I did not relate this story by my own wish. To my mind there’s nothing very much in it to relate. At the time it was written the newspapers were squabbling about farmers’ boys and field labour and political economy. “And,” said a gentleman to me, “as you were at the top and tail of the thing when it happened, and are well up in the subject generally, Johnny Ludlow, you may as well make a paper of it.” That was no other than the surgeon, Duffham.
About two miles from Dyke Manor across the fields, but in the opposite direction to that of the Court where the Sterlings lived, Elm Farm was situated. Mr. Jacobson lived in it, as his father had lived before him. The property was not their own; they rented it: it was fine land, and Jacobson had the reputation of being the best farmer for miles round. Being a wealthy man, he had no need to spare money on house or land, and did not spare it. He and the Squire were about the same age, and had been cronies all their lives.
Not to go into extraneous matter, I may as well say at once that one of the labourers on Jacobson’s farm was a man named John Mitchel. He lived in a cottage not far from us — a poor place consisting of two rooms and a wash-house; they call it back’us there — and had to walk nearly two miles to his work of a morning. Mitchel was a steady man of thirty-five, with a round head and not any great amount of brains inside it. Not but what he had as much brains as many labourers have, and quite enough for the sort of work his life was passed in. There were six children; the eldest, Dick, ten years old; and most of them had straw-coloured hair, the pattern of their father’s.
Just before the turn of harvest one hot summer, John Mitchel presented himself at Mr. Jacobson’s house in a clean smock frock, and asked a favour. It was, that his boy, Dick, should be taken on as ploughboy. Old Jacobson objected, saying the boy was too young and little. Little he might be, Mitchel answered, but not too young — warn’t he ten? The lad had been about the farm for some time as scarecrow: that is, employed to keep the birds away: and had a shilling a week for it. Old Jacobson stood to what he said, however, and little Dick did not get his promotion.
But old Jacobson got no peace. Every opportunity Mitchel could get, or dare to use, he began again, praying that Dick might be tried. The boy was “cute,” he said; strong enough also, though little; and if the master liked to pay him only fourpence a day, they’d be grateful for it; ‘twould be a help, and was wanted badly. All of no use: old Jacobson still said No.
One afternoon during this time, we started to go to the Jacobsons’ after a one-o’clock dinner — I and Mrs. Todhetley. She was fond of going over to an early tea there, but not by herself, for part of the way across the fields was lonely. Considering that she had been used to the country, she was a regular coward as to lonely walks, expecting to see tramps or robbers at every corner. In passing the row of cottages in Duck Lane, for we took that road, we saw Hannah Mitchel leaning over the footboard of her door to look after her children, who were playing near the pond in the sunshine with a lot more; quite a heap of the little reptiles, all badly clad and as dirty as pigs. Other labourers’ dwellings stood within hail, and the children seemed to spring up in the place thicker than wheat; Mrs. Mitchel’s was quite a small family, reckoning by comparison, but how the six were clothed and fed was a mystery, out of Mitchel’s wages of ten shillings a week. It was thought good pay. Old Jacobson was liberal, as farmers go. He paid the best wages; gave all his labourers a stunning big portion of home-fed pork at Christmas, with fuel to cook it: and his wife was good to the women when they fell sick.
Mrs. Todhetley stopped to speak. “Is it you, Hannah Mitchel? Are you pretty well?”
Hannah Mitchel stood upright and dropped a curtsey. She had a bundle in her arms, which proved to be the baby, then not much above a fortnight old.
“Dear me! it’s very early for it to be about,” said Mrs. Todhetley, touching its little red cheeks. “And for you too.”
“It is, ma’am; but what’s to be done?” was the answer. “When there’s only one pair of hands for everything, one can’t afford to lie by long.”
“You seem but poorly,” said Mrs. Todhetley, looking at her. She was a thin, dark-haired woman, with a sensible face. Before she married Mitchel, she had lived as under-nurse in a gentleman’s family, where she picked up some idea of good manners.
“I be feeling a bit stronger, thank you,” said the woman. “Strength don’t come back to one in a day, ma’am.”
The Mitchel children were sidling up, attracted by the sight of the lady. Four young grubs in tattered garments.
“I can’t keep ’em decent,” said the mother, with a sigh of apology. “I’ve not got no soap nor no clothes to do it with. They come on so fast, and make such a many, one after another, that it’s getting a hard pull to live anyhow.”
