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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWe And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 3
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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 3 Post by :tinabarr4 Category :Long Stories Author :Juliana Horatia Ewing Date :May 2012 Read :497

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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 3

PART I CHAPTER III

"What are little boys made of, made of?
What are little boys made of?"
Nursery Rhyme.

When the school was opened, Jem and I were sent there at once. Everybody said it was "time we were sent somewhere," and that "we were getting too wild for home."

I got so tired of hearing this at last, that one day I was goaded to reply that "home was getting too tame for me." And Jem, who always backed me up, said, "And me too." For which piece of swagger we forfeited our suppers; but when we went to bed we found pieces of cake under our pillows, for my mother could not bear us to be short of food, however badly we behaved.

I do not know whether the trousers had anything to do with it, but about the time that Jem and I were put into trousers we lived in a chronic state of behaving badly. What makes me feel particularly ashamed in thinking of it is, that I know it was not that we came under the pressure of any overwhelming temptations to misbehave and yielded through weakness, but that, according to an expressive nursery formula, we were "seeing how naughty we could be." I think we were genuinely anxious to see this undesirable climax; in some measure as a matter of experiment, to which all boys are prone, and in which dangerous experiments, and experiments likely to be followed by explosion, are naturally preferred. Partly, too, from an irresistible impulse to "raise a row," and take one's luck of the results. This craving to disturb the calm current of events, and the good conduct and composure of one's neighbours as a matter of diversion, must be incomprehensible by phlegmatic people, who never feel it, whilst some Irishmen, I fancy, never quite conquer it, perhaps because they never quite cease to be boys. In any degree I do not for an instant excuse it, and in excess it must be simply intolerable by better-regulated minds.

But really, boys who are pickles should be put into jars with sound stoppers, like other pickles, and I wonder that mothers and cooks do not get pots like those that held the forty thieves, and do it.

I fancy it was because we happened to be in this rough, defiant, mischievous mood, just about the time that Mrs. Wood opened her school, that we did not particularly like our school-mistress. If I had been fifteen years older, I should soon have got beyond the first impression created by her severe dress, close widow's cap and straight grey hair, and have discovered that the outline of her face was absolutely beautiful, and I might possibly have detected, what most people failed to detect, that an odd unpleasing effect, caused by the contrast between her general style, and an occasional lightness and rapidity and grace of movement in her slender figure, came from the fact that she was much younger than she looked and affected to be. The impression I did receive of her appearance I communicated to my mother in far from respectful pantomime.

"Well, love, and what do you think of Mrs. Wood?" said she.

"I think," chanted I, in that high brassy pitch of voice which Jem and I had adopted for this bravado period of our existence--"I think she's like our old white hen that turned up its eyes and died of the pip. Lack-a-daisy-dee! Lack-a-daisy-dee!"

And I twisted my body about, and strolled up and down the room with a supposed travesty of Mrs. Wood's movements.

"So she is," said faithful Jem. "Lack-a-daisy-dee! Lack-a-daisy-dee!" and he wriggled about after me, and knocked over the Berlin wool-basket.

"Oh dear, oh dear!" said our poor mother.

Jem righted the basket, and I took a run and a flying leap over it, and having cleared it successfully, took another, and yet another, each one soothing my feelings to the extent by which it shocked my mother's. At the third bound, Jem, not to be behindhand, uttered a piercing yell from behind the sofa.

"Good gracious, what's the matter?" cried my mother.

"It's the war-whoop of the Objibeway Indians," I promptly explained, and having emitted another, to which I flattered myself Jem's had been as nothing for hideousness, we departed in file to raise a row in the kitchen.

Summer passed into autumn. Jem and I really liked going to school, but it was against our principles at that time to allow that we liked anything that we ought to like.

Some sincere but mistaken efforts to improve our principles were made, I remember, by a middle-aged single lady, who had known my mother in her girlhood, and who was visiting her at this unlucky stage of our career. Having failed to cope with us directly, she adopted the plan of talking improvingly to our mother and at us, and very severe some of her remarks were, and I don't believe that Mother liked them any better than we did.

