Walk with me, reader, into Whitecross Street. It is Saturday night, the market-night of the poor; also the one evening in the week which the weary toilers of our great city can devote to ease and recreation in the sweet assurance of a morrow unenslaved. Let us see how they spend this "Truce of God;" our opportunities will be of the best in the district we are entering.
As we suddenly turn northwards out of the dim and quiet regions of Barbican, we are at first confused by the glare of lights and the hubbub of cries. Pressing through an ever-moving crowd, we find ourselves in a long and narrow street, forming, from end to end, one busy market. Besides the ordinary shops, amongst which the conspicuous fronts of the butchers' and the grocers' predominate, the street is lined along either pavement with rows of stalls and booths, each illuminated with flaring naphtha-lamps, the flames of which shoot up fiercely at each stronger gust of wind, filling the air around with a sickly odour, and throwing a weird light upon the multitudinous faces. Behind the lights stand men, women and children, each hallooing in every variety of intense key -- from the shrillest conceivable piping to a thunderous roar, which well-nigh deafens one -- the prices and the merits of their wares. The fronts of the houses, as we glance up towards the deep blackness overhead, have a decayed, filthy, often an evil, look; and here and there, on either side, is a low, yawning archway, or a passage some four feet wide, leading presumably to human habitations. Let us press through the throng to the mouth of one of these and look in, as long as the reeking odour will permit us. Straining the eyes into horrible darkness, we behold a blind alley, the unspeakable abominations of which are dimly suggested by a gas-lamp flickering at the further end. Here and there through a window glimmers a reddish light, forcing one to believe that people actually do live here; otherwise the alley is deserted, and the footstep echoes as we tread cautiously up the narrow slum. If we look up, we perceive that strong beams are fixed across between the fronts of the houses -- sure sign of the rottenness which everywhere prevails. Listen! That was the shrill screaming of an infant which came from one of the nearest dens. Yes, children are born here, and men and women die. Let us devoutly hope that the deaths exceed the births.
Now back into the street, for already we have become the observed of a little group of evil-looking fellows gathered round the entrance. Let us press once more through the noisy crowd, and inspect the shops and stalls. Here is exposed for sale an astounding variety of goods. Loudest in their cries, and not the least successful in attracting customers, are the butchers, who, with knife and chopper in hand, stand bellowing in stentorian tones the virtues of their meat; now inviting purchasers with their -- "Lovely, love-ly, l-ove-ly! Buy! buy buy buy -- buy!" now turning to abuse each other with a foul-mouthed virulence surpassing description. See how the foolish artisan's wife, whose face bears the evident signs of want and whose limbs shiver under her insufficient rags, lays down a little heap of shillings in return for a lump, half gristle, half bone, of questionable meat-ignorant that with half the money she might buy four times the quantity of far more healthy and sustaining food.
But now we come to luxuries. Here is a stall where lie oysters and whelks, ready stripped of their shells, offering an irresistible temptation to the miserable-looking wretches who stand around, sucking in the vinegared and peppered dainties till their stomachs are appeased, or their pockets empty. Next is a larger booth, where all manner of old linen, torn muslin, stained and faded ribbons, draggled trimming, and the like, is exposed for sale, piled up in foul and clammy heaps, which, as the slippery-tongued rogue, with a yard in his hand turns and tumbles it for the benefit of a circle of squalid and shivering women, sends forth a reek stronger than that from the basket of rotten cabbage on the next stall. How the poor wretches ogle the paltry rags, feverishly turn their money in their hands, discuss with each other in greedy whispers the cheapness or otherwise of the wares! Then we have an immense pile of old iron, which to most would appear wholly useless; but see how now and then a grimy-handed workman stops to rummage among it, and maybe finds something of use to him in his labour.
Here again, elevated on a cart, stands a vender of secondhand umbrellas, who, as he holds up the various articles of his stock and bangs them open under the street-lamps that purchasers may bear witness to their solidity, yells out a stream of talk amazing in its mixture of rude wit, coarse humour, and voluble impudence. "Here's a humbereller!" he cries, "Look at this 'ere; now do! Fit for the Jewk o' York, the Jewk of Cork, or any other member of the no-bility. As fo my own grace, I hassure yer, I never uses any other! Come, who says 'alf-a-crownd for this? -- No? -- Why, then, two bob -- one an'-a-tanner -- a bob! Gone, and damned cheap too!" This man makes noise enough; but here, close behind him, is an open shop-front with a mingled array of household utensils defying description, the price chalked in large figures on each, and on a stool stands a little lad, clashing incessantly with an enormous hammer upon a tray as tall as himself, and with his piercing young voice doing his utmost to attract hearers. Next we have a stall covered with cheap and trashy ornaments, chipped glass vases of a hundred patterns, picture-frames, lamps, watch-chains, rings; things such as may tempt a few of the hard-earned coppers out of a young wife's pocket, or induce the working lad to spend a shilling for the delight of some consumptive girl, with the result, perhaps, of leading her to seek in the brothel a relief from the slow death of the factory or the work-room. As we push along we find ourselves clung to by something or other, and, looking down, see a little girl, perhaps four years old, the very image of naked wretchedness, holding up, with shrill, pitiful appeals, a large piece of salt, for which she wants one halfpenny -- no more, she assures us, than one half-penny. She clings persistently and will not be shaken off. Poor little thing; most likely failure to sell her salt will involve a brutal beating when she returns to the foul nest which she calls home. We cannot carry the salt, but we give her a copper and she runs off, delighted. Follow her, and we see with some surprise that she runs to a near eating-house, one of many we have observed. Behind the long counter stands a man and a woman, the former busy in frying flat fish over a huge fire, the latter engaged in dipping a ladle into a large vessel which steams profusely; and in front of the counter stands a row of hungry-looking people, devouring eagerly the flakes of fish and the greasy potatoes as fast as they come from the pan, whilst others are served by the woman to little basins of stewed eels from the steaming tureen. But the good people of Whitecross Street are thirsty as well as hungry, and there is no lack of gin-palaces to supply their needs. Open the door and look into one of these. Here a group are wrangling over a disputed toss or bet, here two are coming to blows, there are half-a-dozen young men and women, all half drunk, mauling each other with vile caresses; and all the time, from the lips of the youngest and the oldest, foams forth such a torrent of inanity, abomination, and horrible blasphemy which bespeaks the very depth of human -- aye, or of bestial -- degradation. And notice how, between these centres and the alleys into which we have peered, shoeless children, slipshod and bareheaded women, tottering old men, are constantly coming and going with cans or jugs in their hands. Well, is it not Saturday night? And how can the week's wages be better spent than in procuring a few hours' unconsciousness of the returning Monday.
The crowd that constantly throngs from one end of the street to the other is very miscellaneous, comprehending alike the almost naked wretch who creeps along in the hope of being able to steal a mouthful of garbage, and the respectably clad artisan and his wife, seeing how best they can lay out their money for the ensuing week. The majority are women, some carrying children in their arms, some laden with a basket full of purchases, most with no covering on their heads but the corner of a shawl.
But look at the faces! Here is a young mother with a child sucking at her bare breast, as she chaffers with a man over a pound of potatoes. Suddenly she turns away with reddened cheeks, shrinking before a vile jest which creates bursts of laughter in the by-standers. Pooh! She is evidently new in this quarter, perhaps come up of late from the country. Wait a year, and you will see her joining in the laugh at her own expense, with as much gusto as that young woman behind her, whose features, under more favourable circumstances, might have had, something of beauty, but starvation and dirt and exposure have coarsened the grain and made her teeth grin woefully between her thin lips.
Or look at the woman on the other side, who is laughing till she cries. Does not every line of her face bespeak the baseness of her nature? Cannot one even guess at the vile trade by which she keeps her limbs covered with those layers of gross fat, whilst those around her are so pinched and thin? Her cheeks hang flabbily, and her eyes twinkle with a vicious light. A deep scar marks her forehead, a memento of some recent drunken brawl. When she has laughed her fill, she turns to look after a child which is being dragged through the mud by her skirts, being scarcely yet able to walk, and, bidding it with a cuff and a curse not to leave loose of her, pushes on stoutly through the crowd.
One could find matter for hour-long observation in the infinite variety of vice and misery depicted in the faces around. It must be confessed that the majority do not seem unhappy; they jest with each other amid their squalor; they have an evident pleasure in buying and selling; they would be surprised if they knew you pitied them. And the very fact that they are unconscious of their degradation afflicts one with all the keener pity. We suffer them to become brutes in our midst, and inhabit dens which clean animals would shun, to derive their joys from sources from which a cultivated mind shrinks as from a pestilential vapour. And can we console ourselves with the reflection that they do not feel their misery?
Well, this is the Whitecross Street of to-day; but it is in this street rather more than twenty years ago that my story opens. There is not much difference between now and then, except that the appearance of the shops is perhaps improved, and the sanitary condition of the neighbourhood a trifle more attended to; the description, on the whole, may remain unaltered.
It was about half-past ten on a Saturday night, towards the close of November. All day long it had been snowing, but the snow had melted as it reached the ground, forming endless puddles of mire, into which the unceasing tramp of the crowd had trodden all manner of refuse from the market-stalls, till the whole street reeked with foul odours. Amid the throng, about half-way up the street, we notice a figure presenting a striking contrast to its surroundings. It is that of a gentleman, apparently some five and thirty years old, wearing the habit of a clergyman, and who, judging from the glances he casts on either side as he with difficulty makes his way through the noisome crowd, is very far from at home amid such sights and sounds. His face, which was smooth-shaven, of very delicate complexion, and handsome almost to effeminacy, was crossed one moment by a look of the profoundest commiseration, the next gave expression of profound disgust and horror, as his eye fell on the objects and persons nearest him; and not unfrequently he moved considerably out of his direct course in order to avoid some spectacle especially repulsive. As he proceeded along the street, he kept glancing at the alleys and narrow lanes branching off on either hand, apparently in search of some particular locality.
At length, having entered a small shop to make inquiries, he crossed the road, and after some hesitation, was turning into a narrow, loathsome alley, which the light of a street lamp showed, bore the name of Adam and Eve Court, when a little girl, suddenly rushing out of the darkness, bumped unawares against him and fell to the ground, breaking to pieces a jug which she held in her hands. She did not begin to cry, but, instantly springing to her feet, proceeded to assail the cause of her accident with a stream of the foulest abuse, which would have been dreadful enough on the lips of a grown-up man, but appeared unutterably so as coming from a child.
"You've broke the jug, you have!" screamed the little creature at last, having exhausted her epithets; "you've broke the jug, you have; and you'll 'ave to pay for it, you will. Come now, pay for the jug, will you, mister?"
"Good God!" exclaimed the gentleman, half to himself, "what a hell I have got into!"
Then, taking a shilling from his pocket, he gave it to the child.
"Will that be enough?"
"Maybe it will."
"Stop! Can you tell me which is No. 9 in this yard?"
"And what d'yer want with No. 9, eh?" asked the child, biting the coin as she spoke; "I lives there."
"Then you can show me the house, I suppose?"
"Can if I chooses. What d'yer want with No. 9, eh?"
"Is there anyone named Golding living there?"
The child surveyed her questioner for a few moments with precociously evil eyes, then suddenly exclaimed --
"Last house but two. You'll have to knock twice." After which she rushed out into the street and was lost in the crowd.
The inquirer followed the direction indicated, and, picking his steps through the filth as carefully as the darkness allowed, with many an uneasy glance on either side and up at the houses, came at length in front of No. 9. He found the door standing open, but his eyes were unable to pierce a single foot into the dense blackness within. With a shudder, he groped for the knocker, and knocked loudly twice.
He repeated the summons several times before any notice was taken. At length, however, a window was thrown open above, and a shrill woman's voice cried out --
"What are you wantin' of? Who is it?"
"Is there a Mr. Golding living here?" asked the visitor, stepping back and endeavouring to catch sight of the speaker.
"There's one o' that name dyin' here, I'm thinkin'," returned a gruff voice, in a tone meant to be humorous. "What do you want with him, mister? Does he owe yer money? 'Cos if he do, I'm thinkin' ye'll have to look out sharp after it."
"Would you be so good as. to show me to his room?" cried the visitor. "I particularly wish to see him."
"Third floor back," screamed the female voice. "I s'pose yer don't want showin' the way up-stairs, do yer?"
The stranger entered the coal-black portal of the house, and, groping with his hands, made his way up-stairs till a door suddenly opened and a woman with a candle in her hand appeared. She seemed half undressed, her face, which was naturally hideous, was grimy with untold layers of dirt, and her whole appearance, lighted by the gleam from the tallow dip, was anything but reassuring. She started slightly when she perceived the elegant figure of the clergyman, and her manner at once became more respectful.
"Mr. Golding's room's on the next floor, sir. I doubt you'll find him in a bad way."
"Is he seriously ill?"
"Well, sir, my 'usband thinks him so bad as he's sent off our Jinny to the parish doctor; but she ain't come back yet. We've done what we could for him, I'm sure sir; but, you see, being that he was so fond of liquor like, and being that he owes us near on a month's rent a'ready, sir, you see it warn't to be expected as we could do as much as we might a' done if he'd been a better lodger, you see, sir. If anythink 'appens to him, sir (which, and I'm sure, I 'ope as it won't), d'ye think, sir, he 'as any friends as wouldn't like to see poor people suffer by him, and as 'ud pay his back rent, and ----"
It was impossible to say how long the woman would have gone on in this manner, for the appearance of the stranger seemed to work strongly upon her, and the fire of greed flashed from her green eyes; but the latter cut her short in the midst of her speech and, with a hurried word or two, stepped quickly up to the next story.
The door stood slightly ajar, and feeble rays of light made their way on to the landing. As his knock met with no reply, the clergyman walked quietly in without invitation. The scene which met his eyes was one of indescribable squalor and misery. The room, which was some ten feet square and about six in height, contained absolutely no furniture save a rude three-legged table. The floor was rugged and sloped from one side down towards the other, as if the foundations of the house were gradually sinking; the walls and ceiling in places showed great spots of moisture, and the small window, in which several panes had been broken and were replaced by brown paper, was sheltered by no blind or curtain, and gave admittance to a draught which swept round the room almost as keenly as the wind in the open air. On the table burned a candle thrust into the broken neck of a bottle, and by its light the visitor was enabled dimly to discern the living occupants of the garret. In one corner, as far removed out of the draught of the window as possible, a few ragged clothes had been spread upon the floor, and on these lay the figure of a man in his trowsers and shirt only, his face hidden in the bundled-up coat which formed his pillow. By his side, his head resting on the man's arm, lay a little boy, apparently some eight years old. Both were sleeping; the boy with the deep motionless sleep of utter weariness, the man with occasional groans and tosses, and now and then a rattle in his throat, and struggling for breath, which, however, did not awake him.
The clergyman took the candle in his hand and held it down so as to illumine the faces of the sleepers. That of the child was pale, meagre, sickly-looking, but withal pleasant in its natural outlines, particularly the mouth, which seemed to indicate a sweetness of disposition seldom found in these nurslings of misery. His hair, though thick and somewhat matted through neglect, was very fair, and fell naturally in rough curls about the forehead. It was necessary to move the man's head slightly in order to examine his face, and, as his eyes fell upon the features, the visitor drew back suddenly with a low exclamation of mingled surprise, pity, and disgust. The face itself was not ill-formed, bearing in its lineaments an unmistakable resemblance to the child; but want, sickness and vice had wrought such effects upon it as almost entirely to destroy the agreeable character which the physiognomy must once have possessed. It was the face of a comparatively young man; certainly he could not be more than thirty. The cheeks were sunk in ghastly hollows, the nostrils were unnaturally distended by his hard breathing, the teeth were strongly clenched so that no breath could pass through the lips, the whole face was livid in hue. Death seemed to be even then overcoming him in his sleep.
The visitor set down the candle hastily, and, uttering a low exclamation of horror, moved as if to call assistance. But at once he appeared to alter his purpose, and, returning to the side of the sleeper, shook him by the shoulder, calling, as he did so --
The man showed no sign of returning to consciousness, but the disturbance awoke the child, who moved slowly to a sitting position, rubbed his eyes, and at length began to sob quietly, paying no attention whatever to the stranger. The latter persevered for a few minutes in his endeavours to arouse the sick man, but, finding his efforts vain, was on the point of hurrying from the room, when the door opened, and the woman who had accosted him on the stairs came in, holding in her hand a glass of something which smoked.
"The doctor's a dre'ful long while a comin', sir," she said, in a wheedling sort of tone. "I thought as 'ow a drop of somethink warm 'ud, may be, do the poor gentleman good. Never mind the hexpense, sir; we likes to do what little good we can in our small way, yer know."
"He is unconscious," replied the clergyman, whose name we may at once say was Norman. "I cannot awake him. Are you sure the messenger saw the doctor?"
"Oh, quite sure, sir. Yer know the parish doctor ain't over pertikler in comin' just when he's wanted. But he won't be long now. Maybe you'd take a drop yerself, sir? No! Well, it don't suit everybody's stomach, certainly. So 'ere's yer very good 'ealth, sir, an' th' 'ealth of the poor gentleman too."
As she ceased she poured the warm liquor down her scraggy throat, leered hideously at the clergyman, and left the room.
Mr. Norman began to pace backwards and forwards in the utmost impatience, rubbing his hands together, intertwisting his fingers, and showing every sign of extreme nervousness. In some ten minutes eleven o'clock sounded from the church hard by, and as the tones ceased a slight commotion was evident upon the stairs. At once footsteps began to ascend rapidly, and Mr. Norman, with a sigh of relief, hurried to the door just in time to meet upon the threshold a young, earnest-looking man, whom the clergyman greeted with instinctive confidence. The doctor examined Golding for a few minutes in silence, then turned away from him with a slight shrug of the shoulders.
"Too late," he said, looking at the clergyman, "much too late. He won't last an hour."
"I feared it."
"Drink, sir, drink, and a dozen other ailments induced by it. I should only be wasting my time here at present, but I will look in about ten to-morrow."
"You can't prescribe anything?"
"Quite useless," replied the doctor, decisively. "You take a special interest in him?"
"He was an old college friend of mine, poor fellow. It is more than eight years since I saw him, but I could not have believed such a change possible."
The doctor made a few sympathetic remarks, bowed, and ran down stairs as quickly as he had come up. Mr. Norman tried once more to awaken the dying man to consciousness, but with no immediate result. So he turned his attention to the child, who still sat in the same place sobbing quietly.
"Is that your father?" he asked the boy, scanning the haggard features of his face with nervous glances.
The child sobbed out an affirmative reply, but no more. At this moment the sick man stirred slightly, and Mr. Norman saw his eyes slowly open.
"Golding!" he exclaimed, kneeling down by his side. "Do you see me? Do you know me?"
For some minutes no sign of consciousness manifested itself; but then the man made obvious efforts to speak. His face was dreadfully distorted in the struggle for breath, but no sound escaped him save a hollow rattle in his throat. The clergyman bent nearer to him in the hope of hearing a word, and, as he did so, Golding suddenly grasped him by the arm, and with his head and eyes made convulsive motions in the direction of the child. For a moment the grasp of his hands on Mr. Norman's arm was fearful in its violence, then it all at once relaxed, the perpetual rattle ceased, the eyes became fixed in a steady stare at the ceiling.
The candle had burnt to the socket, and the smoke rising from it in a narrow white column filled the room with its smell. The room was quite dark save for a faint gleam which came from a bedroom window on the opposite side of the court. In the house was absolute silence. The street was too far off for any sound from such buyers and sellers as might still linger there to be heard in the recesses of Adam and Eve Court. As the clergyman stood for a few moments, irresolute in the dark, he heard the voice of a woman screaming from a window opposite, and the laugh of a drunken man reeling into a house hard by. At length he rose to his feet and left the room.
On the first landing the woman again met him with a candle in her hand.
"Has anythink 'appened, sir?" she asked.
"He is dead," replied Mr. Norman.
"Eh! poor fellow! You don't 'appen to know, sir, if he's got any friends besides yerself, sir? Maybe there's somebody, sir, as mightn't like him to die in this way sir, an' him owin' ----"
"I will myself see to all that," interrupted the clergyman, turning away from the harpy's hideous face in loathing. "I wanted to tell you that I am going to take away his child with me. I will return in the morning."
"Oh, very well, sir. I'm sure it's good of you to take thought of the child. I've took a great deal o' care of him, sir, an' he's been a good bit of expense to me one way an' another. You see the gen'leman would drink, an' ----"
The clergyman cut short the old hag's protestations by once more ascending to the garret, having just taken the candle from her hand. He bent down to the boy, and said, in a low voice --
"Come with me, my poor child. Come quietly. You mustn't wake your father, for he is very poorly."
The child shook off the speaker's hands, and took hold of the arm of the corpse as if to prevent himself from being removed by force.
"Why should I go with you?" exclaimed the child, impulsively. "I'm going to stay with father, I am. I'll wait till he wakes. I don't know you at all, do I?"
Mr. Norman reflected for a moment, then spoke in a kind, low voice --
"Your father is dead, my poor child. He will never wake."
The boy stared with terror in the speaker's face, then sprang to the dead man's side, and grasped the face in his hands. He seemed to understand that the stranger had told him the truth. He fell upon his face on the floor, sobbing as if his heart would break, and between his sobs, crying --
It was vain to endeavour to take him away, and Mr. Norman was ultimately obliged to leave him alone in the garret with the corpse. Making his way down the pitch-black, creaking staircase, he passed into the open air. It was with a sigh of relief that he looked upwards, and in the narrow space, between the tops of the houses, saw a few stars shining, for it had now ceased snowing and the frost had begun to dry the ground. There were still people moving about Whitecross-street when he entered it, but the noise of the market had ceased, and all the lights were extinguished. Not without apprehensive glances at some of the figures which slouched by him in the darkness, Mr. Norman hurried along over the half-formed ice, and the still reeking remnants from the stalls, till at length he reached a more open neighbourhood. Here he soon found an opportunity of taking a cab, and before long reached his hotel in Oxford-street.
Edward Norman had the good fortune, at a comparatively early age, to find himself comfortably established as incumbent of the parish of Bloomford, which comprised some five hundred inhabitants in all, and was delightfully situated in one of the pleasantest of the southern counties. The duties resulting from his position were, as may be imagined, not very arduous, and the compensation, from a purely sordid point of view -- that treasure upon earth which the clergy doubtless prize merely as a type of the heavenly treasure which will one day be theirs -- was far from doing discredit to those "pious ancestors" of the village, whose liberality, as in all such cases, it was pleasantly understood to represent. It would, however, have been a heart steeped to the very root in the poison of Democracy, Communism, and kindred evils which could have grudged Edward Norman his charming little rectory and the thousand a year which enabled him to keep it in repair, for, in very truth, it would have been difficult to find a clergyman of a sweeter disposition, a kindlier heart, a sunnier intellect than his. His very appearance enforced one to conceive towards him a mingled sentiment of affection and compassion; for though his eye was ever bright, his lofty forehead unwrinkled, his cheek ever answering with a warm flush to the affectionate impulses of his heart, yet the first glance showed you that the man was an invalid, that his days were in all probability numbered. His malady was consumption; it had made its first decided appearance when he came of age, and now that he was almost thirty-five he could entertain no hope of its relaxing the hold it had gained upon his constitution.
