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The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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lady's name, and could be, therefore, easily selected from
others, if access to the place where it was deposited were
once secured — she was entitled to property which, if the ex-
istence of this deed ever became known to her, would make
her husband (and Ralph represented that Nicholas was cer-



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y 3 6 NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y.

tain to marry her) a rich and prosperous man, and a most
formidable enemy,

Thirdly, that this deed had been, with others, stolen from
one who had himself obtained or concealed it fraudulently,
and who feared to take any steps for its recovery ; and that
he (Ralph) knew the thief.

To all this Mr. Squeers listened, with greedy ears that de-
voured every syllable, and with his one eye and his mouth
wide open : marvelling for what special reason he was hon-
ored with s"o much of Ralph's confidence, and to what it all
tended.

" Now," said Ralph, leaning forward, and placing his hand
on Squeers's arm, " hear the design which I have conceived,
and which I must — I say, must, if I can ripen it— -cause to be
carried into execution. No advantage can be reaped from
this deed, whatever it is, save by the girl herself, or her hus-
band ; and the possession of this deed by one or other of
them is indispensable to any advantage being gained. That,
I have discovered beyond the possibility of doubt I want
that deed brought here, that I may give the man who brings
it, fifty pounds in gold, and burn it to ashes before his face."

Mr. Squeers, after following with his eye the action of
Ralph's hand towards the fire-place as if he were at that mo-
ment consuming the paper, drew a long breath, and said :

" Yes ; but who's to bring it ? "

" Nobody, perhaps, for much is to be done before it can
be got at," said Ralph. " But if anybody — you ! "

Mr. Squeers's first tokens of consternation, and his flat
relinquishment of the task, would have staggered most men,
if they had not immediately occasioned an utter abandonment
of the proposition. On Ralph, they produced not the slight-
est effect. Resuming, when the schoolmaster had quite talked
himself out of breath, as coolly as if he had never been in-
terrupted, Ralph proceeded to expatiate on such features of
the case as he deemed it most advisable to lay the greatest
stress on.

These were, the age, decrepitude, and weakness of Mrs.
Sliderskew ; the great improbability of her having any accom-
plice or even acquaintance : taking into account her secluded
habits, and her long residence in such a house as Gride's ; the
strong reason there was to suppose that the robbery was not
the result of a concerted plan : otherwise she would have
watched an opportunity of carrying off a sum of money ; the



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NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y. 737

difficulty she would be placed in when she began to think on
what she had done, and found herself incumbered with docu-
ments of whose nature she was utterly ignorant ; the compar-
ative ease with which somebody, with a full knowledge of her
position, obtaining access to her, and working on her fears, if
necessary, might worm himself into her confidence, and ob-
tain, und^r one pretence or another, free possession of the
deed. To these were added such considerations, as the con-
stant residence of Mr. Squeers at a long distance from Lon-
don, which rendered his association with Mrs. Sliderskew a
mere masquerading frolic, in which nobody was likely to rec-
ognize him, either at the time or afterwards ; the impossibility
of Ralph's undertaking the task himself, he being already
known to her by sight ; various comments on the uncommon
tact and experience of Mr. Squeers : which would make his
overreaching one old woman, a mere matter of child's play
and amusement. In addition to these influences and persua-
sions, Ralph drew, with his utmost skill and power, a vivid
picture of the defeat which Nicholas would sustain, should
they succeed, in linking himself to a beggar, where he ex-
pected to wed an heiress — glanced at the immeasurable im-
portance it must be to a man situated as Squeers, to preserve
such a friend as himself — dwelt on a long train of benefits,
conferred since their first acquaintance, when he had re-
ported favorably of his treatment of a sickly boy who had died
under his hands (and whose death was very convenient to
Ralph and his clients, but this he did not say) and finally
hinted that the fifty pounds might be increased to seventy-five,
or, in the event of very great success, even to a hundred.

These arguments at length concluded, Mr. Squeers crossed
his legs, uncrossed them, scratched his head, rubbed his eye,
examined the palms of his hands, bit his nails, and after
exhibiting many other signs of restlessness and indecision,
asked " whether one hundred pound was the highest that Mr.
Nickleby could go ? " Being answered in the affirmative, he
became restless again, and, after some thought and an un-
successful inquiry " whether he couldn't go another fifty," said
he supposed he must try and do the most he could for
a friend : which was always his maxim, and therefore he
undertook the job.

