment, that Smike thought, within himself, she was the nicest lady he had ever seen; even nicer than Mrs Grudden, of Mr Vincent Crummles's theatre; and she was a nice lady too, and talked, perhaps more, but certainly louder, than Miss La Creevy.
At length the door opened again, and a lady in mourning came in; and Nicholas kissing the lady in mourning affectionately, and calling her his mother, led her towards the chair from which Smike had risen when she entered the room.
'You are always kind-hearted, and anxious to help the oppressed, my dear mother,' said Nicholas, 'so you will be favourably disposed towards him, I know.'
'I am sure, my dear Nicholas,' replied Mrs Nickleby, looking very hard at her new friend, and bending to him with something more of majesty than the occasion seemed to require: 'I am sure any friend of yours has, as indeed he naturally ought to have, and must have, of course, you know, a great claim upon me, and of course, it is a very great pleasure to me to be introduced to anybody you take an interest in. There can he no doubt about that; none at all; not the least in the world,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'At the same time I must say, Nicholas, my dear, as I used to say to your poor dear papa, when he WOULD bring gentlemen home to dinner, and there was nothing in the house, that if he had come the day before yesterday—no, I don't mean the day before yesterday now; I should have said, perhaps, the year before last—we should have been better able to entertain him.'
With which remarks, Mrs Nickleby turned to her daughter, and inquired, in an audible whisper, whether the gentleman was going to stop all night.
'Because, if he is, Kate, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby, 'I don't see that it's possible for him to sleep anywhere, and that's the truth.'
Kate stepped gracefully forward, and without any show of annoyance or irritation, breathed a few words into her mother's ear.
'La, Kate, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby, shrinking back, 'how you do tickle one! Of course, I understand THAT, my love, without your telling me; and I said the same to Nicholas, and I AM very much pleased. You didn't tell me, Nicholas, my dear,' added Mrs Nickleby, turning round with an air of less reserve than she had before assumed, 'what your friend's name is.'
'His name, mother,' replied Nicholas, 'is Smike.'
The effect of this communication was by no means anticipated; but the name was no sooner pronounced, than Mrs Nickleby dropped upon a chair, and burst into a fit of crying.
'What is the matter?' exclaimed Nicholas, running to support her.
'It's so like Pyke,' cried Mrs Nickleby; 'so exactly like Pyke. Oh! don't speak to me—I shall be better presently.'
And after exhibiting every symptom of slow suffocation in all its stages, and drinking about a tea-spoonful of water from a full tumbler, and spilling the remainder, Mrs Nickleby WAS better, and remarked, with a feeble smile, that she was very foolish, she knew.
'It's a weakness in our family,' said Mrs Nickleby, 'so, of course, I can't be blamed for it. Your grandmama, Kate, was exactly the same—precisely. The least excitement, the slightest surprise—she fainted away directly. I have heard her say, often and often, that when she was a young lady, and before she was married, she was turning a corner into Oxford Street one day, when she ran against her own hairdresser, who, it seems, was escaping from a bear;—the mere suddenness of the encounter made her faint away directly. Wait, though,' added Mrs Nickleby, pausing to consider. 'Let me be sure I'm right. Was it her hairdresser who had escaped from a bear, or was it a bear who had escaped from her hairdresser's? I declare I can't remember just now, but the hairdresser was a very handsome man, I know, and quite a gentleman in his manners; so that it has nothing to do with the point of the story.'
Mrs Nickleby having fallen imperceptibly into one of her retrospective moods, improved in temper from that moment, and glided, by an easy change of the conversation occasionally, into various other anecdotes, no less remarkable for their strict application to the subject in hand.
'Mr Smike is from Yorkshire, Nicholas, my dear?' said Mrs Nickleby, after dinner, and when she had been silent for some time.
'Certainly, mother,' replied Nicholas. 'I see you have not forgotten his melancholy history.'
'O dear no,' cried Mrs Nickleby. 'Ah! melancholy, indeed. You don't happen, Mr Smike, ever to have dined with the Grimbles of Grimble Hall, somewhere in the North Riding, do you?' said the good lady, addressing herself to him. 'A very proud man, Sir Thomas Grimble, with six grown-up and most lovely daughters, and the finest park in the county.'
'My dear mother,' reasoned Nicholas, 'do you suppose that the unfortunate outcast of a Yorkshire school was likely to receive many cards of invitation from the nobility and gentry in the neighbourhood?'
'Really, my dear, I don't know why it should be so very extraordinary,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'I know that when I was at school, I always went at least twice every half-year to the Hawkinses at Taunton Vale, and they are much richer than the Grimbles, and connected with them in marriage; so you see it's not so very unlikely, after all.'
Having put down Nicholas in this triumphant manner, Mrs Nickleby was suddenly seized with a forgetfulness of Smike's real name, and an irresistible tendency to call him Mr Slammons; which circumstance she attributed to the remarkable similarity of the two names in point of sound both beginning with an S, and moreover being spelt with an M. But whatever doubt there might be on this point, there was none as to his being a most excellent listener; which circumstance had considerable influence in placing them on the very best terms, and inducing Mrs Nickleby to express the highest opinion of his general deportment and disposition.
Thus, the little circle remained, on the most amicable and agreeable footing, until the Monday morning, when Nicholas withdrew himself from it for a short time, seriously to reflect upon the state of his affairs, and to determine, if he could, upon some course of life, which would enable him to support those who were so entirely dependent upon his exertions.
Mr Crummles occurred to him more than once; but although Kate was acquainted with the whole history of his connection with that gentleman, his mother was not; and he foresaw a thousand fretful objections, on her part, to his seeking a livelihood upon the stage. There were graver reasons, too, against his returning to that mode of life. Independently of those arising out of its spare and precarious earnings, and his own internal conviction that he could never hope to aspire to any great distinction, even as a provincial actor, how could he carry his sister from town to town, and place to place, and debar her from any other associates than those with whom he would be compelled, almost without distinction, to mingle? 'It won't do,' said Nicholas, shaking his head; 'I must try something else.'
It was much easier to make this resolution than to carry it into effect. With no greater experience of the world than he had acquired for himself in his short trials; with a sufficient share of headlong rashness and precipitation (qualities not altogether unnatural at his time of life); with a very slender stock of money, and a still more scanty stock of friends; what could he do? 'Egad!' said Nicholas, 'I'll try that Register Office again.'
He smiled at himself as he walked away with a quick step; for, an instant before, he had been internally blaming his own precipitation. He did not laugh himself out of the intention, however, for on he went: picturing to himself, as he approached the place, all kinds of splendid possibilities, and impossibilities too, for that matter, and thinking himself, perhaps with good reason, very fortunate to be endowed with so buoyant and sanguine a temperament.
The office looked just the same as when he had left it last, and, indeed, with one or two exceptions, there seemed to be the very same placards in the window that he had seen before. There were the same unimpeachable masters and mistresses in want of virtuous servants, and the same virtuous servants in want of unimpeachable masters and mistresses, and the same magnificent estates for the investment of capital, and the same enormous quantities of capital to be invested in estates, and, in short, the same opportunities of all sorts for people who wanted to make their fortunes. And a most extraordinary proof it was of the national prosperity, that people had not been found to avail themselves of such advantages long ago.
As Nicholas stopped to look in at the window, an old gentleman happened to stop too; and Nicholas, carrying his eye along the window-panes from left to right in search of some capital-text placard which should be applicable to his own case, caught sight of this old gentleman's figure, and instinctively withdrew his eyes from the window, to observe the same more closely.
He was a sturdy old fellow in a broad-skirted blue coat, made pretty large, to fit easily, and with no particular waist; his bulky legs clothed in drab breeches and high gaiters, and his head protected by a low-crowned broad-brimmed white hat, such as a wealthy grazier might wear. He wore his coat buttoned; and his dimpled double chin rested in the folds of a white neckerchief—not one of your stiff-starched apoplectic cravats, but a good, easy, old-fashioned white neckcloth that a man might go to bed in and be none the worse for. But what principally attracted the attention of Nicholas was the old gentleman's eye,—never was such a clear, twinkling, honest, merry, happy eye, as that. And there he stood, looking a little upward, with one hand thrust into the breast of his coat, and the other playing with his old-fashioned gold watch-chain: his head thrown a little on one side, and his hat a little more on one side than his head, (but that was evidently accident; not his ordinary way of wearing it,) with such a pleasant smile playing about his mouth, and such a comical expression of mingled slyness, simplicity, kind-heartedness, and good-humour, lighting up his jolly old face, that Nicholas would have been content to have stood there and looked at him until evening, and to have forgotten, meanwhile, that there was such a thing as a soured mind or a crabbed countenance to be met with in the whole wide world.
But, even a very remote approach to this gratification was not to be made, for although he seemed quite unconscious of having been the subject of observation, he looked casually at Nicholas; and the latter, fearful of giving offence, resumed his scrutiny of the window instantly.
Still, the old gentleman stood there, glancing from placard to placard, and Nicholas could not forbear raising his eyes to his face again. Grafted upon the quaintness and oddity of his appearance, was something so indescribably engaging, and bespeaking so much worth, and there were so many little lights hovering about the corners of his mouth and eyes, that it was not a mere amusement, but a positive pleasure and delight to look at him.
This being the case, it is no wonder that the old man caught Nicholas in the fact, more than once. At such times, Nicholas coloured and looked embarrassed: for the truth is, that he had begun to wonder whether the stranger could, by any possibility, be looking for a clerk or secretary; and thinking this, he felt as if the old gentleman must know it.
