The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Chapter Twenty. In Which I Prove Myself To Be the Grandson of My Grandfather
It was not possible for a boy of my temperament to be a blighted being longer than three consecutive weeks.
I was gradually emerging from my self-imposed cloud when events took place that greatly assisted in restoring me to a more natural frame of mind. I awoke from an imaginary trouble to face a real one.
I suppose you don't know what a financial crisis is? I will give you an illustration.
You are deeply in debt-say to the amount of a quarter of a dollar-to the little knicknack shop round the corner, where they sell picture-papers, spruce-gum, needles, and Malaga raisins. A boy owes you a quarter of a dollar, which he promises to pay at a certain time. You are depending on this quarter to settle accounts with the small shop-keeper. The time arrives-and the quarter doesn't. That's a financial crisis, in one sense-twenty-five senses, if I may say so.
When this same thing happens, on a grander scale, in the mercantile world, it produces what is called a panic. One man's inability to pay his debts ruins another man, who, in turn, ruins someone else, and so on, until failure after failure makes even the richest capitalists tremble. Public confidence is suspended, and the smaller fry of merchants are knocked over like tenpins.
These commercial panics occur periodically, after the fashion of comets and earthquakes and other disagreeable things.
Such a panic took place in New Orleans in the year 18-, and my father's banking-house went to pieces in the crash.
Of a comparatively large fortune nothing remained after paying his debts excepting a few thousand dollars, with which he proposed to return North and embark in some less hazardous enterprise. In the meantime it was necessary for him to stay in New Orleans to wind up the business.
My grandfather was in some way involved in this failure, and lost, I fancy, a considerable sum of money; but he never talked much on the subject. He was an unflinching believer in the spilt-milk proverb.
"It can't be gathered up," he would say, "and it's no use crying over it. Pitch into the cow and get some more milk, is my motto."
The suspension of the banking-house was bad enough, but there was an attending circumstance that gave us, at Rivermouth, a great deal more anxiety. The cholera, which someone predicted would visit the country that year, and which, indeed, had made its appearance in a mild form at several points along the Mississippi River, had broken out with much violence at New Orleans.
The report that first reached us through the newspapers was meagre and contradictory; many people discredited it; but a letter from my mother left us no room for doubt. The sickness was in the city. The hospitals were filling up, and hundreds of the citizens were flying from the stricken place by every steamboat. The unsettled state of my father's affairs made it imperative for him to remain at his post; his desertion at that moment would have been at the sacrifice of all he had saved from the general wreck.
As he would be detained in New Orleans at least three months, my mother declined to come North without him.
After this we awaited with feverish impatience the weekly news that came to us from the South. The next letter advised us that my parents were well, and that the sickness, so far, had not penetrated to the faubourg, or district, where they lived. The following week brought less cheering tidings. My father's business, in consequence of the flight of the other partners, would keep him in the city beyond the period he had mentioned. The family had moved to Pass Christian, a favorite watering-place on Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans, where he was able to spend part of each week. So the return North was postponed indefinitely.
It was now that the old longing to see my parents came back to me with irresistible force. I knew my grandfather would not listen to the idea of my going to New Orleans at such a dangerous time, since he had opposed the journey so strongly when the same objection did not exist. But I determined to go nevertheless.
I think I have mentioned the fact that all the male members of our family, on my father's side-as far back as the Middle Ages-have exhibited in early youth a decided talent for running away. It was an hereditary talent. It ran in the blood to run away. I do not pretend to explain the peculiarity. I simply admit it.
It was not my fate to change the prescribed order of things. I, too, was to run away, thereby proving, if any proof were needed, that I was the grandson of my grandfather. I do not hold myself responsible for the step any more than I do for the shape of my nose, which is said to be a facsimile of Captain Nutter's.
I have frequently noticed how circumstances conspire to help a man, or a boy, when he has thoroughly resolved on doing a thing. That very week the Rivermouth Barnacle printed an advertisement that seemed to have been written on purpose for me. It read as follows:
WANTED. A Few Able-bodied Seamen and a Cabin-Boy, for the ship Rawlings, now loading for New Orleans at Johnson's Wharf, Boston. Apply in person, within four days, at the office of Messrs.- & Co., or on board the Ship.
How I was to get to New Orleans with only $4.62 was a question that had been bothering me. This advertisement made it as clear as day. I would go as cabin-boy.
I had taken Pepper into my confidence again; I had told him the story of my love for Miss Glentworth, with all its harrowing details; and now conceived it judicious to confide in him the change about to take place in my life, so that, if the Rawlings went down in a gale, my friends might have the limited satisfaction of knowing what had become of me.
