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Charles Dickens > Nicholas Nickleby > Chapter 56

Nicholas Nickleby

Chapter 56

Ralph Nickleby, baffled by his Nephew in his late Design, hatches a
Scheme of Retaliation which Accident suggests to him, and takes into
his Counsels a tried Auxiliary

The course which these adventures shape out for themselves, and
imperatively call upon the historian to observe, now demands that
they should revert to the point they attained previously to the
commencement of the last chapter, when Ralph Nickleby and Arthur
Gride were left together in the house where death had so suddenly
reared his dark and heavy banner.

With clenched hands, and teeth ground together so firm and tight
that no locking of the jaws could have fixed and riveted them more
securely, Ralph stood, for some minutes, in the attitude in which he
had last addressed his nephew: breathing heavily, but as rigid and
motionless in other respects as if he had been a brazen statue.
After a time, he began, by slow degrees, as a man rousing himself
from heavy slumber, to relax. For a moment he shook his clasped
fist towards the door by which Nicholas had disappeared; and then
thrusting it into his breast, as if to repress by force even this
show of passion, turned round and confronted the less hardy usurer,
who had not yet risen from the ground.

The cowering wretch, who still shook in every limb, and whose few
grey hairs trembled and quivered on his head with abject dismay,
tottered to his feet as he met Ralph's eye, and, shielding his face
with both hands, protested, while he crept towards the door, that it
was no fault of his.

'Who said it was, man?' returned Ralph, in a suppressed voice. 'Who
said it was?'

'You looked as if you thought I was to blame,' said Gride, timidly.

'Pshaw!' Ralph muttered, forcing a laugh. 'I blame him for not
living an hour longer. One hour longer would have been long enough.
I blame no one else.'

'N--n--no one else?' said Gride.

'Not for this mischance,' replied Ralph. 'I have an old score to
clear with that young fellow who has carried off your mistress;
but that has nothing to do with his blustering just now, for we
should soon have been quit of him, but for this cursed accident.'

There was something so unnatural in the calmness with which Ralph
Nickleby spoke, when coupled with his face, the expression of the
features, to which every nerve and muscle, as it twitched and
throbbed with a spasm whose workings no effort could conceal, gave,
every instant, some new and frightful aspect--there was something so
unnatural and ghastly in the contrast between his harsh, slow,
steady voice (only altered by a certain halting of the breath which
made him pause between almost every word like a drunken man bent
upon speaking plainly), and these evidences of the most intense and
violent passion, and the struggle he made to keep them under; that
if the dead body which lay above had stood, instead of him, before
the cowering Gride, it could scarcely have presented a spectacle
which would have terrified him more.

'The coach,' said Ralph after a time, during which he had struggled
like some strong man against a fit. 'We came in a coach. Is it

Gride gladly availed himself of the pretext for going to the window
to see. Ralph, keeping his face steadily the other way, tore at his
shirt with the hand which he had thrust into his breast, and
muttered in a hoarse whisper:

'Ten thousand pounds! He said ten thousand! The precise sum paid
in but yesterday for the two mortgages, and which would have gone
out again, at heavy interest, tomorrow. If that house has failed,
and he the first to bring the news!--Is the coach there?'

'Yes, yes,' said Gride, startled by the fierce tone of the inquiry.
'It's here. Dear, dear, what a fiery man you are!'

'Come here,' said Ralph, beckoning to him. 'We mustn't make a show
of being disturbed. We'll go down arm in arm.'

'But you pinch me black and blue,' urged Gride.

Ralph let him go impatiently, and descending the stairs with his
usual firm and heavy tread, got into the coach. Arthur Gride
followed. After looking doubtfully at Ralph when the man asked
where he was to drive, and finding that he remained silent, and
expressed no wish upon the subject, Arthur mentioned his own house,
and thither they proceeded.

On their way, Ralph sat in the furthest corner with folded arms, and
uttered not a word. With his chin sunk upon his breast, and his
downcast eyes quite hidden by the contraction of his knotted brows,
he might have been asleep for any sign of consciousness he gave
until the coach stopped, when he raised his head, and glancing
through the window, inquired what place that was.

'My house,' answered the disconsolate Gride, affected perhaps by its
loneliness. 'Oh dear! my house.'

