Chapter XII.

MY prayers were disregarded. About a quarter of a mile from the school I ran into the very arms of Mercury, who was wending his way to the pit. Seizing me by the collar with one hand, and brandishing his candlestick, daggerwise, in the other, he threatened to murder me, and then sell me to the doctors; to hide me in the mines, and make me work for him; to take me back to school; to do, in short, a variety of things that he thought would terrify me. Having succeeded in his benevolent attempt, he contented himself with stripping me of my prog, my money, my picture-books,

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and my pillow-case (seeing no cuts in the Latin books, he contemptuously restored them); and, finally, helped me on my way to Bristol with a shove and a tremendous kick.

Tingling with pain, half-choked with terror, and yet glad to have escaped with only the loss of my baggage (to send me to Bristol, naked, had been one of Mercury's menaces), I pattered panting along the frozen road; cowering in ditches, amongst the dead nettles and rime-powdered fallen leaves, when I saw any collier-bands in the distance, hurrying pitwards, like devils scared by the approach of dawn.

Ferunt vagantes dæmonas,
Lætos tenebris noctium,
Gallo canente exterritos
Sparsim timere et cedere.

Oh, how my heart thumped as the tramp, and the laughter, and the blasphemy of my black foes drew nearer and nearer! How I held my breath when they were right abreast of me! How cautiously I peeped out when the sound of their feet and voices died gradually away! And with what a hare-like scamper I got over the ground when the coast was once more clear! Once, a dog belonging to one of them came running along the ditch in which I was lying, and smelt at the heap of thorns behind which I was hid. His moist nose almost touched me. His hot breath puffed full in my face. I could see the look of uncertainty in his eye, when it fell upon me, as to whether he ought to bark or not. Fortunately, just then, his master whistled. The question of casuistry was settled, apparently to the satisfaction of the canine conscience, by a call to a more immediate duty than that of discovering my retreat. With a knowing look that seemed to say “I could have got you into trouble, if I'd liked,” the dog wagged his tail, and trotted off; and I was left unmolested.

The moon had gone down when I reached St.———, half-way between the school and Bristol. The church towered dim and spectral in the dusk of the winter's morning. The tombstones looked over the churchyard-wall like ghosts. Nobody was stirring in the street. A few drowsy lights were blinking in the upper windows of the dark houses. The road beyond stretched black, silent, and dismal. I lingered for a time in a little patch of light that one of the candles threw down upon the path. There seemed warmth and company in the yellow spot on that cold, dreary morning. Remembering, however, that it was not safe to loiter so near my cage, and that I had nothing more to fear from the colliers (St.———being, as it were, a frontier-fortress of civilization, marking the termination of the realin of coal), I pushed on again, and reached Bristol without

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further adventure, by the not very promising entrance of squalid Templestreet.

As I advanced into the city of rum, sugar and dirt, shop-boys were taking down shutters, housemaids were banging door-mats against area-rails, and mechanics hastening to their work; the noses of all of them purple as plums with the biting cold. The tin-cans that the last carried reminded me of breakfast; excitement had, hitherto, stifled hunger, but now I found that my race in the keen air had made me ravenous. The books that Mercury had left me must at once be sold.

It was some time, however, before I could find a bookseller. In the course of wanderings in search of one, I passed the beautiful church of St. Mary Redcliffe. Rosy-golden in the bright winter sunlight, the tower shot up into the clear, frosty air—undefiled as yet with smoke—with such a happy, holiday look about it, that I almost fancied the bells would break out presently of their own accord in a joy-peal. The sight cheered me for a moment, and then it threw a damp upon my enterprise, for Chatterton came into my head. My sister had told me his story, when we visited the church together, just before I went to school. I began to wonder how long the money that I might get for my books would keep me, how much poison cost, and which would be the more painful death—suicide or starvation.

Meditating thus moodily, I suddenly stumbled on what I was seeking. At the corner of a little square court, I came upon an old house; each story projecting over the one beneath, as though it wanted to whisper to the house opposite; quaint faces carved on the projecting beams; and tiny lattices peeping out, with a sly, wicked leer, in all kinds of places where no one could expect to see a window. At the door stood two boxes, filled with battered, mildewed volumes; a paper label in a cleft stick—like those gardeners put into the ground to mark where seeds are sown—intimating the trade value of those on the left by the inscription, “These at 3d.,” a similar index emblazoned with “These at 6d.,” doing the same office for the rather more reputable-looking tomes upon the right. Bulkier books, ticketed with various prices, were arranged in shelves, and laid out flat, like flounders at a fishmonger's, on a sloping board, in the open shop front. Lurking like a spider in a dusty hole behind the counter, sat the proprietor of the establishment; a blear-eyed, red-nosed, snuffy old man, swathed in a filthy flannel dressing-gown, with a huge pair of horn spectacles on his forehead, and smoking a short black pipe. Above him, in a wicker cage, hung a raven, with his head on one side, and eyes that one moment seemed stupid, half asleep, and the next flashed out a glance

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of devilish cunning, and impish fun. Beside the old man sat a black cat, decorated with a red morocco collar. Before him lay a big book, open, which I think must have been a black-letter Bible.

With a trembling hand I tendered the old man my classics, and was proceeding in a trembling voice to ask him what he would give for them, when suddenly he got up, puffed a whiff of tobacco down my throat, and whilst I was coughing the rank fume out, pinched his cat's tail, and shook the raven's cage; whereupon the former began to swear figuratively, and the latter, literally, gruffly ejaculating “Go to Hell!” Three times was this strange process gone through, the old wizard after each performance composedly squatting down again, and coolly inquiring what was my business.