" But how are you to get at the woman ? " he said ; " that's
what it is as puzzles me."

" I may not get at her at all," replied Ralph, " but I'll tiy.

47



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73 8 NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y.

I have hunted people in this city, before now, who have been
better hid than she ; and I know quarters in which a guinea
or two, carefully spent, will often solve darker riddles than
this. Ay, and keep them close too, if need be ! I hear my
man ringing at the door. We may as well part. You had
better not come to and fro, but wait till you hear from me."

" Good ! " returned Squeers. " I say !* If you shouldn't
find her out, you'll pay expenses at the Saracen, and some-
thing for loss of time ? "

" Well," said Ralph, testily ; " yes ! You have nothing
more to say ? "

Squeers shaking his head, Ralph accompanied him to the
street-door, and, audibly wondering, for the edification of
Newman, why it was fastened as if it were night, let him in
and Squeers out, and returned to his own room.

"Now!" he muttered, "come what come may, for the
present I am firm and unshaken. Let me but retrieve this
one small portion of my loss and disgrace ; let me but defeat
him in this one hope, dear to his heart as I know it must be ;
let me but do this ; and it shall be the first link in such a
chain which I will wind about him, as never man forged yet'*



CHAPTER LVI1.



HOW RALPH NICKLEBY'S AUXILIARY WENT ABOUT HIS WORT,
AND HOW HE PROSPERED WITH IT.

It was a dark, wet, gloomy night in autumn, when in an
upper room of a mean house situated in an obscure street or
rather court near Lambeth, there sat, all alone, a one-eyed
man grotesquely habited, either for lack of better garments
or for purposes of disguise, in a loose great-coat with arms
half as long again as his own, and a capacity of breath and
length which would have admitted of his winding himself in
it, head and all, with the utmost ease, and without any risk of
straining the old and greasy material of which it was com-
posed.

So attired, and in a place so far removed from his usual
haunts and occupations, and so very poor and wretched in its
character, perhaps Mrs. Squeers herself would have had some



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NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y. 739

difficulty in recognizing her lord : quickened though her
natural sagacity doubtless would have been, by the affectionate
yearnings and impulses of a tender wife. But Mrs. Squeers's
lord it was. And in a tolerably disconsolate mood Mrs.
Squeers's lord appeared to be, as, helping himself from a black
bottle which stood on the table beside him, he cast round the
chamber a look in which very slight regard for the objects
within view was plainly mingled with some regretful and
impatient recollection of distant scenes and persons.

There were no particular attractions, either in the room
over which the glance of Mr. Squeers so discontentedly
wandered, or in the narrow street into which it might have
penetrated, if he had thought fit to approach the window. The
£ttic-chamber in which he sat, was bare and mean ; the bed-
stead, and such few other articles of necessary furniture as it
contained, were of the commonest description, in a most
crazy state, and of a most uninviting appearance. The street
was muddy, dirty, and deserted. Having but one outlet, it
was traversed by few save the inhabitants, at any time ; and
the night being one of those on which most people are glad
to be within doors, it now presented no other signs of life
than the dull glimmering of poor candles from the dirty win-
dows, and few sounds but the pattering of the rain, and
occasionally the heavy closing of some creaking door.

Mr. Squeers continued to look disconsolately about him,
and to listen to these noises in profound silence, broken only
by the rustling of his large coat, as he now and then moved
his arm to raise his glass to his lips. Mr. Squeers continued
to do this for some time, until the increasing gloom warned
him to snuff the candle. Seeming to be slightly roused by
this exertion, he raised his eyes to the ceiling, and fixing them
upon some uncouth and fantastic figures traced upon it by the
wet and damp which had penetrated through the roof, broke
into the following soliloquy :

" Well, this is a pretty go, is this here 1 An uncommon
pretty go ! Here have I been, a matter of how many weeks
— hard upon six — a-follering up this here blessed old dowager
petty larcenerer," — Mr. Squeers delivered himself of this
epithet with great difficulty and effort — " and Dotheboys Hall
a-running itself regularly to seed the while ! That's the worst
of ever being in with a owdacious chap like that old Nickleby.
You never know when he's done with you, and if you're in for
a penny, you're in for a pound."



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74 o NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y.

This remark, perhaps, reminded Mr. Squeers that he was
in. for a hundred pound at any rate. His countenance relaxed,
and he raised his glass to his mouth with an air of greater
enjoyment of its contents than he had before evinced.

