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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJan Of The Windmill - Chapter 10. Abel At Home...
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Jan Of The Windmill - Chapter 10. Abel At Home... Post by :Keyser Category :Long Stories Author :Juliana Horatia Ewing Date :May 2012 Read :836

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Jan Of The Windmill - Chapter 10. Abel At Home...


Poor Abel was not fated to get much regular schooling. He particularly liked learning, but the interval was all too brief between the time when his mother was able to spare him from housework and the time when his father began to employ him in the mill.

George got more lazy and stupid, instead of less so, and though in some strange manner he kept his place, yet when Master Lake had once begun to employ his son, he found that he would get along but ill without him.

To Jan, Abel's being about the windmill gave the utmost satisfaction. He played with his younger foster-brothers and sisters contentedly enough, but his love for Abel, and for being with Abel, was quite another thing.

Mrs. Lake, too, had no confidence in any one but Abel as a nurse for her darling; the consequence of which was, that the little Jan was constantly trotting at his foster-brother's heels through the round- house, attempting valiant escalades on the ladders, and covering himself from head to foot with flour in the effort to cultivate a miller's thumb.

One day Mrs. Lake, having sent the other children off to school, was bent upon having a thorough cleaning-out of the dwelling-room, during which process Jan was likely to be in her way; so she caught him up in her arms and went to seek Abel in the round-house.

She had the less scruple in availing herself of his services, that there was no wind, and business was not brisk in the windmill.

"Maester!" she cried, "can Abel mind Jan a bit? I be going to clean the house."

"Ay, ay," said the windmiller, "Abel can mind un. I be going to the village myself, but there's Gearge to start, if so be the wind rises. And then if he want Abel, thee must take the little un again."

"Sartinly I will," said his wife; and Abel willingly received his charge and carried him off to play among the sacks.

George joined them once, but Jan had a rooted and unconquerable dislike to the miller's man, and never replied to his advances with any thing more friendly than anger or tears. This day was no exception to others in this respect; and after a few fruitless attempts to make himself acceptable, in the course of which he trod on the sandy kitten's tail, who ran up Jan's back and spat at her enemy from that vantage-ground, George went off muttering in terms by no means complimentary to the little Jan. Abel did his best to excuse the capricious child to George, besides chiding him for his rudeness--with very little effect. Jan dried his black eyes as the miller's man made off, but he looked no more ashamed of himself than a good dog looks who has growled or refused the paw of friendship to some one for excellent reasons of his own.

After George had gone, they played about happily enough, Jan riding on Abel's back, and the sandy kitten on Jan's, in and out among the corn-sacks, full canter as far as the old carved meal-chest, and back to the door again.

Poor Abel, with his double burden, got tired at last, and they sat down and sifted flour for the education of their thumbs. Jan was pinching and flattening his with a very solemn face, in the hope of attaining to a miller's thumb by a shorter process than the common one, when Abel suddenly said, -

"I tell thee what, then, Jan: 'tis time thee learned thy letters. And I'll teach thee. Come hither."

Jan jumped up, thereby pitching the kitten headlong from his shoulders, and ran to Abel, who was squatting by some spilled flour near a sack, and was smoothing it upon the floor with his hands. Then very slowly and carefully he traced the letter A in the flour, keenly watched by Jan.

"That's A," said he. "Say it, Jan. A."

"A," replied Jan, obediently. But he had no sooner said it, than, adding hastily, "Let Jan do it," he traced a second A, slightly larger than Abel's, in three firm and perfectly proportioned strokes.

His moving finger was too much for the kitten's feelings, and she sprang into the flour and pawed both the A's out of existence.

Jan slapped her vigorously, and having smoothed the surface once more, he drew A after A with the greatest rapidity, scrambling along sideways like a crab, and using both hands indifferently, till the row stretched as far as the flour would permit.

Abel's pride in his pupil was great, and he was fain to run off to call his mother to see the performances of their prodigy, but Jan was too impatient to spare him.

"Let Jan do more!" he cried.

Abel traced a B in the flour. "That's B, Jan," said he.

"Jan do it," replied Jan, confidently.

"But say it," said his teacher, restraining him. "Say B, Jan."

"B," said Jan, impatiently; and adding, "Jan do it," he began a row of B's. He hesitated slightly before making the second curve, and looked at his model, after which he went down the line as before, and quite as successfully. And the kitten went down also, pawing out each letter as it was made, under the impression that the whole affair was a game of play with herself.

"There bean't a letter that bothers him," cried Abel, triumphantly, to the no less triumphant foster-mother.

Jan had, indeed, gone through the whole alphabet, with the utmost ease and self-confidence; but his remembrance of the names of the letters he drew so readily proved to be far less perfect than his representations of them on the floor of the round-house.

Abel found his pupil's progress hindered by the very talent that he had displayed. He was so anxious to draw the letters that he would not learn them, and Abel was at last obliged to make one thing a condition of the other.

"Say it then, Jan," he would cry, "and then thee shall make 'em."

