George Fenn.

Friends I Have Made

You see, children are so thoughtless, and yet you cant wonder at it but as long as they have their meals victuals thats all they think about. But then theyre very young, you see, and dont know any better. That big ones seven, and she minds the two others while I go out, and I always manage not to be gone more than three hours at a time, though it hinders me a good deal from taking longer beats, for you see Im out now-a-days in this pleasant spring weather with flowers. Id do needlework, so as to be at home with them, but, oh! its heart-breaking work. It was hard enough, I dare say, before there were sewing machines, but its dreadful now, and you may work day and night almost to live. Just fancy being paid so many farthings for making a garment that has taken hours, while the poor children have been fretful and miserably cooped up in this one room half-a-crown a week I pay for it, because its one of the most decent, and I like being up at the top of the house, here, for one seems to get a little more fresh air, even if its smoky. The poor bairns didnt seem to breathe down below there, and grew more white and pasty-looking every day till I got them up here.

Im not particular what I sell as long as it is in season and people will buy. But its no matter what one takes to, theres scores about selling the very same thing, and its quite a fight sometimes for the next penny. Flowers always did, and I suppose always will, sell well, and I do the best I can with mine by sprinkling and keeping them fresh, and setting them out as tasty as I can, so as to catch peoples eyes. Theres very few people, no matter how hard they are, but what you can make the way to their hearts with a pretty, sweet-smelling blossom or two. I suppose as God made them, Hes given them that power, and Ive had your hard City men, who make money all the day long, stop in front of my basket with the lines softening out of their faces, and a brightness coming into their eyes that seems to stop for long enough; and if they buy, say, a bunch of violets or a few wallflowers, theyll stop about them, not picking and choosing and beating you down, but pretending to, so that they may hang about the basket, and smell them, and look at their simple beauty.

I keep at flowers all I can, for its a good trade for a poor woman like me; and even in that one gets ones regular customers. One simple-looking boy comes and buys rosebuds of me; and I smile to myself, sadly enough though, for it reminds me of old times, when ones eyes were bright, and ones face was smooth and fresh-coloured, and Tom used to say Well, never mind, maam, I wont bother you with that nonsense; but this customer of mine buys those rosebuds to give to some proud girl, I feel sure one as will never look at him; and the poor fellow always sighs when he buys his roses. One gentleman buys a bunch regularly to take home to his wife; another for his children; and work-girls love them dearly, to keep them in water in their rooms.

I call regular at one house, and somehow I always make up my best bunch for there. You see, its for a sick girl who has been lying months and months, and they tell me she will never get better; while the thought of her seems to remind me of my own trouble, and I feel sorry for her; and after the servant has taken the sweet, fresh bunch, and paid me for it, I seem to picture it all the poor invalid smiling and brightening up at the sight of the pretty flowers, as she holds out her poor, thin, white hands for them, and perhaps kisses them, and holds them to her poor pale face. I dont know that she does I only seem to fancy it is so.

Rich and poor, maam, all alike, and ready to be customers for a few flowers; and I often felt cut to see the eager looks some poor creatures give at them, and how ready they are to part with almost their last coin to get hold of them. Why, Ive known boys who had perhaps a penny to get a bit of bread-and-butter for their tea come and spend it with me; and once, bad off as I was myself, I could not take the longing little fellows penny, but gave him the flowers.

You see, it seems to come into the hearts of all Gods creatures, I think, to love the bright country; and when tiny bits of it like are held before them, it sets them longing, and makes them eager to get them. But its hard work at times to know what to do, for flowers fade and die, and after one has come down to the lavender, and cried that round the streets, its getting a hard matter to know what to sell. Ive come home here o nights before now, and gone down on my knees by that bit of a bed and cried to be taught what to do next to get a bit of bread for the little ones, whom Ive found huddled together fast asleep after crying, perhaps, for long enough because mother did not come home. And shall I tell you why mother did not come home, maam? Well, it was because she had tramped hour after hour, street after street, to find a customer, and then came home disappointed and heart-sick. Then, perhaps it would be the crying, or perhaps better thoughts came into ones ignorant heart; but Ive got up better, and somehow the sun would shine a bit for me the next day, so that I could make a few pence; and one way and another we manage to live, while others starve.

