The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Chapter Eighteen. A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go
If the reader supposes that I lived all this while in Rivermouth without falling a victim to one or more of the young ladies attending Miss Dorothy Gibbs's Female Institute, why, then, all I have to say is the reader exhibits his ignorance of human nature.
Miss Gibbs's seminary was located within a few minutes' walk of the Temple Grammar School, and numbered about thirty-five pupils, the majority of whom boarded at the Hall-Primrose Hall, as Miss Dorothy prettily 20called it. The Prim-roses, as we called them, ranged from seven years of age to sweet seventeen, and a prettier group of sirens never got together even in Rivermouth, for Rivermouth, you should know, is famous for its pretty girls.
There were tall girls and short girls, rosy girls and pale girls, and girls as brown as berries; girls like Amazons, slender girls, weird and winning like Undine, girls with black tresses, girls with auburn ringlets, girls with every tinge of golden hair. To behold Miss Dorothy's young ladies of a Sunday morning walking to church two by two, the smallest toddling at the end of the procession, like the bobs at the tail of a kite, was a spectacle to fill with tender emotion the least susceptible heart. To see Miss Dorothy marching grimly at the head of her light infantry, was to feel the hopelessness of making an attack on any part of the column.
She was a perfect dragon of watchfulness. The most unguarded lifting of an eyelash in the fluttering battalion was sufficient to put her on the lookout. She had had experiences with the male sex, this Miss Dorothy so prim and grim. It was whispered that her heart was a tattered album scrawled over with love-lines, but that she had shut up the volume long ago.
There was a tradition that she had been crossed in love; but it was the faintest of traditions. A gay young lieutenant of marines had flirted with her at a country ball (A.D. 1811), and then marched carelessly away at the head of his company to the shrill music of the fife, without so much as a sigh for the girl he left behind him. The years rolled on, the gallant gay Lothario-which wasn't his name-married, became a father, and then a grandfather; and at the period of which I am speaking his grandchild was actually one of Miss Dorothy's young ladies. So, at least, ran the story.
The lieutenant himself was dead these many years; but Miss Dorothy never got over his duplicity. She was convinced that the sole aim of mankind was to win the unguarded affection of maidens, and then march off treacherously with flying colors to the heartless music of the drum and fife. To shield the inmates of Primrose Hall from the bitter influences that had blighted her own early affections was Miss Dorothy's mission in life.
"No wolves prowling about my lambs, if you please," said
Miss Dorothy. "I will not allow it."
She was as good as her word. I don't think the boy lives who ever set foot within the limits of Primrose Hall while the seminary was under her charge. Perhaps if Miss Dorothy had given her young ladies a little more liberty, they would not have thought it "such fun" to make eyes over the white lattice fence at the young gentlemen of the Temple Grammar School. I say perhaps; for it is one thing to manage thirty-five young ladies and quite another thing to talk about it.
But all Miss Dorothy's vigilance could not prevent the young folks from meeting in the town now and then, nor could her utmost ingenuity interrupt postal arrangements. There was no end of notes passing between the students and the Primroses. Notes tied to the heads of arrows were shot into dormitory windows; notes were tucked under fences, and hidden in the trunks of decayed trees. Every thick place in the boxwood hedge that surrounded the seminary was a possible post-office.
It was a terrible shock to Miss Dorothy the day she unearthed a nest of letters in one of the huge wooden urns surmounting the gateway that led to her dovecot. It was a bitter moment to Miss Phoebe and Miss Candace and Miss Hesba, when they had their locks of hair grimly handed back to them by Miss Gibbs in the presence of the whole school. Girls whose locks of hair had run the blockade in safety were particularly severe on the offenders. But it didn't stop other notes and other tresses, and I would like to know what can stop them while the earth holds together.
Now when I first came to Rivermouth I looked upon girls as rather tame company; I hadn't a spark of sentiment concerning them; but seeing my comrades sending and receiving mysterious epistles, wearing bits of ribbon in their button-holes and leaving packages of confectionery (generally lemon-drops) in the hollow trunks of trees-why, I felt that this was the proper thing to do. I resolved, as a matter of duty, to fall in love with somebody, and I didn't care in the least who it was. In much the same mood that Don Quixote selected the Dulcinea del Toboso for his lady-love, I singled out one of Miss Dorothy's incomparable young ladies for mine.
