Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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eyes, which having just begun to open to some few of the de-
merits of Mr. Mantalini, were only open a very little way, and
could be easily closed again. The result was, that without
quite giving up the allowance question Madame Mantalini
postponed its further consideration ; and Ralph saw, clearly
enough, that Mr. Mantalini had gained a fresh lease of his
easy life, and that, for some time longer at all events, his deg-
radation and downfall were postponed.

" But it will come soon enough," thought Ralph ; " all
love — bah ! that I should use the cant of boys and girls — is
fleeting enough ; though that which has its sole root in the
admiration of a whiskered face like that of yonder baboon,
perhaps lasts the longest, as it originates in the greater blind-
ness and is fed by vanity. Meantime the fools bring grist to
my mill, so let them live out their day, and the longer it is,
the better."

These agreeable reflections occurred to Ralph Nickleby,
as sundry small caresses and endearments, supposed to be
unseen, were exchanged between the objects of his thoughts.

" If you have nothing more to say, my dear, to Mr.
Nickleby," said Madame Mantalini, " we will take oUr leaves.
I am sure we have detained him much too long already."

Mr. Mantalini answered, in the first instance, by tapping
Madame Mantalini several times. on the nose, and then, by
remarking in words that he ha4 nothing more to say.

" Demmit ! I have, though," he added almost immediately,
drawing Ralph into a corner. " Here's an affair about your



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



friend Sir Mulberry. Such a demd extraordinary out-of-the-
way kind of thing as never was ! "

" What do you mean ? " asked Ralph.

" Don't you know, demmit ? " asked Mr. Mantalini.

" I see by the paper that he was thrown from his cabriolet
last night, and severely injured, and that his life is in some
danger," answered Ralph with great composure ; " but I see
nothing extraordinary in that. Accidents are not miraculous
events, when men live hard, and drive after dinner."

" Whew ! " cried Mr. Mantalini in a long shrill whistle.
" Then don't you know how it was ? "

" Not unless it was as I have just supposed," replied
Ralph, shrugging his shoulders carelessly, as if to give his
questioner to understand that he had no curiosity upon the
subject.

" Demmit, you amaze me ! " cried Mantalini.

Ralph shrugged his shoulders again, as if it were no great
feat to amaze Mr. Mantalini, and cast a wistful glance at the
face of Newman Noggs, which had several times appeared
behind a couple of panes of glass in the room door ; it being
a part of Newman's duty, when unimportant people called, to
make various feints of supposing that the bell had rung for
him to show them out ; by way of a gentle hint to such vis-
itors that it was time to go.

" Don't you know," said Mr. Mantalini, taking Ralph by
the button, " that it wasn't an accident at all, but a demd,
furious, manslaughter! ng attack made upon him by your
nephew ? "

" What ! " snarled Ralph, clenching his fists and turning
a livid white.

" Demmit, Nickleby, you're as great a tiger as he is," said
Mantalini, alarmed at these demonstrations.

"Go on," cried Ralph. " Tell me what you mean. What
is this story ? Who told you ? Speak," growled Ralph. " Do
you hear me ? "

" 'Gad, Nickleby," said Mr. Mantalini, retreating towards
his wife, " what a demneble fierce old evil genius you are !
You're enough to frighten my life and soul out of her little
delicious wits — flying all at once into such a blazing, ravaging,
raging passion as never was, demmit ! "

"Pshaw," rejoined Ralpfc, forcing a smile. "It is but
manner."

"It is a demd uncomfortable, private-madhouse-sort of
manner," said Mr. Mantalini, picking up his cane.



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. 43 1

Ralph affected to smile, and once more inquired from
whom Mr. Mantalini had derived his information.

"From Pyke. And a demd, fine, pleasant, gentlemanly
dog it is," replied Mantalini. " Demnition pleasant, and a
tip-top sawyer."

" And what said he ? " asked Ralph, knitting his brows.

" That it happened this way — that your nephew met him
at a coffee-house, fell upon him with the most demneble fe-
rocity, followed him to his cab, swore he would ride home with
him, if he rode upon the horse's back or hooked himself on to
the horse's tail, smashed his countenance, which is a demd
fine countenance in its natural state, frightened the horse,
pitched out Sir Mulberry and himself, and — "

" And was killed ? " interposed Ralph with gleaming eyes.
"Was he? Is he dead?"

Mantalini shook his head.

