Chapter 20 Wherein Nicholas at length encounters his Uncle, to whom h_xpresses his Sentiments with much Candour. His Resolution.
Little Miss La Creevy trotted briskly through divers streets at the west en_f the town, early on Monday morning—the day after the dinner—charged with th_mportant commission of acquainting Madame Mantalini that Miss Nickleby wa_oo unwell to attend that day, but hoped to be enabled to resume her duties o_he morrow. And as Miss La Creevy walked along, revolving in her mind variou_enteel forms and elegant turns of expression, with a view to the selection o_he very best in which to couch her communication, she cogitated a good dea_pon the probable causes of her young friend's indisposition.
'I don't know what to make of it,' said Miss La Creevy. 'Her eyes wer_ecidedly red last night. She said she had a headache; headaches don'_ccasion red eyes. She must have been crying.'
Arriving at this conclusion, which, indeed, she had established to her perfec_atisfaction on the previous evening, Miss La Creevy went on to consider—a_he had done nearly all night—what new cause of unhappiness her young frien_ould possibly have had.
'I can't think of anything,' said the little portrait painter. 'Nothing a_ll, unless it was the behaviour of that old bear. Cross to her, I suppose?
Relieved by this expression of opinion, albeit it was vented upon empty air, Miss La Creevy trotted on to Madame Mantalini's; and being informed that th_overning power was not yet out of bed, requested an interview with the secon_n command; whereupon Miss Knag appeared.
'So far as I am concerned,' said Miss Knag, when the message had bee_elivered, with many ornaments of speech; 'I could spare Miss Nickleby fo_vermore.'
'Oh, indeed, ma'am!' rejoined Miss La Creevy, highly offended. 'But, you see, you are not mistress of the business, and therefore it's of no grea_onsequence.'
'Very good, ma'am,' said Miss Knag. 'Have you any further commands for me?'
'No, I have not, ma'am,' rejoined Miss La Creevy.
'Then good-morning, ma'am,' said Miss Knag.
'Good-morning to you, ma'am; and many obligations for your extreme politenes_nd good breeding,' rejoined Miss La Creevy.
Thus terminating the interview, during which both ladies had trembled ver_uch, and been marvellously polite—certain indications that they were withi_n inch of a very desperate quarrel—Miss La Creevy bounced out of the room, and into the street.
'I wonder who that is,' said the queer little soul. 'A nice person to know, _hould think! I wish I had the painting of her: I'D do her justice.' So, feeling quite satisfied that she had said a very cutting thing at Miss Knag'_xpense, Miss La Creevy had a hearty laugh, and went home to breakfast i_reat good humour.
Here was one of the advantages of having lived alone so long! The littl_ustling, active, cheerful creature existed entirely within herself, talked t_erself, made a confidante of herself, was as sarcastic as she could be, o_eople who offended her, by herself; pleased herself, and did no harm. If sh_ndulged in scandal, nobody's reputation suffered; and if she enjoyed a littl_it of revenge, no living soul was one atom the worse. One of the many t_hom, from straitened circumstances, a consequent inability to form th_ssociations they would wish, and a disinclination to mix with the societ_hey could obtain, London is as complete a solitude as the plains of Syria, the humble artist had pursued her lonely, but contented way for many years; and, until the peculiar misfortunes of the Nickleby family attracted he_ttention, had made no friends, though brimful of the friendliest feelings t_ll mankind. There are many warm hearts in the same solitary guise as poo_ittle Miss La Creevy's.
However, that's neither here nor there, just now. She went home to breakfast, and had scarcely caught the full flavour of her first sip of tea, when th_ervant announced a gentleman, whereat Miss La Creevy, at once imagining a ne_itter transfixed by admiration at the street-door case, was in unspeakabl_onsternation at the presence of the tea-things.
'Here, take 'em away; run with 'em into the bedroom; anywhere,' said Miss L_reevy. 'Dear, dear; to think that I should be late on this particula_orning, of all others, after being ready for three weeks by half-past eigh_'clock, and not a soul coming near the place!'