Looking at the children; remembering that, with the father and mother, there were eight mouths to feed, and that the man’s wages were the ten shillings a week all the year round (but there were seasons when he did over-work and earned more), Mrs. Todhetley might well give her assenting answer with an emphatic nod.
“We was hoping to get on a bit better,” resumed the wife; “but Mitchel he says the master don’t seem to like to listen. A’most a three weeks it be now since Mitchel first asked it him.”
“In what way better?”
“By putting little Dick to the plough, ma’am. He gets a shilling a week now, he’d got two then, perhaps three, and ‘twould be such a help to us. Some o’ the farmers gives fourpence halfpenny a day to a ploughboy, some as much as sixpence. The master he bain’t one of the near ones; but Dick be little of his age, he don’t grow fast, and Mitchel telled the master he’d take fourpence a day and be thankful for’t.”
Thoughts were crowding into Mrs. Todhetley’s mind — as she mentioned afterwards. A child of ten ought to be learning and playing; not working from twelve to fourteen hours a day.
“It would be a hard life for him.”
“True, ma’am, at first; but he’d get used to it. I could have wished the summer was coming on instead o the winter —‘twould be easier for him to begin upon. Winter mornings be so dark and cold.”
“Why not let him wait until the next winter’s over?”
The very suggestion brought tears into Hannah Mitchel’s eyes. “You’d never say it, ma’am, if you knew how bad his wages is wanted and the help they’d be. The older children grows, the more they wants to eat; and we’ve got six of ’em now. What would you, ma’am? — they don’t bring food into the world with ’em; they must help to earn it for themselves as quick as anybody can be got to hire ’em. Sometimes I wonder why God should send such large families to us poor people.”
Mrs. Todhetley was turning to go on her way, when the woman in a timid voice said: “Might she make bold to ask, if she or Squire Todhetley would say a good word to Mr. Jacobson about the boy: that it would be just a merciful kindness.”
“We should not like to interfere,” replied Mrs. Todhetley. “In any case I could not do it with a good heart: I think it would be so hard upon the poor little boy.”
“Starving’s harder, ma’am.”
The tears came running down her cheeks with the answer; and they won over Mrs. Todhetley.
Crossing the high, crooked, awkward stile — over which, in coming the other way, if people were not careful they generally pitched head first into Duck Lane — we found ourselves in what was called the square paddock, a huge piece of land, ploughed last year. The wheat had been carried from it only this afternoon, and the gleaners in their cotton bonnets were coming in. On, from thence, across other fields and stiles; we went a little out of our way to call at Glebe Cottage — a small white house that lay back amidst the fields — and inquire after old Mrs. Parry, who had just had a stroke.
Who should be at Elm Farm, when we got in, but the surgeon, Duffham: come on there from paying his daily visit to Mrs. Parry. He and old Jacobson were in the green-house, looking at the grapes: a famous crop they had that year; not ripe yet. Mrs. Jacobson sat at the open window of the long parlour, making a new jelly-bag. She was a pleasant-faced old lady, with small flat silver curls and a net cap.
Of course they got talking about little Dick Mitchel. Duffham knew the boy; seeing that when a doctor was wanted at the Mitchels’, it was he who attended. Mrs. Todhetley told exactly what had passed: and old Jacobson — a tall, portly man, with a healthy colour — grew nearly purple in the face, disputing.
Dick Mitchel would be of as good as no use for the team, he said, and the carters put shamefully upon those young ones. In another year the boy would be stronger and bigger. Perhaps he would take him then.
“For my part, I cannot think how the mothers can like their poor boys to go out so young,” cried the old lady, looking up from her flannel bag. “A ploughboy’s life is very hard in winter.”
“Hannah Mitchel says it has to be one of two things — early work or starving,” said Mrs. Todhetley. “And that’s pretty true.”
“Labourers’ boys are born to it, ma’am, and so it comes easy to ’em: as skinning does to eels,” cried Duffham quaintly.
“Poor things, yes. But it is very hard upon the children. The worst is, all the labourers seem to have no end of them. Hannah Mitchel has just said she sometimes wonders why God should send so many to poor people.”
This was an unfortunate remark. To hear the two gentlemen laugh, you’d have thought they were at a Christmas pantomime. Old Jacobson brought himself up in a kind of passion.
