Literary Thoughts edition presents The Unseen Hand: Or, James Renfew and His Boy Helpers by Elijah Kellogg ------ "The Unseen Hand; or, James Renfew and His Boy" is a novel written in 1881 by American Congregationalist minister, lecturer and author of popular boy's adventure books, Elijah Kellogg (1813–1901). All books of the Literary Thoughts edition have been transscribed from original prints and edited for better reading experience. Please visit our homepage www.literarythoughts.com to see our other publications.
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A vast majority of the noblest intellects of the race have ever held to the idea that,—
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough hew them how we will.”
By its influence they have been both consoled and strengthened under the pressures and in the exigencies of life. This principle, to a singular degree, assumes both form and development in the story of James Renfew, the Redemptioner.
He comes to us as an orphan and the inmate of a workhouse, flung upon the world, like a dry leaf on the crest of a breaker; his mind a blank devoid of knowledge, save the idea of the Almighty and the commands of the Decalogue, whose force, in virtue of prior possession, held the ground and kept at bay the evil influences by which he was surrounded. And in consequence of thus holding aloof from all partnership in vice, he was brow-beaten, trampled upon, and made a butt of by his companions in misfortune.
His only inheritance was the kiss of a dying mother, the dim recollection of her death, and a Bible which he could not read,—her sole bequest.
The buoyancy, the frolic of the blood, the premonition of growing power, which render childhood and youth so pregnant of happiness, and so pleasant in the retrospect, were to him unrevealed. At nineteen the life seemed crushed out of him by the pressure, or, rather puncture, of a miserable present and a hopeless future. In the judgment of the most charitable, he was but one remove from fatuity.
From such material to develop the varied qualities of a pioneer, a man of firm purpose, quick resolve, and resolute to meet exigencies, might well seem to require supernatural power; and yet, by no other alchemy than sympathy, encouragement wisely timed, and knowledge seasonably imparted, was this seeming miracle accomplished.
The pity of Alice Whitman, the broad benevolence of her husband, the warm sympathy of Bertie and his young associates, the ripe counsels of the glorious old grandfather,—sage Christian hero,—and the efforts of Mr. Holmes, who honored his calling, while sowing good seed in the virgin soil of a young heart, were but visible instruments in the grasp of the Hand Unseen.
It was the autumn of 1792. The beams of the declining sun were resting peacefully upon the time-worn walls of a log house of large dimensions, evidently built to serve the purposes both of a dwelling and a fortress, and situated upon the banks of the Swatara Creek, in the State of Pennsylvania.
A magnificent chestnut-tree, whose trunk and lower branches were all aglow with the long level rays of the retiring light, shadowed a large portion of the spacious door-yard.
This was the homestead of Bradford Whitman, a well-to-do farmer, and whose family consisted of himself and wife, his aged father, and three children, Peter, Albert and Maria, aged respectively sixteen, fourteen and eleven.
Upon one of the highest branches of this great tree was seated Bertie Whitman. The eyes of the lad were eagerly fastened upon the road that, skirting the rising ground upon which the dwelling stood, led to a distant village.
At once his features lighted up with a jubilant expression; he rapidly descended from his perch, and ran to the door of the house, shouting, “Mother! Maria! Grandfather! They’ve got him; they are coming down Liscomb’s hill this minute, and there’s three in the wagon. Oh!”
He would have run to meet the approaching team, and had taken a few steps when he was met by his elder brother.
“Bertie, we’ve got the redemptioner, and I jumped out of the wagon while the horses were walking up our hill to tell you and Maria not to laugh if you can help it, ‘cause it would make him feel bad; but you can’t think how funny he does look; he’s lame besides, and his name’s James Renfew.”
This conversation was interrupted by the rumbling of wheels as their father drove up, where his whole family were grouped around the door. Mrs. Whitman stood on the door-stone, the old grandfather beside her, leaning on his staff, the children in front, while Fowler, the house-dog, with his fore-legs on the shoulders of old Frank, the near horse, his particular friend, was trying to lick his nose and Frank was arching his neck to accommodate him.
Mr. Whitman helped James to get down from the wagon. The boy made no return to the salutations of the family save by a stony stare, not even taking the hand extended to him by Mrs. Whitman. He, however, manifested some token of sensibility by offering to help in unharnessing, and would have limped after the horses to the barn, but his master told him to go into the house and keep still till his leg was better; nevertheless there he stood staring after the horses, and evidently would much rather have followed them to the barn.
