Sunday, April 11, 2010

Jack Be Nimble

Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack jumped over the candlestick.

Do I remember Jack? Of course I remember jack. No one could forget him. I especially remember the last time I saw him. It was on Candlemas Day, some twenty years. Oh, but I should start at the beginning. See, Jack and I first met when we were lads, just wee boys. We went to school at the local lace making school in Wendover, where we traded our education by making lace. It was hard and dirty work, and we spent many long hours in a small, dark room that had no windows. We were crowded in there, boys and girls both, only the candles to light the room. During the winter months, as it was that last year I saw Jack, the school mistress, Mary Day, would bring out the big candles, the expensive ones, to not only light our workspace, but to keep things warm.

Not that Mary Day was a kind woman. Not by any means. She had exacting standard, and any time any one did not live up to them, they got whipped by a pine branch. So we worked hard, from dawn until dusk when we escaped back to our families. The only exception was the two hours we received for lunch each day. During that time, we would play our games, and in those winter months, one of our favorite sports was candlestick jumping. It’s good luck if you can clear a candlestick and it doesn’t go out, you know. And Jack, he was the master candlestick jumper. He would leap over those candlesticks, even the tall ones, and it would look like he was gliding. The flames never even flickered when he jumped. Never. We figured he had to be the luckiest boy in the world.

Of course, this wasn’t really true. Jack was an orphan, who had basically been bought by Mistress Mary Day. No one knew what his last name was, not even Jack. In fact, I’m not sure that Jack was even his real first name; it was just what everyone called him. During his time at the school, he had faced every conceivable kind of hardship. He was beaten, starved, and I personally watched him survive an illness that had killed three other kids. There was no doubt that Jack was tough, and some of the pain he suffered he had brought upon himself, but make no mistake, Jacks’ life was not easy.

When I first met Jack, I was five years old. He had been there for a year already. I had been attempting to work with the simple pattern all new students were taught. Sadly, I wasn’t very good at it, and had thoroughly destroyed the material I had been given. It was one thing to make mistakes; sometimes those could still be sold to the lower class. But to make something thoroughly unusable was unforgivable. I was going to get the switch when the instructor came around. Jack was sitting next to me, and just before the inspection happened, he switched his lace with mine.

As the instructor looked over my patter, she nodded, commenting that it wasn’t bad for a first try. When she saw Jacks, she shook her head, chiding Jack for doing so poorly on such an easy pattern. He should know better by now. He took the beating, right there in front of everyone, the beating that I should have taken. He and I became best friends that day.

I later found that this wasn’t unusual behavior for Jack. He had suffered many beatings trying to save other kids from such pain. He had even gone so far as to give up his food to provide food for a kid that was denied as punishment. Some kids thought he was a hero or at least a very nice guy. I learned pretty quickly, though, that it was mostly because Jack just wanted to get back at Mistress Mary Day. He hated her, so much so that he rebelled in any little way he could. I never thought Jack was a hero. But I did know that he was brave. I only wished that I was as capable of helping others as Jack was, whatever the reason.

But, I was telling you of that last Candlemas, the last time I saw Jack. Really, that story started about a week before Candlemas. On our lunch break, as usual during that time of year, we were jumping candlesticks. We did so under the watchful gaze of Karen, Mistress Mary Day’s lead assistant and some said inheritor. Karen was a wonderful woman, a young lady of fourteen, widowed just a year prior when her new husband died in their wedding bed. Tragic, but she never seemed to be at a loss for happiness. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Karen was as quick to use the switch on us as any of Mistress Mary Day’s teachers, but she was still the kindest of all the teachers at the school.

It was my turn to jump the candlestick. Everyone chanted. You would recognize the chant now, it having since become a famous nursery rhyme, but you must understand that back then, we said the chant whenever anyone came up to jump, and used that person’s name. So, for me, the chant went like this.

“Richard be nimble, Richard be quick, Richard jumped over the candlestick.”

I know, it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but that’s how it was done back then. When the chant was done, I ran and jumped. I remember coming up to that candle, thinking that it looked longer as I came up upon it than it had moments before when it was placed on the floor by Karen, having grown to three feet. It was all white and gnarled and angry looking, and the flame on it leaped up another foot. I panicked, and started to back out just as I jumped. The result was both the now one foot-candle and myself splayed across the hard stone floor.

It was Jack that came up to me and helped me up, while all the other children laughed at me. Honestly, I never minded their laughing. After all, I wasn’t very good, and truly, I laughed when one of them fell. But Jack never laughed. I never was sure why, I used to wonder if he even knew how. After Jack pulled me up, everyone was chanting for him to jump.

