IT was a bitterly cold winter night; the snow which had been falling all day had ceased now, but the wind was keen, and little Tom Rogers shivered in his ragged clothing as he sank down upon a doorstep and tried in vain to warm his hands by blowing upon them. He had been out since early morning with his broom; standing by the crossing, he had swept over the bustling London street with little success, for nearly every one had passed him by or bidden him "earn his living respectably," and so at last Tom had given it up for that day as a bad job, and was sitting down to rest before he turned homewards. It was a wretched place to call home — the dirty court, where he lived in a miserable kitchen, with a woman who was sometimes kind and sometimes cross, depending very much upon his earnings. She wasn't his mother. There were two or three more children in the dirty room, who were hers, but she treated them much as she did Tom, turning them into the streets to get on as best they could. Just opposite to where Tom sat on the doorstep there was a cook's shop, and the very sight of the meat and pudding and sausages made him hungrier than ever, and the worst was he dared not spend one of the few pennies he had earned that day — he would be beaten enough as it was. It was not exactly fear which made Tom so unwilling to go home; he was so used to rough words and blows that he had ceased to care very much about them; he only lingered because there was nothing much to go in for, and it wouldn't be a great deal warmer in the damp fireless kitchen than in the street. So Tom sat still and buried his face in his hands, and began wishing ever so many things. First he wished he was the lamplighter; he had often watched him going his rounds, thinking it must be capital fun, because he always went along so cheerfully and quickly. Next he thought it would be rather good to drive an omnibus, and race all the other omnibuses and cabs that went along the street. And then he began just to wish he had money enough to buy slices of padding and sausage-rolls at the cook's shop as often as he felt hungry. So his thoughts came back to his own misery, and as he glanced across once more to the tempting shop, his eyes filled with tears, and letting his head fall on his knees he cried bitterly because he was so very cold and hungry, and he knew there was no chance of supper for him that night.
Presently he felt a cold nose rubbing against his hands, and looking up, saw a shabby brown dog, which wagged its tail and whined piteously, almost as if it was sorry for him, and which would not be driven away by kicks or threats, such as Tom was used to give stray dogs who followed him.
"Here's Bouncer, mother," said a child's voice. "Bouncer! come, sir;" but the dog would not stir, only wagged its tail again and looked at Tom.
"What's the matter, my lad ?" said the child's mother, who came up just then; but Tom said not a word. "Come, you might tell me what you're crying for," she repeated.
"You'd cry yourself, maybe, if you was as hungry as me," the boy muttered sullenly, for he was rather ashamed of his tears, and had not reckoned on any one seeing them there on the doorstep.
"Well, why don't you go home and get your supper, then?" " I shan't get no supper, I'll only get thrashed; but I don't care, I'll run away one of these times, that I will."
"Run away from your mother and father? Oh no, you won't do that," said the kind voice.
"Ain't got no mother and father; I only lives along with Nancy." "Is she good to you?" asked the child, who had been listening in silence till then.
"No, she isn't, but I don't care; I shan't go home at all tonight;" and Tom settled himself again on the doorstep, and put his head down upon his hands as if he wasn't going to say another word. The woman hardly liked to pass on and leave him, yet she could not help it, so calling the dog off they went away, and after a while Tom fell fast asleep, and didn't wake until he felt some one shaking him and heard the policeman's voice bidding him "move on." Then he slunk off another way and lay down under an archway, where he slept in peace until the noises in the streets began, and he knew that day had come again. He ventured to spend a penny from his pocket in a roll at the first baker's shop he saw open, and he stole a can of milk he found outside the area of a house he passed, and then he made off as fast as he could to his crossing to begin once more his old cry,
"Please remember the sweeper." He got on a little better that day, though, so towards afternoon he ventured to turn homewards and see what was going on there; but as he reached the court he was greeted by a tribe of dirty urchins of his own kind, who told him
"Nancy had gone clean away, and the room was shut up." Truly enough it was so; and though Tom had never cared for the rough woman who had taken charge of him as long as he could remember anything, his heart sank very low as he understood for the first time what it was to be homeless and quite alone in the world. It was useless standing looking at the closed room though; besides, the children were all laughing at his unhappy face, thinking it capital fun; so he turned away again, and went back to look into the window of his favourite shop, and then, taking some coppers from his pocket, he went in and bought several slices of the pudding which had looked so tempting the night before. He crossed over to the same doorstep where he had cried from cold and hunger, and sitting down, ate his dinner, and began to wonder what he should do next.
Soon after, the very same dog and child and woman passed along whom he had seen the previous night, and they stopped to speak to him.
"Well, did you get some supper, after all?" asked the woman.
"I didn't go home; I slept out o' doors; I often does." "But you'll go home tonight, I hope ?" Tom grinned. "I ain't got no home to go to; Nancy's hooked it! "
"Hooked it ?" exclaimed the woman with a puzzled face, not quite taking in the boy's meaning.
"Yes; when I went home today, she'd cut; the whole lot of 'em's gone and the place is shut. I don't care; I ain't a bit sorry; I'll get on somehow."
"But that is terrible," said the woman; "whatever can you do?"
"Must do as best I can," said the boy with another grin, as if he rather enjoyed the joke.
"Surely you don't like to live such a life, running about the streets, looking so wild and dirty. Wouldn't you like to get your living respectably?"
