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    Chapter 54

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    Chapter 54
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    CHAPTER 54

    The Crisis of the Project and its Result

    There are not many men who lie abed too late, or oversleep
    themselves, on their wedding morning. A legend there is of somebody
    remarkable for absence of mind, who opened his eyes upon the day
    which was to give him a young wife, and forgetting all about the
    matter, rated his servants for providing him with such fine clothes
    as had been prepared for the festival. There is also a legend of a
    young gentleman, who, not having before his eyes the fear of the
    canons of the church for such cases made and provided, conceived a
    passion for his grandmother. Both cases are of a singular and
    special kind and it is very doubtful whether either can be
    considered as a precedent likely to be extensively followed by
    succeeding generations.

    Arthur Gride had enrobed himself in his marriage garments of bottle-
    green, a full hour before Mrs Sliderskew, shaking off her more heavy
    slumbers, knocked at his chamber door; and he had hobbled downstairs
    in full array and smacked his lips over a scanty taste of his
    favourite cordial, ere that delicate piece of antiquity enlightened
    the kitchen with her presence.

    'Faugh!' said Peg, grubbing, in the discharge of her domestic
    functions, among a scanty heap of ashes in the rusty grate.
    'Wedding indeed! A precious wedding! He wants somebody better than
    his old Peg to take care of him, does he? And what has he said to
    me, many and many a time, to keep me content with short food, small
    wages, and little fire? "My will, Peg! my will!" says he: "I'm a
    bachelor--no friends--no relations, Peg." Lies! And now he's to
    bring home a new mistress, a baby-faced chit of a girl! If he
    wanted a wife, the fool, why couldn't he have one suitable to his
    age, and that knew his ways? She won't come in MY way, he says.
    No, that she won't, but you little think why, Arthur boy!'

    While Mrs Sliderskew, influenced possibly by some lingering feelings
    of disappointment and personal slight, occasioned by her old
    master's preference for another, was giving loose to these
    grumblings below stairs, Arthur Gride was cogitating in the parlour
    upon what had taken place last night.

    'I can't think how he can have picked up what he knows,' said
    Arthur, 'unless I have committed myself--let something drop at
    Bray's, for instance--which has been overheard. Perhaps I may. I
    shouldn't be surprised if that was it. Mr Nickleby was often angry
    at my talking to him before we got outside the door. I mustn't tell
    him that part of the business, or he'll put me out of sorts, and
    make me nervous for the day.'

    Ralph was universally looked up to, and recognised among his fellows
    as a superior genius, but upon Arthur Gride his stern unyielding
    character and consummate art had made so deep an impression, that he
    was actually afraid of him. Cringing and cowardly to the core by
    nature, Arthur Gride humbled himself in the dust before Ralph
    Nickleby, and, even when they had not this stake in common, would
    have licked his shoes and crawled upon the ground before him rather
    than venture to return him word for word, or retort upon him in any
    other spirit than one of the most slavish and abject sycophancy.

    To Ralph Nickleby's, Arthur Gride now betook himself according to
    appointment; and to Ralph Nickleby he related how, last night, some
    young blustering blade, whom he had never seen, forced his way into
    his house, and tried to frighten him from the proposed nuptials.
    Told, in short, what Nicholas had said and done, with the slight
    reservation upon which he had determined.

    'Well, and what then?' said Ralph.

    'Oh! nothing more,' rejoined Gride.

    'He tried to frighten you,' said Ralph, 'and you WERE frightened I
    suppose; is that it?'

    'I frightened HIM by crying thieves and murder,' replied Gride.
    'Once I was in earnest, I tell you that, for I had more than half a
    mind to swear he uttered threats, and demanded my life or my money.'

    'Oho!' said Ralph, eyeing him askew. 'Jealous too!'

    'Dear now, see that!' cried Arthur, rubbing his hands and affecting
    to laugh.

    'Why do you make those grimaces, man?' said Ralph; 'you ARE jealous
    --and with good cause I think.'

    'No, no, no; not with good cause, hey? You don't think with good
    cause, do you?' cried Arthur, faltering. 'Do you though, hey?'

