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    Chapter 53

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    Chapter 53
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    CHAPTER 53

    Containing the further Progress of the Plot contrived by Mr Ralph
    Nickleby and Mr Arthur Gride

    With that settled resolution, and steadiness of purpose to which
    extreme circumstances so often give birth, acting upon far less
    excitable and more sluggish temperaments than that which was the lot
    of Madeline Bray's admirer, Nicholas started, at dawn of day, from
    the restless couch which no sleep had visited on the previous night,
    and prepared to make that last appeal, by whose slight and fragile
    thread her only remaining hope of escape depended.

    Although, to restless and ardent minds, morning may be the fitting
    season for exertion and activity, it is not always at that time that
    hope is strongest or the spirit most sanguine and buoyant. In
    trying and doubtful positions, youth, custom, a steady contemplation
    of the difficulties which surround us, and a familiarity with them,
    imperceptibly diminish our apprehensions and beget comparative
    indifference, if not a vague and reckless confidence in some relief,
    the means or nature of which we care not to foresee. But when we
    come, fresh, upon such things in the morning, with that dark and
    silent gap between us and yesterday; with every link in the brittle
    chain of hope, to rivet afresh; our hot enthusiasm subdued, and cool
    calm reason substituted in its stead; doubt and misgiving revive.
    As the traveller sees farthest by day, and becomes aware of rugged
    mountains and trackless plains which the friendly darkness had
    shrouded from his sight and mind together, so, the wayfarer in the
    toilsome path of human life sees, with each returning sun, some new
    obstacle to surmount, some new height to be attained. Distances
    stretch out before him which, last night, were scarcely taken into
    account, and the light which gilds all nature with its cheerful
    beams, seems but to shine upon the weary obstacles that yet lie
    strewn between him and the grave.

    So thought Nicholas, when, with the impatience natural to a
    situation like his, he softly left the house, and, feeling as though
    to remain in bed were to lose most precious time, and to be up and
    stirring were in some way to promote the end he had in view,
    wandered into London; perfectly well knowing that for hours to come
    he could not obtain speech with Madeline, and could do nothing but
    wish the intervening time away.

    And, even now, as he paced the streets, and listlessly looked round
    on the gradually increasing bustle and preparation for the day,
    everything appeared to yield him some new occasion for despondency.
    Last night, the sacrifice of a young, affectionate, and beautiful
    creature, to such a wretch, and in such a cause, had seemed a thing
    too monstrous to succeed; and the warmer he grew, the more confident
    he felt that some interposition must save her from his clutches.
    But now, when he thought how regularly things went on, from day to
    day, in the same unvarying round; how youth and beauty died, and
    ugly griping age lived tottering on; how crafty avarice grew rich,
    and manly honest hearts were poor and sad; how few they were who
    tenanted the stately houses, and how many of those who lay in
    noisome pens, or rose each day and laid them down each night, and
    lived and died, father and son, mother and child, race upon race,
    and generation upon generation, without a home to shelter them or
    the energies of one single man directed to their aid; how, in
    seeking, not a luxurious and splendid life, but the bare means of a
    most wretched and inadequate subsistence, there were women and
    children in that one town, divided into classes, numbered and
    estimated as regularly as the noble families and folks of great
    degree, and reared from infancy to drive most criminal and dreadful
    trades; how ignorance was punished and never taught; how jail-doors
    gaped, and gallows loomed, for thousands urged towards them by
    circumstances darkly curtaining their very cradles' heads, and but
    for which they might have earned their honest bread and lived in
    peace; how many died in soul, and had no chance of life; how many
    who could scarcely go astray, be they vicious as they would, turned
    haughtily from the crushed and stricken wretch who could scarce do
    otherwise, and who would have been a greater wonder had he or she
    done well, than even they had they done ill; how much injustice,
    misery, and wrong, there was, and yet how the world rolled on, from
    year to year, alike careless and indifferent, and no man seeking to
    remedy or redress it; when he thought of all this, and selected from
    the mass the one slight case on which his thoughts were bent, he
    felt, indeed, that there was little ground for hope, and little
    reason why it should not form an atom in the huge aggregate of
    distress and sorrow, and add one small and unimportant unit to swell
    the great amount.

