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Charles Dickens > Nicholas Nickleby > Chapter 3

Nicholas Nickleby

Chapter 3

Mr Ralph Nickleby receives Sad Tidings of his Brother, but bears up
nobly against the Intelligence communicated to him. The Reader is
informed how he liked Nicholas, who is herein introduced, and how
kindly he proposed to make his Fortune at once

Having rendered his zealous assistance towards dispatching the
lunch, with all that promptitude and energy which are among the most
important qualities that men of business can possess, Mr Ralph
Nickleby took a cordial farewell of his fellow-speculators, and bent
his steps westward in unwonted good humour. As he passed St Paul's
he stepped aside into a doorway to set his watch, and with his hand
on the key and his eye on the cathedral dial, was intent upon so
doing, when a man suddenly stopped before him. It was Newman Noggs.

'Ah! Newman,' said Mr Nickleby, looking up as he pursued his
occupation. 'The letter about the mortgage has come, has it? I
thought it would.'

'Wrong,' replied Newman.

'What! and nobody called respecting it?' inquired Mr Nickleby,
pausing. Noggs shook his head.

'What HAS come, then?' inquired Mr Nickleby.

'I have,' said Newman.

'What else?' demanded the master, sternly.

'This,' said Newman, drawing a sealed letter slowly from his pocket.
'Post-mark, Strand, black wax, black border, woman's hand, C. N. in
the corner.'

'Black wax?' said Mr Nickleby, glancing at the letter. 'I know
something of that hand, too. Newman, I shouldn't be surprised if my
brother were dead.'

'I don't think you would,' said Newman, quietly.

'Why not, sir?' demanded Mr Nickleby.

'You never are surprised,' replied Newman, 'that's all.'

Mr Nickleby snatched the letter from his assistant, and fixing a
cold look upon him, opened, read it, put it in his pocket, and
having now hit the time to a second, began winding up his watch.

'It is as I expected, Newman,' said Mr Nickleby, while he was thus
engaged. 'He IS dead. Dear me! Well, that's sudden thing. I
shouldn't have thought it, really.' With these touching expressions
of sorrow, Mr Nickleby replaced his watch in his fob, and, fitting
on his gloves to a nicety, turned upon his way, and walked slowly
westward with his hands behind him.

'Children alive?' inquired Noggs, stepping up to him.

'Why, that's the very thing,' replied Mr Nickleby, as though his
thoughts were about them at that moment. 'They are both alive.'

'Both!' repeated Newman Noggs, in a low voice.

'And the widow, too,' added Mr Nickleby, 'and all three in London,
confound them; all three here, Newman.'

Newman fell a little behind his master, and his face was curiously
twisted as by a spasm; but whether of paralysis, or grief, or inward
laughter, nobody but himself could possibly explain. The expression
of a man's face is commonly a help to his thoughts, or glossary on
his speech; but the countenance of Newman Noggs, in his ordinary
moods, was a problem which no stretch of ingenuity could solve.

'Go home!' said Mr Nickleby, after they had walked a few paces:
looking round at the clerk as if he were his dog. The words were
scarcely uttered when Newman darted across the road, slunk among the
crowd, and disappeared in an instant.

'Reasonable, certainly!' muttered Mr Nickleby to himself, as he
walked on, 'very reasonable! My brother never did anything for me,
and I never expected it; the breath is no sooner out of his body
than I am to be looked to, as the support of a great hearty woman,
and a grown boy and girl. What are they to me! I never saw them.'

Full of these, and many other reflections of a similar kind, Mr
Nickleby made the best of his way to the Strand, and, referring to
his letter as if to ascertain the number of the house he wanted,
stopped at a private door about half-way down that crowded

A miniature painter lived there, for there was a large gilt frame
screwed upon the street-door, in which were displayed, upon a black
velvet ground, two portraits of naval dress coats with faces looking
out of them, and telescopes attached; one of a young gentleman in a
very vermilion uniform, flourishing a sabre; and one of a literary
character with a high forehead, a pen and ink, six books, and a
curtain. There was, moreover, a touching representation of a young
lady reading a manuscript in an unfathomable forest, and a charming
whole length of a large-headed little boy, sitting on a stool with
his legs fore-shortened to the size of salt-spoons. Besides these
works of art, there were a great many heads of old ladies and
gentlemen smirking at each other out of blue and brown skies, and an
elegantly written card of terms with an embossed border.

Mr Nickleby glanced at these frivolities with great contempt, and
gave a double knock, which, having been thrice repeated, was
answered by a servant girl with an uncommonly dirty face.

