Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Brownsmith's Boy: A Romance in a Garden, Page 2

George Manville Fenn



  I used to take a good deal of notice of that boy's master as I sat atthe window, and it always seemed to me that he went up and down hisgarden because he was so fond of it.

  Later on I knew that it was because he was a market-gardener, and wasmaking his plans as to what was to be cut or picked, or what wanteddoing in the place.

  He was a pleasant-looking man, with white hair and whiskers, and a redface that always used to make me think of apples, and he was alwaysdressed the same--in black, with a clean white shirt front, and a whitecravat without any starch. Perhaps it was so that they might not get inthe mud, but at any rate his black trousers were very tight, and histail-coat was cut very broad and loose, with cross pockets like ashooting-jacket, and these pockets used to bulge.

  Sometimes they bulged because he had bast matting for tying up plants,and a knife in one, and a lot of shreds and nails and a hammer in theother; sometimes it was because he had been picking up fruit, orvegetable marrows, or new potatoes, whatever was in season. They alwaysmade me think of the clown's breeches, because he used to put everythingin, and very often a good deal would be sticking out.

  I remember once seeing him go down the garden with a good-sized kittenin each pocket, for there were their heads looking over the sides, andthey seemed to be quite contented, blinking away at the other cats whichwere running and skipping about.

  For that boy's master, who was called Brownsmith, was a great man forcats; and whenever he went down his garden there were always six oreight blacks, and black and whites, and tabbies, and tortoise-shellsrunning on before or behind him. When he stopped, first one and thenanother would have a rub against his leg, beginning with the point ofits nose, and running itself along right to the end of its tail,crossing over and having a rub on the other side against the other leg.

  So sure as one cat had a rub all the others that could get a chance hada rub as well. Then perhaps their master would stoop down with hisknife in his teeth, and take a piece of bast from his pocket, to tie upa flower or a lettuce, when one of the cats was sure to jump on hisback, and stop there till he rose, when sometimes it would go on and situpon his shoulder, more often jump off.

  It used to interest me a good deal to watch old Brownsmith and his cats,for I had never known that a cat would run after any one out of doorslike a dog. Then, too, they were so full of fun, chasing each otherthrough the bushes, crouching down with their tails writhing from sideto side, ready to spring out at their master, or dash off again up theside of a big tree, and look down at him from high upon some branch.

  I say all this used to interest me, for I had no companions, and went tono school, but spent my time with my poor mother, who was very ill; andI know now how greatly she must have suffered often and often, when,broken down in health and spirit, suffering from a great sorrow, sheused to devote all her time to teaching me.

  Our apartments, as you see, overlooked old Brownsmith's market-garden,and very often, as I sat there watching it, I used to wish that I couldbe as other boys were, running about free in the fields, playing cricketand football, and learning to swim, instead of being shut up there withmy mother.

  Perhaps I was a selfish boy, perhaps I was no worse than others of myage. I know I was very fond of my mother, for she was always so sweet,and gentle, and tender with me, making the most tedious lessons pleasantby the way she explained them, and helping me when I was worried oversome arithmetical question about how many men would do so much work insuch and such a number of days if so many men would do the same work inanother number of days.

  These sums always puzzled me, and do now; perhaps it is because I havean awkwardly shaped brain.

  Sometimes, as we sat over the lessons, I used to see a curious painedlook spread over my mother's face, and the tears would come in her eyes,but when I kissed her she would smile directly and call my attention tothe beauty of the rime frost on the fruit-trees in Brownsmith's garden;or, if it was summer, to the sweet scent of the flowers; or to theripening fruit in autumn.

  Ah, if I had known then, I say to myself, how different I might havebeen; how much more patient and helpful to her! But I did not know, forI was a very thoughtless boy.

  Now it came to pass one day that an idea entered my head as I saw mymother seated with her pale cheek resting upon her hand, looking outover old Brownsmith's garden, which was just then at its best. It wassummer time, and wherever you looked there were flowers--not neatflower-beds, but great clumps and patches of roses, and sweet-williamsand pinks, and carnations, that made the air thick with their sweetodours. Her eyes were half closed, and every now and then I saw herdraw in a long breath, as if she were enjoying the sweet scent.

