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Chapter 22 – A Boy’s Bargain

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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It was some days before the children were tired of talking over Ben’s
birthday party; for it was a great event in their small world; but,
gradually, newer pleasures came to occupy their minds, and they began to
plan the nutting frolics which always followed the early frosts. While
waiting for Jack to open the chestnut burrs, they varied the monotony of
school life by a lively scrimmage long known as "the wood-pile fight."

The girls liked to play in the half-empty shed, and the boys, merely for
the fun of teasing, declared that they should not, so blocked up the
doorway as fast as the girls cleared it. Seeing that the squabble was a
merry one, and the exercise better for all than lounging in the sun or
reading in school during recess, Teacher did not interfere, and the
barrier rose and fell almost as regularly as the tide.

It would be difficult to say which side worked the harder; for the boys
went before school began to build up the barricade, and the girls stayed
after lessons were over to pull down the last one made in afternoon
recess. They had their play-time first; and, while the boys waited
inside, they heard the shouts of the girls, the banging of the wood, and
the final crash, as the well-packed pile went down. Then, as the lassies
came in, rosy, breathless, and triumphant, the lads rushed out to man
the breach, and labor gallantly till all was as tight as hard blows
could make it.

So the battle raged, and bruised knuckles, splinters in fingers, torn
clothes, and rubbed shoes, were the only wounds received, while a great
deal of fun was had out of the maltreated logs, and a lasting peace
secured between two of the boys.

When the party was safely over, Sam began to fall into his old way of
tormenting Ben by calling names, as it cost no exertion to invent trying
speeches, and slyly utter them when most likely to annoy. Ben bore it as
well as he could; but fortune favored him at last, as it usually does
the patient, and he was able to make his own terms with his tormentor.

When the girls demolished the wood-pile, they performed a jubilee chorus
on combs, and tin kettles, played like tambourines; the boys celebrated
their victories with shrill whistles, and a drum accompaniment with
fists on the shed walls. Billy brought his drum, and this was such an
addition that Sam hunted up an old one of his little brother’s, in order
that he might join the drum corps. He had no sticks, however, and,
casting about in his mind for a good substitute for the genuine thing,
bethought him of bulrushes.

"Those will do first-rate, and there are lots in the ma’sh, if I can
only get ’em," he said to himself, and turned off from the road on his
way home to get a supply.

Now, this marsh was a treacherous spot, and the tragic story was told of
a cow who got in there and sank till nothing was visible but a pair of
horns above the mud, which suffocated the unwary beast. For this reason
it was called "Cowslip Marsh," the wags said, though it was generally
believed to be so named for the yellow flowers which grew there in great
profusion in the spring.

Sam had seen Ben hop nimbly from one tuft of grass to another when he
went to gather cowslips for Betty, and the stout boy thought he could do
the same. Two or three heavy jumps landed him, not among the bulrushes,
as he had hoped, but in a pool of muddy water, where he sank up to his
middle with alarming rapidity. Much scared, he tried to wade out, but
could only flounder to a tussock of grass, and cling there, while he
endeavored to kick his legs free. He got them out, but struggled in vain
to coil them up or to hoist his heavy body upon the very small island in
this sea of mud. Down they splashed again; and Sam gave a dismal groan
as he thought of the leeches and water-snakes which might be lying in
wait below. Visions of the lost cow also flashed across his agitated
mind, and he gave a despairing shout very like a distracted "Moo!"

Few people passed along the lane, and the sun was setting, so the
prospect of a night in the marsh nerved Sam to make a frantic plunge
toward the bulrush island, which was nearer than the mainland, and
looked firmer than any tussock round him. But he failed to reach this
haven of rest, and was forced to stop at an old stump which stuck up,
looking very like the moss-grown horns of the "dear departed." Roosting
here, Sarn began to shout for aid in every key possible to the human
voice. Such hoots and howls, whistles and roars, never woke the echoes
of the lonely marsh before, or scared the portly frog who resided there
in calm seclusion.

