The Imp and the Angel/The Imp and the Angel
THE IMP AND THE ANGEL
EVERY morning after breakfast, when the Imp trotted down the steps of the broad hotel piazza, with his brown legs bare, and his big iron shovel—none of your ten-cent tin scoops for him!—he was filled anew with pity for Algernon Marmaduke Schuyler. This young man sat gloomily by his nurse—fancy a boy of eight with a nurse!—and pretended to amuse himself by staring at the beachful of bathers and the gentlemen diving from the float. He wore a white duck sailor-suit with blue trimmings, and he was never seen without his rubbers. Once a day, in the middle of the afternoon, he was taken down to the water in a little blue bath-robe, and guarded carefully from the shore while he played, for ten minutes by the watch, in the shallow water.
To-day the sun was under a cool gray cloud, and Mrs. Schuyler had forbidden him to leave the piazza.
"Stay with Emma, my angel, and play quietly," she said. "You know, he is not strong," turning to the Imp's mother, who looked pityingly at the white-faced little fellow in the long, tight trousers, and gave the Imp an extra kiss as he hopped down the steps.
"Back for dinner!" she called after him, and he waved the shovel to show her he understood, and made for a secluded corner of the beach, where his greatest achievement in the line of forts was rising proudly to its third story.
Tracy Mclntyre, a very good boy in his way, though a little domineering, turned up before long, and they pottered away at the fort, and buried themselves to the waist in the cool, damp sand, and squabbled a little and made it up again, and dared each other to venture out farther and farther (without wetting the small rolled-up trousers), until finally an unexpected wave, a little bigger and wetter than its brothers, soaked them both to the waist, and they retreated into the fort, squealing with terror and delight. At this point, three shrill notes on a dog-whistle summoned Tracy back, and the Imp went with him, partly for company, partly because the wave had left him feeling rather damp and sticky. It was later than they had thought, and they found the ladies, from the cottages sprinkled about, already gathered on the piazza, which meant that luncheon was ready.
As they tried to escape notice by slipping behind people, the Imp ran into Algernon Marmaduke Schuyler, who was staring so hard at the two that he had neglected to get out of their way. His mother was upon them in an instant. While they stood twisting and wriggling, and terribly alarmed at being noticed so much—for all the ladies were looking at them—Mrs. Schuyler smoothed Algernon's hair and said severe things about dirty little boys who got others into trouble, and who were not content to get chills and pneumonia themselves, but must give these unpleasant things to careful little children who did not endanger their health by getting soaked to the waist every day of their lives.
The Imp did not like Mrs. Schuyler at all—indeed, few people did. She was very stiff and very much dressed and very critical, and seemed to have no sympathy at all for boys on rainy days when they stamped a little in the halls. So he was greatly relieved when his friend the old doctor spoke in his defence.
"Chills, madam? Pneumonia?" said the gruff old man. "Not a bit of it! Not a bit of it! Send your boy out with them and make a man of him: he's white as a potato sprout! Let him get a knock or two, and he won't tumble over so easily!" He shoved the Imp and Tracy out of the way, and they ran up to where reproaches and clean clothes waited for them. He was a famous old man, and he was not to be contradicted, so Mrs. Schuyler only smiled, and said her angel was a little too delicate for such rough treatment, and the matter passed off without further notice.
But all through his potato and mutton the Imp gazed steadily at Algernon Marmaduke Schuyler. How white his face was—as white as a potato sprout! How dull his life must be! Tied to a nurse all day—none of that privacy so necessary to the carrying out of a thousand fascinating plans; dressed so tightly and whitely; taking so many naps and getting nothing but mush and eggs to eat—how horrible the summer must seem to him! The Imp had more friends than he could remember, and was making new ones every day; but who played with "his mother's angel"? Katy, the chambermaid, did not bring the darling little mice in the trap for him to see; Annie, the cook, did not beckon him to her with warm molasses cookies; Fritz, the bathing-master, did not swim out to sea with him on his broad brown shoulders. What was such a boy like? The Imp determined to see for himself, and after dinner, when Mrs. Schuyler had gone up for her nap, and Algernon was waiting to be taken up for his, the nurse was astounded to see a jolly, brown little boy approach her charge and open conversation with a cheerful "Hullo!"
"Hullo!" replied Algernon politely.
