Our Frank, and other stories, by Amy Walton.
Here we have half-a-dozen short stories, in that wonderful Amy Walton style, so very evocative of dear England as it used to be.
Frank thinks life at home is a bit hard, as his father expects so much of him, so he runs away. After several adventures he finds himself in a very awkward situation, as the young companion he had fallen in with turns out to be a thief. Luckily the thief's victim realises that Frank is not a bad lad after all, makes no charge against him, and even takes him home. So all is well that ends well.
For the most part the other stories have a moral to tell, but they are all charming, and you will enjoy reading to them or listening to them.
OUR FRANK, AND OTHER STORIES, BY AMY WALTON.
STORY ONE, CHAPTER 1.
OUR FRANK—A BUCKINGHAMSHIRE STORY.
"From east to west, At home is best." German proverb.
It was a mild spring evening, and Mrs Frank Darvell was toiling slowly up Whiteleaf Hill on her way back from market. She had walked every step of the way there to sell her ducklings, and now the basket on her arm was heavy with the weight of various small grocery packets. Up till now she had not felt so tired, partly because she had been walking along the level high-road, and partly because the way had been beguiled by the chat of a friend; but after she had said good-night to her crony at the beginning of the village, and turned up the steep chalky road which led to the hills, her fatigue increased with every step, and the basket seemed heavier than ever. It was a very lonely mile she had to go before reaching home; up and up wound the rough white road, and then gave a sudden turn and ran along level a little while with dark woods on either side. Then up again, steeper than ever, till you reached the top of the hill, and on one side saw the plain beneath, dotted over with villages and church spires, and on the other hand wide sloping beech woods, which were just now delicately green with their young spring leaves.
Mrs Darvell set her basket down on the ground when she reached this point, and drew a long breath; the worst of the walk was over now, and she thought with relief how good it would be to pull off her boots, and hoped that Frank had not forgotten to have the kettle on for tea. She presently trudged on again with renewed spirits, and in ten minutes more the faint blue smoke from a chimney caught her eye; that was neighbour Gunn's cottage, and their own was close by. "And right thankful I be," said Mrs Darvell to herself as she unlatched the little garden gate.
The cottage was one of a small lonely cluster standing on the edge of an enormous beech wood. Not so very long ago the wood had covered the whole place; but gradually a clearing had been made, the ground cultivated, and a little settlement had sprung up, which was known as "Green Highlands." It belonged to the parish of Danecross, a village in the plain below, three good miles away; so that for church, school, and public-house the people had to descend the long hill up which Mrs Darvell had just struggled. Shops there were none, even in Danecross, and for these they had to go a mile further, to the market-town of Daylesbury. But all this was not such a hardship to the people of Green Highlands as might be supposed, and many of them would not have changed their cottage on the hill for one in the village on the plain; for the air of Green Highlands was good, the children "fierce," which in those parts means healthy and strong, and everyone possessed a piece of garden big enough to grow vegetables and accommodate a family pig.
So the people, though poor, were contented, and had a more prosperous well-to-do air than some of the Danecross folk, who received higher wages and lived in the valley.
The room Mrs Frank Darvell entered with a heavy, tired tread was a good-sized kitchen, one end of which was entirely occupied by a huge open fireplace without any grate; on the hearth burned and crackled a bright little wood-fire, the flames of which played merrily round a big black kettle hung on a chain. A little checked curtain hung from the mantel-shelf to keep away the draught which rushed down the wide open chimney, on each side of which was a straight-backed wooden settle. The dark smoke-dried rafters were evidently used as larder and storehouse, for all manner of things hung from them, such as a side of bacon, tallow dips, and a pair of clogs. Two or three pieces of oak furniture, brought to a high state of polish by Mrs Darvell's industrious hands, gave an air of comfort to the room, though the floor was red-brick and bare of carpet; a tall brazen-faced clock ticked deliberately behind the door. On one of the settles in the chimney-corner sat Mrs Darvell's "man," as she called her husband, smoking a short pipe, with his feet stretched out on the hearth; his great boots, caked with mud, stood beside him. He was a big broad-shouldered fellow, about forty, with a fair smooth face, which generally looked good-tempered enough, and somewhat foolish, but which just now had a sullen expression on it, which Mrs Darvell's quick eye noted immediately. He looked up and nodded when his wife came in, without taking the pipe out of his mouth.
"Well, I'm proper tired," she said, bumping her basket down with a sigh of relief. "That Whiteleaf Hill do spend one so after a day's marketing." Then glancing at the muddy boots on the hearth: "Bin ploughin'?"
Mr Darvell nodded again, and looked inquiringly at his wife's basket. Answering this silent question she said:
"I sold 'em fairly well. Mrs Reuben got more; but hers was fatter."
Mr Darvell smoked on in silence, and his wife busied herself in preparing supper, consisting of cold bacon, bread, and tea without milk; it was not until they had both been seated at the meal for a little while that she set down her cup suddenly and exclaimed:
"Why, whatever's got our Frank? Isn't he home yet?"
Mr Darvell's mouth was still occupied, not with his pipe, but with a thick hunk of bread, on which was laid an almost equally thick piece of fat bacon. Gazing at his wife across this barrier he nodded again, and presently murmured somewhat indistinctly:
"Ah, he came home with me."
"Then," repeated Mrs Darvell, fixing her eyes sharply on him, "where is the lad?"
Mr Darvell avoided his wife's gaze.
"How should I know where he is?" he answered sullenly. "I haven't seen him, not for these two hours. He's foolin' round somewheres with the other lads."
"That's not like our Frank," said Mrs Darvell, giving an anxious look round at the tall clock. "Why, it's gone eight," she went on. "What can have got him?"
Her eyes rested suspiciously on her husband, who shifted about uneasily.
"Can't you let the lad bide?" he said; "ye'll not rest till ye make him a greater ninny nor he is by natur. He might as well ha' bin a gell, an better, for all the good he'll ever be."
"How did he tackle the ploughin'?" asked Mrs Darvell, pausing in the act of setting aside Frank's supper on the dresser.
"Worser nor ever," replied her husband contemptuously. "He'll never be good for nowt, but to bide at home an' keep's hands clean. Why, look at Eli Redrup, not older nor our Frank, an' can do a man's work already."
"Eli Redrup!" exclaimed Mrs Darvell in a shrill tone of disgust; "you'd never even our lad to a great fullish lout like Eli Redrup, with a head like a turmut! If Frank isn't just so fierce as some lads of his age, he's got more sense than most."
"I tell 'ee, he'll never be good for nowt," replied her husband doggedly, as he resumed his seat in the chimney-corner and lighted his pipe.
"Onless," he added after a moment's pause, "he comes to be a schoolmaster; and it haggles me to think that a boy of mine should take up a line like that."
Mrs Darvell made no answer; but as she washed up the cups and plates she cast a curious glance every now and then at her husband's silent figure, for she had a strong feeling that he knew more than he chose to tell about "our" Frank's absence.
"Our Frank" had more than once been the innocent cause of a serious difference of opinion between Mr and Mrs Darvell. He was their only child, and had inherited his father's fair skin and blue eyes, and his mother's quickness of apprehension; but here the likeness to his parents ended, for he had a sensitive nature and a delicate frame—things hitherto unknown in Green Highlands. This did not matter so much during his childhood, when he earned golden opinions from rector and schoolmaster in Danecross, as a fine scholar, and one of the best boys in the choir; but the time came when Frank was thirteen, when he had gone through all the "Standards," when he must leave school, and begin to work for his living. It was a hard apprenticeship, for something quite different from brain-work was needed now, and the boy struggled vainly against his physical weakness. It was a state of things so entirely incomprehensible to Mr Darvell, that, as he expressed it, "it fairly haggled him." Weakness and delicacy were conditions entirely unknown to him and all his other relations, and might, he thought, be avoided by everyone except very old people and women; so Frank must be hardened, and taught not to shirk his work.
The hardening process went on for some time, but not with a very satisfactory result, for added to his weakness the boy now showed an increasing terror of his father. He shrank from the hard words or the uplifted hand with an evident fear, which only strengthened Mr Darvell's anger, for it mortified him still more to find his lad a coward as well as a bungler over his work.
Frank, on his side, found his life almost intolerable just now, and all his trembling efforts "to work like a man" seemed utterly useless, for he was crippled by fear as well as weakness. He could not take things like the other Green Highland lads of his age, who were tough of nerve and sinew, and thought nothing of cuffs on the head and abuse. It was all dreadful to him, and he suffered as much in apprehension as in the actual punishment when it came. Mingled with it all was a hot sense of injustice, for he tried to do his best, and yet was always in disgrace and despair. Where was the use of having been such a good "scholard?" That seemed wasted now, for Frank's poor little brain felt so muddled after a day's field-work, and he was altogether so spent with utter weariness, that the only thing to do was to tumble into bed, and books were out of the question. He was being "hardened," as his father called it, but not in a desirable way; for while his body remained slender and weak as ever, his mind became daily more stupid and unintelligent.
