SCHOOLS AND TEACHERS.
MY boy had not a great deal to do with schools after his docile childhood. When he began to run wild with the other boys he preferred their savage freedom; and he got out of going to school by most of the devices they used. He had never quite the hardihood to play truant, but he was subject to sudden attacks of sickness, which came on about school-time and went off towards the middle of the forenoon or afternoon in a very strange manner. I suppose that such complaints are unknown at the present time, but the Young People's fathers can tell them how much suffering they used to cause among boys. At the age when my boy was beginning to outgrow them he was taken into his father's printing-office, and he completed his recovery and his education there. But all through the years when he lived in the Boy's Town he had intervals of schooling, which broke in upon the swimming and the skating, of course, but were not altogether unpleasant or unprofitable.
They began, as they are apt to do, with lessons in a private house, where a lady taught several other children, and where he possibly learned to read; though he could only remember being set on a platform in punishment for some forgotten offence. After that he went to school in the basement of a church, where a number of boys and girls were taught by a master who knew how to endear study at least to my boy. There was a garden outside of the schoolroom; hollyhocks grew in it, and the boys gathered the little cheeses, as they called the seed-buttons which form when the flowers drop off, and ate them, because boys will eat anything, and not because they liked them. With the fact of this garden is mixed a sense of drowsy heat and summer light, and that is all, except the blackboard at the end of the room and a big girl doing sums at it; and the wonder why the teacher smiled when he read in one of the girls' compositions a phrase about forging puddings and pies; my boy did not know what forging meant, so he must have been very young. But he had a zeal for learning, and somehow he took a prize in geography—a science in which he was never afterwards remarkable. The prize was a little history of Lexington, Mass., which the teacher gave him, perhaps because Lexington may have been his native town; but the history must have been very dryly told, for not a fact of it remained in the boy's mind. He was vaguely disappointed in the book, but he valued it for the teacher's sake whom he was secretly very fond of, and who had no doubt won the child's heart by some flattering notice. He thought it a great happiness to follow him, when the teacher gave up this school, and took charge of one of the public schools; but it was not the same there; the teacher could not distinguish him in that multitude of boys and girls. He did himself a little honor in spelling, but he won no praise, and he disgraced himself then as always in arithmetic. He sank into the common herd of mediocrities; and then, when his family went to live in another part of the town, he began to go to another school. He had felt that the teacher belonged to him, and it must have been a pang to find him so estranged. But he was a kind man, and long afterwards he had a friendly smile and word for the boy when they met; and then all at once he ceased to be, as men and things do in a boy's world.
The other school was another private school; and it was doubtless a school of high grade in some things, for it was called the Academy. But there was provision for the youngest beginners in a lower room, and for a while my boy went there. Before school opened in the afternoon, the children tried to roast apples on the stove, but there never was time, and they had to eat them half raw. In the singing-class there was a boy who wore his hair so enviably long that he could toss it on his neck as he wheeled in the march of the class round the room; his father kept a store and he brought candy to school. They sang "Scotland's burning! Pour on water" and "Home, home! Dearest and happiest home!" No doubt they did other things, but none of them remained in my boy's mind; and when he was promoted to the upper room very little more was added. He studied Philosophy, as it was called, and he learned, as much from the picture as the text, that you could not make a boat go by filling her sail from bellows on board; he did not see why. But he was chiefly concerned with his fears about the Chemical Room, where I suppose some chemical apparatus must have been kept, but where the big boys were taken to be whipped. It was a place of dreadful execution to him, and when he was once sent to the Chemical Boom, and shut up there, because he was crying, and because, as he explained, he could not stop crying without a handkerchief, and he had none with him, he never expected to come out alive.
In fact, as I have said, he dwelt in a world of terrors; and I doubt if some of the big boys who were taken there to be whipped underwent so much as he in being merely taken to the place where they had been whipped. At the same time, while he cowered along in the shadow of unreal dangers, he had a boy's boldness with most of the real ones, and he knew how to resent an indignity even at the hands of the teacher who could send him to the Chemical Room at pleasure. He knew what belonged to him as a small boy of honor, and one thing was, not to be tamely put back from a higher to a lower place in his studies. I dare say that boys do not mind this now; they must have grown ever so much wiser since my boy went to school; but in his time, when you were put back, say from the Third Reader to the Second Reader, you took your books and left school. That was what the other boys expected of you, and it was the only thing for you to do if you had the least self-respect, for you were put back to the Second Reader after having failed to read the Third, and it was a public shame which nothing but leaving that school could wipe out. The other boys would have a right to mock you if you did not do it; and as soon as the class was dismissed you went to your desk as haughtily as you could, and began putting your books and your slate and your inkstand together, with defiant glances at the teacher; and then when twelve o'clock came, or four o'clock, and the school was let out, you tucked the bundle under your arm and marched out of the room, with as much majesty as could be made to comport with a chip hat and bare feet; and as you passed the teacher you gave a twist of the head that was meant to carry dismay to the heart of your enemy. I note all these particulars carefully, so as to show the boys of the present day what fools the boys of the past were; though I think they will hardly believe it. My boy was once that kind of fool; but not twice. He left school with all his things at twelve o'clock, and he returned with them at one; for his father and mother did not agree with him about the teacher's behavior in putting him back. No boy's father and mother agreed with him on this point; every boy returned in just the same way; but somehow the insult had been wiped out by the mere act of self-assertion, and a boy kept his standing in the world as he could never have done if he had not left school when he was put back.
The Hydraulic ran alongside of the Academy, and at recess the boys had a good deal of fun with it, one way and another, sailing shingles with stones on them, and watching them go under one end of the culvert and come out of the other, or simply throwing rocks into the water. It does not seem very exciting when you tell of it, but it really was exciting; though it was not so exciting as to go down to the mills, where the Hydraulic plunged over that great wheel into the Miami. A foot-bridge crossed it that you could jump up and down on and almost make touch the water, and there were happier boys, who did not go to school, fishing there with men who had never gone. Sometimes the schoolboys ventured inside of the flour-mill and the iron-foundry, but I do not think this was often permitted; and, after all, the great thing was to rush over to the river-bank, all the boys and girls together, and play with the flutter-mills till the bell rang. The market-house was not far off, and they went there sometimes when it was not market-day, and played among the stalls; and once a girl caught her hand on a meat-hook. My boy had a vision of her hanging from it; but this was probably one of those grisly fancies that were always haunting him, and no fact at all. The bridge was close by the market-house, but for some reason or no reason the children never played in the bridge. Perhaps the toll-house man would not let them; my boy stood in dread of the toll-house man; he seemed to have such a severe way of taking the money from the teamsters.
Some of the boys were said to be the beaux of some of the girls. My boy did not know what that meant; in his own mind he could not disentangle the idea of bows from the idea of arrows; but he was in love with the girl who caught her hand on the meat-hook, and secretly suffered much on account of her. She had black eyes, and her name long seemed to him the most beautiful name for a girl; he said it to himself with flushes from his ridiculous little heart. While he was still a boy of ten he heard that she was married; and she must have been a great deal older than he. In fact he was too small a boy when he went to the Academy to remember how long he went there, and whether it was months or years; but probably it was not more than a year. He stopped going there because the teacher gave up the school to become a New Church minister; and as my boy's father and mother were New Church people, there must have been some intimacy between them and the teacher, which he did not know of. But he only stood in awe, not terror, of him; and he was not surprised when he met him many long years after, to find him a man peculiarly wise, gentle, and kind. Between the young and the old there is a vast gulf, seldom if ever bridged. The old can look backward over it, but they cannot cross it, any more than the young, who can see no thither side.
The next school my boy went to was a district school, as they called a public school in the Boy's Town. He did not begin going there without something more than his usual fear and trembling; for he had heard free schools and pay schools talked over among the boys, and sharply distinguished: in a pay school the teacher had only such powers of whipping as were given him by the parents, and they were always strictly limited; in a free school the teacher whipped as much and as often as he liked. For this reason it was much better to go to a pay school; but you had more fun at a free school, because there were more fellows; you must balance one thing against another. The boy who philosophized the matter in this way was a merry, unlucky fellow, who fully tested the advantages and disadvantages of the free-school system. He was one of the best-hearted boys in the world, and the kindest to little boys; he was always gay and always in trouble, and forever laughing, when he was not crying under that cruel rod. Sometimes he would not cry; but when he was caught in one of his frequent offences and called up before the teacher's desk in the face of the whole school, and whipped over his thinly jacketed shoulders, he would take it without wincing, and go smiling to his seat, and perhaps be called back and whipped more for smiling. He was a sort of hero with the boys on this account, but he was too kind-hearted to be proud, and mingled with the rest on equal terms. One awful day, just before school took up in the afternoon, he and another boy went for a bucket of drinking-water; it always took two boys. They were gone till long after school began, and when they came back the teacher called them up, and waited for them to arrive slowly at his desk while he drew his long, lithe rod through his left hand. They had to own that they had done wrong, and they had no excuse but the one a boy always has—they forgot. He said he must teach them not to forget, and their punishment began; surely the most hideous and depraving sight, except a hanging, that could be offered to children's eyes. One of them howled and shrieked, and leaped and danced, catching his back, his arms, his legs, as the strokes rained upon him, imploring, promising, and getting away at last with a wild effort to rub himself all over all at once. When it came the hero's turn, he bore it without a murmur, and as if his fortitude exasperated him, the teacher showered the blows more swiftly and fiercely upon him than before, till a tear or two did steal down the boy's cheek. Then he was sent to his seat, and in a few minutes he was happy with a trap for catching flies which he had contrived in his desk.
