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The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (17-2)

2006-09-09 09:30

    'Will you do me the favour to present my compliments to the constituent body, and acquaint them with this circumstance?

    'With great esteem, 'My dear Mr Pugstyles, '&c.&c.'

    'Then you will not resign, under any circumstances?' asked the spokesman.

    Mr Gregsbury smiled, and shook his head.

    'Then, good-morning, sir,' said Pugstyles, angrily.

    'Heaven bless you!' said Mr Gregsbury. And the deputation, with many growls and scowls, filed off as quickly as the narrowness of the staircase would allow of their getting down.

    The last man being gone, Mr Gregsbury rubbed his hands and chuckled, as merry fellows will, when they think they have said or done a more than commonly good thing; he was so engrossed in this self- congratulation, that he did not observe that Nicholas had been left behind in the shadow of the window-curtains, until that young gentleman, fearing he might otherwise overhear some soliloquy intended to have no listeners, coughed twice or thrice, to attract the member's notice.

    'What's that?' said Mr Gregsbury, in sharp accents.

    Nicholas stepped forward, and bowed.

    'What do you do here, sir?' asked Mr Gregsbury; 'a spy upon my privacy! A concealed voter! You have heard my answer, sir. Pray follow the deputation.'

    'I should have done so, if I had belonged to it, but I do not,' said Nicholas.

    'Then how came you here, sir?' was the natural inquiry of Mr Gregsbury, MP. 'And where the devil have you come from, sir?' was the question which followed it.

    'I brought this card from the General Agency Office, sir,' said Nicholas, 'wishing to offer myself as your secretary, and understanding that you stood in need of one.'

    'That's all you have come for, is it?' said Mr Gregsbury, eyeing him in some doubt.

    Nicholas replied in the affirmative.

    'You have no connection with any of those rascally papers have you?' said Mr Gregsbury. 'You didn't get into the room, to hear what was going forward, and put it in print, eh?'

    'I have no connection, I am sorry to say, with anything at present,' rejoined Nicholas,——politely enough, but quite at his ease.

    'Oh!' said Mr Gregsbury. 'How did you find your way up here, then?'

    Nicholas related how he had been forced up by the deputation.

    'That was the way, was it?' said Mr Gregsbury. 'Sit down.'

    Nicholas took a chair, and Mr Gregsbury stared at him for a long time, as if to make certain, before he asked any further questions, that there were no objections to his outward appearance.

    'You want to be my secretary, do you?' he said at length.

    'I wish to be employed in that capacity, sir,' replied Nicholas.

    'Well,' said Mr Gregsbury; 'now what can you do?'

    'I suppose,' replied Nicholas, smiling, 'that I can do what usually falls to the lot of other secretaries.'

    'What's that?' inquired Mr Gregsbury.

    'What is it?' replied Nicholas.

    'Ah! What is it?' retorted the member, looking shrewdly at him, with his head on one side.

    'A secretary's duties are rather difficult to define, perhaps,' said Nicholas, considering. 'They include, I presume, correspondence?'

    'Good,' interposed Mr Gregsbury.

    'The arrangement of papers and documents?'

    'Very good.'

    'Occasionally, perhaps, the writing from your dictation; and possibly, sir,' said Nicholas, with a half-smile, 'the copying of your speech for some public journal, when you have made one of more than usual importance.'

    'Certainly,' rejoined Mr Gregsbury. 'What else?'

    'Really,' said Nicholas, after a moment's reflection, 'I am not able, at this instant, to recapitulate any other duty of a secretary, beyond the general one of making himself as agreeable and useful to his employer as he can, consistently with his own respectability, and without overstepping that line of duties which he undertakes to perform, and which the designation of his office is usually understood to imply.'

    Mr Gregsbury looked fixedly at Nicholas for a short time, and then glancing warily round the room, said in a suppressed voice:

    'This is all very well, Mr——what is your name?'

    'Nickleby.'

    'This is all very well, Mr Nickleby, and very proper, so far as it goes——so far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. There are other duties, Mr Nickleby, which a secretary to a parliamentary gentleman must never lose sight of. I should require to be crammed, sir.'

    'I beg your pardon,' interposed Nicholas, doubtful whether he had heard aright.

    '——To be crammed, sir,' repeated Mr Gregsbury.

    'May I beg your pardon again, if I inquire what you mean, sir?' said Nicholas.

    'My meaning, sir, is perfectly plain,' replied Mr Gregsbury with a solemn aspect. 'My secretary would have to make himself master of the foreign policy of the world, as it is mirrored in the newspapers; to run his eye over all accounts of public meetings, all leading articles, and accounts of the proceedings of public bodies; and to make notes of anything which it appeared to him might be made a point of, in any little speech upon the question of some petition lying on the table, or anything of that kind. Do you understand?'

