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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWe And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 13
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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 13 Post by :tinabarr4 Category :Long Stories Author :Juliana Horatia Ewing Date :May 2012 Read :969

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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 13

PART I CHAPTER XIII

"Then, hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away!
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day."--C. KINGSLEY.


Moses Benson was as good as his word in the matter of books of adventure. Dirty books, some without backs, and some with very greasy ones (for which, if I bought them, I seldom paid more than half-price), but full of dangers and discoveries, the mightiness of manhood, and the wonders of the world. I read them at odd moments of my working hours, and dreamed of them when I went home to bed. And it was more fascinating still to look out, with Charlie's help, in the Penny Numbers, for the foreign places, and people, and creatures mentioned in the tales, and to find that the truth was often stranger than the fiction.

To live a fancy-life of adventure in my own head, was not merely an amusement to me at this time--it was a refuge. Matters did not really improve between me and my father, though I had obeyed his wishes. It was by his arrangement that I spent so much of my time at home with the Woods, and yet it remained a grievance that I liked to do so. Whether my dear mother had given up all hopes of my becoming a genius I do not know, but my father's contempt for my absorption in a book was unabated. I felt this if he came suddenly upon me with my head in my hands and my nose in a tattered volume; and if I went on with my reading it was with a sense of being in the wrong, whilst if I shut up the book and tried to throw myself into outside interests, my father's manner showed me that my efforts had only discredited my candour.

As is commonly the case, it was chiefly little things that pulled the wrong way of the stuff of life between us, but they pulled it very much askew. I was selfishly absorbed in my own dreams, and I think my dear father made a mistake which is a too common bit of tyranny between people who love each other and live together. He was not satisfied with my _doing what he liked, he expected me to _be what he liked, that is, to be another person instead of myself. Wives and daughters seem now and then to respond to this expectation as to the call of duty, and to become inconsistent echoes, odd mixtures of severity and hesitancy, hypocrites on the highest grounds; but sons are not often so self-effacing, and it was not the case with me. It was so much the case with my dear mother, that she never was of the slightest use (which she might have been) when my father and I misunderstood each other. By my father's views of the moment she always hastily set her own, whether they were fair or unfair to me; and she made up for it by indulging me at every point that did not cross an expressed wish of my father's, or that could not annoy him because he was not there. She never held the scales between us.

And yet it was the thought of her which kept me from taking my fate into my own hands again and again. To have obeyed my father seemed to have done so little towards making him satisfied with me, that I found no consolation at home for the distastefulness of the office; and more than once I resolved to run away, and either enlist or go to Liverpool (which was at no great distance from us) and get on board some vessel that was about to sail for other lands. But when I thought of my mother's distress, I could not face it, and I let my half-formed projects slide again.

Oddly enough, it was Uncle Henry who brought matters to a crisis. I think my father was disappointed (though he did not blame me) that I secured no warmer a place in Uncle Henry's affections than I did. Uncle Henry had no children, and if he took a fancy to me and I pleased him, such a career as the Jew-clerk had sketched for me would probably be mine. This dawned on me by degrees through chance remarks from my father and the more open comments of friends. For good manners with us were not of a sensitively refined order, and to be clapped on the back with--"Well, Jack, you've got into a good berth, I hear. I suppose you look to succeed your uncle some day?" was reckoned a friendly familiarity rather than an offensive impertinence.

I learned that my parents had hoped that, as I was his nephew, Uncle Henry would take me as clerk without the usual premium. Indeed, when my uncle first urged my going to him, he had more than hinted that he should not expect a premium with his brother's son. But he was fond of his money (of which he had plenty), and when people are that, they are apt to begin to grudge, if there is time, between promise and performance. Uncle Henry had a whole year in which to think about foregoing two or three hundred pounds, and as it drew to a close, it seemed to worry him to such a degree, that he proposed to take me for half the usual premium instead of completely remitting it; and he said something about my being a stupid sort of boy, and of very little use to him for some time to come. He said it to justify himself for drawing back, I am quite sure, but it did me no good at home.

My father had plenty of honourable pride, and he would hear of no compromise. He said that he should pay the full premium for me that Uncle Henry's other clerks had had to pay, and from this no revulsion of feeling on my uncle's part would move him. He was quite bland with Uncle Henry, and he was not quite bland towards me.

When I fairly grasped the situation (and I contrived to get a pretty clear account of it from my mother), there rushed upon me the conviction that a new phase had come over my prospects. When I put aside my own longings for my father's will; and every time that office life seemed intolerable to me, and I was tempted to break my bonds, and thought better of it and settled down again, this thought had always remained behind: "I will try; and if the worst comes to the worst, and I really cannot settle down into a clerk, I can but run away then." But circumstances had altered my case, I felt that now I must make up my mind for good and all. My father would have to make some little sacrifices to find the money, and when it was once paid, I could not let it be in vain. Come what might, I must stick to the office then, and for life.

