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True Stories from History and Biography By Nathaniel Hawthorne Characters: 10261

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


In the course of the next day, the harmony of our little family was disturbed by something like a quarrel between George and Edward.

The former, though he loved his brother dearly, had found it quite too great a sacrifice of his own enjoyments, to spend all his playtime in a darkened chamber. Edward, on the other hand, was inclined to be despotic. He felt as if his bandaged eyes entitled him to demand that everybody, who enjoyed the blessing of sight, should contribute to his comfort and amusement. He therefore insisted that George, instead of going out to play at foot-ball, should join with himself and Emily in a game of questions and answers.

George resolutely refused, and ran out of the house. He did not revisit Edward's chamber till the evening, when he stole in, looking confused, yet somewhat sullen, and sat down beside his father's chair. It was evident, by a motion of Edward's head and a slight trembling of his lips, that he was aware of George's entrance, though his footsteps had been almost inaudible. Emily, with her serious and earnest little face, looked from one to the other, as if she longed to be a messenger of peace between them.

Mr. Temple, without seeming to notice any of these circumstances, began a story.

SAMUEL JOHNSON

Born 1709. Died 1784.

"Sam," said Mr. Michael Johnson of Lichfield, one morning, "I am very feeble and ailing to-day. You must go to Uttoxeter in my stead, and tend the bookstall in the market-place there."

This was spoken, above a hundred years ago, by an elderly man, who had once been a thriving bookseller at Lichfield, in England. Being now in reduced circumstances, he was forced to go, every market-day, and sell books at a stall, in the neighboring village of Uttoxeter.

His son, to whom Mr. Johnson spoke, was a great boy of very singular aspect. He had an intelligent face; but it was seamed and distorted by a scrofulous humor, which affected his eyes so badly, that sometimes he was almost blind. Owing to the same cause, his head would often shake with a tremulous motion, as if he were afflicted with the palsy. When Sam was an infant, the famous Queen Anne had tried to cure him of this disease, by laying her royal hands upon his head. But though the touch of a king or Queen was supposed to be a certain remedy for scrofula, it produced no good effect upon Sam Johnson.

At the time which we speak of, the poor lad was not very well dressed, and wore shoes from which his toes peeped out; for his old father had barely the means of supporting his wife and children. But, poor as the family were, young Sam Johnson had as much pride as any nobleman's son in England. The fact was, he felt conscious of uncommon sense and ability, which, in his own opinion, entitled him to great respect from the world. Perhaps he would have been glad, if grown people had treated him as reverentially as his school-fellows did. Three of them were accustomed to come for him, every morning; and while he sat upon the back of one, the two others supported him on each side, and thus he rode to school in triumph!

Being a personage of so much importance, Sam could not bear the idea of standing all day in Uttoxeter market, offering books to the rude and ignorant country-people. Doubtless he felt the more reluctant on account of his shabby clothes, and the disorder of his eyes, and the tremulous motion of his head.

When Mr. Michael Johnson spoke, Sam pouted, and made an indistinct grumbling in his throat; then he looked his old father in the face, and answered him loudly and deliberately.

"Sir," said he, "I will not go to Uttoxeter market!"

Mr. Johnson had seen a great deal of the lad's obstinacy ever since his birth; and while Sam was younger, the old gentleman had probably used the rod, whenever occasion seemed to require. But he was now too feeble, and too much out of spirits, to contend with this stubborn and violent-tempered boy. He therefore gave up the point at once, and prepared to go to Uttoxeter himself.

"Well Sam," said Mr. Johnson, as he took his hat and staff, "If, for the sake of your foolish pride, you can suffer your poor sick father to stand all day in the noise and confusion of the market, when he ought to be in his bed, I have no more to say. But you will think of this, Sam, when I am dead and gone!"

So the poor old man (perhaps with a tear in his eye, but certainly with sorrow in his heart) set forth towards Uttoxeter. The gray-haired, feeble, melancholy Michael Johnson! How sad a thing it was, that he should be forced to go, in his sickness, and toil for the support of an ungrateful son, who was too proud to do any thing for his father, or his mother, or himself! Sam looked after Mr. Johnson, with a sullen countenance, till he was out of sight.