He hardly expected any reply but the astonished Caw!" of the crow, who
sat upon a fence watching him with gloomy interest; and when a cheerful
"Hullo, there!" sounded from the lane, he was so grateful that tears of
joy rolled down his fat cheeks.

"Come on! I’m in the ma’sh. Lend a hand and get me out!" bawled Sam,
anxiously waiting for his deliverer to appear, for he could only see a
hat bobbing along behind the hazel-bushes that fringed the lane.

Steps crashed through the bushes, and then over the wall came an active
figure, at the sight of which Sam was almost ready to dive out of sight,
for, of all possible boys, who should it be but Ben, the last person in
the world whom he would like to have see him in his present pitiful
plight.

"Is it you, Sam? Well, you are in a nice fix!" and Ben’s eyes began to
twinkle with mischievous merriment, as well they might, for Sam
certainly was a spectacle to convulse the soberest person. Perched
unsteadily on the gnarled stump, with his muddy legs drawn up, his
dismal face splashed with mud, and the whole lower half of his body as
black as if he had been dipped in an inkstand, he presented such a
comically doleful object that Ben danced about, laughing like a naughty
will-o’-the-wisp who, having led a traveller astray then fell to jeering
at him.

"Stop that, or I’ll knock your head off!" roared Sam, in a rage.

"Come on and do it; I give you leave," answered Ben, sparring away
derisively as the other tottered on his perch, and was forced to hold
tight lest he should tumble off.

"Don’t laugh, there ‘s a good chap, but fish me out somehow, or I shall
get my death sitting here all wet and cold," whined Sam, changing his
tune, and feeling bitterly that Ben had the upper hand now.

Ben felt it also; and, though a very good-natured boy, could not resist
the temptation to enjoy this advantage for a moment at least.

"I won’t laugh if I can help it; only you do look so like a fat,
speckled frog, I may not be able to hold in. I’ll pull you out pretty
soon; but first I’m going to talk to you, Sam," said Ben, sobering down
as he took a seat on the little point of land nearest the stranded
Samuel.

"Hurry up, then; I’m as stiff as a board now, and it’s no fun sitting
here on this knotty old thing," growled Sam, with a discontented squirm.

"Dare say not, but ‘it is good for you,’ as you say when you rap me over
the head. Look here, I’ve got you in a tight place, and I don’t mean to
help you a bit till you promise to let me alone. Now then!" and Ben’s
face grew stern with his remembered wrongs as he grimly eyed his
discomfited foe.

"I’ll promise fast enough if you won’t tell anyone about this," answered
Sam, surveying himself and his surroundings with great disgust.

"I shall do as I like about that."

"Then I won’t promise a thing! I’m not going to have the whole school
laughing at me," protested Sam, who hated to be ridiculed even more than
Ben did.

"Very well; good-night!" and Ben walked off with his hands in his
pockets as coolly as if the bog was Sam’s favorite retreat.

"Hold on, don’t be in such a hurry!" shouted Sam, seeing little hope of
rescue if he let this chance go.

"All right!" and back came Ben, ready for further negotiations.

"I’ll promise not to plague you, if you’ll promise not to tell on me.
Is that what you want?"

"Now I come to think of it, there is one thing more. I like to make a
good bargain when I begin," said Ben, with a shrewd air. "You must
promise to keep Mose quiet, too. He follows your lead, and if you tell
him to stop it he will. If I was big enough, I’d make you hold your
tongues. I ain’t, so we’ll try this way."

"Yes, Yes, I’ll see to Mose. Now, bring on a rail, there’s a good
fellow. I’ve got a horrid cramp in my legs," began Sam, thinking he had
bought help dearly, yet admiring Ben’s cleverness in making the most of
his chance.

Ben brought the rail, but, just as he was about to lay it from the
main-land to the nearest tussock, he stopped, saying, with the naughty
twinkle in his black eyes again, "One more little thing must be settled
first, and then I’ll get you ashore. promise you won’t plague the girls
either, ‘specially Bab and Betty. You pull their hair, and they don’t
like it."

