Through the Fray by G. A. Henty
Chapter I: A Fishing Expedition
It has just struck one, and the boys are streaming out from the schoolroom of Mr. Hathorn's academy in the little town of Marsden in Yorkshire. Their appearance would create some astonishment in the minds of lads of the present generation, for it was the year 1807, and their attire differed somewhat materially from that now worn. They were for the most part dressed in breeches tight at the knee, and buttoning up outside the close fitting jacket nearly under the arms, so that they seemed almost devoid of waist. At the present moment they were bareheaded; but when they went beyond the precincts of the school they wore stiff caps, flat and very large at the top, and with far projecting peaks.
They were not altogether a happy looking set of boys, and many of their cheeks were stained with tears and begrimed with dirt from the knuckles which had been used to wipe them away; for there was in the year 1807 but one known method of instilling instruction into the youthful mind, namely, the cane, and one of the chief qualifications of a schoolmaster was to be able to hit hard and sharp.
Mr. Hathorn, judged by this standard, stood very high in his profession; his cane seemed to whiz through the air, so rapidly and strongly did it descend, and he had the knack of finding out tender places, and of hitting them unerringly.
Any one passing in front of the schoolhouse during the hours when the boys were at their lessons would be almost sure to hear the sharp cracks of the cane, followed sometimes by dead silence, when the recipient of the blows was of a sturdy and Spartan disposition, but more frequently by shrieks and cries.
That Hathorn's boys hated their master was almost a matter of course. At the same time they were far from regarding him as an exceptional monster of cruelty, for they knew from their friends that flogging prevailed almost everywhere, and accepted it as a necessary portion of the woes of boyhood. Indeed, in some respects, when not smarting under the infliction, they were inclined to believe that their lot was, in comparison with that of others, a fortunate one; for whereas in many schools the diet was so poor and bad that the boys were half starved, at Hathorn's if their food was simple and coarse it was at least wholesome and abundant.
Mr. Hathorn, in fact, intended, and as he quite believed with success, to do his duty by his boys. They were sent to him to be taught, and he taught them through the medium then recognized as most fitting for the purpose--the cane; while, as far as an abundance of porridge for breakfast, and of heavy pudding at dinner, with twice a week an allowance of meat, the boys were unstinted. He would indeed point with pride to his pupils when their parents assembled at the annual presentation of prizes.
"Look at them!" he would say proudly. "None of your half starved skeletons here--well filled out and in good condition every boy of them--no stint of porridge here. It keeps them in good health and improves their learning; for, mark you, a plump boy feels the cane twice as much as a skinny one; it stings, my dear sir, it stings, and leaves its mark; whereas there is no getting at a boy whose clothes hang like bags about him."
This was no doubt true, and the boys themselves were conscious of it, and many had been the stern resolutions made while smarting in agony that henceforward food should be eschewed, or taken only in sufficient quantities to keep life together. But boys' appetites are stronger than boys' resolutions, and in the end there was never any marked falling off in the consumption of viands at Hathorn's.
Like other things punishment fails when administered in excess. There was no disgrace whatever in what was common to all, for although some of the boys of superior ability and perseverance would escape with a smaller amount of punishment than their fellows, none could hope to escape altogether. Thus it was only the pain that they had to bear, and even this became to some extent deadened by repetition, and was forgotten as soon as inflicted, save when a sudden movement caused a sharp pain in back or leg. Once in the playground their spirits revived, and except a few whose recent punishment incapacitated them for a time from active exercise, the whole were soon intent upon their games.
One only of the party wore his cap, and he after a few minutes left the others, and went toward a door which led from the playground into the road.
"Don't be long, Sankey; come back as soon as you can, you know we agreed to go fishing this afternoon."
"All right, Tompkins; I will come back directly I have done my dinner. I expect I shall have finished quite as soon as you will."
