Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

. (page 57 of 79)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 57 of 79)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

instincts, my dear sir, are the most beautiful of the Almighty's
works, but like other beautiful works of His, they must be
reared and fostered, or it is as natural that they should be
wholly obscured, and that new feelings should usurp their
place, as it is that the sweetest productions of the earth, left
untended, should be choked with weeds and briars. I wish
we could be brought to consider this, and, remembering
natural obligations a little more at the right time, talk about
them a little less at the wrong one."

After this, brother Charles, who had talked himself into a
great heat, stopped to cool a little, and then continued :

" I daresay you are surprised, my dear sir, that I have

Digitized by VjOOQlC



listened to your recital with so little astonishment. That is
easily explained. Your uncle has been here this morning."

Nicholas colored, and drew back a step or two.

" Yes," said the old gentleman, tapping his desk emphati-
cally, " here, in this room. He would listen neither to reason,
feeling, nor justice. But brother Ned was hard upon him ;
brother Ned, sir, might have melted a paving-stone."

" He came to " said Nicholas.

"To complain of you," returned brother Charles, "to
poison our ears with calumnies and falsehoods ; but he came
on a fruitless errand, and went away with some wholesome
truths in his ear besides. Brother Ned, my dear Mr. Nickle-
by — brother Ned, sir, is a perfect lion. So is Tim Lirtkin-
water ; Tim is quite a lion. We had Tim in to face him at
first, and Tim was at him, sir, before you could say 'Jack
Robinson.' "

" How can I ever thank you, for all the deep obligations
you impose upon me every day ? " said Nicholas.

" By keeping silence upon the subject, my dear sir,"
returned brother Charles. " You shall be righted. At least
you shall not be wronged. Nobody belonging to you shall be
wronged. They shall not hurt a hair of your head, or the
•boy's head, or your mother's head, or your sister's head.
I have said it, brother Ned has said it, Tim Linkinwater
has said it. We have all said it, and we'll all do it I
have seen the father — if he is the father — and I suppose he
must be. He is a barbarian and a hypocrite, Mr. Nickleby.
I told him, ' You are a barbarian, sir.' I did. I said, ' You're
a barbarian, sir.' And I'm glad of it, I am very glad I. told
him he was a barbarian, very glad, indeed ! "

By this time brother Charles was in such a very warm
state of indignation, that Nicholas thought he might venture
to put in a word ; but the moment he essayed to do so, Mr.
Cheeryble laid his hand softly upon his arm, and pointed to
a chair.

" The subject is at an end for the present," said the old
gentleman, wiping his face. " Don't revive it by a single
word. I am going to speak upon another subject, a confi-
dential subject, Mr. Nickleby. We must be cool again, we
must be cool."

After two or three turns across the room he resumed his
seat, and drawing his chair nearer to that on which Nicholas
was seated, said :

Digitized by VjOOQlC



" I am about to employ you, my dear sir, on a confidential
and delicate mission."

" You might employ many a more able messenger, sir,"
said Nicholas, " but a more trustworthy or zealous one, J may
be bold to say you could not find."

" Of that I am well assured," returned brother Charles,
" well assured. You will give me credit for thinking so, when
I tell you, that the object of this mission is a young lady."

" A young lady, sir ! " cried Nicholas, quite trembling for
the moment with his eagerness to hear more.

' " A very beautiful young lady," said Mr. Cheeryble,

" Pray go on, sir," returned Nicholas.

" I am thinking how to do so," said brother Charles ; sadly,
as it seemed to his young friend, and with an expression allied
to pain. " You accidentally saw a young lady in this room one
morning, my dear sir, in a fainting fit. D<f you remember ?
Perhaps you have forgotten."

" Oh no," replied Nicholas, hurriedly. " I — I — remember
it very well indeed."

" She is the lady I speak of," said brother Charles. Like
the famous parrot, Nicholas thought a great deal, but was
unable to utter a word.

" She is the daughter," said Mr. Cheeryble, " of a lady
who, when she was a beautiful girl herself, and I was very
many years younger, I — it seems a strange word for me to
utter now — I loved very dearly. You will smile, perhaps, to
hear a gray-headed man talk about such things. You will not
offend me, for when I was as young as you, I dare say I
should have done the same."

