In the parlour of one of these houses, which was perhaps a thought dirtier than any of its neighbours; which exhibited more bell-handles, children, and porter pots, and caught in all its freshness the first gust of the thick black smoke that poured forth, night and day, from a large brewery hard by; hung a bill, announcing that there was yet one room to let within its walls, though on what story the vacant room could be—regard being had to the outward tokens of many lodgers which the whole front displayed, from the mangle in the kitchen window to the flower-pots on the parapet—it would have been beyond the power of a calculating boy to discover.
The common stairs of this mansion were bare and carpetless; but a curious visitor who had to climb his way to the top, might have observed that there were not wanting indications of the progressive poverty of the inmates, although their rooms were shut. Thus, the first-floor lodgers, being flush of furniture, kept an old mahogany table—real mahogany—on the landing-place outside, which was only taken in, when occasion required. On the second story, the spare furniture dwindled down to a couple of old deal chairs, of which one, belonging to the back-room, was shorn of a leg, and bottomless. The story above, boasted no greater excess than a worm-eaten wash-tub; and the garret landing-place displayed no costlier articles than two crippled pitchers, and some broken blacking-bottles.
It was on this garret landing-place that a hard-featured square-faced man, elderly and shabby, stopped to unlock the door of the front attic, into which, having surmounted the task of turning the rusty key in its still more rusty wards, he walked with the air of legal owner.
This person wore a wig of short, coarse, red hair, which he took off with his hat, and hung upon a nail. Having adopted in its place a dirty cotton nightcap, and groped about in the dark till he found a remnant of candle, he knocked at the partition which divided the two garrets, and inquired, in a loud voice, whether Mr Noggs had a light.
The sounds that came back were stifled by the lath and plaster, and it seemed moreover as though the speaker had uttered them from the interior of a mug or other drinking vessel; but they were in the voice of Newman, and conveyed a reply in the affirmative.
'A nasty night, Mr Noggs!' said the man in the nightcap, stepping in to light his candle.
'Does it rain?' asked Newman.
'Does it?' replied the other pettishly. 'I am wet through.'
'It doesn't take much to wet you and me through, Mr Crowl,' said Newman, laying his hand upon the lappel of his threadbare coat.
'Well; and that makes it the more vexatious,' observed Mr Crowl, in the same pettish tone.
Uttering a low querulous growl, the speaker, whose harsh countenance was the very epitome of selfishness, raked the scanty fire nearly out of the grate, and, emptying the glass which Noggs had pushed towards him, inquired where he kept his coals.
Newman Noggs pointed to the bottom of a cupboard, and Mr Crowl, seizing the shovel, threw on half the stock: which Noggs very deliberately took off again, without saying a word.
'You have not turned saving, at this time of day, I hope?' said Crowl.
Newman pointed to the empty glass, as though it were a sufficient refutation of the charge, and briefly said that he was going downstairs to supper.
'To the Kenwigses?' asked Crowl.
Newman nodded assent.
'Think of that now!' said Crowl. 'If I didn't—thinking that you were certain not to go, because you said you wouldn't—tell Kenwigs I couldn't come, and make up my mind to spend the evening with you!'
'I was obliged to go,' said Newman. 'They would have me.'
'Well; but what's to become of me?' urged the selfish man, who never thought of anybody else. 'It's all your fault. I'll tell you what—I'll sit by your fire till you come back again.'
Newman cast a despairing glance at his small store of fuel, but, not having the courage to say no—a word which in all his life he never had said at the right time, either to himself or anyone else—gave way to the proposed arrangement. Mr Crowl immediately went about making himself as comfortable, with Newman Nogg's means, as circumstances would admit of his being made.
The lodgers to whom Crowl had made allusion under the designation of 'the Kenwigses,' were the wife and olive branches of one Mr Kenwigs, a turner in ivory, who was looked upon as a person of some consideration on the premises, inasmuch as he occupied the whole of the first floor, comprising a suite of two rooms. Mrs Kenwigs, too, was quite a lady in her manners, and of a very genteel family, having an uncle who collected a water-rate; besides which distinction, the two eldest of her little girls went twice a week to a dancing school in the neighbourhood, and had flaxen hair, tied with blue ribbons, hanging in luxuriant pigtails down their backs; and wore little white trousers with frills round the ankles—for all of which reasons, and many more equally valid but too numerous to mention, Mrs Kenwigs was considered a very desirable person to know, and was the constant theme of all the gossips in the street, and even three or four doors round the corner at both ends.
It was the anniversary of that happy day on which the Church of England as by law established, had bestowed Mrs Kenwigs upon Mr Kenwigs; and in grateful commemoration of the same, Mrs Kenwigs had invited a few select friends to cards and a supper in the first floor, and had put on a new gown to receive them in: which gown, being of a flaming colour and made upon a juvenile principle, was so successful that Mr Kenwigs said the eight years of matrimony and the five children seemed all a dream, and Mrs Kenwigs younger and more blooming than on the very first Sunday he had kept company with her.
Beautiful as Mrs Kenwigs looked when she was dressed though, and so stately that you would have supposed she had a cook and housemaid at least, and nothing to do but order them about, she had a world of trouble with the preparations; more, indeed, than she, being of a delicate and genteel constitution, could have sustained, had not the pride of housewifery upheld her. At last, however, all the things that had to be got together were got together, and all the things that had to be got out of the way were got out of the way, and everything was ready, and the collector himself having promised to come, fortune smiled upon the occasion.
The party was admirably selected. There were, first of all, Mr Kenwigs and Mrs Kenwigs, and four olive Kenwigses who sat up to supper; firstly, because it was but right that they should have a treat on such a day; and secondly, because their going to bed, in presence of the company, would have been inconvenient, not to say improper. Then, there was a young lady who had made Mrs Kenwigs's dress, and who—it was the most convenient thing in the world—living in the two-pair back, gave up her bed to the baby, and got a little girl to watch it. Then, to match this young lady, was a young man, who had known Mr Kenwigs when he was a bachelor, and was much esteemed by the ladies, as bearing the reputation of a rake. To these were added a newly-married couple, who had visited Mr and Mrs Kenwigs in their courtship; and a sister of Mrs Kenwigs's, who was quite a beauty; besides whom, there was another young man, supposed to entertain honourable designs upon the lady last mentioned; and Mr Noggs, who was a genteel person to ask, because he had been a gentleman once. There were also an elderly lady from the back-parlour, and one more young lady, who, next to the collector, perhaps was the great lion of the party, being the daughter of a theatrical fireman, who 'went on' in the pantomime, and had the greatest turn for the stage that was ever known, being able to sing and recite in a manner that brought the tears into Mrs Kenwigs's eyes. There was only one drawback upon the pleasure of seeing such friends, and that was, that the lady in the back-parlour, who was very fat, and turned of sixty, came in a low book-muslin dress and short kid gloves, which so exasperated Mrs Kenwigs, that that lady assured her visitors, in private, that if it hadn't happened that the supper was cooking at the back-parlour grate at that moment, she certainly would have requested its representative to withdraw.
'My dear,' said Mr Kenwigs, 'wouldn't it be better to begin a round game?'
'Kenwigs, my dear,' returned his wife, 'I am surprised at you. Would you begin without my uncle?'
'I forgot the collector,' said Kenwigs; 'oh no, that would never do.'
'He's so particular,' said Mrs Kenwigs, turning to the other married lady, 'that if we began without him, I should be out of his will for ever.'
'Dear!' cried the married lady.
'You've no idea what he is,' replied Mrs Kenwigs; 'and yet as good a creature as ever breathed.'
'The kindest-hearted man as ever was,' said Kenwigs.
'It goes to his heart, I believe, to be forced to cut the water off, when the people don't pay,' observed the bachelor friend, intending a joke.
'George,' said Mr Kenwigs, solemnly, 'none of that, if you please.'
'It was only my joke,' said the friend, abashed.
'George,' rejoined Mr Kenwigs, 'a joke is a wery good thing—a wery good thing—but when that joke is made at the expense of Mrs Kenwigs's feelings, I set my face against it. A man in public life expects to be sneered at—it is the fault of his elewated sitiwation, and not of himself. Mrs Kenwigs's relation is a public man, and that he knows, George, and that he can bear; but putting Mrs Kenwigs out of the question (if I COULD put Mrs Kenwigs out of the question on such an occasion as this), I have the honour to be connected with the collector by marriage; and I cannot allow these remarks in my—' Mr Kenwigs was going to say 'house,' but he rounded the sentence with 'apartments'.
At the conclusion of these observations, which drew forth evidences of acute feeling from Mrs Kenwigs, and had the intended effect of impressing the company with a deep sense of the collector's dignity, a ring was heard at the bell.
'That's him,' whispered Mr Kenwigs, greatly excited. 'Morleena, my dear, run down and let your uncle in, and kiss him directly you get the door open. Hem! Let's be talking.'
Adopting Mr Kenwigs's suggestion, the company spoke very loudly, to look easy and unembarrassed; and almost as soon as they had begun to do so, a short old gentleman in drabs and gaiters, with a face that might have been carved out of LIGNUM VITAE, for anything that appeared to the contrary, was led playfully in by Miss Morleena Kenwigs, regarding whose uncommon Christian name it may be here remarked that it had been invented and composed by Mrs Kenwigs previous to her first lying-in, for the special distinction of her eldest child, in case it should prove a daughter.