'True,' said Ralph 'I have not observed the way we came. I should
like a glass of water. You have that in the house, I suppose?'

'You shall have a glass of--of anything you like,' answered Gride,
with a groan. 'It's no use knocking, coachman. Ring the bell!'

The man rang, and rang, and rang again; then, knocked until the
street re-echoed with the sounds; then, listened at the keyhole of
the door. Nobody came. The house was silent as the grave.

'How's this?' said Ralph impatiently.

'Peg is so very deaf,' answered Gride with a look of anxiety and
alarm. 'Oh dear! Ring again, coachman. She SEES the bell.'

Again the man rang and knocked, and knocked and rang again. Some of
the neighbours threw up their windows, and called across the street
to each other that old Gride's housekeeper must have dropped down
dead. Others collected round the coach, and gave vent to various
surmises; some held that she had fallen asleep; some, that she had
burnt herself to death; some, that she had got drunk; and one very
fat man that she had seen something to eat which had frightened her
so much (not being used to it) that she had fallen into a fit. This
last suggestion particularly delighted the bystanders, who cheered
it rather uproariously, and were, with some difficulty, deterred
from dropping down the area and breaking open the kitchen door to
ascertain the fact. Nor was this all. Rumours having gone abroad
that Arthur was to be married that morning, very particular
inquiries were made after the bride, who was held by the majority to
be disguised in the person of Mr Ralph Nickleby, which gave rise to
much jocose indignation at the public appearance of a bride in boots
and pantaloons, and called forth a great many hoots and groans. At
length, the two money-lenders obtained shelter in a house next door,
and, being accommodated with a ladder, clambered over the wall of
the back-yard--which was not a high one--and descended in safety on
the other side.

'I am almost afraid to go in, I declare,' said Arthur, turning to
Ralph when they were alone. 'Suppose she should be murdered. Lying
with her brains knocked out by a poker, eh?'

'Suppose she were,' said Ralph. 'I tell you, I wish such things
were more common than they are, and more easily done. You may stare
and shiver. I do!'

He applied himself to a pump in the yard; and, having taken a deep
draught of water and flung a quantity on his head and face, regained
his accustomed manner and led the way into the house: Gride
following close at his heels.

It was the same dark place as ever: every room dismal and silent as
it was wont to be, and every ghostly article of furniture in its
customary place. The iron heart of the grim old clock, undisturbed
by all the noise without, still beat heavily within its dusty case;
the tottering presses slunk from the sight, as usual, in their
melancholy corners; the echoes of footsteps returned the same
dreary sound; the long-legged spider paused in his nimble run,
and, scared by the sight of men in that his dull domain, hung
motionless on the wall, counterfeiting death until they should have
passed him by.

From cellar to garret went the two usurers, opening every creaking
door and looking into every deserted room. But no Peg was there.
At last, they sat them down in the apartment which Arthur Gride
usually inhabited, to rest after their search.

'The hag is out, on some preparation for your wedding festivities, I
suppose,' said Ralph, preparing to depart. 'See here! I destroy the
bond; we shall never need it now.'

Gride, who had been peering narrowly about the room, fell, at that
moment, upon his knees before a large chest, and uttered a terrible

'How now?' said Ralph, looking sternly round.

'Robbed! robbed!' screamed Arthur Gride.

'Robbed! of money?'

'No, no, no. Worse! far worse!'

'Of what then?' demanded Ralph.

'Worse than money, worse than money!' cried the old man, casting the
papers out of the chest, like some beast tearing up the earth. 'She
had better have stolen money--all my money--I haven't much! She had
better have made me a beggar than have done this!'

'Done what?' said Ralph. 'Done what, you devil's dotard?'

Still Gride made no answer, but tore and scratched among the papers,
and yelled and screeched like a fiend in torment.

'There is something missing, you say,' said Ralph, shaking him
furiously by the collar. 'What is it?'

'Papers, deeds. I am a ruined man. Lost, lost! I am robbed, I am
ruined! She saw me reading it--reading it of late--I did very
often--She watched me, saw me put it in the box that fitted into
this, the box is gone, she has stolen it. Damnation seize her, she
has robbed me!'