  As I said, I had an idea, and the idea was that I would slip out quietlyand go and spend that sixpence.

  Which sixpence?

  Why, that sixpence--that red-hot one that tried so hard to burn a holethrough my pocket.

  I had had it for two days, and it was still at the bottom along with myknife, a ball of string, and that piece of india-rubber I had chewed forhours to make a pop patch. I had nearly spent it twice--the first timeon one of these large white neatly-sewn balls, with "Best Tennis"printed upon them in blue; the second time in a pewter squirt.

  I had wanted a squirt for a long time, for those things had a greatfascination for me, and I had actually entered the shop door to make mypurchase when something seemed to stop me, and I ran home.

  And now I thought I would go and spend that coin.

  I slipped quietly to the other window, and had a good look round, but Icould not see that boy, for if I had seen him I don't think I shouldhave had the heart to go, feeling sure, as I did, that he had a spiteagainst me. As I said, though, he was nowhere visible, so I slippeddownstairs, ran along the lane to the big gate, and walked boldly in.

  There were several people about, but they took no notice of me--stouthard-looking women, with coarse aprons tied tightly about their waistsand legs; there were men too, but all were busy in the great sheds,where they seemed to be packing baskets, quite a mountain of which stoodclose at hand.

  There were high oblong baskets big enough to hold me, but besides thesethere were piles upon piles of round flat baskets of two sizes, andhanging to the side of one of the sheds great bunches of white woodstrawberry pottles, looking at a distance like some kind of giantflower, all in elongated buds.

  Close by was a cart with its shafts sticking up in the air. Farther ona wagon with "Brownsmith" in yellow letters on a great red band; andthis I passed to go up to the house. But the door was closed, and itwas evident that every one was busy in the garden preparing the night'sload for market.

  I stood still for a minute, thinking that I could not be very wrong if Iwent down the garden, to see if I could find Mr Brownsmith, and myheart began to beat fast at the idea of penetrating what was to me aland of mystery, of which, just then, I held the silver pass-key in theshape of that sixpence.

  "I'll go," I said. "He can't be very cross;" and, plucking up courage,but with the feeling upon me that I was trespassing, I went past thecart, and had gone half-way by the wagon, when there was a creaking,rattling noise of baskets, and something made a bound.

  I started back, feeling sure that some huge dog was coming at me; butthere in the wagon, and kneeling on the edge to gaze down at me with afierce grin, was that boy.

  I was dreadfully alarmed, and felt as if the next minute he and I wouldbe having a big fight; but I wouldn't show my fear, and I stared up athim defiantly with my fists clenching, ready for his first attack.

  He did not speak--I did not speak; but we stared at each other for somemoments, before he took a small round turnip out of his pocket and beganto munch it.

  "Shock!" cried somebody just then; and the boy turned himself over theedge of the wagon, dropped on to the ground, and ran towards one of thesheds, while, greatly relieved, I looked about me, and could see MrBrownsmith some distance off, down betwe
en two rows of trees that formedquite an avenue.

  It seemed so beautiful after being shut up so much in our sitting-room,to walk down between clusters of white roses and moss roses, with AnneBoleyne pinks scenting the air, and far back in the shade bright orangedouble wallflowers blowing a little after their time.

  I had not gone far when a blackbird flew out of a pear-tree, and I knewthat there must be a nest somewhere close by. Sure enough I could seeit in a fork, with a curious chirping noise coming from it, as anotherblackbird flew out, saw me, and darted back.

  I would have given that sixpence for the right to climb that pear-tree,and I gave vent to a sigh as I saw the figure of old Brownsmith comingtowards me, looking much more stern and sharp than he did at a distance,and with his side pockets bulging enormously.

  "Hallo, young shaver! what's your business?" he said, in a quickauthoritative way, as we drew near to each other.

  I turned a little red, for it sounded insulting for a market gardener tospeak to me like that, for I never forgot that my father had been acaptain in an Indian regiment, and was killed fighting in the Sikh war.

  I did not answer, but drew myself up a little, before saying ratherconsequentially:

  "Sixpenn'orth of flowers and strawberries--good ones."

  "Oh, get out!" he said gruffly, and he half turned away. "We've no timefor picking sixpenn'orths, boy. Run up into the road to thegreengrocer's shop."