'Oh, uncle, I am SO glad to see you,' said Mrs Kenwigs, kissing the collector affectionately on both cheeks. 'So glad!'
'Many happy returns of the day, my dear,' replied the collector, returning the compliment.
Now, this was an interesting thing. Here was a collector of water-rates, without his book, without his pen and ink, without his double knock, without his intimidation, kissing—actually kissing—an agreeable female, and leaving taxes, summonses, notices that he had called, or announcements that he would never call again, for two quarters' due, wholly out of the question. It was pleasant to see how the company looked on, quite absorbed in the sight, and to behold the nods and winks with which they expressed their gratification at finding so much humanity in a tax-gatherer.
'Where will you sit, uncle?' said Mrs Kenwigs, in the full glow of family pride, which the appearance of her distinguished relation occasioned.
'Anywheres, my dear,' said the collector, 'I am not particular.'
Not particular! What a meek collector! If he had been an author, who knew his place, he couldn't have been more humble.
'Mr Lillyvick,' said Kenwigs, addressing the collector, 'some friends here, sir, are very anxious for the honour of—thank you—Mr and Mrs Cutler, Mr Lillyvick.'
'Proud to know you, sir,' said Mr Cutler; 'I've heerd of you very often.' These were not mere words of ceremony; for, Mr Cutler, having kept house in Mr Lillyvick's parish, had heard of him very often indeed. His attention in calling had been quite extraordinary.
'George, you know, I think, Mr Lillyvick,' said Kenwigs; 'lady from downstairs—Mr Lillyvick. Mr Snewkes—Mr Lillyvick. Miss Green—Mr Lillyvick. Mr Lillyvick—Miss Petowker of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Very glad to make two public characters acquainted! Mrs Kenwigs, my dear, will you sort the counters?'
Mrs Kenwigs, with the assistance of Newman Noggs, (who, as he performed sundry little acts of kindness for the children, at all times and seasons, was humoured in his request to be taken no notice of, and was merely spoken about, in a whisper, as the decayed gentleman), did as he was desired; and the greater part of the guests sat down to speculation, while Newman himself, Mrs Kenwigs, and Miss Petowker of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, looked after the supper-table.
While the ladies were thus busying themselves, Mr Lillyvick was intent upon the game in progress, and as all should be fish that comes to a water-collector's net, the dear old gentleman was by no means scrupulous in appropriating to himself the property of his neighbours, which, on the contrary, he abstracted whenever an opportunity presented itself, smiling good-humouredly all the while, and making so many condescending speeches to the owners, that they were delighted with his amiability, and thought in their hearts that he deserved to be Chancellor of the Exchequer at least.
After a great deal of trouble, and the administration of many slaps on the head to the infant Kenwigses, whereof two of the most rebellious were summarily banished, the cloth was laid with much elegance, and a pair of boiled fowls, a large piece of pork, apple-pie, potatoes and greens, were served; at sight of which, the worthy Mr Lillyvick vented a great many witticisms, and plucked up amazingly: to the immense delight and satisfaction of the whole body of admirers.
Very well and very fast the supper went off; no more serious difficulties occurring, than those which arose from the incessant demand for clean knives and forks; which made poor Mrs Kenwigs wish, more than once, that private society adopted the principle of schools, and required that every guest should bring his own knife, fork, and spoon; which doubtless would be a great accommodation in many cases, and to no one more so than to the lady and gentleman of the house, especially if the school principle were carried out to the full extent, and the articles were expected, as a matter of delicacy, not to be taken away again.
Everybody having eaten everything, the table was cleared in a most alarming hurry, and with great noise; and the spirits, whereat the eyes of Newman Noggs glistened, being arranged in order, with water both hot and cold, the party composed themselves for conviviality; Mr Lillyvick being stationed in a large armchair by the fireside, and the four little Kenwigses disposed on a small form in front of the company with their flaxen tails towards them, and their faces to the fire; an arrangement which was no sooner perfected, than Mrs Kenwigs was overpowered by the feelings of a mother, and fell upon the left shoulder of Mr Kenwigs dissolved in tears.
'They are so beautiful!' said Mrs Kenwigs, sobbing.
'Oh, dear,' said all the ladies, 'so they are! it's very natural you should feel proud of that; but don't give way, don't.'
'I can—not help it, and it don't signify,' sobbed Mrs Kenwigs; 'oh! they're too beautiful to live, much too beautiful!'
On hearing this alarming presentiment of their being doomed to an early death in the flower of their infancy, all four little girls raised a hideous cry, and burying their heads in their mother's lap simultaneously, screamed until the eight flaxen tails vibrated again; Mrs Kenwigs meanwhile clasping them alternately to her bosom, with attitudes expressive of distraction, which Miss Petowker herself might have copied.
At length, the anxious mother permitted herself to be soothed into a more tranquil state, and the little Kenwigses, being also composed, were distributed among the company, to prevent the possibility of Mrs Kenwigs being again overcome by the blaze of their combined beauty. This done, the ladies and gentlemen united in prophesying that they would live for many, many years, and that there was no occasion at all for Mrs Kenwigs to distress herself; which, in good truth, there did not appear to be; the loveliness of the children by no means justifying her apprehensions.
'This day eight year,' said Mr Kenwigs after a pause. 'Dear me—ah!'
This reflection was echoed by all present, who said 'Ah!' first, and 'dear me,' afterwards.
'I was younger then,' tittered Mrs Kenwigs.
'No,' said the collector.
'Certainly not,' added everybody.
'I remember my niece,' said Mr Lillyvick, surveying his audience with a grave air; 'I remember her, on that very afternoon, when she first acknowledged to her mother a partiality for Kenwigs. "Mother," she says, "I love him."'
'"Adore him," I said, uncle,' interposed Mrs Kenwigs.
'"Love him," I think, my dear,' said the collector, firmly.
'Perhaps you are right, uncle,' replied Mrs Kenwigs, submissively. 'I thought it was "adore."'
'"Love," my dear,' retorted Mr Lillyvick. '"Mother," she says, "I love him!" "What do I hear?" cries her mother; and instantly falls into strong conwulsions.'
A general exclamation of astonishment burst from the company.
'Into strong conwulsions,' repeated Mr Lillyvick, regarding them with a rigid look. 'Kenwigs will excuse my saying, in the presence of friends, that there was a very great objection to him, on the ground that he was beneath the family, and would disgrace it. You remember, Kenwigs?'
'Certainly,' replied that gentleman, in no way displeased at the reminiscence, inasmuch as it proved, beyond all doubt, what a high family Mrs Kenwigs came of.
'I shared in that feeling,' said Mr Lillyvick: 'perhaps it was natural; perhaps it wasn't.'
A gentle murmur seemed to say, that, in one of Mr Lillyvick's station, the objection was not only natural, but highly praiseworthy.
'I came round to him in time,' said Mr Lillyvick. 'After they were married, and there was no help for it, I was one of the first to say that Kenwigs must be taken notice of. The family DID take notice of him, in consequence, and on my representation; and I am bound to say—and proud to say—that I have always found him a very honest, well-behaved, upright, respectable sort of man. Kenwigs, shake hands.'
'I am proud to do it, sir,' said Mr Kenwigs.
'So am I, Kenwigs,' rejoined Mr Lillyvick.
'A very happy life I have led with your niece, sir,' said Kenwigs.
'It would have been your own fault if you had not, sir,' remarked Mr Lillyvick.
'Morleena Kenwigs,' cried her mother, at this crisis, much affected, 'kiss your dear uncle!'
The young lady did as she was requested, and the three other little girls were successively hoisted up to the collector's countenance, and subjected to the same process, which was afterwards repeated on them by the majority of those present.
'Oh dear, Mrs Kenwigs,' said Miss Petowker, 'while Mr Noggs is making that punch to drink happy returns in, do let Morleena go through that figure dance before Mr Lillyvick.'
'No, no, my dear,' replied Mrs Kenwigs, 'it will only worry my uncle.'
'It can't worry him, I am sure,' said Miss Petowker. 'You will be very much pleased, won't you, sir?'
'That I am sure I shall' replied the collector, glancing at the punch-mixer.
'Well then, I'll tell you what,' said Mrs Kenwigs, 'Morleena shall do the steps, if uncle can persuade Miss Petowker to recite us the Blood-Drinker's Burial, afterwards.'
There was a great clapping of hands and stamping of feet, at this proposition; the subject whereof, gently inclined her head several times, in acknowledgment of the reception.
'You know,' said Miss Petowker, reproachfully, 'that I dislike doing anything professional in private parties.'
'Oh, but not here!' said Mrs Kenwigs. 'We are all so very friendly and pleasant, that you might as well be going through it in your own room; besides, the occasion—'
'I can't resist that,' interrupted Miss Petowker; 'anything in my humble power I shall be delighted to do.'
Mrs Kenwigs and Miss Petowker had arranged a small PROGRAMME of the entertainments between them, of which this was the prescribed order, but they had settled to have a little pressing on both sides, because it looked more natural. The company being all ready, Miss Petowker hummed a tune, and Morleena danced a dance; having previously had the soles of her shoes chalked, with as much care as if she were going on the tight-rope. It was a very beautiful figure, comprising a great deal of work for the arms, and was received with unbounded applause.
