Red haws came a little before chinquepins. The trees grew mostly by the First Lock, and the boys gathered the haws when they came out from swimming in the canal. They did not take bags to gather haws, as they did chinquepins; the fruit was not thought worthy of that honor; but they filled their pockets with them and ate them on the way home. They were rather nice, with a pleasant taste between a small apple and a rose seed-pod; only you had to throw most of them away because they were wormy. Once when the fellows were gathering haws out there they began to have fun with a flock of turkeys, especially the gobblers, and one boy got an old gobbler to following him while he walked slowly backward, and teased him. The other boys would not have told him for anything when they saw him backing against a low stump. When he reached it, his head went down and his heels flew into the air, and then the gobbler hopped upon him and began to have some of the fun himself. The boys always thought that if they had not rushed up all together and scared the gobbler off, he would have torn the boy to pieces, but very likely he would not. He probably intended just to have fun with him.
The woods were pretty full of the kind of hickory-trees called pignuts, and the boys gathered the nuts, and even ate their small, bitter kernels; and around the Poor-House woods there were some shag-barks, but the boys did not go for them because of the bull and the crazy people. Their great and constant reliance in foraging was the abundance of black walnuts which grew everywhere, along the roads and on the river-banks, as well as in the woods and the pastures. Long before it was time to go walnutting, the boys began knocking off the nuts and trying whether they were ripe enough; and just as soon as the kernels began to fill out, the fellows began making walnut wagons. I do not know why it was thought necessary to have a wagon to gather walnuts, but I know that it was, and that a boy had to make a new wagon every year. No boy's walnut wagon could last till the next year; it did very well if it lasted till the next day. He had to make it nearly all with his pocket-knife. He could use a saw to block the wheels out of a pine board, and he could use a hatchet to rough off the corners of the blocks, but he had to use his knife to give them any sort of roundness, and they were not very round then; they were apt to be oval in shape, and they always wabbled. He whittled the axles out with his knife, and he made the hubs with it. He could get a tongue ready-made if he used a broom-handle or a hoop-pole, but that had in either case to be whittled so it could be fastened to the wagon; he even bored the linchpin holes with his knife if he could not get a gimlet; and if he could not get an auger, he bored the holes through the wheels with a red-hot poker, and then whittled them large enough with his knife. He had to use pine for nearly everything, because any other wood was too hard to whittle; and then the pine was always splitting. It split in the axles when he was making the linchpin holes, and the wheels had to be kept on by linchpins that were tied in; the wheels themselves split, and had to be strengthened by slats nailed across the rifts. The wagon-bed was a candle-box nailed to the axles, and that kept the front-axle tight, so that it took the whole width of a street to turn a very little wagon in without upsetting.
When the wagon was all done, the boy who owned it started off with his brothers, or some other boys who had no wagon, to gather walnuts. He started early in the morning of some bright autumn day while the frost still bearded the grass in the back-yard, and bristled on the fence-tops and the roof of the wood-shed, and hurried off to the woods so as to get there before the other boys had got the walnuts. The best place for them was in some woods-pasture where the trees stood free of one another, and around them, in among the tall, frosty grass, the tumbled nuts lay scattered in groups of twos and threes, or fives, some still yellowish-green in their hulls, and some black, but all sending up to the nostrils of the delighted boy the incense of their clean, keen, wild-woody smell, to be a memory forever. The leaves had dropped from the trees overhead, and the branches outlined themselves against the blue sky, and dangled from their outer stems clusters of the unfallen fruit, as large as oranges, and only wanting a touch to send them plumping down into the grass where sometimes their fat hulls burst, and the nuts almost leaped into the boys' hands. The boys ran, some of them to gather the fallen nuts, and others to get clubs and rocks to beat them from the trees; one was sure to throw off his jacket and kick off his shoes and climb the tree to shake every limb where a walnut was still clinging. When they had got them all heaped up like a pile of grape-shot at the foot of the tree, they began to hull them, with blows of a stick, or with stones, and to pick the nuts from the hulls, where the grubs were battening on their assured ripeness, and to toss them into a little heap, a very little heap indeed compared with the bulk of that they came from. The boys gloried in getting as much walnut stain on their hands as they could, for it would not wash off, and it showed for days that they had been walnutting; sometimes they got to staining one another's faces with the juice, and pretending they were Indians.
The sun rose higher and higher, and burned the frost from the grass, and while the boys worked and yelled and chattered they got hotter and hotter, and began to take off their shoes and stockings, till every one of them was barefoot. Then, about three or four o'clock, they would start homeward, with half a bushel of walnuts in their wagon, and their shoes and stockings piled in on top of them. That is, if they had good luck. In a story, they would always have had good luck, and always gone home with half a bushel of walnuts; but this is a history, and so I have to own that they usually went home with about two quarts of walnuts rattling round under their shoes and stockings in the bottom of the wagon. They usually had no such easy time getting them as they always would in a story; they did not find them under the trees, or ready to drop off, but they had to knock them off with about six or seven clubs or rocks to every walnut, and they had to pound the hulls so hard to get the nuts out that sometimes they cracked the nuts. That was because they usually went walnutting before the walnuts were ripe. But they made just as much preparation for drying the nuts on the wood-shed roof whether they got half a gallon or half a bushel; for they did not intend to stop gathering them till they had two or three barrels. They nailed a cleat across the roof to keep them from rolling off, and they spread them out thin, so that they could look more than they were, and dry better. They said they were going to keep them for Christmas, but they had to try pretty nearly every hour or so whether they were getting dry, and in about three days they were all eaten up.
I dare say boys are very different nowadays, and do everything they say they are going to do, and carry out all their undertakings. But in that day they never carried out any of their undertakings. Perhaps they undertook too much; but the failure was a part of the pleasure of undertaking a great deal, and if they had not failed they would have left nothing for the men to do; and a more disgusting thing than a world full of idle men who had done everything there was to do while they were boys, I cannot imagine. The fact is, boys have to leave a little for men to do, or else the race would go to ruin; and this almost makes me half believe that perhaps even the boys of the present time may be prevented from doing quite as much as they think they are going to do, until they grow up. Even then they may not want to do it all, but only a small part of it. I have noticed that men do not undertake half so many things as boys do; and instead of wanting to be circus-actors and Indians, and soldiers, and boat-drivers, and politicians and robbers, and to run off, and go in swimming all the time, and out hunting and walnutting, they keep to a very few things, and are glad then if they can do them. It is very curious, but it is true; and I advise any boy who doubts it to watch his father awhile.
EVERY boy is two or three boys, or twenty or thirty different kinds of boys in one; he is all the time living many lives and forming many characters; but it is a good thing if he can keep one life and one character when he gets to be a man. He may turn out to be like an onion when he is grown up, and be nothing but hulls, that you keep peeling off, one after another, till you think you have got down to the heart, at last, and then you have got down to nothing.
