Poor Jack

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In which the doctor pays a visit and receives no fee; and i am obliged to work very hard to procure myself a livelihood.

I did not forget my father's injunctions, for I was very much frightened. There was a doctor who lived half-way up Church Street, a short distance from Fisher's Alley. He was a little man with a large head sunk down between two broad shoulders. His eyes were small and twinkling, his nose snubbed, his pate nearly bald; but on the sides of his head the hair was long and flowing. But if his shoulders were broad the rest of his body was not in the same proportion—for he narrowed as he descended, his hips being very small, and his legs as thin as those of a goat. His real name was Todpoole, but the people invariably called him Tadpole, and he certainly in appearance somewhat reminded you of one. He was a facetious little fellow, and, it was said, very clever in his profession.

"Dr. Tadpole," cried I, out of breath with running, "come quick, my mother is very bad indeed."

"What's the matter?" said he, peering over a mortar in which he was rubbing up something with the pestle. "External or internal?"

Although I did not know what he meant, I replied, "Both, doctor, and a great deal more besides."

"That's bad indeed," replied Tadpole, still rubbing away.

"But you must come directly," cried I. "Come along—quick!"

"Festina lente, good boy—that's Latin for hat and boots. Tom, are my boots clean?"

"Ye'es, sir," replied a carroty-haired boy, whom I knew well.

The doctor laid down his pestle, and taking his seat on a chair, began very leisurely to pull on his boots, while I stamped with impatience.

"Now do be quick, doctor, my mother will be dead."

"Jack," said the doctor, grinning, as he pulled on his second boot, "people don't die so quick before the doctor comes—it's always afterward; however, I'm glad to see you are so fond of your mother. Tom, is my hat brushed?"

"Ye'es, sir," replied Tom, bringing the doctor's hat.

"Now then, Jack, I'm all ready. Tom, mind the shop, and don't eat the stick-liquorice—d'ye hear?"

"Ye'es, sir," said Tom, with a grin from ear to ear.

The doctor followed me very quick, for he thought from my impatience that something serious must be the matter. He walked up to my mother's room, and I hastened to open the door; when, to my surprise, I found my mother standing before the glass arranging her hair.

"Well!" exclaimed my mother, "this is very pretty behavior—forcing your way into a lady's room."

The doctor stared, and so did I. At last I exclaimed, "Well! father thought he'd killed her."

"Yes," cried my mother, "and he's gone away with it on his conscience, that's some comfort. He won't come back in a hurry; he thinks he has committed murder, the unfeeling brute! Well, I've had my revenge."

And as she twisted up her hair, my mother burst out screaming:

"Little Bopeep, she lost her sheep. And couldn't tell where to find him; She found him, indeed, but it made her heart bleed, For he left his tail behind him."

"Why, then, doctor, it was all sham," exclaimed I.

"Yes; and the doctor's come on a fool's errand—

"'Goosey, Goosey Gander, Whither dost thou wander? Upstairs and downstairs, And in a lady's chamber.'"

The doctor shrugged up his shoulders so that his head disappeared between them. At last he said, "Your mother don't want me, Jack, that's very clear. Good-morning, Mrs. Saunders."

"A very good-morning to you, Dr. Tadpole," replied my mother with a profound courtesy; "you'll oblige me by quitting this room and shutting the door after you, if you please." As the doctor and I went down, my mother continued the song—

"And then I met a little man, Couldn't say his prayers, I took him by the left leg And sent him downstairs."

As soon as we were in the parlor, I acquainted the doctor with what had happened. "I'm sure I thought she was dead," said I, when I had finished the story.

"Jack, when I asked you where your mother was bad, external or internal, you replied both, and a great deal more besides. So she is—internally, externally, and infernally bad," said the doctor, laughing. "And so she amputated your father's pigtail, did she, the Delilah? Pity one could not amputate her head, it would make a good woman of her. Good-by, Jack; I must go and look after Tom, he's swallowed a whole yard of stick-liquorice by this time."

