Chapter 17Follows the fortunes of Miss Nickleby
IT WAS with a heavy heart, and many sad forebodings which no effort could banish, that Kate Nickleby, on the morning appointed for the commencement of her engagement with Madame Mantalini, left the City when its clocks yet wanted a quarter of an hour of eight, and threaded her way alone, amid the noise and bustle of the streets, towards the West-end of London.
At this early hour many sickly girls, whose business, like that of the poor worm, is to produce, with patient toil, the finery that bedecks the thoughtless and luxurious, traverse our streets, making towards the scene of their daily labour, and catching, as if by stealth, in their hurried walk, the only gasp of wholesome air and glimpse of sunlight which cheer their monotonous existence during the long train of hours that make a working day. As she drew night to the more fashionable quarter of the town, Kate marked many of this class as they passed by, hurrying like herself to their painful occupation, and saw, in their unhealthy looks and feeble gait, but too clear an evidence that her misgivings were not wholly groundless.
She arrived at Madame Mantalini's some minutes before the appointed hour, and after walking a few times up and down, in the hope that some other female might arrive and spare her the embarrassment of stating her business to the servant, knocked timidly at the door: which, after some delay, was opened by the footman, who had been putting on his striped jacket as he came upstairs, and was now intent on fastening his apron.
`Is Madame Mantalini in?' faltered Kate.
`Not often out at this time, miss,' replied the man in a tone which rendered "Miss," something more offensive than "My dear."
`Can I see her?' asked Kate.
`Eh?' replied the man, holding the door in his hand, and honouring the inquirer with a stare and a broad grin, `Lord, no.'
`I came by her own appointment,' said Kate; `I am--I am--to be employed here.'
`Oh! you should have rung the worker's bell,' said the footman, touching the handle of one in the door- post. `Let me see, though, I forgot--Miss Nickleby, is it?'
`Yes,' replied Kate.
`You're to walk upstairs then, please,' said the man. `Madame Mantalini wants to see you--this way--take care of these things on the floor.'
Cautioning her, in these terms, not to trip over a heterogeneous litter of pastry-cook's trays, lamps, waiters full of glasses, and piles of rout seats which were strewn about the hall, plainly bespeaking a late party on the previous night, the man led the way to the second story, and ushered Kate into a back-room, communicating by folding-doors with the apartment in which she had first seen the mistress of the establishment.
`If you'll wait here a minute,' said the man, `I'll tell her presently.' Having made this promise with much affability, he retired and left Kate alone.
There was not much to amuse in the room; of which the most attractive feature was, a half-length portrait in oil, of Mr Mantalini, whom the artist had depicted scratching his head in an easy manner, and thus displaying to advantage a diamond ring, the gift of Madame Mantalini before her marriage. There was, however, the sound of voices in conversation in the next room; and as the conversation was loud and the partition thin, Kate could not help discovering that they belonged to Mr and Mrs Mantalini.
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