Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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There was a great bustle in Bishopsgate Street Within, as
they drew up, and (it being a windy day) half a dozen men
were tacking across the road under a press of paper, bearing
gigantic announcements that a Public Meeting would be
holden at one o'clock precisely, to take into consideration
the propriety of petitioning Parliament in favor of the
United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet
Baking and Punctual Delivery Company, capital five mil-
lions, in five hundred thousand shares of ten pounds each ;
which sums were duly set forth in fat black figures of
considerable size. Mr. Bonney elbowed his way briskly up
stairs, receiving in his progress many low bows from the
waiters who stood on the landings to show the way, and,
followed by Mr. Nickleby, dived into a suite of apartments
behind the great public-room : in the second of which was a
business-looking table, and several business-looking people.

" Hear ! " cried a gentleman with a double chin, as Mr.
Bonney presented himself. " Chair, gentlemen, chair ! "

The new comers were received with universal approbation,
and Mr. Bonney bustled up to the top of the table, took off
his hat, ran his fingers through his hair, and knocked a hack-
ney-coachman's knock on the table with a little hammer;
whereat several gentlemen cried " Hear ! " and nodded
slightly to each other, as much as to say what spirited con-
duct that was. Just at this moment, a waiter, feverish with
agitation, tore into the room, and throwing the door open
with a crash, shouted " Sir Matthew Pupker ! "

The committee stood up and clapped their hands for joy ;
and while they were clapping them, in came Sir Matthew Pup-
ker, attended by two live members of Parliament, one Irish and
one Scotch,all smiling and bowing,and looking so pleasant that
it seemed a perfect marvel how any man could have the
heart to vote against them. Sir Matthew Pupker especially,
who had a little round head with a flaxen wig on the top of it,
fell into such a paroxysm of bows, that the wig threatened to
be jerked off, every instant. When these symptoms had in
some degree subsided, the gentlemen who were on speaking
terms with Sir Matthew Pupker, or the two other members,
crowded round them in three little groups, near one or other
of which the gentlemen who were not on speaking terms with
Sir Matthew Pupker or the two other members, stood linger-
ing, and smiling, and rubbing their hands, in the desperate
hope of something turning up which might bring them into

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l 9

notice. All this time, Sir Matthew Pupker and the two other
members were relating to their separate circles what the in-
tentions of government were, about taking up the bill ; with a
full account of what the government had said in a whisper the
last time they dined with it, and how the government had
been observed to wink when it said so ; from which premises
they were at no loss to draw the conclusion, that if the govern-
ment had one object more at heart than another, that one
object was the welfare and advantage of the United Metro-
politan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punc-
tual Delivery Company.

Meanwhile,, and pending the arrangements of the proceed-
ings, and a fair division of the speechifying, the public in the
large room were eyeing, by turns, the empty platform, and
the ladies in the Music Gallery. In these amusements the
greater portion of them had been occupied for a couple of
hours before, and as the most agreeable diversions pall upon
the taste on a too protracted enjoyment of them, the sterner
spirits now began to hammer the floor with their boot-heels,
and to express their dissatisfaction by various hoots and cries.
These vocal exertions, emanating from the people who had
been there longest, naturally proceeded from those who were
nearest to the platform and furthest from the policemen in
attendance, who having no great mind to fight their way
through the crowd, but entertaining nevertheless a praise-
worthy desire to do something to quell the disturbance, im-
mediately began to drag forth, by the coat tails and collars,
all the quiet people near the door ; at the same time dealing
out various smart and tingling blows with their truncheons,
after the manner of that ingenious actor, Mr. Punch : whose
brilliant example, both in the fashion of his weapons and
their use, this branch of the executive occasionally follows.

Several very exciting skirmishes were in progress, when a
loud shout attracted the attention even of the belligerents,
and then there poured on to the platform, from a door at the
side, a long line of gentlemen with their hats off, all looking
behind them, and uttering, vociferous cheers ; the cause
whereof was sufficiently explained when Sir Matthew Pupker
and the two other real members of Parliament came to the
front, amidst deafening shouts, and testified to each other in
dumb motions that they had never seen such a glorious sight
as that, in the whole course of their public career.

