`He is not here, sir,' replied Nicholas.
`Don't tell me a lie,' retorted the schoolmaster. `He is.'
`He is not,' retorted Nicholas angrily, `don't tell me one.'
`We shall soon see that,' said Mr Squeers, rushing upstairs. `I'll find him, I warrant you.'
With which assurance, Mr Squeers bounced into the dormitory, and, swinging his cane in the air ready for a blow, darted into the corner where the lean body of the drudge was usually stretched at night. The cane descended harmlessly upon the ground. There was nobody there.
`What does this mean?' said Squeers, turning round with a very pale face. `Where have you hid him?'
`I have seen nothing of him since last night,' replied Nicholas.
`Come,' said Squeers, evidently frightened, though he endeavoured to look otherwise, `you won't save him this way. Where is he?'
`At the bottom of the nearest pond for aught I know,' rejoined Nicholas in a low voice, and fixing his eyes full on the master's face.
`Damn you, what do you mean by that?' retorted Squeers in great perturbation. Without waiting for a reply, he inquired of the boys whether any one among them knew anything of their missing schoolmate.
There was a general hum of anxious denial, in the midst of which, one shrill voice was heard to say (as, indeed, everybody thought):
`Please, sir, I think Smike's run away, sir.'
`Ha!' cried Squeers, turning sharp round. `Who said that?'
`Tomkins, please sir,' rejoined a chorus of voices. Mr Squeers made a plunge into the crowd, and at one dive, caught a very little boy, habited still in his night-gear, and the perplexed expression of whose countenance, as he was brought forward, seemed to intimate that he was as yet uncertain whether he was about to be punished or rewarded for the suggestion. He was not long in doubt.
`You think he has run away, do you, sir?' demanded Squeers.
`Yes, please sir,' replied the little boy.
`And what, sir,' said Squeers, catching the little boy suddenly by the arms and whisking up his drapery in a most dexterous manner, `what reason have you to suppose that any boy would want to run away from this establishment? Eh, sir?'
The child raised a dismal cry, by way of answer, and Mr Squeers, throwing himself into the most favourable attitude for exercising his strength, beat him until the little urchin in his writhings actually rolled out of his hands, when he mercifully allowed him to roll away, as he best could.
`There,' said Squeers. `Now if any other boy thinks Smike has run away, I shall be glad to have a talk with him.'
There was, of course, a profound silence, during which Nicholas showed his disgust as plainly as looks could show it.
`Well, Nickleby,' said Squeers, eyeing him maliciously. `You think he has run away, I suppose?'
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