Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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affected carelessness at her assistant, and laughing heartily in
her sleeve, " I consider Miss Nickleby the most awkward girl
I ever saw in my life."

" Poor dear thing," said Miss Knag, " it's not her fault.
If it was, we might hope to cure it ; but as it's her misfortune,
Madame Mantalini, why really you know, as the man said
about the blind horse, we ought to respect it."

" Her uncle told me she had been considered pretty," re-
marked Madame Mantalini. " I think her one of the most
ordinary girls I ever met with."

" Ordinary ! " cried Miss Knag with a countenance beam-
ing delight ; " and awkward ! Well, all I can say is, Madame
Mantalini, that I quite love the poor girl ; and that if she was
twice as indifferent-looking, and twice as awkward as she is,
I should be only so much the more her friend, and that's the
truth of it."

In fact, Miss Knag had conceived an incipient affection
for Kate Nickleby, after witnessing her failure that morning,
and this short conversation with her superior increased the
favorable prepossession to a most surprising extent ; which
was the more remarkable, as when she first scanned that
young lady's face and figure, she had entertained certain in-
ward misgivings that they would never agree.

" But now," said Miss Knag, glancing at the reflection of
herself in a mirror at no great distance, 4 * I love her — I quite
love her — I declare I do ! "

Of such a highly disinterested quality was this devoted
friendship, and so superior was it to the little weaknesses of
flattery or ill nature, that the kind-hearted Miss Knag candidly
informed Kate Nickleby, next day, that she saw she would
never do for the business, but that she need not give herself
the slightest uneasiness on this account, for that she (Miss

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Knag) by increased exertions on her own part, would keep
her as much as possible in the background, and that all she
would have to do, would be to remain perfectly quiet before
company, and to shrink from attracting notice by every means
in her power. This last suggestion was so much in accord-
ance with the timid girl's own feelings and wishes, that she
readily promised implicit reliance on the excellent spinster's
advice : without questioning, or indeed bestowing a moment's
reflection upon, the motives that dictated it.

" I take quite a lively interest in you, my dear soul, upon
my word," said Miss Knag ; " a sister's interest, actually. It's
the most singular circumstance I ever knew."

Undoubtedly it was singular, that if Miss Knag did feel a
strong interest in Kate Nickleby, it should not rather have
been the interest of a maiden aunt or grandmother ; that be-
ing the conclusion to which the difference in their respective
ages would have naturally tended. But Miss Knag wore
clothes of a very youthful pattern, and perhaps her feelings
took the same shape.

" Bless you I " said Miss Knag, bestowing a kiss upon Kate
at the conclusion of the second day's work, " how very awk-
ward you have been all day."

" I fear your kind and open communication, which has
rendered me more painfully conscious of my own defects, has
not improved me," sighed Kate.

" No, no, I dare say not," rejoined Miss Knag, in a most
uncommon flow of good humor. " But how much better that
you should know it at first, and so be able to go on, straight
and comfortable ! Which way are you walking, my love ? "

"Towards the city," replied Kate.

" The city ! " cried Miss Knag, regarding herself with
great favor in the glass as she tied her bonnet. "Good-
ness gracious me ! now do you really live in the city ? "

" Is it so very unusual for anybody to live there ? " asked
Kate, half smiling.

" I couldn't have believed it possible that any young wo-
man could have lived there, under any circumstances what-
ever, for three days together," replied Miss Knag.

" Reduced — I should say poor people," answered Kate,
correcting herself hastily, for she was afraid of appearing
proud, " must live where they can."

" Ah ! very true, so they must ; very proper indeed ! " re-
joined Miss Knag with that sort of half sigh, which, accom-

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panied by two or three slight nods of the head, is pity's small
change in general society ; " and that's what I very often tell
my brother, when our servants go away ill, one after another,
and he thinks the back kitchen's rather too damp for 'em to
sleep in. These sort of people, I tell him, are glad to sleep
anywhere ! Heaven suits the back to the burden. What a
nice thing it is to think that it should be so, isn't it ? "

"Very," replied Kate.

" I'll walk with you part of the way, my dear," said Miss
Knag, " for you must go very near our house ; and as it's quite
dark, and our last servant went to the hospital a week ago,
with Saint Anthony's fire in her face, I shall be glad of your

Kate would willingly have excused herself from this flatter-
ing companionship ; but Miss Knag having adjusted her bon-
net to her entire satisfaction, took her arm with an air which
plainly showed how much she felt the compliment she was
conferring, and they were in, the street before she could say
another word.

