The author of this book is Metta Victoria Fuller Victor writing under the Pen name of Walter T. Gray. But the Author's name is not given in the original text.
The Table of Contents is not part of the original text.
By the Author of
"A BAD BOY'S DIARY"
COPYRIGHT, 1881, BY STREET & SMITH.
J. S. OGILVIE PUBLISHING COMPANY.
57 ROSE STREET.
* * * * *
I. HE ATTENDS A PICNIC.
II. HE MAKES AN EVENING CALL.
III. GOES TO A TEA-PARTY.
IV. HE DOES HIS DUTY AS A CITIZEN.
V. HE COMMITS SUICIDE.
VI. HE IS DOOMED FOR WORSE ACCIDENTS.
VII. I MAKE A NARROW ESCAPE.
VIII. HE ENACTS THE PART OF GROOMSMAN.
IX. MEETS A PAIR OF BLUE EYES.
X. HE CATCHES A TROUT AND PRESENTS IT TO A LADY.
XI. HE GOES TO THE CIRCUS.
XII. A LEAP FOR LIFE.
XIII. ONE OF THE FAIR SEX COMES TO HIS RESCUE.
XIV. HIS DIFFIDENCE BRINGS ABOUT AN ACCIDENT.
XV. HE BECOMES ACQUAINTED WITH A CHICAGO WIDOW.
XVI. AT LAST HE SECURES A TREASURE.
XVII. HE ENJOYS HIMSELF AT A BALL.
XVIII. HE OPENS THE WRONG DOOR.
XIX. DRIVEN FROM HIS LAST DEFENCE.
* * * * *
BLUNDERS OF A BASHFUL MAN.
HE ATTENDS A PICNIC.
I have been, am now, and shall always be, a bashful man. I have been told that I am the only bashful man in the world. How that is I can not say, but should not be sorry to believe that it is so, for I am of too generous a nature to desire any other mortal to suffer the mishaps which have come to me from this distressing complaint. A person can have smallpox, scarlet fever, and measles but once each. He can even become so inoculated with the poison of bees and mosquitoes as to make their stings harmless; and he can gradually accustom, himself to the use of arsenic until he can take 444 grains safely; but for bashfulness—like mine—there is no first and only attack, no becoming hardened to the thousand petty stings, no saturation of one's being with the poison until it loses its power.
I am a quiet, nice-enough, inoffensive young gentleman, now rapidly approaching my twenty-sixth year. It is unnecessary to state that I am unmarried. I should have been wedded a great many times, had not some fresh attack of my malady invariably, and in some new shape, attacked me in season to prevent the "consummation devoutly to be wished." When I look back over twenty years of suffering through which I have literally stumbled my way—over the long series of embarrassments and mortifications which lie behind me—I wonder, with a mild and patient wonder, why the Old Nick I did not commit suicide ages ago, and thus end the eventful history with a blank page in the middle of the book. I dare say the very bashfulness which has been my bane has prevented me; the idea of being cut down from a rafter, with a black-and-blue face, and drawn out of the water with a swollen one, has put me so out of countenance that I had not the courage to brave a coroner's jury under the circumstances.
Life to me has been a scramble through briers. I do not recall one single day wholly free from the scratches inflicted on a cruel sensitiveness. I will not mention those far-away agonies of boyhood, when the teacher punished me by making me sit with the girls, but will hasten on to a point that stands out vividly against a dark background of accidents. I was nineteen. My sentiments toward that part of creation known as "young ladies" were, at that time, of a mingled and contradictory nature. I adored them as angels; I dreaded them as if they were mad dogs, and were going to bite me.
My parents were respected residents of a small village in the western part of the State of New York. I had been away at a boys' academy for three years, and returned about the first of June to my parents and to Babbletown to find that I was considered a young man, and expected to take my part in the business and pleasures of life as such. My father dismissed his clerk and put me in his place behind the counter of our store.
Within three days every girl in that village had been to that store after something or another—pins, needles, a yard of tape, to look at gloves, to try on shoes, or examine gingham and calico, until I was happy, because out of sight, behind a pile high enough to hide my flushed countenance. I shall never forget that week. I ran the gauntlet from morning till night. I believe those heartless wretches told each other the mistakes I made, for they kept coming and coming, looking as sweet as honey and as sly as foxes. Father said I'd break him if I didn't stop making blunders in giving change—he wasn't in the prize-candy business, and couldn't afford to have me give twenty-five sheets of note paper, a box of pens, six corset laces, a bunch of whalebones, and two dollars and fifty cents change for a two-dollar bill.
He explained to me that the safety-pins which I had offered Emma Jones for crochet-needles were not crochet-needles; nor the red wafers I had shown Mary Smith for gum-drops, gum-drops—that gingham was not three dollars per yard, nor pale-blue silk twelve-and-a-half cents, even to Squire Marigold's daughter. He said I must be more careful.
"I don't think the mercantile business is my forte, father," said I.
"Your fort!" replied the old gentleman; "fiddlesticks! We have nothing to do with military matters. But if you think you have a special call to anything, John, speak out. Would you like to study for the ministry, my son?"
"Oh, no, indeed! I don't know exactly what I would like, unless it were to be a Juan Fernandez, or a—a light-house keeper."
Then father said I was a disgrace to him, and I knew I was.
On the fourth day some young fellows came to see me, and told me there was to be a picnic on Saturday, and I must get father's horse and buggy and take one of the girls. In vain I pleaded that I did not know any of them well enough. They laughed at me, and said that Belle Marigold had consented to go with me; that I knew her—she had been in the store and bought some blue silk for twelve-and-a-half cents a yard; and they rather thought she fancied me, she seemed so ready to accept my escort; should they tell her I would call for her at ten o'clock, sharp, on Saturday morning?
There was no refusing under the circumstances, and I said "yes" with the same gaiety with which I would have signed my own death-warrant. Yet I wanted to go to the picnic, dreadfully; and of all the young ladies in Babbletown I preferred Belle Marigold. She was the handsomest and most stylish girl in the county. Her eyes were large, black, and mischievous; her mouth like a rose; she dressed prettily, and had an elegant little way of tossing back her dark ringlets that was fascinating even at first sight. I was told my doom on Thursday afternoon, and do not think I slept any that or Friday night—am positive I did not Saturday night. I wanted to go and I wanted to take that particular girl, yet I was in a cold sweat at the idea. I would have given five dollars to be let off, and I wouldn't have taken fifteen for my chance to go. I asked father if I could have the horse and buggy, and if he would tend store. I hoped he would say No; but when he said Yes, I was delighted.
"I'll take the opportunity when you are at the picnic to get the accounts out of the quirks you've got 'em into," said he.
Well, Saturday came. As I opened my eyes my heart jumped into my throat. "I've got to go through with it now if it kills me," I thought.
Mother asked me why I ate no breakfast.
"Saving my appetite for the picnic," I responded, cheerfully; which was one of the white lies my miserable bashfulness made me tell every day of my life—I knew that I should go dinner-less at the picnic unless I could get behind a tree with my plate of goodies.
I never to this day can abide to eat before strangers; things always go by my windpipe instead of my aesophagus, and I'm tired to death of scalding my legs with hot tea, to say nothing of adding to one's embarrassment to have people asking if one has burned oneself, and feeling that one has broken a cup out of a lady's best china tea-set. But about tea and tea-parties I shall have more to say hereafter. I must hurry on to my first picnic, where I made my first public appearance as the Bashful Man.
I made a neat toilet—a fresh, light summer suit that I flattered myself beat any other set of clothes in Babbletown—ordered Joe, our chore-boy, to bring the buggy around in good order, with everything shining; and when he had done so, had the horse tied in front of the store.
"Come, my boy," said father, after a while, "it's ten minutes to ten. Never keep the ladies waiting."
"Yes, sir; as soon as I've put these raisins away."
"Five minutes to ten, John. Don't forget the lemons."
"No, sir." But I did forget them in my trepidation, and a man had to be sent back for them afterward.
It was just ten when I stepped into the buggy with an attempt to appear in high spirits. As I drove slowly toward Squire Marigold's large mansion on Main Street, I met dozens of gay young folks on the way out of town, some of them calling out that I would be late, and to try and catch up with them after I got my girl.
As I came in sight of the house my courage failed. I turned off on a by-street, drove around nearly half a mile, and finally approached the object of my dread from another direction. I do believe I should have passed the house after I got to it had I not seen a vision of pink ribbons, white dress, and black eyes at the window, and realized that I was observed. So I touched the horse with the whip, drove up with a flourish, and before I had fairly pulled up at the block, Belle was at the door, with a servant behind her carrying a hamper.
"You are late, Mr. Flutter," she called out, half gayly, half crossly.
I arose from the seat, flung down the reins, and leaped out, like a flying-fish out of the water, to hand the beautiful apparition in. In my nervousness I did not observe how I placed the lines, my foot became entangled in them, I was brought up in the most unexpected manner, landing on the pavement on my new hat instead of the soles of my boots.
