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CHAPTER VIII

In which Lonely tells a Story or two


LONELY had just made a new box-kite for himself, and having borrowed the entire stock of wrapping-string from the bake-shop to give it ample wind-room, it now hung a little dot of white high up in the tremulous blue of the early afternoon sky.

It was the end of June, and the last day of school. In an hour or two the turbulent classes would be tumbling joyously out to their final freedom, and great undertakings would soon be on foot, and plans made, and journeys projected, and grave secrets passed from friend to trusted friend. Already timid little boys, in the general carnival spirit which crept over the sleepy little gray kitten of a town, were flipping notes across the aisle to properly indignant little girls, who wrote "Smarty" on a slip of paper and flipped it back. Already young orators were stutteringly delivering themselves of their disjointed recitations, and an ink-well or two was being emptied down somebody's back, and the ubiquitous "spitball" was being volleyed back and forth. And Lonely, knowing that his long-imprisoned knights and retainers would soon be flocking about him, was dreamily content with life and his box-kite, sleepily watching the fleck of white as it floated up in the blue ether, hazily wondering if his flying-machine would ever soar to such heights with him, and even more hazily speculating as to whether or not one could ever slip into heaven, with just the right sort of air-ship, especially if one made a sufficiently wide circle about two ominous black oak chairs (with fleecy clouds drifting slowly in and out between their legs) whereon sat the two figures, writing with goose-quill pens.

Annie Eliza appeared on the edge of the Common, saw the kite, and approached Lonely purringly, toeing-in as she came. Two days before, at a tea-party of cut-up green cucumbers and carrots, she had confessed to Lonely her intention to become a Trapeze Lady, but had expressed her willingness to give over her career, and follow Lonely singly and faithfully, for the trifling gift of Shivers and what remained of his bottle of perfume.

The boy on the Common now had the kite tied down to his sunburnt bandy-leg, and was slowly and carefully cutting out round pieces of stiff cardboard, to be sent up the taut kite-string as "messengers." His tongue was thrust out a little as he worked, and it moved sympathetically from side to side at every stroke of his knife-blade.

"Oh, Lonely, let me feel how it pulls!" begged Annie Eliza, as she crept up closer to him, blinking raptly up at the blue depths that tented in her sunny world.

"Could n't!" he answered, curtly.

"Just one little pull?"

Lonely shook his head resolutely. This kite-flying business was not a thing for girls to get mixed up in: you had to mind your P's and Q's when you were flying a box-kite, they pulled so!

"Why, first thing you know she 'd start pullin' extra hard—and then where 'd you be?"

"Where?" echoed Annie Eliza, drawing back a little.

"Yanked over into the river, or mebbe Watterson's Crick, before you could remember to let go!"

"Does it pull that bad?"

"I made it!" said the kite-flyer, with laconic self-complacence.

"Goodness gracious!" said Annie Eliza, looking up into the blue sky once more.

Lonely emitted a gentle little ruminative sigh.

"Why, that box-kite is nothin'. I had a house-kite, once, in Cowansburg, and I had Winnie Douglas come and hold it for me, while I was stoppin' Gilead from eatin' one o' Pop's harness traces."

Whenever Lonely O'Malley saw red, as he was doing at that moment. Veracity shuddered on her throne.

"Go on!" said Annie Eliza.

Lonely tested the tension on his kite-string critically, pulled it in a yard or two, with a great show of exertion, and still further played for time. For Jappie Barrison and Betty Doyle and the Bird girls were coming across the Common. The larger Lonely's audience the more rapt was his recital.

"I left her there holdin' that big house-kite o' mine," went on Lonely, "and first thing I knew, along came an extra strong puff o' wind. Gee whittaker!—there was Winnie Douglas whipped up over the walnut-trees, on the Cowansburg Common, hangin'
"WHIPPED UP OVER THE WALNUT TREES"
on for all she was worth, and a-hollerin' for me to come and get her down, hollerin' away there all the time she was driftin' out of sight!"

"W—was she killed?"