"That's what all the folks tells me," said Tom, scornfully; "them as is too mean to give me a copper. What's the use of telling me to earn my living respectably"? Why don't somebody show me how?"
The woman was silent for a minute. She felt it was so true what the boy had said, and yet it was so difficult to know how to help him.
"Would you like to come home with me tonight?" she said, slowly. "I'm only a poor woman myself, and I have to work hard for my living; still, I can't bear to leave you like this. I've just lost a boy myself, no bigger than you; you could sleep where he did for a night or two." Tom made no difficulty in accepting the offer, but rose from the doorstep at once, saying he'd "like it uncommonly."
"Has he run away, or what's come of him?" he asked as they walked along — a strange-looking party; Mrs. Kelly and Mary, cleanly though poorly dressed; Tom, with his broom under his arm, in all his rags and dirt; and Bouncer, who lumped up against first one and then the other, not quite knowing what to make of it.
"He? who do you mean ?" said Mrs. Kelly.
"Your boy, as you said you'd lost."
"Oh, he's dead: not three months ago, and I miss him sadly. Ah, he was a good lad to me;" and Mrs. Kelly sighed. Tom said no more, but trudged along in silence until Bouncer stopped at a house where they all went in.
It was only a kitchen much such an one as Tom had always lived in; only this was as clean as hands could make it, while Nancy's had been as dirty as was well possible. Tom stared all round, and then sat down on the edge of one of the three ricketty chairs that were there, feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Meanwhile Mrs. Kelly and her little girl put three cups and saucers on the table, and lit a fire, and set on a small kettle; and then a loaf and a basin of dripping were brought out from a cupboard by the fireplace, and Tom was told to draw up his chair and have some tea.
"I ain't so hungry tonight," he said; "I've had my dinner, and I had some breakfast too."
"Why, how did you manage that?" asked Mrs. Kelly.
"Oh, I bought my dinner at the cook's shop; I allers do when I've got any coppers; and I prigged some milk this morning, and that was capital."
"You stole it, did you?" said Mrs. Kelly gravely. Tom nodded his head:
"Yes, I takes anything I finds. Finding's keeping, you know."
"I know it's very wicked, and that God must be angry with you. Don't you know the Commandments? " Tom stared at her in utter surprise, but said nothing.
"Don't you know anything about God, then?"
"Dunno," said the boy, looking puzzled.
"Did you never hear that it was wicked to take other people's things, — that God has said,"Thou shalt not steal" ? But the boy seemed highly amused.
"I knows people gets sent to jail sometimes, if they're caught, but I'm too sharp for that."
"Then you don't know it makes God angry with you?"
"I never heerd tell of Him" said Tom. "I don't know no one who's angry 'cept the police; Nancy wasn't: she'd give me a real good supper if I'd took her home something worth having."
"Poor boy, you make me very sorry for you," said Mrs. Kelly; but she looked across at little Mary, who sat listening in great astonishment, feeling that perhaps she had done an unwise thing in bringing such a boy as this to her home, even for a night or so.
"My little girl never heard any one talk so," she said, after a bit. "You won't do anything wrong and teach her, will you ? or I must send you away." Tom felt he shouldn't like that.
"What! don't she take nothing what isn't hers?" he asked, in a tone of unbelief. "No, indeed; I hope she's been too well taught to do that: Mary's trying to please God, and do what He tells her."
"All right," said Tom, "I won't say nothing more about it; I don't want to learn the little girl no harm."
"There's a good boy," answered Mrs. Kelly; and then she began to talk of something else. In spite of Tom's assurance that he wasn't hungry he made vary short work of the bread and dripping, and looked round the room with a very contented face. Suddenly his eyes fixed 'to a crucifix which hung against the wall.
"Lor!" he exclaimed, "whatever's he a-doing of that for?" Both Mary and her mother turned round in the direction of Tom's gaze without exactly knowing what he was looking at.
"Him as is a-hanging up on that bit of wood," explained the boy. Mrs. Kelly looked very grave.
"I'll tell you all about it some day, Tom. That's what God did, who came down and lived in the world, and was very poor, and then died on a cross just like that; we keep it there to remind us. Didn't you ever see one before ? "
"No, that I never did!" cried Tom. "It's the first time I set eyes on such a thing."
"Well, I'm very glad you've seen it now," said Mrs. Kelly. "It's called a crucifix; shall you remember the name?" Tom jerked his head by way of saying yes, and looked as if he would like to hear some more about it. But Mrs. Kelly got up and began to wash the cups and clear the table, and then she and Mary went into a very small back kitchen and made up a bed there, which once was Joseph's, and when they came back Tom was still staring at the crucifix as if he could think of nothing else.
"There's some clothes that belonged to my poor boy," said Mrs. Kelly. " They're nothing very much, but they're better than yours. You're as near his size as can be, and you'd better put them on in the morning." Tom nodded his head again, but even the prospect of new clothes could not take his thoughts from the crucifix.
"I can't think why he come to do it," he said. " Why, it must have hurt him worse than anything."
"Yes it did; but He liked to bear the pain because He did it for us — for you and me and Mary."
"No, he didn't do it for me," said Tom;
"I didn't know him; I don't know nobody but them as lives up our court and round about."
