“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.”
When this advertisement in the “London Herald” came to the notice of Mr. Nicholas Nickleby, then in search of a position as teacher, it seemed to be the opening for which he was looking, and the next day he hastened to the Saracen’s Head, Snow Hill, to have an interview with Mr. Wackford Squeers.
Mr. Squeers’s 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 wrinkled and puckered up, which gave him a very sinister appearance, especially when he smiled. 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 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.
In the corner of the room with Mr. Squeers 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 apprehension, and at last gave a violent sneeze.
“Halloa, sir!” growled the schoolmaster, turning round. “What’s that, sir?”
“Nothing, please sir,” said 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 his 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.
“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, and between alternately sniffing and choking, gave no further vent to his emotions.
“Mr. Squeers,” said the waiter, at this juncture; “here’s a gentleman asking for you.”
“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? 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——”
Here the waiting stranger interrupted with inquiries about sending his boys to Mr. Squeers, and before he and Mr. Squeers had finished their talk, Nicholas Nickleby entered. He briefly stated his desire for a position, his having seen Mr. Squeers’s “Herald” advertisement, and, after more or less questioning and examination from the schoolmaster, Nicholas was engaged as assistant master for Dotheboys Hall, and it was settled that he was to go by coach with Mr. Squeers at eight o’clock the next morning.
When he arrived, punctually at the appointed hour, he found that learned gentleman sitting at breakfast, with five little boys, whom he was to take down with him, ranged in a row on the opposite seat. Mr. Squeers had before him a small measure of coffee, a plate of hot toast, and a cold round of beef, but he was at that moment intent on preparing breakfast for the little boys.
“This is twopenn’orth of milk, is it waiter?” said Mr. Squeers.
“That’s twopenn’orth, sir,” replied the waiter.
“What a rare article milk is, to be sure, in London!” said Mr. Squeers, with a sigh. “Just fill that mug up with lukewarm water, William, will you?”
“To the wery top, sir?” inquired the waiter. “Why, the milk will be drownded.”
“Never you mind that,” replied Mr. Squeers. “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,” said Squeers, “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 recognised Nicholas.
“Sit down, Mr. Nickleby,” said Squeers. “Here we are, a breakfasting, you see.”
Nicholas did not see that anybody was breakfasting, except Mr. Squeers; but he bowed with all becoming reverence, and looked as cheerful as he could.
“Oh, that’s the milk and water, is it, William?” said Mr. Squeers. “Very good; don’t forget the bread and butter presently.”
At this fresh mention of the bread and butter, the five little boys looked very eager, and followed the waiter out, with their eyes; meanwhile Mr. Squeers tasted the milk and water.
“Ah,” said that gentleman, smacking his lips, “here’s richness! Think of the many beggars and orphans in the streets that would be glad of this, little boys. A shocking thing hunger is, isn’t it, Mr. Nickleby?”
“Very shocking, sir,” said Nicholas.
“When I say number one,” pursued Mr. Squeers, putting the mug before the children, “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, which is the last boy. Are you ready?”
“Yes, sir,” cried all the little boys with great eagerness.
“That’s right,” said Squeers, calmly getting on with his breakfast; “keep ready till I tell you to begin. Subdue your appetites, my dears, and you’ve conquered human natur. This is the way we inculcate strength of mind, Mr. Nickleby,” said the schoolmaster, turning to Nicholas.
Nicholas murmured something—he knew not what—in reply; and the little boys, dividing their gaze between the mug, the bread and butter (which by this time had arrived) and every morsel which Mr. Squeers took into his mouth, remained with strained eyes in torments of expectation.
“Thank God for a good breakfast,” said Squeers when he had finished. “Number one may take a drink.”
Number one seized the mug ravenously, and had just drunk enough to make him wish for more, when Mr. Squeers gave the signal for number two, who gave up at the same 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 as many portions as there were children, “you had better look sharp with your breakfast, for the horn will blow in a minute or two, and then every boy leaves off.”
Permission being thus given to fall to, the boys began to eat voraciously, and in desperate haste; while the schoolmaster (who was in high good humour after his meal) looked smilingly 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 from under the seat; “put what you haven’t had time to eat, in here, boys. You’ll want it on the road!”
Nicholas was considerably startled by these very economical arrangements; but he had no time to reflect upon them, for the little boys had to be got up to the top of the coach, and their boxes had to be brought out and put in, and Mr. Squeers’s luggage was to be seen carefully deposited in the boot, and all these offices were in his department.
Presently, however, the coach was off, and they had started on their long trip, made doubly long by the severity of the weather, which caused them to be detained several times; so it was not until six o’clock the following night, that he and Mr. Squeers, and the little boys, were all put down together at the George and New Inn, Greta Bridge.