" I never see," soliloquized Mr. Squeers in continuation,
" I never see nor come across such a file as that old Nickleby.
Never ! He's out of everybody's depth, he is. He's what
you may call a rasper, is Nickleby. To see how sly and cun-
ning he grubbed on, day after day, a-worming and plodding
and tracing and turning and twining of hisself about, till he
found out where this precious Mrs. Peg was hid, and cleared
the ground for me to work upon. Creeping and crawling
and gliding, like a ugly old bright-eyed stagnation-blooded
adder ! Ah ! He'd have made a good uri in our line, but it
would have been too limited for him ; his genius would have
busted all bonds, and coming over every obstacle, broke down
all before it, 'till it erected itself into a monnevment of — Well,
I'll think of the rest, and say it when conwement."

Making a halt in his reflections at this place, Mr. Squeers
again put his glass to his lips, and drawing a dirty letter from
his pocket, proceeded to con over its contents with the air of
a man who had read it very often, and who now refreshed
his memory rather in the absence of better amusement than
for any specific information.

" The pigs is well," said Mr. Squeers, " the cows is well,
and the boys is bobbish. Young Sprouter has been a-wink-
ing, has he ? I'll wink him when I get back. ' Cobbey would
persist in sniffing while he was a-eating his dinner, and said
that the beef was so strong it made him.' — Very good, Cob-
bey, we'll see if we can't make you sniff a little without beef.
' Pitcher was took with another fever,'— of course he was —
* and being fetched by his friends, died the day after he got
home,' — of course he did, and out of aggravation ; it's part of
a deep-laid system. There an't another chap in the school
but that boy as would have died exactly at the end of the
quarter : taking it out of me to the very last, and then carry-
ing his spite to the utmost extremity. *The juniorest Palmer
said he wished he was in Heaven.' I really don't know, I do
not know what's to be done with that young fellow ; he's
always a-wishing something horrid. He said, once, he wished
he was a donkey, because then he wouldn't have a father as
didn't love him ! Pretty wicious that for a child of six ! "

Mr. Squeers was so much moved by the contemplation of



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



741



this hardened nature in one so young, that he angrily put up
the letter, and sought, in a new train of ideas, a subject of
consolation.

" It's a long time to have been a-lingering in London," he
said ; " and this is a precious hole to come and live in, even
if it has been only for a week or so. Still, one hundred pound
is five boys, and five boys takes a whole year to pay one hun-
dred pound, and there's their keep to be substracted. There's
nothing lost, neither, by one's being here ; because the boys'
money comes in just the same as 8 I was at home, and Mrs.
Squeers she keeps them in order. There'll be some lost time
to make up, of course. There'll be an arrear of flogging
' asll have to be gone through ; still, a couple of days makes
that all right, and one don't mind a little extra work for one
hundred pound. It's pretty nigh the time to wait upon the
old woman. From what she said last night, I suspect that if
I'm to succeed at all, I shall succeed to-night; so I'll have
half a glass more, to wish myself success, and put myself in
spirits. Mrs. Squeers, my dear, your health ! "

Leering with his one eye as if the lady to whom he drank,
had been actually present, Mr. Squeers — in his enthusiasm,
no doubt — poured out a full glass, and emptied it ; and as the
liquor was raw spirits, and he had applied himself to the same
bottle more than once already, it is not surprising that he
found himself by this time in an extremely cheerful state, and
quite enough excited for his purpose.

What this purpose was, soon appeared. After a few turns
about the room to steady himself, he took the bottle under
his arm and the glass in his hand, and blowing out the can-
dle as if he purposed being gone some time, stole out upon
the staircase and creeping softly to a door opposite his own,
tapped gently at it.

" But what's the use of tapping ? " he said. " She'll never
hear. J suppose she isn't doing anything very particular ;
and if she is, it don't much matter, that I see."

With this brief preface, Mr. Squeers applied his hand to
the latch of the door and thrusting his head into a garret far
more deplorable than that he had just left, and seeing that
there was nobody there but an old woman, who was bending
over a wretched fire (for although the weather was still warm,
the evening was chilly), walked in, and tapped her on the
shoulder.

" Well, my Slider I " said Mr. Squeers, jocularly.



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j 42 NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y.

" Is that you ? " inquired Peg.