Some weeks passed whilst I was turning this over and over in my mind. I was constantly forgetting things in the office, but Moses Benson helped me out of every scrape. He was kinder and kinder, so that I often felt sorry that I could not feel fonder of him, and that his notions of fun and amusement only disgusted me instead of making us friends. They convinced me of one thing. My dear mother's chief dread about my going out of my own country was for the wicked ways I might learn in strange lands. A town with an unpronounceable name suggested foreign iniquities to her tender fears, but our own town, where she and everybody we knew bought everything we daily used, did not frighten her at all. I did not tell her, but I was quite convinced myself that I might get pretty deep into mischief in my idle hours, even if I lived within five miles of home, and had only my uncle's clerks for my comrades.

During these weeks Jem came home for the holidays. He was at a public school now, which many of our friends regarded as an extravagant folly on my father's part. We had a very happy time together, and this would have gone far to keep me at home, if it had not, at the same time, deepened my disgust with our town, and my companions in the office. In plain English, the training of two good schools, and the society of boys superior to himself, had made a gentleman of Jem, and the contrast between his looks and ways, and manners, and those of my uncle's clerks were not favourable to the latter. How proud my father was of him! With me he was in a most irritable mood; and one grumble to which I heard him give utterance, that it was very inconvenient to have to pay this money just at the most expensive period of Jem's education, went heavily into the scale for running away. And that night, as it happened, Jem and I sat up late, and had a long and loving chat. He abused the office to my heart's content, and was very sympathetic when I told him that I had wished to go to sea, and how my father had refused to allow me.

"I think he made a great mistake," said Jem; and he told me of "a fellow's brother" that he knew about, who was in the Merchant Service, and how well he was doing. "It's not even as if Uncle Henry were coming out generously," he added.

Dear, dear! How pleasant it was to hear somebody else talk on my side of the question. And who was I that I should rebuke Jem for calling our worthy uncle a curmudgeon, and stigmatising the Jew-clerk as a dirty beast? I really dared not tell him that Moses grew more familiar as my time to be articled drew near; that he called me Jack Sprat, and his dearest friend, and offered to procure me the "silver-top" (or champagne)--which he said I must "stand" on the day I took my place at the fellow desk to his--of the first quality and at less than cost price; and that he had provided me gratis with a choice of "excuses" (they were unblushing lies) to give to our good mother for spending that evening in town, and "having a spree."

From my affairs we came to talk of Jem's, and I found that even he, poor chap! was not without his troubles. He confided to me, with many expressions of shame and vexation, that he had got into debt, but having brought home good reports and even a prize on this occasion, he hoped to persuade my father to pay what he owed.

"You see, Jack, he's awfully good to me, but he will do things his own way, and what's worse, the way they were done in his young days. You remember the row we had about his giving me an allowance? He didn't want to, because he never had one, only tips from his governor when the old gentleman was pleased with him. And he said it was quite enough to send me to such a good and expensive school, and I ought to think of that, and not want more because I had got much. We'd an awful row, for I thought it was so unfair his making out I was greedy and ungrateful, and I told him so, and I said I was quite game to go to a cheap school if he liked, only wherever I was I did want to be 'like the other fellows.' I begged him to take me away and to let me go somewhere cheap with you; and I said, if the fellows there had no allowances, we could do without. As I told him, it's not the beastly things that you buy that you care about, only of course you don't like to be the only fellow who can't buy 'em. So then he came round, and said I should have an allowance, but I must do with a very small one. So I said, Very well, then I mustn't go in for the games. Then he wouldn't have that; so then I made out a list of what the subscriptions are to cricket, and so on, and then your flannels and shoes, and it came to double what he offered me. He said it was simply disgraceful that boys shouldn't be able to be properly educated, and have an honest game at cricket for the huge price he paid, without the parents being fleeced for all sorts of extravagances at exorbitant prices. And I know well enough it's disgraceful, what we have to pay for school books and for things of all sorts you have to get in the town; but, as I said to the governor, why don't you kick up a dust with the head master, or write to the papers--what's the good of rowing us? One must have what other fellows have, and get 'em where other fellows get 'em. But he never did--I wish he would. I should enjoy fighting old Pompous if I were in his place. But they're as civil as butter to each other, and then old Pompous goes on feathering his nest, and backing up the tradespeople, and the governor pitches into the young men of the present day."

"He did give you the bigger allowance, didn't he?" said I, at this pause in Jem's rhetoric.

"Yes, he did. He's awfully good to me. But you know, Jack, he never paid it quite all, and he never paid it quite in time. I found out from my mother he did it on purpose to make me value it more, and be more careful. Doesn't it seem odd he shouldn't see that I can't pay the subscriptions a few shillings short or a few days late? One must find the money somehow, and then one has to pay for that, and then you're short, and go on tick, and it runs up, and then they dun you, and you're cleaned out, and there you are!"

At which climax old Jem laid his curly head on his arms, and I began to think very seriously.

"How much do you owe?"

Jem couldn't say. He thought he could reckon up, so I got a pencil and made a list from his dictation, and from his memory, which was rather vague. When it was done (and there seemed to be a misty margin beyond), I was horrified. "Why, my dear fellow!" I exclaimed, "if you'd had your allowance ever so regularly, it wouldn't have covered this sort of thing."

