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Memorial Edition The Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley IN TEN VOLUMES Including Poems and Prose Sketches, many of which have not heretofore been published; an authentic Biography, an elaborate Index and numerous Illustrations in color from Paintings
JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY
CONTENTS ECCENTRIC MR CLARK A NEST-EGG "THE BOY FROM ZEENY" WHERE IS MARY ALICE SMITH? THE OLD MAN THE GILDED ROLL A WILD IRISHMAN MRS. MILLER AT ZEKESBURY A CALLER FROM BOONE THE OLD SOLDIER'S STORY DIALECT IN LITERATURE
The Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley
ECCENTRIC MR. CLARK
All who knew Mr. Clark intimately, casually, or by sight alone, smiled always, meeting him, and thought, "What an odd man he is!" Not that there was anything extremely or ridiculously obtrusive in Mr. Clark's peculiarities either of feature, dress, or deportment, by which a graded estimate of his really quaint character might aptly be given; but rather, perhaps, it was the curious combination of all these things that had gained for Mr. Clark the transient celebrity of being a very eccentric man.
And Mr. Clark, of all the odd inhabitants of the busy metropolis in which he lived, seemed least conscious of the fact of his local prominence. True it was that when familiarly addressed as "Clark, old boy," by sportive individuals he never recollected having seen before, he would oftentimes stare blankly in return, and with evident embarrassment; but as these actions may have been attributable to weak eyes, or to the confusion consequent upon being publicly recognized by the quondam associates of bacchanalian hours, the suggestive facts only served to throw his eccentricities in new relief.
And in the minds of many, that Mr. Clark was somewhat given to dissipation, there was but little doubt; for, although in no way, and at no time, derelict in the rigid duties imposed upon him as an accountant in a wholesale liquor house on South John Street, a grand majority of friends had long ago conceded that a certain puffiness of flesh and a soiled-like pallor of complexion were in nowise the legitimate result of over-application simply in the counting-room of the establishment in which he found employment; but as to the complicity of Mr. Clark's direct associates in this belief, it is only justice to the gentleman to state that by them he was held above all such suspicion, from the gray-haired senior of the firm, down to the pink- nosed porter of the warerooms, who, upon every available occasion, would point out the eccentric Mr. Clark as "the on'y man in the biznez 'at never sunk a 'thief' er drunk a drop o' 'goods' o' any kind, under no consideration!"
And Mr. Clark himself, when playfully approached on the subject, would quietly assert that never, under any circumstances, had the taste of intoxicating liquors passed his lips, though at such asseverations it was a noticeable fact that Mr. Clark's complexion invariably grew more sultry than its wont, and that his eyes, forever moist, grew dewier, and that his lips and tongue would seem covertly entering upon some lush conspiracy, which in its incipiency he would be forced to smother with his hastily drawn handkerchief. Then the eccentric Mr. Clark would laugh nervously, and pouncing on some subject so vividly unlike the one just preceding it as to daze the listener, he would ripple ahead with a tide of eloquence that positively overflowed and washed away all remembrance of the opening topic.
In point of age Mr. Clark might have been thirty, thirty-five, or even forty years, were one to venture an opinion solely by outward appearance and under certain circumstances and surroundings. As, for example, when a dozen years ago the writer of this sketch rode twenty miles in a freight-caboose with Mr. Clark as the only other passenger, he seemed in age at first not less than thirty-five; but on opening a conversation with him, in which he joined with wonderful vivacity, a nearer view, and a prolonged and studious one as well, revealed the rather curious fact that, at the very limit of all allowable supposition, his age could not possibly have exceeded twenty-five.
What it was in the man that struck me as eccentric at that time I have never been wholly able to define, but I recall accurately the most trivial occurrences of our meeting and the very subject-matter of our conversation. I even remember the very words in which he declined a drink from my traveling-flask—for "It's a raw day," I said, by way of gratuitous excuse for offering it. "Yes," he said, smilingly motioning the temptation aside; "it is a raw day; but you're rather young in years to be doctoring the weather—at least you'd better change the treatment—they'll all be raw days for you after a while!" I confess that I even felt an inward pity for the man as I laughingly drained his health and returned the flask to my valise. But when I asked him, ten minutes later, the nature of the business in which he was engaged, and he handed me, in response and without comment, the card of a wholesale liquor house, with his own name in crimson letters struck diagonally across the surface, I winked naively to myself and thought "Ah-ha!" And as if reading my very musings, he said: "Why, certainly, I carry a full line of samples; but, my dear young friend, don't imagine for a minute that I refuse your brand on that account. You can rest assured that I have nothing better in my cases. Whisky is whisky wherever it is found, and there is no 'best' whisky—not in all the world!"
Truly, I thought, this is an odd source for the emanation of temperance sentiments—then said aloud: "And yet you engage in a business you dislike! Traffic in an article that you yourself condemn! Do I understand you?"
"Might there not be such a thing," he said quietly, "as inheriting a business—the same as inheriting an appetite? However, one advances by gradations: I shall SELL no more. This is my last trip on the road in that capacity: I am coming in now to take charge of the firm's books. Would be glad to have you call on me any time you're in the city. Good-by." And, as he swung off the slowly moving train, now entering the city, and I stood watching him from the open door of the caboose as he rapidly walked down a suburban street, I was positive his gait was anything but steady—that the step—the figure—the whole air of the man was that of one then laboring under the effects of partial intoxication.
I have always liked peculiar people; no matter where I met them, no matter who they were; if once impressed with an eccentricity of character which I have reason to believe purely unaffected, I never quite forget the person, name or place of our first meeting, or where the interesting party may be found again. And so it was in the customary order of things that, during hasty visits to the city, I often called on the eccentric Mr. Clark, and, as he had promised on our first acquaintance, he seemed always glad to see and welcome me in his new office. The more I knew of him the more I liked him, but I think I never fully understood him. No one seemed to know him quite so well as that.
Once I had a little private talk regarding him with the senior partner of the firm for which he worked. Mr. Clark, just prior to my call, had gone to lunch— would be back in half an hour. Would I wait there in the office until his return? Certainly. And the chatty senior entertained me:—Queer fellow—Mr. Clark!—as his father was before him. Used to be a member of the firm—his father; in fact, founded the business—made a fortune at it—failed, for an unfortunate reason, and went "up the flume." Paid every dollar that he owed, however, sacrificing the very home that sheltered his wife and children— but never rallied. He had quite a family, then? Oh, yes; had a family—not a large one, but a bright one—only they all seemed more or less unfortunate. The father was unfortunate—very; and died so, leaving his wife and two boys—the older son much like the father—splendid business capacities, but lacked will—couldn't resist some things —even weaker than the father in that regard, and died at half his age.
But the younger brother—our Mr. Clark— remained, and he was sterling—"straight goods" in all respects. Lived with his mother—was her sole support. A proud woman, Mrs. Clark— a proud woman, with a broken spirit—withdrawn entirely from the world, and had been so for years and years. The Clarks, as had been mentioned, were all peculiar—even the younger Mr. Clark, our friend, I had doubtless noticed was an odd genius, but he had stamina—something solid about him, for all his eccentricities—could be relied on. Had been with the house there since a boy of twelve—took him for the father's sake; had never missed a day's time in any line of work that ever had been given in his charge—was weakly-looking, too. Had worked his way from the cellar up—from the least pay to the highest—had saved enough to buy and pay for a comfortable house for his mother and himself, and, still a lad, maintained the expense of companion, attendant and maid servant for the mother. Yet, with all this burden on his shoulders, the boy had worried through some way, with a jolly smile and a good word for every one. "A boy, sir," the enthusiastic senior concluded—"a boy, sir, that never was a boy, and never had a taste of genuine boyhood in his life—no more than he ever took a taste of whisky, and you couldn't get that in him with a funnel!"
At this juncture Mr. Clark himself appeared, and in a particularly happy frame of mind. For an hour the delighted senior and myself sat laughing at the fellow's quaint conceits and witty sayings, the conversation at last breaking up with an abrupt proposition from Mr. Clark that I remain in the city overnight and accompany him to the theater, an invitation I rather eagerly accepted. Mr. Clark, thanking me, and pivoting himself around on his high stool, with a mechanical "Good afternoon!" was at once submerged in his books, while the senior, following me out and stepping into a carriage that stood waiting for him at the curb, waved me adieu, and was driven away. I turned my steps up the street, but remembering that my friend had fixed no place to meet me in the evening, I stepped back into the storeroom and again pushed open the glass door of the office.
Mr. Clark still sat on the high stool at his desk, his back toward the door, and his ledger spread out before him.
"Mr. Clark!" I called.
He made no answer.
"Mr. Clark!" I called again, in an elevated key.
He did not stir.
I paused a moment, then went over to him, letting my hand drop lightly on his arm.
Still no response. I only felt the shoulder heave, as with a long-drawn quavering sigh, then heard the regular though labored breathing of a weary man that slept.
I had not the heart to waken him; but lifting the still moistened pen from his unconscious fingers, I wrote where I might be found at eight that evening, folded and addressed the note, and laying it on the open page before him, turned quietly away.