" I have no such inclination, indeed," said Nicholas.

" My dear brother Ned," continued Mr. Cheeryble, " was
to have married her sister, but she died. She is dead too now,
and has been for many years. She married her choice, and
I wish I could add that her after-life was as happy, as God
knows I ever prayed it might be ! "

A short silence intervened, which Nicholas made no effort
to break.

" If trial and calamity had fallen as lightly on his head, as
in the deepest truth of my own heart I ever hoped (for her
sake) it would, his life would have been one of peace and
happiness," said the old gentleman, calmly. "It will be
enough to say that this was not the case ; that she was not


Digitized by VjOOQIC


happy ; that they fell into complicated distresses and diffi-
culties ; that she came, twelve months before her death, to
appeal to my old friendship ; sadly changed, sadly altered,
broken-spirited from suffering and ill-usage, and almost bro-
ken-hearted. He readily availed himself of the money which,
to give her but one hour's peace of mind, I would have poured
out as freely as water — nay, he often sent her back for more
— and yet, even while he squandered it, he made the very
success of these, her applications to me, the groundwork of
cruel taunts and jeers, protesting that he knew she thought
with bitter remorse of the choice she had made, that she had
married him from motives of interest and vanity (he was a
gay young man with great friends about him when she chose
him for her husband), and venting in short upon her, by every
unjust and unkind means, the bitterness of that ruin and
disappointment which had been brought about by his prof-
ligacy alone. In those times this young lady was a mere
child. I never saw her again until that morning when you
saw her also, but my nephew, Frank "

Nicholas started, and indistinctly apologizing for the in-
terruption, begged his patron to proceed.

" My nephew, Frank, I say," resumed Mr. Cheeryble,

" encountered her by accident, and lost sight of her almost
in a minute afterwards, within two days after he returned to
England. Her father lay in some secret place to avoid his
creditors, reduced, between sickness and poverty, to the verge
of death, and she, a child, — we might almost think, if we did
not know the wisdom of all Heaven's decrees — who should
have blessed a better man, was steadily braving privation,
degradation, and everything most terrible to such a young and
delicate creature's heart, *for the purpose of supporting him.
She was attended, sir," said brother Charles, " in these re-
verses, by one faithful creature, who had been, in old times,
a poor kitchen wench in the family, who was then their soli-
tary servant, but who might have been for the truth and
fidelity of her heart — who might have been — ah I the wife of
Tim Linkinwater himself, sir ! "

Pursuing this encomium upon the poor follower with such
energy and relish as no words can describe, brother Charles
leant back in his chair, and delivered the remainder of his
relation with greater composure.

It was in substance this : That proudly resisting all offers
of permanent aid and support from her late mother's friends,

Digitized by VjOOQIC



because they were made conditional upon her quitting the
wretched man, her father, who had no friends left, and shrink-
ing with instinctive delicacy from appealing in their behalf to
that true and noble heart which he hated, and had, through
its greatest and purest goodness, deeply wronged by miscon-
struction and ill report, this young girl had struggled alone
and unassisted to maintain him by the labor of her hands.
That through the utmost depths of poverty and affliction she
had toiled, never turning aside for an instant from her task,
never weaned by the petulant gloom of a sick man, sustained
by no consoling recollections of the past or hopes of the future ;
never repining for the comforts she had rejected, or bewailing
the hard lot she had voluntarily incurred. That every little
accomplishment she had acquired in happier days had been
put into requisition for this purpose, and directed to this one
end. That for two long years, toiling by day and often too
by night, working at the needle, the pencil, and the pen, and
submitting, as a daily governess, to such caprices and indig-
nities as women (with daughters too) too often love to inflict
upon their own sex when they serve in such capacities, as
though in jealousy of the superior intelligence which they are
necessitated to employ, — indignities, in ninety-nine cases out
of every hundred, heaped upon persons immeasurably and'
incalculably their betters, but outweighing in comparison any
that the most heartless blackleg would put upon his groom —
that for two long years, by dint of laboring in all these capaci-
ties and wearying in none, she had not succeeded in the sole
aim and object of her life, but that, overwhelmed by accumu-
lated difficulties and disappointments, she had been compelled
to seek out her mother's old friend, and, with a bursting heart,
to confide in him at last.

