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Twenty years ago, on a beautiful evening in the month of September, I was plodding along a tree-bordered road in Hampshire, on my way home after a long day's partridge shooting. I was looking forward to the good dinner awaiting me, and I was feeling perfectly satisfied with everything, for I had had splendid sport; the "birds" had, been plentiful, my dogs had been staunch, and I had missed very few shots.
I was thirty years old; a bachelor - I am one still - and I lived, with a number of male and female servants, as a rambling, old, red brick mansion which had been in the possession of my family for several generations.
It was past six o'clock, and the rays of the setting sun, streaming between the trunks of the lofty trees, cast alternate lines of golden light and deep shade athwart the dusty white road. The hush of evening was over everything; no sound broke the stillness but the twittering of unseen birds; while the only living thing in sight was the solitary figure of a lad who was walking slowly along the road about a hundred yards ahead of me. As I was walking fast, I soon overtook the boy, and was about to pass him, when he asked me to tell him the time.
I did so; then slackening my gait, I entered into conversation with him, and we walked along side by side at a slow pace, for the boy was evidently footsore. He did not talk much at first, but he was not at all shy or awkward, and he seemed to be glad of my company on the lonely road.
He was apparently about thirteen years old; a slenderly built, good-looking lad, with small hands and feet; short, curly fair hair, and blue eyes. He was dressed in a Norfolk jacket and trousers of dark tweed; neat, laced boots, and a white straw hat, but I noticed that his clothes, though almost new, were dusty and travel-stained. His manner was quiet and self-possessed; he expressed himself well, speaking with an educated accent; and he appeared to be in every respect a little gentleman.
"You seem tired," I remarked.
"I am rather tired. I have walked fifteen miles to-day," he replied.
"That's a long walk for a little chap like you. 'Where are you going?"
"I am going to Southampton. I want to go to sea," he answered, without the least hesitation. "Oh, indeed," said I, very much surprised at his answer; especially as we were quite twenty miles from Southampton.
"You don't intend to walk all the way," I observed, in a chaffing way.
"Yes, I do. I have not enough money to go by train," he said, getting a little red in the face. I thought to myself, that he had run away from school. However, it was no business of mine; moreover, I felt pretty sure that no skipper would take such a slight, delicate-looking lad on his ship; and therefore the runaway would soon have to communicate with his friends.
"How old are you? I don't think you are strong enough to be a sailor yet awhile," said I.
"I am going on for fifteen, and I am stronger than I look," said the boy.
I did not believe he was so old. He certainly did not look it.
"Well, anyhow, you can't go much further tonight What are you going to do for food; and where are you going to sleep?"' I inquired.
"I have a little money, and I intend to buy some bread and cheese at the first public-house I come to; and I shall sleep in a haystack - as I did last night," replied the little fellow, bravely.
I laughed, but at the same time I admired the lad's pluck.
"I suppose you have run away from school Don't you think your parents will be angry, and alarmed when they hear what you have done?"
He looked up in my face, and replied, with a catch in his voice, "I have neither father nor mother; and I have not run away from school."
"Well, from relations, or friends then," said I.
"I have no relations, or friends," he said, huskily, his eyes suddenly filling with team, which he at once brushed away.
"But you must have been living with someone until now. Tell me all about yourself. Don't be afraid of me. I won't interfere with you. And perhaps I may be able to help you along, if you are determined to go."
He hesitated for a moment, and then spoke: "My father was an officer in the army, and both he and my mother died in India five years ago. I was sent to a school near London where I 'remained until six months ago: then I believe the money which had been left for me came to an end, and I was taken away from the school by some people with whom I lived until the day before yesterday. I do not want to tell who they are, or where they live. I do not know why they kept me, for they were not paid to do so, and I have no claim upon them in any way. I had never seen or heard of them until they came to the school and took me away.
They were not unkind to me until lately, and then, because I refused to do a certain thing they wished me to do, they ill-treated me, and told me that if I did not, consent to do what they wanted, they would turn me out of the house.
