BY GOUVERNEUR MORRIS
"It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea, That a maiden there lived whom you may know By the name of Annabel Lee. And this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me. I was a child and she was a child"—
It was on the way home from Sunday-school that Aladdin had enticed Margaret to the forbidden river. She was not sure that he knew how to row, for he was prone to exaggerate his prowess at this and that, and she went because of the fine defiance of it, and because Aladdin exercised an irresistible fascination. He it was who could whistle the most engagingly through his front teeth; and he it was, when sad dogs of boys of the world were met behind the barn, who could blow the smoke of the fragrant grapevine through his nose, and swallow the same without alarm to himself or to his admirers. To be with him was in itself a soulful wickedness, a delicious and elevating lesson in corruption. But to be with him when he had done wrong, and was sorry for it (as always when found out), that was enough to give one visions of freckled angels, and the sweetness of Paradise in May.
Aladdin brought the skiff into the float, stern first, with a bump. Pride sat high upon his freckled brow, and he whistled piercing notes.
"I can do it," he said. "Now get in."
Margaret embarked very gingerly and smoothed her dress carefully, before and after sitting down. It was a white and starchy dress of price, with little blue ribbons at the throat and wrists—such a dress as the little girl of a very poor papa will find laid out on the gilt and brocade chair beside her bed if she goes to sleep and wakes up in heaven.
"Only a little way, 'Laddin, please."
The boy made half a dozen circular, jabbing strokes, and the skiff zigzagged out from the float. It was a fine blue day, cool as a cucumber, and across the river from the deserted shipyards, where, upon lofty beamings, stood all sorts of ships in all stages of composition, the frequent beeches and maples showed pink and red and yellow against the evergreen pines.
"It's easy 'nough," said Aladdin. And Margaret agreed in her mind, for it is the splash of deeds rather than the skill or power which impresses a lady. The little lady sat primly in the stern, her mitted paws folded; her eyes, innocent and immense, fastened admiringly upon the rowing boy.
"Only 'bout's far's the cat-boat, 'Laddin, please," she said. "I oughtn't to of come 't all."
Somehow the cat-boat, anchored fifty yards out and straining back from her moorings, would not allow herself to be approached. For although Aladdin maintained a proper direction (at times), the ocean tide, setting rigidly in and overbearing the current of the river, was beginning to carry the skiff to some haven where she would not be.
Aladdin saw this and tried to go back, catching many crabs in the earnestness of his endeavor. Then the little girl, without being told, perceived that matters were not entirely in the hands of man, and began to look wistfully from Aladdin to the shore. After a while he stopped grinning, and then rowing.
"Can't you get back, 'Laddin?" said the little girl.
"No," said the boy, "I can't." He was all angel now, for he was being visited for wrong.
The little girl's lips trembled and got white.
"I'm awful sorry, Margaret."
"What'll we do, 'Laddin?"
"Just sit still, 'n' whatever happens I'll take care of you, Margaret."
They were passing the shipyards with a steady sweep, but the offices were closed, the men at home, and no one saw the distressed expedition. The last yard of all was conspicuous by a three-master, finished, painted, sparred, ready for the fragrant bottle to be cracked on her nose, and the long shivering slide into the river. Then came a fine square, chimneyed house with sherry-glass-shaped elm-trees about it. The boy shouted to a man contorted under a load of wood. The man looked up and grinned vacantly, for he was not even half-witted. And they were swept on. Presently woods drew between them and the last traces of habitation,—gorgeous woods with intense splashes of color, standing upon clean rocks that emphatically divided the water from the land,—and they scurried into a region as untroubled by man as was Eden on the first morning. The little boy was not afraid, but so sorry and ashamed that he could have cried. The little girl, however, was even deeper down the throat of remorse, for she had sinned three times on Sunday,—first, she had spoken to the "inventor's boy"; second, she had not "come straight home"; third, she had been seduced into a forbidden boat,—and there was no balm in Gilead; nor any forgiveness forever. She pictured her grand, dark father standing like a biblical allegory of "Hell and Damnation" within the somber leathern cube of his books, the fiercely white, whalebone cane upon which he and old brother gout leaned, and the vast gloomy centers at the bases of which glowed his savage eyes. She thought of the rolling bitter voice with which she had once heard him stiffen the backs of his constituents, and she was sore afraid. She did not remember how much he loved her, or the impotence of his principles where she was concerned. And she did not recollect, for she had not been old enough to know, that the great bitter voice, with its heavy, telling sarcasm, had been lifted for humanity—for more humanity upon earth.
"Oh, 'Laddin," she said suddenly, "I daren't go home now."
"Maybe we can get her in farther up," said Aladdin, "and go home through the woods. That'll be something, anyhow."
Margaret shuddered. She thought of the thin aunt who gave her lessons upon the pianoforte—one of the elect, that aunt, who had never done wrong, and whom any halo would fit; who gave her to understand that the Almighty would raise Cain with any little girl who did not practise an hour every day, and pray Him, night and morning, to help her keep off the black notes when the white notes were intended. First there would be a reckoning with papa, then one with Aunt Marion, last with Almighty God, and afterward, horribile dictu, pitchforks for little Margaret, and a vivid incandescent state to be maintained through eternity at vast cost of pit-coal to a gentleman who carried over his arm, so as not to step on it, a long snaky tail with a point like a harpoon's.
Meanwhile, Aladdin made sundry attempts to get the boat ashore, and failed signally. The current was as saucy as strong. Now it swept them into the very shade of the trees, and as hope rose hot in the boy's heart and he began to stab the water with the oars, sent them skipping for the midriver. Occasionally a fish jumped to show how easy it was, and high overhead an eagle passed statelily in the wake of a cloud. After the eagle came a V of geese flying south, moving through the treacherous currents and whirlpools of the upper air as steadily and directly as a train upon its track. It seemed as if nature had conspired with her children to demonstrate to Margaret and Aladdin the facility of precise locomotion. The narrow deeps of the river ended where the shore rolled into a high knob of trees; above this it spread over the lower land into a great, shallow, swiftly currented lake, having in its midst a long turtlebacked island of dense woods and abrupt shores. Two currents met off the knob and formed in the direction of the island a long curve of spitting white. Aladdin rowed with great fervor.
"Do it if you can, 'Laddin," said the little girl.
It seemed for one moment as if success were about to crown the boy's effort, for he brought the boat to an exciting nearness to the shore; but that was all. The current said: "No, Aladdin, that is not just the place to land; come with me, and bring the boat and the young lady." And Aladdin at once went with the current.
"Margaret," he said, "I done my best." He crossed his heart.
"I know you done your best, 'Laddin." Margaret's cheeks were on the brink of tears. "I know you done it."
They were dancing sportively farther and farther from the shore. The water broke, now and again, and slapped the boat playfully.
"We 've come 'most three miles," said Aladdin.
"I daren't go back if I could now," said Margaret.
Meanwhile Aladdin scanned the horizon far and wide to see if he could see anything of Antheus, tossed by the winds, or the Phrygian triremes, or Capys, or the ships having upon their lofty poops the arms of Caicus. There was no help in sight. Far and wide was the bubbling ruffled river, behind the mainland, and ahead the leafy island.
"What'll your father do, 'Laddin?"
Aladdin merely grinned, less by way of explaining what his father would do than of expressing to Margaret this: "Have courage; I am still with you."
"'Laddin, we're not going so fast."
They had run into nominally still water, and the skiff was losing momentum.
"Maybe we'd better land on the island," said Aladdin, "if we can, and wait till the tide turns; won't be long now."
Again he plied the oars, and this time with success. For after a little they came into the shadow of the island, the keel grunted upon sand, and they got out. There was a little crescent of white beach, with an occasional exclamatory green reed sticking from it, and above was a fine arch of birch and pine. They hauled up the boat as far as they could, and sat down to wait for the tide to turn. Firm earth, in spite of her awful spiritual forebodings, put Margaret in a more cheerful mood. Furthermore, the woods and the general mystery of islands were as inviting as Punch.
"It's not much fun watching the tide come in," she said after a time.
Aladdin got up.
"Let's go away," he said, "and come back. It never comes in if you watch for it to."
Margaret arose, and they went into the woods.
A devil's darning-needle came and buzzed for an instant on the bow of the skiff. A belated sandpiper flew into the cove, peeped, and flew out.
The tide rose a little and said:
"What is this heavy thing upon my back?"
Then it rose a little more.
"Why, it's poor little sister boat stuck in the mud," said the tide.
From far off came joyful crackling of twigs and the sounds of children at play.
The tide rose a little more and freed an end of the boat.
"That's better," said the boat, "ever so much better. I can almost float."
Again the tide raised its broad shoulders a hair's-breadth.
"Great!" said the boat. "Once more, Old Party!"
When the children came back, they found that poor little sister boat was gone, and in her stead all of their forgotten troubles had returned and were waiting for them, and looking them in the face.
It is absurdly difficult to get help in this world. If a lady puts her head out of a window and yells "Police," she is considered funny, or if a man from the very bottom of his soul calls for help, he is commonly supposed to be drunk. Thus if, cast away upon an island, you should wave your handkerchief to people passing in a boat, they would imagine that you wanted to be friendly, and wave back; or, if they were New York aldermen out for a day's fishing in the Sound, call you names. And so it was with Margaret and Aladdin. With shrill piping voices they called tearfully to a party sailing up the river from church, waved and waved, were answered in kind, and tasted the bitterest cup possible to the Crusoed.
