Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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"Ah, Mr. Johnson ! " said Crowl, presenting himself.
"Welcome, sir. — How well you're looking! I never could
have believed "



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4 o8 NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

" Pardon me," interposed Nicholas. " My question — I am
extremely anxious to know."

" Why, he has a troublesome affair of business," replied
Crowl, " and will not be home before twelve o'clock. He was
very unwilling to go, I can tell you, but there was no help for
it. However, he left word that you were to. make yourself
comfortable till he came back, and that I was to entertain you,
which I shall be very glad to do."

In proof of his extreme readiness to exert himself for the
general entertainment, Mr. Crowl drew a chair to the table as
he spoke, and helping himself plentifully to the cold meat,
invited Nicholas and Smike to follow his example.

Disappointed and uneasy, Nicholas could touch no food,
so, after he had seen Smike comfortably established at the
table, he walked out (despite a great many dissuasions uttered
by Mr. Crowl with his mouth full), and left Smike to detain
Newman in case he returned first.

As Miss La Creevy had anticipated, Nicholas betook him-
self straight to her house. Finding her from home, he debated
within himself for some time whether he should go to his
mother's residence and so compromise her with Ralph Nickle-
by. Fully persuaded, however, that Newman would not have
solicited him to return unless there was some strong reason
which required his presence at home, he resolved to go there,
and hastened eastwards with all speed.

Mrs. Nickleby would not be at home, the girl said, until
past twelve, or later. She believed Miss Nickleby was well,
but she didn't live at home now, nor did she come home except
very seldom. She couldn't say where she was stopping, but
it was not at Madame Mantalini's. She was sure of that.

With his heart beating violently, and apprehending he
knew not what disaster, Nicholas returned to where he had
left Smike. Newman had not been home. He wouldn't be,
till twelve o'clock ; there'was no chance of it. Was there no
possibility of sending to fetch him if it were only for an in-
stant, or forwarding to him one line of writing to which he
might return a verbal reply ? That was quite impracticable.
He was not at Golden Square, and probably had been sent
to execute some commission at a distance.

Nicholas tried to remain quietly where he was, but he felt
so nervous and excited that he could not sit still. He seemed
to be losing time unless he was moving. It was an absurd
fancy, he knew, but he was wholly unable to resist it. So, he
took up his hat and rambled out again.



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NICHOLAS NTCKLEB Y. 409

He strolled westward this time, pacing the long streets
with hurried footsteps, and agitated by a thousand misgivings
and apprehensions which he could not overcome. He passed
into Hyde Park, now silent and deserted, and increased his
rate of walking as if in the hope of leaving his thoughts be-
hind. They crowded upon him more thickly, however, now
there were no passing objects to attract his attention : and
the one idea was always uppermost, that some stroke of ill-
fortune must have occurred so calamitous in its nature that
all were fearful of disclosing it to Kim. The old question
arose again and again — What could it be ? Nicholas walked
till he was weary, but was not one bit the wiser ; and indeed
he came out of the Park at last a great deal more confused
and perplexed than he had gone into it.

He had taken scarcely anything to eat or drink since
early in the morning, and felt quite worn out and exhausted.
As he returned languidly towards the point from which he had
started, along one of the thoroughfares which lie between
Park Lane and Bond Street, he passed a handsome hotel,
before which he stopped mechanically.

"An expensive place, I dare say," thought Nicholas ; "but
a pint of wine and a biscuit are no great debauch wherever
they are had. And yet I don't know."

He walked on a few steps, but looking wistfully down the
long vista of gas-lamps before him, and thinking how long it
would take to reach the end of it — and being besides in that
kind of mood in which a man is most disposed to yield to his
first impulse — and being, besides, strongly attracted to the
hotel, in part by curiosity, and in part by some odd mixture
of feelings which he would have been troubled to define —
Nicholas turned back again, and walked into the coffee-room.

It was very handsomely furnished. The walls were orna-
mented with the choicest specimens of French paper, en-
riched with a gilded cornice of elegant design. The floor
was covered with a rich carpet ; and two superb mirrors, one
above the chimney-piece and one at the opposite end of the
room reaching from floor to ceiling, multiplied the other beau-
ties and added new ones of their own to enhance the general
effect. There was rather a noisy party of four gentlemen in
a box by the fire-place, and only two other persons present —
both elderly gentlemen, and both alone.

