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THE PRODIGAL IMP

 

 

 

THE PRODIGAL IMP


HE sat mournfully in the library, on the lowest stool he could find, and clasped his hands tightly over his brown corduroy knees. Occasionally he sniffed and winked rapidly. Not that he was crying—oh, no! A person who has worn corduroy trousers since Tuesday does not cry. But when one is about to leave forever—or for at least ten years, which amounts to the same thing—the home of his childhood, one may be pardoned if he loses control of himself so far as to sniff.

For he was going to run away. To-morrow at this time where should he be? He did not know: he only knew that he should not be with a household that might perhaps miss him when he was gone; here he winked very hard and felt for his pocket, the hip-pocket. Kittens, indeed! A boy of seven keeping kittens! He blushed for shame. He had only asked for three guinea-pigs—three little guinea-pigs; and they had been immediately and flatly refused.

"But what can I keep?" he had demanded. "Every boy keeps something!" And then they had offered kittens—the children of the cat in the next house, that he had known all his life, more or less! He had given way to one burst of temper, and rushed from the room; they had laughed. Now he was going away, but more in sorrow than in anger, truly.

He got up from the stool and went softly upstairs to his room. He looked sadly at the pretty white bed—it might be long before he should sleep in such a bed as that again! For he knew well that when knights and princes went forth to seek their fortunes and elude cruel guardians, they had troublesome if thrilling adventures, and often went for nights and days with little food or sleep, till the godmother came with the chariot and magic luncheon tray.

He shook his bank that looked like a little church, and with an ease born of long practice took off the bottom and gathered up the dimes and nickels. He knew just how much there was—one dollar and eighty-five cents if you counted the Canadian dime. He put the money into the left hip-pocket, where it rattled pleasantly, and then he crushed his polo-cap on his curly head and left the room. With money in one's pocket, one feels less mournful.

At the top of the stairs he stopped and considered. It might be well to have some clean clothes, and at least a night-gown and a tooth-brush. His Uncle Stanley said that with a night-gown and a tooth-brush a man could start for China at any minute, and his Uncle Stanley was a very clever young man indeed. The Imp intended to go no farther than New York; still, the rule might hold.

But stop! Had any prince that he had ever heard of carried a night-gown when he left his father's palace where the older brothers laughed at him and the servants sneered, but he came back wealthy at last, and honorable, with the princess at his side, and they banished the brothers and ruled the country? No book that had been read to him ever so much as hinted at a night-gown, or a tooth-brush, for that matter. So with a sigh not wholly sorrowful, he abandoned the idea and turned again to go.

But his mother's reproachful eyes seemed to open wide before him, and he seemed to see again the little white box with the cunning baby tooth-brush tied with white ribbon, that came on his fourth birthday. It was for him to use himself, and there was what he called a "pome" with it. Softly the Imp repeated the instructive verse to himself:


"Little Imps must brush their teeth,
Or else they will be dirty;
And they should begin at four,
Not wait till four-and-thirty.
So mind you, Implet, every day,
Open your mouth and scrub away!"


Uncle Stanley made that "pome," and it was great in the eyes of the Imp. They had repeated it to him on those occasions when he had objected to the process it implied, and he had grown to reverence the brushing of teeth because of the beauty and dignity of the "pome."

So rolling it in a scrap of paper, he crowded his tooth-brush—it was almost new and very stiff—into the pocket of his blouse, and went down stairs. It was a small concession to his relatives, and no one could possibly know it was there.

He would not say good-by to them: his heart was too hot. And they would very probably laugh, or worse than that, prevent his going. So he walked out of the house and down the path and out of the gate.

Good-by! Good-by! He almost forgave them in the sorrow and grandeur of the moment.

Suddenly a voice from the farther hammock:

"Where you going, Imp? After the kittens?" And then a chuckle—low, suppressed, but still a chuckle.

The heart of the Imp hardened. He would never come back—never! He strode on, and made no answer. Kittens, forsooth! As he passed by the house where the kittens lived he looked the other way.

It was half a mile to the station, and the Imp took the longest way, to avoid meeting friends or relatives who might be curious. He had never been in a station alone, and his heart thumped as he turned the brass knob and entered.

The New York express had just thundered in and stood waiting for its passengers; but they were very few, for this was too late an hour for the business men and it was too warm a day for shoppers. Still, one man was getting a ticket in a hurry, and the Imp guessed that he was going on that train, which was headed for New York, as he knew.

Everything fascinating in the way of toys and clothes came from New York, and when visitors came they usually got out of a car that had come from there. What better place to seek a fortune than that city of supplies and guests?

The Imp crept up behind the man and listened. How did men buy tickets?