The rectory of Bloomford was situated on a gently sloping hill-side, about a quarter of a mile above the church. It was a picturesque old building, with a roof of red tiles and a multiplicity of chimneys and gables, with small latticed windows in the upper story, broad eaves beneath which endless birds made their nests, and, over all, a forest of ivy, so old that the stems were like the trunks of trees. Before the house lay a carefully-tended flower garden, behind it a kitchen garden and an orchard, all around which ran a crumbling brick wall, some six feet high, on the outside thickly overgrown with the abounding ivy, within kept clear for the training of peach and plum trees. Even now, at the end of November, it was by no means a dreary place, for its smallness always gave it a compact and comfortable air; while in the autumn evenings all the front windows would glow with the warm reflection of the setting sun, and the smoke from the high chimneys curl up in many-hued shapes which seemed to bespeak the homelike comfort within. As you viewed the house from the front, there was, indeed, an object which gave it an air of individuality as distinguished from any other pleasantly situated country house; this was a somewhat newly-built tower, mainly of glass, which constituted a modest observatory, containing a large telescope, which was one of the chief delights of the clergyman's existence. This tower he had had built immediately after his entering upon the living, not without considerable scandal in the neighbourhood, where Mr. Norman was in consequence at first regarded as a species of Dr. Faustus, with whom it might possibly be dangerous, notwithstanding the apparent soundness of his doctrine, to hold much connection. It had indeed been formally decided at a meeting of the Bloomford Ladies' Sewing Club: "That this club considers the study of astronomy to be a sinful prying into the mysteries of the Almighty, and consequently a wilful tempting of His displeasure; that this club is surprised and grieved that a clergyman of the Church of England should set such an example to the <>weaklings of his flock; and that this club do, in consequence, prepare a memorial on this subject, to be duly presented to the Rev. Mr. Norman on the earliest fitting opportunity." This resolution was written out, with the due emphasis, by the secretary of the club, but the memorial was never presented, owing, I believe, to the fact that the personal amiability of the reverend gentleman in a very short time succeeded in utterly disarming the suspicions of the fair inquisitors. At that time a large majority of the club were unmarried ladies, and it may not unreasonably be concluded that the fact of Mr. Norman being then a bachelor of twenty-four had an appreciable influence in weakening their zeal for the preservation of the Creator's privacy. This had been some ten years since, and at present the only memorial of those early prejudices existed in the person of a poor old woman of the village, who, having gone harmlessly crazy just at the time when the rector's presumption had been the great topic of conversation, still never failed to pass him without asking, with a respectful curtesy --
"What's the latest news from heaven, my lord?"
The respectable subscribers to our circulating libraries would not owe me much thanks were I to describe in detail the oft-treated history of a clergyman's search among his fair parishioners for a suitable partner of his cares, or, perhaps I should say, the hot competition among the latter for the possession of the dearly-coveted honour, the position of a parson's wife. Without unnecessary amplitude of description, therefore, I shall content myself with saying that, before Edward Norman had been a year in his cure, the lot had been drawn, and the happy maid had received her prize; nor could the most envious assert that in choosing Helen Burton for his bride, the clergyman had laid himself open to imputations on his taste or his generosity. Helen had long been, undisputedly, the village beauty, but so humble was her social position that not one of the damsels who boasted of their place in the aristocracy of the district had for a moment dreamed of her as a rival. She was nothing more than the daughter of the principal tailor in Bloomford, but her father was a man of the strictest integrity, even of some intellectual pretensions, and universally respected by all who were so unfortunate as to be tainted with the modern heresy that money does not make the man. Helen had, thanks to this worthy man's care, received an education which would compare very favourably indeed even with that possessed by the daughters of Sir Bedford Lamb, one of the members for the county, whose seat was only some two miles distant from Bloomford. It was indeed then to the astonishment of all, but to the scandalisation -- and that affected -- of only the few, that Helen Burton had become Mrs. Norman.
Edward Norman loved his wife devotedly, passionately. Upon her he lavished all the treasures of his dreamy, sentimental, poetical temperament. From his first sight of her she had become the goddess of his thought, the centre of every hope and longing which shed its fragrance upon his calm, contemplative life; and when at length these aspirations were fulfilled, and she had become the goddess of his hearth, the man felt as if life had nothing more to give him. But from the very exuberance of its bounty towards him did life become more than ever dear, and this in face of the fact that it was gradually, hopelessly slipping away from him. But sometimes again this very hopelessness bred within him a refinement of delight to which a healthier man could scarcely have attained. As, during the early months of their marriage, he often sat through the long summer evenings in the quietness of his study, holding Helen's hand within his own, and both together gazing westwards on the melting glories of the sunset, he felt that to gradually sink into his grave cared for at every moment by this angel whom Fate had sent to bless him, and drink in the ever-deepening fervour of her love as she felt him passing from her side, to hold, when all was over, for ever a sacred place in so pure a mind -- at times he felt that these were delights far superior to the possession of the most robust health and hopes of the longest life. To be sure there was a tinge of refined selfishness in this; but that was a part of his nature. And what purest affection is without it?
But in these hopes he had deceived himself. Before his bliss had lasted for a year it seemed about to be crowned by the birth of a child. The child -- a girl -- was indeed born, but at the expense of its mother's life.
Edward Norman's grief was sacred even to the impertinence of village gossip. When, a few weeks after, a beer-muddled rustic happened to stray late at night in the neighbourhood of the churchyard, and next morning spread the report among his fellow-yokels that he had seen a ghost by the new grave stretching up its arms in the moonlight, his story did not attract much comment, for the hearts of the humblest, which, after all, are human, whispered that the agony of a husband over a young wife's tomb was not a subject for trivial chatter.
But when the period of more or less lachrymose sympathy had waned with the rector's first year of bereavement, other thoughts began once more to spring in the young female mind of Bloomford. If Mr. Norman had been interesting before, how infinitely more so had he now become. The movement for a fresh attack upon his sensibilities took first of all the ominous form of sympathy for his child, poor little Helen. What a shocking thing it was that the little darling -- such an absolute little angel -- had no mother to care for it. How was it possible that it should be sufficiently tended by the hired nurse-girl, even though overseered by the rector's housekeeper, Mrs. Cope, a worthy old lady who had watched Edward Norman's own cradle, and, shortly after his wife's death, had gladly complied with his written request that she would undertake the guidance of his household? Of course, such a state of affairs was absolutely contrary to the nature of things -- it might even be said to the divine law; for it should be noted that these ladies, who had once been shocked at the clergyman's astronomical studies, were anything but backward in interpreting the thoughts and the wishes of Providence when it suited them to do so. But then arose the question among the more serious as to whether a clergyman could, consistently with his sacred office, take unto himself a second fleshly comforter. The younger maidens firmly maintained that there was nothing shocking in such a course, and to such an extent did their views preponderate that when, by chance, an inoffensive damsel of sixty summers, whose turn it was to read aloud for an evening to the Bloomford Ladies' Mutual Improvement Society (a recent development of the Sewing-Club before-mentioned) came, in the "Vicar of Wakefield," to those unfortunate sentiments of Dr. Primrose on the very question at issue, she was forthwith stopped by a chorus of dissentients, and the book was no more read aloud in the Society; it being whispered by one or two members, that, after all, Goldsmith did not display that delicacy of conception necessary in one whose works are to be fitted for mutual improvement.
Whether Mr. Norman was aware of this and the like matters it would not be easy to say; in all probability not. His life became every day more solitary and secluded; to such an extent, indeed, as to give rise to the remonstrances of his more sensible friends. As his wont was, he listened with amiability to all who found an opportunity of addressing him, but without the slightest effect upon his conduct.
By nature little disposed to social life, he now lived more and more in the company of his books and his thoughts. His grief had, of course, calmed as time wore on; had become, indeed, somewhat of a quiet pleasure, finding its expression in long hours of reverie wherein his thoughts were busiest with multiplying idealisations of his dead wife, and of the bliss he had enjoyed with her; or, at other times, in looking forward to the day when little Helen would revive her mother's loveliness in the full blush of womanhood, and wondering whether he would live to see it.
Under such circumstances, he was rather glad to avail himself of the popular sympathy in order to provide a pretext for his much-loved retirement. His health was another, and a real cause for abstinence from too active exertions. His malady progressed, very slowly but perceptibly, and, some five years after his wife's death, a special illness rendered it absolutely necessary that he should have the benefit of a change of air. He accordingly obtained leave of absence from his duties, and passed rather more than a month in the south of France. It was immediately after his return to Bloomford that a letter from Golding came to his hand, resulting in his sudden visit to London, the circumstances of which have been detailed in the last chapter.
Three days after this, Edward Norman was sitting at breakfast in the little morning-room which looked northwards, upon what was in summer the pleasantest part of the garden -- a fair lawn, bordered with flower-beds, and enclosed with thick growths of laburnum. The room itself was light and cheerful, the choice and arrangement of its ornaments remaining still a sacred memorial of the taste of its former mistress. Everything bespoke the utmost elegance and refinement in him who now alone used the room, impressing the beholder with ideas fully borne out by the appearance of the clergyman himself.
He was sitting in an arm-chair by the fireside, a small low table bearing the tray which held his simple breakfast. He wore a handsome dressing-gown closely folded around him, from beneath the bottom of which appeared a pair of spotless woollen slippers. A newspaper lay on the table, which had apparently not yet been opened, but an exquisite little copy of Horace formed his companion at breakfast instead, which he perused with a languid pleasure through his gold-rimmed eyeglasses.
It did not, however, seem to engross his attention, for his eyes frequently wandered to the windows and looked out upon the rays of faint sunlight which, struggling through ominous clouds, fell athwart the lawn and upon the leafless laburnums. At one of these glances his face suddenly assumed a look of keener interest. This was caused by the sight of two children, a little girl, perhaps eight years old, with a face of delicate prettiness, and dressed in a handsome little winter costume which became her wonderfully, and by her side a boy, in appearance much older, though in reality about the same age. The clothing had undergone a reformation; but the handsome, pale, attenuated features, and the curling yellow hair were evidently those of poor Golding's child. He seemed to follow his graceful little companion with reluctance, scarcely ever raising his eyes to look at the objects around him, but keeping them bent upon the grass.
The expression on his face was sorrowful in the extreme; tears seemed momentarily about to start from his eyes. The remarks which the little girl addressed to him he seemed not to understand; at all events, he scarcely attempted to answer them. The two were not quite alone, but were followed at the distance of a few yards by a cheerful-looking middle-aged woman, who knitted as she walked, casting each moment curious glances at the children in front of her. This was Mrs. Cope, the rector's worthy housekeeper. In her cheeks still lived much of the bloom which had made her not a little admired, when, as a country maiden of sixteen, she had been called to act as handmaid of Edward Norman himself, then aged one year.
Mrs. Cope was now a widow, and among the most active of the plotters against Mr. Norman's peace in Bloomford there were not a few who looked with a jealous eye upon this lady. If the rector had begun by marrying a tailor's daughter, who could guarantee that he would not once more bid defiance to the world by taking to wife his housekeeper? The more prudish even whispered that it really was not very delicate in Mr. Norman to permit the residence in his ladyless house of a "female" of Mrs. Cope's years and appearance.
The rector's eyes were still fixed upon the figures on the lawn, when a sudden ring at the door-bell announced the arrival of a visitor. A moment after a servant tapped at the door, and proclaimed --
This gentleman was no other than the curate of the parish. His appearance and character appear to me to merit a few lines of description. In stature he stood some five feet, no more, and his head looked very much too large for this diminutive body. Probably this effect was increased by the peculiarities of his hair, which stood almost on end in large, coarse, reddish clusters over the top of his head; the pressure of a hat seemed to have not the slightest effect upon its stubborn elasticity. He wore extremely stiff whiskers, also red in hue, but no moustache. The habitual expression of his face was irresistibly comic; the eyes being very large and constantly moving in the drollest manner, whilst his nose, slightly celestial in tendency, and the peculiar conformation of his mouth and chin gave his countenance something of a Hibernian cast, though the man was true-born English. His constant attitude was very upright, as if to make the most of his inches, with the fore-finger of either hand inserted in his waistcoat pockets, and with his toes, upon which he regularly rose as he spoke, decidedly turned in towards each other. Such was the outward and visible appearance of Mr. Orlando Whiffle. Of his character I shall not say much at present, leaving it for the divination of the acute reader. I may, however, remark that the man was a living satire upon the Church of which he was a servant, an admirable caricature, far excelling anything that a professed ridiculer of ecclesiasticism could possibly have conceived. His age was about forty, and he had officiated as curate in Bloomford since the arrival of Mr. Norman. At that time, some ten years ago, he already rejoiced in a family of three sons and two daughters, and the circle of his patria potesas had since been widened by the arrival of three more daughters. And yet Mr. Whiffle was a light-hearted man.
He advanced into the room with his usual bow, which, like everything he did, was very much exaggerated and extremely ridiculous, then stepped briskly up to a low arm-chair over against that occupied by the rector, and dropped into it with quite a startling suddenness.
"Good-morning, Mr. Whiffle," said the rector, not taking the trouble to rise. "Quite a pleasant morning."
"Remarkably so, sir. The singing of the sparrows quite charmed me as I came along."
"Of the sparrows, Mr. Whiffle?"
"Possibly they may have been another species of bird, sir. I have never given much attention to natural history. The Church does not encourage it."
He spoke in a sprightly, jerky manner, twirling his soft, clerical hat in his hand, and constantly shuffling uneasily on his chair.
"Did you come across the lawn?" asked the rector, smiling slightly.
"I did, sir. And I observed there a young gentleman of whose existence here I was not previously aware. May I ask who?"
"He is the child of an old friend of mine -- a man in a humble position in life -- who has just died and left, as far as he was aware of, no relatives. I have undertaken to take care of the boy."
"Ah! Interesting, very interesting! You will send him to school, I presume? He is hardly old enough for a boarding-school yet."
"Nor advanced enough. The poor child has received absolutely no education of any kind."
"Ah! Interesting beyond expression. Absolutely virgin soil for the ploughshare of instruction; absolutely unturned ground for the seed of fundamental ideas! I think I have already hinted to you, sir, that I am preparing a pamphlet on the subject of 'Fundamental Ideas,' in which I prove that there are three such ideas, and three only, which should never fail to be first of all instilled into the youthful mind. The first of these is the Inviolability of the Church as by Law Established; the second is the Immutability of the Poor Laws; the third is the Condemnability of Dissent. These I am wont, in my facetious way, to term my three 'Abilities,' -- ha, ha, ha! I fancy I shall prove to the satisfaction of all readers that an education grounded upon the basework of these three ideas would be the very ideal of what education should be."
"I am hardly at one with you as to your second," said Mr. Norman, "and I imagine that if you had accompanied me in a walk I took the other day in London, you would have replaced it by some more fitting one -- say the Immutability of Human Wretchedness. Did you ever happen to walk through Whitecross Street when you lived in London, Mr. Whiffle?"
"Whitecross Street, my dear sir? I had the happiness of officiating for a brief period in the very parish which includes it."
"Indeed? Then I need not describe it to you. Good God! I shall be haunted to my dying day with the scenes I beheld there last Saturday night."
"Very bad locality, sir; remarkably bad. Indeed, I may say it surpasses my limited comprehension that such localities should be permitted to exist in a land enjoying the inestimable blessing of a Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Upon my word, sir, that is one of the things that one should preach a crusade against! Yes, if I had the happiness of holding a living in London, I would commence to preach a crusade against Whitecross Street to-morrow -- I mean next Sunday."
Mr. Whiffle, according to his habit, rose to his feet in the excitement of speaking, crushed his hat emphatically upon the table, thrust his fingers deep into his waistcoat pockets, and swayed backwards and forwards on his toes. As he concluded, he plumped down again into his easy chair.
"But I imagine, Mr. Whiffle, that the first step towards abolishing such horrors would consist of a judicious alteration in those Poor Laws which you pledge yourself to maintain."
Mr. Norman had scarcely a serious air when conversing with his curate. You could see that he took a pleasure in bringing out the man's eccentricities and internally making merry over them.
"No such thing, sir!" exclaimed Mr. Whiffle, "that is, I mean, if you permit me to urge my opinion against that of my rector. I assure you, sir, I have given thought to the subject. It is not the Poor Laws at fault; it is inherent impracticability in the nature of the lower classes which renders these Laws comparatively inoperative. Depend upon it, sir, the spread of Dissent among these off-scourings of the earth, if I may so express myself, is the origin and root of the evil. They lack respect for the Established Church, sir."
"Possibly there may be something in what you say, Mr. Whiffle."
"I have in my head, sir, the details of a pamphlet on the subject of Dissent. I will venture to submit it to you in a short time. If there is one thing against which the Church should at once preach a crusade, it is that canker in the blossom of contemporary society, if I may so express myself -- Dissent!"
"It was horrible, horrible!" said the rector, speaking more to himself than to Mr. Whiffle. "The thought oftenest in my mind whilst in that hideous scene was: How can we wonder that men doubt the existence of God?"
"Precisely the same thought has often occurred to myself. Really, one ought to carry about with one small selected volumes of religious evidences, especially for such occasions."
There was silence for some minutes, during which Mr. Whiffle whistled a Te Deum in a very low tone. Mr. Norman then suddenly seemed to rouse himself.
"But I have been wandering," he said. "My real reason for begging you to look in this morning was that I might consult you on the subject of Arthur's education. The child's name is Arthur Golding. Do you think your leisure would permit of your giving the child two or three hours' teaching a day?"
"My dear sir!" exclaimed Mr. Whiffle, starting to his feet, "I should be overjoyed to be entrusted with such a duty! It would be the proudest day for me since that ever-memorable one upon which I entered the Church!"
"I am glad it so entirely chimes with your inclinations. As I said, the poor lad is terribly backward. He is, moreover, quite unusually sensitive for a child. I fancy that in any case we must wait some little time before attempting to do anything with him. I never saw a child suffer so as he has done in consequence of his father's death. Suppose I walk over to you this evening, if it continues fine, and bring Arthur with me? The sight of your children might cheer him."
"Precisely, precisely!" exclaimed Orlando, who grew more cheery than ever when reminded of his family -- for did not a tutorship imply a stipend? "Let us say seven o'clock, my dear sir. At that hour we shall all be gathered round the hearth in domestic peace, I hope."
"So be it."
Very shortly after this Mr. Whiffle rose and took his leave. He was, it should be noticed, a man by no means devoid of information, which, when he kept clear of clerical matters, he could make tolerable use of. He was a fair classical scholar, but especially an excellent arithmetician, so that Edward Norman had not acted with such indiscretion as might at first sight appear in proposing to entrust to him such an important matter as a child's education.
The rector had not seen fit, however, to make Mr. Whiffle his confidant in the exact story of Arthur Golding's antecedents. Nothing would be gained by doing so; on the contrary Orlando's active tongue would scarcely fail to circulate among the parishioners stories which were far better kept secret. But that afternoon Mr. Norman, in writing a letter to the only intimate friend he possessed, by name Gilbert Gresham, an artist who was just then travelling in Italy, gave a full account of the evening he had passed in Whitecross Street.
It was only in these letters to his friend that Edward Norman gave utterance to his real feelings. In miscellaneous company he was always under obvious restraints; with such men as his curate and sundry of the neighbouring clergy who occasionally visited him he was at ease, often gravely satirical, but still not himself. Thus it came about that various estimates of his character were in circulation among his acquaintances. Possibly he did not himself possess much more real insight into his own nature than did these superficial observers.
"And whom do you think," the letter went on, after describing vividly the horrors of Whitecross Street, "whom do you think I discovered in one of the foulest recesses of this Pandemonium? No other than my once dear friend, Arthur Golding. Of course you remember him quite well, though I recollect he was not an intimate acquaintance of yours; he did not belong to your set at Balliol. He was a schoolfellow of mine to begin with, and we never lost sight of each other for more than a few weeks at a time during half a dozen years or so. Little did I imagine then that I should one day find him at the last gasp in a London garret. He had written to me, poor fellow, begging that I would come and see him, as he feared he was drawing to his end; but, by a piece of stupidity on the part of my housekeeper, the letter was not forwarded to me. I found him unconscious. After I had watched by his side for some time his senses appeared partially to return to him. Though he was unable to speak, he pointed to his child, a boy of some eight years, who lay by his side, and I console myself with the idea that rendered his last moments easier by showing that I understood his wish.
"Poor Golding! At his best he was, in appearance, the handsomest youth I ever knew; his beauty, indeed, was almost feminine, and, I suspect, indicated rather plainly the weak parts of his character. I had entirely lost sight of him for many years. Even when I last parted from him in those brighter days he was all but an habitual drunkard; I remember warning him with all the severity I was capable of -- Heaven knows that is not saying much! -- of the terrible path upon which he was entering. But I could little foresee the horrors through which his brief life would struggle to that pitiful end.
"I found in his pocket, after his death, a long letter, written in an almost illegible hand, and intended for myself; perhaps he meant me to receive it after his death, for it was ready addressed and stamped, though written more than a week before. In this he revealed to me a secret I could never have suspected. It seems that, shortly after the birth of the child, he fell into severe difficulties, in consequence of which he was ultimately compelled to obtain a clerkship of some kind. His salary, however, proved insufficient to his needs, and, in a fatal moment, he yielded to a terrible temptation, and robbed his employers. He was found out, and suffered the punishment for his crime. This was the blow that hopelessly shattered what little of energy and purpose his life had hitherto retained.
"You will wonder how it was that he never applied to me for some kind of assistance before his ruin had become irretrievable, for, with my means and connections, I might well have been expected to help him. Ah! that awakens sore memories, and necessitates the narrative of a part of my own history, which as yet I have never poured into even your friendly ears. You must have wondered who the wretched woman was who, as Golding's wife, bore a share in this life-tragedy, and had vanished before the close of it.
"Do you remember 'Laura,' the laughing-eyed angel of whom I used to prate to you from morning to night; whom I told you I had loved from a child, for whose sake I learned by heart one of Petrarch's sonnets every day of my life? It makes me miserable to think of her, and I must tell what I have to tell in very few words. Well, at the end of the last term we spent together at the University, Golding came to spend a few weeks with me amid the delights of my Warwickshire home. At that time, as I have said, he was a charming fellow, and a few days sufficed to make him as much at his ease with all my friends and acquaintances as I was myself. He saw Laura, could not but fall madly in love with her; in an evil hour persuaded her to reciprocate his passion, and -- to cut the story short -- eloped with her. At first I raved against him like a madman, feeling sure he had merely carried off the girl to ruin her. With all my energy I hunted him down, and, to my amazement, found that the two were married. Of course we quarrelled violently, and there you have the explanation of our broken intimacy.
"Now you will not wonder at my determining to adopt his child, whose name is also Arthur, for is he not her child, the child of that Laura who was once -- alas! alas! -- more than the world to me? Oh, God! what she must have gone through! In his letter Golding did not mention her name; but I have had the courage to ask the boy what he knew of his mother, and he tells me she died in the hospital a long time ago. It was a relief to hear it.
"And so I shall bring the boy up as my own, to be a brother to Helen. Will he grow up imbued with his father's vices, and make me wish that I had left him to struggle for his bitter existence in the seething sewer out of which I have plucked him? Who knows? He seems rather a strange lad; I half think I shall like him, for it is certain he has something of his mother's face, though most of his father's. He is as gentle as a girl, and, I should imagine, of very tolerable natural abilities. Well, I must do all I can for his education, but of course his future lies in the lap of the gods. I will not fail to acquaint you with his progress -- the reverse."
