Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter XIII. Somebody Runs Away
"'School is done, Now we'll have fun,"
Sung Bab and Betty, slamming down their books as if they never meant to take them up again, when they came home on the last day of June.
Tired teacher had dismissed them for eight whole weeks, and gone away to rest; the little school-house was shut up, lessons were over, spirits rising fast, and vacation had begun. The quiet town seemed suddenly inundated with children, all in such a rampant state that busy mothers wondered how they ever should be able to keep their frisky darlings out of mischief; thrifty fathers planned how they could bribe the idle hands to pick berries or rake hay; and the old folks, while wishing the young folks well, secretly blessed the man who invented schools.
The girls immediately began to talk about picnics, and have them, too; for little hats sprung up in the fields like a new sort of mushroom, -- every hillside bloomed with gay gowns, looking as if the flowers had gone out for a walk; and the woods were full of featherless birds chirping away as blithely as the thrushes, robins, and wrens.
The boys took to base-ball like ducks to water, and the common was the scene of tremendous battles, waged with much tumult, but little bloodshed. To the uninitiated, it appeared as if these young men had lost their wits; for, no matter how warm it was, there they were, tearing about in the maddest mannet, jackets off, sleeves rolled up, queer caps flung on any way, all batting shabby leather balls, and catching the same, as if their lives depended on it. Every one talking in his gruffest tone, bawling at the top of his voice, squabbling over every point of the game, and seeming to enjoy himself immensely, in spite of the heat, dust, uproar, and imminent danger of getting eyes or teeth knocked out.
Thorny was an excellent player, but, not being strong enough to show his prowess, he made Ben his proxy; and, sitting on the fence, acted as umpire to his heart's content. Ben was a promising pupil, and made rapid progress; for eye, foot, and hand had been so well trained, that they did him good service now; and Brown was considered a first-rate "catcher".
Sancho distinguished himself by his skill in hunting up stray balls, and guarding jackets when not needed, with the air of one of the Old Guard on duty at the tomb of Napoleon. Bab also longed to join in the fun, which suited her better than "stupid picnics" or "fussing over dolls;" but her heroes would not have her at any price; and she was obliged to content herself with sitting by Thorny, and watching with breathless interest the varying fortunes of "our side."
A grand match was planned for the Fourth of July; but when the club met, things were found to be unpropitious. Thorny had gone out of town with his sister to pass the day, two of the best players did not appear, and the others were somewhat exhausted by the festivities, which began at sunrise for them. So they lay about on the grass in the shade of the big elm, languidly discussing their various wrongs and disappointments.
"It's the meanest Fourth I ever saw. Can't have no crackers, because somebody's horse got scared last year," growled Sam Kitteridge, bitterly resenting the stern edict which forbade free-born citizens to burn as much gunpowder as they liked on that glorious day.
"Last year Jimmy got his arm blown off when they fired the old cannon. Didn't we have a lively time going for the doctors and getting him home?" asked another boy, looking as if he felt defrauded of the most interesting part of the anniversary, because no accident had occurred.
"Ain't going to be fireworks either, unless somebody's barn burns up. Don't I just wish there would,: gloomily responded another youth who had so rashly indulged in pyrotechnics on a former occasion that a neighbor's cow had been roasted whole.
"I wouldn't give two cents for such a slow old place as this. Why, last Fourth at this time, I was rumbling though Boston streets on top of our big car, all in my best toggery. Hot as pepper, but good fun looking in at the upper windows and hearing the women scream when the old thing waggled round and I made believe I was going to tumble off, said Ben, leaning on his bat with the air of a man who had seen the world and felt some natural regret at descending from so lofty a sphere.
"Catch me cuttin' away if I had such a chance as that!" answered Sam, trying to balance his bat on his chin and getting a smart rap across the nose as he failed to perform the feat.
"Much you know about it, old chap. It's hard work, I can tell you, and that wouldn't suit such a lazy-bones. Then you are too big to begin, though you might do for a fat boy if Smithers wanted one," said Ben, surveying the stout youth, with calm contempt.
"Let's go in swimming, not loaf round here, if we can't play," proposed a red and shiny boy, panting for a game of leap-frog in Sandy pond.
"May as well; don't see much else to do," sighed Sam, rising like a young elephant.
The others were about to follow, when a shrill "Hi, hi, boys, hold on!" made them turn about to behold Billy Barton tearing down the street like a runaway colt, waving a long strip of paper as he ran.
"Now, then, what's the matter?" demanded Ben, as the other came up grinning and puffing, but full of great news.
"Look here, read it! I'm going; come along, the whole of you," panted Billy, putting the paper into Sam's hand, and surveying the crowd with a face as beaming as a full moon.
