Bray and his daughter were sitting there alone. It was nearly three weeks since he had seen her last, but there was a change in the lovely girl before him which told Nicholas, in startling terms, how much mental suffering had been compressed into that short time. There are no words which can express, nothing with which can be compared, the perfect pallor, the clear transparent whiteness, of the beautiful face which turned towards him when he entered. Her hair was a rich deep brown, but shading that face, and straying upon a neck that rivalled it in whiteness, it seemed by the strong contrast raven black. Something of wildness and restlessness there was in the dark eye, but there was the same patient look, the same expression of gentle mournfulness which he well remembered, and no trace of a single tear. Most beautiful—more beautiful, perhaps, than ever—there was something in her face which quite unmanned him, and appeared far more touching than the wildest agony of grief. It was not merely calm and composed, but fixed and rigid, as though the violent effort which had summoned that composure beneath her father's eye, while it mastered all other thoughts, had prevented even the momentary expression they had communicated to the features from subsiding, and had fastened it there, as an evidence of its triumph.
The father sat opposite to her; not looking directly in her face, but glancing at her, as he talked with a gay air which ill disguised the anxiety of his thoughts. The drawing materials were not on their accustomed table, nor were any of the other tokens of her usual occupations to be seen. The little vases which Nicholas had always seen filled with fresh flowers were empty, or supplied only with a few withered stalks and leaves. The bird was silent. The cloth that covered his cage at night was not removed. His mistress had forgotten him.
There are times when, the mind being painfully alive to receive impressions, a great deal may be noted at a glance. This was one, for Nicholas had but glanced round him when he was recognised by Mr Bray, who said impatiently:
'Now, sir, what do you want? Name your errand here, quickly, if you please, for my daughter and I are busily engaged with other and more important matters than those you come about. Come, sir, address yourself to your business at once.'
Nicholas could very well discern that the irritability and impatience of this speech were assumed, and that Bray, in his heart, was rejoiced at any interruption which promised to engage the attention of his daughter. He bent his eyes involuntarily upon the father as he spoke, and marked his uneasiness; for he coloured and turned his head away.
The device, however, so far as it was a device for causing Madeline to interfere, was successful. She rose, and advancing towards Nicholas paused half-way, and stretched out her hand as expecting a letter.
'Madeline,' said her father impatiently, 'my love, what are you doing?'
'Miss Bray expects an inclosure perhaps,' said Nicholas, speaking very distinctly, and with an emphasis she could scarcely misunderstand. 'My employer is absent from England, or I should have brought a letter with me. I hope she will give me time—a little time. I ask a very little time.'
'If that is all you come about, sir,' said Mr Bray, 'you may make yourself easy on that head. Madeline, my dear, I didn't know this person was in your debt?'
'A—a trifle, I believe,' returned Madeline, faintly.
'I suppose you think now,' said Bray, wheeling his chair round and confronting Nicholas, 'that, but for such pitiful sums as you bring here, because my daughter has chosen to employ her time as she has, we should starve?'
'I have not thought about it,' returned Nicholas.
'You have not thought about it!' sneered the invalid. 'You know you HAVE thought about it, and have thought that, and think so every time you come here. Do you suppose, young man, that I don't know what little purse-proud tradesmen are, when, through some fortunate circumstances, they get the upper hand for a brief day—or think they get the upper hand—of a gentleman?'
'My business,' said Nicholas respectfully, 'is with a lady.'
'With a gentleman's daughter, sir,' returned the sick man, 'and the pettifogging spirit is the same. But perhaps you bring ORDERS, eh? Have you any fresh ORDERS for my daughter, sir?'
Nicholas understood the tone of triumph in which this interrogatory was put; but remembering the necessity of supporting his assumed character, produced a scrap of paper purporting to contain a list of some subjects for drawings which his employer desired to have executed; and with which he had prepared himself in case of any such contingency.
'Oh!' said Mr Bray. 'These are the orders, are they?'
'Since you insist upon the term, sir, yes,' replied Nicholas.
'Then you may tell your master,' said Bray, tossing the paper back again, with an exulting smile, 'that my daughter, Miss Madeline Bray, condescends to employ herself no longer in such labours as these; that she is not at his beck and call, as he supposes her to be; that we don't live upon his money, as he flatters himself we do; that he may give whatever he owes us, to the first beggar that passes his shop, or add it to his own profits next time he calculates them; and that he may go to the devil for me. That's my acknowledgment of his orders, sir!'
'And this is the independence of a man who sells his daughter as he has sold that weeping girl!' thought Nicholas.
The father was too much absorbed with his own exultation to mark the look of scorn which, for an instant, Nicholas could not have suppressed had he been upon the rack. 'There,' he continued, after a short silence, 'you have your message and can retire—unless you have any further—ha!—any further orders.'
'I have none,' said Nicholas; 'nor, in the consideration of the station you once held, have I used that or any other word which, however harmless in itself, could be supposed to imply authority on my part or dependence on yours. I have no orders, but I have fears—fears that I will express, chafe as you may—fears that you may be consigning that young lady to something worse than supporting you by the labour of her hands, had she worked herself dead. These are my fears, and these fears I found upon your own demeanour. Your conscience will tell you, sir, whether I construe it well or not.'
'For Heaven's sake!' cried Madeline, interposing in alarm between them. 'Remember, sir, he is ill.'
'Ill!' cried the invalid, gasping and catching for breath. 'Ill! Ill! I am bearded and bullied by a shop-boy, and she beseeches him to pity me and remember I am ill!'
He fell into a paroxysm of his disorder, so violent that for a few moments Nicholas was alarmed for his life; but finding that he began to recover, he withdrew, after signifying by a gesture to the young lady that he had something important to communicate, and would wait for her outside the room. He could hear that the sick man came gradually, but slowly, to himself, and that without any reference to what had just occurred, as though he had no distinct recollection of it as yet, he requested to be left alone.
'Oh!' thought Nicholas, 'that this slender chance might not be lost, and that I might prevail, if it were but for one week's time and reconsideration!'
'You are charged with some commission to me, sir,' said Madeline, presenting herself in great agitation. 'Do not press it now, I beg and pray you. The day after tomorrow; come here then.'
'It will be too late—too late for what I have to say,' rejoined Nicholas, 'and you will not be here. Oh, madam, if you have but one thought of him who sent me here, but one last lingering care for your own peace of mind and heart, I do for God's sake urge you to give me a hearing.'
She attempted to pass him, but Nicholas gently detained her.
'A hearing,' said Nicholas. 'I ask you but to hear me: not me alone, but him for whom I speak, who is far away and does not know your danger. In the name of Heaven hear me!'
The poor attendant, with her eyes swollen and red with weeping, stood by; and to her Nicholas appealed in such passionate terms that she opened a side-door, and, supporting her mistress into an adjoining room, beckoned Nicholas to follow them.
'Leave me, sir, pray,' said the young lady.
'I cannot, will not leave you thus,' returned Nicholas. 'I have a duty to discharge; and, either here, or in the room from which we have just now come, at whatever risk or hazard to Mr Bray, I must beseech you to contemplate again the fearful course to which you have been impelled.'
'What course is this you speak of, and impelled by whom, sir?' demanded the young lady, with an effort to speak proudly.
'I speak of this marriage,' returned Nicholas, 'of this marriage, fixed for tomorrow, by one who never faltered in a bad purpose, or lent his aid to any good design; of this marriage, the history of which is known to me, better, far better, than it is to you. I know what web is wound about you. I know what men they are from whom these schemes have come. You are betrayed and sold for money; for gold, whose every coin is rusted with tears, if not red with the blood of ruined men, who have fallen desperately by their own mad hands.'
'You say you have a duty to discharge,' said Madeline, 'and so have I. And with the help of Heaven I will perform it.'
'Say rather with the help of devils,' replied Nicholas, 'with the help of men, one of them your destined husband, who are—'
'I must not hear this,' cried the young lady, striving to repress a shudder, occasioned, as it seemed, even by this slight allusion to Arthur Gride. 'This evil, if evil it be, has been of my own seeking. I am impelled to this course by no one, but follow it of my own free will. You see I am not constrained or forced. Report this,' said Madeline, 'to my dear friend and benefactor, and, taking with you my prayers and thanks for him and for yourself, leave me for ever!'
'Not until I have besought you, with all the earnestness and fervour by which I am animated,' cried Nicholas, 'to postpone this marriage for one short week. Not until I have besought you to think more deeply than you can have done, influenced as you are, upon the step you are about to take. Although you cannot be fully conscious of the villainy of this man to whom you are about to give your hand, some of his deeds you know. You have heard him speak, and have looked upon his face. Reflect, reflect, before it is too late, on the mockery of plighting to him at the altar, faith in which your heart can have no share—of uttering solemn words, against which nature and reason must rebel—of the degradation of yourself in your own esteem, which must ensue, and must be aggravated every day, as his detested character opens upon you more and more. Shrink from the loathsome companionship of this wretch as you would from corruption and disease. Suffer toil and labour if you will, but shun him, shun him, and be happy. For, believe me, I speak the truth; the most abject poverty, the most wretched condition of human life, with a pure and upright mind, would be happiness to that which you must undergo as the wife of such a man as this!'
