Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 32

Relating chiefly to some remarkable Conversation, and some remarkable Proceedings to which it gives rise

‘London at last!’ cried Nicholas, throwing back his greatcoat and rousing Smike from a long nap. ‘It seemed to me as though we should never reach it.’

‘And yet you came along at a tidy pace too,’ observed the coachman, looking over his shoulder at Nicholas with no very pleasant expression of countenance.

‘Ay, I know that,’ was the reply; ‘but I have been very anxious to be at my journey’s end, and that makes the way seem long.’

‘Well,’ remarked the coachman, ‘if the way seemed long with such cattle as you’ve sat behind, you MUST have been most uncommon anxious;’ and so saying, he let out his whip-lash and touched up a little boy on the calves of his legs by way of emphasis.

They rattled on through the noisy, bustling, crowded street of London, now displaying long double rows of brightly-burning lamps, dotted here and there with the chemists’ glaring lights, and illuminated besides with the brilliant flood that streamed from the windows of the shops, where sparkling jewellery, silks and velvets of the richest colours, the most inviting delicacies, and most sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in rich and glittering profusion. Streams of people apparently without end poured on and on, jostling each other in the crowd and hurrying forward, scarcely seeming to notice the riches that surrounded them on every side; while vehicles of all shapes and makes, mingled up together in one moving mass, like running water, lent their ceaseless roar to swell the noise and tumult.

As they dashed by the quickly-changing and ever-varying objects, it was curious to observe in what a strange procession they passed before the eye. Emporiums of splendid dresses, the materials brought from every quarter of the world; tempting stores of everything to stimulate and pamper the sated appetite and give new relish to the oft-repeated feast; vessels of burnished gold and silver, wrought into every exquisite form of vase, and dish, and goblet; guns, swords, pistols, and patent engines of destruction; screws and irons for the crooked, clothes for the newly-born, drugs for the sick, coffins for the dead, and churchyards for the buried — all these jumbled each with the other and flocking side by side, seemed to flit by in motley dance like the fantastic groups of the old Dutch painter, and with the same stern moral for the unheeding restless crowd.

Nor were there wanting objects in the crowd itself to give new point and purpose to the shifting scene. The rags of the squalid ballad-singer fluttered in the rich light that showed the goldsmith’s treasures, pale and pinched-up faces hovered about the windows where was tempting food, hungry eyes wandered over the profusion guarded by one thin sheet of brittle glass — an iron wall to them; half-naked shivering figures stopped to gaze at Chinese shawls and golden stuffs of India. There was a christening party at the largest coffin-maker’s and a funeral hatchment had stopped some great improvements in the bravest mansion. Life and death went hand in hand; wealth and poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid them down together.

But it was London; and the old country lady inside, who had put her head out of the coach-window a mile or two this side Kingston, and cried out to the driver that she was sure he must have passed it and forgotten to set her down, was satisfied at last.

Nicholas engaged beds for himself and Smike at the inn where the coach stopped, and repaired, without the delay of another moment, to the lodgings of Newman Noggs; for his anxiety and impatience had increased with every succeeding minute, and were almost beyond control.

There was a fire in Newman’s garret; and a candle had been left burning; the floor was cleanly swept, the room was as comfortably arranged as such a room could be, and meat and drink were placed in order upon the table. Everything bespoke the affectionate care and attention of Newman Noggs, but Newman himself was not there.

‘Do you know what time he will be home?’ inquired Nicholas, tapping at the door of Newman’s front neighbour.

‘Ah, Mr Johnson!’ said Crowl, presenting himself. ‘Welcome, sir. How well you’re looking! I never could have believed —’

‘Pardon me,’ interposed Nicholas. ‘My question — I am extremely anxious to know.’

‘Why, he has a troublesome affair of business,’ replied Crowl, ‘and will not be home before twelve o’clock. He was very unwilling to go, I can tell you, but there was no help for it. However, he left word that you were to make yourself comfortable till he came back, and that I was to entertain you, which I shall be very glad to do.’