I debated a long while whether I should not select two, but at last settled down on one-a pale little girl with blue eyes, named Alice. I shall not make a long story of this, for Alice made short work of me. She was secretly in love with Pepper Whitcomb. This occasioned a temporary coolness between Pepper and myself.
Not disheartened, however, I placed Laura Rice-I believe it was Laura Rice-in the vacant niche. The new idol was more cruel than the old. The former frankly sent me to the right about, but the latter was a deceitful lot. She wore my nosegay in her dress at the evening service (the Primroses were marched to church three times every Sunday), she penned me the daintiest of notes, she sent me the glossiest of ringlets (cut, as I afterwards found out, from the stupid head of Miss Gibbs's chamber-maid), and at the same time was holding me and my pony up to ridicule in a series of letters written to Jack Harris. It was Harris himself who kindly opened my eyes.
"I tell you what, Bailey," said that young gentleman, "Laura is an old veteran, and carries too many guns for a youngster. She can't resist a flirtation; I believe she'd flirt with an infant in arms. There's hardly a fellow in the school that hasn't worn her colors and some of her hair. She doesn't give out any more of her own hair now. It's been pretty well used up. The demand was greater than the supply, you see. It's all very well to correspond with Laura, but as to looking for anything serious from her, the knowing ones don't. Hope I haven't hurt your feelings, old boy," (that was a soothing stroke of flattery to call me "old boy,") "but it was my duty as a friend and a Centipede to let you know who you were dealing with."
Such was the advice given me by that time-stricken, careworn, and embittered man of the world, who was sixteen years old if he was a day.
I dropped Laura. In the course of the next twelve months I had perhaps three or four similar experiences, and the conclusion was forced upon me that I was not a boy likely to distinguish myself in this branch of business.
I fought shy of Primrose Hall from that moment. Smiles were smiled over the boxwood hedge, and little hands were occasionally kissed to me; but I only winked my eye patronizingly, and passed on. I never renewed tender relations with Miss Gibbs's young ladies. All this occurred during my first year and a half at Rivermouth.
Between my studies at school, my out-door recreations, and the hurts my vanity received, I managed to escape for the time being any very serious attack of that love fever which, like the measles, is almost certain to seize upon a boy sooner or later. I was not to be an exception. I was merely biding my time. The incidents I have now to relate took place shortly after the events described in the last chapter.
In a life so tranquil and circumscribed as ours in the Nutter House, a visitor was a novelty of no little importance. The whole household awoke from its quietude one morning when the Captain announced that a young niece of his from New York was to spend a few weeks with us.
The blue-chintz room, into which a ray of sun was never allowed to penetrate, was thrown open and dusted, and its mouldy air made sweet with a bouquet of pot-roses placed on the old-fashioned bureau. Kitty was busy all the forenoon washing off the sidewalk and sand-papering the great brass knocker on our front-door; and Miss Abigail was up to her elbows in a pigeon-pie.
I felt sure it was for no ordinary person that all these preparations were in progress; and I was right. Miss Nelly Glentworth was no ordinary person. I shall never believe she was. There may have been lovelier women, though I have never seen them; there may have been more brilliant women, though it has not been my fortune to meet them; but that there was ever a more charming one than Nelly Glentworth is a proposition against which I contend.
I don't love her now. I don't think of her once in five years; and yet it would give me a turn if in the course of my daily walk I should suddenly come upon her eldest boy. I may say that her eldest boy was not playing a prominent part in this life when I first made her acquaintance.
It was a drizzling, cheerless afternoon towards the end of summer that a hack drew up at the door of the Nutter House. The Captain and Miss Abigail hastened into the hall on hearing the carriage stop. In a moment more Miss Nelly Glentworth was seated in our sitting-room undergoing a critical examination at the hands of a small boy who lounged uncomfortably on a settee between the windows.
The small boy considered himself a judge of girls, and he rapidly came to the following conclusions: That Miss Nelly was about nineteen; that she had not given away much of her back hair, which hung in two massive chestnut braids over her shoulders; that she was a shade too pale and a trifle too tall; that her hands were nicely shaped and her feet much too diminutive for daily use. He furthermore observed that her voice was musical, and that her face lighted up with an indescribable brightness when she smiled.
On the whole, the small boy liked her well enough; and, satisfied that she was not a person to be afraid of, but, on the contrary, one who might be made quite agreeable, he departed to keep an appointment with his friend Sir Pepper Whitcomb.
