'Does Kate know of this?' asked Nicholas.
'I have not said a word about it yet,' answered his mother.
'Then, for Heaven's sake,' rejoined Nicholas, rising, 'do not, for it would make her very unhappy. And with regard to what you should do, my dear mother, do what your good sense and feeling, and respect for my father's memory, would prompt. There are a thousand ways in which you can show your dislike of these preposterous and doting attentions. If you act as decidedly as you ought and they are still continued, and to your annoyance, I can speedily put a stop to them. But I should not interfere in a matter so ridiculous, and attach importance to it, until you have vindicated yourself. Most women can do that, but especially one of your age and condition, in circumstances like these, which are unworthy of a serious thought. I would not shame you by seeming to take them to heart, or treat them earnestly for an instant. Absurd old idiot!'
So saying, Nicholas kissed his mother, and bade her good-night, and they retired to their respective chambers.
To do Mrs Nickleby justice, her attachment to her children would have prevented her seriously contemplating a second marriage, even if she could have so far conquered her recollections of her late husband as to have any strong inclinations that way. But, although there was no evil and little real selfishness in Mrs Nickleby's heart, she had a weak head and a vain one; and there was something so flattering in being sought (and vainly sought) in marriage at this time of day, that she could not dismiss the passion of the unknown gentleman quite so summarily or lightly as Nicholas appeared to deem becoming.
'As to its being preposterous, and doting, and ridiculous,' thought Mrs Nickleby, communing with herself in her own room, 'I don't see that, at all. It's hopeless on his part, certainly; but why he should be an absurd old idiot, I confess I don't see. He is not to be supposed to know it's hopeless. Poor fellow! He is to be pitied, I think!'
Having made these reflections, Mrs Nickleby looked in her little dressing-glass, and walking backward a few steps from it, tried to remember who it was who used to say that when Nicholas was one-and-twenty he would have more the appearance of her brother than her son. Not being able to call the authority to mind, she extinguished her candle, and drew up the window-blind to admit the light of morning, which had, by this time, begun to dawn.
'It's a bad light to distinguish objects in,' murmured Mrs Nickleby, peering into the garden, 'and my eyes are not very good—I was short-sighted from a child—but, upon my word, I think there's another large vegetable marrow sticking, at this moment, on the broken glass bottles at the top of the wall!'
Comprises certain Particulars arising out of a Visit of Condolence, which may prove important hereafter. Smike unexpectedly encounters a very old Friend, who invites him to his House, and will take no Denial
Quite unconscious of the demonstrations of their amorous neighbour, or their effects upon the susceptible bosom of her mama, Kate Nickleby had, by this time, begun to enjoy a settled feeling of tranquillity and happiness, to which, even in occasional and transitory glimpses, she had long been a stranger. Living under the same roof with the beloved brother from whom she had been so suddenly and hardly separated: with a mind at ease, and free from any persecutions which could call a blush into her cheek, or a pang into her heart, she seemed to have passed into a new state of being. Her former cheerfulness was restored, her step regained its elasticity and lightness, the colour which had forsaken her cheek visited it once again, and Kate Nickleby looked more beautiful than ever.
Such was the result to which Miss La Creevy's ruminations and observations led her, when the cottage had been, as she emphatically said, 'thoroughly got to rights, from the chimney-pots to the street-door scraper,' and the busy little woman had at length a moment's time to think about its inmates.
'Which I declare I haven't had since I first came down here,' said Miss La Creevy; 'for I have thought of nothing but hammers, nails, screwdrivers, and gimlets, morning, noon, and night.'
'You never bestowed one thought upon yourself, I believe,' returned Kate, smiling.
'Upon my word, my dear, when there are so many pleasanter things to think of, I should be a goose if I did,' said Miss La Creevy. 'By-the-bye, I HAVE thought of somebody too. Do you know, that I observe a great change in one of this family—a very extraordinary change?'
'In whom?' asked Kate, anxiously. 'Not in—'
'Not in your brother, my dear,' returned Miss La Creevy, anticipating the close of the sentence, 'for he is always the same affectionate good-natured clever creature, with a spice of the—I won't say who—in him when there's any occasion, that he was when I first knew you. No. Smike, as he WILL be called, poor fellow! for he won't hear of a MR before his name, is greatly altered, even in this short time.'
'How?' asked Kate. 'Not in health?'
'N—n—o; perhaps not in health exactly,' said Miss La Creevy, pausing to consider, 'although he is a worn and feeble creature, and has that in his face which it would wring my heart to see in yours. No; not in health.'
'I scarcely know,' said the miniature painter. 'But I have watched him, and he has brought the tears into my eyes many times. It is not a very difficult matter to do that, certainly, for I am easily melted; still I think these came with good cause and reason. I am sure that since he has been here, he has grown, from some strong cause, more conscious of his weak intellect. He feels it more. It gives him greater pain to know that he wanders sometimes, and cannot understand very simple things. I have watched him when you have not been by, my dear, sit brooding by himself, with such a look of pain as I could scarcely bear to see, and then get up and leave the room: so sorrowfully, and in such dejection, that I cannot tell you how it has hurt me. Not three weeks ago, he was a light-hearted busy creature, overjoyed to be in a bustle, and as happy as the day was long. Now, he is another being—the same willing, harmless, faithful, loving creature—but the same in nothing else.'
'Surely this will all pass off,' said Kate. 'Poor fellow!'
'I hope,' returned her little friend, with a gravity very unusual in her, 'it may. I hope, for the sake of that poor lad, it may. However,' said Miss La Creevy, relapsing into the cheerful, chattering tone, which was habitual to her, 'I have said my say, and a very long say it is, and a very wrong say too, I shouldn't wonder at all. I shall cheer him up tonight, at all events, for if he is to be my squire all the way to the Strand, I shall talk on, and on, and on, and never leave off, till I have roused him into a laugh at something. So the sooner he goes, the better for him, and the sooner I go, the better for me, I am sure, or else I shall have my maid gallivanting with somebody who may rob the house—though what there is to take away, besides tables and chairs, I don't know, except the miniatures: and he is a clever thief who can dispose of them to any great advantage, for I can't, I know, and that's the honest truth.'
So saying, little Miss La Creevy hid her face in a very flat bonnet, and herself in a very big shawl; and fixing herself tightly into the latter, by means of a large pin, declared that the omnibus might come as soon as it pleased, for she was quite ready.
But there was still Mrs Nickleby to take leave of; and long before that good lady had concluded some reminiscences bearing upon, and appropriate to, the occasion, the omnibus arrived. This put Miss La Creevy in a great bustle, in consequence whereof, as she secretly rewarded the servant girl with eighteen-pence behind the street-door, she pulled out of her reticule ten-pennyworth of halfpence, which rolled into all possible corners of the passage, and occupied some considerable time in the picking up. This ceremony had, of course, to be succeeded by a second kissing of Kate and Mrs Nickleby, and a gathering together of the little basket and the brown-paper parcel, during which proceedings, 'the omnibus,' as Miss La Creevy protested, 'swore so dreadfully, that it was quite awful to hear it.' At length and at last, it made a feint of going away, and then Miss La Creevy darted out, and darted in, apologising with great volubility to all the passengers, and declaring that she wouldn't purposely have kept them waiting on any account whatever. While she was looking about for a convenient seat, the conductor pushed Smike in, and cried that it was all right—though it wasn't—and away went the huge vehicle, with the noise of half-a-dozen brewers' drays at least.
Leaving it to pursue its journey at the pleasure of the conductor aforementioned, who lounged gracefully on his little shelf behind, smoking an odoriferous cigar; and leaving it to stop, or go on, or gallop, or crawl, as that gentleman deemed expedient and advisable; this narrative may embrace the opportunity of ascertaining the condition of Sir Mulberry Hawk, and to what extent he had, by this time, recovered from the injuries consequent on being flung violently from his cabriolet, under the circumstances already detailed.
With a shattered limb, a body severely bruised, a face disfigured by half-healed scars, and pallid from the exhaustion of recent pain and fever, Sir Mulberry Hawk lay stretched upon his back, on the couch to which he was doomed to be a prisoner for some weeks yet to come. Mr Pyke and Mr Pluck sat drinking hard in the next room, now and then varying the monotonous murmurs of their conversation with a half-smothered laugh, while the young lord—the only member of the party who was not thoroughly irredeemable, and who really had a kind heart—sat beside his Mentor, with a cigar in his mouth, and read to him, by the light of a lamp, such scraps of intelligence from a paper of the day, as were most likely to yield him interest or amusement.
'Curse those hounds!' said the invalid, turning his head impatiently towards the adjoining room; 'will nothing stop their infernal throats?'
Messrs Pyke and Pluck heard the exclamation, and stopped immediately: winking to each other as they did so, and filling their glasses to the brim, as some recompense for the deprivation of speech.
'Damn!' muttered the sick man between his teeth, and writhing impatiently in his bed. 'Isn't this mattress hard enough, and the room dull enough, and pain bad enough, but THEY must torture me? What's the time?'
'Half-past eight,' replied his friend.
'Here, draw the table nearer, and let us have the cards again,' said Sir Mulberry. 'More piquet. Come.'
It was curious to see how eagerly the sick man, debarred from any change of position save the mere turning of his head from side to side, watched every motion of his friend in the progress of the game; and with what eagerness and interest he played, and yet how warily and coolly. His address and skill were more than twenty times a match for his adversary, who could make little head against them, even when fortune favoured him with good cards, which was not often the case. Sir Mulberry won every game; and when his companion threw down the cards, and refused to play any longer, thrust forth his wasted arm and caught up the stakes with a boastful oath, and the same hoarse laugh, though considerably lowered in tone, that had resounded in Ralph Nickleby's dining-room, months before.
While he was thus occupied, his man appeared, to announce that Mr Ralph Nickleby was below, and wished to know how he was, tonight.
'Better,' said Sir Mulberry, impatiently.
'Mr Nickleby wishes to know, sir—'
'I tell you, better,' replied Sir Mulberry, striking his hand upon the table.
The man hesitated for a moment or two, and then said that Mr Nickleby had requested permission to see Sir Mulberry Hawk, if it was not inconvenient.
