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The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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est, " I have nothing whatever to say against the lady, who is
extremely pleasant and affable, though, poor thing, she seems
terribly low in her spirits ; nor against the young people
either, for nicer, or better-behaved young people cannot be."

" Very well, ma'am," said Ralph, turning to the door, for
these encomiums on poverty irritated him ; " I have done my
duty, and perhaps more than I ought : of course nobody will
thank me for saying what I have."

" I am sure / am very much obliged to you at least, sir,"
said Miss La Creevy in a gracious manner. " Would you do me
the favor to look at a few specimens of my portrait painting ? "

" You're very good, ma'am," said Mr. Nickleby, making
off with great speed ; " but as I have a visit to pay up stairs,
and my time is precious, I really can't."

" At any other time when you are passing, I shall be most
happy," said Miss La Creevy. " Perhaps you will have the
kindness to take a card of terms with you ? Thank you —
good-morning ! "

"Good-morning, ma'am," said Ralph, shutting the door
abruptly after him to prevent any further conversation. " Now
for my sister-in-law. Bah ! "

Climbing up another perpendicular flight, composed with
great mechanical ingenuity of nothing but corner stairs, Mr.
Ralph Nickleby stopped to take breath on the landing, when
he was overtaken by the handmaid, whom the politeness of
of Miss La Creevy had despatched to announce him, and who
had apparently been making a variety of unsuccessful attempts
since their last interview, to wipe her dirty face clean, upon an
apron much dirtier.

" What name ? " said the girl.

" Nickleby," replied Ralph.

" Oh ! Mrs. Nickleby," said the girl, throwing open the
door, "here's Mr. Nickleby."

A lady in deep mourning rose as Mr. Ralph Nickleby
entered, but appeared incapable of advancing to meet him,
and leant upon the arm of a slight but very beautiful girl of
about seventeen, who had been sitting by her. A youth, who
appeared a year or two older, stepped forward and saluted
Ralph as his uncle. .

" Oh," growled Ralph, with an ill-favored frown, " you are
Nicholas, I suppose."

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" That is my name, sir," replied the youth.

" Put my hat down," said Ralph, imperiously. " Well,
ma'am, how do you do ? You must bear up against sorrow,
ma'am : /always do."

" Mine was no common loss 1 " said Mrs. Nickleby, apply-
ing her handkerchief to her eyes.

"It was no #« common loss, ma'am," returned Ralph, as
he coolly unbuttoned his spencer. "Husbands die every
day, ma'am, and wives too."

" And brothers also, sir," said Nicholas, with a glance of

" Yes, sir, and puppies, and pug-dogs likewise," replied
his uncle, taking a chair. " You didn't mention in your letter
what my brother's complaint was, ma'am."

" The doctors could attribute it to no particular disease,"
said Mrs. Nickleby, shedding tears. " We have too much
reason to fear that he died of a broken heart."

" Pooh ! " said Ralph, " there's no such thing. I can
understand a man's dying of a broken neck, or suffering from
a broken arm, or a broken head, or a broken leg, or a broken
nose ; but a broken heart ! — nonsense, it's the cant of the day.
If a man can't pay his debts, he dies of a broken heart, and
his widow's a martyr."

" Some people, I believe, have no hearts to break," ob-
served Nicholas, quietly.

" How old is this boy, for God's sake ? " inquired Ralph,
wheeling back his chair, and surveying his nephew from head
to foot with intense scorn.

"Nicholas is very nearly nineteen," replied the widow.

" Nineteen, eh ! " said Ralph, " and what do you mean to
do for your bread, sir ? "

" Not to live upon my mother," replied Nicholas, his heart
swelling as he spoke.

" You'd have little enough to live upon, if you did," re-
torted the uncle, eyeing him contemptuously.

" Whatever it be," said Nicholas, flushed with anger, " I
shall not look to you to make it more."

" Nicholas, my dear, recollect yourself," remonstrated Mrs.

" Dear Nicholas, pray," urged the young lady.

