Charles Dickens.

The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby online

. (page 15 of 79)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 15 of 79)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

signal mistake, that ever human being labored under, or com-
mitted. I have scarcely seen the young lady half a dozen
times, but if I had seen her sixty times, or am destined to see
her sixty thousand, it would be, and will be, precisely the
same. I have not one thought, wish or hope, connected with
her, unless it be — and I say this, not to hurt her feelings, but to
impress her with the real state of my own — unless it be the
one object, dear to my heart as life itself, of being one day
able to turn my back upon this accursed place, never to set
foot in it again, or think of it — even think of it — but with
loathing and disgust."

With this particularly plain and straight-forward declara-
tion, which he made with all the vehemence that his indignant
and excited feelings could bring to bear upon it, Nicholas,
waiting to hear no more, retreated.

But poor Miss Squeers ! Her anger, rage, and vexation ;
the rapid succession of bitter and passionate feelings that
whirled through her mind ; are not to be described. Refused !
refused by a teacher, picked up by advertisement, at an annual
sa T ary of five pounds payable at indefinite periods, and " found "
in food and lodging like the very boys themselves ; and this
too in the presence of a little chit of a miller's daughter of
eighteen, who was going to be married, in three weeks' time,
to a man who had gone down on his very knees to ask ! She
could have choked in right good earnest, at the thought of
being so humbled.

But there was one thing clear in the midst of her mortifi-
cation ; and that was, that she hated and detested Nicholas
with all the narrowness of mind and littleness of purpose
worthy a descendant of the house of Squeers. And there was
one comfort too ; and that was, that every hour in every day
she could wound his pride, and goad him with the infliction
of some slight, or insult, or deprivation, which could not but
have some effect on the most insensible person, and must be


Digitized by VjOOQIC


acutely felt by one so sensitive as Nicholas. With these two
reflections uppermost in her mind, Miss Squeers made the
best of the matter to her friend, by observing that Mr. Nickleby
was such an odd creature, and of such a violent temper, that
she feared that she should be obliged to give him up ; and
parted from her.

And here it may be remarked, that Miss Squeers, having
bestowed her affections (or whatever it might be that, in the
absence of anything better, represented them) on Nicholas
Nickleby, had never once seriously contemplated the possi-
bility of his being of a different opinion from herself in the
business. Miss Squeers reasoned that she was prepossessing
and beautiful, and that her father was master, and Nicholas
man, and that her father had saved money, and Nicholas had
none, all of which seemed to her conclusive arguments why
the young man should feel only too much honored by her
preference. She had not failed to recollect, either, how much
more agreeable she could render his situation if she were his
friend, and how much more disagreeable if she were his enemy ;
and, doubtless, many less scrupulous young gentlemen than
Nicholas would have encouraged her extravagance had it been
only for this very obvious and intelligible reason. However,
he had thought proper to do otherwise, and Miss Squeers was

"Let me see," said the irritated young lady, when she had
regained her own room, and eased her mind by committing
an assault on Phib, " if I don't set mother against him a
little more when she comes back ! "

It was scarcely necessary to do this, but Miss Squeers was
as good as her word ; and poor Nicholas, in addition to bad
food, dirty lodging, and the being compelled to witness one
dull unvarying round of squalid misery, was treated with
every special indignity that malice could suggest, or the most
grasping cupidity put upon him.

Nor was this all. There was another and deeper system
of annoyance which made his heart sink, and nearly drove
him wild, by its injustice and cruelty.

The wretched creature, Smike, since the night Nicholas
had spoken kindly to him in the school-room, had followed
him to and fro, with an ever restless desire to serve or help
him ; anticipating such little wants as his humble ability could
supply, and content only to be near him. He would sit be-
side him for hours, looking patiently into his face ; and a

Digitized by VjOOQlC


1 47

word would brighten up his care-worn visage, and call into it
a passing gleam, even of happiness. He was an altered being ;
he had an object now ; and that object was, to show his at-
tachment to the only person — that person a stranger — who
had treated him, not to say with kindness, but like a human

Upon this poor being, all the spleen and ill-humor that
could not be vented on Nicholas were unceasingly bestowed.
Drudgery would have been nothing — Smike was well used to
that. Buffetings inflicted without cause, would have been
equally a matter of course ; for to them also, he had served a
long and weary apprenticeship ; but it was no sooner observed
that he had become attached to Nicholas, than stripes and
blows, stripes and blows, morning, noon, and night, were his
only portion. Squeers was jealous of the influence which his
man had so soon acquired, and his family hated him, and
Smike paid for both. Nicholas saw it, and ground his teeth
at every repetition of the savage and cowardly attack.

