Publication: Lob Lie-By-The-Fire; Or, The Luck of Lingborough. by Juliana Horatia Ewing. (1841-1885) With Illustrations by Randolph Caldecott. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1883, pp. 41-58.
John Broom was footsore when he reached the coast, but that keen, life-giving smell had drawn him on and held him up. The fog had cleared off, and he strained his black eyes through the darkness to see the sea.
He had never seen it–that other world within this, on which [Page 42] one lived out of doors, and climbed about all day, and no one blamed him.
When he did see it, he thought he had got to the end of the world. If the edge of the cliff were not the end, he could not make out where the sky began; and if that darkness were the sea, the sea was full of stars.
But this was because the sea was quiet and reflected the colour of the night sky, and the stars were the lights of the herring-boats twinkling in the bay.
When he got down by the water he saw the vessels lying alongside, and they were dirtier than he had supposed. But he did not lose heart, and remembering, from the cowherd's tales, that people who cannot pay for their passage must either work it out or hide themselves on board ship, he took the easier alternative, and got on to the first vessel which had a plank to the quay, and hid himself under some tarpaulin on the deck.
The vessel was a collier bound for London, and she sailed with the morning tide.
When he was found out he was not ill-treated. Indeed, the rough skipper offered to take him home again on his return voyage. He would have liked to go, but pride withheld him, and home sickness had not yet eaten into his very soul. Then an old sailor with one eye (but that a sly one) met him, and told him [Page 43] tales more wonderful than the cowherd's. And with him he shipped as cabin-boy, on a vessel bound for the other side of the world.
* * * * * *
A great many sins bring their own punishment in this life pretty clearly, and sometimes pretty closely; but few more directly or more bitterly than rebellion against the duties, and ingratitude for the blessings, of home.
There was no playing truant on board ship; and as to the master poor John Broom served now, his cruelty made the memory of the farm-bailiff a memory of tenderness and gentleness and indulgence. Till he was half-naked and half-starved, and had only short snatches of sleep in hard corners, it had never struck him that when one has got good food and clothes, and sound sleep in a kindly home, he has got more than many people, and enough to be thankful for.
He did everything he was told now as fast as he could do it, in fear for his life. The one-eyed sailor had told him that the captain always took orphans and poor friendless lads to be his cabin-boys, and John Broom thought what a nice kind man he must be, and how different from the farm-bailiff, who thought nobody could be trustworthy unless he could show parents and grand-parents, and cousins to the sixth degree. But after they had sailed, when John Broom felt very ill, and asked the one-eyed sailor where he was to sleep, the one-eyed sailor pleasantly replied that if he hadn't brought a four-poster bed in his pocket he must sleep where he could, for that all the other cabin-boys were sleeping in Davy's Locker, and couldn't be disturbed. And it was not till John Broom had learned ship's language that he found out that Davy's Locker meant the deep, and that the other cabin-boys were dead. "And as they'd nobody belonging to 'em, no hearts was broke," added the sailor, winking with his one eye.
John Broom slept standing sometimes for weariness, but he did not sleep in Davy's Locker. Young as he was he had dauntless courage, a careless hopeful heart, and a tough little body; and that strong, life-giving sea smell bore him up instead of food, and he got to the other side of the world. [Page 44]
Why he did not stay there, why he did not run away into the wilderness to find at least some easier death than to have his bones broke by the cruel captain, he often wondered afterwards. He was so much quicker and braver than the boys they commonly got, that the old sailor kept a sharp watch over him with his one eye whilst they were ashore; but one day he was too drunk to see out of it, and John Broom ran away.
It was Christmas Day, and so hot that he could not run far, for he was at the other side of the world, where things are upside down, and he sat down by the roadside on the outskirts of the city; and as he sat, with his thin, brown face resting on his hands, a familiar voice beside him said, "Pretty Cocky!" and looking up he saw a man with several cages of birds. The speaker was a cockatoo of the most exquisite shades of cream-colour, salmon, and rose, and he had a rose-coloured crest. But lovely as he was, John Broom's eyes were on another cage, where, silent, solemn, and sulky, sat a big white one with sulphur-coloured trimmings and fierce black eyes; and he was so like Miss Betty's pet, that the poor child's heart bounded as if a hand had been held out to him from home.
