Mr. and Mrs. Squeers at Home.
Mr. Squeers, being safely landed, left Nicholas and the boys standing with the luggage in the road, to amuse themselves by looking at the coach as it changed horses, while he ran into the tavern and went through the leg-stretching process at the bar. After some minutes, he returned, with his legs thoroughly stretched, if the hue of his nose and a short hiccup afforded any criterion; and at the same time there came out of the yard a rusty pony-chaise, and a cart, driven by two labouring men.
‘Put the boys and the boxes into the cart,’ said Squeers, rubbing his hands; ‘and this young man and me will go on in the chaise. Get in, Nickleby.’
Nicholas obeyed. Mr. Squeers with some difficulty inducing the pony to obey also, they started off, leaving the cart-load of infant misery to follow at leisure.
‘Are you cold, Nickleby?’ inquired Squeers, after they had travelled some distance in silence.
‘Rather, sir, I must say.’
‘Well, I don’t find fault with that,’ said Squeers; ‘it’s a long journey this weather.’
‘Is it much farther to Dotheboys Hall, sir?’ asked Nicholas.
‘About three mile from here,’ replied Squeers. ‘But you needn’t call it a Hall down here.’
Nicholas coughed, as if he would like to know why.
‘The fact is, it ain’t a Hall,’ observed Squeers drily.
‘Oh, indeed!’ said Nicholas, whom this piece of intelligence much astonished.
‘No,’ replied Squeers. ‘We call it a Hall up in London, because it sounds better, but they don’t know it by that name in these parts. A man may call his house an island if he likes; there’s no act of Parliament against that, I believe?‘
‘I believe not, sir,’ rejoined Nicholas.
Squeers eyed his companion slyly, at the conclusion of this little dialogue, and finding that he had grown thoughtful and appeared in nowise disposed to volunteer any observations, contented himself with lashing the pony until they reached their journey’s end.
‘Jump out,’ said Squeers. ‘Hallo there! Come and put this horse up. Be quick, will you!’
While the schoolmaster was uttering these and other impatient cries, Nicholas had time to observe that the school was a long, cold-looking house, one storey high, with a few straggling out-buildings behind, and a barn and stable adjoining. After the lapse of a minute or two, the noise of somebody unlocking the yard-gate was heard, and presently a tall lean boy, with a lantern in his hand, issued forth.
‘Is that you, Smike?’ cried Squeers.
‘Yes, sir,’ replied the boy.
‘Then why the devil didn’t you come before?’
‘Please, sir, I fell asleep over the fire,’ answered Smike, with humility.
‘Fire! what fire? Where’s there a fire?’ demanded the schoolmaster, sharply.
‘Only in the kitchen, sir,’ replied the boy. ‘Missus said as I was sitting up, I might go in there for a warm.’
‘Your missus is a fool,’ retorted Squeers. ‘You’d have been a deuced deal more wakeful in the cold, I’ll engage.’
By this time Mr. Squeers had dismounted; and after ordering the boy to see to the pony, and to take care that he hadn’t any more corn that night, he told Nicholas to wait at the front-door a minute while he went round and let him in.
A host of unpleasant misgivings, which had been crowding upon Nicholas during the whole journey, thronged into his mind with redoubled force when he was left alone. His great distance from home and the impossibility of reaching it, except on foot, should he feel ever so anxious to return, presented itself to him in most alarming colours; and as he looked up at the dreary house and dark windows, and upon the wild country round, covered with snow, he felt a depression of heart and spirit which he had never experienced before.
‘Now then!’ cried Squeers, poking his head out at the front-door. ‘Where are you, Nickleby?’
‘Here, sir,’ replied Nicholas.
‘Come in, then,’ said Squeers ‘the wind blows in, at this door, fit to knock a man off his legs.’
Nicholas sighed, and hurried in. Mr. Squeers, having bolted the door to keep it shut, ushered him into a small parlour scantily furnished with a few chairs, a yellow map hung against the wall, and a couple of tables; one of which bore some preparations for supper; while, on the other, a tutor’s assistant, a Murray’s grammar, half-a-dozen cards of terms, and a worn letter directed to Wackford Squeers, Esquire, were arranged in picturesque confusion.
