Two ways of telling a story, one might say his close encounter with fate was perhaps another side to the story, a twist of a tale born from an act of kindness. 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.
Two Ways Of Telling A Story
Who is this? A careless little midshipman, idling about in a great city, with his pockets full of money.
He is waiting for the coach: it comes up presently, and he gets on the top of it, and begins to look about him.
They soon leave the chimney-pots behind them; his eyes wander with delight over the harvest fields, he smells the honeysuckle in the hedge-row, and he wishes he was down among the hazel bushes, that he might strip them of the milky nuts; then he sees a great wain piled up with barley, and he wishes he was seated on the top of it; then they go through a little wood, and he likes to see the checkered shadows of the trees lying across the white road, and then a squirrel runs up a bough. He cannot forbear to whoop and halloo, though he cannot chase it to its nest.
The other passengers are delighted with his simplicity and childlike glee; and they encourage him to talk to them about the sea and ships, especially Her Majesty’s ship The Asp, wherein he has the honour to sail. In the jargon of the sea, he describes her many perfections, and enlarges on her peculiar advantages; he then confides to them how a certain middy, having been ordered to the mast-head as a punishment, had seen, while sitting on the top-mast cross-trees, something uncommonly like the sea-serpent—but, finding this hint received with incredulous smiles, he begins to tell them how he hopes that, someday, he shall be promoted to have charge of the poop. The passengers hope he will have that honour; they have no doubt he deserves it. His cheeks flush with pleasure to hear them say so, and he little thinks that they have no notion in what ‘ that honour’ may happen to consist.
The coach stops: the little midshipman, with his hands in his pockets, sits rattling his money, and singing. A poor woman is standing by the door of the village inn; she looks careworn, and well she may, for, in the spring, her husband went up to London to seek for work. He got work, and she was expecting soon to join him there, when, alas! A fellow-workman wrote her word how he had met with an accident, how he was very ill, and wanted his wife to come and nurse him. But she has two young children, and is destitute; she must walk up all the way, and she is sick at heart when she thinks that perhaps he may die among strangers before she can reach him.
She does not think of begging, but seeing the boy’s eyes attracted to her, she makes him a courtesy, and he withdraws his hand and throws her down a sovereign. With incredulous joy, she looks at it and then she looks at him.
‘It’s all right,’ he says, and the coach starts again, while, full of gratitude, she hires a cart to take her across the country to the railway, that the next night she may sit by the bedside of her sick husband.
The midshipman knows nothing about that, and he never will know.
The passengers go on talking—the little midshipman has told them who he is, and where he is going, but there is one man who has never joined in the conversation; he is dark-looking and restless; he sits apart; he has seen the glitter of the falling coin, and now he watches the boy more narrowly than before.
He is a strong man, resolute and determined; the boy with the pockets full of money will be no match for him. He has told the other passengers that his father’s house is the parsonage at Y———, the coach goes within five miles of it, and he means to get down at the nearest point, and walk, or rather run over to his home, through the great wood.
The man decides to get down too, and go through the wood; he will rob the little midshipman; perhaps, if he cries out or struggles, he will do worse. The boy, he thinks, will have no chance against him; it is quite impossible that he can escape; the way is lonely, and the sun will be down.
No. There seems indeed little chance of escape; the half-fledged bird just fluttering down from its nest has no more chance against the keen-eyed hawk, than the little light-hearted sailor boy will have against him.
And now they reach the village where the boy is to alight. He wishes the other passengers ‘good evening,’ and runs lightly down between the scattered houses. The man has got down also, and is following.
The path lies through the village churchyard; there is evening service, and the door is wide open, for it is warm. The little midshipman steals up the porch, looks in, and listens. The clergyman has just risen from his knees in the pulpit, and is giving out his text. Thirteen months have passed since the boy was within a house of prayer, and a feeling of pleasure and awe induces him to stand still and listen.
‘Are not two sparrows (he hears) sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not, therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.’
He hears the opening sentences of the sermon; and then he remembers his home, and comes softly out of the porch, full of a calm and serious pleasure. The clergyman has reminded him of his father, and his careless heart is now filled with the echoes of his voice and his prayers. He thinks on what the clergyman said, of the care of our heavenly Father for us; he remembers how, when he left home, his father prayed that he might be preserved through every danger; he does not remember any particular danger that he has been exposed to, excepting in the great storm; but he is grateful that he has come home in safety, and he hopes whenever he shall be in danger, which he supposes he shall be someday, he hopes, that then the providence of God will watch over him and protect him. And so he presses onward to the entrance of the wood.
The man is there before him. He has pushed himself into the thicket, and cut a heavy stake; he suffers the boy to go on before, and then he comes out, falls into the path, and follows him.
