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The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Part 6 out of 20

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'It's very easy to talk,' said Mrs Mantalini.

'Not so easy when one is eating a demnition egg,' replied Mr
Mantalini; 'for the yolk runs down the waistcoat, and yolk of egg
does not match any waistcoat but a yellow waistcoat, demmit.'

'You were flirting with her during the whole night,' said Madame
Mantalini, apparently desirous to lead the conversation back to the
point from which it had strayed.

'No, no, my life.'

'You were,' said Madame; 'I had my eye upon you all the time.'

'Bless the little winking twinkling eye; was it on me all the time!'
cried Mantalini, in a sort of lazy rapture. 'Oh, demmit!'

'And I say once more,' resumed Madame, 'that you ought not to waltz
with anybody but your own wife; and I will not bear it, Mantalini,
if I take poison first.'

'She will not take poison and have horrid pains, will she?' said
Mantalini; who, by the altered sound of his voice, seemed to have
moved his chair, and taken up his position nearer to his wife. 'She
will not take poison, because she had a demd fine husband who might
have married two countesses and a dowager--'

'Two countesses,' interposed Madame. 'You told me one before!'

'Two!' cried Mantalini. 'Two demd fine women, real countesses and
splendid fortunes, demmit.'

'And why didn't you?' asked Madame, playfully.

'Why didn't I!' replied her husband. 'Had I not seen, at a morning
concert, the demdest little fascinator in all the world, and while
that little fascinator is my wife, may not all the countesses and
dowagers in England be--'

Mr Mantalini did not finish the sentence, but he gave Madame
Mantalini a very loud kiss, which Madame Mantalini returned; after
which, there seemed to be some more kissing mixed up with the
progress of the breakfast.

'And what about the cash, my existence's jewel?' said Mantalini,
when these endearments ceased. 'How much have we in hand?'

'Very little indeed,' replied Madame.

'We must have some more,' said Mantalini; 'we must have some
discount out of old Nickleby to carry on the war with, demmit.'

'You can't want any more just now,' said Madame coaxingly.

'My life and soul,' returned her husband, 'there is a horse for sale
at Scrubbs's, which it would be a sin and a crime to lose--going, my
senses' joy, for nothing.'

'For nothing,' cried Madame, 'I am glad of that.'

'For actually nothing,' replied Mantalini. 'A hundred guineas down
will buy him; mane, and crest, and legs, and tail, all of the
demdest beauty. I will ride him in the park before the very
chariots of the rejected countesses. The demd old dowager will
faint with grief and rage; the other two will say "He is married, he
has made away with himself, it is a demd thing, it is all up!" They
will hate each other demnebly, and wish you dead and buried. Ha!
ha! Demmit.'

Madame Mantalini's prudence, if she had any, was not proof against
these triumphal pictures; after a little jingling of keys, she
observed that she would see what her desk contained, and rising for
that purpose, opened the folding-door, and walked into the room
where Kate was seated.

'Dear me, child!' exclaimed Madame Mantalini, recoiling in surprise.
'How came you here?'

'Child!' cried Mantalini, hurrying in. 'How came--eh!--oh--demmit,
how d'ye do?'

'I have been waiting, here some time, ma'am,' said Kate, addressing
Madame Mantalini. 'The servant must have forgotten to let you know
that I was here, I think.'

'You really must see to that man,' said Madame, turning to her
husband. 'He forgets everything.'

'I will twist his demd nose off his countenance for leaving such a
very pretty creature all alone by herself,' said her husband.

'Mantalini,' cried Madame, 'you forget yourself.'

'I don't forget you, my soul, and never shall, and never can,' said
Mantalini, kissing his wife's hand, and grimacing aside, to Miss
Nickleby, who turned away.

Appeased by this compliment, the lady of the business took some
papers from her desk which she handed over to Mr Mantalini, who
received them with great delight. She then requested Kate to follow
her, and after several feints on the part of Mr Mantalini to attract
the young lady's attention, they went away: leaving that gentleman
extended at full length on the sofa, with his heels in the air and a
newspaper in his hand.

Madame Mantalini led the way down a flight of stairs, and through a
passage, to a large room at the back of the premises where were a
number of young women employed in sewing, cutting out, making up,
altering, and various other processes known only to those who are
cunning in the arts of millinery and dressmaking. It was a close
room with a skylight, and as dull and quiet as a room need be.

On Madame Mantalini calling aloud for Miss Knag, a short, bustling,
over-dressed female, full of importance, presented herself, and all
the young ladies suspending their operations for the moment,
whispered to each other sundry criticisms upon the make and texture
of Miss Nickleby's dress, her complexion, cast of features, and
personal appearance, with as much good breeding as could have been
displayed by the very best society in a crowded ball-room.

'Oh, Miss Knag,' said Madame Mantalini, 'this is the young person I
spoke to you about.'

Miss Knag bestowed a reverential smile upon Madame Mantalini, which
she dexterously transformed into a gracious one for Kate, and said
that certainly, although it was a great deal of trouble to have
young people who were wholly unused to the business, still, she was
sure the young person would try to do her best--impressed with which
conviction she (Miss Knag) felt an interest in her, already.

'I think that, for the present at all events, it will be better for
Miss Nickleby to come into the show-room with you, and try things on
for people,' said Madame Mantalini. 'She will not be able for the
present to be of much use in any other way; and her appearance will--'

'Suit very well with mine, Madame Mantalini,' interrupted Miss Knag.
'So it will; and to be sure I might have known that you would not be
long in finding that out; for you have so much taste in all those
matters, that really, as I often say to the young ladies, I do not
know how, when, or where, you possibly could have acquired all you
know--hem--Miss Nickleby and I are quite a pair, Madame Mantalini,
only I am a little darker than Miss Nickleby, and--hem--I think my
foot may be a little smaller. Miss Nickleby, I am sure, will not
be offended at my saying that, when she hears that our family always
have been celebrated for small feet ever since--hem--ever since our
family had any feet at all, indeed, I think. I had an uncle once,
Madame Mantalini, who lived in Cheltenham, and had a most excellent
business as a tobacconist--hem--who had such small feet, that they
were no bigger than those which are usually joined to wooden legs--
the most symmetrical feet, Madame Mantalini, that even you can
imagine.'

'They must have had something of the appearance of club feet, Miss
Knag,' said Madame.

'Well now, that is so like you,' returned Miss Knag, 'Ha! ha! ha!
Of club feet! Oh very good! As I often remark to the young ladies,
"Well I must say, and I do not care who knows it, of all the ready
humour--hem--I ever heard anywhere"--and I have heard a good deal;
for when my dear brother was alive (I kept house for him, Miss
Nickleby), we had to supper once a week two or three young men,
highly celebrated in those days for their humour, Madame Mantalini--
"Of all the ready humour," I say to the young ladies, "I ever heard,
Madame Mantalini's is the most remarkable--hem. It is so gentle, so
sarcastic, and yet so good-natured (as I was observing to Miss
Simmonds only this morning), that how, or when, or by what means she
acquired it, is to me a mystery indeed."'

Here Miss Knag paused to take breath, and while she pauses it may be
observed--not that she was marvellously loquacious and marvellously
deferential to Madame Mantalini, since these are facts which require
no comment; but that every now and then, she was accustomed, in the
torrent of her discourse, to introduce a loud, shrill, clear 'hem!'
the import and meaning of which, was variously interpreted by her
acquaintance; some holding that Miss Knag dealt in exaggeration, and
introduced the monosyllable when any fresh invention was in course
of coinage in her brain; others, that when she wanted a word, she
threw it in to gain time, and prevent anybody else from striking
into the conversation. It may be further remarked, that Miss Knag
still aimed at youth, although she had shot beyond it, years ago;
and that she was weak and vain, and one of those people who are best
described by the axiom, that you may trust them as far as you can
see them, and no farther.

'You'll take care that Miss Nickleby understands her hours, and so
forth,' said Madame Mantalini; 'and so I'll leave her with you.
You'll not forget my directions, Miss Knag?'

Miss Knag of course replied, that to forget anything Madame
Mantalini had directed, was a moral impossibility; and that lady,
dispensing a general good-morning among her assistants, sailed away.

'Charming creature, isn't she, Miss Nickleby?' said Miss Knag,
rubbing her hands together.

'I have seen very little of her,' said Kate. 'I hardly know yet.'

'Have you seen Mr Mantalini?' inquired Miss Knag.

'Yes; I have seen him twice.'

'Isn't HE a charming creature?'

'Indeed he does not strike me as being so, by any means,' replied
Kate.

'No, my dear!' cried Miss Knag, elevating her hands. 'Why, goodness
gracious mercy, where's your taste? Such a fine tall, full-
whiskered dashing gentlemanly man, with such teeth and hair, and--
hem--well now, you DO astonish me.'

'I dare say I am very foolish,' replied Kate, laying aside her
bonnet; 'but as my opinion is of very little importance to him or
anyone else, I do not regret having formed it, and shall be slow to
change it, I think.'

'He is a very fine man, don't you think so?' asked one of the young
ladies.

'Indeed he may be, for anything I could say to the contrary,'
replied Kate.

'And drives very beautiful horses, doesn't he?' inquired another.

'I dare say he may, but I never saw them,' answered Kate.

'Never saw them!' interposed Miss Knag. 'Oh, well! There it is at
once you know; how can you possibly pronounce an opinion about a
gentleman--hem--if you don't see him as he turns out altogether?'

There was so much of the world--even of the little world of the
country girl--in this idea of the old milliner, that Kate, who was
anxious, for every reason, to change the subject, made no further
remark, and left Miss Knag in possession of the field.

After a short silence, during which most of the young people made a
closer inspection of Kate's appearance, and compared notes
respecting it, one of them offered to help her off with her shawl,
and the offer being accepted, inquired whether she did not find
black very uncomfortable wear.

'I do indeed,' replied Kate, with a bitter sigh.

'So dusty and hot,' observed the same speaker, adjusting her dress
for her.

Kate might have said, that mourning is sometimes the coldest wear
which mortals can assume; that it not only chills the breasts of
those it clothes, but extending its influence to summer friends,
freezes up their sources of good-will and kindness, and withering
all the buds of promise they once so liberally put forth, leaves
nothing but bared and rotten hearts exposed. There are few who have
lost a friend or relative constituting in life their sole
dependence, who have not keenly felt this chilling influence of
their sable garb. She had felt it acutely, and feeling it at the
moment, could not quite restrain her tears.

