The Blue Hood
The Blue Hood
SHE was a new little girl at school. She had long dark curls and was pretty; but it was the hood that first captured the boy's attention. Never before had he noticed an article of feminine attire. But this hood was of a really heavenly bright blue, and it fitted fascinatingly about the little girl's face, and her dark curls showed under it in a bewildering manner. The blue set off her pink checks and her large dark eyes, and she appeared to Jeff a radiant and startling vision. Her manner was timid as she came into the schoolyard for the first time. She was alone, but some of the other girls went up to her, and Jeff saw her smile shyly and join in a game. He went on with his own scientific game of marbles, and was worsted, for his eye was distractedly on the blue hood.
Jeff never played with girls; he had a lofty attitude toward them and a natural conviction of their inferiority. He rather despised those boys who were interested in them, and especially one slim pale lad who shamelessly preferred female companionship, and who, when he was not walking or talking with the creatures, was drawing sublimated pictures of them—wondrous female heads, with enormous eyes and curly tresses. This boy’s name was Philip; Jeff was given to sneering at his unworthy tastes. Jeff was a vigorous boy, a famous fighter, and Philip was afraid to resent the jeers. It followed that he disliked Jeff most cordially. Philip was a very polite boy, with smooth manners, and was known to his teachers as "the little gentleman." Jeff had merely looked down upon him, until now, in the few moments before school, he saw him unmistakably hovering about the blue hood. He had a sudden keen regret that it was not fair to punch Philip, who could not hit back.
The Blue Hood was too young for Jeff's class; she was put in the room below. That day after school he refused to umpire a fight between two of his classmates, and watched the new little girl out of the gate. Oh, joy! she turned up his street. He followed slowly and found out where she lived—in a new house a block from his home. He rode by the house on his bicycle several times that afternoon—trick-riding, too, quite worth anybody’s while to look at, if she happened to be about. And toward dusk, after he had done his lessons, he put on his tin helmet and corselet, took his iron-tipped lance in one hand and his sword in the other, and paraded past the fair one's home. This time she saw him; she was in the yard and she came down to the gate, wide-eyed, and stared at him, evidently fascinated. Jeff marched past, very straight, his head well up, his eyes front, and his heart swelling under the tin corselet. A stray dog crossed his path, he made a terrific lunge at it with his sword, uttering a war cry; the cur fled, and Jeff pursued hotly with level lance. However, he would not have hurt the dog. He permitted himself to smite down a chicken now and then, but nothing nobler, though he would have been glad of a real foe, and dreamed often of combat to the death.
He was not very definite in his feelings about the girl with the blue hood. He fell only that she was a strangely attractive object. He did not recant his opinions about girls in general. The conviction that girls were "no good" dwelt side by side in his mind with the charm of this one particular girl. He would still have stood by his conviction manfully—and would certainly not have owned his interest in the girl.
She appeared daily at school, wearing the blue hood; and Jeff noted her coming and going but made no attempt to speak to her. He had learned that her name was Ruth. He continued to perform on his bicycle and to wear his armor after school for her benefit. And then one evening, coming forth with a newly-painted shield, he found Philip at her gate, talking to her. He walked past, bestowing a haughty nod on Philip and receiving in return a half-sneering smile. Philip used to make as much fun as he dared of Jeff's interest in knights and feats of arms; and now he said something to the little girl. Jeff could not hear what it was, but he heard Philip's laugh. Ruth did not laugh. But Jeff's cheeks burned under the tin helmet. He turned abruptly and came back. With flashing eyes he paused opposite Philip and said:
"Would you like to come up and box with me awhile?"
Philip shrank visibly and responded:
"No, I guess not—not today."
"Well, will you wrestle, then?"
"N—no, I don't feel like it today."
"Oh, all right."
WITH a scornful glance Jeff went on his way. This time no laugh followed him. Ruth had looked at him earnestly from under her blue hood. He held his head higher than usual, and poised his lance, as he imagined himself in the lists opposite a caitiff knight, Philip for example, and how he, Jeff, otherwise Sir Tristram of Lyonesse, would strike down out of his saddle that coward knight and then deal him many a sore buffet with his good sword, till he, Philip, cried for mercy.
The next day he overtook Ruth at the corner and was passing her with shyly-averted face, when she spoke to him.