What business, in the name of all that was imprudent, had these poor people to have their troops of children, he asked. They knew quite well they could not feed them; that the young ones would be three-parts starved in their earlier years, and in their later ones come to the parish and be a burden on the community. Look at this same man, Mitchel. His grandfather, a poor miserable labourer, had a troop of children; Mitchel’s father had a troop, twelve; he, Mitchel, had six, and seemed to be going on fair for six more. There was no reason in it. Why couldn’t they be content with a moderate number, three or four, that might have a chance of finding room in the world? It was not much less than a crime for these men, next door to paupers themselves, to launch their tens and their dozens of boys and girls into life, and then turn round and say, Why does God send them? Nice kind of logic, that was!
And so he kept on, for a good half-hour, Duffham helping him. He brought up the French peasantry: saying our folks ought to take a lesson from them. You don’t see whole flocks of children over there, cried Duffham. One, or two, or at most three, would be found to comprise the number of a family. And why? Because the French were a prudent race. They knew there was no provision for superfluous children; no house-room at home, or food, or clothing; and no parish pay to fall back upon: they knew that however many children they had they must provide for them: they didn’t set up, of themselves, a regiment of little famishing mouths, and then charge it on Heaven; they were not so reckless and wicked. Yes, he must repeat it, wicked; and the two ladies listening would endorse the word if they knew half the deprivation and the sufferings these poor small mortals were born to; he saw enough of it, having to be often amongst them.
“Why don’t you tell the parents this, doctor?”
Tell them! returned Duffham. He had told them; told them till his tongue was tired of talking.
Any way, the little things were grievously to be pitied, was what the two ladies answered.
“I have often wished it was not a sin to drown the superfluous little mites as we do kittens,” wound up Duff.
One of the ladies dropped the jelly-bag, the other shrieked out, Oh!
“For their sakes,” he added. “It’s true, upon my word of honour. Of all wrongs the world sees, never was there a worse wrong than the one inflicted on these inoffensive children by the parents, in bringing them into it. God help the little wretches! man can’t do much.”
And so they talked on. The upshot was, that old Jacobson stood to his word, and declined to make Dick Mitchel a ploughboy yet awhile.
We had tea at four o’clock — at which fashionable people may laugh; considering that it was real tea, not the sham one lately come into custom. Mrs. Todhetley wanted to get home by daylight, and the summer evenings were shortening. Never was brown bread-and-butter so sweet as the Jacobsons’: we used to say it every time we went; and the home-baked rusks were better than Shrewsbury cake. They made Mrs. Todhetley put two or three in her bag for Hugh and Lena.
Old Duff went with us across the first field, turning off there to take the short-cut to his home. It was a warm, still, lovely evening, the moon rising. The gleaners were busy in the square paddock: Mrs. Todhetley spoke to some as we passed. At the other end, near the crooked stile, two urchins stood fighting, the bigger one trying to take a small armful of wheat from the other. I went to the rescue, and the marauder made off as fast as his small bare feet would carry him.
“He haven’t gleaned, hisself, and wants to take mine,” said the little one, casting up his big grey eyes to us appealingly through the tears. He was a delicate-looking pale-faced boy of nine, or so, with light hair.
“Very naughty of him,” said Mrs. Todhetley. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Dick, lady.”
“Dick — what?”
“Dear me — I thought I had seen the face before,” said Mrs. Todhetley to me. “But there are so many boys about here, Johnny; and they all look pretty much alike. How old are you, Dick?”
“I’m over ten,” answered Dick, with an emphasis on the over. Children catch up ideas, and no doubt he was as eager as the parents could be to impress on the world his fitness to be a ploughboy.
“How is it that you have been gleaning, Dick?”
“Mother couldn’t, ‘cause o’ the babby. They give me leave to come on since four o’clock: and I’ve got all this.”
Dick looked at the stile and then at his bundle of wheat, so I took it while he got over. As we went on down the lane, Mrs. Todhetley inquired whether he wanted to be a ploughboy. Oh yes! he answered, his face lighting up, as if the situation offered some glorious prospect. It ‘ud be two shilling a week; happen more; and mother said as he and Totty and Sam and the t’others ‘ud get treacle to their bread on Sundays then. Apparently Mrs. Mitchel knew how to diplomatize.
“I’ll give him one of the rusks, I think, Johnny,” whispered Mrs. Todhetley.
