Chapter III

In which Ned makes Himself at Home

Ned was in his way a character. One of his peculiarities was his unbounded industry. In a very short time he had made himself acquainted with all that was in the house and garden, and never so happy as when, hammer in hand, he was doing a job at carpentering. His first effort was mending a doll’s-house, which task he executed to the perfect satisfaction of Nellie, who looked on gravely while he put on a hinge and nailed up a broken balcony.

The garden was an especial delight, for here Mr. Grigsby had erected a mast with rigging and spars all complete, and from which on high days and holidays a flag proudly floated. There was also an arbour made out of an old boat, over which in the summer time scarlet-runners used to grow. There were all sorts of quaint foreign shells, an enormous piece of that curiously corrugated limestone rock called “brain” stone, and a comical figure-head of a ship supposed to represent the unfortunate Admiral Byng, and whose countenance was so battered and bruised by the nails which had been driven in to support clothes-lines that he looked a hundred times more miserable and woebegone than his unlucky original, in spite of his sad fate, could ever have looked in his life.

This “Admiral” had been the particular playmate of Nellie before Ned’s arrival. He was in turn a child, a patriarchic relative, or a middle-aged gentleman, just as the young lady’s fancy prompted. She had praised him, scolded him, was ceremoniously polite to him, and had identified him with all kinds of imaginary personages. In fact, he was in her estimation quite a real and distinctive being, and so after a while Ned came to regard him, especially when Nellie had related the story how the admiral was shot for not winning a battle.

“I say, Miss Nellie, just look at old Bung. Ain’t he got an awful cold in his eye?” observed Ned one morning about a fortnight after taking up his residence at Burford Street.

The night had been frosty, and some moisture which had collected on the admiral’s goggle-eye had frozen into an icicle, which looked remarkably like a gigantic tear.

“So he has,” said the little girl laughing. “But, Ned, don’t say Bung. His name’s Bing​—​B-y-n-g.”

“Oh, does that spell Bing?” said Ned, wonderingly.

“Of course it does. Haven’t you ever been to school and learned how to spell words?”

“Yes, I went to school once. A Ragged School they calls it. Ah! and didn’t we get jolly soup sometimes. We did have blow-outs and no mistake.”

“You mustn’t say ‘blow-outs;’ it’s vulgar,” said Nellie severely.

“What’s vulgar?” asked the boy.

“Oh​—​why, it’s being rude and disagreeable. I don’t like vulgar people.”

“Don’t you, Miss Nellie? Then I’ll try not to be vulgar.”

Ned was chopping some wood during this conversation, and having signified the determination just recorded he emphasized it by bringing his chopper down with double force.

“Didn’t you like being at school?” presently asked the little girl.

“Oh, yes, I liked it well enough. But I didn’t go for long, ’cause they shut it up.”

“Why was that?”

“Hadn’t got no money to keep it open, so they tells me. And so I never went to another.”

“But you’ll have to go, you know. I heard grandmother speaking about it last night.”

“Did you, miss?” The chopper was suspended for a while in mid air.

“Yes. You’ll like school, won’t you? I do.”

“Then so shall I;” and crash went the chopper once more.

For at least five minutes Ned went on working vigorously, until his face became quite flushed with the exercise, and he was obliged to rest a while.

“Did you ever have a mother?” asked Nellie, who, perched upon a fragment of an old capstan, had been surveying the process of wood-chopping with great gravity and interest.

The question rather took Ned aback, for it was one that he had never considered. Had he ever a mother? No, he couldn’t say he had; leastways he couldn’t remember.

“I haven’t got one neither,” said Nellie. “My mother died​—​oh, ever so many years ago when I was a little tiny mite.”

“Ah,” returned Ned, fully impressed with the length of time pictured by “ever so many years,” and with the diminutive appearance of Nellie at the time. “Not that I run’d about the streets always,” he continued in a ruminative manner as if he had a faint and shadowy claim to respectability. “I must have been a young ’un though, for it’s just like going to sleep and dreaming-like when I thinks about it. It’s an ugly, bad dream, too,” he added.