"If you let him get at you, you'll not do it a second time, mate," said the man. "He's the nastiest tempered beast I ever saw. I'd have rung his neck long ago if he hadn't such a fine coat."
But John Broom said, as he had said before, "I like him, and he'll like me."
When the cockatoo bit his finger to the bone, the man roared with laughter, but John Broom did not draw his hand away. He kept it still at the bird's beak, and with the other he gently scratched him under the crest and wings. And when the white cockatoo began to stretch out his eight long toes, as cats clutch with their claws from pleasure, and chuckled, and sighed, and bit softly without hurting, and laid his head against the bars till his snow and sulphur feathers touched John Broom's black locks, the man was amazed.
"Look here, mate," said he, "you've the trick with birds, and [Page 45] no mistake. I'll sell you this one cheap, and you'll be able to sell him dear."
"I've not a penny in the world," said John Broom.
"You do look cleaned out, too," said the man scanning him from head to foot. "I tell you what, you shall come with me a bit and tame the birds, and I'll find you something to eat."
Ten minutes before, John Broom would have jumped at this offer, but now he refused it. The sight of the cockatoo had brought back the fever of home sickness in all its fierceness. He couldn't stay out here. He would dare anything, do anything, to see the hills about Lingborough once more before he died; and even if he did not live to see them, he might live to sleep in that part of Davy's Locker which should rock him on the shores of home. [Page 46]
The man gave him a shilling for fastening a ring and chain on to the Cocky's ankle, and with this he got the best dinner he had eaten since he lost sight of the farm-bailiff's speckled hat in the mist.
And then he went back to the one-eyed sailor, and shipped as cabin-boy again for the homeward voyage.
When John Broom did get home he did not go to sea again. He lived from hand to mouth in the seaport town, and slept, as he was well accustomed to sleep, in holes and corners.
Every day and every night, through the long months of the voyage, he had dreamed of begging his way barefoot to Miss Betty's door. But now he did not go. His life was hard, but it was not cruel. He was very idle, and there was plenty to see. He wandered about the country as of old. The ships and shipping too had a fascination for him now that the past was past, and here he could watch them from the shore; and, partly for shame and partly for pride, he could not face the idea of going back. If he had been taunted with being a vagrant boy before, what would be said now if he presented himself, a true tramp, to the farm-bailiff. Besides, Miss Betty and Miss Kitty could not forgive him. It was impossible!
He was wandering about one day when he came to some fine high walls with buildings inside. There was an open gateway, at which stood a soldier with a musket. But a woman and some children went in, and he did not shoot them; so when his back was turned, and he was walking stiffly to where he came from, John Broom ran in through the gateway.
The first man he saw was the grandest-looking man he had ever seen. Indeed, he looked more like a bird than a man–a big bird with a big black crest. He was very tall. His feet were broad and white, like the feathered feet of some plumy bird, his legs were bare and brown and hairy. He was clothed in many colours. He had fur in front, which swung as he walked, and [Page 47] silver and shining stones about him. He held his head very high, and from it drooped great black plumes. His face looked as if it had been cut–roughly but artistically–out of a block of old wood, and his eyes were the colour of a summer sky. And John Broom felt as he had felt when he first saw Miss Betty's cockatoo.
In repose the Highlander's eye was a clear as a cairngorm and as cold, but when it fell upon John Broom it took a twinkle not quite unlike the twinkle in the one eye of the sailor; and then, to his amazement, this grand creature beckoned to John Broom with a rather dirty hand.
"Yes, sir," said John Broom, staring up at the splendid giant, with eyes of wonder.
"I'm saying," said the Highlander, confidentially (and it had a pleasant homely sound to hear him speak like the farm-bailiff)–"I'm saying, I'm confined to barracks, ye ken; and I'll gie' ye a hawpenny if ye'll get the bottle filled wi' whusky. Roun' yon corner ye'll see the 'Britain's Defenders.' "
But at this moment he erected himself, his turquoise eyes looked straight before them, and he put his hand to his head and moved it slowly away again, as a young man with more swinging grandeur of colours and fur and plumes, and with greater glitterings of gems and silver, passed by, a sword clattering after him.
