EXCERPT FROM Vagabond Adventures
by Ralph Keeler
J.R. Osgood & Co.,
...My commander did not pursue me; but about an hour afterward the steward came to me with a very long face, as I observed with the one eye which I uncovered long enough to ask him if the captain had seen me deposit the stewed chicken in the lap of that lady. No: I was told the captain had not heard of that, but was sufficiently wroth about the wetting he had received at my hands; and the steward ended by saying that I would have to go ashore at the next landing. He was very sorry, he assured me; but the captain was inexorable. I hastened to inform my friend and protector that I would be glad to set my foot on any dry land whatsoever, and that I never wanted to go on a steamboat any more; for the vessel, now in the trough of the sea, was rolling and creaking more violently every minute, and my nausea had increased in proportion. The next landing, the steward gave me to understand, was Conneaut, Ohio, which was his own home. He comforted me, furthermore, with the assurance that his wife would be down at the wharf to get the linen, which she washed for the steamer; and that she should take me home with her.
The pier of Conneaut, where we finally arrived, was now invested with absorbing interest to me. I wondered which of the tanned faces that looked up from the dock belonged to my future mistress; and I wondered, too, which of the weather-beaten fishermen's huts along the shore - about the only habitations in sight - was to be my future home. I hoped it was the one with the little boats before it on the beach, and the long fish-nets spread out to dry; where the white gulls seemed to make their head-quarters, wheeling about the little roof, or sliding up against the sky, or swooping the surf, and skimming along the billows of the lake. I was thus musing, in grateful convalescence, on the upper-deck, when the steward approached, and pointed me out to his wife. She was, as I remember her, a chubby, black-eyed little person, with a pleasant voice. At her woman's question as to whether I had my things all packed and ready, I became embarrassed; but the steward helped me out by answering for me, " Yes, he has'em on his back." The knowledge of my forlorn condition, and a sudden choking sensation in the throat, came upon the good little woman at one and the same time, as I was made aware by an attempt to speak, which she abandoned, substituting very much to the lowering of my boyish pride - a fearless and vigorous hugging, together with a hearty, loud-sounding kiss, right before the passengers, the greasy pantryman, and others of the crew. Then the steward's wife, without another word, hurried me ashore into a one-horse wagon, with the soiled linen, and drove away up to the village, which was a mile or two from the lake.
A BOY'S PARADISE.
NEAR the end of a quiet street we alighted at a little frame-house, all embowered in peach and plum trees. This was the steward's home, and soon was as much mine as if I held the title-deed. They had no children, and the steward's wife was not long in growing wonderfully fond of me, - so fond, indeed, that she humored me in everything. When tired of the house and little yard, I amused myself in strolling alone to the lake and taking amateur voyages in the fishermen's boats, without their permission; and in swimming and fishing and hunting clams in Conneaut Creek, or River, whichever it is called. My favorite bathingplace was beneath the high bridge which the curious reader can cross any day on the Lake Shore Railroad. When the steamer arrived, the steward's wife and I went down to the pier, in the one-horse wagon, with the clean clothes of the last washing, and brought away the money for it, together with a new load of soiled linen. This one-horse equipage, by the way, must have belonged to some neighbor, for I do not remember that we ever brought it into requisition, except for laundry purposes. Nor do I remember that I ever imperilled my neck, or the horse's, with it alone, as would surely have been the case if it had been our property. Our practice was, invariably, to spend the money for the last washing before the next one was begun; and this was the routine to which we scrupulously adhered: The steward's wife, namely, would use the first day after the steamer had gone in baking all manner of bread, pies, and cakes; enough, in fact, to last us until the good ship Diamond should come round again. Then, on the second day, we would go to the village livery-stable, and get a horse and buggy, with which we would ride five miles out in the country, and "visit" at the farm-house of her father and mother. Having thus exhausted all her earnings, we would return home on the third day, and the steward's wife would go very contentedly about her washing. This may not have been the best sort of economy for a poor washerwoman, but it was certainly a most delightful way for a thoughtless boy to pass his time. Counting out an occasional tendency to biliousness consequent upon overdoses of the good things of her regular first-day's baking, I must say, the weeks I spent with that good, simple-hearted creature were very happy ones indeed. Her kindness extended even to the tattered places of my scanty wardrobe. Everything was made whole and clean. She bought me, I remember, a shirt for fifty cents, and made over a pair of her husband's summer pantaloons to fit me; so that I was not, as formerly, confined to the house while my solitary piece of linen was in laundry. There was only one grievous alloy, thereafter, in my complete happiness, and that was in the shape of some much larger boys than myself, who diverted their minds by whipping me whenever and wherever they could lay hands on me. I fought them at first, but I always came off beaten; and so I gave it up, and it is due to the nimbleness of my legs, or to the exceeding elasticity inherent in terror, to add that they rarely or never caught me after that. Still the grievance was all the same. On one occasion, however, the steward stopped over at home a trip, and, being informed of the persecutions to which I had been subjected, he gave a sound drubbing to every one of my enemies, and threatened them with the repetition of the same as often as I should complain. I had the satisfaction of witnessing this castigation, which, though somewhat informal,- being administered when each of my foes was "down," as I may say, across my champion's knee, in a species of " chancery " not yet introduced, I believe, into the prize ring,- had, nevertheless, the desired effect. The peace was preserved, and I was happy. But perfect happiness is short-lived, after all. It was not many weeks later when we were startled in our little home by a call in the interest of my relatives, conveying the intelligence that my whereabout was known, and that I should be sent for soon Now it happened that the steamer Diamond was due at the pier the afternoon succeeding the one on which we had heard this appalling piece of news. I said nothing to my benefactress of my design, formed almost instantaneously; for I knew she would not consent to its carrying out. But, when the steamer had left, I was not to be found in any of the fishermen's boats on the lake, or throwing stones at the gulls along the shore, or afterward beneath the high bridge, or in any of my usual haunts in the village. I had, in fact, stowed myself away in the old Diamond's forecastle, where I was not discovered till Conneaut was well out of sight. Unfortunately, my new shirt and pantaloons were both in the wash at the time; and I have never seen them since. Thus I came away with the same well-worn clothes and solitary piece of linen in which I had first fled from Buffalo. The five coppers I still had in my pocket, kept, I know not by what queer inspiration, against future needs. I never heard from her lips how much the steward's wife grieved at my sudden disappearance, for I never saw the good soul afterward; but, from what I have since learned, I scarcely hope ever again, by anything that I may do, or that may happen to me, to produce such a void in the heart of any living being. I had taken the place, I suppose, in her childless bosom, of that strongest and purest of all affections, —the mother's for her offspring. Several years afterward she "nearly killed with kindness" a friend of mine-to use the language of the friend herself-who gave her news from me. I should hardly mention this now, were it not for the sequel, which further illustrates, I think, though in a sad way, the real goodness and constancy of the poor creature's heart, while going to show at the same time what a warm place was won in it by a graceless vagabond. Later in her life some great sorrow the exact nature of which I never learned -unhinged her intellect; and her insanity took the mild form of always expecting me back, the same homeless urchin, unchanged by the years. It was, as I have intim'ated, in the afternoon when I left her; and, until she was moved from that part of the country to an asylum where she was cared for in comfort till she died, she used to go regularly every afternoon to the friend above mentioned and ask about her "lost boy," as she called me.