'If I was blessed with a—a child—' said Miss Petowker, blushing, 'of such genius as that, I would have her out at the Opera instantly.'
Mrs Kenwigs sighed, and looked at Mr Kenwigs, who shook his head, and observed that he was doubtful about it.
'Kenwigs is afraid,' said Mrs K.
'What of?' inquired Miss Petowker, 'not of her failing?'
'Oh no,' replied Mrs Kenwigs, 'but if she grew up what she is now,—only think of the young dukes and marquises.'
'Very right,' said the collector.
'Still,' submitted Miss Petowker, 'if she took a proper pride in herself, you know—'
'There's a good deal in that,' observed Mrs Kenwigs, looking at her husband.
'I only know—' faltered Miss Petowker,—'it may be no rule to be sure—but I have never found any inconvenience or unpleasantness of that sort.'
Mr Kenwigs, with becoming gallantry, said that settled the question at once, and that he would take the subject into his serious consideration. This being resolved upon, Miss Petowker was entreated to begin the Blood-Drinker's Burial; to which end, that young lady let down her back hair, and taking up her position at the other end of the room, with the bachelor friend posted in a corner, to rush out at the cue 'in death expire,' and catch her in his arms when she died raving mad, went through the performance with extraordinary spirit, and to the great terror of the little Kenwigses, who were all but frightened into fits.
The ecstasies consequent upon the effort had not yet subsided, and Newman (who had not been thoroughly sober at so late an hour for a long long time,) had not yet been able to put in a word of announcement, that the punch was ready, when a hasty knock was heard at the room-door, which elicited a shriek from Mrs Kenwigs, who immediately divined that the baby had fallen out of bed.
'Who is that?' demanded Mr Kenwigs, sharply.
'Don't be alarmed, it's only me,' said Crowl, looking in, in his nightcap. 'The baby is very comfortable, for I peeped into the room as I came down, and it's fast asleep, and so is the girl; and I don't think the candle will set fire to the bed-curtain, unless a draught was to get into the room—it's Mr Noggs that's wanted.'
'Me!' cried Newman, much astonished.
'Why, it IS a queer hour, isn't it?' replied Crowl, who was not best pleased at the prospect of losing his fire; 'and they are queer-looking people, too, all covered with rain and mud. Shall I tell them to go away?'
'No,' said Newman, rising. 'People? How many?'
'Two,' rejoined Crowl.
'Want me? By name?' asked Newman.
'By name,' replied Crowl. 'Mr Newman Noggs, as pat as need be.'
Newman reflected for a few seconds, and then hurried away, muttering that he would be back directly. He was as good as his word; for, in an exceedingly short time, he burst into the room, and seizing, without a word of apology or explanation, a lighted candle and tumbler of hot punch from the table, darted away like a madman.
'What the deuce is the matter with him?' exclaimed Crowl, throwing the door open. 'Hark! Is there any noise above?'
The guests rose in great confusion, and, looking in each other's faces with much perplexity and some fear, stretched their necks forward, and listened attentively.
Acquaints the Reader with the Cause and Origin of the Interruption described in the last Chapter, and with some other Matters necessary to be known
Newman Noggs scrambled in violent haste upstairs with the steaming beverage, which he had so unceremoniously snatched from the table of Mr Kenwigs, and indeed from the very grasp of the water-rate collector, who was eyeing the contents of the tumbler, at the moment of its unexpected abstraction, with lively marks of pleasure visible in his countenance. He bore his prize straight to his own back-garret, where, footsore and nearly shoeless, wet, dirty, jaded, and disfigured with every mark of fatiguing travel, sat Nicholas and Smike, at once the cause and partner of his toil; both perfectly worn out by their unwonted and protracted exertion.
Newman's first act was to compel Nicholas, with gentle force, to swallow half of the punch at a breath, nearly boiling as it was; and his next, to pour the remainder down the throat of Smike, who, never having tasted anything stronger than aperient medicine in his whole life, exhibited various odd manifestations of surprise and delight, during the passage of the liquor down his throat, and turned up his eyes most emphatically when it was all gone.
'You are wet through,' said Newman, passing his hand hastily over the coat which Nicholas had thrown off; 'and I—I—haven't even a change,' he added, with a wistful glance at the shabby clothes he wore himself.
'I have dry clothes, or at least such as will serve my turn well, in my bundle,' replied Nicholas. 'If you look so distressed to see me, you will add to the pain I feel already, at being compelled, for one night, to cast myself upon your slender means for aid and shelter.'
Newman did not look the less distressed to hear Nicholas talking in this strain; but, upon his young friend grasping him heartily by the hand, and assuring him that nothing but implicit confidence in the sincerity of his professions, and kindness of feeling towards himself, would have induced him, on any consideration, even to have made him acquainted with his arrival in London, Mr Noggs brightened up again, and went about making such arrangements as were in his power for the comfort of his visitors, with extreme alacrity.
These were simple enough; poor Newman's means halting at a very considerable distance short of his inclinations; but, slight as they were, they were not made without much bustling and running about. As Nicholas had husbanded his scanty stock of money, so well that it was not yet quite expended, a supper of bread and cheese, with some cold beef from the cook's shop, was soon placed upon the table; and these viands being flanked by a bottle of spirits and a pot of porter, there was no ground for apprehension on the score of hunger or thirst, at all events. Such preparations as Newman had it in his power to make, for the accommodation of his guests during the night, occupied no very great time in completing; and as he had insisted, as an express preliminary, that Nicholas should change his clothes, and that Smike should invest himself in his solitary coat (which no entreaties would dissuade him from stripping off for the purpose), the travellers partook of their frugal fare, with more satisfaction than one of them at least had derived from many a better meal.
They then drew near the fire, which Newman Noggs had made up as well as he could, after the inroads of Crowl upon the fuel; and Nicholas, who had hitherto been restrained by the extreme anxiety of his friend that he should refresh himself after his journey, now pressed him with earnest questions concerning his mother and sister.
'Well,' replied Newman, with his accustomed taciturnity; 'both well.'
'They are living in the city still?' inquired Nicholas.
'They are,' said Newman.
'And my sister,'—added Nicholas. 'Is she still engaged in the business which she wrote to tell me she thought she should like so much?'
Newman opened his eyes rather wider than usual, but merely replied by a gasp, which, according to the action of the head that accompanied it, was interpreted by his friends as meaning yes or no. In the present instance, the pantomime consisted of a nod, and not a shake; so Nicholas took the answer as a favourable one.
'Now listen to me,' said Nicholas, laying his hand on Newman's shoulder. 'Before I would make an effort to see them, I deemed it expedient to come to you, lest, by gratifying my own selfish desire, I should inflict an injury upon them which I can never repair. What has my uncle heard from Yorkshire?'
Newman opened and shut his mouth, several times, as though he were trying his utmost to speak, but could make nothing of it, and finally fixed his eyes on Nicholas with a grim and ghastly stare.
'What has he heard?' urged Nicholas, colouring. 'You see that I am prepared to hear the very worst that malice can have suggested. Why should you conceal it from me? I must know it sooner or later; and what purpose can be gained by trifling with the matter for a few minutes, when half the time would put me in possession of all that has occurred? Tell me at once, pray.'
'Tomorrow morning,' said Newman; 'hear it tomorrow.'
'What purpose would that answer?' urged Nicholas.
'You would sleep the better,' replied Newman.
'I should sleep the worse,' answered Nicholas, impatiently. 'Sleep! Exhausted as I am, and standing in no common need of rest, I cannot hope to close my eyes all night, unless you tell me everything.'
'And if I should tell you everything,' said Newman, hesitating.
'Why, then you may rouse my indignation or wound my pride,' rejoined Nicholas; 'but you will not break my rest; for if the scene were acted over again, I could take no other part than I have taken; and whatever consequences may accrue to myself from it, I shall never regret doing as I have done—never, if I starve or beg in consequence. What is a little poverty or suffering, to the disgrace of the basest and most inhuman cowardice! I tell you, if I had stood by, tamely and passively, I should have hated myself, and merited the contempt of every man in existence. The black-hearted scoundrel!'
With this gentle allusion to the absent Mr Squeers, Nicholas repressed his rising wrath, and relating to Newman exactly what had passed at Dotheboys Hall, entreated him to speak out without more pressing. Thus adjured, Mr Noggs took, from an old trunk, a sheet of paper, which appeared to have been scrawled over in great haste; and after sundry extraordinary demonstrations of reluctance, delivered himself in the following terms.
'My dear young man, you mustn't give way to—this sort of thing will never do, you know—as to getting on in the world, if you take everybody's part that's ill-treated—Damn it, I am proud to hear of it; and would have done it myself!'
Newman accompanied this very unusual outbreak with a violent blow upon the table, as if, in the heat of the moment, he had mistaken it for the chest or ribs of Mr Wackford Squeers. Having, by this open declaration of his feelings, quite precluded himself from offering Nicholas any cautious worldly advice (which had been his first intention), Mr Noggs went straight to the point.
