A SON OF THE CITY
A Story of Boy Life
HERMAN GASTRELL SEELY
Illustrations by Fred J. Arting
Chicago A. C. McClurg & Co. Copyright 1917 Published October, 1917 W. F. Hall Printing Company, Chicago
To My Father
THE COMPANION OF MANY A YOUTHFUL STROLL THROUGH CITY PARK AND SUBURBAN FIELD
I. In Which Our Hero Goes Fishing
II. In Which He Goes to School
III. He Plays a Trick on the Doctor
IV. In Which a Terrific Battle Is Waged
V. He Composes a Love Missive
VI. In Which We Learn the Secret Code of the "Tigers"
VII. He Goes to a Halloween Party
VIII. Wherein He Resolves to Get Married
IX. He Saves for "Four Rooms Furnished Complete"
X. Concerns Santa Claus Mostly
XI. He Has a Very Happy Christmas
XII. In Which the Path of True Love Does Not Run Smoothly
XIII. He Crushes and Humiliates a Rival
XIV. He Buys Valentines
XV. The Spring Brings Baseball
XVI. More About "The Greatest Game in the World"
XVII. He's "Through With Girls"
A SON OF THE CITY
IN WHICH OUR HERO GOES FISHING
Startled from a sound sleep, he fumbled blindly beneath the bed that he might throttle the insistent alarm clock before the clamor awakened the other members of the household. Then he lay back and listened breathlessly for parental voices of inquiry as to what he might be doing at the unearthly hour of half-past three on a late September morning.
Far down the railroad embankment which passed the rear of the house, an engine puffed lazily cityward with a load of empty freight cars. Over the elevated tracks a mile to the south, a train rumbled somnolently towards the park terminal, and under the eaves of the house, just above his room, two sparrows squabbled sleepily. Inside, the only audible sounds were the chirpings of a cricket somewhere down the hall, and the furious, muffled pounding of his own little heart.
He glanced from the window near the head of his bed. The air was oppressive with a strange, almost rural quietude. In the east, a faint streak of light brought the tree tops of the park into indistinct relief, and to the north a thin line of smoke floated apathetically from a hotel chimney to show that a light breeze from the west augured favorably for the morning's sport.
Stockings, knickerbockers, and blouse were drawn on with unwonted rapidity. His coat and necktie he left hanging over the back of the chair, disdained as unnecessary impediments on a fishing trip. Then with a final glance from the window at the fast-graying sky, he reached behind the bookcase for his carefully concealed pole and tackle, gathered his shoes in one hand, and tiptoed down the pitchy hall with the stealth of a cat.
Down the stairway he went, step at a time, scarcely daring to breathe as he shifted his weight again and again from one foot to the other. On the first landing, a board creaked with alarming distinctness. Came a maternal voice:
Her son hugged the stairway in a very agony of fear lest his carefully made plans had been spoiled. Why hadn't he walked along the end of the steps as bitter experience had taught? He knew that board was loose. Again the well-known tones:
"John, what are you doing?"
A subdued babel of conversation in the big south room followed, in which his father's deep bass took a prominent part.
"Nonsense, Jane, you're imagining things!"
"But you know I forbade fishing during school mornings. And he was looking at the DuPree's weather vane when he watered the lawn last night. Get up and see what he's doing."
John drew a sigh of relief as the deep voice sounded a sleepy protest. Minutes passed. His legs became cramped from inaction, yet he dared not stir. Were his parents asleep? Or was Mrs. Fletcher waiting merely until some tell-tale noise enabled her to order John senior forth on an expedition which would result in certain detection? If he had only avoided that misstep!
Then the kindly fast-mail thundered over the railroad tracks and enabled the seeker after forbidden pleasures to scurry to the first floor under cover of the disturbance.
In the hallway, the boy deposited his shoes and tackle very cautiously on the carpet, and tiptoed over to the unused grate. There he extracted from behind the gas log a package of sandwiches, surreptitiously assembled after supper the night before. Then with both hands grasping the doorknob firmly, he strained upwards, that weight be thrown off the squeaking hinges as much as possible, and swung the door back, inch by inch, until the opening permitted a successful exit.
The old cat bounded from her bed on the window ledge with a thud and mewed plaintively for admittance as he stood with one hand on the screen door, and fumbled in his pockets. Sinkers, spare hooks, a line with a nail at one end on which to string possible victims of his skill, "eats," his dollar watch that he might know when breakfast time came around—all present and accounted for.
The family pet protested volubly as he blocked her ingress with one foot and closed the door as slowly and noiselessly as it had swung open. A moment spent in lacing his shoes, a consoling pat for puss, and he was off on the dogtrot for Silvey's house, with tackle swinging easily to and fro in one hand and a noiseless whistle of exultation coming from half-parted lips which became more and more audible as his rapidly echoing footsteps increased the distance from home. For he had made good his escape, the strange fragrance of the cool, early air with its absence of city smoke went to his head like wine and set his pulses a-throb with a very joy of living, and five hours, three hundred glorious minutes, if the excursion were stretched a bit past breakfast time, of enchanting, tantalizing sport lay before him.
A short distance from the corner, he turned in abruptly at a frame house which was distinguished from its neighbors by unusually ornate fretwork about the porch and gables, and tiptoed gently over the struggling grass on the narrow sidelawn. For it was here that the Silvey family lived, and if Bill were his boon companion with tastes akin to his, strange to relate, the Silvey elders were light sleepers with the same propensities as his own parents for curbing unlawful fishing expeditions, and there was need of caution.
He fumbled momentarily along the dark sidewall, yanked at a cord which swayed idly to and fro with each light air current, and gazed expectantly upward. Nothing happened. Again a jerk, given this time with a certain vindictive delight. A muffled "Ouch!" came from the open window as a splotch of animated white appeared indistinctly behind the dark screen.
"Trying to pull my big toe off?" angrily.
John snickered. "Got the worms?" he asked.
Silvey swallowed his wrath and nodded. "Sh-sh, not so loud. You'll wake the folks. The can's on the back steps. Ain't many worms though. I hunted under the porch and down the tracks and all over. But the ground's too dry."
John shook the nearly empty can disparagingly as Silvey joined him on the back lawn a moment later.
"Jiminy," he whispered, "that all you could find?"
His chum nodded. "Maybe there's old worms or minnies from yesterday left on the pier. Or we can cut up the first fish for perch bait. Come on! Beat you over the tracks."
They scaled the wire fence which barricaded the embankment, and cut across the long parallel lines of rails like frisky colts. Past the few unkempt buildings of the neighborhood dairy, over the small bit of pasturage where the master thereof kept a dozen cows that his customers might think their milk was fresh, daily, and across the cement road, they scampered at top speed, to pull up panting just inside the park.
"Bet you I get to the lagoon bridge first," said Silvey when their breathing grew less labored.
Off they raced again, now on the trim gravel walks, now on the springy dew-laden turf, frightening a myriad of insects from their shelters as the pair brushed aside protruding shrubbery and brought a chorus of reproof from rusty-plumed grackles who were gathering in the open spaces for the long migration south.
As their footsteps echoed and re-echoed between the stone buttresses of the wooden planked bridge, John halted to dig frantically at his shoe top.
"Wait a minute, Sil. My heel's full of cinders."
He shook the offending boot free of the irritants, relaced it and leaned over the bridge rail for a moment. From beneath, northward, stretched the park lagoon calm and dark in the uncertain morning light. Fronting him rose the stately columns and porticoes of the park museum, once a member of an exposition whose glories are almost forgotten, which now veiled its need of repair in the kindly dawn and formed a symphony in gray with the willow-studded, low-lying lagoon banks. The air throbbed with the subdued noises of awakening animal life. In a shrub near them, a catbird cleared his throat in a few harsh notes as a prelude to a morning of tuneful parody, and on the slope below, a fat autumn-plumaged robin dug frantically in the sod for fugitive worms.
"My! Isn't it just peachy?" breathed John ecstatically.
"Yes," assented his companion, intent upon the lesser spectacle of the robin. "Don't you wish you could find worms like he does, Fletch?"
Once more they resumed their journey lakewards, breaking into the inevitable dogtrot as the long, dark pier came in sight. At the land end, John stooped to pick up a few sun-dried minnows which lay on a plank, and a little farther on Silvey grabbed eagerly at an earth-filled tomato can.
"Nary a worm," he exclaimed in disgust, as he threw the tin into the lake.
But shortly, their diligent search was rewarded by finding a tobacco-tin which contained at least a dozen samples of the squirming bait, and the anxiety regarding that problem was permanently allayed.
But one disciple of Izaak Walton had arrived before the boys, and he sat crouched in a huddled, lonely heap at the end of the pier, in a manner which seemed scarcely human. As they drew nearer, John broke into a sudden exclamation:
"Old hunchback! Been out here all night again. Wonder if he's caught anything!"