The dog then came and smelt of him. Mrs. Whitman told Peter to take him by the hand and lead him into the house. She placed an arm-chair for him, and a smaller one to put his lame leg on, and in a few minutes he was fast asleep.
Judging by appearances Bradford Whitman had drawn a blank at this his first venture in the redemptioner lottery. The children got together (with the dog) under the great chestnut-tree to free their minds and compare notes.
“Isn’t he queer?” said Bertie.
“Did ever anybody see such funny clothes? I guess they were made for him when he was small and so he’s grown out of them, but he’d be real handsome if he had good clothes and his hair combed, and didn’t have such a pitiful look out of his eyes,” said Maria.
“I tell you what he puts me in mind of,” said Bertie, “Mr. William Anderson’s oxen that are so poor, their necks so long and thin; and they look so discouraged, and as though they wanted to fall down and die.”
Peter now related all he had heard Wilson tell their father, and dwelt with great emphasis upon Mr. Wilson’s statement that the lad had not a friend in the world and no home.
“He’s got one friend,” said Bertie, “Fowler likes him, ‘cause he smelt of him and wagged his tail; if he hadn’t liked him he would have growled. Mother’s a friend to him, and father and grandpa and all of us.”
“We will be good to him because he never had any chestnut-tree to play under and swing on, nor any garden of his own,” said Maria.
“How can we be good to him if he won’t say anything, Maria!” said Bertie.
“Can’t we be good to the cattle, and I’m sure they don’t talk?”
“If they don’t they say something; the cat she purrs, the hens prate, Fowler wags his tail and barks and whines; and the horses neigh, and snort, and put down their heads for me to pat them; but how could you be good to a stone? and he’s just like a stone, when mother put out her hand to shake hands he did not take it, nor look pleased nor anything.”
“Perhaps ‘twas ‘cause he was afraid. When we first got our kitten she hid away up garret, and we didn’t see her for three days, but she got tame, and so perhaps he will.”
They finally made up their minds that James was entitled to all the sympathy and kindness they could manifest towards him, when they were called to supper.
It now became a question between Mr. Whitman and his wife, where to stow James that night.
“Put him in the barn and give him some blankets to-night, and to-morrow we will clean him up.”
“I can’t bear to put him in the barn, husband, I’ll make him a bed of some old ‘duds’ on the floor in the porch. Send him right off to bed; I’ll wash his clothes and dry ‘em before morning. I can fix up some old clothes of yours for him to work in, for I don’t want any of the neighbors to see him in those he has on.”
Mr. Whitman now ushered James to bed, waited till he undressed, and brought in his clothes that were soon in scalding suds. Had Mr. Whitman gone back he would have seen this poor ignorant lad rise from his bed, kneel down and repeat the Lord’s prayer, and though repeated with a very feeble sense of its import may we not believe it was accepted by Him who “requireth according to that a man hath and not according to that he hath not,” and whose hand that through the ocean storm guides the sea-bird to its nest amid the breakers, has directed this wayfarer to the spot where there are hearts to pity and hands to aid him.
A blazing fire in the great kitchen fireplace so nearly accomplished (by bedtime) the drying of the clothes, that in the morning they were perfectly dry, the hot bricks and mouldering log giving out heat all night long. In the morning Mr. Whitman carried to the porch water in a tub, soap and his clean clothes, and told James to wash himself, put them on and then come out to his breakfast.
When James had eaten his breakfast (Mr. Whitman and Peter having eaten and gone to the field), the good wife cut his hair which was of great length, gave his head a thorough scrubbing with warm soapsuds, and completed the process with a fine-toothed comb. Removing carefully the bandages she next examined his leg.
“It was a deep cut, but it’s doing nicely,” she said, “there’s not a bit of proud flesh in it; you must sit in the house till it heals up.” When having bound up the wound she was about to leave him, he murmured,—
“You’re good to me.”
This was not a very fervent manifestation of gratitude, but it betokened that the spirit within was not wholly petrified; as Alice Whitman looked into that vacant face she perceived by the moisture of the eyes, that there was a lack not so much of feeling as of the power to express it.