This was not only embarrassing, but positively painful. There was a bump on my forehead, the rim of my hat was crushed, my new suit was soiled, my knee ached like Jericho, and there was a rent in my pantaloons right opposite where my knee hurt.
Belle tittered, the colored girl stuffed her apron in her mouth, and said "hi! hi!" behind it. I would have given all I had in life to give if I could have started on an exploring expedition for China just then, but I couldn't. The pavement was not constructed with reference to swallowing up bashful young men who wanted to be swallowed.
"I hope you are not hurt, Mr. Flutter, te-he?"
"Oh, not at all, not in the least; it never hurts me to fall. It was those constricted reins, they caught my foot. Does the basket go with us? I mean the servant. No, I don't, I mean the basket—does she go with us?"
"The hamper does, Mr. Flutter, or we should be minus sandwiches. Jane, put the hamper in."
Miss Marigold was in the buggy before I had straightened my hat-rim.
"I hope your horse is a fast one; we shall be late," she remarked, as I took my place by her side. "Here is a pin, Mr. Flutter; you can pin up that tear."
I was glad she asked me to let the horse go at full speed; it was the most soothing thing which could happen at that time. As he flew along I could affect to be busy with the cares of driving, and so escape the trials of conversation. I spoke to my lovely companion only three times in the eight miles between her house and the grove. The first time I remarked, "We are going to have a warm day"; the second, "I think the day will be quite warm"; the third time I launched out boldly: "Don't you think, Miss Marigold, we shall have it rather warm about noon?"
"You seem to feel the heat more than I do," she answered, demurely, which was true, for she looked as cool as a cucumber and as comfortable as a mouse in a cheese, while I was mopping my face every other minute with my handkerchief.
When we reached the picnic grounds she offered to hold the reins while I got out. As I lifted her down, the whole company, who had been watching for our arrival, burst out laughing. Miss Belle looked at me and burst out laughing, too.
"What's the matter?" I stammered.
"Oh, nothing," said she; "only you dusted your clothes with your handkerchief after you fell, and now you've wiped your face with it, and it's all streaked up as if you'd been making mud pies, and your hat's a little out of shape, and—"
"You look as if you'd been on a bender," added the fellow who had induced me to come to the confounded affair.
"Well, I guess I can wash my face," I retorted, a little mad. "I've met with an accident, that's all. Just wait until I've tied my horse."
There was a pond close by—part of the programme of the picnic was to go out rowing on the pond—and as soon as I had fastened my horse, I went down to the bank and stooped over to wash my face, and the bank gave way and I pitched headlong into twelve feet of water.
I was not scared, for I could swim, but I was puzzled as to how to enjoy a picnic in my wet clothes. I wanted to go home, but the boys said:
"No—I must walk about briskly and let my things dry on me—the day was so warm I wouldn't take cold."
So I walked about briskly, all by myself, for about two hours, while the rest of them were having a good time. Then some one asked where the lemons were that I was to bring, and I had to confess that they were at home in the store, and dinner was kept waiting another two hours while a man took my horse and went for those lemons. I walked about all the time he was gone, and was dry enough by the time the lemonade was made to wish I had some. But the water had shrunk my clothes so that the legs of my pantaloons and the arms of my coat were about six inches too short, while my boots, which had been rather tight in the first place, made my feet feel as if they were in a red-hot iron vise. I couldn't face all those giggling girls, and I got down behind a tree and the tears came in my eyes, I felt so miserable.
Belle was a tease, but she wasn't heartless; she got two plates, heaped with nice things, and two tumblers of lemonade, and sat down by my side coaxing me to eat, and telling me how sorry she was that I had had my pleasure destroyed by an accident.
I had a piece of spring chicken, but being too bashful to masticate it properly, I attempted to swallow it whole. It stuck!—she had to pat me on the back—I became purple and kicked about wildly, ruining her new sash by upsetting both plates. She became seriously alarmed, and ran for aid; two of the fellows stood me on my head and pounded the soles of my feet, by which wise course the morsel was dislodged, and "Richard was himself again."
After the excitement had partially subsided, the punster of the village—there is always one punster in every community—broke out with:
"Oh, swallow, swallow, flying South, fly to her and tell her what I tell to thee."
The girls laughed; I looked and saw Belle trying to wipe the ice-cream from her sash.
"Never mind the sash, Miss Marigold," I said, in desperation, "I'll send you another to-morrow. But if you'll excuse me, I'll go home now. I'm not well, and mother'll be alarmed about me—I ought not to have left father alone to tend store, and I feel that I've taken cold. I presume some of these folks will have a spare seat, and my boots have shrunk, and I don't care for picnics as a general thing, anyway. My clothes are shrinking all the time, and I think we're going to have a thunder-shower, and I guess I'll go."—and I went.
HE MAKES AN EVENING CALL.
It's very provoking to a bashful man to have the family pew only one remove from the pulpit. I didn't feel like going to church the day after the picnic, but father wouldn't let me off. I caught my foot in a hole in the carpet walking up the aisle, which drew particular attention to me; and dropped by hymn-book twice, to add to the interest I had already excited in the congregation. My fingers are always all thumbs when I have to find the hymn.
"I do believe you did take cold yesterday," said mother, when we came out. "You must have a fever, for your face is as red as fire."
Very consoling when a young man wants to look real sweet. But that's my luck. I'll be as pale as a poet when I leave my looking-glass, but before I enter a ball-room or a dining-room I'll be as red as an alderman. I have often wished that I could be permanently whitewashed, like a kitchen wall or a politician's record. I think, perhaps, if I were whitewashed for a month or two I might cure myself of my habit of blushing when I enter a room. I bought a box of "Meen Fun" once, and tried to powder; but I guess I didn't understand the art as well as the women do; it was mean fun in good earnest, for the girl I was going to take to singing-school wanted to know if I'd been helping my ma make biscuits for supper; and then she took her handkerchief and brushed my face, which wasn't so bad as it might have been, for her handkerchief had patchouly on it and was as soft as silk. But that wasn't Belle Marigold, and so it didn't matter.
To return to church. I went again in the evening, and felt more at home, for the kerosene was not very bright. I got along without any accident. After meeting was out, father stopped to speak to the minister. As I stood in the entry, waiting for him, Belle came out, and asked me how I felt after the picnic. I saw she was alone, and so I hemmed, and said: "Have you any one to see you home?"
She said, "No; but I'm not afraid—it's not far," and stopped and waited for me to offer her my arm, looking up at me with those bewitching eyes.
"Oh," said I, dying to wait upon her, but not daring to crook my elbow before the crowd, "I'm glad of that; but if you are the least bit timid, Miss Marigold, father and I will walk home with you."
Then I heard a suppressed laugh behind me, and, turning, saw that detestable Fred Hencoop, who never knew what it was to feel modest since the day his nurse tied his first bib on him.
"Miss Marigold," said he, looking as innocent as a lamb, "if you do me the honor to accept my arm, I'll try and take you home without calling on my pa to assist me in the arduous duty." And she went with him.
I was very low-spirited on the way home.
"As sure as I live I'll go and call on her to-morrow evening, and show her I'm not the fool she thinks I am," I said, between my gritted teeth. "I'll take her a new sash to replace the one I spoiled at the picnic, and we'll see who's the best fellow, Hencoop or I."
The next afternoon I measured off four yards of the sweetest sash-ribbon ever seen in Babbletown, and charged myself with seven dollars—half my month's salary, as agreed upon between father and me—and rolled up the ribbon in white tissue paper, preparatory to the event of the evening.
"Where are you going?" father asked, as I edged out of the store just after dark.
"Oh, up the street a piece."
"Well, here's a pair o' stockings to be left at the Widow Jones'. Just call as you go by and leave 'em, will you?"
I stuck the little bundle he gave me in my coat-tail pocket; but by the time I passed the Widow Jones' house I was so taken up with the business on hand that I forgot all about the stockings.
I could see Miss Marigold sitting at the piano and hear her singing as I passed the window. It was awful nice, and, to prolong the pleasure, I stayed outside about half an hour, then a summer shower came up, and I made up my mind and rang the bell. Jane came to the door.
"Is the squire at home?" says I.
"No, sir, he's down to the hotel; but Miss Marigold, she's to hum," said the black girl, grinning. "Won't you step in? Miss will be dreffle sorry her pa is out."
She took my hat and opened the parlor door; there was a general dazzle, and I bowed to somebody and sat down somewhere, and in about two minutes the mist cleared away, and I saw Belle Marigold, with a rose in her hair, sitting not three feet away, and smiling at me as if coaxing me to say something.
"Quite a shower?" I remarked.
"Indeed—is it raining?" said she.
"Yes, indeed," said I; "it came up very sudden."
"I hope you didn't get wet?" said she, with a sly look.
"Not this time," said I, trying to laugh.
"Does it lighten?" said she.
"A few," said I.
Miss Marigold coughed and looked out of the window. There was a pause in our brilliant conversation.
"I think we shall have a rainy night," I resumed.
