Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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so she had better not expose herself any more ; and to all
Kate's conciliations and concessions for an hour ensuing, the
good lady gave no other replies, than Oh, certainly, why did
they ask her, her opinion was of no consequence, it didn't mat-
ter what she said ; with many other rejoinders of the same class.

In this frame of mind (expressed when she had become
too resigned for speech, by nods of the head, uptiftings of the
eyes, and little beginnings of groans, converted as they at-
tracted attention into short coughs), Mrs. Nickleby remained
until Nicholas and Kate returned with the object of their soli-
citude ; when, having by this time asserted her own import-
ance, and becoming besides interested in the trials of one so
young and beautiful, she not only displayed the utmost zeal
and solicitude, but took great credit to herself for recom-
mending the course of procedure which her son had adopted ;
frequently declaring, with an expressive look, that it was very
fortunate things were as they were : and hinting, that but for
great encouragement and wisdom on her own part, they never
could have been brought to that pass.

Not to strain the question whether Mrs. Nickleby had or
had not any great hand in bringing matters about, it is un-
questionable that she had strong ground for exultation. The
brothers, on their return, bestowed such commendations on
Nicholas for the part he had taken, and evinced so much joy
at the altered state of events and the recovery of their young
friend from trials so great and dangers so threatening, that,
as she more than once informed her daughter, she now con-

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sidered the fortunes of the family " as good as made." Mr.
Charles Cheeryble, indeed, Mrs. Nickleby positively asserted,
had, in the first transports of his surprise and delight ^as
good as " said so. Without precisely explaining what this
qualification meant, she subsided, whenever she mentioned
the subject, into such a mysterious and important state, and
had such visions of wealth and dignity in perspective, that
(vague and clouded though they were) she was, at such times,
almost as happy as if she had really been permanently pro-
vided for, on a scale of great splendor.

The sudden and terrible shock she had received, combined
with the great affliction and anxiety of mind which she had
for a long time endured, proved too much for Madeline's
strength. Recovering from the state of stupefaction into
which the sudden death of her father happily plunged her,
she only exchanged that condition for one of dangerous and
active illness. When the delicate physical powers which had
been sustained by an unnatural strain upon the mental ener-
gies and a resolute determination not to yield, at last give
way, their degree of prostration is usually proportionate to the
strength of the effort which has previously upheld them. Thus
it was that the illness which fell on Madeline was of no slight
or temporary nature, but one which, for a time, threatened
her reason, and — scarcely worse — her life itself.

Who, slowly recovering from a disorder so severe arid dan-
gerous, could be insensible to the unremitting attentions of
such a nurse as gentle, tender, earnest Kate ? On whom could
the sweet soft voice, the light step, the delicate hand, the
quiet, cheerful* noise less discharge of those thousand little of-
fices of kindness and relief which we feel so deeply when we
are ill, and forget so lightly when we are well — on whom could
they make so deep an impression as on a young heart stored
with every pure and true affection that women cherish ; almost
a stranger to the endearments and devotion of its own sex,
save as it learnt them from itself ; rendered, by calamity and
suffering, keenly susceptible of the sympathy so long unknown
and so long sought in vain ! What wonder that days became
as years in knitting them together ! What wonder, if with
every hour of returning health, there came some stronger and
sweeter recognition of the praises which Kate, when they re-
' called old scenes — they seemed old now, and to have been
acted vears ago— would lavish on her brother ! Where would
have been the wonder, even, if those praises had found a

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quick response in the breast of Madeline, and if, with the
image of Nicholas so constantly recurring in the features of
his sister that she could scarcely separate the two, she had
sometimes found it equally difficult to assign to each the feel-
ings they had first inspired, and had imperceptibly mingled
with her gratitude to Nicholas, some of that warmer feeling
which she had assigned to Kate !

" My dear," Mrs. Nickleby would say, coming into the
room with an elaborate caution, calculated to discompose the
nerves of an invalid rather more than the entry of a horse-
soldier at full gallop ; *' how do you find yourself to-night ?
I hope you are better ? "

u Almost well, mama," Kate would reply, laying down her
work, and taking Madeline's hand in hers.