“God bless you, I’ll act a mother’s part towards you; it shall be your own fault if you are not happy now. I know God sent you here, for I cannot believe that anything short of Divine Power would have ever brought my husband to take a redemptioner.”
Bertie and Maria, who had been looking on in silence, now ran into the field to tell their father and Peter all their mother had said and done, and that the redemptioner had spoken to her.
“Father,” said Maria, “if mother is his mother, will he be our brother?”
“Not exactly; your mother meant that she would treat him just as she does you, and so you must treat him as you do each other, because your mother has said so, and that’s sufficient.”
“Then we mustn’t call him a redemptioner?”
“No; forget all about that and call him James.”
“When we have anything good, and when we find a bumblebee’s nest, shall we give him part, just like we do each other?”
Mrs. Whitman sent for Sally Wood, one of her neighbor’s daughters, to take care of the milk and do the housework; and then set herself to altering over a suit of her husband’s clothes to fit James, who, clean from head to foot, sat with his leg in a chair watching Mrs. Whitman at her work, but the greater portion of the time asleep.
“Let him sleep,” she said; “‘twill do him good to sleep a week; he’ll come to his feeling after that and be another boy. It’s the full meals and the finding out what disposition is to be made of him, and that he’s not to be hurt, makes him sleep. I doubt if he had any too much to eat on the passage over.”
By night the good woman, with the aid of Sally (who, besides doing the work, found some time to sew), had prepared a strong, well-fitting suit of working-clothes and a linsey-woolsey shirt, and, after supper, James put them on. He made no remark in relation to his clothes, but Maria reported that she knew he was as pleased as he could be, because she peeped into the door of the bedroom and saw him looking at himself in the glass and counting the buttons on his waistcoat and jacket.
James improved rapidly, and began in a few days to walk around the door-yard and to the barn, and sit by the hour in the sun on the wood-pile (with Fowler at his feet, for the dog had taken a great liking to him), insomuch that Mrs. Whitman asked her husband if it would not make him better contented to have some light work that he could do sitting down.
“Not yet, wife. I want to see if, when he finds us all at work, he won’t start of his own accord. He has no more idea of earning anything, or of labor in our sense of that word, than my speckled ox has. When I hold up the end of the yoke and tell old Buck to come under, he comes; and so this boy has been put out to hard masters who stood over and got all out of him they could. He has never had reason to suppose that there are any people in this world that care anything about others, except to get all they can out of them.”
“If, as you say, he has always had a task-master, perhaps he thinks because we don’t tell him what to do, that we don’t want him to do anything.”
“We’ll let the thing work; I want to see what he’ll do of his own accord before I interfere. It is my belief that, benumbed as he now appears, there’s enterprise in him, and that the right kind of treatment will bring it out; but I want it to come naturally just as things grow out of the ground. He’s had a surfeit of the other kind of treatment.”
Affairs went on in this way for a week longer, till the boy’s leg had completely healed, during which time it became evident that this apparently unimpressible being was not, after all, insensible to the influence of kindness, for, whenever he perceived that wood or water were wanted, he would anticipate the needs of Mrs. Whitman nor ever permit her to bring either.
Mr. Whitman still manifested no disposition to put the boy to work, and even shelled corn himself, till his wife became somewhat impatient; and though even the grandfather thought the boy might, at least, do that much. Whitman, however, paid no attention to the remonstrances of either, and matters went on as before.
The reader of the opening chapter will, doubtless, be disposed to inquire, “What is a redemptioner? By what fortunate chance has this singular being been flung into the path, and at once domesticated in the family of Bradford Whitman, and admitted without scruple to the inner sanctuary of a mother’s heart.”
Not by any chance as we believe, and will, therefore, endeavor to satisfy these demands by introducing to our young readers Mr. Robert Wilson, a soul-driver, as the occupation in which he was engaged was then termed (and one of the best of them) and permit him to tell his own story.
The great abundance of food and coarse clothing in America, and the anxiety of the farmers to obtain cheap labor, led to this singular arrangement.
They contracted with the masters of vessels to bring over able-bodied men accustomed to farm-work, the farmers paying their passage, which included the captain’s fees, the laborers contracting to serve for a certain term of years to reimburse the farmer for his outlay; the farmers agreeing to furnish the laborers with wholesome and sufficient food and comfortable clothing.
