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Their first helper
It was a lovely spring morning. The sun was about thirty degrees above the horizon, shining with a liquid radiance, as if he had already drawn up and was shining through the dew of the morning, though it lay yet on all the grasses by the roadside, turning them into gem-plants. Every sort of gem sparkled on their feathery or beady tops, and their long slender blades. At the first cottages they passed, the women were beginning their day's work, sweeping clean their floors and door-steps. Clare noted that where were most flowers in the garden, the windows were brightest, and the children cleanest.
"The flowers come where they make things nice for them!" he said to himself. "Where the flowers see dirt, they turn away, and won't come out."
From childhood he had had the notion that the flowers crept up inside the stalks until they found a window to look out at. Where the prospect was not to their mind they crept down, and away by some door in the root to try again. For all the stalks stood like watch-towers, ready for them to go up and peep out.
They came to a pond by a farm-house. Clare had been observing with pity how wretched Tommy's clothes were; but when he looked into the pond he saw that his own shabbiness was worse than Tommy's downright miserableness. Nobody would leave either of them within reach of anything worth stealing! What he wore had been his Sunday suit, and it was not even worth brushing!
"I'm 'orrid 'ungry," said Tommy. "I 'ain't swallered a plug this mornin', 'xcep' a lump o' bread out o' granny's cupboard. That's what I got my weltin' for. It were a whole half-loaf, though--an' none so dry!"
Clare had eaten nothing, and had been up since five o'clock--at work all the time till the farmer struck him: he was quite as hungry as Tommy. What was to be done? Besides a pocket-handkerchief he had but one thing alienable.
The very day she was taken ill, he had been in the store-room with his mother, and she, knowing the pleasure he took in the scent of brown Windsor-soap, had made him a present of a small cake. This he had kept in his pocket ever since, wrapt in a piece of rose-coloured paper, his one cherished possession: hunger deadening sorrow, the time was come to bid it farewell. His heart ached to part with it, but Tommy and he were so hungry!
They went to the door of the house, and knocked--first Clare very gently, then Tommy with determination. It was opened by a matron who looked at them over the horizon of her chin.
"Please, ma'am," said Clare, "will you give us a piece of bread?--as large a piece, please, as you can spare; and I will give you this piece of brown Windsor-soap."
As he ended his speech, he took a farewell whiff of his favourite detergent.
"Soap!" retorted the dame. "Who wants your soap! Where did you get it? Stole it, I don't doubt! Show it here."
She took it in her hand, and held it to her nose.
"Who gave it you?"
"My mother," answered Clare.
"Where's your mother?"
Clare pointed upward.
"Eh? Oh--hanged! I thought, so!"
She threw the soap into the yard, and closed the door. Clare darted after his property, pounced upon it, and restored it lovingly to his pocket.
As they were leaving the yard disconsolate, they saw a cart full of turnips. Tommy turned and made for it.
"Don't, Tommy," cried Clare.
"Why not? I'm hungry," answered Tommy, "an' you see it's no use astin'!"
He flew at the cart, but Clare caught and held him.
"They ain't ours, Tommy," he said.
"Then why don't you take one?" retorted Tommy.
"That's why you shouldn't."
"It's why you should, for then it 'ud be yours."
"To take it wouldn't make it ours, Tommy."
"Wouldn't it, though? I believe when I'd eaten it, it would be mine--rather!"
"No, it wouldn't. Think of having in your stomach what wasn't yours! No, you must pay for it. Perhaps they would take my soap for a turnip. I believe it's worth two turnips."
He spied a man under a shed, ran to him, and made offer of the soap for a turnip apiece.
"I don't want your soap," answered the man, "an' I don't recommend cold turmits of a mornin'. But take one if you like, and clear out. The master's cart-whip 'ill be about your ears the moment he sees you!"
"Ain't you the master, sir?"
"No, I ain't."
"Then the turnips ain't yours?" said Clare, looking at him with hungry, regretful eyes, for he could have eaten a raw potato.
"You're a deal too impudent to be hungry!" said the man, making a blow at him with his open hand, which Clare dodged. "Be off with you, or I'll set the dog on you."
"I'm very sorry," said Clare. "I did not mean to offend you."
"Clear out, I say. Double trot!"
Hungry as the boys were, they must trudge! No bread, no turnip for them! Nothing but trudge, trudge till they dropped!
When they had gone about five miles further, they sat down, as if by common consent, on the roadside; and Tommy, used to crying, began to cry. Clare did not seek to stop him, for some instinct told him it must be a relief.
By and by a working-man came along the road. Clare hesitated, but Tommy's crying urged him. He rose and stood ready to accost him. As soon as he came up, however, the man stopped of himself. He questioned Clare and listened to his story, then counselled the boys to go back.
"I'm not wanted, sir," said Clare.
"They'd kill me," said Tommy.
"God help you, boys!" returned the man. "You may be telling me lies, and you may be telling me the truth!--A liar may be hungry, but somehow I grudge my dinner to a liar!"
As he spoke he untied the knots of a blue handkerchief with white spots, gave them its contents of bread and cheese, wiped his face with it, and put it in his pocket; lifted his bag of tools, and went his way. He had lost his dinner and saved his life!
The dinner, being a man's, went a good way toward satisfying them, though empty corners would not have been far to seek, had there been anything to put in them. As it was, they started again refreshed and hopeful. What had come to them once might reasonably come again!
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