Throws some Light upon Nicholas's Love; but whether for Good or Evil the Reader must determine
After an anxious consideration of the painful and embarrassing position in which he was placed, Nicholas decided that he ought to lose no time in frankly stating it to the kind brothers. Availing himself of the first opportunity of being alone with Mr Charles Cheeryble at the close of next day, he accordingly related Smike's little history, and modestly but firmly expressed his hope that the good old gentleman would, under such circumstances as he described, hold him justified in adopting the extreme course of interfering between parent and child, and upholding the latter in his disobedience; even though his horror and dread of his father might seem, and would doubtless be represented as, a thing so repulsive and unnatural, as to render those who countenanced him in it, fit objects of general detestation and abhorrence.
'So deeply rooted does this horror of the man appear to be,' said Nicholas, 'that I can hardly believe he really is his son. Nature does not seem to have implanted in his breast one lingering feeling of affection for him, and surely she can never err.'
'My dear sir,' replied brother Charles, 'you fall into the very common mistake of charging upon Nature, matters with which she has not the smallest connection, and for which she is in no way responsible. Men talk of Nature as an abstract thing, and lose sight of what is natural while they do so. Here is a poor lad who has never felt a parent's care, who has scarcely known anything all his life but suffering and sorrow, presented to a man who he is told is his father, and whose first act is to signify his intention of putting an end to his short term of happiness, of consigning him to his old fate, and taking him from the only friend he has ever had – which is yourself. If Nature, in such a case, put into that lad's breast but one secret prompting which urged him towards his father and away from you, she would be a liar and an idiot.'
Nicholas was delighted to find that the old gentleman spoke so warmly, and in the hope that he might say something more to the same purpose, made no reply.
'The same mistake presents itself to me, in one shape or other, at every turn,' said brother Charles. 'Parents who never showed their love, complain of want of natural affection in their children; children who never showed their duty, complain of want of natural feeling in their parents; law-makers who find both so miserable that their affections have never had enough of life's sun to develop them, are loud in their moralisings over parents and children too, and cry that the very ties of nature are disregarded. Natural affections and instincts, my dear sir, are the most beautiful of the Almighty's works, but like other beautiful works of His, they must be reared and fostered, or it is as natural that they should be wholly obscured, and that new feelings should usurp their place, as it is that the sweetest productions of the earth, left untended, should be choked with weeds and briers. I wish we could be brought to consider this, and remembering natural obligations a little more at the right time, talk about them a little less at the wrong one.'
After this, brother Charles, who had talked himself into a great heat, stopped to cool a little, and then continued:
'I dare say you are surprised, my dear sir, that I have listened to your recital with so little astonishment. That is easily explained. Your uncle has been here this morning.'
Nicholas coloured, and drew back a step or two.
'Yes,' said the old gentleman, tapping his desk emphatically, 'here, in this room. He would listen neither to reason, feeling, nor justice. But brother Ned was hard upon him; brother Ned, sir, might have melted a paving-stone.'
'He came to – ' said Nicholas.
'To complain of you,' returned brother Charles, 'to poison our ears with calumnies and falsehoods; but he came on a fruitless errand, and went away with some wholesome truths in his ear besides. Brother Ned, my dear My Nickleby – brother Ned, sir, is a perfect lion. So is Tim Linkinwater; Tim is quite a lion. We had Tim in to face him at first, and Tim was at him, sir, before you could say "Jack Robinson."'
'How can I ever thank you for all the deep obligations you impose upon me every day?' said Nicholas.
'By keeping silence upon the subject, my dear sir,' returned brother Charles. 'You shall be righted. At least you shall not be wronged. Nobody belonging to you shall be wronged. They shall not hurt a hair of your head, or the boy's head, or your mother's head, or your sister's head. I have said it, brother Ned has said it, Tim Linkinwater has said it. We have all said it, and we'll all do it. I have seen the father – if he is the father – and I suppose he must be. He is a barbarian and a hypocrite, Mr Nickleby. I told him, "You are a barbarian, sir." I did. I said, "You're a barbarian, sir." And I'm glad of it, I am VERY glad I told him he was a barbarian, very glad indeed!'
By this time brother Charles was in such a very warm state of indignation, that Nicholas thought he might venture to put in a word, but the moment he essayed to do so, Mr Cheeryble laid his hand softly upon his arm, and pointed to a chair.
'The subject is at an end for the present,' said the old gentleman, wiping his face. 'Don't revive it by a single word. I am going to speak upon another subject, a confidential subject, Mr Nickleby. We must be cool again, we must be cool.'
After two or three turns across the room he resumed his seat, and drawing his chair nearer to that on which Nicholas was seated, said:
'I am about to employ you, my dear sir, on a confidential and delicate mission.'
'You might employ many a more able messenger, sir,' said Nicholas, 'but a more trustworthy or zealous one, I may be bold to say, you could not find.'
'Of that I am well assured,' returned brother Charles, 'well assured. You will give me credit for thinking so, when I tell you that the object of this mission is a young lady.'
'A young lady, sir!' cried Nicholas, quite trembling for the moment with his eagerness to hear more.
'A very beautiful young lady,' said Mr Cheeryble, gravely.
'Pray go on, sir,' returned Nicholas.
'I am thinking how to do so,' said brother Charles; sadly, as it seemed to his young friend, and with an expression allied to pain. 'You accidentally saw a young lady in this room one morning, my dear sir, in a fainting fit. Do you remember? Perhaps you have forgotten.'
'Oh no,' replied Nicholas, hurriedly. 'I – I – remember it very well indeed.'
'SHE is the lady I speak of,' said brother Charles. Like the famous parrot, Nicholas thought a great deal, but was unable to utter a word.
'She is the daughter,' said Mr Cheeryble, 'of a lady who, when she was a beautiful girl herself, and I was very many years younger, I – it seems a strange word for me to utter now – I loved very dearly. You will smile, perhaps, to hear a grey-headed man talk about such things. You will not offend me, for when I was as young as you, I dare say I should have done the same.'
'I have no such inclination, indeed,' said Nicholas.
'My dear brother Ned,' continued Mr Cheeryble, 'was to have married her sister, but she died. She is dead too now, and has been for many years. She married her choice; and I wish I could add that her after-life was as happy as God knows I ever prayed it might be!'
A short silence intervened, which Nicholas made no effort to break.
'If trial and calamity had fallen as lightly on his head, as in the deepest truth of my own heart I ever hoped (for her sake) it would, his life would have been one of peace and happiness,' said the old gentleman calmly. 'It will be enough to say that this was not the case; that she was not happy; that they fell into complicated distresses and difficulties; that she came, twelve months before her death, to appeal to my old friendship; sadly changed, sadly altered, broken-spirited from suffering and ill-usage, and almost broken-hearted. He readily availed himself of the money which, to give her but one hour's peace of mind, I would have poured out as freely as water – nay, he often sent her back for more – and yet even while he squandered it, he made the very success of these, her applications to me, the groundwork of cruel taunts and jeers, protesting that he knew she thought with bitter remorse of the choice she had made, that she had married him from motives of interest and vanity (he was a gay young man with great friends about him when she chose him for her husband), and venting in short upon her, by every unjust and unkind means, the bitterness of that ruin and disappointment which had been brought about by his profligacy alone. In those times this young lady was a mere child. I never saw her again until that morning when you saw her also, but my nephew, Frank – '
Nicholas started, and indistinctly apologising for the interruption, begged his patron to proceed.
' – My nephew, Frank, I say,' resumed Mr Cheeryble, 'encountered her by accident, and lost sight of her almost in a minute afterwards, within two days after he returned to England. Her father lay in some secret place to avoid his creditors, reduced, between sickness and poverty, to the verge of death, and she, a child, – we might almost think, if we did not know the wisdom of all Heaven's decrees – who should have blessed a better man, was steadily braving privation, degradation, and everything most terrible to such a young and delicate creature's heart, for the purpose of supporting him. She was attended, sir,' said brother Charles, 'in these reverses, by one faithful creature, who had been, in old times, a poor kitchen wench in the family, who was then their solitary servant, but who might have been, for the truth and fidelity of her heart – who might have been – ah! the wife of Tim Linkinwater himself, sir!'
Pursuing this encomium upon the poor follower with such energy and relish as no words can describe, brother Charles leant back in his chair, and delivered the remainder of his relation with greater composure.
It was in substance this: That proudly resisting all offers of permanent aid and support from her late mother's friends, because they were made conditional upon her quitting the wretched man, her father, who had no friends left, and shrinking with instinctive delicacy from appealing in their behalf to that true and noble heart which he hated, and had, through its greatest and purest goodness, deeply wronged by misconstruction and ill report, this young girl had struggled alone and unassisted to maintain him by the labour of her hands. That through the utmost depths of poverty and affliction she had toiled, never turning aside for an instant from her task, never wearied by the petulant gloom of a sick man sustained by no consoling recollections of the past or hopes of the future; never repining for the comforts she had rejected, or bewailing the hard lot she had voluntarily incurred. That every little accomplishment she had acquired in happier days had been put into requisition for this purpose, and directed to this one end. That for two long years, toiling by day and often too by night, working at the needle, the pencil, and the pen, and submitting, as a daily governess, to such caprices and indignities as women (with daughters too) too often love to inflict upon their own sex when they serve in such capacities, as though in jealousy of the superior intelligence which they are necessitated to employ, – indignities, in ninety-nine cases out of every hundred, heaped upon persons immeasurably and incalculably their betters, but outweighing in comparison any that the most heartless blackleg would put upon his groom – that for two long years, by dint of labouring in all these capacities and wearying in none, she had not succeeded in the sole aim and object of her life, but that, overwhelmed by accumulated difficulties and disappointments, she had been compelled to seek out her mother's old friend, and, with a bursting heart, to confide in him at last.
