Copyright
George MacDonald.

A Rough Shaking online

. (page 10 of 24)
Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldA Rough Shaking → online text (page 10 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


until now he had had no respect for him, believing little Tommy a much
finer fellow than big Clare. There are thousands for whom a blow is a
better thing than expostulation, persuasion, or any sort of
kindness. They are such that nothing but a blow will set their door
ajar for love to get in. That is why hardships, troubles,
disappointments, and all kinds of pain and suffering, are sent to so
many of us. We are so full of ourselves, and feel so grand, that we
should never come to know what poor creatures we are, never begin to
do better, but for the knock-down blows that the loving God gives us.
We do not like them, but he does not spare us for that.



Chapter XXIV.

Justifiable burglary.


Tommy rose rubbing his forehead, and crying quietly. He did not dare
say a word. It was well for him he did not. Clare, perplexed and
anxious about the baby, was in no mood to accept annoyance from
Tommy. But the urchin remaining silent, the elder boy's indignation
began immediately to settle down.

The infant lay motionless, its little heart beating doubtfully, like
the ticking of a clock off the level, as if the last beat might be
indeed the last.

"We _must_ get into the house, Tommy!" said Clare.

"Yes, Clare," answered Tommy, very meekly, and went off like a shot to
renew investigation at the other end of the house. He was back in a
moment, his face as radiant with success as such a face could be, with
such a craving little body under it.

"Come, come," he cried. "We can get in quite easy. I ha' _been_ in!"

The keen-eyed monkey had found a cellar-window, sunk a little below
the level of the ground - a long, narrow, horizontal slip, with a
grating over its small area not fastened down. He had lifted it, and
pushed open the window, which went inward on rusty hinges - so rusty
that they would not quite close again. That he had been in was a
lie. _He_ knew better than go first! He belonged to the school of
_No. 1!_ - all mean beggars.

Clare hastened after him.

"Gi' me the kid, an' you get in; you can reach up for it better,
'cause ye're taller," said Tommy.

"Is it much of a drop?" asked Clare.

"Nothing much," answered Tommy.

Clare handed him the baby, instructing him how to hold it, and
threatening him if he hurt it; then laid himself on his front, shoved
his legs across the area through the window, and followed with his
body. Holding on to the edge of the window-sill, he let his feet as
far down as he could, then dropped, and fell on a heap of coals,
whence he tumbled to the floor of the cellar.

"You should have told me of the coals!" he said, rising, and calling
up through the darkness.

"I forgot," answered Tommy.

"Give me the baby," said Clare.

When Tommy took the baby, he renewed that moment, and began to cherish
the sense of an injury done him by the poor helpless thing. He did not
pinch it, only because he dared not, lest it should cry. When he heard
Clare fall on the coals, and then heard him call up from the depth of
the cellar, he was greatly tempted to turn with it to the other end of
the house, and throw it in the pool, then make for the wall and the
fields, leaving Clare to shift for himself. But he durst not go near
the pool, and Clare would be sure to get out again and be after him!
so he stood with the hated creature in his unprotective arms. When
Clare called for it, he got into the shallow area, and pushed the baby
through the window, grasping the extreme of its garment, and letting
it hang into the darkness of the cellar, head downward. I believe then
the baby was sick, for, a moment after, and before Clare could get a
hold of it, it began to cry. The sound thrilled him with delight.

"Oh, the darling! - Can't you let her down a bit farther, Tommy?" he
said, with suppressed eagerness.

He had climbed on the heap of coals, and was stretching up his arms to
receive her. In the faint glimmer from the diffused light of the moon,
he could just distinguish the window, blocked up by Tommy; the baby he
could not see.

"No, I can't," answered Tommy. "Catch! There!"

So saying he yielded to his spite, and waiting no sign of preparedness
on the part of Clare, let go his hold, and dropped the little one. It
fell on Clare and knocked him over; but he clasped it to him as he
fell, and they hurtled to the bottom of the coals without much damage.

"I have her!" he cried as he got up. "Now you come yourself, Tommy."

He had known no baby but his lost sister, and thought of all babies as
girls.

"You'll catch me, won't you, Clare?" said Tommy.

"The thing you've done once you can do again! I can't set down the
baby to catch you!" replied the unsuspicious Clare, and turned to seek
an exit from the cellar. He had not had time yet to wonder how Tommy
had got out.