" Kate ! " Mrs. Nickleby would say, reprovingly, " don't
talk so loud " (the worthy lady herself talking in a whisper
that would have made the blood of the stoutest man run cold
in his veins).

Kate would take this reproof very quietly, and Mrs. Nickle-
by, making every board creak and every thread rustle as she
moved stealthily about, would add :

" My son Nicholas has just come home, and I have come,
according to custom, my dear, to know, from your own lips,
exactly how you are ; for he won't take my account, and never

" He is later than usual to-night," perhaps Madeline would
reply. " Nearly half an hour."

u Well, I never saw such people in all my life as you are,
for time, up here ! " Mrs. Nickleby would exclaim in great as-
tonishment ; " I declare I never did ! I had not the least idea
that Nicholas was after his time, not the smallest Mr. Nickle-
by used to say — your poor papa, I am speaking of, Kate my dear
— used to say, that appetite was the best clock in the world,
but you have no appetite, my dear Miss Bray, I wish you had,
and upon my word I really think you ought to take something
that would give you one. I am sure I don't know, but I have
heard that two or three dozen native lobsters give an appetite,
though that comes to the same thing after all, for I suppose
you must have an appetite before you can take 'em. If I said
lobsters, I meant oysters, it's all the same. Though really
how you came to know about Nicholas "

" We happened to be just talking about him, mama ; that
was it."

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" You never seem to me, to be talking about anything else,
Kate, and upon my word I am quite surprised at your being
so very thoughtless. You can find subjects enough to talk
about, sometimes, and when you know how important it is to
keep up Miss Bray's spirits, and interest her, and all that, it
really is quite extraordinary to me what can induce you to
keep on prose, prose, prose, din, din, din, everlastingly, upon
the same theme. You are a very kind nurse, Kate, and a very
good one, and I know you mean very well ; but I will say this
— that if it wasn't for me, I really don't know what would be-
come of Miss Bray's spirits, and so I tell the doctor every
day. He says he wonders how I sustain my own, and I am
sure I very often wonder myself how I can contrive to keep
up as I do. Of course it's an exertion, but still, when I know
how much depends upon me in this house, I am obliged to
make it. There's nothing praiseworthy in that, but it's neces-
sary, and I do it."

With that, Mrs. Nickleby would draw up a chair, and for
some three quarters of an hour, run through a great variety of
distracting topics in the most distracting manner possible :
tearing herself away, at length, on the plea that she must now
go and amuse Nicholas while he took his supper. After a
preliminary raising of his spirits with the information that she
considered the patient decidedly worse, she would further
cheer him up, by relating how dull, listless, and low-spirited
Miss Bray was, because Kate foolishly talked about nothing
else but him and family matters. When she had made Nich-
olas thoroughly comfortable with these and other inspiriting
remarks, she would discourse at length, on the arduous duties
she had performed that day ; and, sometimes, would be moved
to tears in wondering how, if anything were to happen to her-
self, the family would ever get on without her.

At other times, when Nicholas came home at night he
would be accompanied by Mr. Frank Cheeryble, who was com-
missioned by the brothers to inquire how Madeline was, that
evening. On such occasions (and they were of very frequent
occurrence), Mrs. Nickleby deemed it of particular importance
that she should have her wits about her ; for, from certain
signs and tokens which had attracted her attention, she shrewdly
suspected that Mr. Frank, interested as his uncles were in
Madeline, came quite as much to see Kate as to inquire after
her ; the more especially as the brothers were in constant com-
munication with the medical man, came backwards and for-