As they passed the first of his multitude of throwlines and poles, John leaned forward and peered down on the water.
"Look, Sil," he pointed at the long string of perch which floated to and fro with the sluggish water. "Aren't they peaches?"
He made a motion as if to joint his rod. The cripple drew a sharp, hissing breath from between thick, distorted lips and waved him away. Silvey caught his chum's arm warningly.
"No use of fishing beside him," he asserted. "Don't you know that, John? Brings bad luck to everyone 'cept himself, he does. I tried it one morning. He kept hauling them in, all the time, and I couldn't catch a thing."
John shook his head skeptically as they moved over to the other side of the pier.
"He does!" reiterated Silvey. "Never's the day I've been out here that he hasn't a lot. And look at that," as a shining, squirming object rose unwillingly from the water. "I'll bet I couldn't catch one if I was there. It's because he's hunchbacked, I'm telling you."
As John jointed his bamboo pole, he cast a furtive glance at the poor, misshapen being, and caught a touch of Silvey's superstitious fear.
"Maybe," he admitted, as he reached for the worm can.
Hooks baited, the boys dropped their lines in the water and sat down to dangle their legs to and fro over the pier's edge as they waited for the first hint as to the morning's luck. Possibly a quarter of an hour elapsed before Silvey's light steel rod gave a twitch, to be followed by another and still another. Its owner jerked a denuded hook high in the air.
"First bite, first bite!" he shouted, for that honor was ever a point of spirited contest on the pair's many expeditions.
"Hard?" asked John breathlessly.
"Hard!" repeated Silvey, boastfully exultant. "Hard? Goll-e-e-e, yes. Didn't you see him? Bent the tip most a foot. Took the worm, too."
Then the jointed bamboo began to shake ever so slightly and John leaned intently forward.
"Bite?" queried Silvey in turn.
"He's nibbling," said John cautiously without taking his glance from the flexible tip.
"Wait until he takes the hook," advised Bill. John braced himself and yanked a luckless perch high in the air. As it came down on the pier with a thud, his friend sprang to his feet.
"That-a-boy!" he yelled exultantly as his fingers extracted the hook. John brought out the fish stringer, and the unfortunate minnow, firmly tied by the gills, was lowered slowly into the water. The pair watched its spasmodic efforts at escape with a great deal of gusto.
"Ain't so small, is he, John?" asked Silvey optimistically, as he leaned over and looked down from an angle which only a small boy could maintain without losing his balance. "Bet you it's going to be a peach of a day."
The pier was now rapidly filling. A plethoric, sandy-haired German squatted beside the hunchback, watching an unproductive pole with a patience worthy of a better cause. At John's corner, a party of voluble loafers joked noisily as they unwound long, many-hooked throwlines and jointed nondescript rods. Beside Bill, a phlegmatic Scandinavian puffed morosely at an empty pipe. Just beyond, a fat negress shifted her bulk from time to time as she baited the hooks on one of her husband's numerous fishing outfits. Farther landward, a mixed throng—nattily clad business men who were snatching a few minutes of sport before business called, down at the heel out-of-works with nothing to do and all day to do it in, here a woman with a colorful shirtwaist, there a couple of noisy school-boys—made the sides of the pier bristle like the branches of a thicket hedge.
The faint tinge of orange in the eastern sky deepened to a radiant crimson glow. A glistening, fast-widening, crescent sliver of the sun appeared on the horizon and painted a long golden path on the rippled lake, and still the lonely perch waited in vain for a companion in misery.
Silvey jerked his line from the water and examined the untouched bait in disgust.
"Just like it was last time," he ejaculated. "I'm going down the pier and see what the other fellows are catching."
He jammed his pole between two bent nails in a plank and was off, stopping now and then to peer downward at some trophy as he sauntered along. John did likewise with his rod and stretched out on the rough boards to look lazily up at the clear sky. It wasn't half bad after all, even if the fish weren't biting. There was something in this getting up and over to the park before the smoke got into the air, to listen to the songs of the birds and watch the throng of people, that more than atoned for the lack of luck.
He pulled out his watch dreamily—a quarter of six and still but one captive—and let his glance follow the wake of a graceful, white-hulled gasoline cruiser which chugged its way up from the south. Presently Silvey returned to break in upon his revery with the exciting news that a man near the life-preserver post had caught five fish. John sat up.
"What did he catch 'em on?" he asked as he stretched his arms.
"Let's try a couple of ours."
They scraped the hooks free of the whitened worms with their finger nails and rebaited, only to find that the sun-parched flesh softened and floated away soon after it was lowered into the water.
"Have to buy some fresh ones! Got any money?"
A thorough search resurrected a worn copper that had lain in Silvey's back pocket until he had forgotten it—else the coin had gone the way of many another that had purchased peppermints at the school store. John surrendered a penny that had been given him the night before for a perfect spelling paper. They viewed the scanty hoard on the sun-bleached plank reflectively.
"Ask him." John indicated the Scandinavian, who was well supplied with the desired bait. Silvey stood up and jingled the two pennies in his grimy hand with the air of a young millionaire.
Yes, the fisherman would sell some. How many were desired?
"Aw, give me," the boy paused, as if considering the amount sufficient for their needs, "give me two cents' worth."
The merchant shook his head. "Two cents?" he sneered. "Naw! Won't sell any for less 'n a nickel."
A gaunt, anaemic southerner, who was with the party of idlers, spoke up.
"Yeah, boy. What's the matter?"
Silvey turned ruefully. "Ain't got money enough to buy some minnies," he explained.
The tall figure stooped abruptly, fumbled in a battered basket which held a miscellaneous assemblage of bait, throwlines, newspapers, and food, and drew forth a handful of the diminutive fish.
"Yeah, boy," he smiled.
Silvey offered the two coppers in payment.
"Keep 'em, boy, keep 'em," with an indignant glance at the imperturbable fish monopolist. "I ain't like some folks."
The boys rebaited their hooks joyfully. The cruiser which John had sighted earlier in the morning drew up within easy distance of the pier and dropped anchor. Two of her crew appeared presently in swimming suits and dove overboard for a morning plunge. From her diminutive, weathered cabin came the rattle of cooking utensils and the hiss of frying bacon as the cook of the day prepared breakfast. Bill stirred restlessly.
"Let's have a look at the sandwiches," he suggested.
They stretched themselves full length on the pier end and, with an occasional eye to the fishing poles, munched the uncouth slabs of bread and jam contentedly. Silvey read the name on the boat's stern with interest.
"Detroit," he gasped. "Gee, Fletch, don't you wish you had a boat like that with all the gasoline to run her?"
John's brown eyes grew dreamy. "Just don't you, though! We could ride down the canal out in the Illinois River and down the Mississippi to St. Louis. No staying after school, no 'rithmetic lessons, no lawns to cut or front porches to wash on Saturdays. We'd get up when we liked and fish when we liked, and loaf around all day. If money ran out, we'd find a place where there wasn't any bridge, and ferry people across the river for a nickel or a dime, or whatever they charge down there. Maybe, too, we could get a lot of red neckties and shirts with brown and yellow stripes and sell 'em to the darkies for a dollar apiece. Sid DuPree says they buy those things and he ought to know. He spent summer before last down South with his ma!"
"Where'd we get the money to buy 'em in the first place?" asked the practical Silvey.
His chum's face clouded. "Shucks, Sil, you're always spoiling things. But," more hopefully, "we needn't really worry about money anyway. All the books I've read about the South tell how kind folks are down there, and how they won't allow a stranger to go hungry, not even if they have to give him their last hunk of cornbread. So if ferrying didn't pay, all we'd have to do would be to land, walk up to the nearest house, and knock at the door. When the big mammy cook—they always have 'em in the books—came to the door, we'd just look at her and say, 'We're hungry.'"
Silvey nodded, content to revel in the glories of the daydream which John's more vivid imagination was spinning.
"We'd go all the way down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Maybe we'd catch some alligators to make things exciting, and maybe some big yellow river catfish. I read about one once that was six feet long. And when we arrived, they'd put our pictures in the newspapers, with a big lot of print after them, just the way they do when someone comes to town here who's done something. We'd win a lot of race cups, and folks would say to their friends, 'See those two kids there? They took a launch all the way down the river from Lake Michigan by themselves.' We'd be it all the time we were there."
Silvey, under the spell of the alluring picture, let his gaze roam dreamily around until it lighted upon an excited group down the pier. He sprang to his feet energetically.
"Fletch! Look! A man drowned, maybe. Come on quick!" Such alluring possibilities may come true in a city.