"Just her good luck she was n't!" commented Lonely, beating off the lee coast of bewilderment, and heatedly demanding of his imagination just what did become of Miss Winnie Douglas.

"Was she drowned?" demanded Jappie Barrison.

"Nope! Just 's she was goin' over Harding's Hill she hooked her toes on a crab-apple tree, and they came and got her down,with ladders!"

"Was she scared—much?" somebody demanded.

"Scared! She had to be shut up in a dark room, with wet towels and things, to keep from gettin' softenin' of the brain!"

"Tell us another story," said Lulu Bird.

"Who 's tellin' stories?" demanded the indignant Lonely. And as Lionel Clarence came panting up at that moment; the Plutarch of Cowansburg turned his attention to more fitting company.

"Whew! She does pull!" cried the envious Preacher's son, as he took the taut and humming line in his hand.

Lonely modestly confessed that it wasn't altogether a slouch of a kite.

"Won't you tell us another story?" reiterated Lulu Bird, patiently, as the three girls sat down and spread out their skirts about Lonely.

A look passed between the two boys, telepathic, fleeting, and yet eloquent.

"You might as well," said one look.

"What 's the use?" said the other.

"Tell them about the time that she-lion got loose in Cowansburg," suggested Lionel Clarence, to whom the tale had been graphically recounted, a month or two before, up in the O'Malley haymow.

"Oh, that was nothin' much," deprecated Lonely.

Was it a mad lion?" inquired Lulu Bird.

Just a common man-eater," explained Lonely.

A sudden shrill chorus of cries bore witness to the fact that school was out; and two minutes later scattered bands of children were racing and curveting out into the green freedom of the Common. Old Witherspoon, the town constable, eyed them closely, for experience had taught him that on such occasions law and order were often forgotten.

Cap'n Steiner and Cap'n Sands hobbled across the greensward to a shady seat close beside the kite-flier. A tug puffed and churned noisily down on the river; a robin fluted and trebled and piped across the breezy afternoon. It was a good world to be alive in.

"Go on with about the lion," commanded Jappie Barrison.

A curious boy or two joined the circle of listeners, and having critically tested the pull of the new box-kite, clustered indolently about Lonely, and kicked their languid heels and chewed at the sweetish white inner stalks of the Common grass.

"See if you can make goose-flesh come on Pinkie Ball," suggested Lulu Bird, encouragingly.

Pinkie Ball was an easily impressed and somewhat emotional little boy upon whom all tales of horror brought the creeps. When Pinkie's skin showed "goose-flesh," during the telling of a ghost-story, the artist knew that all was going well with his work.

"I won't stay, if it 's goin' to be about ghosts!" wailed Pinkie, showing signs of terror, yet irresistibly chained to the spot.

The central figure of the little circle grew impatient.

"It was only something that happened to me over in Cowansburg," he said, off-hand. "To me and a man-eatin' lion over there."

Lonely drank in the silence that followed. A sufficiently dramatic pause having elapsed, he went on.

"I was just pikin' home from Connor's grocery, with half a pound of allspice, and half a pound of cinnamon and black pepper,
 
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"JUST SCRATCHED GRAVEL FOR ALL THEY WAS WORTH"

 
and a lot of stuff like that. I was just pikin' along home, when some men ran past me, wavin' their arms and tellin' me to look out. They did n't stop to say what for, but just scratched gravel for all they was worth. Golley, how that old fat man did run!" broke in Lonely, with a reminiscent light in his eye.

"Well, first thing I knew there wasn't a soul to be seen on the streets, and I says to myself, that there pickle factory's on fire again. And I was just walkin' along between the two rows of empty houses, wonderin' what on earth was up, when I turned round the corner, careless-like—and I saw something standin' there in front of me!"

"It—it was n't the lion?" gasped Pinkie.

Lonely paid no attention to the interruption, tending even as it did to anticipate his coming climax.

"I stopped stockstill, and felt my hair stand on end, and looked. Then I rubbed my eyes, and looked again. But still That Thing stood there, right in front of me, with its teeth showin', and its tail lashin' from side to side, and its mane all bristlin' up."

