Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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parents whole and sound as I received him — what would have
been my feelings ? Why the wheel a-top of my head would
have been far preferable to it."

" Are they all brothers, sir ? " inquired the lady who had
carried the " Davy " or safety-lamp.

" In one sense they are, ma'am," replied Squeers, diving
into his greatcoat pocket for cards. " They are all under the
same parental and affectionate treatment. Mrs. Squeers and
myself are a mother and father to every one of 'em. Mr.
Nickleby, hand the lady them cards, and offer these to the
gentlemen. Perhaps they might know of some parents that
would be glad to avail themselves of the establishment."

Expressing himself to this effect, Mr. Squeers, who lost
no opportunity of advertising gratuitously, placed his hands
upon his knees, and looked at the pupils with as much benignity
as he could possibly affect, while Nicholas, blushing with
shame, handed round the cards as directed.

" I hope you suffer no inconvenience from the overturn,
ma'am ? " said the merry-faced gentleman, addressing the fas-
tidious lady, as though he were charitably desirous to change
the subject.

" No bodily inconvenience," replied the lady.

" No mental inconvenience, I hope ? "

" The subject is a very painful one to my feelings, sir,"
replied the lady with strong emotion ; " and I beg you as a
gentleman, not to refer to it."

" Dear me," said the merry-faced gentleman, looking mer-
rier still, " I merely intended to inquire "

"I hope no inquiries will be made," said the lady, "or I
shall be compelled to throw myself on the protection of the
other gentlemen. Landlord, pray direct a boy to keep watch
outside the door — and if a green chariot passes in the direc-
tion of Grantham, to stop it instantly."

The people of the house were evidently overcome by this
request, and when the lady charged the boy to remember, as
a means of identifying the expected green chariot, that it

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would have a coachman with a gold-laced hat on the box, and
a footman, most probably in silk stockings, behind, the atten-
tions of the good woman of the inn were redoubled. Even
the box-passenger caught the infection, and growing wonder-
fully deferential, immediately inquired whether there was not *
very good society in that neighborhood, to which the lady re-
plied yes, there was : in a manner which sufficiently implied
that she moved at the very tiptop and summit of it all.

" As the guard has gone on horseback to Grantham to get
another coach," said the good-tempered gentleman when they
had all been sitting round the fire, for some time in silence,
u and as he must be gone a couple of hours at the very least,
I propose a bowl of hot punch. What say you, sir ? "

This question was addressed to the broken-headed inside,
who was a man of very genteel appearance, dressed- in mourn-
ing. He was not past .the middle age, but his hair was gray ;
it seemed to have been prematurely turned by care or sorrow.
He readily acceded to the proposal, and appeared to be pre-
possessed by the frank good-nature of the individual from
whom it emanated.

This latter personage took upon himself the office of tap-
ster when the punch was ready, and after dispensing it all
round, led the conversation to the antiquities of York, with
which both he and the gray-haired gentleman appeared to be
well acquainted. When this topic flagged, he turned with a
smile to the gray-headed gentleman, and asked if he could sing.

" I cannot indeed," replied the gentleman, smiling in his

"That's a pity," said the owner of the good-humored
countenance. " Is there nobody here who can sing a song to
lighten the time ? "

The passengers, one and all, protested that they could not ;
that they wished they could ; that they couldn't remember the
words of anything without the book ; and so forth.

44 Perhaps the lady would not object," said the president'
with great respect, and a merry twinkle in his eye. 4 * Some
little Italian thing out of the last opera brought out in town,
would be most acceptable I am sure."

As the lady condescended to make no reply, but tossed
her head contemptuously, and murmured some further expres-
sion of surprise regarding the absence of the green chariot,
one or two voices urged upon the president himself, the pro-
priety of making an attempt for the general benefit.

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" I would if I could," said he of the good-tempered iace ;
" for I hold that in this, as in all other cases where 'people
who are strangers to each other are thrown unexpectedly to-
gether, they should endeavor to render themselves as pleasant,
for the joint sake of the little community, as possible."

" I wish the maxim were more generally acted on, in all
cases," said the gray-headed gentleman.

" I'm glad to hear it," returned the other. " Perhaps, as
you can't sing you'll tell us a story ? "

" Nay. I should ask you."

