Of Miss Squeers, Mrs. Squeers, Master Squeers, and Mr. Squeers; and of various Matters and Persons connected no less with the Squeerses than Nicholas Nickleby
When Mr. Squeers left the schoolroom for the night, he betook himself, as has been before remarked, to his own fireside, which was situated—not in the room in which Nicholas had supped on the night of his arrival, but in a smaller apartment in the rear of the premises, where his lady wife, his amiable son, and accomplished daughter, were in the full enjoyment of each other’s society; Mrs. Squeers being engaged in the matronly pursuit of stocking-darning; and the young lady and gentleman being occupied in the adjustment of some youthful differences, by means of a pugilistic contest across the table, which, on the approach of their honoured parent, subsided into a noiseless exchange of kicks beneath it.
And, in this place, it may be as well to apprise the reader, that Miss Fanny Squeers was in her three-and-twentieth year. If there be any one grace or loveliness inseparable from that particular period of life, Miss Squeers may be presumed to have been possessed of it, as there is no reason to suppose that she was a solitary exception to an universal rule. She was not tall like her mother, but short like her father; from the former she inherited a voice of harsh quality; from the latter a remarkable expression of the right eye, something akin to having none at all.
Miss Squeers had been spending a few days with a neighbouring friend, and had only just returned to the parental roof. To this circumstance may be referred, her having heard nothing of Nicholas, until Mr. Squeers himself now made him the subject of conversation.
‘Well, my dear,’ said Squeers, drawing up his chair, ‘what do you think of him by this time?’
‘Think of who?’ inquired Mrs. Squeers; who (as she often remarked) was no grammarian, thank Heaven.
‘Of the young man—the new teacher—who else could I mean?’
‘Oh! that Knuckleboy,’ said Mrs. Squeers impatiently. ‘I hate him.’
‘What do you hate him for, my dear?’ asked Squeers.
‘What’s that to you?’ retorted Mrs. Squeers. ‘If I hate him, that’s enough, ain’t it?’
‘Quite enough for him, my dear, and a great deal too much I dare say, if he knew it,’ replied Squeers in a pacific tone. ‘I only ask from curiosity, my dear.’
‘Well, then, if you want to know,’ rejoined Mrs. Squeers, ‘I’ll tell you. Because he’s a proud, haughty, consequential, turned-up-nosed peacock.’
Mrs. Squeers, when excited, was accustomed to use strong language, and, moreover, to make use of a plurality of epithets, some of which were of a figurative kind, as the word peacock, and furthermore the allusion to Nicholas’s nose, which was not intended to be taken in its literal sense, but rather to bear a latitude of construction according to the fancy of the hearers.
Neither were they meant to bear reference to each other, so much as to the object on whom they were bestowed, as will be seen in the present case: a peacock with a turned-up nose being a novelty in ornithology, and a thing not commonly seen.
‘Hem!’ said Squeers, as if in mild deprecation of this outbreak. ‘He is cheap, my dear; the young man is very cheap.’
‘Not a bit of it,’ retorted Mrs. Squeers.
‘Five pound a year,’ said Squeers.
‘What of that; it’s dear if you don’t want him, isn’t it?’ replied his wife.
‘But we do want him,’ urged Squeers.
‘I don’t see that you want him any more than the dead,’ said Mrs. Squeers. ‘Don’t tell me. You can put on the cards and in the advertisements, “Education by Mr. Wackford Squeers and able assistants,” without having any assistants, can’t you? Isn’t it done every day by all the masters about? I’ve no patience with you.’
‘Haven’t you!’ said Squeers, sternly. ‘Now I’ll tell you what, Mrs Squeers. In this matter of having a teacher, I’ll take my own way, if you please. A slave driver in the West Indies is allowed a man under him, to see that his blacks don’t run away, or get up a rebellion; and I’ll have a man under me to do the same with our blacks, till such time as little Wackford is able to take charge of the school.’
‘Am I to take care of the school when I grow up a man, father?’ said Wackford junior, suspending, in the excess of his delight, a vicious kick which he was administering to his sister.
‘You are, my son,’ replied Mr. Squeers, in a sentimental voice.
‘Oh my eye, won’t I give it to the boys!’ exclaimed the interesting child, grasping his father’s cane. ‘Oh, father, won’t I make ‘em squeak again!’
It was a proud moment in Mr. Squeers’s life, when he witnessed that burst of enthusiasm in his young child’s mind, and saw in it a foreshadowing of his future eminence. He pressed a penny into his hand, and gave vent to his feelings (as did his exemplary wife also), in a shout of approving laughter. The infantine appeal to their common sympathies, at once restored cheerfulness to the conversation, and harmony to the company.
