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“Bouncers, Teddy! the roundest and the rosiest. Drop them, quick! My apron’s all ready for the darlings.”“It’s very well to say drop them; but it’s just as much as I can do to keep from falling myself. Don’t you see I’m holding on with both hands?”“What a fuss you do make! Come down, and let me try. I never saw a tree yet big enough to scare me.”
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Running To Waste
George M. Baker
“Bouncers, Teddy! The roundest and the rosiest. Drop them, quick! My apron’s all ready for the darlings.”
“It’s very well to say drop them; but it’s just as much as I can do to keep from falling myself. Don’t you see I’m holding on with both hands?”
“What a fuss you do make! Come down, and let me try. I never saw a tree yet big enough to scare me.”
“Who’s scart, Becky Sleeper? I ain’t—not by a long chalk. When a feller’s holdin’ on with both hands, he can’t be expected to pick very quick—can he?”
“Wind your arm round that branch over your head. There; now you’re all right, Teddy.”
“That’s so. What a hand you are to contrive! Now look sharp—they’re coming!”
Becky Sleeper, in imitation of famed “Humpty Dumpty,” sat upon a wall, where she had no business to be, for the wall was the boundary of Captain Thompson’s orchard. But there she sat, her feet dangling, her hair flying, and her hands holding her apron by its corners, intent on catching the apples which her brother was plucking from the tree above her head.
An active, wide-awake little body was the girl who was acting as accessory to the crime—a very common one—of robbing an orchard. Every movement of her sprightly figure belied the family name. Perched upon the wall, that cool October morning, she might have sat as a model for the Spirit of Mischief. A plump, round, rosy face, with a color in the cheeks that rivaled in brightness the coveted fruit above her, blue eyes full of laughter, a pretty mouth, with dissolving views of flashing teeth, teasing smiles, and a tongue never at rest; a queer little pug nose, that had a habit of twitching a mirthful accompaniment to the merriment of eyes and mouth, a profusion of light hair, tossed to and fro by the quick motions of the head,—all these combined to make a head-piece which would have delighted an artist, brightened as it was by a few straggling rays of sunshine, that darted through convenient openings in the mass of foliage above her head.
Miss Becky’s costume, however, did not furnish a fitting finish to her face and figure, but, on the contrary, seemed much the worse for wear. A high-neck, blue-check apron showed unmistakable signs of familiarity with grape and berry juices; the rusty brown dress which peeped out beneath it was plentifully “sown with tares,” and had a rough fringe at the bottom never placed there by the dress-maker; a pair of stockings, once white, had the appearance of having recently been dyed in a mud-puddle, and a pair of stringless boots, which completed her attire, were only prevented from dropping off by an elevation of the toes.
With her diminutive figure, her mischievous face, and her eager interest in the apple raid, she might have been taken for a thoughtless, giddy child. No stranger would have dreamed she was a maiden with an undoubted right to affix to her name, age sixteen.
Her companion was a year younger, but greatly her superior in weight and measure, not much taller, but remarkably round at the waist and plentifully supplied with flesh. He lacked the activity of his sister, but was ambitious to emulate her achievements, and to that end panted and puffed with remarkable vigor.
Becky was an adept in all boyish sports. She could climb a tree with the activity of a squirrel, ride a horse without saddle or bridle, pull a boat against the swift current of the river, “follow my leader” on the roughest trail, take a hand at base ball, play cricket, and was considered a valuable acquisition to either side in a game of football.
Teddy admired the vigor of his sister, was not jealous of her superior abilities, although he was unlucky in his pursuit of manly sports. He had to be helped up a tree, and very often lay at the foot, when the helper thought he had successfully accomplished his task. Horses generally dropped him when he attempted to ride; he always “caught crabs” in boats; was a “muffer” at base ball, and in everybody’s way in all sorts of games.
These two were companions in roguery, and were a terror to all respectable people in Cleverly who possessed orchards which they valued highly, or melon patches which they watched with anxious care; for, no matter how high the value, or how strict the watch, this pair of marauders had excellent taste in selection, and managed to appropriate the choicest and best without leave or license.
Cleverly is a very staid, respectable, triangular township on the coast of Maine, its southern, or sea line about six miles in length, forming the base of the triangle, with a small village—Foxtown—at its eastern point, and a somewhat more pretentious town—Geeseville—at its western point. From these two places the division lines ran, one north-east, the other north-west, meeting on Rogue’s River, where a bridge makes the apex of the triangle. The roads, however, do not traverse these boundary lines. There is a straight road from Foxtown to Geeseville, passing over a bridge which spans the river where it empties into the harbor. South of this highway is known as the fore side, and here may be found Captain Thompson’s shipyard, a short, chunky wharf, where occasionally a packet lies, and a blacksmith’s shop.
