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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWe And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 12
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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 12 Post by :tinabarr4 Category :Long Stories Author :Juliana Horatia Ewing Date :May 2012 Read :1968

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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 12

PART I CHAPTER XII

"GOD help me! save I take my part
Of danger on the roaring sea,
A devil rises in my heart,
Far worse than any death to me."
TENNYSON'S _Sailor-boy_.


The fact that my father had sent me back against my will to a school where I had suffered so much and learnt so little, ought perhaps to have drawn us together when he discovered his mistake. Unfortunately it did not. He was deeply annoyed with himself for having been taken in by Snuffy, but he transferred some of this annoyance to me, on grounds which cut me to the soul, and which I fear I resented so much that I was not in a mood that was favourable to producing a better understanding between us. The injustice which I felt so keenly was, that my father reproached me with having what he called "kept him in the dark" about the life at Crayshaw's. At my age I must have seen how wicked the man and his system were.

I reminded him that I had run away from them once, and had told all that I dared, but that he would not hear me then. He would not hear me now.

"I don't wish to discuss the subject. It is a very painful one," he said (and I believe it was as physically distressing to him as the thought of Cripple Charlie's malformation). "I have no wish to force your confidence when it is too late," he added (and it was this which I felt to be so hard). "I don't blame you; you have other friends who suit you better, but you have never been fully open with me. All I can say is, if Mr. Wood was better informed than I have been, and did not acquaint me, he has behaved in a manner which---- There--don't speak! we'll dismiss the subject. You have suffered enough, if you have not acted as I should have expected you to act. I blame myself unutterably, and I hope I see my way to such a comfortable and respectable start in life for you that these three years in that vile place may not be to your permanent disadvantage."

I was just opening my lips to thank him, when he got up and went to his tall desk, where he took a pinch of snuff, and then added as he turned away, "Thank GOD I have _one son who is frank with his father!"

My lips were sealed in an instant. This, then, was my reward for that hard journey of escape, with Jem on my back, which had only saved him; for having stifled envy in gladness for his sake, when (in those bits of our different holidays which overlapped each other) I saw and felt the contrast between our opportunities; for having suffered my harder lot in silence that my mother might not fret, when I felt certain that my father would not interfere! My heart beat as if it would have pumped the tears into my eyes by main force, but I kept them back, and said steadily enough, "Is that all, sir?"

My father did not look up, but he nodded his head and said, "Yes; you may go."

As I went he called me back.

"Are you going to the farm this afternoon?"

To my own infinite annoyance I blushed as I answered, "I was going to sit with Charlie a bit, unless you have any objection."

"Not at all. I only asked for information. I have no wish to interfere with any respectable friends you may be disposed to give your confidence to. But I should like it to be understood that either your mother or I must have some knowledge of your movements."

"Mother knew quite well I was going!" I exclaimed "Why, I've got a parcel to take to Mrs. Wood from her."

"Very good. There's no occasion to display temper. Shut the door after you."

I shut it very gently. (If three years at Crayshaw's had taught me nothing else, it had taught me much self-control.) Then I got away to the first hiding-place I could find, and buried my head upon my arms. Would not a beating from Snuffy have been less hard to bear? Surely sore bones from those one despises are not so painful as a sore heart from those one loves.

Our household affections were too sound at the core for the mere fact of displeasing my father not to weigh heavily on my soul. But I could not help defending myself in my own mind against what I knew to be injustice.

Jem "frank with his father"? Well he might be, when our father's partiality met him half-way at every turn. _That was no fancy of mine. I had the clearest of childish remembrances of an occasion when I wanted to do something which our farming-man thought my father would not approve, and how when I urged the fact that Jem had already done it with impunity, he shook his head wiseacrely, and said, "Aye, aye, Master Jack. But ye know they say some folks may steal a horse, when other folks mayn't look over the hedge."

The vagueness of "some folks" and "other folks" had left the proverb dark to my understanding when I heard it, but I remembered it till I understood it.

I never was really jealous of Jem. He was far too good-natured and unspoilt, and I was too fond of him. Besides which, if the mental tone of our country lives was at rather a dull level, it was also wholesomely unfavourable to the cultivation of morbid grievances, or the dissection of one's own hurt feelings. If I had told anybody about me, from my dear mother down to our farming-man, that I was misunderstood and wanted sympathy, I should probably have been answered that many a lad of my age was homeless and wanted boots. As a matter of reasoning the reply would have been defective, but for practical purposes it would have been much to the point. And it is fair to this rough-and-ready sort of philosophy to defend it from a common charge of selfishness. It was not that I should have been the happier because another lad was miserable, but that an awakened sympathy with his harder fate would tend to dwarf egotistic absorption in my own. Such considerations, in short, are no justification of those who are responsible for needless evil or neglected good, but they are handy helps to those who suffer from them, and who feel sadly sorry for themselves.