  My face grew scarlet, and the beautiful garden seemed as if it was undera cloud instead of the full blaze of sunshine, while I turned upon myheel and was walking straight back.


  I walked on.

  "Hi, boy!" shouted old Brownsmith.

  I turned round, and he was signalling to me with the whole of hiscrooked arm.

  "Come on," he shouted, and he thrust a hand and the greater part of hisarm into one of his big pockets, and pulled out one of those curvedbuckhorn-handled knives, which he opened with his white teeth.

  He did not look quite so grim now, as he said:

  "Come o' purpose, eh?"

  "Yes," I said.

  "Ah! well, I won't send you back without 'em, only I don't keep a shop."

  I looked rather haughty and consequential, I believe, but the looks ofsuch a boy as I made no impression, and he began to cut here and theremoss, and maiden's blush, and cabbage roses--simple old-fashionedflowers, for the great French growers had not filled England with theirbeautiful children, and a gardener in these days would not have believedin the possibility of a creamy _Gloire de Dijon_ or that greathook-thorned golden beauty _Marechal Niel_.

  He cut and cut, long-stalked flowers with leaf and bud, and thrust theminto his left hand, his knife cutting and his hand grasping the flowerin one movement, while his eye selected the best blossom at a glance.

  At last there were so many that I grew fidgety.

  "I said sixpenn'orth, sir, flowers and strawberries," I ventured toremark.

  "Not deaf, my lad," he replied with a grim smile. "Here, let's get someof these."

  These were pinks and carnations, of which he cut a number, pushing oneof the cats aside with his foot so that it should not be in his way.

  "Here you are!" he cried. "Mind the thorns. My roses have got plentyto keep off pickers and stealers. Now, what next?"

  "I did want some strawberries," I said, "but--"

  "Where's your basket, my hearty?"

  I replied that I had not brought one.

  "You're a pretty fellow," he said. "I can't tie strawberries up in abunch. Why didn't you bring a basket? Oh, I see; you want to carry 'eminside?"

  "No," I said shortly, for he seemed now unpleasantly familiar, and thegarden was not half so agreeable as I had expected.

  However he seemed to be quite good-tempered now, and giving me a nod anda jerk of his head, which meant--"This way," he went down a path, cut agreat rhubarb leaf, and turned to me.

  "Here, catch hold," he cried; "here's one of nature's own baskets. Nowlet's see if there's any strawberries ripe."

  I saw that he was noticing me a good deal as we went along another pathtowards where the garden was more open, but I kept on in an independentway, smelling the pinks from time to time, till we came to a greatsquare bed, all straw, with the great tufts of the dark green strawberryplants standing out of it in rows. The leaves looked large, andglistened in the sunshine, and every here and there I could see thegreat scarlet berries shining as if they had been varnished, and waitingto be picked.

  "Ah, thief!" shouted my guide, as a blackbird flew out of the bed,uttering its loud call. "Why, boys, boys, you ought to have caughthim."

  This was to the cats, one of which answered by giving itself a rub downhis leg, while he clapped his hand upon my shoulder.

  "There you are, my hearty. It isn't so far for you to stoop as it wouldbe for me. Go and pick 'em."

  "Pick them?" I said, looking at him wonderingly.

  "To be sure. Go ahead. I'll hold your flowers. Only take the ripeones, and see here--do you know how to pick strawberries?"

  I felt so amused at such a silly question that I looked up at him andlaughed.

  "Oh, you do?" he said.

  "Why, anybody could pick strawberries," I replied.

  "Really, now! Well, let's see. There's a big flat fellow, pick him."

  I handed him the flowers, and stepping between two rows of plants,stooped down, and picked the great strawberry he pointed out.

  "Oh, you call that picking, do you?" he said.

  "Yes, sir. Don't you?"

  "No: I call it tearing my plants to pieces. Why, look here, if mypickers were to go to work like that, I should only get half a crop andmy plants would be spoiled."

  I looked at him helplessly, and wished he would pick the strawberrieshimself.

  "Look here," he said, stooping over a plant, and letting a great scarletberry specked with golden seeds fall over into his hand. "Now see:finger nail and thumb nail; turn 'em into scissors; draw one against theother, and the stalk's through. That's the way to do it, and the restof the bunch not hurt. Now then, your back's younger than mine. Goahead."