"Then it was a lion!" gasped Pinkie, triumphantly.

"Quick as a wink I could see why all those men had scooted out. It was one of the lions got loose from the circus tent, a real Assinian lion!"

"An Abyssinian lion!" corrected Lionel Clarence.

"I always shorten it up, to save time," said the explicit historian, testily.

"Well, go on," said Jappie Barrison.

"I stood there facin' that lion, wonderin' what to do, when I saw him kind o' hunch up and get ready to spring. I was n't exactly scart; I was just mad at bein' stopped on my way home, when Pop told me to hustle. So, as I saw that lion was gettin' ready to jump, I just up with my package of pepper, and let him have it square in the nose!"

A murmur of surprise ran around the little circle.

Lonely laughed dreamily at the memory of the episode, absent-mindedly testing his kite-string as he went on.

"How that old lion did r'ar up! I jumped off to one side, just as he made his spring. It came out about as I had figgered. All that pepper 'd made the lion as blind as a bat! And when he turned round and jumped for me again, I was twenty feet off to one side, watchin* him sneeze as he come down! and there he was, jumpin' and jumpin', not knowin' where I was!"

"Could n't he smell you?" demanded Lulu Bird.

"Smell nothin',—with a pound o' black pepper up his nose? He just kept roarin' and howlin' round there and jumpin' for the spot where he 'd seen me last. So when I seen I 'd fixed him all right, I sent word up to the circus folks to come and get their animal. And when they come hustlin' up with the cage, I showed 'em just where he was goin' to make his next jump. So they slipped the cage up where I showed 'em. Next jump he landed clean inside; and there he was, shut in neat as a whistle."

"But I got a great old lickin' when I got home," added the impartial and impersonal historian, "for lettin' the chili sauce get spoiled, for want of them spices!"

"Tell us another story!" reiterated the over-ingenuous Lulu Bird.

"Something about ghosts," suggested Jappie Barrison.

"You 've never seen one o' them have you?" demanded Pinkie.

Lonely looked around, apprehensively. There was no mistaking the fact that his glance meant to convey to them that it was a good thing it was broad daylight, and they were there all together on the Common.

"I had a ghost folly [1] me once," said Lonely, dropping his voice.

"Go on!" said Lionel Clarence.

Lonely shook his head disapprovingly.

"I don't like talkin' about that kind o' thing. It aint always safe!" he added, huskily, meaningly.

Pinkie Ball began to worm his way back into the outer circle.

"Oh, go on!" said one of the bolder spirits, impatiently.

Lonely hunched up one of his shoulders in a shrug that plainly intimated that their blood was to be on their own heads, should disaster befall them.

"It was in the old Guiney house, that stood just about a mile outside o' Cowansburg," began Lonely, slowly. "That house was ha'nted!"

Ominous shakes of the head followed this declaration.

"None of the town gang 'd go near it, not even to gather walnuts. And there was bushels of 'em goin' to waste there, for the house was empty, and even grown folks would n't pry round there none, I can tell you! And it was so dark and quiet and lonesome-like that when you shoved in through the bushes, and you put your foot on a stick, and it cracked—why, the sound 'd nearly make you jump out of your skin. Well, Speck Litsey and me decided we were a-goin' to find out about that ghost. Saturdays we 'd crawl in through the fence, and wriggle in past the burdocks, and shove through the bushes, and each time we 'd get able to come a little nearer to the house itself without turnin' tail every minute a squirrel ran up a tree.

"Well, Speck and me were nosin' round there one Saturday afternoon, wonderin' what made that house look so uncommon like a big white tombstone, when Speck drops flat down on his stummick, injun-fashion, and pulls me down after him. 'Did you see her?' he whispers to me, kind o' blue around the gills, and shakin' as though he had the fever-'n-ague. 'What?' I says, tryin' to look up through the bushes. But Speck, he hauled me down. 'Don't you take no risks like that. Lonely,' he says, with his teeth a-shakin'. And I began to feel kind o' creepish and queer-like, it was beginnin' to get so dark and quiet in there. Then Speck he says 'Hssssh!' all of a sudden, and I peeked up through the mullein and ragweed, and then I seen it!"