'The day before yesterday,' said Newman, 'your uncle received this letter. I took a hasty copy of it, while he was out. Shall I read it?'
'If you please,' replied Nicholas. Newman Noggs accordingly read as follows:
'DOTHEBOYS HALL, 'THURSDAY MORNING.
'My pa requests me to write to you, the doctors considering it doubtful whether he will ever recuvver the use of his legs which prevents his holding a pen.
'We are in a state of mind beyond everything, and my pa is one mask of brooses both blue and green likewise two forms are steepled in his Goar. We were kimpelled to have him carried down into the kitchen where he now lays. You will judge from this that he has been brought very low.
'When your nevew that you recommended for a teacher had done this to my pa and jumped upon his body with his feet and also langwedge which I will not pollewt my pen with describing, he assaulted my ma with dreadful violence, dashed her to the earth, and drove her back comb several inches into her head. A very little more and it must have entered her skull. We have a medical certifiket that if it had, the tortershell would have affected the brain.
'Me and my brother were then the victims of his feury since which we have suffered very much which leads us to the arrowing belief that we have received some injury in our insides, especially as no marks of violence are visible externally. I am screaming out loud all the time I write and so is my brother which takes off my attention rather and I hope will excuse mistakes.
'The monster having sasiated his thirst for blood ran away, taking with him a boy of desperate character that he had excited to rebellyon, and a garnet ring belonging to my ma, and not having been apprehended by the constables is supposed to have been took up by some stage-coach. My pa begs that if he comes to you the ring may be returned, and that you will let the thief and assassin go, as if we prosecuted him he would only be transported, and if he is let go he is sure to be hung before long which will save us trouble and be much more satisfactory. Hoping to hear from you when convenient
'I remain 'Yours and cetrer 'FANNY SQUEERS.
'P.S. I pity his ignorance and despise him.'
A profound silence succeeded to the reading of this choice epistle, during which Newman Noggs, as he folded it up, gazed with a kind of grotesque pity at the boy of desperate character therein referred to; who, having no more distinct perception of the matter in hand, than that he had been the unfortunate cause of heaping trouble and falsehood upon Nicholas, sat mute and dispirited, with a most woe-begone and heart-stricken look.
'Mr Noggs,' said Nicholas, after a few moments' reflection, 'I must go out at once.'
'Go out!' cried Newman.
'Yes,' said Nicholas, 'to Golden Square. Nobody who knows me would believe this story of the ring; but it may suit the purpose, or gratify the hatred of Mr Ralph Nickleby to feign to attach credence to it. It is due—not to him, but to myself—that I should state the truth; and moreover, I have a word or two to exchange with him, which will not keep cool.'
'They must,' said Newman.
'They must not, indeed,' rejoined Nicholas firmly, as he prepared to leave the house.
'Hear me speak,' said Newman, planting himself before his impetuous young friend. 'He is not there. He is away from town. He will not be back for three days; and I know that letter will not be answered before he returns.'
'Are you sure of this?' asked Nicholas, chafing violently, and pacing the narrow room with rapid strides.
'Quite,' rejoined Newman. 'He had hardly read it when he was called away. Its contents are known to nobody but himself and us.'
'Are you certain?' demanded Nicholas, precipitately; 'not even to my mother or sister? If I thought that they—I will go there—I must see them. Which is the way? Where is it?'
'Now, be advised by me,' said Newman, speaking for the moment, in his earnestness, like any other man—'make no effort to see even them, till he comes home. I know the man. Do not seem to have been tampering with anybody. When he returns, go straight to him, and speak as boldly as you like. Guessing at the real truth, he knows it as well as you or I. Trust him for that.'
'You mean well to me, and should know him better than I can,' replied Nicholas, after some consideration. 'Well; let it be so.'
Newman, who had stood during the foregoing conversation with his back planted against the door, ready to oppose any egress from the apartment by force, if necessary, resumed his seat with much satisfaction; and as the water in the kettle was by this time boiling, made a glassful of spirits and water for Nicholas, and a cracked mug-full for the joint accommodation of himself and Smike, of which the two partook in great harmony, while Nicholas, leaning his head upon his hand, remained buried in melancholy meditation.
Meanwhile, the company below stairs, after listening attentively and not hearing any noise which would justify them in interfering for the gratification of their curiosity, returned to the chamber of the Kenwigses, and employed themselves in hazarding a great variety of conjectures relative to the cause of Mr Noggs' sudden disappearance and detention.
'Lor, I'll tell you what,' said Mrs Kenwigs. 'Suppose it should be an express sent up to say that his property has all come back again!'
'Dear me,' said Mr Kenwigs; 'it's not impossible. Perhaps, in that case, we'd better send up and ask if he won't take a little more punch.'
'Kenwigs!' said Mr Lillyvick, in a loud voice, 'I'm surprised at you.'
'What's the matter, sir?' asked Mr Kenwigs, with becoming submission to the collector of water-rates.
'Making such a remark as that, sir,' replied Mr Lillyvick, angrily. 'He has had punch already, has he not, sir? I consider the way in which that punch was cut off, if I may use the expression, highly disrespectful to this company; scandalous, perfectly scandalous. It may be the custom to allow such things in this house, but it's not the kind of behaviour that I've been used to see displayed, and so I don't mind telling you, Kenwigs. A gentleman has a glass of punch before him to which he is just about to set his lips, when another gentleman comes and collars that glass of punch, without a "with your leave", or "by your leave", and carries that glass of punch away. This may be good manners—I dare say it is—but I don't understand it, that's all; and what's more, I don't care if I never do. It's my way to speak my mind, Kenwigs, and that is my mind; and if you don't like it, it's past my regular time for going to bed, and I can find my way home without making it later.'
Here was an untoward event! The collector had sat swelling and fuming in offended dignity for some minutes, and had now fairly burst out. The great man—the rich relation—the unmarried uncle—who had it in his power to make Morleena an heiress, and the very baby a legatee—was offended. Gracious Powers, where was this to end!
'I am very sorry, sir,' said Mr Kenwigs, humbly.
'Don't tell me you're sorry,' retorted Mr Lillyvick, with much sharpness. 'You should have prevented it, then.'
The company were quite paralysed by this domestic crash. The back-parlour sat with her mouth wide open, staring vacantly at the collector, in a stupor of dismay; the other guests were scarcely less overpowered by the great man's irritation. Mr Kenwigs, not being skilful in such matters, only fanned the flame in attempting to extinguish it.
'I didn't think of it, I am sure, sir,' said that gentleman. 'I didn't suppose that such a little thing as a glass of punch would have put you out of temper.'
'Out of temper! What the devil do you mean by that piece of impertinence, Mr Kenwigs?' said the collector. 'Morleena, child—give me my hat.'
'Oh, you're not going, Mr Lillyvick, sir,' interposed Miss Petowker, with her most bewitching smile.
But still Mr Lillyvick, regardless of the siren, cried obdurately, 'Morleena, my hat!' upon the fourth repetition of which demand, Mrs Kenwigs sunk back in her chair, with a cry that might have softened a water-butt, not to say a water-collector; while the four little girls (privately instructed to that effect) clasped their uncle's drab shorts in their arms, and prayed him, in imperfect English, to remain.
'Why should I stop here, my dears?' said Mr Lillyvick; 'I'm not wanted here.'
'Oh, do not speak so cruelly, uncle,' sobbed Mrs Kenwigs, 'unless you wish to kill me.'
'I shouldn't wonder if some people were to say I did,' replied Mr Lillyvick, glancing angrily at Kenwigs. 'Out of temper!'
'Oh! I cannot bear to see him look so, at my husband,' cried Mrs Kenwigs. 'It's so dreadful in families. Oh!'
'Mr Lillyvick,' said Kenwigs, 'I hope, for the sake of your niece, that you won't object to be reconciled.'
The collector's features relaxed, as the company added their entreaties to those of his nephew-in-law. He gave up his hat, and held out his hand.
'There, Kenwigs,' said Mr Lillyvick; 'and let me tell you, at the same time, to show you how much out of temper I was, that if I had gone away without another word, it would have made no difference respecting that pound or two which I shall leave among your children when I die.'
'Morleena Kenwigs,' cried her mother, in a torrent of affection. 'Go down upon your knees to your dear uncle, and beg him to love you all his life through, for he's more a angel than a man, and I've always said so.'
Miss Morleena approaching to do homage, in compliance with this injunction, was summarily caught up and kissed by Mr Lillyvick; and thereupon Mrs Kenwigs darted forward and kissed the collector, and an irrepressible murmur of applause broke from the company who had witnessed his magnanimity.
The worthy gentleman then became once more the life and soul of the society; being again reinstated in his old post of lion, from which high station the temporary distraction of their thoughts had for a moment dispossessed him. Quadruped lions are said to be savage, only when they are hungry; biped lions are rarely sulky longer than when their appetite for distinction remains unappeased. Mr Lillyvick stood higher than ever; for he had shown his power; hinted at his property and testamentary intentions; gained great credit for disinterestedness and virtue; and, in addition to all, was finally accommodated with a much larger tumbler of punch than that which Newman Noggs had so feloniously made off with.