'Of WHAT?' cried Ralph, on whom a sudden light appeared to break,
for his eyes flashed and his frame trembled with agitation as he
clutched Gride by his bony arm. 'Of what?'

'She don't know what it is; she can't read!' shrieked Gride, not
heeding the inquiry. 'There's only one way in which money can be
made of it, and that is by taking it to her. Somebody will read it
for her, and tell her what to do. She and her accomplice will get
money for it and be let off besides; they'll make a merit of it--say
they found it--knew it--and be evidence against me. The only person
it will fall upon is me, me, me!'

'Patience!' said Ralph, clutching him still tighter and eyeing him
with a sidelong look, so fixed and eager as sufficiently to denote
that he had some hidden purpose in what he was about to say. 'Hear
reason. She can't have been gone long. I'll call the police. Do
you but give information of what she has stolen, and they'll lay
hands upon her, trust me. Here! Help!'

'No, no, no!' screamed the old man, putting his hand on Ralph's
mouth. 'I can't, I daren't.'

'Help! help!' cried Ralph.

'No, no, no!' shrieked the other, stamping on the ground with the
energy of a madman. 'I tell you no. I daren't, I daren't!'

'Daren't make this robbery public?' said Ralph.

'No!' rejoined Gride, wringing his hands. 'Hush! Hush! Not a word
of this; not a word must be said. I am undone. Whichever way I
turn, I am undone. I am betrayed. I shall be given up. I shall
die in Newgate!'

With frantic exclamations such as these, and with many others in
which fear, grief, and rage, were strangely blended, the panic-
stricken wretch gradually subdued his first loud outcry, until it
had softened down into a low despairing moan, chequered now and then
by a howl, as, going over such papers as were left in the chest, he
discovered some new loss. With very little excuse for departing so
abruptly, Ralph left him, and, greatly disappointing the loiterers
outside the house by telling them there was nothing the matter, got
into the coach, and was driven to his own home.

A letter lay on his table. He let it lie there for some time, as if
he had not the courage to open it, but at length did so and turned
deadly pale.

'The worst has happened,' he said; 'the house has failed. I see.
The rumour was abroad in the city last night, and reached the ears
of those merchants. Well, well!'

He strode violently up and down the room and stopped again.

'Ten thousand pounds! And only lying there for a day--for one day!
How many anxious years, how many pinching days and sleepless nights,
before I scraped together that ten thousand pounds!--Ten thousand
pounds! How many proud painted dames would have fawned and smiled,
and how many spendthrift blockheads done me lip-service to my face
and cursed me in their hearts, while I turned that ten thousand
pounds into twenty! While I ground, and pinched, and used these
needy borrowers for my pleasure and profit, what smooth-tongued
speeches, and courteous looks, and civil letters, they would have
given me! The cant of the lying world is, that men like me compass
our riches by dissimulation and treachery: by fawning, cringing, and
stooping. Why, how many lies, what mean and abject evasions, what
humbled behaviour from upstarts who, but for my money, would spurn
me aside as they do their betters every day, would that ten thousand
pounds have brought me in! Grant that I had doubled it--made cent.
per cent.--for every sovereign told another--there would not be one
piece of money in all the heap which wouldn't represent ten thousand
mean and paltry lies, told, not by the money-lender, oh no! but by
the money-borrowers, your liberal, thoughtless, generous, dashing
folks, who wouldn't be so mean as save a sixpence for the world!'

Striving, as it would seem, to lose part of the bitterness of his
regrets in the bitterness of these other thoughts, Ralph continued
to pace the room. There was less and less of resolution in his
manner as his mind gradually reverted to his loss; at length,
dropping into his elbow-chair and grasping its sides so firmly that
they creaked again, he said:

'The time has been when nothing could have moved me like the loss of
this great sum. Nothing. For births, deaths, marriages, and all the
events which are of interest to most men, have (unless they are
connected with gain or loss of money) no interest for me. But now,
I swear, I mix up with the loss, his triumph in telling it. If he
had brought it about,--I almost feel as if he had,--I couldn't hate
him more. Let me but retaliate upon him, by degrees, however slow--
let me but begin to get the better of him, let me but turn the
scale--and I can bear it.'

