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Chapter 53

CHAPTER 53

Containing the further Progress of the Plot contrived by Mr Ralph
Nickleby and Mr Arthur Gride


With that settled resolution, and steadiness of purpose to which
extreme circumstances so often give birth, acting upon far less
excitable and more sluggish temperaments than that which was the lot
of Madeline Bray's admirer, Nicholas started, at dawn of day, from
the restless couch which no sleep had visited on the previous night,
and prepared to make that last appeal, by whose slight and fragile
thread her only remaining hope of escape depended.

Although, to restless and ardent minds, morning may be the fitting
season for exertion and activity, it is not always at that time that
hope is strongest or the spirit most sanguine and buoyant. In
trying and doubtful positions, youth, custom, a steady contemplation
of the difficulties which surround us, and a familiarity with them,
imperceptibly diminish our apprehensions and beget comparative
indifference, if not a vague and reckless confidence in some relief,
the means or nature of which we care not to foresee. But when we
come, fresh, upon such things in the morning, with that dark and
silent gap between us and yesterday; with every link in the brittle
chain of hope, to rivet afresh; our hot enthusiasm subdued, and cool
calm reason substituted in its stead; doubt and misgiving revive.
As the traveller sees farthest by day, and becomes aware of rugged
mountains and trackless plains which the friendly darkness had
shrouded from his sight and mind together, so, the wayfarer in the
toilsome path of human life sees, with each returning sun, some new
obstacle to surmount, some new height to be attained. Distances
stretch out before him which, last night, were scarcely taken into
account, and the light which gilds all nature with its cheerful
beams, seems but to shine upon the weary obstacles that yet lie
strewn between him and the grave.

So thought Nicholas, when, with the impatience natural to a
situation like his, he softly left the house, and, feeling as though
to remain in bed were to lose most precious time, and to be up and
stirring were in some way to promote the end he had in view,
wandered into London; perfectly well knowing that for hours to come
he could not obtain speech with Madeline, and could do nothing but
wish the intervening time away.

And, even now, as he paced the streets, and listlessly looked round
on the gradually increasing bustle and preparation for the day,
everything appeared to yield him some new occasion for despondency.
Last night, the sacrifice of a young, affectionate, and beautiful
creature, to such a wretch, and in such a cause, had seemed a thing
too monstrous to succeed; and the warmer he grew, the more confident
he felt that some interposition must save her from his clutches.
But now, when he thought how regularly things went on, from day to
day, in the same unvarying round; how youth and beauty died, and
ugly griping age lived tottering on; how crafty avarice grew rich,
and manly honest hearts were poor and sad; how few they were who
tenanted the stately houses, and how many of those who lay in
noisome pens, or rose each day and laid them down each night, and
lived and died, father and son, mother and child, race upon race,
and generation upon generation, without a home to shelter them or
the energies of one single man directed to their aid; how, in
seeking, not a luxurious and splendid life, but the bare means of a
most wretched and inadequate subsistence, there were women and
children in that one town, divided into classes, numbered and
estimated as regularly as the noble families and folks of great
degree, and reared from infancy to drive most criminal and dreadful
trades; how ignorance was punished and never taught; how jail-doors
gaped, and gallows loomed, for thousands urged towards them by
circumstances darkly curtaining their very cradles' heads, and but
for which they might have earned their honest bread and lived in
peace; how many died in soul, and had no chance of life; how many
who could scarcely go astray, be they vicious as they would, turned
haughtily from the crushed and stricken wretch who could scarce do
otherwise, and who would have been a greater wonder had he or she
done well, than even they had they done ill; how much injustice,
misery, and wrong, there was, and yet how the world rolled on, from
year to year, alike careless and indifferent, and no man seeking to
remedy or redress it; when he thought of all this, and selected from
the mass the one slight case on which his thoughts were bent, he
felt, indeed, that there was little ground for hope, and little
reason why it should not form an atom in the huge aggregate of
distress and sorrow, and add one small and unimportant unit to swell
the great amount.