Soon afterward Ben the Whaler came in to inquire after my father, and I told him what had occurred. He was very indignant at my mother's conduct, and, as soon as the affair was known, so were all the tenants of Fisher's Alley. When my mother went out, or had words with any of her neighbors, the retort was invariably, "Who sent the press-gang after her own husband?" or "Who cut off the tail from her husband's back? Wasn't that a genteel trick?" All this worried my mother, and she became very morose and ill-tempered. I believe she would have left the alley if she had not taken a long lease of the house. She had now imbibed a decided hatred for me, which she never failed to show upon every occasion, for she knew that it was I who had roused my father, and prevented her escape from his wrath. The consequence was that I was seldom at home, except to sleep. I sauntered to the beach, ran into the water, sometimes rowed in the wherries, at others hauling them in and holding them steady for the passengers to land. I was beginning to be useful to the watermen, and was very often rewarded with a piece of bread and cheese, or a drink of beer out of their pots. The first year after my father's visit I was seldom given a meal, and continually beaten—indeed, sometimes cruelly so—but as I grew stronger, I rebelled and fought, and with such success that, although I was hated more, I was punished less.

One scene between my mother and me may serve as a specimen for all. I would come home with my trousers tucked up, and my high-lows unlaced and full of water, sucking every time that I lifted up my leg, and marking the white sanded floor of the front room, as I proceeded through it to the back kitchen. My mother would come downstairs, and perceiving the marks I had left, would get angry, and as usual commence singing—

"'A frog he would a-wooing go, Heigho, says Rowly.'

"I see here's that little wretch been here—

"'Whether his mother would let him or no, Heigho, says Rowly.'

"I'll rowly him with the rolling-pin when I get hold of him. He's worse than that beastly water-spaniel of Sir Hercules', who used to shake himself over my best cambric muslin. Well, we'll see. He'll be wanting his dinner; I only wish he may get it.

"'Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, Eating his Christmas pie; He put in his thumb and pull'd out a plum, And cried, What a good boy am I!'

"'Good boy am I!' good-for-nothing brat, just like his father. Oh, dear!—if I could but get rid of him!

"'There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, She'd so many children she didn't know what to do; She gave them some broth without any bread, She whipped them all round, and sent them to bed.'

"And if I don't whip him, it's my fault, that's all. Virginia, my love, don't spit—that's not genteel. It's only sailors and Yankees who spit. Nasty little brute! Oh! here you are, are you?" cried my mother, as I entered. "Do you see what a dirty mess you have made, you little ungrateful animal? Take that, and that, and that," continued she, running the wet bristles of the long broom into my face, with sufficient force to make my nose bleed. I stood the first push, and the second; but the third roused my indignation—and I caught hold of the end of the broom toward me, and tried to force it out of her hands. It was push against push, for I was very strong—she, screaming as loud as she could, as she tried to wrest the broom from my clutches—I, shoving at her with all my force—like Punch and the devil at the two ends of the stick. At last, after she had held me in a corner for half a minute, I made a rush upon her, drove her right to the opposite corner, so that the end of the handle gave her a severe poke in the body, which made her give up the contest, and exclaim as soon as she recovered her breath—"Oh! you nasty, ungrateful, ungenteel brute! You little viper! Is that the way you treat your mother—and nearly kill her? Oh, dear me!"

"Why don't you leave me alone, then? you never beats Jenny."

"Who's Jenny, you wicked good-for-nothing boy? you mean your sister Virginia. Well, you'll have no dinner, I can tell you."

I put my hand in my pocket, took out a sixpence which I had received, and held it up between my thumb and finger. "Won't I?"

"You oudacious boy! that's the way you're spoiled by foolish people giving you money."

"Good-by, mother." So saying, I leaped over the board fixed up at the door, and was again down at the beach. Indeed, I was now what is termed a regular Mud-larker, picking up halfpence by running into the water, offering my ragged arm to people getting out of the wherries, always saluting them with, "You haven't got never a halfpenny for poor Jack, your honor?" and sometimes I did get a halfpenny, sometimes a shove, according to the temper of those whom I addressed. When I was not on the beach, I was usually in company with Ben the Whaler, who, after my father's visit, was more kind to me than ever; and there were several other pensioners who were great friends of mine; and I used to listen to their long yarns, which were now becoming a source of great delight to me; at other times I would be with the watermen, assisting them to clean out their wherries, or pay the seams. In fact, I was here, there, and everywhere except at home—always active, always employed, and, I may add, almost always wet. My mother used to scold whenever I came in; but that I did not mind; her greatest punishment was refusing me a clean shirt on a Sunday. At last I picked up halfpence enough to pay, not only for my food, such as it was, but for my own washing, and every day I became more independent and more happy.

