In which the Occurrence of the Accident mentioned in the last Chapter, affords an Opportunity to a couple of Gentlemen to tell Stories against each other
‘Wo ho!’ cried the guard, on his legs in a minute, and running to the leaders’ heads. ‘Is there ony genelmen there as can len’ a hond here? Keep quiet, dang ye! Wo ho!’
‘What’s the matter?’ demanded Nicholas, looking sleepily up.
‘Matther mun, matter eneaf for one neight,’ replied the guard; ‘dang the wall-eyed bay, he’s gane mad wi’ glory I think, carse t’coorch is over. Here, can’t ye len’ a hond? Dom it, I’d ha’ dean it if all my boans were brokken.’
‘Here!’ cried Nicholas, staggering to his feet, ‘I’m ready. I’m only a little abroad, that’s all.’
‘Hoold ‘em toight,’ cried the guard, ‘while ar coot treaces. Hang on tiv’em sumhoo. Well deane, my lod. That’s it. Let’em goa noo. Dang ‘em, they’ll gang whoam fast eneaf!’
In truth, the animals were no sooner released than they trotted back, with much deliberation, to the stable they had just left, which was distant not a mile behind.
‘Can you blo’ a harn?’ asked the guard, disengaging one of the coach-lamps.
‘I dare say I can,’ replied Nicholas.
‘Then just blo’ away into that ‘un as lies on the grund, fit to wakken the deead, will’ee,’ said the man, ‘while I stop sum o’ this here squealing inside. Cumin’, cumin’. Dean’t make that noise, wooman.’
As the man spoke, he proceeded to wrench open the uppermost door of the coach, while Nicholas, seizing the horn, awoke the echoes far and wide with one of the most extraordinary performances on that instrument ever heard by mortal ears. It had its effect, however, not only in rousing such of their fall, but in summoning assistance to their relief; for lights gleamed in the distance, and people were already astir.
In fact, a man on horseback galloped down, before the passengers were well collected together; and a careful investigation being instituted, it appeared that the lady inside had broken her lamp, and the gentleman his head; that the two front outsides had escaped with black eyes; the box with a bloody nose; the coachman with a contusion on the temple; Mr Squeers with a portmanteau bruise on his back; and the remaining passengers without any injury at all—thanks to the softness of the snow-drift in which they had been overturned. These facts were no sooner thoroughly ascertained, than the lady gave several indications of fainting, but being forewarned that if she did, she must be carried on some gentleman’s shoulders to the nearest public-house, she prudently thought better of it, and walked back with the rest.
They found on reaching it, that it was a lonely place with no very great accommodation in the way of apartments—that portion of its resources being all comprised in one public room with a sanded floor, and a chair or two. However, a large faggot and a plentiful supply of coals being heaped upon the fire, the appearance of things was not long in mending; and, by the time they had washed off all effaceable marks of the late accident, the room was warm and light, which was a most agreeable exchange for the cold and darkness out of doors.
‘Well, Mr. Nickleby,’ said Squeers, insinuating himself into the warmest corner, ‘you did very right to catch hold of them horses. I should have done it myself if I had come to in time, but I am very glad you did it. You did it very well; very well.’
‘So well,’ said the merry-faced gentleman, who did not seem to approve very much of the patronising tone adopted by Squeers, ‘that if they had not been firmly checked when they were, you would most probably have had no brains left to teach with.’
This remark called up a discourse relative to the promptitude Nicholas had displayed, and he was overwhelmed with compliments and commendations.
‘I am very glad to have escaped, of course,’ observed Squeers: ‘every man is glad when he escapes from danger; but if any one of my charges had been hurt—if I had been prevented from restoring any one of these little boys to his parents whole and sound as I received him—what would have been my feelings? Why the wheel a-top of my head would have been far preferable to it.’
‘Are they all brothers, sir?’ inquired the lady who had carried the ‘Davy’ or safety-lamp.
‘In one sense they are, ma’am,’ replied Squeers, diving into his greatcoat pocket for cards. ‘They are all under the same parental and affectionate treatment. Mrs. Squeers and myself are a mother and father to every one of ‘em. Mr. Nickleby, hand the lady them cards, and offer these to the gentleman. Perhaps they might know of some parents that would be glad to avail themselves of the establishment.’
