Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

. (page 51 of 79)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 51 of 79)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

turnip-radishes, and other small vegetables, which fell rolling
and scattering, and bumping about, in all directions.

As Kate rose from her seat, in some alarm, and caught
her mother's hand to run with her into the house, she felt
herself rather retarded than assisted in her intention; and
following the direction of Mrs. Nickleby's eyes, was quite
terrified by the apparition of an old black velvet cap, which,
by slow degrees, as if its wearer were ascending a ladder or


Digitized by VjOOQlC


pair of steps, rose above the wall dividing their garden from
that of the next cottage (which, like their own, was a detached
building), and was gradually followed by a very large head,
and an old face in which were a pair of most extraordinary
grey eyes : very wild, very wide open, and rolling in their
sockets, with a dull languishing leering look, most ugly to
behold. *

" Mama 1 " cried Kate, really terrified for the moment,
" why do you stop, why do you lose an instant ? Mama, pray
come in ! "

" Kate, my dear," returned her mother, still holding back,
" how can you be so foolish ? I'm ashamed of you. How do
you suppose you are ever to get through life, if you're such a
coward as this ! What do you want, sir ? " said Mrs. Nickleby,
addressing the intruder with a sort of simpering displeasure.
" How dare you look into this garden ? "

"Queen of my soul," replied the stranger, folding his
hands together, " this goblet sip ! "

" Nonsense, sir," said Mrs. Nickleby. " Kate, my love,
pray be quiet."

" Won't you sip the goblet ? " urged the stranger, with his
head imploringly on one side, and his right hand on his breast
" Oh, do sip the goblet ! "

I shall not consent to do anything of the kind, sir," said
Mrs. Nickleby. " Pray, begone."

" Why is it," said the old gentleman, coming up a step
higher, and leaning his elbows on the wall, with as much com-
placency as if he were looking out of window, " why is it that
beauty is always obdurate, even when admiration is as honor-
able and respectful as mine ? " Here he smiled, kissed his
hand, and made several low bows. " Is it owing to the bees, who,
when the honey season is over, and they are supposed to have
been killed with brimstone, in reality fly to Barbary and lull
the captive Moors to sleep with their drowsy songs ? Or,
is it," he added, dropping his voice almost to a whisper, " in
consequence of the statue at Charing Cross having been lately
seen, on the Stock Exchange at midnight, walking arm-in-arm
with the Pump from Aldgate, in a riding-habit ? "

" Mama," murmured Kate, " do you hear him ? "

" Hush, my dear ! " replied Mrs. Nickleby, in the same
tone of voice, "he is very polite, and I think that was a
quotation from the poets. Pray, don't worry me so— you'll
pinch my arm black and blue. Go away, sir ! "

Digitized by VjOOQIC



" Quite away ? " said the gentleman, with a languishing
look, " Oh ! quite away ? "

" Yes," returned Mrs. Nickleby, " certainly. You have no
business here. This is private property, sir; you ought to
know that."

" I do know," said the old gentleman, laying his finger on
his nose, with an air of familiarity, most reprehensible, " that
fhis is a sacred and enchanted spot, where the most divine
charms " — here he kissed his hand and bowed again — " waft
mellifluousness over the neighbors' gardens, and force the fruit
and vegetables into premature existence. That fact I am
acquainted with. But will you permit me, fairest creature, to
ask you one question, in the absence of the planet Venus, who
has gone on business to the Horse Guards, and would other-
wise — jealous of your superior charms — interpose between

" Kate," observed Mrs. Nickleby, turning to her daughter,
" it's very awkward, positively. " I really don't know what to
say to this gentleman. One ought to be civil, you know."

" Dear mama," rejoined Kate, " don't say a word to him,
but let us run away, as fast as we can, and shut ourselves up
till Nicholas comes home."

Mrs. Nickleby looked very grand, not to say contemptuous,
at this humiliating proposal ; and, turning to the old gentle-
man, who had watched them during these whispers with
absorbing eagerness, said :

"If you will conduct yourself, sir, like the gentleman I
should imagine you to be, from your language and — and
appearance (quite the counterpart of your grand-papa, Kate,
my dear, in his best days), and will put your question to me in
plain words, I will answer it."

