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MY experience with and of the Great Army of the Poor has for the most part been confined to the one encampment of it comprised within the limits of my own district. But that encampment is a very large and representative one, every manner of man and woman that go to make up the Great Army being to be found in it; and seeing that such is the case, I cannot but think that it is an advantage in respect to whatever interest the present volumes may have, that my observation should have been concentrated within a range which, though relatively limited, is still, both as to extent and variety, as large as any one man could hope to make himself thoroughly acquainted with. Every inch of the district is as familiar to me as the room in which I write. I have been going at large about it, day after day, all the year round; there is scarcely a face in it that is not known to [-vi-] me, or any "character" in it that I have not met, or whose history I have not heard. Some of the more noteworthy and representative of my experiences are here recorded, and with these few words of introduction I will leave the record to speak for itself only hoping that it may be so far blessed as to become a means, however humble, of strengthening or spreading a feeling of active good-will towards the Great Army; among whom, if there is much that is evil, there is also much that is good; if much of sin, much also of suffering and sorrow.
AT the time I made his acquaintance, "Captain Rust" was a long-shore
ranger, and as such was much better known than respected - not without good cause. I
first heard of him in connection with the unlawful disappearance of some
chickens. I happened one morning to be passing a row of cottages, the backyards
of which went down to the river-bank; and seeing a crowd round the door of one
of them, I asked a person who had come from the spot what was the cause of the
"Well, it ain't anything very dreadful," answered the man; "it's Jim Burgess a-swearing vengeance agen everybody, because some one has been and collar'd a couple of his chickens. He thinks it's some of the neighbours, and he's a-letten out, strong in hopes as the party may get raw, and put their head in the cap."
I knew Burgess in a general way, and observed-
"I should hardly have thought any one in the Row would have been so unneighbourly as to rob him.
"Well, for my part, I don't think any of 'em has," said the man; "but if they have, there's nothing he can say as is [-2-] too hard for 'em - he's a quiet cove, and one as wouldn't touch so much as a pin-head that wasn't his own."
Coming up to Burgess's house, I heard him fiercely exclaiming-
"If I on'y know'd for certain who it was, I'd twist their necks for 'em, as I suppose they've a-twisted the chickenses; I would as sure as my name's what it is; which I've lived hereabout all my life, and in this 'ere very house goin' on of twelve years, and I'm well beknown, and my character will bear looking into. If they'd been common barn-door birds, I wouldn't have cared; but they weren't, they were fancy uns as 1 bred myself: and now to think as they've been took for the pot, as of course they 'ave been - it makes my blood boil, it do, to think of it; if I could on'y lay hands on them as done it, wouldn't I be level with them, that's all!"
For a moment he paused to recover breath, and then, striking his fist on the door-jamb, he concluded-
"Look here! I'm a poor fellow, and the loss of two such chickenses as them has made me a good five shillings poorer; but blest if I won't give another five to any one as'll tell me who done it - not to law 'em or anything of that sort; on'y to have the satisfaction of taking it out of their thieven hides."
At this point a woman, who, to judge from the basket over her arm, and the house-door key carried loosely in her hand, had been out marketing, came along the Row, and on reaching the verge of the crowd asked-
[-3-] "Some one has stole two of Jim's best chickens," answered a dozen voices.
"Ah, I shouldn't wonder," she said coolly; "I was expecting to hear of something bein a-missing - I saw Captain Rust prowling about outside the back-doors when I was a-getting up this morning, and I thought to myself at the time, 'Well, some one will suffer for it. '"
On hearing this there was a general exclamation of "O-o-o!" uttered in a tone that made it mean that there was no further occasion to ask to whom the disappearance of the fowls was attributable. This also seemed to be Burgess's opinion, for, looking greatly disconcerted, and muttering something about giving Mr. Rust a dustin' the first time he dropped on him, he hastily retreated indoors, and the crowd dispersed.
One of them was a shrewd, good-humoured tinker, with whom I had a nodding acquaintance, and following him up, I asked-
"Who is Captain Rust?"
"What, don't you know Rust!" he exclaimed in astonishment. "But, there, of course you don't," he went on, smiling, "or you wouldn't have asked, on'y I'd have thought as how no one could have been about here, if it was on'y for a week, without hearing about the gallant Rust."
"Well, but who is he?" I asked again.
"Well, as to who he is," answered the tinker sententiously, "I can't tell yer; as likely as not he couldn't tell yer himself. As to what he is; why he ain't anything [-4-] in. particular; he's on the loose. You see he's the sort of gentleman for fowls to roost high from, and he ain't partic'lar to trifles in other ways. All the same, he's not what you may call an altogether bad sort of warment. At least not yet, though I suppose he will be all in good time, or, as I should say, all in bad time. The law is sure to have him sooner or later; and, when he's been jailed two or three times, or done a turn of penal, he'll come out a finished blade and a keen un. When Rust has once got the jail polish, it'll be 'ware hawk' between him and them as has got anything to lose."