But while she was taking it from the bag, he ran in with his wheat. She called to him to come back, and gave him one. His mother had taken the wheat from him, and looked out at the door with it in her hands. Seeing her, Mrs. Todhetley went up, and said Mr. Jacobson would not at present do anything. The next minute Mitchel appeared pulling at his straw hair.
“It is hard lines,” he said, humbly, “when the lad’s of a’ age to be earning, and the master can’t be got to take him on. And me to ha’ worked on the same farm, man and boy; and father afore me.”
“Mr. Jacobson thinks the boy would not be strong enough for the work.”
“Not strong enough, and him rising eleven!” exclaimed Mitchel, as if the words were some dreadful aspersion on Dick. “How can he be strong if he gets no work to make him strong, ma’am? Strength comes with the working — and nobody don’t oughtn’t to know that better nor the master. Anyhow, if he don’t take him, it’ll be cruel hard lines for us.”
Dick was outside, dividing the rusk with a small girl and boy, all three seated in the lane, and looking as happy over the rusk as if they had been children in a fairy tale. “It’s Totty,” said he, pausing in the work of division to speak, “and that ’un’s Sam.” Mrs. Todhetley could not resist the temptation of finding two more rusks, which made one apiece.
“He is a good-natured little fellow, Johnny,” she remarked, as we went along. “Intelligent, too: in that he takes after his mother.”
“Would it be wrong to let him go on the farm as ploughboy?”
“Johnny, I don’t know. I’d rather not give an opinion,” she added, looking right before her into the moon, as if seeking for one there. “Of course he is not old enough or big enough, practically speaking; but on the other hand, where there are so many mouths to feed, it seems hard not to let him earn money if he can earn it. The root of the evil lies in there being so many mouths — as was said at Mr. Jacobson’s this afternoon.”
It was winter before I heard anything more of the matter. Tod and I got home for Christmas. One day in January, when the skies were lowering, and the air was cold and raw, but not frosty, I was crossing a field on old Jacobson’s land then being ploughed. The three brown horses at the work were as fine as you’d wish to see.
“You’ll catch it smart on that there skull o’ yourn, if ye doan’t keep their yeads straight, ye young divil.”
The salutation was from the man at the tail of the plough to the boy at the head of the first horse. Looking round, I saw little Mitchel. The horses stopped, and I went up to him. Hall, the ploughman, took the opportunity to beat his arms. I dare say they were cold enough.
“So your ambition is attained, is it, Dick? Are you satisfied?”
Dick seemed not to understand. He was taller, but the face looked pinched, and there was never a smile on it.
“Do you like being a ploughboy?”
“It’s hard and cold. Hard always; frightful cold of a morning.”
The face lighted up just a little. Totty weren’t any better, but she didn’t die; Jimmy did. Which was Jimmy? — Oh, Jimmy was after Nanny, next to the babby.
“What did Jimmy die of?”
Whooping cough. They’d all been bad but him — Dick. Mother said he’d had it when he was no older nor the babby.
Whether the whooping-cough had caused an undue absorption of Mitchel’s means, certain it was, Dick looked famished. His cheeks were thin, his hands blue.
“Have you been ill, Dick?”
No, he had not been ill. ’Twas Jimmy and the t’others.
“He’s the incapablest little villain I ever had put me to do with,” struck in the ploughman. “More lazy nor a fattened pig.”
“Are you lazy, Dick?”
I think an eager disclaimer was coming out, but the boy remembered in time who was present — his master, the ploughman.
“Not lazy wilful,” he said, bursting into tears. “I does my best: mother tells me to.”
“Take that, you young sniveller,” said Hall, dealing him a good sound slap on the left cheek. “And now go on: ye know ye’ve got this lot to go through today.”
He took hold of the plough, and Dick stretched up his poor trembling hands to the first horse to guide him. I am sure the boy was trying to do his best; but he looked weak and famished and ill.
“Why did you strike him, Hall? He did nothing to deserve it.”
“He don’t deserve nothing else,” was Hall’s answer. “Let him alone, and the furrows ‘ud be as crooked as a dog’s leg. You dun’ know what these young ‘uns be for work, sir. — Keep ’em in the line, you fool!”
Looking back as I went down the field, I watched the plough going slowly up it, Dick seeming to have his hands full with the well-fed horses.
“Yes, I heard the lad was taken on, Johnny,” Mrs. Todhetley said when I told her that evening. “Mitchel prevailed with his master at last. Mr. Jacobson is good-hearted, and knew the Mitchels were in sore need of the extra money the boy would earn. Sickness makes a difference to the poor as well as to the rich.”
