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Ten Boys from Dickens by  Kate Dickenson Sweetser

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JO, THE CROSSING SWEEPER


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JO, THE CROSSING SWEEPER.

[147] JO lives in a ruinous place, known to the likes of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone's. It is a black dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their possession, took to letting them out in lodgings.

Jo sweeps his crossing all day long, and if he is asked a question he replies that he "don't know nothink." He knows that it's hard to keep the mud off the crossing in dirty weather, and harder still to live by doing it. Nobody taught him that much—he found it out.

Indeed, everything poor Jo knows he has had to find out for himself, for no one has even taken the trouble to tell him his real name.

It must be a strange state to be like Jo, not to know the feeling of a whole suit of clothes—to wear even in summer the same queer remnant of a fur cap; to be always dirty and ragged; to shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols so abundant over the doors and at corners of the streets, and on the doors and in the windows. To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postman deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language,—to be to all of it stone blind and dumb.

It must be very puzzling to be hustled and jostled, and moved on, and to really feel that I have no business here or there or anywhere; and yet to be perplexed by the considera- [148] tion that I am here somehow, too, and everybody overlooked me until I became the creature that I am.

One cold winter night when Jo was shivering near his crossing, a stranger passed him; turned, looked at him intently, then came back and began to ask him questions from which he found out that Jo had not a friend in the world.

"Neither have I, not one," added the man, and gave him the price of a supper and lodging. And from that day Jo was no longer friendless, for the stranger often spoke to him, and asked him whether he slept sound at night, and how he bore cold and hunger; and whether he ever wished to die; and other strange questions. Then when the man had no money he would say, "I am as poor as you to-day, Jo," but when he had any he always shared it with Jo.

But there came a time not long after this, when the stranger was found dead in his bed, in the house of Crook, the rag-and-bottle merchant, where he had lodgings; and nothing could be found out about his life or the reason for his sudden death. So a jury had to be brought together to ferret out the mystery, if possible, and to discover whether the man's death was accidental or whether he died by his own hand. No one knew him, and he had never been seen talking to a human soul except the boy that swept the crossing, down the lane over the way, round the corner,—otherwise Jo.

So Jo was called in as a witness at the inquest. Says the coroner, "Is that boy here?"

Says the beadle, "No, sir, he is not here."

Says the coroner, "Go and fetch him then."

"Oh, here's the boy, gentlemen!"

Here he is, very muddy, very hoarse, very ragged. Now, boy! But stop a minute. Caution. This boy must be put through a few preliminary paces.

Name Jo. Nothink else that he knows on. Don't know [149] that everybody has two names. Don't know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for him. Spell it? No. He can't spell it. No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school. What's home? Knows a broom's a broom, and knows it's wicked to tell a lie. Don't recollect who told him about the broom or about the lie, but knows both. Can't exactly say what'll be done to him after he's dead if he tells a lie to the gentleman here, but believes it'll be something wery bad to punish him, and so he'll tell the truth. "He wos wery good to me, he wos," added the boy, wiping his eyes with his wretched sleeves. "When I see him a-laying so stritched out just now, I wished he could have heerd me tell him so. He wos wery good to me, he wos."

The jury award their verdict of accidental death, and the stranger is hurried into a pine box and into an obscure corner of that great home for the friendless and unmourned,—the Potter's field,—and night falls, hiding from sight the new-made grave.

With the night comes a slouching figure through the tunnel court, to the outside of the iron gate of the Potter's field. It holds the gate with its hands, and looks in between the bars. Stands looking in for a little while. It then takes an old broom it carries, softly sweeps the step, and makes the archway clean. It does so very busily and trimly; looks in again a little while, and so departs.

Jo, is it thou? Well, well?

Though thou art neither a gentleman nor the son of a gentleman, there is an expression of gratitude and of loyalty, worthy of gentle blood, indicative of noble character, in thy muttered reason for this:——

"He wos wery good to me, he wos."

Once more without a friend, Jo sweeps his crossing day [150] after day. Before the stranger came into his life, he had drifted along in his accustomed place, more unreasoning than an intelligent dog; but the hand of a human comrade had been laid in his, and it had awakened his humanity; and now as he sweeps he thinks—about the stranger—wonders where he has gone to, and how he died.