Observing all this in the first comprehensive glance with
which a stranger surveys a place that is new to him, Nicholas



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4 i o NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y.

sat himself down in the box next to the noisy party, with his
back towards them, and postponing his order for a pint of
claret until such time as the waiter and one of the elderly
gentlemen should have settled a disputed question relative to
the price of an item in the bill of fare, took up a newspaper
and began to read.

He had not read twenty lines, and was in truth half-
dozing, when he was startled by the mention of his sister's
name. " Little Kate Nickleby " were the words that caught
his ear. He raised his head in amazement, and as he did so,
saw by the reflection in the opposite glass, that two of the
party behind him had risen and were standing before the fire.
"It must have come from one of them," thought Nicholas.
He waited to hear more with a countenance of some indigna-
tion, for the tone of speech had been anything but respectful,
and the appearance of the individual whom he presumed to
have been the speaker was coarse and swaggering.

This person — so Nicholas observed in the same glance at
the mirror which had enabled him to see his face — was stand-
ing with his back to the fire conversing with a younger man,
who stood with his back to the company, wore his hat, and
was adjusting his shirt collar by the aid of the glass. They
spoke in whispers, now and then bursting into a loud laugh,
but Nicholas could catch no repetition of the words, nor any-
thing sounding at all like the words, which had attracted his
attention.

At length the two resumed their seats, and more wine
being ordered, the party grew louder in their mirth. Still
there was no reference made to anybody with whom he was
acquainted, and Nicholas became persuaded that his excited
fancy had either imagined the sounds altogether, or converted
some other words into the name which had been so much in
his thoughts.

" It is remarkable too," thought Nicholas : " if it had been
* Kate ' or ' Kate Nickleby/ I should not have been so much
surprised ; but ' little Kate Nickleby 1 ' "

The wine coming at the moment prevented his finishing
the sentence. He swallowed a glassful and took up the paper
again. At that instant

" Little Kate Nickleby ! " cried a voice behind him.

" I was right," muttered Nicholas as the paper fell from
his hand. "And it was the man I supposed."

" As there was a proper objection to drinking her in heel-



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NICHOLAS NICKLEB K. 4I x

taps," said the voice, " we'll give her the first glass in the new
magnum. Little Kate Nickleby ! "

" Little Kate Nickleby," cried the other three. And the
glasses were set down empty.

Keenly alive to the tone and manner of this slight and
careless mention of his sister's name in a public place, Nicho-
las fired at once ; but he kept himself quiet by a great effort,
and did not even turn his head.

" The jade ! " said the same voice which had spoken be-
fore. " She's a true Nickleby — a worthy imitator of her old
uncle Ralph — she hangs back to be more sought after — so
does he ; nothing to be got out of Ralph unless you follow
him up, and then the money comes doubly welcome, and the
bargain doubly hard, for you're impatient and he isn't. Oh !
infernal cunning."

" Infernal cunning," echoed two voices.

Nicholas was in a perfect agony as the two elderly gentle-
men opposite, rose one after the other and went away, lest
they should be the means of his losing one word of what was
said. But the conversation was suspended as they withdrew,
and resumed with even greater freedom when they had left
the room.

" I am afraid," said the younger gentleman, " that the old
woman has grown jea-a-lous, and locked her up. Upon my
soul it looks like it."

"If they quarrel and little Nickleby goes home to her
mother, so much the better," said the first. " I can do any-
thing with the old lady. She'll believe anything I tell her."

" Egad that's true," returned the other voice. " Ha, ha,
ha ! Poor deyvle ! "

The laugh was taken up by the two voices which always
came in together, and became general at Mrs. Nickleby's ex-
pense. Nicholas turned burning hot with rage, but he com-
manded himself for the moment, and waited to hear more.

What he heard need not be repeated here. Suffice it that
as the wine went round he heard enough to acquaint him with
the characters and designs of those whose conversation he
overheard ; to possess him with the full extent of Ralph's
villany, and the real reason of his own presence being re-
quired in London. He heard all this and more. He heard
his sister's sufferings derided, and her virtuous conduct jeered
at and brutally misconstrued; he heard her name bandied
from mouth to mouth, and herself made the subject of coarse
and insolent wagers, free speech, and licentious jesting.



