In which Mr. Ralph Nickleby is relieved, by a very expeditious Process, from all Commerce with his Relations.
Smike and Newman Noggs, who in his impatience had returned home long before the time agreed upon, sat before the fire, listening anxiously to every footstep on the stairs, and the slightest sound that stirred within the house, for the approach of Nicholas. Time had worn on, and it was growing late. He had promised to be back in an hour; and his prolonged absence began to excite considerable alarm in the minds of both, as was abundantly testified by the blank looks they cast upon each other at every new disappointment.
At length a coach was heard to stop, and Newman ran out to light Nicholas up the stairs. Beholding him in the trim described at the conclusion of the last chapter, he stood aghast in wonder and consternation.
‘Don’t be alarmed,’ said Nicholas, hurrying him back into the room. ‘There is no harm done, beyond what a basin of water can repair.’
‘No harm!’ cried Newman, passing his hands hastily over the back and arms of Nicholas, as if to assure himself that he had broken no bones. ‘What have you been doing?’
‘I know all,’ interrupted Nicholas; ‘I have heard a part, and guessed the rest. But before I remove one jot of these stains, I must hear the whole from you. You see I am collected. My resolution is taken. Now, my good friend, speak out; for the time for any palliation or concealment is past, and nothing will avail Ralph Nickleby now.’
‘Your dress is torn in several places; you walk lame, and I am sure you are suffering pain,’ said Newman. ‘Let me see to your hurts first.’
‘I have no hurts to see to, beyond a little soreness and stiffness that will soon pass off,’ said Nicholas, seating himself with some difficulty. ‘But if I had fractured every limb, and still preserved my senses, you should not bandage one till you had told me what I have the right to know. Come,’ said Nicholas, giving his hand to Noggs. ‘You had a sister of your own, you told me once, who died before you fell into misfortune. Now think of her, and tell me, Newman.’
‘Yes, I will, I will,’ said Noggs. ‘I’ll tell you the whole truth.’
Newman did so. Nicholas nodded his head from time to time, as it corroborated the particulars he had already gleaned; but he fixed his eyes upon the fire, and did not look round once.
His recital ended, Newman insisted upon his young friend’s stripping off his coat and allowing whatever injuries he had received to be properly tended. Nicholas, after some opposition, at length consented, and, while some pretty severe bruises on his arms and shoulders were being rubbed with oil and vinegar, and various other efficacious remedies which Newman borrowed from the different lodgers, related in what manner they had been received. The recital made a strong impression on the warm imagination of Newman; for when Nicholas came to the violent part of the quarrel, he rubbed so hard, as to occasion him the most exquisite pain, which he would not have exhibited, however, for the world, it being perfectly clear that, for the moment, Newman was operating on Sir Mulberry Hawk, and had quite lost sight of his real patient.
This martyrdom over, Nicholas arranged with Newman that while he was otherwise occupied next morning, arrangements should be made for his mother’s immediately quitting her present residence, and also for dispatching Miss La Creevy to break the intelligence to her. He then wrapped himself in Smike’s greatcoat, and repaired to the inn where they were to pass the night, and where (after writing a few lines to Ralph, the delivery of which was to be intrusted to Newman next day), he endeavoured to obtain the repose of which he stood so much in need.
Drunken men, they say, may roll down precipices, and be quite unconscious of any serious personal inconvenience when their reason returns. The remark may possibly apply to injuries received in other kinds of violent excitement: certain it is, that although Nicholas experienced some pain on first awakening next morning, he sprung out of bed as the clock struck seven, with very little difficulty, and was soon as much on the alert as if nothing had occurred.
Merely looking into Smike’s room, and telling him that Newman Noggs would call for him very shortly, Nicholas descended into the street, and calling a hackney coach, bade the man drive to Mrs. Wititterly’s, according to the direction which Newman had given him on the previous night.
It wanted a quarter to eight when they reached Cadogan Place. Nicholas began to fear that no one might be stirring at that early hour, when he was relieved by the sight of a female servant, employed in cleaning the door-steps. By this functionary he was referred to the doubtful page, who appeared with dishevelled hair and a very warm and glossy face, as of a page who had just got out of bed.
By this young gentleman he was informed that Miss Nickleby was then taking her morning’s walk in the gardens before the house. On the question being propounded whether he could go and find her, the page desponded and thought not; but being stimulated with a shilling, the page grew sanguine and thought he could.
‘Say to Miss Nickleby that her brother is here, and in great haste to see her,’ said Nicholas.
The plated buttons disappeared with an alacrity most unusual to them, and Nicholas paced the room in a state of feverish agitation which made the delay even of a minute insupportable. He soon heard a light footstep which he well knew, and before he could advance to meet her, Kate had fallen on his neck and burst into tears.