But youth is not prone to contemplate the darkest side of a picture
it can shift at will. By dint of reflecting on what he had to do,
and reviving the train of thought which night had interrupted,
Nicholas gradually summoned up his utmost energy, and when the
morning was sufficiently advanced for his purpose, had no thought
but that of using it to the best advantage. A hasty breakfast
taken, and such affairs of business as required prompt attention
disposed of, he directed his steps to the residence of Madeline
Bray: whither he lost no time in arriving.

It had occurred to him that, very possibly, the young lady might be
denied, although to him she never had been; and he was still
pondering upon the surest method of obtaining access to her in that
case, when, coming to the door of the house, he found it had been
left ajar--probably by the last person who had gone out. The
occasion was not one upon which to observe the nicest ceremony;
therefore, availing himself of this advantage, Nicholas walked
gently upstairs and knocked at the door of the room into which he
had been accustomed to be shown. Receiving permission to enter,
from some person on the other side, he opened the door and walked
in.

Bray and his daughter were sitting there alone. It was nearly three
weeks since he had seen her last, but there was a change in the
lovely girl before him which told Nicholas, in startling terms, how
much mental suffering had been compressed into that short time.
There are no words which can express, nothing with which can be
compared, the perfect pallor, the clear transparent whiteness, of
the beautiful face which turned towards him when he entered. Her
hair was a rich deep brown, but shading that face, and straying upon
a neck that rivalled it in whiteness, it seemed by the strong
contrast raven black. Something of wildness and restlessness there
was in the dark eye, but there was the same patient look, the same
expression of gentle mournfulness which he well remembered, and no
trace of a single tear. Most beautiful--more beautiful, perhaps,
than ever--there was something in her face which quite unmanned him,
and appeared far more touching than the wildest agony of grief. It
was not merely calm and composed, but fixed and rigid, as though the
violent effort which had summoned that composure beneath her
father's eye, while it mastered all other thoughts, had prevented
even the momentary expression they had communicated to the features
from subsiding, and had fastened it there, as an evidence of its
triumph.

The father sat opposite to her; not looking directly in her face,
but glancing at her, as he talked with a gay air which ill disguised
the anxiety of his thoughts. The drawing materials were not on
their accustomed table, nor were any of the other tokens of her
usual occupations to be seen. The little vases which Nicholas had
always seen filled with fresh flowers were empty, or supplied only
with a few withered stalks and leaves. The bird was silent. The
cloth that covered his cage at night was not removed. His mistress
had forgotten him.

There are times when, the mind being painfully alive to receive
impressions, a great deal may be noted at a glance. This was one,
for Nicholas had but glanced round him when he was recognised by Mr
Bray, who said impatiently:

'Now, sir, what do you want? Name your errand here, quickly, if you
please, for my daughter and I are busily engaged with other and more
important matters than those you come about. Come, sir, address
yourself to your business at once.'

Nicholas could very well discern that the irritability and
impatience of this speech were assumed, and that Bray, in his heart,
was rejoiced at any interruption which promised to engage the
attention of his daughter. He bent his eyes involuntarily upon the
father as he spoke, and marked his uneasiness; for he coloured and
turned his head away.

The device, however, so far as it was a device for causing Madeline
to interfere, was successful. She rose, and advancing towards
Nicholas paused half-way, and stretched out her hand as expecting a
letter.

'Madeline,' said her father impatiently, 'my love, what are you
doing?'

'Miss Bray expects an inclosure perhaps,' said Nicholas, speaking
very distinctly, and with an emphasis she could scarcely
misunderstand. 'My employer is absent from England, or I should
have brought a letter with me. I hope she will give me time--a
little time. I ask a very little time.'

'If that is all you come about, sir,' said Mr Bray, 'you may make
yourself easy on that head. Madeline, my dear, I didn't know this
person was in your debt?'

'A--a trifle, I believe,' returned Madeline, faintly.

'I suppose you think now,' said Bray, wheeling his chair round and
confronting Nicholas, 'that, but for such pitiful sums as you bring
here, because my daughter has chosen to employ her time as she has,
we should starve?'

'I have not thought about it,' returned Nicholas.

'You have not thought about it!' sneered the invalid. 'You know you
HAVE thought about it, and have thought that, and think so every
time you come here. Do you suppose, young man, that I don't know
what little purse-proud tradesmen are, when, through some fortunate
circumstances, they get the upper hand for a brief day--or think
they get the upper hand--of a gentleman?'