Tommy came tumbling on the top of the coals: he dared not be left with
the water-but and the pool and the moon.

"Where are you, Clare?" he called.

Clare answered him from the top of the stone stair that led to the
cellar, and Tommy was soon at his heels. Going along a dark passage,
where they had to feel their way, they arrived at the kitchen. The
loose outside shutter belonged to it, and as it was open, a little of
the moonlight came in. The place looked dreary enough and cold enough
with its damp brick-floor and its rusty range; but at least they were
out of the air, and out of sight of the moon! If only they had some of
that coal alight!

"I don't see as we're much better off!" said Tommy. "I'm as cold as
pigs' trotters!"

"Then what must baby be like!" said Clare, whose heart was brimful of
anxiety for his charge. It seemed to him he had never known misery
till now. Life or death for the baby - and he could do nothing! He was
cold enough himself, what with hunger, and the night, and the wet and
deadly cold little body in his arms; but whatever discomfort he felt,
it seemed not himself but the baby that was feeling it; he imputed it
all to the baby, and pitied the baby for the cold he felt himself.

"We needn't stay here, though," he said. "There must be better places
in the house! Let's try and find a bedroom!"

"Come along!" responded Tommy.

They left the kitchen, and went into the next room. It seemed warmer,
because it had a wooden floor. There was hardly any light in it, but
it felt empty. They went up the stair. When they turned on the landing
half-way, they saw the moon shining in. They went into the first room
they came to. Such a bedroom! - larger and grander than any at the
parsonage!

"Oh baby! baby!" cried Clare, "now you'll live - won't you?"

He seemed to have his own Maly an infant again in his arms. The
thought that the place was not his, and that he might get into trouble
by being there, never came to him. Use was not theft! The room and its
contents were to him as the water and the fire which even pagans
counted every man bound to hand to his neighbour. There was the bed!
Through all the cold time it had been waiting for them! The
counterpane was very dusty; and oh, such moth-eaten blankets! But
there were sheets under them, and they were quite clean, though dingy
with age! The moths - that is, their legs and wings and dried-up
bodies - flew out in clouds when they moved the blankets. Not the less
had they discovered Paradise! For the moths, they must have found it
an island of plum-cake!

I do not know the history of the house - how it came to be shut up with
so much in it. I only know it was itself shut up in chancery, and
chancery is full of moths and dust and worms. I believe nobody in the
town knew much about it - not even the thieves. It was of course said
to be haunted, which had doubtless done something for its
protection. No one knew how long it had stood thus deserted. Nobody
thought of entering it, or was aware that there was furniture in
it. It was supposed to be somebody's property, and that it was
somebody's business to look after it: whether it was looked after or
not, nobody inquired. Happily for Clare and the baby and Tommy, that
was nobody's business.

With deft hands - for how often had he not seen his baby-sister
undressed! - Clare hurried off the infant's one garment, gently rubbed
her little body till it was quite dry, if not very clean, and laid her
tenderly in the heart of the blankets, among the remains and eggs and
grubs of the mothy creatures - they were not wild beasts, or even
stinging things - and covered her up, leaving a little opening for her
to breathe through. She had not cried since Clare took her; she was
too feeble to cry; but, alas, there was no question about feeding her,
for he had no food to give her, were she crying ever so much! He threw
off his clothes, and got into the mothy blankets beside her. In a few
minutes he began to glow, for there was a thick pile of woolly
salvation atop of him. He took the naked baby in his arms and held her
close to his body, and they grew warmer together.

"Now, Tommy," he said, "you may take off your clothes, and get in on
the other side of me."

Tommy did not need a second invitation, and in a moment they were all
fast asleep. A few months, even a few days before, it would have been
a right painful thing to Clare to lie so near a boy like Tommy, but
suffering had taken the edge off nicety and put it on humanity. The
temple of the Lord may need cleansing, but the temple of the Lord it
is. Clare had in him that same spirit which made _the_ son of man go
beyond the healingly needful, and lay his hand - the Sinaitic
manuscript says his _hands_ - upon the leper, where a word alone would
have served for the leprosy: the hands were for the man's
heart. Repulsive danger lay in the contact, but the flesh and bones
were human, and very cold.



Chapter XXV.

A new quest.