"But He knew you, Tom, and He was thinking about you while He hung on a cross just like that." Tom looked inclined to deny it, but he said nothing more.
"Well, now Mary and me are going to kneel down before that crucifix and say some prayers; suppose you kneel down too, and listen to what we say, and keep your eyes on the crucifix, and try and think how good it was of Jesus to hang there for you."
"Was that the name of Him?" Tom asked.
"Yes," said Mrs. Kelly, kneeling down with Mary by her side, and making the sign of the cross she began their usual night prayers. Tom thought this all very strange, but he kept his eyes fixed on the crucifix and tried to listen. It seemed to him as if they were speaking to some one who had been very good to them, and he wondered who it was. Presently some words caught his ear which he could quite take in the meaning of --"Give us this day our daily bread." The poor ignorant boy thought it must be a fine thing to know some one who would do that; many a time he had wanted such a friend when he was standing at his crossing. But in a few seconds Mary and her mother got up, and Tom was sent to bed in the back kitchen: yet his last thoughts were of the crucifix, and he resolved to find out a little more about it next day. Little Mary Kelly lay by her mother's side wide awake, though it was growing late.
"Mother, are you asleep ?" she asked softly.
"No, child, but I soon shall be; I'm very sleepy."
"I only want to ask one thing, mother. Why don't Tom know any prayers ? "
"Because he's never had any one to teach him. You'd best say a Hail Mary for him, dear."
"Yes, mother," said Mary, turning her face to the wall again.
"I'll say prayers for him until he knows how;" and so she whispered a prayer to Christ's dear mother for the poor crossing-sweeper, and shutting her eyes fell fast asleep.
It was still quite dusky when Mrs. Kelly with her little girl and Tom were getting breakfast, for she rose early and worked hard all day for her bread — sometimes getting a job of cooking or cleaning at gentlemen's houses, and doing a little washing at home between whiles. Times were hard then, for food and firing were dear, and Joseph's earnings had always been enough to clear the weekly rent, so it pressed heavily on the poor woman now; and yet she had not been afraid to take in this poor homeless boy, because she felt quite sure God would not let her miss what she gave him.
"I'm going out for half-a-day's work, Tom," she said, when breakfast was over, " and Mary goes to school; can I trust you to take care of the place till I come back, instead of locking it up as I mostly do?" Tom nodded:
"All right," he said.
"You won't let in any street boys, will you, or get up to any mischief ? Remember, God's looking at you all the time, and He'll know everything you do; God, who came down here to be a man and die on the cross like that, you know, Tom;" and Mrs. Kelly pointed to the crucifix.
"That can't see! " he said.
"No, that's only an image to remind us of Jesus who did just like that when He was alive. He's up in heaven now, Tom, but He's quite near too, and He'll be watching you all day." Tom looked in each corner of the room as if he expected to see some one there; however, he appeared to believe what he was told.
"All right," he said. " He shan't see me doing no harm, I'll promise you." And the boy kept his word, staying quietly in till Mrs. Kelly returned; spending the time in looking over some books with pictures they had left out for him, but gazing still more at the crucifix, as if he was yet wondering and thinking over all he had been told.
"What do you learn at your school ?" he asked Mary, when she came home again.
"Oh, ever so many things," said the child.
"Reading and spelling and writing and needlework; and then we sing, and then of course there's catechism."
"Whatever's that there last thing you said ? I've heard of the rest, but I never heard of that."
"Oh, it's a little book which teaches us our religion: all about God, and what we've got to do and to believe. The sister asks the questions and we children say the answers."
"Whose sister ? — yours ?" inquired Tom.
"The sister, I said; the nun who teaches us. Sister Mary Agnes her name is."
"Lor! do you mean to say one of them queer looking women teaches you?" cried Tom.
"Why, I wonder you're not frightened ! I've seen a nun or two walking by sometimes, and me and a lot more boys calls after them and shouts. It's such fun." But Mary's little pale face was red now.
"You naughty, bad boy; I'm sorry mother brought you here, that I am; I'll ask her to send you right off if you behave so. Don't you know Jesus loves the nuns? Why, they belong to Him, and you must make Him very sorry when yon treat them badly." Tom looked very grave then.
"I'm sure I Torn," he said. "I didn't know they belonged to anybody, I only thought they dressed themselves precious queer. I'll never laugh -at 'em again, Mary, if you like them so." But Mary could not get over it at all that day, and she began to wish Tom had never come, only she hoped he would learn better. That night the boy knelt down with them before the crucifix without feeling quite so puzzled; he was listening for the words that had struck him so the night before, and at last they came, and Tom said out with the others,
"Give us this day our daily bread," for he thought he should be sure not to be hungry any more if he asked for that. " Mother," said Mary, when she was going to bed, " don't you think Tom ought to learn his catechism ? "
"Yes, I mean to teach him a bit when I get a chance, and we must get him to go to school and to church, if he stays here."
"Oh, let him stay, mother," said Mary, forgetting all about her anger and the nuns. "I'm sure he's not such a bad boy, and he'll never learn any better if he goes away. Couldn't I tell him some of the things that's in the catechism, mother?"
" Yes, I believe you could, dear. The sister's taught you so nicely, I should think you might teach Tom what you learn yourself." "Then I'll begin tomorrow," said Mary. Next day was a holiday at the school, being Saturday, so at the first opportunity Mary drew near to where Tom was sitting cutting up firewood, with her catechism in hand.
