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April Fool by Margaret Eytinge

 

There was one boy in the Merrit Academy who never joined in any of the games; never went skating; never went swimming; never made a snow man or threw snow-balls; never came to the meetings of the debating society, where such questions as, "If a fellow ask a fellow for a bite of a fellow's apple, which is the politer way to give it to a fellow—to bite off a piece yourself, or let a fellow bite for himself?" were debated with much mock gravity and real fun.

He looked with horror on all kinds of fighting; had no admiration for great generals; thought war should be abolished; shuddered at tales of cruelty and suffering; was constitutionally timid and extremely credulous; hated thunder and lightning; liked birds, flowers, pretty verses, and fairy tales; believed in ghosts and supernatural beings; was very fair haired, very blue eyed, tall, slender, and named Harold Lord. But after the first week or two of his attendance at school—he was a day scholar—his real name was never heard, for his school-mates, quickly finding out his peculiar characteristics, skillfully turned it into "Lady Harriet," and Lady Harriet he remained for for many a long year. Of course, being so girlish in his appearance, ways, and tastes, and of so reserved and gentle a disposition, the other boys rather looked down upon him, and, after the manner of boys, made him the subject of much chaff and many practical jokes; and so it came about when Charley Bennet and Ned Morningstar and Hen Rowe began on the afternoon of the 31st of March to talk about the 1st of April, they hit upon Lady Harriet as a boy who would make a capital "April-fool."

"We can have no end of fun with him," said Charley. "You know he lives all alone with his grandmother—"

"A Little Red Riding-hood," interrupted Hen Rowe.

"—down by the cedar woods," continued Bennet. "But the question now in order is, what kind of fun shall it be?"

"Dress up like Indians, and pretend you're goin' to scalp him," proposed little Al Smith, who had joined the party—a thing no other small boy in that establishment would have dared to do; but then Alfred, as his aunt called him—and a very cross old aunt she was, too—had no father nor mother, and was such a good-natured, willing, reliable young chap that his older school-mates made quite a pet of him, and allowed him many liberties they would have allowed to no one else in his class.

"Nonsense, Smithey," said Hen Rowe. "Ghosts is the thing;" and striking an attitude, he quoted:

"'I am thy father's spirit;
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night;
And, for the day, confined to fast in fires....
I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul; fre-e-e-eze thy young blood;
Make thy—'"

"That's quite enough of that, Rowe," said Bennet. "A band of young desperadoes is my idea. The papers are full of 'em just now—fellows living in caves and other queer places, and robbing right and left (result of reading too many dime novels; heard the Professor say so this morning). Been 'round here too; stole Uncle Jeff's calf day before yesterday; and his grandmother goes to sewing society to-morrow night."

"The calf's grandmother?" asked Hen Rowe.

"Didn't know you had any grandmother," said Bennet.

"Charley's hit on the very thing," declared Ned Morningstar. "We'll let three or four other fellows into the joke, and I'll be captain, and we'll wear masks, and all the old clothes we can beg, borrow, or take, and get ourselves up prime as a No. 1 band of reg'lar young villains. Aha! your money or your life!" making a lunge at small Al.

"But you won't really hurt Lady Harriet?" said the little fellow, an anxious look coming into his soft brown eyes. "He's good to me, and gives me candy, and took me fishin' once."

"Took you fishin'!" repeated Charley Bennet, counterfeiting the greatest astonishment. "If he did, I'll bet he never let you catch a fish. He'd 'a fainted when he saw it a-wriggling on the hook."

"He did too," answered Al, stoutly. "I caught four, and six crabs, and he got eight," adding, frankly, "but he said he didn't like to catch them, only his grandmother said he must."

"Very reprehensible old lady," said Hen Rowe, gravely, "to allow her greediness for fish to trample on the softest feelings of her grandson's head—I mean heart. But don't be afraid, Smallbones"—stroking Al's dark curls—"we won't hurt him, not a bit; make your mind easy about that. He shall live to take you a-fishin' again.

"It does him good to wake him up once in a while," added Ned Morningstar, "he's such a turtle. I think I see his face when we all shout 'April-fool'!"


At dusk the next evening, after Grandmother Lord had gone to the sewing society, six or seven dreadful-looking objects came splashing through the mud up the road which led to her cottage. They were dressed in uncouth garments of all sizes and colors. Hats, brimless, or with brims very much turned up or very much turned down, two flaming red turbans, and a round handleless basket, through the open wicker-work of which the hair of the wearer straggled in the most outlandish and porcupinish manner, constituted their head-gear. The leader carried a gun. The others were armed with hatchets, knives, and clubs. All their faces were hidden by paper masks painted in various colors. "This is the house," said one of them, in a voice that seemed to come out of the ground beneath his feet, as they ranged themselves on the front porch, and he rapped sharply on the door with the stick he carried. It opened, and there stood Lady Harriet, gazing out with horror-stricken eyes upon the motley gang. "Your money or your life!" demanded he of the gun, at the same time pointing the weapon at the trembling boy.

Lady Harriet turned pale, and shrank back. "I have no money," he said, in a faltering voice.

"Then we must have your life," was the gruff reply, "unless you consent to become one of us. Seize him and search him!"

"Do go away, and leave me alone," implored the boy, falling upon his knees and clasping his hands. "There is no use—making me—join your gang," he continued, with chattering teeth. "I—couldn't be a—a—what you are—to save—my life."

But the young desperadoes paid no attention to his entreaties, and while two of their number rifled his pockets, the others, lighting a couple of lanterns they had brought with them, followed their leader on a tramp through the house, with much noise and deep growling. On the return of the latter, the pocket-searchers presented the captain with half a stick of peppermint candy, a penknife, a dime, a small book (The Language of Flowers), and some violets wrapped in a handkerchief.

"Prisoner," said the captain, sternly—that is, as sternly as the pebble he had under his tongue would allow—"if you make an attempt to escape, the consequences be on your own head. Right about face! March!"

And away they went, dragging poor Lady Harriet, begging and imploring to be set free, with them.

"Did you ever see any fellow so scared in all your life?" whispered Charley Bennet to Hen Rowe, as their victim began to cry and scream.

"Never," said Rowe. "I begin to feel sorry for him. But what a baby he is! Why don't he break and run? He can make good time with those long legs when he's a mind to."

"Halt!" cried the captain, when they reached the cedar woods. "This has gone quite far enough. We want no cowards among us. Boy, you are—" And the mouths of his followers simultaneously opened for a tremendous shout, when—

"I perfectly agree with you," interrupted the prisoner, quickly, wresting himself at the same time with a dexterous movement from the grasp of the two boys who had held him; and then he went on in his usual soft voice and slow way: "I mean this joke's gone quite far enough. You came half an hour or so before I expected you, but I think we've all acted our parts first-rate. Good-evening, Captain Morningstar. Good-evening, desperadoes. Farewell, April-fools." And he turned and walked leisurely toward his home again.

"Jiminy!" exclaimed Ned Morningstar, snatching off his mask and pulling a long face. "Somebody has—"

"Blundered," said Hen Rowe.

"Fools to the right of me,
Fools to the left of me,
Fools ev'ry side of me—
Oh, how they wondered!

"what's the use of being glum about it. I've an idea it serves us right. Three cheers for Lady Harriet. He's not such a fool as he looks."

"As we look, I think," said Roy Wheeler.

And then, like the jolly boys they really were, they gave the cheers with a will, and followed them up with a roar of laughter that wakened all the echoes for miles around.