" After you, I will, with pleasure."

" Indeed ! " said the gray-haired gentleman, smiling.
" Well, let it be so. I fear the turn of my thoughts is not
calculated to lighten the time you must pass here ; but you
have brought this upon yourselves, and shall judge. We were
speaking of York Minster just now. My story shall have some
reference to it. Let us call it


After a murmur of approbation from the other passengers,
during which the fastidious lady drank a glass of punch unob-
served, the gray-headed gentleman thus went on :

" A great many years ago — for the fifteenth century was
scarce two years old at the time, and King Henry the Fourth
sat upon the throne of England — there dwelt, in the ancient
city of York, fi\^ maiden sisters, the subjects of my tale.

" These five sisters were all of surpassing beauty. The
eldest was in her twenty-third year, the second a year younger,
the third a year younger than the second, and the fourth a
year younger than the third. They were tall, stately figures,
with dark flashing eyes and hair of jet ; dignity and grace
were in their every movement ; and the fame of their great
beauty had spread through all the country round.

" But if the four elder sisters were lovely, how beautiful
was the youngest, a fair creature of sixteen ! The blushing
tints in the soft bloom on the fruit, or the delicate painting on
the flower, are not more exquisite than was the blending of
the rose and the lily in her gentle face, or the deep blue of
her eye. The vine, in all its elegant luxuriance, is not more
graceful than were the clusters of rich brown hair that
sported round her brow.

" If we all had hearts like those which beat so lightly in

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the bosoms of the young and beautiful, what a heaven this
earth would be ! If, while our bodies grow old and withered,
our hearts could but retain their early youth and freshness, of
what avail would be our sorrows and sufferings ! But, the
faint image of Eden which is stamped upon them in childhood,
chafes and rubs in our rough struggles with the world, and
soon wears away : too often to leave nothing but a mournful
blank remaining.

" The heart of this fair girl bounded with joy and gladness.
Devoted attachment to her sisters, and a fervent love of all
beautiful things in nature, were its pure affections. Her glee-
some voice and merry laugh were the sweetest music of their
home. She was its very light and life. The brightest flowers
in the garden were reared by her ; the caged birds sang when
they heard her voice, and pined when they missed its sweet-
ness. Alice, dear Alice ; what living thing within the sphere
of her gentle witchery could fail to love her !

" You may seek in vain, now, for the spot on which these
sisters lived, for their very names have passed away, and dusty
antiquaries tell of them as of a fable. But they dwelt in an
old wooden house — old even in those days — with overhanging
gables and balconies of rudely-carved oak, which stood within
a pleasant orchard, and was surrounded by a rough stone wall,
whence a- stout archer might have winged an arrow to Saint
Mary's abbey. The old abbey flourished then ; and the five
sisters, living on its fair domains, paid yearly dues to the black
monks of Saint Benedict, to which fraternity it belonged.

" It was a bright and sunny morning in the pleasant time
of summer, when one of those black monks emerged from the
abbey portal, and bents his steps towards the house of the
fair sisters. Heaven above was blue, and earth beneath was
green ; the river glistened like a path of diamonds in the sun ;
the birds poured forth their songs from the shady trees ; the
lark soared high above the waving corn ; and the deep buzz
of insects filled the air. Everything looked gay and smiling ;
but the holy man walked gloomily on, with his eyes bent upon
the ground. The beauty of the earth is but a breath, and
man is but a shadow. What sympathy should a holy preacher
have with either ? •

" With eyes bent upon the ground, then, or only raised
enough to prevent his stumbling over such obstacles as lay in
his way, the religious man moved slowly forward until he
reached a small postern in the wall of the sisters' orchard,

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through which he passed, closing it behind him. The noise
of soft voices in conversation, and of merry laughter, fell upon
his ears ere he had advanced many paces ; and raising his
eyes higher than was his humble wont, he descried, at no great
distance, the five sisters seated on the grass, with Alice in the
centre : all busily plying their customary task of embroidering.

" * Save you, fair daughters 1 ' said the friar ; and fair in
truth they were. Even a monk might have loved them as
choice master-pieces of his Maker's hand.