Meanwhile John Broom had been round the corner and was back again.
"What for are ye stannin' there, ye fule?" asked his new friend. "What for didna ye gang for the whusky?"
"It's here, sir."
"My certy, ye dinna let the grass grow under your feet," said the Highlander; and he added, "If ye want to run errands, laddie, ye can come back again."
It was the beginning of a fresh life for John Broom. With many other idle or homeless boys he now haunted the barracks, and ran errands for the soldiers. His fleetness of foot and ready wit made him the favourite. Perhaps, too, his youth and his bright face and eyes pleaded for him, for British soldiers are a tender-hearted race. [Page 48]
He was knocked about, but never cruelly, and he got plenty of coppers and broken victuals, and now and then an old cap or pair of boots, a world too large for him. His principal errands were to fetch liqour for the soldiers. In arms and pockets he would sometimes carry a dozen bottles at once, and fly back from the canteen or public-house without breaking one.
Before the summer was over he was familiar with every barrack-room and guard-room in the place; he had foot to eat and coppers to spare, and he shared his bits with the mongrel dogs who lived, as he did, on the good-nature of the garrison.
It must be confessed that neatness was not among John Broom's virtues. He looped his rags together with bits of string, and wasted his pence or lost them. The soldiers standing at the bar would often give him a drink out of their pewter-pots. It choked him at first, and then he got used to it, and liked it. Some relics of Miss Betty's teaching kept him honest. He would not condescend to sip by the way out of the soldiers' jugs and bottles as other errand boys did, but he came to feel rather proud of laying his twopence on the counter, and emptying his own pot of beer with a grimace to the bystanders through the glass at the bottom.
One day he was winking through the froth of a pint of porter at the canteen sergeant's daughter, who was in fits of laughing, when the pewter was knocked out of his grasp, and the big Highlander's hand was laid on his shoulder and bore him twenty or thirty yards from the place in one swoop.
"I'll trouble ye to give me your attention," said the Highlander, when they came to a standstill, "and to speak the truth. Did ye ever see me the worse of liquor?"
John Broom had several remembrances of the clearest kind to that effect, so he put up his arms to shield his head from the probable blow, and said, "Yes, M'Alister."
"How often?" asked the Scotchman.
"I never counted," said John Broom; "pretty often."
"How many good-conduct stripes do you ken me to have lost of your ain knowledge?"
"Three, M'Alister." [Page 49]
"Is there a finer man than me in the regiment?" asked the Highlander, drawing up his head.
"That there's not," said John Broom, warmly.
"Our sairgent, now," drawled the Scotchman, "wad ye say he was a better man than me?" [Page 50]
"Nothing like so good," said John Broom, sincerely.
"And what d'ye suppose, man," said the Highlander, firing with sudden passion, till the light of his clear blue eyes seemed to pierce John Broom's very soul–"what d'ye suppose has hindered me that I'm not sairgent, when yon man is? What has keepit me from being an officer, that had served my country in twa battles when oor quartermaster hadna enlisted? Wha gets my money? What lost me my stripes? What loses me decent folks' respect and, waur than that, my ain? What gars a hand that can grip a broadsword tremble like a woman's? What fills the canteen and the kirkyard? What robs a man of health and wealth and peace? What ruins weans and women, and makes mair homes desolate than war? Drink, man, drink! The deevil of drink!"
It was not till the glare in his eyes had paled that John Broom ventured to speak. Then he said–
"Why don't ye give it up, M'Alister?"
The man rose to his full height, and laid his hand heavily on the boy's shoulder, and his eyes seemed to fade with that pitiful, weary look, which only such blue eyes show so well, "Because I canna," said he; "because, for as big as I am, I canna. But for as little as you are, laddie, ye can, and, Heaven help me, ye shall."
That evening he called John Broom into the barrack-room where he slept. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, and had a little wooden money-box in his hands.
"What money have ye, laddie?" he asked.
John Broom pulled out three halfpence lately earned, and the Scotchman dropped them slowly into the box. Then he turned the key, and put it into his pocket, and gave the box to the boy.