There were other ways by which money was to be obtained during the summer season, which were from the company who used to come down to the whitebait parties at the Ship and other taverns. There were many other boys who frequented the beach besides me, and we used to stand under the windows, and attract attention by every means in our power, so as to induce the company to throw us halfpence to scramble for. This they would do to while away their time until their dinner was ready, or to amuse themselves and the ladies by seeing us roll and tumble one over the other. Sometimes they would throw a sixpence into the river, where the water was about two feet deep, to make us wet ourselves through in groping for it. Indeed, they were very generous when they wished to be amused; and every kind of offer was made to them which we thought suited to their tastes, or likely to extract money from their pockets.

"Dip my head in the mud for sixpence, sir!" would one of us cry out; and then he would be outbid by another.

"Roll myself all over and over, in the mud, face and all, sir—only give me sixpence!"

Sometimes I would perceive a lovely countenance, beaming with pity and compassion at our rags and apparent wretchedness, and then the money thrown to me gave me much more pleasure; but the major portion of those who threw us silver for their own amusement would not have given us a farthing if we had asked charity for the love of God.

It must not, however, be supposed that I gained the enviable situation of Poor Jack until I had been some time on the beach. There are competitors for every place, even the most humble; and there was no want of competitors for this office among the many idle boys who frequented the beach. When I first plied there, I was often pushed away by those who were older and stronger than myself, with a "Go along with you! He's not poor Jack—I'm poor Jack, your honor." This, at first, I submitted to; taking my chance for a stray halfpenny, which was occasionally thrown to me, trusting to my activity in being the first down to the boat, or to my quickness in a scramble. I never quarreled with the other boys, for I was remarkable for my good temper. The first idea I had of resistance was from oppression. One of the boys, who was older and taller than myself, attempted to take away a sixpence which I had gained in a scramble. Before that, I had not resented being pushed away, or even when they threw water or mud at me; but this was an act of violence which I could not put up with: the consequence was a fight; in which, to my surprise (for I was not aware of my strength), as well as to the surprise of the bystanders, I proved victorious, beating my opponent until he reeled into the water, following him up until he tumbled, and then holding his head down in the mud until he was almost stifled. I then allowed him to get up, and he went home crying to his mother. For this feat I was rewarded with the plaudits of the old pensioners and others who were looking on, and with a shilling which was thrown to me from the window of the inn. Ben the Whaler, who had witnessed the fray, told me, the next day, that I handled my fists remarkably well, and that I had but to keep a higher guard and I should fight well. He was an old pugilist himself, and he gave me a few directions which I did not forget. I soon had occasion to put them into practice; for, two days afterward, another boy, bigger than myself, as I was plying as "Poor Jack," pushed me back so hard that I fell off the steps into the deep water, and there was a general laugh against me. I did not care for the ducking, but the laugh I could not bear: as soon as I gained the steps again, I rushed upon him and threw him off, and he fell into the wherry, and, as it afterward appeared, he strained his back very much; nevertheless he came out to thrash me; and this time it was a regular fight, as the pensioners and watermen interfered, taking us both up on the higher ground, and seeing that it was fair play. Ben the Whaler acted as my second, and we set to. The boy was too powerful for me, had it not been for the hurt he had received and the instructions I obtained from Ben every time that I sat on his knee between each round. Still it was a very hard fight, and I was terribly beaten; but I could not give up, for so many betted upon my winning, and Ben told me, at the end of every round, that if I only stood up one more, I should be certain to beat him, and that then I should be Poor Jack forever! The last inducement stimulated me to immense exertion. We closed and wrestled, and my antagonist was thrown; and, in consequence of the strain he had before received, he could not stand up anymore. Poor fellow! he was in great pain; he was taken home, and obliged to have a doctor, and an abscess formed in his side. He was a long while getting well, and, when he came out of doors again, he was so pale. I was very sorry for him, and we were always the best friends afterward, and I gave him many a halfpenny, until I had an opportunity of serving him.

I mention these two fights because they obtained for me a greater reputation than I deserved: this reputation perhaps saved me a great deal more fighting, and obtained me the mastery over the other boys on the beach. Indeed, I became such a favorite with the watermen that they would send the other boys away; and thus did I become, at last, the acknowledged, true, lawful, and legitimate "Poor Jack of Greenwich."

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