Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

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" But come," said Squeers, interrupting the progress of
some thoughts to this effect in the mind of his usher, " let's
go to the school-room ; and lend me a hand with my school
coat, will you ? "

Nicholas assisted his master to put on an old fustian shoot-
ing-jacket, which he took down from a peg in the passage ; and
Squeers, arming himself with his cain, led the way across a
yard, to a door in the rear of the house.

" There," said the schoolmaster as they stepped in together ;
"this is our shop, Nickleby ! "

It was such a crowded scene, and there were so many ob-

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jects to attract attention, that, at first, Nicholas stared about
him, really without seeing anything at all. By degrees, how-
ever, the place resolved itself into a bare and dirty room, with
a couple of windows, whereof a tenth part might be of glass,
the remainder being stopped up with old copybooks and
paper. There were a couple of long old rickety desks, cut
and notched, and inked, and damaged, in every possible way ;
two or three frames ; a detached desk for Squeers ; and
another for his assistant. The ceiling was supported, like that
oT a barn, by cross beams and rafters ; and the walls were so
stained and discolored, that it was impossible to tell whether
they had ever been touched with paint or whitewash.

But the pupils — the young noblemen 1 How the last faint
traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be
derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of
Nicholas as he looked in dismay around ! Pale and haggard
faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances
of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of
stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would
hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view
together ; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked
foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural
aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young
lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one
horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little
faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the
scowl of sullen, dogged suffering ; there was childhood with
the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helpless-
ness alone remaining ; there were vicious-faced boys, bloom-
ing with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail ; and there
were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents
had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they
had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With
every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with
every young and healthy feelings flogged and starved down,
with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts,
eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient
Hell was breeding here !

And yet this scene, painful as it was, had its grotesque
features, which, in a less interested observer than Nicholas,
might have provoked a smile. Mrs. Squeers stood at one of
the desks, presiding over an immense basin of brimstone and
treacle, of which delicious compound she administered a large

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instalment to each boy in succession : using for the purpose a
common wooden spoon, which might have been originally
manufactured for some gigantic top, and which widened every
young gentleman's mouth considerably : they being all obligea,
under heavy corporal penalties, to" take in the whole of the
bowl at a gasp. In another corner, huddled together for com-
panionship, were the little boys who had arrived on the pre-
ceding night, three of them in very large leather breeches, and
two in old trousers, a something tighter fit than drawers are
usually worn ; at no great distance from these was seated the
juvenile son and heir of Mr. Squeers — a striking likeness of
his father — kicking, with great vigor, under the hands of
Smike, who was fitting upon him a pair of new boots that
bore a most suspicious resemblance to those which the least of
the little boys had worn on the journey down — as the little
boy himself seemed to think, for he was regarding the appro-
priation with a look of most rueful amazement. Besides these,
there was a long row of boys waiting, with countenances of no
pleasant anticipation, to be treacled ; and another file, who
had just escaped from the infliction, making a variety of wry
mouths indicative of anything but satisfaction. The whole
were attired in such motley, ill-sorted, extraordinary garments,
as would have been irresistibly ridiculous, but for the foul ap-
pearance of dirt, disorder, and disease, with which they were

" Now," said Squeers, giving the desk a great rap with his
cane, which made half the little boys nearly jump out of their
boots, " is that physicking over ? "

*' Just over," said Mrs. Squeers, choking the last boy in
her hurry, and tapping the crown of his head with the wooden
spoon to restore him. " Here, you Smike ; take away now.
Look sharp ! "

Smike shuffled out with the basin, and Mrs. Squeers having
called up a little boy with a curly head, and wiped her hands
upon it, hurried out ofter him into a species of wash-house,
where there was a small fire and a large kettle, together with
a number of little wooden bowls which were arranged upon a

Into these bowls, Mrs. Squeers, assisted by the hungry
servant, poured a brown composition, which looked like diluted
pincushions without the covers, and was called porridge. A
minute wedge of brown bread was inserted in each bowl, and
when they had eaten their porridge by means of the bread,

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the boys ate the bread itself, and had finished their break-
fast ; whereupon Mr. Squeers said, in a solemn voice, " For
what we have received, may the Lord make us truly thank-
ful 1 " — and went away to his own.

