Chapter XIV

Ned Meets his Aunt

“I wish I knew why Bob hated me,” he thought as he walked slowly back to the fair. But all the thinking in the world couldn’t solve this problem, and after puzzling his brains to no purpose he gave it up.

He had to own that he was very glad when he was safely inside the caravan. All the way from the cathedral he was fearful lest he should come across his cousin, and especially so when he got to the fair. But though he saw nothing of him he did not feel at all relieved, for it seemed scarcely possible they could be so close together and not at some time happen to meet each other.

Perhaps it was this thought that made him look rather grave, for Meg, when she had finished disclosing the mysteries of a beef-steak pudding which formed their dinner, inquired what was the matter.

“Nothing,” said Ned.

“Don’t you tell me that, boy. I can see through a millstone as well as most people. If you ain’t satisfied why don’t you say so?” said she in her rough voice.

“What’s the good of rowing when a fellow’s having his dinner?” inquired Sam, whose respect for his meals was intense, he being blest with an appetite which was one of the heartiest.

“Who’s a rowing?” retorted his wife. “What I say is this​—​that if there’s dissatisfaction let’s know what it is.”

Under ordinary circumstances what Meg said on such an occasion would not have mattered to Ned. She was of a querulous disposition, and “getting up” the dinner, as she called it, always tried her temper. But now that he knew she and her husband had been deceiving him, he was rather disposed to take advantage of her fault-finding to disclose his grievance.

“Well,” said he suddenly, “if you want to know the truth I’ll tell you. When I came to live with you, didn’t you say to me that you were going to London?”

The man looked at the woman and the woman looked at the man. They knew what was coming; that was evident. But Sam wasn’t to be taken aback so easily.

“And so we are,” he growled out. “We ain’t going there direct, p’raps, but we can’t afford to throw away money. If this fair hadn’t come off just now we should ha’ been on the road to London by this time. Shouldn’t we, Meg?”

“Of course we should,” replied Meg. “We’ve kept our part of the bargain, anyway,” she added in a tone implying it was not altogether certain that Ned had kept his.

But in spite of their assertions the boy knew they were deceiving him. Only two days ago Meg had said something about going on to York, which, he now knew, was still further north. But he did not think it worth while to refer to this.

“Well,” said he, “anyway, if you don’t mind, I think we’d better part.”

Ned’s announcement came like a thunderbolt upon the couple. Sam laid down his knife and fork and stared blankly at the lad.

“Well,” he ejaculated, “if that ain’t the most ungratefullest thing as I ever heard tell on. Here we’ve fed you and lodged you for weeks, and you turns round and says you want to go.”

“I’m very sorry,” began Ned.

“Sorry!” repeated Meg indignantly. “What’s the use of being sorry? Where are we to get another boy at a moment’s notice?”

Ned thought to himself, if they did get another boy to work as he had done for twopence a day they would be extremely lucky; but he did not say so.

“Oh! I’ll stay till the fair’s over, of course,” he answered.

“Oh, will you? Come, now, that’s mighty perlite and condescending, ’pon my word,” rejoined Sam in an ironical tone. “And suppose we don’t ask you to stay?”

“Oh! that’s all nonsense, Sam,” put in his wife impatiently. “He’ll have to stay whether he likes it or not, over to-morrow. You’re a young stupid thing, Ned, to give up such friends as we’ve been to you.”

Ned was of a different opinion, but he did not care to argue the point. In their way Meg and Sam had been kind to him, but then he had worked for them, and was certainly under no obligation.

“And what are you going to do?” said Mrs. Hoggins after a pause.

“I’m going to London, as I told you. I’ve found some friends in Lincoln who may help me.”

“Friends in Lincoln!” returned Meg curiously; “and who may they be?”

“Oh! somebody I knew a long time ago,” he replied. He did not think it necessary to explain very precisely; indeed it occurred to him immediately after she asked the question that he had acted rather unwisely in telling her he knew anybody in Lincoln. Supposing Meg or Sam met his cousin, and nothing was more likely, the whole affair would come out.

“You’re precious close, my young gentleman,” said Mrs. Hoggins with a short laugh.

She tried him with a few more questions, but he was not to be drawn out, and so at last she desisted.

All that afternoon Ned remained in the caravan, being, in fact, afraid to venture out until nightfall. When evening approached he slipped away, however, and took the direction leading to his aunt’s house.

He had scarcely been gone half an hour before a man with a hang-dog look and a slouching gait came lounging by, and accosted Mr. Sam Hoggins as he sat on the steps of his caravan smoking a pipe.

“Good evening!” said the stranger.

Sam nodded in response. He was not a man of many words, and the civilities of life were with him reduced to their very lowest terms.

“You don’t know me, I dare say. I’ve got the next pitch to yours, t’other side of your canvas there.”

“What! the shootin’-gallery?” returned Sam.

“Aye.”

“You ain’t been long in the line, have you? I don’t know your face, and I know most of ’em as comes to the eastern counties.”

“Ah! that’s where it is. I’ve been travelling in the west​—​Bath, Bristol, Wells, and them parts. But I’ve gone in partnership, and we thought we’d try the east.”

