I have a right, of course, we all have a right yet we seem to misinterpret them sometimes. A short story within in its own rights offers some enlightenment. Having a right is something earned, a responsibility in conducting yourself in a manner that constitutes having that right.
There is nothing better than to learn from someone else’s experience or wisdom, a short— but pleasant story, soon unfolds. An excellent tale for all ages, for how often do we forget our past experiences, a good reminder— to be sure.
The original short narrative is from a collection of short stories by Jean Ingelow, an English author and poet and was first published in 1865. With the addition of some illustrations, and only a few – slight – changes to enhance a more modern reading experience, we hope you enjoy this short and pleasant tale.
I Have A Right
We, as a nation, are remarkably fond of talking about our rights. The expression, ‘I have a right,’ is constantly in our mouths. This is one reason, among some others, why it is fortunate for us that we speak English, since this favourite phrase in more than one continental tongue has no precise equivalent.
Whether the nation’s phrase grew out of the nation’s character, or whether the happy possession of such a phrase has helped to mould that character, it is scarcely now worthwhile to inquire. Certain it is that those generations which make proverbs, make thereby laws which govern their children’s children. And thus, perhaps, it comes to pass that this neat, independent, Anglo-Saxon phrase helps to get and keep for us the very rights it tells of. For, as under some governments, it is true that the dearest and most inalienable rights of the race go by the name of privilege, indulgence, or immunity, a concession, and not an inheritance.
A gift, and not a birthright; while ancient rights, in our sense of this word, merge into mere privileges held at the ruler’s will, and having been once called privileges, may be exchanged by him for other privileges which may amount to no more than the sight of a glittering show; so in our case it is true that privileges have a constant tendency to merge into rights. Let any man grant his neighbours the privilege of walking through his fields, his park, or his grounds, and then see how soon it will be said that they have a right to traverse them. In fact, very soon they will have a right by the law of the land; for, to prove the, right, they need only show that they have enjoyed the privilege ‘time out of mind.’ And then, again, Right is very unfair to his cousin Privilege, for, by the laws of England, sixty years constitute ‘time out of mind.’
By taking the trouble to investigate, any person may find many parallel cases, and so we keep the path of liberty. First, we got that path as a sort of privilege which was winked at. Then we made out that we had a right to it! Next, we proved that it wanted widening, and then we paved it handsomely, made a king’s highway of it, and took pains to have it constantly in repair.
Now, it being an acknowledged thing, my dear friends, that we have rights, and that we like to have these facts well known to all whom it may concern how—glad you will be if I can point out to you certain rights which some of you have scarcely considered at all.
I have met with numbers of worshipful old gentlemen, industrious young workmen, and women of all degrees, who knew well how to use our favourite phrase in its common vulgar sense. Still, I knew a worshipful old baker, in an old country town, who used it oftener than any of them. To hear him hold forth about his rights, did one’s heart good, and made one proud of one’s country. Everybody else’s rights appeared flat and tame compared with his, and the best of it was, that no one was ever heard to dispute them.
Dear old man, he is dead now, but some of his rights survive him. I was on my way home to the neighbourhood of that little country town wherein, for so many years, he might have been seen on a summer evening, standing in his shop door, and exercising the rights he loved, when it so happened that I heard some of my countrymen also discoursing about their rights. The more they talked, the more petty and insignificant seemed their rights compared with those of Mr Bryce, the baker.
We took our tickets at the London terminus of the Great Northern Railway, and entered an empty carriage; in a corner seat, however, a gentleman’s greatcoat was lying; presently a lady got in, and now the two vacant seats were, it so happened, as far as possible, asunder.
The next arrivals were another lady with a little girl about four years old. Without any hesitation, she took up the coat, and placing it in another corner seat, set her child in the division near herself.
Had she a right to do this? You inquire. Certainly not; and she was soon reminded of that fact, for just at the last minute a calm and rather supercilious looking young man entered, glanced coldly at her, and said, ‘I must trouble you, madam, for that seat; I laid my coat on it some time ago, and also turned the cushion; I really must request you to leave it, as I have a right to it.’
He laid as strong an emphasis on the must, as if to turn her out was a stringent duty. Perhaps she thought so, for as she glanced, in rising, at the child, she said, with a smile at the youth, who was quite young enough to be her son, ‘Certainly you have an undoubted right to this seat;’ and then added, ‘but I suppose no one would have disputed your right to give it up to me, if you had chosen.’
Her easy self-possession, and perhaps her remark, made him look a little awkward; but as the lady rose, my brother changed places with the child, and thus they still sat together; and while the youth settled himself in the place, he had a right to, our train set off with one of those thrice horrible, wavering, and querulous screeches of which the Great Northern has a monopoly.