'Don't let me put you out of the way,' said a voice Miss La Creevy knew. '_old the servant not to mention my name, because I wished to surprise you.'
'Mr Nicholas!' cried Miss La Creevy, starting in great astonishment. 'You hav_ot forgotten me, I see,' replied Nicholas, extending his hand.
'Why, I think I should even have known you if I had met you in the street,'
said Miss La Creevy, with a smile. 'Hannah, another cup and saucer. Now, I'l_ell you what, young man; I'll trouble you not to repeat the impertinence yo_ere guilty of, on the morning you went away.'
'You would not be very angry, would you?' asked Nicholas.
'Wouldn't I!' said Miss La Creevy. 'You had better try; that's all!'
Nicholas, with becoming gallantry, immediately took Miss La Creevy at he_ord, who uttered a faint scream and slapped his face; but it was not a ver_ard slap, and that's the truth.
'I never saw such a rude creature!' exclaimed Miss La Creevy.
'You told me to try,' said Nicholas.
'Well; but I was speaking ironically,' rejoined Miss La Creevy.
'Oh! that's another thing,' said Nicholas; 'you should have told me that, too.'
'I dare say you didn't know, indeed!' retorted Miss La Creevy. 'But, now _ook at you again, you seem thinner than when I saw you last, and your face i_aggard and pale. And how come you to have left Yorkshire?'
She stopped here; for there was so much heart in her altered tone and manner, that Nicholas was quite moved.
'I need look somewhat changed,' he said, after a short silence; 'for I hav_ndergone some suffering, both of mind and body, since I left London. I hav_een very poor, too, and have even suffered from want.'
'Good Heaven, Mr Nicholas!' exclaimed Miss La Creevy, 'what are you tellin_e?'
'Nothing which need distress you quite so much,' answered Nicholas, with _ore sprightly air; 'neither did I come here to bewail my lot, but on matte_ore to the purpose. I wish to meet my uncle face to face. I should tell yo_hat first.'
'Then all I have to say about that is,' interposed Miss La Creevy, 'that _on't envy you your taste; and that sitting in the same room with his ver_oots, would put me out of humour for a fortnight.'
'In the main,' said Nicholas, 'there may be no great difference of opinio_etween you and me, so far; but you will understand, that I desire to confron_im, to justify myself, and to cast his duplicity and malice in his throat.'
'That's quite another matter,' rejoined Miss La Creevy. 'Heaven forgive me; but I shouldn't cry my eyes quite out of my head, if they choked him. Well?'
'To this end, I called upon him this morning,' said Nicholas. 'He onl_eturned to town on Saturday, and I knew nothing of his arrival until lat_ast night.'
'And did you see him?' asked Miss La Creevy.
'No,' replied Nicholas. 'He had gone out.'
'Hah!' said Miss La Creevy; 'on some kind, charitable business, I dare say.'
'I have reason to believe,' pursued Nicholas, 'from what has been told me, b_ friend of mine who is acquainted with his movements, that he intends seein_y mother and sister today, and giving them his version of the occurrence_hat have befallen me. I will meet him there.'
'That's right,' said Miss La Creevy, rubbing her hands. 'And yet, I don'_now,' she added, 'there is much to be thought of—others to be considered.'
'I have considered others,' rejoined Nicholas; 'but as honesty and honour ar_oth at issue, nothing shall deter me.'
'You should know best,' said Miss La Creevy.
'In this case I hope so,' answered Nicholas. 'And all I want you to do for me, is, to prepare them for my coming. They think me a long way off, and if I wen_holly unexpected, I should frighten them. If you can spare time to tell the_hat you have seen me, and that I shall be with them in a quarter of an hou_fterwards, you will do me a great service.'
'I wish I could do you, or any of you, a greater,' said Miss La Creevy; 'bu_he power to serve, is as seldom joined with the will, as the will is with th_ower, I think.'
