George MacDonald.

A Rough Shaking online

. (page 12 of 24)
Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldA Rough Shaking → online text (page 12 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

well, got across it better this time, rushed over the wall like a cat,
fell on the other side from the unsteadiness of his potsherds, rose
and hurried into the house, with the feeble wail of his baby in his

Chapter XXXI.

An addition to the family.

The door to the kitchen was open: Tommy must be in the garden again!
When he reached the nursery, as he called it to himself, he found the
baby as he had left her, but moaning and wailing piteously. She looked
as if she had cried till she was worn out. He threw down the clothes
to take her. A great rat sprang from the bed. On one of the tiny feet
the long thin toes were bleeding and raw. The same instant arose a
loud scampering and scuffling and squealing in the room. Clare's heart
quivered. He thought it was a whole army of rats. He was not a bit
afraid of them himself, but assuredly they were not company for baby!
Already they had smelt food in the house, and come in a swarm! What
was to be done with the little one? If he stayed at home with her, she
must die of hunger; if he left her alone, the rats would eat her! They
had begun already! Oh, that wretch, Tommy! Into the water - but he
should go!

I hope their friends will not take it ill that, all his life after,
Clare felt less kindly disposed toward rats than toward the rest of
the creatures of God.

But things were not nearly so bad as Clare thought: the scuffling came
from quite another cause. It suddenly ceased, and a sharp scream
followed. Clare turned with the baby in his arms. Almost at his feet,
gazing up at him, the rat hanging limp from his jaws, stood the little
castaway mongrel he had seen in the morning, his eyes flaming, and his
tail wagging with wild homage and the delight of presenting the rat to
one he would fain make his master.

"You darling!" cried Clare, and meant the dog this time, not the
baby. The animal dropped the dead rat at his feet, and glared, and
wagged, and looked hunger incarnate, but would not touch the rat until
Clare told him to take it. Then he retired with it to a corner, and
made a rapid meal of it.

He had seen Clare pass the second time, had doubtless noted that now
he carried a loaf, and had followed him in humble hope. Clare was too
much occupied with his own joy to perceive him, else he would
certainly have given him a little peeling or two from the outside of
the bread. But it was decreed that the dog should have the honour of
rendering the first service. Clare was not to do _all_ the

What a happy day it had been for him! It was a day to be remembered
for ever! He had work! he had sixpence a day! he had had a present of
milk for the baby, and two presents of bread - one a small, and one a
large loaf! And now here was a dog! A dog was more than many meals!
The family was four now! A baby, and a dog to take care of the
baby! - It was heavenly!

He made haste and gave his baby what milk and water was left. Then he
washed her poor torn foot, wrapped it in a pillow-case, for he would
not tear anything, and laid her in the bed. Next he cut a good big
crust from the loaf and gave it to the dog, who ate it as if the rat
were nowhere. The rest he put in a drawer. Then he washed his face and
hands - as well as he could without soap. After that, he took the dog,
talked to him a little, laid him on the bed beside the baby and talked
to him again, telling him plainly, and impressing upon him, that his
business was the care of the baby; that he must give himself up to
her; that he must watch and tend, and, if needful, fight for the
little one. When at length he left him, it was evident to Clare, by
the solemnity of the dog's face, that he understood his duty

Chapter XXXII.

Shop and baby.

Once clear of the well and the wall, Clare set off running like a
gaze-hound. Such was the change produced in him by joy and the
satisfaction of hope, that when he entered the shop, no one at first
knew him. His face was as the face of an angel, and none the less
beautiful that it shone above ragged garments. But Mr. Maidstone, the
moment he saw him, and before he had time to recognize him, turned
from the boy with dislike.

"What a fool the beggar looks!" he said to himself; - then aloud to one
of the young men, "Hand over that parcel of sheets. - Here,
you! - what's your name?"

"Clare, sir."

"I declare against it!" he rejoined, with a coarse laugh of pleasure
at his own fancied wit. "I shall call you Jack!"

"Very well, sir!"

"Don't you talk. - Here, Jack, take this parcel to Mrs.
Trueman's. You'll see the address on it. - And look sharp. - You can
read, can't you?"