At length, and at last, the assembly left oif shouting, but

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Sir Matthew Pupker being into the chair, they underwent a
relapse which lasted five minutes. This over, Sir Matthew
Pupker went on to say what must be his feelings on that great
occasion, and what must be that occasion in the eyes of the
world, and what must be the intelligence of his fellow-country-
men before him, and what must be the wealth and respecta-
bility of his honorable friends behind him, and lastly, what
must be the importance to the wealth, the happiness, the com-
fort, the liberty, the very existence of a free and great people, of
such an Institution as the United Metropolitan Improved Hot
Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company !
Mr. Bonney then presented himself to move the first reso-
lution ; and having run his right hand through his hair, and
planted his left, in an easy manner, in his ribs, he consigned
his hat to the care of the gentleman with the double chin
(who acted as a species of bottle-holder to th^prators gener-
ally), and said he would read to them the first resolution —
" That this meeting views with alarm and apprehension, the
existing state of the Muffin Trade in this Metropolis and its
neighborhood ; that it considers the Muffin Boys, as at pres-
ent constituted, wholly undeserving the confidence of the
public ; and that it deems the whole Muffin system alike preju-
dicial to the health and morals of the people, and subversive
of the best interests of a great commercial and mercantile
community." The honorable gentleman made a speech which
drew tears from the eyes of the ladies, and awakened the
liveliest emotions in every individual present. He had visited
the houses of the poor in the various districts of London, and
had found them destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin,
which there appeared too much reason to believe some of
these indigent persons did not taste from year's end to year's
end. He had found that among muffin-sellers there existed
drunkenness, debauchery, and profligacy, which he attributed
to the debasing nature of their employment as at present ex-
ercised ; he had found the same vices among the poorer class
of people who ought to be muffin consumers ; and this he at-
tributed to the despair engendered by their being placed be-
yond the reach of that nutritious article, which drove them to
seek a false stimulant in intoxicating liquors. He would
undertake to prove before a committee of the House of Com-
mons, that there existed a combination to keep up the price
of muffins, and to give the bellmen a monopoly ; he would
prove it by bellmen at the bar of that house ; and he would

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also grove, that these men corresponded with each other by
secret words and signs, as " Snooks," " Walker," "Ferguson,"
" Is Murphy right ? " and many others. It was this melancholy
state of things that the Company proposed to correct ; firstly,
by prohibiting, under heavy penalties, all private muffin trad-
ing of every description ; secondly, by themselves supplying
the public generally, and the poor at their own homes, with
muffins of first quality at reduced prices. It was with this
object that a bill had been introduced into Parliament by their
patriotic chairman Sir Matthew Pupker ; it was this bill that
they had met to support ; it was the supporters of this bill
who would confer undying brightness and splendor upon Eng-
land, under the name of the United Metropolitan Improved
Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Com-
pany ; he would add, with a capital of Five Millions, in five
hundred thousand shares of ten pounds each.

Mr. Ralph Nickleby seconded the resolution, and another
gentleman having moved that it be amended by the insertion
of the words " and crumpet " after the word " muffin," when-
ever it occurred, it was carried triumphantly. Only one man
in the crowd cried " No ! " and he was promptly taken into
custody, and straightway borne off.

The second resolution, which recognized the expediency
of immediately abolishing " all muffin (or crumpet) sellers, all
traders in muffins (or crumpets) of whatsoever description,
whether male or female, boys or men, ringing hand-bells or
otherwise," was moved by a grievous gentleman of semi-cleri-
cal appearance, who went at once into such deep pathetics,
that he knocked the first speaker clean out of the course in no
time. You might have heard a pin fall — a pin ! a feather — as
he described the cruelties inflicted on muffin boys by their
masters, which he very wisely urged were in themselves a
sufficient reason for the establishment of that inestimable
company. It seemed that the unhappy youths were nightly
turned out into the wet streets at the most inclement periods
of the year, to wander about, in darkness and rain — or it
might be hail or snow — for hours together, without shelter,
food, or warmth ; and let the public never forget upon the
latter point, that while the muffins were provided with warm
clothing and blankets, the boys were wholly unprovided for,
and left to their own miserable resources. (Shame !) The
honorable gentleman related one case of a muffin boy, who
having been exposed to this inhuman and barbarous system

