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THE IMP AND THE AUTHOR

 

 

 

THE IMP AND THE AUTHOR


THE Imp retired, like Achilles, to his tent—it was striped red and blue and sulked. He dug his heels viciously into the sand, and rattled his iron shovel hideously against his pail; he had no direct intention of driving the young lady on the red afghan into nervous prostration, or making a headache for the gentleman in the blue glasses, but a vague realization that he was incidentally accomplishing both these results soothed him not a little.

When the gentleman pushed aside the tent flap and irritably inquired if that infernal noise was necessary to his happiness, the Imp pounded harder and answered grumpily that it was. He was only seven.

The sun beat hotter and hotter against his tent, the sand burned under him, the tide was still coming in, and the long tumbling waves were creeping farther and farther up the great beach, but still the Imp sat drumming on the pail and communing bitterly with his thoughts.

Let them go in to lunch! Let them sit and chatter meaninglessly around the snowy tables! Let them plan their moonlight sails with refreshments in baskets and Miss Eleanor's guitar! At least there would be one person whose ear would not be pinched that day; one suffering soul that none should find opportunity to call a ridiculous baby and a funny little Imp; one determined recluse whose opinion of some others would, were it known, blight with its withering scorn all their self-satisfied conceit!

When every sound, including the futile shouting of his own name, at which he grimly smiled, had ceased, and the last lingering child had been haled in from its blissful paddling to lunch, the last lounger summoned from his umbrella, he arose and walked gloomily by the much-sounding sea. Had one thing in all this weary morning gone right? Had there been one cheerful happening, one single ray of pleasure? Not one. From the idiot who had derided his precious bicycle trousers, calling that fascinating triangular seat a patch, refusing to be convinced of its style and suitability, to the mocking crew who vied with each other in describing his probable sleepiness, seasickness, homesickness, in case he went on that moonlight sail, humanity had conspired against him.

From a ledge of rock he pulled out a tiny boat with a draggled dirty sail, and crowded the bowsprit into his hip pocket. It interfered with his gait and prevented walking with ease, but he pushed on: there are mental conditions, it is well known, when physical discomfort is rather a relief than otherwise.

Far away before him the long white beach rolled out; a half-mile away a great rock jutted up, and under its ledges there spread a cunning little pool that just suited his tiny boat. He had gone there once in happier times with those who, far from scorning his company, had themselves suggested it. They had taken a glorious lunch in a big basket, and the day stood out in his memory white and shining. He would go there now and summon up remembrance of things past.

The Imp's blue denim legs were short, and the obstruction in his hip pocket made his walk slower than usual. It was farther to the pool than he had thought, moreover, and the slab of hard ginger cake that had stood him for his morning lunch had not been large. But he kept doggedly on his way, and came at last to the welcome shadow of the big rock.

A heavy frown drew his brows together. There, right in the coolest part of the shadow, lay a large middle-aged man, fast asleep. O Solitude! thou art like thy sister Sleep, elusive, and not to be had for the mere asking! Right near his pool the man lay, and as the Imp cautiously stole up to him and examined him, he remembered having seen him before—he ate at the hotel, in fact. This was the man the ladies talked about so much and were so polite to. They brought him books and asked him to write his name in them, and they took snap-shots of him in his bathing-suit, which was said to have deeply displeased him. They strolled frequently about his little cottage, and one tall thin lady with glasses used to put heliotrope at his place at breakfast till he complained to the manager.

The Imp had heard him complain; he said, "Hang it all, Simmons, it gives me hay-fever, you know. I can't bear the damned stuff! Can't you choke it off?"

The Imp had repeated this speech to his father and his Uncle Stanley, who came down for Sunday, and they had roared with laughter. The Imp had never heard of hay-fever, and he was impressed with the idea that the heliotrope possessed the man with a mad longing for hay—to eat, presumably. A few cautious and vague inquiries along this line had elicited the statement that the only person who was known to have thus regaled himself was Nebuchadnezzar, the King of the Jews. The Imp's one idea of this historical personage was derived from a friend in the city, who sang a song about him to the effect that he jumped out of his stockings and into his shoes. This seemed an odd and on the whole meaningless feat, and the Imp unconsciously transferred a justly merited contempt for the frivolous monarch to his representative at the cottage.