The people in the shop stood looking on, some pitifully, all
curiously, for the parcel was of considerable size, and linen is
heavy, while the boy looked pale and thin. But Clare was strong for
his age, and present joy made up for past want. He scarcely looked at
the parcel which the draper proceeded to lay on his shoulder, stooped
a little as he felt its weight, heaved it a little to adjust its
balance, and holding it in its place with one hand, started for the
door, which the master himself held open for him.

"Please, sir, which way do I turn?" he asked.

"To the left," answered Mr. Maidstone. "Ask your way as you go."

Clare forgot that he had heard only the lady's name. Her address was
on the parcel, no doubt, but if he dropped it to look, he could not
get it up again by himself. A little way on, therefore, meeting a boy
about his own age returning from school, he asked him to be kind
enough to read the address on his back and direct him. The boy read it
aloud, but gave him false instructions for finding the place. Clare
walked and walked until the weight became almost unendurable, and at
last, though loath, concluded that the boy must have deceived him. He
asked again, but this time of a lady. She took pains not only to tell
him right, but to make him understand right: she was pleased with the
tired gentle face that looked up from beneath the heavy
burden. Perhaps she thought of the proud souls growing pure of their
pride, in Dante's _Purgatorio_. Following her directions, he needed no
further questioning to find the house. But it was hours after the
burden was gone from his shoulder before it was rid of the phantom of
its weight.

His master rated him for having been so long, and would not permit him
to explain his delay, ordering him to hold his tongue and not answer
back; but the rest of his day's work was lighter; there was no other
heavy parcel to send out. There were so many smaller ones, however,
that, by the time they were all delivered, he had gained something
more than a general idea of how the streets lay, and was a weary wight
when, with the four-pence his master hesitated to give him on the
ground that he was doubtful of his character, he set out at last,
walking soberly enough now, to spend it at Mr. Ball's and the
milk-shop. Of the former he bought a stale three-penny loaf, and the
baker added a piece to make up the weight. Clare took this for
liberality, and returned hearty thanks, which Mr. Ball, I am sorry to
say, was not man enough to repudiate. The other penny he laid out on
milk - but oh, how inferior it was to that the farmer's wife had given
him! The milk-woman, however, not ungraciously granted him the two
matches he begged for.

On his way to baby, he almost hoped Tommy would not return: he would
gladly be saved putting him in the water-butt!

He forgot him again as he drew near the nursery, and for a long while
after he reached it. He found the infant and the dog lying as he had
left them. The only sign that either had moved was the strange
cleanness of the tiny gray face which Clare had not ventured to
wash. It gave indubitable evidence that the dog had been licking it
more than a little - probably every few minutes since he was left
curate in charge.

And now Clare did with deliberation a thing for which his sensitive
conscience not unfrequently reproached him afterward. His defence was,
that he had hurt nobody, and had kept baby alive by it. Having in his
mind revolved the matter many a time that day, he got some sticks
together from the garden, and with one of the precious matches lighted
a small fire of coals that were not his own, and for which he could
merely hope one day to restore amends. But baby! Baby was more than
coals! He filled a rusty kettle with water, and while it was growing
hot on the fire, such was his fear lest the smoke should betray them,
that he ran out every other minute to see how much was coming from the

While the fire was busy heating the water, he was busier preparing a
bottle for baby - making a hole through the cork of a phial, putting the
broken stem of a clean tobacco pipe he had found in the street through
the hole, tying a small lump of cotton wool over the end of the
pipe-stem, and covering that with a piece of his pocket-handkerchief,
carefully washed with the brown Windsor soap, his mother's last present.
For the day held yet another gladness: in looking for a kettle he had
found the soap - which probably the rat had carried away and hidden
before finding baby. Through the pipe-stem and the wool and the
handkerchief he could without difficulty draw water, and hoped therefore
baby would succeed in drawing her supper. As soon as the water was warm
he mixed some with the milk, but not so much this time, and put the
mixture in the bottle. To his delight, the baby sucked it up splendidly.
The bottle, thought out between the heavy linen and the hard street, was
a success! Labour is not unfriendly to thought, as the annals of weaving
and shoe-making witness.

