The kind brothers, who were acquainted with the poor creature's sad history, dispatched old Tim to be present at this consultation. That same morning, Nicholas was summoned by brother Charles into his private room, and thus addressed:
'My dear sir, no time must be lost. This lad shall not die, if such human means as we can use can save his life; neither shall he die alone, and in a strange place. Remove him tomorrow morning, see that he has every comfort that his situation requires, and don't leave him; don't leave him, my dear sir, until you know that there is no longer any immediate danger. It would be hard, indeed, to part you now. No, no, no! Tim shall wait upon you tonight, sir; Tim shall wait upon you tonight with a parting word or two. Brother Ned, my dear fellow, Mr Nickleby waits to shake hands and say goodbye; Mr Nickleby won't be long gone; this poor chap will soon get better, very soon get better; and then he'll find out some nice homely country-people to leave him with, and will go backwards and forwards sometimes—backwards and forwards you know, Ned. And there's no cause to be downhearted, for he'll very soon get better, very soon. Won't he, won't he, Ned?'
What Tim Linkinwater said, or what he brought with him that night, needs not to be told. Next morning Nicholas and his feeble companion began their journey.
And who but one—and that one he who, but for those who crowded round him then, had never met a look of kindness, or known a word of pity—could tell what agony of mind, what blighted thoughts, what unavailing sorrow, were involved in that sad parting?
'See,' cried Nicholas eagerly, as he looked from the coach window, 'they are at the corner of the lane still! And now there's Kate, poor Kate, whom you said you couldn't bear to say goodbye to, waving her handkerchief. Don't go without one gesture of farewell to Kate!'
'I cannot make it!' cried his trembling companion, falling back in his seat and covering his eyes. 'Do you see her now? Is she there still?'
'Yes, yes!' said Nicholas earnestly. 'There! She waves her hand again! I have answered it for you—and now they are out of sight. Do not give way so bitterly, dear friend, don't. You will meet them all again.'
He whom he thus encouraged, raised his withered hands and clasped them fervently together.
'In heaven. I humbly pray to God in heaven.'
It sounded like the prayer of a broken heart.
Ralph Nickleby, baffled by his Nephew in his late Design, hatches a Scheme of Retaliation which Accident suggests to him, and takes into his Counsels a tried Auxiliary
The course which these adventures shape out for themselves, and imperatively call upon the historian to observe, now demands that they should revert to the point they attained previously to the commencement of the last chapter, when Ralph Nickleby and Arthur Gride were left together in the house where death had so suddenly reared his dark and heavy banner.
With clenched hands, and teeth ground together so firm and tight that no locking of the jaws could have fixed and riveted them more securely, Ralph stood, for some minutes, in the attitude in which he had last addressed his nephew: breathing heavily, but as rigid and motionless in other respects as if he had been a brazen statue. After a time, he began, by slow degrees, as a man rousing himself from heavy slumber, to relax. For a moment he shook his clasped fist towards the door by which Nicholas had disappeared; and then thrusting it into his breast, as if to repress by force even this show of passion, turned round and confronted the less hardy usurer, who had not yet risen from the ground.
The cowering wretch, who still shook in every limb, and whose few grey hairs trembled and quivered on his head with abject dismay, tottered to his feet as he met Ralph's eye, and, shielding his face with both hands, protested, while he crept towards the door, that it was no fault of his.
'Who said it was, man?' returned Ralph, in a suppressed voice. 'Who said it was?'
'You looked as if you thought I was to blame,' said Gride, timidly.
'Pshaw!' Ralph muttered, forcing a laugh. 'I blame him for not living an hour longer. One hour longer would have been long enough. I blame no one else.'
'N—n—no one else?' said Gride.
'Not for this mischance,' replied Ralph. 'I have an old score to clear with that young fellow who has carried off your mistress; but that has nothing to do with his blustering just now, for we should soon have been quit of him, but for this cursed accident.'
There was something so unnatural in the calmness with which Ralph Nickleby spoke, when coupled with his face, the expression of the features, to which every nerve and muscle, as it twitched and throbbed with a spasm whose workings no effort could conceal, gave, every instant, some new and frightful aspect—there was something so unnatural and ghastly in the contrast between his harsh, slow, steady voice (only altered by a certain halting of the breath which made him pause between almost every word like a drunken man bent upon speaking plainly), and these evidences of the most intense and violent passion, and the struggle he made to keep them under; that if the dead body which lay above had stood, instead of him, before the cowering Gride, it could scarcely have presented a spectacle which would have terrified him more.
'The coach,' said Ralph after a time, during which he had struggled like some strong man against a fit. 'We came in a coach. Is it waiting?'
Gride gladly availed himself of the pretext for going to the window to see. Ralph, keeping his face steadily the other way, tore at his shirt with the hand which he had thrust into his breast, and muttered in a hoarse whisper:
'Ten thousand pounds! He said ten thousand! The precise sum paid in but yesterday for the two mortgages, and which would have gone out again, at heavy interest, tomorrow. If that house has failed, and he the first to bring the news!—Is the coach there?'
'Yes, yes,' said Gride, startled by the fierce tone of the inquiry. 'It's here. Dear, dear, what a fiery man you are!'
'Come here,' said Ralph, beckoning to him. 'We mustn't make a show of being disturbed. We'll go down arm in arm.'
'But you pinch me black and blue,' urged Gride.
Ralph let him go impatiently, and descending the stairs with his usual firm and heavy tread, got into the coach. Arthur Gride followed. After looking doubtfully at Ralph when the man asked where he was to drive, and finding that he remained silent, and expressed no wish upon the subject, Arthur mentioned his own house, and thither they proceeded.
On their way, Ralph sat in the furthest corner with folded arms, and uttered not a word. With his chin sunk upon his breast, and his downcast eyes quite hidden by the contraction of his knotted brows, he might have been asleep for any sign of consciousness he gave until the coach stopped, when he raised his head, and glancing through the window, inquired what place that was.
'My house,' answered the disconsolate Gride, affected perhaps by its loneliness. 'Oh dear! my house.'
'True,' said Ralph 'I have not observed the way we came. I should like a glass of water. You have that in the house, I suppose?'
'You shall have a glass of—of anything you like,' answered Gride, with a groan. 'It's no use knocking, coachman. Ring the bell!'
The man rang, and rang, and rang again; then, knocked until the street re-echoed with the sounds; then, listened at the keyhole of the door. Nobody came. The house was silent as the grave.
'How's this?' said Ralph impatiently.
'Peg is so very deaf,' answered Gride with a look of anxiety and alarm. 'Oh dear! Ring again, coachman. She SEES the bell.'
Again the man rang and knocked, and knocked and rang again. Some of the neighbours threw up their windows, and called across the street to each other that old Gride's housekeeper must have dropped down dead. Others collected round the coach, and gave vent to various surmises; some held that she had fallen asleep; some, that she had burnt herself to death; some, that she had got drunk; and one very fat man that she had seen something to eat which had frightened her so much (not being used to it) that she had fallen into a fit. This last suggestion particularly delighted the bystanders, who cheered it rather uproariously, and were, with some difficulty, deterred from dropping down the area and breaking open the kitchen door to ascertain the fact. Nor was this all. Rumours having gone abroad that Arthur was to be married that morning, very particular inquiries were made after the bride, who was held by the majority to be disguised in the person of Mr Ralph Nickleby, which gave rise to much jocose indignation at the public appearance of a bride in boots and pantaloons, and called forth a great many hoots and groans. At length, the two money-lenders obtained shelter in a house next door, and, being accommodated with a ladder, clambered over the wall of the back-yard—which was not a high one—and descended in safety on the other side.
'I am almost afraid to go in, I declare,' said Arthur, turning to Ralph when they were alone. 'Suppose she should be murdered. Lying with her brains knocked out by a poker, eh?'
'Suppose she were,' said Ralph. 'I tell you, I wish such things were more common than they are, and more easily done. You may stare and shiver. I do!'
He applied himself to a pump in the yard; and, having taken a deep draught of water and flung a quantity on his head and face, regained his accustomed manner and led the way into the house: Gride following close at his heels.
It was the same dark place as ever: every room dismal and silent as it was wont to be, and every ghostly article of furniture in its customary place. The iron heart of the grim old clock, undisturbed by all the noise without, still beat heavily within its dusty case; the tottering presses slunk from the sight, as usual, in their melancholy corners; the echoes of footsteps returned the same dreary sound; the long-legged spider paused in his nimble run, and, scared by the sight of men in that his dull domain, hung motionless on the wall, counterfeiting death until they should have passed him by.
From cellar to garret went the two usurers, opening every creaking door and looking into every deserted room. But no Peg was there. At last, they sat them down in the apartment which Arthur Gride usually inhabited, to rest after their search.
'The hag is out, on some preparation for your wedding festivities, I suppose,' said Ralph, preparing to depart. 'See here! I destroy the bond; we shall never need it now.'
Gride, who had been peering narrowly about the room, fell, at that moment, upon his knees before a large chest, and uttered a terrible yell.
