I think that the reader will agree with me that my mother showed in her conduct great strength of character. She had been compelled to marry a man whom she despised, and to whom she felt herself superior in every respect; she had done so to save her reputation. That she had been in error is true but situation and opportunity had conspired against her; and when she found out the pride and selfishness of the man to whom she was devoted, and for whom she had sacrificed so much,—when her ears were wounded by proposals from his lips that she should take such a step to avoid the scandal arising from their intimacy—when at the moment that he made such a proposition, and the veil fell down and revealed the heart of man in its selfishness, it is not to be wondered that, with bitter tears, arising from wounded love, anger, and despair at her hopeless position, she consented. After having lost all she valued, what did she care for the future? It was but one sacrifice more to make, one more proof of her devotion and obedience. But there are few women who, like my mother, would have recovered her position to the extent that she did. Had she not shown such determination, had she consented to have accompanied her husband to the barracks, and have mixed up with the other wives of the men, she would have gradually sunk down to their level; to this she could not consent. Having once freed herself from her thraldom, he immediately sunk down to his level, as she rose up to a position in which, if she could not ensure more than civility and protection, she was at all events secure from insult and ill-treatment.
Such was the state of affairs when I had arrived at the important age of six years, a comic-looking, laughing urchin, petted by the officers, and as fall of mischief as a tree full of monkeys. My mother’s business had so much increased, that, about a year previous to this date, she had found it necessary to have some one to assist her, and had decided upon sending for her sister Amelia to live with her. It was, however, necessary to obtain her mother’s consent. My grandmother had never seen my mother since the interview which she had had with her at Madeline Hall shortly after her marriage with Ben the marine. Latterly, however, they had corresponded; for my mother, who was too independent to seek her mother when she was merely the wife of a private marine, now that she was in flourishing circumstances had first tendered the olive branch, which had been accepted, as soon as my grandmother found that she was virtually separated from her husband. As my grandmother found it rather lonely at the isolated house in which she resided, and Amelia declared herself bored to death, it was at last agreed that my grandmother and my aunt Amelia should both come and take up their residence with my mother, and in due time they arrived. Milly, as my aunt was called, was three years younger than my mother, very pretty and as smart as her sister, perhaps a little more demure in her look, but with more mischief in her disposition. My grandmother was a cross, spiteful old woman; she was very large in her person, but very respectable in her appearance. I need not say that Miss Amelia did not lessen the attraction at the circulating library, which after her arrival was even more frequented by the officers than before.
My aunt Milly was very soon as fond of me as I was of mischief; indeed it is not to be wondered at, for I was a type of the latter. I soon loved her better than my mother, for she encouraged me in all my tricks. My mother looked grave, and occasionally scolded me; my grandmother slapped me hard and rated me continually; but reproof or correction from the two latter were of no avail; and the former, when she wished to play any trick which she dared not do herself, employed me as her agent; so that I obtained the whole credit for what were her inventions, and I may safely add, underwent the whole blame and punishment; but that I cared nothing for; her caresses, cakes, and sugar-plums, added to my natural propensity, more than repaid me for the occasional severe rebukes of my mother, and the vindictive blows I received from the long fingers of my worthy grandmother. Moreover, the officers took much notice of me, and it must be admitted, that, although I positively refused to learn my letters, I was a very forward child. My great patron was a Captain Bridgeman, a very thin, elegantly-made man, who was continually performing feats of address and activity; occasionally I would escape with him and go down to the mess, remain at dinner, drink toasts, and, standing on the mess-table, sing two or three comic songs which he had taught me. I sometimes returned a little merry with the bumpers, which made my mother very angry, my old grandmother to hold up her hands, and look at the ceiling through her spectacles, and my aunt Milly as merry as myself. Before I was eight years old, I had become so notorious, that any prank played in the town, any trick undiscovered, was invariably laid to my account; and many were the applications made to my mother for indemnification for broken windows and other damage done, too often, I grant, with good reason, but very often when I had been perfectly innocent of the misdemeanour. At last I was voted a common nuisance, and every one, except my mother and my aunt Milly, declared that it was high time that I went to school.
One evening the whole of the family were seated at tea in the back parlour. I was sitting very quietly and demurely in a corner, a sure sign that I was in mischief, and so indeed I was (for I was putting a little gunpowder into my grandmother’s snuff-box, which I had purloined, just that she might “smell powder,” as they say at sea, without danger of life or limb), when the old woman addressed my mother—
“Bella, is that boy never going to school? it will be the ruin of him.”
“What will be the ruin of him, mother?” rejoined my aunt Milly; “going to school?”