  I felt hot and uncomfortable, but I took the rhubarb leaf, stepped inamongst the clean straw, and, using my nails as he had bid me, foundthat the strawberries came off wonderfully well.

  "Only the ripe ones, boy; leave the others. Pick away. Poor old Tommythen!"

  I looked up to see if he was speaking to me, but he had let one of thecats run up to his shoulder, and he was stroking the soft lithe creatureas it rubbed itself against his head.

  "That's the way, boy," he cried, as I scissored off two or three berriesin the way he had taught me. "I like to see a chap with brains. Come,pick away."

  I did pick away, till I had about twenty in the soft green leaf, andthen I stopped, knowing that in flowers and fruit I had twice as much asI should have obtained at the shop.

  "Oh, come, get on," he cried contemptuously. "You're not half a fellow.Don't stop. Does your back ache?"

  "No, sir," I said; "but--"

  "Oh, you wouldn't earn your salt as a picker," he cried. As he saidthis he came on to the bed, and, bending down, seemed to sweep a handround the strawberry plant, gathering its leaves aside, and leaving theberries free to be snipped off by the right finger and thumb. He kepton bidding me pick away, but he sheared off three to my one, and at theend of a few minutes I was holding the rhubarb leaf against my breast tokeep the fruit from falling over the side.

  "There you are," he cried at last. "That do?"

  "Oh, yes, sir," I said; "but--"

  "That's enough," he cried sharply. "Here, hand over that sixpence.Money's money, and you can't get on without it, youngster."

  I gave him the coin, and he took it, span it up in the air, caught it,and after dragging out a small wash-leather bag he dropped it in, gaveme a comical look as he twisted a string about the neck, tucked it in,and replaced the bag in his pocket.

  "There you are,"
he cried. "Small profits and quick returns. No creditgiven. Toddle; and don't you come and bother me again. I'm a marketgrower, my young shaver, and can't trade your fashion."

  "I did not know, sir," I said, trying to look and speak with dignity,for it was very unpleasant to be addressed so off-handedly by this man,just as if I had been asking him a favour.

  "I'm very much obliged to you," I added, for I had glanced at the bunchof roses; and as I looked at the fresh sweet-scented beauties I thoughtof how delighted my poor mother would be, and I could not help feelingthat old Brownsmith had been very generous.

  Then making him rather an awkward bow, I stalked off, feeling verysmall, and was some distance back towards the gate, wondering whether Ishould meet "Shock," when from behind there came a loud "Hi!"

  I paid no heed and went on, for it was not pleasant to be shouted atlike that by a market grower, and my dignity was a good deal touched bythe treatment I had received; but all at once there came from behind mesuch a roar that I was compelled to stop, and on turning round there wasold Brownsmith trotting after me, with his cats skipping about in alldirections to avoid being trodden on and to keep up.

  He was very much more red in the face now, for the colour went all downbelow his cheeks and about his temples, and he was shining very much.

  "Why, I didn't know you with your cap on," he cried. "Take it off. No,you can't. I will."

  To my great annoyance he snatched off my cap.

  "To be sure! I'm right," he said, and then he put my cap on again,uncomfortably wrong, and all back: for no one can put your cap on foryou as you do it yourself. "You live over yonder at the white housewith the lady who is ill?"

  I nodded.

  "The widow lady?"

  "I live with mamma," I said shortly.

  "Been very ill, hasn't she?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "Ah! bad thing illness, I suppose. Never was ill, only when the wagonwent over my leg."

  "Yes, sir, she has been very bad."

  I was fidgeting to go, but he took hold of one of the ends of my littlecheck silk tie, and kept fiddling it about between his finger and thumb.

  "What's the matter?"

  "Dr Morrison told Mrs Beeton, our landlady, that it was decline, sir."

  "And then Mrs Beeton told you?"

  "No, sir, I heard the doctor tell her."

  "And then you went and frightened the poor thing and made her worse bytelling her?"

  "No, I did not, sir," I said warmly.

  "Why not?"

  "Because I thought it might make her worse."

  "Humph! Hah! Poor dear lady!" he said more softly. "Looked too ill tocome to church last Sunday, boy. Flowers and fruit for her?"