“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Jack jumped over the candlestick!”

It was repeated over and over, and I saw Jack start to shake his head. But even I loved watching him jump. I joined in the chanting, and even Karen was reciting the chant. Eventually, he relented. A great cheer went up, and the candle was reset and relit. Jack took a few steps back, eyed the candlestick, smiled, and ran towards it. He leaped over it, his legs pushing him up hard. He seemed to float in the air, and then came back down the other side. I’m not even sure the candle flame flickered.

Afterwards, Jack pulled me aside to tell me some exciting news. There was a girl at the school, Rose. Her father, a man named Edward, had just come back from a trip as an officer on a merchant ship. The trip was so successful that Edward had enough money to purchase his own ship, which is what he had done. The man had been coming to the school for the past few days to visit Rose and talk to Mistress Mary Day. Eventually, he convinced her to let Rose go, and he was taking her back home with him. I, for one, was very jealous.

But, Jack told me, during his visits, Edward had been watching Jack, and decided that he was the perfect lad for joining the crew of his new merchant ship. He would need a good cabin boy, after all. He asked if Jack was interested, and Jack said of course he was, but that he didn’t turn ten for another seven days. Edward laughed and had told Jack that none of that mattered.

“You’re birthday is Candlemas itself? Fine, fine. My ship is still being inspected and I won’t be leaving for eight days anyway,” he said. “Just make sure you’re at the dock on the day after Candlemas by ten in the morning, that’s when I plan to set sale.”

It was exciting news. I meant that Jack would bet getting out of her, living a life, one that he had talked about many times. Ever since I had met him, he had talked of being a sailor. Before we could celebrate, however, Mistress Mary Day appeared in the doorway. She was a large woman, full of hard personality. I had seen full grown men, masters of business and aristocrats, whither at the stare she was now directing at Jack. He just stiffened and stared back at her. Jack was the only person I knew that actually looked Mistress Mary Day straight in the eye.

“Jack!” she said. She said it at the top of her lungs, but I’d also never heard Mistress Mary Day talk in any quieter tones. “You are supposed to be sweeping out the basement! Instead, I find you here playing with candlesticks! Forty whacks! Now!”

Jack didn’t even hesitate; he just turned around and bent over. Everyone near him, myself included, backed away. Mistress Mary Day stomped over, pulled a wooden paddle off her belt, and started hitting Jack hard on the rear. Though none of us wanted to be there, we all knew better than to walk away. If we did, we would be next. Jack only cried out twice during the beating, something that I never understood. Not crying only made her hit harder, so I cried all the time, right away, even if I wasn’t in pain.

After the count of forty, Jack just stood back up and turned to face her.

“Are we done?” he asked. He tried his best to make it look like he was feeling no pain, but I knew better. There were tears just behind his eyes. Mistress Mary Day, however, looked like she was about to explode.

“We are not done,” she said. “We have lots of work to do. Next week, you turn ten years old, and I have already found someone willing to pay the rest of your debt to me to take you on as a servant.”

“What?” Jack said, taking a step backwards at the news, as if it had struck him in a way that was more painful than the beating. Mistress Mary Day smiled. It was not a pleasant sight.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “My sister had told me that her manservant is getting old, and having difficulty. She is buying your debt so that he can train you to be her new manservant. A carriage is coming to pick you up the day after Candlemas. Now, back to your cleaning duties!”

And with that, Mistress Mary Day stormed out of the room. This was devastating news. Everyone else went back to work. I looked at Karen, who nodded, but held up two fingers, indicating that I shouldn’t be gone longer than two minutes. I walked Jack out.

“What am I going to do?” he said to me. “I want to go with Edward and work on his ship, but he doesn’t have the money to pay my debt.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I do know this. You truly are nimble, Jack, and if anyone can figure a way out of this situation, it’s you.”

He nodded, and then told me to go back to work in the main room while he went back to his cleaning. For the whole next day, Jack mopped around the school, never looking up and avoiding contact with all of us, even me. Now, I was one of the few students at the school that stayed at the school through the night, until the Sabbath day. Even though those that stayed, Jack included, slept in the same great hall that we worked and played in, I didn’t mind. It was better than being at home, the last of ten children, all crammed into a tiny cottage. No, the space of the great hall suited me just fine.

That night, I grabbed Jack before bedtime and pulled him aside.

“Jack, what are you going to do?” I asked.

