Lonely O'Malley/Chapter 13
In which Youth is stripped of its Glory
NOT a breeze was stirring. The afternoon was hot and humid and opalescent. The last crumb in the Greyhound's provision-chest had long since been made away with. Never before had the current of the languid old river seemed so relentless, so indomitable, so doggedly unflagging.
The crushed and broken Captain had even suggested that he speed home by land, and return secretly with Plato and a clothes-line or two, that the Greyhound might be towed back to her anchorage after the fashion of the more humble and decorous canal-boat. But the mutinous crew would have none of this demeaning method of locomotion. The Greyhound could do what she liked. They were going swimming.
The disconsolate pirates of Watterson's Creek got only as far as the lower town swimming-hole. Here, after a brief but bitter battle, with missiles taken aboard for the purpose at the Brick Yard, the rightful possessors of that hole were sent scuttling ashore, to become united to their wearing apparel later, behind any friendly shrubbery and any convenient fence-boards that might offer.
The victors swung the Greyhound in under one of the big elms, canopied and festooned with wild grapevines, and there made her fast.
Then they stripped, to a man, in her little cabin. Piggie Brennan alone was somewhat tardy about removing his shirt, having discovered that the heat of battle had taken the color out of sundry mysterious little pieces of hair-ribbon carried gallantly in his bosom, and being anxious to avoid explanation as to how numerous vivid blue and crimson spots chanced to adorn his unusually fair skin.
Then one by one the boys "took their duck," diving in rapid succession from the rudder-stem of the Greyhound, cutting the surface crisply, gasping and blowing and shaking dripping heads as they emerged from the cool yellow depths of the shaded water.
Then their new-born energy took the form of a game of follow-the-leader, consisting of gleeful plungings from the cabin roof, "bringing up bottom," "treading water," and "parting the hair." Tiring of this, in time, the eleven young disciples of piracy drifted down to the swimming-hole itself. Here they had a game of squat tag, on land, only stopping to shriek and dance and gyrate, shamelessly and in unison, as the excursion steamer appeared round the bend and raced imperturbably past.
Then they made a water-slide in the bank of blue clay, down which they tobogganed, feet first, flat on their backs. This clay was not of the purest, however, having certain small but sharp-angled pieces of flint running generously through it. One slide, and one only, proved sufficient for each member of the Greyhound's crew.
Then a goodly puddle of blue clay ooze was deftly kneaded into existence. This was joyously applied to eleven naked young bodies, until those children of sober Chamboro looked sadly like eleven expatriated South Sea Islanders.
Then came the embellishing and ornamental phase, which with one pirate consisted in making cryptic crosses and circles on all parts of his anatomy; with another, zebra-like stripes from head to foot; with another, a close-grained effect such as one often sees on quartered oak furniture; with still another a copious sprinkling of French knots and polka-dots.
Back-aches and water-blisters, disappointments and humiliations, defeats and degradations,—all were forgotten under the magic spell of that soothing and caressing blue clay, and that dissolving, rejuvenating, lukewarm, yellow-tinted water of the sun-steeped swimming-hole. Cæsar took no thought of his crown; Antony had discovered something sweeter than ambition; Ponce de Leon had found something finer than Mexican gold!—the very fountain of youth and joy itself!
When tired of disporting themselves, porpoise-like, under and through and over the water, the eleven young barbarians clambered up the river-bank, to a warm and dusty sand-wallow, soaking in the gentle heat, at peace with themselves and all the world.
There, with twitching toes and blinking eyes, gazing lazily up into the great blue vault above them, they fell into a dreamy and disjointed argument as to just where Heaven was. Then they digressed to gentle speculations as to the nature of the Hereafter, and whether or not there were real angels, and just what persons in Chamboro had ever seen a ghost. And were there such things as witches, and what was a sure cure for warts?
Yet even while these eleven brooding philosophers lay disporting themselves in the warm afternoon sunlight, sans scowls, sans firearms, sans clothing, sans watch or outlook—whilst, I repeat, these eleven contented and motionless figures lay heavily incased in a shell of blue clay, stretched out, gazing up at the unfathomable sky and waiting for that earthly pigment to harden and whiten about their youthful ribs, the rotund figure of none other than the town constable of Chamboro was being rowed to the very nose of the Greyhound, silently and cautiously, by a stalwart scion of the Chamboro Boat-House.