"But why do they call him Captain Rust?" I persisted, as my discursive acquaintance came to a pause.
"Why, because he's a ruster. Leastwise, he sets up as rusting bein' his reg'lar game, and I suppose it is to a certain extent; but he ain't partic'lar in sticking to one line; - bits of sails, or rope, timbers or any such live stock as pigeons, fowls, or rabbits, anything in fact as ain't too hot, or too heavy, or too well-watched - it's all the same to him, all's fish that comes to his net."
"Still you haven't told me what rusting is," I said.
"Beg your pardon, no more I ain't," answered the tinker good humouredly; "well, it is pickin' up old -iron long shore - they call it rust, because it mostly is rusty, I suppose."
"But the river is not generally supposed to wash iron to bank," I said, smiling.
"Well, no," retorted my companion, smiling in turn, [-5-] "but there are shipbuildin' yards, and engine factories, and places of that kind, on the banks, and there is generally a bit of rust to be picked up. The captain's reg'lar 'lurk' is among the yards down the river, and bein' pretty well known, and - though you mightn't have thought it - pretty well liked by the men in the yards, he often gets extra bits of old iron chucked out to him."
"And he turns the rust into money," I said.
"Yes, in course he sells it, and his other pickins, every evening."
I had now reached the point where our roads separated, and, my curiosity having been satisfied, the tinker and I parted.
For some months after this, it was not my hap either to come into contact with Captain Rust, or to hear anything further of him. I had almost forgotten that there was such a person, when his name again cropped up in connection with a matter in which I was personally interested.
I had been assisting to establish a Ragged School in a part of my district standing sorely in need of such an institution, and just as the school was about to be opened, I, in common with my fellow-workers, was portentously informed by some of the inhabitants who had taken a friendly interest in our labours, that we might look out for squalls; that the redoubtable Captain Rust had taken up his parable against the school, and avowed his intention of "making it hot" for all concerned in the affair.
Whether or not Captain Rust was at the bottom of it, [-6-] certain it is that the night-school on its opening had an evil time of it. Bands of young toughs besieged it. The younger scholars were pelted and hooted at as they went in and out. A constant whooping and howling was kept up, the doors were battered till at times they seemed about to give way, and occasionally windows were broken. At such times as we could get a policeman actually upon the spot, there was a lull in the storm; but as an officer could not be told off every night for that especial duty, the teachers had to depend chiefly upon their own efforts, which were of but little avail against the perseverance and adroitness of the assailants.. One night when I was taking a class the annoyance had been particularly great; and on the close of the school, I was leaving in anything but an amiable frame of mind,. when one of the pupils, who had left a few minutes previously, came running up to me breathlessly exclaiming-
"They've got him, sir, they've cotch'd him, old Ben Tyler has, - and ain't he just a-servin' on him out, sir, that's all!"
As he spoke he pointed to a group a little way down the Street, and walking up to it I found in the midst a boy tied up to the wall by the thumbs in such a manner that the tips of his toes barely touched the ground; while, standing beside him, flourishing a stout rope's end, was Ben Tyler, an old navy pensioner, who added to his scanty pension by fish-hawking.
"Punishment parade, you see, yer honour," said Ben, [-7-] touching his hat, as I came up and evidently expecting my approval.
"He's got to have ten minutes more of this, and I've give him a round and sound dozen with Timothy Tickle-Toby here" - he went on brandishing the rope's end as he spoke- "and though - as is only fair to say - he's game to the backbone, and wouldn't give mouth, I'll pound it that every stroke went, home, and won't want no rubbin'in. If he ever comes here agen after this, he must have a strong stomach, though it shan't be stronger than my arm; I'll double the dose every time I ketch him, and I'll warrant to tire him of being licked, before I tire of licking of him. I'll make him remember coming clouting of orderly children, and disturbing schools as his betters has started."
The culprit was a boy of apparently nine or ten years of age. I had often seen him in the streets and about the river-bank, and, without knowing who he was, or ever having spoken to him, we had come to entertain a liking for him. He was a thorough "city arab," and the leader of a band of street boys who were generally engaged in mischief; and sometimes perhaps in something worse. Still, to my eyes, there had seemed a something lovable about him. He was a well-grown, fine-limbed boy, with a jaunty, rollicking gait that spoke him full of spirits. He had a fair, chubby, smiling face, bright blue eyes, and crisply curling brown hair; and, well washed and dressed, would have been pronounced a handsome boy anywhere.
