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Johnnyboy by Bret Harte

 

The vast dining-room of the Crustacean Hotel at Greyport, U. S., was empty and desolate. It was so early in the morning that there was a bedroom deshabille in the tucked-up skirts and bare legs of the little oval breakfast-tables as they had just been left by the dusting servants. The most stirring of travelers was yet abed, the most enterprising of first-train catchers had not yet come down; there was a breath of midsummer sleep still in the air; through the half-opened windows that seemed to be yawning, the pinkish blue Atlantic beyond heaved gently and slumberously, and drowsy early bathers crept into it as to bed. Yet as I entered the room I saw that one of the little tables in the corner was in reality occupied by a very small and very extraordinary child. Seated in a high chair, attended by a dreamily abstracted nurse on one side, an utterly perfunctory negro waiter on the other, and an incongruous assortment of disregarded viands before him, he was taking—or, rather, declining—his solitary breakfast. He appeared to be a pale, frail, but rather pretty boy, with a singularly pathetic combination of infant delicacy of outline and maturity of expression. His heavily fringed eyes expressed an already weary and discontented intelligence, and his willful, resolute little mouth was, I fancied, marked with lines of pain at either corner. He struck me as not only being physically dyspeptic, but as morally loathing his attendants and surroundings.

My entrance did not disturb the waiter, with whom I had no financial relations; he simply concealed an exaggerated yawn professionally behind his napkin until my own servitor should appear. The nurse slightly awoke from her abstraction, shoved the child mechanically,—as if starting up some clogged machinery,—said, "Eat your breakfast, Johnnyboy," and subsided into her dream. I think the child had at first some faint hope of me, and when my waiter appeared with my breakfast he betrayed some interest in my selection, with a view of possible later appropriation, but, as my repast was simple, that hope died out of his infant mind. Then there was a silence, broken at last by the languid voice of the nurse:—

"Try some milk then—nice milk."

"No! No mik! Mik makes me sick—mik does!"

In spite of the hurried infantine accent the protest was so emphatic, and, above all, fraught with such pent-up reproach and disgust, that I turned about sympathetically. But Johnnyboy had already thrown down his spoon, slipped from his high chair, and was marching out of the room as fast as his little sandals would carry him, with indignation bristling in every line of the crisp bows of his sash.

I, however, gathered from Mr. Johnson, my waiter, that the unfortunate child owned a fashionable father and mother, one or two blocks of houses in New York, and a villa at Greyport, which he consistently and intelligently despised. That he had imperiously brought his parents here on account of his health, and had demanded that he should breakfast alone in the big dining-room. That, however, he was not happy. "Nuffin peahs to agree wid him, Sah, but he doan' cry, and he speaks his mind, Sah; he speaks his mind."

Unfortunately, I did not keep Johnnyboy's secret, but related the scene I had witnessed to some of the lighter-hearted Crustaceans of either sex, with the result that his alliterative protest became a sort of catchword among them, and that for the next few mornings he had a large audience of early breakfasters, who fondly hoped for a repetition of his performance. I think that Johnnyboy for the time enjoyed this companionship, yet without the least affectation or self-consciousness—so long as it was unobtrusive. It so chanced, however, that the Rev. Mr. Belcher, a gentleman with bovine lightness of touch, and a singular misunderstanding of childhood, chose to presume upon his paternal functions. Approaching the high chair in which Johnnyboy was dyspeptically reflecting, with a ponderous wink at the other guests, and a fat thumb and forefinger on Johnnyboy's table, he leaned over him, and with slow, elephantine playfulness said:—

"And so, my dear young friend, I understand that 'mik makes you sick—mik does.'"

Anything approaching to the absolute likeness of this imitation of Johnnyboy's accents it is impossible to conceive. Possibly Johnnyboy felt it. But he simply lifted his lovely lashes, and said with great distinctness:—

"Mik don't—you devil!"