    But youth is not prone to contemplate the darkest side of a picture
    it can shift at will. By dint of reflecting on what he had to do,
    and reviving the train of thought which night had interrupted,
    Nicholas gradually summoned up his utmost energy, and when the
    morning was sufficiently advanced for his purpose, had no thought
    but that of using it to the best advantage. A hasty breakfast
    taken, and such affairs of business as required prompt attention
    disposed of, he directed his steps to the residence of Madeline
    Bray: whither he lost no time in arriving.

    It had occurred to him that, very possibly, the young lady might be
    denied, although to him she never had been; and he was still
    pondering upon the surest method of obtaining access to her in that
    case, when, coming to the door of the house, he found it had been
    left ajar--probably by the last person who had gone out. The
    occasion was not one upon which to observe the nicest ceremony;
    therefore, availing himself of this advantage, Nicholas walked
    gently upstairs and knocked at the door of the room into which he
    had been accustomed to be shown. Receiving permission to enter,
    from some person on the other side, he opened the door and walked
    in.

    Bray and his daughter were sitting there alone. It was nearly three
    weeks since he had seen her last, but there was a change in the
    lovely girl before him which told Nicholas, in startling terms, how
    much mental suffering had been compressed into that short time.
    There are no words which can express, nothing with which can be
    compared, the perfect pallor, the clear transparent whiteness, of
    the beautiful face which turned towards him when he entered. Her
    hair was a rich deep brown, but shading that face, and straying upon
    a neck that rivalled it in whiteness, it seemed by the strong
    contrast raven black. Something of wildness and restlessness there
    was in the dark eye, but there was the same patient look, the same
    expression of gentle mournfulness which he well remembered, and no
    trace of a single tear. Most beautiful--more beautiful, perhaps,
    than ever--there was something in her face which quite unmanned him,
    and appeared far more touching than the wildest agony of grief. It
    was not merely calm and composed, but fixed and rigid, as though the
    violent effort which had summoned that composure beneath her
    father's eye, while it mastered all other thoughts, had prevented
    even the momentary expression they had communicated to the features
    from subsiding, and had fastened it there, as an evidence of its
    triumph.

    The father sat opposite to her; not looking directly in her face,
    but glancing at her, as he talked with a gay air which ill disguised
    the anxiety of his thoughts. The drawing materials were not on
    their accustomed table, nor were any of the other tokens of her
    usual occupations to be seen. The little vases which Nicholas had
    always seen filled with fresh flowers were empty, or supplied only
    with a few withered stalks and leaves. The bird was silent. The
    cloth that covered his cage at night was not removed. His mistress
    had forgotten him.

    There are times when, the mind being painfully alive to receive
    impressions, a great deal may be noted at a glance. This was one,
    for Nicholas had but glanced round him when he was recognised by Mr
    Bray, who said impatiently:

    'Now, sir, what do you want? Name your errand here, quickly, if you
    please, for my daughter and I are busily engaged with other and more
    important matters than those you come about. Come, sir, address
    yourself to your business at once.'

    Nicholas could very well discern that the irritability and
    impatience of this speech were assumed, and that Bray, in his heart,
    was rejoiced at any interruption which promised to engage the
    attention of his daughter. He bent his eyes involuntarily upon the
    father as he spoke, and marked his uneasiness; for he coloured and
    turned his head away.

    The device, however, so far as it was a device for causing Madeline
    to interfere, was successful. She rose, and advancing towards
    Nicholas paused half-way, and stretched out her hand as expecting a
    letter.

    'Madeline,' said her father impatiently, 'my love, what are you
    doing?'

    'Miss Bray expects an inclosure perhaps,' said Nicholas, speaking
    very distinctly, and with an emphasis she could scarcely
    misunderstand. 'My employer is absent from England, or I should
    have brought a letter with me. I hope she will give me time--a
    little time. I ask a very little time.'

    'If that is all you come about, sir,' said Mr Bray, 'you may make
    yourself easy on that head. Madeline, my dear, I didn't know this
    person was in your debt?'

    'A--a trifle, I believe,' returned Madeline, faintly.

    'I suppose you think now,' said Bray, wheeling his chair round and
    confronting Nicholas, 'that, but for such pitiful sums as you bring
    here, because my daughter has chosen to employ her time as she has,
    we should starve?'

    'I have not thought about it,' returned Nicholas.

    'You have not thought about it!' sneered the invalid. 'You know you
    HAVE thought about it, and have thought that, and think so every
    time you come here. Do you suppose, young man, that I don't know
    what little purse-proud tradesmen are, when, through some fortunate
    circumstances, they get the upper hand for a brief day--or think
    they get the upper hand--of a gentleman?'