'It IS inconvenient. I can't see him. I can't see anybody,' said his master, more violently than before. 'You know that, you blockhead.'
'I am very sorry, sir,' returned the man. 'But Mr Nickleby pressed so much, sir—'
The fact was, that Ralph Nickleby had bribed the man, who, being anxious to earn his money with a view to future favours, held the door in his hand, and ventured to linger still.
'Did he say whether he had any business to speak about?' inquired Sir Mulberry, after a little impatient consideration.
'No, sir. He said he wished to see you, sir. Particularly, Mr Nickleby said, sir.'
'Tell him to come up. Here,' cried Sir Mulberry, calling the man back, as he passed his hand over his disfigured face, 'move that lamp, and put it on the stand behind me. Wheel that table away, and place a chair there—further off. Leave it so.'
The man obeyed these directions as if he quite comprehended the motive with which they were dictated, and left the room. Lord Frederick Verisopht, remarking that he would look in presently, strolled into the adjoining apartment, and closed the folding door behind him.
Then was heard a subdued footstep on the stairs; and Ralph Nickleby, hat in hand, crept softly into the room, with his body bent forward as if in profound respect, and his eyes fixed upon the face of his worthy client.
'Well, Nickleby,' said Sir Mulberry, motioning him to the chair by the couch side, and waving his hand in assumed carelessness, 'I have had a bad accident, you see.'
'I see,' rejoined Ralph, with the same steady gaze. 'Bad, indeed! I should not have known you, Sir Mulberry. Dear, dear! This IS bad.'
Ralph's manner was one of profound humility and respect; and the low tone of voice was that, which the gentlest consideration for a sick man would have taught a visitor to assume. But the expression of his face, Sir Mulberry's being averted, was in extraordinary contrast; and as he stood, in his usual attitude, calmly looking on the prostrate form before him, all that part of his features which was not cast into shadow by his protruding and contracted brows, bore the impress of a sarcastic smile.
'Sit down,' said Sir Mulberry, turning towards him, as though by a violent effort. 'Am I a sight, that you stand gazing there?'
As he turned his face, Ralph recoiled a step or two, and making as though he were irresistibly impelled to express astonishment, but was determined not to do so, sat down with well-acted confusion.
'I have inquired at the door, Sir Mulberry, every day,' said Ralph, 'twice a day, indeed, at first—and tonight, presuming upon old acquaintance, and past transactions by which we have mutually benefited in some degree, I could not resist soliciting admission to your chamber. Have you—have you suffered much?' said Ralph, bending forward, and allowing the same harsh smile to gather upon his face, as the other closed his eyes.
'More than enough to please me, and less than enough to please some broken-down hacks that you and I know of, and who lay their ruin between us, I dare say,' returned Sir Mulberry, tossing his arm restlessly upon the coverlet.
Ralph shrugged his shoulders in deprecation of the intense irritation with which this had been said; for there was an aggravating, cold distinctness in his speech and manner which so grated on the sick man that he could scarcely endure it.
'And what is it in these "past transactions," that brought you here tonight?' asked Sir Mulberry.
'Nothing,' replied Ralph. 'There are some bills of my lord's which need renewal; but let them be till you are well. I—I—came,' said Ralph, speaking more slowly, and with harsher emphasis, 'I came to say how grieved I am that any relative of mine, although disowned by me, should have inflicted such punishment on you as—'
'Punishment!' interposed Sir Mulberry.
'I know it has been a severe one,' said Ralph, wilfully mistaking the meaning of the interruption, 'and that has made me the more anxious to tell you that I disown this vagabond—that I acknowledge him as no kin of mine—and that I leave him to take his deserts from you, and every man besides. You may wring his neck if you please. I shall not interfere.'
'This story that they tell me here, has got abroad then, has it?' asked Sir Mulberry, clenching his hands and teeth.
'Noised in all directions,' replied Ralph. 'Every club and gaming-room has rung with it. There has been a good song made about it, as I am told,' said Ralph, looking eagerly at his questioner. 'I have not heard it myself, not being in the way of such things, but I have been told it's even printed—for private circulation—but that's all over town, of course.'
'It's a lie!' said Sir Mulberry; 'I tell you it's all a lie. The mare took fright.'
'They SAY he frightened her,' observed Ralph, in the same unmoved and quiet manner. 'Some say he frightened you, but THAT'S a lie, I know. I have said that boldly—oh, a score of times! I am a peaceable man, but I can't hear folks tell that of you. No, no.'
When Sir Mulberry found coherent words to utter, Ralph bent forward with his hand to his ear, and a face as calm as if its every line of sternness had been cast in iron.
'When I am off this cursed bed,' said the invalid, actually striking at his broken leg in the ecstasy of his passion, 'I'll have such revenge as never man had yet. By God, I will. Accident favouring him, he has marked me for a week or two, but I'll put a mark on him that he shall carry to his grave. I'll slit his nose and ears, flog him, maim him for life. I'll do more than that; I'll drag that pattern of chastity, that pink of prudery, the delicate sister, through—'
It might have been that even Ralph's cold blood tingled in his cheeks at that moment. It might have been that Sir Mulberry remembered, that, knave and usurer as he was, he must, in some early time of infancy, have twined his arm about her father's neck. He stopped, and menacing with his hand, confirmed the unuttered threat with a tremendous oath.
'It is a galling thing,' said Ralph, after a short term of silence, during which he had eyed the sufferer keenly, 'to think that the man about town, the rake, the ROUE, the rook of twenty seasons should be brought to this pass by a mere boy!'
Sir Mulberry darted a wrathful look at him, but Ralph's eyes were bent upon the ground, and his face wore no other expression than one of thoughtfulness.
'A raw, slight stripling,' continued Ralph, 'against a man whose very weight might crush him; to say nothing of his skill in—I am right, I think,' said Ralph, raising his eyes, 'you WERE a patron of the ring once, were you not?'
The sick man made an impatient gesture, which Ralph chose to consider as one of acquiescence.
'Ha!' he said, 'I thought so. That was before I knew you, but I was pretty sure I couldn't be mistaken. He is light and active, I suppose. But those were slight advantages compared with yours. Luck, luck! These hang-dog outcasts have it.'
'He'll need the most he has, when I am well again,' said Sir Mulberry Hawk, 'let him fly where he will.'
'Oh!' returned Ralph quickly, 'he doesn't dream of that. He is here, good sir, waiting your pleasure, here in London, walking the streets at noonday; carrying it off jauntily; looking for you, I swear,' said Ralph, his face darkening, and his own hatred getting the upper hand of him, for the first time, as this gay picture of Nicholas presented itself; 'if we were only citizens of a country where it could be safely done, I'd give good money to have him stabbed to the heart and rolled into the kennel for the dogs to tear.'
As Ralph, somewhat to the surprise of his old client, vented this little piece of sound family feeling, and took up his hat preparatory to departing, Lord Frederick Verisopht looked in.
'Why what in the deyvle's name, Hawk, have you and Nickleby been talking about?' said the young man. 'I neyver heard such an insufferable riot. Croak, croak, croak. Bow, wow, wow. What has it all been about?'
'Sir Mulberry has been angry, my Lord,' said Ralph, looking towards the couch.
'Not about money, I hope? Nothing has gone wrong in business, has it, Nickleby?'
'No, my Lord, no,' returned Ralph. 'On that point we always agree. Sir Mulberry has been calling to mind the cause of—'
There was neither necessity nor opportunity for Ralph to proceed; for Sir Mulberry took up the theme, and vented his threats and oaths against Nicholas, almost as ferociously as before.
Ralph, who was no common observer, was surprised to see that as this tirade proceeded, the manner of Lord Frederick Verisopht, who at the commencement had been twirling his whiskers with a most dandified and listless air, underwent a complete alteration. He was still more surprised when, Sir Mulberry ceasing to speak, the young lord angrily, and almost unaffectedly, requested never to have the subject renewed in his presence.
'Mind that, Hawk!' he added, with unusual energy. 'I never will be a party to, or permit, if I can help it, a cowardly attack upon this young fellow.'
'Cowardly!' interrupted his friend.
'Ye-es,' said the other, turning full upon him. 'If you had told him who you were; if you had given him your card, and found out, afterwards, that his station or character prevented your fighting him, it would have been bad enough then; upon my soul it would have been bad enough then. As it is, you did wrong. I did wrong too, not to interfere, and I am sorry for it. What happened to you afterwards, was as much the consequence of accident as design, and more your fault than his; and it shall not, with my knowledge, be cruelly visited upon him, it shall not indeed.'
With this emphatic repetition of his concluding words, the young lord turned upon his heel; but before he had reached the adjoining room he turned back again, and said, with even greater vehemence than he had displayed before,
'I do believe, now; upon my honour I do believe, that the sister is as virtuous and modest a young lady as she is a handsome one; and of the brother, I say this, that he acted as her brother should, and in a manly and spirited manner. And I only wish, with all my heart and soul, that any one of us came out of this matter half as well as he does.'
So saying, Lord Frederick Verisopht walked out of the room, leaving Ralph Nickleby and Sir Mulberry in most unpleasant astonishment.
'Is this your pupil?' asked Ralph, softly, 'or has he come fresh from some country parson?'
'Green fools take these fits sometimes,' replied Sir Mulberry Hawk, biting his lip, and pointing to the door. 'Leave him to me.'
Ralph exchanged a familiar look with his old acquaintance; for they had suddenly grown confidential again in this alarming surprise; and took his way home, thoughtfully and slowly.
While these things were being said and done, and long before they were concluded, the omnibus had disgorged Miss La Creevy and her escort, and they had arrived at her own door. Now, the good-nature of the little miniature painter would by no means allow of Smike's walking back again, until he had been previously refreshed with just a sip of something comfortable and a mixed biscuit or so; and Smike, entertaining no objection either to the sip of something comfortable, or the mixed biscuit, but, considering on the contrary that they would be a very pleasant preparation for a walk to Bow, it fell out that he delayed much longer than he originally intended, and that it was some half-hour after dusk when he set forth on his journey home.
There was no likelihood of his losing his way, for it lay quite straight before him, and he had walked into town with Nicholas, and back alone, almost every day. So, Miss La Creevy and he shook hands with mutual confidence, and, being charged with more kind remembrances to Mrs and Miss Nickleby, Smike started off.
