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Quicksilver: The Boy With No Skid to His Wheel

George Manville Fenn

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  Quicksilver; or, The Boy With No Skid To His Wheel, by George ManvilleFenn.


  I don't know where they get titles for books from. The subtitle is "TheBoy with no Skid to his Wheel", and that is the only mention of the word"skid" in the entire book. The only "wheel" mentioned is when the boyhero does cartwheels round the drawing-room. And the said boy isreferred to as "a globule of quicksilver". So I suppose it is somethingthe author had in his mind before he began the book.

  Unlike most of Fenn's books, which involve dire situations with piratesin the China Seas, and other such places, the entire action of this booktakes place in a small English village. The local doctor, havingretired childless, decides he would like to adopt a boy. Being aGovernor of the local Institute for the Poor he goes there and selects aboy who at the age of two had been a foundling, and who is now eleven ortwelve.

  Everyone is keen to make this work, but there is a big difference insocial manners between a boy brought up in an Institute, and the boy thedoctor would like to have. So a certain amount of retraining has totake place. Of course this is successful in the end, but there are alot of blips long the way. Our hero makes friends with a local boy whois definitely "non-U". They run away together in a boat they havenicked for the purpose. For a few days they have various adventures,some enjoyable, but most of them not.

  On being brought back our hero is sent to a small private school run bya clergyman, who beats the boy mercilessly, so that he runs away fromthe school, back to the doctor's, but remains hidden in an out-house.He is found, but becomes very ill, so the whole household is taken to arented house in the Isle of Wight, where he eventually recovers. Atwhich point it is discovered who his real parents are, and he is "U"after all, so everyone feels good about it.





  He was very grubby, and all about his dark grey eyes there were themarks made by his dirty fingers where he had rubbed away the ticklingtears. The brownish red dust of the Devon lanes had darkened hisdelicate white skin, and matted his shiny yellow curls.

  As to his hands, with their fat little fingers, with every joint showinga pretty dimple, they looked white and clean, but that was due to thefact that he was sitting in a bed of moss by the roadside, where thewater came trickling down from the red rocks above, and dabbling andsplashing the tiny pool, till the pearly drops hung among his dustycurls, and dotted, as if with jewels, the ragged old blue jersey shirtwhich seemed to form his only garment.

  This did not fit him, in spite of its elasticity, for it was what adealer would have called "man's size," and the wearer was about two anda half, or at the most three; but the sleeves had been cut so that theyonly reached his elbows, and the hem torn off the bottom and turned intoa belt or sash, which was tied tightly round the little fellow's waist,to keep the jersey from slipping off.

  Consequently the plump neck was bare, as were his dirty little legs,with their dimpled, chubby knees.

  While he splashed and dabbled the water, the sun flashed upon the drops,some of which jewelled the spreading ferns which drooped over thenatural fount, and even reached as high as the delicate leafage ofstunted overhanging birch, some of whose twigs kept waving in the softsummer breeze, and sweeping against the boy's curly hair.

  When the little fellow splashed the water, and felt it fly into hisface, he laughed--burst after burst of silvery, merry laughter; and inthe height of his enjoyment he threw back his head, his ruddy lipsparted, and two rows of pearly teeth flashed in the bright sunshine.

  As dirty a little grub as ever made mud-pies in a gutter; but the water,the ferns, moss, and flowers around were to his little soul the mostdelightful of toys, and he seemed supremely happy.

  After a time he grew tired of splashing the water, and, drawing onelittle foot into his lap, he pursed up his lips, an intent frownwrinkled his shining forehead, and he began, in the most serio-comicmanner, to pick the row of tiny toes, passing a chubby finger betweenthem to get rid of the dust and grit.

  All this while the breeze blew, the birch-tree waved, and the flowersnodded, while from out of a clump of ling and rushes there came, atregular intervals, a low roar like the growl of a wild beast.

  After a few minutes there was the _pad, pad_--_pad, pad_ of a horse'shoofs on the dusty road; the rattle of wheels; and a green gig, drawn bya sleepy-looking grey horse, and containing a fat man and a broad woman,came into sight, approached slowly, and would have passed had not thebroad woman suddenly laid her hand upon the reins, and checked the greyhorse, when the two red-faced farming people opened their mouths, andstared at the child.

  "Sakes alive, Izick, look at that!" said the woman in a whisper, whilethe little fellow went on picking his toes, and the grey horse turnedhis tail into a live chowry to keep away the flies.

  "Well, I am!" said the fat man, wrinkling his face all over as heindulged in a silent laugh. "Why, moother, he's a perfeck picter."

  "The pretty, pretty little fellow," said the woman in a genuine motherlytone. "O Izick, how I should like to give him a good wash!"

  "Wash! He's happy enough, bless him!" said the man. "Wonder whose hebe. Here, what are you going to do?"

  "I'm going to give un a kiss, that's what I'm a-going to do," said thewoman getting very slowly out of the gig. "He must be a lost child."

  "Well," grumbled the man, "we didn't come to market to find lostchildren."