Nicholas distended his* stomach with a bowl of porridge,
for much the same reason which induces some savages to
swallow earth — lest they should be inconveniently hungry
when there is nothing to eat. Having further disposed of a
slice of bread and butter, allotted to him in virtue of his office,
he sat himself down, to wait for school-time.

He could not but observe how silent and sad the boys all
seemed to be. There was none of the noise and clamor of a
school-room; none of its boisterous play, or hearty mirth.
The children sat crouching and shivering together, and seemed
to lack the spirit to move about. The only pupil who evinced
the slightest tendency towards locomotion or playfulness was
Master Squeers, and as his chief amusement was to tread upon
the other boys' toes in his new boots, his flow of spirits was
rather disgreeable than otherwise.

After some half-hour's delay, Mr. Squeers reappeared, and
the boys took their places and their books, of which latter
commodity the average might be about one to eight learners.
A few minutes having elapsed, during which Mr. Squeers
looked very profound, as if he had a perfect apprehension
of what was inside all the books, and could say every word of
their contents by heart if he only chose to take the trouble,
that gentleman called up the first class.

Obedient to this summons there ranged themselves in front
of the schoolmaster's desk, half-a-dozen scarecrows, out at
knees and elbows, one of whom placed a torn and filthy book
beneath his learned eye.

"This is the class in English spelling and philosophy,
Nickleby," said Squeers, beckoning Nicholas to stand beside
him. " We'll get up a Latin one, and hand that over to you.
Now, then, where's the first boy ? "

" Please, sir, he's cleaning the back parlor window," said
the temporary head of the philosophical class.

" So he is, to be sure," rejoined Squeers. " We go upon the
practical mode of teaching, Nickleby ; the regular education
system. C-1-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour.
Win, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows
this out of book, he goes and does it. It's just the same
principle as the use of the globes. Where's the second boy ! "

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" Please, sir, he's weeding the garden," replied a small

" To be sure," said Squeers, by no means disconcerted.
w So he is. B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, bottin, n-e-y, ney, bottinney,
noun substantive, a knowledge of plants. When he has learned
that bottiney means a knowledge of plants, he goes and knows
'em. That our system, Nickleby ; what do you think of it ? "

" It's a very useful one, at any rate," answered Nicholas.

*• I believe you," rejoined Squeers, not remarking the
emphasis of his usher. " Third boy, what's a horse ? "

" A beast, sir," replied the boy.

" So it is," said Squeers. " Ain't it, Nickleby ? "

" I believe there is no doubt of that, sir," answered

" Of course there isn't," said Squeers. " A horse is a
quadruped, and quadruped's Latin for beast, as every body
that's gone through the grammar knows, or else where's the
use of having grammars at all ? "

" Where, indeed 1 " said Nicholas abstractedly.

" As you're perfect in that," resumed Squeers, turning to
the boy, " go and look after my horse, and rub him down well,
or I'll rub you down. The rest of the class go and draw
water up, till somebody tells you to leave off, for it's washing
day to-morrow, and they want the coppers rilled."

So saying, he dismissed the first class to their experiments
in practical philosophy, and eyed Nicholas with a look, half
cunning and half doubtful, as if he were not altogether certain
what he might think of him by this time.

" That's the way we do it, Nickleby," he said, after a
pause. ,.

Nicholas shrugged his shoulders in a manner that was
scarcely perceptible, and said he saw it was.

" And a very good way it is, too," said Squeers. " Now,
just take them fourteen little boys and hear them some read-
ing, because, you know, you must begin to be useful. Idling
about here, won't do."

