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Chapter 26

CHAPTER 26

Is fraught with some Danger to Miss Nickleby's Peace of Mind


The place was a handsome suite of private apartments in Regent
Street; the time was three o'clock in the afternoon to the dull and
plodding, and the first hour of morning to the gay and spirited; the
persons were Lord Frederick Verisopht, and his friend Sir Mulberry
Hawk.

These distinguished gentlemen were reclining listlessly on a couple
of sofas, with a table between them, on which were scattered in rich
confusion the materials of an untasted breakfast. Newspapers lay
strewn about the room, but these, like the meal, were neglected and
unnoticed; not, however, because any flow of conversation prevented
the attractions of the journals from being called into request, for
not a word was exchanged between the two, nor was any sound uttered,
save when one, in tossing about to find an easier resting-place for
his aching head, uttered an exclamation of impatience, and seemed
for a moment to communicate a new restlessness to his companion.

These appearances would in themselves have furnished a pretty strong
clue to the extent of the debauch of the previous night, even if
there had not been other indications of the amusements in which it
had been passed. A couple of billiard balls, all mud and dirt, two
battered hats, a champagne bottle with a soiled glove twisted round
the neck, to allow of its being grasped more surely in its capacity
of an offensive weapon; a broken cane; a card-case without the top;
an empty purse; a watch-guard snapped asunder; a handful of silver,
mingled with fragments of half-smoked cigars, and their stale and
crumbled ashes;--these, and many other tokens of riot and disorder,
hinted very intelligibly at the nature of last night's gentlemanly
frolics.

Lord Frederick Verisopht was the first to speak. Dropping his
slippered foot on the ground, and, yawning heavily, he struggled
into a sitting posture, and turned his dull languid eyes towards his
friend, to whom he called in a drowsy voice.

'Hallo!' replied Sir Mulberry, turning round.

'Are we going to lie here all da-a-y?' said the lord.

'I don't know that we're fit for anything else,' replied Sir
Mulberry; 'yet awhile, at least. I haven't a grain of life in me
this morning.'

'Life!' cried Lord Verisopht. 'I feel as if there would be nothing
so snug and comfortable as to die at once.'

'Then why don't you die?' said Sir Mulberry.

With which inquiry he turned his face away, and seemed to occupy
himself in an attempt to fall asleep.

His hopeful fiend and pupil drew a chair to the breakfast-table, and
essayed to eat; but, finding that impossible, lounged to the window,
then loitered up and down the room with his hand to his fevered
head, and finally threw himself again on his sofa, and roused his
friend once more.

'What the devil's the matter?' groaned Sir Mulberry, sitting upright
on the couch.

Although Sir Mulberry said this with sufficient ill-humour, he did
not seem to feel himself quite at liberty to remain silent; for,
after stretching himself very often, and declaring with a shiver
that it was 'infernal cold,' he made an experiment at the breakfast-
table, and proving more successful in it than his less-seasoned
friend, remained there.

'Suppose,' said Sir Mulberry, pausing with a morsel on the point of
his fork, 'suppose we go back to the subject of little Nickleby,
eh?'

'Which little Nickleby; the money-lender or the ga-a-l?' asked Lord
Verisopht.

'You take me, I see,' replied Sir Mulberry. 'The girl, of course.'

'You promised me you'd find her out,' said Lord Verisopht.

'So I did,' rejoined his friend; 'but I have thought further of the
matter since then. You distrust me in the business--you shall find
her out yourself.'

'Na-ay,' remonstrated Lord Verisopht.

'But I say yes,' returned his friend. 'You shall find her out
yourself. Don't think that I mean, when you can--I know as well as
you that if I did, you could never get sight of her without me. No.
I say you shall find her out--SHALL--and I'll put you in the way.'

'Now, curse me, if you ain't a real, deyvlish, downright, thorough-
paced friend,' said the young lord, on whom this speech had produced
a most reviving effect.

'I'll tell you how,' said Sir Mulberry. 'She was at that dinner as
a bait for you.'

'No!' cried the young lord. 'What the dey--'

'As a bait for you,' repeated his friend; 'old Nickleby told me so
himself.'

'What a fine old cock it is!' exclaimed Lord Verisopht; 'a noble
rascal!'

'Yes,' said Sir Mulberry, 'he knew she was a smart little creature--'

'Smart!' interposed the young lord. 'Upon my soul, Hawk, she's a
perfect beauty--a--a picture, a statue, a--a--upon my soul she is!'

