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Brownsmith's Boy: A Romance in a Garden

George Manville Fenn

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  Brownsmith's Boy, a Romance in a Garden, by George Manville Fenn.


  This is an absolutely delightful book, which has most of its earlyaction in a market garden, and then more in another one. The author isa great naturalist, and he has much to teach us about the way in whichwork should be done to raise fruit and vegetables to be taken to Londondaily for the market. Somehow that sounds boring but there is so muchaction entwined with these facts that they are made far from boring.

  The action takes place about 1835. The hero lives with his mother in ahouse overlooking the garden. When she dies he is taken in by OldBrownsmith to be taught the skills of a market gardener. Another boy,Shock, hangs about the garden, sleeping rough and living on a primitivediet of snails, hedgehogs and rabbits and whatever he can get. There isan uneasy relationship between the boys, with Shock constantly doingunkind and strange things, and our hero, Grant Dennison, longing to getto know him better.

  I particularly loved the episode where an old worker, Ike, takes theeven older horse, Basket, for his regular overnight trip to the Londonfruit and vegetable market, taking Grant with him.

  There are plenty of the usual Manville Fenn episodes of terror andnear-disaster, and indeed it is a lovely book. Do read it.NH________________________________________________________________________




  I always felt as if I should like to punch that boy's head, and thendirectly after I used to feel as if I shouldn't care to touch him,because he looked so dirty and ragged.

  It was not dirty dirt, if you know what I mean by that, but dirt that hegathered up in his work--bits of hay and straw, and dust off a shedfloor; mud over his boots and on his toes, for you could see that thebig boots he wore seemed to be like a kind of coarse rough shell with agreat open mouth in front, and his toes used to seem as if they lived inthere as hermit-crabs do in whelk shells. They used to play about inthere and waggle this side and that side when he was standing stilllooking at you; and I used to think that some day they would come alittle way out and wait for prey like the different molluscs I had readabout in my books.

  But you should have seen his hands! I've seen them so coated with dirtthat it hung on them in knobs, and at such times he used to hold them upto me with the thumbs and fingers spread out wide, and then down hewould go again and continue his work, which, when he was in this state,would be pulling up the weeds from among the onions in the long beds.

  I didn't want him to do it, but he used to see me at the window lookingout; and I being one lonely boy in the big pond of life, and he beinganother lonely boy in the same big pond, and both floating about likebits of stick, he seemed as if he wanted to gravitate towards me as bitsof stick do to each other, and in his uncouth way he would do all sortsof things to attract my attention.

  Sometimes it seemed as if it was to frighten me, at others to show howclever he was; but of course I know now that it was all out of thesuperabundant energy he had in him, and the natural longing of a boy fora companion.

  I'll just tell you what he'd do. After showing me his muddy fingers,and crawling along and digging them as hard as he could into the soil totear out the weeds, all at once he would kick his heels up in the airlike a donkey. Then he would go on weeding again, look to see if I waswatching him, and leave his basket and run down between two onion bedson all-fours like a dog, run back, and go on with his work.

  Every now and then he would pull up a young onion with the weeds andpick it out, give it a rub on his sleeve, put one end in his mouth, andeat it gradually, taking it in as I've seen a cow with a long strand ofrye or grass.

  Another time he would fall to punching the ground with his doubled fist,make a basin-like depression, put his head in, support himself bysetting his hands on each side of the depression, and then, as easily ascould be, throw up his heels and stand upon his head.

  It seemed to be no trouble to him to keep his balance, and when up likethat he would twist his legs about, open them wide, put them forwardsand backwards, and end by insulting me with his feet, so it seemed tome, for he would spar at me with them and make believe to hit out.

  All at once he would see one of the labourers in the distance, and thendown he would go and continue his weeding.

  Perhaps, when no one was looking, he would start up, look round, go downagain on all-fours, and canter up to a pear-tree, raise himself up, andbegin scratching the bark like one of the cats sharpening its claws; orperhaps trot to an apple-tree, climb up with wonderful activity, creepout along a horizontal branch, and pretend to fall, but save himself bycatching with and hanging by one hand.

  That done he would make a snatch with his other hand, swing about for afew moments, and then up would go his legs to be crossed over thebranch, when he would swing to and fro head downwards, making derisivegestures at me with his hands.

  So it was that I used to hate that boy, and think he was little betterthan a monkey; but somehow I felt envious of him too when the sunshone--I didn't so much mind when it was wet--for he seemed so free andindependent, and he was so active and clever, while whenever I tried tostand on my head on the carpet I always tipped right over and hurt myback.

