Smike becomes known to Mrs. Nickleby and Kate. Nicholas also meets with new Acquaintances. Brighter Days seem to dawn upon the Family.
Having established his mother and sister in the apartments of the kind-hearted miniature painter, and ascertained that Sir Mulberry Hawk was in no danger of losing his life, Nicholas turned his thoughts to poor Smike, who, after breakfasting with Newman Noggs, had remained, in a disconsolate state, at that worthy creature’s lodgings, waiting, with much anxiety, for further intelligence of his protector.
‘As he will be one of our own little household, wherever we live, or whatever fortune is in reserve for us,’ thought Nicholas, ‘I must present the poor fellow in due form. They will be kind to him for his own sake, and if not (on that account solely) to the full extent I could wish, they will stretch a point, I am sure, for mine.’
Nicholas said ‘they’, but his misgivings were confined to one person. He was sure of Kate, but he knew his mother’s peculiarities, and was not quite so certain that Smike would find favour in the eyes of Mrs. Nickleby.
‘However,’ thought Nicholas as he departed on his benevolent errand; ‘she cannot fail to become attached to him, when she knows what a devoted creature he is, and as she must quickly make the discovery, his probation will be a short one.’
‘I was afraid,’ said Smike, overjoyed to see his friend again, ‘that you had fallen into some fresh trouble; the time seemed so long, at last, that I almost feared you were lost.’
‘Lost!’ replied Nicholas gaily. ‘You will not be rid of me so easily, I promise you. I shall rise to the surface many thousand times yet, and the harder the thrust that pushes me down, the more quickly I shall rebound, Smike. But come; my errand here is to take you home.’
‘Home!’ faltered Smike, drawing timidly back.
‘Ay,’ rejoined Nicholas, taking his arm. ‘Why not?’
‘I had such hopes once,’ said Smike; ‘day and night, day and night, for many years. I longed for home till I was weary, and pined away with grief, but now—’
‘And what now?’ asked Nicholas, looking kindly in his face. ‘What now, old friend?’
‘I could not part from you to go to any home on earth,’ replied Smike, pressing his hand; ‘except one, except one. I shall never be an old man; and if your hand placed me in the grave, and I could think, before I died, that you would come and look upon it sometimes with one of your kind smiles, and in the summer weather, when everything was alive—not dead like me—I could go to that home almost without a tear.’
‘Why do you talk thus, poor boy, if your life is a happy one with me?’ said Nicholas.
‘Because I should change; not those about me. And if they forgot me, I should never know it,’ replied Smike. ‘In the churchyard we are all alike, but here there are none like me. I am a poor creature, but I know that.’
‘You are a foolish, silly creature,’ said Nicholas cheerfully. ‘If that is what you mean, I grant you that. Why, here’s a dismal face for ladies’ company!—my pretty sister too, whom you have so often asked me about. Is this your Yorkshire gallantry? For shame! for shame!’
Smike brightened up and smiled.
‘When I talk of home,’ pursued Nicholas, ‘I talk of mine—which is yours of course. If it were defined by any particular four walls and a roof, God knows I should be sufficiently puzzled to say whereabouts it lay; but that is not what I mean. When I speak of home, I speak of the place where—in default of a better—those I love are gathered together; and if that place were a gypsy’s tent, or a barn, I should call it by the same good name notwithstanding. And now, for what is my present home, which, however alarming your expectations may be, will neither terrify you by its extent nor its magnificence!’
So saying, Nicholas took his companion by the arm, and saying a great deal more to the same purpose, and pointing out various things to amuse and interest him as they went along, led the way to Miss La Creevy’s house.
‘And this, Kate,’ said Nicholas, entering the room where his sister sat alone, ‘is the faithful friend and affectionate fellow-traveller whom I prepared you to receive.’
Poor Smike was bashful, and awkward, and frightened enough, at first, but Kate advanced towards him so kindly, and said, in such a sweet voice, how anxious she had been to see him after all her brother had told her, and how much she had to thank him for having comforted Nicholas so greatly in their very trying reverses, that he began to be very doubtful whether he should shed tears or not, and became still more flurried. However, he managed to say, in a broken voice, that Nicholas was his only friend, and that he would lay down his life to help him; and Kate, although she was so kind and considerate, seemed to be so wholly unconscious of his distress and embarrassment, that he recovered almost immediately and felt quite at home.
Then, Miss La Creevy came in; and to her Smike had to be presented also. And Miss La Creevy was very kind too, and wonderfully talkative: not to Smike, for that would have made him uneasy at first, but to Nicholas and his sister. Then, after a time, she would speak to Smike himself now and then, asking him whether he was a judge of likenesses, and whether he thought that picture in the corner was like herself, and whether he didn’t think it would have looked better if she had made herself ten years younger, and whether he didn’t think, as a matter of general observation, that young ladies looked better not only in pictures, but out of them too, than old ones; with many more small jokes and facetious remarks, which were delivered with such good-humour and merriment, that Smike thought, within himself, she was the nicest lady he had ever seen; even nicer than Mrs. Grudden, of Mr. Vincent Crummles’s theatre; and she was a nice lady too, and talked, perhaps more, but certainly louder, than Miss La Creevy.