"One for the city," said the man, and a little cardboard flew across the tiny counter to him as he put down a bill. Oh—it took a bill, then? The Imp felt in his left hip-pocket and drew out a soiled handkerchief, three jackstones, a plum, and a large, flat elastic band. Where was it? Had he lost it? Oh, no! Safe at the bottom lay a crumpled dollar bill.

He walked to the little window, which was almost above his head, and held up the bill.

"One for the city!" he said. All the station seemed to pause and listen; the scrub-woman, the half-dozen mothers with babies and bundles, and the paper-boy, all stopped, he thought, to hear him.

Probably he should not get a ticket. Probably
 
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"One for the City," he said.

 
that young man would throw back the bill and tell him to buy kittens with it! He started to sniff, and stopped, for over the little counter came the ticket and three dimes! The young man didn't know him, nor care whether he went to New York and never came back! He picked them up and scuttled off, fearful of being called back, but nobody noticed him.

Miss Katharine Sampson was standing near the door, and as he went out he heard her say to her friend,

"Why, see little Perry Stafford! He bought a ticket himself. Where is that baby going?"

The Imp swelled with rage. That baby!

"Oh, his mother's on the other side, of course," said the other young lady. "When I was a little tot I always loved to get the tickets myself."

The Imp smiled bitterly. When she was a little tot! Doubtless she had never worn corduroy trousers, however. And young ladies were only grown-up little girls. He boarded the train, taking care to go in a car that no one else from the station patronized, and his heart beat fast as he passed by the brakeman.

"Here! where's your ma?" said that official.

"My mamma is at home," responded the Imp with dignity, and went on.

"Humph!" said the brakeman, following him up the steps and giving him a kindly shove—the steps were far apart and the Imp's legs were short. "What's your name? Ain't anybody along with you?"

The Imp was horribly frightened: the hissing, pounding engine, the bell that clanged, the bustling people, all woke him to a sense of his strange position, and for a moment he heartily wished that someone was along with him. Then the chuckle from the hammock rang in his ears, and he stiffened, and faced the brakeman with all the dignity and haughtiness of his grandfather, who had publicly rebuked the Governor of Connecticut for a want of courtesy, and said:

"I am Perry Scott Stafford, and I am going to New York by myself."

"Oh!" said the brakeman, and went on in silence, surprised, but quite convinced.

The Imp settled back in the red plush seat, and the train pulled out. It was done! Nevermore should he see the gravel path and the library and the open fire and the stable and his mother! Oh! A short, quick sound like a sob that is changed quickly into a cough came from the seat where the Imp sat. It could not have been from him, because he looked around with an over-acted surprise as if he were greatly shocked at such a noise in a public place.

What were they all doing? Had they found him out? Were they crying? Was Gertrude wishing she had bought ice-cream when the man came by with the bell and the white apron?

Was Uncle Stanley regretting his loud and untimely laughter when the Imp climbed upon the edge of the bath-tub to illustrate the proper method of balancing on a rope, and fell suddenly and splashily in? That had been a very mortifying occasion.

Was Katy Nolan wishing she had been a little kinder in the matter of a few paltry sugared cakes that a person might want when he had been running errands all the morning?

Was James O'Connor wishing he had been a little more polite, even if the horse had been watered when he didn't know it? What was a pail of water more or less? And the horse was very grateful for it!

And his mother—was she thinking of her little boy?—but again came that strange noise, and the Imp sat very straight and turned his attention to the men around him. They were reading papers. Men always did that, it seemed. A paper-boy came through the train, and the Imp touched his arm softly. The boy turned.

"I'll take a paper, if you please," said the Imp.

"What d'ye want?" said the boy.

"Just a paper, thank you," said the Imp, blushing, because he felt that people were looking at him.

"But what paper?" persisted the boy, half laughing, half puzzled.

"Oh, any one you like," said the Imp, politely.

The boy pulled out one, and said "Three cents, mister!" in a businesslike way that delighted the Imp beyond measure. He gave the boy a dime and a nickel, in a large, easy way, and concealed his surprise at the handful of pennies handed back to him.

Then he glanced around, and coughing importantly, after the fashion of his Uncle Stanley when he read anything aloud from a magazine, opened the paper. He had not read very much recently, except in an unpleasant blue book with words in columns and very poor pictures of common objects which one hardly cares to see in type every day. He preferred to have others read to him, on the whole. One gets through more books in a shorter time. But he had seen papers read, and holding it before him, he glanced intelligently up and down the columns, coughing at intervals.

He felt very grown up and very busy. No wonder men liked to read papers, they were so big and crisp, and smelled so good. One regretted the lack of pictures, but then, for three cents one could hardly expect so fine a volume as the "Blue Fairy Book," for instance.

"Any news to-day?" said the man who sat behind him, leaning over the back of the seat.