As it seemed to Jo that the world was bounded on all sides by the events in Tom-all-Alone's, he was not at all surprised one day to have another stranger come to his crossing and ask him many questions concerning the dead man. He was glad to talk of him, to tell again all that he knew of his life and death, and to show where they had buried him. The interview over, Jo is overwhelmed to find his hand closed over a piece of money larger than he has ever owned before.

His first proceeding is to hold the piece of money to the gas-light, and to be overpowered at finding that it is yellow gold. His next is to give it a one-sided bite at the edge, as a test of its quality. His next, to put it in his mouth for safety, and to sweep the step and passage with great care. His job done, he sets off for Tom-all-Alone's, stopping in the light of innumerable gas-lamps to produce the piece of gold, and give it another one-sided bite as a reassurance of its being genuine; and then shuffles off, back to his crossing; little dreaming—poor Jo!—that because of his presence at the inquest, and because of this interview, the rest of his existence is to be even more wretched than his past has been. He little dreams that persons great and powerful in the outer world were connected with the secret of his friend's life and death; but it is even so, and those who fear to have anything brought to light concerning him, hire officers to hunt Jo away from Tom-all-Alone's,—the only home he has ever known,—to keep him as far out of reach as possible, because he knew more about the stranger than any one else. He does not understand it at all, but from that [151] minute there seems always to be an officer in sight telling him to "move on."

At a summons to his shop one day, Mr. Snagsby, the law-stationer (in whose employ the dead man was, and who has always been kind to Jo when chance has thrown him in his way), descends to find a police constable holding a ragged boy by the arm. "Why, bless my heart," says Mr. Snagsby, "what's the matter?"

"This boy," says the constable, calmly, "although he's repeatedly told to, won't move on."

"I'm always a-moving on, sir," cries the boy, wiping away his grimy tears with his arm. "Where can I possibly move to more nor I do?"

"Don't you come none of that, or I shall make blessed short work of you," says the constable, giving him a passionless shake. "My instructions are that you are to move on."

"But where?" cries the boy.

"Well, really, constable, you know," says Mr. Snagsby, "really that does seem a question. Where, you know?"

"My instructions don't go to that," replies the constable. "My instructions are that this boy is to move on, and the sooner you're five miles away the better for all parties."

Jo shuffles away from the spot where he has been standing, picking bits of fur from his cap and putting them in his mouth; but before he goes Mr. Snagsby loads him with some broken meats from the table, which he carries away hugging in his arms.

Jo goes on, down to Blackfriars Bridge, where he finds a baking stony corner wherein to settle his repast. There he sits munching and gnawing—the sun going down, the river running fast, the crowd flowing by him in two streams—everything passing on to some purpose, and to one end, until he is stirred up, and told to move on again.

[152] Desperate with being moved on so many times, Jo tramps out of London down to St. Albans, where, exhausted from hunger and from exposure to extreme cold, he takes refuge in the cottage of a bricklayer's wife. A young lady who happens to be making a charity call on the woman in the cottage—sees his feverish, excited condition, and questions him.

"I am a-being froze," said the boy hoarsely, with his haggard gaze wandering about. "And then burnt up, and then froze, and then burnt up, ever so many times in an hour, and my head's all sleepy, and all a-going mad like—I'm so dry—and my bones isn't half as much bones as pains."

"When did he come from London?" the young lady asked.

"I come from London yesterday," said the boy himself, now flushed and hot. "I'm a-going somewheres. Somewheres," he repeated in a louder tone. "I have been moved on and moved on, more nor I wos afore. Mrs. Snagsby, she's allus a-watching and a-driving of me. What have I done to her? And they're all a-watching and a-driving of me. Everyone of them's doing of it from the time when I don't get up to the time when I don't go to bed. And I'm a-going somewheres, that's where I'm a-going!"

So in an oblivious half-insensible way he shuffled out of the house. The young lady hurried after him, and presently came up with him. He must have begun his journey with some small bundle under his arm, and must have lost it or had it stolen, for he still carried his wretched fragment of a fur cap like a bundle, though he went bareheaded through the rain, which now fell fast.