If Mrs. Nickleby's excellent papa had borne, in his best
days, a resemblance to the neighbor now looking over the
wall, he must have been, to say the least, a very queer-looking
old gentleman in his prime. Perhaps Kate thought so, for she
ventured to glance at his living portrait with some attention,
as he took off his black velvet cap, and, exhibiting a perfectly
bald head, made a long series of bows, each accompanied witn
a fresh kiss of the hand. After exhausting himself, to all
appearance, with this fatiguing performance, he covered his
4 head once more, pulled the cap very carefully over the tips of
his ears, and resuming his former attitude, said :

" The question is — "

Digitized by VjOOQIC



Here he broke off to look round in every direction, and
satisfy himself beyond all doubt that there were no listeners
near. Assured that there were not, he tapped his nose several
times, accompanying the action with a cunning look, as though
congratulating himself on his caution ; and stretching out his
neck, said in a loud whisper,

" Are you a princess ? "

"You are mocking me, sir," replied Mrs. Nickleby,
making a feint of retreating towards the house.

" No, but are you ? " said the old gentleman.

" You know I am not, sir," replied Mrs. Nickleby.

" Then are you any relation to the Archbishop of Canter-
bury ? " inquired the old gentleman with great anxiety. " Or
to the Pope of Rome ? Or the Speaker of the House of
Commons ? Forgive me, if I am wrong, but I was told you
were niece to the Commissioners of Paving, and daughter-in-
law to the Lord Mayor and Court of Common Council, which
would account for your relationship to all three."

" Whoever has spread such reports, sir," returned Mrs.
Nickleby, with some warmth, " has taken great liberties with
my name, and one which I am sure my son Nicholas, if he
was aware of it, would not allow for an instant. The idea ! "
said Mrs. Nickleby, drawing herself up. " Niece to the Com-
missioners of Paving ! "

" Pray, mama, come away i " whispered Kate.

" * Pray, mama ! ' Nonsense, Kate," said Mrs. Nickleby,
angrily, " but that's just the way. If they had said I was niece
to a piping bullfinch, what would you care ! But I have no
sympathy," whimpered Mrs. Nickleby, " I don't expect it,
that's one thing."

" Tears 1 " cried the old gentleman, with such an energetic
jump, that he fell down two or three steps and grated his chin
against the wall. " Catch the crystal globules— catch 'em —
bottle 'em up— cork 'em tight — put sealing-wax on the top—
seal 'em with a cupid — label 'em ' Best quality ' — and stow
'em away in the fourteen binn, with a bar of iron on the top
to keep the thunder off 1 "

Issuing these commands, as if there were a dozen attend-
ants all actively engaged in their execution, he turned his
velvet cap inside out, put it on with great dignity so as to ob-
scure his right eye and three-fourths of his nose, and sticking
his arms a-kimbo, looked very fiercely at a sparrow hard by,
till the bird flew away. He then put his cap in his pocket

Digitized by VjOOQIC


with an air of great satisfaction, and addressed himself with
respectful demeanor to Mrs. Nickleby.

" Beautiful madam," such were his words, " if I have made
any mistake with regard to your family or connections, I
humbly beseech you to pardon me. If I supposed you to be
related to Foreign Powers or Native Boards, it is because you
have a manner, a carriage, a dignity, which you will excuse
my saying that none but yourself (with the single exception
perhaps of the tragic muse, when playing extemporaneously
on the barrel organ before the East India Company) can par-
allel. I am not a youth, ma'am, as you see ; and although
beings like you can never grow old, I venture to presume that
we are fitted for each other."

" Really, Kate, my love ! " said Mrs. Nickleby faintly, and
looking another way.

" I have estates, ma'am," said the old gentleman, flourish-
ing his right hand negligendy, as if he made very light of such
matters, and speaking very fast ; " jewels, light-houses; fish-
ponds, a whalery of my own in the North Sea, and several
oyster-beds of great profit in the Pacific Ocean. If you will
have the kindness to step down to the Royal Exchange and to
take the cocked hat off the stoutest beadle's head, you will
find my card in the lining of the crown, wrapped up in a piece
of blue paper. My walking-stick is also to be seen on appli-
cation to the chaplain of the House of Commons, who is
strictly forbidden to take any money for showing it. I have
enemies about me, ma'am," he looked towards his house and
spoke very low, " who attack me on all occasions, and wish to
secure my property. If you bless me with your hand and
heart, you can apply to the Lord Chancellor or call out the
military if necessary — sending my tooth-pick to the com-
mander-in-chief will be sufficient — and so clear the house of
them before the ceremony is performed. After that, love bliss
and rapture ; rapture love and bliss. Be mine, be mine ! "

Repeating these last words with great rapture and enthu-
siasm the old gentleman put on his black velvet cap again,
and looking up into the sky in a hasty manner, said something
that was not quite intelligible concerning a balloon he ex-
pected, and which was rather after its time.

" Be mine, be mine ! " repeated the old gentleman.

