At the Back of the North Wind
One day when old Diamond was standing with his nose in his bag between Pall Mall and Cockspur Street, and his master was reading the newspaper on the box of his cab, which was the last of a good many in the row, little Diamond got down for a run, for his legs were getting cramped with sitting. And first of all he strolled with his hands in his pockets up to the crossing, where the girl and her broom were to be found in all weathers. Just as he was going to speak to her, a tall gentleman stepped upon the crossing. He was pleased to find it so clean, for the streets were muddy, and he had nice boots on; so he put his hand in his pocket, and gave the girl a penny. But when she gave him a sweet smile in return, and made him a pretty courtesy, he looked at her again, and said:
"Where do you live, my child?"
"Paradise Row," she answered; "next door to the Adam and Eve---down the area."
"Whom do you live with?" he asked.
"My wicked old grannie," she replied.
"You shouldn't call your grannie wicked," said the gentleman.
"But she is," said the girl, looking up confidently in his face. "If you don't believe me, you can come and take a look at her."
The words sounded rude, but the girl's face looked so simple that the gentleman saw she did not mean to be rude, and became still more interested in her.
"Still you shouldn't say so," he insisted.
"Shouldn't I? Everybody calls her wicked old grannie---even them that's as wicked as her. You should hear her swear. There's nothing like it in the Row. Indeed, I assure you, sir, there's ne'er a one of them can shut my grannie up once she begins and gets right a-going. You must put her in a passion first, you know. It's no good till you do that---she's so old now. How she do make them laugh, to be sure!"
Although she called her wicked, the child spoke so as plainly to indicate pride in her grannie's pre-eminence in swearing.
The gentleman looked very grave to hear her, for he was sorry that such a nice little girl should be in such bad keeping. But he did not know what to say next, and stood for a moment with his eyes on the ground. When he lifted them, he saw the face of Diamond looking up in his.
"Please, sir," said Diamond, "her grannie's very cruel to her sometimes, and shuts her out in the streets at night, if she happens to be late."
"Is this your brother?" asked the gentleman of the girl.
"How does he know your grandmother, then? He does not look like one of her sort."
"Oh no, sir! He's a good boy---quite."
Here she tapped her forehead with her finger in a significant manner.
"What do you mean by that?" asked the gentleman, while Diamond looked on smiling.
"The cabbies call him God's baby," she whispered. "He's not right in the head, you know. A tile loose."
Still Diamond, though he heard every word, and understood it too, kept on smiling. What could it matter what people called him, so long as he did nothing he ought not to do? And, besides, God's baby was surely the best of names!
"Well, my little man, and what can you do?" asked the gentleman, turning towards him---just for the sake of saying something.
"Drive a cab," said Diamond.
"Good; and what else?" he continued; for, accepting what the girl had said, he regarded the still sweetness of Diamond's face as a sign of silliness, and wished to be kind to the poor little fellow.
"Nurse a baby," said Diamond.
"Well---and what else?"
"Clean father's boots, and make him a bit of toast for his tea."
"You're a useful little man," said the gentleman. "What else can you do?"
"Not much that I know of," said Diamond. "I can't curry a horse, except somebody puts me on his back. So I don't count that."
"Can you read?"
"No. but mother can and father can, and they're going to teach me some day soon."
"Well, here's a penny for you."
"Thank you, sir."
"And when you have learned to read, come to me, and I'll give you sixpence and a book with fine pictures in it."
"Please, sir, where am I to come?" asked Diamond, who was too much a man of the world not to know that he must have the gentleman's address before he could go and see him.
"You're no such silly!" thought he, as he put his hand in his pocket, and brought out a card. "There," he said, "your father will be able to read that, and tell you where to go."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," said Diamond, and put the card in his pocket.
The gentleman walked away, but turning round a few paces off, saw Diamond give his penny to the girl, and, walking slower heard him say:
"I've got a father, and mother, and little brother, and you've got nothing but a wicked old grannie. You may have my penny."