'Well,' replied Sir Mulberry, shrugging his shoulders and
manifesting an indifference, whether he felt it or not; 'that's a
matter of taste; if mine doesn't agree with yours, so much the
better.'

'Confound it!' reasoned the lord, 'you were thick enough with her
that day, anyhow. I could hardly get in a word.'

'Well enough for once, well enough for once,' replied Sir Mulberry;
'but not worth the trouble of being agreeable to again. If you
seriously want to follow up the niece, tell the uncle that you must
know where she lives and how she lives, and with whom, or you are no
longer a customer of his. He'll tell you fast enough.'

'Why didn't you say this before?' asked Lord Verisopht, 'instead of
letting me go on burning, consuming, dragging out a miserable
existence for an a-age!'

'I didn't know it, in the first place,' answered Sir Mulberry
carelessly; 'and in the second, I didn't believe you were so very
much in earnest.'

Now, the truth was, that in the interval which had elapsed since the
dinner at Ralph Nickleby's, Sir Mulberry Hawk had been furtively
trying by every means in his power to discover whence Kate had so
suddenly appeared, and whither she had disappeared. Unassisted by
Ralph, however, with whom he had held no communication since their
angry parting on that occasion, all his efforts were wholly
unavailing, and he had therefore arrived at the determination of
communicating to the young lord the substance of the admission he
had gleaned from that worthy. To this he was impelled by various
considerations; among which the certainty of knowing whatever the
weak young man knew was decidedly not the least, as the desire of
encountering the usurer's niece again, and using his utmost arts to
reduce her pride, and revenge himself for her contempt, was
uppermost in his thoughts. It was a politic course of proceeding,
and one which could not fail to redound to his advantage in every
point of view, since the very circumstance of his having extorted
from Ralph Nickleby his real design in introducing his niece to such
society, coupled with his extreme disinterestedness in communicating
it so freely to his friend, could not but advance his interests in
that quarter, and greatly facilitate the passage of coin (pretty
frequent and speedy already) from the pockets of Lord Frederick
Verisopht to those of Sir Mulberry Hawk.

Thus reasoned Sir Mulberry, and in pursuance of this reasoning he
and his friend soon afterwards repaired to Ralph Nickleby's, there
to execute a plan of operations concerted by Sir Mulberry himself,
avowedly to promote his friend's object, and really to attain his
own.

They found Ralph at home, and alone. As he led them into the
drawing-room, the recollection of the scene which had taken place
there seemed to occur to him, for he cast a curious look at Sir
Mulberry, who bestowed upon it no other acknowledgment than a
careless smile.

They had a short conference upon some money matters then in
progress, which were scarcely disposed of when the lordly dupe (in
pursuance of his friend's instructions) requested with some
embarrassment to speak to Ralph alone.

'Alone, eh?' cried Sir Mulberry, affecting surprise. 'Oh, very
good. I'll walk into the next room here. Don't keep me long,
that's all.'

So saying, Sir Mulberry took up his hat, and humming a fragment of a
song disappeared through the door of communication between the two
drawing-rooms, and closed it after him.

'Now, my lord,' said Ralph, 'what is it?'

'Nickleby,' said his client, throwing himself along the sofa on
which he had been previously seated, so as to bring his lips nearer
to the old man's ear, 'what a pretty creature your niece is!'

'Is she, my lord?' replied Ralph. 'Maybe--maybe--I don't trouble my
head with such matters.'

'You know she's a deyvlish fine girl,' said the client. 'You must
know that, Nickleby. Come, don't deny that.'

'Yes, I believe she is considered so,' replied Ralph. 'Indeed, I
know she is. If I did not, you are an authority on such points, and
your taste, my lord--on all points, indeed--is undeniable.'

Nobody but the young man to whom these words were addressed could
have been deaf to the sneering tone in which they were spoken, or
blind to the look of contempt by which they were accompanied. But
Lord Frederick Verisopht was both, and took them to be complimentary.

'Well,' he said, 'p'raps you're a little right, and p'raps you're a
little wrong--a little of both, Nickleby. I want to know where this
beauty lives, that I may have another peep at her, Nickleby.'

'Really--' Ralph began in his usual tones.

'Don't talk so loud,' cried the other, achieving the great point of
his lesson to a miracle. 'I don't want Hawk to hear.'

'You know he is your rival, do you?' said Ralph, looking sharply at
him.

'He always is, d-a-amn him,' replied the client; 'and I want to
steal a march upon him. Ha, ha, ha! He'll cut up so rough,
Nickleby, at our talking together without him. Where does she live,
Nickleby, that's all? Only tell me where she lives, Nickleby.'

