Chapter 57 How Ralph Nickleby's Auxiliary went about his Work, and how h_rospered with it
It was a dark, wet, gloomy night in autumn, when in an upper room of a mea_ouse situated in an obscure street, or rather court, near Lambeth, there sat, all alone, a one-eyed man grotesquely habited, either for lack of bette_arments or for purposes of disguise, in a loose greatcoat, with arms half a_ong again as his own, and a capacity of breadth and length which would hav_dmitted of his winding himself in it, head and all, with the utmost ease, an_ithout any risk of straining the old and greasy material of which it wa_omposed.
So attired, and in a place so far removed from his usual haunts an_ccupations, and so very poor and wretched in its character, perhaps Mr_queers herself would have had some difficulty in recognising her lord: quickened though her natural sagacity doubtless would have been by th_ffectionate yearnings and impulses of a tender wife. But Mrs Squeers's lor_t was; and in a tolerably disconsolate mood Mrs Squeers's lord appeared t_e, as, helping himself from a black bottle which stood on the table besid_im, he cast round the chamber a look, in which very slight regard for th_bjects within view was plainly mingled with some regretful and impatien_ecollection of distant scenes and persons.
There were, certainly, no particular attractions, either in the room ove_hich the glance of Mr Squeers so discontentedly wandered, or in the narro_treet into which it might have penetrated, if he had thought fit to approac_he window. The attic chamber in which he sat was bare and mean; the bedstead, and such few other articles of necessary furniture as it contained, were o_he commonest description, in a most crazy state, and of a most uninvitin_ppearance. The street was muddy, dirty, and deserted. Having but one outlet, it was traversed by few but the inhabitants at any time; and the night bein_ne of those on which most people are glad to be within doors, it no_resented no other signs of life than the dull glimmering of poor candles fro_he dirty windows, and few sounds but the pattering of the rain, an_ccasionally the heavy closing of some creaking door.
Mr Squeers continued to look disconsolately about him, and to listen to thes_oises in profound silence, broken only by the rustling of his large coat, a_e now and then moved his arm to raise his glass to his lips. Mr Squeer_ontinued to do this for some time, until the increasing gloom warned him t_nuff the candle. Seeming to be slightly roused by this exertion, he raise_is eye to the ceiling, and fixing it upon some uncouth and fantastic figures, traced upon it by the wet and damp which had penetrated through the roof, broke into the following soliloquy:
'Well, this is a pretty go, is this here! An uncommon pretty go! Here have _een, a matter of how many weeks—hard upon six—a follering up this her_lessed old dowager petty larcenerer,'—Mr Squeers delivered himself of thi_pithet with great difficulty and effort,—'and Dotheboys Hall a-running itsel_egularly to seed the while! That's the worst of ever being in with _wdacious chap like that old Nickleby. You never know when he's done with you, and if you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound.'
This remark, perhaps, reminded Mr Squeers that he was in for a hundred poun_t any rate. His countenance relaxed, and he raised his glass to his mout_ith an air of greater enjoyment of its contents than he had before evinced.
'I never see,' soliloquised Mr Squeers in continuation, 'I never see nor com_cross such a file as that old Nickleby. Never! He's out of everybody's depth, he is. He's what you may call a rasper, is Nickleby. To see how sly an_unning he grubbed on, day after day, a-worming and plodding and tracing an_urning and twining of hisself about, till he found out where this preciou_rs Peg was hid, and cleared the ground for me to work upon. Creeping an_rawling and gliding, like a ugly, old, bright-eyed, stagnation- bloode_dder! Ah! He'd have made a good 'un in our line, but it would have been to_imited for him; his genius would have busted all bonds, and coming over ever_bstacle, broke down all before it, till it erected itself into a monneymen_f—Well, I'll think of the rest, and say it when conwenient.'
Making a halt in his reflections at this place, Mr Squeers again put his glas_o his lips, and drawing a dirty letter from his pocket, proceeded to con ove_ts contents with the air of a man who had read it very often, and no_efreshed his memory rather in the absence of better amusement than for an_pecific information.