Was it ones heart that had grown heavier with listening to the widows sorrows? Perhaps so; for certainly the stairs creaked more loudly as I went down past misery staring from more than one lair, hollow-eyed and gaunt, as though speaking as the flower-selling widow; and then I stood once more in the court, threaded my way past the children that flocked there, several of whom were fishing with bits of string for the lost coin, and, on reaching the embouchure, encountered young Trousers, who grinned a welcome as I passed, and ceased printing black feet upon the pavement.

I aint spint that there copper, he shouted after me.

Havent you? I said. What shall you do with it, my man?

Give it to mother, said the grimy young rascal, with an earnestness that there was no mistaking; and I passed on, thinking what a fine lad that little fellow would have made if planted in different soil with some one to carefully watch him and tend.

Chapter Five.
Ruths Stepfather

I feel a shrinking a strange kind of hesitation in narrating some of these adventures lest the reader should think me full of egotism, and that I told of my little charities as if proud of what I had done. Pray chase any such idea from your minds, for I can honestly say that no feeling of vanity ever existed in mine. I am merely relating the pleasures of my life, my rambles amongst weeds and flowers the weeds and sad lined blossoms of our town.

I was much troubled in my mind as to how I could most help the widow of Burts Buildings, and I knew that I could best assist her by helping her to help herself. One of her great troubles was that she had to leave her little ones so long, and a strange sense of pain had shot through me as she spoke of finding them huddled together as they had cried themselves to sleep. What could I do then?

The thought came: A sewing machine! that which had been her enemy to be now her friend; and the next morning I was in one of our busiest streets in front of a large establishment within whose plate-glass doors I saw a pretty lady-like young woman, busy winding thread upon one of some dozen of the ingenious little pieces of mechanism, and upon stating my wants she led me up to a bluff, sharp-looking, grey man whose face seemed to soften as she spoke before returning to her task.

Sewing machine maam, eh? he said, eyeing me very sharply. Own use?

No, I said, I want it for a poor woman to enable her to earn her living.

Instalments, maam, he said sharply.

I beg your pardon.

Want to pay for it by instalments? he said.

Oh! no, I will pay for it at once, and you can deliver it to her.

Oh, he said smiling, thats twenty per cent, discount.

I looked at him wonderingly, for I did not know what twenty per cent discount might be.

I always take twenty per cent discount off these machines, he said, and I left pleasurably impressed by his ways and those of the young girl he introduced to me as his daughter, and that little new machine was the first of several in which I had Mr Smiths kind co-operation and advice in what were doubtful cases.

The result was a warm intimacy, in the course of which he told me his little history and that of his daughter stepdaughter he called her Ruth.

Mines a curious trade to have taken to, he said, and I had plenty of up-hill work, but it has grown to be profitable. Things were at a low ebb with me when I took it up, while now

There, I wont boast, only say that Im thankful for it. Poverty comes in at the door, and love flies out of the window, so they say; but thats all nonsense, or else your poor people would be always miserable, while according to my experience your poor man is often more lighthearted than the man with thousands.

I was at my wits end for something to do, and sat nibbling my nails one day, and grumbling horribly.

Dont go on like that, Tom, says my wife; things might be worse.

How? I said.

Why, we might have Luke at home, and he is doing well.

Lukes our boy, you know, and we had got him into a merchants office, where he seemed likely to stay; but I was in a grumbling fit then, and there was a clickety-click noise going on in the next room which fidgeted me terribly.

Things cant be worse, I said angrily; and I was going to prove myself in the wrong by making my wife cry, when there was a knock at the door.

Come in, I said, and a fellow-lodger put in his head.

Are you good at works, Mr Smith? he said.

What works? I said; fireworks gasworks?

No, no; I mean works of things as goes with wheels and springs.

Middling, I said, for I was fond of pulling clocks to pieces, and trying to invent.

I wish youd come and look at this sewing machine of mine, for I cant get it to go.

Sewing machines were newish in those days, and I got up to have a look at it, and after about an hours fiddling about, I began to see a bit the reason why the purpose, you know, of all the screws and cranks and wheels; I found out too why our neighbours wife who was a dressmaker, and had just started one could not get it to go; and before night, by thinking, and putting this and that together, had got her in the way of working it pretty steadily, though with my clumsy fingers I couldnt have done it myself.