Long as all this takes to tell, it was not more than a couple of minutes in passing. As the stranger was moving away, Nicholas caught his eye again, and, in the awkwardness of the moment, stammered out an apology.
'No offence. Oh no offence!' said the old man.
This was said in such a hearty tone, and the voice was so exactly what it should have been from such a speaker, and there was such a cordiality in the manner, that Nicholas was emboldened to speak again.
'A great many opportunities here, sir,' he said, half smiling as he motioned towards the window.
'A great many people willing and anxious to be employed have seriously thought so very often, I dare say,' replied the old man. 'Poor fellows, poor fellows!'
He moved away as he said this; but seeing that Nicholas was about to speak, good-naturedly slackened his pace, as if he were unwilling to cut him short. After a little of that hesitation which may be sometimes observed between two people in the street who have exchanged a nod, and are both uncertain whether they shall turn back and speak, or not, Nicholas found himself at the old man's side.
'You were about to speak, young gentleman; what were you going to say?'
'Merely that I almost hoped—I mean to say, thought—you had some object in consulting those advertisements,' said Nicholas.
'Ay, ay? what object now—what object?' returned the old man, looking slyly at Nicholas. 'Did you think I wanted a situation now—eh? Did you think I did?'
Nicholas shook his head.
'Ha! ha!' laughed the old gentleman, rubbing his hands and wrists as if he were washing them. 'A very natural thought, at all events, after seeing me gazing at those bills. I thought the same of you, at first; upon my word I did.'
'If you had thought so at last, too, sir, you would not have been far from the truth,' rejoined Nicholas.
'Eh?' cried the old man, surveying him from head to foot. 'What! Dear me! No, no. Well-behaved young gentleman reduced to such a necessity! No no, no no.'
Nicholas bowed, and bidding him good-morning, turned upon his heel.
'Stay,' said the old man, beckoning him into a bye street, where they could converse with less interruption. 'What d'ye mean, eh?'
'Merely that your kind face and manner—both so unlike any I have ever seen—tempted me into an avowal, which, to any other stranger in this wilderness of London, I should not have dreamt of making,' returned Nicholas.
'Wilderness! Yes, it is, it is. Good! It IS a wilderness,' said the old man with much animation. 'It was a wilderness to me once. I came here barefoot. I have never forgotten it. Thank God!' and he raised his hat from his head, and looked very grave.
'What's the matter? What is it? How did it all come about?' said the old man, laying his hand on the shoulder of Nicholas, and walking him up the street. 'You're—Eh?' laying his finger on the sleeve of his black coat. 'Who's it for, eh?'
'My father,' replied Nicholas.
'Ah!' said the old gentleman quickly. 'Bad thing for a young man to lose his father. Widowed mother, perhaps?'
'Brothers and sisters too? Eh?'
'One sister,' rejoined Nicholas.
'Poor thing, poor thing! You are a scholar too, I dare say?' said the old man, looking wistfully into the face of the young one.
'I have been tolerably well educated,' said Nicholas.
'Fine thing,' said the old gentleman, 'education a great thing: a very great thing! I never had any. I admire it the more in others. A very fine thing. Yes, yes. Tell me more of your history. Let me hear it all. No impertinent curiosity—no, no, no.'
There was something so earnest and guileless in the way in which all this was said, and such a complete disregard of all conventional restraints and coldnesses, that Nicholas could not resist it. Among men who have any sound and sterling qualities, there is nothing so contagious as pure openness of heart. Nicholas took the infection instantly, and ran over the main points of his little history without reserve: merely suppressing names, and touching as lightly as possible upon his uncle's treatment of Kate. The old man listened with great attention, and when he had concluded, drew his arm eagerly through his own.
'Don't say another word. Not another word' said he. 'Come along with me. We mustn't lose a minute.'
So saying, the old gentleman dragged him back into Oxford Street, and hailing an omnibus on its way to the city, pushed Nicholas in before him, and followed himself.
As he appeared in a most extraordinary condition of restless excitement, and whenever Nicholas offered to speak, immediately interposed with: 'Don't say another word, my dear sir, on any account—not another word,' the young man thought it better to attempt no further interruption. Into the city they journeyed accordingly, without interchanging any conversation; and the farther they went, the more Nicholas wondered what the end of the adventure could possibly be.
The old gentleman got out, with great alacrity, when they reached the Bank, and once more taking Nicholas by the arm, hurried him along Threadneedle Street, and through some lanes and passages on the right, until they, at length, emerged in a quiet shady little square. Into the oldest and cleanest-looking house of business in the square, he led the way. The only inscription on the door-post was 'Cheeryble, Brothers;' but from a hasty glance at the directions of some packages which were lying about, Nicholas supposed that the brothers Cheeryble were German merchants.
Passing through a warehouse which presented every indication of a thriving business, Mr Cheeryble (for such Nicholas supposed him to be, from the respect which had been shown him by the warehousemen and porters whom they passed) led him into a little partitioned-off counting-house like a large glass case, in which counting-house there sat—as free from dust and blemish as if he had been fixed into the glass case before the top was put on, and had never come out since—a fat, elderly, large-faced clerk, with silver spectacles and a powdered head.
'Is my brother in his room, Tim?' said Mr Cheeryble, with no less kindness of manner than he had shown to Nicholas.
'Yes, he is, sir,' replied the fat clerk, turning his spectacle-glasses towards his principal, and his eyes towards Nicholas, 'but Mr Trimmers is with him.'
'Ay! And what has he come about, Tim?' said Mr Cheeryble.
'He is getting up a subscription for the widow and family of a man who was killed in the East India Docks this morning, sir,' rejoined Tim. 'Smashed, sir, by a cask of sugar.'
'He is a good creature,' said Mr Cheeryble, with great earnestness. 'He is a kind soul. I am very much obliged to Trimmers. Trimmers is one of the best friends we have. He makes a thousand cases known to us that we should never discover of ourselves. I am VERY much obliged to Trimmers.' Saying which, Mr Cheeryble rubbed his hands with infinite delight, and Mr Trimmers happening to pass the door that instant, on his way out, shot out after him and caught him by the hand.
'I owe you a thousand thanks, Trimmers, ten thousand thanks. I take it very friendly of you, very friendly indeed,' said Mr Cheeryble, dragging him into a corner to get out of hearing. 'How many children are there, and what has my brother Ned given, Trimmers?'
'There are six children,' replied the gentleman, 'and your brother has given us twenty pounds.'
'My brother Ned is a good fellow, and you're a good fellow too, Trimmers,' said the old man, shaking him by both hands with trembling eagerness. 'Put me down for another twenty—or—stop a minute, stop a minute. We mustn't look ostentatious; put me down ten pound, and Tim Linkinwater ten pound. A cheque for twenty pound for Mr Trimmers, Tim. God bless you, Trimmers—and come and dine with us some day this week; you'll always find a knife and fork, and we shall be delighted. Now, my dear sir—cheque from Mr Linkinwater, Tim. Smashed by a cask of sugar, and six poor children—oh dear, dear, dear!'
Talking on in this strain, as fast as he could, to prevent any friendly remonstrances from the collector of the subscription on the large amount of his donation, Mr Cheeryble led Nicholas, equally astonished and affected by what he had seen and heard in this short space, to the half-opened door of another room.
'Brother Ned,' said Mr Cheeryble, tapping with his knuckles, and stooping to listen, 'are you busy, my dear brother, or can you spare time for a word or two with me?'
'Brother Charles, my dear fellow,' replied a voice from the inside, so like in its tones to that which had just spoken, that Nicholas started, and almost thought it was the same, 'don't ask me such a question, but come in directly.'
They went in, without further parley. What was the amazement of Nicholas when his conductor advanced, and exchanged a warm greeting with another old gentleman, the very type and model of himself—the same face, the same figure, the same coat, waistcoat, and neckcloth, the same breeches and gaiters—nay, there was the very same white hat hanging against the wall!
As they shook each other by the hand: the face of each lighted up by beaming looks of affection, which would have been most delightful to behold in infants, and which, in men so old, was inexpressibly touching: Nicholas could observe that the last old gentleman was something stouter than his brother; this, and a slight additional shade of clumsiness in his gait and stature, formed the only perceptible difference between them. Nobody could have doubted their being twin brothers.
'Brother Ned,' said Nicholas's friend, closing the room-door, 'here is a young friend of mine whom we must assist. We must make proper inquiries into his statements, in justice to him as well as to ourselves, and if they are confirmed—as I feel assured they will be—we must assist him, we must assist him, brother Ned.'
'It is enough, my dear brother, that you say we should,' returned the other. 'When you say that, no further inquiries are needed. He SHALL be assisted. What are his necessities, and what does he require? Where is Tim Linkinwater? Let us have him here.'
Both the brothers, it may be here remarked, had a very emphatic and earnest delivery; both had lost nearly the same teeth, which imparted the same peculiarity to their speech; and both spoke as if, besides possessing the utmost serenity of mind that the kindliest and most unsuspecting nature could bestow, they had, in collecting the plums from Fortune's choicest pudding, retained a few for present use, and kept them in their mouths.
'Where is Tim Linkinwater?' said brother Ned.
'Stop, stop, stop!' said brother Charles, taking the other aside. 'I've a plan, my dear brother, I've a plan. Tim is getting old, and Tim has been a faithful servant, brother Ned; and I don't think pensioning Tim's mother and sister, and buying a little tomb for the family when his poor brother died, was a sufficient recompense for his faithful services.'
'No, no, no,' replied the other. 'Certainly not. Not half enough, not half.'
