Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

. (page 70 of 79)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 70 of 79)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


forwards you know, Ned. And there's no cause to be down-
hearted, for he'll very soon get better, very soon. Won't he,
won't he, Ned ? "

What Tim Linkinwater said, or what he brought with him
that night, needs not to be told. Next morning Nicholas and
his feeble companion began their journey.

And who but one — and that one he who, but for those who
crowded round him then, had never met a look of kindness,
or known a word of pity — could tell what agony of mind, what
blighted thoughts, what unavailing sorrow, were involved in
that sad parting 1

"See," cried Nicholas eagerly, as he looked from the
coach window, " they are at the corner of the lane still ! And
now there's Kate, poor Kate whom you said you couldn't
bear to say good-by to, waving her handkerchief. Don't go,
without one gesture of farewell to Kate ! "

" I cannot make it ! " cried his trembling companion, fall-
ing back in his seat and covering his eyes. " Do you see
her now ? Is she there still ? "

" Yes, yes ! " said Nicholas earnestly. " There ! She
waves her hand again ! I have answered it for you — and now
they are out of sight. Do not give way so bitterly, dear
Mend, don't You will meet them all again."

He whom he thus encouraged, raised his withered hands
and clasped them fervently together.

" In heaven. I humbly pray to God, in heaven 1 "

It sounded like the prayer of a broken heart



Digitized by VjOOQIC



726



NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



CHAPTER LVL



RALPH NICKLEBY, BAFFLED BY HIS NEPHEW IN HIS LATE
DESIGN, HATCHES A SCHEME OF RETALIATION WHICH
ACCIDENT SUGGESTS TO HIM, AND TAKES INTO HIS COUN-
SELS A TRIED AUXILIARY.

The course which these adventures shape out for them-
selves, and imperatively call upon the historian to observe,
now demands that they should revert to the point they attained
previous to the commencement of the last chapter, when
Ralph Nickleby and Arthur Gride were left together in the
house where death had so suddenly reared his dark and heavy
banner.

With clenched hands, and teeth ground together so firm
and tight that no locking of the jaws could have fixed and
riveted them more securely, Ralph stood, for some minutes,
in the attitude in which he had last addressed his nephew;
breathing heavily, but as rigid and motionless in other respects
as if he had been a brazen statue. After a time, he began
by slow degrees, as a man rousing himself from heavy slumber,
to relax. For a moment he shook his clasped fist towards the
door by which Nicholas had disappeared ; and then thrusting
it into his breast, as if to repress by force even this show of
passion, turned round and confronted the less hardy usurer,
who had not yet risen from the ground.

The cowering wretch, who still shook in every limb, and
whose few gray hairs trembled and quivered on his head with
abject dismay, tottered to his feet as he met Ralph's eye, and,
shielding his face with both hands, protested, while he crept
towards the door, that it was no fault of his.

" Who said it was, man ? " returned Ralph, in a suppressed
voice. " Who said it was ? "

."You looked as if you thought I was to blame," said
Gride, timidly.

. " Pshaw ! " Ralph muttered, forcing a laugh. " I blame
him for not living an hour longer. One hour longer would
have been enough. I blame no one else."

" N — n — no one else ? " said Gride.

"Not for this mischance," replied Ralph. "I have an



Digitized by VjOOQIC



NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



727



old score to clear with that young fellow who has carried off
your mistress ; but that has nothing to do with his blustering
just now, for we should soon have been quit of him, but for
this cursed accident."

There was something so unnatural in the calmness with
which Ralph Nickleby spoke, when coupled with his face ;
there was something so unnatural and ghastly, in the contrast
between his harsh slow steady voice (only altered by a certain
halting of the breath which made him pause between almost
every word, like a drunken man bent upon speaking plainly),
and his face's evidence of intense and violent passion, and the
struggle he made to keep it under ; that if the dead body
which lay above, had stood, instead of him, before the cower-
ing Gride, it could scarcely have presented a spectacle which
would have terrified him more.

" The coach," said Ralph after a time, during which he
had struggled like some strong man against a fit. " We came
in a coach. Is it waiting ? "

Gride gladly availed himself of the pretext for going to
the window to see. Ralph, keeping his face steadily the
other way, tore at his shirt with the hand he had thrust into
his breast, and muttered in a hoarse whisper :

" Ten thousand pounds I He said ten thousand ! The
precise sum paid in but yesterday for the two mortgages, and
which would have gone out again, at heavy interest, to-
morrow. If that house has failed, and he the first to bring
the news 1 — Is the coach there ? "

" Yes, yes," said Gride, startled by the fierce tone of the
inquiry. " It's here. Dear, dear, what a fiery man you are ! "

" Come here," said Ralph, beckoning to him. " We
mustn't make a show of being disturbed. We'll go down arm
in arm."