"I know, I know," said poor Jem, clutching remorsefully at his curls. "I've been a regular fool! Jack! whatever you do--never tick. It's the very mischief. You never know what you owe, and so you feel vague and order more. And you never know what you don't owe, which is worse, for sometimes you're in such despair, it would be quite a relief to catch some complaint and die. It's like going about with a stone round your neck, and nobody kind enough to drown you. I can't stand any more of it. I shall make a clean breast to Father, and if he can't set me straight, I won't go back; I'll work on the farm sooner, and let him pay my bills instead of my schooling--and serve old Pompous right."

Poor Jem! long after he had cheered up and gone to bed, I sat up and thought. When my premium was paid where was the money for Jem's debts to come from? And would my father be in the humour to pay them? If he did not, Jem would not go back to school. Of that I was quite certain. Jem had thought over his affairs, which was an effort for him, but he always thought in one direction. His thoughts never went backwards and forwards as mine did. If he had made up his mind, there was no more prospect of his changing it than if he had been my father. And if the happy terms between them were broken, and Jem's career checked when he was doing so well!--the scales that weighed my own future were becoming very uneven now.

I clasped my hands and thought. If I ran away, the money would be there for Jem's debts, and his errors would look pale in the light of my audacity, and he would be dearer than ever at home, whilst for me were freedom, independence (for I had not a doubt of earning bread-and-cheese, if only as a working man): perhaps a better understanding with my father when I had been able to prove my courage and industry, or even when he got the temperate and dutiful letter I meant to post to him when I was fairly off; and beyond all, the desire of my eyes, the sight of the world.

Should I stay now? And for what? To see old Jem at logger-heads with my father, and perhaps demoralized by an inferior school? To turn my own back and shut my eyes for ever on all that the wide seas embrace; my highest goal to be to grow as rich as Uncle Henry or richer, and perhaps as mean or meaner? Should I choose for life a life I hated, and set seals to my choice by drinking silver-top with the Jew-clerk?--No, Moses, no!

* * * * *

I got up soon after dawn and was in the garden at sunrise the morning that I ran away. I had made my plans carefully, and carried them out, so far with success.

Including the old miser's bequest which his lawyer had paid, there were thirteen pounds to my name in the town savings-bank, and this sum I had drawn out to begin life with. I wrapped a five-pound note in a loving letter to Jem, and put both into the hymn-book on his shelf--I knew it would not be opened till Sunday. Very few runaways have as much as eight pounds to make a start with: and as one could not be quite certain how my father would receive Jem's confession, I thought he might be glad of a few pounds of his own, and I knew he had spent his share of the miser's money long ago.

I meant to walk to a station about seven miles distant, and there take train for Liverpool. I should be clumsy indeed, I thought, if I could not stow away on board some vessel, as hundreds of lads had done before me, and make myself sufficiently useful to pay my passage when I was found out.

When I got into the garden I kicked my foot against something in the grass. It was my mother's little gardening-fork. She had been tidying her pet perennial border, and my father had called her hastily, and she had left it half finished, and had forgotten the fork. A few minutes more or less were of no great importance to me, for it was very early, so I finished the border quite neatly, and took the fork indoors.

I put it in a corner of the hall where the light was growing stronger and making familiar objects clear. In a house like ours and amongst people like us, furniture was not chopped and changed and decorated as it is now. The place had looked like this ever since I could remember, and it would look like this tomorrow morning, though my eyes would not see it. I stood stupidly by the hall table where my father's gloves lay neatly one upon the other beside his hat. I took them up, almost mechanically, and separated them, and laid them together again finger to finger, and thumb to thumb, and held them with a stupid sort of feeling, as if I could never put them down and go away.

What would my father's face be like when he took them up this very morning to go out and look for me? and when--oh when!--should I see his face again?

I began to feel what one is apt to learn too late, that in childhood one takes the happiness of home for granted, and kicks against the pricks of its grievances, not having felt the far harder buffetings of the world. Moreover (which one does not think of then), that parental blunders and injustices are the mistakes and tyrannies of a special love that one may go many a mile on one's own wilful way and not meet a second time. Who--in the wide world--would care to be bothered with my confidence, and blame me for withholding it? Should I meet many people to whom it would matter if we misunderstood each other? Would anybody hereafter love me well enough to be disappointed in me? Would other men care so much for my fate as to insist on guiding it by lines of their own ruling?

I pressed the gloves passionately against my eyes to keep in the tears. If my day-dreams had been the only question, I should have changed my mind now. If the home grievances had been all, I should have waited for time and patience to mend them. I could not have broken all these heart-strings. I should never have run away. But there was much more, and my convictions were not changed, though I felt as if I might have managed better as regards my father.

Would he forgive me? I hoped and believed so. Would my mother forgive me? I knew she would--as GOD forgives.

And with the thought of her, I knelt down, and put my head on the hall table and prayed from my soul--not for fair winds, and prosperous voyages, and good luck, and great adventures; but that it might please GOD to let me see Home again, and the faces that I loved, ah, so dearly, after all!

And then I got up, and crossed the threshold, and went out into the world.

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