“You his father?” said the gentleman. “He is not much like you.”
“He favours his mother more, my lord,” said the Cheap Jack; “and that’s where he gets his talents too.”
“No one ever thought he got ’em from you, old hump!” said one of the spectators, and there was a roar of laughter from the bystanders.
Mr. Ford’s client still lingered, though the staring and pushing of the rude crowd were annoying to him.
“Do you really belong to this man?” he asked of Jan, and Jan replied, trembling, “Yes, sir.”
“Your son doesn’t look as if you treated him very well,” said the gentleman, turning to the Cheap Jack. “Take that, and give him a good supper this evening. He deserves it.”
As the Cheap Jack stooped for the half crown thrown to him, Mr. Ford’s client gave Jan some pence, saying, “You can keep these yourself.” Jan’s face, with a look of gratitude upon it, seemed to startle him afresh, but it was getting dark, and the crowd was closing round him. Jan had just entertained a wild thought of asking his protection, when he was gone.
What the strange gentleman had said about his unlikeness to the Cheap Jack, and also the thoughts awakened by hearing the old song, gave new energy to a resolve to which Jan had previously come. He had resolved to run away.
Since he awoke from the stupor of the draught which Sal had given him at the cross-roads, and found himself utterly in the power of the unscrupulous couple who pretended to be his parents, his life had been miserable enough. They had never intended to take him back to the mill, and, since they came to London and he was quite at their mercy, they had made no pretence of kindness. That they kept him constantly at work could hardly be counted an evil, for his working hours were the only ones with happiness in them, except when he dreamed of home. Not the cold pavement chilling him through his ragged clothes, not the strange staring and jesting of the rough crowds, not even the hideous sense of the hunchback’s vigilant oversight of him, could destroy his pleasure in the sense of the daily increasing powers of his fingers, in which genius seemed to tremble to create. In the few weeks of his apprenticeship to screeving, Jan had improved more quickly than he might have done under such teaching as the Squire had been willing to procure for the village genius. At the peril of floggings from the Cheap Jack, too many of which had already scarred his thin shoulders, he ransacked his brains for telling subjects, and forced from his memory the lines which told most, and told most quickly, of the pathetic look on Rufus’s face, the anger, pleasure, or playfulness of the mill cats. Perhaps none of us know what might be forced, against our natural indolence, from the fallow ground of our capabilities in many lines. The spirit of a popular subject in the fewest possible strokes was what Jan had to aim at for his daily bread, under peril of bodily harm hour after hour, for day after day, and his hand gained a cunning it might never otherwise have learned, and could never unlearn now.