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412



NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



The man who had spoken first, led the conversation and
indeed almost engrossed it, being only stimulated from time
to time by some slight observation from one or other of his
companions. To him then Nicholas addressed himself when
he was sufficiently composed to stand before the party, and
force the words from his parched and scorching throat

" Let me have a word with you, sir," said Nicholas.

" With me, sir ? " retorted Sir Mulberry Hawk, eyeing him
in disdainful surprise.

" I said with you," replied Nicholas, speaking with great
difficulty, for his passion choked him.

" A mysterious stranger, upon my soul ! " exclaimed Sir
Mulberry, raising his wine-glass to his lips, and looking round
upon his friends.

" Will you step apart with me for a few minutes, or do
you Tefuse ? " said Nicholas sternly.

Sir Mulberry merely paused in the act of drinking, and
bade him either name his business or leave the table.

Nicholas drew a card from his pocket, and threw it before
him.

" There, sir," said Nicholas ; " my business you will guess."

A momentary expression of astonishment, not unmixed
with some confusion, appeared in the face of Sir Mulberry as
he read the name ; but he subdued it in an instant, and toss-
ing the card to Lord Frederick Verisopht, who sat opposite,
drew a tooth-pick from a glass before him, and very leisurely
applied it to his mouth.

" Your name and address ? " said Nicholas, turning paler
as his passion kindled.

" I shall give you neither," replied Sir Mulberry.

" If there is a gentleman in this party," said Nicholas,
looking round and scarcely able to make his white lips form
the words, " he will acquaint me with the name and residence
of this man."

There was a dead silence.

" I am the brother of the young lady who has been the
subject of conversation here," said Nicholas. " I denounce
this person as a liar, and impeach him as a coward. If he
has a friend here, he will save him the disgrace of the paltry
attempt to conceal his name — an utterly useless one — for I
will find it out, nor leave him until I have."

Sir Mulberry looked at him contemptuously, and, address-
ing his companions, said —



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



413



" Let the fellow talk. I have nothing serious to say to
boys of his station ; and his pretty sister shall save him a
broken head, if he talks till midnight."

" You are a base and spiritless scoundrel ! " said Nicholas,
" and shall be proclaimed so to the world. I will know you ;
I will follow you home if you walk the streets till morning."

Sir Mulberry's hand involuntarily closed upon the de-
canter, and he seemed for an instant about to launch it at the
head of his challenger. But he only filled his glass, and
laughed in derision.

Nicholas sat himself down, directly opposite to the party,
and, summoning the waiter, paid his bill.

" Do you know that person's name? " he inquired of the
man in an audible voice, pointing out Sir Mulberry as he put
the question.

Sir Mulberry laughed again, and the two voices which
had always spoken together, echoed the laugh ; but rather
feebly.

"That gentleman, sir?" replied the waiter, who, no
doubt, knew his cue, and answered with just as little respect,
and just as much impertinence as he could safely show : " no,
sir, I do not, sir."

" Here, you sir ! " cried Sir Mulberry, as the man was
retiring. " Do you know that person's name ? "

" Name, sir ? No, sir."

" Then you'll find it there," said Sir Mulberry, throwing
Nicholas's, card towards him : " and when you have made
yourself master of it, put that piece of pasteboard in the fire."

The man grinned, and, looking doubtfully at Nicholas,*
compromised the matter by sticking the card in the chimney-
glass. Having done this, he retired.

Nicholas folded his arms, and, biting his lip, sat perfectly
quiet ; sufficiently expressing by his manner, however, a firm
determination to carry his threat of following Sir Mulberry
home, into steady execution.

It was evident from the tone in which the younger mem-
ber of the party appeared to remonstrate with his friend, that
he objected to this course of proceeding, and urged him to
comply with ' the request which Nicholas had made. Sir
Mulberry, however, who was not quite sober, and who was in
a sullen and dogged state of obstinacy, soon silenced the rep-
resentations of his weak young friend, and further seenftd — as
if to save himself from a repetition of them — to insist on being



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4 i 4 NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

left alone. However this might have been, the young gentle-
man and the two who had always spoken together, actually
rose to go after a short interval, and presently retired, leaving
their friend alone with Nicholas.

