« PreviousContinue »
way will be a narrow one indeed—the common way—the Grave, father.'
A bolder man than Trotty Veck must needs have drawn upon his boldness largely to deny it. Trotty held his peace.
" • And how hard, father, to grow old, and die, and think we might have cheered and helped each other! How hard in all our lives to love each other; and to grieve, apart, to see each other working, changing, growing old and grey. Even if I got the better of it, and forgot him (which I never could), oh father dear, how hard to have a heart so full as mine is now, and live to have it slowly drained out every drop, without the recollection of one happy moment of a woman's life, to stay behind and comfort me, and make me better !'
• Trotty sat quite still. Meg dried her eyes, and said more gaily ; that is to say, with here a laugh, and there a sob, and here a laugh and sob together :
So Richard says, father; as his work was yesterday made certain for some time to come, and as I love him and have loved him full three years -ah ! longer than that, if he knew it !—will I marry him on New Year's Day; the best and happiest day, he says, in the whole year, and one that is almost-sure to bring good fortune with it. It's a short notice, father-isn't it?—but I haven't my fortune to be settled, or my wedding dresses to be made, like the great ladies, father—have I ? And he said so much, and said it in his way ; so strong and earnest, and all the time so kind and gentle ; that I said I'd come and talk to you, father. And as they paid the money for that work of mine this morning (unexpectedly, I am sure !), and as you have fared very poorly for a whole week, and as I couldn't help wishing there should be something to make this day a sort of holiday to you as well as a dear and happy day to me, father, I made a little treat and brought it to surprise you.'
"And see how he leaves it cooling on the step!' said another voice.
• It was the voice of this same Richard, who had come upon them unobserved, and stood before the father and daughter : looking down upon them with a face as glowing as the iron on which his stout sledgehammer daily rung:
A handsome, well made, powerful youngster he was; with eyes that sparkled like the red-hot droppings from a furnace fire ; black hair that curled about his swarthy temples rarely; and a smile-a smile that bore out Meg's eulogium on his style of conversation.'—pp 16—29.
The conversation is here interrupted by the opening of the house-door, and the appearance of Alderman Cute,-evidently intended for a well-known city functionary,—and two other gentlemen. What ensues has a material influence on the course of the story, and is adapted to excite strong indignation against those who, under pretence of benefitting the poor, are their worst oppressors.
Toby is despatched by Alderman Cute with a letter to Sir Joseph Bowley, the type of a class who mistake professions of kindness for its reality, and the payment of debts
for the sum of human virtue. This letter, which was read in Toby's hearing, was to inform Sir Joseph, that one Will. Fern had come to London in search of employment; and to ask, whether it was his pleasure that the poor man should be detained as a vagabond. An affirmative reply was returned by the messenger, which, having been delivered at the house of Alderman Cute, Toby was returning home when he ran against some one, and was sent staggering into the street. What followed, is touchingly beautiful, and affords more than a glimpse of the virtues and sufferings of the poor.
I beg your pardon, I'm sure !' said Trotty, pulling up his hat in great confusion, and between the hat and the torn lining, fixing his head into a kind of bee-hive. 'I hope I havn't hurt you.'
As to hurting anybody, Toby was not such an absolute Samson, but that he was much more likely to be hurt himself: and indeed, he had flown out into the road like a shuttlecock. He had such an opinion of his own strength, however, that he was in real concern for the other party : and said again,
I hope I haven't hurt you ?' • The man against whom he had run; a sun-browned, sinewy, country looking man, with grizzled hair, and a rough chin; stared at him for a moment as if he suspected him to be in jest. But satisfied of his good faith, he answered:
"No friend. You have not hurt me.' "Nor the child, I hope?' said Trotty.
Nor the child,' returned the man. I thank you kindly.' • As he said so, he glanced at a little girl he carried in his arms, asleep ; and shading her face with the long end of the poor
handkerchief he wore about his throat, went slowly on.
· The tone in which he said ' I thank you kindly,' penetrated Trotty's heart. He was so jaded and foot-sore, and so soiled with travel, and looked about him so forlorn and strange, that it was a comfort to him to be able to thank any one : no matter for how little. Toby stood gazing after him as he plodded wearily away; with the child's arm clinging round his neck.