"Ugh," said Ralph, turning away. "Then he has done
nothing. Stay ! " he added, looking round again. " He broke
a leg or an arm, or put his shoulder out, or fractured his col-
lar-bone, or ground a rib or two ? His neck was saved for
the halter, but he got some painful and slow-healing injury
for his trouble ? Did he ? You must have heard that, at
least."

" No," rejoined Mantalini, shaking his head again. " Un-
less he was dashed .into such little pieces that they blew away,
he wasn't hurt, for he went off as quiet and comfortable as
— as — as demnition," said ]yir. Mantalini, rather at a loss for
a simile.

" And what," said Ralph, hesitating a little, " what was
the cause of quarrel ? "

"You are the demdest, knowing hand, "replied Mr. Manta-
lini, in an admiring tone, " the cunn ingest, rummest, superlativ-
est old fox— oh dem ! — to pretend now not to know that it was
the little bright-eyed niece — the softest, sweetest, prettiest "

" Alfred ! " interposed Madame Mantalini.

" She is always right," rejoined Mr. Mantalini soothingly,
" and when she says it is time to go, it is time, and so she
shall ; and when she walks along the streets with her own
tulip, the women shall say with envy, she has got a demd fine
husband ; and the men shall say with rapture, he has got a
demd fine wife ; and they shall both be right and neither wrong,
upon my life and soul — oh demmit ! "

With which remarks, and many more, no less intellectual



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



and to the purpose, Mr. Mantalini kissed the fingers of his
gloves to Ralph Nickleby, and drawing his lady's arm through
his, led her mincingly away.

"So, so," muttered Ralph dropping into his chair; "this
devil is loose again, and thwarting me, as he was born to do,
at every turn. He told me once there should be a day of
reckoning between us, sooner or later. I'll make him a true
prophet, for it shall surely come."

" Are you at home ? " asked Newman, suddenly popping
in his head.

" No," replied Ralph, with equal abruptness.

Newman withdrew his head, but thrust it in again.

" You're quite sure you're not at home, are you ? " said
Newman.

" What does the idiot mean ? " cried Ralph, testily.

" He has been waiting nearly ever since they first came in,
and may have heard your voice ; that's all," said Newman,
rubbing his hands.

" Who has ? " demanded Ralph, wrought by the intelligence
he had just heard, and his clerk's provoking coolness, to an
intense pitch of irritation.

The necessity of a reply was superseded by the unlooked-
for entrance of a third party — the individual in question — who,
bringing his one eye (for he had but one) to bear on Ralph
Nickleby, made a great many shambling bows, and sat him-
self down in an arm chair, with his hands on his knees, and
his short black trousers drawn up so high in^ the legs by the
exertion of seating himself, that they scarcely reached below
the tops of his Wellington boots.

" Why, this is a surprise ! " said Ralph, bending his gaze
upon the visitor, and half smiling as he scrutinized him atten-
tively ; " I should know your face, Mr. Squeers."

" Ah ! " replied, that worthy, " and you have know'd it
better, sir, if it hadn't been for all that I've been a going
through. Just lift that little boy off the tall stool in the back
office, and tell hirn to come in here, will you, my man ? " said
Squeers, addressing himself to Newman. " Oh, he's lifted his-
self off ! My son, sir, little Wackford. What do you think of
him, sir, for a specimen of the Dotheboys Hall feeding?
Ain't he fit to bust out of his clothes, and start the seams, and
make the very buttons fly off with his fatness ? Here's flesh ! "
cried Squeers, turning the boy about, and indenting the
plumpest parts of his figure with divers pokes and punches, to



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. 433

the great discomposure of his son and heir. " Here's firm-
ness, here's solidness ! Why you can hardly get up enough
of him between your finger and thumb to pinch him any-
wheres."

In however good condition Master Squeers might have
been, he certainly did not present this remarkable compact-
ness of person, for on his father's closing his finger and
thumb in illustration of his remark, he uttered a sharp cry,
and rubbed the place in the most natural manner possible.

" Well," remarked Squeers, a little disconcerted, " I had
him there ; but that's because we breakfasted early this morn-
ing, and he hasn't had his lunch yet. Why you couldn't shut
a bit of him in a door, when he's had his dinner. Look at
them tears, sir," said Squeers, with a triumphant air, as Master
Wackford wiped his eyes with the cuff of his jacket, " there's
oiliness ! "

" He looks well, indeed," returned Ralph, who, for some
purposes of his own, seemed desirous to conciliate the school-
master. ** But how is Mrs. Squeers, and how are you ? "

" Mrs. Squeers, sir," replied the proprietor of Dothe-
boys, "is as she always is — a mother to them lads, and a
blessing, and a comfort, and a joy to all them as knows her.
One of our boys — gorging his-self with vittles, and then turning
ill ; that's their way— got a abscess on him last week. To
see how she operated upon him with a penknife ! Oh Lor ! "
said Squeers, heaving a sigh, and nodding his head a great
many times, ** what a member of society that woman is ! "

Mr. Squeers indulged in a retrospective look, for some
quarter of a minute, as if this allusion to his lady's excellences
had naturally led his mind to the peaceful village of Dothe-
boys near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire ; and he then looked at
Ralph, as if waiting for him to say something.