Long before Nicholas ceased to speak, the young lady buried her face in her hands, and gave her tears free way. In a voice at first inarticulate with emotion, but gradually recovering strength as she proceeded, she answered him:
'I will not disguise from you, sir—though perhaps I ought—that I have undergone great pain of mind, and have been nearly broken-hearted since I saw you last. I do NOT love this gentleman. The difference between our ages, tastes, and habits, forbids it. This he knows, and knowing, still offers me his hand. By accepting it, and by that step alone, I can release my father who is dying in this place; prolong his life, perhaps, for many years; restore him to comfort—I may almost call it affluence; and relieve a generous man from the burden of assisting one, by whom, I grieve to say, his noble heart is little understood. Do not think so poorly of me as to believe that I feign a love I do not feel. Do not report so ill of me, for THAT I could not bear. If I cannot, in reason or in nature, love the man who pays this price for my poor hand, I can discharge the duties of a wife: I can be all he seeks in me, and will. He is content to take me as I am. I have passed my word, and should rejoice, not weep, that it is so. I do. The interest you take in one so friendless and forlorn as I, the delicacy with which you have discharged your trust, the faith you have kept with me, have my warmest thanks: and, while I make this last feeble acknowledgment, move me to tears, as you see. But I do not repent, nor am I unhappy. I am happy in the prospect of all I can achieve so easily. I shall be more so when I look back upon it, and all is done, I know.'
'Your tears fall faster as you talk of happiness,' said Nicholas, 'and you shun the contemplation of that dark future which must be laden with so much misery to you. Defer this marriage for a week. For but one week!'
'He was talking, when you came upon us just now, with such smiles as I remember to have seen of old, and have not seen for many and many a day, of the freedom that was to come tomorrow,' said Madeline, with momentary firmness, 'of the welcome change, the fresh air: all the new scenes and objects that would bring fresh life to his exhausted frame. His eye grew bright, and his face lightened at the thought. I will not defer it for an hour.'
'These are but tricks and wiles to urge you on,' cried Nicholas.
'I'll hear no more,' said Madeline, hurriedly; 'I have heard too much—more than I should—already. What I have said to you, sir, I have said as to that dear friend to whom I trust in you honourably to repeat it. Some time hence, when I am more composed and reconciled to my new mode of life, if I should live so long, I will write to him. Meantime, all holy angels shower blessings on his head, and prosper and preserve him.'
She was hurrying past Nicholas, when he threw himself before her, and implored her to think, but once again, upon the fate to which she was precipitately hastening.
'There is no retreat,' said Nicholas, in an agony of supplication; 'no withdrawing! All regret will be unavailing, and deep and bitter it must be. What can I say, that will induce you to pause at this last moment? What can I do to save you?'
'Nothing,' she incoherently replied. 'This is the hardest trial I have had. Have mercy on me, sir, I beseech, and do not pierce my heart with such appeals as these. I—I hear him calling. I—I—must not, will not, remain here for another instant.'
'If this were a plot,' said Nicholas, with the same violent rapidity with which she spoke, 'a plot, not yet laid bare by me, but which, with time, I might unravel; if you were (not knowing it) entitled to fortune of your own, which, being recovered, would do all that this marriage can accomplish, would you not retract?'
'No, no, no! It is impossible; it is a child's tale. Time would bring his death. He is calling again!'
'It may be the last time we shall ever meet on earth,' said Nicholas, 'it may be better for me that we should never meet more.'
'For both, for both,' replied Madeline, not heeding what she said. 'The time will come when to recall the memory of this one interview might drive me mad. Be sure to tell them, that you left me calm and happy. And God be with you, sir, and my grateful heart and blessing!'
She was gone. Nicholas, staggering from the house, thought of the hurried scene which had just closed upon him, as if it were the phantom of some wild, unquiet dream. The day wore on; at night, having been enabled in some measure to collect his thoughts, he issued forth again.
That night, being the last of Arthur Gride's bachelorship, found him in tiptop spirits and great glee. The bottle-green suit had been brushed, ready for the morrow. Peg Sliderskew had rendered the accounts of her past housekeeping; the eighteen-pence had been rigidly accounted for (she was never trusted with a larger sum at once, and the accounts were not usually balanced more than twice a day); every preparation had been made for the coming festival; and Arthur might have sat down and contemplated his approaching happiness, but that he preferred sitting down and contemplating the entries in a dirty old vellum-book with rusty clasps.
'Well-a-day!' he chuckled, as sinking on his knees before a strong chest screwed down to the floor, he thrust in his arm nearly up to the shoulder, and slowly drew forth this greasy volume. 'Well-a-day now, this is all my library, but it's one of the most entertaining books that were ever written! It's a delightful book, and all true and real—that's the best of it—true as the Bank of England, and real as its gold and silver. Written by Arthur Gride. He, he, he! None of your storybook writers will ever make as good a book as this, I warrant me. It's composed for private circulation, for my own particular reading, and nobody else's. He, he, he!'
Muttering this soliloquy, Arthur carried his precious volume to the table, and, adjusting it upon a dusty desk, put on his spectacles, and began to pore among the leaves.
'It's a large sum to Mr Nickleby,' he said, in a dolorous voice. 'Debt to be paid in full, nine hundred and seventy-five, four, three. Additional sum as per bond, five hundred pound. One thousand, four hundred and seventy-five pounds, four shillings, and threepence, tomorrow at twelve o'clock. On the other side, though, there's the PER CONTRA, by means of this pretty chick. But, again, there's the question whether I mightn't have brought all this about, myself. "Faint heart never won fair lady." Why was my heart so faint? Why didn't I boldly open it to Bray myself, and save one thousand four hundred and seventy-five, four, three?'
These reflections depressed the old usurer so much, as to wring a feeble groan or two from his breast, and cause him to declare, with uplifted hands, that he would die in a workhouse. Remembering on further cogitation, however, that under any circumstances he must have paid, or handsomely compounded for, Ralph's debt, and being by no means confident that he would have succeeded had he undertaken his enterprise alone, he regained his equanimity, and chattered and mowed over more satisfactory items, until the entrance of Peg Sliderskew interrupted him.
'Aha, Peg!' said Arthur, 'what is it? What is it now, Peg?'
'It's the fowl,' replied Peg, holding up a plate containing a little, a very little one. Quite a phenomenon of a fowl. So very small and skinny.
'A beautiful bird!' said Arthur, after inquiring the price, and finding it proportionate to the size. 'With a rasher of ham, and an egg made into sauce, and potatoes, and greens, and an apple pudding, Peg, and a little bit of cheese, we shall have a dinner for an emperor. There'll only be she and me—and you, Peg, when we've done.'
'Don't you complain of the expense afterwards,' said Mrs Sliderskew, sulkily.
'I am afraid we must live expensively for the first week,' returned Arthur, with a groan, 'and then we must make up for it. I won't eat more than I can help, and I know you love your old master too much to eat more than YOU can help, don't you, Peg?'
'Don't I what?' said Peg.
'Love your old master too much—'
'No, not a bit too much,' said Peg.
'Oh, dear, I wish the devil had this woman!' cried Arthur: 'love him too much to eat more than you can help at his expense.'
'At his what?' said Peg.
'Oh dear! she can never hear the most important word, and hears all the others!' whined Gride. 'At his expense—you catamaran!'
The last-mentioned tribute to the charms of Mrs Sliderskew being uttered in a whisper, that lady assented to the general proposition by a harsh growl, which was accompanied by a ring at the street-door.
'There's the bell,' said Arthur.
'Ay, ay; I know that,' rejoined Peg.
'Then why don't you go?' bawled Arthur.
'Go where?' retorted Peg. 'I ain't doing any harm here, am I?'
Arthur Gride in reply repeated the word 'bell' as loud as he could roar; and, his meaning being rendered further intelligible to Mrs Sliderskew's dull sense of hearing by pantomime expressive of ringing at a street-door, Peg hobbled out, after sharply demanding why he hadn't said there was a ring before, instead of talking about all manner of things that had nothing to do with it, and keeping her half-pint of beer waiting on the steps.
'There's a change come over you, Mrs Peg,' said Arthur, following her out with his eyes. 'What it means I don't quite know; but, if it lasts, we shan't agree together long I see. You are turning crazy, I think. If you are, you must take yourself off, Mrs Peg—or be taken off. All's one to me.' Turning over the leaves of his book as he muttered this, he soon lighted upon something which attracted his attention, and forgot Peg Sliderskew and everything else in the engrossing interest of its pages.
