Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

. (page 23 of 79)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 23 of 79)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

a relapse ; and several young ladies, darting angry looks at
Kate, applied more vinegar and hartshorn, and said it was " a

" What is a shame ? " demanded Kate. " What is the
matter ? What has happened ? tell me."

" Matter ! " cried Miss Knag, coming, all at once, bolt
upright, to the great consternation of the assembled maidens ;
" Matter ! Fie upon you, you nasty creature ! "

44 Gracious ! " cried Kate, almost paralyzed by the violence
with which the adjective had been jerked out from between
Miss Knag's closed teeth ; " have / offended you ? "

44 You offended me!" retorted Miss Knag, ** You ! a chit,
a child, an upstart nobody ! Oh, indeed ! Ha, ha ! "

Now, it was evident, as Miss Knag laughed, that some-
thing struck her as being exceedingly funny; and as the
young ladies took their tone from Miss Knag — she being the
chief— they all got up a laugh without a moment's delay, and
nodded their heads a little, and smiled sarcastically to each
other, as much as to say, how very good that was !

44 Here she is," continued Miss Knag, getting off the box,
and introducing Kate with much ceremony and many low
curtseys to the delighted throng ; " here she is — everybody
is talking about her — the belle, ladies — the beauty, the — oh,
you bold-faced thing ! "

Here Miss Knag was unable to repress a virtuous shud-
der, which immediately communicated itself to all the young
ladies ; after which, Miss Knag laughed, and after that cried.

Digitized by VjOOQIC



" For fifteen years," exclaimed Miss Knag, sobbing in a
most affecting manner, "for fifteen years have I been the
credit and ornament of this room and the one up stairs.
Thank God," said Miss Knag, stamping first her right foot
and then her left wi Ji remarkable energy, " I have never
in all that time, till now, been exposed to the arts, the vile
arts, of a creature, who disgraces us with all her proceedings,
and makes proper people blush for themselves. But I feel it,
I do feel it, although I am disgusted."

Miss Knag here relapsed into softness, and the young
ladies renewing their attentions, murmured that she ought to
be superior to such things, and that for their part they despised
them, and considered them beneath their notice ; in witness
whereof, they called out, more emphatically than before, that
it was a shame, and that they felt so angry, they did, they
hardly knew what to do with themselves.

" Have I lived to this day to be called a fright 1 " cried
Miss Knag, suddenly becoming convulsive, and making an
effort to tear her front off.

" Oh no, no," replied the chorus, " pray don't say so ;
don't now ! "

" Have I deserved to be called an elderly person ? "
screamed Miss Knag, wrestling with the supernumeraries.

44 Don't think of such things, dear," answered the chorus.

44 1 hate her," cried Miss Knag ; " I detest and hate her.
Never let her speak to me again ; never let anybody who is a
friend of mine speak to her ; a slut, a hussy, an impudent art-
ful hussy I " Having denounced the object of her wrath, in
these terms, Miss Knag screamed once, hiccupped thrice,
gurgled in her throat several times, slumbered, shivered, woke,
came to, composed her head-dress, and declared herself quite
well again.

Poor Kate had regarded these proceedings, at first, in
perfect bewilderment. She had then turned red and pale
by turns, and once or twice essayed to speak ; but, as the true
motives of this altered behavior developed themselves, she
retired a few paces, and looked calmly on widiout deigning
a reply. Nevertheless, although she walked proudly to her
seat, and turned her back upon the group of little satellites
who clustered round their ruling planet in the remotest corner
of the room, she gave way, in secret, to some such bitter tears
as would have gladdened Miss Knag's inmost soul, if she
could have seen them fall.

Digitized by VjOOQIC




The bile and rancor of the worthy Miss Knag undergoing
no diminution, during the remainder of the week, but rather
augmenting with every successive hour ; and the honest ire of
all the young ladies rising, or seeming to rise in exact propor-
tion to the good spinster's indignation, and both waxing very
hot every time Miss Nickleby was called up stairs ; it will be
readily imagined that that young lady's daily life was none of
the most cheerful or enviable kind. She hailed the arrival
of Saturday night, as a prisoner would a few delicious hours'
respite from slow and wearing torture, and felt that the poor
pittance for the first week's labor would have been dearly and
hardly earned, had its amount been trebled.

When she joined her mother, as usual, at the street corner,
she was not a little surprised to find her in conversation with
Mr. Ralph Nickleby ; but her surprise was soon redoubled,
no less by the matter of their conversation, than by the
smoothed and altered manner of Mr. Nickleby himself.