The severest she ever made were I think heightened in their severity by the idea that we were paying unusual attention, as we sat on the floor a little behind her one day. We were paying a great deal of attention, but it was not so much to Miss Martin as to a stock of wood-lice which I had collected, and which I was arranging on the carpet that Jem might see how they roll themselves into smooth tight balls when you tease them. But at last she talked so that we could not help attending. I dared not say anything to her, but her own tactics were available. I put the wood-lice back in my pocket, and stretching my arms yawningly above my head, I said to Jem, "How dull it is! I wish I were a bandit."

Jem generally outdid me if possible, from sheer willingness and loyalty of spirit.

"_I should like to be a burglar," said he.

And then we both left the room very quietly and politely. But when we got outside I said, "I hate that woman."

"So do I," said Jem; "she regularly hectors over mother--I hate her worst for that."

"So do I. Jem, doesn't she take pills?"

"I don't know--why?"

"I believe she does; I'm certain I saw a box on her dressing-table. Jem, run like a good chap and see, and if there is one, empty out the pills and bring me the pill-box."

Jem obeyed, and I sat down on the stairs and began to get the wood-lice out again. There were twelve nice little black balls in my hand when Jem came back with the pill-box.

"Hooray!" I cried; "but knock out all the powder, it might smother them. Now, give it to me."

Jem danced with delight when I put the wood-lice in and put on the lid.

"I hope she'll shake the box before she opens it," I said, as we replaced it on the dressing-table.

"I hope she will, or they won't be tight. Oh, Jack! Jack! _How many do you suppose she takes at a time?_"

We never knew, and what is more, we never knew what became of the wood-lice, for, for some reason, she kept our counsel as well as her own about the pill-box.

One thing that helped to reconcile us to spending a good share of our summer days in Walnut-tree Academy was that the school-mistress made us very comfortable. Boys at our age are not very sensitive about matters of taste and colour and so forth, but even we discovered that Mrs. Wood had that knack of adapting rooms to their inhabitants, and making them pleasant to the eye, which seems to be a trick at the end of some people's fingers, and quite unlearnable by others. When she had made the old miser's rooms to her mind, we might have understood, if we had speculated about it, how it was that she had not profited by my mother's sound advice to send all his "rubbishy odds and ends" (the irregularity and ricketiness and dustiness of which made my mother shudder) to be "sold at the nearest auction-rooms, and buy some good solid furniture of the cabinet-maker who furnished for everybody in the neighbourhood, which would be the cheapest in the long-run, besides making the rooms look like other people's at last." That she evaded similar recommendations of paperhangers and upholsterers, and of wall-papers and carpets, and curtains with patterns that would "stand," and wear best, and show dirt least, was a trifle in the eyes of all good housekeepers, when our farming-man's daughter brought the amazing news with her to Sunday tea, that "the missus" had had in old Sally, and had torn the paper off the parlour, and had made Sally "lime-wash the walls, for all the world as if it was a cellar." Moreover, she had "gone over" the lower part herself, and was now painting on the top of that. There was nothing for it, after this news, but to sigh and conclude that there was something about the old place which made everybody a little queer who came to live in it.

But when Jem and I saw the parlour (which was now the school-room), we decided that it "looked very nice," and was "uncommonly comfortable." The change was certainly amazing, and made the funeral day seem longer ago than it really was. The walls were not literally lime-washed; but (which is the same thing, except for a little glue!) they were distempered, a soft pale pea-green. About a yard deep above the wainscot this was covered with a dark sombre green tint, and along the upper edge of this, as a border all round the room, the school-mistress had painted a trailing wreath of white periwinkle. The border was painted with the same materials as the walls, and with very rapid touches. The white flowers were skilfully relieved by the dark ground, and the varied tints of the leaves, from the deep evergreen of the old ones to the pale yellow of the young shoots, had demanded no new colours, and were wonderfully life-like and pretty. There was another border, right round the top of the room; but that was painted on paper and fastened on. It was a Bible text--"Keep Innocency, and take heed to the thing that is right, for that shall bring a man Peace at the last." And Mrs. Wood had done the text also.

