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Charles Dickens > Nicholas Nickleby > Chapter 4

Nicholas Nickleby

Chapter 4

Nicholas and his Uncle (to secure the Fortune without loss of time)
wait upon Mr Wackford Squeers, the Yorkshire Schoolmaster

Snow Hill! What kind of place can the quiet townspeople who see the
words emblazoned, in all the legibility of gilt letters and dark
shading, on the north-country coaches, take Snow Hill to be? All
people have some undefined and shadowy notion of a place whose name
is frequently before their eyes, or often in their ears. What a
vast number of random ideas there must be perpetually floating
about, regarding this same Snow Hill. The name is such a good one.
Snow Hill--Snow Hill too, coupled with a Saracen's Head: picturing
to us by a double association of ideas, something stern and rugged!
A bleak desolate tract of country, open to piercing blasts and
fierce wintry storms--a dark, cold, gloomy heath, lonely by day, and
scarcely to be thought of by honest folks at night--a place which
solitary wayfarers shun, and where desperate robbers congregate;--
this, or something like this, should be the prevalent notion of Snow
Hill, in those remote and rustic parts, through which the Saracen's
Head, like some grim apparition, rushes each day and night with
mysterious and ghost-like punctuality; holding its swift and
headlong course in all weathers, and seeming to bid defiance to the
very elements themselves.

The reality is rather different, but by no means to be despised
notwithstanding. There, at the very core of London, in the heart of
its business and animation, in the midst of a whirl of noise and
motion: stemming as it were the giant currents of life that flow
ceaselessly on from different quarters, and meet beneath its walls:
stands Newgate; and in that crowded street on which it frowns so
darkly--within a few feet of the squalid tottering houses--upon the
very spot on which the vendors of soup and fish and damaged fruit
are now plying their trades--scores of human beings, amidst a roar
of sounds to which even the tumult of a great city is as nothing,
four, six, or eight strong men at a time, have been hurried
violently and swiftly from the world, when the scene has been
rendered frightful with excess of human life; when curious eyes have
glared from casement and house-top, and wall and pillar; and when,
in the mass of white and upturned faces, the dying wretch, in his
all-comprehensive look of agony, has met not one--not one--that bore
the impress of pity or compassion.

Near to the jail, and by consequence near to Smithfield also, and
the Compter, and the bustle and noise of the city; and just on that
particular part of Snow Hill where omnibus horses going eastward
seriously think of falling down on purpose, and where horses in
hackney cabriolets going westward not unfrequently fall by accident,
is the coach-yard of the Saracen's Head Inn; its portal guarded by
two Saracens' heads and shoulders, which it was once the pride and
glory of the choice spirits of this metropolis to pull down at
night, but which have for some time remained in undisturbed
tranquillity; possibly because this species of humour is now
confined to St James's parish, where door knockers are preferred as
being more portable, and bell-wires esteemed as convenient
toothpicks. Whether this be the reason or not, there they are,
frowning upon you from each side of the gateway. The inn itself
garnished with another Saracen's Head, frowns upon you from the top
of the yard; while from the door of the hind boot of all the red
coaches that are standing therein, there glares a small Saracen's
Head, with a twin expression to the large Saracens' Heads below, so
that the general appearance of the pile is decidedly of the
Saracenic order.

When you walk up this yard, you will see the booking-office on your
left, and the tower of St Sepulchre's church, darting abruptly up
into the sky, on your right, and a gallery of bedrooms on both
sides. Just before you, you will observe a long window with the
words 'coffee-room' legibly painted above it; and looking out of
that window, you would have seen in addition, if you had gone at the
right time, Mr Wackford Squeers with his hands in his pockets.

Mr Squeers's appearance was not prepossessing. He had but one eye,
and the popular prejudice runs in favour of two. The eye he had,
was unquestionably useful, but decidedly not ornamental: being of a
greenish grey, and in shape resembling the fan-light of a street
door. The blank side of his face was much wrinkled and puckered up,
which gave him a very sinister appearance, especially when he
smiled, at which times his expression bordered closely on the
villainous. His hair was very flat and shiny, save at the ends,
where it was brushed stiffly up from a low protruding forehead,
which assorted well with his harsh voice and coarse manner. He was
about two or three and fifty, and a trifle below the middle size; he
wore a white neckerchief with long ends, and a suit of scholastic
black; but his coat sleeves being a great deal too long, and his
trousers a great deal too short, he appeared ill at ease in his
clothes, and as if he were in a perpetual state of astonishment at
finding himself so respectable.