Though a prominent man he was far from popular at the shore, for he spoke seldom and gruffly, and was held to be haughty and reserved. Once he had been asked to give a reading for the benefit of the hotel servants, but he had unconditionally refused—he said he would rather tip them when he left.

These things the Imp recalled as he watched him. A strange man, doubtless, but Uncle Stanley said that great authors felt obliged to be strange: the public expected it.

The Imp sat down across the pool from the Author and rested from his walk. A pleasant melancholy stole over him as he fancied their search for him—lunch must be well over by now. After a little he quietly launched the boat, for the Author was so still that he made no difference to speak of, and played peacefully. From an inner pocket he produced a little box with an elastic band about it. Having dug a pit in the sand, he reversed the open box, and a hot, tangled mass of hard-shelled, middle-sized insects tumbled out into the hole. They were on the order of potato-bugs, but larger, and the Imp, selecting with great discrimination the biggest, proceeded to place them on the deck and in the rigging of the ship. They did not like the water, so they stayed there, climbing slowly up and down the masts and scuttling busily about the deck in a most lifelike and pleasing manner.

For a long time the Imp conducted this craft about the pool, fanning up a gale with his cap, and occasionally blowing a sailor off for the thrill of rescuing him. Immersed in the game, he was violently startled by a sudden exclamation.

"Good Lord!"

The Author was sitting up and staring at him. "When did you come here?" he demanded.

"I've been here quite a while," the Imp responded with dignity.

"The deuce you have!" said the Author. "And I was asleep all the time!"

"Yes," returned the Imp, "you were. But I didn't mind."

"Oh!" said the Author, adding, "Well, that's good!"

Here he caught sight of the ship, and grinned widely.

"Well, if that isn't clever!" said he warmly. "I say, that's awfully clever!" At this appreciation the Imp unbent.

"I'm going to have a rescue now," he remarked genially, and with a mighty puff he sent fully half the crew into the waves. This was more than he had intended, and while he laboriously scooped up the captain and laid him dripping and exhausted on the bow, he saw to his horror that two of the deck-hands were unmistakably sinking.

"Oh, get 'em! get 'em!" he cried, hopping madly about the pool in his effort to capture the first mate, the biggest of all, while the poor deck-hands curled in their legs and eddied feebly about.

The Author leaped to his feet. "Where? where?" he cried nervously.

The Imp made an ineffectual dive for the mate, and waved a grimy hand toward the middle.

"Over there! Oh, hurry! hurry!" he panted.

The Author grabbed viciously at the deck-hands, lost his balance, and plunged to his armpits in the pool, while the gallant ship rocked wildly in the great waves, and the Imp, yelling with excitement, swept the nearly drowned sailors into his cap, and hurried with them to the little pit.

"Look out!" he called in exasperation, as the Author in an effort to tow the boat in to shore nearly tipped the captain off again. "Let it alone, can't you?"

The Author obeyed, and as the Imp skilfully fanned the ship to port, he smiled contritely.

"I'm terribly clumsy," he admitted, "but you see I'm not used to it. I'm not much of a sailor, anyway."

The Imp had a cheerful disposition, but his temper had been greatly tried to-day, and he had had no luncheon. So he was only partly mollified.

"You're dreadful slow, seems to me," he said, crossly.

"I know it," the Author returned meekly. "I know I was, but you see, I really wasn't awake."

"Humph!" sniffed the Imp. "You must 'a' been pretty sleepy, I guess."

"I was," said the Author. "I didn't sleep much last night."

"Nightmare?" suggested the Imp, more sympathetically. He had had a little experience in that line.

"No," the Author replied briefly, adding with a queer, disagreeable smile, "Oh, well, it was a kind of nightmare, I suppose."

The Imp did not even pretend much interest. He was very hungry indeed, and his wrongs returned to him suddenly, as the excitement of the rescue died away, and his legs began to feel as if they had gone a long distance—which, indeed, they had. So he replied very briefly to the Author's remarks, and finally took no notice at all, but sat looking gloomily out to sea. The Author regarded him seriously.

