Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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with rapture on the documents within.

" Now you see," said Peg, kneeling down on the floor
beside him, and staying his impatient hand ; " what's of no
use, we'll burn ; what we can get any money by, we'll keep ;
and if there's any we could get him into trouble by, and fret
and waste away his heart to shreds with, those we'll take
particular care of ; for that's what I want to do, and what I
hoped to do when I left him."

" I thought," said Squeers, " that you didn't bear him any
particular good-will. But, I say ! Why didn't you take some
money besides ? "

" Some what ?" asked Peg.

"Some money," roared Squeers. "I do believe the
woman hears me, and wants to make me break a wessel, so
that she may have the pleasure of nursing me. Some money,
Slider, money ? "

" Why, what a man you are to ask I " cried Peg, with some
contempt. " If I had taken money from Arthur Gride, he'd
have scoured the whole earth to find me — ay, and he'd have
smelt it out, and raked it up, somehow, if I had buried it at
the bottom of the deepest well in England. No, no 1 I knew
better than that. I took what I thought his secrets were hid
in. Them he couldn't afford to make public, let 'em be worth
ever so much money. He's an old dog ; a sly old cunning
thankless dog ! He first starved, and then tricked me ; and
if I could, I'd kill him."

" All right, and very laudable," said Squeers. " But, first
and foremost, Slider, burn the box. You should neve* keep
things as may lead to discovery. Always mind that. So while
you pull it to pieces (which you can easily do, for it's very old
and rickety) and burn it in little bits, I'll look over the papers
and tell you what they are."

Peg, expressing her acquiescence in this arrangement, Mr.
Squeers turned the box bottom upward, and tumbling the con-
tents upon the floor, handed it to her ; the destruction of the
box being an extemporary device for engaging her attention
in case it should prove desirable to distract it from his own
proceedings.

" There ! " said Squeers ; " you poke the pieces between
the bars, and make up a good fire,tand I'll read the while. Let



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me see, let me see." And taking the candle down beside him,
Mr. Squeers, with great eagerness and a cunning grin over-
spreading his face, entered upon his task of examination.

If the old woman had not been very deaf, she must have
heard, when she last went to the door, the breathing of two per-
sons close behind it : and if those two persons had been unac-
quainted with her infirmity they must probably have chosen that
moment either for presenting themselves or taking to flight.
But, knowing with whom they had to deal, they remained quite
still, and now not only appeared unobserved at the door —
which was not bolted, for the bolt had no hasp— but warily,
and with noiseless footsteps, advanced into the room.

As they stole farther and farther in by slight and scarcely
perceptible degrees, and with such caution that they scarcely
seemed to breathe, the old hag and Squeers, little dreaming
of any such invasion, and utterly unconscious of there being
any soul near but themselves, were busily occupied with their
tasks. The old woman with her wrinkled face close to the
bars of the stove, puffing at the dull embers which had not yet
caught the wood ; Squeers, stooping down to the candle,
which brought out the full ugliness of his face, as the light of
the fire did that of his companion; both intently engaged,
and wearing faces of exultation which contrasted strongly
with the anxious looks of those behind, who took advantage
of the slightest sound to cover their advance, and, almost be-
fore they had moved an inch and all was silent, stopped
again. This, with the large bare room, damp walls, and flick-
ering doubtful light, combined to form a scene which the most
careless and indifferent spectator (could any such have been
present) could scarcely have failed to derive some interest
from, and would not readily have forgotten.

Of the stealthy comers, Frank Cheeryble was one, and
Newman Noggs the other. Newman had caught up by
the rusty nozzle, an old pair of bellows, which were just under-
going a flourish in the air preparatory to a descent upon the
head of Mr. Squeers, when Frank with an earnest gesture
stayed his arm, and, taking another step in advance, came so
close behind the schoolmaster that, by leaning slightly forward,
he could plainly distinguish the writing which he held up to
his eye.

Mr. Squeers, not being remarkably erudite, appeared to be
considerably puzzled by this first prize, which was in an en-
grossing hand, and not very legible except to a practised eye.



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Having tried it by reading from left to right, and -from right
to left, and finding it equally clear both ways, he turned it up-
side down with no better success.