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wards very frequently themselves, and received a full report
from Nicholas every morning. These were proud times for
Mrs. Nickleby ; never was anybody half so discreet and sage
as she, or half so mysterious withal ; and never were there
such cunning generalship, • and such unfathomable designs, as
she brought to bear upon Mr. Frank, with the view of ascer-
taining whether her suspicions were well founded : and if so,
of tantalizing him into taking her into his confidence and
throwing himself upon her merciful consideration. Extensive
was the artillery, heavy and light, which Mrs. Nickleby brought
into play for the furtherance of these great schemes : various
and opposite were the means she employed to bring about the
end she had in view. At one time, she was all cordiality and
ease ; at another, all stiffness and frigidity. Now, she would
seem to open her whole heart to her unhappy victim ; the next
time they met, she would receive him with the most distant
and studious reserve, as if a new light had broken in upon
her, and, guessing his intentions, she had resolved to check
them in the bud ; as if She felt it her bounden duty to act with
Spartan firmness, and at once and for ever to discourage
hopes which never could be realized. At other times, when
Nicholas was not there to overhear, and Kate was up stairs
busily tending her sick friend, the worthy lady would throw
out dark hints of an intention to send her daughter to France
for three or four years, or to Scotland for the improvement of
her health impaired by her late fatigues, or to America on a
visit, or anywhere that threatened a long and tedious separa-
tion. Nay, she even went so far as to hint, obscurely, at an
attachment entertained for her daughter by the son of an old
neighbor of theirs, one Horatio Peltirogus (a young gentleman
who might have been, at that time, four years old, or there-
abouts), and to represent it, indeed, as almost a settled thing
between the families — only waiting for her daughter's final de-
cision to come off with the sanction of the church, and to the
unspeakable happiness and content of all parties.

It was in the full pride and glory of having sprung this
last mine one night, with extraordinary success, that Mrs.
Nickleby took the opportunity of being left alone with her
son before retiring to rest, to sound him on the subject which
so occupied her thoughts : not doubting that they could have
but one opinion respecting it. To this end, she approached
the question with divers laudatory and appropriate re-
marks touching the general amiability of Mr. Frank Cheeryble.

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" You are quite right, mother," said Nicholas, " quite right.
He is a fine fellow."

" Good-looking, too," said Mrs. Nickleby.

" Decidedly good-looking," answered Nicholas.

" What may you call his nose, now, my dear ? " pursued
Mrs. Nickleby, wishing to interest Nicholas in the subject to
the utmost.

" Call it ? " repeated Nicholas.

" Ah ! " returned his mother, " what style of nose ? What
order of architecture, if one may say so. I am not very learned
in noses. Do you call it a Roman or a Grecian ? "

" Upon my word, mother," said Nicholas, laughing, " as
well as I remember, I should call it a kind of Composite, or
mixed nose. But I have no very strong recollection on the
subject. If it will afford you any gratification, I'll observe it
more closely, and let you know."

" I wish you would, my dear," said Mrs. Nickleby, with an
earnest look.

" Very well," returned Nicholas. V I will."

Nicholas returned to the perusal of the book he had been
reading, when the dialogue had gone thus far. Mrs. Nickleby,
after stopping a little for consideration, resumed.

" He is very much attached to you, Nicholas, my dear."

Nicholas, laughingly said, as he closed his book, that he
was glad to hear it, and observed that his mother seemed deep
in their new friend's confidence already.

" Hem ! " said Mrs. Nickleby. " I don't know about that
my dear, but I think it is very necessary that somebody should
be in his confidence; highly necessary."

Elated by a look of curiosity from her son, and the con-
sciousness of possessing a great secret, all to herself, Mrs.
Nickleby went on with great animation :

" I am sure, my dear Nicholas, how you can have failed
to notice it, is, to me, quite extraordinary ; though I don't
know why I should say that, either, because of course, as far
as it goes, and to a certain extent, there is a great deal in this
' sort of thing, especially in this early stage, which, however
clear it may be to females, can scarcely be expected to be so
evident to men. I don't say that I have any particular pene-
tration in such matters. I may have. Those about me should
know best about that, and perhaps do know. Upon that point,
I shall express no opinion, it wouldn't become me to do so,
it's quite out of the question, quite."

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Nicholas snuffed the candles, put his hands in his pockets,
and, leaning back in his chair, assumed a look of patient suf-
fering and melancholy resignation.