" But you pinch me black and blue," urged Gride.

Ralph let him go, impatiently, and descending the stairs
with his usual firm and heavy tread, got into the coach. Ar-
thur Gride followed. After looking doubtfully at Ralph when
the man asked where he was to drive, and finding that he
remained silent and expressed no wish upon the subject,
Arthur mentioned his own house, and thither they proceeded.

On their way, Ralph sat in the furthest corner with folded
arms, and uttered not a worfl. With his chin sunk on his
breast, and his downcast eyes quite hidden by the contraction
of his knotted brows, he might have been asleep, for any sign



Digitized by VjOOQIC



j 28 NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y.

of consciousness he gave, until the coach stopped ; when he
raised his head, and, glancing through the window, inquired
what place that was ?

" My house," answered the disconsolate Gride, affected
perhaps by its loneliness. " Oh dear I My house."

" True," said Ralph. " I have not observed the way we
came. I should like a glass of water. You have that in the
house, I suppose ? "

" You shall have a glass of — of anything you like,"
answered Gride, with a groan. " It's no use knocking, coach-
man. Ring the bell ! "

The man rang, and rang, and rang again ; then, knocked
until the street re-echoed with the sounds ; then, listened at
the keyhole of the door. Nobody came. The house was
silent as the grave.

" How's this ? " said Ralph, impatiently.

" Peg is so very deaf," answered Gride with a look of
anxiety and alarm. " Oh dear 1 Ring again, coachman. She
sees the bell."

Again the man rang and knocked, and knocked and rang.
Some of the neighbors threw up their windows, and called
across the street to each other that old Gride's housekeeper
must have dropped down dead. Others collected round the
coach, and gave vent to various surmises ; some, held that
she had fallen asleep ; some, that she had burnt herself to
death ; some, that she had got drunk ; one very fat man, that
she had seen something to eat which had frightened her so
much (not being used to it) that she had fallen into a fit
This last suggestion particularly delighted the bystanders,
who cheered it uproariously, and were with some difficulty
deterred from dropping down the area and breaking open the
kitchen door to ascertain the fact Nor was this all. Rumors
having gone abroad, that Arthur was to be married that
morning, very particular inquiries were made after the bride,
who was held by the majority to be disguised in the person of
Mr. Ralph Nickleby, which gave rise to much jocose indig-
nation at the public appearance of a bride in boots and pan-
taloons, and called forth a great many hoots and groans. At
length, the two money-lenders obtained shelter in a house
next door, and, being accommodated with a ladder, clambered
over the wall of the back yard — which was not a high one —
and descended in safety on the other side.

" I am almost afraid to go in, I declare," said Arthur,



Digitized by VjOOQIC



NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y. 729

turning to Ralph when they were alone. "Suppose she
should be murdered. Lying with her brains knocked out by
a poker, eh ? "

" Suppose she were," said Ralph. " I tell you, I wish
such things were more common than they are, and more easily
done. You may stare and shiver. I do ? "

He applied himself to a pump in the yard, and, having
taken a deep draught of water and flung a quantity on his
head and face, regained his accustomed manner and led the
way into the house : Gride following close at his heels.

It was the same dark place as ever : every room dismal
and silent as it was wont to be, and every ghostly article of
furniture in its customary place. The iron heart of the grim
old clock, undisturbed by all the noise without, still beat
heavily within its dusty case ; the tottering presses slunk from
the sight, as usual, in their melancholy corners ; the echoes
of footsteps returned the same dreary sound ; the long-legged
spider paused in his nimble run, and, scared by the sight of
men in that his dull domain, hung motionless on the wall,
counterfeiting death until they should have passed him by.

From cellar to garret went the two usurers, opening every
creaking door and looking into every deserted room. But no
Peg was there. At last, they sat them down in the apart-
ment which Arthur Gride usually inhabited, to rest after their
search.

" The hag is out, on some preparation for your wedding
festivities, I suppose," said Ralph, preparing to depart. " See
here ! I destroy the bond ; we shall never need it now."

Gride, who had been peering narrowly about the room,
fell, at that moment, upon his knees before a large chest, and
uttered a terrible yell.

" How now ? " said Ralph, looking sternly round.