'My business,' said Nicholas respectfully, 'is with a lady.'

'With a gentleman's daughter, sir,' returned the sick man, 'and the
pettifogging spirit is the same. But perhaps you bring ORDERS, eh?
Have you any fresh ORDERS for my daughter, sir?'

Nicholas understood the tone of triumph in which this interrogatory
was put; but remembering the necessity of supporting his assumed
character, produced a scrap of paper purporting to contain a list of
some subjects for drawings which his employer desired to have
executed; and with which he had prepared himself in case of any such
contingency.

'Oh!' said Mr Bray. 'These are the orders, are they?'

'Since you insist upon the term, sir, yes,' replied Nicholas.

'Then you may tell your master,' said Bray, tossing the paper back
again, with an exulting smile, 'that my daughter, Miss Madeline
Bray, condescends to employ herself no longer in such labours as
these; that she is not at his beck and call, as he supposes her to
be; that we don't live upon his money, as he flatters himself we do;
that he may give whatever he owes us, to the first beggar that
passes his shop, or add it to his own profits next time he
calculates them; and that he may go to the devil for me. That's my
acknowledgment of his orders, sir!'

'And this is the independence of a man who sells his daughter as he
has sold that weeping girl!' thought Nicholas.

The father was too much absorbed with his own exultation to mark the
look of scorn which, for an instant, Nicholas could not have
suppressed had he been upon the rack. 'There,' he continued, after
a short silence, 'you have your message and can retire--unless you
have any further--ha!--any further orders.'

'I have none,' said Nicholas; 'nor, in the consideration of the
station you once held, have I used that or any other word which,
however harmless in itself, could be supposed to imply authority on
my part or dependence on yours. I have no orders, but I have fears
--fears that I will express, chafe as you may--fears that you may be
consigning that young lady to something worse than supporting you by
the labour of her hands, had she worked herself dead. These are my
fears, and these fears I found upon your own demeanour. Your
conscience will tell you, sir, whether I construe it well or not.'

'For Heaven's sake!' cried Madeline, interposing in alarm between
them. 'Remember, sir, he is ill.'

'Ill!' cried the invalid, gasping and catching for breath. 'Ill!
Ill! I am bearded and bullied by a shop-boy, and she beseeches him
to pity me and remember I am ill!'

He fell into a paroxysm of his disorder, so violent that for a few
moments Nicholas was alarmed for his life; but finding that he began
to recover, he withdrew, after signifying by a gesture to the young
lady that he had something important to communicate, and would wait
for her outside the room. He could hear that the sick man came
gradually, but slowly, to himself, and that without any reference to
what had just occurred, as though he had no distinct recollection of
it as yet, he requested to be left alone.

'Oh!' thought Nicholas, 'that this slender chance might not be lost,
and that I might prevail, if it were but for one week's time and
reconsideration!'

'You are charged with some commission to me, sir,' said Madeline,
presenting herself in great agitation. 'Do not press it now, I beg
and pray you. The day after tomorrow; come here then.'

'It will be too late--too late for what I have to say,' rejoined
Nicholas, 'and you will not be here. Oh, madam, if you have but one
thought of him who sent me here, but one last lingering care for
your own peace of mind and heart, I do for God's sake urge you to
give me a hearing.'

She attempted to pass him, but Nicholas gently detained her.

'A hearing,' said Nicholas. 'I ask you but to hear me: not me
alone, but him for whom I speak, who is far away and does not know
your danger. In the name of Heaven hear me!'

The poor attendant, with her eyes swollen and red with weeping,
stood by; and to her Nicholas appealed in such passionate terms that
she opened a side-door, and, supporting her mistress into an
adjoining room, beckoned Nicholas to follow them.

'Leave me, sir, pray,' said the young lady.

'I cannot, will not leave you thus,' returned Nicholas. 'I have a
duty to discharge; and, either here, or in the room from which we
have just now come, at whatever risk or hazard to Mr Bray, I must
beseech you to contemplate again the fearful course to which you
have been impelled.'