Mr. Norman, who was but a slight eater, adhered to the country rule, and took a mid-day dinner. This meal was always shared by little Helen, who at other times ate in her nursery with Mrs. Cope. The present day beheld the unusual spectacle of two children at the table, one on each side of the rector, who glanced at them alternately: at the one with a look of pride and affection, at the other with interest, not devoid of pain.
Truly, the contrast was decided enough. On the right hand was the little girl, whose young life had known no trouble more severe than the cutting of teeth and the whooping-cough, with bright, chubby face, which smiled even during sleep, a head covered with ringlets of the purest gold, beneath her chin a spotless pinafore, sitting severely upright on her high, cane-bottomed chair, as if in conscious dignity of her dominion, past, present and to come; handling her spoon with a natural grace, and, at the same time, somewhat of an "old-fashioned" air, such as would have made a stranger smile; her figure lit up by a ray of sunlight, which streamed full upon her through the window; as a rule, silent and thoughtful, but when spoken to, replying with a considerate gravity or a quiet mirth, alike in advance of her years.
Opposite to her sat the boy, the neglected waif of Whitecross Street, whose eight years had scarcely known a joy; in all that regards the higher nature of man far more ignorant than the little girl; in all that is base and ugly and fearful all but matured in experience.
In his outer appearance there was nothing now incongruous or repulsive; his agreeable features looked far better in the neat suit of clothes in which he was now attired than with the rags in which Mr. Norman had first seen him. But for all that it was painful to regard him. He evidently felt so completely estranged at this elegant table -- he who had been accustomed to make his meals off a crust, gnawed whilst sitting on a door-step, or wandering about the streets. He did not know what to do with his knife and fork, his plate would not remain steady whilst he endeavoured to cut his meat; he kept slipping forwards on the chair, which was much too large for him; in short, he was utterly miserable. The only thing he could really succeed in eating was bread, and of that he ate as much as possible to satisfy the keen hunger he felt.
And, in addition to these temporary troubles, that look of deep sadness still rested on his face, bespeaking the one great sorrow which oppressed him. In answer to the remarks which the rector now and then addressed to him, he replied with a monosyllable, hanging his head, and seeming frightened at the sound of his own voice. He kept looking on each side of him, nervously apprehensive lest anyone should be watching him. Out of absolute pity, Mr. Norman cut the dinner as short as possible.
When released from table, Arthur, being told he might dispose of himself as he would, wandered out into the orchard behind the house, and finding a bench placed in an out-of-the-way corner, sat down and gave himself up to his thoughts, whatever they were.
Meantime little Helen, as usual after dinner, had drawn a footstool close to her father's arm-chair and sat gazing upon the fire reflectively, waiting for the usual conversation to be opened. Her father did not appear likely to open his lips first, so the little girl broke silence.
"Father, you said Arthur's father was dead?"
"And why doesn't Arthur wear black?"
The rector paused for a moment, then replied by asking another question.
"Do you think it right to wear black when a relative dies, Helen?"
"Everybody does so, father."
"And why do they?"
"I suppose to show that they are sorry."
"More often to make a show of sorrow they do not feel, Helen. If one is really sorry what is gained by letting all the world know it?"
"Then you do not think it right to wear black, father?"
"It is a custom; but I think a rather foolish one."
There was a long pause, during which Helen reflected on this point.
"Father," she said, at length, "are not a great many customs very foolish?"
"Very many, dear."
"Then if they are foolish, and people know it, as of course they must do, why ever do not people cease doing such things?"
Helen had now come to one of those knotty points which she had not unfrequently arrived at in her mental excursions. As she spoke her fine eyes sparkled and her voice trembled with a species of irritation.
Shaking back her curls with a pretty little movement which was habitual to her, she sat looking up into her father's face, awaiting an answer.
"Custom, Helen," replied Mr. Norman with a smile, as he ran his fingers through the golden ringlets which hid the child's ears, "is a mighty god which, more or less, all the world worships, and to which it offers the most precious sacrifices -- often that which it holds dearest. It does not matter whether they are willing or not to make. the sacrifice. They have all their lives worshipped the god Custom with their eyes open, and whatever it be that he claims from them they are bound to lay it upon his altar and there burn it. Sometimes it is with bursting hearts that they see their dearest hopes perishing in the flame; but it avails nothing. The god Custom is without pity."
"I understand you, father," replied the child, nodding her head gravely. And again there was silence for some time. Helen was the first to break it.
"Father, I read to you the other morning about the religion of the Greeks. The book said that we are better than the Greeks, for they had a great many false gods, whilst we have only one, the true one. Don't you think we also have a great many false gods? Is not the god Custom one of them?"
The rector looked with some surprise at the speaker; but he evidently had a keen delight in her precocious wisdom.
"You are very right, Helen," he replied. "The only difference is that we do not openly confess our gods, or make images of them. The gods of the Greeks were beautiful, and their images still form the noblest creations of art which the world has seen. Were we to make images of our false gods, they would be so terribly hideous that men would run away from them."
"But is it possible, father, to worship these many false gods and the one true God at the same time?"
"There are very few indeed worship the true God," replied the rector, gravely. "Even many of those who think they do so have really no idea what God is."
"I am glad you think so, father. There is Mrs. Simpson, who teaches in the Sunday school, and who is always asking us such nasty questions about the Devil; don't you think she is one of those people, father?"
Mr. Norman merely smiled.
Helen was too wise to press for a more explicit reply. After reflecting for a moment, she laid her hand on her father's knee, and, looking up into his face with that expression of pure simplicity blended with curious intelligence, which gave such an unutterable charm to her young face, asked --
"Father, what is God?"
Edward Norman started, and for a moment averted his face; but he quickly recovered himself, and, fondling the child's hands in both his own, spoke gravely.
"That is a more difficult question than you think, my dear little girl. It is the most difficult question that we can ask ourselves in this world. Do you ever feel that you have it in your power to choose between two things you would like to do, and when you come to think them over, see clearly that one is good and the other bad?"
"Oh, often, father!"
"And which do you feel you ought to do, the good thing or the bad thing?"
"The good thing."
"Very well. Did you ever compare two objects together and say to yourself that one is beautiful and one is ugly?"
"And which of these would you keep if you had the choice?"
"The beautiful thing, of course."
"You are right. Then you have learned that there is something in your mind which gives you the power of distinguishing between a good and a bad action, a beautiful and an ugly thing, and also bids you choose the good and the beautiful rather than the bad or the ugly. And this something is God."
Helen made no reply, and very shortly after she rose, kissed her father, as usual, and ran to look for Arthur.
Edward Norman passed the rest of his afternoon in writing letters.
Shortly after tea, in accordance with the arrangement made with Mr. Whiffle, the rector set out in Arthur's company for the curate's residence. This was situated some quarter of an hour's walk off, and the way thither led across bare fields. Mr. Norman took the boy's hand, and questioned him as they walked, endeavouring to destroy the painful diffidence which marked Arthur's conduct in his company. Between the questions and replies, Arthur looked up once or twice as if about to speak, but always dropped his head when his eye met Mr. Norman's.
"Is there something you wish to say, Arthur?" asked the latter, at length.
"Where -- where have they buried father, sir?" was the question spoken in trembling tones.
"I will take you to see some day," replied the rector.
"You will?" asked Arthur, with eagerness.
"Yes, but not just yet. Do you think you can be happy with us here, Arthur?"
"I'll try to be, sir," replied the boy.
Then the rector began to describe the delights of the country in summer time, the beauty of the fields when they had cast off their winter garments, and clad themselves with grass and flowers and sunlight, to greet the coming of spring; he did his best to interest the boy in scenes and occupations which the latter's fancy, through inexperience of the beautiful, was quite unable to realise. He did not seem heedless to these prospects, for once or twice he looked up at the speaker with an expression of surprise, but then ensued a sigh as the old look of melancholy took possession of his features.
"I am taking you, Arthur," said the rector, at last, "to see a gentleman who will do his best to teach you, and make a clever man of you. You say you never went to school?"
"No, sir. Father began to teach me to read, but he hadn't time, and soon left off. He always said the school cost too much."
"Do you think you shall like to learn?"
"I think so, sir."
"That's right. A man is very little use in the world if he has not a good deal of knowledge, so I know you will do your best to learn all Mr. Whiffle wishes to teach you."
"Father knew a great deal."
"Did he? Who told you so, Arthur?"
"I remember mother saying so, a long time ago. But she said that learning was no good, and didn't bring in any money."
"That is not the only use of learning, my boy. But here we are; we will talk about it again as we go home."
It was now quite dark, and the wind, which grew colder and stronger, was howling over the long hill-side, and sweeping hither and thither clouds of rustling skeleton leaves. The house they stood before had a particularly desolate appearance. In front of it was what should have been a garden, a space some six yards long by four deep, in the middle of which grew a hideous abortion of a tree. Whether it was that the aesthetic sentiments of the Whiffle family possessed but little prominence, or that the lack of space necessitated the preference of the useful to the agreeable, this space was converted into a yard for drying clothes, the abortive tree serving as a centre, whence a number of clothes-lines radiated, being affixed to poles planted against the low wall encircling the space. At present these lines were thickly hung with linen, which, thanks to the efforts of the night wind, was careering about the lines in a frantic manner, producing a decidedly peculiar effect when seen through the dark. Glimmering behind these self-constituted streamers appeared a few feeble lights, apparently coming from the windows of the house. A wicket in the wall gave admission to the sacred precincts, and Mr. Norman entered with his companion. As they drew near the door, above all the dismal howling of the wind, the cracking and flapping of the wet clothes, and the shrill rustling of dead leaves, such a chorus of infantine screams and squalls, mingled with such a shouting of maturer voices, the whole being accompanied by what appeared to be a beating upon drums, an occasional blowing of a horn, and the not unfrequent crash as of falling crockery, met the astonished ear, that Mr. Norman might well be excused when he knocked hastily and loudly, in fear lest some sudden misfortune had befallen the dwelling of his worthy curate. The knock remained unanswered, and it appearing to the rector that the urgency of the case warranted a slight disregard of ceremony, he turned the handle and entered the house.
In front appeared a flight of stairs, upon which a small oil lamp stood, faintly illumining the entrance. On either hand was a door, that on the right being, as Mr. Norman was aware, the door of the curate's so-called study, that to the left leading into the room where the family mostly lived. The latter stood slightly ajar, and from the other side of it proceeded the hubbub, which was as yet far from diminishing. On pushing open the door, an extraordinary scene disclosed itself. In a room tolerably well furnished as dining and sitting-room combined, appeared to be collected the whole of the Whiffle family; Mr. Orlando Whiffle, Mrs. Whiffle, and the eight children. Half the table was covered with a white cloth, and laid with tea things, the other half was covered with a heap of newly-washed clothes, which Mrs. Whiffle had evidently been in the process of ironing when the present fracas commenced. The following was the tableau: in the centre of the room stood Mr. Whiffle, his coat thrown off, his hair more stubbornly self-assertive than ever, in the act of administering corporal punishment to his first-born, Master Augustus Whiffle. With one arm he had secured the lithe youngster in that position which is technically known as "chancery," while the other hand, armed with a schoolmaster's cane, descended with alarming rapidity upon the most sensitive portion of the captive's frame. From every pore of Mr. Whiffle's body the perspiration streamed profusely, and, not content with the violence of his muscular exertion, he was engaged in the hopeless task of endeavouring to drown with his own voice the yells of his struggling victim. Poor Mrs. Whiffle, a very little, inoffensive-looking woman, from whose eyes the tears were streaming at the sight of young Augustus' sufferings, was doing her best with cries and entreaties to mitigate her husband's wrath, whilst at the same time it was all she could do to exercise surveillance over the other seven children. Three of these, two girls and a very little boy, had crept under the table in terror, where, notwithstanding, they were doing their best simultaneously to empty a small pot of jam, one moment squalling in fright and sympathy, the next licking their lips in satisfaction after a delicious mouthful. Another little boy, evidently hard-hearted and callous to his brother's sufferings, had taken advantage of his mother's back being turned, to mount a lofty chair and grasp at a sugar basin which stood on the top shelf of an open cupboard, and now stood balancing himself in a position which was not a little dangerous. The sixth, a little girl, Mrs. Whiffle had inadvertently knocked over into the fire-place, and was now endeavouring, by the way, as it were, to solace, but only with the result of increasing its howling. And, finally, the seventh and eighth, who were twins, and were now lying together in a cradle close by the table, not content with vying in the exercise of their shrill pipes, were taking a still more effective method of attracting attention by lugging one corner of the table cloth, which they had succeeded in catching hold of, till one by one the tea things began to roll on to the floor, some breaking, some spilling their contents, all adding their individual cracks and bumps to the total of domestic discord.
The appearance of the rector at the door was instantaneous in its effect, one moment din insufferable, the next, absolute silence, save for the suppressed moaning of the twins, the sobs of the rest of the children and their mother, and the pantings of Mr. Whiffle, whose appearance, as he stood with one arm still raised over the body of his prostrate son, made a very excellent caricature of a victorious gladiator appealing to the verdict of thumbs. Silence was broken by the rector's mild and good-natured tones.
"I fear I have come at an inopportune moment," he said, bowing courteously to the distracted lady of the house, who was hurriedly doing her best to put things in order.
"Not at all, my dear sir, not at all," panted Mr. Whiffle, in his usual sprightly manner, wiping his forehead the while with an immense yellow silk handkerchief. "You beheld me in the act of visiting with condign chastisement a refractory young son of the Church, that is all, I assure you."
Then, turning to his wife, he added --
"My dear, I quite neglected to tell you that Mr. Norman was so good as to promise to look in this evening. My dear sir, this incorrigible young Israelite, whom I should have called Benoni rather than Augustus, for he verily seems destined to be the son of my sorrow, was, just before you entered, caught in the very act -- in flagrante delicto -- of emptying the milk pot over a sermon which I have been at more than usual pains to compose. Do you not agree with me in thinking that even now the offence exceeds the punishment?"
Mr. Norman replied by a few humorous remarks, and then proceeded by means of a little kindly attention to each of the children, as his manner was, to restore what order he could into this house of perpetual discord. By accepting Mrs. Whiffle's offer of a cup of tea, he caused a smile once more to rise to the face of that much suffering woman, who was indeed so accustomed to episodes such as that just concluded that it very soon passed out of her mind.
The cup of tea finished as soon as possible, he left Arthur to the attention of Mrs. Whiffle and her brood, and gladly accepted the curate's invitation to cross the passage and enter the study. Here the disorder was little inferior to that exhibited in the other room, but as it was only books that were strewn about in every corner, in every stage of dilapidation, and mostly covered with the thickest conceivable layer of dust, the rector bore it with more equanimity. Mr. Whiffle enlivened a small fire which was struggling in the grate, and invited his visitor to be seated.
"You must be very fond of children, Mr. Whiffle," began the rector, whilst the other was putting on a very ragged old coat which he took from behind the door.
"Yes, sir, yes -- that is, moderately fond of them. Not that I should care to have a large family, though. Large families, in my opinion, are the source of much evil. Indeed, that is one of the tendencies of the present age against which the Church ought really to exert the plenitude of its powers. Yes; one should preach a crusade against large families. I have, in fact, a pamphlet in hand on that very subject. I hope to finish it in a week, and then I shall be so bold as to request the favour of your perusal and judgment, my dear sir."
Mr. Norman did not smile, or indeed express any especial interest in the matter; he was too well accustomed to his curate's humours. Orlando Whiffle never seemed to entertain the slightest suspicion that some might be tempted to consider his own family as already deserving of the epithet -- large. Of this he was perfectly unconscious. And when he announced the speedy completion of a pamphlet on the subject he was equally unconscious of exposing another of his peculiarities which might well have excited a sense of the ridiculous. It was -- or was supposed to be -- the constant occupation of his leisure to engage in the composition of pamphlets on an infinity of subjects, with the curious circumstance that he had never been known to publish, or indeed to complete, one of them. At least three times a week he announced to the rector his intention immediately to submit to his criticism a brief brochure on some burning question of the day; but Mr. Norman's critical powers must have languished from inaction had they found no other field than Mr. Whiffle's literary productions. But to the curate himself there was nothing ridiculous in all this; he simply was not aware of his own inconsistencies.
Having turned aside the literary topic, with a suitable remark, Edward Norman then proceeded to the more immediate object of his visit, and stated briefly the plan he thought it would be advisable to pursue in Arthur's preliminary instruction.
"Have you thought at all, sir," asked Mr. Whiffle, "what his career in life shall be?"
"Not precisely. It is hardly a momentous question yet."
"Train him up to the service of the Temple!" cried Mr. Whiffle, with enthusiasm. "Make of him a pillar of the Establishment! I have thought over the matter the whole day, my dear sir, and the more I reflect upon that boy's features the more convinced I am that he was born to be a bishop. I once entered upon an exhaustive study of comparative physiognomy, my dear sir, and even went so far as to pen a pamphlet on what I purposed making one division of a great work: the 'Ecclesiastical Physiognomy.' I will hunt it up and let you see it. Close study of the countenances of our prelates, sir, has given me fundamental ideas on the subject. I pronounce it: Arthur Golding will one day rule a diocese, and to Orlando Whiffle will be due the credit of having instilled into his mind the fundamental principles of the great Establishment he is to adorn!"
"We shall see," responded the rector, coolly, "whether he shows a turn for the Church."
"A turn, my dear sir! In a child of his age there is no -- no turn! We can make what we like of him! That is the very point I always insist upon as firmly in my arguments on the subject of education. If only The Church is permitted an opportunity of conducting the education of children from their earliest years, she will have no difficulty in imbuing one and all with sound Church principles. It is the decreasing influence of The Church in this sphere of youthful education to which is due the prevalence of false doctrine, heresy and schism, and to which will ere long be attributed the downfall of this nation's prosperity!"
It will be observed that I always print "The Church" in Mr. Whiffle's speeches, for, indeed, the capitals are my only possible method of indicating the tone in which he pronounced these words. All the arrogance of priestly tyranny, all the bombast of clerical professions, all the fatuity of ecclesiastical self-esteem arose before the mind like a picture at the sound of "The Church" as pronounced by Mr. Whiffle. The man gloried in the words; he rolled them on his tongue as an exquisite delicacy. And yet it would have been difficult to account for his enthusiasm, for as yet the Church had given him nothing save various curacies, the incomes of which scarcely sufficed to maintain his ever-increasing family. In all probability it was his fundamentally vulgar nature sympathising with the arrogant pretentions and abortive performances of the institution he belonged to. Preeminence in the Church was for Mr. Whiffle the goal of all earthly wishes, and it was very characteristic of the man's nature that down in the depths of his heart, unspoken midst all his inconsequential chatter, rested and grew a firm expectation that one day, though it might be long in coming, that Church would recognise the abilities of its faithful servant, and Orlando Whiffle would, even in this life, find his reward.
It was the favourite employment of his reveries to trace his own hypothetical course up the scale of clerical dignities till, in sweet fancy, he saw himself pocketing the first year's income of a bishop's see. For in his devotion to the Establishment he was by no means free from worldly views, though it would be inaccurate to represent these as his only motive. Whenever conversation touched on the subject of ecclesiastical salaries, as it not unfrequently would when a few curates of the countryside met together, Orlando Whiffle felt himself in his element. He possessed an amount of knowledge on the subject to which few could pretend. On this, indeed, he might have been capable of writing a pamphlet, and a remarkably interesting pamphlet it would have been. He was great on the topic of simony, spoke of it with a kind of predilection, and a calm ignoring of moral objections such as only an ecclesiastic can pretend to. Clerical agencies he was well acquainted with, and could tell you their respective advantages or disadvantages better than the agents themselves. But most delightful was it to hear him speak of a clerical scandal, any disgraceful case that might for the moment be attracting attention in the papers. What breathless interest he took in such revelations. Shame! he exhibited not a grain of it. He gloried in the foulest details. You would have thought, to hear him, that no one but a clergyman had a right to disgrace the name of humanity.
But to return to our narration. The interview did not last long, for the terms, which were no unimportant item in the business, were speedily and satisfactorily arranged. When the two returned to the parlour they found Arthur sitting on a stool by the fireside, quite surrounded by a swarm of young Whiffles, who were assailing him with all manner of questions, and had evidently succeeded in making him perfectly uncomfortable.
"Well, my dear boy," exclaimed the curate, laying his hands upon his head, "to-morrow we take our first trip on the flowery paths of culture. Have you learnt your Catechism, my boy?"
Arthur looked up in bewilderment, then turned away from the faces gazing at him, and shook his head.
"Cheer up, Arthur!" put in Mr. Norman, encouragingly. "We'll soon remedy all that, won't we?"
It was not many minutes before they took their departure, and the boy was evidently glad to exchange the warm but noisy room for the dark, windy fields. As the rector passed out of the door, Mr. Whiffle took the opportunity of whispering to him --
"A bishop, my dear sir; a bishop, or I'll never prophesy again!"
Two or three days passed, and Mr. Whiffle had seen no reason to alter his preconceived opinion. The boy, though, as might have been expected, very ignorant, was far from stupid, and his extreme docility rendered the task of teaching him decidedly agreeable. When Arthur was able to read all the letters of the alphabet readily and correctly, Mr. Whiffle grew elate; his sanguine temperament made him already look forward to the day when he should commence the Greek Testament with his pupil. Already he saw him grown into a promising young prig, carping at interpretations of the Sacrament, and dogmatising on the Holy Ghost. Unhappily, Mr. Whiffle's anticipations were not destined to fulfilment.
When with his tutor, or in the company of any of the family, Arthur preserved a quiet, sad demeanour, doing his best to answer with a smile when spoken to, but at other times showing little, if any, interest in what went on around him. It was clear to every one that on the third day of his presence at the Rectory he was not a whit more at home than he had been on the first. Edward Norman took him occasionally for a short walk, spoke to him comfortingly and encouragingly, and did his best to win the boy's confidence; but the rector was hardly of that nature which disposes itself readily to enter into the joys and the sorrows of children; when he spoke to Arthur it was as he would have spoken to a grown-up person. He was quite unable to understand the state of that young mind, darkened with ignorance and all the dreary memories of the past, or of the over-sensitive heart, wrung with unutterable grief at the loss of a father. Mrs. Cope was more successful in understanding his sorrows; once or twice a few kind, motherly words from her brought the hot tears rushing from the child's eyes, and so gave him relief for the moment. But even she rapidly became aware that it was not an ordinary nature with which they had to deal, and foresaw that the process of reconciling him to his new life would be long and painful. To little Helen, Arthur was evidently a profound mystery. She would frequently take a book to a stool at a little distance from him, and then, under the pretence of reading, in reality sit watching him for a long time. On one such occasion Mr. Norman had withdrawn from the room, and the children were left alone together. Arthur was sitting on a low chair, his hands clasped over his knees, his head drooping down on his breast, and in the stillness of the room, only broken by the crackling of a bright fire, Helen could hear him sighing from time to time. After watching him for many minutes with a curiously reflective look, she suddenly rose and went to his side.
"Arthur," she said, "why do you sit so?"
"I am thinking of my father," replied Arthur, who was under less restraint with Helen than with the others.
"Was he a good father?" asked the little girl. "Was he like mine?"
"He was very good; but he wasn't as rich as your father."