" Robbed ! Robbed ! " screamed Arthur Gride.

"Robbed! Of money?"

" No, no, no. Worse ! far worse ! "

" Of what ? " demanded Ralph.

" Worse than money, worse than money ! " cried the old
man, casting the papers out of the chest, like some beast tear-
ing up the earth. " She had better have stolen money — all
my money — I haven't much ! She had better have made me a
beggar, than have done this ! "

" Done what ? " said Ralph. " Done what, you devil's
dotard ? "



Digitized by VjOOQIC



73°



NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



Still Gride made no answer, but tore and scratched among
the papers, and yelled and screeched like a fiend in torment.

"There is something missing, you say," said Ralph,
shaking him furiously by the collar. " What is it ? " ■

" Papers, deeds. I am a ruined man. Lost, lost ! I am
robbed, I am ruined ! She saw me reading it — reading it of
late — I did very often — She watched me, saw me put it in the
box that fitted into this, the box is gone, she has stolen it
Damnation seize her, she has robbed me ! "

" Of what /" cried Ralph, on whom a sudden light ap-
peared to break, for his eyes flashed and his frame trembled
with agitation as he clutched Gride by his bony arm. " Of
what ? "

" She don't know what it is ; she can't read I " shrieked
Gride, not heeding the inquiry. " There's only one way in
which money can be made of it, and that is by taking it to her.
Somebody will read it for her and tell her what to do. She
and her accomplice will get money for it and be let off be-
sides ; they'll make a merit of it — say they found it — knew it
— and be evidence against me. The only person it will fall
upon, is me, me, me ! "

" Patience ! " said Ralph, clutching him still tighter and
eyeing him with a sidelong look, so fixed and eager as suffi-
ciently to denote that he had some hidden purpose in what he
was about to say. " Hear reason. She can't have been gone
long. I'll call the police. Do you but give information of
what she has stolen, and they'll lay hands upon her, trust me.
Here! Help!"

" No, no, no," screamed the old man, putting his hand on
Ralph's mouth. "I can't, I daren't."

" Help ! help ! " cried Ralph.

" No, no, no," shrieked the other, stamping on the ground
with the energy of a madman. " I tell you no. I daren't,
I daren't ! "

" Daren't make this robbery public ? " said Ralph.

" No ! " rejoined Gride, wringing his hands. " Hush !
Hush ! Not a word of this ; not a word must be said. I am
undone. Whichever way I turn, I am undone. I am betray-
ed. I shall be given up. I shall die in Newgate ! "

With frantic exclamations such as these, and with many
others in which fear, grief, and rage, were strangely blended,
the panic-stricken wretch gradually subdued his first loud out-
cry, until it had softened down into a low despairing moan,



Digitized by-VjOOQlC






O

3
w

H

£
o

3

CO

5
o

o

CO

5



*3



5

2
C

c

2
c

G



X
W

o

r



Digitized by VjOOQIC



Digitized by VjOOQIC



NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



731



chequered now and then by a howl, as, going over such papers
as wereJeft in the chest, he discovered some new loss. With
very little excuse for departing so abruptly, Ralph left him,
and, greatly disappointing the loiterers outside the house by
telling them there was nothing the matter, got into the coach
and was driven to his own home.

A letter lay on his table. He let it lie there, for some
time, as if he had not the courage to open it, but at length
did so and turned deadly pale.

" The worst has happened," he said, " the house has failed.
I see. The rumor was abroad in the City last night, and
reached the ears of those merchants. Well, well i "

He strode violently up and down the room and stopped
again.

" Ten thousand pounds ! And only lying there for a day
— for one day ! How many anxious years, how many pinch-
ing days and sleepless nights, before I scraped together that
ten thousand pounds I — Ten thousand pounds ! How many
proud painted dames would have fawned and smiled, and
how many spendthrift blockheads done me lip-service to my
face and cursed me in their hearts, while I turned that ten
thousand pounds into twenty ! While I ground, and pinched,
and used these needy borrowers for my pleasure and profit,
what smooth-tongued speeches, and courteous looks, and civil
letters, they would have given me ! The cant of the lying
world is, that men like me compass our riches by dissimula-
tion and treachery : by fawning, cringing, and stooping. Why,
how many lies, what mean evasions, what humbled behavior
from upstarts who, but for my money, would spurn me aside
as they do their betters every day, would that ten thousand
pounds have brought me in ! Grant that I had doubled it —
made cent per cent. — for every sovereign told another — there
would not be one piece of money in all the heap which
wouldn't represent ten thousand mean and paltry lies, told,
not by the money-lender, oh no ! but by the money-borrowers,
your liberal, thoughtless, generous, dashing folks, who wouldn't
be so mean as save a sixpence for the world ! "

Striving, as it would seem, to lose part of the bitterness
of his regrets, in the bitterness of these other thoughts,
Ralph continued to pace the room. There was less and less
of resolution in his manner as his mind gradually reverted
to his loss ; at length, dropping into his elbow-chair and grasp-
ing its sides so firmly that they creaked again, he said :



Digitized by VjOOQIC



y 3 2 NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y.