His meditations were long and deep. They terminated in his
dispatching a letter by Newman, addressed to Mr Squeers at the
Saracen's Head, with instructions to inquire whether he had arrived
in town, and, if so, to wait an answer. Newman brought back the
information that Mr Squeers had come by mail that morning, and had
received the letter in bed; but that he sent his duty, and word that
he would get up and wait upon Mr Nickleby directly.

The interval between the delivery of this message, and the arrival
of Mr Squeers, was very short; but, before he came, Ralph had
suppressed every sign of emotion, and once more regained the hard,
immovable, inflexible manner which was habitual to him, and to
which, perhaps, was ascribable no small part of the influence which,
over many men of no very strong prejudices on the score of morality,
he could exert, almost at will.

'Well, Mr Squeers,' he said, welcoming that worthy with his
accustomed smile, of which a sharp look and a thoughtful frown were
part and parcel: 'how do YOU do?'

'Why, sir,' said Mr Squeers, 'I'm pretty well. So's the family, and
so's the boys, except for a sort of rash as is a running through the
school, and rather puts 'em off their feed. But it's a ill wind as
blows no good to nobody; that's what I always say when them lads has
a wisitation. A wisitation, sir, is the lot of mortality.
Mortality itself, sir, is a wisitation. The world is chock full of
wisitations; and if a boy repines at a wisitation and makes you
uncomfortable with his noise, he must have his head punched. That's
going according to the Scripter, that is.'

'Mr Squeers,' said Ralph, drily.


'We'll avoid these precious morsels of morality if you please, and
talk of business.'

'With all my heart, sir,' rejoined Squeers, 'and first let me say--'

'First let ME say, if you please.--Noggs!'

Newman presented himself when the summons had been twice or thrice
repeated, and asked if his master called.

'I did. Go to your dinner. And go at once. Do you hear?'

'It an't time,' said Newman, doggedly.

'My time is yours, and I say it is,' returned Ralph.

'You alter it every day,' said Newman. 'It isn't fair.'

'You don't keep many cooks, and can easily apologise to them for the
trouble,' retorted Ralph. 'Begone, sir!'

Ralph not only issued this order in his most peremptory manner, but,
under pretence of fetching some papers from the little office, saw
it obeyed, and, when Newman had left the house, chained the door, to
prevent the possibility of his returning secretly, by means of his

'I have reason to suspect that fellow,' said Ralph, when he returned
to his own office. 'Therefore, until I have thought of the shortest
and least troublesome way of ruining him, I hold it best to keep him
at a distance.'

'It wouldn't take much to ruin him, I should think,' said Squeers,
with a grin.

'Perhaps not,' answered Ralph. 'Nor to ruin a great many people
whom I know. You were going to say--?'

Ralph's summary and matter-of-course way of holding up this example,
and throwing out the hint that followed it, had evidently an effect
(as doubtless it was designed to have) upon Mr Squeers, who said,
after a little hesitation and in a much more subdued tone:

'Why, what I was a-going to say, sir, is, that this here business
regarding of that ungrateful and hard-hearted chap, Snawley senior,
puts me out of my way, and occasions a inconveniency quite
unparalleled, besides, as I may say, making, for whole weeks
together, Mrs Squeers a perfect widder. It's a pleasure to me to
act with you, of course.'

'Of course,' said Ralph, drily.

'Yes, I say of course,' resumed Mr Squeers, rubbing his knees, 'but
at the same time, when one comes, as I do now, better than two
hundred and fifty mile to take a afferdavid, it does put a man out a
good deal, letting alone the risk.'

'And where may the risk be, Mr Squeers?' said Ralph.

'I said, letting alone the risk,' replied Squeers, evasively.

'And I said, where was the risk?'

'I wasn't complaining, you know, Mr Nickleby,' pleaded Squeers.
'Upon my word I never see such a--'

'I ask you where is the risk?' repeated Ralph, emphatically.

'Where the risk?' returned Squeers, rubbing his knees still harder.
'Why, it an't necessary to mention. Certain subjects is best
awoided. Oh, you know what risk I mean.'

'How often have I told you,' said Ralph, 'and how often am I to tell
you, that you run no risk? What have you sworn, or what are you
asked to swear, but that at such and such a time a boy was left with
you in the name of Smike; that he was at your school for a given
number of years, was lost under such and such circumstances, is now
found, and has been identified by you in such and such keeping?
This is all true; is it not?'