"Do you want to see my fort?" inquired the Imp.
Algernon nodded eagerly, but the nurse shook her head. "Master Algy must have his nap now," she said; and that would have ended the matter, probably, if the nurse had not noticed the clerk waving a bunch of letters at her. "Oh, that's the mail!" she cried. "You just wait here a jiffy, Master Algy, till I get it," and the boys were alone.
"Where is your fort?" asked the Angel quickly. "Could we see it before she gets back?"
The Imp looked doubtful.
"I guess not," he said; "it's quite a ways. She won't be a minute."
"Yes, she will," insisted the Angel, "she stays and talks. Is it over there?"
The Imp nodded. "Just behind the bath-houses," he said.
Now, whether it was that Algernon wished to exhibit a courage he did not feel, or whether he was really reckless, will never be known; but he seized the Imp's hand, and they had trotted down the side steps before Emma had fairly taken the letters in her hand. They went too fast to talk, and only when they were settled in the sand behind the double row of bath-houses did the Imp begin to make acquaintance.
"Do you like to take naps?" he inquired curiously, as Algernon seized the shovel and began to dig violently, as if to make up for all the days on the piazza.
"No," replied his mother's angel, shortly.
The Imp waited, but he said nothing more.
"Do you like your trousers tight that way?" pursued the Imp.
"No," replied the Angel again, continuing his excavations.
"Don't you like cookies?" The Imp gave him one more chance to explain himself.
"Yes," said the Angel, while the sand flew about him, and that was all.
Not a talkative fellow, evidently, but a good worker. There was already sand enough for a tower, and so the Imp asked no more questions, but set to work in a business-like manner. He was only doing what he did every day, and he was utterly unconscious of the terror that he might be causing in Emma's breast. He did not know that the frightened nurse was running wildly up the beach in search of the fort, taking precisely the wrong direction; and though Algernon was far less talkative than Tracy Mclntyre, he was a good play-fellow, and the Imp actually forgot, after a few minutes, that they had come out under rather unusual circumstances and had not intended to stay long.
Just as the tower was done, the Imp, glancing up, saw far down the beach a little crowd of men running out a row-boat. He had dragged the Angel to his feet in a moment and was starting down the beach after them. The Angel could not run very fast, owing to his tight trousers, which flapped out at the ankles over his little ties, and it occurred to the Imp that they could run much better barefooted. He proposed this to his friend, who hesitated a moment.
"Will I get a cold?" he asked doubtfully.
"Course not, no!" said the Imp impatiently, tugging at his tennis-shoes.
Algernon looked back at the hotel and wavered. Then a look of determination came over his little pale face, and sitting down by the Imp, he took off first his shiny rubbers, and then his ties and blue stockings. As his feet touched the damp, fresh sand, he sighed deeply and wiggled his toes down into it.
"I will never wear my shoes again," he announced solemnly. The Imp stared.
"No," repeated the Angel, "I will not," and before the Imp could stay him, he had lifted up the little bundle and pitched it, stockings and all, into a great hole just ahead of them, above the tide-line, where the beach garbage was collected and burned. Well, well! There was something in this Algernon Marmaduke Schuyler, after all! So thrilled was the Imp by the independent spirit of his new friend that he forgot, or at least failed to remember seriously enough, that a certain old wreck, not far away, half under the sand, marked the limits of his wanderings, and that he was supposed to play between that goal and the hotel. The sun came out suddenly, and the whole sea gleamed like a big looking-glass. The air was soft and warm, the sand firm and good to the feet, and life seemed very full and pleasant to the Imp. He bounded along with big jumps over the beach, sometimes prying out shells and pebbles with his toes, sometimes skipping stones, sometimes for pure joy punching Algernon, who promptly punched him back, and utterly amazed the Imp by his actions.
For if the day and the sea and the freedom seemed good to the healthy, active little Imp, what was it to the Angel? No fresh-air child from a city mission was ever more drunk with delight than he. He danced more wildly than the Imp; he sat down in the sand and spun around many times, to the great detriment of his white trousers; he cast off his cap and threw sand about until his hair was full of it; he rolled up his trousers as far as he could, and waded in the water with an excitement the Imp could not understand. Of course the water felt good; of course it gave you a queer, creepy feeling as you went in higher and higher; of course there was a delicious fear in suddenly sliding on a slippery stone—but that was what one came to the beach for. There was no need to shout and gasp and laugh and jump all the time. Finally the Angel began to throw water about, and then the Imp felt that he must draw the line.