'He bites,' thought Ralph. 'He bites.'

'Eh, Nickleby, eh?' pursued the client. 'Where does she live?'

'Really, my lord,' said Ralph, rubbing his hands slowly over each
other, 'I must think before I tell you.'

'No, not a bit of it, Nickleby; you mustn't think at all,' replied
Verisopht. 'Where is it?'

'No good can come of your knowing,' replied Ralph. 'She has been
virtuously and well brought up; to be sure she is handsome, poor,
unprotected! Poor girl, poor girl.'

Ralph ran over this brief summary of Kate's condition as if it were
merely passing through his own mind, and he had no intention to
speak aloud; but the shrewd sly look which he directed at his
companion as he delivered it, gave this poor assumption the lie.

'I tell you I only want to see her,' cried his client. 'A ma-an may
look at a pretty woman without harm, mayn't he? Now, where DOES she
live? You know you're making a fortune out of me, Nickleby, and
upon my soul nobody shall ever take me to anybody else, if you only
tell me this.'

'As you promise that, my lord,' said Ralph, with feigned reluctance,
'and as I am most anxious to oblige you, and as there's no harm in
it--no harm--I'll tell you. But you had better keep it to yourself,
my lord; strictly to yourself.' Ralph pointed to the adjoining room
as he spoke, and nodded expressively.

The young lord, feigning to be equally impressed with the necessity
of this precaution, Ralph disclosed the present address and
occupation of his niece, observing that from what he heard of the
family they appeared very ambitious to have distinguished
acquaintances, and that a lord could, doubtless, introduce himself
with great ease, if he felt disposed.

'Your object being only to see her again,' said Ralph, 'you could
effect it at any time you chose by that means.'

Lord Verisopht acknowledged the hint with a great many squeezes of
Ralph's hard, horny hand, and whispering that they would now do well
to close the conversation, called to Sir Mulberry Hawk that he might
come back.

'I thought you had gone to sleep,' said Sir Mulberry, reappearing
with an ill-tempered air.

'Sorry to detain you,' replied the gull; 'but Nickleby has been so
ama-azingly funny that I couldn't tear myself away.'

'No, no,' said Ralph; 'it was all his lordship. You know what a
witty, humorous, elegant, accomplished man Lord Frederick is. Mind
the step, my lord--Sir Mulberry, pray give way.'

With such courtesies as these, and many low bows, and the same cold
sneer upon his face all the while, Ralph busied himself in showing
his visitors downstairs, and otherwise than by the slightest
possible motion about the corners of his mouth, returned no show of
answer to the look of admiration with which Sir Mulberry Hawk seemed
to compliment him on being such an accomplished and most consummate
scoundrel.

There had been a ring at the bell a few minutes before, which was
answered by Newman Noggs just as they reached the hall. In the
ordinary course of business Newman would have either admitted the
new-comer in silence, or have requested him or her to stand aside
while the gentlemen passed out. But he no sooner saw who it was,
than as if for some private reason of his own, he boldly departed
from the established custom of Ralph's mansion in business hours,
and looking towards the respectable trio who were approaching, cried
in a loud and sonorous voice, 'Mrs Nickleby!'

'Mrs Nickleby!' cried Sir Mulberry Hawk, as his friend looked back,
and stared him in the face.

It was, indeed, that well-intentioned lady, who, having received an
offer for the empty house in the city directed to the landlord, had
brought it post-haste to Mr Nickleby without delay.

'Nobody YOU know,' said Ralph. 'Step into the office, my--my--dear.
I'll be with you directly.'

'Nobody I know!' cried Sir Mulberry Hawk, advancing to the
astonished lady. 'Is this Mrs Nickleby--the mother of Miss
Nickleby--the delightful creature that I had the happiness of
meeting in this house the very last time I dined here? But no;'
said Sir Mulberry, stopping short. 'No, it can't be. There is the
same cast of features, the same indescribable air of--But no; no.
This lady is too young for that.'

'I think you can tell the gentleman, brother-in-law, if it concerns
him to know,' said Mrs Nickleby, acknowledging the compliment with a
graceful bend, 'that Kate Nickleby is my daughter.'

'Her daughter, my lord!' cried Sir Mulberry, turning to his friend.
'This lady's daughter, my lord.'

'My lord!' thought Mrs Nickleby. 'Well, I never did--'

'This, then, my lord,' said Sir Mulberry, 'is the lady to whose
obliging marriage we owe so much happiness. This lady is the mother
of sweet Miss Nickleby. Do you observe the extraordinary likeness,
my lord? Nickleby--introduce us.'