“Hold your nonsense, child: you are as bad as the boy himself,” replied granny. “Boys are never ruined by education; girls sometimes are.”
Whether my mother thought that this was an innuendo reflecting upon any portion of her own life, I cannot tell; but she replied very tartly.
“You’re none the worse for my education, mother, or you would not be sitting here.”
“Very true, child,” replied granny; “but recollect, neither would you have married a marine—a private marine, Bella, while your sister looks up to the officers. Ay,” continued the old woman, leaving off her knitting and looking at her daughter, “and is likely to get one, too, if she plays her cards well—that Lieutenant Flat can’t keep out of the shop.” (My granny having at this moment given me an opportunity to replace her snuff-box, I did not fail to profit by it; and as I perceived her knitting-pin had dropped on the floor, I stuck it into the skirt of her gown behind, so that whenever she looked for it, it was certain ever to be behind her.)
“Mr Flat is of a very respectable family, I hear say,” continued my grandmother.
“And a great fool,” interrupted my mother. “I hope Milly won’t listen to him.”
“He’s an officer,” replied my granny, “not a private.”
“Well, mother, I prefer my private marine, for I can make him do as I please; if he’s a private, I’m commanding officer, and intend so to be as long as I live.”
“Well, well, Bella, let us say no more on the old score; but that boy must go to school. Deary me, I have dropped my needle.”
My grandmother rose, and turned round and round, looking for her needle, which, strange to say, she could not find; she opened her snuff-box, and took a pinch to clear her optics. “Deary me, why, what’s the matter with my snuff? and where can that needle be? Child, come and look for the needle; don’t be sticking there in that corner.”
I thought proper to obey the order and pretended to be very diligent in my search. Catching aunt Milly’s eye, I pointed to the knitting-needle sticking in the hind skirts of my grandmother’s gown, and then was down on my knees again, while my aunt held her handkerchief to her mouth to check her laughter.
A minute afterwards, Ben the marine first tapped gently, and then opened the door and came in; for at that late hour the officers were all at dinner, and the shop empty.
“There are three parcels of books for you to take,” said my mother; “but you’ve plenty of time, so take down the tea-things, and get your tea in the kitchen before you go.”
“You haven’t got a shilling, Bella, about you? I want some ’baccy,” said Ben, in his quiet way.
“Yes, here’s a shilling, Ben; but don’t drink too much beer,” replied my mother.
“Deary me, what can have become of my needle?” exclaimed my grandmother, turning round.
“Here it is, ma’am,” said Ben, who perceived it sticking in her skirt. “That’s Percival’s work, I’ll answer for it.”
My granny received the needle from Ben, and then turned to me: “You good-for-nothing boy; so you put the needle there, did you? pretending to look for it all the while; you shall go to school, sir, that you shall.”
“You said a needle, granny; I was looking for a needle: you didn’t say your knitting-pin; I could have told you where that was.”
“Yes, yes, those who hide can find; to school you go, or I’ll not stay in the house.”
Ben took the tea-tray out of the room. He had been well drilled in and out of barracks.
“I’ll go down in the kitchen to father,” cried I, for I was tired of sitting still.
“No, you won’t, sir,” said my mother, “you naughty boy; the kitchen is not the place for you, and if ever I hear of you smoking a pipe again—”
“Captain Bridgeman smokes,” replied I.
“Yes, sir, he smokes cigars; but a child like you must not smoke a pipe.”
“And now come here, sir,” said my granny, who had the lid of her snuff-box off, and held it open in her hand; “what have you been doing with my snuff?”
“Why, granny, have I had your snuff-box the whole day?”
“How should I know?—a boy like you, with every finger a fish-hook; I do believe you have; I only wish I could find you out. I had fresh snuff this morning.”
“Perhaps they made a mistake at the shop, mother,” said aunt Milly; “they are very careless.”
“Well, I can’t tell: I must have some more; I can’t take this.”
“Throw it in the fire, granny,” said I; “and I’ll run with the box and get it full again.”