It is too light at present for his deed of darkness, and too near the entrance of the wood, but he knows that shortly the path will branch off into two, and the right one for the boy to take will be dark and lonely.
But what prompts the little midshipman, when not fifty yards from the branching of the path, to break into a sudden run? It is not fear; he never dreams of danger. Some impulse, or some wild wish for home, makes him dash off suddenly after his saunter, with a whoop and a, bound. On he goes, as if running a race; the path bends, and the man loses sight of him. ‘But I shall have him yet,’ he thinks; ‘he cannot keep this pace up long.’
The boy has nearly reached the place where the path divides, when he puts up a young white owl that can scarcely fly, and it goes whirring along, close to the ground, before him. He gains upon it; another moment, and it will be his. Now he gets the start again; they come to the branching of the paths, and the bird goes down the wrong one. The temptation to follow is too strong to be resisted; he knows that somewhere, deep in the wood, there is a cross-track by which he can get into the path he has left; it is only to run a little faster, and he shall be at home nearly as soon.
On, he—rushes; the path takes a bend, and he is just out of sight when his pursuer comes where the paths divide. The boy has turned to the right; the man takes a left, and the faster they both run, the farther they are asunder.
The white owl still leads him on; the path gets darker and narrower; at last, he finds that he has missed it altogether, and his feet are on the soft ground. He flounders about among the trees and stumps, vexed with himself, and panting after his race. At last he hits upon another track, and pushes on as fast as he can. The ground begins sensibly to descend—he has lost his way—but he keeps bearing to the left; and, though it is now dark, he thinks that he must reach the main path sooner or later.
He does not know this part of the wood, but he runs on. O, little midshipman! Why did you chase that owl? If you had kept in the path with the dark man behind you, there was a chance that you might have outrun him; or, if he had overtaken you, some passing wayfarer might have heard your cries, and come to save you. Now you are running on straight to your death, for the forest water is deep and black at the bottom of this hill. O, that the moon might come out and show it to you!
The moon is under a thick canopy of heavy black clouds, and there is not a star to glitter on the water and make it visible. The fern is soft under his feet as he runs and slips down the sloping hill. At last, he strikes his foot against a stone, stumbles, and falls. Two minutes more and he will roll into the black. Water.
‘Heyday!’ cries the boy, ‘what’s this? O, how it tears my hands! Oh, this thorn-bush! O-h, my arms! I can’t get free!’ He struggles and pants. ‘All this comes of leaving the path,’ he says; ‘I shouldn’t have cared for rolling down if it hadn’t been for this bush. The fern was soft enough. I’ll never stray in a wood at night again. There, free at last! And my jacket nearly torn off my back!’
With a good deal of patience, and a great many scratches, he gets free of the thorn which had arrested his progress, when his feet were within a yard of the water, manages to scramble up the bank, and makes the best of his way through the wood.
And now, as the clouds move slowly onward, the moon shows her face on the black surface of the water; and the little white owl comes and hoots, and flutters over it like a wandering snowdrift. But the boy is deep in the wood again, and knows nothing of the danger from which he has escaped.
All this time the dark passenger follows the main track, and believes that his prey is before him. At last he hears a crashing of dead boughs, and presently the little midshipman’s voice not fifty yards before him. Yes, it is too true; the boy is in the cross-track. He will pass the cottage in the wood directly, and after that, his pursuer will come upon him.
The boy bounds into the path; but, as he passes the cottage, he is so thirsty, and so hot, that he thinks he must ask the inhabitants if they can sell him a glass of ale.
He enters without ceremony. ‘Ale?’ says the woodman, who is sitting at his supper. ‘No, we have no ale; but perhaps my wife can give thee a drink of milk. Come in.’ So he comes in, and shuts the door; and, while he sits waiting for the milk, footsteps pass. They are the footsteps of his pursuer, who goes on with the stake in his hand, and is angry and impatient that he has not yet come up with him.
The woman goes to her little dairy for the milk, and the boy thinks she is a long time. He drinks it, thanks her, and takes his leave.
Fast and fast the man runs on, and, as fast as he can, the boy runs after him. It is very dark, but there is a yellow streak in the sky, where the moon is ploughing up a furrowed mass of grey cloud, and one or two stars are blinking through the branches of the trees.
Fast the boy follows, and fast the man runs on, with his weapon in his hand. Suddenly he hears the joyish whoop—not before, but behind him. He stops and listens breathlessly. Yes, it is so. He pushes himself into the thicket and raises his stake to strike when the boy shall pass.
On he comes, running lightly, with his hands in his pockets. A sound strikes at the same instant on the ears of both; and the boy turns back from the very jaws of death to listen. It is the sound of wheels, and it draws rapidly nearer. A man comes up, driving a little gig.
‘Halloa?’ he says, in a loud, cheerful voice. ‘What! benighted, youngster?’
