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8 Complete Works of Hesba Stretton Alone In LondonBede’s CharityBrought HomeCobwebs and CablesFern's HollowLittle Meg's ChildrenThe Christmas ChildThe Doctor's Dilemma
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The Complete Collection of Hesba Stretton
Alone In London
Cobwebs and Cables
Little Meg's Children
The Christmas Child
The Doctor's Dilemma
Alone In London, by Hesba Stretton
Alone in London
By Hesba Stretton
Author of "Jessica's First Prayer," "Little Meg's Children," etc.
II. WAIFS AND STRAYS
III. A LITTLE PEACEMAKER
IV. OLD OLIVER'S MASTER
V. FORSAKEN AGAIN
VI. THE GRASSHOPPER A BURDEN
VII. THE PRINCE OF LIFE
VIII. NO PIPE FOR OLD OLIVER
IX. A NEW BROOM AND A CROSSING
X. HIGHLY RESPECTABLE
XI. AMONG THIEVES
XII. TONY'S WELCOME
XIII. NEW BOOTS
XIV. IN HOSPITAL
XV. TONY'S FUTURE PROSPECTS
XVI. A BUD FADING
XVII. A VERY DARK SHADOW
XVIII. NO ROOM FOR DOLLY
XIX. THE GOLDEN CITY
XX. A FRESH DAY DAWNS
It had been a close and sultry day--one of the hottest of the dog-days--even out in the open country, where the dusky green leaves had never stirred upon their stems since the sunrise, and where the birds had found themselves too languid for any songs beyond a faint chirp now and then. All day long the sun had shone down steadily upon the streets of London, with a fierce glare and glowing heat, until the barefooted children had felt the dusty pavement burn under their tread almost as painfully as the icy pavement had frozen their naked feet in the winter. In the parks, and in every open space, especially about the cool splash of the fountains at Charing Cross, the people, who had escaped from the crowded and unventilated back streets, basked in the sunshine, or sought every corner where a shadow could be found. But in the alleys and slums the air was heavy with heat and dust, and thick vapours floated up and down, charged with sickening smells from the refuse of fish and vegetables decaying in the gutters. Overhead the small, straight strip of sky was almost white, and the light, as it fell, seemed to quiver with the burden of its own burning heat.
Out of one of the smaller thoroughfares lying between Holborn and the Strand, there opens a narrow alley, not more than six or seven feet across, with high buildings on each side. In the most part the ground floors consist of small shops; for the alley is not a blind one, but leads from the thoroughfare to another street, and forms, indeed, a short cut to it, pretty often used. These shops are not of any size or importance--a greengrocer's, with a somewhat scanty choice of vegetables and fruit, a broker's, displaying queer odds and ends of household goods, two or three others, and at the end farthest from the chief thoroughfare, but nearest to the quiet and respectable street beyond, a very modest-looking little shop-window, containing a few newspapers, some rather yellow packets of stationery, and two or three books of ballads. Above the door was painted, in very small, dingy letters, the words, "James Oliver, News Agent."
The shop was even smaller, in proportion, than its window. After two customers had entered--if such an event could ever come to pass--it would have been almost impossible to find room for a third. Along the end ran a little counter, with a falling flap by which admission could be gained to the living-room lying behind the shop. This evening the flap was down--a certain sign that James Oliver, the news agent, had some guest within, for otherwise there would have been no occasion to lessen the scanty size of the counter. The room beyond was dark, very dark indeed, for the time of day; for, though the evening was coming on, and the sun was hastening to go down at last, it had not yet ceased to shine brilliantly upon the great city. But inside James Oliver's house the gas was already lighted in a little steady flame, which never flickered in the still, hot air, though both door and window were wide open. For there was a window, though it was easy to overlook it, opening into a passage four feet wide, which led darkly up into a still closer and hotter court, lying in the very core of the maze of streets. As the houses were four stories high, it is easy to understand that very little sunlight could penetrate to Oliver's room behind his shop, and that even at noonday it was twilight there. This room was of a better size altogether than a stranger might have supposed, having two or three queer little nooks and recesses borrowed from the space belonging to the adjoining house; for the buildings were old, and had probably been one large dwelling in former times. It was plainly the only apartment the owner had; and all its arrangements were those of a man living alone, for there was something almost desolate about the look of the scanty furniture, though it was clean and whole. There had been a fire, but it had died out, and the coals were black in the grate, while the kettle still sat upon the top bar with a melancholy expression of neglect about it.
James Oliver himself had placed his chair near to the open door, where he could keep his eye upon the shop--a needless precaution, as at this hour no customers ever turned into it. He was an old man, and seemed very old and infirm by the dim light. He was thin and spare, with that peculiar spareness which results from the habit of always eating less than one can. His teeth, which had never had too much to do, had gone some years ago, and his cheeks fell in rather deeply. A fine network of wrinkles puckered about the corners of his eyes and mouth. He stooped a good deal, and moved about with the slowness and deliberation of age. Yet his face was very pleasant--a cheery, gentle, placid face, lighted up with a smile now and then, but with sufficient rareness to make it the more welcome and the more noticed when it came.
Old Oliver had a visitor this hot evening, a neat, small, dapper woman, with a little likeness to himself, who had been putting his room to rights, and looking to the repairs needed by his linen. She was just replacing her needle, cotton, and buttons in an old-fashioned housewife, which she always carried in her pocket, and was then going to put on her black silk bonnet and coloured shawl, before bidding him goodbye.
"Eh, Charlotte," said Oliver, after drawing a long and toilsome breath, "what would I give to be a-top of the Wrekin, seeing the sun set this evening! Many and many's the summer afternoon we've spent there when we were young, and all of us alive. Dost remember how many a mile of country we could see all round us, and how fresh the air blew across the thousands of green fields? Why, I saw Snowdon once, more than sixty miles off, when my eyes were young and it was a clear sunset. I always think of the top of the Wrekin when I read of Moses going up Mount Pisgah and seeing all the land about him, north and south, east and west. Eh, lass! there's a change in us all now!"