"Look out, Algy!" he said, dutifully, "this is my second suit!"
But Algy continued to throw, and rather than suffer insult the Imp promptly retaliated. It grew very exciting, and they dashed along by the side of the water, stamping it as hard as they could, and finally gloriously tumbling down and recklessly rolling over and over in the warm, frothy seaweed, where the little waves started to run back again.
As they lay luxuriously resting, the Imp explained that according to a strictly enforced rule, he might ruin one suit of clothes a day and a change would be forthcoming, but that when he returned with the second suit wet as far as the waist, at that hour he must retire to bed, bread and milk being his only supper. "An' this is 'way above my waist," he added cheerfully, "an' yours is wet as sop!"
The Angel glanced at his dripping duck and proudly agreed that it was. "I 'll get noomony, I guess," he volunteered, after a few moments of happy silence, during which they watched the gulls wheel above them, and wriggled about on the warm, wet seaweed.
"Tracy and me don't get noomony," murmured the Imp sleepily, for the sun and the dancing on the beach had made him drowsy, "but you might, maybe. My mother says you'd be better if you played more, and did n't wear such nice clothes. You 're white as a potato sprout—"
"So 're you!" retorted the Angel, hotly. "My clothes are not nice, either! You need n't say so!"
The Imp was getting ready for a crushing retort when a strong smell of burning wood came to his keen little nose. The wind had changed, and he felt a little cool, too; so he shook off what water he could, and without reply climbed up the bank of straggling sand-grass which had hidden them effectually from the hotel and the frightened Emma, and looked about him. The Angel followed at his heels, tearing his jacket from shoulder to shoulder on a sharp projecting stone, and they burst into a cry of joy, for there, not five minutes' run away, was a noble bonfire. They wasted no words, but ran rapidly toward it, and found themselves in an enchanting scene.
The fire was a fine large one, and well under way. It was of driftwood and large empty boxes, heaped up scientifically and stuffed with straw below. Behind it was a small, dingy white cottage, with a boat drawn up under the low eaves, and many fishing-rods and lines and corks and sinkers tangled together lay about. A big black collie bounded round and round the blaze, and three children hopped after him, while an older boy, who looked half ashamed of playing at such a game in such company, fed the fire nevertheless, and thoroughly enjoyed himself.
The Imp advanced with his usual ease of manner, and the Angel followed. "Hullo!" he said. The older boy paid no attention, but put a piece of wood over a blazing spot in a careful way intended to convey the fact that he was tending this fire as a sacred duty and not for idle amusement. The little girl, who was barefooted and dressed in a funny little red jersey, only put her thumb in her mouth and retreated behind the fire. But the smaller of the two little boys smiled in a friendly way and returned the Imp's greeting.
"Can I put some wood on?" the Angel asked suddenly. Evidently he was not used to playing with boys. The Imp would have led up to this request by easy stages, and he was afraid his friend had been too precipitate; but the proprietors of the bonfire took the request in good part, and politely picked out the biggest bit for the Angel to handle. Trembling with excitement, he carefully placed it upon an exposed part of the heap, and smudged his wet trousers terribly in so doing. A piece was gravely handed to the Imp, who nearly fell into the middle of the blaze in his attempt to place his offering in the very best position, and won the deep admiration of the little girl by the bravery with which he bore a small burn on his little finger. Their hosts were jolly, freckled fellows, barelegged and with somewhat ragged garments, but the best of playmates; and when the little girl confided to the Imp that there were potatoes buried in the ashes he felt that his cup was full.