"You don't seem very sociable," he said at length.

The Imp made no reply.

"Perhaps you came out here to be alone," the Author hazarded.

The Imp stuck his lip out and dug his heel into the sand.

"I believe you did," the Author continued, "well, so did I. Queer we should have struck this place together, wasn't it?"

There was no answer, and he went on looking with interest at the little scowling Imp beside him.

"You must have felt pretty bad to come 'way out here," he said, "what's the matter?"

The Imp looked at him suspiciously, but he perceived that this man was no meddling busybody, nor, for that matter, a sentimental baby-tender. No, he was serious and sincere. So the Imp turned about and recited his wrongs systematically and in detail, ending with a bitter emphasis:

"And I don't believe I'll ever go back, ever at all! They'll be sorry then, I'll bet!"

"Oh, yes, you will," said the Author quietly; "where'll you get your meals?"

The Imp's expression changed. A worried look crept into his round brown eyes. He scowled, and considered how long ago he had had that ginger-bread.

"Oh, my! Oh, dear me!" he wailed, "I am so hungry!"

The Author jumped up. "Why, haven't you had your lunch?" he cried. "Here, wait a minute! I forgot all about it!"

He ran around the rock, and presently returned with a big white beach-umbrella rolled up. Strapped to it was a fair-sized box and a bottle, leather-covered. From out of the box he lifted a little napkin, and then—oh joy!—some fat white sandwiches appeared. Deviled eggs nestled in the corners, and three little soft round sponge-cakes paved the bottom. The Imp's eyes glistened; he sucked in his lips. The Author unscrewed the bottle, and the bottom of it appeared to fall off and turned miraculously into a silver cup.

"Do you like cold coffee?" he inquired, and as the Imp nodded voraciously he gravely poured him out a cup.

"Now fall to!" he said, and the Imp clutched a sandwich and lifted the cup to his eager lips. His round eyes beamed at the Author over the rim as he tilted back his head. A drop splashed on his blouse, and the Author started up again. "Here, wait a bit!" he said kindly, and with a practised gesture he twisted the napkin around the Imp's impatient little neck.

There was a silence while the Imp ate and drank, rapidly and to good purpose, and the Author watched him. At his third sandwich the Imp paused a moment.

"Don't you want some?" he inquired thickly, with a hospitable wave of the cup. The Author shook his head.

"No, thanks; I don't feel hungry—I had my breakfast late," he said. "They insisted on putting this up; I'm glad they did, now."

There was another silence, and the Imp began on the eggs. Later he fell upon the little cakes; and at last, with one long luxurious drink, he wiped his mouth on the napkin and sighed thankfully.

New strength entered into him, and his drooping resolution revived.

"I'll stay here till after dinner!" he announced. "I sha'n't be hungry—I'll make 'em mad!"

The Author looked strangely at him.

"Do you know, I wouldn't, if I were you," he said gently. "You—you don't want to frighten them."

"Ho! you wait till I go off and stay all night!" the Imp boasted; "they'll wonder where I am, then, I guess!"

The Author stared ahead of him. "Yes, you're right," he said bitterly, "they'll wonder where you are! They'll lie awake to wonder! That's what parents are for, it seems!"

The Imp looked curiously at him. This man who gave good lunches so royally and owned a sail-boat was troubled, apparently.

"I lay awake and wondered myself, last night," said the Author, still looking ahead of him.

The Imp looked puzzled.

"Have you got a little boy," he inquired doubtfully, "that stayed away all night?"

The Author laughed, but not happily.

"Yes," he said, "just so. I've got a little boy that stays away all night. So you see I know how they'll feel, when you do."

The Imp pondered.

"Does it make you feel bad? Do you feel real scared about him?" he asked in an awed tone.

For the Author's face was unspeakably sad, his mouth was bent sternly.

"He is breaking my heart," he said.

The Imp pulled himself across the sand and laid his hand on his friend's knee. He would have been glad to say something, but he was only seven, so he knew enough to keep still.

After a long pause an idea suddenly occurred to him, and with a startling imitation of one of his mother's friends, he asked earnestly, "Have you tried keeping him in afternoons?"

The Author jumped, stared at him, and laughed again.