'I am very sorry to have wounded you by my thoughtless speech,' said
her companion. 'I did not think of it. You are in mourning for
some near relation?'

'For my father,' answered Kate.

'For what relation, Miss Simmonds?' asked Miss Knag, in an audible
voice.

'Her father,' replied the other softly.

'Her father, eh?' said Miss Knag, without the slightest depression
of her voice. 'Ah! A long illness, Miss Simmonds?'

'Hush,' replied the girl; 'I don't know.'

'Our misfortune was very sudden,' said Kate, turning away, 'or I
might perhaps, at a time like this, be enabled to support it
better.'

There had existed not a little desire in the room, according to
invariable custom, when any new 'young person' came, to know who
Kate was, and what she was, and all about her; but, although it
might have been very naturally increased by her appearance and
emotion, the knowledge that it pained her to be questioned, was
sufficient to repress even this curiosity; and Miss Knag, finding it
hopeless to attempt extracting any further particulars just then,
reluctantly commanded silence, and bade the work proceed.

In silence, then, the tasks were plied until half-past one, when a
baked leg of mutton, with potatoes to correspond, were served in the
kitchen. The meal over, and the young ladies having enjoyed the
additional relaxation of washing their hands, the work began again,
and was again performed in silence, until the noise of carriages
rattling through the streets, and of loud double knocks at doors,
gave token that the day's work of the more fortunate members of
society was proceeding in its turn.

One of these double knocks at Madame Mantalini's door, announced the
equipage of some great lady--or rather rich one, for there is
occasionally a distinction between riches and greatness--who had
come with her daughter to approve of some court-dresses which had
been a long time preparing, and upon whom Kate was deputed to wait,
accompanied by Miss Knag, and officered of course by Madame
Mantalini.

Kate's part in the pageant was humble enough, her duties being
limited to holding articles of costume until Miss Knag was ready to
try them on, and now and then tying a string, or fastening a hook-
and-eye. She might, not unreasonably, have supposed herself beneath
the reach of any arrogance, or bad humour; but it happened that the
lady and daughter were both out of temper that day, and the poor
girl came in for her share of their revilings. She was awkward--her
hands were cold--dirty--coarse--she could do nothing right; they
wondered how Madame Mantalini could have such people about her;
requested they might see some other young woman the next time they
came; and so forth.

So common an occurrence would be hardly deserving of mention, but
for its effect. Kate shed many bitter tears when these people were
gone, and felt, for the first time, humbled by her occupation. She
had, it is true, quailed at the prospect of drudgery and hard
service; but she had felt no degradation in working for her bread,
until she found herself exposed to insolence and pride. Philosophy
would have taught her that the degradation was on the side of those
who had sunk so low as to display such passions habitually, and
without cause: but she was too young for such consolation, and her
honest feeling was hurt. May not the complaint, that common people
are above their station, often take its rise in the fact of UNcommon
people being below theirs?

In such scenes and occupations the time wore on until nine o'clock,
when Kate, jaded and dispirited with the occurrences of the day,
hastened from the confinement of the workroom, to join her mother at
the street corner, and walk home:--the more sadly, from having to
disguise her real feelings, and feign to participate in all the
sanguine visions of her companion.

'Bless my soul, Kate,' said Mrs Nickleby; 'I've been thinking all
day what a delightful thing it would be for Madame Mantalini to take
you into partnership--such a likely thing too, you know! Why, your
poor dear papa's cousin's sister-in-law--a Miss Browndock--was taken
into partnership by a lady that kept a school at Hammersmith, and
made her fortune in no time at all. I forget, by-the-bye, whether
that Miss Browndock was the same lady that got the ten thousand
pounds prize in the lottery, but I think she was; indeed, now I come
to think of it, I am sure she was. "Mantalini and Nickleby", how
well it would sound!--and if Nicholas has any good fortune, you
might have Doctor Nickleby, the head-master of Westminster School,
living in the same street.'

'Dear Nicholas!' cried Kate, taking from her reticule her brother's
letter from Dotheboys Hall. 'In all our misfortunes, how happy it
makes me, mama, to hear he is doing well, and to find him writing
in such good spirits! It consoles me for all we may undergo, to
think that he is comfortable and happy.'

Poor Kate! she little thought how weak her consolation was, and how
soon she would be undeceived.

CHAPTER 18

Miss Knag, after doting on Kate Nickleby for three whole Days, makes
up her Mind to hate her for evermore. The Causes which led Miss
Knag to form this Resolution

There are many lives of much pain, hardship, and suffering, which,
having no stirring interest for any but those who lead them, are
disregarded by persons who do not want thought or feeling, but who
pamper their compassion and need high stimulants to rouse it.

There are not a few among the disciples of charity who require, in
their vocation, scarcely less excitement than the votaries of
pleasure in theirs; and hence it is that diseased sympathy and
compassion are every day expended on out-of-the-way objects, when
only too many demands upon the legitimate exercise of the same
virtues in a healthy state, are constantly within the sight and
hearing of the most unobservant person alive. In short, charity
must have its romance, as the novelist or playwright must have his.
A thief in fustian is a vulgar character, scarcely to be thought of
by persons of refinement; but dress him in green velvet, with a
high-crowned hat, and change the scene of his operations, from a
thickly-peopled city, to a mountain road, and you shall find in him
the very soul of poetry and adventure. So it is with the one great
cardinal virtue, which, properly nourished and exercised, leads to,
if it does not necessarily include, all the others. It must have
its romance; and the less of real, hard, struggling work-a-day life
there is in that romance, the better.

The life to which poor Kate Nickleby was devoted, in consequence of
the unforeseen train of circumstances already developed in this
narrative, was a hard one; but lest the very dulness, unhealthy
confinement, and bodily fatigue, which made up its sum and
substance, should deprive it of any interest with the mass of the
charitable and sympathetic, I would rather keep Miss Nickleby
herself in view just now, than chill them in the outset, by a minute
and lengthened description of the establishment presided over by
Madame Mantalini.

'Well, now, indeed, Madame Mantalini,' said Miss Knag, as Kate was
taking her weary way homewards on the first night of her novitiate;
'that Miss Nickleby is a very creditable young person--a very
creditable young person indeed--hem--upon my word, Madame Mantalini,
it does very extraordinary credit even to your discrimination that
you should have found such a very excellent, very well-behaved,
very--hem--very unassuming young woman to assist in the fitting on.
I have seen some young women when they had the opportunity of
displaying before their betters, behave in such a--oh, dear--well--
but you're always right, Madame Mantalini, always; and as I very
often tell the young ladies, how you do contrive to be always right,
when so many people are so often wrong, is to me a mystery indeed.'

'Beyond putting a very excellent client out of humour, Miss Nickleby
has not done anything very remarkable today--that I am aware of, at
least,' said Madame Mantalini in reply.

'Oh, dear!' said Miss Knag; 'but you must allow a great deal for
inexperience, you know.'

'And youth?' inquired Madame.

'Oh, I say nothing about that, Madame Mantalini,' replied Miss Knag,
reddening; 'because if youth were any excuse, you wouldn't have--'

'Quite so good a forewoman as I have, I suppose,' suggested Madame.

'Well, I never did know anybody like you, Madame Mantalini,'
rejoined Miss Knag most complacently, 'and that's the fact, for you
know what one's going to say, before it has time to rise to one's
lips. Oh, very good! Ha, ha, ha!'

'For myself,' observed Madame Mantalini, glancing with affected
carelessness at her assistant, and laughing heartily in her sleeve,
'I consider Miss Nickleby the most awkward girl I ever saw in my
life.'

'Poor dear thing,' said Miss Knag, 'it's not her fault. If it was,
we might hope to cure it; but as it's her misfortune, Madame
Mantalini, why really you know, as the man said about the blind
horse, we ought to respect it.'

'Her uncle told me she had been considered pretty,' remarked Madame
Mantalini. 'I think her one of the most ordinary girls I ever met
with.'

'Ordinary!' cried Miss Knag with a countenance beaming delight; 'and
awkward! Well, all I can say is, Madame Mantalini, that I quite
love the poor girl; and that if she was twice as indifferent-
looking, and twice as awkward as she is, I should be only so much
the more her friend, and that's the truth of it.'

In fact, Miss Knag had conceived an incipient affection for Kate
Nickleby, after witnessing her failure that morning, and this short
conversation with her superior increased the favourable
prepossession to a most surprising extent; which was the more
remarkable, as when she first scanned that young lady's face and
figure, she had entertained certain inward misgivings that they
would never agree.

'But now,' said Miss Knag, glancing at the reflection of herself in
a mirror at no great distance, 'I love her--I quite love her--I
declare I do!'

Of such a highly disinterested quality was this devoted friendship,
and so superior was it to the little weaknesses of flattery or ill-
nature, that the kind-hearted Miss Knag candidly informed Kate
Nickleby, next day, that she saw she would never do for the
business, but that she need not give herself the slightest
uneasiness on this account, for that she (Miss Knag), by increased
exertions on her own part, would keep her as much as possible in the
background, and that all she would have to do, would be to remain
perfectly quiet before company, and to shrink from attracting notice
by every means in her power. This last suggestion was so much in
accordance with the timid girl's own feelings and wishes, that she
readily promised implicit reliance on the excellent spinster's
advice: without questioning, or indeed bestowing a moment's
reflection upon, the motives that dictated it.

'I take quite a lively interest in you, my dear soul, upon my word,'
said Miss Knag; 'a sister's interest, actually. It's the most
singular circumstance I ever knew.'

Undoubtedly it was singular, that if Miss Knag did feel a strong
interest in Kate Nickleby, it should not rather have been the
interest of a maiden aunt or grandmother; that being the conclusion
to which the difference in their respective ages would have
naturally tended. But Miss Knag wore clothes of a very youthful
pattern, and perhaps her feelings took the same shape.

'Bless you!' said Miss Knag, bestowing a kiss upon Kate at the
conclusion of the second day's work, 'how very awkward you have been
all day.'

'I fear your kind and open communication, which has rendered me more
painfully conscious of my own defects, has not improved me,' sighed
Kate.

'No, no, I dare say not,' rejoined Miss Knag, in a most uncommon
flow of good humour. 'But how much better that you should know it
at first, and so be able to go on, straight and comfortable! Which
way are you walking, my love?'

'Towards the city,' replied Kate.