At the foot of Ludgate Hill, he turned a little out of the road to satisfy his curiosity by having a look at Newgate. After staring up at the sombre walls, from the opposite side of the way, with great care and dread for some minutes, he turned back again into the old track, and walked briskly through the city; stopping now and then to gaze in at the window of some particularly attractive shop, then running for a little way, then stopping again, and so on, as any other country lad might do.
He had been gazing for a long time through a jeweller's window, wishing he could take some of the beautiful trinkets home as a present, and imagining what delight they would afford if he could, when the clocks struck three-quarters past eight; roused by the sound, he hurried on at a very quick pace, and was crossing the corner of a by-street when he felt himself violently brought to, with a jerk so sudden that he was obliged to cling to a lamp-post to save himself from falling. At the same moment, a small boy clung tight round his leg, and a shrill cry of 'Here he is, father! Hooray!' vibrated in his ears.
Smike knew that voice too well. He cast his despairing eyes downward towards the form from which it had proceeded, and, shuddering from head to foot, looked round. Mr Squeers had hooked him in the coat collar with the handle of his umbrella, and was hanging on at the other end with all his might and main. The cry of triumph proceeded from Master Wackford, who, regardless of all his kicks and struggles, clung to him with the tenacity of a bull-dog!
One glance showed him this; and in that one glance the terrified creature became utterly powerless and unable to utter a sound.
'Here's a go!' cried Mr Squeers, gradually coming hand-over-hand down the umbrella, and only unhooking it when he had got tight hold of the victim's collar. 'Here's a delicious go! Wackford, my boy, call up one of them coaches.'
'A coach, father!' cried little Wackford.
'Yes, a coach, sir,' replied Squeers, feasting his eyes upon the countenance of Smike. 'Damn the expense. Let's have him in a coach.'
'What's he been a doing of?' asked a labourer with a hod of bricks, against whom and a fellow-labourer Mr Squeers had backed, on the first jerk of the umbrella.
'Everything!' replied Mr Squeers, looking fixedly at his old pupil in a sort of rapturous trance. 'Everything—running away, sir—joining in bloodthirsty attacks upon his master—there's nothing that's bad that he hasn't done. Oh, what a delicious go is this here, good Lord!'
The man looked from Squeers to Smike; but such mental faculties as the poor fellow possessed, had utterly deserted him. The coach came up; Master Wackford entered; Squeers pushed in his prize, and following close at his heels, pulled up the glasses. The coachman mounted his box and drove slowly off, leaving the two bricklayers, and an old apple-woman, and a town-made little boy returning from an evening school, who had been the only witnesses of the scene, to meditate upon it at their leisure.
Mr Squeers sat himself down on the opposite seat to the unfortunate Smike, and, planting his hands firmly on his knees, looked at him for some five minutes, when, seeming to recover from his trance, he uttered a loud laugh, and slapped his old pupil's face several times—taking the right and left sides alternately.
'It isn't a dream!' said Squeers. 'That's real flesh and blood! I know the feel of it!' and being quite assured of his good fortune by these experiments, Mr Squeers administered a few boxes on the ear, lest the entertainments should seem to partake of sameness, and laughed louder and longer at every one.
'Your mother will be fit to jump out of her skin, my boy, when she hears of this,' said Squeers to his son.
'Oh, won't she though, father?' replied Master Wackford.
'To think,' said Squeers, 'that you and me should be turning out of a street, and come upon him at the very nick; and that I should have him tight, at only one cast of the umbrella, as if I had hooked him with a grappling-iron! Ha, ha!'
'Didn't I catch hold of his leg, neither, father?' said little Wackford.
'You did; like a good 'un, my boy,' said Mr Squeers, patting his son's head, 'and you shall have the best button-over jacket and waistcoat that the next new boy brings down, as a reward of merit. Mind that. You always keep on in the same path, and do them things that you see your father do, and when you die you'll go right slap to Heaven and no questions asked.'
Improving the occasion in these words, Mr Squeers patted his son's head again, and then patted Smike's—but harder; and inquired in a bantering tone how he found himself by this time.
'I must go home,' replied Smike, looking wildly round.
'To be sure you must. You're about right there,' replied Mr Squeers. 'You'll go home very soon, you will. You'll find yourself at the peaceful village of Dotheboys, in Yorkshire, in something under a week's time, my young friend; and the next time you get away from there, I give you leave to keep away. Where's the clothes you run off in, you ungrateful robber?' said Mr Squeers, in a severe voice.
Smike glanced at the neat attire which the care of Nicholas had provided for him; and wrung his hands.
'Do you know that I could hang you up, outside of the Old Bailey, for making away with them articles of property?' said Squeers. 'Do you know that it's a hanging matter—and I an't quite certain whether it an't an anatomy one besides—to walk off with up'ards of the valley of five pound from a dwelling-house? Eh? Do you know that? What do you suppose was the worth of them clothes you had? Do you know that that Wellington boot you wore, cost eight-and-twenty shillings when it was a pair, and the shoe seven-and-six? But you came to the right shop for mercy when you came to me, and thank your stars that it IS me as has got to serve you with the article.'
Anybody not in Mr Squeers's confidence would have supposed that he was quite out of the article in question, instead of having a large stock on hand ready for all comers; nor would the opinion of sceptical persons have undergone much alteration when he followed up the remark by poking Smike in the chest with the ferrule of his umbrella, and dealing a smart shower of blows, with the ribs of the same instrument, upon his head and shoulders.
'I never threshed a boy in a hackney coach before,' said Mr Squeers, when he stopped to rest. 'There's inconveniency in it, but the novelty gives it a sort of relish, too!'
Poor Smike! He warded off the blows, as well as he could, and now shrunk into a corner of the coach, with his head resting on his hands, and his elbows on his knees; he was stunned and stupefied, and had no more idea that any act of his, would enable him to escape from the all-powerful Squeers, now that he had no friend to speak to or to advise with, than he had had in all the weary years of his Yorkshire life which preceded the arrival of Nicholas.
The journey seemed endless; street after street was entered and left behind; and still they went jolting on. At last Mr Squeers began to thrust his head out of the widow every half-minute, and to bawl a variety of directions to the coachman; and after passing, with some difficulty, through several mean streets which the appearance of the houses and the bad state of the road denoted to have been recently built, Mr Squeers suddenly tugged at the check string with all his might, and cried, 'Stop!'
'What are you pulling a man's arm off for?' said the coachman looking angrily down.
'That's the house,' replied Squeers. 'The second of them four little houses, one story high, with the green shutters. There's brass plate on the door, with the name of Snawley.'
'Couldn't you say that without wrenching a man's limbs off his body?' inquired the coachman.
'No!' bawled Mr Squeers. 'Say another word, and I'll summons you for having a broken winder. Stop!'
Obedient to this direction, the coach stopped at Mr Snawley's door. Mr Snawley may be remembered as the sleek and sanctified gentleman who confided two sons (in law) to the parental care of Mr Squeers, as narrated in the fourth chapter of this history. Mr Snawley's house was on the extreme borders of some new settlements adjoining Somers Town, and Mr Squeers had taken lodgings therein for a short time, as his stay was longer than usual, and the Saracen, having experience of Master Wackford's appetite, had declined to receive him on any other terms than as a full-grown customer.
'Here we are!' said Squeers, hurrying Smike into the little parlour, where Mr Snawley and his wife were taking a lobster supper. 'Here's the vagrant—the felon—the rebel—the monster of unthankfulness.'
'What! The boy that run away!' cried Snawley, resting his knife and fork upright on the table, and opening his eyes to their full width.
'The very boy', said Squeers, putting his fist close to Smike's nose, and drawing it away again, and repeating the process several times, with a vicious aspect. 'If there wasn't a lady present, I'd fetch him such a—: never mind, I'll owe it him.'
And here Mr Squeers related how, and in what manner, and when and where, he had picked up the runaway.
'It's clear that there has been a Providence in it, sir,' said Mr Snawley, casting down his eyes with an air of humility, and elevating his fork, with a bit of lobster on the top of it, towards the ceiling.
'Providence is against him, no doubt,' replied Mr Squeers, scratching his nose. 'Of course; that was to be expected. Anybody might have known that.'
'Hard-heartedness and evil-doing will never prosper, sir,' said Mr Snawley.
'Never was such a thing known,' rejoined Squeers, taking a little roll of notes from his pocket-book, to see that they were all safe.
'I have been, Mr Snawley,' said Mr Squeers, when he had satisfied himself upon this point, 'I have been that chap's benefactor, feeder, teacher, and clother. I have been that chap's classical, commercial, mathematical, philosophical, and trigonomical friend. My son—my only son, Wackford—has been his brother; Mrs Squeers has been his mother, grandmother, aunt,—ah! and I may say uncle too, all in one. She never cottoned to anybody, except them two engaging and delightful boys of yours, as she cottoned to this chap. What's my return? What's come of my milk of human kindness? It turns into curds and whey when I look at him.'
'Well it may, sir,' said Mrs Snawley. 'Oh! Well it may, sir.'
'Where has he been all this time?' inquired Snawley. 'Has he been living with—?'
'Ah, sir!' interposed Squeers, confronting him again. 'Have you been a living with that there devilish Nickleby, sir?'
But no threats or cuffs could elicit from Smike one word of reply to this question; for he had internally resolved that he would rather perish in the wretched prison to which he was again about to be consigned, than utter one syllable which could involve his first and true friend. He had already called to mind the strict injunctions of secrecy as to his past life, which Nicholas had laid upon him when they travelled from Yorkshire; and a confused and perplexed idea that his benefactor might have committed some terrible crime in bringing him away, which would render him liable to heavy punishment if detected, had contributed, in some degree, to reduce him to his present state of apathy and terror.
Such were the thoughts—if to visions so imperfect and undefined as those which wandered through his enfeebled brain, the term can be applied—which were present to the mind of Smike, and rendered him deaf alike to intimidation and persuasion. Finding every effort useless, Mr Squeers conducted him to a little back room up-stairs, where he was to pass the night; and, taking the precaution of removing his shoes, and coat and waistcoat, and also of locking the door on the outside, lest he should muster up sufficient energy to make an attempt at escape, that worthy gentleman left him to his meditations.
