Chapter XI

Ned Meets with Fresh Friends

Gaining experience from what had just occurred, Ned thought it would be more prudent if he waited until daylight before he started on his journey. It was very cold standing there in the wet grass, and his feet, which were not very well shod, were quite damp; but he did not feel it so much as you or I would, for his life for the last few weeks had been a terribly rough one, and he had to some extent become used to hardships.

He had not long to wait for the faint gray light in the east which ushers in the day, and then he was able to take stock of the situation. He found that remaining quiet had been his best course, for not fifty yards away was a “drain” some six feet wide, and the chances were had he gone on he would have fallen in.

So far as he could see he was in a flat country, field after field stretching away on either side. There was not the vestige of a road or path anywhere to be seen, the land being evidently used only for pasture. Of course the most direct road to London, but by no means the nearest​—​for the windings of the canal so as to take in the large towns were interminable​—​was the towing-path. But he dared not go this road. He had become known to the lock-keepers, at least he thought so, and he might be recognized by some of the boatmen. Coney’s words were still ringing in his ears as to the power the law had over apprentices, and he had a vague idea that any boatman who saw him might hand him over to a policeman and he would be lodged in prison.

Ned, as we know, had picked up a good deal of curious information and experience in his wild life about the streets of Shadwell, but he did not know much about the law. There had been instilled into him from a very early age a great dread of a policeman. The policeman he had come to look upon as his natural enemy, and he had not grown out of his fear. So his instinct was to avoid, at all events at present, the highroads and thoroughfares where there was any traffic, and keep to the lanes and by-ways.

To tell the truth he did not feel altogether comfortable where he was. He was a trespasser, and if the owner of the field came by and saw him how could he account for his being in the field.

“I’ll get out of it as soon as I can,” he muttered; “if I walk on in a straight line I must come to a road sooner or later. Here goes.”

And taking a running leap he cleared the six-foot drain, alighted safely on the other side, and prepared to trudge along as many miles as might be necessary. He felt rather hungry, but would not draw upon his little store of provisions yet awhile, preferring to hold out as long as he could.

What a terribly long walk it was! Nothing but field after field, some dry, others perfect quagmires, obliging him to go many yards out of his way to skirt the marshy places. “Drains,” too, there were in plenty, but none fortunately so wide but what he could jump them. There was a singular absence of trees, and those he did see were of small size. It was certainly not a pleasant country for a hungry boy to be lost in.

It was past mid-day before he struck into a lane, and by this time he had been walking over eight hours. He was footsore and weary, faint and hungry. He sat down on a patch of grass by the roadside, divided his piece of bread into two portions, and ate one, keeping the other for another meal.

He rested for half an hour, and during the whole of that time not a soul passed him. He knew not which way to turn for London, and when he started he decided the way he should take by throwing up his penny in the air. If it came down heads he would go to the right hand, if it came down tails he would go to the left. It came down tails, and so making up his resolution he went on his way.

After walking a couple of miles or so he found himself in what he took to be the high road. There was a finger-post at the junction of the two roads, and he read on one arm “To Market Harborough,” and on the other “To Kettering.” Now had he been well acquainted with the geography of England he would have taken the road to Kettering, as it was proceeding almost due south, and therefore on the way to London. But unless you have a compass or the sun to guide you, the north in a strange place may easily be the south for anything you can tell to the contrary. The consequence was that Ned would not take the Kettering road because it looked to him as if he were going from London and not to it, while as for Market Harborough he dared not go thither, because he had heard Coney say the canal ran through the town. And so, faithful to his fancy for out-of-the-way roads, he struck up a narrow lane nearly opposite the one he had not long left.

The first person he met since he started was in this lane. He was a dark gipsy-looking fellow in a velveteen coat very white about the seams, and gaiters. He had a bull-dog with him, which looked with a remarkably evil eye at Ned.

As Ned passed the man the latter frightened him considerably by asking him whether he’d come from Rothwell. The boy had not the least idea where Rothwell was, and so he said no, and was hurrying on when the man detained him, while the bull-dog with an ominous sniff sat down on his haunches, growled, and looked up at his master, as if requesting permission to lay hold of the stranger s legs.

“Let’s have a look at you,” said the man in the velveteen coat.

Ned was in a state of trepidation, but he returned the look bravely.

“You’re not a Sandham boy?” said at last the man after he had completed his tour of inspection.

“No, sir.”

“I thought you weren’t by your talk. Where do you come from?”