Ralph did so, in a kind of desperation.

'Upon my soul, it's a most delightful thing," said Lord Frederick,
pressing forward. 'How de do?'

Mrs Nickleby was too much flurried by these uncommonly kind
salutations, and her regrets at not having on her other bonnet, to
make any immediate reply, so she merely continued to bend and smile,
and betray great agitation.

'A--and how is Miss Nickleby?' said Lord Frederick. 'Well, I hope?'

'She is quite well, I'm obliged to you, my lord,' returned Mrs
Nickleby, recovering. 'Quite well. She wasn't well for some days
after that day she dined here, and I can't help thinking, that she
caught cold in that hackney coach coming home. Hackney coaches, my
lord, are such nasty things, that it's almost better to walk at any
time, for although I believe a hackney coachman can be transported
for life, if he has a broken window, still they are so reckless,
that they nearly all have broken windows. I once had a swelled face
for six weeks, my lord, from riding in a hackney coach--I think it
was a hackney coach,' said Mrs Nickleby reflecting, 'though I'm not
quite certain whether it wasn't a chariot; at all events I know it
was a dark green, with a very long number, beginning with a nought
and ending with a nine--no, beginning with a nine, and ending with a
nought, that was it, and of course the stamp-office people would
know at once whether it was a coach or a chariot if any inquiries
were made there--however that was, there it was with a broken window
and there was I for six weeks with a swelled face--I think that was
the very same hackney coach, that we found out afterwards, had the
top open all the time, and we should never even have known it, if
they hadn't charged us a shilling an hour extra for having it open,
which it seems is the law, or was then, and a most shameful law it
appears to be--I don't understand the subject, but I should say the
Corn Laws could be nothing to THAT act of Parliament.'

Having pretty well run herself out by this time, Mrs Nickleby
stopped as suddenly as she had started off; and repeated that Kate
was quite well. 'Indeed,' said Mrs Nickleby, 'I don't think she
ever was better, since she had the hooping-cough, scarlet-fever, and
measles, all at the same time, and that's the fact.'

'Is that letter for me?' growled Ralph, pointing to the little
packet Mrs Nickleby held in her hand.

'For you, brother-in-law,' replied Mrs Nickleby, 'and I walked all
the way up here on purpose to give it you.'

'All the way up here!' cried Sir Mulberry, seizing upon the chance
of discovering where Mrs Nickleby had come from. 'What a confounded
distance! How far do you call it now?'

'How far do I call it?' said Mrs Nickleby. 'Let me see. It's just
a mile from our door to the Old Bailey.'

'No, no. Not so much as that,' urged Sir Mulberry.

'Oh! It is indeed,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'I appeal to his lordship.'

'I should decidedly say it was a mile,' remarked Lord Frederick,
with a solemn aspect.

'It must be; it can't be a yard less,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'All
down Newgate Street, all down Cheapside, all up Lombard Street, down
Gracechurch Street, and along Thames Street, as far as Spigwiffin's
Wharf. Oh! It's a mile.'

'Yes, on second thoughts I should say it was,' replied Sir Mulberry.
'But you don't surely mean to walk all the way back?'

'Oh, no,' rejoined Mrs Nickleby. 'I shall go back in an omnibus. I
didn't travel about in omnibuses, when my poor dear Nicholas was
alive, brother-in-law. But as it is, you know--'

'Yes, yes,' replied Ralph impatiently, 'and you had better get back
before dark.'

'Thank you, brother-in-law, so I had,' returned Mrs Nickleby. 'I
think I had better say goodbye, at once.'

'Not stop and--rest?' said Ralph, who seldom offered refreshments
unless something was to be got by it.

'Oh dear me no,' returned Mrs Nickleby, glancing at the dial.

'Lord Frederick,' said Sir Mulberry, 'we are going Mrs Nickleby's
way. We'll see her safe to the omnibus?'

'By all means. Ye-es.'

'Oh! I really couldn't think of it!' said Mrs Nickleby.

But Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Verisopht were peremptory in their
politeness, and leaving Ralph, who seemed to think, not unwisely,
that he looked less ridiculous as a mere spectator, than he would
have done if he had taken any part in these proceedings, they
quitted the house with Mrs Nickleby between them; that good lady in
a perfect ecstasy of satisfaction, no less with the attentions shown
her by two titled gentlemen, than with the conviction that Kate
might now pick and choose, at least between two large fortunes, and
most unexceptionable husbands.