These people were called redemptioners, and the term of service was generally three years, and, in the case of boys, four.
The system, however, which operated very well for a while, had its disadvantages that brought it into disrepute, and resulted in its abolition. The principal of these was its falling into the hands of speculators, who went to the other side and took whomsoever they could pick up, without regard to their honesty, industry, or capacity of labor, some of them parish-poor, not only ignorant of agricultural labor, but even thieves and vagabonds. These persons collected them in gangs of twenty, and even more, and drove them through the country and delivered them to the farmers, ostensibly at the rate of their passage-money and a reasonable compensation for their own trouble and expense in seeking and bringing them over.
Mr. Wilson naturally a man of kindly feelings, that had not been entirely blunted by the business in which for many years he had been engaged, and who—having been well brought up by godly Scotch parents—could by no means wholly ignore the lessons of his youth, was now on board of the “Betsy” brig, in Liverpool, bound for Philadelphia, and had engaged berths for thirteen persons, eleven of whom different farmers in Pennsylvania had agreed to take off his hands. He had paid the passage of the twelfth at his own risk, and wanted, but had not been able to obtain, one more, having been disappointed in a man whom he had engaged on the previous voyage, and, as he would be compelled to pay for the berth, whether occupied or not, he was, of course, anxious to obtain another man. The vessel was not to haul out of the dock under two days, and he resolved to make a final effort to find another man.
Mr. Wilson was well known among the neighboring population, and therefore possessed peculiar facilities. The persons already obtained he had brought from the country, and he doubted not from his extensive acquaintance that he could dispose of almost any man who was sound in limb, accustomed to labor, whether much acquainted with farm-work or not. “If he is only honest,” said Wilson to himself, “and young enough, it will do; for what he don’t know he can learn, and must work for his employer a longer time, that’s all.”
In regard to character he was able, in many cases, to obtain references, but a shrewd judge of men, he trusted much to his own judgment, and had seldom cause to repent it, although, as we shall see, he was deceived in the character of one of the men then on shipboard which led to his relinquishing the traffic not many years after.
He set out early in the morning for a village about ten miles from the city, and where he had often found men to his liking, especially on the previous voyage. He found quite a number eager to go, but some were Irish, whom he did not like; some were boys, some old and decrepid, or too much labor-worn.
He was returning from his bootless search in no very satisfactory state of mind, when he stumbled upon a company of young persons, who late as was the hour, had just started out from the shelter of some old crates filled with straw that had been piled against the brick wall of a glass-house, in which were built the chimneys of several ovens, and which had afforded them warmth, for the nights were quite cool.
They were shaking the straw from their garments and evidently preparing to break their fast. One had a fish in his hand, another meat, and another vegetables, but all uncooked.
The group presented such a hardened vagabond appearance, that Wilson who had paused with the intention of speaking, was about to pass on, when upon second thoughts, he said within himself, “They look like thieves, but they are a hard-meated rugged looking set and all young. Perhaps there may be among them one who taken away from the rest, and put under good influences, and among good people, might make something.”
Turning towards them, he said,
“Young men, do any of you want to go to America?”
“Go to ‘Merica,” replied a dark-complexioned fellow of low stature, with a devil-may-care-look, and quite flashily attired, apparently in the cast-off clothes of some gentleman.
“Yes, some people are going over to the States with me as redemptioners, and I want one more to make up my number, it’s a first-rate chance for a young man who’s smart, willing to work, and wants to make something of himself. There are scores of men there whom I carried, that are now forehanded, have large farms, cattle and money at interest, who when they left here lived on one meal a day and often went without that.”
“Don’t you know Dick,” said a red-headed, saucy, but intelligent-looking chap, with sharply cut features, “that’s the genteel name of those poor devils who sell themselves for their passage and this ‘ere likes is the boss what takes the head money.”
Without noticing the interruption, Wilson continued,—
“Here, for instance, is a young man who can get no work these hard times, which means no clothes, no bread, no place to put his head in. A farmer over there who wants help pays his passage. He works for that farmer till he pays up the passage money; and the farmer takes him into his family, and feeds and clothes him while he is doing it.”
“How long will he have to work to pay for his passage?”
“Three or four years; three if he is used to farm work.”
“What does he do after that?”