    'Why, how stands the fact?' returned Ralph. 'Here is an old man
    about to be forced in marriage upon a girl; and to this old man
    there comes a handsome young fellow--you said he was handsome,
    didn't you?'

    'No!' snarled Arthur Gride.

    'Oh!' rejoined Ralph, 'I thought you did. Well! Handsome or not
    handsome, to this old man there comes a young fellow who casts all
    manner of fierce defiances in his teeth--gums I should rather say--
    and tells him in plain terms that his mistress hates him. What does
    he do that for? Philanthropy's sake?'

    'Not for love of the lady,' replied Gride, 'for he said that no word
    of love--his very words--had ever passed between 'em.'

    'He said!' repeated Ralph, contemptuously. 'But I like him for one
    thing, and that is, his giving you this fair warning to keep your--
    what is it?--Tit-tit or dainty chick--which?--under lock and key.
    Be careful, Gride, be careful. It's a triumph, too, to tear her
    away from a gallant young rival: a great triumph for an old man! It
    only remains to keep her safe when you have her--that's all.'

    'What a man it is!' cried Arthur Gride, affecting, in the extremity
    of his torture, to be highly amused. And then he added, anxiously,
    'Yes; to keep her safe, that's all. And that isn't much, is it?'

    'Much!' said Ralph, with a sneer. 'Why, everybody knows what easy
    things to understand and to control, women are. But come, it's very
    nearly time for you to be made happy. You'll pay the bond now, I
    suppose, to save us trouble afterwards.'

    'Oh what a man you are!' croaked Arthur.

    'Why not?' said Ralph. 'Nobody will pay you interest for the money,
    I suppose, between this and twelve o'clock; will they?'

    'But nobody would pay you interest for it either, you know,'
    returned Arthur, leering at Ralph with all the cunning and slyness
    he could throw into his face.

    'Besides which,' said Ralph, suffering his lip to curl into a smile,
    'you haven't the money about you, and you weren't prepared for this,
    or you'd have brought it with you; and there's nobody you'd so much
    like to accommodate as me. I see. We trust each other in about an
    equal degree. Are you ready?'

    Gride, who had done nothing but grin, and nod, and chatter, during
    this last speech of Ralph's, answered in the affirmative; and,
    producing from his hat a couple of large white favours, pinned one
    on his breast, and with considerable difficulty induced his friend
    to do the like. Thus accoutred, they got into a hired coach which
    Ralph had in waiting, and drove to the residence of the fair and
    most wretched bride.

    Gride, whose spirits and courage had gradually failed him more and
    more as they approached nearer and nearer to the house, was utterly
    dismayed and cowed by the mournful silence which pervaded it. The
    face of the poor servant girl, the only person they saw, was
    disfigured with tears and want of sleep. There was nobody to
    receive or welcome them; and they stole upstairs into the usual
    sitting-room, more like two burglars than the bridegroom and his
    friend.

    'One would think,' said Ralph, speaking, in spite of himself, in a
    low and subdued voice, 'that there was a funeral going on here, and
    not a wedding.'

    'He, he!' tittered his friend, 'you are so--so very funny!'

    'I need be,' remarked Ralph, drily, 'for this is rather dull and
    chilling. Look a little brisker, man, and not so hangdog like!'

    'Yes, yes, I will,' said Gride. 'But--but--you don't think she's
    coming just yet, do you?'

    'Why, I suppose she'll not come till she is obliged,' returned
    Ralph, looking at his watch, 'and she has a good half-hour to spare
    yet. Curb your impatience.'

    'I--I--am not impatient,' stammered Arthur. 'I wouldn't be hard
    with her for the world. Oh dear, dear, not on any account. Let her
    take her time--her own time. Her time shall be ours by all means.'

    While Ralph bent upon his trembling friend a keen look, which showed
    that he perfectly understood the reason of this great consideration
    and regard, a footstep was heard upon the stairs, and Bray himself
    came into the room on tiptoe, and holding up his hand with a
    cautious gesture, as if there were some sick person near, who must
    not be disturbed.

    'Hush!' he said, in a low voice. 'She was very ill last night. I
    thought she would have broken her heart. She is dressed, and crying
    bitterly in her own room; but she's better, and quite quiet. That's
    everything!'