“Tell me something of it, Ned. I’m fond of dreams,” exclaimed the child enthusiastically. “And I have such beautiful ones too, all about dolls, and going to the pantomime​—​and​—​and​—​dancing, and​—​all like that, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” returned Ned with a nod; “but them’s make-believe dreams. Mine’s regular real ones. I used to be knocked about awful​—​not but what I’ve been knocked about in the streets, but then a crack on the head don’t hurt much if you dodge; but in them bad real dreams it was a stick, and a hard ’un too. It was an ugly chap as give ’em to me too, and if ever I meets him when I’m growed up I’ll​—​well, I’ll pay him back, that’s all.”

Ned’s face grew dark, and he swung the chopper in the air and clove a piece of wood in two with such force that the pieces flew some distance apart.

“Don’t you know it’s wicked to say that,” said Nellie, her large blue eyes opening wide at the boy’s unwonted violence.

“I can’t help it,” he replied doggedly. “I shall know him again too​—​ah, if he was to alter himself ever so much. It was him as sent me in the streets when I warn’t no more’n that high,” marking off with his hand a space about three feet from the ground.

“Yes, but what did he do it for?” asked the little girl.

“I don’t know. Didn’t like me, I s’pose. There was a woman as warn’t so bad, but lor she was as timid as a mouse and quite afeard of him. If it hadn’t been for old Biddy I should ha’ starved precious quick. Ah, she was a good sort, that she was. Used to sell apples at a stall, you know, in the summer, and roast chestnuts in the winter. Ah, they was jolly if you like,” said Ned pensively. “Many’s the time as I’ve made a dinner of ’em.”

“And where’s Biddy now?” asked Nellie.

“In the work’us. She got took ill and couldn’t stand it no longer. If I ever get any money I’d take some to old Biddy. She always gave me anything as she’d got.”

Just then came Mrs. Grigsby’s voice calling out that dinner was ready, and in the two went quite prepared for the meal.

“Isn’t grandfather coming home to dinner?” said Nellie, noticing that no knife and fork were set for the old pilot.

“No, my dear. I’m going to keep some warm for him in the oven. He said he wasn’t quite sure how long he’d be, and we were not to wait for him. But he thought he wouldn’t be much later than two.”

And Mr. Grigsby was as good as his word, for scarcely had the cuckoo clock on the mantel-shelf sounded twice before his well-known step was heard.

“Take my hat, Nell​—​there’s my stick, Ned,” said the cheery old man when he had come to anchor in the easy chair. “Well, old lady, I’ve found out all I shall find out, I suppose. Mackinnon & Simpson as own the Good Fortune tell me there’s a matter of a hundred and fifty pounds due to poor Sam, which they’ll pay over to the proper parties. Not as I’m one of the parties, my dear. I’m not an executor, it seems, as Sam died detestate. And so if nobody don’t turn up all his money’ll go to Queen Victoria, which seems rum, don’t it, seeing that she’s got more than she knows what to do with.”

“Well, well, John,” returned the blind woman, bustling about with wonderful activity and never making a mistake as to where anything was, “come and have some dinner. You must be hungry after your walk, and you can tell me afterwards.”

But it was very clear that Mr. Grigsby’s dinner did not take his attention away from the errand which had sent him out that morning. Scarcely had he swallowed half-a-dozen mouthfuls before he began talking again.

“Didn’t Sam have a sister somewhere in the country?” said he, looking up at his wife.

“Yes, I think he had. Where was it now she lived? Oh, I remember; it was at Lincoln.”

“You’ve got a good memory, old woman, and no mistake. It was at Lincoln sure enough. Well, I was thinking as I’d run down and see her about this property of poor Sam’s. Besides, she might know something of this boy as Sam left behind. If the youngster can’t be found I suppose the money would belong to her; that’s how the law stands. I don’t fancy though as she’d want that there bit o’ iron,” pointing with his fork to the cannon-ball, which had been carefully placed on the top of a small cupboard in a recess near the fire-place. “I should like to keep that in memory of poor Sam. And talking of that puts me in mind of something. That Yankee mate and that yellow-faced Chineyman are both gone.”

