Chapter 62 Ralph makes one last Appointment--and keeps it
Creeping from the house, and slinking off like a thief; groping with hi_ands, when first he got into the street, as if he were a blind man; an_ooking often over his shoulder while he hurried away, as though he wer_ollowed in imagination or reality by someone anxious to question or detai_im; Ralph Nickleby left the city behind him, and took the road to his ow_ome.
The night was dark, and a cold wind blew, driving the clouds, furiously an_ast, before it. There was one black, gloomy mass that seemed to follow him: not hurrying in the wild chase with the others, but lingering sullenly behind, and gliding darkly and stealthily on. He often looked back at this, and, mor_han once, stopped to let it pass over; but, somehow, when he went forwar_gain, it was still behind him, coming mournfully and slowly up, like _hadowy funeral train.
He had to pass a poor, mean burial-ground—a dismal place, raised a few fee_bove the level of the street, and parted from it by a low parapet-wall and a_ron railing; a rank, unwholesome, rotten spot, where the very grass and weed_eemed, in their frouzy growth, to tell that they had sprung from paupers'
bodies, and had struck their roots in the graves of men, sodden, while alive, in steaming courts and drunken hungry dens. And here, in truth, they lay, parted from the living by a little earth and a board or two—lay thick an_lose—corrupting in body as they had in mind—a dense and squalid crowd. Her_hey lay, cheek by jowl with life: no deeper down than the feet of the thron_hat passed there every day, and piled high as their throats. Here they lay, _risly family, all these dear departed brothers and sisters of the rudd_lergyman who did his task so speedily when they were hidden in the ground!
As he passed here, Ralph called to mind that he had been one of a jury, lon_efore, on the body of a man who had cut his throat; and that he was buried i_his place. He could not tell how he came to recollect it now, when he had s_ften passed and never thought about him, or how it was that he felt a_nterest in the circumstance; but he did both; and stopping, and clasping th_ron railings with his hands, looked eagerly in, wondering which might be hi_rave.
While he was thus engaged, there came towards him, with noise of shouts an_inging, some fellows full of drink, followed by others, who wer_emonstrating with them and urging them to go home in quiet. They were in hig_ood-humour; and one of them, a little, weazen, hump-backed man, began t_ance. He was a grotesque, fantastic figure, and the few bystanders laughed.
Ralph himself was moved to mirth, and echoed the laugh of one who stood nea_nd who looked round in his face. When they had passed on, and he was lef_lone again, he resumed his speculation with a new kind of interest; for h_ecollected that the last person who had seen the suicide alive, had left hi_ery merry, and he remembered how strange he and the other jurors had though_hat at the time.
He could not fix upon the spot among such a heap of graves, but he conjured u_ strong and vivid idea of the man himself, and how he looked, and what ha_ed him to do it; all of which he recalled with ease. By dint of dwelling upo_his theme, he carried the impression with him when he went away; as h_emembered, when a child, to have had frequently before him the figure of som_oblin he had once seen chalked upon a door. But as he drew nearer and neare_ome he forgot it again, and began to think how very dull and solitary th_ouse would be inside.
This feeling became so strong at last, that when he reached his own door, h_ould hardly make up his mind to turn the key and open it. When he had don_hat, and gone into the passage, he felt as though to shut it again would b_o shut out the world. But he let it go, and it closed with a loud noise.
There was no light. How very dreary, cold, and still it was!
Shivering from head to foot, he made his way upstairs into the room where h_ad been last disturbed. He had made a kind of compact with himself that h_ould not think of what had happened until he got home. He was at home now, and suffered himself to consider it.
His own child, his own child! He never doubted the tale; he felt it was true; knew it as well, now, as if he had been privy to it all along. His own child!
And dead too. Dying beside Nicholas, loving him, and looking upon him a_omething like an angel. That was the worst!
They had all turned from him and deserted him in his very first need. Eve_oney could not buy them now; everything must come out, and everybody mus_now all. Here was the young lord dead, his companion abroad and beyond hi_each, ten thousand pounds gone at one blow, his plot with Gride overset a_he very moment of triumph, his after-schemes discovered, himself in danger, the object of his persecution and Nicholas's love, his own wretched boy; everything crumbled and fallen upon him, and he beaten down beneath the ruin_nd grovelling in the dust.
If he had known his child to be alive; if no deceit had been ever practised, and he had grown up beneath his eye; he might have been a careless, indifferent, rough, harsh father—like enough—he felt that; but the though_ould come that he might have been otherwise, and that his son might have bee_ comfort to him, and they two happy together. He began to think now, that hi_upposed death and his wife's flight had had some share in making him th_orose, hard man he was. He seemed to remember a time when he was not quite s_ough and obdurate; and almost thought that he had first hated Nichola_ecause he was young and gallant, and perhaps like the stripling who ha_rought dishonour and loss of fortune on his head.
But one tender thought, or one of natural regret, in his whirlwind of passio_nd remorse, was as a drop of calm water in a stormy maddened sea. His hatre_f Nicholas had been fed upon his own defeat, nourished on his interferenc_ith his schemes, fattened upon his old defiance and success. There wer_easons for its increase; it had grown and strengthened gradually. Now i_ttained a height which was sheer wild lunacy. That his, of all others, shoul_ave been the hands to rescue his miserable child; that he should have bee_is protector and faithful friend; that he should have shown him that love an_enderness which, from the wretched moment of his birth, he had never known; that he should have taught him to hate his own parent and execrate his ver_ame; that he should now know and feel all this, and triumph in th_ecollection; was gall and madness to the usurer's heart. The dead boy's lov_or Nicholas, and the attachment of Nicholas to him, was insupportable agony.
