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The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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very different things, they had been advised by a lawyer, emi-
nent for his sagacity and acuteness in such practice, to resist
the proceedings taken on the other side for the recovery of
the youth, as slowly and artfully as possible, and meanwhile
to beset Snawley (with whom it was clear the main falsehood
must rest) ; to lead him, if possible, into contradictory and
conflicting statements ; to harass him by all available means ;
and so to practice on his fears, and regard for his own safety,
as to induce him to divulge the whole scheme, and to give up
his employer and whomsoever else he could implicate. That
all this had been skilfully done ; but that Snawley, who was
well practised in the arts of low cunning and intrigue, had
successfully baffled all their attempts, until an unexpected cir-
cumstance had brought him, last night, upon his knees.

It thus arose. When Newman Noggs reported that Squeers
was again in town, and that an interview of such secrecy had
taken place between him and Ralph that he had been sent
out df the house, plainly lest he should overhear a word, a
watch was set upon the schoolmaster, in the hope that some-
thing might be discovered which would throw some light upon
the suspected plot. It being found, however, that he held no
further communication with Ralph, nor any with Snawley, and
lived quite alone, they were completely at fault ; the watch
was withdrawn, and jthey would have observed his motions no
longer, if it had not happened that, one night, Newman
stumbled unobserved on him and Ralph in the street together.
Following them, he discovered, to his surprise, that they re-
paired to various low lodging-houses, and taverns kept by
broken gamblers, to more than one of whom Ralph was known,
and that they were in pursuit — so he found by inquiries when
they had left — of an old woman, whose description exactly
tallied with that of deaf Mrs. Sliderskew. Affairs now appeal
ing to assume a more serious complexion, the watch was re-
newed with increased vigilance ; an officer was procured, who
took up his abode in the same tavern with Squeers ; and by



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768 NICHOLAS NICKlEB Y.

him and Frank Cheeryble, the footsteps of the unconscious
schoolmaster were dogged, until he was safely housed in the
lodging at Lambeth. Mr. Squeers having shifted his lodging,
the officer shifted his, and lying concealed in the same street,
and, indeed, in the opposite house, soon found that Mr.
Squeers and Mrs. Sliderskew were in constant communication.

In this state of things, Arthur Gride was appealed to.
The robbery, partly owing to the inquisitiveness of the neigh-
bors, and partly to his own grief and rage, had, long ago, be-
come known ; but he positively refused to give his sanction
or yield any assistance to the old woman's capture, and was
seized with such a panic at the idea of being called upon to
give evidence against her, that he shut himself up close, in his
house, and refused to hold communication with anybody.
Upon this, the pursuers took counsel together, and, coming so
near the truth as to arrive at the conclusion that Gride and
Ralph, with Squeers for their instrument, were negotiating for
the recovery of some of the stolen papers which would not
bear the light, and might possibly explain the hints relative to
Madeline which Newman had overheard, resolved that Mrs.
Sliderskew should be taken into custody before she had parted
with them : and Squeers too, if anything suspicious could be
attached to him. Accordingly, a search-warrant being pro-
cured, and all prepared, Mr. Squeers's window was watched,
until his light was put out, and the time arrived when, as had
been previously ascertained, he usually visited Mrs. Sliderskew.
This done, Frank Cheeryble and Newman stole up stairs to
listen to their discourse, and to give the signal to the officer
at the most favorable time. At what an opportune moment
they arrived, how they listened, and what they heard, is already
known to the reader. Mr. Squeers, still half stunned, was
hurried off with a stolen deed in his possession, and Mrs.
Sliderskew was apprehended likewise, The information being
promptly carried to Snawley that Squeers was in custody he
was not told for what — that worthy, first extorting a promise
that he should be kept harmless, declared the whole tale con-
cerning Smike to be a fiction and forgery, and implicated
Ralph Nickleby to the fullest extent. As to Mr. Squeers, he
had, that morning, undergone a private examination before a
magistrate : and, being unable to account satisfactorily for his
possession of the deed or his companionship with Mrs. Slider-
skew, had been, with her, remanded for a week.