“Well, I suppose it’s the best thing I can do,” replied the old woman, who went to the grate, and leaning over, poured the snuff out on the live coals. The result was a loud explosion and a volume of smoke, which burst out of the grate into her face—the dinner and lappets singed, her spectacles lifted from her nose, and her face as black as a sweep’s. The old woman screamed, and threw herself back; in so doing, she fell over the chair upon which she had been sitting, and, somehow or another, tripped me up, and lay with all her weight upon me. I had been just attempting to make my escape during the confusion—for my mother and Milly were equally frightened—when I found myself completely smothered by the weight of my now almost senseless granny, and, as I have before mentioned, she was a very corpulent woman. Had I been in any other position I should not have suffered so much; but I had unfortunately fallen flat on my back, and was now lying with my face upwards, pressed upon by the broadest part of the old woman’s body; my nose was flattened, and my breath completely stopped. How long my granny might have remained there groaning I cannot tell; probably, as I was somewhat a spoiled child before this, it might have ended in her completely finishing me; but she was roused up from her state of half syncope by a vigorous attack from my teeth, which, in the agony of suffocation, I used with preternatural force of jaw from one so young. I bit right through everything she had on, and as my senses were fast departing, my teeth actually met with my convulsive efforts. My granny, roused by the extreme pain, rolled over on her side, and then it was that my mother and aunt, who supposed that I had made my escape from the room, discovered me lifeless, and black in the face. They ran to me, but I still held on with my teeth, nor could I be separated from my now screaming relative, until the admission of fresh air, and a plentiful sprinkling of cold water brought me to my senses, when I was laid on the sofa utterly exhausted. It certainly was a narrow escape, and it may be said that the “biter was nearly bit.” As for my granny, she recovered her fright and her legs, but she did not recover her temper; she could not sit down without a pillow on the chair for many days, and, although little was said to me in consequence of the danger I had incurred, yet there was an evident abhorrence of me on the part of the old woman, a quiet manner about my mother, and a want of her usual hilarity on the part of my aunt, which were to me a foreboding of something unpleasant. A few days brought to light what was the result of various whisperings and consultations. It was on a fine Monday morning, that Ben made his appearance at an unusually early hour; my cap was put on my head, my cloak over my shoulders; Ben took me by the hand, having a covered basket in the other, and I was led away like a lamb to the butcher. As I went out there was a tear in the eyes of my aunt Milly, a melancholy over the countenance of my mother, and a twinkling expression of satisfaction in my grandmother’s eyes, which even her spectacles could not conceal from me: the fact was, my grandmother had triumphed, and I was going to school.
As soon as I was clear of the door, I looked up into Ben’s face and said, “Father, where are we going?”
“Well,” replied he, “I am going to take you to school.”
“School! What am I going to school for?” replied I.
“For biting your grandmother, I expect, in the first place, and to get a little learning, and a good deal of flogging, if what they say is true! I never was at school myself.”
“What do you learn, and why are you flogged?”
“You learn to read, and to write, and to count; I can’t do either—more’s the pity; and you are flogged, because without flogging, little boys can’t learn anything.”
This was not a very satisfactory explanation. I made no further inquiries, and we continued our way in silence until we arrived at the school door; there was a terrible buzz inside. Ben tapped, the door opened, and a volume of hot air burst forth, all the fresh air having been consumed in repeating the fresh lessons for the day. Ben walked up between the forms, and introduced me to the schoolmaster, whose name was Mr Thadeus O’Gallagher, a poor scholar from Ireland, who had set up an establishment at half-a-guinea a quarter for day scholars; he was reckoned a very severe master, and the children were kept in better order in his school than in any other establishment of the kind in the town; and I presume that my granny had made inquiries to that effect, as there were one or two schools of the same kind much nearer to my mother’s house. Ben, who probably had a great respect for learning, in consequence of his having none himself, gave a military salute to Mr O’Gallagher, saying, with his hand still to his hat, “A new boy, sir, come to school.”
“Oh, by the powers! don’t I know him?” cried Mr O’Gallagher; “it’s the young gentleman who bit a hole in his grandmother; Master Keene, as they call him. Keen teeth, at all events. Lave him with me; and that’s his dinner in the basket I presume; lave that too. He’ll soon be a good boy, or it will end in a blow-up.”
Ben put down the basket, turned on his heel, and left the schoolroom, and me standing by the throne of my future pedagogue—I say throne, because he had not a desk, as schoolmasters generally have, but a sort of square daïs, about eighteen inches high, on which was placed another oblong superstructure of the same height, serving him for a seat; both parts were covered with some patched and torn old drugget, and upon subsequent examination I found them to consist of three old claret cases without covers, which he had probably picked up very cheap; two of them turned upside down, so as to form the lower square, and the third placed in the same way upside down, upon the two lower. Mr O’Gallagher sat in great dignity upon the upper one, with his feet on the lower, being thus sufficiently raised upon an eminence to command a view of the whole of his pupils in every part of the school. He was not a tall man, but very square built, with carroty hair and very bushy red whiskers; to me he appeared a most formidable person, especially when he opened his large mouth and displayed his teeth, when I was reminded of the sign of the Red Lion close to my mother’s house. I certainly never had been before so much awed during my short existence as I was with the appearance of my pedagogue, who sat before me somewhat in the fashion of a Roman tribune, holding in his hand a short round ruler, as if it were his truncheon of authority. I had not been a minute in the school before I observed him to raise his arm; away went the ruler whizzing through the air, until it hit the skull of the lad for whom it was intended at the other end of the schoolroom. The boy, who had been talking to his neighbour, rubbed his poll, and whined.