Mr Squeers was standing in a box by one of the coffee-room fire-
places, fitted with one such table as is usually seen in coffee-
rooms, and two of extraordinary shapes and dimensions made to suit
the angles of the partition. In a corner of the seat, was a very
small deal trunk, tied round with a scanty piece of cord; and on the
trunk was perched--his lace-up half-boots and corduroy trousers
dangling in the air--a diminutive boy, with his shoulders drawn up
to his ears, and his hands planted on his knees, who glanced timidly
at the schoolmaster, from time to time, with evident dread and

'Half-past three,' muttered Mr Squeers, turning from the window, and
looking sulkily at the coffee-room clock. 'There will be nobody
here today.'

Much vexed by this reflection, Mr Squeers looked at the little boy
to see whether he was doing anything he could beat him for. As he
happened not to be doing anything at all, he merely boxed his ears,
and told him not to do it again.

'At Midsummer,' muttered Mr Squeers, resuming his complaint, 'I took
down ten boys; ten twenties is two hundred pound. I go back at
eight o'clock tomorrow morning, and have got only three--three
oughts is an ought--three twos is six--sixty pound. What's come of
all the boys? what's parents got in their heads? what does it all

Here the little boy on the top of the trunk gave a violent sneeze.

'Halloa, sir!' growled the schoolmaster, turning round. 'What's
that, sir?'

'Nothing, please sir,' replied the little boy.

'Nothing, sir!' exclaimed Mr Squeers.

'Please sir, I sneezed,' rejoined the boy, trembling till the little
trunk shook under him.

'Oh! sneezed, did you?' retorted Mr Squeers. 'Then what did you say
"nothing" for, sir?'

In default of a better answer to this question, the little boy
screwed a couple of knuckles into each of his eyes and began to cry,
wherefore Mr Squeers knocked him off the trunk with a blow on one
side of the face, and knocked him on again with a blow on the other.

'Wait till I get you down into Yorkshire, my young gentleman,' said
Mr Squeers, 'and then I'll give you the rest. Will you hold that
noise, sir?'

'Ye--ye--yes,' sobbed the little boy, rubbing his face very hard
with the Beggar's Petition in printed calico.

'Then do so at once, sir,' said Squeers. 'Do you hear?'

As this admonition was accompanied with a threatening gesture, and
uttered with a savage aspect, the little boy rubbed his face harder,
as if to keep the tears back; and, beyond alternately sniffing and
choking, gave no further vent to his emotions.

'Mr Squeers,' said the waiter, looking in at this juncture; 'here's
a gentleman asking for you at the bar.'

'Show the gentleman in, Richard,' replied Mr Squeers, in a soft
voice. 'Put your handkerchief in your pocket, you little scoundrel,
or I'll murder you when the gentleman goes.'

The schoolmaster had scarcely uttered these words in a fierce
whisper, when the stranger entered. Affecting not to see him, Mr
Squeers feigned to be intent upon mending a pen, and offering
benevolent advice to his youthful pupil.

'My dear child,' said Mr Squeers, 'all people have their trials.
This early trial of yours that is fit to make your little heart
burst, and your very eyes come out of your head with crying, what is
it? Nothing; less than nothing. You are leaving your friends, but
you will have a father in me, my dear, and a mother in Mrs Squeers.
At the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in
Yorkshire, where youth are boarded, clothed, booked, washed,
furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries--'

'It IS the gentleman,' observed the stranger, stopping the
schoolmaster in the rehearsal of his advertisement. 'Mr Squeers, I
believe, sir?'

'The same, sir,' said Mr Squeers, with an assumption of extreme

'The gentleman,' said the stranger, 'that advertised in the Times

'--Morning Post, Chronicle, Herald, and Advertiser, regarding the
Academy called Dotheboys Hall at the delightful village of
Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire,' added Mr Squeers. 'You
come on business, sir. I see by my young friends. How do you do,
my little gentleman? and how do you do, sir?' With this salutation
Mr Squeers patted the heads of two hollow-eyed, small-boned little
boys, whom the applicant had brought with him, and waited for
further communications.