" Hold your tongue, sir," said Ralph. " Upon my word !
Fine beginnings, Mrs. Nickleby — fine beginnings ! "

Mrs. Nickleby made no other reply than entreating Nicho-

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las by a gesture to keep silent ; and the uncle and nephew
looked at each other for some seconds without speaking. The
face of the old man was stern, hard-featured and forbidding ;
that of the young one, open, handsome, and ingenuous. The
old man's eye was keen with the twinklings of avarice and
cunning ; the young man's, bright with the light of intelligence
and spirit. His figure was somewhat slight, but manly and
well-formed ; and, apart from all the grace of youth and come-
liness, there was an emanation from the warm young heart in
his look and bearing which kept the old man down.

However striking such a contrast as this may be to look-
ers-on, none ever feel it with half the keenness or acuteness
of perfection with which it strikes to the very soul of him
whose inferiority it marks. It galled Ralph to the heart's
core, and he hated Nicholas from that hour.

The mutual inspection was at length brought to a close by
Ralph withdrawing his eyes, with a great show of disdain,
and calling Nicholas " a boy." This word is much used as a
term of reproach by elderly gentlemen towards their juniors :
probably with the view of deluding society into the belief
that if they could be young again, they wouldn't on any ac-

" Well, ma'am," said Ralph, impatiently, " the creditors
have administered, you tell me, and there's nothing left for

" Nothing," replied Mrs. Nickleby.

" And you spent what little money you had, in coming all
the way to London, to see what I could do for you ? " pursued

"I hoped," faltered Mrs. Nickleby, "that you might have
an opportunity of doing something for your brother's children.
It was his dying wish that I should appeal to you in their be-

" I don't know how it is," muttered Ralph, walking up and
down the room, " but whenever a man dies without any prop-
erty of his own, he always seems to think he has a right to
dispose of other people's. What is your daughter fit for,
ma'am ? "

" Kate has been well educated," sobbed Mrs. Nickleby.
" Tell your uncle, my dear, how far you went in French and

The poor girl was about to murmur something, when her
uncle stopped her, very unceremoniously.

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* We must try and get you apprenticed at some boarding-
school," said Ralph. " You have not been brought up too
delicately for that, I hope ? "

" No, indeed, uncle," replied the weeping girl. " I will
try to do anything that will gain me a home and bread."

" Well, well," said Ralph, a little softened, either by his
niece's beauty or her distress (stretch a point, and say the
latter). " You must try it, and if the life is too hard, perhaps
dress-making or tambour-work will come lighter. Have you
ever done anything, sir ? " (turning to his nephew.)

" No," replied Nicholas, bluntly.

" No, I thought not ! " said Ralph. " This is the way my
brother brought up his children, ma'am."

" Nicholas has not long completed such education as his
poor father could give him," rejoined Mrs. Nickleby, "and
he was thinking of — "

"Of making something of him some day," said Ralph.
" The old story ; always thinking, and never doing. If my
brother had been a man of activity and prudence, he might
have left you a rich woman, ma'am ; and if he had turned his
son into the world, as my father turned me, when I wasn't as
old as that boy by a year and a half, he would have been in a
situation to help you, instead of being a burden upon you,
and increasing your distress. My brother was a thoughtless,
inconsiderate man, Mrs. Nickleby, and nobody, I am sure,
can have better reason to feel that, than you."

This appeal set the widow upon thinking that perhaps she
might have made a more successful venture with her one
thousand pounds, and then she began to reflect what a com-
fortable sum it would have been just then ; which dismal
thoughts made her tears flow faster, and in the excess of these
griefs she (being a well-meaning woman enough, but weak
withal) fell first to deploring her hard fate, and then to remark-
ing, with many sobs, that to be sure she had been a slave to
poor Nicholas, and had often told him she might have mar-
ried better (as indeed she had, very often), and that she never
knew in his lifetime how the money went, but that if he had
confided in her they might all have been better off that day ;
with other bitter recollections common to most married ladies,
either during their coverture, or afterwards, or at both periods.
Mrs. Nickleby concluded by lamenting that the dear departed
had never deigned to profit by her advice, save on one occa-
sion : which was a strictly veracious statement, inasmuch as

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he had only acted upon it once, and had ruined himself in

Mr. Ralph Nickleby heard all this with a half smile ; and
when the widow had finished, quietly took up the subject
where it had been left before the above outbreak.

"Are you willing to work, sir ? " he inquired, frowning on
his nephew.

" Of course I am," replied Nicholas haughtily.

"Then, see here, sir," said his uncle. " This caught my
eye this morning, and you may thank your stars for it."