All the boys may have been like my boy in the Boy's Town, in having each an inward being that was not the least like their outward being, but that somehow seemed to be their real self, whether it truly was so or not. But I am certain that this was the case with him, and that while he was joyfully sharing the wild sports and conforming to the savage usages of the boy's world about him, he was dwelling in a wholly different world within him, whose wonders no one else knew. I could not tell now these wonders any more than he could have told them then; but it was a world of dreams, of hopes, of purposes, which he would have been more ashamed to avow for himself than I should be to avow for him. It was all vague and vast, and it came out of the books that he read, and that filled his soul with their witchery, and often held him aloof with their charm in the midst of the plays from which they could not lure him wholly away, or at all away. He did not know how or when their enchantment began, and he could hardly recall the names of some of them afterwards. First of them was Goldsmith's "History of Greece," which made him an Athenian of Pericles's time, and Goldsmith's "History of Rome," which naturalized him in a Roman citizenship chiefly employed in slaying tyrants; from the time of Appius Claudius down to the time of Domitian, there was hardly a tyrant that he did not slay. After he had read these books, not once or twice, but twenty times over, his father thought fit to put into his hands "The Travels of Captain Ashe in North America," to encourage, or perhaps to test, his taste for useful reading; but this was a failure. The captain's travels were printed with long esses, and the boy could make nothing of them, for other reasons. The fancy nourished upon
"The glory that was Greece And the grandeur that was Rome,"
starved amidst the robust plenty of the Englishman's criticisms of our early manners and customs. Neither could money hire the boy to read "Malte-Brun's Geography," in three large folios, of a thousand pages each, for which there was a standing offer of fifty cents from the father, who had never been able to read it himself. But shortly after he failed so miserably with Captain Ashe, the boy came into possession of a priceless treasure. It was that little treatise on "Greek and Roman Mythology" which I have mentioned, and which he must literally have worn out with reading, since no fragment of it seems to have survived his boyhood. Heaven knows who wrote it or published it; his father bought it with a number of other books at an auction, and the boy, who had about that time discovered the chapter on prosody in the back part of his grammar, made poems from it for years, and appeared in many transfigurations, as this and that god and demigod and hero upon imagined occasions in the Boy's Town, to the fancied admiration of all the other fellows. I do not know just why he wished to appear to his grandmother in a vision; now as Mercury with winged feet, now as Apollo with his drawn bow, now as Hercules leaning upon his club and resting from his Twelve Labors. Perhaps it was because he thought that his grandmother, who used to tell the children about her life in Wales, and show them the picture of a castle where she had once slept when she was a girl, would appreciate him in these apotheoses. If he believed they would make a vivid impression upon the sweet old Quaker lady, no doubt he was right.
There was another book which he read about this time, and that was "The Greek Soldier." It was the story of a young Greek, a glorious Athenian, who had fought through the Greek war of independence against the Turks, and then come to America and published the narrative of his adventures. They fired my boy with a retrospective longing to have been present at the Battle of Navarino, when the allied ships of the English, French, and Russians destroyed the Turkish fleet; but it seemed to him that he could not have borne to have the allies impose a king upon the Greeks, when they really wanted a republic, and so he was able to console himself for having been absent. He did what he could in fighting the war over again, and he intended to harden himself for the long struggle by sleeping on the floor, as the Greek soldier had done. But the children often fell asleep on the floor in the warmth of the hearth-fire; and his preparation for the patriotic strife was not distinguishable in its practical effect from a reluctance to go to bed at the right hour.
Captain Riley's narrative of his shipwreck on the coast of Africa, and his captivity among the Arabs, was a book which my boy and his brother prized with a kind of personal interest, because their father told them that he had once seen a son of Captain Riley when he went to get his appointment of collector at Columbus, and that this son was named William Willshire Riley, after the good English merchant, William Willshire, who had ransomed Captain Riley. William Willshire seemed to them almost the best man who ever lived; though my boy had secretly a greater fondness for the Arab, Sidi Hamet, who was kind to Captain Riley and kept his brother Seid from ill-treating him whenever he could. Probably the boy liked him better because the Arab was more picturesque than the Englishman. The whole narrative was very interesting; it had a vein of sincere and earnest piety in it which was not its least charm, and it was written in a style of old-fashioned stateliness which was not without its effect with the boys.
Somehow they did not think of the Arabs in this narrative as of the same race and faith with the Arabs of Bagdad and the other places in the "Arabian Nights." They did not think whether these were Mohammedans or not; they naturalized them in the fairy world where all boys are citizens, and lived with them there upon the same familiar terms as they lived with Robinson Crusoe. Their father once told them that Robinson Crusoe had robbed the real narrative of Alexander Selkirk of the place it ought to have held in the remembrance of the world; and my boy had a feeling of guilt in reading it, as if he were making himself the accomplice of an impostor. He liked the "Arabian Nights," but oddly enough these wonderful tales made no such impression on his fancy as the stories in a wretchedly inferior book made. He did not know the name of this book, or who wrote it; from which I imagine that much of his reading was of the purblind sort that ignorant grown-up people do, without any sort of literary vision. He read this book perpetually, when he was not reading his "Greek and Roman Mythology;" and then suddenly, one day, as happens in childhood with so many things, it vanished out of his possession as if by magic. Perhaps he lost it; perhaps he lent it; at any rate it was gone, and he never got it back, and he never knew what book it was till thirty years afterwards, when he picked up from a friend's library-table a copy of "Gesta Romanorum," and recognized in this collection of old monkish legends the long-missing treasure of his boyhood. These stories, without beauty of invention, without art of construction or character, without spirituality in their crude materialization, which were read aloud in the refectories of mediaeval cloisters while the monks sat at meat, laid a spell upon the soul of the boy that governed his life. He conformed his conduct to the principles and maxims which actuated the behavior of the shadowy people of these dry-as-dust tales; he went about drunk with the fumes of fables about Roman emperors that never were, in an empire that never was; and, though they tormented him by putting a mixed and impossible civilization in the place of that he knew from his Goldsmith, he was quite helpless to break from their influence. He was always expecting some wonderful thing to happen to him as things happened there in fulfilment of some saying or prophecy; and at every trivial moment he made sayings and prophecies for himself, which he wished events to fulfil. One Sunday when he was walking in an alley behind one of the stores, he found a fur cap that had probably fallen out of the store-loft window. He ran home with it, and in his simple-hearted rapture he told his mother that as soon as he picked it up there came into his mind the words, "He who picketh up this cap picketh up a fortune," and he could hardly wait for Monday to come and let him restore the cap to its owner and receive an enduring prosperity in reward of his virtue. Heaven knows what form he expected this to take; but when he found himself in the store, he lost all courage; his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and he could not utter a syllable of the fine phrases he had made to himself. He laid the cap on the counter without a word; the storekeeper came up and took it in his hand. "What's this?" he said. "Why, this is ours," and he tossed the cap into a loose pile of hats by the showcase, and the boy slunk out, cut to the heart and crushed to the dust. It was such a cruel disappointment and mortification that it was rather a relief to have his brother mock him, and come up and say from time to time, "He who picketh up this cap picketh up a fortune," and then split into a jeering laugh. At least he could fight his brother, and, when he ran, could stone him; and he could throw quads and quoins, and pieces of riglet at the jour printers when the story spread to them, and one of them would begin, "He who picketh—"
He was not different from other boys in his desire to localize, to realize, what he read; and he was always contriving in fancy scenes and encounters of the greatest splendor, in which he bore a chief part. Inwardly he was all thrones, principalities, and powers, the foe of tyrants, the friend of good emperors, and the intimate of magicians, and magnificently apparelled; outwardly he was an incorrigible little sloven, who suffered in all social exigencies from the direst bashfulness, and wished nothing so much as to shrink out of the sight of men if they spoke to him. He could not help revealing sometimes to the kindness of his father and mother the world of foolish dreams one half of him lived in, while the other half swam, and fished, and hunted, and ran races, and played tops and marbles, and squabbled and scuffled in the Boy's Town. Very likely they sympathized with him more than they let him know; they encouraged his reading, and the father directed his taste as far as might be, especially in poetry. The boy liked to make poetry, but he preferred to read prose, though he listened to the poems his father read aloud, so as to learn how they were made. He learned certain pieces by heart, like "The Turk lay dreaming of the hour," and "Pity the sorrows of a poor old man," and he was fond of some passages that his father wished him to know in Thomson's "Seasons." There were some of Moore's songs, too, that he was fond of, such as "When in death I shall calm recline," and "It was noon and on flowers that ranged all around." He learned these by heart, to declaim at school, where he spoke, "On the banks of the Danube fair Adelaide hied," from Campbell; but he could hardly speak the "Soldier's Dream" for the lump that came into his throat at the lines,
"My little ones kissed me a thousand times o'er, And my wife sobbed aloud in her fulness of heart.
"'Stay, stay with us! Stay! Thou art weary and worn!' And fain was their war-broken soldier to stay; But sorrow returned at the dawning of morn, And the voice in my dreaming ear melted away!"