No doubt they were an unruly set of boys, and I do not suppose the teacher was a hard man, though he led the life of an executioner, and seldom passed a day without inflicting pain that a fiend might shrink from giving. My boy lived in an anguish of fear lest somehow he should come under that rod of his; but he was rather fond of the teacher, and so were all the boys. The teacher took a real interest in their studies, and if he whipped them well, he taught them well; and at most times he was kind and friendly with them. Anyway, he did not blister your hand with a ruler, as some teachers did, or make you stand bent forward from the middle, with your head hanging down, so that the blood all ran into it. Under him my boy made great advances in reading and writing, and he won some distinction in declamation; but the old difficulties with the arithmetic remained. He failed to make anything out of the parts of speech in his grammar; but one afternoon, while he sat in his stocking feet, trying to ease the chilblains which every boy used to have from his snow-soaked boots, before the days of india-rubbers, he found something in the back of his grammar which made him forget all about the pain. This was a part called Prosody, and it told how to make verses; explained the feet, the accents, the stanzas—everything that had puzzled him in his attempts to imitate the poems he had heard his father read aloud. He was amazed; he had never imagined that such a science existed, and yet here it was printed out, with each principle reduced to practice. He conceived of its reasons at the first reading, so that I suppose nature had not dealt so charily with him concerning the rules of prosody as the rules of arithmetic; and he lost no time in applying them in a poem of his own. The afternoon air was heavy with the heat that quivered visibly above the great cast-iron wood stove in the centre of the schoolroom; the boys drowsed in their seats, or hummed sleepily over their lessons; the chilblains gnawed away at the poet's feet, but heaven had opened to him, and he was rapt far from all the world of sense. The music which he had followed through those poems his father read was no longer a mystery; he had its key, its secret; he might hope to wield its charm, to lay its spell upon others. He wrote his poem, which was probably a simple, unconscious imitation of something that had pleased him in his school-reader, and carried it proudly home with him. But here he met with that sort of disappointment which more than any other dismays and baffles authorship; a difference in the point of view. His father said the verses were well made, and he sympathized with him in his delight at having found out the way to make them, though he was not so much astonished as the boy that such a science as prosody should exist. He praised the child's work, and no doubt smiled at it with the mother; but he said that the poem spoke of heaven as a place in the sky, and he wished him always to realize that heaven was a state and not a place, and that we could have it in this world as well as the next. The boy promised that he would try to realize heaven as a state; but at the bottom of his heart he despaired of getting that idea into poetry. Everybody else who had made poetry spoke of heaven as a place; they even called it a land, and put it in the sky; and he did not see how he was to do otherwise, no matter what Swedenborg said. He revered Swedenborg; he had a religious awe of the seer's lithograph portrait in a full-bottom wig which hung in the front-room, but he did not see how even Swedenborg could have helped calling heaven a place if he had been making poetry.
The next year, or the next quarter, maybe, there was a new teacher; they seem to have followed each other somewhat as people do in a dream; they were not there, and then they were there; but, however the new one came, the boys were some time in getting used to his authority. It appeared to them that several of his acts were distinctly tyrannical, and were encroachments upon rights of theirs which the other teacher, with all his severity, had respected. My boy was inspired by the common mood to write a tragedy which had the despotic behavior of the new teacher for its subject, and which was intended to be represented by the boys in the hayloft of a boy whose father had a stable without any horse in it. The tragedy was written in the measure of the "Lady of the Lake," which was the last poem my boy had heard his father reading aloud; it was very easy kind of verse. At the same time, the boys were to be dressed as Roman conspirators, and one of them was to give the teacher a petition to read, while another plunged a dagger into his vitals, and still another shouted, "Strike, Stephanos, strike!" It seemed to my boy that he had invented a situation which he had lifted almost bodily out of Goldsmith's history; and he did not feel that his lines,
"Come one, come all! This rock shall flee From its firm base as soon as we,"
were too closely modelled upon Scott's lines,
"Come one, come all! This rock shall fly From its firm base as soon as I."
The tragedy was never acted. There may have been some trouble about the hayloft; for the boy whose father owned the stable was to have got the use of it without his father's knowing it; and the poet found that the boys themselves scarcely entered into the spirit of his work. But after that there came a real tragedy, which most of them had part in without realizing it, and that was their persecution of a teacher until he had to give up the school. He must have come next after that usurper, but at any rate the word had been passed round, even before school took up the first morning he began, that he was to be resisted to the death. He could not have had any notion of what was in the air, for in that opening speech to the school which a new teacher always used to make, he talked to the boys in the friendliest manner, and with more sense and reason than they could feel, though I hope they felt some secret shame for the way they meant to behave. He took up some old, dry rods, which he had lying on his desk, and which he said he had found in it, and he told them he hoped never to use such a thing as a rod in that school, and never to strike any boy a blow. He broke the rods into small pieces and put them into the stove, and called the school to order for the studies before it. But the school never came to order, either then or afterwards. As soon as the teacher took his seat, the whispering and giggling, the scuffling and pushing began. The boys passed notes to the girls and held up their slates with things written on them to make the girls laugh; and they threw chewed-paper balls at one another. They asked to go out, and they stayed out as long as they pleased, and came back with an easy air, as if they had done nothing. They would not study; they did not care how much they missed in the class, and they laughed when they had to go to the foot. They made faces at the teacher and mocked him when his back was turned; they even threw paper wads at him.
It went on day after day till the school became a babel. The teacher tried reasoning, and such mild punishment as standing up in the middle of the floor, and keeping in after school. One big boy whom he stood up winked at the girls and made everybody titter; another whom he bade stay after school grabbed his hat and ran out of the room. The fellows played hookey as much as they wanted to, and did not give any excuse for being late, or for not coming at all. At last, when the teacher was driven desperate, and got in a rod (which he said he was ashamed to use, but they left him no hope of ruling them by reason), the big boys fought him, and struck back when he began to whip them. This gentle soul had not one friend among all those little savages, whom he had given no cause to hate, but only cause to love him. None of them could have told why they used him so ill, for nobody knew; only, the word had gone out that you were not to mind him, but to mock him and fight him; nobody knew where the word first came from.
Not even my boy, I grieve to say, was the poor man's friend, though he too had received only kindness from him. One day, when the teacher had set him his copy, and found him doing it badly as he came by, he gave him a slight tap on his head with his penknife, and addressed him some half-joking reproof. This fired my boy's wicked little heart with furious resentment; he gathered up his books after school, and took them home; a good many other boys had done it, and the school was dwindling. He was sent back with his books the next morning, and many other parents behaved as wisely as his. One of the leading men in the town, whose mere presence in the schoolroom sent a thrill of awe through the fellows, brought his son in after such an escapade, and told the teacher that he had just given him a sound thrashing, and he hoped the teacher would give him another. But the teacher took the hand of the snivelling wretch, and called him affectionately by name, and said they would try to get along without that, and sent him to his seat forgiven. It ought to have touched a heart of stone, but in that barbarous republic of boys there was no gratitude. Sometimes they barred the teacher out by nailing the doors and windows; and at last he gave up the school.
But even then his persecution did not end. The word went out that you were not to speak to him if you met him; and if he spoke to you, you were not to say anything back. One day he came up to my boy where he sat fishing for crawfish in the Hydraulic, with his bare legs dangling over the edge of a culvert, and, unawed by this august figure, asked him pleasantly what luck he had. The boy made no sign of seeing or hearing him, and he ignored some other kindly advances. I hope the teacher thought it merely his shyness. The boy went home and told, gleefully, how he had refused to speak to Old Manton; but here he met his reward. He was made to feel how basely rude he had been, and to tingle with a wholesome shame. There was some talk of sending him to the teacher, to ask his forgiveness; but this was given up for fear of inflicting pain where possibly none had been felt. I wish now the boy could have gone to him, for perhaps the teacher is no longer living.
MANNERS AND CUSTOMS.