'If I had been poor,' said brother Charles, with sparkling eyes; 'if I had been poor, Mr Nickleby, my dear sir, which thank God I am not, I would have denied myself (of course anybody would under such circumstances) the commonest necessaries of life, to help her. As it is, the task is a difficult one. If her father were dead, nothing could be easier, for then she should share and cheer the happiest home that brother Ned and I could have, as if she were our child or sister. But he is still alive. Nobody can help him; that has been tried a thousand times; he was not abandoned by all without good cause, I know.'
'Cannot she be persuaded to – ' Nicholas hesitated when he had got thus far.
'To leave him?' said brother Charles. 'Who could entreat a child to desert her parent? Such entreaties, limited to her seeing him occasionally, have been urged upon her – not by me – but always with the same result.'
'Is he kind to her?' said Nicholas. 'Does he requite her affection?'
'True kindness, considerate self-denying kindness, is not in his nature,' returned Mr Cheeryble. 'Such kindness as he knows, he regards her with, I believe. The mother was a gentle, loving, confiding creature, and although he wounded her from their marriage till her death as cruelly and wantonly as ever man did, she never ceased to love him. She commended him on her death-bed to her child's care. Her child has never forgotten it, and never will.'
'Have you no influence over him?' asked Nicholas.
'I, my dear sir! The last man in the world. Such are his jealousy and hatred of me, that if he knew his daughter had opened her heart to me, he would render her life miserable with his reproaches; although – this is the inconsistency and selfishness of his character – although if he knew that every penny she had came from me, he would not relinquish one personal desire that the most reckless expenditure of her scanty stock could gratify.'
'An unnatural scoundrel!' said Nicholas, indignantly.
'We will use no harsh terms,' said brother Charles, in a gentle voice; 'but accommodate ourselves to the circumstances in which this young lady is placed. Such assistance as I have prevailed upon her to accept, I have been obliged, at her own earnest request, to dole out in the smallest portions, lest he, finding how easily money was procured, should squander it even more lightly than he is accustomed to do. She has come to and fro, to and fro, secretly and by night, to take even this; and I cannot bear that things should go on in this way, Mr Nickleby, I really cannot bear it.'
Then it came out by little and little, how that the twins had been revolving in their good old heads manifold plans and schemes for helping this young lady in the most delicate and considerate way, and so that her father should not suspect the source whence the aid was derived; and how they had at last come to the conclusion, that the best course would be to make a feint of purchasing her little drawings and ornamental work at a high price, and keeping up a constant demand for the same. For the furtherance of which end and object it was necessary that somebody should represent the dealer in such commodities, and after great deliberation they had pitched upon Nicholas to support this character.
'He knows me,' said brother Charles, 'and he knows my brother Ned. Neither of us would do. Frank is a very good fellow – a very fine fellow – but we are afraid that he might be a little flighty and thoughtless in such a delicate matter, and that he might, perhaps – that he might, in short, be too susceptible (for she is a beautiful creature, sir; just what her poor mother was), and falling in love with her before he knew well his own mind, carry pain and sorrow into that innocent breast, which we would be the humble instruments of gradually making happy. He took an extraordinary interest in her fortunes when he first happened to encounter her; and we gather from the inquiries we have made of him, that it was she in whose behalf he made that turmoil which led to your first acquaintance.'
Nicholas stammered out that he had before suspected the possibility of such a thing; and in explanation of its having occurred to him, described when and where he had seen the young lady himself.
'Well; then you see,' continued brother Charles, 'that HE wouldn't do. Tim Linkinwater is out of the question; for Tim, sir, is such a tremendous fellow, that he could never contain himself, but would go to loggerheads with the father before he had been in the place five minutes. You don't know what Tim is, sir, when he is aroused by anything that appeals to his feelings very strongly; then he is terrific, sir, is Tim Linkinwater, absolutely terrific. Now, in you we can repose the strictest confidence; in you we have seen – or at least I have seen, and that's the same thing, for there's no difference between me and my brother Ned, except that he is the finest creature that ever lived, and that there is not, and never will be, anybody like him in all the world – in you we have seen domestic virtues and affections, and delicacy of feeling, which exactly qualify you for such an office. And you are the man, sir.'
'The young lady, sir,' said Nicholas, who felt so embarrassed that he had no small difficulty in saying anything at all – 'Does – is – is she a party to this innocent deceit?'
'Yes, yes,' returned Mr Cheeryble; 'at least she knows you come from us; she does NOT know, however, but that we shall dispose of these little productions that you'll purchase from time to time; and, perhaps, if you did it very well (that is, VERY well indeed), perhaps she might be brought to believe that we – that we made a profit of them. Eh? Eh?'
In this guileless and most kind simplicity, brother Charles was so happy, and in this possibility of the young lady being led to think that she was under no obligation to him, he evidently felt so sanguine and had so much delight, that Nicholas would not breathe a doubt upon the subject.
All this time, however, there hovered upon the tip of his tongue a confession that the very same objections which Mr Cheeryble had stated to the employment of his nephew in this commission applied with at least equal force and validity to himself, and a hundred times had he been upon the point of avowing the real state of his feelings, and entreating to be released from it. But as often, treading upon the heels of this impulse, came another which urged him to refrain, and to keep his secret to his own breast. 'Why should I,' thought Nicholas, 'why should I throw difficulties in the way of this benevolent and high-minded design? What if I do love and reverence this good and lovely creature. Should I not appear a most arrogant and shallow coxcomb if I gravely represented that there was any danger of her falling in love with me? Besides, have I no confidence in myself? Am I not now bound in honour to repress these thoughts? Has not this excellent man a right to my best and heartiest services, and should any considerations of self deter me from rendering them?'
Asking himself such questions as these, Nicholas mentally answered with great emphasis 'No!' and persuading himself that he was a most conscientious and glorious martyr, nobly resolved to do what, if he had examined his own heart a little more carefully, he would have found he could not resist. Such is the sleight of hand by which we juggle with ourselves, and change our very weaknesses into stanch and most magnanimous virtues!
Mr Cheeryble, being of course wholly unsuspicious that such reflections were presenting themselves to his young friend, proceeded to give him the needful credentials and directions for his first visit, which was to be made next morning; and all preliminaries being arranged, and the strictest secrecy enjoined, Nicholas walked home for the night very thoughtfully indeed.
The place to which Mr Cheeryble had directed him was a row of mean and not over-cleanly houses, situated within 'the Rules' of the King's Bench Prison, and not many hundred paces distant from the obelisk in St George's Fields. The Rules are a certain liberty adjoining the prison, and comprising some dozen streets in which debtors who can raise money to pay large fees, from which their creditors do NOT derive any benefit, are permitted to reside by the wise provisions of the same enlightened laws which leave the debtor who can raise no money to starve in jail, without the food, clothing, lodging, or warmth, which are provided for felons convicted of the most atrocious crimes that can disgrace humanity. There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.
To the row of houses indicated to him by Mr Charles Cheeryble, Nicholas directed his steps, without much troubling his head with such matters as these; and at this row of houses – after traversing a very dirty and dusty suburb, of which minor theatricals, shell-fish, ginger-beer, spring vans, greengrocery, and brokers' shops, appeared to compose the main and most prominent features – he at length arrived with a palpitating heart. There were small gardens in front which, being wholly neglected in all other respects, served as little pens for the dust to collect in, until the wind came round the corner and blew it down the road. Opening the rickety gate which, dangling on its broken hinges before one of these, half admitted and half repulsed the visitor, Nicholas knocked at the street door with a faltering hand.
It was in truth a shabby house outside, with very dim parlour windows and very small show of blinds, and very dirty muslin curtains dangling across the lower panes on very loose and limp strings. Neither, when the door was opened, did the inside appear to belie the outward promise, as there was faded carpeting on the stairs and faded oil-cloth in the passage; in addition to which discomforts a gentleman Ruler was smoking hard in the front parlour (though it was not yet noon), while the lady of the house was busily engaged in turpentining the disjointed fragments of a tent-bedstead at the door of the back parlour, as if in preparation for the reception of some new lodger who had been fortunate enough to engage it.
Nicholas had ample time to make these observations while the little boy, who went on errands for the lodgers, clattered down the kitchen stairs and was heard to scream, as in some remote cellar, for Miss Bray's servant, who, presently appearing and requesting him to follow her, caused him to evince greater symptoms of nervousness and disorder than so natural a consequence of his having inquired for that young lady would seem calculated to occasion.
Upstairs he went, however, and into a front room he was shown, and there, seated at a little table by the window, on which were drawing materials with which she was occupied, sat the beautiful girl who had so engrossed his thoughts, and who, surrounded by all the new and strong interest which Nicholas attached to her story, seemed now, in his eyes, a thousand times more beautiful than he had ever yet supposed her.
But how the graces and elegancies which she had dispersed about the poorly-furnished room went to the heart of Nicholas! Flowers, plants, birds, the harp, the old piano whose notes had sounded so much sweeter in bygone times; how many struggles had it cost her to keep these two last links of that broken chain which bound her yet to home! With every slender ornament, the occupation of her leisure hours, replete with that graceful charm which lingers in every little tasteful work of woman's hands, how much patient endurance and how many gentle affections were entwined! He felt as though the smile of Heaven were on the little chamber; as though the beautiful devotion of so young and weak a creature had shed a ray of its own on the inanimate things around, and made them beautiful as itself; as though the halo with which old painters surround the bright angels of a sinless world played about a being akin in spirit to them, and its light were visibly before him.
And yet Nicholas was in the Rules of the King's Bench Prison! If he had been in Italy indeed, and the time had been sunset, and the scene a stately terrace! But, there is one broad sky over all the world, and whether it be blue or cloudy, the same heaven beyond it; so, perhaps, he had no need of compunction for thinking as he did.
