It was a puzzle as well as a care to Mrs. Lake. All her own children had given trouble in their own way,—a way much the same with all of them. They squalled for what they wanted, and, like other mothers of her class, she served them whilst her patience lasted, and slapped them when it came to an end. They clung about her when she was cooking, in company with the cats, and she put tit-bits into their dirty paws, and threw scraps to the clean paws of the cats, till the nuisance became overwhelming, and she kicked the cats and slapped the children, who squalled for both. They dirted their clothes, they squabbled, they tore the gathers out of her dresses, and wailed and wept, and were beaten with a hazel-stick by their father, and pacified with treacle-stick by the mother; and so tumbled up, one after the other, through childish customs and misdemeanors, almost as uniform as the steps of the mill-ladders.
But the customs and misdemeanors of the foster-child were very different.
His appetite to be constantly eating, drinking, or sucking—if it were but a bennet or grass-stalk—was less voracious than that of the other children. Mrs. Lake gave him Benjamin’s share of treacle-stick, but he has been known to give some of it away, and to exchange peppermint-drops for a slate-pencil rather softer than his own. He would have had Benjamin’s share of “bits” from the cupboard, but that the other children begged so much oftener, and Mrs. Lake was not capable of refusing any thing to a steady tease. He could walk the whole length of a turnip-field without taking a munch, unless he were hungry, though even dear old Abel invariably exercised his jaws upon a “turmut.” And he made himself ill with hedge-fruits and ground-roots seldomer than any other member of the family.
So far, Jan gave less trouble than the rest. But then he had a spirit of enterprise which never misled them. From the effects of this, Abel saved his life more than once. On one occasion he pulled him out of the wash-tub, into which he had plunged head-foremost, in a futile endeavor to blow soap-bubbles through a fragment of clay-pipe, which he had picked up on the road, and which made his lips sore for a week, besides nearly causing his death by drowning.
From diving into the deepest recesses of the windmill it became hopeless to try to hinder him, and when Abel was fairly taken into the business Mrs. Lake relied upon his care for his foster-brother. And Jan was wary and nimble, for his own part, and gave little trouble. His great delight was to gaze first out of one window, and then out of the opposite one; either blinking as the great sails drove by, as if they would strike him in the face, or watching the shadows of them invisible, as they passed like noon-day ghosts over the grass.
His habit of taking himself off on solitary expeditions neither the miller’s hazel-stick nor Mrs. Lake’s treacle-stick could cure by force or favor.