And now at last was Clare equipped for a great attempt: he was going
to wash the baby! He was glad that disrespectful Tommy was not in the
house. With a basin of warm water and his precious piece of soap he
set about it, and taking much pains washed his treasure perfectly
clean. It was a state of bliss in which, up to that moment, I presume,
she had never been since her birth. In the process he handled her, if
not with all the skill of a nurse, yet with the tenderness of a
mother. His chief anxiety was not to hurt, more than could not be
helped, the poor little rat-eaten toes. He felt he must wash them, but
when in the process she whimpered, it went all through the calves of
his legs. When the happy but solicitous task was over, during which
the infant had shown the submission of great weakness, he wrapped her
in another blanket, and laid her down again. Soothed and comfortable,
as probably never soothed or comfortable before, she went to sleep.

As soon as she was out of his arms, he took a piece of bread, and with
some of the hot water made a little sop for the dog, which the small
hero, whose four legs carried such a long barrel of starvation, ate
with undisguised pleasure and thankfulness. For his own supper Clare
preferred his bread dry, following it with a fine draught of water
from the well.

Then, and not till then, returned the thought - what had Tommy done
with himself? Left to himself he was sure to go stealing! He might
have been taken in the act! Clare could hardly believe he had actually
run away from him. On the other hand, he had left the baby, and knew
that if he returned he would be put in the water-butt! He might have
come to the conclusion that he could do better without Clare, who
would not let him steal! It was clear he did not like taking his share
in the work of the family, and looking after the baby! Had he been
anything of a true boy, Clare would have taken his bread in his hand
and gone to look for him; being such as he was, he did not think it
necessary. He felt bound to do his best for him if he came back, but
he did not feel bound to leave the baby and roam the country to find a
boy with whom baby's life would be in constant danger.

Chapter XXXIII.

A bad penny.

Before Clare had done his thinking, darkness had fallen, and, weary to
the very bones, he threw himself on the bed beside the baby. The dog
jumped up and laid himself at his feet, as if the place had been his
from time immemorial - as it had perhaps been, according to time in
dog-land. The many pleasures of that blessed day would have kept Clare
awake had they not brought with them so much weariness. He fell fast
asleep. Tommy had not had a happy day: he had been found out in
evil-doing, had done more evil, and had all the day been in dread of
punishment. He did not foresee how ill things would go for him - did
not see that a rat had taken his place beside the baby, and that he
would not get back before Clare; but the vision of the water-butt had
often flashed upon his inner eye, and it had not been the bliss of his
solitude. He deserted his post in the hope of finding something to
eat, and had not had a mouthful of anything but spongy turnip, and
dried-up mangel-wurzel, or want-root. If he had been minding his work,
he would have had a piece of good bread - so good that he would have
wanted more of it, whereas, when he had eaten the turnip and the
beetroot, he had cause to wish he had not eaten so much! He had been
set upon by boys bigger than himself, and nearly as bad, who, not
being hungry, were in want of amusement, and had proceeded to get it
out of Tommy, just as Tommy would have got it out of the baby had he
dared. They bullied him in a way that would have been to his heart's
content, had he been the bully instead of the bullied. They made him
actually wish he had stayed with the baby - and therewith came the
thought that it was time to go home if he would get back before
Clare. As to what had taken place in the morning, he knew Clare's
forgivingness, and despised him for it. If he found the baby dead, or
anything happened to her that he could not cover with lying, it would
be time to cut and run in earnest! So the moment he could escape from
his tormenters, off went Tommy for home. But as he ran he remembered
that there was but one way into the house, and that was by the very
lip of the water-butt.

Clare woke up suddenly - at a sound which all his life would wake him
from the deepest slumber: he thought he heard the whimpering of a
child. The baby was fast asleep. Instantly he thought of Tommy. He
seemed to see him shut out in the night, and knew at once how it was
with him: he had gone out without thinking how he was to get back, and
dared not go near the water-butt! He jumped out of bed, put on his
shoes, and in a minute or two was over the wall and walking along the
lane outside of it, to find the deserter.

The moon was not up, and the night was dark, yet he had not looked
long before he came upon him, as near the house as he could get,
crouching against the wall.

"Tommy!" said Clare softly.

Tommy did not reply. The fear of the water-butt was upon him - a fear
darker than the night, an evil worse than hunger or cold - and Clare
and the water-butt were one.

"You needn't think to hide, Tommy; I see you, you bad boy!" whispered
Clare. "After all I said, you ran away and left the baby to the rats!
They've been biting her horribly - one at least has. You can stay away
as long as you like now; I've got a better nurse. Good-night!" Tommy
gave a great howl.