I saw Dick Mitchel three or four times during that January. The Jacobsons had two nephews staying with them from Oxfordshire, and it caused us to go over often. The boy seemed a weak little mite for the place; but of course, having undertaken the work, he had to do it. He was no worse off than others. To be at the farm before six o’clock, he had to leave home at half-past five, taking his breakfast with him, which was chiefly dry bread. As to the boy’s work, it varied — as those acquainted with the executive of a busy farm can tell you. Besides the ploughing, he had to pump, and carry water and straw, and help with the horses, and go errands to the blacksmith’s and elsewhere, and so on. Carters and ploughmen do not spare their boys; and on a large farm like this they are the immediate rulers, not the master himself. Had Dick been under Mr. Jacobson’s personal eye, perhaps it might have been lightened a little, for he was a humane man. There were three things that made it seem particularly hard for Dick Mitchel, and those three were under no one’s control; his natural weakliness, his living so far from the farm, and its being winter weather. In summer the work is nothing like as hard for the boys; and it was a great pity that Dick had not first entered on his duties in that season to get inured to them before the winter. Mr. Jacobson gave him the best wages — three shillings a week. Looking at the addition it must have seemed to Mitchel’s ten, it was little wonder he had not ceased to petition old Jacobson.
The Jacobsons were kind to the boy — as I can affirm. One cold day when I was over there with the nephews, shooting birds, we went into the best kitchen at twelve o’clock for some pea-soup. They were going to carry the basins into the parlour, but we said we’d rather eat it there by the big blazing fire. Mrs. Jacobson came in. I can see her now, with a soft white woollen kerchief thrown over her shoulders to keep out the cold, and her net cap above her silver curls. We were getting our second basinfuls.
“Do have some, aunt,” said Fred. “It’s the best you ever tasted.”
“No, thank you, Fred. I don’t care to spoil my dinner.”
“It won’t spoil ours.”
She laughed a little, and stood looking from the window into the fold-yard, saying presently that she feared the frost was going to set in now in earnest, which would not be pleasant for their journey. — For this was the last day of the nephews’ stay, and she was going home with them for a week. There had been no very severe cold all the winter; which was a shame because of the skating; if the ponds had a thin coating of ice on them one day, it would all melt the next.
“Bless me! there’s that poor child sitting out in the cold! What is he eating? — his dinner?”
Her words made us look from the window. Dick Mitchel had put himself down by the distant pig-sty, and seemed to be eating something that he held in his hands. He was very white — as might be seen even from where we stood.
“Mary,” said she to one of the servants, “go and call that boy in.”
Little Mitchel came in; pinched and blue. His clothes were thin, not half warm enough for the weather; an old red woollen comforter was twisted round his neck. He took off his battered drab hat, and put his bread into it.
“Is that your dinner?” asked Mrs. Jacobson.
“Yes’m,” said Dick, pulling the forelock of his light hair.
“But why did you not go home today?”
“Mother said there was nothing but bread for dinner today, and she give it me to bring away with my breakfast.”
“Well, why did you sit out in the cold? You might have gone indoors somewhere to eat it.”
“I were tired, ‘m,” was all Dick answered.
To look at him, one would say the “tired” state was chronic. He was shivering slightly with the cold; his teeth chattered. Mrs. Jacobson took his hand, and put him to sit on a low wooden stool close to the fire, and gave him a basin of pea-soup.
“Let him have more if he can eat it,” she said to Mary when she went away. So the boy for once was well warmed and fed.
Now, it may be thought that Mrs. Jacobson, being a kind old lady, might have told him to come in for some soup every cold day. And perhaps her will was good to do it. But it would never have answered. There were boys on the farm besides Dick, and no favour could be shown to one more than to another. No, nor to the boys more than to the men. Nor to the men on this farm more than to the men on that. Old Jacobson would have had his brother farmers pulling his ears. Those of you who are acquainted with the subject will know all this.