“Do?” he said, looking at me with blank eyes, as if he didn’t understand the question.

“About the Mistress’ sister,” I prompted.

“What about her?” he said. “I can’t do anything. I owe a debt to Mistress Mary Day for taking me in from the orphanage, and her sister is paying off that debt so I can work for her. There’s no way out of it, unless I…”

I smiled. That hesitation meant that he had discovered a way out. His salvation was now in his own hands. But he didn’t complete the though, he just stared off into space, and I started to get worried.

“Unless you what, Jack?” I asked.

He turned to look at me, and I saw fire in his eyes. His mouth twitched up into a smile, and a twittering noise escaped his throat. I realized that he was laughing. It wasn’t a traditional laugh, like when someone says something that you find funny, but more like the sound of madness. It scared me, and I started to back away.

“Unless,” he said, grabbing my arm and holding me in place. “Unless I run away.”

“What?” I said, putting my hand up to hush him down, and looking quickly around the room to make sure that one of the other children could hear. “Running away isn’t a possibility. We’re constantly watched, and mostly kept to the hall here. How are you going to run away?”

“I don’t know, Richard,” he said, his eyes dimming slightly as he returned from madness to sanity. The intensity didn’t leave his eyes, though, and I knew that meant he was still planning on this escape. “I don’t know, yet. But, I’ve got six more days to figure it out.”

He let me go then, and crawled to his blankets to sleep. I could only sit and stare at him. Escape? Run away? Even if he could manage it, he would be an outlaw. That could potentially damage Rose’s dad, Edward. Why would he want to do that? I didn’t wonder for very long, though before falling asleep. When I awoke the next morning, Jack was already awake. He was sitting, staring at me, his left eyebrow raised in an express of question.

“You’re right,” he said.

“I am?” I said, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and stretching.

“Running is a last resort,” he said. “I realize that now. I need to try and talk to her, tell her about the job offer from Edward. Maybe I can make a deal, where I pay off my debt from the pay I make working on the ship.”

My jaw hung open in shock. This was the most rational I had ever heard Jack.

“You think she’ll go for it?” I asked, unsure if Mistress Mary Day would turn down her sister and the lump sum payment she was offering for the potential of re-payment from a child that she didn’t even trust.

“I don’t know, but I have to make the effort,” he said, and I nodded. For the sake of his conscious, he needed to make the effort.

That day seemed to go pretty normally. Students came to the school, some dropped off, most walking on their own. The hall was filled up in short order, and we got down to the work of making lace. Though Jack often spent time doing some of the more dirty and ugly chores around the school, that day he was working with us. Mistress Mary Day had a large order of lace she needed filled, and so all hands were making it.

When lunch finally came, Jack, despite having to be exhausted from hours of work, broke ranks and ran to Mistress Mary Day’s office. I’m not sure if he had asked her before hand if he could speak to her, but in either case, I’m said a prayer for Jack. He was gone for almost the entire lunch break, and when he finally returned, it was with a fresh mark across his face. I recognized it right away as the leather switch carried by Mistress Mary Day herself. I ran up to him, despite Karen’s protests that lunch was almost over and that I needed to sit down and get back to work.

He looked beyond tired, his arms slumping at his side, his eyes unfocused and uncaring about the world around him. He walked hunched over, and shuffled his feat. The beating looked bad physically as well. Not only was there the mark, but also his noise was bleeding. I quickly grabbed him and steered him towards an empty workstation next to mine. I didn’t speak at first, I just guided him into the making of lace until he started doing it on his own. It was like his body was running by itself, and he had nothing to do with it. It continued like that for most of the rest of the day, but slowly, he returned to himself. I saw him start to hunch over his work, poking what could be a little too hard with the needles, and doing other things that showed me just how angry he was. The big clincher for me was when he would start talking to himself.

“So,” I said as the bell rang indicating that school was over for the day, “I take it that the discussion didn’t go very well?”

He looked over at me, and I could see one tear running down his cheek.

“Mistress Mary Day’s sister, Elizabeth, was there,” he said. Each word came out as if forced. “They let me speak, but were appalled when I mentioned Edward. They beat me for almost an hour straight, for daring to even talk to Edward, nevermind make plans with him. Afterwards, they left and I just lay there.”

“So, now what?” I asked.

His eyes narrowed. “Now, I go back to my original plan. I escape.”