They sprinted up to the rapidly increasing crowd, and wriggled, boylike, past obstructing arms and between tense bodies until they found themselves in the inner line of the circle. A carp of a size sufficient to excite the envy of the neighboring fishermen lay with laboring gills upon the water-spattered planking. The lads gazed in open-mouthed admiration at the large, glistening scales, the staring eyes, and the twitching, murky red fins.
"Weighs five pounds if he's an ounce," orated the proud captor. "Says I to myself when he bit, 'I've got a bird there,' and I was right."
John turned to his chum with the inevitable question:
"Gee, don't you wish we could catch a fish like that?"
And Silvey made the inevitable reply:
"Just don't you, though!"
They watched breathlessly as the fisherman forced his stringer between the large gills and out through the gaping mouth, and tied it in a secure double knot that there might be no danger of an escape. As the rebellious captive was lowered into the water, and the throng about the spot began to thin, the successful angler seated himself again.
"What'd you catch him on?" John broke out.
"Do big fellows like that bite on potatoes?"
They were assured that such was the case.
"Say," John scratched nervously at a knot in a pier plank as he summoned courage for his request. "Give me a hunk, will you? I never caught a fish that big in my life and I sure want to!"
"Catch." The man's eyes flashed in amusement as he opened a deep cigar box and tossed out a half-boiled tuber.
For a second time that morning, the boys tested a new type of bait. Hoping to change his luck, John cast far out to the very limit of the ten cents' worth of fishing line on his reel and sat, tensely hopeful, for five dragging minutes. Then he jammed the pole into its old resting place between the bent nails.
"No use," he exclaimed in disgust to Silvey.
Hardly were the words out of his mouth before the reel gave a sharp click of alarm. The sagging line grew taut and rose more and more from the water as an unseen something made a frightened break for liberty. John seized the handle as the rod threatened to drop into the water and jumped to his feet.
"Gee!" he cried, half frightened by the weight and resistance of the fish, "Gee!"
Silvey strained his eyes far out in an effort to descry the captive. The southerner who had given the minnows sprang forward with a shout of "Play him, boy, play him. Give him line until he turns or he'll break away."
"Can't," John gasped, his heart in his mouth. "It's all out, now."
As the cheap line stretched almost to the breaking point, the fish circled rapidly landward, then, alarmed by the shoaling water, sped back, close by the pier, for the open lake. The minnow monopolist jerked his lines clear of impending entanglement and scowled.
"Take in slack, boy, take in slack," shouted the southerner.
John's fingers spun around like a paper pinwheel. Again the line tightened and again the carp turned to the shore. The news that a big one was hooked spread far down the pier, and the boys, for the first time in their lives, tasted the delight of being the cynosure of the eyes of a rapidly increasing crowd. The man with the potatoes had forced his way to the pier's edge and gave advice with an almost proprietary manner. The fat negress' husband, roused from his inaction, gibbered delightedly as the line circled more and more slowly through the water, while John panted and reeled, slacked and rereeled line until the exhausted fish rose to the surface directly beneath him.
"Gee," gasped Silvey, awe-struck.
"No wonder he fought like an alligator fish," vouchsafed the southerner.
"Who says 'taters don't catch anything?" asked the man of that bait proudly. "Twenty pounds or I'll eat my shirt."
Cautiously, very cautiously, lest the fish make a sudden frightened dash for liberty, John drew in line to raise the captive from the water.
"Y'all wait a minute," said the southerner. "Land him in my minny net. That's safer."
But the minnow net, thanks to its abbreviated handle, lacked an easy two feet of the water, reach as the gaunt, outstretched figure might.
"H'ist away," he ordered finally. "I'll shove under when he gets high enough."
Inch by inch, the quivering body rose from the water. Appeared above the wire rim of the net, first the staring, goggle eyes, then the slowly laboring gills, the twitching side fins, and six inches of glistening scales.
"Now!" shouted the southerner.
Then, as if sensing the imminent danger, the great body gave a convulsive wrench, the light hook tore through the soft-fleshed mouth, and the carp, rebounding from the bark-covered piling, dove into the lake with a splash and disappeared from sight.
"Shucks!" ejaculated Silvey.
John sat down on the pier suddenly and very quietly. His tackle had snarled, and as the throng returned to their own poles, he picked at the tangle of line in the reel while his lower lip trembled piteously.
To have landed that Goliath among fishes! What a triumphal procession it would have been—a march down the home street with such a captive. How Sid DuPree and the Harrison boys would have stared! He rebaited and dropped his line forlornly into the water.
"Maybe he'll bite again," he suggested, hoping against fate.
The minutes dragged. The gaunt, gray-faced southerner stretched out on the pier for a nap. The sandy-haired German rose from his seat beside the hunchback, stretched the stiffness from his arms, and unjointed his pole. The last neatly dressed business man was walking briskly from the pier. Silvey yawned listlessly.
"Breakfast time, ain't it?" he asked.
John's watch showed a quarter after eight. Slowly they reeled in the dripping lines, freed the hooks from all traces of water-soaked bait, and dismounted their rods. As they left the lake shore, the sun's rays became oppressive with heat. The air had lost the cool, fresh fragrance of early morning, and hinted of soot-producing factories and unsavory slaughter houses. Suburban trains thundered incessantly cityward, blending the snorts of their locomotives with the rumble of innumerable elevated trains and the clamoring bells of the surface cars.
When they came to the tall poplars which marked the entrance to the park, Silvey looked down and viewed the fruit of their morning's labors with disgust.
"He's awful small," he said shamefacedly. "Throw him into the bushes."
John raised the diminutive perch into the air and regarded it glumly. "Cat'll eat him, I guess."
"Have to sneak home the back way, then," said Silvey.
The return home by way of the railroad tracks was ever their route when a fishing trip had been unsuccessful, for it avoided conveniently all notice by jeering playmates.
"Don't you wish we'd landed that big fellow?" breathed John, half to himself, as he reviewed mentally that thrilling struggle on the pier.
"Just don't you, though!" echoed Bill, regretfully.
They walked on for some minutes in silence. As they left the cement walk for the little footpath which led across the corner vacant lot to a break in the railroad fence, Silvey roused himself.
"What you going to say to your mother?"
John shrugged his shoulders. "Don't know. What you going to say to yours?"
So they fell to planning their excuses.
IN WHICH HE GOES TO SCHOOL
But an hour had passed since his protesting assertion that "Once doesn't matter, Mother, and anyway, it's school time," had been followed by flight to the many-windowed, red-brick building, and already the surroundings of dreary blackboard, dingy-green calsomine, and oft-revarnished yellow pine woodwork were becoming irksome. The spelling lesson had not been so unpleasant, for he could sense the tricky "ei-s" and "ie-s" with uncanny cleverness, but 'rithmetic—the very name oppressed him. What use could be found in such prosy problems as "A and B together own three-hundred acres of land. A's share is twice as much as B's. How much does each own?" Or "A field contains four hundred square yards. One side is four times as long as the other. What are its dimensions?"
Miss Brown closed the hated, brown-covered book and turned to write the arithmetic homework on the blackboard. Instantly John's attention wandered to objects and sounds far more interesting than the barren, sultry school room.
A couple of sparrows flew from the roof of the school to the window ledge nearest him, intent on their noisy quarrel, and he gave a scarcely perceptible sigh. Birds could enjoy the sunshine unmolested—why not he? A horse sounded a rapid tattoo of hoof beats over the heated street macadam below and he longed—as he had longed for the launch that morning—for a vehicle which would take him along untraveled roads to a country where schools were not, and small boys fished and played games the long days through. Next, a three-year-old stubbed her toe against the street curbing opposite the school and voiced her grief with unrestrained and therefore enviable freedom. John stirred uneasily and meditated upon the interminable stretch of four days which must elapse before Saturday. Then a majestic thunderhead in the blazing September sky caught his attention and the miracle happened.
He was on his back in the big field of his uncle's Michigan farm, gazing upward at the white, rapidly shifting clouds. The unimpeded western breeze made little harmonies of sound as it swept through the tall, waving grass; strange birds carolled joyously from the orchard by the road, and near at hand the old, brown Jersey lowed lovingly to her ungainly calf. From the more distant chicken coop came the cackle of hens and the boastful crowing of a rooster.
A shift of the thought current, and the fat, easy-going team dragged the lumbering, slowly moving wagon over the four-mile stretch of sand road to town, while he sat on the driver's seat to listen to the hired man's tales of army service in the Philippines, or to watch the ever-shifting panorama of flower and bird and animal life which he loved so well. Past the ramshackle farm of the first neighbor to the north, past the little deserted country school house, past the pressed-steel home of a would-be agriculturist, which had rusted to an artistic red, and down to the winding river which flanked the hamlet through banks lined with white birches and graceful poplars—"popples" the hired man called them. There was good fishing in the river, too. Once a twenty pound muskellunge had been caught, and bass were plentiful.