"Poor man!" I mused compassionately, with a touch of youthful sentiment affecting me.—"Poor man! Working himself into his very grave, and with never a sign or murmur of complaint—worn and weighed down with the burden of his work, and yet with a nobleness of spirit and resolve that still conceals behind glad smiles and laughing words the cares that lie so heavily upon him!"
The long afternoon went by at last, and evening came; and, as promptly as my note requested, the jovial Mr. Clark appeared, laughing heartily, as we walked off down the street, at my explanation of the reason I had written my desires instead of verbally addressing him; and laughing still louder when I told him of my fears that he was overworking himself.
"Oh, no, my friend," he answered gaily; "there's no occasion for anxiety on that account.— But the fact is, old man," he went on, half apologetically, "the fact is, I haven't been so overworked, of late, as over-wakeful. There's something in the night I think, that does it. Do you know that the night is a great mystery to me—a great mystery! And it seems to be growing on me all the time. There's the trouble. The night to me is like some vast incomprehensible being. When I write the name 'night' I instinctively write it with a capital. And I like my night deep, and dark, and swarthy, don't you know. Now some like clear and starry nights, but they're too pale for me—too weak and fragile altogether! They're popular with the masses, of course, these blue-eyed, golden-haired, 'moonlight-on-the-lake' nights; but, somehow, I don't 'stand in' with them. My favorite night is the pronounced brunette—the darker the better. To- night is one of my kind, and she's growing more and more like it all the time. If it were not for depriving you of the theater, I'd rather just drift off now in the deepening gloom till swallowed up in it—lost utterly. Come with me, anyhow!"
"Gladly," I answered, catching something of his own enthusiasm; "I myself prefer it to the play."
"I heartily congratulate you on your taste," he said, diving violently for my hand and wringing it.
"Oh, it's going to be grimly glorious!—a depth of darkness one can wade out into, and knead in his hands like dough!" And he laughed, himself, at this grotesque conceit.
And so we walked—for hours. Our talk—or, rather, my friend's talk—lulled and soothed at last into a calmer flow, almost solemn in its tone, and yet fretted with an occasional wildness of utterance and expression.
Half consciously I had been led by my companion, who for an hour had been drawing closer to me as we walked. His arm, thrust through my own, clung almost affectionately. We were now in some strange suburb of the city, evidently, too, in a low quarter, for from the windows of such business rooms and shops as bore any evidence of respectability the lights had been turned out and the doors locked for the night. Only a gruesome green light was blazing in a little drug-store just opposite, while at our left, as we turned the corner, a tumble- down saloon sent out on the night a mingled sound of clicking billiard-balls, discordant voices, the harsher rasping of a violin, together with the sullen plunkings of a banjo.
"I must leave you here for a minute," said my friend, abruptly breaking a long silence, and loosening my arm. "The druggist over there is a patron of our house, and I am reminded of a little business I have with him. He is about closing, too, and I'll see him now, as I may not be down this way again soon. No; you wait here for me—right here," and he playfully but firmly pushed me back, ran across the street, and entered the store. Through the open door I saw him shake hands with the man who stood behind the counter, and stand talking in the same position for some minutes—both still clasping hands, as it seemed; but as I mechanically bent with closer scrutiny, the druggist seemed to be examining the hand of Mr. Clark and working at it, as though picking at a splinter in the palm—I I could not quite determine what was being done, for a glass show-case blurred an otherwise clear view of the arms of both from the elbows down. Then they came forward, Mr. Clark arranging his cuffs, and the druggist wrapping up some minute article he took from an upper show-case, and handing it to my friend, who placed it in the pocket of his vest and turned away. At this moment my attention was withdrawn by an extra tumult of jeers and harsh laughter in the saloon, from the door of which, even as my friend turned from the door opposite, a drunken woman reeled, and staggering round the corner as my friend came up, fell violently forward on the pavement, not ten steps in our advance. Instinctively, we both sprang to her aid, and bending over the senseless figure, peered curiously at the bruised and bleeding features. My friend was trembling with excitement. He clutched wildly at the limp form, trying, but vainly, to lift the woman to her feet. "Why don't you take hold of her?" he whispered hoarsely. "Help me with her— quick! quick! Lift her up!" I obeyed without a word, though with a shudder of aversion as a drop of hot red blood stung me on the hand.
"Now draw her arm about your shoulder—this way—and hold it so! And now your other arm around her waist—quick, man, quick, as you yourself will want God's arm about you when you fail! Now, come!" And with no other word we hurried with our burden up the empty darkness of the street.
I was utterly bewildered with it all, but something kept me silent. And so we hurried on, and on, and on, our course directed by my now wholly reticent companion. Where he was going, what his purpose was, I could not but vaguely surmise. I only recognized that his intentions were humane, which fact was emphasized by the extreme caution he took to avoid the two or three late pedestrians that passed us on our way as we stood crowded in concealment —once behind a low shed, once in an entry-way; and once, at the distant rattle of a police whistle, we hurried through the blackness of a narrow alley into the silent street beyond. And on up this we passed, until at last we paused at the gateway of a cottage on our left. On to the door of that we went, my friend first violently jerking the bell, then opening the door with a night-key, and with me lifting the still senseless woman through the hall into a dimly lighted room upon the right, and laying her upon a clean white bed that glimmered in the corner. He reached and turned the gas on in a flaring jet, and as he did so, "This is my home," he whispered, "and this woman is—my mother!" He flung himself upon his knees beside her as he spoke. He laid his quivering lips against the white hair and the ruddy wound upon the brow; then dappled with his kisses the pale face, and stroked and petted and caressed the faded hands. "O God!" he moaned, "if I might only weep!"
The steps of some one coming down the stairs aroused him. He stepped quickly to the door, and threw it open. It was a woman servant. He simply pointed to the form upon the bed.
"Oh, sir!" exclaimed the frightened woman, "what has happened? What has happened to my poor dear mistress?"
"Why did you let her leave the house?"
"She sent me away, sir. I never dreamed that she was going out again. She told me she was very sleepy and wanted to retire, and I helped her to undress before I went. But she ain't bad hurt, is she?" she continued, stooping over the still figure and tenderly smoothing back the disheveled hair. —"It's only the cheek bruised and the forehead cut a little—it's the blood that makes it look like a bad hurt. See, when I bathe it, it is not a bad hurt, sir. She's just been—she's just worn out, poor thing— and she's asleep—that's all."
He made no answer to the woman's speech, but turned toward me. "Five doors from here," he said, "and to your left as you go out, you will find the residence of Dr. Worrel. Go to him for me, and tell him he is wanted here at once. Tell him my mother is much worse. He will understand. I would go myself, but must see about arranging for your comfort upon your return, for you will not leave me till broad daylight—you must not!" I bowed in silent acceptance of his wishes, and turned upon my errand.
Fortunately, the doctor was at home, and returned at once with me to my friend, where, after a careful examination of his patient, he assured the anxious son that the wounds were only slight, and that her unconscious condition was simply "the result of over-stimulation, perhaps," as he delicately put it. She would doubtless waken in her usual rational state—an occurrence really more to be feared than desired, since her peculiar sensitiveness might feel too keenly the unfortunate happening. "Anyway," he continued, "I will call early in the morning, and, in the event of her awakening before that time, I will leave a sedative with Mary, with directions she will attend to. She will remain here at her side. And as to yourself, Mr. Clark," the doctor went on in an anxious tone, as he marked the haggard face and hollow eyes, "I insist that you retire. You must rest, sir—worrying for the past week as you have been doing is telling on you painfully. You need rest—and you must take it."
"And I will," said Mr. Clark submissively. Stooping again, he clasped the sleeping face between his hands and kissed it tenderly. "Good night!" I heard him whisper—"good night-good night!" He turned, and motioning for me to follow, opened the door—"Doctor, good night! Good night, Mary!"
He led the way to his own room up-stairs. "And now, my friend," he said, as he waved me to an easy chair, "I have but two other favors to ask of you: The first is, that you talk to me, or read to me, or tell me fairy tales, or riddles—anything, so that you keep it up incessantly, and never leave off till you find me fast asleep. Then in the next room you will find a comfortable bed. Leave me sleeping here, and you sleep there. And the second favor," he continued, with a slow smile and an affected air of great deliberation—"oh, well, I'll not ask the second favor of you now. I'll keep it for you till to-morrow." And as he turned laughingly away and paced three or four times across the room, in his step, his gait, the general carriage of the figure, I was curiously reminded of the time, years before, that I had watched him from the door of the caboose, as he walked up the suburban street till the movement of the train had hidden him from view.
"Well, what will you do?" he asked, as he wheeled a cozy-cushioned lounge close beside my chair, and removing his coat, flung himself languidly down.— "Will you talk or read to me?"
"I will read," I said, as I picked up a book to begin my vigil.
"Hold just a minute, then," he said, drawing a card and pencil from his vest.—"I may want to jot down a note or two.—Now, go ahead."
I had been reading in a low voice steadily for perhaps an hour, my companion never stirring from his first position, but although my eyes were never lifted from the book, I knew by the occasional sound of his pencil that he had not yet dropped asleep. And so, without a pause, I read monotonously on. At last he turned heavily. I paused. With his eyes closed he groped his hand across my knees and grasped my own. "Go on with the reading," he said drowsily—"Guess I'm going to sleep now—but you go right on with the story.—Good night!" His hand fumbled lingeringly a moment, then was withdrawn and folded with the other on his breast.