"I'm so afraid of thunder," said she. "I shall not sleep a bit if it thunders. I shall sit up until the rain is over. I never like to be alone in a storm. I always want some one close by me," she said, with a little shiver.
I hitched my chair about a foot nearer hers. It thundered pretty loud, and she gave a little squeal, and brought her chair alongside mine.
"I'm so frightened, Mr. Flutter," said she: "I feel, in moments like these, how sweet it would be to have someone to cling to."
And she glanced at me out of the corner of her eye.
"Dear Belle," said I, "would you—would you—could you—now—"
"What?" whispered she, very softly.
"If I thought," I stammered, "that you could—that you would—that it was handy to give me a drink of water." She sprang up as if shot, and rang a little hand-bell.
"Jane, a glass of water for this gentleman—ice-water," in a very chilly tone, and she sat down over by the piano.
Bashful fool and idiot that I was. I had lost another opportunity.
After I had swallowed the water Jane had left the room. I bethought me of the handsome present which I had in my pocket, and, hoping to regain her favor by that, I drew out the little package and tossed it carelessly in her lap.
"Belle," said I, "I have not forgotten that I spilled lemonade on your sash; I hope you will not refuse to allow me to make such amends as are in my power. If the color does not suit you, I will exchange it for any you may select."
She began to smile again, coquettishly untying the string and unwrapping the paper. Instead of the lovely rose-colored ribbon, out rolled a long pair of coarse blue cotton stockings.
Miss Marigold screamed louder than she had at the thunder.
"It's all a mistake!" I cried; "a ridiculous mistake! I beg your pardon ten thousand times! They are for the Widow Jones. Here is what I intended for you, dear, dear Belle," and I thrust another package into heir hands.
"Fine-cut!" said she, examining the wrapper by the light of the lamp on the piano. "Do you think I chew, Mr. Flutter?—or dip? Do you intend to willfully insult me? Leave the hou——"
"Oh, I beg of you, listen! Here it is at last!" I exclaimed in desperation, drawing out the right package at last, and myself displaying to her dazzled view the four yards of glittering ribbon. "There's not another in Babbletown so handsome. Wear it for my sake, Belle!"
"I will," she sighed, after she had secretly rubbed it, and held it to the light to make sure of its quality. "I will, John, for your sake."
We were friends again; she was very sweet, and played something on the piano, and an hour slipped away as if I were in Paradise. I rose to go, the rain being over.
"But about that paper of fine-cut!" she said, archly, as she went into the hall with me to get my hat; "do you chew, John?"
"No, Belle, that tobacco was for old man Perkins, as sure as I stand here. If you don't believe me, smell my breath," said I, and I tried to get my arm about her waist.
It was kind of dark in the hall; she did not resist so very much; my lips were only about two inches from hers—for I wanted her to be sure about my breath—when a voice that almost made me faint away, put a conundrum to me:
"If you'd a kissed my girl, young man, why would it have been like a Centennial fire-arm?"
"Because it hasn't gone off yet!" I gasped, reaching for my hat.
"Wrong," said he grimly. "Because it would have been a blunder-buss."
I reckon the squire was right.
GOES TO A TEA-PARTY.
The Widow Jones got her stockings the next day. As I left them at the door she stuck her head out of an upper window and said to me that "the sewing society met at her house on Thursday afternoon, and the men-folks was coming to tea and to spend the evening, and I must be sure an' come, or the girls would be so disappointed," and she urged and urged until I had to promise her I would attend her sociable.
Drat all tea-parties! say I. I was never comfortable at one in my life. If you'd give me my choice between going to a tea-party and picking potato-bugs off the vines all alone on a hot summer day, I shouldn't hesitate a moment between the two. I should choose the bugs; and I can't say I fancy potato-bugs, either.
On Wednesday I nearly killed an old lady, putting up tartar-emetic for cream-tartar. If she'd eaten another biscuit made with it she'd have died and I'd have been responsible—and father was really vexed and said I might be a light-house keeper as quick as I pleased; but by that time I felt as if I couldn't keep a light-house without Belle Marigold to help me, and so I promised to be more careful, and kept on clerking.
The thermometer stood at eighty degrees in the shade when I left the store at five o'clock Thursday afternoon to go to that infallible tea-party. I was glad the day was warm, for I wanted to wear my white linen suit, with a blue cravat and Panama hat. I felt independent even of Fred Hencoop, as I walked along the street under the shade of the elms; but, the minute I was inside Widow Jones' gate and walking up to the door, the thermometer went up to somewhere near 200 degrees. There were something like a dozen heads at each of the parlor windows, and all women's heads at that. Six or eight more were peeping out of the sitting-room, where they were laying the table for tea. Babbletown always did seem to me to have more than its fair share of female population. I think I would like to live in one of those mining towns out in Colorado, where women are as scarce as hairs on the inside of a man's hand. Somebody coughed as I was going up the walk. Did you ever have a girl cough at you?—one of those mean, teasing, expressive little coughs?
I had practiced—at home in my own room—taking off my Panama with a graceful, sweeping bow, and saying in calm, well-bred tones: "Good-evening, Mrs. Jones. Good-evening, ladies. I trust you have had a pleasant as well as profitable afternoon."
I had practiced that in the privacy of my chamber. What I really did get off was something like this:
"Good Jones, Mrs. Evening. I should say, good-evening, widows—ladies, I beg your pardon," by which time I was mopping my forehead with my handkerchief, and could just ask, as I sank into the first chair I saw, "Is your mother well, Mrs. Jones?" which was highly opportune, since said mother had been years dead before I was born. As I sat down, a pang sharper than some of those endured by the Spartans ran through my right leg. I was instantly aware that I had plumped down on a needle, as well as a piece of fancy-work, but I had not the courage to rise and extract the excruciating thing.
I turned pale with pain, but by keeping absolutely still I found that I could endure it, and so I sat motionless, like a wooden man, with a frozen smile on my features.
Belle was out in the other room helping set the table, for which mitigating circumstances I was sufficiently thankful.
Fred Hencoop was on the other side of the room holding a skein of silk for Sallie Brown. He looked across at me, smiling with a malice which made me hate him.
Out of that hate was born a stern resolve—I would conquer my diffidence; I would prove to Fred Hencoop, and any other fellow like him, that I was as good as he was, and could at least equal him in the attractions of my sex.
There was a pretty girl sitting quite near me. I had been introduced to her at the picnic. It seemed to me that she was eyeing me curiously, but I was mad enough at Fred to show him that I could be as cool as anybody, after I got used to it. I hemmed, wiped the perspiration from my face—caused now more by the needle than by the heat—and remarked, sitting stiff as a ramrod and smiling like an angel:
"June is my favorite month, Miss Smith—is it yours? When I think of June I always think of strawberries and cream and ro-oh-oh-ses!"
It was the needle. I had forgotten in the excitement of the subject and had moved.
"Is anything the matter?" Miss Smith tenderly inquired.
"Nothing in the world, Miss Smith. I had a stitch in my side, but it is over now."
"Stitches are very painful," she observed, sympathizingly. "I don't like to trouble you, Mr. Flutter, but I think, I believe, I guess you are sitting on my work. If you will rise, I will try and finish it before tea."
No help for it, and I arose, at the same moment dexterously slipping my hand behind me and withdrawing the thorn in the flesh.
"Oh, dear, where is my needle?" said the young lady, anxiously scrutinizing the crushed worsted-work.
I gave it to her with a blush. She burst out laughing.
"I don't wonder you had a stitch in your side," she remarked, shyly.
"Hem!" observed Fred very loud, "do you feel sew-sew, John?"
Just then Belle entered the parlor, looking as sweet as a pink, and wearing the sash I had given her. She bowed to me very coquettishly and announced tea.
"Too bad!" continued Fred; "you have broken the thread of Mr. Flutter's discourse with Miss Smith. But I do not wish to inflict needle-less pain, so I will not betray him."
"I hope Mr. Flutter is not in trouble again," said Belle quickly.
"Oh, no. Fred is only trying to say something sharp," said I.
"Come with me; I will take care of you, Mr. Flutter," said Belle, taking my arm and marching me out into the sitting-room, where a long table was heaped full of inviting eatables. She sat me down by her side, and I felt comparatively safe. But Fred and Miss Smith were just opposite and they disconcerted me.
"Mr. Flutter," said the hostess when it came my turn, "will you have tea or coffee?"
"Yes'm," said I.
"Tea or coffee?"
"If you please," said I.
"Which?" whispered Belle.
"Oh, excuse me; coffee, ma'am."
"Cream and sugar, Mr. Flutter?"
"I'm not particular which, Mrs. Jones."
"Do you take both?" she persisted, with everybody at the table looking my way.
"No, ma'am, only coffee," said I, my face the color of the beet-pickles.
She finally passed me a cup, and, in my embarrassment, I immediately took a swallow and burnt my mouth.
"Have you lost any friends lately?" asked that wretched Fred, seeing the tears in my eyes.