'What course is this you speak of, and impelled by whom, sir?'
demanded the young lady, with an effort to speak proudly.

'I speak of this marriage,' returned Nicholas, 'of this marriage,
fixed for tomorrow, by one who never faltered in a bad purpose, or
lent his aid to any good design; of this marriage, the history of
which is known to me, better, far better, than it is to you. I know
what web is wound about you. I know what men they are from whom
these schemes have come. You are betrayed and sold for money; for
gold, whose every coin is rusted with tears, if not red with the
blood of ruined men, who have fallen desperately by their own mad
hands.'

'You say you have a duty to discharge,' said Madeline, 'and so have
I. And with the help of Heaven I will perform it.'

'Say rather with the help of devils,' replied Nicholas, 'with the
help of men, one of them your destined husband, who are--'

'I must not hear this,' cried the young lady, striving to repress a
shudder, occasioned, as it seemed, even by this slight allusion to
Arthur Gride. 'This evil, if evil it be, has been of my own
seeking. I am impelled to this course by no one, but follow it of
my own free will. You see I am not constrained or forced. Report
this,' said Madeline, 'to my dear friend and benefactor, and, taking
with you my prayers and thanks for him and for yourself, leave me
for ever!'

'Not until I have besought you, with all the earnestness and fervour
by which I am animated,' cried Nicholas, 'to postpone this marriage
for one short week. Not until I have besought you to think more
deeply than you can have done, influenced as you are, upon the step
you are about to take. Although you cannot be fully conscious of
the villainy of this man to whom you are about to give your hand,
some of his deeds you know. You have heard him speak, and have
looked upon his face. Reflect, reflect, before it is too late, on
the mockery of plighting to him at the altar, faith in which your
heart can have no share--of uttering solemn words, against which
nature and reason must rebel--of the degradation of yourself in your
own esteem, which must ensue, and must be aggravated every day, as
his detested character opens upon you more and more. Shrink from
the loathsome companionship of this wretch as you would from
corruption and disease. Suffer toil and labour if you will, but
shun him, shun him, and be happy. For, believe me, I speak the
truth; the most abject poverty, the most wretched condition of
human life, with a pure and upright mind, would be happiness to that
which you must undergo as the wife of such a man as this!'

Long before Nicholas ceased to speak, the young lady buried her face
in her hands, and gave her tears free way. In a voice at first
inarticulate with emotion, but gradually recovering strength as she
proceeded, she answered him:

'I will not disguise from you, sir--though perhaps I ought--that I
have undergone great pain of mind, and have been nearly broken-
hearted since I saw you last. I do NOT love this gentleman. The
difference between our ages, tastes, and habits, forbids it. This
he knows, and knowing, still offers me his hand. By accepting it,
and by that step alone, I can release my father who is dying in this
place; prolong his life, perhaps, for many years; restore him to
comfort--I may almost call it affluence; and relieve a generous man
from the burden of assisting one, by whom, I grieve to say, his
noble heart is little understood. Do not think so poorly of me as
to believe that I feign a love I do not feel. Do not report so ill
of me, for THAT I could not bear. If I cannot, in reason or in
nature, love the man who pays this price for my poor hand, I can
discharge the duties of a wife: I can be all he seeks in me, and
will. He is content to take me as I am. I have passed my word, and
should rejoice, not weep, that it is so. I do. The interest you
take in one so friendless and forlorn as I, the delicacy with which
you have discharged your trust, the faith you have kept with me,
have my warmest thanks: and, while I make this last feeble
acknowledgment, move me to tears, as you see. But I do not repent,
nor am I unhappy. I am happy in the prospect of all I can achieve
so easily. I shall be more so when I look back upon it, and all is
done, I know.'

'Your tears fall faster as you talk of happiness,' said Nicholas,
'and you shun the contemplation of that dark future which must be
laden with so much misery to you. Defer this marriage for a week.
For but one week!'

'He was talking, when you came upon us just now, with such smiles as
I remember to have seen of old, and have not seen for many and many
a day, of the freedom that was to come tomorrow,' said Madeline,
with momentary firmness, 'of the welcome change, the fresh air: all
the new scenes and objects that would bring fresh life to his
exhausted frame. His eye grew bright, and his face lightened at the
thought. I will not defer it for an hour.'