‘He’s a nasty stuck-up monkey, that’s what I consider him,’ said Mrs Squeers, reverting to Nicholas.
‘Supposing he is,’ said Squeers, ‘he is as well stuck up in our schoolroom as anywhere else, isn’t he?—especially as he don’t like it.’
‘Well,’ observed Mrs. Squeers, ‘there’s something in that. I hope it’ll bring his pride down, and it shall be no fault of mine if it don’t.’
Now, a proud usher in a Yorkshire school was such a very extraordinary and unaccountable thing to hear of,—any usher at all being a novelty; but a proud one, a being of whose existence the wildest imagination could never have dreamed—that Miss Squeers, who seldom troubled herself with scholastic matters, inquired with much curiosity who this Knuckleboy was, that gave himself such airs.
‘Nickleby,’ said Squeers, spelling the name according to some eccentric system which prevailed in his own mind; ‘your mother always calls things and people by their wrong names.’
‘No matter for that,’ said Mrs. Squeers; ‘I see them with right eyes, and that’s quite enough for me. I watched him when you were laying on to little Bolder this afternoon. He looked as black as thunder, all the while, and, one time, started up as if he had more than got it in his mind to make a rush at you. I saw him, though he thought I didn’t.’
‘Never mind that, father,’ said Miss Squeers, as the head of the family was about to reply. ‘Who is the man?’
‘Why, your father has got some nonsense in his head that he’s the son of a poor gentleman that died the other day,’ said Mrs. Squeers.
‘The son of a gentleman!’
‘Yes; but I don’t believe a word of it. If he’s a gentleman’s son at all, he’s a fondling, that’s my opinion.’
‘Mrs. Squeers intended to say ‘foundling,’ but, as she frequently remarked when she made any such mistake, it would be all the same a hundred years hence; with which axiom of philosophy, indeed, she was in the constant habit of consoling the boys when they laboured under more than ordinary ill-usage.
‘He’s nothing of the kind,’ said Squeers, in answer to the above remark, ‘for his father was married to his mother years before he was born, and she is alive now. If he was, it would be no business of ours, for we make a very good friend by having him here; and if he likes to learn the boys anything besides minding them, I have no objection I am sure.’
‘I say again, I hate him worse than poison,’ said Mrs. Squeers vehemently.
‘If you dislike him, my dear,’ returned Squeers, ‘I don’t know anybody who can show dislike better than you, and of course there’s no occasion, with him, to take the trouble to hide it.’
‘I don’t intend to, I assure you,’ interposed Mrs. S.
‘That’s right,’ said Squeers; ‘and if he has a touch of pride about him, as I think he has, I don’t believe there’s woman in all England that can bring anybody’s spirit down, as quick as you can, my love.’
Mrs. Squeers chuckled vastly on the receipt of these flattering compliments, and said, she hoped she had tamed a high spirit or two in her day. It is but due to her character to say, that in conjunction with her estimable husband, she had broken many and many a one.
Miss Fanny Squeers carefully treasured up this, and much more conversation on the same subject, until she retired for the night, when she questioned the hungry servant, minutely, regarding the outward appearance and demeanour of Nicholas; to which queries the girl returned such enthusiastic replies, coupled with so many laudatory remarks touching his beautiful dark eyes, and his sweet smile, and his straight legs—upon which last-named articles she laid particular stress; the general run of legs at Dotheboys Hall being crooked—that Miss Squeers was not long in arriving at the conclusion that the new usher must be a very remarkable person, or, as she herself significantly phrased it, ‘something quite out of the common.’ And so Miss Squeers made up her mind that she would take a personal observation of Nicholas the very next day.
In pursuance of this design, the young lady watched the opportunity of her mother being engaged, and her father absent, and went accidentally into the schoolroom to get a pen mended: where, seeing nobody but Nicholas presiding over the boys, she blushed very deeply, and exhibited great confusion.
‘I beg your pardon,’ faltered Miss Squeers; ‘I thought my father was—or might be—dear me, how very awkward!’
‘Mr. Squeers is out,’ said Nicholas, by no means overcome by the apparition, unexpected though it was.
‘Do you know will he be long, sir?’ asked Miss Squeers, with bashful hesitation.
‘He said about an hour,’ replied Nicholas—politely of course, but without any indication of being stricken to the heart by Miss Squeers’s charms.
