Nicholas Nickleby, in the nineteenth year of his age, arrived at eight o’clock of a November morning at the sign of the Saracen’s Head, Snow Hill, London, to join Mr. Squeers, the Yorkshire schoolmaster. He had engaged himself to Mr. Squeers as his scholastic assistant, on the faith of the following advertisement in the London papers: —
“Education. — At Mr. Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature. Terms, twenty guineas per annum. No extras, no vacations, and diet unparalleled. Mr. Squeers is in town, and attends daily, from one till four, at the Saracen’s Head, Snow Hill. N.B. An able assistant wanted. Annual Salary, £5. A Master of Arts would be preferred.”
Mr. Squeers was standing by one of the coffee-room fire-places, and his appearance was not prepossessing. He had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favour of two. The blank side of his face was much puckered up, which gave him a sinister appearance, especially when he smiled; at which times his expression bordered on the villanous. He wore a white neckerchief with long ends, and a scholastic suit of 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.
The learned gentleman had before himself a breakfast of coffee, hot toast, and cold round of beef; but he was at that moment intent on preparing another breakfast for five little boys.
“This is twopenn’orth of milk is it, waiter?” said Mr. Squeers, looking down into a large mug.
“That’s twopenn’orth, sir.”
“What a rare article milk is, to be sure, in London! Just fill that mug up with lukewarm water, William, will you?”
“To the wery top, sir? Why, the milk will be drownded.”
“Serve it right for being so dear. You ordered that thick bread and butter for three, did you?”
“Coming directly, sir.”
“You needn’t hurry yourself; there’s plenty of time. Conquer your passions, boys, and don’t be eager after vittles.” As he uttered this moral precept, Mr. Squeers took a large bite out of the cold beef, and recognized Nicholas.
“Sit down, Mr. Nickleby. Here we are, a breakfasting, you see!”
Nicholas did not see that anybody was breakfasting except Mr. Squeers.
“O, that’s the milk and water, is it, William? Here’s richness! Think of the many beggars and orphans in the streets that would be glad of this, little boys. When I say number one, the boy on the left hand, nearest the window, may take a drink; and when I say number two, the boy next him will go in, and so till we come to number five. Are you ready?”
“Keep ready till I tell you to begin. Subdue your appetites, and you’ve conquered human natur. This is the way we iuculcate strength of mind, Mr. Nickleby.”
Nicholas murmured something in reply, and the little boys remained in torments of expectation.
“Thank God for a good breakfast. Number one may take a drink.”
Number one seized the mug ravenously, and had just drank enough to make him wish for more, when Mr. Squeers gave the signal for number two, who gave up at the like interesting moment to number three; and the process was repeated until the milk and water terminated with number five.
“And now,” said the schoolmaster, dividing the bread and butter for three into five portions, “you had better look sharp with your breakfast, for the coach-horn will blow in a minute or two, and then every boy leaves off.”
The boys began to eat voraciously, while the schoolmaster (who was in high good-humour after his meal) picked his teeth with a fork, and looked on. In a very short time the horn was heard.
“I thought it wouldn’t be long,” said Squeers, jumping up and producing a little basket. “Put what you haven’t had time to eat in here, boys! You’ll want it on the road!”
They certainly did want it on the road, and very much, too; for the journey was long, the weather was intensely cold, a great deal of snow fell from time to time, and the wind was intolerably keen. Mr. Squeers got down at almost every stage, — to stretch his legs, he said, — and as he always came back with a very red nose, and composed himself to sleep directly, the stretching seemed to answer. It was a long journey; but the longest lane has a turning at last, and late in the night the coach put them down at a lonely roadside inn, where they found in waiting two labouring men, a rusty pony-chaise, and a cart.
“Put the boys and the boxes into the cart, 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 too, they started off, leaving the cart-load of infant misery to follow at leisure.
“Are you cold, Nickleby?”
“Rather, sir, I must say.”
“Well, I don’t find fault with that. It’s a long journey this weather.”
“Is it much further to Dotheboys Hall, sir?”
“About three mile. 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.”
“No. 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?”
Squeers eyed him at the conclusion of this little dialogue, and, finding that he had grown thoughtful, contented himself with lashing the pony until they reached their journey’s end.
“Jump out. Come in.”
Nicholas had time to observe that the school was a long, cold-looking house, one storey high, with a few straggling out-buildings. Mr. Squeers, having bolted the house door to keep it shut, ushered him into a small parlour scantily furnished, where they had not been 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. This lady was of a large, raw-boned figure, about a head taller than Mr. Squeers, and was dressed in a dimity night-jacket, with her hair in papers and a dirty nightcap. (She was accustomed to boast that she was no grammarian, thank God; and also that she had tamed a high spirit or two in her day. Truly, in conjunction with her worthy husband, she had broken many and many a one.)
“How is my Squeery?”
“Quite well, my love. How’s the cows?”
“The cows is all right, every one of ’em.”
“And the pigs?”
“The pigs is as well as they was when you went away.”
“Come! That’s a blessing! The boys are all as they were, I suppose?”
“O yes, the boys is well enough. Only that young Pitcher’s had a fever.”
“No! Damn that chap, he’s always at something of that sort.”
Pending these 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. He was now relieved from his perplexity by Mr. Squeers.
“This is the new young man, my dear.”
Here a young servant-girl brought in some cold beef; and this being set upon the table, a boy, addressed by the name of Smike, appeared with a jug of ale.
Mr. Squeers was emptying his great-coat pockets of letters and other small documents he had brought down. 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, and was tall for that age, he wore a skeleton suit, such as was then usually put upon a very little boy. In order that the lower part of his legs might be in 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. God knows how long he had been there, but he still wore 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, he 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! O, it’s you, is it?”
“Yes, sir. Is there —”
“Well! What are you stammering at?”