"Tom, if you like I'll teach you a bit," she said.
"All right," answered Tom; "go ahead."
"Yes, but you'll listen and try and understand, won't you? You'd like to save your soul, Tom, and go to heaven, wouldn't you?"
"I don't know nothing about that, but I'd like to please you, anyhow," said Tom.
"Well then we'll begin. Now you can answer the first question, I'm sure." "Who made you?"
"Who made you," repeated Tom.
"Yes, but that's the question. You are not to say it after me, but tell me the answer."
"So I will if I knows what it is," said Tom. " It's only to say who did make you, Tom. You know that." Tom burst out laughing.
"Well, if that ain't the queerest thing I ever heard. I s'pose I was made same as every one else, wasn't I?"
"Yes, of course God made us all. You should just say, "God, Tom; that's the answer."
"Well, I never knowed it afore," explained Tom. But Mary shut her catechism in despair and rushed to her mother.
"Oh, mother, I meant to teach him all I'd learnt, and he's so stupid he doesn't understand how to answer at all. He says he didn't know God made him, mother!"
"Very likely he didn't, poor lad," said Mrs. Kelly, in no way surprised at Tom's ignorance. "It will all come in time, Mary, but you must have patience. They'll be able to teach him his catechism if we can get him to go to school. Suppose you talk to him and tell him anything he wants to know; and I'd teach him the Hail Mary, if I was you, and our dear Lady will help him to understand all the rest."
So Mary went back to her pupil, and after trying a good many days she got him to learn the Hail Mary sufficiently well to join them in saying it at night and morning prayers.
"I don't clearly see the good of it, though," he said, when his little teacher declared he could say it quite well.
"Well, I'll tell you," said Mary, smoothing down her pinafore with both hands.
"It's a prayer to Our Lady, the mother of Jesus who hung on the cross. Her name was Mary."
"Same as yours," put in Tom.
"Yes, Tom, I'm called after her because I want to be a little bit like her. Now, Tom, please listen. Of course we love Mary very much because Jesus loved her so dearly, and now she is up in heaven with Him He listens to all she asks for, and so if we get her to pray for us He's quite certain to do what she wants Him to." Tom nodded his head.
"I see," he said; " then if we ask Him things ourselves He won't do them 'cept for her ?"
"Oh yes, Tom, indeed He does all we ask if it's good for us, only He likes His dear mother to be asking at the same time,
and I think He listens with a deal more pleasure when we pray and she prays too."
"She didn't hang on the cross, I s'pose," said Tom presently.
"No, but she knelt close by all the while, and saw her dear Son bearing all the pain, and it would almost have broken her heart, only she knew it was the way we'd get our sins washed away, so she was willing to bear it. So you see how much she loves us, Tom."
"Yes," said Tom, "I see all that quite plain like; it's fine to hear you talk, Mary, go on a bit more."
"Oh, I can't tell you much, Tom, for I'm so little; I can only say what I've learnt ; but the priest will tell you all you want to know, if you like." Tom whistled and looked grave.
"I don't know ; I've heard about them priests, and I don't much fancy them."
"But if Jesus was here now you'd like Him, Tom; you'd like to go and hear Him speak and teach ?"
"Yes, that I should ; I'd go ever so far just to get a sight of Him and ask Him to make it all plain to me. That's different to them priests."
"No, it's just exactly the same," said Mary quickly. "Jesus knew we'd want some one to help us when He had to go away, and so He left the priests here, and made them able to do all that we should want, to teach us how to be good and to forgive us our sins ; and Jesus tells them what to say to us, Tom."
"Come now, I ain't a-going to believe all that," said Tom. " That's too strong, that is."
"You must believe it," said Mary, getting very earnest — "Jesus said so, and it must be true. You wouldn't have seen Him die on the cross, and then go away and say you wouldn't believe what He told you, surely, Tom?"
"No, that 'd be real mean," answered Tom. " If I heard Him say all that it'd be all very well, but you see I didn't."
"No, but other people did, and you must take their word. You didn't see Jesus die on the cross, but you believe He did it, don't you, Tom?" Tom was caught then.
"Yes, I do," he said at last; "and I'll try and believe it all. Suppose I go and kneel down before that image under the crucifix — her as you call Our Blessed Lady — and say the Hail Mary you've taught me, do you suppose she'll hear me a-doing of it, and pray for me too that I may believe it all ?"
"Of course she will, Tom — come on." So Mary and the rough ignorant boy knelt side by side before the little figure, and surely the dear Mother to whom they prayed looked down with love and tenderness upon them then.
"I think it's done me good," said Tom, getting up. " I'll do it again by-and-by, and perhaps I'll begin to understand it all after a bit."
A few days had passed since the little crossing- sweeper had found a new home, when to Mrs. Kelly's great distress he announced his intention one morning of going away.
"Tain't that I don't like you," he said; "I'd like to stop always, but I ain't a-going to live out of you; it ain't fair. So I'll take my broom and do as best I can at my crossing, and maybe you'd let me come once in a while to see you and Mary and learn a bit more."
"Oh, Tom, you mustn't go!" cried Mary, and Mrs. Kelly was equally determined not to part with him.