Mr. Squeers said this, as if it had suddenly occurred to
him, either that he must not say too much to his assistant, or
that his assistant did not say enough to him in praise of the
establishment. The children were arranged in a semicircle
round the new master, and he was soon listening to their dull,
drawling, hesitating recital of those stories of engrossing
interest which are to be found in the more antiquated spelling

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In this exciting occupation, the morning lagged heavily on.
At one o'clock, the boys, having previously had their appetites
thoroughly taken away by stir-about and potatoes, sat down
in the kitchen to some hard salt beef, of which Nicholas was
graciously permitted to take his portion to his own solitary
desk, to eat it there in peace. After this, there was another
hour of crouching in the school-room and shivering with cold,
and then school began again.

It was Mr. Squeers's custom to call the boys together, and
make a sort of report, after every half-yearly visit to the metro-
polis, regarding the relations and friends he had seen, the
news he had heard, the letters he had brought down, the bills
which had been paid, the accounts which had been left unpaid,
and so forth. This solemn proceeding always took place in
the afternoon of the day succeeding his return ; perhaps, be-
cause the boys acquired strength of mind from the suspense of
the morning, or possibly, because Mr. Squeers himself acquired
greater sternness and inflexibility from certain warm potations
in which he was wont to indulge after his early dinner. Be
this as it may, the boys were recalled from house-window,
garden, stable, and cow-yard, and the school were assembled
in full conclave, when Mr. Squeers, with a small bundle of
papers in his hand, and Mrs. S. following with a pair of canes,
entered the room and proclaimed silence.

i€ Let any boy speak a word without leave," said Mr.
Squeers mildly, " and I'll take the skin off his back."

This special proclamation had the desired effect, and a
death-like silence immediately prevailed, in the midst of which
Mr. Squeers went on to say :

" Boys, I've been to London, and have returned to my
family and you, as strong and well as ever."

According to half-yearly custom, the boys gave three feeble
cheers at this refreshing intelligence. Such cheers ! Sighs
of extra strength with the chill on.

" I have seen the parents of some boys," continued
Squeers, turning over his papers, " and they're so glad to hear
how their sons are getting on, that there's no prospect at all
of their going away, which of course is a very pleasant thing
to reflect upon, for all parties."

Two or three hands went to two or three eyes when Squeers
said this, but the greater part of the young gentlemen having
no particular parents to speak of, were wholly uninterested in
the thing one way or other.

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" I have had disappointments to contend against," said
Squeers, looking very grim ; " Bolder's father was two pound
ten short. Where is Bolder ? "

44 Here he is, please sir," rejoined twenty officious voices.
Boys are very like men to be sure.

" Come here, Bolder," said Squeers.
An unhealthy-looking boy, with warts all over his hands,
stepped from his place to the master's desk, and raised his
eyes imploringly to Squeers's face ; his own quite white from
the rapid beating of his heart.

44 Bolder," said Squeers, speaking very slowly, for he was
considering, as the saying goes, where to have him. " Bolder,
if your father thinks that because — why, what's this, sir ? "

As Squeers spoke, he caught up the boy's hand by the cuff
of his jacket, and surveyed it with an edifying aspect of horror
and disgust.

" What do you call this, sir ? " demanded the school-
master, administering a cut with the cane to expedite the

44 I can't help it, indeed, sir," rejoined the boy, crying.
" They will come ; it's the dirty work I think, sir — at least I
don't know what it is, sir, but it's not my fault."

44 Bolder," said Squeers, tucking up his wristbands, and
moistening the palm of his right hand to get a good grip of
the cane, 4< you are an incorrigible young scoundrel, and as
the last thrashing did you no good, we must see what another
will do towards beating it out of you."

With this, and wholly disregarding a piteous cry for mercy,
Mr. Squeers fell upon the boy and caned him soundly : not
leaving off indeed, until his arm was tired out.

44 There," said Squeers, when he had quite done ; " rub
away as hard as you like, you won't rub that off in a hurry.
Oh ! you won't hold that noise, won't you ? Put him out,

The drudge knew better from long experience, than to
hesitate about obeying, so he bundled the victim out by a side
door, and Mr. Squeers perched himself again on his own stool,
supported by Mrs. Squeers, who occupied another at his side.
44 Now let us see," said Squeers. 44 A letter for Cobbey.
Stand up, Cobbey."