I SOMETIMES wonder how much these have changed since my boy's time. Of course they differ somewhat from generation to generation, and from East to West and North to South, but not so much, I believe, as grown people are apt to think. Everywhere and always the world of boys is outside of the laws that govern grown-up communities, and it has its unwritten usages, which are handed down from old to young, and perpetuated on the same level of years, and are lived into and lived out of, but are binding, through all personal vicissitudes, upon the great body of boys between six and twelve years old. No boy can violate them without losing his standing among the other boys, and he cannot enter into their world without coming under them. He must do this, and must not do that; he obeys, but he does not know why, any more than the far-off savages from whom his customs seem mostly to have come. His world is all in and through the world of men and women, but no man or woman can get into it any more than if it were a world of invisible beings. It has its own ideals and superstitions, and these are often of a ferocity, a depravity, scarcely credible in after-life. It is a great pity that fathers and mothers cannot penetrate that world; but they cannot, and it is only by accident that they can catch some glimpse of what goes on in it. No doubt it will be civilized in time, but it will be very slowly; and in the meanwhile it is only in some of its milder manners and customs that the boy's world can be studied.
The first great law was that, whatever happened to you through another boy, whatever hurt or harm he did you, you were to right yourself upon his person if you could; but if he was too big, and you could not hope to revenge yourself, then you were to bear the wrong, not only for that time, but for as many times as he chose to inflict it. To tell the teacher or your mother, or to betray your tormentor to any one outside of the boys' world, was to prove yourself a cry-baby, without honor or self-respect, and unfit to go with the other fellows. They would have the right to mock you, to point at you, and call "E-e-e, e-e-e, e-e-e!" at you, till you fought them. After that, whether you whipped them or not there began to be some feeling in your favor again, and they had to stop.
Every boy who came to town from somewhere else, or who moved into a new neighborhood, had to fight the old residents. There was no reason for this, except that he was a stranger, and there appeared to be no other means of making his acquaintance. If he was generally whipped he became subject to the local tribe, as the Delawares were to the Iroquois in the last century; if he whipped the other boys, then they adopted him into their tribe, and he became a leader among them. When you moved away from a neighborhood you did not lose all your rights in it; you did not have to fight when you went back to see the boys, or anything; but if one of them met you in your new precincts you might have to try conclusions with him; and perhaps, if he was a boy who had been in the habit of whipping you, you were quite ready to do so. When my boy's family left the Smith house, one of the boys from that neighborhood came up to see him at the Falconer house, and tried to carry things with a high hand, as he had always done. Then my boy fought him, quite as if he were not a Delaware and the other boy not an Iroquois, with sovereign rights over him. My boy was beaten, but the difference was that, if he had not been on new ground, he would have been beaten without daring to fight. His mother witnessed the combat, and came out and shamed him for his behavior, and had in the other boy, and made them friends over some sugar-cakes. But after that the boys of the Smith neighborhood understood that my boy would not be whipped without fighting. The home instruction was all against fighting; my boy was taught that it was not only wicked, but foolish; that if it was wrong to strike, it was just as wrong to strike back; that two wrongs never made a right, and so on. But all this was not of the least effect with a hot temper amid the trials and perplexities of life in the Boy's Town.
There were some boys of such standing as bullies and such wide fame that they could range all neighborhoods of the town not only without fear of being molested, or made to pass under the local yoke anywhere, but with such plenary powers of intimidation that the other boys submitted to them without question. My boy had always heard of one of these bullies, whose very name, Buz Simpson, carried terror with it; but he had never seen him, because he lived in the unknown region bordering on the river south of the Thomas house. One day he suddenly appeared, when my boy was playing marbles with some other fellows in front of the Falconer house, attended by two or three other boys from below the Sycamore Grove. He was small and insignificant, but such was the fear his name inspired that my boy and his friends cowered before him, though some of them were no mean fighters themselves. They seemed to know by instinct that this was Buz Simpson, and they stood patiently by while he kicked their marbles out of the ring and broke up their game, and, after staying awhile to cover them with ignominy and insult, passed on with his retainers to other fields of conquest. If it had been death to resist him, they could not have dreamed less of doing so; and though this outrage took place under my boy's own windows, and a single word would have brought efficient aid (for the mere sight of any boy's mother could put to flight a whole army of other boys), he never dreamed of calling for help.
That would have been a weakness which would not only have marked him forever as a cry-baby, but an indecorum too gross for words. It would have been as if, when once the boys were playing trip at school, and a big boy tripped him, and he lay quivering and panting on the ground, he had got up as soon as he could catch his breath and gone in and told the teacher; or as if, when the fellows were playing soak-about, and he got hit in the pit of the stomach with a hard ball, he had complained of the fellow who threw it. There were some things so base that a boy could not do them; and what happened out of doors, and strictly within the boy's world, had to be kept sacredly secret among the boys. For instance, if you had been beguiled, as a little boy, into being the last in the game of snap-the-whip, and the snap sent you rolling head over heels on the hard ground, and skinned your nose and tore your trousers, you could cry from the pain without disgrace, and some of the fellows would come up and try to comfort you; but you were bound in honor not to appeal to the teacher, and you were expected to use every device to get the blood off you before you went in, and to hide the tear in your trousers. Of course, the tear and the blood could not be kept from the anxious eyes at home, but even there you were expected not to say just what boys did it.
They were by no means the worst boys who did such things, but only the most thoughtless. Still, there was a public opinion in the Boy's Town which ruled out certain tricks, and gave the boys who played them the name of being "mean." One of these was boring a hole in the edge of your school-desk to meet a shaft sunk from the top, which you filled with slate-pencil dust. Then, if you were that kind of boy, you got some little chap to put his eye close to the shaft, with the hope of seeing Niagara Falls, and set your lips to the hole in the edge, and blew his eye full of pencil-dust. This was mean; and it was also mean to get some unsuspecting child to close the end of an elderwood tube with his thumb, and look hard at you, while you showed him Germany. You did this by pulling a string below the tube, and running a needle into his thumb. My boy discovered Germany in this way long before he had any geographical or political conception of it.
I do not know why, if these abominable cruelties were thought mean, it was held lawful to cover a stone with dust and get a boy, not in the secret, to kick the pile over with his bare foot. It was perfectly good form, also, to get a boy, if you could, to shut his eyes, and then lead him into a mud-puddle or a thicket of briers or nettles, or to fool him in any heartless way, such as promising to pump easy when he put his mouth to the pump-spout, and then coming down on the pump-handle with a rush that flooded him with water and sent him off blowing the tide from his nostrils like a whale. Perhaps these things were permitted because the sight of the victim's suffering was so funny. Half the pleasure in fighting wasps or bumble-bees was in killing them and destroying their nests; the other half was in seeing the fellows get stung. If you could fool a fellow into a mass-meeting of bumble-bees, and see him lead them off in a steeple-chase, it was right and fair to do so. But there were other cases in which deceit was not allowable. For instance, if you appeared on the playground with an apple, and all the boys came whooping round, "You know me, Jimmy!" "You know your uncle!" "You know your grandfather!" and you began to sell out bites at three pins for a lady-bite and six pins for a hog-bite, and a boy bought a lady-bite and then took a hog-bite, he was held in contempt, and could by no means pass it off for a good joke on you; it was considered mean.
In the Boy's Town there was almost as much stone-throwing as there was in Florence in the good old times. There was a great abundance of the finest kind of pebbles, from the size of a robin's egg upward, smooth and shapely, which the boys called rocks. They were always stoning something, birds, or dogs, or mere inanimate marks, but most of the time they were stoning one another. They came out of their houses, or front-yards, and began to throw stones, when they were on perfectly good terms, and they usually threw stones in parting for the day. They stoned a boy who left a group singly, and it was lawful for him to throw stones back at the rest, if the whim took him, when he got a little way off. With all this stone-throwing, very little harm was done, though now and then a stone took a boy on the skull, and raised a lump of its own size. Then the other boys knew, by the roar of rage and pain he set up, that he had been hit, and ran home and left him to his fate.
Their fights were mostly informal scuffles, on and off in a flash, and conducted with none of the ceremony which I have read of concerning the fights of English boys. It was believed that some of the fellows knew how to box, and all the fellows intended to learn, but nobody ever did. The fights sprang usually out of some trouble of the moment; but at times they were arranged to settle some question of moral or physical superiority. Then one boy put a chip on his shoulder and dared the other to knock it off. It took a great while to bring the champions to blows, and I have known the mere preparatory insults of a fight of this kind to wear out the spirit of the combatants and the patience of the spectators, so that not a blow was struck, finally, and the whole affair fell through.