After this, closely as it had knitted us together, Johnnyboy's morning presence was mysteriously withdrawn. It was later pointed out to us by Mr. Belcher, upon the veranda, that, although Wealth had its privileges, it was held in trust for the welfare of Mankind, and that the children of the Rich could not too early learn the advantages of Self-restraint and the vanity of a mere gratification of the Senses. Early and frequent morning ablutions, brisk morning toweling, half of a Graham biscuit in a teacup of milk, exercise with the dumb-bells, and a little rough-and-tumble play in a straw hat, check apron, and overalls would eventually improve that stamina necessary for his future Position, and repress a dangerous cerebral activity and tendency to give way to—He suddenly stopped, coughed, and absolutely looked embarrassed. Johnnyboy, a moving cloud of white pique, silk, and embroidery, had just turned the corner of the veranda. He did not speak, but as he passed raised his blue-veined lids to the orator. The look of ineffable scorn and superiority in those beautiful eyes surpassed anything I had ever seen. At the next veranda column he paused, and, with his baby thumbs inserted in his silk sash, again regarded him under his half-dropped lashes as if he were some curious animal, and then passed on. But Belcher was silenced for the second time.

I think I have said enough to show that Johnnyboy was hopelessly worshiped by an impressible and illogical sex. I say HOPELESSLY, for he slipped equally from the proudest silken lap and the humblest one of calico, and carried his eyelashes and small aches elsewhere. I think that a secret fear of his alarming frankness, and his steady rejection of the various tempting cates they offered him, had much to do with their passion. "It won't hurt you, dear," said Miss Circe, "and it's so awfully nice. See!" she continued, putting one of the delicacies in her own pretty mouth with every assumption of delight. "It's SO good!" Johnnyboy rested his elbows on her knees, and watched her with a grieved and commiserating superiority. "Bimeby, you'll have pains in youse tommick, and you'll be tookt to bed," he said sadly, "and then you'll—have to dit up and"—But as it was found necessary here to repress further details, he escaped other temptation.

Two hours later, as Miss Circe was seated in the drawing-room with her usual circle of enthusiastic admirers around her, Johnnyboy—who was issued from his room for circulation, two or three times a day, as a genteel advertisement of his parents—floated into the apartment in a new dress and a serious demeanor. Sidling up to Miss Circe he laid a phial—evidently his own pet medicine—on her lap, said, "For youse tommikake to-night," and vanished. Yet I have reason to believe that this slight evidence of unusual remembrance on Johnnyboy's part more than compensated for its publicity, and for a few days Miss Circe was quite "set up" by it.

It was through some sympathy of this kind that I first gained Johnnyboy's good graces. I had been presented with a small pocket case of homoeopathic medicines, and one day on the beach I took out one of the tiny phials and, dropping two or three of the still tinier pellets in my hand, swallowed them. To my embarrassment, a small hand presently grasped my trouser-leg. I looked down; it was Johnnyboy, in a new and ravishing smuggler suit, with his questioning eyes fixed on mine.

"Howjer do dat?"

"Eh?"

"Wajer do dat for?"

"That?—Oh, that's medicine. I've got a headache."

He searched the inmost depths of my soul with his wonderful eyes. Then, after a pause, he held out his baby palm.

"You kin give Johnny some."

"But you haven't got headache—have you?"

"Me alluz has."

"Not ALWAYS."

He nodded his head rapidly. Then added slowly, and with great elaboration, "Et mo'nins, et affernoons, et nights, 'nd mo'nins adain. 'N et becker" (i. e., breakfast).

There was no doubt it was the truth. Those eyes did not seem to be in the habit of lying. After all, the medicine could not hurt him. His nurse was at a little distance gazing absently at the sea. I sat down on a bench, and dropped a few of the pellets into his palm. He ate them seriously, and then turned around and backed—after the well-known appealing fashion of childhood—against my knees. I understood the movement—although it was unlike my idea of Johnnyboy. However, I raised him to my lap—with the sensation of lifting a dozen lace-edged handkerchiefs, and with very little more effort—where he sat silently for a moment, with his sandals crossed pensively before him.

"Wouldn't you like to go and play with those children?" I asked, pointing to a group of noisy sand levelers not far away.

"No!" After a pause, "You wouldn't neither."

"Why?"

"Hediks."

"But," I said, "perhaps if you went and played with them and ran up and down as they do, you wouldn't have headache."

Johnnyboy did not answer for a moment; then there was a perceptible gentle movement of his small frame. I confess I felt brutally like Belcher. He was getting down.

Once down he faced me, lifted his frank eyes, said, "Do way and play den," smoothed down his smuggler frock, and rejoined his nurse.