This was the kind of thing one dreamed of: to come, wet and draggled, upon a sudden brilliant bonfire; to dance barelegged and happy in the fascinating glow; to poke it with sticks and feed it as occasion required; to fish out the hot and delicious potatoes, burst their ashy skins, and sprinkle salt, which the little girl brought from the cottage, upon them—this was well worth a supper in bed! And the Imp and the Angel confided to the big boy, whose name was Alf, and who grew more social as one got to know him better, that they would, if he wished, sever all connection with their families and live there with him and his brothers forever round the bonfire. They were quite dry and warm now, with the heat of the fire and the dancing; and the bright sun and the shining water with the white ships scattered over it far away, the comfortable, fishy cottage—what a home for a boy that must be!—with the nets and the dog, the ring of dancing brothers and sisters, and the smell of the seaweed and the smoke and the potatoes, all made an impression upon the Imp that never faded quite away. It was the happiest, freest, heartiest time he had ever had—all the better for its delicious unexpectedness. The cottage and the fire had sprung up like a fairy-book adventure, and delight had followed delight till there was nothing left for heart to want. The sea stretched away before them: the boundless sea, with its miles of white, firm beach, and red clouds about the sun. Perhaps all down the beaches there were fires and potatoes and dogs and boys awaiting young adventurers! The little girl had shyly offered him the most beautiful pink-lined shell he had ever seen, and as he put it into his bulging hip-pocket the Imp was probably as happy as he was destined to be in all his life.
He did not even have time to grow tired of it, for Alf suggested that persons planning to get back to the hotel before dark had better be going soon, and so, after one more wild dance hand in hand about the fire, when they all fell down and rolled in the cold embers at the edges, they separated, and the adventurers left the fire still at its brightest, with the children and the dog still running about, and continually looking back at that happy place, they went slowly up the beach.
Algernon Marmaduke Schuyler was dazed with happiness and excitement. His face was burned to a brilliant red, his hair was full of splinters and sand, his hands were grimy, and his sailor-suit was a wreck. But he stepped out like a man, and was perfectly silent with joy, thinking of the two enormous potatoes he had eaten, and the handful of dried beef Alf had given him, besides the bit of black licorice. This was life, indeed! Would one who had tasted such a day go tamely back to a piazza?
They had rounded the old wreck before a word was spoken. Boys do not need to make conversation when they are too happy for words; that is reserved for the unfortunate grown-up ones. So they trotted on in silence, and because the Angel's shoes and stockings were at the bottom of the hole the Imp did not stop to put on his, though they were safely stuffed in his trousers pockets.
They approached the piazza from the side, but they did not accomplish their object, for it was crowded with people. The Imp's inquiring eyes first peeked around the corner, and he was seized by Mrs. Schuyler before his head was fairly visible.
"You naughty little Perry Stafford, where is Algy? Where is my angel?" she cried, frightened and angry. He did not need to answer, for Algernon stepped forward, and at the sight of that youth, ragged, dirty, and barelegged, the people on the piazza burst into laughter.
Nor did the Angel care a rap for them. Too full of his happiness to remember to be afraid, he fell into his mother's arms, babbling excitedly of a fire and a dog and fishing-rods and lines.
"I had two great big potatoes—two! And dried-up beef, and some black lickerish! I wriggled m' toes into the sand, and I can jump farther than him!" he gasped, indicating the Imp, who tried to flee from his mother's accusing eyes and get into the bed that was even now awaiting him.
"Dried beef! licorice! Oh, heavens!" cried Mrs. Schuyler. "Algernon, how did you dare? You will be sick for weeks! You are in a fever now!"
She clasped him to her in terror, but old Dr. Williams advanced and pulled him away.
"Nonsense, nonsense, Mrs. Schuyler!" said he, sharply, but with his eyes full of laughter. "He's no more fever than I have this minute. Stand up, sir, and tell your mother that that's good, honest sunburn, that you never were so well in your life, and that a few more days with the Imp, here, will make another man of you! Dried beef and licorice and dirt in the sun will do him more good than tight clothes in the shade, madam; I can assure you of that!"
And with this, the longest speech that he had made during the summer, the famous doctor slapped the Angel's shoulder, and tweaked the Imp's ear. "Get along with you!" he said gruffly, and they ran out of the room together, the nurse bringing up the rear.
"Do you suppose he 'll play with Tracy and me to-morrow, muvver?"
The Imp said muvver from habit, not necessity, and he was lying, clean and penitent, in his bed, with the empty bread and milk bowl on the floor beside them.
His mother's mouth trembled a little at the corners.
"I should n't be surprised if he did," she answered. "You see, the doctor said it would be good for him; and probably, if he takes great care not to go beyond the old wreck on any account, and not to bathe with his clothes on, he will be allowed to play with any boys who observe the same rules."
And it turned out, as it usually did, that she was right.