" Ah 1 It's me, and me's the first person singular, nomina-
tive case, agreeing with the verb 'it's/ and governed by
Squeers understood, as a acorn, a hour ; but when the h is
sounded, the a only is to be used, as a and, a art, a ighway,"
replied Mr. Squeers, quoting at random from the grammar.
" At least, if it isn't, you don't know any better. And if it is,
I've done it accidentally."

Delivering this reply in his accustomed tone of voice, in
which of course it was inaudible to Peg, Mr. Squeers drew a
stool to the fire, and placing himself over against her, and
the bottle and glass on the floor between them, roared out
again very loud,

"Well, my Slider!"

" I hear you," said Peg, receiving him very graciously.

" I've come according to promise," roared Squeers.

" So they used to say in that part of the country I come
from," observed Peg, complacently, "but I think oil's
better."

" Better than what ? " roared Squeers, adding some rather
strong language in an undertone.

" No," said Peg, " of course not."

" I never saw such a monster as you are 1 " muttered
Squeers, looking as amiable as he possibly could, the while ;
for Peg's eye was upon him, and she was chuckling fearfully,
as though in delight at having made a choice repartee. " Do
you see this ? This is a bottle."

" I see it," answered Peg.

" Well, and do you see this ? " bawled Squeers. " This is
a glass ! " Peg saw that too.

" See here, then," said Squeers, accompanying his remarks
with appropriate action, " I fill the glass from the bottle, and
I say ' your health, Slider,' and I empty it ; then I rinse it
genteelly with a little drop, which I'm forced to throw into
the fire — Hallo ! we shall have the chimbley alight next — fill
it again, and hand it over to you."

" Your health," said Peg.

"She understands that, anyways," muttered Squeers,
watching Mrs. Sliderskew as she dispatched her portion, and
choked and gasped in a most awful manner after so doing ;
" now then, let's have a talk. How's the rheumatics ? "

Mrs. Sliderskew, with much blinking and chuckling, and
with looks expressive of her strong admiration of Mr. Squeers,



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. 743

his person, manners, and conversation, replied that the rheu-
matics were better.

"What's the reason," said Mr. Squeers, deriving fresh
facetiousness from the bottle ; " what's the reason of rheu-
matics ? What do they mean ? What do people have 'em
for— eh ? "

Mrs. Sliderskew didn't know, but suggested that it was
possibly because they couldn't help it.

" Measles, rheumatics, hooping-cough, fevers, agers, and
lumbagers," said Mr. Squeers, "is all philosophy together;
that's what it is. The heavenly bodies is philosophy, and the
earthly bodies is philosophy. If there's a screw loose in a
heavenly body, that's philosophy ; and if there's a screw loose
in a earthly body, that's philosophy too ; or it may be that
sometimes there's a little metaphysics in it, but that's not
often. Philosophy's the chap for me. If a parent asks a
question in the classical, commercial, or mathematical line,
says I, gravely, ' Why, sir, in the first place, are you a phi-
losopher ?' — 4 No, Mr. Squeers,' he says, ' I an't.' 'Then, sir/
says I, ' I am sorry for you, for I shan't be able to explain it.'
Naturally, the parent goes away and wishes he was a phi-
losopher, and, equally naturally, thinks I'm one."

Saying this, and a great deal more, with tipsy profundity
and a serio-comic air, and keeping his eye all the time on Mrs.
Sliderskew, who was unable to hear one word, Mr. Squeers
concluded by helping himself and passing the bottle. To
which Peg did becoming reverence.

"That's the time of day ! " said Mr. Squeers. " You look
twenty pound ten better than you did."

Again Mrs. Sliderskew chuckled, but modesty forbade her
assenting verbally to the compliment.

"Twenty pound ten better," repeated Mr. Squeers, "than
you did that day when I first introduced myself. Don't you
know ? "

" Ah ! " said Peg, shaking her head, " but you frightened
me that day." '

" Did I ? " said Squeers ; " well, it was rather a startling
thing for a stranger to come and recommend himself by saying*
that he knew all about you, and what your name was, and
why you were living so quiet here, and what you had bonfed,
and who you boned it from, wasn't it ? "

Peg nodded her head in strong assent.