But although Johnnyboy afterwards forgave my moral defection, he did not seem to have forgotten my practical medical ministration, and our brief interview had a surprising result. From that moment he confounded his parents and doctors by resolutely and positively refusing to take any more of their pills, tonics, or drops. Whether from a sense of loyalty to me, or whether he was not yet convinced of the efficacy of homoeopathy, he did not suggest a substitute, declare his preferences, or even give his reasons, but firmly and peremptorily declined his present treatment. And, to everybody's astonishment, he did not seem a bit the worse for it.

Still he was not strong, and his continual aversion to childish sports and youthful exercise provoked the easy criticism of that large part of humanity who are ready to confound cause and effect, and such brief moments as the Sluysdaels could spare him from their fashionable duties were made miserable to them by gratuitous suggestions and plans for their child's improvement. It was noticeable, however, that few of them were ever offered to Johnnyboy personally. He had a singularly direct way of dealing with them, and a precision of statement that was embarrassing.

One afternoon, Jack Bracy drove up to the veranda of the Crustacean with a smart buggy and spirited thoroughbred for Miss Circe's especial driving, and his own saddle-horse on which he was to accompany her. Jack had dismounted, a groom held his saddle-horse until the young lady should appear, and he himself stood at the head of the thoroughbred. As Johnnyboy, leaning against the railing, was regarding the turnout with ill-concealed disdain, Jack, in the pride of his triumph over his rivals, good-humoredly offered to put him in the buggy, and allow him to take the reins. Johnnyboy did not reply.

"Come along!" continued Jack, "it will do you a heap of good! It's better than lazing there like a girl! Rouse up, old man!"

"Me don't like that geegee," said Johnnyboy calmly. "He's a silly fool."

"You're afraid," said Jack.

Johnnyboy lifted his proud lashes, and toddled to the steps. Jack received him in his arms, swung him into the seat, and placed the slim yellow reins in his baby hands.

"Now you feel like a man, and not like a girl!" said Jack. "Eh, what? Oh, I beg your pardon."

For Miss Circe had appeared—had absolutely been obliged to wait a whole half-minute unobserved—and now stood there a dazzling but pouting apparition. In eagerly turning to receive her, Jack's foot slipped on the step, and he fell. The thoroughbred started, gave a sickening plunge forward, and was off! But so, too, was Jack, the next moment, on his own horse, and before Miss Circe's screams had died away.

For two blocks on Ocean Avenue, passersby that afternoon saw a strange vision. A galloping horse careering before a light buggy, in which a small child, seated upright, was grasping the tightened reins. But so erect and composed was the little face and figure—albeit as white as its own frock—that for an instant they did not grasp its awful significance. Those further along, however, read the whole awful story in the drawn face and blazing eyes of Jack Bracy as he, at last, swung into the Avenue. For Jack had the brains as well as the nerve of your true hero, and, knowing the dangerous stimulus of a stern chase to a frightened horse, had kept a side road until it branched into the Avenue. So furious had been his pace, and so correct his calculation, that he ranged alongside of the runaway even as it passed, grasped the reins, and, in half a block, pulled up on even wheels.

"I never saw such pluck in a mite like that," he whispered afterwards to his anxious auditory. "He never dropped those ribbons, by G—, until I got alongside, and then he just hopped down and said, as short and cool as you please, 'Dank you!'"

"Me didn't," uttered a small voice reproachfully.

"Didn't you, dear! What DID you say then, darling?" exclaimed a sympathizing chorus.

"Me said: 'Damn you!' Me don't like silly fool geegees. Silly fool geegees make me sick—silly fool geegees do!"

Nevertheless, in spite of this incident, the attempts at Johnnyboy's physical reformation still went on. More than that, it was argued by some complacent casuists that the pluck displayed by the child was the actual result of this somewhat heroic method of taking exercise, and NOT an inherent manliness distinct from his physical tastes. So he was made to run when he didn't want to—to dance when he frankly loathed his partners—to play at games that he despised. His books and pictures were taken away; he was hurried past hoardings and theatrical posters that engaged his fancy; the public was warned against telling him fairy tales, except those constructed on strictly hygienic principles. His fastidious cleanliness was rebuked, and his best frocks taken away—albeit at a terrible sacrifice of his parents' vanity—to suit the theories of his critics. How long this might have continued is not known—for the theory and practice were suddenly arrested by another sensation.

