A Young Desperado
WHEN Johnny is all snugly curled up in bed, with his rosy cheek resting on one of his scratched and grimy little hands, forming altogether a perfect picture of peace and innocence, it seems hard to realize what a busy, restive, pugnacious, badly ingenious little wretch he is ! There is something so comical in those funny little shoes and stockings sprawling on the floor,— they look as if they could jump up and run off, if they wanted to, — there is something so laughable about those little trousers, which appear to be making vain attempts to climb up into the easychair, — the said trousers still retaining the shape of Johnny’s little legs, and refusing to go to sleep, — there is something, I say, about these things, and about Johnny himself, which makes it difficult for me to remember that, when johnny is awake, he not unfrequently displays traits of character not to be compared with anything but the cunning of an Indian warrior, combined with the combative qualities of a trained prize-fighter.
I’m sure I don’t know how he came by such unpleasant propensities. I am myself the meekest of men. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that Johnny inherited his warlike disposition from his mother. She .is the gentlest of women. But when you come to Johnny — he’s the terror of the whole neighborhood.
He was meek enough at first, — that is to say, for the first six or seven days of his existence. But I verily believe that he was n’t more than eleven days old when he showed a degree of temper that shocked me, —shocked me in one so young. On that occasion he turned very red in the face, — he was quite red before, — doubled up his ridiculous hands in the most threatening manner, and finally, in the impotency of rage, punched himself in the eye. When I think of the life he led his mother and Susan during the first eighteen months after his arrival, I shrink from the responsibility of allowing Johnny to call me father.
Johnny’s aggressive disposition was not more early developed than his duplicity. By the time he was two years of age, I had got the following maxim by heart: “ Whenever J. is particularly quiet, look out for squalls.” He was sure to be in some mischief. And I must say there was a novelty, an unexpectedness, an ingenuity, in his badness that constantly astonished me. The crimes he committed could be arranged alphabetically. He never repeated himself. His evil resources were inexhaustible. He never did the thing I expected he would. He never failed to do the thing I was unprepared for. I am not thinking so much of the time when he painted my writing-desk with raspberry jam, as of the occasion when he perpetrated an act of original cruelty on Mopsey, a favorite kitten in the household. We were sitting in the library. Johnny was playing in the front hall. In view of the supernatural stillness that reigned, I remarked, suspiciously, Johnny is very quiet, my dear.” At that moment a series of pathetic mews was heard in the entry, followed by a violent scratching on the oil-cloth. Then Mopsey bounded into the room with three empty spools strung upon her tail. The spools were removed with great difficulty, especially the last one, which fitted remarkably tight. After that, Mopsey never saw a work-basket without arching her tortoise-shell back, and distending her tail to three times its natural thickness. Another child would have squeezed the kitten, or stuck a pin in it, or twisted her tail; but it was reserved for the superior genius of Johnny to string rather small spools upon it. He never did the obvious thing.
It was this fertility and happiness, if I may say so, of invention, that prevented me from being entirely dejected over my son’s behavior at this period. Sometimes the temptation to seize him and shake him was too strong for poor human nature. But I always regretted it afterwards. When I saw him asleep in his tiny bed, with one tear dried on his plump velvety cheek and two little mice-teeth visible through the parted lips, I could n’t help thinking what a little bit of a fellow he was, with his funny little fingers and his funny little nails ; and it did n’t seem to me that he was the sort of person to be pitched into by a great strong man like me.
“ When Johnny grows older,” I used to say to his mother, “ I ’ll reason with him.”
Now I don’t know when Johnny will grow old enough to be reasoned with. When I reflect how hard it is to reason with wise grown-up people, if they happen to be unwilling to accept your view of matters, I am inclined to be very patient with Johnny, whose experience is rather limited, after all, though he is six years and a half old, and naturally wants to know why and wherefore. Somebody says something about the duty of “blind obedience.” I can’t expect Johnny to have more wisdom than Solomon, and to be more philosophic than the philosophers.