It will be very readily supposed that to one in the condi-
tion of Nicholas the minutes appeared to move with leaden
wings indeed, and that their progress did not seem the more
rapid from the monotonous ticking of a French clock, or the
shrill sound of its little bell which told the quarters. But
there he sat ; and in his old seat on the opposite side of the
room reclined Sir Mulberry Hawk, with his legs upon the
cushion, and his handkerchief throwr negligently over his
knees ; finishing his magnum of claret with the utmost coolness
and indifference.

Thus they remained in perfect silence for upwards of an
hour — Nicholas would have thought for three hours at least,
but that the little bell had only gone four times. Twice or
thrice he looked angrily and impatiently round ; but there
was Sir Mulberry in the same attitude, putting his glass to
his lips from time to time, and looking vacantly at the wall,
as if he were wholly ignorant of the presence of any living
person.

At length he yawned, stretched himself and rose, walked
coolly to the glass, and, having surveyed himself therein,
turned round and honored Nicholas with a long and con-
temptuous stare. Nicholas stared again with right good-
will ; Sir Mulberry shrugged his shoulders, smiled slightly,
rang the bell, and ordered the waiter to help him on with his
great-coat.

The man did so, and held the door open.

" Don't wait," said Sir Mulberry ; and they were alone
again.

Sir Mulberry took several turns up and down the room,
whistling carelessly all the time : stopped to finish the last
glass of claret which he had poured out a few minutes before,
walked again, put on his hat, adjusted it by the glass, drew
on his gloves, and, at last, walked slowly out. Nicholas, who
had been fuming and chafing until he was nearly wild, darted
from his seat, and followed him : so closely, that before the
door had swung upon its hinges after Sir Mulberry's passing
out, 4h e y stood side by side in the street together.

There was a private cabriolet in waiting ; the groom opened
the apron, and jumped out to the horse's head.



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NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y. 415

" Will you make yourself known to me ? " asked Nicholas,
in a suppressed voice.

44 No," replied the other fiercely, and confirming the refusal
with an oath. " No."

44 If you trust to your horse's speed, you will find yourself
mistaken," said Nicholas. "I will accompany you. By
Heaven I will, if I hang on to the foot-board ! "

"You shall be horsewhipped if you do," returned Sir Mul-
berry.

44 You are a villain," said Nicholas.

" You are an errand-boy for aught I know," said Sir Mul-
berry Hawk.

44 1 am the son of a country gentleman," returned Nicholas,
44 your equal in birth and education, and your superior I trust
in everything besides. I tell you again, Miss Nickleby is my
sister. Will you or will you not answer for your unmanly and
brutal conduct ? "

44 To a proper champion — yes. T<5 you — no," returned
Sir Mulberry, taking the reins in his hand. 44 Stand out of the
way, dog. William, let go her head."

44 You had better not," cried Nicholas, springing on the
step as Sir Mulberry jumped in, and catching at the reins.
44 He has no command over the horse, mind. You shall not
go — you shall not, I swear — till you have told me who you
are."

The groom hesitated, for the mare, who was a high-spirited
animal and thorough-bred, plunged so violently that he could
scarcely hold her.

44 Leave go, I tell you ! " thundered his master.

The man obeyed. The animal reared and plunged as
though it would dash the carriage into a thousand pieces, but
Nicholas, blind to all sense of danger, and conscious of
nothing but his fury, still maintained his place and his hold
upon the reins. •

44 Will you unclasp your hand ? "

44 Will you tell me who you are ? "

44 No!"

44 No!"

In less time than the quickest tongue could tell it, these
words were exchanged, and Sir Mulberry shortening his whip,
applied it furiously to the head and shoulders of Nicholas.
It was broken in the struggle ; Nicholas gained the heavy
handle, and with it laid open one side of his antagonist's face



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4 1 6 NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y.

from the eye to the lip. He saw the gash ; knew mat the mare
had darted off at a wild mad gallop ; a hundred lights danced
in his eyes, and he felt himself flung violently upon the ground.

He was giddy and sick, but staggered to his feet directly,
roused by the loud shouts of the men who were tearing up the
street, and screaming to those ahead to clear the way. He
was. conscious of a torrent of people rushing quickly by — look-
ing up, could discern the cabriolet whirled along the foot
pavement with frightful rapidity — then heard a loud cry, the
smashing of some heavy body, and the breaking of glass—
and then the crowd closed in in the distance, and he could
see or hear no more.

