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Charles Dickens > Nicholas Nickleby > Chapter 2

Nicholas Nickleby

Chapter 2

Of Mr Ralph Nickleby, and his Establishments, and his Undertakings,
and of a great Joint Stock Company of vast national Importance

Mr Ralph Nickleby was not, strictly speaking, what you would call a
merchant, neither was he a banker, nor an attorney, nor a special
pleader, nor a notary. He was certainly not a tradesman, and still
less could he lay any claim to the title of a professional
gentleman; for it would have been impossible to mention any
recognised profession to which he belonged. Nevertheless, as he
lived in a spacious house in Golden Square, which, in addition to a
brass plate upon the street-door, had another brass plate two sizes
and a half smaller upon the left hand door-post, surrounding a brass
model of an infant's fist grasping a fragment of a skewer, and
displaying the word 'Office,' it was clear that Mr Ralph Nickleby
did, or pretended to do, business of some kind; and the fact, if it
required any further circumstantial evidence, was abundantly
demonstrated by the diurnal attendance, between the hours of half-
past nine and five, of a sallow-faced man in rusty brown, who sat
upon an uncommonly hard stool in a species of butler's pantry at the
end of the passage, and always had a pen behind his ear when he
answered the bell.

Although a few members of the graver professions live about Golden
Square, it is not exactly in anybody's way to or from anywhere. It
is one of the squares that have been; a quarter of the town that has
gone down in the world, and taken to letting lodgings. Many of its
first and second floors are let, furnished, to single gentlemen; and
it takes boarders besides. It is a great resort of foreigners. The
dark-complexioned men who wear large rings, and heavy watch-guards,
and bushy whiskers, and who congregate under the Opera Colonnade,
and about the box-office in the season, between four and five in the
afternoon, when they give away the orders,--all live in Golden
Square, or within a street of it. Two or three violins and a wind
instrument from the Opera band reside within its precincts. Its
boarding-houses are musical, and the notes of pianos and harps float
in the evening time round the head of the mournful statue, the
guardian genius of a little wilderness of shrubs, in the centre of
the square. On a summer's night, windows are thrown open, and
groups of swarthy moustached men are seen by the passer-by, lounging
at the casements, and smoking fearfully. Sounds of gruff voices
practising vocal music invade the evening's silence; and the fumes
of choice tobacco scent the air. There, snuff and cigars, and
German pipes and flutes, and violins and violoncellos, divide the
supremacy between them. It is the region of song and smoke. Street
bands are on their mettle in Golden Square; and itinerant glee-
singers quaver involuntarily as they raise their voices within its

This would not seem a spot very well adapted to the transaction of
business; but Mr Ralph Nickleby had lived there, notwithstanding,
for many years, and uttered no complaint on that score. He knew
nobody round about, and nobody knew him, although he enjoyed the
reputation of being immensely rich. The tradesmen held that he was
a sort of lawyer, and the other neighbours opined that he was a kind
of general agent; both of which guesses were as correct and definite
as guesses about other people's affairs usually are, or need to be.

Mr Ralph Nickleby sat in his private office one morning, ready
dressed to walk abroad. He wore a bottle-green spencer over a blue
coat; a white waistcoat, grey mixture pantaloons, and Wellington
boots drawn over them. The corner of a small-plaited shirt-frill
struggled out, as if insisting to show itself, from between his chin
and the top button of his spencer; and the latter garment was not
made low enough to conceal a long gold watch-chain, composed of a
series of plain rings, which had its beginning at the handle of a
gold repeater in Mr Nickleby's pocket, and its termination in two
little keys: one belonging to the watch itself, and the other to
some patent padlock. He wore a sprinkling of powder upon his head,
as if to make himself look benevolent; but if that were his purpose,
he would perhaps have done better to powder his countenance also,
for there was something in its very wrinkles, and in his cold
restless eye, which seemed to tell of cunning that would announce
itself in spite of him. However this might be, there he was; and as
he was all alone, neither the powder, nor the wrinkles, nor the
eyes, had the smallest effect, good or bad, upon anybody just then,
and are consequently no business of ours just now.

