An Adventure

The next day we all met in the Treasure room of the Dragon, but not altogether by chance I thought, however it might have appeared at first, for after a little talk about unimportant things, my future was brought up for discussion and settlement. Indeed, it was for this the meeting had been called, and it would have gone hard with me, I am convinced, except for Constance and the great tact she showed. For it appeared that Uncle Job and Mr. Seymour were both of the firm opinion that my education could no longer be neglected, and this being so I must at once go away to school. Upon their finally intimating as much, I, not knowing what to say, turned to Constance and implored her by a look to come to my aid. For to leave Appletop meant our parting, and this I was now in no way inclined to after having been away from her so long. Answering my appeal, the sweet girl went to her father, and placing her arms about his neck in the most winsome way you can imagine, said:
“Is Gilbert strong enough to do this, papa? See how pale he is; and you know he has not been himself since that dreadful storm. The trial, too, nearly broke his heart. You remember how he cried out, and you yourself were affected. It’s only a little while, too, since he was so ill and we thought he was going to die. I should think you’d want him to get some strength before sending him away. Surely the school can wait.”
“Why, you little puss, what do you know about Gilbert’s health?” Mr. Seymour answered, returning her caress. “You talk as wise as a doctor.”
“It doesn’t need a doctor to tell, papa, for we all know what he has gone through. He never was strong, you know, and Fox told me only yesterday that they thought he never would come to that night at the Eagle’s Nest”; and Constance looked at me as if distressed beyond measure at my uncertain health.
“That was a long time ago, puss.”
“No, not a week; and think what he’s passed through before and since!”
“He will be all the better for going. The change will do him good,” Mr. Seymour answered, toying with her hair.
“Sometime, papa, but not now. Wait till he is strong. He can study with me; why not?”
“Oh, fie on you! But what do you think, Job?” Mr. Seymour asked after a pause. “Suppose we leave it until another day. There is some sense in what Kit says,” he went on, patting her cheeks. “Gilbert doesn’t look very rugged, and besides he could not do much before the summer vacation.”
“I had not thought of his health,” Uncle Job answered, looking me over as one might a horse he thought of running for first prize.
“Nor I; but it’s as puss says, or a little that way,” Mr. Seymour answered.
“Well, then, let the matter drop for the present,” Uncle Job responded. “An education is not worth much if one breaks down in getting it. So go and build yourself up, young man, and we will talk about it again.”
Thus happily, through Constance’s sweet intervention, I was granted a further respite, and this more to my liking than I would have cared to tell, for I was now become greatly enamored of my liberty, and thought little of books, except as I might read them when Constance was by.
Being in this way freed from all anxiety, Constance and I did not lack for ways in which to pass the time agreeably in each other’s company. If the weather happened to be fair, we rode or drove; or if there was snow, went coasting on the bluff back of the town. The thing, however, most to our liking, and of which we never tired, was skating. For this we went to the river, but later, and best of all, to Mr. Appletop’s in the park across the road from the Dragon. This gentleman, now very old and feeble, was the father of the village, but a mystery to all its people, no one knowing his history, he having come into the country while it was still occupied by the Sacs and Foxes. A wanderer and misanthropist it was believed, he after a while married an Indian woman, and then, as if tired of roaming, settled down a little apart from the tribe in the house he still occupied. His wife dying about the time of Black Hawk’s war, he remained when the Indians left, and in this way acquired a title to the land upon which the town stood. Being improvident and of careless habits, he had little by little parted with all his holdings until now he had scarce anything left save the park wherein his house stood. Here he lived without servants or companions of any kind, if I except a number of dogs he kept about him, some of which were of good breed, but in the main were of no account whatever. Seeing Constance and I skating one day on a small piece of ice beside the road, he asked us to come to the lake in his private grounds. This we did, to our great delight, and also to his no small pleasure, I must believe, for he used to sit and watch us and applaud everything Constance did for hours at a time.
In this manner, and to Constance’s and my great happiness and the complete building up of my health then and for all time, the winter passed. In the spring, Uncle Job being away and having now no partner, he made me his agent to look after the house he was building in expectation of his marriage. This I found greatly to my liking, for in the work Constance and Miss Betty shared, and together we conceived many features in connection with the structure not common to the new country, nor contemplated in the plans Uncle Job had drawn. These, it was found, added to the cost, but he approved every one we proposed, claiming, and rightly enough, that they would cost less then than if added at a later period. After the house was built, much time was spent in furnishing, trips to Galena and Chicago being thought necessary in order to make sure we were getting the best of everything, and not patterns palmed off on our local merchants by the more fashionable purveyors in the larger towns.