Then after much wandering in search of the boat it got to be hunger-time, and two small stomachs calling lustily for food did not add to the felicity of the situation.
With hunger-time came dusk, and afterward darkness, blacker than the tall hat of Margaret's father. For at the last moment nature had thought better of the fine weather which man had been enjoying for the past month, and drawn a vast curtain of inkiness over the luminaries from one horizon even unto the other, and sent a great puff of wet fog up the valley of the river from the ocean, so that teeth chattered and the ends of fingers became shriveled and bloodless. And had not vanity gone out with the entrance of sin, Margaret would have noticed that her tight little curls were looser and the once stately ostrich feather upon her Sunday hat, the envy of little girls whom the green monster possessed, as flabby as a long sermon.
Meanwhile the tide having turned, little sister boat made fine way of it down the river, and, burrowing in the fog, holding her breath as it were, and greatly assisted by the tide, slipped past the town unseen, and put for open sea, where it is to be supposed she enjoyed herself hugely and, finally, becoming a little skeleton of herself on unknown shores, was gathered up by somebody who wanted a pretty fire with green lights in it. The main point is that she went her selfish way undetected, so that the wide-lanterned search which presently arose for little Margaret tumbled and stumbled about clueless, and halted to take drinks, and came back about morning and lay down all day, and said it never did, which it certainly hadn't. All the to-do was over Margaret, for Aladdin had not been missed, and, even if he had, nobody would have looked for him. His father was at home bending over the model of the wonderful lamp which was to make his fortune, and over which he had been bending for fifteen rolling years. It had come to him, at about the time that he fell in love with Aladdin's mother, that a certain worthless biproduct of something would, if combined with something else and steeped in water, generate a certain gas, which, though desperately explosive, would burn with a flame as white as day. Over the perfection of this invention, with a brief honeymoon for vacation, he had spent fifteen years, a small fortune,—till he had nothing left,—the most of his health, and indeed everything but his conviction that it was a beautiful invention and sure of success. When Aladdin arrived, he was red and wrinkled, after the everlasting fashion of the human babe, and had no name, so because of the wonderful lamp they called him Aladdin. And that rendered his first school-days wretched and had nothing to do with the rest of his life, after the everlasting fashion of wonderful names. Aladdin's mother went out of the world in the very natural act of ushering his young brother into it, and he remembered her as a thin person who was not strictly honorable (for, having betrayed him with a kiss, she punished him for smoking) and had a headache. So there was nobody to miss Aladdin or to waste the valuable night in looking for him.
About this time Margaret began to cry and Aladdin to comfort her, and they stumbled about in the woods trying to find—anything. After awhile they happened into a grassy glade between two steep rocks, and there agreeing to rest, scrunched into a depression of the rock on the right. And Margaret, her nose very red, her hat at an angle, and her head on Aladdin's shoulder, sobbed herself to sleep. And then, because being trusted is next to being God, and the most moving and gentlest condition possible, Aladdin, for the first time, felt the full measure of his crime in leading Margaret from the straight way home, and he pressed her close to him and stroked her draggled hair with his cold little hands and cried. Whenever she moved in sleep, his heart went out to her, and before the night was old he loved her forever.
Sleep did not come to Aladdin, who had suddenly become a father and a mother and a nurse and a brother and a lover and a man who must not be afraid. His coat was wrapped about Margaret, and his arms were wrapped about his coat, and the body of him shivered against the damp, cold shirt, which would come open in front because there was a button gone. The fog came in thicker and colder, and night with her strange noises moved slower and slower. There was an old loon out on the river, who would suddenly throw back his head and laugh for no reason at all. And once a great strange bird went rushing past, squeaking like a mouse; and once two bright eyes came, flashing out of the night and swung this way and that like signal-lanterns and disappeared. Aladdin gave himself up for lost and would have screamed if he had been alone.
Presently his throat began to tickle, then the base of his nose, then the bridge thereof, and then he felt for a handkerchief and found none. For a little while he maintained the proprieties by a gentle sniffling, finally by one great agonized snuff. It seemed after that as if he were to be left in peace. But no. His lips parted, his chin went up a little, his eyes closed, the tickling gave place to a sudden imperative ultimatum, and, when all was over, Margaret had waked.
They talked for a long time, for she could not go to sleep again, and Aladdin told her many things and kept her from crying, but he did not tell her about the awful bird or the more awful eyes. He told her about his little brother, and the yellow cat they had, and about the great city where he had once lived, and why he was called Aladdin. And when the real began to grow dim, he told her stories out of strange books that he had read, as he remembered them—first the story of Aladdin and then others.
"Once," began Aladdin, though his teeth were knocking together and his arms aching and his nose running—"once there was a man named Ali Baba, and he had forty thieves—"
Even in the good north country, where the white breath of the melting icebergs takes turn and turn with diamond nights and days, people did not remember so thick a fog; nor was there a thicker recorded in any chapter of tradition. Indeed, if the expression be endurable, so black was the whiteness that it was difficult to know when morning came. There was a fresher shiver in the cold, the sensibility that tree-tops were stirring, a filmy distinction of objects near at hand, and the possibility that somewhere 'way back in the east the rosy fingers of dawn were spread upon a clear horizon. Collisions between ships at sea were reported, and many a good sailorman went down full fathom five to wait for the whistle of the Great Boatswain.
The little children on the island roused themselves and groped about among the chilled, dripping stems of the trees; they had no end in view, and no place to go, but motion was necessary for the lame legs and arms. Margaret had caught a frightful cold and Aladdin a worse, and they were hungrier than should be allowed. Now a jarred tree rained water down their necks, and now their faces went with a splash and sting into low-hanging plumes of leaves; often there would be a slip and a scrambling fall. And by the time Aladdin had done grimacing over a banged shin, Margaret would have a bruised anklebone to cry about. The poor little soul was very tired and penitent and cold and hurt and hungry, and she cried most of the time and was not to be comforted. But Aladdin bit his lips and held his head up and said it all would be well sometime. Perhaps, though he still had a little courage left, Aladdin was the more to be pitied of the two: he was not only desperately responsible for it all, but full of imagination and the horrible things he had read. Margaret, like most women, suffered a little from self-centration, and to her the trunk of a birch was just a nasty old wet tree, but to Aladdin it was the clammy limb of one drowned, and drawn from the waters to stand in eternal unrest. At length the stumbling progress brought them to a shore of the island: a slippery ledge of rock, past whose feet the water slipped hurriedly, steaming with fog as if it had been hot, two big leaning birches, and a ruddy mink that slipped like winking into a hole. The river, evident for only a few yards, became lost in the fog, and where they were could only be guessed, and which way the tide was setting could only be learned by experiment. Aladdin planted a twig at the precise edge of the water, and they sat down to watch. Stubbornly and unwillingly the water receded from the twig, and they knew that the tide was running out.
"That's the way home," said Aladdin. Margaret looked wistfully down-stream, her eyes as misty as the fog.
"If we had the boat we could go now," said Aladdin.
Then he sat moody, evolving enterprise, and neither spoke for a long time.
"Marg'ret," said Aladdin, at length, "help me find a big log near the water."
"What you going to do, 'Laddin?"
"You 'll see. Help look."
They crept along the edge of the island, now among the close-growing trees and now on the bare strip between them and the water, until at length they came upon a big log, lying like some gnarled amphibian half in the river and half on the dry land.
"Help push," said Aladdin.
They could move it only a little, not enough.
"Wait till I get a lever," said Aladdin. He went, and came back with a long, stiff little birch, that, growing recklessly in the thin soil over a rock, had been willing to yield to the persuasion of a child and come up by the roots. And then, Margaret pushing her best, and Aladdin prying and grunting, the log was moved to within an ace of launching. Until now, for she was too young to understand about daring and unselfishness, Margaret had considered the log-launching as a game invented by Aladdin to while away the dreary time; but now she realized, from the look in the pale, set, freckly, almost comical face of the boy, that deeds more serious were afoot, and when he said, "Somebody'll pick me up, sure, Marg'ret, and help me come back and get you," she broke out crying afresh and said, "Don't, 'Laddin! Doo-on't, 'Laddin!"
"Don't cry, Marg'ret," said Aladdin, with a gulp. "I'd do more'n that for you, and I can swim a little, too—b-better'n I can row."
"Oh, 'Laddin," said Margaret, "it's so cold in the water."
"Shucks!" said Aladdin, whose teeth had been knocking all night. "She's the stanch little craft" (he had the phrase of a book) "Good Luck. I'm the captain and you're the builder's daughter"—and so she was. "Chrissen 'er, Marg'et. Kiss her on the bow an' say she's the Good Luck."
Then Margaret, her hat over one ear, and the draggled ostrich feather greatly in the way, knelt, and putting her arms about the shoreward end of the log, kissed it, and said in a drawn little voice
"The Good Luck."
"And now, Margaret," said Aladdin, "you must stay right here' n' not go 'way from the shore, so's I can find you when I come back. But don't just sit still all the time,—keep moving, so's not to get any colder,—'n I'll come back for you sure."