Talking on very fast and very much, Miss La Creevy finished her breakfast wit_reat expedition, put away the tea-caddy and hid the key under the fender, resumed her bonnet, and, taking Nicholas's arm, sallied forth at once to th_ity. Nicholas left her near the door of his mother's house, and promised t_eturn within a quarter of an hour.
It so chanced that Ralph Nickleby, at length seeing fit, for his own purposes, to communicate the atrocities of which Nicholas had been guilty, had (instea_f first proceeding to another quarter of the town on business, as Newma_oggs supposed he would) gone straight to his sister-in-law. Hence, when Mis_a Creevy, admitted by a girl who was cleaning the house, made her way to th_itting-room, she found Mrs Nickleby and Kate in tears, and Ralph jus_oncluding his statement of his nephew's misdemeanours. Kate beckoned her no_o retire, and Miss La Creevy took a seat in silence.
'You are here already, are you, my gentleman?' thought the little woman. 'The_e shall announce himself, and see what effect that has on you.'
'This is pretty,' said Ralph, folding up Miss Squeers's note; 'very pretty. _ecommend him—against all my previous conviction, for I knew he would never d_ny good—to a man with whom, behaving himself properly, he might hav_emained, in comfort, for years. What is the result? Conduct for which h_ight hold up his hand at the Old Bailey.'
'I never will believe it,' said Kate, indignantly; 'never. It is some bas_onspiracy, which carries its own falsehood with it.'
'My dear,' said Ralph, 'you wrong the worthy man. These are not inventions.
The man is assaulted, your brother is not to be found; this boy, of whom the_peak, goes with him—remember, remember.'
'It is impossible,' said Kate. 'Nicholas!—and a thief too! Mama, how can yo_it and hear such statements?'
Poor Mrs Nickleby, who had, at no time, been remarkable for the possession o_ very clear understanding, and who had been reduced by the late changes i_er affairs to a most complicated state of perplexity, made no other reply t_his earnest remonstrance than exclaiming from behind a mass of pocket- handkerchief, that she never could have believed it—thereby most ingeniousl_eaving her hearers to suppose that she did believe it.
'It would be my duty, if he came in my way, to deliver him up to justice,'
said Ralph, 'my bounden duty; I should have no other course, as a man of th_orld and a man of business, to pursue. And yet,' said Ralph, speaking in _ery marked manner, and looking furtively, but fixedly, at Kate, 'and yet _ould not. I would spare the feelings of his—of his sister. And his mother o_ourse,' added Ralph, as though by an afterthought, and with far les_mphasis.
Kate very well understood that this was held out as an additional inducemen_o her to preserve the strictest silence regarding the events of the precedin_ight. She looked involuntarily towards Ralph as he ceased to speak, but h_ad turned his eyes another way, and seemed for the moment quite unconsciou_f her presence.
'Everything,' said Ralph, after a long silence, broken only by Mrs Nickleby'_obs, 'everything combines to prove the truth of this letter, if indeed ther_ere any possibility of disputing it. Do innocent men steal away from th_ight of honest folks, and skulk in hiding-places, like outlaws? Do innocen_en inveigle nameless vagabonds, and prowl with them about the country as idl_obbers do? Assault, riot, theft, what do you call these?'
'A lie!' cried a voice, as the door was dashed open, and Nicholas came int_he room.
In the first moment of surprise, and possibly of alarm, Ralph rose from hi_eat, and fell back a few paces, quite taken off his guard by this unexpecte_pparition. In another moment, he stood, fixed and immovable with folded arms, regarding his nephew with a scowl; while Kate and Miss La Creevy thre_hemselves between the two, to prevent the personal violence which the fierc_xcitement of Nicholas appeared to threaten.
'Dear Nicholas,' cried his sister, clinging to him. 'Be calm, consider—'
'Consider, Kate!' cried Nicholas, clasping her hand so tight in the tumult o_is anger, that she could scarcely bear the pain. 'When I consider all, an_hink of what has passed, I need be made of iron to stand before him.'
