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Charles Dickens > Nicholas Nickleby > Chapter 60

Nicholas Nickleby

Chapter 60

The Dangers thicken, and the Worst is told

Instead of going home, Ralph threw himself into the first street
cabriolet he could find, and, directing the driver towards the
police-office of the district in which Mr Squeers's misfortunes had
occurred, alighted at a short distance from it, and, discharging the
man, went the rest of his way thither on foot. Inquiring for the
object of his solicitude, he learnt that he had timed his visit
well; for Mr Squeers was, in fact, at that moment waiting for a
hackney coach he had ordered, and in which he purposed proceeding to
his week's retirement, like a gentleman.

Demanding speech with the prisoner, he was ushered into a kind of
waiting-room in which, by reason of his scholastic profession and
superior respectability, Mr Squeers had been permitted to pass the
day. Here, by the light of a guttering and blackened candle, he
could barely discern the schoolmaster, fast asleep on a bench in a
remote corner. An empty glass stood on a table before him, which,
with his somnolent condition and a very strong smell of brandy and
water, forewarned the visitor that Mr Squeers had been seeking, in
creature comforts, a temporary forgetfulness of his unpleasant

It was not a very easy matter to rouse him: so lethargic and heavy
were his slumbers. Regaining his faculties by slow and faint
glimmerings, he at length sat upright; and, displaying a very yellow
face, a very red nose, and a very bristly beard: the joint effect of
which was considerably heightened by a dirty white handkerchief,
spotted with blood, drawn over the crown of his head and tied under
his chin: stared ruefully at Ralph in silence, until his feelings
found a vent in this pithy sentence:

'I say, young fellow, you've been and done it now; you have!'

'What's the matter with your head?' asked Ralph.

'Why, your man, your informing kidnapping man, has been and broke
it,' rejoined Squeers sulkily; 'that's what's the matter with it.
You've come at last, have you?'

'Why have you not sent to me?' said Ralph. 'How could I come till I
knew what had befallen you?'

'My family!' hiccuped Mr Squeers, raising his eye to the ceiling:
'my daughter, as is at that age when all the sensibilities is a-
coming out strong in blow--my son as is the young Norval of private
life, and the pride and ornament of a doting willage--here's a shock
for my family! The coat-of-arms of the Squeerses is tore, and their
sun is gone down into the ocean wave!'

'You have been drinking,' said Ralph, 'and have not yet slept
yourself sober.'

'I haven't been drinking YOUR health, my codger,' replied Mr
Squeers; 'so you have nothing to do with that.'

Ralph suppressed the indignation which the schoolmaster's altered
and insolent manner awakened, and asked again why he had not sent to

'What should I get by sending to you?' returned Squeers. 'To be
known to be in with you wouldn't do me a deal of good, and they
won't take bail till they know something more of the case, so here
am I hard and fast: and there are you, loose and comfortable.'

'And so must you be in a few days,' retorted Ralph, with affected
good-humour. 'They can't hurt you, man.'

'Why, I suppose they can't do much to me, if I explain how it was
that I got into the good company of that there ca-daverous old
Slider,' replied Squeers viciously, 'who I wish was dead and buried,
and resurrected and dissected, and hung upon wires in a anatomical
museum, before ever I'd had anything to do with her. This is what
him with the powdered head says this morning, in so many words:
"Prisoner! As you have been found in company with this woman; as
you were detected in possession of this document; as you were
engaged with her in fraudulently destroying others, and can give no
satisfactory account of yourself; I shall remand you for a week, in
order that inquiries may be made, and evidence got. And meanwhile I
can't take any bail for your appearance." Well then, what I say now
is, that I CAN give a satisfactory account of myself; I can hand in
the card of my establishment and say, "I am the Wackford Squeers as
is therein named, sir. I am the man as is guaranteed, by
unimpeachable references, to be a out-and-outer in morals and
uprightness of principle. Whatever is wrong in this business is no
fault of mine. I had no evil design in it, sir. I was not aware
that anything was wrong. I was merely employed by a friend, my
friend Mr Ralph Nickleby, of Golden Square. Send for him, sir, and
ask him what he has to say; he's the man; not me!"'

'What document was it that you had?' asked Ralph, evading, for the
moment, the point just raised.

'What document? Why, THE document,' replied Squeers. 'The Madeline
What's-her-name one. It was a will; that's what it was.'

'Of what nature, whose will, when dated, how benefiting her, to what
extent?' asked Ralph hurriedly.