'How now?' said Ralph, looking sternly round.
'Robbed! robbed!' screamed Arthur Gride.
'Robbed! of money?'
'No, no, no. Worse! far worse!'
'Of what then?' demanded Ralph.
'Worse than money, worse than money!' cried the old man, casting the papers out of the chest, like some beast tearing up the earth. 'She had better have stolen money—all my money—I haven't much! She had better have made me a beggar than have done this!'
'Done what?' said Ralph. 'Done what, you devil's dotard?'
Still Gride made no answer, but tore and scratched among the papers, and yelled and screeched like a fiend in torment.
'There is something missing, you say,' said Ralph, shaking him furiously by the collar. 'What is it?'
'Papers, deeds. I am a ruined man. Lost, lost! I am robbed, I am ruined! She saw me reading it—reading it of late—I did very often—She watched me, saw me put it in the box that fitted into this, the box is gone, she has stolen it. Damnation seize her, she has robbed me!'
'Of WHAT?' cried Ralph, on whom a sudden light appeared to break, for his eyes flashed and his frame trembled with agitation as he clutched Gride by his bony arm. 'Of what?'
'She don't know what it is; she can't read!' shrieked Gride, not heeding the inquiry. 'There's only one way in which money can be made of it, and that is by taking it to her. Somebody will read it for her, and tell her what to do. She and her accomplice will get money for it and be let off besides; they'll make a merit of it—say they found it—knew it—and be evidence against me. The only person it will fall upon is me, me, me!'
'Patience!' said Ralph, clutching him still tighter and eyeing him with a sidelong look, so fixed and eager as sufficiently to denote that he had some hidden purpose in what he was about to say. 'Hear reason. She can't have been gone long. I'll call the police. Do you but give information of what she has stolen, and they'll lay hands upon her, trust me. Here! Help!'
'No, no, no!' screamed the old man, putting his hand on Ralph's mouth. 'I can't, I daren't.'
'Help! help!' cried Ralph.
'No, no, no!' shrieked the other, stamping on the ground with the energy of a madman. 'I tell you no. I daren't, I daren't!'
'Daren't make this robbery public?' said Ralph.
'No!' rejoined Gride, wringing his hands. 'Hush! Hush! Not a word of this; not a word must be said. I am undone. Whichever way I turn, I am undone. I am betrayed. I shall be given up. I shall die in Newgate!'
With frantic exclamations such as these, and with many others in which fear, grief, and rage, were strangely blended, the panic-stricken wretch gradually subdued his first loud outcry, until it had softened down into a low despairing moan, chequered now and then by a howl, as, going over such papers as were left in the chest, he discovered some new loss. With very little excuse for departing so abruptly, Ralph left him, and, greatly disappointing the loiterers outside the house by telling them there was nothing the matter, got into the coach, and was driven to his own home.
A letter lay on his table. He let it lie there for some time, as if he had not the courage to open it, but at length did so and turned deadly pale.
'The worst has happened,' he said; 'the house has failed. I see. The rumour was abroad in the city last night, and reached the ears of those merchants. Well, well!'
He strode violently up and down the room and stopped again.
'Ten thousand pounds! And only lying there for a day—for one day! How many anxious years, how many pinching days and sleepless nights, before I scraped together that ten thousand pounds!—Ten thousand pounds! How many proud painted dames would have fawned and smiled, and how many spendthrift blockheads done me lip-service to my face and cursed me in their hearts, while I turned that ten thousand pounds into twenty! While I ground, and pinched, and used these needy borrowers for my pleasure and profit, what smooth-tongued speeches, and courteous looks, and civil letters, they would have given me! The cant of the lying world is, that men like me compass our riches by dissimulation and treachery: by fawning, cringing, and stooping. Why, how many lies, what mean and abject evasions, what humbled behaviour from upstarts who, but for my money, would spurn me aside as they do their betters every day, would that ten thousand pounds have brought me in! Grant that I had doubled it—made cent. per cent.—for every sovereign told another—there would not be one piece of money in all the heap which wouldn't represent ten thousand mean and paltry lies, told, not by the money-lender, oh no! but by the money-borrowers, your liberal, thoughtless, generous, dashing folks, who wouldn't be so mean as save a sixpence for the world!'
Striving, as it would seem, to lose part of the bitterness of his regrets in the bitterness of these other thoughts, Ralph continued to pace the room. There was less and less of resolution in his manner as his mind gradually reverted to his loss; at length, dropping into his elbow-chair and grasping its sides so firmly that they creaked again, he said:
'The time has been when nothing could have moved me like the loss of this great sum. Nothing. For births, deaths, marriages, and all the events which are of interest to most men, have (unless they are connected with gain or loss of money) no interest for me. But now, I swear, I mix up with the loss, his triumph in telling it. If he had brought it about,—I almost feel as if he had,—I couldn't hate him more. Let me but retaliate upon him, by degrees, however slow—let me but begin to get the better of him, let me but turn the scale—and I can bear it.'
His meditations were long and deep. They terminated in his dispatching a letter by Newman, addressed to Mr Squeers at the Saracen's Head, with instructions to inquire whether he had arrived in town, and, if so, to wait an answer. Newman brought back the information that Mr Squeers had come by mail that morning, and had received the letter in bed; but that he sent his duty, and word that he would get up and wait upon Mr Nickleby directly.
The interval between the delivery of this message, and the arrival of Mr Squeers, was very short; but, before he came, Ralph had suppressed every sign of emotion, and once more regained the hard, immovable, inflexible manner which was habitual to him, and to which, perhaps, was ascribable no small part of the influence which, over many men of no very strong prejudices on the score of morality, he could exert, almost at will.
'Well, Mr Squeers,' he said, welcoming that worthy with his accustomed smile, of which a sharp look and a thoughtful frown were part and parcel: 'how do YOU do?'
'Why, sir,' said Mr Squeers, 'I'm pretty well. So's the family, and so's the boys, except for a sort of rash as is a running through the school, and rather puts 'em off their feed. But it's a ill wind as blows no good to nobody; that's what I always say when them lads has a wisitation. A wisitation, sir, is the lot of mortality. Mortality itself, sir, is a wisitation. The world is chock full of wisitations; and if a boy repines at a wisitation and makes you uncomfortable with his noise, he must have his head punched. That's going according to the Scripter, that is.'
'Mr Squeers,' said Ralph, drily.
'We'll avoid these precious morsels of morality if you please, and talk of business.'
'With all my heart, sir,' rejoined Squeers, 'and first let me say—'
'First let ME say, if you please.—Noggs!'
Newman presented himself when the summons had been twice or thrice repeated, and asked if his master called.
'I did. Go to your dinner. And go at once. Do you hear?'
'It an't time,' said Newman, doggedly.
'My time is yours, and I say it is,' returned Ralph.
'You alter it every day,' said Newman. 'It isn't fair.'
'You don't keep many cooks, and can easily apologise to them for the trouble,' retorted Ralph. 'Begone, sir!'
Ralph not only issued this order in his most peremptory manner, but, under pretence of fetching some papers from the little office, saw it obeyed, and, when Newman had left the house, chained the door, to prevent the possibility of his returning secretly, by means of his latch-key.
'I have reason to suspect that fellow,' said Ralph, when he returned to his own office. 'Therefore, until I have thought of the shortest and least troublesome way of ruining him, I hold it best to keep him at a distance.'
'It wouldn't take much to ruin him, I should think,' said Squeers, with a grin.
'Perhaps not,' answered Ralph. 'Nor to ruin a great many people whom I know. You were going to say—?'
Ralph's summary and matter-of-course way of holding up this example, and throwing out the hint that followed it, had evidently an effect (as doubtless it was designed to have) upon Mr Squeers, who said, after a little hesitation and in a much more subdued tone:
'Why, what I was a-going to say, sir, is, that this here business regarding of that ungrateful and hard-hearted chap, Snawley senior, puts me out of my way, and occasions a inconveniency quite unparalleled, besides, as I may say, making, for whole weeks together, Mrs Squeers a perfect widder. It's a pleasure to me to act with you, of course.'
'Of course,' said Ralph, drily.
'Yes, I say of course,' resumed Mr Squeers, rubbing his knees, 'but at the same time, when one comes, as I do now, better than two hundred and fifty mile to take a afferdavid, it does put a man out a good deal, letting alone the risk.'
'And where may the risk be, Mr Squeers?' said Ralph.
'I said, letting alone the risk,' replied Squeers, evasively.
'And I said, where was the risk?'
'I wasn't complaining, you know, Mr Nickleby,' pleaded Squeers. 'Upon my word I never see such a—'
'I ask you where is the risk?' repeated Ralph, emphatically.
'Where the risk?' returned Squeers, rubbing his knees still harder. 'Why, it an't necessary to mention. Certain subjects is best awoided. Oh, you know what risk I mean.'
'How often have I told you,' said Ralph, 'and how often am I to tell you, that you run no risk? What have you sworn, or what are you asked to swear, but that at such and such a time a boy was left with you in the name of Smike; that he was at your school for a given number of years, was lost under such and such circumstances, is now found, and has been identified by you in such and such keeping? This is all true; is it not?'