‘O, is it you, Mr Davis?’ says the boy; ‘no, I am not benighted; or, at any rate, I know my way out of the wood.’
The man draws farther back among the shrubs. ‘Why, bless the boy,’ he hears the farmer say, ‘to think of our meeting in this way. The parson, told me he was in hopes of seeing thee someday this week. I’ll give thee a lift. This is alone place to be in this time o’ night.’
‘Lone!’ says the boy, laughing. ‘I don’t mind that; and if you know the way, it’s as safe as the quarter-deck.’
So he gets into the farmer’s gig, and is once more out of reach of the pursuer. But the man knows that the farmer’s house is a quarter of a mile nearer than the parsonage, and in that quarter of a mile there is still a chance of committing the robbery. He determines still to make an attempt, and cuts across the wood with such rapid strides that he reaches the farmer’s gate just as the gig drives up to it.
‘Well, thank you, farmer,’ says the midshipman, as he prepares to get down.
‘I wish you good night, gentlemen,’ says the man, when he passes.
‘Good night, friend,’ the farmer replies. ‘I say, my boy, it’s a dark, night enough; but I have a mind to drive you on to the parsonage, and hear the rest of this long tale of yours about the sea-serpent.’
The little wheels go on again. They pass the man, and he stands still in the road to listen till the sound dies away. Then he flings his stake into the hedge, and goes back again. His evil purposes have all been frustrated—the thoughtless boy has baffled him at every turn.
And now the little midshipman is at home—the joyful meeting has taken place. When they have all admired his growth, and decided whom he is like, and measured his height on the window-frame, and seen him eat his supper, they begin to question him about his adventures, more for the pleasure of hearing him talk than any curiosity.
‘Adventures!’ says the boy, seated between his father and mother on a sofa. ‘Why, ma, I did write you an account of the voyage, and there’s nothing else to tell. Nothing happened to-day—at least nothing particular.’
‘You came by the coach we told you of?’ asks his father.
‘O yes, papa; and when we had got about twenty miles, there came up a beggar, while we changed horses, and I threw down (as I thought) a shilling, but, as it fell, I saw it was a sovereign. She was very honest, and showed me what it was, but I didn’t take it back, for you know, mamma, it’s a long time since I gave anything to anybody.’
‘Very true, my boy,’ his mother answers; ‘but you should not be careless with your money; and few beggars are worthy objects of charity.’
‘I suppose you got down at the cross-roads?’ says his elder brother.
‘Yes, and went through the wood. I should have been here sooner if I hadn’t lost my way there.’
‘Lost your way!’ says his mother, alarmed. ‘My dear boy, you should not have left the path at dusk.’
‘O, ma,’ says the little midshipman, with a smile, ‘you always think we’re in danger. If you could see me sometimes sitting at the jib-boom end, or across the main-top-mast cross-trees, you would be frightened. But what danger can there be in a wood?’
‘Well, my boy,’ she answers, ‘I don’t wish to be over-anxious, and to make my children uncomfortable by my fears. What did you stray from the path for?’
‘Only to chase a little owl, mamma; but I didn’t catch her after all. I got a roll down a bank, and caught my jacket against a thorn-bush, which was rather unlucky. Ah! Three large holes I see in my sleeve. And so I scrambled up again, and got into the path, and asked at the cottage for some beer. What a time the woman kept me, to be sure! I thought it would never come. But very soon after Mr Davis drove up in his gig, and he brought me on to the gate.’
‘And so this account of your adventures being brought to a close,’ his father says, ‘ we discover that there were no adventures to tell!’
‘No, papa, nothing happened; nothing particular, I mean.’
Nothing particular! If they could have known, they would have thought lightly in comparison of the dangers of ‘the jib-boom end, and the main-top-mast cross-trees.’ But they did not know, any more than we do, of the dangers that hourly beset us. Some few dangers we are aware of, and we do what we can to provide against them; but, for the greater portion, ‘ our eyes are held that we cannot see.’ We walk securely under His guidance, without whom ‘not a sparrow falleth to the ground!’ and when we have had escapes that the angels have admired at, we come home and say, perhaps, that ‘nothing has happened; at least nothing particular.’
It is not well that our minds should be much exercised about these hidden dangers, since they are so many and so great that no human art or foresight can prevent them. But it is very well that we should constantly reflect on that loving Providence which watches every footstep of a track always balancing between time and eternity; and that such reflections should make us both happy and afraid—afraid of trusting our souls and bodies too much to any earthly guide, or earthly security—happy from the knowledge that there is One with whom we may trust them wholly, and with whom the very hairs of our head are all numbered. Without such trust, how can we rest or be at peace? but with it we may say with the Psalmist, ‘I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep, for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety!’
Original short story by Jean Ingelow
Retold by A Moffat
Illustrations by justanemotion.com
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