'A will in her favour; that's all I know,' rejoined Squeers, 'and
that's more than you'd have known, if you'd had them bellows on your
head. It's all owing to your precious caution that they got hold of
it. If you had let me burn it, and taken my word that it was gone,
it would have been a heap of ashes behind the fire, instead of being
whole and sound, inside of my great-coat.'

'Beaten at every point!' muttered Ralph.

'Ah!' sighed Squeers, who, between the brandy and water and his
broken head, wandered strangely, 'at the delightful village of
Dotheboys near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, youth are boarded,
clothed, booked, washed, furnished with pocket-money, provided with
all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead,
mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry--this is
a altered state of trigonomics, this is! A double 1--all,
everything--a cobbler's weapon. U-p-up, adjective, not down. S-q-
u-double e-r-s-Squeers, noun substantive, a educator of youth.
Total, all up with Squeers!'

His running on, in this way, had afforded Ralph an opportunity of
recovering his presence of mind, which at once suggested to him the
necessity of removing, as far as possible, the schoolmaster's
misgivings, and leading him to believe that his safety and best
policy lay in the preservation of a rigid silence.

'I tell you, once again,' he said, 'they can't hurt you. You shall
have an action for false imprisonment, and make a profit of this,
yet. We will devise a story for you that should carry you through
twenty times such a trivial scrape as this; and if they want
security in a thousand pounds for your reappearance in case you
should be called upon, you shall have it. All you have to do is, to
keep back the truth. You're a little fuddled tonight, and may not
be able to see this as clearly as you would at another time; but
this is what you must do, and you'll need all your senses about you;
for a slip might be awkward.'

'Oh!' said Squeers, who had looked cunningly at him, with his head
stuck on one side, like an old raven. 'That's what I'm to do, is
it? Now then, just you hear a word or two from me. I an't a-going
to have any stories made for me, and I an't a-going to stick to any.
If I find matters going again me, I shall expect you to take your
share, and I'll take care you do. You never said anything about
danger. I never bargained for being brought into such a plight as
this, and I don't mean to take it as quiet as you think. I let you
lead me on, from one thing to another, because we had been mixed up
together in a certain sort of a way, and if you had liked to be ill-
natured you might perhaps have hurt the business, and if you liked
to be good-natured you might throw a good deal in my way. Well; if
all goes right now, that's quite correct, and I don't mind it; but
if anything goes wrong, then times are altered, and I shall just say
and do whatever I think may serve me most, and take advice from
nobody. My moral influence with them lads,' added Mr Squeers, with
deeper gravity, 'is a tottering to its basis. The images of Mrs
Squeers, my daughter, and my son Wackford, all short of vittles, is
perpetually before me; every other consideration melts away and
vanishes, in front of these; the only number in all arithmetic that
I know of, as a husband and a father, is number one, under this here
most fatal go!'

How long Mr Squeers might have declaimed, or how stormy a discussion
his declamation might have led to, nobody knows. Being interrupted,
at this point, by the arrival of the coach and an attendant who was
to bear him company, he perched his hat with great dignity on the
top of the handkerchief that bound his head; and, thrusting one hand
in his pocket, and taking the attendant's arm with the other,
suffered himself to be led forth.

'As I supposed from his not sending!' thought Ralph. 'This fellow,
I plainly see through all his tipsy fooling, has made up his mind to
turn upon me. I am so beset and hemmed in, that they are not only
all struck with fear, but, like the beasts in the fable, have their
fling at me now, though time was, and no longer ago than yesterday
too, when they were all civility and compliance. But they shall not
move me. I'll not give way. I will not budge one inch!'

He went home, and was glad to find his housekeeper complaining of
illness, that he might have an excuse for being alone and sending
her away to where she lived: which was hard by. Then, he sat down
by the light of a single candle, and began to think, for the first
time, on all that had taken place that day.

He had neither eaten nor drunk since last night, and, in addition to
the anxiety of mind he had undergone, had been travelling about,
from place to place almost incessantly, for many hours. He felt
sick and exhausted, but could taste nothing save a glass of water,
and continued to sit with his head upon his hand; not resting nor
thinking, but laboriously trying to do both, and feeling that every
sense but one of weariness and desolation, was for the time

It was nearly ten o'clock when he heard a knocking at the door, and
still sat quiet as before, as if he could not even bring his
thoughts to bear upon that. It had been often repeated, and he had,
several times, heard a voice outside, saying there was a light in
the window (meaning, as he knew, his own candle), before he could
rouse himself and go downstairs.

