Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 12

Whereby the Reader will be enabled to trace the further course of Miss Fanny Squeer’s Love, and to ascertain whether it ran smooth or otherwise.

It was a fortunate circumstance for Miss Fanny Squeers, that when her worthy papa returned home on the night of the small tea-party, he was what the initiated term ‘too far gone’ to observe the numerous tokens of extreme vexation of spirit which were plainly visible in her countenance. Being, however, of a rather violent and quarrelsome mood in his cups, it is not impossible that he might have fallen out with her, either on this or some imaginary topic, if the young lady had not, with a foresight and prudence highly commendable, kept a boy up, on purpose, to bear the first brunt of the good gentleman’s anger; which, having vented itself in a variety of kicks and cuffs, subsided sufficiently to admit of his being persuaded to go to bed. Which he did with his boots on, and an umbrella under his arm.

The hungry servant attended Miss Squeers in her own room according to custom, to curl her hair, perform the other little offices of her toilet, and administer as much flattery as she could get up, for the purpose; for Miss Squeers was quite lazy enough (and sufficiently vain and frivolous withal) to have been a fine lady; and it was only the arbitrary distinctions of rank and station which prevented her from being one.

‘How lovely your hair do curl tonight, miss!’ said the handmaiden. ‘I declare if it isn’t a pity and a shame to brush it out!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ replied Miss Squeers wrathfully.

Some considerable experience prevented the girl from being at all surprised at any outbreak of ill-temper on the part of Miss Squeers. Having a half-perception of what had occurred in the course of the evening, she changed her mode of making herself agreeable, and proceeded on the indirect tack.

‘Well, I couldn’t help saying, miss, if you was to kill me for it,’ said the attendant, ‘that I never see nobody look so vulgar as Miss Price this night.’

Miss Squeers sighed, and composed herself to listen.

‘I know it’s very wrong in me to say so, miss,’ continued the girl, delighted to see the impression she was making, ‘Miss Price being a friend of your’n, and all; but she do dress herself out so, and go on in such a manner to get noticed, that — oh — well, if people only saw themselves!’

‘What do you mean, Phib?’ asked Miss Squeers, looking in her own little glass, where, like most of us, she saw — not herself, but the reflection of some pleasant image in her own brain. ‘How you talk!’

‘Talk, miss! It’s enough to make a Tom cat talk French grammar, only to see how she tosses her head,’ replied the handmaid.

‘She DOES toss her head,’ observed Miss Squeers, with an air of abstraction.

‘So vain, and so very — very plain,’ said the girl.

‘Poor ‘Tilda!’ sighed Miss Squeers, compassionately.

‘And always laying herself out so, to get to be admired,’ pursued the servant. ‘Oh, dear! It’s positive indelicate.’

‘I can’t allow you to talk in that way, Phib,’ said Miss Squeers. ‘‘Tilda’s friends are low people, and if she don’t know any better, it’s their fault, and not hers.’

‘Well, but you know, miss,’ said Phoebe, for which name ‘Phib’ was used as a patronising abbreviation, ‘if she was only to take copy by a friend — oh! if she only knew how wrong she was, and would but set herself right by you, what a nice young woman she might be in time!’

‘Phib,’ rejoined Miss Squeers, with a stately air, ‘it’s not proper for me to hear these comparisons drawn; they make ‘Tilda look a coarse improper sort of person, and it seems unfriendly in me to listen to them. I would rather you dropped the subject, Phib; at the same time, I must say, that if ‘Tilda Price would take pattern by somebody — not me particularly —’

‘Oh yes; you, miss,’ interposed Phib.

‘Well, me, Phib, if you will have it so,’ said Miss Squeers. ‘I must say, that if she would, she would be all the better for it.’

‘So somebody else thinks, or I am much mistaken,’ said the girl mysteriously.

‘What do you mean?’ demanded Miss Squeers.

‘Never mind, miss,’ replied the girl; ‘I know what I know; that’s all.’

‘Phib,’ said Miss Squeers dramatically, ‘I insist upon your explaining yourself. What is this dark mystery? Speak.’

‘Why, if you will have it, miss, it’s this,’ said the servant girl. ‘Mr John Browdie thinks as you think; and if he wasn’t too far gone to do it creditable, he’d be very glad to be off with Miss Price, and on with Miss Squeers.’

‘Gracious heavens!’ exclaimed Miss Squeers, clasping her hands with great dignity. ‘What is this?’

‘Truth, ma’am, and nothing but truth,’ replied the artful Phib.