'If we could lighten Tim's duties,' said the old gentleman, 'and prevail upon him to go into the country, now and then, and sleep in the fresh air, besides, two or three times a week (which he could, if he began business an hour later in the morning), old Tim Linkinwater would grow young again in time; and he's three good years our senior now. Old Tim Linkinwater young again! Eh, brother Ned, eh? Why, I recollect old Tim Linkinwater quite a little boy, don't you? Ha, ha, ha! Poor Tim, poor Tim!'
And the fine old fellows laughed pleasantly together: each with a tear of regard for old Tim Linkinwater standing in his eye.
'But hear this first—hear this first, brother Ned,' said the old man, hastily, placing two chairs, one on each side of Nicholas: 'I'll tell it you myself, brother Ned, because the young gentleman is modest, and is a scholar, Ned, and I shouldn't feel it right that he should tell us his story over and over again as if he was a beggar, or as if we doubted him. No, no no.'
'No, no, no,' returned the other, nodding his head gravely. 'Very right, my dear brother, very right.'
'He will tell me I'm wrong, if I make a mistake,' said Nicholas's friend. 'But whether I do or not, you'll be very much affected, brother Ned, remembering the time when we were two friendless lads, and earned our first shilling in this great city.'
The twins pressed each other's hands in silence; and in his own homely manner, brother Charles related the particulars he had heard from Nicholas. The conversation which ensued was a long one, and when it was over, a secret conference of almost equal duration took place between brother Ned and Tim Linkinwater in another room. It is no disparagement to Nicholas to say, that before he had been closeted with the two brothers ten minutes, he could only wave his hand at every fresh expression of kindness and sympathy, and sob like a little child.
At length brother Ned and Tim Linkinwater came back together, when Tim instantly walked up to Nicholas and whispered in his ear in a very brief sentence (for Tim was ordinarily a man of few words), that he had taken down the address in the Strand, and would call upon him that evening, at eight. Having done which, Tim wiped his spectacles and put them on, preparatory to hearing what more the brothers Cheeryble had got to say.
'Tim,' said brother Charles, 'you understand that we have an intention of taking this young gentleman into the counting-house?'
Brother Ned remarked that Tim was aware of that intention, and quite approved of it; and Tim having nodded, and said he did, drew himself up and looked particularly fat, and very important. After which, there was a profound silence.
'I'm not coming an hour later in the morning, you know,' said Tim, breaking out all at once, and looking very resolute. 'I'm not going to sleep in the fresh air; no, nor I'm not going into the country either. A pretty thing at this time of day, certainly. Pho!'
'Damn your obstinacy, Tim Linkinwater,' said brother Charles, looking at him without the faintest spark of anger, and with a countenance radiant with attachment to the old clerk. 'Damn your obstinacy, Tim Linkinwater, what do you mean, sir?'
'It's forty-four year,' said Tim, making a calculation in the air with his pen, and drawing an imaginary line before he cast it up, 'forty-four year, next May, since I first kept the books of Cheeryble, Brothers. I've opened the safe every morning all that time (Sundays excepted) as the clock struck nine, and gone over the house every night at half-past ten (except on Foreign Post nights, and then twenty minutes before twelve) to see the doors fastened, and the fires out. I've never slept out of the back-attic one single night. There's the same mignonette box in the middle of the window, and the same four flower-pots, two on each side, that I brought with me when I first came. There an't—I've said it again and again, and I'll maintain it—there an't such a square as this in the world. I KNOW there an't,' said Tim, with sudden energy, and looking sternly about him. 'Not one. For business or pleasure, in summer-time or winter—I don't care which—there's nothing like it. There's not such a spring in England as the pump under the archway. There's not such a view in England as the view out of my window; I've seen it every morning before I shaved, and I ought to know something about it. I have slept in that room,' added Tim, sinking his voice a little, 'for four-and-forty year; and if it wasn't inconvenient, and didn't interfere with business, I should request leave to die there.'
'Damn you, Tim Linkinwater, how dare you talk about dying?' roared the twins by one impulse, and blowing their old noses violently.
'That's what I've got to say, Mr Edwin and Mr Charles,' said Tim, squaring his shoulders again. 'This isn't the first time you've talked about superannuating me; but, if you please, we'll make it the last, and drop the subject for evermore.'
With these words, Tim Linkinwater stalked out, and shut himself up in his glass case, with the air of a man who had had his say, and was thoroughly resolved not to be put down.
The brothers interchanged looks, and coughed some half-dozen times without speaking.
'He must be done something with, brother Ned,' said the other, warmly; 'we must disregard his old scruples; they can't be tolerated, or borne. He must be made a partner, brother Ned; and if he won't submit to it peaceably, we must have recourse to violence.'
'Quite right,' replied brother Ned, nodding his head as a man thoroughly determined; 'quite right, my dear brother. If he won't listen to reason, we must do it against his will, and show him that we are determined to exert our authority. We must quarrel with him, brother Charles.'
'We must. We certainly must have a quarrel with Tim Linkinwater,' said the other. 'But in the meantime, my dear brother, we are keeping our young friend; and the poor lady and her daughter will be anxious for his return. So let us say goodbye for the present, and—there, there—take care of that box, my dear sir—and—no, no, not a word now; but be careful of the crossings and—'
And with any disjointed and unconnected words which would prevent Nicholas from pouring forth his thanks, the brothers hurried him out: shaking hands with him all the way, and affecting very unsuccessfully—they were poor hands at deception!—to be wholly unconscious of the feelings that completely mastered him.
Nicholas's heart was too full to allow of his turning into the street until he had recovered some composure. When he at last glided out of the dark doorway corner in which he had been compelled to halt, he caught a glimpse of the twins stealthily peeping in at one corner of the glass case, evidently undecided whether they should follow up their late attack without delay, or for the present postpone laying further siege to the inflexible Tim Linkinwater.
To recount all the delight and wonder which the circumstances just detailed awakened at Miss La Creevy's, and all the things that were done, said, thought, expected, hoped, and prophesied in consequence, is beside the present course and purpose of these adventures. It is sufficient to state, in brief, that Mr Timothy Linkinwater arrived, punctual to his appointment; that, oddity as he was, and jealous, as he was bound to be, of the proper exercise of his employers' most comprehensive liberality, he reported strongly and warmly in favour of Nicholas; and that, next day, he was appointed to the vacant stool in the counting-house of Cheeryble, Brothers, with a present salary of one hundred and twenty pounds a year.
'And I think, my dear brother,' said Nicholas's first friend, 'that if we were to let them that little cottage at Bow which is empty, at something under the usual rent, now? Eh, brother Ned?'
'For nothing at all,' said brother Ned. 'We are rich, and should be ashamed to touch the rent under such circumstances as these. Where is Tim Linkinwater?—for nothing at all, my dear brother, for nothing at all.'
'Perhaps it would be better to say something, brother Ned,' suggested the other, mildly; 'it would help to preserve habits of frugality, you know, and remove any painful sense of overwhelming obligations. We might say fifteen pound, or twenty pound, and if it was punctually paid, make it up to them in some other way. And I might secretly advance a small loan towards a little furniture, and you might secretly advance another small loan, brother Ned; and if we find them doing well—as we shall; there's no fear, no fear—we can change the loans into gifts. Carefully, brother Ned, and by degrees, and without pressing upon them too much; what do you say now, brother?'
Brother Ned gave his hand upon it, and not only said it should be done, but had it done too; and, in one short week, Nicholas took possession of the stool, and Mrs Nickleby and Kate took possession of the house, and all was hope, bustle, and light-heartedness.
There surely never was such a week of discoveries and surprises as the first week of that cottage. Every night when Nicholas came home, something new had been found out. One day it was a grapevine, and another day it was a boiler, and another day it was the key of the front-parlour closet at the bottom of the water-butt, and so on through a hundred items. Then, this room was embellished with a muslin curtain, and that room was rendered quite elegant by a window-blind, and such improvements were made, as no one would have supposed possible. Then there was Miss La Creevy, who had come out in the omnibus to stop a day or two and help, and who was perpetually losing a very small brown-paper parcel of tin tacks and a very large hammer, and running about with her sleeves tucked up at the wrists, and falling off pairs of steps and hurting herself very much—and Mrs Nickleby, who talked incessantly, and did something now and then, but not often—and Kate, who busied herself noiselessly everywhere, and was pleased with everything—and Smike, who made the garden a perfect wonder to look upon—and Nicholas, who helped and encouraged them every one—all the peace and cheerfulness of home restored, with such new zest imparted to every frugal pleasure, and such delight to every hour of meeting, as misfortune and separation alone could give!
In short, the poor Nicklebys were social and happy; while the rich Nickleby was alone and miserable.
Private and confidential; relating to Family Matters. Showing how Mr Kenwigs underwent violent Agitation, and how Mrs Kenwigs was as well as could be expected
It might have been seven o'clock in the evening, and it was growing dark in the narrow streets near Golden Square, when Mr Kenwigs sent out for a pair of the cheapest white kid gloves—those at fourteen-pence—and selecting the strongest, which happened to be the right-hand one, walked downstairs with an air of pomp and much excitement, and proceeded to muffle the knob of the street-door knocker therein. Having executed this task with great nicety, Mr Kenwigs pulled the door to, after him, and just stepped across the road to try the effect from the opposite side of the street. Satisfied that nothing could possibly look better in its way, Mr Kenwigs then stepped back again, and calling through the keyhole to Morleena to open the door, vanished into the house, and was seen no longer.