In proof of his extreme readiness to exert himself for the general entertainment, Mr Crowl drew a chair to the table as he spoke, and helping himself plentifully to the cold meat, invited Nicholas and Smike to follow his example.

Disappointed and uneasy, Nicholas could touch no food, so, after he had seen Smike comfortably established at the table, he walked out (despite a great many dissuasions uttered by Mr Crowl with his mouth full), and left Smike to detain Newman in case he returned first.

As Miss La Creevy had anticipated, Nicholas betook himself straight to her house. Finding her from home, he debated within himself for some time whether he should go to his mother’s residence, and so compromise her with Ralph Nickleby. Fully persuaded, however, that Newman would not have solicited him to return unless there was some strong reason which required his presence at home, he resolved to go there, and hastened eastwards with all speed.

Mrs Nickleby would not be at home, the girl said, until past twelve, or later. She believed Miss Nickleby was well, but she didn’t live at home now, nor did she come home except very seldom. She couldn’t say where she was stopping, but it was not at Madame Mantalini’s. She was sure of that.

With his heart beating violently, and apprehending he knew not what disaster, Nicholas returned to where he had left Smike. Newman had not been home. He wouldn’t be, till twelve o’clock; there was no chance of it. Was there no possibility of sending to fetch him if it were only for an instant, or forwarding to him one line of writing to which he might return a verbal reply? That was quite impracticable. He was not at Golden Square, and probably had been sent to execute some commission at a distance.

Nicholas tried to remain quietly where he was, but he felt so nervous and excited that he could not sit still. He seemed to be losing time unless he was moving. It was an absurd fancy, he knew, but he was wholly unable to resist it. So, he took up his hat and rambled out again.

He strolled westward this time, pacing the long streets with hurried footsteps, and agitated by a thousand misgivings and apprehensions which he could not overcome. He passed into Hyde Park, now silent and deserted, and increased his rate of walking as if in the hope of leaving his thoughts behind. They crowded upon him more thickly, however, now there were no passing objects to attract his attention; and the one idea was always uppermost, that some stroke of ill-fortune must have occurred so calamitous in its nature that all were fearful of disclosing it to him. The old question arose again and again — What could it be? Nicholas walked till he was weary, but was not one bit the wiser; and indeed he came out of the Park at last a great deal more confused and perplexed than when he went in.

He had taken scarcely anything to eat or drink since early in the morning, and felt quite worn out and exhausted. As he returned languidly towards the point from which he had started, along one of the thoroughfares which lie between Park Lane and Bond Street, he passed a handsome hotel, before which he stopped mechanically.

‘An expensive place, I dare say,’ thought Nicholas; ‘but a pint of wine and a biscuit are no great debauch wherever they are had. And yet I don’t know.’

He walked on a few steps, but looking wistfully down the long vista of gas-lamps before him, and thinking how long it would take to reach the end of it and being besides in that kind of mood in which a man is most disposed to yield to his first impulse — and being, besides, strongly attracted to the hotel, in part by curiosity, and in part by some odd mixture of feelings which he would have been troubled to define — Nicholas turned back again, and walked into the coffee-room.

It was very handsomely furnished. The walls were ornamented with the choicest specimens of French paper, enriched with a gilded cornice of elegant design. The floor was covered with a rich carpet; and two superb mirrors, one above the chimneypiece and one at the opposite end of the room reaching from floor to ceiling, multiplied the other beauties and added new ones of their own to enhance the general effect. There was a rather noisy party of four gentlemen in a box by the fire-place, and only two other persons present — both elderly gentlemen, and both alone.

Observing all this in the first comprehensive glance with which a stranger surveys a place that is new to him, Nicholas sat himself down in the box next to the noisy party, with his back towards them, and postponing his order for a pint of claret until such time as the waiter and one of the elderly gentlemen should have settled a disputed question relative to the price of an item in the bill of fare, took up a newspaper and began to read.