    'My business,' said Nicholas respectfully, 'is with a lady.'

    'With a gentleman's daughter, sir,' returned the sick man, 'and the
    pettifogging spirit is the same. But perhaps you bring ORDERS, eh?
    Have you any fresh ORDERS for my daughter, sir?'

    Nicholas understood the tone of triumph in which this interrogatory
    was put; but remembering the necessity of supporting his assumed
    character, produced a scrap of paper purporting to contain a list of
    some subjects for drawings which his employer desired to have
    executed; and with which he had prepared himself in case of any such
    contingency.

    'Oh!' said Mr Bray. 'These are the orders, are they?'

    'Since you insist upon the term, sir, yes,' replied Nicholas.

    'Then you may tell your master,' said Bray, tossing the paper back
    again, with an exulting smile, 'that my daughter, Miss Madeline
    Bray, condescends to employ herself no longer in such labours as
    these; that she is not at his beck and call, as he supposes her to
    be; that we don't live upon his money, as he flatters himself we do;
    that he may give whatever he owes us, to the first beggar that
    passes his shop, or add it to his own profits next time he
    calculates them; and that he may go to the devil for me. That's my
    acknowledgment of his orders, sir!'

    'And this is the independence of a man who sells his daughter as he
    has sold that weeping girl!' thought Nicholas.

    The father was too much absorbed with his own exultation to mark the
    look of scorn which, for an instant, Nicholas could not have
    suppressed had he been upon the rack. 'There,' he continued, after
    a short silence, 'you have your message and can retire--unless you
    have any further--ha!--any further orders.'

    'I have none,' said Nicholas; 'nor, in the consideration of the
    station you once held, have I used that or any other word which,
    however harmless in itself, could be supposed to imply authority on
    my part or dependence on yours. I have no orders, but I have fears
    --fears that I will express, chafe as you may--fears that you may be
    consigning that young lady to something worse than supporting you by
    the labour of her hands, had she worked herself dead. These are my
    fears, and these fears I found upon your own demeanour. Your
    conscience will tell you, sir, whether I construe it well or not.'

    'For Heaven's sake!' cried Madeline, interposing in alarm between
    them. 'Remember, sir, he is ill.'

    'Ill!' cried the invalid, gasping and catching for breath. 'Ill!
    Ill! I am bearded and bullied by a shop-boy, and she beseeches him
    to pity me and remember I am ill!'

    He fell into a paroxysm of his disorder, so violent that for a few
    moments Nicholas was alarmed for his life; but finding that he began
    to recover, he withdrew, after signifying by a gesture to the young
    lady that he had something important to communicate, and would wait
    for her outside the room. He could hear that the sick man came
    gradually, but slowly, to himself, and that without any reference to
    what had just occurred, as though he had no distinct recollection of
    it as yet, he requested to be left alone.

    'Oh!' thought Nicholas, 'that this slender chance might not be lost,
    and that I might prevail, if it were but for one week's time and
    reconsideration!'

    'You are charged with some commission to me, sir,' said Madeline,
    presenting herself in great agitation. 'Do not press it now, I beg
    and pray you. The day after tomorrow; come here then.'

    'It will be too late--too late for what I have to say,' rejoined
    Nicholas, 'and you will not be here. Oh, madam, if you have but one
    thought of him who sent me here, but one last lingering care for
    your own peace of mind and heart, I do for God's sake urge you to
    give me a hearing.'

    She attempted to pass him, but Nicholas gently detained her.

    'A hearing,' said Nicholas. 'I ask you but to hear me: not me
    alone, but him for whom I speak, who is far away and does not know
    your danger. In the name of Heaven hear me!'

    The poor attendant, with her eyes swollen and red with weeping,
    stood by; and to her Nicholas appealed in such passionate terms that
    she opened a side-door, and, supporting her mistress into an
    adjoining room, beckoned Nicholas to follow them.

    'Leave me, sir, pray,' said the young lady.

    'I cannot, will not leave you thus,' returned Nicholas. 'I have a
    duty to discharge; and, either here, or in the room from which we
    have just now come, at whatever risk or hazard to Mr Bray, I must
    beseech you to contemplate again the fearful course to which you
    have been impelled.'