*' Have you quite recovered that scoundrel's attack ? "
asked Ralph.

" I've only just done it, if I've done it now," replied
Squeers. " I was one blessed bruise, sir," said Squeers, touch-
ing first the roots of his hair, and then the toes of his boots,
" from here to there. Vinegar and brown paper, vinegar and
brown paper, from morning to night. I suppose there was
a matter of half a ream of brown paper stuck upon me, from
first to last. As I laid all of a heap in our kitchen, plastered all
over, you might have thought I was a large brown paper par-
cel, chock full of nothing but groans. Did I groan loud,

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434 NICHOLAS NJCKLEB V.

Wackford, or did I groan soft ? " asked Mr. Squeers, appeal-
ing to his son.

" Loud," replied Wackford.

" Was the boys sorry to see me in such a dreadful condi-
tion, Wackford, or was they glad ? " asked Mr. Squeers, in a
sentimental manner.

"Gl— "

" Eh ? " cried Squeers, turning sharp round.

" Sorry," rejoined the son.

" Oh ! " said Squeers, catching him a smart box on the
ear. " Then take your hands out of your pockets, and don't
stammer when you're asked a question. Hold your noise,
sir, in a gentleman's office, or I'll run away from my family
and never come back any more ; and then what would be-
come of all them precious and forlorn lads as would be let
loose on the world, without their best friend at their elbers ! "

"Were you obliged to have medical attendance?" in-
quired Ralph.

" Ay, was I," rejoined Squeers, " and a precious bill the
medical attendant brought in too ; but I paid it though."

Ralph elevated his eyebrows in a manner which might be
well expressive of either sympathy or astonishment. Just as
the beholder was pleased to take it.

" Yes, I paid it, every farthing," replied Squeers, who
seemed to know the man he had to deal with too well to
suppose that any blinking of the question would induce him
to subscribe towards the expenses ; " I wasn't out of pocket
by it after all, either."

"No? "said Ralph.

"Not a halfpenny," replied Squeers. "The fact is, we
have only one extra with our boys, and that is for doctors
when required — and not then, unless we're sure of our cus-
tomers. Do you see ? "

" I understand," said Ralph.

" Very good," rejoined Squeers. " Then, after my bill
was run up, we picked out five little boys (sons of small
tradesmen, as was sure pay) that had never had the scarlet
fever, and we sent one to a cottage where they'd got it, and
he took it, and then we put the four others to sleep with him,
and they took it, and then the doctor came and attended
'em once all round, and we divided my total among 'em and
added it on their little bills, and the parents paid it. Hal
ha 1 ha ' "



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



435



" And a good plan too," said Ralph, eyeing the school-
master stealthily.

" I believe you," rejoined Squeers. " We always do it.
Why, when Mrs. Squeers was brought to bed with little
Wackford here, we ran the hooping-cough through half a
dozen boys, and charged her expenses among 'em, monthly
nurse included. Ha ! ha ! ha ! "

Ralph never laughed, but on this occasion he produced
the nearest approach to it that he could, and waiting until
Mr. Squeers had enjoyed the professional joke to his heart's
content, inquired what had brought him to town.

" Some bothering law business," replied Squeers, scratch-
ing his head, " connected with an action, for what they call
neglect of a boy. I don't know what they would have. He
had as good grazing, that boy had, as there is about us."

Ralph looked as if he did not quite understand the obser-
vation.

"Grazing," said Squeers, raising his voice, under the im-
pression that as Ralph failed to comprehend him, he must be
deaf. " When a boy gets weak and ill and don't relish his
meals, we give him a change of diet — turn him out, for an
hour or so every day, into a neighbor's turnip field, or some-
times, if it's a delicate case, a turnip field a piece of carrots
alternately, and let him eat as many as he likes. There ain't
better land in the county than this perwerse lad grazed on,
and yet he goes and catches cold and indigestion and what
not, and then his friends brings a lawsuit against me I Now,
you'd hardly suppose," added Squeers, moving in his chair
with the impatience of an ill-used man, " that people's ingrati-
tude would carry them quite as far as that ; would you ? "

" A hard case, indeed," observed Ralph.