“Gone!” exclaimed Mrs. Grigsby; “gone where?”

“How should I know? That’s what they tells me at Mackinnon & Simpson’s. Lampard, the mate, drew his money the day after I brought that cannon-ball home, and ain’t been seen since, nor the Chineyman either. It’s nigh upon a week ago now.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” said the blind woman quietly. “You don’t want to see them, I suppose.”

“Not I.”

And having unburthened himself of all he had to say, Jack attacked his dinner with great vigour, and having finished, lighted his pipe and drew near the fire to have what he called a “good think.”

The room was cosy and the fire bright and cheerful, and enjoying its pleasant warmth Mr. Grigsby began first to get drowsy, and finally dropped into a doze. Whether it was the dinner he had eaten or the uncomfortable position in which he was sitting, with his head resting on his chest, we are unable to say, but somehow his sleep was a troubled one. He snorted, he grumbled, he groaned, and at last woke with a start, blinking and rubbing his eyes.

“I must ha’ been a-dreaming,” he muttered; “but I could ha’ sworn as that Yankee fellow was arter me again, and was a-trying to make me swallow that there cannon-ball. It was thinking about it as set me off, I suppose.”

And he got up, stretched himself, yawned, took one or two turns about the room, and finally sat down in his chair once more. He was refilling his pipe when there came a single knock at the street door.

Thinking it was Ned and Nellie, who had gone some distance on an errand, he rose hastily and went to the door. On the step was standing a shabbily dressed, dirty-faced man with a shifty look in his small twinkling eyes, which seemed to be afraid to meet Jack Grigsby’s open, manly gaze. His dress was all rags and tatters, and the greasy cap on his head and the dirty comforter round his neck, coming up half over his chin, made him look peculiarly repulsive.

“Would you be so kind, sir, as to help a poor man out o’ work,” said the fellow, raising his shoulders almost as high as his ears, and rubbing his red, bony hands one over the other as though he were perishing with cold.

“Out o’ work,” repeated Mr. Grigsby suspiciously; “what’s your trade?”

“A carpenter, sir. The times are bad for such as us, sir. I ain’t tasted food to-day, sir.”

“I don’t believe you. You look as much like a carpenter as I do,” thought the pilot. “Oh, you’re hungry, are you?” said he aloud.

“Pretty nigh starved, sir,” replied the man.

“Well, we’ll soon cure that. Hannah!” he called out going towards the kitchen. “Hannah! bring a slice of bread and meat with you​—​a good thick slice, mind.”

When he turned round towards the beggar again the latter had come two or three steps in the passage, and stood very near the parlour door, which was wide open.

“That’s mighty impudent,” thought Mr. Grigsby.

“I beg your pardon, sir, for being so bold,” said the man, guessing, as it were, Mr. Grigsby’s thoughts. “But I was that chilly and froze, sir, I couldn’t help a-coming into the warmth.”

Mr. Grigsby said nothing, but simply stood with his hands in his pockets indulging in a low whistle.

Hannah soon had the slice of bread and meat ready, and the beggar took it from her with a great show of gratitude, but for a starving man he showed great command over himself, for he did not attempt to eat​—​although that might have been his delicacy in the presence of his benefactor.

Holding the sandwich in his hand he shuffled out, and Mr. Grigsby closed the door upon him.

Now it so happened that the beggar had scarcely got a dozen yards away before Ned and Nellie came tripping along, absorbed in an investment of hardbake which they had just made.

“What a waste,” exclaimed Nellie; “did you see what that man did?”

“Which man?” returned Ned, who, immersed in hardbake, a far rarer treat to him than to Nellie, had not noticed the beggar.