Frank's only refuge in these hard times was his mother's love. That never failed him, for the very incapacity that so excited the wrath of his father only drew him more closely to Mrs Darvell, and made her watchful to shield him, if possible, from harsh treatment. She was always ready to do battle for him, and her strong big husband quailed before the small determined mother when she had her boy's cause in hand. For Mrs Darvell was gifted with a range of expression and a freedom of speech which had been denied to her "man," and he had learned to dread the times when the missus was put out, as occasions when he stood defenceless before that deadly weapon—the tongue. He was dreading it now, although he sat so quietly smoking in the chimney-corner. The air had that vaguely uneasy feeling in it that precedes a storm. Presently there would be the first clap of thunder. The clock struck nine. No Frank. An unheard-of hour for any of the Green Highland folk to be out of their beds and awake. Mr Darvell rose, stretched himself, glanced nervously at his wife, and suggested humbly:
"Shall us go to bed?"
"You may," she replied, "but I don't stir till I see the lad. If so be," she added, "you can go to sleep with an easy mind while the lad's still out, you'd better do it."
Her husband scratched his head thoughtfully, but made no answer; then Mrs Darvell rose and stood in front of him, shaking a menacing finger.
"Frank Darvell," she said slowly and solemnly, "you've bin leatherin' that lad. Don't deny it, for I know it."
Mr Darvell did not attempt to deny it. He only shuffled his feet a little.
"An now," continued his wife with increasing vehemence, "you've druv him at last to run away; don't deny it."
"He ain't run away," muttered Mr Darvell. "He ain't got pluck enough to do that. He's a coward, that's what he is."
"Coward!" cried his wife, now fairly roused, and standing in an aggressive attitude. "It's you that are the coward, you great, hulking, stupid lout, to strike a weak boy half yer size. An' to talk of goin' to bed, an' him wandering out there in the woods. My poor little gentle lad!"
She sank down on the settle and wrung her hands helplessly, but started up again the next minute with a sudden energy which seemed to petrify her husband.
"Put on your boots," she said, pointing to them; and as Mr Darvell meekly obeyed she went on speaking quietly and rapidly. "Wake up Jack Gunn and send him down to Danecross. Tell him to ask at the rectory and at schoolmaster's if they've seen the lad. Take your lantern and go into the woods. There's gypsies camping out Hampden way; go there, and tell 'em to look out for him. Don't you dare to come back without the lad. I'll stop here, and burn a light and keep his supper ready. Poor little lad, he'll be starved with hunger!"
But the night waned, and no tidings came of Frank. Jack Gunn came back from Danecross having learned nothing, and the poor mother's fears increased. The boy must be wandering in those weary woods, afraid to come home—or perhaps lost. Such a thing had been known before now; and as the first streaks of light appeared in the sky, and she saw the dim figure of her husband returning alone, Mrs Darvell's courage quite forsook her.
"I shall never see him no more," she said to herself, and cried bitterly.
And where was "our Frank" meanwhile?
At the moment when Mrs Darvell began to climb Whiteleaf Hill with her heavy basket, Frank was lying at the foot of a big beech-tree in the wood near his home; his face was buried in his hands, and every now and then sobs shook his little thin frame. For it had been a most unfortunate day for him; everything had gone wrong, and by the time the evening came and work was over his father's wrath was high. Frank knew what to expect, and he also remembered that there would be no mother at home to shield him from punishment, so waiting a favourable moment he slipped off into the wood before he was missed. Then he flung himself on the ground and cried, because he felt so tired, and weak, and hopeless; and as he thought of his father's angry face and heavy uplifted hand he shivered with terror. How he longed for someone to comfort and speak kindly to him. Soon, he knew, his mother would be in from market; there would be a blazing fire at home, and supper, and a warm corner. Should he venture back? But then, morning would come again, and the hard work, and he would have to stumble along the sticky furrows all day, and there would be blows and threatenings to end with. No, he could not go back; it would be better even, he said to himself, to beg for his bread like the tramps he had seen sometimes in Danecross.
As he came to this conclusion he sat up, rubbed his eyes, and looked round him. It was about six o'clock, and already very dusk in the wood, though the little dancing leaves of the Leeches could not make much shadow yet, for it was only April; all round the boy rose the grey straight stems of the trees, and tufts of primroses shone out whitely here and there on the ground. It was perfectly still and silent, except that a cold little wind rustled the branches, and the birds were making a few last twittering notes before they went to sleep—"a harmony," as the country folks called it. Frank got up and hurried on, for he knew that directly mother returned search would be made for him. He must get a long way on before that, and hide somewhere for the night. That side of the wood near Green Highlands was quite familiar to him, and though there were no paths, and it all looked very much alike, he knew what direction to take for the hiding-place he had in view. A town boy would soon have become confused, and perhaps have ended in finding himself at Green Highlands again, but Frank knew better than that, and he stumbled steadily along in his heavy boots, getting gradually and surely further away from home and deeper in the wood.
How quiet it was, and how fast the darkness seemed to close round him! All the birds were silent soon, except that a jay sometimes startled him with its harsh sudden cry; once a rabbit rushed so quickly across his path that he almost fell on it. On and on he went at a steady jog-trot pace, looking neither to right nor left. Now, if you have ever been in a beech wood, you must remember that winter and summer the ground is covered with the old dead brown leaves that have fallen from the trees. So thick they lie, that in some places you can stand knee-deep in them, especially if there are any hollows into which they have been drifted by the wind; this particular wood was full of such hollows, some of them wide and long enough for a tall man to lie down in, and Frank knew exactly where to find them. Turning aside, therefore, at a certain clump of bushes there was the very thing he wanted—bed and hiding-place at once. It was a broad shallow pit or hollow filled quite up to the top with the red-brown beech leaves. He scooped out a place just large enough for himself, lay down in it, and carefully replaced the leaves up to his very chin. He even put a few lightly over his face, and when that was done no one would have imagined that a boy or any other living thing was hidden there.
Then the solemn hours of darkness came silently on; all the creatures in the great wood slept, and even Frank in his strange leafy bed slept also, worn out with weariness.
About the middle of the night the breeze freshened a little, and the dry leaves stirred and rustled. The sounds mingled with the boy's dreams, and he thought he was lying in his attic at home, and that a mouse was running over his face; he felt its little tickling feet and its long tail quite plainly, and put up his hand to brush it away. Then he woke with a start. The chill wind blew in his face and sighed among the trees, and instead of the low attic beams there were waving branches over his head. He was not at home, but alone, quite alone in Whiteleaf Wood, with thick darkness all round him. Frank was frightened without knowing why; it was all so "unked," as he would have expressed it, and as he stared about with terrified eyes he seemed to see mysterious forms moving near. Then he looked up towards the sky; and there, through a space between the tops of the trees, was one solitary beautiful star shining down upon him like a kind bright eye. It was a comfort to see it there, and by degrees, as he lay with his eyes fixed upon it, he forgot his fears a little, and began to think of other things. First there came into his head one line of a hymn which he had often sung in the choir at Danecross church:
"Brightest and best of the sons of the morning," it began. From that he went on to consider what a long time it was since he had said his prayers, because he was always so sleepy and tired at night, and he thought he would say them now. But before he had finished them he fell into a quiet slumber, which lasted till morning, when the sun, peering through the trees, pointed suddenly down at his face with a fiery finger and woke him up.
The first thought that came into Frank's head was that he should not have to go to plough that day. The second was, that it was breakfast-time, that he was very hungry, and that he had nothing to eat. This was not so pleasant; but proceeding to "farm" his pockets, which in Buckinghamshire dialect means to rummage, he discovered a small piece of very hard bread. With this scanty meal he was obliged to be satisfied, and presently continued his journey in a tolerably cheerful frame of mind. Where he was going and how he was to earn his living he did not know; but on one subject he was quite resolved, he would not go back till he was too big and strong for father to "whop" him. It was hard to leave mother, and she would be sorry; but he thought he would manage somehow to write her a letter, and put a stamp upon it with the first penny he earned.
So reflecting, and varying the gravity of such thoughts by chasing the squirrels and the grey rabbits that scudded across his path, he journeyed on, and by degrees reached a part of the wood quite unknown to him. He began to wonder now what he should do if he did not soon come to a cottage or some place where he could ask for food, for it was many hours since he had eaten, and he was faint with exhaustion. Never in his life had he felt so dreadfully hungry, and there were not even berries for him to eat at this time of the year. At last the craving became so hard to bear, and his head was so queer and giddy that he thought he must rest a little while. As far as he could judge by the sun it was about four o'clock, and he must be a long way from Green Highlands. He dropped down in a little crumpled heap at the foot of a tree, and shut his eyes—nothing seemed to matter much, not even his father's anger; nothing but this dreadful gnawing pain. The only other thing he was conscious of was a distant continuous sound like the sawing of wood. He did not take much notice of this at first, but by and by as it went on and on monotonously the idea shaped itself in his mind that where that noise was there must be people, whom he could ask for food, and he got up and staggered on again. As he went the sound got louder and louder, and he could also hear a voice singing. This encouraged him so much that he quickened his pace to a run, and soon came to a great clearing in the wood. And then he saw what had caused the noise.
