Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

. (page 68 of 79)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 68 of 79)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

more and more as they approached nearer and nearer to the
house, was utterly dismayed and cowed by the mournful
silence which pervaded it The face of the poor servant-girl,
the only person they saw, was disfigured with tears and want

Digitized by VjOOQIC



of sleep. There was nobody to receive or welcome them ;
and they stole up stairs into the usual sitting-room, more like
two burglars than the bridegroom and his friend.

" One would think," said Ralph, speaking, in spite of
himself, in a low and subdued voice, " that there was a funeral
going on here, and not a wedding."

" He, he ! " tittered his friend, " you are so— so very
funny ! "

" I need be," remarked Ralph, dryly, " for this is rather
dull and chilling. Look a little brisker, man, and not so hang-
dog like ! "

" Yes, yes, I will," said Gride. " But— but— you don't
think she's coming just yet, do you ? "

"Why, I suppose she'll not come till she is obliged,"
returned Ralph, looking at his watch, " and she has a good
half -hour to spare yet. Curb your impatience."

"I — I — am not impatient," stammered Arthur. "I
wouldn't be hard with her for the world. Oh dear, dear, not
on any account. Let her take her time — her own time. Her
time shall be ours by all means."

While Ralph bent upon his trembling friend a 1ceen look,
which showed that he perfectly understood the reason of this
great consideration and regard, a footstep was heard upon the
stairs, and Bray himself came into the room on tiptoe, and
holding up his hand with a cautious gesture, as if there were
some sick person near, who must not be disturbed.

" Hush ! " he said, in a low voice. " She was very ill,
last night. I thought she would have broken her heart. She
is dressed, and crying bitterly in her own room ; but she's
better, and quite quiet. That's everything ! "

" She is ready, is she ? " said Ralph.

"Quite ready," returned the father.

" And not likely to delay us by any young-lady weaknesses
— fainting, or so forth ? " said Ralph.

" She may be safely trusted now," returned Bray. " I
have been talking to her this morning. Here ! Come a little
this way."

He drew Ralph Nickleby to the further end of the room,
and pointed towards Gride, wjio sat huddled together in a
corner, fumbling nervously with the buttons of his coat, and
exhibiting a face of which every skulking and base expression
was sharpened and aggravated to the utmost by his anxiety
and trepidation.


Digitized by VjOOQIC


" Look at that man," whispered Bray, emphatically. " This
seems a cruel thing, after all."

" What seems a cruel thing ? " inquired Ralph, with as
much stolidity of face, as if he really were in utter ignorance
of the other's meaning.

" This marriage,"" answered Bray. " Don't ask me what
You know as well as I do."

Ralph shrugged his shoulders, in silent deprecation of
Bray's impatience, and elevated his eyebrows, and pursed
his lips, as men do when they are prepared with a sufficient
answer to some remark, but wait for a more favorable oppor-
tunity of advancing it, or think it scarcely worth while to
answer their adversary at all,

" Look at him. Does it not seem cruel ? " said Bray.

" No ! " replied Ralph boldly.

" I say it does," retorted Bray, with a show of much irrita-
tion. " It is a cruel thing, by all that's bad and treacherous ! "

When men are about to commit, or to sanction the com-
mission of some injustice, it is not uncommon for them to ex-
press pity for the object either of that or some parallel pro-
ceeding, and to feel themselves, at the time, quite virtuous
and moral, and immensely superior to those who express no
pity at all. This is a kind of upholding of faith above works,
and is very comfortable. To do Ralph Nickleby justice, he
seldom practised this sort of dissimulation ; but he understood
those who did, and therefore suffered Bray to say, again and
again, with great vehemence, that they were jointly doing a
very cruel thing, before he again offered to interpose a word.

" You see what a dry, shrivelled, withered old chip it is,"
returned Ralph, when the other was at length silent. " If he
were younger, it might be cruel, but as it is — harkee, Mr.
Bray, he'll die soon, and leave her a rich young widow ! Miss
Madeline consults your taste this time ; let her consult her
own next."

" True, true," said Bray, biting his nails, and plainly very
ill at ease. " I couldn't do anything better for her than advise
her to accept these proposals, could I? Now, I ask you,
Nickleby, as a man of the world ; could I ? "

" Surely not," answered Ralph. " I tell you what, sir ;
there are a hundred fathers, within a circuit of five miles from
this place ; well off ; good, rich, substantial men ; who would
gladly give their daughters, and their own ears with them, to
that very man yonder, ape and mummy as he looks."