'Yes,' replied Squeers, 'that's all true.'

'Well, then,' said Ralph, 'what risk do you run? Who swears to a
lie but Snawley; a man whom I have paid much less than I have you?'

'He certainly did it cheap, did Snawley,' observed Squeers.

'He did it cheap!' retorted Ralph, testily; 'yes, and he did it
well, and carries it off with a hypocritical face and a sanctified
air, but you! Risk! What do you mean by risk? The certificates are
all genuine, Snawley HAD another son, he HAS been married twice, his
first wife IS dead, none but her ghost could tell that she didn't
write that letter, none but Snawley himself can tell that this is
not his son, and that his son is food for worms! The only perjury
is Snawley's, and I fancy he is pretty well used to it. Where's
your risk?'

'Why, you know,' said Squeers, fidgeting in his chair, 'if you come
to that, I might say where's yours?'

'You might say where's mine!' returned Ralph; 'you may say where's
mine. I don't appear in the business, neither do you. All
Snawley's interest is to stick well to the story he has told; and
all his risk is, to depart from it in the least. Talk of YOUR risk
in the conspiracy!'

'I say,' remonstrated Squeers, looking uneasily round: 'don't call
it that! Just as a favour, don't.'

'Call it what you like,' said Ralph, irritably, 'but attend to me.
This tale was originally fabricated as a means of annoyance against
one who hurt your trade and half cudgelled you to death, and to
enable you to obtain repossession of a half-dead drudge, whom you
wished to regain, because, while you wreaked your vengeance on him
for his share in the business, you knew that the knowledge that he
was again in your power would be the best punishment you could
inflict upon your enemy. Is that so, Mr Squeers?'

'Why, sir,' returned Squeers, almost overpowered by the
determination which Ralph displayed to make everything tell against
him, and by his stern unyielding manner, 'in a measure it was.'

'What does that mean?' said Ralph.

'Why, in a measure means," returned Squeers, 'as it may be, that it
wasn't all on my account, because you had some old grudge to
satisfy, too.'

'If I had not had,' said Ralph, in no way abashed by the reminder,
'do you think I should have helped you?'

'Why no, I don't suppose you would,' Squeers replied. 'I only
wanted that point to be all square and straight between us.'

'How can it ever be otherwise?' retorted Ralph. 'Except that the
account is against me, for I spend money to gratify my hatred, and
you pocket it, and gratify yours at the same time. You are, at
least, as avaricious as you are revengeful. So am I. Which is best
off? You, who win money and revenge, at the same time and by the
same process, and who are, at all events, sure of money, if not of
revenge; or I, who am only sure of spending money in any case, and
can but win bare revenge at last?'

As Mr Squeers could only answer this proposition by shrugs and
smiles, Ralph bade him be silent, and thankful that he was so well
off; and then, fixing his eyes steadily upon him, proceeded to say:

First, that Nicholas had thwarted him in a plan he had formed for
the disposal in marriage of a certain young lady, and had, in the
confusion attendant on her father's sudden death, secured that lady
himself, and borne her off in triumph.

Secondly, that by some will or settlement--certainly by some
instrument in writing, which must contain the young lady's name, and
could be, therefore, easily selected from others, if access to the
place where it was deposited were once secured--she was entitled to
property which, if the existence of this deed ever became known to
her, would make her husband (and Ralph represented that Nicholas was
certain to marry her) a rich and prosperous man, and most formidable

Thirdly, that this deed had been, with others, stolen from one who
had himself obtained or concealed it fraudulently, and who feared to
take any steps for its recovery; and that he (Ralph) knew the thief.

To all this Mr Squeers listened, with greedy ears that devoured
every syllable, and with his one eye and his mouth wide open:
marvelling for what special reason he was honoured with so much of
Ralph's confidence, and to what it all tended.

'Now,' said Ralph, leaning forward, and placing his hand on
Squeers's arm, 'hear the design which I have conceived, and which I
must--I say, must, if I can ripen it--have carried into execution.
No advantage can be reaped from this deed, whatever it is, save by
the girl herself, or her husband; and the possession of this deed by
one or other of them is indispensable to any advantage being gained.
THAT I have discovered beyond the possibility of doubt. I want that
deed brought here, that I may give the man who brings it fifty
pounds in gold, and burn it to ashes before his face.'