‘My darling girl,’ said Nicholas as he embraced her. ‘How pale you are!’
‘I have been so unhappy here, dear brother,’ sobbed poor Kate; ‘so very, very miserable. Do not leave me here, dear Nicholas, or I shall die of a broken heart.’
‘I will leave you nowhere,’ answered Nicholas—’never again, Kate,’ he cried, moved in spite of himself as he folded her to his heart. ‘Tell me that I acted for the best. Tell me that we parted because I feared to bring misfortune on your head; that it was a trial to me no less than to yourself, and that if I did wrong it was in ignorance of the world and unknowingly.’
‘Why should I tell you what we know so well?’ returned Kate soothingly. ‘Nicholas—dear Nicholas—how can you give way thus?’
‘It is such bitter reproach to me to know what you have undergone,’ returned her brother; ‘to see you so much altered, and yet so kind and patient—God!’ cried Nicholas, clenching his fist and suddenly changing his tone and manner, ‘it sets my whole blood on fire again. You must leave here with me directly; you should not have slept here last night, but that I knew all this too late. To whom can I speak, before we drive away?’
This question was most opportunely put, for at that instant Mr. Wititterly walked in, and to him Kate introduced her brother, who at once announced his purpose, and the impossibility of deferring it.
‘The quarter’s notice,’ said Mr. Wititterly, with the gravity of a man on the right side, ‘is not yet half expired. Therefore—’
‘Therefore,’ interposed Nicholas, ‘the quarter’s salary must be lost, sir. You will excuse this extreme haste, but circumstances require that I should immediately remove my sister, and I have not a moment’s time to lose. Whatever she brought here I will send for, if you will allow me, in the course of the day.’
Mr. Wititterly bowed, but offered no opposition to Kate’s immediate departure; with which, indeed, he was rather gratified than otherwise, Sir Tumley Snuffim having given it as his opinion, that she rather disagreed with Mrs. Wititterly’s constitution.
‘With regard to the trifle of salary that is due,’ said Mr. Wititterly, ‘I will’—here he was interrupted by a violent fit of coughing—’I will—owe it to Miss Nickleby.’
Mr. Wititterly, it should be observed, was accustomed to owe small accounts, and to leave them owing. All men have some little pleasant way of their own; and this was Mr. Wititterly’s.
‘If you please,’ said Nicholas. And once more offering a hurried apology for so sudden a departure, he hurried Kate into the vehicle, and bade the man drive with all speed into the city.
To the city they went accordingly, with all the speed the hackney coach could make; and as the horses happened to live at Whitechapel and to be in the habit of taking their breakfast there, when they breakfasted at all, they performed the journey with greater expedition than could reasonably have been expected.
Nicholas sent Kate upstairs a few minutes before him, that his unlooked-for appearance might not alarm his mother, and when the way had been paved, presented himself with much duty and affection. Newman had not been idle, for there was a little cart at the door, and the effects were hurrying out already.
Now, Mrs. Nickleby was not the sort of person to be told anything in a hurry, or rather to comprehend anything of peculiar delicacy or importance on a short notice. Wherefore, although the good lady had been subjected to a full hour’s preparation by little Miss La Creevy, and was now addressed in most lucid terms both by Nicholas and his sister, she was in a state of singular bewilderment and confusion, and could by no means be made to comprehend the necessity of such hurried proceedings.
‘Why don’t you ask your uncle, my dear Nicholas, what he can possibly mean by it?’ said Mrs. Nickleby.
‘My dear mother,’ returned Nicholas, ‘the time for talking has gone by. There is but one step to take, and that is to cast him off with the scorn and indignation he deserves. Your own honour and good name demand that, after the discovery of his vile proceedings, you should not be beholden to him one hour, even for the shelter of these bare walls.’
‘To be sure,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, crying bitterly, ‘he is a brute, a monster; and the walls are very bare, and want painting too, and I have had this ceiling whitewashed at the expense of eighteen-pence, which is a very distressing thing, considering that it is so much gone into your uncle’s pocket. I never could have believed it—never.’
‘Nor I, nor anybody else,’ said Nicholas.
‘Lord bless my life!’ exclaimed Mrs. Nickleby. ‘To think that that Sir Mulberry Hawk should be such an abandoned wretch as Miss La Creevy says he is, Nicholas, my dear; when I was congratulating myself every day on his being an admirer of our dear Kate’s, and thinking what a thing it would be for the family if he was to become connected with us, and use his interest to get you some profitable government place. There are very good places to be got about the court, I know; for a friend of ours (Miss Cropley, at Exeter, my dear Kate, you recollect), he had one, and I know that it was the chief part of his duty to wear silk stockings, and a bag wig like a black watch-pocket; and to think that it should come to this after all—oh, dear, dear, it’s enough to kill one, that it is!’ With which expressions of sorrow, Mrs. Nickleby gave fresh vent to her grief, and wept piteously.
