“A sulky state of feeling,” said Squeers, after a terrible pause. “Cheerfulness and contentment must be kept up. Mobbs, come to me.”
Mobbs moved slowly towards the desk, rubbing his eyes in anticipation of good cause for doing so; and he soon afterwards retired by the side door, with as good a cause as a boy need have.
Mr. Squeers then proceeded to open a miscellaneous collection of letters; some enclosing money, which Mrs. Squeers “took care of;” and others referring to small articles of apparel, all of which the same lady stated to be too large, or too small, and calculated for nobody but young Squeers, who would appear indeed to have had most accommodating limbs, since everything that came into the school fitted him to a nicety. His head, in particular, must have been singularly elastic, for hats and caps of all dimensions were alike to him.
This business despatched, a few slovenly lessons were performed, and Squeers retired to his fireside, leaving Nicholas to take care of the boys in the schoolroom. There was a small stove at that corner of the room which was nearest to the master’s desk, and by it Nicholas sat down, depressed and degraded by the consciousness of his position. But for the present his resolve was taken. He had written to his mother and sister, announcing the safe conclusion of his journey, and saying as little about Dotheboys Hall, and saying that little as cheerfully, as he could. He hoped that by remaining where he was, he might do some good, even there; at all events, others depended too much on him to admit of his complaining just then.
From the moment of making that resolve, Nicholas got on in his place as well as he could, doing his best to improve matters. He arranged a few regular lessons for the boys, and saw that they were well attended; but his heart sank more and more, for besides the dull, unvarying round of misery there was another system of annoyance which nearly drove him wild by its injustice and cruelty. Upon the wretched creature Smike, all the spleen and ill-humour 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, morning, noon, and night, were his only portion. Squeers was jealous of the influence which his new teacher had so soon acquired; and his family hated him, and Smike paid for both. Nicholas saw this, and ground his teeth at every repetition of the savage and cowardly attack.
Not many weeks later, on a cold January morning, when Nicholas awoke he found the entire school agog with quivering excitement. Smike had run away, and Squeers’s anger was at white heat against him and every one else.
“He is off,” said Mrs. Squeers, angrily. “The cowhouse and stable are locked up, so he can’t be there; and he’s not down stairs anywhere. He must have gone York way, and by a public road too. Then of course,” continued Mrs. Squeers, “as he had no money 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, 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, one or other of us is pretty certain to lay hold of him!”
This plan was adopted and put in execution without a moment’s delay.
After a very hasty breakfast, Squeers started forth in the pony-chaise, intent upon discovery and vengeance. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Squeers issued forth in another chaise and another direction, taking with her a good-sized bludgeon, several odd pieces of strong cord, and a stout labouring man.
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. The unhappy 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.
The next evening Squeers returned alone and unsuccessful. 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 in exultation. 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 upon the culprit. “Bring him in; bring him in!”
“Take care!” cried Mrs. Squeers. “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, more dead than alive, was brought into the house and securely locked up in a cellar.
It may be a matter of surprise to some persons that Mr. and Mrs. Squeers should have taken so much trouble to repossess themselves of an incumbrance of which it was their wont to complain so loudly; but the services of the drudge, if performed by any one else, would have cost some ten or twelve shillings per week in the shape of wages; and furthermore, all runaways were, as a matter of policy, made severe examples of, at Dotheboys Hall, as in consequence of the limited extent of its attractions, there was but little inducement, beyond the powerful impulse of fear, for any pupil, provided with the usual number of legs and the power of using them, to remain.
The news that Smike had been caught and brought back in triumph, ran like wild-fire through the hungry community, and expectation was on tiptoe all the morning. On tiptoe it was destined to remain, however, until afternoon; when Squeers called the school together, and dragged Smike by the collar to the front of the room before them all.
“Have you anything to say?” demanded Squeers, giving his right arm two or three flourishes to try its power and suppleness. “Stand a little out of the way, Mrs. Squeers, my dear; I’ve hardly got room enough.”
“Spare me, sir!” cried Smike.
“Oh! that’s all, is it?” said Squeers. “Yes, I’ll flog you within an inch of your life, and spare you that.”
“I was driven to do it,” said Smike faintly; and casting an imploring look about him.
“Driven to do it, were you?” said Squeers. “Oh! It wasn’t your fault; it was mine, I suppose—eh?”
Squeers caught the boy firmly in his grip; one desperate cut had fallen on his body—he was wincing from the lash and uttering a scream of pain—it was raised again, and again about to fall—when Nicholas Nickleby, suddenly starting up, cried “Stop!” in a voice that made the rafters ring.