'Yes,' replied Squeers, 'that's all true.'
'Well, then,' said Ralph, 'what risk do you run? Who swears to a lie but Snawley; a man whom I have paid much less than I have you?'
'He certainly did it cheap, did Snawley,' observed Squeers.
'He did it cheap!' retorted Ralph, testily; 'yes, and he did it well, and carries it off with a hypocritical face and a sanctified air, but you! Risk! What do you mean by risk? The certificates are all genuine, Snawley HAD another son, he HAS been married twice, his first wife IS dead, none but her ghost could tell that she didn't write that letter, none but Snawley himself can tell that this is not his son, and that his son is food for worms! The only perjury is Snawley's, and I fancy he is pretty well used to it. Where's your risk?'
'Why, you know,' said Squeers, fidgeting in his chair, 'if you come to that, I might say where's yours?'
'You might say where's mine!' returned Ralph; 'you may say where's mine. I don't appear in the business, neither do you. All Snawley's interest is to stick well to the story he has told; and all his risk is, to depart from it in the least. Talk of YOUR risk in the conspiracy!'
'I say,' remonstrated Squeers, looking uneasily round: 'don't call it that! Just as a favour, don't.'
'Call it what you like,' said Ralph, irritably, 'but attend to me. This tale was originally fabricated as a means of annoyance against one who hurt your trade and half cudgelled you to death, and to enable you to obtain repossession of a half-dead drudge, whom you wished to regain, because, while you wreaked your vengeance on him for his share in the business, you knew that the knowledge that he was again in your power would be the best punishment you could inflict upon your enemy. Is that so, Mr Squeers?'
'Why, sir,' returned Squeers, almost overpowered by the determination which Ralph displayed to make everything tell against him, and by his stern unyielding manner, 'in a measure it was.'
'What does that mean?' said Ralph.
'Why, in a measure means,' returned Squeers, 'as it may be, that it wasn't all on my account, because you had some old grudge to satisfy, too.'
'If I had not had,' said Ralph, in no way abashed by the reminder, 'do you think I should have helped you?'
'Why no, I don't suppose you would,' Squeers replied. 'I only wanted that point to be all square and straight between us.'
'How can it ever be otherwise?' retorted Ralph. 'Except that the account is against me, for I spend money to gratify my hatred, and you pocket it, and gratify yours at the same time. You are, at least, as avaricious as you are revengeful. So am I. Which is best off? You, who win money and revenge, at the same time and by the same process, and who are, at all events, sure of money, if not of revenge; or I, who am only sure of spending money in any case, and can but win bare revenge at last?'
As Mr Squeers could only answer this proposition by shrugs and smiles, Ralph bade him be silent, and thankful that he was so well off; and then, fixing his eyes steadily upon him, proceeded to say:
First, that Nicholas had thwarted him in a plan he had formed for the disposal in marriage of a certain young lady, and had, in the confusion attendant on her father's sudden death, secured that lady himself, and borne her off in triumph.
Secondly, that by some will or settlement—certainly by some instrument in writing, which must contain the young lady's name, and could be, therefore, easily selected from others, if access to the place where it was deposited were once secured—she was entitled to property which, if the existence of this deed ever became known to her, would make her husband (and Ralph represented that Nicholas was certain to marry her) a rich and prosperous man, and most formidable enemy.
Thirdly, that this deed had been, with others, stolen from one who had himself obtained or concealed it fraudulently, and who feared to take any steps for its recovery; and that he (Ralph) knew the thief.
To all this Mr Squeers listened, with greedy ears that devoured every syllable, and with his one eye and his mouth wide open: marvelling for what special reason he was honoured with so much of Ralph's confidence, and to what it all tended.
'Now,' said Ralph, leaning forward, and placing his hand on Squeers's arm, 'hear the design which I have conceived, and which I must—I say, must, if I can ripen it—have carried into execution. No advantage can be reaped from this deed, whatever it is, save by the girl herself, or her husband; and the possession of this deed by one or other of them is indispensable to any advantage being gained. THAT I have discovered beyond the possibility of doubt. I want that deed brought here, that I may give the man who brings it fifty pounds in gold, and burn it to ashes before his face.'
Mr Squeers, after following with his eye the action of Ralph's hand towards the fire-place as if he were at that moment consuming the paper, drew a long breath, and said:
'Yes; but who's to bring it?'
'Nobody, perhaps, for much is to be done before it can be got at,' said Ralph. 'But if anybody—you!'
Mr Squeers's first tokens of consternation, and his flat relinquishment of the task, would have staggered most men, if they had not immediately occasioned an utter abandonment of the proposition. On Ralph they produced not the slightest effect. Resuming, when the schoolmaster had quite talked himself out of breath, as coolly as if he had never been interrupted, Ralph proceeded to expatiate on such features of the case as he deemed it most advisable to lay the greatest stress on.
These were, the age, decrepitude, and weakness of Mrs Sliderskew; the great improbability of her having any accomplice or even acquaintance: taking into account her secluded habits, and her long residence in such a house as Gride's; the strong reason there was to suppose that the robbery was not the result of a concerted plan: otherwise she would have watched an opportunity of carrying off a sum of money; the difficulty she would be placed in when she began to think on what she had done, and found herself encumbered with documents of whose nature she was utterly ignorant; and the comparative ease with which somebody, with a full knowledge of her position, obtaining access to her, and working on her fears, if necessary, might worm himself into her confidence and obtain, under one pretence or another, free possession of the deed. To these were added such considerations as the constant residence of Mr Squeers at a long distance from London, which rendered his association with Mrs Sliderskew a mere masquerading frolic, in which nobody was likely to recognise him, either at the time or afterwards; the impossibility of Ralph's undertaking the task himself, he being already known to her by sight; and various comments on the uncommon tact and experience of Mr Squeers: which would make his overreaching one old woman a mere matter of child's play and amusement. In addition to these influences and persuasions, Ralph drew, with his utmost skill and power, a vivid picture of the defeat which Nicholas would sustain, should they succeed, in linking himself to a beggar, where he expected to wed an heiress—glanced at the immeasurable importance it must be to a man situated as Squeers, to preserve such a friend as himself—dwelt on a long train of benefits, conferred since their first acquaintance, when he had reported favourably of his treatment of a sickly boy who had died under his hands (and whose death was very convenient to Ralph and his clients, but this he did NOT say), and finally hinted that the fifty pounds might be increased to seventy-five, or, in the event of very great success, even to a hundred.
These arguments at length concluded, Mr Squeers crossed his legs, uncrossed them, scratched his head, rubbed his eye, examined the palms of his hands, and bit his nails, and after exhibiting many other signs of restlessness and indecision, asked 'whether one hundred pound was the highest that Mr Nickleby could go.' Being answered in the affirmative, he became restless again, and, after some thought, and an unsuccessful inquiry 'whether he couldn't go another fifty,' said he supposed he must try and do the most he could for a friend: which was always his maxim, and therefore he undertook the job.
'But how are you to get at the woman?' he said; 'that's what it is as puzzles me.'
'I may not get at her at all,' replied Ralph, 'but I'll try. I have hunted people in this city, before now, who have been better hid than she; and I know quarters in which a guinea or two, carefully spent, will often solve darker riddles than this. Ay, and keep them close too, if need be! I hear my man ringing at the door. We may as well part. You had better not come to and fro, but wait till you hear from me.'
'Good!' returned Squeers. 'I say! If you shouldn't find her out, you'll pay expenses at the Saracen, and something for loss of time?'
'Well,' said Ralph, testily; 'yes! You have nothing more to say?'
Squeers shaking his head, Ralph accompanied him to the streetdoor, and audibly wondering, for the edification of Newman, why it was fastened as if it were night, let him in and Squeers out, and returned to his own room.
'Now!' he muttered, 'come what come may, for the present I am firm and unshaken. Let me but retrieve this one small portion of my loss and disgrace; let me but defeat him in this one hope, dear to his heart as I know it must be; let me but do this; and it shall be the first link in such a chain which I will wind about him, as never man forged yet.'
How Ralph Nickleby's Auxiliary went about his Work, and how he prospered with it
It was a dark, wet, gloomy night in autumn, when in an upper room of a mean house situated in an obscure street, or rather court, near Lambeth, there sat, all alone, a one-eyed man grotesquely habited, either for lack of better garments or for purposes of disguise, in a loose greatcoat, with arms half as long again as his own, and a capacity of breadth and length which would have admitted of his winding himself in it, head and all, with the utmost ease, and without any risk of straining the old and greasy material of which it was composed.
So attired, and in a place so far removed from his usual haunts and occupations, and so very poor and wretched in its character, perhaps Mrs Squeers herself would have had some difficulty in recognising her lord: quickened though her natural sagacity doubtless would have been by the affectionate yearnings and impulses of a tender wife. But Mrs Squeers's lord it was; and in a tolerably disconsolate mood Mrs Squeers's lord appeared to be, as, helping himself from a black bottle which stood on the table beside him, he cast round the chamber a look, in which very slight regard for the objects within view was plainly mingled with some regretful and impatient recollection of distant scenes and persons.