'The pigs is well,' said Mr Squeers, 'the cows is well, and the boys i_obbish. Young Sprouter has been a-winking, has he? I'll wink him when I ge_ack. "Cobbey would persist in sniffing while he was a-eating his dinner, an_aid that the beef was so strong it made him."—Very good, Cobbey, we'll see i_e can't make you sniff a little without beef. "Pitcher was took with anothe_ever,"—of course he was—"and being fetched by his friends, died the day afte_e got home,"—of course he did, and out of aggravation; it's part of a deep- laid system. There an't another chap in the school but that boy as would hav_ied exactly at the end of the quarter: taking it out of me to the very last, and then carrying his spite to the utmost extremity. "The juniorest Palme_aid he wished he was in Heaven." I really don't know, I do NOT know what's t_e done with that young fellow; he's always a-wishing something horrid. H_aid once, he wished he was a donkey, because then he wouldn't have a fathe_s didn't love him! Pretty wicious that for a child of six!'
Mr Squeers was so much moved by the contemplation of this hardened nature i_ne so young, that he angrily put up the letter, and sought, in a new train o_deas, a subject of consolation.
'It's a long time to have been a-lingering in London,' he said; 'and this is _recious hole to come and live in, even if it has been only for a week or so.
Still, one hundred pound is five boys, and five boys takes a whole year to pa_ne hundred pounds, and there's their keep to be substracted, besides. There'_othing lost, neither, by one's being here; because the boys' money comes i_ust the same as if I was at home, and Mrs Squeers she keeps them in order.
There'll be some lost time to make up, of course. There'll be an arrear o_logging as'll have to be gone through: still, a couple of days makes that al_ight, and one don't mind a little extra work for one hundred pound. It'_retty nigh the time to wait upon the old woman. From what she said las_ight, I suspect that if I'm to succeed at all, I shall succeed tonight; s_'ll have half a glass more, to wish myself success, and put myself i_pirits. Mrs Squeers, my dear, your health!'
Leering with his one eye as if the lady to whom he drank had been actuall_resent, Mr Squeers—in his enthusiasm, no doubt—poured out a full glass, an_mptied it; and as the liquor was raw spirits, and he had applied himself t_he same bottle more than once already, it is not surprising that he foun_imself, by this time, in an extremely cheerful state, and quite enoug_xcited for his purpose.
What this purpose was soon appeared; for, after a few turns about the room t_teady himself, he took the bottle under his arm and the glass in his hand, and blowing out the candle as if he purposed being gone some time, stole ou_pon the staircase, and creeping softly to a door opposite his own, tappe_ently at it.
'But what's the use of tapping?' he said, 'She'll never hear. I suppose sh_sn't doing anything very particular; and if she is, it don't much matter, that I see.'
With this brief preface, Mr Squeers applied his hand to the latch of the door, and thrusting his head into a garret far more deplorable than that he had jus_eft, and seeing that there was nobody there but an old woman, who was bendin_ver a wretched fire (for although the weather was still warm, the evening wa_hilly), walked in, and tapped her on the shoulder.
'Well, my Slider,' said Mr Squeers, jocularly.
'Is that you?' inquired Peg.
'Ah! it's me, and me's the first person singular, nominative case, agreein_ith the verb "it's", and governed by Squeers understood, as a acorn, a hour; but when the h is sounded, the a only is to be used, as a and, a art, _ghway,' replied Mr Squeers, quoting at random from the grammar. 'At least, i_t isn't, you don't know any better, and if it is, I've done it accidentally.'
Delivering this reply in his accustomed tone of voice, in which of course i_as inaudible to Peg, Mr Squeers drew a stool to the fire, and placing himsel_ver against her, and the bottle and glass on the floor between them, roare_ut again, very loud,
'Well, my Slider!'
'I hear you,' said Peg, receiving him very graciously.
'I've come according to promise,' roared Squeers.
'So they used to say in that part of the country I come from,' observed Peg, complacently, 'but I think oil's better.'
'Better than what?' roared Squeers, adding some rather strong language in a_ndertone.
'No,' said Peg, 'of course not.'
'I never saw such a monster as you are!' muttered Squeers, looking as amiabl_s he possibly could the while; for Peg's eye was upon him, and she wa_huckling fearfully, as though in delight at having made a choice repartee,
'Do you see this? This is a bottle.'
'I see it,' answered Peg.
'Well, and do you see THIS?' bawled Squeers. 'This is a glass.' Peg saw tha_oo.
'See here, then,' said Squeers, accompanying his remarks with appropriat_ction, 'I fill the glass from the bottle, and I say "Your health, Slider,"
and empty it; then I rinse it genteelly with a little drop, which I'm force_o throw into the fire—hallo! we shall have the chimbley alight next—fill i_gain, and hand it over to you.'
'YOUR health,' said Peg.
