As he passed St Paul's he stepped aside into a doorway to set his watch, and with his hand on the key and his eye on the cathedral dial, was intent upon so doing, when a man suddenly stopped before him. It was Newman Noggs.
'Ah! Newman,' said Mr Nickleby, looking up as he pursued his occupation. 'The letter about the mortgage has come, has it? I thought it would.'
'Wrong,' replied Newman.
'What! and nobody called respecting it?' inquired Mr Nickleby, pausing. Noggs shook his head.
'What HAS come, then?' inquired Mr Nickleby.
'I have,' said Newman.
'What else?' demanded the master, sternly.
'This,' said Newman, drawing a sealed letter slowly from his pocket. 'Post-mark, Strand, black wax, black border, woman's hand, C. N. in the corner.'
'Black wax?' said Mr Nickleby, glancing at the letter. 'I know something of that hand, too. Newman, I shouldn't be surprised if my brother were dead.'
'I don't think you would,' said Newman, quietly.
'Why not, sir?' demanded Mr Nickleby.
'You never are surprised,' replied Newman, 'that's all.'
Mr Nickleby snatched the letter from his assistant, and fixing a cold look upon him, opened, read it, put it in his pocket, and having now hit the time to a second, began winding up his watch.
'It is as I expected, Newman,' said Mr Nickleby, while he was thus engaged. 'He IS dead. Dear me! Well, that's sudden thing. I shouldn't have thought it, really.' With these touching expressions of sorrow, Mr Nickleby replaced his watch in his fob, and, fitting on his gloves to a nicety, turned upon his way, and walked slowly westward with his hands behind him.
'Children alive?' inquired Noggs, stepping up to him.
'Why, that's the very thing,' replied Mr Nickleby, as though his thoughts were about them at that moment. 'They are both alive.'
'Both!' repeated Newman Noggs, in a low voice.
'And the widow, too,' added Mr Nickleby, 'and all three in London, confound them; all three here, Newman.'
Newman fell a little behind his master, and his face was curiously twisted as by a spasm; but whether of paralysis, or grief, or inward laughter, nobody but himself could possibly explain. The expression of a man's face is commonly a help to his thoughts, or glossary on his speech; but the countenance of Newman Noggs, in his ordinary moods, was a problem which no stretch of ingenuity could solve.
'Go home!' said Mr Nickleby, after they had walked a few paces: looking round at the clerk as if he were his dog. The words were scarcely uttered when Newman darted across the road, slunk among the crowd, and disappeared in an instant.
'Reasonable, certainly!' muttered Mr Nickleby to himself, as he walked on, 'very reasonable! My brother never did anything for me, and I never expected it; the breath is no sooner out of his body than I am to be looked to, as the support of a great hearty woman, and a grown boy and girl. What are they to me! I never saw them.'
Full of these, and many other reflections of a similar kind, Mr Nickleby made the best of his way to the Strand, and, referring to his letter as if to ascertain the number of the house he wanted, stopped at a private door about half-way down that crowded thoroughfare.
A miniature painter lived there, for there was a large gilt frame screwed upon the street-door, in which were displayed, upon a black velvet ground, two portraits of naval dress coats with faces looking out of them, and telescopes attached; one of a young gentleman in a very vermilion uniform, flourishing a sabre; and one of a literary character with a high forehead, a pen and ink, six books, and a curtain. There was, moreover, a touching representation of a young lady reading a manuscript in an unfathomable forest, and a charming whole length of a large-headed little boy, sitting on a stool with his legs fore-shortened to the size of salt-spoons. Besides these works of art, there were a great many heads of old ladies and gentlemen smirking at each other out of blue and brown skies, and an elegantly written card of terms with an embossed border.