    'She is ready, is she?' said Ralph.

    'Quite ready,' returned the father.

    'And not likely to delay us by any young-lady weaknesses--fainting,
    or so forth?' said Ralph.

    'She may be safely trusted now,' returned Bray. 'I have been
    talking to her this morning. Here! Come a little this way.'

    He drew Ralph Nickleby to the further end of the room, and pointed
    towards Gride, who sat huddled together in a corner, fumbling
    nervously with the buttons of his coat, and exhibiting a face, of
    which every skulking and base expression was sharpened and
    aggravated to the utmost by his anxiety and trepidation.

    'Look at that man,' whispered Bray, emphatically. 'This seems a
    cruel thing, after all.'

    'What seems a cruel thing?' inquired Ralph, with as much stolidity
    of face, as if he really were in utter ignorance of the other's
    meaning.

    'This marriage,' answered Bray. 'Don't ask me what. You know as
    well as I do.'

    Ralph shrugged his shoulders, in silent deprecation of Bray's
    impatience, and elevated his eyebrows, and pursed his lips, as men
    do when they are prepared with a sufficient answer to some remark,
    but wait for a more favourable opportunity of advancing it, or think
    it scarcely worth while to answer their adversary at all.

    'Look at him. Does it not seem cruel?' said Bray.

    'No!' replied Ralph, boldly.

    'I say it does,' retorted Bray, with a show of much irritation. 'It
    is a cruel thing, by all that's bad and treacherous!'

    When men are about to commit, or to sanction the commission of some
    injustice, it is not uncommon for them to express pity for the
    object either of that or some parallel proceeding, and to feel
    themselves, at the time, quite virtuous and moral, and immensely
    superior to those who express no pity at all. This is a kind of
    upholding of faith above works, and is very comfortable. To do
    Ralph Nickleby justice, he seldom practised this sort of
    dissimulation; but he understood those who did, and therefore
    suffered Bray to say, again and again, with great vehemence, that
    they were jointly doing a very cruel thing, before he again offered
    to interpose a word.

    'You see what a dry, shrivelled, withered old chip it is,' returned
    Ralph, when the other was at length silent. 'If he were younger, it
    might be cruel, but as it is--harkee, Mr Bray, he'll die soon, and
    leave her a rich young widow! Miss Madeline consults your tastes
    this time; let her consult her own next.'

    'True, true,' said Bray, biting his nails, and plainly very ill at
    ease. 'I couldn't do anything better for her than advise her to
    accept these proposals, could I? Now, I ask you, Nickleby, as a man
    of the world; could I?'

    'Surely not,' answered Ralph. 'I tell you what, sir; there are a
    hundred fathers, within a circuit of five miles from this place;
    well off; good, rich, substantial men; who would gladly give their
    daughters, and their own ears with them, to that very man yonder,
    ape and mummy as he looks.'

    'So there are!' exclaimed Bray, eagerly catching at anything which
    seemed a justification of himself. 'And so I told her, both last
    night and today.'

    'You told her truth,' said Ralph, 'and did well to do so; though I
    must say, at the same time, that if I had a daughter, and my
    freedom, pleasure, nay, my very health and life, depended on her
    taking a husband whom I pointed out, I should hope it would not be
    necessary to advance any other arguments to induce her to consent to
    my wishes.'

    Bray looked at Ralph as if to see whether he spoke in earnest, and
    having nodded twice or thrice in unqualified assent to what had
    fallen from him, said:

    'I must go upstairs for a few minutes, to finish dressing. When I
    come down, I'll bring Madeline with me. Do you know, I had a very
    strange dream last night, which I have not remembered till this
    instant. I dreamt that it was this morning, and you and I had been
    talking as we have been this minute; that I went upstairs, for the
    very purpose for which I am going now; and that as I stretched out
    my hand to take Madeline's, and lead her down, the floor sunk with
    me, and after falling from such an indescribable and tremendous
    height as the imagination scarcely conceives, except in dreams, I
    alighted in a grave.'