Expressing himself to this effect, Mr. Squeers, who lost no opportunity of advertising gratuitously, placed his hands upon his knees, and looked at the pupils with as much benignity as he could possibly affect, while Nicholas, blushing with shame, handed round the cards as directed.
‘I hope you suffer no inconvenience from the overturn, ma’am?’ said the merry-faced gentleman, addressing the fastidious lady, as though he were charitably desirous to change the subject.
‘No bodily inconvenience,’ replied the lady.
‘No mental inconvenience, I hope?’
‘The subject is a very painful one to my feelings, sir,’ replied the lady with strong emotion; ‘and I beg you as a gentleman, not to refer to it.’
‘Dear me,’ said the merry-faced gentleman, looking merrier still, ‘I merely intended to inquire—’
‘I hope no inquiries will be made,’ said the lady, ‘or I shall be compelled to throw myself on the protection of the other gentlemen. Landlord, pray direct a boy to keep watch outside the door—and if a green chariot passes in the direction of Grantham, to stop it instantly.’
The people of the house were evidently overcome by this request, and when the lady charged the boy to remember, as a means of identifying the expected green chariot, that it would have a coachman with a gold-laced hat on the box, and a footman, most probably in silk stockings, behind, the attentions of the good woman of the inn were redoubled. Even the box-passenger caught the infection, and growing wonderfully deferential, immediately inquired whether there was not very good society in that neighbourhood, to which the lady replied yes, there was: in a manner which sufficiently implied that she moved at the very tiptop and summit of it all.
‘As the guard has gone on horseback to Grantham to get another coach,’ said the good-tempered gentleman when they had been all sitting round the fire, for some time, in silence, ‘and as he must be gone a couple of hours at the very least, I propose a bowl of hot punch. What say you, sir?’
This question was addressed to the broken-headed inside, who was a man of very genteel appearance, dressed in mourning. He was not past the middle age, but his hair was grey; it seemed to have been prematurely turned by care or sorrow. He readily acceded to the proposal, and appeared to be prepossessed by the frank good-nature of the individual from whom it emanated.
This latter personage took upon himself the office of tapster when the punch was ready, and after dispensing it all round, led the conversation to the antiquities of York, with which both he and the grey-haired gentleman appeared to be well acquainted. When this topic flagged, he turned with a smile to the grey-headed gentleman, and asked if he could sing.
‘I cannot indeed,’ replied gentleman, smiling in his turn.
‘That’s a pity,’ said the owner of the good-humoured countenance. ‘Is there nobody here who can sing a song to lighten the time?’
The passengers, one and all, protested that they could not; that they wished they could; that they couldn’t remember the words of anything without the book; and so forth.
‘Perhaps the lady would not object,’ said the president with great respect, and a merry twinkle in his eye. ‘Some little Italian thing out of the last opera brought out in town, would be most acceptable I am sure.’
As the lady condescended to make no reply, but tossed her head contemptuously, and murmured some further expression of surprise regarding the absence of the green chariot, one or two voices urged upon the president himself, the propriety of making an attempt for the general benefit.
‘I would if I could,’ said he of the good-tempered face; ‘for I hold that in this, as in all other cases where people who are strangers to each other are thrown unexpectedly together, they should endeavour to render themselves as pleasant, for the joint sake of the little community, as possible.’
‘I wish the maxim were more generally acted on, in all cases,’ said the grey-headed gentleman.
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ returned the other. ‘Perhaps, as you can’t sing, you’ll tell us a story?’
‘Nay. I should ask you.’
‘After you, I will, with pleasure.’
‘Indeed!’ said the grey-haired gentleman, smiling, ‘Well, let it be so. I fear the turn of my thoughts is not calculated to lighten the time you must pass here; but you have brought this upon yourselves, and shall judge. We were speaking of York Minster just now. My story shall have some reference to it. Let us call it
THE FIVE SISTERS OF YORK
After a murmur of approbation from the other passengers, during which the fastidious lady drank a glass of punch unobserved, the grey-headed gentleman thus went on:
‘A great many years ago—for the fifteenth century was scarce two years old at the time, and King Henry the Fourth sat upon the throne of England—there dwelt, in the ancient city of York, five maiden sisters, the subjects of my tale.