Though as comfortable as one could be who so sorely lacked food, Clare
slept lightly. His baby was heavy on his mind, and he woke very
early - woke at once to the anxious thought of a boy without food,
money, or friends, and with a hungry baby. He woke, however, with a
new train of reasoning in his mind. Babies could not work; babies
always had their food given them; therefore babies who hadn't food had
a right to ask for it; babies couldn't ask for it; therefore those who
had the charge of them, and hadn't food to give them, had a right to
do the asking for them. He could not beg for himself as long as he was
able to ask for work; but for baby it was his duty to beg, because she
could not wait: she would not live till he found work. If he got work
that very day, he would have to work the whole day before he got the
money for it, and baby would be dead by that time! He crept out, so as
not to awake the sleepers, and put on his clothes. They were not dry,
but they would dry when the sun rose. He did not at all like leaving
his baby with Tommy, but what was he to do? She might as well die of
Tommy as of hunger! Perhaps it might be easier!

He thought over the nature of the boy, and what it would be best to
say to him. He saw what many genial persons are slow to see, that
kindness, in its natural shape, is to certain dispositions a great
barrier in the way of learning either love or duty. With multitudes,
nothing but undiluted fear or pain or shame can open the door for love
to enter.

He searched the house for a medicine-bottle, such as he had seen
plenty of at the parsonage, and found two. He chose the smaller, lest
size should provoke disinclination. Then he woke Tommy, and said to
him,

"Tommy, I'm going out to get baby's breakfast."

"Ain't you going to give _me_ any? Is the kid to have _everything_?"

"Tommy!" said Clare, with a steady look in his eyes that frightened
him, "your turn will come next. You won't die of want for a day or two
yet. I'll see to you as soon as I can. Only, remember, baby comes
first! I'm going to leave her with you. You needn't take her up.
You're not able to carry her. You would let her fall. But if, when I
come home, I find anything has happened to her, _I'll put you in the
water-butt_ - I WILL. And I'll do it when the moon is in it."

Tommy pulled a hideous face, and began to yell. Clare seized him by
the throat.

"Make that noise again, you rascal, and I'll choke you. If you're good
to baby while I'm away, I won't eat a mouthful till you've had some;
if you're not good to her, you know what will happen! You've got the
thing in your own hands!"

"She'll go an' do something I can't help, an' then you'll go for to
drown me!"

Again he began to howl, but Clare checked him as before. "If you wake
her up, I'll - " He had no words, and shook him for lack of any. "I
see," he resumed, "I shall have to lock you up in the coal-cellar till
I come back! Here! come along!"

Tommy was quiet instantly, and fell to pleading. Clare lent a gracious
ear, and yielding to Tommy's protestations, left him with his
treasure, and set out on his quest.

He got out through the kitchen, the rustiness of the fastenings of its
door delaying him a little, and over the wall by the imprisoned door,
taking care to lift as little as possible of his person above the
coping as he crossed. He dared not go along the wall in the daylight,
or get down in the smith's yard; he dropped straight to the ground.

The country was level, and casting his eyes about, he saw, at no great
distance, what looked like a farmstead. He knew cows were milked
early, but did not know what time it was. Hoping anyhow to reach the
place before the milk was put away in the pans, he set out to run
straight across the fields. But he soon found he could not run, and
had to drop into a walk.

When he got into the yard, he saw a young woman carrying a foaming
pail of milk across to the dairy. He ran to her, and addressed her
with his usual "Please, ma'am;" but the pail was heavy, and she kept
on without answering him. Clare followed her, and looking into the
dairy, saw an elderly woman.

"Please, ma'am, could you afford me as much fresh milk as would fill
that bottle?" he said, showing it.

"Well, my man," she answered pleasantly, "I think we might venture as
far without fear of the workhouse! But what on earth made you bring
such a thimble of a bottle as that?"

"I have no money to pay for it, you see, ma'am; and I thought a little
bottle would be better to beg with; it wouldn't be so hard on the
farmer!"

"Bless the boy! Much good a drop of milk like that will do him!" said
the woman, turning to the girl "Is it for your mother's tea?"

"No, ma'am; it's for a baby - a very little baby, ma'am! - I think it
will hold enough," he added, giving an anxious glance at the bottle in
his hand, "to keep her alive till I get work."