"Ye'll put what ye earn in there," said he, "I'll keep the key, and ye'll keep the box yoursel; and when it's opened we'll open it together, and lay out your savings in decent clothes for ye against the winter."
At this moment some men passing to the canteen shouted, "M'Alister!" The Highlander did not answer, but he started to the door. Then he stood irresolute, and then turned and reseated himself.
"Gang and bring me a bit o' tobacco," he said, giving John [Page 51] Broom a penny. And when the boy had gone he emptied his pocket of the few pence left, and dropped them into the box, muttering, "If he manna, I wunna."
And when the tobacco came, he lit his pipe, and sat on the bench outside, and snarled at every one who spoke to him.
It was a bitterly cold winter. The soldiers drank a great deal and John Broom was constantly trotting up and down, and the box grew very heavy.
Bottles were filled and refilled, in spite of greatly increased strictness in the discipline of the garrison, for there were rumours of invasion, and penalties were heavy, and sentry-posts were increased, and the regiments were kept in readiness for action.
The Highlander had not cured himself of drinking, though he had cured John Broom. But, like others, he was more wary just now, and had hitherto escaped the heavy punishments inflicted in a time of probable war; and John Broom watched over him with the fidelity of a sheep dog, and more than once had roused him with a can of cold water when he was all but caught by his superiors in a state of stupor, which would not have been credited to the frost alone.
The talk of invasion had become grave, when one day a body of men were ordered for outpost duty, and M'Alister was among them. The officer had got a room for them in a farmhouse, where they sat round the fire, and went out by turns to act as sentries at various posts for an hour or two at a time.
The novelty was delightful to John Broom. He hung about the farmhouse, and warmed himself at the soldiers' fire.
In the course of the day M'Alister got him apart, and whispered, "I'm going on duty the night at ten, laddie. It's fearsome cold, and I hav'na had a drop to warm me the day. If ye could ha' brought me a wee drappie to the corner of the three roads–it's twa miles from here, I'm thinking–" [Page 52]
"It's not the miles, M'Alister," said John Broom, "but you're on outpost duty, and–"
"And you're misdoubting what may be done to ye for bringing liquor to a sentry on duty? Aye, aye, lad, ye do weel to be cautious," said the Highlander, and he turned away.
But it was not the fear of consequence to himself which had made John Broom hesitate, and he was stung by the implication.
The night was dark and very cold, and the Highlander had been pacing up and down his post for about half-an-hour, when his quick ear caught a faint sound of footsteps.
"Wha goes there?" said he.
"It's I, M'Alister," whispered John Broom.
"Whisht, laddie," said the sentry; "are ye there after all? Did no one see ye?"
"Not a soul; I crept by the hedges. Here's your whisky, M'Alister; but oh be careful!" said the lad.
The Scotchman's eyes glittered greedily at the bottle.
"Never fear," said he, "I'll just rub a wee drappie on the pawms of my hands to keep away the frost-bite, for it's awsome cold, man. Now away wi' ye, and take tent, laddie, keep off the other sentries."
John Broom went back as carefully as he had come, and slipped in to warm himself by the guard-room fire.
It was a good one, and the soldiers sat close round it. The officer was writing a letter in another room, and in a low, impressive voice, the sergeant was telling a story which was listened to with breathless attention. John Broom was fond of stories, and he listened also.
It was of a friend of the sergeant's, who had been a boy with him in the same village at home, and who had seen active service with him abroad, and who had slept at his post on such a night as this, from the joint efforts of cold and drink. It was war time, and he had been tried by court-martial, and shot for the offence. The sergeant had been one of the firing party to execute his friend, and they had taken leave of each other as brothers, before the final parting face to face in this last awful scene.
The man's voice was faltering, when the tale was cut short by [Page 53] the jingling of the field officer's accoutrements as he rode by to visit the outposts. In an instant the officer and men turned out to receive him; and, after the usual formalities, he rode on. The officer went back to his letter, and the sergeant and his men to their fireside.
The opening of the doors had let in a fresh volume of cold, and one of the men called to John Broom to mend the fire. But he was gone.
* * * * * *
John Broom was fleet of foot, and there are certain moments which lift men beyond their natural powers, but he had set himself a hard task.