'I am in the oil and colour way. My name is Snawley, sir,' said the

Squeers inclined his head as much as to say, 'And a remarkably
pretty name, too.'

The stranger continued. 'I have been thinking, Mr Squeers, of
placing my two boys at your school.'

'It is not for me to say so, sir,' replied Mr Squeers, 'but I don't
think you could possibly do a better thing.'

'Hem!' said the other. 'Twenty pounds per annewum, I believe, Mr

'Guineas,' rejoined the schoolmaster, with a persuasive smile.

'Pounds for two, I think, Mr Squeers,' said Mr Snawley, solemnly.

'I don't think it could be done, sir,' replied Squeers, as if he had
never considered the proposition before. 'Let me see; four fives is
twenty, double that, and deduct the--well, a pound either way shall
not stand betwixt us. You must recommend me to your connection,
sir, and make it up that way.'

'They are not great eaters,' said Mr Snawley.

'Oh! that doesn't matter at all,' replied Squeers. 'We don't
consider the boys' appetites at our establishment.' This was
strictly true; they did not.

'Every wholesome luxury, sir, that Yorkshire can afford,' continued
Squeers; 'every beautiful moral that Mrs Squeers can instil; every--
in short, every comfort of a home that a boy could wish for, will be
theirs, Mr Snawley.'

'I should wish their morals to be particularly attended to,' said Mr

'I am glad of that, sir,' replied the schoolmaster, drawing himself
up. 'They have come to the right shop for morals, sir.'

'You are a moral man yourself,' said Mr Snawley.

'I rather believe I am, sir,' replied Squeers.

'I have the satisfaction to know you are, sir,' said Mr Snawley. 'I
asked one of your references, and he said you were pious.'

'Well, sir, I hope I am a little in that line,' replied Squeers.

'I hope I am also,' rejoined the other. 'Could I say a few words
with you in the next box?'

'By all means,' rejoined Squeers with a grin. 'My dears, will you
speak to your new playfellow a minute or two? That is one of my
boys, sir. Belling his name is,--a Taunton boy that, sir.'

'Is he, indeed?' rejoined Mr Snawley, looking at the poor little
urchin as if he were some extraordinary natural curiosity.

'He goes down with me tomorrow, sir,' said Squeers. 'That's his
luggage that he is a sitting upon now. Each boy is required to
bring, sir, two suits of clothes, six shirts, six pair of stockings,
two nightcaps, two pocket-handkerchiefs, two pair of shoes, two
hats, and a razor.'

'A razor!' exclaimed Mr Snawley, as they walked into the next box.
'What for?'

'To shave with,' replied Squeers, in a slow and measured tone.

There was not much in these three words, but there must have been
something in the manner in which they were said, to attract
attention; for the schoolmaster and his companion looked steadily at
each other for a few seconds, and then exchanged a very meaning
smile. Snawley was a sleek, flat-nosed man, clad in sombre
garments, and long black gaiters, and bearing in his countenance an
expression of much mortification and sanctity; so, his smiling
without any obvious reason was the more remarkable.

'Up to what age do you keep boys at your school then?' he asked at

'Just as long as their friends make the quarterly payments to my
agent in town, or until such time as they run away,' replied
Squeers. 'Let us understand each other; I see we may safely do so.
What are these boys;--natural children?'

'No,' rejoined Snawley, meeting the gaze of the schoolmaster's one
eye. 'They ain't.'

'I thought they might be,' said Squeers, coolly. 'We have a good
many of them; that boy's one.'

'Him in the next box?' said Snawley.

Squeers nodded in the affirmative; his companion took another peep
at the little boy on the trunk, and, turning round again, looked as
if he were quite disappointed to see him so much like other boys,
and said he should hardly have thought it.

'He is,' cried Squeers. 'But about these boys of yours; you wanted
to speak to me?'

'Yes,' replied Snawley. 'The fact is, I am not their father, Mr
Squeers. I'm only their father-in-law.'

'Oh! Is that it?' said the schoolmaster. 'That explains it at
once. I was wondering what the devil you were going to send them to
Yorkshire for. Ha! ha! Oh, I understand now.'