Edward Sankey, who was regarded with envy by his schoolfellows, was the only home boarder at Hathorn's; for, as a general thing, the master set his face against the introduction of home boarders. They were, he considered, an element of disturbance; they carry tales to and from the school; they cause discontent among the other boys, and their parents are in the habit of protesting and interfering. Not, indeed, that parents in those days considered it in any way a hardship for their boys to suffer corporal punishment; they had been flogged at school, and they believed that they had learned their lessons all the better for it. Naturally the same thing would happen to their sons. Still mothers are apt to be weak and soft hearted, and therefore Mr. Hathorn objected to home boarders.
He had made an exception in Sankey's case; his father was of a different type to those of the majority of his boys; he had lost his leg at the battle of Assaye, and had been obliged to leave the army, and having but small means beyond his pension, had settled near the quiet little Yorkshire town as a place where he could live more cheaply than in more bustling localities. He had, when he first came, no acquaintances whatever in the place, and therefore would not be given to discuss with the parents of other boys the doings in the school. Not that Mr. Hathorn was afraid of discussion, for he regarded his school as almost perfect of its kind. Still it was his fixed opinion that discussion was, as a general rule, unadvisable. Therefore, when Captain Sankey, a few weeks after taking up his residence in the locality, made a proposal to him that his son should attend his school as a home boarder, Mr. Hathorn acceded to the proposition, stating frankly his objections, as a rule, to boys of that class.
"I shall not interfere," Captain Sankey said. "Of course boys must be thrashed, and provided that the punishment is not excessive, and that it is justly administered, I have nothing to say against it. Boys must be punished, and if you don't flog you have to confine them, and in my opinion that is far worse for a boy's temper, spirit, and health."
So Ned Sankey went to Hathorn's, and was soon a great favorite there. Just at first he was regarded as a disobliging fellow because he adhered strictly to a stipulation which Mr. Hathorn had made, that he should not bring things in from the town for his school fellows. Only once a week, on the Saturday half holiday, were the boys allowed outside the bounds of the wall round the playground, and although on Wednesday an old woman was allowed to come into those precincts to sell fruit, cakes, and sweets, many articles were wanted in the course of the week, and the boys took it much amiss for a time that Ned refused to act as their messenger; but he was firm in his refusals. His father had told him not to do so, and his father's word was law to him; but when the boys saw that in all other respects he was a thoroughly good fellow, they soon forgave him what they considered his undue punctiliousness, and he became a prime favorite in the school.
It is due to Mr. Hathorn to say that no fear of interference induced him to mitigate his rule to thrash when he considered that punishment was necessary, and that Ned received his full share of the general discipline. He was never known to utter a cry under punishment, for he was, as his school fellows said admiringly, as hard as nails; and he was, moreover, of a dogged disposition which would have enabled him, when he had once determined upon a thing, to carry it through even if it killed him. Mr. Hathorn regarded this quality as obstinacy, the boys as iron resolution; and while the former did his best to conquer what he regarded as a fault, the boys encouraged by their admiration what they viewed as a virtue.
At home Ned never spoke of his punishments; and if his father observed a sudden movement which told of a hidden pain, and would say cheerfully, "What! have you been getting it again, Ned?" the boy would smile grimly and nod, but no complaint ever passed his lips.
There was no disgrace in being flogged--it was the natural lot of schoolboys; why should he make a fuss about it? So he held his tongue. But Mr. Hathorn was not altogether wrong. Ned Sankey was obstinate, but though obstinate he was by no means sulky. When he made up his mind to do a thing he did it, whether it was to be at the top of his class in order to please his father, or to set his teeth like iron and let no sound issue from them as Mr. Hathorn's cane descended on his back.
Ned Sankey was about fourteen years of age. He had a brother and a sister, but between them and himself was a gap of four years, as some sisters who had been born after him had died in infancy. Ned adored his father, who was a most kind and genial man, and would have suffered anything in silence rather than have caused him any troubles or annoyance by complaining to him.
