Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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spare her embarrassment of stating her business to the servant,
knocked timidly at the door : which, after some delay, was
opened by the footman, who had been putting on his striped
jacket as he came up stairs, and was now intent on fastening
his apron.

" Is Madame Mantalini in ? " faltered Kate.

" Not often out at this time, Miss," replied the man in a
tone which rendered ' Miss/ something more offensive than
* My dear.'

" Can I see her ? " asked Kate.

" Eh ? " replied the man, holding the door in his hand,
and honoring the inquirer with a stare and a broad grin,
" Lord, no. "

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" I came by her own appointment, " said Kate ; " I am —
I am — to be employed here."

" Oh ! you should have rung the worker's bell," said the
footman, touching the handle of one in the door-post. " Let
me see, though, I forgot — Miss Nickleby, is it ? "

" Yes," replied Kate.

" You're to walk up stairs then, please," said the man.
" Madame Mantalini wants to see you — this way — take care
of these things on the floor."

Cautioning her, in these terms, not to trip over a heteroge-
neous litter of pastry-cook's trays, lamps, waiters full of glasses,
and piles of rout seats which were strewn about the hall,
plainly bespeaking a late party on the previous night, the man
led the way to the second story, and ushered Kate into a back
room, communicating by folding-doors with the apartment in
which she had first seen the mistress of the establishment.

" If you'll wait here a minute," said the man, " I'll tell her'
presently." Having made this promise with much affability,
he retired and left Kate albne.

There was not much to amuse in the room ; of which the
most attractive feature was, a half-length portrait in oil, of
Mr. Mantalini, whom the artist had depicted scratching his
head in an easy manner, and thus displaying to advantage a
diamond ring, the gift of Madame Mantalini before her mar-
riage. There was, however, the sound of voices in conversa-
tion in the next room ; and as the conversation was loud and
the partition thin, Kate could not help discovering that they
belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Mantalini.

" If you will be odiously, demnebly outngeously jealous,
my soul," said Mr. Mantalini, "you will be very miserable —
horrid miserable — demnition miserable." And then, there
was a sound as though Mr. Mantalini were sipping his coffee.

" I am miserable," returned Madame Mantalini.

" Then you are an ungrateful, unworthy, demd unthankful
little fairy," said Mr. Mantalini.

" I am not," returned Madame, with a sob.

" Do not put itself out of humor," said Mr. Mantalini,
breaking an egg. "It is a pretty, bewitching little demd
countenance, and it should not be out of humor, for it spoils
its loveliness, and makes it cross and gloomy like a frightful,
naughty, demd hobgoblin."

" I am not to be brought round in that way, always," re-
joined Madame, sulkily.


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" It shall be brought round in any way it likes best, and
not brought round at all if it likes better," retorted Mr. Man-
talini, with his egg-spoon in his mouth.

44 It's very easy to talk," said Mrs. Mantalini.

44 Not so easy when one is eating a demnition egg," re-
plied Mr. Mantalini ; u for the yolk runs down the waistcoat,
and yolk of egg does not match any waistcoat but a yellow
waistcoat, demmit"

" You were flirting with her during the whole night,*' said
Madame Mantalini, apparently desirous to lead the conversa-
tion back to the point from which it had strayed.

"No. no, my life."

44 You were," said Madame ; " I had my eye upon you. all
the time."

44 Bless the little winking twinkling eye ; was it on me all
the time ! " cried Mantalini, in a sort of lazy rapture. ** Oh,
"demmit! "

44 And I say once more," resumed Madame, " that you
ought not to waltz with anybody but your own wife ; and I
will not bear it, Mantalini, S I take poison first."

44 She will not take poison and have honied pains, will
she ? " said Mantalini ; who, by the altered sound of his voice,
seemed to have moved his chair, and taken up his position
nearer to his wife. " She will not take poison, because she
had a demd fine husband who might have married two count-
esses and a dowager "

44 Two countesses," interposed Madame. * 4 You told me
one before ! "

44 Two ! " cried Mantalini. " Two demd fine women, real
countesses and splendid fortunes, demmit."

44 And why didn't you ? " asked Madame, playfully.

44 Why didn't I ! " replied her husband. 44 Had I not seen,
at a morning concert, the demdest little fascinator in all the
world, and while that little fascinator is my wife, may not all
the countesses and dowagers in England be "

Mr. Mantalini did not finish the sentence, but he gave
Madame Mantalini a very loud kiss, which Madame Man-
talini returned ; after which, there seemed to be some more
kissing mixed up with the progress of the breakfast.