" Ah ! my dear ! " said Ralph ; " we were at that moment
talking about you."

" Indeed ! " replied Kate, shrinking, though she scarce
knew why, from her uncle's cold glistening eye.

" That instant," said Ralph. " I was coming to call for
you, making sure to catch you before you left; but your
mother and I have been talking over family affairs, and the
time has slipped away so rapidly "

"Well, now, hasn't it?" interposed Mrs. Nickleby, quite
insensible to the sarcastic tone of Ralph's last remark.
u Upon my word, I couldn't have believed it possible, that

such a Kate, my dear, you're to dine with your uncle at

half-past six o'clock to-morrow."

Triumphing in having been the first to communicate this
extraordinary intelligence, Mrs. Nickleby nodded and smiled

Digitized by VjOOQIC


a great many times, to impress its full magnificence on Kate's
wondering mind, and then flew off, at an acute angle, to a
committee of ways and means.

" Let me see," said the good lady. " Your black silk
frock will be quite dress enough, my dear, with that pretty
little scarf, and a plain band in your hair, and a pair of black

silk stock Dear, dear," cried Mrs. Nickleby, flying off at

another angle, " if I had but those unfortunate amethysts of
mine — you recollect them, Kate, my love — how they used to
sparkle, you know — but your papa, your poor dear papa —
ah ! there never was anything so cruelly sacrificed as those
jewels were, never ! " Overpowered by this agonizing thought,
Mrs. Nickleby shook her head in a melancholy manner, and
applied her handkerchief to her eyes.

" I don't want them, mama, indeed," said Kate. " Forget
that you ever had them."

" Lord, Kate, my dear," rejoined Mrs. Nickleby, pettishly,
" how like a child you talk ! Four-and-twenty silver tea-
spoons, brother-in-law, two gravies, four salts, all the ame-
thysts — necklace, brooch, and ear-rings — all made away with,
at the same time, and I saying, almost on my bended knees,
to that poor good soul, 'Why don't you do something,
Nicholas ? Why don't you make some arrangement ? ' I am
sure that anybody who was about us at that time, will do me
the justice to own, that if I said that once, I said it fifty times
a-day. Didn't I, Kate, my dear ? Did I ever lose an oppor-
tunity of impressing it on your poor papa ? "

" No, no, mama, never," replied Kate. And to do Mrs.
Nickleby justice, she never had lost — and to do married ladies
as a body justice, they seldom do lose — any occasion of in-
culcating similar golden precepts, whose only blemish is, the
slight degree of vagueness and uncertainty in which they are
usually enveloped.

" Ah ! " said Mrs. Nickleby, with great fervor, " if my
advice had been taken at the beginning — Well, I have always
done my duty, and that's some comfort."

When she had arrived at this reflection, Mrs. Nickleby
sighed, rubbed her hands, cast up her eyes, and finally
assumed a look of meek composure ; thus importing that she
was a persecuted saint, but that she wouldn't trouble her
hearers by mentioning a circumstance which must be so
obvious to everybody.

"Now," said^talph, with a smile, which, in common with

Digitized by VjOOQIC


all other tokens of emotion, seemed to skulk under his face,
rather than play boldly over it— r" to return to the point from
which we have strayed. I have a little party of — of — gentle-
men with whom I am connected in business just now, at my
house to-morrow; and your mother has promised that you
shall keep house for me. I am not much used to parties ;
but this is one of business, and such fooleries are an impor-
tant part of it sometimes. You don't mind obliging me ? "

" Mind ! " cried Mrs. Nickleby. " My dear Kate, why — "

" Pray," interrupted Ralph, motioning her to be silent.
" I spoke to my niece."

" I shall be very glad, of course, uncle," replied Kate ;
"but I am afraid you will find me awkward and embar-

" Oh no," said Ralph ; " come when you like, in a hack-
ney coach — I'll pay for it. Good-night — a — a — God bless

The blessing seemed to stick in Mr. Ralph Nickleby's
throat, as if it were not used to the thoroughfare, and didn't
know the way out. But it got out somehow, though awk-
wardly enough ; and having disposed of it, he shook hands
with his two relatives, and abruptly left them.

" What a very strongly marked countenance your uncle
has ! " said Mrs. Nickleby, quite struck with his parting look.
" I don't see the slightest resemblance to his poor Wother."