"Ah! it's like another world!" said the old woman, shaking her head slowly. "All the folks I used to sew for at Aston, and Uppington, and Overlehill, they'd mostly be gone or dead by now. It wouldn't seem like the same place at all. And now there's none but you and me left, brother James. Well, well! its lonesome, growing old."
"Yes, lonesome, yet not exactly lonesome," replied old Oliver, in a dreamy voice. "I'm growing dark a little, and just a trifle deaf, and I don't feel quite myself like I used to do; but I've got something I didn't use to have. Sometimes of an evening, before I've lit the gas, I've a sort of a feeling as if I could almost see the Lord Jesus, and hear him talking to me. He looks to me something like our eldest brother, him that died when we were little. Charlotte, thee remembers him? A white, quiet, patient face, with a smile like the sun shining behind clouds. Well, whether it's only a dream or no I cannot tell, but there's a face looks at me, or seems to look at me out of the dusk; and I think to myself, maybe the Lord Jesus says, 'Old Oliver's lonesome down there in the dark, and his eyes growing dim. I'll make myself half-plain to him.' Then he comes and sits here with me for a little while."
"Oh, that's all fancy as comes with you living quite alone," said Charlotte, sharply.
"Perhaps so! perhaps so!" answered the old man, with a meek sigh; "but I should be very lonesome without that."
They did not speak again until Charlotte had given a final shake to the bed in the corner, upon which her bonnet and shawl had been lying. She put them on neatly and primly; and when she was ready to go she spoke again in a constrained and mysterious manner.
"Heard nothing of Susan, I suppose?" she said.
"Not a word," answered old Oliver, sadly. "It's the only trouble I've got. That were the last passion I ever went into, and I was hot and hasty, I know."
"So you always used to be at times," said his sister.
"Ah! but that passion was the worst of all," he went on, speaking slowly. "I told her if she married young Raleigh, she should never darken my doors again--never again. And she took me at my word though she might have known it was nothing but father's hot temper. Darken my doors! Why, the brightest sunshine I could have 'ud be to see her come smiling into my shop, like she used to do at home."
"Well, I think Susan ought to have humbled herself," said Charlotte. "It's going on for six years now, and she's had time enough to see her folly. Do you know where she is?"
"I know nothing about her," he answered, shaking his head sorrowfully. "Young Raleigh was wild, very wild, and that was my objection to him; but I didn't mean Susan to take me at my word. I shouldn't speak so hasty and hot now."
"And to think. I'd helped to bring her up so genteel, and with such pretty manners!" cried the old woman, indignantly. "She might have done so much better with her cleverness too. Such a milliner as she might have turned out! Well good-bye, brother James, and don't go having any more of those visions; they're not wholesome for you."
"I should be very lonesome without them," answered Oliver. "Good-bye, Charlotte, good-bye, and God bless you. Come again as soon as you can."
He went with her to the door, and stayed to watch her along the quiet alley, till she turned into the street. Then, with a last nod to the back of her bonnet, as she passed out of his sight, he returned slowly into his dark shop, put up the flap of the counter, and retreated to the darker room within. Hot as it was, he fancied it was growing a little chilly with the coming of the night, and he drew on his old coat, and threw a handkerchief over his white head, and then sat down in the dusk, looking out into his shop and the alley beyond it. He must have fallen into a doze after a while, being overcome with the heat, and lulled by the constant hum of the streets, which reached his dull ear in a softened murmur; for at length he started up almost in a fright, and found that complete darkness had fallen upon him suddenly, as it seemed to him. A church clock was striking nine, and his shop was not closed yet. He went out hurriedly to put the shutters up.
WAIFS AND STRAYS.
In the shop it was not yet so dark but that old Oliver could see his way out with the shutters, which during the day occupied a place behind the door. He lifted the flap of the counter, and was about to go on with his usual business, when a small voice, trembling a little, and speaking from the floor at his very feet, caused him to pause suddenly.
"Please, rere's a little girl here," said the voice.
Oliver stooped down to bring his eyes nearer to the ground, until he could make out the indistinct outline of the figure of a child, seated on his shop floor, and closely hugging a dog in her arms. Her face looked small to him; it was pale, as if she had been crying quietly, and though he could not see them, a large tear stood on each of her cheeks.
"What little girl are you?" he asked, almost timidly.
"Rey called me Dolly," answered the child.
"Haven't you any other name?" inquired old Oliver
"Nosing else but Poppet," she said; "rey call me Dolly sometimes, and Poppet sometimes. Ris is my little dog, Beppo."
She introduced the dog by pushing its nose into his hand, and Beppo complacently wagged his tail and licked the old man's withered fingers.
"What brings you here in my shop, my little woman?" asked Oliver.
"Mammy brought me," she said, with a stifled sob; "she told me run in rere, Dolly, and stay till mammy comes back, and be a good girl always. Am I a good girl?"
"Yes, yes," he answered, soothingly; "you're a very good little girl, I'm sure; and mother 'ill come back soon, very soon. Let us go to the door, and look for her."
He took her little hand in his own; such a little hand it felt, that he could not help tightening his fingers fondly over it; and then they stood for a few minutes on the door-sill, while old Oliver looked anxiously up and down the alley. At the greengrocer's next door there flared a bright jet of gas, and the light shone well into the deepening darkness. But there was no woman in sight, and the only person about was a ragged boy, barefoot and bareheaded with no clothing but a torn pair of trousers, very jagged about the ankles, and a jacket through which his thin shoulders displayed themselves. He was lolling in the lowest window-sill of the house opposite, and watched Oliver and the little girl looking about them with sundry signs of interest and amusement.