“Who cried stop?” said Squeers, turning savagely round.
“I,” said Nicholas, stepping forward. “This must not go on!”
“Must not go on!” cried Squeers, almost in a shriek.
“No!” thundered Nicholas.
Aghast and stupified by the boldness of the interference, Squeers released his hold of Smike, and, falling back a pace or two, gazed upon Nicholas with looks that were positively frightful.
“I say must not,” repeated Nicholas, nothing daunted; “shall not. I will prevent it.”
Squeers continued to gaze upon him, with his eyes starting out of his head; but astonishment had actually, for the moment, bereft him of speech.
“You have disregarded all my quiet interference in the miserable lad’s behalf,” said Nicholas; “you have returned no answer to the letter in which I begged forgiveness for him, and offered to be responsible that he would remain quietly here. Don’t blame me for this public interference. You have brought it upon yourself; not I.”
“Sit down, beggar!” screamed Squeers, almost beside himself with rage, and seizing Smike as he spoke.
“Wretch,” rejoined Nicholas, fiercely, “touch him at your peril! I will not stand by and see it done. My blood is up, and I have the strength of ten such men as you. Look to yourself, for by Heaven I will not spare you, if you drive me on!”
“Stand back,” cried Squeers, brandishing his weapon.
“I have a long series of insults to avenge,” said Nicholas, flushed with passion; “and my indignation is aggravated by the dastardly cruelties practised on helpless infancy in this foul den. Have a care; for if you do rouse the devil within me, the consequences shall fall heavily upon your own head!”
He had scarcely spoken, when Squeers, in a violent outbreak of wrath, and with a cry like the howl of a wild beast, struck him a blow across the face with his instrument of torture, which raised up a bar of livid flesh as it was inflicted. Smarting with the agony of the blow, and concentrating into that one moment all his feelings of rage, scorn, and indignation, Nicholas sprang upon him, wrested the weapon from his hand, and pinning him by the throat, beat the ruffian till he roared for mercy.
Then he hastily retired from the fray, leaving Squeers’s family to restore him as best they might. Seeking his room with all possible haste, Nicholas considered seriously what course of action was best for him to adopt.
After a brief consideration, he packed up a few clothes in a small leathern valise, and, finding that nobody offered to oppose his progress, marched boldly out by the front door, and struck into the road which led to Greta Bridge.
When he had cooled, sufficiently to be enabled to give his present circumstances some little reflection, they did not appear in a very encouraging light; he had only four shillings and a few pence in his pocket, and was something more than two hundred and fifty miles from London, whither he resolved to direct his steps.
He lay, that night, at a cottage where beds were let at a cheap rate to the more humble class of travellers; and, rising betimes next morning, made his way before night to Boroughbridge. Passing through that town in search of some cheap resting-place, he stumbled upon an empty barn within a couple of hundred yards of the road side; in a warm corner of which he stretched his weary limbs, and soon fell asleep.
When he awoke next morning, and tried to recollect his dreams, which had been all connected with his recent sojourn at Dotheboys Hall, he sat up, rubbed his eyes, and stared—not with the most composed countenance possible—at some motionless object which seemed to be stationed within a few yards in front of him.
“Strange!” cried Nicholas, “can this be some lingering creation of the visions that have scarcely left me? It cannot be real—and yet I—I am awake! Smike!”
The form moved, rose, advanced, and dropped upon its knees at his feet. It was Smike indeed.
“Why do you kneel to me?” said Nicholas, hastily raising him.
“To go with you—anywhere—everywhere—to the world’s end—to the churchyard grave,” replied Smike, clinging to his hand. “Let me, oh, do let me. You are my home—my kind friend—take me with you, pray.”
I am a friend who can do “little for you,” said Nicholas, kindly. “How came you here?”
He had followed him, it seemed; had never lost sight of him all the way; had watched while he slept, and when he halted for refreshment; and had feared to appear before, lest he should be sent back. He had not intended to appear now, but Nicholas had awakened more suddenly than he looked for, and he had had no time to conceal himself.
“Poor fellow!” said Nicholas, “your hard fate denies you any friend but one, and he is nearly as poor and helpless as yourself.”
“May I—may I go with you?” asked Smike timidly. “I will be your faithful hard-working servant, I will, indeed. I want no clothes,” added the poor creature, drawing his rags together; “these will do very well. I only want to be near you.”
“And you shall!” cried Nicholas. “The world shall deal by you as it does by me, till one or both of us shall quit it for a better. Come!”
With these words, he strapped his burden on his shoulders, and, taking his stick in one hand, extended the other to his delighted charge; and so they passed out of the old barn together, out from the nightmare of life at Dotheboys Hall, into the busy world outside.
