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
"And so, my dear young friend, I understand that 'mik makes you sick—mik
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
"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
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?"
"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."
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."
"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
"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
"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
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
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
Jason stared. "I don't know what you mean about the school," he returned.
"I am speaking of 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
"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
"I suppose I have changed a good deal since then, sir."
I looked at his demure and resolute mouth, and wondered if he had.