'Why, that's what I came to explain to you,' replied the collector of water-rate. 'The fact is, we have thought it best to keep it secret from the family.'
'Family!' said Nicholas. 'What family?'
'The Kenwigses of course,' rejoined Mr Lillyvick. 'If my niece and the children had known a word about it before I came away, they'd have gone into fits at my feet, and never have come out of 'em till I took an oath not to marry anybody--or they'd have got out a commission of lunacy, or some dreadful thing,' said the collector, quite trembling as he spoke.
'To be sure,' said Nicholas. 'Yes; they would have been jealous, no doubt.'
'To prevent which,' said Mr Lillyvick, 'Henrietta Petowker (it was settled between us) should come down here to her friends, the Crummleses, under pretence of this engagement, and I should go down to Guildford the day before, and join her on the coach there, which I did, and we came down from Guildford yesterday together. Now, for fear you should be writing to Mr Noggs, and might say anything about us, we have thought it best to let you into the secret. We shall be married from the Crummleses' lodgings, and shall be delighted to see you--either before church or at breakfast-time, which you like. It won't be expensive, you know,' said the collector, highly anxious to prevent any misunderstanding on this point; 'just muffins and coffee, with perhaps a shrimp or something of that sort for a relish, you know.'
'Yes, yes, I understand,' replied Nicholas. 'Oh, I shall be most happy to come; it will give me the greatest pleasure. Where's the lady stopping--with Mrs Crummles?'
'Why, no,' said the collector; 'they couldn't very well dispose of her at night, and so she is staying with an acquaintance of hers, and another young lady; they both belong to the theatre.'
'Miss Snevellicci, I suppose?' said Nicholas.
'Yes, that's the name.'
'And they'll be bridesmaids, I presume?' said Nicholas.
'Why,' said the collector, with a rueful face, 'they WILL have four bridesmaids; I'm afraid they'll make it rather theatrical.'
'Oh no, not at all,' replied Nicholas, with an awkward attempt to convert a laugh into a cough. 'Who may the four be? Miss Snevellicci of course--Miss Ledrook--'
'The--the phenomenon,' groaned the collector.
'Ha, ha!' cried Nicholas. 'I beg your pardon, I don't know what I'm laughing at--yes, that'll be very pretty--the phenomenon--who else?'
'Some young woman or other,' replied the collector, rising; 'some other friend of Henrietta Petowker's. Well, you'll be careful not to say anything about it, will you?'
'You may safely depend upon me,' replied Nicholas. 'Won't you take anything to eat or drink?'
'No,' said the collector; 'I haven't any appetite. I should think it was a very pleasant life, the married one, eh?'
'I have not the least doubt of it,' rejoined Nicholas.
'Yes,' said the collector; 'certainly. Oh yes. No doubt. Good night.'
With these words, Mr Lillyvick, whose manner had exhibited through the whole of this interview a most extraordinary compound of precipitation, hesitation, confidence and doubt, fondness, misgiving, meanness, and self-importance, turned his back upon the room, and left Nicholas to enjoy a laugh by himself if he felt so disposed.
Without stopping to inquire whether the intervening day appeared to Nicholas to consist of the usual number of hours of the ordinary length, it may be remarked that, to the parties more directly interested in the forthcoming ceremony, it passed with great rapidity, insomuch that when Miss Petowker awoke on the succeeding morning in the chamber of Miss Snevellicci, she declared that nothing should ever persuade her that that really was the day which was to behold a change in her condition.
'I never will believe it,' said Miss Petowker; 'I cannot really. It's of no use talking, I never can make up my mind to go through with such a trial!'
On hearing this, Miss Snevellicci and Miss Ledrook, who knew perfectly well that their fair friend's mind had been made up for three or four years, at any period of which time she would have cheerfully undergone the desperate trial now approaching if she could have found any eligible gentleman disposed for the venture, began to preach comfort and firmness, and to say how very proud she ought to feel that it was in her power to confer lasting bliss on a deserving object, and how necessary it was for the happiness of mankind in general that women should possess fortitude and resignation on such occasions; and that although for their parts they held true happiness to consist in a single life, which they would not willingly exchange--no, not for any worldly consideration-- still (thank God), if ever the time SHOULD come, they hoped they knew their duty too well to repine, but would the rather submit with meekness and humility of spirit to a fate for which Providence had clearly designed them with a view to the contentment and reward of their fellow-creatures.