"I can't let you go sweeping crossings now you live here, Tom," she said. " I don't want you to play in the streets; but I'm asking all about to see if I can't find anything decent for you to do, only you must have a bit of patience.''
"But I'm a-living out of you, and that's what I don't want to," said Tom.
"But you help me, Tom. Who's to carry water and fill the kettle and light the fire, and take care of the place when Mary's at school and I'm out at work ? You be a good boy and go on behaving quietly here, and you'll get on finely by-and-by, I know."
So Tom said no more, but the thought remained in his mind, though he kept it secretly there, meanwhile filling up his time by doing anything that came in his way to help. After a bit he got employment from a greengrocer in the next street, who sent him errands on Saturdays, when he had extra business, and after finding he could be trusted, began to give him work for a few hours every day; and then Tom was happy, for he felt he was earning something. Meantime he was slowly beginning to understand what Mrs. Kelly and Mary tried to teach; he had very quickly got to know the Our Father, and they had succeeded in making him feel that there was a God who was angry when he was dishonest and wicked, who saw all that he did by day or night. The first Sunday Tom was with the Kelly's they could not persuade him to go to church, but after that he always went, although at first he was very much astonished at what he saw and heard.
"Mary, Mary," he had whispered the first Sunday morning he had gone to Mass, "is that there image meant for Our Lady, same as yours at home?" Mary nodded her head.
"Yes, Tom, only it's larger."
"What's all them flowers and candles for ?" But Mary would not say any more then.
"I'll tell you after; please don't talk, Tom; say your beads and try and think that Jesus is going to offer Himself to God for our sins." So Tom was silent, although many a time he wanted dreadfully to ask some question; however, he tried hard to keep saying Our Fathers and Hail Marys on the beads, as Mary with great difficulty had taught him to do.
"When Mass was over and they were going home, Mrs. Kelly asked Tom what he thought of it all.
"It was wonderful," he said, drawing a deep breath.
"I never did see such a lot of candles alight afore; I tried to say them beads as Mary told me, but I couldn't manage it very well because of them candles and flowers."
"You wanted to know what they were for, I suppose," said Mrs. Kelly. "When you understand, you'll find they help you to say your prayers better instead of hindering you." Tom looked puzzled again.
"You know why we have an image of our dear Lady, don't you ?" "Oh yes, 'cause she was the Mother of our Lord, and so we love her, and looking at the image makes us think of her up in heaven. Mary told me that."
"Yes; so we put flowers and candles at her feet all to be little proofs of our love, to show her how we would like to give her everything sweet and beautiful if she was in the world now."
"I never thought of that," said Tom. " Why, of course I can look at the flowers and say Hail Marys at the same time. It's a pity I didn't know that, afore I went to church."
"Well, then you saw lights and flowers on the altar, where the priest stood, didn't you, Tom?"
"Heaps of 'em," answered the boy.
"That was because Jesus was there. No, you didn't see Him," she added, noticing Tom's surprised face. "He does not choose to let us see Him looking as He did when He lived in the world; but He is there just the same, only He allows Himself to look like a little bread and wine, but it is really Jesus, Tom— can you believe it?"
"Yes," said the boy. "I suppose He's said it, and He knows better than me. Oh, yes, I mean to believe all He's said."
"I am so glad," said Mrs. Kelly. "If you only do that, Tom, you will be so safe and happy, because then you will try and do what our Lord tells you."
"I am a- trying; I ain't prigged anything since you told me it made Him sorry," said Tom.
"And He has seen you trying, and it has made Him love you very much, and He wants to forgive you all the sins you ever did against Him."
"I'm glad of it," remarked Tom. "There's a precious lot of 'em."
"Well, you'd best let me take you to see the priest tonight, and he'll talk to you and teach you better than me or Mary." So Tom agreed, and from that time he went regularly to school in the week-days and to church on Sunday, and was gradually learning all of which he had been so ignorant a little while before.
"Oh, mother, ain't you glad you brought Tom home?" said Mary, one night. "Why, he's been to confession today, and got all his terrible sins forgiven, and it's so nice to know he's been baptized and made a Christian. I shall keep on saying a Hail Mary for him every night, for I'm sure Our Lady has been praying for him ever so."
Days and weeks went by, and though Tom Rogers said nothing, the old idea was still working in his mind, and he felt that he ought to be doing something more for himself instead of being a burden to Mrs. Kelly, who had hard work to support herself and child. But it wasn't easy to get employment there in London, where there were so many boys who could do far more than he, and Tom did not know how to set about finding any work which, would bring him in more wages than he had for running errands for the greengrocer. At last a bright thought struck him: why shouldn't he go to sea ? He had heard a boy talking about it once, and saying what a fine thing it was, and that they were often glad to get hold of strong boys when a ship was sailing. The worst was it was such a long, long way, to the sea, and Tom had no idea that a vessel could be found there in London. One day he confided his wish to Mary, when they were watching together at the window for Mrs. Kelly to come home.
"I say, Mary," he said, "wouldn't it be a fine thing if I went to sea ?"
"No," replied Mary. "I shouldn't like it at all; but they wouldn't have you, Tom."