"Look out for the big show," read Sam. "Van Amburgh & Co.'s New Great Golden Menagerie, Circus and Colosseum, will exhibit at Berryville, July 4th, at 1 and 7 precisely. Admission 50 cents, children half-price. Don't forget day and date. H. Frost, Manager."
While Sam read, the other boys had been gloating over the enticing pictures which covered the bill. There was the golden car, filled with noble beings in helmets, all playing on immense trumpets; the twenty- four prancing steeds with manes, tails, and feathered heads tossing in the breeze; the clowns, the tumblers, the strong men, and the riders flying about in the air as if the laws of gravitation no longer existed. But, best of all, was the grand conglomeration of animals where the giraffe appears to stand on the elephant's back, the zebra to be jumping over the seal, the hippopotamus to be lunching off a couple of crocodiles, and lions and tigers to be raining down in all directions with their mouths, wide open and their tails as stiff as that of the famous Northumberland House lion.
"Cricky! wouldn't I like to see that," said little Cyrus Fay, devoutly hoping that the cage, in which this pleasing spectacle took place, was a very strong one.
"You never would, it's only a picture! That, now, is something like," and Ben, who had pricked up his ears at the word "circus," laid his finger on a smaller cut of a man hanging by the back of his neck with a child in each hand, two men suspended from his feet, and the third swinging forward to alight on his head.
"I 'm going," said Sam, with calm decision, for this superb array of unknown pleasures fired his soul and made him forget his weight.
"How will you fix it?" asked Ben, fingering the bill with a nervous thrill all through his wiry limbs, just as he used to feel it when his father caught him up to dash into the ring.
"Foot it with Billy. It's only four miles, and we've got lots of time, so we can take it easy. Mother won't care, if I send word by Cy," answered Sam, producing half a dollar, as if such magnificent sums were no strangers to his pocket.
"Come on, Brown; you'll be a first-rate fellow to show us round, as you know all the dodges," said Billy, anxious to get his money's worth.
"Well, I don't know," began Ben, longing to go, but afraid Mrs. Moss would say "No!" if he asked leave.
"He's afraid," sneered the red-faced boy, who felt bitterly toward all mankind at that instant, because he knew there was no hope of his going.
"Say that again, and I'll knock your head off," and Ben faced round with a gesture which caused the other to skip out of reach precipitately.
"Hasn't got any money, more likely," observed a shabby youth, whose pockets never had any thing in them but a pair of dirty hands.
Ben calmly produced a dollar bill and waved it defiantly before this doubter, observing with dignity:
"I've got money enough to treat the whole crowd, if I choose to, which I don't."
"Then come along and have a jolly time with Sam and me. We can buy some dinner and get a ride home, as like as not," said the amiable Billy, with a slap on the shoulder, and a cordial grin which made it impossible for Ben to resist.
"What are you stopping for?" demanded Sam, ready to be off, that they might "take it easy."
"Don't know what to do with Sancho. He'll get lost or stolen if I take him, and it's too far to carry him home if you are in a hurry," began Ben, persuading himself that this was the true reason of his delay.
"Let Cy take him back. He'll do it for a cent; won't you, Cy?" proposed Billy, smoothing away all objections, for he liked Ben, and saw that he wanted to go.
"No, I won't; I don't like him. He winks at me, and growls when I touch him," muttered naughty Cy, remembering how much reason poor Sanch had to distrust his tormentor.
"There 's Bab; she'll do it. Come here, sissy; Ben wants you," called Sam, beckoning to a small figure just perching on the fence.
Down it jumped and Came fluttering up, much elated at being summoned by the captain of the sacred nine.
"I want you to take Sanch home, and tell your mother I'm going to walk, and may be won't be back till sundown. Miss Celia said I Might do what I pleased, all day. You remember, now."
Ben spoke without looking up, and affected to be very busy buckling a strap into Sanch's collar, for the two were so seldom parted that the dog always rebelled. It was a mistake on Ben's part, for while his eyes were on his work Bab's were devouring the bill which Sam still held, and her suspicions were aroused by the boys' faces.
"Where are you going? Ma will want to know," she said, as curious as a magpie all at once.
"Never you mind; girls can't know every thing. You just catch hold of this and run along home. Lock Sanch up for an hour, and tell your mother I'm all right," answered Ben, bound to assert his manly supremacy before his mates.
"He's going to the circus," whispered Fay, hoping to make mischief.
"Circus! Oh, Ben, do take me!" cried Bab, falling into a state of great excitement at the mere thought of such delight.
"You couldn't walk four miles," began Ben.
"Yes, I could, as easy as not."
"You haven't got any money."
"You have; I saw you showing your dollar, and you could pay for me, and Ma would pay it back."
"Can't wait for you to get ready."
"I'll go as I am. I don't care if it is my old hat," and Bab jerked it on to her head.