There were, certainly, no particular attractions, either in the room over which the glance of Mr Squeers so discontentedly wandered, or in the narrow street into which it might have penetrated, if he had thought fit to approach the window. The attic chamber in which he sat was bare and mean; the bedstead, and such few other articles of necessary furniture as it contained, were of the commonest description, in a most crazy state, and of a most uninviting appearance. The street was muddy, dirty, and deserted. Having but one outlet, it was traversed by few but the inhabitants at any time; and the night being one of those on which most people are glad to be within doors, it now presented no other signs of life than the dull glimmering of poor candles from the dirty windows, and few sounds but the pattering of the rain, and occasionally the heavy closing of some creaking door.
Mr Squeers continued to look disconsolately about him, and to listen to these noises in profound silence, broken only by the rustling of his large coat, as he now and then moved his arm to raise his glass to his lips. Mr Squeers continued to do this for some time, until the increasing gloom warned him to snuff the candle. Seeming to be slightly roused by this exertion, he raised his eye to the ceiling, and fixing it upon some uncouth and fantastic figures, traced upon it by the wet and damp which had penetrated through the roof, broke into the following soliloquy:
'Well, this is a pretty go, is this here! An uncommon pretty go! Here have I been, a matter of how many weeks—hard upon six—a follering up this here blessed old dowager petty larcenerer,'—Mr Squeers delivered himself of this epithet with great difficulty and effort,—'and Dotheboys Hall a-running itself regularly to seed the while! That's the worst of ever being in with a owdacious chap like that old Nickleby. You never know when he's done with you, and if you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound.'
This remark, perhaps, reminded Mr Squeers that he was in for a hundred pound at any rate. His countenance relaxed, and he raised his glass to his mouth with an air of greater enjoyment of its contents than he had before evinced.
'I never see,' soliloquised Mr Squeers in continuation, 'I never see nor come across such a file as that old Nickleby. Never! He's out of everybody's depth, he is. He's what you may call a rasper, is Nickleby. To see how sly and cunning he grubbed on, day after day, a-worming and plodding and tracing and turning and twining of hisself about, till he found out where this precious Mrs Peg was hid, and cleared the ground for me to work upon. Creeping and crawling and gliding, like a ugly, old, bright-eyed, stagnation-blooded adder! Ah! He'd have made a good 'un in our line, but it would have been too limited for him; his genius would have busted all bonds, and coming over every obstacle, broke down all before it, till it erected itself into a monneyment of—Well, I'll think of the rest, and say it when conwenient.'
Making a halt in his reflections at this place, Mr Squeers again put his glass to his lips, and drawing a dirty letter from his pocket, proceeded to con over its contents with the air of a man who had read it very often, and now refreshed his memory rather in the absence of better amusement than for any specific information.
'The pigs is well,' said Mr Squeers, 'the cows is well, and the boys is bobbish. Young Sprouter has been a-winking, has he? I'll wink him when I get back. "Cobbey would persist in sniffing while he was a-eating his dinner, and said that the beef was so strong it made him."—Very good, Cobbey, we'll see if we can't make you sniff a little without beef. "Pitcher was took with another fever,"—of course he was—"and being fetched by his friends, died the day after he got home,"—of course he did, and out of aggravation; it's part of a deep-laid system. There an't another chap in the school but that boy as would have died exactly at the end of the quarter: taking it out of me to the very last, and then carrying his spite to the utmost extremity. "The juniorest Palmer said he wished he was in Heaven." I really don't know, I do NOT know what's to be done with that young fellow; he's always a-wishing something horrid. He said once, he wished he was a donkey, because then he wouldn't have a father as didn't love him! Pretty wicious that for a child of six!'
Mr Squeers was so much moved by the contemplation of this hardened nature in one so young, that he angrily put up the letter, and sought, in a new train of ideas, a subject of consolation.
'It's a long time to have been a-lingering in London,' he said; 'and this is a precious hole to come and live in, even if it has been only for a week or so. Still, one hundred pound is five boys, and five boys takes a whole year to pay one hundred pounds, and there's their keep to be substracted, besides. There's nothing lost, neither, by one's being here; because the boys' money comes in just the same as if I was at home, and Mrs Squeers she keeps them in order. There'll be some lost time to make up, of course. There'll be an arrear of flogging as'll have to be gone through: still, a couple of days makes that all right, and one don't mind a little extra work for one hundred pound. It's pretty nigh the time to wait upon the old woman. From what she said last night, I suspect that if I'm to succeed at all, I shall succeed tonight; so I'll have half a glass more, to wish myself success, and put myself in spirits. Mrs Squeers, my dear, your health!'
Leering with his one eye as if the lady to whom he drank had been actually present, Mr Squeers—in his enthusiasm, no doubt—poured out a full glass, and emptied it; and as the liquor was raw spirits, and he had applied himself to the same bottle more than once already, it is not surprising that he found himself, by this time, in an extremely cheerful state, and quite enough excited for his purpose.
What this purpose was soon appeared; for, after a few turns about the room to steady himself, he took the bottle under his arm and the glass in his hand, and blowing out the candle as if he purposed being gone some time, stole out upon the staircase, and creeping softly to a door opposite his own, tapped gently at it.
'But what's the use of tapping?' he said, 'She'll never hear. I suppose she isn't doing anything very particular; and if she is, it don't much matter, that I see.'
With this brief preface, Mr Squeers applied his hand to the latch of the door, and thrusting his head into a garret far more deplorable than that he had just left, and seeing that there was nobody there but an old woman, who was bending over a wretched fire (for although the weather was still warm, the evening was chilly), walked in, and tapped her on the shoulder.
'Well, my Slider,' said Mr Squeers, jocularly.
'Is that you?' inquired Peg.
'Ah! it's me, and me's the first person singular, nominative case, agreeing with the verb "it's", and governed by Squeers understood, as a acorn, a hour; but when the h is sounded, the a only is to be used, as a and, a art, a ighway,' replied Mr Squeers, quoting at random from the grammar. 'At least, if it isn't, you don't know any better, and if it is, I've done it accidentally.'
Delivering this reply in his accustomed tone of voice, in which of course it was inaudible to Peg, Mr Squeers drew a stool to the fire, and placing himself over against her, and the bottle and glass on the floor between them, roared out again, very loud,
'Well, my Slider!'
'I hear you,' said Peg, receiving him very graciously.
'I've come according to promise,' roared Squeers.
'So they used to say in that part of the country I come from,' observed Peg, complacently, 'but I think oil's better.'
'Better than what?' roared Squeers, adding some rather strong language in an undertone.
'No,' said Peg, 'of course not.'
'I never saw such a monster as you are!' muttered Squeers, looking as amiable as he possibly could the while; for Peg's eye was upon him, and she was chuckling fearfully, as though in delight at having made a choice repartee, 'Do you see this? This is a bottle.'
'I see it,' answered Peg.
'Well, and do you see THIS?' bawled Squeers. 'This is a glass.' Peg saw that too.
'See here, then,' said Squeers, accompanying his remarks with appropriate action, 'I fill the glass from the bottle, and I say "Your health, Slider," and empty it; then I rinse it genteelly with a little drop, which I'm forced to throw into the fire—hallo! we shall have the chimbley alight next—fill it again, and hand it over to you.'
'YOUR health,' said Peg.
'She understands that, anyways,' muttered Squeers, watching Mrs Sliderskew as she dispatched her portion, and choked and gasped in a most awful manner after so doing. 'Now then, let's have a talk. How's the rheumatics?'
Mrs Sliderskew, with much blinking and chuckling, and with looks expressive of her strong admiration of Mr Squeers, his person, manners, and conversation, replied that the rheumatics were better.
'What's the reason,' said Mr Squeers, deriving fresh facetiousness from the bottle; 'what's the reason of rheumatics? What do they mean? What do people have'em for—eh?'
Mrs Sliderskew didn't know, but suggested that it was possibly because they couldn't help it.
'Measles, rheumatics, hooping-cough, fevers, agers, and lumbagers,' said Mr Squeers, 'is all philosophy together; that's what it is. The heavenly bodies is philosophy, and the earthly bodies is philosophy. If there's a screw loose in a heavenly body, that's philosophy; and if there's screw loose in a earthly body, that's philosophy too; or it may be that sometimes there's a little metaphysics in it, but that's not often. Philosophy's the chap for me. If a parent asks a question in the classical, commercial, or mathematical line, says I, gravely, "Why, sir, in the first place, are you a philosopher?"—"No, Mr Squeers," he says, "I an't." "Then, sir," says I, "I am sorry for you, for I shan't be able to explain it." Naturally, the parent goes away and wishes he was a philosopher, and, equally naturally, thinks I'm one.'
