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That Earthquake! - Harper's

Did you ever play in a cellar? I don't mean a cellar with a smooth floor, and coal-bins, and a big furnace, and shelves with jars of nice jam on them and glasses of jelly; I've been in that kind of a cellar too—I like quince jelly the best; it's first rate spread on bread and butter—but I'm talking of another kind of a cellar, one with the house all taken away, and only a big brick chimney left in the centre, with the top knocked off of that, and bricks and pieces of stone and chunks of mortar scattered all round; with berry bushes growing in one corner, and wild vines growing all around the edges.

There was just such a cellar as this where I used to live, and Kate and Teddy Ames, who lived in the next house, used to come over and play in the cellar with Billy and me.

Billy was my brother, eight years old, and the best fellow to play with you ever saw, because he was always "sperimentin"—that's what mother called it, and it meant trying to do things.

Billy knew a great deal more than all the rest of the boys in our school, and he was very fond of reading, but it didn't make him stupid a bit, for whatever he read about he always wanted to go right off and see if he could do it too. This made great fun for us, and got Billy into lots of scrapes.

When he tried to do anything like what he had read about, he never would be satisfied until he could do it all exactly as the reading said it was. So when we had read Robinson Crusoe together—I think Billy knew it all by heart as well as he knew the table of sevens in the multiplication table—he said, "Now let's play Robinson Crusoe." First he called the old open cellar Crusoe's cave, and scooped out a place between some stones and made it clean, and I braided a little mat and a curtain out of some long grass for it, and there he put his old copy of Robinson Crusoe, and for days and days, after school was out, and in vacation, we played Robinson Crusoe together.

Kate was a parrot, and wanted a great deal of cracker, Teddy was a goat, and I was the dog and "man Friday" by turns. We walked about in the cellar pretending to look for the print of naked feet, Billy going in front carrying a rusty old broken musket we had found in the garret, and a piece of rubber hose (Billy always could find or make anything we wanted) for a telescope, which he used to look through to see if there were any savages in sight when he climbed up to the edge of the cellar.

The cellar was really an island, just like Robinson Crusoe's; for Billy and Teddy had digged a ditch all round it, and filled it with water; but it was a very trying sort of an ocean, 'cause we had to fill it up every morning.


Teddy, who could whittle nicely, made some little canoes, and when Billy was looking through the hose for savages, it was Teddy's part to poke the canoes with a long stick like a fish-pole, so they would float right in front of Billy's hose. Then Billy would scramble down the wall, and come running to us 'round behind the chimney, and tell us to lie very still, for there were seven canoes full of cruel savages sailing for the island.

Then we would all creep close to the chimney on the shady side, and not go out for two weeks, which meant about fifteen minutes (Billy counted seven minutes to a week), and we liked this part of Robinson Crusoe very much indeed, 'cause then Billy would give us what he called "rations"—nice sugary raisins, dried beef, and seed cookies, which he said were cocoa-nuts given to him by monkeys that lived in tall trees in another part of the island, where we should go with him some time when he was sure the savages had left.

Oh, if you never played Robinson Crusoe, you can't think what fun we had playing it, and we played almost the whole book through, sometimes one part, and sometimes another, and whatever part we played, Billy tried to have it just as near like what the book said as it could be made without a real ship, a real ocean, and a real island; and he was so in earnest that it seemed real to me, and I used to feel shivery and scared when he cried out that the savages were coming.

There were all sorts of nice rubbishy things in the cellar to play with, 'cause everything that got broken or too old for use in the house—or "the wreck," as Billy called it—got thrown out into the old cellar: empty fruit cans, broken dishes, leaky old pans and dippers, parts of broken chairs and broken looking-glasses, and old kettles and frying-pans; bits of shingles, old nails, and piles and piles of clam and oyster shells; and Billy knew the minute he saw a thing what to do with it.

Kate and I helped with pieces of muslin, ribbon, and old calico, so that every day the little square place behind the chimney was more and more like Robinson Crusoe's own house on the real island.

One day papa stopped and looked at us as he was going by, and said he was afraid it wasn't a safe place for us, the old chimney might tumble down on us, or we might cut our feet on some of the broken things; but mother only smiled and said, "Oh, do let the children be happy." I guess she was jolly to play with when she was a little girl.

She often came out, or sent Biddy out with a nice turn-over, or a plate of hot ginger cookies; and after papa spoke about the chimney, she climbed down into the cellar, and went over and felt the chimney all round to see if it was quite firm. Once we coaxed her to stay with us during the two weeks while the savages were on the island. Billy, who liked to play just what was in the book, said at first that Robinson Crusoe didn't ever have his mother with him, but he "guessed the man who wrote the story would have put that in if he had known what larks it was."