"I'd bring you home a parrot, and some shells, and some gold, and a lot of things," said Tom, who had not a very clear notion of geography, but imagined these things were to be found in every place he might sail to. Mary laughed. She had no idea he meant it seriously, and then Mrs. Kelly came in, so no more was said about it. But Tom did not forget, although perhaps he would not have carried out his plan but for some words which happened to catch his ear one day.
"Poor Mrs. Kelly," said one of the neighbours, as Tom passed by; "it's a shame to have a great lad like that on her hands, and she a widow; working so hard too for her bread." Tom did not hear any more, but his resolution was taken; he would go away without saying anything, and then they would get on better without him to keep in food and clothes. So one morning, when Mary was at school and Mrs. Kelly out, Tom packed up a few things in a bundle, and giving one last look round the room went quietly out, feeling very, very sad, for he thought he should never see the kitchen again where he had been so happy and so kindly treated. He had got a little crucifix and a medal of his own safe in his jacket pocket; those were his only treasures to remind him of his friends when he was far away. Tom did not feel quite sure he was doing right in going away secretly like this, but he was so resolved not to be a burden any longer on Mrs. Kelly, and so sure that she would not let him leave if he asked, that he felt this was his only chance of carrying out his plan; yet when he thought of Mary missing him, and her mother thinking him ungrateful, his heart was very full. However, he determined to find some way of letting them know why he had gone when he was fairly out of reach; he couldn't bear them to think perhaps he was amongst bad companions and falling into sinful habits again. So Tom walked on and on, though he did not know which way to take, and after some hours he found himself getting quite into the country, leaving streets and houses far behind. He was hungry then, but he had brought with him what Mrs. Kelly had left out for his dinner, so he sat down under a hedge to eat it, thinking of Mary, and wondering if she was home and had found him gone yet. After resting awhile he went on again, until after a bit a good-natured woman gave him a lift in her cart, and hearing his story gave him some straw for a bed in her barn, and a good breakfast of bread and milk before he started again. Tom found everybody kind to him, and so he managed to get along, asking his way from village to village, until he reached the sea, after a journey of several days.
When he got there his courage gave way, for it was night, and he was tired and hungry, and people looked coldly at him, not speaking kindly as they did in the villages he had passed through ; so at last he went to sleep on a doorstep, just as he had often done in his old miserable life, waking in the morning from confused dreams of Mrs. Kelly, Mary, and Bouncer. A woman had given him two pennies the day before, and with these Tom got some breakfast very early in the morning, at a dirty little shop he happened to find, and then, feeling better and braver, he went down to the harbour to look at the shipping. There was a perfect forest of masts — vessels of all sizes; and the boy's spirits rose at the sight, for surely he would find some one to take him from amongst so many! While he stood gazing wistfully, a gentleman who had been watching his face touched his shoulder.
"Are you a stranger here, my lad, or are you looking for somebody ?"
"I'm a-looking for somebody as'11 take me a-board one of them ships and make a sailor of me," said Tom, looking up into the good-natured face.
"Where's your father and mother, boy ? "
"Ain't got any: I lived with a woman who was kind to me, but she's hard work to keep herself, so I'm going to sea."
"How do you know you'll like it ?" "I know I'll like it; I can tell by the very looks of it." The gentleman laughed.
"How would you like to have a voyage with me? Yonder's my ship, and we sail tomorrow morning."
"I'd like it uncommonly," said Tom, with glistening eyes.
"But there's no one to speak a good word for you. How am I to know you'll behave yourself ? You'll get a good rope's-ending if you don't." But Tom was in no way discouraged.
"All right," he said, " I don't care as long as you'll take me."
"Well, come and see how you like the look of my ship, and then if you're in the same mind I'll give you a trial."
All Tom's fears and regret were gone then, and he felt happier than perhaps he had done in all his life before, as he found himself standing on the deck of a real vessel, such as he had often tried to imagine. Before many hours the sea was between him and the few friends he had, who were by that time so anxious and distressed about him, but Tom got a good-natured sailor to write a few words at his own dictation to Mrs. Kelly, and this letter was put into the post before the vessel sailed. Poor little Mary was in terrible distress when she found her companion gone, and Mrs. Kelly walked about to look for him in all directions. If it had not happened that a neighbour had seen him start with his bundle, nothing would have convinced her he was not killed or run over ; as it was she could only persist in saying they should hear something yet, there was too much good in the boy for him to go off for any bad reason. Now of course everybody had something to say.
"Depend on it, Mrs. Kelly," exclaimed one, " you'll hear no more of him. It's always the way if you've been kind to any one; they go off when they've had all they want."
"Ah, I thought no good would come of it," said another. " You won't be for taking in street-boys again in a hurry, I'm thinking." But in the face of all this Mrs. Kelly and Mary would think no harm of Tom, and they were not at all surprised when the postman brought a letter written in a scrawling man's band, though the words, they could tell, were Tom's. This is what it said: --
"Ship 'Alice: " Dear Mother and Mary, — This comes hoping to find you quite well as it leaves me at present, only I couldn't stop to be a burden no longer, and I'm going to be a sailor, and come home in a year with lots of money and Mary's parrot. So no more at present, from " Yours affectionately, " Tom."
Mary burst into a storm of crying, and Mrs. Kelly wiped her eyes with her apron.
"Oh, mother, it's dreadful ! " sobbed the child. " We won't see Tom for a year, and perhaps he'll be drowned and never come back."