At times, indeed, I have been led to expect this from him. He has shown a depth of mind that warranted me in looking for anything. At times he seems as if he were a hundred years old. He has a quaint, bird-like way of cocking his head on one side, and asking a question that appears to be the result of years of study. If I could answer some of those questions, I should solve the darkest mysteries of life and death. His inquiries, however, generally have a grotesque flavor. One night, when, the mosquitoes were making lively raids on his person, he appealed to me, suddenly : “ How does the moon feel when a skeeter bites it? ” To his meditative mind, the broad, smooth surface of the moon presented a temptation not to be resisted by any stray skeeter.
I freely confess that Johnny is now and then too much for me. I wish I could read him as cleverly as he reads me. He knows all my weak points ; he sees right through me, and makes me feel that I am a helpless infant in his adroit hands. He has an argumentative, oracular air, when things have gone wrong, which always upsets my dignity. Yet how cunningly he uses his power! It is only in the last extremity that he crosses his legs, puts his hands into his trousers-pockets, and argues the case with me. One day last week he was very near coming to grief. By my directions, kindling-wood and coal are placed every morning in the library grate, in order that I may have a fire the moment I return at night. Master Johnny must needs apply a lighted match to this arrangement early in the forenoon. The fire was not discovered until the blower was one mass of red-hot iron, and the wooden mantelpiece was smoking with the intense heat.
When I came home, Johnny was led from the store-room, where he had been imprisoned from an early period, and where he had employed himself in eating about two dollars’ worth of preserved pears.
“ Johnny,” said I, in as severe a tone as one could use in addressing a person whose forehead glistened with syrup,— “Johnny, don’t you remember that I have always told you never to meddle with matches ? ”
It was something delicious to see Johnny trying to remember. He cast one eye meditatively up to the ceiling, then he fixed it abstractedly on the canary-bird, then he rubbed his ruffled brows with a sticky hand ; but really, for the life of him, he could n’t recall any injunctions concerning matches.
“ I can't, papa, truly, truly,” said Johnny at length. “I guess I must have forgot it.”
“Well, Johnny, in order that you may not forget it in future — ”
Here Johnny was seized with an idea. He interrupted me.
“ I ’ll tell you what you do, papa, — you just put it down in writin’.”
With the air of a man who has settled a question definitely, but at the same time is willing to listen politely to any crude suggestions that you may have to throw out, Johnny crossed his legs, and thrust his hands into those wonderful trousers-pockets. I turned my face aside, for I felt a certain weakness creeping into the corners of my mouth. I was lost. In an instant the little head, covered all over with yellow curls, was laid upon my knee, and Johnny was crying, “ I ’m so very, very sorry ! ”
I have said that Johnny is the terror of the neighborhood. I think I have not done the young gentleman an injustice. If there is a window broken within the radius of two miles from our house, Johnny’s ball, or a stone known to come from his dexterous hand, is almost certain to be found in the battered premises. I never hear the musical jingling of splintered glass, but my porte-monnaie gives a convulsive throb in my breast-pocket. There is not a doorstep in our street that has n't borne evidences in red chalk of his artistic ability ; there is n’t a bell that he hasn’t rung and run away from at least three hundred times. Scarcely a day passes but he falls out of something, or over something, or into something. A ladder running up to the dizzy roof of an unfinished building is no more to be resisted by him than the back platform of a horse-car, when the conductor is collecting his fare in front.
I should not like to enumerate the battles that Johnny has fought during the past eight months. It is a physical impossibility, I should judge, for him to refuse a challenge. He picks his enemies out of all ranks of society, He has fought the ash-man’s boy, the grocer’s boy, the rich boys over the way, and any number of miscellaneous boys who chanced to stray into our street.
I can’t say that this young desperado is always victorious. I have known the tip of his nose to be in a state of unpleasant redness for weeks together. I have known him to come home frequently with no brim to his hat ; once he presented himself with only one shoe, on which occasion his jacket was split up the back in a manner that gave him the appearance of an over-ripe chestnut bursting out of its bur. How he will fight ! But this I can say, — if Johnny is as cruel as Caligula, he is every bit as brave as Agamemnon. I never knew him to strike a boy smaller than himself. I never knew him to tell a lie when a lie would save him from disaster.