" I fear," said Kate, hesitating, " that mama — my mother,
I mean — is waiting for me."

" You needn't make the least apology, my dear," said Miss
Knag, smiling sweetly as she spoke ; " I dare say she is a very
respectable old person, and I shall be quite — hem— quite
pleased to know her."

As poor Mrs. Nickleby was cooling — not her heels alone,
but her limbs generally at the street corner, Kate had no
alternative but to make her known to Miss Knag, who, doing
the last new carriage customer at second-hand, acknowledged
the introduction with condescending politeness. The three
then walked away, arm in arm : with Miss Knag in the middle,
in a special state of amiability.

" I have taken such a fancy to your daughter, Mrs. Nickle-
by, you can't think," said Miss Knag, after she had proceeded
a little distance in dignified silence.

** I am delighted to hear it," said Mrs. Nickleby ; " though
it is nothing new to me, that even strangers should like Kate."

" Hem ! " cried Miss Knag.

" You will like her better when you know how good she
is," said Mrs. Nickleby. " It is a great blessing to me, in my
misfortunes, to have a child, who knows neither pride nor
vanity, and whose bringing-up might very well have excused
a little of both at first. You don't know what it is to lose a
husband, Miss Knag."

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As Miss Knag had never yet known what it was to gain
one, it followed, very nearly as a matter of course, that she
didn't know what it was to lose one ; so she said, in some
haste, " No, indeed I don't," and said it with an air intending
to signify that she should like to catch herself marrying any-
body — no no, she knew better than that.

" Kate has improved even in this little time, I have no
doubt," said Mrs. Nickleby, glancing proudly at her daughter.

" Oh ! of course," said Miss Knag.

" And will improve still more," added Mrs. Nickleby.

" That she will, I'll be bound," replied Miss Knag, squeez-
ing Kate's arm in her own, to point the joke.

" She always was clever," said poor Mrs. Nickleby, bright-
ening up, " always, from a baby. I recollect when she was
only two years and a half old, that a gentleman who used to
visit very much at our house — Mr. Watkins, you know, Kate,
my dear, that your poor papa went bail for, who afterwards
ran away to the United States, and sent us a pair of snow
shoes, with such an affectionate letter that it made your poor
dear father cry for a week. You remember the letter ? In
which he said that he was .very sorry he couldn't repay the
fifty pounds just then, because his capital was all out at in-
terest, and he was very busy making his fortune, but that he
didn't forget you were his god-daughter, and he should take
it very unkind if we didn't buy you a silver coral and put it
down to his old account ? Dear me, yes, my dear, how stupid
you are ! and spoke so affectionately of the old port wine that
he used to drink a bottle and a half of every time he came.
You must remember, Kate ? "

" Yes, yes, mama ; what of him ? "

" Why, that Mr. Watkins, my dear," said Mrs. Nickleby
slowly, as if she were making a tremendous effort to recollect
something of paramount importance ; " that Mr. Watkins — he
wasn't any relation, Miss Knag will understand, to the Wat-
kins who kept the Old Boar in the village ; by the bye, I don't
remember whether it was the Old Boar or the George the
Third, but it was one of the two, I know, and it's much the same
— that Mr. Watkins said, when you were only two years and a
half old, that you were one of the most astonishing children
he ever saw. He did indeed, Miss Knag, and he wasn't at all
fond of children, and couldn't have had the slightest motive
for doing it. I know it was he who said so, because I recol-
lect, as well as if it was only yesterday, his borrowing twenty-
pounds of her poor dear papa the very moment afterwards."

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Having quoted this extraordinary and most disinterested
testimony to her daughter's excellence, Mrs. Nickleby stopped
to breathe ; and Miss Knag, rinding that the discourse was
turning upon family greatness, lost no time in striking in, with
a small reminiscence on her own account.