"Don’t neither! Wouldn’t touch that Bab for a dollar; she scratches and
bites like a mad cat," was Sam’s sulky reply.

"Glad of it; she can take care of herself. Betty can’t; and if you
touch one of her pig-tails I’ll up and tell right out how I found you
snivelling in the ma’sh like a great baby. So now!" and Ben emphasized
his threat with a blow of the suspended rail which splashed the water
over poor Sam, quenching his last spark of resistance.

"Stop! I will! – I will!"

"True as you live and breathe!" demanded Ben, sternly binding him by the
most solemn oath he knew.

"True as I live and breathe," echoed Sam, dolefully relinquishing his
favorite pastime of pulling Betty’s braids and asking if she was at
home.

"I’ll come over there and crook fingers on the bargain," said Ben,
settling the rail and running over it to the tuft, then bridging another
pool and crossing again till he came to the stump.

"I never thought of that way," said Sam, watching him with much inward
chagrin at his own failure.

"I should think you’d written ‘Look before you leap,’ in your copy-book
often enough to get the idea into your stupid head. Come, crook,"
commanded Ben, leaning forward with extended little finger. Sam
obediently performed the ceremony, and then Ben sat astride one of the
horns of the stump while the muddy Crusoe went slowly across the rail
from point to point till he landed safely on the shore, when he turned
about and asked with an ungrateful jeer, –

"Now what’s going to become of you, old Look-before-you-leap?"

"Mud turtles can only sit on a stump and bawl till they are taken off,
but frogs have legs worth something, and are not afraid of a little
water," answered Ben, hopping away in an opposite direction, since the
pools between him and Sam were too wide for even his lively legs.

Sam waddled off to the brook in the lane to rinse the mud from his
nether man before facing his mother, and was just wringing himself out
when Ben came up, breathless but good natured, for he felt that he had
made an excellent bargain for himself and friends.

"Better wash your face; it’s as speckled as a tiger-lily. Here’s my
handkerchief if yours is wet," he said, pulling out a dingy article
which had evidently already done service as a towel.

"Don’t want it," muttered Sam, gruffly, as he poured the water out of
his muddy shoes.

"I was taught to say ‘ Thanky’ when folks got me out of scrapes. But
you never had much bringing up, though you do ‘live in a house with a
gambrel roof,’" retorted Ben, sarcastically quoting Sam’s frequent
boast; then he walked off, much disgusted with the ingratitude of man.

Sam forgot his manners, but he remembered his promise, and kept it so
well that all the school wondered. No one could guess the secret of
Ben’s power over him, though it was evident that he had gained it in
some sudden way, for at the least sign of Sam’s former tricks Ben would
crook his little finger and wag it warningly, or call out "Bulrushes!"
and Sam subsided with reluctant submission, to the great amazement of
his mates. When asked what it meant, Sa, turned sulky; but Ben had much
fun out of it, assuring the other boys that those were the signs and
password of a secret society to which he and Sam belonged, and promised
to tell them all about it if Sam would give him leave, which, of course,
he would not.

This mystery, and the vain endeavors to find it out caused a lull in the
war of the wood-pile, and before any new game was invented something
happened which gave the children plenty to talk about for a time.

A week after the secret alliance was formed, Ben ran in one evening with
a letter for Miss Celia. He found her enjoying the cheery blaze of the
pine-cones the little girls had picked up for her, and Bab and Betty sat
in the small chairs rocking luxuriously as they took turns to throw on
the pretty fuel. Miss Celia turned quickly to receive the expected
letter, glanced at the writing, post-mark and stamp, with an air of
delighted surprise, then clasped it close in both hands, saying, as she
hurried out of the room, –

"He has come! he has come! Now you may tell them, Thorny."

"Tell its what? asked Bab, pricking up her cars at once.

"Oh, it’s only that George has come, and I suppose we shall go and get
married right away," answered Thorny, rubbing his hands as if he enjoyed
the prospect.

"Are you going to be married? asked Betty, so soberly that the boys
shouted, and Thorny, with difficulty composed himself sufficiently to
explain.