Saying this, and a great deal more, with tipsy profundity and a serio-comic air, and keeping his eye all the time on Mrs Sliderskew, who was unable to hear one word, Mr Squeers concluded by helping himself and passing the bottle: to which Peg did becoming reverence.
'That's the time of day!' said Mr Squeers. 'You look twenty pound ten better than you did.'
Again Mrs Sliderskew chuckled, but modesty forbade her assenting verbally to the compliment.
'Twenty pound ten better,' repeated Mr Squeers, 'than you did that day when I first introduced myself. Don't you know?'
'Ah!' said Peg, shaking her head, 'but you frightened me that day.'
'Did I?' said Squeers; 'well, it was rather a startling thing for a stranger to come and recommend himself by saying that he knew all about you, and what your name was, and why you were living so quiet here, and what you had boned, and who you boned it from, wasn't it?'
Peg nodded her head in strong assent.
'But I know everything that happens in that way, you see,' continued Squeers. 'Nothing takes place, of that kind, that I an't up to entirely. I'm a sort of a lawyer, Slider, of first-rate standing, and understanding too; I'm the intimate friend and confidential adwiser of pretty nigh every man, woman, and child that gets themselves into difficulties by being too nimble with their fingers, I'm—'
Mr Squeers's catalogue of his own merits and accomplishments, which was partly the result of a concerted plan between himself and Ralph Nickleby, and flowed, in part, from the black bottle, was here interrupted by Mrs Sliderskew.
'Ha, ha, ha!' she cried, folding her arms and wagging her head; 'and so he wasn't married after all, wasn't he. Not married after all?'
'No,' replied Squeers, 'that he wasn't!'
'And a young lover come and carried off the bride, eh?' said Peg.
'From under his very nose,' replied Squeers; 'and I'm told the young chap cut up rough besides, and broke the winders, and forced him to swaller his wedding favour which nearly choked him.'
'Tell me all about it again,' cried Peg, with a malicious relish of her old master's defeat, which made her natural hideousness something quite fearful; 'let's hear it all again, beginning at the beginning now, as if you'd never told me. Let's have it every word—now—now—beginning at the very first, you know, when he went to the house that morning!'
Mr Squeers, plying Mrs Sliderskew freely with the liquor, and sustaining himself under the exertion of speaking so loud by frequent applications to it himself, complied with this request by describing the discomfiture of Arthur Gride, with such improvements on the truth as happened to occur to him, and the ingenious invention and application of which had been very instrumental in recommending him to her notice in the beginning of their acquaintance. Mrs Sliderskew was in an ecstasy of delight, rolling her head about, drawing up her skinny shoulders, and wrinkling her cadaverous face into so many and such complicated forms of ugliness, as awakened the unbounded astonishment and disgust even of Mr Squeers.
'He's a treacherous old goat,' said Peg, 'and cozened me with cunning tricks and lying promises, but never mind. I'm even with him. I'm even with him.'
'More than even, Slider,' returned Squeers; 'you'd have been even with him if he'd got married; but with the disappointment besides, you're a long way ahead. Out of sight, Slider, quite out of sight. And that reminds me,' he added, handing her the glass, 'if you want me to give you my opinion of them deeds, and tell you what you'd better keep and what you'd better burn, why, now's your time, Slider.'
'There an't no hurry for that,' said Peg, with several knowing looks and winks.
'Oh! very well!' observed Squeers, 'it don't matter to me; you asked me, you know. I shouldn't charge you nothing, being a friend. You're the best judge of course. But you're a bold woman, Slider.'
'How do you mean, bold?' said Peg.
'Why, I only mean that if it was me, I wouldn't keep papers as might hang me, littering about when they might be turned into money—them as wasn't useful made away with, and them as was, laid by somewheres, safe; that's all,' returned Squeers; 'but everybody's the best judge of their own affairs. All I say is, Slider, I wouldn't do it.'
'Come,' said Peg, 'then you shall see 'em.'
'I don't want to see 'em,' replied Squeers, affecting to be out of humour; 'don't talk as if it was a treat. Show 'em to somebody else, and take their advice.'
Mr Squeers would, very likely, have carried on the farce of being offended a little longer, if Mrs Sliderskew, in her anxiety to restore herself to her former high position in his good graces, had not become so extremely affectionate that he stood at some risk of being smothered by her caresses. Repressing, with as good a grace as possible, these little familiarities—for which, there is reason to believe, the black bottle was at least as much to blame as any constitutional infirmity on the part of Mrs Sliderskew—he protested that he had only been joking: and, in proof of his unimpaired good-humour, that he was ready to examine the deeds at once, if, by so doing, he could afford any satisfaction or relief of mind to his fair friend.
'And now you're up, my Slider,' bawled Squeers, as she rose to fetch them, 'bolt the door.'
Peg trotted to the door, and after fumbling at the bolt, crept to the other end of the room, and from beneath the coals which filled the bottom of the cupboard, drew forth a small deal box. Having placed this on the floor at Squeers's feet, she brought, from under the pillow of her bed, a small key, with which she signed to that gentleman to open it. Mr Squeers, who had eagerly followed her every motion, lost no time in obeying this hint: and, throwing back the lid, gazed with rapture on the documents which lay within.
'Now you see,' said Peg, kneeling down on the floor beside him, and staying his impatient hand; 'what's of no use we'll burn; what we can get any money by, we'll keep; and if there's any we could get him into trouble by, and fret and waste away his heart to shreds, those we'll take particular care of; for that's what I want to do, and what I hoped to do when I left him.'
'I thought,' said Squeers, 'that you didn't bear him any particular good-will. But, I say, why didn't you take some money besides?'
'Some what?' asked Peg.
'Some money,' roared Squeers. 'I do believe the woman hears me, and wants to make me break a wessel, so that she may have the pleasure of nursing me. Some money, Slider, money!'
'Why, what a man you are to ask!' cried Peg, with some contempt. 'If I had taken money from Arthur Gride, he'd have scoured the whole earth to find me—aye, and he'd have smelt it out, and raked it up, somehow, if I had buried it at the bottom of the deepest well in England. No, no! I knew better than that. I took what I thought his secrets were hid in: and them he couldn't afford to make public, let'em be worth ever so much money. He's an old dog; a sly, old, cunning, thankless dog! He first starved, and then tricked me; and if I could I'd kill him.'
'All right, and very laudable,' said Squeers. 'But, first and foremost, Slider, burn the box. You should never keep things as may lead to discovery. Always mind that. So while you pull it to pieces (which you can easily do, for it's very old and rickety) and burn it in little bits, I'll look over the papers and tell you what they are.'
Peg, expressing her acquiescence in this arrangement, Mr Squeers turned the box bottom upwards, and tumbling the contents upon the floor, handed it to her; the destruction of the box being an extemporary device for engaging her attention, in case it should prove desirable to distract it from his own proceedings.
'There!' said Squeers; 'you poke the pieces between the bars, and make up a good fire, and I'll read the while. Let me see, let me see.' And taking the candle down beside him, Mr Squeers, with great eagerness and a cunning grin overspreading his face, entered upon his task of examination.
If the old woman had not been very deaf, she must have heard, when she last went to the door, the breathing of two persons close behind it: and if those two persons had been unacquainted with her infirmity, they must probably have chosen that moment either for presenting themselves or taking to flight. But, knowing with whom they had to deal, they remained quite still, and now, not only appeared unobserved at the door—which was not bolted, for the bolt had no hasp—but warily, and with noiseless footsteps, advanced into the room.
As they stole farther and farther in by slight and scarcely perceptible degrees, and with such caution that they scarcely seemed to breathe, the old hag and Squeers little dreaming of any such invasion, and utterly unconscious of there being any soul near but themselves, were busily occupied with their tasks. The old woman, with her wrinkled face close to the bars of the stove, puffing at the dull embers which had not yet caught the wood; Squeers stooping down to the candle, which brought out the full ugliness of his face, as the light of the fire did that of his companion; both intently engaged, and wearing faces of exultation which contrasted strongly with the anxious looks of those behind, who took advantage of the slightest sound to cover their advance, and, almost before they had moved an inch, and all was silent, stopped again. This, with the large bare room, damp walls, and flickering doubtful light, combined to form a scene which the most careless and indifferent spectator (could any have been present) could scarcely have failed to derive some interest from, and would not readily have forgotten.
Of the stealthy comers, Frank Cheeryble was one, and Newman Noggs the other. Newman had caught up, by the rusty nozzle, an old pair of bellows, which were just undergoing a flourish in the air preparatory to a descent upon the head of Mr Squeers, when Frank, with an earnest gesture, stayed his arm, and, taking another step in advance, came so close behind the schoolmaster that, by leaning slightly forward, he could plainly distinguish the writing which he held up to his eye.
Mr Squeers, not being remarkably erudite, appeared to be considerably puzzled by this first prize, which was in an engrossing hand, and not very legible except to a practised eye. Having tried it by reading from left to right, and from right to left, and finding it equally clear both ways, he turned it upside down with no better success.
'Ha, ha, ha!' chuckled Peg, who, on her knees before the fire, was feeding it with fragments of the box, and grinning in most devilish exultation. 'What's that writing about, eh?'