    'I think I do, sir,' replied Nicholas.

    'Then,' said Mr Gregsbury, 'it would be necessary for him to make himself acquainted, from day to day, with newspaper paragraphs on passing events; such as "Mysterious disappearance, and supposed suicide of a potboy," or anything of that sort, upon which I might found a question to the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Then, he would have to copy the question, and as much as I remembered of the answer (including a little compliment about independence and good sense); and to send the manuscript in a frank to the local paper, with perhaps half-a-dozen lines of leader, to the effect, that I was always to be found in my place in parliament, and never shrunk from the responsible and arduous duties, and so forth. You see?'

    Nicholas bowed.

    'Besides which,' continued Mr Gregsbury, 'I should expect him, now and then, to go through a few figures in the printed tables, and to pick out a few results, so that I might come out pretty well on timber duty questions, and finance questions, and so on; and I should like him to get up a few little arguments about the disastrous effects of a return to cash payments and a metallic currency, with a touch now and then about the exportation of bullion, and the Emperor of Russia, and bank notes, and all that kind of thing, which it's only necessary to talk fluently about, because nobody understands it. Do you take me?'

    'I think I understand,' said Nicholas.

    'With regard to such questions as are not political,' continued Mr Gregsbury, warming; 'and which one can't be expected to care a curse about, beyond the natural care of not allowing inferior people to be as well off as ourselves——else where are our privileges?——I should wish my secretary to get together a few little flourishing speeches, of a patriotic cast. For instance, if any preposterous bill were brought forward, for giving poor grubbing devils of authors a right to their own property, I should like to say, that I for one would never consent to opposing an insurmountable bar to the diffusion of literature among THE PEOPLE,——you understand?——that the creations of the pocket, being man's, might belong to one man, or one family; but that the creations of the brain, being God's, ought as a matter of course to belong to the people at large——and if I was pleasantly disposed, I should like to make a joke about posterity, and say that those who wrote for posterity should be content to be rewarded by the approbation OF posterity; it might take with the house, and could never do me any harm, because posterity can't be expected to know anything about me or my jokes either——do you see?'

    'I see that, sir,' replied Nicholas.

    'You must always bear in mind, in such cases as this, where our interests are not affected,' said Mr Gregsbury, 'to put it very strong about the people, because it comes out very well at election- time; and you could be as funny as you liked about the authors; because I believe the greater part of them live in lodgings, and are not voters. This is a hasty outline of the chief things you'd have to do, except waiting in the lobby every night, in case I forgot anything, and should want fresh cramming; and, now and then, during great debates, sitting in the front row of the gallery, and saying to the people about——'You see that gentleman, with his hand to his face, and his arm twisted round the pillar——that's Mr Gregsbury——the celebrated Mr Gregsbury,'——with any other little eulogium that might strike you at the moment. And for salary,' said Mr Gregsbury, winding up with great rapidity; for he was out of breath——'and for salary, I don't mind saying at once in round numbers, to prevent any dissatisfaction——though it's more than I've been accustomed to give ——fifteen shillings a week, and find yourself. There!'

    With this handsome offer, Mr Gregsbury once more threw himself back in his chair, and looked like a man who had been most profligately liberal, but is determined not to repent of it notwithstanding.

    'Fifteen shillings a week is not much,' said Nicholas, mildly.

    'Not much! Fifteen shillings a week not much, young man?' cried Mr Gregsbury. 'Fifteen shillings a——'

    'Pray do not suppose that I quarrel with the sum, sir,' replied Nicholas; 'for I am not ashamed to confess, that whatever it may be in itself, to me it is a great deal. But the duties and responsibilities make the recompense small, and they are so very heavy that I fear to undertake them.'

    'Do you decline to undertake them, sir?' inquired Mr Gregsbury, with his hand on the bell-rope.

    'I fear they are too great for my powers, however good my will may be, sir,' replied Nicholas.

    'That is as much as to say that you had rather not accept the place, and that you consider fifteen shillings a week too little,' said Mr Gregsbury, ringing. 'Do you decline it, sir?'

    'I have no alternative but to do so,' replied Nicholas.

    'Door, Matthews!' said Mr Gregsbury, as the boy appeared.

    'I am sorry I have troubled you unnecessarily, sir,' said Nicholas,

    'I am sorry you have,' rejoined Mr Gregsbury, turning his back upon him. 'Door, Matthews!'

    'Good-morning, sir,' said Nicholas.