"She ain't nowhere in sight," he called across to them after a while, "nor won't be, neither, I'll bet you. You're looking out for the little un's mother, ain't you, old master?"
"Yes," answered Oliver; "do you know anything about her, my boy?"
"Nothink," he said, with a laugh; "only she looked as if she were up to some move, and as I'd nothink particular on hand, I just followed her. She was somethink like my mother, as is dead, not fat or rosy, you know, with a bit of a bruise about her eye, as if somebody had been fighting with her. I thought there'd be a lark when she left the little 'un in your shop, so I just stopped to see. She bolted as if the bobbies were after her."
"How long ago?" asked Oliver, anxiously.
"The clocks had just gone eight," he answered; "I've been watching for you ever since."
"Why! that's a full hour ago," said the old man, looking wistfully down the alley; "it's time she was come back again for her little girl."
[Illustration: THE LITTLE STRANGER.]
But there was no symptom of anybody coming to claim the little girl, who stood very quietly at his side, one hand holding the dog fast by his ear, and the other still lying in Oliver's grasp. The boy hopped on one foot across the narrow alley, and looked up with bright, eager eyes into the old man's face.
"I say," he said, earnestly, "don't you go to give her up to the p'lice. They'd take her to the house, and that's worse than the jail. Bless yer! they'd never take up a little thing like that to jail for a wagrant. You just give her to me, and I'll take care of her. It 'ud be easy enough to find victuals for such a pretty little thing as her. You give her up to me, I say."
"What's your name?" asked Oliver, clasping the little hand tighter, "and where do you come from?"
"From nowhere particular," answered the boy; "and my name's Antony; Tony, for short. I used to have another name; mother told it me afore she died, but it's gone clean out o' my head. Tony I am, anyhow, and you can call me by it, if you choose."
"How old are you, Tony?" inquired Oliver, still lingering on the threshold, and looking up and down with his dim eyes.
"Bless yer! I don't know," replied Tony; "I weren't much bigger nor her when mother died, and I've found myself ever since. I never had any father."
"Found yourself!" repeated the old man, absently.
"Ah, it's not bad in the summer," said Tony, more earnestly than before: "and I could find for the little 'un easy enough. I sleep anywhere, in Covent Garden sometimes, and the parks--anywhere as the p'lice 'ill let me alone. You won't go to give her up to them p'lice, will you now, and she so pretty?"
He spoke in a beseeching tone, and old Oliver looked down upon him through his spectacles, with a closer survey than he had given to him before. The boy's face was pale and meagre, with an unboyish sharpness about it, though he did not seem more than nine or ten years old. His glittering eyes were filled with tears, and his colourless lips quivered. He wiped away the tears roughly upon the ragged sleeve of his jacket.
"I never were such a baby before," said Tony, "only she is such a nice little thing, and such a tiny little 'un. You'll keep her, master, won't you? or give her up to me?"
"Ay, ay! I'll take care of her," answered Oliver, "till her mother comes back for her. She'll come pretty soon, I know. But she wants her supper now, doesn't she?"
He stooped down to bring his face nearer to the child's, and she raised her hand to it, and stroked his cheek with her warm, soft fingers.
"Beppo wants his supper, too," she said, in a clear, shrill, little voice, which penetrated easily through old Oliver's deafened hearing.
"And Beppo shall have some supper as well as the little woman," he answered. "I'll put the shutters up now, and leave the door ajar, and the gas lit for mother to see when she comes back; and if mother shouldn't come back to night, the little woman will sleep in my bed, won't she?"
"Dolly's to be a good girl till mammy comes back," said the child, plaintively, and holding harder by Beppo's ear.
"Let me put the shutters up, master," cried Tony, eagerly; "I won't charge you nothink, and I'll just look round in the morning to see how you're getting along. She is such a very little thing."
The shutters were put up briskly, and then Tony took a long, farewell gaze of the old man and the little child, but he could not offer to touch either of them. He glanced at his hands, and Oliver did the same; but they both shook their heads.
"I'll have a wash in the morning afore I come," he said, nodding resolutely; "good-bye, guv'ner; goodbye, little 'un."
Old Oliver went in, leaving his door ajar, and his gas lit, as he had said. He fed the hungry child with bread and butter, and used up his half-pennyworth of milk, which he bought for himself every evening. Then he lifted her on to his knee, with Beppo in her arms, and sat for a long while waiting. The little head nodded, and Dolly sat up, unsteadily striving hard to keep awake; but at last she let Beppo drop to the floor, while she herself fell upon the old man's breast, and lay there without moving. It chimed eleven o'clock at last, and Oliver knew it was of no use to watch any longer.
He managed to undress his little charge with gentle, though trembling hands, and then he laid her down on his bed, putting his only pillow against the wall to make a soft nest for the tender and sleepy child. She roused herself for a minute, and stared about her, gazing steadily, with large, tearful eyes, into his face. Then as he sat down on the bedstead beside her, to comfort her as well as he could, she lifted herself up, and knelt down, with her folded hands laid against his shoulder.
"Dolly vewy seepy," she lisped, "but must say her prayers always."
"What are your prayers, my dear?" he asked.
"On'y God bless gan-pa, and father, and mammy, and poor Beppo, and make me a good girl," murmured the drowsy voice, as Dolly closed her eyes again, and fell off into a deep sleep the next moment.
A LITTLE PEACEMAKER.