Mr Nickleby closed an account-book which lay on his desk, and,
throwing himself back in his chair, gazed with an air of abstraction
through the dirty window. Some London houses have a melancholy
little plot of ground behind them, usually fenced in by four high
whitewashed walls, and frowned upon by stacks of chimneys: in which
there withers on, from year to year, a crippled tree, that makes a
show of putting forth a few leaves late in autumn when other trees
shed theirs, and, drooping in the effort, lingers on, all crackled
and smoke-dried, till the following season, when it repeats the same
process, and perhaps, if the weather be particularly genial, even
tempts some rheumatic sparrow to chirrup in its branches. People
sometimes call these dark yards 'gardens'; it is not supposed that
they were ever planted, but rather that they are pieces of
unreclaimed land, with the withered vegetation of the original
brick-field. No man thinks of walking in this desolate place, or of
turning it to any account. A few hampers, half-a-dozen broken
bottles, and such-like rubbish, may be thrown there, when the tenant
first moves in, but nothing more; and there they remain until he
goes away again: the damp straw taking just as long to moulder as it
thinks proper: and mingling with the scanty box, and stunted
everbrowns, and broken flower-pots, that are scattered mournfully
about--a prey to 'blacks' and dirt.

It was into a place of this kind that Mr Ralph Nickleby gazed, as he
sat with his hands in his pockets looking out of the window. He had
fixed his eyes upon a distorted fir tree, planted by some former
tenant in a tub that had once been green, and left there, years
before, to rot away piecemeal. There was nothing very inviting in
the object, but Mr Nickleby was wrapt in a brown study, and sat
contemplating it with far greater attention than, in a more
conscious mood, he would have deigned to bestow upon the rarest
exotic. At length, his eyes wandered to a little dirty window on
the left, through which the face of the clerk was dimly visible;
that worthy chancing to look up, he beckoned him to attend.

In obedience to this summons the clerk got off the high stool (to
which he had communicated a high polish by countless gettings off
and on), and presented himself in Mr Nickleby's room. He was a tall
man of middle age, with two goggle eyes whereof one was a fixture, a
rubicund nose, a cadaverous face, and a suit of clothes (if the term
be allowable when they suited him not at all) much the worse for
wear, very much too small, and placed upon such a short allowance of
buttons that it was marvellous how he contrived to keep them on.

'Was that half-past twelve, Noggs?' said Mr Nickleby, in a sharp and
grating voice.

'Not more than five-and-twenty minutes by the--' Noggs was going to
add public-house clock, but recollecting himself, substituted
'regular time.'

'My watch has stopped,' said Mr Nickleby; 'I don't know from what

'Not wound up,' said Noggs.

'Yes it is,' said Mr Nickleby.

'Over-wound then,' rejoined Noggs.

'That can't very well be,' observed Mr Nickleby.

'Must be,' said Noggs.

'Well!' said Mr Nickleby, putting the repeater back in his pocket;
'perhaps it is.'

Noggs gave a peculiar grunt, as was his custom at the end of all
disputes with his master, to imply that he (Noggs) triumphed; and
(as he rarely spoke to anybody unless somebody spoke to him) fell
into a grim silence, and rubbed his hands slowly over each other:
cracking the joints of his fingers, and squeezing them into all
possible distortions. The incessant performance of this routine on
every occasion, and the communication of a fixed and rigid look to
his unaffected eye, so as to make it uniform with the other, and to
render it impossible for anybody to determine where or at what he
was looking, were two among the numerous peculiarities of Mr Noggs,
which struck an inexperienced observer at first sight.

'I am going to the London Tavern this morning,' said Mr Nickleby.

'Public meeting?' inquired Noggs.

Mr Nickleby nodded. 'I expect a letter from the solicitor
respecting that mortgage of Ruddle's. If it comes at all, it will
be here by the two o'clock delivery. I shall leave the city about
that time and walk to Charing Cross on the left-hand side of the
way; if there are any letters, come and meet me, and bring them with

Noggs nodded; and as he nodded, there came a ring at the office
bell. The master looked up from his papers, and the clerk calmly
remained in a stationary position.

'The bell,' said Noggs, as though in explanation. 'At home?'


'To anybody?'


'To the tax-gatherer?'

'No! Let him call again.'

Noggs gave vent to his usual grunt, as much as to say 'I thought
so!' and, the ring being repeated, went to the door, whence he
presently returned, ushering in, by the name of Mr Bonney, a pale
gentleman in a violent hurry, who, with his hair standing up in
great disorder all over his head, and a very narrow white cravat
tied loosely round his throat, looked as if he had been knocked up
in the night and had not dressed himself since.

'My dear Nickleby,' said the gentleman, taking off a white hat which
was so full of papers that it would scarcely stick upon his head,
'there's not a moment to lose; I have a cab at the door. Sir
Matthew Pupker takes the chair, and three members of Parliament are
positively coming. I have seen two of them safely out of bed. The
third, who was at Crockford's all night, has just gone home to put a
clean shirt on, and take a bottle or two of soda water, and will
certainly be with us, in time to address the meeting. He is a
little excited by last night, but never mind that; he always speaks
the stronger for it.'