“Why don’t you bring back my ruler, you spalpeen?” said Mr O’Gallagher. “Be quick, Johnny Target, or it will end in a blow-up.”
The boy, who was not a little confused with the blow, sufficiently recovered his senses to obey the order, and whimpering as he came up, returned the ruler to the hands of Mr O’Gallagher.
“That tongue of yours will get you into more trouble than it will business, I expect, Johnny Target; it’s an unruly member, and requires a constant ruler over it.” Johnny Target rubbed his head and said nothing.
“Master Keene,” said he, after a short pause, “did you see what a tundering tump on the head that boy got just now, and do you know what it was for?”
“No,” replied I.
“Where’s your manners, you animal? No ‘If you plase.’ For the future, you must not forget to say, ‘No, sir,’ or, ‘No, Mr O’Gallagher.’ D’ye mind me—now say yes—what?”
“Yes, what! you little ignoramus; say ‘yes, Mr O’Gallagher,’ and recollect, as the parish clerk says, ‘this is the last time of asking.’”
“Yes, Mr O’Gallagher.”
“Ah! now you see, there’s nothing like coming to school—you’ve learn’t manners already; and now, to go back again, as to why Johnny Target had the rap on the head, which brought tears into his eyes? I’ll just tell you, it was for talking; you see, the first thing for a boy to learn, is to hold his tongue, and that shall be your lesson for the day; you’ll just sit down there and if you say one word during the whole time you are in the school, it will end in a blow-up; that means, on the present occasion, that I’ll skin you alive as they do the eels, which being rather keen work, will just suit your constitution.” I had wit enough to feel assured that Mr O’Gallagher was not to be trifled with, so I took my seat, and amused myself with listening to the various lessons which the boys came up to say, and the divers punishments inflicted—few escaped. At last, the hour of recreation and dinner arrived, the boys were dismissed, each seized his basket, containing his provisions, or ran home to get his meal with his parents: I found myself sitting in the school-room tête-à-tête with Mr O’Gallagher, and feeling very well inclined for my dinner I cast a wistful eye at my basket, but I said nothing; Mr O’Gallagher, who appeared to have been in thought, at last said—
“Mr Keene, you may now go out of school, and scream till you’re hoarse, just to make up for lost time.”
“May I take my dinner, sir?” inquired I.
“Is it your dinner you mane?—to be sure you may; but, first, I’ll just look into the basket and its contents; for you see, Mr Keene, there’s some victuals that don’t agree with larning; and if you eat them, you’ll not be fit for your work when your play-hours are over. What’s easy of digestion will do; but what’s bad for little boys’ stomachs may get you into a scrape, and then it will end in a blow-up; that is, you’ll have a taste of the ferrule or the rod—two assistants of mine, to whom I’ve not yet had the pleasure of introducing you—all in good time. If what I’ve hear of you be true, you and they will be better acquainted afore long.”
Mr O’Gallagher then examined the contents of my basket; my aunt Milly had taken care that I should be well provided: there was a large paper of beef sandwiches, a piece of bread and cheese, and three or four slices of seed-cake. Mr O’Gallagher opened all the packages, and, after a pause, said—
“Now, Master Keene, d’ye think you would ever guess how I came by all my larning, and what I fed upon when it was pumped into me? Then I’ll tell you; it was dry bread, with a little bit of cheese when I could get it, and that wasn’t often. Bread and cheese is the food to make a scholar of ye; and mayhap one slice of the cake mayn’t much interfere, so take them, and run away to the play-ground as fast as you can; and, d’ye hear me, Master Keene, recollect your grace before meat—‘For what we have received, the Lord make us truly thankful.’ Now, off wid you. The rest of the contents are confiscated for my sole use, and your particular benefit.”
Mr O’Gallagher grinned as he finished his oration; and he looked so much like a wild beast, that I was glad to be off as fast as I could. I turned round as I went out of the door, and perceived that the sandwiches were disappearing with wonderful rapidity; but I caught his eye: it was like that of a tiger’s at his meal, and I was off at redoubled speed.