At length the door opened again, and a lady in mourning came in; and Nicholas kissing the lady in mourning affectionately, and calling her his mother, led her towards the chair from which Smike had risen when she entered the room.
‘You are always kind-hearted, and anxious to help the oppressed, my dear mother,’ said Nicholas, ‘so you will be favourably disposed towards him, I know.’
‘I am sure, my dear Nicholas,’ replied Mrs. Nickleby, looking very hard at her new friend, and bending to him with something more of majesty than the occasion seemed to require: ‘I am sure any friend of yours has, as indeed he naturally ought to have, and must have, of course, you know, a great claim upon me, and of course, it is a very great pleasure to me to be introduced to anybody you take an interest in. There can be no doubt about that; none at all; not the least in the world,’ said Mrs. Nickleby. ‘At the same time I must say, Nicholas, my dear, as I used to say to your poor dear papa, when he would bring gentlemen home to dinner, and there was nothing in the house, that if he had come the day before yesterday—no, I don’t mean the day before yesterday now; I should have said, perhaps, the year before last—we should have been better able to entertain him.’
With which remarks, Mrs. Nickleby turned to her daughter, and inquired, in an audible whisper, whether the gentleman was going to stop all night.
‘Because, if he is, Kate, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, ‘I don’t see that it’s possible for him to sleep anywhere, and that’s the truth.’
Kate stepped gracefully forward, and without any show of annoyance or irritation, breathed a few words into her mother’s ear.
‘La, Kate, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, shrinking back, ‘how you do tickle one! Of course, I understand that, my love, without your telling me; and I said the same to Nicholas, and I am very much pleased. You didn’t tell me, Nicholas, my dear,’ added Mrs. Nickleby, turning round with an air of less reserve than she had before assumed, ‘what your friend’s name is.’
‘His name, mother,’ replied Nicholas, ‘is Smike.’
The effect of this communication was by no means anticipated; but the name was no sooner pronounced, than Mrs. Nickleby dropped upon a chair, and burst into a fit of crying.
‘What is the matter?’ exclaimed Nicholas, running to support her.
‘It’s so like Pyke,’ cried Mrs. Nickleby; ‘so exactly like Pyke. Oh! don’t speak to me—I shall be better presently.’
And after exhibiting every symptom of slow suffocation in all its stages, and drinking about a tea-spoonful of water from a full tumbler, and spilling the remainder, Mrs. Nickleby was better, and remarked, with a feeble smile, that she was very foolish, she knew.
‘It’s a weakness in our family,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, ‘so, of course, I can’t be blamed for it. Your grandmama, Kate, was exactly the same—precisely. The least excitement, the slightest surprise—she fainted away directly. I have heard her say, often and often, that when she was a young lady, and before she was married, she was turning a corner into Oxford Street one day, when she ran against her own hairdresser, who, it seems, was escaping from a bear;—the mere suddenness of the encounter made her faint away directly. Wait, though,’ added Mrs. Nickleby, pausing to consider. ‘Let me be sure I’m right. Was it her hairdresser who had escaped from a bear, or was it a bear who had escaped from her hairdresser’s? I declare I can’t remember just now, but the hairdresser was a very handsome man, I know, and quite a gentleman in his manners; so that it has nothing to do with the point of the story.’
Mrs. Nickleby having fallen imperceptibly into one of her retrospective moods, improved in temper from that moment, and glided, by an easy change of the conversation occasionally, into various other anecdotes, no less remarkable for their strict application to the subject in hand.
‘Mr. Smike is from Yorkshire, Nicholas, my dear?’ said Mrs. Nickleby, after dinner, and when she had been silent for some time.
‘Certainly, mother,’ replied Nicholas. ‘I see you have not forgotten his melancholy history.’
‘O dear no,’ cried Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Ah! melancholy, indeed. You don’t happen, Mr. Smike, ever to have dined with the Grimbles of Grimble Hall, somewhere in the North Riding, do you?’ said the good lady, addressing herself to him. ‘A very proud man, Sir Thomas Grimble, with six grown-up and most lovely daughters, and the finest park in the county.’
‘My dear mother,’ reasoned Nicholas, ‘do you suppose that the unfortunate outcast of a Yorkshire school was likely to receive many cards of invitation from the nobility and gentry in the neighbourhood?’
‘Really, my dear, I don’t know why it should be so very extraordinary,’ said Mrs. Nickleby. ‘I know that when I was at school, I always went at least twice every half-year to the Hawkinses at Taunton Vale, and they are much richer than the Grimbles, and connected with them in marriage; so you see it’s not so very unlikely, after all.’