"Your mother wouldn't like it."
"She won't like your going, either."
"She isn't my missis now. Miss Celia wouldn't care, and I'm going, any way."
"Do, do take me, Ben! I'll be just as good as ever was, and I'll take care of Sanch all the way," pleaded Bab, clasping her hands and looking round for some sign of relenting in the faces of the boys.
"Don't you bother; we don't want any girls tagging after us," said Sam, walking off to escape the annoyance.
"I'll bring you a roll of chickerberry lozengers, if you won't tease," whispered kind-hearted Billy, with a consoling pat on the crown of the shabby straw hat.
"When the circus comes here you shall go, certain sure, and Betty too," said Ben, feeling mean while he proposed what he knew was a hollow mockery.
"They never do come to such little towns; you said so, and I think you are very cross, and I won't take care of Sanch, so, now!" cried Bab, getting into a passion, yet ready to cry, she was so disappointed.
"I Suppose it wouldn't do -- " hinted Billy, with a look from Ben to the little girl, who stood winking hard to keep the tears back.
"Of Course it wouldn't. I'd like to see her walking eight miles. I don't mind paying for her; it's getting her there and back. Girls are such a bother when you want to knock round. No, Bab, you can't go. Travel right home and don't make a fuss. Come along, boys; it 's most eleven, and we don't want to walk fast."
Ben spoke very decidedly; and, taking Billy's arm, away they went, leaving poor Bab and Sanch to watch them out of sight, one sobbing, the other whining dismally.
Somehow those two figures seemed to go before Ben all along the pleasant road, and half spoilt his fun; for though he laughed and talked, cut canes, and seemed as merry as a grig, he could not help feeling that he ought to have asked leave to go, and been kinder to Bab.
"Perhaps Mrs. Moss would have planned somehow so we could all go, if I'd told her, I'd like to show her round, and she's been real good to me. No use now. I'll take the girls a lot of candy and make it all right."
He tried to settle it in that way and trudged gayly off, hoping Sancho wouldn't feel hurt at being left, wondering if any of "Smithers's lot" would be round, and planning to do the honors handsomely to the boys.
It was very warm; and just outside of the town they paused by a wayside watering-trough to wash their dusty faces, and cool off before plunging into the excitements of the afternoon. As they stood refreshing themselves, a baker's cart came jingling by; and Sam proposed a hasty lunch while they rested. A supply of gingerbread was soon bought; and, climbing the green bank above, they lay on the grass under a wild cherry-tree, munching luxuriously, while they feasted their eyes at the same time on the splendors awaiting them; for the great tent, with all its flags flying, was visible from the hill.
"We'll cut across those fields, -- it 's shorter than going by the road, -- and then we can look round outside till it's time to go in. I want to have a good go at every thing, especially the lions," said Sam, beginning on his last cookie.
"I heard 'em roar just now;" and Billy stood up to gaze with big eyes at the flapping canvas which hid the king of beasts from his longing sight.
"That was a cow mooing. Don't you be a donkey, Bill. When you hear a real roar, you'll shake in your boots," said Ben, holding up his handkerchief to dry, after it had done double duty as towel and napkin.
"I wish you'd hurry up, Sam. Folks are going in now. I see 'em!" and Billy pranced with impatience; for this was his first circus, and he firmly believed that he was going to behold all that the pictures promised.
"Hold on a minute, while I get one more drink. Buns are dry fodder," said Sam, rolling over to the edge of the bank and preparing to descend with as little trouble as possible.
He nearly went down head first, however; for, as he looked before he leaped, he beheld a sight which caused him to stare with all his might for an instant, then turn and beckon, saying in an eager whisper, "Look here, boys, -- quick!"
Ben and Billy peered over, and both suppressed an astonished "Hullo!" for there stood Bab, waiting for Sancho to lap his fill out of the overflowing trough.
Such a shabby, tired-looking couple as they were! Bab with a face as red as a lobster and streaked with tears, shoes white with dust, Playfrock torn at the gathers, something bundled up in her apron, and one shoe down at the heel as if it hurt her. Sancho lapped eagerly, with his eyes shut; all his ruffles were gray with dust, and his tail hung wearily down, the tassel at half mast, as if in mourning for the master whom be had come to find. Bab still held the strap, intent on keeping her charge safe, though she lost herself; but her courage seemed to be giving out, as she looked anxiously up and down the road, seeing no sign of the three familiar figures she had been following as steadily as a little Indian on the war-trail.
"Oh, Sanch, what shall I do if they don't come along? We must have gone by them somewhere, for I don't see any one that way, and there isn't any other road to the circus, seems to me."
Bab spoke as if the dog could understand and answer; and Sancho looked as if he did both, for he stopped drinking, pricked up his cars, and, fixing his sharp eyes on the grass above him, gave a suspicious bark.