It is not to be supposed that he took in everything at one glance, for he had as yet been unconscious of the presence of a sick man propped up with pillows in an easy-chair, who, moving restlessly and impatiently in his seat, attracted his attention.
He was scarce fifty, perhaps, but so emaciated as to appear much older. His features presented the remains of a handsome countenance, but one in which the embers of strong and impetuous passions were easier to be traced than any expression which would have rendered a far plainer face much more prepossessing. His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone, but there was something of the old fire in the large sunken eye notwithstanding, and it seemed to kindle afresh as he struck a thick stick, with which he seemed to have supported himself in his seat, impatiently on the floor twice or thrice, and called his daughter by her name.
'Madeline, who is this? What does anybody want here? Who told a stranger we could be seen? What is it?'
'I believe – ' the young lady began, as she inclined her head with an air of some confusion, in reply to the salutation of Nicholas.
'You always believe,' returned her father, petulantly. 'What is it?'
By this time Nicholas had recovered sufficient presence of mind to speak for himself, so he said (as it had been agreed he should say) that he had called about a pair of hand-screens, and some painted velvet for an ottoman, both of which were required to be of the most elegant design possible, neither time nor expense being of the smallest consideration. He had also to pay for the two drawings, with many thanks, and, advancing to the little table, he laid upon it a bank note, folded in an envelope and sealed.
'See that the money is right, Madeline,' said the father. 'Open the paper, my dear.'
'It's quite right, papa, I'm sure.'
'Here!' said Mr Bray, putting out his hand, and opening and shutting his bony fingers with irritable impatience. 'Let me see. What are you talking about, Madeline? You're sure? How can you be sure of any such thing? Five pounds – well, is THAT right?'
'Quite,' said Madeline, bending over him. She was so busily employed in arranging the pillows that Nicholas could not see her face, but as she stooped he thought he saw a tear fall.
'Ring the bell, ring the bell,' said the sick man, with the same nervous eagerness, and motioning towards it with such a quivering hand that the bank note rustled in the air. 'Tell her to get it changed, to get me a newspaper, to buy me some grapes, another bottle of the wine that I had last week – and – and – I forget half I want just now, but she can go out again. Let her get those first, those first. Now, Madeline, my love, quick, quick! Good God, how slow you are!'
'He remembers nothing that SHE wants!' thought Nicholas. Perhaps something of what he thought was expressed in his countenance, for the sick man, turning towards him with great asperity, demanded to know if he waited for a receipt.
'It is no matter at all,' said Nicholas.
'No matter! what do you mean, sir?' was the tart rejoinder. 'No matter! Do you think you bring your paltry money here as a favour or a gift; or as a matter of business, and in return for value received? D – n you, sir, because you can't appreciate the time and taste which are bestowed upon the goods you deal in, do you think you give your money away? Do you know that you are talking to a gentleman, sir, who at one time could have bought up fifty such men as you and all you have? What do you mean?'
'I merely mean that as I shall have many dealings with this lady, if she will kindly allow me, I will not trouble her with such forms,' said Nicholas.
'Then I mean, if you please, that we'll have as many forms as we can, returned the father. 'My daughter, sir, requires no kindness from you or anybody else. Have the goodness to confine your dealings strictly to trade and business, and not to travel beyond it. Every petty tradesman is to begin to pity her now, is he? Upon my soul! Very pretty. Madeline, my dear, give him a receipt; and mind you always do so.'
While she was feigning to write it, and Nicholas was ruminating upon the extraordinary but by no means uncommon character thus presented to his observation, the invalid, who appeared at times to suffer great bodily pain, sank back in his chair and moaned out a feeble complaint that the girl had been gone an hour, and that everybody conspired to goad him.
'When,' said Nicholas, as he took the piece of paper, 'when shall I call again?'
This was addressed to the daughter, but the father answered immediately.
'When you're requested to call, sir, and not before. Don't worry and persecute. Madeline, my dear, when is this person to call again?'
'Oh, not for a long time, not for three or four weeks; it is not necessary, indeed; I can do without,' said the young lady, with great eagerness.
'Why, how are we to do without?' urged her father, not speaking above his breath. 'Three or four weeks, Madeline! Three or four weeks!'
'Then sooner, sooner, if you please,' said the young lady, turning to Nicholas.
'Three or four weeks!' muttered the father. 'Madeline, what on earth – do nothing for three or four weeks!'
'It is a long time, ma'am,' said Nicholas.
'YOU think so, do you?' retorted the father, angrily. 'If I chose to beg, sir, and stoop to ask assistance from people I despise, three or four months would not be a long time; three or four years would not be a long time. Understand, sir, that is if I chose to be dependent; but as I don't, you may call in a week.'
Nicholas bowed low to the young lady and retired, pondering upon Mr Bray's ideas of independence, and devoutly hoping that there might be few such independent spirits as he mingling with the baser clay of humanity.
He heard a light footstep above him as he descended the stairs, and looking round saw that the young lady was standing there, and glancing timidly towards him, seemed to hesitate whether she should call him back or no. The best way of settling the question was to turn back at once, which Nicholas did.
'I don't know whether I do right in asking you, sir,' said Madeline, hurriedly, 'but pray, pray, do not mention to my poor mother's dear friends what has passed here today. He has suffered much, and is worse this morning. I beg you, sir, as a boon, a favour to myself.'
'You have but to hint a wish,' returned Nicholas fervently, 'and I would hazard my life to gratify it.'
'You speak hastily, sir.'
'Truly and sincerely,' rejoined Nicholas, his lips trembling as he formed the words, 'if ever man spoke truly yet. I am not skilled in disguising my feelings, and if I were, I could not hide my heart from you. Dear madam, as I know your history, and feel as men and angels must who hear and see such things, I do entreat you to believe that I would die to serve you.'
The young lady turned away her head, and was plainly weeping.
'Forgive me,' said Nicholas, with respectful earnestness, 'if I seem to say too much, or to presume upon the confidence which has been intrusted to me. But I could not leave you as if my interest and sympathy expired with the commission of the day. I am your faithful servant, humbly devoted to you from this hour, devoted in strict truth and honour to him who sent me here, and in pure integrity of heart, and distant respect for you. If I meant more or less than this, I should be unworthy his regard, and false to the very nature that prompts the honest words I utter.'
She waved her hand, entreating him to be gone, but answered not a word. Nicholas could say no more, and silently withdrew. And thus ended his first interview with Madeline Bray.
Mr Ralph Nickleby has some confidential Intercourse with another old Friend. They concert between them a Project, which promises well for both
'There go the three-quarters past!' muttered Newman Noggs, listening to the chimes of some neighbouring church 'and my dinner time's two. He does it on purpose. He makes a point of it. It's just like him.'
It was in his own little den of an office and on the top of his official stool that Newman thus soliloquised; and the soliloquy referred, as Newman's grumbling soliloquies usually did, to Ralph Nickleby.
'I don't believe he ever had an appetite,' said Newman, 'except for pounds, shillings, and pence, and with them he's as greedy as a wolf. I should like to have him compelled to swallow one of every English coin. The penny would be an awkward morsel – but the crown – ha! ha!'
His good-humour being in some degree restored by the vision of Ralph Nickleby swallowing, perforce, a five-shilling piece, Newman slowly brought forth from his desk one of those portable bottles, currently known as pocket-pistols, and shaking the same close to his ear so as to produce a rippling sound very cool and pleasant to listen to, suffered his features to relax, and took a gurgling drink, which relaxed them still more. Replacing the cork, he smacked his lips twice or thrice with an air of great relish, and, the taste of the liquor having by this time evaporated, recurred to his grievance again.
'Five minutes to three,' growled Newman; 'it can't want more by this time; and I had my breakfast at eight o'clock, and SUCH a breakfast! and my right dinner-time two! And I might have a nice little bit of hot roast meat spoiling at home all this time – how does HE know I haven't? "Don't go till I come back," "Don't go till I come back," day after day. What do you always go out at my dinner-time for then – eh? Don't you know it's nothing but aggravation – eh?'
These words, though uttered in a very loud key, were addressed to nothing but empty air. The recital of his wrongs, however, seemed to have the effect of making Newman Noggs desperate; for he flattened his old hat upon his head, and drawing on the everlasting gloves, declared with great vehemence, that come what might, he would go to dinner that very minute.
Carrying this resolution into instant effect, he had advanced as far as the passage, when the sound of the latch-key in the street door caused him to make a precipitate retreat into his own office again.
'Here he is,' growled Newman, 'and somebody with him. Now it'll be "Stop till this gentleman's gone." But I won't. That's flat.'
So saying, Newman slipped into a tall empty closet which opened with two half doors, and shut himself up; intending to slip out directly Ralph was safe inside his own room.
'Noggs!' cried Ralph, 'where is that fellow, Noggs?'
But not a word said Newman.
'The dog has gone to his dinner, though I told him not,' muttered Ralph, looking into the office, and pulling out his watch. 'Humph!' You had better come in here, Gride. My man's out, and the sun is hot upon my room. This is cool and in the shade, if you don't mind roughing it.'
'Not at all, Mr Nickleby, oh not at all! All places are alike to me, sir. Ah! very nice indeed. Oh! very nice!'
The parson who made this reply was a little old man, of about seventy or seventy-five years of age, of a very lean figure, much bent and slightly twisted. He wore a grey coat with a very narrow collar, an old-fashioned waistcoat of ribbed black silk, and such scanty trousers as displayed his shrunken spindle-shanks in their full ugliness. The only articles of display or ornament in his dress were a steel watch-chain to which were attached some large gold seals; and a black ribbon into which, in compliance with an old fashion scarcely ever observed in these days, his grey hair was gathered behind. His nose and chin were sharp and prominent, his jaws had fallen inwards from loss of teeth, his face was shrivelled and yellow, save where the cheeks were streaked with the colour of a dry winter apple; and where his beard had been, there lingered yet a few grey tufts which seemed, like the ragged eyebrows, to denote the badness of the soil from which they sprung. The whole air and attitude of the form was one of stealthy cat-like obsequiousness; the whole expression of the face was concentrated in a wrinkled leer, compounded of cunning, lecherousness, slyness, and avarice.