The room had no other light than that which it derived from a dim and dirt-clogged lamp, whose lazy wick, being still further obscured by a dark shade, cast its feeble rays over a very little space, and left all beyond in heavy shadow. This lamp the money-lender had drawn so close to him, that there was only room between it and himself for the book over which he bent; and as he sat, with his elbows on the desk, and his sharp cheek-bones resting on his hands, it only served to bring out his ugly features in strong relief, together with the little table at which he sat, and to shroud all the rest of the chamber in a deep sullen gloom. Raising his eyes, and looking vacantly into this gloom as he made some mental calculation, Arthur Gride suddenly met the fixed gaze of a man.
'Thieves! thieves!' shrieked the usurer, starting up and folding his book to his breast. 'Robbers! Murder!'
'What is the matter?' said the form, advancing.
'Keep off!' cried the trembling wretch. 'Is it a man or a—a—'
'For what do you take me, if not for a man?' was the inquiry.
'Yes, yes,' cried Arthur Gride, shading his eyes with his hand, 'it is a man, and not a spirit. It is a man. Robbers! robbers!'
'For what are these cries raised? Unless indeed you know me, and have some purpose in your brain?' said the stranger, coming close up to him. 'I am no thief.'
'What then, and how come you here?' cried Gride, somewhat reassured, but still retreating from his visitor: 'what is your name, and what do you want?'
'My name you need not know,' was the reply. 'I came here, because I was shown the way by your servant. I have addressed you twice or thrice, but you were too profoundly engaged with your book to hear me, and I have been silently waiting until you should be less abstracted. What I want I will tell you, when you can summon up courage enough to hear and understand me.'
Arthur Gride, venturing to regard his visitor more attentively, and perceiving that he was a young man of good mien and bearing, returned to his seat, and muttering that there were bad characters about, and that this, with former attempts upon his house, had made him nervous, requested his visitor to sit down. This, however, he declined.
'Good God! I don't stand up to have you at an advantage,' said Nicholas (for Nicholas it was), as he observed a gesture of alarm on the part of Gride. 'Listen to me. You are to be married tomorrow morning.'
'N—n—no,' rejoined Gride. 'Who said I was? How do you know that?'
'No matter how,' replied Nicholas, 'I know it. The young lady who is to give you her hand hates and despises you. Her blood runs cold at the mention of your name; the vulture and the lamb, the rat and the dove, could not be worse matched than you and she. You see I know her.'
Gride looked at him as if he were petrified with astonishment, but did not speak; perhaps lacking the power.
'You and another man, Ralph Nickleby by name, have hatched this plot between you,' pursued Nicholas. 'You pay him for his share in bringing about this sale of Madeline Bray. You do. A lie is trembling on your lips, I see.'
He paused; but, Arthur making no reply, resumed again.
'You pay yourself by defrauding her. How or by what means—for I scorn to sully her cause by falsehood or deceit—I do not know; at present I do not know, but I am not alone or single-handed in this business. If the energy of man can compass the discovery of your fraud and treachery before your death; if wealth, revenge, and just hatred, can hunt and track you through your windings; you will yet be called to a dear account for this. We are on the scent already; judge you, who know what we do not, when we shall have you down!'
He paused again, and still Arthur Gride glared upon him in silence.
'If you were a man to whom I could appeal with any hope of touching his compassion or humanity,' said Nicholas, 'I would urge upon you to remember the helplessness, the innocence, the youth, of this lady; her worth and beauty, her filial excellence, and last, and more than all, as concerning you more nearly, the appeal she has made to your mercy and your manly feeling. But, I take the only ground that can be taken with men like you, and ask what money will buy you off. Remember the danger to which you are exposed. You see I know enough to know much more with very little help. Bate some expected gain for the risk you save, and say what is your price.'
Old Arthur Gride moved his lips, but they only formed an ugly smile and were motionless again.
'You think,' said Nicholas, 'that the price would not be paid. Miss Bray has wealthy friends who would coin their very hearts to save her in such a strait as this. Name your price, defer these nuptials for but a few days, and see whether those I speak of, shrink from the payment. Do you hear me?'
When Nicholas began, Arthur Gride's impression was, that Ralph Nickleby had betrayed him; but, as he proceeded, he felt convinced that however he had come by the knowledge he possessed, the part he acted was a genuine one, and that with Ralph he had no concern. All he seemed to know, for certain, was, that he, Gride, paid Ralph's debt; but that, to anybody who knew the circumstances of Bray's detention—even to Bray himself, on Ralph's own statement—must be perfectly notorious. As to the fraud on Madeline herself, his visitor knew so little about its nature or extent, that it might be a lucky guess, or a hap-hazard accusation. Whether or no, he had clearly no key to the mystery, and could not hurt him who kept it close within his own breast. The allusion to friends, and the offer of money, Gride held to be mere empty vapouring, for purposes of delay. 'And even if money were to be had,' thought Arthur Glide, as he glanced at Nicholas, and trembled with passion at his boldness and audacity, 'I'd have that dainty chick for my wife, and cheat YOU of her, young smooth-face!'
Long habit of weighing and noting well what clients said, and nicely balancing chances in his mind and calculating odds to their faces, without the least appearance of being so engaged, had rendered Gride quick in forming conclusions, and arriving, from puzzling, intricate, and often contradictory premises, at very cunning deductions. Hence it was that, as Nicholas went on, he followed him closely with his own constructions, and, when he ceased to speak, was as well prepared as if he had deliberated for a fortnight.
'I hear you,' he cried, starting from his seat, casting back the fastenings of the window-shutters, and throwing up the sash. 'Help here! Help! Help!'
'What are you doing?' said Nicholas, seizing him by the arm.
'I'll cry robbers, thieves, murder, alarm the neighbourhood, struggle with you, let loose some blood, and swear you came to rob me, if you don't quit my house,' replied Gride, drawing in his head with a frightful grin, 'I will!'
'Wretch!' cried Nicholas.
'YOU'LL bring your threats here, will you?' said Gride, whom jealousy of Nicholas and a sense of his own triumph had converted into a perfect fiend. 'You, the disappointed lover? Oh dear! He! he! he! But you shan't have her, nor she you. She's my wife, my doting little wife. Do you think she'll miss you? Do you think she'll weep? I shall like to see her weep, I shan't mind it. She looks prettier in tears.'
'Villain!' said Nicholas, choking with his rage.
'One minute more,' cried Arthur Gride, 'and I'll rouse the street with such screams, as, if they were raised by anybody else, should wake me even in the arms of pretty Madeline.'
'You hound!' said Nicholas. 'If you were but a younger man—'
'Oh yes!' sneered Arthur Gride, 'If I was but a younger man it wouldn't be so bad; but for me, so old and ugly! To be jilted by little Madeline for me!'
'Hear me,' said Nicholas, 'and be thankful I have enough command over myself not to fling you into the street, which no aid could prevent my doing if I once grappled with you. I have been no lover of this lady's. No contract or engagement, no word of love, has ever passed between us. She does not even know my name.'
'I'll ask it for all that. I'll beg it of her with kisses,' said Arthur Gride. 'Yes, and she'll tell me, and pay them back, and we'll laugh together, and hug ourselves, and be very merry, when we think of the poor youth that wanted to have her, but couldn't because she was bespoke by me!'
This taunt brought such an expression into the face of Nicholas, that Arthur Gride plainly apprehended it to be the forerunner of his putting his threat of throwing him into the street in immediate execution; for he thrust his head out of the window, and holding tight on with both hands, raised a pretty brisk alarm. Not thinking it necessary to abide the issue of the noise, Nicholas gave vent to an indignant defiance, and stalked from the room and from the house. Arthur Gride watched him across the street, and then, drawing in his head, fastened the window as before, and sat down to take breath.
'If she ever turns pettish or ill-humoured, I'll taunt her with that spark,' he said, when he had recovered. 'She'll little think I know about him; and, if I manage it well, I can break her spirit by this means and have her under my thumb. I'm glad nobody came. I didn't call too loud. The audacity to enter my house, and open upon me! But I shall have a very good triumph tomorrow, and he'll be gnawing his fingers off: perhaps drown himself or cut his throat! I shouldn't wonder! That would make it quite complete, that would: quite.'
When he had become restored to his usual condition by these and other comments on his approaching triumph, Arthur Gride put away his book, and, having locked the chest with great caution, descended into the kitchen to warn Peg Sliderskew to bed, and scold her for having afforded such ready admission to a stranger.
The unconscious Peg, however, not being able to comprehend the offence of which she had been guilty, he summoned her to hold the light, while he made a tour of the fastenings, and secured the street-door with his own hands.
'Top bolt,' muttered Arthur, fastening as he spoke, 'bottom bolt, chain, bar, double lock, and key out to put under my pillow! So, if any more rejected admirers come, they may come through the keyhole. And now I'll go to sleep till half-past five, when I must get up to be married, Peg!'