There were no curtains to the broad, mullioned window, which was kept wide open at every lattice; and one long shoot of ivy that had pushed in farther than the rest had been seized, and pinned to the wall inside, where its growth was a subject of study and calculation, during the many moments when we were "trying to see" how little we could learn of our lessons. The black-board stood on a polished easel; but the low seats and desks were of plain pine like the floor, and they were scrupulously scrubbed. The cool tint of the walls was somewhat cheered by coloured maps and prints, and the school-mistress's chair (an old carved oak one that had been much revived by bees-wax and turpentine since the miser's days) stood on the left-hand side of the window--under "Keep Innocency," and looking towards "Peace at the last." I know, for when we were all writing or something of that sort, so that she could sit still, she used to sit with her hands folded and look up at it, which was what made Jem and me think of the old white hen that turned up its eyes; and made Horace Simpson say that he believed she had done one of the letters wrong, and could not help looking at it to see if it showed. And by the school-mistress's chair was the lame boy's sofa. It was the very old sofa covered with newspapers on which I had read about the murder, when the lawyer was reading the will. But she had taken off the paper, and covered it with turkey red, and red cushions, and a quilt of brown holland and red bordering, to hide his crumpled legs, so that he looked quite comfortable.

I remember so well the first day that he came. His father was a parson on the moors, and this boy had always wanted to go to school in spite of his infirmity, and at last his father brought him in a light cart down from the moors, to look at it; and when he got him out of the cart, he carried him in. He was a big man, I remember, with grey hair and bent shoulders, and a very old coat, for it split a little at one of the seams as he was carrying him in, and we laughed.

When they got into the room, he put the boy down, keeping his arm round him, and wiped his face and said--"How deliciously cool!"--and the boy stared all round with his great eyes, and then he lifted them to his father's face and said--"I'll come here. I do like it. But not to-day, my back is so bad."

And what makes me know that Horace was wrong, and that Mrs. Wood had made no mistake about the letters of the text, is that "Cripple Charlie"--as we called him--could see it so well with lying down. And he told me one day that when his back was very bad, and he got the fidgets and could not keep still, he used to fix his eyes on "Peace," which had gold round the letters, and shone, and that if he could keep steadily to it, for a good bit, he always fell asleep at the last. But he was very fanciful, poor chap!

I do not think it was because Jem and I had any real wish to become burglars that we made a raid on the walnuts that autumn. I do not even think that we cared very much about the walnuts themselves.

But when it is understood that the raid was to be a raid by night, or rather in those very early hours of the morning which real burglars are said almost to prefer; that it was necessary to provide ourselves with thick sticks; that we should have to force the hedge and climb the trees; that the said trees grew directly under the owner's bedroom window, which made the chances of detection hazardously great; and that walnut juice (as I have mentioned before) is of a peculiarly unaccommodating nature, since it will neither disguise you at the time nor wash off afterwards--it will be obvious that the dangers and delights of the adventure were sufficient to blunt, for the moment, our sense of the fact that we were deliberately going a-thieving.

"Shall we wear black masks?" said Jem.

On the whole I said "No," for I did not know where we should get them, nor, if we did, how we should keep them on.

"If she has a blunderbuss, and fires," said I, "you must duck your head, remember; but if she springs the rattle we must cut and run."

"Will her blunderbuss be loaded, do you think?" asked Jem. "Mother says the one in _their room isn't; she told me so on Saturday. But she says we're never to touch it, all the same, for you never can be sure about things of that sort going off. Do you think Mrs. Wood's will be loaded?"

"It may be," said I, "and of course she might load it if she thought she heard robbers."

"I heard father say that if you shoot a burglar outside it's murder," said Jem, who seemed rather troubled by the thought of the blunderbuss; "but if you shoot him inside it's self-defence."

"Well, you may spring a rattle outside, anyway," said I; "and if hers makes as much noise as ours, it'll be heard all the way here. So mind, if she begins, you must jump down and cut home like mad."

Armed with these instructions and our thick sticks, Jem and I crept out of the house before the sun was up or a bird awake. The air seemed cold after our warm beds, and the dew was so drenching in the hedge bottoms, and on the wayside weeds of our favourite lane, that we were soaked to the knees before we began to force the hedge. I did not think that grass and wild-flowers could have held so much wet. By the time that we had crossed the orchard, and I was preparing to grip the grandly scored trunk of the nearest walnut-tree with my chilly legs, the heavy peeling, the hard cracking, and the tedious picking of a green walnut was as little pleasurable a notion as I had in my brain.