The picture of his deathbed, with Nicholas at his side, tending and supportin_im, and he breathing out his thanks, and expiring in his arms, when he woul_ave had them mortal enemies and hating each other to the last, drove hi_rantic. He gnashed his teeth and smote the air, and looking wildly round, with eyes which gleamed through the darkness, cried aloud:
'I am trampled down and ruined. The wretch told me true. The night has come!
Is there no way to rob them of further triumph, and spurn their mercy an_ompassion? Is there no devil to help me?'
Swiftly, there glided again into his brain the figure he had raised tha_ight. It seemed to lie before him. The head was covered now. So it was whe_e first saw it. The rigid, upturned, marble feet too, he remembered well.
Then came before him the pale and trembling relatives who had told their tal_pon the inquest—the shrieks of women—the silent dread of men—th_onsternation and disquiet—the victory achieved by that heap of clay, which, with one motion of its hand, had let out the life and made this stir amon_hem—
He spoke no more; but, after a pause, softly groped his way out of the room, and up the echoing stairs—up to the top—to the front garret—where he close_he door behind him, and remained.
It was a mere lumber-room now, but it yet contained an old dismantle_edstead; the one on which his son had slept; for no other had ever bee_here. He avoided it hastily, and sat down as far from it as he could.
The weakened glare of the lights in the street below, shining through th_indow which had no blind or curtain to intercept it, was enough to show th_haracter of the room, though not sufficient fully to reveal the variou_rticles of lumber, old corded trunks and broken furniture, which wer_cattered about. It had a shelving roof; high in one part, and at anothe_escending almost to the floor. It was towards the highest part that Ralp_irected his eyes; and upon it he kept them fixed steadily for some minutes, when he rose, and dragging thither an old chest upon which he had been seated, mounted on it, and felt along the wall above his head with both hands. A_ength, they touched a large iron hook, firmly driven into one of the beams.
At that moment, he was interrupted by a loud knocking at the door below. Afte_ little hesitation he opened the window, and demanded who it was.
'I want Mr Nickleby,' replied a voice.
'What with him?'
'That's not Mr Nickleby's voice, surely?' was the rejoinder.
It was not like it; but it was Ralph who spoke, and so he said.
The voice made answer that the twin brothers wished to know whether the ma_hom he had seen that night was to be detained; and that although it was no_idnight they had sent, in their anxiety to do right.
'Yes,' cried Ralph, 'detain him till tomorrow; then let them bring hi_ere—him and my nephew—and come themselves, and be sure that I will be read_o receive them.'
'At what hour?' asked the voice.
'At any hour,' replied Ralph fiercely. 'In the afternoon, tell them. At an_our, at any minute. All times will be alike to me.'
He listened to the man's retreating footsteps until the sound had passed, an_hen, gazing up into the sky, saw, or thought he saw, the same black clou_hat had seemed to follow him home, and which now appeared to hover directl_bove the house.
'I know its meaning now,' he muttered, 'and the restless nights, the dreams, and why I have quailed of late. All pointed to this. Oh! if men by sellin_heir own souls could ride rampant for a term, for how short a term would _arter mine tonight!'
The sound of a deep bell came along the wind. One.
'Lie on!' cried the usurer, 'with your iron tongue! Ring merrily for birth_hat make expectants writhe, and marriages that are made in hell, and tol_uefully for the dead whose shoes are worn already! Call men to prayers wh_re godly because not found out, and ring chimes for the coming in of ever_ear that brings this cursed world nearer to its end. No bell or book for me!
Throw me on a dunghill, and let me rot there, to infect the air!'
With a wild look around, in which frenzy, hatred, and despair were horribl_ingled, he shook his clenched hand at the sky above him, which was still dar_nd threatening, and closed the window.
The rain and hail pattered against the glass; the chimneys quaked and rocked; the crazy casement rattled with the wind, as though an impatient hand insid_ere striving to burst it open. But no hand was there, and it opened no more.
'How's this?' cried one. 'The gentleman say they can't make anybody hear, an_ave been trying these two hours.'
'And yet he came home last night,' said another; 'for he spoke to somebody ou_f that window upstairs.'
They were a little knot of men, and, the window being mentioned, went out int_he road to look up at it. This occasioned their observing that the house wa_till close shut, as the housekeeper had said she had left it on the previou_ight, and led to a great many suggestions: which terminated in two or thre_f the boldest getting round to the back, and so entering by a window, whil_he others remained outside, in impatient expectation.
They looked into all the rooms below: opening the shutters as they went, t_dmit the fading light: and still finding nobody, and everything quiet and i_ts place, doubted whether they should go farther. One man, however, remarkin_hat they had not yet been into the garret, and that it was there he had bee_ast seen, they agreed to look there too, and went up softly; for the myster_nd silence made them timid.
After they had stood for an instant, on the landing, eyeing each other, he wh_ad proposed their carrying the search so far, turned the handle of the door, and, pushing it open, looked through the chink, and fell back directly.
'It's very odd,' he whispered, 'he's hiding behind the door! Look!'
They pressed forward to see; but one among them thrusting the others asid_ith a loud exclamation, drew a clasp-knife from his pocket, and dashing int_he room, cut down the body.
He had torn a rope from one of the old trunks, and hung himself on an iro_ook immediately below the trap-door in the ceiling—in the very place to whic_he eyes of his son, a lonely, desolate, little creature, had so often bee_irected in childish terror, fourteen years before.