    'Door, Matthews!' cried Mr Gregsbury.

    The boy beckoned Nicholas, and tumbling lazily downstairs before him, opened the door, and ushered him into the street. With a sad and pensive air, he retraced his steps homewards.

    Smike had scraped a meal together from the remnant of last night's supper, and was anxiously awaiting his return. The occurrences of the morning had not improved Nicholas's appetite, and, by him, the dinner remained untasted. He was sitting in a thoughtful attitude, with the plate which the poor fellow had assiduously filled with the choicest morsels, untouched, by his side, when Newman Noggs looked into the room.

    'Come back?' asked Newman.

    'Yes,' replied Nicholas, 'tired to death: and, what is worse, might have remained at home for all the good I have done.'

    'Couldn't expect to do much in one morning,' said Newman.

    'Maybe so, but I am sanguine, and did expect,' said Nicholas, 'and am proportionately disappointed.' Saying which, he gave Newman an account of his proceedings.

    'If I could do anything,' said Nicholas, 'anything, however slight, until Ralph Nickleby returns, and I have eased my mind by confronting him, I should feel happier. I should think it no disgrace to work, Heaven knows. Lying indolently here, like a half- tamed sullen beast, distracts me.'

    'I don't know,' said Newman; 'small things offer——they would pay the rent, and more——but you wouldn't like them; no, you could hardly be expected to undergo it——no, no.'

    'What could I hardly be expected to undergo?' asked Nicholas, raising his eyes. 'Show me, in this wide waste of London, any honest means by which I could even defray the weekly hire of this poor room, and see if I shrink from resorting to them! Undergo! I have undergone too much, my friend, to feel pride or squeamishness now. Except——' added Nicholas hastily, after a short silence, 'except such squeamishness as is common honesty, and so much pride as constitutes self-respect. I see little to choose, between assistant to a brutal pedagogue, and toad-eater to a mean and ignorant upstart, be he member or no member.'

    'I hardly know whether I should tell you what I heard this morning, or not,' said Newman.

    'Has it reference to what you said just now?' asked Nicholas.

    'It has.'

    'Then in Heaven's name, my good friend, tell it me,' said Nicholas. 'For God's sake consider my deplorable condition; and, while I promise to take no step without taking counsel with you, give me, at least, a vote in my own behalf.'

    Moved by this entreaty, Newman stammered forth a variety of most unaccountable and entangled sentences, the upshot of which was, that Mrs Kenwigs had examined him, at great length that morning, touching the origin of his acquaintance with, and the whole life, adventures, and pedigree of, Nicholas; that Newman had parried these questions as long as he could, but being, at length, hard pressed and driven into a corner, had gone so far as to admit, that Nicholas was a tutor of great accomplishments, involved in some misfortunes which he was not at liberty to explain, and bearing the name of Johnson. That Mrs Kenwigs, impelled by gratitude, or ambition, or maternal pride, or maternal love, or all four powerful motives conjointly, had taken secret conference with Mr Kenwigs, and had finally returned to propose that Mr Johnson should instruct the four Miss Kenwigses in the French language as spoken by natives, at the weekly stipend of five shillings, current coin of the realm; being at the rate of one shilling per week, per each Miss Kenwigs, and one shilling over, until such time as the baby might be able to take it out in grammar.

    'Which, unless I am very much mistaken,' observed Mrs Kenwigs in making the proposition, 'will not be very long; for such clever children, Mr Noggs, never were born into this world, I do believe.'

    'There,' said Newman, 'that's all. It's beneath you, I know; but I thought that perhaps you might——'

    'Might!' cried Nicholas, with great alacrity; 'of course I shall. I accept the offer at once. Tell the worthy mother so, without delay, my dear fellow; and that I am ready to begin whenever she pleases.'

    Newman hastened, with joyful steps, to inform Mrs Kenwigs of his friend's acquiescence, and soon returning, brought back word that they would be happy to see him in the first floor as soon as convenient; that Mrs Kenwigs had, upon the instant, sent out to secure a second-hand French grammar and dialogues, which had long been fluttering in the sixpenny box at the bookstall round the corner; and that the family, highly excited at the prospect of this addition to their gentility, wished the initiatory lesson to come off immediately.

    And here it may be observed, that Nicholas was not, in the ordinary sense of the word, a young man of high spirit. He would resent an affront to himself, or interpose to redress a wrong offered to another, as boldly and freely as any knight that ever set lance in rest; but he lacked that peculiar excess of coolness and great- minded selfishness, which invariably distinguish gentlemen of high spirit. In truth, for our own part, we are disposed to look upon such gentleman as being rather incumbrances than otherwise in rising families: happening to be acquainted with several whose spirit prevents their settling down to any grovelling occupation, and only displays itself in a tendency to cultivate moustachios, and look fierce; and although moustachios and ferocity are both very pretty things in their way, and very much to be commended, we confess to a desire to see them bred at the owner's proper cost, rather than at the expense of low-spirited people.