But better still than that was his uncle's well-stocked trout stream. Again he stumbled over the root-obstructed footpath which ran along the east bank, stopping now and then to untangle his hook and line as he forced his way past thick, second-growth underbrush, or to let his hook float with the current past some particularly promising bit of watercress. There was the fallen, half-rotted log under which the swift current had dug a deep hole in the sandbed for the big fellows to haunt and pounce out upon bits of food which floated by. How his heart had gone pitapat when he had discovered it and had quietly, oh, so quietly, dropped his baited hook into the clear, spring water. Then had come a swift-darting something up stream, a jerk at his line to set his pulses throbbing, a wild scurry for freedom and—
"John!" Miss Brown's voice brought him rudely back to present day surroundings. He rose uncertainly, dimly conscious that his name had been called.
"Yes, 'm," he stammered.
"What was I telling the class just now?"
He strove to collect his scattered faculties. Then his glance, roaming the room, caught at the newly written problems on the blackboard. He ventured an uncertain smile.
"You—w-was telling—" he began.
"Yes, 'm," nervously. "Were telling the class to be sure and write plain, and not to use pen and ink if we couldn't get along without blots and—and—" What else did Miss Brown usually say to the class on such an occasion?
Over in the far corner of the room, Sid DuPree snickered maliciously. The boy two seats ahead of him turned with an exultant grin on his freckled face. Several little girls seemed on the verge of foolish, discipline-dispelling giggles, and he felt that something had gone wrong. Teacher, herself, ended the suspense.
"Very good, John. Your inventive faculties do you credit. But it happens that as yet, I haven't said anything."
The class broke into uproarious laughter while he stood in the aisle, to all appearances, a submissive, conscience-stricken little mortal. Inwardly he seethed with anger. What right had Miss Brown to trick a fellow that way? It was mean, it was cowardly, worse than stealing.
"Now, John," she continued, looking sternly down from the raised platform, "I spoke just six times to you last week. Finally you promised me that you would pay strict attention. What have you to say for yourself?"
He shot her a half-frightened glance and found her face seemingly stern and remorseless. He had been tempted to explain how the great out-of-doors called to him with an insistence which was irresistible, but shucks, she wouldn't understand. How was he to know that under the surface of it all, she sympathized with the culprit daydreamer exceedingly? So he hung his head in silence.
There was a knock at the door. Miss Brown dismissed him with a curt nod. He sank thankfully into his desk as Sid DuPree sprang forward to admit the newcomer—a new girl and her mother. From the shelter of his big geography, John surveyed the couple with that calmly critical stare which only a ten-year-old is master of.
The mother was nice, he decided. Fat ones always were. It was your long, thin woman who made trouble. Look at old lady Meeker, who lived next the vacant lot on Southern Avenue, where the boys gathered occasionally on their way from school for a game of marbles or to play split-top on one of the loose, decayed fence planks. Never did a glassy go spinning from the big dirt ring through a dexterous shot, or a soft, evenly grained top split cleanly to the spear head amid the proper shouts of approval than her fretful, piercing voice put an end to further fun. Such goings-on made her head ache, she averred time and again. If they didn't leave immediately, she'd telephone the police station. Once she had said it was a "wonder some parents wouldn't keep their children in their own back yards." She forgot that half the gang lived in apartment buildings with back yards only designed for clothes-drying apparatus, and that the other half lived in houses built upon so cramped an acreage that the yards were no fun to play in. But grown-ups were in the habit of committing such oversights—especially the skinny, cranky ones.
As for the little girl—ah! she was good to look upon.
Her chestnut hair hung in curly ringlets below her shoulders, almost to the waist of her little white frock. Her face held a slight pallor which was strangely fascinating to the sun-tanned urchin, and her eyes were a deep, rich brown. As the conversation ended between teacher and parent, she left the platform and walked to the front seat assigned her in a timid, shrinking way which stamped her as just the sort of a girl the fellows would make miserable on the slightest provocation. John's face set in an expression of heroic determination until he looked as if he'd swallowed a dose of castor oil!
He'd like to catch Sid DuPree dancing around her in maddening circles, some afternoon, while she shrank piteously from each cry of "'Fraid cat! 'Fraid cat!" Or that bully might throw pieces of chalk at her or pelt her with snowballs in the winter time until she broke into incoherent sobs. Then he, John Fletcher, would show that Sid where he got off at. He'd punch his face in, he would!
The school room door closed upon the mother's broad back, and the hum of excitement at the departure subsided into the normal undercurrent of whispering between the pupils. Pencils scratched laboriously over rough manila pads as their owners copied the questions from the board. The boy two seats ahead of John took a wad of chewing gum from his mouth and stuck it on the underside of his desk. Someone over on Sid DuPree's side of the room dropped a book to the floor with a bang.
Then Miss Brown shoved back the test papers she had been correcting and glanced at the clock.
"Clear the desks," she ordered sharply. "Class prepare for physical culture."
They obeyed with alacrity, for the drills were ever a relief from the enforced inactivity of restless little bodies. Moreover, they were vastly more enjoyable than mathematical perplexities or troublesome state and river boundaries.
"Rise on toes, inhale deeply, and exhale ver-y slowly!" came the crisp command after the children had stumbled to their feet in the aisle. "One, two, three, four; one, two, three, four."
Heated little faces grew even more flushed as the minute hand of the big wall clock showed the passing of five flying minutes. Next came, "Thrust forward, upwards, and from your sides," "bend trunks," to all points of the compass, "lunge to the right and left, and thrust forward," and a baker's dozen of other exercises designed to offset the weakening influences of cramped city environments and impure air.
In conclusion, the class made a quarter-turn to the right and as they thus stood in parallel rows, took hold of each other's hands. At teacher's command, they swung their arms back and forth vigorously to an accompaniment of the inevitable "one-two, one-two."
John's was a back seat, thanks to skillful maneuvering on the opening day of school, and flaxen-haired Olga occupied the desk ahead. A day earlier he had counted himself fortunate in having her for a neighbor, for she was clever at studies which required plodding perseverance, and not at all bashful about helping a fellow when teacher pounced on him with a catch question.
Now he loathed her slow, insipid smile as his left hand released her plump right fingers at the end of the exercise. If she were only the new little girl!
Then he noticed, as a prosaic business man will notice suddenly, that a skyscraper which he has passed daily for months is out of line with its neighbor, that the seat behind the new little girl was unoccupied and that she stood alone in the aisle during exercises. Would that he had possession of it!
To sit next her, to be able to exchange the trivial, yet important, little confidences in which fourth-graders indulge when teacher's back is turned, or to win her quick, flashing smile as a reward for sharpening her pencil or for judicious prompting during a spelling lesson!
To achieve these things, he would be willing even to relinquish the powers which he held by virtue of his aisle end seat. And to allow voluntarily some other pupil to fill the inkwells, distribute pencils, scratch pads, and drawing paper at their appointed intervals, and to indulge in a hundred and one other little acts of monitorship is no slight sacrifice for a boy to make.
The geography lesson began. With the disregarded map of Africa in front of him as a blind, he fell to comparing the new girl with the other maidens of his acquaintance.
Take poor, inoffensive Olga for example. Her placid being seemed clumsy and her movements bovine as he pictured again the dainty grace of that new arrival as she stepped down from the teacher's platform; or Irish-eyed, boisterous, fun-loving Margaret! John had regarded her with a great deal of favor during the past two weeks, for she was a jolly little sprite with a mother who, thanks to the neighborhood's laundry patronage, contrived to clothe her daughter in a constantly varying and seldom-fitting assortment of dresses. Now echoes of her noisy laughter returned to grate upon his memory. The new little girl wouldn't laugh like that. Not she! No one with so sweet a smile had need of impudent grins. And what a contrast between Margaret's untidy mop and those long, silken curls which so fascinated him.
Yes, the boy decided that here was the being who was to be his girl for the ensuing year—to be worshipped from afar in all probability, but to be, nevertheless, his girl. So he drove ruthlessly from his heart all memories of a certain gray-eyed Harriette, his third-grade charmer, and erected a purely tentative shrine to the new divinity. As yet he was not quite certain of his feelings—and there might be a later addition to the room!
In the meantime, there was the vacant seat. Temporary idol or not, he longed for possession of it, but he knew that although he moved heaven and earth to support a direct request for transfer, Miss Brown would never assign it to him. Many a past bitter experience had shown the most harmless desires to mask deep-laid juvenile plots, and she was singularly wary and distrustful. A way must be found to trick her into giving him the occupancy.
He ate his meat and potatoes very quietly and thoughtfully that noon, a procedure so contrary to his usual actions that his mother asked him if he felt well. He nodded abstractedly, went upstairs to the big, sunny sewing room, searched the family needlecase for a long stiff darning needle and extracted several rubber bands from the red cardboard box on the library table. Then he sauntered off to wait in the school yard for assembly bell, with the air of a military strategist who has planned a well-laid campaign and is sanguine of success.