‘I never knew anything happen so cross,’ exclaimed the young lady. ‘Thank you! I am very sorry I intruded, I am sure. If I hadn’t thought my father was here, I wouldn’t upon any account have—it is very provoking—must look so very strange,’ murmured Miss Squeers, blushing once more, and glancing, from the pen in her hand, to Nicholas at his desk, and back again.
‘If that is all you want,’ said Nicholas, pointing to the pen, and smiling, in spite of himself, at the affected embarrassment of the schoolmaster’s daughter, ‘perhaps I can supply his place.’
Miss Squeers glanced at the door, as if dubious of the propriety of advancing any nearer to an utter stranger; then round the schoolroom, as though in some measure reassured by the presence of forty boys; and finally sidled up to Nicholas and delivered the pen into his hand, with a most winning mixture of reserve and condescension.
‘Shall it be a hard or a soft nib?’ inquired Nicholas, smiling to prevent himself from laughing outright.
‘He has a beautiful smile,’ thought Miss Squeers.
‘Which did you say?’ asked Nicholas.
‘Dear me, I was thinking of something else for the moment, I declare,’ replied Miss Squeers. ‘Oh! as soft as possible, if you please.’ With which words, Miss Squeers sighed. It might be, to give Nicholas to understand that her heart was soft, and that the pen was wanted to match.
Upon these instructions Nicholas made the pen; when he gave it to Miss Squeers, Miss Squeers dropped it; and when he stooped to pick it up, Miss Squeers stooped also, and they knocked their heads together; whereat five-and-twenty little boys laughed aloud: being positively for the first and only time that half-year.
‘Very awkward of me,’ said Nicholas, opening the door for the young lady’s retreat.
‘Not at all, sir,’ replied Miss Squeers; ‘it was my fault. It was all my foolish—a—a—good-morning!’
‘Goodbye,’ said Nicholas. ‘The next I make for you, I hope will be made less clumsily. Take care! You are biting the nib off now.’
‘Really,’ said Miss Squeers; ‘so embarrassing that I scarcely know what I—very sorry to give you so much trouble.’
‘Not the least trouble in the world,’ replied Nicholas, closing the schoolroom door.
‘I never saw such legs in the whole course of my life!’ said Miss Squeers, as she walked away.
In fact, Miss Squeers was in love with Nicholas Nickleby.
To account for the rapidity with which this young lady had conceived a passion for Nicholas, it may be necessary to state, that the friend from whom she had so recently returned, was a miller’s daughter of only eighteen, who had contracted herself unto the son of a small corn-factor, resident in the nearest market town. Miss Squeers and the miller’s daughter, being fast friends, had covenanted together some two years before, according to a custom prevalent among young ladies, that whoever was first engaged to be married, should straightway confide the mighty secret to the bosom of the other, before communicating it to any living soul, and bespeak her as bridesmaid without loss of time; in fulfilment of which pledge the miller’s daughter, when her engagement was formed, came out express, at eleven o’clock at night as the corn-factor’s son made an offer of his hand and heart at twenty-five minutes past ten by the Dutch clock in the kitchen, and rushed into Miss Squeers’s bedroom with the gratifying intelligence. Now, Miss Squeers being five years older, and out of her teens (which is also a great matter), had, since, been more than commonly anxious to return the compliment, and possess her friend with a similar secret; but, either in consequence of finding it hard to please herself, or harder still to please anybody else, had never had an opportunity so to do, inasmuch as she had no such secret to disclose. The little interview with Nicholas had no sooner passed, as above described, however, than Miss Squeers, putting on her bonnet, made her way, with great precipitation, to her friend’s house, and, upon a solemn renewal of divers old vows of secrecy, revealed how that she was—not exactly engaged, but going to be—to a gentleman’s son—(none of your corn-factors, but a gentleman’s son of high descent)—who had come down as teacher to Dotheboys Hall, under most mysterious and remarkable circumstances—indeed, as Miss Squeers more than once hinted she had good reason to believe, induced, by the fame of her many charms, to seek her out, and woo and win her.
‘Isn’t it an extraordinary thing?’ said Miss Squeers, emphasising the adjective strongly.
‘Most extraordinary,’ replied the friend. ‘But what has he said to you?’
‘Don’t ask me what he said, my dear,’ rejoined Miss Squeers. ‘If you had only seen his looks and smiles! I never was so overcome in all my life.’
‘Did he look in this way?’ inquired the miller’s daughter, counterfeiting, as nearly as she could, a favourite leer of the corn-factor.
‘Very like that—only more genteel,’ replied Miss Squeers.
‘Ah!’ said the friend, ‘then he means something, depend on it.’