I am sure the early-begun and oft-reiterated teaching of daily thankfulness for daily blessing was very useful to me at Crayshaw's and has been useful to me ever since. With my dear mother herself it was merely part of that pure and constant piety which ran through her daily life, like a stream that is never frozen and never runs dry. In me it had no such grace, but it was an early-taught good habit (as instinctive as any bodily habit) to feel--"Well, I'm thankful things are not so with me;" as quickly as "Ah, it might have been thus!" Looking at the fates and fortunes and dispositions of other boys, I had, even at Snuffy's "much to be thankful for" as well as much to endure, and it was a good thing for me that I could balance the two. For if the grace of thankfulness does not solve the riddles of life, it lends a willing shoulder to its common burdens.

I certainly had needed all my philosophy at home as well as at school. It was hard to come back, one holiday-time after another, ignorant except for books that I devoured in the holidays, and for my own independent studies of maps, and an old geography book at Snuffy's from which I was allowed to give lessons to the lowest form; rough in looks, and dress, and manners (I knew it, but it requires some self-respect even to use a nail-brush, and self-respect was next door to impossible at Crayshaw's); and with my north-country accent deepened, and my conversation disfigured by slang which, not being fashionable slang, was as inadmissible as thieves' lingo; it was hard, I say, to come back thus, and meet dear old Jem, and generally one at least of his school-fellows whom he had asked to be allowed to invite--both of them well dressed, well cared for, and well mannered, full of games that were not in fashion at Crayshaw's, and slang as "correct" as it was unintelligible.

Jem's heart was as true to me as ever, but he was not so thin-skinned as I am. He was never a fellow who worried himself much about anything, and I don't think it struck him I could feel hurt or lonely. He would say, "I say, Jack, what a beastly way your hair is cut. I wish Father would let you come to our school:" or, "Don't say it was a dirty trick--say it was a beastly chouse, or something of that sort. We're awfully particular about talking at ----'s, and I don't want Cholmondley to hear you."

Jem was wonderfully polished-up himself, and as pugnacious on behalf of all the institutions of his school as he had once been about our pond. I got my hair as near right as one cutting and the town hair-cutter could bring it, and mended my manners and held my own with good temper. When it came to feats of skill or endurance, I more than held my own. Indeed, I so amazed one very "swell" little friend of Jem's whose mother (a titled lady) had allowed him to spend part of the summer holidays with Jem for change of air, that he vowed I must go and stay with him in the winter, and do juggler and acrobat at their Christmas theatricals. But he may have reported me as being rough as well as ready, for her ladyship never ratified the invitation. Not that I would have left home at Christmas, and not that I lacked pleasure in the holidays. But other fashions of games and speech and boyish etiquette lay between me and Jem; hospitality, if not choice, kept him closely with his school-fellows, and neither they nor he had part in the day-dreams of my soul.

For the spell of the Penny Numbers had not grown weaker as I grew older. In the holidays I came back to them as to friends. At school they made the faded maps on Snuffy's dirty walls alive with visions, and many a night as I lay awake with pain and over-weariness in the stifling dormitory, my thoughts took refuge not in dreams of home nor in castles of the air, but in phantom ships that sailed for ever round the world.

The day of the interview with my father I roused myself from my grievances to consider a more practical question. Why should I not go to sea? No matter whose fault it was, there was no doubt that I was ill-educated, and that I did not please my father as Jem did. On the other hand I was strong and hardy, nimble and willing to obey; and I had roughed it enough, in all conscience. I must have ill luck indeed, if I lit upon a captain more cruel than Mr. Crayshaw. I did not know exactly how it was to be accomplished, but I knew enough to know that I could not aim at the Royal Navy. Of course I should have preferred it. I had never seen naval officers, but if they were like officers in the army, like Colonel Jervois, for instance, it was with such a port and bearing that I would fain have carried myself when I grew up to be a man. I guessed, however, that money and many other considerations might make it impossible for me to be a midshipman; but I had heard of boys being apprenticed to merchant-vessels, and I resolved to ask my father if he would so apprentice me.