'Is Mrs Nickleby at home, girl?' demanded Ralph sharply.

'Her name ain't Nickleby,' said the girl, 'La Creevy, you mean.'

Mr Nickleby looked very indignant at the handmaid on being thus
corrected, and demanded with much asperity what she meant; which she
was about to state, when a female voice proceeding from a
perpendicular staircase at the end of the passage, inquired who was

'Mrs Nickleby,' said Ralph.

'It's the second floor, Hannah,' said the same voice; 'what a stupid
thing you are! Is the second floor at home?'

'Somebody went out just now, but I think it was the attic which had
been a cleaning of himself,' replied the girl.

'You had better see,' said the invisible female. 'Show the
gentleman where the bell is, and tell him he mustn't knock double
knocks for the second floor; I can't allow a knock except when the
bell's broke, and then it must be two single ones.'

'Here,' said Ralph, walking in without more parley, 'I beg your
pardon; is that Mrs La what's-her-name?'

'Creevy--La Creevy,' replied the voice, as a yellow headdress bobbed
over the banisters.

'I'll speak to you a moment, ma'am, with your leave,' said Ralph.

The voice replied that the gentleman was to walk up; but he had
walked up before it spoke, and stepping into the first floor, was
received by the wearer of the yellow head-dress, who had a gown to
correspond, and was of much the same colour herself. Miss La Creevy
was a mincing young lady of fifty, and Miss La Creevy's apartment
was the gilt frame downstairs on a larger scale and something

'Hem!' said Miss La Creevy, coughing delicately behind her black
silk mitten. 'A miniature, I presume. A very strongly-marked
countenance for the purpose, sir. Have you ever sat before?'

'You mistake my purpose, I see, ma'am,' replied Mr Nickleby, in his
usual blunt fashion. 'I have no money to throw away on miniatures,
ma'am, and nobody to give one to (thank God) if I had. Seeing you
on the stairs, I wanted to ask a question of you, about some lodgers

Miss La Creevy coughed once more--this cough was to conceal her
disappointment--and said, 'Oh, indeed!'

'I infer from what you said to your servant, that the floor above
belongs to you, ma'am,' said Mr Nickleby.

Yes it did, Miss La Creevy replied. The upper part of the house
belonged to her, and as she had no necessity for the second-floor
rooms just then, she was in the habit of letting them. Indeed,
there was a lady from the country and her two children in them, at
that present speaking.

'A widow, ma'am?' said Ralph.

'Yes, she is a widow,' replied the lady.

'A POOR widow, ma'am,' said Ralph, with a powerful emphasis on that
little adjective which conveys so much.

'Well, I'm afraid she IS poor,' rejoined Miss La Creevy.

'I happen to know that she is, ma'am,' said Ralph. 'Now, what
business has a poor widow in such a house as this, ma'am?'

'Very true,' replied Miss La Creevy, not at all displeased with this
implied compliment to the apartments. 'Exceedingly true.'

'I know her circumstances intimately, ma'am,' said Ralph; 'in fact,
I am a relation of the family; and I should recommend you not to
keep them here, ma'am.'

'I should hope, if there was any incompatibility to meet the
pecuniary obligations,' said Miss La Creevy with another cough,
'that the lady's family would--'

'No they wouldn't, ma'am,' interrupted Ralph, hastily. 'Don't think

'If I am to understand that,' said Miss La Creevy, 'the case wears a
very different appearance.'

'You may understand it then, ma'am,' said Ralph, 'and make your
arrangements accordingly. I am the family, ma'am--at least, I
believe I am the only relation they have, and I think it right that
you should know I can't support them in their extravagances. How
long have they taken these lodgings for?'

'Only from week to week,' replied Miss La Creevy. 'Mrs Nickleby
paid the first week in advance.'

'Then you had better get them out at the end of it,' said Ralph.
'They can't do better than go back to the country, ma'am; they are
in everybody's way here.'

'Certainly,' said Miss La Creevy, rubbing her hands, 'if Mrs
Nickleby took the apartments without the means of paying for them,
it was very unbecoming a lady.'

'Of course it was, ma'am,' said Ralph.

'And naturally,' continued Miss La Creevy, 'I who am, AT PRESENT--
hem--an unprotected female, cannot afford to lose by the apartments.'

'Of course you can't, ma'am,' replied Ralph.