Mr Squeers, after following with his eye the action of Ralph's hand
towards the fire-place as if he were at that moment consuming the
paper, drew a long breath, and said:

'Yes; but who's to bring it?'

'Nobody, perhaps, for much is to be done before it can be got at,'
said Ralph. 'But if anybody--you!'

Mr Squeers's first tokens of consternation, and his flat
relinquishment of the task, would have staggered most men, if they
had not immediately occasioned an utter abandonment of the
proposition. On Ralph they produced not the slightest effect.
Resuming, when the schoolmaster had quite talked himself out of
breath, as coolly as if he had never been interrupted, Ralph
proceeded to expatiate on such features of the case as he deemed it
most advisable to lay the greatest stress on.

These were, the age, decrepitude, and weakness of Mrs Sliderskew;
the great improbability of her having any accomplice or even
acquaintance: taking into account her secluded habits, and her long
residence in such a house as Gride's; the strong reason there was to
suppose that the robbery was not the result of a concerted plan:
otherwise she would have watched an opportunity of carrying off a
sum of money; the difficulty she would be placed in when she began
to think on what she had done, and found herself encumbered with
documents of whose nature she was utterly ignorant; and the
comparative ease with which somebody, with a full knowledge of her
position, obtaining access to her, and working on her fears, if
necessary, might worm himself into her confidence and obtain, under
one pretence or another, free possession of the deed. To these were
added such considerations as the constant residence of Mr Squeers at
a long distance from London, which rendered his association with Mrs
Sliderskew a mere masquerading frolic, in which nobody was likely to
recognise him, either at the time or afterwards; the impossibility
of Ralph's undertaking the task himself, he being already known to
her by sight; and various comments on the uncommon tact and
experience of Mr Squeers: which would make his overreaching one old
woman a mere matter of child's play and amusement. In addition to
these influences and persuasions, Ralph drew, with his utmost skill
and power, a vivid picture of the defeat which Nicholas would
sustain, should they succeed, in linking himself to a beggar, where
he expected to wed an heiress--glanced at the immeasurable
importance it must be to a man situated as Squeers, to preserve such
a friend as himself--dwelt on a long train of benefits, conferred
since their first acquaintance, when he had reported favourably of
his treatment of a sickly boy who had died under his hands (and
whose death was very convenient to Ralph and his clients, but this
he did NOT say), and finally hinted that the fifty pounds might be
increased to seventy-five, or, in the event of very great success,
even to a hundred.

These arguments at length concluded, Mr Squeers crossed his legs,
uncrossed them, scratched his head, rubbed his eye, examined the
palms of his hands, and bit his nails, and after exhibiting many
other signs of restlessness and indecision, asked 'whether one
hundred pound was the highest that Mr Nickleby could go.' Being
answered in the affirmative, he became restless again, and, after
some thought, and an unsuccessful inquiry 'whether he couldn't go
another fifty,' said he supposed he must try and do the most he
could for a friend: which was always his maxim, and therefore he
undertook the job.

'But how are you to get at the woman?' he said; 'that's what it is
as puzzles me.'

'I may not get at her at all,' replied Ralph, 'but I'll try. I have
hunted people in this city, before now, who have been better hid
than she; and I know quarters in which a guinea or two, carefully
spent, will often solve darker riddles than this. Ay, and keep them
close too, if need be! I hear my man ringing at the door. We may
as well part. You had better not come to and fro, but wait till you
hear from me.'

'Good!' returned Squeers. 'I say! If you shouldn't find her out,
you'll pay expenses at the Saracen, and something for loss of time?'

'Well,' said Ralph, testily; 'yes! You have nothing more to say?'

Squeers shaking his head, Ralph accompanied him to the streetdoor,
and audibly wondering, for the edification of Newman, why it was
fastened as if it were night, let him in and Squeers out, and
returned to his own room.

'Now!' he muttered, 'come what come may, for the present I am firm
and unshaken. Let me but retrieve this one small portion of my loss
and disgrace; let me but defeat him in this one hope, dear to his
heart as I know it must be; let me but do this; and it shall be the
first link in such a chain which I will wind about him, as never
man forged yet.'

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