'She understands that, anyways,' muttered Squeers, watching Mrs Sliderskew a_he dispatched her portion, and choked and gasped in a most awful manner afte_o doing. 'Now then, let's have a talk. How's the rheumatics?'
Mrs Sliderskew, with much blinking and chuckling, and with looks expressive o_er strong admiration of Mr Squeers, his person, manners, and conversation, replied that the rheumatics were better.
'What's the reason,' said Mr Squeers, deriving fresh facetiousness from th_ottle; 'what's the reason of rheumatics? What do they mean? What do peopl_ave'em for—eh?'
Mrs Sliderskew didn't know, but suggested that it was possibly because the_ouldn't help it.
'Measles, rheumatics, hooping-cough, fevers, agers, and lumbagers,' said M_queers, 'is all philosophy together; that's what it is. The heavenly bodie_s philosophy, and the earthly bodies is philosophy. If there's a screw loos_n a heavenly body, that's philosophy; and if there's screw loose in a earthl_ody, that's philosophy too; or it may be that sometimes there's a littl_etaphysics in it, but that's not often. Philosophy's the chap for me. If _arent asks a question in the classical, commercial, or mathematical line, says I, gravely, "Why, sir, in the first place, are you a philosopher?"—"No, Mr Squeers," he says, "I an't." "Then, sir," says I, "I am sorry for you, fo_ shan't be able to explain it." Naturally, the parent goes away and wishes h_as a philosopher, and, equally naturally, thinks I'm one.'
Saying this, and a great deal more, with tipsy profundity and a serio-comi_ir, and keeping his eye all the time on Mrs Sliderskew, who was unable t_ear one word, Mr Squeers concluded by helping himself and passing the bottle: to which Peg did becoming reverence.
'That's the time of day!' said Mr Squeers. 'You look twenty pound ten bette_han you did.'
Again Mrs Sliderskew chuckled, but modesty forbade her assenting verbally t_he compliment.
'Twenty pound ten better,' repeated Mr Squeers, 'than you did that day when _irst introduced myself. Don't you know?'
'Ah!' said Peg, shaking her head, 'but you frightened me that day.'
'Did I?' said Squeers; 'well, it was rather a startling thing for a strange_o come and recommend himself by saying that he knew all about you, and wha_our name was, and why you were living so quiet here, and what you had boned, and who you boned it from, wasn't it?'
Peg nodded her head in strong assent.
'But I know everything that happens in that way, you see,' continued Squeers.
'Nothing takes place, of that kind, that I an't up to entirely. I'm a sort o_ lawyer, Slider, of first-rate standing, and understanding too; I'm th_ntimate friend and confidential adwiser of pretty nigh every man, woman, an_hild that gets themselves into difficulties by being too nimble with thei_ingers, I'm—'
Mr Squeers's catalogue of his own merits and accomplishments, which was partl_he result of a concerted plan between himself and Ralph Nickleby, and flowed, in part, from the black bottle, was here interrupted by Mrs Sliderskew.
'Ha, ha, ha!' she cried, folding her arms and wagging her head; 'and so h_asn't married after all, wasn't he. Not married after all?'
'No,' replied Squeers, 'that he wasn't!'
'And a young lover come and carried off the bride, eh?' said Peg.
'From under his very nose,' replied Squeers; 'and I'm told the young chap cu_p rough besides, and broke the winders, and forced him to swaller his weddin_avour which nearly choked him.'
'Tell me all about it again,' cried Peg, with a malicious relish of her ol_aster's defeat, which made her natural hideousness something quite fearful;
'let's hear it all again, beginning at the beginning now, as if you'd neve_old me. Let's have it every word —now—now—beginning at the very first, yo_now, when he went to the house that morning!'
Mr Squeers, plying Mrs Sliderskew freely with the liquor, and sustainin_imself under the exertion of speaking so loud by frequent applications to i_imself, complied with this request by describing the discomfiture of Arthu_ride, with such improvements on the truth as happened to occur to him, an_he ingenious invention and application of which had been very instrumental i_ecommending him to her notice in the beginning of their acquaintance. Mr_liderskew was in an ecstasy of delight, rolling her head about, drawing u_er skinny shoulders, and wrinkling her cadaverous face into so many and suc_omplicated forms of ugliness, as awakened the unbounded astonishment an_isgust even of Mr Squeers.
'He's a treacherous old goat,' said Peg, 'and cozened me with cunning trick_nd lying promises, but never mind. I'm even with him. I'm even with him.'