'It seems to promise pretty well,' said Mr Ralph Nickleby, whose
deliberate manner was strongly opposed to the vivacity of the other
man of business.

'Pretty well!' echoed Mr Bonney. 'It's the finest idea that was
ever started. "United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet
Baking and Punctual Delivery Company. Capital, five millions, in
five hundred thousand shares of ten pounds each." Why the very name
will get the shares up to a premium in ten days.'

'And when they ARE at a premium,' said Mr Ralph Nickleby, smiling.

'When they are, you know what to do with them as well as any man
alive, and how to back quietly out at the right time,' said Mr
Bonney, slapping the capitalist familiarly on the shoulder. 'By-
the-bye, what a VERY remarkable man that clerk of yours is.'

'Yes, poor devil!' replied Ralph, drawing on his gloves. 'Though
Newman Noggs kept his horses and hounds once.'

'Ay, ay?' said the other carelessly.

'Yes,' continued Ralph, 'and not many years ago either; but he
squandered his money, invested it anyhow, borrowed at interest, and
in short made first a thorough fool of himself, and then a beggar.
He took to drinking, and had a touch of paralysis, and then came
here to borrow a pound, as in his better days I had--'

'Done business with him,' said Mr Bonney with a meaning look.

'Just so,' replied Ralph; 'I couldn't lend it, you know.'

'Oh, of course not.'

'But as I wanted a clerk just then, to open the door and so forth, I
took him out of charity, and he has remained with me ever since. He
is a little mad, I think,' said Mr Nickleby, calling up a charitable
look, 'but he is useful enough, poor creature--useful enough.'

The kind-hearted gentleman omitted to add that Newman Noggs, being
utterly destitute, served him for rather less than the usual wages
of a boy of thirteen; and likewise failed to mention in his hasty
chronicle, that his eccentric taciturnity rendered him an especially
valuable person in a place where much business was done, of which it
was desirable no mention should be made out of doors. The other
gentleman was plainly impatient to be gone, however, and as they
hurried into the hackney cabriolet immediately afterwards, perhaps
Mr Nickleby forgot to mention circumstances so unimportant.

There was a great bustle in Bishopsgate Street Within, as they drew
up, and (it being a windy day) half-a-dozen men were tacking across
the road under a press of paper, bearing gigantic announcements that
a Public Meeting would be holden at one o'clock precisely, to take
into consideration the propriety of petitioning Parliament in favour
of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking
and Punctual Delivery Company, capital five millions, in five
hundred thousand shares of ten pounds each; which sums were duly set
forth in fat black figures of considerable size. Mr Bonney elbowed
his way briskly upstairs, receiving in his progress many low bows
from the waiters who stood on the landings to show the way; and,
followed by Mr Nickleby, dived into a suite of apartments behind the
great public room: in the second of which was a business-looking
table, and several business-looking people.

'Hear!' cried a gentleman with a double chin, as Mr Bonney presented
himself. 'Chair, gentlemen, chair!'

The new-comers were received with universal approbation, and Mr
Bonney bustled up to the top of the table, took off his hat, ran his
fingers through his hair, and knocked a hackney-coachman's knock on
the table with a little hammer: whereat several gentlemen cried
'Hear!' and nodded slightly to each other, as much as to say what
spirited conduct that was. Just at this moment, a waiter, feverish
with agitation, tore into the room, and throwing the door open with
a crash, shouted 'Sir Matthew Pupker!'

The committee stood up and clapped their hands for joy, and while
they were clapping them, in came Sir Matthew Pupker, attended by two
live members of Parliament, one Irish and one Scotch, all smiling
and bowing, and looking so pleasant that it seemed a perfect marvel
how any man could have the heart to vote against them. Sir Matthew
Pupker especially, who had a little round head with a flaxen wig on
the top of it, fell into such a paroxysm of bows, that the wig
threatened to be jerked off, every instant. When these symptoms had
in some degree subsided, the gentlemen who were on speaking terms
with Sir Matthew Pupker, or the two other members, crowded round
them in three little groups, near one or other of which the
gentlemen who were NOT on speaking terms with Sir Matthew Pupker or
the two other members, stood lingering, and smiling, and rubbing
their hands, in the desperate hope of something turning up which
might bring them into notice. All this time, Sir Matthew Pupker and
the two other members were relating to their separate circles what
the intentions of government were, about taking up the bill; with a
full account of what the government had said in a whisper the last
time they dined with it, and how the government had been observed to
wink when it said so; from which premises they were at no loss to
draw the conclusion, that if the government had one object more at
heart than another, that one object was the welfare and advantage of
the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and
Punctual Delivery Company.