And there’s another thing I had better say. In telling of Dick Mitchel, it will naturally sound like an exceptional or isolated case, because those who read have their attention directed to this one and not to others. But, in actual fact, Dick’s was only one of a great many; the Jacobsons had employed ploughboys and other boys always; lots of them; some strong and some weak, just as the boys might happen to be. For a young boy to be out with the plough in the cold winter weather, seems nothing to a farmer and a farmer’s men: it lies in the common course of events. He has to get through as he best can; he must work to eat; and as a compensating balance there comes the warmth and the easy work of summer. Dick Mitchel was only one of the race; the carter and ploughman, his masters, had begun life exactly as he had, had gone through the same ordeal, the hardships of a long winter’s day and the frost and snow. Dick Mitchel was as capable of his duties as many another had been. Dick’s father had been little and weakly in his boyhood, but he got over that and grew as strong as the rest of them. Dick might have got over it, too, but for some extraordinary weather that set in.
Mrs. Jacobson had been in Oxfordshire a week when old Jacobson started to fetch her home, intending to stay there two or three days. The weather since she left had been going on in the same stupid way; a thin coating of snow to be seen one day, the green of the fields the next. But on the morning after old Jacobson started, the frost set in with a vengeance, and we got our skates out. Another day came in, and the Squire declared he had never felt anything to equal the cold. We had not had it as sharp for years: and then, you see, he was too fat to skate. The best skating was on a pond on old Jacobson’s land, which they called the lake from its size.
It was on this second day that I came across Dick Mitchel. Hastening home from the lake after dark — for we had skated till we couldn’t see and then kept on by moonlight — the skates in my hand and all aglow with heat, who should be sitting by the bank on this side the crooked stile instead of getting over it, but little Mitchel. But for the moon shining right on his face, I might have passed without seeing him.
“You are taking it airily, young Dick. Got the gout?”
Dick just lifted his head and stared a little; but didn’t speak.
“Come! Why don’t you go home?”
“I’m tired,” murmured Dick. “I’m cold.”
“Get up. I’ll help you over the stile.”
He did as he was bid at once. We had got well on down the lane, and I had my hand on his shoulder to steady him, for his legs seemed to slip about like Punch’s in the show, when he turned suddenly back again.
“The what?” I said.
Something seemed the matter with the boy: it was just as if he had partly lost the power of speech, or had been struck stupid. I made out at last that he had left some harness on the ground, which he was ordered to take to the blacksmith’s.
“I’ll get over for it, Dick. You stop where you are.”
It was lying where he had been sitting; a short strap with a broken buckle. Dick took it and we went on again.
“Were you asleep, just now, Dick?”
“No, sir. It were the moon.”
“What was the moon?”
“I were looking into it. Mother says God’s all above there: I thought happen I might see Him.”
A long explanation for Dick to-night. The recovery of the strap seemed to have brightened up his intellect.
“You’ll never see Him in this world, Dick. He sees you always.”
“And that’s what mother says. He sees I can’t do more nor my arms’ll let me. I’d not like Him to think I can.”
“All right, Dick. You only do your best always; He won’t fail to see it.”
I had hardly said the last words when down went Dick without warning, face foremost. Picking him up, I took a look into his eyes by the moonlight.
“What did you do that for, Dick?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it your legs?”
“Yes, it’s my legs. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it when I fell under the horses today, but Hall he beated of me and said I did.”
After that I did not loose him; or I’m sure he would have gone down again. Arrived at his cottage, he was for passing it.
“Don’t you know your own door, Dick Mitchel?”
“It’s the strap,” he said. “I ha’ got to take it to Cawson’s.”
“Oh, I’ll step round with that. Let’s see what there is to do.”
He seemed unwilling, saying he must take it back to Hall in the morning. Very well, I said, so he could. We went in at his door; and at first I thought I must have got into a black fog. The room was a narrow, poking place; but I couldn’t see across it. Two children were coughing, one choking, one crying. Mrs. Mitchel’s face, ornamented with blacks, gradually loomed out to view through the atmosphere.
“It be the chimbley, sir. I hope you’ll please to excuse it. It don’t smoke as bad as this except when the weather’s cold beyond common.”
“It’s to be hoped it doesn’t. I should call it rather miserable if it did.”
“Yes, sir. Mitchel, he says he thinks the chimbley must have frozed.”
“Look here, Mrs. Mitchel, I’ve brought Dick home: I found him sitting in the cold on the other side of the stile, and my belief is, he thought he could not get over it. He is about as weak as a young rat.”
“It’s the frost, sir,” she said. “The boys all feel it that has to be out and about. It’ll soon be gone, Dick. This here biting cold don’t never last long.”