" The lime has been when nothing could have moved me
like the loss of this great sum. Nothing. For births, deaths,
marriages, and all the events which are of interest to most
men, have (unless they are connected with gain or loss of
money) no interest for me. But now, I swear, I mix up with
the loss, his triumph in telling it. If he had brought it about,
— I almost feel as if he had — I couldn't hate him more. Let
me but retaliate upon him, by degrees, however slow — let me
but begin to get the better of him, let me but turn the scale
— and I can bear it."

His meditations were long and deep. They terminated
in his despatching a letter by Newman, addressed to Mr.
Squeers at the Saracen's Head, with instructions to inquire
whether he had arrived in town, and, if so, to wait an answer.
Newman brought back the information that Mr. Squeers had
come by mail that morning, and had received the letter in
bed ; but that he sent his duty and word that he would get up
and wait upon Mr. Nickleby directly.

The interval between the delivery of this message, and
the arrival of Mr. Squeers, was very short ; but, before he
came, Ralph had suppressed every sign of emotion, and once
more regained the hard, immovable, inflexible manner which
was habitual to him, and to which, perhaps, was ascribable no
small part of the influence which, over many men of no very
strong prejudices on the score of morality, he could exert
almost at will.

" Well, Mr. Squeers," he said, welcoming that worthy with
his accustomed smile, of which a sharp look and a thoughtful
frown were part and parcel : " how do you do ? "

" Why, sir," said Mr. Squeers, " I'm pretty well. So's the
family, and so's the boys, except for a sort of rash as is a
running through the school, and rather put 'em off their feed.
But it's a ill wind as blows no good to nobody ; that's what I
always say when them lads has a wisitation. A wisitation,
sir, is the lot of mortality. Mortality itself, sir, is a wisitation.
The world is chock full of wisitations ; and if a boy repines
at a wisitation and makes you uncomfortable with his noise,
he must have his head punched. That's going according to
the scripter, that is."

" Mr. Squeers," said Ralph, dryly.

" Sir."

" We'll avoid these precious morsels of morality if you
please, and talk of business."



Digitized by VjOOQIC



NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



733



" With all my heart, sir," rejoined Squeers, " and first let
me say "

" First let me say, if you please. Noggs I "

Newman presented himself when the summons had been
twice or thrice repeated and asked if his master called.

"I did. Go to your dinner. And go at once. Do you
hear ? "

" It an't time," said Newman, doggedly.

" My time is yours, and I-say it is," returned Ralph.

" You alter it every day," said Newman. " It isn't fair."

" You don't keep many cooks, and can easily apologize to
them for the trouble," retorted Ralph. " Begone, sir I "

Ralph not only issued this order in his most peremptory
manner, but, under pretence of fetching some papers from
the little office, saw it obeyed, and when Newman had left the
house, chained the door, to prevent the possibility of his re-
turning secretly, by means of his latch key.

" I have reason to suspect that fellow," said Ralph, when
he returned to his own office. "Therefore until I have
thought of the shortest and least troublesome way of ruining
him, I hold it best to keep him at a distance."

" It wouldn't take much to ruin him, I should think," said
Squeers, with a grin.

" Perhaps not," answered Ralph. " Nor to ruin a great
many people whom I know. You were going to say ? "

Ralph's summary and matter-of-course way of holding up
this example, and throwing out the hint that followed it, had
evidently an effect (as doubtless it was designed to have) upon
Mr. Squeers, who said, after a little hesitation and in a much
more subdued tone :

" Why, what I was a. going to say, sir, is, that this here
business regarding of that ungrateful and hard-hearted chap,
Snawley senior, puts me out of my way, and occasions a in-
conveniency quite unparalleled ; besides, as I may say, making,
for whole weeks together, Mrs. Squeers a perfect widder. It's
a pleasure to me to act with you, of course."

" Of course," said Ralph, dryly.