'The city!' cried Miss Knag, regarding herself with great favour in
the glass as she tied her bonnet. 'Goodness gracious me! now do you
really live in the city?'

'Is it so very unusual for anybody to live there?' asked Kate, half
smiling.

'I couldn't have believed it possible that any young woman could
have lived there, under any circumstances whatever, for three days
together,' replied Miss Knag.

'Reduced--I should say poor people,' answered Kate, correcting
herself hastily, for she was afraid of appearing proud, 'must live
where they can.'

'Ah! very true, so they must; very proper indeed!' rejoined Miss
Knag with that sort of half-sigh, which, accompanied by two or three
slight nods of the head, is pity's small change in general society;
'and that's what I very often tell my brother, when our servants go
away ill, one after another, and he thinks the back-kitchen's rather
too damp for 'em to sleep in. These sort of people, I tell him, are
glad to sleep anywhere! Heaven suits the back to the burden. What
a nice thing it is to think that it should be so, isn't it?'

'Very,' replied Kate.

'I'll walk with you part of the way, my dear,' said Miss Knag, 'for
you must go very near our house; and as it's quite dark, and our
last servant went to the hospital a week ago, with St Anthony's fire
in her face, I shall be glad of your company.'

Kate would willingly have excused herself from this flattering
companionship; but Miss Knag having adjusted her bonnet to her
entire satisfaction, took her arm with an air which plainly showed
how much she felt the compliment she was conferring, and they were
in the street before she could say another word.

'I fear,' said Kate, hesitating, 'that mama--my mother, I mean--is
waiting for me.'

'You needn't make the least apology, my dear,' said Miss Knag,
smiling sweetly as she spoke; 'I dare say she is a very respectable
old person, and I shall be quite--hem--quite pleased to know her.'

As poor Mrs Nickleby was cooling--not her heels alone, but her limbs
generally at the street corner, Kate had no alternative but to make
her known to Miss Knag, who, doing the last new carriage customer at
second-hand, acknowledged the introduction with condescending
politeness. The three then walked away, arm in arm: with Miss Knag
in the middle, in a special state of amiability.

'I have taken such a fancy to your daughter, Mrs Nickleby, you can't
think,' said Miss Knag, after she had proceeded a little distance in
dignified silence.

'I am delighted to hear it,' said Mrs Nickleby; 'though it is
nothing new to me, that even strangers should like Kate.'

'Hem!' cried Miss Knag.

'You will like her better when you know how good she is,' said Mrs
Nickleby. 'It is a great blessing to me, in my misfortunes, to have
a child, who knows neither pride nor vanity, and whose bringing-up
might very well have excused a little of both at first. You don't
know what it is to lose a husband, Miss Knag.'

As Miss Knag had never yet known what it was to gain one, it
followed, very nearly as a matter of course, that she didn't know
what it was to lose one; so she said, in some haste, 'No, indeed I
don't,' and said it with an air intending to signify that she should
like to catch herself marrying anybody--no, no, she knew better than
that.

'Kate has improved even in this little time, I have no doubt,' said
Mrs Nickleby, glancing proudly at her daughter.

'Oh! of course,' said Miss Knag.

'And will improve still more,' added Mrs Nickleby.

'That she will, I'll be bound,' replied Miss Knag, squeezing Kate's
arm in her own, to point the joke.

'She always was clever,' said poor Mrs Nickleby, brightening up,
'always, from a baby. I recollect when she was only two years and a
half old, that a gentleman who used to visit very much at our house
--Mr Watkins, you know, Kate, my dear, that your poor papa went bail
for, who afterwards ran away to the United States, and sent us a
pair of snow shoes, with such an affectionate letter that it made
your poor dear father cry for a week. You remember the letter? In
which he said that he was very sorry he couldn't repay the fifty
pounds just then, because his capital was all out at interest, and
he was very busy making his fortune, but that he didn't forget you
were his god-daughter, and he should take it very unkind if we
didn't buy you a silver coral and put it down to his old account?
Dear me, yes, my dear, how stupid you are! and spoke so
affectionately of the old port wine that he used to drink a bottle
and a half of every time he came. You must remember, Kate?'

'Yes, yes, mama; what of him?'

'Why, that Mr Watkins, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby slowly, as if she
were making a tremendous effort to recollect something of paramount
importance; 'that Mr Watkins--he wasn't any relation, Miss Knag will
understand, to the Watkins who kept the Old Boar in the village; by-
the-bye, I don't remember whether it was the Old Boar or the George
the Third, but it was one of the two, I know, and it's much the
same--that Mr Watkins said, when you were only two years and a half
old, that you were one of the most astonishing children he ever saw.
He did indeed, Miss Knag, and he wasn't at all fond of children, and
couldn't have had the slightest motive for doing it. I know it was
he who said so, because I recollect, as well as if it was only
yesterday, his borrowing twenty pounds of her poor dear papa the
very moment afterwards.'

Having quoted this extraordinary and most disinterested testimony to
her daughter's excellence, Mrs Nickleby stopped to breathe; and Miss
Knag, finding that the discourse was turning upon family greatness,
lost no time in striking in, with a small reminiscence on her own
account.

'Don't talk of lending money, Mrs Nickleby,' said Miss Knag, 'or
you'll drive me crazy, perfectly crazy. My mama--hem--was the most
lovely and beautiful creature, with the most striking and exquisite
--hem--the most exquisite nose that ever was put upon a human face, I
do believe, Mrs Nickleby (here Miss Knag rubbed her own nose
sympathetically); the most delightful and accomplished woman,
perhaps, that ever was seen; but she had that one failing of lending
money, and carried it to such an extent that she lent--hem--oh!
thousands of pounds, all our little fortunes, and what's more, Mrs
Nickleby, I don't think, if we were to live till--till--hem--till
the very end of time, that we should ever get them back again. I
don't indeed.'

After concluding this effort of invention without being interrupted,
Miss Knag fell into many more recollections, no less interesting
than true, the full tide of which, Mrs Nickleby in vain attempting
to stem, at length sailed smoothly down by adding an under-current
of her own recollections; and so both ladies went on talking
together in perfect contentment; the only difference between them
being, that whereas Miss Knag addressed herself to Kate, and talked
very loud, Mrs Nickleby kept on in one unbroken monotonous flow,
perfectly satisfied to be talking and caring very little whether
anybody listened or not.

In this manner they walked on, very amicably, until they arrived at
Miss Knag's brother's, who was an ornamental stationer and small
circulating library keeper, in a by-street off Tottenham Court Road;
and who let out by the day, week, month, or year, the newest old
novels, whereof the titles were displayed in pen-and-ink characters
on a sheet of pasteboard, swinging at his door-post. As Miss Knag
happened, at the moment, to be in the middle of an account of her
twenty-second offer from a gentleman of large property, she insisted
upon their all going in to supper together; and in they went.

'Don't go away, Mortimer,' said Miss Knag as they entered the shop.
'It's only one of our young ladies and her mother. Mrs and Miss
Nickleby.'

'Oh, indeed!' said Mr Mortimer Knag. 'Ah!'

Having given utterance to these ejaculations with a very profound
and thoughtful air, Mr Knag slowly snuffed two kitchen candles on
the counter, and two more in the window, and then snuffed himself
from a box in his waistcoat pocket.

There was something very impressive in the ghostly air with which
all this was done; and as Mr Knag was a tall lank gentleman of
solemn features, wearing spectacles, and garnished with much less
hair than a gentleman bordering on forty, or thereabouts, usually
boasts, Mrs Nickleby whispered her daughter that she thought he must
be literary.

'Past ten,' said Mr Knag, consulting his watch. 'Thomas, close the
warehouse.'

Thomas was a boy nearly half as tall as a shutter, and the warehouse
was a shop about the size of three hackney coaches.

'Ah!' said Mr Knag once more, heaving a deep sigh as he restored to
its parent shelf the book he had been reading. 'Well--yes--I
believe supper is ready, sister.'

With another sigh Mr Knag took up the kitchen candles from the
counter, and preceded the ladies with mournful steps to a back-
parlour, where a charwoman, employed in the absence of the sick
servant, and remunerated with certain eighteenpences to be deducted
from her wages due, was putting the supper out.

'Mrs Blockson,' said Miss Knag, reproachfully, 'how very often I
have begged you not to come into the room with your bonnet on!'

'I can't help it, Miss Knag,' said the charwoman, bridling up on the
shortest notice. 'There's been a deal o'cleaning to do in this
house, and if you don't like it, I must trouble you to look out for
somebody else, for it don't hardly pay me, and that's the truth, if
I was to be hung this minute.'

'I don't want any remarks if YOU please,' said Miss Knag, with a
strong emphasis on the personal pronoun. 'Is there any fire
downstairs for some hot water presently?'

'No there is not, indeed, Miss Knag,' replied the substitute; 'and
so I won't tell you no stories about it.'

'Then why isn't there?' said Miss Knag.

'Because there arn't no coals left out, and if I could make coals I
would, but as I can't I won't, and so I make bold to tell you, Mem,'
replied Mrs Blockson.

'Will you hold your tongue--female?' said Mr Mortimer Knag, plunging
violently into this dialogue.

'By your leave, Mr Knag,' retorted the charwoman, turning sharp
round. 'I'm only too glad not to speak in this house, excepting
when and where I'm spoke to, sir; and with regard to being a female,
sir, I should wish to know what you considered yourself?'

'A miserable wretch,' exclaimed Mr Knag, striking his forehead. 'A
miserable wretch.'

'I'm very glad to find that you don't call yourself out of your
name, sir,' said Mrs Blockson; 'and as I had two twin children the
day before yesterday was only seven weeks, and my little Charley
fell down a airy and put his elber out, last Monday, I shall take it
as a favour if you'll send nine shillings, for one week's work, to
my house, afore the clock strikes ten tomorrow.'

With these parting words, the good woman quitted the room with great
ease of manner, leaving the door wide open; Mr Knag, at the same
moment, flung himself into the 'warehouse,' and groaned aloud.

'What is the matter with that gentleman, pray?' inquired Mrs
Nickleby, greatly disturbed by the sound.

'Is he ill?' inquired Kate, really alarmed.

'Hush!' replied Miss Knag; 'a most melancholy history. He was once
most devotedly attached to--hem--to Madame Mantalini.'

'Bless me!' exclaimed Mrs Nickleby.