44 Ha, ha, ha ! " chuckled Peg, who, on Jier knees before
the fire, was feeding it with fragments of the box, and grin-
ning in most devilish exultation. " What's that writing about,
eh?"

44 Nothing particular," replied Squeers, tossing it towards
her. 44 It's only an old lease, as well as I can make out. Throw
it in the fire."

Mrs. Sliderskew complied, and inquired what the next one
was.

44 This," said Squeers, "is a bundle of overdue acceptances
and renewed bills of six or eight young gentleman ; but they're
all M. P.'s, so it's of no use to anybody. Throw it in the fire."

Peg did as she was bidden, and waited for the next.

44 This," said Squeers, 44 seems to be some deed of sale of
the right of presentation to the rectory of Purechurch, in the
valley of Cashup. Take care of that, Slider, literally for God's
sake. It'll fetch its price at the Auction Mart."

44 What's the next ? " inquired Peg.

44 Why, this," said Squeers, 44 seems, from the two letters
that's with it, to be a bond from a curate down in the country,
to pay half-a-year's wages of forty pound for borrowing twenty.
Take care of that ; for if he don't pay it, his bishop will very
soon be down upon him. We know what the camel and the
needle's eye means ; no man as can't live upon his income,
whatever it is, must expect to go to heaven at any price. It's
very odd ; I don't see anything like it yet"

44 What's the matter? " said Peg.

44 Nothing," replied Squeers, 44 only I'm looking for "

Newman raised the bellows again. Once again, Frank, by
a rapid motion of his arm unaccompanied with any noise,
checked him in his purpose.

44 Here you are," said Squeers, 44 bonds — take care of them.
Warrant of attorney — take care of that. Two cognovits — take
care of them. Lease and release — burn that. Ah ! 4 Mad-
eline Bray— come of age or marry — the said Madeline ' — here,
burn that /"

Eagerly throwing towards the old woman a parchment that
he caught up for the purpose, Squeers, as she turned her head,
thrust into the breast of his large coat, the deed in which these
words had caught his eye, and burst into a shout of triumph.



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" I've got it ! " said Squeers. " I've got it ! Hurrah ! The
plan was a good one/ though the chance was desperate, and
the day's our own at last ! "

Peg demanded what he laughed at, but no answer was re-
turned. Newman's arm could no longer be restrained. The
bellows descended heavily, and with unerring aim on the very
centre of Mr. Squeers's head, felled him to the floor, and
stretched him on it flat and senseless.



CHAPTER LVIII.

IN WHICH ONE SCENE OF THIS HISTORY IS CLOSED.

Dividing the distance into two days' journey, in order that
his charge might sustain the less exhaustion and fatigue from
travelling so far, Nicholas, at the end of the second day from
their leaving home, found himself within a very few miles of
the spot where the happiest years of his life had been passed,
and which, while it filled his mind with pleasant and peaceful
thoughts, brought back many painful and vivid recollections
of the circumstances in which he and his had wandered forth
from their old home, cast upon the rough world and the mercy
of strangers.

It needed no such reflections as those which the memory
of old days, and wanderings among scenes where our childhood
has been passed, usually awaken in the most insensible minds,
to soften the heart of Nicholas and render him more than
usually mindful of his drooping friend. By night and day, at
all times and seasons : always watchful, attentive, and solicit-
ous, and never varying in the discharge of his self-imposed
duty to one so friendless and helpless as he whose sands of
life were now fast running out and dwindling rapidly away:
he was ever at his side. He never left him. To encourage
and animate him, administer to his wants, support and cheer
him to the utmost of his power, was now his constant and un-
ceasing occupation.

They procured a humble lodging in a small farm-house,
surrounded by meadows where Nicholas had often revelled
when a child with a troop of merry school-fellows ; and here
they took up their rest.



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At first, Smike was strong enough to walk about, for short
distances at a time, with no other support or aid than that
which Nicholas could afford him. At this time, nothing ap-
peared to interest him so much as visiting those places which
had been most familiar to his friend in bygone days. Yield-
ing to this fancy, and pleased to find that its indulgence be-
guiled the sick boy of many tedious hours, and never failed to
afford him matter for thought and conversation afterwards,
Nicholas made such spots the scenes of their daily rambles:
driving him from place to place in a little pony-chair, and
supporting him on his arm while they walked slowly among
these old haunts, or lingered in the sunlight to take long
parting looks of those which were most quiet and beautiful.