Felled trees were lying about in the round open space, and there were great heaps of curly yellow shavings, and strange-looking smooth pieces of wood carefully arranged in piles. Two little sheds stood at some distance from each other, and in one of these sat a man turning a piece of wood in a rudely fashioned lathe; as he finished it he handed it to a boy kneeling at his feet, who supplied him with more wood, and sang at his work in a loud, clear voice. And then a still more interesting object caught Frank's eye, for in the middle of the clearing there burned and crackled a lively little wood-fire, and over it, hanging from a triangle of three sticks, was a smoky black kettle. It held tea, he felt sure, and near it were some tin mugs and some nice little bundles of something tied up in spotted handkerchiefs. It all suggested agreeable preparations for a meal, and he felt he must join it at any risk.
He stood timidly at the edge of the wood observing all this for a minute, and then, as no one noticed him, he slowly advanced till he was close to the man and boy; then they looked up and saw him.
A wayworn, weary little figure he was, with a white face and mournful blue eyes; he had a shrinking, frightened air, like some hunted creature of the woods; and here and there the dry brown leaves had stuck to his clothes. Holding out his hand, and speaking in a low voice, for he felt ashamed of begging when it came to the point, he said:
"Please can yer give me a morsel of bread?"
The man, who had kind slow brown eyes and a very placid face, looked at him without speaking, and shook his head at the outstretched hand. But the boy answered with a wide-mouthed grin:
"He's hard o' hearin', my pardner is. He don't know what yer say."
He then rose, and going close to the man shouted shrilly in his ear:
"Little chap wants summat t'eat."
The man nodded.
"He's welcome to jine at tea," he said, "and he can work it out arterwards. Where dost come from?" to Frank.
Frank hesitated; then he thought of a village several miles beyond Danecross, and answered boldly, "Dinton."
"And where art goin'?"
"I'm seekin' work," said Frank.
These answers having been yelled into his ear by the boy, the man asked no further questions, though he gravely considered the stranger with his large quiet eyes. Shortly afterwards, having been joined by the mate who was sawing in the other shed, the company disposed themselves round the fire, and to Frank's great joy the meal began. And what a meal it was! Roasted potatoes, tea, thick hunches of bread, small fragments of fat bacon, all pervaded with a slight flavour of smoke—could anything be more delicious to a famished boy? Frank abandoned himself silently to the enjoyment of it; and though his companions cast interested glances at him from time to time, no one spoke. It was a very quiet assembly. All round and above them the new little green leaves danced and twinkled, and on the ground the old ones made a rich brown carpet; the blue smoke of the fire rose thinly up in the midst.
At last Frank gave a deep sigh of contentment as he put down his tin mug, and the deaf man clapped him kindly on the shoulder.
"Hast taken the edge off, little chap?" he said.
Then the two men, stretched luxuriously on the ground, filled their pipes and smoked in silence. The boy, who was about Frank's own age, but brown-faced and stoutly built, busied himself in clearing away the remains of the meal, and in carefully making up the fire with dry chips and shavings; he seemed to have caught the infection of silence from his companions, and eyed the stranger guest without speaking a word. But Frank, who was revived and cheered by his food, felt inclined for a little conversation; he was always of an inquisitive turn of mind, and he was longing to ask some questions; so as the boy passed near him he ventured to say, pointing to the neat piles of wood:
"What be yon?"
The boy stared.
"Yon?" he repeated; "why, yon be legs and rungs of cheers—that's what we make 'em fur."
"Where be the cheers?" pursued Frank.
"We send all yon down to Wickham, to the cheer factory," answered the boy; "we don't fit 'em together here."
He seated himself at Frank's side as he spoke, and poked at the fire with a long pointed stick.
"How do they get 'em down to Wickham?" asked Frank, bent on getting as much information as possible.
The boy pointed to a broad cart-track, which descended abruptly from one side of the clearing.
"They fetch a cart up yonder, and take 'em down into the high-road."
"And how fur is it?"
"A matter of two miles, and then three miles further to the factory, and there they make 'em up into cheers, and then they send 'em up to Lunnon Town by the rail."
Frank remembered the great cart-loads of chairs that he had seen passing through Danecross, but what chiefly struck him in his companion's answer were the two words "Lunnon Town." They fell on his ear with a new meaning. He had read of Lunnon Town, and heard schoolmaster talk of it, but had never imagined it as a place he could see, any more than America. Now, suddenly, an idea of such vast enterprise seized on his mind, that it stunned him into silence. He would go to Lunnon Town! Everyone became rich there. He would become rich too; then he would go back to Green Highlands, and give all his money to mother; there would be no need for any more field-work, and they would all be happy. At the thought of mother his eyes filled with tears, for he knew how unhappy she would be when he did not come back, and how she would stand at the door and look out for him. He longed to set about making this great fortune at once, it seemed a waste of time to sit idle; but he knew he must rest that night, for his legs felt stiff and aching; besides he had to work out his meal.
In half an hour the deaf man's lathe was hard at work again, and the two boys busily employed near. Frank's new friend showed him how to arrange the pieces of wood neatly in piles when they were turned and smoothed. He hummed a tune in the intervals of conversation and presently asked:
"Can yer sing?"
Frank could sing—very well. He was one of the best singers in Danecross choir, and Mrs Darvell held her head very high when she heard her boy's voice in church; so he answered with a certain pride:
"Ah, I can sing proper well."
"Sing summat," said the boy.
Frank waited a minute to choose a tune, and then sang "Ring the Bell, Watchman," straight through. The boy listened attentively, and joined, after the second verse, in the chorus, which was also taken up in a gruff and uncertain manner by the mate in the other shed. The deaf man looked on approvingly, and the lathe kept up a grinding accompaniment.
"That's fine, that is," said the boy when the last notes of Frank's clear voice died away. "Do yer know any more?"
"I know a side more," said Frank, "and hymns too."
"Can yer sing 'Home Sweet Home?'" asked the boy.
But this song was not so successful, for after the chorus had been sung with great animation, and the second verse eagerly expected, something choked and gurgled in Frank's throat so that he could not sing any more. All that night, as he lay on the bed of shavings, which he shared with his new companion, he waked at intervals to hear those words echoing through the woods: "Home Sweet Home—There's no place like Home." But with the morning sun these sounds vanished, and he began his onward journey cheerily, refreshed by his rest and food. As he went down the cart-track the boy had pointed out to him he sang scraps of songs to himself, the birds twittered busily above his head, and the distant sound of the deaf man's lathe came more and more faintly to his ears. He felt sure now that he was on his way to make his fortune, and the wood seemed full of voices which said, "Lunnon Town, Lunnon Town," over and over again. The thought of his mother's sad face was, it is true, a little depressing. "But," he said to himself, "how pleased she'll be when I come back rich!" Then he considered what sort of shawl he would buy for her with the first money he earned—whether it should be a scarlet one, or mixed colours with an apple-green border, like one he had seen once in a shop at Daylesbury.
These fancies beguiled the way, and he was surprised when, after what seemed a short time, he found himself at the edge of the wood, and in a broad high-road; that must be the Wickham Road, and he had still three miles to walk before reaching the town and the chair factories, where he meant to ask for work as a first step on his way to London.
It was not a busy-looking road, and the carts and people who passed now and then seemed to have plenty of time and no wish to hurry; still, to Frank, who was used to the solitude of Green Highlands and the deeper quiet of the woods, it felt like getting into the world, and he looked down at his clothes, and wondered how they would suit a large town. He wore a smock, high brown leather gaiters reaching almost to his thighs, and very thick hobnailed boots. He wished he had his Sunday coat on instead of the smock, but the rest of the things would do very well, and they were so strong and good that they would last a long time. So this point settled he trudged on again, till, by twelve o'clock, he saw Wickham in the distance with its gabled red houses and tall factory buildings. And now that he was so near, his courage forsook him a little, and he felt that he was a very small weak boy, and that the factories were full of bustling work-people who would take no notice of him. He stood irresolute in the street, wondering to whom he ought to apply, and presently his eye was attracted to the window of a small baker's shop near. Through this he saw a kind-looking round-faced woman, who stood behind the counter knitting. Just in front of her there was, curled round, a sleek black cat, and she stopped in her work now and then to scratch its head gently with her knitting-pin. Somehow this encouraged Frank, and entering he put his question timidly, in his broad Buckinghamshire accent.
The woman smiled at him good-naturedly.
"From the country, I reckon?" she said, not answering his question.
"Ah," replied Frank, "I be."
"You're a dillicate little feller to be trampin' about alone seekin' work," she said, considering him thoughtfully. "Is yer mother livin'?"