"That's beautiful armor you have, isn't it?" she said timidly.
He looked round at her.
"Oh, I don't know—do you think so?" he said, embarrassed.
"Oh, I think it is lovely! I never saw any before. Couldn't you wear it over some day and let me look at it?"
"Why, yes. if you want me to," said Jeff carelessly but beaming with pleasure.
"Oh, please! And bring your shield. I couldn't see what was on it."
"It's a dragon. I painted the shield myself, and I made the lance and the sword."
"Oh, did you? They're lovely. Can't you bring them over now?"
"Why, yes, I could. …"
JEFF hurried home, flung down his books and joyfully buckled himself into his armor. In ten minutes he was back at Ruth's gate. and she was there to open it for him. She admired him to his heart's content: pored over the dragon-shield, lifted the lance and the sword, and then nothing would do but she must try on the helmet. It came down low over her forehead, and her rosy face and black glossy curls showed quaintly under the peaked visor.
"It's too heavy for you," said Jeff, gently but firmly lifting it off. "And you look nicer in that hood. Girls can’t be knights, you know."
"Oh, can't they?" said Ruth wistfully.
"No! Didn't you know that? Haven’t you ever read about the Knights of the Round Table?"
"No. Tell me about them, will you?"
"I've got a book—it tells all about them. I’ll read you some of it if you want me to."
"Oh. yes! … But weren't there ever any girl knights?"
"No, of course not! How could a girl wear heavy steel armor and fight battles every day?"
"But then, what did the girls do, when the knights were always fighting?"
"Oh, they stayed at home and took care of the knights and stanched their wounds."
"Oh," said Ruth, looking aggrieved.
"And, you know, the knights fought for them," Jeff went on. "They were always fighting for some damsel or other."
"What's a damsel?"
"A damsel's a girl, silly! … I mean," Jeff blushed and gulped, "the knights, you see, had to do whatever the dam—whatever the girls told them to do."
"Oh, did they?" said Ruth, looking brighter.
"Yes, each of them had a lady, and if she wanted him to go and fight for her, any day, he had to do it, and if she wanted anything he had to get it for her——"
"Oh, that was nice!" cried Ruth.
"Well, I don’t think it was so nice for the knight—some of the ladies were awful mean to their knights"
"Why were they mean?"
"Oh, I'll read you about it. I can't explain it all, it's too long. Shall I get the book?"
"Oh, please do!"
So he rushed home and got the book, and they sat under an apple-tree, and for nearly an hour Jeff read; and Ruth’s cheeks flushed crimson and her eyes glowed as she listened; and the two children were lost in a world of strange adventure, of glamour and faërie. …
AFTER that they met almost every day. Jeff neglected his sports and his comrades for Ruth. He did not know exactly why, but it was fascinating to be with her, to be looked up to and listened to, to instruct her, for she was extremely ignorant of everything he was interested in—but she was so interested! She would listen by the hour. She seldom had an opinion to offer, she only thirsted for information, and received everything Jeff told her with the most perfect faith. And Jeff was not a bad teacher. He was careful, as exact as possible about his facts, and he had good orthodox moral notions, such as the disgusting character of theft, lying and cowardliness, the only sins he knew much about as yet.
He soon became at ease with Ruth, and yet he was very shy about some things with her. He thought her very beautiful, but he never thought of telling her so, or that he liked her; his tongue would have cloven to the roof of his mouth at the very idea of saying such things. In fact it was hardly clear to himself that he liked Ruth and liked to look at her. His feeling about her was very vague—a floating golden sort of thing, like a cloud touched by the sun.
And he was very shy about his friendship. He never walked out of the schoolyard with her. She however was perfectly frank, and she would linger till he came out and then join him. She did not conceal the fact that she far preferred Jeff's society to anyone's else. She snubbed, on his account, two or three of her earlier acquaintances, among them Philip. And Philip never forgot, or forgave either, a snub.
He was standing one day with some other boys on the corner, as Ruth and Jeff met and started up their street. Philip, planted in the middle of the walk, with his shoulder to them, did not move as they came up, but he winked and grimaced to his companions. Jeff put out an arm, caught Philip round the shoulders and lifted him out of the way. The pale boy flushed red and stammered, clenching his fists:
"Look here, you don't need the whole sidewalk, do you?"
