Ramsey Milholland by Booth Tarkington
With Wesley Bender, Ramsey was again upon fair terms before the winter had run its course; the two were neighbours and, moreover, were drawn together by a community of interests which made their reconciliation a necessity. Ramsey played the guitar and Wesley played the mandolin.
All ill feeling between them died with the first duet of spring, yet the twinkling they made had no charm to soothe the savage breast of Ramsey whenever the Teacher's Pet came into his thoughts. He daydreamed a thousand ways of putting her in her place, but was unable to carry out any of them, and had but a cobwebby satisfaction in imagining discomfitures for her which remained imaginary. With a yearning so poignant that it hurt, he yearned and yearned to show her what she really was. "Just once!" he said to Fred Mitchell. "That's all I ask, just once. Just gimme one chance to show that girl what she really is. I guess if I ever get the chance she'll find out what's the matter with her, for once in her life, anyway!" Thus it came to be talked about and understood and expected in Ramsey's circle, all male, that Dora Yocum's day was coming. The nature of the disaster was left vague, but there was no doubt in the world that retribution merely awaited its ideal opportunity. "You'll see!" said Ramsey. "The time'll come when that ole girl'll wish she'd moved o' this town before she ever got appointed monitor of our class! Just you wait!"
They waited, but conditions appeared to remain unfavourable indefinitely. Perhaps the great opportunity might have arrived if Ramsey had been able to acheive a startling importance in any of the "various divergent yet parallel lines of school endeavour"--one of the phrases by means of which teachers and principal clogged the minds of their unarmed auditors. But though he was far from being the dumb driven beast of misfortune that he seemed in the schoolroom, and, in fact, lived a double life, exhibiting in his out-of-school hours a remarkable example of "secondary personality"--a creature fearing nothing and capable of laughter; blue-eyed, fairly robust, and anything but dumb--he was nevertheless without endowment or attainment great enough to get him distinction.
He "tried for" the high-school eleven, and "tried for" the nine, but the experts were not long in elminiating him from either of these competitions, and he had to content himself with cheering instead of getting cheered. He was by no manner of means athlete enough, or enough of anything else, to put Dora Yocum in her place, and so he and the great opportunity were still waiting in May, at the end of the second year of high school, when the class, now the "10 A," reverted to an old fashion and decided to entertain itself with a woodland picnic.
They gathered upon the sandy banks of a creek, in the blue shade of big, patchy-barked sycamores, with a dancing sky on top of everything and gold dust atwinkle over the water. Hither the napkin-covered baskets were brought from the wagons and assembled in the shade, where they appeared as an attractive little meadow of white napery, and gave both surprise and pleasure to communities of ants and to other original settlers of the neighbourhood.
From this nucleus or headquarters of the picnic, various expeditions set forth up and down the creek and through the woods that bordered it. Camera work was constant; spring wild flowers were accumulated by groups of girls who trooped through the woods with eager eyes searching the thickets; two envied boy fishermen established themselves upon a bank up-stream, with hooks and lines thoughtfully brought with them, and poles which they fashioned from young saplings. They took mussels from the shallows, for bait, and having gone to all this trouble, declined to share with friends less energetic and provident the perquisites and pleasures secured to themselves.
Albert Paxton was another person who proved his enterprise. Having visited the spot some days before, he had hired for his exclusive use throughout the duration of the picnic an old rowboat belonging to a shanty squatter; it was the only rowboat within a mile or two and Albert had his own uses for it. Albert was the class lover and, after first taking the three chaperon teachers "out for a row," an excursion concluded in about ten minutes, he disembarked them; Sadie Clews stepped into the boat, a pocket camera in one hand, a tennis racket in the other; and the two spent the rest of the day, except for the luncheon interval, solemnly drifting along the banks or grounded on a shoal. Now and then Albert would row a few strokes, and at almost any time when the populated shore glanced toward them, Sadie would be seen photographing Albert, or Albert would be seen photographing Sadie, but the tennis racket remained an enigma. Oarsman and passenger appeared to have no conversation whatever--not once was either seen or heard to address a remark to the other; and they looked as placid as their own upside-down reflections in one of the still pools they slowly floated over. They were sixteen, and had been "engaged" more than two years.
On the borders of the little meadow of baskets there had been deposited two black shapes, which remained undisturbed throughout the day, a closed guitar case and a closed mandolin case, no doubt containing each its proper instrument. So far as any use of these went they seemed to be of the same leisure class to which Sadie's tennis racket belonged, for when one of the teachers suggested music, the musicians proved shy. Wesley Bender said they hadn't learned to play anything much and, besides, he had a couple o' broken strings he didn't know as he could fix up; and Ramsey said he guessed it seemed kind o' too hot to play much. Joining friends, they organized a contest in marksmanship, the target being a floating can which they assailed with pebbles; and after that they "skipped" flat stones upon the surface of the water, then went to join a group gathered about Willis Parker and Heinie Krusemeyer.
No fish had been caught, a lack of luck crossly attributed by the fishermen to the noise made by constant advice on the part of their attendant gallery. Messrs. Milholland, Bender, and the other rock throwers came up shouting, and were ill received.
"For heaven's sakes," Heinie Krusemeyer demanded, "can't you shut up? Here we just first got the girls to keep their mouths shut a minute and I almost had a big pickerel or something on my hook, and here you got to up and yell so he chases himself away! Why can't nobody show a little sense sometimes when they ought to?"
"I should say so!" his comrade exclaimed. "If people would only just take and think of all the trouble we been to, it seems funny somebody couldn't let us have half a chance to get a few good fish. What chance they got to bite with a lot o' girls gabbin' away, and then, just as we get 'em quieted down, all you men got to come bustin' up here yellin' your heads off. A fish isn't goin' to bite when he can't even hear himself think! Anybody ought to know that much."