"Ah," said Frank again, casting longing eyes at a crisp roll on the counter.
"Then why don't yer bide at home," asked the woman, "and work there?"
"I want to get more wage," said Frank, who was feeling hungrier every minute with the smell of the bread. "I'll be obliged to yer if ye'll tell me how I could git taken on at the factory."
"You must go and ask at the overseer's office up next street, where you see a brass plate on the door—name of Green. But bless yer 'art, we've lads enough and to spare in Wickham; I doubt they won't want a country boy who knows nought of the trade."
"I can try," said Frank; "and I learn things quick. Schoolmaster said so."
The woman shook her head.
"You'd be better at home, my little lad," she said, "till you're a bit older. There's no place like home."
Those same words had been sounding in Frank's ears all night. They seemed to meet him everywhere, he thought, like a sort of warning. Nevertheless he was not going to give up his plan, and having learned the direction of the overseer's office he turned to leave the shop.
"And here's summat to set yer teeth in as you go along," said the woman, holding out a long roll of bread. "Growing lads should allus be eatin'."
"Thank you, ma'am," said Frank, and he took off his cap politely, as he had been taught at school, and went his way.
"As pretty behaved as possible," murmured the woman as she looked after him, "and off with his hat like a prince. What sort o' folks does he belong to, I wonder!"
The overseer's office was a small dark room with a high desk in it, at which sat a sandy-haired red-faced man, with his hat very much on the back of his head. He was talking in a loud blustering voice to several workmen, and as Frank entered he heard the last part of the speech.
"So you can tell Smorthwaite and the rest of 'em that they can come on again on the old terms, but they'll not get a farthing more. Well, boy," as he noticed Frank standing humbly in the background, "what do you want?"
Mr Green's manner was that of an incensed and much-tried man, and Frank felt quite afraid to speak.
"Please, sir," he said, "do you want a boy in the factory?"
"Do I want a boy!" repeated the overseer, addressing the ceiling in a voice of despair. "No, of course I don't want a boy. If I had my will I'd have no boys in the place—I'm sick of the sight of boys."
He bent his eyes on a newspaper before him, and seemed to consider the matter disposed of; but Frank made one more timid venture.
"Please, sir," he said, going close up to the desk, "I'd work very stiddy."
Mr Green peered over his high desk at the sound of the small persistent voice, and frowned darkly.
"Clear out!" he said with a nod of his head towards the door; "don't stop here talking nonsense. Out you go!"
Frank dared not stay; he slunk out into the street crushed and disappointed, for he felt he had not even had a chance. "He might a listened to a chap," he said to himself.
Just then the church clock struck one, dinner time, and a convenient doorstep near, so he took the roll out of the breast of his smock-frock and sat down to eat it. As he had never been used to very luxurious meals it satisfied him pretty well; and then he watched the people passing to and fro, and wondered what he could do to earn some money. The chair-factory was hopeless certainly, but there must surely be some one in Wickham who wanted a boy to run errands, or dig gardens, or help in stables. What should he do? Without money he must starve; he could neither go on to London or back to Green Highlands.
The street was almost deserted now, for all the people who had dinners waiting for them had hurried home to eat them, and no one had noticed the rustic little figure in the grey gaberdine crouched on the doorstep. Suddenly a dreadful feeling of loneliness seized on Frank, such as he had not felt since leaving home. Even the great solitary wood had not seemed so cold and unfriendly as this town, full of human faces, where the very houses seemed to stare blankly upon him. He thought of the kind baker woman, and immediately her words sounded in his ear: "There's no place like home." If he went to her she would try to persuade him to go back, and that he was still determined not to do; but his golden pictures of the future had faded a good deal since that morning, and as he sat and looked wistfully at the hard red houses opposite he could not help his eyes filling with tears. Fortunately, he thought, there was no one to see them; but still he felt ashamed of crying, and bent his head on his folded arms. Sitting thus for some minutes, he was presently startled by a voice close by.
"What's up, little un?" it said.
Frank looked up quickly, and saw that the question came from a boy standing in front of him. He was a very tall, thin boy, about fifteen years old, with a dark face and narrow twinkling black eyes. All his clothes were ragged, and none of them seemed to fit him properly, for his coat-sleeves were inconveniently long, and his trousers so short that they showed several inches of brown bony ankles. On his head he wore a rusty black felt hat with half a brim, which was turned down over his eyes; his feet were bare; and he carried under his arm a cage full of nimble crawling white mice.
After a minute's observation Frank decided in his mind that this must be a "tramp." Now and then these wandering folks passed through Danecross and the neighbourhood on their way to large towns; and, as a rule, people looked askance at them. It was awkward to have them about when ducklings and chickens were being reared, and Frank had always heard them spoken of with contempt and suspicion. Just now, however, any sympathy appeared valuable, and he smiled back at the twinkling black eyes, and answered:
"There's nowt the matter with me. I'm wantin' work."
The boy seemed to think this an amusing idea, for he grinned widely, showing an even row of very white teeth. Then he sat down on the doorstep, put his cage of mice on the ground, and began to whistle; his bright eyes keenly observing Frank from top to toe meanwhile, and finally resting on his thick hobnailed boots. Then he asked briefly:
"I'd ratherly get any other," answered Frank. And feeling it his turn to make some inquiries, he said:
"What do yer carry them mice fur?"
The boy looked at him for a minute in silence; then he chuckled, and gave a long low whistle.
"I say, little chap," he said confidentially, "ain't you a flat! Just rather."
Seeing on Frank's face no sign of comprehension he continued:
"Without them little mice I should be what they calls a wagrant. Many a time they've saved me from the beak, and from being run in. Them's my business; and a nice easy trade it is. Lots of change and wariety. No one to wallop yer. Live like a jintleman."
He waved his hand at his last words with a gesture expressive of large and easy circumstances. Frank glanced at his bare feet and generally dishevelled appearance.
"I don't want to live like a jintleman," he said; "I want to work honest, and git wage."
"Why did yer cut and run then?" said his companion suddenly and sharply. "Did they wallop yer?"
Frank started. How could this strange boy possibly know that he had run away? His alarmed face seemed to afford the tramp the keenest amusement; he laughed long and loud, leaning back on the steps in an ecstasy, and said at breathless intervals:
"You're just the innocentest, greenest little chap. How old are yer?"
Frank did not answer; he was considering the best means of getting away from this undesirable acquaintance, who presently, wiping his eyes with the cuff of his jacket, remarked with recovered gravity:
"In course, yer know, no one 'ull take a boy what's run away."
This was a new and alarming idea to Frank.
"Won't they?" he said earnestly.
"Certingly not," continued the tramp. "Where's yer carikter? You 'ain't got none."
Frank hung his head. He wondered he had not thought of this before.
"This is where it lies," pursued his companion, holding out a very dirty hand dramatically in front of him. "You comes, as it might be, to me and you says, 'I want a sitivation.' Then I says, 'Where's yer carikter?' Then you says, 'I 'ain't got one.' Then I says, 'Out yer go.'"
Having thus placed the situation in a nutshell, as it were, he put his hands in his pockets and observed Frank covertly out of the corners of his eyes. Seeing how crestfallen he looked, the tramp presently spoke again.
"Now, in my line of bizness it's not so important a carikter isn't. I might very likely look over it in takin' a pal if he asked me. In course it would be a favour; but still I might look over it."
"Do you want a pal?" asked Frank, pushed to extremity.
"Well, I don't, not to say want a pal," replied the tramp, "but I don't mind stretching a pint in your case if you like to jine."
The blue eyes and the glittering black ones met for an instant.
"I'll jine yer," said Frank with a sigh.
The tramp held out his long-fingered brown hand.
"Shake hands," he said. "The terms is, halves all we git."
The bargain concluded, he informed Frank that his name was Barney, and further introduced him to the mice, called respectively Jumbo, Alice, and Lord Beaconsfield.
This last, a mouse of weak-eyed and feeble appearance, he took out of the cage and allowed to crawl over him, stroking it tenderly now and then with the tip of his finger.
"He's an artful one, he is," he murmured admiringly. "I calls him Dizzy for short. What's your name, little un?"
"That sounds a good sort o' name too," said Barney; "sort o' name you see in gowld letters on a chany mug in the shop winders, don't it? I don't fancy, though, I could bring my tongue to it, not as a jineral thing. I shall call yer 'Nipper,' if you don't mind. After a friend o' mine."
The new name appearing rather an advantage than otherwise under his present circumstances Frank agreed to drop his own, and to be henceforth known only as the "Nipper." This change seemed to have broken the last link which bound him to Green Highlands and his own people. He was Frank Darvell no longer; he belonged to no one; the wide world was his home; Barney and the white mice his only friends and companions.
