From The Copy-Cat and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1914)
Johnny Trumbull, he who had demonstrated his claim to be Cock of the Walk by a most impious hand-to-hand fight with his own aunt, Miss Janet Trumbull, in which he had been decisively victorious, and won his spurs, consisting of his late grandfather's immense, solemnly ticking watch, was to take a new path of action. Johnny suddenly developed the prominent Trumbull trait, but in his case it was inverted. Johnny, as became a boy of his race, took an excursion into the past, but instead of applying the present to the past, as was the tendency of the other Trumbulls, he forcibly applied the past to the present. He fairly plastered the past over the exigencies of his day and generation like a penetrating poultice of mustard, and the results were peculiar.
Johnny, being bidden of a rainy day during the midsummer vacation to remain in the house, to keep quiet, read a book, and be a good boy, obeyed, but his obedience was of a doubtful measure of wisdom.
Johnny got a book out of his uncle Jonathan Trumbull's dark little library while Jonathan was walking sedately to the post-office, holding his dripping umbrella at a wonderful slant of exactness, without regard to the wind, thereby getting the soft drive of the rain full in his face, which became, as it were, bedewed with tears, entirely outside any cause of his own emotions.
Johnny probably got the only book of an anti-orthodox trend in his uncle's library. He found tucked away in a snug corner an ancient collection of Border Ballads, and he read therein of many unmoral romances and pretty fancies, which, since he was a small boy, held little meaning for him, or charm, beyond a delight in the swing of the rhythm, for Johnny had a feeling for music. It was when he read of Robin Hood, the bold Robin Hood, with his dubious ethics but his certain and unquenchable interest, that Johnny Trumbull became intent. He had the volume in his own room, being somewhat doubtful as to whether it might be of the sort included in the good-boy rôle. He sat beside a rain-washed window, which commanded a view of the wide field between the Trumbull mansion and Jim Simmons's house, and he read about Robin Hood and his Greenwood adventures, his forcible setting the wrong right; and for the first time his imagination awoke, and his ambition. Johnny Trumbull, hitherto hero of nothing except little material fist-fights, wished now to become a hero of true romance.
In fact, Johnny considered seriously the possibility of reincarnating, in his own person, Robin Hood. He eyed the wide green field dreamily through his rain-blurred window. It was a pretty field, waving with feathery grasses and starred with daisies and buttercups, and it was very fortunate that it happened to be so wide. Jim Simmons's house was not a desirable feature of the landscape, and looked much better several acres away. It was a neglected, squalid structure, and considered a disgrace to the whole village. Jim was also a disgrace, and an unsolved problem. He owned that house, and somehow contrived to pay the taxes thereon. He also lived and throve in bodily health in spite of evil ways, and his children were many. There seemed no way to dispose finally of Jim Simmons and his house except by murder and arson, and the village was a peaceful one, and such measures were entirely too strenuous.
Presently Johnny, staring dreamily out of his window, saw approaching a rusty-black umbrella held at precisely the wrong angle in respect of the storm, but held with the unvarying stiffness with which a soldier might hold a bayonet, and knew it for his uncle Jonathan's umbrella. Soon he beheld also his uncle's serious, rain-drenched face and his long ambling body and legs. Jonathan was coming home from the post-office, whither he repaired every morning. He never got a letter, never anything except religious newspapers, but the visit to the post-office was part of his daily routine. Rain or shine, Jonathan Trumbull went for the morning mail, and gained thereby a queer negative enjoyment of a perfectly useless duty performed. Johnny watched his uncle draw near to the house, and cruelly reflected how unlike Robin Hood he must be. He even wondered if his uncle could possibly have read Robin Hood and still show absolutely no result in his own personal appearance. He knew that he, Johnny, could not walk to the post-office and back, even with the drawback of a dripping old umbrella instead of a bow and arrow, without looking a bit like Robin Hood, especially when fresh from reading about him.