He was himself both the war-broken soldier and the little ones that kissed him, in the rapture of this now old-fashioned music, and he woke with pangs of heartbreak in the very person of the dreamer.
But he could not make anything either of Byron or Cowper; and he did not even try to read the little tree-calf volumes of Homer and Virgil which his father had in the versions of Pope and Dryden; the small copperplates with which they were illustrated conveyed no suggestion to him. Afterwards he read Goldsmith's "Deserted Village," and he formed a great passion for Pope's "Pastorals," which he imitated in their easy heroics; but till he came to read Longfellow, and Tennyson, and Heine, he never read any long poem without more fatigue than pleasure. His father used to say that the taste for poetry was an acquired taste, like the taste for tomatoes, and that he would come to it yet; but he never came to it, or so much of it as some people seemed to do, and he always had his sorrowful misgivings as to whether they liked it as much as they pretended. I think, too, that it should be a flavor, a spice, a sweet, a delicate relish in the high banquet of literature, and never a chief dish; and I should not know how to defend my boy for trying to make long poems of his own at the very time when he found it so hard to read other people's long poems.
He had no conception of authorship as a vocation in life, and he did not know why he wanted to make poetry. After first flaunting his skill in it before the boys, and getting one of them into trouble by writing a love-letter for him to a girl at school, and making the girl cry at a thing so strange and puzzling as a love-letter in rhyme, he preferred to conceal his gift. It became
"His shame in crowds—his solitary pride,"
and he learned to know that it was considered soft to write poetry, as indeed it mostly is. He himself regarded with contempt a young man who had printed a piece of poetry in his father's newspaper and put his own name to it. He did not know what he would not have done sooner than print poetry and put his name to it; and he was melted with confusion when a girl who was going to have a party came to him at the printing-office and asked him to make her the invitations in verse. The printers laughed, and it seemed to the boy that he could never get over it.
But such disgraces are soon lived down, even at ten years, and a great new experience which now came to him possibly helped the boy to forget. This was the theatre, which he had sometimes heard his father speak of. There had once been a theatre in the Boy's Town, when a strolling company came up from Cincinnati, and opened for a season in an empty pork-house. But that was a long time ago, and, though he had written a tragedy, all that the boy knew of a theatre was from a picture in a Sunday-school book where a stage scene was given to show what kind of desperate amusements a person might come to in middle life if he began by breaking the Sabbath in his youth. His brother had once been taken to a theatre in Pittsburgh by one of their river-going uncles, and he often told about it; but my boy formed no conception of the beautiful reality from his accounts of a burglar who jumped from a roof and was chased by a watchman with a pistol up and down a street with houses painted on a curtain.
The company which came to the Boy's Town in his time was again from Cincinnati, and it was under the management of the father and mother of two actresses, afterwards famous, who were then children, just starting upon their career. These pretty little creatures took the leading parts in "Bombastes Furioso," the first night my boy ever saw a play, and he instantly fell impartially in love with both of them, and tacitly remained their abject slave for a great while after. When the smaller of them came out with a large pair of stage boots in one hand and a drawn sword in the other, and said,
"Whoever dares these boots displace Shall meet Bombastes face to face,"
if the boy had not already been bereft of his senses by the melodrama preceding the burlesque, he must have been transported by her beauty, her grace, her genius. He, indeed, gave her and her sister his heart, but his mind was already gone, rapt from him by the adorable pirate who fought a losing fight with broadswords, two up and two down—click-click, click-click—and died all over the deck of the pirate ship in the opening piece. This was called the "Beacon of Death," and the scene represented the forecastle of the pirate ship with a lantern dangling from the rigging, to lure unsuspecting merchantmen to their doom. Afterwards, the boy remembered nothing of the story, but a scrap of the dialogue meaninglessly remained with him; and when the pirate captain appeared with his bloody crew and said, hoarsely, "Let us go below and get some brandy!" the boy would have bartered all his hopes of bliss to have been that abandoned ruffian. In fact, he always liked, and longed to be, the villain, rather than any other person in the play, and he so glutted himself with crime of every sort in his tender years at the theatre that he afterwards came to be very tired of it, and avoided the plays and novels that had very marked villains in them.
He was in an ecstasy as soon as the curtain rose that night, and he lived somewhere out of his body as long as the playing lasted, which was well on to midnight; for in those days the theatre did not meanly put the public off with one play, but gave it a heartful and its money's worth with three. On his first night my boy saw "The Beacon of Death," "Bombastes Furioso," and "Black-eyed Susan," and he never afterwards saw less than three plays each night, and he never missed a night, as long as the theatre languished in the unfriendly air of that mainly Calvinistic community, where the theatre was regarded by most good people as the eighth of the seven deadly sins. The whole day long he dwelt in a dream of it that blotted out, or rather consumed with more effulgent brightness, all the other day-dreams he had dreamed before, and his heart almost burst with longing to be a villain like those villains on the stage, to have a moustache—a black moustache—such as they wore at a time when every one off the stage was clean shaven, and somehow to end bloodily, murderously, as became a villain.
I dare say this was not quite a wholesome frame of mind for a boy of ten years; but I do not defend it; I only portray it. Being the boy he was, he was destined somehow to dwell half the time in a world of dreamery; and I have tried to express how, when he had once got enough of villainy, he reformed his ideals and rather liked virtue. At any rate, it was a phase of being that could not have been prevented without literally destroying him, and I feel pretty sure that his father did well to let him have his fill of the theatre at once. He could not have known of the riot of emotions behind the child's shy silence, or how continually he was employed in dealing death to all the good people in the pieces he saw or imagined. This the boy could no more have suffered to appear than his passion for those lovely little girls, for whose sake he somehow perpetrated these wicked deeds. The theatre bills, large and small, were printed in his father's office, and sometimes the amiable manager and his wife strolled in with the copy. The boy always wildly hoped and feared they would bring the little girls with them, but they never did, and he contented himself with secretly adoring the father and mother, doubly divine as their parents and as actors. They were on easy terms with the roller-boy, the wretch who shot turtle-doves with no regard for their symbolical character, and they joked with him, in a light give-and-take that smote my boy with an anguish of envy. It would have been richly enough for him to pass the least word with them; a look, a smile from them would have been bliss; but he shrank out of their way; and once when he met them in the street, and they seemed to be going to speak to him, he ran so that they could not.
I CANNOT quite understand why the theatre, which my boy was so full of, and so fond of, did not inspire him to write plays, to pour them out, tragedy upon tragedy, till the world was filled with tears and blood. Perhaps it was because his soul was so soaked, and, as it were, water-logged with the drama, that it could only drift sluggishly in that welter of emotions, and make for no point, no port, where it could recover itself and direct its powers again. The historical romance which he had begun to write before the impassioned days of the theatre seems to have been lost sight of at this time, though it was an enterprise that he was so confident of carrying forward that he told all his family and friends about it, and even put down the opening passages of it on paper which he cut in large quantity, and ruled himself, so as to have it exactly suitable. The story, as I have said, was imagined from events in Irving's history of the "Conquest of Granada," a book which the boy loved hardly less than the monkish legends of "Gesta Romanorum," and it concerned the rival fortunes of Hamet el Zegri and Boabdil el Chico, the uncle and nephew who vied with each other for the crumbling throne of the Moorish kingdom; but I have not the least notion how it all ended. Perhaps the boy himself had none.
I wish I could truly say that he finished any of his literary undertakings, but I cannot. They were so many that they cumbered the house, and were trodden under foot; and sometimes they brought him to open shame, as when his brother picked one of them up, and began to read it out loud with affected admiration. He was apt to be ashamed of his literary efforts after the first moment, and he shuddered at his brother's burlesque of the high romantic vein in which most of his neverended beginnings were conceived. One of his river-faring uncles was visiting with his family at the boy's home when he laid out the scheme of his great fiction of "Hamet el Zegri," and the kindly young aunt took an interest in it which he poorly rewarded a few months later, when she asked how the story was getting on, and he tried to ignore the whole matter, and showed such mortification at the mention of it that the poor lady was quite bewildered.
