In which Eddie discovers the joy and terror of remorse and the rest of the gang discover Eddie, the comedian
UNLIKE more hardened offenders, Eddie Smeeton did not feel drawn toward the scene of the crime he had committed the previous evening. In the sobering light of this Saturday morning in July, his reaction was quite the reverse. He was appalled by what he had done.
“Wouldn’t be so bad, if it’d been somebody else’s birchtree I skinned,” he said dismally. “Gee, Ches, I musta been looney.”
“Musta been,’’ Chester Chamberlain agreed, with the candor of an intimate. He hoisted himself to the top of the oat-bin in the Smeeton stable and with heels drumming on the boards regarded his chum perplexedly. “Goshall-hemlock ! Whatever come over you, Eddie?”
“Guess I was dippy, all right. It was pretty near dark when I came home from Keeler's dairy with the milk. I could see that birch-tree just a-shinin’ close inside the hedge.
I knew Cap Carruthers’d be sprinkling his garden out back —an’ I thought it would be pretty slick if we had a birchbark horn for calling that bull moose we come acrost out by the swamp.”
“Moose? We never saw any old bull moose!”
“We saw his tracks,” Eddie maintained.
“Cow tracks. You know well’s me we were only making that up.”
Eddie glared. “S’pose they were cow’s. Guess we’d look like a coupla fools when a real moose does show up in that swamp—and us with no birchbark horn to call him with. Who was it who started the talk for birchbark horns anyways?” He fixed Chester with an accusing eye.
“S’pose I did. You nor nobody like you heard me say to skin Cap’n Carruthers’ birch to get the bark.” “Mebbe not. But what you want to get so flip for? I never asked for any old penny lecture,” Eddie muttered miserably.
“If it’d been old Grouchy Pender’s birch-tree,” Chester began helpfully.
Eddie squared his shoulders truculently. “I’d of skinned the whole blame thing,” he announced with savage determination.
“And hacked it down, too, Eddie, you bet your boots you would—”
“And set fire to it—”
“And his fence—”
“And his henhouse—” Eddie elaborated. The fact that the sworn enemy of all Mapleton boys did not possess a birch-tree, did not deter them. For just a moment Eddie felt that barking even imaginary birchtrees was heroic and commendable. Then the ugly truth dispelled this sudden fiction. He, Eddie Smeeton, had used his knife on one of Captain Carruther’s cherished shade trees and there was no chance of making that act seem glamorous or commendable even to himself.
For the captain was an idol of Mapleton boyhood who never once had been taken from the pedestal on which their esteem had placed him. A white-haired, kindly old adventurer of the seven seas, he had at last come home to Mapleton, and in view of what he had done for them, it would be heresy for any boy, even in his most rebellious moments, to offend him. On Hallowe’en, the captain’s housekeeper distributed apples and taffy to all callers; last winter the old gentleman himself had supplied them with garden hose to flood their skating rink, and, most glorious of all, “he knew about boats.” Yet, in spite of all this, Eddie Smeeton, being possessed of a devil, had set down his milk-pail, wormed his way through the hedge and marred one of the captain’s trees in order to provide himself and his chum with a horn to call moose from the big swamp—moose that both knew in their sober moments did not exist.
Sober, baffled, Chester rummaged through his trouser pockets and produced a grimy length of fibrous inner bark known as “Slippery ellum.” From his perch on the oat-bin he looked down at his friend. If Eddie had offended the great Red Campbell, Mapleton’s Boer War hero, his sin could not have been less pardonable.
“Gimme your knife an’ I’ll whack you off a chew,” Chester promised consolingly.
Eddie slapped his pockets, vaguely at first, then in quick alarm. His knife was not there.
“Musta left it in the house,” Chester suggested.
Eddie did not answer him. His eyes were dilated, his mouth open. Like a searing flash of lightning, the realization of where he had left the knife came to him. And for a moment he was stunned and helpless.
“I know where I lef’ it,” he mumbled. “When I was rolling up the bark to stuff it inside of my blouse, I stuck the knife in the ground. Then I thought somebody was coming. I snuck for th’ hedge—my knife’s there yet.”
Chester ruminated, shifted his cud of slippery elm, spat decisively and came loyally to the rescue of his friend. “Evidence—that’s what the knife’ll be. We got to get it back, don’t we? We got to get it, don’t we?”
Eddie, thinking only of his initials filed into the name plate on the handle, seemed too paralyzed to respond. If the incriminating “E.S.” had been branded on his flesh he could not have been more conscious of them.
“Too late now—” he was beginning, but already Chester had him by the arm and was literally dragging him to the stable door.