The tramp of juvenile feet up the broad, school stairways grew steadily less until silence reigned in the big, empty corridors. Miss Brown sat down at her desk, drew out the black-covered record book from the right-hand drawer, and gave a few reassuring pats to her dark, orderly hair. Scurrying footsteps pounded up to the cloak room entrance. A moment later, Thomas Jackson, still panting and breathless, stumbled into his seat and mopped the beads of perspiration from his dark-skinned forehead with his coatsleeve. Then the tardy bell rang and Miss Brown began roll call.
"Anna Boguslawsky," came her clear, even tones as the "B" names were reached. Hardly had Anna's timid "Here" reached her ears than a series of subdued cluckings came from some small boy's throat. She rapped for order and went on.
"Clu-wawk, clu-wawk," repeated the offender. Miss Brown laid her book down with a snap and glared at the class, which hesitated between ill-suppressed amusement and fear of teacher's wrath. She waited for one long, dragging moment and spoke crisply:
"Children, you are no longer third-graders. Try to act as really grown-up boys and girls ought to."
"Clu-wawk, clu-wawk," came the maddening repetition. She sprang to her feet.
"That will be quite enough," she snapped. "If that boy makes that noise again he will be sent to the office and suspended for two weeks." During the awed silence which followed, she seated herself and took up the black-covered book with impressive deliberation. All went well until the "H's" were reached.
"Albert Harrison," she called, "Albert!"
"School doctor sent him home this morning," volunteered the boy nearest Albert's empty desk.
As Miss Brown's eyes sought the record book again, an unseen something whizzed through the air. Thomas Jackson jumped to his feet and rubbed a chocolate ear belligerently.
"Who shot that rubber band? I'll fix him. Who done it? He's afraid to let me know."
Miss Brown stepped down from the teacher's platform with an angry swish of her skirts, and took up a position half-way down the aisle where she had a better view of the class. John studied her carefully. The usually smiling lips were set in a thin, nervous line, and the hand which held the record book trembled ever so slightly. In an opposite corner of the room, two little girls giggled hysterically. The ring of pupils around him, true to the child's creed of no talebearing, glanced at school books or lesson papers with preternaturally grave faces. Discipline had been so badly broken that the class was at the stage where a dropped piece of chalk or a sneeze will provoke an outburst of laughter.
John drew the needle from his coat lapel and wedged it carefully in the joint between his desk and the back of Olga's seat. A glance at Miss Brown found her watching Billy Silvey closely in the belief that he was the miscreant. The time for his crowning bit of persecution had arrived.
Suddenly a nerve-wracking, ear-piercing vibration filled the room. Miss Brown's face went white with rage. John caught the tip of the needle with his fingernail and bent it back again.
"T-a-a-ang." The class gasped at the sheer audacity of the deed. A ray of reflected light caught the teacher's eye, and she pounced upon the boy before he could remove the incriminating bit of steel.
"John Fletcher," she screamed, as she stood beside him. "So it's you who have been causing all this trouble!"
He admitted as much. Sober second thought would have counseled Miss Brown to make good her threat of a visit to the principal's office and consequent suspension, but an outraged sense of personal grievance clamored for redress. She gained control of herself with perceptible effort.
"Take out your books," she ordered.
He assembled his belongings on the top of his desk—geography, reader, arithmetic, composition book and speller—all too new to be as yet ink-scarred—a manila scratch pad, a ruled block of ink paper with a cover crudely illustrated during his many bored moments, and a sundry assortment of teeth-marked pencils and pens, and stood, a smiling, incorrigible offender, in the aisle, awaiting further orders.
Miss Brown found that smile peculiarly irritating. "The first thing to happen to you," she told him sternly, "is that you'll have to stay after school an hour for the rest of the week. As for your back seat, I let you keep it only on promise of good behavior, and this is the way you've acted."
The maddening grin reappeared. That seat behind the new little girl was the only vacant one in the room located at all near Miss Brown's desk. The prize was all but in his possession. She was going to—she had to—
"And," went on the cold, inexorable voice, "as Louise is such a well-behaved little girl, I'm going to let her exchange with you. Louise, will you take out your books?"
He drew one piteous, gasping breath. Every vestige of sunlight seemed to leave the room. Slowly he fumbled among his belongings as he gathered them into his arms and, half-way up the aisle, stood aside to let his divinity pass. Longingly his glance took in every detail of the silken curls, the curving lashes which half hid the brown eyes the rosy, petulant lips, and the unmistakably snub hose. Then he walked uncertainly to the seat which she had just vacated.
A little later, Miss Brown looked up from a stack of composition papers which had been collected by the monitors, and found John's lower lip a-quiver. She was greatly puzzled, for boys did not usually take detentions after school so much to heart. But fifteen minutes before school ended for the day, she knew that his troubles had vanished, for he was gazing out of the window with such vacant earnestness that she felt called upon to reprove him again for daydreaming.
He eluded the watchful eye of authority as the exit bell rang, and filed down stairs with the long line of pupils. Sid DuPree dashed past him as he stood in the school yard, with a cry of "Just wait until teacher fixes you for ducking." A friend called an enthusiastic invitation to play tops on the smooth street macadam. Silvey stopped to convey the important information that the "Tigers" were to hold their first fall football practice in the big lot that afternoon. John promised his appearance—later. Other and more important matters would claim his attention for the next half-hour.
At last the new little girl came down the long walk leading from the school yard to the street and hippity-hopped over the cement sidewalk towards home, with school books swinging carelessly to and fro in her strap.
He started after her with the unnecessary and therefore fascinating stealth of an Indian, for he meant to find out where she lived. As she left the cross street where the telephone exchange stood, her gait slackened to a walk—still eastward. Past the little block of stores which housed a struggling delicatessen, an ambitious, gilt-signed "elite" tailoring establishment, and a dingy, dirty-windowed little jewelry shop, across Southern Avenue where gray-eyed Harriette, that divinity of the preceding year, lived, and still no sign of a change in direction.
Once she turned and looked backward. John fled, panic-stricken, to the shelter of the nearest store entrance; for you might be in love with a girl, you might be obsessed with a desire to find her residence that you might pass it occasionally and wonder in a dreamy sort of a way what she might be doing, but the girl herself must never know it. That would be contrary to every precept of the schoolboy code of ethics.
At last she turned a corner—his home corner—where the drug store stood, and broke again into a hippity-hop down the shady, linden-lined street. With heart gloriously a-thump, he watched the door of the big apartment building at the end of the street close upon the little white-clad form, and he knew that the van load of furniture which had been carried in on the Friday preceding belonged to her parents. So he retraced his steps across the street with a dolorously cheerful whistle on his lips.
Over the railroad tracks he went as usual to the big, weed-grown, rubbish-littered field north of the dairy farm, which served as baseball grounds, athletic field, and football gridiron, according to the season. There he found a baker's dozen of boys of his own age, who greeted him joyously.
"Sid DuPree's gone to get his football," Silvey explained. "We'll be practicing in a minute."
They were a ragged lot. Silvey boasted of a grimy, oft-patched pair of football pants, which were a relic of his brother's high-school career; Albert, the older Harrison boy, who did not seem very ill in spite of the physician's dismissal, owned half of an old football casing, which had been padded to make a head guard, and there was a scattering of sweaters among them. Sid DuPree, thanks to parental affluence, was the only boy who laid claim to a complete uniform, and presently he sauntered over the tracks in shining headgear, heavy jersey, padded knee trousers, and legs encased in shin-guards far too large for him. A new collegiate ball was tucked securely under one arm.
"Here she is, fellows," he called, as he clambered into the field and sent the pigskin spinning erratically through the air. "Isn't she a peach?"
Last year, their combats had been fought with a light, cheap, dollar toy, but here was one in their midst of the same weight, brand, and size as that which the big university team used, and which cost as much as, or more, than a new suit of clothes, according to the individual. They gathered around it, poking at the staunchly sewn seams and thumping the stony sides with a feeling akin to reverence.
Presently Silvey produced a frayed, dog-eared treatise How to Play Football, which had survived two years of thumbing and tugging and lying on the attic floor between seasons, and proceeded to lay down the fundamental laws to the neophytes in the great American sport. Positions were tentatively assigned, and the squad raced over weeds and stones in an effort to master the rudimentary plays, while Silvey strutted and blustered and administered corrective lectures in a manner that was a ludicrous imitation of a certain high-school coach. Let John excel at baseball if he would; he was the master of the hour now, and he marched the boys back and forth until they panted and sweated and finally broke into vociferous protest. Thus the "Tigers," whose name that season was to spell certain defeat to similar ten-year-old teams, concluded their first football practice.