The trouble with him was, that he had to live that kind of double life I have spoken of—the Boy's Town life and the Cloud Dweller's life—and that the last, which he was secretly proud of, abashed him before the first. This is always the way with double-lived people, but he did not know it, and he stumbled along through the glory and the ignominy as best he could, and, as he thought, alone.
He was often kept from being a fool, and worse, by that elder brother of his; and I advise every boy to have an elder brother. Have a brother about four years older than yourself, I should say; and if your temper is hot, and your disposition revengeful, and you are a vain and ridiculous dreamer at the same time that you are eager to excel in feats of strength and games of skill, and to do everything that the other fellows do, and are ashamed to be better than the worst boy in the crowd, your brother can be of the greatest use to you, with his larger experience and wisdom. My boy's brother seemed to have an ideal of usefulness, while my boy only had an ideal of glory, to wish to help others, while my boy only wished to help himself. My boy would as soon have thought of his father's doing a wrong thing as of his brother's doing it; and his brother was a calm light of common-sense, of justice, of truth, while he was a fantastic flicker of gaudy purposes which he wished to make shine before men in their fulfilment. His brother was always doing for him and for the younger children; while my boy only did for himself; he had a very gray moustache before he began to have any conception of the fact that he was sent into the world to serve and to suffer, as well as to rule and enjoy. But his brother seemed to know this instinctively; he bore the yoke in his youth, patiently if not willingly; he shared the anxieties as he parted the cares of his father and mother. Yet he was a boy among boys, too; he loved to swim, to skate, to fish, to forage, and passionately, above all, he loved to hunt; but in everything he held himself in check, that he might hold the younger boys in check; and my boy often repaid his conscientious vigilance with hard words and hard names, such as embitter even the most self-forgiving memories. He kept mechanically within certain laws, and though in his rage he hurled every other name at his brother, he would not call him a fool, because then he would be in danger of hell-fire. If he had known just what Raca meant, he might have called him Raca, for he was not so much afraid of the council; but, as it was, his brother escaped that insult, and held through all a rein upon him, and governed him through his scruples as well as his fears.
His brother was full of inventions and enterprises beyond most other boys, and his undertakings came to the same end of nothingness that awaits all boyish endeavor. He intended to make fireworks and sell them; he meant to raise silk-worms; he prepared to take the contract of clearing the new cemetery grounds of stumps by blasting them out with gunpowder. Besides this, he had a plan with another big boy for making money, by getting slabs from the saw-mill, and sawing them up into stove-wood, and selling them to the cooks of canal-boats. The only trouble was that the cooks would not buy the fuel, even when the boys had a half-cord of it all nicely piled up on the canal-bank; they would rather come ashore after dark and take it for nothing. He had a good many other schemes for getting rich, that failed; and he wanted to go to California and dig gold; only his mother would not consent. He really did save the Canal-Basin once, when the banks began to give way after a long rain. He saw the break beginning, and ran to tell his father, who had the firebells rung. The fire companies came rushing to the rescue, but as they could not put the Basin out with their engines, they all got shovels and kept it in. They did not do this before it had overflowed the street, and run into the cellars of the nearest houses. The water stood two feet deep in the kitchen of my boy's house, and the yard was flooded so that the boys made rafts and navigated it for a whole day. My boy's brother got drenched to the skin in the rain, and lots of fellows fell off the rafts.
He belonged to a military company of big boys that had real wooden guns, such as the little boys never could get, and silk oil-cloth caps, and nankeen roundabouts, and white pantaloons with black stripes down the legs; and once they marched out to a boy's that had a father that had a farm, and he gave them all a free dinner in an arbor before the house; bread and butter, and apple-butter, and molasses and pound cake, and peaches and apples; it was splendid. When the excitement about the Mexican War was the highest, the company wanted a fort; and they got a farmer to come and scale off the sod with his plough, in a grassy place there was near a piece of woods, where a good many cows were pastured. They took the pieces of sod, and built them up into the walls of a fort about fifteen feet square; they intended to build them higher than their heads, but they got so eager to have the works stormed that they could not wait, and they commenced having the battle when they had the walls only breast high. There were going to be two parties: one to attack the fort, and the other to defend it, and they were just going to throw sods; but one boy had a real shot-gun, that he was to load up with powder and fire off when the battle got to the worst, so as to have it more like a battle. He thought it would be more like yet if he put in a few shot, and he did it on his own hook. It was a splendid gun, but it would not stand cocked long, and he was resting it on the wall of the fort, ready to fire when the storming-party came on, throwing sods and yelling and holloing; and all at once his gun went off, and a cow that was grazing broadside to the fort gave a frightened bellow, and put up her tail, and started for home. When they found out that the gun, if not the boy, had shot a cow, the Mexicans and Americans both took to their heels; and it was a good thing they did so, for as soon as that cow got home, and the owner found out by the blood on her that she had been shot, though it was only a very slight wound, he was so mad that he did not know what to do, and very likely he would have half killed those boys if he had caught them. He got a plough, and he went out to their fort, and he ploughed it all down flat, so that not one sod remained upon another.
My boy's brother had a good many friends who were too old for my boy to play with. One of them had a father that had a flour-mill out at the First Lock, and for a while my boy's brother intended to be a miller. I do not know why he gave up being one; he did stay up all night with his friend in the mill once, and he found out that the water has more power by night than by day, or at least he came to believe so. He knew another boy who had a father who had a stone-quarry and a canal-boat to bring the stone to town. It was a scow, and it was drawn by one horse; sometimes he got to drive the horse, and once he was allowed to steer the boat. This was a great thing, and it would have been hard to believe of anybody else. The name of the boy that had the father that owned this boat was Piccolo; or, rather, that was his nickname, given him because he could whistle like a piccolo-flute. Once the fellows were disputing whether you could jump halfway across a narrow stream, and then jump back, without touching your feet to the other shore. Piccolo tried it, and sat down in the middle of the stream.
My boy's brother had a scheme for preserving ripe fruit, by sealing it up in a stone jug and burying the jug in the ground, and not digging it up till Christmas. He tried it with a jug of cherries, which he dug up in about a week; but the cherries could not have smelt worse if they had been kept till Christmas. He knew a boy that had a father that had a bakery, and that used to let him come and watch them making bread. There was a fat boy learning the trade there, and they called him the dough-baby, because he looked so white and soft; and the boy whose father had a mill said that down at the German brewery they had a Dutch boy that they were teaching to drink beer, so they could tell how much beer a person could drink if he was taken early; but perhaps this was not true.
My boy's brother went to all sorts of places that my boy was too shy to go to; and he associated with much older boys, but there was one boy who, as I have said, was the dear friend of both of them, and that was the boy who came to learn the trade in their father's printing-office, and who began an historical romance at the time my boy began his great Moorish novel. The first day he came he was put to roll, or ink the types, while my boy's brother worked the press, and all day long my boy, from where he was setting type, could hear him telling the story of a book he had read. It was about a person named Monte Cristo, who was a count, and who could do anything. My boy listened with a gnawing literary jealousy of a boy who had read a book that he had never heard of. He tried to think whether it sounded as if it were as great a book as the "Conquest of Granada," or "Gesta Romanorum;" and for a time he kept aloof from this boy because of his envy. Afterwards they came together on "Don Quixote," but though my boy came to have quite a passionate fondness for him, he was long in getting rid of his grudge against him for his knowledge of "Monte Cristo." He was as great a laughter as my boy and his brother, and he liked the same sports, so that two by two, or all three together, they had no end of jokes and fun. He became the editor of a country newspaper, with varying fortunes but steadfast principles, and when the war broke out he went as a private soldier. He soon rose to be an officer, and fought bravely in many battles. Then he came back to a country-newspaper office where, ever after, he continued to fight the battles of right against wrong, till he died not long ago at his post of duty—a true, generous, and lofty soul. He was one of those boys who grow into the men who seem commoner in America than elsewhere, and who succeed far beyond our millionaires and statesmen in realizing the ideal of America in their nobly simple lives. If his story could be faithfully written out, word for word, deed for deed, it would be far more thrilling than that of Monte Cristo, or any hero of romance; and so would the common story of any common life; but we cannot tell these stories, somehow.
