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TOM BROWN'S CASTLE OF REFUGE.
niece of the old lady's and was consequently free of the farm-house and garden, into which she could not resist going for the purposes of gossip and flirtation with the heir apparent, who was a dawdling fellow, never out at work, as he ought to have been. The moment Charity had found her cousin, or any other occupation, Tom would slip away; and in a minute shrill cries would be heard from the dairy, “ Charity, Charity, thee lazy hussy, where bist ?” and Tom would break cover, hands and mouth full of curds, and take refuge on the shaky surface of the great muck reservoir in the middle of the yard, disturbing the repose of the great pigs. Here he was in safety, as no grown person could follow without getting over their knees ; and the luckless Charity, while her aunt scolded her from the dairy-door, for being “allus hankering about arter our Willum, instead of minding Master Tom," would descend from threats to coaxing, to lure Tom out of the muck, which was rising over his shoes, and would soon tell a tale on his stockings, for which she would be sure to catch it from Missus's maid.
Tom had two abettors in the shape of a couple of old boys, Noah and Benjamin by name, who defended him from Charity, and expended much time upon his education. They were both of them retired servants of former generations of the Browns. Noah Crooke was a keen, dry old man of almost ninety, but still able to totter about. He talked to Tom quite as if he were one of his own family, and
indeed had long completely identified the Browns with himself. In some remote age he had been the attendant of a Miss Brown, and had conveyed her about the country on a pillion. He had a little round picture of the identical gray horse, caparisoned with the identical pillion, before which he used to do a sort of fetish worship, and abuse turnpike roads and carriages. He wore an old fullbottomed wig, the gift of some dandy old Brown whom he had valeted in the middle of last century which habiliment Master Tom looked upon with considerable respect, not to say fear, and indeed his whole feeling towards Noah was strongly tainted with awe; and when the old gentleman was gathered to his fathers, Tom's lamentation over him was not unaccompanied by a certain joy at having seen the last of the wig: “ Poor old Noah, dead and gone,” said he, “ Tom Brown so sorry! Put him in the coffin, wig and all."
But old Benjy was young Master's real delight and refuge. He was a youth by the side of Noah, scarce seventy years old. A cheery, humourous, kind-hearted old man, full of sixty years of vale gossip, and of all sorts of helpful ways for young and old, but above all for children. It was he who bent the first pin, with which Tom extracted his first stickleback out of “ pebbly brook," the little stream which ran through the village. The first stickleback was a splendid fellow, with fabulous red and blue gills. Tom kept him in a small basin until the day of his death, and became a fisherman from that day. Within a month from the taking of the first stickle
TOM BROWN'S ABETTORS — BENJY.
back, Benjy had carried off our hero to the canal in defiance of Charity, and between them, after a whole afternoon's popjoying, they had caught three or four small coarse fish and a perch, averaging perhaps two-and-a-half inches each, which Tom bore home in rapture to his mother as a precious gift, and she received like a true mother with equal rapture, instructing the cook nevertheless, in a private interview, not to prepare the same for the Squire's dinner. Charity had appealed against old Benjy in the meantime, representing the dangers of the canal banks; but Mrs. Brown, seeing the boy's inaptitude for female guidance, had decided in Benjy's favor, and from thenceforth the old man was Tom's dry nurse. And as they sat by the canal, watching their little green-and-white float, Benjy would instruct him in the doings of deceased Browns. How his grandfather, in the early days of the great war, when there was much distress and crime in the Vale, and the magistrates had been threatened by the mob, had ridden in with a big stick in his hand, and held the Petty Sessions by himself. How his great uncle, the rector, had encountered and laid the last ghost, who had frightened the old women, male and female, of the parish, out of their senses, and who turned out to be the blacksmith's apprentice, disguised in drink and a white sheet. It was Benjy, too, who saddled Tom's first pony, and instructed him in the mysteries of horsemanship, teaching him to throw his weight back and keep his hand low; and who stood chuckling outside the door of the girls' school, when Tom rode
his little Shetland into the cottage and round the table, where the old dame and her pupils were seated at their work.
Benjy himself was come of a family distinguished in the Vale for their prowess in all athletic games. Some half-dozen of his brothers and kinsmen had gone to the wars, of whom only one had survived to come home, with a small pension, and three bullets in different parts of his body; he had shared Benjy's cottage till his death, and had left him his old dragoon's sword and pistol, which hung over the mantel-piece, flanked by a pair of heavy singlesticks, with which Benjy himself had won renown long ago as an old gamester, against the picked men of Wiltshire and Somersetshire in many a good bout at the revels and pastimes of the countryside. For he had been a famous backsword man in his young days, and a good wrestler at elbow and collar.
Backswording and wrestling were the most serious holiday pursuits of the Vale, those by which men attained fame, and each village had its cham. pion. I suppose that, on the whole, people were less worked then than they are now; at any rate they seemed to have more time and energy for the old “pastimes.” The great times for backswording came round once a-year in each village, at the feast. The Vale “ veasts” were not the common statute feasts, but much more ancient business. They are literally, so far as one can ascertain, feasts of the dedication, i. e. they were first established in the churchyard, on the day on which the village church
was opened for public worship, which was on the wake or festival of the patron saint, and have been held on the same day in every year since that time.
There was no longer any remembrance of why the “ veast” had been instituted, but nevertheless it had a pleasant and almost sacred character of its own. For it was then that all the children of the village, wherever they were scattered, tried to get home for a holiday to visit their fathers and mothers and friends, bringing with them their wages or some little gift from up the country for the old folk. Perhaps for a day or two before, but at any rate on 6. veast-day” and the day after, in our village, you might see strapping healthy young men and women from all parts of the country going round from house to house in their best clothes, and finishing up with a call on Madam Brown, whom they would consult as to putting out their earnings to the best advantage, or how to expend the same best for the benefit of the old folk. Every household, however poor, managed to raise a “feast-cake” and bottle of ginger or raisin wine, which stood on the cottage table ready for all comers, and not unlikely to make them remember feast-time, — for feast-cake is very solid, and full of huge raisins. Moreover feast-time was the day of reconciliation for the parish. If Job Higgins and Noah Freeman hadn't spoken for the last six months, their “old women” would be sure to get it patched up by that day. And though there was a good deal of drinking and low vice in the booths of an evening, it was pretty well confined to those who would have been doing the like, “ veast