'You see I have married the mother,' pursued Snawley; 'it's
expensive keeping boys at home, and as she has a little money in her
own right, I am afraid (women are so very foolish, Mr Squeers) that
she might be led to squander it on them, which would be their ruin,
you know.'

'I see,' returned Squeers, throwing himself back in his chair, and
waving his hand.

'And this,' resumed Snawley, 'has made me anxious to put them to
some school a good distance off, where there are no holidays--none
of those ill-judged coming home twice a year that unsettle
children's minds so--and where they may rough it a little--you

'The payments regular, and no questions asked,' said Squeers,
nodding his head.

'That's it, exactly,' rejoined the other. 'Morals strictly attended
to, though.'

'Strictly,' said Squeers.

'Not too much writing home allowed, I suppose?' said the father-in-
law, hesitating.

'None, except a circular at Christmas, to say they never were so
happy, and hope they may never be sent for,' rejoined Squeers.

'Nothing could be better,' said the father-in-law, rubbing his

'Then, as we understand each other,' said Squeers, 'will you allow
me to ask you whether you consider me a highly virtuous, exemplary,
and well-conducted man in private life; and whether, as a person
whose business it is to take charge of youth, you place the
strongest confidence in my unimpeachable integrity, liberality,
religious principles, and ability?'

'Certainly I do,' replied the father-in-law, reciprocating the
schoolmaster's grin.

'Perhaps you won't object to say that, if I make you a reference?'

'Not the least in the world.'

'That's your sort!' said Squeers, taking up a pen; 'this is doing
business, and that's what I like.'

Having entered Mr Snawley's address, the schoolmaster had next to
perform the still more agreeable office of entering the receipt of
the first quarter's payment in advance, which he had scarcely
completed, when another voice was heard inquiring for Mr Squeers.

'Here he is,' replied the schoolmaster; 'what is it?'

'Only a matter of business, sir,' said Ralph Nickleby, presenting
himself, closely followed by Nicholas. 'There was an advertisement
of yours in the papers this morning?'

'There was, sir. This way, if you please,' said Squeers, who had by
this time got back to the box by the fire-place. 'Won't you be

'Why, I think I will,' replied Ralph, suiting the action to the
word, and placing his hat on the table before him. 'This is my
nephew, sir, Mr Nicholas Nickleby.'

'How do you do, sir?' said Squeers.

Nicholas bowed, said he was very well, and seemed very much
astonished at the outward appearance of the proprietor of Dotheboys
Hall: as indeed he was.

'Perhaps you recollect me?' said Ralph, looking narrowly at the

'You paid me a small account at each of my half-yearly visits to
town, for some years, I think, sir,' replied Squeers.

'I did,' rejoined Ralph.

'For the parents of a boy named Dorker, who unfortunately--'

'--unfortunately died at Dotheboys Hall,' said Ralph, finishing the

'I remember very well, sir,' rejoined Squeers. 'Ah! Mrs Squeers,
sir, was as partial to that lad as if he had been her own; the
attention, sir, that was bestowed upon that boy in his illness! Dry
toast and warm tea offered him every night and morning when he
couldn't swallow anything--a candle in his bedroom on the very night
he died--the best dictionary sent up for him to lay his head upon--I
don't regret it though. It is a pleasant thing to reflect that one
did one's duty by him.'

Ralph smiled, as if he meant anything but smiling, and looked round
at the strangers present.

'These are only some pupils of mine,' said Wackford Squeers,
pointing to the little boy on the trunk and the two little boys on
the floor, who had been staring at each other without uttering a
word, and writhing their bodies into most remarkable contortions,
according to the custom of little boys when they first become
acquainted. 'This gentleman, sir, is a parent who is kind enough to
compliment me upon the course of education adopted at Dotheboys
Hall, which is situated, sir, at the delightful village of
Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, where youth are boarded,
clothed, booked, washed, furnished with pocket-money--'

'Yes, we know all about that, sir,' interrupted Ralph, testily.
'It's in the advertisement.'