I enjoyed that tea-party as geese enjoy pate de fois gras. It was a prolonged torment under the guise of pleasure. I refused everything I wanted, and took everything I didn't want. I got a back of the cold chicken; there was nothing of it but bone. I thought I must appear to be eating it, and it slipped out from under my fork and flew into the dish of preserved cherries.
We had strawberries. I am very partial to strawberries and cream. I got a saucer of the berries, and was looking about for the cream when Miss Smith's mother, at my right hand, said:
"Mr. Flutter, will you have some whip with your strawberries?"
Whip with my berries! I thought she was making fun of me, and stammered:
"No, I thank you," and so I lost the delicious frothed cream that I coveted.
The agony of the thing was drawing to a close. I was longing for the time when I could go home and get some cold potatoes out of mother's cupboard. I hadn't eaten worth a cent.
Pretty soon we all moved back our chairs and rose. I offered my arm to Belle, as I supposed. Between the sitting-room and parlor there was a little dark hall, and when we got in there I summoned up courage, passed my arm around my fair partner, and gave her a hug.
"You ain't so bashful as you look," said she, and then we stepped into the parlor, and I found I'd been squeezing Widow Jones' waist.
She gave me a look full of languishing sweetness that scared me nearly to death. I thought of Mr. Pickwick and Mrs. Bardell. Visions of suits for breaches of promise arose before my horrified vision. I glanced wildly around in search of Belle; she was hanging on a young lawyer's arm, and not looking at me.
"La, now, you needn't color up so," said the widow, coquettishly, "I know what young men are."
She said it aloud, on purpose for Belle to hear. I felt like killing her. I might have done it, but one thought restrained me—I should be hung for murder, and I was too bashful to submit to so public an ordeal.
I hurried across the room to get rid of her. There was a young fellow standing there who looked about as out-of-place as I felt. I thought I would speak to him.
"Come," said I, "let us take a little promenade outside—the women are too much for me."
He made no answer. I heard giggling and tittering breaking out all around the room, like rash on a baby with the measles.
"Come on," said I; "like as not they're laughing at us."
"Look-a-here, you shouldn't speak to a fellow till you've been introduced," said that wicked Fred behind me. "Mr. Flutter, allow me to make you acquainted with Mr. Flutter. He's anxious to take a little walk with you."
It was so; I had been talking to myself in a four-foot looking-glass.
I did not feel like staying for the ice-cream and kissing-plays, but had a sly hunt for my hat, and took leave of the tea-party about the eighth of a second afterward.
HE DOES HIS DUTY AS A CITIZEN.
Babbletown began to be very lively as soon as the weather got cool, the fall after I came home. We had a singing-school once a week, a debating society that met every Wednesday evening, and then we had sociables, and just before Christmas a fair. All the other young men had a good time. Every day, when some of them dropped in the store for a chat and a handful of raisins, they would aggravate me by asking:
"Aren't we having a jolly winter of it, John?"
I never had a good time. I never enjoyed myself like other folks. I spent enough money and made enough good resolutions, but something always occurred to destroy my anticipated pleasure. I can't hear a lyceum or debating society mentioned to this day, without feeling "cold-chills" run down my spine.
I took part in the exercises the evening ours was opened. I had been requested by the committee to furnish the poem for the occasion. As I was just from a first-class academy, where I had read the valedictory, it was taken for granted that I was the most likely one to "fill the bill."
I accepted the proposition. To be bashful is a far different thing from being modest. I wrote the poem. I sat up nights to do it. The way candles were consumed caused father to wonder where his best box of spermacetis had gone to. I knew I could do the poetry, and I firmly resolved that I would read it through, from beginning to end, in a clear, well-modulated voice, that could be heard by all, including the minister and Belle Marigold. I would not blush, or stammer, or get a frog in my throat. I swore solemnly to myself that I would not. Some folks should see that my bashfulness was wearing off faster than the gold from an oroide watch. Oh, I would show 'em! Some things could be done as well as others. I would no longer be the laughing-stock of Babbletown. My past record should be wiped out! I would write my poem, and I would read it—read it calmly and impressively, so as to do full justice to it.
I got the poem ready. I committed it to memory, so that if the lights were dim, or I lost my place, I should not be at the mercy of the manuscript. The night came. I entered the hall with Belle on my arm, early, so as to secure her a front seat.
"Keep cool, John," were her whispered words, as I left her to take my place on the platform.
"Oh, I shall be cool enough. I know every line by heart; have said it to myself one hundred and nineteen times without missing a word."
I'm not going to bore you with the poem here; but will give the first four lines as they were written and as I spoke them:
"Hail! Babbletown, fair village of the plain! Hail! friends and fellow-citizens. In vain I strive to sing the glories of this place, Whose history back to early times I trace."
The room was crowded, the president of the society made a few opening remarks, which closed by presenting Mr. Flutter, the poet of the occasion. I was quite easy and at home until I arose and bowed as he spoke my name. Then something happened to my senses, I don't know what; I only knew I lost every one of them for about two minutes. I was blind, deaf, dumb, tasteless, senseless, and feelingless. Then I came to a little, rallied, and perceived that some of the boy were beginning to pound the floor with their heels. I made a feint of holding my roll of verses nearer the lamp at my right hand, summoned traitor memory to return, and began:
Was that my voice? I did not recognize it. It was more as if a mouse in the gallery had squeaked. It would never do. I cleared any throat—which was to have been free from frogs—and a strange, hoarse voice, no more like mine than a crow is like a nightingale, came out with a jerk, about six feet away, and remarked, as if surprised:
With a desperate effort, I resolved that this night or never I was to achieve greatness. I cleared the way again and recommenced:
A boy's voice at the back of the room was heard to insinuate that perhaps it would be easier for me to let it snow or rain. That made me angry. I was as cool as ice all in a moment; I felt that I had the mastery of the situation, and, making a sweeping gesture with my left hand, I looked over my hearers' heads, and continued:
"Hail! Fabbletown, bare village of the plain—Babbletown, fair pillage of the vain—. Hail! friends and fellow-citizens—!"
It was evident that I had borrowed somebody else's voice—my own mother wouldn't have recognized it—and a mighty poor show of a voice, too. It was like a race-horse that suddenly balks, and loses the race. I had put up heavy stakes on that voice, but I couldn't budge it. Not an inch faster would it go. In vain I whipped and spurred in silent desperation—it balked at "fellow-citizens," and there it stuck. The audience, good-naturedly, waited five minutes. At the end of that time, I sat down, amid general applause, conscious that I had made the sensation of the evening.
Belle gave me the mitten that evening, and went home in Fred Hencoop's sleigh.
We didn't speak, after that, until about a week before the fair. She, with some other girls, then came in the store to beg for "scraps" of silk, muslin, and so-forth, to dress dolls for the fair. They were very sweet, for they knew they could make a fool of me. Father was not in, and I guess they timed their visit so that he wouldn't be. They got half a yard of pink silk, as much of blue, ditto of lilac and black, a yard of every kind of narrow ribbon in the store, a remnant of book-muslin, three yards—in all, about six dollars' worth of "scraps," and then asked me if I wasn't going to give a box of raisins and the coffee for the table. I said I would.
"And you'll come, Mr. Flutter, won't you? It'll be a failure unless you are there. You must promise to come. We won't go out of this store till you do. And, oh, don't forget to bring your purse along. We expect all the young gentlemen to come prepared, you know."
There is no doubt that I went to the fair. It made my heart ache to do it—for I'd already been pretty extravagant, one way and another—but I put a ten-dollar bill in my wallet, resolved to spend every cent of it rather than appear mean.
I don't know whether I appeared mean or not; I do know that I spent every penny of that ten dollars, and considerable more besides. If there was anything at that fair that no one else wanted, and that was not calculated to supply any known want of the human race, it was palmed off on me. I became the unhappy possessor of five dressed dolls, a lady's "nubia," a baby-jumper, fourteen "tidies," a set of parlor croquet with wickets that wouldn't stand on their legs, a patent churn warranted to make a pound of fresh butter in three minutes out of a quart of chalk-and-water, a set of ladies' nightcaps, two child's aprons, a castle-in-the-air, a fairy-palace, a doll's play-house, a toy-balloon, a box of marbles, a pair of spectacles, a pair of pillow-shams, a young lady's work-basket, seven needle-books, a cradle-quilt, a good many bookmarks, a sofa-cushion, and an infant's rattle, warranted to cut one's eye teeth; besides which I had tickets in a fruit cake, a locket, a dressing-bureau, a baby-carriage, a lady's watch-chain, and an infant's wardrobe complete.
When I feebly remonstrated that I'd spent all the money I brought, I was smilingly assured by innumerable female Tootses that "it was of no consequence"; but I found there were consequences when I came to settle afterward for half the things at the fair, because I was too bashful to say No, boldly.
Fred Hencoop auctioned off the remaining articles after eleven o'clock. Every time he put up something utterly unsalable, he would look over at me, nod, and say: "Thank you, John; did you say fifty cents?" or "Did I hear you say a dollar? A dollar—dollar—going, gone to our friend and patron, John Flutter, Jr.," and some of the lady managers would "make a note of it," and I was too everlastingly embarrassed to deny it.