[-8-] Though he now kept his teeth firmly clenched, and tried to appear carelessly defiant, it was evident that he suffered severely. Seeing this I said to old Tyler-
"Well, perhaps, it's only from thoughtlessness that he has annoyed us, and, at any rate, he has been sufficiently punished, and you had better let him down now."
"Beggin' pardon, yer honour, I don't think I had," answered Tyler; "it's not often you can catch a customer of his stamp, and when you do you should stick to 'em. I've been aster him for some time, but he has always managed to run the blockade up till now. Tonight, howm-sumever, I captur'd him fair, and me and some of them round as have boys at the school court-martialled him, and the sentence. was a dozen with the rope and a quarter of an hour's stringing up. The dozen he's had," he concluded, pulling out a large old-fashioned watch as he spoke, "but there's eight minutes of the time to run."
"Oh, but you must let me beg him off that," I said; "he will promise me not to disturb the school again, I know - won't you now?"
I paused for an answer, but he would make none, and Tyler exclaimed- "There, you see the sort he is! Let him go, eh? Give him another dozen more like."
"Well, it seems he is a stubborn boy," I said; "still I cannot stand by and see him tormented; and without further parley I cut the string. I had laid hold of his collar intending to administer a few words of admonition [-9-] ere letting him go; but before I could speak he had deftly twisted himself loose and dashed away.
"You'd a better let him had the dose out, sir," said Tyler, somewhat sulkily; "I wouldn't go to be cruel to any youngster, but with such as Captain Rust you must be hard if you mean to do any good with 'em."
"Captain Rust!" I exclaimed, "do you mean to say that was Captain Rust?"
"Why, yes," said the pensioner; "who did you think it was? There ain't another Captain Rust, I expects; or, if there is, that un's the original character; and a beauty he is, without paint."
I didn't know exactly why, I said, but I had been under the impression that the notorious captain was at least a young man.
"Well, anybody as only heer'd of his precious performances might easily think that," said Tyler; "there ain't many young men as would come up to him, for a more owdacious young willain was never born to be hanged."
"Oh! come, Ben, we mustn't be too hard on him," put in a costermonger, who, as I afterwards understood, had been one of the court-martial, "he ain't had much chance of being anythink but what he is; he's had to scratch for himself since ever he could walk almost, and a pretty hard scratch he's had of it, for all as plucky and sharp as he is. When you come to think of what a job thousands of us men have to knock out a bare livin' for ourselves, you may guess how hard it is for a child, with, [-10-] as you may say, not a soul to care for him, and all the world agen him."
There was a murmur of "Hear, hear," and then. the "coster" resumed-
"I don't say but what he's a bad young rip, and a-going on in a way as is sure to bring him into trouble in the long-run; but, at the same time, if he has his bad points he has his good uns too.. Badly off as he is, there's others like him, but as hasn't his pluck in 'em, as is wuss off still; and I know as a fact that he always shares his crust with them even at times when all of it wouldn't be enough for hisself.. And a chap of his years as'll do that," he concluded, laying his hand on the pensioner's shoulder, "isn't altogether a bad un; is he now, Ben?"
"Well, no," answered Ben, whose passing ill-humour had by this time vanished, "I quite believe the young rapscallion is a good-hearted un at bottom; all the same, you know, he did lead the attack agen the school, and deserved a bit of correction, and a rope's end breaks no bones. What I give him will do him no harm."
Ben spoke at me, and I answered, that I hoped the correction would do the captain good - sufficient good to keep him away from the school. To this I added an apology for having interfered to prevent the full carrying out of the sentence of the court-martial; and, then, bidding good night to the members of the court and the spectators generally, I went on my way, the feeling of astonishment I had experienced on discovering that [-11-] Captain Rust was so young a boy still uppermost in my mind.
The following morning I was going along a street from which side streets branched on either side, when I became conscious that I was being dogged. I could hear a pattering of bare feet behind me; but whenever there was any indication of stopping or turning on my part, I could tell by the sound that the person following me rushed down the nearest side street. At length, feeling more irritated than alarmed, I determined to ascertain by whom I was being followed; and, striding hastily back to the top of a narrow street, whom should I behold but Captain Rust, trying to so flatten himself into a doorway as to be screened from sight. He now darted out, but, having retreated well out of reach, he came to a standstill as if undecided what to do. Presently he began to come cautiously forward, and, on getting within earshot, opened parley:-
"May I speak to you, guv - sir? he called out stammeringly.
"Of course he could," I answered.
"And you won't go a-collarin' of me, or a-giving me into charge for making a row at the school ?"
"No, I would do nothing against him for what was past," I answered.
"Honour bright?" he questioned dubiously.
"Honour bright," I answered, and then he came confidently up to me.