Though they were so quarrelsome among themselves, the boys that my boy went with never molested girls. They mostly ignored them; but they would have scorned to hurt a girl almost as much as they would have scorned to play with one. Of course while they were very little they played with girls; and after they began to be big boys, eleven or twelve years old, they began to pay girls some attention; but for the rest they simply left them out of the question, except at parties, when the games obliged them to take some notice of the girls. Even then, however, it was not good form for a boy to be greatly interested in them; and he had to conceal any little fancy he had about this girl or that unless he wanted to be considered soft by the other fellows. When they were having fun they did not want to have any girls around; but in the back-yard a boy might play teeter or seesaw, or some such thing, with his sisters and their friends, without necessarily losing caste, though such things were not encouraged. On the other hand, a boy was bound to defend them against anything that he thought slighting or insulting; and you did not have to verify the fact that anything had been said or done; you merely had to hear that it had. It once fell to my boy to avenge such a reported wrong from a boy who had not many friends in school, a timid creature whom the mere accusation frightened half out of his wits, and who wildly protested his innocence. He ran, and my boy followed with the other boys after him, till they overtook the culprit and brought him to bay against a high board fence; and there my boy struck him in his imploring face. He tried to feel like a righteous champion, but he felt like a brutal ruffian. He long had the sight of that terrified, weeping face, and with shame and sickness of heart he cowered before it. It was pretty nearly the last of his fighting; and though he came off victor, he felt that he would rather be beaten himself than do another such act of justice. In fact, it seems best to be very careful how we try to do justice in this world, and mostly to leave retribution of all kinds to God, who really knows about things; and content ourselves as much as possible with mercy, whose mistakes are not so irreparable.
The boys had very little to do with the inside of one another's houses. They would follow a boy to his door, and wait for him to come out; and they would sometimes get him to go in and ask his mother for crullers or sugar-cakes; when they came to see him they never went indoors for him, but stood on the sidewalk and called him with a peculiar cry, something like "E-oo-we, e-oo-we!" and threw stones at trees, or anything, till he came out. If he did not come, after a reasonable time, they knew he was not there, or that his mother would not let him come. A fellow was kept in that way, now and then. If a fellow's mother came to the door the boys always ran.
The mother represented the family sovereignty; the father was seldom seen, and he counted for little or nothing among the outside boys. It was the mother who could say whether a boy might go fishing or in swimming, and she was held a good mother or not according as she habitually said yes or no. There was no other standard of goodness for mothers in the boy's world, and could be none; and a bad mother might be outwitted by any device that the other boys could suggest to her boy. Such a boy was always willing to listen to any suggestion, and no boy took it hard if the other fellows made fun when their plan got him into trouble at home. If a boy came out after some such experience with his face wet, and his eyes red, and his lips swollen, of course you had to laugh; he expected it, and you expected him to stone you for laughing.
When a boy's mother had company, he went and hid till the guests were gone, or only came out of concealment to get some sort of shy lunch. If the other fellows' mothers were there, he might be a little bolder, and bring out cake from the second table. But he had to be pretty careful how he conformed to any of the usages of grown-up society. A fellow who brushed his hair, and put on shoes, and came into the parlor when there was company, was not well seen among the fellows; he was regarded in some degree as a girl-boy; a boy who wished to stand well with other boys kept in the wood-shed, and only went in as far as the kitchen to get things for his guests in the back-yard. Yet there were mothers who would make a boy put on a collar when they had company, and disgrace him before the world by making him stay round and help; they acted as if they had no sense and no pity; but such mothers were rare.
Most mothers yielded to public opinion and let their boys leave the house, and wear just what they always wore. I have told how little they wore in summer. Of course in winter they had to put on more things. In those days knickerbockers were unknown, and if a boy had appeared in short pants and long stockings he would have been thought dressed like a circus-actor. Boys wore long pantaloons, like men, as soon as they put off skirts, and they wore jackets or roundabouts such as the English boys still wear at Eton. When the cold weather came they had to put on shoes and stockings, or rather long-legged boots, such as are seen now only among lumbermen and teamsters in the country. Most of the fellows had stoga boots, as heavy as iron and as hard; they were splendid to skate in, they kept your ankles so stiff. Sometimes they greased them to keep the water out; but they never blacked them except on Sunday, and before Saturday they were as red as a rusty stove-pipe. At night they were always so wet that you could not get them off without a boot-jack, and you could hardly do it anyway; sometimes you got your brother to help you off with them, and then he pulled you all round the room. In the morning they were dry, but just as hard as stone, and you had to soap the heel of your woollen sock (which your grandmother had knitted for you, or maybe some of your aunts) before you could get your foot in, and sometimes the ears of the boot that you pulled it on by would give way, and you would have to stamp your foot in and kick the toe against the mop-board. Then you gasped and limped round, with your feet like fire, till you could get out and limber your boots up in some water somewhere. About noon your chilblains began.
My boy had his secret longing to be a dandy, and once he was so taken with a little silk hat at the hat-store that he gave his father no peace till he got it for him. But the very first time he wore it the boys made fun of it, and that was enough. After that he wore it several times with streaming tears; and then he was allowed to lay it aside, and compromise on an unstylish cap of velvet, which he had despised before. I do not know why a velvet cap was despised, but it was; a cap with a tassel was babyish. The most desired kind of cap was a flat one of blue broadcloth, with a patent-leather peak, and a removable cover of oil-cloth, silk if you were rich, cotton if you were poor; when you had pulled the top of such a cap over on one side, you were dressed for conquest, especially if you wore your hair long. My boy had such a cap, with a silk oil-cloth cover, but his splendor was marred by his short hair.
At one time boots with long, sharp-pointed toes were the fashion, and he so ardently desired a pair of these that fate granted his prayer, but in the ironical spirit which fate usually shows when granting a person's prayers. These boots were of calf-skin, and they had red leather tops, which you could show by letting your pantaloon-legs carelessly catch on the ears; but the smallest pair in town was several sizes too large for my boy. The other boys were not slow to discover the fact, and his martyrdom with these boots began at once. But he was not allowed to give them up as he did the silk hat; he had to wear them out. However, it did not take long to wear out a pair of boots in the Boy's Town. A few weeks' scuffling over the gravelly ground, or a single day's steady sliding made them the subjects for half-soling, and then it was a question of only a very little time.
A good many of the boys, though, wore their boots long after they were worn out, and so they did with the rest of their clothes. I have tried to give some notion of the general distribution of comfort which was never riches in the Boy's Town; but I am afraid that I could not paint the simplicity of things there truly without being misunderstood in these days of great splendor and great squalor. Everybody had enough, but nobody had too much; the richest man in town might be worth twenty thousand dollars. There were distinctions among the grown people, and no doubt there were the social cruelties which are the modern expression of the savage spirit otherwise repressed by civilization; but these were unknown among the boys. Savages they were, but not that kind of savages. They valued a boy for his character and prowess, and it did not matter in the least that he was ragged and dirty. Their mothers might not allow him the run of their kitchens quite so freely as some other boys, but the boys went with him just the same, and they never noticed how little he was washed and dressed. The best of them had not an overcoat; and underclothing was unknown among them. When a boy had buttoned up his roundabout, and put on his mittens, and tied his comforter round his neck and over his ears, he was warmly dressed.
PLAYS AND PASTIMES.
ABOUT the time fate cursed him with a granted prayer in those boots, my boy was deep in the reading of a book about Grecian mythology which he found perpetually fascinating; he read it over and over without ever thinking of stopping merely because he had already been through it twenty or thirty times. It had pictures of all the gods and goddesses, demigods and heroes; and he tried to make poems upon their various characters and exploits. But Apollo was his favorite, and I believe it was with some hope of employing them in a personation of the god that he coveted those red-topped sharp-toed calf-skin boots. He had a notion that if he could get up a chariot by sawing down the sides of a store-box for the body, and borrowing the hind-wheels of the baby's willow wagon, and then, drawn by the family dog Tip at a mad gallop, come suddenly whirling round the corner of the school-house, wearing spangled circus-tights and bearing Apollo's bow and shaft, while a silken scarf which he had seen in a bureau-drawer at home blew gallantly out behind him, it would have a fine effect with the boys. Some of the fellows wished to be highway robbers and outlaws; one who intended to be a pirate afterwards got so far in a maritime career as to invent a steam-engine governor now in use on the seagoing steamers; my boy was content to be simply a god, the god of poetry and sunshine. He never realized his modest ambition, but then boys never realize anything; though they have lots of fun failing.
