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Clare becomes a guardian of the poor.
Simpson, the bully of Clare's childhood, went limping about on a crutch, permanently lame, and full of hatred toward the innocent occasion of the injury he had brought upon himself. Ever since his recovery, he had, loitering about in idleness, watched the boy, to waylay and catch him at unawares. Not until Clare went to the farm, however, did he once succeed; for it was not difficult to escape him, so long as he had not laid actual hold on his prey. But he grew more and more cunning, and contrived at last, by creeping along hedges and lying in ambush like a snake, to get his hands upon him. Then the poor boy fared ill.
He went home bleeding and torn. The righteous churchwarden rebuked him with severity for fighting. His mistress told him she was glad he had met with some one to give him what he deserved, for she could hardly keep her hands off him. He stared at her with wondering eyes, but said nothing. She turned from them: the devil in her could not look in the eyes of the angel in him. The next time he fell into the snare of his enemy, he managed to conceal what had befallen him. After that he was too wide awake to be caught.
There was in the village a child whom nobody heeded. He was far more destitute than Clare, but had too much liberty. He lived with a wretched old woman who called him her grandson: whether he was or not nobody cared. She made her livelihood by letting beds, in a cottage or rather hovel which seemed to be her own, to wayfarers, mostly tramps, with or without trades. The child was thus thrown into the worst of company, and learned many sorts of wickedness. He was already a thief, and of no small proficiency in his art. Though village-bred, he could pick a pocket more sensitive than a clown's. Small and deft, he had never stood before a magistrate. He was a miserable creature, bare-footed and bare-legged; about eight years of age, but so stunted that to the first glance he looked less than six--with keen ferret eyes in red rims, red hair, pasty, freckled complexion, and a generally unhealthy look; from which marks all, Clare conceived a pitiful sympathy for him. Their acquaintance began thus:--
One day, during his father's last illness, he happened to pass the door of the grandmother's hovel while the crone was administering to Tommy a severe punishment with a piece of thick rope: she had been sharp enough to catch him stealing from herself. Clare heard his cries. The door being partly open, he ran in, and gave him such assistance that they managed to bolt together from the hut. A friendship, for long almost a silent one, was thus initiated between them. Tommy--Clare never knew his other name, nor did the boy himself--would off and on watch for a sight of him all day long, but had the instinct, or experience, never to approach him if any one was with him. He was careful not to compromise him. The instant the most momentary tête-à-tête was possible, he would rush up, offer him something he had found or stolen, and hurry away again. That he was a thief Clare had not the remotest suspicion. He had never offered him anything to suggest theft.
By and by it came to the knowledge of Clare's enemy that there was a friendship between them, and the discovery wrought direness for both. One day Simpson saw Clare coming, and Tommy watching him. He laid hold of Tommy, and began cuffing him and pulling his hair, to make him scream, thinking thus to get hold of Clare. But notwithstanding the lesson he had received, the rascal had not yet any adequate notion of the boy's capacity for action where another was concerned. He flew to the rescue, caught up the crutch Simpson had dropped, and laid it across his back with vigour. The fellow let Tommy go and turned on Clare, who went backward, brandishing the crutch.
"Run, Tommy," he cried.
Tommy retreated a few steps.
"Run yourself," he counselled, having reached a safe distance. "Take his third leg with you."
Clare saw the advice was good, and ran. But the next moment reflection showed him the helplessness of his enemy. He turned, and saw him hobbling after him in such evident pain and discomfiture, that he went to meet him, and politely gave him his crutch. He might have thrown it to him and gone on, but he had a horror of rudeness, and handed it to him with a bow. Just as he regained his perpendicular, the crutch descended on his head, and laid him flat on the ground. There the tyrant belaboured him. Tommy stood and regarded the proceeding.
"The cove's older an' bigger an' pluckier than me," he said to himself; "but he's an ass. He'll come to grief unless he's looked after. He'll be hanged else. He don't know how to dodge. I'll have to take him in charge!"
When he saw Clare free, an event to which he had contributed nothing, he turned and ran home.
Simpson redoubled now his persecution of Clare, and persecuted Tommy because of Clare. He lurked for Tommy now, and when he caught him, tormented him with choice tortures. In a word, he made his life miserable. After every such mischance Tommy would hurry to the farm, and lie about in the hope of a sight of Clare, or possibly a chance of speaking to him. His repute was so bad that he dared not show himself.
Hot tears would come into Clare's eyes as he listened to the not always unembellished tale of Tommy's sufferings at the hands of Simpson; but he never thought of revenge, only of protection or escape for the boy. It comforted him to believe that he was growing, and would soon be a match for the oppressor.
Whether at this time he felt any great interest in life, or recognized any personal advantage in growing, I doubt. But he had the friendship of the animals; and it is not surprising that creatures their maker thinks worth making and keeping alive, should yield consolation to one that understands them, or even fill with a mild joy the pauses of labour in an irksome life.
Then each new day was an old friend to the boy. Each time the sun rose, new hope rose with him in his heart. He came every morning fresh from home, with a fresh promise. The boy read the promise in his great shining, and believed it; gazed and rejoiced, and turned to his work.
But the hour arrived when his mistress could bear his presence no longer. Some petty loss, I imagine, had befallen her. Nothing touched her like the loss of money--the love of which is as dread a passion as the love of drink, and more ruinous to the finer elements of the nature. It was like the tearing out of her heart to Mrs. Goodenough to lose a shilling. Her self-command forsook her, perhaps, in some such moment of vexation; anyhow, she opened the sluices of her hate, and overwhelmed him with it in the presence of her husband.
The farmer knew she was unfair, knew the orphan a good boy and a diligent, knew there was nothing against him but the antipathy of his wife. But, annoyed with her injustice, he was powerless to change her heart. Since the boy came to live with them, he had had no pleasure in his wife's society. She had always been moody and dissatisfied, but since then had been unbearable. Constantly irritated with and by her because of Clare, he had begun to regard him as the destroyer of his peace, and to feel a grudge against him. He sat smouldering with bodiless rage, and said nothing.
Clare too was silent,--for what could he say? Where is the wisdom that can answer hatred? He carried to his friend Jonathan a heart heavy and perplexed.
"Why does she hate me so, Jonathan?" he murmured.
The big horse kissed his head all over, but made him no other answer.
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