The Jungle Fugitives/Who Shall Explain It?


WHO SHALL EXPLAIN IT?


Let me begin by saying that I was never a believer in signs, omens, or the general superstitions which, it must be admitted, influence most people to a greater or less degree. I have been the thirteenth guest at more than one table, without my appetite being affected; I have tipped over my salt-cellar without a twinge of fear; I have never turned aside to avoid passing under a leaning ladder, and I do not care a jot whether the first glimpse of the new moon is over my right or left shoulder.

I had a little boy Bob, who was fourteen years old on the last anniversary of American independence. Being our only son, his mother and myself held him close to our hearts. In fact, I am sure no little fellow was ever regarded with more affectionate love than our Bob. The painful story which, with much hesitation, I have set out to tell is one, therefore, that no member of our little family can ever forget.

We always tried to act the part of sensible parents toward our little boy. He never stepped inside of a school-house until he was seven years old, and, when he did so, it was to stay only a brief while. It was six months before he became acquainted with every letter of the alphabet, and no youngster of his years ever ruined more clothing than he. The destruction of shoes, hats, and trousers was enough to bankrupt many a father, and it often provoked a protest from his mother. I have seen him, within a half hour after having his face scrubbed until it shone like an apple, present himself in such ragged attire and with so soiled a countenance, that it took a second glance to identify him.

And yet, as I sit here writing by the evening lamp, I am glad to recall that I never scolded Bob. I would have been sadly neglectful of my duty had I failed to reprove and advise him, and I am sure he honestly strove to obey my wishes; but the sum and substance of it all was, he couldn't do it. He was a vigorous little fellow, overrunning with animal spirits, high health, and mischief; and it was a pleasure to me to see him laying the firm foundation of a lusty constitution, which, in later years, could laugh at disease.

And then when he did take a start in his studies, he advanced with a speed that astonished his teacher. At the age of twelve there was not a girl or boy in school (and some of them were several years older than he) who could hold his own with him. I took some credit to myself for all this, for I believed it was largely due to the common-sense I used in his early youth. The foundation was strong and secure, and the building erected upon it was upon solid rock.

During the last two or three years I suffered from a great fear. Between the school-house and our home was a mill-pond, which in many places was fully a dozen feet deep. I knew what a temptation this was to the boys during the long, sultry summer weather, and there was not a day when a dozen youngsters, more or less, were not frolicking and splashing in it.

One afternoon, when I sauntered thither, I found fully a score of them in the height of enjoyment, and the wildest and most reckless fellow was my Bob. When he observed me standing on the shore he was so anxious to astonish me that he ventured into the water up to his chin, I shouted to him to come to shore, for he was in fearful peril, and it needed only a few inches further advance for him to drown before help could reach him.

"Bob," said I, in a voice and manner that could not be mistaken, "if you ever do that again I'll whip you within an inch of your life."

"I won't, pop," he replied, in such meek tones that, parent-like, my heart reproached me at once.

"Now," I added more gently, "every boy ought to learn to swim, and until he is able to do so, he should keep out of deep water. If you will promise me that you will never venture into a depth above your waist until a good swimmer, you may bathe here; otherwise you shall never come near it."

He gave me his promise, and, telling him that he had been in the water long enough for that afternoon, I asked him to dress himself and come home with me.

I felt that I had been weak. I ought to have forbidden him ever to enter the mill-pond unless in my company, and thus that which followed never could have occurred. I did not tell his mother what had taken place, for I knew she would insist on a strict prohibition of his aimless swimming efforts.

To tell the truth, there were two reasons why I did not forbid Bob to enter the mill-pond. I knew it would be the most cruel kind of punishment, and, I may as well confess it, I didn't believe the boy would obey me if he gave the pledge. The temptation was too strong to be resisted. Alas! how often our affection closes our eyes to the plainest duty!

And now I have reached a point which prompts me to ask the question at the head of this sketch, "Who Shall Explain It?" I have my own theory, which I shall submit, with no little diffidence, later on.

It was on Saturday afternoon, the ninth of last August, that I became a victim to a greater depression of spirits than I had known for years. I felt nothing of it during the forenoon, but it began shortly after the midday meal and became more oppressive with each passing minute. I sat down at my desk and wrote for a short time. I continually sighed and drew deep inspirations, which gave me no relief. It was as if a great and increasing weight were resting on my chest. Had I been superstitious, I would have declared that I was on the eve of some dreadful calamity.

Writing became so difficult and distasteful that I threw down my pen, sprang from my chair, and began rapidly pacing up and down the room. My wife had gone to the city that morning to visit her relatives, and was not to return until the following day; so I was alone, with only two servants in the house.

I couldn't keep the thoughts of Bob out of my mind. Saturday being a holiday, I had allowed him to go off to spend the afternoon as he chose; and, as it was unusually warm, there was little doubt where and how he was spending it. He would strike a bee-line for that shady mill-pond, and they would spend hours plashing in its cool and delicious depths.