'Though at the same time,' added Miss La Creevy, who was plainly
wavering between her good-nature and her interest, 'I have nothing
whatever to say against the lady, who is extremely pleasant and
affable, though, poor thing, she seems terribly low in her spirits;
nor against the young people either, for nicer, or better-behaved
young people cannot be.'

'Very well, ma'am,' said Ralph, turning to the door, for these
encomiums on poverty irritated him; 'I have done my duty, and
perhaps more than I ought: of course nobody will thank me for saying
what I have.'

'I am sure I am very much obliged to you at least, sir,' said Miss
La Creevy in a gracious manner. 'Would you do me the favour to look
at a few specimens of my portrait painting?'

'You're very good, ma'am,' said Mr Nickleby, making off with great
speed; 'but as I have a visit to pay upstairs, and my time is
precious, I really can't.'

'At any other time when you are passing, I shall be most happy,'
said Miss La Creevy. 'Perhaps you will have the kindness to take a
card of terms with you? Thank you--good-morning!'

'Good-morning, ma'am,' said Ralph, shutting the door abruptly after
him to prevent any further conversation. 'Now for my sister-in-law.

Climbing up another perpendicular flight, composed with great
mechanical ingenuity of nothing but corner stairs, Mr Ralph Nickleby
stopped to take breath on the landing, when he was overtaken by the
handmaid, whom the politeness of Miss La Creevy had dispatched to
announce him, and who had apparently been making a variety of
unsuccessful attempts, since their last interview, to wipe her dirty
face clean, upon an apron much dirtier.

'What name?' said the girl.

'Nickleby,' replied Ralph.

'Oh! Mrs Nickleby,' said the girl, throwing open the door, 'here's
Mr Nickleby.'

A lady in deep mourning rose as Mr Ralph Nickleby entered, but
appeared incapable of advancing to meet him, and leant upon the arm
of a slight but very beautiful girl of about seventeen, who had been
sitting by her. A youth, who appeared a year or two older, stepped
forward and saluted Ralph as his uncle.

'Oh,' growled Ralph, with an ill-favoured frown, 'you are Nicholas,
I suppose?'

'That is my name, sir,' replied the youth.

'Put my hat down,' said Ralph, imperiously. 'Well, ma'am, how do
you do? You must bear up against sorrow, ma'am; I always do.'

'Mine was no common loss!' said Mrs Nickleby, applying her
handkerchief to her eyes.

'It was no UNcommon loss, ma'am,' returned Ralph, as he coolly
unbuttoned his spencer. 'Husbands die every day, ma'am, and wives

'And brothers also, sir,' said Nicholas, with a glance of indignation.

'Yes, sir, and puppies, and pug-dogs likewise,' replied his uncle,
taking a chair. 'You didn't mention in your letter what my
brother's complaint was, ma'am.'

'The doctors could attribute it to no particular disease,' said Mrs
Nickleby; shedding tears. 'We have too much reason to fear that he
died of a broken heart.'

'Pooh!' said Ralph, 'there's no such thing. I can understand a
man's dying of a broken neck, or suffering from a broken arm, or a
broken head, or a broken leg, or a broken nose; but a broken heart!
--nonsense, it's the cant of the day. If a man can't pay his debts,
he dies of a broken heart, and his widow's a martyr.'

'Some people, I believe, have no hearts to break,' observed
Nicholas, quietly.

'How old is this boy, for God's sake?' inquired Ralph, wheeling back
his chair, and surveying his nephew from head to foot with intense

'Nicholas is very nearly nineteen,' replied the widow.

'Nineteen, eh!' said Ralph; 'and what do you mean to do for your
bread, sir?'

'Not to live upon my mother,' replied Nicholas, his heart swelling
as he spoke.

'You'd have little enough to live upon, if you did,' retorted the
uncle, eyeing him contemptuously.

'Whatever it be,' said Nicholas, flushed with anger, 'I shall not
look to you to make it more.'

'Nicholas, my dear, recollect yourself,' remonstrated Mrs Nickleby.

'Dear Nicholas, pray,' urged the young lady.

'Hold your tongue, sir,' said Ralph. 'Upon my word! Fine
beginnings, Mrs Nickleby--fine beginnings!'

Mrs Nickleby made no other reply than entreating Nicholas by a
gesture to keep silent; and the uncle and nephew looked at each
other for some seconds without speaking. The face of the old man
was stern, hard-featured, and forbidding; that of the young one,
open, handsome, and ingenuous. The old man's eye was keen with the
twinklings of avarice and cunning; the young man's bright with the
light of intelligence and spirit. His figure was somewhat slight,
but manly and well formed; and, apart from all the grace of youth
and comeliness, there was an emanation from the warm young heart in
his look and bearing which kept the old man down.