Now, considered as an abstract circumstance, there was no more obvious cause or reason why Mr Kenwigs should take the trouble of muffling this particular knocker, than there would have been for his muffling the knocker of any nobleman or gentleman resident ten miles off; because, for the greater convenience of the numerous lodgers, the street-door always stood wide open, and the knocker was never used at all. The first floor, the second floor, and the third floor, had each a bell of its own. As to the attics, no one ever called on them; if anybody wanted the parlours, they were close at hand, and all he had to do was to walk straight into them; while the kitchen had a separate entrance down the area steps. As a question of mere necessity and usefulness, therefore, this muffling of the knocker was thoroughly incomprehensible.
But knockers may be muffled for other purposes than those of mere utilitarianism, as, in the present instance, was clearly shown. There are certain polite forms and ceremonies which must be observed in civilised life, or mankind relapse into their original barbarism. No genteel lady was ever yet confined—indeed, no genteel confinement can possibly take place—without the accompanying symbol of a muffled knocker. Mrs Kenwigs was a lady of some pretensions to gentility; Mrs Kenwigs was confined. And, therefore, Mr Kenwigs tied up the silent knocker on the premises in a white kid glove.
'I'm not quite certain neither,' said Mr Kenwigs, arranging his shirt-collar, and walking slowly upstairs, 'whether, as it's a boy, I won't have it in the papers.'
Pondering upon the advisability of this step, and the sensation it was likely to create in the neighbourhood, Mr Kenwigs betook himself to the sitting-room, where various extremely diminutive articles of clothing were airing on a horse before the fire, and Mr Lumbey, the doctor, was dandling the baby—that is, the old baby—not the new one.
'It's a fine boy, Mr Kenwigs,' said Mr Lumbey, the doctor.
'You consider him a fine boy, do you, sir?' returned Mr Kenwigs.
'It's the finest boy I ever saw in all my life,' said the doctor. 'I never saw such a baby.'
It is a pleasant thing to reflect upon, and furnishes a complete answer to those who contend for the gradual degeneration of the human species, that every baby born into the world is a finer one than the last.
'I ne—ver saw such a baby,' said Mr Lumbey, the doctor.
'Morleena was a fine baby,' remarked Mr Kenwigs; as if this were rather an attack, by implication, upon the family.
'They were all fine babies,' said Mr Lumbey. And Mr Lumbey went on nursing the baby with a thoughtful look. Whether he was considering under what head he could best charge the nursing in the bill, was best known to himself.
During this short conversation, Miss Morleena, as the eldest of the family, and natural representative of her mother during her indisposition, had been hustling and slapping the three younger Miss Kenwigses, without intermission; which considerate and affectionate conduct brought tears into the eyes of Mr Kenwigs, and caused him to declare that, in understanding and behaviour, that child was a woman.
'She will be a treasure to the man she marries, sir,' said Mr Kenwigs, half aside; 'I think she'll marry above her station, Mr Lumbey.'
'I shouldn't wonder at all,' replied the doctor.
'You never see her dance, sir, did you?' asked Mr Kenwigs.
The doctor shook his head.
'Ay!' said Mr Kenwigs, as though he pitied him from his heart, 'then you don't know what she's capable of.'
All this time there had been a great whisking in and out of the other room; the door had been opened and shut very softly about twenty times a minute (for it was necessary to keep Mrs Kenwigs quiet); and the baby had been exhibited to a score or two of deputations from a select body of female friends, who had assembled in the passage, and about the street-door, to discuss the event in all its bearings. Indeed, the excitement extended itself over the whole street, and groups of ladies might be seen standing at the doors, (some in the interesting condition in which Mrs Kenwigs had last appeared in public,) relating their experiences of similar occurrences. Some few acquired great credit from having prophesied, the day before yesterday, exactly when it would come to pass; others, again, related, how that they guessed what it was, directly they saw Mr Kenwigs turn pale and run up the street as hard as ever he could go. Some said one thing, and some another; but all talked together, and all agreed upon two points: first, that it was very meritorious and highly praiseworthy in Mrs Kenwigs to do as she had done: and secondly, that there never was such a skilful and scientific doctor as that Dr Lumbey.
In the midst of this general hubbub, Dr Lumbey sat in the first-floor front, as before related, nursing the deposed baby, and talking to Mr Kenwigs. He was a stout bluff-looking gentleman, with no shirt-collar to speak of, and a beard that had been growing since yesterday morning; for Dr Lumbey was popular, and the neighbourhood was prolific; and there had been no less than three other knockers muffled, one after the other within the last forty-eight hours.
'Well, Mr Kenwigs,' said Dr Lumbey, 'this makes six. You'll have a fine family in time, sir.'
'I think six is almost enough, sir,' returned Mr Kenwigs.
'Pooh! pooh!' said the doctor. 'Nonsense! not half enough.'
With this, the doctor laughed; but he didn't laugh half as much as a married friend of Mrs Kenwigs's, who had just come in from the sick chamber to report progress, and take a small sip of brandy-and-water: and who seemed to consider it one of the best jokes ever launched upon society.
'They're not altogether dependent upon good fortune, neither,' said Mr Kenwigs, taking his second daughter on his knee; 'they have expectations.'
'Oh, indeed!' said Mr Lumbey, the doctor.
'And very good ones too, I believe, haven't they?' asked the married lady.
'Why, ma'am,' said Mr Kenwigs, 'it's not exactly for me to say what they may be, or what they may not be. It's not for me to boast of any family with which I have the honour to be connected; at the same time, Mrs Kenwigs's is—I should say,' said Mr Kenwigs, abruptly, and raising his voice as he spoke, 'that my children might come into a matter of a hundred pound apiece, perhaps. Perhaps more, but certainly that.'
'And a very pretty little fortune,' said the married lady.
'There are some relations of Mrs Kenwigs's,' said Mr Kenwigs, taking a pinch of snuff from the doctor's box, and then sneezing very hard, for he wasn't used to it, 'that might leave their hundred pound apiece to ten people, and yet not go begging when they had done it.'
'Ah! I know who you mean,' observed the married lady, nodding her head.
'I made mention of no names, and I wish to make mention of no names,' said Mr Kenwigs, with a portentous look. 'Many of my friends have met a relation of Mrs Kenwigs's in this very room, as would do honour to any company; that's all.'
'I've met him,' said the married lady, with a glance towards Dr Lumbey.
'It's naterally very gratifying to my feelings as a father, to see such a man as that, a kissing and taking notice of my children,' pursued Mr Kenwigs. 'It's naterally very gratifying to my feelings as a man, to know that man. It will be naterally very gratifying to my feelings as a husband, to make that man acquainted with this ewent.'
Having delivered his sentiments in this form of words, Mr Kenwigs arranged his second daughter's flaxen tail, and bade her be a good girl and mind what her sister, Morleena, said.
'That girl grows more like her mother every day,' said Mr Lumbey, suddenly stricken with an enthusiastic admiration of Morleena.
'There!' rejoined the married lady. 'What I always say; what I always did say! She's the very picter of her.' Having thus directed the general attention to the young lady in question, the married lady embraced the opportunity of taking another sip of the brandy-and-water—and a pretty long sip too.
'Yes! there is a likeness,' said Mr Kenwigs, after some reflection. 'But such a woman as Mrs Kenwigs was, afore she was married! Good gracious, such a woman!'
Mr Lumbey shook his head with great solemnity, as though to imply that he supposed she must have been rather a dazzler.
'Talk of fairies!' cried Mr Kenwigs 'I never see anybody so light to be alive, never. Such manners too; so playful, and yet so sewerely proper! As for her figure! It isn't generally known,' said Mr Kenwigs, dropping his voice; 'but her figure was such, at that time, that the sign of the Britannia, over in the Holloway Road, was painted from it!'
'But only see what it is now,' urged the married lady. 'Does SHE look like the mother of six?'
'Quite ridiculous,' cried the doctor.
'She looks a deal more like her own daughter,' said the married lady.
'So she does,' assented Mr Lumbey. 'A great deal more.'
Mr Kenwigs was about to make some further observations, most probably in confirmation of this opinion, when another married lady, who had looked in to keep up Mrs Kenwigs's spirits, and help to clear off anything in the eating and drinking way that might be going about, put in her head to announce that she had just been down to answer the bell, and that there was a gentleman at the door who wanted to see Mr Kenwigs 'most particular.'
Shadowy visions of his distinguished relation flitted through the brain of Mr Kenwigs, as this message was delivered; and under their influence, he dispatched Morleena to show the gentleman up straightway.
'Why, I do declare,' said Mr Kenwigs, standing opposite the door so as to get the earliest glimpse of the visitor, as he came upstairs, 'it's Mr Johnson! How do you find yourself, sir?'
Nicholas shook hands, kissed his old pupils all round, intrusted a large parcel of toys to the guardianship of Morleena, bowed to the doctor and the married ladies, and inquired after Mrs Kenwigs in a tone of interest, which went to the very heart and soul of the nurse, who had come in to warm some mysterious compound, in a little saucepan over the fire.
'I ought to make a hundred apologies to you for calling at such a season,' said Nicholas, 'but I was not aware of it until I had rung the bell, and my time is so fully occupied now, that I feared it might be some days before I could possibly come again.'
'No time like the present, sir,' said Mr Kenwigs. 'The sitiwation of Mrs Kenwigs, sir, is no obstacle to a little conversation between you and me, I hope?'
'You are very good,' said Nicholas.
At this juncture, proclamation was made by another married lady, that the baby had begun to eat like anything; whereupon the two married ladies, already mentioned, rushed tumultuously into the bedroom to behold him in the act.
'The fact is,' resumed Nicholas, 'that before I left the country, where I have been for some time past, I undertook to deliver a message to you.'
