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Billy's Great Speech by William O. Stoddard

 

Billy was the youngest member of the debating society; that is, the other members were all grown-up men, though none of them were very old, and he was not yet quite fourteen years of age. Some of the boys he knew told him he had been let in by mistake, and some said it was a joke; but there he was, week after week, every Friday evening, sitting on a front bench, and as much a member as the president, or the secretary, or either of the three vice-presidents.

One of the names of that village debating society was "The Lyceum," but it wasn't much used, except when they had distinguished strangers to lecture for them, and charged twenty-five cents apiece for tickets.

The regular weekly debates were "free," and so there was always a good attendance. The ladies, of all ages, were sure to come, and a good many of the boys. Billy never missed a debate; but he had not yet made so much as one single solitary speech on any subject. Nobody knew how often he had entered that hall with a big speech in him, all ready, or how he had always carried it out again unspoken.

A little after the Christmas and New-Years' holidays there was a question proposed for the society to debate that Billy was sure he could handle. It had something to do with the Constitution of the United States, and Grandfather Morton said it "was too political altogether"; but Billy silently determined that at last he would make himself heard. He read several things in order to get his mind ready, especially the Life of Benjamin Franklin and Captain Cook's Voyages.

He could not see just how they helped him, but he knew that was the way to do it. Then he practiced his speech, too, in the garret, and up in the pasture lot, and out in the barn, where he was sure nobody could hear him, and the night before the debate was to be he hardly slept a wink.

He knew Grandfather Morton and all the family would be there; and they had scared him out of making more than half a dozen speeches before, but he made up his mind not to be afraid of them this time. Speak he would!

He was careful about his dress, as every public speaker should be, and succeeded in borrowing one of his father's standing collars. It was dreadfully stiff with starch, but it would not hurt his ears if he held his head straight.

When he got to the Lyceum Hall it seemed to him to have grown a good deal since the week before, and to have a greater multitude of men and women in it than he had ever dreamed of.

It was warm, too, and grew warmer very fast, and he wondered why the rest did not take off their overcoats. Perhaps they would have done so if they had known Billy was going to address them.

He knew who was to open the debate on both sides, for that was always arranged beforehand, and his chance would come afterward.

He listened to them, and could not help thinking how much better they must feel when their speeches were all spoken. He knew very well what a troublesome thing a speech was to keep in, and without any cork.

Billy thought he had never known men to talk so long as they did—two young lawyers, three young doctors, the tutor of the village academy, the sub-editor of the Weekly Bugle, Squire Toms's son that was almost ready to go to college, and the tall young man with red hair who had just opened the new drug store.

That was the man who did Billy the most harm, for his argument was nothing in the wide world but a string of quotations from Daniel Webster. He called him the Great Expounder, and a great statesman, and a number of other names, and wound up by asserting that the opinion of such a great man as that settled the matter. There was a good deal of applause given to the red-headed young man as he was sitting down, and Billy took advantage of it; that is, before he knew exactly what he was doing, he was on his feet, and shouted, "Mr. President!—ladies and gentlemen—"

"Mr. Morton has the floor," remarked the president, very dignifiedly; and Billy, as he afterward said of himself, "was pinned."

There was no escape for him now, and when Grandfather Morton pounded with his cane, and shouted, "Platform!" dozens of other people took it up, and it was "Platform!" "Platform!" "Platform!" all over the hall. He knew what it meant. All the favorite speakers were sent forward in that way, and it was a great compliment; but Billy thought he must have walked forty miles, from the tired feeling in his legs, when he got there. Oh, how hot that room was just then, and what a dreadful thing it was to have a crowd like that suddenly begin to keep still! They must have been holding their breaths.

Billy knew his speech was in him, for it had been swelling and swelling while the others were speaking, but he could not quite get any of it very close to his mouth at that trying moment.

Stiller and stiller grew the hall, and Billy had a dim notion that it was beginning to turn around.

"Mr. President, ladies, and gentlemen—"

He heard some of the boys over by the window crack some pea-nuts and giggle.

"—I don't care a cent for Daniel Webster—"

Billy paused, and was hunting desperately for the next word; but Grandfather Morton had voted against Mr. Webster a good many times, and down came the old gentleman's cane on the floor.

That was the signal for a storm of applause all over the hall; but Billy groped in every corner of his mind in vain for the rest of his speech. Whether he had left it in the garret or the barn, or up in the pasture lot, it was gone; and when the stamping and clapping stopped, and the audience began to listen again, there was nothing more for them to hear.

It was so terribly hot in that hall; and it grew all the more like the Fourth of July, or a baker's oven, all the way to his seat, after Billy gave the matter up, and walked down from the platform.

But how they did cheer then!

The boys did their best, and even the ladies seemed to be shouting.

"Did I say anything so good as all that?" thought Billy.

But at the end of the debate, which came very soon after Billy's effort, Grandfather Morton shook hands with him very proudly; and it was the president of the society—and he had been a member of the Legislature—who came up just then, and said,

"Capital speech of yours, Mr. Morton. Best thing of the evening."

"Good, wasn't it?" said Billy's grandfather. "Laid that red-headed poison peddler as flat as a pancake."

"Best speech I ever heard in this hall, Mr. Morton; it was so splendidly short."

But Billy kept thinking, all the way home, "What would he have said if I hadn't forgot the rest of it?"

That was years ago, and Billy is a great lawyer now; but he says he has never forgotten what it was that made his first speech so very good.