But when the old man's figure, as he went stooping along the street, was no more to be seen, the boy's heart began to smite him. He had a vivid imagination, and it tormented him with the image of his father, standing in the market-place of Uttoxeter and offering his books to the noisy crowd around him, Sam seemed to behold him, a

rranging his literary merchandise upon the stall in such a way as was best calculated to attract notice. Here was Addison's Spectator, a long row of little volumes; here was Pope's translation of the Iliad and Odyssey; here were Dryden's poems, or those of Prior. Here, likewise, were Gulliver's Travels, and a variety of little gilt-covered children's books, such as Tom Thumb, Jack the Giant-queller, Mother Goose's Melodies, and others which our great-grandparents used to read in their childhood. And here were sermons for the pious, and pamphlets for the politicians, and ballads, some merry and some dismal ones, for the country people to sing.

Sam, in imagination, saw his father offer these books, pamphlets, and ballads, now to the rude yeomen, who perhaps could not read a word,-now to the country squires, who cared for nothing but to hunt hares and foxes,-now to the children, who chose to spend their coppers for sugar-plums or gingerbread, rather than for picture-books. And if Mr. Johnson should sell a book to man, woman, or child, it would cost him an hour's talk to get a profit of only sixpence.

"My poor father!" thought Sam to himself. "How his head will ache, and how heavy his heart will be! I am almost sorry that I did not do as he bade me!"

Then the boy went to his mother, who was busy about the house. She did not know of what had passed between Mr. Johnson and Sam.

"Mother," said he, "did you think father seemed very ill to-day?"

"Yes, Sam," answered his mother, turning with a flushed face from the fire, where she was cooking their scanty dinner. "Your father did look very ill; and it is a pity he did not send you to Uttoxeter in his stead. You are a great boy now, and would rejoice, I am sure, to do something for your poor father, who has done so much for you."

The lad made no reply. But again his imagination set to work, and conjured up another picture of poor Michael Johnson. He was standing in the hot sunshine of the market-place, and looking so weary, sick, and disconsolate, that the eyes of all the crowd were drawn to him. "Had this old man no son," the people would say among themselves, "who might have taken his place at the bookstall, while the father kept his bed?" And perhaps-but this was a terrible thought for Sam!-perhaps his father would faint away, and fall down in the market-place, with his gray hair in the dust, and his venerable face as deathlike as that of a corpse. And there would be the bystanders gazing earnestly at Mr. Johnson, and whispering, "Is he dead? Is he dead?"

And Sam shuddered, as he repeated to himself: "Is he dead?"

"Oh, I have been a cruel son!" thought he, within his own heart. "God forgive me! God forgive me!"

But God could not yet forgive him; for he was not truly penitent. Had he been so, he would have hastened away that very moment to Uttoxeter, and have fallen at his father's feet, even in the midst of the crowded market-place. There he would have confessed his fault, and besought Mr. Johnson to go home, and leave the rest of the day's work to him. But such was Sam's pride and natural stubbornness, that he could not bring himself to this humiliation. Yet he ought to have done so, for his own sake, and for his father's sake, and for God's sake.

After sunset, old Michael Johnson came slowly home, and sat down in his customary chair. He said nothing to Sam; nor do I know that a single word ever passed between them, on the subject of the son's disobedience. In a few years, his father died and left Sam to fight his way through the world by himself. It would make our story much too long were I to tell you even a few of the remarkable events of Sam's life. Moreover, there is the less need of this, because many books have been written about that poor boy, and the fame that he acquired, and all that he did or talked of doing, after he came to be a man.

But one thing I must not neglect to say. From his boyhood upward, until the latest day of his life, he never forgot the story of Uttoxeter market. Often when he was a scholar of the University of Oxford, or master of an Academy at Edial, or a writer for the London booksellers,-in all his poverty and toil, and in all his success,-while he was walking the streets without a shilling to buy food, or when the greatest men of England were proud to feast him at their table,-still that heavy and remorseful thought came back to him:-"I was cruel to my poor father in his illness!" Many and many a time, awake or in his dreams, he seemed to see old Michael Johnson, standing in the dust and confusion of the market-place, and pressing his withered hand to his forehead as if it ached.

Alas! my dear children, it is a sad thing to have such a thought as this to bear us company through life.

Though the story was but half finished, yet, as it was longer than usual, Mr. Temple here made a short pause. He perceived that Emily was in tears, and Edward turned his half-veiled face towards the speaker, with an air of great earnestness and interest. As for George he had withdrawn into the dusky shadow behind his father's chair.

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