"Don't be so silly, child," said her mother. " Can't our dear Lady watch over him at sea as well as ashore ? Tom will come home again, you'll see; bless him I " Mrs. Kelly went round amongst her neighbours with the letter in her hand. " I said I knew we'd hear all about it," she exclaimed triumphantly. "He's gone away for fear of being a burden to me; I'm proud of that boy, that I am. He's worth a dozen of them that's been better brought up ! If I thought any one had said a word to him about being a burden, I really don't think I could help giving them a bit of my mind;" and then the good-hearted woman went off to the priest at the church to show him the letter.
"Well, really, Mrs. Kelly, it may be the best thing for the boy, after all ; that love of the sea seems born in some lads — it's like water to young ducks. Still Tom ought not to have gone off like that; he never said a word to me."
"I only hope he will come safe home again, Father," said poor Mrs. Kelly. " If I only had known before this ship sailed, I'd have fetched him home if I'd walked every bit of the way." The priest laughed as he rose to open the door for her. "You mustn't be down-hearted," he said. "You'll see Tom safe back in a year's time, if you pray to our blessed Lady to watch over him."
"That's just what I said to my little Mary, Father; she's fretting dreadfully. If he'd only gone in one of those boats which keep near shore, and only stop away a week or two, I think I could have borne it, but it's dreadful to think Tom's miles and miles away at sea," and Mrs. Kelly went home again to try and comfort Mary.
So the summer passed, and autumn was over, and then came winter with its storms of wind and rain, when Mrs. Kelly and her little girl shuddered as they thought of Tom tossing on the sea, perhaps in danger. What a number of prayers went up to God and the blessed Virgin, I could never tell you; but I can say that they were not in vain, for at the end of the year Tom Rogers came home safe and well. He was so grown and improved that the neighbours scarcely knew him, and he had become a thorough sailor, and loved the sea as much as he had expected. And he had not forgotten his friends, for he had brought Mary her parrot, and a smart shawl for Mrs. Kelly, which she put on with the greatest delight to go to church next Sunday.
"You haven't forgotten your religion, have you, Tom?" she asked, that first evening they were together again. Tom hesitated a minute and looked down.
"No," he said, slowly. "I've been precious near it, though ; they were a bad lot in our ship, both out and home, and there was a deal of swearing and drinking; and I was near giving up many times, only somehow I thought of this," (and here Tom put his hand on the little crucifix he carried inside his jacket), "and then I couldn't do like the rest."
"I'm thankful you took that with you, Tom; but you shouldn't have gone away as you did. You never even got the priest's blessing." Tom looked ashamed.
"I know," said. "It wasn't because I didn't care, though; I thought he'd stop me going to sea. But I'll go to confession tomorrow, and I'll try and do better next voyage."
"Don't talk to me of next voyages," said Mrs. Kelly.
"Surely you've had enough of the sea now, and can settle down and work on shore." But Tom couldn't hear of that: his whole heart was in a sailor's life, and he had already imagined himself getting on step by step until at last he should have saved money enough to own a ship himself.
"And then I'll give you both a voyage," he said; but Mrs. Kelly did not care about that offer.
The time soon came when Tom was longing to start again, and when they saw how firm his resolution remained, no one opposed him; so with many tears Mrs. Kelly and Mary saw him go. But this time he obtained a berth in a large steam-ship running between England and America, so that his passages would be short and frequent. This was a great comfort to Mrs. Kelly.
"It's all very well to keep to your own prayers, but I must say that it seems like running into temptation to choose a life where you can't get Mass month after month; now it will be different."
The last night before Tom started he had a talk with Mary which she remembered long after.
"It makes a fellow thoughtful," he said, "going out in those winds and storms again: some of these times I might get wrecked, or have a fall overboard. One of our crew fell from the mast as we came home, and by the time they 'd hauled him in he was quite dead."
"Oh, Tom, don't tell me such things, I can't bear them: I wish you weren't going."
"Nonsense," said Tom. "I suppose I'm as safe there as here. There won't nothing happen to me afore my time. But Mary," — and here the boy looked graver, — " suppose anything happened to me, do you think I'd be all right ? " "All right?" asked the child, not quite comprehending.
"Yes, you know I can't get to confession except on shore, suppose a storm or anything happened all of a sudden like, would God forgive me my sins without going to the priest ?"
"Oh, yes, Tom; I've been taught all about that ever so long ago. Tom see, God expects us to go and tell our sins if we want Him to pardon us, but if there was no priest near you couldn't, and God is too good to punish us for what we can't help. If you'd look at your crucifix, Tom, and try and feel very, very sorry, and say the names of Jesus and Mary, I'm quite certain God would forgive you."
"I'm glad of that; I felt pretty sure I'd heard so myself, only I thought I'd make certain and ask you," said Tom. But a great fear rose in Mary's mind after that.
"You don't think you're not going to come home again, Tom, do you?" she said anxiously.
"No, of course not," he answered, trying to laugh away her fear. "Don't I tell you I'm going to make lots of voyages until I've earned money enough to buy a ship of my own. What shall I bring you from America, Mary ? "
"Oh, I don't care for anything, I don't want anything, if you'll only come back quite safe, Tom," and with that Mary burst into tears, and could not be comforted for a long time, even by her mother. Next day they parted, and Tom, as he looked back to wave his hand, had a strange feeling in his heart as if he was looking at those two faces for the last time, and he could not help wondering why it was.