“You chase me down the street, like you was after me fit to kill,” Chester urged. “In front of the cap’n’s, you catch me an’ throw my cap over the hedge so it’ll land near the birch. I’ll let on to be hoppin’ mad, and when I go after my cap I’ll have a quick look ’round.”
“Wish old Tige was here. If he hadn’t run away, bet he could trail that knife,” Eddie hesitated. “All we’d have to do would be to let him smell my boots and start him for the Cap’n’s.”
But Chester, loyal though he was to the blundering mongrel he had called his own until it had vanished a week ago, had no patience with his chum’s wistful imaginings. True, Tige had “bloodhound blood” in him, but even had he been here, Chester knew the big dog could not help them. If anything was to be done it must be done by themselves. And it must be done without delay. With all the vehemence at his command he told his chum as much.
A minute later, goaded to action by Chester’s remarks, Eddie was in noisy pursuit of his friend.
“Just you wait—you big kid-mauler,” he yelled as they raced down Juniper Street. To his guilty mind the threat seemed hollow, mocking.
“Hee-haw — an’ her name was Maud!” Chester looking anxiously back. The Carruthers’ place was close ahead but even as he glanced over his shoulder he saw Eddie falter, then streak it across an empty lot and vanish somewhere up the lane.
The group of a dozen boys coming from the captain’s gate explained his chum’s panic. He saw Bony Hicks wave to him as he stopped, undecided, in the road.
“Sumpen’s happened,” he thought apprehensively as the gang came toward him in a straggling run.
“Gee. where’d Eddie go?” Bony asked as he came up.
“What you want him for?” Chester countered warily.
“We’re havin’ a show this afternoon, if on’y Eddie’ll let us use the stable.”
“Cap’s cornin’,” one of the smaller boys piped up. “Bony ast him. Didn’t y’Bony?”
Bony Hicks nodded loftily.
Chester showed no surprise at the announcement. From previous theatrical ventures he knew that the fact of a show being given implied the captain’s attendance. No boy in the neighborhood would so much as think of “getting up” a show without first asking Captain Carruthers if he would attend it. If the old gentleman promised to come, the work of production was enthusiastically begun. His attendance guaranteed the financial success of a performance, for the captain paid ten cents admission—lesser spectators paid ten pins.
“Gee-whizz, Bony—you think you’re the King, or something? Should ’a asked Eddie about the barn first. I bet he’ll put his foot down. You don’t want to get so flip.”
“Guess Eddie knows me. Anyways he always did say use his barn. We got him an’ you on the programme.”
“Eddie—he’s got something else than play-acting to do to-day,” Chester informed the group with moody confidence.
“Aw, gee—cheese it. Le’s ast Eddie his own self.” Already some of the more impatient Thespians were moving away in the direction of the Smeeton house. Bony’s disgusted remark made the move general. There was nothing for Chester to do but follow.
AS HE trooped after the moving spirits in the day’s enterprise his austere loyalty to his chum underwent a change. Immediately after the performance, the entire cast invariably' took the captain’s ten cents, and at the corner grocery distributed the afternoon’s dividends in the form of all-day suckers, licorice whips, bulls-eyes and popcorn balls. He hated to miss that.
Fifteen minutes later, having discovered Eddie in the boxstall which was known as his “work-shop,” Chester joined the gang in trying to persuade his chum to sanction the use of the barn for the afternoon.
Appalled by the possibility of facing the captain so soon after his mad act of desecration, Eddie refused to yield to the entreaties of Bony and the others. He thought of telling them that his mother was not well. The noise they’d make would only make her worse. His agile imagination pictured her, wan and fevered, in her bed, while the shouts of the audience killed her by inches. No, siree! Nothing in the world could persuade him to endanger his mother’s life, he thought with stubborn unselfishness. As they crowded round him, he could see himself a martyr because of his filial love. But a glimpse of his mother, robust and busy on the back porch, shattered his imaginings. It was Chester himself who finally brought about his downfall.
Throwing his arm about Eddie’s shoulders, Chester waved the gang back and led his chum to the far corner of the barn. Then in tersely whispered words he presented his crushing argument.
“Lookit, Eddie,” he urged. “Bony’s ast the cap and the cap said he’d come here for the show—sure. If the barn’s closed and he can’t get in it’d make anybody mad. If you came to see a crackerjack show and couldn’t get in, guess you’d be hoppin’ mad your own self.”
Eddie was prepared to argue about that, but Chester went on. “If the cap can’t get in he’ll start wondering why you slammed the door in his face, sort ’a. ‘Guess that Eddie Smeeton is mad at me or afraid to see me or somethin’,’ that’s what he’ll say. Then he’ll figger it out it was you whittled his tree an’ you’ll be in the soup, you bet.”