" Yes, I said of course," resumed Mr. Squeers, rubbing his
knees ; " but at the same time, when one comes, as I do now,
better than two hundred and fifty miles to take a afferdavid,
it does put a man out a good deal, letting alone the risk.' 1

" And where may the risk be, Mr. Squeers ) " said Ralph.

" I said, letting alone the risk," replied Squeers, evasively.

"And I said, where was the risk ? "



Digitized by VjOOQlC



734



NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



-" I wasn't complaining, you know, Mr. Nickleby," pleaded
Squeers. " Upon my word I never see such a "

" I ask you where is the risk?/' repeated Ralph, emphati-
cally.

" Where the risk ? " returned Squeers, rubbing his knees
still harder. " Why, it an't necessary to mention. Certain
subjects is best awoided. Oh, you know what risk I mean."

" How often have I told you," said Ralph, " and how often
am I to tell you, that you run no risk ? What have you sworn,
or what are you asked to swear, but that at such and such a
time a boy was left with you by the name of Smike ; that he
was at your school for a given number of years, was lost under
such and such circumstances, is now found, and has been
identified by you in such and such keeping. This is all true ;
is it not ? "

"Yes," replied Squeers, " that's all true."

" Well, then," said Ralph, " what risk do you run ? Who
swears to a lie but Snawley ; a man whom I have paid much
less than I have you ? "

"He certainly did it cheap, did Snawley," observed
Squeers.

" He did it cheap ! " retorted Ralph, testily, "yes, and he
did it we'll, and carries it off with a hypocritical face and a
sanctified air, but you ! Risk ! What do you mean by risk ?
The certificates are all genuine. Snawley had another son,
he has been^married twice, his first wife is dead, none but her
ghost could" tell that she didn't write that letter, none but
Snawley himself can tell that this is not his son, and that this
son is food for worms ! The only perjury is Snawley's, and I
fancy he is pretty well used to it. Where's your risk ? "

" Why, you know," said Squeers, fidgeting in his chair, " if
you come to that, I might say where's yours ? "

" You might say where's mirie ! " returned Ralph ; " you
may say where's mine. I don't appear in the business, neither
do you. All Snawley's interest is to stick well to the story
he has told ; all his risk is, to depart from it in the least
Talk of your risk in the conspiracy I "

" I say," remonstrated Squeers, looking uneasily round ;
" don't call it that ! Just as a favor, don't."

h Call it what you like," said Ralph, irritably, "but at-
tend to me. This tale was originally fabricated as a means of
annoyance against one who hurt your trade and half cudgelled
you to death, and to enable you to obtain repossession of a



Digitized by VjOOQIC



NICHOLAS NICKLEBY*



735



half-dead drudge whom you wished to regain, because, while
you wreaked your vengeance on him for his share in the busi-
ness, you knew that the knowledge that he was again in your
power would be the best punishment you could inflict upon
your enemy. Is that so, Mr. Squeers ? "

" Why, sir," returned Squeers, almost overpowered by the
determination which Ralph displayed to make everything tell
against him, and by his stern unyielding manner : " in a meas-
ure it was."

" What does that mean ! " said Ralph.

" Why, in a measure, means,"' returned Squeers, " as it
may be, that it wasn't all on my account, because you had
some old grudge to satisfy, too."

"If I had not had," said Ralph, in no way abashed by the
reminder, " do you think I should have helped you ? "

" Why no, I don't suppose you would," Squeers replied.
H I only wanted that point to be all square and straight be-
tween us."

44 How can it ever be otherwise ? " retorted Ralph. " Ex*
cept that the account is against me, for I spend money to
gratify my hatred, and you pocket it, and gratify yours at the
same time. You are, at least, as avaricious as you are re-
vengeful. So am I. Which is best off ? You, who win money
and revenge at the same time and by the same process, ana
who are, at all events, sure of money, if not of revenge ; or I,
who am only sure of spending money in any case, and can
but win bare revenge at last ? "

As Mr. Squeers could only answer this proposition by
shrugs and smiles, Ralph bade him be silent, and thankful
that he was so well off ; and then, fixing his eyes steadily
upon him, proceeded to say :

First, that Nicholas had thwarted him in a plan he had
formed for the disposal in marriage of a certain young lady,
and had, in the confusion attendant on her father's sudden
death, secured that lady himself, and borne her off in tri-
umph.

Secondly, that by some will or settlement — certainly by
some instrument in writing, which must contain the young



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 70 of 79)