On the second morning after the departure of Nicholas for Yorkshire, Kate Nickleby sat in a very faded chair raised upon a very dusty throne in Miss La Creevy’s room, giving that lady a sitting for the portrait upon which she was engaged; and towards the full perfection of which, Miss La Creevy had had the street-door case brought upstairs, in order that she might be the better able to infuse into the counterfeit countenance of Miss Nickleby, a bright salmon flesh- tint which she had originally hit upon while executing the miniature of a young officer therein contained, and which bright salmon flesh- tint was considered, by Miss La Creevy’s chief friends and patrons, to be quite a novelty in art: as indeed it was.
‘I think I have caught it now,’ said Miss La Creevy. ‘The very shade! This will be the sweetest portrait I have ever done, certainly.’
‘It will be your genius that makes it so, then, I am sure,’ replied Kate, smiling.
‘No, no, I won’t allow that, my dear,’ rejoined Miss La Creevy. ‘It’s a very nice subject–a very nice subject, indeed–though, of course, something depends upon the mode of treatment.’
‘And not a little,’ observed Kate.
‘Why, my dear, you are right there,’ said Miss La Creevy, ‘in the main you are right there; though I don’t allow that it is of such very great importance in the present case. Ah! The difficulties of Art, my dear, are great.’
‘They must be, I have no doubt,’ said Kate, humouring her good- natured little friend.
‘They are beyond anything you can form the faintest conception of,’ replied Miss La Creevy. ‘What with bringing out eyes with all one’s power, and keeping down noses with all one’s force, and adding to heads, and taking away teeth altogether, you have no idea of the trouble one little miniature is.’
‘The remuneration can scarcely repay you,’ said Kate.
‘Why, it does not, and that’s the truth,’ answered Miss La Creevy; ‘and then people are so dissatisfied and unreasonable, that, nine times out of ten, there’s no pleasure in painting them. Sometimes they say, “Oh, how very serious you have made me look, Miss La Creevy!” and at others, “La, Miss La Creevy, how very smirking!” when the very essence of a good portrait is, that it must be either serious or smirking, or it’s no portrait at all.’
‘Indeed!’ said Kate, laughing.
‘Certainly, my dear; because the sitters are always either the one or the other,’ replied Miss La Creevy. ‘Look at the Royal Academy! All those beautiful shiny portraits of gentlemen in black velvet waistcoats, with their fists doubled up on round tables, or marble slabs, are serious, you know; and all the ladies who are playing with little parasols, or little dogs, or little children–it’s the same rule in art, only varying the objects–are smirking. In fact,’ said Miss La Creevy, sinking her voice to a confidential whisper, ‘there are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk; and we always use the serious for professional people (except actors sometimes), and the smirk for private ladies and gentlemen who don’t care so much about looking clever.’
Kate seemed highly amused by this information, and Miss La Creevy went on painting and talking, with immovable complacency.
‘What a number of officers you seem to paint!’ said Kate, availing herself of a pause in the discourse, and glancing round the room.
‘Number of what, child?’ inquired Miss La Creevy, looking up from her work. ‘Character portraits, oh yes–they’re not real military men, you know.’
‘Bless your heart, of course not; only clerks and that, who hire a uniform coat to be painted in, and send it here in a carpet bag. Some artists,’ said Miss La Creevy, ‘keep a red coat, and charge seven-and-sixpence extra for hire and carmine; but I don’t do that myself, for I don’t consider it legitimate.’
Drawing herself up, as though she plumed herself greatly upon not resorting to these lures to catch sitters, Miss La Creevy applied herself, more intently, to her task: only raising her head occasionally, to look with unspeakable satisfaction at some touch she had just put in: and now and then giving Miss Nickleby to understand what particular feature she was at work upon, at the moment; ‘not,’ she expressly observed, ‘that you should make it up for painting, my dear, but because it’s our custom sometimes to tell sitters what part we are upon, in order that if there’s any particular expression they want introduced, they may throw it in, at the time, you know.’
‘And when,’ said Miss La Creevy, after a long silence, to wit, an interval of full a minute and a half, ‘when do you expect to see your uncle again?’