I nodded. I felt guilty, like this was somehow my fault. But, before I could apologize, he simply crawled back towards his blankets and went to sleep. The count down was on. Five days left until Candlemas. Jack spent that first day testing things. He watched the woman that were our instructors, seeing which ones were easier to sneak out of the hall from. Too my surprise, it wasn’t Karen, it was an older woman, a spinster named Madelyn. She was very uncaring about our work, and us and, in fact, was often asleep while we were under her watch. Jack slipped in and out of the hall for two hours under her watch, and she didn’t even notice.

The next day, Jack slipped out and told me later he tried testing various doors. He discovered that Mistress Mary Day kept all the doors locked during the day. As he was coming back to us, he heard footsteps. They were coming up behind him, so he hid, behind the stairs leading to the sumptuous bedrooms upstairs. It was Mistress Mary Day and Elizabeth. They were talking, and went out side the main door, and Elizabeth had asked why all the doors were locked. Mistress Mary Day said it was to prevent escape, because apparently in the past, several students tried to run away. But, she explained, only she had the key, and she showed it to her sister. Jack knew then what his next task needed to be. And this time, he wanted my help.

“You want me to what?” I said that night. I shook my head from side to side, trying to shake out the request he had just made of me. It was insanity.

“I want you to help me steal Mistress Mary Day’s key,” he said matter-of-factly, as if this were something we do every day. “I need you to be the look out while I search her office.”

“How do you know if she’ll even have the key in the office,” I asked. “What if she’s carrying it on her all the time?”

“Then I’ll figure something else out,” he said. This was when I realized he was serious. He was going to run away, one way or another. I knew that there were only two endings for this. Either he would escape and make it to Edward’s boat, or he would be caught trying to run away, and likely be killed. Mistress Mary Day didn’t take kindly to run aways. I nodded my consent after this thought, realizing that I needed to do everything I could to aid him on his quest. After all, he had saved me from sever beatings more times than I could count. Helping him run away was the least I could do in return.

The next day, when Madeline’s shift came up, we snuck out. We hardly even waited for her to sit at her desk we just left. I don’t think she eve noticed. Why was Mistress Mary Day paying her? Maybe she wasn’t, it occurred to me. Maybe she, too, owed a debt to the school owner, and working this shift was the best she could do to pay it off. Next came the hard part. We had to get to Mistress Mary Day’s office and get the key.

It turned out that getting there wasn’t as difficult as my fertile imagination had me believe. I pictured an adventure of vicious dogs and armed guards preventing us from getting to the office, but it turned out that, except for the main hall, the school was pretty abandoned. A few times we ran into children that were sweeping or cleaning the floors, usually as some kind of punishment for mishandling the lace, and they just ignored us. Otherwise, we had free run of the school.

We rounded another corner, and I was feeling lost. How did Jack know so much about where things were? I spent most of my time in the school in the hall. Jack, on the other hand, had done the punishment chores of cleaning many times, I realized. He probably knew this building better even than Mistress Mary Day. As we rounded this corner, however, he held out his hand for me to stop. He pointed to a large oak door, and nodded. This was it, I realized. This was her office. I felt intimidated and terrified just at the site of the door. I thought I was going to piss myself.

We waited there for what seemed like hours, though of course it must have just been minutes. Finally, the door opened, and we crouched behind the stairwell in the shadows. Out from the door came Mistress Mary Day, and I had to stifle a little groan. I was sure that she would see us right through the shadows. It was going to be the worst beating of my life. She closed the door and stopped to look around. Then she looked right at us. I shifted, pushing myself back into the wall, which caused a floorboard to squeak. Jack’s arm shot out and held me still.

Mistress Mary Day slowly walked towards the stairwell, looking up and down at our hiding place. This was it, I thought. We were going to get the worst beating of our lives. Or worse, we would be killed. She stopped not two feet from where we were crouched, eyes narrow and searching. She reached her hands out to get us, and I thought that this would be the end, when suddenly, there was a flurry of fur and crying. Mistress Mary Day backed up, a squeal of pleasure escaping her lips. It was a sound I hoped to never hear again. When I opened my eyes to look, I saw that her great, fat, Persian cat had jumped down from the stair case and into her arms.

“Goldie!” she said. “You silly cat. You had mommy worried. I thought you were one of those pesky children, trying to cause mischief. Come on, let’s go to the kitchen and get something to eat.”

She walked away carrying the cat and stroking it’s back, the creature purring the whole time. I breathed a sigh of relief, realizing then that I had held my breath. I wanted to collapse right there. The fear was exhausting. Jack had other ideas, though. He ran up to the door to Mistress Mary Day’s office, and cracked it open. Then, he signaled me over. I ran over there, looking over my shoulder to see if the headmistress had for some reason returned. I ended up bumping into Jack, who shoved me off and glared at me.