'Yes,' continued Miss Knag, 'and received great encouragement too,
and confidently hoped to marry her. He has a most romantic heart,
Mrs Nickleby, as indeed--hem--as indeed all our family have, and the
disappointment was a dreadful blow. He is a wonderfully
accomplished man--most extraordinarily accomplished--reads--hem--
reads every novel that comes out; I mean every novel that--hem--that
has any fashion in it, of course. The fact is, that he did find so
much in the books he read, applicable to his own misfortunes, and
did find himself in every respect so much like the heroes--because
of course he is conscious of his own superiority, as we all are, and
very naturally--that he took to scorning everything, and became a
genius; and I am quite sure that he is, at this very present moment,
writing another book.'

'Another book!' repeated Kate, finding that a pause was left for
somebody to say something.

'Yes,' said Miss Knag, nodding in great triumph; 'another book, in
three volumes post octavo. Of course it's a great advantage to him,
in all his little fashionable descriptions, to have the benefit of
my--hem--of my experience, because, of course, few authors who write
about such things can have such opportunities of knowing them as I
have. He's so wrapped up in high life, that the least allusion to
business or worldly matters--like that woman just now, for instance--
quite distracts him; but, as I often say, I think his disappointment
a great thing for him, because if he hadn't been disappointed he
couldn't have written about blighted hopes and all that; and the
fact is, if it hadn't happened as it has, I don't believe his
genius would ever have come out at all.'

How much more communicative Miss Knag might have become under more
favourable circumstances, it is impossible to divine, but as the
gloomy one was within ear-shot, and the fire wanted making up, her
disclosures stopped here. To judge from all appearances, and the
difficulty of making the water warm, the last servant could not have
been much accustomed to any other fire than St Anthony's; but a
little brandy and water was made at last, and the guests, having
been previously regaled with cold leg of mutton and bread and
cheese, soon afterwards took leave; Kate amusing herself, all the
way home, with the recollection of her last glimpse of Mr Mortimer
Knag deeply abstracted in the shop; and Mrs Nickleby by debating
within herself whether the dressmaking firm would ultimately become
'Mantalini, Knag, and Nickleby', or 'Mantalini, Nickleby, and Knag'.

At this high point, Miss Knag's friendship remained for three whole
days, much to the wonderment of Madame Mantalini's young ladies who
had never beheld such constancy in that quarter, before; but on the
fourth, it received a check no less violent than sudden, which thus
occurred.

It happened that an old lord of great family, who was going to marry
a young lady of no family in particular, came with the young lady,
and the young lady's sister, to witness the ceremony of trying on
two nuptial bonnets which had been ordered the day before, and
Madame Mantalini announcing the fact, in a shrill treble, through
the speaking-pipe, which communicated with the workroom, Miss Knag
darted hastily upstairs with a bonnet in each hand, and presented
herself in the show-room, in a charming state of palpitation,
intended to demonstrate her enthusiasm in the cause. The bonnets
were no sooner fairly on, than Miss Knag and Madame Mantalini fell
into convulsions of admiration.

'A most elegant appearance,' said Madame Mantalini.

'I never saw anything so exquisite in all my life,' said Miss Knag.

Now, the old lord, who was a VERY old lord, said nothing, but
mumbled and chuckled in a state of great delight, no less with the
nuptial bonnets and their wearers, than with his own address in
getting such a fine woman for his wife; and the young lady, who was
a very lively young lady, seeing the old lord in this rapturous
condition, chased the old lord behind a cheval-glass, and then and
there kissed him, while Madame Mantalini and the other young lady
looked, discreetly, another way.

But, pending the salutation, Miss Knag, who was tinged with
curiosity, stepped accidentally behind the glass, and encountered
the lively young lady's eye just at the very moment when she kissed
the old lord; upon which the young lady, in a pouting manner,
murmured something about 'an old thing,' and 'great impertinence,'
and finished by darting a look of displeasure at Miss Knag, and
smiling contemptuously.

'Madame Mantalini,' said the young lady.

'Ma'am,' said Madame Mantalini.

'Pray have up that pretty young creature we saw yesterday.'

'Oh yes, do,' said the sister.

'Of all things in the world, Madame Mantalini,' said the lord's
intended, throwing herself languidly on a sofa, 'I hate being waited
upon by frights or elderly persons. Let me always see that young
creature, I beg, whenever I come.'

'By all means,' said the old lord; 'the lovely young creature, by
all means.'

'Everybody is talking about her,' said the young lady, in the same
careless manner; 'and my lord, being a great admirer of beauty, must
positively see her.'

'She IS universally admired,' replied Madame Mantalini. 'Miss Knag,
send up Miss Nickleby. You needn't return.'

'I beg your pardon, Madame Mantalini, what did you say last?' asked
Miss Knag, trembling.

'You needn't return,' repeated the superior, sharply. Miss Knag
vanished without another word, and in all reasonable time was
replaced by Kate, who took off the new bonnets and put on the old
ones: blushing very much to find that the old lord and the two young
ladies were staring her out of countenance all the time.

'Why, how you colour, child!' said the lord's chosen bride.

'She is not quite so accustomed to her business, as she will be in a
week or two,' interposed Madame Mantalini with a gracious smile.

'I am afraid you have been giving her some of your wicked looks, my
lord,' said the intended.

'No, no, no,' replied the old lord, 'no, no, I'm going to be
married, and lead a new life. Ha, ha, ha! a new life, a new life!
ha, ha, ha!'

It was a satisfactory thing to hear that the old gentleman was going
to lead a new life, for it was pretty evident that his old one would
not last him much longer. The mere exertion of protracted chuckling
reduced him to a fearful ebb of coughing and gasping; it was some
minutes before he could find breath to remark that the girl was too
pretty for a milliner.

'I hope you don't think good looks a disqualification for the
business, my lord,' said Madame Mantalini, simpering.

'Not by any means,' replied the old lord, 'or you would have left it
long ago.'

'You naughty creature,' said the lively lady, poking the peer with
her parasol; 'I won't have you talk so. How dare you?'

This playful inquiry was accompanied with another poke, and another,
and then the old lord caught the parasol, and wouldn't give it up
again, which induced the other lady to come to the rescue, and some
very pretty sportiveness ensued.

'You will see that those little alterations are made, Madame
Mantalini,' said the lady. 'Nay, you bad man, you positively shall
go first; I wouldn't leave you behind with that pretty girl, not for
half a second. I know you too well. Jane, my dear, let him go
first, and we shall be quite sure of him.'

The old lord, evidently much flattered by this suspicion, bestowed a
grotesque leer upon Kate as he passed; and, receiving another tap
with the parasol for his wickedness, tottered downstairs to the
door, where his sprightly body was hoisted into the carriage by two
stout footmen.

'Foh!' said Madame Mantalini, 'how he ever gets into a carriage
without thinking of a hearse, I can't think. There, take the things
away, my dear, take them away.'

Kate, who had remained during the whole scene with her eyes modestly
fixed upon the ground, was only too happy to avail herself of the
permission to retire, and hasten joyfully downstairs to Miss Knag's
dominion.

The circumstances of the little kingdom had greatly changed,
however, during the short period of her absence. In place of Miss
Knag being stationed in her accustomed seat, preserving all the
dignity and greatness of Madame Mantalini's representative, that
worthy soul was reposing on a large box, bathed in tears, while
three or four of the young ladies in close attendance upon her,
together with the presence of hartshorn, vinegar, and other
restoratives, would have borne ample testimony, even without the
derangement of the head-dress and front row of curls, to her having
fainted desperately.

'Bless me!' said Kate, stepping hastily forward, 'what is the
matter?'

This inquiry produced in Miss Knag violent symptoms of a relapse;
and several young ladies, darting angry looks at Kate, applied more
vinegar and hartshorn, and said it was 'a shame.'

'What is a shame?' demanded Kate. 'What is the matter? What has
happened? tell me.'

'Matter!' cried Miss Knag, coming, all at once, bolt upright, to the
great consternation of the assembled maidens; 'matter! Fie upon
you, you nasty creature!'

'Gracious!' cried Kate, almost paralysed by the violence with which
the adjective had been jerked out from between Miss Knag's closed
teeth; 'have I offended you?'

'YOU offended me!' retorted Miss Knag, 'YOU! a chit, a child, an
upstart nobody! Oh, indeed! Ha, ha!'

Now, it was evident, as Miss Knag laughed, that something struck her
as being exceedingly funny; and as the young ladies took their tone
from Miss Knag--she being the chief--they all got up a laugh without
a moment's delay, and nodded their heads a little, and smiled
sarcastically to each other, as much as to say how very good that
was!

'Here she is,' continued Miss Knag, getting off the box, and
introducing Kate with much ceremony and many low curtseys to the
delighted throng; 'here she is--everybody is talking about her--the
belle, ladies--the beauty, the--oh, you bold-faced thing!'

At this crisis, Miss Knag was unable to repress a virtuous shudder,
which immediately communicated itself to all the young ladies; after
which, Miss Knag laughed, and after that, cried.

'For fifteen years,' exclaimed Miss Knag, sobbing in a most
affecting manner, 'for fifteen years have I been the credit and
ornament of this room and the one upstairs. Thank God,' said Miss
Knag, stamping first her right foot and then her left with
remarkable energy, 'I have never in all that time, till now, been
exposed to the arts, the vile arts, of a creature, who disgraces us
with all her proceedings, and makes proper people blush for
themselves. But I feel it, I do feel it, although I am disgusted.'

Miss Knag here relapsed into softness, and the young ladies renewing
their attentions, murmured that she ought to be superior to such
things, and that for their part they despised them, and considered
them beneath their notice; in witness whereof, they called out, more
emphatically than before, that it was a shame, and that they felt so
angry, they did, they hardly knew what to do with themselves.

'Have I lived to this day to be called a fright!' cried Miss Knag,
suddenly becoming convulsive, and making an effort to tear her front
off.

'Oh no, no,' replied the chorus, 'pray don't say so; don't now!'

'Have I deserved to be called an elderly person?' screamed Miss
Knag, wrestling with the supernumeraries.

'Don't think of such things, dear,' answered the chorus.

'I hate her,' cried Miss Knag; 'I detest and hate her. Never let
her speak to me again; never let anybody who is a friend of mine
speak to her; a slut, a hussy, an impudent artful hussy!' Having
denounced the object of her wrath, in these terms, Miss Knag
screamed once, hiccuped thrice, gurgled in her throat several times,
slumbered, shivered, woke, came to, composed her head-dress, and
declared herself quite well again.