In the wandering life that followed, Frank had excellent opportunities for studying the character of his new comrade, and it did not take long to discover two prominent points in it. Barney was a liar and a thief. These accomplishments, indeed, had formed the principal features in poor Barney's education from his tenderest childhood. He had always been taught that it was desirable and proper to lie and steal; the only wrong and undesirable thing was—to be found out. To do Barney justice he very seldom was found out; nimble of finger and quick of wit he had profited well by his lessons, and by the time Frank met him had long been a finished scholar, and able to "do" for himself. In spite of these failings he was a kind-hearted boy; he would not have hurt any living thing weaker than himself, and Frank's pale face and slender form soon appealed to his protective instincts in much the same way that his white mice did, for which he cherished a fond affection.
If the night were cold he always managed that the Nipper had the warmest shelter, and when provisions were scarce the least tasty morsels were always reserved for himself, as a matter of course. Then what an amusing companion he was! How his ingenious stories, mostly a tissue of falsehood, beguiled the weary way, and made Frank forget his aching feet! He believed them all at first, and his innocent credulousness acted as a spur to Barney's fertile invention and excited him to fresh and wilder efforts. On one occasion, however, his imagination carried him beyond the limits of even Frank's capacity of belief, and from that moment suspicion began. He had been romancing about the riches and wealth of people who lived in London (where he had never been), and after describing at great length that the houses were none of them smaller than the whole town of Wickham put together, he added:
"An the folks niver uses ought but gowld to eat an drink off."
Frank looked up quickly.
"You're wrong there," he said. "My mother's got a chany jug what used to belong to her grandfather, and he lived in Lunnon." Observing a twinkle in the corner of Barney's eye he continued in an injured tone:
"You've bin lyin'. Lies is wicked, and stealin's wicked too."
There was a sound of conscious superiority in his tone, which was naturally irritating to his companion, who laughed hoarsely.
"Jest listen to him," he said, addressing Lord Beaconsfield for want of a more intelligent audience, "listen to him! Don't he preach fine? An' him a boy without a carikter too! Lies is wicked, eh? And stealin's wicked. Who told him that, I wonder?"
"It's in the catekizum," continued Frank. "Parson allers said so, and Schoolmaster too."
Barney made a gesture expressive of much contempt at the mention of these two dignitaries.
"Parson and Schoolmaster!" he said derisively. "Why, in course they said so; they're paid to do it. That's how they earns their money. But jest you please to remember, that yer not Parson, not yit Schoolmaster, but a boy without a carikter, so shut up with yer preachin'."
Without a character! It was hard, Frank thought, that he, a respectable Danecross boy, who had been to school, and sung in the choir, and whose folks had always worked honest and got good wages, should have come to this! That a vagrant tramp, who could neither read nor write, and who got his living anyhow, should be able to call him "a boy without a carikter!"
And the worst of it was, that it was true, he sadly thought, as he plodded along in the dust by Barney's side. He had thrown away his right to be considered respectable—no one would employ him if they knew he had run away, and still less if they knew he had been "on the tramp" with a boy like Barney.
However, as time went on, such serious thoughts troubled him less frequently; as long as the sun shone, it was easy to avoid dwelling on them amidst the change and uncertainty of his vagrant life.
But there were not two days alike in it. Sometimes luck, plenty to eat, and a bed of dry straw in a barn—that was luxury. Sometimes a weary tramp in the pouring rain, no coppers and no supper. Under these last circumstances the "Nipper" was sharply reminded of the time when he was Frank Darvell, and lived at Green Highlands; shivering and hungry, his thoughts would dwell regretfully on the comfort and security he had left. Mother's face would come before him sad and reproachful. Poor mother! She would never have that shawl with the apple-green border now. Her Frank, instead of making a great fortune in London town, had become a wanderer and a tramp; and indeed after a month's companionship with Barney he was so altered that she would hardly have known him. Sleeping under hedges or in outhouses had not improved his clothes, which were now stained and torn. His pale face was changed by wind and weather, and also by a plentiful supply of dust, seldom washed off, into a dirty brown one, and his hair, once kept so neatly cropped, now hung about in bushy tangles like Barney's. Only his bright blue eyes, with their innocent childishness of expression, were recognisable, and these gained him many a copper when he carried round his cap after Barney's feeble performances with the white mice.
But though changed outwardly, there was one good habit which Frank had brought away from Green Highlands, and to which he clung with a persistency which surprised and irritated his partner. This was honesty. Nothing would induce him to steal, or even to share stolen booty; hunger, threats, bitterly sarcastic speeches were alike in vain, and at last Barney's scornful amusement at the "boy without a carikter" began to be mingled with a certain respect; not that he was the least inclined to follow his example and give up pilfering himself, but he thought it was "game" of the little 'un to hold his own, and that was a quality he could understand and admire. After all, a chap that had been brought up by parsons and schoolmasters must have allowances made for him, he supposed, and he soon gave up all idea of inducing Frank to thieve, and even kept his own exploits in the background, because the "Nipper" took it to heart.
So, sharing sometimes hardships, and sometimes pleasures, the oddly-matched partners journeyed on, with an increasing attachment to each other, and Frank's thoughts travelled back less and less often to Green Highlands.
For now the bright warm weather had set fairly in, and all the different flowers came marching on in sweet procession, and filled the woods and fields. After the primroses, and while some still remained sprinkled about in the sunny places, came the deep blue hyacinths, and then the golden kingcups, and the downy yellow cowslips: last of all, a tall triumphant host of foxgloves spread themselves over forest and common. The wind, blowing softly from the west, brought with it little gentle showers, just enough to freshen the leaves and wash the upturned faces of the blossoms; tramping was a luxury in such weather, and those people much to be pitied who had to work in close dark rooms, hidden away from the glorious sunshine.
Certainly it was rather too hot sometimes, and the roads were dusty and gritty, and the boys' throats got parched with thirst after a very few miles; but there was always the hope of coming to some delicious, cool green bit by the way, or to a stream of water, or to some comfortable village seat under the shadow of a great tree. And this kept up their spirits. One day they had walked far in a blazing July sun along an unshaded high-road; it was evening now, and they were wondering where they should sleep, and how they should get some supper, when they came to a narrow lane turning off to the right, with steep banks on each side of it. There was a sign-post, which, interpreted by Frank, said, To Crowhurst—one mile.
The boys consulted a little, and soon determined to leave the high-road, which seemed endless, as far as they could see, and try their fortune in Crowhurst for the night. It was not long before they came to it, lying in a hollow, and snugly sheltered by gently rising wooded ground. It was a very little village indeed. There was a small grey church with a stumpy square tower, and a cheerful red-brick inn called the Holly Bush, with a swinging sign in front of it; there were half a dozen little cottages with gay gardens, and, standing close to the road, there was a long, low, many-gabled house which was evidently the vicarage. It was such a snug, smiling little settlement altogether that Barney and Frank, slouching along dusty and tired, felt quite out of place and uneasy at the glances cast at them by the people standing at their open doors or in their trim gardens. However, there was a bench outside the inn, and there they presently sat down to rest and look about them. The vicarage was just opposite; and one of its wide lattice-windows being open, the boys could see plainly into the room, where the most prominent object was the figure of an old gentleman, with grey hair and a velvet skull-cap; he sat at a table writing busily, and everything was so quiet and still that they could even hear the scratch of his quill pen, and the rustle of the sheets of manuscript which he threw from time to time on the floor. Sometimes he looked vaguely out of the window, and sometimes he took off his skull-cap and rubbed his bald head with his pocket handkerchief—then he bent busily over his writing again. Frank, watching him lazily, wondered what he could have to write so much about, and then it occurred to him that perhaps he might be the schoolmaster correcting the boys' exercises; from that, his mind wandered back to Danecross and the school-room there, where it used to be so hot in summer, and the bees buzzed and murmured so in the garden outside, and the boys within. And gradually, his ideas becoming confused between bees and boys, and being very tired, he forgot the old gentleman and fell asleep.
But, meanwhile, the acute Barney, sitting by his side and apparently engrossed with his white mice, had been attentively observing the same scene. Unfortunately, whenever the old gentleman dipped his pen absently in the ink Barney's quick eye was attracted to a small object which glittered brightly, and presently he made out that this was a silver inkstand. The more he looked, the more his fingers longed to close round that shining object and make sure if it really could be silver, and I grieve to say that it was not from pressing necessity that he coveted it, but simply from a strong desire to exercise an inborn talent. It was as natural to him to steal, particularly if it required cleverness and ingenuity, as it is for an artist or a poet to paint or write poetry, so all the while he looked, his mind was busy with a plan to rob the old gentleman of his silver inkstand.
Presently he glanced round at Frank, whose head was nodding forward in an uncomfortable attitude, and whose deep breathing showed him to be asleep. "If only he warn't sich a duffer," said Barney to himself, "we might do it easy," then seeing that his partner was in danger of falling, he moved nearer to him, and placed the boy's head gently against his own shoulder so that he might rest easily. Meanwhile the old gentleman's pen went scribbling on at quite a furious pace, and the black skull-cap seemed to nod complacently, as though its owner were pleased with what he wrote.
