« AnteriorContinuar »
through, in groping for it. Indeed, they were very generous when they wished to be amused; and every kind of offer was made to them which we thought suited to their tastes, or likely to extract money from their pockets.
“ Dip my head in the mud for sixpence, sir ? ” would one of us cry out; and then he would be outbid by another.
“ Roll myself all over and over in the mud, face and all, sir only give me sixpence !"
Sometimes I would perceive a lovely countenance, beaming with pity and compassion at our rags and apparent wretchedness; and then the money thrown to me gave me much more pleasure : but the major portion of those who threw us silver for their own amusement would not have given us a farthing, if we had asked charity for the love of God.
It must not, however, be supposed that I gained the enviable situation of Poor Jack until I had been some time on the beach. There are competitors for every place, even the most humble; and there was no want of competitors for this office
many idle boys who frequented the beach. When I first plied there, I was often pushed away by those who were older and stronger than myself, with a
“ Go along with you ! He's not poor Jack — I'm poor Jack, your honour.” This, at first, I submitted to; taking my chance for a stray halfpenny, which was occasionally thrown to me; trusting to my activity in being the first down to the boat, or to my quickness in a scramble. I never quarrelled with the other boys, for I was remarkable for my good temper. The first idea I had of resistance was from oppression. One of the boys, who was older and taller than myself, attempted to take away a sixpence which I had gained in a scramble. Before that, I had not resented being pushed away, or even when they threw water or mud at me; but this was an act of violence which I could not put up with :
the consequence was a fight; in which, to my surprise (for I was not aware of my strength), as well as to the surprise of the bystanders, I proved victorious, beating my opponent, until he reeled into the water, following him up until he tumbled, and then holding his head down in the mud, until he was almost
stifled. I then allowed him to get up; and he went home crying to his mother. For this feat, I was rewarded with the plaudits of the old pensioners and others who were looking on, and with a shilling which was thrown to me from the window of the inn. Ben the Whaler, who had witnessed the fray, told me, the next day, that I handled my fists remarkably well; and that I had but to keep a higher guard, and I should fight well. He was an old pugilist himself, and he gave me a few directions which I did not forget. I soon had occasion to put them into practice; for, two days afterwards, another boy, bigger than myself, as I was plying as “ Poor Jack,” pushed me back so hard that I fell off the steps into the deep water, and there was a general laugh against me. I did not care for the ducking, but the laugh I could not bear; as soon as I gained the steps again, I rushed upon him, and threw him off, and he fell into the wherry, and, as it afterwards appeared, he strained his back very much; nevertheless he came out to thrash me ; and this time it was a regular fight, as the pensioners and watermen interfered, taking us both up on the higher ground, and seeing that it was fair play. Ben the Whaler acted as my second, and we set to. The boy was too powerful for me, had it not been for the hurt he had received, and the instructions I obtained from Ben every time that I sat on his knee between each round. Still it was a very hard fight, and I was terribly beaten, but I could not give up, for so many betted upon my winning; and Ben told me, at the end of every round, that, if I only stood up one more, I should be certain to beat him ; and that then I should be Poor Jack for ever! The last inducement stimulated me to immense exertion; we closed and wrestled, and my antagonist was thrown; and, in consequence of the strain he had before received, he could not stand up any more.
Poor fellow ! he was in great pain; he was taken home, and obliged to have a doctor, and an abscess formed in his side. He was a long while getting well, and, when he came out of doors again, he was so pale, — I was very sorry for him, and we were always the best friends afterwards, and I gave him many a halfpenny, until I had an opportunity of serving him.
I mention these two fights, because they obtained for me a greater reputation than I deserved ; this reputation perhaps saved me a great deal more fighting, and obtained me the mastery over the other boys on the beach. Indeed, I became such a favourite with the watermen, that they would send the other boys away : and thus did I become, at last, the acknowledged, true, lawful, and legitimate “ Poor Jack of Greenwich.”
IN WHICH I TAKE A CRUISE CONTRARY TO THE RECEIVED RULES OF
NAVIGATION ON MY RETURN FROM A COLD EXPEDITION, I MEET WITH A COLD RECEPTION.