“If he found my knife he knows that by now, anyhow.”
“Nope. He doesn’t. You bet he’d come streakin’ it here to face you with it if he had found the knife. It’s likely lost in the grass.” Even to Chester this did not sound convincing. But in the remark was the only hope, faint though it might be, that Eddie had glimpsed that morning. Sick at heart, repentant, still dazed by the madness of what he had done, he nodded his head. A minute later the jubilant gang set to work.
For the remainder of the morning they arranged boxes and planks for seats, rigged a curtain and discussed the programme. And through it all moved Eddie Smeeton, a Hamlet at whose heart a growing apprehension gnawed.
The noon whistles of the factories along the river sounded, cast and stage hands scattered to partake of hurried dinners and still Eddie lingered in the barn. Not until his mother had called him for the third time did he move toward the house.
His parents were already at the table when he slipped into his place. Between bites, his father read the Mapleton Clarion, the local daily which on Saturdays was on the street by noon. An item in the column of “Local Happenings” caught his eye, and with fork poised he read it aloud to his wife.
THE ACT OF A VANDAL
“Wilful mutilation was inflicted upon one of the fine ornamental shade trees in the grounds of Capt. Carruthers, Juniper Street, some time last night or early thismorning.The Captain is unable to account for this act of vandalism. Lovers of arboreal beauty will join with the Clarion in hoping that the vandal or vandals will be discovered and punished to the full limit of the law.”
“Just fancy that,’’ Mrs. Smeeton commented indignantly.
Eddie’s face was ashen, but fortunately for him, his father had disappeared behind the newspaper and his mother at that moment rose to take away the plates and bring in the apple pie.
MOST of the gang had already returned before Eddie’s dragging footsteps led him to the barn. Mercifully for him, the others were too intent on their work to take more than superficial notice of his strange lack of enthusiasm. Bony Hicks, who was billed to open the show with his trapeze act, had his apparatus rigged from the ceiling and was industriously skinning the cat, hanging by his heels and doing back flips, much to the annoyance of the stage carpenters. Another boy was droning away at his mouth organ solo, and Chester was charring corks over a candle flame in readiness for the black face act he and Eddie invariably put on at these performances.
In the shadows of the “work-shop” Eddie sat down, cupped his chin in his palms and slumped to a position of abject misery. He found himself hoping that the barn would burn down before the show began.
He could see the flames licking up the walls. Billowing smoke was bursting from the windows of the loft. The town bell sounded the fire alarm, hundreds of people came running, thronging the lane and the yard. Would the fire brigade never come?
“All those boys! Where are they?” “Bony and Chester Chamberlain and Slob Brownlee and the rest, you mean them?”
A man bustles up to the two women who are talking. “Sorry ladies, it’s too late. We can’t do a thing. These boys are doomed to die a hideous death.” “Oh! Oh!” the women wring their hands. Lurid flames break through the sagging roof. All the men are driven back by the intense heat. What on earth has happened to the fire brigade?
“What’s that? Who is that boy running straight into the flames? Why, don’t you know? That’s Eddie Smeeton. See, here he comes, draggingChester Chamberlain out. Chester is unconscious. Eddie is handing him to his mother and rushing back into that fiery furnace. Look at him, would you? He doesn’t pay any attention to the men who try to hold him back. Here he comes with that Bony Hicks boy. Did you ever —and him a mere boy?”
The beams were crashing down now, all but one boy has been rescued — all but Slob Brownlee.
“Eddie! Eddie! Slob Brownlee isn’t much of a friend of yours.”
“I will save him just the same.”
A moment later he staggers out with Slob in his arms. Captain Carruthers is standing there. He catches the swaying hero. The fire brigade comes clanging down the lane. The captain holds up his hand. “You can take your old hook and ladder wagon and go back to the town hall.”
“Why?” the firemen want to know.
“Because you are too late. This boy saved scores of lives. He is a hero and the Clarion will have his picture in the paper to-morrow you will see. Take him to the hospital and when he is better I am going to go with him on a cruise to India and to China. I will be proud to have him for a traveling companion.”
Eddie blinked and looked up to see Chester standing in front of him, a blackened cork in his hand. “Let me get your make-up on, the captain will be here in ten minutes,” Chester told him.
Like a person in a dream, Eddie stood up while his chum applied the burnt cork to face and hands. The captain was coming in ten minutes. He wanted to run away, hide in the big swamp and never be seen again. But like a chip on the hurrying tide of events, he was being swept to his fate, powerless to help himself. He shut his eyes while Chester rubbed the cork on his eyelids. When he opened them it was to see Bony and Slob carrying in the old armchair which, since he was patron of the arts, was always reserved for Captain Carruthers.