With that, he jocularly tapped Mrs Sliderskew under the chin, and appeared, for the moment, inclined to celebrate the close of his bachelor days by imprinting a kiss on her shrivelled lips. Thinking better of it, however, he gave her chin another tap, in lieu of that warmer familiarity, and stole away to bed.
The Crisis of the Project and its Result
There are not many men who lie abed too late, or oversleep themselves, on their wedding morning. A legend there is of somebody remarkable for absence of mind, who opened his eyes upon the day which was to give him a young wife, and forgetting all about the matter, rated his servants for providing him with such fine clothes as had been prepared for the festival. There is also a legend of a young gentleman, who, not having before his eyes the fear of the canons of the church for such cases made and provided, conceived a passion for his grandmother. Both cases are of a singular and special kind and it is very doubtful whether either can be considered as a precedent likely to be extensively followed by succeeding generations.
Arthur Gride had enrobed himself in his marriage garments of bottle-green, a full hour before Mrs Sliderskew, shaking off her more heavy slumbers, knocked at his chamber door; and he had hobbled downstairs in full array and smacked his lips over a scanty taste of his favourite cordial, ere that delicate piece of antiquity enlightened the kitchen with her presence.
'Faugh!' said Peg, grubbing, in the discharge of her domestic functions, among a scanty heap of ashes in the rusty grate. 'Wedding indeed! A precious wedding! He wants somebody better than his old Peg to take care of him, does he? And what has he said to me, many and many a time, to keep me content with short food, small wages, and little fire? "My will, Peg! my will!" says he: "I'm a bachelor—no friends—no relations, Peg." Lies! And now he's to bring home a new mistress, a baby-faced chit of a girl! If he wanted a wife, the fool, why couldn't he have one suitable to his age, and that knew his ways? She won't come in MY way, he says. No, that she won't, but you little think why, Arthur boy!'
While Mrs Sliderskew, influenced possibly by some lingering feelings of disappointment and personal slight, occasioned by her old master's preference for another, was giving loose to these grumblings below stairs, Arthur Gride was cogitating in the parlour upon what had taken place last night.
'I can't think how he can have picked up what he knows,' said Arthur, 'unless I have committed myself—let something drop at Bray's, for instance—which has been overheard. Perhaps I may. I shouldn't be surprised if that was it. Mr Nickleby was often angry at my talking to him before we got outside the door. I mustn't tell him that part of the business, or he'll put me out of sorts, and make me nervous for the day.'
Ralph was universally looked up to, and recognised among his fellows as a superior genius, but upon Arthur Gride his stern unyielding character and consummate art had made so deep an impression, that he was actually afraid of him. Cringing and cowardly to the core by nature, Arthur Gride humbled himself in the dust before Ralph Nickleby, and, even when they had not this stake in common, would have licked his shoes and crawled upon the ground before him rather than venture to return him word for word, or retort upon him in any other spirit than one of the most slavish and abject sycophancy.
To Ralph Nickleby's, Arthur Gride now betook himself according to appointment; and to Ralph Nickleby he related how, last night, some young blustering blade, whom he had never seen, forced his way into his house, and tried to frighten him from the proposed nuptials. Told, in short, what Nicholas had said and done, with the slight reservation upon which he had determined.
'Well, and what then?' said Ralph.
'Oh! nothing more,' rejoined Gride.
'He tried to frighten you,' said Ralph, 'and you WERE frightened I suppose; is that it?'
'I frightened HIM by crying thieves and murder,' replied Gride. 'Once I was in earnest, I tell you that, for I had more than half a mind to swear he uttered threats, and demanded my life or my money.'
'Oho!' said Ralph, eyeing him askew. 'Jealous too!'
'Dear now, see that!' cried Arthur, rubbing his hands and affecting to laugh.
'Why do you make those grimaces, man?' said Ralph; 'you ARE jealous—and with good cause I think.'
'No, no, no; not with good cause, hey? You don't think with good cause, do you?' cried Arthur, faltering. 'Do you though, hey?'
'Why, how stands the fact?' returned Ralph. 'Here is an old man about to be forced in marriage upon a girl; and to this old man there comes a handsome young fellow—you said he was handsome, didn't you?'
'No!' snarled Arthur Gride.
'Oh!' rejoined Ralph, 'I thought you did. Well! Handsome or not handsome, to this old man there comes a young fellow who casts all manner of fierce defiances in his teeth—gums I should rather say—and tells him in plain terms that his mistress hates him. What does he do that for? Philanthropy's sake?'
'Not for love of the lady,' replied Gride, 'for he said that no word of love—his very words—had ever passed between 'em.'
'He said!' repeated Ralph, contemptuously. 'But I like him for one thing, and that is, his giving you this fair warning to keep your—what is it?—Tit-tit or dainty chick—which?—under lock and key. Be careful, Gride, be careful. It's a triumph, too, to tear her away from a gallant young rival: a great triumph for an old man! It only remains to keep her safe when you have her—that's all.'
'What a man it is!' cried Arthur Gride, affecting, in the extremity of his torture, to be highly amused. And then he added, anxiously, 'Yes; to keep her safe, that's all. And that isn't much, is it?'
'Much!' said Ralph, with a sneer. 'Why, everybody knows what easy things to understand and to control, women are. But come, it's very nearly time for you to be made happy. You'll pay the bond now, I suppose, to save us trouble afterwards.'
'Oh what a man you are!' croaked Arthur.
'Why not?' said Ralph. 'Nobody will pay you interest for the money, I suppose, between this and twelve o'clock; will they?'
'But nobody would pay you interest for it either, you know,' returned Arthur, leering at Ralph with all the cunning and slyness he could throw into his face.
'Besides which,' said Ralph, suffering his lip to curl into a smile, 'you haven't the money about you, and you weren't prepared for this, or you'd have brought it with you; and there's nobody you'd so much like to accommodate as me. I see. We trust each other in about an equal degree. Are you ready?'
Gride, who had done nothing but grin, and nod, and chatter, during this last speech of Ralph's, answered in the affirmative; and, producing from his hat a couple of large white favours, pinned one on his breast, and with considerable difficulty induced his friend to do the like. Thus accoutred, they got into a hired coach which Ralph had in waiting, and drove to the residence of the fair and most wretched bride.
Gride, whose spirits and courage had gradually failed him more and more as they approached nearer and nearer to the house, was utterly dismayed and cowed by the mournful silence which pervaded it. The face of the poor servant girl, the only person they saw, was disfigured with tears and want of sleep. There was nobody to receive or welcome them; and they stole upstairs into the usual sitting-room, more like two burglars than the bridegroom and his friend.
'One would think,' said Ralph, speaking, in spite of himself, in a low and subdued voice, 'that there was a funeral going on here, and not a wedding.'
'He, he!' tittered his friend, 'you are so—so very funny!'
'I need be,' remarked Ralph, drily, 'for this is rather dull and chilling. Look a little brisker, man, and not so hangdog like!'
'Yes, yes, I will,' said Gride. 'But—but—you don't think she's coming just yet, do you?'
'Why, I suppose she'll not come till she is obliged,' returned Ralph, looking at his watch, 'and she has a good half-hour to spare yet. Curb your impatience.'
'I—I—am not impatient,' stammered Arthur. 'I wouldn't be hard with her for the world. Oh dear, dear, not on any account. Let her take her time—her own time. Her time shall be ours by all means.'
While Ralph bent upon his trembling friend a keen look, which showed that he perfectly understood the reason of this great consideration and regard, a footstep was heard upon the stairs, and Bray himself came into the room on tiptoe, and holding up his hand with a cautious gesture, as if there were some sick person near, who must not be disturbed.
'Hush!' he said, in a low voice. 'She was very ill last night. I thought she would have broken her heart. She is dressed, and crying bitterly in her own room; but she's better, and quite quiet. That's everything!'
'She is ready, is she?' said Ralph.
'Quite ready,' returned the father.
'And not likely to delay us by any young-lady weaknesses—fainting, or so forth?' said Ralph.
'She may be safely trusted now,' returned Bray. 'I have been talking to her this morning. Here! Come a little this way.'
He drew Ralph Nickleby to the further end of the room, and pointed towards Gride, who sat huddled together in a corner, fumbling nervously with the buttons of his coat, and exhibiting a face, of which every skulking and base expression was sharpened and aggravated to the utmost by his anxiety and trepidation.
'Look at that man,' whispered Bray, emphatically. 'This seems a cruel thing, after all.'
'What seems a cruel thing?' inquired Ralph, with as much stolidity of face, as if he really were in utter ignorance of the other's meaning.
'This marriage,' answered Bray. 'Don't ask me what. You know as well as I do.'