'Nothing particular,' replied Squeers, tossing it towards her. 'It's only an old lease, as well as I can make out. Throw it in the fire.'
Mrs Sliderskew complied, and inquired what the next one was.
'This,' said Squeers, 'is a bundle of overdue acceptances and renewed bills of six or eight young gentlemen, but they're all MPs, so it's of no use to anybody. Throw it in the fire!' Peg did as she was bidden, and waited for the next.
'This,' said Squeers, 'seems to be some deed of sale of the right of presentation to the rectory of Purechurch, in the valley of Cashup. Take care of that, Slider, literally for God's sake. It'll fetch its price at the Auction Mart.'
'What's the next?' inquired Peg.
'Why, this,' said Squeers, 'seems, from the two letters that's with it, to be a bond from a curate down in the country, to pay half a year's wages of forty pound for borrowing twenty. Take care of that, for if he don't pay it, his bishop will very soon be down upon him. We know what the camel and the needle's eye means; no man as can't live upon his income, whatever it is, must expect to go to heaven at any price. It's very odd; I don't see anything like it yet.'
'What's the matter?' said Peg.
'Nothing,' replied Squeers, 'only I'm looking for—'
Newman raised the bellows again. Once more, Frank, by a rapid motion of his arm, unaccompanied by any noise, checked him in his purpose.
'Here you are,' said Squeers, 'bonds—take care of them. Warrant of attorney—take care of that. Two cognovits—take care of them. Lease and release—burn that. Ah! "Madeline Bray—come of age or marry—the said Madeline"—here, burn THAT!'
Eagerly throwing towards the old woman a parchment that he caught up for the purpose, Squeers, as she turned her head, thrust into the breast of his large coat, the deed in which these words had caught his eye, and burst into a shout of triumph.
'I've got it!' said Squeers. 'I've got it! Hurrah! The plan was a good one, though the chance was desperate, and the day's our own at last!'
Peg demanded what he laughed at, but no answer was returned. Newman's arm could no longer be restrained; the bellows, descending heavily and with unerring aim on the very centre of Mr Squeers's head, felled him to the floor, and stretched him on it flat and senseless.
In which one Scene of this History is closed
Dividing the distance into two days' journey, in order that his charge might sustain the less exhaustion and fatigue from travelling so far, Nicholas, at the end of the second day from their leaving home, found himself within a very few miles of the spot where the happiest years of his life had been passed, and which, while it filled his mind with pleasant and peaceful thoughts, brought back many painful and vivid recollections of the circumstances in which he and his had wandered forth from their old home, cast upon the rough world and the mercy of strangers.
It needed no such reflections as those which the memory of old days, and wanderings among scenes where our childhood has been passed, usually awaken in the most insensible minds, to soften the heart of Nicholas, and render him more than usually mindful of his drooping friend. By night and day, at all times and seasons: always watchful, attentive, and solicitous, and never varying in the discharge of his self-imposed duty to one so friendless and helpless as he whose sands of life were now fast running out and dwindling rapidly away: he was ever at his side. He never left him. To encourage and animate him, administer to his wants, support and cheer him to the utmost of his power, was now his constant and unceasing occupation.
They procured a humble lodging in a small farmhouse, surrounded by meadows where Nicholas had often revelled when a child with a troop of merry schoolfellows; and here they took up their rest.
At first, Smike was strong enough to walk about, for short distances at a time, with no other support or aid than that which Nicholas could afford him. At this time, nothing appeared to interest him so much as visiting those places which had been most familiar to his friend in bygone days. Yielding to this fancy, and pleased to find that its indulgence beguiled the sick boy of many tedious hours, and never failed to afford him matter for thought and conversation afterwards, Nicholas made such spots the scenes of their daily rambles: driving him from place to place in a little pony-chair, and supporting him on his arm while they walked slowly among these old haunts, or lingered in the sunlight to take long parting looks of those which were most quiet and beautiful.
It was on such occasions as these, that Nicholas, yielding almost unconsciously to the interest of old associations, would point out some tree that he had climbed, a hundred times, to peep at the young birds in their nest; and the branch from which he used to shout to little Kate, who stood below terrified at the height he had gained, and yet urging him higher still by the intensity of her admiration. There was the old house too, which they would pass every day, looking up at the tiny window through which the sun used to stream in and wake him on the summer mornings—they were all summer mornings then—and climbing up the garden-wall and looking over, Nicholas could see the very rose-bush which had come, a present to Kate, from some little lover, and she had planted with her own hands. There were the hedgerows where the brother and sister had so often gathered wild flowers together, and the green fields and shady paths where they had so often strayed. There was not a lane, or brook, or copse, or cottage near, with which some childish event was not entwined, and back it came upon the mind—as events of childhood do—nothing in itself: perhaps a word, a laugh, a look, some slight distress, a passing thought or fear: and yet more strongly and distinctly marked, and better remembered, than the hardest trials or severest sorrows of a year ago.
One of these expeditions led them through the churchyard where was his father's grave. 'Even here,' said Nicholas softly, 'we used to loiter before we knew what death was, and when we little thought whose ashes would rest beneath; and, wondering at the silence, sit down to rest and speak below our breath. Once, Kate was lost, and after an hour of fruitless search, they found her, fast asleep, under that tree which shades my father's grave. He was very fond of her, and said when he took her up in his arms, still sleeping, that whenever he died he would wish to be buried where his dear little child had laid her head. You see his wish was not forgotten.'
Nothing more passed at the time, but that night, as Nicholas sat beside his bed, Smike started from what had seemed to be a slumber, and laying his hand in his, prayed, as the tears coursed down his face, that he would make him one solemn promise.
'What is that?' said Nicholas, kindly. 'If I can redeem it, or hope to do so, you know I will.'
'I am sure you will,' was the reply. 'Promise me that when I die, I shall be buried near—as near as they can make my grave—to the tree we saw today.'
Nicholas gave the promise; he had few words to give it in, but they were solemn and earnest. His poor friend kept his hand in his, and turned as if to sleep. But there were stifled sobs; and the hand was pressed more than once, or twice, or thrice, before he sank to rest, and slowly loosed his hold.
In a fortnight's time, he became too ill to move about. Once or twice, Nicholas drove him out, propped up with pillows; but the motion of the chaise was painful to him, and brought on fits of fainting, which, in his weakened state, were dangerous. There was an old couch in the house, which was his favourite resting-place by day; and when the sun shone, and the weather was warm, Nicholas had this wheeled into a little orchard which was close at hand, and his charge being well wrapped up and carried out to it, they used to sit there sometimes for hours together.
It was on one of these occasions that a circumstance took place, which Nicholas, at the time, thoroughly believed to be the mere delusion of an imagination affected by disease; but which he had, afterwards, too good reason to know was of real and actual occurrence.
He had brought Smike out in his arms—poor fellow! a child might have carried him then—to see the sunset, and, having arranged his couch, had taken his seat beside it. He had been watching the whole of the night before, and being greatly fatigued both in mind and body, gradually fell asleep.
He could not have closed his eyes five minutes, when he was awakened by a scream, and starting up in that kind of terror which affects a person suddenly roused, saw, to his great astonishment, that his charge had struggled into a sitting posture, and with eyes almost starting from their sockets, cold dew standing on his forehead, and in a fit of trembling which quite convulsed his frame, was calling to him for help.
'Good Heaven, what is this?' said Nicholas, bending over him. 'Be calm; you have been dreaming.'
'No, no, no!' cried Smike, clinging to him. 'Hold me tight. Don't let me go. There, there. Behind the tree!'
Nicholas followed his eyes, which were directed to some distance behind the chair from which he himself had just risen. But, there was nothing there.
'This is nothing but your fancy,' he said, as he strove to compose him; 'nothing else, indeed.'
'I know better. I saw as plain as I see now,' was the answer. 'Oh! say you'll keep me with you. Swear you won't leave me for an instant!'
'Do I ever leave you?' returned Nicholas. 'Lie down again—there! You see I'm here. Now, tell me; what was it?'
'Do you remember,' said Smike, in a low voice, and glancing fearfully round, 'do you remember my telling you of the man who first took me to the school?'
'I raised my eyes, just now, towards that tree—that one with the thick trunk—and there, with his eyes fixed on me, he stood!'
'Only reflect for one moment,' said Nicholas; 'granting, for an instant, that it's likely he is alive and wandering about a lonely place like this, so far removed from the public road, do you think that at this distance of time you could possibly know that man again?'
'Anywhere—in any dress,' returned Smike; 'but, just now, he stood leaning upon his stick and looking at me, exactly as I told you I remembered him. He was dusty with walking, and poorly dressed—I think his clothes were ragged—but directly I saw him, the wet night, his face when he left me, the parlour I was left in, and the people that were there, all seemed to come back together. When he knew I saw him, he looked frightened; for he started, and shrunk away. I have thought of him by day, and dreamt of him by night. He looked in my sleep, when I was quite a little child, and has looked in my sleep ever since, as he did just now.'