  I nodded.

  "She send you to buy 'em?"

  I shook my head, for I was so hurt by his abrupt way, his sharpcross-examination, and the thoughts of my mother's illness, that I couldnot speak.

  "Who sent you then--Mrs Beeton?"

  "No, sir."

  "Who did?"

  "Nobody, sir. I thought she would like some, and I came."

  "For a surprise, eh?"

  Yes, sir.

  "Own money?"

  I stared at him hard.

  "I said, Own money? the sixpence? Where did you get it?"

  "I have sixpence a week allowed me to spend."

  "Hah! to be sure," he said, still holding on by my tie, and staring atme as he fumbled with one hand in his trousers pocket. "Get out, Dick,or I'll tread on you!" this to one of the cats, who seemed to thinkbecause he was black and covered with black fur that he was ablacking-brush, and he was using himself accordingly all over hismaster's boots.

  "If you please, I want to go now," I said hurriedly.

  "To be sure you do," he said, still holding on to the end of my tie--"tobe sure you do. Hah! that's got him at last."

  I stared in return, for there had been a great deal of screwing aboutgoing on in that pocket, as if he could not get out his big fist, but itcame out at last with a snatch.

  "Here, where are you?" he said. "Weskit? why, what a bit of a slit itis to call a pocket. Hold the sixpence though, won't it?"

  "If you please I'd rather pay for the flowers," I cried, flushing as heheld on by the tie with one hand, and thrust the sixpence back in mypocket with the other.

  "Dessay you would," he replied; "but I told you before I'm market growerand dursen't take small sums. Not according to Cocker. Didn't knowCocker, I suppose, did you?"

  "No, sir."

  "Taught 'rithmetic. Didn't learn his 'rithmetic then?"

  "No, sir," I replied, "Walkinghame's."

  "Did you though? There, now, you play a walking game, and get home andcount your strawberries."

  "Yes, sir, but--"

  "I say, what a fellow you are to but! Why, you're like Teddy, my goat,I once had. No, no! No money. Welcome to the fruit, ditto flowers,boy. This way."

  He was leading me towards the gate now like a dog by a string, and itannoyed me that he would hold me by the end of my tie, the more so thatI could see Shock with a basket turned over his head watching me fromdown amongst the trees.

  "Come on again, my lad, often as you like. Lots growing--lots spoils."

  "Thank you, sir," I said diffidently, "but--"

  "Woa, Teddy," he cried, laughing. "There; that'll do. Look here, whydon't you bring her for a walk round the garden--do her good? Glad tosee her any time. Here, what a fellow you are, dropping yourstrawberries. Let it alone, Dick. Do for Shock."

  I had let a great double strawberry roll off the top of my heap, and acat darted at it to give it a sniff; but old Brownsmith picked it up andlaid it on the top of a post formed of a cut-down tree.

  "Now, then, let's get a basket. Look better for an invalid. Oneminute: some leaves."

  He stooped and picked some strawberry leaves, and one or two very largeripe berries, which he told me were Myatt's.

  Then taking me to a low cool shed that smelt strongly of cut flowers, hetook down a large open strawberry basket from a nail, and deftlyarranged the leaves and fruit therein, with the finest ripened fruitpointing upwards.

  "That's the way to manage it, my lad," he said, giving me a queer look;"put all the bad ones at the bottom and the good ones at the top.That's what you'd better do with your qualities, only never let the badones get out."

  "Now, your pinks and roses," he said; and, taking them, he shook themout loosely on the bench beneath a window, arranged them all verycleverly in a bunch, and tied it up with a piece of matting.

  "I'm sure I'm very much obliged to you, sir," I said, warmly now, for itseemed to me that I had been making a mistake about Mr Brownsmith, andthat he was a very good old fellow after all.

  "That's right," he said, laughing. "So you ought to be. Good-bye.Come again soon. My dooty to your mamma, and I hope she'll be better.Shake hands."

  I held out my hand and grasped his warmly as we reached the gate, seeingShock watching me all the time. Then as I stood outside old Brownsmithlaughed and nodded.

  "Mind how you pack your strawberries," he said with a laugh; "bad 'unsat bottom, good 'uns at top. Good-bye, youngster, good-bye."