"John," said father, about four o'clock in the afternoon the day after the fair—"John, did you buy all these things?"—the front part of the store was piled and crammed with my unwilling purchases.
"Father, I don't know whether I did or not."
"How much is the bill?"
"How are you going to pay it?"
"I've got the hundred dollars in bank grandmother gave me when she died."
"Draw the money, pay your debts, and either get married at once and make these things useful, or we'll have a bonfire in the back yard."
"I guess we'd better have the bonfire, father. I don't care for any girl but Belle, and she won't have me."
"Won't have you! I'm worth as much as Squire Marigold any day."
"I know it, father; but I took her down to supper last night, and I was so confused, with all the married ladies looking on, I made a mess of it. I put two teaspoonfuls of sugar in her oyster stew, salted her coffee, and insisted on her taking pickles with her ice-cream. She didn't mind that so much, but when I stuffed my saucer into my pocket, and conducted her into the coal-cellar instead of the hall, she got out of patience. Father, I think I'd better go to Arizona in the spring. I'm—"
"Go to grass! if you want to," was the unfeeling reply; "but don't you ever go to another fair, unless I go along to take care of you."
But I think the bonfire made him feel better.
HE COMMITS SUICIDE.
Two days after the fair (one day after the bonfire), some time during the afternoon, I found myself alone in the store. Business was so dull that father, with a yawn, said he guessed he'd go to the post-office and have a chat with the men.
"Be sure you don't leave the store a moment alone, John," was his parting admonition.
Of course I wouldn't think of such a thing—he need not have mentioned it. I was a good business fellow for my age; the only blunders I ever made were those caused by my failing—the unhappy failing to which I have hitherto alluded.
I sat mournfully on the counter after father left me, my head reclining pensively against a pile of ten-cent calicoes; I was thinking of my grandmother's legacy gone up in smoke—of how Belle looked when she found I had conducted her into the coal-cellar—of those tidies, cradle-quilts, bib-aprons, dolls' and ladies' fixings, which had been nefariously foisted upon me, a base advantage taken of my diffidence!—and I felt sad. I felt more than melancholy—I felt mad. I resented the tricks of the fair ones. And I made a mighty resolution! "Never—never—never," said I, between my clenched teeth, "will I again be guilty of the crime of bashfulness—never!"
I felt that I could face a female regiment—all Babbletown! I was indignant; and there's nothing like honest, genuine indignation to give courage. Oh, I'd show 'em. I wouldn't give a cent when the deacon passed the plate on Sundays; I wouldn't subscribe to the char——
In the midst of my dark and vengeful resolutions I heard merry voices on the pavement outside.
Hastily raising my head from the pile of calicoes, I saw at least five girls making for the store door—a whole bevy of them coming in upon me at once. They were the same rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed, deceitful, shameless creatures who had persuaded me into such folly at the fair. There was Hetty Slocum, the girl who coaxed me into buying the doll; and Maggie Markham, who sold me the quilt; and Belle, and two others, and they were chatting and giggling over some joke, and had to stop on the steps until they could straighten their faces. I grew fire-red—with indignation.
"Oh, father, why are you not here?" I cried inwardly. "Oh, father, what a shame to go off to the post-office and leave your son to face these tried to feel as I felt five minutes before, like facing a female regiment. Now was the time to prove my courage—to turn over a new leaf, take a new departure, begin life over again, show to these giggling girls that I had some pride—some self-independence—some self-resp——"
The door creaked on its hinges, and at the sound a blind confusion seized me. In vain I attempted, like a brave but despairing general, to rally my forces; but they all deserted me at once; I was hidden behind the calicoes, and with no time to arrange for a nobler plan of escaping a meeting with the enemy—no auger-hole though which to crawl. I followed the first impulse, stooped, and hid under the counter.
In a minute I wished myself out of that; but the minute had been too much—the bevy had entered and approached the counter, at the very place behind which I lay concealed. I was so afraid to breathe; the cold sweat started on my forehead.
"Why! there's no one in the store!" exclaimed Belle's voice.
"Oh, yes; there must be. Let us look around and see," responded Maggie, and they went tiptoeing around the room, peeping here and there, while I silently tore my hair. I was so afraid they would come behind the counter and discover me.
In three minutes, which seemed as many hours, they came to the starting-point again.
"There isn't a soul here."
"La, how funny! We might take something."
"Yes, if we were thieves, what a fine opportunity we would have."
"I'll bet three cents it's John's fault; his father would never leave the store in this careless way."
"What a queer fellow he is, anyway!"
"Ha, ha, ha! so perfectly absurd! Isn't it fun when he's about?"
"I never was so tickled in my life as when he bought that quilt."
"I thought I would die laughing when he took me into the coal-cellar, but I kept a straight face."
"Do you think he's good-looking, Hetty?"
"Who? John Flutter! good-looking? He's a perfect fright."
"That's just what I think. Oh, isn't it too good to see the way he nurses that little mustache of his? I'm going to send him a magnifying-glass, so that he can count the hairs with less trouble."
"If you will, I'll send a box of cold cream; we can send them through the post-office, and he'll never find out who they came from."
"Jolly! we'll do it! Belle won't send anything, for he's dead in love with her."
"Much good it'll do him, girls! Do you suppose I wouldn't marry that simpleton if he was made of gold."
"Did you ever see such a red face as he has? I would be afraid to come near it with a light dress on."
"And his ears!"
"Monstrous! and always burning."
"And the awkwardest fellow that ever blundered into a parlor. You know the night he waited on me to Hetty's party? he stepped on my toes so that I had to poultice them before I went to bed; he tore the train all off my pink tarlatan; he spilled a cup of hot coffee down old Mrs. Ballister's back, and upset his saucer of ice-cream over Ada's sweet new book-muslin. Why, girls, just as sure as I am standing here, I saw him cram the saucer into his pocket when Belle came up to speak with him! I tell you, I was glad to get home that night without any more accidents."
"They say he always puts the tea-napkins into his pocket when he takes tea away from home. But it's not kleptomania, it's only bashfulness. I never heard before of his pocketing the saucers."
"Well, he really did. It's awful funny. I don't know how we'd get along without John this winter—he makes all the fun we have. What's that?"
"I don't know, it sounded like rats gnawing the floor."
(It was only the amusing John gritting his teeth, I am able to explain).
"Did you ever notice his mouth?—how large it is."
"Yes, it's frightful. I don't wonder he's ashamed of himself with that mouth."
"I don't mind his mouth so much—but his nose! I never did like a turn-up nose in a man. But his father's pretty well off. It would be nice to marry a whole store full of dry-goods and have a new dress every time you wanted one. I wonder where they have gone to! I believe I'll rap."
The last speaker seized the yard-stick and thumped on the counter directly over my head.
"Oh, girls! let's go behind, and see how they keep things. I wonder how many pieces of dress-silk there are left!"
"I guess I'll go behind the counter, and play clerk. If any one comes in, I'll go, as sure as the world! and wait on 'em. Won't it be fun? There comes old Aunty Harkness now. I dare say she is after a spool of thread or a paper of needles. I'm going to wait on her. Mr. Flutter won't care—I'll explain when he comes in. What do you want, auntie?" in a very loud voice.
My head buzzed like a saw—my heart made such a loud thud against my side I thought stars! she wanted "an ounce o' snuff," and that article was kept in a glass jar in plain sight on the other side of the store. There was a movement in that direction, and I recovered partially, I half resolved to rise up suddenly—pretend I'd been hiding for fun—and laugh the whole thing off as a joke. But the insulting, the ridiculous comments I had overheard, had made me too indignant. Pretty joke, indeed! But I wished I had obeyed the dictates of prudence and affected to consider it so. Father came bustling in while the girls were trying to tie up the snuff, and sneezing beautifully.
"What! what! young ladies! Where's John?"
"That's more than we know—tschi-he! We've been waiting at least ten minutes. Auntie Harkness wanted some stch-uff, and we thought we'd do it for her. I s'pose you've no objections, Mr. Flutter?"
"Not the least in the world, girls. Go ahead. I wonder where John is! There! you'll sneeze your pretty noses off—let me finish it. John has no business to leave the store. I don't like it—five cents, auntie, to you—and I told him particularly not to leave it a minute. I don't understand it; very sorry you've been kept waiting. What shall I show you, young lady?" and father passed behind the counter and stood with his toes touching my legs, notwithstanding I had shrunk into as small space as was convenient, considering my size and weight. It was getting toward dusk of the short winter afternoon, and I hoped and prayed he wouldn't notice me.
"What shall I show you, young ladies?"
"Some light kid gloves, No. 6, please."
"Yes, certainly—here they are. I do believe there's a strange dog under the counter! Get out—get out, sir, I say!" and my cruel parent gave me a vicious kick.
I pinched his leg impressively. I meant it as a warning, to betray to him that it was I, and to implore him, figuratively, to keep silence.