He stopped when she called him, standing with his lustrous eyes fixed on her, and even arrested in his shivering fit. She urged him to go with her, and though at first he shook his [153] head, at last he turned and followed her. She led the way to her home, where the servants, sorry for his pitiable condition, made a bed for him in a warm loft-room by the stable, where he was safely housed for the night and cared for.

The next morning the young lady was awakened at an early hour by an unusual noise outside her window, and called out to one of the men to know the meaning of it.

"It's the boy, miss," said he.

"Is he worse?" she asked.

"Gone, miss!"

"Dead?"

"Dead, miss? No. Gone clean off!"

At what time of the night he had gone, or how or why, it seemed hopeless ever to divine. Every possible inquiry was made, and every place searched. The brick-kilns were examined, the cottages were visited, the woman was particularly questioned, but she knew nothing of him; the weather had been for some time too wet, and the night itself had been too wet, to admit of any tracing of footsteps. Hedge and ditch, and wall and rick, and stack were examined for a long distance round, lest the boy should be lying in such a place insensible or dead; but nothing was seen to indicate that he had ever been near. From the time when he left the loft-room he vanished, and after five days the search was given up as hopeless. Where had poor Jo moved on to now?

For some time it seemed that no one would ever know, but at last, not so very long after this, a physician, Allan Woodcourt by name—who had known something of Jo and his story—was wandering at night in the miserable streets of Tom-all-Alone's, impelled by curiosity to see its haunts by gas-light. After stopping to offer assistance to a woman sitting on a doorstep, who had evidently come a long distance, he walks away, and as he does so he sees a ragged figure [154] coming very cautiously along, crouching close to the walls. It is the figure of a youth whose face is hollow, and whose eyes have an emaciated glare. He is so intent on getting along unseen, that even the apparition of a stranger in whole garments does not tempt him to look back. Allan Woodcourt pauses to look after him, with a shadowy belief that he has seen the boy before. He cannot recall how or where, but there is some association in his mind with such a form.

He is gradually emerging from Tom-all-Alone's in the morning light, thinking about it, when he hears running feet behind him, and, looking around, sees the boy scouring toward him at a great speed, followed by the woman.

"Stop him! stop him!" cries the woman; "stop him, sir!"

Allan, not knowing but that he has just robbed her of her money, follows in chase, and runs so hard that he runs the boy down a dozen times; but each time the boy makes a curve, ducks, dives under his hands, and scours away again. At last the fugitive, hard pressed, takes to a narrow passage which has no thoroughfare. Here he is brought to bay, and tumbles down, lying down gasping at his pursuer until the woman comes up.

"Oh you Jo," cries the woman, "what, I have found you at last!"

"Jo?" repeats Allan, looking at him with attention,—"Jo? Stay—to be sure, I recollect this lad, some time ago, being brought before the coroner!"

"Yes, I see you once afore at the Inkwich," whimpered the boy. "What of that? Can't you never let such an unfortnet as me alone? An't I unfortnet enough for you yet? How unfortnet do you want me for to be? I've been a-chivied and a-chivied, fust by one on you and nixt by another on you, till I'm worritted to skins and bones. The Inkwich warn't my fault; I done nothink. He wos very [155] good to me he wos; he wos the only one I knowed to speak to me as ever come across my crossing. It ain't very likely I should want him to be Inkwich'd. I only wish I wos myself!"

He says it with such a pitiable air that Allan Woodcourt is softened toward him. He says to the woman, "What has he done?"—to which she only replies, shaking her head,——

"Oh you Jo! you Jo! I have found you at last!"

"What has he done?" says Allan. "Has he robbed you?"

"No, sir, no. Robbed me? He did nothing but what was kind-hearted by me, and that's the wonder of it. But he was along with me, sir, down at St. Albans, ill, and a young lady—Lord bless her for a good friend to me!—took pity on him and took him home—took him home and made him comfortable; and like a thankless monster he ran away in the night and never has been seen or heard from since, till I set eyes on him just now. And the young lady, that was such a pretty dear, caught his illness, lost her beautiful looks, and wouldn't hardly be known for the same young lady now. Do you know it? You ungrateful wretch, do you know that this is all along of her goodness to you?" demands the woman.