    'What course is this you speak of, and impelled by whom, sir?'
    demanded the young lady, with an effort to speak proudly.

    'I speak of this marriage,' returned Nicholas, 'of this marriage,
    fixed for tomorrow, by one who never faltered in a bad purpose, or
    lent his aid to any good design; of this marriage, the history of
    which is known to me, better, far better, than it is to you. I know
    what web is wound about you. I know what men they are from whom
    these schemes have come. You are betrayed and sold for money; for
    gold, whose every coin is rusted with tears, if not red with the
    blood of ruined men, who have fallen desperately by their own mad
    hands.'

    'You say you have a duty to discharge,' said Madeline, 'and so have
    I. And with the help of Heaven I will perform it.'

    'Say rather with the help of devils,' replied Nicholas, 'with the
    help of men, one of them your destined husband, who are--'

    'I must not hear this,' cried the young lady, striving to repress a
    shudder, occasioned, as it seemed, even by this slight allusion to
    Arthur Gride. 'This evil, if evil it be, has been of my own
    seeking. I am impelled to this course by no one, but follow it of
    my own free will. You see I am not constrained or forced. Report
    this,' said Madeline, 'to my dear friend and benefactor, and, taking
    with you my prayers and thanks for him and for yourself, leave me
    for ever!'

    'Not until I have besought you, with all the earnestness and fervour
    by which I am animated,' cried Nicholas, 'to postpone this marriage
    for one short week. Not until I have besought you to think more
    deeply than you can have done, influenced as you are, upon the step
    you are about to take. Although you cannot be fully conscious of
    the villainy of this man to whom you are about to give your hand,
    some of his deeds you know. You have heard him speak, and have
    looked upon his face. Reflect, reflect, before it is too late, on
    the mockery of plighting to him at the altar, faith in which your
    heart can have no share--of uttering solemn words, against which
    nature and reason must rebel--of the degradation of yourself in your
    own esteem, which must ensue, and must be aggravated every day, as
    his detested character opens upon you more and more. Shrink from
    the loathsome companionship of this wretch as you would from
    corruption and disease. Suffer toil and labour if you will, but
    shun him, shun him, and be happy. For, believe me, I speak the
    truth; the most abject poverty, the most wretched condition of
    human life, with a pure and upright mind, would be happiness to that
    which you must undergo as the wife of such a man as this!'

    Long before Nicholas ceased to speak, the young lady buried her face
    in her hands, and gave her tears free way. In a voice at first
    inarticulate with emotion, but gradually recovering strength as she
    proceeded, she answered him:

    'I will not disguise from you, sir--though perhaps I ought--that I
    have undergone great pain of mind, and have been nearly broken-
    hearted since I saw you last. I do NOT love this gentleman. The
    difference between our ages, tastes, and habits, forbids it. This
    he knows, and knowing, still offers me his hand. By accepting it,
    and by that step alone, I can release my father who is dying in this
    place; prolong his life, perhaps, for many years; restore him to
    comfort--I may almost call it affluence; and relieve a generous man
    from the burden of assisting one, by whom, I grieve to say, his
    noble heart is little understood. Do not think so poorly of me as
    to believe that I feign a love I do not feel. Do not report so ill
    of me, for THAT I could not bear. If I cannot, in reason or in
    nature, love the man who pays this price for my poor hand, I can
    discharge the duties of a wife: I can be all he seeks in me, and
    will. He is content to take me as I am. I have passed my word, and
    should rejoice, not weep, that it is so. I do. The interest you
    take in one so friendless and forlorn as I, the delicacy with which
    you have discharged your trust, the faith you have kept with me,
    have my warmest thanks: and, while I make this last feeble
    acknowledgment, move me to tears, as you see. But I do not repent,
    nor am I unhappy. I am happy in the prospect of all I can achieve
    so easily. I shall be more so when I look back upon it, and all is
    done, I know.'

    'Your tears fall faster as you talk of happiness,' said Nicholas,
    'and you shun the contemplation of that dark future which must be
    laden with so much misery to you. Defer this marriage for a week.
    For but one week!'

    'He was talking, when you came upon us just now, with such smiles as
    I remember to have seen of old, and have not seen for many and many
    a day, of the freedom that was to come tomorrow,' said Madeline,
    with momentary firmness, 'of the welcome change, the fresh air: all
    the new scenes and objects that would bring fresh life to his
    exhausted frame. His eye grew bright, and his face lightened at the
    thought. I will not defer it for an hour.'