"Hold your tongue, you rascal!" cried Clare, still in a
whisper. "You'll let the police know where we are!"

"Do let me in, Clare! I'm so 'ungry and so cold!"

"Then I shall have to put you in the water-butt! I said I would!"

"If you don't promise not to, I'll go straight to the police. They'll
take the brat from you, and put her in the workhouse!"

Clare thought for a moment whether it would not be right to kill such
a traitor. His mind was full of history-tales, and, like Dante, he put
treachery in its own place, namely the deepest hell. But with the
thought came the words he had said so many times without thinking what
they meant - "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that
trespass against us," and he saw that he was expected to forgive

"Tommy, I forgive you," he said solemnly, "and will be friends with
you again; but I have said it, and I was right to say it, and into the
water-butt you must go! I can't trust your word now, and I think I
shall be able to trust it after that."

Ere he had finished the words, Tommy lifted up his voice in a most
unearthly screech.

Instantly Clare had him by the throat, so that he could not utter a

"Tommy," he said, "I'm going to let you breathe again, but the moment
you make a noise, I'll choke you as I'm doing now."

With that he relaxed his hold. But Tommy had paid no heed to what he
said, and began a second screech the moment he found passage for
it. Immediately he was choked, and after two or three attempts,
finally desisted.

"I won't!" he said.

"You shall, Tommy. You're going head over in the butt. We're going to
it now!"

Tommy threw himself upon the ground and kicked, but dared not
scream. It was awful! He would drop right through into the great place
where the moon was!

Clare threw him over his shoulder, and found him not half the weight
of the parcel of linen. Tommy would have bitten like a weasel, but he
feared Clare's terrible hands. He was on the back of Giant Despair, in
the form of one of the best boys in the world. Clare took him round
the wall, and over the fence into the blacksmith's yard. The smithy
was quite dark.

"Please, I didn't mean to do it!" sobbed Tommy from behind him, as
Clare bore him steadily up the yard. It was all he could do to say the
words, for the thought of what they were approaching sent a scream
into his throat every time he parted his lips to speak.

Clare stopped.

"What didn't you mean to do?" he asked.

"I didn't mean to leave the baby."

"How did you do it then?"

"I mean I didn't mean to stay away so long. I didn't know how to get

"I told you not to leave her! And you could have got back perfectly,
you little coward!"

Tommy shuddered, and said no more. Though hanging over Clare's back he
knew presently, by his stopping, that they had come to the heap. There
was only that heap and the wall between him and the water-butt! Up and
up he felt himself slowly, shakingly carried, and was gathering his
breath for a final utterance of agony that should rouse the whole
neighbourhood, when Clare, having reached the top, seated himself upon
the wall, and Tommy restrained himself in the hope of what a parley
might bring. But he sat down only to wheel on the pivot of his spine,
as he had seen them do on the counter in the shop, and sit with his
legs alongside of the water-butt. Then he drew Tommy from his shoulder,
in spite of his clinging, and laid him across his knees; and Tommy,
divining there were words yet to be said, and hoping to get off with a
beating, which he did not mind, remained silent.

"Your hour is come, Tommy!" said Clare. "If you scream, I will drop
you in, and hold you only by one leg. If you don't scream, I will hold
you by both legs. If you scream when I take you out, in you go again!
I do what I say, Tommy!"

The wretched boy was nearly mad with terror. But now, much as he
feared the water, he feared yet more for the moment him in whom lay
the power of the water. Clare took him by the heels.

"I'm sorry there's no moon, as I promised you," he said; "she won't
come up for my calling. I should have liked you to see where you were
going. But if you ain't an honest boy after this, you shall have
another chance; and next time we will wait for the moon!"

With that he lifted Tommy's legs, holding him by the ankles, and would
have shoved his body over the edge of the butt into the water. But
Tommy clung fast to his knees.

"Leave go, Tommy," he said, "or I'll tumble you right in."

Tommy yielded, his will overcome by a greater fear. Clare let him hang
for a moment over the black water, and slowly lowered him. Tommy clung
to the side of the butt. Clare let go one leg, and taking hold of his
hands pulled them away. Tommy's terror would have burst in a frenzied
yell, but the same instant he was down to the neck in the water, and
lifted out again. He spluttered and gurgled and tried to scream.