Nicholas endeavoured, by every persuasion and argument he could think of, to convince the terrified creature that his imagination had deceived him, and that this close resemblance between the creation of his dreams and the man he supposed he had seen was but a proof of it; but all in vain. When he could persuade him to remain, for a few moments, in the care of the people to whom the house belonged, he instituted a strict inquiry whether any stranger had been seen, and searched himself behind the tree, and through the orchard, and upon the land immediately adjoining, and in every place near, where it was possible for a man to lie concealed; but all in vain. Satisfied that he was right in his original conjecture, he applied himself to calming the fears of Smike, which, after some time, he partially succeeded in doing, though not in removing the impression upon his mind; for he still declared, again and again, in the most solemn and fervid manner, that he had positively seen what he had described, and that nothing could ever remove his conviction of its reality.
And now, Nicholas began to see that hope was gone, and that, upon the partner of his poverty, and the sharer of his better fortune, the world was closing fast. There was little pain, little uneasiness, but there was no rallying, no effort, no struggle for life. He was worn and wasted to the last degree; his voice had sunk so low, that he could scarce be heard to speak. Nature was thoroughly exhausted, and he had lain him down to die.
On a fine, mild autumn day, when all was tranquil and at peace: when the soft sweet air crept in at the open window of the quiet room, and not a sound was heard but the gentle rustling of the leaves: Nicholas sat in his old place by the bedside, and knew that the time was nearly come. So very still it was, that, every now and then, he bent down his ear to listen for the breathing of him who lay asleep, as if to assure himself that life was still there, and that he had not fallen into that deep slumber from which on earth there is no waking.
While he was thus employed, the closed eyes opened, and on the pale face there came a placid smile.
'That's well!' said Nicholas. 'The sleep has done you good.'
'I have had such pleasant dreams,' was the answer. 'Such pleasant, happy dreams!'
'Of what?' said Nicholas.
The dying boy turned towards him, and, putting his arm about his neck, made answer, 'I shall soon be there!'
After a short silence, he spoke again.
'I am not afraid to die,' he said. 'I am quite contented. I almost think that if I could rise from this bed quite well I would not wish to do so, now. You have so often told me we shall meet again—so very often lately, and now I feel the truth of that so strongly—that I can even bear to part from you.'
The trembling voice and tearful eye, and the closer grasp of the arm which accompanied these latter words, showed how they filled the speaker's heart; nor were there wanting indications of how deeply they had touched the heart of him to whom they were addressed.
'You say well,' returned Nicholas at length, 'and comfort me very much, dear fellow. Let me hear you say you are happy, if you can.'
'I must tell you something, first. I should not have a secret from you. You would not blame me, at a time like this, I know.'
'I blame you!' exclaimed Nicholas.
'I am sure you would not. You asked me why I was so changed, and—and sat so much alone. Shall I tell you why?'
'Not if it pains you,' said Nicholas. 'I only asked that I might make you happier, if I could.'
'I know. I felt that, at the time.' He drew his friend closer to him. 'You will forgive me; I could not help it, but though I would have died to make her happy, it broke my heart to see—I know he loves her dearly—Oh! who could find that out so soon as I?'
The words which followed were feebly and faintly uttered, and broken by long pauses; but, from them, Nicholas learnt, for the first time, that the dying boy, with all the ardour of a nature concentrated on one absorbing, hopeless, secret passion, loved his sister Kate.
He had procured a lock of her hair, which hung at his breast, folded in one or two slight ribbons she had worn. He prayed that, when he was dead, Nicholas would take it off, so that no eyes but his might see it, and that when he was laid in his coffin and about to be placed in the earth, he would hang it round his neck again, that it might rest with him in the grave.
Upon his knees Nicholas gave him this pledge, and promised again that he should rest in the spot he had pointed out. They embraced, and kissed each other on the cheek.
'Now,' he murmured, 'I am happy.'
He fell into a light slumber, and waking smiled as before; then, spoke of beautiful gardens, which he said stretched out before him, and were filled with figures of men, women, and many children, all with light upon their faces; then, whispered that it was Eden—and so died.
The Plots begin to fail, and Doubts and Dangers to disturb the Plotter
Ralph sat alone, in the solitary room where he was accustomed to take his meals, and to sit of nights when no profitable occupation called him abroad. Before him was an untasted breakfast, and near to where his fingers beat restlessly upon the table, lay his watch. It was long past the time at which, for many years, he had put it in his pocket and gone with measured steps downstairs to the business of the day, but he took as little heed of its monotonous warning, as of the meat and drink before him, and remained with his head resting on one hand, and his eyes fixed moodily on the ground.
This departure from his regular and constant habit, in one so regular and unvarying in all that appertained to the daily pursuit of riches, would almost of itself have told that the usurer was not well. That he laboured under some mental or bodily indisposition, and that it was one of no slight kind so to affect a man like him, was sufficiently shown by his haggard face, jaded air, and hollow languid eyes: which he raised at last with a start and a hasty glance around him, as one who suddenly awakes from sleep, and cannot immediately recognise the place in which he finds himself.
'What is this,' he said, 'that hangs over me, and I cannot shake off? I have never pampered myself, and should not be ill. I have never moped, and pined, and yielded to fancies; but what CAN a man do without rest?'
He pressed his hand upon his forehead.
'Night after night comes and goes, and I have no rest. If I sleep, what rest is that which is disturbed by constant dreams of the same detested faces crowding round me—of the same detested people, in every variety of action, mingling with all I say and do, and always to my defeat? Waking, what rest have I, constantly haunted by this heavy shadow of—I know not what—which is its worst character? I must have rest. One night's unbroken rest, and I should be a man again.'
Pushing the table from him while he spoke, as though he loathed the sight of food, he encountered the watch: the hands of which were almost upon noon.
'This is strange!' he said; 'noon, and Noggs not here! What drunken brawl keeps him away? I would give something now—something in money even after that dreadful loss—if he had stabbed a man in a tavern scuffle, or broken into a house, or picked a pocket, or done anything that would send him abroad with an iron ring upon his leg, and rid me of him. Better still, if I could throw temptation in his way, and lure him on to rob me. He should be welcome to what he took, so I brought the law upon him; for he is a traitor, I swear! How, or when, or where, I don't know, though I suspect.'
After waiting for another half-hour, he dispatched the woman who kept his house to Newman's lodging, to inquire if he were ill, and why he had not come or sent. She brought back answer that he had not been home all night, and that no one could tell her anything about him.
'But there is a gentleman, sir,' she said, 'below, who was standing at the door when I came in, and he says—'
'What says he?' demanded Ralph, turning angrily upon her. 'I told you I would see nobody.'
'He says,' replied the woman, abashed by his harshness, 'that he comes on very particular business which admits of no excuse; and I thought perhaps it might be about—'
'About what, in the devil's name?' said Ralph. 'You spy and speculate on people's business with me, do you?'
'Dear, no, sir! I saw you were anxious, and thought it might be about Mr Noggs; that's all.'
'Saw I was anxious!' muttered Ralph; 'they all watch me, now. Where is this person? You did not say I was not down yet, I hope?'
The woman replied that he was in the little office, and that she had said her master was engaged, but she would take the message.
'Well,' said Ralph, 'I'll see him. Go you to your kitchen, and keep there. Do you mind me?'
Glad to be released, the woman quickly disappeared. Collecting himself, and assuming as much of his accustomed manner as his utmost resolution could summon, Ralph descended the stairs. After pausing for a few moments, with his hand upon the lock, he entered Newman's room, and confronted Mr Charles Cheeryble.
Of all men alive, this was one of the last he would have wished to meet at any time; but, now that he recognised in him only the patron and protector of Nicholas, he would rather have seen a spectre. One beneficial effect, however, the encounter had upon him. It instantly roused all his dormant energies; rekindled in his breast the passions that, for many years, had found an improving home there; called up all his wrath, hatred, and malice; restored the sneer to his lip, and the scowl to his brow; and made him again, in all outward appearance, the same Ralph Nickleby whom so many had bitter cause to remember.
'Humph!' said Ralph, pausing at the door. 'This is an unexpected favour, sir.'
'And an unwelcome one,' said brother Charles; 'an unwelcome one, I know.'
'Men say you are truth itself, sir,' replied Ralph. 'You speak truth now, at all events, and I'll not contradict you. The favour is, at least, as unwelcome as it is unexpected. I can scarcely say more.'
'Plainly, sir—' began brother Charles.
'Plainly, sir,' interrupted Ralph, 'I wish this conference to be a short one, and to end where it begins. I guess the subject upon which you are about to speak, and I'll not hear you. You like plainness, I believe; there it is. Here is the door as you see. Our way lies in very different directions. Take yours, I beg of you, and leave me to pursue mine in quiet.'
'In quiet!' repeated brother Charles mildly, and looking at him with more of pity than reproach. 'To pursue HIS way in quiet!'