" Kate, my dear," said Mrs. Nickleby, " I have hardly the
power to speak ; but it is necessary for the happiness of all
parties that this matter should be set at rest for ever.' 1- *

Digitized by VjOOQIC



" Surely there is no necessity for you to say one word,
mama ? " reasoned Kate.

" You will allow me, my dear, if you please, to judge for
myself," said Mrs. Nickieby.

" Be mine, be mine ! " cried the old gentleman.

" It can scarcely be expected, sir," said Mrs. Nickieby,
fixing her eyes modestly on the ground, " that I should tell a
stranger whether I feel flattered and obliged by such pro-
posals, or not. They certainly are made under very singular
circumstances ; still at the same time, as far as it goes, and to
a certain extent of course " (Mrs. Nickieby 's customary qual-
ification), "they must be gratifying and agreeable to one's

" Be mine, be mine," cried the old gentleman. " Gog and
Magog, Gog and Magog. Be mine, be mine ! "

" It will be sufficient for me to say, sir," resumed Mrs.
Nickieby, with perfect seriousness — " and I'm sure you'll see
the propriety of taking an answer and going away — that I
have made up my mind to remain a widow, and to devote my-
self to my children. You may not suppose I am the mother
of two children — indeed many people have doubted it, and
said that nothing on earth could ever make 'em believe it pos-
sible — but it is the case, and they are both grown up. We
shall be very glad to have you for a neighbor — very glad ;
delighted, I'm sure — but in any other character it's quite im-
possible, quite. As to my being young enough to marry again,
that perhaps may be so, or it may not be ; but I couldn't think
of it for an instant, not on any account whatever. I said I
never would, and I never will. It's a very painful thing to
have to reject proposals, and I would much rather that none
were made ; at the same time this is the answer that I deter-
mined long ago to make, and this is the answer I shall always

These observations were partly addressed to the old gen-
tleman, partly to Kate, and partly delivered in soliloquy.
Towards their conclusion, the suitor evinced a very irreverent
degree of inattention, and Mrs. Nickieby had scarcely finished
speaking, when, to the great terror both of that lady and her
daughter, he suddenly flung off his coat, and springing on the
top of the wall, threw himself into an attitude which displayed
his small clothes and gray worsteds to the fullest advantage,
and concluded by standing on one leg, and repeating his
favorite bellow with increased vehemence. •

Digitized by VjOOQIC



While he was still dwelling on the last note, and embellish-
ing it with a prolonged flourish, a dirty hand was observed to
glide stealthily and swiftly along the top of the wall, as if in
pursuit of a fly, and then to clasp with the utmost dexterity
one of the old gentleman's ankles. This done, the companion
hand appeared, and clasped the other ankle.

Thus encumbered the old gentleman lifted his legs awk-
wardly once or twice, as if they were clumsy and imperfect
pieces of machinery, and then looking down on his own side
of the wall, burst into a loud laugh.

" It's you, is it ? " said the old gentleman.

" Yes, it's me," replied a gruff voice.

" How's the Emperor of Tartary ? " said the old gentleman.

" Oh ! he's much the same as usual," was the reply. " No
better and no worse."

" The young Prince of China," said the old gentleman,
with much interest. " Is he reconciled to his father-in-law,
the great potato salesman ? "

" No," answered the gruff voice ; " and he says he never
will be, that's more."

" If that's the case," observed the old gentleman, " per-
haps I'd better come down."

" Well," said the man on the other side, " I think you had,

One of the hands being then cautiously unclasped, the old
gentleman dropped into a sitting posture, and was looking
round to smile and bow to Mrs. Nickleby, when he disap-
peared with some precipitation, as if his legs had been pulled
from below.

Very much relieved by his disappearance, Kate was turn-
ing to speak to her mama, when the dirty hands again became
visible, and were immediately followed by the figure of a
coarse squat man, who ascended by the steps which had been
recently occupied by their singular neighbor.

" Beg you pardon, ladies," said this new comer, grinning
and touching his hat. " Has he been making love to either
of you ? "

"Yes," said Kate.

" Ah ! " rejoined the man, taking his handkerchief out of
his hat and wiping his face, "he always will, you know.
Nothing will prevent his making love."

" I need not ask you if he is out of his mind, poor crea-
ture," said Kate.

Digitized by VjOOQIC


" Why no," replied the man, looking into his hat, throwing
his handkerchief in at one dab, and putting it on again.
"That's pretty plain, that is."

" Has he been long so ? " asked Kate.

" A long while."

" And is there no hope for him ? " said Kate, compas-

"Not a bit, and don't deserve to be," replied the keeper.
" He's a deal pleasanter without his senses than with 'em.
He was the cruellest, wickedest, out-and-outerest old flint that
ever drawed breath."