Ralph shrugged his shoulders, in silent deprecation of Bray's impatience, and elevated his eyebrows, and pursed his lips, as men do when they are prepared with a sufficient answer to some remark, but wait for a more favourable opportunity of advancing it, or think it scarcely worth while to answer their adversary at all.
'Look at him. Does it not seem cruel?' said Bray.
'No!' replied Ralph, boldly.
'I say it does,' retorted Bray, with a show of much irritation. 'It is a cruel thing, by all that's bad and treacherous!'
When men are about to commit, or to sanction the commission of some injustice, it is not uncommon for them to express pity for the object either of that or some parallel proceeding, and to feel themselves, at the time, quite virtuous and moral, and immensely superior to those who express no pity at all. This is a kind of upholding of faith above works, and is very comfortable. To do Ralph Nickleby justice, he seldom practised this sort of dissimulation; but he understood those who did, and therefore suffered Bray to say, again and again, with great vehemence, that they were jointly doing a very cruel thing, before he again offered to interpose a word.
'You see what a dry, shrivelled, withered old chip it is,' returned Ralph, when the other was at length silent. 'If he were younger, it might be cruel, but as it is—harkee, Mr Bray, he'll die soon, and leave her a rich young widow! Miss Madeline consults your tastes this time; let her consult her own next.'
'True, true,' said Bray, biting his nails, and plainly very ill at ease. 'I couldn't do anything better for her than advise her to accept these proposals, could I? Now, I ask you, Nickleby, as a man of the world; could I?'
'Surely not,' answered Ralph. 'I tell you what, sir; there are a hundred fathers, within a circuit of five miles from this place; well off; good, rich, substantial men; who would gladly give their daughters, and their own ears with them, to that very man yonder, ape and mummy as he looks.'
'So there are!' exclaimed Bray, eagerly catching at anything which seemed a justification of himself. 'And so I told her, both last night and today.'
'You told her truth,' said Ralph, 'and did well to do so; though I must say, at the same time, that if I had a daughter, and my freedom, pleasure, nay, my very health and life, depended on her taking a husband whom I pointed out, I should hope it would not be necessary to advance any other arguments to induce her to consent to my wishes.'
Bray looked at Ralph as if to see whether he spoke in earnest, and having nodded twice or thrice in unqualified assent to what had fallen from him, said:
'I must go upstairs for a few minutes, to finish dressing. When I come down, I'll bring Madeline with me. Do you know, I had a very strange dream last night, which I have not remembered till this instant. I dreamt that it was this morning, and you and I had been talking as we have been this minute; that I went upstairs, for the very purpose for which I am going now; and that as I stretched out my hand to take Madeline's, and lead her down, the floor sunk with me, and after falling from such an indescribable and tremendous height as the imagination scarcely conceives, except in dreams, I alighted in a grave.'
'And you awoke, and found you were lying on your back, or with your head hanging over the bedside, or suffering some pain from indigestion?' said Ralph. 'Pshaw, Mr Bray! Do as I do (you will have the opportunity, now that a constant round of pleasure and enjoyment opens upon you), and, occupying yourself a little more by day, have no time to think of what you dream by night.'
Ralph followed him, with a steady look, to the door; and, turning to the bridegroom, when they were again alone, said,
'Mark my words, Gride, you won't have to pay HIS annuity very long. You have the devil's luck in bargains, always. If he is not booked to make the long voyage before many months are past and gone, I wear an orange for a head!'
To this prophecy, so agreeable to his ears, Arthur returned no answer than a cackle of great delight. Ralph, throwing himself into a chair, they both sat waiting in profound silence. Ralph was thinking, with a sneer upon his lips, on the altered manner of Bray that day, and how soon their fellowship in a bad design had lowered his pride and established a familiarity between them, when his attentive ear caught the rustling of a female dress upon the stairs, and the footstep of a man.
'Wake up,' he said, stamping his foot impatiently upon the ground, 'and be something like life, man, will you? They are here. Urge those dry old bones of yours this way. Quick, man, quick!'
Gride shambled forward, and stood, leering and bowing, close by Ralph's side, when the door opened and there entered in haste—not Bray and his daughter, but Nicholas and his sister Kate.
If some tremendous apparition from the world of shadows had suddenly presented itself before him, Ralph Nickleby could not have been more thunder-stricken than he was by this surprise. His hands fell powerless by his side, he reeled back; and with open mouth, and a face of ashy paleness, stood gazing at them in speechless rage: his eyes so prominent, and his face so convulsed and changed by the passions which raged within him, that it would have been difficult to recognise in him the same stern, composed, hard-featured man he had been not a minute ago.
'The man that came to me last night,' whispered Gride, plucking at his elbow. 'The man that came to me last night!'
'I see,' muttered Ralph, 'I know! I might have guessed as much before. Across my every path, at every turn, go where I will, do what I may, he comes!'
The absence of all colour from the face; the dilated nostril; the quivering of the lips which, though set firmly against each other, would not be still; showed what emotions were struggling for the mastery with Nicholas. But he kept them down, and gently pressing Kate's arm to reassure her, stood erect and undaunted, front to front with his unworthy relative.
As the brother and sister stood side by side, with a gallant bearing which became them well, a close likeness between them was apparent, which many, had they only seen them apart, might have failed to remark. The air, carriage, and very look and expression of the brother were all reflected in the sister, but softened and refined to the nicest limit of feminine delicacy and attraction. More striking still was some indefinable resemblance, in the face of Ralph, to both. While they had never looked more handsome, nor he more ugly; while they had never held themselves more proudly, nor he shrunk half so low; there never had been a time when this resemblance was so perceptible, or when all the worst characteristics of a face rendered coarse and harsh by evil thoughts were half so manifest as now.
'Away!' was the first word he could utter as he literally gnashed his teeth. 'Away! What brings you here? Liar, scoundrel, dastard, thief!'
'I come here,' said Nicholas in a low deep voice, 'to save your victim if I can. Liar and scoundrel you are, in every action of your life; theft is your trade; and double dastard you must be, or you were not here today. Hard words will not move me, nor would hard blows. Here I stand, and will, till I have done my errand.'
'Girl!' said Ralph, 'retire! We can use force to him, but I would not hurt you if I could help it. Retire, you weak and silly wench, and leave this dog to be dealt with as he deserves.'
'I will not retire,' cried Kate, with flashing eyes and the red blood mantling in her cheeks. 'You will do him no hurt that he will not repay. You may use force with me; I think you will, for I AM a girl, and that would well become you. But if I have a girl's weakness, I have a woman's heart, and it is not you who in a cause like this can turn that from its purpose.'
'And what may your purpose be, most lofty lady?' said Ralph.
'To offer to the unhappy subject of your treachery, at this last moment,' replied Nicholas, 'a refuge and a home. If the near prospect of such a husband as you have provided will not prevail upon her, I hope she may be moved by the prayers and entreaties of one of her own sex. At all events they shall be tried. I myself, avowing to her father from whom I come and by whom I am commissioned, will render it an act of greater baseness, meanness, and cruelty in him if he still dares to force this marriage on. Here I wait to see him and his daughter. For this I came and brought my sister even into your presence. Our purpose is not to see or speak with you; therefore to you we stoop to say no more.'
'Indeed!' said Ralph. 'You persist in remaining here, ma'am, do you?'
His niece's bosom heaved with the indignant excitement into which he had lashed her, but she gave him no reply.
'Now, Gride, see here,' said Ralph. 'This fellow—I grieve to say my brother's son: a reprobate and profligate, stained with every mean and selfish crime—this fellow, coming here today to disturb a solemn ceremony, and knowing that the consequence of his presenting himself in another man's house at such a time, and persisting in remaining there, must be his being kicked into the streets and dragged through them like the vagabond he is—this fellow, mark you, brings with him his sister as a protection, thinking we would not expose a silly girl to the degradation and indignity which is no novelty to him; and, even after I have warned her of what must ensue, he still keeps her by him, as you see, and clings to her apron-strings like a cowardly boy to his mother's. Is not this a pretty fellow to talk as big as you have heard him now?'
'And as I heard him last night,' said Arthur Gride; 'as I heard him last night when he sneaked into my house, and—he! he! he!—very soon sneaked out again, when I nearly frightened him to death. And HE wanting to marry Miss Madeline too! Oh dear! Is there anything else he'd like? Anything else we can do for him, besides giving her up? Would he like his debts paid and his house furnished, and a few bank notes for shaving paper if he shaves at all? He! he! he!'
'You will remain, girl, will you?' said Ralph, turning upon Kate again, 'to be hauled downstairs like a drunken drab, as I swear you shall if you stop here? No answer! Thank your brother for what follows. Gride, call down Bray—and not his daughter. Let them keep her above.'
'If you value your head,' said Nicholas, taking up a position before the door, and speaking in the same low voice in which he had spoken before, and with no more outward passion than he had before displayed; 'stay where you are!'