I still refused, and after a few more days had passed, they told me they would not keep me any longer, and that I was to go away at once. So two days ago I left the house, quite determined to make my way to Portsmouth, and go to sea."
This story appeared to be a highly improbable one in every way, but he told it without hesitating, in a most straightforward manner, and there was a ring of truth in his voice. I looked searchingly at him, and cross-questioned him, trying to make him contradict himself in some way; but he did not get the least confused, nor did he alter his original story in the smallest detail, and he politely, but firmly, refused to give me his reasons for leaving the people with whom he had been living. He evidently noticed that I seemed rather incredulous, for he raised his head and said proudly, his face flushing and his lips trembling a little as he spoke: "I am not a liar. I have told you nothing but the truth; and I have not done anything wrong."
His face was so open, and his candid blue eyes met mine so unflinchingly, that I began to think that his story might perhaps be true. If it was true, he was very much to be pitied, for it was very hard that a young, fragile, and apparently gently nurtured lad like him should be thrown alone on the world to make his own living. At any rate there was some mystery about the whole affair, and I began to feel an interest in the lad; so I determined to take him home with me, give him some dinner, and put him up for the night.
I said, "Well, anyhow you may as well come home with me to dinner, and I will give you a bed for the night. Then in the morning I will see what I can do for you."
The boy's sad face brightened, he gave me a grateful look, and exclaimed earnestly:
"Oh! thank you! Thank you very much. You are very, very kind."
"Well, that is all settled. Let us walk a little faster. My house is close by," said I.
We stepped out briskly; the boy's manner became more confidential; he informed me that his Christian name was Francis, and confessed that he had only sixpence left, and that he had not had much sleep in the haystack the previous night. In a short time we reached my lodge gates, and walked up the long, Winding Avenue leading to the house; the first sight of which seemed to impress the boy very much, for he evidently had an eye for the picturesque.
"Oh!" he ejaculated, "what a fine old house, and such a splendid lawn!"
I was pleased with his artlessly expressed admiration, for I was proud of my quaint old place, with its irregular gables, corner turrets, and deeply mullioned windows, and its heavy oaken door on which was carved the arms of my family.
When we entered the hail, my man Wilson was in readiness to take my gun. He was an excellent servant, who always accompanied me wherever I went, and he was quite accustomed to all my ways, which were sometimes, to say the least, very irregular; so when I told him to take the dusty young stranger up to a bedroom, get him a bath, and attend to him; the man showed no surprise. I, also, went to my room, had a bath, dressed, and then went down 'to the drawing room, where, in a short time, I was joined by the boy, who was ushered in by Wilson.
Frank, as I already called him in my mind, looked fresh and clean after his bath, and his clothes had been brushed, and his boots polished.
Dinner being immediately announced, we went into the dining-room and took our seats at a round table which was placed in a snug recess at one side of the large, oak-panelled apartment.
Frank gazed round the room, apparently struck by the rather sombre splendour of the old-fashioned furniture, and also by the display of silver plate on the sideboard; and I think he was a little impressed by the appearance of my solemn old butler. However, the lad was too well bred to show any signs of astonishment, and he was evidently faint with hunger, so he concentrated his attention on his dinner. I gave him a glass of champagne, which he relished very much, as he had never before tasted the wine, and under its exhilarating influence he began to chatter freely; and I found that he was a well-educated lad, who talked nicely, and who was possessed of a quick sense of humour, a thing rather uncommon in boys of his age. But his head soon began to droop a little, as he was thoroughly worn out, and by the time dinner was over, he could hardly keep his eyes open; so I told him that he had better go to bed, which he gladly did, after again thanking me for my kindness.
Lighting a cigar,. I sat down in an easy chair to think over the whole affair, which had interested me strangely, and somehow or other, I could not divest myself of the idea that the boy's story was true; then I thought of his slight physique which utterly unfitted him for the rough life of a common sailor; and finally, by the time I had finished smoking my cigar, I had decided to keep the lad in my house for a few days, provide him with a complete outfit, and then try to get him some employment more fitted to his capabilities than going to sea before the mast. Having settled all this in my mind, I smoked another cigar, drank a glass of whisky and water, and then went to bed, a I was feeling tired after my long day's tramp over the stubbles.