For his mother his feelings were altogether different. She was a kindly and well intentioned woman, but weak and silly. On leaving school she had gone out to join her father in India. Captain Sankey had sailed in the same ship and, taken by her pretty face and helpless, dependent manner, he had fallen in love with her, knowing nothing of her real disposition, and they had been married upon their arrival at the termination of the voyage. So loyal was his nature that it is probable Captain Sankey never admitted even to himself that his marriage had been a mistake; but none of his comrades ever doubted it. His wife turned out one of the most helpless of women. Under the plea of ill health she had at a very early period of their marriage given up all attempt to manage the affairs of the household, and her nerves were wholly unequal to the strain of looking after her children. It was noticeable that though her health was unequal to the discharge of her duties, she was always well enough to take part in any pleasure or gayety which might be going on; and as none of the many doctors who attended her were able to discover any specific ailment, the general opinion was that Mrs. Sankey's ill health was the creation of her own imagination. This, however, was not wholly the case. She was not strong; and although, had she made an effort, she would have been able to look after her children like other women, she had neither the disposition nor the training to make that effort.
Her son regarded her with the sort of pity, not unmingled with contempt, with which young people full of life and energy are apt to regard those who are weak and ailing without having any specific disease or malady which would account for their condition.
"All the bothers fall upon father," he would say to himself; "and if mother did but make up her mind she could take her share in them well enough. There was he walking about for two hours this evening with little Lucy in his arms, because she had fallen down and hurt herself; and there was mother lying on the sofa reading that book of poetry, as if nothing that happened in the house was any affair of hers. She is very nice and very kind, but I do wish she wouldn't leave everything for father to do. It might have been all very well before he lost his leg, but I do think she ought to make an effort now."
However, Mrs. Sankey made no effort, nor did her husband ever hint that it would be better for herself as well as her family if she did so. He accepted the situation as inevitable, and patiently, and indeed willingly, bore her burden as well as his own.
Fortunately she had in the children's nurse an active and trustworthy woman. Abijah Wolf was a Yorkshire woman. She had in her youth been engaged to a lad in her native village. In a moment of drunken folly, a short time before the day fixed for their wedding, he had been persuaded to enlist. Abijah had waited patiently for him twelve years. Then he had returned a sergeant, and she had married him and followed him with his regiment, which was that in which Captain Sankey--at that time a young ensign--served. When the latter's first child was born at Madras there was a difficulty in obtaining a white nurse, and Mrs. Sankey declared that she would not trust the child to a native. Inquiries were therefore made in the regiment, and Sergeant Wolf's wife, who had a great love for children although childless herself, volunteered to fill the post for a time. A few months afterward Sergeant Wolf was killed in a fight with a marauding hill tribe. His widow, instead of returning home and living on the little pension to which she was entitled at his death, remained in the service of the Sankeys, who soon came to regard her as invaluable.
She was somewhat rough in her ways and sharp with her tongue; but even Mrs. Sankey, who was often ruffled by her brusque independence, was conscious of her value, and knew that she should never obtain another servant who would take the trouble of the children so entirely off her hands. She retained, indeed, her privilege of grumbling, and sometimes complained to her husband that Abijah's ways were really unbearable. Still she never pressed the point, and Abijah appeared established as a permanent fixture in the Sankeys' household. She it was who, when, after leaving the service, Captain Sankey was looking round for a cheap and quiet residence, had recommended Marsden.
"There is a grand air from the hills," she said, "which will be just the thing for the children. There's good fishing in the stream for yourself, captain, and you can't get a quieter and cheaper place in all England. I ought to know, for I was born upon the moorland but six miles away from it, and should have been there now if I hadn't followed my man to the wars."
"Where are you going, Master Ned?" she asked as the boy, having finished his dinner, ran to the high cupboard at the end of the passage near the kitchen to get his fishing rod.
"I am going out fishing, Abijah."
"Not by yourself, I hope?"
"No; another fellow is going with me. We are going up into the hills."
"Don't ye go too far, Master Ned. They say the croppers are drilling on the moors, and it were bad for ye if you fell in with them."
"They wouldn't hurt me if I did."