In the Boy's Town they had regular games and plays, which came and went in a stated order. The first thing in the spring as soon as the frost began to come out of the ground, they had marbles which they played till the weather began to be pleasant for the game, and then they left it off. There were some mean-spirited fellows who played for fun, but any boy who was anything played for keeps: that is, keeping all the marbles he won. As my boy was skilful at marbles, he was able to start out in the morning with his toy, or the marble he shot with, and a commy, or a brown marble of the Lowest value, and come home at night with a pocketful of white-alleys and blood-alleys, striped plasters find bull's-eyes, and crystals, clear and clouded. His gambling was not approved of at home, but it was allowed him because of the hardness of his heart, I suppose, and because it was not thought well to keep him up too strictly; and I suspect it would have been useless to forbid his playing for keeps, though he came to have a bad conscience about it before he gave it up. There were three kinds of games at marbles which the boys played: one with a long ring marked out on the ground, and a base some distance off, which you began to shoot from; another with a round ring, whose line formed the base; and another with holes, three or five, hollowed in the earth at equal distances from each other, which was called knucks. You could play for keeps in all these games; and in knucks, if you won, you had a shot or shots at the knuckles of the fellow who lost, and who was obliged to hold them down for you to shoot at. Fellows who were mean would twitch their knuckles away when they saw your toy coming, and run; but most of them took their punishment with the savage pluck of so many little Sioux. As the game began in the raw cold of the earliest spring, every boy had chapped hands, and nearly every one had the skin worn off the knuckle of his middle finger from resting it on the ground when he shot. You could use a knuckle-dabster of fur or cloth to rest your hand on, but it was considered effeminate, and in the excitement you were apt to forget it, anyway. Marbles were always very exciting, and were played with a clamor as incessant as that of a blackbird roost. A great many points were always coming up: whether a boy took-up or edged beyond the very place where his toy lay when he shot; whether he knuckled down, or kept his hand on the ground in shooting; whether, when another boy's toy drove one marble against another and knocked both out of the ring, he holloed "Fen doubs!" before the other fellow holloed "Doubs!" whether a marble was in or out of the ring, and whether the umpire's decision was just or not. The gambling and the quarrelling went on till the second-bell rang for school, and began again as soon as the boys could get back to their rings when school let out. The rings were usually marked on the ground with a stick, but when there was a great hurry, or there was no stick handy, the side of a fellow's boot would do, and the hollows for knucks were always bored by twirling round on your boot-heel. This helped a boy to wear out his boots very rapidly, but that was what his boots were made for, just as the sidewalks were made for the boys' marble-rings, and a citizen's character for cleverness or meanness was fixed by his walking round or over the rings. Cleverness was used in the Virginia sense for amiability; a person who was clever in the English sense was smart.
There were many games of ball. Two-cornered cat was played by four boys: two to bat, and two behind the batters to catch and pitch. Three-cornered cat was, I believe, the game which has since grown into base-ball, and was even then sometimes called so. But soak-about was the favorite game at school, and it simply consisted of hitting any other boy you could with the ball when you could get it. Foot-ball was always played with a bladder, and it came in season with the cold weather when the putting up of beef began; the business was practically regarded by the boys as one undertaken to supply them with bladders for foot-balls.
When the warm weather came on in April, and the boys got off their shoes for good, there came races, in which they seemed to fly on wings. Life has a good many innocent joys for the human animal, but surely none so ecstatic as the boy feels when his bare foot first touches the breast of our mother earth in the spring. Something thrills through him then from the heart of her inmost being that makes him feel kin with her, and cousin to all her dumb children of the grass and trees. His blood leaps as wildly as at that kiss of the waters when he plunges into their arms in June; there is something even finer and sweeter in the rapture of the earlier bliss. The day will not be long enough for his flights, his races; he aches more with regret than with fatigue when he must leave the happy paths under the stars outside, and creep into his bed. It is all like some glimpse, some foretaste of the heavenly time when the earth and her sons shall be reconciled in a deathless love, and they shall not be thankless, nor she a step-mother any more.
About the only drawback to going barefoot was stumping your toe, which you were pretty sure to do when you first took off your shoes and before you had got used to your new running weight. When you struck your toe against a rock, or anything, you caught it up in your hand, and hopped about a hundred yards before you could bear to put it to the ground. Then you sat down, and held it as tight as you could, and cried over it, till the fellows helped you to the pump to wash the blood off. Then, as soon as you could, you limped home for a rag, and kept pretty quiet about it so as to get out again without letting on to your mother.
With the races came the other plays which involved running, like hide-and-go-whoop, and tag, and dog-on-wood, and horse, which I dare say the boys of other times and other wheres know by different names. The Smith-house neighborhood was a famous place for them all, both because there were such lots of boys, and because there were so many sheds and stables where you could hide, and everything. There was a town pump there for you, so that you would not have to go into the house for a drink when you got thirsty, and perhaps be set to doing something; and there were plenty of boards for teeter and see-saw; and somehow that neighborhood seemed to understand boys, and did not molest them in any way. In a vacant lot behind one of the houses there was a whirligig, that you could ride on and get sick in about a minute; it was splendid. There was a family of German boys living across the street, that you could stone whenever they came out of their front gate, for the simple and sufficient reason that they were Dutchmen, and without going to the trouble of a quarrel with them. My boy was not allowed to stone them; but when he was with the other fellows, and his elder brother was not along, he could not help stoning them.
There were shade trees all along that street, that you could climb if you wanted to, or that you could lie down under when you had run yourself out of breath, or play mumble-the-peg. My boy distinctly remembered that under one of these trees his elder brother first broached to him that awful scheme of reform about fibbing, and applied to their own lives the moral of "The Trippings of Tom Pepper;" he remembered how a conviction of the righteousness of the scheme sank into his soul, and he could not withhold his consent. Under the same tree, and very likely at the same time, a solemn conclave of boys, all the boys there were, discussed the feasibility of tying a tin can to a dog's tail, and seeing how he would act. They had all heard of the thing, but none of them had seen it; and it was not so much a question of whether you ought to do a thing that on the very face of it would be so much fun, and if it did not amuse the dog as highly as anybody, could certainly do him no harm, as it was a question of whose dog you should get to take the dog's part in the sport. It was held that an old dog would probably not keep still long enough for you to tie the can on; he would have his suspicions; or else he would not run when the can was tied on, but very likely just go and lie down somewhere. The lot finally fell to a young yellow dog belonging to one of the boys, and the owner at once ran home to get him, and easily lured him back to the other boys with flatteries and caresses. The flatteries and caresses were not needed, for a dog is always glad to go with boys, upon any pretext, and so far from thinking that he does them a favor, he feels himself greatly honored. But I dare say the boy had a guilty fear that if his dog had known why he was invited to be of that party of boys, he might have pleaded a previous engagement. As it was, he came joyfully, and allowed the can to be tied to his tail without misgiving. If there had been any question with the boys as to whether he would enter fully into the spirit of the affair, it must have been instantly dissipated by the dog's behavior when he felt the loop tighten on his tail, and looked round to see what the matter was. The boys hardly had a chance to cheer him before he flashed out of sight round the corner, and they hardly had time to think before he flashed into sight again from the other direction. He whizzed along the ground, and the can hurtled in the air, but there was no other sound, and the cheers died away on the boys' lips. The boy who owned the dog began to cry, and the other fellows began to blame him for not stopping the dog. But he might as well have tried to stop a streak of lightning; the only thing you could do was to keep out of the dog's way. As an experiment it was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its projectors, though it would have been a sort of relief if the dog had taken some other road, for variety, or had even reversed his course. But he kept on as he began, and by a common impulse the boys made up their minds to abandon the whole affair to him. They all ran home and hid, or else walked about and tried to ignore it. But at this point the grown-up people began to be interested; the mothers came to their doors to see what was the matter. Yet even the mothers were powerless in a case like that, and the enthusiast had to be left to his fate. He was found under a barn at last, breathless, almost lifeless, and he tried to bite the man who untied the can from his tail. Eventually he got well again, and lived to be a solemn warning to the boys; he was touchingly distrustful of their advances for a time, but he finally forgot and forgave everything. They did not forget, and they never tried tying a tin can to a dog's tail again, among all the things they tried and kept trying. Once was enough; and they never even liked to talk of it, the sight was so awful. They were really fond of the dog, and if they could have thought he would take the matter so seriously, they would not have tried to have that kind of fun with him. It cured them of ever wanting to have that kind of fun with any dog.