It was a very strange event which had befallen old Oliver. He went back to his own chair, where he smoked his Broseley pipe every night, and sank down in it, rubbing his legs softly; for it was a long time since he had nursed any child, and even Dolly's small weight was a burden to him. Her tiny clothes were scattered up and down, and there was no one beside himself to gather them together, and fold them straight. In shaking out her frock a letter fell from it, and Oliver picked it up wondering whoever it could be for. It was directed to himself, "Mr. James Oliver, News-agent," and he broke the seal with eager expectation. The contents were these, written in a handwriting which he knew at first sight to be his daughter's:--
"I am very very sorry I ever did anything to make you angry with me. This is your poor Susan's little girl, as is come to be a little peacemaker betwixt you and me. I'm certain sure you'll never turn her away from your door. I'm going down to Portsmouth for three days, because he listed five months ago, and his regiment's ordered out to India, and he sails on Friday. So I thought I wouldn't take my little girl to be in the way, and I said I'll leave her with father till I come back, and her pretty little ways will soften him towards me, and we'll live all together in peace and plenty till his regiment comes home again, poor fellow. For he's very good to me when he's not in liquor, which is seldom for a man. Please do forgive me for pity's sake, and for Christ's sake, if I'm worthy to use his name, and do take care of my little girl till I come home to you both on Friday, From your now dutiful daughter,
The tears rolled fast down old Oliver's cheeks as he read this letter through twice, speaking the words half aloud to himself. Why! this was his own little grandchild, then--his very own! And no doubt Susan had christened her Dorothy, after her own mother, his dear wife, who had died so many years ago. Dolly was the short for Dorothy, and in early times he had often called his wife by that name. He had turned his gas off and lighted a candle, and now he took it up and went to the bedside to look at his new treasure. The tiny face lying upon his pillow was rosy with sleep, and the fair curly hair was tossed about in pretty disorder. His spectacles grew very dim indeed, and he was obliged to polish them carefully on his cotton handkerchief before he could see his grand-daughter plainly enough. Then he touched her dimpled cheek tremblingly with the end of his finger, and sobbed out, "Bless her! bless her!" He returned to his chair, his head shaking a good deal before he could regain his composure; and it was not until he had kindled his pipe, and was smoking it, with his face turned towards the sleeping child, that he felt at all like himself again.
"Dear Lord!" he said, half aloud, between the whiffs of his pipe, "dear Lord! how very good thou art to me! Didst thee not say, 'I'll not leave thee comfortless, I'll come to thee?' I know what that means, bless thy name; and the good Spirit has many a time brought me comfort, and cheered my heart. I know thou didst not leave me alone before. No, no! that was far from thee, Lord. Alone!--why, thou'rt always here; and now there's the little lass as well. Lonesome!--they don't know thee, Lord, and they don't know me. Thou'rt here, with the little lass and me. Yes, yes,--yes."
He murmured the word "yes" in a tone of contentment over and over again, until, the pipe being finished, he prepared for sleep also. But no sleep came to the old man. He was too full of thought, and too fearful of the child waking in the night and wanting something. The air was close and hot, and now and then a peal of thunder broke overhead; but a profound peace and tranquillity, slightly troubled by his new joy, held possession of him. His grandchild was there, and his daughter was coming back to him in three days.
Oh, how he would welcome her! He would not let her speak one word of her wilfulness and disobedience, and the long, cruel neglect which had left him in ignorance of where she lived, and what had become of her. It was partly his fault, for having been too hard upon her, and too hasty and hot-tempered. He had learnt better since then.
OLD OLIVER'S MASTER.
Very early in the morning, before the tardy daylight could creep into the darkened room, old Oliver was up and busy. He had been in the habit of doing for himself, as he called it, ever since his daughter had forsaken him, and he was by nature fastidiously clean and neat. But now there would be additional duties for him during the next three days; for there would be Dolly to wash, and dress, and provide breakfast for. Every few minutes he stole a look at her lying still asleep; and as soon as he discovered symptoms of awaking, he hastily lifted Beppo on to the bed, that her opening eyes should be greeted by some familiar sight. She stretched out her wonderful little hands, and caught hold of the dog's rough head before venturing to lift her eyelids, while Oliver looked on in speechless delight. At length she ventured to peep slyly at him, and then addressed herself to Beppo.
"What am I to call ris funny old man, Beppo?" she asked.
"I am your grandpa, my darling," said Oliver, in his softest voice.
"Are you God-bless-gan-pa?" inquired Dolly, sitting up on her pillow, and staring very hard with her blue eyes into his wrinkled face.
"Yes, I am," he answered, looking at her anxiously.
"Dolly knows," she said, counting upon her little fingers; "rere's father, and mammy, and Beppo; and now rere's gan-pa. Dolly'll get up now."
She flung her arms suddenly about his neck and kissed him, while old Oliver trembled with intense joy. It was quite a marvel to him how she helped him to dress her, laughing merrily at the strange mistakes he made in putting on her clothes the wrong side before; and when he assured her that her mother would come back very soon, she seemed satisfied to put up with any passing inconvenience. The shop, with its duties, and the necessity of getting in his daily stock of newspapers, entirely slipped his memory; and he was only recalled to it by a very loud rapping at the door as he was pouring out Dolly's breakfast. To his great surprise he discovered that he had forgotten to take down his shutters, though it was past the hour when his best customers passed by.
The person knocking proved to be none other than Tony, who greeted the old man's appearance with a prolonged whistle, and a grave and reproachful stare.
"Come," he said, in a tone of remonstrance, "this'll never do, you know. Business is business, and must be minded. You pretty nearly frightened me into fits; anybody could have knocked me down with a straw when I see the shutters up. How is she?"
"She's very well, thank you, my boy," answered Oliver, meekly.
"Mother not turned up, I guess?" said Tony.
"No; she comes on Friday," he replied.
Tony winked, and put his tongue into his cheek; but he gave utterance to no remark until after the shutters were in their place. Then he surveyed himself as well as he could, with an air of satisfaction. His face and hands were clean, and his skin looked very white through the holes in his tattered clothes; even his feet, except for an unavoidable under surface of dust, were unsoiled. His jacket and trousers appeared somewhat more torn than the evening before; but they bore every mark of having been washed also.