I read on in a lower tone an hour longer, then paused again to look at my companion. He was sleeping heavily, and although the features in their repose appeared unusually pale, a wholesome perspiration, as it seemed, pervaded all the face, while the breathing, though labored, was regular. I bent above him to lower the pillow for his head, and the movement half aroused him, as I thought at first, for he muttered something as though impatiently; but listening to catch his mutterings, I knew that he was dreaming. "It's what killed father," I heard him say. "And it's what killed Tom," he went on, in a smothered voice; "killed both—killed both! It shan't kill me; I swear it. I could bottle it—case after case—and never touch a drop. If you never take the first drink, you'll never want it. Mother taught me that. What made her ever take the first? Mother! mother! When I get to be a man, I'll buy her all the fine things she used to have when father was alive. Maybe I can buy back the old home, with the roses up the walk and the sunshine slanting in the hall."
And so the sleeper murmured on. Sometimes the voice was thick and discordant, sometimes low and clear and tuneful as a child's. "Never touch whisky!" he went on, almost harshly. "Never— never! Drop in the street first. I did. The doctor will come then, and he knows what you want. Not whisky.—Medicine; the kind that makes you warm again—makes you want to live; but don't ever dare touch whisky. Let other people drink it if they want it. Sell it to them; they'll get it anyhow; but don't you touch it! It killed your father, it killed Tom, and—oh!—mother! mother! mother!" Tears actually teemed from underneath the sleeper's lids, and glittered down the pallid and distorted features. "There's a medicine that's good for you when you want whisky," he went on.—"When you are weak, and everybody else is strong—and always when the flagstones give way beneath your feet, and the long street undulates and wavers as you walk; why, that's a sign for you to take that medicine—and take it quick! Oh, it will warm you till the little pale blue streaks in your white hands will bulge out again with tingling blood, and it will start up from its stagnant pools and leap from vein to vein till it reaches your being's furthest height and droops and falls and folds down over icy brow and face like a soft veil moistened with pure warmth. Ah! it is so deliriously sweet and restful!"
I heard a moaning in the room below, and then steps on the stairs, and a tapping at the door. It was Mary. Mrs. Clark had awakened and was crying for her son. "But we must not waken him," I said. "Give Mrs. Clark the medicine the doctor left for her—that will quiet her."
"But she won't take it, sir. She won't do anything at all for me—and if Mr. Clark could only come to her, for just a minute, she would—"
The woman's speech was broken by a shrill cry in the hall, and then the thud of naked feet on the stairway. "I want my boy—my boy!" wailed the hysterical woman from without.
"Go to your mistress—quick," I said sternly, pushing the maid from the room.—"Take her back; I will come down to your assistance in a moment." Then I turned hastily to see if the sleeper had been disturbed by the woman's cries; but all was peaceful with him yet; and so, throwing a coverlet over him, I drew the door to silently and went below.
I found the wretched mother in an almost frenzied state, and her increasing violence alarmed me so that I thought it best to summon the physician again; and bidding the servant not to leave her for an instant, I hurried for the help so badly needed. This time the doctor was long delayed, although he joined me with all possible haste, and with all speed accompanied me back to the unhappy home. Entering the door, our ears were greeted with a shriek that came piercing down the hall till the very echoes shuddered as with fear. It was the patient's voice shrilling from the sleeper's room up stairs:—"O God! My boy! my boy! I want my boy, and he will not waken for me!" An instant later we were both upon the scene.
The woman in her frenzy had broken from the servant to find her son. And she had found him.
She had wound her arms about him, and had dragged his still sleeping form upon the floor. He would not waken, even though she gripped him to her heart and shrieked her very soul out in his ears. He would not waken. The face, though whiter than her own, betokened only utter rest and peace. We drew her, limp and voiceless, from his side. "We are too late," the doctor whispered, lifting with his finger one of the closed lids, and letting it drop to again.—"See here!" He had been feeling at the wrist; and, as he spoke, he slipped the sleeve up, bared the sleeper's arm. From the wrist to elbow it was livid purple, and pitted and scarred with minute wounds—some scarcely scaled as yet with clotted blood.
"In heaven's name, what does it all mean?" I asked.
"Morphine," said the doctor, "and the hypodermic. And here," he exclaimed, lifting the other hand—"here is a folded card with your name at the top."
I snatched it from him, and I read, written in faint but rounded characters:
"I like to hear your voice. It sounds kind. It is like a far-off tune. To drop asleep, though, as I am doing now, is sweeter music—but read on.—I have taken something to make me sleep, and by mistake I have taken too much; but you will read right on. Now, mind you, this is not suicide, as God listens to the whisper of this pencil as I write! I did it by mistake. For years and years I have taken the same thing. This time I took too much— much more than I meant to—but I am glad. This is the second favor I would ask: Go to my employers to-morrow, show them this handwriting, and say I know for my sake they will take charge of my affairs and administer all my estate in the best way suited to my mother's needs. Good-by, my friend—I can only say 'good night' to you when I shall take your hand an instant later and turn away forever."
Through tears I read it all, and ending with his name in full, I turned and looked down on the face of this man that I had learned to love, and the full measure of his needed rest was with him; and the rainy day that glowered and drabbled at the eastern window of the room was as drearily stared back at by a hopeless woman's dull demented eyes.
But a few miles from the city here, and on the sloping banks of the stream noted more for its plenitude of "chubs" and "shiners" than the gamier two- and four-pound bass for which, in season, so many credulous anglers flock and lie in wait, stands a country residence, so convenient to the stream, and so inviting in its pleasant exterior and comfortable surroundings—barn, dairy, and spring- house—that the weary, sunburned, and disheartened fisherman, out from the dusty town for a day of recreation, is often wont to seek its hospitality.
The house in style of architecture is something of a departure from the typical farmhouse, being designed and fashioned with no regard to symmetry or proportion, but rather, as is suggested, built to conform to the matter-of-fact and most sensible ideas of its owner, who, if it pleased him, would have small windows where large ones ought to be, and vice versa, whether they balanced properly to the eye or not. And chimneys—he would have as many as he wanted, and no two alike, in either height or size. And if he wanted the front of the house turned from all possible view, as though abashed at any chance of public scrutiny, why, that was his affair and not the public's; and, with like perversity, if he chose to thrust his kitchen under the public's very nose, what should the generally fagged-out, half-famished representative of that dignified public do but reel in his dead minnow, shoulder his fishing-rod, clamber over the back fence of the old farmhouse and inquire within, or jog back to the city, inwardly anathematizing that particular locality or the whole rural district in general. That is just the way that farmhouse looked to the writer of this sketch one week ago— so individual it seemed—so liberal, and yet so independent. It wasn't even weather-boarded, but, instead, was covered smoothly with cement, as though the plasterers had come while the folks were visiting, and so, unable to get at the interior, had just plastered the outside.
I am more than glad that I was hungry enough, and weary enough, and wise enough to take the house at its first suggestion; for, putting away my fishing-tackle for the morning, at least, I went up the sloping bank, crossed the dusty road, and confidently clambered over the fence.
Not even a growling dog to intimate that I was trespassing. All was open—gracious-looking—pastoral. The sward beneath my feet was velvet-like in elasticity, and the scarce visible path I followed through it led promptly to the open kitchen door. From within I heard a woman singing some old ballad in an undertone, while at the threshold a trim, white-spurred rooster stood poised on one foot, curving his glossy neck and cocking his wattled head as though to catch the meaning of the words. I paused. It was a scene I felt restrained from breaking in upon, nor would I have, but for the sound of a strong male voice coming around the corner of the house:
Turning, I saw a rough-looking but kindly featured man of sixty-five, evidently the owner of the place.
I returned his salutation with some confusion and much deference. "I must really beg your pardon for this intrusion," I began, "but I have been tiring myself out fishing, and your home here looked so pleasant—and I felt so thirsty—and—"
"Want a drink, I reckon," said the old man, turning abruptly toward the kitchen door, then pausing as suddenly, with a backward motion of his thumb —"jest follow the path here down to the little brick—that's the spring—and you'll find 'at you've come to the right place fer drinkin'-worter! Hold on a minute tel I get you a tumbler—there's nothin' down there but a tin."
"Then don't trouble yourself any further," I said, heartily, "for I'd rather drink from a tin cup than a goblet of pure gold."
"And so'd I," said the old man, reflectively, turning mechanically, and following me down the path. " 'Druther drink out of a tin—er jest a fruit-can with the top knocked off—er—er—er a gourd," he added in a zestful, reminiscent tone of voice, that so heightened my impatient thirst that I reached the spring-house fairly in a run.
"Well-sir!" exclaimed my host, in evident delight, as I stood dipping my nose in the second cupful of the cool, revivifying liquid, and peering in a congratulatory kind of way at the blurred and rubicund reflection of my features in the bottom of the cup, "well-sir, blame-don! ef it don't do a feller good to see you enjoyin' of it thataway! But don't you drink too much o' the worter!—'cause there's some sweet milk over there in one o' them crocks, maybe; and ef you'll jest, kind o' keerful-like, lift off the led of that third one, say, over there to yer left, and dip you out a tinful er two o' that, w'y, it'll do you good to drink it, and it'll do me good to see you at it— But hold up!—hold up!" he called, abruptly, as, nowise loath, I bent above the vessel designated. "Hold yer hosses fer a second! Here's Marthy; let her git it fer ye."