As the weather softened, tops came in some weeks after marbles went out, and just after foot-races were over, and a little before swimming began. At first the boys bought their tops at the stores, but after a while the boy whose father had the turning-shop on the Hydraulic learned to turn their tops, and did it for nothing, which was cheaper than buying tops, especially as he furnished the wood, too, and you only had to get the wire peg yourself. I believe he was the same boy who wanted to be a pirate and ended by inventing a steam-governor. He was very ingenious, and he knew how to turn a top out of beech or maple that would outspin anything you could get in a store. The boys usually chose a firm, smooth piece of sidewalk, under one of the big trees in the Smith neighborhood, and spun their tops there. A fellow launched his top into the ring, and the rest waited till it began to go to sleep, that is, to settle in one place, and straighten up and spin silently, as if standing still. Then any fellow had a right to peg at it with his top, and if he hit it, he won it; and if he split it, as sometimes happened, the fellow that owned it had to give him a top. The boys came with their pockets bulged out with tops, but before long they had to go for more tops to that boy who could turn them. From this it was but another step to go to the shop with him and look on while he turned the tops; and then in process of time the boys discovered that the smooth floor of the shop was a better place to fight tops than the best piece of sidewalk. They would have given whole Saturdays to the sport there, but when they got to holloing too loudly the boy's father would come up, and then they would all run. It was considered mean in him, but the boy himself was awfully clever, and the first thing the fellows knew they were back there again. Some few of the boys had humming-tops; but though these pleased by their noise, they were not much esteemed, and could make no head against the good old turnip-shaped tops, solid and weighty, that you could wind up with a stout cotton cord, and launch with perfect aim from the flat button held between your fore finger and middle finger. Some of the boys had a very pretty art in the twirl they gave the top, and could control its course, somewhat as a skilful pitcher can govern that of a base-ball.
I do not know why a certain play went out, but suddenly the fellows who had been playing ball, or marbles, or tops, would find themselves playing something else. Kites came in just about the time of the greatest heat in summer, and lasted a good while; but could not have lasted as long as the heat, which began about the first of June, and kept on well through September; no play could last so long as that, and I suppose kite-flying must have died into swimming after the Fourth of July. The kites were of various shapes: bow kites, two-stick kites, and house kites. A bow kite could be made with half a barrel hoop carried over the top of a cross, but it was troublesome to make, and it did not fly very well, and somehow it was thought to look babyish; but it was held in greater respect than the two-stick kite, which only the smallest boys played with, and which was made by fastening two sticks in the form of a cross. Any fellow more than six years old who appeared on the Commons with a two-stick kite would have been met with jeers, as a kind of girl. The favorite kite, the kite that balanced best, took the wind best, and flew best, and that would stand all day when you got it up, was the house kite, which was made of three sticks, and shaped nearly in the form of the gable of a gambrel-roofed house, only smaller at the base than at the point where the roof would begin. The outline of all these kites was given, and the sticks stayed in place by a string carried taut from stick to stick, which was notched at the ends to hold it; sometimes the sticks were held with a tack at the point of crossing, and sometimes they were mortised into one another; but this was apt to weaken them. The frame was laid down on a sheet of paper, and the paper was cut an inch or two larger, and then pasted and folded over the string. Most of the boys used a paste made of flour and cold water; but my boy and his brother could usually get paste from the printing-office; and when they could not they would make it by mixing flour and water cream-thick, and slowly boiling it. That was a paste that would hold till the cows came home, the boys said, and my boy was courted for his skill in making it. But after the kite was pasted, and dried in the sun, or behind the kitchen stove, if you were in very much of a hurry (and you nearly always were), it had to be hung, with belly-bands and tail-bands; that is, with strings carried from stick to stick over the face and at the bottom, to attach the cord for flying it and to fasten on the tail by. This took a good deal of art, and unless it were well done the kite would not balance, but would be always pitching and darting. Then the tail had to be of just the right weight; if it was too heavy the kite kept sinking, even after you got it up where otherwise it would stand; if too light, the kite would dart, and dash itself to pieces on the ground. A very pretty tail was made by tying twists of paper across a string a foot apart, till there were enough to balance the kite; but this sort of tail was apt to get tangled, and the best tail was made of a long streamer of cotton rags, with a gay tuft of dog-fennel at the end. Dog-fennel was added or taken away till just the right weight was got; and when this was done, after several experimental tests, the kite was laid flat on its face in the middle of the road, or on a long stretch of smooth grass; the bands were arranged, and the tail stretched carefully out behind, where it would not catch on bushes. You unwound a great length of twine, running backward, and letting the twine slip swiftly through your hands till you had run enough out; then you seized the ball, and with one look over your shoulder to see that all was right, started swiftly forward. The kite reared itself from the ground, and, swaying gracefully from side to side, rose slowly into the air, with its long tail climbing after it till the fennel tuft swung free. If there was not much surface wind you might have to run a little way, but as soon as the kite caught the upper currents it straightened itself, pulled the twine taut, and steadily mounted, while you gave it more and more twine; if the breeze was strong, the cord burned as it ran through your hands; till at last the kite stood still in the sky, at such a height that the cord holding it sometimes melted out of sight in the distance.
If it was a hot July day the sky would be full of kites, and the Commons would be dotted over with boys holding them, or setting them up, or winding them in, and all talking and screaming at the tops of their voices under the roasting sun. One might think that kite-flying, at least, could be carried on quietly and peaceably; but it was not. Besides the wild debate of the rival excellences of the different kites, there were always quarrels from getting the strings crossed; for, as the boys got their kites up, they drew together for company and for an easier comparison of their merits. It was only a mean boy who would try to cross another fellow's string; but sometimes accidents would happen; two kites would become entangled, and both would have to be hauled in, while their owners cried and scolded, and the other fellows cheered and laughed. Now and then the tail of a kite would part midway, and then the kite would begin to dart violently from side to side, and then to whirl round and round in swifter and narrower circles till it dashed itself to the ground. Sometimes the kite-string would break, and the kite would waver and fall like a bird shot in the wing; and the owner of the kite, and all the fellows who had no kites, would run to get it where it came down, perhaps a mile or more away. It usually came down in a tree, and they had to climb for it; but sometimes it lodged so high that no one could reach it; and then it was slowly beaten and washed away in the winds and rains, and its long tail left streaming all winter from the naked bough where it had caught. It was so good for kites on the Commons, because there were no trees there, and not even fences, but a vast open stretch of level grass, which the cows and geese kept cropped to the earth; and for the most part the boys had no trouble with their kites there. Some of them had paper fringe pasted round the edges of their kites; this made a fine rattling as the kite rose, and when the kite stood, at the end of its string, you could hear the humming if you put your ear to the twine. But the most fun was sending up messengers. The messengers were cut out of thick paper, with a slit at one side, so as to slip over the string, which would be pulled level long enough to give the messenger a good start, and then released, when the wind would catch the little circle, and drive it up the long curving incline till it reached the kite.
It was thought a great thing in a kite to pull, and it was a favor to another boy to let him take hold of your string and feel how your kite pulled. If you wanted to play mumble-the-peg, or anything, while your kite was up, you tied it to a stake in the ground, or gave it to some other fellow to hold; there were always lots of fellows eager to hold it. But you had to be careful how you let a little fellow hold it; for, if it was a very powerful kite, it would take him up. It was not certain just how strong a kite had to be to take a small boy up, and nobody had ever seen a kite do it, but everybody expected to see it.
CIRCUSES AND SHOWS.
WHAT every boy expected to do, some time or other, was to run off. He expected to do this because the scheme offered an unlimited field to the imagination, and because its fulfilment would give him the highest distinction among the other fellows. To run off was held to be the only way for a boy to right himself against the wrongs and hardships of a boy's life. As far as the Boy's Town was concerned, no boy had anything to complain of; the boys had the best time in the world there, and in a manner they knew it. But there were certain things that they felt no boy ought to stand, and these things were sometimes put upon them at school, but usually at home. In fact, nearly all the things that a fellow intended to run off for were done to him by those who ought to have been the kindest to him. Some boys' mothers had the habit of making them stop and do something for them just when they were going away with the fellows. Others would not let them go in swimming as often as they wanted, and, if they saw them with their shirts on wrong side out, would not believe that they could get turned in climbing a fence. Others made them split kindling and carry in wood, and even saw wood. None of these things, in a simple form, was enough to make a boy run off, but they prepared his mind for it, and when complicated with whipping they were just cause for it. Weeding the garden, though, was a thing that almost, in itself, was enough to make a fellow run off.
Not many of the boys really had to saw wood, though a good many of the fellows' fathers had saws and bucks in their wood-sheds. There were public sawyers who did most of the wood-sawing; and they came up with their bucks on their shoulders, and asked for the job almost as soon as the wood was unloaded before your door. The most popular one with the boys was a poor half-wit known among them as Morn; and he was a favorite with them because he had fits, and because, when he had a fit, he would seem to fly all over the woodpile. The boys would leave anything to see Morn in a fit, and he always had a large crowd round him as soon as the cry went out that he was beginning to have one. They watched the hapless creature with grave, unpitying, yet not unfriendly interest, too ignorant of the dark ills of life to know how deeply tragic was the spectacle that entertained them, and how awfully present in Morn's contortions was the mystery of God's ways with his children, some of whom he gives to happiness and some to misery. When Morn began to pick himself weakly up, with eyes of pathetic bewilderment, they helped him find his cap, and tried to engage him in conversation, for the pleasure of seeing him twist his mouth when he said, of a famous town drunkard whom he admired, "He's a strong man; he eats liquor." It was probably poor Morn's ambition to eat liquor himself, and the boys who followed that drunkard about to plague him had a vague respect for his lamentable appetite.