Then suddenly something distracted his thoughts from Uncle Jonathan. The long, feathery grass in the field moved with a motion distinct from that caused by the wind and rain. Johnny saw a tiger-striped back emerge, covering long leaps of terror. Johnny knew the creature for a cat afraid of Uncle Jonathan. Then he saw the grass move behind the first leaping, striped back, and he knew there were more cats afraid of Uncle Jonathan. There were even motions caused by unseen things, and he reasoned, “Kittens afraid of Uncle Jonathan.” Then Johnny reflected with a great glow of indignation that the Simmonses kept an outrageous number of half-starved cats and kittens, besides a quota of children popularly supposed to be none too well nourished, let alone properly clothed. Then it was that Johnny Trumbull's active, firm imagination slapped the past of old romance like a most thorough mustard poultice over the present. There could be no Lincoln Green, no following of brave outlaws (that is, in the strictest sense), no bows and arrows, no sojourning under greenwood trees and the rest, but something he could, and would, do and be. That rainy day when Johnny Trumbull was a good boy, and stayed in the house, and read a book, marked an epoch.
That night when Johnny went into his aunt Janet's room she looked curiously at his face, which seemed a little strange to her. Johnny, since he had come into possession of his grandfather's watch, went every night, on his way to bed, to his aunt's room for the purpose of winding up that ancient timepiece, Janet having a firm impression that it might not be done properly unless under her supervision. Johnny stood before his aunt and wound up the watch with its ponderous key, and she watched him.
“What have you been doing all day, John?” said she.
“Stayed in the house and — read.”
“What did you read, John?”
“Do you mean to be impertinent, John?”
“No, ma'am,” replied Johnny, and with perfect truth. He had not the slightest idea of the title of the book.
“What was the book?”
“A poetry book.”
“Where did you find it?”
“In Uncle Jonathan's library.”
“Poetry In Uncle Jonathan's library?” said Janet, in a mystified way. She had a general impression of Jonathan's library as of century-old preserves, altogether dried up and quite indistinguishable one from the other except by labels. Poetry she could not imagine as being there at all. Finally she thought of the early Victorians, and Spenser and Chaucer. The library might include them, but she had an idea that Spenser and Chaucer were not fit reading for a little boy. However, as she remembered Spenser and Chaucer, she doubted if Johnny could understand much of them. Probably he had gotten hold of an early Victorian, and she looked rather contemptuous.
“I don't think much of a boy like you reading poetry,” said Janet. “Couldn't you find anything else to read?”
“No, ma'am.” That also was truth. Johnny, before exploring his uncle's theological library, had peered at his father's old medical books and his mother's bookcases, which contained quite terrifying uniform editions of standard things written by women.
“I don't suppose there are many books written for boys,” said Aunt Janet, reflectively.
“No, ma'am,” said Johnny. He finished winding the watch, and gave, as was the custom, the key to Aunt Janet, lest he lose it.
“I will see if I cannot find some books of travels for you, John,” said Janet. “I think travels would be good reading for a boy. Good night, John.”
“Good night, Aunt Janet,” replied Johnny. His aunt never kissed him good night, which was one reason why he liked her.
On his way to bed he had to pass his mother's room, whose door stood open. She was busy writing at her desk. She glanced at Johnny.
“Are you going to bed?” said she.
Johnny entered the room and let his mother kiss his forehead, parting his curly hair to do so. He loved his mother, but did not care at all to have her kiss him. He did not object, because he thought she liked to do it, and she was a woman, and it was a very little thing in which he could oblige her.
“Were you a good boy, and did you find a good book to read?” asked she.
“What was the book?” Cora Trumbull inquired, absently, writing as she spoke.
Cora laughed. “Poetry is odd for a boy,” said she. “You should have read a book of travels or history. Good night, Johnny.”
“Good night, mother.”
Then Johnny met his father, smelling strongly of medicines, coming up from his study. But his father did not see him. And Johnny went to bed, having imbibed from that old tale of Robin Hood more of history and more knowledge of excursions into realms of old romance than his elders had ever known during much longer lives than his.
Johnny confided in nobody at first. His feeling nearly led him astray in the matter of Lily Jennings; he thought of her, for one sentimental minute, as Robin Hood's Maid Marion. Then he dismissed the idea peremptorily. Lily Jennings would simply laugh. He knew her. Moreover, she was a girl, and not to be trusted. Johnny felt the need of another boy who would be a kindred spirit; he wished for more than one boy. He wished for a following of heroic and lawless souls, even as Robin Hood's. But he could think of nobody, after considerable study, except one boy, younger than himself. He was a beautiful little boy, whose mother had never allowed him to have his golden curls cut, although he had been in trousers for quite a while. However, the trousers were foolish, being knickerbockers, and accompanied by low socks, which revealed pretty, dimpled, babyish legs. The boy's name was Arnold Carruth, and that was against him, as being long, and his mother firm about allowing no nickname. Nicknames in any case were not allowed in the very exclusive private school which Johnny attended.