I had my bit of dinner and tea with those people, and they forced half-a-crown upon me as well, and I went back feeling like a new man, so refreshing had been that bit of work.

There, said my wife, I told you something would come.

Well, so you did, I said; but the something is rather small.

But the very next day as we were living in the midst of people who were fast taking to sewing machines if the folks from the next house didnt want me to look at theirs; and then the news spreading, as news will spread, that there was somebody who could cobble and tinker machinery, without putting people to the expense that makers would, if the jobs didnt come in fast, so that I was obliged to get files and drills and a vice regular set of tools by degrees; and at last I was as busy as a bee from morning to night, and whistling over my work as happy as a king.

Of course every now and then I got a breakage, but I could generally get over that by buying a new wheel, or spindle, or what not. Next we got to supplying shuttles, and needles, and machine cotton. Soon after I bought a machine of a man who was tired of it. Next week I sold it at a good profit; bought another, and another, and sold them; then got to taking them and money in exchange for new ones; and one way and the other became a regular big dealer, as you see.

Hundred? Why, new, second-hand, and with those being repaired upstairs by the men, Ive got at least three hundred on the premises, while if anybody had told me fifteen years ago that I should be doing this, I should have laughed at him.

That pretty girl showing and explaining the machine to a customer? Thats Ruth, that is. No, not my daughter yet, but she soon will be. Poor girl, I always think of her and of bread thrown upon the waters at the same time.

Curious idea that, you will say, but Ill tell you why.

In our trade we have strange people to deal with. Most of em are poor, and cant buy a machine right off, but are ready and willing to pay so much a week. That suits them, and it suits me, if theyll only keep the payments up to the end.

You wont believe me, perhaps, but some of them dont do that. Some of them leave their lodgings, and I never see them again: and the most curious part is that the sewing machine disappears with them, and I never see that again. Many a one, too, that has disappeared like that, I do see again perhaps have it brought here by some one to be repaired, or exchanged for a bigger, or for one of a different maker; for if you look round here, youll see Ive got all kinds new and old, little domestics and big trades there, you name any maker, and see if I dont bring you out one of his works.

Well, then I ask these people where they got the machine for I always know them by the number it turns out that theyve bought it through an advertisement, or at a sale-room, or maybe out of a pawnbrokers shop.

But Ive had plenty of honest people to deal with too them as have come straightforward, and told me they couldnt keep up their payments, and asked me to take their machine back, when Id allow them as much as I thought fair, and twould be an end of a pleasant transaction.

The way Ive been bitten though, by some folks, has made me that case-hardened that sometimes Ive wondered whether Id got any heart left, and the wifes had to interfere, telling me Ive been spoiled with prosperity, and grown unfeeling.

It was she made me give way about Ruth, for one day, after having had my bristles all set up by finding out that three good sound machines, by best makers, had gone nobody knew where, who should come into the shop but a lady-like woman in very shabby widows weeds. She wanted a machine for herself and daughter to learn, and said she had heard that I would take the money by instalments. Now just half-an-hour before, by our shop clock, I had made a vow that Id give up all that part of the trade, and I was very rough with her just as I am when Im cross and said, No.

But you will if the lady gives security, says my wife hastily.

The poor woman gave such a woe-begone look at us that it made me more out of temper than ever, for I could feel that if I stopped I should have to let her have one at her own terms. And so it was; for, there, if I didnt let her have a first-class machine, as good as new, she only paying seven and six down, and undertaking to pay half-a-crown a week, and no more security than nothing!

To make it worse, too, if I didnt send the thing home without charge! Luke going with it, for he was back at home now keeping my books, being grown into a fine young fellow of five-and-twenty; and I sat and growled the whole of the rest of the day, calling myself all the weak-minded idiots under the sun, and telling the wife that business was going to the dogs, and I should be ruined.

You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Tom, she said.

So I am, says I. I didnt think I could be such a fool.

Such a fool as to do a good kind action to one who was evidently a lady born, and come down in the world!

Yes, I says, to living in Bennetts Place, where Ive sunk no less than ten machines in five years.

Yes, says the wife, and cleared hundreds of pounds. Tom, Im ashamed of you you a man with twenty workmen busy upstairs, a couple of thousand pounds worth of stock, and in the bank

Hold your tongue, will you! I said roughly, and went out into the shop to try and work it all off.