As Nicholas and his sister were by this time compelled to superintend the removal of the few articles of furniture, Miss La Creevy devoted herself to the consolation of the matron, and observed with great kindness of manner that she must really make an effort, and cheer up.
‘Oh I dare say, Miss La Creevy,’ returned Mrs. Nickleby, with a petulance not unnatural in her unhappy circumstances, ‘it’s very easy to say cheer up, but if you had as many occasions to cheer up as I have had—and there,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, stopping short. ‘Think of Mr. Pyke and Mr. Pluck, two of the most perfect gentlemen that ever lived, what am I too say to them—what can I say to them? Why, if I was to say to them, “I’m told your friend Sir Mulberry is a base wretch,” they’d laugh at me.’
‘They will laugh no more at us, I take it,’ said Nicholas, advancing. ‘Come, mother, there is a coach at the door, and until Monday, at all events, we will return to our old quarters.’
‘—Where everything is ready, and a hearty welcome into the bargain,’ added Miss La Creevy. ‘Now, let me go with you downstairs.’
But Mrs. Nickleby was not to be so easily moved, for first she insisted on going upstairs to see that nothing had been left, and then on going downstairs to see that everything had been taken away; and when she was getting into the coach she had a vision of a forgotten coffee-pot on the back-kitchen hob, and after she was shut in, a dismal recollection of a green umbrella behind some unknown door. At last Nicholas, in a condition of absolute despair, ordered the coachman to drive away, and in the unexpected jerk of a sudden starting, Mrs. Nickleby lost a shilling among the straw, which fortunately confined her attention to the coach until it was too late to remember anything else.
Having seen everything safely out, discharged the servant, and locked the door, Nicholas jumped into a cabriolet and drove to a bye place near Golden Square where he had appointed to meet Noggs; and so quickly had everything been done, that it was barely half-past nine when he reached the place of meeting.
‘Here is the letter for Ralph,’ said Nicholas, ‘and here the key. When you come to me this evening, not a word of last night. Ill news travels fast, and they will know it soon enough. Have you heard if he was much hurt?’
Newman shook his head.
‘I will ascertain that myself without loss of time,’ said Nicholas.
‘You had better take some rest,’ returned Newman. ‘You are fevered and ill.’
Nicholas waved his hand carelessly, and concealing the indisposition he really felt, now that the excitement which had sustained him was over, took a hurried farewell of Newman Noggs, and left him.
Newman was not three minutes’ walk from Golden Square, but in the course of that three minutes he took the letter out of his hat and put it in again twenty times at least. First the front, then the back, then the sides, then the superscription, then the seal, were objects of Newman’s admiration. Then he held it at arm’s length as if to take in the whole at one delicious survey, and then he rubbed his hands in a perfect ecstasy with his commission.
He reached the office, hung his hat on its accustomed peg, laid the letter and key upon the desk, and waited impatiently until Ralph Nickleby should appear. After a few minutes, the well-known creaking of his boots was heard on the stairs, and then the bell rung.
‘Has the post come in?’
‘Any other letters?’
‘One.’ Newman eyed him closely, and laid it on the desk.
‘What’s this?’ asked Ralph, taking up the key.
‘Left with the letter;—a boy brought them—quarter of an hour ago, or less.’
Ralph glanced at the direction, opened the letter, and read as follows:—
‘You are known to me now. There are no reproaches I could heap upon your head which would carry with them one thousandth part of the grovelling shame that this assurance will awaken even in your breast.
‘Your brother’s widow and her orphan child spurn the shelter of your roof, and shun you with disgust and loathing. Your kindred renounce you, for they know no shame but the ties of blood which bind them in name with you.
‘You are an old man, and I leave you to the grave. May every recollection of your life cling to your false heart, and cast their darkness on your death-bed.’
Ralph Nickleby read this letter twice, and frowning heavily, fell into a fit of musing; the paper fluttered from his hand and dropped upon the floor, but he clasped his fingers, as if he held it still.
Suddenly, he started from his seat, and thrusting it all crumpled into his pocket, turned furiously to Newman Noggs, as though to ask him why he lingered. But Newman stood unmoved, with his back towards him, following up, with the worn and blackened stump of an old pen, some figures in an Interest-table which was pasted against the wall, and apparently quite abstracted from every other object.