"I think it my duty, Nicholas, my dear," resumed his
mother, " to tell you what I know : not only because you have
a right to know it too, and to know everything that happens in
this family, but because you have it in your power to promote
and assist the thing very much ; and there is no doubt that
the sooner one can come to a clear understanding on such
subjects, it is always better, every way. There are a great
many things you might do ; such as taking a walk in the gar-
den sometimes, or sitting up stairs in your own room for a
little while, or making believe to fall asleep occasionally, or
pretending that you recollected some business, and going out
for an hour or so, and taking Mr. Smike with you. These
seem very slight things, and I dare say you will be amused
at my making them of so much importance ; at the same time,
my dear, I can assure you (and you'll find this out, Nicholas,
for yourself one of these days, if you ever fall in love with
anybody : as I trust and hope you will, provided she is respect-
able and well conducted, and of course you'd never dream of
falling in love with anybody who was not), I say, I can assure
you that a great deal more depends upon these little things,
than you would suppose possible. If your poor papa was
alive, he would tell you how much depended on the parties
being left alone. Of course, you are not to go out of the room
as if you meant it and did it on purpose, but as if it was quite
an accident, and to come back again in the same way. If
you cough in the passage before you open the door, or whistle
carelessly, or hum a tune, or something of that sort to let
them know you're coming, its always better ; because, of course
though it's not only natural but perfectly correct and proper
under the circumstances, still it is very confusing if you inter-
rupt young people when they are — when they are sitting on
the sofa, and — and all that sort of thing : which is very non-
sensical perhaps, but still they will do it."

The profound astonishment with which her son regarded
her during this long address, gradually increasing as it ap-
proached its climax, in no way discomposed Mrs. Nickleby,
but rather exalted her opinion of her own cleverness ; there-
fore, merely stopping to remark with much complacency, that
she had fully expected him to be surprised, she entered on a
vast quantity of circumstantial evidence of a particularly in-


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coherent and perplexing kind ; the upshot of which was, to
establish beyond the possibility of doubt, that Mr. Frank
Cheeryble had fallen desperately in love with Kate.

" With whom ? " cried Nicholas.

Mrs. Nickleby repeated, with Kate.

" What ! Our Kate ! My sister ! "

" Lord, Nicholas ! " returned Mrs. Nickleby, "whose Kate
should it be, if not ours ; or what should I care about it, or
take any interest in it for, if it was anybody but your sister ? "

" Dear mother," said Nicholas, " surely it can't be ! "

" Very good, my dear," replied Mrs. Nickleby, with great
confidence. " Wait and see."

Nicholas had never, until that moment, bestowed a thought
on the remote possibility of such an occurrence as that which
was now communicated to him ; for, besides that he had been
much from home of late and closely occupied with other mat-
ters, his own jealous fears had prompted the suspicion that some
secret interest in Madeline, akin to that which he felt himself,
occasioned those visits of Frank Cheeryble which had recently
become so frequent Even now, although he knew that the
observation of an anxious mother was much more likely to be
correct in such a case than his own, and although she remind-
ed him of many little circumstances, which, taken together,
were certainly susceptible of the construction she triumphantly
put upon them, he was not quite convinced but that they
arose from mere good-natured thoughtless gallantry, which
would have dictated the same conduct towards any other girl
who was young and pleasing. At all events, he hoped so, and
therefore tried to believe it.

" I am very much disturbed by what you tell me," said
Nicholas, after a little reflection, " though I yet hope you may
be mistaken." ,

" I don't understand why you should hope so," said Mrs.
Nickleby, " I confess ; but you may depend upon it I am

" What of Kate ? " inquired Nicholas.

"Why that, my dear," returned Mrs. Nickleby, "is just
the point upon which I am not yet satisfied. During this
sickness, she has been constantly at Madeline's bedside — never
were two people so fond of each other as they have grown —
and to tell you the truth, Nicholas, I have rather kept her
away now and then, because I think it's a good plan, and
urges a young man on. He doesn't get too sure, you know."

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She said this with such a mingling of high delight and self-
congratulation, that it was inexpressibly painful to Nicholas
to dash her hopes ; but he felt that there was only one honor-
able course before him, and that he was bound to take it.