Barney sat and waited with the sleeping boy's head on his shoulder— waited patiently, without stirring a muscle, though after a time the stiff position became painful. Shadows were lengthening—the cows sauntered through the village to be milked—it began to get a little dusk, but still the old gentleman went on writing and Frank went on sleeping, and Barney's bright glance was fixed on the shining object opposite, much as a raven or a jackdaw will eye the silver spoon he means to steal by and by. "Everything comes to him who knows how to wait," and though Barney had never heard the proverb it was now verified in his case; the old gentleman paused in his writing, stuck his pen absently behind his ear, and proceeded to read over his manuscript. It pleased him evidently, for he smiled several times, and shook his head waggishly. Then he got up, yawned, stretched himself, and finally left the room, but only to reappear a moment later in the porch: thence he strolled down the narrow brick path to the gate, with his hands in the pockets of his flowered dressing-gown, and looked up and down the road, and up at the sky, and finally at the two dusty figures opposite on the bench. It was on Frank that his gaze rested, and just then, aided by a quiet poke from Barney's elbow, the boy roused himself, sat up, and rubbed his eyes.
"Jintleman wants yer," said Barney, whispering hoarsely in his ear.
Hardly awake, Frank stumbled across the road, and mechanically touched his cap. The old gentleman stood beaming benignly at him through his spectacles.
"What do you want, my lad?" he said in a kind voice.
Directly Frank heard him speak he knew he could not be the schoolmaster, but the parson of the village. Parson at Danecross used to speak in the same sort of way. He felt ashamed to beg, and looked back at Barney for support, who immediately came slouching up with his white mice, and began to speak in his usual professional whine.
The old gentleman waved his hand impatiently.
"Stop," he said; "I don't want to hear any of those stories. You can't impose upon me, so you needn't try." Then he turned to Frank. "Are you willing to work for your supper and a bed in the hay-loft to-night?"
"Oh yes, sir," said Frank eagerly; "and so's Barney too."
The rector, for such he was, glanced somewhat doubtfully at Barney.
"Well," he said, "there's an hour's weeding in my kitchen-garden that you can easily do before dark, and then you shall have bread and cheese, and may sleep in the loft. Where have you come from?"
He spoke to Frank, but the boy did not answer; and Barney, coming glibly to the rescue, had in a few moments woven an ingenious fable, in which he frequently referred to his companion as "his little brother."
The rector listened without further question, but his shrewd grey eyes rested suspiciously on Barney when he had finished his story.
"Come this way," he said, and led them round to the back of the house, where there was a neatly kept kitchen-garden, with borders of homely flowers, and a small orchard at the end of it. Here he paused, and showed the boys that one of the gravel walks was thickly covered with grass weeds. A man leant on the orchard gate smoking a pipe.
"Andrew," said the rector, "when those two boys have weeded that path they are to have supper and a bed in the loft."
The man touched his cap with a very ill-pleased expression, and the old gentleman strolled back into the house and left the boys to their work, which they undertook with very different feelings. On Barney's side there was a distinct sense of injury, and he performed his task with great bitterness of soul; for to work for anything was contrary to his inmost nature, and to every principle of his life hitherto. So he sighed and groaned and held on to his long back with both hands at intervals, and managed to do as small a share of the weeding as possible. Frank, on the contrary, went to work with a will, with a pleasant sense that he was earning something, and he was careful to get the weeds up by the roots, instead of slicing them off neatly at the top, which was Barney's unprincipled method of gardening. Meanwhile Andrew's watchful eye never left the boys; and in answer to his master's inquiries that night his opinion of them was thus delivered:
"Long un's no good, but t'other's bin taught to use his hands. He's no tramp."
Frank lay awake long that night in the fragrant hay-loft thinking. The kind old rector, the work, the supper, had roused old memories in his mind, and his tramping life of late seemed suddenly distasteful. He longed to "work honest and get wage," and feel a respectable boy again. If only this nice old gentleman would let him stay and work in his garden; but that, Frank remembered with a sigh, was hopeless, because he had "no carikter." And then, there was Barney—Barney, who had always been good to him, and who had helped him when he most wanted it, he could not desert him now; and as for trying to turn him from his present course of life, that was just the most hopeless thing of all. So, rather sorrowfully, he turned over on the other side, and very shortly fell fast asleep.
Barney slept too with the profound peacefulness of a mind at rest, as, indeed, it was; for with the morning's light he had firmly resolved to steal the old gentleman's silver inkstand, and he was troubled with no doubts either as to the propriety or success of the undertaking. The fastening of that lattice-window would be easily managed by a dexterous hand, and before any of the folks were about he and Frank would be beyond pursuit; only he must be careful not to wake the Nipper before he had secured his booty, as he might make foolish and troublesome objections.
So it came to pass that it was only just daylight next morning when Frank was waked from a deep sleep by some one shaking his arm, and by the dim grey light he saw Barney kneeling by him with an eager look in his dark face.
"Get up!" he whispered.
"'Tain't time," murmured Frank, rolling over sleepily.
But Barney renewed his shaking, and at last succeeded in thoroughly rousing his comrade, who sat up and stared at him with surprised blue eyes.
"Why, Barney," he said, "it's night still. What do yer want to go on fur? The old gentleman ull want to see us afore we start; we mustn't go yet."
Barney frowned darkly.
"I niver want to see that old cove, niver no more," he said; and this was truer than Frank thought. "I calls it a mean act to make a poor chap work for a bit o' supper. He's no jintleman, he isn't."
"Well," said Frank, "I should like to a said 'Thank yer;' it seems ongrateful."
"Then you'd better stop and do it," said Barney impatiently. "I'm off. I'm not goin' to stay an work in that blessed old garding any more. You can come arter me."
He was already half-way down the loft steps as he spoke, with his mice's cage under his arm, when he looked back over his shoulder at his partner's slight figure standing at the top in the dim light watching him. Turning suddenly, he was by Frank's side again in two long-legged strides.
"Good-bye, Nipper," he whispered, "good-bye, old pal!"
He patted the boy on the shoulder gently, and soon with stealthy swiftness passed from sight, and seemed to vanish in the grey morning mist.
Then Frank, wondering a little, but more sleepy than curious, crept back to his still warm nest in the hay, and fell asleep again without loss of time.
He dreamt that Barney had come back to fetch him, and opened his eyes some hours later expecting to see him; but he was not there. Instead of him there was Andrew the gardener just coming up the steps in a great hurry.
He seized Frank roughly by the arm.
"Oh, you're here, are you, young scamp?" he said. Then looking round the loft.
"He's gone on before," answered Frank, surprised and confused at this treatment.
"Oh, I daresay," said Andrew, giving him a shake. "And I suppose you don't even know what he's got in his pocket. You're a nice young innercent. You jest come along with me."
He hurried the boy along, holding him tight by the collar of his smock, and thrust him into the room with the lattice-window, where the rector had been writing the night before. He was there now, walking feverishly backwards and forwards, and looking thoroughly ill at ease.
"Here's one on 'em, sir," said Andrew triumphantly introducing the small trembling form of Frank, "an' t'other's not far off, I reckon."
The rector looked more than ever perturbed.
"Where was the boy, Andrew?" he asked. "Does he know anything of the matter?"
"He was in the loft, and he's just the most owdacious young rascal; says t'other one's gone on before. He'll know more about it, I fancy, after a day or two in the lock-up."
Andrew administered a rousing shake to his captive as he spoke. He was not ill-pleased that the rector should at last see the result of encouraging tramps.
Hitherto Frank had been in a state of puzzled misery, and had scarcely understood what was going on; but when Andrew mentioned the word lock-up, the whole matter was clear to him. Barney had stolen something; that was the meaning of his abrupt departure before daylight.
The rector looked at him pityingly.
"Where is your companion, my boy?" he said.
Frank did not answer; he stood perfectly passive in Andrew's hands, and cast his eyes on the ground.
"Don't yer hear his reverence?" shouted the latter in the boy's ear.
"I dunno," said Frank faintly.
"You'd better let me run him over to Aylesford and have him locked up, sir," said Andrew. "He'd find a tongue then."
Frank raised his frightened blue eyes entreatingly to the rector's face without speaking; he saw something in the kind rugged features which encouraged him, for with sudden energy he wriggled himself loose from Andrew and threw himself on his knees.
"Don't let them lock me up, sir," he sobbed. "I've allers bin a honest lad."
"Was it your companion who broke into this room this morning and stole my inkstand?" pursued the rector.
"I dunno," repeated Frank. "I didn't see him steal nuthin', I was asleep."
"Would he be likely to do it?"
"I dunno," said Frank under his breath, deeply conscious that he did know very well.
"Is he your brother?"
"No," cried Frank with a sudden burst of eloquence, "he's no kin to me. I'm Frank Darvell's lad, what lives at Green Highlands. And Parson knows me—and Schoolmaster. And I've niver stolen nowt in my life. Don't ye let 'em lock me up!"
