Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1149
Little Tommy Merton was a headstrong, ill-tempered, and weak lad when he returned with his family to England from Jamaica. His first years had been spent in the company of slaves who pampered his whims, and his mother, who could see no wrong in her child, condoned everything he said or did. The child had no inclination to study, and so he could not read, write, or do arithmetic when he arrived in England. Mr. Merton, who was very wealthy, wished to improve his son, but he was at a loss to know where to begin.
Thanks to a lucky chance, Mr. Merton’s problem solved itself. When Tommy Merton was walking through the fields one day, a snake coiled itself about his leg. Only the timely appearance of a farmer boy, who tore the snake from Tommy’s leg, prevented serious injury. As a reward for his brave action, the farm boy, Harry Sandford, was invited to the Merton mansion for dinner. During the meal, he greatly displeased Mrs. Merton, for he refused to believe that the artificialities of the Merton home and all the paraphernalia of the rich were really worthwhile. Nevertheless, his philosophic attitude interested Mr. Merton, who, upon inquiry, learned that Harry Sandford was under the tutelage of the local clergyman, Mr. Barlow. Mr. Merton felt that his son needed some training to make him a better social being, and he made arrangements for Tommy to be boarded at Mr. Barlow’s vicarage and educated with little Harry.
The first few days at the vicarage were trying ones for Tommy. When he refused to help with the gardening, Mr. Barlow refused to let him eat. Then, when he went into tantrums, no one paid attention to him. Gradually, he learned that getting on in the world took greater abilities than simply demanding whatever one wanted. Under the tutelage of Mr. Barlow and with the example of Harry, he began to take an interest in what was going on about him. He became ashamed that he did not know how to read, and with great effort, he taught himself to do so. His desire was to read stories aloud, as Harry did. By means of these stories, Mr. Barlow imparted a great deal of information to the children.
From their reading, the boys also got ideas for various projects. They embarked, for example, on the building of a hut, to see if they could build one that would protect them from the weather, after they had read of sailors being cast away on uninhabited islands. Tommy also became interested in gardening after he learned that bread did not simply happen on the table at mealtimes. From the gardening, he went on to visit, along with Mr. Barlow and Harry, a mill where the grain was ground to make flour. He had never even heard of these processes in his earlier years when he was pampered as a rich man’s son.
The first sign of generosity on the part of Tommy came when he and Harry were befriended by a poor woman who gave them some lunch one day after they had strayed from home. While the boys were in the cottage, bailiffs came to take away the family’s belongings to settle a bill that the father of the family had signed for a relative. Little Tommy went to his father and got the money, a relatively large sum, and gave it to the man and his wife. He kept his generosity a secret from his family and said that he would save the money out of his allowance, a sizeable one, and pay it back to his father. When the secret was finally revealed by the poor people, Mr. Merton was very pleased, not only with his son but also with the instruction he was getting from Mr. Barlow and Harry.
After some months had passed, Tommy went home for a vacation and took Harry with him. The guests at the Merton house were astonished and displeased that a gentleman’s son should be permitted the companionship of a farmer’s son, and they showed their disapproval. Other children at the house, imitating the grownups, made life miserable for Harry, who took their malice with the best possible grace, even when Tommy, whom he thought his best friend, turned against him. One day, a group of youngsters disobeyed their parents and went to a bullbaiting. Harry tried to dissuade them from attending, but he received only blows and ill will for his efforts. At the bullbaiting, the infuriated animal broke its tether and ran amuck. Only the quick thinking of Harry and a black beggar saved Tommy’s life.
After saving Tommy’s life, Harry and the black man went to Harry’s father’s farm. The other children tried to blame Harry for their attendance at the bullbaiting, but the truth came out and little Harry was the hero of the day. As much as he had been the underdog before, he became the hero of the adults and the children. Tommy asked Harry’s forgiveness and apologized for his selfish and proud behavior. Harry, of course, forgave his friend.
While on a walk by himself one day, Tommy saw a lamb attacked by a dog. He rescued the lamb, although he himself had to be rescued by a Highlander who happened along the road. Filled with gratitude, Tommy took the Highlander and his motherless children home, where the Scots were given a hearty meal. After dinner, the Highlander told of his adventures while serving as a soldier in America. As he told his story, it was discovered that he was a friend of an officer in America who was related to one of the Mertons’ guests. Because of his help in rescuing Tommy and the lamb as well as his connection with the guest’s relative, the Highlander was given employment on one of Mr. Merton’s farms.
By that time, Mr. Merton was convinced that Harry Sandford and Mr. Barlow had changed his son into a healthy, generous, straight-thinking young lad. It was time, however, for Tommy to begin a more formal education. Mr. Merton went to the Sandford farm to make a present of a large sum of money to Mr. Sandford for what Harry had done. Mr. Sandford, a virtuous, self-sufficient man, refused to accept payment, saying that he had got along well without it and that he was afraid it would only cause trouble in his household, where up to this time everyone had been content. He, however, did agree to accept a fine team of workhorses. When Tommy left with Mr. Merton, he told Harry that he would look forward to seeing him as often as possible, for he realized that Harry had taught him how to be sincere and useful, not merely a gentleman’s son.
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