My boy knew nearly a hundred boys, more or less; but it is no use trying to tell about them, for all boys are a good deal alike, and most of these did not differ much from the rest. They were pretty good fellows; that is to say, they never did half the mischief they intended to do, and they had moments of intending to do right, or at least they thought they did, and when they did wrong they said they did not intend to. But my boy never had any particular friend among his schoolmates, though he played and fought with them on intimate terms, and was a good comrade with any boy that wanted to go in swimming or out hunting. His closest friend was a boy who was probably never willingly at school in his life, and who had no more relish of literature or learning in him than the open fields, or the warm air of an early spring day. I dare say it was a sense of his kinship with nature that took my boy with him, and rested his soul from all its wild dreams and vain imaginings. He was like a piece of the genial earth, with no more hint of toiling or spinning in him; willing for anything, but passive, and without force or aim. He lived in a belated log-cabin that stood in the edge of a corn-field on the river-bank, and he seemed, one day when my boy went to find him there, to have a mother, who smoked a cob-pipe, and two or three large sisters who hulked about in the one dim, low room. But the boys had very little to do with each other's houses, or, for that matter, with each other's yards. His friend seldom entered my boy's gate, and never his door; for with all the toleration his father felt for every manner of human creature, he could not see what good the boy was to get from this queer companion. It is certain that, he got no harm; for his companion was too vague and void even to think evil. Socially, he was as low as the ground under foot, but morally he was as good as any boy in the Boy's Town, and he had no bad impulses. He had no impulses at all, in fact, and of his own motion he never did anything, or seemed to think anything. When he wished to get at my boy, he simply appeared in the neighborhood, and hung about the outside of the fence till he came out. He did not whistle, or call "E-oo-we!" as the other fellows did, but waited patiently to be discovered, and to be gone off with wherever my boy listed. He never had any plans himself, and never any will but to go in swimming; he neither hunted nor foraged; he did not even fish; and I suppose that money could not have hired him to run races. He played marbles, but not very well, and he did not care much for the game. The two boys soaked themselves in the river together, and then they lay on the sandy shore, or under some tree, and talked; but my boy could not have talked to him about any of the things that were in his books, or the fume of dreams they sent up in his mind. He must rather have soothed against his soft, caressing ignorance the ache of his fantastic spirit, and reposed his intensity of purpose in that lax and easy aimlessness. Their friendship was not only more innocent than any other friendship my boy had, but it was wholly innocent; they loved each other, and that was all; and why people love one another there is never any satisfactory telling. But this friend of his must have had great natural good in him; and if I could find a man of the make of that boy I am sure I should love him.
My boy's other friends wondered at his fondness for him, and it was often made a question with him at home, if not a reproach to him; so that in the course of time it ceased to be that comfort it had been to him. He could not give him up, but he could not help seeing that he was ignorant and idle, and in a fatal hour he resolved to reform him. I am not able now to say just how he worked his friend up to the point of coming to school, and of washing his hands and feet and face, and putting on a new check shirt to come in. But one day he came, and my boy, as he had planned, took him into his seat, and owned his friendship with him before the whole school. This was not easy, for though everybody knew how much the two were together, it was a different thing to sit with him as if he thought him just as good as any boy, and to help him get his lessons, and stay him mentally as well as socially. He struggled through one day, and maybe another; but it was a failure from the first moment, and my boy breathed freer when his friend came one half-day, and then never came again. The attempted reform had spoiled their simple and harmless intimacy. They never met again upon the old ground of perfect trust and affection. Perhaps the kindly earth-spirit had instinctively felt a wound from the shame my boy had tried to brave out, and shrank from their former friendship without quite knowing why. Perhaps it was my boy who learned to realize that there could be little in common but their common humanity between them, and could not go back to that. At any rate, their friendship declined from this point; and it seems to me, somehow, a pity.
Among the boys who were between my boy and his brother in age was one whom all the boys liked, because he was clever with everybody, with little boys as well as big boys. He was a laughing, pleasant fellow, always ready for fun, but he never did mean things, and he had an open face that made a friend of every one who saw him. He had a father that had a house with a lightning-rod, so that if you were in it when there was a thunder-storm you could not get struck by lightning, as my boy once proved by being in it when there was a thunder-storm and not getting struck. This in itself was a great merit, and there were grape-arbors and peach-trees in his yard which added to his popularity, with cling-stone peaches almost as big as oranges on them. He was a fellow who could take you home to meals whenever he wanted to, and he liked to have boys stay all night with him; his mother was as clever as he was, and even the sight of his father did not make the fellows want to go and hide. His father was so clever that he went home with my boy one night about midnight when the boy had come to pass the night with his boys, and the youngest of them had said he always had the nightmare and walked in his sleep, and as likely as not he might kill you before he knew it. My boy tried to sleep, but the more he reflected upon his chances of getting through the night alive the smaller they seemed; and so he woke up his potential murderer from the sweetest and soundest slumber, and said he was going home, but he was afraid; and the boy had to go and wake his father. Very few fathers would have dressed up and gone home with a boy at midnight, and perhaps this one did so only because the mother made him; but it shows how clever the whole family was.
It was their oldest boy whom my boy and his brother chiefly went with before that boy who knew about "Monte Cristo" came to learn the trade in their father's office. One Saturday in July they three spent the whole day together. It was just the time when the apples are as big as walnuts on the trees, and a boy wants to try whether any of them are going to be sweet or not. The boys tried a great many of them, in an old orchard thrown open for building-lots behind my boy's yard; but they could not find any that were not sour; or that they could eat till they thought of putting salt on them; if you put salt on it, you could eat any kind of green apple, whether it was going to be a sweet kind or not. They went up to the Basin bank and got lots of salt out of the holes in the barrels lying there, and then they ate all the apples they could hold, and after that they cut limber sticks off the trees, and sharpened the points, and stuck apples on them and threw them. You could send an apple almost out of sight that way, and you could scare a dog almost as far as you could see him.
On Monday my boy and his brother went to school, but the other boy was not there, and in the afternoon they heard he was sick. Then, towards the end of the week they heard that he had the flux; and on Friday, just before school let out, the teacher—it was the one that whipped so, and that the fellows all liked—rapped on his desk, and began to speak very solemnly to the scholars. He told them that their little mate, whom they had played with and studied with, was lying very sick, so very sick that it was expected he would die; and then he read them a serious lesson about life and death, and tried to make them feel how passing and uncertain all things were, and resolve to live so that they need never be afraid to die.
Some of the fellows cried, and the next day some of them went to see the dying boy, and my boy went with them. His spirit was stricken to the earth, when he saw his gay, kind playmate lying there, white as the pillow under his wasted face, in which his sunken blue eyes showed large and strange. The sick boy did not say anything that the other boys could hear, but they could see the wan smile that came to his dry lips, and the light come sadly into his eyes, when his mother asked him if he knew this one or that; and they could not bear it, and went out of the room.
In a few days they heard that he was dead, and one afternoon school did not keep, so that the boys might go to the funeral. Most of them walked in the procession; but some of them were waiting beside the open grave, that was dug near the grave of that man who believed there was a hole through the earth from pole to pole, and had a perforated stone globe on top of his monument.
FANTASIES AND SUPERSTITIONS.
MY boy used to be afraid of this monument, which stood a long time, or what seemed to him a long time, in the yard of the tombstone cutter before it was put up at the grave of the philosopher who imagined the earth as hollow as much of the life is on it. He was a brave officer in the army which held the region against the Indians in the pioneer times; he passed the latter part of his life there, and he died and was buried in the Boy's Town. My boy had to go by the yard when he went to see his grandmother, and even at high noon the sight of the officer's monument, and the other gravestones standing and leaning about, made his flesh creep and his blood run cold. When there were other boys with him he would stop at the door of the shed, where a large, fair German was sawing slabs of marble with a long saw that had no teeth, and that he eased every now and then with water from a sponge he kept by him; but if the boy was alone, and it was getting at all late in the afternoon, he always ran by the place as fast as he could. He could hardly have told what he was afraid of, but he must have connected the gravestones with ghosts.