44 And what about the cash, my existence's jewel ? " said
Mantalini, when these endearments ceased. 44 How much
have we in hand ? "

44 Very little indeed," replied Madame.

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" We must have some more," said Mantalini ; " we must
have some discount out of old Nickleby to carry on the war
with, demmit."

" You can't want any more just now," said Madame coax-

" My life and soul," returned her husband, " there is a
horse for sale at Scrubbs's, which it would be a sin and a
crime to lose — going, my senses' joy, for nothing."

" For nothing," cried Madame, "lam glad of that."

" For actually nothing," replied Mantalini. " A hundred
guineas down will buy him ; mane, and crest, and legs, and
tail, all of the demdest beauty. I will ride him in the park
before the very chariots of the rejected countesses. The
demd old dowager will faint with grief and rage ; the other
two will say ' He is married, he has made away with himself,
it is a demd thing, it is all up ! ' They will hate each other
demnebly, and wish you dead and buned. Ha ! ha ! Dem-
mit. ,,

Madame Mantalini's prudence, if she had any, was not
proof against these triumphal pictures ; after a little jingling
of keys, she observed that she would see what her desk con-
tained, and rising for that purpose, opened the folding-door,
and walked into the room where Kate was seated.

u Dear me, child ! " exclaimed Madame Mantalini, recoil-
ing in surprise. " How came you here ? "

" Child ! " cried Mantalini, hurrying in. " How came —
eh ! — oh — demmit ; how d'ye do ? "

" I have been waiting here some time, ma'am," said Kate,
addressing Madame Mantalini. "The servant must have
forgotten to let you know that I was here, I think."

" You really must see to that man," said Madame, turning
to her husband. " He forgets everything."

" I will twist his demd nose off his countenance for leav-
ing such a very pretty creature all alone by herself," said her

*' Mantalini," cried Madame, "you forget yourself."

" I don't forget you^ my soul, and never shall, and never
can," said Mantalini, kissing his wife's hand, and grimacing
aside, to Miss Nickleby, who turned away.

Appeased by this compliment, the lady of the business
took some papers from her desk which she hande4 over to
Mr. Mantalini, who received them with great delight. She
then requested Kate to follow her, and after several feints on

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the part of Mr. Mantalini to attract the young lady's atten-
tion, they went away : leaving that gentleman extended at
full length on the sofa, with his heels in the air and a news-
paper in his hand.

Madame Mantalini led the way down a flight of stairs, and
through a passage, to a large room at the back of the prem-
ises where were a number of young women employed in sew-
ing, cutting out, making up, altering, and various other pro-
cesses known only to those who are cunning in the arts of
millinery and dress-making. It was a close room with a sky-
light, and as dull and quiet as a room need be.

On Madame Mantalini calling aloud for Miss Knag, a
short, bustling, over-dressed female, full of importance, pre-
sented herself, and all the young ladies suspending their op-
erations for the moment, whispered to each other sundry criti-
cisms upon the make and texture of Miss Nickleby's dress,
her complexion, cast of features, and personal appearance,
with as much good-breeding as could have been displayed by
the very best society in a crowded ball-room.

"Oh, Miss Knag," said Madame Mantalini, "this is the
young person I spoke to you about."

Miss Knag bestowed a reverential smile upon Madame
Mantalini, which she dexterously transformed into a gracious
one for Kate, and said that certainly, although it was a great
deal of trouble to have young people who were wholly unused
to the business, still, she was sure the young person would
try to do her best — impressed with which conviction she (Miss
Knag) felt an interest in her, already.

