A Childish Chagrin

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

THAT the sorrows of childhood, which are so droll to adults, are unspeakably keen to the child has often been remarked, and it is with amusement and a sigh that I recall a silly little experience which came somewhere about my seventh year. I had grown with such ill-judged rapidity as to injure my health, and was sent to recuperate at Cutler, a charming nook far down on the Maine coast, now not unknown to the summer visitor. There I was given over to the care of a kindly old lady, a patient of my father’s. She offended my pride on my arrival by declaring in homely phrase that I had “grown up like a weed in the shadow of the pigsty;” but no one could have resisted the good-humor that radiated from her abundant person.

I had no playmates. If children of my tender age existed in Cutler I did not come in contact with them. I was so completely the victim of the kindness of my hostess, at least, that this obliterates all other memories. She was anxious that when my father returned to take me home he should find me greatly improved, and to this end she spared no pains. She gave me cream to drink, and of this I approved greatly; but alas! she had somewhere heard that raw eggs were excellent for delicate children, and from some association of eggs with milk warm from the cow, had added the refinement that the egg should be warm from the hen. This egg was the bane of my existence. I thought of it the first thing when I woke, and I had no appetite for breakfast because I could not help thinking of that ghastly potion, tepid and glutinous, which was sure to come in the middle of the forenoon. The hour varied a little according to the caprices of the hens, but sometime about ten was sure to arise the shrill cackling which announced that my medicine was ready. One plump black bantam in particular had a cut-cut-kadark-cut which to my excited ears seemed fairly to split the welkin with its hateful din. She was especially approved by her mistress as the producer of big brown eggs, half as large again, it seemed to me, as any laid by the rest of the flock, and my wrath was proportionately furious against her. The air of conscious and officious superiority with which that fat black bantam strutted about after she had given to the world in general and to me in particular one of those famous brown eggs, the rasping discord of her raucous cackle, were enough to drive a nervous child to the verge of distraction.

The anguish I suffered over those doses is beyond telling, and as ludicrous now as it was grievous then. I used on the sly to throw stones at the hens, and especially at that obnoxious black pullet, in the vain hope that I might frighten them out of their infernal fertility, and escape for lack of eggs. I was aware at breakfast that not to eat was to render only doubly certain the coming of that stickily warm abomination, even then being carried about the farmyard by some officious fowl with eyes that shut up from the bottom. Morning after morning I fairly choked in the attempt to eat so much breakfast that I might be spared the dose. I even on one unlucky day tried to conceal a square of corn-cake in my pocket, with the view of throwing it away afterward and cheating my solicitously kind landlady into the notion that I had eaten it. In my tremulous eagerness — I was absurdly nervous — I succeeded only in dropping it to the floor, and in being told, with a beaming smile on her part, that the floor was a poor place “for the Lord’s good bread.” I could not speak out, for the one or two attempts I made were overwhelmed by assurances that I did n’t know what was good for me, and that at least I wished “to get chunked up” so that my father would be proud of me when he came to take me home.

When once the egg was safely transferred from the body of the hen to my own, Mrs. Stamen used to lead me to the outer door, put my cap firmly on my head, and say with a smile as beaming as that of Mrs. Fezziwig, “Now go and skip on the hills for an hour.” This form of address I think I resented more than I did the raw egg. That was at worst a physical injury, and, however misjudged, it was well meant; but this direction to go and skip involved what appeared to my excited imagination a misconception of my dignity which was little less than a deliberate insult. I pondered much and darkly over the matter, and at last evolved the idea that the proper retort was: “I’m not a calf, Mrs. Stamen; and I don’t skip.” Day after day I tried to screw my courage up to utter this remarkable phrase; but day after day I went out for my solitary recreation with the brilliant repartee unsaid. I hugged myself in secret over the exquisite felicity of the retort, and whenever I saw a calf kick up his heels I chuckled to think how taken aback the old lady would be when I actually spoke. Morning after morning I considered the wit of what I was to say until at times I could almost forget the egg which was warming for me in the bosom of some frumpy fowl. Yet when I had strengthened my soul to produce my jewel of facetiousness, morning after morning I allowed myself to be led tamely to the door and dismissed with the customary instruction to go and skip, without finding courage to speak.

It was not until in the fullness of time father came to take me home that I got the words out. Holding his hand at the moment when we were saying good-by, I suddenly felt that now at last I dared say anything; and looking up boldly into the kindly, plump face above me, I declared firmly: “I am not a calf, Mrs. Stamen.” “What, deary?” she asked in perplexity.

My father looked down on me with quizzical eyes. It was evident that he appreciated the fact that something lay behind the irrelevant words, though he could not guess what. It came over me with a sickening sense of chagrin that neither of them knew in the least what I was talking about. Mrs. Stamen murmured that I was a queer, old-fashioned child; and I felt in a flash the impossibility of attempting anything in the way of explanation. I had shot my bolt, and it had failed of the mark. The exquisitely droll repartee over which I had secretly so rejoiced had fallen absolutely flat. My vanity, which had gloated over the certainty of seeing the quiet smile which could light my father’s eyes and just touch the corners of his lips, was stabbed to the quick. I had expected to triumph, and I had simply seemed silly.

It is a trivial bit of the past to come floating up as it does now and again, and of course to-day one could not recall it without a smile; but when my fancy sees again the corpulent benevolence of Mrs. Stamen’s figure, the gold beads floating like gilded driftwood on the billows of her neck, and the frail small boy before her flushed with mortification for his own failure, under the smile comes too the current of a sigh for the foolish and sorrowful chagrins of childhood.