"Washed myself early in the morning, afore the bobbies were much about," remarked Tony, "in the fountains at Charing Cross; but I hadn't time to get my rags done, so I did 'em down under the bridge, when the tide were going down; but I could only give 'em a bit of a swill and a ring out. Anyhow, I'm a bit cleaner this morning than last night, master."
"To be sure, to be sure," answered Oliver. "Come in, my boy, and I'll give you a bit of breakfast with her and me."
"You haven't got sich a thing as a daily paper, have you?" asked Tony, in a patronizing tone.
"Not to-day's paper, I'm afraid," he said.
"I'm afraid not," continued Tony; "overslept yourself, eh? Not as I can read myself; but there are folks going by as can, and might p'raps buy one here as well as anywhere else. Shall I run and get 'em for you, now I'm on my legs?"
Oliver looked questioningly at the boy, who returned a frank, honest gaze, and said, "Honour bright!" as he held out his hand for the money. There was some doubt in the old man's mind after Tony had disappeared as to whether he had not done a very foolish thing; but he soon forgot it when he returned to the breakfast-table; and long before he himself could have reached the place and returned, Tony was back again with his right number of papers.
Before many minutes Tony was sitting upon an old box at a little distance from the table, where Oliver sat with his grandchild. A basin of coffee and a large hunch of bread rested upon his knees, and Beppo was sniffing round him with a doubtful air. Dolly was shy in this strange company, and ate her breakfast with a sedate gravity which filled both her companions with astonishment and admiration. When the meal was finished, old Oliver took his daughter's letter from his waistcoat pocket and read it aloud to Tony, who listened with undivided interest.
"Then she's your own little 'un," he said, with a sigh of disappointment. "You'll never give her up to me, if you get tired of her,--nor to the p'lice neither," he added, with a brightening face.
"No, no, no!" answered Oliver, emphatically. "Besides, her mother's coming on Friday. I wouldn't give her up for all the world, bless her!"
"And he's 'listed!" said Tony, in a tone of envy. "They wouldn't take me yet a while, if I offered to go. But who's that she speaks of?--'for Christ's sake, if I am worthy to use his name.' Who is he?"
"Don't you know?" asked Oliver.
"No, never heard tell of him before," he answered. "Is he any friend o' yours?" [A]
[Footnote A: It may be necessary to assure some readers that this ignorance is not exaggerated. The City Mission Reports, and similar records, show that such cases are too frequent.]
"Ay!" said Oliver; "he's my only friend, my best friend. And he's my master, besides."
"And she thinks he'd be angry if you turned the little girl away?" pursued Tony.
"Yes, yes; he'd be very angry," said old Oliver, thoughtfully; "it 'ud grieve him to his heart. Why, he's always loved little children, and never had them turned away from himself, whatever he was doing. If she hadn't been my own little girl, I daren't have turned her out of my doors. No, no, dear Lord, thee knows as I'd have taken care of her, for thy sake."
He spoke absently, in a low voice, as though talking to some person whom Tony could not see, and the boy was silent a minute or two, thinking busily.
"How long have you worked for that master o' yours?" he asked, at last.
"Not very long," replied Oliver, regretfully. "I used to fancy I was working for him years and years ago; but, dear me! it was poor sort o'work; and now I can't do very much. Only he knows how old I am, and he doesn't care so that I love him, which I do, Tony."
"I should think so!" said the boy, falling again into busy thought, from which he aroused himself by getting up from his box, and rubbing his fingers through his wet and tangled hair.
"He takes to children and little 'uns?" he said, in a questioning tone.
"Ay, dearly!" answered old Oliver.
"I reckon he'd scarcely take me for a man yet," said Tony, at the same time drawing himself up to his full height; "though I don't know as I should care to work for him. I'd rather have a crossing, and be my own master. But if I get hard up, do you think he'd take to me, if you spoke a word for me?"
"Are you sure you don't know anything about him?" asked Oliver.
"Not I; how should I?" answered Tony. "Why, you don't s'pose as I know all the great folks in London, though I've seen sights and sights of 'em riding about in their carriages. I told you I weren't much bigger nor her there when mother died, and I've picked up my living up and down the streets anyhow, and other lads have helped me on, till I can help 'em on now. It don't cost much to keep a boy on the streets. There's nothink to pay for coals, or rent, or beds, or furniture, or anythink; only your victuals, and a rag now and then. All I want's a broom and a crossing, and then shouldn't I get along just? But I don't know how to get 'em."
"Perhaps the Lord Jesus would give them to you, if you'd ask him," said Oliver, earnestly.
"Who's he?" inquired Tony, with an eager face.
"Him--Christ. It's his other name," answered the old man.
"Ah! I see," he said, nodding. "Well, if I can't get 'em myself, I'll think about it. He'll want me to work for him, you know. Where does he live?"
"I'll tell you all about him, if you'll come to see me," replied Oliver.
"Well," said the boy, "I'll just look in after Friday, and see if the little 'un's mother's come back. Goodbye,--good-bye, little miss."
He could take Dolly's hand into his own this morning, and he looked down curiously at it,--a small, rosy, dimpled hand, such as he had never seen before so closely. A lump rose in his throat, and his eyelids smarted with tears again. It was such a little thing, such a pretty little thing, he said to himself, covering it fondly with his other hand. There was no fear that Tony would forget to come back to old Oliver's house.
"Thank you for my breakfast," he said, with a choking voice; "only if I do come to see you, it'll be to see her again--not for anythink as I can get."