I looked at the clock; it was a few minutes past five, and Bob ought to have been home long ago. What made him so late?

My fear was growing more intense every minute. The boy was in my mind continually to the exclusion of everything else. Despite all my philosophy and rigid common-sense, the conviction was fastening on me that something dreadful had befallen him.

And what was that something? He had been drowned in the mill-pond. I glanced out of the window, half expecting to see a party bearing the lifeless body homeward. Thank Heaven, I was spared that woful sight, but I discerned something else that sent a misgiving pang through me.

It was Mrs. Clarkson, our nearest neighbor, rapidly approaching, as if the bearer of momentous tidings.

"She has come to tell me that Bob is drowned," I gasped, as my heart almost ceased its beating.

I met her on the threshold, with a calmness of manner which belied the tumult within. Greeting her courteously, I invited her inside, stating that my wife was absent.

"I thank you," she said, "but it is not worth while. I thought I ought to come over and tell you."

"Tell me what?" I inquired, swallowing the lump in my throat.

"Why, about the awful dream I had last night."

I was able to smile faintly, and was partly prepared for what was coming.

"I am ready to hear it, Mrs. Clarkson."

"Why, you know it was Friday night, and I never had a dream on a Friday night that didn't come true—never! Where's Bob?" she abruptly asked, peering around me, as if to learn whether he was in the hall.

"He's off somewhere at play."

"Oh, Mr. Havens, you'll never see him alive again!"

Although startled in spite of myself, I was indignant.

"Have you any positive knowledge, Mrs. Clarkson, on the matter?"

"Certainly I have; didn't I just tell you about my dream?"

"A fudge for your dream!" I exclaimed, impatiently; "I don't believe in any such nonsense."

"I pity you," she said, though why I should be pitied on that account is hard to understand.

"But what was your dream?"

"I saw your Bob brought home drowned. Oh, I can see him now," she added, speaking rapidly, and making a movement as if to wring her hands; "his white face—his dripping hair and clothes—his half-closed eyes—it was dreadful; it will break his mother's heart—"

"Mrs. Clarkson, did you come here to tell me that?"

"Why, of course I did; I felt it was my duty to prepare you—"

"Good day," I answered, sharply, closing the door and hastily entering my study.

She had given me a terrible shock. My feelings were in a tumult difficult to describe. My philosophy, my self-command, my hard sense and scepticism were scattered to the winds, I had fought against the awful fear, and was still fighting when my neighbor called; but her visit had knocked every prop from beneath me.

She had hardly disappeared when I was hurrying through the woods by the shortest route to the mill-pond. I knew Bob had been there, and all that I expected to find was his white, ghastly body in the cold, cruel depths.

"Oh, my boy!" I wailed, "I am to blame for your death! I never should have permitted you to run into such danger. I should have gone with you and taught you to swim—I can never forgive myself for this—never, never, never. It will break your mother's heart—mine is already broken—"

"Pop, just watch me!"

Surely that was the voice of my boy! I turned my head like a flash, and there he was, with his hands together over his head, and in the act of diving into the mill-pond. Down he went with a splash, his head quickly reappearing, as he flirted the hair and water out of his eyes, and struck out for the middle of the pond.

"What are you doing, Bob?"

"You just wait and see, pop."

And what did that young rascal do but swim straight across that pond and then turn about and swim back again, without pausing for breath? Not only that, but, when in the very deepest portion, he dove, floated on his back, trod water, and kicked up his heels like a frisky colt.

"How's that, pop? You didn't know I could swim, did you?" he asked, as he came smilingly up the bank.

"I had no idea of such a thing," I replied, my whole being fluttering with gratitude and delight; "I think I'll have to reward you for that."

And when he had donned his clothes, and we started homeward, I slipped a twisted bank-bill into his hands. I am really ashamed to tell its denomination, and Bob and I never hinted anything about it to his mother.

And now as to the question, Who shall explain it? I think I can. I have a weakness for boiled beef and cabbage. The meat is healthful enough, but, as every one knows, or ought to know, cabbage, although one of the most digestible kinds of food when raw, is just the opposite in a boiled state. I knew the consequences of eating it, but in the absence of my good wife that day I disposed of so much that I deserved the oppressive indigestion that followed.

That fact, I am convinced, fully explains the dreadful "presentiment" which made me so miserable all the afternoon.

On our way home we passed the house of Mrs. Clarkson. I could not forbear stopping and ringing her bell. She answered it in person.

"Mrs. Clarkson, Bob is on his way home from swimming, and I thought I would let him hear about that wonderful dream—"

But the door was slammed in my face.

I said at the opening of this sketch that I "had" a boy named Bob. God be thanked, I have him yet, and no lustier, brighter, or more manly youth ever lived, and my prayer is that he may be spared to soothe the declining years of his father and mother, whose love for him is beyond the power of words to tell.