" Dear mother," he said kindly, " don't you see that if
there were really any serious inclination on the part of Mr.
Frank towards Kate, and we suffered ourselves for a moment
to encourage it, we should be acting a most dishonorable and
ungrateful part ? I ask you if you don't see it, but I need not
say, that I know you don't, or you would have been more
strictly on your guard. Let me explain my meaning to you.
Remember how poor we are."

Mrs. Nickleby shook her head, and said, through her tears,
that poverty was not a crime.

" No," said Nicholas, "and for that reason poverty should
engender an honest pride, that it may not lead and tempt us
to unworthy actions, and that we may preserve the self-
respect which a hewer of wood and drawer of water may
maintain, and does better in maintaining than a monarch in
preserving his. Think what we owe to these two brothers ;
remember what they have done, and what they do every day
for us, with a generosity and delicacy for which the devotion
of our whole lives would be a most imperfect and indequate re-
turn. What kind of return would that be which would be
comprised in our permitting their nephew, their only relative,
whom they regard as a son, and for whom it would be mere
childishness to suppose they have not formed plans suitably
adapted to the education he has had, and the fortune he will
inherit — in our permitting him to marry a portionless girl, so
closely connected with us, that the irresistible inference must
be that he was entrapped by a plot, that it was a deliberate
scheme, and a speculation amongst us three. Bring the matter
clearly before yourself, mother. Now, how would you feel, if
they were married, and the brothers, coming here on one of
those kind errands which bring them here so often, you had to
break out to them the truth ? Would you be at ease, and feel
that you had played an open part ? "

Poor Mrs. Nickleby, crying more and more, murmured
that of course Mr, Frank would ask the consent of his uncles

" Why, to be sure, that would place Aim in a better situa-
tion with them," said Nicholas, " but we should still be open
to the same suspicions ; the distance between us would still

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be as great, the advantages to be gained would still be as
manifest as now. We may be reckoning without our host,
in all this," he added more cheerfully, " and I trust, and
almost believe we are. If it be otherwise, I have that con-
fidence in Kate that I know she will feel as I do — and in you,
dear mother, to be assured that after a little consideration
you will do the same."

After many more representations and entreaties, Nicholas
obtained a promise from Mrs. Nickleby that she would try all
she could, to think as he did ; and that if Mr. Frank perse-
vered in his attentions she would endeavor to discourage them,
or, at the least, would render him no countenance or assistance.
He determined to forbear mentioning the subject to Kate, until
he was quite convinced that there existed a real necessity for
his doing so ; and he resolved to assure himself, as well as he
could by close personal observation, of the exact position of
affairs. This was a very wise resolution, but he was pre-
vented from putting it in practice, by a new source of anxiety
and uneasiness.

Smike became alarmingly ill ; so reduced and exhausted
that he could scarcely move from room to room without as-
sistance ; so worn and emaciated, that it was painful to look
upon him. Nicholas was warned by the same medical au-
thority to whom he had at first appealed, that the last chance
and hope of his life depended on his being instantly removed
from London. That part of Devonshire in which Nicholas
had been himself bred, was named as the most favorable
spot ; but this advice was cautiously coupled with the infor-
mation that whoever accompanied him thither, must be pre-
pared for the worst ; for every token of rapid consumption
had appeared, and he might never return alive.

The kind brothers, who were acquainted with the poor
creature's sad history, despatched old Tim to be present at
this consultation. That same morning, Nicholas was sum-
moned by brother Charles into his private room, and thus ad-
dressed :

" My dear sir, no time must be lost. This lad shall not
die, if such human means as we can use, can save his life;
neither shall he die alone, and in a strange place. Remove
him to-morrow morning, see that he has every comfort that his
situation requires, and don't leave him ; don't leave him, my
dear sir, until you know that there is no longer any immediate
danger. It would be hard, indeed, to part you now. No, no,

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no ! Tim shall wait upon you tonight, sir ; Tim shall wait
upon you to-night with a parting word or two. Brother Ned,
my dear fellow, Mr. Nickleby waits to shake hands and say
good-by ; Mr. Nickleby won't be long gone ; this poor chap
will soon get better, very soon get better ; and then he'll find
out some nice homely country people to leave him with, and
will go backwards and forwards sometimes — backwards and

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 69 of 79)