Ned was puzzled what reply to make. He dared not say he came from London, because that would lead to more awkward questions, and how could he account for his presence so many miles away in the country? He determined to put a bold face on the matter. So summing up all his courage he said: “What’s that to you, master?”

Greatly to his relief the man was in no way offended with his independence.

“You’re right, it’s nothing to me. Got any father or mother?”

“Don’t know,” replied Ned as boldly as before.

“Don’t know, don’t you. That’s rum; but so much the better. Hungry?”

“Rather,” said the boy. He couldn’t help giving a direct answer to this question.

“Thought so. What d’ye say to a stewed fowl, eh? Only had her neck twisted at two o’clock this morning, and as fresh as a daisy.”

The water came into Ned’s mouth at the very thought. Stewed fowl! Why, it was a dinner fit for a prince.

“I should just like some,” said he.

“All right, come along with me then.”

Ned looked at the man doubtfully. He had had so many kicks and rough words of late that for anyone to speak kindly to him did not appear quite natural. He almost suspected a trick, and hesitated.

“What are you afeard of?” demanded the man. “I shan’t eat you, shall I?”

No, Ned wasn’t afraid of that. Nor did he fear the man was going to rob him of his solitary penny. What he was thinking about was the police. But this fellow, with his loose slouching gait, his sunburnt dirty face, and his well-worn, almost ragged clothing, did not look like a policeman. And then he thought of the stewed fowl. No, he could not resist that.

“I’ll go with you, master,” said he at last.

“Come on, then. Can you walk pretty quick, because I’m hungry too?”

Ned limped along valiantly by the man’s side, the dog following behind at his heels; but he was so tired, and the blisters on his feet pained him so much, that he was very glad when, after walking a half mile or so, the man pointed out some smoke curling between a clump of trees, on what appeared to be a piece of waste land by the roadside, and said that was his “caravan.”

And by-and-by they came in sight of the “caravan” itself, which was painted yellow, and had a door with a flight of steps leading down to the ground. The smoke came from a fire made on the ground, and over the fire was suspended an iron pot, which doubtless contained the fowl referred to.

Ned when in London had often seen caravans of this kind, sometimes as shows, sometimes as the stalls of “cheap Jacks,” who always had got the most wonderful bargains in the way of pocketknives and teapots, and sometimes covered all over with baskets, brooms, brushes, and what not. These caravans were to him homes of mystery. They came he knew not whence and went he knew not where. To live in one of them he had once thought must be the height of human happiness. But now that he really was going to be introduced to a caravan he scarcely knew whether it was so pleasant as he thought.

“Hallo, Meg!” shouted the man.

A middle aged woman, with a face brown as a berry and hair as black as a coal, put her head outside the door.

“Supper ready?”

“Aye, that it is.”

And she descended the steps and came up to the man, saying something which Ned did not understand. But it had to do with him, he was sure, by the way the woman was looking at his face all the while she was speaking.

The man answered her in the same strange language, and then the woman in a not unkind voice bade him sit down.

While her husband, for Ned judged him so to be, had gone to fetch a rough-looking pony​—​whose coat did not look as if it had been clipped since the day it was born, so ragged was it​—​and tether it up for the night, the woman got the supper ready, bringing out three tin plates, three iron spoons, and a loaf of bread.

With what appetite Ned set to work on the fowl may be easily imagined. It was a little tough, perhaps, but hunger and sharp teeth were equal to it.

“When did you eat last, child?” asked the woman after she had helped him a second time.

“I’ve only had a bit of bread all day,” said Ned.

“That’s odd, isn’t it? How does it come about? Havn’t run away from home, have you?”

“No,” said Ned stoutly. “I want to get home.”

The woman and the man exchanged looks.

“And where is your home?” asked the man.

“In London. That’s where I want to get to. Perhaps you could tell me the way?”

“Why, we’re a-going to London,” said the woman. “If you like to stop with us you’re welcome, and we can show you the way.”

Just the very thing thought Ned. But how was it these people were so kind, that was what he couldn’t make out.

“I’m much obliged,” said he hesitating a little, “but won’t it be a trouble to you?”

“Not a bit. Will it, Sam?”

I should think not,” replied Sam. “If the boy likes to do as we do, and help us a bit, that’s all we want.”

“Oh, I’ll help you. I’m not afraid to work. What is it you do?” asked Ned, whose tongue the savoury stew had unloosed. “You’re gipsies, aren’t you?” said he rather timidly.

“Not quite,” said Meg laughing. “Half-and-half like. The country folk think we are, and that’s enough for us. You’ll see what we does when we get to a fair. ’Tisn’t hard work, is it, Sam?”