Dick was standing against her, bending his face on her old stuff gown. She put her arm about him kindly.
“No, it can’t last long, Mrs. Mitchel. Could he not be kept indoors until it gives a bit — let him have a holiday? No? Wouldn’t it do?”
She opened her eyes wide at this. Such a thing as keeping a ploughboy at home for a holiday, had never entered her imagination.
“Why, Master Ludlow, sir, he’d lose his place!”
“But, suppose he were ill, and had to stay at home?”
“Then the Lord help us, if it came to that! Please, sir, his wages might be stopped. I’ve heard of a master paying in illness, though it’s not many of ’em as would, but I’ve never knowed ’em pay for holidays. The biting cold will go soon, Dick,” she added, looking at him; “don’t be downhearted.”
“I should give him a cup of hot tea, Mrs. Mitchel, and let him go to bed. Good night; I’m off.”
I should have liked to say beer instead of tea; it would have put a bit of strength into the boy; but I might just as well have suggested wine, for all they had of either. Leaving the strap at the blacksmith’s — it was but a minute or two out of my road — I told him to send it up to Mitchel’s as soon as it was done.
“I dare say!” was what I got in answer.
“Look here, Cawson: the lad’s ill, and his father was not in the way. If you don’t choose to let your boy run up with that, or take it yourself, you shall never have another job of work from the Squire if I can prevent it.”
“I’ll send it, sir,” said Cawson, coming to his senses. Not that he had much from us: we chiefly patronized Dovey, down in Piefinch Cut.
Now, all this happened: as Duffham and others could testify if necessary; it is not put in to make up a story. But I never thought worse of Dick than that he was done over for the moment with the cold.
Of all days in remembrance, the next was the worst. The cold was more intense — though that had seemed impossible; and a fierce wind was blowing that cut you in two. It kept us from skating — and that’s saying a good deal. We got half-way to the lake, and couldn’t stand it, so turned home again. Jacobson’s team was out, braving the weather: we saw it at a distance.
“What a fool that waggoner must be to bring out the team today!” cried Tod. “He can’t do any good on this hard ground. He must be doing it for bravado. It is a sign his master’s not at home.”
In the afternoon, when a good hot meal had put warmth into us, we thought we’d be off again; and this time gained the pond. The wind was like a knife; I never skated in anything like it before; but we kept on till dusk.
Going homewards, in passing Glebe Cottage, which lay away on the left, we caught sight of three or four people standing before it.
“What’s to do there?” asked Tod of a man, expecting to hear that old Mrs. Parry had had a second stroke.
“Sum’at’s wrong wi’ Jacobson’s ploughboy,” was the answer. “He has just been took in there.”
“Jacobson’s ploughboy! Why, Tod, that must be Dick Mitchel.”
“And what if it is!” returned Tod, starting off again. “The youngster’s half frozen, I dare say. Let us get home. Johnny. What are you stopping for?”
By saying “half frozen” he meant nothing. Not a thought of real ill was in his mind. I went across to the house; and met Hall the ploughman coming out of it.
“Is Dick Mitchel ill, Hall?”
“He ought to be, sir; if he bain’t shamming,” returned Hall, crustily. “He have fell down five times since noon, and the last time wouldn’t get up upon his feet again nohow. Being close a-nigh the old lady’s I carried of him in.”
Hall went back to the house with me. I don’t think he much liked the boy’s looks. Dick had been put to lie on the warm brick floor before the kitchen fire, a blanket on his legs, and his head on a cushion. Mrs. Parry was ill in bed upstairs. The servant looked a stupid young country girl, seemingly born without wits.
“Have you given him anything?” I asked her.
“Please, sir, I’ve put the kettle on to bile.”
“Is there any brandy in the house?”
“Brandy!” the girl exclaimed with wonder. No. Her missis never took anything stronger nor tea and water gruel.
“Hall,” I said, looking at the man, “some one must go for Mr. Duffham. And Dick’s mother might as well be told.”
Bill Leet, a strapping young fellow standing by, made off at this, saying he’d bring them both. Hall went away to his team, and I stooped over the boy.
“What is the matter, Dick? Tell me how you feel.”
Except that Dick smiled a little, he made no answer. His eyes, gazing up into mine, looked dim. The girl had taken away the candle, but the fire was bright. As I took one of his hands to rub it, his fingers clasped themselves round mine. Then he began to say something, with a pause between each word. I had to bend close to catch it.