'More than even, Slider,' returned Squeers; 'you'd have been even with him i_e'd got married; but with the disappointment besides, you're a long wa_head. Out of sight, Slider, quite out of sight. And that reminds me,' h_dded, handing her the glass, 'if you want me to give you my opinion of the_eeds, and tell you what you'd better keep and what you'd better burn, why, now's your time, Slider.'
'There an't no hurry for that,' said Peg, with several knowing looks an_inks.
'Oh! very well!' observed Squeers, 'it don't matter to me; you asked me, yo_now. I shouldn't charge you nothing, being a friend. You're the best judge o_ourse. But you're a bold woman, Slider.'
'How do you mean, bold?' said Peg.
'Why, I only mean that if it was me, I wouldn't keep papers as might hang me, littering about when they might be turned into money—them as wasn't usefu_ade away with, and them as was, laid by somewheres, safe; that's all,'
returned Squeers; 'but everybody's the best judge of their own affairs. All _ay is, Slider, I wouldn't do it.'
'Come,' said Peg, 'then you shall see 'em.'
'I don't want to see 'em,' replied Squeers, affecting to be out of humour;
'don't talk as if it was a treat. Show 'em to somebody else, and take thei_dvice.'
Mr Squeers would, very likely, have carried on the farce of being offended _ittle longer, if Mrs Sliderskew, in her anxiety to restore herself to he_ormer high position in his good graces, had not become so extremel_ffectionate that he stood at some risk of being smothered by her caresses.
Repressing, with as good a grace as possible, these little familiarities—fo_hich, there is reason to believe, the black bottle was at least as much t_lame as any constitutional infirmity on the part of Mrs Sliderskew—h_rotested that he had only been joking: and, in proof of his unimpaired good- humour, that he was ready to examine the deeds at once, if, by so doing, h_ould afford any satisfaction or relief of mind to his fair friend.
'And now you're up, my Slider,' bawled Squeers, as she rose to fetch them,
'bolt the door.'
Peg trotted to the door, and after fumbling at the bolt, crept to the othe_nd of the room, and from beneath the coals which filled the bottom of th_upboard, drew forth a small deal box. Having placed this on the floor a_queers's feet, she brought, from under the pillow of her bed, a small key, with which she signed to that gentleman to open it. Mr Squeers, who ha_agerly followed her every motion, lost no time in obeying this hint: and, throwing back the lid, gazed with rapture on the documents which lay within.
'Now you see,' said Peg, kneeling down on the floor beside him, and stayin_is impatient hand; 'what's of no use we'll burn; what we can get any mone_y, we'll keep; and if there's any we could get him into trouble by, and fre_nd waste away his heart to shreds, those we'll take particular care of; fo_hat's what I want to do, and what I hoped to do when I left him.'
'I thought,' said Squeers, 'that you didn't bear him any particular good-will.
But, I say, why didn't you take some money besides?'
'Some what?' asked Peg.
'Some money,' roared Squeers. 'I do believe the woman hears me, and wants t_ake me break a wessel, so that she may have the pleasure of nursing me. Som_oney, Slider, money!'
'Why, what a man you are to ask!' cried Peg, with some contempt. 'If I ha_aken money from Arthur Gride, he'd have scoured the whole earth to fin_e—aye, and he'd have smelt it out, and raked it up, somehow, if I had burie_t at the bottom of the deepest well in England. No, no! I knew better tha_hat. I took what I thought his secrets were hid in: and them he couldn'_fford to make public, let'em be worth ever so much money. He's an old dog; _ly, old, cunning, thankless dog! He first starved, and then tricked me; an_f I could I'd kill him.'
'All right, and very laudable,' said Squeers. 'But, first and foremost, Slider, burn the box. You should never keep things as may lead to discovery.
Always mind that. So while you pull it to pieces (which you can easily do, fo_t's very old and rickety) and burn it in little bits, I'll look over th_apers and tell you what they are.'
Peg, expressing her acquiescence in this arrangement, Mr Squeers turned th_ox bottom upwards, and tumbling the contents upon the floor, handed it t_er; the destruction of the box being an extemporary device for engaging he_ttention, in case it should prove desirable to distract it from his ow_roceedings.
'There!' said Squeers; 'you poke the pieces between the bars, and make up _ood fire, and I'll read the while. Let me see, let me see.' And taking th_andle down beside him, Mr Squeers, with great eagerness and a cunning gri_verspreading his face, entered upon his task of examination.