With this exordium, Mr. Ralph Nickleby took a newspaper
from his pocket, and after unfolding it, and looking for a
short time among the advertisements, read as follows :

" ' Education. — At Mr. Wackford Squeers's Academy,
Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near
Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed,
booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all ne-
cessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathe-
matics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the
use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing,
arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical
literature. Terms, twenty guineas per annum. No extras,
no vacations, and diet unparalleled. Mr. Squeers is in town,
and attends daily, from one till four, at the Saracen's Head,
SnQw Hill. N. B. An able assistant wanted. Annual salary
£$. A Master of Arts would be preferred.'

" There ! " said Ralph, folding the paper again. " Let him
get that situation, and his fortune is made."

" But he is not a Master of Arts " said Mrs. Nickleby.

" That," replied Ralph, " that I think, can be got over."

" But the salary is so small, and it is such a long way off,
uncle ! " faltered Kate.

" Hush, Kate, my dear," interposed Mrs. Nickleby ; " your
uncle must know best."

" I say," repeated Ralph, tartly, " let him get that
situation, and his fortune is made. If he don't like that, let
him get one for himself. Without friends, money, recom-
mendation, or knowledge of business of any kind, let him find
honest employment in London which will keep him in shoe •
leather, and I'll give him a thousand pounds. At least," said
Mr. Ralph Nickleby, checking himself, "I would if I had it."

" Poor fellow ! " said the young lady. " Oh ! uncle, must
we be separated so soon ! "

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" Don't tease your uncle with questions when he is think-
ing only for our good, my love," said Mrs. Nickleby. " Nich-
olas, my dear, I wish you would say something."

" Yes, mother, yes," said Nicholas, who had hitherto
remained silent and absorbed in thought " If I am fortunate
enough to be appointed to this post, sir, for which I am so
imperfectly qualified, what will become of those I leave be-
hind ? "

" Your mother and sister, sir," replied Ralph, " will be
provided for, in that case (not otherwise), by me, and placed
in some sphere of life in which they will be able to be indepen-
dent That will be my immediate care ; they will not remain
as they are, one week after your departure, I will undertake."

" Then," said Nicholas, starting gayly up, and wringing his
uncle's hand, " I am ready to do anything you wish me. Let
us try our fortune with Mr. Squeers at once; he can but

" He won't do that," said Ralph. " He will be glad to
have you on my recommendation. Make yourself of use to
him, and you'll rise to be a partner in the establishment in no
time. Bless me, only think! if he were to die, why your
fortune's madf at once."

" To be sure, I see it all," said poor Nicholas, delighted
with a thousand visionary ideas, that his good spirits and his
inexperience were conjuring up before him. "Or suppose
some young nobleman who is being educated at the Hall,
were to take a fancy to me, and get his father to appoint me
his travelling tutor when he left, and when we come back from
the continent, procured me some handsome appointment
Eh ! uncle ? "

" Ah, to be sure ! " snarled Ralph.

" And who knows, but when he came to see me when I
was settled (as he would of course), he might fall in love with
Kate, who would be keeping my house, and — and — marry her,
eh ! uncle ? Who knows ? "

" Who, indeed ! " snarled Ralph.

" How happy we should be ! " cried Nicholas with en-
thusiasm. "The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of
meeting again. Kate will be a beautiful woman, and I so
proud to hear them say so, and mother so happy to be with

us once again, and all these sad times forgotten, and "

The picture was too bright a one to bear, and Nicholas, fairly
overpowered by it, smiled faintly, and burst into tears.

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This simple family, born and bred in retirement, and
wholly unacquainted with what is called the world — a con-
ventional phrase which, being interpreted, often signifieth all
the rascals in it — mingled their tears together at the thought
of their first separation ; and, this first gush of feeling over,
were proceeding to dilate with all the buoyancy of untried
hope on the bright prospects before them, when Mr. Ralph
Nickleby suggested, that if they lost time, some more fortunate
candidate might deprive Nicholas of the stepping-stone to
fortune which the advertisement pointed out, and so under-
mine all their air-built castles. This timely reminder effectually
stopped the conversation. Nicholas, having carefully copied
the address of Mr. Squeers, the uncle and nephew issued
forth together in quest of that accomplished gentleman j
Nicholas firmly persuading himself that he had done his
relative great injustice in disliking him at first sight ; and Mrs.
Nickleby being at some pains to inform her daughter that she
was sure he was a much more kindly disposed person than he
seemed ; which, Miss Nickleby dutifully remarked, he might
very easily be.