Pepper shook his head discouragingly, and sought in every way to dissuade me from the step. He drew a disenchanting picture of the existence of a cabin-boy, whose constant duty (according to Pepper) was to have dishes broken over his head whenever the captain or the mate chanced to be out of humor, which was mostly all the time. But nothing Pepper said could turn me a hair's-breadth from my purpose.
I had little time to spare, for the advertisement stated explicitly that applications were to be made in person within four days. I trembled to think of the bare possibility of some other boy snapping up that desirable situation.
It was on Monday that I stumbled upon the advertisement. On Tuesday my preparations were completed. My baggage-consisting of four shirts, half a dozen collars, a piece of shoemaker's wax, (Heaven knows what for!) and seven stockings, wrapped in a silk handkerchief-lay hidden under a loose plank of the stable floor. This was my point of departure.
My plan was to take the last train for Boston, in order to prevent the possibility of immediate pursuit, if any should be attempted. The train left at 4 P.M.
I ate no breakfast and little dinner that day. I avoided the Captain's eye, and wouldn't have looked Miss Abigail or Kitty in the face for the wealth of the Indies.
When it was time to start for the station I retired quietly to the stable and uncovered my bundle. I lingered a moment to kiss the white star on Gypsy's forehead, and was nearly unmanned when the little animal returned the caress by lapping my cheek. Twice I went back and patted her.
On reaching the station I purchased my ticket with a bravado air that ought to have aroused the suspicion of the ticket-master, and hurried to the car, where I sat fidgeting until the train shot out into the broad daylight.
Then I drew a long breath and looked about me. The first object that saluted my sight was Sailor Ben, four or five seats behind me, reading the Rivermouth Barnacle!
Reading was not an easy art to Sailor Ben; he grappled with the sense of a paragraph as if it were a polar-bear, and generally got the worst of it. On the present occasion he was having a hard struggle, judging by the way he worked his mouth and rolled his eyes. He had evidently not seen me. But what was he doing on the Boston train?
Without lingering to solve the question, I stole gently from my seat and passed into the forward car.
This was very awkward, having the Admiral on board. I couldn't understand it at all. Could it be possible that the old boy had got tired of land and was running away to sea himself? That was too absurd. I glanced nervously towards the car door now and then, half expecting to see him come after me.
We had passed one or two way-stations, and I had quieted down a good deal, when I began to feel as if somebody was looking steadily at the back of my head. I turned round involuntarily, and there was Sailor Ben again, at the farther end of the car, wrestling with the Rivermouth Barnacle as before.
I began to grow very uncomfortable indeed. Was it by design or chance that he thus dogged my steps? If he was aware of my presence, why didn't he speak to me at once? 'Why did he steal round, making no sign, like a particularly unpleasant phantom? Maybe it wasn't Sailor Ben. I peeped at him slyly. There was no mistaking that tanned, genial phiz of his. Very odd he didn't see me!
Literature, even in the mild form of a country newspaper, always had the effect of poppies on the Admiral. 'When I stole another glance in his direction his hat was tilted over his right eye in the most dissolute style, and the Rivermouth Barnacle lay in a confused heap beside him. He had succumbed. He was fast asleep. If he would only keep asleep until we reached our destination!
By and by I discovered that the rear car had been detached from the train at the last stopping-place. This accounted satisfactorily for Sailor Ben's singular movements, and considerably calmed my fears. Nevertheless, I did not like the aspect of things.
The Admiral continued to snooze like a good fellow, and was snoring melodiously as we glided at a slackened pace over a bridge and into Boston.
I grasped my pilgrim's bundle, and, hurrying out of the car, dashed up the first street that presented itself.
It was a narrow, noisy, zigzag street, crowded with trucks and obstructed with bales and boxes of merchandise. I didn't pause to breathe until I had placed a respectable distance between me and the railway station. By this time it was nearly twilight.
I had got into the region of dwelling-houses, and was about to seat myself on a doorstep to rest, when, lo! there was the Admiral trundling along on the opposite sidewalk, under a full spread of canvas, as he would have expressed it.
I was off again in an instant at a rapid pace; but in spite of all I could do he held his own without any perceptible exertion. He had a very ugly gait to get away from, the Admiral. I didn't dare to run, for fear of being mistaken for a thief, a suspicion which my bundle would naturally lend color to.
I pushed ahead, however, at a brisk trot, and must have got over one or two miles-my pursuer neither gaining nor losing ground-when I concluded to surrender at discretion. I saw that Sailor Ben was determined to have me, and, knowing my man, I knew that escape was highly improbable.
So I turned round and waited for him to catch up with me, which he did in a few seconds, looking rather sheepish at first.
"Sailor Ben," said I, severely, "do I understand that you are dogging my steps?"