At the figure in the worn shoes—now the very shade and ghost of shoes-rough leather leggings, common frock, and broad slouched hat, Trotty stood gazing: blind to the whole street. And at the child's arm, clinging round its neck.
* Before he merged into the darkness, the traveller stopped ; and looking round, and seeing Trotty standing there yet, seemed undecided whether to return or go on. After doing first the one and then the other, he came back; and Trotty went half way to meet him.
You can tell me, perhaps,' said the man with a faint smile, ' and if you can I am sure you will, and I'd rather ask you than anotherwhere Alderman Cute lives.'
"Close at hand,' replied Toby. I'll show you his house with pleasure.'
I was to have gone to him elsewhere to-morrow,' said the man, accompanying Toby,' but I'm'uneasy under suspicion, and want to clear myself, and to be free to go and seek my bread—I don't know where. So may be he'll forgive my going to his house to-night.'
“It's impossible, cried Toby with a start, that your name's Fern!' • Eh ! cried the other, turning on him in astonishment.
Fern! Will Fern !' said Trotty. • • That's my name,' replied the other.
• Why then,' cried Trotty, seizing him by the arm, and looking cautiously round, 'for Heaven's sake don't go to him !
Don't go to him! He'll put you down as sure as ever you were born. Here ! come up this alley, and I'll tell you what I mean. Don't go to him.'
His new acquaintance looked as if he thought him mad; but he bore him company nevertheless. When they were shrouded from observation, Trotty told him what he knew, and hat character he had received, and all about it.
• The subject of his history listened to it with a calmness that surprised him.
He did not contradict or interrupt it, once. He nodded his head now and then--more in corroboration of an old and worn out story, it appeared, than in refutation of it; and once or twice threw back his hat, and passed his freckled hand over a brow, where every furrow he had ploughed seemed to have set its image in little. But he did no more.
• It's true enough in the main,' he said, ' master. I could sift grain from husk here and there, but let it be as 'tis. What odds? I have gone against his plans ; to my misfortun’. I can't help it ; I should do the like to-morrow. As to character, them gentlefolks will search and search, and pry and pry, and have it as free from spot or speck in us, afore they'll help us to a dry good word! Well! I hope they don't lose good opinion as easy as we do, or their lives is strict indeed, and hardly worth the keeping: For myself, master, I never took with that hand' holding it before him—' what wasn't my own; and never held it back from work, however hard, or poorly paid. Whoever can deny it, let him chop it off! But when work won't maintain me like a human creetur ; when my living is so bad, that I am hungry, out of doors and in ; when I see a whole working life begin that way, go on that way, and end that way, without a chance or change; then I say to the gentlefolks . Keep away from me! Let my cottage be. My doors is dark enough without your darkening of 'em more. Don't look for me to come up into the Park to help the show when there's a Birthday, or a fine speechmaking, or what not. Act your plays and games without me, and be welcome to 'em and enjoy 'em. We've nought to do with one another. I'm best let alone!'
. Seeing that the child in his arms had opened her eyes, and was looking about her in wonder, he checked himself to say a word or two of foolish prattle in her ear, and stand her on the ground beside him. Then slowly winding one of her long tresses round and round his rough forefinger líke a ring, while she hung about his dusty leg, he said to Trotty.
" I'm not a cross-grained man by natur', I believe; and easy satisfied, I'm sure. I bear no ill-will against none of 'em : I only want to live like one of the Almighty's creeturs. I can't, I don't; and so there's a pit dug between me and them that can and do. There's others like me.
You might tell 'em off by hundreds and by thousands, sooner than by ones.'
Trotty knew he spoke the Truth in this, and shook his head to signify as much
I've got a bad name this way,' said Fern ; ‘and I'm not likely, I'm afeard, to get a better. "Ta'nt lawful to be out of sorts, and I AM out of sorts, though God knows I'd sooner bear a cheerful spirit if I could. Well! I don't know as this Alderman could hurt me much by sending me to gaol; but without a friend to speak a word for me, he might do it; and you see !' pointing downward with his finger at the child. • She has a beautiful face,' said Trotty.
Why, yes!' replied the other in a low voice, as he gently turned it up with both his hands towards his own, and looked upon it steadfastly. • I've thought so, many times. I've thought so, when my hearth was very cold, and cupboard very bare. I thought so t’other night, when we were taken like two thieves. But they—they shouldn't try the little face too often, should they, Lilian ? That's hardly fair upon a man!!!