He refused, and he accompanied his refusal with an unfavourable commentary on my character and conduct, which was not the less bitter because the accusations were chiefly general.

This sudden fancy for the sea--well, if it were not a sudden fancy, but a dream of my life, what a painful instance it afforded of my habitual want of frankness!--This long-concealed project which I had suddenly brought to the surface--I had talked about it to my mother years ago, had I, but it had distressed her, and even to my father, but he had snubbed me?--then I had been deliberately fostering aims and plans to which I had always known that my parents would be opposed. My father didn't believe a word of it. It was the old story. I must be peculiar at any price. I must have something new to amuse me, and be unlike the rest of the family. It was always the same. For years I had found more satisfaction from the conversation of a man who had spent ten years of his life in the hulks than from that of my own father. Then this Indian Colonel had taken my fancy, and it had made him sick to see the womanish--he could call it no better, the _weak-womanish_--way in which I worshipped him. If I were a daughter instead of a son, my caprices would distress and astonish him less. He could have sent me to my mother, and my mother might have sent me to my needle. In a son, from whom he looked for manly feeling and good English common-sense, it was painful in the extreme. Vanity, the love of my own way, and want of candour--(my father took a pinch of snuff between each count of the indictment)--these were my besetting sins, and would lead me into serious trouble. This new fad, just, too, when he had made most favourable arrangements for my admission into my Uncle Henry's office as the first step in a prosperous career. I didn't know; didn't I? Perhaps not. Perhaps I had been at the Woods' when he and my mother were speaking of it. But now I did know. The matter was decided, and he hoped I should profit by my opportunities. I might go, and I was to shut the door after me.

I omit what my father said of the matter from a religious point of view, though he accused me of flying in the face of Providence as well as the Fifth Commandment. The piety which kept a pure and GOD-fearing atmosphere about my home, and to which I owe all the strength I have found against evil since I left it, was far too sincere in both my parents for me to speak of any phase of it with disrespect. Though I may say here that I think it is to be wished that more good people exercised judgment as well as faith in tracing the will of Heaven in their own. Practically I did not even then believe that I was more "called" to that station of life which was to be found in Uncle Henry's office, than to that station of life which I should find on board a vessel in the Merchant Service, and it only discredited truth in my inmost soul when my father put his plans for my career in that light. Just as I could not help feeling it unfair that a commandment which might have been fairly appealed to if I had disobeyed him, should be used against me in argument because I disagreed with him.

I did disagree with him utterly. Uncle Henry's office was a gloomy place, where I had had to endure long periods of waiting as a child when my mother took us in to the dentist, and had shopping and visiting of uncertain length to do. Uncle Henry himself was no favourite with me. He was harder than my father if you vexed him, and less genial when you didn't. And I wanted to go to sea. But it did not seem a light matter to me to oppose my parents, and they were both against me. My dear mother was thrown into the profoundest distress by the bare notion. In her view to be at sea was merely to run an imminent and ceaseless risk of shipwreck; and even this jeopardy of life and limb was secondary to the dangers that going ashore in foreign places would bring upon my mind and morals.

So when my father spoke kindly to me at supper, and said that he had arranged with Mr. Wood that I should read with him for two hours every evening, in preparation for my future life as an articled clerk, my heart was softened. I thanked him gratefully, and resolved for my own part to follow what seemed to be the plain path of duty, though it led to Uncle Henry's office, and not out into the world.

The capacity in which I began life in Uncle Henry's office was that of office boy, and the situation was attended in my case with many favourable conditions. Uncle Henry wished me to sleep on the premises, as my predecessor had done, but an accidental circumstance led to my coming home daily, which I infinitely preferred. This was nothing less than an outbreak of boils all over me, upon which, every domestic application having failed, and gallons of herb tea only making me worse, Dr. Brown was called in, and pronounced my health in sore need of restoration. The regimen of Crayshaw's was not to be recovered from in a day, and the old doctor would not hear of my living altogether in the town. If I went to the office at all, he said, I must ride in early, and ride out in the evening. So much fresh air and exercise were imperative, and I must eat two solid meals a day under no less careful an eye than that of my mother.

She was delighted. She thought (even more than usual) that Doctor Brown was a very Solomon in spectacles, and I quite agreed with her. The few words that followed gave a slight shock to her favourable opinion of his wisdom, but I need hardly say that it confirmed mine.