The woman looked, and her heart was drawn to the boy who stood gazing
at her with his whole solemn, pathetic yet strong face - with his wide,
clear eyes, his decided nose, large and straight, his rather long,
fine mouth, trembling with eager anxiety, and his confident chin. She
saw hunger in his grimy cheeks; she saw that his manners were those of
a gentleman, and his clothes poor enough for any tramp, though
evidently not made for a tramp. She would have concluded him escaped
from cruel guardians, for she was a reader of _The Family Herald_; but
that would not account for the baby! The baby did not tally!

"How old's the baby?" she asked.

"I don't know, ma'am; she only came to us last night."

"Who brought her?"

She imagined the boy a simpleton, and expected one of such answers as
inconvenient questions in natural history receive from nurses.

"I don't know, ma'am. I took her out of the water-butt."

The thing grew bewildering.

"Who put her there?"

"I don't know, ma'am."

"Whose baby is she, then?"

"Mine, I think, ma'am."

"God bless the boy!" said the woman impatiently, and stared at him
speechless.

Her daughter in the meantime had filled the phial with new milk. She
handed it to him. He grasped it eagerly. Tears of joy came in his big
hungry eyes.

"Oh, _thank_ you, ma'am!" he said. "But, please, would you tell me,"
he continued, looking from the one to the other, "how much water I
must put in the milk to make it good for baby? I know it wants water,
but I don't know how much!"

"Oh, about half and half," answered the elder woman. "'Ain't she got
no mother?" she resumed.

"I think she must have a mother, but I daresay she's a tramp,"
answered Clare.

"I don't want to give my good milk to a tramp!" she rejoined.

"_I_'m not a tramp, please, ma'am! - at least I wasn't till the day
before yesterday."

The woman looked at him out of motherly eyes, and her heart swelled
into her bosom.

"Wouldn't you like some milk yourself?" she said.

"Oh, yes, ma'am!" answered Clare, with a deep sigh.

She filled a big cup from the warm milk in the pail, and held it out
to him. He took it as a man on the scaffold might a reprieve from
death, half lifted it to his lips, then let his hand sink. It trembled
so, as he set the cup down on a shelf beside him, that he spilled a
little. He looked ruefully at the drops on the brick floor.

"Please, ma'am, there's Tommy!" he faltered.

His promise to Tommy had sprung upon him like a fiery flying serpent.

"Tommy! I thought you said the baby was a girl?"

"Yes, the baby's a girl; but there's Tommy as well! He's another of
us."

"Your brother, of course!"

"No, ma'am; I'm afraid he's a tramp. But there he is, you see, and I
must share with him!"

It grew more and more inexplicable!

A gruff, loud voice came from the yard. It was the farmer's. He was a
bitter-tempered man, and his dislike of tramps was almost hatred. His
wife and daughter knew that if he saw the boy he would be worse than
rude to him.

"There's the master!" cried the mother. "Drink, and make haste out of
his way."

"If it's stealing, - " said Clare.

"Stealing! It's no stealing! The dairy's mine! I can give my milk
where I please!"

"Well, ma'am, if the milk's mine because you gave it me, it's not
begging to ask you to give me a piece of bread for it! I could take a
share of that to Tommy!"

"Run, Chris," cried the mother, hurriedly; "take the innocent with
you - round outside the yard. Give him a hunch of bread, and let him
go. For God's sake don't let your father see him! Run, my boy, run!
There's no time to drink the milk now!"

She poured it back into the pail, and set the cup out of the way.

There was a little passage and another door, by which they left as the
farmer entered. The kick he would have given Clare with his heavy boot
would, in its consequences, have reached the baby too. The girl ran
with him to the back of the house.

"Wait a moment at that window," she said.

Now whether it was loving-kindness all, or that she dared not take the
time to divide it, I cannot tell, but she handed Clare a whole loaf,
and that a good big one, of home-made bread, and disappeared before he
could thank her, telling him to run for his life.

He was able now. With the farmer behind, and the hungry ones before
him, he _must_ run; and with the phial in his pocket and the loaf in
his hands, he _could_ run. Happily the farmer did not catch sight of
him. His wife took care he should not. I believe, indeed, she got up a
brand-new quarrel with him on the spur of the moment, that he might
not have a chance.



Chapter XXVI.

A new entrance.