Meanwhile, and pending the arrangement of the proceedings, and a
fair division of the speechifying, the public in the large room were
eyeing, by turns, the empty platform, and the ladies in the Music
Gallery. In these amusements the greater portion of them had been
occupied for a couple of hours before, and as the most agreeable
diversions pall upon the taste on a too protracted enjoyment of
them, the sterner spirits now began to hammer the floor with their
boot-heels, and to express their dissatisfaction by various hoots
and cries. These vocal exertions, emanating from the people who had
been there longest, naturally proceeded from those who were nearest
to the platform and furthest from the policemen in attendance, who
having no great mind to fight their way through the crowd, but
entertaining nevertheless a praiseworthy desire to do something to
quell the disturbance, immediately began to drag forth, by the coat
tails and collars, all the quiet people near the door; at the same
time dealing out various smart and tingling blows with their
truncheons, after the manner of that ingenious actor, Mr Punch:
whose brilliant example, both in the fashion of his weapons and
their use, this branch of the executive occasionally follows.

Several very exciting skirmishes were in progress, when a loud shout
attracted the attention even of the belligerents, and then there
poured on to the platform, from a door at the side, a long line of
gentlemen with their hats off, all looking behind them, and uttering
vociferous cheers; the cause whereof was sufficiently explained when
Sir Matthew Pupker and the two other real members of Parliament came
to the front, amidst deafening shouts, and testified to each other
in dumb motions that they had never seen such a glorious sight as
that, in the whole course of thier public career.

At length, and at last, the assembly left off shouting, but Sir
Matthew Pupker being voted into the chair, they underwent a relapse
which lasted five minutes. This over, Sir Matthew Pupker went on to
say what must be his feelings on that great occasion, and what must
be that occasion in the eyes of the world, and what must be the
intelligence of his fellow-countrymen before him, and what must be
the wealth and respectability of his honourable friends behind him,
and lastly, what must be the importance to the wealth, the
happiness, the comfort, the liberty, the very existence of a free
and great people, of such an Institution as the United Metropolitan
Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery

Mr Bonney then presented himself to move the first resolution; and
having run his right hand through his hair, and planted his left, in
an easy manner, in his ribs, he consigned his hat to the care of the
gentleman with the double chin (who acted as a species of bottle-
holder to the orators generally), and said he would read to them the
first resolution--'That this meeting views with alarm and
apprehension, the existing state of the Muffin Trade in this
Metropolis and its neighbourhood; that it considers the Muffin Boys,
as at present constituted, wholly underserving the confidence of the
public; and that it deems the whole Muffin system alike prejudicial
to the health and morals of the people, and subversive of the best
interests of a great commercial and mercantile community.' The
honourable gentleman made a speech which drew tears from the eyes of
the ladies, and awakened the liveliest emotions in every individual
present. He had visited the houses of the poor in the various
districts of London, and had found them destitute of the slightest
vestige of a muffin, which there appeared too much reason to believe
some of these indigent persons did not taste from year's end to
year's end. He had found that among muffin-sellers there existed
drunkenness, debauchery, and profligacy, which he attributed to the
debasing nature of their employment as at present exercised; he had
found the same vices among the poorer class of people who ought to
be muffin consumers; and this he attributed to the despair
engendered by their being placed beyond the reach of that nutritious
article, which drove them to seek a false stimulant in intoxicating
liquors. He would undertake to prove before a committee of the
House of Commons, that there existed a combination to keep up the
price of muffins, and to give the bellmen a monopoly; he would prove
it by bellmen at the bar of that House; and he would also prove,
that these men corresponded with each other by secret words and
signs as 'Snooks,' 'Walker,' 'Ferguson,' 'Is Murphy right?' and many
others. It was this melancholy state of things that the Company
proposed to correct; firstly, by prohibiting, under heavy penalties,
all private muffin trading of every description; secondly, by
themselves supplying the public generally, and the poor at their own
homes, with muffins of first quality at reduced prices. It was with
this object that a bill had been introduced into Parliament by their
patriotic chairman Sir Matthew Pupker; it was this bill that they
had met to support; it was the supporters of this bill who would
confer undying brightness and splendour upon England, under the name
of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking
and Punctual Delivery Company; he would add, with a capital of Five
Millions, in five hundred thousand shares of ten pounds each.