While thus engaged I again suddenly changed my place of residence and manner of living, and this naturally enough. For, as might have been expected, my irregular life since leaving Wild Plum had made me impatient to see something of the great world outside, and so ready for any change that suggested itself. Of such things I often spoke to Constance, but not altogether to her liking, as I could plainly see by the expression of her eyes and more often by the tremor of her lips. In nothing, however, did the sweet creature array herself against anything I proposed, for had she done so I would have given it up, so great was my love for her. Thus we talked, at first vaguely, and then more particularly, but without anything definite, until one day we stood idly watching the War Eagle as she lay moored at the landing below Appletop, when suddenly seizing her hand, I cried out:
“Constance, I’m going to get a place on that boat if I can. It’s the very thing we’ve talked about. What happiness to ride up and down the river and see the world, and earn your own living, too!”
At this outbreak she was so startled she could not speak, but after a while, turning to me with a sob, said, and sorrowfully enough:
“You’ll not do that, Gilbert, and leave your Uncle Job and—me!”
“You, Constance—only you!” I answered. “Uncle Job has Miss Betty now, and so will not miss me,” I answered.
“Oh, but he will! Please don’t think of it any more, Gilbert. I should never see you again, I know,” she answered, taking hold of my hands.
“Yes, you would, Constance, and often, too, for the boat is passing here all the time. When she ties up in the fall, I will come back, and it’ll not be long, either.”
“Your uncle will never forgive you, Gilbert. You are like a son to him, as you are to papa.”
“I know, but I have got to make my way in the world sometime, and why not now?” I answered.
“Papa and your Uncle Job will help you to do that, and be glad of the chance.”
“I know; but what more can they do than they have? And if I don’t do this, Constance, I’ll have to go away to school soon, and then I’ll not see you for a long time, and maybe never. What if they should send me to New York, or thereabouts. It takes months to go, and I couldn’t come back for years!”
21This and much more I said to win her consent, but most of all the thought that if I went away to school she would see me no more, at last won her to my way. So with tears streaming down her dear face, she put her arms about my neck and bade me do as I wished.
“There’s no one on earth so good and sweet as you, Constance,” I cried, kissing her. Then, not waiting to say more, I ran down to the landing, calling to her to stay where she was until I returned.
The captain of the War Eagle was on the upper deck, and reaching the spot where he stood, I looked back to see Constance, sad and dejected, standing where I had left her. Much put out now the time had come to proffer my request, I knew not what to say or do, but presently, as the captain did not look around, I went up to him and made known my wish, but without any voice or heart whatever. To this he paid no attention any more than as if I had not spoken, but continued on with the business he had in hand. Plucking up courage after a while, I said, and now with more animation:
“Captain, I want to get a berth on your boat, if you please.”
To this he made no reply, any more than in the first instance, but looking down called angrily to the mate about some matter that was going wrong; and this makes me think that I have never known men with such high tempers, or its semblance, as those who work on the rivers. For if the smallest thing goes wrong, they appear to fly into a furious passion; but no sooner has the occasion passed than you will see them laughing and talking as if nothing in the world could disturb the serenity of their tempers.
Angered beyond speaking at the captain’s treatment, and observing Constance watching me, I now went close to him, and taking hold of his jacket gave it a jerk, calling out, loud enough to be heard half across the river:
“Captain, I want a place on your boat as cabin-boy.”
Upon this he turned about, half in anger, and eying me a moment, demanded:
“What is that you want, young man?”
Upon this I repeated my request, but now more respectfully, and hearing me through he answered, pleasantly enough:
“I’ve no work for you, my son. You are not strong enough for a roustabout, nor tall enough to look after the berths, and besides the darkies attend to such things.”
“I only want a place as cabin-boy, sir.”
“You are not smart enough for that,” he replied, looking me over.
“If I don’t know, I can learn,” I answered, seeing my hopes slipping away.
“You are too slight, my son, that is what I mean. There, go away; I have no time to talk to you,” and with that he turned and faced the crew as before.
Rebuffed and discouraged, I stood still, but he taking no further notice of me, I at last made my way to the lower deck, and now by the opposite stairs, so as not to be seen from the shore. In this way I reached the farther side of the boat, where I stopped, filled with such disappointment and shame that I could not find it in my heart to go back to Constance. While thus waiting, not knowing what to do, a woman standing by my side gave a cry, and as she did so I heard a splash and at the same moment the wail of a frightened child.