“Keep watch,” he said. “Let me know as soon as you hear Mistress Mary Day return. Then, run back to the shadows under the stairs.”

“What will you do?” I asked, suddenly terrified for him.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said, a lopsided smile on his face. “I’ve got a plan.”

Without any further explanation, he dove into the room. The heavy oak door closed behind them. I stood there just waiting. Jack was only inside for a few minutes, but it was the most nerve-wracking time of my young life. I had never been so scared. But, he came back out in triumph, holding up a large brass key. I smiled, and the two of us ran back to the main hall, where we sat at our stations and finished our days work like nothing had happened.

As we started to settle down for the night, I thought we had gotten away with it. I thought for sure that this would be Jack’s victory, that tomorrow he would be able to escape with no problems tomorrow. Before we even got to lights out, however, the doors to the hall slammed open, and Mistress Mary Day, holding her cat, came storming into the room.

“One of you brats,” she said, her voice a low growl, “has stolen my key. I will find you and make sure that you are given the worst beating you have ever experienced.”

We all stood at stiff attention, fear that we would get a beating just in general principal anyway running through us. She walked up and down the room, looking at each of us intently, as if she could see the key in our heads or something. Finally, she whipped around and shouted at the whole hall.

“You will all get a beating if someone doesn’t come forward, and I mean right now,” she declared. We all looked at each other. Only Jack and I had any idea what was really going on, and when he looked at me, he had a fear in his eyes that I had never seen before. I knew what was going on in his head. This key was his one chance to escape. But I also knew that always tried to protect us other kids. He couldn’t let us all get a beating for something he had done. He looked back down at Mistress Mary Day, and just as she pulled out her switch, he stepped forward, his head hung in shame.

She smiled an evil smile as she saw Jack come forward. “I knew it had to be you, boy,” she said. “No one else here would dare be so bold.”

She pulled him towards him and proceeded to give him the worst beating I had ever seen. When she was done, he lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. His ears and nose were bleeding, and both eyes were swelled shut. I think he even lost a tooth. She then searched through his clothing and found the key.

“Thank you, Jack,” she said. “Now, everyone get to bed. I expect all of you, even Jack, to get back to work tomorrow.”

Several of us helped Jack get back to his bedroll, and he didn’t resist. The next day, Jack sat dejectedly at his station, trying to work as best he could through two black eyes. Somehow, he managed to just barley make his quota. One more day gone, and now it was the day before Candlemas. Jack was looking better by the day’s end, but his spirit was still crushed. That night, Mistress Mary Day came back into the room, and this time she came straight up to Jack. He didn’t look at her defiantly this time, just kept his head down.

“Good boy today, Jack,” she said. “I have a special task for you tomorrow. All the candles I’ve ordered for Candlemas are here, and you will be responsible for setting every last one up.”

Jack only nodded. That night, though, before going to bed, I saw a gleam in his eyes, and I realized that Jack was scheming something. I had no idea what it was, but something was definitely up. When I woke the next morning, he was already gone. The rest of that day went just fine, until just before lunchtime. Jack came into the main hall with an armful of candles. He moved slowly about the room setting them up, and I saw that he was making sure to have the last one set up just as lunchtime started.

He caught my eye and winked at me. I shook my head, and then to the end of the hall to get my food with everyone else. Just as I started to sit down to eat, I smelled smoke. I looked with everyone else across the room to see all the lace had caught fire. The room was quickly filling up with smoke, and the fire was spreading. Everyone screamed and ran out of the hall. When I looked back, I saw Jack there, holding a lit candle in his hand, setting it to more lace and even the wooden walls.

Mistress Mary Day came screaming down to the hall, pushing back all of us, but then cried when she saw the blaze. It was huge now, spreading quickly through the whole school. She ran towards the front door, using her key, and opened it, and we all pushed after her to get out. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the school burn down. I don’t know if Jack ever made it out alive, but I imagine that he did, and that he went to Edward’s boat. I hope he’s living a life of adventure on the seas, that he was making money to one day have his own house and ship. I imagine that he’s out there still, on the waters, plying trade where ever he goes.

Maybe, once in a while, he still jumps candlesticks.

The End


  1. I liked this. I just happen to be writing a story that uses Jack, albeit only for a short moment as the candlestick jumper, and really enjoyed this view of his life.

  2. Hey Daniel,

    Thanks for the comment! I enjoyed writing this story, it was outside my normal vein of story telling.