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Charles Dickens > Nicholas Nickleby > Chapter 7

Nicholas Nickleby

Chapter 7

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

'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

'Fire! what fire? Where's there a fire?' demanded the schoolmaster,

'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

'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

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

So Nicholas had a glassful, and being occupied with his own
reflections, drank it, in happy innocence of all the foregone

'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 by
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'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

'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

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

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


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.

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