The next three days were a season of unmixed happiness to old Oliver. The little child was so merry, yet withal so gentle and sweet-tempered, that she kept him in a state of unwearied delight, without any alloy of anxiety or trouble. She trotted at his side with short, running footsteps, when he went out early in the morning to fetch his daily stock of newspapers. She watched him set his room tidy, and made believe to help him by dusting the legs and seats of his two chairs. She stood with folded hands and serious face, looking on as he was busy with his cooking. When she was not thus engaged she played contentedly with Beppo, prattling to him in such a manner, that Oliver often forgot what he was about while listening to her. She played with him, too, frolicsome little games of hide-and-seek, in which he grew as eager as herself; and sometimes she stole his spectacles, or handkerchief, or anything she could lay her mischievous fingers upon to hide away in some unthought-of spot; while her shrewd, cunning little face put on an expression of profound gravity as old Oliver sought everywhere for them.
As Friday evening drew near, the old man's gladness took a shade of anxiety. His daughter was coming home to him, and his heart was full of unutterable joy and gratitude; but he did not know exactly how they should go on in the future. He was averse to change; yet this little house, with its single room, to which he had moved when she forsook him, was too scanty in its accommodation. He had made up a rude sort of bed for himself under the counter in the shop, and was quite ready to give up his own to Susan and his little love, as he called Dolly; but would Susan let him have his own way in this, and many other things? He provided a sumptuous tea, and added a fresh salad to it from the greengrocer's next door; but though he and Dolly waited and watched till long after the child's bed-time, taking occasional snatches of bread and butter, still Susan did not arrive. At length a postman entered the little shop with a noise which made Oliver's heart beat violently, and tossed a letter down upon the counter. He carried it to the door, where there was still light enough to read it, and saw that it was in Susan's handwriting.
"MY DEAR AND DEAREST FATHER,
"My heart is almost broke, betwixt one thing and another. His regiment is to set sail immediate, and the colonel's lady has offered me very handsome wages to go out with her as lady's maid, her own having disappointed her at the last moment; which I could do very well, knowing the dressmaking. He said, 'Do come, Susan, and I'll never get drunk again, so help me God; and if you don't, I shall go to the bad altogether; for I do love you, Susan.' I said, 'Oh my child!' And the colonel's lady said, 'She's safe with her grandfather; and if he's a good man, as you say he is, he'll take the best of care of her. I'll give you three pounds to send him from here, and we'll send more from Calcutta.' So they overpersuaded me, and there isn't even time to come back to London, for we are going in a few hours. You'll take care of my little dear, I know, you and aunt Charlotte. I've sent a little box of clothes for her by the railway, and what more she wants aunt Charlotte will see to, I'm sure, and do her mending, and see to her manners till I come home. Oh! if I could only hear you say 'Susan, my dear, I forgive you, and love you almost as much as ever,' I'd go with a lighter heart, and be almost glad to leave Dolly to be a comfort to you. She will be a comfort to you, though she is so little, I'm sure. Tell her mammy says she must be a good girl always till mammy comes back. A hundred thousand kisses for my dear father and my little girl. We shall come home as soon as ever we can; but I don't rightly know where India is. I think it's my bounden duty to go with him, as things have turned out. Pray God take care of us all.
"Your loving, sorrowful daughter,
THE GRASSHOPPER A BURDEN.
It was some time before the full meaning of Susan's letter penetrated to her father's brain; but when it did, he was not at first altogether pained by it. True, it was both a grief and disappointment to think that his daughter, instead of returning to him, was already on her way across the sea to a very distant land. But as this came slowly to his mind, there came also the thought that there would now be no one to divide with him the treasure committed to his charge. The little child would belong to him alone. They might go on still, living as they had done these last three days, and being all in all to one another. If he could have chosen, his will would certainly have been for Susan to return to them; but, since he could not have his choice, he felt that there were some things which would be all the happier for him because of her absence.
He put Dolly to bed, and then went out to shut up the shop for the night. As he carried in his feeble arms a single shutter at a time, he heard himself hailed by a boy's voice, which was lowered to a low and mysterious whisper, and which belonged to Tony, who took the shutter out of his hands.
"S'pose the mother turned up all right?" he said, pointing with his thumb through the half open door.
"No," answered Oliver. "I've had another letter from her, and she's gone out to India with her husband, and left the little love to live alone with me."
"But whatever'll the Master say to that?" inquired Tony.
"What master?" asked old Oliver.
"Him--Lord Jesus Christ. What'll he say to her leaving you and the little 'un again?" said Tony, with an eager face.
"Oh! he says a woman ought to leave her father, and keep to her husband," he answered, somewhat sadly. "It's all right, that is."
"I s'pose he'll help you to take care of the little girl," said Tony.
"Ay will he; him and me," replied old Oliver; "there's no fear of that. You never read the Testament, of course, my boy?"
"Can't read, I told you," he answered. "But what's that?"
"A book all about him, the Lord Jesus," said Oliver, "what he's done, and what he's willing to do for people. If you'll come of an evening, I'll read it aloud to you and my little love. She'll listen as quiet and good as any angel."
"I'll come to-morrow," answered Tony, readily; and he lingered about the doorway until he heard the old man inside fasten the bolts and locks, and saw the light go out in the pane of glass over the door. Then he scampered noiselessly with his naked feet along the alley in the direction of Covent Garden, where he purposed to spend the night, if left undisturbed.
Old Oliver went back into his room, where the tea-table was still set out for his Susan's welcome; but he had no heart to clear the things away. A chill came over his spirit as his eye fell upon the preparations he had made to give her such a cordial greeting, that she would know at once he had forgiven her fully. He lit his pipe, and sat pondering sorrowfully over all the changes that had happened to him since those old, far-away days when he was a boy, in the pleasant, fresh, healthy homestead at the foot of the Wrekin. He felt all of a sudden how very old he was; a poor, infirm, hoary old man. His sight was growing dim even, and his hearing duller every day; he was sure of it. His limbs ached oftener, and he was earlier wearied in the evening; yet he could not sleep soundly at nights, as he had been used to do. But, worst of all, his memory was not half as good as it had been. Sometimes, of late, he had caught himself reading a newspaper quite a fortnight old, and he had not found it out till he happened to see the date at the top. He could not recollect the names of people as he did once; for many of his customers to whom he supplied the monthly magazines were obliged to tell him their names and the book they wanted every time, before he could remember them. And now there was this young child cast upon him to be thought of, and cared and worked for. It was very thoughtless and reckless of Susan! Suppose he should forget or neglect any of her tender wants! Suppose his dull ear should grow too deaf to catch the pretty words she said when she asked for something! Suppose he should not see when the tears were rolling down her cheeks, and nobody would comfort her! It might very easily be so. He was not the hale man he was when Susan was just such another little darling, and he could toss her up to the ceiling in his strong hands. It was as much as he could do to lift Dolly on to his feeble knee, and nurse her quietly, not even giving her a ride to market upon it; and how stiff he felt if she sat there long!