Then, because he felt his courage failing, he said, "Good-by, Marg'ret," and turning abruptly, waded in to his ankles and bent over the log to give it that final impetus which was to set it adrift. In his heart were several things: the desire to make good, fear of the river, and, poignant and bitter, the feeling that Margaret did not understand. He was too young to believe that death might really be near him (almost reckless enough not to care if he had), but keenly aware that his undertaking was perilous enough to warrant a more adequate farewell. So he bent bitterly over the log and stiffened his back for the heave. It must be owned that Aladdin wanted more of a scene.
"'Laddin, I forgot something. Come back."
He came, his white lips drawn into a sort of smile. Then they kissed each other on the mouth with the loud, innocent kiss of little children, and after that Aladdin felt that the river was only a river, the cold only cold, the danger only danger and flowers—more than flowers.
He moved the log easily and waded with it into the icy waters, until his feet were dragged from the bottom, and after one awful instant of total submersion the stanch little ship Good Luck and valiant Captain Kissed-by-Margaret were embarked on the voyage perilous. His left arm over and about the log, his legs kicking lustily like the legs of a frog, his right hand paddling desperately for stability, Aladdin disappeared into the fog. After a few minutes he became so freezing cold that he would have let go and drowned gladly if it had not been for the wonderful lamp which had been lighted in his heart.
Margaret, when she saw him borne from her by the irresistible current, cried out with all the illogic of her womanly little soul, "Come back, 'Laddin, come back!" and sank sobbing upon the empty shore.
However imminent the peril of the man, it is the better part of chivalry to remain by the distressed lady, and though impotent to be of assistance, we must linger near Margaret, and watch her gradually rise from prone sobbing to a sitting attitude of tears. For a long time she sat crying on the empty shore, regarding for the most part black life and not at all the signs of cheerful change which were becoming evident in the atmosphere about her. The cold breath across her face and hands and needling through her shivering body, the increasing sounds of treetops in commotion, the recurring appearance of branches where before had been only an opaque vault, did little to inform her that the fog was about to lift. The rising wind merely made her the more miserable and alone. Nor was it until a disk of gold smote suddenly on the rock before her that she looked up and beheld a twinkle of blue sky. The fog puffed across the blue, the blue looked down again,—a bigger eye than before,—a wisp of fog filmed it again, and again it gleamed out, ever larger and always more blue. The good wind living far to the south had heard that in a few days a little girl was to be alone and comfortless upon a foggy island, and, hearing, had filled his vast chest with warmth and sunshine, and puffed out his merry cheeks and blown. The great breath sent the blue waves thundering upon the coral beaches of Florida, tore across the forests of palm and set them all waving hilariously, shook the merry orange-trees till they rattled, whistled through the dismal swamps of Georgia, swept, calling and shouting to itself, over the Carolinas, where clouds were hatching in men's minds, banked up the waters of the Chesapeake so that there was a great high tide and the ducks were sent scudding to the decoys of the nearest gunner, went roaring into the oaks and hickories of New York, warmed the veins of New England fruit-trees, and finally coming to the giant fog, rent it apart by handfuls as you pluck feathers from a goose, and hurled it this way and that, until once more the sky and land could look each other in the face. Then the great wind laughed and ceased. For a long time Margaret looked down the cleared face of the river, but there was no trace of Aladdin, and in life but one comfort: the sun was hot and she was getting warm.
After a time, in the woods directly behind where she sat hoping and fearing and trying to dry her tears, a gun sounded like an exclamation of hope. Had Aladdin by any incredible circumstance returned so soon? Mindful of his warning not to stray from where she was, Margaret stood up and called in a shrill little voice
"Here I am! Here I am!"
Silence in the woods immediately behind where Margaret stood hoping and fearing!
"Here I am!" she cried. And it had been piteous to hear, so small and shrill was the voice.
Presently, though much farther off, sounded the merry yapping bark of a little dog, and again, but this time like an echo of itself, the exclamation of hope—hope deferred.
"Here I am! Here—I—am!" called Margaret.
Then there was a long silence—so long that it seemed as if nothing in the world could have been so long. Margaret sat down gasping. The sun rose higher, the river ran on, and hope flew away. And just as hope had gone for good, the merry yapping of the dog broke out so near that Margaret jumped, and bang went the gun—like a promise of salvation. Instantly she was on her feet with her shrill,
"Here I am! Here I am!"
And this time came back a lusty young voice crying:
And hard behind the voice leaves shook, and a boy came striding into the sunlight. In one hand he trailed a gun, and at his heels trotted a waggish spaniel of immense importance and infinitesimal size. In his other hand the boy carried by the legs a splendid cock-grouse, ruffled and hunger-compelling. The boy, perhaps two years older than Aladdin, was big and strong for his age, and bore his shining head like a young wood-god.
Margaret ran to him, telling her story as she went, but so incoherently that when she reached him she had to stop and begin over again.
"Then Senator St. John is your father?" said the boy at length. "You know, he's a great friend of my father's. My father's name is Peter Manners, and he used to be a congressman for New York. Are you hungry?"
Margaret could only look it.
They sat down, and the boy took wonderful things out of his wonderful pockets—sandwiches of egg and sandwiches of jam; and Margaret fell to.
"I live in New York," said the boy, "but I'm staying with my cousins up the river. They told me there were partridges on this island, and I rowed down to try and get some, but I missed two." The boy blushed most becomingly whenever he spoke, and his voice, and the way he said words, were different from anything Margaret had ever heard. And she admired him tremendously. And the boy, because she had spent a night on a desert island, which he never had, admired her in turn.
"Maybe we'll find 'Laddin on the way," said Margaret, cheerfully, and she looked up with great eyes at her godlike young friend.
Meanwhile to Aladdin and his log divers things had occurred, but the wonderful lamp, burning low or high at the will of the river, had not gone out. Sliding through the smoking fog at three miles an hour, kicking and paddling, all had gone well for a while. Then, for he was more keen than Margaret to note the fog's promise to lift, at the very moment when the shores began to appear and mark his course as favorable, at the very moment when the sun struck one end of the log, an eddy of the current struck the other, and sent the stanch little craft Good Luck and her captain by a wide curve back up the river. The backward journey was slow and tortuous, and twice when the Good Luck turned turtle, submerging Aladdin, he gave himself up for lost; but amidships of the island, fairly opposite to the spot where he had left Margaret, the log was again seized by the right current, and the voyage recommenced. But the same eddy seized them, and back they came, with only an arm stiffened by cold between Aladdin and death. The third descent of the river, however, was more propitious. The eddy, it is true, made a final snatch, but its fingers were weakened and its murderous intentions thwarted. They passed by the knob of trees at the narrowing of the river, and swept grandly toward the town. Past the first shipyard they tore unnoticed, but at the second a shouting arose, and a boat was slipped overboard and put after them. Strong hands dragged Aladdin from the water, and, gulp after gulp, water gushed from his mouth. Then they rowed him quickly to land, and the Good Luck, having done her duty, went down the river alone. Years after, could Aladdin have met with that log, he would have recognized it like the face of a friend, and would have embraced and kissed it, painted it white to stave off the decay of old age, and set it foremost among his Lares and Penates.
For the present he was insensible. They put him naked into coarse, warm horse-blankets, and laid him before the great fire in the blacksmith's shop across the road from the shipyard. And at the same time they sent one flying with a horse and buggy to the house of Hannibal St. John, for Aladdin had not passed into unconsciousness without partly completing his mission.
"Margaret—is—up—at—" he said, and darkness came.
At the moment when Aladdin came to, the door of the smithy was darkened by the tremendous figure of Hannibal St. John. Wrapped in his long black cloak, fastened at the throat by three links of steel chain, his face glowering and cavernous, the great man strode like a controlled storm through the awed underlings and stopped rigid at Aladdin's side.
"Can the boy speak?" he said.
To Aladdin, looking up, there was neither pity nor mercy apparent in the senator's face, and a great fear shook him. Would the wrath descend?
"Do you know where my daughter is?"
The great rolling voice nearly broke between the "my" and the "daughter," and the fear left Aladdin.
"Mister St. John," he said, "she's up at one of the islands. We went in a boat and couldn't get back. If you'll only get a boat and some one to row, I can take you right to her." Then Aladdin knew that he had not said all there was to say. "Mister St. John," said Aladdin, "I done it all."
Men ran out of the smithy to prepare a boat.
"Who is this boy?" said St. John.
"It's Aladdin O'Brien, the inventor's boy," said the smith.
"Are you strong enough to go with me, O'Brien?" said the senator.
"Yes, sir; I've got to go," said Aladdin. "I said I'd come back for her."
"Give him some whisky," said St. John, in the voice of Jupiter saying "Poison him," "and wrap him up warm, and bring him along."
They embarked. Aladdin, cuddled in blankets, was laid in the bow, St. John, not deigning to sit, stood like a black tree-trunk in the stern, and amidships were four men to row.
A little distance up the river they met a boat coming down. In the stern sat Margaret, and at the oars her godlike young friend. Just over the bow appeared the snout and merry eyes of the spaniel, one of his delightful ears hanging over on each side.
"I am glad to see you alive," said St. John to Margaret when the boats were within hailing distance, and to her friend he said, "Since you have brought her so far, be good enough to bring her the rest of the way." And to his own rowers he said, "Go back." When the boats came to land at the shipyard, Margaret's father lifted her out and kissed her once on each cheek. Of the godlike boy he asked his name, and when he learned that it was Peter Manners and that his father was Peter Manners, he almost smiled, and he shook the boy's hand.