He had given me a kindly slap on the shoulder, which happened at that moment to be the sorest point in my body, and I was in no small pain from head to foot. I only tightened my lips, but I suppose he bethought himself of what he had done, and he looked keenly at me and said, "You can bear pain, Master Jack?"

"Oh, Jack's a very brave boy," said my dear mother. "Indeed, he's only too brave. He upset his father and me terribly last week by wanting to go to sea instead of to the office."

"And much better for him, ma'am," said the old doctor, promptly; "he'll make a first-rate sailor, and if Crayshaw's is all the schooling he's had, a very indifferent clerk."

"That's just what I think!" I began, but my mother coloured crimson with distress, and I stopped, and went after her worsted ball which she had dropped, whilst she appealed to Doctor Brown.

"Pray don't say so, Doctor Brown. Jack is _very good, and it's all _quite decided. I couldn't part with him, and his father would be _so annoyed if the subject----"

"Tut, tut, ma'am!" said the doctor, pocketing his spectacles; "I never interfere with family affairs, and I never repeat what I hear. The first rules of the profession, young gentleman, and very good general rules for anybody."

I got quite well again, and my new life began. I rode in and out of the town every day on Rob Roy, our red-haired pony. After tea I went to the farm to be taught by Mr. Wood, and at every opportunity I devoured such books as I could lay my hands on. I fear I had very little excuse for not being contented now. And yet I was not content.

It seems absurd to say that the drains had anything to do with it, but the horrible smell which pervaded the office added to the distastefulness of the place, and made us all feel ill and fretful, except my uncle, and Moses Benson, the Jew clerk. He was never ill, and he said he smelt nothing; which shows that one may have a very big nose to very little purpose.

My uncle pooh-poohed the unwholesome state of the office, for two reasons which certainly had some weight. The first was that he himself had been there for five-and-twenty years without suffering by it; and the second was, that the defects of drainage were so radical that (the place belonging to that period of house-building when the system of drainage was often worse than none at all) half the premises, if not half the street, would have to be pulled down for any effectual remedy. So it was left as it was, and when Mr. Burton, the head clerk, had worse headaches than usual, he used to give me sixpence for chloride of lime, which I distributed at my discretion, and on those days Moses Benson used generally to say that he "fancied he smelt something."

Moses Benson was an articled clerk to my uncle, but he had no pretensions to be considered a gentleman. His father kept a small shop where second-hand watches were the most obvious goods; but the old man was said to have money, though the watches did not seem to sell very fast, and his son had duly qualified for his post, and had paid a good premium. Moses was only two or three years older than I, not that I could have told anything about his age from his looks. He was sallow, and had a big nose; his hands were fat, his feet were small, and I think his head was large, but perhaps his hair made it look larger than it was, for it was thick and very black, and though it was curly, it was not like Jem's; the curls were more like short ringlets, and if he bent over his desk they hid his forehead, and when he put his head back to think, they lay on his coat-collar. And I suppose it was partly because he could not smell with his nose, that he used such very strong hair-oil, and so much of it. It used to make his coat-collar in a horrid state, but he always kept a little bottle of "scouring drops" on the ledge of his desk, and when it got very bad, I knelt behind him on the corner of his stool and scoured his coat-collar with a little bit of flannel. Not that I did it half so well as he could. He wore very odd-looking clothes, but he took great care of them, and was always touching them up, and "reviving" his hat with one of Mrs. O'Flannagan's irons. He used to sell bottles of the scouring drops to the other clerks, and once he got me to get my mother to buy some. He gave me a good many little odd jobs to do for him, but he always thanked me, and from the beginning to the end of our acquaintance he was invariably kind.

I remember a very odd scene that happened at the beginning of it.

Mr. Burton (the other clerk, whose time was to expire the following year, which was to make a vacancy for me) was a very different man from Moses Benson. He was respectably connected, and looked down on "the Jew-boy," but he was hot-tempered, and rather slow-witted, and I think Moses could manage him; and I think it was he who kept their constant "tiffs" from coming to real quarrels.