'You will scarcely remain in my house, I presume, sir, against my will,' said Ralph; 'or you can scarcely hope to make an impression upon a man who closes his ears to all that you can say, and is firmly and resolutely determined not to hear you.'
'Mr Nickleby, sir,' returned brother Charles: no less mildly than before, but firmly too: 'I come here against my will, sorely and grievously against my will. I have never been in this house before; and, to speak my mind, sir, I don't feel at home or easy in it, and have no wish ever to be here again. You do not guess the subject on which I come to speak to you; you do not indeed. I am sure of that, or your manner would be a very different one.'
Ralph glanced keenly at him, but the clear eye and open countenance of the honest old merchant underwent no change of expression, and met his look without reserve.
'Shall I go on?' said Mr Cheeryble.
'Oh, by all means, if you please,' returned Ralph drily. 'Here are walls to speak to, sir, a desk, and two stools: most attentive auditors, and certain not to interrupt you. Go on, I beg; make my house yours, and perhaps by the time I return from my walk, you will have finished what you have to say, and will yield me up possession again.'
So saying, he buttoned his coat, and turning into the passage, took down his hat. The old gentleman followed, and was about to speak, when Ralph waved him off impatiently, and said:
'Not a word. I tell you, sir, not a word. Virtuous as you are, you are not an angel yet, to appear in men's houses whether they will or no, and pour your speech into unwilling ears. Preach to the walls I tell you; not to me!'
'I am no angel, Heaven knows,' returned brother Charles, shaking his head, 'but an erring and imperfect man; nevertheless, there is one quality which all men have, in common with the angels, blessed opportunities of exercising, if they will; mercy. It is an errand of mercy that brings me here. Pray let me discharge it.'
'I show no mercy,' retorted Ralph with a triumphant smile, 'and I ask none. Seek no mercy from me, sir, in behalf of the fellow who has imposed upon your childish credulity, but let him expect the worst that I can do.'
'HE ask mercy at your hands!' exclaimed the old merchant warmly; 'ask it at his, sir; ask it at his. If you will not hear me now, when you may, hear me when you must, or anticipate what I would say, and take measures to prevent our ever meeting again. Your nephew is a noble lad, sir, an honest, noble lad. What you are, Mr Nickleby, I will not say; but what you have done, I know. Now, sir, when you go about the business in which you have been recently engaged, and find it difficult of pursuing, come to me and my brother Ned, and Tim Linkinwater, sir, and we'll explain it for you—and come soon, or it may be too late, and you may have it explained with a little more roughness, and a little less delicacy—and never forget, sir, that I came here this morning, in mercy to you, and am still ready to talk to you in the same spirit.'
With these words, uttered with great emphasis and emotion, brother Charles put on his broad-brimmed hat, and, passing Ralph Nickleby without any other remark, trotted nimbly into the street. Ralph looked after him, but neither moved nor spoke for some time: when he broke what almost seemed the silence of stupefaction, by a scornful laugh.
'This,' he said, 'from its wildness, should be another of those dreams that have so broken my rest of late. In mercy to me! Pho! The old simpleton has gone mad.'
Although he expressed himself in this derisive and contemptuous manner, it was plain that, the more Ralph pondered, the more ill at ease he became, and the more he laboured under some vague anxiety and alarm, which increased as the time passed on and no tidings of Newman Noggs arrived. After waiting until late in the afternoon, tortured by various apprehensions and misgivings, and the recollection of the warning which his nephew had given him when they last met: the further confirmation of which now presented itself in one shape of probability, now in another, and haunted him perpetually: he left home, and, scarcely knowing why, save that he was in a suspicious and agitated mood, betook himself to Snawley's house. His wife presented herself; and, of her, Ralph inquired whether her husband was at home.
'No,' she said sharply, 'he is not indeed, and I don't think he will be at home for a very long time; that's more.'
'Do you know who I am?' asked Ralph.
'Oh yes, I know you very well; too well, perhaps, and perhaps he does too, and sorry am I that I should have to say it.'
'Tell him that I saw him through the window-blind above, as I crossed the road just now, and that I would speak to him on business,' said Ralph. 'Do you hear?'
'I hear,' rejoined Mrs Snawley, taking no further notice of the request.
'I knew this woman was a hypocrite, in the way of psalms and Scripture phrases,' said Ralph, passing quietly by, 'but I never knew she drank before.'
'Stop! You don't come in here,' said Mr Snawley's better-half, interposing her person, which was a robust one, in the doorway. 'You have said more than enough to him on business, before now. I always told him what dealing with you and working out your schemes would come to. It was either you or the schoolmaster—one of you, or the two between you—that got the forged letter done; remember that! That wasn't his doing, so don't lay it at his door.'
'Hold your tongue, you Jezebel,' said Ralph, looking fearfully round.
'Ah, I know when to hold my tongue, and when to speak, Mr Nickleby,' retorted the dame. 'Take care that other people know when to hold theirs.'
'You jade,' said Ralph, 'if your husband has been idiot enough to trust you with his secrets, keep them; keep them, she-devil that you are!'
'Not so much his secrets as other people's secrets, perhaps,' retorted the woman; 'not so much his secrets as yours. None of your black looks at me! You'll want 'em all, perhaps, for another time. You had better keep 'em.'
'Will you,' said Ralph, suppressing his passion as well as he could, and clutching her tightly by the wrist; 'will you go to your husband and tell him that I know he is at home, and that I must see him? And will you tell me what it is that you and he mean by this new style of behaviour?'
'No,' replied the woman, violently disengaging herself, 'I'll do neither.'
'You set me at defiance, do you?' said Ralph.
'Yes,' was the answer. I do.'
For an instant Ralph had his hand raised, as though he were about to strike her; but, checking himself, and nodding his head and muttering as though to assure her he would not forget this, walked away.
Thence, he went straight to the inn which Mr Squeers frequented, and inquired when he had been there last; in the vague hope that, successful or unsuccessful, he might, by this time, have returned from his mission and be able to assure him that all was safe. But Mr Squeers had not been there for ten days, and all that the people could tell about him was, that he had left his luggage and his bill.
Disturbed by a thousand fears and surmises, and bent upon ascertaining whether Squeers had any suspicion of Snawley, or was, in any way, a party to this altered behaviour, Ralph determined to hazard the extreme step of inquiring for him at the Lambeth lodging, and having an interview with him even there. Bent upon this purpose, and in that mood in which delay is insupportable, he repaired at once to the place; and being, by description, perfectly acquainted with the situation of his room, crept upstairs and knocked gently at the door.
Not one, nor two, nor three, nor yet a dozen knocks, served to convince Ralph, against his wish, that there was nobody inside. He reasoned that he might be asleep; and, listening, almost persuaded himself that he could hear him breathe. Even when he was satisfied that he could not be there, he sat patiently on a broken stair and waited; arguing, that he had gone out upon some slight errand, and must soon return.
Many feet came up the creaking stairs; and the step of some seemed to his listening ear so like that of the man for whom he waited, that Ralph often stood up to be ready to address him when he reached the top; but, one by one, each person turned off into some room short of the place where he was stationed: and at every such disappointment he felt quite chilled and lonely.
At length he felt it was hopeless to remain, and going downstairs again, inquired of one of the lodgers if he knew anything of Mr Squeers's movements—mentioning that worthy by an assumed name which had been agreed upon between them. By this lodger he was referred to another, and by him to someone else, from whom he learnt, that, late on the previous night, he had gone out hastily with two men, who had shortly afterwards returned for the old woman who lived on the same floor; and that, although the circumstance had attracted the attention of the informant, he had not spoken to them at the time, nor made any inquiry afterwards.
This possessed him with the idea that, perhaps, Peg Sliderskew had been apprehended for the robbery, and that Mr Squeers, being with her at the time, had been apprehended also, on suspicion of being a confederate. If this were so, the fact must be known to Gride; and to Gride's house he directed his steps; now thoroughly alarmed, and fearful that there were indeed plots afoot, tending to his discomfiture and ruin.
Arrived at the usurer's house, he found the windows close shut, the dingy blinds drawn down; all was silent, melancholy, and deserted. But this was its usual aspect. He knocked—gently at first—then loud and vigorously. Nobody came. He wrote a few words in pencil on a card, and having thrust it under the door was going away, when a noise above, as though a window-sash were stealthily raised, caught his ear, and looking up he could just discern the face of Gride himself, cautiously peering over the house parapet from the window of the garret. Seeing who was below, he drew it in again; not so quickly, however, but that Ralph let him know he was observed, and called to him to come down.
The call being repeated, Gride looked out again, so cautiously that no part of the old man's body was visible. The sharp features and white hair appearing alone, above the parapet, looked like a severed head garnishing the wall.
'Hush!' he cried. 'Go away, go away!'
'Come down,' said Ralph, beckoning him.
'Go a—way!' squeaked Gride, shaking his head in a sort of ecstasy of impatience. 'Don't speak to me, don't knock, don't call attention to the house, but go away.'
'I'll knock, I swear, till I have your neighbours up in arms,' said Ralph, 'if you don't tell me what you mean by lurking there, you whining cur.'