فصل 12

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فصل 12

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Chapter twelve

Poor Smike

‘I saw him - over there, behind the trees! It was the man who took me to that horrible school, years ago!’

Madeline was now living with the Nicklebys in their cottage, but the shock of her father’s death had made her very ill. While she stayed in bed, Kate took care of her, and by the time Madeline’s health improved she and Kate had become good friends.

These were proud times for Mrs Nickleby. She noticed that Frank Cheeryble often came to the cottage with Nicholas after work. She was sure that he was interested in Kate, and began to dream of a wonderful wedding for her daughter!

When she told Nicholas about Frank’s interest in Kate, Nicholas was surprised, but he was also secretly relieved. He had been afraid that Frank was also in love in Madeline. He liked Frank a lot, and he was glad that they would not have to become enemies.

However, Nicholas became increasingly worried about Smike, who had become very ill. The doctor told him that Smike’s condition was serious and he advised him to take the boy away from London as soon as possible. The fresh country air might cure him. So Nicholas took Smike to Devon, in southwest England, where he had lived as a child.

Meanwhile, Ralph Nickleby had discovered where Peg Sliderskew, Gride’s housekeeper, was living. She was in an upper room in a dirty old house near Lambeth, in southeast London. Ralph informed Squeers, who moved into an empty room in the same house and soon became friendly with her. One evening, he took a bottle of strong alcohol into her room and sat talking to her by the fire.

After the old woman had drunk a few glasses, Squeers told her how Arthur Gride’s wedding plans were ruined. Peg Sliderskew laughed so much that she nearly fell out of her chair.

‘I’m glad,’ she said. ‘Gride’s a horrible, greedy old man. He treated me very badly. That’s why I ran away with his papers.’

‘I’ll be happy to help with Gride’s papers,’ Squeers suggested, when Peg was completely drunk. ‘I can tell you which ones to keep and which ones to burn.’

The old woman walked with a drunken smile to a cupboard. She took the papers out of a box and spread them out on the floor by the fire. Squeers was so busy studying them that he did not hear the door opening behind him. He did not see Frank Cheeryble and Newman Noggs walking quietly into the room.

Eventually, he found the paper that he wanted. ‘Madeline Bray!’ he said excitedly, putting it in his coat pocket.

‘What did you say?’ Peg asked, turning her head.

She saw the two men, but it was too late to save Squeers. Newman Noggs lifted his arm and brought a thick stick down heavily onto his head. The old schoolmaster’s one eye opened wide with surprise, then he fell forwards across the floor.

After a two-day journey to Devon, Nicholas rented a small farmhouse. At first, Smike was strong enough to go for short walks in the surrounding fields. Nicholas also hired a horse and cart and drove Smike around the countryside.

He showed the boy the house where he had lived, and he even found a rose-tree in the garden that his little sister Kate had planted.

However, as Smike grew weaker, travelling became impossible. On sunny days, Nicholas sat outside with him under some apple trees. One evening, they were watching the sun go down behind the hills. It was so warm that Nicholas fell asleep. Suddenly, he was woken by a scream.

‘What is it?’ he asked anxiously.

‘I saw him - over there, behind the trees! It was the man who took me to that horrible school, years ago!’

Nicholas searched among the trees, but there was no one there. ‘You were dreaming,’ he said when he returned.

‘No, I wasn’t dreaming,’ Smike replied, holding tightly onto Nicholas’s arm. ‘Promise me you’ll never leave me! Promise!’

Over the next few days, Smike became much weaker. Nicholas saw now that there was no hope for his young friend. A life of suffering and pain had made him too weak to fight his illness.

One fine, autumn day, Nicholas sat by Smike’s bedside. Smike was lying with his eyes closed, breathing gently. Suddenly, he opened his eyes. There was a small smile on his pale face.

‘I’ve had such pleasant dreams,’ he said softly.

‘What about?’ Nicholas asked.

The dying boy turned towards him and hugged his neck. ‘I shall soon be there.’ There was a short silence, then Smike spoke again. ‘I’m not afraid to die,’ he said. ‘But first I must tell you something. You’ve been so good to me, and I can’t keep any secrets from you. You asked me once why I had changed. Do you remember? You wondered why I spent so much time alone. Shall I tell you why?’

Not if it makes you unhappy.’

Smike explained that he had been in love with Nicholas’s sister. ‘I’ve been so unhappy,’ he said. ‘I’m so sorry. Will you ever forgive me?’

Nicholas went on his knees by Smike’s bed and held his hand. ‘Oh, you poor boy, he said with tears in his eyes. ‘Of course I forgive you.’

Now, Smike said softly, ‘I am happy.’

He died later that night, quietly, in his sleep.

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