"If he was good, Arthur," resumed Helen, after a moment's reflection, "why didn't he teach you to read, like my father does me? You are older than I am, you know."
"He used to tell me it was better to know nothing. He said I should be better off if I couldn't read or write."
Helen opened her eyes very wide.
"Then I'm sure he wasn't good if he said that," she pronounced decidedly. "My father tells me that a man is no good in the world if he can't read and write, and I'm sure father knows."
The boy had again sunk his head, and made no reply.
"And my father says," pursued Helen, "that the more you know, the more good you are able to do to people. That's why I'm learning as much as I can. I mean to do a great deal of good some day, Arthur; don't you?"
"I don't know how," replied the boy, looking curiously up into Helen's face.
"Oh, but I do! When I'm a little older I'm going to teach a school in Bloomford, and I shall only take those children that are poor and can't afford to pay anything; father says I may. And when I'm old enough to have money of my own, I shall go and see the poor people in Bloomford -- and there are a great many, you know -- and I shall give them a shilling at a time -- father says it isn't wise to give too much -- to buy what they want with. Don't you think you'd like to do that, Arthur?"
"Perhaps so," replied the boy.
"Arthur," resumed Helen, "what are you going to be when you're a man?"
"I know what I should be."
"I should write books, books like those in father's study. I don't mean silly tale books, but books that would do people good. Father says there's nothing like a good book, and I'm sure he's right."
She waited for a reply, but none came. It was evident that Arthur's thoughts were far away; he did not seem to have heard her last sentence at all. With a little sigh of impatience she rose from her seat, shaking the golden ringlets from her face.
"Arthur!" she exclaimed, after looking round the room thoughtfully.
"Do you like looking at pictures?"
"I -- I think so," he replied, with hesitation.
Helen took off a side table a large volume of engravings which it was all she could do to carry. Placing it on the floor in front of her companion she opened it gravely and invited Arthur to inspect it with her. Little by little the boy's interest increased; he listened more attentively to Helen's explanations, and began himself to make comments. Here at length was something attractive enough to hold his attention and liberate his mind from perpetual brooding over his sorrows. For nearly an hour the two were deeply engaged -- Helen explaining at length in her precocious manner, here and there pointing a moral, and always referring to what her father had said with regard to any unusually knotty point; Arthur listening attentively, occasionally asking questions which displayed considerably more intelligence than would have been expected, and even at times laughing, though this very rarely. Whilst they were in the middle of the volume Mr. Norman opened the door. He was not observed, and, after gazing with some astonishment at the unusual sight, he withdrew quietly, without disturbing them.
But the relief proved only momentary. When next Helen desired to amuse her companion in the same manner, it soon appeared that the novelty had passed away; she could not succeed in arousing in him more than a languid interest. His desire of loneliness increased. Whenever an opportunity presented itself he would steal out of sight to that remote corner of the orchard, which he had discovered, and there would sit for hours, hidden from the windows at the back of the house by a thick holly-tree, insensible to the cold, which began to be severe, and even to rain and snow. Mr. Whiffle began to entertain less sanguine hopes with regard to his pupil. His progress by no means kept pace with the expectations which the first few days had excited. The boy seemed to dread the recurring lesson-hours, and at times was even stubborn when Mr. Whiffle essayed the influence of a little severity. It was very clear that Arthur Golding would never be taught by force.
"A frightful example, my dear sir," exclaimed the curate to Mr. Norman, after a more than usually hopeless hour, "a frightful example of early years passed without the salutary influence of clerical admonition! I do not say positively that I renounce my hopes with regard to his future -- but I fear, I fear."
It was now drawing on to Christmas, and the approach of that season brought accession of life to the rather monotonous routine of the Rectory. A distant cousin of Mr. Norman, who had no blood relations living, had recently been married, and now, in accordance with an invitation, brought his wife to pass the Christmas at Bloomford. This young lady, who was of a remarkably mercurial disposition, soon succeeded in effecting what she styled a reformation in the domestic arrangements of her reverend cousin. She immediately interested herself in all the leading families of the neighbourhood, threw herself with enthusiasm into the multifarious schemes for Christmas festivities in connection with the Church, which hitherto had been left entirely to the care of Mr. Whiffle, subscribed for Christmas trees, gave her co-operation towards a Christmas bazaar, and made herself, in a very few days, a conspicuous feature in the frivolous life of Bloomford. The consequence was that the Rectory was invaded by a host of visitors. Mr. Norman shrugged his shoulders and began devoutly to wish that he had never invited the disturber of his dearly-loved quietude. But it could not be said that his cousin gave him any trouble beyond, indeed, taking possession of all the best rooms in his house. She installed herself as mistress, herself gave instructions with regard to the meals, herself invited whom she pleased to tea, paying no attention whatever to the civil hints of Mrs. Cope, who was nothing less than scandalised at this unwonted bouleversement of her time-honoured supremacy. All the young ladies of Bloomford seized upon the opportunity with joy. Once more did Mr. Norman become a subject of active interest, once more was his persistent bachelorhood cried shame upon by all eligible ladies, once more did the attacks upon his susceptibilities commence, and this time in his own house. The vote and interest of the mercurial cousin was solicited far and near, and she promised her best exertions on behalf of some dozen confidential old ladies who had daughters they were extremely desirous of getting off their hands. Mr. Norman was dragged perforce from the retirement of his study; he was made to take part personally in the ornamenting of the church with evergreens; he was beguiled by his lively cousin into visits to all sorts of people at all possible or impossible hours, and was always received with a degree of attention quite alarming, and which he could not in the least understand; he was made the recipient of more invitations than he could possibly respond to. Everybody was all at once dreadfully solicitous with regard to his health. Though no one knew his precise ailment it was obvious that he had drooped during the last few years, and how sad a thing it was for so delightful a man to sink into a premature grave unsoothed by the tender cares of wifely affection. Many old ladies adopted the motherly tone towards him, and told him plainly that he ought to marry. Edward Norman merely smiled, and gave his promise that he would think the matter over. And as often as he succeeded in shaking off the hounds and bestowing himself safely in the cool recesses of his study, he vowed internally that when once these visitors had taken their departure he would never again open his house to them or any one else.
The position of the children in the house during all this ferment was not a pleasant one. The bruyante cousin could not be expected to entertain any liking for such "troublesome little chits," as she termed them, and, on the part of Helen at least, this distaste was cordially reciprocated.
The little lady was, to begin with, mortally jealous. What right had this stranger to come and monopolise the society of her father -- her father, in whom her being was centred? Since the strangers had been in the house her regular lesson hours had been hopelessly disturbed. Instead of going to her father's study and reading to him on a stool by his knee for certain hours during the day, as she had always been accustomed to do, she was now obliged to do her lessons with Mrs. Cope, and, after her father, Helen considered that to look up to Mrs. Cope as a teacher was decidedly infra dig. The way in which the little woman revenged herself was characteristic. Instead of reading from her book like a docile pupil, waiting for Mrs. Cope's corrections and comments, and consulting her with regard to difficulties, she constituted herself the teacher, and made her book a kind of text, upon which she proceeded to discourse to the old lady in a highly improving manner, never failing to refer to "her father" as the ultimate source of appeal in any case where her dictum and that of Mrs. Cope found themselves at hopeless variance.
But this state of affairs, though occasionally flattering to Helen's vanity, was, she felt, very far from satisfactory; and she not unfrequently delivered her sentiments anent the prolonged visit of the cousins in no unmistakable terms.
As for Arthur, the poor boy was depressed almost to illness. Mrs. Cope had discovered his seat in the orchard, and took every opportunity of disturbing him when he retired thither, fancying that he only required to be kept in the presence of the family to throw aside his mopish habits. The result was, that he found another place, in a field, still further away from the house, and often sat there beneath a hedge, on the damp ground, till he was all but insensible from cold and hunger.
On his return from such prolonged absences Mrs. Cope would sometimes scold him severely; but this had the effect of hardening his mind against her. Once when she had been unusually severe, he suddenly turned upon her with eyes that flashed with anger, his cheeks pale as death, and his little hands clenched together; and when she shrank back, quite frightened at his look, he burst into a violent fit of weeping, and threw himself passionately all his length upon the floor.
The same afternoon he asked a servant, who had often spoken kindly to him, the way to London; and she, without thinking much of his reasons for asking such a question, told him in reply the names of several villages through which the road lay. He said nothing, but walked away thoughtfully.
Mr. Whiffle had given him up as a bad job, though he still continued to give him his lessons pro forma. Once Arthur fairly played truant at lesson hour, and the rector sent him that evening to the curate's house to ask pardon by way of penance. Mr. Whiffle improved the occasion.
"Did he not know by this time that obedience to pastors and masters was enjoined by the Catechism of the Church of England as by law established? Did he not know, moreover, that to play truant was, from a mere worldly point of view, a piece of gross disrespect towards the teacher, and that, in a case where that teacher was an ordained minister of the Church this disrespect amounted to irreligion? Had he no hankering after the sweets of a liberal education? Did it not cut him to the heart to visit the church on Sunday and, from absolute inability to read the Prayer-book, be obliged to keep staring about him to see when the congregation stood, when they sat, and when they knelt?" &c., &c., &c.
But all this wrought no impression upon the poor lad. In the depths of his heart was a firmly-rooted suffering which Mr. Whiffle was quite incapable of comprehending, and which Edward Norman divined, indeed, but knew not how to remedy.
Arthur felt away from home; Bloomford could never be anything to him but a foreign land. Throughout the whole of his young life he had never known but one true friend, and that friend his father. Despite all the miserable excesses by which he hastened his death -- despite the fearful valley of suffering through which he had dragged his poor child, Golding had truly loved the boy, and Arthur had passionately reciprocated his affection. Though throughout the last two years of his life Golding had passed through all the stages of brutalisation which it is possible for such a nature as his, originally far from bad, to undergo, he had never once shown active cruelty to his child, had never once struck him, and had never used harsh language to him without the next moment bitterly repenting and doing his best to atone. True, he had half-starved the boy, had brought him up in foul haunts of poverty, wretchedness and crime, where it was a miracle his young nature retained anything of nobility, had utterly neglected to teach him, had even cynically said that he would get through his life better if he remained rude and untaught. Yet all this was the result of impaired faculties rather than of an ill-disposed heart.
More than half his days he had been mad with the poison of drink. Often and often he reproached himself with the fierce energy of a ruined soul for all the wrongs he was guilty of towards his offspring; many an oath he took to amend his vile life if only for the sake of Arthur; but when the hour of temptation came again he was as powerless to resist as the pebble dragged back into the depths of the ocean by the cliff-rending breaker.
And for all that the child loved him with all the strength of an intensely affectionate nature, clung to him as the sole object upon which to expend the riches of his overflowing heart, impossible to depict the agony which in a moment clouded his life when he knew that his father was dead. And ever since he had been at Bloomford this agony had gnawed at the springs of youthful energy and hope, had made his life, in the midst of these unsympathising strangers, a very torment to him. He had become possessed of an ever-growing, irrepressible desire to return to London.
He knew that he should no more find his father there, that he had not a friend to whom he could appeal for assistance; but still there was the dumb, strong desire to find himself once more in the scenes where he had lived with his father; he felt that he should then be more at home. He would visit his father's grave; the people of the house he had lived in would tell him where that was. He felt, in his instinctive, unreflecting way, that it would be a happiness to fall down upon it and die, so unutterably wretched was he. The feeling actuating him was as the longing of a child for the mother's breast, the ardent, soul-quelling desire of a lover to gain the side of an absent mistress; the yearning of the mariner on a desert island for the home he will never see again. As I have said, he did not reflect upon his longing; he would not then have been a child of eight years. It was instinct, and all the more invincible.
When the Rectory was full of visitors he shrank into his bedroom, and there remained in cold and darkness till Mrs. Cope came to search for him and send him to bed. Yet, even in these depths of misery there were chords in his nature which could be touched, and excite a momentary diversion from his brooding over the past. One night there was a lady visiting at the house who played skilfully on the piano. As Arthur sat in his dark hiding-place, the drawing-room door happened to be opened whilst this lady was playing. The sweet notes fell upon his ear with an effect that nothing else could have produced. A fine spark of heavenly fire, which lay beneath all the rude externals of his being, throbbed momentarily into brighter life at the voice of the keys. The next moment the door was shut again, and the music became indistinguishable. But he could not resist the impulse to hear more. Stealing out of the bedroom, he crept down stairs or tip-toe. The hall was vacant. He approached the drawing-room door and stood with his ear against it, drinking in the melody in brief forgetfulness of his troubles. In a few moments he fancied he heard a step descending the upper stairs. Dreading to be found here, he rushed to the house-door, and out into the night. The ground was frozen hard, and light snow was just beginning to fall. Guided still by his ear, he made his way over some barren flower-beds to beneath the drawing-room windows. The night was so perfectly still that he heard the music here almost as well as within the house. Crouching on the fresh-fallen snow, he listened, all unconscious of the cold, till the music ceased.
Perhaps it might commence again. In hope of this he waited, waited till the snow had. quite covered him with white flakes; till his teeth chattered and his hands and feet were numb. Then he re-entered the house and crept silently upstairs.
He had opened the bedroom door before he observed that there was a light within, and on entering he found himself face to face with Mrs. Cope. The good lady was horrified; she scolded severely, she even threatened corporal punishment. Arthur said not a word, but allowed himself to be hurried into bed. Then, when Mrs. Cope had gone and he was alone in the dark, he burst into passionate weeping, and so at length sobbed himself to sleep.
Early on the following morning, just after the servants had risen and had opened the door, a little, shivering form crept silently down stairs, paused a moment in the hall to see that no one was about, then ran quickly into the garden. Thence it passed into a field, and, crossing this, entered the high road.
It was Arthur. Possibly he had come out for a walk before breakfast; his constant desire of solitude would account for his stealing from the house so quietly. But why had he forgotten to put on his little overcoat? It had ceased snowing some time during the night, and frost had since made the surface hard; but the sky looked leaden and lowering in the early daylight; it would snow again ere long. The cold was piercing, and the wind, which ever and again swept the fields, froze everything that it touched. Surely it was a strange morning to take an early walk, without an overcoat too.
A country fellow happened to be coming along the road just as Arthur emerged into it. The boy stopped him and inquired his way to a certain village distant about two miles. Having received the direction he set off running. Had he been given a commission from the rector that he showed such eagerness to reach the place? Mr. Norman had occasionally sent him on little errands in the hope of affording him distraction. But this was too great a distance, and before breakfast.
In something more than an hour he reached the village, and, choosing a retired spot, sat down to rest for a few moments. He was very tired, and, despite the severity of the morning, the perspiration stood on his forehead, he had run so quickly.
In a short time he rose again, and again inquired of a passer-by the way to another village, still farther off. The man looked at his questioner in some surprise, but gave him the desired information. Once away from the houses the boy began again to run, looking from time to time behind him, as if afraid of pursuers. For nearly three hours he toiled along, wearied at length beyond running, and indeed scarcely able to walk. He began to feel very hungry, too. Why did he not turn back towards Bloomford, where food and shelter and friendly faces awaited him? He seemed to have no such thought.
Before one or two cottages, which he passed, he made a pause. His hunger had grown so severe that he was on the point of knocking at the door and begging for a little food, but each time his courage failed him, and he passed on. He felt dreadfully thirsty, too, and, to relieve himself, broke off lumps of hard snow from the ground, and let them melt in his mouth. So great was his weariness now that he could scarcely trail his limbs along. He was, be it remembered, only eight years old, and weak besides, and he must have travelled nearly eight miles. Again and again he sat down to rest, now on the snow-covered bank at the roadside, now on a stile which led off the road into fields, and each time he rose it was with a feeling that he could go no further. He did not give way to despair and cry; but his eyes were bloodshot from the cutting wind, his cheeks were pale and haggard-looking, his limbs trembled with cold and fatigue. For he was no longer able to walk quick enough to keep himself warm. He felt as though sensation was quitting all his limbs.
The noon was past, and not a ray of sunshine had yet illumined the dreary tracts of snow-clad country. Neither had it as yet snowed; but now every moment the welkin grew more leaden, and the wind whistled along the scraggy hedgerows with an ominous note. At length a few white specks began to appear against the gathering gloom of the sky, then Arthur felt something blow velvety soft against his face, and before long it began to snow in earnest. No house was now within sight, and as he felt his feet sink and clog in the fast deepening drifts, the piercing wind seemed to the child to freeze his very heart; cold despair had bound the very source of tears, but, though he could not cry, for a moment he wished that he were back at the Rectory. Unable to toil a yard further he staggered to. the road-side, and sunk down to rest.
He felt sleepy; not even the falling snow was able to keep him awake; and he knew that by degrees he fell into a reclining posture. He did not do so purposely, it seemed that he could not help it. And he felt far from uncomfortable. The sensation of deadening cold had departed, and a pleasant warmth wrapped his limbs. In a few moments he seemed to dream. A dark object bent over him, and raised his cap from his face, and then it seemed as if he were raised to a great height by a force which he could not resist; but still his sensation of comfort was not disturbed. Then he seemed to be moving through the air, still over-shadowed by the dark object. Then, for a time, he ceased to dream, and dark weariness bound all his senses. But this passed as the dream renewed itself. Again the delightful enjoyment of warmth, but this time there seemed to be light as well, and a low sound, as of voices, grew upon his ear. The light grew more intense; he once more felt the ability to stir,. and, rousing himself with an effort, found that it had not been all a dream. He was sitting in a large easy-chair, before him cracked and blazed an immense fire, and around him stood a group of people. One, an elderly woman, was chafing his hands, and behind her stood a man with a glass of something in his hand that steamed and smelt deliciously. The rest were children, staring at him in silence.
The woman spoke to him in a kindly voice, asking if he felt better, and, on his replying in the affirmative, began to question him as to the reason of his wandering alone on such a stormy evening. It appeared. that her husband, coming home along the high road, had seen Arthur half asleep, half fainting, in the snow, had picked him up in his arms, and carried him to his house, which was not a quarter of a mile off.
In answer to their inquiries Arthur had but one reply: He was going to London. Had he friends in London? He said, yes. He made no attempt to explain his journey, maintaining stolid silence in answer to all other questions regarding it. And how did he intend getting to London? He didn't know; he was going to walk; but just now he felt so hungry.
They set some food before him, and by degrees he satisfied his hunger. Then, when he had eaten and drunk enough, the woman, after a brief discussion apart with her husband, bade him follow her upstairs. Here he was helped to take his clothes off, and was put to bed.
He slept all night without a dream. When he awoke there were two children dressing in the room by the dim light which came through the small casement. Arthur could see that it was still snowing. Without speaking a word he jumped out of bed and commenced putting on his clothes, the other children all the time eyeing him curiously.
He descended the stairs, and found the husband and wife seated at breakfast before a large fire. The room was a large kitchen, the floor beautifully clean, the walls garnished with pewter and crockery, everything betokening order and comfort.
"Eh! Here's this poor child up already!" exclaimed the woman in surprise. "How do you feel this morning?"
Arthur replied that he felt hungry.
"Why, that's right!" exclaimed the man, in a hearty tone, laughing as he spoke. "There ain't so much amiss with a lad when he says he's hungry. Come and warm yourself, boy."
Arthur complied gladly, and in a few minutes was partaking of a hearty breakfast. When he had finished, the woman looked curiously at him for some minutes, and then said --
"And so you want to get to London, do you? You're a young un to be travelling about by yourself in weather like this, and I can't quite make you out. But if you've got friends in London and nowhere else, why to London you must go, that's the long and short of it. Do you know how far it is, lad?"
Arthur shook his head.
"Well, hard upon forty miles. Do you think you can walk that to-day?"
"I can try," replied the boy, simply.
The man and woman burst out laughing.
"Well, I can't make it out at all," said the former, once more. "But I hope there's nothing wrong. Now look -- I'm going to take you up to the railway station here, and get you a ticket for London. If you once get there, do you think you can find your friends?"
The boy replied that he was sure he could.
"Very good. Then as soon as you're ready we'll be off, for I haven't much time to spare."
In the meantime the woman had cut several mightily substantial sandwiches, which she now wrapped in a piece of paper and put into Arthur's hand, bidding him eat them during the journey. The man having encased himself in a huge overcoat, then took Arthur by the hand and led him out of the house. The boy had already been provided by the kindly dame with a thick muffler which belonged to one of her own children, and thus he suffered less when he met the morning wind. The woman and children stood at the door watching him till he had turned a corner and was out of sight.
The man was as good as his word. He purchased a third-class ticket, which he bade Arthur be careful not to lose; and, having seen him safely seated in the train, which steamed into the station thickly draped with snow, he gave him a few coppers and hearty wishes, and waved his hand to him as the train moved quickly away. Truly he had been a good Samaritan.
In a couple of hours Arthur once more stood in London -- confused by the rapid events of the morning, hustled by the thick crowd upon the platform, not knowing where to turn or what to do. He made his way into the open street. Here it was not snowing, but evidently had been a very short time ago, and the pavement was thick with slush. The child's heart sank within him as he stood close up to the wall to be out of the way of the hurrying crowds, grasping in one hand the remnant of his sandwiches, in the other the few coppers that he had received as a parting gift from his kindly host. Whither should he now turn his steps?
The hesitation and the fear were only for a few moments. After all, he was in London, in the midst of all the rush and roar with which he was so familiar, which had gone on around him ever since he could recollect. Compared with the monotonous quiet of Bloomford this was indeed home, and as the words rose to his lips a flush of hope warmed his veins; he began to walk quickly along the sloppy streets.
Once or twice he inquired his way -- the way to Whitecross Street; for it was to the house where he had last of all lived that he bent his steps -- to the house and the room where he had seen his father last. Of friends to whom he could go and beg shelter he had literally none. The landlady of his latest abode was his only acquaintance.
About noon he reached Whitecross Street. Very foul did its hideous face peep forth from the covering of slush and grime and all unutterable abominations; but to Arthur it meant home, and he hailed its appearance. He reached the entrance of the court, he ran quickly to the house-door. There stood the landlady, in her hands a jug of beer, which she had just fetched for her dinner. She opened her eyes in astonishment.
"Eh, I'm damn'd if that 'ere kid ain't come back again! S'elp me God!"
"How do you do, Mrs. Blatherwick?" said Arthur, smiling.
"How do I do, young un? Why, what are you a doin' 'ere, I'd like to know?"
Arthur scarcely knew what to say. The coarse, unfriendly tone of the woman had checked the words he was about to utter, and he stood looking down in silence.
"Is our old room let yet, Mrs. Blatherwick?" he at length plucked up courage to ask.
"And what d'yer want to know for, eh?" replied the woman.
"Because, if it isn't," stammered the boy, "I wish you'd let me sleep there to-night. I haven't anywhere else to go to."
"Ain't got nowhere else to go to?" echoed Mrs. Blatherwick in surprise. "Why, I thought as you'd gone to live with the parson?"
"I -- I've left him," said Arthur, timidly.
"Oh, you've left him, 'ev yer? Then yer may jist go an' get a lodgin' of them as'll give it yer."
She was on the point of turning away into the house when a sudden thought appeared to strike her, and she stopped.
"How much money have yer got in yer pockets, eh?" she asked, her vicious-looking eyes sparkling the while.
"I've got fourpence," replied Arthur, showing the coppers. "Will you let me have a night's lodging for fourpence, Mrs. Blatherwick?"