'I say! I beg everybody's pardon for intruding again,' said Crowl, looking in at this happy juncture; 'but what a queer business this is, isn't it? Noggs has lived in this house, now going on for five years, and nobody has ever been to see him before, within the memory of the oldest inhabitant.'
'It's a strange time of night to be called away, sir, certainly,' said the collector; 'and the behaviour of Mr Noggs himself, is, to say the least of it, mysterious.'
'Well, so it is,' rejoined Growl; 'and I'll tell you what's more—I think these two geniuses, whoever they are, have run away from somewhere.'
'What makes you think that, sir?' demanded the collector, who seemed, by a tacit understanding, to have been chosen and elected mouthpiece to the company. 'You have no reason to suppose that they have run away from anywhere without paying the rates and taxes due, I hope?'
Mr Crowl, with a look of some contempt, was about to enter a general protest against the payment of rates or taxes, under any circumstances, when he was checked by a timely whisper from Kenwigs, and several frowns and winks from Mrs K., which providentially stopped him.
'Why the fact is,' said Crowl, who had been listening at Newman's door with all his might and main; 'the fact is, that they have been talking so loud, that they quite disturbed me in my room, and so I couldn't help catching a word here, and a word there; and all I heard, certainly seemed to refer to their having bolted from some place or other. I don't wish to alarm Mrs Kenwigs; but I hope they haven't come from any jail or hospital, and brought away a fever or some unpleasantness of that sort, which might be catching for the children.'
Mrs Kenwigs was so overpowered by this supposition, that it needed all the tender attentions of Miss Petowker, of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, to restore her to anything like a state of calmness; not to mention the assiduity of Mr Kenwigs, who held a fat smelling-bottle to his lady's nose, until it became matter of some doubt whether the tears which coursed down her face were the result of feelings or SAL VOLATILE.
The ladies, having expressed their sympathy, singly and separately, fell, according to custom, into a little chorus of soothing expressions, among which, such condolences as 'Poor dear!'—'I should feel just the same, if I was her'—'To be sure, it's a very trying thing'—and 'Nobody but a mother knows what a mother's feelings is,' were among the most prominent, and most frequently repeated. In short, the opinion of the company was so clearly manifested, that Mr Kenwigs was on the point of repairing to Mr Noggs's room, to demand an explanation, and had indeed swallowed a preparatory glass of punch, with great inflexibility and steadiness of purpose, when the attention of all present was diverted by a new and terrible surprise.
This was nothing less than the sudden pouring forth of a rapid succession of the shrillest and most piercing screams, from an upper story; and to all appearance from the very two-pair back, in which the infant Kenwigs was at that moment enshrined. They were no sooner audible, than Mrs Kenwigs, opining that a strange cat had come in, and sucked the baby's breath while the girl was asleep, made for the door, wringing her hands, and shrieking dismally; to the great consternation and confusion of the company.
'Mr Kenwigs, see what it is; make haste!' cried the sister, laying violent hands upon Mrs Kenwigs, and holding her back by force. 'Oh don't twist about so, dear, or I can never hold you.'
'My baby, my blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed baby!' screamed Mrs Kenwigs, making every blessed louder than the last. 'My own darling, sweet, innocent Lillyvick—Oh let me go to him. Let me go-o-o-o!'
Pending the utterance of these frantic cries, and the wails and lamentations of the four little girls, Mr Kenwigs rushed upstairs to the room whence the sounds proceeded; at the door of which, he encountered Nicholas, with the child in his arms, who darted out with such violence, that the anxious father was thrown down six stairs, and alighted on the nearest landing-place, before he had found time to open his mouth to ask what was the matter.
'Don't be alarmed,' cried Nicholas, running down; 'here it is; it's all out, it's all over; pray compose yourselves; there's no harm done;' and with these, and a thousand other assurances, he delivered the baby (whom, in his hurry, he had carried upside down), to Mrs Kenwigs, and ran back to assist Mr Kenwigs, who was rubbing his head very hard, and looking much bewildered by his tumble.
Reassured by this cheering intelligence, the company in some degree recovered from their fears, which had been productive of some most singular instances of a total want of presence of mind; thus, the bachelor friend had, for a long time, supported in his arms Mrs Kenwigs's sister, instead of Mrs Kenwigs; and the worthy Mr Lillyvick had been actually seen, in the perturbation of his spirits, to kiss Miss Petowker several times, behind the room-door, as calmly as if nothing distressing were going forward.
'It is a mere nothing,' said Nicholas, returning to Mrs Kenwigs; 'the little girl, who was watching the child, being tired I suppose, fell asleep, and set her hair on fire.'
'Oh you malicious little wretch!' cried Mrs Kenwigs, impressively shaking her forefinger at the small unfortunate, who might be thirteen years old, and was looking on with a singed head and a frightened face.
'I heard her cries,' continued Nicholas, 'and ran down, in time to prevent her setting fire to anything else. You may depend upon it that the child is not hurt; for I took it off the bed myself, and brought it here to convince you.'
This brief explanation over, the infant, who, as he was christened after the collector! rejoiced in the names of Lillyvick Kenwigs, was partially suffocated under the caresses of the audience, and squeezed to his mother's bosom, until he roared again. The attention of the company was then directed, by a natural transition, to the little girl who had had the audacity to burn her hair off, and who, after receiving sundry small slaps and pushes from the more energetic of the ladies, was mercifully sent home: the ninepence, with which she was to have been rewarded, being escheated to the Kenwigs family.
'And whatever we are to say to you, sir,' exclaimed Mrs Kenwigs, addressing young Lillyvick's deliverer, 'I am sure I don't know.'
'You need say nothing at all,' replied Nicholas. 'I have done nothing to found any very strong claim upon your eloquence, I am sure.'
'He might have been burnt to death, if it hadn't been for you, sir,' simpered Miss Petowker.
'Not very likely, I think,' replied Nicholas; 'for there was abundance of assistance here, which must have reached him before he had been in any danger.'
'You will let us drink your health, anyvays, sir!' said Mr Kenwigs motioning towards the table.
'—In my absence, by all means,' rejoined Nicholas, with a smile. 'I have had a very fatiguing journey, and should be most indifferent company—a far greater check upon your merriment, than a promoter of it, even if I kept awake, which I think very doubtful. If you will allow me, I'll return to my friend, Mr Noggs, who went upstairs again, when he found nothing serious had occurred. Good-night.'
Excusing himself, in these terms, from joining in the festivities, Nicholas took a most winning farewell of Mrs Kenwigs and the other ladies, and retired, after making a very extraordinary impression upon the company.
'What a delightful young man!' cried Mrs Kenwigs.
'Uncommon gentlemanly, really,' said Mr Kenwigs. 'Don't you think so, Mr Lillyvick?'
'Yes,' said the collector, with a dubious shrug of his shoulders, 'He is gentlemanly, very gentlemanly—in appearance.'
'I hope you don't see anything against him, uncle?' inquired Mrs Kenwigs.
'No, my dear,' replied the collector, 'no. I trust he may not turn out—well—no matter—my love to you, my dear, and long life to the baby!'
'Your namesake,' said Mrs Kenwigs, with a sweet smile.
'And I hope a worthy namesake,' observed Mr Kenwigs, willing to propitiate the collector. 'I hope a baby as will never disgrace his godfather, and as may be considered, in arter years, of a piece with the Lillyvicks whose name he bears. I do say—and Mrs Kenwigs is of the same sentiment, and feels it as strong as I do—that I consider his being called Lillyvick one of the greatest blessings and Honours of my existence.'
'THE greatest blessing, Kenwigs,' murmured his lady.
'THE greatest blessing,' said Mr Kenwigs, correcting himself. 'A blessing that I hope, one of these days, I may be able to deserve.'
This was a politic stroke of the Kenwigses, because it made Mr Lillyvick the great head and fountain of the baby's importance. The good gentleman felt the delicacy and dexterity of the touch, and at once proposed the health of the gentleman, name unknown, who had signalised himself, that night, by his coolness and alacrity.
'Who, I don't mind saying,' observed Mr Lillyvick, as a great concession, 'is a good-looking young man enough, with manners that I hope his character may be equal to.'
'He has a very nice face and style, really,' said Mrs Kenwigs.
'He certainly has,' added Miss Petowker. 'There's something in his appearance quite—dear, dear, what's that word again?'
'What word?' inquired Mr Lillyvick.
'Why—dear me, how stupid I am,' replied Miss Petowker, hesitating. 'What do you call it, when Lords break off door-knockers and beat policemen, and play at coaches with other people's money, and all that sort of thing?'
'Aristocratic?' suggested the collector.
'Ah! aristocratic,' replied Miss Petowker; 'something very aristocratic about him, isn't there?'
The gentleman held their peace, and smiled at each other, as who should say, 'Well! there's no accounting for tastes;' but the ladies resolved unanimously that Nicholas had an aristocratic air; and nobody caring to dispute the position, it was established triumphantly.