"And now what do you want to say?" I asked.
[-12-] "Well, you see," he began slowly and with a rather puzzled air, "it ain't esackly as I've got anythink to tell you like; on'y I see you goen along, and I thinks to myself; I ought to say 'Thank you' to him, and I was a-comin' right up, when I thinks as well, perhaps he'll lumber me, and that was what put me folloren you up in sich an in-and-out style - so thank you, sir."
"You mean for cutting you loose last night?" I said.
"Yes, sir," he answered. "I wouldn't knuckle down to old Ben and that lot; but it did hurt me orfle, and wasn't I glad to get away! and I'll never get on with any games at the school again, - I wouldn't be such a bad un as that 'ud come to, arter you cutting of me down; and if any of the rest on em gets a molestin' of you, it'll be them and me for it."
"I should like you to come to school as a scholar," I said, "only in the evening; now, will you come?"
He paused in evident embarrassment, but at length he said-
"I can't, sir; I scrats for myself; and I'm on lays as takes me pretty well all my time."
I felt drawn towards the sturdy little fellow, and, seeing some of his arab companions approaching, and desiring to have a little quiet talk with him, I asked-
"Have you had any breakfast this morning?"
"No," he answered, in a tone of indifference.
"Well, will you come and have some with me?"
"Where?" he asked, with quick suspicion.
[-13-] "Oh, only round at B-----s," I answered, naming a coffee-house, just. outside a neighbouring. shipyard's gates.
"But I didn't speak to you to get you to stand any think," said the captain sturdily.
"Of course not," I said; no such idea had ever entered my mind, I just wanted him to come and have a cup of coffee, because it would be easier to talk over that than standing there in the street.
His mind set at ease upon this point, the captain accompanied me with cheerful alacrity, and a few minutes later was seated at a breakfast, which, though plain, I took care was substantial and plentiful. Sipping at a cup of coffee, and appearing to be absorbingly interested in a week-old paper, I let the captain finish his meal without interrupting him by talk, or embarrassing him by any notice; and a very hearty meal he made.
He was the first to break silence. Twitching me by the sleeve, he whispered-
"Does yer have to pay for the lot?"
A glance at the table showed me the captain's drift, and I briefly answered-
"Well, that un," he whispered, indicating a slice of bread and butter still left upon the plate, "is one too many for me now - can I plant it?"
I nodded assent, and the next instant he had stowed it away in the pocket of his ragged jacket, and then with a sigh. of pleasure he exclaimed-
"Wouldn't it be jolly to have a blow-out like this [-14-] every day! But there," he added in a slightly disappointed tone, "you does have as much as you likes every day."
"And don't you?" I asked by way of drawing him out.
"Why, no," he said, "plenty o' days I don't. I don't more days than I do, and nows and thens there's days when I don't get any at all. Not as I'm grumbling or carneying, mind you. For one thing," he went on with the precocious manliness and self-reliance of air and tone characteristic of street children who "scratch for themselves," "you see it takes a goodish bit to be enough for me. Knockin' about long shore makes yer rare and peckish, and where there's plenty to perform on, and I'm free to eat till further orders, I can put a lot out o' sight for my share. Getting yer grub's an in-and-out bisness with the likes a' me; but, taking it through and through, I come off pretty well, - some days I has as much as ever I can tuck into me, and most days I gets a bit."
"Well, captain, I began," adding in a laughing, apologetical way, "I must call you Captain Rust, you know, as I don't know your proper name."
"Which everybody does call me Captain Rust, and I don't mind," he put in; "on'y if you want to know my proper name it's Bill White."
"Well, then, Bill," I said, "about your coming to the school, you may take my word as a friend that it would be the best thing you could do for yourself; a boy or man that can't read or write has very little chance of [-15-] getting on in the world nowadays. Come, now, I urged, on seeing that he remained silent, "there is nothing to pay, and it's only at night, you know, you could manage that; you can't rust in the dark."
"But it ain't dark till late now," he said; "all the same I don't rust at night, but now as it's the summer I'm on another lay as I do go arter at night."
"What lay is it?" I asked.
"Chuck-out-yer-mouldy-coppers, you know," he answered.
My looks intimated that I did not know, for he went on in an explanatory tone-
"Mud-larkin' and cart-wheelin'. I meets the wans coming back from the bean-feasts and the like, and turns cart-wheels along the road beside 'em, and sings out to those on 'em, "Chuck-out-yer-mouldy coppers,', and there's mostly some good-natured uns among 'em. Then other times I works down long shore to the Trafalgar, where the swells as come down to the whitebait feeds are out in the what-do-calls - in front of the winders, you know, and I does abit of tumblin' afore 'em, and then sings for them to chuck out their coppers."