'Mr Nickleby, there is terrible news for you, and I am sent to beg
you will come with me directly,' said a voice he seemed to
recognise. He held his hand above his eyes, and, looking out, saw
Tim Linkinwater on the steps.

'Come where?' demanded Ralph.

'To our house, where you came this morning. I have a coach here.'

'Why should I go there?' said Ralph.

'Don't ask me why, but pray come with me.'

'Another edition of today!' returned Ralph, making as though he
would shut the door.

'No, no!' cried Tim, catching him by the arm and speaking most
earnestly; 'it is only that you may hear something that has
occurred: something very dreadful, Mr Nickleby, which concerns you
nearly. Do you think I would tell you so or come to you like this,
if it were not the case?'

Ralph looked at him more closely. Seeing that he was indeed greatly
excited, he faltered, and could not tell what to say or think.

'You had better hear this now, than at any other time,' said Tim;
'it may have some influence with you. For Heaven's sake come!'

Perhaps, at, another time, Ralph's obstinacy and dislike would have
been proof against any appeal from such a quarter, however
emphatically urged; but now, after a moment's hesitation, he went
into the hall for his hat, and returning, got into the coach without
speaking a word.

Tim well remembered afterwards, and often said, that as Ralph
Nickleby went into the house for this purpose, he saw him, by the
light of the candle which he had set down upon a chair, reel and
stagger like a drunken man. He well remembered, too, that when he
had placed his foot upon the coach-steps, he turned round and looked
upon him with a face so ashy pale and so very wild and vacant that
it made him shudder, and for the moment almost afraid to follow.
People were fond of saying that he had some dark presentiment upon
him then, but his emotion might, perhaps, with greater show of
reason, be referred to what he had undergone that day.

A profound silence was observed during the ride. Arrived at their
place of destination, Ralph followed his conductor into the house,
and into a room where the two brothers were. He was so astounded,
not to say awed, by something of a mute compassion for himself which
was visible in their manner and in that of the old clerk, that he
could scarcely speak.

Having taken a seat, however, he contrived to say, though in broken
words, 'What--what have you to say to me--more than has been said

The room was old and large, very imperfectly lighted, and terminated
in a bay window, about which hung some heavy drapery. Casting his
eyes in this direction as he spoke, he thought he made out the dusky
figure of a man. He was confirmed in this impression by seeing that
the object moved, as if uneasy under his scrutiny.

'Who's that yonder?' he said.

'One who has conveyed to us, within these two hours, the
intelligence which caused our sending to you,' replied brother
Charles. 'Let him be, sir, let him be for the present.'

'More riddles!' said Ralph, faintly. 'Well, sir?'

In turning his face towards the brothers he was obliged to avert it
from the window; but, before either of them could speak, he had
looked round again. It was evident that he was rendered restless
and uncomfortable by the presence of the unseen person; for he
repeated this action several times, and at length, as if in a
nervous state which rendered him positively unable to turn away from
the place, sat so as to have it opposite him, muttering as an excuse
that he could not bear the light.

The brothers conferred apart for a short time: their manner showing
that they were agitated. Ralph glanced at them twice or thrice, and
ultimately said, with a great effort to recover his self-possession,
'Now, what is this? If I am brought from home at this time of
night, let it be for something. What have you got to tell me?'
After a short pause, he added, 'Is my niece dead?'

He had struck upon a key which rendered the task of commencement an
easier one. Brother Charles turned, and said that it was a death of
which they had to tell him, but that his niece was well.

'You don't mean to tell me,' said Ralph, as his eyes brightened,
'that her brother's dead? No, that's too good. I'd not believe it,
if you told me so. It would be too welcome news to be true.'

'Shame on you, you hardened and unnatural man,' cried the other
brother, warmly. 'Prepare yourself for intelligence which, if you
have any human feeling in your breast, will make even you shrink and
tremble. What if we tell you that a poor unfortunate boy: a child
in everything but never having known one of those tender
endearments, or one of those lightsome hours which make our
childhood a time to be remembered like a happy dream through all our
after life: a warm-hearted, harmless, affectionate creature, who
never offended you, or did you wrong, but on whom you have vented
the malice and hatred you have conceived for your nephew, and whom
you have made an instrument for wreaking your bad passions upon him:
what if we tell you that, sinking under your persecution, sir, and
the misery and ill-usage of a life short in years but long in
suffering, this poor creature has gone to tell his sad tale where,
for your part in it, you must surely answer?'