At present the General, as I sometimes call him, is in hospital. He was seriously wounded at the battle of The Little Go-Cart, on the 9th instant. On returning from my office yesterday evening, I found that scarred veteran stretched upon a sofa in the sittingroom, with a patch of brown paper stuck over his left eye, and a convicting smell of vinegar about him.
“ Yes,” said his mother, dolefully. “ Johnny’s been fighting again. That horrid Barnabee boy (who is eight years old, if he is a day) won’t let the child alone.”
“ Well,” said I, “ I hope Johnny gave that Barnabee boy a thrashing.”
“Did n’t I, though?” cries Johnny, from the sofa. “ I bet ! ”
“ O Johnny ! ” says his mother.
Now, several days previous to this, I had addressed the General in the following terms : —
“Johnny, if I ever catch you in another fight of your own seeking, I shall cane you.”
In consequence of this declaration, it became my duty to look into the circumstances of the present affair, which will be known in history as the battle of The Little Go-Cart. After going over the ground very carefully, I found the following to be the state of the case.
It seems that the Barnabee Boy — I speak of him as if he were the Benicia Boy — is the oldest pupil in the Primary Military School (I think it must be a military school) of which Johnny is a recent member. This Barnabee, having whipped every one of his companions, was sighing for new boys to conquer, when Johnny joined the institution. He at once made friendly overtures of battle to Johnny, who, oddly enough, seemed indisposed to encourage his advances. Then Barnabee began a series of petty persecutions, which had continued up to the day of the fight.
On the morning of that eventful day the Barnabee Boy appeared in the school-yard with a small go-cart. After running down on Johnny several times with this useful vehicle, he captured Johnny’s cap, filled it with sand, and dragged it up and down the yard triumphantly in the go-cart. This made the General very angry, of course, and he took an early opportunity of kicking over the triumphal car, in doing which he kicked one of the wheels so far into space that it has not been seen since.
This brought matters to a crisis. The battle would have taken place then and there ; but at that moment the schoolbell rang, and the gladiators were obliged to give their attention to Smith’s Speller. But a gloom hung over the morning’s exercises, —a gloom that was not dispelled in the back row, when the Barnabee Boy stealthily held up to Johnny’s vision a slate, whereon was inscribed this fearful message : —
Johnny got it “put down in writin’ ” this time !
After a hasty glance at the slate, the General went on with his studies composedly enough. Eleven o’clock came, and with it came recess, and with recess the inevitable battle.
Now I do not intend to describe the details of this brilliant action, for the sufficient reason that, though there were seven young gentlemen (connected with the Primary School) on the field as war correspondents, their accounts of the engagement are so contradictory as to be utterly worthless. On one point they all agree, — that the contest was sharp, short, and decisive. The truth is, the General is a quick, wiry, experienced old hero ; and it did n’t take him long to rout the Barnabee Boy, who was in reality a coward, as all bullies and tyrants ever have been, and always will be.
I don’t approve of boys fighting ; I don’t defend Johnny ; but if the General wants an extra ration or two of preserved pear, he shall have it!
I am well aware that, socially speaking, Johnny is a Black Sheep. I know that I have brought him up badly, and that there is not an unmarried man or woman in the United States who wouldn’t have brought him up very differently. It’s a great pity that the only people who know how to manage children never have any! At the same time, Johnny is not a black sheep all over. He has some white spots. His sins —if wiser folks had no greater ! — are the result of too much animal life. They belong to his evanescent youth, and will pass away ; but his honesty, his generosity, his bravery, belong to his character, and are enduring qualities. The quickly crowding years will tame him. A good large pane of glass, or a seductive bell-knob, ceases in time to have attractions for the most reckless spirit. And I am quite confident that Johnny will be a great statesman, or a valorous soldier, or, at all events, a good citizen, after he has got over being A Young Desperado.