What those meditations were, and how the poor creature's heart sunk within him when he thought—when did he, for a moment, cease to think?—of his late home, and the dear friends and familiar faces with which it was associated, cannot be told. To prepare the mind for such a heavy sleep, its growth must be stopped by rigour and cruelty in childhood; there must be years of misery and suffering, lightened by no ray of hope; the chords of the heart, which beat a quick response to the voice of gentleness and affection, must have rusted and broken in their secret places, and bear the lingering echo of no old word of love or kindness. Gloomy, indeed, must have been the short day, and dull the long, long twilight, preceding such a night of intellect as his.
There were voices which would have roused him, even then; but their welcome tones could not penetrate there; and he crept to bed the same listless, hopeless, blighted creature, that Nicholas had first found him at the Yorkshire school.
In which another old Friend encounters Smike, very opportunely and to some Purpose
The night, fraught with so much bitterness to one poor soul, had given place to a bright and cloudless summer morning, when a north-country mail-coach traversed, with cheerful noise, the yet silent streets of Islington, and, giving brisk note of its approach with the lively winding of the guard's horn, clattered onward to its halting-place hard by the Post Office.
The only outside passenger was a burly, honest-looking countryman on the box, who, with his eyes fixed upon the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, appeared so wrapt in admiring wonder, as to be quite insensible to all the bustle of getting out the bags and parcels, until one of the coach windows being let sharply down, he looked round, and encountered a pretty female face which was just then thrust out.
'See there, lass!' bawled the countryman, pointing towards the object of his admiration. 'There be Paul's Church. 'Ecod, he be a soizable 'un, he be.'
'Goodness, John! I shouldn't have thought it could have been half the size. What a monster!'
'Monsther!—Ye're aboot right theer, I reckon, Mrs Browdie,' said the countryman good-humouredly, as he came slowly down in his huge top-coat; 'and wa'at dost thee tak yon place to be noo—thot'un owor the wa'? Ye'd never coom near it 'gin you thried for twolve moonths. It's na' but a Poast Office! Ho! ho! They need to charge for dooble-latthers. A Poast Office! Wa'at dost thee think o' thot? 'Ecod, if thot's on'y a Poast Office, I'd loike to see where the Lord Mayor o' Lunnun lives.'
So saying, John Browdie—for he it was—opened the coach-door, and tapping Mrs Browdie, late Miss Price, on the cheek as he looked in, burst into a boisterous fit of laughter.
'Weel!' said John. 'Dang my bootuns if she bean't asleep agean!'
'She's been asleep all night, and was, all yesterday, except for a minute or two now and then,' replied John Browdie's choice, 'and I was very sorry when she woke, for she has been SO cross!'
The subject of these remarks was a slumbering figure, so muffled in shawl and cloak, that it would have been matter of impossibility to guess at its sex but for a brown beaver bonnet and green veil which ornamented the head, and which, having been crushed and flattened, for two hundred and fifty miles, in that particular angle of the vehicle from which the lady's snores now proceeded, presented an appearance sufficiently ludicrous to have moved less risible muscles than those of John Browdie's ruddy face.
'Hollo!' cried John, twitching one end of the dragged veil. 'Coom, wakken oop, will 'ee?'
After several burrowings into the old corner, and many exclamations of impatience and fatigue, the figure struggled into a sitting posture; and there, under a mass of crumpled beaver, and surrounded by a semicircle of blue curl-papers, were the delicate features of Miss Fanny Squeers.
'Oh, 'Tilda!' cried Miss Squeers, 'how you have been kicking of me through this blessed night!'
'Well, I do like that,' replied her friend, laughing, 'when you have had nearly the whole coach to yourself.'
'Don't deny it, 'Tilda,' said Miss Squeers, impressively, 'because you have, and it's no use to go attempting to say you haven't. You mightn't have known it in your sleep, 'Tilda, but I haven't closed my eyes for a single wink, and so I THINK I am to be believed.'
With which reply, Miss Squeers adjusted the bonnet and veil, which nothing but supernatural interference and an utter suspension of nature's laws could have reduced to any shape or form; and evidently flattering herself that it looked uncommonly neat, brushed off the sandwich-crumbs and bits of biscuit which had accumulated in her lap, and availing herself of John Browdie's proffered arm, descended from the coach.
'Noo,' said John, when a hackney coach had been called, and the ladies and the luggage hurried in, 'gang to the Sarah's Head, mun.'
'To the VERE?' cried the coachman.
'Lawk, Mr Browdie!' interrupted Miss Squeers. 'The idea! Saracen's Head.'
'Sure-ly,' said John, 'I know'd it was something aboot Sarah's Son's Head. Dost thou know thot?'
'Oh, ah! I know that,' replied the coachman gruffly, as he banged the door.
''Tilda, dear, really,' remonstrated Miss Squeers, 'we shall be taken for I don't know what.'
'Let them tak' us as they foind us,' said John Browdie; 'we dean't come to Lunnun to do nought but 'joy oursel, do we?'
'I hope not, Mr Browdie,' replied Miss Squeers, looking singularly dismal.
'Well, then,' said John, 'it's no matther. I've only been a married man fower days, 'account of poor old feyther deein, and puttin' it off. Here be a weddin' party—broide and broide's-maid, and the groom—if a mun dean't 'joy himsel noo, when ought he, hey? Drat it all, thot's what I want to know.'
So, in order that he might begin to enjoy himself at once, and lose no time, Mr Browdie gave his wife a hearty kiss, and succeeded in wresting another from Miss Squeers, after a maidenly resistance of scratching and struggling on the part of that young lady, which was not quite over when they reached the Saracen's Head.
Here, the party straightway retired to rest; the refreshment of sleep being necessary after so long a journey; and here they met again about noon, to a substantial breakfast, spread by direction of Mr John Browdie, in a small private room upstairs commanding an uninterrupted view of the stables.
To have seen Miss Squeers now, divested of the brown beaver, the green veil, and the blue curl-papers, and arrayed in all the virgin splendour of a white frock and spencer, with a white muslin bonnet, and an imitative damask rose in full bloom on the inside thereof—her luxuriant crop of hair arranged in curls so tight that it was impossible they could come out by any accident, and her bonnet-cap trimmed with little damask roses, which might be supposed to be so many promising scions of the big rose—to have seen all this, and to have seen the broad damask belt, matching both the family rose and the little roses, which encircled her slender waist, and by a happy ingenuity took off from the shortness of the spencer behind,—to have beheld all this, and to have taken further into account the coral bracelets (rather short of beads, and with a very visible black string) which clasped her wrists, and the coral necklace which rested on her neck, supporting, outside her frock, a lonely cornelian heart, typical of her own disengaged affections—to have contemplated all these mute but expressive appeals to the purest feelings of our nature, might have thawed the frost of age, and added new and inextinguishable fuel to the fire of youth.
The waiter was touched. Waiter as he was, he had human passions and feelings, and he looked very hard at Miss Squeers as he handed the muffins.
'Is my pa in, do you know?' asked Miss Squeers with dignity.
'Beg your pardon, miss?'
'My pa,' repeated Miss Squeers; 'is he in?'
'In where, miss?'
'In here—in the house!' replied Miss Squeers. 'My pa—Mr Wackford Squeers—he's stopping here. Is he at home?'
'I didn't know there was any gen'l'man of that name in the house, miss' replied the waiter. 'There may be, in the coffee-room.'
MAY BE. Very pretty this, indeed! Here was Miss Squeers, who had been depending, all the way to London, upon showing her friends how much at home she would be, and how much respectful notice her name and connections would excite, told that her father MIGHT be there! 'As if he was a feller!' observed Miss Squeers, with emphatic indignation.
'Ye'd betther inquire, mun,' said John Browdie. 'An' hond up another pigeon-pie, will 'ee? Dang the chap,' muttered John, looking into the empty dish as the waiter retired; 'does he ca' this a pie—three yoong pigeons and a troifling matther o' steak, and a crust so loight that you doant know when it's in your mooth and when it's gane? I wonder hoo many pies goes to a breakfast!'
After a short interval, which John Browdie employed upon the ham and a cold round of beef, the waiter returned with another pie, and the information that Mr Squeers was not stopping in the house, but that he came there every day and that directly he arrived, he should be shown upstairs. With this, he retired; and he had not retired two minutes, when he returned with Mr Squeers and his hopeful son.
'Why, who'd have thought of this?' said Mr Squeers, when he had saluted the party and received some private family intelligence from his daughter.
'Who, indeed, pa!' replied that young lady, spitefully. 'But you see 'Tilda IS married at last.'
'And I stond threat for a soight o' Lunnun, schoolmeasther,' said John, vigorously attacking the pie.
'One of them things that young men do when they get married,' returned Squeers; 'and as runs through with their money like nothing at all! How much better wouldn't it be now, to save it up for the eddication of any little boys, for instance! They come on you,' said Mr Squeers in a moralising way, 'before you're aware of it; mine did upon me.'
'Will 'ee pick a bit?' said John.
'I won't myself,' returned Squeers; 'but if you'll just let little Wackford tuck into something fat, I'll be obliged to you. Give it him in his fingers, else the waiter charges it on, and there's lot of profit on this sort of vittles without that. If you hear the waiter coming, sir, shove it in your pocket and look out of the window, d'ye hear?'
'I'm awake, father,' replied the dutiful Wackford.
'Well,' said Squeers, turning to his daughter, 'it's your turn to be married next. You must make haste.'
'Oh, I'm in no hurry,' said Miss Squeers, very sharply.
'No, Fanny?' cried her old friend with some archness.
'No, 'Tilda,' replied Miss Squeers, shaking her head vehemently. 'I can wait.'
'So can the young men, it seems, Fanny,' observed Mrs Browdie.
'They an't draw'd into it by ME, 'Tilda,' retorted Miss Squeers.
'No,' returned her friend; 'that's exceedingly true.'