The girl put it beside the other in her pocket, the only trustworthy article of dress she wore. Her grandmother always took care that she had a stout pocket.
"Is she as cruel as ever?" asked Diamond.
"Much the same. But I gets more coppers now than I used to, and I can get summats to eat, and take browns enough home besides to keep her from grumbling. It's a good thing she's so blind, though."
"Why?" asked Diamond.
"'Cause if she was as sharp in the eyes as she used to be, she would find out I never eats her broken wittles, and then she'd know as I must get something somewheres."
"Doesn't she watch you, then?"
"O' course she do. Don't she just! But I make believe and drop it in my lap, and then hitch it into my pocket."
"What would she do if she found you out?"
"She never give me no more."
"But you don't want it!"
"Yes, I do want it."
"What do you do with it, then?"
"Give it to cripple Jim."
"Who's cripple Jim?"
"A boy in the Row. His mother broke his leg when he wur a kid, so he's never come to much; but he's a good boy, is Jim, and I love Jim dearly. I always keeps off a a penny for Jim---leastways as often as I can.---But there I must sweep again, for them busses makes no end o' dirt."
"Diamond! Diamond!" cried his father, who was afraid he might get no good by talking to the girl; and Diamond obeyed, and got up again upon the box. He told his father about the gentleman, and what he had promised him if he would learn to read, and showed him the gentleman's card.
"Why, it's not many doors from the Mews!" said his father, giving him back the card. "Take care of it, my boy, for it may lead to something. God knows, in these hard times a man wants as many friends as he's ever likely to get."
"Haven't you got friends enough, father?" asked Diamond.
"Well, I have no right to complain; but the more the better, you know."
"Just let me count," said Diamond.
And he took his hands from his pockets, and spreading out the fingers of his left hand, began to count, beginning at the thumb.
"There's mother, first. and then baby, and then me. Next there's old Diamond---and the cab---no, I won't count the cab, for it never looks at you, and when Diamond's out of the shafts, it's nobody. Then there's the man that drinks next door, and his wife, and his baby."
"They're no friends of mine," said his father.
"Well, they're friends of mine," said Diamond.
His father laughed.
"Much good they'll do you!" he said.
"How do you know they won't?" returned Diamond.
"Well, go on," said his father.
"Then there's Jack and Mr. Stonecrop, and, deary me! not to have mentioned Mr. Coleman and Mrs. Coleman, and Miss Coleman, and Mrs. Crump. And then there's the clergyman that spoke to me in the garden that day the tree was blown down."
"What's his name!"
"I don't know his name."
"Where does he live?"
"I don't know."
"How can you count him, then?"
"He did talk to me, and very kindlike too."
His father laughed again.
"Why, child, you're just counting everybody you know. That don't make 'em friends."
"Don't it? I thought it did. Well, but they shall be my friends. I shall make 'em."
"How will you do that?"
"They can't help themselves then, if they would. If I choose to be their friend, you know, they can't prevent me. Then there's that girl at the crossing."
"A fine set of friends you do have, to be sure, Diamond!"
"Surely, she's a friend anyhow, father. If it hadn't been for her, you would never have got Mrs. Coleman and Miss Coleman to carry home."
His father was silent, for he saw that Diamond was right, and was ashamed to find himself more ungrateful than he had thought.
"Then there's the new gentleman," Diamond went on.
"If he do as he say," interposed his father.
"And why shouldn't he? I daresay sixpence ain't too much for him to spare. But I don't quite understand, father: is nobody your friend but the one that does something for you?"
"No, I won't say that, my boy. You would have to leave out baby then."
"Oh no, I shouldn't. Baby can laugh in your face, and crow in your ears, and make you feel so happy. Call you that nothing, father?"
The father's heart was fairly touched now. He made no answer to this last appeal, and Diamond ended off with saying:
"And there's the best of mine to come yet---and that's you, daddy---except it be mother, you know. You're my friend, daddy, ain't you? And I'm your friend, ain't I?"
"And God for us all," said his father, and then they were
both silent for that was very solemn.