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for no less than five years, at length fell a victim to a gold in
the head, beneath which he gradually sunk until he fell into a
perspiration and recovered ; this he could vouch for, on his
own authority, but he had heard (and he had no reason to
doubt the fact) of a still more heart-rending and appalling
circumstance. He had heard of the case of an orphan muffin
boy, who, having been run over by a hackney carriage, had
been removed to the hospital, had undergone the amputation
of his leg below the knee, and was now actually pursuing his
occupation on crutches. Fountain of justice, were these
things to last !

This was the department of the subject that took the meet-
ing, and this was the style of speaking to enlist their sym-
pathies. The men shouted ; the ladies wept into their pocket-
handkerchiefs till they were moist, and waved them till they
were dry ; the excitement was tremendous ; and Mr. Nickleby
whispered his friend that the shares were thenceforth at a
premium of five-and-twenty per cent.

The resolution was, of course, carried with loud acclama-
tions, every man holding up both hands in favor of it, as he
would in his enthusiasm have held up both legp also, if he
could have conveniently accomplished it. This done, the
draft of the proposed petition was read at length ; and the
petition said, as all petitions do say, that the petitioners were
very humble, and the petitioned very honorable, and the ob-
ject very virtuous \ therefore (said the petition) the bill ought
to be passed into a law at once, to the everlasting honor and
glory of that most honorable and glorious Commons of Eng-
land in Parliament assembled.

Then, the gentleman who had been at Crockford's all night,
and who looked something the worse about the eyes in conse-
quence, came forward to tell his fellow-countrymen what a
speech he meant to make in favor of that petition whenever
it should be presented, and how desperately he meant to
taunt the Parliament if they rejected the bill ; and to inform
them also, that he regretted his honorable friends had not in-
serted a clause rendering the purchase of muffins and crum-
pets compulsory upon all classes of the community, which he
— opposing all half measures, and preferring to go the ex-
treme animal — pledged himself to propose and divide upon,
in committee. After announcing this determination, the
honorable gentleman grew jocular ; and as patent boots, lemon-
colored kid gloves, and a fur coat collar, assist jokes materially,

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there was immense laughter and much cheering, and more-
over such a brilliant display of ladies' pocket-handkerchiefs,
as threw the grievous gentleman quite into the shade.

And when the petition had been read and was about to be
adopted, there came forward the Irish member (who was a
young gentleman of ardent temperament,) with such a speech
as only an Irish member can make, breathing the true
soul and spirit of poetry, and poured forth with such fervor,
that it made one warm to look at him ; in the course whereof,
he told them how he would demand the extension of that
great boon to his native country ; how he would claim for her
equal rights in the muffin laws as in all other laws ; and how
he yet hoped to see the day when crumpets should be toasted
in her lowly cabins, and muffin bells should ring in her rich
green valleys. And, after him, «ame the Scotch member,"
with various pleasant allusions to the probable amount of
profits, which increased the good humor that the poetry had
awakened ; and all the speeches put together did exactly what
they were intended to do, and established in the hearers'
minds that there was no speculation so promising, or at the
same time so praiseworthy, as the United Metropolitan Im-
proved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Deliv-
ery Company.

So, the petition in favor of the bill was agreed upon, and
the meeting adjourned with acclamations, and Mr. Nickleby
and the other directors went to the office to lunch, as they did
every day at half-past one o'clock ; and to remunerate them-
selves for which trouble (as the company was yet in its in-
fancy), they only charged three guineas each man for every
such attendance.



Having rendered his zealous assistance towards despatch-
ing the lunch, with all that promptitude and energy which are

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among the most important qualities that men of business can
possess, Mr. Ralph Nickleby took a cordial farewell of his
fellow speculators, and bent his steps westward in unwonted
good humor. As he passed Saint Paul's he stepped aside
into a doorway to set his watch, and with his hand on the
key and his eye on the cathedral dial, was intent upon so doing,
when a man suddenly stopped before him. It was Newman

" Ah ! Newman," said Mr. Nickleby, looking up as he
pursued his occupation. " The letter about the mortgage has
come, has it ? I thought it would."