He had not read twenty lines, and was in truth himself dozing, when he was startled by the mention of his sister’s name. ‘Little Kate Nickleby’ were the words that caught his ear. He raised his head in amazement, and as he did so, saw by the reflection in the opposite glass, that two of the party behind him had risen and were standing before the fire. ‘It must have come from one of them,’ thought Nicholas. He waited to hear more with a countenance of some indignation, for the tone of speech had been anything but respectful, and the appearance of the individual whom he presumed to have been the speaker was coarse and swaggering.

This person — so Nicholas observed in the same glance at the mirror which had enabled him to see his face — was standing with his back to the fire conversing with a younger man, who stood with his back to the company, wore his hat, and was adjusting his shirt-collar by the aid of the glass. They spoke in whispers, now and then bursting into a loud laugh, but Nicholas could catch no repetition of the words, nor anything sounding at all like the words, which had attracted his attention.

At length the two resumed their seats, and more wine being ordered, the party grew louder in their mirth. Still there was no reference made to anybody with whom he was acquainted, and Nicholas became persuaded that his excited fancy had either imagined the sounds altogether, or converted some other words into the name which had been so much in his thoughts.

‘It is remarkable too,’ thought Nicholas: ‘if it had been “Kate” or “Kate Nickleby,” I should not have been so much surprised: but “little Kate Nickleby!”’

The wine coming at the moment prevented his finishing the sentence. He swallowed a glassful and took up the paper again. At that instant —

‘Little Kate Nickleby!’ cried the voice behind him.

‘I was right,’ muttered Nicholas as the paper fell from his hand. ‘And it was the man I supposed.’

‘As there was a proper objection to drinking her in heel-taps,’ said the voice, ‘we’ll give her the first glass in the new magnum. Little Kate Nickleby!’

‘Little Kate Nickleby,’ cried the other three. And the glasses were set down empty.

Keenly alive to the tone and manner of this slight and careless mention of his sister’s name in a public place, Nicholas fired at once; but he kept himself quiet by a great effort, and did not even turn his head.

‘The jade!’ said the same voice which had spoken before. ‘She’s a true Nickleby — a worthy imitator of her old uncle Ralph — she hangs back to be more sought after — so does he; nothing to be got out of Ralph unless you follow him up, and then the money comes doubly welcome, and the bargain doubly hard, for you’re impatient and he isn’t. Oh! infernal cunning.’

‘Infernal cunning,’ echoed two voices.

Nicholas was in a perfect agony as the two elderly gentlemen opposite, rose one after the other and went away, lest they should be the means of his losing one word of what was said. But the conversation was suspended as they withdrew, and resumed with even greater freedom when they had left the room.

‘I am afraid,’ said the younger gentleman, ‘that the old woman has grown jea-a-lous, and locked her up. Upon my soul it looks like it.’

‘If they quarrel and little Nickleby goes home to her mother, so much the better,’ said the first. ‘I can do anything with the old lady. She’ll believe anything I tell her.’

‘Egad that’s true,’ returned the other voice. ‘Ha, ha, ha! Poor deyvle!’

The laugh was taken up by the two voices which always came in together, and became general at Mrs Nickleby’s expense. Nicholas turned burning hot with rage, but he commanded himself for the moment, and waited to hear more.

What he heard need not be repeated here. Suffice it that as the wine went round he heard enough to acquaint him with the characters and designs of those whose conversation he overhead; to possess him with the full extent of Ralph’s villainy, and the real reason of his own presence being required in London. He heard all this and more. He heard his sister’s sufferings derided, and her virtuous conduct jeered at and brutally misconstrued; he heard her name bandied from mouth to mouth, and herself made the subject of coarse and insolent wagers, free speech, and licentious jesting.

The man who had spoken first, led the conversation, and indeed almost engrossed it, being only stimulated from time to time by some slight observation from one or other of his companions. To him then Nicholas addressed himself when he was sufficiently composed to stand before the party, and force the words from his parched and scorching throat.

‘Let me have a word with you, sir,’ said Nicholas.

‘With me, sir?’ retorted Sir Mulberry Hawk, eyeing him in disdainful surprise.

‘I said with you,’ replied Nicholas, speaking with great difficulty, for his passion choked him.