"No, child, not just yet; but sister is, and I must go and see that all
is done up ship-shape, and bring you home some wedding-cake. Ben will
take care of you while I’m gone."

"When shall you go?" asked Bab, beginning to long for her share of cake.

"To-morrow, I guess. Celia has been packed and ready for a week. We
agreed to meet George in New York, and be married as soon as he got his
best clothes unpacked. We are men of our word, and off we go. Won’t it
be fun?"

"But when will you come back again?" questioned Betty, looking anxious.

"Don’t know. Sister wants to come soon, but I’d rather have our
honeymoon somewhere else, – Niagara, Newfoundland, West Point, or the
Rocky Mountains," said Thorny, mentioning a few of the places he most
desired to see.

"Do you like him?" asked Ben, very naturally wondering if the new master
would approve of the young man-of-all-work.

"Don’t I? George is regularly jolly; though now he’s a minister, perhaps
he’ll stiffen up and turn sober. Won’t it be a shame if he does?" and
Thorny looked alarmed at the thought of losing his congenial friend.

"Tell about him; Miss Celia said you might", put in Bab, whose
experience of "jolly" ministers had been small.

"Oh, there isn’t much about it. We met in Switzerland going up Mount
St. Bernard in a storm, and – "

"Where the good dogs live?" inquired Betty, hoping they would come into
the story.

"Yes; we spent the night up there, and George gave us his room; the
house was so full, and he wouldn’t let me go down a steep place where I
wanted to, and Celia thought he’d saved my life, and was very good to
him. Then we kept meeting, and the first thing I knew she went and was
engaged to him. I didn’t care, only she would come home so he might go
on studying hard and get through quick. That was a year ago, and last
winter we were in New York at uncle’s; and then, in the spring, I was
sick, and we came here, and that’s all."

"Shall you live here always when you come back? asked Bab, as Thorny
paused for breath.

"Celia wants to. I shall go to college, so I don’t mind. George is
going to help the old minister here and see how he likes it. I’m to
study with him, and if he is as pleasant as he used to be we shall have
capital times, – see if we don’t."

"I wonder if he will want me round," said Ben, feeling no desire to be a
tramp again.

"I do, so you needn’t fret about that, my hearty," answered Thorny, with
a resounding slap on the shoulder which reassured Ben more than any
promises.

"I’d like to see a live wedding, then we could play it with our dolls.
I’ve got a nice piece of mosquito netting for a veil, and Belinda’s
white dress is clean. Do you s’pose Miss Celia will ask us to hers?"
said Betty to Bab, as the boys began to discuss St. Bernard dogs with
Spirit.

"I wish I could, dears," answered a voice behind them; and there was
Miss Celia, looking so happy that the little girls wondered what the
letter could have said to give her such bright eyes and smiling lips." I
shall not be gone long, or be a bit changed when I come back, to live
among you years I hope, for I am fond of the old place now, and mean it
shall be home," she added, caressing the yellow heads as if they were
dear to her.

"Oh, goody!" cried Bab, while Betty whispered with both arms round Miss
Celia, –

"I don’t think we could bear to have anybody else come here to live."

"It is very pleasant to hear you say that, and I mean to make others
feel so, if I can. I have been trying a little this summer, but when I
come back I shall go to work in earnest to be a good minister’s wife,
and you must help me."

"We will," promised both children, ready for any thing except preaching
in the high pulpit.

Then Miss Celia turned to Ben, saying, in the respectful way that always
made him feel at least twenty-five, –

"We shall be off to-morrow, and I leave you in charge. Go on just as if
we were here, and be sure nothing will be changed as far as you are
concerned when we come back."

Ben’s face beamed at that; but the only way he could express his relief
was by making such a blaze in honor of the occasion that he nearly
roasted the company.

Next morning, the brother and sister slipped quietly away, and the
children hurried to school, eager to tell the great news that "Miss
Celia and Thorny had gone to be married, and were coming back to live
here for ever and ever."

 

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