“There​—​he’s just passed us. I saw him throw some bread and meat in the road. He can’t be very hungry, can he?”

Ned did not answer, for with his mouth full of the sweet stuff, he was engaged in staring at the man, something in whose appearance had strangely attracted him. He had a peculiar walk had this beggar, just as though one leg was longer than the other and he had to drag it after him.

“What’s the matter?” asked Nellie. “What are you looking at?”

Still Ned did not reply, but stood looking after the man, who was tramping briskly away.

“I wish I’d seen his face?” at last exclaimed the boy.

“Well, it wasn’t a very handsome one,” returned Nellie laughing; “and so dirty.” She was going to add, “almost as dirty as yours when you first came to live with us,” when she checked herself, for there seemed to be something unkind about the expression.

“What was it like?” said Ned almost thoughtfully.

“What was it like?” repeated Nellie, vainly trying to recall the man’s features. “It was like​—​it was like​—​well, nearly as ugly as the old Admiral in our garden.”

Ned shook his head. The comparison did not at all assist him, for he could not imagine a human being who could in any way resemble that unfortunate seaman.

He walked slowly to Mr. Grigsby’s gate with his hands in his pockets​—​a new luxury for him who but a week ago had his trousers pockets under his armpits​—​but said no more. Nellie, full of the dreadful waste of which the man had been guilty, ran on in front to express her opinion on the subject to her grandmother, who had on several former occasions impressed her with the necessity of being careful over everything.

“What, my lass?” exclaimed Jack when the little girl had enlarged upon the incident with considerable embellishments, after the manner of childhood. “Threw his dinner away? Then all I got to say is, he’s made a fool of old Jack Grigsby. That bread and meat came from this house, Nell. I knew that fellow was no good directly I set eyes on him. But there, I suppose it’s human natur’ to be taken in by them land sharks as is too lazy to work, and so we’ll say no more about it.”

And accordingly no more was said about it, though Ned would have liked more, for he had a curious idea on the subject which he wanted to have settled to his satisfaction.

“I should like to see that chap once more,” was his reflection. “Perhaps he may come down the street again. Anyhow I’ll keep a good look-out.”

But this resolution he kept to himself, and not a word of it said he to anybody.

The days went on, and Ned gradually became more and more a part of the Grigsby household. The first thing the good pilot charged himself with was sending the lad to school, where his natural wit and sharpness stood him in good stead, for though he was behind most of the other lads of his age in book learning, he began to catch up to them with wonderful quickness. What gave him the most trouble was to get out of the street pronunciation of several words. In school he was able to steer clear of the pitfalls which beset him, because not only was he naturally more careful, but he had very little to say aloud except his lessons, and in learning these his faults had been corrected by Nellie, who was a most exacting little taskmistress, and delighted in domineering over him and in showing off her superior intelligence.

But in play-hours and when he got excited he was continually making slips, much to the scorn of the others​—​especially one gentleman who rejoiced in the name of Long Smith, so called on account of his stature, he being at least half a head taller than any other boy in the school, though he was by no means the oldest.

Long Smith took a pleasure in making Ned ridiculous, and sometimes, though not often, succeeded, for Ned was quick enough to see through the traps laid for him. One day a reading-class was called up. The book selected was an old-fashioned “Speaker.” “Speakers” have long been superseded in the present enlightened times, but in the days I am writing of Enfield’s Speaker and Blair’s Class Book were the standard reading books.

The class had already taken up its position, but Ned had his head buried in his desk, tumbling his books right and left.

“Come along, Griggy,” whispered Long Smith as he passed.

“But I can’t find my Speaker. Somebody’s taken it. Have you, Smith?”

I take your Speaker!” replied Smith with great loftiness; “why should I take yours when I’ve one of my own? Here, have this. It’s an old copy of Addison’s Spectator, but it’s got what we’re going to read to-day​—​‘The Vision of Mirza.’”

And as he spoke he thrust a dirty, discoloured, dog’s-eared book without a cover into Ned’s hands. Ned glanced at the open page, saw it was the “Vision of Mirza,” and hurried up to take his position.