" If I had been poor," said brother Charles, with spark-
ling eyes ; " if I had been poor, Mr. Nickleby, my dear sir,
which thank God I am not, I would have denied myself (of
course anybody would under such circumstances) the com-
monest necessaries of life, to help her. As it is, the task is a
difficult one. If her father were dead, nothing could be easier,
for then she should share and cheer the happiest home that
brother Ned and I could have, as if she were qur child or
sister. But he is still alive. Nobody can help him ; that
has been tried a thousand times ; he was not abandoned by
all without good cause, I know."

" Cannot she be persuaded to—" Nicholas hesitated
when he had got thus far.

Digitized by VjOOQIC


"To leave him?" said brother Charles. "Who could
entreat a child to desert her parent ? Such entreaties, limited
to her seeing him occasionally, have been urged upon her—
not by me — but always with the same result."

" Is he kind to her ? " said Nicholas. " Does he requite
her affection ? "

" True kindness, considerate self-denying kindness, is not
in his nature," returned Mr. Cheeryble. " Such kindness as
he knows, he regards her with, I believe. The "mother was a
gentle, loving, confiding creature, and although he wounded
her from their marriage until her death as cruelly and wantonly
as ever man did, she never ceased to love him. She com-
mended him on her death-bed to her child's care. Her child
has never forgotten it, and never will."

" Have you no influence over him ? " asked Nicholas.

" I, my dear sir ? The last man in the world. Such is
his jealousy and hatred of me, that if he knew his daughter
had opened her heart to me, he would render her life miser-
able with his reproaches ; although — this is the inconsistency
and selfishness of his .character — although if he knew that
every penny she had, came from me, he would not relinquish
one personal desire that the'most reckless expenditure of her
scanty stock could gratify."

" An unnatural scoundrel ! " said Nicholas, indignantly.

"We will use no harsh terms," said brother Charles, in a
gentle voice ; " but- will accommodate ourselves to the cir-
cumstances in which this young lady is placed. Such assist-
ance as I have prevailed upon her to accept, I have been
obliged, at her own earnest request, to dole out in the smallest
portions, lest he, finding how easily money was procured,
should squander it even more lightly than he is accustomed
to do. She has come to and fro, to and fro, secretly and by
night, to take even this ; and I cannot bear that things should
go on in this way, Mr. Nickleby, I really cannot bear it."

Then it came out by little and little, how that the twins
had been revolving in their good old heads, manifold plans
and schemes for helping this young lady in the most delicate
and considerate way, and so that her father should not sus-
pect the squrce whence the aid was derived ; and how they
had at last come to the conclusion, that the best course
would be to make a feint of purchasing her little drawings
and ornamental work, at a high price, and keeping vp a con-
stant demand for the same. For the furtherance of which

Digitized by VjOOQIC



end and object it was necessary that somebody should rep-
resent the dealer in such commodities, and after great de-
liberation they had pitched upon Nicholas to support this

" He knows me," said brother Charles, " and he knows
my brother Ned. Neither of us would do. Frank is a very
good fellow — a very fine fellow — but we are afraid that he
might be a little flighty and thoughtless in such a delicate
matter, and that he might, perhaps — that he might, in short,
be too susceptible (for she is a beautiful creature, sir, just what
her poor mother was), and, falling in love with her before he
well knew his own mind, carry pain and sorrow into that inno-
cent breast, which we would be the humble instruments of
gradually making happy. He took an extraordinary interest
in her fortunes when he first happened to encounter her. And
we gather from the inquiries we had made of him, that it was
she in whose behalf he made that turmoil which led to your
first acquaintance."

Nicholas stammered out that he had before suspected the
possibility of such a thing ; and in explanation of its having
occurred to him, he described when and where he had seen
the young lady herself.

