“Bouncers, Teddy! the roundest and the rosiest. Drop them, quick! My apron’s all ready for the darlings.”
“It’s very well to say drop them; but it’s just as much as I can do to keep from falling myself. Don’t you see I’m holding on with both hands?”
“What a fuss you do make! Come down, and let me try. I never saw a tree yet big enough to scare me.”
“Who’s scart, Becky Sleeper? I ain’t—not by a long chalk. When a feller’s holdin’ on with both hands, he can’t be expected to pick very quick—can he?”
“Wind your arm round that branch over your head. There; now you’re all right, Teddy.”
“That’s so. What a hand you are to contrive! Now look sharp—they’re coming!”
Becky Sleeper, in imitation of famed “Humpty Dumpty,” sat upon a wall, where she had no business to be, for the wall was the boundary of Captain Thompson’s orchard. But there she sat, her feet dangling, her hair flying, and her hands holding her apron by its corners, intent on catching the apples which her brother was plucking from the tree above her head.
An active, wide-awake little body was the girl who was acting as accessory to the crime—a very common one—of robbing an orchard. Every movement of her sprightly figure belied the family name. Perched upon the wall, that cool October morning, she might have sat as a model for the Spirit of Mischief. A plump, round, rosy face, with a color in the cheeks that rivaled in brightness the coveted fruit above her, blue eyes full of laughter, a pretty mouth, with dissolving views of flashing teeth, teasing smiles, and a tongue never at rest; a queer little pug nose, that had a habit of twitching a mirthful accompaniment to the merriment of eyes and mouth, a profusion of light hair, tossed to and fro by the quick motions of the head,—all these combined to make a head-piece which would have delighted an artist, brightened as it was by a few straggling rays of sunshine, that darted through convenient openings in the mass of foliage above her head.
Miss Becky’s costume, however, did not furnish a fitting finish to her face and figure, but, on the contrary, seemed much the worse for wear. A high-neck, blue-check apron showed unmistakable signs of familiarity with grape and berry juices; the rusty brown dress which peeped out beneath it was plentifully “sown with tares,” and had a rough fringe at the bottom never placed there by the dress-maker; a pair of stockings, once white, had the appearance of having recently been dyed in a mud-puddle, and a pair of stringless boots, which completed her attire, were only prevented from dropping off by an elevation of the toes.
With her diminutive figure, her mischievous face, and her eager interest in the apple raid, she might have been taken for a thoughtless, giddy child. No stranger would have dreamed she was a maiden with an undoubted right to affix to her name, age sixteen.
Her companion was a year younger, but greatly her superior in weight and measure, not much taller, but remarkably round at the waist and plentifully supplied with flesh. He lacked the activity of his sister, but was ambitious to emulate her achievements, and to that end panted and puffed with remarkable vigor.
Becky was an adept in all boyish sports. She could climb a tree with the activity of a squirrel, ride a horse without saddle or bridle, pull a boat against the swift current of the river, “follow my leader” on the roughest trail, take a hand at base ball, play cricket, and was considered a valuable acquisition to either side in a game of football.
Teddy admired the vigor of his sister, was not jealous of her superior abilities, although he was unlucky in his pursuit of manly sports. He had to be helped up a tree, and very often lay at the foot, when the helper thought he had successfully accomplished his task. Horses generally dropped him when he attempted to ride; he always “caught crabs” in boats; was a “muffer” at base ball, and in everybody’s way in all sorts of games.
These two were companions in roguery, and were a terror to all respectable people in Cleverly who possessed orchards which they valued highly, or melon patches which they watched with anxious care; for, no matter how high the value, or how strict the watch, this pair of marauders had excellent taste in selection, and managed to appropriate the choicest and best without leave or license.
Cleverly is a very staid, respectable, triangular township on the coast of Maine, its southern, or sea line about six miles in length, forming the base of the triangle, with a small village—Foxtown—at its eastern point, and a somewhat more pretentious town—Geeseville—at its western point. From these two places the division lines ran, one north-east, the other north-west, meeting on Rogue’s River, where a bridge makes the apex of the triangle. The roads, however, do not traverse these boundary lines. There is a straight road from Foxtown to Geeseville, passing over a bridge which spans the river where it empties into the harbor. South of this highway is known as the fore side, and here may be found Captain Thompson’s shipyard, a short, chunky wharf, where occasionally a packet lies, and a blacksmith’s shop.