It was on such occasions as these, that Nicholas, yielding
almost unconsciously to the interest of old associations, would
point out some tree that he had climbed a hundred times, to
peep at the young birds in their nest ; and the branch from
which he used to shout to little Kate, who stood below terri-
fied at the height he had gained, and yet urging him higher
still by the intensity of her admiration. There was the old
house too, which they would pass every day, looking up at the
tiny window through which the sun used to stream in and
wake him on the summer mornings — they were all summer
mornings then — and, climbing up the garden-wall and looking
over, Nicholas could see the very rose-bush which had come,
a present to Kate, from some little lover, and she had planted
with her own hands. There were the hedge-rows where the
brother and sister had often gathered wild flowers together,
and the green fields and shady paths where they had often
strayed. • There was not a lane, or brook, or copse, or cottage
near, with which some childish event was not entwined, and
back it came upon the mind — as events of childhood do — noth-
ing in itself : perhaps a word, a laugh, a look, some slight
distress, a passing thought or fear : and yet more strongly and
distinctly marked, and better remembered, than the hardest
trials or severest sorrows of a year ago.

One of these expeditions led them through the churchyard
where was his father's grave. " Even here," said Nicholas,
softly, " we used to loiter before we knew what death was,
and when we little thought whose ashes would rest beneath ;
and, wondering at the silence, sit down to rest and speak be-
low our breath. Once, Kate was lost, and after an hour of
fruitless search, -they found her fast asleep under that tree



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which shades my father's grave. He was very fond of her,
and said when he took her up in his arms, still sleeping, that
whenever he died he would wish to be buried where his dear
little child had laid her head. You see his wish was not for-
gotten." .

Nothing more passed, at the time ; but that night, as
Nicholas sat beside his bed, Smike started from what had
seemed to be a slumber, and laying his hand in his, prayed,
as the tears coursed down his face, that he would make him
one solemn promise.

" What is that ? " said Nicholas, kindly. " If I can re-
deem it, or hope to do so, you know I will."

" I am sure you will," was the reply. " Promise me that
when I die, I shall be buried near — as near as they can make
my grave — to the tree we saw to-day."

Nicholas gave the promise ; he had few words to give it
in, but they were solemn and earnest. His poor friend kept
his hand in his, and turned as if to sleep. But there were sti-
fled sobs ; and the hand was pressed more than once, or twice,
or thrice, before he sank to rest and slowly loosed his hold.

In a fortnight's time, he became too ill to move about.
Once or twice, Nicholas drove him out, propped up with
pillows ; but the motion of the chaise was painful to him, a*nd
brought on fits of fainting, which, in his weakened state, were
dangerous. There was an old couch in the house, which was
his favorite resting-place by day ; when the sun shone, and
the weather was warm, Nicholas had this wheeled into a little
orchard which was close at hand, and his charge being well
wrapped up and carried out to it, they used to sit there some-
times for hours together.

It was on one of these occasions that a circumstance took
place, which Nicholas, at the time, thoroughly believed to be
the mere delusion of an imagination affected by disease ; but
which he had, afterwards, too good reason to know was of
real and actual occurrence.

He had brought Smike out in his arms — poor fellow ! a
child might have carried him then — to see the sunset, and,
having arranged his couch, had taken his seat beside it. He
had been watching the whole of the night before, and being
greatly fatigued both in mind and body, gradually fell asleep.

He could not have closed his eyes five minutes, when
he was awakened by a scream, and starting up in that
kind of terror which affects a person suddenly roused, saw, to



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his great astonishment, that his charge had struggled into a
sitting posture, and with eyes almost starting from their
sockets, cold dew standing on his forehead, and in a fit of
trembling which quite convulsed his frame, was calling to him
for help.

" Good Heaven, what is this ! " said Nicholas, bending
over him. " Be calm ; you have been dreaming."

" No, no, no ! " cried Smike clinging to him. " Hold me
tight. Don't let me go. There, there ! Behind the tree ! "

Nicholas followed his eyes, which were directed to some
distance behind the chair from which he himself had just
risen. But there was nothing there.

