'The fact is, I am not their father, Mr Squeers. I'm only their father-in-law.'
'Oh! Is that it?' said the schoolmaster. 'That explains it at once. I was wondering what the devil you were going to send them to Yorkshire for. Ha! ha! Oh, I understand now.'
'You see I have married the mother,' pursued Snawley; 'it's expensive keeping boys at home, and as she has a little money in her own right, I am afraid (women are so very foolish, Mr Squeers) that she might be led to squander it on them, which would be their ruin, you know.'
'I see,' returned Squeers, throwing himself back in his chair, and waving his hand.
'And this,' resumed Snawley, 'has made me anxious to put them to some school a good distance off, where there are no holidays--none of those ill-judged coming home twice a year that unsettle children's minds so--and where they may rough it a little--you comprehend?'
'The payments regular, and no questions asked,' said Squeers, nodding his head.
'That's it, exactly,' rejoined the other. 'Morals strictly attended to, though.'
'Strictly,' said Squeers.
'Not too much writing home allowed, I suppose?' said the father-in- law, hesitating.
'None, except a circular at Christmas, to say they never were so happy, and hope they may never be sent for,' rejoined Squeers.
'Nothing could be better,' said the father-in-law, rubbing his hands.
'Then, as we understand each other,' said Squeers, 'will you allow me to ask you whether you consider me a highly virtuous, exemplary, and well-conducted man in private life; and whether, as a person whose business it is to take charge of youth, you place the strongest confidence in my unimpeachable integrity, liberality, religious principles, and ability?'
'Certainly I do,' replied the father-in-law, reciprocating the schoolmaster's grin.
'Perhaps you won't object to say that, if I make you a reference?'
'Not the least in the world.'
'That's your sort!' said Squeers, taking up a pen; 'this is doing business, and that's what I like.'
Having entered Mr Snawley's address, the schoolmaster had next to perform the still more agreeable office of entering the receipt of the first quarter's payment in advance, which he had scarcely completed, when another voice was heard inquiring for Mr Squeers.
'Here he is,' replied the schoolmaster; 'what is it?'
'Only a matter of business, sir,' said Ralph Nickleby, presenting himself, closely followed by Nicholas. 'There was an advertisement of yours in the papers this morning?'
'There was, sir. This way, if you please,' said Squeers, who had by this time got back to the box by the fire-place. 'Won't you be seated?'
'Why, I think I will,' replied Ralph, suiting the action to the word, and placing his hat on the table before him. 'This is my nephew, sir, Mr Nicholas Nickleby.'
'How do you do, sir?' said Squeers.
Nicholas bowed, said he was very well, and seemed very much astonished at the outward appearance of the proprietor of Dotheboys Hall: as indeed he was.
'Perhaps you recollect me?' said Ralph, looking narrowly at the schoolmaster.
'You paid me a small account at each of my half-yearly visits to town, for some years, I think, sir,' replied Squeers.
'I did,' rejoined Ralph.
'For the parents of a boy named Dorker, who unfortunately--'
'--unfortunately died at Dotheboys Hall,' said Ralph, finishing the sentence.
'I remember very well, sir,' rejoined Squeers. 'Ah! Mrs Squeers, sir, was as partial to that lad as if he had been her own; the attention, sir, that was bestowed upon that boy in his illness! Dry toast and warm tea offered him every night and morning when he couldn't swallow anything--a candle in his bedroom on the very night he died--the best dictionary sent up for him to lay his head upon--I don't regret it though. It is a pleasant thing to reflect that one did one's duty by him.'
Ralph smiled, as if he meant anything but smiling, and looked round at the strangers present.
'These are only some pupils of mine,' said Wackford Squeers, pointing to the little boy on the trunk and the two little boys on the floor, who had been staring at each other without uttering a word, and writhing their bodies into most remarkable contortions, according to the custom of little boys when they first become acquainted.