The punch being, by this time, drunk out, and the little Kenwigses (who had for some time previously held their little eyes open with their little forefingers) becoming fractious, and requesting rather urgently to be put to bed, the collector made a move by pulling out his watch, and acquainting the company that it was nigh two o'clock; whereat some of the guests were surprised and others shocked, and hats and bonnets being groped for under the tables, and in course of time found, their owners went away, after a vast deal of shaking of hands, and many remarks how they had never spent such a delightful evening, and how they marvelled to find it so late, expecting to have heard that it was half-past ten at the very latest, and how they wished that Mr and Mrs Kenwigs had a wedding-day once a week, and how they wondered by what hidden agency Mrs Kenwigs could possibly have managed so well; and a great deal more of the same kind. To all of which flattering expressions, Mr and Mrs Kenwigs replied, by thanking every lady and gentleman, SERIATIM, for the favour of their company, and hoping they might have enjoyed themselves only half as well as they said they had.
As to Nicholas, quite unconscious of the impression he had produced, he had long since fallen asleep, leaving Mr Newman Noggs and Smike to empty the spirit bottle between them; and this office they performed with such extreme good-will, that Newman was equally at a loss to determine whether he himself was quite sober, and whether he had ever seen any gentleman so heavily, drowsily, and completely intoxicated as his new acquaintance.
Nicholas seeks to employ himself in a New Capacity, and being unsuccessful, accepts an engagement as Tutor in a Private Family
The first care of Nicholas, next morning, was, to look after some room in which, until better times dawned upon him, he could contrive to exist, without trenching upon the hospitality of Newman Noggs, who would have slept upon the stairs with pleasure, so that his young friend was accommodated.
The vacant apartment to which the bill in the parlour window bore reference, appeared, on inquiry, to be a small back-room on the second floor, reclaimed from the leads, and overlooking a soot-bespeckled prospect of tiles and chimney-pots. For the letting of this portion of the house from week to week, on reasonable terms, the parlour lodger was empowered to treat; he being deputed by the landlord to dispose of the rooms as they became vacant, and to keep a sharp look-out that the lodgers didn't run away. As a means of securing the punctual discharge of which last service he was permitted to live rent-free, lest he should at any time be tempted to run away himself.
Of this chamber, Nicholas became the tenant; and having hired a few common articles of furniture from a neighbouring broker, and paid the first week's hire in advance, out of a small fund raised by the conversion of some spare clothes into ready money, he sat himself down to ruminate upon his prospects, which, like the prospect outside his window, were sufficiently confined and dingy. As they by no means improved on better acquaintance, and as familiarity breeds contempt, he resolved to banish them from his thoughts by dint of hard walking. So, taking up his hat, and leaving poor Smike to arrange and rearrange the room with as much delight as if it had been the costliest palace, he betook himself to the streets, and mingled with the crowd which thronged them.
Although a man may lose a sense of his own importance when he is a mere unit among a busy throng, all utterly regardless of him, it by no means follows that he can dispossess himself, with equal facility, of a very strong sense of the importance and magnitude of his cares. The unhappy state of his own affairs was the one idea which occupied the brain of Nicholas, walk as fast as he would; and when he tried to dislodge it by speculating on the situation and prospects of the people who surrounded him, he caught himself, in a few seconds, contrasting their condition with his own, and gliding almost imperceptibly back into his old train of thought again.
Occupied in these reflections, as he was making his way along one of the great public thoroughfares of London, he chanced to raise his eyes to a blue board, whereon was inscribed, in characters of gold, 'General Agency Office; for places and situations of all kinds inquire within.' It was a shop-front, fitted up with a gauze blind and an inner door; and in the window hung a long and tempting array of written placards, announcing vacant places of every grade, from a secretary's to a foot-boy's.
Nicholas halted, instinctively, before this temple of promise, and ran his eye over the capital-text openings in life which were so profusely displayed. When he had completed his survey he walked on a little way, and then back, and then on again; at length, after pausing irresolutely several times before the door of the General Agency Office, he made up his mind, and stepped in.
He found himself in a little floor-clothed room, with a high desk railed off in one corner, behind which sat a lean youth with cunning eyes and a protruding chin, whose performances in capital-text darkened the window. He had a thick ledger lying open before him, and with the fingers of his right hand inserted between the leaves, and his eyes fixed on a very fat old lady in a mob-cap—evidently the proprietress of the establishment—who was airing herself at the fire, seemed to be only waiting her directions to refer to some entries contained within its rusty clasps.
As there was a board outside, which acquainted the public that servants-of-all-work were perpetually in waiting to be hired from ten till four, Nicholas knew at once that some half-dozen strong young women, each with pattens and an umbrella, who were sitting upon a form in one corner, were in attendance for that purpose: especially as the poor things looked anxious and weary. He was not quite so certain of the callings and stations of two smart young ladies who were in conversation with the fat lady before the fire, until—having sat himself down in a corner, and remarked that he would wait until the other customers had been served—the fat lady resumed the dialogue which his entrance had interrupted.
'Cook, Tom,' said the fat lady, still airing herself as aforesaid.
'Cook,' said Tom, turning over some leaves of the ledger. 'Well!'
'Read out an easy place or two,' said the fat lady.
'Pick out very light ones, if you please, young man,' interposed a genteel female, in shepherd's-plaid boots, who appeared to be the client.
'"Mrs Marker,"' said Tom, reading, '"Russell Place, Russell Square; offers eighteen guineas; tea and sugar found. Two in family, and see very little company. Five servants kept. No man. No followers."'
'Oh Lor!' tittered the client. 'THAT won't do. Read another, young man, will you?'
'"Mrs Wrymug,"' said Tom, '"Pleasant Place, Finsbury. Wages, twelve guineas. No tea, no sugar. Serious family—"'
'Ah! you needn't mind reading that,' interrupted the client.
'"Three serious footmen,"' said Tom, impressively.
'Three? did you say?' asked the client in an altered tone.
'Three serious footmen,' replied Tom. '"Cook, housemaid, and nursemaid; each female servant required to join the Little Bethel Congregation three times every Sunday—with a serious footman. If the cook is more serious than the footman, she will be expected to improve the footman; if the footman is more serious than the cook, he will be expected to improve the cook."'
'I'll take the address of that place,' said the client; 'I don't know but what it mightn't suit me pretty well.'
'Here's another,' remarked Tom, turning over the leaves. '"Family of Mr Gallanbile, MP. Fifteen guineas, tea and sugar, and servants allowed to see male cousins, if godly. Note. Cold dinner in the kitchen on the Sabbath, Mr Gallanbile being devoted to the Observance question. No victuals whatever cooked on the Lord's Day, with the exception of dinner for Mr and Mrs Gallanbile, which, being a work of piety and necessity, is exempted. Mr Gallanbile dines late on the day of rest, in order to prevent the sinfulness of the cook's dressing herself."'
'I don't think that'll answer as well as the other,' said the client, after a little whispering with her friend. 'I'll take the other direction, if you please, young man. I can but come back again, if it don't do.'
Tom made out the address, as requested, and the genteel client, having satisfied the fat lady with a small fee, meanwhile, went away accompanied by her friend.
As Nicholas opened his mouth, to request the young man to turn to letter S, and let him know what secretaryships remained undisposed of, there came into the office an applicant, in whose favour he immediately retired, and whose appearance both surprised and interested him.
This was a young lady who could be scarcely eighteen, of very slight and delicate figure, but exquisitely shaped, who, walking timidly up to the desk, made an inquiry, in a very low tone of voice, relative to some situation as governess, or companion to a lady. She raised her veil, for an instant, while she preferred the inquiry, and disclosed a countenance of most uncommon beauty, though shaded by a cloud of sadness, which, in one so young, was doubly remarkable. Having received a card of reference to some person on the books, she made the usual acknowledgment, and glided away.
She was neatly, but very quietly attired; so much so, indeed, that it seemed as though her dress, if it had been worn by one who imparted fewer graces of her own to it, might have looked poor and shabby. Her attendant—for she had one—was a red-faced, round-eyed, slovenly girl, who, from a certain roughness about the bare arms that peeped from under her draggled shawl, and the half-washed-out traces of smut and blacklead which tattooed her countenance, was clearly of a kin with the servants-of-all-work on the form: between whom and herself there had passed various grins and glances, indicative of the freemasonry of the craft.
This girl followed her mistress; and, before Nicholas had recovered from the first effects of his surprise and admiration, the young lady was gone. It is not a matter of such complete and utter improbability as some sober people may think, that he would have followed them out, had he not been restrained by what passed between the fat lady and her book-keeper.
'When is she coming again, Tom?' asked the fat lady.
'Tomorrow morning,' replied Tom, mending his pen.
'Where have you sent her to?' asked the fat lady.
'Mrs Clark's,' replied Tom.
'She'll have a nice life of it, if she goes there,' observed the fat lady, taking a pinch of snuff from a tin box.
Tom made no other reply than thrusting his tongue into his cheek, and pointing the feather of his pen towards Nicholas—reminders which elicited from the fat lady an inquiry, of 'Now, sir, what can we do for YOU?'
Nicholas briefly replied, that he wanted to know whether there was any such post to be had, as secretary or amanuensis to a gentleman.
'Any such!' rejoined the mistress; 'a-dozen-such. An't there, Tom?'
'I should think so,' answered that young gentleman; and as he said it, he winked towards Nicholas, with a degree of familiarity which he, no doubt, intended for a rather flattering compliment, but with which Nicholas was most ungratefully disgusted.