" The sisters saluted the holy man with becoming rever-
ence, and the eldest motioned him to a mossy seat beside
them. But the good friar shook his head, and bumped him-
self down on a very hard stone, — at which, no doubt, approv-
ing angels were gratified.

" * Ye were merry, daughters,' said the monk.

" * You know how light of heart sweet Alice is/ replied the
eldest sister, passing her fingers through the tresses of the
smiling girl.

44 4 And what joy and cheerfulness it wakes up within us,
to see all nature beaming in brightness and sunshine, father/
added Alice, blushing beneath the stern look of the recluse.

" The monk answered not, save by a grave inclination of
the head, and the sisters pursued their task in silence.

" * Still wasting the precious hours/ said the monk at
length, turning to the eldest sister as he spoke, 4 still wasting
the precious hours on this vain trifling. Alas, ajas ! that the
few bubbles on the surface of eternity — all that Heaven wills
we should see of that dark deep stream — should be so lightly
scattered ! '

44 * Father/ urged the maiden, pausing, as did each of the
others, in her busy task, * we have prayed at matins, our daily
alms have been distributed at the gate, the sick peasants have
been tended, — all our morning tasks have been performed.
I hope our occupation is a blameless one ? '

" * See here/ said the friar, taking the frame from her
hand, 4 an intricate winding of gaudy colors, without purpose
or object, unless it be that one day it is destined for some
vain ornament, to minister to the pride of your frail and giddy
sex. Day after day has been employed upon this senseless
task, and yet it is not half accomplished. The shade of each
departed day falls upon our graves, and the worm exults as
he beholds it, to know that we are hastening thither. Daugh-
ters, is there no better way to pass the fleeting hours ? '

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" The four elder sisters cast down their eyes as if abashed
by the holy man's reproof, but Alice raised hers, and bent
them mildly on the friar.

44 * Our dear mother/ said the maiden ; ' Heaven rest her

44 4 Amen ! ' cried the friar in a deep voice.

" 4 Our dear mother/ faltered the fair Alice, ' was living
when these long tasks began, and bade us, when she should
be no more, ply them in all discretion and cheerfulness, in our
leisure hours ; she said that if in harmless mirth and maidenly
pursuits we passed those hours together, they would prove the
happiest and most peaceful of our lives, and that if, in later
times, we went forth into the world, and mingled with its
cares and trials — if, allured by its temptations and dazzled by
its glitter, we ever forgot that love and duty which should
bind, in holy ties, the children of one loved parent — a glance
at the old work of our common girlhood would awaken good
thoughts of by-gone days, and soften our hearts to affection
and love.'

" 4 Alice speaks truly, father/ said the elder sister, some-
what proudly. And so saying she resumed her work, as did
the others.

44 It was a kind of sampler of large size, that each sister
had before her ; the device was of a complex and intricate
description, and the pattern and colors of ail five were the
same. The sisters bent gracefully over their work ; the monk,
resting his chin upon his hands, looked from one to the other
in silence.

44 ' How much better/ he said at length, ' to shun all such
thoughts and chances, and, in the peaceful shelter of the
church, devote your lives to Heaven ! Infancy, childhood,
the prime of life, and old age, wither as rapidly as they crowd
upon each other. Think how human dust rolls onward to the
tomb, and turning your faces steadily towards that goal, avoid
the cloud which takes its rise among the pleasures of the
world, and cheats the senses of their votaries. The veil,
daughters, the veil ! '

44 4 Never, sisters/ cried Alice. ' Barter not the light and
air of heaven, and the freshness of earth and all the beautiful
things which breathe upon it, for the cold cloister and the cell.
Nature's own blessings are the proper goods of life, and we
may share them sinlessly together. To die is our heavy por-
tion, but, oh, let us die with life about us ; when our cold


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hearts cease to beat, let warm hearts be beating near ; let our
last look be upon the bounds which God has set to his own
bright skies, and not on stone walls and bars of iron ! Dear
sisters, let us live and die, if you list, in this green garden's
compass ; only shun the gloom and sadness of a cloister, and
we shall be happy.'

" The tears tell fast from the maiden's eyes as she closed
her impassioned appeal, and hid her face in the bosom of her

" ' Take comfort, Alice/ said the eldest, kissing her fair
forehead. * The veil shall never cast its shadow on thy young
brow. How say you, sisters ? For yourselves you speak, and
not for Alice, or for me.'