But he refused to comprehend that agonized pinch; he resented it. He gave another vicious kick. Then he stooped and looked under—it was a little dark—too dark, alas! under there. He saw a man—but not to recognize him.
"Ho!" he yelled; "robber! thief! burglar! I've got you, fellow! Come out o' that!"
I never before realized father's strength. He got his hand in my collar, and he jerked me out from under that counter, and shook me, and held me off at arm's length.
"There, Mr. Burglar," said he, triumphantly, "sneak in here again will—JOHN!"
The girls had been screaming and running, but they stood still now.
"Yes, John!" said I, in desperation. "The drawer came loose under the counter, and I was nailing on a strip of board when those young ladies came in. I kept quiet, just for fun. They began to talk in an interesting manner, curiosity got the better of politeness, and I'm afraid I've played eavesdropper," and I made a killing bow, meant especially for Belle.
"Well, you're a pretty one!" exclaimed father.
"So they say," said I. "Don't leave, young ladies. I'd like to sell you a magnifying-glass, and some cold cream." But they all left in a hurry. They didn't even buy a pair of gloves.
The girls must have told of it, for the story got out, and Fred advised me to try counter-irritation for my bashfulness.
"You're not a burglar," said he, "but you're guilty of counter-fitting."
"Nothing would suit me better," I retorted, "than to be tried for it, and punished by solitary confinement."
And there was nothing I should have liked so much. The iron had entered my soul. I was worse than ever. I purchased a four-ounce vial of laudanum, went to my room, and wrote a letter to my mother:
"Mother, I am tired of life. My nose is turn-up, my mouth is large; I pocket other people's saucers and napkins; I am always making blunders. This is my last blunder. I shall never blush again. Farewell. Let the inscription on my tombstone be—'Died of Bashfulness.' JOHN."
And I swallowed the contents of the vial, and threw myself on my little bed.
HE IS DOOMED FOR WORSE ACCIDENTS.
It may seem strange for you to hear of me again, after the conclusion of the last chapter of my blunders. But it was not I who made the last blunder—it was the druggist. Quite by mistake the imbecile who waited upon me put up four ounces of the aromatic syrup of rhubarb. I felt myself gradually sinking into the death-sleep after I had taken it; with the thought of Belle uppermost in my mind, I allowed myself to sink—"no more catastrophes after this last and grandest one—no more red faces—big mouth—tea-napkins—wonder—if she—will be—sorry!" and I became unconscious.
I was awakened from a comfortable slumber by loud screams; mother stood by my bed, with the vial labeled "laudanum" in one hand, my letter in the other. Father rushed into the room.
"Father, John's committed suicide. Oh! bring the tartar-emetic quick! Make some coffee as strong as lye! Oh! send for a stomach-pump. Tell Mary to bring the things and put the coffee on; and you come here, an' we'll walk him up and down—keep him a-going—that's his only salvation! Oh! John, John! that ever your bashfulness should drive you into this! Up with him, father! Oh! he's dying! He ain't able to help himself one bit!"
They dragged me off the bed, and marched me up and down the room. Supposing, as a matter of course, that I ought to be expiring, I felt that I was expiring. My knees tottered under me; they only hauled me around the more violently. They forced a spoonful of tartar-emetic down my throat; Mary, the servant-girl, poured a quart of black coffee down me, half outside and half in; then they jerked me about the floor again, as if we were dancing a Virginia reel.
The doctor came and poked a long rubber tube down and converted me into a patent pump, until the tartar-emetic, and the coffee, and the pumpkin-pie I had eaten for dinner had all revisited this mundane sphere.
They had no mercy on me; I promenaded up and down and across with father, with Mary, with the doctor, until I felt that I should die if they didn't allow me to stop promenading.
The worst of it was, the house was full of folks; they crowded about the chamber door and looked at me, dancing up and down with the hired girl and the doctor.
"Shut the door—they shall not look at me!" I gasped, at last. The doctor felt my pulse and said proudly to my mother:
"Madam, your son will live! Our skill and vigilance have saved him."
"Bless you, doctor!" sobbed my parents.
"I will not live," I moaned, "to be the laughing stock of Babbletown. I will buy some more."
"John," said my father, weeping, "arouse yourself! You shall leave this place, if you desire it—only live! I will get you the position of weather-gauger on top of Mount Washington, if you say so, but don't commit any more suicide, my son!"
I was affected, and promised that I wouldn't, provided that I was found a situation somewhere by myself. So the excitement subsided. Father slept with me that night, keeping one eye open; the doctor got the credit of saving my life, and the girls of Babbletown were scared out of laughing at me for a whole month.
When we came to talk the matter over seriously—father and I—it was found to be too late in the season to procure me the Mount Washington appointment for the winter; besides, the effect of my attempt to "shuffle off this mortal coil" was to literally overrun our store with customers. People came from the country for fifteen miles around, in ox teams, on horse-back, in sleighs and cutters, and bob-sleds, and crockery-crates, to buy something, in hopes of getting a glimpse of the bashful young man who swallowed the pizen. Now, father was too cute a Yankee not to take advantage of the mob. He forgot his promises, and made me stay in the store from morning till night, so that women could say: "I bought this 'ere shirting from the young man who committed suicide; he did it up with his own hands."
"I'll give you a fair share o' the profits, John," father would say, slyly.
Well, things went on as it greased; the girls mostly stayed away—the Babbletown girls, for they had guilty consciences, I suspect; and in February there came a thaw. I stood looking out of the store window one day; the snow had melted in the street, and right over the stones that had been laid across the road for a walk, there was a great puddle of muddy water about two yards wide and a foot deep. I soon saw Hetty Slocum tripping across the street; she came to the puddle and stood still; the soft slush was heaped up on either side—she couldn't get around and she couldn't go through. My natural gallantry got the better of my resentment, and I went out to help her over, notwithstanding what she had said when I was under the counter. Planting one foot firmly in the center of the puddle and bracing the other against the curb-stone, I extended my hand.
"If you're good at jumping, Miss Slocum," said I, "I'll land you safely on this side."
"Oh," said she, roguishly, "Mr. Flutter, can I trust you?" and she reached out her little gloved hand.
All my old embarrassment rushed over me. I became nervous at the critical moment when I should have been cool. I never could tell just how it happened—whether her glove was slippery, or my foot slipped on a piece of ice under slush, or what—but the next moment we were both of us sitting down in fourteen inches of very cold, very muddy water.
My best beaver hat flew off and was run over by a passing sled, while a little dog ran away with Hetty's seal-skin muff.
I floundered around in that puddle for about two minutes, and then I got up. Hetty still sat there. She was white, she was so mad.
"I might a known better," said she. "Let me alone. I'd sit here forever, before I'd let you help me up."
The boys were coming home from school, and they began to hoot and laugh. I ran after the little dog who was making off with the muff. How Hetty got up, or who came to her rescue I don't know. That cur belonged about four miles out of town, and he never let up until he got home.
I grabbed the muff just as he was disappearing under the house with it, and then I walked slowly back. The people who didn't know me took me for an escaped convict—I was water-soaked and muddy, hatless, and had a sneaking expression, like that of a convicted horse-thief. Two or three persons attempted to arrest me. Finally, two stout farmers succeeded, and brought me into the village in triumph, and marched me between them to the jail.
"Why, what's Mr. Flutter been doin'?" asked the sheriff, coming out to meet us.
"Do you mean to say you know him?" inquired one of the men.
"Yes, I know him. That's our esteemed fellow-citizen, young Flutter."
"And he ain't no horse-thief nor nuthin'!"
"Not a bit of it, I assure you."
The man eyed me from head to foot, critically and contemptuously.
"Then all I've got to say," he remarked slowly, "is this—appearances is very deceptive."
It was getting dusk by this time, and I was thankful for it.
"I slipped down in a mud-puddle and lost my hat," I explained to the sheriff, as I turned away, and had the satisfaction of hearing the other one of my arresters say, behind my back:
I hired a little boy, for five cents, to deliver Miss Slocum's muff at her residence. Then I went into the house by the kitchen, bribed Mary to clean my soiled pants without telling mother, slipped up-stairs, and went to bed without my supper.
The next day I bought a handsome seven-dollar ring, and sent it to Hetty as some compensation for the damage done to her dress.
That evening was singing-school evening. I went early, so as to get my seat without attracting attention. Early as I was, I was not the first. A group of young people was gathered about the great black-board, on which the master illustrated his lessons. They were having lots of fun, and did not notice me as I came in. I stole quietly to a seat behind a pillar. Fred Hencoop was drawing something on the board, and explaining it. As he drew back and pointed with the long stick, I saw a splendid caricature of myself pursuing a small dog with a muff, while a young lady sat quietly in a mud-puddle in the corner of the black-board, and Fred was saying, with intense gravity:
"This is the man, all tattered and torn, that spattered the maiden all forlorn. This is the dog that stole the muff. This is the ring he sent the maid—"
"Muff-in ring," suggested some one, and then they laughed louder than ever.