Digitized by VjOOQIC


" So there are ! " exclaimed Bray, eagerly .catching at any-
thing which seemed a justification of himself. " And so I
told her, both last night and to-day."

" You told her truth," said Ralph, " and did well to do so ;
though I must say, at the same time, that if I had a daughter,
and my freedom, pleasure, nay, my very health and life, de-
pended on her taking a husband whom I pointed out, I should
hope it would not be necessary to advance any other argu-
ments to induce her to consent to my wishes."

Bray looked at Ralph, as if to see whether he spoke in
earnest, and having nodded twice or thrice in unqualified as-
sent to what had fallen from him, said :

" I must go up stairs, for a few minutes, to finish dressing.
When I come down, Til bring Madeline with me. Do you
know I had a very strange dream last night, which I have not
remembered till this instant? I dreamt that it was this
morning, and you and I had been talking, as we have been
this minute ; that I went up stairs, for the very purpose for
which I am going now ; and that as I stretched out my hand
to take Madeline's, and lead her down, the floor sank with
me, and after falling from such an indescribable and tremen-
dous height as the imagination scarcely conceives except in
dreams, I alighted in a grave."

" And you awoke, and found you were lying on your back,
or with your head hanging over the bedside, or suffering some
pain from indigestion ? " said Ralph. " Pshaw, Mr. Bray !
Do as I do (you will have the opportunity, now that a constant
round of pleasure and enjoyment opens upon you), and, oc-
cupying yourself a little more by day, have no time to think of
what you dream by night."

Ralph followed him, with a steady look, to the door ; turn-
ing to the bridegroom, when they were again alone, he said,

" Mark my words, Gride, you won't have to pay his annuity
very long. You have the devil's luck in bargains, always. If
he is not booked to make the long voyage before many
months are past and gone, I wear an orange for a head ! "

To this prophecy, so agreeable to his ears, Arthur returned
no answer than a cackle of great delight. Ralph, throwing
himself into a chair, they both sat waiting in profound silence.
Ralph was thinking, with a sneer upon his lips on the altered
manner of Bray that day, and how soon their fellowship in a
bad design had lowered his pride and established a familiarity
between them, when his attentive ear caught the rustling of a
female dress upon the stairs, and the footstep of a man.

Digitized by VjOOQIC


"Wake up !." he said, stamping his foot impatiently upon
the ground, " and be something like life, man, will you ? They
are here. Urge those dry old bones of yours this way. Quick,
man, quick ! "

Gride shambled forward, and stood, leering and bowing,
close by Ralph's side, when the door opened and there entered
in haste — not Bray and his daughter, but Nicholas and his
sister Kate.

If some tremendous apparition from the world of shadows
had suddenly presented itself before him, Ralph Nickleby
could not have been more thunder-stricken than he was by this
surprise. His hands fell powerless by his side, he reeled
back ; and with open mouth, and a face of ashy paleness, stood
gazing at them in speechless rage. His eyes were so promi-
nent, and his face was so convulsed and changed by the pas-
sions which raged within him, that it would have been difficult
to recognize in him the same stern, composed, hard featured
man he had been not a minute ago.

" The man that came*to me last night ! " whispered Gride,
plucking at his elbow. "The man that came to me last
night ! "

" I see," muttered Ralph, " I know ! I might have guessed
as much before. Across my every path, at every turn, go
where I will, do what I may, he comes ! "

The absence of all color from the face ; the dilated nostril ;
the quivering of the lips which, though set firmly against each
other, would not be still ; showed what emotions were strug-
gling for the mastery with Nicholas. But he kept them down,
and gently pressing Kate's arm to reassure her, stood erect
and undaunted, front to front with his unworthy relative.

As the brother and sister stood side by side, with a gallant
bearing which became them well, a close likeness between
them was apparent, which many, had they only seen them
apart, might have failed to remark. The air, carriage, and
very look and expression of the brother were all reflected in
the sister, but softened and refined to the nicest limit of femi-
nine delicacy and attraction. More striking still, was some
indefinable resemblance in the face of Ralph, to both. While
they had never looked more handsome, nor he more ugly ;
while they had never held themselves more proudly, nor he
shrunk half so low ; there never had been a time when this
resemblance was so perceptible, or when all the worst char-
acteristics of a face rendered coarse and harsh by evil thoughts
were half so manifest as now.

