'Mrs Nickleby paid the first week in advance.'
'Then you had better get them out at the end of it,' said Ralph. 'They can't do better than go back to the country, ma'am; they are in everybody's way here.'
'Certainly,' said Miss La Creevy, rubbing her hands, 'if Mrs Nickleby took the apartments without the means of paying for them, it was very unbecoming a lady.'
'Of course it was, ma'am,' said Ralph.
'And naturally,' continued Miss La Creevy, 'I who am, AT PRESENT-- hem--an unprotected female, cannot afford to lose by the apartments.'
'Of course you can't, ma'am,' replied Ralph.
'Though at the same time,' added Miss La Creevy, who was plainly wavering between her good-nature and her interest, 'I have nothing whatever to say against the lady, who is extremely pleasant and affable, though, poor thing, she seems terribly low in her spirits; nor against the young people either, for nicer, or better-behaved young people cannot be.'
'Very well, ma'am,' said Ralph, turning to the door, for these encomiums on poverty irritated him; 'I have done my duty, and perhaps more than I ought: of course nobody will thank me for saying what I have.'
'I am sure I am very much obliged to you at least, sir,' said Miss La Creevy in a gracious manner. 'Would you do me the favour to look at a few specimens of my portrait painting?'
'You're very good, ma'am,' said Mr Nickleby, making off with great speed; 'but as I have a visit to pay upstairs, and my time is precious, I really can't.'
'At any other time when you are passing, I shall be most happy,' said Miss La Creevy. 'Perhaps you will have the kindness to take a card of terms with you? Thank you--good-morning!'
'Good-morning, ma'am,' said Ralph, shutting the door abruptly after him to prevent any further conversation. 'Now for my sister-in-law. Bah!'
Climbing up another perpendicular flight, composed with great mechanical ingenuity of nothing but corner stairs, Mr Ralph Nickleby stopped to take breath on the landing, when he was overtaken by the handmaid, whom the politeness of Miss La Creevy had dispatched to announce him, and who had apparently been making a variety of unsuccessful attempts, since their last interview, to wipe her dirty face clean, upon an apron much dirtier.
'What name?' said the girl.
'Nickleby,' replied Ralph.
'Oh! Mrs Nickleby,' said the girl, throwing open the door, 'here's Mr Nickleby.'
A lady in deep mourning rose as Mr Ralph Nickleby entered, but appeared incapable of advancing to meet him, and leant upon the arm of a slight but very beautiful girl of about seventeen, who had been sitting by her. A youth, who appeared a year or two older, stepped forward and saluted Ralph as his uncle.
'Oh,' growled Ralph, with an ill-favoured frown, 'you are Nicholas, I suppose?'
'That is my name, sir,' replied the youth.
'Put my hat down,' said Ralph, imperiously. 'Well, ma'am, how do you do? You must bear up against sorrow, ma'am; I always do.'
'Mine was no common loss!' said Mrs Nickleby, applying her handkerchief to her eyes.
'It was no UNcommon loss, ma'am,' returned Ralph, as he coolly unbuttoned his spencer. 'Husbands die every day, ma'am, and wives too.'
'And brothers also, sir,' said Nicholas, with a glance of indignation.
'Yes, sir, and puppies, and pug-dogs likewise,' replied his uncle, taking a chair. 'You didn't mention in your letter what my brother's complaint was, ma'am.'
'The doctors could attribute it to no particular disease,' said Mrs Nickleby; shedding tears. 'We have too much reason to fear that he died of a broken heart.'
'Pooh!' said Ralph, 'there's no such thing. I can understand a man's dying of a broken neck, or suffering from a broken arm, or a broken head, or a broken leg, or a broken nose; but a broken heart! --nonsense, it's the cant of the day. If a man can't pay his debts, he dies of a broken heart, and his widow's a martyr.'
'Some people, I believe, have no hearts to break,' observed Nicholas, quietly.
'How old is this boy, for God's sake?' inquired Ralph, wheeling back his chair, and surveying his nephew from head to foot with intense scorn.