Smaller boys at the door were looking up the lane, whispering their awed delight. The captain was almost here. The trap was sprung and he, Eddie Smeeton, was caught!
Frantically the rag carpet which served as curtain was spread evenly across the wire. The juvenile audience, smaller boys and giggling excited girls in print dresses and pigtails, scurried to their seats. And then, when an expectant hush had fallen upon the theatre, Captain Carruthers placed ten cents in the tin can at the box office, and was ushered to his chair.
AFTER Bony, puffing and red of face *■ from hanging head down, had taken his applause, four boys with tissue paper and combs rendered a raucous medley of patriotic airs. These included “The British Grenadiers”—known to school children of the period as “Upon the Heights at Queenston”—“Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue,” and “Rule Britannia.”
Slob Brownlee’s solo came next. Before the curtain was tugged aside to reveal this self-assured vocalist standing with head thrown back, right foot forward and a very large sheet of music held well in front of him, Eddie, after a superhuman effort of will, took his first look through the “peephole” at the audience.
On the other side of the carpet, not more than six feet away, sat the captain, the gnarled fingers of one hand cupped around his unlighted pipe, his tweed cap upon his knees. Though hidden from the people “out front,” Eddie could somehow feel the captain’s eyes upon him. Even from his place of concealment Eddie dare not look at the weathered face. Sudden terror seized him and he knew that when his turn came, wild horses could not drag him into such awful proximity to the great man. He almost ran for the door of the box stall, which was now a dressing room, there to sit huddled in the darkest corner while Slob’s song began.
Slob Brownlee, who was a choir boy in the “English Church,” was perhaps the only boy in Mapleton who did not believe that music lessons were effeminate and therefore to be shunned as unspeakably odious. In this particular he was even debauched enough to have stated openly that some day he was going to “take up singing.”
Eddie could hear him launching into the chorus of his sentimental ballad:
“Only me, only me.
—Wrung from a innocent baby’s he-a-rt,
Which was filled with miser-ee.
One got the kisses and loving words,
That was her sweet Mar-ee.
One told her troubles to bees and birds—
That little one was me-ee.”
Though every juvenile male in cast and audience would, if questioned, have stated that the song was “mushy,” nevertheless in the dimly lighted barn they gave themselves up to the pathos of the song. To Bony Hicks’ utter disgust, the applause which followed was greater than he had received for his display of manly strength and agility. Not until they realized how wildly the little girls were applauding, did the boys’ approval turn to derision.
“I think Elmer Brownlee’s just the nicest ever,” one of them whispered to her friend.
“He sang as good as an illustrated song,” the other agreed dreamily, thinking of the man who sang at the big tent down behind the opera house, where those summer motion pictures were being shown in Mapleton for the first time.
Following the song, one of the boys did a clog dance, accompanying himself on the mouth organ. He was a generous performer and the expenditure of wind and bodily strength prevented him giving the encore he had been rehearsing. Next, two of the gang played the “bones” with an éclat equal to that of the minstrel troupe which had visited Mapleton the previous winter. And then, with brutal suddenness, Eddie’s and Chester’s turn, which closed the show, was announced.
Chester, in a -flapping Prince Albert coat, jammed the battered “plug hat”— most precious of all stage properties—on the head of his chum, and hissed for him to “get a move on.”
Eddie groaned. He shuddered as if he had just gulped down a dose of bitter medicine. Then scarcely knowing what he did, he stumbled on to the stage.
At previous performances the SmeetonChamberlain team had been a prime favorite at this neighborhood playhouse. The scene of their act was supposedly laid in a cornfield. One had a watermelon—in this case a small and very green pumpkin—which the other coveted, and the action, improvised as the theme developed, was based upon the possession of the stolen delicacy.
Ordinarily the curtain went up on the pair singing:
“Some folks say dat a nigger won’t steal—
Way down yonder in th’ cornfield.
But this afternoon Eddie could not sing it. The implied illegality of his position was too closely related to that paragraph in the Clarion, the paragraph which ended: “the vandal or vandals will be discovered and punished to the full limit of the law.”
As Chester, scowling at his friend, sang the couplet alone, the baying of a dog somewhere down the lane, gave a touch of realism to the scene. It was the sound a pursuing bloodhound might give, and had Tige still been in the neighborhood, Chester would have been positive the sound came from his dog. But Tige had been absent for over a week.
Chester turned to the blackened face beside him. “I bet that’s one o’ my watermillions you got dar, Sambo,” he began.