His superstitions were not all of the ghastly kind; some of them related to conduct and character. It was noted long ago how boys throw stones, for instance, at a tree, and feign to themselves that this thing or that, of great import, will happen or not as they hit or miss the tree. But my boy had other fancies, which came of things he had read and half understood. In one of his school-books was a story that began, "Charles was an honest boy, but Robert was the name of a thief," and it went on to show how Charles grew up in the respect and affection of all who knew him by forbearing to steal some oranges which their owner had set for safe-keeping at the heels of his horse, while Robert was kicked at once (there was a picture that showed him holding his stomach with both hands), and afterwards came to a bad end, through attempting to take one. My boy conceived from the tale that the name of Robert was necessarily associated with crime; it was long before he outgrew the prejudice; and this tale and others of a like vindictive virtuousness imbued him with such a desire to lead an upright life that he was rather a bother to his friends with his scruples. A girl at school mislaid a pencil which she thought she had lent him, and he began to have a morbid belief that he must have stolen it; he became frantic with the mere dread of guilt; he could not eat or sleep, and it was not till he went to make good the loss with a pencil which his grandfather gave him that the girl said she had found her pencil in her desk, and saved him from the despair of a self-convicted criminal. After that his father tried to teach him the need of using his reason as well as his conscience concerning himself, and not to be a little simpleton. But he was always in an anguish to restore things to their owners, like the good boys in the story-books, and he suffered pangs of the keenest remorse for the part he once took in the disposition of a piece of treasure-trove. This was a brown-paper parcel which he found behind a leaning gravestone in the stone-cutter's yard, and which he could not help peeping into. It was full of raisins, and in the amaze of such a discovery he could not help telling the other boys. They flocked round and swooped down upon the parcel like birds of prey, and left not a raisin behind. In vain he implored them not to stain their souls with this misdeed; neither the law nor the prophets availed; neither the awful shadow of the prison which he cast upon them, nor the fear of the last judgment which he invoked. They said that the raisins did not belong to anybody; that the owner had forgotten all about them; that they had just been put there by some one who never intended to come back for them. He went away sorrowing, without touching a raisin (he felt that the touch must have stricken him with death), and far heavier in soul than the hardened accomplices of his sin, of whom he believed himself the worst in having betrayed the presence of the raisins to them.
He used to talk to himself when he was little, but one day his mother said to him jokingly, "Don't you know that he who talks to himself has the devil for a listener?" and after that he never dared whisper above his breath when he was alone, though his father and mother had both taught him that there was no devil but his own evil will. He shuddered when he heard a dog howling in the night, for that was a sign that somebody was going to die. If he heard a hen crow, as a hen sometimes unnaturally would, he stoned her, because it was a sign of the worst kind of luck. He believed that warts came from playing with toads, but you could send them away by saying certain words over them; and he was sorry that he never had any warts, so that he could send them away, and see them go; but he never could bear to touch a toad, and so of course he could not have warts. Other boys played with toads just to show that they were not afraid of having warts; but every one knew that if you killed a toad, your cow would give bloody milk. I dare say the far forefathers of the race knew this too, when they first began to herd their kine in the birthplace of the Aryan peoples; and perhaps they learned then that if you killed a snake early in the day its tail would live till sundown. My boy killed every snake he could; he thought it somehow a duty; all the boys thought so; they dimly felt that they were making a just return to the serpent-tribe for the bad behavior of their ancestor in the Garden of Eden. Once, in a corn-field near the Little Reservoir, the boys found on a thawing day of early spring knots and bundles of snakes writhen and twisted together, in the torpor of their long winter sleep. It was a horrible sight, that afterwards haunted my boy's dreams. He had nightmares which remained as vivid in his thoughts as anything that happened to him by day. There were no poisonous snakes in the region of the Boy's Town, but there were some large blacksnakes, and the boys said that if a blacksnake got the chance he would run up your leg, and tie himself round your body so that you could not breathe. Nobody had ever seen a blacksnake do it, and nobody had ever seen a hoop-snake, but the boys believed there was such a snake, and that he would take his tail in his mouth, when he got after a person, and roll himself along swifter than the fastest race-horse could run. He did not bite, but when he came up with you he would take the point of his tail out of his mouth and strike it into you. If he struck his tail into a tree, the tree would die. My boy had seen a boy who had been chased by a hoop-snake, but he had not seen the snake, though for the matter of that the boy who had been chased by it had not seen it either; he did not stop to see it. Another kind of snake that was very strange was a hair-snake. No one had ever seen it happen, but every one knew that if you put long horsehairs into a puddle of water and let them stay, they would turn into hair-snakes; and when you drank out of a spring you had to be careful not to swallow a hair-snake, or it would remain in your stomach and grow there.
When you saw a lizard, you had to keep your mouth tight shut, or else the lizard would run down your throat before you knew it. That was what all the boys said, and my boy believed it, though he had never heard of anybody that it happened to. He believed that if you gave a chicken-cock burnt brandy it could lay eggs, and that if you gave a boy burnt brandy it would stop his growing. That was the way the circus-men got their dwarfs, and the India-rubber man kept himself limber by rubbing his joints with rattlesnake oil.
A snake could charm a person, and when you saw a snake you had to kill it before it could get its eye on you or it would charm you. Snakes always charmed birds; and there were mysterious powers of the air and forces of nature that a boy had to be on his guard against, just as a bird had to look out for snakes. You must not kill a granddaddy-long-legs, or a lady-bug; it was bad luck. My boy believed, or was afraid he believed, that
"What you dream Monday morning before daylight Will come true before Saturday night,"
but if it was something bad, you could keep it from coming true by not telling your dream till you had eaten breakfast. He governed his little, foolish, frightened life not only by the maxims he had learned out of his "Gesta Romanorum," but by common sayings of all sorts, such as
"See a pin and leave it lay You'll have bad luck all the day,"
and if ever he tried to rebel against this slavery, and went by a pin in the path, his fears tormented him till he came back and picked it up. He would not put on his left stocking first, for that was bad luck; but besides these superstitions, which were common to all the boys, he invented superstitions of his own, with which he made his life a burden. He did not know why, but he would not step upon the cracks between the paving-stones, and some days he had to touch every tree or post along the sidewalk, as Doctor Johnson did in his time, though the boy had never heard of Doctor Johnson then.
While he was yet a very little fellow, he had the distorted, mistaken piety of childhood. He had an abject terror of dying, but it seemed to him that if a person could die right in the centre isle of the church—the Methodist church where his mother used to go before she became finally a New Churchwoman—the chances of that person's going straight to heaven would be so uncommonly good that he need have very little anxiety about it. He asked his mother if she did not think so too, holding by her hand as they came out of church together, and he noticed the sort of gravity and even pain with which she and his father received this revelation of his darkling mind. They tried to teach him what they thought of such things; but though their doctrine caught his fancy and flattered his love of singularity, he was not proof against the crude superstitions of his mates. He thought for a time that there was a Bad Man, but this belief gave way when he heard his father laughing about a certain clergyman who believed in a personal devil.
The boys said the world was going to be burned up some time, and my boy expected the end with his full share of the trouble that it must bring to every sinner. His fears were heightened by the fact that his grandfather believed this end was very near at hand, and was prepared for the second coming of Christ at any moment. Those were the days when the minds of many were stirred by this fear or hope; the believers had their ascension robes ready, and some gave away their earthly goods so as not to be cumbered with anything in their heavenward flight. At home, my boy heard his father jest at the crazy notion, and make fun of the believers; but abroad, among the boys, he took the tint of the prevailing gloom. One awful morning at school, it suddenly became so dark that the scholars could not see to study their lessons, and then the boys knew that the end of the world was coming. There were no clouds, as for a coming storm, but the air was blackened almost to the dusk of night; the school was dismissed, and my boy went home to find the candles lighted, and a strange gloom and silence on everything outside. He remembered entering into this awful time, but he no more remembered coming out of it than if the earth had really passed away in fire and smoke.