Digitized by VjOOQIC



" Away ! " was the first word he could utter as he literally
gnashed his teeth. " Away ! What brings you here ? Liar,
scoundrel, dastard, thief ! "

" I come here," said Nicholas in a low deep voice, " to
save your victim if I can. Liar and scoundrel you are, in
every action of your life ; theft is your trade ; and double
dastard you must be, or you were not here to-day. Hard
words will not move me, nor would hard blows. Here I
stand, and will, till I have done my errand." x

" Girl ! " said Ralph, " Retire ! We can use force to him,
but I would not hurt you if I could help it. Retire, you weak
and silly wench, and leave this dog to be dealt with as he

" I will not retire," cried Kate, with flashing eyes and the
red blood mantling in her cheeks. " You will do him no hurt
that he will not repay. You may use force with me ; I think
you will, for I am a girl, and that would well become you.
But if I have a girl's weakness, I have a woman's heart, and
it is not you who in a cause like this can turn that from its

" And what may your purpose be, most lofty lady ? " said

" To offer to the unhappy subject of your treachery, at
this last moment," replied Nicholas, " a refuge and a home.
If the near prospect of such a husband as you have provided,
will not prevail upon her, I hope she may be moved by the
prayers and entreaties of one of her own sex. At all events
they shall be tried. I myself, avowing to her father from
whom I come and by whom I am commissioned, will render
it an act of greater baseness, meanness, and cruelty in him if
he still dares to force this marriage on. Here I wait to see
him and his daughter. For this I came and brought my
sister even into your presence. Our purpose is not to see
or speak with you ; therefore to you, we stoop to say no

" Indeed ! " said Ralph. " You persist in remaining here,
ma'am, do you ? "

His niece's bosom heaved with the indignant excitement
into which he had lashed her, but she gave him no reply.

"Now, Gride, see here," said Ralph. "This fellow (I
grieve to say, my brother's son : a reprobate and profligate,
stained with every mean and selfish crime), this fellow, com-
ing here to-day to disturb a solemn ceremony, and knowing

Digitized by VjOOQIC


that the consequence of his presenting himself in another
man's house at such a time, and persisting in remaining there,
must be his being kicked into the streets and dragged through
them like the vagabond he is — this fellow, mark you, brings
with him his sister as a protection, thinking we would not
expose a silly girl to the degradation and indignity which is
no novelty to him. And, even after I have warned her of
what must ensue, he still keeps her by him, as you see, and
clings to her apron-strings like a cowardly boy to his mother's.
Is this a pretty fellow to talk as big as you have heard him

" And as I heard him last night," said Arthur Gride ; "as
I heard him last night when he sneaked into my house, and —
he ! he ! he ! — very soon sneaked out again, when I nearly
frightened him to death. And he wanting to marry Miss
Madeline too ! Oh, dear ! Is there anything else he'd like ?
Anything else we can do for him, besides giving her up ?
Would he like his debts paid and his house furnished, and a
few bank notes for shavirig paper — if he shaves at all ! He !
he! he!"

" You will remain, girl, will you ? " said Ralph, turning
upon Kate again, " to be hauled down stairs like a drunken
drab, as I swear you shall if you stop here ? No answer !
Thank your brother for what follows. Gride, call down Bray
— and not his daughter. -Let them keep her, above."

"If you value your head," said Nicholas, taking up a
position before the door, and speaking in the same low voice
in which he had spoken before, and with no more outward
passion than he had before displayed ; " stay wheie you are ! "

"Mind me, and not him, and call down Bray," said

" Mind yourself rather than either of us, and stay where
you are ! " said Nicholas. '

" Will you call down Bray ? " cried Ralph.

" Remember that you come near me at your peril," said

Gride hesitated. Ralph, being by this time as furious as
a baffled tiger, made for the door, and, attempting to pass
Kate, clasped her arm roughly with his hand. Nicholas, with
his eyes darting fire, seized him by the collar. At that mo-
ment a heavy body fell with great violence on the floor above,
and, in an instant afterwards, was heard a most appalling and
terrific scream.