‘I scarcely know; I had expected to have seen him before now,’ replied Kate. ‘Soon I hope, for this state of uncertainty is worse than anything.’
‘I suppose he has money, hasn’t he?’ inquired Miss La Creevy.
‘He is very rich, I have heard,’ rejoined Kate. ‘I don’t know that he is, but I believe so.’
‘Ah, you may depend upon it he is, or he wouldn’t be so surly,’ remarked Miss La Creevy, who was an odd little mixture of shrewdness and simplicity. ‘When a man’s a bear, he is generally pretty independent.’
‘His manner is rough,’ said Kate.
‘Rough!’ cried Miss La Creevy, ‘a porcupine’s a featherbed to him! I never met with such a cross-grained old savage.’
‘It is only his manner, I believe,’ observed Kate, timidly; ‘he was disappointed in early life, I think I have heard, or has had his temper soured by some calamity. I should be sorry to think ill of him until I knew he deserved it.’
‘Well; that’s very right and proper,’ observed the miniature painter, ‘and Heaven forbid that I should be the cause of your doing so! But, now, mightn’t he, without feeling it himself, make you and your mama some nice little allowance that would keep you both comfortable until you were well married, and be a little fortune to her afterwards? What would a hundred a year for instance, be to him?’
‘I don’t know what it would be to him,’ said Kate, with energy, ‘but it would be that to me I would rather die than take.’
‘Heyday!’ cried Miss La Creevy.
‘A dependence upon him,’ said Kate, ‘would embitter my whole life. I should feel begging a far less degradation.’
‘Well!’ exclaimed Miss La Creevy. ‘This of a relation whom you will not hear an indifferent person speak ill of, my dear, sounds oddly enough, I confess.’
‘I dare say it does,’ replied Kate, speaking more gently, ‘indeed I am sure it must. I–I–only mean that with the feelings and recollection of better times upon me, I could not bear to live on anybody’s bounty–not his particularly, but anybody’s.’
Miss La Creevy looked slyly at her companion, as if she doubted whether Ralph himself were not the subject of dislike, but seeing that her young friend was distressed, made no remark.
‘I only ask of him,’ continued Kate, whose tears fell while she spoke, ‘that he will move so little out of his way, in my behalf, as to enable me by his recommendation–only by his recommendation–to earn, literally, my bread and remain with my mother. Whether we shall ever taste happiness again, depends upon the fortunes of my dear brother; but if he will do this, and Nicholas only tells us that he is well and cheerful, I shall be contented.’
As she ceased to speak, there was a rustling behind the screen which stood between her and the door, and some person knocked at the wainscot.’
‘Come in, whoever it is!’ cried Miss La Creevy.
The person complied, and, coming forward at once, gave to view the form and features of no less an individual than Mr Ralph Nickleby himself.
‘Your servant, ladies,’ said Ralph, looking sharply at them by turns. ‘You were talking so loud, that I was unable to make you hear.’
When the man of business had a more than commonly vicious snarl lurking at his heart, he had a trick of almost concealing his eyes under their thick and protruding brows, for an instant, and then displaying them in their full keenness. As he did so now, and tried to keep down the smile which parted his thin compressed lips, and puckered up the bad lines about his mouth, they both felt certain that some part, if not the whole, of their recent conversation, had been overheard.
‘I called in, on my way upstairs, more than half expecting to find you here,’ said Ralph, addressing his niece, and looking contemptuously at the portrait. ‘Is that my niece’s portrait, ma’am?’
‘Yes it is, Mr Nickleby,’ said Miss La Creevy, with a very sprightly air, ‘and between you and me and the post, sir, it will be a very nice portrait too, though I say it who am the painter.’
‘Don’t trouble yourself to show it to me, ma’am,’ cried Ralph, moving away, ‘I have no eye for likenesses. Is it nearly finished?’
‘Why, yes,’ replied Miss La Creevy, considering with the pencil end of her brush in her mouth. ‘Two sittings more will–‘
‘Have them at once, ma’am,’ said Ralph. ‘She’ll have no time to idle over fooleries after tomorrow. Work, ma’am, work; we must all work. Have you let your lodgings, ma’am?’
Charles Dickens. 1812-1870
Nicholas Nickleby or, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, 1838 – 39