If I was at first surprised and confused, meeting the master of the house, I was wholly startled and chagrined in my present position before its mistress. But as I arose, and stammered, in my confusion, some incoherent apology, I was again reassured and put at greater ease by the comprehensive and forgiving smile the woman gave me, as I yielded her my place, and, with lifted hat, awaited her further kindness.
"I came just in time, sir," she said, half laughingly, as with strong, bare arms she reached across the gurgling trough and replaced the lid that I had partially removed.—"I came just in time, I see, to prevent father from having you dip into the morning's- milk, which, of course, has scarcely a veil of cream over the face of it as yet. But men, as you are doubtless willing to admit," she went on jocularly, "don't know about these things. You must pardon father, as much for his well-meaning ignorance of such matters, as for this cup of cream, which I am sure you will better relish."
She arose, still smiling, with her eyes turned frankly on my own. And I must be excused when I confess that as I bowed my thanks, taking the proffered cup and lifting it to my lips, I stared with an uncommon interest and pleasure at the donor's face.
She was a woman of certainly not less than forty years of age. But the figure, and the rounded grace and fulness of it, together with the features and the eyes, completed as fine a specimen of physical and mental health as ever it has been my fortune to meet; there was something so full of purpose and resolve—something so wholesome, too, about the character—something so womanly—I might almost say manly, and would, but for the petty prejudice maybe occasioned by the trivial fact of a locket having dropped from her bosom as she knelt; and that trinket still dangles in my memory even as it then dangled and dropped back to its concealment in her breast as she arose. But her face, by no means handsome in the common sense of the word, was marked with a breadth and strength of outline and expression that approached the heroic—a face that once seen is forever fixed in memory—a personage once met one must know more of. And so it was, that an hour later, as I strolled with the old man about his farm, looking, to all intents, with the profoundest interest at his Devonshires, Shorthorns, Jerseys, and the like, I lured from him something of an outline of his daughter's history.
"There're no better girl 'n Marthy!" he said, mechanically answering some ingenious allusion to her worth. "And yit," he went on reflectively, stooping from his seat in the barn door and with his open jack-knife picking up a little chip with the point of the blade—"and yit—you wouldn't believe it—but Marthy was the oldest o' three daughters, and hed—I may say—hed more advantages o' marryin'— and yit, as I was jest goin' to say, she's the very one 'at didn't marry. Hed every advantage— Marthy did. W'y, we even hed her educated—her mother was a-livin' then—and we was well enough fixed to afford the educatin' of her, mother allus contended—and we was—besides, it was Marthy's notion, too, and you know how women is thataway when they git their head set. So we sent Marthy down to Indianop'lus, and got her books and put her in school there, and paid fer her keepin' and ever'thing; and she jest—well, you may say, lived there stiddy fer better'n four year. O' course she'd git back ever' once-an-a-while, but her visits was allus, some-way-another, onsatisfactory-like, 'cause, you see, Marthy was allus my favorite, and I'd allus laughed and told her 'at the other girls could git marrid ef they wanted, but SHE was goin' to be the 'nest-egg' of our family, and 'slong as I lived I wanted her at home with me. And she'd laugh and contend 'at she'd as li'f be an old maid as not, and never expected to marry, ner didn't want to.
"But she had me sceart onc't, though! Come out from the city one time, durin' the army, with a peart-lookin' young feller in blue clothes and gilt straps on his shoulders. Young lieutenant he was —name o' Morris. Was layin' in camp there in the city som'er's. I disremember which camp it was now adzackly—but anyway, it 'peared like he had plenty o' time to go and come, fer from that time on he kep' on a-comin'—ever' time Marthy 'ud come home, he'd come, too; and I got to noticin' 'at Marthy come home a good 'eal more'n she used to afore Morris first brought her. And blame' ef the thing didn't git to worryin' me! And onc't I spoke to mother about it, and told her ef I thought the feller wanted to marry Marthy I'd jest stop his comin' right then and there. But mother she sort o' smiled and said somepin' 'bout men a-never seein' through nothin'; and when I ast her what she meant, w'y, she ups and tells me 'at Morris didn't keer nothin' fer Marthy, ner Marthy fer Morris, and then went on to tell me that Morris was kind o' aidgin' up to'rds Annie—she was next to Marthy, you know, in p'int of years and experience, but ever'body allus said 'at Annie was the purtiest one o' the whole three of 'em. And so when mother told me 'at the signs p'inted to'rds Annie, w'y, of course, I hedn't no particular objections to that, 'cause Morris was of good fambly enough it turned out, and, in fact, was as stirrin' a young feller as ever I' want fer a son-in-law, and so I hed nothin' more to say—ner they wasn't no occasion to say nothin', 'cause right along about then I begin to notice 'at Marthy quit comin' home so much, and Morris kep' a-comin' more.
"Tel finally, one time he was out here all by hisself, 'long about dusk, come out here where I was feedin', and ast me, all at onct, and in a straightfor'ard way, ef he couldn't marry Annie; and, some-way-another, blame' ef it didn't make me happy as him when I told him yes! You see that thing proved, pine-blank, 'at he wasn't a-fishin' round fer Marthy. Well-sir, as luck would hev it, Marthy got home about a half-hour later, and I'll give you my word I was never so glad to see the girl in my life! It was foolish in me, I reckon, but when I see her drivin' up the lane— it was purt' nigh dark then, but I could see her through the open winder from where I was sittin' at the supper-table, and so I jest quietly excused myself, p'lite-like, as a feller will, you know, when they's comp'ny round, and slipped off and met her jest as she was about to git out to open the barn gate. 'Hold up, Marthy,' says I; 'set right where you air; I'll open the gate fer you, and I'll do anything else fer you in the world 'at you want me to!'
" 'W'y, what's pleased YOU so?' she says, laughin', as she druv through slow-like and a-ticklin' my nose with the cracker of the buggy-whip.—'What's pleased YOU?'
" 'Guess,' says I, jerkin' the gate to, and turnin' to lift her out.
" 'The new peanner's come?' says she, eager-like.
" 'Yer new peanner's come,' says I, 'but that's not it.'
" 'Strawberries for supper?' says she.
" 'Strawberries fer supper,' says I; 'but that ain't it.'
"Jest then Morris's hoss whinnied in the barn, and she glanced up quick and smilin' and says, 'Somebody come to see somebody?'
" 'You're a-gittin' warm,' says I.
" 'Somebody come to see ME?' she says, anxious-like.
" 'No,' says I, 'and I'm glad of it—fer this one 'at's come wants to git married, and o' course I wouldn't harber in my house no young feller 'at was a-layin' round fer a chance to steal away the "Nest-egg," ' says I, laughin'.
"Marthy had riz up in the buggy by this time, but as I helt up my hands to her, she sort o' drawed back a minute, and says, all serious-like and kind o' whisperin':
" 'Is it ANNIE?'
"I nodded. 'Yes,' says I, 'and what's more, I've give my consent, and mother's give hern—the thing's all settled. Come, jump out and run in and be happy with the rest of us!' and I helt out my hands ag'in, but she didn't 'pear to take no heed. She was kind o' pale, too, I thought, and swallered a time er two like as ef she couldn't speak plain.
" 'Who is the man?' she ast.
" 'Who—who's the man,' I says, a-gittin' kind o' out o' patience with the girl.—'W'y, you know who it is, o' course.—It's Morris,' says I. 'Come, jump down! Don't you see I'm waitin' fer ye?'
" 'Then take me,' she says; and blame-don! ef the girl didn't keel right over in my arms as limber as a rag! Clean fainted away! Honest! Jest the excitement, I reckon, o' breakin' it to her so suddent- like—'cause she liked Annie, I've sometimes thought, better'n even she did her own mother. Didn't go half so hard with her when her other sister married. Yes-sir!" said the old man, by way of sweeping conclusion, as he rose to his feet— "Marthy's the on'y one of 'em 'at never married— both the others is gone—Morris went all through the army and got back safe and sound—'s livin' in Idyho, and doin' fust-rate. Sends me a letter ever' now and then. Got three little chunks o' grandchildren out there, and I never laid eyes on one of 'em. You see, I'm a-gittin' to be quite a middle- aged man—in fact, a very middle-aged man, you might say. Sence mother died, which has be'n— lem-me-see—mother's be'n dead som'er's in the neighberhood o' ten years.—Sence mother died I've be'n a-gittin' more and more o' MARTHY'S notion— that is,—you couldn't ever hire ME to marry nobody! and them has allus be'n and still is the 'Nest-egg's' views! Listen! That's her a-callin' fer us now. You must sort o' overlook the freedom, but I told Marthy you'd promised to take dinner with us to- day, and it 'ud never do to disappoint her now. Come on." And ah! it would have made the soul of you either rapturously glad or madly envious to see how meekly I consented.
