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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWe And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 5
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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 5 Post by :tinabarr4 Category :Long Stories Author :Juliana Horatia Ewing Date :May 2012 Read :2775

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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 5


"To each his sufferings; all are men
Condemned alike to groan.
The tender for another's pain--"

Not even the miser's funeral had produced in the neighbourhood anything like the excitement which followed that Sunday evening. At first my mother--her mind filled by the simplest form of the problem, namely, that Mrs. Wood was in the hands of a tramp--wished my father to take the blunderbuss in his hand and step down to the farm. He had "pish"ed and "pshaw"ed about the blunderbuss, and was beginning to say more, when I was dismissed to bed, where I wandered back over the moors in uneasy dreams, and woke with the horror of a tramp's hand upon my shoulder. After suffering the terrors of night for some time, and finding myself no braver with my head under the bedclothes than above them, I began conscientiously to try my mother's family recipe for "bad dreams and being afraid in the dark." This was to "say over" the Benedicite correctly, which (if by a rare chance one were still awake at the end) was to be followed by a succession of the hymns one knew by heart. It required an effort to _begin_, and to _really try_, but the children of such mothers as ours are taught to make efforts, and once fairly started, and holding on as a duty, it certainly did tend to divert the mind from burglars and ghosts, to get the beasts, creeping things, and fowls of the air into their right places in the chorus of benedictions. That Jem never could discriminate between the "Dews and Frosts" and "Frost and Cold" verses needs no telling. I have often finished and still been frightened and had to fall back upon the hymns, but this night I began to dream pleasanter dreams of Charlie's father and the bee-master before I got to the holy and humble men of heart.

I slept long then, and Mother would not let me be awakened. When I did open my eyes Jem was sitting at the end of the bed, dying to tell me the news.

"Jack! you have waked, haven't you? I see your eyes. Don't shut 'em again. What _do you think? _Mrs. Wood's husband has come home!_"

I never knew the ins and outs of the story very exactly. At the time that what did become generally known was fresh in people's minds Jem and I were not by way of being admitted to "grown-up" conversations; and though Mrs. Wood's husband and I became intimate friends, I neither wished nor dared to ask him more about his past than he chose to tell, for I knew enough to know that it must be a most intolerable pain to recall it.

What we had all heard of the story was this. Mr. Wood had been a head clerk in a house of business. A great forgery was committed against his employers, and he was accused. He was tried, condemned, and sentenced to fourteen years' penal servitude, which, in those days, meant transportation abroad. For some little time the jury had not been unanimous. One man doubted the prisoner's guilt--the man we afterwards knew as the old miser of Walnut-tree Farm. But he was over-persuaded at last, and Mr. Wood was convicted and sentenced. He had spent ten years of his penal servitude in Bermuda when a man lying in Maidstone Jail under sentence of death for murder, confessed (amongst other crimes of which he disburdened his conscience) that it was he, and not the man who had been condemned, who had committed the forgery. Investigation confirmed the truth of this statement, and Mr. Wood was "pardoned" and brought home.

He had just come. He was the tramp.

In this life the old miser never knew that his first judgment had been the just one, but the doubt which seems always to have haunted him--whether he had not helped to condemn the innocent--was the reason of his bequest to the convict's wife, and explained much of the mysterious wording of the will.

It was a tragic tale, and gave a terrible interest to the gaunt, white-haired, shattered-looking man who was the hero of it. It had one point of special awe for me, and I used to watch him in church and think of it, till I am ashamed to say that I forgot even when to stand up and sit down. He had served ten years of his sentence. Ten years! Ten times three hundred and sixty-five days! All the days of the years of my life. The weight of that undeserved punishment had fallen on him the year that I was born, and all that long, long time of home with Mother and Father and Jem--all the haymaking summers and snowballing winters--whilst Jem and I had never been away from home, and had had so much fun, and nothing very horrid that I could call to mind except the mumps--he had been an exile working in chains. I remember rousing up with a start from the realization of this one Sunday to find myself still standing in the middle of the Litany. My mother was behaving too well herself to find me out, and though Jem was giggling he dared not move, because he was kneeling next my father, whose back was turned to me. I knelt down, and started to hear the parson say--"show Thy pity upon all prisoners and captives!" And then I knew what it is to wish when it is too late. For I did so wish I had really prayed for prisoners and captives every Sunday, because then I should have prayed for that poor man nearly all the long time he had been so miserable; for we began to go to church very early, and one learns to pray easier and sooner than one learns anything else.

All this had happened in the holidays, but when they were over school opened as before, and with additional scholars; for sympathy was wide and warm with the school-mistress. Strangely enough, both partners in the firm which had prosecuted Mr. Wood were dead. Their successors offered him employment, but he could not face the old associations. I believe he found it so hard to face any one, that this was the reason of his staying at home for a time and helping in the school. I don't think we boys made him uncomfortable as grown-up strangers seemed to do, and he was particularly fond of Cripple Charlie.

This brought me into contact with him, for Charlie and I were great friends. He was as well pleased to be read to out of the Penny Numbers as the bee-master, and he was interested in things of which Isaac Irvine was completely ignorant.

Our school was a day-school, but Charlie had been received by Mrs. Wood as a boarder. His poor back could not have borne to be jolted to and from the moors every day. So he lived at Walnut-tree Farm, and now and then his father would come down in a light cart, lent by one of the parishioners, and take Charlie home from Saturday to Monday, and then bring him back again.