One morning a children's picnic party was given on a rocky point only accessible at certain states of the tide, whither they were taken in a small boat under the charge of a few hotel servants, and, possibly as part of his heroic treatment, Johnnyboy, who was included in the party, was not allowed to be attended by his regular nurse.

Whether this circumstance added to his general disgust of the whole affair, and his unwillingness to go, I cannot say, but it is to be regretted, since the omission deprived Johnnyboy of any impartial witness to what subsequently occurred. That he was somewhat roughly handled by several of the larger children appeared to be beyond doubt, although there was conflicting evidence as to the sequel. Enough that at noon screams were heard in the direction of certain detached rocks on the point, and the whole party proceeding thither found three of the larger boys on the rocks, alone and cut off by the tide, having been left there, as they alleged, by Johnnyboy, WHO HAD RUN AWAY WITH THE BOAT. They subsequently admitted that THEY had first taken the boat and brought Johnnyboy with them, "just to frighten him," but they adhered to the rest. And certainly Johnnyboy and the boat were nowhere to be found. The shore was communicated with, the alarm was given, the telegraph, up and down the coast trilled with excitement, other boats were manned—consternation prevailed.

But that afternoon the captain of the "Saucy Jane," mackerel fisher, lying off the point, perceived a derelict "Whitehall" boat drifting lazily towards the Gulf Stream. On boarding it he was chagrined to find the expected flotsam already in the possession of a very small child, who received him with a scornful reticence as regarded himself and his intentions, and some objurgation of a person or persons unknown. It was Johnnyboy. But whether he had attempted the destruction of the three other boys by "marooning" them upon the rocks—as their parents firmly believed—or whether he had himself withdrawn from their company simply because he did not like them, was never known. Any further attempt to improve his education by the roughing gregarious process was, however, abandoned. The very critics who had counseled it now clamored for restraint and perfect isolation. It was ably pointed out by the Rev. Mr. Belcher that the autocratic habits begotten by wealth and pampering should be restricted, and all intercourse with their possessor promptly withheld.

But the season presently passed with much of this and other criticism, and the Sluysdaels passed too, carrying Johnnyboy and his small aches and long eyelashes beyond these Crustacean voices, where it was to be hoped there was peace. I did not hear of him again for five years, and then, oddly enough, from the lips of Mr. Belcher on the deck of a transatlantic steamer, as he was being wafted to Europe for his recreation by the prayers and purses of a grateful and enduring flock. "Master John Jacob Astor Sluysdael," said Mr. Belcher, speaking slowly, with great precision of retrospect, "was taken from his private governess—I may say by my advice—and sent to an admirable school in New York, fashioned upon the English system of Eton and Harrow, and conducted by English masters from Oxford and Cambridge. Here—I may also say at my suggestion—he was subjected to the wholesome discipline equally of his schoolmates and his masters; in fact, sir, as you are probably aware, the most perfect democracy that we have yet known, in which the mere accidents of wealth, position, luxury, effeminacy, physical degeneration, and over-civilized stimulation, are not recognized. He was put into compulsory cricket, football, and rounders. As an undersized boy he was subjected to that ingenious preparation for future mastership by the pupillary state of servitude known, I think, as 'fagging.' His physical inertia was stimulated and quickened, and his intellectual precocity repressed, from time to time, by the exuberant playfulness of his fellow-students, which occasionally took the form of forced ablutions and corporal discomfort, and was called, I am told, 'hazing.' It is but fair to state that our young friend had some singular mental endowments, which, however, were promptly checked to repress the vanity and presumption that would follow." The Rev. Mr. Belcher paused, closed his eyes resignedly, and added, "Of course, you know the rest."

"Indeed, I do not," I said anxiously.

"A most deplorable affair—indeed, a most shocking incident! It was hushed up, I believe, on account of the position of his parents." He glanced furtively around, and in a lower and more impressive voice said, "I am not myself a believer in heredity, and I am not personally aware that there was a MURDERER among the Sluysdael ancestry, but it seems that this monstrous child, in some clandestine way, possessed himself of a huge bowie-knife, sir, and on one of those occasions actually rushed furiously at the larger boys—his innocent play-fellows—and absolutely forced them to flee in fear of their lives. More than that, sir, a LOADED REVOLVER was found in his desk, and he boldly and shamelessly avowed his intention to eviscerate, or—to use his own revolting language—'to cut the heart out' of the first one who again 'laid a finger on him.'" He paused again, and, joining his two hands together with the fingers pointing to the deck, breathed hard and said, "His instantaneous withdrawal from the school was a matter of public necessity. He was afterwards taken, in the charge of a private tutor, to Europe, where, I trust, we shall NOT meet."