" Indeed ! ,; said Kate.

" By George ! " replied the keeper, shaking his head so
emphatically that he was obliged to frown to keep his hat on,
" I never came across such a vagabond, and my mate says
the same. Broke his poor wife's heart, turned his daughters
out of doors, drove his sons into the streets ; it was a blessing
he went mad at last, through evil tempers, and covetousness,
and selfishness, and guzzling, and drinking, or he'd have
drove many others so. Hope for Aim, an old rip ! There
isn't too much hope going, but I'll bet a crown that what there
is, is saved for more deserving chaps than him, anyhow."

With which confession of his faith, the keeper shook his
head again, as much as to say that nothing short of this would
do, if things were to go on at all; and touching his hat
sulkily — not that he was in ill humor, but that his subject
ruffled him — descended the ladder, and took it away.

During this conversation, Mrs. Nickleby had regarded the
man with a severe and steadfast look. She now heaved a pro-'
found sigh, and pursing up her lips, shook her head in a slow
and doubtful manner.

" Poor creature 1 " said Kate.

" Ah ! poor indeed ! " rejoined Mrs. Nickleby. " It's
shameful that such things should be allowed. Shameful ! "

" How can they be helped, mama ? " said Kate, mournfully.
" The infirmities of nature — "

" Nature ! " said Mrs. Nickleby. " What ! Do you sup-
pose this poor gentleman is out of his mind ? "

" Can anybody who sees him entertain any other opinion,
mama ? "

" Why then, I just tell you this, Kate," returned Mrs.
Nickleby, " that he is nothing of the kind, and I am surprised
you can be so imposed upon. It's some plot of these people

Digitized by VjOOQIC


to possess themselves of his property— didn't he say so him-
self ? He may be a little odd and flighty, perhaps, many of
us are that ; but downright mad ! and express himself as he
does, respectfully, and in quite poetical language, and making
offers with so much thought, and care, and prudence — not as
if he ran into the streets, and went down upon his knees to
the first chit of a girl he met, as a madman would ! No, no,
Kate, there's a great deal too much method in his madness ;
depend upon that, my dear."



The pavement of Snow Hill had been baking and frying
all day in the heat, and the twain Saracens' heads guarding the
entrance to the hostelry of whose name and sign they are the
duplicate presentiments, looked— -or seemed in the eyes of jaded
and foot-sore passers-by, to look — more vicious than usual, after
blistering and scorching in the sun, when, in one of the inn's
smallest sitting-rooms, through whose open window there rose,
in a palpable steam, wholesome exhalations from reeking
coach-horses, the usual furniture of a tea-table was displayed
in neat and inviting order, flanked by large joints of roast and
boiled, a tongue, a pigeon-pie, a cold fowl, a tankard of ale,
and other little matters of the like kind, which, in degenerate
towns and cities, are generally understood to belong more
particularly to solid lunches, stage-coach dinners, or unusually
substantial breakfasts.

Mr. John Browdie, with his hands in his pockets, hovered
restlessly about these delicacies, stopping occasionally to
whisk the flies out of the sugar-basin with his wife's pocket-
handkerchief, or to dip a tea-spoon in the milk-pot and carry
it to his mouth, or to cut off a little knob of crust, and a little
corner of meat, and swallow them at two gulps like a couple
of pills. After every one of these flirtations with the eatables,
he pulled out his watch, and declared with an earnestness
quite pathetic that he couldn't undertake to hold out two
minutes longer.

Digitized by VjOOQIC


" 'Tilly ! " said John to his lady, who was reclining half
awake and half asleep upon a sofa.

" Well, John ! "

" Weel, John ! " retorted her husband, impatiently. " Dost
thou feel hoongry, lass ? "

" Not very," said Mrs. Browdie.

" Not vary ! " repeated John, raising his eyes to the ceil-
ing. " Hear her say not vary, and us dining at three, and
loonching off pasthry thot aggravates a mon 'stead of pacify
ing him ! Not vary ! "

" Here's a gen'l'man for you, sir," said the waiter, looking

" A wa'at, for me ? " cried John, as though he thought it
must be a letter, or a parcel.

" A gen'l'man, sir."

" Stars and garthers, chap !" said John, "wa'at dost thou
coom and say thot for ? In wi' 'un."