'Ay, ay?' said Mr Kenwigs.
'And I have been,' added Nicholas, 'already in town for some days, without having had an opportunity of doing so.'
'It's no matter, sir,' said Mr Kenwigs. 'I dare say it's none the worse for keeping cold. Message from the country!' said Mr Kenwigs, ruminating; 'that's curious. I don't know anybody in the country.'
'Miss Petowker,' suggested Nicholas.
'Oh! from her, is it?' said Mr Kenwigs. 'Oh dear, yes. Ah! Mrs Kenwigs will be glad to hear from her. Henrietta Petowker, eh? How odd things come about, now! That you should have met her in the country! Well!'
Hearing this mention of their old friend's name, the four Miss Kenwigses gathered round Nicholas, open eyed and mouthed, to hear more. Mr Kenwigs looked a little curious too, but quite comfortable and unsuspecting.
'The message relates to family matters,' said Nicholas, hesitating.
'Oh, never mind,' said Kenwigs, glancing at Mr Lumbey, who, having rashly taken charge of little Lillyvick, found nobody disposed to relieve him of his precious burden. 'All friends here.'
Nicholas hemmed once or twice, and seemed to have some difficulty in proceeding.
'At Portsmouth, Henrietta Petowker is,' observed Mr Kenwigs.
'Yes,' said Nicholas, 'Mr Lillyvick is there.'
Mr Kenwigs turned pale, but he recovered, and said, THAT was an odd coincidence also.
'The message is from him,' said Nicholas.
Mr Kenwigs appeared to revive. He knew that his niece was in a delicate state, and had, no doubt, sent word that they were to forward full particulars. Yes. That was very kind of him; so like him too!
'He desired me to give his kindest love,' said Nicholas.
'Very much obliged to him, I'm sure. Your great-uncle, Lillyvick, my dears!' interposed Mr Kenwigs, condescendingly explaining it to the children.
'His kindest love,' resumed Nicholas; 'and to say that he had no time to write, but that he was married to Miss Petowker.'
Mr Kenwigs started from his seat with a petrified stare, caught his second daughter by her flaxen tail, and covered his face with his pocket-handkerchief. Morleena fell, all stiff and rigid, into the baby's chair, as she had seen her mother fall when she fainted away, and the two remaining little Kenwigses shrieked in affright.
'My children, my defrauded, swindled infants!' cried Mr Kenwigs, pulling so hard, in his vehemence, at the flaxen tail of his second daughter, that he lifted her up on tiptoe, and kept her, for some seconds, in that attitude. 'Villain, ass, traitor!'
'Drat the man!' cried the nurse, looking angrily around. 'What does he mean by making that noise here?'
'Silence, woman!' said Mr Kenwigs, fiercely.
'I won't be silent,' returned the nurse. 'Be silent yourself, you wretch. Have you no regard for your baby?'
'No!' returned Mr Kenwigs.
'More shame for you,' retorted the nurse. 'Ugh! you unnatural monster.'
'Let him die,' cried Mr Kenwigs, in the torrent of his wrath. 'Let him die! He has no expectations, no property to come into. We want no babies here,' said Mr Kenwigs recklessly. 'Take 'em away, take 'em away to the Fondling!'
With these awful remarks, Mr Kenwigs sat himself down in a chair, and defied the nurse, who made the best of her way into the adjoining room, and returned with a stream of matrons: declaring that Mr Kenwigs had spoken blasphemy against his family, and must be raving mad.
Appearances were certainly not in Mr Kenwigs's favour, for the exertion of speaking with so much vehemence, and yet in such a tone as should prevent his lamentations reaching the ears of Mrs Kenwigs, had made him very black in the face; besides which, the excitement of the occasion, and an unwonted indulgence in various strong cordials to celebrate it, had swollen and dilated his features to a most unusual extent. But, Nicholas and the doctor—who had been passive at first, doubting very much whether Mr Kenwigs could be in earnest—interfering to explain the immediate cause of his condition, the indignation of the matrons was changed to pity, and they implored him, with much feeling, to go quietly to bed.
'The attention,' said Mr Kenwigs, looking around with a plaintive air, 'the attention that I've shown to that man! The hyseters he has eat, and the pints of ale he has drank, in this house—!'
'It's very trying, and very hard to bear, we know,' said one of the married ladies; 'but think of your dear darling wife.'
'Oh yes, and what she's been a undergoing of, only this day,' cried a great many voices. 'There's a good man, do.'
'The presents that have been made to him,' said Mr Kenwigs, reverting to his calamity, 'the pipes, the snuff-boxes—a pair of india-rubber goloshes, that cost six-and-six—'
'Ah! it won't bear thinking of, indeed,' cried the matrons generally; 'but it'll all come home to him, never fear.'
Mr Kenwigs looked darkly upon the ladies, as if he would prefer its all coming home to HIM, as there was nothing to be got by it; but he said nothing, and resting his head upon his hand, subsided into a kind of doze.
Then, the matrons again expatiated on the expediency of taking the good gentleman to bed; observing that he would be better tomorrow, and that they knew what was the wear and tear of some men's minds when their wives were taken as Mrs Kenwigs had been that day, and that it did him great credit, and there was nothing to be ashamed of in it; far from it; they liked to see it, they did, for it showed a good heart. And one lady observed, as a case bearing upon the present, that her husband was often quite light-headed from anxiety on similar occasions, and that once, when her little Johnny was born, it was nearly a week before he came to himself again, during the whole of which time he did nothing but cry 'Is it a boy, is it a boy?' in a manner which went to the hearts of all his hearers.
At length, Morleena (who quite forgot she had fainted, when she found she was not noticed) announced that a chamber was ready for her afflicted parent; and Mr Kenwigs, having partially smothered his four daughters in the closeness of his embrace, accepted the doctor's arm on one side, and the support of Nicholas on the other, and was conducted upstairs to a bedroom which been secured for the occasion.
Having seen him sound asleep, and heard him snore most satisfactorily, and having further presided over the distribution of the toys, to the perfect contentment of all the little Kenwigses, Nicholas took his leave. The matrons dropped off one by one, with the exception of six or eight particular friends, who had determined to stop all night; the lights in the houses gradually disappeared; the last bulletin was issued that Mrs Kenwigs was as well as could be expected; and the whole family were left to their repose.
Nicholas finds further Favour in the Eyes of the brothers Cheeryble and Mr Timothy Linkinwater. The brothers give a Banquet on a great Annual Occasion. Nicholas, on returning Home from it, receives a mysterious and important Disclosure from the Lips of Mrs Nickleby
The square in which the counting-house of the brothers Cheeryble was situated, although it might not wholly realise the very sanguine expectations which a stranger would be disposed to form on hearing the fervent encomiums bestowed upon it by Tim Linkinwater, was, nevertheless, a sufficiently desirable nook in the heart of a busy town like London, and one which occupied a high place in the affectionate remembrances of several grave persons domiciled in the neighbourhood, whose recollections, however, dated from a much more recent period, and whose attachment to the spot was far less absorbing, than were the recollections and attachment of the enthusiastic Tim.
And let not those whose eyes have been accustomed to the aristocratic gravity of Grosvenor Square and Hanover Square, the dowager barrenness and frigidity of Fitzroy Square, or the gravel walks and garden seats of the Squares of Russell and Euston, suppose that the affections of Tim Linkinwater, or the inferior lovers of this particular locality, had been awakened and kept alive by any refreshing associations with leaves, however dingy, or grass, however bare and thin. The city square has no enclosure, save the lamp-post in the middle: and no grass, but the weeds which spring up round its base. It is a quiet, little-frequented, retired spot, favourable to melancholy and contemplation, and appointments of long-waiting; and up and down its every side the Appointed saunters idly by the hour together wakening the echoes with the monotonous sound of his footsteps on the smooth worn stones, and counting, first the windows, and then the very bricks of the tall silent houses that hem him round about. In winter-time, the snow will linger there, long after it has melted from the busy streets and highways. The summer's sun holds it in some respect, and while he darts his cheerful rays sparingly into the square, keeps his fiery heat and glare for noisier and less-imposing precincts. It is so quiet, that you can almost hear the ticking of your own watch when you stop to cool in its refreshing atmosphere. There is a distant hum—of coaches, not of insects—but no other sound disturbs the stillness of the square. The ticket porter leans idly against the post at the corner: comfortably warm, but not hot, although the day is broiling. His white apron flaps languidly in the air, his head gradually droops upon his breast, he takes very long winks with both eyes at once; even he is unable to withstand the soporific influence of the place, and is gradually falling asleep. But now, he starts into full wakefulness, recoils a step or two, and gazes out before him with eager wildness in his eye. Is it a job, or a boy at marbles? Does he see a ghost, or hear an organ? No; sight more unwonted still—there is a butterfly in the square—a real, live butterfly! astray from flowers and sweets, and fluttering among the iron heads of the dusty area railings.