He early heard of forebodings and presentiments, and he tried hard against his will to have them, because he was so afraid of having them. For the same reason he did his best, or his worst, to fall into a trance, in which he should know everything that was going on about him, all the preparations for his funeral, all the sorrow and lamentation, but should be unable to move or speak, and only be saved at the last moment by some one putting a mirror to his lips and finding a little blur of mist on it. Sometimes when he was beginning to try to write things and to imagine characters, if he imagined a character's dying, then he became afraid he was that character, and was going to die.
Once, he woke up in the night and found the full moon shining into his room in a very strange and phantasmal way, and washing the floor with its pale light, and somehow it came into his mind that he was going to die when he was sixteen years old. He could then only have been nine or ten, but the perverse fear sank deep into his soul, and became an increasing torture till he passed his sixteenth birthday and entered upon the year in which he had appointed himself to die. The agony was then too great for him to bear alone any longer, and with shame he confessed his doom to his father. "Why," his father said, "you are in your seventeenth year now. It is too late for you to die at sixteen," and all the long-gathering load of misery dropped from the boy's soul, and he lived till his seventeenth birthday and beyond it without further trouble. If he had known that he would be in his seventeenth year as soon as he was sixteen, he might have arranged his presentiment differently.
THE NATURE OF BOYS.
I TELL these things about my boy, not so much because they were peculiar to him as because I think they are, many of them, common to all boys. One tiresome fact about boys is that they are so much alike; or used to be. They did not wish to be so, but they could not help it. They did not even know they were alike; and my boy used to suffer in ways that he believed no boy had ever suffered before; but as he grew older he found that boys had been suffering in exactly the same way from the beginning of time. In the world you will find a great many grown-up boys, with gray beards and grandchildren, who think that they have been different their whole lives through from other people, and are the victims of destiny. That is because with all their growing they have never grown to be men, but have remained a sort of cry-babies. The first thing you have to learn here below is that in essentials you are just like every one else, and that you are different from others only in what is not so much worth while. If you have anything in common with your fellow-creatures, it is something that God gave you; if you have anything that seems quite your own, it is from your silly self, and is a sort of perversion of what came to you from the Creator who made you out of himself, and had nothing else to make any one out of. There is not really any difference between you and your fellow-creatures; but only a seeming difference that flatters and cheats you with a sense of your strangeness, and makes you think you are a remarkable fellow.
There is a difference between boys and men, but it is a difference of self-knowledge chiefly. A boy wants to do everything because he does not know he cannot; a man wants to do something because he knows he cannot do everything; a boy always fails, and a man sometimes succeeds because the man knows and the boy does not know. A man is better than a boy because he knows better; he has learned by experience that what is a harm to others is a greater harm to himself, and he would rather not do it. But a boy hardly knows what harm is, and he does it mostly without realizing that it hurts. He cannot invent anything, he can only imitate; and it is easier to imitate evil than good. You can imitate war, but how are you going to imitate peace? So a boy passes his leisure in contriving mischief. If you get another fellow to walk into a wasp's camp, you can see him jump and hear him howl, but if you do not, then nothing at all happens. If you set a dog to chase a cat up a tree, then something has been done; but if you do not set the dog on the cat, then the cat just lies in the sun and sleeps, and you lose your time. If a boy could find out some way of doing good, so that he could be active in it, very likely he would want to do good now and then; but as he cannot, he very seldom wants to do good.
Or at least he did not want to do good in my boy's time. Things may be changed now, for I have been talking of boys as they were in the Boy's Town forty years ago. For anything that I really know to the contrary, a lot of fellows when they get together now may plot good deeds of all kinds, but when more than a single one of them was together then they plotted mischief. When I see five or six boys now lying under a tree on the grass, and they fall silent as I pass them, I have no right to say that they are not arranging to go and carry some poor widow's winter wood into her shed and pile it neatly up for her, and wish to keep it a secret from everybody; but forty years ago I should have had good reason for thinking that they were debating how to tie a piece of her clothes-line along the ground so that when her orphan boy came out for an armload of wood after dark, he would trip on it and send his wood flying all over the yard.
This would not be a sign that they were morally any worse than the boys who read Harper's Young People, and who would every one die rather than do such a cruel thing, but that they had not really thought much about it. I dare say that if a crowd of the Young People's readers, from eight to eleven years old, got together, they would choose the best boy among them to lead them on in works of kindness and usefulness; but I am very sorry to say that in the Boy's Town such a crowd of boys would have followed the lead of the worst boy as far as they dared. Not all of them would have been bad, and the worst of them would not have been very bad; but they would have been restless and thoughtless. I am not ready to say that boys now are not wise enough to be good; but in that time and town they certainly were not. In their ideals and ambitions they were foolish, and in most of their intentions they were mischievous. Without realizing that it was evil, they meant more evil than it would have been possible for ten times as many boys to commit. If the half of it were now committed by men, the United States would be such an awful place that the decent people would all want to go and live in Canada.
I have often read in stories of boys who were fond of nature, and loved her sublimity and beauty, but I do not believe boys are ever naturally fond of nature. They want to make use of the woods and fields and rivers; and when they become men they find these aspects of nature endeared to them by association, and so they think that they were dear for their own sakes; but the taste for nature is as purely acquired as the taste for poetry or the taste for tomatoes. I have often seen boys wondering at the rainbow, but it was wonder, not admiration that moved them; and I have seen them excited by a storm, but because the storm was tremendous, not because it was beautiful.
I never knew a boy who loved flowers, or cared for their decorative qualities; if any boy had gathered flowers the other boys would have laughed at him; though boys gather every kind of thing that they think will be of the slightest use or profit. I do not believe they appreciate the perfume of flowers, and I am sure that they never mind the most noisome stench or the most loathsome sight. A dead horse will draw a crowd of small boys, who will dwell without shrinking upon the details of his putrefaction, when they would pass by a rose-tree in bloom with indifference. Hideous reptiles and insects interest them more than the loveliest form of leaf or blossom. Their senses have none of the delicacy which they acquire in after-life.
They are not cruel, that is, they have no delight in giving pain, as a general thing; but they do cruel things out of curiosity, to see how their victims will act. Still, even in this way, I never saw many cruel things done. If another boy gets hurt they laugh, because it is funny to see him hop or hear him yell; but they do not laugh because they enjoy his pain, though they do not pity him unless they think he is badly hurt; then they are scared, and try to comfort him. To bait a hook they tear an angle-worm into small pieces, or impale a grub without flinching; they go to the slaughter-house and see beeves knocked in the head without a tremor. They acquaint themselves, at any risk, with all that is going on in the great strange world they have come into; and they do not pick or choose daintily among the facts and objects they encounter. To them there is neither foul nor fair, clean nor unclean. They have not the least discomfort from being dirty or unkempt, and they certainly find no pleasure in being washed and combed and clad in fresh linen. They do not like to see other boys so; if a boy looking sleek and smooth came among the boys that my boy went with in the Boy's Town, they made it a reproach to him, and hastened to help him spoil his clothes and his nice looks. Some of those boys had hands as hard as horn, cracked open at the knuckles and in the palms, and the crevices blackened with earth or grime; and they taught my boy to believe that he was an inferior and unmanly person, almost of the nature of a cry-baby, because his hands were not horn-like, and cracked open, and filled with dirt.
He had comrades enough and went with everybody, but till he formed that friendship with the queer fellow whom I have told of, he had no friend among the boys; and I very much doubt whether small boys understand friendship, or can feel it as they do afterwards, in its tenderness and unselfishness. In fact they have no conception of generosity. They are wasteful with what they do not want at the moment; but their instinct is to get and not to give. In the Boy's Town, if a fellow appeared at his gate with a piece of bread spread with apple-butter and sugar on top, the other fellows flocked round him and tried to flatter him out of bites of it, though they might be at that moment almost bursting with surfeit. To get a bite was so much clear gain, and when they had wheedled one from the owner of the bread, they took as large a bite as their mouths could stretch to, and they had neither shame nor regret for their behavior, but mocked his just resentment.
