Harper's Young People, July 27, 1880 - novelonlinefull.com
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"How old was he when he did it?"
"I didn't know exactly his age. Ten or twelve, perhaps, or thereabouts.
But there is the tea-bell. I'll tell you about it after tea."
Uncle Dudley found his audience increased by four or five expectant boys and girls, who gathered around him on the broad piazza, attracted by the rumor that "one of Uncle Dud's stories" was in prospect. Little Elsie crept into his lap as he began:
"I don't think I have ever told you anything of my poor friend Ben, but he played a very important part in many of the pranks and sports and joys and sorrows of my earlier boyhood. I think that, outside of my own family, my attachment to him was the strongest I have ever formed.
People used to laugh at us, and call him my younger brother, we showed so much affection for each other."
"Was he a son of your neighbor?" asked Hal.
"No, not his son, but his home was with our nearest neighbor. It was never known who his parents were. He came to Mr. Washburn's house one day, n.o.body knew where from; but he attracted the attention of all by his fine bright, honest face. I shall never forget the look of his great earnest brown eyes; I used to think they expressed more in a minute than some folks could talk in an hour. Then he had soft hair--this you see--brown, with the least tinge of auburn through it, and was most graceful in his movements. He would strike any one as a handsome fellow."
"What did he come for, uncle? Do you mean that he was a beggar? Did he ask for food?"
"He didn't ask for anything, but it was easy to see what he needed, and country hospitality was not likely to wait till he asked. He staid about there a few days, and made friends with every one. Before long he seemed to have quietly grown to be almost one of the family, and I think they would have been as sorry to lose him as he would to go. He and I 'took to' each other at once, and I owe many of the happiest hours of my boy life to his companionship, for I had no brother near my own age."
"And did your parents really allow you to make a companion of such a little tramp?" asked Hal, with a slight sniff, and a toss of the head which he conceived to be rather aristocratic. "How did they know what kind of a fellow he might have been?"
"Well, they never seemed to fear any harm coming to me through him. Ben showed a much better disposition than I ever did. He was very gentle in his manners, always inclined to yield to me in everything, giving me my own way to an extent which unfortunately fostered my tendency to be domineering and overbearing. It was this trait in my character which led to the incident I am about to tell you of.
"In the summer vacations he and I--"
"Excuse me for interrupting you, Uncle Dud; but how did this Ben get along at school?"
"Well, he never went to school--"
"Never went to school? Why, didn't those folks he lived with give him any advantages?"
"--But I don't think any one seemed to consider him neglected. He was naturally very quick of perception, and had a wonderful faculty of gathering information from his surroundings. He seemed so well fitted for whatever duties fell to him, that I don't believe any one thought it necessary to send him to school."
"What was he good for, anyhow?"
"He made himself generally useful and agreeable. He used to drive cows, dig in the garden, etc., and as the family grew fond of him, they used to take him out with them a great deal."
"They must have been a queer set, though, to let him grow to be a man in ignorance."
"Ben never got to be a man. But I agree with you, Hal, that a man without education, or a boy either, is a poor thing."
"Oh, did Ben die young?" said Hal, with a soberer face.
"Yes. I _did_ take him to school with me once--what a tricky young rascal I must have been! He walked to the school-house door with me, and I forced him in--much against his will it was, but I always made him mind me. I seated him in the master's chair, and ordered him to stay there, while I went to my seat. Of course the boys all laughed, and poor Ben trembled and looked imploringly at me, but I shook my fist at him to make him sit still. Presently the master came in. He was a quick-tempered man, and when he saw what was going on, how mad he was!
He s.n.a.t.c.hed up a rule, but Ben was too smart for him. He sprang from the chair and went out of the half-open window at one bound, with an awful crash of gla.s.s and sash, and was off swift as the wind. Then the master tried to find out who was in fault, but could get no further than the truth that he belonged to none of us. No one told of me, so I missed the thrashing which would have been so willingly bestowed."
"I think it was right mean of you to treat Ben so, uncle."
"I think so too, and that wasn't my worst treatment of him, as you shall hear.
"A small river formed the boundary of one side of my father's farm. On its bank, in one spot which was surrounded and sheltered by a thick growth of willows, Ben and I used to spend many an hour. He was an excellent swimmer, and very fond of the water. One morning we were having a merry time; we swam, dived, and rowed in the lovely sunshine.
At last I picked up a piece of wood and threw it to the other side of the stream, trying to hit a water-rat. As it left my hand, I saw that it was a piece I had selected for the hull of a miniature boat, just suitable for that purpose, being straight-grained and exactly the right thickness. I told Ben to go and get it for me, but he was probably tired of play, for, for the first time, he refused to do my bidding, and went and lay down under a tree. I was angry, and ordered him loudly and roughly, picking up a stone and threatening him. He looked reproachfully at me, and turned and walked quickly toward his home.