"Now, Tommy," said Clare, "don't scream, or I'll put you in again."

But Tommy never believed anything except upon compulsion. The moment
he could, that moment he screamed, and that moment he was in the water
again. The next time he was taken out, he did not scream. Clare laid
him on the wall, and he lay still, pretending to be drowned. Clare got
up, set him on his feet in front of him, and holding him by the
collar, trotted him round the top of the wall to the door, and dropped
him into the garden. He was quiet enough now - more than
subdued - incapable even of meditating revenge. But when they entered
the nursery, the dog, taking Tommy for a worse sort of rat, made a
leap at him right off the bed, as if he would swallow him alive, and
the start and the terror of it brought him quite to himself again.

"Quiet, Abdiel!" said Clare.

The dog turned, jumped up on the bed, and lay down again close to the

Clare, who, I have said, was in old days a reader of _Paradise Lost_,
had already given him the name of _Abdiel_.

"Please, I couldn't help yelling!" said Tommy, very meekly. "I didn't
know you'd got _him_!"

"I know you couldn't help it!" answered Clare. "What have you had to
eat to-day?"

"Nothing but a beastly turnip and a wormy beet," said Tommy. "I'm
awful hungry."

"You'd have had something better if you'd stuck by the baby, and not
left her to the rats!"

"There ain't no rats," growled Tommy.

"Will you believe your own eyes?" returned Clare, and showed him the
skin of the rat Abdiel had slain. "I've a great mind to make you eat
it!" he added, dangling it before him by the tail.

"Shouldn't mind," said Tommy. "I've eaten a rat afore now, an' I'm
that hungry! Rats ain't bad to eat. I don't know about their skins!"

"Here's a piece of bread for you. But you sha'n't sleep with honest
people like baby and Abdiel. You shall lie on the hearth-rug. Here's a
blanket and a pillow for you!"

Clare covered him up warm, thatching all with a piece of loose carpet,
and he was asleep directly.

The next day all terror of the water-butt was gone from the little
vagabond's mind. He was now, however, thoroughly afraid of Clare, and
his conceit that, though Clare was the stronger, he was the cleverer,
was put in abeyance.

Chapter XXXIV.

How things went for a time.

Clare's next day went much as the preceding, only that he was early at
the shop. When his dinner-hour came, he ran home, and was glad to find
Tommy and the dog mildly agreeable to each other. He had but time to
give baby some milk, and Tommy and Abdiel a bit of bread each.

His look when he returned, a look of which he was unaware, but which
one of the girls, who had a year ago been hungry for weeks together,
could read, made her ask him what he had had for dinner. He said he
had had no dinner.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because there wasn't any."

"Didn't your mother keep some for you?"

"No; she couldn't."

"Then what will you do?"

"Go without," answered Clare with a smile.

"But you've got a mother?" said the girl, rendered doubtful by his

"Oh, yes! I've got two mothers. But their arms ain't long enough,"
replied Clare.

The girl wondered: was he an idiot, or what they called a poet?
Anyhow, she had a bun in her pocket, which she had meant to eat at
five o'clock, and she offered him that.

"But what will you do yourself? Have you another?" asked Clare,
unready to take it.

"No," she answered; "why shouldn't I go without as well as you?"

"Because it won't make things any better. There will be just as much
hunger. It's only shifting it from me to you. That will leave it all
the same!"

"No, not the same," she returned. "I've had a good dinner - as much as
I could eat; and you've had none!"

Clare was persuaded, and ate the girl's bun with much satisfaction and

When he had his wages in the evening, he spent them as before - a penny
for the baby, and fivepence at Mr. Ball's for Tommy, Abdiel, and

Observing that he came daily, and spent all he earned, except one
penny, on bread; seeing also that the boy's cheeks, though plainly he
was in good health, were very thin, Mr. Ball wondered a little: a boy
ought to look better than that on five pennyworth of bread a day!

They were a curious family - Clare, and Tommy, and the baby, and
Abdiel. But the only thing sad about it was, that Clare, who was the
head and the heart of it, and provided for all, should be upheld by no

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24

Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldA Rough Shaking → online text (page 12 of 24)