‘A mysterious stranger, upon my soul!’ exclaimed Sir Mulberry, raising his wine-glass to his lips, and looking round upon his friends.

‘Will you step apart with me for a few minutes, or do you refuse?’ said Nicholas sternly.

Sir Mulberry merely paused in the act of drinking, and bade him either name his business or leave the table.

Nicholas drew a card from his pocket, and threw it before him.

‘There, sir,’ said Nicholas; ‘my business you will guess.’

A momentary expression of astonishment, not unmixed with some confusion, appeared in the face of Sir Mulberry as he read the name; but he subdued it in an instant, and tossing the card to Lord Verisopht, who sat opposite, drew a toothpick from a glass before him, and very leisurely applied it to his mouth.

‘Your name and address?’ said Nicholas, turning paler as his passion kindled.

‘I shall give you neither,’ replied Sir Mulberry.

‘If there is a gentleman in this party,’ said Nicholas, looking round and scarcely able to make his white lips form the words, ‘he will acquaint me with the name and residence of this man.’

There was a dead silence.

‘I am the brother of the young lady who has been the subject of conversation here,’ said Nicholas. ‘I denounce this person as a liar, and impeach him as a coward. If he has a friend here, he will save him the disgrace of the paltry attempt to conceal his name — and utterly useless one — for I will find it out, nor leave him until I have.’

Sir Mulberry looked at him contemptuously, and, addressing his companions, said —

‘Let the fellow talk, I have nothing serious to say to boys of his station; and his pretty sister shall save him a broken head, if he talks till midnight.’

‘You are a base and spiritless scoundrel!’ said Nicholas, ‘and shall be proclaimed so to the world. I WILL know you; I will follow you home if you walk the streets till morning.’

Sir Mulberry’s hand involuntarily closed upon the decanter, and he seemed for an instant about to launch it at the head of his challenger. But he only filled his glass, and laughed in derision.

Nicholas sat himself down, directly opposite to the party, and, summoning the waiter, paid his bill.

‘Do you know that person’s name?’ he inquired of the man in an audible voice; pointing out Sir Mulberry as he put the question.

Sir Mulberry laughed again, and the two voices which had always spoken together, echoed the laugh; but rather feebly.

‘That gentleman, sir?’ replied the waiter, who, no doubt, knew his cue, and answered with just as little respect, and just as much impertinence as he could safely show: ‘no, sir, I do not, sir.’

‘Here, you sir,’ cried Sir Mulberry, as the man was retiring; ‘do you know THAT person’s name?’

‘Name, sir? No, sir.’

‘Then you’ll find it there,’ said Sir Mulberry, throwing Nicholas’s card towards him; ‘and when you have made yourself master of it, put that piece of pasteboard in the fire — do you hear me?’

The man grinned, and, looking doubtfully at Nicholas, compromised the matter by sticking the card in the chimney-glass. Having done this, he retired.

Nicholas folded his arms, and biting his lip, sat perfectly quiet; sufficiently expressing by his manner, however, a firm determination to carry his threat of following Sir Mulberry home, into steady execution.

It was evident from the tone in which the younger member of the party appeared to remonstrate with his friend, that he objected to this course of proceeding, and urged him to comply with the request which Nicholas had made. Sir Mulberry, however, who was not quite sober, and who was in a sullen and dogged state of obstinacy, soon silenced the representations of his weak young friend, and further seemed — as if to save himself from a repetition of them — to insist on being left alone. However this might have been, the young gentleman and the two who had always spoken together, actually rose to go after a short interval, and presently retired, leaving their friend alone with Nicholas.

It will be very readily supposed that to one in the condition of Nicholas, the minutes appeared to move with leaden wings indeed, and that their progress did not seem the more rapid from the monotonous ticking of a French clock, or the shrill sound of its little bell which told the quarters. But there he sat; and in his old seat on the opposite side of the room reclined Sir Mulberry Hawk, with his legs upon the cushion, and his handkerchief thrown negligently over his knees: finishing his magnum of claret with the utmost coolness and indifference.