However striking such a contrast as this may be to lookers-on, none
ever feel it with half the keenness or acuteness of perfection with
which it strikes to the very soul of him whose inferiority it marks.
It galled Ralph to the heart's core, and he hated Nicholas from that

The mutual inspection was at length brought to a close by Ralph
withdrawing his eyes, with a great show of disdain, and calling
Nicholas 'a boy.' This word is much used as a term of reproach by
elderly gentlemen towards their juniors: probably with the view of
deluding society into the belief that if they could be young again,
they wouldn't on any account.

'Well, ma'am,' said Ralph, impatiently, 'the creditors have
administered, you tell me, and there's nothing left for you?'

'Nothing,' replied Mrs Nickleby.

'And you spent what little money you had, in coming all the way to
London, to see what I could do for you?' pursued Ralph.

'I hoped,' faltered Mrs Nickleby, 'that you might have an
opportunity of doing something for your brother's children. It was
his dying wish that I should appeal to you in their behalf.'

'I don't know how it is,' muttered Ralph, walking up and down the
room, 'but whenever a man dies without any property of his own, he
always seems to think he has a right to dispose of other people's.
What is your daughter fit for, ma'am?'

'Kate has been well educated,' sobbed Mrs Nickleby. 'Tell your
uncle, my dear, how far you went in French and extras.'

The poor girl was about to murmur something, when her uncle stopped
her, very unceremoniously.

'We must try and get you apprenticed at some boarding-school,' said
Ralph. 'You have not been brought up too delicately for that, I

'No, indeed, uncle,' replied the weeping girl. 'I will try to do
anything that will gain me a home and bread.'

'Well, well,' said Ralph, a little softened, either by his niece's
beauty or her distress (stretch a point, and say the latter). 'You
must try it, and if the life is too hard, perhaps dressmaking or
tambour-work will come lighter. Have YOU ever done anything, sir?'
(turning to his nephew.)

'No,' replied Nicholas, bluntly.

'No, I thought not!' said Ralph. 'This is the way my brother
brought up his children, ma'am.'

'Nicholas has not long completed such education as his poor father
could give him,' rejoined Mrs Nickleby, 'and he was thinking of--'

'Of making something of him someday,' said Ralph. 'The old story;
always thinking, and never doing. If my brother had been a man of
activity and prudence, he might have left you a rich woman, ma'am:
and if he had turned his son into the world, as my father turned me,
when I wasn't as old as that boy by a year and a half, he would have
been in a situation to help you, instead of being a burden upon you,
and increasing your distress. My brother was a thoughtless,
inconsiderate man, Mrs Nickleby, and nobody, I am sure, can have
better reason to feel that, than you.'

This appeal set the widow upon thinking that perhaps she might have
made a more successful venture with her one thousand pounds, and
then she began to reflect what a comfortable sum it would have been
just then; which dismal thoughts made her tears flow faster, and in
the excess of these griefs she (being a well-meaning woman enough,
but weak withal) fell first to deploring her hard fate, and then to
remarking, with many sobs, that to be sure she had been a slave to
poor Nicholas, and had often told him she might have married better
(as indeed she had, very often), and that she never knew in his
lifetime how the money went, but that if he had confided in her they
might all have been better off that day; with other bitter
recollections common to most married ladies, either during their
coverture, or afterwards, or at both periods. Mrs Nickleby
concluded by lamenting that the dear departed had never deigned to
profit by her advice, save on one occasion; which was a strictly
veracious statement, inasmuch as he had only acted upon it once, and
had ruined himself in consequence.

Mr Ralph Nickleby heard all this with a half-smile; and when the
widow had finished, quietly took up the subject where it had been
left before the above outbreak.

'Are you willing to work, sir?' he inquired, frowning on his nephew.

'Of course I am,' replied Nicholas haughtily.

'Then see here, sir,' said his uncle. 'This caught my eye this
morning, and you may thank your stars for it.'

With this exordium, Mr Ralph Nickleby took a newspaper from his
pocket, and after unfolding it, and looking for a short time among
the advertisements, read as follows:

'"EDUCATION.--At Mr Wackford Squeers's Academy, Dotheboys Hall, at
the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire,
Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money,
provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living
and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy,
trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if
required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other
branch of classical literature. Terms, twenty guineas per annum.
No extras, no vacations, and diet unparalleled. Mr Squeers is in
town, and attends daily, from one till four, at the Saracen's Head,
Snow Hill. N.B. An able assistant wanted. Annual salary 5 pounds.
A Master of Arts would be preferred."