“Then he is his own man and can always have plenty of work at good wages and found, and won’t have to lay up alongside of a glass-house chimney to keep from freezing. Land is so cheap that if he is prudent and saves his money, he can in a few years buy a piece of land with wood on it that he can cut down, build him a log house, plant and sow and be comfortable. In some places the government will give him land to settle on if he builds a house and stays five years, or he can pay for it by working on the highways.”
“Go, Dick,” cried the red-head, “they say it’s a glorious country, plenty of work, plenty of bread, and no hanging for stealing, just the place for you my lad.”
“You shut up. What is he going to do after he gets the land!”
“Work on it to be sure, make a home of it, have cattle, and sheep, and hogs, and lashings to eat.”
“Then all the redemptioners, as you call ‘em, go to ‘Merica for is to work?”
“To be sure, to get a chance to work and get ahead, and that’s what they can’t do here.”
“Well, grandfather, I won’t be a redemptioner, because work and I have fallen out. Ain’t it so with you, Tom Hadley?”
This interrogatory was addressed to a tall pale youth, clothed in a suit of rusty black, that might have belonged to a curate, with finger nails half an inch in length, and on his fingers three valuable rings and a broad-brimmed hat on his head.
“Yes, I never fell in with it yet. Don’t think I am fool enough to work three years for the sake of getting a chance to work all the rest of my life, a thing I am altogether above and do despise.”
“If you won’t work how do you expect to live?”
“By stealing,” replied the lank boy, displaying his rings.
“By working when we can’t do any better, granddaddy, and begging for the rest,” said Tom Hadley.
During this conversation this select company had gradually gathered around Wilson, and one of them was in the act of purloining a handkerchief from the latter’s pocket, when he received a blow from a stout cudgel in the hand of the Scotchman, that felled him to the ground.
“Why don’t you take Foolish Jim?” said the red-headed chap, “he’ll work; rather work than not.”
“Who’s Foolish Jim?”
“There he is,” pointing to a boy leaning against the wall of the glass-house, aloof from the rest.
“Why do you call him Foolish Jim?”
“‘Cause he’s such a fool he won’t lie, swear nor steal; but we are dabsters at all three.”
“What makes him so much worse dressed than the rest?”
“‘Cause he’s a fool and won’t steal. Now we all get one thing or another, meat, fish, vegetables; and we’re going down to the brick yards to have a cook and a real tuck-out, but he’s had no breakfast, nor won’t get any, till he runs some errand for the glass-house folks, or gets some horse to hold, or some little job of work, just ‘cause he won’t steal nor beg either. If you’d a dropt that handkerchief on the ground and he’d a picked it up, instead of putting it in his pocket, he’d a run after you crying, ‘Mister you’ve lost your handkerchief.’ Now there’s no work to be had by those who are fools enough to work, so he’s just starving by inches.”
“And to help him out of the world you keep him with you to make sport of him.”
“That’s so, as much as we think will do, but we can’t go but about so far, ‘cause he’s strong as a giant and he’s got a temper of his own, though it takes an awful sight to git it up; but when its up you’d better stand clear, he’ll take any two of us and knock our heads together. When the glassmen have a heavy crate to lift, they always sing out for Jim.”
“Ask him to come here.”
“Jim, here’s a cove wants yer.”
Mr. Wilson scanned with great curiosity the lad whom his companions termed a fool because he would neither lie nor swear, steal nor beg, but was willing to work. He was tall, large-boned, with great muscles that were plainly visible, of regular features, fair complexion and clean, thus forming a strong contrast to his companions, who were dirty in the extreme. He might be called, on the whole, good looking, as far as form and features went, but on the other hand there was an expression of utter hopelessness and apathy in his face that seemed almost to border upon fatuity, and went far to justify the appellation bestowed upon him by his companions.
His movements also were those of an automaton; there was none of the spring, energy or buoyancy of youth about him.
He was barefoot, with a tattered shirt, ragged pants and coat of corduroy, the coat was destitute of buttons and confined to his waist by a ropeyarn. On his head he wore a sailor’s fez cap, streaked with tar and that had once been red, but was faded to the color of dried blood.
“What is your name, my lad?”
“Jim, that’s all.”
“How old are you?”
“Where are your father and mother?”
“Haven’t got none?”
“Any brothers or sisters?”