A few rods west of the river another road breaks from the highway and goes straight north. This is the main street of Cleverly. Climbing a hill from the fore side, the traveller, on entering this street, will find on the left a tailor’s shop, a country store, the post-office, then a dozen houses, white, attractive, and roomy. On the right, a row of neat and tidy houses, four in number; then a carpenter’s shop, the church, a small school-house, a more expansive “academy,” several fine dwellings, then a long hill, at the foot of which is a brick-yard, and, a few rods farther, another settlement known as the “Corner.” The distance between the fore side and the Corner is about a mile, and between these two points may be found the wealth, culture, and respectability of the township.
There is abundance of thrift, with very little “brag” about Cleverly. Rogue’s River turns a paper mill, a woollen mill, and a nail factory. Every season a vessel is launched from the ship-yard, and every winter the academy is well filled with students; every Friday night, winter and summer, the vestry of the church is crowded with an attentive audience, and every Sunday the church is surrounded with horses and vehicles of all sizes, varieties, and conditions; yet the quiet of the place seems never broken. There is much beauty, with little attempt at display, about the town. Trees line the street, vines climb about the houses, shrubs peep out at the palings, and flowers bloom everywhere without any seeming special assistance from the inhabitants.
There is very little change in the Cleverly of to-day from the Cleverly of twenty years ago. Then Captain Thompson’s house stood directly opposite the church, a large, square, two-story front, as grand as any in the place. At the rear, a lower building, used as a kitchen, ran out to one still lower, used as a wood-shed; this, in turn, stretched out to another building, used as a carriage-house, while the barn, of larger proportions, swung at the end of all; so that, approaching it from the side, the structure had the appearance of a kite with a very long tail to it. At the end of the stable was the kitchen garden; beyond that, the orchard, and on the stone wall which separates it from the lane, which in its turn separates the whole place from the woods, patiently sits Miss Becky during this long description.
“Quick, Teddy! Three more will make a dozen; and that’s as many as I can hold, they’re such whoppers. O, dear! My arms ache now,” said Becky, after Teddy had employed more time than seemed necessary in plucking the captain’s mammoth Baldwins.
“Don’t ache any more than mine do, I guess,” grumbled Teddy; “and I’m all cramped up, too. Don’t believe I’ll ever git down agin.”
“O, yes, you will Teddy. You’re famous for quick descents, you know. You always come down quicker than you go up; and such graceful somersets as you do make! It’s better than the circus, any time, to see you;” and a merry peal of laughter broke from Miss Becky’s lips.
“Becky, Becky! Don’t do that!” cried Teddy; “they’ll hear you up at the house. I wouldn’t have Cap’n Thompson catch me in this tree for a good deal, I tell you. He’s promised me a whaling if he ever catches me on his place.”
“Don’t be scart, Teddy. He won’t catch you this time. I can see the house, and there is not a soul stirring; and, besides, the cap’n’s not at home.”
“I tell you, Becky, somebody’s comin’. I can feel it in my bones. I’m comin’ down;” and Teddy made a frantic effort to free himself from the crotch of the tree, into which he was snugly fitted.
“Not until you make up the dozen, Teddy. Don’t be a goose! I haven’t watched this tree a week for nothin’. Cap’n Thompson’s gone to the ship-yard. I saw him ride off an hour ago on ‘Uncle Ned;’ and he never gets back till dinner time when he goes there.”
“Don’t be too sure of that, Tomboy!”
With a slight scream, Becky turned her eyes from the camp of the enemy to the lane. Not ten feet from her stood a white horse, and on his back sat the dreaded enemy—Captain Thompson. A lively trembling of the branches overhead gave evidence that another party was aware of the startling interruption to a projected fruit banquet.
Becky looked at the captain. He had a very red face; he seemed to be in a towering passion, and was, evidently, searching his short, stout body for a tone deep and terrible enough with which to continue the conversation. She looked at him with a smile on her face; but, at the flash of his angry eyes, dropped hers to the apron which contained the proofs of guilt, then stole a glance at her trembling accomplice, straightened her little body, and looked defiantly at the horseman.
“So, Tomboy, I have caught you in the act—have I?” thundered the captain.
“Yes, cap’n, you certainly have, this time, and no mistake,” saucily answered the tomboy. “S’pose we’ve got to catch it now. What’s the penalty? Going to put us in the pound, or lock us up in the barn?”