I am always thinking that I never tasted coffee till that day; I am always thinking of the crisp and steaming rolls, ored over with the molten gold that hinted of the clover-fields, and the bees that had not yet permitted the honey of the bloom and the white blood of the stalk to be divorced; I am thinking that the young and tender pullet we happy three discussed was a near and dear relative of the gay patrician rooster that I first caught peering so inquisitively in at the kitchen door; and I am always—always thinking of "The Nest-egg."
"THE BOY FROM ZEENY"
His advent in our little country town was at once abrupt and novel. Why he came, when he came, or how he came, we boys never knew. My first remembrance of him is of his sudden appearance in the midst of a game of "Ant'ny-over," in which a dozen boys besides myself were most enthusiastically engaged. The scene of the exciting contest was the center of the main street of the town, the elevation over which we tossed the ball being the skeleton remains of a grand triumphal arch, left as a sort of cadaverous reminder of some recent political demonstration. Although I recall the boy's external appearance upon that occasion with some vagueness, I vividly remember that his trousers were much too large and long, and that his heavy, flapping coat was buttonless, and very badly worn and damaged at the sleeves and elbows. I remember, too, with even more distinctness, the hat he wore; it was a high, silk, bell-crowned hat— a man's hat and a veritable "plug"—not a new and shiny "plug," by any means, but still of dignity and gloss enough to furnish a noticeable contrast to the other appurtenances of its wearer's wardrobe. In fact, it was through this latter article of dress that the general attention of the crowd came at last to be drawn particularly to its unfortunate possessor, who, evidently directed by an old-time instinct, had mechanically thrust the inverted "castor" under a falling ball, and the ball, being made of yarn wrapped tightly over a green walnut, and dropping from an uncommon height, had gone through the hat like a round shot.
Naturally enough much merriment was occasioned by the singular mishap, and the victim of the odd occurrence seemed himself inclined to join in the boisterous laughter and make the most of his ridiculous misfortune. He pulled the hat back over his tousled head, and with the flapping crown of it still clinging by one frayed hinge, he capered through a grotesquely executed jig that made the clamorous crowd about him howl again.
"Wo! what a hat!" cried Billy Kinzey, derisively, and with a palpably rancorous twinge of envy in his heart; for Billy was the bad boy of our town, and would doubtless have enjoyed the strange boy's sudden notoriety in thus being able to convert disaster into positive fun. "Wo! what a hat!" reiterated Billy, making a feint to knock it from the boy's head as the still capering figure pirouetted past him.
The boy's eye caught the motion, and he whirled suddenly in a backward course and danced past his reviler again, this time much nearer than before. "Better try it," he said, in a low, half-laughing tone that no one heard but Billy and myself. He was out of range in an instant, still laughing as he went.
"Durn him!" said Billy, with stifling anger, clutching his fist and leaving one knuckle protruding in a very wicked-looking manner.—"Durn him! He better not sass me! He's afeard to come past here ag'in and say that! I'll knock his durn ole stove- pipe in the middle o' nex' week!"
"You will, hey?" queried a revolving voice, as the boy twirled past again—this time so near that Billy felt his taunting breath blown in his face.
"Yes, I 'will, hey'!" said Billy, viciously; and with a side-sweeping, flat-handed lick that sounded like striking a rusty sheet of tin, the crownless "plug" went spinning into the gutter, while, as suddenly, the assaulted little stranger, with a peculiarly pallid smile about his lips and an electric glitter in his eye, adroitly flung his left hand forward, smiting his insulter such a blow in the region of the brow that the unguarded Billy went tumbling backward, his plucky assailant prancing wildly around his prostrate form.
"Oh! come and see me!" snarled the strange boy, in a contemptuous tone, cocking his fists up in a scientific manner, and dropping into a stoop- shouldered swagger that would have driven envy into the heart of a bullying hack-driver. "Git the bloke on his pins!" he sneered, turning to the crowd.— "S'pose I'm goin' to hit a man w'en he's down?"
But his antagonist needed no such assistance. Stung with his unlooked-for downfall, bleeding from the first blow ever given him by mortal boy, and goaded to absolute frenzy by the taunts of his swaggering enemy, Billy sprang to his feet, and a moment later had succeeded in closing with the boy in a rough-and-tumble fight, in which his adversary was at a disadvantage, being considerably smaller, hampered, too, with his loose, unbuttoned coat and baggy trousers. But, for all that, he did some very efficient work in the way of a deft and telling blow or two upon the nose of his overpowering foe, who sat astride his wriggling body, but wholly unable to get in a lick.
"Durn you!" said Billy, with his hand gripping the boy's throat, "holler 'nough!"
"Holler nothin'!" gurgled the boy, with his eyes fairly starting from his head.
"Oh, let him up, Billy," called a compassionate voice from the excited crowd.
"Holler 'nough and I will," said Billy, in a tragic whisper in the boy's ear. "Durn ye! holler 'Calf-rope!' "
The boy only shook his head, trembled convulsively, let fall his eyelids, and lay limp and, to all appearances, unconscious.
The startled Billy loosed his hold, rose half-way to his feet, then fiercely pounced again at his rival.
But it was too late.—The ruse had succeeded, and the boy was once more on his feet.
"You fight like a dog!" said the strange boy, in a tone of infinite contempt—"and you AIR a dog! Put up yer props like a man and come at me, and I'll meller yer head till yer mother won't know you! Come on! I dare you!"
This time, as Billy started forward at the challenge, I regret to say that in his passion he snatched up from the street a broken buggy-spoke, before which warlike weapon the strange boy was forced warily to retreat. Step by step he gave way, and step by step his threatening foe advanced. I think, perhaps, part of the strange boy's purpose in thus retreating was to arm himself with one of the "ax- handles" that protruded from a churn standing in front of a grocery, toward which he slowly backed across the sidewalk. However that may be, it is evident he took no note of an open cellar-way that lay behind him, over the brink of which he deliberately backed, throwing up his hands as he disappeared.
We heard a heavy fall, but heard no cry. Some loungers in the grocery, attracted by the clamor of the throng without, came to the door inquiringly; one man, learning what had happened, peered down the stairway of the cellar, and called to ask the boy if he was hurt, which query was answered an instant later by the appearance of the boy himself, his face far whiter than his shirt, and his lips trembling, but his teeth clenched.
"Guess I broke my arm ag'in," he said, briefly, as the man leaned over and helped him up the steps, the boy sweeping his keen eyes searchingly over the faces of the crowd. "It's the RIGHT arm, though," he continued, glancing at the injured member dangling helplessly at his side—"THIS-'UN'S all right yet!" and as he spoke he jerked from the man's assistance, wheeled round, and an instant later, as a buggy-spoke went hurtling through the air, he slapped the bewildered face of Billy with his open hand. "Dam' coward!" he said.
Then the man caught him, and drew him back, and the crowd closed in between the combatants, following, as the boy with the broken arm was hurried down street to the doctor's office, where the door was immediately closed on the rabble and all the mystery within—not an utter mystery, either, for three or four enterprising and sagacious boys slipped off from the crowd that thronged in front, and climbing by a roundabout way and over a high board fence into the back yard, secretly posted themselves at the blinded window in the rear of the little one-roomed office and breathlessly awaited news from within.
"They got him laid out on the settee," whispered a venturous boy who had leaned a board against the window-sill and climbed into a position commanding the enviable advantage of a broken window- pane. "I kin see him through a hole in the curtain. Keep still!
"They got his coat off, and his sleeve rolled up," whispered the boy, in continuation—"and the doctor's a-givin' him some medicine in a tumbler. Now he's a-pullin' his arm. Gee-mun-nee! I kin hear the bones crunch!"
"Hain't he a-cryin'?" queried a milk-faced boy, with very large blue eyes and fine white hair, and a grieved expression as he spoke.—"Hain't he a-cryin'?"
"Well, he hain't!" said the boy in the window, with unconscious admiration. "Listen!
"I heerd him thist tell 'em 'at it wasn't the first time his arm was broke. Now keep still!" and the boy in the window again bent his ear to the broken pane.
"He says both his arm's be'n broke," continued the boy in the window—"says this-'un 'at's broke now's be'n broke two times 'fore this time."
"Dog-gone! hain't he a funny feller!" said the milk-faced boy, with his big eyes lifted wistfully to the boy in the window.
"He says onc't his pap broke his arm w'en he was whippin' him," whispered the boy in the window.
"Bet his pa's a wicked man!" said the milk-faced boy, in a dreamy, speculative way—"s'pect he's a drunkard, er somepin'!"
"Keep still," said the boy at the window; "they're tryin' to git him to tell his pap's name and his, and he won't do it, 'cause he says his pap comes and steals him ever' time he finds out where he is."
The milk-faced boy drew a long, quavering breath and gazed suspiciously round the high board fence of the enclosure.
"He says his pap used to keep a liberty-stable in Zeeny—in Ohio som'er's,—but he daresn't stay round THERE no more, 'cause he broke up there, and had to skedaddle er they'd clean him out! He says he hain't got no mother, ner no brothers, ner no sisters, ner no nothin'—on'y," the boy in the window added, with a very dry and painful swallow, "he says he hain't got nothin' on'y thist the clothes on his back!"