" Mama ! " said Kate reprovingly. " To think of such a
thing ! "

"No," said Mrs. Nickleby, musing. "There certainly is
none. But it's a very honest face."

The worthy matron made this remark with great emphasis
and elocution, as if it comprised no small quantity of ingenuity
and research ; and, in truth, it was not unworthy of being
classed among the extraordinary discoveries of the age. Kate
looked up hastily, and as hastily looked down again.

" What has come over you, my dear, in the name of good-
ness ? " asked Mrs. Nickleby, when they had walked on, for
some time, in silence.

" I was only thinking, mama," answered Kate.

" Thinking ! " repeated Mrs. Nickleby. " Ay, and indeed
plenty to think about, too. Your uncle has taken a strong
fancy to you, that's quite clear ; and if some extraordinary
good fortune doesn't come to you, after this, I shall be a little
surprised, that's all."

Digitized by VjOOQIC


With this she launched out into sundry anecdotes of
young ladies, who had had thousand pound notes given them
in reticules, by eccentric uncles ; and of young ladies who
had accidentally met amiable gentlemen of enormous wealth
at their uncles 1 houses, and married them, after short but
ardent courtships ; and Kate, listening first in apathy, and
afterwards in amusement, felt, as they walked home, some-
thing of her mother's sanguine complexion gradually awaken-
ing in her own bosom, and began to think that her prospects
might be brightening, and that better days might be dawning
upon them. Such is hope, Heaven's own gift to struggling
mortals ; pervading, like some subtle essence from the skies,
all things, both good and bad ; as universal as death, and
more infectious than disease !

The feeble winter's sun — and winter's suns in the city are
very feeble indeed — might have brightened up, as he shone
through the dim windows of the large old house, on witness-
ing the unusual sight which one half-furnished room displayed.
In a gloomy corner, where, for years, had stood a silent dusty
pile of merchandise, sheltering its colony of mice, and frown-
ing, a dull and lifeless mass, upon the panelled room, save
when, responding to the roll of heavy wagons in the street
without, it quaked with sturdy tremblings and caused the
bright ey£s of its tiny citizens to grow brighter still with fear,
and strucic them motionless, with attentive ear and palpitating
heart, until the alarm had passed away — in this dark comer,
was arranged, with scrupulous care, all Kate's little finery for
the day ; each article of dress partaking of that indescribable
air of jauntiness and individuality which empty garments —
whether by association, or that they become moulded, as it
were, to the owner's form — will take, in eyes accustomed to,
or picturing, the wearer's smartness. In place of a bale of
musty goods, there lay the black silk dress ; the neatest pos-
sible figure in itself. The small shoes, with toes delicately
turned out, stood upon the very pressure of some old iron
weight ; and a pile of harsh discolored leather had uncon-
sciously given place to the very same little pair of black silk
stockings, which had been the objects of Mrs. Nickleby's
peculiar care. Rats and mice, and such small gear, had long
ago been starved, or had emigrated to better quarters : and,
in their stead, appeared gloves, bands, scarfs, hair-pins, and
many other little devices, almost as ingenious in their way as
rats and mice themselves, for the tantalization of mankind.

Digitized by VjOOQIC


About and among them all, moved Kate herself, not the least
beautiful or unwonted relief to the stern, old, gloomy building.

In good time, or in bad time, as the reader likes to take it
— for Mrs. Nickleby's impatience went a great deal faster
than the clocks at that end of the town, and Kate was dressed
to the very last hair-pin a full hour and a half before it was at
all necessary to t begin to think about it — in good time, or in
bad time, the toilet was completed; and it being at length the
hour agreed upon for starting, the milkman fetched a coach
from the nearest stand, and Kate, with many adieux to her
mother, and many kind messages to Miss La Creevy, who
was to come to tea, seated herself in it, and went away in
state, if ever anybody went away in state in a hackney coach
yet. And the coach, and the coachman, and the horses, rat-
tled, and jangled, and whipped, and cursed, and swore, and
tumbled on together, until they came to Golden Square.

The coachman gave a tremendous double knock at the
door, which was opened long before he had done, as quickly
as if there had been a man behind it, with his hand tied to
the latch. Kate, who had expected no more uncommon ap-
pearance than Newman Noggs in a clean shirt, was not a lit-
tle astonished to see that the opener was a man in handsome
livery, and that there were two or three others in the hall.
There was no doubt about its being the right house, however,
for there was the name upon the door ; so she accepted the
laced coat-sleeve which was tendered her, and entering the
house, was ushered up stairs, into a back drawing-room,
where she was left alone.