When, at length, he condescended to understand what I wanted, he took the books from me, glanced at their titles, flung them on a pile of pamphlets near him, and then quietly went on smoking. Again and again I asked him to name his price. The only answer I received was from his feathered proxy, which, rendered more and more savage by each shake of his tenement, commanded me in a voice of crescendo ferocity to “Go to Hell!”

Presently, putting down his pipe, the old man took up the big book, muttered some gibberish, and slipped his finger at random between the leaves. Either reading, or pretending to read the passage on which it had fallen, he grunted out: “Thou shalt not steal, Exodus, fifteenth, twentieth.” At this the raven, without any prompting, screamed petulantly: “Go to hell—go to hell—can't you go to hell?”

I was so frightened by this time, that I began to think I had come very near to the place whither the raven wanted to send me. I had no wish now to sell my books to that awful old man. My only desire was to get them back, and be off. When I applied for them, however, this was the response I got:

“The book hath spoken, and so has the bird: do you want to hear the cat?”

I really almost believed that the cat would speak if I asked for the books again, but hunger made me desperate, and I said, or rather sobbed:

“Oh, do, please, sir, give them to me! I've had no breakfast, and they're all I've got.”

The old man rose very gravely, planted his elbows on the counter, and his head upon his palms, and stared at me for full five minutes. Then having blown out a long puff of smoke (as before, directly in my face) and waited until it had cleared away, he replied:

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“Give 'em to you indeed! No, Master Moucher, my intentions is to send them there two Latin books back to them as owns 'em, and you with 'em,” he added, making a feint at running round the counter to catch me, and flinging the cat, with all her claws out, and spitting like a fury, in my face. I waited to hear no more, but rushed from the shop, pursued by a laughing chorus of “go to hell—go to hell—ha, ha, ha—ha, ha, ha—gone to hell—gone to hell—ha—ha—HA!”

I was quite cast down by this second robbery, and thoroughly scared by the methodical old madman who had fleeced me with his Sortes Biblicœ and oracular familiars. I wished myself back again in the old hall, safe, at all events, from supernatural tormentors, and sure of a breakfast.

With a longing eye I lingered about a coffee-stall, feeding in fancy on the thick slices of bread and butter, and greedily sniffing the fragrant fumes of the steaming beverage. The woman who kept the stall noticed me, and asked whether she should serve me.

“I haven't got any money,” I said.

“Ah, well, I can't afford to treat young gentlemen,” was the woman's very natural answer.

A shoeless little girl was standing amongst the crowd of al fresco breakfasters, busy with her coffee-cup and second slice of bread and butter. She saw how woe-begone I looked, and brought both to me with a smile.

“Here, drink it up, little boy; I've only taken one bite out. Won't they give you breakfast at home? I've got a brother like you.”

Famished as I was, I couldn't take the proffered refreshment; but the generosity of my kind, shivering little benefactress, made me cry. This touched the woman's heart, and she called me back and gave me free commons. When I had finished my breakfast, she made me tell her how I came to be wandering about; and when she found that I had run away from school, advised me to go back, and never mind the beatings—I should be a big boy some day. I thanked her, and slipped away. The coffee had so warmed and cheered me, that all hankerings after the dreary asylum of school had vanished; but having no money, and no means of getting any, I felt very puzzled as to how I was to reach home. As I hung upon the draw-bridge, I noticed “London” on a schooner's stern. London was only fifty miles from where my mother lived. I would offer myself as a cabin-boy, go to London in the schooner, and then pay my coach fare to Helensburgh with a portion of my wages, buying presents for my mother and sisters with the rest. The plan appeared quite feasible—what an extensive system of chances is childhood's theory of probabilities! It is a pity that we can't hoard a little of our superfluous early

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faith for use in after years; but! the heart has no Joseph to make provision for the time of famine.

My proffer of service was somewhat rudely rebuffed on board the schooner. The mate, with his trowsers tucked up to his knees, was superintending and personally assisting in the swabbing of the deck; and, having been rendered irritable by the cold water that frosty morning, dabbed his mop in my face, and merely repeated what I had already heard from the raven. I was similarly repulsed from a good many other vessels. My deformity, I scarcely need say, was made the butt of scores of cruel jokes; the most good natured of them being an intimation from a waggish master, that he had a monkey already.

I had strolled to the end of what, if I remember rightly, is called the Floating Harbour, when I saw a little man, in a white-seamed blue coat, with tarnished gilt buttons, hurrying down to a boat which was waiting to take him to his vessel, a West Indiaman that was just about to be towed into the river. The little skipper had such a pleasant smile upon his sun-burnt face, that, being anxious now to get some sort of settlement anywhere, I determined to ask him to let me be his cabin-boy, whithersoever the ship might be going. I stopt him as he was slipping down the grassy bank, and told him my tale and wishes.

“Go back to school, my little lad,” was his reply. “We are all of us at school, big and small. There's many a one beside you that don't like the tasks and beatings, and would run away if he could. But we must do our duty, my boy—work on like Britons, that, when breaking-up day comes, we may get a prize, and go home happy to our Father.”

I understood his simple sermon, but I did not act upon it, for my kind-hearted mentor gave me half-a-crown as well as a homily; and with such an amount of wealth as that I thought I could get a long way on my road home, and when it was exhausted, no doubt I should find some means of getting more.

I watched and saw the boat push off and pull to the ship—saw my blue-coated friend run up the side like a cat, and then I wandered on, reviewing my position, and meditating my next move.