All the same, I said (as firmly as my chattering teeth would allow) that I was very glad we had come when we did, for that there certainly were fewer walnuts on the tree than there had been the day before.

"She's been at them," said I, almost indignantly.

"Pickling," responded Jem with gloomy conciseness; and spurred by this discovery to fresh enthusiasm for our exploit, we promptly planned operations.

"I'll go up the tree," said I, "and beat, and you can pick them as they fall."

Jem was, I fear, only too well accustomed to my arrogating the first place in our joint undertakings, and after giving me "a leg up" to an available bit of foothold, and handing up my stick, he waited patiently below to gather what I beat down.

The walnuts were few and far between, to say nothing of leaves between, which in walnut-trees are large. The morning twilight was dim, my hands were cold and feebler than my resolution. I had battered down a lot of leaves and twigs, and two or three walnuts; the sun had got up at last, but rather slowly, as if he found the morning chillier than he expected, and a few rays were darting here and there across the lane, when Jem gave a warning "Hush!" and I left off rustling in time to hear Mrs. Wood's bedroom lattice opened, and to catch sight of something pushed out into the morning mists.

"Who's there?" said the school-mistress.

Neither Jem nor I took upon us to inform her, and we were both seized with anxiety to know what was at the window. He was too low down and I too much buried in foliage to see clearly. Was it the rattle? I took a hasty step downwards at the thought. Or was it the blunderbuss? In my sudden move I slipped on the dew-damped branch, and cracked a rotten one with my elbow, which made an appalling crash in the early stillness, and sent a walnut--pop! on to Jem's hat, who had already ducked to avoid the fire of the blunderbuss, and now fell on his face under the fullest conviction that he had been shot.

"Who's there?" said the school-mistress, and (my tumble having brought me into a more exposed position) she added, "Is that you, Jack and Jem?"

"It's me," said I, ungrammatically but stoutly, hoping that Jem at any rate would slip off.

But he had recovered himself and his loyalty, and unhesitatingly announced, "No, it's me," and was picking the bits of grass off his cheeks and knees when I got down beside him.

"I'm sorry you came to take my walnuts like this," said the voice from above. She had a particularly clear one, and we could hear it quite well. "I got a basketful on purpose for you yesterday afternoon. If I let it down by a string, do you think you can take it?"

Happily she did not wait for a reply, as we could not have got a word out between us; but by and by the basketful of walnuts was pushed through the lattice and began to descend. It came slowly and unsteadily, and we had abundant leisure to watch it, and also, as we looked up, to discover what it was that had so puzzled me in Mrs. Wood's appearance--that when I first discovered that it was a head and not a blunderbuss at the window I had not recognized it for hers.

She was without her widow's cap, which revealed the fact that her hair, though the two narrow, smooth bands of it which appeared every day beyond her cap were unmistakably grey, was different in some essential respects from (say) Mrs. Jones's, our grey-haired washer-woman. The more you saw of Mrs. Jones's head, the less hair you perceived her to have, and the whiter that little appeared. Indeed, the knob into which it was twisted at the back was much of the colour as well as of the size of a tangled reel of dirty white cotton. But Mrs. Wood's hair was far more abundant than our mother's, and it was darker underneath than on the top--a fact which was more obvious when the knot into which it was gathered in her neck was no longer hidden. Deep brown streaks were mingled with the grey in the twists of this, and I could see them quite well, for the outline of her head was dark against the white-washed mullion of the window, and framed by ivy-leaves. As she leaned out to lower the basket we could see her better and better, and, as it touched the ground, the jerk pulled her forward, and the knot of her hair uncoiled and rolled heavily over the window-sill.

By this time the rays of the sun were level with the windows, and shone full upon Mrs. Wood's face. I was very much absorbed in looking at her, but I could not forget our peculiar position, and I had an important question to put, which I did without more ado.

"Please, madam, shall you tell Father?"

"We only want to know," added Jem.