If she had been surprised at the apparition of the foot-
man, she was perfectly absorbed in amazement at the richness
and splendor of the furniture. The softest and most elegant
carpets, the most exquisite pictures, the costliest mirrors ;
articles of richest ornament, quite dazzling from their beauty,
and perplexing from the prodigality with which they were
scattered around ; encountered her on every side. The very
staircase nearly down to the hall door, was crammed with
beautiful and luxurious things, as though the house were
brim-full of riches, which, with a very trifling addition, would
fairly run over into the street.

Presently, she heard a series of loud double knocks at
the street-door, and after every knock some new voice in the
next room ; the tones of Mr. Ralph Nickleby were easily dis-
tinguishable at first, but by degrees they merged into the

Digitized by VjOOQIC


general buzz of conversation, and all she could ascertain was,
that there were several gentlemen with no very musical voices,
who talked very loud, laughed very heartily, and swore more
than she would have thought quite necessary. But this was
a question of taste.

At length, the door opened, and Ralph himself, divested
of his boots, and ceremoniously embellished with black silks
and shoes, presented his crafty face.

" I couldn't see you before, my dear," he said, in a low
tone, and pointing, as he spoke, to the next room. " I was
engaged in receiving them. Now — shall I take you in ? "

" Pray, uncle," said Kate, a little flurried, as people
much more conversant with society often are, when they are
about to enter a room full of strangers, and have had time to
think of it previously, " are there any ladies here ? "

" No," said Ralph, shortly, " I don't know any."

" Must I go in immediately ? " asked Kate, drawing back
a little.

" As you please," said Ralph, shrugging his shoulders.
" They are all come, and dinner will be announced directly
afterwards — that's all."

Kate would have entreated a few minutes' respite, but
reflecting that her uncle might consider the payment of the
hackney-coach fare a sort of bargain for her punctuality, she
suffered him to draw her arm through his, and to lead her

Seven or eight gentlemen were standing round the fire
when they went in, and, as they were talking very loud, were
not aware of their entrance until Mr. Ralph Nickleby, touch-
ing one on the coat-sleeve, said in a harsh emphatic voice, as
if to attract general attention —

" Lord Frederick Verisopht, my niece, Miss Nickleby."

The group dispersed, as if in great surprise, and the gen-
tleman addressed, turning round, exhibited, a suit of clothes
of the most superlative cut, a pair of whiskers of similar
quality, a moustache, a head of hair, and a young iace.

" Eh ! " said the gentleman. " What— the— deyvle ! "

With which broken ejaculations, he fixed his glass in his
eye, and stared at Miss Nickleby in great surprise.

" My niece, my lord," said Ralph.

" Then my ears did not deceive me, and it's not wa-a-x
works," said his lordship. " How de do? I'm very happy."
And then his lordship turned to another superlative gentle-

Digitized by VjOOQlC


man, something older, something stouter, something redder in
the face, and something longer upon town, and said in a loud
whisper that the girl was "deyvlish pitty."

"Introduce me, Nickleby," said this second gentleman,
who was lounging with his back to the fire, and both elbows
on the chimney-piece.
* " Sir Mulberry Hawk," said Ralph.

" Otherwise the most knowing card in the pa-ack, Miss
Nickleby," said Lord Frederick Verisopht.

" Don't leave me out, Nickleby," cried a sharp-faced
gentleman, who was sitting on a low chair with a high back,
reading the paper.

44 Mr. Pyke," said Ralph.

" Nor me, Nickleby," cried a gentleman with a flushed
face and a flash air, from the elbow of Sir Mulberry Hawk.

" Mr. Pluck," said Ralph. Then wheeling about again,
towards a gentleman with the neck of a stork and the legs of
no animal in particular, Ralph introduced him as the Honor-
able Mr. Snobb ; and a white-headed person at the table as
Colonel Chowser. The colonel was in conversation with
somebody, who appeared to be a make-weight, and was not
introduced at all.

There were two circumstances which, in this early stage of
the party, struck home to Kate's bosom, and brought the
blood tingling to her face. One, was the flippant contempt
with which the guests evidently regarded her uncle, and the
other, the easy insolence of their manner towards herself.
That the first symptom was very likely to lead to the aggrava-
tion of the second, it needed no great penetration to foresee.
And here Mr. Ralph Nickleby had reckoned without his host ;
for however fresh from the country a young lady (by nature)
may be, and however unacquainted with conventional be-
havior, the chances are, that she will have quite as strong an
innate sense of the decencies aud proprieties of life as if she
had run the gauntlet of a dozen London seasons — possibly a
stronger one, for such senses have been known to blunt in
this improving process.