“Where did you come from? Where do you belong?”
“Do you want to go to America with me, and get work?”
“I’ll go anywhere if I can have enough to eat, clothes to keep me warm, and some warm place to sleep.”
“Will you work?”
“Yes; I’ll work.”
“What kind of work can you do?”
“I can dig dirt, and hoe, and pick oakum, and drive horses, and break stones for the highway, and break flax.”
“What other farm-work can you do?”
“I can mow grass, and reap grain, and plash a hedge, and thrash (thresh) grain.”
“Where did you learn these things?”
“They used to put me out to farmers once.”
“How long was you with the farmers?”
“Mister,” broke in the lank youth, “he don’t know anything. Why don’t you ask ‘em up to the work’us; like’s they know who he is, where he came from, and all about him. They feed him, but he’s so proud he won’t call upon ‘em if he can help it, ‘cause he thinks it’s begging. He might have three good meals there every day if he would, but he’s such a simpleton he won’t go there till he’s starved within an inch of his life.”
Upon this hint the Scotchman, whose curiosity was now thoroughly aroused, taking the lad for a guide, started for the workhouse.
As they went along, Wilson, feigning fatigue, proposed that they should sit down to rest, but his real motive was that, undisturbed by his companions, he might observe this singular youth more at his leisure and be the better able to form some more definite opinion in his own mind respecting him.
After long contemplating the features and motions of Jim at his leisure, Mr. Wilson came to the conclusion that there was no lack of sense, but that discouragement, low living, absence of all hope for the future, ignorance and being made a butt of, were the potent causes that had reduced the lad to what he was; and that, under the influence of good food and encouragement, he would rally and make an efficient laborer and perhaps something more, and resolved to sift the matter to the bottom.
From the records of the workhouse he ascertained that the boy’s name was James Renfew, that he was not born in the institution, but was brought there with his mother, being at that time three years of age. The mother was then in the last stages of disease, and in a few weeks died. He was informed that the boy had been several times put out to different farmers, who, after keeping him till after harvest, brought him back in the fall to escape the cost of his maintenance in the winter.
Wilson mentioned what he had been told in respect to his character, to which the governor replied it was all true, and that he should not be afraid to trust him with untold gold, that he came and went as he pleased; and when starved out, and not till then, he came to them and was housed, fed and made welcome.
“Where did he get ideas in his head so different from those of workhouse children in general?”
“I am sure I don’t know except they grew there. You seem to have a great deal of curiosity about the history of Jim, there’s an old Scotchwoman here, Grannie Brockton, who took care of his mother while she lived and of the boy after her death; she’s a crabbed venomous old creature, deaf as a haddock, but if she happens to be in a good mood and you can make her hear, she can tell you the whole story.”
“I’ll find a way to make her agreeable.”
He found Grannie Brockton, who seeing a stranger approach, drew herself up, put one hand to her ear, and with the other motioned the intruder away.
Wilson, without a word, approached and laid a piece of silver on her knee. This wrought an instantaneous change, turning briskly round she pulled down the flap of her right ear (the best one) and said,—
“What’s your will wi’ me?”
“I want you to tell me all you know about James Renfew and his parents.”
“It’s Jeames Renfew ye want to speer about, and it’s my ain sel’ wha’ can tell you about him and his kith, and there’s na ither in this place that can.”
The interrogator felt that the best method of getting at the matter was to leave the old crone to her own discretion, and without further questioning placed another small piece of silver in her lap.
“What countryman may ye be?”
“I kenned as much by the burr on your tongue; ay then, ye’ll mind when the battle o’ Bannockburn was.”
“The battle of Bannockburn was fought on the twenty-fifth day of June.”
“True for ye. It was sixteen years ago Bannockburn day that this boy’s mother was brought here sick, and this Jeames wi’ her a bairn about three years old. A good woman she was too. I’m not a good woman, naebody ca’s me a good woman, I dinna ca’ myself a good woman, but for all that I know a good person when I see one.
“She had death in her face when she was brought in, would have been glad to die, but her heart was breaking about the child to be left to the tender mercies o’ the work’us.
“When she had been here little better than a week, a minister came to see her; a young, a douce man. Oh, he was a heavenly man! She was so rejoiced to see him, she kissed his hands and bathed them wi’ her hot tears. She thanked him, and cried for joy. I could nae keep from greeting my ain sel’.”