' He sunk his voice so low, and gazed upon her with an air so stern and strange, that Toby, to divert the current of his thoughts, inquired if his wife were living.
« I never had one,' he returned, shaking his head, brother's child : an orphan. Nine year old, though you'd hardly think it ; but she's tired and worn out now. They'd have taken care on her, the Union; eight and twenty mile away from where we live; between four walls (as they took care of my old father when he couldn't work no more, though he didn't trouble 'em long); but I took her instead, and she's lived with me ever since. Her mother had a friend once, in London here. We are trying to find her, and to find work too; but it's a large place. Never mind. More room for us to walk about in Lilly!'
Meeting the child's eyes with a smile which melted Toby more than tears, he shook him by the hand.
I don't so much as know your name,' he said, “but I've opened my heart free to you, for I'm thankful to you ; with good reason. I'll take your advice, and keep clear of this — • Justice,' suggested Toby.
Ah!' he said, If that's the name they give him-- this justice. And to-morrow we'll try whether there's better fortun' to be met with somewheres near London. Good night. A happy New Year !'
Stay!' cried Trotty, catching at his hand, as he relaxed his grip, • Stay!' The New Year never can be happy to me, if we part like this. The New Year never can be happy to me, if I see the child and you go wandering away you don't know where, without a shelter for your heads. Come home with me! I'm a poor man, living in a poor place; but I can give you a lodging for one night, and never miss it.
· She's my and here we go.
Come home with me!' Here! I'll take her !' cried Trotty, lifting up the child. 'A pretty one! I'd carry twenty times her weight, and never know I'd got it. Tell me if I go too quick for you. I'm very fast. I always was !' Trotty said this, taking about six of his trotting paces to one stride of his fatigued companion; and with bis thin legs quivering again, beneath the load he bore.
Why, she's as light,' said Trotty, trotting in his speech as well as in his gait; for he couldn't bear to be thanked, and dreaded a moment's pause; ' as light as a feather. Lighter than a peacock's feather-a great deal lighter. Here we are, and here we go! Round this first turning to the right, Uncle Will, and past the pump, and sharp off up the passage to the left, right opposite the public-house. Here we are,
Cross over, Uncle Will, and mind the kidney pieman at the corner ! Here we are and here we go! Down the Mews here, Uncle Will, and stop at the black door, with • T. Veck, Ticket Porter wrote upon a board ; and here we are and here we go, and here we are indeed, my precious Meg, surprising you !'
• With which words Trotty, in a breathless state, set the child down before his daughter in the middle of the floor. The little visitor looked once at Meg; and doubting nothing in that face, but trusting everything she saw there; ran into her arms.
• Here we are and here we go!' cried Trotty, running round the room and choking audibly.
· Here! Uncle Will! Here's a fire you know! Why don't you come to the fire ? Oh here we are and here we go! Meg, my precious darling, where's the kettle? Here it is and here it goes, and it'll bile in no time !
• Trotty really had picked up the kettle somewhere or other in the course of his wild career, and now put it on the fire: while Meg, seating the child in a warm corner, knelt down on the ground before her, and pulled off her shoes, and dried her wet feet on a cloth. Aye, and she laughed at Trotty too---so pleasantly, so cheerfully, that Trotty could have blessed her where she kneeled: for he had seen that, when they entered, she was sitting by the fire in tears.
Why father!' said Meg. You're crazy to-night, I think. I don't know what the bells would say to that. Poor little feet. How cold they are!"
“Oh they're warmer now!' exclaimed the child. • They're quite warm now !
“No, no, no,' said Meg. · We haven't rubbed 'em half enough. We're so busy. So busy! And when they're done, we'll brush out the damp hair; and when that's done, we'll bring some colour to the poor pale face with fresh water; and when that's done we'll be so gay, and brisk, and happy-!
• The child, in a burst of sobbing, clasped her round the neck; caressed her fair cheek with it's hand; and said, 'Oh Meg! oh dear Meg!' • Toby's blessing could have done no more.
Who could do more ! • • Why father! cried Meg, after a pause.
Here I am, and here I go, my dear,' said Trotty. Vol. XVII.