    'And you awoke, and found you were lying on your back, or with your
    head hanging over the bedside, or suffering some pain from
    indigestion?' said Ralph. 'Pshaw, Mr Bray! Do as I do (you will
    have the opportunity, now that a constant round of pleasure and
    enjoyment opens upon you), and, occupying yourself a little more by
    day, have no time to think of what you dream by night.'

    Ralph followed him, with a steady look, to the door; and, turning to
    the bridegroom, when they were again alone, said,

    'Mark my words, Gride, you won't have to pay HIS annuity very long.
    You have the devil's luck in bargains, always. If he is not booked
    to make the long voyage before many months are past and gone, I wear
    an orange for a head!'

    To this prophecy, so agreeable to his ears, Arthur returned no
    answer than a cackle of great delight. Ralph, throwing himself into
    a chair, they both sat waiting in profound silence. Ralph was
    thinking, with a sneer upon his lips, on the altered manner of Bray
    that day, and how soon their fellowship in a bad design had lowered
    his pride and established a familiarity between them, when his
    attentive ear caught the rustling of a female dress upon the stairs,
    and the footstep of a man.

    'Wake up,' he said, stamping his foot impatiently upon the ground,
    'and be something like life, man, will you? They are here. Urge
    those dry old bones of yours this way. Quick, man, quick!'

    Gride shambled forward, and stood, leering and bowing, close by
    Ralph's side, when the door opened and there entered in haste--not
    Bray and his daughter, but Nicholas and his sister Kate.

    If some tremendous apparition from the world of shadows had suddenly
    presented itself before him, Ralph Nickleby could not have been more
    thunder-stricken than he was by this surprise. His hands fell
    powerless by his side, he reeled back; and with open mouth, and a
    face of ashy paleness, stood gazing at them in speechless rage: his
    eyes so prominent, and his face so convulsed and changed by the
    passions which raged within him, that it would have been difficult
    to recognise in him the same stern, composed, hard-featured man he
    had been not a minute ago.

    'The man that came to me last night,' whispered Gride, plucking at
    his elbow. 'The man that came to me last night!'

    'I see,' muttered Ralph, 'I know! I might have guessed as much
    before. Across my every path, at every turn, go where I will, do
    what I may, he comes!'

    The absence of all colour from the face; the dilated nostril; the
    quivering of the lips which, though set firmly against each other,
    would not be still; showed what emotions were struggling for the
    mastery with Nicholas. But he kept them down, and gently pressing
    Kate's arm to reassure her, stood erect and undaunted, front to
    front with his unworthy relative.

    As the brother and sister stood side by side, with a gallant bearing
    which became them well, a close likeness between them was apparent,
    which many, had they only seen them apart, might have failed to
    remark. The air, carriage, and very look and expression of the
    brother were all reflected in the sister, but softened and refined
    to the nicest limit of feminine delicacy and attraction. More
    striking still was some indefinable resemblance, in the face of
    Ralph, to both. While they had never looked more handsome, nor he
    more ugly; while they had never held themselves more proudly, nor he
    shrunk half so low; there never had been a time when this
    resemblance was so perceptible, or when all the worst characteristics
    of a face rendered coarse and harsh by evil thoughts were half so
    manifest as now.

    'Away!' was the first word he could utter as he literally gnashed
    his teeth. 'Away! What brings you here? Liar, scoundrel, dastard,
    thief!'

    'I come here,' said Nicholas in a low deep voice, 'to save your
    victim if I can. Liar and scoundrel you are, in every action of
    your life; theft is your trade; and double dastard you must be, or
    you were not here today. Hard words will not move me, nor would
    hard blows. Here I stand, and will, till I have done my errand.'

    'Girl!' said Ralph, 'retire! We can use force to him, but I would
    not hurt you if I could help it. Retire, you weak and silly wench,
    and leave this dog to be dealt with as he deserves.'

    'I will not retire,' cried Kate, with flashing eyes and the red
    blood mantling in her cheeks. 'You will do him no hurt that he will
    not repay. You may use force with me; I think you will, for I AM a
    girl, and that would well become you. But if I have a girl's
    weakness, I have a woman's heart, and it is not you who in a cause
    like this can turn that from its purpose.'

    'And what may your purpose be, most lofty lady?' said Ralph.