'These are but tricks and wiles to urge you on,' cried Nicholas.

'I'll hear no more,' said Madeline, hurriedly; 'I have heard too
much--more than I should--already. What I have said to you, sir, I
have said as to that dear friend to whom I trust in you honourably
to repeat it. Some time hence, when I am more composed and
reconciled to my new mode of life, if I should live so long, I will
write to him. Meantime, all holy angels shower blessings on his
head, and prosper and preserve him.'

She was hurrying past Nicholas, when he threw himself before her,
and implored her to think, but once again, upon the fate to which
she was precipitately hastening.

'There is no retreat,' said Nicholas, in an agony of supplication;
'no withdrawing! All regret will be unavailing, and deep and bitter
it must be. What can I say, that will induce you to pause at this
last moment? What can I do to save you?'

'Nothing,' she incoherently replied. 'This is the hardest trial I
have had. Have mercy on me, sir, I beseech, and do not pierce my
heart with such appeals as these. I--I hear him calling. I--I--
must not, will not, remain here for another instant.'

'If this were a plot,' said Nicholas, with the same violent rapidity
with which she spoke, 'a plot, not yet laid bare by me, but which,
with time, I might unravel; if you were (not knowing it) entitled to
fortune of your own, which, being recovered, would do all that this
marriage can accomplish, would you not retract?'

'No, no, no! It is impossible; it is a child's tale. Time would
bring his death. He is calling again!'

'It may be the last time we shall ever meet on earth,' said
Nicholas, 'it may be better for me that we should never meet more.'

'For both, for both,' replied Madeline, not heeding what she said.
'The time will come when to recall the memory of this one interview
might drive me mad. Be sure to tell them, that you left me calm and
happy. And God be with you, sir, and my grateful heart and
blessing!'

She was gone. Nicholas, staggering from the house, thought of the
hurried scene which had just closed upon him, as if it were the
phantom of some wild, unquiet dream. The day wore on; at night,
having been enabled in some measure to collect his thoughts, he
issued forth again.

That night, being the last of Arthur Gride's bachelorship, found him
in tiptop spirits and great glee. The bottle-green suit had been
brushed, ready for the morrow. Peg Sliderskew had rendered the
accounts of her past housekeeping; the eighteen-pence had been
rigidly accounted for (she was never trusted with a larger sum at
once, and the accounts were not usually balanced more than twice a
day); every preparation had been made for the coming festival; and
Arthur might have sat down and contemplated his approaching
happiness, but that he preferred sitting down and contemplating the
entries in a dirty old vellum-book with rusty clasps.

'Well-a-day!' he chuckled, as sinking on his knees before a strong
chest screwed down to the floor, he thrust in his arm nearly up to
the shoulder, and slowly drew forth this greasy volume. 'Well-a-day
now, this is all my library, but it's one of the most entertaining
books that were ever written! It's a delightful book, and all true
and real--that's the best of it--true as the Bank of England, and
real as its gold and silver. Written by Arthur Gride. He, he, he!
None of your storybook writers will ever make as good a book as
this, I warrant me. It's composed for private circulation, for my
own particular reading, and nobody else's. He, he, he!'

Muttering this soliloquy, Arthur carried his precious volume to the
table, and, adjusting it upon a dusty desk, put on his spectacles,
and began to pore among the leaves.

'It's a large sum to Mr Nickleby,' he said, in a dolorous voice.
'Debt to be paid in full, nine hundred and seventy-five, four,
three. Additional sum as per bond, five hundred pound. One
thousand, four hundred and seventy-five pounds, four shillings, and
threepence, tomorrow at twelve o'clock. On the other side, though,
there's the PER CONTRA, by means of this pretty chick. But, again,
there's the question whether I mightn't have brought all this about,
myself. "Faint heart never won fair lady." Why was my heart so
faint? Why didn't I boldly open it to Bray myself, and save one
thousand four hundred and seventy-five, four, three?'