She hesitated a minute, and then smiled. "No; I don't think you'll do it again;" after which she disappeared.

"She's certainly no sneak," said I, with an effort to be magnanimous, for I would much rather she had sprung the rattle or fired the blunderbuss.

"And I say," said Jem, "isn't she pretty without her cap?"

We looked ruefully at the walnuts. We had lost all appetite for them, and they seemed disgustingly damp, with their green coats reeking with black bruises. But we could not have left the basket behind, so we put our sticks through the handles, and carried it like the Sunday picture of the spies carrying the grapes of Eshcol.

And Jem and I have often since agreed that we never in all our lives felt so mean as on that occasion, and we sincerely hope that we never may.

Indeed, it is only in some books and some sermons that people are divided into "the wicked" and "the good," and that "the wicked" have no consciences at all. Jem and I had wilfully gone thieving, but we were far from being utterly hardened, and the school-mistress's generosity weighed heavily upon ours. Repentance and the desire to make atonement seem to go pretty naturally together, and in my case they led to the following dialogue with Jem, on the subject of two exquisite little bantam hens and a cock, which were our joint property, and which were known in the farmyard as "the Major and his wives."

These titles (which vexed my dear mother from the first) had suggested themselves to us on this wise. There was a certain little gentleman who came to our church, a brewer by profession, and a major in the militia by choice, who was so small and strutted so much that to the insolent observation of boyhood he was "exactly like" our new bantam cock. Young people are very apt to overhear what is not intended for their knowledge, and somehow or other we learned that he was "courting" (as his third wife) a lady of our parish. His former wives are buried in our churchyard. Over the first he had raised an obelisk of marble, so costly and affectionate that it had won the hearts of his neighbours in general, and of his second wife in particular. When she died the gossips wondered whether the Major would add her name to that of her predecessor, or "go to the expense" of a new monument. He erected a second obelisk, and it was taller than the first (height had a curious fascination for him), and the inscription was more touching than the other. This time the material was Aberdeen granite, and as that is most difficult to cut, hard to polish, and heavy to transport, the expense was enormous. These two monstrosities of mortuary pomp were the pride of the parish, and they were familiarly known to us children (and to many other people) as "the Major's wives."

When we called the cock "the Major," we naturally called the hens "the Major's wives."

"My dears, I don't like that name at all," said my mother. "I never like jokes about people who are dead. And for that matter, it really sounds as if they were both alive, which is worse."

It was during our naughty period, and I strutted on my heels till I must have looked very like the little brewer himself, and said, "And why shouldn't they both be alive? Fancy the Major with two wives, one on each arm, and both as tall as the monuments! What fun!"

As I said the words "one on each arm," I put up first one and then the other of my own, and having got a satisfactory impetus during the rest of my sentence, I crossed the parlour as a catherine-wheel under my mother's nose. It was a new accomplishment, of which I was very proud, and poor Jem somewhat envious. He was clumsy and could not manage it.

"Oh!" ejaculated my mother, "Jack, I must speak to your father about those dangerous tricks of yours. And it quite shocks me to hear you talk in that light way about wicked things."

Jem was to my rescue in a moment, driving his hands into the pockets of his blouse, and turning them up to see how soon he might hope that his fingers would burst through the lining.

"Jacob had two wives," he said; and he chanted on, quoting imperfectly from Dr. Watts's _Scripture Catechism_, "And Jacob was a good man, therefore his brother hated him."

"No, no, Jem," said I, "that was Abel. Jacob was Isaac's younger son, and----"

"Hush! Hush! Hush!" said my mother. "You're not to do Sunday lessons on week-days. What terrible boys you are!" And, avoiding to fight about Jacob's wives with Jem, who was pertinacious and said very odd things, my mother did what women often do and are often wise in doing--she laid down her weapons and began to beseech.

"My darlings, call your nice little hens some other names. Poor old mother doesn't like those."

I was melted in an instant, and began to cast about in my head for new titles. But Jem was softly obstinate, and he had inherited some of my mother's wheedling ways. He took his hands from his pockets, flung his arms recklessly round her clean collar, and began stroking (or _pooring_, as we called it) her head with his grubby paws. And as he _poored he coaxed--"Dear nice old mammy! It's only us. What can it matter? Do let us call our bantams what we like."