" You don't say more than the truth when you say that,"
replied Squeers. " I don't suppose there's a man going, as
possesses the fondness for youth that I do. There's youth
to the amount of eight hundred pound a-year, at Dotheboys
Hall at this present time. I'd take sixteen hundred pound
worth, if I could get 'em, and be as fond of every individual
twenty pound among 'em as nothing should equal it ? "

" Are you stopping at your old quarters ? " asked Ralph.

"Yes, we are to the Saracen," replied Squeers, "and as it
don't want very long to the end of the half-year, we shall
continney to stop there, till I've collected the money, and
some new boys too, I hope. I've brought little Wackford up,



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436 NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

on purpose to show to parents and guardians. I shall put
him in the advertisement, this time. Look at that boy — him-
self a pupil. Why he's a miracle of high feeding, that boy
is!"

" I should like to have a word with you," said Ralph, who
had both spoken and listened mechanically for some time,
and seemed to have been thinking.

"As many words as you like, sir," rejoined Squeers.
" Wackford, you go and play in the back office, and don't
move about too much, or you'll get thin, and that won't do.
you haven't got such a thing as twopence, Mr. Nickleby, have
you ? " said Squeers, rattling a bunch of keys in his coat
pocket, and muttering something about its being all silver.

" I — think I have," said Ralph, very slowly, and produc-
ing, after much rummaging in an old drawer, a penny, a half-
penny, and two farthings.

"Thankee," said Squeers, bestowing it upon his son.
" Here ! You go and buy a tart — Mr. Nickleby's man will
show you where — and mind you buy a rich one. Pastry," added
Squeers, closing the door on Master Wackford, " makes his
flesh shine a good deal, and parents thinks that a healthy
sign."

With this explanation, and a peculiarly knowing look to
eke it out, Mr. Squeers moved his chair so as to bring him-
self opposite to Ralph Nickleby at no great distance off; and
having planted it to his entire satisfaction, sat down.

" Attend to me," said Ralph, bending forward a little.

Squeers nodded.

" I am not to suppose," said Ralph, " that you are dolt
enough to forgive or forget, very readily, the violence that
was committed upon you, or the exposure which accompanied
it ? "

" Devil a bit," replied Squeers, tartly.

" Or to lose an opportunity of repaying it with interest,
if you could get one ? " said Ralph.

" Show me one, and try," rejoined Squeers.

" Some such object it was, that induced you to call on
me ? " said Ralph, raising his eyes to the schoolmaster's face.

"N — n — no, I don't know that," replied Squeers. "I
thought that if it was in your power to make me, besides the
trifle of money you sent, any compensation "

" Ah ! " cried Ralph, interrupting him. " You needn't go



on.



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



437



After a long pause, during which Ralph appeared ab-
sorbed in contemplation, he again broke silence, by asking :

" Who is this boy that he took with him ? "

Squeers stated his name.

" Was he young or old, healthy or sickly, tractable or
rebellious ? Speak out, man," retorted Ralph.

" Why, he wasn't young," answered Squeers ; " that is,
not young for a boy, you know."

" That is, he was not a boy at all, I suppose ? " interrupted
Ralph.

" Well," returned Squeers briskly, as if he felt relieved by
the suggestion, "he might have been nigh twenty. He
wouldn't seem so old, though, to them as didn't know him, for
he was a little wanting here," touching his forehead ; " nobody
at home you know, if you knocked ever so often."

" And you did knock pretty often, I dare say ? " muttered
Ralph.

" Pretty well," returned Squeers with a grin.

" When you wrote to acknowledge the receipt of this trifle
of money as you call it," said Ralph, " you told me his friends
had deserted him long ago, and that you had not the faintest
clue or trace to tell you who he was. Is that the truth ? "

" It is, worse luck ! " replied Squeers, becoming more and
more easy and familiar in his manner, as Ralph pursued his
inquiries with the less reserve. " It's fourteen years ago, by
the entry in my book, since a strange man brought him to my
place, one autumn night, and left him there : paying five
pound five, for his first quarter in advance. He might have
been five or six year old at that time, not more."

" What more do you know about him ? " demanded Ralph.

" Devilish little, I'm sorry to say," replied Squeers. " The
money was paid, for some six or eight year, and then it
stopped. He had given an address in London, had this
chap ; but when it came to the point, of course nobody know-
ed any thing about him. So I kept the lad out of — out of — "

" Charity ? " suggested Ralph dryly.