But the new arrivals hooted. "Fish!" Ramsey vociferated. "I'll bet a hundred dollars there hasn't been even a minny in this creek for the last sixty years!"
"There is, too!" said Heinie, bitterly. "But I wouldn't be supprised there wouldn't be no longer if you got to keep up this noise. If you'd shut up just a minute you could see yourself there's fish here."
In whispers several of the tamed girls at once heartily corroborated this statement, whereupon the newcomers ceased to gibe and consented to silence. Ramsey leaned forth over the edge of the overhanging bank, a dirt precipice five feet above the water, and peered into the indeterminable depths below. The pool had been stirred, partly by the inexpert pokings of the fishermen and partly by small clods and bits of dirt dislodged from above by the feet of the audience. The water, consequently, was but brownly translucent and revealed its secrets reluctantly; nevertheless certain dim little shapes had been observed to move within it, and were still there. Ramsey failed to see them at first.
"Where's any ole fish?" he inquired, scornfully.
"Oh, my goodness!" Heinie Krusemeyer moaned. "Can't you shut up?"
"Look!" whispered the girl who stood nearest to Ramsey. She pointed. "There's one. Right down there by Willis's hook. Don't you see him?"
Ramsey was impressed enough to whisper. "Is there? I don't see him. I can't--"
The girl came closer to him, and, the better to show him, leaned out over the edge of the bank, and, for safety in maintaining her balance, rested her left hand upon his shoulder while she pointed with her right. Thereupon something happened to Ramsey. The touch upon his shoulder was almost nothing, and he had never taken the slightest interest in Milla Rust (to whom that small warm hand belonged), though she was the class beauty, and long established in the office. Now, all at once, a peculiar and heretofore entirely unfamiliar sensation suddenly became important in the upper part of his chest. For a moment he held his breath, an involuntary action; --he seemed to be standing in a shower of flowers.
"Don't you see it, Ramsey?" Milla whispered. "It's a great big one. Why, it must be as long as--as your shoe! Look!"
Ramsey saw nothing but the thick round curl on Milla's shoulder. Milla had a group of curls on each of her shoulders, for she got her modes at the Movies and had that sort of prettiness: large, gentle, calculating eyes, and a full, softly modelled face, implacably sweet. Ramsey was accustomed to all this charm, and Milla had never before been of more importance to him than an equal weight of school furniture--but all at once some magic had enveloped her. That curl upon the shoulder nearest him was shot with dazzling fibres of sunshine. He seemed to be trembling.
"I don't see it," he murmured, huskily, afraid that she might remove her hand. "I can't see any fish, Milla."
She leaned farther out over the bank. "Why, there, goosie!" she whispered. "Right there."
"I can't see it."
She leaned still farther, bending down to point. "Why right th--"
At this moment she removed her hand from his shoulder, though unwillingly. She clutched at him, in fact, but without avail. She had been too amiable.
A loud shriek was uttered by throats abler to vocalize, just then, than Milla's, for in her great surprise she said nothing whatever-- the shriek came from the other girls as Milla left the crest of the overhanging bank and almost horizontally disappeared into the brown water. There was a tumultuous splash, and then of Milla Rust and her well-known beautifulness there was nothing visible in the superficial world, nor upon the surface of that creek. The vanishment was total.
Several girls afterward admitted having used this expression, and little Miss Floy Williams, the youngest and smallest member of the class, was unable to deny that she had said, "Oh, God!" Nothing could have been more natural, and the matter need not have been brought before her with such insistence and frequency, during the two remaining years of her undergraduate career.
Ramsey was one of those who heard this exclamation, later so famous, and perhaps it was what roused him to heroism. He dived from the bank, headlong, and the strange thought in his mind was "I guess this'll show Dora Yocum!" He should have been thinking of Milla, of course, at such a time, particularly after the little enchantment just laid upon him by Milla's touch and Milla's curls; and he knew well enough that Miss Yocum was not among the spectators. She was half a mile away, as it happened, gathering "botanical specimens" with one of the teachers--which was her idea of what to do at a picnic!
Ramsey struck the water hard, and in the same instant struck something harder. Wesley Bender's bundle of books had given him no such shock as he received now, and if the creek bottom had not been of mud, just there, the top of his young head might have declined the strain. Half stunned, choking, spluttering he somehow floundered to his feet; and when he could get his eyes a little cleared of water he found himself wavering face to face with a blurred vision of Milla Rust. She had risen up out of the pod and stood knee deep, like a lovely drenched figure in a fountain.
Upon the bank above them, Willis Parker was jumping up and down, gesticulating and shouting fiercely. "Now I guess you're satisfied our fishin' is spoilt! Whyn't you listen me? I told you it wasn't more'n three feet deep! I and Heinie waded all over this creek gettin' our bait. You're a pretty sight!"
Of Milla he spoke unwittingly the literal truth. Even with her hair thus wild and sodden, Milla rose from immersion blushing and prettier than ever; and she was prettiest of all when she stretched out her hand helplessly to Ramsey and he led her up out of the waters. They had plenty of assistance to scramble to the top of the bank, and there Milla was surrounded and borne away with a great clacketing and tumult. Ramsey gave his coat into the hands of friends, who twisted the water out of it for him, while he sat upon the grass in the sun, rubbed his head, and experimented with his neck to see if it would "work." The sunshine was strong and hot; in half an hour he and his clothes were dry--or at least "dry enough," as he said, and except for some soreness of head and neck, and the general crumpledness of his apparel, he seemed to be in all ways much as usual when shouts and whistlings summoned all the party to luncheon at the rendezvous. The change that made him different was invisible.