    'To offer to the unhappy subject of your treachery, at this last
    moment,' replied Nicholas, 'a refuge and a home. If the near
    prospect of such a husband as you have provided will not prevail
    upon her, I hope she may be moved by the prayers and entreaties of
    one of her own sex. At all events they shall be tried. I myself,
    avowing to her father from whom I come and by whom I am
    commissioned, will render it an act of greater baseness, meanness,
    and cruelty in him if he still dares to force this marriage on.
    Here I wait to see him and his daughter. For this I came and
    brought my sister even into your presence. Our purpose is not to
    see or speak with you; therefore to you we stoop to say no more.'

    'Indeed!' said Ralph. 'You persist in remaining here, ma'am, do
    you?'

    His niece's bosom heaved with the indignant excitement into which he
    had lashed her, but she gave him no reply.

    'Now, Gride, see here,' said Ralph. 'This fellow--I grieve to say
    my brother's son: a reprobate and profligate, stained with every
    mean and selfish crime--this fellow, coming here today to disturb a
    solemn ceremony, and knowing that the consequence of his presenting
    himself in another man's house at such a time, and persisting in
    remaining there, must be his being kicked into the streets and
    dragged through them like the vagabond he is--this fellow, mark you,
    brings with him his sister as a protection, thinking we would not
    expose a silly girl to the degradation and indignity which is no
    novelty to him; and, even after I have warned her of what must
    ensue, he still keeps her by him, as you see, and clings to her
    apron-strings like a cowardly boy to his mother's. Is not this a
    pretty fellow to talk as big as you have heard him now?'

    'And as I heard him last night,' said Arthur Gride; 'as I heard him
    last night when he sneaked into my house, and--he! he! he!--very
    soon sneaked out again, when I nearly frightened him to death. And
    HE wanting to marry Miss Madeline too! Oh dear! Is there anything
    else he'd like? Anything else we can do for him, besides giving her
    up? Would he like his debts paid and his house furnished, and a few
    bank notes for shaving paper if he shaves at all? He! he! he!'

    'You will remain, girl, will you?' said Ralph, turning upon Kate
    again, 'to be hauled downstairs like a drunken drab, as I swear you
    shall if you stop here? No answer! Thank your brother for what
    follows. Gride, call down Bray--and not his daughter. Let them
    keep her above.'

    'If you value your head,' said Nicholas, taking up a position before
    the door, and speaking in the same low voice in which he had spoken
    before, and with no more outward passion than he had before
    displayed; 'stay where you are!'

    'Mind me, and not him, and call down Bray,' said Ralph.

    'Mind yourself rather than either of us, and stay where you are!'
    said Nicholas.

    'Will you call down Bray?' cried Ralph.

    'Remember that you come near me at your peril,' said Nicholas.

    Gride hesitated. Ralph being, by this time, as furious as a baffled
    tiger, made for the door, and, attempting to pass Kate, clasped her
    arm roughly with his hand. Nicholas, with his eyes darting fire,
    seized him by the collar. At that moment, a heavy body fell with
    great violence on the floor above, and, in an instant afterwards,
    was heard a most appalling and terrific scream.

    They all stood still, and gazed upon each other. Scream succeeded
    scream; a heavy pattering of feet succeeded; and many shrill voices
    clamouring together were heard to cry, 'He is dead!'

    'Stand off!' cried Nicholas, letting loose all the passion he had
    restrained till now; 'if this is what I scarcely dare to hope it is,
    you are caught, villains, in your own toils.'

    He burst from the room, and, darting upstairs to the quarter from
    whence the noise proceeded, forced his way through a crowd of
    persons who quite filled a small bed-chamber, and found Bray lying
    on the floor quite dead; his daughter clinging to the body.

    'How did this happen?' he cried, looking wildly about him.

    Several voices answered together, that he had been observed, through
    the half-opened door, reclining in a strange and uneasy position
    upon a chair; that he had been spoken to several times, and not
    answering, was supposed to be asleep, until some person going in and
    shaking him by the arm, he fell heavily to the ground and was
    discovered to be dead.

    'Who is the owner of this house?' said Nicholas, hastily.