'Or bronze,' said Ralph, quietly; 'there is not hardihood enough in flesh an_lood to face it out.'
'Oh dear, dear!' cried Mrs Nickleby, 'that things should have come to such _ass as this!'
'Who speaks in a tone, as if I had done wrong, and brought disgrace on them?'
said Nicholas, looking round.
'Your mother, sir,' replied Ralph, motioning towards her.
'Whose ears have been poisoned by you,' said Nicholas; 'by you—who, unde_retence of deserving the thanks she poured upon you, heaped every insult, wrong, and indignity upon my head. You, who sent me to a den where sordi_ruelty, worthy of yourself, runs wanton, and youthful misery stalk_recocious; where the lightness of childhood shrinks into the heaviness o_ge, and its every promise blights, and withers as it grows. I call Heaven t_itness,' said Nicholas, looking eagerly round, 'that I have seen all this, and that he knows it.'
'Refute these calumnies,' said Kate, 'and be more patient, so that you ma_ive them no advantage. Tell us what you really did, and show that they ar_ntrue.'
'Of what do they—or of what does he—accuse me?' said Nicholas.
'First, of attacking your master, and being within an ace of qualifyin_ourself to be tried for murder,' interposed Ralph. 'I speak plainly, youn_an, bluster as you will.'
'I interfered,' said Nicholas, 'to save a miserable creature from the viles_ruelty. In so doing, I inflicted such punishment upon a wretch as he will no_eadily forget, though far less than he deserved from me. If the same scen_ere renewed before me now, I would take the same part; but I would strik_arder and heavier, and brand him with such marks as he should carry to hi_rave, go to it when he would.'
'You hear?' said Ralph, turning to Mrs Nickleby. 'Penitence, this!'
'Oh dear me!' cried Mrs Nickleby, 'I don't know what to think, I reall_on't.'
'Do not speak just now, mama, I entreat you,' said Kate. 'Dear Nicholas, _nly tell you, that you may know what wickedness can prompt, but they accus_ou of—a ring is missing, and they dare to say that—'
'The woman,' said Nicholas, haughtily, 'the wife of the fellow from whom thes_harges come, dropped—as I suppose—a worthless ring among some clothes o_ine, early in the morning on which I left the house. At least, I know tha_he was in the bedroom where they lay, struggling with an unhappy child, an_hat I found it when I opened my bundle on the road. I returned it, at once, by coach, and they have it now.'
'I knew, I knew,' said Kate, looking towards her uncle. 'About this boy, love, in whose company they say you left?'
'The boy, a silly, helpless creature, from brutality and hard usage, is wit_e now,' rejoined Nicholas.
'You hear?' said Ralph, appealing to the mother again, 'everything proved, even upon his own confession. Do you choose to restore that boy, sir?'
'No, I do not,' replied Nicholas.
'You do not?' sneered Ralph.
'No,' repeated Nicholas, 'not to the man with whom I found him. I would that _new on whom he has the claim of birth: I might wring something from his sens_f shame, if he were dead to every tie of nature.'
'Indeed!' said Ralph. 'Now, sir, will you hear a word or two from me?'
'You can speak when and what you please,' replied Nicholas, embracing hi_ister. 'I take little heed of what you say or threaten.'
'Mighty well, sir,' retorted Ralph; 'but perhaps it may concern others, wh_ay think it worth their while to listen, and consider what I tell them. _ill address your mother, sir, who knows the world.'
'Ah! and I only too dearly wish I didn't,' sobbed Mrs Nickleby.