These reflections depressed the old usurer so much, as to wring a
feeble groan or two from his breast, and cause him to declare, with
uplifted hands, that he would die in a workhouse. Remembering on
further cogitation, however, that under any circumstances he must
have paid, or handsomely compounded for, Ralph's debt, and being by
no means confident that he would have succeeded had he undertaken
his enterprise alone, he regained his equanimity, and chattered and
mowed over more satisfactory items, until the entrance of Peg
Sliderskew interrupted him.

'Aha, Peg!' said Arthur, 'what is it? What is it now, Peg?'

'It's the fowl,' replied Peg, holding up a plate containing a
little, a very little one. Quite a phenomenon of a fowl. So very
small and skinny.

'A beautiful bird!' said Arthur, after inquiring the price, and
finding it proportionate to the size. 'With a rasher of ham, and an
egg made into sauce, and potatoes, and greens, and an apple pudding,
Peg, and a little bit of cheese, we shall have a dinner for an
emperor. There'll only be she and me--and you, Peg, when we've
done.'

'Don't you complain of the expense afterwards,' said Mrs Sliderskew,
sulkily.

'I am afraid we must live expensively for the first week,' returned
Arthur, with a groan, 'and then we must make up for it. I won't eat
more than I can help, and I know you love your old master too much
to eat more than YOU can help, don't you, Peg?'

'Don't I what?' said Peg.

'Love your old master too much--'

'No, not a bit too much,' said Peg.

'Oh, dear, I wish the devil had this woman!' cried Arthur: 'love him
too much to eat more than you can help at his expense.'

'At his what?' said Peg.

'Oh dear! she can never hear the most important word, and hears all
the others!' whined Gride. 'At his expense--you catamaran!'

The last-mentioned tribute to the charms of Mrs Sliderskew being
uttered in a whisper, that lady assented to the general proposition
by a harsh growl, which was accompanied by a ring at the street-
door.

'There's the bell,' said Arthur.

'Ay, ay; I know that,' rejoined Peg.

'Then why don't you go?' bawled Arthur.

'Go where?' retorted Peg. 'I ain't doing any harm here, am I?'

Arthur Gride in reply repeated the word 'bell' as loud as he could
roar; and, his meaning being rendered further intelligible to Mrs
Sliderskew's dull sense of hearing by pantomime expressive of
ringing at a street-door, Peg hobbled out, after sharply demanding
why he hadn't said there was a ring before, instead of talking about
all manner of things that had nothing to do with it, and keeping her
half-pint of beer waiting on the steps.

'There's a change come over you, Mrs Peg,' said Arthur, following
her out with his eyes. 'What it means I don't quite know; but, if
it lasts, we shan't agree together long I see. You are turning
crazy, I think. If you are, you must take yourself off, Mrs Peg--or
be taken off. All's one to me.' Turning over the leaves of his book
as he muttered this, he soon lighted upon something which attracted
his attention, and forgot Peg Sliderskew and everything else in the
engrossing interest of its pages.

The room had no other light than that which it derived from a dim
and dirt-clogged lamp, whose lazy wick, being still further obscured
by a dark shade, cast its feeble rays over a very little space, and
left all beyond in heavy shadow. This lamp the money-lender had
drawn so close to him, that there was only room between it and
himself for the book over which he bent; and as he sat, with his
elbows on the desk, and his sharp cheek-bones resting on his hands,
it only served to bring out his ugly features in strong relief,
together with the little table at which he sat, and to shroud all
the rest of the chamber in a deep sullen gloom. Raising his eyes,
and looking vacantly into this gloom as he made some mental
calculation, Arthur Gride suddenly met the fixed gaze of a man.

'Thieves! thieves!' shrieked the usurer, starting up and folding his
book to his breast. 'Robbers! Murder!'

'What is the matter?' said the form, advancing.

'Keep off!' cried the trembling wretch. 'Is it a man or a--a--'

'For what do you take me, if not for a man?' was the inquiry.

'Yes, yes,' cried Arthur Gride, shading his eyes with his hand, 'it
is a man, and not a spirit. It is a man. Robbers! robbers!'

'For what are these cries raised? Unless indeed you know me, and
have some purpose in your brain?' said the stranger, coming close up
to him. 'I am no thief.'

'What then, and how come you here?' cried Gride, somewhat reassured,
but still retreating from his visitor: 'what is your name, and what
do you want?'