Such was old Arthur Gride, in whose face there was not a wrinkle, in whose dress there was not one spare fold or plait, but expressed the most covetous and griping penury, and sufficiently indicated his belonging to that class of which Ralph Nickleby was a member. Such was old Arthur Gride, as he sat in a low chair looking up into the face of Ralph Nickleby, who, lounging upon the tall office stool, with his arms upon his knees, looked down into his; a match for him on whatever errand he had come.
'And how have you been?' said Gride, feigning great interest in Ralph's state of health. 'I haven't seen you for – oh! not for – '
'Not for a long time,' said Ralph, with a peculiar smile, importing that he very well knew it was not on a mere visit of compliment that his friend had come. 'It was a narrow chance that you saw me now, for I had only just come up to the door as you turned the corner.'
'I am very lucky,' observed Gride.
'So men say,' replied Ralph, drily.
The older money-lender wagged his chin and smiled, but he originated no new remark, and they sat for some little time without speaking. Each was looking out to take the other at a disadvantage.
'Come, Gride,' said Ralph, at length; 'what's in the wind today?'
'Aha! you're a bold man, Mr Nickleby,' cried the other, apparently very much relieved by Ralph's leading the way to business. 'Oh dear, dear, what a bold man you are!'
'Why, you have a sleek and slinking way with you that makes me seem so by contrast,' returned Ralph. 'I don't know but that yours may answer better, but I want the patience for it.'
'You were born a genius, Mr Nickleby,' said old Arthur. 'Deep, deep, deep. Ah!'
'Deep enough,' retorted Ralph, 'to know that I shall need all the depth I have, when men like you begin to compliment. You know I have stood by when you fawned and flattered other people, and I remember pretty well what THAT always led to.'
'Ha, ha, ha!' rejoined Arthur, rubbing his hands. 'So you do, so you do, no doubt. Not a man knows it better. Well, it's a pleasant thing now to think that you remember old times. Oh dear!'
'Now then,' said Ralph, composedly; 'what's in the wind, I ask again? What is it?'
'See that now!' cried the other. 'He can't even keep from business while we're chatting over bygones. Oh dear, dear, what a man it is!'
'WHICH of the bygones do you want to revive?' said Ralph. 'One of them, I know, or you wouldn't talk about them.'
'He suspects even me!' cried old Arthur, holding up his hands. 'Even me! Oh dear, even me. What a man it is! Ha, ha, ha! What a man it is! Mr Nickleby against all the world. There's nobody like him. A giant among pigmies, a giant, a giant!'
Ralph looked at the old dog with a quiet smile as he chuckled on in this strain, and Newman Noggs in the closet felt his heart sink within him as the prospect of dinner grew fainter and fainter.
'I must humour him though,' cried old Arthur; 'he must have his way – a wilful man, as the Scotch say – well, well, they're a wise people, the Scotch. He will talk about business, and won't give away his time for nothing. He's very right. Time is money, time is money.'
'He was one of us who made that saying, I should think,' said Ralph. 'Time is money, and very good money too, to those who reckon interest by it. Time IS money! Yes, and time costs money; it's rather an expensive article to some people we could name, or I forget my trade.'
In rejoinder to this sally, old Arthur again raised his hands, again chuckled, and again ejaculated 'What a man it is!' which done, he dragged the low chair a little nearer to Ralph's high stool, and looking upwards into his immovable face, said,
'What would you say to me, if I was to tell you that I was – that I was – going to be married?'
'I should tell you,' replied Ralph, looking coldly down upon him, 'that for some purpose of your own you told a lie, and that it wasn't the first time and wouldn't be the last; that I wasn't surprised and wasn't to be taken in.'
'Then I tell you seriously that I am,' said old Arthur.
'And I tell you seriously,' rejoined Ralph, 'what I told you this minute. Stay. Let me look at you. There's a liquorish devilry in your face. What is this?'
'I wouldn't deceive YOU, you know,' whined Arthur Gride; 'I couldn't do it, I should be mad to try. I, I, to deceive Mr Nickleby! The pigmy to impose upon the giant. I ask again – he, he, he! – what should you say to me if I was to tell you that I was going to be married?'
'To some old hag?' said Ralph.
'No, No,' cried Arthur, interrupting him, and rubbing his hands in an ecstasy. 'Wrong, wrong again. Mr Nickleby for once at fault; out, quite out! To a young and beautiful girl; fresh, lovely, bewitching, and not nineteen. Dark eyes, long eyelashes, ripe and ruddy lips that to look at is to long to kiss, beautiful clustering hair that one's fingers itch to play with, such a waist as might make a man clasp the air involuntarily, thinking of twining his arm about it, little feet that tread so lightly they hardly seem to walk upon the ground – to marry all this, sir, this – hey, hey!'
'This is something more than common drivelling,' said Ralph, after listening with a curled lip to the old sinner's raptures. 'The girl's name?'
'Oh deep, deep! See now how deep that is!' exclaimed old Arthur. 'He knows I want his help, he knows he can give it me, he knows it must all turn to his advantage, he sees the thing already. Her name – is there nobody within hearing?'
'Why, who the devil should there be?' retorted Ralph, testily.
'I didn't know but that perhaps somebody might be passing up or down the stairs,' said Arthur Gride, after looking out at the door and carefully reclosing it; 'or but that your man might have come back and might have been listening outside. Clerks and servants have a trick of listening, and I should have been very uncomfortable if Mr Noggs – '
'Curse Mr Noggs,' said Ralph, sharply, 'and go on with what you have to say.'
'Curse Mr Noggs, by all means,' rejoined old Arthur; 'I am sure I have not the least objection to that. Her name is – '
'Well,' said Ralph, rendered very irritable by old Arthur's pausing again 'what is it?'
Whatever reasons there might have been – and Arthur Gride appeared to have anticipated some – for the mention of this name producing an effect upon Ralph, or whatever effect it really did produce upon him, he permitted none to manifest itself, but calmly repeated the name several times, as if reflecting when and where he had heard it before.
'Bray,' said Ralph. 'Bray – there was young Bray of – no, he never had a daughter.'
'You remember Bray?' rejoined Arthur Gride.
'No,' said Ralph, looking vacantly at him.
'Not Walter Bray! The dashing man, who used his handsome wife so ill?'
'If you seek to recall any particular dashing man to my recollection by such a trait as that,' said Ralph, shrugging his shoulders, 'I shall confound him with nine-tenths of the dashing men I have ever known.'
'Tut, tut. That Bray who is now in the Rules of the Bench,' said old Arthur. 'You can't have forgotten Bray. Both of us did business with him. Why, he owes you money!'
'Oh HIM!' rejoined Ralph. 'Ay, ay. Now you speak. Oh! It's HIS daughter, is it?'
Naturally as this was said, it was not said so naturally but that a kindred spirit like old Arthur Gride might have discerned a design upon the part of Ralph to lead him on to much more explicit statements and explanations than he would have volunteered, or that Ralph could in all likelihood have obtained by any other means. Old Arthur, however, was so intent upon his own designs, that he suffered himself to be overreached, and had no suspicion but that his good friend was in earnest.
'I knew you couldn't forget him, when you came to think for a moment,' he said.
'You were right,' answered Ralph. 'But old Arthur Gride and matrimony is a most anomalous conjunction of words; old Arthur Gride and dark eyes and eyelashes, and lips that to look at is to long to kiss, and clustering hair that he wants to play with, and waists that he wants to span, and little feet that don't tread upon anything – old Arthur Gride and such things as these is more monstrous still; but old Arthur Gride marrying the daughter of a ruined "dashing man" in the Rules of the Bench, is the most monstrous and incredible of all. Plainly, friend Arthur Gride, if you want any help from me in this business (which of course you do, or you would not be here), speak out, and to the purpose. And, above all, don't talk to me of its turning to my advantage, for I know it must turn to yours also, and to a good round tune too, or you would have no finger in such a pie as this.'
There was enough acerbity and sarcasm not only in the matter of Ralph's speech, but in the tone of voice in which he uttered it, and the looks with which he eked it out, to have fired even the ancient usurer's cold blood and flushed even his withered cheek. But he gave vent to no demonstration of anger, contenting himself with exclaiming as before, 'What a man it is!' and rolling his head from side to side, as if in unrestrained enjoyment of his freedom and drollery. Clearly observing, however, from the expression in Ralph's features, that he had best come to the point as speedily as might be, he composed himself for more serious business, and entered upon the pith and marrow of his negotiation.
First, he dwelt upon the fact that Madeline Bray was devoted to the support and maintenance, and was a slave to every wish, of her only parent, who had no other friend on earth; to which Ralph rejoined that he had heard something of the kind before, and that if she had known a little more of the world, she wouldn't have been such a fool.
Secondly, he enlarged upon the character of her father, arguing, that even taking it for granted that he loved her in return with the utmost affection of which he was capable, yet he loved himself a great deal better; which Ralph said it was quite unnecessary to say anything more about, as that was very natural, and probable enough.
And, thirdly, old Arthur premised that the girl was a delicate and beautiful creature, and that he had really a hankering to have her for his wife. To this Ralph deigned no other rejoinder than a harsh smile, and a glance at the shrivelled old creature before him, which were, however, sufficiently expressive.