"Bless your heart!" he said softly, "I'm afraid that wouldn't do."

The Imp blushed and bit his lip. What he was about to say was not pleasant, but he felt that he owed it to his friend—confidence for confidence.

"When I've been—been real bad," he said, "and then ask to go and play with—with anybody, they'll say I can't. For—for a punishment, you know."

"I couldn't do that," said the Author, "because he doesn't ask. He goes and plays with them without asking!"

"Oh!" murmured the Imp. Then, respectfully, "He's pretty bad, isn't he?"

The Author nodded. "Yes, he's pretty bad," he said, almost in a whisper.

The Imp leaned his head against the Author's arm. He was getting very drowsy. The walk and the sun and the luncheon were telling on him. He felt very comfortable and perfectly safe with this big, troubled man. The Author put one arm around him and half lifted him on his lap. The Imp was nearly asleep, but he held himself awake long enough to offer his last suggestion.

"When I said I'd smash the glass that time, an' I said I would—an'—an' I did, an' they didn't know what to do, an' m' faver said, 'I'll make him say he's sorry,' an' I wouldn't, an' I wouldn't, an' I didn't...."

He was drifting off fast. The Author drew a long breath.

"Oh, yes," he said, so low that the Imp hardly heard his voice, "but there's nothing I haven't tried—short of killing him Nothing shames him—nothing!"

He squeezed the Imp so hard that he started in confusion, and vaguely took up his tale:

"So he came. An' he said, 'I didn't think—think you'd do it, Boy!' an' an'.... I said.... sorry.... bad.... any more...."

The Imp was fast asleep.

The Author sat motionless and held him fast. The warm little body relaxed against his arm; the heavy head, brown, cropped, and sunburnt, fell on his shoulder. The Author looked at him as if he saw something else.

"My God!" he whispered, "to think what he is now!"

The sun was turning slowly to the west. The shadow of the rock crept farther along. An hour slipped by, and still the Author held the Imp, and still the Imp slept. The Author looked far out to sea; he seemed not to know what was about him; sometimes his lips moved.

Suddenly a quick crunching step sounded behind them. A tall young man came up the beach and stood between them and the water. He caught the Author's eye.

"Well?" he said defiantly.

The Author pointed to the Imp. "'Sh!" he motioned with his lips, and looked silently at the young man. The young man shifted his eyes, and a flush crept over his handsome haggard face.

"Well?" he said again uneasily, adding in a low voice, with a questioning look at the Imp, "They said you went off this way, so I came along. What is it? Same old story, I suppose?"

Still the Author did not speak. He looked steadily at the young man, and the strange depth of his look drew into it irresistibly the hard tired eyes opposite, while the lad shuffled his feet in the sand and tried to speak.

The Author's lips quivered, he fed his eyes on the boy as if he were looking at what he should never see again, and then his voice, hushed for the Imp's sake, broke the stillness.

"I—I didn't think you'd do it, Boy—I didn't think you would ! " he said, and that was all.

The young man started, his eyes widened almost in terror, he caught his breath, and put out his hands as if to ward off some dreaded thing; and then suddenly his muscles gave way, his mouth twisted, and with a little hoarse exclamation he threw himself down on the sand and burst into great racking sobs.

After a while the Author looked toward him and held out his right arm—the Imp was in his left.

"Here, Boy," he said gently, "come here!"

The young man crept up like a little boy and laid his head against the Author's shoulder.

They sat in silence. In front the water rose and fell quietly. The tide was slipping out, and the long creamy breakers pounded softly in the distance, leaving a dark polished rim behind them. A flock of gulls flapped slowly by, black against the reddening clouds. In the silence one could almost hear the sun sink down.

Later, sounds mingled with the Imp's dreams: a long, low murmur, often interrupted. Someone, far off, seemed talking, talking softly to someone else.

And still later he seemed to be on his boat—he was, indeed, first mate—and there was a high sea. He pitched and tossed, and woke with a start to find himself journeying homeward high up in the Author's arms. But they were not alone. A tall young man was walking close behind, carrying the beach-umbrella, his hand on the shoulder where the Imp's head lay, his eyes fixed wonderingly on his father's face.