John dropped behind to talk to the elder Harrison boy as the team sauntered noisily homeward. He wanted to learn the details of the accommodating illness. Albert chuckled.
"Nothing the matter. Only the school doctor thought there was."
That official was a recent acquisition to the school personnel whose duties, according to the school board's orders, were to "Make daily visits, morning and afternoon, to examine all cases of suspected illness, and prescribe, if poverty makes it necessary, that epidemics be safeguarded against."
"What do you mean?" asked John.
"Well, my throat felt funny and I told Miss Brown. She sent me up to the office to see him. 'Stay home a day, my boy, until we see if it gets worse,'" Albert quoted. "Was I glad?"
So that was what the new school doctor did. Thumped you around and looked down your throat and prescribed a day's holiday as a cure. He wished he'd been Albert. He'd a' stayed on the pier all morning and hooked the big carp again. Some folks seemed to be born lucky, anyway. Couldn't he fall sick too, not badly enough to go to bed, but just nicely sick as Al was?
He startled his parents at supper that evening by a sudden and seemingly morbid thirst for information about diseases.
"Mother," he queried, between mouthfuls of bread and homemade marmalade, "what's measles and scarlet fever and diphtheria start out like?"
His father chortled with amusement. Mother, after the manner of women, remembered his actions that noon and grew anxious.
"You're not feeling sick, are you, dear?"
He didn't feel exactly well. Could she tell him about any of the foregoing? Perhaps he had one of them.
"Put that marmalade right down, then. It'll upset your stomach. Here, let me look at your tongue!"
He demurred. Jam wouldn't hurt him. There was nothing really wrong, anyway. Only one of the boys at school had gone home with the measles and he was wondering what it was like. Then he subsided into silence.
Late that evening, Mr. Fletcher found the library gas burning and discovered his son sitting beside the desk, his eyes glued to the portly, green-bound Family Doctor. Beside him on a pad were scribbled copious notes. Nor would he even hint, as his father ordered him to bed, what he wanted them for.
HE PLAYS A TRICK ON THE DOCTOR
In the morning, John sneaked from the table as soon as the last forkfull of fried potatoes had been devoured. When Mrs. Fletcher brought the breakfast plates out to the kitchen sink, she found him on tiptoe, with one hand fumbling among the spice tins and bottles in the top bureau drawer. He turned guiltily, and yawned to hide his embarrassment.
"I was looking for a piece of cinnamon to chew," he explained. "Guess I'll be going to school now."
His mother glanced at the alarm clock which ticked noisily in its place on the wall over the sink.
"Only twenty-five minutes to nine, son. Isn't it a bit early?"
He explained that he had to be up at school at first bell. A geography notebook had been left in his desk, and entries must be made in it before the class began. He was gathering his scattered belongings together in the hall when the maternal voice called him back to the kitchen.
"Yes, Mother?" with his head in the doorway.
"Will you ever learn to shut a drawer when you're through with it?"
He shoved it back with a sulky bang. "Where's my hat?"
"Did you look in the front hall?"
"'Tain't on the floor by the big chair. That's where I most always leave it."
"How about the closet hat rack?"
A moment later, a surprised shout told that the lost had been found. The front door slammed noisily and he was off to school.
The dishes were washed and dried, the plates and saucers stacked on the pantry shelves, the cups hung neatly on the appointed hooks in the cupboard, and the silver put away in the sideboard drawer. Then Mrs. Fletcher turned her attention to the tidying of the house. She made innumerable circles and criss-crosses with the carpet sweeper over the parlor rug, and was dusting the big rocker by the bay window when a chance glance up the street revealed two small figures playing far at one end of the strip of macadam. Her son, without doubt, was one of them. No one else wore a cap tilted back at quite so ridiculous an angle. The other stocky figure looked and acted like Bill Silvey.
Why weren't they at school? Hookey? No, for truants never allowed themselves within sight of home and easy detection. And there was a certain brazen righteousness about their actions. At the big, green house, Silvey challenged John to a game of tag. A lamppost nearer, they ceased the mad, dodging chase and engaged in earnest conversation. A hundred yards from the Fletcher house, footsteps lagged to an astonishing degree and an air of lassitude overcame them that was inexplicable in view of recent activities. The boys mounted the front steps wearily. John pressed the bell as if the act consumed the last atom of strength in his arm.
His mother swung back the door anxiously. "What on earth's the matter?"
"School doctor sent me home," her son explained. "Think's I've got the measles."
"Nonsense! Let me take a look at you." His eyes were reddened to an alarming degree, but there seemed little else the matter.
"He did," John insisted. "Told me to stay home today to see if they got worse. Silvey and I are going fishing."
"Fishing! And coming down with the measles?"
He protested volubly. His head felt heavy and kind of funny, but he didn't think that lazying around on the pier would be harmful. The sunshine might do him good.
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Mrs. Fletcher a second time and with increased emphasis. She turned to Silvey. "You can go home, Bill. John can't come out. He's going to stay in bed until he gets better."
John trudged wearily up the interminable stairs to his little tan-walled room.
Shucks, it was just his luck! Look at Al Harrison. He came home with a sore throat and was allowed to play football and fool around as he pleased, while he, John Fletcher, was ordered to bed because the school doctor feared measles.
A fellow had returned from the pier with a string of perch a yard long dangling from his pole. "Fishing good? Say, kid, this ain't nothing to what some of 'em have caught!" And he was condemned to a day's imprisonment while they were biting that way. It was a shame, tyranny, oppression worse than the old slaves labored under in Uncle Tom's Cabin. He'd run away from home, he would. Perhaps his uncle would give him a job on the Michigan farm if he worked his way up there. Or else he could commit suicide. There was the long, shiny, carving knife in the kitchen table drawer. He'd just bet his mother would be sorry if he used it.
Instead, he threw his clothes sulkily over the back of the wicker chair and, after some deliberation, drew a well-thumbed, red-covered book from his library shelves. Sherlock Holmes was a far better panacea for his troubles than the big carving knife.
He had read and reread the tale until the episodes were known almost by heart, but still The Sign of the Four held powerful sway over his imagination. Thaddeus Sholto lived again to tell his nervous, halting tale to the astute Baker Street detective. Tobey took the two eager sleuths through the episode of the trail which led to the creosote barrels. Holmes appeared and reappeared on his fruitless expeditions as the boy's eyes narrowed with excitement, and his figure straightened and his breathing quickened as he followed the police boat in the thrilling pursuit of Tonga and Jonathan Small on the tortuous, traffic-blocked Thames.
He found himself reading the love passages with a sudden and sympathetic insight. No longer did he feel tempted to skim those pages hastily that he might resume the thread of the main and more engrossing plot. Didn't Louise live almost across the street from him? Wasn't his interest in her explained by that paragraph, "A wondrous and subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day—"
"John!" His mother stood in the doorway, stern disapproval in her gaze. He looked at her blankly.
"Put up that book this minute. Don't you know that reading is the worst thing possible for inflamed eyes?"
The treasure was surrendered regretfully. His mother replaced it on the shelf.
"Where's the key to your bookcase?" He shrugged his shoulders. "It doesn't matter. Mine fits your door, anyway."
The squeak of the lock sounded the death knell to the one course of amusement that had lain open to him. His mother pulled down the window shades and stooped over in the darkened room to kiss him.
"Sleep a little, son," she counseled. "Mother wants you to feel better in the morning."
He undressed and threw himself into bed angrily. Even books were denied him. What was the fun in being sick, anyway, if a fellow's mother insisted on taking that sickness seriously. Why wasn't she as easy going as Mrs. DuPree who allowed that privileged youngster to stay up as late as he wanted and to indulge in other liberties not usually granted to a boy of ten?
Sid and the class must be finishing arithmetic now. He wished he were there. Anything—even school—was better than staying in bed in a darkened room. Did Louise enjoy his back seat? Had she found the big wad of chewing gum he'd left on the bottom of the desk? Was Silvey having the same unfortunate time as he?
The room was warm and close in spite of the open east exposure. He yawned dismally. A fly lighted on his nose. He brushed it away in drowsy irritation. In a moment his eyes closed.
He was awakened by the buzz of the egg beater in a china bowl in the kitchen below him. Must be 'most dinner time. He felt hungry enough. What was his mother cooking? A fragrant hissing from the hot pan hinted of an omelet. Just let him sink his teeth into one. Wouldn't be long before he was ready for another.
He roused himself and went into the hall.
"Moth-a-ar," he called down the stairway.
"Lie still. I'll be up with your dinner in a few moments."
He hoped it would be something good. Beefsteak and mashed potatoes and peas would be about right. Omelet would do, if there were enough. He could devour the house, he felt so ravenous.
Shortly his mother appeared with the big brown tray, drew up a straight-backed chair to the bed, and lowered the feast to it before his expectant eyes.