The method of reading adopted was for each boy to read about twenty lines or so, and when it came to Ned’s turn he began after a little hesitation in the following fashion: “I had been often told that the Rock before me was the haunt of a Genius, and that sev​—​feveral had been entertained with Mufick who had paffed by it.”

Here came in a giggle and a splutter from the top of the class.

Ned continued undaunted: “but never heard that the Mufician had before made himfelf visible.”

The giggle was here more pronounced, and the master looked up severely to see what was the matter.

“Silence!” he proclaimed. “You can go on, Grigsby.”

And Grigsby did go on, but only to get further confused among the terrible long s’s, for it was a very ancient edition which the crafty Smith had poked into Ned’s hands, and the lad, not knowing the peculiarities of old printing, had pronounced all the long s’s as f’s.

It was not a very great matter, and Ned would have thought nothing of it had it been accidental. But when Long Smith, with a grin on his large mouth, afterwards presented him with his lost “Speaker,” produced from behind a box, he was naturally angered. However he did not say much, which prompted Mr. Smith to remark that he was a “green ’un” to be made such a fool of.

“Any one could take you in, Griggy, I believe,” he further observed in a contemptuous tone.

“Could they?” was all Ned deigned to reply.

And failing to make the boy lose his temper, and a geography class being called, Long Smith hurried away, but with the determination of making the incident a standing dish of ridicule.

Going home that day Long Smith was as good as his word, and this merry young gentleman began to mimic Ned’s reading that day as he walked behind him.

Ned turned sharply round and faced his tormentor.

“Look here, Long Smith. If I put up with your silliness in school I don’t out. Understand that.”

“Oh, lor’, what a swell we are! Anything else, Griggy?”

“No, ’ceptin’ if you don’t know how to behave yourself I’ll give you a lesson. I ain’t a-going to stand any of your nonsense.”

“Oh, ain’t yer a-going, ain’t yer?” mocking his pronunciation.

Ned flushed a bright scarlet, stepped a little on one side towards a bye street, and beckoned to Long Smith to follow him.

There were half a dozen of the other boys witnesses of the scene, and Long Smith could not refuse. He walked behind Ned for some little distance down the street, though in by no means so heroic an attitude as distinguished him two minutes since.

Arrived at what he considered a suitable spot, Ned stopped and took off his jacket.

“Look here, Long Smith, I’m going to fight you, so I give you fair warning.”

Long Smith looked by no means pleased at the intimation, but a head and shoulders as he was above Ned he felt pretty certain of coming off the victor.

“Why, you young fool,” he stammered, “I shall smash you.”

“Very well, smash me; only don’t keep me waiting here all day.”

Upon which Mr. Smith took off his jacket, using great deliberation so that if Ned wished to alter his mind about being smashed he should have ample opportunity.

But Ned showed no disposition to avail himself of this merciful consideration, and at last Long Smith threw himself into position, appearing by the side of Ned’s slim form quite a giant. It was soon evident that Ned was anxious to court his smashing rather than avoid it, and dexterously slipping in between Smith’s long arms, which were going about wildly like the sails of a windmill, his hard fist came suddenly close to Long Smith’s nose, with the result that that young gentleman stopped plunging with his arms and put his hands to his nose as demanding more immediate attention. Once begun, however, Ned showed no signs of leaving off, and half a dozen smart blows struck upwards seemed to indicate that instead of being smashed he was going to be the smasher.

It was evident that Long Smith’s forte was not fighting, for although he was not hurt very much he showed the white feather most distinctly, and cried out for quarter.

“Do you beg my pardon?” demanded Ned.

“Yes, of course I do, Grigsby,” bellowed the tall youth.

“All right, then; shake hands and we’ll say no more about it.”

With which request the fallen giant complied, though somewhat ruefully it must be confessed.

This little encounter quite established Ned’s reputation, and made a marked difference in the respect which was paid him by the other boys.