"Well ; then you see," continued brother Charles, "that
he wouldn't do. Tim Linkinwater is out of the question ; for
Tim, sir, is such a tremendous fellow, that he could never
contain himself, but would go to loggerheads with the
father before he had been in the place five minutes. You
don't know what Tim is, sir, when he is roused by anything
that appeals to his feelings very strongly ; then he is terrific,
sir, is Tim Linkinwater, absolutely terrific. Now, in you we
can repose the strictest confidence ; in you we have seen — or
at least /have seen, and that's the same thing, for there's no
difference between me and my brother Ned, except that he is
the finest creature that ever lived, and that there is not and
never will be anybody like him in all the world — in you we
have seen domestic virtues and affections, and delicacy of
feeling, which exactly qualify you for such an office. And
you are the man, sir."

" The young lady, sir," said Nicholas, who felt so embar-
rassed that; he had no small difficulty in saying anything at all
— "Does — is — is she a party to this innocent deceit ? "

"Yes, yes," returned Mr. Cheeryble ; " at least she knows
you come from us ; she does not know, however, but that we

Digitized by VjOOQIC


shall dispose of these little productions which you'll purchase
from time to time ; and, perhaps, if you did it very well (that
is, very well indeed), perhaps she might be brought to believe
that we — that we made a profit of them. Eh ? Eh ? "

In this guileless and most kind simplicity, brother Charles
was so happy, and in this possibility of the young lady being
led to think that she was under no obligation to him, he evi-
dently felt so sanguine and had so much delight, that Nicho-
las would not breathe a doubt upon the subject.

All this time, however, there hovered upon the tip of his
tongue a confession that the very same objections which Ml
Cheeryble had stated to the employment of his nephew in this
commission applied with at least equal force and validity to
himself, and a hundred times had he been upon the point of
avowing the real state of his feelings, and entreating to be re-
leased from it. But as often, treading upon the heels of this
impulse, came another which urged him to refrain, and to
keep his secret to his own breast. "Why should I," thought
Nicholas, " why should I throw difficulties in the way of this
benevolent and high-minded design ? What if I do love and
reverence this good and lovely creature. Should I not ap-
pear a most arrogant and shallow coxcomb if I gravely rep-
resented that there was any danger of her falling in love
with me ? Besides, have I no confidence in myself ? Am I
not now bound in honor to repress these thoughts ? Has not
this excellent man a right to my best and heartiest services,
and should any considerations of self deter me from render-
ing them ? "

Asking himself such questions as these, Nicholas mentally
answered with great emphasis " No ! " and persuading him-
self that he was a most conscientious and glorious martyr,
nobly resolved to do what, if he had examined his own heart
a little more carefully, he would have found he could not re-
sist. Such is the sleight of hand by which we juggle with
ourselves, and change our very weaknesses into most magnan-
imous virtues !

Mr. Cheeryble, 'being of course wholly unsuspicious that
such reflections were presenting themselves to his young
friend, proceeded to give him the needful credentials and di-
rections for his first visit, which was to be made jiext morn-
ing ; all preliminaries being arranged, and tfce strictest secrecy
enjoined, Nicholas walked home for the night very thought-
fully indeed.

Digitized by VjOOQlC


The place to which Mr. Cheeryble had directed him was a
row of mean and not over-cleanly nouses, situated within " the
Rules " of the King's Bench Prison, and not many hundred
paces distant from the obelisk in Saint George's Fields. The
Rules are a certain liberty adjoining the prison, and compris-
ing some dozen streets in which debtors who can raise money
to pay large fees, from which their creditors do not derive any
benefit, are permitted to reside by the wise provisions of the
same enlightened laws which leave the debtor who can raise
no money to starve in jail, without the food, clothing, lodging
or warmth which are provided for felons convicted of the most
atrocious crimes that can disgrace humanity. There are many
pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is
not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which
supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye,
and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all
men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their

To the row of houses indicated to him by Mr. Charles
Cheeryble, Nicholas directed his steps, without much troub-
ling his head with such matters as these ; and at this row of
houses — after traversing a very dirty and dusty suburb, of
which minor theatricals, shell-fish, ginger-beer, spring vans,
green-grocery, and brokers' shops, appeared to compose the
main and most prominent features — he at length arrived with
a palpitating heart. There were small gardens in front which,
being wholly neglected in all other respects, served as little
pens for the dust to collect in, until the wind came round the
corner and blew it down the road. Opening the rickety gate
which, dangling on its broken hinges before one of these, half
admitted and half repulsed the visitor, Nicholas knocked at
the street door with a faltering hand.