“Neither, Miss Impudence,” thundered the captain. “I’ll horsewhip you both. Here, you, Master Ned, come out of that tree, quick! D’ye hear?”
That the delinquent did hear, and that he was inclined to obey, was made manifest by a rustling among the leaves, and the dull thud of a heavy body as it struck the ground, for Master Teddy, terrified at the angry voice of the captain, had let go, and landed in a heap outside the wall.
“Run, Teddy, run! Don’t let him catch you!” cried Becky, in excitement, dropping her apron.
The round and rosy spoils, being freed, followed the law of gravitation, and plumped one after another on to the head of the prostrate Teddy, who was groaning and rubbing his elbows, with a very lugubrious face.
“If you stir a step, you imp of mischief, I’ll break every bone in your body,” cried the captain, hastily dismounting, and approaching Teddy, with a long riding-whip in his hand.
“Don’t you touch my brother! Don’t you dare to touch my brother!” cried Becky from her perch. “It’s a shame to make such a fuss about a few apples!”
“It’s a great shame that a girl of your age should be caught stealing apples,” replied the captain.
“’Tain’t my fault. We shouldn’t have been caught if you’d only staid at the yard.”
The captain almost smiled; the audacity of the young depredator’s attempt to shift the responsibility of the theft upon him, really tickled him. Nevertheless, he approached Teddy, who, having rubbed himself comfortable, now sat calmly awaiting his fate.
“Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself? Haven’t I told you to keep off my place? Haven’t I given you sufficient warning? Haven’t I promised you a thrashing if I caught you here—hey?” roared the captain.
“Yes, cap’n, you did. But I couldn’t help it. I—I—I didn’t want the apples; b—b—but I wanted to climb the tree for fun; its such a hard climb, and—and—” stammered Teddy, eyeing the whip.
“Don’t lie, you imp. There’s my apples all round you. You shall sweat for this, I promise you. Off with your jacket, quick! D’ye hear?”
“Don’t strike him, cap’n; please don’t. He’s not to blame;” and Becky plunged from the wall, and stood between the captain and her brother. “He didn’t want the apples—indeed, he didn’t. He don’t like apples—do you, Teddy?”
Teddy shook his head energetically, with a contemptuous look at the fruit.
“I helped him up the tree, and I’m to blame for it all. You oughtn’t to strike a boy for doing all he can to please his sister. If you must whip somebody, take me.”
“Stand out of the way, Tomboy. Your time will come soon enough—never fear.” And he pushed her from the path. “Off with that jacket. D’ye hear?”
Teddy coolly unbuttoned his jacket, and threw it on the grass.
“Don’t tease him, Becky. I’m not afraid of his whip. If it’s any fun for him, let him lay on. I guess I can stand it as long as he can;” and Teddy looked defiantly at his adversary.
Becky ran to her brother, and threw her arms about his neck, to shield him from the whip.
“He shan’t strike you, Teddy. It’s all my fault. He shan’t touch you.”
Captain Thompson was an obstinate man. When he made up his mind to the doing of an act, nothing could stand in his way. Perhaps this accounted for the coolness of Teddy in the trying situation in which he was placed, who, remembering his promise, knew it must be fulfilled, and so offered no resistance.
“Don’t, Becky. D’ye want to smother a feller? Don’t be a ninny. It’s got to come. Go home—do.”
“I won’t. He shall kill me before he strikes you.”
Becky’s devotion was blighted in an instant, for the angry man seized her by the arm and flung her across the lane. She fell to the ground unhurt, for the grass was thick and soft.
“I’ll teach you to meddle. Don’t come near me till I’ve done with him. Mind that.”
Becky sprang to her feet, fire flashing from her eyes. She was as angry now as her tormentor. She picked up a stone, and despite his warning, approached the captain. He should not strike her brother, she looked at the house; no one in sight. Down the lane; no one—yes, there stood Uncle Ned, cropping the grass, unmindful of the group. Ah, the horse! There was a chance yet to save her brother.
“Now, you scamp, I’ll teach you to rob orchards!” and the whip was raised.
Spry as a cat, Becky was at the captain’s back in an instant. She jumped and caught the whip from his hand, then ran for the horse. The captain quickly turned; but too late. Becky sprang to the saddle, caught up the rein, lashed the horse, turned, and shouted, “Good by, Teddy! Good by, cap’n!” and galloped down the lane.
“Come back, come back, you imp of mischief! Come back, I say,” shouted the captain, running after her.