Mrs. Lake commissioned Abel to buy a small slate and pencil for Jan at the village shop, and these were now the child's favorite toys. He would sit quiet for any length of time with them. Even the sandy kitten was neglected, or got a rap on its nose with the slate- pencil, when to toy with the moving point had been too great a temptation to be resisted. For a while Jan's taste for wielding the pencil was solely devoted to furthering his learning to read. He drew letters only till the day that the Cheap Jack called.

The Cheap Jack was a travelling pedler, who did a good deal of business in that neighborhood. He was not a pedler pure, for he had a little shop in the next town. Nature had not favored him. He was a hunchback. He was, or pretended to be, deaf. He had a very ugly face, made uglier by dirt, above which he wore a mangy hair cap. He sold rough pottery, cheap crockery and glass, mock jewelry, low song-books, framed pictures, mirrors, and quack medicines. He bought old bottles, bones, and rags. And what else he bought or sold, or dealt with, was dimly guessed at by a few, but fully known to none.

Where he was born, what was his true name or age, whether on any given occasion he was speaking less than lies, and what was the ultimate object of his words and deeds,--at these things no one even guessed. That his conscience was ever clean, that his dirty face once masked no vile or petty plots for evil in the brain behind, that at some past period he was a child,--these things it would have tasked the strongest faith to realize.

He was not so unpopular with children as the miller's man.

The instinct of children is like the instinct of dogs, very true and delicate as a rule. But dogs, from Cerberus downwards, are liable to be biassed by sops. And four paper-covered sails, that twirl upon the end of a stick as the wind blows, would warp the better judgment of most little boys, especially (for a bargain is more precious than a gift) when the thing is to be bought for a few old bones.

Jan was a little afraid of the Cheap Jack, but he liked his whirligigs. They went when the mill was going, and sometimes when the mill wouldn't go, if you ran hard to make a breeze.

But it so happened that the first day on which the Cheap Jack came round after Jan had begun to learn his letters, he brought forth some wares which moved Jan's feelings more than the whirligigs did.

"Buy a nice picter, marm?" said the Cheap Jack to Mrs. Lake, who, with the best intentions not to purchase, felt that there could be no harm in seeing what the man had got.

"You shall have 'Joseph and his Bretheren' cheap," roared the hunchback, becoming more pressing as the windmiller's wife seemed slow to be fascinated, and shaking "Joseph and his Brethren," framed in satin-wood, in her face, as he advanced upon her with an almost threatening air. "Don't want 'em? Take 'Antony and Cleopatterer.' It's a sweet picter. Too dear? Do you know what sech picters costs to paint? Look at Cleopatterer's dress and the jewels she has on. I don't make a farthing on 'em. I gets daily bread out of the other things, and only keeps the picters to oblige one or two ladies of taste that likes to give their rooms a genteel appearance."

The long disuse of such powers of judgment as she had, and long habit of always giving way, had helped to convert Mrs. Lake's naturally weak will and unselfish disposition into a sort of mental pulp, plastic to any pressure from without. To men she invariably yielded; and, poor specimen of a man as the Cheap Jack was, she had no fibre of personal judgment or decision in the strength of which to oppose his assertions, and every instant she became more and more convinced that wares she neither wanted nor approved of were necessary to her, and good bargains, because the man who sold them said so.

The Cheap Jack was a knave, but he was no fool. In a crowded market-place, or at a street door, no oilier tongue wagged than his. But he knew exactly the moment when a doubtful bargain might be clinched by a bullying tone and a fierce look on his dirty face, at cottage doors, on heaths or downs, when the good wife was alone with her children, and the nearest neighbor was half a mile away.

No length of experience taught Mrs. Lake wisdom in reference to the Cheap Jack.

Each time that his cart appeared in sight she resolved to have nothing to do with him, warned by the latest cracked jug, or the sugar-basin which, after three-quarters of an hour wasted in chaffering, she had beaten down to three-halfpence dearer than what she afterwards found to be the shop price in the town. But proof to the untrained mind is "as water spilled upon the ground." And when the Cheap Jack declared that she was quite free to look without buying, and that he did not want her to buy, Mrs. Lake allowed him to pull down his goods as before, and listened to his statements as if she had never proved them to be lies, and was thrown into confusion and fluster when he began to bully, and bought in haste to be rid of him, and repented at leisure--to no purpose as far as the future was concerned.

"Look here!" yelled the hunchback, as he waddled with horrible swiftness after the miller's wife, as she withdrew into the mill; "which do you mean to have? _I gets nothing on 'em, whichever you takes, so please yourself. Take 'Joseph and his Bretheren.' The frame's worth twice the money. Take the other, too, and I'll take sixpence off the pair, and be out of pocket to please you."

"Nothing to-day, thank you!" said Mrs. Lake, as loudly as she could.

"Got any other sort, you say?" said the Cheap Jack. "I've got all sorts, but some parties is so difficult to please.