It was in truth a shabby house outside, with very dim par-
lor windows and very small show of blinds, and very dirty
muslin curtains dangling across the lower panes on very loose
and limp strings. Neither, when the door was opened, did
the inside appear to belie the outward promise, as there was
faded carpeting on the stairs and faded oil-cloth in the pas-
sage ; in addition to which discomforts a gentleman Ruler
was smoking hard in the front parlor (though it was not yet
noon), while the lady of the house was busily engaged in tur-
pentining the disjointed fragments of a tent-bedstead at the
door of the back parlor, as if in preparation for the reception

Digitized by VjOOQIC


of some new lodger who had been fortunate enough to en-
gage it.

Nicholas had ample time to make these observations while
the little boy, who went on errands for the lodgers, clattered
down the kitchen stairs and was heard to scream, as in some
remote cellar, for Miss Bray's servant. Who, presently ap-
pearing and requesting him to follow her, caused him to
evince greater symptoms of nervousness and disorder than so
natural a consequence of his having inquired for that young
lady would seem calculated to occasion.

Up stairs he went, however, and into a front room he was
shown, and there, seated at a little table by the window, on
which were drawing materials with which she was occupied,
sat the beautiful girl who had so engrossed his thoughts, and
who, surrounded by all the new and strong interest which
Nicholas attached to her story, seemed now, in his eyes, a
thousand times more beautiful than he had ever yet supposed

But how the graces and elegances which she had dis-
persed about the poorly -furnished room, went to the heart of
Nicholas ! Flowers, plants, birds, the harp, the old piano
whose notes had sounded so much sweeter in by-gone times ;
how many struggles had it cost her to keep these two last links
of that broken chain which bound her yet to home ! With every
slender ornament, the occupation of her leisure hours, replete
with that graceful charm which lingers in every little tasteful
work of woman's hands, how much patient endurance and how
many gentle affections were entwined ! He felt as though the
smile of Heaven were on the little chamber ; as though the
beautiful devotion of so young and weak a creature, had shed
a ray of its own on the inanimate things around, and made them
beautiful as itself ; as though the halo with which old painters
surround the bright angels of a sinless world, played about a
being akin in spirit to them, and its light were visibly before

And yet Nicholas was in the Rules of the King's Bench
Prison ! If he had been in Italy indeed, and the time had
been sunset, and the scene a stately terrace ! But, there is
one broad sky over all the world, and, whether it be blue or
cloudy, the same Heaven beyond it ; so, perhaps, he had no
need of compunction for thinking as he did.

It is not to be supposed that he took in everything at one
glance, for he had as yet been unconscious of the presence of

Digitized by VjOOQIC


a sick man propped up with pillows in an easy chair, who
moving restlessly and impatiently in his seat, attracted his at-

He was scarce fifty, perhaps, but so emaciated as to appear
much older. His features presented the remains of a hand-
some countenance, but one in which the embers of strong and
impetuous passions were easier to be traced than any expres-
sion which would have rendered a far plainer face much more
prepossessing. His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and
body literally worn to the bone, but there was something of the
old fire in the large sunken eye notwithstanding, and it seemed
to kindle afresh as he struck a thick stick, with which he
seemed to have supported himself in his seat, impatiently on
the floor twice or thrice, and called his daughter by her name.

" Madeline, who is this ? What does anybody want here ?
Who told a stranger we could be seen ? What is it ? "

" I believe " the young Jady began, as she inclined

her head with an air of some confusion, in reply to the salu-
tation of Nicholas.

"You always believe," returned her father, petulantly.
"What is it?"

By this time Nicholas had recovered sufficient presence of
mind to speak for himself, so he said (as it had been agreed
he should say) that he had called about a pair of hand-screens,
and some painted velvet for an ottoman, both of which were
required to be of the most elegant design possible, neither
time nor expense being of the smallest consideration. He
had also to pay for the two drawings, with many thanks, and,

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 57 of 79)