As she was carried away for the moment by an irresistible train of
thought, all connected with her daughter's future greatness, Sir
Mulberry Hawk and his friend exchanged glances over the top of the
bonnet which the poor lady so much regretted not having left at
home, and proceeded to dilate with great rapture, but much respect
on the manifold perfections of Miss Nickleby.

'What a delight, what a comfort, what a happiness, this amiable
creature must be to you,' said Sir Mulberry, throwing into his voice
an indication of the warmest feeling.

'She is indeed, sir,' replied Mrs Nickleby; 'she is the sweetest-
tempered, kindest-hearted creature--and so clever!'

'She looks clayver,' said Lord Verisopht, with the air of a judge of
cleverness.

'I assure you she is, my lord,' returned Mrs Nickleby. 'When she
was at school in Devonshire, she was universally allowed to be
beyond all exception the very cleverest girl there, and there were a
great many very clever ones too, and that's the truth--twenty-five
young ladies, fifty guineas a year without the et-ceteras, both the
Miss Dowdles the most accomplished, elegant, fascinating creatures--
Oh dear me!' said Mrs Nickleby, 'I never shall forget what pleasure
she used to give me and her poor dear papa, when she was at that
school, never--such a delightful letter every half-year, telling us
that she was the first pupil in the whole establishment, and had
made more progress than anybody else! I can scarcely bear to think
of it even now. The girls wrote all the letters themselves,' added
Mrs Nickleby, 'and the writing-master touched them up afterwards
with a magnifying glass and a silver pen; at least I think they
wrote them, though Kate was never quite certain about that, because
she didn't know the handwriting of hers again; but anyway, I know it
was a circular which they all copied, and of course it was a very
gratifying thing--very gratifying.'

With similar recollections Mrs Nickleby beguiled the tediousness of
the way, until they reached the omnibus, which the extreme
politeness of her new friends would not allow them to leave until it
actually started, when they took their hats, as Mrs Nickleby
solemnly assured her hearers on many subsequent occasions,
'completely off,' and kissed their straw-coloured kid gloves till
they were no longer visible.

Mrs Nickleby leant back in the furthest corner of the conveyance,
and, closing her eyes, resigned herself to a host of most pleasing
meditations. Kate had never said a word about having met either of
these gentlemen; 'that,' she thought, 'argues that she is strongly
prepossessed in favour of one of them.' Then the question arose,
which one could it be. The lord was the youngest, and his title was
certainly the grandest; still Kate was not the girl to be swayed by
such considerations as these. 'I will never put any constraint upon
her inclinations,' said Mrs Nickleby to herself; 'but upon my word I
think there's no comparison between his lordship and Sir Mulberry--
Sir Mulberry is such an attentive gentlemanly creature, so much
manner, such a fine man, and has so much to say for himself. I hope
it's Sir Mulberry--I think it must be Sir Mulberry!' And then her
thoughts flew back to her old predictions, and the number of times
she had said, that Kate with no fortune would marry better than
other people's daughters with thousands; and, as she pictured with
the brightness of a mother's fancy all the beauty and grace of the
poor girl who had struggled so cheerfully with her new life of
hardship and trial, her heart grew too full, and the tears trickled
down her face.

Meanwhile, Ralph walked to and fro in his little back-office,
troubled in mind by what had just occurred. To say that Ralph loved
or cared for--in the most ordinary acceptation of those terms--any
one of God's creatures, would be the wildest fiction. Still, there
had somehow stolen upon him from time to time a thought of his niece
which was tinged with compassion and pity; breaking through the dull
cloud of dislike or indifference which darkened men and women in his
eyes, there was, in her case, the faintest gleam of light--a most
feeble and sickly ray at the best of times--but there it was, and it
showed the poor girl in a better and purer aspect than any in which
he had looked on human nature yet.

'I wish,' thought Ralph, 'I had never done this. And yet it will
keep this boy to me, while there is money to be made. Selling a
girl--throwing her in the way of temptation, and insult, and coarse
speech. Nearly two thousand pounds profit from him already though.
Pshaw! match-making mothers do the same thing every day.'

He sat down, and told the chances, for and against, on his fingers.

'If I had not put them in the right track today,' thought Ralph,
'this foolish woman would have done so. Well. If her daughter is
as true to herself as she should be from what I have seen, what harm
ensues? A little teasing, a little humbling, a few tears. Yes,'
said Ralph, aloud, as he locked his iron safe. 'She must take her
chance. She must take her chance.'

Charles Dickens