"Milk toast!" disgustedly.
"That isn't enough for a fellow. Aren't there any potatoes or meat?"
"They'd make your temperature rise," Mrs. Fletcher explained gently. "Perhaps, though, you can have some tomorrow, if you're better."
He waited until she left the room and attacked the mushy stuff hungrily. Everything is grist which comes to a small boy's digestive mill, anyway, and the food wasn't really distasteful. Then he lay back and, for the first time in his active life, realized what a refined torture complete and enforced idleness can be.
The shadows played incessantly on the brown wallpaper as the window curtains swung back and forth with the air currents and lightened and plunged his prison into oppressive twilight alternately. A fly made a complete toilette on the bed cover before his interested eyes, now brushing the gauzy wings, now twisting its head this way and that way, as if indulging in a form of calisthenics. He stretched forth a cautious hand to capture the insect, only to watch it buzz merrily away before his arm was in striking distance.
A suburban train puffed noisily past and slowed down at the adjacent station. Only twenty minutes elapsed! And an afternoon of this awful monotony faced him.
He blinked idly at the ceiling. This was Thursday. Played properly, his malady should be sufficient to keep him out of school on the morrow; but was the game worth the candle?
John dressed himself hurriedly and bounced down the stairs. Mrs. Fletcher was in the parlor, glancing for a brief moment at a newly arrived magazine. He presented himself sheepishly.
No, he didn't want to stay in bed. He felt all right—honest!
She examined the invalid carefully. The inflammation had left his eyes and they were now as clear as her own. His skin felt cool to the touch, without a trace of fever, and his tongue was an even, healthy pink.
"There doesn't seem much the matter with you now," she admitted. "It won't hurt you to stay up if you don't play too hard. There are lots and lots of things to do to help me."
First, the potatoes were to be washed for tomorrow's dinner. He filled the dishpan full of water, dumped the sand-laden tubers in, and attacked them with a brush in vigorous relief at the change from deadening inactivity. Next, there were a hundred and one little errands to do about the house, for his mother began sewing on his negligee blouses, and the button-hole scissors, the missing "60" thread, and other mislaid implements must be found for her. Lastly, he announced that it might be well to go up to school and get the lessons for tomorrow.
"Then I won't miss anything," he explained.
Mrs. Fletcher nodded assent. "But come right back. I don't want you to be sick again."
The afternoon passed without sign of John. At supper time, he approached the house warily. His face was flushed, his school clothes begrimed and rumpled, and a bruise on his right shin forced a perceptible limp as he walked. He had been practicing with the "Tigers," and the scrimmage had been most exciting. Silvey—who had not been put to bed—had bumped into Red Brown in a manner which the latter regarded as unnecessarily rough. There had been a fight between the two, while the other aspirants for positions on the team stood around and yelled "Fi-i-i-ight" at the top of their lungs.
Yes, everyone seemed to be inside the Fletcher house. The outlook was reasonably safe. He tiptoed up on the porch and stretched out on the swinging lounge. There his mother found him feigning a deep and overwhelming sleep.
Sleeping boys never wakened at the first summons. That wasn't natural. So he waited until a maternal hand shook him vigorously.
"Yes, Mother?" With a doleful yawn.
"Is this the way you come straight home from school?"
He protested. There were some lessons to get from Miss Brown after, dismissal and that had delayed him. "And I've been here ever so long."
"Nonsense!" she ejaculated. "Just look at the state of your clothing. You've been playing football. Come into the house this instant!"
He obeyed meekly. The period of invalidism was over.
But to the harassed school doctor, it seemed on the following morning that John Fletcher's case was but the beginning of a long and startling outbreak of illness in the school.
Hardly had Miss Brown finished roll call before dark-haired Perry Alford, her brightest and most guileless scholar, waved his hand excitedly to attract attention. His eyes hurt terribly as teacher could see. Wouldn't it be well for him to go to the school physician? Miss Brown thought that it would.
Room Ten's door closed upon the prospective invalid. But a few moments passed before towheaded, lethargic Olaf Johnson voiced his complaint.
"Please, ma'm, my throat, it feels funny here." He placed a pudgy hand on each side of his jaw. "And this morning when I get up, my head feels hot."
He, too, was sent to see the school physician.
"Does your nose run?" asked the man of medicines when Perry finished the catalog of his ailments.
Perry sneezed and admitted that it did.
"Anything else wrong with you?"
"Not exactly, sir;" then with a sudden glibness, "but I don't feel like doing much. Only loafing around—and my head feels queer."
"Home," ordered the doctor, emphatically. "At least four days. Tell your mother you've a first-class case of measles developing."
As Perry made his exit, Olaf appeared.
"Another?" exclaimed the physician, as he exchanged a glance with the gray-haired principal. "Well, what's the matter with you?"
Olaf elaborated upon the symptoms which he had described to Miss Brown. The young medic was puzzled.
"There are aspects which are not quite consistent," he said to the principal, "but the soreness suggests mumps. Shall we send him home?"
"As you think best," nodded Mr. Downer. Olaf went the way of the measles-smitten Perry.
The doctor was picking up his hat and medicine case to leave when the office door opened again. Two more boys appeared.
"Good heavens!" said he, as he sat down heavily. "Is it an epidemic?"
The principal shrugged his shoulders in bewilderment.
"More mumps." He beckoned to the larger of the two boys. "Now it's your turn."
The older urchin was sturdily built, with a deep coat of tan on his face that no city sun had ever bred.
"What's wrong with you?"
The situation was beginning to pall. The position of school doctor, newly created by the Board of Education at the close of the spring term, carried no munificent salary. The young practitioner had grasped at the opening because the routine work offered golden opportunities for acquiring a clientele among the parents of the various pupils. Now, almost at the outset, a whole morning had been consumed, and there was promise of a great deal more work in the future.
There didn't seem to be anything seriously the matter with the boy. He felt bruised all over, that was all.
"Where does it hurt the most?"
"Around my back."
"Here?" The doctor placed his hands firmly on either side of the patient's spine.
"O-o-oh, don't!" he waited.
The physician straightened up and regarded the pupil gravely.
"My stomach feels queer and it hurts like the dickens every once in a while. I lost my breakfast, this morning, too!"
A tense note crept into the inquisitor's voice. "Have you ever been vaccinated?"
"No sir. We just moved to the city this summer."
"Smallpox!" The principal turned a little pale.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"The pain in the back and the vomiting are almost certain indications." He turned to the boy. "Tell your mother to notify the health department the very minute you get home. Your house must be quarantined immediately."
Much more was said regarding precautions, and measures, and medicines, to which the patient listened stolidly. A disinterested observer might have said that he was waiting solely for the order to leave school.
As the door closed, the authorities exchanged worried glances.
"The health record of the school has always been remarkably good," began the principal.
"But it's an epidemic," cut in the worried physician. "And what an epidemic. Four cases this morning, and two yesterday, ranging all the way from mumps to smallpox. Downer, the school ought to be closed and thoroughly disinfected."
"Doesn't it strike you as peculiar that the cases are confined to one room, Ten, and that boys are the only victims?"
"Did you ever hear of a germ carrier. A person who, through some source of exposure, carries germs here and there on his or her clothes, and is perfectly immune to them. That's what you must have in that room. As for your last question, merely a coincidence. The boys happened to be the most susceptible to exposure, that's all."
A bell clanged noisily. Mr. Downer stood up and looked thoughtfully from his window upon the orderly lines of pupils that no sooner passed from the school threshold than they became a howling, shouting mass of seeming infant maniacs.
"Seems to me," he said, "Miss Brown was telling about a girl named Margaret, Margaret Moran, whose mother took in washing for a living. Spoke of it as a great joke. Said the girl wore a new dress every day, sometimes too long, sometimes too short, but never a fit. An ingenious way to reduce one item of the present high cost of living. She might be the one," he admitted.
"Always the way," his companion said sharply. "There are more epidemics and near epidemics started by these itinerant washerwomen than the medical journals can keep track of. They ought to be regulated."
"At any rate," said the principal, "I think it would be wise to question her a little before steps are taken to close the school. She may be able to shed some light on matters."
"As you wish." The physician shrugged his shoulders. "I'll be back, this afternoon, to help with the inquisition."
Next to children, the gray-haired man loved flowers, and he had planted the barren strip of land adjoining the fence separating the school yard from the alley with cannas and elephant's ears. He was puttering among them, now seeking voracious parasites, now examining a leaf which hinted in its faded coloring of fast approaching frosts, when boys' voices coming from the alley, held his attention.
"So you want a holiday?" John Fletcher was the speaker beyond doubt; and his case had been the forerunner of the epidemic.
"Got your nickel?"
"Show me how, first."
A moment's silence. John was examining the seeker after advice.
"Just want this afternoon?"