Digitized by VjOOQIC



They all stood still, and gazed upon each other. Scream
succeeded scream ; a heavy pattering of feet succeeded ; many
shrill voices clamoring together were heard to cry, " He is

" Stand off I " cried Nicholas, letting loose all the pas-
sion he had restrained till now, " if this is what I scarcely dare
to hope it is, you are caught, villains, in your own toils."

He burst from the room, and, darting up stairs to the
quarter whence the noise proceeded, forced his way through
a crowd of persons who quite filled a small bed-chamber ; and
found Bray lying on the floor quite dead ; his daughter cling-
ing to the body.

" How did this happen ? " he cried, looking wildly about

Several voices answered together, that he had been ob-
served, through the half-opened door, reclining in a strange
and uneasy position upon a chair ; that he had been spoken
to, several times, and not answering, was supposed to be
asleep ; until some person going in and shaking him by the
arm, he fell heavily to the ground and was discovered to be

" Who is the owner of this house ? " said Nicholas,

An elderly woman was pointed out to him ; and to her he
said, as he knelt down and gently unwound Madeline's arms
from the lifeless mass round which they were entwined : " I
represent this lady's nearest friends, as her servant here
•knows, and must remove her from this dreadful scene. This
is my sister to whose charge you confide her. My name and
address are upon that card, and you shall receive from me all
necessary directions for the arrangements that must be made*
Stand aside, every one of you, and give room and air for God's
sake ! "

The people fell back, scarce wondering more at what had
just occurred, than at the excitement and impetuosity of him
who spoke. Nicholas, taking the insensible girl in his arms,
bore her from the chamber and down stairs into the room he
had just quitted, followed by his sister and the faithful servant,
whom he charged to procure a coach directly while he and
and Kate bent over their beautiful charge and endeavored,
but in vain, to restore her to animation. The girl performed
her office with such expedition, that in a very few minutes the
coach was ready.

Digitized by VjOOQIC



Ralph Nickleby and Gride, stunned and paralyzed by the
awful event which had so suddenly overthrown their schemes
(it would not otherwise, perhaps, have made much impression
on them), and carried away by the extraordinary energy and
precipitation of Nicholas, which bore down all before him,
looked on at these proceedings like men in a dream or trance.
It was not until every preparation was made for Madeline's
immediate removal that Ralph broke silence by declaring she
should not be taken away.

" Who says so ? " cried Nicholas, rising from his knee and
confronting them, but still retaining Madeline's lifeless hand
in his.

" I ! " answered Ralph, hoarsely.

" Hush, hush ! " cried the terrified Gride, catching him
by the arm again. " Hear what he says."

" Ay ! " said Nicholas, extending his disengaged hand in
the air, " hear what he says. That both your debts are paid
in the one great debt of nature. That the bond, due to-day
at twelve, is now waste paper. That your contemplated fraud
shall be discovered yet. That your schemes are known to
man, and overthrown by Heaven. Wretches, that he defies
you both to do your worst ! "

"This man," said Ralph, in a voice scarcely intelligible,
" this man claims his wife, and he shall have her."

" That man claims what is not his, and he should not have
her if he were fifty men, with fifty more to back him," said

" Who shall prevent him ? "

" I will."

" By what right I should like to know," said Ralph. " By
what right I ask ? "

" By this right. That, knowing what I do, you dare not
tempt me further," said Nicholas, " and by this better right ;
that those I serve, and with whom you would have done me
base wrong and injury, are her nearest and her dearest friends.
In their name I bear her hence. Give way ! "

" One word ! " cried Ralph, foaming at the mouth.

" Not one," replied Nicholas, " I will not hear of one —
save this. Look to yourself, and heed this warning that I
give you ! Day is past in your case, and night is coming on."

" My curse, my bitter, deadly curse upon you, boy ! "

" Whence will curses come at your command ? Or what
avails a curse or blessing from a man like you ? I tell you,

Digitized by VjOOQIC

Nicholas nickleby.


that misfortune and discovery are thickening about your head ;
that the structures you have raised, through all your ill-spent
life, are crumbling into dust; that your path is beset with
spies ; that this very day, ten thousand pounds of your hoard-
ed wealth have gone in one great crash I "

" Tis false ! " cried Ralph, shrinking back.