The instinct of getting, of hoarding, was the motive of all their foraging; they had no other idea of property than the bounty of nature; and this was well enough as far as it went, but their impulse was not to share this bounty with others, but to keep it each for himself. They hoarded nuts and acorns, and hips and haws, and then they wasted them; and they hoarded other things merely from the greed of getting, and with no possible expectation of advantage. It might be well enough to catch bees in hollyhocks, and imprison them in underground cells with flowers for them to make honey from; but why accumulate fire-flies and even dor-bugs in small brick pens? Why heap together mussel-shells; and what did a boy expect to do with all the marbles he won? You could trade marbles for tops, but they were not money, like pins; and why were pins money? Why did the boys instinctively choose them for their currency, and pay everything with them? There were certain very rigid laws about them, and a bent pin could not be passed among the boys any more than a counterfeit coin among men. There were fixed prices; three pins would buy a bite of apple; six pins would pay your way into a circus; and so on. But where did these pins come from or go to; and what did the boys expect to do with them all? No boy knew. From time to time several boys got together and decided to keep store, and then other boys decided to buy of them with pins; but there was no calculation in the scheme; and though I have read of boys, especially in English books, who made a profit out of their fellows, I never knew any boy who had enough forecast to do it. They were too wildly improvident for anything of the kind, and if they had any virtue at all it was scorn of the vice of stinginess.
They were savages in this as in many other things, but noble savages; and they were savages in such bravery as they showed. That is, they were venturesome, but not courageous with the steadfast courage of civilized men. They fought, and then ran; and they never fought except with some real or fancied advantage. They were grave, like Indians, for the most part; and they were noisy without being gay. They seldom laughed, except at the pain or shame of some one; I think they had no other conception of a joke, though they told what they thought were funny stories, mostly about some Irishman just come across the sea, but without expecting any one to laugh. In fact, life was a very serious affair with them. They lived in a state of outlawry, in the midst of invisible terrors, and they knew no rule but that of might.
I am afraid that Harper's Young People, or rather the mothers of Harper's Young People, may think I am painting a very gloomy picture of the natives of the Boy's Town; but I do not pretend that what I say of the boys of forty years ago is true of boys nowadays, especially the boys who read Harper's Young People. I understand that these boys always like to go tidily dressed and to keep themselves neat; and that a good many of them carry canes. They would rather go to school than fish, or hunt, or swim, any day; and if one of their teachers were ever to offer them a holiday, they would reject it by a vote of the whole school. They never laugh at a fellow when he hurts himself or tears his clothes. They are noble and self-sacrificing friends, and they carry out all their undertakings. They often have very exciting adventures such as my boy and his mates never had; they rescue one another from shipwreck and Indians; and if ever they are caught in a burning building, or cast away on a desolate island, they know just exactly what to do.
But, I am ashamed to say, it was all very different in the Boy's Town; and I might as well make a clean breast of it while I am about it. The fellows in that town were every one dreadfully lazy—that is, they never wanted to do any thing they were set to do; but if they set themselves to do anything, they would work themselves to death at it. In this alone I understand that they differed by a whole world's difference from the boys who read Harper's Young People. I am almost afraid to confess how little moral strength most of those long-ago boys had. A fellow would be very good at home, really and truly good, and as soon as he got out with the other fellows he would yield to almost any temptation to mischief that offered, and if none offered he would go and hunt one up, and would never stop till he had found one, and kept at it till it overcame him. The spirit of the boy's world is not wicked, but merely savage, as I have often said in this book; it is the spirit of not knowing better. That is, the prevailing spirit is so. Here and there a boy does know better, but he is seldom a leader among boys; and usually he is ashamed of knowing better, and rarely tries to do better than the rest. He would like to please his father and mother, but he dreads the other boys and what they will say; and so the light of home fades from his ignorant soul, and leaves him in the outer darkness of the street. It may be that it must be so; but it seems a great pity; and it seems somehow as if the father and the mother might keep with him in some word, some thought, and be there to help him against himself, whenever he is weak and wavering. The trouble is that the father and mother are too often children in their way, and little more fit to be the guide than he.
But while I am owning to a good deal that seems to me lamentably wrong in the behavior of the Boy's Town boys, I ought to remember one or two things to their credit. They had an ideal of honor, false enough as far as resenting insult went, but true in some other things. They were always respectful to women, and if a boy's mother ever appeared among them, to interfere in behalf of her boy when they were abusing him, they felt the indecorum, but they were careful not to let her feel it. They would not have dreamed of uttering a rude or impudent word to her; they obeyed her, and they were even eager to serve her, if she asked a favor of them.
For the most part, also, they were truthful, and they only told lies when they felt obliged to do so, as when they had been in swimming and said they had not, or as when they wanted to get away from some of the boys, or did not wish the whole crowd to know what they were doing. But they were generally shamefaced in these lies; and the fellows who could lie boldly and stick to it were few. In the abstract lying was held in such contempt that if any boy said you were a liar you must strike him. That was not to be borne for an instant, any more than if he had called you a thief.
I never knew a boy who was even reputed to have stolen anything, among all the boys, high and low, who met together and played in a perfect social equality; and cheating in any game was despised. To break bounds, to invade an orchard or garden, was an adventure which might be permitted; but even this was uncommon, and most of the boys saw the affair in the true light, and would not take part in it, though it was considered fair to knock apples off a tree that hung over the fence; and if you were out walnutting you might get over the fence in extreme cases, and help yourself. If the owner of the orchard was supposed to be stingy you might do it to plague him. But the standard of honesty was chivalrously high among those boys; and I believe that if ever we have the equality in this world which so many good men have hoped for, theft will be unknown. Dishonesty was rare even among men in the Boy's Town, because there was neither wealth nor poverty there, and all had enough and few too much.
THE TOWN ITSELF.
OF course I do not mean to tell what the town was as men knew it, but only as it appeared to the boys who made use of its opportunities for having fun. The civic centre was the court-house, with the county buildings about it in the court-house yard; and the great thing in the court-house was the town clock. It was more important in the boys' esteem than even the wooden woman, who had a sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other. Her eyes were blinded; and the boys believed that she would be as high as a house if she stood on the ground. She was above the clock, which was so far up in the air, against the summer sky which was always blue, that it made your neck ache to look up at it; and the bell was so large that once when my boy was a very little fellow, and was in the belfry with his brother, to see if they could get some of the pigeons that nested there, and the clock began to strike, it almost smote him dead with the terror of its sound, and he felt his heart quiver with the vibration of the air between the strokes. It seemed to him that he should never live to get down; and he never knew how he did get down. He could remember being in the court-house after that, one night when a wandering professor gave an exhibition in the court-room, and showed the effects of laughing-gas on such men and boys as were willing to breathe it. It was the same gas that dentists now give when they draw teeth; but it was then used to make people merry and truthful, to make them laugh and say just what they thought. My boy was too young to know whether it did either; but he was exactly the right age, when on another night there was a large picture of Death on a Pale Horse shown, to be harrowed to the bottom of his soul by its ghastliness. When he was much older, his father urged him to go to the court-house and hear the great Corwin, whose Mexican War speech he had learned so much of by heart, arguing a case; but the boy was too bashful to go in when he got to the door, and came back and reported that he was afraid they would make him swear. He was sometimes in the court-house yard, at elections and celebrations; and once he came from school at recess with some other boys and explored the region of the jail. Two or three prisoners were at the window, and they talked to the boys and joked; and the boys ran off again and played; and the prisoners remained like unreal things in my boy's fancy. Perhaps if it were not for this unreality which misery puts on for the happy when it is out of sight, no one could be happy in a world where there is so much misery.