    'These are but tricks and wiles to urge you on,' cried Nicholas.

    'I'll hear no more,' said Madeline, hurriedly; 'I have heard too
    much--more than I should--already. What I have said to you, sir, I
    have said as to that dear friend to whom I trust in you honourably
    to repeat it. Some time hence, when I am more composed and
    reconciled to my new mode of life, if I should live so long, I will
    write to him. Meantime, all holy angels shower blessings on his
    head, and prosper and preserve him.'

    She was hurrying past Nicholas, when he threw himself before her,
    and implored her to think, but once again, upon the fate to which
    she was precipitately hastening.

    'There is no retreat,' said Nicholas, in an agony of supplication;
    'no withdrawing! All regret will be unavailing, and deep and bitter
    it must be. What can I say, that will induce you to pause at this
    last moment? What can I do to save you?'

    'Nothing,' she incoherently replied. 'This is the hardest trial I
    have had. Have mercy on me, sir, I beseech, and do not pierce my
    heart with such appeals as these. I--I hear him calling. I--I--
    must not, will not, remain here for another instant.'

    'If this were a plot,' said Nicholas, with the same violent rapidity
    with which she spoke, 'a plot, not yet laid bare by me, but which,
    with time, I might unravel; if you were (not knowing it) entitled to
    fortune of your own, which, being recovered, would do all that this
    marriage can accomplish, would you not retract?'

    'No, no, no! It is impossible; it is a child's tale. Time would
    bring his death. He is calling again!'

    'It may be the last time we shall ever meet on earth,' said
    Nicholas, 'it may be better for me that we should never meet more.'

    'For both, for both,' replied Madeline, not heeding what she said.
    'The time will come when to recall the memory of this one interview
    might drive me mad. Be sure to tell them, that you left me calm and
    happy. And God be with you, sir, and my grateful heart and
    blessing!'

    She was gone. Nicholas, staggering from the house, thought of the
    hurried scene which had just closed upon him, as if it were the
    phantom of some wild, unquiet dream. The day wore on; at night,
    having been enabled in some measure to collect his thoughts, he
    issued forth again.

    That night, being the last of Arthur Gride's bachelorship, found him
    in tiptop spirits and great glee. The bottle-green suit had been
    brushed, ready for the morrow. Peg Sliderskew had rendered the
    accounts of her past housekeeping; the eighteen-pence had been
    rigidly accounted for (she was never trusted with a larger sum at
    once, and the accounts were not usually balanced more than twice a
    day); every preparation had been made for the coming festival; and
    Arthur might have sat down and contemplated his approaching
    happiness, but that he preferred sitting down and contemplating the
    entries in a dirty old vellum-book with rusty clasps.

    'Well-a-day!' he chuckled, as sinking on his knees before a strong
    chest screwed down to the floor, he thrust in his arm nearly up to
    the shoulder, and slowly drew forth this greasy volume. 'Well-a-day
    now, this is all my library, but it's one of the most entertaining
    books that were ever written! It's a delightful book, and all true
    and real--that's the best of it--true as the Bank of England, and
    real as its gold and silver. Written by Arthur Gride. He, he, he!
    None of your storybook writers will ever make as good a book as
    this, I warrant me. It's composed for private circulation, for my
    own particular reading, and nobody else's. He, he, he!'

    Muttering this soliloquy, Arthur carried his precious volume to the
    table, and, adjusting it upon a dusty desk, put on his spectacles,
    and began to pore among the leaves.

    'It's a large sum to Mr Nickleby,' he said, in a dolorous voice.
    'Debt to be paid in full, nine hundred and seventy-five, four,
    three. Additional sum as per bond, five hundred pound. One
    thousand, four hundred and seventy-five pounds, four shillings, and
    threepence, tomorrow at twelve o'clock. On the other side, though,
    there's the PER CONTRA, by means of this pretty chick. But, again,
    there's the question whether I mightn't have brought all this about,
    myself. "Faint heart never won fair lady." Why was my heart so
    faint? Why didn't I boldly open it to Bray myself, and save one
    thousand four hundred and seventy-five, four, three?'