The landlady reflected a moment, and the result seemed favourable.
"Come in with yer," she said. "Yer don't expect to 'ave no dinner, do yer?"
"I've got all I want," replied Arthur, showing his sandwiches.
"Come along, then," snarled the woman. "Don't keep me standin' 'ere all day."
And she preceded him into the house, taking a draught out of the jug as she went.
Arthur followed Mrs. Blatherwick down dark and damp stairs into a cellar-kitchen, where the principal light was that emitted by a large fire. On the fire was a frying-pan, in which was at that moment hissing and spluttering a goodly beef-steak, the odour of which filled the kitchen and made poor Arthur's mouth water. Otherwise it was a vile place, reeking with moisture, foul with indescribable filth, the ceiling black with the smoke of hundreds of fires, the floor marked here and there with the corpse of a crushed black-beetle. On a wooden table, drawn up to the fire, stood the preparations for the good lady's mid-day meal, and to that, having discovered that the steak was just done, Mrs. Blatherwick accordingly addressed herself. Arthur sat on a broken chair, meanwhile, eyeing the woman with hungry eyes, and doing his best to satisfy his own stomach with the scraps of dry bread and meat which remained to him.
Whilst she was in the midst of her meal a step was heard descending the stairs, a heavy, reeling, uncertain step. A moment after a man entered. He looked about twenty-two or twenty-three. His face was that of a hopeless sot, a flabby, meaningless, bestial face, which only on occasions was enlivened by a twinkle of evil in one of the dull, fishy eyes. He was very tall, and his body seemed to be insecurely jointed; when he staggered across the kitchen and dropped himself into a chair, it seemed as though the shock would dislocate his limbs. Arthur knew this individual; it was Mrs. Blatherwick's eldest son, by name Bill.
Bill was not at present more drunk than usual, though a casual observer would certainly have concluded that he had been indulging past his wont. He had so soaked himself with brutalising liquors ever since he had been able to raise a can to his mouth, that the present state of bodily laxity and mental obfuscation was normal to him. As he sat gazing with half-opened eyes at Arthur, apparently not quite able to recall his identity, his mother commenced to abuse him on the score of his idleness and drunkenness.
A conversation ensued which I shall not endeavour to repeat, under fear of being stigmatised as a "realist" by the critical world.
Arthur took no special heed of it. Alas! his ears were but too well accustomed to sounds such as these. He was, moreover, so weary with his journey that, under the influence of the fire, he sank to sleep in his chair.
When he awoke daylight had long since passed away. The fire blazed more cheerfully than ever, and, with the assistance of a tallow dip standing on the table, effectually lighted up the room. Bill Blatherwick had disappeared, most probably had long since assumed his wonted corner in the "Rose and Crown;" but his mother was at present busy in preparing a cup of tea.
"Are y' 'ungry?" she snarled at Arthur, as soon as his moving proclaimed him awake.
He replied in the affirmative, and received a hunch of very stale bread.
"If ye're thirsty, there's the tap," added the woman, pointing to a foul corner of the kitchen, where at intervals spots of water dripped from a tap on to a stone slab.
Arthur walked to it, held his hands cuplike, to receive the water, and quenched his thirst.
In the meantime Mrs. Blatherwick poured out for herself a cup of strong tea, and assumed a seat in the full glow of the fire.
"Well, young un," she began sharply, after a few minutes' thought, "what are you come back 'ere for, eh?"
The suddenness and fierce tone of the question seemed all at once to bring, for the first time, the full sense of his position before the child's mind. Casting a glance of helpless pleading, first at the woman, then round the bare walls of the cellar, he suddenly> burst into tears.
"Where have they buried my father?" he sobbed out, after giving full vent for a minute to the distress which overmastered him. "Will you please to tell me, Mrs. Blatherwick?"
"How the devil should I know?" replied the woman, with a croaking laugh. "Is that all ye're 'ere for -- to arst questens like that?"
There was silence for a moment; then Mrs. Blatherwick resumed.
"Where 'ev yer been livin'?"
"I -- I don't know," sobbed Arthur.
"Well, how did yer get back 'ere? Yer know that, I s'pose?"
The boy recounted his adventures between Bloomford and London. As he concluded, Mrs. Blatherwick shrugged her shoulders.
"Well," she said, "if ye stay 'ere to-night yer'll 'ev to pay, as I s'pose yer know."
Arthur thrust his hand eagerly into his pocket and drew out the few coppers his unknown friend had given him.
Mrs. Blatherwick appropriated them without hesitation.
"An' what are yer goin' to do for a livin', eh?" she then asked.
"I'm sure I don't know," replied Arthur, still sobbing. "Could you help me to find something, Mrs. Blatherwick?"
"Maybe I could," said the woman. "I've got somethink i' my 'cad, but I doubt it's too good for yer."
"Do you think so, Mrs. Blatherwick? What is it?"
"No, no; it's too good for yer."
"Please tell me what it is, Mrs. Blatherwick. I'd try my best."
"Yer would, eh?"
"I'm sure I would."
"What d'yer say, then, to go round singin' with Bill? Now didn't I say as it was too good for yer? Yer couldn't sing well enough, could yer, now?"
"I -- I'd try my best, Mrs. Blatherwick," stammered Arthur. "I think I could if someone told me how."
"Yer do, eh?"
"Yes, Mrs. Blatherwick. Might I live here if I did that?"
"I don't know but yer might, if ye did well."
"In father's room, Mrs. Blatherwick?" asked the boy, eagerly.
"Oh, I'm sure I could do it, if only someone would show me how," cried Arthur, drawing his chair nearer to the woman.
"Then I'll learn yer," replied Mrs. Blatherwick, taking a draught of her tea. "I'll say the words first, an' then you say 'em arfter; an' when yer know the words, I'll learn yer the tune."
The lesson began. It was a somewhat singular picture, that of the old hag on one side of the fire, her repulsive features lit up by its blaze, her hand heating time upon her knee, as she recited the words in a sing-song tone which showed clearly that she had no understanding of their meaning; opposite to her the handsome-faced boy, neatly dressed, with his light hair waving over his temples and shining like gold in the blaze from the grate, his lips parted in his eagerness to learn the words of the song -- or, as it seemed, hymn -- and his blue eyes still glistening with the moisture of recent tears. The words recited were these: --
Arthur's quick memory had soon caught up the rhythm of these beautiful lines, greatly to Mrs. Blatherwick's astonishment; whereupon the latter proceeded to chant them to their appropriate melody, bidding Arthur pay good heed and learn the air. The air was lugubrious in the extreme, just fitted for being sung by a sturdy mendicant of the streets, and it lost nothing in effect when rendered by the now croaking, now whining, now snarling falsetto of Mrs. Blatherwick. So she began: --
and at the end of each verse Arthur took up the strain and did his best to imitate the whining nasality which his instructress exhibited in such perfection. It was not to be expected that he should all at once reach the summits of his new art, but he did so far well as to earn Mrs. Blatherwick's approbation. By about nine o'clock he had thoroughly learnt both words and air. Accordingly his landlady gave him leave to ascend to the garret in which he had formerly lived with his father, and there to remain for the rest of the night.
This room had not been occupied since poor Golding had left it in his coffin, and now contained neither more nor less furniture than on the night of his death. Somehow or other the pieces of brown paper supplying the places of the broken panes of glass had got torn off, and the wind blew into the room with chilling breath. Despite all this discomfort, poor Arthur heaved a sigh of relief as he entered the door. Having done his best to make it fast behind him, by drawing with difficulty a very rusty bolt, he ran with a low cry to the corner in which his father had lain when last he saw him, and flinging himself on the spot, wept aloud in the bitterness of his heart. Outside it was raining hard, and each fierce gust of wind swept large drops through the gaps in the windows, making the floor quite wet. The room would have been perfectly dark, save for a slight gleam which shone from a window directly opposite, where there was no blind to conceal the bright fire and the oil lamp by which two women were sitting at their needles. The child did not notice the darkness; it was nothing to him, for the terrible gloom within his heart would have made the lightest chamber seem black as midnight. For half an hour he lay upon the floor, a prey to anguish such as few grown men are capable of experiencing.
He was roused from a species of lethargy at length by the sound of ten o'clock pealing from a church hard by. Feeling tired, he took off his coat, rolled it up to form a pillow, and lay down with the intention of sleeping. But it was long before he succeeded in attaining that happy oblivion. The noises outside attracted his attention irresistibly; he endeavoured to separate the different elements out of the mingled sounds which made themselves heard amid the wind and rain. Presently the latter ceased, and surprised by a ray of strange light which suddenly streamed through the window and made a large white square upon the floor, he looked up and saw that. the full moon was struggling for life amid surging billows of clouds. Shortly ensued noises in the room below his; there were angry voices, followed by blows and the smashing of crockery. It was nothing new, he was aware of the quarrelsome habits of the people underneath. Then the court grew suddenly lively with a gathering of children, who had eagerly escaped from the houses on the cessation of the rain. No matter that it was drawing on towards midnight, there were the voices of children four or five years old, screaming and calling as if it were noonday; for the wholesome division of time made for the children of the rich is all unknown to these nurselings of Whitecross Street. They seemed at length to be joining in a game, which consisted partly in going round and round in a circle, chanting a song the while. Arthur knew the game and the song well enough; the latter began with the words: --
and as he listened to the shrill chorus of young voices he found himself unconsciously joining with them. And so at length, blending the words of this song with those of the hymn which Mrs. Blatherwick had just taught him, he was overcome with weariness and fell asleep.
It wanted three days to Christmas; accordingly no time was to be lost in making the most of that spasmodic spirit of charity which appears to possess certain people at this period of the year. Mrs. Blatherwick roused Arthur from his slumbers about seven the next morning, and bade him get up quickly. He was not, however, to continue to wear the clothes in which Mr. Norman had clad him; instead of these the landlady made him assume a pair of trousers and a coat so ragged and filthy that they would scarcely hold together, and were absolutely no protection against the cold. The other clothes Mrs. Blatherwick took away with her; doubtless she had an object in so doing.
Though roused so early it was not till shortly after nine o'clock that Bill Blatherwick issued forth upon his day's work, accompanied by the shivering and wretched child. Bill's scene of action lay for the most part in the wealthier neighbourhood of the West End, and the charitable persons who ministered to his support were not in the habit of rising with the lark. Arthur had never as yet seen Bill in professional costume, and the appearance of the latter slightly surprised him. The mendicant wore his ordinary garments, for it would have been impossible to find worse, but over each eye he had tied a large green shade, the pair being not unlike the blinkers of horses, which signified that he had sustained the irreparable misfortune of loss of eyesight. He had, moreover, all at once become one-armed, the left being so skilfully disposed that nothing but a close examination could have shown that it was not in reality amputated. On his head was a chimney-pot hat, terribly battered, around which was wrapped a piece of white cardboard, bearing these words, half in written, half in printed, characters: --
In his right hand he held a stick, and he directed Arthur to guide him by the empty sleeve on the other side. In this manner they issued out of Whitecross Street and proceeded westwards.
The morning was dry and cold, and before long large flakes of snow began to fall. Bill was rather glad of this than otherwise; it enhanced the pathos of the situation; and abundant were the coppers thrown down from windows for the relief of the blind widower and his motherless boy. Truly it was not without cause that the mendicant whined out his trust that in proportion as he excelled in moral worth the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, a kindly Providence would take thought for his future sustenance. It was a bad street indeed which did not produce three pennies, and when it is taken into consideration that Bill did, as a rule, thirty streets a day, there will no longer be wonder as to how he procured the means of spending such pleasant evenings at the "Rose and Crown." The severity of the weather was nothing to him, for underneath his miserable outward clothing he always took care to have good warm shirts wherewith to ward off the onslaughts of the northeast wind. But poor Arthur possessed no such means of comfort, and the suffering he underwent was indeed cruel. For all the protection that his rags afforded him he might as well have been naked, every blast which swept along the white-lined streets sent a shower of snow-flakes through the interstices of his garments on to his very skin. The first hour of his torture sufficed to render his hands and feet numb beyond perception of pain, which was perhaps a blessing; but the other parts of his body were kept in constant suffering from other sources than the cold. For Bill, who was as rank a bully and coward as ever sang hymns to procure the wherewithal for a glass of gin, found a constant source of amusement in secretly torturing the poor boy. One moment he would unexpectedly pinch his arm till his nails almost met in the flesh; or, when he thought himself secure from observation, he would deal him a severe blow with the stick he held in his hand, hissing terrific threats in his ear when a cry of pain burst from the sufferer's lips; or he would purposely tread with his heavy-soled boots upon the boy's almost bare feet; in short he was inexhaustible in the discovery of exquisite tortures, grinning with delight as he saw them take effect to the full extent of his wishes. When at noon he retreated into a miserable den in the regions of Holborn, where he was well known, and there partook of a very substantial meal, he took a fierce delight in eyeing from beneath his raised blinkers the hungry glances of the boy, who, with pinched lips and hollow cheeks, sat gazing with wolfish eagerness at the fare which he was forbidden to touch. When Bill had finished his meal, Arthur received a dry crust, which he seized upon thankfully, and gnawed as they once more took their way through the driving snow. He felt as though it would have relieved him to have cried, but the very source of tears seemed frozen within him.
With the falling night they turned their steps homewards, and another piece of dry bread, together with a steaming cup of what it pleased Mrs. Blatherwick to style coffee, formed Arthur's supper, after which he was bidden to betake himself once more to the garret, where he found a mattress and one or two old blankets -- signs of his landlady's growing consideration. In the morning once more began his sufferings.
At length it was Christmas Eve, -- an occasion celebrated in Whiteross Street just as much as in the homes of wealth and refinement. With dusk the revels began, and, till the hour of closing, the public-houses swarmed with men, women, and children doing their best to welcome with due rejoicing the birthday of Christianity. Far be it from me to emulate the skill of those numberless holy men who have exhausted their inventions in describing those regions which are to be the future home of no inconsiderable portion of the human race; but, had I a tithe of their descriptive power, 0, what a hell could I depict in the Whitecross Street of this Christmas Eve! Out of the very depths of human depravity bubbled up the foulest miasmata which the rottenness of the human heart can breed, usurping the dominion of the pure air of heaven, stifling a whole city with their infernal reek.
The very curs that had followed their masters into the gin-palaces shrank out into the street again, affrighted by the brutal din. Here was a dense, surging crowd around the doors of such a house, surrounding two men who had been flung bodily forth by half a dozen policemen, and who now wallowed in the filth of the gutter, rending each other with tooth and nail, till one of them was carried off insensible or dead. Here rushed along the street a band of women, raving mad with drink and the passions it had aroused, rendering the gift of speech a hideous curse by the language they yelled aloud. Here were children, all but naked, wrangling and fighting for the possession of a jug of liquor which they had somehow procured. And, amid all, the shops and booths, ablaze with light, were doing the briskest trade of any day of the year. Here was poverty cheating poverty of its last pence; here was garbage sold for meat and poison for bread; from every hole and corner of the street and its foul alleys peered vice and crime. Nay, as the newspapers will shortly tell us, even murder was not absent from this Christmas Eve. Walk here with me hand-in-hand, 0 cynic, thou who holdest that the roots of humanity spring from the seed of evil, walk here with me, and, if thou wilt, declare thy belief confirmed.
Christmas Eve!. There are midnight services to-night in London churches, and voices are lifted up in hymn and praise, glorification of God that he has sent His Son to proclaim peace on earth and goodwill to men, to be the herald of a time when universal love shall rule the earth. In the great houses of the West End -- those from which rained the coppers which Bill Blatherwick was at present spending at the "Rose and Crown," the very heart of the hell I have described -- in these houses there are Christmas trees to-night, and gaily-dressed children sport beneath the flash of the magnificent chandeliers, half mad with the enjoyment of the merriest night of the year. What if Bill Blatherwick himself, bestially drunk as he now is, were to be transported bodily into one of these mansions and then thrown down upon the carpet -- a novel excitement for these Christmas guests! Would it strike any of them, with the terrific force of a God-sent revelation, that to them individually was due a share of the evil which has bred such an unutterable abomination? Alas! Whitecross Street is very far off in that shocking East End which it is quite improper to think of, let alone visit, and there is but little possibility that its reek, powerful as it is, would pierce these stone walls and make itself felt above the perfumes which fill the dazzling chambers.
And in all this Arthur Golding bore his part. Mrs. Blatherwick, having got completely drunk long before dark, was quite extravagant in her benevolence to him. She even gave him the pot out of which she was drinking "four-half" from the nearest public-house, and bade him, with a curse, drink as much as he would. He did so, and, shortly after, finding himself unnoticed by the people who streamed in and out of the house, wandered into the streets and looked about him. He had no playmates here, and was perforce alone, for the boisterousness of the children. terrified him, and an instinctive delicacy made him shrink from their rude games.
Intent upon the varied scenes surrounding him he wandered out of Whitecross Street into the larger streets beyond, pausing at each large shop he passed, and doing his best to imagine that the lights warmed him. The grocers' shops particularly attracted his attention, laid out in all the magnificence of Christmas provisions, and his eyes gloated over what seemed to him the priceless delicacies which flashed and glistened in the light of the gas-jets.
Before one shop in particular he stood a long while, gazing at a vast array of crystallised fruits which filled the window. He could imagine, though he had never tasted, the delicious sweetness of these fruits, and, all insensible to the fierce blasts which were cutting him to the very bone, he enjoyed in fancy such feasts as only the Prophet's faithful in Paradise would be capable of realising. Tearing himself from these delights he came to an eating-house, and here, instead of a sweet, enjoyed in fancy a savoury repast. The window was filled with large beef-steak pies, placed on perforated tin, from beneath which issued clouds of steam and kept the pies warm. Now and again a brawny arm, bared to the elbow, would appear through the steam,. and with a great knife, would pierce into one of these succulent delicacies, causing such streams of gravy to flow, and exposing to the view such luscious gobbets of fat, that a cry of envious pleasure broke from the child's hungry lips.
Not Schecabac at the Barmecide's table, not Sancho Panza, when Dr. Rizio seemed to bid fair to starve him in his island, ever suffered so from the tortures of stimulated but unsatisfied appetite as did poor little Arthur in front of these shops. And when shortly after he came to one where a whole roast pig was exposed to view, dressed in such a manner as to suggest delights which only Charles Lamb could fitly celebrate, the ravenous boy felt he could have pounced upon it like a beast of prey and torn it limb from limb in the ferocity of his hunger.
He had strayed as far as the corner of Old Street and City Road, when his eye was caught by the glow of a little fire which marked the spot where a baked-potato man had his stand. The man was doing a brisk trade just now, and Arthur was tempted to join the small group which stood around him and timidly held out his hands towards the warmth of the fire. This was grateful to his half-frozen limbs, but even more so was the delightful odour which exhaled as often as the man opened the little iron door and took out a potato to hand to a customer.
Oh, could he but afford a baked potato! He well knew the price of them was one half-penny, and yet they were as much out of his reach as if they had cost a pound. With greedy eyes he followed the man's every movement, saw him, as each customer advanced, draw out a brown-jacket, open it, and sprinkle on the inside salt and pepper. Then he watched the purchaser taking the first bite as he walked away, and was half persuaded to spring upon him like a young tiger and rend the food from his grasp.
Again and again he walked away, and as often returned. The potato-man had not been unobservant of his comings and goings; once or twice he had been on the point of bidding him be off, but he was not a hasty-tempered man, and something in the boy's face forbade harshness. At length, when no customer was by, and Arthur had been standing for several minutes warming himself, the man suddenly inquired --
"What for you, my man?"
Arthur started and turned to hurry away, but the man called him back.
"Here, young un, don't look so scared. Give us your 'arfpenny, an' 'ere's a big un for you."
Arthur stammered that he had not a halfpenny.
"Ain't got a 'arfpenny? D'yer mean to say you've spent all your earnin's already?"
"They never give me anything to spend," replied the boy.
"Yer look 'ungry," said the man, after looking at him for a moment.
"I'm very hungry," was all that Arthur could reply.
"Hum! I thought as much. Maybe you could eat a tater?"
"That I could," said the hungry boy.
The man took out a large floury potato and broke it open.
"D'yer like pepper, young un?"
"And salt? -- of course you does. 'Ere goes. Now let's see if yer know how to eat."
Arthur seized the potato with almost savage eagerness, and devoured it, steaming hot as it was. He was then going off, after thanking his friend, but the latter put another potato in his hands and bade him eat it on his way home. He seemed to have a certain pleasure in the boy's look of gratitude.
"Well, well, it's Christmas Eve," he muttered to himself as he watched Arthur walk away; "and a penny ain't so much arter all. Poor little devil!"
And if every man in London had been as judiciously charitable that night as was the baked-potato man, the Christmas Day which followed would have been rich with a blossoming of unwonted happiness.
Fain would Arthur have visited the friendly corner again on the following night, but delicacy withheld him -- that fine element of his nature which differentiated him from the ordinary street Arab. It being Christmas Day, Mrs. Blatherwick had exerted herself to induce her hopeful son to make the most of the propitious season; but she soon became aware that the jovialities of the previous evening had rendered Bill absolutely incapable of standing upright, to say nothing of melodiously declaring his trust in Providence in the wonted manner. So she very reluctantly allowed him to remain all day in his comatose condition, and revenged herself by setting Arthur to perform, for several hours, some of the hardest and most menial labour her ingenuity could suggest.
But at night the boy became once more free, and again wandered about the streets. About nine o'clock he watched, from afar off, the baked-potato man wheel up his oven and settle down at the wonted corner, but he approached no nearer.
During the next few days Bill Blatherwick once more resumed his professional duties, and from morning to night Arthur guided his blind and maimed parent along the snowbound streets, suffering the extremes of cold and hunger, as well as all the tortures which the brutal ingenuity of his master could conceive, and singing a hundred times a day the hymn about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.
Very frequently a passer-by would turn to look at his pale and wan features, admiring the beauty of their outlines, and the thick golden hair which fell almost to his shoulders and was apparent through the rents of his cap.
Bill soon learned the value of the boy's personal appearance; he had gained twice as much money daily since Arthur had been with him than he had previously been accustomed to. Yet he seemed every day to grow more malicious towards him, taking a keener delight in making him endure hunger and thirst, at times almost laming him with savage kicks or blows, and always threatening the most terrific penalties if ever he should complain of the treatment he received.
Arthur's nature was long-suffering, but not unconscious of resentment, and at length Bill perpetrated on him a piece of cruelty which roused all the indignation lurking in his child's heart, and for the moment revealed an intensity of passion in his character which had never before made itself known.
Bill was partaking of a glass of his favourite beverage in a public-house one noon and had left Arthur standing outside. The boy was tortured with a terrible thirst, of which he had not dared to complain to Bill; but now that the latter's back was turned he seized the opportunity, and bent to drink the puddly water of a horse-trough which stood at the edge of the pavement. He was in the midst of a long draught when a hand suddenly descended on the back of his neck, and, before he was aware, plunged him overhead in the trough. The street was a small one, and Bill had taken advantage of its loneliness to indulge himself in a congenial amusement.
But he had driven his jocosity too far. Starting to his feet, the boy turned and sprang like a young leopard upon his persecutor; sprang at his head, clutched him round the neck, and fixed with his teeth fiercely in the bully's cheek, whilst with his feet he belaboured the mendicant's lower extremities.