The boy, stunned by what he hears, falls to smearing his dirty forehead with his dirty palm, and to staring at the ground, and to shaking from head to foot.

"You hear what she says!" Allan says to Joe. "You hear what she says, and I know it's true. Have you been here ever since?"

"Wishermaydie if I seen Tom-all-Alone's till this blessed morning," replies Jo, hoarsely.

"Why have you come here now?"

Jo looks all around and finally answers, "I don't know [156] how to do nothink and I can't get nothink to do. I'm very poor and ill and I thought I'd come back here when there warn't nobody about and lay down and hide somewheres as I knows on till arter dark, and then go and beg a trifle of Mr. Snagsby. He wos allus willing fur to give me something, he wos, though Mrs. Snagsby, she wos allus a-chivying me—like everybody everywheres."

"Now, tell me," proceeds Allan, "tell me how it came about that you left that house when the good young lady had been so unfortunate as to pity you and take you home?"

Jo suddenly came out of his resignation, and excitedly declares that he never known about the young lady; that he would sooner have hurt his own self, and that he'd sooner have had his unfortnet head chopped off than ever gone a-nigh her; and that she wos wery good to him she wos.

Allan Woodcourt sees that this is not a sham.

"Come, Jo, tell me," he urged.

"No, I durstn't," says Jo. "I durstn't or I would."

"But I must know," returns Allan, "all the same. Come, Jo!"

After two or three such adjurations, Jo lifts up his head again, and says in a low voice, "Well, I'll tell you something. I was took away. There!"

"Taken away?—In the night?"

Ah! very apprehensive of being overheard, Jo looks about him, and even glances up some ten feet at the top of the boarding, and through the cracks in it, lest the object of his distrust should be looking over, or hidden on the other side.

"Who took you away?"

"I durstn't name him," says Jo. "I durstn't do it, sir."

"But I want, in the young lady's name, to know. You may trust me. No one else shall hear."

"Ah, but I don't know," replies Jo, shaking his head fear- [157] fully, "as he don't hear. He's in all manner of places all at wunst."

Allan looks at him in perplexity, but discovers some real meaning at the bottom of this bewildering reply. He patiently awaits an explicit answer, and Jo, more baffled by his patience than by anything else, at last desperately whispers a name in his ear.

"Aye," says Allan. "Why, what had you been doing?"

"Nothink, sir. Never done nothink to get myself into no trouble 'cept in not moving on, and the Inkwich. But I'm moving on now. I'm moving on to the berryin'-ground—that's the move as I'm up to."

"No, no. We will try to prevent that. But what did he do with you?"

"Put me in a horspittle," replies Jo, whispering, "till I wor discharged, then gave me a little money. 'Nobody wants you here,' he ses. 'You go and tramp,' he ses. 'You move on,' he ses. 'Don't let me ever see you nowheres within forty mile of London, or you'll repent it.' So I shall if ever he does see me, and he'll see me if I'm above ground," concludes Jo.

Allan considers a little, then remarks, turning to the woman, "He is not so ungrateful as you supposed. He had a reason for going away, though it was an insufficient one."

"Thank 'ee, sir, thank 'ee!" exclaims Jo. "There, now, see how hard you was on me. But on'y you tell the young lady wot the genlmn ses, and it's all right. For you wos wery good to me, too, and I knows it."

"Now, Jo," says Allan, "come with me and I will find you a better place than this to lie down and hide in."

And Jo, repeating, "On'y you tell the young lady as I never went for to hurt her, and what the genlmn ses," nods and shambles and shivers and smears and blinks, and half- [158] laughs and half-cries a farewell to the woman, and takes his creeping way after Allan Woodcourt.

In a quiet, decent place, among people whom he knows will only treat the boy with kindness, Allan finds Jo a room.

"Look here, Jo," says Allan, "this is Mr. George. He is a kind friend to you, for he is going to give you a lodging here. You are quite safe here. All you have to do at present is to be obedient, and to get strong; and mind you tell us the truth here, whatever you do, Jo."

"Wishermaydie if I don't, sir," says Jo, reverting to his favourite declaration. "I never done nothink yet but wot you knows on to get myself into no trouble. I never wos in no other trouble at all, sir, 'cept not knowing nothink and starwation."