The Imp turned politely around.

"I—I haven't got very far," he said, and then, in a burst of confidence: "I don't read very much except in the First Reader, you see. Gertrude mostly reads to me. She reads very well."

"Is Gertrude your sister?" asked the man, looking curiously at the mite in corduroy and a polo-cap.

"Gertrude," said the Imp, with decision, "is my aunt, but I never call her that."

"No? Why not?" said the man.

"Because she's too young," answered the Imp, a flash coming into his eye. "She's only fifteen, and I won't call a girl that's only fifteen Aunt Gertrude. She's very angry that I won't. She says I ought to be made to. So Uncle Stanley says that he'll call her Aunt Gertrude; he'd just as soon. So one day they all called her Aunt Gertrude—all but me. She was very angry."

The man laughed very hard. "And why are you running away?" said he.

"Because they won't let me have guinea-pigs," said the Imp simply. It did not seem at all strange that the man should know he was running away; he only wondered that everybody hadn't noticed it.

"O-oh!" said the man. "To New York?"

"Yes, sir," replied the Imp. "I thought it was a good place."

Then, as there was no reply, he looked anxiously at his companion. "Isn't it?" he inquired.

The man looked out of the window thoughtfully. "Well, that depends," said he slowly, "on what you want. You see, they may keep you at the station and carry you to the—the—the place where they take people who are all alone with no—no aunts or anything with them, you know; and they keep you till you're identified, and it's very hot and stuffy, and then they send you home with a policeman, and he's very cross at having to take you—and that's all."

The Imp gasped. "But I'm going to run away!" he said excitedly. "I'm going to—to earn a great deal of money!"

"Ah?" said the man, politely. "By selling papers? That's what little boys do in New York. They rarely do anything else."

"Why?" whispered the Imp, terrified at the solemn manner of the man. "Why?"

"It's about all they can do," said the man.

The Imp leaned back in his seat. He did not wish to sell papers. The paper-boys he had seen were very ragged and dirty, and ate queer things.

"Now, if you cared to," said the man, still looking out of the window, "you could get out here at the next station, and in a few minutes there'd be a train home, and you could take it. It comes very soon, and you'd be back before they knew you had gone. Of course, you needn't unless you care to. If you'd rather sell papers——"

"Oh, no!" said the Imp, decidedly.

"Then, there's your mother," said the man, "she will probably miss you at first, and she'll feel very bad for a while. She'll miss you at night——" But the Imp heard no more.

He buried his face in his polo-cap and sobbed with remorse and loneliness.

"Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" he moaned. "I'll miss her, too! I'll miss her awfully bad!"

"Well," said the man, "here's the station!"

And down the car steps stumbled Perry Scott Stafford, with very red eyes and a very damp cap. The man waved his hand out of the window, and the Imp called huskily after him,

"Good-by! But I shan't keep kittens—I shan't!" He did not hear the man's reply, which was somewhat confused.

And the train, when it came, went all too slowly for Perry Scott Stafford, who was frightened at his daring and remorseful at his bad temper, and filled with a great and powerful desire to see his
 
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He wept quietly on her white lawn shoulder.

 
mother so much so that he wept at intervals, and feeling, as he did, very pious, recited softly, "Little Imps must brush their teeth," under the impression that he was saying his prayers! And when he got off at the station he fled to his home, with a love for it that he had never felt before.

He stumbled up the gravel path and noted with amazement that all was as he had left it. The house looked the same, and the croquet-ground and the stables. Even the hammock held the same person whose laugh had made him hurry along to the train on that dreadful occasion that somehow seemed so long ago!

He skirted the house and went in at the back door. His mother was sewing in the shade on the side porch. She looked very cool and white and comfortable, and she was singing a little tune just as contentedly as if she had not come near losing her only son.

His tears flowed afresh, and he jumped into her arms, explaining his late revengeful intentions so confusedly that she thought he had been dreaming, and cuddled him softly till his penitence grew clearer, and then she looked grave, and explained to him in heart-rending words how mothers felt when their boys cared so little for them as to be willing to run away.

He wept quietly on her white lawn shoulder, wiping his eyes at intervals on the lace of her tie, and leaving grimy smudges on her sleeve, while she kissed his hot little head and sang him to sleep.

As he drifted off he seemed to hear a familiar voice, that, indeed, of James O'Connor, describing to Katy Nolan the appearance of what he called "a rale foine collie pup as iver was, that Misther Stanley had talk about buyin' and l'avin' here whin he wint back to the city."

It was too good to be true, and it may have been a dream: the Imp was almost sure it was. And yet it might be true, and if it were, how unjustly he had blamed his Uncle Stanley! And thinking how polite he would be to grown people, and how kind to the collie pup—if it were true—the Imp fell fast asleep.