Thus they remained in perfect silence for upwards of an hour — Nicholas would have thought for three hours at least, but that the little bell had only gone four times. Twice or thrice he looked angrily and impatiently round; but there was Sir Mulberry in the same attitude, putting his glass to his lips from time to time, and looking vacantly at the wall, as if he were wholly ignorant of the presence of any living person.

At length he yawned, stretched himself, and rose; walked coolly to the glass, and having surveyed himself therein, turned round and honoured Nicholas with a long and contemptuous stare. Nicholas stared again with right good-will; Sir Mulberry shrugged his shoulders, smiled slightly, rang the bell, and ordered the waiter to help him on with his greatcoat.

The man did so, and held the door open.

‘Don’t wait,’ said Sir Mulberry; and they were alone again.

Sir Mulberry took several turns up and down the room, whistling carelessly all the time; stopped to finish the last glass of claret which he had poured out a few minutes before, walked again, put on his hat, adjusted it by the glass, drew on his gloves, and, at last, walked slowly out. Nicholas, who had been fuming and chafing until he was nearly wild, darted from his seat, and followed him: so closely, that before the door had swung upon its hinges after Sir Mulberry’s passing out, they stood side by side in the street together.

There was a private cabriolet in waiting; the groom opened the apron, and jumped out to the horse’s head.

‘Will you make yourself known to me?’ asked Nicholas in a suppressed voice.

‘No,’ replied the other fiercely, and confirming the refusal with an oath. ‘No.’

‘If you trust to your horse’s speed, you will find yourself mistaken,’ said Nicholas. ‘I will accompany you. By Heaven I will, if I hang on to the foot-board.’

‘You shall be horsewhipped if you do,’ returned Sir Mulberry.

‘You are a villain,’ said Nicholas.

‘You are an errand-boy for aught I know,’ said Sir Mulberry Hawk.

‘I am the son of a country gentleman,’ returned Nicholas, ‘your equal in birth and education, and your superior I trust in everything besides. I tell you again, Miss Nickleby is my sister. Will you or will you not answer for your unmanly and brutal conduct?’

‘To a proper champion — yes. To you — no,’ returned Sir Mulberry, taking the reins in his hand. ‘Stand out of the way, dog. William, let go her head.’

‘You had better not,’ cried Nicholas, springing on the step as Sir Mulberry jumped in, and catching at the reins. ‘He has no command over the horse, mind. You shall not go — you shall not, I swear — till you have told me who you are.’

The groom hesitated, for the mare, who was a high-spirited animal and thorough-bred, plunged so violently that he could scarcely hold her.

‘Leave go, I tell you!’ thundered his master.

The man obeyed. The animal reared and plunged as though it would dash the carriage into a thousand pieces, but Nicholas, blind to all sense of danger, and conscious of nothing but his fury, still maintained his place and his hold upon the reins.

‘Will you unclasp your hand?’

‘Will you tell me who you are?’

‘No!’

‘No!’

In less time than the quickest tongue could tell it, these words were exchanged, and Sir Mulberry shortening his whip, applied it furiously to the head and shoulders of Nicholas. It was broken in the struggle; Nicholas gained the heavy handle, and with it laid open one side of his antagonist’s face from the eye to the lip. He saw the gash; knew that the mare had darted off at a wild mad gallop; a hundred lights danced in his eyes, and he felt himself flung violently upon the ground.

He was giddy and sick, but staggered to his feet directly, roused by the loud shouts of the men who were tearing up the street, and screaming to those ahead to clear the way. He was conscious of a torrent of people rushing quickly by — looking up, could discern the cabriolet whirled along the foot-pavement with frightful rapidity — then heard a loud cry, the smashing of some heavy body, and the breaking of glass — and then the crowd closed in in the distance, and he could see or hear no more.

The general attention had been entirely directed from himself to the person in the carriage, and he was quite alone. Rightly judging that under such circumstances it would be madness to follow, he turned down a bye-street in search of the nearest coach-stand, finding after a minute or two that he was reeling like a drunken man, and aware for the first time of a stream of blood that was trickling down his face and breast.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30