While we went through the first tunnel, rending the air all the time with terrific shrieks, the little girl held tightly by her mother’s hand, and two large tears rolled down her rosy face. ‘We shall soon be at Hornsey,’ said her mother, and accordingly in a few minutes we stopped. While the lady and child disappeared from our view, the owner of the seat ejaculated, ‘Cool!’ and then looking around the carriage, he continued, as appealing to those who were sure to agree with him—’When a man has a right to a thing, why, he has a right, but to have a right to waive a right, is a dodge that a man wouldn’t expect to be told off.’
This most lucid speech he closed with a general smile, and we set off again with another shriek, longer and shriller than the former one.
After an hour’s travelling we were deserted by all our fellow-passengers, and seemed to be waiting a very long time at a little country station. At length, two old gentlemen entered, and, as the railway man opened the door for them. I said to him, ‘Can you tell me why we are detained here so long?’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ he replied; ‘there’s an excursion train due directly, and we’re shunted off the line to let it pass.’
‘Horrid bore!’ said one old gentleman.
‘Disgraceful shame!’ said the other; ‘but don’t let that make you uneasy, young lady,’ he added, politely addressing me; ‘” shunted” means nothing dangerous.’
I was about to ask what it did mean, when with a whiz, and a great noise of cheering, the excursion train shot past us, displaying a long, long succession of second and third-class carriages, every window garnished with pale faces of men and women, besides numbers of delicate-looking children.
‘Disgraceful shame!’ repeated the stoutest of the old gentlemen; ‘here’s our train twenty minutes late; twenty minutes, sir, by the clock.’
‘I should think,’ said my brother, ‘that this is not a grievance of very frequent occurrence—mail trains are not often obliged to give way to the convenience of the excursionists; but we were behind time when we got up to this station, and as we must stop a quarter of an hour, shortly, we should very much have detained that train if it had been on the same line, and behind us.’
‘Well, I can’t make it out,’ was the reply: ‘and what does their being detained matter to me; I paid for my ticket, and I’ve a right to be taken on.’
‘Certainly,’ said the other; ‘no man has a right to interfere with my business for the sake of his pleasure —such new-fangled notions!—What’s the good of a day’s pleasure to the working classes?’
‘They have it so seldom,’ my brother suggested, ‘that they have plenty of time to consider that question. Between one day’s pleasure and the next.’
‘Horrid bore, these excursion trains!’ repeated the first speaker; ‘filling the country with holiday folk; what do they want with holidays—much better stop at home, and work, and earn a little more. What’s the good of sending out a swarm of pale-faced, knock-kneed London artisans, and gaping children, that don’t know a kite from a jackdaw? If you must give ’em a treat, let it be a good dinner. Country air, indeed! I don’t find London unhealthy, and I spend three or four months in it every year.’
‘To be sure,’ echoed his companion, ‘these London clergy and ministers ought to know better than to spread such sentimental nonsense among the people—duty comes before pleasure, doesn’t it? Why, a man had the assurance to write to me—a perfect stranger—to know whether I’d open my park for a shoal of his cockney parishioners to dine and drink tea in! He knew it was closed, forsooth, but he hoped for once, and in the cause of philanthropy, I’d open it. I should like to know where my young coveys would be when every inch in my wood had been overrun, and all the bracken trod down in the cause of philanthropy? No, I wrote him a piece of my mind—I said, “Rev. Sir, I do not fence and guard my grounds that paupers may make a playground of them; and, though your request makes me question you’re good taste a little, I trust to your good sense not to render your people liable to be taken up as trespassers. I have a right to prosecute all trespassers in my grounds, and, therefore, I advise you to keep your people clear of them.”‘
‘And very proper, too,’ replied the other; ‘there are plenty of people that will receive them; there’s your neighbour, Sir Edward, who’s happy and proud to entertain as many as they like to pour into his domain.’
Upon this, they both laughed, as it appeared, in pity of the said Sir Edward. ‘Well, well, every man has a right to his own opinion.’ (N. B., is that a fact?) ‘Sir Edward wanted me, the other day, to subscribe to some new baths and wash-houses. “My good fellow,” I said, “when all the paupers in London can earn their own living, it will be time enough to talk of washing their faces; but for goodness’ sake let ’em earn dinners before you offer ’em Windsor soap, and hats before you find ’em pomatum.”‘
‘And may I know what Sir Edward said in reply?’ I inquired, addressing the old gentleman.
He seemed to consider. ‘Well,’ he said, after a puzzled pause, ‘it was something of this sort—something about the decencies of life being striven for with better heart, if a few of its amenities were within reach.’
This reminded me of a poor woman who lived in a particularly dirty cottage, near my father’s house, in the country. I one day tapped at her door, and she opened it in a gown all spotted with white-wash. ‘What! cleaning, Mrs Matts?’ I exclaimed in surprise. ‘Why, yes, Miss,’ she replied, ‘for my husband’s brother has just been up from London, where he works, to see us, and brought us a beautiful picture of the Queen, all in a gilt frame, Miss; and when he’d hung it up, it made the walls look so shocking dirty, that I couldn’t bear the sight of ’em, so I’m cleaning, you see.’