Having put down Nicholas in this triumphant manner, Mrs. Nickleby was suddenly seized with a forgetfulness of Smike’s real name, and an irresistible tendency to call him Mr. Slammons; which circumstance she attributed to the remarkable similarity of the two names in point of sound both beginning with an S, and moreover being spelt with an M. But whatever doubt there might be on this point, there was none as to his being a most excellent listener; which circumstance had considerable influence in placing them on the very best terms, and inducing Mrs. Nickleby to express the highest opinion of his general deportment and disposition.
Thus, the little circle remained, on the most amicable and agreeable footing, until the Monday morning, when Nicholas withdrew himself from it for a short time, seriously to reflect upon the state of his affairs, and to determine, if he could, upon some course of life, which would enable him to support those who were so entirely dependent upon his exertions.
Mr. Crummles occurred to him more than once; but although Kate was acquainted with the whole history of his connection with that gentleman, his mother was not; and he foresaw a thousand fretful objections, on her part, to his seeking a livelihood upon the stage. There were graver reasons, too, against his returning to that mode of life. Independently of those arising out of its spare and precarious earnings, and his own internal conviction that he could never hope to aspire to any great distinction, even as a provincial actor, how could he carry his sister from town to town, and place to place, and debar her from any other associates than those with whom he would be compelled, almost without distinction, to mingle? ‘It won’t do,’ said Nicholas, shaking his head; ‘I must try something else.’
It was much easier to make this resolution than to carry it into effect. With no greater experience of the world than he had acquired for himself in his short trials; with a sufficient share of headlong rashness and precipitation (qualities not altogether unnatural at his time of life); with a very slender stock of money, and a still more scanty stock of friends; what could he do? ‘Egad!’ said Nicholas, ‘I’ll try that Register Office again.’
He smiled at himself as he walked away with a quick step; for, an instant before, he had been internally blaming his own precipitation. He did not laugh himself out of the intention, however, for on he went: picturing to himself, as he approached the place, all kinds of splendid possibilities, and impossibilities too, for that matter, and thinking himself, perhaps with good reason, very fortunate to be endowed with so buoyant and sanguine a temperament.
The office looked just the same as when he had left it last, and, indeed, with one or two exceptions, there seemed to be the very same placards in the window that he had seen before. There were the same unimpeachable masters and mistresses in want of virtuous servants, and the same virtuous servants in want of unimpeachable masters and mistresses, and the same magnificent estates for the investment of capital, and the same enormous quantities of capital to be invested in estates, and, in short, the same opportunities of all sorts for people who wanted to make their fortunes. And a most extraordinary proof it was of the national prosperity, that people had not been found to avail themselves of such advantages long ago.
As Nicholas stopped to look in at the window, an old gentleman happened to stop too; and Nicholas, carrying his eye along the window-panes from left to right in search of some capital-text placard which should be applicable to his own case, caught sight of this old gentleman’s figure, and instinctively withdrew his eyes from the window, to observe the same more closely.
He was a sturdy old fellow in a broad-skirted blue coat, made pretty large, to fit easily, and with no particular waist; his bulky legs clothed in drab breeches and high gaiters, and his head protected by a low-crowned broad-brimmed white hat, such as a wealthy grazier might wear. He wore his coat buttoned; and his dimpled double chin rested in the folds of a white neckerchief—not one of your stiff-starched apoplectic cravats, but a good, easy, old-fashioned white neckcloth that a man might go to bed in and be none the worse for. But what principally attracted the attention of Nicholas was the old gentleman’s eye,—never was such a clear, twinkling, honest, merry, happy eye, as that. And there he stood, looking a little upward, with one hand thrust into the breast of his coat, and the other playing with his old-fashioned gold watch-chain: his head thrown a little on one side, and his hat a little more on one side than his head, (but that was evidently accident; not his ordinary way of wearing it,) with such a pleasant smile playing about his mouth, and such a comical expression of mingled slyness, simplicity, kind-heartedness, and good-humour, lighting up his jolly old face, that Nicholas would have been content to have stood there and looked at him until evening, and to have forgotten, meanwhile, that there was such a thing as a soured mind or a crabbed countenance to be met with in the whole wide world.
But, even a very remote approach to this gratification was not to be made, for although he seemed quite unconscious of having been the subject of observation, he looked casually at Nicholas; and the latter, fearful of giving offence, resumed his scrutiny of the window instantly.
Still, the old gentleman stood there, glancing from placard to placard, and Nicholas could not forbear raising his eyes to his face again. Grafted upon the quaintness and oddity of his appearance, was something so indescribably engaging, and bespeaking so much worth, and there were so many little lights hovering about the corners of his mouth and eyes, that it was not a mere amusement, but a positive pleas