‘What a situation!’ cried Miss Squeers; ‘on the brink of unconsciously destroying the peace and happiness of my own ‘Tilda. What is the reason that men fall in love with me, whether I like it or not, and desert their chosen intendeds for my sake?’

‘Because they can’t help it, miss,’ replied the girl; ‘the reason’s plain.’ (If Miss Squeers were the reason, it was very plain.)

‘Never let me hear of it again,’ retorted Miss Squeers. ‘Never! Do you hear? ‘Tilda Price has faults — many faults — but I wish her well, and above all I wish her married; for I think it highly desirable — most desirable from the very nature of her failings — that she should be married as soon as possible. No, Phib. Let her have Mr Browdie. I may pity HIM, poor fellow; but I have a great regard for ‘Tilda, and only hope she may make a better wife than I think she will.’

With this effusion of feeling, Miss Squeers went to bed.

Spite is a little word; but it represents as strange a jumble of feelings, and compound of discords, as any polysyllable in the language. Miss Squeers knew as well in her heart of hearts that what the miserable serving-girl had said was sheer, coarse, lying flattery, as did the girl herself; yet the mere opportunity of venting a little ill-nature against the offending Miss Price, and affecting to compassionate her weaknesses and foibles, though only in the presence of a solitary dependant, was almost as great a relief to her spleen as if the whole had been gospel truth. Nay, more. We have such extraordinary powers of persuasion when they are exerted over ourselves, that Miss Squeers felt quite high-minded and great after her noble renunciation of John Browdie’s hand, and looked down upon her rival with a kind of holy calmness and tranquillity, that had a mighty effect in soothing her ruffled feelings.

This happy state of mind had some influence in bringing about a reconciliation; for, when a knock came at the front-door next day, and the miller’s daughter was announced, Miss Squeers betook herself to the parlour in a Christian frame of spirit, perfectly beautiful to behold.

‘Well, Fanny,’ said the miller’s daughter, ‘you see I have come to see you, although we HAD some words last night.’

‘I pity your bad passions, ‘Tilda,’ replied Miss Squeers, ‘but I bear no malice. I am above it.’

‘Don’t be cross, Fanny,’ said Miss Price. ‘I have come to tell you something that I know will please you.’

‘What may that be, ‘Tilda?’ demanded Miss Squeers; screwing up her lips, and looking as if nothing in earth, air, fire, or water, could afford her the slightest gleam of satisfaction.

‘This,’ rejoined Miss Price. ‘After we left here last night John and I had a dreadful quarrel.’

‘That doesn’t please me,’ said Miss Squeers — relaxing into a smile though.

‘Lor! I wouldn’t think so bad of you as to suppose it did,’ rejoined her companion. ‘That’s not it.’

‘Oh!’ said Miss Squeers, relapsing into melancholy. ‘Go on.’

‘After a great deal of wrangling, and saying we would never see each other any more,’ continued Miss Price, ‘we made it up, and this morning John went and wrote our names down to be put up, for the first time, next Sunday, so we shall be married in three weeks, and I give you notice to get your frock made.’

There was mingled gall and honey in this intelligence. The prospect of the friend’s being married so soon was the gall, and the certainty of her not entertaining serious designs upon Nicholas was the honey. Upon the whole, the sweet greatly preponderated over the bitter, so Miss Squeers said she would get the frock made, and that she hoped ‘Tilda might be happy, though at the same time she didn’t know, and would not have her build too much upon it, for men were strange creatures, and a great many married women were very miserable, and wished themselves single again with all their hearts; to which condolences Miss Squeers added others equally calculated to raise her friend’s spirits and promote her cheerfulness of mind.

‘But come now, Fanny,’ said Miss Price, ‘I want to have a word or two with you about young Mr Nickleby.’

‘He is nothing to me,’ interrupted Miss Squeers, with hysterical symptoms. ‘I despise him too much!’

‘Oh, you don’t mean that, I am sure?’ replied her friend. ‘Confess, Fanny; don’t you like him now?’

Without returning any direct reply, Miss Squeers, all at once, fell into a paroxysm of spiteful tears, and exclaimed that she was a wretched, neglected, miserable castaway.

‘I hate everybody,’ said Miss Squeers, ‘and I wish that everybody was dead — that I do.’

‘Dear, dear,’ said Miss Price, quite moved by this avowal of misanthropical sentiments. ‘You are not serious, I am sure.’

‘Yes, I am,’ rejoined Miss Squeers, tying tight knots in her pocket-handkerchief and clenching her teeth. ‘And I wish I was dead too. There!’

