Abel was in the choir too, not so much because of his voice as of his great wish for it, and of the example of his good behavior. It was he who persuaded Mrs. Lake to come to church, and having once begun she came often. She tried to persuade her husband to go, and told him how sweetly the boys’ voices sounded, led by Master Swift’s fine bass, which he pitched from a key which he knocked upon his desk. But Master Lake had a proverb to excuse him. “The nearer the church, the further from god.” Not that he pretended to maintain the converse of the proposition.
Jan learned plenty of poetry; hymns, which Abel learned again from him, some of Herbert’s poems, and bits of Keats. But his favorites were martial poems by Mrs. Hemans, which he found in an old volume of collected verses, till the day he came upon “Marmion,” and gave himself up to Sir Walter Scott. He spouted poetry to Abel in imitation of Master Swift, and they enjoyed all, and understood about half.
And yet Jan’s progress was not altogether satisfactory to his teacher.
To learn long pieces of poetry was easy pastime to him, but he was dull or inattentive when the schoolmaster gave him some elementary lessons in mechanics. He wrote beautifully, but was no prodigy in arithmetic. He drew trees, windmills, and pigs on the desks, and admirable portraits of the schoolmaster, Rufus, and other local worthies, on the margins of the tables of weights and measures.
Much of his leisure was spent at Master Swift’s cottage, and in reading his books. The schoolmaster had marked an old biographical dictionary at pages containing lives of “self-made” men, who had risen as inventors or improvers in mechanics or as discoverers of important facts of natural science. Jan had not hitherto studied their careers with the avidity Master Swift would have liked to see, but one day he found him reading the fat volume with deep interest.
“And whose life are ye at now, laddie?” he asked, with a smile.
Jan lifted his face, which was glowing. “’Tis Rembrandt the painter I be reading about. Eh, Master Swift, he lived in a windmill, and he was a miller’s son!”
“Maybe he’d a miller’s thumb,” Jan added, stretching out his own, and smiling at the droll idea. “Do ’ee know what etchings be, then, Master Swift?”
“A kind of picture that’s scratched on a piece of copper with needles, and costs a lot of money to print,” said Master Swift, dryly; and he turned his broad back and went out.
It was one day in the second winter of Jan’s learning under Master Swift that matters came to a climax. The schoolmaster loved punctuality, but Jan was not always punctual. He was generally better in this respect in winter than in summer, as there was less to distract his attention on the road to school. But one winter’s day he loitered to make a sketch on his slate, and made matters worse by putting finishing touches to it after he was seated at the desk.