"What was it?" demanded Pinkie Ball, with blanching cheeks.

"It was a woman, all dressed in white, walkin' round and round and round the house, moanin' and wringin' her hands, and cryin' something awful. But that was n't all. When she come to the veranda railin', instead of walkin' round it, or climbin' over it, she just walked right through it, same as though it was smoke!

"'I guess I 'll cut f'r home!' Speck says to me, drawin' back through the weeds. That made me kind o' mad. 'Speck,' says I, 'I 'm a-goin' to find out what's worryin' that woman, or bust!' says I.

"'Don't you do it. Lonely,' says he. And he began to cry, and said he 'd give me his two pouters and a agate alley if I 'd go as far as the fence with him.

"'All right. Speck,' says I, 'you go home if you want to. But don't you say nothin' about this ghost to any of the rest of the gang!'

"And Speck, he promised, and crawled back through the bushes a blamed sight quicker than he 'd come in, and squeezed through the fence, and left me there alone with that woman walkin' round and round the house, wringin' her hands and carryin' on fit to make your hair stand up on end.

"Just to make sure o' things before I went any further, I grubbed a good-sized stone out of the old gravel walk, and let it fly at her, hard as I could go, just as she come wailin' and cryin' round the corner of the house. It seemed kind o' cruel, at first, but if she was a reg'ler, out-and-out ghost, I knew it was n't goin' to do her any harm, and if she was just foolin' and carryin' on that way for show, she would be gettin' what was comin' to her. Well, I let drive right at her, and it took her plum in the waist. But it went clean through her, without stoppin'! And I could see a line of sparks where it lit up against the basement stonework, kind o' blue, and sulphury, and queer-lookin'.

"Then I minded hearin' old Marm Watkins—she 's the colored woman who used to wash for the Litseys—tellin' Speck no ghost would ever walk over a cross, and if ever he got caught overnight in a graveyard, just to make a circle o' crosses round himself, and no ha'nt 'd ever get near him.

"So I went back to the road fence, and nailed two old pigots together, crossways, with a hunk of stone for a hammer. Then I crawled back and waited for my chance, and put that cross plum down in the woman's path, right between a grape-trellis and a corner of the house, where she 'd have to step over it, for sure. Then I stood back in the shadow of the house, and waited for her to come round to the front again. And it kept gettin' darker and darker, and I tell you what, I kind o' wished I was good and safe out o' that!

"When she seen that cross the woman stopped, kind o' puzzled like, and looked up kind o' fretful, and rubbed her nose kind o' inquirin', and I could hear her askin' herself over and over again why somebody 'd killed her that way in cold blood. So I stepped right out in front of her, at that, and asked her what was a-troublin' her so much. She said 'Land's sake, who 's that?' rubbed her nose again, kind o' hesitatin', and started backin' away. Then she stopped, and looked at me kind o' sad for about a minute. Then she said 'Folly me,' and led me right into the old white house, and up the old stairs, slow and solemn, and pointed to a spot on the front bedroom floor. And it was blood!"

An inarticulate cry burst from the rapt Pinkie, whose mouth was open even as wide as his eyes; Lonely returned to his narrative not unpleased with the interruption.
"THERE HAS BEEN SOME FOUL DEED DONE HERE"

"Then she led me into another room, and pointed to a loose board in the floor. And I knew that meant for me to look underneath. So I yanked up the board. And there was a butcher-knife, all covered with blood, too!

"'There has been some foul deed done here!' I says to the woman. And she nodded her head three times. Then she told me to folly her again, and led me all the way down through the big dark house to the cellar, and it was jam-crack full o' queer noinse in every room! And she pointed at some bricks in the floor there, and made a sign for me to take 'em up. And when I 'd dug down for about a foot, I come across a long, black coffin. Gee, I felt queer. But I was n't goin' to quit when I 'd gone that far. So I unscrewed the top of the coffin, and—and—"

"Oh, you 're just trying to scare us!" cried the elder Bird girl, cynically skeptical.