All these discoveries were now related to Ralph, circum-



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NICHOLAS NICKLEB V. 769

stantially, and in detail. Whatever impression they secretly
produced, he suffered no sign of emotion to escape him, but
sat perfectly still, not raising his frowning eyes from the
ground, and covering his mouth with his hand. When the
narrative was concluded, he raised his head hastily, as if about
to speak, but on brother Charles resuming, fell into his old
attitude again.

" I told you this morning," said the old gentleman, laying
his hand upon his brother's shoulder, " that I came to you in
mercy. How far you may be implicated in this last transaction,
or how far the person who is now in custody may criminate
you, you best know. But, justice must take its course against
the parties implicated in the plot against this poor, unoffend-
ing, injured lad. It is not in my power, or in the power of
my brother Ned, to save you from the consequences. The
utmost we can do, is, to warn you in time, and to give you an
opportunity of escaping them. We would not have an old
man like you disgraced and punished by your near relation ;
nor would we have him forget, like you, all ties of blood and
nature. We entreat you — brother Ned, you join me, I know,
in this entreaty, and so, Tim Linkinwater, do you, although
you pretend to be an obstinate dog, sir, and sit there frowning
as if you didn't — we entreat you to retire from London, to take
shelter in some place where you will be safe from the con-
sequences of these wicked designs, and where you may have
time, sir, to atone for them, and to become a better man."

" And do you think," returned Ralph, rising, " and do you
think, you will so easily crush me? Do you think that a
hundred well-arranged plans, or a hundred suborned witnesses,
or a hundred false curs at my heels, or a hundred canting
speeches full of oily words, will move me ? I thank you for
disclosing your scheme^, which I am now prepared for. You
have not the man to deal with that you think ; try me ! and:
remember that I spit upon your fair words and false dealings,
and dare you — provoke you — taunt you — to do to me the
very worst you can I "

Thus they parted, for that time ; but the worst had. not
come yet

49



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77<> NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

CHAPTER LX.

THE DANGERS THICKEN, AND THE WORST IS TOLD.

Instead of going home, Ralph threw himself into the first
street cabriolet he could find, and, directing the driver towards
, the police office of the district in which Mr. Squeers's mis-
fortunes had occurred, alighted at a short distance from it,
and, discharging the man, went the rest of his way thither on
foot. Inquiring for the object of his solicitude, he learnt that
he had timed his visit well ; for Mr. Squeers was, in fact, at
that moment waiting for a hackney-coach he had ordered, and
in which he purposed proceeding to his week's retirement like
a gentleman.

Demanding speech with the prisoner, he was ushered into
a kind of waiting-room in which, by reason of his scholastic
profession and superior respectability, Mr. Squeers had been
permitted to pass the day. Here, by the light of a guttering
and blackened candle, he could barely discern the school-
master, fast asleep on a bench in a remote corner. An empty
glass stood on a table before him, which, with his somnolent
condition and a very strong smell of brandy and water, fore-
warned the visitor that Mr. Squeers had been seeking, in
creature comforts, a temporary forgetfulness of his unpleasant
situation.

It was not a very easy matter to rouse him ; so lethargic
and heavy were his slumbers. Regaining his faculties by slow
and faint glimmerings, he at length sat upright ; and, display-
ing a very yellow face, a very red nose, and a very bristly
beard ; the joint effect of which was considerably heightened
by a dirty white handkerchief, spotted with blood, drawn over
the crown of his head and tied under his chin ; stared ruefully
at Ralph in silence, until his feelings found a vent in this pithy
sentence :

" I say, young fellow, you've been and done it now; you
have ! *

" What's the matter with your head ? " asked Ralph.

"Why, your man, your informing kidnapping man, has
been and broke it," rejoined Squeers sulkily; "that's whar/s
the matter with it. You've come at last, have you ? "



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NICHOLAS NICKLEB Y. 771

" Why have you not- sent to me ? " said Ralph. " How
could I come till I knew what had befallen you ? "

" My family ! " hiccupped Mr. Squeers, raising his eye to
the ceiling ; " my daughter, as is at that age when all the
sensibilities is a coming out strong in blow — my son as is the
young Norval of private life, and the pride and ornament of a
doting willage — here's a shock for my family ! The coat of
arms of the Squeerses is tore, and their sunis gone down into
the ocean wave ! "

"You have been drinking," said Ralph, "and have not yet
slept yourself sober." #

" I haven't been drinking your health,«my codger," replied
Mr. Squeers ; " so you have nothing to do with that."