Next morning, at breakfast, Frank turned up, looking very fit; his cheeks, which had been pale overnight, were now rosy, and his eyes had lost their wearied look.
He greeted me with a smile, and, in answer to my inquiries, said that he had slept most soundly, never waking until called, and that he was quite strong again.
When breakfast was over, and my trim parlour maid Ellen, who had waited on us during the meal, had left the room, I lit a cigar, and turning to the lad, said: "Now Frank, I want to have a little talk with you. To begin with, I must say to you that I believe all you have told me about yourself."
"Oh, I am so glad you believe me," he ejaculated, clasping his hands. I went on: "Though I must say it seems very strange that people whom you say you did not know, should have taken you into their house and kept you for six months without any remuneration; and then have suddenly turned you out."
"It was very strange. But it all happened just as I have told you," he said. Then after a moment's pause, he added, flushing slightly: "I think I know now why they took me into their house."
His last remark did not make any impression upon me at the time, but I remembered it afterwards. I continued: "I feel interested in you, and I do not consider you are at all fit to be a sailor; so I think you had better stay here for a few days, so that I can get you properly fitted out with clothes, and then I will try and procure you some employment on shore."
He gazed at me for a moment as if he could hardly grasp the meaning of what I had said, then a joyful look came to his face and his eyes grew moist. "Oh!" he exclaimed, "you are so kind and good to me: I do not know how to thank you. I shall be only too delighted to stay. I really do not want to go to sea. I hate the very idea of it!
But when the people turned me out, my only thought was to get away from them as far as possible. That was why I thought of going to sea. Oh, thank you again for giving me the chance of escaping such .a horrid life! I will do anything you wish, I should like to stay with you always. I have not a single friend, and I am so lonely," he added, with a little sob, the tears overflowing his eyes and running down his cheeks. I am by nature rather inclined to be sympathetic, and I had all along felt strangely drawn to the poor little fellow, but now my heart went out entirely to him, and I said to myself that I would keep him in the house for the present; he would be company for me, in a way, when I was at home then, after a time, I would send him to school, and make arrangements for his future career. There was no reason why I should not do so. I was well off, and there was no one who had a right to question or interfere with me.
"Well, Frank, you shall stay with me always, if you like," I said.
His face beamed with happiness, and running over to me, he seized my hand, kissing it in a transport of gratitude, and thanking me over and over again, till I was so embarrassed by the fervour of the feelings he displayed that I was obliged to tell him to go and sit down.
When I make up my mind to do a thing, I set about doing it at once; so ringing the bell, I told the maid who answered it, to send up Wilson. When he appeared, I informed him that Master Francis was going to remain with me; then I told him to order the dog-cart to be got ready, and that he was to drive the boy to Winchester, - the nearest town - have him measured for some suits of clothes, and to buy him underclothing, shirts, boots, and the other things necessary for the complete outfit of a young gentleman.
My well-trained servant made no remark, but bowed gravely and left the room. In a short time he returned, saying that the dogcart was at the door. I gave him a sum of money sufficient to meet all expenses, then I put Frank into his charge, and the two went away. As soon as they had gone, I got my gun, went to the kennel for the dogs, and started off to have a pop at the "birds," and as the sport was good, I remained out all day, getting home just in time to change my clothes before dinner.
When I got down to the dining room, Frank was waiting for me, looking very smart in his well-brushed clothes, clean shirt, large turned-down collar, and neat tie; he had on a pair of patent leather shoes, and I again noticed the smallness of his feet. During dinner he was in high spirits, and, boy-like, seemed very pleased with all the new clothes and other articles which Wilson had bought for him; he told me all about the shopping and how they had lunched at a confectioner's. Altogether, he seemed to have enjoyed his day in Winchester, and he did not forget to thank me. After dinner, we played draughts, at which game he showed a fair amount of skill, and at ten o'clock I sent him to bed.