"And do they?" I asked, as at this point he came to a full stop.
"Well, on'y sometimes," he answered. "You see," he went on, with a philosophizing air, "them as comes to the Trafalgar is mostly toppin' swells, and there's a difference 'tween them and bean-feasters. The feasters is mostly workin' people just out for their day's holiday, [-16-] as they've perhaps been a-saving up for ever so long, and they're that pleased at being out, that they ain't pertic'lar to a copper or two, and don't mind doin' a bit of chaff with you; and sometimes, if they've been taking their own grub with 'em, they'll chuck you a paper of sandwiches or summat o' that sort, as well as the coppers. But it ain't that way with the swells. They're used to doin' the grand, and bein' out for the day ain't such a pertic'lar treat for 'em as to put 'em in extra good humour, and then besides it's stand orf when it comes to swells. The police has orders to drive the mudlarkers off the bank before the Trafalgar; but, bless you, sir," he concluded with a laugh, "that's jest what gives us the pull."
"In what way?" I asked.
"Well, for all the police is put on to us for sake of the swells, there's nothink pleases most of 'em better than to see a policeman took orf, and that's just what a mudlark can do - if he's got any game in him. He ain't got no shoes or stockings on, and no clothes as he's afeard o' spilin', and the bobby has; so if it comes to a- close shave you can allays dodge him by runnin' into the water a bit, and if, instead of lettin' him drive you away, you dodge him round about under the winders till he's tired, or goes off in the 'huff' at being laughed at, the swells is sure to chuck you coppers then, and sometimes a bit a' silver.
"That may be all very fine now, Bill," I said when he had finished; "but you should remember that, after a [-17-] while, you'll be getting too big for those sort of games, and if you are not a little bit of a scholar, you won't have much chance of making a man of yourself. You had better give up the mouldy-copper lay, and attend the night-school."
"I must knock out a living how I can," he muttered.
"Have you no one to help you?" I asked; "no parents, no father or mother?"
"I ain't got no mother," he answered, and his voice grew low and trembling, and a look of sadness came over his face. "It 'ud be different with me if I had. I dessay I should a been at school afore now if she'd a been left; she stuck to me through thick and thin. I only wish I did have her now. But I dunno neither," he added quickly, "she had an orful time of it, and a good deal through a takin' of my part. He used to wollop us dreadful, particlaly poor mother; he killed her orf by inches."
"Your father you mean?" I said.
"I does, and no one else," he said, his eyes flashing angrily.
"And is he dead too?" was my next question.
"No; wuss luck," he answered promptly. "I'd a been a lot better off if he had been. He worn't content with kicking me out; if ever he thought I had a few ha'pence he'd come arter me and shake 'em out o' me, and gie me a hidin' if I said anything agen it. Howsumever," he went on, his face brightening again as he spoke, "he's pretty nigh as good as dead to me; he's doen time [-18-] - ten years' penal, and he had a back-scratchin' into the bargain. A woman as know'd my mother read it all out of a noosepaper to me, and didn't I larf when it said how he 'owled when they were givin' him the cat. I know'd he was chicken-'arted. Though he used to knock us about so, I've heard men put him down like old boots, and he hadn't a word to say for hisself. Agen he's out next time, I'll be man enough for him myself, an' if he comes near me then I'll smash like that," and he brought his fist down fiercely on the coffee-room table.
"Oh, come, Bill," I said, laying a hand upon his shoulder, "you must not have such thoughts as that, they are wicked."
"You may think so," he answered somewhat doggedly; "but you don't know how I've been knocked about; and mother, poor mother! - " he added, his voice dropping to a murmur.
"But there!" he resumed suddenly, as if wishing to shake off some train of thought, "I must be goin'."
"You have given me no answer about the school, though," I said, as he rose to his feet.
"I told you the lay I was on," he answered.
"Well, but if I can find you something to do in the day-time to make up for that lay, will you come to school then?"
He paused for a few seconds, debating the matter in his mind, and my impression was, that the thought of the "chaff" to which he would be subjected by his associates if he accepted my offer, decided him against it. [-19-] "I wouldn' like to say anythink to you, sir, that I mightn't stick to," he answered at length, "and so I'd rather not promise; leastwise not now, perhaps I'll come in the winter."
This was the utmost I could get out of him, and I tried to make the most of it.
"Well, then, I shall expect to see you at school in the winter," I said, as he was leaving us.
"I on'y said perhaps, you know," he answered.
"Oh yes," I said; " I wouldn't try to trap him, still I would like him to come, and I would look him up again in the winter to speak to him about it. Was he agreeable?"
"Yes, sir," he answered; "and thank you for the breakfast, and you'll see there won't be no more goings on up at the school."