As he listened to the sergeant's tale, an agonizing fear smote him for his friend M'Alister. Was there any hope that the Highlander could keep himself from the whiskey? Officers were making their rounds at very short intervals just now, and if drink and cold overcame him at his post! [Page 54]
Close upon these thoughts came the jingling of the field officer's sword, and the turn out of the guard. "Who goes there?"–"Rounds."–"What rounds?"–"Grand rounds." "Halt, grand rounds, advance one, and give the countersign!" The familiar words struck coldly on John Broom's heart, as if they had been orders to a firing party, and the bandage was already across the Highlander's blue eyes. Would the grand rounds be challenged at the three roads tonight? He darted out into the snow.
He flew, as the crow flies, across the fields, to where M'Alister was on duty. It was a much shorter distance than by the road, which was winding; but whether this would balance the difference between a horse's pace and his own was the question, and there being no time to question, he ran on.
He kept his black head down, and ran from his shoulders. The clatter, clatter, jingle, jingle, on the hard road came to him through the still frost on a level with his left ear. It was terrible, but he held on, dodging under the hedges to be out of sight, and the sound lessened, and by-and-by, the road having wound about, he could hear it faintly, but behind him.
And he reached the three roads, and M'Alister was asleep in the ditch.
But when, with jingle and clatter, the field officer of the day reached the spot, the giant Highlander stood like a watch-tower at his post, with a little snow on the black plumes that drooped upon his shoulders.
John Broom did not see the Highlander again for two or three days. It was Christmas week, and, in spite of the war panic, there was festivity enough in the barracks to keep the errand-boy very busy.
Then came New Year's Eve–"Hogmenay," as the Scotch call it–and it was the Highland regiment's particular festival. Worn-out with whisky-fetching and with helping to deck barrack- [Page 55] rooms and carrying pots and trestles, John Broom was having a nap in the evening, in company with a mongrel deer-hound, when a man shook him, and said, "I heard some one asking for ye an hour or two back; M'Alister wants ye."
"Where is he?" said John Broom, jumping to his feet.
"In hospital; he's been there a day or two. He got cold on out-post duty, and its flown to his lungs, they say. Ye see he's been a hard drinker, has M'Alister, and I expect he's breaking up."
With which very just conclusion the speaker went on into the canteen, and John Broom ran to the hospital.
Stripped of his picturesque trappings, and with no plumes to shadow the hollows in his temples, M'Alister looked gaunt and feeble enough, as he lay in the little hospital bed, which barely held his long limbs. Such a wreck of giant powers of body, and noble qualities of mind as the drink-shops are preparing for the hospitals every day!
Since the quickly-reached medical decision that he was in a rapid decline, and that nothing could be done for him, M'Alister had been left a good deal alone. His intellect (and it was no fool's intellect,) was quite clear, and if the long hours by himself, in which he reckoned with his own soul, had hastened the death-damps on his brow, they had also written there an expression which was new to John Broom. It was not the old sour look, it was a kind of noble gravity.
His light-blue eyes brightened as the boy came in, and he held out his hand, and John Broom took it with both his, saying,
"I never heard till this minute, M'Alister. Eh, I do hope you'll be better soon."
"The Lord being merciful to me," said the Highlander. "But this warld's nearly past, laddie, and I was fain to see ye again. Dinna greet, man, for I've important business wi' ye, and I should wish your attention. Firstly, I'm aboot to hand ower to ye the key of your box. Tak it, and put it in a pocket that's no got a hole in it, if you're worth one. Secondly, there's a bit bag I made mysel', and it's got a trifle o' money in it that I'm giving and bequeathing to ye, under certain conditions, namely, that ye shall [Page 56] spend the contents of the box according to my last wishes and instructions, with the ultimate end of your ain benefit, ye'll understand."
A fit of coughing here broke M'Alister's discourse; but, after drinking from a cup beside him, he put aside John Broom's remonstrances with a dignified movement of his hand, and continued,–
"When a body comes of decent folk, he won't just care, maybe, to have their names brought up in a barrack-room. Ye never heard me say ought of my father or my mither?"