Another boy stood up, and eyed the letter very hard while
Squeers made a mental abstract of the same.

44 Oh ! " said Squeers : " Cobbey's grandmother is dead,

7 •

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and his uncle John has took to drinking, which is all the news
his sister sends, except eighteenpence, which will just pay for
that broken square of glass. Mrs. Squeers, my dear, will you
take the money ? "

The worthy lady pocketed the eighteenpence with a most
business-like air, and Squeers passed on to the next boy, as
coolly as possible.

" Graymarsh,'' said Squeers, " he's the next. Stand up,

Another boy stood up, and the schoolmaster looked over
the letter as before.

" Graymarsh's maternal aunt," said Squeers, when he had
possessed himself of the contents, " is very glad to hear he's
so well and happy, and sends her respectful compliments to
Mrs. Squeers, and thinks she must be an angel. She likewise
thinks Mr. Squeers is too good for this world ; but hopes he
may long be spared to carry on the business. • Would have
sent the two pair of stockings as desired, but is short of
money, so forwards a tract instead, and hopes Graymarsh will
put his trust in Providence. Hopes, above all, that he will
study in every thing to please Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, and look
upon them as his only friends ; and that he will love Master
Squeers ; and not object to sleeping five in a bed, which no
Christian should. Ah ! " said Squeers, folding it up, " a de-
lightful letter. Very affecting indeed."

It was affecting in one sense, for Graymarsh's . maternal
aunt was strongly supposed, by her more intimate friends, to
be no other than his maternal parent ; Squeers, however,
without alluding to this part of the story (which would have
sounded immoral before boys), proceeded with the business
by calling out " Mobbs," whereupon another boy rose, and
Graymarsh resumed his seat.

" Mobbs's mother-in-law," said Squeers, " took to her bed
on hearing that he wouldn't eat fat, and has been very ill ever
since. She wishes to know, by an early post, where he ex-
pects to go to, if he quarrels with his vittles ; and with what
feelings he could turn up his nose at the cow's liver broth,
after his good master had asked a blessing on it. This was
told her in the London newspapers — not by Mr. Squeers, for
he is too kind and too good to set anybody against anybody
— and it has vexed her so much, Mobbs can't think. she is
sorry to find he is discontented, which is sinful and horrid,
and hopes Mr. Squeers will flog him into a happier state of

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mind ; with this view, she has also stopped his halfpenny a
week pocket-money, and given a double-bladed knife with a
corkscrew in it to the Missionaries, which she had bought on
purpose for him."

" A sulky state of feeling," said Squeers, after a terrible
pause, during which he had moistened the palm of his right
hand again, " won't do. Cheerfulness and contentment must
be kept up. Mobbs, come to me ! "

Mobbs moved slowly towards the desk, rubbing his eyes
in anticipation of good cause for doing so ; and he soon after-
wards retired by the side door, with as good a cause as a
boy need have.

Mr. Squeers then proceeded to open a miscellaneous col-
lection of letters ; some enclosing money, which Mrs. Squeers
" took care of ; " and others referring to small articles of ap-
parel, as caps and so forth, all of which the same lady stated
to be too large, or too small, and calculated for nobody but
young Squeers, who would appear indeed to have had most
accommodating limbs, since every thing that came into the
school fitted him to a nicety. His head, in particular, must
have been singularly elastic, for hats and caps of all dimen-
sions were alike to him.

This business despatched, a few slovenly lessons were per-
formed, and Squeers retired to his fireside, leaving Nicholas
to take care of the boys in the school-room, which was very
cold, and where a meal of bread and cheese was served out
shortly after dark.

There was a small stove at that corner of the room which
was nearest to the master's desk, and by it Nicholas sat down,
so depressed and self-degraded by the consciousness of his
position, that if death could have come upon him at that time,
he would have been almost happy to meet it The cruelty of
which he had been an unwilling witness, the coarse and ruf-
fianly behavior of Squeers even in his best mood?, the filthy
place, the sights and sounds about him, all contributed to this
state of feeling ; but when he recollected that, being there as
as an assistant, he actually seemed — no matter what unhappy
train of circumstances had brought him to that pass — to be
the aider and abettor of a system which filled him with honest
disgust and indignation, he loathed himself, and felt, for the
moment, as though the mere consciousness of his present sit-
uation must, through all time to come, prevent his raising his
head again.

