IT began with a chub in a water pail. The chub had been intended for pickerel bait and was a last survivor; so it was given to me, aged four. I adored that chub! It was the first live thing that I had owned. 1 fed it flies of my own catching — after serious efforts and many failures. It had the whole of my heart.
Came then the time when flies were not, and bits of bread had to take their place. Then, one dire night! Down went the thermometer in that country kitchen and iced over the water in that pail. In the morning my beautiful silver fish was stiff and cold. The grown-ups laughed, to themselves. I felt the insincerity of their sympathy, and listened silently to their unproved statements that the real fish had gone to a happy stream where all good fish go when they are tired of hunting for bugs and worms.
Later, much later, I specialized in underwater life in a pasture trench around a great rock, permanently full of water. At eight or nine I could have told any boy the difference between toad, frog, and tree-toad tadpoles; and, as a frog catcher, in that town I had no equal. I knew in advance just which way that frog would jump. So, when a big hogshead was sawn in two to make great tubs for hog-scalding in the fall killings, in summer I made of them a safe harbor for evening concerts, out by the well, under the great elm. No boy had bigger artists!
But there was competition there. For every boy in town, count one impresario. Supremacy demanded constant alertness in annexing candidates. Great was the mortification if one other boy discovered and collected a deeper basso profundo. As a matter of fact, in that I was a class by myself, and the competition lay among members of the second class, to my own infinite soul comfort — tinged, still, with a permanent anxiety. Some other boy might discover a frog Babe Ruth.
One day I forestalled just such a case by fine detective work, and in glorious triumph carried home six giants of their kind. Naturally no pocket would hold them — that is, the totally inadequate pockets supplied to small boys. So, with the grip of a young monkey on the hind legs of my captives, I carried them homeward, three in each hand, heads down; and I swaggered past the crowded piazza of the summer hotel that all the world — especially all other boys therein — might see. Among the observers chanced to be my beautiful mother and no less beautiful elder sister, and I held up those full hands of mine to them in gleeful triumph. A roar of laughter swept that piazza from end to end,
and my grown-ups turned a curious scarlet as to face. That night I received two distinct, emphatic lectures relating to keeping absolutely separate the piazza of that hotel and all and several frog adventures.
Now it so befell that while ranging in an outlying back pasture I came on a spring hole under a great rock, largely hidden by a pile of brush. Exceeding experience had made me wise; no such place did I ever overlook. But I was struck dumb by the sight of no less than twelve pairs of turret-eyes around the margin of that black pool; and the spaces between those eyes were to be measured by inches! The white man who first saw a herd of ten thousand buffalo may have got a greater thrill, but I doubt it. By then, he must have lost much of his capacity for thrilling. I had absolutely all of mine, intact.
But I was forbidden to carry prizes — and such prizes! — homeward in the natural way. Should I leave that bonanza until I could get home and back with a covered pail? That would take at least an hour; and for aught I knew at least five other boys might even then be right on my trail! True, from lesser skill they would be able to catch only one or two of those veterans of the deep; but they would warn the rest and that would cause me endless trouble. I sat me down and pondered, not long but hard. My private maxim even then was ‘Obstacles were invented to create thought’—and swiftly the answer came.
With a fishline, cut without a qualm, I tightly tied my knee pants just above the knee. Then with Indian stealth, and suitable intervals of quiet, I proceeded. Each big black batrachian in turn found himself in the last suddenness of a grasp that held and paralyzed, then gently but irresistibly drew him from his comfortable bedplaee of wet mud and deftly slipped him head downward under the waistband of those pants, to be joined in due time by others till my legs fairly bulged with quite abnormal muscular development. It was uncomfortable for all concerned, especially for me. But what would you? Had not the grown-ups in their power of resistless might unreasonably ruled a rule that all small boys of any wisdom must heed?
When the last of the twelve, a Goliath that seemed to me really a third larger than the rest, joined his husky, dusky brethren, can you blame me if I sat back and leaned against the rock and howled and yelled just for my own delight? It was simply impossible for all the boys in town together to produce by their united stealth even half a dozen such as mine. So I started on my homeward way.
Now the ordinary walk of a shortlegged boy is apt to be staccato. To the frogs it must have seemed like being inside of a rotary churn. Moreover, as to what it was all about they still were completely in the dark; although more or less aware that they had descended into that oubliette from above, and hence that the outlet necessarily was above — a fact which they speedily decided to verify, some five minutes before I was due once more to pass the hotel piazza.
I have seen a flock of starlings tack, and veer, and flash away at a new angle when a hawk was winging past as though each bird in the mass thought exactly like every other bird at that second, and needed no command. They just went. So, suddenly up each leg twelve cold, clammy little feet frantically began to climb, and twelve more as promptly began to follow them, and every single inch of me thereabouts in an instant began to wriggle. Those twelve mammoth frogs, like chimney sweeps of old, went upward just as far as space would let them go, and clung there, and stayed; and one small boy had to swagger unconcernedly past that loaded piazza with stolid features and every quivering nerve under desperate mind-control! I won out; but it was at a price!
That night, at twilight, the entire family of inquisitive grown-ups cocked suddenly attentive ears at the deep, ponderous chorus that was pealing out from the cavernous mouths of those enormous tubs under our mighty elm. They listened. They looked at each other. They looked at me. I was beaming with a mighty satisfaction. So they simultaneously demanded when and how. I told them, placidly. Then, quite incomprehensibly they shrieked, and screamed with inexpressible laughter, and held each other up helplessly and shrieked again. I let them. Why not? Sometimes grown-ups, even mine, are ‘perfect idiots.’ The only way to do when they get that way is just to let them ‘idiot.’ I did. My turn was yet to come. My chamber window looked out on that orchestra, and every note of its deep-toned chorus came up to me as though magnified by the outlet of a mighty horn. I listened to it, positively entranced. That music was real, and it was worth all it cost. Nor did I have to pump wearily at the pump behind the church organ at five cents an hour to enjoy its harmony.
Suddenly, as by command of an imperious leader, every voice was silent. I leaned far out of the window in swift anxiety. Then I hugged myself with ecstasy; for out of the silence came one single, ponderous, metallic note — the one note without a rival; the note, I felt, from that huge giant of them all before whom lesser frogs must sit in silence. I listened. Oh, joy! It came again, carrying a world of deepest meaning if one but knew its language to interpret. Sometimes, in dreams, I seem to hear it now.