But if there were not many matters immediately without the doors of Cheeryble Brothers, to engage the attention or distract the thoughts of the young clerk, there were not a few within, to interest and amuse him. There was scarcely an object in the place, animate or inanimate, which did not partake in some degree of the scrupulous method and punctuality of Mr Timothy Linkinwater. Punctual as the counting-house dial, which he maintained to be the best time-keeper in London next after the clock of some old, hidden, unknown church hard by, (for Tim held the fabled goodness of that at the Horse Guards to be a pleasant fiction, invented by jealous West-enders,) the old clerk performed the minutest actions of the day, and arranged the minutest articles in the little room, in a precise and regular order, which could not have been exceeded if it had actually been a real glass case, fitted with the choicest curiosities. Paper, pens, ink, ruler, sealing-wax, wafers, pounce-box, string-box, fire-box, Tim's hat, Tim's scrupulously-folded gloves, Tim's other coat—looking precisely like a back view of himself as it hung against the wall—all had their accustomed inches of space. Except the clock, there was not such an accurate and unimpeachable instrument in existence as the little thermometer which hung behind the door. There was not a bird of such methodical and business-like habits in all the world, as the blind blackbird, who dreamed and dozed away his days in a large snug cage, and had lost his voice, from old age, years before Tim first bought him. There was not such an eventful story in the whole range of anecdote, as Tim could tell concerning the acquisition of that very bird; how, compassionating his starved and suffering condition, he had purchased him, with the view of humanely terminating his wretched life; how he determined to wait three days and see whether the bird revived; how, before half the time was out, the bird did revive; and how he went on reviving and picking up his appetite and good looks until he gradually became what—'what you see him now, sir,'—Tim would say, glancing proudly at the cage. And with that, Tim would utter a melodious chirrup, and cry 'Dick;' and Dick, who, for any sign of life he had previously given, might have been a wooden or stuffed representation of a blackbird indifferently executed, would come to the side of the cage in three small jumps, and, thrusting his bill between the bars, turn his sightless head towards his old master—and at that moment it would be very difficult to determine which of the two was the happier, the bird or Tim Linkinwater.
Nor was this all. Everything gave back, besides, some reflection of the kindly spirit of the brothers. The warehousemen and porters were such sturdy, jolly fellows, that it was a treat to see them. Among the shipping announcements and steam-packet list's which decorated the counting-house wall, were designs for almshouses, statements of charities, and plans for new hospitals. A blunderbuss and two swords hung above the chimney-piece, for the terror of evil-doers, but the blunderbuss was rusty and shattered, and the swords were broken and edgeless. Elsewhere, their open display in such a condition would have realised a smile; but, there, it seemed as though even violent and offensive weapons partook of the reigning influence, and became emblems of mercy and forbearance.
Such thoughts as these occurred to Nicholas very strongly, on the morning when he first took possession of the vacant stool, and looked about him, more freely and at ease, than he had before enjoyed an opportunity of doing. Perhaps they encouraged and stimulated him to exertion, for, during the next two weeks, all his spare hours, late at night and early in the morning, were incessantly devoted to acquiring the mysteries of book-keeping and some other forms of mercantile account. To these, he applied himself with such steadiness and perseverance that, although he brought no greater amount of previous knowledge to the subject than certain dim recollections of two or three very long sums entered into a ciphering-book at school, and relieved for parental inspection by the effigy of a fat swan tastefully flourished by the writing-master's own hand, he found himself, at the end of a fortnight, in a condition to report his proficiency to Mr Linkinwater, and to claim his promise that he, Nicholas Nickleby, should now be allowed to assist him in his graver labours.
It was a sight to behold Tim Linkinwater slowly bring out a massive ledger and day-book, and, after turning them over and over, and affectionately dusting their backs and sides, open the leaves here and there, and cast his eyes, half mournfully, half proudly, upon the fair and unblotted entries.
'Four-and-forty year, next May!' said Tim. 'Many new ledgers since then. Four-and-forty year!'
Tim closed the book again.
'Come, come,' said Nicholas, 'I am all impatience to begin.'
Tim Linkinwater shook his head with an air of mild reproof. Mr Nickleby was not sufficiently impressed with the deep and awful nature of his undertaking. Suppose there should be any mistake—any scratching out!
Young men are adventurous. It is extraordinary what they will rush upon, sometimes. Without even taking the precaution of sitting himself down upon his stool, but standing leisurely at the desk, and with a smile upon his face—actually a smile—there was no mistake about it; Mr Linkinwater often mentioned it afterwards—Nicholas dipped his pen into the inkstand before him, and plunged into the books of Cheeryble Brothers!
Tim Linkinwater turned pale, and tilting up his stool on the two legs nearest Nicholas, looked over his shoulder in breathless anxiety. Brother Charles and brother Ned entered the counting-house together; but Tim Linkinwater, without looking round, impatiently waved his hand as a caution that profound silence must be observed, and followed the nib of the inexperienced pen with strained and eager eyes.
The brothers looked on with smiling faces, but Tim Linkinwater smiled not, nor moved for some minutes. At length, he drew a long slow breath, and still maintaining his position on the tilted stool, glanced at brother Charles, secretly pointed with the feather of his pen towards Nicholas, and nodded his head in a grave and resolute manner, plainly signifying 'He'll do.'
Brother Charles nodded again, and exchanged a laughing look with brother Ned; but, just then, Nicholas stopped to refer to some other page, and Tim Linkinwater, unable to contain his satisfaction any longer, descended from his stool, and caught him rapturously by the hand.
'He has done it!' said Tim, looking round at his employers and shaking his head triumphantly. 'His capital B's and D's are exactly like mine; he dots all his small i's and crosses every t as he writes it. There an't such a young man as this in all London,' said Tim, clapping Nicholas on the back; 'not one. Don't tell me! The city can't produce his equal. I challenge the city to do it!'
With this casting down of his gauntlet, Tim Linkinwater struck the desk such a blow with his clenched fist, that the old blackbird tumbled off his perch with the start it gave him, and actually uttered a feeble croak, in the extremity of his astonishment.
'Well said, Tim—well said, Tim Linkinwater!' cried brother Charles, scarcely less pleased than Tim himself, and clapping his hands gently as he spoke. 'I knew our young friend would take great pains, and I was quite certain he would succeed, in no time. Didn't I say so, brother Ned?'
'You did, my dear brother; certainly, my dear brother, you said so, and you were quite right,' replied Ned. 'Quite right. Tim Linkinwater is excited, but he is justly excited, properly excited. Tim is a fine fellow. Tim Linkinwater, sir—you're a fine fellow.'
'Here's a pleasant thing to think of!' said Tim, wholly regardless of this address to himself, and raising his spectacles from the ledger to the brothers. 'Here's a pleasant thing. Do you suppose I haven't often thought of what would become of these books when I was gone? Do you suppose I haven't often thought that things might go on irregular and untidy here, after I was taken away? But now,' said Tim, extending his forefinger towards Nicholas, 'now, when I've shown him a little more, I'm satisfied. The business will go on, when I'm dead, as well as it did when I was alive—just the same—and I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that there never were such books—never were such books! No, nor never will be such books—as the books of Cheeryble Brothers.'
Having thus expressed his sentiments, Mr Linkinwater gave vent to a short laugh, indicative of defiance to the cities of London and Westminster, and, turning again to his desk, quietly carried seventy-six from the last column he had added up, and went on with his work.
'Tim Linkinwater, sir,' said brother Charles; 'give me your hand, sir. This is your birthday. How dare you talk about anything else till you have been wished many happy returns of the day, Tim Linkinwater? God bless you, Tim! God bless you!'
'My dear brother,' said the other, seizing Tim's disengaged fist, 'Tim Linkinwater looks ten years younger than he did on his last birthday.'
'Brother Ned, my dear boy,' returned the other old fellow, 'I believe that Tim Linkinwater was born a hundred and fifty years old, and is gradually coming down to five-and-twenty; for he's younger every birthday than he was the year before.'
'So he is, brother Charles, so he is,' replied brother Ned. 'There's not a doubt about it.'
'Remember, Tim,' said brother Charles, 'that we dine at half-past five today instead of two o'clock; we always depart from our usual custom on this anniversary, as you very well know, Tim Linkinwater. Mr Nickleby, my dear sir, you will make one. Tim Linkinwater, give me your snuff-box as a remembrance to brother Charles and myself of an attached and faithful rascal, and take that, in exchange, as a feeble mark of our respect and esteem, and don't open it until you go to bed, and never say another word upon the subject, or I'll kill the blackbird. A dog! He should have had a golden cage half-a-dozen years ago, if it would have made him or his master a bit the happier. Now, brother Ned, my dear fellow, I'm ready. At half-past five, remember, Mr Nickleby! Tim Linkinwater, sir, take care of Mr Nickleby at half-past five. Now, brother Ned.'
Chattering away thus, according to custom, to prevent the possibility of any thanks or acknowledgment being expressed on the other side, the twins trotted off, arm-in-arm; having endowed Tim Linkinwater with a costly gold snuff-box, enclosing a bank note worth more than its value ten times told.
At a quarter past five o'clock, punctual to the minute, arrived, according to annual usage, Tim Linkinwater's sister; and a great to-do there was, between Tim Linkinwater's sister and the old housekeeper, respecting Tim Linkinwater's sister's cap, which had been dispatched, per boy, from the house of the family where Tim Linkinwater's sister boarded, and had not yet come to hand: notwithstanding that it had been packed up in a bandbox, and the bandbox in a handkerchief, and the handkerchief tied on to the boy's arm; and notwithstanding, too, that the place of its consignment had been duly set forth, at full length, on the back of an old letter, and the boy enjoined, under pain of divers horrible penalties, the full extent of which the eye of man could not foresee, to deliver the same with all possible speed, and not to loiter by the way. Tim Linkinwater's sister lamented; the housekeeper condoled; and both kept thrusting their heads out of the second-floor window to see if the boy was 'coming'—which would have been highly satisfactory, and, upon the whole, tantamount to his being come, as the distance to the corner was not quite five yards—when, all of a sudden, and when he was least expected, the messenger, carrying the bandbox with elaborate caution, appeared in an exactly opposite direction, puffing and panting for breath, and flushed with recent exercise; as well he might be; for he had taken the air, in the first instance, behind a hackney coach that went to Camberwell, and had followed two Punches afterwards and had seen the Stilts home to their own door. The cap was all safe, however—that was one comfort—and it was no use scolding him—that was another; so the boy went upon his way rejoicing, and Tim Linkinwater's sister presented herself to the company below-stairs, just five minutes after the half-hour had struck by Tim Linkinwater's own infallible clock.
