London was fifteen hundred years old, and was a great town—for that day. I_ad a hundred thousand inhabitants—some think double as many. The street_ere very narrow, and crooked, and dirty, especially in the part where To_anty 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 it_lbows out beyond the second. The higher the houses grew, the broader the_rew. They were skeletons of strong criss-cross beams, with solid materia_etween, 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 picturesqu_ook. The windows were small, glazed with little diamond-shaped panes, an_hey opened outward, on hinges, like doors.
The house which Tom's father lived in was up a foul little pocket called Offa_ourt, out of Pudding Lane. It was small, decayed, and rickety, but it wa_acked full of wretchedly poor families. Canty's tribe occupied a room on th_hird floor. The mother and father had a sort of bedstead in the corner; bu_om, his grandmother, and his two sisters, Bet and Nan, were no_estricted—they had all the floor to themselves, and might sleep where the_hose. There were the remains of a blanket or two, and some bundles o_ncient and dirty straw, but these could not rightly be called beds, for the_ere not organised; they were kicked into a general pile, mornings, an_elections 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 lik_hem. But the father and the grandmother were a couple of fiends. They go_runk whenever they could; then they fought each other or anybody else wh_ame in the way; they cursed and swore always, drunk or sober; John Canty wa_ thief, and his mother a beggar. They made beggars of the children, bu_ailed to make thieves of them. Among, but not of, the dreadful rabble tha_nhabited the house, was a good old priest whom the King had turned out o_ouse and home with a pension of a few farthings, and he used to get th_hildren aside and teach them right ways secretly. Father Andrew also taugh_om a little Latin, and how to read and write; and would have done the sam_ith the girls, but they were afraid of the jeers of their friends, who coul_ot have endured such a queer accomplishment in them.
All Offal Court was just such another hive as Canty's house. Drunkenness, rio_nd 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 no_nhappy. He had a hard time of it, but did not know it. It was the sort o_ime that all the Offal Court boys had, therefore he supposed it was th_orrect and comfortable thing. When he came home empty-handed at night, h_new his father would curse him and thrash him first, and that when he wa_one the awful grandmother would do it all over again and improve on it; an_hat away in the night his starving mother would slip to him stealthily wit_ny miserable scrap or crust she had been able to save for him by going hungr_erself, notwithstanding she was often caught in that sort of treason an_oundly beaten for it by her husband.
No, Tom's life went along well enough, especially in summer. He only begge_ust 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 t_ood Father Andrew's charming old tales and legends about giants and fairies,
dwarfs and genii, and enchanted castles, and gorgeous kings and princes. Hi_ead grew to be full of these wonderful things, and many a night as he lay i_he dark on his scant and offensive straw, tired, hungry, and smarting from _hrashing, he unleashed his imagination and soon forgot his aches and pains i_elicious picturings to himself of the charmed life of a petted prince in _egal palace. One desire came in time to haunt him day and night: it was t_ee a real prince, with his own eyes. He spoke of it once to some of hi_ffal Court comrades; but they jeered him and scoffed him so unmercifully tha_e 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 upo_hem. 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 an_is dirt, and to wish to be clean and better clad. He went on playing in th_ud just the same, and enjoying it, too; but, instead of splashing around i_he Thames solely for the fun of it, he began to find an added value in i_ecause of the washings and cleansings it afforded.
Tom could always find something going on around the Maypole in Cheapside, an_t the fairs; and now and then he and the rest of London had a chance to see _ilitary parade when some famous unfortunate was carried prisoner to th_ower, by land or boat. One summer's day he saw poor Anne Askew and three me_urned at the stake in Smithfield, and heard an ex- Bishop preach a sermon t_hem which did not interest him. Yes, Tom's life was varied and pleasan_nough, on the whole.
By-and-by Tom's reading and dreaming about princely life wrought such a stron_ffect upon him that he began to ACT the prince, unconsciously. His speech an_anners became curiously ceremonious and courtly, to the vast admiration an_musement of his intimates. But Tom's influence among these young peopl_egan to grow now, day by day; and in time he came to be looked up to, b_hem, with a sort of wondering awe, as a superior being. He seemed to know s_uch! and he could do and say such marvellous things! and withal, he was s_eep and wise! Tom's remarks, and Tom's performances, were reported by th_oys to their elders; and these, also, presently began to discuss Tom Canty,
and to regard him as a most gifted and extraordinary creature. Full-grow_eople brought their perplexities to Tom for solution, and were ofte_stonished at the wit and wisdom of his decisions. In fact he was become _ero to all who knew him except his own family—these, only, saw nothing i_im.
Privately, after a while, Tom organised a royal court! He was the prince; hi_pecial comrades were guards, chamberlains, equerries, lords and ladies i_aiting, and the royal family. Daily the mock prince was received wit_laborate ceremonials borrowed by Tom from his romantic readings; daily th_reat affairs of the mimic kingdom were discussed in the royal council, an_aily his mimic highness issued decrees to his imaginary armies, navies, an_iceroyalties.
After which, he would go forth in his rags and beg a few farthings, eat hi_oor crust, take his customary cuffs and abuse, and then stretch himself upo_is 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, gre_pon him, day by day, and week by week, until at last it absorbed all othe_esires, and became the one passion of his life.
One January day, on his usual begging tour, he tramped despondently up an_own the region round about Mincing Lane and Little East Cheap, hour afte_our, bare-footed and cold, looking in at cook-shop windows and longing fo_he dreadful pork-pies and other deadly inventions displayed there—for to hi_hese were dainties fit for the angels; that is, judging by the smell, the_ere—for it had never been his good luck to own and eat one. There was a col_rizzle of rain; the atmosphere was murky; it was a melancholy day. At nigh_om reached home so wet and tired and hungry that it was not possible for hi_ather and grandmother to observe his forlorn condition and not be moved—afte_heir fashion; wherefore they gave him a brisk cuffing at once and sent him t_ed. For a long time his pain and hunger, and the swearing and fighting goin_n in the building, kept him awake; but at last his thoughts drifted away t_ar, romantic lands, and he fell asleep in the company of jewelled and gilde_rincelings who live in vast palaces, and had servants salaaming before the_r flying to execute their orders. And then, as usual, he dreamed that HE wa_ princeling himself.
All night long the glories of his royal estate shone upon him; he moved amon_reat lords and ladies, in a blaze of light, breathing perfumes, drinking i_elicious music, and answering the reverent obeisances of the glitterin_hrong as it parted to make way for him, with here a smile, and there a nod o_is 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 hi_urroundings a thousandfold. Then came bitterness, and heart-break, an_ears.