"It's only squirrels; don't mind, but come along and be good; for I 'm so tired, I don't know what to do!" sighed Bab, trying to pull him after her as she trudged on, bound to see the outside of that wonderful tent, even if she never got in.
But Sancho had heard a soft chirrup; and, with a sudden bound, twitched the strap away, sprang up the bank, and landed directly on Ben's back as he lay peeping over. A peal of laughter greeted him; and, having got the better of his master in more ways than one, he made the most of the advantage by playfully worrying him as he kept him down, licking his face in spite of his struggles, burrowing in his neck with a ticklish nose, snapping at his buttons, and yelping joyfully, as if it was the best joke in the world to play hide-and-seek for four long miles.
Before Ben could quiet him, Bab came climbing up the bank, with such a funny mixture of fear, fatigue, determination, and relief in her dirty little face, that the boys could not look awful if they tried.
"How dared you come after us, miss?" demanded Sam, as she looked calmly about her, and took a seat before she was asked.
"Sanch would come after Ben; I couldn't make him go home, so I had to hold on till he was safe here, else he'd be lost, and then Ben would feel bad."
The cleverness of that excuse tickled the boys immensely; and Sam tried again, while Ben was getting the dog down and sitting on him.
"Now you expect to go to the circus, I suppose."
"Course I do. Ben said he didn't mind paying, if I could get there without bothering him, and I have; and I'll go home alone. I ain't afraid. Sanch will take care of me, if you won't," answered Bab, stoutly.
"What do you suppose your mother will say to you?" asked Ben, feeling much reproached by her last words.
"I guess she'll say you led me into mischief; and the sharp child nodded, as if she defied him to deny the truth of that.
"You'll catch it when you get home, Ben; so you'd better have a good time while you can," advised Sam. thinking Bab great fun, since none of the blame of her pranks would fall on him. "What would you have done if you hadn't found us?" asked Billy, forgetting his impatience in his admiration for this plucky young lady.
"I'd have gone on and seen the circus, and then I'd have gone home again and told Betty all about it," was the prompt answer.
"But you haven't any money."
"Oh, I'd ask somebody to pay for me. I 'm so little, it wouldn't be much."
"Nobody would do it; so you'd have to stay outside, you see."
"No, I wouldn't. I thought of that, and planned how I'd fix it if I didn't find Ben. I'd make Sanch do his tricks, and get a quarter that way; so, now! answered Bab, undaunted by any obstacle.
"I do believe she would! You are a smart child, Bab; and if I had enough I'd take you in myself," said Billy, heartily; for, having sisters of his own, he kept a soft place in his heart for girls, especially enterprising ones.
"I'll take care of her. It was very naughty to come, Bab; but, so long as you did, you needn't worry about any thing. I'll see to you; and you shall have a real good time," said Ben, accepting his responsibilities without a murmur, and bound to do the handsome thing by his persistent friend.
"I thought you would;" and Bab folded her arms, as if she had nothing further to do but enjoy herself.
"Are you hungry?" asked Billy, fishing out several fragments of gingerbread.
"Starving!" and Bab ate them with such a relish that Sam added a small contribution; and Ben caught some water for her in his hand, where the little spring bubbled up beside a stone.
"Now, you wash your face and spat down your hair, and put your hat on straight, and then we'll go," commanded Ben, giving Sanch a roll on the grass to clean him.
Bab scrubbed her face till it shone; and, pulling down her apron to wipe it, scattered a load of treasures collected in her walk. Some of the dead flowers, bits of moss, and green twigs fell near Ben, and one attracted his attention, -- a spray of broad, smooth leaves, with a bunch of whitish berries on it.
"Where did you get that?" he asked, poking it with his foot.
"In a swampy place, coming along. Sanch saw something down there; and I went with him, 'cause I thought may be it was a musk-rat, and you'd like one if we could get him."
"Was it?" asked the boys all at once, and with intense interest.
"No; only a snake, and I don't care for snakes. I picked some of that, it was so green and pretty. Thorny likes queer leaves and berries, you know," answered Bab, "spatting," down her rough locks.
"Well, he won't like that, nor you either; it's poisonous, and I shouldn't wonder if you'd got poisoned, Bab. Don't touch it! Swamp-sumach is horrid stuff, -- Miss Celia said so;" and Ben looked anxiously at Bab, who felt her chubby face all over, and examined her dingy hands with a solemn air, asking, eagerly, --
"Will it break out on me 'fore I get to the circus?"
"Not for a day or so, I guess; but it's bad when it does come."
"I don't care, if I see the animals first. Come quick, and never mind the old weeds and things," said Bab, much relieved; for present bliss was all she had room for now in her happy little heart.