The New Arcadia/Chapter 2

CHAPTER II.

FIVE POUNDS FOR FLESH AND BLOOD.

"A most acute juvenal, voluble, and free of grace."

"So justice while she winks at crimes,
Stumbles on innocence sometimes."—Hudibras.

"There is now in England a mass, an ever-increasing mass, of unemployed labour, supplying victims for unprincipled and short-sighted capitalists, or filling our gaols and workhouses; try whether association will not gradually assimilate this mass, and render it the strength and not the poison, the blessing and not the curse of our country."—Letter of Charles Kingsley.

"It weren't none on your fault, master," the little man was saying. Dr. Courtenay was expressing regret for the mishap.

"I'm mighty glad to be here, I can tell you," the child ran on. "It's so clean and quiet, and them young ladies," pointing to a group of nurses, "is so kind. Don't let them take me away again."

"Why do you not want to go home?" inquired the doctor.

"Home?" the child exclaimed. "It's what they call hell at the Mission House. Mother she drinks, and grannie drinks, and they beat me if I doesn't bring enough home at night. I often sleeps out under the railway near the wharfs for fear of them. Then they whacks me more when I gets home for stopping away."

"And where's your father, my little man?" inquired the doctor.

"Ah, that's it!" the child replied with animation.

"Why does not he look after you?"

"He went away, long time ago, last year. He couldn't get no work, and used to come home to find mother and grannie drunk—when mother had had a bit of washing to do. One day I comed home, and father was sitting over the fire-place with no fire in it, and his head in his hands. 'Dad,' says I, 'what's up now?' and he turns his head away, but draws me to him and nigh squeezed me up, and I seed he was crying. I don't often blubber; I didn't to-day, sir, did I? But I howled when I seed father cry. I'll never forget him shakin' and rockin' hisself. Then he knocks away the tears as if he hated them and bit his lip hard. Did you ever see a man cry, sir? Children does; and women, but it's terrible, I thinks, to see a man blub."

"Was your father ill?" interjected the medical man.

"Tough as a tram-cable, sir, and brave as a bulldog. I seed him punch Fitzroy Tom's head when he'd made game of mother for being drunk. All the people in the lane said he was a brick and ought to set up a boxin' saloon."

"What did he cry for then?"

"'Cause of mother"—here the little one broke down and sobbed. "She used to be so good onst—and 'cause of no work. He used to say he wouldn't care what he done, if he could get a job. Then he kisses me and squeezes me up, like a crowd at the theatre door, and goes away.

"'Never you mind, sonny,' he calls out, 'I'll come back some day and make a man of you.'

"We never heard on him since, and mother's been worse nor ever. One day Tim Smith told me father was making a railway. I thought I'd go too. Perhaps I could sell papers to the chaps there. I saved up seven brownies and went to Spencer Street. I told the cove bobbing inside the window, like a jail-bird, to give me a ticket to where the railway was doing. He said they was making railways everywhere, and I might soon have one to the moon, if they got a member 'lected for there, or got the blind side of the commissioners.

"'None of your cheek,' says I, coz I knew he couldn't get through the window at me. 'Give us a ticket, a "holiday excursion" workman's ticket as far as your train will take me for them'—clapping down the brownies. He laughed and gave me one to Donnybreok. When I got there I could see no trains a-making. I just walked and walked. There was fine trees and birds singing in them, and flowers in the grass. But I could not see father. I asked a lot of chaps and they only said, 'Who're you? What are you a'ter here?' I'd never seen the country before. I didn't wonder father ran away there, only I thought he might'er taken me.

"'I'll stop here always,' says I, 'till I finds dad.'

"But I only found the bobby. He's everywhere! I hanged out in a stable, and a fat man comed in the morning and says I'd been stealing. I'd like to have punched his head. Then he got a bobby, with tights and boots on, looking mighty mashery as though he done no work, and he asked and asked like everybody else. When I told him about my father and mother, he said, 'You're a little runaway, you beggar. I'll send you back to town.' Then he shook me till I seed double. 'We want none of you larrikins here,' he calls out, very brave-like.

"'Surely there's room for me and mother and all in our lane out here, 'stead of starvin' in town.'

"'Don't you be cheeky, young man,' he says, and hits me on the head. 'We don't want no town varmin out here.'

"'But there's plenty o' room,' says I, 'and I does like the birds and the flowers so, and I could help the fat man dig.'

"'Dig! you little fool,' says he; 'he grows sheep, and has miles of this 'ere country, and two or three on 'em has all the rest of it.'

"'And isn't there no corner for me?' I puts in, and begins to cry when I thinks of the dirty streets and men with nothing to do but fight."

"What was the end of it?" suggested the doctor, looking at his watch.

"He sends me back next day with a bobby who were takin' a cove to town who'd been copped, and they fetched me to mother and grannie, and didn't I get it."

At that moment there was a disturbance at the entrance to the ward; a shrill voice was declaiming to a nurse who stopped the way.

"Let me go to my darling; I heard he was run over. He's the only joy of my heart."

"Don't let her come, she'll take me away," cried, the child, covering his head with the bedclothes.

The doctor went to the woman. For half-an-hour he talked to her.

"Then you'll give me five pounds for him, my little cherrub?"

"Yes, if you sign this document giving him over entirely to my charge. I'll do the best I can for him. From your own showing and his, you have cared little for him. I shall pay the money to the clergyman whose name you mention, and get him to give you five shillings a week for your rent for three months."

"So I'm to sell my own flesh and blood for a five-pound note?" the woman replied.

"Not unless you like. Come to my house this evening. I will get the clergyman to be there, and we'll settle it up at nine o'clock."

That night a woman emerged from the doctor's dispensary exclaiming, as she hurried along—

"Five pounds for my own flesh and blood! That's what Melbourne and drink's brought me to! And we was happy enough before we came to town."