‘These five sisters were all of surpassing beauty. The eldest was in her twenty-third year, the second a year younger, the third a year younger than the second, and the fourth a year younger than the third. They were tall stately figures, with dark flashing eyes and hair of jet; dignity and grace were in their every movement; and the fame of their great beauty had spread through all the country round.
‘But, if the four elder sisters were lovely, how beautiful was the youngest, a fair creature of sixteen! The blushing tints in the soft bloom on the fruit, or the delicate painting on the flower, are not more exquisite than was the blending of the rose and lily in her gentle face, or the deep blue of her eye. The vine, in all its elegant luxuriance, is not more graceful than were the clusters of rich brown hair that sported round her brow.
‘If we all had hearts like those which beat so lightly in the bosoms of the young and beautiful, what a heaven this earth would be! If, while our bodies grow old and withered, our hearts could but retain their early youth and freshness, of what avail would be our sorrows and sufferings! But, the faint image of Eden which is stamped upon them in childhood, chafes and rubs in our rough struggles with the world, and soon wears away: too often to leave nothing but a mournful blank remaining.
‘The heart of this fair girl bounded with joy and gladness. Devoted attachment to her sisters, and a fervent love of all beautiful things in nature, were its pure affections. Her gleesome voice and merry laugh were the sweetest music of their home. She was its very light and life. The brightest flowers in the garden were reared by her; the caged birds sang when they heard her voice, and pined when they missed its sweetness. Alice, dear Alice; what living thing within the sphere of her gentle witchery, could fail to love her!
‘You may seek in vain, now, for the spot on which these sisters lived, for their very names have passed away, and dusty antiquaries tell of them as of a fable. But they dwelt in an old wooden house—old even in those days—with overhanging gables and balconies of rudely-carved oak, which stood within a pleasant orchard, and was surrounded by a rough stone wall, whence a stout archer might have winged an arrow to St Mary’s Abbey. The old abbey flourished then; and the five sisters, living on its fair domains, paid yearly dues to the black monks of St Benedict, to which fraternity it belonged.
‘It was a bright and sunny morning in the pleasant time of summer, when one of those black monks emerged from the abbey portal, and bent his steps towards the house of the fair sisters. Heaven above was blue, and earth beneath was green; the river glistened like a path of diamonds in the sun; the birds poured forth their songs from the shady trees; the lark soared high above the waving corn; and the deep buzz of insects filled the air. Everything looked gay and smiling; but the holy man walked gloomily on, with his eyes bent upon the ground. The beauty of the earth is but a breath, and man is but a shadow. What sympathy should a holy preacher have with either?
‘With eyes bent upon the ground, then, or only raised enough to prevent his stumbling over such obstacles as lay in his way, the religious man moved slowly forward until he reached a small postern in the wall of the sisters’ orchard, through which he passed, closing it behind him. The noise of soft voices in conversation, and of merry laughter, fell upon his ears ere he had advanced many paces; and raising his eyes higher than was his humble wont, he descried, at no great distance, the five sisters seated on the grass, with Alice in the centre: all busily plying their customary task of embroidering.
‘“Save you, fair daughters!” said the friar; and fair in truth they were. Even a monk might have loved them as choice masterpieces of his Maker’s hand.
‘The sisters saluted the holy man with becoming reverence, and the eldest motioned him to a mossy seat beside them. But the good friar shook his head, and bumped himself down on a very hard stone,—at which, no doubt, approving angels were gratified.
‘“Ye were merry, daughters,” said the monk.
‘“You know how light of heart sweet Alice is,” replied the eldest sister, passing her fingers through the tresses of the smiling girl.
‘“And what joy and cheerfulness it wakes up within us, to see all nature beaming in brightness and sunshine, father,” added Alice, blushing beneath the stern look of the recluse.
‘The monk answered not, save by a grave inclination of the head, and the sisters pursued their task in silence.
‘“Still wasting the precious hours,” said the monk at length, turning to the eldest sister as he spoke, “still wasting the precious hours on this vain trifling. Alas, alas! that the few bubbles on the surface of eternity—all that Heaven wills we should see of that dark deep stream—should be so lightly scattered!”
‘“Father,” urged the maiden, pausing, as did each of the others, in her busy task, “we have prayed at matins, our daily alms have been distributed at the gate, the sick peasants have been tended,—all our morning tasks have been performed. I hope our occupation is a blameless one?’