“Is it much farther to Dotheboys Hall, sir?” asked Nicholas, when they had started off, the little boys in one vehicle, he and Mr. Squeers in another.
“About three mile from here,” replied Squeers. “But you needn’t call it a Hall down here. 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 slily 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 story high, with a few straggling outbuildings behind, and a barn and stable adjoining. Mr. Squeers had dismounted, and after ordering the boy, whom he called Smike, 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. His great distance from home, and the impossibility of reaching it, except on foot, should he feel ever so anxious, 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 never had 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 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. Mrs. Squeers then came in, and was duly made acquainted with Nicholas, and after some conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, a young servant girl brought in a Yorkshire pie, which being set upon the table, the boy Smike appeared with a jug of ale.
Mr. Squeers meanwhile was emptying his great-coat pockets of letters to different boys, which he had brought down. Smike 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 sad history. He considered the boy more attentively, and 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, 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 keeping with this singular dress, he had a very large pair of boots, originally made for tops, but now too patched and tattered for a beggar. He was lame, and as he feigned to be busy 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?”
“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.
The following morning, when Nicholas appeared downstairs, Mrs. Squeers was in a state of great excitement.
“I can’t find the school spoon anywhere,” she said anxiously.
“Never mind it, my dear,” observed Squeers in a soothing manner; “it’s of no consequence.”
“No consequence? Why, how you talk!” retorted Mrs. Squeers sharply, “isn’t it brimstone morning?”
“I forgot, my dear,” rejoined Squeers; “yes, it certainly is. We purify the boys’ bloods now and then, Nickleby.”
“Oh! nonsense,” rejoined Mrs. Squeers. “If the young man comes to be a teacher here, let him understand, at once, that we don’t want any foolery about the boys. They have the brimstone and treacle, partly because if they hadn’t something or other in the way of medicine they ‘d be always ailing and giving a world of trouble, and partly because it spoils their appetites and comes cheaper than breakfast and dinner. So, it does them good and us good at the same time, and that’s fair enough, I’m sure!”
“But come,” said Squeers, “let’s go to the schoolroom; and lend me a hand with my school-coat, will you?”
Nicholas assisted his master to put on an old fustian shooting jacket, and Squeers, arming himself with his cane, led the way across a yard, to a door in the rear of the house.
“There,” said the schoolmaster, as they stepped in together; “this is our shop, Nickleby!”
The “shop” was a bare and dirty room, with a couple of windows, whereof a tenth part might be of glass, the remainder being stopped up with old copybooks and paper. There were a couple of long, old rickety desks, cut and notched, and inked, and damaged, in every possible way; two or three forms; a detached desk for Squeers; and another for his assistant. The ceiling was supported, like that of a barn, by cross beams and rafters; and the walls were so stained and discoloured, that it was impossible to tell whether they had ever been touched with paint or whitewash.
But the pupils! How the last faint traces of hope faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around! There were pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, boys of stunted growth; little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; vicious-faced boys, brooding with leaden eyes, with every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down.
And yet this scene, painful as it was, had its grotesque features. Mrs. Squeers stood at one of the desks, presiding over an immense basin of brimstone and treacle, of which delicious compound she administered a large instalment to each boy in succession: using for the purpose a common wooden spoon, which widened every young gentleman’s mouth considerably: they being all obliged, under heavy corporal penalties, to take in the whole of the bowl at a gasp.
In another corner, huddled together for companionship, were the little boys who had arrived on the preceding night: at no great distance from these was seated the juvenile son and heir of Mr. Squeers, Wackford by name—a striking likeness of his father—kicking, with great vigour, under the hands of Smike, who was fitting upon him a pair of new boots that bore a most suspicious resemblance to those which the least of the little boys had worn on the journey down—as the little boy himself seemed to think, for he was regarding the appropriation with a look of rueful amazement.
“Now,” said Squeers, giving the desk a great rap with his cane, which made half the little boys nearly jump out of their boots, “is that physicking over?”
“Just over,” said Mrs. Squeers, choking the last boy in her hurry, and tapping the crown of his head with the spoon to restore him. “Here, you Smike; take away now. Look sharp!”
Smike shuffled out with the basin, and Mrs. Squeers, hurried out after him into a wash-house where there were a number of little wooden bowls which were arranged upon a board. Into these bowls, Mrs. Squeers poured a brown composition, which was called porridge. A minute wedge of brown bread was inserted in each bowl, and when they had eaten their porridge by means of it, the boys ate the bread itself, and had finished their breakfast; whereupon Mr. Squeers said in a solemn voice, “For what we have received, may the Lord make us truly thankful!”—and went away to his own.