And while those eleven pensively happy spirits still lay stretched out on the sand-bank, still blinking at the sky about which they had been holding metaphysical question, the bowline of their gallant ship was noiselessly untied and taken possession of, and in three minutes the Greyhound herself was shipping silently around the river-bend, gliding out of sight insubstantially, like the shadow of a dream.
It was Pud Jones, returning to the Greyhound for matches, who, white of face and round of eye, first reported the loss.
"Hi, there, you fellas!" he screamed down at the idling dreamers; "somebody's pinched our boat!"
Alarming and unhappy indeed was the half-hour that followed. In vain the pirate crew scurried overland to the road fence, and with much shouting and gesticulating from behind screening shrubbery, tried to stop some passing farm-wagon. Binney Pennyfather,the most youthful of the unfortunates, even began to cry and wish that he was dead.
It was Captain O'Malley alone who rose to the occasion. He quickly, though somewhat rudely, wove for himself a skirt of wild grapevines. This, after many mishaps and disappointments, he fastened gingerly about his waist.
At a costume so Adamical the entire pirate crew suddenly forgot their woes, and, seeing that he was adding to their joy in life, Lonely promptly fell to showing off, dancing an improvised skirt-dance for their delectation.
AN IMPROVISED SKIRT DANCE
"I 'd rather go stark naked 'n cut a figger like that!" solemnly declared the First Mate, as their derisive shouts of laughter died forlornly away. For with the lowering sun came a greater coolness of air, and sadly and poignantly the pirates of Watterson's Creek learned what a helpless and dependent animal is man, in the natural state.
What, eventually, would have become of those eleven mud-smeared young savages, left thus unconsciously destitute, it would be hard to say, had not the Lone Star come churning and puffing and grunting once more up the river, with a scow-load of red brick for the new Chamboro courthouse.
The fat old engineer happened to hear their sudden woeful chorus of cries—indeed, they could have been heard two good miles away, through the quiet and cooling evening air. Poking his astonished head out of his warm little engine-room, he beheld eleven gaunt, grayish-hued figures huddled forlornly about a tiny fire on the breezy river-bank. He had to look several times, before he could quite make them out, for the remnants of their blue-clay coating tended to give them both an unfamiliar and an uncouthly exotic appearance.
If that sight awoke in his honest and generous old soul any stray sign or sense of merriment, he thoughtfully had his laugh out alone, in the quietness of his engine-room, before swinging round and taking those eleven forlorn passengers aboard.
"My cookie-pie!" was his solitary though forceful ejaculation, as he packed the lot of them down in his warm little engine-room, where they sat apprehensively, and in melancholy silence, pondering over just what ultimate fate that, day had in store for them. From the Captain himself the old-time hauteur of the pirate had fallen,—for what is there imposing about even the boldest buccaneer, when seen without frill or furbelow!
As the Lone Star swung slowly into Rankin's Dock that night eleven silhouetted heads gazed anxiously out from the ruddy doorway of her engine-room.
Most of the town of Chamboro seemed crowded about the little wharf, dotted with lights, where many of the noisy throng carried lanterns. Men and women, together with small children who ought to have been abed hours before, stood grouped about a dark, low-lying mysterious form that swung in the water just under the nose of the Lone Star.
That mysterious form bore the ponderous official padlocks of the Corporation of Chamboro. And there it had been securely chained and imprisoned by that corporation's constable, after which solemn act he had plodded stolidly off to a belated supper, with lips pursed up in sphinx-like silence, quite satisfied with a hard day's work well done.
But as the evening had crept on certain stern fathers grew restive, and more than one anxious-eyed mother seemed paler of face than before. A boy's straw hat had been found floating on the river. Wild rumors suddenly began to creep through the town. Some one had heard loud screams, down below Ellis's Brick Yard; a capsized boat had been seen!
One by one families came out to talk it all over. Then a voice from the crowd suggested going up to Aleck Brown's for the dragging-irons, and a muffled sob or two broke involuntarily from the throat of more than one woman waiting on the little wharf.
It was just at this point that the Lone Star came puffing importantly up, and from her engine-room was first seen that strange group of disheveled and bobbing heads.