"A likely story!" growled Andrew. "Honest lads don't go trampin' round with thieves."
The rector, whose face had softened at the boy's appeal, seemed to pull himself together sternly at this remark; he frowned, and said, turning away a little from Frank's tear-stained face: "I would gladly believe you, my boy, but it is too improbable. As Andrew says, honest boys do not associate with thieves."
"Ask any of 'em at Danecross, sir," pleaded poor Frank in despair; "anyone ull tell ye I belong to honest folk."
"That's no proof you're not a thief," put in the persistent Andrew; "there's many a rotten apple hangs on a sound tree."
The rector looked up impatiently.
"Leave the boy alone with me, Andrew," he said, "I wish to ask him some questions;" and as the man left the room he seated himself in his big leather chair and beckoned Frank to him. "Come here," he said, "and answer me truthfully."
Frank stood at his elbow, trembling still in fear of being sent to prison, and yet with a faint hope stealing into his heart.
Bit by bit he sobbed forth his story in answer to the rector's questions, and finally raising his swollen eyelids to the kind face he said:
"If so be as mother was to know I wur sent to prison it 'ud break her 'art."
"Tell me," said the rector, "have your parents lived long at Green Highlands? Are they well-known there?"
"Father, he's lived there all his life," said Frank; "and granther, he used to live there too. Father can do a better day's work nor any man in Danecross," he added with conscious pride.
"Ah!" said the rector, "it's a fine thing to be a good workman, and to have earned a good name, isn't it?"
Frank hung his head.
"But it isn't done by tramping about the country with bad companions. A good name's a precious thing, and like all precious things it's got by trouble and labour. It's the best thing a father can hand down to his son. When he begins life, men say, 'He's Frank Darvell's son, he comes of a good stock;' and so the 'good name' his father earned is of great use to him. But he can't live on that; he has to make one of his own too, so that he can hand it on to his sons and daughters and say, 'There's my father's name, I've never disgraced it; now it's your turn to use it well.' But suppose that the son doesn't value his father's good name. Suppose that he chooses an idle good-for-nothing life and his own pleasure, rather than to work hard and live honestly; what happens then? Why, then, men soon leave off trusting him, and say, 'He's not the man his father was;' and so the name of Darvell, which used to be so honoured and respected, comes to be connected with evil things. Then, perhaps too late, the son finds that 'a good name is more to be desired than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold.' But he has thrown away the good name and the loving favour too, for he has drifted away from his old friends and companions. He can never get back to where he started from."
The solemn monotonous voice—for the rector had dropped unconsciously into his sermon tones—and the emphasis on the last words completed Frank's misery of spirit.
Clasping his hands, he fell on his knees and said imploringly:
"Let me go home, sir. Let me go back. I'd be proper glad to see 'em all again."
"Whom would you like to see again?" asked the rector kindly.
"There's mother first," said Frank, "and father on Sundays, and then Schoolmaster, and Jack Gunn, and little Phoebe Redrup."
"My little lad," said the rector, laying his hand on the boy's shoulder, "you see there's no place like home. Home, where people know us and love us in spite of our faults. I think you won't want to run away again?"
"Niver no more," sobbed Frank.
"And now," said the rector rising, and reassuming the air of severity which he had quite laid aside during the last part of the interview. "I am going to write to the vicar of Danecross, who is a friend of mine. If I find that what you have told me is true we will say no more about the inkstand, and I will believe that you had no knowledge of the theft. Until then you must be treated as under suspicion, though we will not send you to prison."
He summoned Andrew, and delivered Frank over to his charge. Disgusted to find that he was not to be "run in" as an example to tramps, from whom his master's orchard and garden had suffered so frequently, Andrew was determined that his captive should have no chance of escape, and as rigorous a confinement as possible. Frank was therefore locked up in a small harness-room, as the place of greatest security and discomfort; and here he passed the lonely day in much distress of mind, troubled with many fears concerning his late friend and companion Barney.
The rector himself was hardly more at his ease, however, for he would willingly have dispensed with the zeal of his parishioners, who had been scouring the country since daybreak in search of the thief, and kept him in a constant tremor. The good people of Crowhurst seldom had the chance of such an excitement as this unexpected robbery, and though few things would have embarrassed the rector more than a successful end to the chase, he did not dare to check their ardour.
His peaceful solitude was therefore perpetually disturbed throughout the day by the arrival of breathless parties of scouts. He would sally out to the gate to meet them, and ask nervously: "Well, my lads, seen anything of him, eh?" Deep was his inward relief when the day closed in with no news of the thief, for he would have cheerfully sacrificed many silver inkstands rather than have been obliged to deliver the unfortunate Barney into the hands of justice.
Two evenings later than this, the vicar of Danecross stood at the open door of the Darvells' cottage at Green Highlands, and looked into the room. Mrs Darvell was alone, scrubbing away at her brick floor on her knees, and surrounded by a formidable array of pails, and brushes, and mops. The place had a comfortless air, and there was no fire on the hearth.
"Late at work, Mrs Darvell, eh?" was the vicar's greeting as he stood on the threshold.
Mrs Darvell got up quickly, and dropped her usual brisk courtesy, but her face looked dull and spiritless.
"I'm in too much of a muss to ask you in, sir," she said, glancing round.
"Oh, never mind," said the clergyman; "where's Darvell? Isn't he back from work yet?"
Mrs Darvell shrugged her shoulders, and made an expressive movement with her head in the direction of Danecross.
"I reckon he's where he generally is now," she answered moodily, "at the 'Nag's Head.'"
"Why, that's something new, isn't it? I always consider Darvell one of the steadiest men in my parish."
Mrs Darvell looked up defiantly.
"Maybe it's partly my fault," she said; "but we've never had a minute's comfort since the little lad went. And things get worse and worse. I don't care no more to keep the place nice, and I ups and speaks sharp to Darvell, and he goes off to the 'Nag's Head.'"
The vicar nodded his head slowly, as though Darvell's conduct was not quite incomprehensible under such circumstances, and Mrs Darvell continued in a lower tone:
"You know, sir, it wur because my man lifted his hand to Frank that the lad went off; and I don't seem as how I can forget it. When I look at Darvell I keep on rememberin' as how, if he'd bin more patient with the boy we should ha' had him with us still. Darvell's been a good man to me, but I can't help speaking sharp to him; though maybe I'm sorry after I done it, for there's only the two on us now, and we'll have to worry along together."
The vicar shook his head.
"Hard blows are bad things, Mrs Darvell, but hard words do quite as much mischief in their way. If your husband has driven Frank from home, does it mend matters for you to drive your husband to the public-house?"
"There's truth in what you say, sir," said Mrs Darvell, rubbing her arms with her apron; "but I don't seem as if I cared to do any different now the boy's gone. I've allers had a quick tongue from a gall, and Darvell, he must just take the consequences."
"But suppose," said the vicar, looking earnestly at her, "suppose that Frank were to come back to you safe and well, and Darvell were to promise never to be so harsh to him again, wouldn't you try then to keep from saying sharp things?"
Mrs Darvell's black eyes fixed themselves keenly on the vicar's face.
"You've heard summat, sir?" she said, laying one damp red hand on his coat-sleeve. "Is the lad livin'? Just tell me that. Is he livin'?"
"Look there," said the vicar.
He turned and pointed down the road, where, at the top of the hill leading up from Danecross, two figures were just visible. They came nearer and nearer. One was that of Darvell, broad-shouldered and heavily built, but the other one was small and slender, and had rough yellow hair.
Mrs Darvell was a woman of decisive action as well as of a quick tongue. One look was enough for her. She immediately took off her pattens, which had iron rings to them, and were not adapted for rapid movement, and placed them quickly and quite unconsciously in the vicar's arms as he stood beside her.
"Bless you, sir!" she said.
Before he had realised his situation she had flown down the road, reached the two figures, and enveloped Frank in her embrace, Darvell standing by meanwhile with a broad smile on his fair and foolish countenance.
The neighbours gathered round the group, and all the dogs, and pigs, and chickens belonging to the settlement also drew near. Jack Gunn's donkey looked over the hedge, his furry ears showing a pointed interest in the affair, and in the distance the vicar surveyed the scene from the cottage door, still holding Mrs Darvell's pattens.
So Frank had got home again; and after all his wanderings he found that:
"From east to west At home is best."
STORY TWO, CHAPTER 1.
FAITHFUL MOSES—A SHORT STORY.
Those of you who live near any of the great high-roads that lead to London may remember to have been awake sometimes in the middle of the night, and to have heard the sound of horses' feet, and of cart wheels rumbling slowly and heavily along.
If it be winter, frosty and dry, you hear them very sharply and distinctly; and perhaps you wonder, drowsily, who it is that has business so late, and whither they are bound. "How cold it must be outside!" you think, and it is quite a pleasure to snuggle cosily down in your comfortable bed and feel how warm you are.
