Once on a time, in England, there were two brothers named Nickleby who had grown up to be very different men. Ralph was a rich and miserly money-lender who gained his wealth by persecuting the poor of London—a thin, cold-hearted, crafty man with a cruel smile. The other, who lived in the country, was generous but poor, so that when he died he left his wife and two children, Nicholas and Kate, with hardly a penny to keep them from starving.
In their trouble the mother decided to go and try to obtain help from her husband's brother, Ralph Nickleby.
Ralph was angry when he learned they had come to London, for he loved his gold better than anything else in the world. He lived in Golden Square, a very rich part of the city, in a great fine house, all alone save for one servant, and he kept only one clerk.
This clerk, who was named Noggs, had one glass eye and long, bony fingers which he had an uncomfortable habit of cracking together when he spoke[Pg 162] to any one. He had once been rich, but he had given his money to Ralph Nickleby to invest for him, and the money-lender had ended by getting it all, so that the poor man at last had to become the other's clerk. When he first saw Nicholas and Kate, Noggs was sorry enough for them, because he knew it would be little help they would get from their stingy uncle.
Nicholas was proud-mettled, and his very bearing angered the money-lender. He called him a young puppy, and a pauper besides, to which Nicholas replied with heat and spirit. His mother succeeded in smoothing things over for the time, and though Ralph Nickleby from that moment hated the boy, he grudgingly promised her to get him a situation as a teacher.
The school the miser selected was one called Dotheboys Hall, a long, cold-looking, tumble-down building, one story high, in a dreary part of the country. It belonged to a man named Squeers, a burly, ruffianly hypocrite, who pretended to the world to be a kind, fatherly master, but in fact treated his pupils with such cruelty that almost the only ones ever sent there were poor little orphans, whose guardians were glad to get rid of them. Squeers had an oily, wrinkled face and flat shiny hair, brushed straight up from his forehead. His sleeves were too long and his trousers too short, and he carried a leather whip about in his pocket to punish the boys with.[Pg 163]
Mrs. Squeers was a fat woman, who wore a soiled dressing-gown, kept her hair in curl papers all day, and always had a yellow handkerchief tied around her neck. She was as cruel as her husband. They had one daughter and a son named Wackford. The latter they kept as plump as could be, so he would serve as an advertisement of the school; the rest of the boys, however, were pale and thin.
No wonder, for they got almost nothing to eat. For dinner all they had was a bowl of thin porridge with a wedge of bread for a spoon. When they had eaten the porridge they ate the spoon. Once a week they were forced to swallow a dreadful mixture of brimstone and sulphur, because this dose took away their appetites so that they ate less for several days afterward. They were made to sleep five in a bed, and were poorly clothed, for whenever a new boy came Mrs. Squeers took his clothes away from him for Wackford, and made the new boy wear any old ones she could find. They were allowed to write only letters telling how happy they were there, and when letters came for any of them, Mrs. Squeers opened them first and took for herself any money that they contained.
There was no attempt at teaching at Dotheboys Hall. The books were dirty and torn and the classes were scarecrows. All the boys were made to work hard at chores about the place, and were flogged almost every day, so that their lives were[Pg 164] miserable. What Squeers wanted was the money their guardians paid him for keeping them.
This was the kind of school for which Nicholas found himself hired at very low wages as a teacher.
He knew nothing about it yet, however, and thought himself lucky and his uncle kind as he bade his mother and Kate good-by and took the coach for Dotheboys Hall. Noggs, Ralph Nickleby's one-eyed clerk, was there to see him off, and put a letter into his hand as he started. Nicholas was so sad at leaving the two he loved best in the world, that he put it into his pocket and for the time forgot all about it.
On his arrival next day Nicholas's heart sank into his boots. When he saw the boys gathered in the barn, which served for a school-room, he was ready to die with shame and disgust to think he was to be a teacher in such a place.
But he had no money to take him back to London, and because he did not want to make his mother and Kate unhappy, he wrote them as cheerfully as he could. The letter Noggs had given him he remembered at last to read. It told him the writer feared his uncle had deceived him in regard to the school, and said if Nicholas needed a friend at any time, he would find one in him, Noggs. These kind words from the old clerk brought tears to Nicholas's eyes.
Of all the wretched boys there Nicholas pitied most a poor fellow named Smike, whom Squeers[Pg 165] had made a drudge. He was tall and lanky and wore a little boy's suit, too short in the arms and legs. He had been placed there when a child, and the man who had brought him had disappeared and left no money to pay for his keep. Squeers's cruelties had made the unfortunate lad simple-minded. Besides this he was lame. Nicholas helped Smike all he could, and the poor fellow was so grateful that he followed the other about like a slave.
Squeers's daughter was named Fanny. She had red hair, which she wore in five exact rows on the top of her head. She thought herself very beautiful and at once fell in love with Nicholas. As he could not help showing that he did not like her, Miss Fanny grew spiteful and in revenge began to persecute Smike, knowing Nicholas liked him.
Smike stood this as long as he could, but at last one day he ran away. Squeers was furious. He took one chaise and Mrs. Squeers another, and off they went in different directions to find him. Nicholas was miserable, for he knew Smike would be caught. Sure enough, on the second day Mrs. Squeers returned, dragging her victim. When Squeers arrived Smike was taken from the cellar, where he had been locked up, and brought before the assembled boys for a public thrashing.
At the rain of brutal blows which began Nicholas's blood boiled. He stepped forward, crying "Stop!"[Pg 166]
For answer Squeers struck him savagely in the face with his heavy ruler. Then Nicholas threw away his self-control, and leaping on the bully, to the unmeasured delight of the boys, took the ruler from him and thrashed him until he cried for mercy. All the while Mrs. Squeers was trying to drag the victor away by his coat tails, while the spiteful Miss Fanny threw inkstands at his head.
When his arm was tired Nicholas gave Squeers a final blow, which knocked him senseless into a corner, coolly went to his room, packed his few belongings in a bundle and left Dotheboys Hall for ever.
He was two hundred and fifty miles from London and had very little money. Snow was falling and for that night he took refuge in an empty barn. In the morning he awoke, startled, to see a figure sitting by him. It was Smike, who had followed him.
The poor creature fell on his knees. "Let me go with you!" he cried. "I want no clothes and I can beg my food. I will be your faithful servant. Only let me go with you."
"And so you shall!" said Nicholas. "Come!" He rose, took up his bundle, gave his hand to Smike and so they set out toward London together
Thank you for reading!