‘Oh! you’ll think very differently in another five minutes,’ said Matilda. ‘How much better to take him into favour again, than to hurt yourself by going on in that way. Wouldn’t it be much nicer, now, to have him all to yourself on good terms, in a company-keeping, love-making, pleasant sort of manner?’

‘I don’t know but what it would,’ sobbed Miss Squeers. ‘Oh! ‘Tilda, how could you have acted so mean and dishonourable! I wouldn’t have believed it of you, if anybody had told me.’

‘Heyday!’ exclaimed Miss Price, giggling. ‘One would suppose I had been murdering somebody at least.’

‘Very nigh as bad,’ said Miss Squeers passionately.

‘And all this because I happen to have enough of good looks to make people civil to me,’ cried Miss Price. ‘Persons don’t make their own faces, and it’s no more my fault if mine is a good one than it is other people’s fault if theirs is a bad one.’

‘Hold your tongue,’ shrieked Miss Squeers, in her shrillest tone; ‘or you’ll make me slap you, ‘Tilda, and afterwards I should be sorry for it!’

It is needless to say, that, by this time, the temper of each young lady was in some slight degree affected by the tone of her conversation, and that a dash of personality was infused into the altercation, in consequence. Indeed, the quarrel, from slight beginnings, rose to a considerable height, and was assuming a very violent complexion, when both parties, falling into a great passion of tears, exclaimed simultaneously, that they had never thought of being spoken to in that way: which exclamation, leading to a remonstrance, gradually brought on an explanation: and the upshot was, that they fell into each other’s arms and vowed eternal friendship; the occasion in question making the fifty-second time of repeating the same impressive ceremony within a twelvemonth.

Perfect amicability being thus restored, a dialogue naturally ensued upon the number and nature of the garments which would be indispensable for Miss Price’s entrance into the holy state of matrimony, when Miss Squeers clearly showed that a great many more than the miller could, or would, afford, were absolutely necessary, and could not decently be dispensed with. The young lady then, by an easy digression, led the discourse to her own wardrobe, and after recounting its principal beauties at some length, took her friend upstairs to make inspection thereof. The treasures of two drawers and a closet having been displayed, and all the smaller articles tried on, it was time for Miss Price to return home; and as she had been in raptures with all the frocks, and had been stricken quite dumb with admiration of a new pink scarf, Miss Squeers said in high good humour, that she would walk part of the way with her, for the pleasure of her company; and off they went together: Miss Squeers dilating, as they walked along, upon her father’s accomplishments: and multiplying his income by ten, to give her friend some faint notion of the vast importance and superiority of her family.

It happened that that particular time, comprising the short daily interval which was suffered to elapse between what was pleasantly called the dinner of Mr Squeers’s pupils, and their return to the pursuit of useful knowledge, was precisely the hour when Nicholas was accustomed to issue forth for a melancholy walk, and to brood, as he sauntered listlessly through the village, upon his miserable lot. Miss Squeers knew this perfectly well, but had perhaps forgotten it, for when she caught sight of that young gentleman advancing towards them, she evinced many symptoms of surprise and consternation, and assured her friend that she ‘felt fit to drop into the earth.’

‘Shall we turn back, or run into a cottage?’ asked Miss Price. ‘He don’t see us yet.’

‘No, ‘Tilda,’ replied Miss Squeers, ‘it is my duty to go through with it, and I will!’

As Miss Squeers said this, in the tone of one who has made a high moral resolution, and was, besides, taken with one or two chokes and catchings of breath, indicative of feelings at a high pressure, her friend made no further remark, and they bore straight down upon Nicholas, who, walking with his eyes bent upon the ground, was not aware of their approach until they were close upon him; otherwise, he might, perhaps, have taken shelter himself.

‘Good-morning,’ said Nicholas, bowing and passing by.

‘He is going,’ murmured Miss Squeers. ‘I shall choke, ‘Tilda.’

‘Come back, Mr Nickleby, do!’ cried Miss Price, affecting alarm at her friend’s threat, but really actuated by a malicious wish to hear what Nicholas would say; ‘come back, Mr Nickleby!’

Mr Nickleby came back, and looked as confused as might be, as he inquired whether the ladies had any commands for him.

‘Don’t stop to talk,’ urged Miss Price, hastily; ‘but support her on the other side. How do you feel now, dear?’

‘Better,’ sighed Miss Squeers, laying a beaver bonnet of a reddish brown with a green veil attached, on Mr Nickleby’s shoulder. ‘This foolish faintness!’

‘Don’t call it foolish, dear,’ said Miss Price: her bright eye dancing with merriment as she saw the perplexity of Nicholas; ‘you have no reason to be ashamed of it. It’s those who are too proud to come round again, without all this to-do, that ought to be ashamed.’