"I will send word to your cousins up the river that you are with me," he said, and thus was the invitation extended and accepted.
"O'Brien," said the great man to Aladdin, "when you feel able, come to my house; I have something to say to you."
Then Senator St. John, and Margaret, and Margaret's godlike young friend, and the spaniel got into the carriage that was waiting for them, and drove off. But Margaret turned and waved to Aladdin.
"Good-by, Aladdin!" she called.
They helped Aladdin back to the smithy, for his only covering was a clumsy blanket; and there he put on his shrunken clothes, which meanwhile had dried. The kindly men pressed food on him, but he could not eat. He could only sit blankly by the fire and nurse the numb, overpowering pain in his heart. Another had succeeded where he had failed. Even at parting, just now, Margaret's eyes had not been for him, but for the stranger who had done so easily what he had not been able to do at all. The voyage down the river had been mere foolishness without result. He had not rescued his fair lady, but deserted her upon a desert island. For him no bouquets were flung, nor was there to be any clapping of hands. After a time he rose like one dreaming, and went slowly, for he was sick and weak, up to the great pillared house of Hannibal St. John. The senator in that stern voice of his had bade him come; nothing could be any worse than it was. He would go. He knocked, and they showed him into the library. It was four walls of leather books, an oak table neater than a pin, a huge chair covered with horsehair much worn, and a blazing fire of birch logs. Before the fire, one hand thrust into his coat, the other resting somewhat heavily upon the head of a whalebone cane, stood the senator. Far off Aladdin heard Margaret's laugh and with it another young laugh. Then he looked up like a little hunted thing into the senator's smoldering eyes.
"Sit down in that chair," said the senator, pointing with his cane to the only chair in the room. His voice had the effect of a strong muscular compulsion to which men at once yielded. Aladdin sat into the big chair, his toes swinging just clear of the ground. Then there was silence. Aladdin broke it.
"Is Margaret all right?" he gulped.
The senator disregarded the question. Having chosen his words, he said them.
"I do not know," he began, "what my daughter was doing in a boat with you. I do not object to her enjoying the society at proper times of suitable companions of her own age, but the society of those who lead her into temptation is not suitable." Aladdin fairly wilted under the glowering voice. "You will not be allowed to associate with her any more," said the senator. "I will speak to your father and see that he forbids it."
Aladdin climbed out of the chair, and stumbled blindly into the table. He had meant to find the door and go.
"Wait; I have not done," said the senator.
Aladdin turned and faced the enemy who was taking away the joy of life from him.
"In trying to atone for your fault," said the senator, "by imperiling your life, you did at once a foolhardy and a fine thing—one which I will do my best to repay at any time that you may see fit to call upon me. For the present you may find this of use." He held forward between his thumb and forefinger a twenty-dollar gold piece. Aladdin groped for words, and remembered a phrase which he had heard his own father return to a tormentor. He thrust his red hands into his tight pockets, and with trembling lips looked up.
"It's a matter of pride," he said, and walked out of the room. When he had gone the senator took from his pocket a leather purse, opened it, put back the gold piece, and carefully tied the string. Then far from any known key or tune the great man whistled a few notes. Could his constituents have heard, they would have known—and often had the subject been debated—that Hannibal St. John was human.
Aladdin stood for a while upon the lofty pillared portico of the senator's house, and with a mist in his eyes looked away and away to where the cause of all his troubles flowed like a ribbon of silver through the bright-colored land. Grown men, having, in their whole lives, suffered less than Aladdin was at that moment suffering, have considered themselves heartbroken. The little boy shivered and toiled down the steps, between the tall box hedges lining the path, and out into the road. A late rose leaning over the garden fence gave up her leaves in a pink shower as he passed, and at the same instant all the glass in a window of the house opposite fell out with a smash. These events seemed perfectly natural to Aladdin, but when people, talking at the tops of their voices and gesticulating, began to run out of houses and make down the hill toward the town, he remembered that, just as the rose-leaves fell and just as the glass came out of the window-frame, he had been conscious of a distant thudding boom, and a jarring of the ground under his feet. So he joined in the stream of his neighbors, and ran with them down the hill to see what had happened.
Aladdin remembered little of that breathless run, and one thing only stood ever afterward vivid among his recollections. All the people were headed eagerly in one direction, but at the corner of the street in which Aladdin lived, an awkish, half-grown girl, her face contorted with terror, struggled against the tugging of two younger companions and screamed in a terrible voice:
"I don't wahnt to go! I don't wahnt to go!"
But they dragged her along. That girl had no father, and her mother walked the streets. She would never have any beauty nor any grace; she was dirt of the dirt, dirty, but she had a heart of mercy and could not bear to look upon suffering.
"I don't wahnt to go! I don't wahnt to go!" and now the scream was a shudder.
Aladdin's street was crowded to suffocation, and the front of the house where Aladdin lived was blown out, and men with grave faces were going about among the ruins looking for what was left of Aladdin's father.
A much littler boy than Aladdin stood in the yard of the house. In his arms folded high he clutched a yellow cat, who licked his cheek with her rough tongue. The littler boy kept crying, "'Laddin, 'Laddin!"
Aladdin took the little boy and the yellow cat all into one embrace, and people turned away their heads.
In the ensuing two days Aladdin matured enormously, for though a kind neighbor took him in, together with his brother Jack and the yellow cat, he had suffered many things and already sniffed the wolf at the door. The kind neighbor was a widow lady, whose husband, having been a master carpenter of retentive habits, had left her independently rich. She owned the white-and-green house in which she lived, the plot of ground, including a small front and a small back yard, upon which it stood, and she spent with some splendor a certain income of three hundred and eighty-two dollars a year. Every picture, every chair, every mantelpiece in the Widow Brackett's house was draped with a silk scarf. The parlor lamp had a glass shade upon which, painted in oils, by hand, were crimson moss-roses and scarlet poppies. A crushed plush spring rocker had goldenrod painted on back and seat, while two white-and-gold vases in precise positions on the mantel were filled with tight round bunches of immortelles, stained pink. Upon the marble-topped, carved-by-machine-walnut-legged table in the bay-window were things to be taken up by a visitor and examined. A white plate with a spreading of foreign postage-stamps, such as any boy collector has in quantities for exchange, was the first surprise: you were supposed to discover that the stamps were not real, but painted on the plate, and exclaim about it. A china basket contained most edible-looking fruit of the same material, and a huge album, not to be confounded with the family Bible upon which it rested, was filled with speaking likenesses of the Widow Brackett's relatives. The Bible beneath could have told when each was born, when many had died, and where many were buried. But nobody was ever allowed to look into the Widow Brackett's Bible for information mundane or spiritual, since the only result would have been showers of pressed ferns and flowers upon the carpet, which was not without well-pressed flowers and ferns of its own.
Very soon after the explosion of the wonderful lamp the Widow Brackett had taken Aladdin and Jack and the cat into her house and seen to it that they had a square meal. Early on the second day she came to the conclusion that if it could in any way be made worth her while, she would like to keep them until they grew up. And when the ground upon which Aladdin's father's house had stood was sold at auction for three hundred and eight dollars, she let it be known that if she could get that she would board the two little waifs until Aladdin was old enough to work. The court appointed two guardians. The guardians consulted for a few minutes over something brown in a glass, and promptly turned over the three hundred and eight dollars to the Widow Brackett; and the Widow Brackett almost as promptly made a few alterations in the up-stairs of her house the better to accommodate the orphans, tied a dirty white ribbon about the yellow cat's neck, and bought a derelict piano upon which her heart had been set for many months. She was no musician, but she loved a tightly closed piano with a scarf draped over the top, and thought that no parlor should be without one. Up to middle C, as Aladdin in time found out, the piano in question was not without musical pretensions, but above that any chord sounded like a nest of tin plates dropped on a wooden floor, and the intervals were those of no known scale nor fragment thereof. But in time he learned to draw pleasant things from the old piano and to accompany his shrill voice in song. As a matter of fact, he had no voice and never would have, but almost from the first he knew how to sing. It so happened that he was drawn to the piano by a singular thing: a note from his beloved.
It came one morning thumb-marked about the sealing, and covered with the generous sprawl of her writing. It said:
DEAR ALADDIN: Do not say anything about this because I do not know if my father would like it but I am so sorry about your father blowing up and all your troubles and I want you to know how sory I am. I must stop now because I have to practis.
Your loving friend
MARGARET ST. JOHN.
Aladdin was an exquisite speller, and the first thing he noticed about the letter was that it contained two words spelled wrong, and that he loved Margaret the better by two misspelled words, and that he had a lump in his throat.
He had found the letter by his plate at breakfast, and the eyes of Mrs. Brackett fastened upon it.
"I don't know who ken have been writin' to you," she said.
"Neither do I," said Aladdin, giving, as is proper, the direct lie to the remark inquisitive. He had put the letter in his pocket.
"Why don't you open it and see?"
"Time enough after breakfast," he said.
There was a silence.
"Jack's eatin' his breakfast; why ain't you eatin' yours?"