None of the boys ever did run off, except the son of one of the preachers. He was a big boy, whom my boy remotely heard of, but never saw, for he lived in another part of the town; but his adventure was known to all the boys, and his heroism rated high among them. It took nothing from this, in their eyes, that he was found, homesick and crying in Cincinnati, and was glad to come back—the great fact was that he had run off; nothing could change or annul that. If he had made any mistake, it was in not running off with a circus, for that was the true way of running off. Then, if you were ever seen away from home, you were seen tumbling through a hoop and alighting on the crupper of a barebacked piebald, and if you ever came home you came home in a gilded chariot, and you flashed upon the domestic circle in flesh-colored tights and spangled breech-cloth. As soon as the circus-bills began to be put up you began to hear that certain boys were going to run off with that circus, and the morning after it left town you heard they had gone, but they always turned up at school just the same. It was believed that the circus-men would take any boy who wanted to go with them, and would fight off his friends if they tried to get him away.
The boys made a very careful study of the circus-bills, and afterwards, when the circus came, they held the performance to a strict account for any difference between the feats and their representation. For a fortnight beforehand they worked themselves up for the arrival of the circus into a fever of fear and hope, for it was always a question with a great many whether they could get their fathers to give them the money to go in. The full price was two bits, and the half-price was a bit, or a Spanish real, then a commoner coin than the American dime in the West; and every boy, for that time only, wished to be little enough to look young enough to go in for a bit. Editors of newspapers had a free ticket for every member of their families; and my boy was sure of going to the circus from the first rumor of its coming. But he was none the less deeply thrilled by the coming event, and he was up early on the morning of the great day, to go out and meet the circus procession beyond the corporation line.
I do not really know how boys live through the wonder and the glory of such a sight. Once there were two chariots—one held the band in red-and-blue uniforms, and was drawn by eighteen piebald horses; and the other was drawn by a troop of Shetland ponies, and carried in a vast mythical sea-shell little boys in spangled tights and little girls in the gauze skirts and wings of fairies. There was not a flaw in this splendor to the young eyes that gloated on it, and that followed it in rapture through every turn and winding of its course in the Boy's Town; nor in the magnificence of the actors and actresses, who came riding two by two in their circus-dresses after the chariots, and looking some haughty and contemptuous, and others quiet and even bored, as if it were nothing to be part of such a procession. The boys tried to make them out by the pictures and names on the bills: which was Rivers, the bare-back rider, and which was O'Dale, the champion tumbler; which was the India-rubber man, which the ring-master, which the clown. Covered with dust, gasping with the fatigue of a three hours' run beside the procession, but fresh at heart as in the beginning, they arrived with it on the Commons, where the tent-wagons were already drawn up, and the ring was made, and mighty men were driving the iron-headed tent-stakes, and stretching the ropes of the great skeleton of the pavilion which they were just going to clothe with canvas. The boys were not allowed to come anywhere near, except three or four who got leave to fetch water from a neighboring well, and thought themselves richly paid with half-price tickets. The other boys were proud to pass a word with them as they went by with their brimming buckets; fellows who had money to go in would have been glad to carry water just for the glory of coming close to the circus-men. They stood about in twos and threes, and lay upon the grass in groups debating whether a tan-bark ring was better than a sawdust ring; there were different opinions. They came as near the wagons as they dared, and looked at the circus-horses munching hay from the tail-boards, just like common horses. The wagons were left standing outside of the tent; but when it was up, the horses were taken into the dressing-room, and then the boys, with many a backward look at the wide spread of canvas, and the flags and streamers floating over it from the centre-pole (the centre-pole was revered almost like a distinguished personage), ran home to dinner so as to get back good and early, and be among the first to go in. All round, before the circus doors were open, the doorkeepers of the side-shows were inviting people to come in and see the giants and fat woman and boa-constrictors, and there were stands for peanuts and candy and lemonade; the vendors cried, "Ice-cold lemonade, from fifteen hundred miles under ground! Walk up, roll up, tumble up, any way to get up!" The boys thought this brilliant drolling, but they had no time to listen after the doors were open, and they had no money to spend on side-shows or dainties, anyway. Inside the tent, they found it dark and cool, and their hearts thumped in their throats with the wild joy of being there; they recognized one another with amaze, as if they had not met for years, and the excitement kept growing, as other fellows came in. It was lots of fun, too, watching the country-jakes, as the boys called the farmer-folk, and seeing how green they looked, and how some of them tried to act smart with the circus-men that came round with oranges to sell. But the great thing was to see whether fellows that said they were going to hook in really got in. The boys held it to be a high and creditable thing to hook into a show of any kind, but hooking into a circus was something that a fellow ought to be held in special honor for doing. He ran great risks, and if he escaped the vigilance of the massive circus-man who patrolled the outside of the tent with a cowhide and a bulldog, perhaps he merited the fame he was sure to win.
I do not know where boys get some of the notions of morality that govern them. These notions are like the sports and plays that a boy leaves off as he gets older to the boys that are younger. He outgrows them, and other boys grow into them, and then outgrow them as he did. Perhaps they come down to the boyhood of our time from the boyhood of the race, and the unwritten laws of conduct may have prevailed among the earliest Aryans on the plains of Asia that I now find so strange in a retrospect of the Boy's Town. The standard of honor there was, in a certain way, very high among the boys; they would have despised a thief as he deserved, and I cannot remember one of them who might not have been safely trusted. None of them would have taken an apple out of a market-wagon, or stolen a melon from a farmer who came to town with it; but they would all have thought it fun, if not right, to rob an orchard or hook a watermelon out of a patch. This would have been a foray into the enemy's country, and the fruit of the adventure would have been the same as the plunder of a city, or the capture of a vessel belonging to him on the high seas. In the same way, if one of the boys had seen a circus-man drop a quarter, he would have hurried to give it back to him, but he would only have been proud to hook into the circus-man's show, and the other fellows would have been proud of his exploit, too, as something that did honor to them all. As a person who enclosed bounds and forbade trespass, the circus-man constituted himself the enemy of every boy who respected himself, and challenged him to practise any sort of strategy. There was not a boy in the crowd that my boy went with who would have been allowed to hook into a circus by his parents; yet hooking in was an ideal that was cherished among them, that was talked of, and that was even sometimes attempted, though not often. Once, when a fellow really hooked in, and joined the crowd that had ignobly paid, one of the fellows could not stand it. He asked him just how and where he got in, and then he went to the door, and got back his money from the doorkeeper upon the plea that he did not feel well; and in five or ten minutes he was back among the boys, a hero of such moral grandeur as would be hard to describe. Not one of the fellows saw him as he really was—a little lying, thievish scoundrel. Not even my boy saw him so, though he had on some other point of personal honesty the most fantastic scruples.
The boys liked to be at the circus early so as to make sure of the grand entry of the performers into the ring, where they caracoled round on horseback, and gave a delicious foretaste of the wonders to come. The fellows were united in this, but upon other matters feeling varied—some liked tumbling best; some the slack-rope; some bare-back riding; some the feats of tossing knives and balls and catching them. There never was more than one ring in those days; and you were not tempted to break your neck and set your eyes forever askew, by trying to watch all the things that went on at once in two or three rings. The boys did not miss the smallest feats of any performance, and they enjoyed them every one, not equally, but fully. They had their preferences, of course, as I have hinted; and one of the most popular acts was that where a horse has been trained to misbehave, so that nobody can mount him; and after the actors have tried him, the ring-master turns to the audience, and asks if some gentleman among them wants to try it. Nobody stirs, till at last a tipsy country-jake is seen making his way down from one of the top-seats towards the ring. He can hardly walk, he is so drunk, and the clown has to help him across the ring-board, and even then he trips and rolls over on the sawdust, and has to be pulled to his feet. When they bring him up to the horse, he falls against it; and the little fellows think he will certainly get killed. But the big boys tell the little fellows to shut up and watch out. The ring-master and the clown manage to get the country-jake on to the broad platform on the horse's back, and then the ring-master cracks his whip, and the two supes who have been holding the horse's head let go, and the horse begins cantering round the ring. The little fellows are just sure the country-jake is going to fall off, he reels and totters so; but the big boys tell them to keep watching out; and pretty soon the country-jake begins to straighten up. He begins to unbutton his long gray overcoat, and then he takes it off and throws it into the ring, where one of the supes catches it. Then he sticks a short pipe into his mouth, and pulls on an old wool hat, and flourishes a stick that the supe throws to him, and you see that he is an Irishman just come across the sea; and then off goes another coat, and he comes out a British soldier in white duck trousers and red coat. That comes off, and he is an American sailor, with his hands on his hips dancing a hornpipe. Suddenly away flash wig and beard and false-face, the pantaloons are stripped off with the same movement, the actor stoops for the reins lying on the horse's neck, and James Rivers, the greatest three-horse rider in the world nimbly capers on the broad pad, and kisses his hand to the shouting and cheering spectators as he dashes from the ring past the braying and bellowing brass-band into the dressing-room!