" Don't talk of lending money, Mrs. Nickleby/' said Miss
Knag, " or you'll drive me crazy, perfectly crazy. My mama
— hem — was the most lovely and beautiful creature, with the
most striking and exquisite — hem — the most exquisite nose
that ever was put upon a human face, I do believe, Mrs.
Nickleby (here Miss Knag rubbed her own nose sympathetic-
ally) ; the most delightful and accomplished woman, perhaps,
that ever was seen ; but she had that one failing of lending
money, and carried it to such an extent that she lent — hem —
oh ! thousands of pounds, all our little fortunes, and what's
more, Mrs. Nickleby, I don't think, if we were to live till —
till — hem — till the very end of time, that we should ever get
them back again. I don't indeed."

After concluding this effort of invention without being
interrupted, Miss Knag fell into many more recollections, no
less interesting than true, the full tide of which, Mrs. Nick-
leby in vain attempting to stem, at length sailed smoothly
down, by adding an under-current of her own recollections ;
and so both ladies went on talking together in perfect con-
tentment ; the only difference between them, being, that
whereas Miss Knag addressed herself to Kate, and talked
very loud, Mrs. Nickleby kept on in one unbroken monoton-
ous flow, perfectly satisfied to be talking, and caring very
little whether anybody listened or not.

In this manner they walked on, very amicably, until they
arrived at Miss Knag's brother's, who was an ornamental
stationer and small circulating library keeper in a by-street
off Tottenham Court Road ; and who let out by the day,
week, month, or year, the newest old novels, whereof the titles
were displayed in pen-and-ink characters on a sheet of paste-
board, swinging at his door-post. As Miss Knag happened
at the moment, to be in the middle of an account of her
twenty-second offer from a gentleman of large property, she
insisted upon their all going in to supper together ; and in
they went.

" Don't go away, Mortimer," said Miss Knag as they
entered the shop. u It's only one of our young ladies and
her mother. Mrs. and Miss Nickleby."

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" Oh, indeed ! " said Mr. Mortimer Knag. " Ah ! "

Having given utterance to these ejaculations, with a very
profound and thoughtful air, Mr. Knag slowly snuffed two
kitchen candles on the counter, and two more in the window,
and then snuffed himself from a box in his waistcoat pocket.

There was something very impressive in the ghostly air
with which all this was done ; and as Mr. Knag was a tall
lank gentleman of solemn features, wearing spectacles, and
garnished with much less hair than a gentleman bordering on
forty, or thereabouts, usually boasts, Mrs. Nickleby whispered
her daughter that she thought he must be literary.

"Past ten," said Mr. Knag, consulting his watch.
"Thomas, close the warehouse."

Thomas was a boy nearly half as tall as a shutter, and the
warehouse was a shop about the size of three hackney coaches.

" Ah ! " said Mr. Knag once more, heaving a deep sigh as
he restored to its parent shelf the book he had been reading.
" Well — yes — I believe supper is ready, sister."

With another sigh Mr. Knag took up the kitchen candles
from the counter, and preceded the ladies with mournful
steps to a back parlor, where a charwoman, employed in the
absence of the sick servant, and remunerated with certain
eighteenpences to be deducted from her wages due, was put-
ting the supper out.

" Mrs. Blockson," said Miss Knag, reproachfully, " how
very often I have begged you not to come V : to the room with
your bonnet on ! "

" I can't help it, Miss Knag," said the char-woman, brid-
ling up on the shortest notice. " There's been a deal o' clean-
ing to do in this house, and if you don't like it, I must trouble
you to look out for somebody else, for it don't hardly pay me,
and that's the truth, if I was to be hung this minute."

" I don't want any remarks if you please," said Miss
Knag, with a strong emphasis on the personal pronoun. " Is
there any fire down stairs for some hot water presently ? "

" No there is not, indeed, Miss Knag," replied the sub-
stitute ; " and so I won't tell you no stories about it."

"Then why isn't there? " said Miss Knag.

" Because there an't no coals left out, and if I could make
coals I would, but as I can't I won't, and so I make bold to
tell you, Mem," replied Mrs. Blockson.

" Will you hold your tongue — female ? " said Mr Morti-
mer Knag, plunging violently into this dialogue.

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"By your leave, Mr. Knag," retorted the char-woman,
turning sharp round. " I'm only too glad not to speak in
this house, excepting when and where I'm spoke to, sir ; and
with regard to being a female, sir, I should wish to know what
you considered yourself ? "

" A miserable wretch," exclaimed Mr. Knag, striking his
forehead. " A miserable wretch."