'If you tell me,' said Ralph; 'if you tell me that he is dead, I
forgive you all else. If you tell me that he is dead, I am in your
debt and bound to you for life. He is! I see it in your faces.
Who triumphs now? Is this your dreadful news; this your terrible
intelligence? You see how it moves me. You did well to send. I
would have travelled a hundred miles afoot, through mud, mire, and
darkness, to hear this news just at this time.'

Even then, moved as he was by this savage joy, Ralph could see in
the faces of the two brothers, mingling with their look of disgust
and horror, something of that indefinable compassion for himself
which he had noticed before.

'And HE brought you the intelligence, did he?' said Ralph, pointing
with his finger towards the recess already mentioned; 'and sat
there, no doubt, to see me prostrated and overwhelmed by it! Ha,
ha, ha! But I tell him that I'll be a sharp thorn in his side for
many a long day to come; and I tell you two, again, that you don't
know him yet; and that you'll rue the day you took compassion on the

'You take me for your nephew,' said a hollow voice; 'it would be
better for you, and for me too, if I were he indeed.'

The figure that he had seen so dimly, rose, and came slowly down.
He started back, for he found that he confronted--not Nicholas, as
he had supposed, but Brooker.

Ralph had no reason, that he knew, to fear this man; he had never
feared him before; but the pallor which had been observed in his
face when he issued forth that night, came upon him again. He was
seen to tremble, and his voice changed as he said, keeping his eyes
upon him,

'What does this fellow here? Do you know he is a convict, a felon,
a common thief?'

'Hear what he has to tell you. Oh, Mr Nickleby, hear what he has to
tell you, be he what he may!' cried the brothers, with such emphatic
earnestness, that Ralph turned to them in wonder. They pointed to
Brooker. Ralph again gazed at him: as it seemed mechanically.

'That boy,' said the man, 'that these gentlemen have been talking

'That boy,' repeated Ralph, looking vacantly at him.

'Whom I saw, stretched dead and cold upon his bed, and who is now
in his grave--'

'Who is now in his grave,' echoed Ralph, like one who talks in his

The man raised his eyes, and clasped his hands solemnly together:

'--Was your only son, so help me God in heaven!'

In the midst of a dead silence, Ralph sat down, pressing his two
hands upon his temples. He removed them, after a minute, and never
was there seen, part of a living man undisfigured by any wound, such
a ghastly face as he then disclosed. He looked at Brooker, who was
by this time standing at a short distance from him; but did not say
one word, or make the slightest sound or gesture.

'Gentlemen,' said the man, 'I offer no excuses for myself. I am
long past that. If, in telling you how this has happened, I tell
you that I was harshly used, and perhaps driven out of my real
nature, I do it only as a necessary part of my story, and not to
shield myself. I am a guilty man.'

He stopped, as if to recollect, and looking away from Ralph, and
addressing himself to the brothers, proceeded in a subdued and
humble tone:

'Among those who once had dealings with this man, gentlemen--that's
from twenty to five-and-twenty years ago--there was one: a rough
fox-hunting, hard-drinking gentleman, who had run through his own
fortune, and wanted to squander away that of his sister: they were
both orphans, and she lived with him and managed his house. I don't
know whether it was, originally, to back his influence and try to
over-persuade the young woman or not, but he,' pointing, to Ralph,
'used to go down to the house in Leicestershire pretty often, and
stop there many days at a time. They had had a great many dealings
together, and he may have gone on some of those, or to patch up his
client's affairs, which were in a ruinous state; of course he went
for profit. The gentlewoman was not a girl, but she was, I have
heard say, handsome, and entitled to a pretty large property. In
course of time, he married her. The same love of gain which led him
to contract this marriage, led to its being kept strictly private;
for a clause in her father's will declared that if she married
without her brother's consent, the property, in which she had only
some life interest while she remained single, should pass away
altogether to another branch of the family. The brother would give
no consent that the sister didn't buy, and pay for handsomely; Mr
Nickleby would consent to no such sacrifice; and so they went on,
keeping their marriage secret, and waiting for him to break his neck
or die of a fever. He did neither, and meanwhile the result of this
private marriage was a son. The child was put out to nurse, a long
way off; his mother never saw him but once or twice, and then by
stealth; and his father--so eagerly did he thirst after the money
which seemed to come almost within his grasp now, for his brother-
in-law was very ill, and breaking more and more every day--never
went near him, to avoid raising any suspicion. The brother lingered
on; Mr Nickleby's wife constantly urged him to avow their marriage;
he peremptorily refused. She remained alone in a dull country
house: seeing little or no company but riotous, drunken sportsmen.
He lived in London and clung to his business. Angry quarrels and
recriminations took place, and when they had been married nearly
seven years, and were within a few weeks of the time when the
brother's death would have adjusted all, she eloped with a younger
man, and left him.'