"One good thing is, he won't be away long," said Mrs. Kelly, turning from the doorstep and wiping her eyes with her apron, as if she felt the time for crying was past when Tom was clear out of sight; but poor little Mary fretted all that day and many more, for that last conversation had left a very unhappy feeling in her mind. Then, more than ever, she prayed to the Blessed Virgin to keep Tom safe, and to help him to be good amidst all the temptations which might be around him. Before the boy had started he had told the priest how all the sailors had laughed at him for bringing his crucifix and caring for the medals which he always wore, and how once or twice he had been near throwing them away so as to escape the ridicule. And then the priest had bidden him try and be like Jesus, who bore so much greater contempt without saying a word in complaint, and he encouraged Tom to try to help some of those around him to understand his religion.
"I'll try, Father," Tom had said. " I know it won't come easy, but I'll see what I can do, and anyway they shan't laugh me out of my crucifix and my prayers." So the vessel sailed with every chance of a good voyage, and everything went well with them until they started for the return passage. Then, before they had been out of port three days, they were overtaken by a fearful gale, and though it was a fine vessel every one on board felt the greatest alarm: even the captain and crew looked pale and anxious. Tom was frightened too, but he kept saying his beads and begging pardon of God for all the sins of his life, and so he grew calmer. There was a little child on board belonging to the captain, who had always taken a great fancy to Tom; now she came shivering and sobbing:
"I don't want to be drowned, I want to go home to mamma."
"Hush, Missy," said Tom. "Don't cry— that's no good. Here, take a look at this," and he pulled out his crucifix. "See, that's what Jesus did, because He loved you. He was in as bad a storm as this once, but He made the waves still all in a moment : let us ask Him to do it again now."
"I can't," said the child, clinging closer to the boy. "I forget my prayers now I'm so frightened."
"Say just a Hail Mary," said Tom.
"I don't know it; you say it, Tom! oh, be quick, pray quick!" she shrieked as another huge wave struck the vessel, shaking it from stem to stern. The captain came by to look for the child, and caught her up all soaked and shivering.
"Tom, Tom, where is he ?" she cried, looking round as her father carried her away; but the sailor-boy was missing — he had been washed over with the wave, and hours after they picked him up, cold and lifeless of course, but his rosary twisted firmly round his fingers and his crucifix still safe against his breast. The storm had abated then, there was every chance of getting safely home, and all were rejoicing, but the news of Tom's death cast a shadow over them all, for they remembered him kneeling and praying so fervently during the danger, and there were some who said their safety was God's answer to those prayers. All this time Mary and Mrs. Kelly were looking forward hopefully to Tom's return. Never a day passed without his name being spoken many times, and every knock at the door brought the flush into Mary's cheeks, as she almost fancied it might be him come home unexpectedly. So it was a terrible shock to the poor child when one day, after she had been on an errand for her mother, she found a stranger in the kitchen, at sight of whom she stopped short with her hand upon the door. Then, as she took in the whole scene — her mother crying, the strange gentleman talking earnestly, and the crucifix Tom had taken to sea lying on the table, she understood it all, and with a bitter cry threw herself into her mother's arms, saying:
"Oh, I know he's dead ! I know he'll never come home !" It was some time before Mary could listen quietly to what was said to her, but after a bit she dried her eyes and attended to what the stranger had to tell about Tom ; how at the worst of the storm he was calm and quiet, praying all the time with a great trust in God, and that his rosary had been so firmly clasped round his hands that they had left it so when they put him in his rough coffin and left him to his grave a sea.
"Oh, mother, mother !" sobbed Mary, when they were alone again, " if only he had died at home, where we could have gone and looked at his grave sometimes, it wouldn't have seemed half so bad. I can't bear to think of him buried in the sea."
"But it was beautiful, Mary, to have him die so," said Mrs. Kelly. " We ought to be thankful about it, to know that he died with a prayer to our dear Lady on his lips. I think I never can feel glad enough that we saw him that night a poor little dirty boy crying on the doorstep."
"Yes, he'd never have learnt anything good but for that, would he, mother ? "
" Oh, yes, Mary, God meant him to learn, and so He'd sure to have found some way of making it come right. Only we ought to be very thankful God let us help."
"Don't you remember, mother, how he stared at the crucifix that night, and asked all kinds of questions ? And then I tried to teach him, but he didn't seem as if he could learn anything but the Hail Mary. That was the first prayer he said, mother. Wasn't it nice it should be the last?" And so they talked on of Tom and the old days as if they would never weary; and the little Crucifix, which had been brought back to them was hung up as their greatest treasure. Every one was sorry to hear the news; even those who had once felt a dislike to him because he was so poor and ignorant had all something kind to say, and promised to offer up prayers for his soul. So poor Tom was not forgotten, and as years went by, and Mrs. Kelly grew old, and Mary was a woman and had little children of her own about her, they still loved nothing better than to talk of the cold winter evening when they had found him homeless and ignorant, and of God's goodness in letting them be the means of teaching him that faith and love to Jesus and His blessed Mother which comforted him and saved him in his early death.
Source: Tom's Crucifix and Other Tales, 1877