The sarcastic tone of this reply might have provoked a rather acrimonious retort from Miss Squeers, who, besides being of a constitutionally vicious temper—aggravated, just now, by travel and recent jolting—was somewhat irritated by old recollections and the failure of her own designs upon Mr Browdie; and the acrimonious retort might have led to a great many other retorts, which might have led to Heaven knows what, if the subject of conversation had not been, at that precise moment, accidentally changed by Mr Squeers himself
'What do you think?' said that gentleman; 'who do you suppose we have laid hands on, Wackford and me?'
'Pa! not Mr—?' Miss Squeers was unable to finish the sentence, but Mrs Browdie did it for her, and added, 'Nickleby?'
'No,' said Squeers. 'But next door to him though.'
'You can't mean Smike?' cried Miss Squeers, clapping her hands.
'Yes, I can though,' rejoined her father. 'I've got him, hard and fast.'
'Wa'at!' exclaimed John Browdie, pushing away his plate. 'Got that poor—dom'd scoondrel? Where?'
'Why, in the top back room, at my lodging,' replied Squeers, 'with him on one side, and the key on the other.'
'At thy loodgin'! Thee'st gotten him at thy loodgin'? Ho! ho! The schoolmeasther agin all England. Give us thee hond, mun; I'm darned but I must shak thee by the hond for thot.—Gotten him at thy loodgin'?'
'Yes,' replied Squeers, staggering in his chair under the congratulatory blow on the chest which the stout Yorkshireman dealt him; 'thankee. Don't do it again. You mean it kindly, I know, but it hurts rather. Yes, there he is. That's not so bad, is it?'
'Ba'ad!' repeated John Browdie. 'It's eneaf to scare a mun to hear tell on.'
'I thought it would surprise you a bit,' said Squeers, rubbing his hands. 'It was pretty neatly done, and pretty quick too.'
'Hoo wor it?' inquired John, sitting down close to him. 'Tell us all aboot it, mun; coom, quick!'
Although he could not keep pace with John Browdie's impatience, Mr Squeers related the lucky chance by which Smike had fallen into his hands, as quickly as he could, and, except when he was interrupted by the admiring remarks of his auditors, paused not in the recital until he had brought it to an end.
'For fear he should give me the slip, by any chance,' observed Squeers, when he had finished, looking very cunning, 'I've taken three outsides for tomorrow morning—for Wackford and him and me—and have arranged to leave the accounts and the new boys to the agent, don't you see? So it's very lucky you come today, or you'd have missed us; and as it is, unless you could come and tea with me tonight, we shan't see anything more of you before we go away.'
'Dean't say anoother wurd,' returned the Yorkshireman, shaking him by the hand. 'We'd coom, if it was twonty mile.'
'No, would you though?' returned Mr Squeers, who had not expected quite such a ready acceptance of his invitation, or he would have considered twice before he gave it.
John Browdie's only reply was another squeeze of the hand, and an assurance that they would not begin to see London till tomorrow, so that they might be at Mr Snawley's at six o'clock without fail; and after some further conversation, Mr Squeers and his son departed.
During the remainder of the day, Mr Browdie was in a very odd and excitable state; bursting occasionally into an explosion of laughter, and then taking up his hat and running into the coach-yard to have it out by himself. He was very restless too, constantly walking in and out, and snapping his fingers, and dancing scraps of uncouth country dances, and, in short, conducting himself in such a very extraordinary manner, that Miss Squeers opined he was going mad, and, begging her dear 'Tilda not to distress herself, communicated her suspicions in so many words. Mrs Browdie, however, without discovering any great alarm, observed that she had seen him so once before, and that although he was almost sure to be ill after it, it would not be anything very serious, and therefore he was better left alone.
The result proved her to be perfectly correct for, while they were all sitting in Mr Snawley's parlour that night, and just as it was beginning to get dusk, John Browdie was taken so ill, and seized with such an alarming dizziness in the head, that the whole company were thrown into the utmost consternation. His good lady, indeed, was the only person present, who retained presence of mind enough to observe that if he were allowed to lie down on Mr Squeers's bed for an hour or so, and left entirely to himself, he would be sure to recover again almost as quickly as he had been taken ill. Nobody could refuse to try the effect of so reasonable a proposal, before sending for a surgeon. Accordingly, John was supported upstairs, with great difficulty; being a monstrous weight, and regularly tumbling down two steps every time they hoisted him up three; and, being laid on the bed, was left in charge of his wife, who, after a short interval, reappeared in the parlour, with the gratifying intelligence that he had fallen fast asleep.
Now, the fact was, that at that particular moment, John Browdie was sitting on the bed with the reddest face ever seen, cramming the corner of the pillow into his mouth, to prevent his roaring out loud with laughter. He had no sooner succeeded in suppressing this emotion, than he slipped off his shoes, and creeping to the adjoining room where the prisoner was confined, turned the key, which was on the outside, and darting in, covered Smike's mouth with his huge hand before he could utter a sound.
'Ods-bobs, dost thee not know me, mun?' whispered the Yorkshireman to the bewildered lad. 'Browdie. Chap as met thee efther schoolmeasther was banged?'
'Yes, yes,' cried Smike. 'Oh! help me.'
'Help thee!' replied John, stopping his mouth again, the instant he had said this much. 'Thee didn't need help, if thee warn't as silly yoongster as ever draw'd breath. Wa'at did 'ee come here for, then?'
'He brought me; oh! he brought me,' cried Smike.
'Brout thee!' replied John. 'Why didn't 'ee punch his head, or lay theeself doon and kick, and squeal out for the pollis? I'd ha' licked a doozen such as him when I was yoong as thee. But thee be'est a poor broken-doon chap,' said John, sadly, 'and God forgi' me for bragging ower yan o' his weakest creeturs!'
Smike opened his mouth to speak, but John Browdie stopped him.
'Stan' still,' said the Yorkshireman, 'and doant'ee speak a morsel o' talk till I tell'ee.'
With this caution, John Browdie shook his head significantly, and drawing a screwdriver from his pocket, took off the box of the lock in a very deliberate and workmanlike manner, and laid it, together with the implement, on the floor.
'See thot?' said John 'Thot be thy doin'. Noo, coot awa'!'
Smike looked vacantly at him, as if unable to comprehend his meaning.
'I say, coot awa',' repeated John, hastily. 'Dost thee know where thee livest? Thee dost? Weel. Are yon thy clothes, or schoolmeasther's?'
'Mine,' replied Smike, as the Yorkshireman hurried him to the adjoining room, and pointed out a pair of shoes and a coat which were lying on a chair.
'On wi' 'em,' said John, forcing the wrong arm into the wrong sleeve, and winding the tails of the coat round the fugitive's neck. 'Noo, foller me, and when thee get'st ootside door, turn to the right, and they wean't see thee pass.'
'But—but—he'll hear me shut the door,' replied Smike, trembling from head to foot.
'Then dean't shut it at all,' retorted John Browdie. 'Dang it, thee bean't afeard o' schoolmeasther's takkin cold, I hope?'
'N-no,' said Smike, his teeth chattering in his head. 'But he brought me back before, and will again. He will, he will indeed.'
'He wull, he wull!' replied John impatiently. 'He wean't, he wean't. Look'ee! I wont to do this neighbourly loike, and let them think thee's gotten awa' o' theeself, but if he cooms oot o' thot parlour awhiles theer't clearing off, he mun' have mercy on his oun boans, for I wean't. If he foinds it oot, soon efther, I'll put 'un on a wrong scent, I warrant 'ee. But if thee keep'st a good hart, thee'lt be at whoam afore they know thee'st gotten off. Coom!'
Smike, who comprehended just enough of this to know it was intended as encouragement, prepared to follow with tottering steps, when John whispered in his ear.
'Thee'lt just tell yoong Measther that I'm sploiced to 'Tilly Price, and to be heerd on at the Saracen by latther, and that I bean't jealous of 'un—dang it, I'm loike to boost when I think o' that neight! 'Cod, I think I see 'un now, a powderin' awa' at the thin bread an' butther!'
It was rather a ticklish recollection for John just then, for he was within an ace of breaking out into a loud guffaw. Restraining himself, however, just in time, by a great effort, he glided downstairs, hauling Smike behind him; and placing himself close to the parlour door, to confront the first person that might come out, signed to him to make off.
Having got so far, Smike needed no second bidding. Opening the house-door gently, and casting a look of mingled gratitude and terror at his deliverer, he took the direction which had been indicated to him, and sped away like the wind.
The Yorkshireman remained on his post for a few minutes, but, finding that there was no pause in the conversation inside, crept back again unheard, and stood, listening over the stair-rail, for a full hour. Everything remaining perfectly quiet, he got into Mr Squeers's bed, once more, and drawing the clothes over his head, laughed till he was nearly smothered.
If there could only have been somebody by, to see how the bedclothes shook, and to see the Yorkshireman's great red face and round head appear above the sheets, every now and then, like some jovial monster coming to the surface to breathe, and once more dive down convulsed with the laughter which came bursting forth afresh—that somebody would have been scarcely less amused than John Browdie himself.
In which Nicholas falls in Love. He employs a Mediator, whose Proceedings are crowned with unexpected Success, excepting in one solitary Particular
Once more out of the clutches of his old persecutor, it needed no fresh stimulation to call forth the utmost energy and exertion that Smike was capable of summoning to his aid. Without pausing for a moment to reflect upon the course he was taking, or the probability of its leading him homewards or the reverse, he fled away with surprising swiftness and constancy of purpose, borne upon such wings as only Fear can wear, and impelled by imaginary shouts in the well remembered voice of Squeers, who, with a host of pursuers, seemed to the poor fellow's disordered senses to press hard upon his track; now left at a greater distance in the rear, and now gaining faster and faster upon him, as the alternations of hope and terror agitated him by turns. Long after he had become assured that these sounds were but the creation of his excited brain, he still held on, at a pace which even weakness and exhaustion could scarcely retard. It was not until the darkness and quiet of a country road, recalled him to a sense of external objects, and the starry sky, above, warned him of the rapid flight of time, that, covered with dust and panting for breath, he stopped to listen and look about him.