'Now,' said Gride, 'for the little plan I have in my mind to bring this about; because, I haven't offered myself even to the father yet, I should have told you. But that you have gathered already? Ah! oh dear, oh dear, what an edged tool you are!'
'Don't play with me then,' said Ralph impatiently. 'You know the proverb.'
'A reply always on the tip of his tongue!' cried old Arthur, raising his hands and eyes in admiration. 'He is always prepared! Oh dear, what a blessing to have such a ready wit, and so much ready money to back it!' Then, suddenly changing his tone, he went on: 'I have been backwards and forwards to Bray's lodgings several times within the last six months. It is just half a year since I first saw this delicate morsel, and, oh dear, what a delicate morsel it is! But that is neither here nor there. I am his detaining creditor for seventeen hundred pounds!'
'You talk as if you were the only detaining creditor,' said Ralph, pulling out his pocket-book. 'I am another for nine hundred and seventy-five pounds four and threepence.'
'The only other, Mr Nickleby,' said old Arthur, eagerly. 'The only other. Nobody else went to the expense of lodging a detainer, trusting to our holding him fast enough, I warrant you. We both fell into the same snare; oh dear, what a pitfall it was; it almost ruined me! And lent him our money upon bills, with only one name besides his own, which to be sure everybody supposed to be a good one, and was as negotiable as money, but which turned out you know how. Just as we should have come upon him, he died insolvent. Ah! it went very nigh to ruin me, that loss did!'
'Go on with your scheme,' said Ralph. 'It's of no use raising the cry of our trade just now; there's nobody to hear us!'
'It's always as well to talk that way,' returned old Arthur, with a chuckle, 'whether there's anybody to hear us or not. Practice makes perfect, you know. Now, if I offer myself to Bray as his son-in-law, upon one simple condition that the moment I am fast married he shall be quietly released, and have an allowance to live just t'other side the water like a gentleman (he can't live long, for I have asked his doctor, and he declares that his complaint is one of the Heart and it is impossible), and if all the advantages of this condition are properly stated and dwelt upon to him, do you think he could resist me? And if he could not resist ME, do you think his daughter could resist HIM? Shouldn't I have her Mrs Arthur Gride – pretty Mrs Arthur Gride – a tit-bit – a dainty chick – shouldn't I have her Mrs Arthur Gride in a week, a month, a day – any time I chose to name?'
'Go on,' said Ralph, nodding his head deliberately, and speaking in a tone whose studied coldness presented a strange contrast to the rapturous squeak to which his friend had gradually mounted. 'Go on. You didn't come here to ask me that.'
'Oh dear, how you talk!' cried old Arthur, edging himself closer still to Ralph. 'Of course I didn't, I don't pretend I did! I came to ask what you would take from me, if I prospered with the father, for this debt of yours. Five shillings in the pound, six and-eightpence, ten shillings? I WOULD go as far as ten for such a friend as you, we have always been on such good terms, but you won't be so hard upon me as that, I know. Now, will you?'
'There's something more to be told,' said Ralph, as stony and immovable as ever.
'Yes, yes, there is, but you won't give me time,' returned Arthur Gride. 'I want a backer in this matter; one who can talk, and urge, and press a point, which you can do as no man can. I can't do that, for I am a poor, timid, nervous creature. Now, if you get a good composition for this debt, which you long ago gave up for lost, you'll stand my friend, and help me. Won't you?'
'There's something more,' said Ralph.
'No, no, indeed,' cried Arthur Gride.
'Yes, yes, indeed. I tell you yes,' said Ralph.
'Oh!' returned old Arthur feigning to be suddenly enlightened. 'You mean something more, as concerns myself and my intention. Ay, surely, surely. Shall I mention that?'
'I think you had better,' rejoined Ralph, drily.
'I didn't like to trouble you with that, because I supposed your interest would cease with your own concern in the affair,' said Arthur Gride. 'That's kind of you to ask. Oh dear, how very kind of you! Why, supposing I had a knowledge of some property – some little property – very little – to which this pretty chick was entitled; which nobody does or can know of at this time, but which her husband could sweep into his pouch, if he knew as much as I do, would that account for – '
'For the whole proceeding,' rejoined Ralph, abruptly. 'Now, let me turn this matter over, and consider what I ought to have if I should help you to success.'
'But don't be hard,' cried old Arthur, raising his hands with an imploring gesture, and speaking, in a tremulous voice. 'Don't be too hard upon me. It's a very small property, it is indeed. Say the ten shillings, and we'll close the bargain. It's more than I ought to give, but you're so kind – shall we say the ten? Do now, do.'
Ralph took no notice of these supplications, but sat for three or four minutes in a brown study, looking thoughtfully at the person from whom they proceeded. After sufficient cogitation he broke silence, and it certainly could not be objected that he used any needless circumlocution, or failed to speak directly to the purpose.
'If you married this girl without me,' said Ralph, 'you must pay my debt in full, because you couldn't set her father free otherwise. It's plain, then, that I must have the whole amount, clear of all deduction or incumbrance, or I should lose from being honoured with your confidence, instead of gaining by it. That's the first article of the treaty. For the second, I shall stipulate that for my trouble in negotiation and persuasion, and helping you to this fortune, I have five hundred pounds. That's very little, because you have the ripe lips, and the clustering hair, and what not, all to yourself. For the third and last article, I require that you execute a bond to me, this day, binding yourself in the payment of these two sums, before noon of the day of your marriage with Madeline Bray. You have told me I can urge and press a point. I press this one, and will take nothing less than these terms. Accept them if you like. If not, marry her without me if you can. I shall still get my debt.'
To all entreaties, protestations, and offers of compromise between his own proposals and those which Arthur Gride had first suggested, Ralph was deaf as an adder. He would enter into no further discussion of the subject, and while old Arthur dilated upon the enormity of his demands and proposed modifications of them, approaching by degrees nearer and nearer to the terms he resisted, sat perfectly mute, looking with an air of quiet abstraction over the entries and papers in his pocket-book. Finding that it was impossible to make any impression upon his staunch friend, Arthur Gride, who had prepared himself for some such result before he came, consented with a heavy heart to the proposed treaty, and upon the spot filled up the bond required (Ralph kept such instruments handy), after exacting the condition that Mr Nickleby should accompany him to Bray's lodgings that very hour, and open the negotiation at once, should circumstances appear auspicious and favourable to their designs.
In pursuance of this last understanding the worthy gentlemen went out together shortly afterwards, and Newman Noggs emerged, bottle in hand, from the cupboard, out of the upper door of which, at the imminent risk of detection, he had more than once thrust his red nose when such parts of the subject were under discussion as interested him most.
'I have no appetite now,' said Newman, putting the flask in his pocket. 'I've had MY dinner.'
Having delivered this observation in a very grievous and doleful tone, Newman reached the door in one long limp, and came back again in another.
'I don't know who she may be, or what she may be,' he said: 'but I pity her with all my heart and soul; and I can't help her, nor can I any of the people against whom a hundred tricks, but none so vile as this, are plotted every day! Well, that adds to my pain, but not to theirs. The thing is no worse because I know it, and it tortures me as well as them. Gride and Nickleby! Good pair for a curricle. Oh roguery! roguery! roguery!'
With these reflections, and a very hard knock on the crown of his unfortunate hat at each repetition of the last word, Newman Noggs, whose brain was a little muddled by so much of the contents of the pocket-pistol as had found their way there during his recent concealment, went forth to seek such consolation as might be derivable from the beef and greens of some cheap eating-house.
Meanwhile the two plotters had betaken themselves to the same house whither Nicholas had repaired for the first time but a few mornings before, and having obtained access to Mr Bray, and found his daughter from home, had by a train of the most masterly approaches that Ralph's utmost skill could frame, at length laid open the real object of their visit.
'There he sits, Mr Bray,' said Ralph, as the invalid, not yet recovered from his surprise, reclined in his chair, looking alternately at him and Arthur Gride. 'What if he has had the ill-fortune to be one cause of your detention in this place? I have been another; men must live; you are too much a man of the world not to see that in its true light. We offer the best reparation in our power. Reparation! Here is an offer of marriage, that many a titled father would leap at, for his child. Mr Arthur Gride, with the fortune of a prince. Think what a haul it is!'
'My daughter, sir,' returned Bray, haughtily, 'as I have brought her up, would be a rich recompense for the largest fortune that a man could bestow in exchange for her hand.'
'Precisely what I told you,' said the artful Ralph, turning to his friend, old Arthur. 'Precisely what made me consider the thing so fair and easy. There is no obligation on either side. You have money, and Miss Madeline has beauty and worth. She has youth, you have money. She has not money, you have not youth. Tit for tat, quits, a match of Heaven's own making!'
'Matches are made in Heaven, they say,' added Arthur Gride, leering hideously at the father-in-law he wanted. 'If we are married, it will be destiny, according to that.'
'Then think, Mr Bray,' said Ralph, hastily substituting for this argument considerations more nearly allied to earth, 'think what a stake is involved in the acceptance or rejection of these proposals of my friend.'
'How can I accept or reject,' interrupted Mr Bray, with an irritable consciousness that it really rested with him to decide. 'It is for my daughter to accept or reject; it is for my daughter. You know that.'
'True,' said Ralph, emphatically; 'but you have still the power to advise; to state the reasons for and against; to hint a wish.'
'To hint a wish, sir!' returned the debtor, proud and mean by turns, and selfish at all times. 'I am her father, am I not? Why should I hint, and beat about the bush? Do you suppose, like her mother's friends and my enemies – a curse upon them all! – that there is anything in what she has done for me but duty, sir, but duty? Or do you think that my having been unfortunate is a sufficient reason why our relative positions should be changed, and that she should command and I should obey? Hint a wish, too! Perhaps you think, because you see me in this place and scarcely able to leave this chair without assistance, that I am some broken-spirited dependent creature, without the courage or power to do what I may think best for my own child. Still the power to hint a wish! I hope so!'