I felt that that singing-school was no place for me that evening, and I stole away as noiselessly as I had entered.
I went home and packed my trunk. The next morning I said to father:
"Give me my share of the profits for the last month," and he gave me one hundred and thirty dollars. "I am going where no one knows me, mother, so good-bye. You'll hear from me when I'm settled," and I was actually off on the nine o'clock New York express.
Every seat was full in every car but one—one seat beside a pretty, fashionably-dressed young lady was vacant. I stood up against the wood-box and looked at that seat, as a boy looks at a jar of peppermint-drops in a candy-store window. After a while I reflected that these people were all strangers, and, of course, unaware of my infirmity; this gave me a certain degree of courage. I left the support of the wood-box and made my way along the aisle until I came to the vacant seat.
"Miss," I began, politely, but the lady purposely looked the other way; she had her bag in the place where I wanted to sit, and she didn't mean to move it, if she could help it. "Miss," I said again, in a louder tone.
Two or three people looked at us. That confused me; her refusing to look around confused me; one of my old bad spells began to come on.
"Miss," I whispered, leaning toward her, blushing and embarrassed, "I would like to know if you are engaged—if—if you are taken, I mean?"
She looked at me then sharp enough.
"Yes, sir, I am," she said calmly; "and going to be married next week."
The passengers began to laugh, and I began to back out. I didn't stop at the wood-box, but retreated into the next car, where I stood until my legs ached, and then sat down by an ancient lady, with a long nose, blue spectacles, and a green veil.
I MAKE A NARROW ESCAPE.
It is a serious thing to be as bashful as I am. There's nothing at all funny about it, though some people seem to think there is. I was assured, years ago, that it would wear off and betray the brass underneath; but I must have been triple-plated. I have had rubs enough to wear out a wash-board, yet there doesn't a bit of brass come to the surface yet. Beauty may be only skin-deep; modesty, like mine, pervades the grain. If I really believed my bashfulness was only cuticle-deep, I'd be flayed to-day, and try and grow a hardier complexion without any Bloom of Youth in it. No use! I could pave a ten-thousand-acre prairie with the "good intentions" I have wasted, the firm resolutions I have broken. Born to be bashful is only another way of expressing the Bible truth, "Born to trouble as the sparks are to fly upward."
When I sat down by the elderly lady in the railway train, I felt comparatively at ease. She was older than mother, and I didn't mind her rather aggressive looks and ways; in short, I seemed to feel that in case of necessity she would protect me. Not that I was afraid of anything, but she would probably at least keep me from proposing to any more young ladies. Alas! how could I have any presentiment of the worse danger lurking in store for me? How could I, young, innocent, and inexperienced, foresee the unforeseeable? I could not. Reviewing all the circumstances by the light of wiser days, I still deny that I was in any way, shape, or manner to blame for what occurred. I sat in my half of the seat, occupying as little room as possible, my eyes fixed on the crimson plush cushions of the seat before me, my thoughts busy with the mortifying past, and the great unknown future into which I was blindly rushing at the rate of thirty miles an hour—sat there, dreading the great city into which I was so soon to plunge—when a voice, closely resembling vinegar sweetened with honey, said, close to my ear:
"Goin' to New York, sir?"
"Yes, ma'am," I answered, coming out of my reverie with a little jump.
"I'm real glad," said my companion, taking off her blue spectacles, and leaning toward me confidentially; "so I am. I'm quite unprotected, sir, quite, and I shall be thankful to place myself under your care. I'm goin' down to the city to buy my spring stock o' millinery, an' any little attention you can show me will be gratefully received—gratefully. I don't mind admitting to you, young man, for you look pure and uncorrupted, that I am terribly afraid of men. They are wicked, heartless creatures. I feel that I might more safely trust myself with ravening wolves than with men in general, but you are different. You have had a good mother."
"Yes, ma'am, I have," I responded, rather warmly.
I was pleased at her commendation of me and mother, but puzzled as to the character of the danger to which she referred. I finally concluded that she was afraid of being robbed, and I put my lips close to her ear, so that no one should overhear us, and asked:
"Do you carry your money about you?—you ought not to run such a risk. I've been told there are always one or more thieves on every express train."
"My dear young friend," she whispered back, very, very close in my ear, "I was not thinking of money—that is all in checks, safely deposited in—in—in te-he! inside the lining of my waist. I was only referring to the dangers which ever beset the unmarried lady, especially the unsophisticated maiden, far, far from her native village. Why, would you believe it, already, sir, since I left home, a man, a gentleman, sitting in the very seat where you sit now, made love to me, out-and-out!"
"Made love to you?" I stammered, shrinking into the farthest corner, and regarding her with undisguised astonishment.
"You may well appear surprised. Promise me that you will remain by my side until we reach our destination."
She appeared kind of nervous and agitated, and I promised. Instead of being protected, I found myself figuring in the role of protector. My timid companion did the most of the talking; she pumped me pretty dry of facts about myself, and confided to me that she was doing a good business—making eight hundred a year clear profit—and all she wanted to complete her satisfaction was the right kind of a partner.
She proposed to me to become that partner. I said that I did not understand the millinery business; she said I had been a clerk in a dry-goods store, and that was the first step; I said I didn't think I should fancy the bonnet line. She said I should be a silent partner; all in the world I'd have to do would be to post the books, and she'd warrant me a thousand dollars a year, for the business would double. I said I had but one hundred and thirty dollars; she said, write to my pa for more, but she'd take me without a cent—there was something in my face that showed her I was to be trusted.
She was so persistent that I began to be alarmed—I felt that I should be drawn into that woman's clutches against my will. I got pale and cold, and the perspiration broke out on my brow. Was it for this I had fled from home and friends? To become a partner in the hat-and-bonnet business, with a dreadful old maid, who wore blue spectacles and curled her false hair. I shivered.
"Poor darling!" said she, "the boy is cold," and she wrapped me up in a big plaid shawl of her own.
The very touch of that shawl made me feel as if I had a thousand caterpillars crawling over me; yet I was too bashful to break loose from its folds. I grew feverish.
"There," said she, "you are getting your color back."
The more attention she paid to me the more homesick I grew. I looked piteously in the conductor's face as he passed by. He smiled relentlessly. I glanced wildly yet furtively about to see if, perchance, a vacant seat were to be descried.
"Rest thy head on this shoulder; thou art weary," she said. "I will put my veil over your face and you can catch a nap."
But I was not to be caught napping.
"No, I thank you—I never sleep in the day time," I stammered.
Oh, what a ride I was having! How wretched I felt! Yet I was too bashful to shake off the shawl and stand up before a car-load of people.
Suddenly, something happened. The blue spectacles flew over my head, and I flew over the seat in front of me. Thank goodness! I was saved from that female! I picked myself up from out of the debris of the wreck. I saw a green veil, and a lady looking around for her lost teeth, and having ascertained that no one was killed, I limped away and hid behind a stump. I stayed behind that stump three mortal hours. When the train went again on its winding way I was not one of the passengers. I walked, bruised and sore as I was, to the nearest village, and took the first train in the opposite direction. That evening, as father and mother were sitting down to their solitary but excellent tea, I walked in on 'em.
"No more foreign trips for me," said I; "I will stick to Babbletown, and try and stand the consequences."
About four days after this, father laid a letter on the counter before me—a large, long, yellow envelope, with a big red seal. "Read that," was his brief comment.
I took it up, unfolded the foolscap, and read:
"JOHN FLUTTER, SENIOR:—I have the honor to inform you that my client, Miss Alvira Slimmens, has instructed me to proceed against your son for breach of promise of marriage, laying her damages at twelve hundred dollars. As your son is not legally of age, we shall hold you responsible. A compromise, to avoid publicity of suit, is possible. Send us your check for $1,000 and you will hear no more of this matter.
"WILLIAM BLACK, Attorney-at-Law,
"Pennyville, N. Y."
"Oh, father!" I cried, "I swear to you this is not my fault!" Looking up in distress I saw that my parent was laughing.
"I have heard of Alvira before," said he; "no, it is not your fault, my poor boy. Let me see, Alvira was thirty twenty-one years ago when I was married to your ma. I used to be in Pennyville sometimes, in those days, and she was sweet on me, John, then. I'll answer this letter, and answer it to her, and not her lawyer. Don't you be uneasy, my son. I'll tend to her. But you had a narrow escape; I don't wonder you, with your bashfulness, fled homeward to your ma."
"Then it wasn't my blunder this time, father?"
"I exonerate you, my son!"
For once a glow of happiness diffused itself over my much-tried spirits. I was so exalted that when a young lady came in for a bottle of bandoline I gave her Spaulding's prepared glue instead; and the next time I met that young lady she wore a bang—she had used the new-fangled bandoline, and the only way to get the stuff out of her hair was to cut it off.
HE ENACTS THE PART OF GROOMSMAN.