Miss Squeers, having slight misgivings on the subject, was by no means ill pleased to be confirmed by a competent authority; and discovering, on further conversation and comparison of notes, a great many points of resemblance between the behaviour of Nicholas, and that of the corn-factor, grew so exceedingly confidential, that she intrusted her friend with a vast number of things Nicholas had not said, which were all so very complimentary as to be quite conclusive. Then, she dilated on the fearful hardship of having a father and mother strenuously opposed to her intended husband; on which unhappy circumstance she dwelt at great length; for the friend’s father and mother were quite agreeable to her being married, and the whole courtship was in consequence as flat and common-place an affair as it was possible to imagine.
‘How I should like to see him!’ exclaimed the friend.
‘So you shall, ‘Tilda,’ replied Miss Squeers. ‘I should consider myself one of the most ungrateful creatures alive, if I denied you. I think mother’s going away for two days to fetch some boys; and when she does, I’ll ask you and John up to tea, and have him to meet you.’
This was a charming idea, and having fully discussed it, the friends parted.
It so fell out, that Mrs. Squeers’s journey, to some distance, to fetch three new boys, and dun the relations of two old ones for the balance of a small account, was fixed that very afternoon, for the next day but one; and on the next day but one, Mrs. Squeers got up outside the coach, as it stopped to change at Greta Bridge, taking with her a small bundle containing something in a bottle, and some sandwiches, and carrying besides a large white top-coat to wear in the night-time; with which baggage she went her way.
Whenever such opportunities as these occurred, it was Squeers’s custom to drive over to the market town, every evening, on pretence of urgent business, and stop till ten or eleven o’clock at a tavern he much affected. As the party was not in his way, therefore, but rather afforded a means of compromise with Miss Squeers, he readily yielded his full assent thereunto, and willingly communicated to Nicholas that he was expected to take his tea in the parlour that evening, at five o’clock.
To be sure Miss Squeers was in a desperate flutter as the time approached, and to be sure she was dressed out to the best advantage: with her hair—it had more than a tinge of red, and she wore it in a crop—curled in five distinct rows, up to the very top of her head, and arranged dexterously over the doubtful eye; to say nothing of the blue sash which floated down her back, or the worked apron or the long gloves, or the green gauze scarf worn over one shoulder and under the other; or any of the numerous devices which were to be as so many arrows to the heart of Nicholas. She had scarcely completed these arrangements to her entire satisfaction, when the friend arrived with a whity-brown parcel—flat and three-cornered—containing sundry small adornments which were to be put on upstairs, and which the friend put on, talking incessantly. When Miss Squeers had ‘done’ the friend’s hair, the friend ‘did’ Miss Squeers’s hair, throwing in some striking improvements in the way of ringlets down the neck; and then, when they were both touched up to their entire satisfaction, they went downstairs in full state with the long gloves on, all ready for company.
‘Where’s John, ‘Tilda?’ said Miss Squeers.
‘Only gone home to clean himself,’ replied the friend. ‘He will be here by the time the tea’s drawn.’
‘I do so palpitate,’ observed Miss Squeers.
‘Ah! I know what it is,’ replied the friend.
‘I have not been used to it, you know, ‘Tilda,’ said Miss Squeers, applying her hand to the left side of her sash.
‘You’ll soon get the better of it, dear,’ rejoined the friend. While they were talking thus, the hungry servant brought in the tea-things, and, soon afterwards, somebody tapped at the room door.
‘There he is!’ cried Miss Squeers. ‘Oh ‘Tilda!’
‘Hush!’ said ‘Tilda. ‘Hem! Say, come in.’
‘Come in,’ cried Miss Squeers faintly. And in walked Nicholas.
‘Good-evening,’ said that young gentleman, all unconscious of his conquest. ‘I understood from Mr. Squeers that—’
‘Oh yes; it’s all right,’ interposed Miss Squeers. ‘Father don’t tea with us, but you won’t mind that, I dare say.’ (This was said archly.)
Nicholas opened his eyes at this, but he turned the matter off very coolly—not caring, particularly, about anything just then—and went through the ceremony of introduction to the miller’s daughter with so much grace, that that young lady was lost in admiration.
‘We are only waiting for one more gentleman,’ said Miss Squeers, taking off the teapot lid, and looking in, to see how the tea was getting on.
It was matter of equal moment to Nicholas whether they were waiting for one gentleman or twenty, so he received the intelligence with perfect unconcern; and, being out of spirits, and not seeing any especial reason why he should make himself agreeable, looked out of the window and sighed involuntarily.
Author's Preface - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 1 - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 2 - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 3 - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 4 - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 5 - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
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