Lonely's half-closed eyes suddenly opened to their full width; the dreamer had been shocked into reality; this unexpected note of unbelief had broken the bubble of his ecstasy.

"You shut up, Em'ly Bird!" And Lonely was begged not to leave his tale standing at such an unsatisfying crisis.

"Who said I was tryin' to scare you?" demanded the irate historian, however, eyeing the crowd, one by one, indignantly.

"I believe you were just making that all up, Lonely O'Malley!" said Em'ly Bird, stoutly.

"Oh, go on, Lonely!" cried Betty Doyle. "Em'ly always does try to spoil everything!"

Instead of going on, Lonely slowly and deliberately reached behind him, and from some mysterious vent in the neighborhood of his hip-pocket drew forth a long-bladed butcher-knife, still stained and marked with great black blotches, which any one with half an eye could see was blood.

"There 's the knife, to prove it!" he said, with a proud unconcern of mind, as it passed gingerly from hand to hand. And then he added bitterly, half to himself, "That's the trouble of tellin' things to kids!"

From all quarters he was flattered and fawned over and begged to go on with his recountal. But he was obdurate, and would tell nothing more, beyond dropping a tantalizing hint that he guessed they 'd like to know how he screwed that ghost down in her coffin, and just what happened after that. He was even offered a weasel and two laying hens, out and out, if he would recount in secret to the inquisitive but briefly unimaginative Piggie Brennan the final details of that adventure with the sorrow-laden ghost. At this offer, of course. Lonely shook a listless and disdainful head, and he only felt the edge of his blood-stained knife cogitatively, as Em'ly Bird asserted her firm belief that the story never did have an end, anyway—which may have been truer than most of that disgruntled audience realized.

Old Ezra Witherspoon, the town constable, beholding that silent little group clustered about the boy, inwardly surmised that mischief of some sort was brewing, and turned his steps in the direction of Lonely, as that guileless youth slipped his long-bladed knife deftly back into its secret pocket.

"Oh, here's that old fossil again!" exclaimed Lulu Bird, testily and not inaudibly, as the impassive old constable proceeded to make himself at home on the outskirts of the little crowd. Lulu Bird and the constable had had a misunderstanding, of late, as to the ravaging of a certain pansy-bed in the Park.

"Fossil—what 's a fossil?" asked Pinkie.
 
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THE OLD CONSTABLE PROCEEDED TO MAKE HIMSELF AT HOME

 
And an erratic yet fierce discussion straightway ensued as to whether a fossil was a piece of petrified wood, or just common flint rock.

Their disjointed talk seemed to bring certain memories back to the reawakening Lonely, now lying stretched out on the warm grass.

"You kids ever see a real petrifyin' spring?" he asked, sleepily, as he lifted a languid arm and sent a cardboard "messenger" humming up the vibrant kite-string.

There was a further and fiercer dispute as to whether or not petrifying springs were a mere thing of the foolish imagination,—at all of which Lonely smiled loftily and forbearingly.

"Never heard of the Catfish Petrifyin' Spring up near Cowansburg?" he demanded. They of course never had.

"And I s'pose some o' you will be sayin' the Injuns never used to soak their arrowheads in it, to turn 'em into stone?"

Had the excellent Lonely ever seen this spring? Or had any article of this excellent Lonely's ever been turned into stone therein?

Lonely gave over placidly and philosophically tickling his own nose with a feathery timothy-head, and said that of course he had seen it, and that he had hardened mud marbles in it, many a time.

"But I thought it took years and years to petrify a thing!" protested the doubting Lionel Clarence.

"Not in the Catfish Spring," said Lonely, with much decision. "Why, Bart Connelly went in swimmin' in that spring three or four times, and he got so stiff in the knees you could hear him creak when he walked—from gettin' petrified in the joints, folks said!"

Had the excellent Lonely heard of any other prodigious thing effected by the Catfish Spring? And the circle drew closer about him once more.