'Mind me, and not him, and call down Bray,' said Ralph.
'Mind yourself rather than either of us, and stay where you are!' said Nicholas.
'Will you call down Bray?' cried Ralph.
'Remember that you come near me at your peril,' said Nicholas.
Gride hesitated. Ralph being, by this time, as furious as a baffled tiger, made for the door, and, attempting to pass Kate, clasped her arm roughly with his hand. Nicholas, with his eyes darting fire, seized him by the collar. At that moment, a heavy body fell with great violence on the floor above, and, in an instant afterwards, was heard a most appalling and terrific scream.
They all stood still, and gazed upon each other. Scream succeeded scream; a heavy pattering of feet succeeded; and many shrill voices clamouring together were heard to cry, 'He is dead!'
'Stand off!' cried Nicholas, letting loose all the passion he had restrained till now; 'if this is what I scarcely dare to hope it is, you are caught, villains, in your own toils.'
He burst from the room, and, darting upstairs to the quarter from whence the noise proceeded, forced his way through a crowd of persons who quite filled a small bed-chamber, and found Bray lying on the floor quite dead; his daughter clinging to the body.
'How did this happen?' he cried, looking wildly about him.
Several voices answered together, that he had been observed, through the half-opened door, reclining in a strange and uneasy position upon a chair; that he had been spoken to several times, and not answering, was supposed to be asleep, until some person going in and shaking him by the arm, he fell heavily to the ground and was discovered to be dead.
'Who is the owner of this house?' said Nicholas, hastily.
An elderly woman was pointed out to him; and to her he said, as he knelt down and gently unwound Madeline's arms from the lifeless mass round which they were entwined: 'I represent this lady's nearest friends, as her servant here knows, and must remove her from this dreadful scene. This is my sister to whose charge you confide her. My name and address are upon that card, and you shall receive from me all necessary directions for the arrangements that must be made. Stand aside, every one of you, and give me room and air for God's sake!'
The people fell back, scarce wondering more at what had just occurred, than at the excitement and impetuosity of him who spoke. Nicholas, taking the insensible girl in his arms, bore her from the chamber and downstairs into the room he had just quitted, followed by his sister and the faithful servant, whom he charged to procure a coach directly, while he and Kate bent over their beautiful charge and endeavoured, but in vain, to restore her to animation. The girl performed her office with such expedition, that in a very few minutes the coach was ready.
Ralph Nickleby and Gride, stunned and paralysed by the awful event which had so suddenly overthrown their schemes (it would not otherwise, perhaps, have made much impression on them), and carried away by the extraordinary energy and precipitation of Nicholas, which bore down all before him, looked on at these proceedings like men in a dream or trance. It was not until every preparation was made for Madeline's immediate removal that Ralph broke silence by declaring she should not be taken away.
'Who says so?' cried Nicholas, rising from his knee and confronting them, but still retaining Madeline's lifeless hand in his.
'I!' answered Ralph, hoarsely.
'Hush, hush!' cried the terrified Gride, catching him by the arm again. 'Hear what he says.'
'Ay!' said Nicholas, extending his disengaged hand in the air, 'hear what he says. That both your debts are paid in the one great debt of nature. That the bond, due today at twelve, is now waste paper. That your contemplated fraud shall be discovered yet. That your schemes are known to man, and overthrown by Heaven. Wretches, that he defies you both to do your worst.'
'This man,' said Ralph, in a voice scarcely intelligible, 'this man claims his wife, and he shall have her.'
'That man claims what is not his, and he should not have her if he were fifty men, with fifty more to back him,' said Nicholas.
'Who shall prevent him?'
'By what right I should like to know,' said Ralph. 'By what right I ask?'
'By this right. That, knowing what I do, you dare not tempt me further,' said Nicholas, 'and by this better right; that those I serve, and with whom you would have done me base wrong and injury, are her nearest and her dearest friends. In their name I bear her hence. Give way!'
'One word!' cried Ralph, foaming at the mouth.
'Not one,' replied Nicholas, 'I will not hear of one—save this. Look to yourself, and heed this warning that I give you! Your day is past, and night is comin' on.'
'My curse, my bitter, deadly curse, upon you, boy!'
'Whence will curses come at your command? Or what avails a curse or blessing from a man like you? I tell you, that misfortune and discovery are thickening about your head; that the structures you have raised, through all your ill-spent life, are crumbling into dust; that your path is beset with spies; that this very day, ten thousand pounds of your hoarded wealth have gone in one great crash!'
''Tis false!' cried Ralph, shrinking back.
''Tis true, and you shall find it so. I have no more words to waste. Stand from the door. Kate, do you go first. Lay not a hand on her, or on that woman, or on me, or so much a brush their garments as they pass you by!—You let them pass, and he blocks the door again!'
Arthur Gride happened to be in the doorway, but whether intentionally or from confusion was not quite apparent. Nicholas swung him away, with such violence as to cause him to spin round the room until he was caught by a sharp angle of the wall, and there knocked down; and then taking his beautiful burden in his arms rushed out. No one cared to stop him, if any were so disposed. Making his way through a mob of people, whom a report of the circumstances had attracted round the house, and carrying Madeline, in his excitement, as easily as if she were an infant, he reached the coach in which Kate and the girl were already waiting, and, confiding his charge to them, jumped up beside the coachman and bade him drive away.
Of Family Matters, Cares, Hopes, Disappointments, and Sorrows
Although Mrs Nickleby had been made acquainted by her son and daughter with every circumstance of Madeline Bray's history which was known to them; although the responsible situation in which Nicholas stood had been carefully explained to her, and she had been prepared, even for the possible contingency of having to receive the young lady in her own house, improbable as such a result had appeared only a few minutes before it came about, still, Mrs Nickleby, from the moment when this confidence was first reposed in her, late on the previous evening, had remained in an unsatisfactory and profoundly mystified state, from which no explanations or arguments could relieve her, and which every fresh soliloquy and reflection only aggravated more and more.
'Bless my heart, Kate!' so the good lady argued; 'if the Mr Cheerybles don't want this young lady to be married, why don't they file a bill against the Lord Chancellor, make her a Chancery ward, and shut her up in the Fleet prison for safety?—I have read of such things in the newspapers a hundred times. Or, if they are so very fond of her as Nicholas says they are, why don't they marry her themselves—one of them I mean? And even supposing they don't want her to be married, and don't want to marry her themselves, why in the name of wonder should Nicholas go about the world, forbidding people's banns?'
'I don't think you quite understand,' said Kate, gently.
'Well I am sure, Kate, my dear, you're very polite!' replied Mrs Nickleby. 'I have been married myself I hope, and I have seen other people married. Not understand, indeed!'
'I know you have had great experience, dear mama,' said Kate; 'I mean that perhaps you don't quite understand all the circumstances in this instance. We have stated them awkwardly, I dare say.'
'That I dare say you have,' retorted her mother, briskly. 'That's very likely. I am not to be held accountable for that; though, at the same time, as the circumstances speak for themselves, I shall take the liberty, my love, of saying that I do understand them, and perfectly well too; whatever you and Nicholas may choose to think to the contrary. Why is such a great fuss made because this Miss Magdalen is going to marry somebody who is older than herself? Your poor papa was older than I was, four years and a half older. Jane Dibabs—the Dibabses lived in the beautiful little thatched white house one story high, covered all over with ivy and creeping plants, with an exquisite little porch with twining honysuckles and all sorts of things: where the earwigs used to fall into one's tea on a summer evening, and always fell upon their backs and kicked dreadfully, and where the frogs used to get into the rushlight shades when one stopped all night, and sit up and look through the little holes like Christians—Jane Dibabs, SHE married a man who was a great deal older than herself, and WOULD marry him, notwithstanding all that could be said to the contrary, and she was so fond of him that nothing was ever equal to it. There was no fuss made about Jane Dibabs, and her husband was a most honourable and excellent man, and everybody spoke well of him. Then why should there by any fuss about this Magdalen?'
'Her husband is much older; he is not her own choice; his character is the very reverse of that which you have just described. Don't you see a broad destinction between the two cases?' said Kate.
To this, Mrs Nickleby only replied that she durst say she was very stupid, indeed she had no doubt she was, for her own children almost as much as told her so, every day of her life; to be sure she was a little older than they, and perhaps some foolish people might think she ought reasonably to know best. However, no doubt she was wrong; of course she was; she always was, she couldn't be right, she couldn't be expected to be; so she had better not expose herself any more; and to all Kate's conciliations and concessions for an hour ensuing, the good lady gave no other replies than Oh, certainly, why did they ask HER?, HER opinion was of no consequence, it didn't matter what SHE said, with many other rejoinders of the same class.
