Tom's early life.
Let us skip a number of years.
London was fifteen hundred years old, and was a great town--for
that day. It had a hundred thousand inhabitants--some think
double as many. The streets were very narrow, and crooked, and
dirty, especially in the part where Tom Canty lived, which was not
far from London Bridge. The houses were of wood, with the second
story projecting over the first, and the third sticking its elbows
out beyond the second. The higher the houses grew, the broader
they grew. They were skeletons of strong criss-cross beams, with
solid material between, coated with plaster. The beams were
painted red or blue or black, according to the owner's taste, and
this gave the houses a very picturesque look. The windows were
small, glazed with little diamond-shaped panes, and they opened
outward, on hinges, like doors.
The house which Tom's father lived in was up a foul little pocket
called Offal Court, out of Pudding Lane. It was small, decayed,
and rickety, but it was packed full of wretchedly poor families.
Canty's tribe occupied a room on the third floor. The mother and
father had a sort of bedstead in the corner; but Tom, his
grandmother, and his two sisters, Bet and Nan, were not
restricted--they had all the floor to themselves, and might sleep
where they chose. There were the remains of a blanket or two, and
some bundles of ancient and dirty straw, but these could not
rightly be called beds, for they were not organised; they were
kicked into a general pile, mornings, and selections made from the
mass at night, for service.
Bet and Nan were fifteen years old--twins. They were good-hearted
girls, unclean, clothed in rags, and profoundly ignorant. Their
mother was like them. But the father and the grandmother were a
couple of fiends. They got drunk whenever they could; then they
fought each other or anybody else who came in the way; they cursed
and swore always, drunk or sober; John Canty was a thief, and his
mother a beggar. They made beggars of the children, but failed to
make thieves of them. Among, but not of, the dreadful rabble that
inhabited the house, was a good old priest whom the King had
turned out of house and home with a pension of a few farthings,
and he used to get the children aside and teach them right ways
secretly. Father Andrew also taught Tom a little Latin, and how
to read and write; and would have done the same with the girls,
but they were afraid of the jeers of their friends, who could not
have endured such a queer accomplishment in them.
All Offal Court was just such another hive as Canty's house.
Drunkenness, riot and brawling were the order, there, every night
and nearly all night long. Broken heads were as common as hunger
in that place. Yet little Tom was not unhappy. He had a hard
time of it, but did not know it. It was the sort of time that all
the Offal Court boys had, therefore he supposed it was the correct
and comfortable thing. When he came home empty-handed at night,
he knew his father would curse him and thrash him first, and that
when he was done the awful grandmother would do it all over again
and improve on it; and that away in the night his starving mother
would slip to him stealthily with any miserable scrap or crust she
had been able to save for him by going hungry herself,
notwithstanding she was often caught in that sort of treason and
soundly beaten for it by her husband.
No, Tom's life went along well enough, especially in summer. He
only begged just enough to save himself, for the laws against
mendicancy were stringent, and the penalties heavy; so he put in a
good deal of his time listening to good Father Andrew's charming
old tales and legends about giants and fairies, dwarfs and genii,
and enchanted castles, and gorgeous kings and princes. His head
grew to be full of these wonderful things, and many a night as he
lay in the dark on his scant and offensive straw, tired, hungry,
and smarting from a thrashing, he unleashed his imagination and
soon forgot his aches and pains in delicious picturings to himself
of the charmed life of a petted prince in a regal palace. One
desire came in time to haunt him day and night: it was to see a
real prince, with his own eyes. He spoke of it once to some of
his Offal Court comrades; but they jeered him and scoffed him so
unmercifully that he was glad to keep his dream to himself after that.
He often read the priest's old books and got him to explain and
enlarge upon them. His dreamings and readings worked certain
changes in him, by-and-by. His dream-people were so fine that he
grew to lament his shabby clothing and his dirt, and to wish to be
clean and better clad. He went on playing in the mud just the
same, and enjoying it, too; but, instead of splashing around in
the Thames solely for the fun of it, he began to find an added
value in it because of the washings and cleansings it afforded.
Tom could always find something going on around the Maypole in
Cheapside, and at the fairs; and now and then he and the rest of
London had a chance to see a military parade when some famous
unfortunate was carried prisoner to the Tower, by land or boat.
One summer's day he saw poor Anne Askew and three men burned at
the stake in Smithfield, and heard an ex-Bishop preach a sermon to
them which did not interest him. Yes, Tom's life was varied and
pleasant enough, on the whole.
By-and-by Tom's reading and dreaming about princely life wrought
such a strong effect upon him that he began to ACT the prince,
unconsciously. His speech and manners became curiously
ceremonious and courtly, to the vast admiration and amusement of
his intimates. But Tom's influence among these young people began
to grow now, day by day; and in time he came to be looked up to,
by them, with a sort of wondering awe, as a superior being. He
seemed to know so much! and he could do and say such marvellous
things! and withal, he was so deep and wise! Tom's remarks, and
Tom's performances, were reported by the boys to their elders; and
these, also, presently began to discuss Tom Canty, and to regard
him as a most gifted and extraordinary creature. Full-grown
people brought their perplexities to Tom for solution, and were
often astonished at the wit and wisdom of his decisions. In fact
he was become a hero to all who knew him except his own family--
these, only, saw nothing in him.
Privately, after a while, Tom organised a royal court! He was the
prince; his special comrades were guards, chamberlains, equerries,
lords and ladies in waiting, and the royal family. Daily the mock
prince was received with elaborate ceremonials borrowed by Tom
from his romantic readings; daily the great affairs of the mimic
kingdom were discussed in the royal council, and daily his mimic
highness issued decrees to his imaginary armies, navies, and
After which, he would go forth in his rags and beg a few
farthings, eat his poor crust, take his customary cuffs and abuse,
and then stretch himself upon his handful of foul straw, and
resume his empty grandeurs in his dreams.
And still his desire to look just once upon a real prince, in the
flesh, grew upon him, day by day, and week by week, until at last
it absorbed all other desires, and became the one passion of his life.
One January day, on his usual begging tour, he tramped
despondently up and down the region round about Mincing Lane and
Little East Cheap, hour after hour, bare-footed and cold, looking
in at cook-shop windows and longing for the dreadful pork-pies and
other deadly inventions displayed there--for to him these were
dainties fit for the angels; that is, judging by the smell, they
were--for it had never been his good luck to own and eat one.
There was a cold drizzle of rain; the atmosphere was murky; it was
a melancholy day. At night Tom reached home so wet and tired and
hungry that it was not possible for his father and grandmother to
observe his forlorn condition and not be moved--after their
fashion; wherefore they gave him a brisk cuffing at once and sent
him to bed. For a long time his pain and hunger, and the swearing
and fighting going on in the building, kept him awake; but at last
his thoughts drifted away to far, romantic lands, and he fell
asleep in the company of jewelled and gilded princelings who live
in vast palaces, and had servants salaaming before them or flying
to execute their orders. And then, as usual, he dreamed that HE
was a princeling himself.
All night long the glories of his royal estate shone upon him; he
moved among great lords and ladies, in a blaze of light, breathing
perfumes, drinking in delicious music, and answering the reverent
obeisances of the glittering throng as it parted to make way for
him, with here a smile, and there a nod of his princely head.
And when he awoke in the morning and looked upon the wretchedness
about him, his dream had had its usual effect--it had intensified
the sordidness of his surroundings a thousandfold. Then came
bitterness, and heart-break, and tears.
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Prince and the Pauper