'My name you need not know,' was the reply. 'I came here, because I
was shown the way by your servant. I have addressed you twice or
thrice, but you were too profoundly engaged with your book to hear
me, and I have been silently waiting until you should be less
abstracted. What I want I will tell you, when you can summon up
courage enough to hear and understand me.'

Arthur Gride, venturing to regard his visitor more attentively, and
perceiving that he was a young man of good mien and bearing,
returned to his seat, and muttering that there were bad characters
about, and that this, with former attempts upon his house, had made
him nervous, requested his visitor to sit down. This, however, he
declined.

'Good God! I don't stand up to have you at an advantage,' said
Nicholas (for Nicholas it was), as he observed a gesture of alarm on
the part of Gride. 'Listen to me. You are to be married tomorrow
morning.'

'N--n--no,' rejoined Gride. 'Who said I was? How do you know
that?'

'No matter how,' replied Nicholas, 'I know it. The young lady who
is to give you her hand hates and despises you. Her blood runs cold
at the mention of your name; the vulture and the lamb, the rat and
the dove, could not be worse matched than you and she. You see I
know her.'

Gride looked at him as if he were petrified with astonishment, but
did not speak; perhaps lacking the power.

'You and another man, Ralph Nickleby by name, have hatched this plot
between you,' pursued Nicholas. 'You pay him for his share in
bringing about this sale of Madeline Bray. You do. A lie is
trembling on your lips, I see.'

He paused; but, Arthur making no reply, resumed again.

'You pay yourself by defrauding her. How or by what means--for I
scorn to sully her cause by falsehood or deceit--I do not know; at
present I do not know, but I am not alone or single-handed in this
business. If the energy of man can compass the discovery of your
fraud and treachery before your death; if wealth, revenge, and just
hatred, can hunt and track you through your windings; you will yet
be called to a dear account for this. We are on the scent already;
judge you, who know what we do not, when we shall have you down!'

He paused again, and still Arthur Gride glared upon him in silence.

'If you were a man to whom I could appeal with any hope of touching
his compassion or humanity,' said Nicholas, 'I would urge upon you
to remember the helplessness, the innocence, the youth, of this
lady; her worth and beauty, her filial excellence, and last, and
more than all, as concerning you more nearly, the appeal she has
made to your mercy and your manly feeling. But, I take the only
ground that can be taken with men like you, and ask what money will
buy you off. Remember the danger to which you are exposed. You see
I know enough to know much more with very little help. Bate some
expected gain for the risk you save, and say what is your price.'

Old Arthur Gride moved his lips, but they only formed an ugly smile
and were motionless again.

'You think,' said Nicholas, 'that the price would not be paid. Miss
Bray has wealthy friends who would coin their very hearts to save
her in such a strait as this. Name your price, defer these nuptials
for but a few days, and see whether those I speak of, shrink from
the payment. Do you hear me?'

When Nicholas began, Arthur Gride's impression was, that Ralph
Nickleby had betrayed him; but, as he proceeded, he felt convinced
that however he had come by the knowledge he possessed, the part he
acted was a genuine one, and that with Ralph he had no concern. All
he seemed to know, for certain, was, that he, Gride, paid Ralph's
debt; but that, to anybody who knew the circumstances of Bray's
detention--even to Bray himself, on Ralph's own statement--must be
perfectly notorious. As to the fraud on Madeline herself, his
visitor knew so little about its nature or extent, that it might be
a lucky guess, or a hap-hazard accusation. Whether or no, he had
clearly no key to the mystery, and could not hurt him who kept it
close within his own breast. The allusion to friends, and the offer
of money, Gride held to be mere empty vapouring, for purposes of
delay. 'And even if money were to be had,' thought Arthur Glide, as
he glanced at Nicholas, and trembled with passion at his boldness
and audacity, 'I'd have that dainty chick for my wife, and cheat YOU
of her, young smooth-face!'

Long habit of weighing and noting well what clients said, and nicely
balancing chances in his mind and calculating odds to their faces,
without the least appearance of being so engaged, had rendered Gride
quick in forming conclusions, and arriving, from puzzling,
intricate, and often contradictory premises, at very cunning
deductions. Hence it was that, as Nicholas went on, he followed him
closely with his own constructions, and, when he ceased to speak,
was as well prepared as if he had deliberated for a fortnight.