In this frame of mind (expressed, when she had become too resigned for speech, by nods of the head, upliftings of the eyes, and little beginnings of groans, converted, as they attracted attention, into short coughs), Mrs Nickleby remained until Nicholas and Kate returned with the object of their solicitude; when, having by this time asserted her own importance, and becoming besides interested in the trials of one so young and beautiful, she not only displayed the utmost zeal and solicitude, but took great credit to herself for recommending the course of procedure which her son had adopted: frequently declaring, with an expressive look, that it was very fortunate things were AS they were: and hinting, that but for great encouragement and wisdom on her own part, they never could have been brought to that pass.
Not to strain the question whether Mrs Nickleby had or had not any great hand in bringing matters about, it is unquestionable that she had strong ground for exultation. The brothers, on their return, bestowed such commendations on Nicholas for the part he had taken, and evinced so much joy at the altered state of events and the recovery of their young friend from trials so great and dangers so threatening, that, as she more than once informed her daughter, she now considered the fortunes of the family 'as good as' made. Mr Charles Cheeryble, indeed, Mrs Nickleby positively asserted, had, in the first transports of his surprise and delight, 'as good as' said so. Without precisely explaining what this qualification meant, she subsided, whenever she mentioned the subject, into such a mysterious and important state, and had such visions of wealth and dignity in perspective, that (vague and clouded though they were) she was, at such times, almost as happy as if she had really been permanently provided for, on a scale of great splendour.
The sudden and terrible shock she had received, combined with the great affliction and anxiety of mind which she had, for a long time, endured, proved too much for Madeline's strength. Recovering from the state of stupefaction into which the sudden death of her father happily plunged her, she only exchanged that condition for one of dangerous and active illness. When the delicate physical powers which have been sustained by an unnatural strain upon the mental energies and a resolute determination not to yield, at last give way, their degree of prostration is usually proportionate to the strength of the effort which has previously upheld them. Thus it was that the illness which fell on Madeline was of no slight or temporary nature, but one which, for a time, threatened her reason, and—scarcely worse—her life itself.
Who, slowly recovering from a disorder so severe and dangerous, could be insensible to the unremitting attentions of such a nurse as gentle, tender, earnest Kate? On whom could the sweet soft voice, the light step, the delicate hand, the quiet, cheerful, noiseless discharge of those thousand little offices of kindness and relief which we feel so deeply when we are ill, and forget so lightly when we are well—on whom could they make so deep an impression as on a young heart stored with every pure and true affection that women cherish; almost a stranger to the endearments and devotion of its own sex, save as it learnt them from itself; and rendered, by calamity and suffering, keenly susceptible of the sympathy so long unknown and so long sought in vain? What wonder that days became as years in knitting them together! What wonder, if with every hour of returning health, there came some stronger and sweeter recognition of the praises which Kate, when they recalled old scenes—they seemed old now, and to have been acted years ago—would lavish on her brother! Where would have been the wonder, even, if those praises had found a quick response in the breast of Madeline, and if, with the image of Nicholas so constantly recurring in the features of his sister that she could scarcely separate the two, she had sometimes found it equally difficult to assign to each the feelings they had first inspired, and had imperceptibly mingled with her gratitude to Nicholas, some of that warmer feeling which she had assigned to Kate?
'My dear,' Mrs Nickleby would say, coming into the room with an elaborate caution, calculated to discompose the nerves of an invalid rather more than the entry of a horse-soldier at full gallop; 'how do you find yourself tonight? I hope you are better.'
'Almost well, mama,' Kate would reply, laying down her work, and taking Madeline's hand in hers.
'Kate!' Mrs Nickleby would say, reprovingly, 'don't talk so loud' (the worthy lady herself talking in a whisper that would have made the blood of the stoutest man run cold in his veins).
Kate would take this reproof very quietly, and Mrs Nickleby, making every board creak and every thread rustle as she moved stealthily about, would add:
'My son Nicholas has just come home, and I have come, according to custom, my dear, to know, from your own lips, exactly how you are; for he won't take my account, and never will.'
'He is later than usual to-night,' perhaps Madeline would reply. 'Nearly half an hour.'
'Well, I never saw such people in all my life as you are, for time, up here!' Mrs Nickleby would exclaim in great astonishment; 'I declare I never did! I had not the least idea that Nicholas was after his time, not the smallest. Mr Nickleby used to say—your poor papa, I am speaking of, Kate my dear—used to say, that appetite was the best clock in the world, but you have no appetite, my dear Miss Bray, I wish you had, and upon my word I really think you ought to take something that would give you one. I am sure I don't know, but I have heard that two or three dozen native lobsters give an appetite, though that comes to the same thing after all, for I suppose you must have an appetite before you can take 'em. If I said lobsters, I meant oysters, but of course it's all the same, though really how you came to know about Nicholas—'
'We happened to be just talking about him, mama; that was it.'
'You never seem to me to be talking about anything else, Kate, and upon my word I am quite surprised at your being so very thoughtless. You can find subjects enough to talk about sometimes, and when you know how important it is to keep up Miss Bray's spirits, and interest her, and all that, it really is quite extraordinary to me what can induce you to keep on prose, prose, prose, din, din, din, everlastingly, upon the same theme. You are a very kind nurse, Kate, and a very good one, and I know you mean very well; but I will say this—that if it wasn't for me, I really don't know what would become of Miss Bray's spirits, and so I tell the doctor every day. He says he wonders how I sustain my own, and I am sure I very often wonder myself how I can contrive to keep up as I do. Of course it's an exertion, but still, when I know how much depends upon me in this house, I am obliged to make it. There's nothing praiseworthy in that, but it's necessary, and I do it.'
With that, Mrs Nickleby would draw up a chair, and for some three-quarters of an hour run through a great variety of distracting topics in the most distracting manner possible; tearing herself away, at length, on the plea that she must now go and amuse Nicholas while he took his supper. After a preliminary raising of his spirits with the information that she considered the patient decidedly worse, she would further cheer him up by relating how dull, listless, and low-spirited Miss Bray was, because Kate foolishly talked about nothing else but him and family matters. When she had made Nicholas thoroughly comfortable with these and other inspiriting remarks, she would discourse at length on the arduous duties she had performed that day; and, sometimes, be moved to tears in wondering how, if anything were to happen to herself, the family would ever get on without her.
At other times, when Nicholas came home at night, he would be accompanied by Mr Frank Cheeryble, who was commissioned by the brothers to inquire how Madeline was that evening. On such occasions (and they were of very frequent occurrence), Mrs Nickleby deemed it of particular importance that she should have her wits about her; for, from certain signs and tokens which had attracted her attention, she shrewdly suspected that Mr Frank, interested as his uncles were in Madeline, came quite as much to see Kate as to inquire after her; the more especially as the brothers were in constant communication with the medical man, came backwards and forwards very frequently themselves, and received a full report from Nicholas every morning. These were proud times for Mrs Nickleby; never was anybody half so discreet and sage as she, or half so mysterious withal; and never were there such cunning generalship, and such unfathomable designs, as she brought to bear upon Mr Frank, with the view of ascertaining whether her suspicions were well founded: and if so, of tantalising him into taking her into his confidence and throwing himself upon her merciful consideration. Extensive was the artillery, heavy and light, which Mrs Nickleby brought into play for the furtherance of these great schemes; various and opposite the means which she employed to bring about the end she had in view. At one time, she was all cordiality and ease; at another, all stiffness and frigidity. Now, she would seem to open her whole heart to her unhappy victim; the next time they met, she would receive him with the most distant and studious reserve, as if a new light had broken in upon her, and, guessing his intentions, she had resolved to check them in the bud; as if she felt it her bounden duty to act with Spartan firmness, and at once and for ever to discourage hopes which never could be realised. At other times, when Nicholas was not there to overhear, and Kate was upstairs busily tending her sick friend, the worthy lady would throw out dark hints of an intention to send her daughter to France for three or four years, or to Scotland for the improvement of her health impaired by her late fatigues, or to America on a visit, or anywhere that threatened a long and tedious separation. Nay, she even went so far as to hint, obscurely, at an attachment entertained for her daughter by the son of an old neighbour of theirs, one Horatio Peltirogus (a young gentleman who might have been, at that time, four years old, or thereabouts), and to represent it, indeed, as almost a settled thing between the families—only waiting for her daughter's final decision, to come off with the sanction of the church, and to the unspeakable happiness and content of all parties.
It was in the full pride and glory of having sprung this last mine one night with extraordinary success, that Mrs Nickleby took the opportunity of being left alone with her son before retiring to rest, to sound him on the subject which so occupied her thoughts: not doubting that they could have but one opinion respecting it. To this end, she approached the question with divers laudatory and appropriate remarks touching the general amiability of Mr Frank Cheeryble.
'You are quite right, mother,' said Nicholas, 'quite right. He is a fine fellow.'
'Good-looking, too,' said Mrs Nickleby.
'Decidedly good-looking,' answered Nicholas.
