The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Chapter Nineteen. I Become A Blighted Being
When a young boy gets to be an old boy, when the hair is growing rather thin on the top of the old boy's head, and he has been tamed sufficiently to take a sort of chastened pleasure in allowing the baby to play with his watch-seals-when, I say, an old boy has reached this stage in the journey of life, he is sometimes apt to indulge in sportive remarks concerning his first love.
Now, though I bless my stars that it wasn't in my power to marry Miss Nelly, I am not going to deny my boyish regard for her nor laugh at it. As long as it lasted it was a very sincere and unselfish love, and rendered me proportionately wretched. I say as long as it lasted, for one's first love doesn't last forever.
I am ready, however, to laugh at the amusing figure I cut after I had really ceased to have any deep feeling in the matter. It was then I took it into my head to be a Blighted Being. This was about two weeks after the spectral appearance of Mr. Waldron.
For a boy of a naturally vivacious disposition the part of a blighted being presented difficulties. I had an excellent appetite, I liked society, I liked out-of-door sports, I was fond of handsome clothes. Now all these things were incompatible with the doleful character I was to assume, and I proceeded to cast them from me. I neglected my hair. I avoided my playmates. I frowned abstractedly. I didn't eat as much as was good for me. I took lonely walks. 1 brooded in solitude. I not only committed to memory the more turgid poems of the late Lord Byron-"Fare thee well, and if forever," &c.-but I became a despondent poet on my own account, and composed a string of "Stanzas to One who will understand them." 1 think I was a trifle too hopeful on that point; for I came across the verses several years afterwards, and was quite unable to understand them myself.
It was a great comfort to be so perfectly miserable and yet not suffer any. I used to look in the glass and gloat over the amount and variety of mournful expression I could throw into my features. If I caught myself smiling at anything, I cut the smile short with a sigh. The oddest thing about all this is, I never once suspected that I was not unhappy. No one, not even Pepper Whitcomb, was more deceived than I.
Among the minor pleasures of being blighted were the interest and perplexity I excited in the simple souls that were thrown in daily contact with me. Pepper especially. I nearly drove him into a corresponding state of mind.
I had from time to time given Pepper slight but impressive hints of my admiration for Some One (this was in the early part of Miss Glentworth's visit); I had also led him to infer that my admiration was not altogether in vain. He was therefore unable to explain the cause of my strange behavior, for I had carefully refrained from mentioning to Pepper the fact that Some One had turned out to be Another's.
I treated Pepper shabbily. I couldn't resist playing on his tenderer feelings. He was a boy bubbling over with sympathy for anyone in any kind of trouble. Our intimacy since Binny Wallace's death had been uninterrupted; but now I moved in a sphere apart, not to be profaned by the step of an outsider.
I no longer joined the boys on the playground at recess. I stayed at my desk reading some lugubrious volume-usually The Mysteries of Udolpho, by the amiable Mrs. Radcliffe. A translation of The Sorrows of Werter fell into my hands at this period, and if I could have committed suicide without killing myself, I should certainly have done so.
On half-holidays, instead of fraternizing with Pepper and the rest of our clique, I would wander off alone to Grave Point.
Grave Point-the place where Binny Wallace's body came ashore-was a narrow strip of land running out into the river. A line of Lombardy poplars, stiff and severe, like a row of grenadiers, mounted guard on the water-side. On the extreme end of the peninsula was an old disused graveyard, tenanted principally by the early settlers who had been scalped by the Indians. In a remote corner of the cemetery, set apart from the other mounds, was the grave of a woman who had been hanged in the old colonial times for the murder of her infant. Goodwife Polly Haines had denied the crime to the last, and after her death there had arisen strong doubts as to her actual guilt. It was a belief current among the lads of the town, that if you went to this grave at nightfall on the 10th of November-the anniversary of her execution-and asked, "For what did the magistrates hang you?" a voice would reply, "Nothing."
Many a Rivermouth boy has tremblingly put this question in the dark, and, sure enough, Polly Haines invariably answered nothing!
A low red-brick wall, broken down in many places and frosted over with silvery moss, surrounded this burial-ground of our Pilgrim Fathers and their immediate descendants. The latest date on any of the headstones was 1780. A crop of very funny epitaphs sprung up here and there among the overgrown thistles and burdocks, and almost every tablet had a death's-head with cross-bones engraved upon it, or else a puffy round face with a pair of wings stretching out from the ears, like this:
These mortuary emblems furnished me with congenial food for reflection. I used to lie in the long grass, and speculate on the advantages and disadvantages of being a cherub.
I forget what I thought the advantages were, but I remember distinctly of getting into an inextricable tangle on two points: How could a cherub, being all head and wings, manage to sit down when he was tired? To have to sit down on the back of his head struck me as an awkward alternative. Again: Where did a cherub carry those indispensable articles (such as jack-knives, marbles, and pieces of twine) which boys in an earthly state of existence usually stow away in their trousers-pockets?
These were knotty questions, and I was never able to dispose of them satisfactorily.
Meanwhile Pepper Whitcomb would scour the whole town in search of me. He finally discovered my retreat, and dropped in on me abruptly one afternoon, while I was deep in the cherub problem.
"Look here, Tom Bailey!" said Pepper, shying a piece of clam-shell indignantly at the file jacet on a neighboring gravestone. "You are just going to the dogs! Can't you tell a fellow what in thunder ails you, instead of prowling round among the tombs like a jolly old vampire?"
"Pepper," I replied, solemnly, "don't ask me. All is not well here"-touching my breast mysteriously. If I had touched my head instead, I should have been nearer the mark.
Pepper stared at me.
"Earthly happiness," I continued, "is a delusion and a snare. You will never be happy, Pepper, until you are a cherub."
Pepper, by the by, would have made an excellent cherub, he was so chubby. Having delivered myself of these gloomy remarks, I arose languidly from the grass and moved away, leaving Pepper staring after me in mute astonishment. I was Hamlet and Werter and the late Lord Byron all in one.
You will ask what my purpose was in cultivating this factitious despondency. None whatever. Blighted beings never have any purpose in life excepting to be as blighted as possible.
Of course my present line of business could not long escape the eye of Captain Nutter. I don't know if the Captain suspected my attachment for Miss Glentworth. He never alluded to it; but he watched me. Miss Abigail watched me, Kitty Collins watched me, and Sailor Ben watched me.
"I can't make out his signals," I overheard the Admiral remark to my grandfather one day. "I hope he ain't got no kind of sickness aboard."
There was something singularly agreeable in being an object of so great interest. Sometimes I had all I could do to preserve my dejected aspect, it was so pleasant to be miserable. I incline to the opinion that people who are melancholy without any particular reason, such as poets, artists, and young musicians with long hair, have rather an enviable time of it. In a quiet way I never enjoyed myself better in my life than when I was a Blighted Being.