Poor Kate had regarded these proceedings, at first, in perfect
bewilderment. She had then turned red and pale by turns, and once
or twice essayed to speak; but, as the true motives of this altered
behaviour developed themselves, she retired a few paces, and looked
calmly on without deigning a reply. Nevertheless, although she
walked proudly to her seat, and turned her back upon the group of
little satellites who clustered round their ruling planet in the
remotest corner of the room, she gave way, in secret, to some such
bitter tears as would have gladdened Miss Knag's inmost soul, if she
could have seen them fall.

CHAPTER 19

Descriptive of a Dinner at Mr Ralph Nickleby's, and of the Manner in
which the Company entertained themselves, before Dinner, at Dinner,
and after Dinner.

The bile and rancour of the worthy Miss Knag undergoing no
diminution during the remainder of the week, but rather augmenting
with every successive hour; and the honest ire of all the young
ladies rising, or seeming to rise, in exact proportion to the good
spinster's indignation, and both waxing very hot every time Miss
Nickleby was called upstairs; it will be readily imagined that that
young lady's daily life was none of the most cheerful or enviable
kind. She hailed the arrival of Saturday night, as a prisoner would
a few delicious hours' respite from slow and wearing torture, and
felt that the poor pittance for her first week's labour would have
been dearly and hardly earned, had its amount been trebled.

When she joined her mother, as usual, at the street corner, she was
not a little surprised to find her in conversation with Mr Ralph
Nickleby; but her surprise was soon redoubled, no less by the matter
of their conversation, than by the smoothed and altered manner of Mr
Nickleby himself.

'Ah! my dear!' said Ralph; 'we were at that moment talking about
you.'

'Indeed!' replied Kate, shrinking, though she scarce knew why, from
her uncle's cold glistening eye.

'That instant,' said Ralph. 'I was coming to call for you, making
sure to catch you before you left; but your mother and I have been
talking over family affairs, and the time has slipped away so
rapidly--'

'Well, now, hasn't it?' interposed Mrs Nickleby, quite insensible to
the sarcastic tone of Ralph's last remark. 'Upon my word, I
couldn't have believed it possible, that such a--Kate, my dear,
you're to dine with your uncle at half-past six o'clock tomorrow.'

Triumphing in having been the first to communicate this
extraordinary intelligence, Mrs Nickleby nodded and smiled a great
many times, to impress its full magnificence on Kate's wondering
mind, and then flew off, at an acute angle, to a committee of ways
and means.

'Let me see,' said the good lady. 'Your black silk frock will be
quite dress enough, my dear, with that pretty little scarf, and a
plain band in your hair, and a pair of black silk stock--Dear,
dear,' cried Mrs Nickleby, flying off at another angle, 'if I had
but those unfortunate amethysts of mine--you recollect them, Kate,
my love--how they used to sparkle, you know--but your papa, your
poor dear papa--ah! there never was anything so cruelly sacrificed
as those jewels were, never!' Overpowered by this agonising thought,
Mrs Nickleby shook her head, in a melancholy manner, and applied her
handkerchief to her eyes.

I don't want them, mama, indeed,' said Kate. 'Forget that you ever
had them.'

'Lord, Kate, my dear,' rejoined Mrs Nickleby, pettishly, 'how like a
child you talk! Four-and-twenty silver tea-spoons, brother-in-law,
two gravies, four salts, all the amethysts--necklace, brooch, and
ear-rings--all made away with, at the same time, and I saying,
almost on my bended knees, to that poor good soul, "Why don't you do
something, Nicholas? Why don't you make some arrangement?" I am
sure that anybody who was about us at that time, will do me the
justice to own, that if I said that once, I said it fifty times a
day. Didn't I, Kate, my dear? Did I ever lose an opportunity of
impressing it on your poor papa?'

'No, no, mama, never,' replied Kate. And to do Mrs Nickleby
justice, she never had lost--and to do married ladies as a body
justice, they seldom do lose--any occasion of inculcating similar
golden percepts, whose only blemish is, the slight degree of
vagueness and uncertainty in which they are usually enveloped.

'Ah!' said Mrs Nickleby, with great fervour, 'if my advice had been
taken at the beginning--Well, I have always done MY duty, and that's
some comfort.'

When she had arrived at this reflection, Mrs Nickleby sighed, rubbed
her hands, cast up her eyes, and finally assumed a look of meek
composure; thus importing that she was a persecuted saint, but that
she wouldn't trouble her hearers by mentioning a circumstance which
must be so obvious to everybody.

'Now,' said Ralph, with a smile, which, in common with all other
tokens of emotion, seemed to skulk under his face, rather than play
boldly over it--'to return to the point from which we have strayed.
I have a little party of--of--gentlemen with whom I am connected in
business just now, at my house tomorrow; and your mother has
promised that you shall keep house for me. I am not much used to
parties; but this is one of business, and such fooleries are an
important part of it sometimes. You don't mind obliging me?'

'Mind!' cried Mrs Nickleby. 'My dear Kate, why--'

'Pray,' interrupted Ralph, motioning her to be silent. 'I spoke to
my niece.'

'I shall be very glad, of course, uncle,' replied Kate; 'but I am
afraid you will find me awkward and embarrassed.'

'Oh no,' said Ralph; 'come when you like, in a hackney coach--I'll
pay for it. Good-night--a--a--God bless you.'

The blessing seemed to stick in Mr Ralph Nickleby's throat, as if it
were not used to the thoroughfare, and didn't know the way out. But
it got out somehow, though awkwardly enough; and having disposed of
it, he shook hands with his two relatives, and abruptly left them.

'What a very strongly marked countenance your uncle has!' said Mrs
Nickleby, quite struck with his parting look. 'I don't see the
slightest resemblance to his poor brother.'

'Mama!' said Kate reprovingly. 'To think of such a thing!'

'No,' said Mrs Nickleby, musing. 'There certainly is none. But
it's a very honest face.'

The worthy matron made this remark with great emphasis and
elocution, as if it comprised no small quantity of ingenuity and
research; and, in truth, it was not unworthy of being classed among
the extraordinary discoveries of the age. Kate looked up hastily,
and as hastily looked down again.

'What has come over you, my dear, in the name of goodness?' asked
Mrs Nickleby, when they had walked on, for some time, in silence.

'I was only thinking, mama,' answered Kate.

'Thinking!' repeated Mrs Nickleby. 'Ay, and indeed plenty to think
about, too. Your uncle has taken a strong fancy to you, that's
quite clear; and if some extraordinary good fortune doesn't come to
you, after this, I shall be a little surprised, that's all.'

With this she launched out into sundry anecdotes of young ladies,
who had had thousand-pound notes given them in reticules, by
eccentric uncles; and of young ladies who had accidentally met
amiable gentlemen of enormous wealth at their uncles' houses, and
married them, after short but ardent courtships; and Kate, listening
first in apathy, and afterwards in amusement, felt, as they walked
home, something of her mother's sanguine complexion gradually
awakening in her own bosom, and began to think that her prospects
might be brightening, and that better days might be dawning upon
them. Such is hope, Heaven's own gift to struggling mortals;
pervading, like some subtle essence from the skies, all things, both
good and bad; as universal as death, and more infectious than
disease!

The feeble winter's sun--and winter's suns in the city are very
feeble indeed--might have brightened up, as he shone through the dim
windows of the large old house, on witnessing the unusual sight
which one half-furnished room displayed. In a gloomy corner, where,
for years, had stood a silent dusty pile of merchandise, sheltering
its colony of mice, and frowning, a dull and lifeless mass, upon the
panelled room, save when, responding to the roll of heavy waggons in
the street without, it quaked with sturdy tremblings and caused the
bright eyes of its tiny citizens to grow brighter still with fear,
and struck them motionless, with attentive ear and palpitating
heart, until the alarm had passed away--in this dark corner, was
arranged, with scrupulous care, all Kate's little finery for the
day; each article of dress partaking of that indescribable air of
jauntiness and individuality which empty garments--whether by
association, or that they become moulded, as it were, to the owner's
form--will take, in eyes accustomed to, or picturing, the wearer's
smartness. In place of a bale of musty goods, there lay the black
silk dress: the neatest possible figure in itself. The small shoes,
with toes delicately turned out, stood upon the very pressure of
some old iron weight; and a pile of harsh discoloured leather had
unconsciously given place to the very same little pair of black silk
stockings, which had been the objects of Mrs Nickleby's peculiar
care. Rats and mice, and such small gear, had long ago been
starved, or had emigrated to better quarters: and, in their stead,
appeared gloves, bands, scarfs, hair-pins, and many other little
devices, almost as ingenious in their way as rats and mice
themselves, for the tantalisation of mankind. About and among them
all, moved Kate herself, not the least beautiful or unwonted relief
to the stern, old, gloomy building.

In good time, or in bad time, as the reader likes to take it--for
Mrs Nickleby's impatience went a great deal faster than the clocks
at that end of the town, and Kate was dressed to the very last hair-
pin a full hour and a half before it was at all necessary to begin
to think about it--in good time, or in bad time, the toilet was
completed; and it being at length the hour agreed upon for starting,
the milkman fetched a coach from the nearest stand, and Kate, with
many adieux to her mother, and many kind messages to Miss La Creevy,
who was to come to tea, seated herself in it, and went away in
state, if ever anybody went away in state in a hackney coach yet.
And the coach, and the coachman, and the horses, rattled, and
jangled, and whipped, and cursed, and swore, and tumbled on
together, until they came to Golden Square.

The coachman gave a tremendous double knock at the door, which was
opened long before he had done, as quickly as if there had been a
man behind it, with his hand tied to the latch. Kate, who had
expected no more uncommon appearance than Newman Noggs in a clean
shirt, was not a little astonished to see that the opener was a man
in handsome livery, and that there were two or three others in the
hall. There was no doubt about its being the right house, however,
for there was the name upon the door; so she accepted the laced
coat-sleeve which was tendered her, and entering the house, was
ushered upstairs, into a back drawing-room, where she was left
alone.

If she had been surprised at the apparition of the footman, she was
perfectly absorbed in amazement at the richness and splendour of the
furniture. The softest and most elegant carpets, the most exquisite
pictures, the costliest mirrors; articles of richest ornament, quite
dazzling from their beauty and perplexing from the prodigality with
which they were scattered around; encountered her on every side.
The very staircase nearly down to the hall-door, was crammed with
beautiful and luxurious things, as though the house were brimful of
riches, which, with a very trifling addition, would fairly run over
into the street.