All was still and silent. A glare of light in the distance, casting a warm glow upon the sky, marked where the huge city lay. Solitary fields, divided by hedges and ditches, through many of which he had crashed and scrambled in his flight, skirted the road, both by the way he had come and upon the opposite side. It was late now. They could scarcely trace him by such paths as he had taken, and if he could hope to regain his own dwelling, it must surely be at such a time as that, and under cover of the darkness. This, by degrees, became pretty plain, even to the mind of Smike. He had, at first, entertained some vague and childish idea of travelling into the country for ten or a dozen miles, and then returning homewards by a wide circuit, which should keep him clear of London—so great was his apprehension of traversing the streets alone, lest he should again encounter his dreaded enemy—but, yielding to the conviction which these thoughts inspired, he turned back, and taking the open road, though not without many fears and misgivings, made for London again, with scarcely less speed of foot than that with which he had left the temporary abode of Mr Squeers.
By the time he re-entered it, at the western extremity, the greater part of the shops were closed. Of the throngs of people who had been tempted abroad after the heat of the day, but few remained in the streets, and they were lounging home. But of these he asked his way from time to time, and by dint of repeated inquiries, he at length reached the dwelling of Newman Noggs.
All that evening, Newman had been hunting and searching in byways and corners for the very person who now knocked at his door, while Nicholas had been pursuing the same inquiry in other directions. He was sitting, with a melancholy air, at his poor supper, when Smike's timorous and uncertain knock reached his ears. Alive to every sound, in his anxious and expectant state, Newman hurried downstairs, and, uttering a cry of joyful surprise, dragged the welcome visitor into the passage and up the stairs, and said not a word until he had him safe in his own garret and the door was shut behind them, when he mixed a great mug-full of gin-and-water, and holding it to Smike's mouth, as one might hold a bowl of medicine to the lips of a refractory child, commanded him to drain it to the last drop.
Newman looked uncommonly blank when he found that Smike did little more than put his lips to the precious mixture; he was in the act of raising the mug to his own mouth with a deep sigh of compassion for his poor friend's weakness, when Smike, beginning to relate the adventures which had befallen him, arrested him half-way, and he stood listening, with the mug in his hand.
It was odd enough to see the change that came over Newman as Smike proceeded. At first he stood, rubbing his lips with the back of his hand, as a preparatory ceremony towards composing himself for a draught; then, at the mention of Squeers, he took the mug under his arm, and opening his eyes very wide, looked on, in the utmost astonishment. When Smike came to the assault upon himself in the hackney coach, he hastily deposited the mug upon the table, and limped up and down the room in a state of the greatest excitement, stopping himself with a jerk, every now and then, as if to listen more attentively. When John Browdie came to be spoken of, he dropped, by slow and gradual degrees, into a chair, and rubbing, his hands upon his knees—quicker and quicker as the story reached its climax—burst, at last, into a laugh composed of one loud sonorous 'Ha! ha!' having given vent to which, his countenance immediately fell again as he inquired, with the utmost anxiety, whether it was probable that John Browdie and Squeers had come to blows.
'No! I think not,' replied Smike. 'I don't think he could have missed me till I had got quite away.'
Newman scratched his head with a shout of great disappointment, and once more lifting up the mug, applied himself to the contents; smiling meanwhile, over the rim, with a grim and ghastly smile at Smike.
'You shall stay here,' said Newman; 'you're tired—fagged. I'll tell them you're come back. They have been half mad about you. Mr Nicholas—'
'God bless him!' cried Smike.
'Amen!' returned Newman. 'He hasn't had a minute's rest or peace; no more has the old lady, nor Miss Nickleby.'
'No, no. Has SHE thought about me?' said Smike. 'Has she though? oh, has she, has she? Don't tell me so if she has not.'
'She has,' cried Newman. 'She is as noble-hearted as she is beautiful.'
'Yes, yes!' cried Smike. 'Well said!'
'So mild and gentle,' said Newman.
'Yes, yes!' cried Smike, with increasing eagerness.
'And yet with such a true and gallant spirit,' pursued Newman.
He was going on, in his enthusiasm, when, chancing to look at his companion, he saw that he had covered his face with his hands, and that tears were stealing out between his fingers.
A moment before, the boy's eyes were sparkling with unwonted fire, and every feature had been lighted up with an excitement which made him appear, for the moment, quite a different being.
'Well, well,' muttered Newman, as if he were a little puzzled. 'It has touched ME, more than once, to think such a nature should have been exposed to such trials; this poor fellow—yes, yes,—he feels that too—it softens him—makes him think of his former misery. Hah! That's it? Yes, that's—hum!'
It was by no means clear, from the tone of these broken reflections, that Newman Noggs considered them as explaining, at all satisfactorily, the emotion which had suggested them. He sat, in a musing attitude, for some time, regarding Smike occasionally with an anxious and doubtful glance, which sufficiently showed that he was not very remotely connected with his thoughts.
At length he repeated his proposition that Smike should remain where he was for that night, and that he (Noggs) should straightway repair to the cottage to relieve the suspense of the family. But, as Smike would not hear of this—pleading his anxiety to see his friends again—they eventually sallied forth together; and the night being, by this time, far advanced, and Smike being, besides, so footsore that he could hardly crawl along, it was within an hour of sunrise when they reached their destination.
At the first sound of their voices outside the house, Nicholas, who had passed a sleepless night, devising schemes for the recovery of his lost charge, started from his bed, and joyfully admitted them. There was so much noisy conversation, and congratulation, and indignation, that the remainder of the family were soon awakened, and Smike received a warm and cordial welcome, not only from Kate, but from Mrs Nickleby also, who assured him of her future favour and regard, and was so obliging as to relate, for his entertainment and that of the assembled circle, a most remarkable account extracted from some work the name of which she had never known, of a miraculous escape from some prison, but what one she couldn't remember, effected by an officer whose name she had forgotten, confined for some crime which she didn't clearly recollect.
At first Nicholas was disposed to give his uncle credit for some portion of this bold attempt (which had so nearly proved successful) to carry off Smike; but on more mature consideration, he was inclined to think that the full merit of it rested with Mr Squeers. Determined to ascertain, if he could, through John Browdie, how the case really stood, he betook himself to his daily occupation: meditating, as he went, on a great variety of schemes for the punishment of the Yorkshire schoolmaster, all of which had their foundation in the strictest principles of retributive justice, and had but the one drawback of being wholly impracticable.
'A fine morning, Mr Linkinwater!' said Nicholas, entering the office.
'Ah!' replied Tim, 'talk of the country, indeed! What do you think of this, now, for a day—a London day—eh?'
'It's a little clearer out of town,' said Nicholas.
'Clearer!' echoed Tim Linkinwater. 'You should see it from my bedroom window.'
'You should see it from MINE,' replied Nicholas, with a smile.
'Pooh! pooh!' said Tim Linkinwater, 'don't tell me. Country!' (Bow was quite a rustic place to Tim.) 'Nonsense! What can you get in the country but new-laid eggs and flowers? I can buy new-laid eggs in Leadenhall Market, any morning before breakfast; and as to flowers, it's worth a run upstairs to smell my mignonette, or to see the double wallflower in the back-attic window, at No. 6, in the court.'
'There is a double wallflower at No. 6, in the court, is there?' said Nicholas.
'Yes, is there!' replied Tim, 'and planted in a cracked jug, without a spout. There were hyacinths there, this last spring, blossoming, in—but you'll laugh at that, of course.'
'At their blossoming in old blacking-bottles,' said Tim.
'Not I, indeed,' returned Nicholas.
Tim looked wistfully at him, for a moment, as if he were encouraged by the tone of this reply to be more communicative on the subject; and sticking behind his ear, a pen that he had been making, and shutting up his knife with a smart click, said,
'They belong to a sickly bedridden hump-backed boy, and seem to be the only pleasure, Mr Nickleby, of his sad existence. How many years is it,' said Tim, pondering, 'since I first noticed him, quite a little child, dragging himself about on a pair of tiny crutches? Well! Well! Not many; but though they would appear nothing, if I thought of other things, they seem a long, long time, when I think of him. It is a sad thing,' said Tim, breaking off, 'to see a little deformed child sitting apart from other children, who are active and merry, watching the games he is denied the power to share in. He made my heart ache very often.'
'It is a good heart,' said Nicholas, 'that disentangles itself from the close avocations of every day, to heed such things. You were saying—'
'That the flowers belonged to this poor boy,' said Tim; 'that's all. When it is fine weather, and he can crawl out of bed, he draws a chair close to the window, and sits there, looking at them and arranging them, all day long. He used to nod, at first, and then we came to speak. Formerly, when I called to him of a morning, and asked him how he was, he would smile, and say, "Better!" but now he shakes his head, and only bends more closely over his old plants. It must be dull to watch the dark housetops and the flying clouds, for so many months; but he is very patient.'
'Is there nobody in the house to cheer or help him?' asked Nicholas.
'His father lives there, I believe,' replied Tim, 'and other people too; but no one seems to care much for the poor sickly cripple. I have asked him, very often, if I can do nothing for him; his answer is always the same. "Nothing." His voice is growing weak of late, but I can SEE that he makes the old reply. He can't leave his bed now, so they have moved it close beside the window, and there he lies, all day: now looking at the sky, and now at his flowers, which he still makes shift to trim and water, with his own thin hands. At night, when he sees my candle, he draws back his curtain, and leaves it so, till I am in bed. It seems such company to him to know that I am there, that I often sit at my window for an hour or more, that he may see I am still awake; and sometimes I get up in the night to look at the dull melancholy light in his little room, and wonder whether he is awake or sleeping.
'The night will not be long coming,' said Tim, 'when he will sleep, and never wake again on earth. We have never so much as shaken hands in all our lives; and yet I shall miss him like an old friend. Are there any country flowers that could interest me like these, do you think? Or do you suppose that the withering of a hundred kinds of the choicest flowers that blow, called by the hardest Latin names that were ever invented, would give me one fraction of the pain that I shall feel when these old jugs and bottles are swept away as lumber? Country!' cried Tim, with a contemptuous emphasis; 'don't you know that I couldn't have such a court under my bedroom window, anywhere, but in London?'
With which inquiry, Tim turned his back, and pretending to be absorbed in his accounts, took an opportunity of hastily wiping his eyes when he supposed Nicholas was looking another way.