"Out of the frying-pan into the fire!" This should have been my chosen motto from the beginning. The performance of the maddening feat indicated in the proverb has been the principal business of my life. I am always finding myself in the frying-pan, and always flopping out into the fire. My father's interference saved me from the dreadful old creature into whose net I had stumbled when I fled from my native village, only to return with the certainty that I was unfit to cope with the world outside of it.
"I will never put my foot beyond the township line again," I vowed to my secret soul. I had a harrowing sorrow preying upon me all the remainder of the winter. I was given to understand that Belle Marigold was actually engaged to Fred Hencoop. And she might have been mine! Alas, that mighty might!
"Of all sad words of tongue or pen The saddest are these—'It might have been!'"
I am positive that when I first came home from school she admired me very much. She welcomed my early attentions. It was only the ridiculous blunders into which my bashfulness continually drove me that alienated her regard. If I had not caught my foot in the reins that time I got out of the buggy in front of her house—if I had not fallen in the water and had my clothes shrink in drying—nor choked almost to death—nor got under the counter—nor failed to "speak my piece"—nor sat down in that mud-puddle—nor committed suicide—nor run away from home—nor performed any other of the thousand-and-one absurd feats into which my constitutional embarrassment was everlastingly urging me, I declare boldly, "Belle might have been mine." She had encouraged me at first. Now it was too late. She had "declined," as Tennyson says, "on a lower love than mine"—on Fred Hencoop's.
The thought was despair. Never did I realized of what the human heart is capable until Belle came into the store, one lovely spring morning, looking like a seraph in a new spring bonnet, and blushingly—with a saucy flash of her dark eyes that made her rising color all the more divine—inquired for table-damask and 4-4 sheetings.
With an ashen brow and quivering lip, I displayed before her our best assortment of table-cloths and napkins, pillow-casing and sheeting. Her mother accompanied her to give her the benefit of her experience; and kept telling her daughter to choose the best, and what and how many dozens she had before she was married.
They ran up a big bill at the store that morning, and father came behind the counter to help, and was mightily pleased; but I felt as if I were measuring off cloth for my own shroud.
"Come, John, you go do up the sugar for Widow Smith, her boy is waiting," said my parent, seeing the muddle into which I was getting things. "I will attend to these ladies—twelve yards of the pillow-casing, did you say, Mrs. Marigold?"
I moved down to the end of the store and weighed and tied up in brown paper the "three pounds of white sugar to make cake for the sewin'-society," which the lad had asked for. A little girl came in for a pound of bar-soap, and I attended to her wants. Then another boy, with a basket, came in a hurry for a dozen of eggs. You see, ours was one of those village-stores that combine all things.
While I waited on these insignificant customers father measured off great quantities of white goods for the two ladies; and I strained my ears to hear every word that was said. They asked father if he was going to New York soon? He said, in about ten days. Then Mrs. Marigold confided to him that they wanted him to purchase twenty-five yards of white corded silk.
If every cord in that whole piece of silk had been drawing about my throat I couldn't have felt more suffocated. I sat right down, I felt so faint, in a tub of butter. I had just sense enough left to remember that I had on my new spring lavender pants. The butter was disgustingly soft and mushy.
"Come here, John, and add up this bill," called father.
"I can't; I'm sick."
I had got up from the tub and was leaning on the counter—I was pale, I know.
"Why, what's the matter?" he asked.
Belle cast one guilty look in my direction. "It's the spring weather, I dare say," she said softly to my parent.
I sneaked out of the back door and went across the yard to the house to change my pants. I was sick, and I did not emerge from my room until the dinner-bell rang.
I went down then, and found father, usually so good-natured, looking cross, as he carved the roast beef.
"You will never be good for anything, John," was his salutation—"at least, not as a clerk. I've a good mind to write to Captain Hall to take you to the North Pole."
"What's up, father?"
"Oh, nothing!" very sarcastically. "That white sugar you sent Mrs. Smith was table-salt, and she made a whole batch of cake out of it before she discovered her mistake. She was out of temper when she flew in the store, I tell you. I had not only to give her the sugar, but enough butter and eggs to make good her loss, and throw in a neck-tie to compensate her for waste of time. Before she got away, in came the mother of the little girl to whom you had given a slab of molasses candy for bar-soap, and said that the child had brought nothing home but some streaks of molasses on her face. Just as I was coming out to dinner the other boy brought back the porcelain eggs you had given him with word that 'Ma had biled 'em an hour, and she couldn't even budge the shells.' So you see, my son, that in a miscellaneous store you are quite out of your element."
"It was that flirt of a Belle Marigold that upset him," said mother, laughing so that she spilled the gravy on the table-cloth. "He'll be all right when she is once Mrs. Hencoop."
That very evening Fred came in the store to ask me to be his groomsman.
"We're going to be married the first of June," he told me, grinning like an idiot.
"Does Belle know that you invite me to be groomsman?" I responded, gloomily.
"Yes; she suggested that you be asked. Rose Ellis is to be bridesmaid."
"Very well; I accept."
"All right, old fellow. Thank you," slapping me on the back.
As I lay tossing restlessly on my bed that night—after an hour spent in a vain attempt to take the butter out of my lavenders with French chalk—I made a new and firm resolution. I would make Belle sorry that she had given her preference to Fred. I would so bear myself—during our previous meetings and consultations, and during the day of the ceremony—that she should bitterly repent not having given me an opportunity to conquer my diffidence before taking up with Frederick Hencoop. The opportunity was given me to redeem myself. I would prove that, although modest, I was a gentleman; that the blushing era of inexperience could be succeeded by one of calm grandeur. Chesterfield could never have been more quietly self-possessed; Beau Brummell more imperturbable. I would get by heart all the little formalities of the occasion, and, when the time came, I would execute them with consummate ease.
These resolutions comforted me—supported me under the weight of despair I had to endure. Ha! yes. I would show some people that some things could be done as well as others.
It was four weeks to the first of June. As I had ruined my lavender trousers I ordered another pair, with suitable neck-tie, vest, and gloves, from New York. I also ordered three different and lately-published books on etiquette. I studied in all three of these the etiquette of weddings. I thoroughly posted myself on the ancient, the present, and the future duties of "best men" on such occasions. I learned how they do it in China, in Turkey, in Russia, in New Zealand, more particularly how it is done, at present, in England and America. As the day drew nigh I felt equal to the emergency I had a powerful motive for acquitting myself handsomely. I wanted to show her what a mistake she had made.
The wedding was to take place in church at eight o'clock in the evening. The previous evening we—that is, the bride-elect, groom, bridesmaid, and groomsman, parents, and two or three friends—had a private rehearsal, one of the friends assuming the part of clergyman. All went merry as a marriage bell. I was the soul of ease and grace: Fred was the awkward one, stepping on the bride's train, dropping the ring, and so forth.
"I declare, Mr. Flutter, I never saw any one improve as you have," said Belle, aside to me, when we had returned to her house. "I do hope poor Fred will get along better to-morrow. I shall be really vexed at him if anything goes wrong."
"You must forgive a little flustration on his part," I loftily answered. "Perhaps, were I in his place, I should be agitated too."
Well, the next evening came, and at seven o'clock I repaired to the squire's residence. Fred was already there, walking up and down the parlor, a good deal excited, but dressed faultlessly and looking frightfully well.
"Why, John," was his first greeting, "aren't you going to wear any cravat?"
I put my hand up to my neck and dashed madly back a quarter of a mile for the delicate white silk tie I had left on my dressing bureau. This, of course, made me uncomfortably warm. When I got back to the squire's I was in a perspiration, felt that my calm brow was flushed, and had to wipe it with my handkerchief.
"Come," said that impatient Fred, "you have just two minutes to get your gloves on."
My hands were damp, and being hurried had the effect to make me nervous, in spite of four long weeks' constant resolution. What with the haste and perspiration, I tore the thumb completely out of the left glove.
Never mind; no time to mend, in spite of the proverb.
The bride came down-stairs, cool, white, and delicious as an orange blossom. She was helped into one carriage; Fred and I entered another.
"I hope you feel cool," I said to Fred.
"I hope you do," he retorted.
I have always laid the catastrophe which followed to the first mistake in having to fly home for my neck-tie. I was disconcerted by that, and I couldn't exactly get concerted again.
I don't know what happened after the carriage stopped at the church door—I must take the report of my friends for it. They say that I bolted at the last moment, and followed the bride up one aisle instead of the groom up the other, as I should have done. But I was perfectly calm and collected. Oh, yes, that was why, when we attempted to form in front of the altar, I insisted on standing next to Belle, and when I was finally pushed into my place by the irate Fred, I kept diving forward every time the clergyman said anything, trying to take the bride's hand, and responding, "Belle, I take thee to be my lawful, wedded," answering, "I do," loudly, to every question, even to that "Who gives this woman?" etc., until every man, woman, and child in church was tittering and giggling, and the holy man had to come to a full pause, and request me to realize that it was not I who was being married.
"I do. With all my worldly goods I thee endow," was my reply to his reminder.
"For Heaven's sake subside, or I'll thrash you within an inch of your life when I get out of this," whispered Fred.