Upon reference to the book, it appeared that the dozen secretaryships had dwindled down to one. Mr Gregsbury, the great member of parliament, of Manchester Buildings, Westminster, wanted a young man, to keep his papers and correspondence in order; and Nicholas was exactly the sort of young man that Mr Gregsbury wanted.
'I don't know what the terms are, as he said he'd settle them himself with the party,' observed the fat lady; 'but they must be pretty good ones, because he's a member of parliament.'
Inexperienced as he was, Nicholas did not feel quite assured of the force of this reasoning, or the justice of this conclusion; but without troubling himself to question it, he took down the address, and resolved to wait upon Mr Gregsbury without delay.
'I don't know what the number is,' said Tom; 'but Manchester Buildings isn't a large place; and if the worst comes to the worst it won't take you very long to knock at all the doors on both sides of the way till you find him out. I say, what a good-looking gal that was, wasn't she?'
'What girl?' demanded Nicholas, sternly.
'Oh yes. I know—what gal, eh?' whispered Tom, shutting one eye, and cocking his chin in the air. 'You didn't see her, you didn't—I say, don't you wish you was me, when she comes tomorrow morning?'
Nicholas looked at the ugly clerk, as if he had a mind to reward his admiration of the young lady by beating the ledger about his ears, but he refrained, and strode haughtily out of the office; setting at defiance, in his indignation, those ancient laws of chivalry, which not only made it proper and lawful for all good knights to hear the praise of the ladies to whom they were devoted, but rendered it incumbent upon them to roam about the world, and knock at head all such matter-of-fact and un-poetical characters, as declined to exalt, above all the earth, damsels whom they had never chanced to look upon or hear of—as if that were any excuse!
Thinking no longer of his own misfortunes, but wondering what could be those of the beautiful girl he had seen, Nicholas, with many wrong turns, and many inquiries, and almost as many misdirections, bent his steps towards the place whither he had been directed.
Within the precincts of the ancient city of Westminster, and within half a quarter of a mile of its ancient sanctuary, is a narrow and dirty region, the sanctuary of the smaller members of Parliament in modern days. It is all comprised in one street of gloomy lodging-houses, from whose windows, in vacation-time, there frown long melancholy rows of bills, which say, as plainly as did the countenances of their occupiers, ranged on ministerial and opposition benches in the session which slumbers with its fathers, 'To Let', 'To Let'. In busier periods of the year these bills disappear, and the houses swarm with legislators. There are legislators in the parlours, in the first floor, in the second, in the third, in the garrets; the small apartments reek with the breath of deputations and delegates. In damp weather, the place is rendered close, by the steams of moist acts of parliament and frouzy petitions; general postmen grow faint as they enter its infected limits, and shabby figures in quest of franks, flit restlessly to and fro like the troubled ghosts of Complete Letter-writers departed. This is Manchester Buildings; and here, at all hours of the night, may be heard the rattling of latch-keys in their respective keyholes: with now and then—when a gust of wind sweeping across the water which washes the Buildings' feet, impels the sound towards its entrance—the weak, shrill voice of some young member practising tomorrow's speech. All the livelong day, there is a grinding of organs and clashing and clanging of little boxes of music; for Manchester Buildings is an eel-pot, which has no outlet but its awkward mouth—a case-bottle which has no thoroughfare, and a short and narrow neck—and in this respect it may be typical of the fate of some few among its more adventurous residents, who, after wriggling themselves into Parliament by violent efforts and contortions, find that it, too, is no thoroughfare for them; that, like Manchester Buildings, it leads to nothing beyond itself; and that they are fain at last to back out, no wiser, no richer, not one whit more famous, than they went in.
Into Manchester Buildings Nicholas turned, with the address of the great Mr Gregsbury in his hand. As there was a stream of people pouring into a shabby house not far from the entrance, he waited until they had made their way in, and then making up to the servant, ventured to inquire if he knew where Mr Gregsbury lived.
The servant was a very pale, shabby boy, who looked as if he had slept underground from his infancy, as very likely he had. 'Mr Gregsbury?' said he; 'Mr Gregsbury lodges here. It's all right. Come in!'
Nicholas thought he might as well get in while he could, so in he walked; and he had no sooner done so, than the boy shut the door, and made off.
This was odd enough: but what was more embarrassing was, that all along the passage, and all along the narrow stairs, blocking up the window, and making the dark entry darker still, was a confused crowd of persons with great importance depicted in their looks; who were, to all appearance, waiting in silent expectation of some coming event. From time to time, one man would whisper his neighbour, or a little group would whisper together, and then the whisperers would nod fiercely to each other, or give their heads a relentless shake, as if they were bent upon doing something very desperate, and were determined not to be put off, whatever happened.
As a few minutes elapsed without anything occurring to explain this phenomenon, and as he felt his own position a peculiarly uncomfortable one, Nicholas was on the point of seeking some information from the man next him, when a sudden move was visible on the stairs, and a voice was heard to cry, 'Now, gentleman, have the goodness to walk up!'
So far from walking up, the gentlemen on the stairs began to walk down with great alacrity, and to entreat, with extraordinary politeness, that the gentlemen nearest the street would go first; the gentlemen nearest the street retorted, with equal courtesy, that they couldn't think of such a thing on any account; but they did it, without thinking of it, inasmuch as the other gentlemen pressing some half-dozen (among whom was Nicholas) forward, and closing up behind, pushed them, not merely up the stairs, but into the very sitting-room of Mr Gregsbury, which they were thus compelled to enter with most unseemly precipitation, and without the means of retreat; the press behind them, more than filling the apartment.
'Gentlemen,' said Mr Gregsbury, 'you are welcome. I am rejoiced to see you.'
For a gentleman who was rejoiced to see a body of visitors, Mr Gregsbury looked as uncomfortable as might be; but perhaps this was occasioned by senatorial gravity, and a statesmanlike habit of keeping his feelings under control. He was a tough, burly, thick-headed gentleman, with a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed.
'Now, gentlemen,' said Mr Gregsbury, tossing a great bundle of papers into a wicker basket at his feet, and throwing himself back in his chair with his arms over the elbows, 'you are dissatisfied with my conduct, I see by the newspapers.'
'Yes, Mr Gregsbury, we are,' said a plump old gentleman in a violent heat, bursting out of the throng, and planting himself in the front.
'Do my eyes deceive me,' said Mr Gregsbury, looking towards the speaker, 'or is that my old friend Pugstyles?'
'I am that man, and no other, sir,' replied the plump old gentleman.
'Give me your hand, my worthy friend,' said Mr Gregsbury. 'Pugstyles, my dear friend, I am very sorry to see you here.'
'I am very sorry to be here, sir,' said Mr Pugstyles; 'but your conduct, Mr Gregsbury, has rendered this deputation from your constituents imperatively necessary.'
'My conduct, Pugstyles,' said Mr Gregsbury, looking round upon the deputation with gracious magnanimity—'my conduct has been, and ever will be, regulated by a sincere regard for the true and real interests of this great and happy country. Whether I look at home, or abroad; whether I behold the peaceful industrious communities of our island home: her rivers covered with steamboats, her roads with locomotives, her streets with cabs, her skies with balloons of a power and magnitude hitherto unknown in the history of aeronautics in this or any other nation—I say, whether I look merely at home, or, stretching my eyes farther, contemplate the boundless prospect of conquest and possession—achieved by British perseverance and British valour—which is outspread before me, I clasp my hands, and turning my eyes to the broad expanse above my head, exclaim, "Thank Heaven, I am a Briton!"'
The time had been, when this burst of enthusiasm would have been cheered to the very echo; but now, the deputation received it with chilling coldness. The general impression seemed to be, that as an explanation of Mr Gregsbury's political conduct, it did not enter quite enough into detail; and one gentleman in the rear did not scruple to remark aloud, that, for his purpose, it savoured rather too much of a 'gammon' tendency.
'The meaning of that term—gammon,' said Mr Gregsbury, 'is unknown to me. If it means that I grow a little too fervid, or perhaps even hyperbolical, in extolling my native land, I admit the full justice of the remark. I AM proud of this free and happy country. My form dilates, my eye glistens, my breast heaves, my heart swells, my bosom burns, when I call to mind her greatness and her glory.'
'We wish, sir,' remarked Mr Pugstyles, calmly, 'to ask you a few questions.'
'If you please, gentlemen; my time is yours—and my country's—and my country's—' said Mr Gregsbury.
This permission being conceded, Mr Pugstyles put on his spectacles, and referred to a written paper which he drew from his pocket; whereupon nearly every other member of the deputation pulled a written paper from HIS pocket, to check Mr Pugstyles off, as he read the questions.
This done, Mr Pugstyles proceeded to business.
'Question number one.—Whether, sir, you did not give a voluntary pledge previous to your election, that in event of your being returned, you would immediately put down the practice of coughing and groaning in the House of Commons. And whether you did not submit to be coughed and groaned down in the very first debate of the session, and have since made no effort to effect a reform in this respect? Whether you did not also pledge yourself to astonish the government, and make them shrink in their shoes? And whether you have astonished them, and made them shrink in their shoes, or not?'
'Go on to the next one, my dear Pugstyles,' said Mr Gregsbury.
'Have you any explanation to offer with reference to that question, sir?' asked Mr Pugstyles.