“Business pretty brisk?”

“Fairly tidy. The people have spent all their money though. We’re off to-morrow morning.”

“Are you, though?”

“Yes, and that’s what brought me round to see you. I’ve been noticing a boy as you’ve got with you. Now, that boy​—​”

“Hold hard there, mate. My missis must be brought into this. Hallo, Meg!”

In response to the summons Mrs. Hoggins made her appearance at the door of the caravan, dressed in quite a gala costume, consisting of a bright pink cotton dress, with a still brighter yellow handkerchief on her shoulders.

“Here’s some one come about that boy, Meg,” said Mr. Hoggins, taking his pipe out of his mouth and pointing with it to the stranger.

“Well,” said the lady, “and what about him?”

“Nothing particular. Only I recognize him as a bad lad as it’s my misfortune to be related to. No one knows what I’ve done for that boy.”

This was more true than the speaker would have cared to own. The visitor, as my readers may have guessed, was Bob Locket, and as he had never done anything for Ned but what was bad, no wonder he kept it to himself.

“He run away from one of the best homes, and he’s given me more trouble than I can tell you,” resumed Mr. Locket.

“Well, he do seem rather ungrateful,” replied Mrs. Hoggins, mindful of her own remark at the dinner-table. “He wants to leave us, and I’m sure he can’t say as we’ve ever been unkind to him.”

“Oh, wants to leave, does he!” thought Bob; “then I’ve come just in time.”

“Might I ask, ma’am, how you came to meet him?” said he aloud.

Upon which Sam told how he came across Ned near Rothwell in Northamptonshire, footsore and weary, and how he suspected the boy had run away from somewhere.

“I thought I couldn’t trust those bargees,” muttered Locket to himself. “He’s given them the slip, that’s plain.”

“What did you say, guv’nor?” asked Sam.

“I was saying to myself as it must have been soon after he run away from me that he met you,” returned Mr. Locket.

“Wery likely. Well, I suppose as you wants him back?”

“It’s only because I don’t like to see him go to rack and ruin. I promised his poor father as I’d look after him, and so I will.”

Really the goodness of Mr. Locket was surprising. Mr. Hoggins was quite overcome by it.

“You’re a right good sort, that you are. If it was me now I’d pack him off, bag and baggage. I suppose, then, as you wants to take him with you?”

“Yes, but you’d better not say a word to him. The boy’s that artful he’d be off before you could say Jack Robinson.”

“Would he though? What a young weasel!”

“I should think he was. Now, look here, we’re a going away to-morrow night just after dark. I’ll look in here about eight o’clock, and take him by surprise. Do you see?”

Sam nodded.

“And here​—​I daresay you’ve been put to some expense over him​—​take this.”

And he held out five shillings.

“Well, I’m sure it’s very kind of you, not but what we have spent something over him; still​—​well, thank ye.”

Mr. Hoggins would have been more than human had he resisted the sight of the money.

“I’ll look in, then, about eight o’clock to-morrow. Good night!” said Locket, turning on his heel.

“Well, missis, it hasn’t been a bad turn-out for us meeting with the young scamp,” said Mr. Hoggins, reflectively. “It isn’t everybody as would have done what his relation has just done.”

“I suppose not,” returned Meg; “but I tell you what, I don’t believe all that fellow said. There’s too much soft soap about him for me.”

“That isn’t our business. The boy was bound to go, whether we liked it or not, to-morrow. We hadn’t any right to keep him.”

And so, on the whole, Mr. Hoggins was well pleased with his evening’s work.

If Mrs. Hoggins could have heard Mr. Locket’s soliloquy as he slowly strolled away towards his own booth, she would have been more than ever justified in her estimate of his character.

Directly he had turned his back the smooth look departed from his face, and his natural evil expression took its place.

“I’ll get rid of him this time for good,” he muttered between his teeth. “I’ll have him under my own eye, and he’ll be clever if he ever gets away from me. I’ve got a plan for you, my young gentleman, better than the canal-boats. I’ll take you up to Hull or Grimsby, and ’prentice you to the skipper of a fishing smack. That’ll suit your book, I’ll warrant.”

And he laughed an evil, grating laugh that made his face look uglier than ever.

In the meantime Ned had made his way to his aunt’s. As soon as he got near enough he saw the light​—​a feeble glimmer it was certainly​—​promised by Ann, supposing all was safe.

He went up the well-worn stone steps and knocked softly. The door was opened immediately by Ann.

“It’s all right, Ned,” said she. “We haven’t seen him to-day, and I don’t think he’ll come now.”

Ned went into the room, and saw sitting by a little fire a gaunt, bony woman with a thin, pale, worn face.

“Come here, my boy,” said she directly she saw Ned. Her voice, he thought, was not nearly so harsh as her face.

He went up to her, and she put her hand on his shoulder and drew him to her, looking earnestly into his face.

“Yes,” she murmured, “you’ve got Sam’s eyes. Do you know me?” she asked.

“You’re my aunt,” answered Ned; “but I never saw you before.”

“Oh, yes, you have. It’s a long while ago, though. And so you’ve made some friends in London?”