Ralph suppressed the indignation which the schoolmaster's
altered and insolent manner awakened, and asked again why
he had not sent to him.

" What should I get by sending to you ? " returned Squeers.
" To be known to be in with you, wouldn't do me a deal of
good, and they won't take bail till they know something more
of the case, so here am I hard and fast ; and there are you,
loose and comfortable."

" And so must you be, in a few days," retorted Ralph, with
affected good humor.. "They can't hurt you, man."

" Why, I suppose they can't do much to me, if I explain how
it was that I got into the good company of that there ca-daver-
ous old Slider," replied Squeers viciously, " who I wish was
dead and buried, and resurrected and dissected, and hung
upon wires in a anatomical museum, before ever I'd had any-
thing to do with her. This is what him with the powdered
head says this morning, in so many words : * Prisoner ! As
you have been found in company with this woman ; as you
were detected in possession of this document ; as you were
engaged with her in fraudulently destroying others, and can
give no satisfactory account of yourself ; I shall remand you
for a week, in order that inquiries may be made, and evidence
got. And meanwhile I can't take any bail for your appearance.'
Well then, what I say now, is, that I can give a satisfactory
account of myself ; I can hand in the card of my establish-
ment and say, ' / am the Wackford Squeers as is therein
named, sir. I am the man as is guaranteed, by unimpeach-
able references, to be a out-and-outer in morals and upright-
ness of principle. Whatever is wrong in this business is no
fault of mine. I had no evil design in it, sir. I was not aware



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



that anything was wrong. I was merely employed by a friend
my friend Mr. Ralph Nickleby, of Golden Square. Send for
him, sir, and ask him what he has to say ; he's the man ; not
me!'"

"What document was it that you had?" asked Ralph,
evading, for the moment, the point just raised.

" What document ? Why, the document," replied Squeers.
" The Madeline what's-her-name one. It was a will ; that's
what it was."

" Of what nature, whose will, when dated, how benefiting
her, to what extent ? " asked I&lph hurriedly.

" A will in her favor ; that's all I know," rejoined Squeers,
"and that's more than you'd have known, if you'd had them
bellows on your head. It's all owing to your precious caution
that they got hold of it. If you had let me burn it, and taken
my word that it was gone, it would have been a heap of ashes
behind the fire, instead of being whole and sound, inside of
my great-coat."

" Beaten at every point ! " muttered Ralph.

" Ah ! " sighed Squeers, who, between the brandy and
water and his broken head, wandered strangely, " at the de-
lightful village of Dotheboys near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire,
youth are boarded, clothed, booked, washed, furnished with
pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all
languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geome-
try, astronomy, trigonometry — this is a altered state of trigo-
nomics, this is ! A double i — all, everything — a cobbler's
weapon. U-p-up, adjective, not down. S-q-u-double-e-r-s-
Squeers, noun substantive, a educator of youth. Total, all up
with Squeers ! "

His running on, in this way, had afforded Ralph an op-
portunity of recovering his presence of mind, which at once
suggested to him the necessity of removing, as far as possible,
the schoolmaster's misgivings, and leading him to believe
that his safety and best policy lay in the preservation of a
rigid silence.

" I tell you, once again," he said, " they can't hurt you.
You shall have an action for false imprisonment, and make a
profit of this, yet. We will devise a story for you that should
carry you through twenty times such a trivial scrape as this ;
and if they want security in a thousand pounds for your reap-
pearance in case you should be called upon, you shall have
it All you have to do, is, to keep back the truth. You're a



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.



773



little fuddled tonight, and may not be able to see this as
clearly as you would at another time ; but this is what you
must do, and you'll need all your senses about you ; for a slip
might be awkward."