"'Well, little mess-mate," replied the Admiral, rubbing his nose, which he always did when he was disconcerted, "I am kind o' followin' in your wake."
"Under the Captain's orders?"
"In other words, my grandfather has sent you to fetch me back to Rivermouth?"
"That's about it," said the Admiral, with a burst of frankness.
"And I must go with you whether I want to or not?"
"The Capen's very identical words!"
There was nothing to be done. I bit my lips with suppressed anger, and signified that I was at his disposal, since I couldn't help it. The impression was very strong in my mind that the Admiral wouldn't hesitate to put me in irons if I showed signs of mutiny.
It was too late to return to Rivermouth that night-a fact which I communicated to the old boy sullenly, inquiring at the same time what he proposed to do about it.
He said we would cruise about for some rations, and then make a night of it. I didn't condescend to reply, though I hailed the suggestion of something to eat with inward enthusiasm, for I had not taken enough food that day to keep life in a canary.
'We wandered back to the railway station, in the waiting room of which was a kind of restaurant presided over by a severe-looking young lady. Here we had a cup of coffee apiece, several tough doughnuts, and some blocks of venerable spongecake. The young lady who attended on us, whatever her age was then, must have been a mere child when that sponge-cake was made.
The Admiral's acquaintance with Boston hotels was slight; but he knew of a quiet lodging-house near by, much patronized by sea-captains, arid kept by a former friend of his.
In this house, which had seen its best days, we were accommodated with a mouldy chamber containing two cot-beds, two chairs, and a cracked pitcher on a washstand. The mantel-shelf was ornamented with three big pink conch-shells, resembling pieces of petrified liver; and over these hung a cheap lurid print, in which a United States sloop-of-war was giving a British frigate particular fits. It is very strange how our own ships never seem to suffer any in these terrible engagements. It shows what a nation we are.
An oil-lamp on a deal-table cast a dismal glare over the apartment, which was cheerless in the extreme. I thought of our sitting-room at home, with its flowery wall-paper and gay curtains and soft lounges; I saw Major Elkanah Nutter (my grandfather's father) in powdered wig and Federal uniform, looking down benevolently from his gilt frame between the bookcases; I pictured the Captain and Miss Abigail sitting at the cosey round table in the moon-like glow of the astral lamp; and then I fell to wondering how they would receive me when 1 came back. I wondered if the Prodigal Son had any idea that his father was going to kill the fatted calf for him, and how he felt about it, on the whole.
Though I was very low in spirits, I put on a bold front to Sailor Ben, you will understand. To be caught and caged in this manner was a frightful shock to my vanity. He tried to draw me into conversation; but I answered in icy monosyllables. He again suggested we should make a night of it, and hinted broadly that he was game for any amount of riotous dissipation, even to the extent of going to see a play if I wanted to. I declined haughtily. I was dying to go.
He then threw out a feeler on the subject of dominos and checkers, and observed in a general way that "seven up" was a capital game; but I repulsed him at every point.
I saw that the Admiral was beginning to feel hurt by my systematic coldness. 'We had always been such hearty friends until now. It was too bad of me to fret that tender, honest old heart even for an hour. I really did love the ancient boy, and when, in a disconsolate way, he ordered up a pitcher of beer, I unbent so far as to partake of some in a teacup. He recovered his spirits instantly, and took out his cuddy clay pipe for a smoke.
Between the beer and the soothing fragrance of the navy-plug, I fell into a pleasanter mood myself, and, it being too late now to go to the theatre, I condescended to say-addressing the northwest corner of the ceiling-that "seven up" was a capital game. Upon this hint the Admiral disappeared, and returned shortly with a very dirty pack of cards.
As we played, with varying fortunes, by the flickering flame of the lamp, he sipped his beer and became communicative. He seemed immensely tickled by the fact that I had come to Boston. It leaked out presently that he and the Captain had had a wager on the subject.
The discovery of my plans and who had discovered them were points on which the Admiral refused to throw any light. They had been discovered, however, and the Captain had laughed at the idea of my running away. Sailor Ben, on the contrary, had stoutly contended that I meant to slip cable and be off. Whereupon the Captain offered to bet him a dollar that I wouldn't go. And it was partly on account of this wager that Sailor Ben refrained from capturing me when he might have done so at the start.
Now, as the fare to and from Boston, with the lodging expenses, would cost him at least five dollars, I didn't see what he gained by winning the wager. The Admiral rubbed his nose violently when this view of the case presented itself.
I asked him why he didn't take me from the train at the first stopping-place and return to Rivermouth by the down train at 4.30. He explained having purchased a ticket for Boston, he considered himself bound to the owners (the stockholders of the road) to fulfil his part of the contract! To use his own words, he had "shipped for the viage."