'Certainly not,' said Mr Gregsbury.
The members of the deputation looked fiercely at each other, and afterwards at the member. 'Dear Pugstyles' having taken a very long stare at Mr Gregsbury over the tops of his spectacles, resumed his list of inquiries.
'Question number two.—Whether, sir, you did not likewise give a voluntary pledge that you would support your colleague on every occasion; and whether you did not, the night before last, desert him and vote upon the other side, because the wife of a leader on that other side had invited Mrs Gregsbury to an evening party?'
'Go on,' said Mr Gregsbury.
'Nothing to say on that, either, sir?' asked the spokesman.
'Nothing whatever,' replied Mr Gregsbury. The deputation, who had only seen him at canvassing or election time, were struck dumb by his coolness. He didn't appear like the same man; then he was all milk and honey; now he was all starch and vinegar. But men ARE so different at different times!
'Question number three—and last,' said Mr Pugstyles, emphatically. 'Whether, sir, you did not state upon the hustings, that it was your firm and determined intention to oppose everything proposed; to divide the house upon every question, to move for returns on every subject, to place a motion on the books every day, and, in short, in your own memorable words, to play the very devil with everything and everybody?' With this comprehensive inquiry, Mr Pugstyles folded up his list of questions, as did all his backers.
Mr Gregsbury reflected, blew his nose, threw himself further back in his chair, came forward again, leaning his elbows on the table, made a triangle with his two thumbs and his two forefingers, and tapping his nose with the apex thereof, replied (smiling as he said it), 'I deny everything.'
At this unexpected answer, a hoarse murmur arose from the deputation; and the same gentleman who had expressed an opinion relative to the gammoning nature of the introductory speech, again made a monosyllabic demonstration, by growling out 'Resign!' Which growl being taken up by his fellows, swelled into a very earnest and general remonstrance.
'I am requested, sir, to express a hope,' said Mr Pugstyles, with a distant bow, 'that on receiving a requisition to that effect from a great majority of your constituents, you will not object at once to resign your seat in favour of some candidate whom they think they can better trust.'
To this, Mr Gregsbury read the following reply, which, anticipating the request, he had composed in the form of a letter, whereof copies had been made to send round to the newspapers.
'MY DEAR MR PUGSTYLES,
'Next to the welfare of our beloved island—this great and free and happy country, whose powers and resources are, I sincerely believe, illimitable—I value that noble independence which is an Englishman's proudest boast, and which I fondly hope to bequeath to my children, untarnished and unsullied. Actuated by no personal motives, but moved only by high and great constitutional considerations; which I will not attempt to explain, for they are really beneath the comprehension of those who have not made themselves masters, as I have, of the intricate and arduous study of politics; I would rather keep my seat, and intend doing so.
'Will you do me the favour to present my compliments to the constituent body, and acquaint them with this circumstance?
'With great esteem, 'My dear Mr Pugstyles, '&c.&c.'
'Then you will not resign, under any circumstances?' asked the spokesman.
Mr Gregsbury smiled, and shook his head.
'Then, good-morning, sir,' said Pugstyles, angrily.
'Heaven bless you!' said Mr Gregsbury. And the deputation, with many growls and scowls, filed off as quickly as the narrowness of the staircase would allow of their getting down.
The last man being gone, Mr Gregsbury rubbed his hands and chuckled, as merry fellows will, when they think they have said or done a more than commonly good thing; he was so engrossed in this self-congratulation, that he did not observe that Nicholas had been left behind in the shadow of the window-curtains, until that young gentleman, fearing he might otherwise overhear some soliloquy intended to have no listeners, coughed twice or thrice, to attract the member's notice.
'What's that?' said Mr Gregsbury, in sharp accents.
Nicholas stepped forward, and bowed.
'What do you do here, sir?' asked Mr Gregsbury; 'a spy upon my privacy! A concealed voter! You have heard my answer, sir. Pray follow the deputation.'
'I should have done so, if I had belonged to it, but I do not,' said Nicholas.
'Then how came you here, sir?' was the natural inquiry of Mr Gregsbury, MP. 'And where the devil have you come from, sir?' was the question which followed it.
'I brought this card from the General Agency Office, sir,' said Nicholas, 'wishing to offer myself as your secretary, and understanding that you stood in need of one.'
'That's all you have come for, is it?' said Mr Gregsbury, eyeing him in some doubt.
Nicholas replied in the affirmative.
'You have no connection with any of those rascally papers have you?' said Mr Gregsbury. 'You didn't get into the room, to hear what was going forward, and put it in print, eh?'
'I have no connection, I am sorry to say, with anything at present,' rejoined Nicholas,—politely enough, but quite at his ease.
'Oh!' said Mr Gregsbury. 'How did you find your way up here, then?'
Nicholas related how he had been forced up by the deputation.
'That was the way, was it?' said Mr Gregsbury. 'Sit down.'
Nicholas took a chair, and Mr Gregsbury stared at him for a long time, as if to make certain, before he asked any further questions, that there were no objections to his outward appearance.
'You want to be my secretary, do you?' he said at length.
'I wish to be employed in that capacity, sir,' replied Nicholas.
'Well,' said Mr Gregsbury; 'now what can you do?'
'I suppose,' replied Nicholas, smiling, 'that I can do what usually falls to the lot of other secretaries.'
'What's that?' inquired Mr Gregsbury.
'What is it?' replied Nicholas.
'Ah! What is it?' retorted the member, looking shrewdly at him, with his head on one side.
'A secretary's duties are rather difficult to define, perhaps,' said Nicholas, considering. 'They include, I presume, correspondence?'
'Good,' interposed Mr Gregsbury.
'The arrangement of papers and documents?'
'Occasionally, perhaps, the writing from your dictation; and possibly, sir,' said Nicholas, with a half-smile, 'the copying of your speech for some public journal, when you have made one of more than usual importance.'
'Certainly,' rejoined Mr Gregsbury. 'What else?'
'Really,' said Nicholas, after a moment's reflection, 'I am not able, at this instant, to recapitulate any other duty of a secretary, beyond the general one of making himself as agreeable and useful to his employer as he can, consistently with his own respectability, and without overstepping that line of duties which he undertakes to perform, and which the designation of his office is usually understood to imply.'
Mr Gregsbury looked fixedly at Nicholas for a short time, and then glancing warily round the room, said in a suppressed voice:
'This is all very well, Mr—what is your name?'
'This is all very well, Mr Nickleby, and very proper, so far as it goes—so far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. There are other duties, Mr Nickleby, which a secretary to a parliamentary gentleman must never lose sight of. I should require to be crammed, sir.'
'I beg your pardon,' interposed Nicholas, doubtful whether he had heard aright.
'—To be crammed, sir,' repeated Mr Gregsbury.
'May I beg your pardon again, if I inquire what you mean, sir?' said Nicholas.
'My meaning, sir, is perfectly plain,' replied Mr Gregsbury with a solemn aspect. 'My secretary would have to make himself master of the foreign policy of the world, as it is mirrored in the newspapers; to run his eye over all accounts of public meetings, all leading articles, and accounts of the proceedings of public bodies; and to make notes of anything which it appeared to him might be made a point of, in any little speech upon the question of some petition lying on the table, or anything of that kind. Do you understand?'
'I think I do, sir,' replied Nicholas.
'Then,' said Mr Gregsbury, 'it would be necessary for him to make himself acquainted, from day to day, with newspaper paragraphs on passing events; such as "Mysterious disappearance, and supposed suicide of a potboy," or anything of that sort, upon which I might found a question to the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Then, he would have to copy the question, and as much as I remembered of the answer (including a little compliment about independence and good sense); and to send the manuscript in a frank to the local paper, with perhaps half-a-dozen lines of leader, to the effect, that I was always to be found in my place in parliament, and never shrunk from the responsible and arduous duties, and so forth. You see?'
'Besides which,' continued Mr Gregsbury, 'I should expect him, now and then, to go through a few figures in the printed tables, and to pick out a few results, so that I might come out pretty well on timber duty questions, and finance questions, and so on; and I should like him to get up a few little arguments about the disastrous effects of a return to cash payments and a metallic currency, with a touch now and then about the exportation of bullion, and the Emperor of Russia, and bank notes, and all that kind of thing, which it's only necessary to talk fluently about, because nobody understands it. Do you take me?'
'I think I understand,' said Nicholas.
'With regard to such questions as are not political,' continued Mr Gregsbury, warming; 'and which one can't be expected to care a curse about, beyond the natural care of not allowing inferior people to be as well off as ourselves—else where are our privileges?—I should wish my secretary to get together a few little flourishing speeches, of a patriotic cast. For instance, if any preposterous bill were brought forward, for giving poor grubbing devils of authors a right to their own property, I should like to say, that I for one would never consent to opposing an insurmountable bar to the diffusion of literature among THE PEOPLE,—you understand?—that the creations of the pocket, being man's, might belong to one man, or one family; but that the creations of the brain, being God's, ought as a matter of course to belong to the people at large—and if I was pleasantly disposed, I should like to make a joke about posterity, and say that those who wrote for posterity should be content to be rewarded by the approbation OF posterity; it might take with the house, and could never do me any harm, because posterity can't be expected to know anything about me or my jokes either—do you see?'