" Oh," said Squeers, who had looked cunningly at him,
with his head stuck on one side, like an old raven, " That's
what I'm to do, is it ? Now then, just you hear a word or
two from me. I an't*a going to have any stories made for
me, and I an't a going to stick to any. If I find matters
going again me, I shall expect you to take your share, and Til
take care you do. You never said anything about danger. I
never bargained for being brought into such a plight as this,
and I don't mean to take it as quiet as you think. I let you
lead me on, from one thing to another, because we had been
mixed up together in a certain sort of a way, and if you had
liked to be ill-natured you might perhaps have hurt the busi-
ness, and if you liked to be good-natured you might throw a
good deal in my way. Well ; if all goes right now, that's
quite correct, and I don't mind it ; but if anything goes wrong,
then, times are altered, and I shall just say and do whatever
I think may serve me most, and take advice from nobody.
My moral influence with them lads," added Mr. Squeers, with
deeper gravity, " is a tottering to its basis. The images of
Mrs. Squeers, my daughter, and my son Wackford, all short
of vittles, is perpetually before me ; every other consideration
melts away and vanishes, in front of these ; the only number
in all arithmetic that I know of as a husband and a father, is
number one, under this here most fatal go ! "

How long Mr. Squeers might have declaimed, or how
stormy a discussion his declamation might have led to, no-
body knows. Being interrupted at this point, by the arrival
of the coach and an attendant who was to bear him company,
he perched his hat with great dignity on the top of the hand-
kerchief that bound his head ; and, thrusting one hand in his
pocket, and taking the attendant's arm with the other, suf-
fered himself to be led forth.

" As I supposed from his not sending 1 " thought Ralph.
" This fellow, I plainly see through all this tipsy fooling, has
made up his mind to turn upon me. I am so beset and
hemmed in, that they are, not only all struck with fear, but,
like the beasts in the fable, have their fling at me now, though
time was, and no longer ago than yesterday too, when they
were all civility and compliance. But they shall not move
me. I'll not give way. I will not budge one inch J "

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774 NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

He went home, and was glad to find his housekeeper
complaining of illness that he might have an excuse for being
alone and sending her away to where she lived : which was
hard by. Then, he sat down by the light of a single candle,
and began to think, for the first time, on all that had taken
place that day.

He had neither eaten nor drunk since last night, and, in
addition to the anxiety of mind he had undergone, had been
travelling about, from place to place almost incessantly, for
many hours. He felt sick and exhausted, but could taste noth-
ing save a glass of water, and continued to sit with his head
upon his hand ; not resting or thinking, but laboriously try-
ing to do both, and feeling that every sense but one of weari-
ness and desolation, was for the time benumbed.

It was nearly ten o'clock when he heard a knocking at the
door, and still sat quiet as before, as if he could not even
bring his thoughts to bear upon that. It had been often re-
peated, and he had, several times, heard a voice outside, say-
ing there was a light in the window (meaning, as he knew, his
own candle), before he could rouse himself and go down
stairs.

" Mr. Nickleby, there is terrible news for you, and I am
sent to beg you will come with me directly," said a voice he
seemed to recognize. He held his hand above hb eyes, and,
looking out, saw Tim Linkinwater on the steps.

" Come where ? " demanded Ralph.

" To our house, where you came this morning. I have a
coach here."

1,4 Why should I come there ? " said Ralph.

" Don't ask me why, but pray come with me."

" Another edition of to-day I " returned Ralph, making as
though he would shut the door.

" No, no ! " cried Tim, catching him by the arm and speak-
ing most earnestly ; " it is only that you may hear something
that has* occurred: something very dreadful, Mr. Nickleby,
which concerns you nearly. Do you think I would tell you
so, or come to you like this, if it were not the case ? "

Ralph looked at him more closely. Seeing that he was
indeed greatly excited, he faltered, and could not tell what to
say or think.

" You had better hear this, now, than at any other time,"
said Tim, " it may have some influence with you. For Heav-
en's sake come ! "



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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. 77$

Perhaps, at another time, Ralph's obstinacy and dislike
would have been proof against any appeal from such a quar-
ter, however emphatically urged ; but now, after a moment's
hesitation, he went into the hall for his hat, and returning,
got into the coach without speaking a word.

Tim well remembered afterwards, and often said, that as
Ralph Nickleby went into the house for this purpose, he saw
him, by the light of the candle which he had set down upon a
chair, reel and stagger like a drunken man. He well remem-
bered, too, that when he had placed his foot upon the coach-
steps, he turned round and looked upon him with a face so
ashy pale and so very wild and vacant that it made him
shudder, and for the moment almost afraid to follow. People
were fond of saying that he had some dark presentiment upon
him then, but his emotion might, perhaps, with greater show
of reason, be referred to what he had undergone that day.