To tell the truth, the good lady's opinion had been not a
little influenced by her brother-in-law's appeal to her better
understanding, and his implied compliment to her high deserts ;
and although she had dearly loved her husband, and still
doted on her children, he had struck so successfully on one
of those little jarring chords in the human heart (Ralph was
well acquainted with its worst weaknesses, though he knew
nothing of its best), that she had already begun seriously to
consider herself the amiable and suffering victim of her late
husband's imprudence.



Snow Hill ! What kind of place can .the quiet towns-
people who see the words emblazoned, in all the legibility of
gilt letters and dark shading, on. the north-country coaches,

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take Snow Hill to be ? All people have some undefined and
shadowy notion of a place whose name is frequently before
their eyes, or often in their ears. What -a vast number of
random ideas there must be perpetually floating about, regard-
ing this same Snow Hill. The name is such a good one.
Snow Hill — Snow Hill too, coupled with a Saracen's Head :
picturing to us by a double association of ideas, something
stern and rugged ! A bleak desolate tract of country, open
to piercing blasts and fierce wintry storms — a dark, cold,
gloomy heath, lonely by day, and scarcely to be thought of by
honest folks at night — a place which solitary wayfarers shun,
and where desperate robbers congregate ; — this, or something
like this, should be the prevalent notion of Snow Hill, in those
remote and rustic parts, through which the Saracen's Head,
like some grim apparition, rushes each day and ni^ht with
mysterious and ghost-like punctuality \ holding its swift and
headlong course in all weathers, and seeming to bid defiance
to the very elements themselves.

The reality is rather different, but by no means to be de-
spised notwithstanding. There, at the very core of London,
in the heart of its business and animation, in the midst of a
whirl of noise and motion : stemming as it were the giant
currents of life that flow ceaselessly on from different quarters,
and meet beneath its walls : stands Newgate ; and in that
crowded street on which it frowns so darkly — within a few feet
of the squalid tottering houses — upon the very spot on which
the venders of soup and fish and damaged fruit are now
plying their trades — scores of human beings, amidst a roar of
sounds to which even the tumult of a great city is as nothing,
four, six, or eight strong men at a time, have been hurried
violently and swiftly from the world, when the scene has been
rendered frightful with excess of human life ; when curious
eyes have glared from casement, and house-top, and wall and
pillar ; and when, in the mass of white and upturned faces,
the dying wretch, in his all-comprehensive look of agony, has
met not one — not one— that bore the impress of pity or com-

Near to the jail, and by consequence near to Smithfield
also, and the Compter, and the bustle and noise of the city ;
and just on that particular part of Snow Hill where omnibus
horses going eastward seriously think of falling down on pur-
pose,* and where horses in hackney cabriolets going westward
not unfrequently fall by accident, is the coach-yard of the

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Saracen's Head Inn ; its portal guarded by two Saracens*
heads and shoulders, which it was once the pride and glory
of the choice spirits of this metropolis to pull down at night,
but which have for some time remained in undisturbed tran-
quillity ; possibly because this species of humor is now con-
fined to Saint James's parish, where door knockers are preferred
as being more portable, and bell-wires esteemed as convenient
tooth-picks. Whether this be the reason or not, there they
are, frowning upon you from each side of the gateway. The
inn itself, garnished with another Saracen's Head, frowns
upon you from the top of the yard ; while from the door of
the hind boot of all the red coaches that are standing therein,
there glares a small Saracen's Head, with a twin expression
to the large Saracens' Heads below, so that the general ap-
pearance of the pile is decidedly of the Saracenic order.

When you walk up this yard, you will see the booking-
office on your left, and the tower of St. Sepulchre's church,
darting abruptly up into the sky, on your right, and a gallery
of bed-rooms on both sides. Just before you, you will observe
a long window with the words " coffee-room " legibly painted
above it ; and looking out of that window, you would have
seen in addition, if you had gone at the right time, Mr. Wack-
ford Squeers with his hands in his pockets.