  Then he sat forward, with his arms resting upon his knees, watching hiswife as she slowly approached the unconscious child, till she was in theact of stooping over him to lay her fat red hand upon his golden curls,when there was a loud roar as if from some savage beast, and the womanjumped back scared; the horse leaped sidewise; the farmer raised hiswhip; and the pair of simple-hearted country folks stared at afierce-looking face which rose out of the bed of ling, its owner havingbeen sleeping face downward, and now glowering at them above his foldedarms.

  It was not a pleasant countenance, for it was foul without with dirt andmore foul within from disease, being covered with ruddy fiery blotch andpimple, and the eyes were of that unnatural hue worn by one who has foryears been debased by drink.

  "Yah!" roared the man, half-closing his bleared eyes. "Leave the bairnalone."

  "O Izick!" gasped the woman.

  "Here, none o' that!" cried the farmer fiercely. "Don't you frighten mywife."

  "Let the bairn alone," growled the man again.

  "How came you by him!" said the woman recovering herself. "I'm sure hecan't be your'n."

  "Not mine!" growled the man in a hoarse, harsh voice. "You let thebairn be. I'll soon show you about that. Hi! chick!"

  The little fellow scrambled to him, and putting his tiny chubby armsabout the man's coarse neck, nestled his head upon his shoulder, andturned to gaze at the farmer and his wife.

  "Not my bairn!" growled the man; "what d'yer say to that?"

  "Lor, Izick, only look," said the woman in a whisper. "My!"

  "Well, what are yer starin' at?" growled the man defiantly; "didn'tthink he were your bairn, did you!"

  "Come away, missus," said the farmer; and the woman reluctantly climbedback into the gig.

  "It don't seem right, Izick, for him to have such a bairn as that," saidthe woman, who could not keep her eyes off the child.

  "Ah, well! it ar'n't no business of our'n
. Go along!"

  This was to the horse, who went off directly in a shambling trot, andthe gig rattled along the road; but as long as they remained in sight,the farmer's wife stared back at the little fellow, and therough-looking tramp glared at her from among the heather and ling.

  "Must be getting on--must be getting on," he growled to himself; and hekept on muttering in a low tone as he tried to stagger to his feet, butfor a time his joints seemed to be so stiff that he could only get tohis knees, and he had to set the child down.

  Then after quite a struggle, during which he kept on muttering in astrange incoherent manner, he contrived to get upon his feet, and stoodholding on by a branch of the birch-tree, while the child stared in hisrepellent face.

  The next minute he staggered into the road and began to walk away,reeling strangely like a drunken man, talking wildly the while; but heseemed to recall the fact that he had left the child behind, and hestaggered back to where a block of stone lay by the water-side, and satdown. "Here, chick!" he growled.

  His aspect and the tone of his voice were sufficient to frighten thelittle fellow away, but he did not seem in the least alarmed, and placedhis tiny hands in the great gnarled fists extended to him. Then with aswing the man threw the child over his shoulder and on to his back,staggering and nearly overbalancing himself in the act. But he kept hisfeet, and growled savagely as his little burden uttered a whimperingcry.

  "Hold on," he said; and the next minute the pretty bare arms wereclinging tightly round his neck, the hands hidden in the man's grizzlytangled beard; and, pig-a-back fashion, he bore him on along the road.

  The sun beat down upon the fair curly head; the dust rose, shuffled upby the tramp's uncertain step, while the chats and linnets twitteredamong the furze, and the larks sang high overhead. This and the heat,combined with the motion, sufficed to lull the tiny fellow to rest, andbefore long his head drooped sidewise, and he was fast asleep.

  But he did not fall. It was as if the natural instinct which enablesthe young life to maintain its hold upon the old orang-outang was inforce here, so that the child clung tightly to the staggering man, whoseemed thenceforth oblivious of his existence.

  The day passed on: the sun was setting fast, and the tramp continued tostagger on like a drunken man, talking wildly all the time, now babblingof green leaves, now muttering angrily, as if abusing some one near.

  Then came the soft evening-time, as he tottered down a long slopetowards the houses lying in a hollow, indicating the existence of agoodly town.

  And now groups of people were passed, some of whom turned to gaze afterthe coarse-looking object with disgust, others with wonder; while themore thoughtless indulged in a grin, and made remarks indicating theirimpressions of where the tramp had been last.

  He did not seem to see them, however, but kept on the same incoherenttalking in a low growl, and his eyes glared strangely at objects unseenby those he passed.

  All at once, though, he paused as he reached the broad marketplace ofthe town, and said to one of a group of idlers the one word--



  "Workus!" said the tramp fiercely.

  "Oh! Straight avore you. Zee a big wall zoon as yer get over thebridge."

  The man staggered on, and crossed the swift river running through thetown, and in due course reached the big wall, in which was a doorwaywith a bell-pull at the side.

  A few minutes later the door had been opened, and a stalwart porterseemed disposed to refuse admission, but his experienced eyes read theapplicant's state, and the door closed upon the strangely assorted pair.