    These reflections depressed the old usurer so much, as to wring a
    feeble groan or two from his breast, and cause him to declare, with
    uplifted hands, that he would die in a workhouse. Remembering on
    further cogitation, however, that under any circumstances he must
    have paid, or handsomely compounded for, Ralph's debt, and being by
    no means confident that he would have succeeded had he undertaken
    his enterprise alone, he regained his equanimity, and chattered and
    mowed over more satisfactory items, until the entrance of Peg
    Sliderskew interrupted him.

    'Aha, Peg!' said Arthur, 'what is it? What is it now, Peg?'

    'It's the fowl,' replied Peg, holding up a plate containing a
    little, a very little one. Quite a phenomenon of a fowl. So very
    small and skinny.

    'A beautiful bird!' said Arthur, after inquiring the price, and
    finding it proportionate to the size. 'With a rasher of ham, and an
    egg made into sauce, and potatoes, and greens, and an apple pudding,
    Peg, and a little bit of cheese, we shall have a dinner for an
    emperor. There'll only be she and me--and you, Peg, when we've
    done.'

    'Don't you complain of the expense afterwards,' said Mrs Sliderskew,
    sulkily.

    'I am afraid we must live expensively for the first week,' returned
    Arthur, with a groan, 'and then we must make up for it. I won't eat
    more than I can help, and I know you love your old master too much
    to eat more than YOU can help, don't you, Peg?'

    'Don't I what?' said Peg.

    'Love your old master too much--'

    'No, not a bit too much,' said Peg.

    'Oh, dear, I wish the devil had this woman!' cried Arthur: 'love him
    too much to eat more than you can help at his expense.'

    'At his what?' said Peg.

    'Oh dear! she can never hear the most important word, and hears all
    the others!' whined Gride. 'At his expense--you catamaran!'

    The last-mentioned tribute to the charms of Mrs Sliderskew being
    uttered in a whisper, that lady assented to the general proposition
    by a harsh growl, which was accompanied by a ring at the street-
    door.

    'There's the bell,' said Arthur.

    'Ay, ay; I know that,' rejoined Peg.

    'Then why don't you go?' bawled Arthur.

    'Go where?' retorted Peg. 'I ain't doing any harm here, am I?'

    Arthur Gride in reply repeated the word 'bell' as loud as he could
    roar; and, his meaning being rendered further intelligible to Mrs
    Sliderskew's dull sense of hearing by pantomime expressive of
    ringing at a street-door, Peg hobbled out, after sharply demanding
    why he hadn't said there was a ring before, instead of talking about
    all manner of things that had nothing to do with it, and keeping her
    half-pint of beer waiting on the steps.

    'There's a change come over you, Mrs Peg,' said Arthur, following
    her out with his eyes. 'What it means I don't quite know; but, if
    it lasts, we shan't agree together long I see. You are turning
    crazy, I think. If you are, you must take yourself off, Mrs Peg--or
    be taken off. All's one to me.' Turning over the leaves of his book
    as he muttered this, he soon lighted upon something which attracted
    his attention, and forgot Peg Sliderskew and everything else in the
    engrossing interest of its pages.

    The room had no other light than that which it derived from a dim
    and dirt-clogged lamp, whose lazy wick, being still further obscured
    by a dark shade, cast its feeble rays over a very little space, and
    left all beyond in heavy shadow. This lamp the money-lender had
    drawn so close to him, that there was only room between it and
    himself for the book over which he bent; and as he sat, with his
    elbows on the desk, and his sharp cheek-bones resting on his hands,
    it only served to bring out his ugly features in strong relief,
    together with the little table at which he sat, and to shroud all
    the rest of the chamber in a deep sullen gloom. Raising his eyes,
    and looking vacantly into this gloom as he made some mental
    calculation, Arthur Gride suddenly met the fixed gaze of a man.

    'Thieves! thieves!' shrieked the usurer, starting up and folding his
    book to his breast. 'Robbers! Murder!'

    'What is the matter?' said the form, advancing.

    'Keep off!' cried the trembling wretch. 'Is it a man or a--a--'

    'For what do you take me, if not for a man?' was the inquiry.

    'Yes, yes,' cried Arthur Gride, shading his eyes with his hand, 'it
    is a man, and not a spirit. It is a man. Robbers! robbers!'

    'For what are these cries raised? Unless indeed you know me, and
    have some purpose in your brain?' said the stranger, coming close up
    to him. 'I am no thief.'

    'What then, and how come you here?' cried Gride, somewhat reassured,
    but still retreating from his visitor: 'what is your name, and what
    do you want?'