'You are very right, sir; it IS in the advertisement,' replied

'And in the matter of fact besides,' interrupted Mr Snawley. 'I
feel bound to assure you, sir, and I am proud to have this
opportunity OF assuring you, that I consider Mr Squeers a gentleman
highly virtuous, exemplary, well conducted, and--'

'I make no doubt of it, sir,' interrupted Ralph, checking the
torrent of recommendation; 'no doubt of it at all. Suppose we come
to business?'

'With all my heart, sir,' rejoined Squeers. '"Never postpone
business," is the very first lesson we instil into our commercial
pupils. Master Belling, my dear, always remember that; do you

'Yes, sir,' repeated Master Belling.

'He recollects what it is, does he?' said Ralph.

'Tell the gentleman,' said Squeers.

'"Never,"' repeated Master Belling.

'Very good,' said Squeers; 'go on.'

'Never,' repeated Master Belling again.

'Very good indeed,' said Squeers. 'Yes.'

'P,' suggested Nicholas, good-naturedly.

'Perform--business!' said Master Belling. 'Never--perform--

'Very well, sir,' said Squeers, darting a withering look at the
culprit. 'You and I will perform a little business on our private
account by-and-by.'

'And just now,' said Ralph, 'we had better transact our own,

'If you please,' said Squeers.

'Well,' resumed Ralph, 'it's brief enough; soon broached; and I hope
easily concluded. You have advertised for an able assistant, sir?'

'Precisely so,' said Squeers.

'And you really want one?'

'Certainly,' answered Squeers.

'Here he is!' said Ralph. 'My nephew Nicholas, hot from school,
with everything he learnt there, fermenting in his head, and nothing
fermenting in his pocket, is just the man you want.'

'I am afraid,' said Squeers, perplexed with such an application from
a youth of Nicholas's figure, 'I am afraid the young man won't suit

'Yes, he will,' said Ralph; 'I know better. Don't be cast down,
sir; you will be teaching all the young noblemen in Dotheboys Hall
in less than a week's time, unless this gentleman is more obstinate
than I take him to be.'

'I fear, sir,' said Nicholas, addressing Mr Squeers, 'that you
object to my youth, and to my not being a Master of Arts?'

'The absence of a college degree IS an objection,' replied Squeers,
looking as grave as he could, and considerably puzzled, no less by
the contrast between the simplicity of the nephew and the worldly
manner of the uncle, than by the incomprehensible allusion to the
young noblemen under his tuition.

'Look here, sir,' said Ralph; 'I'll put this matter in its true
light in two seconds.'

'If you'll have the goodness,' rejoined Squeers.

'This is a boy, or a youth, or a lad, or a young man, or a
hobbledehoy, or whatever you like to call him, of eighteen or
nineteen, or thereabouts,' said Ralph.

'That I see,' observed the schoolmaster.

'So do I,' said Mr Snawley, thinking it as well to back his new
friend occasionally.

'His father is dead, he is wholly ignorant of the world, has no
resources whatever, and wants something to do,' said Ralph. 'I
recommend him to this splendid establishment of yours, as an opening
which will lead him to fortune if he turns it to proper account. Do
you see that?'

'Everybody must see that,' replied Squeers, half imitating the sneer
with which the old gentleman was regarding his unconscious relative.

'I do, of course,' said Nicholas, eagerly.

'He does, of course, you observe,' said Ralph, in the same dry, hard
manner. 'If any caprice of temper should induce him to cast aside
this golden opportunity before he has brought it to perfection, I
consider myself absolved from extending any assistance to his mother
and sister. Look at him, and think of the use he may be to you in
half-a-dozen ways! Now, the question is, whether, for some time to
come at all events, he won't serve your purpose better than twenty
of the kind of people you would get under ordinary circumstances.
Isn't that a question for consideration?'

'Yes, it is,' said Squeers, answering a nod of Ralph's head with a
nod of his own.

'Good,' rejoined Ralph. 'Let me have two words with you.'

The two words were had apart; in a couple of minutes Mr Wackford
Squeers announced that Mr Nicholas Nickleby was, from that moment,
thoroughly nominated to, and installed in, the office of first
assistant master at Dotheboys Hall.

'Your uncle's recommendation has done it, Mr Nickleby,' said
Wackford Squeers.

Nicholas, overjoyed at his success, shook his uncle's hand warmly,
and could almost have worshipped Squeers upon the spot.