    Nicholas, therefore, not being a high-spirited young man according to common parlance, and deeming it a greater degradation to borrow, for the supply of his necessities, from Newman Noggs, than to teach French to the little Kenwigses for five shillings a week, accepted the offer with the alacrity already described, and betook himself to the first floor with all convenient speed.

    Here, he was received by Mrs Kenwigs with a genteel air, kindly intended to assure him of her protection and support; and here, too, he found Mr Lillyvick and Miss Petowker; the four Miss Kenwigses on their form of audience; and the baby in a dwarf porter's chair with a deal tray before it, amusing himself with a toy horse without a head; the said horse being composed of a small wooden cylinder, not unlike an Italian iron, supported on four crooked pegs, and painted in ingenious resemblance of red wafers set in blacking.

    'How do you do, Mr Johnson?' said Mrs Kenwigs. 'Uncle——Mr Johnson.'

    'How do you do, sir?' said Mr Lillyvick——rather sharply; for he had not known what Nicholas was, on the previous night, and it was rather an aggravating circumstance if a tax collector had been too polite to a teacher.

    'Mr Johnson is engaged as private master to the children, uncle,' said Mrs Kenwigs.

    'So you said just now, my dear,' replied Mr Lillyvick.

    'But I hope,' said Mrs Kenwigs, drawing herself up, 'that that will not make them proud; but that they will bless their own good fortune, which has born them superior to common people's children. Do you hear, Morleena?'

    'Yes, ma,' replied Miss Kenwigs.

    'And when you go out in the streets, or elsewhere, I desire that you don't boast of it to the other children,' said Mrs Kenwigs; 'and that if you must say anything about it, you don't say no more than "We've got a private master comes to teach us at home, but we ain't proud, because ma says it's sinful." Do you hear, Morleena?'

    'Yes, ma,' replied Miss Kenwigs again.

    'Then mind you recollect, and do as I tell you,' said Mrs Kenwigs. 'Shall Mr Johnson begin, uncle?'

    'I am ready to hear, if Mr Johnson is ready to commence, my dear,' said the collector, assuming the air of a profound critic. 'What sort of language do you consider French, sir?'

    'How do you mean?' asked Nicholas.

    'Do you consider it a good language, sir?' said the collector; 'a pretty language, a sensible language?'

    'A pretty language, certainly,' replied Nicholas; 'and as it has a name for everything, and admits of elegant conversation about everything, I presume it is a sensible one.'

    'I don't know,' said Mr Lillyvick, doubtfully. 'Do you call it a cheerful language, now?'

    'Yes,' replied Nicholas, 'I should say it was, certainly.'

    'It's very much changed since my time, then,' said the collector, 'very much.'

    'Was it a dismal one in your time?' asked Nicholas, scarcely able to repress a smile.

    'Very,' replied Mr Lillyvick, with some vehemence of manner. 'It's the war time that I speak of; the last war. It may be a cheerful language. I should be sorry to contradict anybody; but I can only say that I've heard the French prisoners, who were natives, and ought to know how to speak it, talking in such a dismal manner, that it made one miserable to hear them. Ay, that I have, fifty times, sir——fifty times!'

    Mr Lillyvick was waxing so cross, that Mrs Kenwigs thought it expedient to motion to Nicholas not to say anything; and it was not until Miss Petowker had practised several blandishments, to soften the excellent old gentleman, that he deigned to break silence by asking,

    'What's the water in French, sir?'

    'L'EAU,' replied Nicholas.

    'Ah!' said Mr Lillyvick, shaking his head mournfully, 'I thought as much. Lo, eh? I don't think anything of that language——nothing at all.'

    'I suppose the children may begin, uncle?' said Mrs Kenwigs.

    'Oh yes; they may begin, my dear,' replied the collector, discontentedly. 'I have no wish to prevent them.'

    This permission being conceded, the four Miss Kenwigses sat in a row, with their tails all one way, and Morleena at the top: while Nicholas, taking the book, began his preliminary explanations. Miss Petowker and Mrs Kenwigs looked on, in silent admiration, broken only by the whispered assurances of the latter, that Morleena would have it all by heart in no time; and Mr Lillyvick regarded the group with frowning and attentive eyes, lying in wait for something upon which he could open a fresh discussion on the language.

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