After eating his share of porridge, and having further disposed of a slice of bread and butter, allotted to him in virtue of his office, Nicholas sat himself down, to wait for school-time. He could not but observe how silent and sad the boys seemed to be. There was none of the noise and clamour of a school-room; none of its boisterous play, or hearty mirth. The only pupil who evinced the slightest tendency towards locomotion or playfulness was Master Squeers, and as his chief amusement was to tread upon the other boys’ toes in his new boots, his flow of spirits was rather disagreeable than otherwise.
After some half-hour’s delay, Mr. Squeers reappeared, and the boys took their places and their books, and ranged themselves in front of the schoolmaster’s desk.
“This is the class in English spelling, and philosophy, Nickleby,” said Squeers, beckoning Nicholas to stand beside him. “We’ll get up a Latin one, and hand that over to you. Now, then, where’s the first boy?”
“Please, sir, he’s cleaning the back parlour window,” answered one of the class.
“So he is, to be sure,” rejoined Squeers. “We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. When the boy knows this out of book, he goes and does it. Where’s the second boy?”
“Please, sir, he’s weeding the garden,” replied a small voice.
“To be sure,” said Squeers. “So he is. B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, n-e-y, ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants. Third boy, what’s a horse?”
“A beast, sir,” replied the boy.
“So it is,” said Squeers. “Ain’t it, Nickleby?”
“I believe there is no doubt of that, sir,” answered Nicholas.
“Of course there isn’t,” said Squeers. “A horse is a quadruped, and quadruped’s Latin for beast, as every body that’s gone through the grammar knows. As you’re perfect in that,” resumed Squeers, turning to the boy, “go and look after my horse, and rub him down well, or I’ll rub you down. The rest of the class go and draw water up till somebody tells you to leave off, for it’s washing day to-morrow.”
So saying, he dismissed the class, and eyed Nicholas with a look, half cunning and half doubtful, as if he were not altogether certain what he might think of him by this time.
“That’s the way we do it, Nickleby,” he said, after a pause.
Nicholas shrugged his shoulders, and said he saw it was.
“And a very good way it is, too,” said Squeers. “Now just take them fourteen little boys and hear them some reading, because, you know, you must begin to be useful.”
Mr. Squeers said this as if it had suddenly occurred to him, either that he must not say too much to his assistant, or that his assistant did not say enough to him in praise of the establishment. The children were arranged in a semi-circle round the new master, and he was soon listening to their dull, drawling, hesitating recital of stories to be found in the old spelling books. In this exciting occupation the morning lagged heavily on. At one o’clock, the boys sat down in the kitchen to some hard salt beef. After this, there was another hour of crouching in the schoolroom and shivering with cold, and then school began again.
It was Mr. Squeers’s custom to call the boys together, and make a sort of report, after every half-yearly visit to the metropolis, regarding the relations and friends he had seen, the news he had heard, the letters he had brought down, and so forth. This solemn proceeding took place on the afternoon of the day succeeding his return. The boys were recalled from house-window, garden and stable, and cow-yard, when Mr. Squeers with a small bundle of papers in his hand, and Mrs. Squeers following with a pair of canes, entered the room, and proclaimed silence.
“Let any boy speak without leave,” said Mr. Squeers mildly, “and I’ll take the skin off his back.”
This special proclamation had the desired effect, and a death-like silence immediately prevailed, in the midst of which Mr. Squeers went on to say:
“Boys, I’ve been to London, and have returned as strong and well as ever.”
According to half-yearly custom, the boys gave three feeble cheers at this refreshing intelligence. Such cheers! Sighs of extra strength with the chill on.
Squeers then proceeded to give several messages of various degrees of unpleasantness to sundry of the boys, followed up by vigorous canings where he had any grudge to pay off. One by one the boys answered to their names.
“Now let us see,” said Squeers. “A letter for Cobbey. Stand up, Cobbey.”
Another boy stood up and eyed the letter very hard, while Squeers made a mental abstract of the same.
“Oh,” said Squeers; “Cobbey’s grandmother is dead, which is all the news his sister sends, except eighteenpence, which will just pay for that broken square of glass. Mrs. Squeers, my dear, will you take the money?”
The worthy lady pocketed the eighteenpence with a most business-like air, and Squeers passed on to the next boy, as coolly as possible.
“Mobbs’s step-mother,” said Squeers, “took to her bed on hearing that he wouldn’t eat fat, and has been very ill ever since. She wishes to know, by an early post, where he expects to go to if he quarrels with his vittles; and with what feelings he could turn up his nose at the cow’s liver broth, after his good master had asked a blessing on it. This was told her in the London newspapers—not by Mr. Squeers, for he is too kind and good to set anybody against anybody—and it has vexed her so much, Mobbs can’t think. She is sorry to find he is discontented, which is sinful and horrid, and hopes Mr. Squeers will flog him into a happier state of mind; and with this view, she has also stopped his halfpenny a week pocket-money, and given a double-bladed knife with a corkscrew in it to the Missionaries, which she had bought on purpose for him.”