"Yes, and I bet," broke in the milk-faced boy, abruptly, with his thin lips compressed, and his big eyes fixed on space—"yes, and I bet he kin lick Billy Kinzey, ef his arm IS broke!"
At this juncture, some one inside coming to raise the window, the boy at the broken pane leaped to the ground, and, flocking at his heels, his frightened comrades bobbed one by one over the horizon of the high fence and were gone in an instant.
So it was the hero of this sketch came to be known as "The Boy from Zeeny."
The Boy from Zeeny, though evidently predisposed to novel and disastrous happenings, for once, at least, had come upon a streak of better fortune; for the doctor, it appeared, had someway taken a fancy to him, and had offered him an asylum at his own home and hearth—the compensation stipulated, and suggested by the boy himself, being a conscientious and efficient service in the doctor's stable. Even with his broken arm splinted and bandaged and supported in a sling, The Boy from Zeeny could daily be seen loping the doctor's spirited horse up the back alley from the stable to the office, with the utter confidence and careless grace of a Bedouin. When, at last, the injured arm was wholly well again, the daring feats of horsemanship of which the boy was capable were listened to with incredulity by the "good" boys of the village school, who never played "hooky" on long summer afternoons, and, in consequence, never had a chance of witnessing The Boy from Zeeny loping up to the "swimmin'-hole," a mile from town, barebacked, with nothing but a halter, and his face turned toward the horse's tail. In fact The Boy from Zeeny displayed such a versatility of accomplishments, and those, too, of a character but faintly represented in the average boy of the country town, that, for all the admiration their possessor evoked, an equal envy was aroused in many a youthful breast.
"The boys in this town's down on you!" said a cross-eyed, freckled-faced boy, one day, to The Boy from Zeeny.
The Boy from Zeeny was sitting in the alley window of the hayloft of the doctor's stable, and the cross-eyed boy had paused below, and, with his noward-looking eyes upturned, stood waiting the effect of this intelligence.
"What do I care for the boys in this town?" said The Boy from Zeeny.
"The boys in this town," repeated the cross-eyed boy, with a slow, prophetic flourish of his head— "the boys in this town says 'cause you come from Zeeny and blacked Billy Kinzey's eye, 'at you think you're goin' to run things round here! And you'll find out you ain't the bosst o' this town!" and the cross-eyed boy shook his head again with dire foreboding.
"Looky here, Cocky!" said The Boy from Zeeny, trying to focus a direct gaze on the boy's delusive eyes, "w'y don't you talk straight out from the shoulder? I reckon 'the boys in this town,' as you call 'em, didn't send YOU round here to tell me what THEY was goin' to do! But ef you want to take it up fer 'em, and got any sand to back you, jest say it, and I'll come down there and knock them durn twisted eyes o' yourn straight ag'in!"
"Yes, you will!" muttered the cross-eyed boy, with dubious articulation, glancing uneasily up the alley.
"What?" growled The Boy from Zeeny, thrusting one dangling leg farther out the window, supporting his weight by the palms of his hands, and poised as though about to spring—"what 'id you say?"
"Didn't say nothin'," said the cross-eyed boy, feebly; and then, as a sudden and most bewildering smile lighted up his defective eyes, he exclaimed: "Oh, I tell you what le's do! Le's me and you git up a show in your stable, and don't let none o' the other boys be in it! I kin turn a handspring like you, and purt' nigh walk on my hands; and you kin p'form on the slack-rope—and spraddle out like the 'inja-rubber man'—and hold a pitch- fork on yer chin-and stand up on a horse 'ithout a-holdin'—and—and—Oh! ever'thing!" And as the cross-eyed boy breathlessly concluded this list of strong attractions, he had The Boy from Zeeny so thoroughly inoculated with the enterprise that he warmly closed with the proposition, and the preparations and the practise for the show were at once inaugurated.
Three hours later, an extremely cross-eyed boy, with the freckles of his face thrown into vivid relief by an intense pallor, rushed pantingly into the doctor's office with the fateful intelligence that The Boy from Zeeny had "fell and broke his arm ag'in." And this time, as it seemed, the hapless boy had surpassed the seriousness of all former fractures, this last being of a compound nature, and very painful in the setting, and tedious in recovery; the recovery, too, being anything but perfect, since it left the movement of the elbow somewhat restricted, and threw the little fellow's arm into an unnatural position, with the palm of the hand turned forward as he walked. But for all that, the use of it was, to all appearances, little impaired.
Doubtless it was through such interludes from rough service as these accidents afforded that The Boy from Zeeny had acquired the meager education he possessed. The doctor's wife, who had from the first been kind to him, grew to like him very much. Through her gentle and considerate interest he was stimulated to study by the occasional present of a simple volume. Oftentimes the good woman would devote an hour to his instruction in the mysteries of the book's orthography and rhetoric.
Nor was The Boy from Zeeny a dull pupil, nor was he an ungrateful one. He was quick to learn, and never prouder than when a mastered lesson gained for him the approbation of his patient instructor.
The history of The Boy from Zeeny, such as had been gathered by the doctor and his wife, was corroborative in outline with the brief hint of it communicated to the curious listeners at the rear window of the doctor's office on the memorable day of the boy's first appearance in the town. He was without family, save a harsh, unfeeling father, who, from every evidence, must have neglected and abused the child most shamefully, the circumstantial proof of this fact being evidenced in the boy's frank acknowledgment that he had repeatedly "run away" from him, and his still firm resolve to keep his name a secret, lest he might thereby be traced to his present security and fall once more into the hands of his unnatural parent.
Certain it was that the feelings of all who knew the lad's story showed hearty sympathy with him, and when one morning it was rumored that The Boy from Zeeny had mysteriously disappeared, and the rumor rapidly developed into an unquestionable fact, there was a universal sense of regret in the little town, which in turn resolved itself into positive indignation when it was learned from the doctor that an explanation, printed in red keel on the back of a fragment of circus-poster, had been found folded and tucked away an the buckle-strap of his horse's bridle. The somewhat remarkable communication, in sprawling capitals, ran thus:
"PAPS GOT ME AGIN. I HAF TO GO. DAM HIM. DOC TEL HER TO KEEP MY BOOCKS. GOOD BY. I FED OLE CHARLY. I FED HIM OTES AND HA AN CORN. HE WONT NEED NO MORE FER A WEAK. AN BRAND TO. DOC TEL HER GOOD BY."
It was a curious bit of composition—uncouth, assuredly, and marred, maybe, with an unpardonable profanity—but it served. In the silence and gloom of the old stable, the doctor's fingers trembled as he read, and the good wife's eyes, peering anxiously above his heaving shoulder, filled and overflowed with tears.
I wish that it were in the veracious sequence of this simple history to give this wayward boy back to the hearts that loved him, and that still in memory enshrine him with affectionate regard; but the hapless lad—the little ragged twelve-year-old that wandered out of nowhere into town, and wandered into nowhere out again—never returned. Yet we who knew him in those old days—we who were children with him, and, in spite of boyish jealousy and petty bickerings, admired the gallant spirit of the lad—are continually meeting with reminders of him; the last instance of which, in my own experience, I can not refrain from offering here:
For years I have been a wanderer from the dear old town of my nativity, but through all my wanderings a gracious fate has always kept me somewhere in its pleasant neighborhood, and, in consequence, I often pay brief visits to the scenes of my long-vanished boyhood. It was during such a visit, but a few short years ago, that remembrances of my lost youth were most forcibly recalled by the progress of the county fair, which institution I was permitted to attend through the kindness of an old chum who drove me over in his buggy.
Although it was not the day for racing, we found the track surrounded by a dense crowd of clamorous and applauding people.
"What does it mean?" I asked my friend, as he guided his horse in and out among the trees toward the edge of the enclosure.
"It's Professor Andrus, I suspect," he answered, rising in the buggy as he spoke, and peering eagerly above the heads of the surging multitude.
"And who's Professor Andrus?" I asked, striking a match against the tire of the now stationary buggy- wheel, and lighting the stump of my cigar.
"Why, haven't you heard of the famous Professor?" he answered, laughingly—immediately adding in a serious tone: "Professor Andrus is the famous 'horse-tamer' who has been driving the country absolutely wild here for two or three days. Stand up here where you can see!" he went on, excitedly.
"Yonder he comes! Isn't that splendid?"
And it was.
Across the sea of heads, and facing toward us down the track, I caught sight of a glossy span of horses that in their perfect beauty of symmetry, high heads and tossing manes looked as though they were just prancing out of some Arabian dream. The animals seemed nude of rein or harness, save only a jeweled strap that crossed the breast of each, together with a slender trace at either side connecting with a jaunty little phaeton whose glittering wheels slivered the sunshine into splinters as they spun. Upon the narrow seat of the airy vehicle sat the driver. No lines were wound about his hands —no shout or lash to goad the horses to their telling speed. They were simply directed and controlled by the graceful motions of a long and slender whip which waved slowly to and fro above their heads. The great crowd cheered the master as he came. He arose deliberately, took off his hat, and bowed. The applause was deafening. Still standing, he whizzed past us and was gone. But something in the manner of the handsome fellow struck me with a strange sense of familiarity. Was it the utter disregard of fear that I saw on his face? Was it the keenness of the eye and the perfect self-possession of the man? Or was it—was it the peculiar way in which the right arm had dropped to his side after his salute to us while curving past us, and did I fancy, for that reason, that the palm of his hand turned forward as he stood?