Though I failed in the chief object of it, my interview with Captain Rust had increased my liking for him; my desire to snatch him, if I could, from the life of criminality and misery towards which he was but too probably gravitating; to which, if they live to become men, most of the children - and their number is legion - who are kicked out in the world to "scratch for themselves," ultimately do come. He was a sturdy, fearless, self-reliant little fellow, with the seeds of much that was good in him; a boy that, under favourable circumstances, would, in all probability, make a bright man, and a useful member of society. But he was not under favourable circumstances; ho was under very unfavourable circumstances, was in a [-20-] way to become an enemy to society - one of the "dangerous classes."
Something like these were the thoughts that flitted through my mind as the captain walked away; his usual elastic jaunty gait, and free-and-easy bearing, coming back to him when he had gone a few paces.
His promise that there should be no more disturbances at the school was faithfully kept, and that, as I was told, at the cost of several fights with some of those who were desirous of continuing the sport, as they considered it. At the same time, however, the captain very characteristically began - as my informant upon this point put it - to make poor old Ben Tyler's life a burden to him. Occasionally, when moving about my district, I caught sight of the boy, but only at a distance; and I had an idea that he designedly kept out of my reach in order to avoid being pressed upon the subject of the school.
As most of the younger boys who attended the night classes were in the habit of going into the country with their parents harvesting and hopping, it was, on that and other grounds, decided to discontinue the evening classes at the school from the beginning of August till the middle of October. When they were resumed I was away from the district on leave of absence, and did not return till November, when, however, I immediately bethought me of Captain Rust. I began to look out for him when taking my walks abroad, but having at the end of a week seen nothing of him, I began to make inquiries as to where I would be likely to "drop on him."
[-21-] Well, they couldn't exactly tell me, was the answer given by those to whom I put the question. Somewhere about his old "lurk," they should think; but he hadn't shown up much lately, and seemed to be dreadfully down on his luck. At length, I fell in with an old man, the keeper of a moored barge, which served as landing-stage for a waterman's ferry, who was a little more definite.
"I see him a few days back," he said, "and precious ill he was too, poor little feller, with his head in a sling, and looking like a walking skeleton a'most."
"With his head in a sling!" I echoed.
"Well, bandaged up. He got his cheek badly gashed a while ago, and with no one to see to him it went bad, mid some good-natured soul of a woman had tied it up for him that morning. He asked me for some old sacking as was lying about on the barge here, and I give him that and the last twopence of my week's dinner-beer money; for I thinks to myself, well, it's only a matter of going without my half-pint for a couple of days, while it'll get the captain a bit o' summat to eat. But if you believe me, sir, I had a job to get him to take the coppers; he's a spirited un, is Rust, and no mistake."
"But can you tell me where I can find him?" I asked.
"I can't now," he answered; "but I'll try and find out. I would like to see summat done for him. He ain't come out much lately," he went on. "You see he's like the wild beastes, as you may say, and like them he'd try to creep into some quiet hole to die."
[-22-] "But he can't be dead," I said hastily, "or it would be known in the neighbourhood."
"Well, I don't say as he is dead, sir," answered the old man, "and I hope he ain't; but as to saying he can't be, that's another affair. I ain't saying it in a hard-hearted way, but a dozen such as him might be dead and no one know, and - God help em, poor little creeters - no one care about it either. Just you put it to yourself, sir - here's the captain, poor knocked-about little wasteral, who's to miss him if he was gone?"
The old man spoke with a depth of feeling that was catching, and for the moment I had no words to answer him. After a brief pause he went on in a somewhat calmer tone.
"It's pretty certain, sir, that he's kenneling out, most likely in some out-of-the-way corner of a shut-up wharf or yard, and he might die there and not be a case of body found for long enough after."
What the landing-stage keeper had told me made me feel very anxious and uncomfortable, and throughout the remainder of the day I was actively engaged making inquiries among the policemen on the beat, common lodging-house keepers, and others; but all in vain, none of them could tell me the whereabouts of Captain Rust. The next morning, however, the desired information was brought to me, thanks to the instrumentality of the old ferry keeper. I had just got down-stairs, when I was told that a man wished to speak to me. He was a tall, burly fellow, and, with a hairy cap tied down over his [-23-] ears, a large red woollen "comforter" wrapped thickly round his throat, and a much bepatched great coat coming down to his heels, he looked a formidable customer.
"Beg yer pardon for calling so early," he began, the instant he was shown into the room; "but you see, sir, I'm night watchman at Miller's yard, and I thought if I didn't call before I turned in, I mightn't catch you."
"That was all right," I said, signing to him to take a chair, "but what might he want with me?"