But the next morning when Miss Glentworth came down to breakfast in a purple dress, her face 20as fresh as one of the moss-roses on the bureau upstairs, and her laugh as contagious as the merriment of a robin, the small boy experienced a strange sensation, and mentally compared her with the loveliest of Miss Gibbs's young ladies, and found those young ladies wanting in the balance.
A night's rest had wrought a wonderful change in Miss Nelly. The pallor and weariness of the journey had passed away. I looked at her through the toast-rack and thought I had never seen anything more winning than her smile.
After breakfast she went out with me to the stable to see Gypsy, and the three of us became friends then and there. Nelly was the only girl that Gypsy ever took the slightest notice of.
It chanced to be a half-holiday, and a baseball match of unusual interest was to come off on the school ground that afternoon; but, somehow, I didn't go. I hung about the house abstractedly. The Captain went up town, and Miss Abigail was busy in the kitchen making immortal gingerbread. I drifted into the sitting-room, and had our guest all to myself for I don't know how many hours. It was twilight, I recollect, when the Captain returned with letters for Miss Nelly.
Many a time after that I sat with her through the dreamy September afternoons. If I had played baseball it would have been much better for me.
Those first days of Miss Nelly's visit are very misty in my remembrance. I try in vain to remember just when I began to fall in love with her. 'Whether the spell worked upon me gradually or fell upon me all at once, I don't know. I only know that it seemed to me as if I had always loved her. Things that took place before she came were dim to me, like events that had occurred in the Middle Ages.
Nelly was at least five years my senior. But what of that? Adam is the only man I ever heard of who didn't in early youth fall in love with a woman older than himself, and I am convinced that he would have done so if he had had the opportunity.
I wonder if girls from fifteen to twenty are aware of the glamour they cast over the straggling, awkward boys whom they regard and treat as mere children? I wonder, now. Young women are so keen in such matters. I wonder if Miss Nelly Glentworth never suspected until the very last night of her visit at Rivermouth that I was over ears in love with her pretty self, and was suffering pangs as poignant as if I had been ten feet high and as old as Methuselah? For, indeed, I was miserable throughout all those five weeks. I went down in the Latin class at the rate of three boys a day. Her fresh young eyes came between me and my book, and there was an end of Virgil.
"O love, love, love!
Love is like a dizziness,
It winna let a body
Gang aboot his business."
I was wretched away from her, and only less wretched in her presence. The special cause of my woe was this: I was simply a little boy to Miss Glentworth. I knew it. I bewailed it. I ground my teeth and wept in secret over the fact. If I had been aught else in her eyes would she have smoothed my hair so carelessly, sending an electric shock through my whole system? Would she have walked with me, hand in hand, for hours in the old garden, and once when I lay on the sofa, my head aching with love and mortification, would she have stooped down and kissed me if I hadn't been a little boy? How I despised little boys! How I hated one particular little boy-too little to be loved!
I smile over this very grimly even now. My sorrow was genuine and bitter. It is a great mistake on the part of elderly people, male and female, to tell a child that he is seeing his happiest days. Don't you believe a word of it, my little friend. The burdens of childhood are as hard to bear as the crosses that weigh us down later in life, while the happinesses of childhood are tame compared with those of our maturer years. And even if this were not so, it is rank cruelty to throw shadows over the young heart by croaking, "Be merry, for to-morrow you die!"
As the last days of Nelly's visit drew near, I fell into a very unhealthy state of mind. To have her so frank and unconsciously coquettish with me was a daily torment; to be looked upon and treated as a child was bitter almonds; but the thought of losing her altogether was distraction.
The summer was at an end. The days were perceptibly shorter, and now and then came an evening when it was chilly enough to have a wood-fire in our sitting-room. The leaves were beginning to take hectic tints, and the wind was practising the minor pathetic notes of its autumnal dirge. Nature and myself appeared to be approaching our dissolution simultaneously-
One evening, the evening previous to the day set for Nelly's departure-how well I remember it-I found her sitting alone by the wide chimney-piece looking musingly at the crackling back log. There were no candles in the room. On her face and hands, and on the small golden cross at her throat, fell the flickering firelight-that ruddy, mellow firelight in which one's grandmother would look poetical.