“Some other time, cap’n; can’t stop now. Good by;” and the saucy girl turned, waved her hand to the maddened and baffled owner of the Baldwins, plied the whip briskly, and was out of sight.
The captain, with a muttered “Hang it!”—which was the extent of his swearing, for he was a deacon,—followed at as rapid a pace as he could command, leaving Teddy solitary and alone.
The fat boy looked after his persecutor a moment, with a smile upon his face, then rose, picked up his jacket, put it on, buttoned it at the bottom, then coolly picked up the trophies of victory, tucked them into his jacket and his pockets, crossed the lane, crept through a hedge, and disappeared.
“A stern chase is a long chase;” so, leaving Captain Thompson in pursuit of the fugitive, we will take the liberty of passing through his premises to the main street. At the left of the church, opposite his house, another road ran down a steep hill, crossed Rogue’s River, by a bridge, ran up another hill, and wound round into the Foxtown road. At the top of the second hill stood a small brown house, by no means attractive in appearance, being destitute of paint, climbing vine, flowers, or other ornamentation. It had not even the virtue of neatness to recommend it. The gate was off its hinges, and lay in the road. A crazy barn close by had a pitch towards the river, as though from sheer weakness it was inclined to lie down for rest, while the scanty patch of cabbages and beets, the potato hills, few and far between, and the rickety bean-poles, all had a starved and neglected appearance.
This was known as the “Sleeper Place,” being occupied by Mrs. Sleeper and the young people, Rebecca and Edward, better known as Becky and Teddy. Inside, the house was not much more attractive than the outside. On the lower floor were four rooms, separated by the entry, from which a flight of stairs, hidden by a door, led to the garret above. On one side was a kitchen, with a door leading into Mrs. Sleeper’s bed-room at the back. On the other side was a sitting-room, with a door leading to a bed-room back of that, known as Becky’s room. Teddy’s quarters were above, under the roof. The house was scantily furnished with old-fashioned furniture and home-made carpets, all of which had seen their best many years before, and now showed veteran scars of long service.
In the kitchen were two females—Mrs. Sleeper and Hulda Prime. Mrs. Sleeper was a small, slender woman, with a face from which much beauty had faded out, a face which bore but one expression at all times—that of anxious expectation. All else had died out five years before. Then she was a bright, cheerful, active wife, merrily singing over her household cares. Now she was waiting, for time to determine whether she was a wife or a widow.
In ’49, when the California gold fever attacked so many New England towns, Captain Cyrus Sleeper was returning from the West Indies with a cargo of sugar and molasses, in the new ship “Bounding Billow,” the joint property of himself and Captain Paul Thompson. Touching at Havana, he was made acquainted with the startling news of gold discoveries; and, always impetuous, at once turned the bow of his ship towards California.
A year passed, and Captain Thompson also received startling news. His runaway partner had reached California, disposed of his cargo at fabulous prices, and sent the ship home in charge of his mate, and had started for the mines. To his partner he remitted the whole amount received for his cargo,—enough to build two ships like the Bounding Billow,—one half of which, being his own, was to be held by his partner for the support of his family until his return.
The captain was astounded. The conduct of his partner was so strange, he believed he must have lost his reason, and never expected to hear any intelligence of him again. Mrs. Sleeper also received a message from her eccentric husband, full of glowing descriptions of quick fortunes made in El Dorado, hopes of speedy return, and bright pictures of the high life they would lead when “his ship came in.” Since that time nothing had been heard of Captain Cyrus Sleeper or his fortunes.
The ship was fitted for a second voyage to the West Indies, Mrs. Sleeper, by Thompson’s advice, going shares with him in the venture. But it proved disastrous. The ship was wrecked on her return, and Mrs. Sleeper found herself obliged to live on a very small income. Of a very romantic nature, her sailor husband always a hero in her eyes, for a little while she had high hopes of his quick return with an ample fortune, and chatted gaily of the good time coming “when her ship came in.” But as time passed, and no message came from over the sea, the smile forsook her lips, the brightness her cheek, and the hope-light of her eyes changed to an eager, searching glance, that told of an unquiet mind and an aching, breaking heart.
She went about her household duties, cooked, scrubbed, and mended, quietly and silently, but took no pride in her home, no comfort in her children. The house soon showed evidences of neglect. The children, without a mother’s sympathy and guidance, were rapidly running to waste.