" This is nothing but your fancy," he said, as he strove to
compose him ; " nothing else indeed."

" I know better. I saw as plain as I see now," was the
answer. "Oh! say you'll keep me with you. Swear you
won't leave me, for an instant ! "

" Do I ever leave you ? " returned Nicholas. " Lie down
again — there ! You see I'm here. Now, tell me ; what was
it?"

" Do you remember," said Smike, in a low voice, and
glancing fearfully round, " do you remember my telling you
of the man who first took me to the school ? "

" Yes, surely."

" I raised my eyes, just now, towards that tree — that one
with the thick trunk — and there, with his eyes fixed on me, he
stood ! "

"Only reflect for one moment," said Nicholas; "grant-
ing, for an instant, that it's likely he is alive and wandering
about a lonely place like this, so far removed from the public
road, do you think that at this distance of time you could
possibly know that man again ? "

" Anywhere — in any dress," returned Smike ; " but, just
now, he stood leaning upon his stick and looking at me, ex-
actly as I told you I remembered him. He was dusty with
walking, and poorly dressed — I think his clothes were ragged
— but directly I saw him, the wet night, his face when he left
me, the parlor I was left in, the people who were there, all
seemed to come back together. When he knew I saw him,
he looked frightened ; for he started, and shrank away. I
have thought of him by day, and dreamt of him by night He
looked in my sleep, when I was quite a little child, and has
looked in my sleep ever since, as he did just now."



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Nicholas endeavored, by every persuasion and argument
he could think of, to convince the terrified creature that his
imagination had deceived him, and that this close resemblance
between the creation of his dreams and the man he supposed
he had seen was but a proof of it ; but all in vain. When he
could persuade him to remain, for a few moments, in the care
of the people to whom the house belonged, he instituted a
strict inquiry whether any stranger had been seen, and
searched himself behind the tree, and through the orchard,
and upon the land immediately adjoining, and in every place
near, where it was possible for a man to lie concealed ; but
all in vain. Satisfied that he was right in his original conjec-
ture, he applied himself to calming the fears of Smike, which,
after some time, he partially succeeded in doing, though not
in removing the impression upon his mind ; for he still de-
clared, again and again, in the most solemn and fervid man*,
ner, that he had positively seen what he had described, and
that nothing could ever remove his conviction of its reality.

And now, Nicholas began to see that hope was gone, and
that, upon the partner of his poverty, and the sharer of his
better fortune, the world was closing fast. There was little
pain, little uneasiness, but there was no rallying, no effort, no
struggle for life. He was worn and wasted to the last degree ;
his voice had sunk so low, that he could scarce be heard to
speak ; Nature was thoroughly exhausted, and he had lain
him down to die.

On a fine mild autumn day, when all was tranquil and at
peace : when the soft sweet air crept in at the open window
of the quiet room, and not a sound was heard but the gentle
rustling of the leaves ; Nicholas sat in his old place by the
bedside, and knew that the time was nearly come. So very
still it was, that every now and then, he bent down his ear to
listen for the breathing of him who lay asleep, as if to assure
himself that life was still there, and that he had not fallen
into that deep slumber from which on earth there is no,
waking.

While he was thus employed, the closed eyes opened, and
on the pale face there came a placid smile.

" That's well ! " said Nicholas. " The sleep- has done you-
good."

"I have had such pleasant djearns " was the answer*,
" Such pleasant, happy dreams \ "

" Of what ? " said Nicholas,

48



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



The dying boy turned towards him, and, putting his arm
about his neck, made answer, " I shall soon be there ! "

After a short silence he spoke again.

"lam not afraid to die," he said, "lam quite contented.
I almost think that if I could rise from this bed quite well, I
would not wish to do so, now. You have so often told me
we shall meet again — so very often lately, and now I feel the
truth of that, so strongly — that I can even bear to part from
you."

The trembling voice and tearful eye, and the closer grasp
of the arm which accompanied these latter words, showed
how they filled the speaker's heart ; nor were there wanting,
indications of how deeply they had touched the heart of him
to whom they were addressed.