" I think that, for the present at all events, it will be better
for Miss Nickleby to come into the show-room with you, and
try things on for people," said Madame Mantalini. " She will
not be able for the present to be of much use in any other
way ; and her appearance will "

" Suit very well with mine, Madame Mantalini," inter-
rupted Miss Knag. " So it will ; and to be sure I might have
known that you would not be long in finding that out ; for you
have so much taste in all those matters, that really, as I often
say, to the young ladies, I do not know how, when, or where,
you possibly could have acquired all you know — hem — Miss
Nickleby and I are quite a pair, Madame Mantalini, only I
am a lktle darker than Miss Nickleby, and — hem — I think
my foot may be a little smaller. Miss Nickleby, I am sure,
will not be offended at my saying that, when she hears that

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our family always have been celebrated for small feet ever
since — hem — ever since our family had any feet at all, indeed,
I think. I had an uncle once, Madame Mantalini, who lived
in Cheltenham, and had a most excellent business as a tobac-
conist — hem — who had such small feet, that they were no
bigger than those which are usually joined to wooden legs —
the most symmetrical feet, Madame Mantalini, that even you
can imagine."

" They must have had something the appearance of club
feet, Miss Knag," said Madame.

" Well now, that is so like you," returned Miss Knag.
44 Ha 1 ha ! ha ! Of club feet ! Oh very good ! As I often
remark to the young ladies, ' Well I must say, and I do not
care who knows it, of all the ready humor — hem — I ever heard
anywhere ' — and I have heard a good deal ; for when my dear
brother was alive (I kept house for him, Miss Nickleby), we
had to supper once a week two or three young men, nighly
celebrated in those days for their humor, Madame Mantalini
— ' Of all the ready humor/ I say to the young ladies, ' /ever
heard, Madame Mantalini's is the most remarkable — hem. It
is so gentle, so sarcastic, and yet so good-natured (as I was
observing to Miss Simmonds only this morning), that how, or
when, or by what means she acquired it, is to me a mystery
indeed. ' »

Here Miss Knag paused to take breath, and while she
pauses it may be observed — not that she was marvellously
loquacious and marvellously deferential to Madame Mantalini,
since these are facts which require no comment ; but that
every now and then, she was accustomed, in the torrent of her
discourse, to introduce a loud, shrill, clear, " hem ! " the im-
port and meaning of* which, was variously interpreted by her
acquaintance ; some holding that Miss Knag dealt in exagger-
ation, and introduced the monosyllable, when any fresh in-
vention was in course of coinage in her brain ; others, that
when she wanted a word, she threw it in to gain time, and
prevent anybody else from striking into the conversation. It
may be further remarked, that Miss Knag still aimed at youth,
although she had shot beyond it, years ago ; and that she was
weak and vain, and one of those people who are best described
by the axiom, that you may trust them as far as you can see
them, and no farther.

" You 11 take care that Miss Nickleby understands her
hours, and so forth," said Madame Mantalini ; " and so 1*11

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leave her with you. You'll not forget my directions, Miss
Knag ? "

Miss Knag of course replied, that to forget anything
Madame Mantalini had directed, was a moral impossibility ;
and that lady, dispensing a general good-morning among her
assistants, sailed away.

" Charming creature, is'nt she, Miss Nickleby ? " said Miss
Knag, rubbing her hands together.

" I have seen very little of her," said Kate. " I hardly
know yet."

" Have you seen Mr. Mantalini ? " inquired Miss Knag.

" Yes ; I have seen him twice.""

" Isn't he a charming creature ? "

" Indeed he does not strike me as being so, by any means,"
replied Kate.

"No, my dear!" cried Miss Knag, elevating her hands.
" Why, goodness gracious mercy, where's your taste ? Such
a fine tall, full-whiskered dashing gentlemanly man, with such
teeth and hair, and — hem — well now, you do astonish me."

" I dare say I am very foolish," replied Kate, laying aside
her boflnet ; " but as my opinion is of very little importance
to him or any one else, I do not regret having formed it, and
shall be slow to change it, I think."

" He is a very fine man, don't you think so ? " asked one
of the young ladies.

" Indeed he *may be, for anything I could say to the con-
trary," replied Kate.

" And drives very beautiful horses, doesn't he ? " inquired

" I dare say he may, but I never saw them," answered

" Never saw them ! " interposed Miss Knag. "Oh, well !
There it is at once you know ; how can you possibly pro-
nounce an opinion about a gentleman — hem — if you don't see
him as he turns out altogether ? "

There was so much of the world — even of the little world
of the country girl — in this idea of the old milliner, that Kate,
who was anxious, for every reason, to change the subject,
made no further remark, and left Miss Knag in possession of
the field.

