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The Tall Clock by Mary Densel

 

One night our six tow-headed urchins were sitting round the table chattering like so many magpies. The tall clock in the corner insisted on talking too.

"Tick-tock—tick-tock.
'Tis eight—o'clock;
Come, boys—cease noise,
Quick tread—to bed;
'Tis eight—o'clock.
Tick-tock—tick-tock."

That is what it said.

Then it rang out eight clear strokes, and the jolly red moon, which for two weeks had been slowly rising in the space above the clock's face to show how the month was passing by, and which was now full and round, like the real moon out-of-doors—this jolly red clock-moon seemed to wink waggishly at the children.

"Hurry! scurry! Here it is eight o'clock, going on nine—next comes ten—eleven—twelve. Half the night gone, and you not in bed yet."

How its eyes twinkled! It nearly burst its fat cheeks laughing at its own joke.

Out the door, up the uncarpeted stairs, clattered the boys—Solomon and Isaac, Elias and John, Philemon and Romeo Augustus.

They all gave a nod to the clock-moon. "Good-night, old fellow," they said. All but Romeo Augustus. He did not like the clock. That is what this story is about.

Solomon and Isaac marched off to their own chamber. They would not condescend to associate with "the babes." Solomon and Isaac were twins. They were, as I have told you before, ancient. They were fourteen years old. Philemon and Romeo Augustus were only eight, and they knew no pleasure equal to that of sitting bolt-upright in their trundle-bed while Elias peered down at them over the foot-board of his bed, and told them stories with gestures.

"Tell us about the clock," said Philemon, on this occasion.

But at this suggestion Romeo Augustus—poor little Romeo Augustus!—quaked in his red flannel night-gown.

Elias always spoke in deep and dreadful tones when he alluded to the clock.

"Persons don't live inside, but things!" said he; and Romeo Augustus quaked afresh. "Two of them hang in air. They haven't a sign of a head, nor feet, nor arms, nor legs. They just dangle. And the other thing"—here Elias's voice was awful—"the other thing writhes in agony. It is never quiet; never, never, nevermore; not when we're asleep, nor when we're eating our porridge. Forever and forever it writhes—anon."

That was a capital word to end with. No one knew what "anon" meant. It was probably some especially horrible way of writhing.

Romeo Augustus shook with terror. He could hear that clock talking still down stairs.

"Tick-tock—tick-tock.
'Tis nine—o'clock.
Ro-meo—be-low,
Come see—in me
Things drear—ap-pear.
'Tis nine—o'clock.
Tick-tock—tick-tock."

That is what it said.

"How painful it must be to 'writhe anon'!" whispered Romeo Augustus to himself. "I wouldn't care if it was persons—but things!"

For some unknown reason the idea was ghastly to Romeo Augustus.

Now, my little readers, wait a moment before you laugh at him. Hear what this eight-year-old boy did.

Once upon a time Solomon had composed the following somewhat startling proverb, "It is a wise fellow who wrenches forth the serpent's fang." Which dark saying, being interpreted, was, "If you are scared of anything, just trot right up and wrestle with it."

"For," continued Solomon, in a speech to the other five, "that's the only way to grow plucky. If you hear an odd noise, don't hide your head like a hyena or an ostrich, whichever it is, but hunt it up. If you happen to see a ghost, skip up and attack it."

Now the words of Solomon were always prized as gold. The boys reverenced Solomon, who could repeat the whole of a Latin verb, and was, moreover, "pitcher" on "the nine."

So the "babes" had made a solemn compact that if any one of them was ever "scared," he should step boldly out and "wrench forth the serpent's fang." Should he be too great a coward so to do, he should wear a huge letter C pinned on his jacket for a fortnight, and be subject to all the taunts which could be imagined at his expense.

No wonder the boys grew brave. They dared not be otherwise.

Philemon's special bugbear had been a dark cellar, filled to overflowing with shadows. Down into this cellar he had gone with a beating heart, and had forced himself to search out every crack and cranny, even to the coal-bin. Of course he found nothing to fear, and now it was Philemon who was always ready to go down for apples in the winter evenings, and that too without even a candle.

As for Elias, he had stood in much awe of a grove over the hill, and was obliged to spend the greater part of a whole month wandering solitary among the trees before he could snap his fingers at their shadows.

And now Romeo Augustus's turn had come. His poor little heart was filled with dismay when he found that he was in mortal fear of the clock. He felt sure that he should have to search the matter to the very bottom.

For a week he had been trying to bring himself up to the pitch of requisite boldness. More than once he had marched up to the enemy, and then marched back again, vanquished. He dared not breathe a word to Philemon. The big letter C was all ready to cling to his back, and how could he bear such disgrace? No sympathy could he expect from any brother. His work must be done, and done alone.

How loudly the clock called out from below! Could it be actually stalking up stairs?—so sharply did its tones ring in Romeo Augustus's wide-open ears.

"Tick-tock—tick-tock.
'Tis ten—o'clock.
Make haste—don't waste
Minutes—in fits
Of fear.—Come here!
'Tis ten—o'clock.
Tick-tock—tick-tock."

Romeo Augustus put one bare foot out of bed; he drew it back; he half rose, and sank on the pillows again. Then, with a mighty effort, he gave a bound, and stood shivering in the middle of the floor.

The house was still. Elias was sleeping the sleep of the just, never dreaming how he had terrified his small brother.

Out into the entry stole Romeo Augustus. The harvest-moon threw a broad band of light on the stairs. Down crept the small bare feet along the lower hall into the sitting-room. How weird everything looked in the dimness! Gaunt and tall stood the clock in the corner.

The outside moon tossed a handful of beams into the clock-moon's face. The clock-moon was so very jolly! Did he know that just beneath were things?—two dangling in air, headless, armless? one "writhing in agony anon"?

Romeo Augustus almost turned and fled. His breath came in gasps. How could he go forward? But he creeps on. His hand is on the clock's brass-bound door. Will he open it now?

"Tick-tock—tick-tock.
Past ten—o'clock.
Turn key—and see
Things three—in me.
Past ten—o'clock.
Tick-tock—tick-tock."

Snap! went the brass key. Into the dark were thrust two little cold hands.

Then, suddenly, "Ha! ha! ha!" a shrill laugh went dancing up stairs. "Ha! ha! ha! Hurrah! Ha! ha! ha!"

What could the matter be?

"Ha! ha! ha! Oh, ha! ha! ha!"

Father and mother, Solomon and Isaac, Elias and John, with Philemon in the rear—into the room they all rushed, winking and blinking, candles in their hands.

There, in his red night-gown, hopping up and down in front of the clock, was Master Romeo Augustus.

"Ha! ha! Hurrah! It's nothing but the pen'lum and the two weights. Ha! ha! ha!"

Nobody could guess what he meant. If Elias knew, he kept his own counsel. But a gleam of intelligence broke over Solomon's face.

"It's a wise fellow who wrenches forth the serpent's fang," shouted he. "Three cheers for Romeo Augustus!"

The cheers were given with a will.

But mother caught her little son in her arms. "He's been walking in his sleep," she cried, "and it all comes from eating plum-cake for tea."

But the clock knew better. So did the clock-moon. It wagged its head at Romeo Augustus. "Brave boy! brave boy!"

And Romeo Augustus nodded back. "Good-night, old fellow!"

He could say that now with the rest. He was not afraid of the clock any longer.