Fathers who had been meekly ruminating as to how they had misunderstood their young sons, who had been thinking how much good there really had been in this or that particular boy, and how much more forbearing they ought to have been in the old days, suddenly grew worldly and cold and hard-hearted. And women who had been very quiet, and had said nothing, could no longer keep back the foolish tears.
Then the melodiously austere voice of the Reverend Ezra Sampson, the Rector of All Saints, sounded out above the murmur of the crowd.
He was, obviously, addressing the phlegmatic old engineer of the Lone Star.
"Mr. Brown, can it be possible, sir, that those are our boys, whom you have thus strangely secreted in your engine-room?"
"They be!" answered Mr. Brown, not over-pleased at the Rector's tone of voice. "They be—the whole kit of 'em!"
At that precise moment the Rector of All Saints caught a fleeting glimpse of what appeared to be his son, Lionel Clarence—more commonly known among his comrades of late as "Shag," or sometimes as "Slugger" Sampson. It was only fitting, as the leader of his flock, that Lionel's father should sternly take the initiative.
"Lionel Clarence Sampson, come here at once, sir!" the stern parent demanded.
There was no answer to this, and after a moment's ominous silence the command was repeated.
"Obey your father, Lionel, whatever the outcome, or however painful it may be for you," called Mrs. Sampson, who had been weeping a little toward the last.
"Do you mean that, ma'm?" asked the old engineer, pointedly.
"Certainly she means it, my good man!" It was the Rector who now spoke, a little impatiently. But still no boy appeared.
"Shall I fetch 'im, ma'm?" gleefully suggested the old engineer.
"No, he must come of his own free will!"
"Mebbe!" said Mr. Brown, softly, "mebbe!"
"Lionel Clarence Sampson, come out from your hiding-place at once, sir, and receive that chastisement which you have so richly merited!"
There was another painful silence, and then a tremulous and whining voice was heard to say:
"Pa, I—I can't! We ain't—we are n't— You tell him, Mr. Brown!"
The old engineer stepped slowly over and whispered something in the ear of the Rector.
"Sir?" ejaculated the Preacher.
Thereat the engineer repeated what he had said.
At this the Preacher put up his hands; then, recovering his official dignity, whispered something in turn into the ears of those close beside him. Then there was more whispering, and only the men remained in the front ranks of the watchers, while messengers were sent Tiurriedly and mysteriously to all quarters of the little town of Chamboro.
Long before their return, however, old Cap'n Sands and the Lone Star engineer had had a little private talk. This resulted in the old Cap'n's valiantly setting at defiance all municipal authority, and with his own incensed hand chopping down the padlocked cabin door of the Greyhound, declaring in no uncertain language, as he did so, that a certain fat-headed old constable was n't fit to herd she-goats!
But most of the older heads of Chamboro did not take the old Cap'n's view of the case. For more than one parent sternly and promptly boarded the Lone Star, and finding a son in that altogether too tempting state of preparedness, spanked him vigorously, soundly, and publicly.
Yet the cruelest blow fell on Captain Lonely O'Malley himself. That worthy buccaneer, emerging from the engine-room, was kicked at inadequately by an inebriate father, only to escape into the arms of a tearful young mother, who seized him bodily and held him to her breast. In vain Lonely struggled and remonstrated; in vain he wriggled and twisted, hot and tingling with the disgrace of such an exhibition. Still that young mother held him and wept over him, wept over him, indeed, as though he had been an infant in arms!
And from Rankin's Dock that night eleven bold pirates went home through the noisy streets of Chamboro; some with aching hearts, all with aching legs. With the passing of those little aches, for eleven redoubtable youths the romance passed out of piracy. From that time on all such adventuring faded into the light of common day. And for all time, henceforth, it was ordained that one more door to the kingdom of enchantment should stand barred and locked to them.
The Child who Tarried Not
A bird of passage on the wing
You proved to us alone!
Where now, in their far wandering,
Have those light pinions flown?
And yet you filled all life with song.
For one too happy day!
Then over seas, where you belong,
You winged your lonely way!
How could we know, O Child, you stayed
A momentary guest,
Whose fond but fleeting presence made
These lonely walls their rest?
For, since you fared from us again
One note our Aprils lack.
One note, as year by year in vain
We watch the birds come back!