44 The sisters, as with one accord, cried that their lot was
cast together, and that there were dwellings for peace and vir-
tue beyond the convent's walls.

44 4 Father,' said the eldest lady, rising with dignity, 4 you
hear our final resolve. The same pious care which enriched
the abbey of Saint Mary, and left us, orphans, to its holy
guardianship, directed that no constraint should be imposed
upon our inclinations, but that we should be free to live ac-
cording to our choice. Let us hear no more of this, we pray
you. Sisters, it is nearly noon. Let us take shelter until
evening ! ' With a reverence to the friar, the lady rose and
walked towards the house, hand in hand with Alice ; the other
sisters followed.

44 The holy man, who had often urged the same point be-
fore, but had never met with so direct a repulse, walked some
little distance behind, with his eyes bent upon the earth, and
his lips moving as if in prayer. As the sisters reached the
porch, he quickened his pace, and called upon them to stop.

44 4 Stay 1 ' said the monk, raising his right hand in the air,
and directing an angry glance by turns at Alice and the elder
sister, 4 Stay, and hear from me what these recollections are,
which you would cherish above eternity, and awaken — if in
mercy they slumbered — by means of idle toys. The memory
of earthly things is charged, in after life, with bitter disap-
pointment, affliction, death ;.with dreary change and wasting
sorrow. The time will one. day come, when a glance at those
unmeaning baubles will tear open deep wounds in the hearts
of some among you, and strike to your inmost souls. When
that hour arrives — and, mark me, come it will — turn from the
world to which you clung, to the refuge which you spurned

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Find me the cell which shall be' colder than the fire of mor-
tals grows, when dimmed by calamity and trial, and there
weep for the dreams of youth. These things* are Heaven's
will, not mine/ said the friar, subduing his voice as he looked
round upon the shrinking girls. 4 The Virgin's blessing be
upon you, daughters ! '

" With these words he disappeared through the postern ;
and the sisters hastening into the house were seen no more
that day.

" But nature will smile though priests may frown, and
next day the sun shone brightly, and on the next, and the
next again. And in the morning's glare, and the evening's
soft repose, the five sisters still walked, or worked, or beguiled
the time by cheerful conversation, in k their quiet orchard.

*' Time passed away as a tale that is told ; faster indeed
than many tales that are told, of which number I fear that
this may be one. The house of the five sisters stood where
it did, and the same trees cast their pleasant shade upon the
orchard grass. The sisters too were there, and lovely as at
first, but a change had come over their dwelling. Sometimes,
there was the clash of armor, and the gleaming of the moon
on caps of steel ; and, at others, jaded coursers were spurred
up to the gate, and -a female form glided hurriedly forth, as if
eager to demand tidings of the weary messenger. A goodly
train of knights and ladies lodged one night within the abbey
walls, and next day rode away, with two of the fair sisters
among them. Then, horsemen began to come less frequently,
and seemed to bring bad tidings when they did, and at length
they ceased to come at all, and footsore peasants slunk to the
gate after sunset, and did their errand there, by stealth.
Once, a vassal was despatched in haste to the abbey at dead
of night, and when morning came, there were sounds of woe
and wailing in the sisters' house ; and after this, a mournful
silence fell upon it, and knight or lady, horse or armor, was
seen about it no more.

" There was a sullen darkness in the sky, and the sun had
gone angrily down, tinting the dull clouds with the last traces
of his wrath, when the same black monk walked slowly on,
with folded arms, within a stones-'throw of the abbey. A
blight had faHen on the trees and shrubs ; and the wind, at
length beginning to break die unnatural stillness that had
prevailed all day, sighed heavily from time to time, as though
foretelling in grief the ravages of the coming storm. The bat

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skimmed in fantastic flights through the heavy air, and the
ground was alive with crawling things, whose instinct brought
them forth to swell and fatten in the rain.

" No longer were the friar's eyes directed to the earth ;
they were cast abroad, and roamed from point to point, as if
the gloom and desolation of the scene found a quick response
in his own bosom. Again he paused near the sisters' house,
and again he entered by the postern.