"I'd a good hame," said the Highlander, with a decent pride in his tone. "It was a strict hame–I've no cause now to deceive mysel', and I'm thinking it was a wee bit ower strict–but it was a good hame. I left it, man–I ran away."
The glittering blue eyes turned sharply on the lad, and he went on:–
"A body doesna' care to turn his byeganes oot for every fool to peck at. Did I ever speer about your past life, and whar ye came from?"
"But that's no to say that, if I knew manners, I didna obsairve. And there's been things now and again, John Broom, that's gar'd me think that ye've had what I had, and done as I had. Did ye rin awa', laddie?"
John Broom nodded his black head, but tears choked his voice.
"Man!" said the Highlander, "ane word's as gude's a thousand. Gang back! Gang hame! There's the bit siller here that's to tak ye, and the love yonder that's waiting ye. Listen to a dying man, laddie, and gang hame!"
"I doubt if they'd have me," sobbed John Broom, "I gave 'em a deal of trouble, M'Alister."
"And d'ye think, lad, that that thought has na' cursed me, and keepit me from them that loved me? Aye lad, and till this week I never overcame it."
"Weel may I want to save ye, bairn," added the Highlander [Page 57] tenderly, "for it was the thocht of a' ye riskit for the like of me at the three roads, that made me consider wi' mysel' that I've aiblins been turning my back a' my wilfu' life on love that's bigger than a man's deservings. It's near done now, and it'll never lie in my poor power so much as rightly to thank ye. It's strange that a man should set store by a good name that he doesn' deserve; but if ony blessings of mine could bring ye good, they're yours, that saved an old soldier's honour, and let him die respectit in his regiment."
"Oh, M'Alister, let me fetch one of the chaplains to write a letter to fetch your father," cried John Broom.
"The minister's been here this morning," said the Highlander, "and I've tell't him mair than I've tell't you. And he's jest directed me to put my sinful trust in the Father of us a'. I've sinned heaviest against Him, laddie, but His love is stronger than the lave."
John Broom remained by his friend, whose painful fits of coughing, and of gasping for breath, were varied by intervals of seeming stupor. When a candle had been brought in and placed near the bed, the Highlander roused himself and asked,–
"Is there a Bible on yon table? Could ye read a bit to me, laddie?"
There is little need to dwell on the bitterness of heart with which John Broom confessed,–
"I can't read big words, M'Alister."
"Did ye never go to school?" said the Scotchman.
"I didn't learn," said the poor boy; "I played."
"Aye, aye. Weel, ye'll learn, when ye gang hame," said the Highlander, in gentle tones.
"I'll never get home," said John Broom passionately. "I'll never forgive myself. I'll never get over it, that I couldn't read to ye when ye wanted me, M'Alister."
"Gently, gently," said the Scotchman. "Dinna daunt yoursel' owermuch wi' the past, laddie. And for me–I'm not that presoomtious to think I can square up a misspent life as a man might compound wi's creditors. 'Gin HE forgi'es me, He'll forgi'e; but it's not a prayer up or a chapter doun that'll stan' between me [Page 58] and the Almighty. So dinna fret yoursel', but let me think while I may."
And so, far into the night, the Highlander lay silent, and John Broom watched by him.
It was just midnight when he partly raised himself, and cried,–
"Whisht, laddie! do ye hear the pipes?"
The dying ears must have been quick, for John Broom heard nothing; but in a few minutes he heard the bagpipes from the officers' mess, where they were keeping Hogmenay. They were playing the old year out with "Auld lang syne," and the Highlander beat the tune out with his hand, and his eyes gleamed out of his rugged face in the dim light, as cairngorms glitter in dark tartan.
There was a pause after the first verse, and he grew restless, and turning doubtfully to where John Broom sat, as if his sight were failing, he said, "Ye'll mind your promise, ye'll gang hame?" And after awhile he repeated the last word,
But as he spoke there settled over his face a smile so tender and so full of happiness, that John Broom held his breath as he watched him. As the light of sunrise creeps over the face of some rugged rock, it crept from chin to brow, and the pale blue eyes shone tranquil, like water that reflects heaven.
And when it had passed it left them still open, but gems that had lost their ray.