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Ten Boys from Dickens by  Kate Dickenson Sweetser


 

 

TOMMY TRADDLES


[Illustration]

TOMMY TRADDLES.

[45] POOR Traddles! In a tight sky-blue suit that made his arms and legs like German sausages, or roly-poly puddings, and with his hair standing upright, giving him the expression of a fretful porcupine, he was the merriest and most miserable of all the boys at Mr. Creakle's school, called Salem House. I never think of him without a strange disposition to laugh, and yet with tears in my eyes.

He was always being caned—I think he was caned every day in the half-year I spent at Salem House, except one holiday Monday when he was only ruler'd on both hands—and was always going to write to his uncle about it, and never did. After laying his head on the desk for a little while, he would cheer up somehow, begin to laugh again, and draw skeletons all over his slate, before his eyes were dry. I used at first to wonder what comfort Traddles found in drawing skeletons; and for some time looked upon him as a sort of a hermit, who reminded himself by those symbols of mortality that caning couldn't last for ever. But I believe he only did it because they were easy, and didn't want any features.

He was very honourable, Traddles was; and held it as a solemn duty in the boys to stand by one another. He suffered for this code of honour on several occasions. One evening we had a great spread up in our room after time for lights to be down, and we all got happily out of it but Traddles. He was too unfortunate even to come through a supper like anybody else. He was taken ill in the night—quite prostrate he was—in consequence of Crab; and after [46] being drugged to an extent which Demple (whose father was a doctor) said was enough to undermine a horse's constitution, received a caning and six chapters of Greek Testament for refusing to confess.

At another time, when Steerforth (who was the only parlour-boarder and the lion of the school) laughed in church, the Beadle, who thought the offender was Traddles, took him out. I see him now, going away in custody, despised by the congregation. He never said who was the real offender, although he smarted for it next day, and was imprisoned so many hours that he came forth with a whole churchyardful of skeletons swarming all over his Latin dictionary. But he had his reward. Steerforth said there was nothing of the sneak in Traddles, and we all felt that to be the highest praise.

On still a third occasion during my half-year at Salem House I have a vivid recollection of Traddles in distress; that time for siding with the down-trodden under-teacher, Mr. Mell, in a heated discussion between that gentleman and Steerforth.

The discussion took place on a Saturday which should have properly been a half-holiday, but as Mr. Creakle was indisposed, and the noise in the playground would have disturbed him; and the weather was not favourable for going out walking, we were ordered into school in the afternoon, and set some lighter tasks than usual; and Mr. Mell, a pale, delicately-built, little man, was detailed to keep us in order, which he tried in vain to accomplish.

Boys started in and out of their places, playing at puss-in-the-corner with other boys; there were laughing boys, singing boys, talking boys, dancing boys, howling boys; boys shuffled with their feet, boys whirled about him, grinning, making faces, mimicking him behind his back and before his eyes: mimicking his poverty, his boots, his coat, his mother, every thing be- [47] longing to him that they should have had consideration for.

"Silence!" cried Mr. Mell, suddenly rising up, and striking his desk with the book. "What does this mean! It's impossible to bear it. It's maddening. How can you do it to me, boys?"

The boys all stopped, some suddenly surprised, some half afraid, and some sorry perhaps.

Steerforth alone remained in his lounging position, hands in his pockets, and looked at Mr. Mell with his mouth shut up as if he were whistling, when Mr. Mell looked at him.

"Silence, Mr. Steerforth!" said Mr. Mell.

"Silence yourself," said Steerforth, turning red. "Whom are you talking to?"

"Sit down!" said Mr. Mell.

"Sit down yourself!" said Steerforth, "and mind your business."

There was a titter and some applause; but Mr. Mell was so white, that silence immediately succeeded.

"When you make use of your position of favouritism, here, sir," pursued Mr. Mell, with his lip trembling very much, "to insult a gentleman——"

"A what?—where is he?" said Steerforth.

Here somebody cried out, "Shame, J. Steerforth! Too bad!" It was Traddles; whom Mr. Mell instantly discomfited by bidding him to hold his tongue,——

"—to insult one who is not fortunate in life, sir, and who never gave you the least offence, and the many reasons for not insulting whom you are old enough and wise enough to understand," said Mr. Mell, with his lip trembling more and more, "you commit a mean and base action. You can sit down or stand up as you please, sir."

"I tell you what, Mr. Mell," said Steerforth, coming for- [48] ward, "once for all. When you take the liberty of calling me mean or base, or anything of that sort, you are an impudent beggar. You are always a beggar, you know; but when you do that, you are an impudent beggar."

Had Mr. Creakle not entered the room at that moment, there is no knowing what might have happened, for the highest pitch of excitement had been reached by combatants and lookers-on.

Both Steerforth and the under-teacher at once turned to Mr. Creakle, pouring out in his attentive ear the story of the burning wrong to which each had subjected the other, and the end of the whole affair was that Mr. Mell—having discovered that Mr. Creakle's veneration for money, and fear of offending his head-pupil, far outweighed any consideration for the teacher's feelings,—taking his flute and a few books from his desk, and leaving the key in it for his successor, went out of the school, with his property under his arm.

Mr. Creakle then made a speech, in which he thanked Steerforth for asserting (though perhaps too warmly) the independence and respectability of Salem House; and which he wound up by shaking hands with Steerforth; while we gave three cheers—I did not quite know what for, but I supposed for Steerforth, and joined in them, though I felt miserable. Mr. Creakle then caned Tommy Traddles for being discovered in tears, instead of cheers, and went away leaving us to ourselves.

Steerforth was very angry with Traddles, and said he was glad he had caught it. Poor Traddles, who had passed the stage of lying with his head upon the desk, and was relieving himself as usual with a burst of skeletons, said he didn't care. Mr. Mell was ill-used.

"Who has ill-used him, you girl?" said Steerforth.

[49] "Why, you have," returned Traddles.

"What have I done?" said Steerforth.

"What have you done?" retorted Traddles. "Hurt his feelings and lost him his situation."

"His feelings!" repeated Steerforth, disdainfully. "His feelings will soon get the better of it, I'll be bound. His feelings are not like yours, Miss Traddles! As to his situation—which was a precious one, wasn't it?—do you suppose I am not going to write home and take care that he gets some money?"

We all thought this intention very noble in Steerforth, whose mother was a rich widow, and, it was said, would do anything he asked her. We were all very glad to see Traddles so put down, and exalted Steerforth to the skies, and none of us appreciated at that time that our hero, J. Steerforth was very, very small indeed, as to character, in comparison to funny, unfortunate Tommy Traddles.

Years later, when Salem House was only a memory, and we were both men, Traddles and I met again. He had the same simple character and good temper as of old, and had, too, some of his old unlucky fortune, which clung to him always; yet notwithstanding that—as all of his trouble came from good-natured meddling with other people's affairs, for their benefit, I am not at all certain that I would not risk my chance of success—in the broadest meaning of that word—in the next world surely, if not in this, against all the Steerforths living, if I were Tommy Traddles.

Poor Traddles?—No, happy Traddles!


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