Aladdin fell upon his breakfast for the sake of peace. And Mrs. Brackett said no more. Some days later, for she was not to be denied in little matters or great, Mrs. Brackett found where Aladdin had hidden the letter, took it up, read it, sniffed, and put it back, with the remark that she never "see such carryin's-on."
Aladdin hid, and read his letter over and over; then an ominous silence having informed him that Mrs. Brackett had gone abroad, he stole into the parlor, perched on the piano-stool, and, like a second Columbus, began to discover things which other people have to be shown. The joy of his soul had to find expression, as often afterward the sorrow of it.
That winter Jack entered school in the lowest class, and the two little boys were to be seen going or coming in close comradeship, fair weather or foul. The yellow cat had affairs of gallantry, and bore to the family, at about Christmas-time, five yellow kittens, which nobody had the heart to drown, and about whose necks, at the age of eye-opening, the Widow Brackett tied little white ribbons in large bows.
Sometimes Aladdin saw Margaret, but only for a little.
So the years passed, and Aladdin turned his sixteenth year. He was very tall and very thin, energetic but not strong, very clever, but with less application than an uncoerced camel. To single him from other boys, he was full of music and visions. And rhymes were beginning to ring in his head.
A week came when the rhymes and the music went clean out of his head, which became as heavy as a scuttle full of coal, and he walked about heavily like an old man.
One day, during the morning session of school, Aladdin's head got so heavy that he could hardly see, and he felt hot all over. He spoke to the teacher and was allowed to go home. Mrs. Brackett, when she saw him enter the yard, was in great alarm, for she at once supposed that he had done something awful, which was not out of the question, and suffered expulsion.
"What have you done?" she said.
"Nothing," said Aladdin. "I think I'm going to be sick."
Mrs. Brackett tossed her hands heavenward.
"What is the matter?" she cried.
"I don't know," said Aladdin. She followed him into the house and up the stairs, which he climbed heavily.
"Where do you feel bad, 'Laddin O'Brien?" she said sharply.
"It's my head, ma'am," said Aladdin. He went into his room and lay face down on the bed, having first dropped his schoolbooks on the floor, and began to talk fluently of kings' daughters and genii and copper bottles.
The Widow Brackett was an active woman of action. Flat-footed and hatless, but with incredible speed, she dashed down the stairs, out of the house, and up the street. She returned in five minutes with the doctor.
The doctor said, "Fever." It was quite evident that it was fever; but a doctor's word for it put everything on a comfortable and satisfactory footing.
"We must get him to bed," said the doctor. He made the attempt alone, but Aladdin struggled, and the doctor was old. Mrs. Brackett came to the rescue and, finally, they got Aladdin, no longer violent, into his bed, while the doctor, in a soft voice, said what maybe it was and what maybe it wasn't,—he leaned to a bilious fever,—and prescribed this and that as sovereign in any case. They darkened the room, and Aladdin was sick with typhoid fever for many weeks. He was delirious much too much, and Mrs. Brackett got thin with watching. Occasionally it seemed as if he might possibly live, but oftenest as if he would surely die.
In his delirium for the most part Aladdin dwelt upon Margaret, so that his love for her was an old story to Mrs. Brackett. One gay spring morning, after a terrible night, Aladdin's fever cooled a little, and he was able to talk in whispers.
"Mrs. Brackett," he said, "Mrs. Brackett."
She came hurriedly to the bed.
"I know you're feelin' better, 'Laddin O'Brien."
He smiled up at her.
"Mrs. Brackett," he said, "I dreamed that Margaret St. John came here to ask how I was—did she?"
Margaret hadn't. She had not, so hedged was her life, even heard that Aladdin lay sick.
Mrs. Brackett lied nobly.
"She was here yesterday," she said, "and that anxious to know all about you."
Aladdin looked like one that had found peace.
"Thank you," he said.
Mrs. Brackett raised his head, pillow and all, very gently, and gave him his medicine.
"How's Jack?" said Aladdin.
"He comes twice every day to ask about you," said Mrs. Brackett. "He's livin' with my brother-in-law."
"That's good," said Aladdin. He lay back and dozed. After a while he opened his eyes.
"What is it, deary?" The good woman had been herself on the point of dozing, but was instantly alert.
"Am I going to die?"
"You goin' to die!" She tried to make her voice indignant, but it broke.
"I want to know."
"He wants to know, good land!" exclaimed Mrs. Brackett.
"If a man's going to die," said Aladdin, aeat-sixteen, "he wants to know, because he has things that have to be done."
"Doctor said you wasn't to talk much," said Mrs. Brackett.
"If I've got to die," said Aladdin, abruptly, "I've got to see Margaret."
A woman in a blue wrapper, muddy slippers, her gray hair disheveled, hatless, her eyes bright and wild, burst suddenly upon Hannibal St. John where he sat in his library reading in the book called "Hesperides."
"Senator St. John," she began rapidly, "Aladdin O'Brien's sick in my house, and the last thing he said was, 'I've got to see Margaret'; and he's dyin' wantin' to see her, and I've come for her, and she's got to come."
It was a tribute to St. John's genius that in spite of her incoherent utterance he understood precisely what the woman was driving at.
"You say he's dying?" he said.
"Doctor's given up hope. He's had a relapse since this mornin', and she's got to come right now if she's to see him at all."
The senator hesitated for once.
"It's got nothin' to do with the proprieties," said Mrs. Brackett, sternly, "nor what he was to her, nor her to him; it's a plain case of humanity and—"
"What is the nature of the sickness?" asked the senator.
"Is it contagious?" asked the senator.
"No, it ain't!" almost shrieked the old lady. "And what if it was?"
"Of course if it were contagious she couldn't go," said the senator.
"It ain't contagious, and, what's more, he once laid down his life for her on the log, that time."
"If you assure me the fever is not contagious—"
"You'll let her come—"
"It seems nonsense," said the senator. "They are only children, and I don't want her to get silly ideas."
"Only children!" exclaimed Mrs. Brackett. "Senator, give me the troubles of the grown-ups, childbirth, and losing the first-born with none to follow, the losing of husband and mother, and the approach of old age,—give me them and I'll bear them, but spare me the sorrows and trials of little children which we grown-ups ain't strong enough to bear. You can say I said so," she finished defiantly.
The senator bowed in agreement.
"I believe you are right," he said. "I will take you home in my carriage, Mrs.—"
"Brackett," said she, with pride.
The senator stepped into the hall and raised his voice the least trifle.
She answered from several rooms away, and came running. Her hands were inky, and she held a letter. She was no longer the timid little girl of the island, for somehow that escapade had emancipated her. She had waited for a few days in expectation of damnation, but, that failing to materialize, had turned over a leaf in her character, and became such a bully at home that the family and servants loved her more and more from day to day. She was fourteen at this time; altogether exquisite and charming and wayward.
"Aladdin O'Brien is very sick, daughter," said the senator, "and we are going to see him."
"And don't tell him that you didn't come to ask after him yesterday," said Mrs. Brackett, defiantly, "because I said you did. I had my reasons," she went on, "and you can say I said so."
Margaret ran up-stairs to get her hat. She was almost wild with excitement and foreboding of she knew not what.
The letter which she had been writing fell from her hand. She picked it up, looked hastily at the superscription, "Mr. Peter Manners, Jr.," and tore it into pieces.
There is no doubt that Aladdin's recovery dated from Margaret's visit. The poor boy was too sick to say what he had planned, but Margaret sat by his bed for a while and held his hand, and said little abrupt conventional things that meant much more to them both, and that was enough. Besides, and under the guns of her father's eyes, just before she went away she stooped and kissed him on the forehead, and that was more than enough to make anybody get over anything, Aladdin thought. So he slept a long cool sleep after Margaret had gone, and woke free of fever. As he lay gathering strength to sit up in bed, which treat had been promised him in ten days, Aladdin's mind worked hard over the future, and what he could machinate in order one day to be almost worthy to kiss the dust under Margaret's feet. She sent him flowers twice, but was not allowed to come and see him again.
Aladdin had awful struggles with the boredom of convalescence. He felt perfectly well, and they wouldn't let him get up and out; everything forbidden he wanted to eat. And his one solace was the Brackett library. This was an extraordinary collection of books. They were seven, and how they got there nobody knows. The most important in the collection was, in Mrs. Brackett's estimation, an odd volume of an encyclopedia, bound in tree-calf and labeled, "Safety-lamps to Stranglers." Next were four fat tomes in the German language on scientific subjects; these, provided that anybody had ever wanted to read them, had never succeeded in getting themselves read, but they had cuts and cuts which were fascinating to surmise about. The sixth book was the second volume of a romance called "The Headsman," by "the author of 'The Spy,'" and the seventh was a back-split edition of Poe's poems.