    'My name you need not know,' was the reply. 'I came here, because I
    was shown the way by your servant. I have addressed you twice or
    thrice, but you were too profoundly engaged with your book to hear
    me, and I have been silently waiting until you should be less
    abstracted. What I want I will tell you, when you can summon up
    courage enough to hear and understand me.'

    Arthur Gride, venturing to regard his visitor more attentively, and
    perceiving that he was a young man of good mien and bearing,
    returned to his seat, and muttering that there were bad characters
    about, and that this, with former attempts upon his house, had made
    him nervous, requested his visitor to sit down. This, however, he
    declined.

    'Good God! I don't stand up to have you at an advantage,' said
    Nicholas (for Nicholas it was), as he observed a gesture of alarm on
    the part of Gride. 'Listen to me. You are to be married tomorrow
    morning.'

    'N--n--no,' rejoined Gride. 'Who said I was? How do you know
    that?'

    'No matter how,' replied Nicholas, 'I know it. The young lady who
    is to give you her hand hates and despises you. Her blood runs cold
    at the mention of your name; the vulture and the lamb, the rat and
    the dove, could not be worse matched than you and she. You see I
    know her.'

    Gride looked at him as if he were petrified with astonishment, but
    did not speak; perhaps lacking the power.

    'You and another man, Ralph Nickleby by name, have hatched this plot
    between you,' pursued Nicholas. 'You pay him for his share in
    bringing about this sale of Madeline Bray. You do. A lie is
    trembling on your lips, I see.'

    He paused; but, Arthur making no reply, resumed again.

    'You pay yourself by defrauding her. How or by what means--for I
    scorn to sully her cause by falsehood or deceit--I do not know; at
    present I do not know, but I am not alone or single-handed in this
    business. If the energy of man can compass the discovery of your
    fraud and treachery before your death; if wealth, revenge, and just
    hatred, can hunt and track you through your windings; you will yet
    be called to a dear account for this. We are on the scent already;
    judge you, who know what we do not, when we shall have you down!'

    He paused again, and still Arthur Gride glared upon him in silence.

    'If you were a man to whom I could appeal with any hope of touching
    his compassion or humanity,' said Nicholas, 'I would urge upon you
    to remember the helplessness, the innocence, the youth, of this
    lady; her worth and beauty, her filial excellence, and last, and
    more than all, as concerning you more nearly, the appeal she has
    made to your mercy and your manly feeling. But, I take the only
    ground that can be taken with men like you, and ask what money will
    buy you off. Remember the danger to which you are exposed. You see
    I know enough to know much more with very little help. Bate some
    expected gain for the risk you save, and say what is your price.'

    Old Arthur Gride moved his lips, but they only formed an ugly smile
    and were motionless again.

    'You think,' said Nicholas, 'that the price would not be paid. Miss
    Bray has wealthy friends who would coin their very hearts to save
    her in such a strait as this. Name your price, defer these nuptials
    for but a few days, and see whether those I speak of, shrink from
    the payment. Do you hear me?'

    When Nicholas began, Arthur Gride's impression was, that Ralph
    Nickleby had betrayed him; but, as he proceeded, he felt convinced
    that however he had come by the knowledge he possessed, the part he
    acted was a genuine one, and that with Ralph he had no concern. All
    he seemed to know, for certain, was, that he, Gride, paid Ralph's
    debt; but that, to anybody who knew the circumstances of Bray's
    detention--even to Bray himself, on Ralph's own statement--must be
    perfectly notorious. As to the fraud on Madeline herself, his
    visitor knew so little about its nature or extent, that it might be
    a lucky guess, or a hap-hazard accusation. Whether or no, he had
    clearly no key to the mystery, and could not hurt him who kept it
    close within his own breast. The allusion to friends, and the offer
    of money, Gride held to be mere empty vapouring, for purposes of
    delay. 'And even if money were to be had,' thought Arthur Glide, as
    he glanced at Nicholas, and trembled with passion at his boldness
    and audacity, 'I'd have that dainty chick for my wife, and cheat YOU
    of her, young smooth-face!'