Bill roared like a bull, thus drawing forth several men from the public-house, who laughed heartily, and began to make bets on the event of the struggle. It was, of course, too uneven for the result to be long doubtful. For a moment Arthur's madness gave him an energy which repelled all the man's efforts to free himself; he ground his teeth deep into the flesh with the ferocity of a wild beast.
But in a few minutes Bill shook him off with a desperate effort, dashed him on the ground, trod upon him with his heavy clogs, and began to beat him about the head with his stick, when the men from the public-house interfered and stayed his hand. It was then found that the boy had fainted. He was carried into the house, and Bill followed him.
Whilst Arthur was being attended to by a compassionate barmaid, the mendicant bound up the wound in his cheek as well as he could, sticking-plaster having been forthcoming (for a due consideration) from the landlord. It did not appear very serious; Bill was in the habit of receiving far worse damage than this in his nightly brawls. But the exhaustion of the affair had naturally resulted in thirst, and Bill was easily persuaded by the other men present to resume his previous seat and call for a copious joram of the "same as before."
Arthur, on recovering, was accommodated with a seat between his master and the wall, where he sat with his eyes closed and his face deadly pale, the constant object of Bill's ominous observation.
So productive of amusing conversation was the little episode that the shades of the December night had already begun to darken upon the City before Bill could prevail upon himself to leave his place and bid Arthur precede him into the street. The mendicant's walk was not quite so steady as it might have been, and there was a curious look in his bloodshot eyes when he regarded his little companion, which suggested the possibility of drink having made his usually malicious nature absolutely dangerous.
It was against Bill's ordinary habits to partake of liquor in the daytime; the practice was, to say the least of it, destructive to the interests of his profession. When he once began to drink it was extremely difficult for him to abstain till he had reached the state of insensibility, and such proved the case on the present occasion.
On leaving the public-house he had promised himself that he would avoid entering another till he had reached home and taken measures for the suitable punishment of his assailant. But he had already taken too much to allow of his adhering to a resolution.
They were threading the neighbourhood of Saffron Hill on their way citywards (Bill always preferred these backways to the more open thoroughfares), when he was hailed by a "pal" from the doorway of a dram-shop, and, wholly unable to resist the temptation, he dragged Arthur along after him (when he reached these localities he always threw aside the various items of his disguise) and entered.
More than an hour was spent here, and before he departed Bill was completely drunk. He told the story of the attack made upon him, and amused himself and his companions by occasionally administering severe blows to Arthur either with his stick or his fist.
The boy's blood boiled within him, but he remained silent and motionless. When at length they once more issued into the street Bill staggered along in the darkness, supporting himself on the boy's shoulder, shouting out curses with what voice he had left, and perpetually slipping over the ice and snow, which the bitter frost-wind bound harder every moment on the narrow paths. They lost their way, for Arthur was totally strange in the neighbourhood, and Bill was quite incapable of guiding himself.
When at length they turned into an alley darker than any yet, the passion brooding in Arthur's breast rose lightning-like to his brain in the form of a fierce thought. Glancing around, he saw at once that not a soul was near. It needed but a slight push -- a weaker hand than Arthur's would have sufficed -- and the sot reeled and fell heavily to the ground.
Acting in pursuance of instinct rather than upon deliberate reflection, the boy groped for the leather bag which held the day's harvest of coppers, wrenched it in a moment off the drunkard's neck, and bounded away through the darkness.
Not for a moment did he look back, but pursued his breathless course along streets he had no knowledge of, turning out of one into another from a blind impulse which bade him thus avoid pursuit. He fancied he could hear Bill's voice yelling after him; once or twice he seemed to hear rapid footsteps close upon his heels; but he never turned to look round. He did not stop in his headlong course till, slipping on the ice, he fell violently, and lay almost senseless on the pavement.
After a few moments he crept into a doorway, and there lay panting. With this one great effort of escaping his strength seemed to have deserted him; he felt unable to rise to his feet. He was not cold now he did not feel hungry; all his body seemed consumed with a terrific thirst. On looking round him he saw the flaring front of a public-house at a few yards' distance, and a longing for drink -- drink warm and sweet, like that they had given him when he recovered from his fainting fit -- came irresistibly upon him.
With trembling hands he hid the wallet as well as he could under his rags, having first taken out a few coppers, which he held clenched in his fist. After one or two efforts he succeeded in staggering to his feet, crossed the road, and, hesitating but for a moment, pushed open the door of the public-house and entered the bar. Pressing through a crowd of drinkers, he succeeded in giving an order which he had often heard Bill give, and was quickly supplied with a smoking tumbler.
The men around him looked at the slight, childish form, and began to laugh and joke. One of them, who seemed good-tempered in his cups, lifted the boy on to his knee and played with his fine hair, whilst another proposed to "stand" him another glass. Arthur wished for nothing better. His tongue was now loosened, and his native timidity had given place to a boldness which shrank from nothing. He drank the second glass, and after that a third, then offered to pay for glasses round to the group of men who were amusing themselves with him. This nearly exhausted his stock of coppers. Then he sang, he danced, he shouted; and at length, though quite unconscious of how or why it came about, he felt a heavy grasp on his shoulder, and the next moment found himself lying on the pavement in the open air.
For a moment the recollection of Bill Blatherwick flashed upon his mind, and, starting to his feet, he endeavoured to run. Again and again he fell his whole length, the last time he did so, feeling something warm on his face, which he tried to, wipe off with his hand, and became half conscious that it was blood.
Then a long period seemed to pass, in which he was conscious of nothing; and after that he suddenly found himself standing by a small fire, with someone speaking to him. There was a pleasant. smell in the air, too, and at length he recognized his friend the baked-potato man.
"An' what a' you been a doin' of, eh?" asked the man, eyeing Arthur suspiciously. "Come, you get orff 'ome, d'ye 'ear?"
The child endeavoured to reply in a long, stammering account of his sufferings, of the cruelties he had received at the hands of the Blatherwicks, of many other things that were nothing at all to the purpose, talking all the time as if in a dream, and once on the point of falling into the red-hot grate, had not the man held him up. Then again he became quite unconscious of everything, and so he remained for many hours.
When he once more came to his senses it was about nine o'clock on New Year's morning. He was lying on a straw mattress, well covered up with warm clothes, in a little room directly under the rafters of the house.
It was a fine morning, and the sun, though with but little warmth in its beams, threw a cheerful light on a prospect of chimneys and slated roofs. Arthur looked around him in surprise and fright, for the room was quite strange to him. He rose with difficulty to his feet, and, as the sunlight met his eyes, staggered back as if suddenly smitten on the head. His senses reeled; his mouth and throat were so parched that he could scarcely fetch his breath; he felt so utterly, miserably ill that, falling back upon his bed again, he began to moan and cry in the extremity of his suffering.
There was another bed in the room which had evidently been occupied during the night, but beyond this there was no furniture. Outside the window, however, were hung two or three bird-cages containing canaries, which so far enjoyed the sunshine as to be doing their best to sing a little, despite the sharp morning air which ruffled their yellow plumage and made them keep continually hopping about for the sake of warmth. A stronger roulade than usual from one of them had succeeded at length in attracting his attention, when the door suddenly opened, and a man entered, whom he at once recognised as his friend of the baked-potatoes.
"Well, young un, how goes it?" shouted the man in a cheerful voice.
"I feel very bad," groaned Arthur, in reply. "Where have I got to, sir? This isn't Mrs. Blatherwick's, is it?"
The other having reassured him on this point, Arthur was persuaded to dress, an operation which, as may be imagined, did not, in his case, require any great length of time. His friend then conducted him out of the room, and down several flights of dark and creaking stairs, till he found himself in a small parlour, very comfortably furnished, where a bright fire was burning, and the table was covered with preparations for breakfast. Two or three little children were running in and out of the room, all dressed in that humble sort of finery which even the poorest can procure at the cost of a few pence expended in various coloured ribbons, and all evidently in a delighted state of mind highly befitting the morning of a New Year.
At the table sat the father of the family, waited upon by a very young and sickly-looking woman, whom it was hard to believe to be the mother of the boisterous children, though such was the fact. He was a short but broad-shouldered man, with an extremely red face, which would have borne a highly comic expression, had not the absence of one eye given it a touch of repulsiveness. As it was, his countenance was decidedly grotesque, and, as he ate, which he did voraciously, he twisted it into such a variety of extraordinary shapes that, had it not been for the absence of spectators, one would have believed he was doing it to excite amusement. We may as well state at once that his name was Michael Rumball.
The nature of Mr. Rumball's business was pretty clearly indicated by the objects surrounding him. All round the parlour walls were suspended bird-cages, mostly occupied; some large and evidently used for the purposes of breeding, others only containing a single singing-bird. The room had two doors, one that by which Arthur and his guide had entered, the other looking into the shop, which a glance showed to be filled with all manner of live-stock, not birds alone, but rabbits, hares, guinea-pigs and many other species dear to amateur naturalists. For the locality was Little St. Andrew Street, and Mr. Rumball's shop was one of many similar for which the neighbour hood is noted. The situation of the parlour, just in the rear of such a miscellaneous collection, certainly had its disadvantages, among them the constant impregnation of the atmosphere with a most potent and peculiar odour; but probably in this matter, as in all others, habit became a second nature, and nobody seemed at all offended by the scents.
"Well, Mike," exclaimed the baked-potato man, as he drew the boy in by the shoulders and thrust him, with a rough sort of kindness, into a chair, "'ere's the young shaver as I carried 'ome last night. And pretty down in the mouth he do look! Cheer up, young 'un!"
The baked-potato man, who rejoiced in the name of Ned Quirk, spoke in a hearty and jovial voice, though the tones were terribly husky. The huskiness was not, as is so often the case, the result of drink, for Ned was a strictly temperate man, but was simply the result of his trade; for, whilst turning an honest penny by his potatoes at night, he exercised during the day the business of a costermonger, hawking vegetables and the like about the streets and thundering out the qualities and prices of his wares in tones which had but few rivals, even among the coster fraternity. To the same cause was due a peculiar twist in his mouth, which gave to his face a curious expression. This slight deformity is no uncommon thing amongst men of his trade, and results from the habit of constant shouting.
"Can you eat a bit?" continued Ned, eyeing the boy with kindly compassion.
"I'm not hungry," replied Arthur, turning away from the food. "My head's so bad."
"Ah!" interposed Mike Rumball, in a cracked voice, with one of his drollest facial twists, "you've been a departin' from the ways of right'ousness, an' a sittin' in the seat of the scornful, young un. Come now, hain't you?"
"Now don't go on with the boy, Mike, there's a good fellow," said Mrs. Rumball, whose maternal heart was touched with pity at Arthur's sad plight. "I always will say as Ned Quirk is a good-'arted fellow, an' it was like him to bring the boy along with him. What's yer name, my poor boy?"
"Arthur Golding," replied the boy, continuing to stare in the utmost surprise at all around him.
"Well now, Arthur, you'll drink a cup o' tea, and may be you'll feel better for it. There now."
Arthur drank the grateful fluid, and after a few minutes certainly did begin to feel better. In the meanwhile the three children had gathered round him, and were watching him curiously as he swallowed the last drop out of the half-pint mug.
"Run out into the street, all o' you!" cried Mrs. Rumball. "Play there till Mr. Quirk's ready for you. He won't be so long I dare say."
"Not two minutes, young 'uns," cried Ned Quirk. "An' now," he added, turning to Arthur, "dy yer think as you can find yer way 'ome, my lad?"
"I -- I have no real home, sir," stammered Arthur, terrified at the idea of being taken back to Mrs. Blatherwick's.
"How's that?" broke in Mike. "Foxes has 'oles, an' the birds o' the air has nests, yer know -- leastwise most on 'em -- an' I can't b'lieve as you're a hexception to the rule."
Then Arthur took courage and repeated in more connected language what he had already told Ned Quirk half unconsciously on the preceding night, relating all the sufferings he had undergone at the hands of the Blatherwicks, but carefully abstaining from giving precise information as to those amiable persons' whereabouts, and remaining equally silent on the subject of his brief stay with Mr. Norman.
"It's a 'ard case," said Ned Quirk, reflectively, and he drew on a very big overcoat. "What can we do with the lad, Mike?"
"Well, yer know, Ned, charity covers a multitude o' sins. Maybe we could find him a job. How old are you, young un?"
"Nearly nine, sir."
"Hum! Old enough to be gettin' yer livin', my lad."
"I tell you what, Mike," said Ned Quirk, "I mustn't keep these 'ere young uns o' yourn waitin'; they'll tear me to pieces else. You keep Arthur 'ere till I come back, an' that's about four this arternoon, if the weather 'olds up. Then we'll talk the matter over. Don't be afear'd to give him somethin' to eat; I'll stand to that, old boy."
The explanation of Ned Quirk's hurry was this. In his quality of itinerary tradesman he was possessed of a small cart and a smaller donkey, both of which he was in the habit of utilising on special occasions for the purpose of small pleasure-trips, being most frequently accompanied in the same by the three children of his friend, Michael Rumball. Now, to-day, being at one and the same time Sunday and New Year's Day, and the weather being unusually propitious for the time of year, an excursion extraordinary had been planned to no less a distance than Hampstead Heath, with the purpose, as we have heard, of lasting the whole day. The diminutive but well-fed and sprightly-looking donkey had already been standing harnessed at the door for nearly a quarter of an hour, and was evidently growing impatient to show his holiday mettle. So as soon as Ned had wrapped himself in his great coat -- which, bye-the-by, had been so often and so variously patched as almost to resemble the coat of many colours worn by Joseph of old -- he was dragged to the door by the noisy youngsters, and followed thither at a more leisurely pace by Mr. and Mrs. Rumball. In a minute the children had climbed into the two-wheeled vehicle, ensconcing themselves in the receptacles appropriated on week-days to potatoes, herrings, &c., and now sat hallooing their delight to a whole crowd of dirty-faced little ragamuffins who stood around with envious looks, though the eldest of them did not hesitate to make sarcastic remarks on the general appearance of the turnout. Ned Quirk was not behindhand, but sprang to his wonted seat in front, rested his legs wide apart on the shafts, grasped the rope-reins, twitched the donkey's cars with a stick of holly, and away they went at a sharp pace, pursued to the end of the street by a swarm of yelling tatterdemalions.
Michael Rumball (who, bye-the-by, had been in his youth a shining light among the Ranter fraternity, and had often uplifted his voice at the street corners, or amid the sanctified enthusiasm of camp-meetings,) reflected much during the day, taking counsel at times with his wife. The result of it all he expressed the same evening, when, Ned Quirk having returned and the children having been sent to bed, the two friends sat over their pipes, with Arthur between them.
"You see, young un," began Mr. Rumball, "we don't want for to turn you out o' doors, 'specially in winter time when the nights is cold; but you see we ain't great nobs as 'as got their ten thousand a year, so no more we can't be expected to keep you in lux'ry, you see. An' then I'm not by any means sewer as it 'ud be a good thing for you if we could; I myself believe in workin' for one's livin', it comes sweeter like. You remember the hymn:
"Well, that's always been my motto, you see, young un; at least sin' I left off certain practices, as Mrs. Rumball wouldn't thank me for referrin' tew. Then there's that other passage, as no doubt you knows very well, about what I did when I was a child, and 'ow I come to alter my ways when I grow'd to be a man; and as you're growin' to be a man, you see, it's time you bore that passage in mind. Well, the long an' short of it all is, that Ned Quirk and me, we thinks we see our way to put you into the line of a honest livin'; and as you seem to a' been 'itherto in rayther queerish 'ands, maybe you won't be sorry to hear it. Now, if we do this for you, I've one thing to ask. Will you hengage to give my missus there all you earn every night, or every Saturday night, as may be, an' trust to us to find you bed an' board? Is it a fair bargain?"
"Yes, sir, thank you," replied Arthur, overjoyed in his heart to think he had found such good friends.
"Well, then, we won't say any more about it -- but shake hands. There, Ned Quirk, I hain't made so long a speech not sin' I called upon the Almighty in public prayer for two hours and a half, by Aldgate Pump, some two-an'-twenty years gone by."
Ned nodded approval, and the counsel shortly broke up. Arthur went to the truckle bed he had occupied on the previous night with a lighter heart than he had perhaps ever known. But before he went to sleep his thoughts wandered, as was their wont, to that garret in Whitecross Street and the face he had seen there for the last time, still and cold, and he sobbed himself into forgetfulness.
On the morrow began the work-a-day New Year, and with it Arthur's first real entrance upon the business of life. Two doors off Mike Rumball's shop was a small greengrocer's, where not only vegetables and coals were sold, but also cat's meat, the sale of the latter generally constituting so important a business as alone to suffice for the energies of one tradesman. But the energies of Mrs. Hannah Clinkscales were not to be gauged by the ordinary standards.
She was a notable woman who had, like Dogberry, "had losses," and to whom the sole result of three marriages remained in the shape of her little daughter, Lizzie; to this child her mother was devoted heart and soul. No toil was too severe to undertake, no pinching too much to suffer, no meanness too low to practise, inasmuch as the one end of them all, that which hallowed the means, was the future happiness of Lizzie.
Mrs. Clinkscales happened to be in want of a lad, to assist her in the shop. The daughter, Lizzie, though nearly eleven years old, was never allowed to do anything resembling menial work. She kept the books, and did it, too, in a very beautiful little hand which was her mother's envy and delight, but below this she could not be allowed to descend. When Mike Rumball first offered Arthur's services Mrs. Clinkscales was doubtful. The lad was incapable of carrying half a hundred of coals, that was clear, and he had no experience whatever in weighing out goods or cutting up cat's-meat; but after a little persuasive conversation on Mike's part, an arrangement was somehow come to and Arthur was to be engaged. His duties were numerous. In the morning he went round a large circle of customers carrying a cat's-meat basket on his arm, and, that accomplished, he weighed out coals, occasionally made a sale, kept the shop clean, chopped up old wood to sell by the pound, and perpetually ran errands; so that the day was amply filled up, and his weekly remuneration was, to begin with, five shillings -- payment which Mrs. Clinkscales always spoke of on Saturday night as "extravagant to a degree."
In those days there were no school-boards, and impertinencies, such as the arts of reading and writing, the uselessness, nay, the deleteriousness, of which cannot but be patent to all admirers of the good old times, including all those individuals who -- not without reason -- dread the growth of democratic principles among the poor; these arts were far from interfering with Arthur's honest diligence. He had not remained long enough under the tutorship of Mr. Orlando Whiffle to greatly benefit thereby, and, though he had at first made promising progress with his letters, the reading of words of one syllable and the designing of very questionable pot-hooks had been the most that it had been his privilege to attain. And now in a very short time the pressure of new occupations had driven even that little out of his head. But the few weeks of his abode at Bloomford Rectory had not been unimportant in the boy's life. The recollection of those days long continued to linger in his memory, as a sweet scent will sometimes cling to a handkerchief which has grown old and been made to serve ignoble uses. So short had been the period, and so severe the sufferings which had suddenly succeeded upon it, that the memory was little more to him than that of a vision seen in sleep, but nevertheless, it was a delight. He had not enjoyed it at the time, for that he had been too distressed in mind; he had not felt at home among those novel scenes; but now, when they at times recurred to him, they brought with them a sense of beauty and peace, of the joys belonging to a higher existence, something which he could never have conceived of but for that experience, but which mingled a secret discontent, a half-felt longing, with the menial toil of his present every-day life. He thought of Mr. Norman and his kind grave tone, and felt an emotion of gratitude well in his heart; he thought of little Helen Norman, and wished he could again walk hand-in-hand with her along the spacious lawn.
But the intellect of a boy cannot feed on dreams, and Arthur Golding, though he continued extremely quiet and retiring in his habits, soon began to fill an appreciable place in the family groups to which he had been introduced. As he had to get up each day at half-past six, and very seldom got to bed before eleven o'clock, he did not see very much of the Rumballs, except at meals, and yet he continued to excite that kindly feeling in the members of the household which had first of all been aroused by his sad condition and interesting looks.
Ned Quirk regarded him indeed with almost paternal feelings, never failing to choose a stray moment of leisure to impart to him excellent advice, and from the first day holding himself responsible for the maintenance of his protégé in the item of wearing apparel. As Ned possessed, to use his own words, "neither chick nor child," this burden fell light upon him. He took a species of pride in seeing Arthur well dressed on Sunday, and indeed the boy looked remarkably well on such occasions, his handsome features and beautiful hair imparting a certain elegance to his appearance in spite of the humble character of his garments. Ned Quirk never made any remarks about him, at all events not in Arthur's hearing, but none the less it was plain that he watched his growth with great interest. Who could tell but the boy might one day attain to the dignity of a donkey-cart of his own, and cry out greens in a manner which even Ned might approve of?
Sunday indeed was a blissful day to Arthur, bringing him rest from toil and freedom to indulge in those curious day-dreams which he preferred much to other society, but which were very little compatible, at least in Mrs. Clinkscales' eyes, with the formation of sound business habits. On Sunday afternoon, when the children were playing in the street, and Mrs. Rumball had sat down for a nap, and Mike and Ned were dozing over their Sunday papers by the fire, Arthur took a delight in sitting alone in the darkened shop, watching by the light which streamed through the round holes in the shutters the movements of the birds in their cages, and the rabbits in their hutches.
There was a strange fascination for him in the voices and all the habits of these poor prisoners. At times he would whistle airs in a very low tone, enticing the birds to break out into song. There were one or two old parrots, which remained in the shop some time, with which he stood on extremely intimate terms; they allowed him to scratch their heads, to put his finger in their beak unhurt, to stroke their feathers, and would learn a variety of peculiar sounds from his lips. And when one of them particularly pleased him by its cleverness he would laugh underneath his breath, for fear of attracting the attention of others, who would have spoilt his pleasure.
But before long he had a human friend in whose company he grew to take even greater delight than in that of the birds. This was Lizzie Clinkscales. Lizzie was strictly forbidden by her mother to enter the shop except with very good reason, and consequently it was nearly a month before Arthur had obtained more than a passing glimpse of the little girl, who once or twice walked out through the shop in all the dignity of her blue frock and velvet hat with a partridge's feather in it, to make some purchases for her mother, though it was her regular habit to adopt the more retired exit by the house-door in the alley just on the right hand of the shop. Lizzie grew by degrees accustomed to the sight of Arthur, and even appeared to take an interest in him. Every day she went to school somewhere in the neighbourhood of Leicester Square, and before long Arthur got into the habit of watching for her as she came back at twelve. Lizzie was a very pretty little girl, and the sight of her pleased Arthur; once or twice he said to himself that she looked like Helen Norman, though in reality she was very different. As he stood in the doorway of the shop he could see her coming ever so far at the end of the street, for her blue dress made her conspicuous. Often she would be holding her slate up in one hand, making out a sum as she walked; or else she would have her slate and her bag slung over one arm and be reading a lesson-book; for Lizzie was preeminently industrious and made excellent use of the opportunities her hard-working mother gave her. If Arthur happened to be away on an errand at such times he would fret and feel annoyed, often running back at a breakneck speed to be in time for the child's return.
One evening Mrs. Clinkscales had gone out and had left Arthur in sole charge of the business. The boy was sitting in the back of the shop, as far away from the noise and lights of the street as possible, indulging in one of his favourite reveries, when he was aroused by a light step behind him, and, jumping to his feet for fear of being caught thus by his mistress, found that it was Lizzie who had stolen upon him. She had her slate in her hand and came up holding it out to Arthur, who stood in abashed wonder.