Arnold Carruth, in spite of his being such a beautiful little boy, would have had no standing at all in the school as far as popularity was concerned had it not been for a strain of mischief which triumphed over curls, socks, and pink cheeks and a much-kissed rosebud of a mouth. Arnold Carruth, as one of the teachers permitted herself to state when relaxed in the bosom of her own family, was “as choke-full of mischief as a pod of peas. And the worst of it all is,” quoth the teacher, Miss Agnes Rector, who was a pretty young girl, with a hidden sympathy for mischief herself — “the worst of it is, that child looks so like a cherub on a rosy cloud that even if he should be caught nobody would believe it. They would be much more likely to accuse poor little Andrew Jackson Green, because he has a snub nose and is a bit cross-eyed, and I never knew that poor child to do anything except obey rules and learn his lessons. He is almost too good. And another worst of it is, nobody can help loving that little imp of a Carruth boy, mischief and all. I believe the scamp knows it and takes advantage of it.”
It is quite possible that Arnold Carruth did profit unworthily by his beauty and engagingness, albeit without calculation. He was so young, it was monstrous to believe him capable of calculation, of deliberate trading upon his assets of birth and beauty and fascination. However, Johnny Trumbull, who was wide awake and a year older, was alive to the situation. He told Arnold Carruth, and Arnold Carruth only, about Robin Hood and his great scheme.
“You can help,” said this wise Johnny; “you can be in it, because nobody thinks you can be in anything, on account of your wearing curls.”
Arnold Carruth flushed and gave an angry tug at one golden curl which the wind blew over a shoulder. The two boys were in a secluded corner of Madame's lawn, behind a clump of Japanese cedars, during an intermission.
“I can't help it because I wear curls,” declared Arnold with angry shame.
“Who said you could? No need of getting mad.”
“Mamma and Aunt Flora and grandmamma won't let me have these old curls cut off,” said Arnold. “You needn't think I want to have curls like a girl, Johnny Trumbull.”
“Who said you did? And I know you don't like to wear those short stockings, either.”
“Like to!” Arnold gave a spiteful kick, first of one half-bared, dimpled leg, then of the other. “First thing you know I'll steal mamma's or Aunt Flora's stockings and throw these in the furnace — I will. Do you s'pose a feller wants to wear these baby things? I guess not. Women are awful queer, Johnny Trumbull. My mamma and my aunt Flora are awful nice, but they are queer about some things.”
“Most women are queer,” agreed Johnny, “but my aunt Janet isn't as queer as some. Rather guess if she saw me with curls like a little girl she'd cut 'em off herself.”
“Wish she was my aunt,” said Arnold Carruth with a sigh. “A feller needs a woman like that till he's grown up. Do you s'pose she'd cut off my curls if I was to go to your house, Johnny?”
“I'm afraid she wouldn't think it was right unless your mother said she might. She has to be real careful about doing right, because my uncle Jonathan used to preach, you know.”
Arnold Carruth grinned savagely, as if he endured pain. “Well, I s'pose I'll have to stand the curls and little baby stockings awhile longer,” said he. “What was it you were going to tell me, Johnny?”
“I am going to tell you because I know you aren't too good, if you do wear curls and little stockings.”
“No, I ain't too good,” declared Arnold Carruth, proudly; “I ain't — honest, Johnny.”
“That's why I'm going to tell you. But if you tell any of the other boys — or girls —”
“Tell girls!” sniffed Arnold.
“If you tell anybody, I'll lick you.”
“Guess I ain't afraid.”
“Guess you'd be afraid to go home after you'd been licked.”
“Guess my mamma would give it to you.”
“Run home and tell mamma you'd been whopped, would you, then?”
Little Arnold, beautiful baby boy, straightened himself with a quick remembrance that he was born a man. “You know I wouldn't tell, Johnny Trumbull.”
“Guess you wouldn't. Well, here it is —” Johnny spoke in emphatic whispers, Arnold's curly head close to his mouth: “There are a good many things in this town have got to be set right,” said Johnny.