This struck me as being so deliciously funny, that after I was in bed and the light was out, I couldn't help laughing aloud once or twice. I suppose the Admiral must have thought I was meditating another escape, for he made periodical visits to my bed throughout the night, satisfying himself by kneading me all over that I hadn't evaporated.
I was all there the next morning, when Sailor Ben half awakened me by shouting merrily, "All hands on deck!" The words rang in my ears like a part of my own dream, for I was at that instant climbing up the side of the Rawlings to offer myself as cabin-boy.
The Admiral was obliged to shake me roughly two or three times before he could detach me from the dream. I opened my eyes with effort, and stared stupidly round the room. Bit by bit my real situation dawned on me. 'What a sickening sensation that is, when one is in trouble, to wake up feeling free for a moment, and then to find yesterday's sorrow all ready to go on again!
"'Well, little messmate, how fares it?"
I was too much depressed to reply. The thought of returning to Rivermouth chilled me. How could I face Captain Nutter, to say nothing of Miss Abigail and Kitty? How the Temple Grammar School boys would look at me! How Conway and Seth Rodgers would exult over my mortification! And what if the Rev. 'Wibird Hawkins should allude to me in his next Sunday's sermon?
Sailor Ben was wise in keeping an eye on me, for after these thoughts took possession of my mind, I wanted only the opportunity to give him the slip.
The keeper of the lodgings did not supply meals to his guests; so we breakfasted at a small chophouse in a crooked street on our way to the cars. The city was not astir yet, and looked glum and careworn in the damp morning atmosphere.
Here and there as we passed along was a sharp-faced shop-boy taking down shutters; and now and then we met a seedy man who had evidently spent the night in a doorway. Such early birds and a few laborers with their tin kettles were the only signs of life to be seen until we came to the station, where I insisted on paying for my own ticket. I didn't relish being conveyed from place to place, like a felon changing prisons, at somebody else's expense.
On entering the car I sunk into a seat next the window, and Sailor Ben deposited himself beside me, cutting off all chance of escape.
The car filled up soon after this, and I wondered if there was anything in my mien that would lead the other passengers to suspect I was a boy who had run away and was being brought back.
A man in front of us-he was near-sighted, as I discovered later by his reading a guide-book with his nose-brought the blood to my cheeks by turning round and peering at me steadily. I rubbed a clear spot on the cloudy window-glass at my elbow, and looked out to avoid him.
There, in the travellers' room, was the severe-looking young lady piling up her blocks of sponge-cake in alluring pyramids and industriously intrenching herself behind a breastwork of squash-pie. I saw with cynical pleasure numerous victims walk up to the counter and recklessly sow the seeds of death in their constitutions by eating her doughnuts. I had got quite interested in her, when the whistle sounded and the train began to move.
The Admiral and I did not talk much on the journey. I stared out of the window most of the time, speculating as to the probable nature of the reception in store for me at the terminus of the road.
'What would the Captain say? and Mr. Grimshaw, what would he do about it? Then I thought of Pepper Whitcomb. Dire was the vengeance I meant to wreak on Pepper, for who but he had betrayed me? Pepper alone had been the repository of my secret-perfidious Pepper!
As we left station after station behind us, I felt less and less like encountering the members of our family. Sailor Ben fathomed what was passing in my mind, for he leaned over and said:
"I don't think as the Capen will bear down very hard on you."
But it wasn't that. It wasn't the fear of any physical punishment that might be inflicted; it was a sense of my own folly that was creeping over me; for during the long, silent ride I had examined my conduct from every stand-point, and there was no view I could take of myself in which I did not look like a very foolish person indeed.
As we came within sight of the spires of Rivermouth, I wouldn't have cared if the up train, which met us outside the town, had run into us and ended me.
Contrary to my expectation and dread, the Captain was not visible when we stepped from the cars. Sailor Ben glanced among the crowd of faces, apparently looking for him too. Conway was there-he was always hanging about the station-and if he had intimated in any way that he knew of my disgrace and enjoyed it, I should have walked into him, I am certain.
But this defiant feeling entirely deserted me by the time we reached the Nutter House. The Captain himself opened the door.
"Come on board, sir," said Sailor Ben, scraping his left foot and touching his hat sea-fashion.
My grandfather nodded to Sailor Ben, somewhat coldly I thought, and much to my astonishment kindly took me by the hand.
I was unprepared for this, and the tears, which no amount of severity would have wrung from me, welled up to my eyes.
The expression of my grandfather's face, as I glanced at it hastily, was grave and gentle; there was nothing in it of anger or reproof. I followed him into the sitting-room, and, obeying a motion of his hand, seated myself on the sofa. He remained standing by the round table for a moment, lost in thought, then leaned over and picked up a letter.
It was a letter with a great black seal.