He had arranged a few regular lessons for the boys ; and
one night as he paced up and down the dismal school-room,
his swollen heart almost bursting to' think that his protection
and countenance should have increased the misery of the
wretched being whose peculiar destitution had awakened his
pity, he paused mechanically in a dark corner where sat the
object of his thoughts.

The poor soul was poring hard over a tattered book with
the traces of recent tears still upon his face ; vainly endeavor-
ing to master some task which a child of nine years okl, pos-
sessed of ordinary powers, could have conquered witji ease,
but which, to the addled brain of the crushed boy of nine-
teen, -was a sealed and hopeless mystery. Yet there he sat,
patiently conning the page again and again, stimulated by
no boyish ambition, for he was the common jest and scoff
even of the uncouth objects that congregated about him,
but inspired by the one eager desire to please his solitary

Nicholas laid his hand upon his shoulder.

" I can't do it," said the dejected creature, looking up
with bitter disappointment in every feature. " No, no."

" Do not try," replied Nicholas.

The boy shook his head, and closing the book with a sigh,
looked vacantly round, and laid his head upon his arm. He
was weeping.

Digitized by VjOOQIC


" Do not for God's sake," said Nicholas, in an agitated
voice ; " I cannot bear to see you."

"They are more hard with me than ever," sobbed the

" I know it," rejoined Nicholas. " They are."

"But for you," said the outcast, "I should die. They
would kill me ; they would ; I know they would."

" You will do tetter, poor fellow," replied Nicholas, shak-
ing his head mournfully, " when I am gone."

" Gone ! " cried the other, looking intently in his face.

" Softly I " rejoined Nicholas. " Yes."

" Are you going ? " demanded the boy, in an earnest

" I cannot say," replied Nicholas. " I was speaking
more to my own thoughts, than to you."

" Tell me," said the boy imploringly, " Oh do tell me, will
you go— will you ? "

" I shall be driven to that at last I " said Nicholas. " The
world is before me, after all."

"Tell me," urged Smike, " is the world as bad and dismal
as this place ? "

" Heaven forbid," replied Nicholas, pursuing the train of
his own thoughts, " its hardest, coarsest toil, were happiness
to this."

"Should I -ever meet you there?" demanded the boy
speaking with unusual wildness and volubility.

" Yes," replied Nicholas, willing to soothe him.

"No, no!" said the other, clasping him by the hand.
" Should I — should I — tell me that again. Say I should be
sure to find you."

" You would," replied Nicholas, with the same humane in-
tention, " and I would help and aid you, and not bring fresh
sorrow on you as I have done here."

The boy caught both the young man's hands passionately
in his, and, hugging them to his breast, uttered a few broken
sounds which were unintelligible. Squeers entered, at the
moment, and he shrunk back into his old corner.

Digitized by VjOOQIC




The cold, feeble, dawn of a January morning was stealing
in at the windows of the common sleeping-room, when Nich-
olas, raising himself on his arm, looked among the prostrate
forms which on every side surrounded him, as though in search
of some particular object.

It needed a quick eye to detect, from among the huddled
mass of sleepers, the form of any given individual. As they
lay closely packed together, covered, for warmth's sake, with
their patched and ragged clothes, little could be distinguished
but the sharp outlines of pale faces, over which the sombre
light shed the same dull heavy color ; with, here and there, a
gaunt arm thrust forth ; its thinness hidden by no covering,
but fully exposed to view, in all its shrunken ugliness. There
were some who, lying on their backs with upturned faces and
clenched hands, just visible in the leaden light, bore more the
aspect of dead bodies than of living creatures ; and there were
others coiled up into strange and fantastic postures, such as
might have been taken for the uneasy efforts of pain to gain
some temporary relief, rather than the freaks of slumber. A
few — and these were among the youngest of the children —
slept peacefully on, with smiles upon their faces, dreaming
perhaps of home ; but ever and again a deep and heavy sigh,
breaking the stillness of the room, announced that some new
sleeper had awakened to the misery of another day ; and, as
morning took the place of night, the smiles gradually faded
away, with the friendly darkness which had given them birth.

Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who
sport on earth in the night season, and melt away in the first
beam of the sun, which lights grim care and stern reality on
their daily pilgrimage through the world.

Nicholas looked upon the sleepers ; at first, with the air
of one who gazes upon a scene which, though familiar to him,
has lost none of its sorrowful effect in consequence ; and,
afterwards, with a more intense and searching scrutiny, as a

Digitized by VjOOQIC


man would, who missed something. his eye was accustomed to
meet, and had expected to rest upon. He was still occupied
in this search, and had half risen from his bed in the eager-
ness of his quest, when the voice of Squeers was heard, call-
ing from the bottom of the stairs.

"Now then," cried that gentleman, "are you going to
sleep all day, up there — "

" You lazy hounds ? " added Mrs. Squeers, finishing the
sentence, and producing at the same time, a sharp sound, like
that which is occasioned by the lacing of stays.

" We shall be down directly, sir," replied Nicholas.

" Down directly ! " said Squeers. " Ah ! you had better
be down directly, or I'll be down upon some of you in less.
Where's that Smike ? "

Nicholas looked hurriedly round again, but made no

" Smike ! " shouted Squeers.

" Do you want your head broke in a fresh place, Smike ? "
demanded his amiable lady in the same key.

Still there was no reply, and still Nicholas stared about
him, as did the greater part of the boys, who were by this time

" Confound his impudence ! " muttered Squeers, rapping
the stair-rail impatiently with his cane. " Nickleby ! "

" Well, sir."

" Send that obstinate scoundrel down ; don't you hear me
calling ? "

" He is nof here, sir," replied Nicholas.

" Don't tell me a lie," retorted the schoolmaster. " He

" He is not," retorted Nicholas angrily, " don't tell me

" We shall soon see that," said Mr. Squeers, rushing up
stairs. " I'll find him, I warrant you."

With which assurance, Mr. Squeers bounced into the
dormitory, and, swinging his cane in the air ready for a blow,
darted into the corner where the lean body of the drudge was
usually stretched at night. The cane descended harmlessly
upon the ground. There was nobody there.

" What does this mean ? " said Squeers, turning round
with a very pale face " Where have you hid him ? "

" I have seen nothing of him, since last night," replied

Digitized by VjOOQIC


"Come," said Squeers, evidently frightened, though he
endeavored to look otherwise, " you won't save him this way.
Where is he?"

" At the bottom of the nearest pond for aught I know," re-
joined Nicholas in a low voice, and fixing his eyes full on the
master's face.

" D — n you, what do you mean by that ? " retorted Squeers
in great perturbation. Without waiting for a reply, he in-
quired of the boys whether any one among them knew any
thing of their missing schoolmate.

There was a general hum of anxious denial, in the midst
of which, one shrill voice was heard to say (as, indeed, every-
body thought) :

" Please, sir, I think Smike's run away, sir."

" Ha ! " cried Squeers, turning sharp round ; " Who said

" Tomkins, please sir," rejoined a chorus of voices. Mr.
Squeers made a plunge into the crowd, and at one dive,
caught a very little boy, habited still in his night gear, and the
perplexed expression of whose countenance as he was brought
forward, seemed to intimate that he was as yet uncertain
whether he was about to be punished or rewarded for the sug-
gestion. He was not long in doubt.

" You think he has run away, do you, sir ? " demanded

" Yes, please sir," replied the little boy.

" And what, sir," said Squeers, catching the little boy
suddenly by the arms and whisking up his drapery in a most
dexterous manner, " what reason have you to suppose that
any boy would want to run away from this establishment ?
Eh, sir?"

The child raised a dismal cry, by way of answer, and Mr.
Squeers, throwing himself into the most favorable attitude for
exercising his strength, beat him until the little urchin in his
writhings actually rolled out of his hands, when he mercifully
allowed him to roll away as he best could.

" There," said Squeers. " Now if any other boy thinks
Smike has run away, I should be glad to have a talk with

There was, of course, a profound silence during which
Nicholas showed his disgust as plainly as looks could show it.

" Well, Nickleby," said Squeers, eyeing him maliciously.
" You think he has run away, I suppose ? "

Digitized by VjOOQlC


" I think it extremely likely," replied Nicholas, in a quiet

" Oh, you do, do you ? " sneered Squeers. " M^aybe you
know he has ? "

" I know nothing of the kind."