" Are you at home, sir ? "

" At whoam ! " cried John, " I wish I wur ; I'd ha' tea'd
two hour ago. Why, I told t'oother chap to look sharp oot-
side door, and tell 'un d'rectly he coom, thot we war faint wi'
hoonger. In wi' 'un. Aha ! Thee hond, Misther Nickleby.
This is nigh to be the proodest day o' my life, sir. Hoo be
all wi' ye ? Ding ! But, I'm glod o' this ! "

Quite forgetting even his hunger in the heartiness of his
salutation, John Browdie shook Nicholas by the hand again
and again, slapping his palm with great violence between each
shake, to add warmth to the reception.

" Ah ! there she be," said John, observing the look which
Nicholas directed towards his wife. "There she be — we
shan't quarrel about her noo — Eh ? Ecod, when I think o'
thot — but thou want'st soom'at to eat. Fall to, mun, fall to,
and for wa'at we're aboot to_ receive — " •

No doubt the grace was properly finished, but nothing
more was heard, for John had already begun to play such a
knife and fork, that his speech was, for the time, gone.

" I shall take the usual license, Mr. Browdie," said Nich-
olas, as he placed a chair for the bride. .

"Tak' whatever thou like'st," said John, "and when a's
gane, ca' for more."

Without stopping to explain, Nicholas kissed the blushing
Mrs. Browdie, and handed her to her seat.

" I say," said John, rather astounded for the moment,
" mak' theeself quite at whoam, will 'ee ? "

Digitized by VjOOQIC



" You may depend upon that," replied Nicholas ; " on one

" And wa'at may thot be ? " asked John.

" That you make me a godfather the very first time you
have occasion for one."

" Eh ! d'ye hear thot ! " cried John, laying down his knife
and fork. " A godfeyther ! Ha ! ha ! ha ! Tilly— hear till
'un — a godfeyther ! Divn't say a word more, ye'll never beat
thot. Occasion for 'un — a godfeyther ! Ha 1 ha ! ha ! "

Never was man so tickled with a respectable old joke, as
John Browdie was with this. He chuckled, roared, half-
suffocated himself by laughing large pieces of beef into his
wind-pipe, roared again, persisted in eating at the same time,
got red in the face and black in the forehead, coughed, cried,
got better, went off* again laughing inwardly, got worse,
choked, had his back thumped, stamped about, frightened his
wife, and at last recovered in a state of the last exhaustion
and with the water streaming from his eyes, but still faintly
ejaculating " A godfeyther — a godfeyther, Tilly ! " in a tone
bespeaking an exquisite relish of the sally, which no suffering
could diminish.

" You remember the night of our first tea-drinking ? " said

"Shall I e'er forget it, mun?" replied John Browdie.

" He was a desperate fellow that night though, was he
not, Mrs. Browdie ? " said Nicholas. " Quite a monster ? "

" If you had only heard him as we were going home, Mr.
Nickleby, you'd have said so indeed," returned the bride. " I
never was so frightened in all my life."

"Coom, coom," said John, with a broad grin; "thou
know'st betther than thot, Tilly."

" So I was," replied Mrs. Browdie. " I almost made up
my mind never to speak to you again."

" A'most ! " said John, with a broader grin than the last.
" A'most made up her mind ! And she wur coaxin', and coax-
in,' and wheedlin', and wheedlin' a' the blessed wa\ ' Wa'at
didst thou let yon chap mak' oop tiv'ee for? ' says I. ' I
deedn't, John,' says she, a squeedgin my arm. ' You deedn't,'
says I. ' Noa,' says she, a squeedgin of me agean."

" Lor, John ! " interposed his pretty wife, coloring very
much. " How can you talk such nonsense ? As if I should
have dreamt of such a thing ! "

" I dinnot know whether thou'd ever dreamt of it, though

Digitized by VjOOQIC



I think that's loike eneaf, mind," retorted John ; " but thou
didst it. ' Ye're a feeckle, changeable weathercock, lass,'
says I. 4 Not feeckle, John,' says she. ' Yes,' says I,

* feeckle, dom'd feeckle. Dinnot tell me thou bean't, efther
yon chap at schoolmeasther's,' says I. ' Him ! ' says she,
quite screeching. ' Ah ! him I ' says I. * Why, John,' says
she — and she coom a deal closer and squcedged a deal harder
than she'd deane afore — * dost thou think it's nat'ral noo, that
having such a proper mun as thou to keep company wi', I'd
ever tak' oop wi' such a leetle scanty whipper-snapper as
yon ? ' she says. Ha ! ha ! ha ! She said whipper-snapper !

* Ecod ! ' I say, * efther thot, neame the day, and let's have it
ower!' Ha! ha! ha!"

, Nicholas laughed very heartily at this story, both on ac-
count of its telling against himself, and his being desirous to

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 51 of 79)