I drew a low stool from the corner and placed it by the side of her chair. She reached out her hand to me, as was her pretty fashion, and so we sat for several moments silently in the changing glow of the burning logs. At length I moved back the stool so that I could see her face in profile without being seen by her. I lost her hand by this movement, but I couldn't have spoken with the listless touch of her fingers on mine. After two or three attempts I said "Nelly" a good deal louder than I intended.
Perhaps the effort it cost me was evident in my voice. She raised herself quickly in the chair and half turned towards me.
"I-I am very sorry you are going away."
"So am I. I have enjoyed every hour of my visit."
"Do you think you will ever come back here?"
"Perhaps," said Nelly, and her eyes wandered off into the fitful firelight.
"I suppose you will forget us all very quickly."
"Indeed I shall not. I shall always have the pleasantest memories of Rivermouth."
Here the conversation died a natural death. Nelly sank into a sort of dream, and I meditated. Fearing every moment to be interrupted by some member of the family, I nerved myself to make a bold dash.
"Do you-" I hesitated.
"Do I what?"
"Love anyone very much?"
"Why, of course I do," said Nelly, scattering her revery with a merry laugh. "I love Uncle Nutter, and Aunt Nutter, and you-and Towser."
Towser, our new dog! I couldn't stand that. I pushed back the stool impatiently and stood in front of her.
"That's not what I mean," I said angrily.
"Well, what do you mean?"
"Do you love anyone to marry him?"
"The idea of it," cried Nelly, laughing.
"But you must tell me."
"Indeed you must, Nelly."
She had risen from the chair with an amused, perplexed look in her eyes. I held her an instant by the dress.
"Please tell me."
"O you silly boy!" cried Nelly. Then she rumpled my hair all over my forehead and ran laughing out of the room.
Suppose Cinderella had rumpled the prince's hair all over his forehead, how would he have liked it? Suppose the Sleeping Beauty, when the king's son with a kiss set her and all the old clocks agoing in the spell-bound castle-suppose the young minx had looked up and coolly laughed in his eye, I guess the king's son wouldn't have been greatly pleased.
I hesitated a second or two and then rushed after Nelly just in time to run against Miss Abigail, who entered the room with a couple of lighted candles.
"Goodness gracious, Tom!" exclaimed Miss Abigail. "Are you possessed?"
I left her scraping the warm spermaceti from one of her thumbs.
Nelly was in the kitchen talking quite unconcernedly with Kitty Collins. There she remained until supper-time. Supper over, we all adjourned to the sitting-room. I planned and plotted, but could manage in no way to get Nelly alone. She and the Captain played cribbage all the evening.
The next morning my lady did not make her appearance until we were seated at the breakfast-table. I had got up at daylight myself. Immediately after breakfast the carriage arrived to take her to the railway station. A gentleman stepped from this carriage, and greatly to my surprise was warmly welcomed by the Captain and Miss Abigail, and by Miss Nelly herself, who seemed unnecessarily glad to see him. From the hasty conversation that followed I learned that the gentleman had come somewhat unexpectedly to conduct Miss Nelly to Boston. But how did he know that she was to leave that morning? Nelly bade farewell to the Captain and Miss Abigail, made a little rush and kissed me on the nose, and was gone.
As the wheels of the hack rolled up the street and over my finer feelings, I turned to the Captain.
"Who was that gentleman, sir?"
"That was Mr. Waldron."
"A relation of yours, sir?" I asked craftily.
"No relation of mine-a relation of Nelly's," said the Captain, smiling.
"A cousin," I suggested, feeling a strange hatred spring up in my bosom for the unknown.
"Well, I suppose you might call him a cousin for the present. He's going to marry little Nelly next summer."
In one of Peter Parley's valuable historical works is a description of an earthquake at Lisbon. "At the first shock the inhabitants rushed into the streets; the earth yawned at their feet and the houses tottered and fell on every side." I staggered past the Captain into the street; a giddiness came over me; the earth yawned at my feet, and the houses threatened to fall in on every side of me. How distinctly I remember that momentary sense of confusion when everything in the world seemed toppling over into ruins.
As I have remarked, my love for Nelly is a thing of the past. I had not thought of her for years until I sat down to write this chapter, and yet, now that all is said and done, I shouldn't care particularly to come across Mrs. Waldron's eldest boy in my afternoon's walk. He must be fourteen or fifteen years old by this time-the young villain!