"Yes, folks was always gettin' in trouble about that spring," went on Lonely, with that meditative half drawl which was apt to mark his purely creative moments. "An Uncle Si of mine, who got his ankle sprained jumpin' off a load o' barley, thought the spring would be a good place to take down the swellin'. None o' this hanged petrifyin' talk was ever goin' to keep him from soakin' his foot in the coldest runnin' water In the county, he says, and evenln's he used to go down to the spring and let that petrlfyin' water run over his ankle-bone. It kept gettin' stiffer and stiffer, and he kept gettin' crankier and crankier, and one night he went to kick my goat Gilead, for eatin' up a pair of his galluses. It was a pretty hard kick. It hit Gilead all right; but Uncle Si's foot snapped off, just like a piece of marble—petrified clean through!

"Then when the Johnsons' new hired man got a sunstroke chasin' my goat out of a beanfield, and had to wash his head every day, to keep down fits, he used to go to the Catfish Spring, 'cause the water was so cool and slickery there. About the third time he 'd washed his head in that water his hair began to stiffen up. Next day it rubbed off like a lot o' mortar."

A stimulating little murmur of wonder flowed and ebbed through the circle.

"But that ain't the queerest thing that happened about that spring. One of the women folks on the next farm put a six-pound roll of butter down in the spring, to get it kind o' cool and hard, and when she come back for it, next day, there was her butter, coated with about half an inch o' limestone. How I come to know about that was b'cause she went to Pop and said I 'd hooked her butter and gone and chucked a stone down in the pail, just because she 'd stopped me doin' my Spanish bull-baitin' act with their heifer. Well, the funniest part about all this here rumpus was that she slung that stone away, and about a week later old man Johnson gathered it up for the new chimney he was buildin'. Now, maybe you kids won't believe it, but that stone was built right in the new fireplace. That night when they were havin' a kind of a house-warmin' or something like that, the heat from the burnin' logs bust the stone, and, gee whittaker, down runs about six pounds o' grease. It puzzled old man Johnson a good deal, and I had a talk with him about it, and we both decided if there was one stone in that neighborhood bearin' oil, there ought to be a heap more. So old Johnson, he went around for about a week, with a hand-drill, tappin' about every old hard-head on the farm!"

Lonely seemed to chuckle inwardly over the memory of it all, murmuring placidly to himself: "And I guess I got even with the old stiff, for a-tattlin' about me swimmin' in the reservoir!"

And again Lonely chuckled to himself, though the drift of it all seemed slightly above the heads of his auditors.

"But the out-and-out worst thing that happened about that Catfish Spring was the time the Johnson baby got lost. They could n't find that baby anywheres, though they hunted for days, and then for weeks. And in the end they all thought it must have been carried off by gypsies, or mebbe the circus folks had got it. Well, one day the hired man let go his holt on the water-jug, as he was dippin' out of the spring, and he had to get the garden-rake to fish it out. He got the rake-teeth caught on the jug all right—least so it seemed to him, but that jug appeared uncommon heavy to him. It was about all he could do, I guess, to get her to the top. He made a grab down to catch it before it sunk, and the first thing he knew he had grabbed hold of a stone hand!"

Lonely had a trick of making his voice go hollow and low, when he delivered himself of a climactic sentence; and there was another uneasy stir among the circle of listeners.

"It—it was n't the baby, was it?" asked Jappie Barrison, almost tremulously.

"It was Johnson's baby," said Lonely, with impressive slowness. "And turned to solid stone, from head to foot!

"That hired man dropped her a couple o' times—he was in such a hustle to get up to the house with the news—and chipped a piece or two off her. But he got her home, and leaned her up against a what-not in the parlor, and called 'em all in to look at her. The old man did n't have the heart to bury that baby, it seemed so natural and lifelike, and though Arabella—she 's the oldest girl, and meaner 'n cats!—wanted the old man to use the figger for a sort o' tombstone for the rest o' the fam'ly, and so save a heap o' money, she said, he was so took up with that petrified child that he just kept it round the house for a sort o' ornament."

Lonely came to a finish, and leaned back contentedly.

"Them 's lies!" said the ever-antagonistic Em'ly Bird, promptly, and with conviction.