" Wrong," replied Newman.

" What ! and nobody called respecting it ? " inquired Mr.
Nickleby, pausing. Noggs shook his head.

" What has come, then ? " inquired Mr. Nickleby.

" I have," said Newman.

" What else ? " demanded the master, sternly.

" This," said Newman, drawing a sealed letter slowly from
his pocket. " Postmark, Strand, black wax, black border,
woman's hand, C. N. in the corner."

" Black wax ? " said Mr. Nickleby, glancing at the letter.
" I know something of that hand, too. Newman, I shouldn't
be surprised if my brother were dead."

" I don't think you would," said Newman quietly.

" Why not, sir ? " demanded Mr. Nickleby.

" You never are surprised," replied Newman, " that's all."

Mr. Nickleby snatched the letter from his assistant, and
fixing a cold look upon him, opened, read it, put it in his
pocket, and having now hit the time to a second, began wind-
ing up his watch.

" It is as I expected, Newman," said Mr. Nickleby, while
he was thus engaged. " He is dead. Dear me ! Well, that's
a sudden thing. I shouldn't have thought it, really." With
these touching expressions of sorrow, Mr. Nickleby replaced
his watch in his fob, and, fitting on his glove to a nicety,
turned upon his way, and walked slowly westward with his
hands behind him,

" Children alive ? " inquired Noggs, stepping up to him.

"Why, that's the very thing," replied Mr. Nickleby as
though his thoughts were about them at that moment. " They
are both alive."

" Both ! " repeated Newman Noggs, in a low voice.

" And the widow, too," added Mr. Nickleby, " and all
three in London, confound them ; all three here, Newman."

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Newman fell a little behind his master, and his face was
curiously twisted as by a spasm ; but whether of paralysis, or
grief, or inward laughter, nobody but himself could possibly ex-
plain. The expression of a man's face is commonly a help to his
thoughts, or glossary on his speech ; but the countenance of
Newman Noggs, in his ordinary moods, was a'problem which
no stretch of ingenuity could solve,

" Go home ! " said Mr. Nickleby, after they had walked a
few paces, looking round • at the clerk as if he were his dosj.
The words were scarcely uttered when Newman darted across
the road, slunk among the crowd and disappeared in an in-

" Reasonable, certainly ! " muttered Mr. Nickleby to him-
self, as he walked on, " very reasonable ! My brother never
did anything for me, and I never expected it ; the breath is no
sooner out of his body than I am to be looked to, as the sup-
port of a great hearty woman, and a grown boy and girl.
What are they to me ! / never saw them."

Full of these and many other reflections of a similar
kind, Mr. Nickleby made the best of his way to the Strand,
and, referring to his letter as if to ascertain the number of the
house he wanted, stopped at a private door about half-way
down that crowded thoroughfare.

A miniature painter lived there, for there was a large gilt
frame screwed upon the street-door, in which were displayed,
upon a black velvet ground, two portraits of naval dress coats
with faces looking out of them, and telescopes attached ;
one of a young gentleman in a very vermilion uniform, flourish-
ing a sabre ; and one of a literary character with a high fore-
head, a pen and ink, six books, and a curtain. There was,
moreover, a touching representation of a young lady reading
a manuscript in an unfathomable forest, and a charming whole
length of a large-headed little boy, sitting on a stool with his
legs fore-shortened to the size of salt-spoons. Besides these
works of art, there were a great many heads of old ladies and
gentlemen smirking at each other out of blue and brown skies,
and an elegantly-written card of terms with an embossed

Mr. Nickleby glanced at these frivolities with great con-
tempt, and gave a double knock, which, having been thrice
repeated, was answered by a servant girl with an uncommonly
dirty face.

" Is Mrs. Nickleby at home, girl ? " demanded Ralph-

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" Her name ain't Nickleby," said the girl, " La Creevy,
you mean."

Mr. Nickleby looked very indignant at the handmaid on
being thus corrected, and demanded with much asperity what
she meant ; which she was about to state, when a female voice,
proceeding from a perpendicular staircase, at the end of the
passage, inquired who was wanted.