Eddie rallied. “Nope. It’s my very own watermillion,” he stated, wrapping both arms around the pumpkin. The line lacked its usual truculence, but Chester ignored this.
“You better give me back my watermillion,” he warned. As usual the word “watermillion,” got a laugh. To speed up the action, Chester tried to snatch the pumpkin. Eddie resisted. The audience leaned forward with amused expectancy, knowing that the fun was to begin. Then, seeing something which he alone was capable of understanding, a kindling, mellow smile came to the face of Captain Carruthers. For as the rolling eyes of this blackface comedian looked for an instant in his direction, the old seafarer saw pathetic tragedy.
Eddie tried to make off with the melon. Chester dragged him back. Eddie purposely fell and as he crashed down to the loose boards of the improvised stage, a round of hearty laughter came from the audience. Eddie hardly heard it, but as he scrambled to his feet he chanced to see the smile upon the captain’s face.
Suddenly a strange recklessness possessed him. He would give anything—anything, to make the captain laugh at him again. He hurled himself at the rolling pumpkin, pretended to trip as he was making off with it, and fell. He did not try to break his fall, and glorying in the hurt, the white eyeballs in the smudged face swiveled toward the man he wanted to please at the cost of every bone in his body.
The audience howled at the realism of the hard tumble he had taken. Yes, the captain smiled at him again.
“Hit me a kick,” he hissed with fierce ecstasy as he and Chester came to grips. “Go on, haul off ’n poke me a good one.”
When Chester swung at him, Eddie fell backward, threw the pumpkin straight up and as he lay prone, received it in the pit of the stomach with such force it almost jolted the wind out of it. He scrambled up, tripped over his own feet, jamming the old top hat down over his eyea. Making full use of this unplanned comedy bit, he rammed at Chester with lowered head. Instead of striking the target, however, he battered into the back wall of the stage, which was also the wall of the barn.
The boys and girls shrieked. Never, even in his most exalted moments, had Eddie risen to such heights of the comic. They stood in their seats and cheered him. And once again, as Chester rushed him, Eddie saw Captain Carruthers smiling at him.
He became a dervish. Every bump brought exquisite pleasure. He floundered, fell, tripped himself in his frenzy to please the idol he had unthinkingly wronged. Off stage, members of the troupe fell upon each other, rolled on the floor in delighted hysteria. Eddie pretended to punch his partner and instead crashed his fist into his own face. Boys in the audience danced and pounded each other on the back. That Eddie—wasn’t he the dingdest!
And then as if this crescendo of applause had been his cue, a gaunt, awkward-limbed mongrel came leaping over the rows of seats and knocked Chester down in the frenzy of his welcome. He rushed at the prostrate Eddie, licked his blackened face, nuzzled him joyously.
“Tige! Tige!” shrilled several voices, and as the disheveled mongrel looked expectantly about him, Bony Hicks in his one and only stroke of positive genius, brought the curtain down.
Five minutes later, the juvenile members of the audience had gone. The cast secluded themselves in the box stall, welcoming no advances, waiting until all but the legitimate sharers in the captain’s largesse had taken themselves off.
Chester looked around the curtain. He started. Captain Carruthers was standing near the door, beckoning to him.
“Tell your chum,” he began, when Chester stood before him. “Tell him I— er—appreciated his performance immensely. Give him this, please, with my compliments.”
The captain marched off down the lane and as Eddie came cautiously out to join his friend, Chester handed him the knife the old gentleman had produced—the fatal knife, the evidence, the knife with “E.S.” on its name plate.
THE gang had dispersed, the ten cents had been spent and Eddie Chester and Tige were coming slowly homeward along Juniper Street. The boys were assiduously licking all-day suckers. Tige close beside them was hoping—hoping and watching his chance.
At the corner they stopped. Eddie felt the flesh around his right eye gingerly. “Is it swole any, Ches?” he asked.
Chester examined it. Even through the residue of the make-up, he could see the spreading bruise, which in his frenzy, Eddie had inflicted upon himself.
“Swole some,” Chester stated, replacing his sucker.
“Know what I hope? I hope it gets black’n blue—big’s a duck’s egg.”
“Because I do.”
Chester moved on, leaving his chum standing on the corner, one fist jammed in his pocket, the hand which held the all-day sucker dangling at his side. As Eddie glanced back at the Carruthers’ house there was adoration in his eyes.
His reverie was broken by the sound of crunching. As always, where food was concerned, the patient Tige had taken advantage of his opportunity. He had gulped down the candy and was regarding Eddie with watering, worshipful eyes before the boy discovered his loss.
“You old buttinsky, you,” was all Eddie said as he started, whistling* toward his house.