Some years later, when Mr. Squeers was making one of his customary semi-annual visits to London, he was arrested and sent to jail by persons who had discovered his system of fraud and cruelty, as well as the fact that he had in his possession a stolen will. Upon John Browdie, a burly Scotchman, devolved the duty of carrying the painful news to Mrs. Squeers, and of dismissing the school.
So, arriving at Dotheboys Hall, he tied his horse to a gate, and made his way to the schoolroom door, which he found locked on the inside. A tremendous noise and riot arose from within, and, applying his eye to a convenient crevice in the wall, he did not remain long in ignorance of its meaning.
The news of Mr. Squeers’s downfall had reached Dotheboys; that was quite clear. To all appearance, it had very recently become known to the young gentlemen; for rebellion had just broken out.
It was one of the brimstone-and-treacle mornings, and Mrs. Squeers had entered school according to custom with the large bowl and spoon, followed by Miss Squeers and the amiable Wackford: who, during his father’s absence, had taken upon himself such minor branches of the executive as kicking the pupils with his nailed boots, pulling the hair of some of the smaller boys, pinching the others in aggravating places, and rendering himself in various similar ways a great comfort and happiness to his mother. Their entrance, whether by premeditation or a simultaneous impulse, was the signal of revolt for the boys. While one detachment rushed to the door and locked it, and another mounted the desks and forms, the stoutest (and consequently the newest) boy seized the cane, and, confronting Mrs. Squeers with a stern countenance, snatched off her cap and beaver bonnet, put it on his own head, armed himself with the wooden spoon, and bade her, on pain of death, go down upon her knees and take a dose directly. Before that estimable lady could recover herself, or offer the slightest retaliation, she was forced into a kneeling posture by a crowd of shouting tormentors, and compelled to swallow a spoonful of the odious mixture, rendered more than usually savoury by the immersion in the bowl of Master Wackford’s head, whose ducking was entrusted to another rebel. The success of this first achievement prompted the malicious crowd, whose faces were clustered together in every variety of lank and half-starved ugliness, to further acts of outrage. The leader was insisting upon Mrs. Squeers repeating her dose, Master Squeers was undergoing another dip in the treacle, when John Browdie, bursting open the door with a vigorous kick, rushed to the rescue. The shouts, screams, groans, hoots, and clapping of hands, suddenly ceased, and a dead silence ensued.
“Ye be noice chaps,” said John, looking steadily round. “What’s to do here, thou yoong dogs?”
“Squeers is in prison, and we are going to run away!” cried a score of shrill voices. “We won’t stop, we won’t stop!”
“Weel then, dinnot stop,” replied John; “who waants thee to stop? Roon awa’ loike men, but dinnot hurt the women.
“Hurrah!” cried the shrill voices, more shrilly still.
“Hurrah?” repeated John. “Weel, hurrah loike men too. Noo then, look out. Hip—hip—hip—hurrah!”
“Hurrah!” cried the voices.
“Hurrah! agean,” said John. “Looder still.”
The boys obeyed.
“Anoother!” said John. “Dinnot be afeared on it Let’s have a good un!”
“Noo then,” said John, “let’s have yan more to end wi’, and then coot off as quick as you loike. Tak’ a good breath noo—Squeers be in jail—the school’s brokken oop—it’s all ower—past and gane—think o’ thot, and let it be a hearty ‘un! Hurrah!”
Such a cheer arose as the walls of Dotheboys Hall had never echoed before, and were destined never to respond to again. When the sound had died away, the school was empty; and of the busy noisy crowd which had peopled it but five minutes before, not one remained.
For some days afterwards, the neighbouring country was overrun with boys, who, the report went, had been secretly furnished by Mr. and Mrs. Browdie, not only with a hearty meal of bread and meat, but with sundry shillings and sixpences to help them on their way.
There were a few timid young children, who, miserable as they had been, and many as were the tears they had shed in the wretched school, still knew no other home, and had formed for it a sort of attachment which made them weep when the bolder spirits fled, and cling to it as a refuge. Of these, some were found crying under hedges and in such places, frightened at the solitude. One had a dead bird in a little cage; he had wandered nearly twenty miles, and when his poor favourite died, lost courage, and lay down beside him. Another was discovered in a yard hard by the school, sleeping with a dog, who bit at those who came to remove him, and licked the sleeping child’s pale face.
They were taken back, and some other stragglers were recovered, but by degrees they were all claimed, and, in course of time, Dotheboys Hall and its last breaking up began to be forgotten by the neighbours, or to be only spoken of as among things that had been.