“He — brought — that — there — strap.”
“All right, Dick.”
“Thank — ee — sir.”
“Are you in any pain, Dick?”
The girl came back with a candle and some hot milk in a tea-cup. I put a teaspoonful into Dick’s mouth. But he could not swallow it. Who should come rushing in then but old Jones the constable, wanting to know what was up.
“Well I never! — why, that’s Mitchel’s Dick!” cried Jones, peering down in the candle-light. “What’s took him?”
“Jones, if you and the girl will rub his hands, I’ll go and get some brandy. We can’t let him lie like this and give him nothing.”
Old Jones, liking the word brandy on his own score, knelt down on his fat gouty legs with a groan, and laid hold of one of the hands, the girl taking the other. I went leaping off to Elm Farm.
And went for nothing. Mr. and Mrs. Jacobson being out, the cellar was locked up, and no brandy could be got at. The cook gave me a bottle of gooseberry wine; which she said might do as well if hotted up.
Duffham was stooping over the boy when I got back, his face long, and his cane lying on the ironing-board. Bill Leet had met him half-way, so no time was lost. He was putting something into Dick’s lips with a teaspoon — perhaps brandy. But it ran the wrong way; out instead of in. Dick never stirred, and his eyes were shut. The doctor got up.
“Too late, Johnny,” he whispered.
The words startled me. “Mr. Duffham! No?”
He looked into my eyes, and nodded YES. “The exposure today has been too much for him. He is going fast.”
And just at that moment Hannah Mitchel came in. I have often thought that the extreme poor, whose lives are but one vast hardship from the cradle to the grave, who have to struggle always, do not feel strong emotion. At any rate, they don’t show much. Hannah Mitchel knelt down, and looked quietly at the white, shrunken face.
“Dicky,” she said, putting his hair gently back from his brow; which now had a damp moisture on it. “What’s amiss, Dicky?”
He opened his eyes at the voice and feebly lifted one hand towards her. Mrs. Mitchel glanced round at the doctor’s face; and I think she read the truth there. She gathered his poor head into her arms, and let it rest on her bosom. Her old black shawl was on, her bonnet fell backwards and hung from her neck by the strings.
“Oh, Dicky! Dicky!”
He lay still, looking at her. She gave one sob and choked the rest down.
“Be he dying, sir? — ain’t there no hope?” she cried to Mr. Duffham, who was standing in the blaze of the fire. And the doctor just moved his head for answer.
There was a still hush in the kitchen. Her tears began to fall down her cheeks slowly and softly.
“Dicky, wouldn’t you like to say ‘Our Father’?”
“I—‘ve — said — it — mother.”
“You’ve always been a good boy, Dicky.”
Old Jones blew his nose; the stupid girl burst into a sob. Mr. Duffham told them to hush.
Dick’s eyes were slowly closing. The breath was very faint now, and came at long intervals. Presently Mr. Duffham took him from his mother, and laid him down flat, without the cushion.
Well, he died. Poor little Dick Mitchel died. And I think, taking the wind and the work into consideration, that he was better off.
Mr. Jacobson got back the next day. He sharply taxed the ploughman with the death, saying he ought to have seen the state the boy was in on that last bitter day, and have sent him home. But Hall declared he never thought anything ailed the boy, except that the cold was cutting him more than ordinary, just as it was cutting everybody else.
The county coroner came over to hold the inquest. The jury, after hearing what Mr. Duffham had to say, brought it in that Richard Mitchel died from exposure to the cold during the recent remarkable severity of the weather, not having sufficient stamina to resist it. Some of the local newspapers took it up, being in want of matter that dreary season. They attacked the farmers; asking the public whether labourers’ children were to be held as of no more value than this, in a free and generous country like England, and why they were made to work so young by such hard and wicked task-masters as the master of Elm Farm. That put the master of Elm Farm on his mettle. He retorted by a letter of sharp good sense; finishing it with a demand to know whether the farmers were expected to club together to provide meat and puddings gratis for the flocks of children that labourers chose to gather about them. The Squire read it aloud to every one, as the soundest letter he’d ever seen written.
“I am afraid their view is the right one — that the children are too thick on the ground, poor things,” sighed Mrs. Todhetley. “Any way, Johnny, it is very hard on the young ones to have to work as poor little Dick did: late and early, wet or dry: and I am glad for his sake that God has taken him.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55