" But not again did his ear encounter the sound of laughter,
or his eyes rest upon the beautiful figures of the five sisters.
All was silent and deserted. The boughs of the trees were
bent and broken, and the grass had grown long and rank.
No light feet had pressed it for many, many, a day.

" With the indifference or abstraction of one well accus-
tomed to the change, the monk glided into the house, and
entered a low, dark room. Four sisters sat there. Their
black garments made their pale faces whiter still, and time
and sorrow had worked deep ravages. They were stately yet,
but the flush and pride of beauty were gone.

" And Alice — where was she ? In Heaven.

" The monk— even the monk — could bear with some grief
here ; for it was long since these sisters had met, and there
were furrows in their blanched faces which years could never
plough. He took his seat in silence, and motioned them to
continue their speech.

" * They are here, sisters/ said the elder lady in a trem-
bling voice. * I have never borne to look upon them since,
and now I blame myself for my weakness. What is there in
her memory that we should dread ? To call up our old days,
shall be a solemn pleasure yet.'

" She glanced at the monk as she spoke, and, opening a
cabinet, brought forth the five frames of work, completed
long before. Her step was firm, but her hand trembled as
she produced the last one ; and, when the feelings of the
other sisters gushed forth at sight of it, her pent-up tears
made way, and she sobbed ' Gob bless her ! '

" The monk rose and advanced towards them. ' It was
almost the last thing she touched in health/ he said in a low

" ' It was/ cried the elder lady, weeping bitterly.

" The monk turned to the second sister.

" ' The gallant youth who looked into thine eyes, and hung
upon thy very breath when first he saw thee intent upon this

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pastime, lies buried on a plain whereof the turf is red with
blood. Rusty fragments of armor, once brightly burnished,
lie rotting on the ground, and are as little distinguishable for
his, as are the bones that crumble in the mould ! '

" The lady groaned, and wrung her hands.

" ' The policy of courts/ he continued, turning to the two
other sisters, ' drew ye from your peaceful home to scenes of
revelry and splendor. The same policy, and the restless am-
bition of proud and fiery men, have sent ye back, widowed
maidens, and humbled outcasts. Do I speak truly ? '

" The sobs of the two sisters were their only reply.

" ' There is little need/ said the monk, with a meaning
look, ' to fritter away the time in gewgaws which shall raise
up the pale ghosts of hopes of early years. Bury them, heap
penance and mortification on their heads, keep them down,
and let the convent be their grave ! '

" The sisters' asked for three days to deliberate ; and felt,
that night, as though the veil were indeed the fitting shroud
for their dead joys. But, morning came again, and though
the boughs of the orchard trees drooped and ran wild upon
the ground, it was the same orchard still. The grass was
coarse and high, but there was yet the spot on which they
had so often sat together, when change and sorrow were but
names. There was every walk and nook which Alice had
made glad ; and in the minster nave was one flat stone be-
neath which she slept in peace.

" And could they, remembering how her young heart had
sickened at the thought of cloistered walls, look upon her
grave, in garbs which would chill the very ashes within it ?
Could they bow down in prayer, and when all Heaven turned
to hear them, bring the dark shade of sadness on one angel's
face ? No.

" They sent abroad, to artists of great celebrity in those
times, and having obtained the church's sanction to their work
of piety, caused to be executed, in five large compartments of
richly stained glass, a faithful copy of their old embroidery
work. These were fitted into a large window until that time
bare of ornament ; and when the sun shone brightly, as she
had so well loved to see it, the familiar patterns were reflected
in their original colors, and throwing a stream of brilliant
light upon the pavement, fell warmly on the name of &Ute.

" For many hours in every day, the sisters paced slowly
up and down the nave, or knelt by the side of the flat broad

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7 o


stone. Only three were seen in the customary place, after
many years ; then but two, and, for a long time afterwards,
but one solitary female bent with age. At length she came
no more, and the stone bore five plain Christian names.

" That stone has worn away and been replaced by others,
and many generations have come and gone since then. Time
has softened down the colors, but the same stream of light
still falls upon the forgotten tomb, of which no trace remains ;
and, to this day, the stranger is shown in York cathedral, an

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 7 of 79)