“Oh, my God, my baby!” she screamed, wringing her hands and leaning over the water as if about to throw herself headlong into the stream. Looking down, the child had disappeared, but while I gazed it came to the surface a little way below, and doing so, threw up its hands imploringly as it again sank beneath the water. This distressing sight and the cries of the poor woman were such as would have stirred any one, and without thinking I threw off my shoes, and running to the spot where the child had disappeared, plunged into the stream. The water being clear, I found the little thing directly, and supporting it with my arm, brought it to the surface. Now, indeed, I was thankful to my dear father for having one day thrown me headlong into the pool at Wild Plum, in sport, he said, to make me swim whether I would or no. Putting my arm about the child, I lifted it to my shoulder, and with the other turned about to regain the boat. This I might easily have done had the water been still, but the current turning outward with the bend in the river, or from some other cause, carried me swiftly in the opposite direction. Saying some soft words to the child, I soon had it quieted, for it was in no way the worse for the ducking that I could see. Then, on its showing some further uneasiness, I made as if we were having a lark, whereupon it laughed, and taking up the water in its hand, dashed it in my face, crowing with glee, as if it were great sport. The little thing’s weight was nothing, and I carried it as easily as I would a riding-whip; but having the use of only one arm I could make no headway whatever. As we drifted farther into the stream the current grew stronger, boiling and bubbling about us, but without adding much, if any, to the labor of keeping afloat. At first I plainly heard the captain giving orders to man the yawl, but while this was being done, the father of the child, a poor deck-hand, frenzied with grief, sprang into the river. This, foolishly, as it appeared, for he could not swim a stroke, and so sank where he fell. Thus he had first to be rescued, and when the boat at last turned in my direction I was but a speck on the distant water. The exertion of keeping afloat did not in any way tax my strength, but not knowing the cause of the delay I could not make out why they were so long in coming to our relief. Finally, no boat appearing, I thought they had given us up for lost. At this I was greatly discouraged, for I could see no way by which I could reach the shore unaided, because of the swift current, which now ran like a mill-race. While meditating on what I should do, I looked back, and to my great joy saw the boat coming toward us. At this I felt as good as new, and thus we floated on past the bend in the river, and out of sight. This only for a moment, for the boat quickly came into view again, throwing the spray high on either side, as if skimming the water like a bird. Then in a moment they lifted us aboard, and we were saved, the captain taking off his jacket and wrapping it about my body, the mate doing the same for my little companion. When we were thus tucked up, and not until then, the captain spoke, but it was no longer the voice I had heard, but that of a soft-hearted, compassionate man.
“How do you think you find yourself now, my son?”
“I’m all right, sir,” I answered, as indeed I was.
“We should have reached you sooner, but for that fool of a deck-hand. I expect you found the water pretty cold?” he asked, fastening his jacket more securely about my body.
“Not at first, sir, nor enough to hurt. The little one, though, looks pinched. See how blue its lips are,” I answered, no whit the worse for my bath.
Upon this the captain called to the mate to rub the child’s hands and limbs and wrap it up more warmly, but the little thing was in nowise cast down. Brought up on the river, it looked on the water as its home, and this fortunately for me, for it gave me no trouble whatever, but from the first treated the whole thing as if it were play.
On our way back the shore was lined with the passengers and crew of the War Eagle and such of the townspeople as happened to be about, and among them I saw Constance with arms outstretched. At this I stood up in the boat and waved my hand, calling her name, and this I continued to do, that she might see I was safe and unharmed. When finally we reached the War Eagle, I made my way to where she stood, and putting my arms about her trembling form, held her, neither of us speaking. While we stood thus, the captain came up, and thinking we were brother and sister, said, out of compliment to her:
“You ought to be proud of your brother, my little lady!”
“Yes, sir; but he’s not my brother,” she answered, without offering to disengage herself from my arms.
“A cousin, or some relative?”
“No, sir.”
“Your lover, then? Well, I like that best. Yes, yes, decidedly, that’s as it should be. A few years, and they will soon pass, and then you will make a fine couple. Be always as you are now, though, for it was in that way my wife and I grew up; and now she is the finest woman in the world. Come, my son,” he went on, “are you the lad that asked me for work?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered.
“I thought so. Well, I have changed my mind; captains, you see, can do that as well as other people. If you don’t know enough to be a cabin boy, you will learn, and of that I am sure. So if you still want the place, I shall be mighty glad to give it to you.”
“Thank you,” I answered; “I wish you would.”
“When do you want to come aboard—to-day or on our return? For we shall be pulling out in a few minutes.”
“Yes, to-day; and I’ll be ready as soon as I can go to Appletop and back.”
“You have plenty of time for that, or if not, we will wait for you. Now be off and get some dry clothing. We will furnish your uniform, and glad of the chance.”
“Thank you, sir; I’ll be back in half an hour,” I answered, taking Constance’s hand.
“Good by, little lady, and don’t worry. I will take good care of him, and send him back to you as full of wisdom as a turtle,” the captain called as we hurried away.