"Clear the track, there!" came a far voice across the ring.—"Don't cross there, in God's name! Drive back!"
The warning evidently came too late. There was an instant's breathless silence, then a far-away, pent- sounding clash, then utter havoc in the crowd: The ropes about the ring were broken over, and a tumultuous tide of people poured across the ring, myself borne on the very foremost wave.
"Jest the buggy smashed, that's all!" cried a voice. "The hosses hain't hurt—ner the man."
The man referred to was the Professor. I caught a glimpse of him as he rose from the grassy bank where he had been flung. He was very pale, but calm. An uncouth man brought him his silk hat from where it had rolled in the dust.
"Wish you'd just take this handkerchief and brush it off," said the Professor; "I guess I've broke my arm."
It was The Boy from Zeeny.
WHERE IS MARY ALICE SMITH?
"Where—is—Mary—Alice—Smith? Oh— she—has—gone—home!" It was the thin mysterious voice of little Mary Alice Smith herself that so often queried and responded as above— every word accented with a sweet and eery intonation, and a very gaiety of solemn earnestness that baffled the cunning skill of all childish imitators. A slender wisp of a girl she was, not more than ten years in appearance, though her age had been given to us as fourteen. The spindle ankles that she so airily flourished from the sparse concealment of a worn and shadowy calico skirt seemed scarce a fraction more in girth than the slim blue-veined wrists she tossed among the loose and ragged tresses of her yellow hair, as she danced around the room. She was, from the first, an object of curious and most refreshing interest to our family—to us children in particular—an interest, though years and years have interposed to shroud it in the dull dust of forgetfulness, that still remains vivid and bright and beautiful. Whether an orphan child only, or with a father that could thus lightly send her adrift, I do not know now, nor do I care to ask, but I do recall distinctly that on a raw bleak day in early winter she was brought to us, from a wild country settlement, by a reputed uncle—a gaunt round- shouldered man, with deep eyes and sallow cheeks and weedy-looking beard, as we curiously watched him from the front window stolidly swinging this little, blue-lipped, red-nosed waif over the muddy wagon-wheel to father's arms, like so much country produce. And even as the man resumed his seat upon the thick board laid across the wagon, and sat chewing a straw, with spasmodic noddings of the head, as some brief further conference detained him, I remember mother quickly lifting my sister up from where we stood, folding and holding the little form in unconscious counterpart of father and the little girl without. And how we gathered round her when father brought her in, and mother fixed a cozy chair for her close to the blazing fire, and untied the little summer hat, with its hectic trimmings, together with the dismal green veil that had been bound beneath it round the little tingling ears. The hollow, pale blue eyes of the child followed every motion with an alertness that suggested a somewhat suspicious mind.
"Dave gimme that!" she said, her eyes proudly following the hat as mother laid it on the pillow of the bed. "Mustn't git it mussed up, sir! er you'll have Dave in yer wool!" she continued warningly, as our childish interest drew us to a nearer view of the gaudy article in question.
Half awed, we shrank back to our first wonderment, one of us, however, with the bravery to ask: "Who's Dave?"
"Who's Dave?" reiterated the little voice half scornfully.—"W'y, Dave's a great big boy! Dave works on Barnes's place. And he kin purt' nigh make a full hand, too. Dave's purt' nigh tall as your pap! He's purt' nigh growed up—Dave is! And—David—Mason—Jeffries," she continued, jauntily teetering her head from left to right, and for the first time introducing that peculiar deliberation of accent and undulating utterance that we afterward found to be her quaintest and most charming characteristic—"and—David—Mason— Jeffries—he—likes—Mary—Alice—Smith!" And then she broke abruptly into the merriest laughter, and clapped her little palms together till they fairly glowed.
"And who's Mary Alice Smith?" clamored a chorus of merry voices.
The elfish figure straightened haughtily in the chair. Folding the slender arms tightly across her breast, and tilting her wan face back with an imperious air, she exclaimed sententiously, "W'y, Mary Alice Smith is me—that's who Mary Alice Smith is!"
It was not long, however, before her usual bright and infectious humor was restored, and we were soon piloting the little stranger here and there about the house, and laughing at the thousand funny little things she said and did. The winding stairway in the hall quite dazed her with delight. Up and down she went a hundred times, it seemed. And she would talk and whisper to herself, and oftentimes would stop and nestle down and rest her pleased face close against the steps and pat one softly with her slender hand, peering curiously down at us with half-averted eyes. And she counted them and named them, every one, as she went up and down.
"I'm mighty glad I'm come to live in this-here house," she said.
We asked her why.
"Oh, 'cause," she said, starting up the stairs again by an entirely novel and original method of her own—" 'cause Uncle Tomps ner Aunt 'Lizabeth don't live here; and when they ever come here to git their dinners, like they will ef you don't watch out, w'y, then I kin slip out here on these-here stairs and play like I was climbin' up to the Good World where my mother is—that's why!"
Then we hushed our laughter, and asked her where her home was, and what it was like, and why she didn't like her Uncle Tomps and Aunt 'Lizabeth, and if she wouldn't want to visit them sometimes.
"Oh, yes," she artlessly answered in reply to the concluding query; "I'll want to go back there lots o' times; but not to see them! I'll—only—go—back —there—to—see"—and here she was holding up the little flared-out fingers of her left hand, and with the index finger of the right touching their pink tips in ordered notation with the accent of every gleeful word—"I'll—only—go—back—there —to—see—David—Mason—Jeffries—'cause—he's —the—boy—fer—me!" And then she clapped her hands again and laughed in that half-hysterical, half- musical way of hers till we all joined in and made the echoes of the old hall ring again. "And then," she went on, suddenly throwing out an imperative gesture of silence—"and then, after I've been in this— here house a long, long time, and you all gits so's you like me awful—awful—awful well, then some day you'll go in that room there—and that room there—and in the kitchen—and out on the porch— and down the cellar—and out in the smoke-house— and the wood-house—and the loft—and all around —oh, ever' place—and in here—and up the stairs— and all them rooms up there—and you'll look behind all the doors—and in all the cubboards—and under all the beds—and then you'll look sorry-like, and holler out, kind o' skeert, and you'll say: 'Where— is—Mary—Alice—Smith?' And then you'll wait and listen and hold yer breath; and then somepin' 'll holler back, away fur off, and say: 'Oh—she—has gone—home!' And then ever'thing'll be all still ag'in, and you'll be afraid to holler any more—and you dursn't play—and you can't laugh, and yer throat'll thist hurt and hurt, like you been a-eatin' too much calamus-root er somepin'!" And as the little gipsy concluded her weird prophecy, with a final flourish of her big pale eyes, we glanced furtively at one another's awestruck faces, with a superstitious dread of a vague indefinite disaster most certainly awaiting us around some shadowy corner of the future. Through all this speech she had been slowly and silently groping up the winding steps, her voice growing fainter and fainter, and the littly pixy form fading, and wholly vanishing at last around the spiral banister of the upper landing. Then down to us from that alien recess came the voice alone, touched with a tone as of wild entreaty and despair: "Where—is—Mary— Alice—Smith?" And then a long breathless pause, in which our wide-eyed group below huddled still closer, pale and mute. Then—far off and faint and quavering with a tenderness of pathos that dews the eyes of memory even now—came, like a belated echo, the voice all desolate: "Oh—she—has —gone—home!"
What a queer girl she was, and what a fascinating influence she unconsciously exerted over us! We never tired of her presence; but she, deprived of ours by the many household tasks that she herself assumed, so rigidly maintained and deftly executed, seemed always just as happy when alone as when in our boisterous, fun-loving company. Such resources had Mary Alice Smith—such a wonderful inventive fancy! She could talk to herself—a favorite amusement, I might almost say a popular amusement, of hers, since these monologues at times would involve numberless characters, chipping in from manifold quarters of a wholesale discussion, and querying and exaggerating, agreeing and controverting, till the dishes she was washing would clash and clang excitedly in the general badinage. Loaded with a pyramid of glistening cups and saucers, she would improvise a gallant line of march from the kitchen table to the pantry, heading an imaginary procession, and whistling a fife-tune that would stir your blood. Then she would trippingly return, rippling her rosy fingers up and down the keys of an imaginary portable piano, or stammering flat-soled across the floor, chuffing and tooting like a locomotive. And she would gravely propound to herself the most intricate riddles—ponder thoughtfully and in silence over them—hazard the most ridiculous answers, and laugh derisively at her own affected ignorance. She would guess again and again, and assume the most gleeful surprise upon at last giving the proper answer, and then she would laugh jubilantly, and mockingly scout herself with having given out "a fool-riddle" that she could guess "with both eyes shut."
"Talk about riddles," she said abruptly to us, one evening after supper, as we lingered watching her clearing away the table—"talk about riddles, it—takes—David—Mason—Jeffries—to—tell—riddles! Bet you don't know
'Riddle-cum, riddle-cum right! Where was I last Saturd'y night? The winds blow—the boughs did shake— I saw the hole a fox did make!' "
Again we felt that indefinable thrill never separate from the strange utterance, suggestive always of some dark mystery, and fascinating and holding the childish fancy in complete control.