" I'm very glad to find that you don't call yourself out of
your name, sir," said Mrs. Blockson ; " and as I had two twin
children the day before yesterday was only seven weeks, and
my little Charley fell down a airy and put his elber out, last
Monday, I shall take it as a favior if you'll send nine shil-
lings, for one week's work, to my house, afore the clock
strikes ten to-morrow."

With these parting words, the good woman quitted the
room with great ease of manner, leaving the door wide open ;
Mr. Knag, at the same moment, flung himself into the " ware-
house," and groaned aloud.

" What is the matter with that gentleman, pray ? " inquired
Mrs. Nickleby, greatly disturbed by the sound.

" Is he ill ? " inquired Kate, really alarmed.

" Hush ! " replied Miss Knag ; " a most melancholy his-
tory. He was once most devotedly attached to — hem — to
Madame Mantalini."

" Bless me ! " exclaimed Mrs. Nickleby.

" Yes," continued Miss Knag, " and received great en-
couragement too, and confidently hoped to marry her. He
has a most romantic heart, Mrs. Nickleby, as indeed — hem —
as indeed all our family have, and the disappointment was a
dreadful blow. He is a wonderfully accomplished man — most
extraordinarily accomplished — reads — hem — reads every novel
that comes out ; I mean every novel that — hem — that has any
fashion in it, of course. The fact is, that he did find so much
in the books he read, applicable to his own misfortunes, and
did find himself in every respect so much like the heroes —
because of course he is conscious of his own superiority, as
we all are, and very naturally — that he took to scorning every-
thing, and became a genius ; and I am quite sure that he is,
at this very present moment, writing another book."

" Another book ! " repeated Kate, finding that a pause
was left for somebody to say something.

" Yes," said Miss Knag, nodding in great triumph ; " an-
other book, in three volumes post octavo. Of course it's a


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great advantage to him, in all his little fashionable descrip-
tions, to have the benefit of my — hem— of my experience,
because, of course, few authors who write about such things
can have such opportunities of knowing them as I have. He's
so wrapped up in high life, that the least allusion to business
or worldly matters — like that woman just now, for instan.ce —
quite distracts him ; but, as I often say, I think his disappoint-
ment a great thing for him, because if he hadn't been dis-
appointed he couldn't have written about blighted hopes and
all that ; and the fact is, if it hadn't happened as it has, I
don't believe his genius would ever have come out at all."

How much more communicative Miss Knag might have
become under more favorable circumstances, it is impossible
to divine, but as the gloomy one was within ear-shot, and the
fire wanted making up, her disclosures stopped here. To
judge from all appearances, and the difficulty of making the
water warm, the last servant could not have been much accus-
tomed to any other fire than St. Anthony's ; but a little brandy
and water was made at last, and the guests, having been pre-
viously regaled with cold leg of mutton and bread and cheese,
soon afterwards took leave ; Kate amusing herself, all the
way home, with the recollection of her last glimpse of Mr.
Mortimer Knag deeply abstracted in the shop ; and Mrs.
Nickleby by debating within herself whether the dress-making
firm would ultimately become " Mantalini, Knag, and Nickle-
by," or " Mantalini, Nickleby, and Knag."

As this high point, Miss Knag's friendship remained, for
three whole days, much to the wonderment of Madame Man-
talini's young ladies, who had never beheld such constancy in
that quarter before ; but on the fourth, it received a check no
less violent than sudden, which thus occurred.

It happened that an old lord of great family, who was
going to marry a young lady of no family in particular, came
with the young lady, and the young lady's sister, to witness
the ceremony of trying on two nuptial bonnets which had
been ordered the day before, and Madame Mantalini announc-
ing the fact, in a shrill treble, through the speaking-pipe,
which communicated with the work-room, Miss Knag darted
hastily up stairs with a bonnet in each hand, and presented
herself in the show-room, in a charming state of palpitation,
intended to demonstrate her enthusiasm in the cause. The
bonnets were no sooner fairly on, than Miss Knag and
Madame Mantalini fell into convulsions of admiration.

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" A most elegant appearance," said Madame Mantalini.

" I never saw anything so exquisite in all my life," said
Miss Knag.