'Pardon me,' returned Ralph, who thoroughly knew his man, and had taken his ground accordingly; 'you do not hear me out. I was about to say that your hinting a wish, even hinting a wish, would surely be equivalent to commanding.'
'Why, of course it would,' retorted Mr Bray, in an exasperated tone. 'If you don't happen to have heard of the time, sir, I tell you that there was a time, when I carried every point in triumph against her mother's whole family, although they had power and wealth on their side, by my will alone.'
'Still,' rejoined Ralph, as mildly as his nature would allow him, 'you have not heard me out. You are a man yet qualified to shine in society, with many years of life before you; that is, if you lived in freer air, and under brighter skies, and chose your own companions. Gaiety is your element, you have shone in it before. Fashion and freedom for you. France, and an annuity that would support you there in luxury, would give you a new lease of life, would transfer you to a new existence. The town rang with your expensive pleasures once, and you could blaze up on a new scene again, profiting by experience, and living a little at others' cost, instead of letting others live at yours. What is there on the reverse side of the picture? What is there? I don't know which is the nearest churchyard, but a gravestone there, wherever it is, and a date, perhaps two years hence, perhaps twenty. That's all.'
Mr Bray rested his elbow on the arm of his chair, and shaded his face with his hand.
'I speak plainly,' said Ralph, sitting down beside him, 'because I feel strongly. It's my interest that you should marry your daughter to my friend Gride, because then he sees me paid – in part, that is. I don't disguise it. I acknowledge it openly. But what interest have you in recommending her to such a step? Keep that in view. She might object, remonstrate, shed tears, talk of his being too old, and plead that her life would be rendered miserable. But what is it now?'
Several slight gestures on the part of the invalid showed that these arguments were no more lost upon him, than the smallest iota of his demeanour was upon Ralph.
'What is it now, I say,' pursued the wily usurer, 'or what has it a chance of being? If you died, indeed, the people you hate would make her happy. But can you bear the thought of that?'
'No!' returned Bray, urged by a vindictive impulse he could not repress.
'I should imagine not, indeed!' said Ralph, quietly. 'If she profits by anybody's death,' this was said in a lower tone, 'let it be by her husband's. Don't let her have to look back to yours, as the event from which to date a happier life. Where is the objection? Let me hear it stated. What is it? That her suitor is an old man? Why, how often do men of family and fortune, who haven't your excuse, but have all the means and superfluities of life within their reach, how often do they marry their daughters to old men, or (worse still) to young men without heads or hearts, to tickle some idle vanity, strengthen some family interest, or secure some seat in Parliament! Judge for her, sir, judge for her. You must know best, and she will live to thank you.'
'Hush! hush!' cried Mr Bray, suddenly starting up, and covering Ralph's mouth with his trembling hand. 'I hear her at the door!'
There was a gleam of conscience in the shame and terror of this hasty action, which, in one short moment, tore the thin covering of sophistry from the cruel design, and laid it bare in all its meanness and heartless deformity. The father fell into his chair pale and trembling; Arthur Gride plucked and fumbled at his hat, and durst not raise his eyes from the floor; even Ralph crouched for the moment like a beaten hound, cowed by the presence of one young innocent girl!
The effect was almost as brief as sudden. Ralph was the first to recover himself, and observing Madeline's looks of alarm, entreated the poor girl to be composed, assuring her that there was no cause for fear.
'A sudden spasm,' said Ralph, glancing at Mr Bray. 'He is quite well now.'
It might have moved a very hard and worldly heart to see the young and beautiful creature, whose certain misery they had been contriving but a minute before, throw her arms about her father's neck, and pour forth words of tender sympathy and love, the sweetest a father's ear can know, or child's lips form. But Ralph looked coldly on; and Arthur Gride, whose bleared eyes gloated only over the outward beauties, and were blind to the spirit which reigned within, evinced – a fantastic kind of warmth certainly, but not exactly that kind of warmth of feeling which the contemplation of virtue usually inspires.
'Madeline,' said her father, gently disengaging himself, 'it was nothing.'
'But you had that spasm yesterday, and it is terrible to see you in such pain. Can I do nothing for you?'
'Nothing just now. Here are two gentlemen, Madeline, one of whom you have seen before. She used to say,' added Mr Bray, addressing Arthur Gride, 'that the sight of you always made me worse. That was natural, knowing what she did, and only what she did, of our connection and its results. Well, well. Perhaps she may change her mind on that point; girls have leave to change their minds, you know. You are very tired, my dear.'
'I am not, indeed.'
'Indeed you are. You do too much.'
'I wish I could do more.'
'I know you do, but you overtask your strength. This wretched life, my love, of daily labour and fatigue, is more than you can bear, I am sure it is. Poor Madeline!'
With these and many more kind words, Mr Bray drew his daughter to him and kissed her cheek affectionately. Ralph, watching him sharply and closely in the meantime, made his way towards the door, and signed to Gride to follow him.
'You will communicate with us again?' said Ralph.
'Yes, yes,' returned Mr Bray, hastily thrusting his daughter aside. 'In a week. Give me a week.'
'One week,' said Ralph, turning to his companion, 'from today. Good-morning. Miss Madeline, I kiss your hand.'
'We will shake hands, Gride,' said Mr Bray, extending his, as old Arthur bowed. 'You mean well, no doubt. I an bound to say so now. If I owed you money, that was not your fault. Madeline, my love, your hand here.'
'Oh dear! If the young lady would condescent! Only the tips of her fingers,' said Arthur, hesitating and half retreating.
Madeline shrunk involuntarily from the goblin figure, but she placed the tips of her fingers in his hand and instantly withdrew them. After an ineffectual clutch, intended to detain and carry them to his lips, old Arthur gave his own fingers a mumbling kiss, and with many amorous distortions of visage went in pursuit of his friend, who was by this time in the street.
'What does he say, what does he say? What does the giant say to the pigmy?' inquired Arthur Gride, hobbling up to Ralph.
'What does the pigmy say to the giant?' rejoined Ralph, elevating his eyebrows and looking down upon his questioner.
'He doesn't know what to say,' replied Arthur Gride. 'He hopes and fears. But is she not a dainty morsel?'
'I have no great taste for beauty,' growled Ralph.
'But I have,' rejoined Arthur, rubbing his hands. 'Oh dear! How handsome her eyes looked when she was stooping over him! Such long lashes, such delicate fringe! She – she – looked at me so soft.'
'Not over-lovingly, I think,' said Ralph. 'Did she?'
'No, you think not?' replied old Arthur. 'But don't you think it can be brought about? Don't you think it can?'
Ralph looked at him with a contemptuous frown, and replied with a sneer, and between his teeth:
'Did you mark his telling her she was tired and did too much, and overtasked her strength?'
'Ay, ay. What of it?'
'When do you think he ever told her that before? The life is more than she can bear. Yes, yes. He'll change it for her.'
'D'ye think it's done?' inquired old Arthur, peering into his companion's face with half-closed eyes.
'I am sure it's done,' said Ralph. 'He is trying to deceive himself, even before our eyes, already. He is making believe that he thinks of her good and not his own. He is acting a virtuous part, and so considerate and affectionate, sir, that the daughter scarcely knew him. I saw a tear of surprise in her eye. There'll be a few more tears of surprise there before long, though of a different kind. Oh! we may wait with confidence for this day week.'
Being for the Benefit of Mr Vincent Crummles, and positively his last Appearance on this Stage
It was with a very sad and heavy heart, oppressed by many painful ideas, that Nicholas retraced his steps eastward and betook himself to the counting-house of Cheeryble Brothers. Whatever the idle hopes he had suffered himself to entertain, whatever the pleasant visions which had sprung up in his mind and grouped themselves round the fair image of Madeline Bray, they were now dispelled, and not a vestige of their gaiety and brightness remained.
It would be a poor compliment to Nicholas's better nature, and one which he was very far from deserving, to insinuate that the solution, and such a solution, of the mystery which had seemed to surround Madeline Bray, when he was ignorant even of her name, had damped his ardour or cooled the fervour of his admiration. If he had regarded her before, with such a passion as young men attracted by mere beauty and elegance may entertain, he was now conscious of much deeper and stronger feelings. But, reverence for the truth and purity of her heart, respect for the helplessness and loneliness of her situation, sympathy with the trials of one so young and fair and admiration of her great and noble spirit, all seemed to raise her far above his reach, and, while they imparted new depth and dignity to his love, to whisper that it was hopeless.
'I will keep my word, as I have pledged it to her,' said Nicholas, manfully. 'This is no common trust that I have to discharge, and I will perform the double duty that is imposed upon me most scrupulously and strictly. My secret feelings deserve no consideration in such a case as this, and they shall have none.'
Still, there were the secret feelings in existence just the same, and in secret Nicholas rather encouraged them than otherwise; reasoning (if he reasoned at all) that there they could do no harm to anybody but himself, and that if he kept them to himself from a sense of duty, he had an additional right to entertain himself with them as a reward for his heroism.
All these thoughts, coupled with what he had seen that morning and the anticipation of his next visit, rendered him a very dull and abstracted companion; so much so, indeed, that Tim Linkinwater suspected he must have made the mistake of a figure somewhere, which was preying upon his mind, and seriously conjured him, if such were the case, to make a clean breast and scratch it out, rather than have his whole life embittered by the tortures of remorse.
But in reply to these considerate representations, and many others both from Tim and Mr Frank, Nicholas could only be brought to state that he was never merrier in his life; and so went on all day, and so went towards home at night, still turning over and over again the same subjects, thinking over and over again the same things, and arriving over and over again at the same conclusions.