Just when the money began to give out, Hulda Prime “came to help.” Hulda was a distant relative of Cyrus Sleeper, by her own showing, as she was a distant relative of almost everybody in Cleverly. She was somewhere between forty and sixty: it was hard telling her age. It could not be told by her hair, for she had none; nor yet by her teeth, for they were false, or her cheeks, for they were always bright, and had a natural color which some people were wicked enough to say was not natural. She was long-favored, long and lean in body, had a very long face, long nose, and a long chin. She wore a “front,” with two auburn ringlets dangling at either end, a very tall white cap, carried herself very erect, and had altogether a solemn and serious demeanor. She left a “relative” to come and help “dear Delia in her troubles;” though in what her help consisted was a puzzle which the good people of Cleverly had never been able to solve. She got her living by “helping.” She had no money, but she had a large stock of complaints, so many, that they might have been calendared thus: Monday, rheumatism; Tuesday, cancer; Wednesday, dyspepsia; Thursday, heart disease; Friday, lumbago; Saturday, “spine;” Sunday, neuralgia. Or to vary the monotony, she would start off Monday with “cancer,” or some other disease; but the week would contain the whole programme. She was very regular in her habits—of complaining, and was always taken bad just when she might be of assistance.
This day she was crouched by the fire, her head tied up in a towel, her body slowly rocking to and fro. It was her neuralgia day.
Mrs. Sleeper stood at her wash-tub near the window, her hands busy in the suds, her eyes fixed on the distant waters of the bay, her thoughts away with the ship that never came in. So absorbed was she in her “waiting” dream, that she did not see Captain Thompson, who for the last ten minutes had been puffing up the hill in sight of the window; was not aware of his approach until he stood in the kitchen doorway, with both hands braced against the sides, breathing very hard.
“So, so! Pur—pur—purty capers those young ones of yours are cutting up, Delia Sleeper!”
Mrs. Sleeper turned with a start; Aunt Hulda straightened up with a groan.
“Do you mean Rebecca and Edward, captain? Have they been making any trouble?” said Mrs. Sleeper, with the faintest sign of interest in her voice.
“Trouble, trouble!” shouted the captain, so loud that Aunt Hulda gave a groan, and held her head very hard; “did they ever make anything else? Ain’t they the pests of the town? Who or what is safe when they are about? I tell you what it is, Delia, I’m a patient man, a very patient man. I’ve endured this sort of thing just as long as I mean to. I tell you something’s got to be done.” And the captain looked very red, very angry, and very determined.
“I’m sure I try to keep the children out of mischief,” faltered Mrs. Sleeper.
“No, you don’t. That’s just what’s the matter. You’ve no control over them. You don’t want to control them. You just let them loose in the town, like a couple of wildcats, seeking whom they may devour. What’s the consequence? Look at Brown’s melon patch! He couldn’t find a sound melon there. Look at my orchard! Despoiled by those barbarians! Here’s a sample. To-day I caught them at one of my trees, loaded with plunder; caught them in the act!”
“O, captain! You did not punish them!”
“Punish eels! No; they were too sharp for me. One ran off with my horse, and a purty chase I’ve had for nothing. The other marched away with my fruit. But I will punish them; be sure of that. Now, Delia, this thing must be stopped; it shall be stopped. I’m a man of my word, and when I say a thing’s to be done, it is done.”
“I’m sure I’m willing to do anything I can to keep them orderly,” began Mrs. Sleeper.
“Now what’s the use of your talking so? You know you’re not willing to do anything of the kind. You’re all bound up in your sorrows. You won’t think of the matter again when I’m gone—you know you won’t. If you cared for their bringing up, you’d have that boy at school, instead of letting him fatten on other folks’s property, and bring that girl up to work, instead of lettin’ her go galloping all over creation on other folks’s horses. I tell you, Delia Sleeper, you don’t know how to bring up young ones!”
The captain, in his warmth, braced himself against the door sills so energetically that they cracked, and a catastrophe, something like that which occurred when Samson played with the pillars of the temple, seemed imminent.
“P’raps she’d better turn ’em over to you, Cap’n Thompson,” growled Aunt Hulda; “you’re such a grand hand at bringin’ up!”
“Hulda Prime, you jest attend to your own affairs. This is none of your business; so shet up!” shouted the more plain than polite captain.
“Shut up!” retorted Aunt Hulda. “Wal, I never! Ain’t you gettin’ a leetle obstroperlous, cap’n? This here’s a free country, and nobody’s to hinder anybody’s freein’ their mind to anybody, even if they are a little up in the world. Shut up, indeed!” And Aunt Hulda, in her indignation, rose from her chair, walked round it, and plumped down again in her old position.
“I don’t want any of your interference, Hulda Prime.”
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