The big boys have known all along that he was not a real country-jake; but when the trained mule begins, and shakes everybody off, just like the horse, and another country-jake gets up, and offers to bet that he can ride that mule, nobody can tell whether he is a real country-jake or not. This is always the last thing in the performance, and the boys have seen with heavy hearts many signs openly betokening the end which they knew was at hand. The actors have come out of the dressing-room door, some in their everyday clothes, and some with just overcoats on over their circus-dresses, and they lounge about near the band-stand watching the performance in the ring. Some of the people are already getting up to go out, and stand for this last act, and will not mind the shouts of "Down in front! Down there!" which the boys eagerly join in, to eke out their bliss a little longer by keeping away even the appearance of anything transitory in it. The country-jake comes stumbling awkwardly into the ring, but he is perfectly sober, and he boldly leaps astride the mule, which tries all its arts to shake him off, plunging, kicking, rearing. He sticks on, and everybody cheers him, and the owner of the mule begins to get mad and to make it do more things to shake the country-jake off. At last, with one convulsive spring, it flings him from its back, and dashes into the dressing-room, while the country-jake picks himself up and vanishes among the crowd.
A man mounted on a platform in the ring is imploring the ladies and gentlemen to keep their seats, and to buy tickets for the negro-minstrel entertainment which is to follow, but which is not included in the price of admission. The boys would like to stay, but they have not the money, and they go out clamoring over the performance, and trying to decide which was the best feat. As to which was the best actor, there is never any question; it is the clown, who showed by the way he turned a double somersault that he can do anything, and who chooses to be clown simply because he is too great a creature to enter into rivalry with the other actors.
There will be another performance in the evening, with real fights outside between the circus-men and the country-jakes, and perhaps some of the Basin rounders, but the boys do not expect to come; that would be too much. The boy's brother once stayed away in the afternoon, and went at night with one of the jour printers; but he was not able to report that the show was better than it was in the afternoon. He did not get home till nearly ten o'clock, though, and he saw the sides of the tent dropped before the people got out; that was a great thing; and what was greater yet, and reflected a kind of splendor on the boy at second hand, was that the jour printer and the clown turned out to be old friends. After the circus, the boy actually saw them standing near the centre-pole talking together; and the next day the jour showed the grease that had dripped on his coat from the candles. Otherwise the boy might have thought it was a dream, that some one he knew had talked on equal terms with the clown. The boys were always intending to stay up and see the circus go out of town, and they would have done so, but their mothers would not let them. This may have been one reason why none of them ever ran off with a circus.
As soon as a circus had been in town, the boys began to have circuses of their own, and to practise for them. Everywhere you could see boys upside down, walking on their hands or standing on them with their legs dangling over, or stayed against house walls. It was easy to stand on your head; one boy stood on his head so much that he had to have it shaved, in the brain fever that he got from standing on it; but that did not stop the other fellows. Another boy fell head downwards from a rail where he was skinning-the-cat, and nearly broke his neck, and made it so sore that it was stiff ever so long. Another boy, who was playing Samson, almost had his leg torn off by the fellows that were pulling at it with a hook; and he did have the leg of his pantaloons torn off. Nothing could stop the boys but time, or some other play coming in; and circuses lasted a good while. Some of the boys learned to turn hand-springs; anybody could turn cart-wheels; one fellow, across the river, could just run along and throw a somersault and light on his feet; lots of fellows could light on their backs; but if you had a spring-board, or shavings under a bank, like those by the turning-shop, you could practise for somersaults pretty safely.
All the time you were practising you were forming your circus company. The great trouble was not that any boy minded paying five or ten pins to come in, but that so many fellows wanted to belong there were hardly any left to form an audience. You could get girls, but even as spectators girls were a little too despicable; they did not know anything; they had no sense; if a follow got hurt they cried. Then another thing was, where to have the circus. Of course it was simply hopeless to think of a tent, and a boy's circus was very glad to get a barn. The boy whose father owned the barn had to get it for the circus without his father knowing it; and just as likely as not his mother would hear the noise and come out and break the whole thing up while you were in the very middle of it. Then there were all sorts of anxieties and perplexities about the dress. You could do something by turning your roundabout inside out, and rolling your trousers up as far as they would go; but what a fellow wanted to make him a real circus actor was a long pair of white cotton stockings, and I never knew a fellow that got a pair; I heard of many a fellow who was said to have got a pair; but when you came down to the fact, they vanished like ghosts when you try to verify them. I believe the fellows always expected to get them out of a bureau-drawer or the clothes-line at home, but failed. In most other ways, a boy's circus was always a failure, like most other things boys undertake. They usually broke up under the strain of rivalry; everybody wanted to be the clown or ring-master; or else the boy they got the barn of behaved badly, and went into the house crying, and all the fellows had to run.
There were only two kinds of show known by that name in the Boy's Town: a Nigger Show, or a performance of burnt-cork minstrels; and an Animal Show, or a strolling menagerie; and the boys always meant a menagerie when they spoke of a show, unless they said just what sort of show. The only perfect joy on earth in the way of an entertainment, of course, was a circus, but after the circus the show came unquestionably next. It made a processional entry into the town almost as impressive as the circus's, and the boys went out to meet it beyond the corporation line in the same way. It always had two elephants, at least, and four or five camels, and sometimes there was a giraffe. These headed the procession, the elephants in the very front, with their keepers at their heads, and then the camels led by halters dangling from their sneering lips and contemptuous noses. After these began to come the show-wagons, with pictures on their sides, very flattered portraits of the wild beasts and birds inside; lions first, then tigers (never meaner than Royal Bengal ones, which the boys understood to be a superior breed), then leopards, then pumas and panthers; then bears, then jackals and hyenas; then bears and wolves; then kangaroos, musk-oxen, deer, and such harmless cattle; and then ostriches, emus, lyre-birds, birds-of-Paradise and all the rest. From time to time the boys ran back from the elephants and camels to get what good they could out of the scenes in which these hidden wonders were dramatized in acts of rapine or the chase, but they always came forward to the elephants and camels again. Even with them they had to endure a degree of denial, for although you could see most of the camels' figures, the elephants were so heavily draped that it was a kind of disappointment to look at them. The boys kept as close as they could, and came as near getting under the elephants' feet as the keepers would allow; but, after all, they were driven off a good deal and had to keep stealing back. They gave the elephants apples and bits of cracker and cake, and some tried to put tobacco into their trunks; though they knew very well that it was nearly certain death to do so; for any elephant that was deceived that way would recognize the boy that did it, and kill him the next time he came, if it was twenty years afterwards. The boys used to believe that the Miami bridge would break down under the elephants if they tried to cross it, and they would have liked to see it do it, but no one ever saw it, perhaps because the elephants always waded the river. Some boys had seen them wading it, and stopping to drink and squirt the water out of their trunks. If an elephant got a boy that had given him tobacco into the river, he would squirt water on him till he drowned him. Still, some boys always tried to give the elephants tobacco, just to see how they would act for the time being.
A show was not so much in favor as a circus, because there was so little performance in the ring. You could go round and look at the animals, mostly very sleepy in their cages, but you were not allowed to poke them through the bars, or anything; and when you took your seat there was nothing much till Herr Driesbach entered the lions' cage, and began to make them jump over his whip. It was some pleasure to see him put his head between the jaws of the great African King of Beasts, but the lion never did anything to him, and so the act wanted a true dramatic climax. The boys would really rather have seen a bare-back rider, like James Rivers, turn a back-somersault and light on his horse's crupper, any time, though they respected Herr Driesbach, too; they did not care much for a woman who once went into the lions' cage and made them jump round.
If you had the courage you could go up the ladder into the curtained tower on the elephant's back, and ride round the ring with some of the other fellows; but my boy at least never had the courage; and he never was of those who mounted the trick pony and were shaken off as soon as they got on. It seemed to be a good deal of fun, but he did not dare to risk it; and he had an obscure trouble of mind when, the last thing, four or five ponies were brought out with as many monkeys tied on their backs, and set to run a race round the ring. The monkeys always looked very miserable, and even the one who won the race, and rode round afterwards with an American flag in his hand and his cap very much cocked over his left eye, did not seem to cheer up any.