The sisters came to see him too, by turns, sometimes walking and sometimes riding a rough-coated pony, who was well content to be tied to a gate, and eat some of the grass that overgrew the lane. And often Charlie came to _us_, especially in haytime, for haycocks seem very comfortable (for people whose backs hurt) to lean against; and we could cover his legs with hay too, as he liked them to be hidden. There is no need to say how tender my mother was to him, and my father used to look at him half puzzledly and half pitifully, and always spoke to him in quite a different tone of voice to the one he used with other boys.

Jem gave Charlie the best puppy out of the curly brown spaniel lot; but he didn't really like being with him, though he was sorry for him, and he could not bear seeing his poor legs.

"They make me feel horrid," Jem said. "And even when they're covered up, I know they're there."

"You're a chip of the old block, Jem," said my father, "I'd give a guinea to a hospital any day sooner than see a patient. I'm as sorry as can be for the poor lad, but he turns me queer, though I feel ashamed of it. I like things _sound_. Your mother's different; she likes 'em better for being sick and sorry, and I suppose Jack takes after her."

My father was wrong about me. Pity for Charlie was not half of the tie between us. When he was talking, or listening to the penny numbers, I never thought about his legs or his back, and I don't now understand how anybody could.

He read and remembered far more than I did, and he was even wilder about strange countries. He had as adventurous a spirit as any lad in the school, cramped up as it was in that misshapen body. I knew he'd have liked to go round the world as well as I, and he often laughed and said--"What's more, Jack, if I'd the money I would. People are very kind to poor wretches like me all over the world. I should never want a helping hand, and the only difference between us would be, that I should be carried on board ship by some kind-hearted blue-jacket, and you'd have to scramble for yourself."

He was very anxious to know Isaac Irvine, and when I brought the bee-master to see him, they seemed to hold friendly converse with their looks even before either of them spoke. It was a bad day with Charlie, but he set his lips against the pain, and raised himself on one arm to stare out of his big brown eyes at the old man, who met them with as steady a gaze out of his. Then Charlie lowered himself again, and said in a tone of voice by which I knew he was pleased, "I'm so glad you've come to see me, old Isaac. It's very kind of you. Jack says you know a lot about live things, and that you like the numbers we like in the _Penny Cyclopaedia_. I wanted to see you, for I think you and I are much in the same boat; you're old, and I'm crippled, and we're both too poor to travel. But Jack's to go, and when he's gone, you and I'll follow him on the map."

"GOD willing, sir," said the bee-master; and when he said that, I knew how sorry he felt for poor Charlie, for when he was moved he always said very short things, and generally something religious.

And for all Charlie's whims and fancies, and in all his pain and fretfulness, and through fits of silence and sensitiveness, he had never a better friend than Isaac Irvine. Indeed the bee-master was one of those men (to be found in all ranks) whose delicate tenderness might not be guessed from the size and roughness of the outer man.

Our neighbours were all very kind to Mr. Wood, in their own way, but they were a little impatient of his slowness to be sociable, and had, I think, a sort of feeling that the ex-convict ought not only to enjoy evening parties more than other people, but to be just a little more grateful for being invited.

However, one must have a strong and sensitive imagination to cultivate wide sympathies when one lives a quiet, methodical life in the place where one's father and grandfather lived out quiet methodical lives before one; and I do not think we were an imaginative race.

The school-master (as we used to call him) had seen and suffered so much more of life than we, that I do not think he resented the clumsiness of our sympathy; but now I look back I fancy that he must have felt as if he wanted years of peace and quiet in which to try and forget the years of suffering. Old Isaac said one day, "I reckon the master feels as if he wanted to sit down and say to hisself over and over again, 'I'm a free man, I'm a free man, I'm a free man,' till he can fair trust himself to believe it."

Isaac was probably right, and perhaps evening parties, though they are meant for treats, are not the best places to sit down and feel free in, particularly when there are a lot of strange people who have heard a dreadful story about you, and want to see what you look like after it.

During the summer holidays Jem and I were out the whole day long. When we came in I was ready for the Penny Numbers, but Jem always fell asleep, even if he did not go to bed at once. My father did just the same. I think their feeling about houses was of a perfectly primitive kind. They looked upon them as comfortable shelter for sleeping and eating, but not at all as places in which to pursue any occupation. Life, for them, was lived out-of-doors.

I know now how dull this must have made the evenings for my mother, and that it was very selfish of me to wait till my father was asleep (for fear he should say "no"), and then to ask her leave to take the Penny Numbers down to the farm and sit with Cripple Charlie.

Now and then she would go too, and chat with Mrs. Wood, whilst the school-master and I were turning the terrestrial globe by Charlie's sofa; but as a rule Charlie and I were alone, and the Woods went round the homestead together, and came home hand in hand, through the garden, and we laughed to think how we had taken him for a tramp.

And sometimes on a summer's evening, when we talked and read aloud to each other across a quaint oak table that had been the miser's, of far-away lands and strange birds of gorgeous plumage, the school-master sat silent in the arm-chair by the open lattice, resting his white head against the mullion that the ivy was creeping up, and listened to the blackbirds and thrushes as their songs dropped by odd notes into silence, and gazed at the near fields and trees, and the little homestead with its hayricks on the hill, when the grass was apple-green in the gold mist of sunset: and went on gazing when that had faded into fog, and the hedgerow elms were black against the sky, as if the eye could not be filled with seeing, nor the ear with hearing!

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