“I should rather think it wasn’t,” returned Ned’s new acquaintance, who had thrown himself down in front of the fire now that his supper was over, and was amusing himself with flinging the bones from his plate to the dog, who crunched them in his white teeth as if they were so many sweetmeats. “A nice light ockeypation, that’s what it is. Only to pick up sticks.”

“Is that all. I could do that I know!” exclaimed Ned.

“Ah, that you could. You’re a lively little chap, I can see, and ought to be brought up to the business.”

“It’s a funny sort of business​—​picking up sticks,” thought Ned; “but I suppose it’s for bundles of firewood.”

“It’s very kind to take me with you,” said he, “and I’ll help you all I can.”

“That’s well. I thought you was the right stuff.”

And then Sam, pulling out a short clay pipe as black as a coal, began to smoke, and Meg, seeing that Ned looked tired, said he might go to bed if he liked, a proposal which the boy was glad enough to accept.

The interior of the caravan was snug enough, and quite large compared to the cabin. Perhaps there was not much more room to move about, but it was much higher, and seemed at first quite strange to Ned, who had been accustomed in the cabin to walk with his head bent lest he should get a nasty knock from striking it against the ceiling.

The caravan was divided into two portions, so as to make two little rooms. One was used as a living-room when the weather was bad​—​though the “gipsies” never used it unless they were absolutely obliged​—​and the other as a sleeping apartment. Like the cabin of the barge there were lockers and pigeon-holes, but all was disorder compared with the neat arrangements of the Betsy Jane.

“You can lie down there,” said Meg, pointing to a corner of the sitting-room which was unoccupied by anything, “and here’s this old blanket. That’ll keep you warm.”

Thankfully Ned took the blanket, curled himself up, and in less than two minutes was sound asleep.

The next morning he was awakened by a tremendous jolting of the caravan. He was so tired that it took a good deal of jolting to do it, and his elbows and knees felt as if they had been rubbed against something very hard. Slowly he became aware that the caravan was moving, and he struggled to his feet, only to be pitched against the side, for the “house on wheels” had no springs and the lane was full of deep ruts.

The riding was so uncomfortable that he was glad to jump out and join the woman who was walking behind, while her husband led the ragged pony. On their way the woman went up to a farm-house that they passed, and begged a drink of milk. She brought back about a pint, and this with bread formed their breakfast, which they had sitting down on the grass at the roadside.

“Have you ever been to a fair?” asked Mrs. Hoggins​—​for this was the name of the worthy couple​—​when they were trudging on again.

“Yes,” said Ned, “I’ve been to Stepney fair, and I should like to go again.”

“Well, we’re going to a fair that’s every bit as good as Stepney fair. Better, because there’s sheep and cattle, and you don’t get them in London.”

Ned did not seem particularly impressed with the attraction of sheep and cattle. But he only said he hoped there would be shows.

“Shows! I should just think there would be! Lasts a fortnight too, though I don’t suppose we shall stop all the time. It all depends what business we do.”

“Business,” thought Ned; “what has picking up sticks to do with fairs?”

“And where is the fair held?” he asked.

“At Stamford,” said the woman shortly. “It’s all on the road to London.”

Ned said he was glad to hear that, for he wanted to get to London as soon as he could.

“Oh, you’ll get there all right; never fear.”

On the road they fell in with other caravans all going to the fair. There was the fat lady, the giant, the dwarf, the sheep with six legs, the waxwork show, and a host of other sights. Not that the giant, the dwarf, and the fat lady made their appearance, for they were getting very near Stamford, and it was necessary they should seek the seclusion of their own apartments, lest any of the country people going along the road should see them.

They reached Stamford after dark, but there was plenty of life in the “fair field,” as it was called. All were busy in making ready for the morrow, and, with the aid of flaring naphtha lamps, were engaged in building stages, erecting booths, and putting up swings. Whatever business took Sam and Meg to the fair, it did not require them to be at work during the night; but Ned found it difficult to sleep, for the hammering and sawing and shouting were incessant.

When the morning came it was wonderful to see what a change had taken place. The caravans, formerly closed up, had blossomed out into full-blown shows, the paintings, showing the attractions to be seen within (one of which faithfully represented the Queen and the Prince of Wales standing awestruck before the fat lady, who graciously smiled upon them), were simply wonderful; the owners of the caravans were dressed out in such gorgeous attire as to be totally irrecognizable; while the piles of gingerbread in the stalls were enough to supply an army.

