Mr Nickleby glanced at these frivolities with great contempt, and gave a double knock, which, having been thrice repeated, was answered by a servant girl with an uncommonly dirty face.
'Is Mrs Nickleby at home, girl?' demanded Ralph sharply.
'Her name ain't Nickleby,' said the girl, 'La Creevy, you mean.'
Mr Nickleby looked very indignant at the handmaid on being thus corrected, and demanded with much asperity what she meant; which she was about to state, when a female voice proceeding from a perpendicular staircase at the end of the passage, inquired who was wanted.
'Mrs Nickleby,' said Ralph.
'It's the second floor, Hannah,' said the same voice; 'what a stupid thing you are! Is the second floor at home?'
'Somebody went out just now, but I think it was the attic which had been a cleaning of himself,' replied the girl.
'You had better see,' said the invisible female. 'Show the gentleman where the bell is, and tell him he mustn't knock double knocks for the second floor; I can't allow a knock except when the bell's broke, and then it must be two single ones.'
'Here,' said Ralph, walking in without more parley, 'I beg your pardon; is that Mrs La what's-her-name?'
'Creevy--La Creevy,' replied the voice, as a yellow headdress bobbed over the banisters.
'I'll speak to you a moment, ma'am, with your leave,' said Ralph.
The voice replied that the gentleman was to walk up; but he had walked up before it spoke, and stepping into the first floor, was received by the wearer of the yellow head-dress, who had a gown to correspond, and was of much the same colour herself. Miss La Creevy was a mincing young lady of fifty, and Miss La Creevy's apartment was the gilt frame downstairs on a larger scale and something dirtier.
'Hem!' said Miss La Creevy, coughing delicately behind her black silk mitten. 'A miniature, I presume. A very strongly-marked countenance for the purpose, sir. Have you ever sat before?'
'You mistake my purpose, I see, ma'am,' replied Mr Nickleby, in his usual blunt fashion. 'I have no money to throw away on miniatures, ma'am, and nobody to give one to (thank God) if I had. Seeing you on the stairs, I wanted to ask a question of you, about some lodgers here.'
Miss La Creevy coughed once more--this cough was to conceal her disappointment--and said, 'Oh, indeed!'
'I infer from what you said to your servant, that the floor above belongs to you, ma'am,' said Mr Nickleby.
Yes it did, Miss La Creevy replied. The upper part of the house belonged to her, and as she had no necessity for the second-floor rooms just then, she was in the habit of letting them. Indeed, there was a lady from the country and her two children in them, at that present speaking.
'A widow, ma'am?' said Ralph.
'Yes, she is a widow,' replied the lady.
'A POOR widow, ma'am,' said Ralph, with a powerful emphasis on that little adjective which conveys so much.
'Well, I'm afraid she IS poor,' rejoined Miss La Creevy.
'I happen to know that she is, ma'am,' said Ralph. 'Now, what business has a poor widow in such a house as this, ma'am?'
'Very true,' replied Miss La Creevy, not at all displeased with this implied compliment to the apartments. 'Exceedingly true.'
'I know her circumstances intimately, ma'am,' said Ralph; 'in fact, I am a relation of the family; and I should recommend you not to keep them here, ma'am.'
'I should hope, if there was any incompatibility to meet the pecuniary obligations,' said Miss La Creevy with another cough, 'that the lady's family would--'
'No they wouldn't, ma'am,' interrupted Ralph, hastily. 'Don't think it.'
'If I am to understand that,' said Miss La Creevy, 'the case wears a very different appearance.'
'You may understand it then, ma'am,' said Ralph, 'and make your arrangements accordingly. I am the family, ma'am--at least, I believe I am the only relation they have, and I think it right that you should know I can't support them in their extravagances. How long have they taken these lodgings for?'
'Only from week to week,' replied Miss La Creevy.