In this pensive, wayward, and uncertain state, people are apt to lounge and loiter without knowing why, to read placards on the walls with great attention and without the smallest idea of one word of their contents, and to stare most earnestly through shop-windows at things which they don't see. It was thus that Nicholas found himself poring with the utmost interest over a large play-bill hanging outside a Minor Theatre which he had to pass on his way home, and reading a list of the actors and actresses who had promised to do honour to some approaching benefit, with as much gravity as if it had been a catalogue of the names of those ladies and gentlemen who stood highest upon the Book of Fate, and he had been looking anxiously for his own. He glanced at the top of the bill, with a smile at his own dulness, as he prepared to resume his walk, and there saw announced, in large letters with a large space between each of them, 'Positively the last appearance of Mr Vincent Crummles of Provincial Celebrity!!!'
'Nonsense!' said Nicholas, turning back again. 'It can't be.'
But there it was. In one line by itself was an announcement of the first night of a new melodrama; in another line by itself was an announcement of the last six nights of an old one; a third line was devoted to the re-engagement of the unrivalled African Knife-swallower, who had kindly suffered himself to be prevailed upon to forego his country engagements for one week longer; a fourth line announced that Mr Snittle Timberry, having recovered from his late severe indisposition, would have the honour of appearing that evening; a fifth line said that there were 'Cheers, Tears, and Laughter!' every night; a sixth, that that was positively the last appearance of Mr Vincent Crummles of Provincial Celebrity.
'Surely it must be the same man,' thought Nicholas. 'There can't be two Vincent Crummleses.'
The better to settle this question he referred to the bill again, and finding that there was a Baron in the first piece, and that Roberto (his son) was enacted by one Master Crummles, and Spaletro (his nephew) by one Master Percy Crummles – THEIR last appearances – and that, incidental to the piece, was a characteristic dance by the characters, and a castanet pas seul by the Infant Phenomenon – HER last appearance – he no longer entertained any doubt; and presenting himself at the stage-door, and sending in a scrap of paper with 'Mr Johnson' written thereon in pencil, was presently conducted by a Robber, with a very large belt and buckle round his waist, and very large leather gauntlets on his hands, into the presence of his former manager.
Mr Crummles was unfeignedly glad to see him, and starting up from before a small dressing-glass, with one very bushy eyebrow stuck on crooked over his left eye, and the fellow eyebrow and the calf of one of his legs in his hand, embraced him cordially; at the same time observing, that it would do Mrs Crummles's heart good to bid him goodbye before they went.
'You were always a favourite of hers, Johnson,' said Crummles, 'always were from the first. I was quite easy in my mind about you from that first day you dined with us. One that Mrs Crummles took a fancy to, was sure to turn out right. Ah! Johnson, what a woman that is!'
'I am sincerely obliged to her for her kindness in this and all other respects,' said Nicholas. 'But where are you going,' that you talk about bidding goodbye?'
'Haven't you seen it in the papers?' said Crummles, with some dignity.
'No,' replied Nicholas.
'I wonder at that,' said the manager. 'It was among the varieties. I had the paragraph here somewhere – but I don't know – oh, yes, here it is.'
So saying, Mr Crummles, after pretending that he thought he must have lost it, produced a square inch of newspaper from the pocket of the pantaloons he wore in private life (which, together with the plain clothes of several other gentlemen, lay scattered about on a kind of dresser in the room), and gave it to Nicholas to read:
'The talented Vincent Crummles, long favourably known to fame as a country manager and actor of no ordinary pretensions, is about to cross the Atlantic on a histrionic expedition. Crummles is to be accompanied, we hear, by his lady and gifted family. We know no man superior to Crummles in his particular line of character, or one who, whether as a public or private individual, could carry with him the best wishes of a larger circle of friends. Crummles is certain to succeed.'
'Here's another bit,' said Mr Crummles, handing over a still smaller scrap. 'This is from the notices to correspondents, this one.'
Nicholas read it aloud. '"Philo-Dramaticus. Crummles, the country manager and actor, cannot be more than forty-three, or forty-four years of age. Crummles is NOT a Prussian, having been born at Chelsea." Humph!' said Nicholas, 'that's an odd paragraph.'
'Very,' returned Crummles, scratching the side of his nose, and looking at Nicholas with an assumption of great unconcern. 'I can't think who puts these things in. I didn't.'
Still keeping his eye on Nicholas, Mr Crummles shook his head twice or thrice with profound gravity, and remarking, that he could not for the life of him imagine how the newspapers found out the things they did, folded up the extracts and put them in his pocket again.
'I am astonished to hear this news,' said Nicholas. 'Going to America! You had no such thing in contemplation when I was with you.'
'No,' replied Crummles, 'I hadn't then. The fact is that Mrs Crummles – most extraordinary woman, Johnson.' Here he broke off and whispered something in his ear.
'Oh!' said Nicholas, smiling. 'The prospect of an addition to your family?'
'The seventh addition, Johnson,' returned Mr Crummles, solemnly. 'I thought such a child as the Phenomenon must have been a closer; but it seems we are to have another. She is a very remarkable woman.'
'I congratulate you,' said Nicholas, 'and I hope this may prove a phenomenon too.'
'Why, it's pretty sure to be something uncommon, I suppose,' rejoined Mr Crummles. 'The talent of the other three is principally in combat and serious pantomime. I should like this one to have a turn for juvenile tragedy; I understand they want something of that sort in America very much. However, we must take it as it comes. Perhaps it may have a genius for the tight-rope. It may have any sort of genius, in short, if it takes after its mother, Johnson, for she is an universal genius; but, whatever its genius is, that genius shall be developed.'
Expressing himself after these terms, Mr Crummles put on his other eyebrow, and the calves of his legs, and then put on his legs, which were of a yellowish flesh-colour, and rather soiled about the knees, from frequent going down upon those joints, in curses, prayers, last struggles, and other strong passages.
While the ex-manager completed his toilet, he informed Nicholas that as he should have a fair start in America from the proceeds of a tolerably good engagement which he had been fortunate enough to obtain, and as he and Mrs Crummles could scarcely hope to act for ever (not being immortal, except in the breath of Fame and in a figurative sense) he had made up his mind to settle there permanently, in the hope of acquiring some land of his own which would support them in their old age, and which they could afterwards bequeath to their children. Nicholas, having highly commended the resolution, Mr Crummles went on to impart such further intelligence relative to their mutual friends as he thought might prove interesting; informing Nicholas, among other things, that Miss Snevellicci was happily married to an affluent young wax-chandler who had supplied the theatre with candles, and that Mr Lillyvick didn't dare to say his soul was his own, such was the tyrannical sway of Mrs Lillyvick, who reigned paramount and supreme.
Nicholas responded to this confidence on the part of Mr Crummles, by confiding to him his own name, situation, and prospects, and informing him, in as few general words as he could, of the circumstances which had led to their first acquaintance. After congratulating him with great heartiness on the improved state of his fortunes, Mr Crummles gave him to understand that next morning he and his were to start for Liverpool, where the vessel lay which was to carry them from the shores of England, and that if Nicholas wished to take a last adieu of Mrs Crummles, he must repair with him that night to a farewell supper, given in honour of the family at a neighbouring tavern; at which Mr Snittle Timberry would preside, while the honours of the vice-chair would be sustained by the African Swallower.
The room being by this time very warm and somewhat crowded, in consequence of the influx of four gentlemen, who had just killed each other in the piece under representation, Nicholas accepted the invitation, and promised to return at the conclusion of the performances; preferring the cool air and twilight out of doors to the mingled perfume of gas, orange-peel, and gunpowder, which pervaded the hot and glaring theatre.
He availed himself of this interval to buy a silver snuff-box – the best his funds would afford – as a token of remembrance for Mr Crummles, and having purchased besides a pair of ear-rings for Mrs Crummles, a necklace for the Phenomenon, and a flaming shirt-pin for each of the young gentlemen, he refreshed himself with a walk, and returning a little after the appointed time, found the lights out, the theatre empty, the curtain raised for the night, and Mr Crummles walking up and down the stage expecting his arrival.
'Timberry won't be long,' said Mr Crummles. 'He played the audience out tonight. He does a faithful black in the last piece, and it takes him a little longer to wash himself.'
'A very unpleasant line of character, I should think?' said Nicholas.
'No, I don't know,' replied Mr Crummles; 'it comes off easily enough, and there's only the face and neck. We had a first-tragedy man in our company once, who, when he played Othello, used to black himself all over. But that's feeling a part and going into it as if you meant it; it isn't usual; more's the pity.'
Mr Snittle Timberry now appeared, arm-in-arm with the African Swallower, and, being introduced to Nicholas, raised his hat half a foot, and said he was proud to know him. The Swallower said the same, and looked and spoke remarkably like an Irishman.
'I see by the bills that you have been ill, sir,' said Nicholas to Mr Timberry. 'I hope you are none the worse for your exertions tonight?'
Mr Timberry, in reply, shook his head with a gloomy air, tapped his chest several times with great significancy, and drawing his cloak more closely about him, said, 'But no matter, no matter. Come!'
It is observable that when people upon the stage are in any strait involving the very last extremity of weakness and exhaustion, they invariably perform feats of strength requiring great ingenuity and muscular power. Thus, a wounded prince or bandit chief, who is bleeding to death and too faint to move, except to the softest music (and then only upon his hands and knees), shall be seen to approach a cottage door for aid in such a series of writhings and twistings, and with such curlings up of the legs, and such rollings over and over, and such gettings up and tumblings down again, as could never be achieved save by a very strong man skilled in posture-making. And so natural did this sort of performance come to Mr Snittle Timberry, that on their way out of the theatre and towards the tavern where the supper was to be holden, he testified the severity of his recent indisposition and its wasting effects upon the nervous system, by a series of gymnastic performances which were the admiration of all witnesses.
