In other respects, his learning was altogether of evil. Perhaps because they wished to reconcile him to his life, perhaps because his innocent face and uncorrupted character were an annoyance and reproach to the wicked couple, they encouraged Jan to associate with the boys of their own and the neighboring courts.
Many people are sorry to believe that there are a great many wicked and depraved grown-up people in all large towns, whose habits of vice are so firm, and whose moral natures are so loose, that their reformation is practically almost hopeless. But much fewer people realize the fact that thousands of little children are actively, hideously vicious and degraded. And yet it is better that this should be remembered than that, since, though it is more painful, it is more hopeful. It is hard to reform vicious children, but it is easier than to reform vicious men and women.
Little boys and little girls of eight or nine or ten years old, who are also drunkards, sweaters, thieves, gamblers, liars, and vicious, made Jan a laughing-stock, because of his simple childlike ways. They called him “green;” but, when he made friends with them by drawing pictures for them, they tried to teach him their own terrible lore. Once the Cheap Jack gave Jan a penny to go with some other boys to a penny theatre, or “gaff.” The depravity of the entertainment was a light matter to the depravity of the children by whom the place was crowded, and who had not so much lost as never found shame. Jan was standing amongst them, when he caught sight of a boy with a white head leaning over the gallery, whose face had a curious accidental likeness to Abel’s. The expression was quite different, for this one was partly imbecile, but there was just likeness enough to recall the past with an unutterable pang. What would Abel have said to see him there? Jan could not breathe in the place. The others were engaged, and he fought his way out.
What he had heard and seen rang in his ears and danced before his eyes after he crept to bed, as the dawn broke over the streets. But as if Abel himself had watched by his bedside as he used to do, and kept evil visions away, it did not trouble his dreams. He dreamed of the windmill, and of his foster-mother; of the little wood, and of Master Swift and Rufus.
After that night Jan had resolved that, whether Sal were his mother or not, he would run away. In the strength of his foster-brother’s pious memory he would escape from this evil life. He would beg his way back to the village, and to the upright, godly old schoolmaster, or at least die in the country on the road thither. He had not associated with the ragamuffins of the court without learning a little of their cunning; and he had waited impatiently for a chance of eluding the watchfulness of the Cheap Jack.
But the sound of that song and the meeting with Mr. Ford’s client determined him to wait no longer, but to make a desperate effort for freedom then and there. The Cheap Jack was collecting the pence, and Jan had made a few bold black strokes as a beginning of a new sketch, when he ran up to the Cheap Jack and whispered, “Get me a ha’perth of whitening, father, as fast as you can. There’s an oil-shop yonder.”