Lonely reached languidly for his kite-string, and began slowly to haul in, squinting absently up at the dot of white that grew bigger and bigger in the tremulous blue above. Then, in the puzzled silence that followed on the end of his narrative, the quite forgotten old town constable was heard suddenly to slap his leg and to declare with much zest that that was the beatenest thing he had ever heard on!

In fact, while Lonely went on to recount how he had caught a certain mad dog in a lap-robe, and thereby saved many children from impending death, the rotund and credulous town constable sat down between old Cap'n Steiner and Cap'n Sands, and gave the two aged skippers the story over again, as best he could, and again slapped his leg and declared it to be the beatenest thing he had ever heard on!

But why, alas, go on with the sad fabrications of this conscienceless Lonely O'Malley? They are of moment, it must be confessed, only as they stand an evidence of that youthful and exuberant activity of imagination which in maturer years was to exert such a marked influence over our Lonely and his career. That these imaginings had no objective counterpart in life took away nothing from their intoxication. Even Lonely himself often came to believe in them. And if, indeed, all these airy


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THE CONSTABLE GAVE THE STORY OVER AGAIN


escapes from the cramping and monotonous obligations of an over-stern veracity were lies, pure and simple,—each of them was at least the lie heroic, a shadow of those diviner lies of art and poetry from which spring earth's oldest and highest delights. So vivid could these fancies of Lonely's become that with due repetitions and elaboration they became almost visualization, as, for instance, his stubborn and unshaken belief—quite destitute of all historical corroboration—that when not yet six years of age he had been taken up in a balloon, and had been roundly scolded by a certain old maid of Cowansburg for breaking her rosebush in alighting.

Yet in those affairs which his pagan tradition designated as matters of honor, Lonely could be an almost morbid literalist. All through his career, both early and late, it is true, he found it woefully hard to shun extravagance. Yet he could hold aloof, with a scrupulosity that was almost overnice, from those deeds and ways which his warped young conscience ordained as wrong. To raid and forage, glibly to identify one's self with any religious denomination that contemplated a picnic-giving, to steal into the circus, to go swimming and fishing on the sly, to put tick-tacks on windows and black pepper on school stoves, to trespass in orchards and to purloin eatables in general,—in fact, to partake at all times of the bounty of nature without too close inquiry into the virtual rights of possession: all these were sanctioned by the timeless though unwritten Code, and seemed fit and proper for the boy to do.

But to interfere with another boy's bird-trap, to have any doings with a rival's night-line, to foregather with girls, except under the sternest compulsion, to "fobble" [2] marbles, to "tittle-tattle," to go about spick and span like a Miss Nancy, to refuse to share an apple, even in the face of impending "hog-bites" and "lady-bites," to cheat in any game of chance or test of skill—in all these the taboo of the Code was as inexorable as the law of the Medes and Persians. For, as the kindly old Doctor Ridley used to argue, the average boy is little more than a Red Indian. "When he 's a good boy he 's a dead boy, in so far as his youth has been eternally lost to him—just as a good Red Indian 's a dead Red Indian. As for me, I want 'em bad, and like to see 'em bad!"

But, ah, Lonely, Lonely, no matter how that kindly old man of medicine and timely advice and horehound drops may try, he can never hold you up as a model for the young! And no matter how I attempt it myself, Lonely O'Malley, no matter how I extenuate, and repress, and extol—how, indeed, am I ever to paint you as a hero should be painted? How shall I even make you seem half sensible and rational, and not as shatter-pated and mad as a March hare?

For on the very day when he had crawled in under the Johnsons' barn to rescue a homeless cur with a broken watering-can tied to its frenzied tail, and had been bitten at without resentment, and had worked patiently and sturdily over the knot, and had fed and conciliated the homeless one,—on that very same day, I repeat, he had not only wandered ecstatically off, while consuming green snow-apples in the Sampsons' driving-shed, into devious gross fictions as to certain weird adventures and perils which had once beset his father in the Klondike, but later in the day, while basking in the presence of a jug of lemonade and a plate of Mrs. Sampson's tea-cakes, he had lied, deliberately and consciously—lied voluntarily, openly, and unnecessarily. The gossipy and garrulous and yet religion-loving Widow Tiffins, the secret aversion of the long-suffering Sampson household, was there; and had not only driven the Preacher himself into the upper regions of the house, but had prolonged her loquacious visit well on into the afternoon, until Mrs. Sampson, in desperation, had called in Lonely and Lionel Clarence, in the hope that an audience so diversified might cause the lean and ferret-eyed widow to turn to topics less maliciously personal. But still she had tarried.