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But, for the present, his resolve was taken, and the reso-
lution he had formed on the preceding night remained undis-
turbed. He had written to his mother and sister, announcing
the safe conclusion of his journey, and saying as little about
Dotheboys Hall, and saying that little as cheerfully as he
possibly could. He hoped that by remaining where he was,
he might do some good, even there ; at all events, others de-
pended too much on his uncle's favor, to admit of his awaken-
ing his wrath just then.

One reflection disturbed him far more than any selfish
considerations arising out of his own position. This was the
probable destination of his sister Kate. His uncle had de-
ceived him, and might he not consign her to some miserable
place where her youth and beauty would prove a far greater
curse than ugliness and decrepitude? To a caged man,
bound hand and foot, this was a terrible idea ; — but no, he
thought, his mother was by ; there was the portrait-painter,
too — simple enough, but still living in the world, and of it.
He was willing to believe that Ralph Nickleby had conceived
a personal dislike to himself. Having pretty good reason, by
this time, to reciprocate it, he had no great difficulty in arriv-
ing at this conclusion, and tried to persuade himself that the
feeling extended no farther than between them.

As he was absorbed in these meditations, he all at once
encountered the upturned face of Smike, who was on his
knees before the stove, picking a few stray cinders from the
hearth and planting them on the fire. He had paused to steal
a look at Nicholas, and when he saw that he was observed,
shrunk back, as if expecting a blow.

" You need not fear me," said Nicholas kindly. " Are
you cold?"


" You are shivering."

"I am not cold," replied Smike quickly. " I am used
to it"

There was such an obvious fear of giving offence in his
manner, and he was such a timid, broken-spirited creature,
that Nicholas could not help exclaiming, " Poor fellow ! "

If he had struck the drudge, he would have slunk away
without a word. But, now, he burst into tears.

" Oh dear, oh dear ! " he cried, covering his face with his
cracked and homy hands. " My heart will break. It will, it

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" Hush ! " said Nicholas, laying his hand upon his shoul-
der. "Be a man ; you are nearly one by years, God help

" By years ! " cried Smike. " Oh dear, dear, how many of
them ! How many of them since I was a little child, younger
than any that are here now ! Where are they all ! "

" Whom do you speak of ? " inquired Nicholas, wishing
to rouse the poor half-witted creature to reason. "Tell

" My friends," he replied, " myself — my — oh ! what suf-
ferings mine have been ! "

" There is always hope," said Nicholas ; he knew not what
to say.

" No," rejoined the other, " no ; none for me. Do you re-
member the boy that died here ? "

" I was not here, you know," said Nicholas gently ; " but
what of him ? "

" Why," replied the youth, drawing closer to his questioner's
side. " I was with him at night, and when it was all silent he
cried no more for friends he wished to come and sit with him,
but began to see faces round his bed that came from home ;
he said they smiled and talked to him ; and he died at last lift-
ing his head to kiss them. Do you hear ? "

" Yes, yes," rejoined Nicholas.

" What faces will smile on me when I die ! " cried his
companion, shivering. " Who will talk to me in those long
nights ! They cannot come from home ; they would frighten
me, if they did, for I don't know what it is, and shouldn't
know them. Pain and fear, pain and fear for me, alive or
dead. No hope, no hope ! "

The bell rang to bed : and the boy, subsiding at the sound
into his usual listless state, crept away as if anxious to avoid
notice. It was with a heavy heart that Nicholas soon after-
wards — no, not retired ; there was no retirement there — fol-
lowed — to his dirty and crowded dormitory.

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When Mr. Squeers left the school-room for the night, he
betook himself, as has been before remarked, to his own fire-

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 10 of 79)