A few rods west of the river another road breaks from the highway and goes straight north. This is the main street of Cleverly. Climbing a hill from the fore side, the traveller, on entering this street, will find on the left a tailor’s shop, a country store, the post-office, then a dozen houses, white, attractive, and roomy. On the right, a row of neat and tidy houses, four in number; then a carpenter’s shop, the church, a small school-house, a more expansive “academy,” several fine dwellings, then a long hill, at the foot of which is a brick-yard, and, a few rods farther, another settlement known as the “Corner.” The distance between the fore side and the Corner is about a mile, and between these two points may be found the wealth, culture, and respectability of the township.
There is abundance of thrift, with very little “brag” about Cleverly. Rogue’s River turns a paper mill, a woollen mill, and a nail factory. Every season a vessel is launched from the ship-yard, and every winter the academy is well filled with students; every Friday night, winter and summer, the vestry of the church is crowded with an attentive audience, and every Sunday the church is surrounded with horses and vehicles of all sizes, varieties, and conditions; yet the quiet of the place seems never broken. There is much beauty, with little attempt at display, about the town. Trees line the street, vines climb about the houses, shrubs peep out at the palings, and flowers bloom everywhere without any seeming special assistance from the inhabitants.
There is very little change in the Cleverly of to-day from the Cleverly of twenty years ago. Then Captain Thompson’s house stood directly opposite the church, a large, square, two-story front, as grand as any in the place. At the rear, a lower building, used as a kitchen, ran out to one still lower, used as a wood-shed; this, in turn, stretched out to another building, used as a carriage-house, while the barn, of larger proportions, swung at the end of all; so that, approaching it from the side, the structure had the appearance of a kite with a very long tail to it. At the end of the stable was the kitchen garden; beyond that, the orchard, and on the stone wall which separates it from the lane, which in its turn separates the whole place from the woods, patiently sits Miss Becky during this long description.
“Quick, Teddy! Three more will make a dozen; and that’s as many as I can hold, they’re such whoppers. O, dear! my arms ache now,” said Becky, after Teddy had employed more time than seemed necessary in plucking the captain’s mammoth Baldwins.
“Don’t ache any more than mine do, I guess,” grumbled Teddy; “and I’m all cramped up, too. Don’t believe I’ll ever git down agin.”
“O, yes, you will Teddy. You’re famous for quick descents, you know. You always come down quicker than you go up; and such graceful somersets as you do make! It’s better than the circus, any time, to see you;” and a merry peal of laughter broke from Miss Becky’s lips.
“Becky, Becky! don’t do that!” cried Teddy; “they’ll hear you up at the house. I wouldn’t have Cap’n Thompson catch me in this tree for a good deal, I tell you. He’s promised me a whaling if he ever catches me on his place.”
“Don’t be scart, Teddy. He won’t catch you this time. I can see the house, and there is not a soul stirring; and, besides, the cap’n’s not at home.”
“Not until you make up the dozen, Teddy. Don’t be a goose! I haven’t watched this tree a week for nothin’. Cap’n Thompson’s gone to the ship-yard. I saw him ride off an hour ago on ‘Uncle Ned;’ and he never gets back till dinner time when he goes there.”
“Don’t be too sure of that, Tomboy!”
With a slight scream, Becky turned her eyes from the camp of the enemy to the lane. Not ten feet from her stood a white horse, and on his back sat the dreaded enemy—Captain Thompson. A lively trembling of the branches overhead gave evidence that another party was aware of the startling interruption to a projected fruit banquet.
Becky looked at the captain. He had a very red face; he seemed to be in a towering passion, and was, evidently, searching his short, stout body for a tone deep and terrible enough with which to continue the conversation. She looked at him with a smile on her face; but, at the flash of his angry eyes, dropped hers to the apron which contained the proofs of guilt, then stole a glance at her trembling accomplice, straightened her little body, and looked defiantly at the horseman.
“So, Tomboy, I have caught you in the act—have I?” thundered the captain.
“Yes, cap’n, you certainly have, this time, and no mistake,” saucily answered the tomboy. “S’pose we’ve got to catch it now. What’s the penalty? Going to put us in the pound, or lock us up in the barn?”
“Neither, Miss Impudence,” thundered the captain. “I’ll horsewhip you both. Here, you, Master Ned, come out of that tree, quick! D’ye hear?”
That the delinquent did hear, and that he was inclined to obey, was made manifest by a rustling among the leaves, and the dull thud of a heavy body as it struck the ground, for Master Teddy, terrified at the angry voice of the captain, had let go, and landed in a heap outside the wall.