"Can you do Rule of Three?" she asked, speaking in a frank, pretty voice, not unmingled, however, with something which expressed her sense of the condescension she was showing in addressing the boy in the shop.
Arthur looked at her in astonishment. He could not understand her, and, even had he done so, his natural shyness would have rendered him incapable of replying.
"Rule of Three, you know," said Lizzie, drawing herself up slightly. "Those sums with the three terms."
Arthur shook his head, but still did not speak.
"You can't? What a pity! I wanted to ask you to show me how to work out this horrid sum. Do just read it over and see."
The boy took the book passively as it was offered to him. Something like tears were rising to his eyes.
"You can read, can't you?" said Lizzie, in a slightly offended tone.
"No, miss, I can't," stammered poor Arthur, terribly ashamed of himself.
"Can't read!" echoed Lizzie, in astonishment. "How dreadful! But don't you mean to learn?"
"I've no chance, miss," replied Arthur, humbly, with his head cast down.
"Would you like to?" asked the child, in a tone of pitying interest.
"Yes, indeed I should," he replied.
"Well, I tell you what I'll do," said Lizzie. "You're a nice quiet boy, and not so ugly as those we had before, and I don't seem to hate you like I did them. So I'll ask ma if she'll let me teach you to read. Now, shall I?" cried the child, her face glowing with pleasure.
Arthur had to stammer some answer, but could not succeed in uttering any words. Just at that moment a customer came into the shop, and Lizzie darted away into the house.
Arthur was left in a state of bewildered delight, not, however, unmixed with fear, at the prospect of what Lizzie was about to undertake for him. Nor was his apprehension groundless. In about half an hour Mrs. Clinkscales returned and entered the house to change her somewhat noticeable walking apparel for those more serviceable garments in which she was wont to wait in the shop. Arthur waited for her reappearance with trembling; he felt sure that Lizzie would lose no time in putting her request. When Mrs. Hannah again appeared in the shop it was with a ruffled brow and flushed cheeks. Her temper was evidently upset, and, when such was the case, the good lady had the art of making herself very disagreeable indeed. All the rest of the evening she seemed to be doing her best to render Arthur uncomfortable. She set him work to do which was beyond his strength, and abused him in no measured terms because he did not do it; she raked up by-gone subjects of complaint, and then rated him for them as if they had only just occurred; once indeed she did what she had never done before, gave him a sound box on the ears, wholly without cause. Arthur bore all, in his usual manner, uncomplainingly. Child as he was he had no difficulty in judging it all to be the result of Lizzie's ill-advised suggestion; and since he knew that Lizzie would be grieved at losing her request, he felt it to be his own duty to bear the mother's wrath submissively. That was his due share.
Arthur had already several times given indications of what in a child of higher birth we might, perhaps, be allowed to call chivalrous feeling; as it is, I suppose we must content ourselves with allowing the poor lad a negative commendation, and say that he was in some degree distinguished from other boys of his position by a certain want of brutality, an absence of vulgar selfishness. Already he displayed a consideration towards the female sex which the vast majority of youngsters brought up in his circumstances have no suspicion of. He liked the society of females, and with them was far more open and unreserved than with men or boys. To Mrs. Rumball he had always behaved with unfailing respect, occasionally with even a timid display of affection; which indeed that good woman was scarcely capable of nicely comprehending, but which nevertheless she felt, and rewarded by affection in return. Even to Mrs. Clinkscales, who certainly possessed very few of the distinctive qualities of the gentler sex, Arthur displayed his innate chivalry -- for such indeed it was. But to Lizzie, who was not quite two years older than himself, and whom he had such few chances of observing, he had already erected in his young heart a temple for far-off worship -- worship as pure as that of the vestals who guarded the undying flame. We have read of poets who declared themselves to be in love at precarious ages, and it was the kind of love to which they refer, a virgin adoration uninfused with the least breath of passion, that Arthur cherished towards Lizzie. Possibly, he too, was going to grow up a poet; who could tell?
On the following morning he was on the watch to see her starting for school, and when he saw her blue frock appear from the alley and pass into the streets his heart throbbed. She did not look round, but went on in her usual way, reading her book. Arthur experienced an overpowering feeling of gratitude as he gazed after her, gratitude to her for having wished to benefit him. Then a sudden thought flashed into his head. What was to prevent him beginning to learn to read by himself, relying upon the assistance from time to time of Mrs. Rumball or Ned Quirk? He thought he still remembered his letters, at all events he could get them from the first piece of newspaper that came into his hands. And if indeed he did learn to read, what a triumph it would be to steal a moment some day, in defiance of Mrs. Clinkscales' surveillance, and whisper into Lizzie's ear the glorious fact of his acquisition! His breast throbbed with something of heroic fire as these thoughts welled in his mind. Taking up an old piece of a paper that lay underneath his feet, he sought eagerly to renew his acquaintance with the letters printed in the largest type. Alas! it was now nearly half a year since he had abruptly quitted the tuition of Mr. Whiffle, he had all but totally forgotten the alphabet. "Never mind," he said to himself, "I will get Mrs. Rumball to teach me." And he set to work at his task of chopping up old wood.
The same evening Mrs. Clinkscales was again out, but only for a very short time. It sufficed however for the execution of a purpose which a sharp little brain hidden beneath a mass of rich curls had contrived during the day. Scarcely was Arthur left alone when once more the blue frock stole like a gleam 6f light into the shop. The child held out a little old, much-worn book in her hand.
"Ma's a cross old thing!" she exclaimed, laughing, and speaking with that mixture of pride and sweetness which was characteristic of her in a peculiar degree. "You mustn't mind her, you know. She said she wouldn't let me teach you for the world; and perhaps she's right, for she's very particular about the acquaintances I make. But I've brought you an old spelling book of mine. The letters are all very large there. You must try and get someone to help you, you know; for it's very disgraceful not to be able to read, I'm sure. Don't let me see it for the world; put it underneath your coat somewhere. Now do your best, won't you?"
Though doubtless all unconscious of the importance of her acts, Lizzie was in reality exercising a vast influence on Arthur Golding, determining perhaps the whole current of his future life. Who can tell what importance is to be attributed to each apparently insignificant event which directs our course in childhood? When Arthur took the little old spelling-book from the child's hand and hid it hastily under his coat, giving in return a stammered word of thanks and a look which spoke an eloquence of gratitude, he received an impulse the result of which would not cease till his dying day. The following day happened to be Sunday, and Arthur took the earliest opportunity to draw Mrs. Rumball aside, and tell her of his earnest desire to learn to read. Mrs. Rumball was somewhat surprised. As a matter of course, she and her husband had had their own children taught the recondite art, though she certainly could not have satisfactorily informed you why they had gone to the expense; but that any child should of itself conceive a wish to be able to read, nay, be even willing to undergo considerable labour and trouble to this end, that indeed was something which surpassed her limited capacity to understand. The same afternoon, she having acquainted Mike with the astonishing news, a counsel was held round the fire, at which Arthur was cited to appear and to give a good and sufficient reason for the peculiar request he had ventured to prefer. The boy could only urge, in a timid voice, his great desire to know somewhat more than he did, and his hope that some day he might, with the assistance of this advanced learning, aspire to a position in life more exalted than his present one.
"The lad shows a good bit o' 'cuteness, arter all, Mike," urged Ned Quirk, who had from the first listened not unfavourably. "I'm not sewer as there's so much harm in learnin' to read an' write, an' maybe there's some little good in it. What d'ye say, Mike?"
"Well, I dunno, Ned. There's somethink to be said on both sides. I used to sing a hymn as began:
or at least somethin' like that. There is such a thing, you know, Ned, as settin' oneself above one's nat'ral claims, and bein' led astray by the pride of hintellect."
"You're right, Mike; but for all that I, for my part, can't see no harm in readin' an' writin'. I tell you what it is, Mike. Don't you bother yer 'cad about the matter. I 'appen to know of a night school in Grafton-street here, where I've a notion they don't pay so very much for their larnin.' Now if I'll pay for the lad to go there, will you tackle Hannah Clinkscales, and make her let him horff his work two or three nights a week for a hour or so?"
Ultimately this plan was agreed upon. After much sore argument -- in which Mrs. Clinkscales began by stoutly asserting that she would turn Arthur away and procure another lad if he thought of so far forgetting his position as to learn to read and write -- she consented very reluctantly, upon the persistence in their request of Mr. and Mrs. Rumball and Ned Quirk united, to let Arthur be free from nine to ten on three nights in the week, deducting, however, sixpence from his wages on this account. Truly the gate of the realms of learning did not open to Arthur Golding at the first blast of the summoning trumpet and let him in to walk henceforth on flowery paths.
It was now the middle of summer, and Arthur had to be up very early each morning. In spite of this it was seldom he did not contrive to snatch a quarter of an hour at his spelling-book before he left his bedroom. Ned Quirk, as we know, occupied the same room, and, in order not to wake him, Arthur would dress with the greatest quietness, take his book from under the pillow -- where he always put it before going to bed, in consequence of Ned having once said in joke that learning would work its way into his head as he slept -- then throw up the window gently and sit down in the fresh morning breeze.
Whilst Ned's prodigious snores well-nigh shook the ceiling within, sweeter sounds greeted the boy from without. Just outside his window hung a number of bird-cages, containing several larks, one or two thrushes, a blackbird, and a linnet. The window faced full to the east, and as soon as the earliest rays of the rising sun smote across the wide expanse of tiled roofs and fell upon the encaged birds, they woke one after another from their short slumbers, and each in his own language poured forth his song of greeting to the day. The larks especially sang with an almost frantic rapture, each striving to outdo the other in the elevation of his note and the prolonged energy of his strain, till the whole neighbourhood far around rang with the melodious contest. And when at length they paused, rather from powerlessness to express their wild joy than from weariness at their exertions, the thrushes or the blackbird would intervene with notes deep, rich, and full, piping as if buried in their native groves amid the rustle of young leaves and the flash of dewdrops trembling in the first gleam of morning.
Weary as Arthur often was, and hard as he often found it to tear himself from his bed, he always had his reward in this concert, whilst the air of heaven, gently playing with his fair hair, quickly drove away the pain of weariness and breathed the energy of renovated life throughout his young being. It was well for Arthur that Nature had gifted him with a perception of her beauties; man as yet had done little to raise him from that slough of lower earth in which all but a minute minority of the poor toil and fret and curse away their little lives.
Mike Rumball was not himself possessed to any great extent with the love of sweetness and light, nor was he a likely man to stretch a hand to a generous boy struggling blindly upwards. From the first he had given only a very qualified approval to the night-school scheme, thinking far more of the weekly sixpence which Arthur would lose from his wages than of the intellectual recompense he would acquire, and very shortly one or two little circumstances occurred which appeared to him to confirm his never quite lulled apprehensions and to demonstrate most incontestably that Arthur "was not the lad he 'ad been sin' the day as he took to cultivatin' the pride of hintellect." It chanced that Mike had let a bedroom in his house to an individual named Tuck, who, during the summer months at least, got his living in a peculiar manner. He was, in short, one of those men you may see any fine morning in Piccadilly designing all manner of figures on the pavement in coloured chalks, and intimating, by a scroll written above the same, that the work was not performed solely out of love for art or a desire of affording pleasure to the public in general, but rather with the ulterior object of acquiring the means of life. Besides his drawings on the flags, he executed at home, or in the streets, similar drawings on pieces of wood and cardboard, some representing fishes, others ships on a stormy sea, others a group of flowers.
By some chance Arthur Golding made the acquaintance of this man, and many an odd moment did he steal to visit him and examine his work. The artist was an idle, drunken, good-for-nothing fellow enough, but now and then he had a few ideas somewhat above the level of his surroundings, and Arthur found unceasing pleasure in his conversation. The result of this connection was that the boy began to possess himself of odd bits of chalk, sometimes begging coloured pieces from his friend, and to make a display of his artistic powers on the walls and floor of his bedroom or on the pavement of the alley that ran by the corner of the shop. He had not to go far for subjects; those birds and animals in the shop, in which he took such an interest, naturally occurred to his mind as models to copy. Accordingly he exhausted his invention in depicting every kind of feathered creature he could conceive, most of them, it must be confessed, bearing but a distant resemblance to those which it falls within the lot of ordinary mortals to behold. Possibly they might have exhibited some likeness to those ideas of the animal world in the existence of which Plato and his disciples put their faith.
By dint of much practice -- for in every leisure moment he ran to some quiet spot where he could exercise his chalk unobserved, even his reading suffering severely from this alienation of attention -- he would no doubt have soon effected great improvements in the character of his designs, but he was not destined to follow the bent of his genius in unconstrained freedom.
Ned Quirk had first of all observed this strange tendency, but, like a reflective man, he had held his peace and merely observed, probably concluding that there were more things in heaven and earth than his philosophy e'er dreamt of, and that possibly this might be one of those, which therefore it behoved a wise man to consider before delivering a judgment upon. But when before long the chalked floors and walls came to the notice of Mike Rumball, that gentleman was by no means backward in expressing an immediate opinion.
"I told you 'ow it 'ud be, Ned Quirk," he observed, in confidence. "Afore this 'ere lad o' yourn took to hankerin' arter schoolin' and such-like things, he was a good enough lad in his way; but when that kind o' humbug began I know'd as it was all up with him. It was no good o' me liftin' up my voice, like the Prophet Jonah, an' a de-claimin' agin sich folly, as you know I did. I was like a voice a cryin' in the wilderness, an' you paid no 'eed to me. I tell you what it is, that 'ere lad is goin' to the bad, Ned, and you can see it as well as I can. When a lad takes to chalkin' nastiness on walls an' floors, I knows what it means; it shows a depraved mind. An' what's more, I won't 'ave it in my 'ouse! We shall 'ave him thievin' next, mark my word, an' then who'll be to blame? Why we, of course, as let him go on in his evil ways without a warnin' of him. If I see a chalk-mark arter this blessed day, young Arthur Golding takes his 'ook out of the 'ouse of Mike Rumball!"
There was no good in disputing such an energetic declaration of opinion as this, and Ned Quirk accordingly warned his protégé quietly of the wrath he had aroused. The result was that the drawing on walls ceased, but by no means the drawing altogether. It had already become a passion with Arthur; he could not throw away his chalks entirely, however severe the penalties with which he was threatened. So he got into the habit of collecting from all possible quarters scraps of paper either white or printed upon, and on these he continued to draw when no eyes observed him, afterwards tearing up and throwing away those drawings which did not please him, whilst those which appeared better done he stowed away carefully on the top of a cupboard in the bedroom, well knowing that no one ever went near to disturb them. About this time, too, Ned Quirk bought him a slate, as he needed it for his sums at school, and this Arthur turned to the service of his talent for designing, only it grieved him terribly whenever he had drawn a bird or animal rather better than usual that he was obliged to rub it out immediately, thus committing what already appeared to his young mind as the worst sin he knew of -- the destruction of something that was beautiful in his eyes.
Mike's resentment did not end with his stern forbiddance of future "chalking," but, on his divining the source of Arthur's disease, aimed at a radical cure. In short, he gave to Mr. Tuck an abrupt notice to quit, which the artist, at the end of a week's time, perforce obeyed.
This was a cruel blow to Arthur, and he felt it severely. After peeping into Tuck's room once, in the hope of seeing the drawings which were his wonted delight, and on perceiving it bare, swept and garnished for a new tenant, he could not restrain his feelings, and, turning away, wept bitterly. Unfortunately, Mike Rumball had watched him, and, when he saw his distress break out in tears, the man's short temper was exhausted. In his irritation he gave the boy a sound cuff on the ears, and with angry words sent him off to his work.
Ned Quirk heard of this the same night from Mrs. Rumball, and he was grieved at it. When he retired to bed he found Arthur already in his, and, as he at first thought, asleep. But he soon heard stifled sobs proceeding from beneath the counterpane, and, rough fellow as he was, his heart conceived true sympathy for the boy, though certainly unable to estimate the cause of his suffering. He called to him, and on Arthur at length replying in a broken voice, he took a seat by his bedside and spoke words of comfort.
"Come, come, Arthur lad," he said, "there's no call to take on i' this way, as I knows on. What is it as troubles you, my boy? Mike don't mean no 'arm, though maybe he was rayther rough this mornin'. He'd been bothered in his mind, you see, about some money as he's lost. Come, cheer up."
Arthur still held his head down, and his body trembled from time to time, though the sobs had stopped.
"I know it's 'ard on yer," pursued honest Ned, "to stop horff yer little 'musements like, but, you see, Mike don't like to 'ev his rooms sp'iled. An' then he thinks as 'ow you ain't quite goin' on as you should, wastin' yer time, an' sich like. It's all for yer own good, Arthur, I'm sewer. For myself, I don't give no 'pinion about this 'ere chalkin' an' scratchin', 'cos I don't understand it, yer see, but pr'aps yer won't be sorry in a few years as you was early broke of the 'abit. An' now tell me, lad, 'ow ye're gettin' on with yer schoolin' ?"
"Pretty well, I think, thank you, Mr. Quirk," replied Arthur, somewhat sorrowfully though.
"Why that's right! An' can you read them 'ere words o' three syllabums yet, as you was talkin' on?"
"Very nearly. I think I shall in a week or two."
"Why, better still. 'Ere's a sixpence for you, Arthur. I'd a unus'al good night to-night wi' th' 'taters, an' so I can afford it. An' don't mind what Mike says, you 'ear? He's a good chap, but he 'as his fancies, like all on us. An' get on wi' yer readin', writin', an' 'rithumtic, lad; stick to 'em. Depend on it, they'll do you good, some day or other. But leave the chalkin' an' scratchin' till ye've got more time to waste, that's a good lad."
Verily Ned Quirk had sound notions in his way, and his advice, when his lights were considered, was far from discreditable. But what advice, however excellent, was ever acted upon in this world? Arthur, indeed, persevered with his three R's, but as to giving up the drawing, as I have already said, it was impossible for him. He had, indeed, an end in view in connection with it, and one far too important to admit of neglect. It was no other than a burning desire, kept close, like so many other hopes and wishes, in the recesses of his own breast, to complete a drawing which he could account worthy of being presented to Lizzie Clinkscales. This was a terribly daring idea, that he well knew; but the thought was so unutterably attractive to him that it was impossible of renunciation.
This was the inward energy which made him persevere in his efforts, spite of all discouragement. He felt that a word of praise from Lizzie would compensate him a thousand times for all the misapprehension of others.
And at length he flattered himself that he had accomplished his task. With the greatest difficulty he had begged from Mrs. Rumball a fair sheet of white paper, only a little crumpled, in which she had brought home something from the grocer's, and, after straightening this out, and cutting it square to the best of his ability, he had drawn upon it, in coloured chalks, purchased with the sixpence Ned Quirk had given him, the likeness of an old parrot, a particular favourite of his, failing not to give his picture the advantage of all that brilliancy of plumage of which relentless Time had in a great measure deprived the original. For rather more than a week Arthur had employed every leisure moment in completing this picture, first of all studying his model with a careful eye, then stealing upstairs to his bedroom and enriching his drawing with the results of his observation.
Then, after many desperate attempts, when at length he had almost despaired of finding an opportunity to make the offering of his completed work to her for whom it was intended, one day he found himself in the shop alone when Lizzie happened to come through. With fear and trembling he drew out the paper, which he had kept neatly folded in four in the inside pocket of his coat for more than a fortnight, and, totally unable of uttering those appropriate words which he had so long dwelt upon in his mind, he held it out with a timid hand to the girl. Lizzie took it with a look of good-natured surprise, and, on opening it out, burst into an exclamation of pleasure.
"Where did you find it?" she asked, examining the gaudy plumage, the shrewd-looking eyes, the portentous beak of the bird with keen delight.
"I did it myself, miss," replied Arthur, his eyes moist with pleasure at seeing his work thus appreciated.
"You did it!" exclaimed Lizzie, a trifle contemptuously.
"Yes, indeed I did, Miss Lizzie," urged the boy, with eagerness. "I drew it myself, and, if you please, I -- I did it for you."
"For me! But did you really do it yourself, and for me?"
"Really, miss. Upon my word I did, and to give to you. I -- I should so like you to take it."
Lizzie laughed that clear, joyous laugh of hers, and, after still viewing the picture for some minutes, folded it up again carefully and put it in a little bag she was carrying.
"There," she said; "I promise you to keep it. I couldn't believe you did it at first, you know. I like it very much. And -- and -- I think I ought to shake hands with you; for after all, you know, it was kind of you to do it for me. There!"
She held out one of her delicate, fairy hands, and Arthur, in trembling wonder, pressed it in his rather dirty palm. Then with a nod and another cheerful, ringing laugh, Lizzie tripped away. Many years after she still kept the picture of the parrot, and looked at it when, perhaps, Arthur himself had forgotten the circumstance entirely.
Arthur's progress at the night school was very rapid, and his teacher, a poor book-binder's assistant, who, for the most moderate of compensations took upon his shoulders the duty of the State, and devoted his evenings to the instruction of half-a-dozen ragged lads and as many grown-up men, soon regarded him as his favourite pupil. Being an observant man he was not long before he discovered the boy's turn for drawing, having now and then perceived sketches on the backs of his copy-books or on his slate, which, rude as they were, appeared to him to display something of unusual talent in so young a hand. He encouraged Arthur to bring and show him some of the drawings which, as he soon learned, he was in the habit of making at home. On seeing these his teacher was still more surprised and pleased. From that day he added his influence to those many hankerings after a change of occupation which Arthur had himself begun to feel, and promised that, if he came to hear of any place that he thought would suit his pupil, he would do his best to secure it. In the meantime he urged the boy to work hard at his reading and writing, and to such effect that, when Arthur had been attending the classes for a little more than a year, he was already able to read with very fair facility and to write a hand which, if not a striking example of calligraphy, was at all events tolerably legible. He was now approaching the termination of his eleventh year.
One day he had been on an errand for Mrs. Clinkscales into Tottenham Court Road, and had, moreover, as had become rather his habit of late, wandered somewhat out of his direct road, walking dreamily along with his eyes fixed on the pavement, feeding his mind with the dim outlines of a thousand strange or beautiful fancies. He had turned out of Tottenham Court Road into Goodge Street, and thence again into a narrow passage, known as Charlotte Place, and here he stopped, as he always did instinctively, before a shop where newspapers and books were exposed for sale in the windows. It was a very small shop, over the door of which was painted the inscription: "Samuel Tollady, Printer." As Arthur looked over the illustrated papers which lay open in the window, his eye fell on a card suspended at the back, upon which were the words: "A Boy Wanted." His heart leaped in his breast as he carefully read these words. Why should he not go in and offer his services? But a sensitive timidity for a time withheld him. Suppose he were to apply, and suppose he were to be so successful as to obtain the place, what would Mrs. Clinkscales say, what would Mike Rumball and Ned Quirk say? His mind drawn hither and thither by questionings and doubts he passed slowly on; he paused; he turned back; again he read the notice. At length, with much apprehension, he resolved upon tempting his fortune, and walked into the shop.