" Charity, to be sure," returned Squeers, rubbing his knees,
" and when he begins to be useful in a certain sort of way,
this young scoundrel of a Nickleby comes and carries him
off. But the most vexatious and aggeravating part of the
whole affair is," said Squeers, dropping his voice, and drawing
his chair still closer to Ralph, "that some questions have
been asked about him at last ; not of me, but, in a round-



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438 NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

about kind of way, of people in our village. So, that just when
I might have had all arrears paid up, perhaps, and perhaps —
who knows ? such things have happened in our business be-
fore — a present besides for putting him out to a farmer, or
sending him to sea, so that he might never turn up to disgrace
his parents, supposing him to be a natural boy, as many of
our boys are— damme, if that villain of a Nickleby don't col-
lar him in open day, and commit as good as highway robbery
upon my pocket."

" We will both cry quits with him before long," said Ralph,
laying his hand on the arm of the Yorkshire schoolmaster.

" Quits ! " echoed Squeers. " Ah ! and I should like to
leave a small balance in his favor, to be settled when he can.
I only wish Mrs. Squeers could catch hold of him. Bless
her heart ! She'd murder him, Mr. Nickleby. She would, as
soon as eat her dinner."

" We will talk of this again," said Ralph. " I must have
time to think of it. To wound him through his own affections
and fancies . If I could strike him through this boy "

" Strike him how you like, sir," interrupted Squeers, " only
hit him hard enough, that's all. And with that, I'll say good-
morning. Here ! — just chuck that little boy's hat off that
corner-peg, and lift him off the stool, will you ? "

Bawling these requests to Newman Noggs, Mr. Squeers
betook himself to the little back office, and fitted on his child's
hat with parental anxiety, while Newman, with his pen behind
his ear, sat, stiff and immovable, on his stool, regarding the
father and son by turns with a broad stare.

" He's a fine boy, an't he ? " said Squeers, throwing his
head a little on one side, and falling back to the desk, the
better to estimate the proportions of little Wackford.

" Very," said Newman.

" Pretty well swelled out, an't he ? " pursued Squeers.
" He has the fatness of twenty boys, he has."

" Ah ! " replied Newman, suddenly thrusting his face into
that of Squeers, " he has ; — the fatness of twenty ! — more !
He's got it all. God help the others. Ha ! ha ! Oh Lord ! "

Having uttered these fragmentary observations, Newman
dropped upon his desk and began to write with most marvel-
lous rapidity.

" Why, what does the man mean ? "cried Squeers coloring.
" Is he drunk ? "

Newman made no reply.



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NICHOLAS NTCKLEBY. 439

" Is he mad ? " said Squeers.

But, still Newman betrayed no consciousness of any pres-
ence save his own ; so, Mr. Squeers comforted himself by
saying that he was both drunk and mad ; and, with this part-
ing observation, he led his hopeful son away.

In exact proportion as Ralph Nickleby became conscious
of a struggling and lingering regard for Kate, had his detesta-
tion of Nicholas augmented. It might be, that to atone for
the weakness of inclining to any one person, he held it neces-
sary to hate some other, more intensely than before ; but such
had been the course of his feelings. And now, to be defied
and spurned, to be held up to her in the worst and most re-
pulsive colors, to know that she was taught to hate and de-
spise him, to feel that there was infection in his touch, and
taint in his companionship — to know all this, and to know
that the mover of it all was that same boyish poor relation
who had twitted him in their very first interview, and openly
bearded and braved him since, wrought his quiet and stealthy
malignity to such a pitch, that there was scarcely anything he
would not have hazarded to gratify it, if he could have seen
his way to some immediate retaliation.

But, fortunately for Nicholas, Ralph Nickleby did not ;
and although he cast about, all that day, and kept a corner of
his brain working on the one anxious subject through all the
round of schemes and business that came with it, night found
him at last, still harping on the same theme, and still pursu-
ing the same unprofitable reflections.

" When my brother was such as he," said Ralph, " the
first comparisons were drawn between us. Always in my dis-
favor. He was open, liberal, gallant, gay ; I a crafty hunks of
cold and stagnant blood, with no passion but love of saving,
and no spirit beyond a thirst for gain. I recollected it well
when I first saw this whipster ; but I remember it better now."

He had been occupied in tearing Nicholas's letter into
atoms ; and as he spoke, he scattered it in a tiny shower



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 42 of 79)