“Yes, and I want to get back to them​—​that is if you don’t mind, aunt.”

I mind! Not I, indeed. This is not a very cheerful place for you, and I am not a very cheerful companion. And who is your friend, Ned?”

“He’s the best man in the world, I believe,” exclaimed Ned enthusiastically. “His name’s Jack Grigsby.”

“Grigsby! Why, that is the name of the old man who called upon me.”

“Called upon you, aunt!”

“Aye; he came to inquire about you.”

“About me!” returned Ned, more mystified than ever. “But I was living with him. Ah! perhaps it was after I​—​(he was going to say ‘was stolen,’ but he altered his mind)​—​came to the ‘Jolly Waterman.’ I suppose he wanted to know where I was?”

“He did, and yet he didn’t. If I’d only been as wise as I am now I should have saved you much trouble, my boy. But how could I tell that the lad he was in search of was the lad whom he had befriended?”

Again Ned looked puzzled. His aunt was speaking in that musing tone which people assume when their thoughts are far away. The woman was looking back to the time when she and her brother​—​the wild lad who used to get into all kinds of scrapes, and who finally ran away to sea​—​were boy and girl together. Perhaps she recognized in the lad before her much that reminded her of his father. She drew the wondering boy to her side and fondled with his hair.

“My dear,” said she, “it was an evil day for you when your father went away and left you in my charge.”

“My father!” said Ned, his heart beating with a new-found joy. “Have I a father?”

“No, indeed, my boy. He is dead; and it was to tell me of his death that Mr. Grigsby, your friend, came down to Lincoln.”

“Then Mr. Grigsby knew my father?” returned the lad quickly. “I am glad of that.”

“Yes; he was an old shipmate of his. Your father was a sailor, my dear; and a braver fellow never commanded a ship than Captain Sam Somerset. I should like to see the person who’d contradict me.”

The woman was quite excited. Her eyes shone brightly and the colour came into her face, and she looked almost handsome. Indeed, when she was young she had been very good looking, though few would have recognized in her faded features the Rhoda Somerset about whom half the farmers’ sons in the neighbourhood went mad and quarrelled and fought.

“Yes, my dear,” she went on, her excitement fading away, “your father died just when he neared England, and hoped never to go to sea again. I had long since given him up for lost, for since he went away and left you with me I had not heard from him.”

“But,” objected Ned, “if he left me with you, aunt, how is it I do not remember you?”

“Because you were very young, and my son Robert, and your cousin, wanted to take care of me.”

“To take care of me!” cried the boy, flushing, for he never heard his cousin’s name mentioned without feeling angry. “Why, he did nothing but ill use me, and then turned me out into the streets when I was only a little chap. You know that, Ann, don’t you?”

“Yes, dear,” replied Ann with a sigh; “but you need not have stopped away.”

“Needn’t I? Didn’t I know, although I was so young​—​I suppose I wasn’t more’n five, was I?​—​that if I once went back he’d half kill me, and perhaps you as well? No, I didn’t want to come back.”

The elder woman heard this with a stony, set look, which seemed to say that she was prepared to hear anything that was bad concerning her son Bob. It was news to her that he had ill used the boy, whom, as she told Mr. Grigsby, she believed to be dead. It was only when Ann came to Lincoln that she discovered the truth, namely, that Ned was not drowned, but had disappeared; for even Ann had not the heart to say that it was her husband who had turned the boy out of doors.

“Well, Ned,” said his aunt, “we’ll say no more about this. The best thing you can do is to get back to London. Your friend, Mr. Grigsby, will be of more use to you than I can be. Do not let Bob know you are here. He is not to be trusted, take my word for it, though I am his mother​—​worse luck.”

Ned was silent for a moment, and then said “Why is it Bob hates me so?”

“I can’t tell you,” replied the elder woman shortly.

I can,” said Ann suddenly. “He was all right while your father sent money for your keep, but directly that was left off he turned against you. And now​—​well, it is the little bit of money your father has left you that he wants. Cannot you see, mother,” she continued, turning to Ned’s aunt, “that if Ned were not in the way his father’s money would come to you? and then​—​well, you know what you’ve done before​—​given every farthing you had to him, and so you will again. Ned, my boy, your aunt is right. Get to London as soon as you can, and go to Mr. Grigsby and tell him everything. If he wants any evidence that you are the son of Captain Somerset let him come to me and to your aunt. Mother,” she added, turning round quickly to the other woman, “there was a sovereign in that old vase on the mantel-shelf this morning. That will be more than sufficient to take Ned to London. Can he not have it?”

“Yes, let him take it, Ann,” said the elder woman, rocking herself to and fro.

And so Ann went to the mantel-shelf, took up the vase, and put the sovereign it contained into the boy’s hand.

“You had better go now, my dear,” she whispered.

She kissed the lad, who put his arms round her neck and returned her embrace.

“Good-bye, aunt!” said he going up to Mrs. Locket.

“Good-bye, Ned!” she answered, in a kinder tone than she had hitherto used. But she did not kiss him as Ann had done. He paused for a moment, and then seeing she had no more to say, turned and went out.