'There!' said Ralph, folding the paper again. 'Let him get that
situation, and his fortune is made.'

'But he is not a Master of Arts,' said Mrs Nickleby.

'That,' replied Ralph, 'that, I think, can be got over.'

'But the salary is so small, and it is such a long way off, uncle!'
faltered Kate.

'Hush, Kate my dear,' interposed Mrs Nickleby; 'your uncle must know

'I say,' repeated Ralph, tartly, 'let him get that situation, and
his fortune is made. If he don't like that, let him get one for
himself. Without friends, money, recommendation, or knowledge of
business of any kind, let him find honest employment in London,
which will keep him in shoe leather, and I'll give him a thousand
pounds. At least,' said Mr Ralph Nickleby, checking himself, 'I
would if I had it.'

'Poor fellow!' said the young lady. 'Oh! uncle, must we be
separated so soon!'

'Don't tease your uncle with questions when he is thinking only for
our good, my love,' said Mrs Nickleby. 'Nicholas, my dear, I wish
you would say something.'

'Yes, mother, yes,' said Nicholas, who had hitherto remained silent
and absorbed in thought. 'If I am fortunate enough to be appointed
to this post, sir, for which I am so imperfectly qualified, what
will become of those I leave behind?'

'Your mother and sister, sir,' replied Ralph, 'will be provided for,
in that case (not otherwise), by me, and placed in some sphere of
life in which they will be able to be independent. That will be my
immediate care; they will not remain as they are, one week after
your departure, I will undertake.'

'Then,' said Nicholas, starting gaily up, and wringing his uncle's
hand, 'I am ready to do anything you wish me. Let us try our
fortune with Mr Squeers at once; he can but refuse.'

'He won't do that,' said Ralph. 'He will be glad to have you on my
recommendation. Make yourself of use to him, and you'll rise to be
a partner in the establishment in no time. Bless me, only think! if
he were to die, why your fortune's made at once.'

'To be sure, I see it all,' said poor Nicholas, delighted with a
thousand visionary ideas, that his good spirits and his inexperience
were conjuring up before him. 'Or suppose some young nobleman who
is being educated at the Hall, were to take a fancy to me, and get
his father to appoint me his travelling tutor when he left, and when
we come back from the continent, procured me some handsome appointment.
Eh! uncle?'

'Ah, to be sure!' sneered Ralph.

'And who knows, but when he came to see me when I was settled (as he
would of course), he might fall in love with Kate, who would be
keeping my house, and--and marry her, eh! uncle? Who knows?'

'Who, indeed!' snarled Ralph.

'How happy we should be!' cried Nicholas with enthusiasm. 'The pain
of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again. Kate will be a
beautiful woman, and I so proud to hear them say so, and mother so
happy to be with us once again, and all these sad times forgotten,
and--' The picture was too bright a one to bear, and Nicholas,
fairly overpowered by it, smiled faintly, and burst into tears.

This simple family, born and bred in retirement, and wholly
unacquainted with what is called the world--a conventional phrase
which, being interpreted, often signifieth all the rascals in it--
mingled their tears together at the thought of their first
separation; and, this first gush of feeling over, were proceeding to
dilate with all the buoyancy of untried hope on the bright prospects
before them, when Mr Ralph Nickleby suggested, that if they lost
time, some more fortunate candidate might deprive Nicholas of the
stepping-stone to fortune which the advertisement pointed out, and
so undermine all their air-built castles. This timely reminder
effectually stopped the conversation. Nicholas, having carefully
copied the address of Mr Squeers, the uncle and nephew issued forth
together in quest of that accomplished gentleman; Nicholas firmly
persuading himself that he had done his relative great injustice in
disliking him at first sight; and Mrs Nickleby being at some pains
to inform her daughter that she was sure he was a much more kindly
disposed person than he seemed; which, Miss Nickleby dutifully
remarked, he might very easily be.

To tell the truth, the good lady's opinion had been not a little
influenced by her brother-in-law's appeal to her better
understanding, and his implied compliment to her high deserts; and
although she had dearly loved her husband, and still doted on her
children, he had struck so successfully on one of those little
jarring chords in the human heart (Ralph was well acquainted with
its worst weaknesses, though he knew nothing of its best), that she
had already begun seriously to consider herself the amiable and
suffering victim of her late husband's imprudence.

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