" 'Tis true, and you shall find it so. I have no more
words to waste. Stand from the door. Kate, do you go first.
Lay not a hand on her, or on that woman, or on me, or so
much as brush their garments as they pass you by ! — You let
them pass and he blocks the door again ! "

Arthur Gride happened to be in the doorway, but whether
intentionally or from confusion was not quite apparent. Nich-
olas swung him away, with such violence as to cause him to
spin round the room until he was caught by a sharp angle of
the wall and there knocked down ; and then taking his beau-
tiful burden in his arms rushed out. No one cared to stop
him, if any were so disposed. Making his way through a mob
of people, whom a report of the circumstances had attracted
round the house, and carrying Madeline, in his excitement,
as easily as if she were an infant, he reached the coach in
which Kate and the girl were already waiting, and, confiding
his charge to them, jumped up beside the coachman and bade
him drive away.




Although Mrs. Nickleby had been made acquainted by
her son and daughter with every circumstance of Madeline
Bray's history which was known to them ; although the respon-
sible situation in which Nicholas stood had been carefully
explained to her, and she had been prepared, even for the
possible contingency of having to receive the young lady in
her own house, improbable as such a result had appeared only
a few minutes before it came about ; still, Mrs. Nickleby, from
the moment when this confidence was first reposed in her,

Digitized by VjOOQIC



late on the previous evening, had remained in an unsatisfac-
tory and profoundly mystified state, from which no explana-
tions or arguments could relieve her, and which every fresh
soliloquy and reflection only aggravated more and more.

" Bless my heart, Kate ; " so the good lady argued ; " if
the Mr. Cheerybles don't want this young lady to be married,
why don't they file a bill against the Lord Chancellor, make
her a chancery ward, and shut her up in the Fleet prison for
safety ? — I have read of such things in the newspapers a hun-
dred times. Or, if they are so very fond of her as Nicholas
says they are, why don't they marry her themselves — one of
them I mean ? And even supposing they don't want her to
be married, and don't want to marry her themselves, why in
the name of wonder should Nicholas go about the world, for-
bidding people's banns ? "

" I don't think you quite understand," said Kate, gently.

" Well I am sure, Kate, my dear, you're very polite ! "
replied Mrs. Nickleby. " I have been married myself I hope,
and I have seen other people married. Not understand,
indeed ! "

" I know you have had great experience, dear mama," said
Kate ; " I mean that perhaps you don't quite understand all
the circumstances in this instance. We have stated them
awkwardly, I dare say."

" That I dare say you have," retorted her mother, briskly.
" That's very likely. I am not to be held accountable for
that ; though, at the same time, as the circumstances speak
for themselves, I shall take the liberty, my love, of saying
that I do understand them, and perfectly well too ; whatever
you and Nicholas may choose to think to the contrary. Why
is such a great fuss made because this Miss Magdalen is
going to marry somebody who is older than herself ? Your
poor papa was older than I was, four years and a half older.
Jane Dibabs — the Dibabses lived in the beautiful little thatch-
ed white house one story high, covered all over with ivy and
creeping plants, with an exquisite little porch with twining
honeysuckles and all sorts of things : where the earwigs used
to fall into one's tea on a summer evening, and always fell
upon their backs and kicked dreadfully, and where the frogs
used to get into the rushlight shades when one stopped all
night, and sit up and look through the little holes like Chris-
tians — Jane Dibabs, she married a man who was a great deal
older than herself, and would marry him, notwithstanding all

Digitized by VjOOQlC



that could be said to the contrary, and she was so fond of him
that nothing was ever equal to it. There was no fuss made
about Jane Dibabs, and her husband was a most honorable
and excellent man, and everybody spoke well of him. Then
why should there be any fuss about this Magdalen ? "

" Her husband is much older ; he is not her own choice ;
his character is the very reverse of that which you have just
described. Don't you see a broad distinction between the two
cases ? " said Kate.

To this, Mrs. Nickleby only replied that she durst say she
-was very stupid, indeed she had no doubt she was, for her own
children almost as much as told her so, every day of her life ;
to be sure she was a little older than they, and perhaps some
foolish people might think she ought reasonably to know best.
However, no doubt she was wrong ; of course she was, she al-
ways was, she couldn't be right, she couldn't be expected to be ;

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 68 of 79)