'He is an odd-looking man,' thought Nicholas. 'What of that?
Porson was an odd-looking man, and so was Doctor Johnson; all these
bookworms are.'

'At eight o'clock tomorrow morning, Mr Nickleby,' said Squeers, 'the
coach starts. You must be here at a quarter before, as we take
these boys with us.'

'Certainly, sir,' said Nicholas.

'And your fare down, I have paid,' growled Ralph. 'So, you'll have
nothing to do but keep yourself warm.'

Here was another instance of his uncle's generosity! Nicholas felt
his unexpected kindness so much, that he could scarcely find words
to thank him; indeed, he had not found half enough, when they took
leave of the schoolmaster, and emerged from the Saracen's Head

'I shall be here in the morning to see you fairly off,' said Ralph.
'No skulking!'

'Thank you, sir,' replied Nicholas; 'I never shall forget this

'Take care you don't,' replied his uncle. 'You had better go home
now, and pack up what you have got to pack. Do you think you could
find your way to Golden Square first?'

'Certainly,' said Nicholas. 'I can easily inquire.'

'Leave these papers with my clerk, then,' said Ralph, producing a
small parcel, 'and tell him to wait till I come home.'

Nicholas cheerfully undertook the errand, and bidding his worthy
uncle an affectionate farewell, which that warm-hearted old
gentleman acknowledged by a growl, hastened away to execute his

He found Golden Square in due course; Mr Noggs, who had stepped out
for a minute or so to the public-house, was opening the door with a
latch-key, as he reached the steps.

'What's that?' inquired Noggs, pointing to the parcel.

'Papers from my uncle,' replied Nicholas; 'and you're to have the
goodness to wait till he comes home, if you please.'

'Uncle!' cried Noggs.

'Mr Nickleby,' said Nicholas in explanation.

'Come in,' said Newman.

Without another word he led Nicholas into the passage, and thence
into the official pantry at the end of it, where he thrust him into
a chair, and mounting upon his high stool, sat, with his arms
hanging, straight down by his sides, gazing fixedly upon him, as
from a tower of observation.

'There is no answer,' said Nicholas, laying the parcel on a table
beside him.

Newman said nothing, but folding his arms, and thrusting his head
forward so as to obtain a nearer view of Nicholas's face, scanned
his features closely.

'No answer,' said Nicholas, speaking very loud, under the impression
that Newman Noggs was deaf.

Newman placed his hands upon his knees, and, without uttering a
syllable, continued the same close scrutiny of his companion's face.

This was such a very singular proceeding on the part of an utter
stranger, and his appearance was so extremely peculiar, that
Nicholas, who had a sufficiently keen sense of the ridiculous, could
not refrain from breaking into a smile as he inquired whether Mr
Noggs had any commands for him.

Noggs shook his head and sighed; upon which Nicholas rose, and
remarking that he required no rest, bade him good-morning.

It was a great exertion for Newman Noggs, and nobody knows to this
day how he ever came to make it, the other party being wholly
unknown to him, but he drew a long breath and actually said, out
loud, without once stopping, that if the young gentleman did not
object to tell, he should like to know what his uncle was going to
do for him.

Nicholas had not the least objection in the world, but on the
contrary was rather pleased to have an opportunity of talking on the
subject which occupied his thoughts; so, he sat down again, and (his
sanguine imagination warming as he spoke) entered into a fervent and
glowing description of all the honours and advantages to be derived
from his appointment at that seat of learning, Dotheboys Hall.

'But, what's the matter--are you ill?' said Nicholas, suddenly
breaking off, as his companion, after throwing himself into a
variety of uncouth attitudes, thrust his hands under the stool, and
cracked his finger-joints as if he were snapping all the bones in
his hands.

Newman Noggs made no reply, but went on shrugging his shoulders and
cracking his finger-joints; smiling horribly all the time, and
looking steadfastly at nothing, out of the tops of his eyes, in a
most ghastly manner.

At first, Nicholas thought the mysterious man was in a fit, but, on
further consideration, decided that he was in liquor, under which
circumstances he deemed it prudent to make off at once. He looked
back when he had got the street-door open. Newman Noggs was still
indulging in the same extraordinary gestures, and the cracking of
his fingers sounded louder that ever.

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