"I believe it," said Allan; "and now you must lie down and rest."

"Let me lay here quiet, and not be chivied any more," falters Jo, after he has been assisted to his bed and given medicine; "and be so kind any person as is a-passing nigh where I used fur to sweep, as to say to Mr. Snagsby that Jo, wot he knowed wunst, is a-movin' on right forards with his duty, and I'll be wery thankful!"

At the boy's request, later, Mr. Snagsby is sent for, and Jo is very glad to see his old friend, and says when they are alone that he "takes it uncommon kind as Mr. Snagsby should come so far out of his way on account of sich as him."

"Mr. Snagsby," says Jo, "I went and give an illness to a lady, and none of 'em never says nothink to me for having done it, on account of their being so good and my having been so unfortnet. The lady come herself and see me yes'day, and she ses, 'Jo,' she ses, 'we thought we'd lost you, Jo,' she ses; and she sits down a-smilin' so quiet, and don't pass a word nor yit a look upon me for having done it, she don't; and I turns [159] agin the wall, I doos, Mr. Snagsby. And Mr. Woodcot, he come to give me somethink to ease me, wot he's allus a-doing on day and night, and wen he come over me and a-speakin' up so bold, I see his tears a-fallin', Mr. Snagsby."

After this, Jo lies in a stupor most of the time, and Allan Woodcourt, coming in a little later, stands looking down on the wasted form, thinking of the thousands of strong, merry boys to whom the story of Jo's life would sound incredible. As he stands there, Jo rouses with a start.

"Well, Jo, what is the matter? Don't be frightened."

"I thought," says Jo, who had stared and is looking around, "I thought I wos in Tom-all-Alone's again. Ain't there nobody here but you, Mr. Woodcot?"

"Nobody."

"And I ain't took back to Tom-all-Alone's. Am I, sir?"

"No."

Jo closes his eyes, muttering, "I'm wery thankful!"

After watching him closely for a little while, Allan puts his mouth very near his ear, and says to him in a low, distinct voice:

"Jo, did you ever know a prayer?"

"Never knowed no think, sir!"

"Not so much as one short prayer?"

"No, sir. Nothink at all, sir. Mr. Chadbands he wos a-praying wunst at Mr. Snagsby's, and I heerd him, but he sounded as if he wos a-speaking to hisself and not to me. He prayed a lot, but I couldn't make out nothink on it. I never knowed wot it wos all about."

It takes him a long time to say this, and few but an experienced and attentive listener could hear, or hearing understand him. After a short relapse into sleep or a stupor he makes of a sudden a strong effort to get out of bed.

"Stay, Jo, what now?"

[160] "It's time for me to go to that there berrying-ground, sir," he returned with a wild look.

"Lie down and tell me what burying-ground, Jo."

"Where they laid him as wos wery good to me; wery good to me indeed he wos! It's time for me to go down to that there berrying-ground and ask to be put along with him. I wants to go there and be berried. He used fur to say to me, 'I am as poor as you to-day, Jo,' he says. I wants to tell him that I am as poor as him now, and have come there to be laid along with him."

"By-and-by, Jo, by-and-by."

"Ah! P'raps they wouldn't do it if I wos to go myself. But will you promise to have me took there, sir, and laid along with him?"

"I will, indeed!"

"Thank 'ee, sir. Thank 'ee, sir. They'll have to get the key of the gate afore they can take me in, for it's always locked. And there 's a step there as I used fur to clean with my broom. It's turned very dark, sir. Is there any light a-coming?"

"It is coming fast, Jo, my poor fellow."

"I hear you, sir, in the dark, but I'm a-gropin'—a-gropin'—let me catch hold of your hand!"

"Jo, can you say what I say?"

"I'll say anythink as you say, sir, fur I knows it's good."

"OUR FATHER,"

"Our Father—yes, that's wery good, sir."

"WHICH ART IN HEAVEN,"

"Art in Heaven—is the light a-coming, sir?"

"It is close at hand—HALLOWED BE THY NAME."

"Hallowed be—thy——"

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. The bewildering path is cleared of shadows at last. Jo has moved on to a home prepared by Eternal Love for such as he.


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