After a short silence, during which most of the young
people made a closer inspection of Kate's appearance, and
compared notes respecting it, one of them offered to help her

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off with her shawl, and the offer being accepted, inquired
whether she did not find black very uncomfortable wear.

" I do indeed," replied Kate, with a bitter sigh.

" So dusty and hot," observed the same speaker, adjust-
ing her dress for her.

Kate might have said, that mourning is sometimes the
coldest wear which mortals can assume ; that it not only
chills the breasts of those it clothes, but extending its influ-
ence to summer friends, freezes up their sources of good-will
and kindness, and withering all the buds of promise they once
so liberally put forth, leaves nothing but bared and rotten
hearts exposed. There are few who have lost a friend or rel-
ative constituting in life their sole dependence, who have not
keenly felt this chilling influence of their sable garb. She
had felt it acutely, and feeling it at the moment, could not
quite restrain her tears.

" I am very sorry to have wounded you by my thoughtless
speech," said her companion. " I did not think of it. You
are in mourning for some near relation ? "

" For my father," answered Kate.

" For what relation, Miss Simmonds ? " asked Miss Knag
in an audible voice.

" Her father," replied the other softly.

" Her father, eh ? " said Miss Knag, without the slightest
depression of her voice. " Ah ! A long illness, Miss Sim-
monds ? "

" Hush," replied the girl ; " I don't know."

" Our misfortune was very sudden," said Kate, turning
away, " or I might perhaps, at a time like this, be enabled to
support it better."

There had existed not a little desire in the room, accord-
ing to invariable custom, when any new "young person"
came, to know who Kate was, and what she was, and all about
her ; but, although it might have been very naturally increased
by her appearance and emotion, the knowledge that it pained
her to be questioned, was sufficient to repress even this
curiosity ; and Miss Knag, finding it hopeless to attempt ex-
tracting any further particulars just then, reluctantly com-
manded silence, and bade the work proceed.

In silence, then, the tasks were plied until half-past one,
when a baked leg of mutton, with potatoes to correspond,
were served in the kitchen. The meal over, and the young
ladies having enjoyed the additional relaxation of washing

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their hands, the work began again, and was again performed
in silence, until the noise of carriages rattling through the
streets, and of loud double knocks at doors, gave token that
the day's work of the more fortunate members of society was
proceeding in its turn.

One of these double knocks at Madame Mantalini's door,
announced the equipage of some great lady — or rather rich
one, for there is occasionally a distinction between riches and
greatness — who had come with her daughter to approve of
some court-dresses which had been a long time preparing,
and upon whom Kate was deputed to wait, accompanied by
Miss Knag, and officered of course by Madame Mantalini.

Kate's part in the pageant was humble enough, her duties
being limited to holding articles of costume until Miss Knag
was ready to try them on, and now and then tying a string, or
fastening a hook-and-eye. She might, not unreasonably, have
supposed herself beneath the reach of any arrogance, or bad
humor ; but it happened that the lady and daughter were both
out of temper that day, and the poor girl came in for her
share of their revilings. She was awkward — her hands were
cold — dirty — coarse — she could do nothing right ; they won-
dered how Madame Mantalini could have such people about
her ; requested that they might see some other young woman
the next time they came ; and so forth.

So common an occurrence would be hardly deserving of
mention, but for its effect. Kate shed many bitter tears when
these people were gone, and felt, for the first time, humbled by
her occupation. She had, it is true, quailed at the prospect
of drudgery and hard service ; but she had felt no degradation
in working for her bread, until she found herself exposed to
insolence and pride. Philosophy would have taught her that
the degradation was on the side of those who had sunk so low
as to display such passions habitually, and without cause : but
she was too young for such consolation, and her honest feel-
ing was hurt. May not the complaint, that common people
are w above their station, often take its rise in the fact of un-
common people being below theirs ?