The boy assented.
"Better have the measles, then. That's only good for one day, 'cause you can't fake it much longer. The disease comes on too fast. Doctor's book says so. Now pay attention."
"Just before you go to school, shake some red pepper into your hand and go into a small closet. Shut the door so's none of the stuff can get out, and blow on it. Stay there until your eyes begin to smart. You'll find they're all red. That's the first symptom. Now repeat what I told you."
His pupil obeyed.
"Let Miss Brown take a good look and she'll send you to the doctor right away. When you come into the office, give a little cough as if your throat hurt. Let's hear you."
The urchin hacked vigorously.
"No, no, not so loud! You couldn't do that if your throat hurt as much as you must pretend it does. Try again."
This time, the effort satisfied even the teacher's critical ear.
"Then, when the doctor asks what's the matter, tell him you don't exactly know; that your head feels sort of queer, and you were all hot when you woke up this morning. He'll say 'Measles' and order you 'home until the case develops,'" quoting the physician's words at his own dismissal. "Now give me the nickel."
"Shucks, is that all?"
"That ain't worth no nickel."
"Aren't you going to give me that nickel?" threateningly.
"That ain't worth more'n a penny. How do I know whether it'll work?"
"Perry Alford's worked, and so did mine, and Bill Silvey's, Olaf's, Carl's, and the country kid's."
"The other kids aren't paying you no nickel."
"They are, too. Ask Mickey and his brother, and the Shepherd kids. They're going to be sick this afternoon, and they've paid me."
"I can go to Olaf," asserted the would-be dead-beat. "He'll tell me what you told him, and it'll only cost a penny."
"He'd better not! I'll smash his face in if he does. Are you going to give me that nickel?"
"Naw, I ain't."
John clenched his fists belligerently. His debtor raised both arms in a posture of defense. The principal tiptoed noiselessly around the end of the fence. John sparred for an opening and his opponent spied the approaching figure.
"Jiggers! Old man Downer!" he yelled. "Beat it quick!"
John turned, only to meet the principal's firm grasp on his shoulder.
"Come up to the office," said the quiet voice. "I want to have a talk with you."
He led the way to the center doors, an entrance reserved for the use of such awe-inspiring mortals as the faculty, visiting school superintendents, and parents. Up the dingy wooden stairs, worn at either end by the innumerable shuffling feet which had passed over them, they went, and into the bleak little office.
"Sit down," said Mr. Downer.
John collapsed into an uncomfortable wooden chair and gazed about him. There were the same desk, the same window box, filled with geraniums and pansies, and the same dun wall that he had seen on previous visits, prompted by his various sins. There was only one change. Opposite him, a newly framed head of Washington looked down from the wall in cold disapproval of the culprit who, for once in his brief life, felt strangely small and subdued.
There were no questions; the principal had heard too much from his vantage point beside the fence. So he talked on and on and on in even, severe tones, of notes mailed to parents, of suspension notices, of school board action, and of interviews with Mr. Fletcher, until John, staring, motionless, at a panel in the big oak desk, felt his lower lip quiver. Then the gray-haired man desisted.
"But I hope none of these measures will be necessary, John," he concluded.
"N-no, sir," came the scarcely audible response.
Had the boy looked at the kindly face, he would have seen that the deep set eyes were a-twinkle with suppressed merriment, but he was too conscience-stricken to do anything but slink from the office to the school yard.
There he found that the news of his downfall had been spread among the fast increasing throng of boys who scampered over the pavement in breakneck games of tag or made tops perform miraculous tricks as they waited for the school bell to ring. Not a few jeered at him. One or two little girls who were passing stuck out their tongues. Even Sid DuPree and Silvey and the rest of the "Tigers" had only derisive laughter.
It was the first time in his life that he had been made to feel ridiculous and he liked it not at all. He felt strangely out of place and stood to one side of the yard, a scowl on his face, glaring at the throng of merrymakers. Anyway, the proceeds of his escapade were in his pockets; that was more money than any of the scoffers owned. He shook the coins consolingly.
A boy darted past. "Y-a-a, Johnny will try to fool the doctor!"
The scowl deepened, then vanished suddenly. "Hey!" he bellowed to an astonished group near him. "Come on, all of you, over to the school store."
They filed, a perplexed, noisy throng, into the cramped room. The proprietress gasped. John swaggered forward.
"Here," said he, with the air of a young millionaire throwing away twenty-dollar tips, "I want forty-five cents' worth of six-for-a-cent lemon drops. Give each of these kids two and save the rest for me, if there is any rest!"
Then he strutted out, a veritable lord of creation. His pockets were empty, but little he cared. The clamor in the school store was as sweet music to his ears, for it meant that his status among his play-fellows was restored. His bump of conceit no longer ached. So he knew that the victory was worth the price and again he felt at peace with the world.
IN WHICH A TERRIFIC BATTLE IS WAGED
The following morning was clear and sun-shiny. Silvey, his trousers' pockets strangely distorted, sprinted down the street and halted on the cement walk in front of the Fletcher house.
"Oh, John-e-e-e! Oh, John-e-e-e!"
John appeared at an upper window in answer to the ear-piercing call. He carried a dustrag in one hand, and an expression of extreme discontent was on his freckled face.
"What you want?"
"Come on out."
"Can't." Disgruntled pessimism rang in his tones.
"Got to tidy my room and dust the bookcase and hang up my clothes in the closet and cut the front grass. Mother says so."
"Aw-w-w, shucks! Can't you get out of it?" His friend fumbled in one of his bulging pockets. "Look!"
The laborer at household tasks stared with sudden interest. "Ji-miny, cukes! Where'd you get 'em?"
"'Long the railroad tracks. Vines are loaded. Nice and ripe, too. Watch."
He hurled the greeny, spiny oval against the window ledge where it burst with the peculiar "plop," which only a wild cucumber of a certain stage of juicy plumpness can make.
"The fellows are going to have a big fight," Silvey continued—"Perry Alford and Sid and the Harrison kids and all the rest of the gang. Ask your mother can you leave the work until afternoon. Tease her hard."
Cucumbers ripe so early? That was fine! But could he evade the Saturday tasks. He would try.
As he descended the stairs, the elation left his face and his step grew heavy and lifeless. He was framing a plea for freedom and his manner must fit the occasion. Had you seen him, you might have thought that his best bamboo fishing pole had been broken, or that the key to his bookcase was in maternal possession as punishment for some misdeed. All boys are splendid professional mourners anyway, and John was by no means an exception to the rule.
He halted in the dingy coat closet to listen. Through the closed kitchen door came his mother's voice uplifted in song.
Nita, Oh, Ju-a-a-nita, Ala-a-s that we must part!
He sighed deeply. Bitter experience had taught that never was moment so unpropitious for errands like the present as when that cheerful dirge filled the air. But the thought of the waiting Silvey nerved him. He turned the doorknob and coughed hesitantly. His mother looked up from the pan of apples on her lap and smiled. She knew that lagging step and drooping mouth of old.
Her son fidgeted from one foot to the other. Beginnings were always so difficult. At last he blurted out:
"Mother! Bill's outside with a lot of cucumbers. Says the fellows are going to have a sham battle and wants me to come along."
"Did you put your shoes away in the bag on the door and hang up your good knickerbockers and coat?"
His eyes began to fill. "N-no," he admitted.
"Well, you've been upstairs nearly an hour," Mrs. Fletcher went on inexorably. "I suppose your room is tidied and dusted anyway."
"Not quite," reluctantly. If the truth were told, a new book from the public library had caught his eye as he was about to start, and time had flown as a consequence.
His mother shook her head. "That's your regular Saturday work, John. It has to be finished before you can go out. You know that. And there's the lawn to be cut, and the porch to be hosed. You skipped them last week."
"I'll do them this afternoon. Honest, I will." His lower lip began to tremble. Mrs. Fletcher struggled to hide a smile.
"Tell Bill you'll be out later." She disregarded his offer of compromise. "Now run along, son. Teasing only wastes time. You could be half finished if you'd only worked."
There was no mistaking the tone. It meant business in spite of the aggressive cheerfulness. He turned moodily and stamped out of the room. As the door closed, he found an outlet for the disappointment in half mumbled ejaculations.
"Mean old thing. Never lets a fellow do what he wants. Just as well have let 'em go until afternoon. What's the use of tidying a room, anyway? Always gets dirty again."
Half-way up the carpeted stairs, he tripped in his blind anger and bruised his knee. The pain was sufficient to make the tears—the easy flowing tears which had longed for an outlet from the start of the interview—stream from his eyes.
In a trice, he turned, threw back the door, and fled to the haven of his mother's lap. His arms sought clumsily to encircle her neck. She dropped the pan of apples on the floor, and gathered him, a sobbing little bundle, into her comforting arms.