It could have been rather easy to call John Segundus an unfortunate child. His father, Mr William Segundus, had been a gentleman of some standing within the town of ______ton in ______shire, but he had died in 1773 when John was only two years old.
Upon William Segundus' death, several things had taken place, not least of which being the discovery that William had inherited a great deal of debt from his own father and grandfather, which he had not been capable of discharging in his lifetime. Debts as large as those of William Segundus cannot pass down the generations forever, as I am sure you are aware; and when William died having made no payments for the last several years, his creditors decided that they had by then put up with quite enough. Thus it was that finally the creditors of the Segundus family were paid (a month or so after the funeral), with the mortgage on the house called in and the furniture sold in the process.
The result of such financial wrangling was that young John and his mother found that they must leave ______ton and return to the small village of ______ley where John's mother had grown up. Here they went to live with John's maternal grandmother, a small woman by the name of Mrs Humphrey. Yet while it is pleasant to stay with family, it is not so easy to stay in a cramped, bare cottage when one is used to a comfortable house (Mrs Humphrey, you see, being a widow, and not a very rich one). The change, I fear, did not do well for Mrs Segundus, for she died of a fever before the year was out.
Poor John Segundus! To be orphaned at so young an age! To think that he might have had a comfortable home with loving parents and younger siblings, but now this was no longer to be so! His lot was to never remember the smile of his mother, nor the laughter of his father, nor to know what might have been if they had all stayed in ______ton and their little family had grown.
Yet all was not so sad. For how can one pine for someone or something that one doesn't remember? How can one long for a life that was barely lived? No; we mustn't feel sorry for young John. He did not know what he missed. He knew only what he had; and that was a kindly grandmother who loved him dearly; a home that was well-kept, even if sparse; and the open commons and fields in which to run and play.
Do not be tempted, either, to think that John's childhood was one in which things were lacking. For, while he and Mrs Humphrey were poor, they were far from destitute. The little money that was left over from the estate of John's father had been placed on trust for young John, and a regular stipend was given to Mrs Humphrey to ensure that John was fed and clothed and that he might go to school and learn his letters. Mrs Humphrey, for herself, was the widow of the late-vicar of the parish, and in honour of his memory (for he had been a well-respected man) she received a small pension from the rector as well as several kind gifts from the Byfields, who lived in the manor house.
And so, while John may not have received all comforts, he was at least content in his lot (which is no very bad thing indeed).
John was by no means a lonely child, for there were many other children in the village with whom he could play. In particular John was close to the Harbishers, who lived in the next cottage. Ned Harbisher was the groundsman at the manor house and he and his wife did what they could to raise their young family. The eldest of the children was a girl named Ann, who was of an age with John. Ann had a younger sister, Betsy, and yet more siblings were to follow in time.
There was, as I am sure you can imagine, something of a difference in standing between John and his grandmother and the Harbishers. They may have lived in similar cottages, but all in the village knew that John's father had been a gentleman, while Ned Harbisher was only a groundsman. Happily, young children tend not to be so nice about such differences, and John, Ann and Betsy played together with no qualms. Oh, certainly, one or other of them might have noticed that Ann and Betsy wore worn stockings and frayed caps, while John's clothes were neat and not so very old, but that was hardly of interest to them when there were instead balls to catch and songs to sing and running and jumping and skipping to do.
One of the favourite games of Ann was to play at families. They would find some suitable place (a clearing between three trees, or the space between an old, broken cart and a wall, or inside a blanket that had been hung outside to dry) and they would make this their home. Ann, who always took charge in these games, knew how things must be.
"Betsy is the baby," Ann would state (and Betsy was then young enough that she did not mind being labelled so). "And I shall be mother and do the cooking and the cleaning." (For Ann and Betsy's mother did all the cooking and cleaning for their family, and even went over to char for Mrs Humphrey twice a week.) "John," Ann would declare, "you must be the father."
At this, John would most always pull a face. "But I do not want to be the father."
Ann would look at John as if she thought this a very odd way of going about. "You must be the father," she would say. "What else can you be?"
"I want to be the magician," John would say.
At this point, Ann would almost always disagree. She would explain, lengthily, that a family always had a mother, a father and a baby, and not at any point did a family consist of a mother, a baby and a magician. John was adamant in return that he would much rather be the magician than the father, but he also did not like to see Ann angry and so would often leave her to decide. It was up to Ann's mood upon any given day as to whether John would play the role of the father or the magician, or if perhaps he might do a little of both.
Such are children's games! For young girls, like Ann, what calling could they aspire to if not to be a respected wife and mother? Even at that young age, Ann knew very much where her prospects lay. But for a young boy? Why, then there may be all sorts of other options; and what John liked best were magicians.
John's love of magic was not very respectable. He did not admire those learned gentleman who sat about in their wigs and discussed the long-dead spells of the past. Indeed, John did not even know that such gentleman existed! (And what child does?) No; instead, John admired the magician in the local town, who sat in his booth in the market-place, behind a ragged, yellow curtain, and sold spells and fortunes to passers-by.
This magician went by the name of Greenhew Jack and claimed to be a distant relation of the Raven King (though some folks insisted that Greenhew Jack had in fact been christened Samuel Billington and was the son of old Sam Billington the shepherd, who lived in Church Lane). Greenhew Jack wore ivy in his hair and around his ankles, and he seemed to trade rather well, for there was always a crowd around his booth on market-day.