Clare sped jubilant. But soon came a check to his jubilation: it was
one thing to drop from the wall, and quite another to climb to the top
of it without the help of the door! The same moment he heard the clink
of the smith's hammer on his anvil, and to go by his yard in daylight
would be to risk too much! For what would become of them if their
retreat was discovered! He stood at the foot of the brick precipice,
and stared up with helpless eyes and failing strength. Baby was
inside, hungry, and with no better nurse than ill conditioned Tommy;
her milk was in his pocket, Tommy's bread in his hand, the
insurmountable wall between him and them! He had the daylight now,
however, and there was hardly any one about: perhaps he could find
another entrance! Round the outside of the wall, therefore, like the
Midianite in the rather comical hymn, did Clare prowl and prowl. But
the wall rose straight and much too smooth wherever he looked.
Searching its face he went all along the bottom of the garden, and
then up the narrow lane between it and the garden of the next house,
with increasing fear that there was no way but by the smith's yard,
and no choice but risk it.

A dozen yards or so, however, from the end of the lane, where it took
a sharp turn before entering the street, he spied an opening in the
wall - the same from which, the night before, Tommy had returned with
such a frightened face. Clare went through, and found a narrow passage
running to the left for a short distance between two walls. At the
end, half on one side, half on the other of the second wall, lay the
well that had terrified Tommy. The wall crossed it with a low arch. On
the further side of the well was a third wall, with a space of about
two feet and a half between it and the side of the round well. Through
that wall there might be a door! - or, if not, there might be some way
of getting over it! To cross the well would be awkward, but he must do
it! He tied the loaf in his pocket-handkerchief - he was far past
fastidiousness, and Tommy knew neither the word nor the thing - and
knotted the ends of it round his neck. But his chief anxiety was not
to break the bottle in his jacket-pocket. He got on his knees on the
parapet. How deep and dark the water looked! For a moment he felt a
fear of it something like Tommy's. How was he to cross the awful gulf?
It was not like a free jump; he was hemmed in before and behind, and
overhead also. But the baby drew him over the well, as the name of
Beatrice drew Dante through the fire. The baby was waiting for him,
and it had to be done! He made a cat-leap through beneath the arch,
reaching out with his hands and catching at the parapet beyond. He did
catch it, just enough of it to hold on by, so that his body did not
follow his legs into the water. Oh, how cold they found it after his
run! He held on, strained and heaved up, made a great reach across the
width of the parapet with one hand, laid hold of its outer edge, made
good his grasp on it, and drew himself out of the water, and out of
the well.

He was in a narrow space, closed in with walls much higher than his
head, out of which he saw no way but that by which he had come
in - across the fearful well, that seemed, so dark was its water, to go
down and down for ever.

He felt in his pocket. If then he had found baby's bottle broken, I
doubt if Clare would ever have got out of the place, except by the
door into the next world. What little strength he had was nearly gone,
and I think it would then have gone quite. But the bottle was safe and
his courage came back.

He examined his position, and presently saw that the narrowness of his
threatened prison would make it no prison at all. He found that, by
leaning his back against one wall, pushing his feet against the
opposite wall, and making of the third wall a rack for his shoulder,
he could worm himself slowly up. It was a task for a strong man, and
Clare, though strong for his years, was not at that moment strong. But
there was the baby waiting, and here was her milk! He fell to, and,
with an agony of exertion, wriggled himself at last to the top - so
exhausted that he all but fell over on the other side. He pulled
himself together, and dropped at once into, the garden. Happier boy
than Clare was not in all England then. Hunger, wet, incipient
nakedness, for he had torn his clothes badly, were nowhere. Baby was
within his reach, and the milk within baby's!

He ran, dripping like a spaniel, to find her, and shot up the stair to
the room that held his treasure. To his joy he found both Tommy and
the baby fast asleep, Tommy tired out with the weary tramping of the
day before, and the baby still under the influence of the opiate her
mother had given her to make her drown quietly.



Chapter XXVII.

The baby has her breakfast.


He waked Tommy, and showed him the loaf. Tommy sprang from his lair
and snatched at it.

"No, Tommy," said Clare, drawing back, "I can't trust you! You would
eat it all; and if I died of hunger, what would become of baby, left
alone with you? I don't feel at all sure you wouldn't eat _her_!"

Baby started a feeble whimper.

"You must wait now till I've attended to her," continued Clare. "If
you had got up quietly without waking her, I would have given you your
share at once."

As he spoke, he pulled a blanket off the bed to wrap her in, and made


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24

Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldA Rough Shaking → online text (page 10 of 24)