The general attention had been entirely directed from
himself to the person in the carriage, and he was quite alone.
Rightly judging that under such circumstances it would be
madness to follow, he turned down a by-street in search of the
nearest coach-stand, finding after a minute or two that he was
reeling like a drunken man, and aware for the first time of a
stream of blood that was trickling down his face and breast



CHAPTER XXXIII.



IN WHICH MR. RALPH NICKLEBY IS RELIEVED, BY A VERY
EXPEDITIOUS PROCESS, FROM ALL COMMERCE WITH HIS
RELATIONS.

Smike and Newman Noggs, who in his impatience had
returned home long before the time agreed upon, sat before
the fire, listening anxiously to every footstep on the stairs,
and the slightest sound that stirred within the house, for the
approach of Nicholas. Time had worn on, and it was grow-
ing late v He had promised to be back in an hour ; and his
prolonged absence began to excite considerable alarm in the
minds of both, as was abundantly testified by the blank looks
they cast upon each other at every new disappointment.

At length a coach was heard to stop, and Newman ran out
to light Nicholas up the stairs. Beholding him in the trim
described at the conclusion of the last chapter, he stood aghast
in wonder and consternation.

" Don't be alarmed," said Nicholas, hurrying him back



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



417



into the room. " There is no harm done, beyond what a basin
of water can repair."

" No harm ! " cried Newman, passing his hands hastily
over the back and arms of Nicholas, as if to assure himself
that he had broken no bones. " What have you been doing ? "

" I know all," interrupted Nicholas ; " I have heard a part,
and guessed the rest. But before I remove one jot of these
stains, I must hear the whole from you. You see I am col-
lected. My resolution is taken. Now, my good friend, speak
out ; for the time of any palliation or concealment is past, and
nothing will avail Ralph Nickleby now."

" Your dress is torn in several places ; you walk lame, and
I am sure are suffering pain," said Newman. Let me see
to your hurts first."

" I have no hurts to see to, beyond a little soreness and
stiffness that will soon pass off," said Nicholas, seating him-
self with some difficulty. " But if I had fractured every limb,
and still preserved my senses, you should not bandage one
till you had told me what I have the right to know. Come,"
said Nicholas, giving his hand to Noggs. " You had a sister
of your own, you told me once, who died before you fell into
misfortune. Now think of her, and tell me, Newman."

" Yes, I will, I will," said Noggs. " Til tell you the whole
truth."

Newman did so. Nicholas nodded his head from time
to time, as it corroborated the particulars he had already
gleaned ; but he fixed his eyes upon the fire, and did not look
round once.

His recital ended, Newman insisted upon his young
friend's stripping off his coat, and allowing whatever injuries
he had received to be properly tended. Nicholas, after some
opposition, at length consented, and, while some pretty severe
bruises on his arms and shoulders were being rubbed with oil
and vinegar, and various other efficacious remedies which
Newman borrowed from the different lodgers, related in what
manner they had been received. The recital made a strong
impression on the warm imagination of Newman ; for when
Nicholas came to the violent part of the quarrel, he rubbed
so hard, as to occasion him the most exquisite pain, which he
would not have exhibited, however, for the world, it being
perfectly clear that, for the moment, ^Newman was operating
on Sir Mulberry Hawk, and had quite lost sight of his real
patient.



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4 i8 NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

This martyrdom over, Nicholas arranged with Newman
that while he was otherwise occupied next morning, arrange-
ments should be made for his mother's immediately quitting
her present residence, and also for despatching Miss La
Creevy to break the intelligence to her. He then wrapped
himself in Smike's great-coat, and repaired to the inn where
they were to pass the night, and where (after writing a few
lines to Ralph, the delivery of which was to be intrusted to
Newman next day), he endeavored to obtain the repose of
which he stood so much in need.

Drunken men, they say, may roll down precipices, and be
quite unconscious of any serious personal inconvenience when
their reason returns. The remark may possibly apply to in-
juries received in other kinds of violent excitement ; certain
it is, that although Nicholas experienced some pain on first
awakening next morning, he sprung out of bed as the clock
struck seven, with very little difficulty, and was soon as much
on the alert as if nothing had occurred.

Merely looking into Smike's room, and telling him that



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 40 of 79)