'I hear you,' he cried, starting from his seat, casting back the
fastenings of the window-shutters, and throwing up the sash. 'Help
here! Help! Help!'

'What are you doing?' said Nicholas, seizing him by the arm.

'I'll cry robbers, thieves, murder, alarm the neighbourhood,
struggle with you, let loose some blood, and swear you came to rob
me, if you don't quit my house,' replied Gride, drawing in his head
with a frightful grin, 'I will!'

'Wretch!' cried Nicholas.

'YOU'LL bring your threats here, will you?' said Gride, whom
jealousy of Nicholas and a sense of his own triumph had converted
into a perfect fiend. 'You, the disappointed lover? Oh dear! He!
he! he! But you shan't have her, nor she you. She's my wife, my
doting little wife. Do you think she'll miss you? Do you think
she'll weep? I shall like to see her weep, I shan't mind it. She
looks prettier in tears.'

'Villain!' said Nicholas, choking with his rage.

'One minute more,' cried Arthur Gride, 'and I'll rouse the street
with such screams, as, if they were raised by anybody else, should
wake me even in the arms of pretty Madeline.'

'You hound!' said Nicholas. 'If you were but a younger man--'

'Oh yes!' sneered Arthur Gride, 'If I was but a younger man it
wouldn't be so bad; but for me, so old and ugly! To be jilted by
little Madeline for me!'

'Hear me,' said Nicholas, 'and be thankful I have enough command
over myself not to fling you into the street, which no aid could
prevent my doing if I once grappled with you. I have been no lover
of this lady's. No contract or engagement, no word of love, has
ever passed between us. She does not even know my name.'

'I'll ask it for all that. I'll beg it of her with kisses,' said
Arthur Gride. 'Yes, and she'll tell me, and pay them back, and
we'll laugh together, and hug ourselves, and be very merry, when we
think of the poor youth that wanted to have her, but couldn't
because she was bespoke by me!'

This taunt brought such an expression into the face of Nicholas,
that Arthur Gride plainly apprehended it to be the forerunner of his
putting his threat of throwing him into the street in immediate
execution; for he thrust his head out of the window, and holding
tight on with both hands, raised a pretty brisk alarm. Not thinking
it necessary to abide the issue of the noise, Nicholas gave vent to
an indignant defiance, and stalked from the room and from the house.
Arthur Gride watched him across the street, and then, drawing in his
head, fastened the window as before, and sat down to take breath.

'If she ever turns pettish or ill-humoured, I'll taunt her with that
spark,' he said, when he had recovered. 'She'll little think I know
about him; and, if I manage it well, I can break her spirit by this
means and have her under my thumb. I'm glad nobody came. I didn't
call too loud. The audacity to enter my house, and open upon me!
But I shall have a very good triumph tomorrow, and he'll be gnawing
his fingers off: perhaps drown himself or cut his throat! I
shouldn't wonder! That would make it quite complete, that would:
quite.'

When he had become restored to his usual condition by these and
other comments on his approaching triumph, Arthur Gride put away his
book, and, having locked the chest with great caution, descended
into the kitchen to warn Peg Sliderskew to bed, and scold her for
having afforded such ready admission to a stranger.

The unconscious Peg, however, not being able to comprehend the
offence of which she had been guilty, he summoned her to hold the
light, while he made a tour of the fastenings, and secured the
street-door with his own hands.

'Top bolt,' muttered Arthur, fastening as he spoke, 'bottom bolt,
chain, bar, double lock, and key out to put under my pillow! So, if
any more rejected admirers come, they may come through the keyhole.
And now I'll go to sleep till half-past five, when I must get up to
be married, Peg!'

With that, he jocularly tapped Mrs Sliderskew under the chin, and
appeared, for the moment, inclined to celebrate the close of his
bachelor days by imprinting a kiss on her shrivelled lips. Thinking
better of it, however, he gave her chin another tap, in lieu of that
warmer familiarity, and stole away to bed.

Charles Dickens