These two causes of merriment, taken together, struck him as being so keenly ridiculous, that, despite his miserable condition, he laughed till he was thoroughly exhausted.
'Well,' thought Nicholas, 'as I am here, and seem expected, for some reason or other, to be amiable, it's of no use looking like a goose. I may as well accommodate myself to the company.'
We blush to tell it; but his youthful spirits and vivacity getting, for the time, the better of his sad thoughts, he no sooner formed this resolution than he saluted Miss Squeers and the friend with great gallantry, and drawing a chair to the tea-table, began to make himself more at home than in all probability an usher has ever done in his employer's house since ushers were first invented.
The ladies were in the full delight of this altered behaviour on the part of Mr Nickleby, when the expected swain arrived, with his hair very damp from recent washing, and a clean shirt, whereof the collar might have belonged to some giant ancestor, forming, together with a white waistcoat of similar dimensions, the chief ornament of his person.
'Well, John,' said Miss Matilda Price (which, by-the-bye, was the name of the miller's daughter).
'Weel,' said John with a grin that even the collar could not conceal.
'I beg your pardon,' interposed Miss Squeers, hastening to do the honours. 'Mr Nickleby--Mr John Browdie.'
'Servant, sir,' said John, who was something over six feet high, with a face and body rather above the due proportion than below it.
'Yours to command, sir,' replied Nicholas, making fearful ravages on the bread and butter.
Mr Browdie was not a gentleman of great conversational powers, so he grinned twice more, and having now bestowed his customary mark of recognition on every person in company, grinned at nothing in particular, and helped himself to food.
'Old wooman awa', bean't she?' said Mr Browdie, with his mouth full.
Miss Squeers nodded assent.
Mr Browdie gave a grin of special width, as if he thought that really was something to laugh at, and went to work at the bread and butter with increased vigour. It was quite a sight to behold how he and Nicholas emptied the plate between them.
'Ye wean't get bread and butther ev'ry neight, I expect, mun,' said Mr Browdie, after he had sat staring at Nicholas a long time over the empty plate.
Nicholas bit his lip, and coloured, but affected not to hear the remark.
'Ecod,' said Mr Browdie, laughing boisterously, 'they dean't put too much intiv'em. Ye'll be nowt but skeen and boans if you stop here long eneaf. Ho! ho! ho!'
'You are facetious, sir,' said Nicholas, scornfully.
'Na; I dean't know,' replied Mr Browdie, 'but t'oother teacher, 'cod he wur a learn 'un, he wur.' The recollection of the last teacher's leanness seemed to afford Mr Browdie the most exquisite delight, for he laughed until he found it necessary to apply his coat-cuffs to his eyes.
'I don't know whether your perceptions are quite keen enough, Mr Browdie, to enable you to understand that your remarks are offensive,' said Nicholas in a towering passion, 'but if they are, have the goodness to--'
'If you say another word, John,' shrieked Miss Price, stopping her admirer's mouth as he was about to interrupt, 'only half a word, I'll never forgive you, or speak to you again.'
'Weel, my lass, I dean't care aboot 'un,' said the corn-factor, bestowing a hearty kiss on Miss Matilda; 'let 'un gang on, let 'un gang on.'
It now became Miss Squeers's turn to intercede with Nicholas, which she did with many symptoms of alarm and horror; the effect of the double intercession was, that he and John Browdie shook hands across the table with much gravity; and such was the imposing nature of the ceremonial, that Miss Squeers was overcome and shed tears.
'What's the matter, Fanny?' said Miss Price.
'Nothing, 'Tilda,' replied Miss Squeers, sobbing.
'There never was any danger,' said Miss Price, 'was there, Mr Nickleby?'
'None at all,' replied Nicholas. 'Absurd.'
'That's right,' whispered Miss Price, 'say something kind to her, and she'll soon come round.