'Why this is indeed a joy I had not looked for!' said Mrs Crummles, when Nicholas was presented.
'Nor I,' replied Nicholas. 'It is by a mere chance that I have this opportunity of seeing you, although I would have made a great exertion to have availed myself of it.'
'Here is one whom you know,' said Mrs Crummles, thrusting forward the Phenomenon in a blue gauze frock, extensively flounced, and trousers of the same; 'and here another – and another,' presenting the Master Crummleses. 'And how is your friend, the faithful Digby?'
'Digby!' said Nicholas, forgetting at the instant that this had been Smike's theatrical name. 'Oh yes. He's quite – what am I saying? – he is very far from well.'
'How!' exclaimed Mrs Crummles, with a tragic recoil.
'I fear,' said Nicholas, shaking his head, and making an attempt to smile, 'that your better-half would be more struck with him now than ever.'
'What mean you?' rejoined Mrs Crummles, in her most popular manner. 'Whence comes this altered tone?'
'I mean that a dastardly enemy of mine has struck at me through him, and that while he thinks to torture me, he inflicts on him such agonies of terror and suspense as – You will excuse me, I am sure,' said Nicholas, checking himself. 'I should never speak of this, and never do, except to those who know the facts, but for a moment I forgot myself.'
With this hasty apology Nicholas stooped down to salute the Phenomenon, and changed the subject; inwardly cursing his precipitation, and very much wondering what Mrs Crummles must think of so sudden an explosion.
That lady seemed to think very little about it, for the supper being by this time on table, she gave her hand to Nicholas and repaired with a stately step to the left hand of Mr Snittle Timberry. Nicholas had the honour to support her, and Mr Crummles was placed upon the chairman's right; the Phenomenon and the Master Crummleses sustained the vice.
The company amounted in number to some twenty-five or thirty, being composed of such members of the theatrical profession, then engaged or disengaged in London, as were numbered among the most intimate friends of Mr and Mrs Crummles. The ladies and gentlemen were pretty equally balanced; the expenses of the entertainment being defrayed by the latter, each of whom had the privilege of inviting one of the former as his guest.
It was upon the whole a very distinguished party, for independently of the lesser theatrical lights who clustered on this occasion round Mr Snittle Timberry, there was a literary gentleman present who had dramatised in his time two hundred and forty-seven novels as fast as they had come out – some of them faster than they had come out – and who WAS a literary gentleman in consequence.
This gentleman sat on the left hand of Nicholas, to whom he was introduced by his friend the African Swallower, from the bottom of the table, with a high eulogium upon his fame and reputation.
'I am happy to know a gentleman of such great distinction,' said Nicholas, politely.
'Sir,' replied the wit, 'you're very welcome, I'm sure. The honour is reciprocal, sir, as I usually say when I dramatise a book. Did you ever hear a definition of fame, sir?'
'I have heard several,' replied Nicholas, with a smile. 'What is yours?'
'When I dramatise a book, sir,' said the literary gentleman, 'THAT'S fame. For its author.'
'Oh, indeed!' rejoined Nicholas.
'That's fame, sir,' said the literary gentleman.
'So Richard Turpin, Tom King, and Jerry Abershaw have handed down to fame the names of those on whom they committed their most impudent robberies?' said Nicholas.
'I don't know anything about that, sir,' answered the literary gentleman.
'Shakespeare dramatised stories which had previously appeared in print, it is true,' observed Nicholas.
'Meaning Bill, sir?' said the literary gentleman. 'So he did. Bill was an adapter, certainly, so he was – and very well he adapted too – considering.'
'I was about to say,' rejoined Nicholas, 'that Shakespeare derived some of his plots from old tales and legends in general circulation; but it seems to me, that some of the gentlemen of your craft, at the present day, have shot very far beyond him – '
'You're quite right, sir,' interrupted the literary gentleman, leaning back in his chair and exercising his toothpick. 'Human intellect, sir, has progressed since his time, is progressing, will progress.'
'Shot beyond him, I mean,' resumed Nicholas, 'in quite another respect, for, whereas he brought within the magic circle of his genius, traditions peculiarly adapted for his purpose, and turned familiar things into constellations which should enlighten the world for ages, you drag within the magic circle of your dulness, subjects not at all adapted to the purposes of the stage, and debase as he exalted. For instance, you take the uncompleted books of living authors, fresh from their hands, wet from the press, cut, hack, and carve them to the powers and capacities of your actors, and the capability of your theatres, finish unfinished works, hastily and crudely vamp up ideas not yet worked out by their original projector, but which have doubtless cost him many thoughtful days and sleepless nights; by a comparison of incidents and dialogue, down to the very last word he may have written a fortnight before, do your utmost to anticipate his plot – all this without his permission, and against his will; and then, to crown the whole proceeding, publish in some mean pamphlet, an unmeaning farrago of garbled extracts from his work, to which your name as author, with the honourable distinction annexed, of having perpetrated a hundred other outrages of the same description. Now, show me the distinction between such pilfering as this, and picking a man's pocket in the street: unless, indeed, it be, that the legislature has a regard for pocket-handkerchiefs, and leaves men's brains, except when they are knocked out by violence, to take care of themselves.'
'Men must live, sir,' said the literary gentleman, shrugging his shoulders.
'That would be an equally fair plea in both cases,' replied Nicholas; 'but if you put it upon that ground, I have nothing more to say, than, that if I were a writer of books, and you a thirsty dramatist, I would rather pay your tavern score for six months, large as it might be, than have a niche in the Temple of Fame with you for the humblest corner of my pedestal, through six hundred generations.'
The conversation threatened to take a somewhat angry tone when it had arrived thus far, but Mrs Crummles opportunely interposed to prevent its leading to any violent outbreak, by making some inquiries of the literary gentleman relative to the plots of the six new pieces which he had written by contract to introduce the African Knife-swallower in his various unrivalled performances. This speedily engaged him in an animated conversation with that lady, in the interest of which, all recollection of his recent discussion with Nicholas very quickly evaporated.
The board being now clear of the more substantial articles of food, and punch, wine, and spirits being placed upon it and handed about, the guests, who had been previously conversing in little groups of three or four, gradually fell off into a dead silence, while the majority of those present glanced from time to time at Mr Snittle Timberry, and the bolder spirits did not even hesitate to strike the table with their knuckles, and plainly intimate their expectations, by uttering such encouragements as 'Now, Tim,' 'Wake up, Mr Chairman,' 'All charged, sir, and waiting for a toast,' and so forth.
To these remonstrances Mr Timberry deigned no other rejoinder than striking his chest and gasping for breath, and giving many other indications of being still the victim of indisposition – for a man must not make himself too cheap either on the stage or off – while Mr Crummles, who knew full well that he would be the subject of the forthcoming toast, sat gracefully in his chair with his arm thrown carelessly over the back, and now and then lifted his glass to his mouth and drank a little punch, with the same air with which he was accustomed to take long draughts of nothing, out of the pasteboard goblets in banquet scenes.
At length Mr Snittle Timberry rose in the most approved attitude, with one hand in the breast of his waistcoat and the other on the nearest snuff-box, and having been received with great enthusiasm, proposed, with abundance of quotations, his friend Mr Vincent Crummles: ending a pretty long speech by extending his right hand on one side and his left on the other, and severally calling upon Mr and Mrs Crummles to grasp the same. This done, Mr Vincent Crummles returned thanks, and that done, the African Swallower proposed Mrs Vincent Crummles, in affecting terms. Then were heard loud moans and sobs from Mrs Crummles and the ladies, despite of which that heroic woman insisted upon returning thanks herself, which she did, in a manner and in a speech which has never been surpassed and seldom equalled. It then became the duty of Mr Snittle Timberry to give the young Crummleses, which he did; after which Mr Vincent Crummles, as their father, addressed the company in a supplementary speech, enlarging on their virtues, amiabilities, and excellences, and wishing that they were the sons and daughter of every lady and gentleman present. These solemnities having been succeeded by a decent interval, enlivened by musical and other entertainments, Mr Crummles proposed that ornament of the profession, the African Swallower, his very dear friend, if he would allow him to call him so; which liberty (there being no particular reason why he should not allow it) the African Swallower graciously permitted. The literary gentleman was then about to be drunk, but it being discovered that he had been drunk for some time in another acceptation of the term, and was then asleep on the stairs, the intention was abandoned, and the honour transferred to the ladies. Finally, after a very long sitting, Mr Snittle Timberry vacated the chair, and the company with many adieux and embraces dispersed.
Nicholas waited to the last to give his little presents. When he had said goodbye all round and came to Mr Crummles, he could not but mark the difference between their present separation and their parting at Portsmouth. Not a jot of his theatrical manner remained; he put out his hand with an air which, if he could have summoned it at will, would have made him the best actor of his day in homely parts, and when Nicholas shook it with the warmth he honestly felt, appeared thoroughly melted.
'We were a very happy little company, Johnson,' said poor Crummles. 'You and I never had a word. I shall be very glad tomorrow morning to think that I saw you again, but now I almost wish you hadn't come.'
Nicholas was about to return a cheerful reply, when he was greatly disconcerted by the sudden apparition of Mrs Grudden, who it seemed had declined to attend the supper in order that she might rise earlier in the morning, and who now burst out of an adjoining bedroom, habited in very extraordinary white robes; and throwing her arms about his neck, hugged him with great affection.
'What! Are you going too?' said Nicholas, submitting with as good a grace as if she had been the finest young creature in the world.
'Going?' returned Mrs Grudden. 'Lord ha' mercy, what do you think they'd do without me?'
Nicholas submitted to another hug with even a better grace than before, if that were possible, and waving his hat as cheerfully as he could, took farewell of the Vincent Crummleses.