"I don't suppose they would," the nurse said, "but there is never no saying. Poor fellows! they're druv well nigh out of their senses with the bad times. What with the machines, and the low price of labor, and the high price of bread, they are having a terrible time of it. And no wonder that we hear of frame breaking in Nottingham, and Lancashire, and other places. How men can be wicked enough to make machines, to take the bread out of poor men's mouths, beats me altogether."
"Father says the machinery will do good in the long run, Abijah --that it will largely increase trade, and so give employment to a great many more people than at present. But it certainly is hard on those who have learned to work in one way to see their living taken away from them."
"Hard!" the nurse said. "I should say it were hard. I know the croppers, for there were a score of them in my village, and a rough, wild lot they were. They worked hard and they drank hard, and the girl as chose a cropper for a husband was reckoned to have made a bad match of it; but they are determined fellows, and you will see they won't have the bread taken out of their mouths without making a fight for it."
"That may be," Ned said, "for every one gives them the name of a rough lot; but I must talk to you about it another time, Abijah, I have got to be off;" and having now found his fishing rod, his box of bait, his paper of books, and a basket to bring home the fish he intended to get, Ned ran off at full speed toward the school.
As Abijah Wolf had said, the croppers of the West Riding were a rough set. Their occupation consisted in shearing or cropping the wool on the face of cloths. They used a large pair of shears, which were so set that one blade went under the cloth while the other worked on its upper face, mowing the fibers and ends of the wool to a smooth, even surface. The work was hard and required considerable skill, and the men earned about twenty-four shillings a week, a sum which, with bread and all other necessities of life at famine prices, barely sufficed for the support of their families. The introduction of power looms threatened to abolish their calling. It was true that although these machines wove the cloth more evenly and smoothly than the hand looms, croppers were still required to give the necessary smoothness of face; still the tendency had been to lower wages.
The weavers were affected even more than the croppers, for strength and skill were not so needed to tend the power looms as to work the hand looms. Women and boys could do the work previously performed by men, and the tendency of wages was everywhere to fall.
For years a deep spirit of discontent had been seething among the operatives in the cotton and woolen manufactures, and there had been riots more or less serious in Derbyshire, Nottingham, Lancashire and Yorkshire, which in those days were the headquarters of these trades. Factories had been burned, employers threatened and attacked, and the obnoxious machines smashed. It was the vain struggle of the ignorant and badly paid people to keep down production and to keep up wages, to maintain manual labor against the power of the steam engine.
Hitherto factories had been rare, men working the frames in their own homes, and utilizing the labor of their wives and families, and the necessity of going miles away to work in the mills, where the looms were driven by steam, added much to the discontent.
Having found his fishing appliances Ned hurried off to the school, where his chum Tompkins was already waiting him, and the two set out at once on their expedition.
They had four miles to walk to reach the spot where they intended to fish. It was a quiet little stream with deep pools and many shadows, and had its source in the heart of the moorlands. Neither of them had ever tried it before, but they had heard it spoken of as one of the best streams for fish in that part. On reaching its banks the rods were put together, the hooks were baited with worms, and a deep pool being chosen they set to work. After fishing for some time without success they tried a pool higher up, and so mounted higher and higher up the stream, but ever with the same want of success.
"How could they have said that this was a good place for fish?" Tompkins said angrily at last. "Why, by this time it would have been hard luck if we had not caught a dozen between us where we usually fish close to the town, and after our long walk we have not had even a bite."
"I fancy, Tompkins," Ned said, "that we are a couple of fools. I know it is trout that they catch in this stream, and of course, now I think of it, trout are caught in clear water with a fly, not with a worm. Father said the other day he would take me out some Saturday and give me a lesson in fly fishing. How he will laugh when I tell him we have wasted all our afternoon in trying to catch trout with worms!"
"I don't see anything to laugh at," Tompkins grumbled. "Here we waste a whole half holiday, and nothing to show for it, and have got six or seven miles at least to tramp back to school."