‘You are resolved to fix it upon me, I see,’ said Nicholas, smiling, ‘although I told you, last night, it was not my fault.’

‘There; he says it was not his fault, my dear,’ remarked the wicked Miss Price. ‘Perhaps you were too jealous, or too hasty with him? He says it was not his fault. You hear; I think that’s apology enough.’

‘You will not understand me,’ said Nicholas. ‘Pray dispense with this jesting, for I have no time, and really no inclination, to be the subject or promoter of mirth just now.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Miss Price, affecting amazement.

‘Don’t ask him, ‘Tilda,’ cried Miss Squeers; ‘I forgive him.’

‘Dear me,’ said Nicholas, as the brown bonnet went down on his shoulder again, ‘this is more serious than I supposed. Allow me! Will you have the goodness to hear me speak?’

Here he raised up the brown bonnet, and regarding with most unfeigned astonishment a look of tender reproach from Miss Squeers, shrunk back a few paces to be out of the reach of the fair burden, and went on to say:

‘I am very sorry — truly and sincerely sorry — for having been the cause of any difference among you, last night. I reproach myself, most bitterly, for having been so unfortunate as to cause the dissension that occurred, although I did so, I assure you, most unwittingly and heedlessly.’

‘Well; that’s not all you have got to say surely,’ exclaimed Miss Price as Nicholas paused.

‘I fear there is something more,’ stammered Nicholas with a half-smile, and looking towards Miss Squeers, ‘it is a most awkward thing to say — but — the very mention of such a supposition makes one look like a puppy — still — may I ask if that lady supposes that I entertain any — in short, does she think that I am in love with her?’

‘Delightful embarrassment,’ thought Miss Squeers, ‘I have brought him to it, at last. Answer for me, dear,’ she whispered to her friend.

‘Does she think so?’ rejoined Miss Price; ‘of course she does.’

‘She does!’ exclaimed Nicholas with such energy of utterance as might have been, for the moment, mistaken for rapture.

‘Certainly,’ replied Miss Price

‘If Mr Nickleby has doubted that, ‘Tilda,’ said the blushing Miss Squeers in soft accents, ‘he may set his mind at rest. His sentiments are recipro —’

‘Stop,’ cried Nicholas hurriedly; ‘pray hear me. This is the grossest and wildest delusion, the completest and most signal mistake, that ever human being laboured under, or committed. I have scarcely seen the young lady half-a-dozen times, but if I had seen her sixty times, or am destined to see her sixty thousand, it would be, and will be, precisely the same. I have not one thought, wish, or hope, connected with her, unless it be — and I say this, not to hurt her feelings, but to impress her with the real state of my own — unless it be the one object, dear to my heart as life itself, of being one day able to turn my back upon this accursed place, never to set foot in it again, or think of it — even think of it — but with loathing and disgust.’

With this particularly plain and straightforward declaration, which he made with all the vehemence that his indignant and excited feelings could bring to bear upon it, Nicholas waiting to hear no more, retreated.

But poor Miss Squeers! Her anger, rage, and vexation; the rapid succession of bitter and passionate feelings that whirled through her mind; are not to be described. Refused! refused by a teacher, picked up by advertisement, at an annual salary of five pounds payable at indefinite periods, and ‘found’ in food and lodging like the very boys themselves; and this too in the presence of a little chit of a miller’s daughter of eighteen, who was going to be married, in three weeks’ time, to a man who had gone down on his very knees to ask her. She could have choked in right good earnest, at the thought of being so humbled.

But, there was one thing clear in the midst of her mortification; and that was, that she hated and detested Nicholas with all the narrowness of mind and littleness of purpose worthy a descendant of the house of Squeers. And there was one comfort too; and that was, that every hour in every day she could wound his pride, and goad him with the infliction of some slight, or insult, or deprivation, which could not but have some effect on the most insensible person, and must be acutely felt by one so sensitive as Nicholas. With these two reflections uppermost in her mind, Miss Squeers made the best of the matter to her friend, by observing that Mr Nickleby was such an odd creature, and of such a violent temper, that she feared she should be obliged to give him up; and parted from her.

And here it may be remarked, that Miss Squeers, having bestowed her affections (or whatever it might be that, in the absence of anything better, represented them) on Nicholas Nickleby, had never once seriously contemplated the possibility of his being of a different opinion from herself in the business. Miss Squeers reasoned that she was prepossessing and beautiful, and that her father was master, and Nicholas man, and that her father had saved money, and Nicholas had none, all of which seemed to her conclusive arguments why the young man should feel only too much honoured by her preference. She had not failed to recollect, either, how much more agreeable she could render his situation if she were his friend, and how much more disagreeable if she were his enemy; and, doubtless, many less scrupulous young gentlemen than Nicholas would have encouraged her extravagance had it been only for this very obvious and intelligible reason. However, he had thought proper to do otherwise, and Miss Squeers was outrageous.