Luke came back just after, looking very strange, and I was at him directly.

Wheres the seven and six, I said, angrily.

He didnt answer, but put three half-crowns down on the desk, took out the book, made his entries date of delivery, first payment, when the others due, and all the rest of it and was then going into the house.

Mind, I says, sharply, those payments are to be kept up to the day; and to-morrow you go to Rollys, who live nearly opposite to em, and tell em to keep an eye on the widow, or we shall lose another machine.

You neednt be afraid, father, he says coldly; theyre honest enough, only poor.

I was just in that humour that I wanted to quarrel with somebody, and that did it.

When I ask you for your opinion, young man, you give it me; and when I tell you to do a thing, you do it, I says, in as savage a way as ever I spoke to the lad. You go over to-morrow and tell Rollys to keep a strict look-out on those people do you hear?

Father, he says, looking me full in the face, I couldnt insult them by doing such a thing, when without another word he walked quietly out of the shop, leaving me worse than ever.

For that boy had never spoken to me like that before, and I should have gone after him feeling mad like, only some people came in, and I didnt see him again till evening, and a good thing too, for Im sure I should have said all sorts of things to the boy, that I should have been sorry for after. And there I was fuming and fretting about, savage with everybody, giving short answers, snapping at the wife, and feeling as a man does feel when he knows that he has been in the wrong and hasnt the heart to go and own it.

It was about eight oclock that I was sitting by the parlour fire, with the wife working and very quiet, when Luke came in from the workshop with a book under his arm, for he had been totting up the mens piecework, and what was due to them; and the sight of him made me feel as if I must quarrel.

He saw it too, but he said nothing, only put the accounts away and began to read.

The wife saw the storm brewing, and she knew how put out I was, for I had not lit my pipe, nor yet had my evening nap, which I always have after tea. So she did what she knew so well how to do filled my pipe, forced it into my hand, and just as I was going to dash it to pieces in the ashes, she gave me one of her old looks, kissed me on the forehead, as with one hand she pressed me back into my chair, and then with the other she lit a splint and held it to my tobacco.

I was done. She always gets over me like that; and after smoking in silence for half-an-hour, I was lying back, with my eyes closed, dropping off to sleep, when my wife said what had gone before I hadnt heard

Yes, hes asleep now.

That woke me up of course, and if I didnt lie there shamming and heard all they said in a whisper!

How came you to make him more vexed than he was, Luke? says the wife; and he told her.

I couldnt do it, mother, he said, excitedly. It was heart-breaking. Shes living in a wretched room there with her daughter; and, mother, when I saw her I felt as if there, I cant tell you.

Go on, Luke, she said.

Theyre half-starved, he said in a husky way. Oh, mother! its horrible. Such a sweet, beautiful girl, and the poor woman herself dying almost with some terrible disease.

The wife sighed.

They told me, he went on, how hard they had tried to live by ordinary needlework, and failed, and that as a last resource they had tried to get the machine.

Poor things! says the wife; but are you sure the mother was a lady?

A clergymans widow, says Luke hastily; there isnt a doubt about it. Poor girl! and theyve got to learn to use it before it will be of any use.

Poor girl, Luke? says the wife softly; and I saw through my eyelashes that she laid a hand upon his arm, and was looking curiously at him, when if he didnt cover his face with his hands, rest his elbows on the table, and give a low groan! Then the old woman got up, stood behind his chair, and began playing with and caressing his hair like the foolish old mother would.

Mother, he says suddenly, will you go and see them?

She didnt answer for a minute, only stood looking down at him, and then said softly

They paid you the first money?

No, he says hotly. I hadnt the heart to take it.

Then that money you paid was yours, Luke?

Yes, mother, he says simply; and those two stopped looking one at the another, till the wife bent down and kissed him, holding his head afterwards, for a few moments, between her hands; for she always did worship that chap, our only one; and then I closed my eyes tight, and went on breathing heavy and thinking.

For something like a new revelation had come upon me. I knew Luke was five-and-twenty, and that I was fifty-four, but he always seemed like a boy to me, and here was I waking up to the fact that he was a grown man, and that he was thinking and feeling as I first thought and felt when I saw his mother, nigh upon eight-and-twenty years ago.

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