Presently, she heard a series of loud double knocks at the street-
door, and after every knock some new voice in the next room; the
tones of Mr Ralph Nickleby were easily distinguishable at first, but
by degrees they merged into the general buzz of conversation, and
all she could ascertain was, that there were several gentlemen with
no very musical voices, who talked very loud, laughed very heartily,
and swore more than she would have thought quite necessary. But
this was a question of taste.

At length, the door opened, and Ralph himself, divested of his
boots, and ceremoniously embellished with black silks and shoes,
presented his crafty face.

'I couldn't see you before, my dear,' he said, in a low tone, and
pointing, as he spoke, to the next room. 'I was engaged in
receiving them. Now--shall I take you in?'

'Pray, uncle,' said Kate, a little flurried, as people much more
conversant with society often are, when they are about to enter a
room full of strangers, and have had time to think of it previously,
'are there any ladies here?'

'No,' said Ralph, shortly, 'I don't know any.'

'Must I go in immediately?' asked Kate, drawing back a little.

'As you please,' said Ralph, shrugging his shoulders. 'They are all
come, and dinner will be announced directly afterwards--that's all.'

Kate would have entreated a few minutes' respite, but reflecting
that her uncle might consider the payment of the hackney-coach fare
a sort of bargain for her punctuality, she suffered him to draw her
arm through his, and to lead her away.

Seven or eight gentlemen were standing round the fire when they went
in, and, as they were talking very loud, were not aware of their
entrance until Mr Ralph Nickleby, touching one on the coat-sleeve,
said in a harsh emphatic voice, as if to attract general attention--

'Lord Frederick Verisopht, my niece, Miss Nickleby.'

The group dispersed, as if in great surprise, and the gentleman
addressed, turning round, exhibited a suit of clothes of the most
superlative cut, a pair of whiskers of similar quality, a moustache,
a head of hair, and a young face.

'Eh!' said the gentleman. 'What--the--deyvle!'

With which broken ejaculations, he fixed his glass in his eye, and
stared at Miss Nickleby in great surprise.

'My niece, my lord,' said Ralph.

'Then my ears did not deceive me, and it's not wa-a-x work,' said
his lordship. 'How de do? I'm very happy.' And then his lordship
turned to another superlative gentleman, something older, something
stouter, something redder in the face, and something longer upon
town, and said in a loud whisper that the girl was 'deyvlish pitty.'

'Introduce me, Nickleby,' said this second gentleman, who was
lounging with his back to the fire, and both elbows on the
chimneypiece.

'Sir Mulberry Hawk,' said Ralph.

'Otherwise the most knowing card in the pa-ack, Miss Nickleby,' said
Lord Frederick Verisopht.

'Don't leave me out, Nickleby,' cried a sharp-faced gentleman, who
was sitting on a low chair with a high back, reading the paper.

'Mr Pyke,' said Ralph.

'Nor me, Nickleby,' cried a gentleman with a flushed face and a
flash air, from the elbow of Sir Mulberry Hawk.

'Mr Pluck,' said Ralph. Then wheeling about again, towards a
gentleman with the neck of a stork and the legs of no animal in
particular, Ralph introduced him as the Honourable Mr Snobb; and a
white-headed person at the table as Colonel Chowser. The colonel
was in conversation with somebody, who appeared to be a make-weight,
and was not introduced at all.

There were two circumstances which, in this early stage of the
party, struck home to Kate's bosom, and brought the blood tingling
to her face. One was the flippant contempt with which the guests
evidently regarded her uncle, and the other, the easy insolence of
their manner towards herself. That the first symptom was very
likely to lead to the aggravation of the second, it needed no great
penetration to foresee. And here Mr Ralph Nickleby had reckoned
without his host; for however fresh from the country a young lady
(by nature) may be, and however unacquainted with conventional
behaviour, the chances are, that she will have quite as strong an
innate sense of the decencies and proprieties of life as if she had
run the gauntlet of a dozen London seasons--possibly a stronger one,
for such senses have been known to blunt in this improving process.

When Ralph had completed the ceremonial of introduction, he led his
blushing niece to a seat. As he did so, he glanced warily round as
though to assure himself of the impression which her unlooked-for
appearance had created.

'An unexpected playsure, Nickleby,' said Lord Frederick Verisopht,
taking his glass out of his right eye, where it had, until now, done
duty on Kate, and fixing it in his left, to bring it to bear on
Ralph.

'Designed to surprise you, Lord Frederick,' said Mr Pluck.

'Not a bad idea,' said his lordship, 'and one that would almost
warrant the addition of an extra two and a half per cent.'

'Nickleby,' said Sir Mulberry Hawk, in a thick coarse voice, 'take
the hint, and tack it on the other five-and-twenty, or whatever it
is, and give me half for the advice.'

Sir Mulberry garnished this speech with a hoarse laugh, and
terminated it with a pleasant oath regarding Mr Nickleby's limbs,
whereat Messrs Pyke and Pluck laughed consumedly.

These gentlemen had not yet quite recovered the jest, when dinner
was announced, and then they were thrown into fresh ecstasies by a
similar cause; for Sir Mulberry Hawk, in an excess of humour, shot
dexterously past Lord Frederick Verisopht who was about to lead Kate
downstairs, and drew her arm through his up to the elbow.

'No, damn it, Verisopht,' said Sir Mulberry, 'fair play's a jewel,
and Miss Nickleby and I settled the matter with our eyes ten minutes
ago.'

'Ha, ha, ha!' laughed the honourable Mr Snobb, 'very good, very
good.'

Rendered additionally witty by this applause, Sir Mulberry Hawk
leered upon his friends most facetiously, and led Kate downstairs
with an air of familiarity, which roused in her gentle breast such
burning indignation, as she felt it almost impossible to repress.
Nor was the intensity of these feelings at all diminished, when she
found herself placed at the top of the table, with Sir Mulberry Hawk
and Lord Frederick Verisopht on either side.

'Oh, you've found your way into our neighbourhood, have you?' said
Sir Mulberry as his lordship sat down.

'Of course,' replied Lord Frederick, fixing his eyes on Miss
Nickleby, 'how can you a-ask me?'

'Well, you attend to your dinner,' said Sir Mulberry, 'and don't
mind Miss Nickleby and me, for we shall prove very indifferent
company, I dare say.'

'I wish you'd interfere here, Nickleby,' said Lord Frederick.

'What is the matter, my lord?' demanded Ralph from the bottom of the
table, where he was supported by Messrs Pyke and Pluck.

'This fellow, Hawk, is monopolising your niece,' said Lord Frederick.

'He has a tolerable share of everything that you lay claim to, my
lord,' said Ralph with a sneer.

''Gad, so he has,' replied the young man; 'deyvle take me if I know
which is master in my house, he or I.'

'I know,' muttered Ralph.

'I think I shall cut him off with a shilling,' said the young
nobleman, jocosely.

'No, no, curse it,' said Sir Mulberry. 'When you come to the
shilling--the last shilling--I'll cut you fast enough; but till
then, I'll never leave you--you may take your oath of it.'

This sally (which was strictly founded on fact) was received with a
general roar, above which, was plainly distinguishable the laughter
of Mr Pyke and Mr Pluck, who were, evidently, Sir Mulberry's toads
in ordinary. Indeed, it was not difficult to see, that the majority
of the company preyed upon the unfortunate young lord, who, weak and
silly as he was, appeared by far the least vicious of the party.
Sir Mulberry Hawk was remarkable for his tact in ruining, by himself
and his creatures, young gentlemen of fortune--a genteel and elegant
profession, of which he had undoubtedly gained the head. With all
the boldness of an original genius, he had struck out an entirely
new course of treatment quite opposed to the usual method; his
custom being, when he had gained the ascendancy over those he took
in hand, rather to keep them down than to give them their own way;
and to exercise his vivacity upon them openly, and without reserve.
Thus, he made them butts, in a double sense, and while he emptied
them with great address, caused them to ring with sundry well-
administered taps, for the diversion of society.

The dinner was as remarkable for the splendour and completeness of
its appointments as the mansion itself, and the company were
remarkable for doing it ample justice, in which respect Messrs Pyke
and Pluck particularly signalised themselves; these two gentlemen
eating of every dish, and drinking of every bottle, with a capacity
and perseverance truly astonishing. They were remarkably fresh,
too, notwithstanding their great exertions: for, on the appearance
of the dessert, they broke out again, as if nothing serious had
taken place since breakfast.

'Well,' said Lord Frederick, sipping his first glass of port, 'if
this is a discounting dinner, all I have to say is, deyvle take me,
if it wouldn't be a good pla-an to get discount every day.'

'You'll have plenty of it, in your time,' returned Sir Mulberry
Hawk; 'Nickleby will tell you that.'

'What do you say, Nickleby?' inquired the young man; 'am I to be a
good customer?'

'It depends entirely on circumstances, my lord,' replied Ralph.

'On your lordship's circumstances,' interposed Colonel Chowser of
the Militia--and the race-courses.

The gallant colonel glanced at Messrs Pyke and Pluck as if he
thought they ought to laugh at his joke; but those gentlemen, being
only engaged to laugh for Sir Mulberry Hawk, were, to his signal
discomfiture, as grave as a pair of undertakers. To add to his
defeat, Sir Mulberry, considering any such efforts an invasion of
his peculiar privilege, eyed the offender steadily, through his
glass, as if astonished at his presumption, and audibly stated his
impression that it was an 'infernal liberty,' which being a hint to
Lord Frederick, he put up HIS glass, and surveyed the object of
censure as if he were some extraordinary wild animal then exhibiting
for the first time. As a matter of course, Messrs Pyke and Pluck
stared at the individual whom Sir Mulberry Hawk stared at; so, the
poor colonel, to hide his confusion, was reduced to the necessity of
holding his port before his right eye and affecting to scrutinise
its colour with the most lively interest.

All this while, Kate had sat as silently as she could, scarcely
daring to raise her eyes, lest they should encounter the admiring
gaze of Lord Frederick Verisopht, or, what was still more
embarrassing, the bold looks of his friend Sir Mulberry. The latter
gentleman was obliging enough to direct general attention towards
her.

'Here is Miss Nickleby,' observed Sir Mulberry, 'wondering why the
deuce somebody doesn't make love to her.'