A moment's silence had finally fallen on the little company as a door blew shut in the June breeze, and Lonely had just sunk his teeth into a fifth tea-biscuit, when the humanly peevish voice of the descending and sadly deluded Preacher sounded from the front stair-way.

"Has that old cat gone at last, my dear?"

A second and a more awful silence followed this ill-timed question. But Lonely looked up unperturbed.

"Ma went over an hour ago!" he called placidly up to the approaching minister, now halfway down the stairs.

Then the boy looked blandly and soberly into the Widow Tiffins's ferret-like eyes.

"You know Mr. Sampson always calls ma the old cat—'specially after she threw that hot water on Lionel Clarence!" he explained, with unruffled composure.

Lionel Clarence was on the point of heatedly challenging this strange statement, when his mother pressed another tea-biscuit on him, and bent a face of very vivid red over the lemonade pitcher, stirring viciously at the sugar in the bottom.

But the yawning chasm had been bridged, the unsuspecting Widow Tiffins had caught up the broken threads of her discourse, and the Preacher himself had at least somewhat recovered himself before he reached the parlor door.

From that time forward not the minutest reference was ever made to the incident. Some latent strain of sympathy in Lonely forever restrained him from bringing it up. Once, and once only, the eyes of the man and the boy came together. In that glance two timeless traditions, two ancient civilizations, focussed and met. It was the barbarian Hellenic Code looking into the eyes of the Hebraic; and reluctantly it must be confessed that it was the gaze of the mature man that fell before the gaze of the diminutive young pagan.

Even two days later, when the Reverend Ezra Sampson came face to face with Master Lonely O'Malley, as the latter, having drawn in a pungent mouthful of mullein-leaf smoke, sauntered unexpectedly around the corner, luxuriously and slowly emitting the same, the apostle and the upholder of the Hebraistic Code turned forbearingly away, and busied himself with a minute and quite fanciful inspection of the half-wilted peach-trees that hung over Judge Eby's high picket-fence.

 

Here out on life's unaltering hills
You gaze with half-regretful eyes,
Where youth's autumnal twilight fills
Their depths with drifting memories

Of when you walked and knew no care
And idly stopped to disentwine
The blossoms woven in your hair
To lay them laughingly on mine,

Or to some windy hill would bring
Light thistle-down, and lost in thought.
Would watch it float, half wondering
What old-time home or star it sought.

 


  1. Lonely, I might here add, had in his vocabulary certain words all his own. Thus, he always said "folly?" for "follow." In the same way something always "snuk up on him;" a "drizzly day" was a "grizzly day" to him; he described the process of rinsing as "wrenching;" a "ripple" on the water was always a "riffle;" by "killdee," of course, he meant a "kill-deer;" and anything that was superlatively fine was always "slickery." Likewise, he was often heard to ejaculate: "Don't brandy words with me!" "Noise," to him, was always "noinse," "lightning" was "lightling," and his "shoulder" was invariably his "soldier." The word "vinegar" was hopelessly beyond him.
  2. "Fobble," I take it, found its root in the old verb "fob," to cheat, or trick. In fact, many a word used by Lonely and his chums, would be found not only amazingly Shakespearean, but, in a way, also startlingly indicative of the pertinacity of all boyhood tradition. Thus youthful Chamboro, with Imogen, designated an ill-favored one as a "jay," it was a more or less common practice to "mitch" from school, and when a boy "snitched" he was, of course, following in the footsteps of the old English snitcher or informer,—while the ever-familiar "cheese it" came from an argot quite as antique.