Gradually, as the sounds grow less and less, and die away mysteriously in the distance, your eyes close; soon you are fast asleep again, and that is all you know about the cold, dark night outside.
But Tim, the van-boy, knew a great deal more about it than this, for he had now been "on the road" between Roydon and London for more than a year. The carrier's cart started at eleven o'clock in the morning, and having distributed and received parcels on the way the driver put up his horses at an inn called "The Magpie and Stump," in a part of London named the Borough. So far it was all very well, and not at all hard work; but then came the return journey at night, which began just at the moment when a boy, after a good warm supper, naturally thinks of going to bed. This was trying, and at first Tim felt it a good deal, for he never got home until three o'clock in the morning; he was so anxious, too, to do his duty and fill his post well, that he would not have closed his eyes for the world, though he might well have taken a nap without anyone's knowledge. His "mate" as he called him, whose name was Joshua, sat in front driving his two strong black horses, and Tim's place was at the other open end of the van, so that he might keep his eye on the parcels and prevent their being stolen or lost.
It was a responsible situation he felt for a boy of thirteen, and he meant to do his very best to keep it now that he had been lucky enough to get it; in the far-off future, too, he saw himself no longer the van-boy, but in the proud position now occupied by Joshua as driver, and this he considered, though a lofty, was by no means an unreasonable ambition.
When Tim first began his work it was summertime, and the nights were so balmy, and soft, and light that it was not so very difficult to keep awake—there seemed so many other thing's awake too. After they were well out of London, and the horses no longer clattered noisily over the stones, it was like getting into another world. The stars looked brightly down from the clear smokeless sky. Soft little winds blew a thousand flowery scents from over the fields, and sometimes, singing quite close to the road, Tim heard the nightingale. Even Joshua, a gruff man, was affected by the sweet influence of the season, for Tim noticed that he always sang one particular song on fine nights in summer. Joshua's voice was hoarse from much exposure to weather, but Tim thought he sang with great expression. The words were not easy to follow, because the middle of the verse always became inaudible; but by degrees the boy made out that it was the description of a letter received by a rustic from his sweetheart. It began:
"All on a summer's day As I pursued my way."
Then came some lines impossible to hear, and then each verse ended with:
"Com—mencing with 'my dearest,' And con—cluding with her name—"
Joshua's song and the steady tramp, tramp of the horses were sometimes the only sounds disturbing the still night, and Tim, a small erect figure with widely opened eyes, would sit perched on a convenient packing-case at the back of the cart, and listen admiringly.
But the winter! That was another matter. Joshua did not sing then, but kept his teeth clenched, and his head bent, before the sleet, or wind, or driving rain. Then the brightly lighted London streets seemed cheerful, and much to be preferred to the lonely open country, where the bitter wind swept across the wide fields, and, gathering strength as it came, rushed in among Tim and the parcels. That was hard to bear, but of all kinds of weather, and he knew them all pretty well now, he thought the very worst was a fog. It was not only that it penetrated everywhere, and laid its cold damp finger on everything; but it spread such a thick veil of dreadful mystery over well-known objects. Nothing looked the same. The houses in the streets towered up like giant castles, and if Tim had read fairy tales he might well have fancied them inhabited by ogres. But he had not. He only felt a dim sense of discomfort and fear, as though he were lost in a strange place. Then it was a comfort to know that Joshua was there, almost invisible indeed, but making himself evident by hoarse shouts, now of encouragement to his horses, and now of derision at some luckless driver. Out in the country, when the heavily laden market carts loomed slowly out of the fog as they passed, they had the appearance of being miles up in the air, and as if they must inevitably topple over. Joshua knew all the carters, not by sight, for he could not see them, but by the time and place he met them on his nightly journey. Tim could reckon pretty well that after he had heard his gruff salutation of "a dark night, mate," repeated a certain number of times, that they must be nearing home, for they always met about the same number of Joshua's friends; as he had no watch this was a comfort to him on the dark nights. Taught by experience, he learned to contrive for himself a sort of Robinson Crusoe but with the various hampers and boxes, and in this he lay curled round in tolerable comfort, covered with an old horse-cloth; nevertheless, it was often very cold, and then the only consolation was in thinking that Joshua must be cold also. It is always easier to bear things if there is some one to bear them with you—unless you are a hero.
One December evening the carrier's cart was just starting homewards from the door of the Magpie and Stump. Joshua, reins in hand, and closely buttoned up to the chin, stood ready to mount to his perch, saying a few last words to the landlord, who was a crony of his; Tim was already in his place. From where he sat he could see something which interested and excited him a good deal, and this was an old woman close by who was selling roasted chestnuts. They did look good! So beautifully done, with nice cracks in their brown skins showing just a little bit of the soft yellow nut inside. Tim looked and longed, and fingered a penny in his pocket. How jolly it would be to have a penn'orth of hot chestnuts to eat on his way home! They would keep his hands warm too. Joshua still talked, there was yet time, he would give himself a treat. He scrambled down from the cart and went up to the old woman, who sat crouched on a stool warming her hands over her little charcoal brazier. She looked a cross old thing, he thought, but she was not, for when he had paid for his chestnuts she picked out an extra fine one and gave it him "for luck," with a kind grin on her wrinkled face. He was turning away with a warm pocketful, when he saw, sitting on the edge of the pavement near, a very poor thin dog, who trembled with cold or fear, and blinked his eyes sorrowfully at the glowing coals. He was not at all a pretty dog, and probably never had been, even in the days of his prosperity, and these were evidently gone by. He was long-legged and rough-coated, with coarse black hair mingled with yellowish brown, and his large bright eyes had a timid look in them as though he feared ill-treatment; he sat with his thin body drawn together as closely as possible, as if anxious to escape observation.
Tim stood and looked at him, and felt sorry. He was such a very miserable dog, and yet so patient.
"Is he your dog?" he asked the old woman.
"Bless yer 'art, no," she answered. "He's a stray, he is; he'll come and sit there often at nights, and I sometimes give him a mouthful o' supper."
"I suppose he's rare and 'ungry?" pursued Tim.
"He's starving, that's what he is," said the woman, "and he's hurt his leg badly besides. The boys are allers ready to chuck stones at him when they see him prowlin' round. He don't belong to no one."
Tim felt still more sorry; if he had seen the dog before, he thought, he would have bought a "penn'orth" of liver for him instead of the chestnuts. Now he could do nothing for him. He looked round at the old woman, who was rocking herself to and fro with crossed arms, and said:
"Shall you give him any supper to-night?"
"Nay," she said with a sort of chuckle; "he's come too late to-night. I've had my supper. There's many a one besides him as has to go supperless."
The dog during this conversation was evidently conscious that he was being noticed, for he trembled more than ever, and gazed up at Tim with his pleading eyes.
"Pore feller, then," said the boy.
The kind voice woke some bygone memory in the animal; it reminded him perhaps of the days when he belonged to somebody, and was treated gently. He got up, slowly reared his poor stiff limbs into a begging attitude, and wagged his short tail. He soon dropped down again, for he was evidently weak, but he looked apologetically from the old woman to Tim, as much as to say:
"I know it was a poor performance, but it was the best I could do. In old days it used to please."
"See there now," said the woman, "someone must a taught him that. Maybe he's bin a Punch's dog."
Tim stood absorbed in thought. He had forgotten Joshua, and the cart, and his own important position as van-boy; one idea filled his mind. Could he, ought he, might he take the dog home with him and have him for his own?
He was a prudent boy, and he considered that he would have to pay a tax for him and feed him out of his wages. "But he could have 'arf my dinner," he reflected; "and how useful he'd be to look after the parcels. And he do look so thin and poor. I'll ask Joshua."
He looked round. Fortunately for him, Joshua and the landlord had entered into a discussion as to the respective merits of warm mashes, and were still engaged upon it, so Tim had not been missed. He went up to the two men, and standing a little in front of them waited for a convenient moment to make his request. He was glad to see that Joshua looked good-tempered just now; he had evidently had the best of the argument which had been going on, for there was a gleam of triumph in his eye, and he repeating some assertion in a loud voice, while the landlord stood in a dejected attitude with his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets.
"That's where it is," said Joshua as he concluded, and then his eye fell on Tim's eager upturned face.
"Dorg, eh?" he said, when the boy had made him understand what he wanted. "Where is he?"
"There," said Tim, pointing to where the dog still sat shivering near the old chestnut woman.
Joshua gazed at the animal in silence, and sucked a straw which he had in his mouth reflectively. Tim looked anxiously up into his face. Would he take a fancy to him? The landlord had now drawn near, and also an inquisitive ostler. The old chestnut-seller ceased to rock herself to and fro, and turned her head towards the group, so that the dog, so lonely a few minutes ago, had suddenly become a centre of interest. He seemed to wonder at this, but he scarcely moved his eyes, with a mute appeal in them, from his first friend, Tim. At last, after what seemed an immense silence, Joshua spoke.