'No, indeed,' said Kate, looking hastily up, 'I--' and then she
stopped, feeling it would have been better to have said nothing at
all.

'I'll hold any man fifty pounds,' said Sir Mulberry, 'that Miss
Nickleby can't look in my face, and tell me she wasn't thinking so.'

'Done!' cried the noble gull. 'Within ten minutes.'

'Done!' responded Sir Mulberry. The money was produced on both
sides, and the Honourable Mr Snobb was elected to the double office
of stake-holder and time-keeper.

'Pray,' said Kate, in great confusion, while these preliminaries
were in course of completion. 'Pray do not make me the subject of
any bets. Uncle, I cannot really--'

'Why not, my dear?' replied Ralph, in whose grating voice, however,
there was an unusual huskiness, as though he spoke unwillingly, and
would rather that the proposition had not been broached. 'It is
done in a moment; there is nothing in it. If the gentlemen insist
on it--'

'I don't insist on it,' said Sir Mulberry, with a loud laugh. 'That
is, I by no means insist upon Miss Nickleby's making the denial, for
if she does, I lose; but I shall be glad to see her bright eyes,
especially as she favours the mahogany so much.'

'So she does, and it's too ba-a-d of you, Miss Nickleby,' said the
noble youth.

'Quite cruel,' said Mr Pyke.

'Horrid cruel,' said Mr Pluck.

'I don't care if I do lose,' said Sir Mulberry; 'for one tolerable
look at Miss Nickleby's eyes is worth double the money.'

'More,' said Mr Pyke.

'Far more,' said Mr Pluck.

'How goes the enemy, Snobb?' asked Sir Mulberry Hawk.

'Four minutes gone.'

'Bravo!'

'Won't you ma-ake one effort for me, Miss Nickleby?' asked Lord
Frederick, after a short interval.

'You needn't trouble yourself to inquire, my buck,' said Sir
Mulberry; 'Miss Nickleby and I understand each other; she declares
on my side, and shows her taste. You haven't a chance, old fellow.
Time, Snobb?'

'Eight minutes gone.'

'Get the money ready,' said Sir Mulberry; 'you'll soon hand over.'

'Ha, ha, ha!' laughed Mr Pyke.

Mr Pluck, who always came second, and topped his companion if he
could, screamed outright.

The poor girl, who was so overwhelmed with confusion that she
scarcely knew what she did, had determined to remain perfectly
quiet; but fearing that by so doing she might seem to countenance
Sir Mulberry's boast, which had been uttered with great coarseness
and vulgarity of manner, raised her eyes, and looked him in the
face. There was something so odious, so insolent, so repulsive in
the look which met her, that, without the power to stammer forth a
syllable, she rose and hurried from the room. She restrained her
tears by a great effort until she was alone upstairs, and then gave
them vent.

'Capital!' said Sir Mulberry Hawk, putting the stakes in his pocket.

'That's a girl of spirit, and we'll drink her health.'

It is needless to say, that Pyke and Co. responded, with great
warmth of manner, to this proposal, or that the toast was drunk with
many little insinuations from the firm, relative to the completeness
of Sir Mulberry's conquest. Ralph, who, while the attention of the
other guests was attracted to the principals in the preceding scene,
had eyed them like a wolf, appeared to breathe more freely now his
niece was gone; the decanters passing quickly round, he leaned back
in his chair, and turned his eyes from speaker to speaker, as they
warmed with wine, with looks that seemed to search their hearts, and
lay bare, for his distempered sport, every idle thought within them.

Meanwhile Kate, left wholly to herself, had, in some degree,
recovered her composure. She had learnt from a female attendant,
that her uncle wished to see her before she left, and had also
gleaned the satisfactory intelligence, that the gentlemen would take
coffee at table. The prospect of seeing them no more, contributed
greatly to calm her agitation, and, taking up a book, she composed
herself to read.

She started sometimes, when the sudden opening of the dining-room
door let loose a wild shout of noisy revelry, and more than once
rose in great alarm, as a fancied footstep on the staircase
impressed her with the fear that some stray member of the party was
returning alone. Nothing occurring, however, to realise her
apprehensions, she endeavoured to fix her attention more closely on
her book, in which by degrees she became so much interested, that
she had read on through several chapters without heed of time or
place, when she was terrified by suddenly hearing her name
pronounced by a man's voice close at her ear.

The book fell from her hand. Lounging on an ottoman close beside
her, was Sir Mulberry Hawk, evidently the worse--if a man be a
ruffian at heart, he is never the better--for wine.

'What a delightful studiousness!' said this accomplished gentleman.
'Was it real, now, or only to display the eyelashes?'

Kate, looking anxiously towards the door, made no reply.

'I have looked at 'em for five minutes,' said Sir Mulberry. 'Upon
my soul, they're perfect. Why did I speak, and destroy such a
pretty little picture?'

'Do me the favour to be silent now, sir,' replied Kate.

'No, don't,' said Sir Mulberry, folding his crushed hat to lay his
elbow on, and bringing himself still closer to the young lady; 'upon
my life, you oughtn't to. Such a devoted slave of yours, Miss
Nickleby--it's an infernal thing to treat him so harshly, upon my
soul it is.'

'I wish you to understand, sir,' said Kate, trembling in spite of
herself, but speaking with great indignation, 'that your behaviour
offends and disgusts me. If you have a spark of gentlemanly feeling
remaining, you will leave me.'

'Now why,' said Sir Mulberry, 'why will you keep up this appearance
of excessive rigour, my sweet creature? Now, be more natural--my
dear Miss Nickleby, be more natural--do.'

Kate hastily rose; but as she rose, Sir Mulberry caught her dress,
and forcibly detained her.

'Let me go, sir,' she cried, her heart swelling with anger. 'Do you
hear? Instantly--this moment.'

'Sit down, sit down,' said Sir Mulberry; 'I want to talk to you.'

'Unhand me, sir, this instant,' cried Kate.

'Not for the world,' rejoined Sir Mulberry. Thus speaking, he
leaned over, as if to replace her in her chair; but the young lady,
making a violent effort to disengage herself, he lost his balance,
and measured his length upon the ground. As Kate sprung forward to
leave the room, Mr Ralph Nickleby appeared in the doorway, and
confronted her.

'What is this?' said Ralph.

'It is this, sir,' replied Kate, violently agitated: 'that beneath
the roof where I, a helpless girl, your dead brother's child, should
most have found protection, I have been exposed to insult which
should make you shrink to look upon me. Let me pass you.'

Ralph DID shrink, as the indignant girl fixed her kindling eye upon
him; but he did not comply with her injunction, nevertheless: for he
led her to a distant seat, and returning, and approaching Sir
Mulberry Hawk, who had by this time risen, motioned towards the
door.

'Your way lies there, sir,' said Ralph, in a suppressed voice, that
some devil might have owned with pride.

'What do you mean by that?' demanded his friend, fiercely.

The swoln veins stood out like sinews on Ralph's wrinkled forehead,
and the nerves about his mouth worked as though some unendurable
emotion wrung them; but he smiled disdainfully, and again pointed to
the door.

'Do you know me, you old madman?' asked Sir Mulberry.

'Well,' said Ralph. The fashionable vagabond for the moment quite
quailed under the steady look of the older sinner, and walked
towards the door, muttering as he went.

'You wanted the lord, did you?' he said, stopping short when he
reached the door, as if a new light had broken in upon him, and
confronting Ralph again. 'Damme, I was in the way, was I?'

Ralph smiled again, but made no answer.

'Who brought him to you first?' pursued Sir Mulberry; 'and how,
without me, could you ever have wound him in your net as you have?'

'The net is a large one, and rather full,' said Ralph. 'Take care
that it chokes nobody in the meshes.'

'You would sell your flesh and blood for money; yourself, if you
have not already made a bargain with the devil,' retorted the other.
'Do you mean to tell me that your pretty niece was not brought here
as a decoy for the drunken boy downstairs?'

Although this hurried dialogue was carried on in a suppressed tone
on both sides, Ralph looked involuntarily round to ascertain that
Kate had not moved her position so as to be within hearing. His
adversary saw the advantage he had gained, and followed it up.

'Do you mean to tell me,' he asked again, 'that it is not so? Do
you mean to say that if he had found his way up here instead of me,
you wouldn't have been a little more blind, and a little more deaf,
and a little less flourishing, than you have been? Come, Nickleby,
answer me that.'

'I tell you this,' replied Ralph, 'that if I brought her here, as a
matter of business--'

'Ay, that's the word,' interposed Sir Mulberry, with a laugh.
'You're coming to yourself again now.'

'--As a matter of business,' pursued Ralph, speaking slowly and
firmly, as a man who has made up his mind to say no more, 'because I
thought she might make some impression on the silly youth you have
taken in hand and are lending good help to ruin, I knew--knowing
him--that it would be long before he outraged her girl's feelings,
and that unless he offended by mere puppyism and emptiness, he
would, with a little management, respect the sex and conduct even of
his usurer's niece. But if I thought to draw him on more gently by
this device, I did not think of subjecting the girl to the
licentiousness and brutality of so old a hand as you. And now we
understand each other.'

'Especially as there was nothing to be got by it--eh?' sneered Sir
Mulberry.

'Exactly so,' said Ralph. He had turned away, and looked over his
shoulder to make this last reply. The eyes of the two worthies met,
with an expression as if each rascal felt that there was no
disguising himself from the other; and Sir Mulberry Hawk shrugged
his shoulders and walked slowly out.

His friend closed the door, and looked restlessly towards the spot
where his niece still remained in the attitude in which he had left
her. She had flung herself heavily upon the couch, and with her
head drooping over the cushion, and her face hidden in her hands,
seemed to be still weeping in an agony of shame and grief.

Ralph would have walked into any poverty-stricken debtor's house,
and pointed him out to a bailiff, though in attendance upon a young
child's death-bed, without the smallest concern, because it would
have been a matter quite in the ordinary course of business, and the
man would have been an offender against his only code of morality.
But, here was a young girl, who had done no wrong save that of
coming into the world alive; who had patiently yielded to all his
wishes; who had tried hard to please him--above all, who didn't owe
him money--and he felt awkward and nervous.

Ralph took a chair at some distance; then, another chair a little
nearer; then, moved a little nearer still; then, nearer again, and
finally sat himself on the same sofa, and laid his hand on Kate's
arm.

'Hush, my dear!' he said, as she drew it back, and her sobs burst
out afresh. 'Hush, hush! Don't mind it, now; don't think of it.'