In such scenes and occupations the time wore on, until
nine o'clock, when Kate, jaded and dispirited with the occur-
rences of the day, hastened from the confinement of the work-
room, to join her mother at the street corner, and walk home :
— the more sadly, from having to disguise her real feelings,
and feign to participate in all the sanguine visions of her com-

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" Bless my soul, Kate," said Mrs. Nickleby ; " I've been
thinking all day, what a delightful thing it would be for
Madame Mantalini to take you into partnership — such a
likely thing too, you know ! Why, your poor dear papa's
cousin's sister-in-law — a Miss Browndock — was taken into
partnership by a lady that kept a school at Hammersmith,
and made her fortune in no time at all. I forget, by the bye,
whether that Miss Browndock was the same lady that got the
ten thousand pounds prize in the lottery, but I think she was;
indeed, now I come to think of it, I am sure she was. * Man-
talini and Nickleby/ how well it would sound! — and if
Nicholas has any good fortune, you might have Doctor
Nickleby, the head-master of Westminster School, iiving in
the same street."

" Dear Nicholas ! " cried Kate, taking from her reticule
her brother's letter from Dotheboys Hall. " In all our mis-
fortunes, how happy it makes me, mama, to hear he is doing
well, and to find him writing in such good spirits ! It con-
soles me for all we may undergo, to think that he is comfort-
able and happy."

Poor Kate ! she little thought how weak her consolation
was, and how soon she would be undeceived.



There are many lives of much pain, hardship, and suffer-
ing, which, having no stirring interest for any but those who
lead them, are disregarded by persons who do not want
thought or feeling, but who pamper their compassion and
need high stimulants to rouse it.

There are not a few among the disciples of charity who
require, in their vocation, scarcely less excitement than the
votaries of pleasure in theirs ; and hence it is that diseased
sympathy and compassion are every day expended on out-of-

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the-way objects, when only too many demands upon the le-
gitimate exercise of the same virtues in a healthy state, are
constantly within the sight and hearing of the most unobser-
vant person alive. In short, charity must have its romance,
as the novelist or playwright must have his. A thief in fustian
is a vulgar character, scarcely to be thought of by persons of
refinement; but dress him in green velvet, with a high-
crowned hat, and change the scene of his operations, . from a
thickly peopled city, to a mountain road, and you shall find in
him the very soul of poetry and adventure. So it is with the
one great cardinal virtue, which, properly nourished and exer-
cised, leads to, if it does not necessarily include, all the others.
It must have its romance ; and the less of real, hard, struggling
work-a-day life there is in that romance, the better.

The life to which poor Kate Nickleby was devoted, in
consequence of the unforeseen train of circumstances already
developed in this narrative, was a hard one ; but lest the very
dulness, unhealthy confinement, and bodily fatigue, which
made up its sum and substance, should deprive it of any in-
terest with the mass of the charitable and sympathetic, I would
rather keep Miss Nickleby herself in view just now, than chill
them, in the outset, by a minute and lengthened description of
the establishment presided over by Madame Mantalini.

" Well, now, indeed Madame Mantalini," said Miss Knag,
as Kate was taking her weary way homewards on the first
night of her novitiate ; " that Miss Nickleby is a very credit-
able young person — a very creditable young person indeed —
hem — upon my word, Madame Mantalini, it does very extra-
ordinary credit even to your discrimination that you should
have found such a very excellent, very well behaved, very —
hem — very unassuming young woman to assist in the fitting
on. I have seen some young women when they had the
opportunity of displaying before their betters, behave in such
a— oh, dear — well — but you're always right, Madame Manta-
lini, always ; and as I very often tell the young ladies, how
you do contrive to be always right, when so many people are
so often wrong, is to me a mystery indeed."

" Beyond putting a very excellent client out of humor,
Miss Nickleby has not done anything very remarkable to-day
— that I am aware of, at least," said Madame Mantalini in

" Oh, dear ! " said Miss Knag ; " but you must allow a
great deal for inexperience, you know."

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" And youth ? " inquired Madame.

" Oh, I say nothing about that, Madame Mantalini," re-
plied Miss Knag, reddening ; " because if youth were any ex-
cuse, you wouldn't have — "

" Quite so good a forewoman as I have, I suppose," sug-
gested Madame.

" Well, I never did know anybody like you, Madame Man-
talini," rejoined Miss Knag most complacently, "and that's
the fact, for you know what one's going to say, before it has
time to rise to one's lips. Oh, very good ! Ha, ha, ha ! "

" For myself," observed Madame Mantalini, glancing with

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 21 of 79)