" But I know everything that happens in that way, you



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744



NICHOLAS NJCJCLEBY.



see," continued Squeers. " Nothing takes place, of that kind,
that I ain't up to entirely. I'ma sort of a lawyer, Slider, of
first-rate standing and understanding. I'm the intimate friend
and confidential adwiser of pretty nigh every man, "woman,
and child that gets themselves into difficulties by being too
nimble with their fingers. I'm "

Mr. Squeers's catalogue of his own merits and accomplish-
ments, which was partly the result of a concerted plan be-
tween himself and Ralph Nickleby, and flowed, in part, from
the black bottle, was here interrupted by Mrs. Sliderskew.

" Ha, ha, ha ! " she cried, folding her arms and wagging
her head ; " and so he wasn't married after all, wasn't he ?
Not married after all ? "

" No," replied Squeers, "that he wasn't ! "

" And a young lover come and carried off the bride, eh ? "
said Peg.

" From under his very nose," replied Squeers ; " and I'm
told the young chap cut up rough besides, and broke the
winders, and forced him to swaller his wedding favor.
Which nearly choked him."

" Tell me all about it again," cried Peg, with a malicious
relish of her old master's defeat, which made her natural
hideousness something quite fearful ; " let's hear it all again,
beginning at the beginning now, as if you'd never told me.
Let's have it every word — now — now — beginning at the very
first, you know, when he went to the house that morning ! "

Mr. Squeers, plying Mrs. Sliderskew freely with the liquor,
and sustaining himself under the exertion of speaking so loud
by frequent applications to it himself, complied with this re-
quest by describing the discomfiture of Arthur Gride, with
such improvements on the truth as happened to occur to him,
and the ingenious invention and application of which had
been very instrumental in recommending him to her notice in
the beginning of their acquaintance. Mrs. Sliderskew was in
an ecstasy of delight, rolling her head about, drawing up her
skinny shoulders, and wrinkling her cadaverous face into so
many and such complicated forms of ugliness, as awakened
* the unbounded astonishment and disgust even of Mr. Squeers.

" He's a treacherous old goat," said Peg, " and cozened
me with cunning tricks and lying promises ; but never mind
I'm even with him. I'm even with him."

"More than even, Slider," returned Squeers; "you'd
have been even with him, if he'd got married ; but with the



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745



disappointment besides, you're a long way a-head. Out of
sight, Slider, quite out of sight. And that reminds me," he
added, handing her the glass, " if you want me to give you
my opinion of them deeds, and tell you what you'd better
keep and what you'd better burn, why, now's your time,
Slider."

" There ain't no hurry for that," said Peg, with several
knowing looks and winks.

" Oh ! very well ! " observed Squeers, " it don't matter to
me. You asked me, you know. I shouldn't charge you
nothing, being a friend. You're the best judge of course.
But you're a bold woman, Slider."

" How do you mean bold ? " said Peg.

" Why, I only mean that if it was me, I wouldn't keep
papers as might hang me, littering about when they might be
turned into money — them as wasn't useful made away with,
and them as was, laid by somewheres, safe ; that's all," re-
turned Squeers ; " but everybody's the best judge of their own
affairs. All I say is, Slider, /wouldn't do it."

" Come," said Peg, " then you shall see 'em."

" I don't want to see 'em," replied Squeers, affecting to
be out of humor, " don't talk as if it was a treat. Show 'em
to somebody else, and take their advice."

Mr. Squeers would, very likely, have carried on the farce
of being offended, a little longer, if Mrs. Sliderskew in her
anxiety to restore herself to her former high position in his
good graces had not become so extremely affectionate that he
stood at some risk of being smothered by her caresses. Re-
pressing, with as good a grace as possible, these little famili-
arities — for which, there is reason to believe, the black bottle
was at least as much to blame as any constitutional infirmity
on the part of Mrs. Sliderskew — he protested that he had only
been joking, and, in proof of his unimpaired good humor,
that he was ready to examine the deeds at once, if by so doing
he could afford any satisfaction or relief of mind to his fair
friend.

" And now you're up, my Slider," bawled Squeers, as she
rose to fetch them, " bolt the door."

Peg trotted to the door, and after fumbling at the bolt,
crept to the other end of the room, and from beneath the
coals which filled the bottom of the cupboard, drew forth a
small deal box. Having placed this on the floor at Squeers's
feet, she brought, from under the pillow of her bed, a small



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?4 6 NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y.

key, with which she signed to that gentleman to open it. Mr.
Squeers, who had eagerly followed her every motion, lost no
time in obeying this hint : and, throwing back the lid, gazed



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 71 of 79)