The company consisted of the brothers Cheeryble, Tim Linkinwater, a ruddy-faced white-headed friend of Tim's (who was a superannuated bank clerk), and Nicholas, who was presented to Tim Linkinwater's sister with much gravity and solemnity. The party being now completed, brother Ned rang for dinner, and, dinner being shortly afterwards announced, led Tim Linkinwater's sister into the next room, where it was set forth with great preparation. Then, brother Ned took the head of the table, and brother Charles the foot; and Tim Linkinwater's sister sat on the left hand of brother Ned, and Tim Linkinwater himself on his right: and an ancient butler of apoplectic appearance, and with very short legs, took up his position at the back of brother Ned's armchair, and, waving his right arm preparatory to taking off the covers with a flourish, stood bolt upright and motionless.
'For these and all other blessings, brother Charles,' said Ned.
'Lord, make us truly thankful, brother Ned,' said Charles.
Whereupon the apoplectic butler whisked off the top of the soup tureen, and shot, all at once, into a state of violent activity.
There was abundance of conversation, and little fear of its ever flagging, for the good-humour of the glorious old twins drew everybody out, and Tim Linkinwater's sister went off into a long and circumstantial account of Tim Linkinwater's infancy, immediately after the very first glass of champagne—taking care to premise that she was very much Tim's junior, and had only become acquainted with the facts from their being preserved and handed down in the family. This history concluded, brother Ned related how that, exactly thirty-five years ago, Tim Linkinwater was suspected to have received a love-letter, and how that vague information had been brought to the counting-house of his having been seen walking down Cheapside with an uncommonly handsome spinster; at which there was a roar of laughter, and Tim Linkinwater being charged with blushing, and called upon to explain, denied that the accusation was true; and further, that there would have been any harm in it if it had been; which last position occasioned the superannuated bank clerk to laugh tremendously, and to declare that it was the very best thing he had ever heard in his life, and that Tim Linkinwater might say a great many things before he said anything which would beat THAT.
There was one little ceremony peculiar to the day, both the matter and manner of which made a very strong impression upon Nicholas. The cloth having been removed and the decanters sent round for the first time, a profound silence succeeded, and in the cheerful faces of the brothers there appeared an expression, not of absolute melancholy, but of quiet thoughtfulness very unusual at a festive table. As Nicholas, struck by this sudden alteration, was wondering what it could portend, the brothers rose together, and the one at the top of the table leaning forward towards the other, and speaking in a low voice as if he were addressing him individually, said:
'Brother Charles, my dear fellow, there is another association connected with this day which must never be forgotten, and never can be forgotten, by you and me. This day, which brought into the world a most faithful and excellent and exemplary fellow, took from it the kindest and very best of parents, the very best of parents to us both. I wish that she could have seen us in our prosperity, and shared it, and had the happiness of knowing how dearly we loved her in it, as we did when we were two poor boys; but that was not to be. My dear brother—The Memory of our Mother.'
'Good Lord!' thought Nicholas, 'and there are scores of people of their own station, knowing all this, and twenty thousand times more, who wouldn't ask these men to dinner because they eat with their knives and never went to school!'
But there was no time to moralise, for the joviality again became very brisk, and the decanter of port being nearly out, brother Ned pulled the bell, which was instantly answered by the apoplectic butler.
'David,' said brother Ned.
'Sir,' replied the butler.
'A magnum of the double-diamond, David, to drink the health of Mr Linkinwater.'
Instantly, by a feat of dexterity, which was the admiration of all the company, and had been, annually, for some years past, the apoplectic butler, bringing his left hand from behind the small of his back, produced the bottle with the corkscrew already inserted; uncorked it at a jerk; and placed the magnum and the cork before his master with the dignity of conscious cleverness.
'Ha!' said brother Ned, first examining the cork and afterwards filling his glass, while the old butler looked complacently and amiably on, as if it were all his own property, but the company were quite welcome to make free with it, 'this looks well, David.'
'It ought to, sir,' replied David. 'You'd be troubled to find such a glass of wine as is our double-diamond, and that Mr Linkinwater knows very well. That was laid down when Mr Linkinwater first come: that wine was, gentlemen.'
'Nay, David, nay,' interposed brother Charles.
'I wrote the entry in the cellar-book myself, sir, if you please,' said David, in the tone of a man, quite confident in the strength of his facts. 'Mr Linkinwater had only been here twenty year, sir, when that pipe of double-diamond was laid down.'
'David is quite right, quite right, brother Charles,' said Ned: 'are the people here, David?'
'Outside the door, sir,' replied the butler.
'Show 'em in, David, show 'em in.'
At this bidding, the older butler placed before his master a small tray of clean glasses, and opening the door admitted the jolly porters and warehousemen whom Nicholas had seen below. They were four in all, and as they came in, bowing, and grinning, and blushing, the housekeeper, and cook, and housemaid, brought up the rear.
'Seven,' said brother Ned, filling a corresponding number of glasses with the double-diamond, 'and David, eight. There! Now, you're all of you to drink the health of your best friend Mr Timothy Linkinwater, and wish him health and long life and many happy returns of this day, both for his own sake and that of your old masters, who consider him an inestimable treasure. Tim Linkinwater, sir, your health. Devil take you, Tim Linkinwater, sir, God bless you.'
With this singular contradiction of terms, brother Ned gave Tim Linkinwater a slap on the back, which made him look, for the moment, almost as apoplectic as the butler: and tossed off the contents of his glass in a twinkling.
The toast was scarcely drunk with all honour to Tim Linkinwater, when the sturdiest and jolliest subordinate elbowed himself a little in advance of his fellows, and exhibiting a very hot and flushed countenance, pulled a single lock of grey hair in the middle of his forehead as a respectful salute to the company, and delivered himself as follows—rubbing the palms of his hands very hard on a blue cotton handkerchief as he did so:
'We're allowed to take a liberty once a year, gen'lemen, and if you please we'll take it now; there being no time like the present, and no two birds in the hand worth one in the bush, as is well known—leastways in a contrairy sense, which the meaning is the same. (A pause—the butler unconvinced.) What we mean to say is, that there never was (looking at the butler)—such—(looking at the cook) noble—excellent—(looking everywhere and seeing nobody) free, generous-spirited masters as them as has treated us so handsome this day. And here's thanking of 'em for all their goodness as is so constancy a diffusing of itself over everywhere, and wishing they may live long and die happy!'
When the foregoing speech was over—and it might have been much more elegant and much less to the purpose—the whole body of subordinates under command of the apoplectic butler gave three soft cheers; which, to that gentleman's great indignation, were not very regular, inasmuch as the women persisted in giving an immense number of little shrill hurrahs among themselves, in utter disregard of the time. This done, they withdrew; shortly afterwards, Tim Linkinwater's sister withdrew; in reasonable time after that, the sitting was broken up for tea and coffee, and a round game of cards.
At half-past ten—late hours for the square—there appeared a little tray of sandwiches and a bowl of bishop, which bishop coming on the top of the double-diamond, and other excitements, had such an effect upon Tim Linkinwater, that he drew Nicholas aside, and gave him to understand, confidentially, that it was quite true about the uncommonly handsome spinster, and that she was to the full as good-looking as she had been described—more so, indeed—but that she was in too much of a hurry to change her condition, and consequently, while Tim was courting her and thinking of changing his, got married to somebody else. 'After all, I dare say it was my fault,' said Tim. 'I'll show you a print I have got upstairs, one of these days. It cost me five-and-twenty shillings. I bought it soon after we were cool to each other. Don't mention it, but it's the most extraordinary accidental likeness you ever saw—her very portrait, sir!'
By this time it was past eleven o'clock; and Tim Linkinwater's sister declaring that she ought to have been at home a full hour ago, a coach was procured, into which she was handed with great ceremony by brother Ned, while brother Charles imparted the fullest directions to the coachman, and besides paying the man a shilling over and above his fare, in order that he might take the utmost care of the lady, all but choked him with a glass of spirits of uncommon strength, and then nearly knocked all the breath out of his body in his energetic endeavours to knock it in again.
At length the coach rumbled off, and Tim Linkinwater's sister being now fairly on her way home, Nicholas and Tim Linkinwater's friend took their leaves together, and left old Tim and the worthy brothers to their repose.
As Nicholas had some distance to walk, it was considerably past midnight by the time he reached home, where he found his mother and Smike sitting up to receive him. It was long after their usual hour of retiring, and they had expected him, at the very latest, two hours ago; but the time had not hung heavily on their hands, for Mrs Nickleby had entertained Smike with a genealogical account of her family by the mother's side, comprising biographical sketches of the principal members, and Smike had sat wondering what it was all about, and whether it was learnt from a book, or said out of Mrs Nickleby's own head; so that they got on together very pleasantly.
Nicholas could not go to bed without expatiating on the excellences and munificence of the brothers Cheeryble, and relating the great success which had attended his efforts that day. But before he had said a dozen words, Mrs Nickleby, with many sly winks and nods, observed, that she was sure Mr Smike must be quite tired out, and that she positively must insist on his not sitting up a minute longer.