    Long habit of weighing and noting well what clients said, and nicely
    balancing chances in his mind and calculating odds to their faces,
    without the least appearance of being so engaged, had rendered Gride
    quick in forming conclusions, and arriving, from puzzling,
    intricate, and often contradictory premises, at very cunning
    deductions. Hence it was that, as Nicholas went on, he followed him
    closely with his own constructions, and, when he ceased to speak,
    was as well prepared as if he had deliberated for a fortnight.

    'I hear you,' he cried, starting from his seat, casting back the
    fastenings of the window-shutters, and throwing up the sash. 'Help
    here! Help! Help!'

    'What are you doing?' said Nicholas, seizing him by the arm.

    'I'll cry robbers, thieves, murder, alarm the neighbourhood,
    struggle with you, let loose some blood, and swear you came to rob
    me, if you don't quit my house,' replied Gride, drawing in his head
    with a frightful grin, 'I will!'

    'Wretch!' cried Nicholas.

    'YOU'LL bring your threats here, will you?' said Gride, whom
    jealousy of Nicholas and a sense of his own triumph had converted
    into a perfect fiend. 'You, the disappointed lover? Oh dear! He!
    he! he! But you shan't have her, nor she you. She's my wife, my
    doting little wife. Do you think she'll miss you? Do you think
    she'll weep? I shall like to see her weep, I shan't mind it. She
    looks prettier in tears.'

    'Villain!' said Nicholas, choking with his rage.

    'One minute more,' cried Arthur Gride, 'and I'll rouse the street
    with such screams, as, if they were raised by anybody else, should
    wake me even in the arms of pretty Madeline.'

    'You hound!' said Nicholas. 'If you were but a younger man--'

    'Oh yes!' sneered Arthur Gride, 'If I was but a younger man it
    wouldn't be so bad; but for me, so old and ugly! To be jilted by
    little Madeline for me!'

    'Hear me,' said Nicholas, 'and be thankful I have enough command
    over myself not to fling you into the street, which no aid could
    prevent my doing if I once grappled with you. I have been no lover
    of this lady's. No contract or engagement, no word of love, has
    ever passed between us. She does not even know my name.'

    'I'll ask it for all that. I'll beg it of her with kisses,' said
    Arthur Gride. 'Yes, and she'll tell me, and pay them back, and
    we'll laugh together, and hug ourselves, and be very merry, when we
    think of the poor youth that wanted to have her, but couldn't
    because she was bespoke by me!'

    This taunt brought such an expression into the face of Nicholas,
    that Arthur Gride plainly apprehended it to be the forerunner of his
    putting his threat of throwing him into the street in immediate
    execution; for he thrust his head out of the window, and holding
    tight on with both hands, raised a pretty brisk alarm. Not thinking
    it necessary to abide the issue of the noise, Nicholas gave vent to
    an indignant defiance, and stalked from the room and from the house.
    Arthur Gride watched him across the street, and then, drawing in his
    head, fastened the window as before, and sat down to take breath.

    'If she ever turns pettish or ill-humoured, I'll taunt her with that
    spark,' he said, when he had recovered. 'She'll little think I know
    about him; and, if I manage it well, I can break her spirit by this
    means and have her under my thumb. I'm glad nobody came. I didn't
    call too loud. The audacity to enter my house, and open upon me!
    But I shall have a very good triumph tomorrow, and he'll be gnawing
    his fingers off: perhaps drown himself or cut his throat! I
    shouldn't wonder! That would make it quite complete, that would:
    quite.'

    When he had become restored to his usual condition by these and
    other comments on his approaching triumph, Arthur Gride put away his
    book, and, having locked the chest with great caution, descended
    into the kitchen to warn Peg Sliderskew to bed, and scold her for
    having afforded such ready admission to a stranger.

    The unconscious Peg, however, not being able to comprehend the
    offence of which she had been guilty, he summoned her to hold the
    light, while he made a tour of the fastenings, and secured the
    street-door with his own hands.

    'Top bolt,' muttered Arthur, fastening as he spoke, 'bottom bolt,
    chain, bar, double lock, and key out to put under my pillow! So, if
    any more rejected admirers come, they may come through the keyhole.
    And now I'll go to sleep till half-past five, when I must get up to
    be married, Peg!'

    With that, he jocularly tapped Mrs Sliderskew under the chin, and
    appeared, for the moment, inclined to celebrate the close of his
    bachelor days by imprinting a kiss on her shrivelled lips. Thinking
    better of it, however, he gave her chin another tap, in lieu of that
    warmer familiarity, and stole away to bed.
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 53
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