"Wait a bit, wait a bit," he continued, as Mrs. Lake again tried to make him (willing to) hear that she wanted none of his wares; and, vanishing with the uncanny quickness common to him, he waddled swiftly back again to his cart, and returned, before Mrs. Lake could secure herself from intrusion, laden with a fresh supply of pictures, the weight of which it seemed marvellous that he could support.

"Now you've got your choice, marm," he said. "It's no trouble to me to oblige a good customer. There's picters for you!"

"PITCHERS!" said Jan, admiringly, as he crept up to them.

"So they are, my little man. Now then, help your mammy to choose. Most of these is things you can't get now, for love nor money. Here you are,--'Love and Beauty.' That's a sweet thing. 'St Joseph,' 'The Robber's Bride,' 'Child and Lamb,' 'Melan-choly.' Here's an old" -

"Pitcher!" exclaimed Jan once more, gazing at an old etching in a dirty frame, which the Cheap Jack was holding in his hand. "Pitcher, pitcher! let Jan look!" he cried.

It was of a water-mill, old, thatched, and with an unprotected wheel, like the one in the valley below. Some gnarled willows stretched across the water, whose trunks seemed hardly less time- worn and rotten than the wheel below. This foreground subject was in shadow, and strongly drawn, but beyond it, in the sunlight, lay a bit of delicate distance, on the rising ground of which stood one of those small wooden windmills known as Post-mills. An old woman and a child were just coming into the shade, and passing beneath a wayside shrine. What in the picture took Jan's fancy it is impossible to say, but he gazed at it with exclamations of delight.

The Cheap Jack saw that it was certain to be bought, and he raised the price accordingly.

Mrs. Lake felt the same conviction, and began to try at least to get a good bargain.

"'Tis a terr'ble old frame," said she. "There be no gold left on't." And no more there was.

"What do you say?" screamed the Cheap Jack, with his hand to his ear, and both a great deal too close to Mrs. Lake's face to be pleasant.

"'Tis such an old frame," she shouted, "and the gold be all gone."

"Old!" cried the hunchback, scowling; "who says I sell old things? Every picter in that lot's brand new and dirt cheap."

"The gold be rubbed off," screamed Mrs. Lake in his ear.

"Brighten it up, then," said the Cheap Jack. "Gold ain't paint; gold ain't paper; rub it up!" and, suiting the action to the word, he rubbed the dirty old frame vigorously with the dirty sleeve of his smock.

"It don't seem to brighten it, nohow," said Mrs. Lake, looking nervously round; but neither the miller nor George was to be seen.

"Real gold allus looks like this in damp weather," said the Cheap Jack. "Hang it up in a warm room, dust it lightly every morning with a dry handkerchief, an' it'll come out that shining you'll see your face in it. And when summer comes, cover it up in yaller gauze to keep off the flies."

Mrs. Lake looked wistfully at the place the Cheap Jack had rubbed, but she had no redress, and saw no way out of her hobble but to buy the picture.

When the bargain was completed, the Cheap Jack fell back into his oiliest manner; it being part of his system not only to bully at the critical moment, but to be very civil afterwards, so as to leave an impression so pleasant on the minds of his lady customers that they could hardly do other than thank him for his promise to call again shortly with "bargains as good as ever."

The Cheap Jack was a man of many voices. The softness of his parting words to Mrs. Lake, "I'd go three mile out of my road, ma'am, to call on a lady like you," had hardly died away, when he woke the echoes of the plains by addressing his horse in a very different tone.

The Wiltshire carters and horses have a language between them which falls darkly upon the ear of the unlearned therein; but the uncouth yell which the Cheap Jack addressed to his beast was not of that dialect. The sound he made on this occasion was not, Ga oot! Coom hedder! or, There right! but the horse understood it.

It is probable that it never heard the Cheap Jack's softer intonations, for its protuberant bones gave a quiver beneath the scarred skin as he yelled. Then its drooping ears pricked faintly, the quavering forelegs were braced, one desperate jog of the tottering load of oddities, and it set slowly and silently forward.

The Cheap Jack did not follow his wares; he scrambled softly round the mill, like a deformed cat, looking about him on all sides. Then he made use of another sound,--a sharp, suggestive sound, whistled between two of his fingers.

Then he looked round again.

No one appeared. The wheels of the distant cart scraped slowly along the road, but this was the only sound the Cheap Jack heard.

He whistled softly again.

And as the cart took the sharp turn of the road, and was lost to sight, the miller's man appeared, and the Cheap Jack greeted him in the softest tone he had yet employed. "Ah, there you are, my dear!"

Meanwhile, Mrs. Lake sat within, and looked ruefully at the damaged frame, and wished that the master, or at least the man, had happened to be at home.

It is to be feared that our self-reproach for having done wrong is not always so certain, or so keen, as our self-reproach for having allowed ourselves to suffer wrong--in a bad bargain.

Whether this particular picture was a bad bargain it is not easy to decide.

It was scandalously dear for its condition, and for what it had cost the hunchback, but it was cheap for the pleasure it gave to the little Jan.

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