Nicholas Nickleby - chapter 2
Nicholas’s heart was filled with pity for these poor children,who suffered such cruel treatment.
Wackford Squeers was a strange-looking man with flat, oily hair. His black jacket was much too big for him, and his trousers were much too short. But the strangest thing about him was his face. He only had one eye, which looked like a dirty window. When he smiled, it seemed to shine with a frightening green light.
At first, Mr Squeers was unwilling to accept Nicholas as his assistant because he was too young and had not been to college. But after a few quiet words with the boy’s uncle, he offered Nicholas the job. ‘The coach leaves at eight o’clock tomorrow morning,’ he said. ‘You mustn’t be late.’
Nicholas woke up at six o’clock the next morning and hurried to the Saracen’s Head. While he was helping Mr Squeers to lift a few small, frightened-looking boys onto the coach, he was surprised to see his mother and sister. His uncle had brought them to say goodbye.
‘Why didn’t you wake us?’ Mrs Nickleby said, throwing her arms around her son. ‘You left without breakfast!’
‘There’s no time for this, Nickleby!’ Squeers interrupted rudely, buttoning his coat against the cold. ‘Get onto the coach immediately. One of my boys has already nearly fallen off. If a boy died now, I’d lose twenty pounds!’
‘Dear Nicholas,’ whispered Kate, leading her brother away. ‘What kind of place are you going to?’
‘I don’t know, Kate,’ Nicholas replied, pressing his sister’s hand. ‘I suppose the people in Yorkshire are rougher than people in London.’
‘He’s a nasty little man. He’s so rude.’
‘But he’s my employer,’ Nicholas reminded her.
Nicholas kissed his tearful sister and mother and shook his uncle’s hand. Then he jumped up into his seat on the coach.
However, as he was waving goodbye, an odd thing happened. Somebody started pulling softly at his leg. He looked down and saw a tall, thin man with strange, wild eyes.
‘What’s this?’ Nicholas asked, when the man pushed a dirty letter into his hand.
‘You don’t know me,’ the man whispered nervously, ‘but I work for your uncle. Take it and read it.’
Before Nicholas could say another word, the man had gone.
The journey to Yorkshire was long and uncomfortable. It snowed heavily on the way, and everybody felt cold and hungry. At six o’clock the next evening, they finally arrived at Greta Bridge. Mr Squeers and Nicholas took the boys off the coach and put them into a small cart.
‘Is it much further to Dotheboys Hall, sir?’ Nicholas asked Squeers when the cart had left Greta Bridge.
‘About three miles,’ Squeers replied. ‘But we don’t call it a “Hall” up here – only in London, because it sounds better.’
Squeers laughed to himself, and Nicholas stared into the darkness until they reached Dotheboys Hall. Then he understood. The ‘Hall’ was just a long, low, cold-looking house with a few old farm buildings behind it.
While Nicholas sat in the cart with the boys, Squeers jumped down and shouted for someone to open the gate. Several minutes later, a tall boy in old, thin clothes ran out of the house.
‘Why did you take so long, Smike?’ Squeers shouted.
‘Sorry, sir, but I fell asleep by the fire.’
‘Fire? What fire?’ the schoolmaster demanded angrily.
‘Mrs Squeers said that I could sit by the fire in the kitchen to keep warm.’
‘Mrs Squeers is a fool,’ Squeers replied. ‘You’d stay awake better in the cold!’
The boy called Smike opened the gate, looking nervously at Squeers. A few minutes later, Nicholas was standing outside the door with the boys and the luggage. He stared up at the cold-looking house with its dark windows and sighed. He was a long way from his home and family, and he had never felt so lonely.
Life at Dotheboys Hall was very hard. There was no heating in the school, and the boys had to wash with buckets of icy water in the mornings. They wore the same clothes every day, and they were always hungry. Mrs Squeers fed them a thick, horrible soup every day which Mr Squeers called their ‘medicine’. It was the cheapest food that they could find.
The classroom was cold and dirty with broken windows. There were a couple of old, long desks for the children, and two desks at the front of the room – one for Squeers, and a smaller one for his assistant. During the lessons, the boys sat quietly, shaking with the cold. Letters from home were opened in front of the whole class and Squeers took all their money. He did the same with packages of clothes. If the boys complained, Squeers hit them with a big stick. Nicholas watched this happen with tears of anger in his eyes, but he felt powerless to do anything.
Squeers gave to his son, young Wackford, all the clothes that he stole from the boys. He, of course, was the only boy in the school who was never cold and hungry. He was also as nasty as his father. His favourite activity was kicking the other boys and making them cry. If they tried to defend themselves, young Wackford reported them to his father and they were cruelly punished.
Nicholas’s heart was filled with pity for these poor children, who suffered such cruel treatment. All the beauty of innocence had disappeared from their pale, thin faces. He never heard them laughing, and there was no hope in their dull, empty eyes.
He was especially sorry for the boy called Smike. He was older than the other boys – about eighteen or nineteen years old. He was tall for his age but wore children’s clothes that were much too short for him. He did not have lessons, but was made to do all the hard, dirty jobs around the school. If he did something wrong, Mr Squeers beat him and shouted at him. Smike had been left at the school many years earlier by parents who did not want him. However, Squeers still received money for him from somewhere. He kept him at the school because he was useful.
One evening, Nicholas sat on his hard, wooden bed in the crowded, unheated room that he shared with several other boys. He was thinking sadly of home when suddenly he remembered the letter which the man with wild eyes had given him. He took it out of his pocket and read:
My dear young man, I know the world. Your father did not, and you do not either. If you knew the world, you would not go on this journey. If you ever want help in London don’t be angry, go to the Crown Hotel, in Golden Square. They will give you my address. You can come at night. Many years ago, people were not ashamed to know me. Now things are different – but that is not important. There is no future. Newman Noggs.
While Nicholas was putting the letter back in his pocket, a strange thing happened to him. His eyes filled with tears.
The next day, Nicholas saw Smike on his knees, trying to light a fire. Smike looked up at Nicholas with a frightened expression.
‘Don’t be afraid, ‘ Nicholas said kindly. ‘I’m not going to hurt you. Are you cold?’
Smike covered his face with his thin, dirty hands and started crying. ‘My heart will break if I stay in this horrible place,’ he said. ‘Before you arrived, a boy died here. He was my last friend. Just before he died, his face was lit up by a lovely smile. He said that he could see the faces of his friends around his bed. They had come from home and they were smiling and talking to him. What faces will smile at me when I die? There’s no hope for me, alive or dead. No hope.’
‘There’s always hope,’ Nicholas said gently, resting his hand on the boy’s bony shoulder.
Eventually, Smike stopped crying and moved away, like a frightened animal, into the shadows. Nicholas sighed sadly and went to bed.
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