The second volume of "The Headsman" went like cakes and syrup on a cold morning, for it was narrative, and then it was laid aside, because it was dull. The four German books had their cuts almost examined out of them, and the encyclopedia book, from "Safety-lamps to Stranglers," practically had its contents torn out and devoured. In after life Aladdin could always speak with extraordinary fluency, feeling, and understanding on anything that began with S, such as Simeon Stylites and Senegambia. But the poems of Poe were what made his sickness worth while and put the call upon all his after life. We learn of the critics and professors of English that there are greater lyric poets than Poe. They will base this on technicalities and theories of what poetry has been and what poetry ought to be, and will not take into account the fact that of all of them—Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth when he is a poet at all, Heine, and the lyric body of Goethe and the rest—not one in proportion to the mass of his production so often leaves the ground and spreads wings as Poe,—
If I might dwell Where Israfel Hath dwelt, and he where I, He might not sing so wildly well A mortal melody, While a bolder note than his might swell From my lyre within the sky,—
and that where they have, they have perhaps risen a little higher, but never have sung more hauntingly and clear. The wonderful sounds and the unearthly purity—the purity of a little child that has died—took Aladdin by the throat and shook up the imagination and music that had lain dormant within him; his father's bent for invention clarified into a passion for creation. The first thing he read was three stanzas on the left-hand page where the book opened to his uneager hands, and his eyes, expectant of disappointment,—for up to that time, never having read any, he hated poetry,—fell on one of the five or six perfect poems in the world:
Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicean barks of yore That gently o'er a perfumed sea The weary, wayworn wanderer bore To his own native shore.
On desperate seas long wont to roam, Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, Thy naiad airs have brought me home To the glory that was Greece, And the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo, in yon brilliant window-niche How statue-like I see thee stand, The agate lamp within thy hand! Ah, Psyche! From the regions which Are holy land.
And he knew that he had read the most exquisite, the most insouciant, and the most universal account of every man's heart's desire—Margaret as she would be when she grew tall. He knew little of the glory that was Greece or the grandeur that was Rome, but whatever they were, Margaret had all of them, and the hyacinth hair, very thick and clustery and beautiful, and the naiad airs. Ah, Psyche!
And he read forward and back in the book, and after a little he knew that he had a soul, and that the only beautiful thing in the world is beauty, and the only sad thing, and that beauty is truth.
Open at the lines to Helen he laid the book face down upon his heart, with his hands clasped over it, and shut his eyes.
"Now I know what I've got to do," he said. "Now I know what I've got to do."
He dreamed away hours until suddenly the need of deeds set him bolt upright in bed, and he called to Mrs. Brackett to bring him pencil and paper. From that time on he was seldom without them, and, by turns reading and writing, entered with hope and fortitude into the challenging field of literature. And from the first, however ignorant and unkempt the effort, he wrote a kind of literature, for he buckled to no work that he knew, and was forever striving after an ideal (nebulous, indescribable, and far) of his own, and that is literature. Go to those who have wrought for—forever (without, of course, knowing it) and those who have wrought earnestly for the day, and these things you will find made the god in their machine: Raphael's sonnets and Dante's picture! Aladdin had no message, that he knew of, for the world, but the call of one of the arts was upon him; and he knew that willy-nilly he must answer that call as long as eyes could see, or hands hold pen, or tongue call for pencil and paper, money buy them, or theft procure them. He set himself stubbornly and courageously to the bitter-sweet task of learning to write.
"It must be like learning anything else," he said, his eyes on a sheet of seemingly uncorrectable misbalances, "and just because I'm rotten at it now doesn't prove that if I practise and practise, and try and try, and hope and hope, I won't be some good sometime."
He saw very clearly the squat dark tower itself in the midst of the chin-upon-hand hills, and the world and his friends sitting about to see him fail. He saw them, and he knew them all, and yet, with Childe Roland,
Dauntless the slughorn to his lips he set, And blew.
And incidentally, when he got well and returned to school, he entered on a period of learning his lessons, for he thought that these might one day be of use to him in his chosen line.
Senator St. John, for he was at heart democratic, and heard little of Aladdin that was not to Aladdin's credit, derigorized the taboo which he had once placed on Aladdin's and Margaret's friendship, and allowed the young man to come occasionally to the house, and occasionally loaned him books. Margaret was really at the bottom of this, but she stayed comfortably at the bottom, and teased her father to do the needful, and he, wrapped up in the great issues which were threatening to divide the country, complied. In those days the senator's interests extended far beyond his family, Margaret and the three powerful sons who were building a reputation for the firm of John St. John & Brothers, lawyers in Portland. He gave Aladdin leave to come and go, even smiled grimly as he did so, and, except at those moments when he met him face to face, forgot that Aladdin existed. Margaret enjoyed Aladdin hugely, and unconsciously sat for the heroine of every novel he began, and the inspiration of every verse that he wrote. When Aladdin reached his eighteenth year and Margaret her sixteenth there was such a delightful and strong friendship between them that the other young people of the town talked. Margaret in her heart of hearts was fonder of Aladdin than of anybody else—when she was with him, or under the immediate influence of having been with him, for nobody else had such extraordinary ideas, or such a fund of amusing vitality, or such fascinating moods. Like every one with a touch of the Celt in him, Aladdin was by turns gloomiest and most unfortunate of all mortals upon whom the sun positively would not shine, or the gayest of the gay. From his droll manner of singing a song, to the seriousness with which he sometimes bore all the sufferings of all the world, he seemed to her a most complex and unusual individual. But his spells were of the instant, and her thoughts were very often on that beautiful young man, Manners, who, having completed his course at the law school, was coming to spend a month before he should begin to practise. Since his first visit years ago, Manners, now a grown man of twenty, had spent much of many of his vacations with the St. Johns. The senator was obliged, as well as his limitations would allow, to take the place of a mother to Margaret, and though it was barely guessable from his words or actions, he loved Peter Manners like a son, and had resolved, almost since the beginning, to end by having him for one. And the last time that Manners had visited them in Washington, St. John had seen to it that he shook hands with all the great men who were making history. Once the senator and Margaret had visited the Manners in New York. That had been a bitter time for Aladdin, for while all the others of his age were sniffing timidly at love and life, he had found his grand passion early and stuck to it, and was now blissful with hope and now acrid with jealousy. Peter Manners he hated with a green and jealous hatred. And if Peter Manners had any of the baser passions, he divined this, and hated Aladdin back, but rather contemptuously. They met occasionally, and the meetings, always in the presence of Margaret, were never very happy. She was woman enough to rejoice at being a bone of contention, and angel enough to hate seeing good times spoiled.
But it was hard on Aladdin. He could go to her house almost when he liked, and be welcomed by her, but to her father and the rest of the household he was not especially welcome. They were always polite to him, and always considerate, and he felt—quite rightly—that he was merely tolerated, as a more or less presentable acquaintance of Margaret's. Manners, on the other hand, and it took less intuition to know it, was not only greatly welcome to Margaret, but to all the others—from the gardener up to the senator. Manners' distinction of manner, his wellbred, easy ways, his charmingly enunciative and gracious voice, together with his naive and simple nature, went far with people's hearts. Aladdin bitterly conceded every advantage to his rival except that of mind. To this, for he knew even in his humble moments that he himself had it, he clung tenaciously. Mrs. Brackett, with a sneaking admiration for Peter Manners, whom she had once seen on the street, had Aladdin's interests well in heart, and the lay of the matter well in hand. She put it like this to a friendly gossip:
"I guess' Laddin O'Brien's 'bout smaht enough to go a long ways further than fine clothes and money and a genealogical past will carry a body. He writes sometimes six and eight big sides of paper up in a day, and if he ain't content with that he just tears it up and goes at it again. There won't be anybody'll go further in this world than 'Laddin O'Brien, and you can say I said so—"
Here under oath of secrecy Mrs. Brackett lowered her voice and divulged a secret:
"He got a letter this mornin' sayin' that the Portland'spy' is goin' to print three poems he sent 'em, and enclosin' three dollars to pay for 'em. I guess beginnin' right now he could go along at that rate and make mebbe five or six hundred dollars a year. Poetry's nothin' to him; he can write it faster than you and I can baste."
At the very moment of this adoring act of divulgence Aladdin was in the parlor, giving his first taste of success a musical soul, and waiting—waiting—waiting until it should be late enough in the day for him to climb the hill to the St. Johns' and hand over the Big News to Margaret. And as he sat before the piano, demipatient and wholly joyful, his fingers twinkled the yellowed and black keys into fits of merriment, or, after an abrupt pause, built heap upon heap of bass chords. Then the mood would change and, to a whanging accompaniment, he would chant, recitative fashion, the three poems which alone he had made.
The day waned, and it was time to go and tell Margaret. His way lay past the railway-station, under the "Look out for the locomotive" sign, across the track, and up the hill. In the air was the exhilarating evening cool of June, and the fragrance of flowers, which in the north country, to make up for the shorter tale of their days, bloom bigger and smell sweeter than any other flowers in the world. Even in the dirty paved square fronting the station was a smell of summer and flowers. You could see people's faces lighten and sniff it, as they got out of the hot, cindery coaches of the five-forty, which had just rolled in.
The St. Johns' fine pair of bays and their open carriage were drawn up beside the station. The horses were entering a spirited, ground-pawing protest against the vicinity of that alway inexplicable and snorting monster on wheels. On the platform, evidently waiting for some one to get off the train, stood St. John and Margaret. She looked much fresher and sweeter than a rose, and Aladdin noted that she was wearing her hair up for the first time. Her dress was a floaty white affair with a blue ribbon round it, and her beautiful, gay young face flushed with excitement and anticipation till it sparkled. There was a large crowd getting off the train, at that aggravating rate of progression with which people habitually leave a crowded public conveyance or a theater, and Margaret and her father were looking through the windows of the cars to see if they could catch a glimpse of whom they sought. Suddenly the senator broke into a smile and waved his cane. The action was so unusual for him that it looked grotesque. Margaret stood on tiptoe and waved her hand, and a presentiment came to Aladdin and took away all his joy.