Old Oliver laid aside his pipe, and rested his worn face upon his hands, while the heavy tears came slowly and painfully to his eyes, and trickled down his withered cheeks. His joy had fled, and his unmingled gladness had faded quite away. He was a very poor, very old man; and the little child was very, very young. What would become of them both, alone in London?
He did not know whether it was a voice speaking within himself in his own heart, or words whispered very softly into his ear; but he heard a low, quiet, still, small voice, which said, "Even to your old age I am he, and even to hoar hairs I will carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you." And old Oliver answered, with a sob, "Yes, Lord, yes!"
THE PRINCE OF LIFE.
In the new life which had now fairly begun for Oliver, it was partly as he had foreseen; he was apt to forget many things, and he had a fretting consciousness of this forgetfulness. When he was in the house playing with Dolly, or reading to her, the shop altogether slipped away from his memory, and he was only recalled to it by the loud knocking or shouting of some customer in it. On the other hand, when he was sitting behind the counter looking for news from India in the papers, news in which he was already profoundly concerned, though it was impossible that Susan could yet have reached it, he grew so absorbed, that he did not know how the time was passing by, and both he and his little grand-daughter were hungry before he had thought of getting ready any meal. He tried all kinds of devices for strengthening his failing memory; but in vain. He even forgot that he did forget; and when Dolly was laughing and frolicking about him he grew a child again, and felt himself the happiest man in London.
The person who took upon himself the heaviest weight of anxiety and responsibility about Dolly was Tony, who began to make it his daily custom to pass by the house at the hour when old Oliver ought to be going for his morning papers; and if he found no symptom of life about the place, he did not leave off kicking and butting at the shop-door until the owner appeared. It was very much the same thing at night, when the time for shutting up came; though it generally happened now that the boy was paying his friends an evening visit, and was therefore at hand to put up the shutters for Oliver. Tony could not keep away from the place. Though he felt a boy's contemptuous pity for the poor old man's declining faculties as regarded business, he had a very high veneration for his learning. Nothing pleased him better than to sit upon the old box near the door, his elbows on his knees, and his chin upon his hands, while Oliver read aloud, with Dolly upon his knee, her curly hair and small pretty features making a strange contrast to his white head and withered, hollow face. Tony, who had never had anything to love except a stray cur or two, which he had always lost after a few days' friendship, felt as if he could have suffered himself to be put to death for either of these two; while Beppo came in for a large share of his unclaimed affections. The chief subject of their reading was the life of the Master, who was so intimately dear to the heart of old Oliver. Tony was very eager to learn all he could of this great friend who did so much for the old man, and who might perhaps be persuaded some day or other to take a little notice of him, if he should fail to get a crossing for himself. Oliver, in his long, unbroken solitude of six years, had fallen into a notion, amounting to a firm belief, that his Lord was not dead and far off, as most of the world believed, but was a very present, living friend, always ready to listen to the meanest of his words. He had a vague suspicion that his faith had got into a different course from that of most other people; and he bore meekly the rebukes of his sister Charlotte for the unwholesomeness of his visions. But none the less, when he was alone, he talked and prayed to, and spoke to Tony of this Master, as one who was always very near at hand.
"I s'pose he takes a bit o' notice o' the little un," said Tony, "when he comes in now and then of an evening."
"Ay, does he!" answered Oliver, earnestly. "My boy, he loves every child as if it was his very own, and it is his own in one sense. Didn't I read you last night how he said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.' Why, he'd love all the young children in the world, if they weren't hindered from coming to him."
"I should very much like to see him some day," pursued Tony, reflectively, "and the rest of them,--Peter, and John, and them. I s'pose they are getting pretty old by now, aren't they?"
"They are dead," said Oliver.
"All of 'em?" asked Tony.
"All of them," he repeated.
"Dear, dear!" cried Tony, his eyes glistening. "Whatever did the Master do when they all died? I'm very sorry for him now. He's had a many troubles, hasn't he?"
"Yes, yes," replied old Oliver, with a faltering voice. "He was called a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. Nobody ever bore so many troubles as him."
"How long is it ago since they all died?" asked Tony.
"I can't rightly say," he answered. "I heard once, but it is gone out of my head. I only know it was the same when I was a boy. It must have been a long, long time ago."
"The same when you was a boy!" repeated Tony, in a tone of disappointment. "It must ha' been a long while ago. I thought all along as the Master was alive now."
"So he is, so he is!" exclaimed old Oliver, eagerly. "I'll read to you all about it. They put him to death on the cross, and buried him in a rocky grave; but he is the Prince of Life, and he came to life again three days after, and now he can die no more. His own words to John were, 'I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive forevermore.' What else can it mean but that he is living now, and will never die again?"
Tony made no answer. He sat with his sharp, unboyish face gazing intently into the fire; for by this time autumn had set in, and the old man was chilly of an evening. A very uncertain, dim idea was dawning upon him that this master and friend of old Oliver's was a being very different from an ordinary man, however great and rich he might be. He had grown to love the thought of him, and to listen attentively to the book which told the manner of life he led; but it was a chill to find out that he could not look into his face, and hear his voice, as he could Oliver's. His heart was heavy, and very sad.