‘Let him see,’ said the irritated young lady, when she had regained her own room, and eased her mind by committing an assault on Phib, ‘if I don’t set mother against him a little more when she comes back!’

It was scarcely necessary to do this, but Miss Squeers was as good as her word; and poor Nicholas, in addition to bad food, dirty lodging, and the being compelled to witness one dull unvarying round of squalid misery, was treated with every special indignity that malice could suggest, or the most grasping cupidity put upon him.

Nor was this all. There was another and deeper system of annoyance which made his heart sink, and nearly drove him wild, by its injustice and cruelty.

The wretched creature, Smike, since the night Nicholas had spoken kindly to him in the schoolroom, had followed him to and fro, with an ever-restless desire to serve or help him; anticipating such little wants as his humble ability could supply, and content only to be near him. He would sit beside him for hours, looking patiently into his face; and a word would brighten up his care-worn visage, and call into it a passing gleam, even of happiness. He was an altered being; he had an object now; and that object was, to show his attachment to the only person — that person a stranger — who had treated him, not to say with kindness, but like a human creature.

Upon this poor being, 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, stripes and blows, morning, noon, and night, were his only portion. Squeers was jealous of the influence which his man had so soon acquired, and his family hated him, and Smike paid for both. Nicholas saw it, and ground his teeth at every repetition of the savage and cowardly attack.

He had arranged a few regular lessons for the boys; and one night, as he paced up and down the dismal schoolroom, his swollen heart almost bursting to think that his protection and countenance should have increased the misery of the wretched being whose peculiar destitution had awakened his pity, he paused mechanically in a dark corner where sat the object of his thoughts.

The poor soul was poring hard over a tattered book, with the traces of recent tears still upon his face; vainly endeavouring to master some task which a child of nine years old, possessed of ordinary powers, could have conquered with ease, but which, to the addled brain of the crushed boy of nineteen, was a sealed and hopeless mystery. Yet there he sat, patiently conning the page again and again, stimulated by no boyish ambition, for he was the common jest and scoff even of the uncouth objects that congregated about him, but inspired by the one eager desire to please his solitary friend.

Nicholas laid his hand upon his shoulder.

‘I can’t do it,’ said the dejected creature, looking up with bitter disappointment in every feature. ‘No, no.’

‘Do not try,’ replied Nicholas.

The boy shook his head, and closing the book with a sigh, looked vacantly round, and laid his head upon his arm. He was weeping.

‘Do not for God’s sake,’ said Nicholas, in an agitated voice; ‘I cannot bear to see you.’

‘They are more hard with me than ever,’ sobbed the boy.

‘I know it,’ rejoined Nicholas. ‘They are.’

‘But for you,’ said the outcast, ‘I should die. They would kill me; they would; I know they would.’

‘You will do better, poor fellow,’ replied Nicholas, shaking his head mournfully, ‘when I am gone.’

‘Gone!’ cried the other, looking intently in his face.

‘Softly!’ rejoined Nicholas. ‘Yes.’

‘Are you going?’ demanded the boy, in an earnest whisper.

‘I cannot say,’ replied Nicholas. ‘I was speaking more to my own thoughts, than to you.’

‘Tell me,’ said the boy imploringly, ‘oh do tell me, WILL you go — WILL you?’

‘I shall be driven to that at last!’ said Nicholas. ‘The world is before me, after all.’

‘Tell me,’ urged Smike, ‘is the world as bad and dismal as this place?’

‘Heaven forbid,’ replied Nicholas, pursuing the train of his own thoughts; ‘its hardest, coarsest toil, were happiness to this.’

‘Should I ever meet you there?’ demanded the boy, speaking with unusual wildness and volubility.

‘Yes,’ replied Nicholas, willing to soothe him.

‘No, no!’ said the other, clasping him by the hand. ‘Should I— should I— tell me that again. Say I should be sure to find you.’

‘You would,’ replied Nicholas, with the same humane intention, ‘and I would help and aid you, and not bring fresh sorrow on you as I have done here.’

The boy caught both the young man’s hands passionately in his, and, hugging them to his breast, uttered a few broken sounds which were unintelligible. Squeers entered at the moment, and he shrunk back into his old corner.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30