"Bet you don't know this-'un neether:
'A holler-hearted father, And a hump-back mother— Three black orphants All born together!' "
We were dumb.
"You can't guess nothin'!" she said half pityingly. "W'y, them's easy as fallin' off a chunk! First-un's a man named Fox, and he kilt his wife and chopped her head off, and they was a man named Wright lived in that neighberhood—and he was a-goin' home—and it was Saturd'y night—and he was a-comin' through the big woods—and they was a storm—and Wright he clumb a tree to git out of the rain, and while he was up there here come along a man with a dead woman—and a pickax, and a spade. And he drug the dead woman under the same tree where Mr. Wright was—so ever' time it 'ud lightnin', w'y, Wright he could look down and see him a-diggin' a grave there to bury the woman in. So Wright, he kep' still tel he got her buried all right, you know, and went back home; and then he clumb down and lit out fer town, and waked up the constabul—and he got a supeeny and went out to Fox's place, and had him jerked up 'fore the gran' jury. Then, when Fox was in court and wanted to know where their proof was that he kilt his wife, w'y, Wright he jumps up and says that riddle to the judge and all the neighbers that was there. And so when they got it all studied out—w'y, they tuk old Fox out and hung him under the same tree where he buried Mrs. Fox under. And that's all o' that'n; and the other'n—I promised— David—Mason—Jeffries—I wouldn't—never—tell —no—livin'—soul—'less—he—gimme—leef,—er— they—guessed—it—out—their—own—se'f!" And as she gave this rather ambiguous explanation of the first riddle, with the mysterious comment on the latter in conclusion, she shook her elfin tresses back over her shoulders with a cunning toss of her head and a glimmering twinkle of her pale bright eyes that somewhat reminded us of the fairy godmother in Cinderella.
And Mary Alice Smith was right, too, in her early prognostications regarding the visits of her Uncle Tomps and Aunt 'Lizabeth. Many times through the winter they "jest dropped in," as Aunt 'Lizabeth always expressed it, "to see how we was a-gittin' on with Mary Alice." And once, "in court week," during a prolonged trial in which Uncle Tomps and Aunt 'Lizabeth rather prominently figured, they "jest dropped in" on us and settled down and dwelt with us for the longest five days and nights we children had ever in our lives experienced. Nor was our long term of restraint from childish sports relieved wholly by their absence, since Aunt 'Lizabeth had taken Mary Alice back with them, saying that "a good long visit to her dear old home—pore as it was—would do the child good."
And then it was that we went about the house in moody silence, the question, "Where—is—Mary— Alice—Smith?" forever yearning at our lips for utterance, and the still belated echo in the old hall overhead forever answering, "Oh—she—has—gone —home!"
It was early spring when she returned. And we were looking for her coming, and knew a week beforehand the very day she would arrive—for had not Aunt 'Lizabeth sent special word by Uncle Tomps, who "had come to town to do his millin', and git the latest war news, not to fail to jest drop in and tell us that they was layin' off to send Mary Alice in next Saturd'y."
Our little town, like every other village and metropolis throughout the country at that time, was, to the children at least, a scene of continuous holiday and carnival. The nation's heart was palpitating with the feverish pulse of war, and already the still half-frozen clods of the common highway were beaten into frosty dust by the tread of marshaled men; and the shrill shriek of the fife, and the hoarse boom and jar and rattling patter of the drums stirred every breast with something of that rapturous insanity of which true patriots and heroes can alone be made.
But on the day—when Mary Alice Smith was to return—what was all the gallant tumult of the town to us? I remember how we ran far up the street to welcome her—for afar off we had recognized her elfish face and eager eyes peering expectantly from behind the broad shoulders of a handsome fellow mounted on a great high-stepping horse that neighed and pranced excitedly as we ran scurrying toward them.
"Whoo-ee!" she cried in perfect ecstasy, as we paused in breathless admiration. "Clear—the— track—there,—old—folks—young—folks!—fer— Mary—Alice—Smith—and—David—Mason—Jeffries— is—come—to—town!"
O what a day that was! And how vain indeed would be the attempt to detail here a tithe of its glory, or our happiness in having back with us our dear little girl, and her hysterical delight in seeing us so warmly welcome to the full love of our childish hearts the great, strong, round-faced, simple- natured "David—Mason—Jeffries"! Long and long ago we had learned to love him as we loved the peasant hero of some fairy tale of Christian Andersen's; but now that he was with us in most wholesome and robust verity, our very souls seemed scampering from our bodies to run to him and be caught up and tossed and swung and dandled in his gentle giant arms.
All that long delicious morning we were with him. In his tender charge we were permitted to go down among the tumult and the music of the streets, his round good-humored face and big blue eyes lit with a luster like our own. And happy little Mary Alice Smith—how proud she was of him! And how closely and how tenderly, through all that golden morning, did the strong brown hand clasp hers! A hundred times at least, as we promenaded thus, she swung her head back jauntily to whisper to us in that old mysterious way of hers that "David—Mason—Jeffries—and—Mary—Alice —Smith—knew—something—that—we—couldn't —guess!" But when he had returned us home, and after dinner had started down the street alone, with little Mary Alice clapping her hands after him above the gate and laughing in a strange new voice, and with the backs of her little fluttering hands vainly striving to blot out the big tear-drops that gathered in her eyes, we vaguely guessed the secret she and David kept. That night at supper-time we knew it fully. He had enlisted.
. . . . . . .
Among the list of "killed" at Rich Mountain, Virginia, occurred the name of "Jeffries, David M." We kept it from her as long as we could. At last she knew.
. . . . . . .
"It don't seem like no year ago to me!" Over and over she had said these words. The face was very pale and thin, and the eyes so bright—so bright! The kindly hand that smoothed away the little sufferer's hair trembled and dropped tenderly again upon the folded ones beneath the snowy spread.
"Git me out the picture again!"
The trembling hand lifted once more and searched beneath the pillow.
She drew the thin hands up, and, smiling, pressed the pictured face against her lips. "David—Mason —Jeffries," she said—"le's—me—and—you—go— play—out—on—the—stairs!"
And ever in the empty home a voice goes moaning on and on, and "Where is Mary Alice?" it cries, and "Where—is—Mary—Alice—Smith?" And the still belated echo, through the high depths of the old hall overhead, answers quaveringly back, "Oh—she—has—gone—home!" But her voice— it is silent evermore!
"Oh, where is Mary Alice Smith?" She taught us how to call her thus—and now she will not answer us! Have we no voice to reach her with? How sweet and pure and glad they were in those old days, as we recall the accents ringing through the hall—the same we vainly cry to her. Her fancies were so quaint—her ways so full of prankish mysteries! We laughed then; now, upon our knees, we wring our lifted hands and gaze, through streaming tears, high up the stairs she used to climb in childish glee, to call and answer eerily. And now, no answer anywhere!
How deft the little finger-tips in every task! The hands, how smooth and delicate to lull and soothe! And the strange music of her lips! The very crudeness of their speech made chaster yet the childish thought her guileless utterance had caught from spirit-depths beyond our reach. And so her homely name grew fair and sweet and beautiful to hear, blent with the echoes pealing clear and vibrant up the winding stair: "Where—where is Mary Alice Smith?" She taught us how to call her thus —but oh, she will not answer us! We have no voice to reach her with.
THE OLD MAN
[Response made to the sentiment, "The Old Man," at a dinner of the Indianapolis Literary Club.]
"You are old, Father William," the young man said, "And your hair has become very white; And yet you incessantly stand on your head— Do you think, at your age, it is right?"
THE OLD MAN never grows so old as to be come either stale, juiceless, or unpalatable. The older he grows, the mellower and riper he becomes. His eyes may fail him, his step falter, and his big- mouthed shoes—"a world too wide for his shrunk shank"—may cluck and shuffle as he walks; his rheumatics may make great knuckles of his knees; the rusty hinges of his vertebrae may refuse cunningly to articulate, but all the same the "backbone" of the old man has been time-seasoned, tried, and tested, and no deerskin vest was ever buttoned round a tougher! Look at the eccentric kinks and curvings of it—its abrupt depression at the base, and its rounded bulging at the shoulders; but don't laugh with the smart young man who airily observes how full-chested the old man would be if his head were only turned around, and don't kill the young man, either, until you take him out some place and tell him that the old man got himself warped up in that shape along about the time when everybody had to hump himself. Try to bring before the young man's defective mental vision a dissolving view of a "good old-fashioned barn-raisin' "—and the old man doing all the "raisin' " himself, and "grubbin'," and "burnin' " logs and "underbrush," and "dreenin' " at the same time, and trying to coax something besides calamus to grow in the spongy little tract of swamp-land that he could stand in the middle of and "wobble" and shake the whole farm. Or, if you can't recall the many salient features of the minor disadvantages under which the old man used to labor, your pliant limbs may soon overtake him, and he will smilingly tell you of trials and privations of the early days, until your anxiety about the young man just naturally stagnates, and dries up, and evaporates, and blows away.