They had not been in this apartment a couple of minutes, when a female bounced into the room, and, seizing Mr. Squeers by the throat, gave him two loud kisses: one close after the other, like a postman’s knock. The lady, who was of a large raw-boned figure, was about half a head taller than Mr Squeers, and was dressed in a dimity night-jacket; with her hair in papers; she had also a dirty nightcap on, relieved by a yellow cotton handkerchief which tied it under the chin.
‘How is my Squeery?’ said this lady in a playful manner, and a very hoarse voice.
‘Quite well, my love,’ replied Squeers. ‘How’s the cows?’
‘All right, every one of’em,’ answered the lady.
‘And the pigs?’ said Squeers.
‘As well as they were when you went away.’
‘Come; that’s a blessing,’ said Squeers, pulling off his great-coat. ‘The boys are all as they were, I suppose?’
‘Oh, yes, they’re well enough,’ replied Mrs. Squeers, snappishly. ‘That young Pitcher’s had a fever.’
‘No!’ exclaimed Squeers. ‘Damn that boy, he’s always at something of that sort.’
‘Never was such a boy, I do believe,’ said Mrs. Squeers; ‘whatever he has is always catching too. I say it’s obstinacy, and nothing shall ever convince me that it isn’t. I’d beat it out of him; and I told you that, six months ago.’
‘So you did, my love,’ rejoined Squeers. ‘We’ll try what can be done.’
Pending these little endearments, Nicholas had stood, awkwardly enough, in the middle of the room: not very well knowing whether he was expected to retire into the passage, or to remain where he was. He was now relieved from his perplexity by Mr. Squeers.
‘This is the new young man, my dear,’ said that gentleman.
‘Oh,’ replied Mrs. Squeers, nodding her head at Nicholas, and eyeing him coldly from top to toe.
‘He’ll take a meal with us tonight,’ said Squeers, ‘and go among the boys tomorrow morning. You can give him a shake-down here, tonight, can’t you?’
‘We must manage it somehow,’ replied the lady. ‘You don’t much mind how you sleep, I suppose, sir?’
No, indeed,’ replied Nicholas, ‘I am not particular.’
‘That’s lucky,’ said Mrs. Squeers. And as the lady’s humour was considered to lie chiefly in retort, Mr. Squeers laughed heartily, and seemed to expect that Nicholas should do the same.
After some further conversation between the master and mistress relative to the success of Mr. Squeers’s trip and the people who had paid, and the people who had made default in payment, a young servant girl brought in a Yorkshire pie and some cold beef, which being set upon the table, the boy Smike appeared with a jug of ale.
Mr. Squeers was emptying his great-coat pockets of letters to different boys, and other small documents, which he had brought down in them. The boy glanced, with an anxious and timid expression, at the papers, as if with a sickly hope that one among them might relate to him. The look was a very painful one, and went to Nicholas’s heart at once; for it told a long and very sad history.
It induced him to consider the boy more attentively, and he was surprised to observe the extraordinary mixture of garments which formed his dress. Although he could not have been less than eighteen or nineteen years old, and was tall for that age, he wore a skeleton suit, such as is usually put upon very little boys, and which, though most absurdly short in the arms and legs, was quite wide enough for his attenuated frame. In order that the lower part of his legs might be in perfect keeping with this singular dress, he had a very large pair of boots, originally made for tops, which might have been once worn by some stout farmer, but were now too patched and tattered for a beggar. Heaven knows how long he had been there, but he still wore the same linen which he had first taken down; for, round his neck, was a tattered child’s frill, only half concealed by a coarse, man’s neckerchief. He was lame; and as he feigned to be busy in arranging the table, glanced at the letters with a look so keen, and yet so dispirited and hopeless, that Nicholas could hardly bear to watch him.
‘What are you bothering about there, Smike?’ cried Mrs. Squeers; ‘let the things alone, can’t you?’
‘Eh!’ said Squeers, looking up. ‘Oh! it’s you, is it?’
‘Yes, sir,’ replied the youth, pressing his hands together, as though to control, by force, the nervous wandering of his fingers. ‘Is there—’
‘Well!’ said Squeers.
‘Have you—did anybody—has nothing been heard—about me?’