'A most biddable creature he is, to be sure,' said Mrs Nickleby, when Smike had wished them good-night and left the room. 'I know you'll excuse me, Nicholas, my dear, but I don't like to do this before a third person; indeed, before a young man it would not be quite proper, though really, after all, I don't know what harm there is in it, except that to be sure it's not a very becoming thing, though some people say it is very much so, and really I don't know why it should not be, if it's well got up, and the borders are small-plaited; of course, a good deal depends upon that.'
With which preface, Mrs Nickleby took her nightcap from between the leaves of a very large prayer-book where it had been folded up small, and proceeded to tie it on: talking away in her usual discursive manner, all the time.
'People may say what they like,' observed Mrs Nickleby, 'but there's a great deal of comfort in a nightcap, as I'm sure you would confess, Nicholas my dear, if you would only have strings to yours, and wear it like a Christian, instead of sticking it upon the very top of your head like a blue-coat boy. You needn't think it an unmanly or quizzical thing to be particular about your nightcap, for I have often heard your poor dear papa, and the Reverend Mr What's-his-name, who used to read prayers in that old church with the curious little steeple that the weathercock was blown off the night week before you were born,—I have often heard them say, that the young men at college are uncommonly particular about their nightcaps, and that the Oxford nightcaps are quite celebrated for their strength and goodness; so much so, indeed, that the young men never dream of going to bed without 'em, and I believe it's admitted on all hands that THEY know what's good, and don't coddle themselves.'
Nicholas laughed, and entering no further into the subject of this lengthened harangue, reverted to the pleasant tone of the little birthday party. And as Mrs Nickleby instantly became very curious respecting it, and made a great number of inquiries touching what they had had for dinner, and how it was put on table, and whether it was overdone or underdone, and who was there, and what 'the Mr Cherrybles' said, and what Nicholas said, and what the Mr Cherrybles said when he said that; Nicholas described the festivities at full length, and also the occurrences of the morning.
'Late as it is,' said Nicholas, 'I am almost selfish enough to wish that Kate had been up to hear all this. I was all impatience, as I came along, to tell her.'
'Why, Kate,' said Mrs Nickleby, putting her feet upon the fender, and drawing her chair close to it, as if settling herself for a long talk. 'Kate has been in bed—oh! a couple of hours—and I'm very glad, Nicholas my dear, that I prevailed upon her not to sit up, for I wished very much to have an opportunity of saying a few words to you. I am naturally anxious about it, and of course it's a very delightful and consoling thing to have a grown-up son that one can put confidence in, and advise with; indeed I don't know any use there would be in having sons at all, unless people could put confidence in them.'
Nicholas stopped in the middle of a sleepy yawn, as his mother began to speak: and looked at her with fixed attention.
'There was a lady in our neighbourhood,' said Mrs Nickleby, 'speaking of sons puts me in mind of it—a lady in our neighbourhood when we lived near Dawlish, I think her name was Rogers; indeed I am sure it was if it wasn't Murphy, which is the only doubt I have—'
'Is it about her, mother, that you wished to speak to me?' said Nicholas quietly.
'About HER!' cried Mrs Nickleby. 'Good gracious, Nicholas, my dear, how CAN you be so ridiculous! But that was always the way with your poor dear papa,—just his way—always wandering, never able to fix his thoughts on any one subject for two minutes together. I think I see him now!' said Mrs Nickleby, wiping her eyes, 'looking at me while I was talking to him about his affairs, just as if his ideas were in a state of perfect conglomeration! Anybody who had come in upon us suddenly, would have supposed I was confusing and distracting him instead of making things plainer; upon my word they would.'
'I am very sorry, mother, that I should inherit this unfortunate slowness of apprehension,' said Nicholas, kindly; 'but I'll do my best to understand you, if you'll only go straight on: indeed I will.'
'Your poor pa!' said Mrs Nickleby, pondering. 'He never knew, till it was too late, what I would have had him do!'
This was undoubtedly the case, inasmuch as the deceased Mr Nickleby had not arrived at the knowledge. Then he died. Neither had Mrs Nickleby herself; which is, in some sort, an explanation of the circumstance.
'However,' said Mrs Nickleby, drying her tears, 'this has nothing to do—certainly nothing whatever to do—with the gentleman in the next house.'
'I should suppose that the gentleman in the next house has as little to do with us,' returned Nicholas.
'There can be no doubt,' said Mrs Nickleby, 'that he IS a gentleman, and has the manners of a gentleman, and the appearance of a gentleman, although he does wear smalls and grey worsted stockings. That may be eccentricity, or he may be proud of his legs. I don't see why he shouldn't be. The Prince Regent was proud of his legs, and so was Daniel Lambert, who was also a fat man; HE was proud of his legs. So was Miss Biffin: she was—no,' added Mrs Nickleby, correcting, herself, 'I think she had only toes, but the principle is the same.'
Nicholas looked on, quite amazed at the introduction of this new theme. Which seemed just what Mrs Nickleby had expected him to be.
'You may well be surprised, Nicholas, my dear,' she said, 'I am sure I was. It came upon me like a flash of fire, and almost froze my blood. The bottom of his garden joins the bottom of ours, and of course I had several times seen him sitting among the scarlet-beans in his little arbour, or working at his little hot-beds. I used to think he stared rather, but I didn't take any particular notice of that, as we were newcomers, and he might be curious to see what we were like. But when he began to throw his cucumbers over our wall—'
'To throw his cucumbers over our wall!' repeated Nicholas, in great astonishment.
'Yes, Nicholas, my dear,' replied Mrs Nickleby in a very serious tone; 'his cucumbers over our wall. And vegetable marrows likewise.'
'Confound his impudence!' said Nicholas, firing immediately. 'What does he mean by that?'
'I don't think he means it impertinently at all,' replied Mrs Nickleby.
'What!' said Nicholas, 'cucumbers and vegetable marrows flying at the heads of the family as they walk in their own garden, and not meant impertinently! Why, mother—'
Nicholas stopped short; for there was an indescribable expression of placid triumph, mingled with a modest confusion, lingering between the borders of Mrs Nickleby's nightcap, which arrested his attention suddenly.
'He must be a very weak, and foolish, and inconsiderate man,' said Mrs Nickleby; 'blamable indeed—at least I suppose other people would consider him so; of course I can't be expected to express any opinion on that point, especially after always defending your poor dear papa when other people blamed him for making proposals to me; and to be sure there can be no doubt that he has taken a very singular way of showing it. Still at the same time, his attentions are—that is, as far as it goes, and to a certain extent of course—a flattering sort of thing; and although I should never dream of marrying again with a dear girl like Kate still unsettled in life—'
'Surely, mother, such an idea never entered your brain for an instant?' said Nicholas.
'Bless my heart, Nicholas my dear,' returned his mother in a peevish tone, 'isn't that precisely what I am saying, if you would only let me speak? Of course, I never gave it a second thought, and I am surprised and astonished that you should suppose me capable of such a thing. All I say is, what step is the best to take, so as to reject these advances civilly and delicately, and without hurting his feelings too much, and driving him to despair, or anything of that kind? My goodness me!' exclaimed Mrs Nickleby, with a half-simper, 'suppose he was to go doing anything rash to himself. Could I ever be happy again, Nicholas?'
Despite his vexation and concern, Nicholas could scarcely help smiling, as he rejoined, 'Now, do you think, mother, that such a result would be likely to ensue from the most cruel repulse?'
'Upon my word, my dear, I don't know,' returned Mrs Nickleby; 'really, I don't know. I am sure there was a case in the day before yesterday's paper, extracted from one of the French newspapers, about a journeyman shoemaker who was jealous of a young girl in an adjoining village, because she wouldn't shut herself up in an air-tight three-pair-of-stairs, and charcoal herself to death with him; and who went and hid himself in a wood with a sharp-pointed knife, and rushed out, as she was passing by with a few friends, and killed himself first, and then all the friends, and then her—no, killed all the friends first, and then herself, and then HIMself—which it is quite frightful to think of. Somehow or other,' added Mrs Nickleby, after a momentary pause, 'they always ARE journeyman shoemakers who do these things in France, according to the papers. I don't know how it is—something in the leather, I suppose.'
'But this man, who is not a shoemaker—what has he done, mother, what has he said?' inquired Nicholas, fretted almost beyond endurance, but looking nearly as resigned and patient as Mrs Nickleby herself. 'You know, there is no language of vegetables, which converts a cucumber into a formal declaration of attachment.'
'My dear,' replied Mrs Nickleby, tossing her head and looking at the ashes in the grate, 'he has done and said all sorts of things.'
'Is there no mistake on your part?' asked Nicholas.
'Mistake!' cried Mrs Nickleby. 'Lord, Nicholas my dear, do you suppose I don't know when a man's in earnest?'
'Well, well!' muttered Nicholas.
'Every time I go to the window,' said Mrs Nickleby, 'he kisses one hand, and lays the other upon his heart—of course it's very foolish of him to do so, and I dare say you'll say it's very wrong, but he does it very respectfully—very respectfully indeed—and very tenderly, extremely tenderly. So far, he deserves the greatest credit; there can be no doubt about that. Then, there are the presents which come pouring over the wall every day, and very fine they certainly are, very fine; we had one of the cucumbers at dinner yesterday, and think of pickling the rest for next winter. And last evening,' added Mrs Nickleby, with increased confusion, 'he called gently over the wall, as I was walking in the garden, and proposed marriage, and an elopement. His voice is as clear as a bell or a musical glass—very like a musical glass indeed—but of course I didn't listen to it. Then, the question is, Nicholas my dear, what am I to do?'