As soon as I was fairly in possession of my office, I gained sufficient money to render me almost entirely independent of my mother. Occasionally I procured an old jacket or trowsers, or a pair of shoes, at the store of an old woman, who dealt in every thing that could be imagined; and, if ever I picked up oakum, or drifting pieces of wood, I used to sell them to old Nanny, - for that was the only name she was known by. My mother, having lost her lodgers by her ill temper, and continual quarrelling with her neighbours, had resorted to washing and getting up of fine linen, at which she was very expert, and earned a good deal of money. To do her justice, she was a very industrious woman, and, in some things, very clever. She was a very good dress-maker, and used to make up the gowris and bonnets for the lower classes of people, to whom she gave great satisfaction. She worked very hard for herself and my sister, about whose dress and appearance she was more particular than ever; indeed, she showed as much affection for her as she did ill will towards me. To look at me, with my old trowsers tucked up above my knees, my ragged jacket, and weather-beaten cap; and then to see Virginia, so neatly, and even expensively, dressed, no one could have believed that we were
brother and sister. My mother would always try to prevent Virginia from noticing me, if we ever met when she was walking out with her. But my sister appeared to love me more and more; and, in spite of my mother, as soon as she saw me, would run up to me, patting my dirty jacket with her pretty little hand; and, when she did so, I felt so proud of her. She grew up handsomer every day, and so sweet in disposition, that my mother could not spoil her.
It was in the autumn that I gained undisputed possession of the office of “Poor Jack;" and that winter I had an adventure which nearly occasioned my making a vacancy for somebody else ; and which, the reader will agree with me, was anything but pleasant.
It was in the month of January, - the river was filled with floating ice, for it had frozen hard for several days; and, of course, there were but few people who trusted themselves in wherries, so that I had little employment, and less profit. One morning, as I was standing on the landing-steps, the breath coming out of my mouth like the steam of a tea-kettle, rubbing my nose, which was red from the sharpness of the frost, — and looking at the sun, which was just mounting above a bank of clouds, a waterman called to me, and asked me whether I would go down the river with him, as he was engaged to take a mate down to join his ship, which was several miles below Greenwich ; and, if so, he would give me sixpence and a breakfast. I had earned little for many days, and, hating to be obliged to my mother, I consented.
In an hour we started; there was no wind, - the water was smooth, and the sun's rays glittered on the floating patches of ice, which grated against the sides of the wherry, as we cut through them with our sharp prow. Although we had the tide with us, it was three hours before we gained the ship. The mate paid the fare, and gave us something to drink; and we passed an hour or more warming ourselves at the caboose, and talking with the sea
At last a breeze sprung up, and the captain ordered the men to get the ship under weigh. We shoved off, the tide having flowed some time, expecting to be back to Greenwich before dark.
But it clouded over; and a heavy snow-storm came on, so that we could not see in what direction we were pulling ; the wind blew very fresh, and it was piercing cold; however, we pulled as
hard as we could, not only to get back again, but to keep ourselves from freezing. Unfortunately, we had lost too much time on board of the vessel ; and, what with that, and the delay arising from the snow-storm preventing us pulling straight back, the ebb-tide made agaiņ before we had gained more than two thirds of our way. We were now nearly worn out with the severe cold and fatigue, but we pulled hard, keeping as close in-shore as we could. It was necessary, at the end of one reach, to cross over to the other side of the river; and, in so doing, we were driven by the tide against a large buoy, when the wherry filled and upset in an instant. We both contrived to cling on to her, as she was turned bottom up; and away we were swept down among the drifting ice, the snowstorm still continuing to beat down on our heads. I was nearly frozen before I could climb on the bottom of the wherry; which I at last contrived to do, but the waterman could only hold on. There we both were, shivering and shaking; the wind piercing through our wet clothes, the snow beating down on us, and our feet freezing among the drifting ice- borne away with the tide towards the mouth of the river - not able to see two yards before us, or likely to be seen by any one, so as to be assisted. We were too cold to speak, but remained in silence, looking at each other, and with no pleasant forebodings as to our fate. The ice now formed in large masses ; the icicles hung from our clothes, and all sense was lost in our extremities. It was now dark as pitch ; and so feeble were we that it was with difficulty we could keep in our positions. At last the storm abated, the sky cleared up, and the bright full moon shone in the heavens ; but our case appeared hopeless, - we felt that before morning we must perish. I tried to say what prayers I had learnt by hearing my sister say them ; but my teeth chattered, and I could only think them. At last, I perceived a vessel at anchor - the tide was sweeping us past, we were close to her, and I contrived to cry out; — but there was no reply.
Again I screamed, but it was in vain. They were all in their warm beds ; while we floated past, freezing to death. My hopes, which had been raised, and which had occasioned my heart to resume its beating, now sank down again, and I gave myself up in despair.