But enough has been said about the rights of other people; let us now turn to Mr Bryce, the baker.
Bryce was working for a baker in the village near which my grandfather lived. His master died suddenly, leaving a widow and nine children. Bryce was an enterprising young man and had been thinking of setting up for himself. My grandfather, however, heard that after his master’s death, he gave up this wish, and continued to work at his former wages, trying to keep the business together for the widow. Happening to meet him, he asked him if this report were true?
‘Why, yes, sir,’ said Bryce; ‘you see nobody else would manage everything for her without a share of the profits; and nine children—what a tug they are! so as I have nobody belonging to me—nobody that has any claim on me—’
‘But I thought you wanted to set up for yourself?’
‘And so I did, sir; if — I’d a wife and family, I’d make a push to get on for their sakes,—but I’ve none. So, as I can live on what I get, and hurt nobody by it, “I have a right” to help her, poor soul, as I’ve a mind to.’
Soon after this the widow took to dress-making, and did so well that she wanted no help from Bryce, who now set up for himself, and borrowed a sum of money from my grandfather, to begin with. At first, he was so poor, and the weekly profits were so small, that he requested my grandfather to receive the trifle of interest monthly, and for the first two months he said it ‘completely cleared him out’ to pay it. My grandfather was, therefore, rather surprised one Saturday evening, as he sauntered down the village street, to see four decrepit old people hobbling down the steps of his shop, each carrying a good-sized loaf, and loudly praising the generosity of Mr Bryce. The sun was just setting, and cast a ruddy glow on the young baker’s face as he stood leaning against the post of his door, but he started with some confusion when he saw my grandfather, and hastily asked him to enter his shop. ‘I reckon you are surprised, sir,’ he said, ‘to see me giving away bread before I’ve paid my debt: but just look round, sir. Those four loaves were all I had left, except what I can eat myself, and they were stale; so think what they’d have been by Monday morning.’
‘I don’t wish to interfere with your charities,’ said my grandfather.
‘But, sir,’ said Bryce. ‘I want you to see that I’m as eager to pay off that money as I can be; but people won’t buy stale bread—they won’t, indeed; and so I thought I had a right to give away those four loaves, being they were left upon my hands.’
‘I think so, too,’ said my grandfather. Who was then quite a young man, ‘and I shall think so next Saturday and the Saturday after.’
‘Thank you, sir, I’m sure,’ said the baker.
Over time the debt was paid, though almost every Saturday those old people hobbled from the door. And now Mr Bryce’s rights were found to increase with his business and enlarge with his family.
First, he had only a right to give away the stale loaves, ‘being he was in debt.’ Then he had a right to give away all that was left, ‘being he was out of debt.’ While he was single, he had a right to bake dinners for nothing, ‘being he had no family to save for.’ When he was married, he had a right to consider the poor, ‘being, as he was, so prosperous as to have enough for his own, and something over.’ When he had ten children, business still increasing, he found out that he had a right to adopt his wife’s little niece, ‘for, bless you, sir,’ he observed, ‘I’ve such a lot of my own, that a pudding that serves for ten shares serves for eleven just as well. And, as for schooling, I wouldn’t think of it, if my boys and girls were not as good scholars as I’d wish to see; for I spare nothing for their learning—but being they are, and money still in the till, why, I’ve got a right to let this little one share. In fact, when a man has earned a jolly hot dinner for his family every day, and seen ’em say their grace over it, he has a right to give what they leave on’t to the needy, especially if his wife’s agreeable.’
And so Mr Bryce, the baker, went on prospering, and finding out new rights to keep pace with his prosperity. In due time his many sons and daughters grew up; the latter married, and the former were placed out in life. Finally, after a long and happy life, Mr Bryce, the baker, died, and in his will, after leaving £500 apiece to all his sons and daughters, he concluded his bequests with this characteristic sentence:—
‘And, my dear children, by the blessing of God, having put you out well in life, and left you all handsome, I feel (especially as I have the hearty consent of you all) that I have a right to leave the rest of my property, namely £700, for the use of those that want it. First, the village of D——— being very much in want of good water, I leave £400, the estimated cost, for digging a well, and making a pump over it, the same to be free to all. The interest of the remainder I leave to be spent in blankets every winter, and given away to the destitute widows and orphans in the parish.’
So the well was dug, and the pump was made; and as long as the village lasts, opposite his own shop door, the sparkling water will gush out; the village mothers will gossip as they fill their buckets there; the village fathers will cool their sunburnt foreheads there, and the village children will put their ears to it and listen to its purling down below; a witness to the rights, and a proof of how Bryce, the baker used his rights.
Original short story by Jean Ingelow
Retold by A Moffat
Illustrations by justanemotion.com
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First photograph by Geralt