Whether it was that Tim's accounts were more than usually intricate that morning, or whether it was that his habitual serenity had been a little disturbed by these recollections, it so happened that when Nicholas returned from executing some commission, and inquired whether Mr Charles Cheeryble was alone in his room, Tim promptly, and without the smallest hesitation, replied in the affirmative, although somebody had passed into the room not ten minutes before, and Tim took especial and particular pride in preventing any intrusion on either of the brothers when they were engaged with any visitor whatever.
'I'll take this letter to him at once,' said Nicholas, 'if that's the case.' And with that, he walked to the room and knocked at the door.
Another knock, and still no answer.
'He can't be here,' thought Nicholas. 'I'll lay it on his table.'
So, Nicholas opened the door and walked in; and very quickly he turned to walk out again, when he saw, to his great astonishment and discomfiture, a young lady upon her knees at Mr Cheeryble's feet, and Mr Cheeryble beseeching her to rise, and entreating a third person, who had the appearance of the young lady's female attendant, to add her persuasions to his to induce her to do so.
Nicholas stammered out an awkward apology, and was precipitately retiring, when the young lady, turning her head a little, presented to his view the features of the lovely girl whom he had seen at the register-office on his first visit long before. Glancing from her to the attendant, he recognised the same clumsy servant who had accompanied her then; and between his admiration of the young lady's beauty, and the confusion and surprise of this unexpected recognition, he stood stock-still, in such a bewildered state of surprise and embarrassment that, for the moment, he was quite bereft of the power either to speak or move.
'My dear ma'am—my dear young lady,' cried brother Charles in violent agitation, 'pray don't—not another word, I beseech and entreat you! I implore you—I beg of you—to rise. We—we—are not alone.'
As he spoke, he raised the young lady, who staggered to a chair and swooned away.
'She has fainted, sir,' said Nicholas, darting eagerly forward.
'Poor dear, poor dear!' cried brother Charles 'Where is my brother Ned? Ned, my dear brother, come here pray.'
'Brother Charles, my dear fellow,' replied his brother, hurrying into the room, 'what is the—ah! what—'
'Hush! hush!—not a word for your life, brother Ned,' returned the other. 'Ring for the housekeeper, my dear brother—call Tim Linkinwater! Here, Tim Linkinwater, sir—Mr Nickleby, my dear sir, leave the room, I beg and beseech of you.'
'I think she is better now,' said Nicholas, who had been watching the patient so eagerly, that he had not heard the request.
'Poor bird!' cried brother Charles, gently taking her hand in his, and laying her head upon his arm. 'Brother Ned, my dear fellow, you will be surprised, I know, to witness this, in business hours; but—' here he was again reminded of the presence of Nicholas, and shaking him by the hand, earnestly requested him to leave the room, and to send Tim Linkinwater without an instant's delay.
Nicholas immediately withdrew and, on his way to the counting-house, met both the old housekeeper and Tim Linkinwater, jostling each other in the passage, and hurrying to the scene of action with extraordinary speed. Without waiting to hear his message, Tim Linkinwater darted into the room, and presently afterwards Nicholas heard the door shut and locked on the inside.
He had abundance of time to ruminate on this discovery, for Tim Linkinwater was absent during the greater part of an hour, during the whole of which time Nicholas thought of nothing but the young lady, and her exceeding beauty, and what could possibly have brought her there, and why they made such a mystery of it. The more he thought of all this, the more it perplexed him, and the more anxious he became to know who and what she was. 'I should have known her among ten thousand,' thought Nicholas. And with that he walked up and down the room, and recalling her face and figure (of which he had a peculiarly vivid remembrance), discarded all other subjects of reflection and dwelt upon that alone.
At length Tim Linkinwater came back—provokingly cool, and with papers in his hand, and a pen in his mouth, as if nothing had happened.
'Is she quite recovered?' said Nicholas, impetuously.
'Who?' returned Tim Linkinwater.
'Who!' repeated Nicholas. 'The young lady.'
'What do you make, Mr Nickleby,' said Tim, taking his pen out of his mouth, 'what do you make of four hundred and twenty-seven times three thousand two hundred and thirty-eight?'
'Nay,' returned Nicholas, 'what do you make of my question first? I asked you—'
'About the young lady,' said Tim Linkinwater, putting on his spectacles. 'To be sure. Yes. Oh! she's very well.'
'Very well, is she?' returned Nicholas.
'Very well,' replied Mr Linkinwater, gravely.
'Will she be able to go home today?' asked Nicholas.
'She's gone,' said Tim.
'I hope she has not far to go?' said Nicholas, looking earnestly at the other.
'Ay,' replied the immovable Tim, 'I hope she hasn't.'
Nicholas hazarded one or two further remarks, but it was evident that Tim Linkinwater had his own reasons for evading the subject, and that he was determined to afford no further information respecting the fair unknown, who had awakened so much curiosity in the breast of his young friend. Nothing daunted by this repulse, Nicholas returned to the charge next day, emboldened by the circumstance of Mr Linkinwater being in a very talkative and communicative mood; but, directly he resumed the theme, Tim relapsed into a state of most provoking taciturnity, and from answering in monosyllables, came to returning no answers at all, save such as were to be inferred from several grave nods and shrugs, which only served to whet that appetite for intelligence in Nicholas, which had already attained a most unreasonable height.
Foiled in these attempts, he was fain to content himself with watching for the young lady's next visit, but here again he was disappointed. Day after day passed, and she did not return. He looked eagerly at the superscription of all the notes and letters, but there was not one among them which he could fancy to be in her handwriting. On two or three occasions he was employed on business which took him to a distance, and had formerly been transacted by Tim Linkinwater. Nicholas could not help suspecting that, for some reason or other, he was sent out of the way on purpose, and that the young lady was there in his absence. Nothing transpired, however, to confirm this suspicion, and Tim could not be entrapped into any confession or admission tending to support it in the smallest degree.
Mystery and disappointment are not absolutely indispensable to the growth of love, but they are, very often, its powerful auxiliaries. 'Out of sight, out of mind,' is well enough as a proverb applicable to cases of friendship, though absence is not always necessary to hollowness of heart, even between friends, and truth and honesty, like precious stones, are perhaps most easily imitated at a distance, when the counterfeits often pass for real. Love, however, is very materially assisted by a warm and active imagination: which has a long memory, and will thrive, for a considerable time, on very slight and sparing food. Thus it is, that it often attains its most luxuriant growth in separation and under circumstances of the utmost difficulty; and thus it was, that Nicholas, thinking of nothing but the unknown young lady, from day to day and from hour to hour, began, at last, to think that he was very desperately in love with her, and that never was such an ill-used and persecuted lover as he.
Still, though he loved and languished after the most orthodox models, and was only deterred from making a confidante of Kate by the slight considerations of having never, in all his life, spoken to the object of his passion, and having never set eyes upon her, except on two occasions, on both of which she had come and gone like a flash of lightning—or, as Nicholas himself said, in the numerous conversations he held with himself, like a vision of youth and beauty much too bright to last—his ardour and devotion remained without its reward. The young lady appeared no more; so there was a great deal of love wasted (enough indeed to have set up half-a-dozen young gentlemen, as times go, with the utmost decency), and nobody was a bit the wiser for it; not even Nicholas himself, who, on the contrary, became more dull, sentimental, and lackadaisical, every day.
While matters were in this state, the failure of a correspondent of the brothers Cheeryble, in Germany, imposed upon Tim Linkinwater and Nicholas the necessity of going through some very long and complicated accounts, extending over a considerable space of time. To get through them with the greater dispatch, Tim Linkinwater proposed that they should remain at the counting-house, for a week or so, until ten o'clock at night; to this, as nothing damped the zeal of Nicholas in the service of his kind patrons—not even romance, which has seldom business habits—he cheerfully assented. On the very first night of these later hours, at nine exactly, there came: not the young lady herself, but her servant, who, being closeted with brother Charles for some time, went away, and returned next night at the same hour, and on the next, and on the next again.
These repeated visits inflamed the curiosity of Nicholas to the very highest pitch. Tantalised and excited, beyond all bearing, and unable to fathom the mystery without neglecting his duty, he confided the whole secret to Newman Noggs, imploring him to be on the watch next night; to follow the girl home; to set on foot such inquiries relative to the name, condition, and history of her mistress, as he could, without exciting suspicion; and to report the result to him with the least possible delay.
Beyond all measure proud of this commission, Newman Noggs took up his post, in the square, on the following evening, a full hour before the needful time, and planting himself behind the pump and pulling his hat over his eyes, began his watch with an elaborate appearance of mystery, admirably calculated to excite the suspicion of all beholders. Indeed, divers servant girls who came to draw water, and sundry little boys who stopped to drink at the ladle, were almost scared out of their senses, by the apparition of Newman Noggs looking stealthily round the pump, with nothing of him visible but his face, and that wearing the expression of a meditative Ogre.
Punctual to her time, the messenger came again, and, after an interview of rather longer duration than usual, departed. Newman had made two appointments with Nicholas: one for the next evening, conditional on his success: and one the next night following, which was to be kept under all circumstances. The first night he was not at the place of meeting (a certain tavern about half-way between the city and Golden Square), but on the second night he was there before Nicholas, and received him with open arms.
'It's all right,' whispered Newman. 'Sit down. Sit down, there's a dear young man, and let me tell you all about it.'
Nicholas needed no second invitation, and eagerly inquired what was the news.
'There's a great deal of news,' said Newman, in a flutter of exultation. 'It's all right. Don't be anxious. I don't know where to begin. Never mind that. Keep up your spirits. It's all right.'
'Well?' said Nicholas eagerly. 'Yes?'
'Yes,' replied Newman. 'That's it.'
'What's it?' said Nicholas. 'The name—the name, my dear fellow!'
'The name's Bobster,' replied Newman.
'Bobster!' repeated Nicholas, indignantly.
'That's the name,' said Newman. 'I remember it by lobster.'
'Bobster!' repeated Nicholas, more emphatically than before. 'That must be the servant's name.'
'No, it an't,' said Newman, shaking his head with great positiveness. 'Miss Cecilia Bobster.'