‘Devil a bit,’ replied Squeers testily.
The lad withdrew his eyes, and, putting his hand to his face, moved towards the door.
‘Not a word,’ resumed Squeers, ‘and never will be. Now, this is a pretty sort of thing, isn’t it, that you should have been left here, all these years, and no money paid after the first six—nor no notice taken, nor no clue to be got who you belong to? It’s a pretty sort of thing that I should have to feed a great fellow like you, and never hope to get one penny for it, isn’t it?’
The boy put his hand to his head as if he were making an effort to recollect something, and then, looking vacantly at his questioner, gradually broke into a smile, and limped away.
‘I’ll tell you what, Squeers,’ remarked his wife as the door closed, ‘I think that young chap’s turning silly.’
‘I hope not,’ said the schoolmaster; ‘for he’s a handy fellow out of doors, and worth his meat and drink, anyway. I should think he’d have wit enough for us though, if he was. But come; let’s have supper, for I am hungry and tired, and want to get to bed.’
This reminder brought in an exclusive steak for Mr. Squeers, who speedily proceeded to do it ample justice. Nicholas drew up his chair, but his appetite was effectually taken away.
‘How’s the steak, Squeers?’ said Mrs. S.
‘Tender as a lamb,’ replied Squeers. ‘Have a bit.’
‘I couldn’t eat a morsel,’ replied his wife. ‘What’ll the young man take, my dear?’
‘Whatever he likes that’s present,’ rejoined Squeers, in a most unusual burst of generosity.
‘What do you say, Mr. Knuckleboy?’ inquired Mrs. Squeers.
‘I’ll take a little of the pie, if you please,’ replied Nicholas. ‘A very little, for I’m not hungry.’
Well, it’s a pity to cut the pie if you’re not hungry, isn’t it?’ said Mrs Squeers. ‘Will you try a bit of the beef?’
‘Whatever you please,’ replied Nicholas abstractedly; ‘it’s all the same to me.’
Mrs. Squeers looked vastly gracious on receiving this reply; and nodding to Squeers, as much as to say that she was glad to find the young man knew his station, assisted Nicholas to a slice of meat with her own fair hands.
‘Ale, Squeery?’ inquired the lady, winking and frowning to give him to understand that the question propounded, was, whether Nicholas should have ale, and not whether he (Squeers) would take any.
‘Certainly,’ said Squeers, re-telegraphing in the same manner. ‘A glassful.’
So Nicholas had a glassful, and being occupied with his own reflections, drank it, in happy innocence of all the foregone proceedings.
‘Uncommon juicy steak that,’ said Squeers, as he laid down his knife and fork, after plying it, in silence, for some time.
‘It’s prime meat,’ rejoined his lady. ‘I bought a good large piece of it myself on purpose for—’
‘For what!’ exclaimed Squeers hastily. ‘Not for the—’
‘No, no; not for them,’ rejoined Mrs. Squeers; ‘on purpose for you against you came home. Lor! you didn’t think I could have made such a mistake as that.’
‘Upon my word, my dear, I didn’t know what you were going to say,’ said Squeers, who had turned pale.
‘You needn’t make yourself uncomfortable,’ remarked his wife, laughing heartily. ‘To think that I should be such a noddy! Well!’
This part of the conversation was rather unintelligible; but popular rumour in the neighbourhood asserted that Mr. Squeers, being amiably opposed to cruelty to animals, not unfrequently purchased for boy consumption the bodies of horned cattle who had died a natural death; possibly he was apprehensive of having unintentionally devoured some choice morsel intended for the young gentlemen.
Supper being over, and removed by a small servant girl with a hungry eye, Mrs. Squeers retired to lock it up, and also to take into safe custody the clothes of the five boys who had just arrived, and who were half-way up the troublesome flight of steps which leads to death’s door, in consequence of exposure to the cold. They were then regaled with a light supper of porridge, and stowed away, side by side, in a small bedstead, to warm each other, and dream of a substantial meal with something hot after it, if their fancies set that way: which it is not at all improbable they did.