How John longed to go into town whenever the market was on! And if he did go, with what round eyes he would watch Greenhew Jack at work! Sadly, no matter how much he would ask, Mrs Humphrey would not spend any money on magic (she being a vicar's widow) and John had to be content with watching others get their spells and their potions.
Yet, a young boy will get his freedom in the end, and for John this came when he reached the age of seven and began to attend the grammar school in town. John walked to and from the town by himself, and at the end of the day when the school bell rang, the boys would head out into the market-place and (if it were market-day) a crowd of them would gather around Greenhew Jack.
Some of the boys bought fortunes, though John never had any money in his pocket (save that which he must give to his teacher). When one of the boys had made a purchase, however, Greenhew Jack was happy to answer questions, and this they could all listen to. From such excursions as these, the boys, and John among them, learnt that Greenhew Jack came from Newcastle (indeed, which yellow-curtained magician did not claim this?) that the Raven King had been a very wild sort of a fellow, and that Greenhew Jack's greatest spell had been to cause a great mountain to get up and walk away (for, said he, there were many mountains in Newcastle and they were very much a nuisance, as the people there got tired of climbing up and down all the time).
Sometimes it was John who was chosen to put a question to Greenhew Jack. On one such occasion, John asked a question he had been considering for many months. "How," asked John, "did you learn to do magic?"
At this, Greenhew Jack smiled and gave John a wink. "Why, son," said Greenhew Jack, "I woke up one morning with my skin prickling all over, and suddenly I found I could perform all sorts of spells!"
Can you imagine how eagerly young John thought of this answer? It took him a good few years to fully lose the hope that he might wake up one morning suddenly able to do spells himself.
I am sure that many of us have thought such a thing ourselves. And in the time of John's youth it was a right of passage for many children to slowly discover that there was no magic in England, that there had been no magic in England for many years, and that anyone who claimed to be able to do magic was no more than a liar at best and a thief at worst. For poor John, his dreams of becoming a magician and of doing magic were shattered.
But let us not feel too sad for young John, for while he had lost his faith in Greenhew Jack, he had not lost his love of magic altogether. You see, at school John had been learning all those subjects that you might expect: reading and writing in Latin and Greek so that he might study the classics, and reading and writing in French and English too, along with geography, mathematics and magical history. John was a conscientious scholar and took to all subjects well, but it was the subject of magical history that he loved the most. For within John there had been kindling an interest in history and a fascination for all things that had been once but were no longer. To learn about the great magic ages of the past was as if to enter another world, and once it had caught John's imagination it did not let it go.
By 1781 John was ten years old. He still played with the Harbisher children (and there were now many more of them) but he could not do this so often, for most of his time was taken up with school and even when it was not, John, Ann and Betsy were beginning to understand that they were not all of them on the same footing (for the older a gentleman's son becomes, the more the adults around him will make it their business to ensure that he mixes with only the right sorts of people).
Yet, at the age of ten a child is still a child and there was still room for John and the Harbishers to play. Ann and Betsy still liked to play at families, and John still found himself tasked with being the father. (And the older they became, the more John was willing to resign himself to the wishes of others so that they might be happy, but the less willing Betsy was to act the role of the baby.)
On one such occasion, both Ann and Betsy had been fighting over who should play the mother and they had rather reached a stalemate. They were sitting at the edge of the common, and Betsy was angrily plucking up the grass with her fingers. John had suggested that they take it in turns to play the mother, which had not gone down well at all.
Ann huffed. "I am the eldest," said she, "so I should be the mother."
"But why mayn't I get a chance?" pleaded Betsy.
"Because you must wait," declared Ann, confident in her logic. "I am the eldest daughter and the eldest daughter gets married first. Younger daughters have to wait."
Betsy threw a fistful of grass into the air. "That can't always happen. What if no-one wants to marry you? Then I wouldn't have a chance to get married at all!"
Ann laughed and said, "That's the way it is. I am certain. But I'm going to get married anyway so you needn't worry."
"Well I wouldn't want to marry you," muttered Betsy.
Ann shrugged at her sister then turned a smile upon John. "I'm going to marry John."
John's eyes widened.
"No! No!" Betsy crawled closer to the both of them, pushing Ann's feet out of the way. "I'm going to marry John!"
"You can't," said Ann. "I'm marrying John; not you."
There then followed a small fight between the sisters, with an amount of pushing. The fight ended when Betsy sat back, taking off her cap and pushing her hair out of her eyes. "I think John should decide," she declared.
Poor John, who hadn't said much while the fight was underway, now found two sets of eyes upon him.
"Say you'll marry me," said Ann.
"No," said Betsy. "Say you'll marry me."
John, looking from one to the other, was certain that he wanted to stop them from fighting but was utterly uncertain how to go about it. In the end, he decided that the easiest answer was to tell the truth:
"I'm sorry," said he, "but I don't want to marry either of you."
This answer resulted in much more pushing and complaining between the girls. Thankfully, at that moment Ann and Betsy's younger sister and brother, Frances and Tom (who were the age of three and four respectively), came up and dragged John off to see where the cat had caught a mouse in the yard to their cottage, and so saved him from any more trouble, for that day at least.