“Where was he from?”
“He was the curate of the parish where she used to live, was with her husband when he was sick, and read the service at his funeral; and he had christened this child, and aye been a friend to them.”
“She told me the parson o’ the parish was a feckless do-little, naebody thought he had any grace; this curate did all the work and visited the people, who almost worshipped him.”
“Did he come any more?”
“Ay, till she died, and then attended the burial. For four years after her death he came three times a year to see the child, and would take him on his knees and tell him stories out of the Bible and teach him the Lord’s prayer. He made the child promise him that he would never lie, nor swear, nor steal, and taught him a’ the commandments. He likewise made me promise that I would hear him say the Lord’s prayer, when I put him to bed, and that I would be kind to him. I did hear him say the prayer, but I was never kind to him, for ‘tis not in my nature to be kind to any body, but I used to beat him when he vexed me.”
“Who was this boy’s father?”
“He was a hedger and ditcher, and rented a small cottage, and grass for a cow, in the parish where the curate lived. After his death, his widow came to Liverpool, because she had a sister here who had saved money by living at service, and they rented a house, and took boarders, and washed and ironed; but her sister got married and went to Canada, and she was taken sick, and came here to die.”
“What became of the curate?”
“He came here till the laddie was seven years auld, and then he came to bid him good-by, because he was going to be chaplain in a man-of-war, and the laddie grat as though his heart wad break.
“The curate gave him his mother’s Bible, but little good will it do him, for he canna read a word, nor tell the Lord’s prayer when he sees it in print.” Finding her visitor was about to leave, she said,—
“Mind, what ye have heard frae me is the truth, sin a’ body kens that cross and cankered as auld Janet may be, she’s nae given to falsehood.”
The relation of auld Janet had stirred the conscience of Robert Wilson, and probed his soul to its very depths.
“I cannot,” he said within himself, “leave the boy here. The curse of that dying mother would fall on me if I did. He must come out of this place. Let me see what can I do with him? Could I only hope to prevail upon Bradford Whitman to take him—I know he hates the very sight of me and of a redemptioner, but a friendless boy of this one’s character, that I can get a certificate from the governor of the workhouse to establish, might operate to move him, and he’s a jewel of a man. I’ll try him. If I can do nothing with him, I’ll try Nevins or Conly, but Whitman first of all. If none of them’ll keep him, you must take him yourself, Robert Wilson; take him from here, at any rate.”
Mr. Wilson made his way back to the authorities, and said to them:—
“I’m taking some redemptioners to the States; if you’ll pay this boy’s passage, I’ll take him off your hands, but you must put some decent clothes on him.”
To this the chairman of the board replied: “We cannot do that. We will let you have the boy and put some clothes on him, and that’s enough. You make a good thing out of these men; you don’t have to advance anything, the farmers pay their passage and pay you head-money.”
“Thank you for nothing, that’s not enough. The rest of my redemptioners are able-bodied men used to farm-work, but this creature is but nineteen, don’t know much of anything about farm-work; only fit to pick oakum or break stones on the highway, and there’s none of that work to be done in the States. He’ll be a hard customer to get rid of, for he don’t seem to have hardly the breath of life in him; these Americans are driving characters; they make business ache, and will say right off he’s not worth his salt. I shall very likely have him thrown on my hands (if indeed he don’t die before he gets there) for I have no order for any boy.”
“You are very much mistaken, Mr. Wilson, that boy will lift you and your load, will do more work than most men, is better fitted for a new country than one who has been delicately brought up.”
“Mr. Governor, I have made you a fair offer. This boy has got a settlement in this parish, and you cannot throw it off, so you will always have him on your hands more or less. By and by he’ll marry some one as poor as himself, and you’ll have a whole family on your hands for twenty, perhaps fifty years. You know how that works, these paupers marry and raise families on purpose, because they know they will then be the more entitled to parish help. Give him up to me and pay his passage, you are then rid of him forever and stop the whole thing just where it is. I’ve told you what I’ll do. I won’t do anything different.”
After consultation the authorities consented to pay his passage and give him second-hand but whole shoes, shirts, and stockings enough for a shift, and a Scotch cap.
Mr. Wilson then took him into a Jew’s shop, pulled off his rags, furnished him with breeches and upper garments, and put him on board the brig.