There really was no necessity for the good lady to be much distressed upo_his particular head; the extent of her worldly knowledge being, to say th_east, very questionable; and so Ralph seemed to think, for he smiled as sh_poke. He then glanced steadily at her and Nicholas by turns, as he delivere_imself in these words:
'Of what I have done, or what I meant to do, for you, ma'am, and my niece, _ay not one syllable. I held out no promise, and leave you to judge fo_ourself. I hold out no threat now, but I say that this boy, headstrong, wilful and disorderly as he is, should not have one penny of my money, or on_rust of my bread, or one grasp of my hand, to save him from the lofties_allows in all Europe. I will not meet him, come where he comes, or hear hi_ame. I will not help him, or those who help him. With a full knowledge o_hat he brought upon you by so doing, he has come back in his selfish sloth, to be an aggravation of your wants, and a burden upon his sister's scant_ages. I regret to leave you, and more to leave her, now, but I will no_ncourage this compound of meanness and cruelty, and, as I will not ask you t_enounce him, I see you no more.'
If Ralph had not known and felt his power in wounding those he hated, hi_lances at Nicholas would have shown it him, in all its force, as he proceede_n the above address. Innocent as the young man was of all wrong, every artfu_nsinuation stung, every well- considered sarcasm cut him to the quick; an_hen Ralph noted his pale face and quivering lip, he hugged himself to mar_ow well he had chosen the taunts best calculated to strike deep into a youn_nd ardent spirit.
'I can't help it,' cried Mrs Nickleby. 'I know you have been very good to us, and meant to do a good deal for my dear daughter. I am quite sure of that; _now you did, and it was very kind of you, having her at your house an_ll—and of course it would have been a great thing for her and for me too. Bu_ can't, you know, brother- in-law, I can't renounce my own son, even if h_as done all you say he has—it's not possible; I couldn't do it; so we must g_o rack and ruin, Kate, my dear. I can bear it, I dare say.' Pouring fort_hese and a perfectly wonderful train of other disjointed expressions o_egret, which no mortal power but Mrs Nickleby's could ever have strun_ogether, that lady wrung her hands, and her tears fell faster.
'Why do you say "IF Nicholas has done what they say he has," mama?' aske_ate, with honest anger. 'You know he has not.'
'I don't know what to think, one way or other, my dear,' said Mrs Nickleby;
'Nicholas is so violent, and your uncle has so much composure, that I can onl_ear what he says, and not what Nicholas does. Never mind, don't let us tal_ny more about it. We can go to the Workhouse, or the Refuge for th_estitute, or the Magdalen Hospital, I dare say; and the sooner we go th_etter.' With this extraordinary jumble of charitable institutions, Mr_ickleby again gave way to her tears.
'Stay,' said Nicholas, as Ralph turned to go. 'You need not leave this place, sir, for it will be relieved of my presence in one minute, and it will b_ong, very long, before I darken these doors again.'
'Nicholas,' cried Kate, throwing herself on her brother's shoulder, 'do no_ay so. My dear brother, you will break my heart. Mama, speak to him. Do no_ind her, Nicholas; she does not mean it, you should know her better. Uncle, somebody, for Heaven's sake speak to him.'
'I never meant, Kate,' said Nicholas, tenderly, 'I never meant to stay amon_ou; think better of me than to suppose it possible. I may turn my back o_his town a few hours sooner than I intended, but what of that? We shall no_orget each other apart, and better days will come when we shall part no more.
Be a woman, Kate,' he whispered, proudly, 'and do not make me one, while H_ooks on.'
'No, no, I will not,' said Kate, eagerly, 'but you will not leave us. Oh!
think of all the happy days we have had together, before these terribl_isfortunes came upon us; of all the comfort and happiness of home, and th_rials we have to bear now; of our having no protector under all the slight_nd wrongs that poverty so much favours, and you cannot leave us to bear the_lone, without one hand to help us.'
'You will be helped when I am away,' replied Nicholas hurriedly. 'I am no hel_o you, no protector; I should bring you nothing but sorrow, and want, an_uffering. My own mother sees it, and her fondness and fears for you, point t_he course that I should take. And so all good angels bless you, Kate, till _an carry you to some home of mine, where we may revive the happiness denie_o us now, and talk of these trials as of things gone by. Do not keep me here, but let me go at once. There. Dear girl—dear girl.'
The grasp which had detained him relaxed, and Kate swooned in his arms.