A profound silence was observed during the ride. Arrived
at their place of destination, Ralph followed his conductor
into the house, and into a room where the two brothers were.
He was so astounded, not to say awed, by something of a
mute compassion for himself which was visible in their manner
and in that of the old clerk, that he could scarcely speak.

Having taken a seat, however, he contrived to say, though
in broken words, " What — what have you to say to me — more
than has been said already ? "

The room was old and large, very imperfectly lighted, and
terminated in a bay window : about which, hung some heavy
drapery. Casting his eyes in this direction, as he spoke, he
thought he made out the dusky figure of a man. He was con-
firmed in this impression by seeing that the object moved, as
if uneasy under his scrutiny.

" Who's that yonder ? " he said.

" One who has conveyed to us, within these two hours,
the intelligence which caused our sending to you," replied
brother Charles. " Let him be, sir, let him be for the pres-
ent."

" More riddles ! " said Ralph, faintly. " Well, sir ? "

In turning his face towards the brothers he was obliged to
avert it from the window ; but, before either of them could
speak, he had looked round again. It was evident that he was
rendered restless and uncomfortable by the presence of the un-
seen person ; for he repeated this action several times, and at
length, as if in a nervous state which rendered him positively



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77 6 NICHOLAS NICKLEB K

unable to turn away from the place, sat so as to have it
opposite him, muttering as an excuse that he could not bear
the light.

The brothers conferred apart for a short time : their man-
ner showing that they were agitated. Ralph glanced at them,
twice or thrice, and ultimately said, with a great effort to re-
cover his self-possession, " Now, what is this ? If I am brought
from home at this time of night, let it be for something.
What have you got to tell me?" After a short pause, he
added, " Is my niece dead ? "

He had struck upon a key which rendered the task of
commencement an easier one. Brother Charles turned, and
said thaf it was a death of which they had to tell him, but
that his niece was well.

" You don't mean to tell me," said Ralph, as his eyes
brightened, " that her brother's dead. No, that's too good.
I'd not believe it, if you told me so. It would be too welcome
news to be true."

" Shame on you, you hardened and unnatural man," cried
the other brother, warmly ; " prepare yourself for intelligence,
which, if you have any human feeling in your breast, will make
even you shrink and tremble. What if we tell you that a
poor unfortunate boy : a child in everything but never having
known one of those tender endearments, or one of those light-
some hours which made our childhood a time to be remem-
bered like a happy dream through all our after life : a warm-
hearted, harmless, affectionate creature, who never offended
you, or did you wrong, but on whom you have vented the
malice and hatred you have conceived for your nephew, and
whom you have made an instrument for wreaking your bad
passions upon him : what if we tell you that, sinking under
your persecution, sir, and the misery and ill-usage of a life
short in years but long in suffering, this poor creature has
gone to tell his sad tale where, for your part in it, you must
surely answer ? "

" If you tell me," said Ralph ; " if you tell me that he is
dead, I forgive you all else. If you tell me that he is dead, I
am in your debt and bound to you for life. He is ! I see it
in your faces. Who triumphs now ? Is this your dreadful
news, this your terrible intelligence ? You see how it moves
me. You did well to send. I would have travelled a hundred
miles a-foot, through mud, mire, and darkness, to hear this
news just at this time."



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Even then, moved as he was by this savage joy, Ralph
could see in the faces of the two brothers, mingling with their
look of disgust and horror, something of that indefinable com-
passion for himself which he had noticed before.

"And he brought you the intelligence, did he?" said
Ralph, pointing with his finger towards the recess already
mentioned ; " and sat there, no doubt, to see me prostrated
and overwhelmed by it ! Ha, ha, ha I But I tell him that I'll
be a sharp thorn in his side for many a long day to come ;
and I tell you two, again, that you don't know him yet ; and
that you'll rue the day you took compassion on the vagabond."

" You take me for your nephew," said a hollow voice ;
" it would be better for you and for me too, if I were he in-
deed."

The figure that he had seen so dimly, rose, and came
slowly down. He started back, for he found that he confron-



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 74 of 79)