Mr. Wilson was an old practitioner at the business of soul-driving. His custom was to stop a week in Philadelphia in order to let his men recover from the effects of the voyage, which at that day, in an emigrant ship, was a terrible ordeal, for there were no laws to restrain the cupidity of captains and owners. This delay answered a double purpose, as his redemptioners made a better appearance, and were more easily disposed of and at better prices. He also improved the opportunity to send forward notices to his friends, the tavernkeepers, stating the day on which he should be at their houses; and they in turn notified the farmers in their vicinity, some of whom came out to receive the men they had engaged, and others came to look at and trade with Wilson for the men he might have brought on his own account, of whom he sometimes had a number, and not infrequently his whole gang were brought on speculation.
It was about nine o’clock on the morning of the second day after his arrival in Philadelphia, and Mr. Wilson, having partaken of a bountiful meal, was enjoying his brief rest in a most comfortable frame of mind. He had good reason to congratulate himself, having safely passed through the perils of the voyage, and, on the first day of his arrival disposed to great advantage of the man he had brought at his own risk; the other eleven were engaged, and the boy alone remained to be disposed of.
His cheerful reflections were disturbed by a cry of pain from the door-yard, and James was brought in, the blood streaming from a long and deep gash in his right leg.
The tavern-keeper asked him to cut some firewood, and the awkward creature, who had never in his life handled any wood tool but an English billhook, had struck the whole bit of the axe in his leg. The blood was staunched, and a surgeon called to take some stitches, at which the boy neither flinched nor manifested any concern.
The doctor and the crowd of idle onlookers, whom the mishap of James drew together, had departed, the landlord had left the bar to attend to his domestic concerns. Mr. Wilson, his serenity of mind effectually broken, paced the floor with flushed face and rapid step, and talking to himself.
“Had it been his neck, I wad nae hae cared,” he muttered (getting to his Scotch as his passion rose) “here’s a doctor’s bill at the outset; and I maun stay here on expense wi’ twelve men, or take him along in a wagon.
“I dinna ken, Rob Wilson, what ailed ye to meddle with the gauk for an auld fool as ye are, but when I heard that cankered dame wi’ the tear in her een tell how his mother felt on her deathbed, and a’ about the minister taking sic pains wi’ him, it gaed me to think o’ my ain mither and the pains she took tae sae little purpose wi’ me. I thocht it my duty to befriend him and gi’ him a chance in some gude family, and aiblins it might be considered above, and make up for some o’ thae hard things I am whiles compelled in my business to do. I did wrang altogether; a soul-driver has nae concern wi’ feelings, nor conscience either. He canna’ afford it, Rob, he suld be made o’ whin-stone, or he canna thrive by soul-driving.”
Mr. Wilson arrived in Lancaster county, within a few miles of the residence of the Whitmans and their neighbors, the Nevins, Woods, and Conlys, with only three redemptioners, who were already engaged to farmers in the vicinity, and the boy Jim, who was so lame that he had been obliged to take him along in a wagon.
The starting of a boy in the right direction, and the imparting of that bent he will retain through life, is a work the importance of which cannot be overrated. That our readers may appreciate the force of these influences about to be invoked to shape the future,—to fling a ray of hope upon the briar-planted path of this pauper boy, and quicken to life a spirit in which the germs of hope and the very aroma of youth seem to have withered beneath the benumbing pressure of despair,—we desire to acquaint them with the character of Bradford Whitman, to whose guiding influence so shrewd a judge of character as Robert Wilson wished to surrender his charge (and moreover resolved to leave no method untried to effect it), and in no other way can this object be so effectually accomplished as by our relating to them a conversation held by Whitman and his wife in relation to the building of a new dwelling-house on the homestead.
Several of Whitman’s neighbors had pulled down the log-houses their forefathers built and replaced them with stone, brick, or frame buildings, but Bradford Whitman still lived in the log-house in which he was born; it was, however, one of the best of the kind, built of chestnut logs, with the tops and bottoms hewn to match, and the ends squared and locked.
Whitman was abundantly able to build a nice house, and only two days before the event we are about to narrate occurred, mentioned the subject to his wife, saying that several of the neighbors had either built or were about to build new houses, and perhaps she felt as though they ought to build one, but she replied,—
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