" Mrs. Nickleby," said Ralph.

" It's the second floor, Hannah," said the same voice ;
" what a stupid thing you are ! Is the second floor at home ? "

" Somebody went out just now, but I think it was the attic
which had been a cleaning of himself," replied the girl.

" You had better see," said the invisible female. " Show
the gentleman where the bell is, and tell him he musn't knock
double knocks for the second floor ; I can't allow a knock ex-
cept when the bell's broke, and then it must be two single ones."

" Here," said Ralph, walking in without more parley, " I
beg your pardon ; is that Mrs. La What's-her-name ? "

" Creevy — La Creevy," replied the voice, as a yellow head-
dress bobbed over the banisters.

" I'll speak to you a moment, ma'am, with your leave,"
said Ralph.

The voice replied that the gentleman was to walk up ; but
he had walked up before it spoke, and stepping into the first
floor, was received by the wearer of the yellow-head dress,
who had a gown to correspond, and was of much the same
color herself. Miss La Creevy was a mincing young lady of
fifty, and Miss La Creevy's apartment was the gilt frame down
stairs on a larger scale and something dirtier.

" Hem ! " said Miss La Creevy, coughing delicately behind
her black silk mitten. " A miniature, I presume. A very
strongly-marked countenance for the purpose, sir. Have you
ever sat before ? "

" You mistake my purpose, I see, ma'am," replied Mr.
Nickleby, in his usual blunt fashion. " I have no money to
throw away on miniatures, ma'am, and nobody to give one to
(thank God) if I had. Seeing you on the stairs, I wanted to
ask a question of you, about some lodgers here."

Miss La Creevy coughed once more — this cough was to
conceal her disappointment — and said, " Oh, indeed ! "

" I infer from what you said to your servant, that the floor
above belongs to you, ma'am ? " said Mr. Nickleby.

Yes it did, Miss La Creevy replied. The upper part of

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the house belonged to her, and as she had no necessity for
the second-floor rooms just then, she was in the habit of let-
ting them. Indeed, there was a lady from the country and
her two children in them, at that present speaking.

" A widow, ma'am ? " said Ralph.

" Yes, she is a widow," replied the lady.

" A poor widow, ma'am," said Ralph, with a powerful em-
phasis on that little adjective which conveys so much.

" Well, I am afraid she is poor," rejoined Miss La Creevy.

" I happen to know that she is, ma'am," said Ralph.
" Now, what business has a poor widow in such a house as
this, ma'am ? "

" Very true," replied Miss La Creevy, not at all displeased
with this implied compliment to the apartments. " Exceed-
ingly true."

"I know her circumstances intimately, ma'am," said
Ralph ; " in fact, I am a relation of the family ; and I should
recommend you not to keep them here, ma'am."

" I should hope, if there was any incompatibility to meet
the pecuniary obligations," said Miss La Creevy with another
cough, " that the lady's family would "

" No they wouldn't, ma'am," interrupted Ralph, hastily.
" Don't think it."

" If I am to understand that," said Miss La Creevy, " the
case wears a very different appearance."

" You may understand it then, ma'am," said Ralph, " and
make your arrangements accordingly. I am the family, ma'am
— at least, I believe I am the only relation they have, and I think
it right that you should know / can't support them in their ex-
travagances. How long have they taken these lodgings for ? "

"Only from week to week," replied Miss La Creevy.
" Mrs. Nickleby paid the first week in advance."

" Then you had better get them out at the end of it," said
Ralph. " They can't do better than go back to the country,
ma'am ; they are in everybody's way here."

" Certainly," said Miss La Creevy, rubbing her hands, " if
Mrs. Nickleby took the apartments without the means of pay-
ing for them, it was very unbecoming a lady."

" Of course it was, ma'am," said Ralph.

" And naturally," continued Miss La Creevy, " I who am,
at present — hem — an unprotected female, cannot afford to lose
by the apartments."

" Of course you can't, ma'am," replied Ralph.

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"Though at the same time," added Miss La Creevy, who
was plainly wavering between her good-nature and her inter-

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 3 of 79)