‘“See here,” said the friar, taking the frame from her hand, “an intricate winding of gaudy colours, without purpose or object, unless it be that one day it is destined for some vain ornament, to minister to the pride of your frail and giddy sex. Day after day has been employed upon this senseless task, and yet it is not half accomplished. The shade of each departed day falls upon our graves, and the worm exults as he beholds it, to know that we are hastening thither. Daughters, is there no better way to pass the fleeting hours?”
‘The four elder sisters cast down their eyes as if abashed by the holy man’s reproof, but Alice raised hers, and bent them mildly on the friar.
‘“Our dear mother,” said the maiden; “Heaven rest her soul!”
‘“Amen!” cried the friar in a deep voice.
‘“Our dear mother,” faltered the fair Alice, “was living when these long tasks began, and bade us, when she should be no more, ply them in all discretion and cheerfulness, in our leisure hours; she said that if in harmless mirth and maidenly pursuits we passed those hours together, they would prove the happiest and most peaceful of our lives, and that if, in later times, we went forth into the world, and mingled with its cares and trials—if, allured by its temptations and dazzled by its glitter, we ever forgot that love and duty which should bind, in holy ties, the children of one loved parent—a glance at the old work of our common girlhood would awaken good thoughts of bygone days, and soften our hearts to affection and love.”
‘“Alice speaks truly, father,” said the elder sister, somewhat proudly. And so saying she resumed her work, as did the others.
‘It was a kind of sampler of large size, that each sister had before her; the device was of a complex and intricate description, and the pattern and colours of all five were the same. The sisters bent gracefully over their work; the monk, resting his chin upon his hands, looked from one to the other in silence.
‘“How much better,” he said at length, “to shun all such thoughts and chances, and, in the peaceful shelter of the church, devote your lives to Heaven! Infancy, childhood, the prime of life, and old age, wither as rapidly as they crowd upon each other. Think how human dust rolls onward to the tomb, and turning your faces steadily towards that goal, avoid the cloud which takes its rise among the pleasures of the world, and cheats the senses of their votaries. The veil, daughters, the veil!”
‘“Never, sisters,” cried Alice. “Barter not the light and air of heaven, and the freshness of earth and all the beautiful things which breathe upon it, for the cold cloister and the cell. Nature’s own blessings are the proper goods of life, and we may share them sinlessly together. To die is our heavy portion, but, oh, let us die with life about us; when our cold hearts cease to beat, let warm hearts be beating near; let our last look be upon the bounds which God has set to his own bright skies, and not on stone walls and bars of iron! Dear sisters, let us live and die, if you list, in this green garden’s compass; only shun the gloom and sadness of a cloister, and we shall be happy.”
‘The tears fell fast from the maiden’s eyes as she closed her impassioned appeal, and hid her face in the bosom of her sister.
‘“Take comfort, Alice,” said the eldest, kissing her fair forehead. “The veil shall never cast its shadow on thy young brow. How say you, sisters? For yourselves you speak, and not for Alice, or for me.”
‘The sisters, as with one accord, cried that their lot was cast together, and that there were dwellings for peace and virtue beyond the convent’s walls.
‘“Father,” said the eldest lady, rising with dignity, “you hear our final resolve. The same pious care which enriched the abbey of St Mary, and left us, orphans, to its holy guardianship, directed that no constraint should be imposed upon our inclinations, but that we should be free to live according to our choice. Let us hear no more of this, we pray you. Sisters, it is nearly noon. Let us take shelter until evening!” With a reverence to the friar, the lady rose and walked towards the house, hand in hand with Alice; the other sisters followed.
‘The holy man, who had often urged the same point before, but had never met with so direct a repulse, walked some little distance behind, with his eyes bent upon the earth, and his lips moving as if in prayer. As the sisters reached the porch, he quickened his pace, and called upon them to stop.
‘“Stay!” said the monk, raising his right hand in the air, and directing an angry glance by turns at Alice and the eldest sister. “Stay, and hear from me what these recollections are, which you would cherish above eternity, and awaken—if in mercy they slumbered—by means of idle toys. The memory of earthly things is charged, in after life, with bitter disappointment, affliction, death; with dreary change and wasting sorrow.
Author's Preface - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 1 - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 2 - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 3 - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 4 - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 5 - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
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