Mr. Squeers's appearance was not prepossessing. He
had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favor of
two. The eye he had, was unquestionably useful, but de-
cidedly not ornamental: being of a greenish gray, and in
shape resembling the fan-light of a street door. The blank
side of his face was much wrinkled and puckered up, which
gave him a very sinister appearance, especially when he smiled,
at which times his expression bordered closely on the villainous.
His hair was very flat and shiny, save at the ends, where it
was brushed stiffly up from a low protruding forehead, which
assorted well with his harsh voice and coarse manner. He
was about two or three and fifty, and a trifle below the mid-
dle size ; he wore a white neckerchief with long ends, and a
suit of scholastic black ; but his coat sleeves being a great
deal too long, and his trousers a great deal too short, he ap-
peared ill at ease in his clothes, and as if he were in a per-
petual state of astonishment at finding himself so respectable.

Mr. Squeers was standing in a box by one of the coffee-
room fire-places, fitted with one such table as is usually seen
in coffee-rooms, and two of extraordinary shapes and dimen-

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sions made to suit the angles of the partition. In a corner of
the seat, was a very small deal trunk, tied round with a scanty
piece of cord ; and on the trunk was perched — his lace-up
half-boots and corduroy trousers dangling in the air — a dimin-
utive boy, with his shoulders drawn up to his ears, and his
hands planted on his knees, who glanced timidly at the
schoolmaster, from time to time, with evident dread and ap-

"Half-past three," muttered Mr. Squeers, turning from
the window, and looking sulkily at the coffee-room clock.
" There will be nobody here to-day."

Much vexed by this reflection, Mr. Squeers looked at the
little boy to see whether he was doing anything he could beat
him for. As he happened not to be doing anything at all, he
merely boxed his ears, and told him not to do it again.

"At Midsummer," muttered Mr. Squeers, resuming his
complaint, " I took down ten boys, ; ten twentys is two hun-
dred pound. I go back at eight o'clock to-morrow morning,
and have got only three — three oughts is an ought — three
twos is six — sixty pound. What's come of all the boys ?
what's parents got in their heads ? what does it all mean ? "

Here the little boy on the top of the trunk gave a violent

" Halloa, sir ! " growled the schoolmaster, turning round.
"What's that, sir?"

" Nothing, please sir," said the little boy.

" Nothing, sir I " exclaimed Mr. Squeers.

" Please, sir, I sneezed," rejoined the boy, trembling till
the little trunk shook under him.

" Oh ! sneezed, did you ? " retorted Mr. Squeers. " Then
what did you say ' nothing ' for, sir ? "

In default of a -better answer to this question, the little
boy screwed a couple of knuckles- into each of his eyes and
began to cry, wherefore Mr. Squeers knocked him off the
trunk with a blow on one side of his face, and knocked him
on again with a blow on the other.

" Wait till I get you down into Yorkshire, my young
gentleman," said Mr. Squeers, " and then I'll give you the
rest. Will you hold that noise, sir ? "

"Ye — ye — yes," sobbed the little boy, rubbing his face
very hard with the Beggar's Petition in printed calico.

"Then do so at once, sir," said Squeers. "Do you

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As this admonition was accompanied with a threatening
gesture, and uttered with a savage aspect, the little boy
rubbed his face harder, as if to keep the tears back ; and,
beyond alternately sniffing and choking, gave no further vent
to his emotions.

" Mr. Squeers," said the waiter, looking in at this junc-
ture ; ** here's a gentleman asking for you at the bar."

" Show the gentleman in, Richard," replied Mr. Squeers, in
a soft voice. " Put your handkerchief in your pocket, you little
scoundrel, or I'll murder you when the gentleman goes."

The schoolmaster had scarcely uttered these words in a
fierce whisper, when the stranger entered. Affecting not to
see him, Mr. Squeers feigned to be intent upon mending a
pen, and offering benevolent advice to his youthful pupil.

" My dear child," said Mr. Squeers, " all people have their
trials. This early trial of yours that is fit to make your little
heart burst, and your very eyes come out of your head with
crying, what is it ? Nothing ; less than nothing. You are
leaving your friends, but you will have a father in me, my
dear, and a mother in Mrs. Squeers. At the delightful village
of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, where youth
are boarded, clothed, booked, washed, furnished with pocket

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 4 of 79)