Peter Manners, looking fresh and clean in spite of his long, dusty ride, got off the train and made a hilarious rush for his friends. He shook hands with Margaret, then with the senator, and turned again to Margaret. She was altogether too pretty, and much too glad to see him. In the excitement of the moment it couldn't be borne, and he kissed her. Then they both laughed, and the senator laughed, for he was glad. He put his great hand on Manners' shoulder, and laughing and talking, the three went to the carriage. Then the senator remembered that the checks had been forgotten, and against a voluble protest he secured them from Manners, and went after an expressman. Having found the expressman—one of his constituents and a power in the town,—he handed him the checks, a fifty-cent piece, and a ponderous joke as old as Xerxes, at which the expressman roared. Manners stood by the carriage and looked at Margaret. "Lord God," he thought, "it has come at last!" and they grinned at each other.
"Mmm!" said Margaret, who stood for the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. She had not expected to be so glad to see him.
Meanwhile Aladdin had turned and was going home.
Margaret caught sight of his back, and the pitiful little droop in the usually erect shoulders, and she divined like a flash, and called after him. He pretended not to hear and went on. In his pocket was the editor's letter which he had designed to show her. It had lain down and died.
"Why does that man hate me so?" said Manners.
A little of the joy of meeting had gone. A cloud passed over the sun, and the earth was darkened. Many drops of rain began to fall, each making a distinct splash as it struck. One began to smell the disturbed dust. But the flowers continued to send up their incense to heaven, and Manners put his light overcoat about Margaret.
Aladdin had a large acquaintance in the town among all sorts of men, and, as he went home sorrowfully in the rain, he met a youth, older than himself, who had an evil notoriety; for being born with brains, of respectable people, and propitiously launched on the world, he had begun in his early teens, and in the face of the most heartrending solicitude, to drink himself to death. The miserable part of it was that everybody loved him when he was sober, and out of consideration to his family still asked him to the best that the town could do in the way of parties and entertainments. He was a good-looking young man with a big frame and a pale face. His real name was William Addison Larch, but he was better known as "Beau Larch." He had a nervous, engaging smile, of which he made frequent use.
"My word, Aladdin," he said, "you look sick as a dog. Come with me and take a snifter for it."
Aladdin hesitated a moment. And as soon as he had thoroughly made up his mind that it was wrong to say so, he said:
"I believe I will." The Celt in him was feeling suicidal. They went into the ground-floor room of a house where liquor was sold.
"For me, whisky," said Beau Larch.
"The same for me," said Aladdin, with something suspiciously like a gulp. The first drink which a man takes against his better judgment is a grisly epoch in his life. Aladdin realized this, and was at once miserable and willing that it should be so.
"To those that love us!" said Beau Larch.
Aladdin put down his liquor without grimace or gasp.
Beau Larch paid.
In Aladdin's pocket were three dollars, the first mile-post on the steep road to his ideal. He felt, to be sure that they were there.
"Now you 'll have one with me," he said.
When the sudden rain-storm had rained and thundered and lightened itself out, they went to another saloon, and from there to the Boat Club, of which Beau Larch was a member and whither he asked Aladdin to supper. Fishes and lobsters and clams were the staple articles of Boat Club suppers, and over savory messes of these, helped down with much whisky and water, Aladdin and Beau Larch made the evening spin. Aladdin, talking eagerly and with the naivete of a child, wondered why he had never liked this man so much before. And Larch told the somewhat abject story of his life three times with an introduction of much racy anecdote.
Aladdin's head held surprisingly well. Every now and then he would hand himself an inward congratulation on the alertness and clearness of his mind, and think what a fine constitution he must have. They got to singing after a while, and reciting poems, of which each knew a quantity by heart. And, oddly enough, Aladdin, though he had been brought up to speak sound American, developed in his cups, and afterward clung to, in moments of exhilaration or excitement, an indescribably faint but perfectly distinct Hibernian accent. It was the heritage to which he was heir, and made his eager and earnest rendering of "Annabel Lee" so pathetic that Beau Larch wept, and knocked a glass off the table....
Men came and sat with them, and Aladdin discovered in himself what he had hitherto never suspected—the power of becoming heart-to-heart friends with strangers in two seconds.
Aladdin was never able to remember just how or when or with whom they left the Boat Club. He only remembered walking and walking and talking and talking, and finally arguing a knotty question, on which all defended the same side, and then sitting down on the steps of a house in a low quarter of the town, and pouring the ramifications of all his troubles into the thoroughly sympathetic if somewhat noncomprehending ears of Beau Larch. He talked long and became drunker as he talked, while Larch became soberer. Then Aladdin remembered that the door at the top of the steps had opened, and a frowzy head had been stuck out, and that a brassy voice, with something at once pathetic and wheedling in it, had said:
"Aren't you coming in, boys?"
Then Aladdin remembered that Beau Larch and he had had angry words, and that Beau Larch had told him not to make an ass of himself, and for heaven's sake to go home. To which Aladdin had retorted that he was old enough to know what was good for him, and hated the world and didn't give a damn who knew it, and wouldn't go home. Aladdin could swear that after that he only closed his eyes for a second to shut out something or other, and that when he opened them, the reverberation of a door closing was in his ears. But for all that Beau Larch had gone, and was to be seen neither up the street nor down. Although his own was past mending, Beau Larch, drunk as he was, had done a good deed that night, for he had guarded a precious innocence against the assaults of a drunken little Irish boy who was feeling down about something—a girl named something or other, Beau Larch thought, and another boy named something or other. The next day Beau had forgotten even that much.
Aladdin thought that Larch was hiding in jest. He arose unsteadily and wandered off in search of him. After a time he found himself before the door of his own house. There were lights in the parlor, and Aladdin became almost sober. He realized with a thrill of stricken conscience that Mrs. Brackett was sitting up for him, and he was afraid. He tried the front door and found it unlocked. He went in. On the right, the door leading into the parlor stood open. On the table burned a lamp. Beside the table in the crushed plush rocker sat Mrs. Brackett. Her spectacles were pushed high up on her forehead. Her eyes were closed, and her mouth was slightly open. From the corners of her eyes red marks ran down her cheeks. Her thin gray hair was in disarray. In her lap, open, lay her huge family Bible; a spray of pressed maidenhair fern marked the place.
Aladdin, somewhat sobered by now, and already stung with the anguish of remorse, tiptoed into the parlor and softly blew out the light; but the instant before he did so he glanced down at the Bible in the good lady's lap and saw that she had been reading about the prodigal son. Great tears ran out of Aladdin's eyes. He went up-stairs, weeping and on tiptoe, and as he passed the door of his brother's room he heard a stir within.
"Is that you, 'Laddin?"
"Sssh, darlint," said Aladdin; "you'll wake Mother Brackett."
In his own room there was a lamp burning low, and on his bureau was a note for him from Margaret:
DEAR ALADDIN: Papa wants you to come up and have supper with us. Peter Manners is here, and I think it will be fun. Please do come, and remember a lot of foolish songs to sing. Why wouldn't you speak to me? It hurts so when you act like that....
Aladdin, kissing the note, went down on his knees and twice began to pray, "O God—O God!" He could say no more, but all the penitence and heartburnings of his soul were in his prayer. Later he lay on his bed staring into a darkness which moved in wheels, and he kept saying to the darkness:
"Neither the angels in Heaven above, Nor the demons down under the sea, Can ever dissever my soul from the soul Of the beautiful Annabel Lee."
Late in the still morning he awoke, grieving and hurt, for he did not see how he should ever face Mrs. Brackett, or his brother, or Margaret, or himself, or anybody ever again.
There was in town at this time what passed for a comic-opera troupe, and Margaret and her father, by way of doing honor to their guest, invited all the young people to go to the performance and attend a supper afterward. The party occupied the three foremost rows in the music-hall, and Aladdin sat next to Margaret, and Manners sat upon the other side.
The hero of the piece was a jovial big rascal with a spirited voice, and much byplay which kept his good-natured audience in titters—from the young gentlemen and little shrieks—from the young ladies. Mr. Blythoe, the hero, when the curtain had fallen upon what the management was pleased to call the second act, consented, in response to continued applause, due to a double back somersault and two appropriate remarks fired off in midair (this was his great psychic moment), to make a little speech and sing a song. His speech, though syntactically erratic, was delivered in a loud, frank way that won everybody's heart, and in closing he said:
"Three nights ago I met with a young feller in this tow—city [applause], and when we had taken one together for luck [titters from the young gentlemen, who wanted one another to know that they knew what he meant], he made me the loan of the song I'm a-going to sing. He made up the words and the tune of this song hisself, and he's right here in this audience." This gave an opportunity for some buffoonery among the young gentlemen. Mr. Blythoe looked for one instant straight at Aladdin, and Aladdin went into a cold sweat, for he began to recollect that somewhere on a certain awful night he had taken drinks with Mr. Blythoe and had sung him songs. Mr. Blythoe went on:
"This young gentleman said I specially wasn't to mention his name, and I won't, but I want all you ladies and gentlemen to know that this here beautiful ballad was composed right here in this tow—city [applause] by a citizen of this city. And here goes."