  That was a wonderful place, that garden, and I used to gaze over thehigh wall with its bristle of young shoots of plum-trees growing overthe coping, and see the chaffinches building in the spring-time amongthe green leaves and milky-white blossoms of the pear-trees; or,perhaps, it would be in a handy fork of an apple-tree, with the crimsonand pink blossoms all around.

  Those trees were planted in straight rows, so that, look which way Iwould, I could see straight down an avenue; and under them there wererows of gooseberry trees or red currants that the men used to cut soclosely in the winter that they seemed to be complete skeletons.

  Where there were no gooseberries or currants, the rows of rhubarb plantsused to send up their red stems and great green leaves; and in otherplaces there would be great patches of wallflowers, from which wafts ofdelicious scent would come in at the open window. In the spring therewould be great rows of red and yellow tulips, and later on sweet-williamand rockets, and purple and yellow pansies in great beds.

  I used to wonder that such a boy was allowed to go loose in such agarden as that, among those flowers and strawberry beds, and, above all,apples, and pears, and plums, for in the autumn time the trees trainedup against the high red-brick wall were covered with purple and yellowplums, and the rosy apples peeped from among the green leaves, and thepears would hang down till it seemed as if the branches must break.

  But that boy went about just as he liked, and it often seemed very hardthat such a shaggy-looking wild fellow in rags should have the run ofsuch a beautiful garden, while I had none.

  There was a little single opera-glass on the chimney-piece which I usedto take down and focus, so that I could see the fruit that was ripe, andthe fruit that was green, and the beauty of the flowers. I used towatch the birds building through that glass, and could almost see theeggs in one little mossy cup of a chaffinch's nest; but I could notquite. I did see the tips of the young birds' beaks, though, when theywere hatched and the old ones came to feed them.

  It was by means of that glass that I could see how the boy fastened uphis trousers with one strap and a piece of string, for he had no braces,and there were no brace buttons. Those corduroy trousers had been madefor somebody else, I should say for a man, and pieces of the legs hadbeen cut off, and the upper part cam
e well over his back and chest. Hehad no waistcoat, but he wore a jacket that must have belonged to a man.It was a jacket that was fustian behind, and had fustian sleeves, butthe front was of purple plush with red and yellow flowers, softened downwith dirt; and the sleeves of this jacket were tucked up very high,while the bottom came down to his knees.

  He did not wear a hat, but the crown of an old straw bonnet, the top ofwhich had come unsewed, and rose and fell like the lid of a round boxwith one hinge, and when the lid blew open you could see his shaggyhair, which seemed as if it had never been brushed since it first cameup out of his skin.

  The opera-glass was very useful to me, especially as the boy fascinatedme so, for I used to watch him with it till I knew that he had two brassshank-buttons and three four-holes of bone on his jacket, that therewere no buttons at all on his shirt, and that he had blue eyes, asnub-nose, and had lost one of his top front teeth.

  I must have been quite as great an attraction to him as he was to me,but he showed it in a very different way. There would be threateningmovements made with his fists. After an hour's hard work at weeding,without paying the slightest heed to my presence, he would suddenly jumpup as if resenting my watching, catch up the basket, and make believe tohurl it at me. Perhaps he would pick up a great clod and pretend tothrow that, but let it fall beside him; while one day, when I went tothe window and looked out, I found him with a good-sized switch whichhad been the young shoot of a pear tree, and a lump of something of ayellowish brown tucked in the fork of a tree close by where he worked.

  He had a basket by his side and was busily engaged as usual weeding, forthere was a great battle for ever going on in that garden, where theweeds were always trying to master the flowers and vegetables, and thatboy's duty seemed to be to tear up weeds by the roots, and nothing else.

  But there by his side stuck in the ground was the switch, and as soon ashe saw me at the window he gave a look round to see if he was watched,and then picked up the stick.

  "I wonder what he is going to do!" I thought, as I twisted the glass alittle and had a good look.

  He was so near that the glass was not necessary, but I saw through itthat he pinched off a bit of the yellowish-brown stuff, which wasevidently clay, and, after rolling it between his hands, he stuck whatseemed to be a bit as big as a large taw marble on the end of theswitch, gave it a flourish, and the bit of clay flew off.

  I could not see where it went, but I saw him watching it, as he quicklytook another piece, kneaded it, and with another flourish away thatflew.

  That bit evidently went over our house; and the next time hetried--_flap_! the piece struck the wall somewhere under the window.

  Five times more did he throw, the clay flying swiftly, till all at once_thud_! came a pellet and stuck on the window pane just above my head.

  I looked up at the flattened clay, which was sticking fast, and then atthat boy, who was down on his knees again weeding away as hard as hecould weed, but taking no more notice of me, and I saw the reason: hismaster was coming down the garden.