And my mother gave in before I had time to.

The dialogue I held with Jem about the bantams after the walnut raid was as follows:

"Jem, you're awfully fond of the 'Major and his wives,' I suppose?"

"Ye-es," said Jem, "_I am_. But I don't mind, Jack, if you want them for your very own. I'll give up my share,"--and he sighed.

"I never saw such a good chap as you are, Jem. But it's not that. I thought we might give them to Mrs. Wood. It was so beastly about those disgusting walnuts."

"I can't touch walnut pickle now," said Jem, feelingly.

"It'd be a very handsome present," said I.

"They took a prize at the Agricultural," said Jem.

"I know she likes eggs. She beats 'em into a froth and feeds Charlie with 'em," said I.

"I think I could eat walnut pickle again if I knew she had the bantams," sighed Jem, who was really devoted to the little cock-major and the auburn-feathered hens.

"We'll take 'em this afternoon," I said.

We did so--in a basket, Eshcol-grape wise, like the walnuts. When we told Mother, she made no objection. She would have given her own head off her shoulders if, by ill-luck, any passer-by had thought of asking for it. Besides, it solved the difficulty of the objectionable names.

Mrs. Wood was very loth to take our bantams, but of course Jem and I were not going to recall a gift, so she took them at last, and I think she was very much pleased with them.

She had got her cap on again, tied under her chin, and nothing to be seen of her hair but the very grey piece in front. It made her look so different that I could not keep my eyes off her whilst she was talking, though I knew quite well how rude it is to stare. And my head got so full of it that I said at last, in spite of myself, "Please, madam, why is it that part of your hair is grey and part of it dark?"

Her face got rather red, she did not answer for a minute; and Jem, to my great relief, changed the subject, by saying, "We were very much obliged to you for not telling Father about the walnuts."

Mrs. Wood leaned back against the high carving of her old chair and smiled, and said very slowly, "Would he have been very angry?"

"He'd have flogged us, I expect," said I.

"And I expect," continued Jem, "that he'd have said to us what he said to Bob Furniss when he took the filberts: 'If you begin by stealing nuts, you'll end by being transported.' Do you think Jack and I shall end by being transported?" added Jem, who had a merciless talent for applying general principles to individual cases.

Mrs. Wood made no reply, neither did she move, but her eyelids fell, and then her eyes looked far worse than if they had been shut, for there was a little bit open, with nothing but white to be seen. She was still rather red, and she did not visibly breathe. I have no idea for how many seconds I had gazed stupidly at her, when Jem gasped, "Is she dead?"

Then I became terror-struck, and crying, "Let's find Mary Anne!" fled into the kitchen, closely followed by Jem.

"She's took with them fits occasional," said Mary Anne, and depositing a dripping tin she ran to the parlour. We followed in time to see her stooping over the chair and speaking very loudly in the school-mistress's ear,

"I'll lay ye down, ma'am, shall I?"

But still the widow was silent, on which Mary Anne took her up in her brawny arms, and laid her on "Cripple Charlie's" sofa, and covered her with the quilt.

We settled the Major and his wives into their new abode, and then hurried home to my mother, who put on her bonnet, and took a bottle of something, and went off to the farm.

She did not come back till tea-time, and then she was full of poor Mrs. Wood. "Most curious attacks," she explained to my father; "she can neither move nor speak, and yet she hears everything, though she doesn't always remember afterwards. She said she thought it was 'trouble,' poor soul!"

"What brought this one on?" said my father.

"I can't make out," said my mother. "I hope you boys did nothing to frighten her, eh? Are you sure you didn't do one of those dreadful wheels, Jack?"

This I indignantly denied, and Jem supported me.

My mother's sympathy had been so deeply enlisted, and her report was so detailed, that Jem and I became bored at last, besides resenting the notion that we had been to blame. I gave one look into the strawberry jam pot, and finding it empty, said my grace and added, "Women are a poor lot, always turning up their eyes and having fits about nothing. I know one thing, nobody 'll ever catch _me being bothered with a wife."

"Nor me neither," said Jem.

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