Behind the counter, with a book open on his lap, was sitting an oldish gentleman -- gentleman was written upon every line of his face, notwithstanding his circumstances -- in spectacles, with head all but bald, and a bold, massive forehead which might have been the envy of a Greek sage. His lips, though firmly knit, had yet a sweetness of expression irresistibly attractive, and his eyes spoke a gentle kindliness which, as they met those of Arthur, at once emboldened him. His dress was marked by a fastidious neatness, though much worn; his waistcoat buttoned close up to his neck, around which he wore an old-fashioned neckerchief, which gave him, at first sight, something of a clerical appearance. As he spoke to Arthur he kept tapping with his fingers on the open pages of his book, evidently a habit with him.
"If you please, sir, do you want a boy?" asked Arthur.
"I do," replied Mr. Tollady, for he it was, speaking in a grave but musical voice. "Have you come to apply for the place?"
"Yes, if you please, sir."
The printer surveyed the applicant for a few moments with care, and the results of his examination did not, to judge from the expression of his face, appear unfavourable. Nor indeed was there anything in Arthur's appearance which should have made it otherwise. During the last two years he had grown considerably, and was now rather tall for his age, but slender and of a strikingly graceful form. His hair had somewhat moderated in its luxuriance of growth, but was still extremely fair, and still fell on each side of his forehead in pleasing ripples. In his features there was nothing vulgar; he was, in reality, a striking resemblance of what his ill-fated father had been at the same age. His eyes were of light blue, his nose of a Grecian type, his lips and chin moulded in form expressive of extreme sensibility and gentleness of disposition, showing traces, moreover, though as yet in but a slight degree, of an instability in moral character which was hereditary. The latter feature was not, however, so predominant that it might not very possibly give way beneath a judicious training. But where was that training to come from?
"What is your age, my boy?" asked Mr. Tollady.
"Nearly eleven, sir."
"Indeed! I took you for more than twelve. You can read and write?"
"Yes, sir," replied Arthur, though with more hesitation, dropping his eyes as he spoke.
The old gentleman observed this, and, in a quiet manner which had nothing alarming in it, he proceeded to examine Arthur in these particulars. He appeared satisfied with the result. Then he questioned him about his present position, and at length, after a conversation lasting nearly a quarter of an hour, he dismissed him with the promise that he would himself walk down into Little St. Andrew Street in the course of the day, and see Mr. Rumball.
He kept his word -- in his life he had never failed to do so -- and had that afternoon a rather lengthy colloquy with Michael, from whom he ultimately learnt as much about Arthur Golding's antecedents as the latter himself knew.
"You will, I am sure, sir," said Mr. Tollady, "pardon me the trouble I am giving you. I like this boy's appearance very much, and should like, if possible, to employ him. But as I do not want a mere errand boy, but one who would live in the house with me and be entrusted with many little things of some importance to me, I should wish to be well assured of the character of the one I engaged."
Mike listened with bent brows, his hands thrust deep into his trousers pockets. The fact of the matter was, he was not altogether pleased with this "new departure" of his young lodger. To begin with it appeared to him that, before Arthur had taken any such step as applying for a new situation, he, Michael Rumball, ought certainly to have been consulted; his sense of importance was a trifle hurt. Secondly, there was to be considered the fact that, in the event of Arthur taking the new place, the weekly wages which the boy had hitherto always given into Mrs. Rumball's hands with scrupulous fidelity each Saturday night would henceforth cease to form an item in the household income. This was serious, and required consideration.
"The boy having come to you under rather peculiar circumstances," pursued Mr. Tollady, interpreting, with a generosity characteristic of him, Mike's hesitation in a very much more favourable sense than was its due, "gives you naturally an interest in him, and you must be assured that he will really be making a change for the better in coming to me. Now I think there can be no doubt of it. As I shall provide him with everything, I shall not be able to pay him high wages, but I shall undertake to teach him by degrees my own business, that of a printer, and so put into his hands the means of earning a very good living whenever he leaves me. Does that meet with your approval?"
Mike still hesitated. The voice of selfishness was loud within him at this moment, and all but stifled the still, small voice of conscience which Mike, as years went on, became, it is to be feared, less and less in the habit of heeding.
"I tell you how it is, Mister," he said at length. "I've got a partner like in this 'ere business, an' that's Ned Quirk, the man as brought the lad 'ome that night I was tellin' yer of. Now I think, yer see, as I ought to talk it over with Ned afore I come to a decision. Suppose we say I talk it over to-night, an you comes an' sees me agin to-morrow; will that suit?"
Mr. Tollady perforce adopted this decision, and took his leave. The same night Michael Rumball communicated the visit to Ned Quirk. In all probability he would not have done so at all, and would have contented himself with returning an unfavourable answer to his visitor on the morrow, but for the reflection that Arthur would doubtless himself acquaint Ned with what he had done, and thus render the artifice useless. Ned, to do him justice, was made of firmer clay than Mike, and, when he heard the opportunity which lay before his protégé, even though it was made to appear as untempting as possible by Mike's perverse description, he had not two opinions on the matter, but immediately affirmed that the place must be secured. A long and somewhat heated discussion followed, during which Mike inveighed, with something of that eloquence which had formerly been at the service of the Ranter persuasion, against that deplorable pride of intellect which Ned had always, he said, done his best to instil into the lad and which would one day, mark that! be his ruin. He hadn't much opinion, for his own part, of reading and writing for boys, for they were clearly a direct temptation to forgery; but for a boy to become a printer was still worse, inasmuch as it inevitably led to the fabrication of spurious bank-notes, whereupon would follow exportation and all its concomitant evils. Ned Quirk laughed these remarks to scorn and was strong in his support of the gospel of "getting on," which is no bad gospel after all, if read in its true sense, but which, like some other gospels that could be mentioned, is not unfrequently sadly misinterpreted. Ned had a respect for learning, while Mike certainly had not, and in a matter such as this, where he was truly interested, would yield to no man. For the first time since their acquaintance a serious breach seemed likely to take place between these two worthies; but, just at the critical stage, Mrs. Rumball came in with a woman's tact and was successful in allaying the storm. She had always entertained a great respect for Ned Quirk's opinions, and now she placed herself on his side in the argument. The result could not be doubtful; Mike yielded, though, after all, with but an ill grace, and it was decided that Arthur should go to Mr. Tollady's.
Of course a week's notice had to be given to Mrs. Clinkscales, which that lady received with a slight toss of the head, and a wish that the boy might find better treatment elsewhere than he had received from her, expressed in a tone which clearly indicated that she had no expectation of the wish being realised. Arthur had only one real sorrow in leaving the scene of his earliest servitude, and that was that he should no more be able to watch each day the coming and going of the blue frock and hat with the partridge feather, around which had woven themselves the brightest of his boyish dreams and fancies. Yes, even his hopes had, in a measure, connected themselves with Lizzie. Speculating, as children do, on the course of his future life, he had often determined in his own mind that he would work hard till he became "rich," not rich only as Mrs. Clinkscales would have understood the word, but superlatively wealthy. And when that time came, when he had made his money, had bought a large house in one of those magnificent quarters of the town which he seldom visited, had servants without end and all manner of luxury, then he would one day order his finest horses to be harnessed in his finest carriage, in which he would forthwith drive down to Little St. Andrew Street and carry off Lizzie with him as his bride. 0, sweet visions, gilding with their refulgence even the squalid everyday life of a London slum; and thrice sweet hope, which, blossoming most luxuriantly in the hearts of the young, feeds with its rich fragrance every ardent thought. When the day came on which he was to leave, he saw Lizzie go to school and return as usual, watched her with unwonted sadness in his eyes, was glad at length when he received a smile and a nod, and little thought that he had looked on the queen of his imagination for the last time.
Mr. Tollady received him with his former kind smile, and lost no time in making him acquainted with the circle of his new duties. The sphere in which he would henceforth live was a very wide one. Behind the little shop, where, besides newspapers, prints, cheap books, and general stationery were sold, was the single room in which Mr. Tollady himself lived, a darkish little place; and passing out of that by a side door, which led to the foot of the stairs, one ascended to the printing office, likewise a very small room, smelling strongly of printer's ink, where one man was generally employed as compositor. It was easy to judge from these premises that Mr. Tollady's business was not extensive. Within this printing office a door led into what had previously been an old lumber-room, some six feet square, lighted by a small casement. This had just been cleaned out and converted into a very neat little bed-room, henceforth Arthur's.
Arthur took his meals with Mr. Tollady in the little parlour at the back of the shop, breakfast, tea, and supper being prepared by the latter himself; the more important meal at midday, however, being brought in on a tray from a coffee-house in Goodge Street. For an hour each day one of the girls, in a poor family next door, came into the house and did what household work was required. It was distinctive of Mr. Tollady, that, though his opportunities of giving employment were not large, yet he was most judicious in the choice of those he did employ, invariably finding those who were really in want of work, and holding that, cæteris paribus, those who come most closely within the circle of your every-day relationships, have the most claims upon you for assistance. Arthur did not fail to examine closely the details of his new abode, and more particularly the parlour, which was to him the most interesting room. The window certainly had no tempting prospect. It looked into a paved back yard, with a cistern in one corner of it, the principal variety in the scene being afforded on those days when the yard was thickly hung with newly-washed linen. Immediately opposite was a window, apparently that of a darkish parlour, much like Mr. Tollady's, and attached to the sill of the window was a long box containing various flowering plants. The circumstance of this box being carved and painted in front so as to represent the broadside of a man-of-war, gave a certain originality to its appearance, and afforded Arthur Golding frequent subject for observation during the first few days.
One side of the parlour was occupied by a large book-case, which contained the whole of Mr. Tollady's library. It was not extensive, but select in the choice of works. Here were the principal English classics, most of them evidently having been purchased second-hand, and also a few French and German books. The library was evidently that of a man who had known how to cultivate judiciously the emotional side of his nature; the only books really bound with any degree of richness were the poets. Theological works there were none, and natural science was alone represented by a few works on botany; but the collection of histories was complete and good. The lowest shelf was occupied by the Penny Cyclopædia, an old folio edition of Johnson's Dictionary, and a number of large volumes laid flat, one on the other, the contents of which could not be guessed at. Around the walls hung a few good prints of works by the old masters, and a bust of Shakespeare and Milton stood at either end of the mantel-piece. Opposite was a large chest of drawers, which at night time was converted into a bed for Mr. Tollady's own use. On the window-sill outside bloomed one or two geraniums, fuchsias, and lobelias.
One of Arthur's first duties in the morning was to be standing at the corner of Charlotte Place and Goodge Street at half-past six in order to catch the bundle of daily papers thrown to him from the news-agent's cart, which passed by at that time, after which he was first of all engaged in separating out and folding the papers, and in pasting the placards on to the boards to be exhibited outside the shop; after that he had to go the round of the regular customers, of whom there were some fifty, delivering to each the daily newspaper. On the first morning he was accompanied as a guide by the boy whom Mr. Tollady had previously employed in this work, and returned shortly before nine.
He found Mr. Tollady sitting at his desk, over his ledger. He did not seem to be engaged in working at it, but, though his eye was fixed on the page, he was clearly wandering very far away in his thoughts. He did not notice Arthur's entrance, but continued, sunk in his reverie till the clock of the Middlesex Hospital, hard by, suddenly struck nine, and brought him back, with a deep sigh, to actual life. Raising his head he saw Arthur and smiled, but sadly, and then seemed to make an effort to return to his wonted manner. There was something in this which even a boy, particularly a boy of Arthur's intelligence, could not help being struck with. Arthur felt his master was not happy, and a feeling of sympathy began to be added to that gratitude and reverence which he had from the first conceived towards him.
Mr. Tollady came from his desk and proceeded to give Arthur a task which would occupy him some little time, namely, to sort, make up into bundles, and ticket a great heap of miscellaneous papers which lay in one corner of the shop, and which, for some reason, it was desired to preserve. The boy had not been engaged thus more than a few minutes when two men entered the shop together, both hatless and in slippers, as if they had come from next door. The appearance of these individuals merits a slight description.
The one who advanced first was a very short man, quite bald, with meagre but strongly-marked features, and with eyes rather blood-shot. His nose was very much hooked, and his gums, which he frequently displayed in speaking, almost toothless. He had a decided stoop in the shoulders, and bandy-legs; in short, it was not difficult to judge from his appearance that he was a tailor by trade. His companion was tall, also very bald, and of morose aspect; his left cheek was marked with a large wine-coloured stain which gave a decidedly unpleasant look to his countenance. He seemed affected with habitual nervousness, at times almost amounting, in his hands, to St. Vitus' Dance; he was perpetually biting first his lower, then his upper lip, with a fierce persistency which seemed to betoken some constant excitement in his mind. His dress was of the shabbiest, but gave no indication of his trade. He was, in fact, a seller of new, and a restorer of old umbrellas. Both of these individuals lived in Charlotte Place, and both every morning just at this hour entered Mr. Tollady's shop in company.
Each advanced to the counter, deposited his penny, and received his morning paper, but, instead of at once departing, they took possession of two chairs which stood in front of the counter, and began to unfold their papers.
For a quarter of an hour no one spoke (at their entrance they had confined their morning salutations to a friendly nod, which had been similarly replied to by Mr. Tollady), at the end of that time, the bald little man suddenly broke silence by reading, without preface, a paragraph which seemed particularly to have attracted his attention. He did so in an emphatic, here and there in a fierce voice. The paragraph ended thus: --
"The Magistrate replied that, if what had been said were true, it was evident that scandalous injustice had been done. The perpetrator of that injustice had not, however, brought himself within reach of the jurisdiction of that Court, and the only course open was to institute a civil suit. Under the circumstances, he could not advise the appellants to do this, inasmuch as the suit would probably be of long duration, and, as he was a poor man, might end in his ruin."
The reading of this was received in silence, but with looks which very clearly intimated the sentiments of the listeners. The reader, after noting the impression on the faces of the other two, began to speak in an excited manner.
"There, there it is again! Precisely the words the Magistrate used to me the day I first asked for advice. He warned me, and my friends warned me. They said, one and all: 'Mark Challenger! begin this suit, and you're a ruined man.' But I wouldn't be warned. I said: 'If there's such a thing as law in this country, if there's such a thing as justice in England, I'll have it, cost what it may!' For three years I was at law, and then the suit wasn't at an end. But I was. Ha, ha, ha!"
And he burst into a long fit of savage laughter.
"Am I right, Sam Tollady? Am I right, John Pether?" he continued, in his exasperated tone. "When do I take up a paper that I don't find in it an instance of what I'm always saying: 'For the poor man there's no such thing as law or justice in England.' Is it going to be always so? Are we going to be always ground beneath the money-bags of these smooth-tongued publicans and sinners? Which are in the majority, I should like to know -- the rich or the poor? Why, I say, do we endure it?"
"Because we are cowards, Mark Challenger," replied John Pether, his voice sounding almost sepulchral after the shrill fierce tones of the former speaker. "Because we are cowards, one and all. Why did I let the tax-gatherer take the last penny out of my house when my children were dying for food? Because I had not the courage to strike the man dead, and offer myself a martyr to the cause of justice. That's why, Mark Challenger."
"You wouldn't have done much good, John," interrupted Mr. Tollady, his voice and manner a strong contrast to the wild excitement of the one, the concentrated ferocity of the other of his companions. "The tax-gatherer did you no wrong. It was the system, not the man, that was at fault. Strike dead at a blow the passions and the vices and the pestiferous creeds of Society -- then let them make a martyr of you if they can!"
"It's all very well for you, Sam Tollady," jerked in Mark. "I often say to myself: 'How is it,' I say, 'that Sam Tollady can be so calm and so quiet over all his wrongs and his sufferings, when John Pether and me get so savage over ours?' And I've always come to the conclusion that it's because you've only suffered in yourself, Sam; you've never had either wife or children to share your wrongs, and that's made it easier for you to bear them. But John Pether and me has had double suffering. We've borne our own share, and, besides that, we've had to watch our wives and children hunger and die at our sides. Isn't that enough to make us wild, Sam Tollady? Am I right?"
Mr. Tollady replied with his usual calmness, but in a voice full of sympathy; and for half an hour the conversation continued very much in the same strain, fresh excitement being derived from the newspapers if ever it lapsed for a moment. Then the two friends rose to depart; but Mark Challenger, noticing Arthur for the first time, pointed to him --
"A fixture, Sam?" he asked.
Mr. Tollady nodded, smiling.
"Train him up in the way he should go, Sam!" he exclaimed fiercely, grasping the printer's arm. "Make a Radical of him -- a Revolutionist! Teach him his wrongs, Sam; let him see the cause of his miseries, and the cure! You can do it, Sam; you can do it!"
"I dare say he might make an apt scholar," said Mr. Tollady, in a low voice. "He seems to me by no means an ordinary boy."
"Good!" replied the other; then, turning to Arthur, cried to him: "Come here, my lad!"
Arthur obeyed, and Mark grasped him by the coat collar.
"Boy!" he exclaimed in his usual excited tones, "have you known a single happy day in your life?"
"I -- I think so, sir," stammered the boy, half frightened at the other's manner, and scarcely understanding the question.
"Have you ever been hungry?" persisted Mark Challenger, in irritated tones; "hungry, and without means of buying bread? Hungry -- fiercely, savagely hungry, like a wild beast, till you could gnaw wood or shoe-leather? Have you ever felt like that, boy?"
"Yes, sir; often," replied Arthur, and with much truth.
"I knew it!" cried Mark. "See!" he added, pointing to Mr. Tollady. "He'll tell you why you were hungry! He'll tell you who it is robs you of the means of buying food and clothing! Mind what he tells you, my lad, that's all; and when you grow up make use of it."
And, flinging the boy almost angrily from him, Mark Challenger nodded to Mr. Tollady and left the shop, followed by John Pether, who had fallen into a fit of moody abstraction.
"Did he frighten you, Arthur?" asked the printer with a smile, when the men had gone.
"A little, at first, sir."
"You mustn't mind his strange ways," replied Mr. Tollady, returning to his desk. "Mr. Challenger is a good man at heart, but he has had severe hardships, and they have almost driven him mad. Now let us get on with our work."
And as he turned away he sighed to himself --
"For the night cometh, wherein no man can work."
A great part of the day Mr. Tollady spent upstairs in the printing office, where he himself worked in connection with his assistant. The extent of his business was not great, but that which was entrusted to him he performed, according to the rule of his life, with the utmost perfection his abilities rendered possible. When he came down to partake of his meals in company with Arthur he talked kindly and pleasantly, as his habit was, and was evidently exerting himself to win as speedily as possible the confidence, and even the affection, of his young assistant.
Samuel Tollady was not one of those men who have so worn off the keen edge of their spiritual perceptions by rough jolting and jarring against their fellow men that any stranger they happen to come into contact with is of as little interest to them, except in so far as he serves their ends, as the very stones they tread upon in the street. To his new master Arthur was more than a piece of human machinery which had been taken in and set to work, and was only to be spared excessive toil or capricious brutality that his powers of future exertion might not be unduly injured. He was, rather, a young and promising bud on the great tree of humanity, a child of human pain and sorrow, but also with human needs and aspirations, the latter very possibly, as Mr. Tollady began already to perceive; in a higher degree than the majority of mankind. He had lived many years amidst terrible degradation, and yet was not degraded; had associated with those whose ends and aims were for the most part of the basest nature, and yet he had already shown signs of a yearning for the fruits of knowledge. Mr. Tollady's interest grew rapidly in Arthur; he watched him, tested him, and studied him with the utmost care. And as yet he found nothing to make him believe his interest was misplaced.
Looking upon the boy as a human soul, and not as a mere piece of useful machinery in his shop, Mr. Tollady soon conceived the idea of using his leisure to continue the very imperfect education which Arthur had as yet received. Accordingly the evenings -- when the printing office was closed, and only a few customers had to be attended to in the shop -- soon began to be spent in the mutual giving and receiving of instruction. Mr. Tollady had ideas of his own on the subject of education, and felt a keen pleasure in being able to put them into practice. Life seemed very soon to acquire a new value, a new significance for him. He was not so often absorbed in fits of melancholy brooding as previously.
And if the teacher benefited by his work, the pupil did so even in a higher degree. Appreciating intensely the consistent kindness of his master, Arthur progressed wonderfully under his instruction; his zeal for his work knew no bounds; where other boys of his age thought of nothing but their tops, their marbles, and their hoops, Arthur was uneasy when away from the tasks which had been set him. Now and then his thoughts returned to Lizzie. What would he give to be able to acquaint her with his progress!
But the direct instruction which he received from his master was not the sole benefit for which Arthur was indebted to him. To live with Mr. Tollady and observe his actions from day to day was in itself an education.
In ministering to his bodily needs the printer was frugal almost to asceticism, partly, perhaps, owing to the habits bred in him by a long struggle with poverty. He was a vegetarian on principle, and water was his only drink. It would, indeed, have gone somewhat hard with Arthur if he, too, had been confined to such a diet, but Mr. Tollady knew what was due to a growing boy, and stinted him in nothing. By dint of severe economy he succeeded in keeping a small sum of money always by him, only to be drawn upon for purposes of charity. He was charitable in the true sense of the word, not giving his pence indiscriminately to a beggar in the street, but following patient misery into its secret hiding-places, and coupling active assistance where he saw it would be useful with strong, manly, wise words of advice and comfort. Not a few young girls living in the gloomy neighbourhood where his shop was situated had to thank the hand of Samuel Tollady for having checked them on the precipice of ruin; not a few toiling wives and mothers, cursed with husbands whose lives were spent alternately in the gin-palace and the gaol, were indebted to his benevolence for the help which kept them from the workhouse. But so secret was his alms-giving that it is doubtful whether any but the recipients had any knowledge of it; the neighbours generally looked upon him as a quiet, agreeable sort of man, but not unfrequently hinted at his having miserly habits. Mark Challenger and John Pether, who were very old acquaintances of his, had a suspicion of the truth, but were themselves too retired in their habits of life to spread reports concerning it.
At five o'clock each morning, whatever the season of the year, Mr. Tollady rose, and for two hours was engaged in reading. He read little besides the works in his own library, and with these, thanks to many perusals, he had obtained a thorough acquaintance, such as it is to be feared, even few professedly learned men can boast, with the standard works of our literature. Throughout the day he spoke little, the words he exchanged with his two constant visitors each morning, and the instruction he gave to Arthur at night constituting the chief part of his conversation. Yet he was never morose; only at times very sad in appearance. Whomsoever he spoke to, it was with a gentleness of tone which never varied; harshness he seemed incapable of. Nevertheless he was not what we understand by a loveable man; he had too few social qualities for that. In all with whom he stood on ordinary grounds of acquaintanceship he never failed to inspire respect; it needed that he should unfold himself in the closest intimacy that he might be regarded with affection.
I have said that his shelves held a few works on botany, and this had always been the favourite study of his lighter hours. In his youth he had lived much amid the beauties of nature, and had been an ardent botanist. He had ultimately collected a herbarium which had been of considerable value in the eyes of men of kindred taste, but at one period of his life, overtaken by the direst poverty, he had disposed of this for a slight sum, only retaining a small collection in the shape of duplicates and imperfect specimens. It was this collection which filled the large volumes which have been noticed as lying on the lowest shelves of his book case. Every Sunday evening it was his habit to lift these volumes on to the table and go over them with a longing hand and a fond look, as each plant recalled to his mind the scenes amidst which it had been gathered. When late in the night he replaced them, after carefully shaking out the dust and seeing that the leaves were sprinkled with camphor to preserve them from insects, it was often with trembling hands and a moist eye.