    An elderly woman was pointed out to him; and to her he said, as he
    knelt down and gently unwound Madeline's arms from the lifeless mass
    round which they were entwined: 'I represent this lady's nearest
    friends, as her servant here knows, and must remove her from this
    dreadful scene. This is my sister to whose charge you confide her.
    My name and address are upon that card, and you shall receive from
    me all necessary directions for the arrangements that must be made.
    Stand aside, every one of you, and give me room and air for God's
    sake!'

    The people fell back, scarce wondering more at what had just
    occurred, than at the excitement and impetuosity of him who spoke.
    Nicholas, taking the insensible girl in his arms, bore her from the
    chamber and downstairs into the room he had just quitted, followed
    by his sister and the faithful servant, whom he charged to procure a
    coach directly, while he and Kate bent over their beautiful charge
    and endeavoured, but in vain, to restore her to animation. The girl
    performed her office with such expedition, that in a very few
    minutes the coach was ready.

    Ralph Nickleby and Gride, stunned and paralysed by the awful event
    which had so suddenly overthrown their schemes (it would not
    otherwise, perhaps, have made much impression on them), and carried
    away by the extraordinary energy and precipitation of Nicholas,
    which bore down all before him, looked on at these proceedings like
    men in a dream or trance. It was not until every preparation was
    made for Madeline's immediate removal that Ralph broke silence by
    declaring she should not be taken away.

    'Who says so?' cried Nicholas, rising from his knee and confronting
    them, but still retaining Madeline's lifeless hand in his.

    'I!' answered Ralph, hoarsely.

    'Hush, hush!' cried the terrified Gride, catching him by the arm
    again. 'Hear what he says.'

    'Ay!' said Nicholas, extending his disengaged hand in the air, 'hear
    what he says. That both your debts are paid in the one great debt
    of nature. That the bond, due today at twelve, is now waste paper.
    That your contemplated fraud shall be discovered yet. That your
    schemes are known to man, and overthrown by Heaven. Wretches, that
    he defies you both to do your worst.'

    'This man,' said Ralph, in a voice scarcely intelligible, 'this man
    claims his wife, and he shall have her.'

    'That man claims what is not his, and he should not have her if he
    were fifty men, with fifty more to back him,' said Nicholas.

    'Who shall prevent him?'

    'I will.'

    'By what right I should like to know,' said Ralph. 'By what right I
    ask?'

    'By this right. That, knowing what I do, you dare not tempt me
    further,' said Nicholas, 'and by this better right; that those I
    serve, and with whom you would have done me base wrong and injury,
    are her nearest and her dearest friends. In their name I bear her
    hence. Give way!'

    'One word!' cried Ralph, foaming at the mouth.

    'Not one,' replied Nicholas, 'I will not hear of one--save this.
    Look to yourself, and heed this warning that I give you! Your day
    is past, and night is comin' on.'

    'My curse, my bitter, deadly curse, upon you, boy!'

    'Whence will curses come at your command? Or what avails a curse or
    blessing from a man like you? I tell you, that misfortune and
    discovery are thickening about your head; that the structures you
    have raised, through all your ill-spent life, are crumbling into
    dust; that your path is beset with spies; that this very day, ten
    thousand pounds of your hoarded wealth have gone in one great
    crash!'

    "Tis false!' cried Ralph, shrinking back.

    "Tis true, and you shall find it so. I have no more words to
    waste. Stand from the door. Kate, do you go first. Lay not a hand
    on her, or on that woman, or on me, or so much a brush their
    garments as they pass you by!--You let them pass, and he blocks the
    door again!'

    Arthur Gride happened to be in the doorway, but whether
    intentionally or from confusion was not quite apparent. Nicholas
    swung him away, with such violence as to cause him to spin round the
    room until he was caught by a sharp angle of the wall, and there
    knocked down; and then taking his beautiful burden in his arms
    rushed out. No one cared to stop him, if any were so disposed.
    Making his way through a mob of people, whom a report of the
    circumstances had attracted round the house, and carrying Madeline,
    in his excitement, as easily as if she were an infant, he reached
    the coach in which Kate and the girl were already waiting, and,
    confiding his charge to them, jumped up beside the coachman and bade
    him drive away.
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