If the old woman had not been very deaf, she must have heard, when she las_ent to the door, the breathing of two persons close behind it: and if thos_wo persons had been unacquainted with her infirmity, they must probably hav_hosen that moment either for presenting themselves or taking to flight. But, knowing with whom they had to deal, they remained quite still, and now, no_nly appeared unobserved at the door—which was not bolted, for the bolt had n_asp—but warily, and with noiseless footsteps, advanced into the room.
As they stole farther and farther in by slight and scarcely perceptibl_egrees, and with such caution that they scarcely seemed to breathe, the ol_ag and Squeers little dreaming of any such invasion, and utterly unconsciou_f there being any soul near but themselves, were busily occupied with thei_asks. The old woman, with her wrinkled face close to the bars of the stove, puffing at the dull embers which had not yet caught the wood; Squeers stoopin_own to the candle, which brought out the full ugliness of his face, as th_ight of the fire did that of his companion; both intently engaged, an_earing faces of exultation which contrasted strongly with the anxious look_f those behind, who took advantage of the slightest sound to cover thei_dvance, and, almost before they had moved an inch, and all was silent, stopped again. This, with the large bare room, damp walls, and flickerin_oubtful light, combined to form a scene which the most careless an_ndifferent spectator (could any have been present) could scarcely have faile_o derive some interest from, and would not readily have forgotten.
Of the stealthy comers, Frank Cheeryble was one, and Newman Noggs the other.
Newman had caught up, by the rusty nozzle, an old pair of bellows, which wer_ust undergoing a flourish in the air preparatory to a descent upon the hea_f Mr Squeers, when Frank, with an earnest gesture, stayed his arm, and, taking another step in advance, came so close behind the schoolmaster that, b_eaning slightly forward, he could plainly distinguish the writing which h_eld up to his eye.
Mr Squeers, not being remarkably erudite, appeared to be considerably puzzle_y this first prize, which was in an engrossing hand, and not very legibl_xcept to a practised eye. Having tried it by reading from left to right, an_rom right to left, and finding it equally clear both ways, he turned i_pside down with no better success.
'Ha, ha, ha!' chuckled Peg, who, on her knees before the fire, was feeding i_ith fragments of the box, and grinning in most devilish exultation. 'What'_hat writing about, eh?'
'Nothing particular,' replied Squeers, tossing it towards her. 'It's only a_ld lease, as well as I can make out. Throw it in the fire.'
Mrs Sliderskew complied, and inquired what the next one was.
'This,' said Squeers, 'is a bundle of overdue acceptances and renewed bills o_ix or eight young gentlemen, but they're all MPs, so it's of no use t_nybody. Throw it in the fire!' Peg did as she was bidden, and waited for th_ext.
'This,' said Squeers, 'seems to be some deed of sale of the right o_resentation to the rectory of Purechurch, in the valley of Cashup. Take car_f that, Slider, literally for God's sake. It'll fetch its price at th_uction Mart.'
'What's the next?' inquired Peg.
'Why, this,' said Squeers, 'seems, from the two letters that's with it, to b_ bond from a curate down in the country, to pay half a year's wages of fort_ound for borrowing twenty. Take care of that, for if he don't pay it, hi_ishop will very soon be down upon him. We know what the camel and th_eedle's eye means; no man as can't live upon his income, whatever it is, mus_xpect to go to heaven at any price. It's very odd; I don't see anything lik_t yet.'
Newman raised the bellows again. Once more, Frank, by a rapid motion of hi_rm, unaccompanied by any noise, checked him in his purpose.
'Here you are,' said Squeers, 'bonds—take care of them. Warrant o_ttorney—take care of that. Two cognovits—take care of them. Lease an_elease—burn that. Ah! "Madeline Bray—come of age or marry—the sai_adeline"—here, burn THAT!'
Eagerly throwing towards the old woman a parchment that he caught up for th_urpose, Squeers, as she turned her head, thrust into the breast of his larg_oat, the deed in which these words had caught his eye, and burst into a shou_f triumph.
'I've got it!' said Squeers. 'I've got it! Hurrah! The plan was a good one, though the chance was desperate, and the day's our own at last!'
Peg demanded what he laughed at, but no answer was returned. Newman's ar_ould no longer be restrained; the bellows, descending heavily and wit_nerring aim on the very centre of Mr Squeers's head, felled him to the floor, and stretched him on it flat and senseless.