"No," said Jeff, turning. "And you don't either, do you?"
Philip only bit his lips. Jeff squared his shoulders and repeated peremptorily:
Philip shrank, as always, before Jeff’s superior presence.
"N—no," he stammered.
And Jeff went on, with Ruth proudly trotting by his side.
"I wish that fellow could fight," said Jeff loftily. "He’s always acting mean and then saying he’s sick, he makes me tired."
"Me too," said Ruth loyally. "But he couldn't fight you, could he, Jeff?"
"No," said Jeff, condescendingly. "I never hit him. Why, even a girl could lick him."
But the weak have their weapons too poisoned weapons sometimes. …
This childish friendship had lasted now a month, from apple-blossom time to examination-time. Jeff was working pretty hard out of school hours, making up lost time on his mathematics, and for several afternoons in succession he did not see Ruth. Then one day she failed to meet him at the corner after school. He did not think much of it, but the same thing happened next day. Then he was troubled, and thought he would go over to see her that afternoon, but had a stiff three-hours’ struggle with compound fractions instead. The day following, however, he made a point of meeting her, and it was plain that she had kept back to avoid him. When he went up to her she first averted her face, then turned sharp on him.
"Jeff Harrell, I hate you!" she cried, her dark eyes full of tears. "Don’t you ever dare to speak to me again!" And with a sob she rushed on.
Jeff was stunned. He stood gazing after her, unable to believe his ears. He saw her fly in at her gate, slamming it after her. Then slowly the color mounted into his brown cheeks. His steady black eyes began to burn. … All right! So that was the way she treated him, was it? And what for, he would like to know? … Yes, that was the way with girls—silly things—getting mad about nothing. He racked his brain to find out how he could possibly have done anything to anger her—in vain … All right! But if she thought she could behave that way to him. …! He walked haughtily past her house, swinging his hook-strap and whistling loudly. He would show her!
HE thought at first that she would try to make up, when she saw that he didn't, and he resolved that he wouldn't forgive her—not at first anyway, not until she sued for pardon on bended knee, as they did in the book. So he went home and spent a moody afternoon by himself, and could not even study. There was some pleasure in the thought of punishing Ruth when she repented her injustice, but not much even in that. …
And Ruth did not sue for pardon and did not try to make up. That was the amazing thing. She avoided him, and when they met by chance the blue hood hid her face from him. Jeff could not understand it. He was deeply hurt, and he hid his wound. When his mother asked him why he did not go to see Ruth any more, he answered carelessly:
"Oh, I don't want to." And she said: "You know she is going away, when school closes, for the summer?"
"Is she?" said Jeff indifferently, and the subject dropped.
Examinations were on at school. In spite of his utmost effort, Jeff could not keep his mind on those fractions, and he failed ignominiously in his mathematics. He had never known such gloomy days. Ruth went away—she did not even say good-bye to him. Her house was closed, there was nobody in the garden any more, the grass grew long and weedy; and Jeff felt a pang every time he passed the gate. … Still, vacation had not lost all its charms—one could fish and swim in the creek and build scows and play baseball—and Jeff began to forget Ruth and the mystery of her behavior to him.
But then came the explanation, and it reopened the wound. Emily, a companion of Ruth’s, told him one day that somebody had told Ruth "something horrid" about him. She refused to say what the "something" was, and for a long time would not name the "somebody." But at last Jeff wrung from her that it was Philip.
BOILING with rage, Jeff sought the culprit, found him, threw him down on the sidewalk, and proceeded to try to choke confession from him. But Philip only writhed and screamed and denied. Philip's mother rushed out, and with the aid of other elders separated the two boys, and violently reproached Jeff for attacking a "poor invalid child."
"I don't care—he told lies about me," said Jeff, white and panting.
"I didn’t," moaned Philip, blue with fright and clinging to the maternal skirts.
"I'll have it out of you yet, you coward," said Jeff distinctly, turning on his heel.
The result of this was a note from Philip’s mother to Jeff’s mother and a serious consultation between Jeff’s mother and Jeff.
"Yes, I threw him down and choked him, and I said I would do it again," admitted Jeff sullenly. "And I will," he added.
"You know," said his mother gravely, "that Philip can't stand up against you, Jeff. … Noblesse oblige."