" He didn't tell you he was going, I suppose, did he ? "
sneered Squeers.

" He did not," replied Nicholas ; "lam very glad he did
not, for it would then have been my duty to have warned you,
in time."

" Which no doubt you would have been devilish sorry to
do," said Squeers in a taunting fashion.

"I should indeed," replied Nicholas. "You interpret
my feelings with great accuracy."

Mrs. Squeers had listened to this conversation, from the
bottom of the stairs ; but, now losing all patience, she hastily
assumed her night-jacket, and made her way to the scene of

" What's all this here to do? " said the lady, as the boys
fell off right and left, to save her the trouble of clearing a
passage with her brawny arms. " What on earth are you
talking to him for, Squeery ! "

" Why, my dear," said Squeers, " the fact is, that Smike
is not to be found ! "

"Well, I know that," said the lady, "and where's the
wonder? If you get a parcel of proud-stomached teachers
that set the young dogs a rebelling, what else can you look
for ? Now, young man, you just have the kindness to take
yourself off to the school-room, and take the boys off with
you, and don't you stir out of there 'till you have leave given
you, or you and I may fall out in a way that'll spoil your
beauty, handsome as you think yourself, and so I tell you."

" Indeed ! " said Nicholas.

"Yes ; and indeed and indeed again, Mister Jackanapes,"
said the excited lady ; " and I wouldn't keep such as you in
the house, another hour, if I had my way."

" Nor would you if I had mine," replied Nicholas. " Now,

" Ah ! Now boys," said Mrs. Squeers, mimicking, as
nearly as she could, the voice and manner of the usher. " Fol-
low your leader, boys, and take pattern by Smike if you dare.
See what he'll get for himself, when he is brought back ; and,
mind ! I tell you that you shall have as bad, and twice as bad,
if you so much as open your mouths about him."

Digitized by VjOOQIC


" If I catch him," said Squeers, "I'll only stop short of
flaying him alive. I give you notice, boys."

44 If you catch him," retorted Mrs. Squeers, contemptu-
ously, "you are sure to; you can't help it, if you go the right
way to work. Come ! Away with you ! "

With these words, Mrs. Squeers dismissed the boys, and
after a little light skirmishing with those in the rear who were
pressing forward to get out of the way, but were detained for
a few moments by the throng in front, succeeded in clearing
the room, when she confronted her spouse alone.

" He is off," said Mrs. Squeers. " The cow-house and
the stable are locked up, so he can't be there ; and he's not
down stairs anywhere, for the girl has looked. He must have
gone York way, and by a public road too."

" Why must he ? " inquired Squeers.

" Stupid ! " said Mrs. Squeers angrily " He hadn't any
money, had he ? "

" Never had a penny of his own in his whole life, that I
know of," replied Squeers.

"To be sure," rejoined Mrs. Squeers, "and he didn't
take anything to eat with him ; that I'll answer for. Ha ! ha I

" Ha ! ha ! ha ! " laughed Squeers.

" Then, of course," said Mrs. S., " he must beg his way,
and he could do that nowhere, but on the public road."

"That's true," exclaimed Squeers, clapping his hands.

" True ! Yes ; but you would never have thought of it,
for all that, if I hadn't said so," replied his wife. " Now, if
you take the chaise and go one road, and I borrow Swallow's
chaise, and go the other, what with keeping our eyes open
and asking questions, one or the other of us is pretty certain
to lay hold of him."

The worthy lady's plan was adopted and put in execution
without a moment's delay. After a very hasty breakfast, and
the prosecution of some inquiries in the village, the result of
which seemed to show that he was on the right track, Squeera
started forth in the poney-chaise, intent upon discovery and
vengeance. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Squeers, arrayed in the
white top-coat, and tied up in various shawls and handker-
chiefs, issued forth in another chaise and another direction,
taking with her a good-sized bludgeon, several odd pieces of
strong cord, and a stout laboring man : all provided and car-
ried upon the expedition with the sole object of assisting in

Digitized by VjOOQIC


the capture, and (once caught) insuring the safe custody of
the unfortunate Smike.