Mr. Squeers treated himself to a stiff tumbler of brandy and water, made on the liberal half-and-half principle, allowing for the dissolution of the sugar; and his amiable helpmate mixed Nicholas the ghost of a small glassful of the same compound. This done, Mr. and Mrs. Squeers drew close up to the fire, and sitting with their feet on the fender, talked confidentially in whispers; while Nicholas, taking up the tutor’s assistant, read the interesting legends in the miscellaneous questions, and all the figures into the bargain, with as much thought or consciousness of what he was doing, as if he had been in a magnetic slumber.
At length, Mr. Squeers yawned fearfully, and opined that it was high time to go to bed; upon which signal, Mrs. Squeers and the girl dragged in a small straw mattress and a couple of blankets, and arranged them into a couch for Nicholas.
‘We’ll put you into your regular bedroom tomorrow, Nickelby,’ said Squeers. ‘Let me see! Who sleeps in Brooks’s bed, my dear?’
‘In Brooks’s,’ said Mrs. Squeers, pondering. ‘There’s Jennings, little Bolder, Graymarsh, and what’s his name.’
‘So there is,’ rejoined Squeers. ‘Yes! Brooks is full.’
‘Full!’ thought Nicholas. ‘I should think he was.’
‘There’s a place somewhere, I know,’ said Squeers; ‘but I can’t at this moment call to mind where it is. However, we’ll have that all settled tomorrow. Good-night, Nickleby. Seven o’clock in the morning, mind.’
‘I shall be ready, sir,’ replied Nicholas. ‘Good-night.’
‘I’ll come in myself and show you where the well is,’ said Squeers. ‘You’ll always find a little bit of soap in the kitchen window; that belongs to you.’
Nicholas opened his eyes, but not his mouth; and Squeers was again going away, when he once more turned back.
‘I don’t know, I am sure,’ he said, ‘whose towel to put you on; but if you’ll make shift with something tomorrow morning, Mrs. Squeers will arrange that, in the course of the day. My dear, don’t forget.’
‘I’ll take care,’ replied Mrs. Squeers; ‘and mind you take care, young man, and get first wash. The teacher ought always to have it; but they get the better of him if they can.’
Mr. Squeers then nudged Mrs. Squeers to bring away the brandy bottle, lest Nicholas should help himself in the night; and the lady having seized it with great precipitation, they retired together.
Nicholas, being left alone, took half-a-dozen turns up and down the room in a condition of much agitation and excitement; but, growing gradually calmer, sat himself down in a chair, and mentally resolved that, come what come might, he would endeavour, for a time, to bear whatever wretchedness might be in store for him, and that remembering the helplessness of his mother and sister, he would give his uncle no plea for deserting them in their need. Good resolutions seldom fail of producing some good effect in the mind from which they spring. He grew less desponding, and—so sanguine and buoyant is youth—even hoped that affairs at Dotheboys Hall might yet prove better than they promised.
He was preparing for bed, with something like renewed cheerfulness, when a sealed letter fell from his coat pocket. In the hurry of leaving London, it had escaped his attention, and had not occurred to him since, but it at once brought back to him the recollection of the mysterious behaviour of Newman Noggs.
‘Dear me!’ said Nicholas; ‘what an extraordinary hand!’
It was directed to himself, was written upon very dirty paper, and in such cramped and crippled writing as to be almost illegible. After great difficulty and much puzzling, he contrived to read as follows:—
My dear young Man.
I know the world. Your father did not, or he would not have done me a kindness when there was no hope of return. You do not, or you would not be bound on such a journey.
If ever you want a shelter in London (don’t be angry at this, I once thought I never should), they know where I live, at the sign of the Crown, in Silver Street, Golden Square. It is at the corner of Silver Street and James Street, with a bar door both ways. You can come at night. Once, nobody was ashamed—never mind that. It’s all over.
Excuse errors. I should forget how to wear a whole coat now. I have forgotten all my old ways. My spelling may have gone with them.
P.S. If you should go near Barnard Castle, there is good ale at the King’s Head. Say you know me, and I am sure they will not charge you for it. You may say Mr. Noggs there, for I was a gentleman then. I was indeed.
It may be a very undignified circumstances to record, but after he had folded this letter and placed it in his pocket-book, Nicholas Nickleby’s eyes were dimmed with a moisture that might have been taken for tears.