I could not resist saying cheerfully that, at least, Johnnyboy had for a short time made it lively for the big boys.

The Rev. Mr. Belcher rose slowly, but painfully, said with a deeply grieved expression, "I don't think that I entirely follow you," and moved gently away.

The changes of youth are apt to be more bewildering than those of age, and a decade scarcely perceptible in an old civilization often means utter revolution to the new. It did not seem strange to me, therefore, on meeting Jack Bracy twelve years after, to find that he had forgotten Miss Circe, or that SHE had married, and was living unhappily with a middle-aged adventurer by the name of Jason, who was reputed to have had domestic relations elsewhere. But although subjugated and exorcised, she at least was reminiscent. To my inquiries about the Sluysdaels, she answered with a slight return of her old vivacity:—

"Ah, yes, dear fellow, he was one of my greatest admirers."

"He was about four years old when you knew him, wasn't he?" suggested Jason meanly. "Yes, they usually WERE young, but so kind of you to recollect them. Young Sluysdael," he continued, turning to me, "is—but of course you know that disgraceful story."

I felt that I could stand this no longer. "Yes," I said indignantly, "I know all about the school, and I don't call his conduct disgraceful either."

Jason stared. "I don't know what you mean about the school," he returned. "I am speaking of his stepfather."

"His STEPFATHER!"

"Yes; his father, Van Buren Sluysdael, died, you know—a year after they left Greyport. The widow was left all the money in trust for Johnny, except about twenty-five hundred a year which he was in receipt of as a separate income, even as a boy. Well, a glib-tongued parson, a fellow by the name of Belcher, got round the widow—she was a desperate fool—and, by Jove! made her marry him. He made ducks and drakes of not only her money, but Johnny's too, and had to skip to Spain to avoid the trustees. And Johnny—for the Sluysdaels are all fools or lunatics—made over his whole separate income to that wretched, fashionable fool of a mother, and went into a stockbroker's office as a clerk."

"And walks to business before eight every morning, and they say even takes down the shutters and sweeps out," broke in Circe impulsively. "Works like a slave all day, wears out his old clothes, has given up his clubs and amusements, and shuns society."

"But how about his health?" I asked. "Is he better and stronger?"

"I don't know," said Circe, "but he LOOKS as beautiful as Endymion."


At his bank, in Wall Street, Bracy that afternoon confirmed all that Jason had told me of young Sluysdael. "But his temper?" I asked. "You remember his temper—surely."

"He's as sweet as a lamb, never quarrels, never whines, never alludes to his lost fortune, and is never put out. For a youngster, he's the most popular man in the street. Shall we nip round and see him?"

"By all means."

"Come. It isn't far."

A few steps down the crowded street we dived into a den of plate-glass windows, of scraps of paper, of rattling, ticking machines, more voluble and excited than the careworn, abstracted men who leaned over them. But "Johnnyboy"—I started at the familiar name again—was not there. He was at luncheon.

"Let us join him," I said, as we gained the street again and turned mechanically into Delmonico's.

"Not there," said Bracy with a laugh. "You forget! That's not Johnnyboy's gait just now. Come here." He was descending a few steps that led to a humble cake-shop. As we entered I noticed a young fellow standing before the plain wooden counter with a cake of gingerbread in one hand and a glass of milk in the other. His profile was before me; I at once recognized the long lashes. But the happy, boyish, careless laugh that greeted Bracy, as he presented me, was a revelation.

Yet he was pleased to remember me. And then—it may have been embarrassment that led me to such tactlessness, but as I glanced at him and the glass of milk he was holding, I could not help reminding him of the first words I had ever heard him utter.

He tossed off the glass, colored slightly, as I thought, and said with a light laugh:—

"I suppose I have changed a good deal since then, sir."

I looked at his demure and resolute mouth, and wondered if he had.