Nicholas remained behind, in a tumult of feeling, sensible
that whatever might be the upshot of the boy's flight, nothing
but painful and deplorable consequences were likely to ensue
from it. Death, from want and exposure to the weather, was
the best that could be expected from the protracted wander-
ing of so poor and helpless a creature, alone and unfriended,
through a country of which he was wholly ignorant There
was little, perhaps, to choose between this fate and a return
to the tender mercies of the Yorkshire school ; but the un-
happy being had established a hold • upon his sympathy and
compassion, which made his heart ache at the prospect of
the suffering he was destined to undergo. He lingered on,
in restless anxiety, picturing a thousand possibilities, until the
evening of next day, when Squeers returned, alone, and un-

" No news of the scamp ! " said the schoolmaster, who
had evidently been stretching his legs, on the old principle,
not a few times during the journey. " I'll have consolation
for this out of somebody, Nickleby, if Mrs. Squeers don't hunt
him down ; so I give you warning."

" It is not in my power to console you, sir," said Nicholas.
" It is nothing to me."

" Isn't it ? " said Squeers in a threatening manner. "We
shall see ! "

" We shall," rejoined Nicholas.

" Here's the pony run right off his legs, and me obliged to
come home with a hack cob, that'll cost fifteen shillings be-
sides other expenses," said Squeers; "who's to pay for that,
do you hear ? "

Nicholas shrugged his shoulders and remained silent.

" I'll have it out of somebody, I tell you," said Squeers,
his usual harsh crafty manner changed to open bullying.
" None of your whining vaporings here, Mr. Puppy, but be
off to your kennel, for its past your bed-time ! Come I Get
out ! "

Nicholas bit his lip and knit his hands involuntarily, for
his finger ends tingled to avenge the insult ; but remembering
that the man was drunk, and that it could come to little but
a noisy brawl, he contented himself with darting a contemptu-
ous look at the tyrant, and walked, as majestically as he
coujd, up stairs ; not a little nettled, however, to observe that

Digitized by VjOOQIC



Miss Squeers and Master Squeers, and the servant girl, were
enjoying the scene from a snug corner \ the two former, in-
dulging in many edifying remarks about the presumption of
poor upstarts, which occasioned a vast deal of laughter, in
which even the most miserable of all miserable servant girls
joined ; while Nicholas, stung to the quick, drew over his
head such bed-clothes as he had, and sternly resolved that the
outstanding account between himself and Mr. Squeers should
be settled rather more speedily than the latter anticipated.

Another day came, and Nicholas was scarcely awake when
he heard the wheels of a chaise approaching the house. It
stopped. The voice of Mrs. Squeers was heard, and in exult-
ation, ordering a glass of spirits for somebody, which was in
itself sufficient sign that something extraordinary had hap-
pened. Nicholas hardly dared to look out of the window ;
but he did so, and the very first object that met his eyes was
the wretched Smike : so bedabbled with mud and rain, so
haggard and worn, and wild, that, but for his garments being
such as no scarecrow was ever seen to wear, he might have
been doubtful, even then, of his identity.

" Lift him out," said Squeers, after he had literally feasted
his eyes, in silence, upon the culprit. " Bring him in ; bring
him in ! "

" Take care," cried Mrs. Squeers, as her husband proffered
his assistance. '* We tied his legs under the apron and made
'em fast to the chaise, to prevent his giving us the slip again."

With hands trembling with delight, Squeers unloosened
the cord ; and Smike, to all appearance more dead than alive,
was brought into the house and securely locked up in a cellar,
until such time as Mr. Squeers should deem it expedient to
operate upon him, in presence of the assembled school.

Upon a hasty consideration of the circumstances, it may
be matter of surprise to some persons, that Mr. and Mrs.
Squeers should have taken so much trouble to repossess them-
selves of an incumbrance of which it was their wont to
complain so loudly ; but their sui prise will cease when they
are informed that the manifold services of the drudge, if per-
formed by anybody else, would have cost the establishment
some ten or twelve shillings per week in the shape of wages ;
and furthermore, that all runaways were, as a matter of policy,
made severe examples of, at Dotheboys Hall, inasmuch as,
in consequence of the limited extent of its attractions, there
was but little inducement, beyond the powerful impulse of fear,

Digitized by VjOOQlC


for any pupil, provided with the usual number of legs and the
power of using them, to remain.

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe life and adventures of Nicholas Nickelby → online text (page 15 of 79)