Now, the old lord, who was a very old lord, said nothing,
but mumbled and chuckled in a state of great delight, no less
with the nuptial bonnets and their wearers, than with his own
address in getting such a fine woman for his wife ; and the
young lady, who was a very lively young lady, seeing the old
lord in this rapturous condition, chased the old lord behind a
cheval-glass, and then and there kissed him, while Madame
Mantalini and the other young lady looked, discreetly, another

But, pending the salutation, Miss Knag, who was tinged
with curiosity, stepped accidentally behind the glass, and en-
countered the lively young lady's eye just at the very moment
when she kissed the old lord ; upon which the young lady, in
a pouting manner, murmured something about " an old thing,"
and " great impertinence," and finished by darting a look of
displeasure at Miss Knag, and smiling contemptuously.

" Madame Mantalini," said the young lady.

" Ma'am," said Madame Mantalini.

" Pray have up that pretty young creature we saw yester-
day." .

" Oh yes, do," said the sister.

" Of all things in the world, Madame Mantalini," said the
lord's intended, throwing herself languidly on a sofa, " I hate
being waited upon by frights or elderly persons. Let me
always see that young creature, I beg, whenever I come."

" By all means," said the old lord ; " the lovely young
creature, by all means."

" Everybody is talking about her," said the young lady, in
the same careless manner ; " and my lord, being a great
admirer of beauty, must positively see her."

" She is universally admired," replied Madame Mantalini.
" Miss Knag, send up Miss Nickleby. You needn't return."

" I beg your pardon, Madame Mantalini, what did you
say last ? " asked Miss Knag, trembling.

"You needn't return," repeated the superior, sharply.
Miss Knag vanished without another word, and in all reason-
able time was replaced by Kate, who took off the new bonnets
and put on the old ones : blushing very much to find that
the old lord and the two young ladies were staring her out of
countenance all the time.

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" Why, how you color, child ! " said the lord's chosen

" She is not quite so accustomed to her business, as she
will be in a week or two," interposed Madame Man talini with
a gracious smile.

" I am afraid you have been giving her some of your wicked
looks, my lord," said the intended.

" No, no, no," replied the old lord, " no, no, I'm going to
be married, and lead a new life. Ha, ha, ha ! a new life, a
new life ! ha, ha, ha ! "

It was a satisfactory thing to hear that the old gentleman
was going to lead a new life, for it was pretty evident that his
old one would not last him much longer. The mere exertion
of protracted chuckling reduced him to a fearful ebb of cough-
ing and gasping ; it was some minutes before he could find
breath to remark that the girl was too pretty for a milliner.

" I hope you don't think good looks a disqualification for
the business, my lord," said Madame Mantalini, simpering.

" Not by any means," replied the old lord, " or you would
have left it long ago. "

" You naughty creature," said the lively lady, poking the
peer with her parasol ; " I won't have you talk so. How
dare you ? "

This playful inquiry was accompanied with another poke,
and another, and then the old lord caught the parasol, and
wouldn't give it up again, which induced the other lady to
come to the rescue, and some very pretty sportiveness ensued.

" You will see that those little alterations are made,
Madame Mantalini," said the lady. " Nay, you bad man, you
positively shall go first ; I wouldn't leave you behind with
that pretty girl, not for. half a second. I know you too well.
Jane, my dear, let him go first, and we shall be quite sure of

The old lord, evidently much flattered by this suspicion,
bestowed a grotesque leer upon Kate as he passed ; and re-
ceiving another tap with the parasol for his wickedness,
tottered down stairs to the door, where his sprightly body
was hoisted into the carriage by two stout footmen.

" Foh ! " said Madame Mantalini, " how he ever gets into
a carriage without thinking of a hearse, / can't think. There,
take the things away, my dear, take them away."

Kate, who had remained during the whole scene with her
eyes modesdy fixed upon the ground, was only too happy to

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avail herself of the permission to retire, and hasten joyfully
down stairs to Miss Knag's dominion.

The circumstances of the little kingdom had greatly
changed, however, during the short period of her absence.
In place of Miss Knag being stationed in her accustomed
seat, preserving all the dignity and greatness of Madame
Mantalini's representative, that worthy soul was reposing on a
large box, bathed in tears, while three or four of the young
ladies in close attendance upon her, together with the presence
of hartshorn, vinegar, and other restoratives, would have
borne ample testimony, even without the derangement of the
head-dress and front row of curls, to her having 4 * fainted

" Bless me ! " said Kate, stepping hastily forward, " What
is the matter ? "

This inquiry produced in Miss Knag violent symptoms of

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 22 of 79)