" You say, well," returned Nicholas at length, " and com-
fort me very much, dear fellow. Let me hear you say you are
happy, if you can."

" I must tell you something first. I should not have a
secret from you. You will not blame me, at a time like this,
I know."

" / blame you ! " exclaimed Nicholas.

" I am sure you will not. You asked me why I was so
changed, and — and sat so much alone. Shall I tell you
why ? "

" Not if it pains you," said Nicholas. u I only asked that
I might make you happier, if I could."

" I know. I felt that, at the time." He drew his friend
closer to him. " You will forgive me ; I could not help it ;
but though I would have died to make her happy, it broke
my heart to see — I know he loves her dearly— Oh ! who
could find that out, so soon as I ! "

The words which followed were feebly and faintly uttered,
and broken by long pauses ; but, from them, Nicholas learnt
for the first time, that the dying boy, with all the ardor of a
nature concentrated on one absorbing, hopeless, secret passion,
loved his sister Kate.

He had procured a lock of her hair, which hung at his
breast, folded in one or two slight ribands she had worn. He
prayed that, when he was dead, Nicholas would take it off, so
that no eyes but his might see it, and that when he was laid
in his coffin and about to be placed in the earth, he would
hang it round .his neck again, that it might rest with him in
the grave.



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Upon his knees Nicholas gave him this pledge, and prom-
ised again that he should rest in the spot he had pointed
out. They embraced, and kissed each other on the cheek.

" Now," he murmured, " I am happy."

He fell into a slight slumber, and waking smiled as be-
fore ; then, spoke of beautiful gardens, which he said stretched
out before him, and were filled with figures of men, women,
and many children, all with light upon their faces ; then whis-
pered that it was Eden — and so died.



CHAPTER LIX.



THK PLOTS BEGIN TO FAIL, AND DOUBTS AND DANGERS TO
DISTURB THE PLOTTER.

Ralph sat alone, in the solitary room where he was accus-
tomed to take his meals, and to sit of nights when no profit-
able occupation called him abroad. Before him was an
imtasted breakfast, and near to where his fingers beat rest-
lessly upon the table, lay his watch. It was long past the
time at which, for many years, he had put it in his pocket and
gone with measured steps down the stairs to the business of
the day, but he took as little heed of its monotonous warning,
as of the meat and drink before him, and remained with his
head resting on one hand, and his eyes fixed moodily on the
ground.

. This departure from his regular and constant habit, in one
so regular and unvarying in all that appertained to the daily
pursuit of riches, would almost of itself have told that the
usurer was not well. That he labored* under some mental or
bodily indisposition, and that it was one of no slight kind so
to affect a man like him, was sufficiently shown by his haggard
face, jaded air, and hollow languid eyes : which he raised at
last with a start and a hasty glance around him, as one who
suddenly awakes from sleep, and cannot immediately recog-
nize the place in which he finds himself. .

•"What is this," he said, " that hangs over me, and I can-
not shake off ? I have never pampered myself, and should
not be ill. I have never moped, and pined, and yielded to
fancies ; but what can a man do without rest ? "



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He pressed his hand upon his forehead.

" Night after night comes and goes, and I have no rest
If I sleep, what rest is that which is disturbed by constant
dreams of the same detested faces crowding round me — of the
same detested people, in every variety of action, mingling with
all I say and do, and always to my defeat ? Waking, what
rest have I, constantly haunted by this heavy shadow of — I
know not what — which is its worst character 1 I must have
rest. One night's unbroken rest, and I should be a man
again."

Pushing the table from him while he spoke, as though he
loathed the sight of food, he encountered the watch: the
hands of which, were almost upon noon.

" This is strange ! " he said, " noon, and Noggs not here !
what drunken brawl keeps him ' away ? I would give some-
thing now — something in money even after that dreadful loss
— if he had stabbed a man in a tavern scuffle, or broken into
a house, or picked a pocket, or done anything that would send
him abroad with an iron ring upon his leg, and rid me of him.
Better still, if I could throw temptation in his way, and lure
him on to rob me. He should be welcome to what he took,
so I brought the law upon him ; for he is a traitor, I swear !
How, or when, or where I don't know, though I suspect."

After waiting for another half-hour, he despatched the



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 72 of 79)