Sam had got up as soon as it was light, and Ned found him putting up a sort of canvas fence. As he proceeded the boy began to see what the business of picking up sticks meant, and he soon discovered that it was nothing more nor less than “cockshies.”

“That’s just what it is,” replied Sam; “and all as you’ve got to do is to pick up the sticks as the people throw, while I stick the cocoa-nuts on as they knock off, and Meg she looks after the money.”

This division of labour Ned found out was an excellent one from Sam’s point of view, for the country fellows were not very good marksmen, and the number of nuts knocked off was very small compared with the number of sticks thrown. Sam had certainly the best of it, though what energy he saved in his legs he made up in his voice, and his requests to the people to come and have a try, “three sticks a penny,” might have been heard a quarter of a mile away. As for Meg she had a remarkably keen eye for the money, and what with looking after the stray pence and serving out the sticks to the customers she had enough to do.

And the picking up of sticks? Well, it must be confessed Ned found it no child’s play. In the morning there was not much to do, for most of the visitors were women and children; but in the afternoon, when the half holiday to the farm labourers round about began, business came in fast and furious. Ned was kept dancing to and fro without ceasing for three or four hours. In spite of his quickness he wasn’t able to dodge all the sticks which came spinning through the air, and his arms, and especially his ankles, were covered with bruises, while he had had a couple of nasty knocks on his head. Sam and Meg, too, were not quite so nice as they had been at first, and if he was not quick enough to suit them they didn’t hesitate to tell him so, and very plainly too.

But he was better off than some of the other show people, for when it began to grow dark his work was finished, as it wasn’t to be expected people would throw at cocoa-nuts in the night. The fair, however, was not nearly over; indeed, the fun only seemed to begin when the naphtha lamps were lighted. What a roaring, noisy, pushing multitude it was! The merchants who sold “all the fun of the fair,” otherwise those ingenious instruments of torture which when drawn down the back produce a horribly crawling sensation, did a thriving trade; for the lasses as well as the lads were constant customers, indeed, if anything, the ladies bought more than the gentlemen. The gingerbread and the toy stalls looked absolutely brilliant when lighted up, and the gilt on the former​—​lifelike representations of cock-a-doodle-doo, castles, ships, and the like​—​which was nothing better than Dutch metal in broad daylight, appeared to be of veritable gold at night.

And then the circus, the theatrical booth where it only took ten minutes to perform a play, so that the enterprising proprietor managed to secure at least half a dozen audiences during the evening; the various “wonders,” the smallest woman in the world, the Norwegian giant, the Kaffir who undertook to swallow unlimited quantities of boiling lead​—​all were infinitely attractive to Ned, who was never tired of gazing at the coloured representations outside, at least on the first evening, when everything was novel and strange. And when one of the men at the circus, who recognized him as “one of us,” said he might go in and see the horse-riding, his joy was supreme. Never had he before beheld anybody so beautiful or so clever as Signora Scampi, who leaped through half a dozen hoops at a time from the back of a horse going at full speed, and afterwards kissed her hand to the audience. Indeed, he reproached himself for his momentary faithlessness to Nellie, whom he regarded as the prettiest girl in the world, and was quite glad when the signora happened to come near him, and he saw she was old, haggard, and had her face thickly covered with paint. Still, he enjoyed himself very much, and was quite sorry when the performance was over.

And when the buzz and the din, the music of the circus band, the bell and the gong were silent, he went back to the caravan, and found that the proprietors of the “picking-up-sticks” business had counted up their takings, and having earned more than they expected, they were pleased to say he had done very well, and gave him the magnificent sum of twopence for himself.

One day was very much like another, and at the end of a week Ned felt himself able to pick up sticks with any one. He had got quite skilful in the art of dodging the missiles, and seemed to know by instinct when they were coming in his direction even when his back was turned.

In the second week business began to fall off. All the country people had spent their money, and the weather turning wet the fair was practically over. The change made Mr. Sam grumble fearfully, and at last he declared it was no use staying any longer and that they’d better be moving. Accordingly the canvas tent was taken down, the cocoa-nuts and sticks repacked, and the caravan slowly jolted out of Stamford.

“Where are we going now?” asked Ned.

“Lincoln,” said Meg. “We’ve got plenty of time though, and I daresay we shall stop a night or two at Grantham, if there’s any business about.”

“And are we still on the road to London?”

“Of course we are. I shouldn’t tell you so if we wasn’t, should I?”

And yet, as London lies due south of Stamford and Lincoln due north, the route taken was not a little singular. But Ned did not know this.