'Cecilia, eh?' returned Nicholas, muttering the two names together over and over again in every variety of tone, to try the effect. 'Well, Cecilia is a pretty name.'
'Very. And a pretty creature too,' said Newman.
'Who?' said Nicholas.
'Why, where have you seen her?' demanded Nicholas.
'Never mind, my dear boy,' retorted Noggs, clapping him on the shoulder. 'I HAVE seen her. You shall see her. I've managed it all.'
'My dear Newman,' cried Nicholas, grasping his hand, 'are you serious?'
'I am,' replied Newman. 'I mean it all. Every word. You shall see her tomorrow night. She consents to hear you speak for yourself. I persuaded her. She is all affability, goodness, sweetness, and beauty.'
'I know she is; I know she must be, Newman!' said Nicholas, wringing his hand.
'You are right,' returned Newman.
'Where does she live?' cried Nicholas. 'What have you learnt of her history? Has she a father—mother—any brothers—sisters? What did she say? How came you to see her? Was she not very much surprised? Did you say how passionately I have longed to speak to her? Did you tell her where I had seen her? Did you tell her how, and when, and where, and how long, and how often, I have thought of that sweet face which came upon me in my bitterest distress like a glimpse of some better world—did you, Newman—did you?'
Poor Noggs literally gasped for breath as this flood of questions rushed upon him, and moved spasmodically in his chair at every fresh inquiry, staring at Nicholas meanwhile with a most ludicrous expression of perplexity.
'No,' said Newman, 'I didn't tell her that.'
'Didn't tell her which?' asked Nicholas.
'About the glimpse of the better world,' said Newman. 'I didn't tell her who you were, either, or where you'd seen her. I said you loved her to distraction.'
'That's true, Newman,' replied Nicholas, with his characteristic vehemence. 'Heaven knows I do!'
'I said too, that you had admired her for a long time in secret,' said Newman.
'Yes, yes. What did she say to that?' asked Nicholas.
'Blushed,' said Newman.
'To be sure. Of course she would,' said Nicholas approvingly. Newman then went on to say, that the young lady was an only child, that her mother was dead, that she resided with her father, and that she had been induced to allow her lover a secret interview, at the intercession of her servant, who had great influence with her. He further related how it required much moving and great eloquence to bring the young lady to this pass; how it was expressly understood that she merely afforded Nicholas an opportunity of declaring his passion; and how she by no means pledged herself to be favourably impressed with his attentions. The mystery of her visits to the brothers Cheeryble remained wholly unexplained, for Newman had not alluded to them, either in his preliminary conversations with the servant or his subsequent interview with the mistress, merely remarking that he had been instructed to watch the girl home and plead his young friend's cause, and not saying how far he had followed her, or from what point. But Newman hinted that from what had fallen from the confidante, he had been led to suspect that the young lady led a very miserable and unhappy life, under the strict control of her only parent, who was of a violent and brutal temper; a circumstance which he thought might in some degree account, both for her having sought the protection and friendship of the brothers, and her suffering herself to be prevailed upon to grant the promised interview. The last he held to be a very logical deduction from the premises, inasmuch as it was but natural to suppose that a young lady, whose present condition was so unenviable, would be more than commonly desirous to change it.
It appeared, on further questioning—for it was only by a very long and arduous process that all this could be got out of Newman Noggs—that Newman, in explanation of his shabby appearance, had represented himself as being, for certain wise and indispensable purposes connected with that intrigue, in disguise; and, being questioned how he had come to exceed his commission so far as to procure an interview, he responded, that the lady appearing willing to grant it, he considered himself bound, both in duty and gallantry, to avail himself of such a golden means of enabling Nicholas to prosecute his addresses. After these and all possible questions had been asked and answered twenty times over, they parted, undertaking to meet on the following night at half-past ten, for the purpose of fulfilling the appointment; which was for eleven o'clock.
'Things come about very strangely!' thought Nicholas, as he walked home. 'I never contemplated anything of this kind; never dreamt of the possibility of it. To know something of the life of one in whom I felt such interest; to see her in the street, to pass the house in which she lived, to meet her sometimes in her walks, to hope that a day might come when I might be in a condition to tell her of my love, this was the utmost extent of my thoughts. Now, however—but I should be a fool, indeed, to repine at my own good fortune!'
Still, Nicholas was dissatisfied; and there was more in the dissatisfaction than mere revulsion of feeling. He was angry with the young lady for being so easily won, 'because,' reasoned Nicholas, 'it is not as if she knew it was I, but it might have been anybody,'—which was certainly not pleasant. The next moment, he was angry with himself for entertaining such thoughts, arguing that nothing but goodness could dwell in such a temple, and that the behaviour of the brothers sufficiently showed the estimation in which they held her. 'The fact is, she's a mystery altogether,' said Nicholas. This was not more satisfactory than his previous course of reflection, and only drove him out upon a new sea of speculation and conjecture, where he tossed and tumbled, in great discomfort of mind, until the clock struck ten, and the hour of meeting drew nigh.
Nicholas had dressed himself with great care, and even Newman Noggs had trimmed himself up a little; his coat presenting the phenomenon of two consecutive buttons, and the supplementary pins being inserted at tolerably regular intervals. He wore his hat, too, in the newest taste, with a pocket-handkerchief in the crown, and a twisted end of it straggling out behind after the fashion of a pigtail, though he could scarcely lay claim to the ingenuity of inventing this latter decoration, inasmuch as he was utterly unconscious of it: being in a nervous and excited condition which rendered him quite insensible to everything but the great object of the expedition.
They traversed the streets in profound silence; and after walking at a round pace for some distance, arrived in one, of a gloomy appearance and very little frequented, near the Edgeware Road.
'Number twelve,' said Newman.
'Oh!' replied Nicholas, looking about him.
'Good street?' said Newman.
'Yes,' returned Nicholas. 'Rather dull.'
Newman made no answer to this remark, but, halting abruptly, planted Nicholas with his back to some area railings, and gave him to understand that he was to wait there, without moving hand or foot, until it was satisfactorily ascertained that the coast was clear. This done, Noggs limped away with great alacrity; looking over his shoulder every instant, to make quite certain that Nicholas was obeying his directions; and, ascending the steps of a house some half-dozen doors off, was lost to view.
After a short delay, he reappeared, and limping back again, halted midway, and beckoned Nicholas to follow him.
'Well?' said Nicholas, advancing towards him on tiptoe.
'All right,' replied Newman, in high glee. 'All ready; nobody at home. Couldn't be better. Ha! ha!'
With this fortifying assurance, he stole past a street-door, on which Nicholas caught a glimpse of a brass plate, with 'BOBSTER,' in very large letters; and, stopping at the area-gate, which was open, signed to his young friend to descend.
'What the devil!' cried Nicholas, drawing back. 'Are we to sneak into the kitchen, as if we came after the forks?'
'Hush!' replied Newman. 'Old Bobster—ferocious Turk. He'd kill 'em all—box the young lady's ears—he does—often.'
'What!' cried Nicholas, in high wrath, 'do you mean to tell me that any man would dare to box the ears of such a—'
He had no time to sing the praises of his mistress, just then, for Newman gave him a gentle push which had nearly precipitated him to the bottom of the area steps. Thinking it best to take the hint in good part, Nicholas descended, without further remonstrance, but with a countenance bespeaking anything rather than the hope and rapture of a passionate lover. Newman followed—he would have followed head first, but for the timely assistance of Nicholas—and, taking his hand, led him through a stone passage, profoundly dark, into a back-kitchen or cellar, of the blackest and most pitchy obscurity, where they stopped.
'Well!' said Nicholas, in a discontented whisper, 'this is not all, I suppose, is it?'
'No, no,' rejoined Noggs; 'they'll be here directly. It's all right.'
'I am glad to hear it,' said Nicholas. 'I shouldn't have thought it, I confess.'
They exchanged no further words, and there Nicholas stood, listening to the loud breathing of Newman Noggs, and imagining that his nose seemed to glow like a red-hot coal, even in the midst of the darkness which enshrouded them. Suddenly the sound of cautious footsteps attracted his ear, and directly afterwards a female voice inquired if the gentleman was there.
'Yes,' replied Nicholas, turning towards the corner from which the voice proceeded. 'Who is that?'
'Only me, sir,' replied the voice. 'Now if you please, ma'am.'
A gleam of light shone into the place, and presently the servant girl appeared, bearing a light, and followed by her young mistress, who seemed to be overwhelmed by modesty and confusion.
At sight of the young lady, Nicholas started and changed colour; his heart beat violently, and he stood rooted to the spot. At that instant, and almost simultaneously with her arrival and that of the candle, there was heard a loud and furious knocking at the street-door, which caused Newman Noggs to jump up, with great agility, from a beer-barrel on which he had been seated astride, and to exclaim abruptly, and with a face of ashy paleness, 'Bobster, by the Lord!'
The young lady shrieked, the attendant wrung her hands, Nicholas gazed from one to the other in apparent stupefaction, and Newman hurried to and fro, thrusting his hands into all his pockets successively, and drawing out the linings of every one in the excess of his irresolution. It was but a moment, but the confusion crowded into that one moment no imagination can exaggerate.
'Leave the house, for Heaven's sake! We have done wrong, we deserve it all,' cried the young lady. 'Leave the house, or I am ruined and undone for ever.'
'Will you hear me say but one word?' cried Nicholas. 'Only one. I will not detain you. Will you hear me say one word, in explanation of this mischance?'
But Nicholas might as well have spoken to the wind, for the young lady, with distracted looks, hurried up the stairs. He would have followed her, but Newman, twisting his hand in his coat collar, dragged him towards the passage by which they had entered.
'Let me go, Newman, in the Devil's name!' cried Nicholas. 'I must speak to her. I will! I will not leave this house without.'
'Reputation—character—violence—consider,' said Newman, clinging round him with both arms, and hurrying him away. 'Let them open the door. We'll go, as we came, directly it's shut. Come. This way. Here.'
Overpowered by the remonstrances of Newman, and the tears and prayers of the girl, and the tremendous knocking above, which had never ceased, Nicholas allowed himself to be hurried off; and, precisely as Mr Bobster made his entrance by the street-door, he and Noggs made their exit by the area-gate.