"Well, it's this way, sir," he began, in a half-confidential sort of tone; "as I was a-coming home this morning, I meets old Dan Davies down at the Ferry there, and says he to me, 'Charley' - Charley Johnson bein' my name, you know - 'do you happen to know anything as to where Captain Rust hangs out now?' So says I, 'Why?' 'Well, cos,' says he, 'Mr. ------ was a-inquirin' of me about him, and I think he'd give him a lift if he could find him.' 'Well, if that's it,' says I, 'I do know something about him. I know where he sleeps, only I'm not supposed to. I'm supposed not to, more than anybody else.' 'Well,' says he, 'if you'd give Mr. ---- a call, I'm sure he'd be obliged to you,' and so I said I would, and here I am, sir, and I 'ope you won't think me for'ard in coming."
"I thought him a good-hearted fellow," I answered, and was very much obliged to him for taking the trouble to come.
"Oh, don't let us say anything about that, sir," he [-24-] answered, colouring. "It would be a poor heart that wouldn't go a step out of its way to help another. This is how it is, sir: Dingley's yard, which is next to ours, has been standing idle this year past, and it's in a shed there that the captain sleeps, though I have to make believe not to know it. I'm supposed to keep a bit of an eye on that yard as well as our own; so, if I was to let on that I was aware of his coming there o' nights, I'd be expected to drive him away; but, bless you, sir, I couldn't do it. So as I tell you I take on as if I didn't know it. I try not to see him, and he tries not to let me; he's a sharp little chap, and we understand each other. When I'm having my supper, I leaves a bit at a spot where it's handy for him to fetch it, and then I goes for a walk in another part of the yard, and when I come back the grub's gone; but of course I ain't seen any one take it; it might ha' been a dog for anything I know; and if I throws a bit of sacking or a few pieces of coke over the wall, I ain't supposed to know as anybody walks them off and turns em to account. Drive him away! No! I couldn't have the heart to do it, if I was to lose fifty jobs over it! I'm a roughish sort o' chap, sir, but it almost brings the water into my eyes to think 0' that poor little feller, he's so broke down and ill, and so brave-hearted with it all. I've six on em myself; three boys and three girls, and there's only two-and-twenty shillings a week to keep the lot of us, so you may know there ain't much chance for saving; and when I see little Rust - for between you and me and the post, sir, I do [-25-] see him sometimes - I think to myself what would be come of my own youngsters if they were left as poor Rust has been? If you can do anything for him, sir, it'll be a real charity; and if I can do anything to help you in it, there's my hand on it."
Heartily I grasped the brawny hand he proffered me, and then in a few brief words it was arranged that he should that night conduct me to the spot where Captain Rust "kennelled."
It was a rainy, raw November night, and the disused ship-yard seemed to me an especially dismal place as I stood in it at the point close to the water's edge, at which I had clambered into it in company with my kind-hearted guide. The bare poles and scaffolding stood up gaunt and skeleton-like against the leaden sky, and the slimy lap-lapping of the slowly rising tide had something dirge-like in its sound. There was a faint moonlight, and by this we began to make our way up the timber-strewn yard, my watchman friend not wishing to turn on the dark lantern he carried, unless it should become absolutely necessary to do so. In about five minutes we got up to the brick-built parts of the yard, the forges, stores, offices, and there things seemed more cheerful.
Coming to a stand for a moment, my guide whispered-
"We're close to him now; the shed's just behind that second forge there; should I speak to him first? he'll know my voice."
"Yes," I whispered; and then the pair of us advanced [-26-] as directly as we could. As we came up to the shed, we heard its occupant creep to the door to listen: and so, hastening forward, my companion, putting his mouth to a chink, said, in an undertone- "Don't you be afeard, Rust, it's only me - Charley Johnson, you know. I've brought Mr. ------ with me; he wants to see you; open the door, that's my hearty."
There was a sound as of a piece of wood being struck out of a staple; and then the door swung open and we entered.
Having pulled the door to after him, Johnson turned on his lamp, by the light of which we saw poor little Rust crouching in a corner beside the pile of old sacking which served him as bed. He looked a wofully different boy from what he had done when I first met him. Wasted, haggard, emaciated, with face deadly pale, lacklustre eyes, the old buoyancy of bearing gone, and his clothes not only dreadfully ragged, but hanging about him "a world too wide." It was a piteous spectacle, so piteous, that I was for the moment unable to speak, and the boy himself was the first to break the painful silence.
Slowly rising to his feet, he dragged himself towards me, and in a weak, hollow voice, said-
"I spose you've come about the school; but I couldn't come in such togs as these; and, besides, I've been very bad, sir, I have indeed, there ain't no sham about it; is there, Charley?"
"Goodness knows, there ain't," answered Charley emphatically.