Nicholas stooped over her for a few seconds, and placing her gently in _hair, confided her to their honest friend.
'I need not entreat your sympathy,' he said, wringing her hand, 'for I kno_our nature. You will never forget them.'
He stepped up to Ralph, who remained in the same attitude which he ha_reserved throughout the interview, and moved not a finger.
'Whatever step you take, sir,' he said, in a voice inaudible beyon_hemselves, 'I shall keep a strict account of. I leave them to you, at you_esire. There will be a day of reckoning sooner or later, and it will be _eavy one for you if they are wronged.'
Ralph did not allow a muscle of his face to indicate that he heard one word o_his parting address. He hardly knew that it was concluded, and Mrs Nickleb_ad scarcely made up her mind to detain her son by force if necessary, whe_icholas was gone.
As he hurried through the streets to his obscure lodging, seeking to kee_ace, as it were, with the rapidity of the thoughts which crowded upon him, many doubts and hesitations arose in his mind, and almost tempted him t_eturn. But what would they gain by this? Supposing he were to put Ralp_ickleby at defiance, and were even fortunate enough to obtain some smal_mployment, his being with them could only render their present conditio_orse, and might greatly impair their future prospects; for his mother ha_poken of some new kindnesses towards Kate which she had not denied. 'No,'
thought Nicholas, 'I have acted for the best.'
But, before he had gone five hundred yards, some other and different feelin_ould come upon him, and then he would lag again, and pulling his hat over hi_yes, give way to the melancholy reflections which pressed thickly upon him.
To have committed no fault, and yet to be so entirely alone in the world; t_e separated from the only persons he loved, and to be proscribed like _riminal, when six months ago he had been surrounded by every comfort, an_ooked up to, as the chief hope of his family—this was hard to bear. He ha_ot deserved it either. Well, there was comfort in that; and poor Nichola_ould brighten up again, to be again depressed, as his quickly shiftin_houghts presented every variety of light and shade before him.
Undergoing these alternations of hope and misgiving, which no one, placed in _ituation of ordinary trial, can fail to have experienced, Nicholas at lengt_eached his poor room, where, no longer borne up by the excitement which ha_itherto sustained him, but depressed by the revulsion of feeling it lef_ehind, he threw himself on the bed, and turning his face to the wall, gav_ree vent to the emotions he had so long stifled.
He had not heard anybody enter, and was unconscious of the presence of Smike, until, happening to raise his head, he saw him, standing at the upper end o_he room, looking wistfully towards him. He withdrew his eyes when he saw tha_e was observed, and affected to be busied with some scanty preparations fo_inner.
'Well, Smike,' said Nicholas, as cheerfully as he could speak, 'let me hea_hat new acquaintances you have made this morning, or what new wonder you hav_ound out, in the compass of this street and the next one.'
'No,' said Smike, shaking his head mournfully; 'I must talk of something els_oday.'
'Of what you like,' replied Nicholas, good-humouredly.
'Of this,' said Smike. 'I know you are unhappy, and have got into grea_rouble by bringing me away. I ought to have known that, and stopped behind—_ould, indeed, if I had thought it then. You— you—are not rich; you have no_nough for yourself, and I should not be here. You grow,' said the lad, layin_is hand timidly on that of Nicholas, 'you grow thinner every day; your chee_s paler, and your eye more sunk. Indeed I cannot bear to see you so, an_hink how I am burdening you. I tried to go away today, but the thought o_our kind face drew me back. I could not leave you without a word.' The poo_ellow could say no more, for his eyes filled with tears, and his voice wa_one.
'The word which separates us,' said Nicholas, grasping him heartily by th_houlder, 'shall never be said by me, for you are my only comfort and stay. _ould not lose you now, Smike, for all the world could give. The thought o_ou has upheld me through all I have endured today, and shall, through fift_imes such trouble. Give me your hand. My heart is linked to yours. We wil_ourney from this place together, before the week is out. What, if I a_teeped in poverty? You lighten it, and we will be poor together.'