“Run, Teddy, run! Don’t let him catch you!” cried Becky, in excitement, dropping her apron.
The round and rosy spoils, being freed, followed the law of gravitation, and plumped one after another on to the head of the prostrate Teddy, who was groaning and rubbing his elbows, with a very lugubrious face.
“If you stir a step, you imp of mischief, I’ll break every bone in your body,” cried the captain, hastily dismounting, and approaching Teddy, with a long riding-whip in his hand.
“Don’t you touch my brother! Don’t you dare to touch my brother!” cried Becky from her perch. “It’s a shame to make such a fuss about a few apples!”
“It’s a great shame that a girl of your age should be caught stealing apples,” replied the captain.
“’Tain’t my fault. We shouldn’t have been caught if you’d only staid at the yard.”
The captain almost smiled; the audacity of the young depredator’s attempt to shift the responsibility of the theft upon him, really tickled him. Nevertheless, he approached Teddy, who, having rubbed himself comfortable, now sat calmly awaiting his fate.
“Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself? Haven’t I told you to keep off my place? Haven’t I given you sufficient warning? Haven’t I promised you a thrashing if I caught you here—hey?” roared the captain.
“Yes, cap’n, you did. But I couldn’t help it. I—I—I didn’t want the apples; b—b—but I wanted to climb the tree for fun; its such a hard climb, and—and—” stammered Teddy, eyeing the whip.
“Don’t lie, you imp. There’s my apples all round you. You shall sweat for this, I promise you. Off with your jacket, quick! D’ye hear?”
“Don’t strike him, cap’n; please don’t. He’s not to blame;” and Becky plunged from the wall, and stood between the captain and her brother. “He didn’t want the apples—indeed, he didn’t. He don’t like apples—do you, Teddy?”
Teddy shook his head energetically, with a contemptuous look at the fruit.
“I helped him up the tree, and I’m to blame for it all. You oughtn’t to strike a boy for doing all he can to please his sister. If you must whip somebody, take me.”
“Stand out of the way, Tomboy. Your time will come soon enough—never fear.” And he pushed her from the path. “Off with that jacket. D’ye hear?”
Teddy coolly unbuttoned his jacket, and threw it on the grass.
“Don’t tease him, Becky. I’m not afraid of his whip. If it’s any fun for him, let him lay on. I guess I can stand it as long as he can;” and Teddy looked defiantly at his adversary.
Becky ran to her brother, and threw her arms about his neck, to shield him from the whip.
“He shan’t strike you, Teddy. It’s all my fault. He shan’t touch you.”
Captain Thompson was an obstinate man. When he made up his mind to the doing of an act, nothing could stand in his way. Perhaps this accounted for the coolness of Teddy in the trying situation in which he was placed, who, remembering his promise, knew it must be fulfilled, and so offered no resistance.
“Don’t, Becky. D’ye want to smother a feller? Don’t be a ninny. It’s got to come. Go home—do.”
“I won’t. He shall kill me before he strikes you.”
Becky’s devotion was blighted in an instant, for the angry man seized her by the arm and flung her across the lane. She fell to the ground unhurt, for the grass was thick and soft.
“I’ll teach you to meddle. Don’t come near me till I’ve done with him. Mind that.”
Becky sprang to her feet, fire flashing from her eyes. She was as angry now as her tormentor. She picked up a stone, and despite his warning, approached the captain. He should not strike her brother, she looked at the house; no one in sight. Down the lane; no one—yes, there stood Uncle Ned, cropping the grass, unmindful of the group. Ah, the horse! There was a chance yet to save her brother.
“Now, you scamp, I’ll teach you to rob orchards!” and the whip was raised.
Spry as a cat, Becky was at the captain’s back in an instant. She jumped and caught the whip from his hand, then ran for the horse. The captain quickly turned; but too late. Becky sprang to the saddle, caught up the rein, lashed the horse, turned, and shouted, “Good by, Teddy! Good by, cap’n!” and galloped down the lane.
“Come back, come back, you imp of mischief! Come back, I say,” shouted the captain, running after her.
The captain, with a muttered “Hang it!”—which was the extent of his swearing, for he was a deacon,—followed at as rapid a pace as he could command, leaving Teddy solitary and alone.
The fat boy looked after his persecutor a moment, with a smile upon his face, then rose, picked up his jacket, put it on, buttoned it at the bottom, then coolly picked up the trophies of victory, tucked them into his jacket and his pockets, crossed the lane, crept through a hedge, and disappeared.
Categories: English Literature