[-27-] "No, I can see that but too plainly," I said; and then, with an assumed heartiness of tone, went on:- "Never mind about the school now; we must get you better first, and then we can talk about other things. I've only come to take you away from here at present."
"Where to?" he asked quickly, and shrinking back as he spoke.
"Well, I hardly know yet," I said; "however, it will be some place where you'll be well done by, and where I don't think you'll want to leave, but where you'll be free to leave if you do want."
"There now, what could be kinder or fairer than that!" exclaimed Johnson admiringly; "so come along, little matey;" and without more ado he took Rust up in his arms as lightly and as tenderly as though he had been an infant, and led the way out of the yard. He carried him thus till we came to the front gate of the premises of which he was watchman, then standing him gently down on the pavement, said-
"May it be the turn of the tide for you, old chap, as summat seems to tell me it will; but if it shouldn't be, and you ever do want the shed again - which, of course, I 'ope you won't - there it is for you, and no questions ast and no notice took. And now, good-bye, little Rust - good-bye, and God bless yer." As he finished speaking he stooped and kissed the desolate boy upon the forehead, and then, with a brief good night to us, he went off.
Calling a passing boy, I sent him to a neighbouring [-28-] stand for a cab; and, while waiting for it, I resolved to convey Captain Rust, in the first instance at any rate, to a local home for destitute boys, with the manager of which I was acquainted.
It was nearly ten o'clock when I reached the home, and the boys being gone to bed, I found the matron in her own room, darning stockings. It was a cosey little room, and, with a clear fire burning, it looked and felt decidedly cheerful by contrast with the dark, wet streets, and I could see Rust's eyes brighten the instant he came into it.
A glance at my companion was sufficient to give the matron a general understanding of the position; and, before I could enter into any explanation, she had put the already singing kettle on the fire, and was bringing out a little jar of extract of beef wherewith to make beef- tea.
"Ah, poor little fellow, he looks sadly wasted," was her comment, in an undertone, when I had briefly told her Captain Rust's story; "but it's more a case for meat than medicine."
The beef-tea was soon ready, and while the boy was sipping it the active matron prepared a warm bath for him in an adjoining room, and looked out a suit of the Home uniform. Somewhat refreshed by the beef-tea, the warmth, and his brief rest, the captain went readily enough to the bath when requested to do so, and came back looking decidedly improved. In the meantime the matron bad got ready a cup of coffee, with an egg and
[-29-] some thin bread-and-butter. To this the captain sat down with something of his old alacrity of movement, but he had scarcely tasted the food when, covering his face with his hands, he burst out sobbing as though his heart would break.
"I can't help it! I can't stand it no longer! It chokes me a'most!" he gasped out between the great sobs that shook his poor little frame.
"What is it, Bill?" I said soothingly. "You can't stand what?"
"This," he sobbed out brokenly- "yer all bein' so kind to me. I know it's babyish, but I can't help it."
The matron probably divined that I was going to tell him that he must not cry, for with a quick shake of the head at me, she advanced, and patting him on the head, said-
"There, dear, you are weak now, but you will be better soon. I'll keep your coffee hot for you; it will do you good presently."
Her voice and touch seemed to calm him, for his sobbing immediately became less violent. Seeing this the matron left his side and resumed the conversation with me, which had been interrupted by the captain's outbreak of grief. It was about him that we were talking; the matron sorrowfully explaining to me that she feared it would be impossible for the boy to be sheltered there for more than a day or two, as what beds they had were full, and the state of their funds did not admit of their adding another bed.
[-30-] We had spoken in whispers, but the event proved that the captain's sharp ears had caught at least the general purport of our talk. Suddenly rising, he staggered to where the matron was seated, and falling on his knees at her feet, and burying his face in her lap, broke out- "O lady! don't send me away. I'll sleep anywheres, and do anythink, only let me stay. I could be good where you wos, I know I could. Take pity on me, I'm quite broke down. I'm on'y a little chap, and I've no mother."
There was an earnestness in his brokenly uttered appeal, an air of forlorn helplessness about his attitude and wasted figure that would have touched even a hardhearted person - and the matron was not hard-hearted.
Bowing her own head over his to conceal her rising tears, she murmured, "No, you shall not be sent away, poor motherless wanderer. I'll have room made for you somehow. With God's help, I'll be as a mother to you, so far as in me lies."
Timidly he kissed her hand, and, so well as his choking sobs would let him, fervently murmured some incoherent expression of thanks. Balm had been poured upon his wounded spirits; gradually the tempest of grief in his breast subsided; his sobs grew softer and softer, till at length they died away in sighs; and, finally, he fell into a light and gentle sleep.
And so, still resting his weary little head on the lap of her who had promised to be a mother to him, I left him - a brand snatched from the burning.