"Now throwing stones was one of my great faults. I can not tell how often my mother had scolded, threatened, and punished me for it. Even at that moment there came vividly before me the remembrance of a time when I had killed a robin, and brought it and showed her what I had done--for I must do myself the justice to say I was always frank in confessing my faults. She took the poor dead bird in her hands, and with tears in her eyes talked to me in a tone of deeper anger and sorrow than I had ever heard from her.
"'They are G.o.d's little creatures. They are dumb, except for the sweet songs they bring us. They are helpless, except as their helplessness appeals to human beings for pity and protection. I believe the Lord's blessing will _never_ rest on those who are cruel to things weaker than themselves.'
"I was really sorry, and wanted to tell her so, but a spirit of pride tempted me to 'brave it out,' so I said, with a poor attempt at a laugh, 'Oh, I'm sorry, of course, but you know it comes natural to boys to throw stones.'
"If I had been at all decent about it, she would have forgiven me at once; but, ah me! I never saw her move so quickly as when she went out the back door and broke off a supple green apple switch. After making most vigorous use of it she sent me to my room, with the remark, 'It fortunately comes natural to mothers to punish.'
"I spent the rest of the day there, and as I feasted on bread and water, and realized that there was company to tea, and that my whole being craved spring chicken, jelly cake, and quince preserves, I made up my mind that in future there would be one boy to whom it would come less 'natural' to throw stones.
"All this pa.s.sed through my mind as I stood with the stone in my hand.
But my tyrannical temper mastered me, and as Ben turned and looked back, I flung it at him. I did _not_ mean to hit his head, but there was where it struck, in the brown hair just above one eye. I saw the blood trickle from a cut, as with a sharp cry of pain he ran away and disappeared. I was shocked at what I had done, but you know there are some conditions of mind in which self-reproach only makes anger hotter. I did not obey my impulse to follow the poor fellow, but threw off my jacket and plunged into the stream to recover the block I wanted. I suppose I had already been too long in the water, for when about half way over I was seized with a cramp. In a moment I became helpless, and screamed wildly as I felt myself going down--down--down. I arose to the surface again too nearly drowned to scream any more, but with just sense enough left to feel myself seized by something. That was the last I knew.
"But I was afterward told how my father and some of the farm hands came rushing down just in time to see Ben panting, almost exhausted, as he drew me to the sh.o.r.e. There was blood on my face, which added to my mother's great alarm when I was carried to her. Not my blood, as you may guess, but poor Ben's--the result of my cruel blow.
"There is not much more to tell. I was in bed several days after it. The first time Ben came to see me I put my arms around his neck, and begged him to forgive me."
"What did he say?"
"Not a word. He never was a talker. But I knew by his clear, earnest eyes that he had never harbored a hard thought of me. I need not tell you I treated him more kindly after that. We continued, if possible, closer friends than ever, till I was sent away to school."
"And you say Ben did not live to be a man, uncle?" said Hal, whose interest in the "little tramp" had greatly increased. "How old was he when he died? Tell us about it, please."
"His death was a very sad occurrence, taking place the same season I left home. One night a suspicious-looking person came prowling about Mr.
Washburn's place. Ben was the first to hear him--he always seemed to have one ear open when the interests of his friends were concerned--and ran toward him, making all the noise he could to arouse the family. The brave fellow seized hold of the marauder, who drew a revolver, and beat him about the head, and as he still held on, shot him."
A murmur of regret and indignation arose from the little audience.
"The man made off, and Ben was found to be not dead, but terribly injured: a leg was broken, and his head fearfully bruised. All that kind care could do for him was done, but it soon appeared that he was beyond all hope of recovery, and to put an end to his sufferings another bullet--this time aimed in sorrowful kindness--did its quick work on the life of poor Ben."
"_What's that?_" cried Hal, starting up. "Do you mean that they _shot_ him? Killed a boy because he was badly hurt? I never heard of such--"
"_Boy?_" said his uncle, looking at him in great surprise. Then he went on: "When I heard of it, it almost broke my heart; and the first time I went home after it, and no Ben came bounding to meet me, wagging his tail, and with a face beaming welcome, I felt as though I had--"
"Hey, uncle! Wagging _his tail_? _Whose_ tail? What are you talking about? Haven't you been telling us about a _boy_ all this time?"
"Yes. _I_ was a boy. But Ben was not."
Hal threw himself on the gra.s.s-plot and shouted with laughter, all his sympathy for Ben lost in his amus.e.m.e.nt at this unexpected disclosure.
"Oh, Uncle Dud! you're too much for me. 'Never went to school,' 'never grew to be a man'--oh no. 'No talker,' 'didn't ask for anything'--modest fellow! Oh, that's too good!"
Boys and girls had a hearty laugh, and ran away to play hide-and-seek in the summer twilight--all but little Elsie, who tenderly stroked the brown curl, and laid it against her soft cheek, sighing, "Poor Ben!