'What may you call his nose, now, my dear?' pursued Mrs Nickleby, wishing to interest Nicholas in the subject to the utmost.
'Call it?' repeated Nicholas.
'Ah!' returned his mother, 'what style of nose? What order of architecture, if one may say so. I am not very learned in noses. Do you call it a Roman or a Grecian?'
'Upon my word, mother,' said Nicholas, laughing, 'as well as I remember, I should call it a kind of Composite, or mixed nose. But I have no very strong recollection on the subject. If it will afford you any gratification, I'll observe it more closely, and let you know.'
'I wish you would, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby, with an earnest look.
'Very well,' returned Nicholas. 'I will.'
Nicholas returned to the perusal of the book he had been reading, when the dialogue had gone thus far. Mrs Nickleby, after stopping a little for consideration, resumed.
'He is very much attached to you, Nicholas, my dear.'
Nicholas laughingly said, as he closed his book, that he was glad to hear it, and observed that his mother seemed deep in their new friend's confidence already.
'Hem!' said Mrs Nickleby. 'I don't know about that, my dear, but I think it is very necessary that somebody should be in his confidence; highly necessary.'
Elated by a look of curiosity from her son, and the consciousness of possessing a great secret, all to herself, Mrs Nickleby went on with great animation:
'I am sure, my dear Nicholas, how you can have failed to notice it, is, to me, quite extraordinary; though I don't know why I should say that, either, because, of course, as far as it goes, and to a certain extent, there is a great deal in this sort of thing, especially in this early stage, which, however clear it may be to females, can scarcely be expected to be so evident to men. I don't say that I have any particular penetration in such matters. I may have; those about me should know best about that, and perhaps do know. Upon that point I shall express no opinion, it wouldn't become me to do so, it's quite out of the question, quite.'
Nicholas snuffed the candles, put his hands in his pockets, and, leaning back in his chair, assumed a look of patient suffering and melancholy resignation.
'I think it my duty, Nicholas, my dear,' resumed his mother, 'to tell you what I know: not only because you have a right to know it too, and to know everything that happens in this family, but because you have it in your power to promote and assist the thing very much; and there is no doubt that the sooner one can come to a clear understanding on such subjects, it is always better, every way. There are a great many things you might do; such as taking a walk in the garden sometimes, or sitting upstairs in your own room for a little while, or making believe to fall asleep occasionally, or pretending that you recollected some business, and going out for an hour or so, and taking Mr Smike with you. These seem very slight things, and I dare say you will be amused at my making them of so much importance; at the same time, my dear, I can assure you (and you'll find this out, Nicholas, for yourself one of these days, if you ever fall in love with anybody; as I trust and hope you will, provided she is respectable and well conducted, and of course you'd never dream of falling in love with anybody who was not), I say, I can assure you that a great deal more depends upon these little things than you would suppose possible. If your poor papa was alive, he would tell you how much depended on the parties being left alone. Of course, you are not to go out of the room as if you meant it and did it on purpose, but as if it was quite an accident, and to come back again in the same way. If you cough in the passage before you open the door, or whistle carelessly, or hum a tune, or something of that sort, to let them know you're coming, it's always better; because, of course, though it's not only natural but perfectly correct and proper under the circumstances, still it is very confusing if you interrupt young people when they are—when they are sitting on the sofa, and—and all that sort of thing: which is very nonsensical, perhaps, but still they will do it.'
The profound astonishment with which her son regarded her during this long address, gradually increasing as it approached its climax in no way discomposed Mrs Nickleby, but rather exalted her opinion of her own cleverness; therefore, merely stopping to remark, with much complacency, that she had fully expected him to be surprised, she entered on a vast quantity of circumstantial evidence of a particularly incoherent and perplexing kind; the upshot of which was, to establish, beyond the possibility of doubt, that Mr Frank Cheeryble had fallen desperately in love with Kate.
'With whom?' cried Nicholas.
Mrs Nickleby repeated, with Kate.
'What! OUR Kate! My sister!'
'Lord, Nicholas!' returned Mrs Nickleby, 'whose Kate should it be, if not ours; or what should I care about it, or take any interest in it for, if it was anybody but your sister?'
'Dear mother,' said Nicholas, 'surely it can't be!'
'Very good, my dear,' replied Mrs Nickleby, with great confidence. 'Wait and see.'
Nicholas had never, until that moment, bestowed a thought upon the remote possibility of such an occurrence as that which was now communicated to him; for, besides that he had been much from home of late and closely occupied with other matters, his own jealous fears had prompted the suspicion that some secret interest in Madeline, akin to that which he felt himself, occasioned those visits of Frank Cheeryble which had recently become so frequent. Even now, although he knew that the observation of an anxious mother was much more likely to be correct in such a case than his own, and although she reminded him of many little circumstances which, taken together, were certainly susceptible of the construction she triumphantly put upon them, he was not quite convinced but that they arose from mere good-natured thoughtless gallantry, which would have dictated the same conduct towards any other girl who was young and pleasing. At all events, he hoped so, and therefore tried to believe it.
'I am very much disturbed by what you tell me,' said Nicholas, after a little reflection, 'though I yet hope you may be mistaken.'
'I don't understand why you should hope so,' said Mrs Nickleby, 'I confess; but you may depend upon it I am not.'
'What of Kate?' inquired Nicholas.
'Why that, my dear,' returned Mrs Nickleby, 'is just the point upon which I am not yet satisfied. During this sickness, she has been constantly at Madeline's bedside—never were two people so fond of each other as they have grown—and to tell you the truth, Nicholas, I have rather kept her away now and then, because I think it's a good plan, and urges a young man on. He doesn't get too sure, you know.'
She said this with such a mingling of high delight and self-congratulation, that it was inexpressibly painful to Nicholas to dash her hopes; but he felt that there was only one honourable course before him, and that he was bound to take it.
'Dear mother,' he said kindly, 'don't you see that if there were really any serious inclination on the part of Mr Frank towards Kate, and we suffered ourselves for a moment to encourage it, we should be acting a most dishonourable and ungrateful part? I ask you if you don't see it, but I need not say that I know you don't, or you would have been more strictly on your guard. Let me explain my meaning to you. Remember how poor we are.'
Mrs Nickleby shook her head, and said, through her tears, that poverty was not a crime.
'No,' said Nicholas, 'and for that reason poverty should engender an honest pride, that it may not lead and tempt us to unworthy actions, and that we may preserve the self-respect which a hewer of wood and drawer of water may maintain, and does better in maintaining than a monarch in preserving his. Think what we owe to these two brothers: remember what they have done, and what they do every day for us with a generosity and delicacy for which the devotion of our whole lives would be a most imperfect and inadequate return. What kind of return would that be which would be comprised in our permitting their nephew, their only relative, whom they regard as a son, and for whom it would be mere childishness to suppose they have not formed plans suitably adapted to the education he has had, and the fortune he will inherit—in our permitting him to marry a portionless girl: so closely connected with us, that the irresistible inference must be, that he was entrapped by a plot; that it was a deliberate scheme, and a speculation amongst us three? Bring the matter clearly before yourself, mother. Now, how would you feel, if they were married, and the brothers, coming here on one of those kind errands which bring them here so often, you had to break out to them the truth? Would you be at ease, and feel that you had played an open part?'
Poor Mrs Nickleby, crying more and more, murmured that of course Mr Frank would ask the consent of his uncles first.
'Why, to be sure, that would place HIM in a better situation with them,' said Nicholas, 'but we should still be open to the same suspicions; the distance between us would still be as great; the advantages to be gained would still be as manifest as now. We may be reckoning without our host in all this,' he added more cheerfully, 'and I trust, and almost believe we are. If it be otherwise, I have that confidence in Kate that I know she will feel as I do—and in you, dear mother, to be assured that after a little consideration you will do the same.'
After many more representations and entreaties, Nicholas obtained a promise from Mrs Nickleby that she would try all she could to think as he did; and that if Mr Frank persevered in his attentions she would endeavour to discourage them, or, at the least, would render him no countenance or assistance. He determined to forbear mentioning the subject to Kate until he was quite convinced that there existed a real necessity for his doing so; and resolved to assure himself, as well as he could by close personal observation, of the exact position of affairs. This was a very wise resolution, but he was prevented from putting it in practice by a new source of anxiety and uneasiness.
Smike became alarmingly ill; so reduced and exhausted that he could scarcely move from room to room without assistance; and so worn and emaciated, that it was painful to look upon him. Nicholas was warned, by the same medical authority to whom he had at first appealed, that the last chance and hope of his life depended on his being instantly removed from London. That part of Devonshire in which Nicholas had been himself bred was named as the most favourable spot; but this advice was cautiously coupled with the information, that whoever accompanied him thither must be prepared for the worst; for every token of rapid consumption had appeared, and he might never return alive.