When she had arrived at this reflection, Mrs Nickleby sighed, rubbed her hands, cast up her eyes, and finally assumed a look of meek composure; thus importing that she was a persecuted saint, but that she wouldn't trouble her hearers by mentioning a circumstance which must be so obvious to everybody.

`Now,' said Ralph, with a smile, which, in common with all other tokens of emotion, seemed to skulk under his face, rather than play boldly over it -- `to return to the point from which we have strayed. I have a little party of -- of -- gentlemen with whom I am connected in business just now, at my house tomorrow; and your mother has promised that you shall keep house for me. I am not much used to parties; but this is one of business, and such fooleries are an important part of it sometimes. You don't mind obliging me?'

`Mind!' cried Mrs Nickleby. `My dear Kate, why --'

`Pray,' interrupted Ralph, motioning her to be silent. `I spoke to my niece.'

`I shall be very glad, of course, uncle,' replied Kate; `but I am afraid you will find me awkward and embarrassed.'

`Oh no,' said Ralph; `come when you like, in a hackney coach -- I'll pay for it. Good-night -- a -- a -- God bless you.'

The blessing seemed to stick in Mr Ralph Nickleby's throat, as if it were not used to the thoroughfare, and didn't know the way out. But it got out somehow, though awkwardly enough; and having disposed of it, he shook hands with his two relatives, and abruptly left them.

`What a very strongly marked countenance your uncle has!' said Mrs Nickleby, quite struck with his parting look. `I don't see the slightest resemblance to his poor brother.'

`Mamma!' said Kate reprovingly. `To think of such a thing!'

`No,' said Mrs Nickleby, musing. `There certainly is none. But it's a very honest face.'

The worthy matron made this remark with great emphasis and elocution, as if it comprised no small quantity of ingenuity and research; and, in truth, it was not unworthy of being classed among the extraordinary discoveries of the age. Kate looked up hastily, and as hastily looked down again.

`What has come over you, my dear, in the name of goodness?' asked Mrs Nickleby, when they had walked on, for some time, in silence.

`I was only thinking, mamma,' answered Kate.

`Thinking!' repeated Mrs Nickleby. `Ay, and indeed plenty to think about, too. Your uncle has taken a strong fancy to you, that's quite clear; and if some extraordinary good fortune doesn't come to you, after this, I shall be a little surprised, that's all.'

With this she launched out into sundry anecdotes of young ladies, who had had thousand-pound notes given them in reticules, by eccentric uncles; and of young ladies who had accidentally met amiable gentlemen of enormous wealth at their uncles' houses, and married them, after short but ardent courtships; and Kate, listening first in apathy, and afterwards in amusement, felt, as they walked home, something of her mother's sanguine complexion gradually awakening in her own bosom, and began to think that her prospects might be brightening, and that better days might be dawning upon them. Such is hope, Heaven's own gift to struggling mortals; pervading, like some subtle essence from the skies, all things, both good and bad; as universal as death, and more infectious than disease!

The feeble winter's sun -- and winter's suns in the City are very feeble indeed -- might have brightened up, as he shone through the dim windows of the large old house, on witnessing the unusual sight which one half-furnished room displayed. In a gloomy corner, where, for years, had stood a silent dusty pile of merchandise, sheltering its colony of mice, and frowning, a dull and lifeless mass, upon the panelled

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