'Oh, for pity's sake, let me go home,' cried Kate. 'Let me leave
this house, and go home.'

'Yes, yes,' said Ralph. 'You shall. But you must dry your eyes
first, and compose yourself. Let me raise your head. There--
there.'

'Oh, uncle!' exclaimed Kate, clasping her hands. 'What have I done
--what have I done--that you should subject me to this? If I had
wronged you in thought, or word, or deed, it would have been most
cruel to me, and the memory of one you must have loved in some old
time; but--'

'Only listen to me for a moment,' interrupted Ralph, seriously
alarmed by the violence of her emotions. 'I didn't know it would be
so; it was impossible for me to foresee it. I did all I could.--
Come, let us walk about. You are faint with the closeness of the
room, and the heat of these lamps. You will be better now, if you
make the slightest effort.'

'I will do anything,' replied Kate, 'if you will only send me home.'

'Well, well, I will,' said Ralph; 'but you must get back your own
looks; for those you have, will frighten them, and nobody must know
of this but you and I. Now let us walk the other way. There. You
look better even now.'

With such encouragements as these, Ralph Nickleby walked to and fro,
with his niece leaning on his arm; actually trembling beneath her
touch.

In the same manner, when he judged it prudent to allow her to
depart, he supported her downstairs, after adjusting her shawl and
performing such little offices, most probably for the first time in
his life. Across the hall, and down the steps, Ralph led her too;
nor did he withdraw his hand until she was seated in the coach.

As the door of the vehicle was roughly closed, a comb fell from
Kate's hair, close at her uncle's feet; and as he picked it up, and
returned it into her hand, the light from a neighbouring lamp shone
upon her face. The lock of hair that had escaped and curled loosely
over her brow, the traces of tears yet scarcely dry, the flushed
cheek, the look of sorrow, all fired some dormant train of
recollection in the old man's breast; and the face of his dead
brother seemed present before him, with the very look it bore on
some occasion of boyish grief, of which every minutest circumstance
flashed upon his mind, with the distinctness of a scene of
yesterday.

Ralph Nickleby, who was proof against all appeals of blood and
kindred--who was steeled against every tale of sorrow and distress--
staggered while he looked, and went back into his house, as a man
who had seen a spirit from some world beyond the grave.

CHAPTER 20

Wherein Nicholas at length encounters his Uncle, to whom he
expresses his Sentiments with much Candour. His Resolution.

Little Miss La Creevy trotted briskly through divers streets at the
west end of the town, early on Monday morning--the day after the
dinner--charged with the important commission of acquainting Madame
Mantalini that Miss Nickleby was too unwell to attend that day, but
hoped to be enabled to resume her duties on the morrow. And as Miss
La Creevy walked along, revolving in her mind various genteel forms
and elegant turns of expression, with a view to the selection of the
very best in which to couch her communication, she cogitated a good
deal upon the probable causes of her young friend's indisposition.

'I don't know what to make of it,' said Miss La Creevy. 'Her eyes
were decidedly red last night. She said she had a headache;
headaches don't occasion red eyes. She must have been crying.'

Arriving at this conclusion, which, indeed, she had established to
her perfect satisfaction on the previous evening, Miss La Creevy
went on to consider--as she had done nearly all night--what new
cause of unhappiness her young friend could possibly have had.

'I can't think of anything,' said the little portrait painter.
'Nothing at all, unless it was the behaviour of that old bear.
Cross to her, I suppose? Unpleasant brute!'

Relieved by this expression of opinion, albeit it was vented upon
empty air, Miss La Creevy trotted on to Madame Mantalini's; and
being informed that the governing power was not yet out of bed,
requested an interview with the second in command; whereupon Miss
Knag appeared.

'So far as I am concerned,' said Miss Knag, when the message had
been delivered, with many ornaments of speech; 'I could spare Miss
Nickleby for evermore.'

'Oh, indeed, ma'am!' rejoined Miss La Creevy, highly offended.
'But, you see, you are not mistress of the business, and therefore
it's of no great consequence.'

'Very good, ma'am,' said Miss Knag. 'Have you any further commands
for me?'

'No, I have not, ma'am,' rejoined Miss La Creevy.

'Then good-morning, ma'am,' said Miss Knag.

'Good-morning to you, ma'am; and many obligations for your extreme
politeness and good breeding,' rejoined Miss La Creevy.

Thus terminating the interview, during which both ladies had
trembled very much, and been marvellously polite--certain
indications that they were within an inch of a very desperate
quarrel--Miss La Creevy bounced out of the room, and into the
street.

'I wonder who that is,' said the queer little soul. 'A nice person
to know, I should think! I wish I had the painting of her: I'D do
her justice.' So, feeling quite satisfied that she had said a very
cutting thing at Miss Knag's expense, Miss La Creevy had a hearty
laugh, and went home to breakfast in great good humour.

Here was one of the advantages of having lived alone so long! The
little bustling, active, cheerful creature existed entirely within
herself, talked to herself, made a confidante of herself, was as
sarcastic as she could be, on people who offended her, by herself;
pleased herself, and did no harm. If she indulged in scandal,
nobody's reputation suffered; and if she enjoyed a little bit of
revenge, no living soul was one atom the worse. One of the many to
whom, from straitened circumstances, a consequent inability to form
the associations they would wish, and a disinclination to mix with
the society they could obtain, London is as complete a solitude as
the plains of Syria, the humble artist had pursued her lonely, but
contented way for many years; and, until the peculiar misfortunes of
the Nickleby family attracted her attention, had made no friends,
though brimful of the friendliest feelings to all mankind. There
are many warm hearts in the same solitary guise as poor little Miss
La Creevy's.

However, that's neither here nor there, just now. She went home to
breakfast, and had scarcely caught the full flavour of her first sip
of tea, when the servant announced a gentleman, whereat Miss La
Creevy, at once imagining a new sitter transfixed by admiration at
the street-door case, was in unspeakable consternation at the
presence of the tea-things.

'Here, take 'em away; run with 'em into the bedroom; anywhere,' said
Miss La Creevy. 'Dear, dear; to think that I should be late on this
particular morning, of all others, after being ready for three weeks
by half-past eight o'clock, and not a soul coming near the place!'

'Don't let me put you out of the way,' said a voice Miss La Creevy
knew. 'I told the servant not to mention my name, because I wished
to surprise you.'

'Mr Nicholas!' cried Miss La Creevy, starting in great astonishment.
'You have not forgotten me, I see,' replied Nicholas, extending his
hand.

'Why, I think I should even have known you if I had met you in the
street,' said Miss La Creevy, with a smile. 'Hannah, another cup
and saucer. Now, I'll tell you what, young man; I'll trouble you
not to repeat the impertinence you were guilty of, on the morning
you went away.'

'You would not be very angry, would you?' asked Nicholas.

'Wouldn't I!' said Miss La Creevy. 'You had better try; that's
all!'

Nicholas, with becoming gallantry, immediately took Miss La Creevy
at her word, who uttered a faint scream and slapped his face; but it
was not a very hard slap, and that's the truth.

'I never saw such a rude creature!' exclaimed Miss La Creevy.

'You told me to try,' said Nicholas.

'Well; but I was speaking ironically,' rejoined Miss La Creevy.

'Oh! that's another thing,' said Nicholas; 'you should have told me
that, too.'

'I dare say you didn't know, indeed!' retorted Miss La Creevy.
'But, now I look at you again, you seem thinner than when I saw you
last, and your face is haggard and pale. And how come you to have
left Yorkshire?'

She stopped here; for there was so much heart in her altered tone
and manner, that Nicholas was quite moved.

'I need look somewhat changed,' he said, after a short silence; 'for
I have undergone some suffering, both of mind and body, since I left
London. I have been very poor, too, and have even suffered from
want.'

'Good Heaven, Mr Nicholas!' exclaimed Miss La Creevy, 'what are you
telling me?'

'Nothing which need distress you quite so much,' answered Nicholas,
with a more sprightly air; 'neither did I come here to bewail my
lot, but on matter more to the purpose. I wish to meet my uncle
face to face. I should tell you that first.'

'Then all I have to say about that is,' interposed Miss La Creevy,
'that I don't envy you your taste; and that sitting in the same room
with his very boots, would put me out of humour for a fortnight.'

'In the main,' said Nicholas, 'there may be no great difference of
opinion between you and me, so far; but you will understand, that I
desire to confront him, to justify myself, and to cast his duplicity
and malice in his throat.'

'That's quite another matter,' rejoined Miss La Creevy. 'Heaven
forgive me; but I shouldn't cry my eyes quite out of my head, if
they choked him. Well?'

'To this end, I called upon him this morning,' said Nicholas. 'He
only returned to town on Saturday, and I knew nothing of his arrival
until late last night.'

'And did you see him?' asked Miss La Creevy.

'No,' replied Nicholas. 'He had gone out.'

'Hah!' said Miss La Creevy; 'on some kind, charitable business, I
dare say.'

'I have reason to believe,' pursued Nicholas, 'from what has been
told me, by a friend of mine who is acquainted with his movements,
that he intends seeing my mother and sister today, and giving them
his version of the occurrences that have befallen me. I will meet
him there.'

'That's right,' said Miss La Creevy, rubbing her hands. 'And yet, I
don't know,' she added, 'there is much to be thought of--others to
be considered.'

'I have considered others,' rejoined Nicholas; 'but as honesty and
honour are both at issue, nothing shall deter me.'

'You should know best,' said Miss La Creevy.

'In this case I hope so,' answered Nicholas. 'And all I want you to
do for me, is, to prepare them for my coming. They think me a long
way off, and if I went wholly unexpected, I should frighten them.
If you can spare time to tell them that you have seen me, and that I
shall be with them in a quarter of an hour afterwards, you will do
me a great service.'

'I wish I could do you, or any of you, a greater,' said Miss La
Creevy; 'but the power to serve, is as seldom joined with the will,
as the will is with the power, I think.'

Talking on very fast and very much, Miss La Creevy finished her
breakfast with great expedition, put away the tea-caddy and hid the
key under the fender, resumed her bonnet, and, taking Nicholas's
arm, sallied forth at once to the city. Nicholas left her near the
door of his mother's house, and promised to return within a quarter
of an hour.

It so chanced that Ralph Nickleby, at length seeing fit, for his own
purposes, to communicate the atrocities of which Nicholas had been

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