When Ralph had completed the ceremonial of introduc-
tion, he led his blushing niece to a seat. As he did so, he
glanced warily round as though to assure himself of the im-
pression which her unlooked-for appearance had created.

44 An unexpected playsure, Nickleby," said Lord Frederick
Verisopht, taking his glass out of his right eye, where it had,

Digitized by VjOOQIC


until now, done duty on Kate, and fixing it in his left, to bring
it to bear on Ralph.

"Designed to surprise you, Lord Frederick," said Mr.

" Not a bad idea," said his lordship, " and one that would
almost warrant the addition of an extra two and a half per

" Nickleby," said Sir Mulberry Hawk, in a thick coarse
voice, " take the hint, and tack it on to the other five-and-
twenty, or whatever it is, and give me half for the advice."

Sir Mulberry garnished this speech with a hoarse laugh,
and terminated it with a pleasant oath regarding Mr.
Nickleby's limbs, whereat Messrs. Pyke and Pluck laughed

These gentlemen had not yet quite recovered the jest,
when dinner was announced, and then they were thrown into
fresh ecstacies by a similar cause ; for Sir Mulberry Hawk, in
an excess of humor, shot dexterously past Lord Frederick
Verisopht who was about to lead Kate down stairs, and drew
her arm through his up to the elbow.

" No, damn it, Verisopht," said Sir Mulberry, " fair play's
a jewel, and Miss Nickleby and I settled the matter with our
eyes, ten minutes ago."

" Ha, ha, ha 1 " laughed the Honorable Mr. Snobb, " very
good, very good."

Rendered additionally witty by this applause, Sir Mulberry
Hawk leered upon his friends most facetiously, and led Kate
down stairs with an air of familiarity, which roused in her
gentle breast such burning indignation^ as she felt it almost
impossible to repress. Nor was the intensity of these feelings
at all diminished, when she found herself placed at the top of
the table, with Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick
Verisopht on either side.

" Oh, you've found your way into our neighborhood, have
you ? " said Sir Mulberry as his lordship sat down.

" Of course," replied Lord Frederick, fixing his eyes on
Miss Nickleby, " how can you a-ask me ? " *

" Well, you attend to your dinner," said Sir Mulberry,
" and don't mind Miss Nickleby and me, for we shall prove
very indifferent company, I dare say."

" I wish you'd interfere here, Nickleby," said Lord Fred-

" What is the matter, my lord ? " demanded Ralph from

Digitized by VjOOQIC


the bottom of the table, where he was supported by Messrs.
Pyke and Pluck.

"This fellow, Hawk, is monopolizing your niece," said
Lord Frederick.

" He has a tolerable share of every thing that you lay claim
to, my lord," said Ralph with a sneer. .

" 'Gad, so he has," replied the. young man ; " deyvle take
me if I know which is master in my house, he or I."

" /know," muttered Ralph.

"I think I shall cut him off with a shilling," said the young
nobleman, jocosely.

" No, no, curse it," said Sir Mulberry. " When you come
to the shilling — the last shilling — I'll cut you fast enough ; but
till then, I'll never leave you — you may take your oath of it."

This sally (which was strictly founded on fact), was
received with a general roar, above which, was plainly distin-
guishable the laughter of Mr. Pyke and Mr. Pluck, who were,
evidently, Sir Mulberry's toads in ordinary. Indeed, it was
not difficult to see, that the majority of the company preyed
•upon the unfortunate young lord, who, weak and silly as he
was, appeared by far the least vicious of the party. Sir Mul-
berry Hawk was remarkable for his tact in ruining, by himself
and his creatures, young gentlemen of fortune — a genteel and
elegant profession, of which he had undoubtedly gained the
head. With all the boldness of an original genius, he had
struck out an entirely new course of treatment quite opposed
to the usual method ; his custom being, when he had gained
the ascendancy over those he took in hand, rather to keep
them down than to give them their own way ; and to exercise
his vivacity upon them, openly, and without reserve. Thus,
he made them butts, in a double sense, and while he emptied
them with great address, caused them to ring with sundry
well-administered taps, for the diversion of society.

The dinner was as remarkable for the splendor and com-

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 23 of 79)