Mr Ralph Nickleby seconded the resolution, and another gentleman
having moved that it be amended by the insertion of the words 'and
crumpet' after the word 'muffin,' whenever it occurred, it was
carried triumphantly. Only one man in the crowd cried 'No!' and he
was promptly taken into custody, and straightway borne off.

The second resolution, which recognised the expediency of
immediately abolishing 'all muffin (or crumpet) sellers, all traders
in muffins (or crumpets) of whatsoever description, whether male or
female, boys or men, ringing hand-bells or otherwise,' was moved by
a grievous gentleman of semi-clerical appearance, who went at once
into such deep pathetics, that he knocked the first speaker clean
out of the course in no time. You might have heard a pin fall--a
pin! a feather--as he described the cruelties inflicted on muffin
boys by their masters, which he very wisely urged were in themselves
a sufficient reason for the establishment of that inestimable
company. It seemed that the unhappy youths were nightly turned out
into the wet streets at the most inclement periods of the year, to
wander about, in darkness and rain--or it might be hail or snow--for
hours together, without shelter, food, or warmth; and let the public
never forget upon the latter point, that while the muffins were
provided with warm clothing and blankets, the boys were wholly
unprovided for, and left to their own miserable resources. (Shame!)
The honourable gentleman related one case of a muffin boy, who
having been exposed to this inhuman and barbarous system for no less
than five years, at length fell a victim to a cold in the head,
beneath which he gradually sunk until he fell into a perspiration
and recovered; this he could vouch for, on his own authority, but he
had heard (and he had no reason to doubt the fact) of a still more
heart-rending and appalling circumstance. He had heard of the case
of an orphan muffin boy, who, having been run over by a hackney
carriage, had been removed to the hospital, had undergone the
amputation of his leg below the knee, and was now actually pursuing
his occupation on crutches. Fountain of justice, were these things
to last!

This was the department of the subject that took the meeting, and
this was the style of speaking to enlist their sympathies. The men
shouted; the ladies wept into their pocket-handkerchiefs till they
were moist, and waved them till they were dry; the excitement was
tremendous; and Mr Nickleby whispered his friend that the shares
were thenceforth at a premium of five-and-twenty per cent.

The resolution was, of course, carried with loud acclamations, every
man holding up both hands in favour of it, as he would in his
enthusiasm have held up both legs also, if he could have
conveniently accomplished it. This done, the draft of the proposed
petition was read at length: and the petition said, as all petitions
DO say, that the petitioners were very humble, and the petitioned
very honourable, and the object very virtuous; therefore (said the
petition) the bill ought to be passed into a law at once, to the
everlasting honour and glory of that most honourable and glorious
Commons of England in Parliament assembled.

Then, the gentleman who had been at Crockford's all night, and who
looked something the worse about the eyes in consequence, came
forward to tell his fellow-countrymen what a speech he meant to make
in favour of that petition whenever it should be presented, and how
desperately he meant to taunt the parliament if they rejected the
bill; and to inform them also, that he regretted his honourable
friends had not inserted a clause rendering the purchase of muffins
and crumpets compulsory upon all classes of the community, which he
--opposing all half-measures, and preferring to go the extreme
animal-- pledged himself to propose and divide upon, in committee.
After announcing this determination, the honourable gentleman grew
jocular; and as patent boots, lemon-coloured kid gloves, and a fur
coat collar, assist jokes materially, there was immense laughter and
much cheering, and moreover such a brilliant display of ladies'
pocket-handkerchiefs, as threw the grievous gentleman quite into the

And when the petition had been read and was about to be adopted,
there came forward the Irish member (who was a young gentleman of
ardent temperament,) with such a speech as only an Irish member can
make, breathing the true soul and spirit of poetry, and poured forth
with such fervour, that it made one warm to look at him; in the
course whereof, he told them how he would demand the extension of
that great boon to his native country; how he would claim for her
equal rights in the muffin laws as in all other laws; and how he yet
hoped to see the day when crumpets should be toasted in her lowly
cabins, and muffin bells should ring in her rich green valleys.
And, after him, came the Scotch member, with various pleasant
allusions to the probable amount of profits, which increased the
good humour that the poetry had awakened; and all the speeches put
together did exactly what they were intended to do, and established
in the hearers' minds that there was no speculation so promising, or
at the same time so praiseworthy, as the United Metropolitan
Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery

So, the petition in favour of the bill was agreed upon, and the
meeting adjourned with acclamations, and Mr Nickleby and the other
directors went to the office to lunch, as they did every day at
half-past one o'clock; and to remunerate themselves for which
trouble, (as the company was yet in its infancy,) they only charged
three guineas each man for every such attendance.

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