Here he paused, but Ralph did not stir, and the brothers signed to
him to proceed.

'It was then that I became acquainted with these circumstances from
his own lips. They were no secrets then; for the brother, and
others, knew them; but they were communicated to me, not on this
account, but because I was wanted. He followed the fugitives. Some
said to make money of his wife's shame, but, I believe, to take some
violent revenge, for that was as much his character as the other;
perhaps more. He didn't find them, and she died not long after. I
don't know whether he began to think he might like the child, or
whether he wished to make sure that it should never fall into its
mother's hands; but, before he went, he intrusted me with the charge
of bringing it home. And I did so.'

He went on, from this point, in a still more humble tone, and spoke
in a very low voice; pointing to Ralph as he resumed.

'He had used me ill--cruelly--I reminded him in what, not long ago
when I met him in the street--and I hated him. I brought the child
home to his own house, and lodged him in the front garret. Neglect
had made him very sickly, and I was obliged to call in a doctor, who
said he must be removed for change of air, or he would die. I think
that first put it in my head. I did it then. He was gone six weeks,
and when he came back, I told him--with every circumstance well
planned and proved; nobody could have suspected me--that the child
was dead and buried. He might have been disappointed in some
intention he had formed, or he might have had some natural
affection, but he WAS grieved at THAT, and I was confirmed in my
design of opening up the secret one day, and making it a means of
getting money from him. I had heard, like most other men, of
Yorkshire schools. I took the child to one kept by a man named
Squeers, and left it there. I gave him the name of Smike. Year by
year, I paid twenty pounds a-year for him for six years; never
breathing the secret all the time; for I had left his father's
service after more hard usage, and quarrelled with him again. I was
sent away from this country. I have been away nearly eight years.
Directly I came home again, I travelled down into Yorkshire, and,
skulking in the village of an evening-time, made inquiries about the
boys at the school, and found that this one, whom I had placed
there, had run away with a young man bearing the name of his own
father. I sought his father out in London, and hinting at what I
could tell him, tried for a little money to support life; but he
repulsed me with threats. I then found out his clerk, and, going on
from little to little, and showing him that there were good reasons
for communicating with me, learnt what was going on; and it was I
who told him that the boy was no son of the man who claimed to be
his father. All this time I had never seen the boy. At length, I
heard from this same source that he was very ill, and where he was.
I travelled down there, that I might recall myself, if possible, to
his recollection and confirm my story. I came upon him
unexpectedly; but before I could speak he knew me--he had good cause
to remember me, poor lad!--and I would have sworn to him if I had
met him in the Indies. I knew the piteous face I had seen in the
little child. After a few days' indecision, I applied to the young
gentleman in whose care he was, and I found that he was dead. He
knows how quickly he recognised me again, how often he had described
me and my leaving him at the school, and how he told him of a garret
he recollected: which is the one I have spoken of, and in his
father's house to this day. This is my story. I demand to be
brought face to face with the schoolmaster, and put to any possible
proof of any part of it, and I will show that it's too true, and
that I have this guilt upon my soul.'

'Unhappy man!' said the brothers. 'What reparation can you make for

'None, gentlemen, none! I have none to make, and nothing to hope
now. I am old in years, and older still in misery and care. This
confession can bring nothing upon me but new suffering and
punishment; but I make it, and will abide by it whatever comes. I
have been made the instrument of working out this dreadful
retribution upon the head of a man who, in the hot pursuit of his
bad ends, has persecuted and hunted down his own child to death. It
must descend upon me too. I know it must fall. My reparation comes
too late; and, neither in this world nor in the next, can I have
hope again!'

He had hardly spoken, when the lamp, which stood upon the table
close to where Ralph was seated, and which was the only one in the
room, was thrown to the ground, and left them in darkness. There
was some trifling confusion in obtaining another light; the interval
was a mere nothing; but when the light appeared, Ralph Nickleby was

The good brothers and Tim Linkinwater occupied some time in
discussing the probability of his return; and, when it became
apparent that he would not come back, they hesitated whether or no
to send after him. At length, remembering how strangely and
silently he had sat in one immovable position during the interview,
and thinking he might possibly be ill, they determined, although it
was now very late, to send to his house on some pretence. Finding
an excuse in the presence of Brooker, whom they knew not how to
dispose of without consulting his wishes, they concluded to act upon
this resolution before going to bed.

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