CHAPTER I—THE STRANGE LAD
‘Goodness! If ever I did see such a pig!’ said Ellen King, as she mounted the stairs. ‘I wouldn’t touch him with a pair of tongs!’
‘Who?’ said a voice from the bedroom.
’Why, that tramper who has just been in to buy a loaf! He is a perfect pig, I declare! I only wonder you did not find of him up here! The police ought to hinder such folk from coming into decent people’s shops! There, you may see him now!’
‘Is that he upon the bridge—that chap about the size of our Harold?’
’Yes. Did you ever see such a figure? His clothes aren’t good enough for a scarecrow—and the dirt, you can’t see that from here, but you might sow radishes in it!’
’Oh, he’s swinging on the rail, just as I used to do. Put me down, Nelly; I don’t want to see any more.’ And the eyes filled with tears; there was a working about the thin cheeks and the white lips, and a long sigh came out at last, ‘Oh, if I was but like him!’
‘Like him! I’d wish something else before I wished that,’ said Ellen. ’Don’t think about it, Alfred dear; here are Miss Jane’s pictures.’
‘I don’t want the pictures,’ said Alfred wearily, as he laid his head down on his white pillow, and shut his eyes because they were hot with tears.
Ellen looked at him very sadly, and the feeling in her own mind was, that he was right, and nothing could make up for the health and strength that she knew her mother feared would never return to him.
There he lay, the fair hair hanging round the white brow with the furrows of pain in it, the purple-veined lids closed over the great bright blue eyes, the long fingers hanging limp and delicate as a lady’s, the limbs stretched helplessly on the couch, whither it cost him so much pain to be daily moved. Who would have thought, that not six months ago that poor cripple was the merriest and most active boy in the parish?
The room was not a sad-looking one. There were spotless white dimity curtains round the lattice window; and the little bed, and the walnut of the great chest, and of the doors of the press-bed on which Alfred lay, shone with dark and pale grainings. There was a carpet on the floor, and the chairs had chintz cushions; the walls were as white as snow, and there were pretty china ornaments on the mantel-piece, many little pictures hanging upon the walls, and quite a shelf of books upon the white cloth, laid so carefully on the top of the drawers. A little table beside Alfred held a glass with a few flowers, a cup with some toast and water, a volume of the ‘Swiss Family Robinson;’ and a large book of prints of animals was on a chair where he could reach it.
A larger table was covered with needle-work, shreds of lining, scissors, tapes, and Ellen’s red work-box; and she herself sat beside it, a very nice-looking girl of about seventeen, tall and slim, her lilac dress and white collar fitting beautifully, her black apron sitting nicely to her trim waist, and her light hair shining, like the newly-wound silk of the silk-worm, round her pleasant face; where the large, clear, well-opened blue eyes, and the contrast of white and red on the cheek, were a good deal like poor Alfred’s, and gave an air of delicacy.