One day, very soon after I began office-life, Benson sent me out to get him some fancy notepaper, and when I came back I saw the red-haired Mr. Burton standing by the desk and looking rather more sickly and cross than usual. I laid down the paper and the change, and asked if Benson wanted anything else. He thanked me exceedingly kindly, and said, "No," and I went out of the enclosure and back to the corner where I had been cutting out some newspaper extracts for my uncle. At the same time I drew from under my overcoat which was lying there, an old railway volume of one of Cooper's novels which Charlie had lent me. I ought not to have been reading novels in office-hours, but I had had to stop short last night because my candle went out just at the most exciting point, and I had had no time to see what became of everybody before I started for town in the morning. I could bear suspense no longer, and plunged into my book.

How it was in these circumstances that I heard what the two clerks were saying, I don't know. They talked constantly in these open enclosures, when they knew I was within hearing. On this occasion I suppose they thought I had gone out, and it was some minutes before I discovered that they were talking of me. Burton spoke first, and in an irritated tone.

"You treat this young shaver precious different to the last one."

The Jew spoke very softly, and with an occasional softening of the consonants in his words. "How obsherving you are!" said he.

Burton snorted. "It don't take much observation to see that. But I suppose you have your reasons. You Jews are always so sly. That's how you get on so, I suppose."

"You Gentiles," replied Moses (and the Jew's voice had tones which gave him an infinite advantage in retaliating scorn), "you Gentiles would do as well as we do if you were able to foresee and knew how to wait. You have all the selfishness for success, my dear, but the gifts of prophecy and patience are wanting to you."

"That's nothing to do with your little game about the boy," said Burton; "however, I suppose you can keep your own secrets."

"I have no secrets," said Moses gently. "And if you take my advice, you never will have. If you have no secrets, my dear, they will never be found out. If you tell your little designs, your best friends will be satisfied, and will not invent less creditable ones for you."

"If they did, you'd talk 'em down," said Burton roughly. "Short of a woman I never met such a hand at jaw. You'll be in Parliament yet----" ("It is possible!" said the Jew hastily,) "with that long tongue of yours. But you haven't told us about the boy, for all you've said."

"About this boy," said Moses, "a proverb will be shorter than my jaw. 'The son of the house is not a servant for ever.' As to the other--he was taken for charity and dismissed for theft, is it not so? He came from the dirt, and he went back to the dirt. They often do. Why should I be civil to him?"

What reply Mr. Burton would have made to this question I had no opportunity of judging. My uncle called him, and he ran hastily up-stairs. And when he had gone, the Jew came slowly out, and crossed the office as if he were going into the street. By this time my conscience was pricking hard, and I shoved my book under my coat and called to him: "Mr. Benson."

"You?" he said.

"I am very sorry," I stammered, blushing, "but I heard what you were saying. I did not mean to listen. I thought you knew that I was there."

"It is of no importance," he said, turning away; "I have no secrets."

But I detained him.

"Mr. Benson! Tell me, please. You _were talking about me, weren't you? What did you mean about the son of the house not being a servant for ever?"

He hesitated for an instant, and then turned round and came nearer to me.

"It is true, is it not?" he said. "Next year you may be clerk. In time you may be your uncle's confidential clerk, which I should like to be myself. You may eventually be partner, as I should like to be; and in the long run you may succeed him, as I should like to do. It is a good business, my dear, a sound business, a business of which much, very much, more might be made. You might die rich, very rich. You might be mayor, you might be Member, you might--but what is the use? _You will not. You do not see it, though I am telling you. You will not wait for it, though it would come. What is that book you hid when I came in?"

"It is about North American Indians," said I, dragging it forth. "I am very sorry, but I left off last night at such an exciting bit."

The Jew was thumbing the pages, with his black ringlets close above them.

"Novels in office-hours!" said he; but he was very good-natured about it, and added, "I've one or two books at home, if you're fond of this kind of reading, and will promise me not to forget your duties."

"Oh, I promise!" said I.

"I'll put them under my desk in the corner," he said; "indeed, I would part with some of them for a trifle."

I thanked him warmly, but what he had said was still hanging in my mind, and I added, "Are there real prophets among the Jews now-a-days, Mr. Benson?"

"They will make nothing by it, if there are," said he; and there was a tone of mysteriousness in his manner of speaking which roused my romantic curiosity. "A few of ush (very few, my dear!) mould our own fates, and the lives of the rest are moulded by what men have within them rather than by what they find without. If there were a true prophet in every market-place to tell each man of his future, it would not alter the destinies of seven men in thish wide world."

As Moses spoke the swing door was pushed open, and one of my uncle's clients entered. He was an influential man, and a very tall one. The Jew bent his ringlets before him, almost beneath his elbow, and slipped out as he came in.

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