Then Mr. Blythoe did a wonderful thing. Much was owing to the words and air, but a little something to the way in which Mr. Blythoe sang. He took his audience with the first bar, and had some of them crying when he was through. And the song should have been silly. It was about a gay, gay young dog of a crow, that left the flock and went to a sunny land and lived a mad, mad life; and finally, penitent and old, came home to the north country and saw his old playmates in the distance circling about the old pine-tree, but was too weak to reach them, or to call loud enough for them to hear, and so lay down and died, died, died. The tune was the sweetest little plaintive wail, and at the end of each stanza it died, died, till you had to cry.
Mr. Blythoe received tremendous applause, but refused to encore. He winked to Aladdin and bowed himself off. Then Aladdin executed an unparalleled blush. He could feel it start in the small of his back and spread all over him—up under the roots of his hair to the top of his head. He should have felt proud, instead of which he was suffused with shame. Margaret caught sight of his face.
"What is it, Aladdin?" she said in a whisper.
"Won't you tell me?"
"It's nothing." He got redder and redder.
With downcast eyes he shook his head. She looked at him dubiously and a little pathetically for a moment. Then she said, "Silly goose," and turned to Manners.
"Poor old crow!" said Manners. "I had one, Margaret, when I was little; he had his wings clipped and used to follow me like a dog, and one day he saw some of his old friends out on the salt-marsh, and he hopped out to talk it over with them, and they set upon him and killed him. And I couldn't get there quick enough to help him—I beg your pardon." He picked up a fan and handed it to the girl on his left, and she, having dropped it on purpose, blushed, thanked him, and giggled. Manners turned to Margaret again. "Ever since then," he said, "when I have a gun in my hand and see a crow, I want to kill him for the sake of the crows that killed mine, and to let him go for the sake of mine, who was such a nice old fellow. So it's an awful problem."
Aladdin sat and looked straight before him. "Is real fame as awful as this?" he thought.
Somebody clapped him on the shoulder, and a hearty voice, something the worse for wear, said loudly in his ear, "Bully, Aladdin, bully!"
Aladdin looked up and recognized that bad companion, Beau Larch.
"That's all right," Aladdin tried to say, but Mr. Larch would not be downed.
"Wasn't it bully, Margaret?" he said.
"Oh—hallo—hallo, Beau!" said she, starting and turning round and collecting her wits. "What? Wasn't what bully?"
Aladdin frowned at Larch with all the forbiddingness that he could muster, but Larch was imperturbable.
"Why, Aladdin's song!" he said. "You know, the one about the old crow—the one the man just sang."
Here a young lady, over whom Beau Larch was leaning, confided to her escort in an audible, nervous voice that she knew Beau Larch had been drinking, but she wouldn't say why she knew—anybody could see he had; and then she sniffed with her nose by way of indicating that seeing was not the only or best method of telling.
"You don't mean to say—" said Margaret to Aladdin, and looked him in the eyes. "Why, Aladdin!" she said. And then: "Peter—Peter—'Laddin wrote it, he did. Isn't it gr-reat!"
And Peter, rising to the occasion, said, "Bully," and "I thought it was great," with such absolute frankness and sincerity that Aladdin's heart almost warmed toward him. It was presently known all over the house that Aladdin had written the song. And some of the more clownish of the young people called for Author, Author. Aladdin hung his head.
At supper at the St. Johns' later was a crisp, brisk gentleman with grayish hair, who talked in a pleasant, dry way. Aladdin learned that it was Mr. Blankinship, editor and proprietor of the Portland "Spy." Almost immediately on learning this important item, he saw Mr. Blankinship exchange a word with Margaret and come toward him.
"The same that sent us three poems a while ago?"
"And you wrote that song we heard to-night?"
"Yes, sir." Aladdin was now fiery red.
"What do you do for a living?"
"I've just finished school," said Aladdin. "And I don't know what to do."
"Newspaper work appeal to you?"
"Timid as a coot," thought Mr. Blankinship.
"Write easily?" he said. "Fast—short words?"
Aladdin thought a moment. "Yes, sir," he said coolly.
"Less timid than a coot," thought Mr. Blankinship.
"Willing to live in Portland?"
"I'll give you five dollars a week and give you a trial."
"Thank you, sir."
"Can you get moved and start work Monday?"
Mr. Blankinship smiled cheerfully.
"Pretty entertainment, isn't it?"
"Well, O'Brien, see you Monday; hope we get on." Mr. Blankinship nodded pleasantly and passed up the room to the punch, muttering as he went, "Writes better than talks—dash of genius—more or less timid than a coot."
Aladdin went quickly to find Margaret. He traced her to the pantry, where she was hurrying the servant who had charge of the ice-cream. Aladdin waited until the servant had gone out with a heaping tray.
"Margaret," he said, "I'm going away to live."
He spoke in the flat, colorless voice with which a little child announces that it has hurt itself.
"What do you mean, Aladdin?" She changed color slightly.
"Only that I've got to make a living, Margaret, and it's on a paper, so I ought to be glad."
"Aren't you glad, Aladdin?"
She read in his eyes what was coming.
"Not now, Aladdin," she said.
"Not now—dear Aladdin."
"Then you know?"
"I've always known, Aladdin, and been grateful and that proud."
"Will there never be any chance for me, Margaret?"
"Aladdin, I think I like you better than anybody else in the world—"
"Darling—" he had never supposed that it could be said so easily; he leaned toward her.
"No," she said suddenly; "I've got to go and see after all those foolish people."
"Just for the sake of old times, and now, and new times—"
She hesitated, reddened a little, and then, as sweetly and innocently as a child, put up her lips for him to kiss.
Hannibal St. John's campaign for reelection to the senatorship was, owing to a grievous error in tact, of doubtful issue. A hue and cry arose against him among his constituents, and things in general fell out so unhappily that it looked toward the close of the contest as if he would be obliged to sit idle and dangle his heels, while the two halves of the country, pushing against each other, were rising in the middle like the hinge of a toggle-joint into the most momentous crisis in the nation's history. It looked as if the strong man, with his almost blasphemous intolerance of disunion, his columnlike power of supporting, and his incomparable intellect, was to stand in the background and watch the nightmare play from afar. He fought for his place in the forefront of the battle with a great fervor of bitterness, and the possibility of defeat weighed upon his glowering soul like a premature day of judgment. He knew himself to be the one man for the opportunity, and could his true feelings have found utterance, they would have said, "Damn us everlastingly in hell, but don't shelve us now!"
Opposed to St. John was a Mr. Bispham, of about quarter his height intellectually and integrally—a politician, simple, who went to war for loot. But he was blessed with a tremendous voice and an inexhaustible store of elemental, fundamental humor, upon the waves of which the ship bearing his banner floated high. It seemed that because of one glaring exhibition of tactlessness, and a lack of humor, a really important, valuable, and honest man was to lose the chance of serving his country to a designing whipper-snapper, who was without even the saving grace of violent and virulent prejudices. And so the world goes. It seemed at one time that St. John's chance was a ghost of a chance, and his friends, sons, and relatives, toiling headstrong by night and day, were brought up at the verge of despair. To make the situation even more difficult, St. John himself was prostrated with the gout, so that his telling oratory and commanding personality could not be brought to bear. Margaret was never far from her father's side, and she worked like a dog for him, writing to dictation till her hands became almost useless, and when the spasms of pain were great, leaving her work to kiss his old brow.
It was at this time that people all over the State began to take up a song with an inimitably catching tune. The words of this song held up Mr. Bispham in so shrewdly true and farcically humorous a light that even his own star began to titter and threatened to slip from its high place in the heavens. The song fell so absolutely on the head of the nail that Mr. Bispham, when he heard it for the first time, was convulsed with anger and talked of horse-whips. The second time he heard it, he drew himself up with dignity and pretended not to notice, and the third time he broke into a cold sweat, for he began to be afraid of those words and that tune. At a mass-meeting, while in the midst of a voluble harangue, somebody in the back of the hall punctuated—an absurd statement, which otherwise might have passed unnoticed, by whistling the first bar of the song. Mr. Bispham faced the tittering like a man, and endeavored to rehabilitate himself. But his hands had slipped on the handle of the audience, and the forensic rosin of Demosthenes would not have enabled him to regain his grip. He was cruelly assured of the fact by the hostile and ready-witted whistler. Again Mr. Bispham absurded. This time the tune broke out in all parts of the hall and was itself punctuated by catcalls and sotto-voce insults delivered with terrific shouts. Mr. Bispham's speech was hurriedly finished, and the peroration came down as flat as a skater who tries a grape-vine for the first time. He left the hall hurriedly, pale and nervous. The tune followed him down the street and haunted him to his room. The alarming takingness of it had gotten in at his ear, and as he was savagely undressing he caught himself in the traitorous act of humming it to himself.
Among others to leave the hall was a tall, slim young man with freckles across the bridge of his nose and very bright blue eyes. A party of young men accompanied him, and all were a little noisy, and, as they made the street, broke lustily into the campaign song. People said, "That's him," "That's O'Brien," "That's Aladdin O'Brien," "That's the man wrote it," and the like. The young men disappeared down the street singing at the tops of their voices, with interlardations of turbulent, mocking laughter.