But one day something happened that stopped our playing Robinson Crusoe or anything else for a long time. Mother had sent Billy on an errand a long way off, Kate Ames was sick, and Teddy had to stay at home to amuse her, and I was in the house, in the sitting-room with mother.

The morning had been very pleasant and warm, and though I wished we were all together in the cellar at play, I was quite contented with a book called Beechnut, a Franconia story, and I was thinking that Beechnut was almost just like Billy. Mother laid down her sewing, and went out of the room, patting my cheek with her kind hand as she passed, to tell Biddy something about dinner.

In a few minutes it grew so dark that I looked out of the window to see what made it, and saw the sky covering with a big black cloud that unrolled ever so fast, and the wind began to blow very hard, and the trees bent and turned over the white sides of their leaves in it. If Billy had been at home I should have gone out with him to run in the wind, because it feels so pleasant on my cheeks and in my hair, just as flowing water looks. It grew darker, began to rain, and the wind grew louder, with a queer sound; but I could see to read, and I got so interested in Beechnut that, though I saw out of the side of my eye some one go by the window, I did not really think about it, but kept on reading till I heard papa's voice in the next room, and heard mamma say:

"I'm so glad you're safe in the house; but where can Billy be? I sent him to Morton's, but he ought to have been home an hour ago. It's a perfect hurricane!"

"Oh, he'll do," said papa; "he's under cover somewhere, but—"

I couldn't hear any more, for just then the windows rattled; the floor shook so I could hardly keep my seat. There was an awful roar of wind, a crackling sound in the walls, a crash outside as if a load of coal were being tumbled into the bin, and the pretty vases on the mantel fell and broke to pieces on the floor. I ran as well as I could, and caught hold of papa. He held mamma's hands. She was white, and looked so strange. It frightened me more than all the rest, and I couldn't keep from crying.

"Hurricane! my dear," I heard papa say; "it's an earthquake shock. I do wish we knew where Billy is."

Then I remembered, and I said, "Oh, mamma, don't be frightened; Billy came in half an hour ago."

But when papa, mamma, and I—Biddy coming after us, with her apron up over her face, and crying, "Och, what a nize!" and "God save us!" every step—went from room to room, we didn't find Billy.

"Maggie, are you sure you saw him?" said mamma, stopping me, with both her hands on my shoulders, at the head of the stairs—"are you sure?"

"Oh yes; he went by the window when I was reading in Beechnut about where Phonny—"

"The cellar!" cried mamma, and drew in her breath just like the sound of the wind.

Already the clouds had rolled away; the storm was over; and Biddy, who had been standing at the back stairway window, cried out, "Feth, mem, an' av me two eyes don't be afther desavin' me, the owld chimbley's blowed over, an' niver a brick lift o' the poor childer's foine play-house."

In a moment mamma was down the stairs; papa could not hold her nor catch up with her, and we all ran after her to the edge of the cellar. Our pretty Robinson Crusoe house was all ruined. Dirt, sticks, stones, and everything that had lain about the yard were just as if they had been swept with a big broom into the cellar; and the big chimney—all blown to pieces now—helped to fill up the cave.

Mother was crying dreadfully, and I cried too. She went right down on her knees, and began picking up and throwing out the bricks. Papa could not stop her; she only said, in a voice that did not sound like mamma's voice at all, "My Billy's here."

It was so dreadful I can't remember exactly all about it; but papa got Mr. Ames and one or two other men, and after a while mamma caught hold of and kissed a little coat sleeve, and a hand so white it didn't look one bit like Billy's. Mamma thought Billy was dead, and she sat down very still, and did not try to work any more, but held the hand until the men had lifted every bit off from Billy; and she went beside them when he was carried in. He was not dead, he was only stunned; but his arm, the one mamma found, was broken in three places. He had a great deal of pain before his arm began to heal; but he never made a bit of fuss about it, and he never said anything to papa or mamma about the cellar, and how it happened, except just once when mamma asked him a question, and he told her he had gone into the cellar to cover up some of the things if he could. But the first time we were left alone together he called me close to him.

"The cave's all spoiled, I s'pose?" said he.

"Oh yes. Papa had it filled up right away."

Billy didn't say anything for a little while, but held on to my hand, and looked so pleased, I wondered at it. Then he said:

"I'm sorry for all the trouble I made them; but I don't mind telling you, Maggie, because you're a real first-class girl, and won't tattle. I was always bothering about how we could have the earthquake. We played everything else of Robinson Crusoe's, you know, but I couldn't see how to get that up." Billy was so eager that he forgot, and tried to lean on his lame elbow. That made him twist his face, but after a moment he smiled again. "Oh, Maggie," said he, "if that cellar had been filled up before we had that earthquake, I never should have been satisfied; but now, you see, I'm even with old Robinson!"