"I s'pose I can't see him, then," he murmured to himself, at last.
"Not exactly like other folks," said Oliver. "I think sometimes that perhaps there's a little darkness of the grave where he was buried about him still. But he sees us, and hears us. He himself says, 'Behold, I am with you always.' I don't know whatever I should do, even with my little love here, if I wasn't sure Jesus was with me as well."
"I'll tell you what I'll do," said Tony, after another pause. "I'm going to ask him to give me somethink, and then if he does, I shall know he hears me--I should very much like to have a broom and a crossing, and get my living a bit more easy, if you please."
He had turned his face away from Oliver, and looked across into the darkest corner of the room, where he could see nothing but shadow. The old man felt puzzled, and somewhat troubled, but he only sighed softly to himself; and opening the Testament, he read aloud in it till he was calmed again, and Tony was listening in rapt attention.
"My boy," he said, as the hour came for Tony to go, "where are you sleeping now?"
"Anywhere as I can get out o' the wind," he answered. "It's cold now, nights--wery cold, master. But I must get along a bit farder on. Lodgings is wery dear."
"I've been thinking," said Oliver, "that you'd find it better to have some sort of a shake-down under my counter. I've heard say that newspapers stitched together make a coverlid pretty near as warm as a blanket; and we could do no harm by trying them, Tony. Look here, and see how you'd like it."
It looked very much like a long box, and was not much larger. Two or three beetles crawled sluggishly away as the light fell upon them, and dusty cobwebs festooned all the corners; but to Tony it seemed so magnificent an accommodation for sleeping, that he could scarcely believe he heard old Oliver aright. He looked up into his face with a sharp, incredulous gaze, ready to wink and thrust his tongue into his cheek, if there was the least sign of making game of him. But the old man was simply in earnest, and without a word Tony slipped down upon a heap of paper shavings strewed within, drew his ragged jacket up about his ears, and turned his face away, lest his tears should be seen. He felt, a minute or two after, that a piece of an old rug was laid over him, but he could say nothing; and old Oliver could not hear the sob which broke from his lips.
NO PIPE FOR OLD OLIVER.
As some weeks went by, and no crossing and broom had been given to Tony, he began to suspect that Oliver was imposing upon him. Now that he slept under the counter, he could often hear the old man talking aloud to his invisible Friend as he smoked his pipe; and once or twice Tony crept noiselessly to the door and watched him, after he had finished smoking, kneel down and hide his face in his hands for some minutes together. But the boy could see nothing, and his wish had not been granted; even though, as he grew more instructed, he followed Oliver's example, and, kneeling down behind the counter, whispered out a prayer for it. To be sure his life was easier, especially the nights of it; for he never now went hungry and starved to bed upon some cold, hard door-step. But it was old Oliver who did that for him, not old Oliver's Master. So far as he knew, the Lord Jesus had taken no notice whatever of him; and the feeling, at first angry, softened down into a kind of patient grief, which was quickly dying away into indifference.
Oliver had done himself no bad turn by offering a shelter to the solitary lad. Tony always woke early in the morning, and if it rained he would run for the papers, before turning out to "find for himself" in the streets. He generally took care to be out of the way at meal-times; for it was as much as the old man could do to provide for himself and Dolly. Sometimes Tony saw him at the till, counting over his pence with rather a troubled face. Once, after receiving a silver fourpenny piece, an extraordinary and undreamed of event, Tony dropped it, almost with a feeling of guilt, through the slit in the counter which communicated with the till. But Oliver was so bewildered by its presence among the coppers, that he was compelled to confess what he had done, saying it would have cost him more than that for lodgings these cold nights.
"No, no, Tony," said Oliver; "you're very useful, fetching my papers, and taking my little love out a-walking when the weather's fine. I ought to pay you something, instead of taking it of you."
"Keep it for Dolly," said Tony, bashfully, and pushing the coin into her little hand.
"Sank 'oo," answered Dolly, accepting it promptly; "me'll give 'oo twenty kisses for it."
It seemed ample payment to Tony, who went down on his knees to have the kisses pressed upon his face, which had never felt a kiss since his mother died. But Oliver was not satisfied with the bargain, though he drew Dolly to him fondly, and left the money in her hand.
"It 'ud buy you a broom, Tony," he said.
"Oh, I've give up asking for a crossing," he answered, dejectedly; "for he never heard, or if he heard, he never cared; so it were no use going on teazing either him or me."
"But this money 'ud buy the broom," said Oliver; "and if you looked about you, you'd find the crossing. You never got such a bit of money before, did you?"
"No, never," replied Tony. "A tall, thin gentleman, with a dark face and very sharp eyes, gave it me for holding his horse, near Temple Bar. He says, 'Mind you spend that well, my lad.' I'd know him again anywhere."
"You ought to have bought a broom," said Oliver, looking down at Dolly's tightly-closed hand.
"Don't you go to take it of her," cried Tony. "Bless you! I'll get another some way. I never thought that were the way he'd give me a broom and a crossing. I thought it 'ud be sure to come direct."
"Well," said Oliver, after a little pause, "I'll save the fourpence for you. It'll only be going without my pipe for a few nights, that's all. That's nothing, Tony."
It did not seem much to Tony, who had no idea as yet of the pleasures of smoking; yet he roused up just before falling into his deep sleep at night to step softly to the door, and look in upon Oliver. He was sitting in his arm-chair, with his pipe between his lips, but there was no tobacco in it; and he was holding more eager converse than ever with his unseen companion.
"Dear Lord!" he said, "I'd do ten times more than this for thee. Thou hast said, 'Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these, ye did it unto me.' Tony's one of thy little ones. Dear Lord, do thee give him a crossing, if it be thy blessed will. Do thee now, Lord."
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