"Well, we have had a nice walk," Ned said, "even if we are caught in the rain. However, we may as well put up our rods and start. I vote we try to make a straight cut home; it must be ever so much shorter to go in a straight line than to follow all the windings of this stream."
They had long since left the low lands, where trees and bushes bordered the stream, and were in a lonely valley where the hills came down close to the little stream, which sparkled among the boulders at their feet. The slopes were covered with a crop of short wiry grass through which the gray stone projected here and there. Tiny rills of water made their way down the hillside to swell the stream, and the tinge of brown which showed up wherever these found a level sufficient to form a pool told that they had their source in the bogs on the moorland above. Tompkins looked round him rather disconcertedly.
"I don't know," he said. "It's a beastly long way to walk round; but suppose we got lost in trying to make our way across the hills."
"Well, just as you like," Ned said, "I am game to walk back the way we came or to try and make a straight cut, only mind don't you turn round and blame me afterward. You take your choice; whichever you vote for I am ready to do."
"My shoes are beginning to rub my heels," Tompkins said, "so I will take the shortest way and risk it. I don't see we can go far out of our way."
"I don't see that we can," Ned replied. "Marsden lies to the east, so we have only to keep our backs to the sun; it won't be down for another two hours yet, and before that we ought to be in."
By this time they had taken their rods to pieces, wound up their lines, and were ready to start. A few minutes' sharp climbing took them to the top of the slope. They were now upon the moor, which stretched away with slight undulations as far as they could see.
"Now," Ned said, "we will make for that clump of rocks. They seem to be just in the line we ought to take, and by fixing our eyes upon them we shall go straight."
This, however, was not as easy to do as Ned had fancied; the ground was in many places so soft and boggy that they were forced to make considerable detours. Nevertheless the rocks served as a beacon, and enabled them to keep the right direction; but although they made their way at the best of their speed it was an hour after starting before they approached the rock.
When they were within fifty yards of it a figure suddenly rose. It was that of a boy some fifteen years of age.
"Goa back," he shouted; "dang yer, what be'est a cooming here vor?"
The two boys stopped astonished.
"We are going to Marsden," Ned replied; "but what's that to you?"
"Doan't ee moind wot it be to oi," the boy said; "oi tell ee ee can't goa no further; yoi've got ter go back."
"We shan't go back," Ned said; "we have got as much right to go this way as you have. This is not your land; and if it is, we ain't hurting it."
By this time they were at the foot of the pile of rocks, and the lad was standing some ten feet above them.
"Oi tell ee," he repeated doggedly, "yoi've got vor to go back."
The boy was so much bigger and stronger than either Ned or his companion that the former, although indignant at this interference, did not deem it prudent to attempt to climb the crag, so he said to Tompkins: "Of course we ain't going back, but we had better take a turn so as to get out of the way of this fellow."
So saying they turned to the right and prepared to scout round the rock and continue their way; but this did not suit their obstructor.
"If ee doan't go back at oncet oi'll knock the heads off thee shoulders."
"We can't go back," Tompkins said desperately, "we are both as tired as we can be, and my heel is so sore that I can hardly walk. We shouldn't get to Marsden tonight if we were to turn back."
"That's nowt to oi," the boy said. "Oi bain't a-going to let ee pass here."
"What are we to do, Ned?" Tompkins groaned.
"Do!" Ned replied indignantly. "Why, go on, of course. Marsden cannot be more than three miles off, and I ain't going to walk twelve miles round to please this obstinate brute."
"But he is ever so much bigger than we are," Tompkins said doubtfully.
"Well, there are two of us," Ned said, "and two to one is fair enough when he is as big as the two of us together."
"We are going on," he said to the boy, "and if you interfere with us it will be the worse for you."
The boy descended leisurely from his position on the rocks.
"Oi don't want to hurt ee, but oi've got to do as oi were bid, and if ee doan't go back oi've got to make ee. There be summat a-going on thar," and he jerked his head behind him, "as it wouldn't be good vor ee to see, and ye bain't a-going vor to see it."
But Ned and Tompkins were desperate now, and dropping their rods made a rush together against him.