Jeff had had that phrase explained to him. and he lived up to it pretty well. … But now his heart swelled and the rare and painful tears came to his eyes.
"Do you think," he asked after a moment’s struggle for self-control, "that just because a boy can’t fight—he can do anything mean he wants to—and not be punished? … Do you think I ought to let that fellow tell lies about me? … I think he ought to be licked—and I’ll lick him too!"
"What lies has he told about you, Jeff?"
It was difficult for Jeff to explain the nature of his wrong, difficult for him to mention Ruth. His mother listened, with now and then a question, until she had the whole case, as far as he was concerned. Then she thought it over briefly, looking at Jeff’s downcast face—the candid brow, the level eyes, the firm mouth—the clear sweetness and strength, so appealing, of the child that was almost a man. At last she gave her judgment.
"I think you are probably right," she said. "I mean, that Philip did do what Emily said he did, and that that is what turned Ruth against you. We don’t know what he told her, but I feel sure it was something mean and cowardly and untrue. And now, what can we do about it? Will it do you any good to beat Philip?"
"Yes," said Jeff sombrely. "I’ll make him own up and take back what he said."
"Perhaps we can do that without beating him," said Mrs. Harrell. "Then when Ruth comes back in the fall——"
Jeff threw his head buck proudly. "I don’t care any more about Ruth," he said, his voice trembling. "She didn’t need to believe that fellow."
Mrs. Harrell looked sadly at her son, put on her hat and went out. When she returned, an hour later, she saw Jeff in the yard, clad in his armor, and fiercely whacking off the heads of the daisies with his sword. For a moment she was glad to see him so—he had not worn his armor since Ruth's desertion. But when she called him and he came up to her, she perceived that his martial array expressed no playful spirit. His face looked strangely mature under the helmet—the black brows drawn together over the moody black eyes, the square cleft chin set hard. …
HER report was unfavorable. Philip's mother had refused to let her see the boy, had declared he was in bed with a nervous chill, had declined to believe that Jeff had any justification for his attack, and said that she was going to take Philip away next day, as he was "afraid for his life."
Jeff listened, swishing his sword through the long grass.
"I'm glad I scared him good, anyway," he muttered. Then after a moment he said with a look of bewilderment: "I can’t see what made him do it. What did he want to be so poison mean for?"
"Philip is a very unfortunate boy," said Mrs. Harrell gently.
But Jeff refused to take this view of the criminal.
"I wish I’d lived in the olden times," he declared. "If a fellow acted mean then it was all right to go and lick him—you could even cut his head off if you wanted to. But now if you even choke him a little he says he has a nervous chill and you say you’re sorry for him——"
And Jeff choked himself over the injustice of it all.
"I am sorry for him," said Mrs. Harrell firmly. "Sorrier than I am for you. Would you like to be in his place?"
"No!" said Jeff scornfully. "Of course I wouldn’t. I guess not!"
"Well, you see he is worse off than you are. … It’s a punishment for him, Jeff, and perhaps the worst punishment, just to be what he is—weak and a coward."
Jeff pondered this, looking down and drawing lines in the gravel with the point of his sword. Slowly his hard look of anger changed to a puzzled frown. The thing was too complex. But he disliked this treatment of the clear line between right and wrong. He said at last, eyeing his mother resentfully:
"He ought to be licked. It might might learn him better. "And when he comes back to town I’ll lick him."
Jeff drew a long breath of relief at having settled the question. His mother held her peace, thinking that time might otherwise settle it.
"And," said Jeff sternly. "Ruth didn’t need to act the way she did, anyway." For a moment his lip trembled, but he went on: "I don’t like her any more. … I’ll never like a girl again."
"Oh, Jeff!" his mother protested, smiling a little.
"I won’t! I don’t like them. They’re no good."
He walked away a few steps, and came back to add defiantly:
"There’s only one reason I’m glad I’m not a knight. They always had girls around bothering them. Getting them into trouble with enchantments and all kind of things. …
He swung his sword about and meditated on this for a few moments. Evidently there was a certain vague comfort in that thought—a feeling of worthy companionship in misfortune.
"The best knights," he said pensively, "seemed to have the most trouble."
"Yes," said his mother gravely.
Jeff sighed, straightened up and unbuckled his armor.
"Will you please take these things into the house?" he said with manly fortitude. "I believe I’ll go fishing."