'Nicholas is very nearly nineteen,' replied the widow.
'Nineteen, eh!' said Ralph; 'and what do you mean to do for your bread, sir?'
'Not to live upon my mother,' replied Nicholas, his heart swelling as he spoke.
'You'd have little enough to live upon, if you did,' retorted the uncle, eyeing him contemptuously.
'Whatever it be,' said Nicholas, flushed with anger, 'I shall not look to you to make it more.'
'Nicholas, my dear, recollect yourself,' remonstrated Mrs Nickleby.
'Dear Nicholas, pray,' urged the young lady.
'Hold your tongue, sir,' said Ralph. 'Upon my word! Fine beginnings, Mrs Nickleby--fine beginnings!'
Mrs Nickleby made no other reply than entreating Nicholas by a gesture to keep silent; and the uncle and nephew looked at each other for some seconds without speaking. The face of the old man was stern, hard-featured, and forbidding; that of the young one, open, handsome, and ingenuous. The old man's eye was keen with the twinklings of avarice and cunning; the young man's bright with the light of intelligence and spirit. His figure was somewhat slight, but manly and well formed; and, apart from all the grace of youth and comeliness, there was an emanation from the warm young heart in his look and bearing which kept the old man down.
However striking such a contrast as this may be to lookers-on, none ever feel it with half the keenness or acuteness of perfection with which it strikes to the very soul of him whose inferiority it marks. It galled Ralph to the heart's core, and he hated Nicholas from that hour.
The mutual inspection was at length brought to a close by Ralph withdrawing his eyes, with a great show of disdain, and calling Nicholas 'a boy.' This word is much used as a term of reproach by elderly gentlemen towards their juniors: probably with the view of deluding society into the belief that if they could be young again, they wouldn't on any account.
'Well, ma'am,' said Ralph, impatiently, 'the creditors have administered, you tell me, and there's nothing left for you?'
'Nothing,' replied Mrs Nickleby.
'And you spent what little money you had, in coming all the way to London, to see what I could do for you?' pursued Ralph.
'I hoped,' faltered Mrs Nickleby, 'that you might have an opportunity of doing something for your brother's children. It was his dying wish that I should appeal to you in their behalf.'
'I don't know how it is,' muttered Ralph, walking up and down the room, 'but whenever a man dies without any property of his own, he always seems to think he has a right to dispose of other people's. What is your daughter fit for, ma'am?'
'Kate has been well educated,' sobbed Mrs Nickleby. 'Tell your uncle, my dear, how far you went in French and extras.'
The poor girl was about to murmur something, when her uncle stopped her, very unceremoniously.
'We must try and get you apprenticed at some boarding-school,' said Ralph. 'You have not been brought up too delicately for that, I hope?'
'No, indeed, uncle,' replied the weeping girl. 'I will try to do anything that will gain me a home and bread.'
'Well, well,' said Ralph, a little softened, either by his niece's beauty or her distress (stretch a point, and say the latter). 'You must try it, and if the life is too hard, perhaps dressmaking or tambour-work will come lighter. Have YOU ever done anything, sir?' (turning to his nephew.)
'No,' replied Nicholas, bluntly.
'No, I thought not!' said Ralph. 'This is the way my brother brought up his children, ma'am.'
'Nicholas has not long completed such education as his poor father could give him,' rejoined Mrs Nickleby, 'and he was thinking of--'
'Of making something of him someday,' said Ralph. 'The old story; always thinking, and never doing. If my brother had been a man of activity and prudence, he might have left you a rich woman, ma'am: and if he had turned his son into the world, as my father turned me, when I wasn't as old as that boy by a year and a half, he would have been in a situation to help you, instead of being a burden upon you, and increasing your distress.