Little Arnold stared at him. Then fire shone in his lovely blue eyes under the golden shadow of his curls, a fire which had shone in the eyes of some ancestors of his, for there was good fighting blood in the Carruth family, as well as in the Trumbull, although this small descendant did go about curled and kissed and barelegged.
“How'll we begin?” said Arnold, in a strenuous whisper.
“We've got to begin right away with Jim Simmons's cats and kittens.”
“With Jim Simmons's cats and kittens?” repeated Arnold.
“That was what I said, exactly. We've got to begin right there. It is an awful little beginning, but I can't think of anything else. If you can, I'm willing to listen.”
“I guess I can't,” admitted Arnold, helplessly.
“Of course we can't go around taking away money from rich people and giving it to poor folks. One reason is, most of the poor folks in this town are lazy, and don't get money because they don't want to work for it. And when they are not lazy, they drink. If we gave rich people's money to poor folks like that, we shouldn't do a mite of good. The rich folks would be poor, and the poor folks wouldn't stay rich; they would be lazier, and get more drink. I don't see any sense in doing things like that in this town. There are a few poor folks I have been thinking we might take some money for and do good, but not many.”
“Who?” inquired Arnold Carruth, in awed tones.
“Well, there is poor old Mrs. Sam Little. She's awful poor. Folks help her, I know, but she can't be real pleased being helped. She'd rather have the money herself. I have been wondering if we couldn't get some of your father's money away and give it to her, for one.”
“Get away papa's money!”
“You don't mean to tell me you are as stingy as that, Arnold Carruth?”
“I guess papa wouldn't like it.”
“Of course he wouldn't. But that is not the point. It is not what your father would like; it is what that poor old lady would like.”
It was too much for Arnold. He gaped at Johnny.
“If you are going to be mean and stingy, we may as well stop before we begin,” said Johnny.
Then Arnold Carruth recovered himself. “Old Mr. Webster Payne is awful poor,” said he. “We might take some of your father's money and give it to him.”
Johnny snorted, fairly snorted. “If,” said he, “you think my father keeps his money where we can get it, you are mistaken, Arnold Carruth. My father's money is all in papers that are not worth much now and that he has to keep in the bank till they are.”
Arnold smiled hopefully. “Guess that's the way my papa keeps his money.”
“It's the way most rich people are mean enough to,” said Johnny, severely. “I don't care if it's your father or mine, it's mean. And that's why we've got to begin with Jim Simmons's cats and kittens.”
“Are you going to give old Mrs. Sam Little cats?” inquired Arnold.
Johnny sniffed. “Don't be silly,” said he. “Though I do think a nice cat with a few kittens might cheer her up a little, and we could steal enough milk, by getting up early and tagging after the milk-man, to feed them. But I wasn't thinking of giving her or old Mr. Payne cats and kittens. I wasn't thinking of folks; I was thinking of all those poor cats and kittens that Mr. Jim Simmons has and doesn't half feed, and that have to go hunting around folks' back doors in the rain, when cats hate water, too, and pick things up that must be bad for their stomachs, when they ought to have their milk regularly in nice, clean saucers. No, Arnold Carruth, what we have got to do is to steal Mr. Jim Simmons's cats and get them in nice homes where they can earn their living catching mice and be well cared for.”
“Steal cats?” said Arnold.
“Yes, steal cats, in order to do right,” said Johnny Trumbull, and his expression was heroic, even exalted.
It was then that a sweet treble, faltering yet exultant, rang in their ears.
“If,” said the treble voice, “you are going to steal dear little kitty cats and get nice homes for them, I'm going to help.”
The voice belonged to Lily Jennings, who had stood on the other side of the Japanese cedars and heard every word.
Both boys started in righteous wrath, but Arnold Carruth was the angrier of the two. “Mean little cat yourself, listening,” said he. His curls seemed to rise like a crest of rage.
Johnny, remembering some things, was not so outspoken. “You hadn't any right to listen, Lily Jennings,” he said, with masculine severity.
“I didn't start to listen,” said Lily. “I was looking for cones on these trees. Miss Parmalee wanted us to bring some object of nature into the class, and I wondered whether I could find a queer Japanese cone on one of these trees, and then I heard you boys talking, and I couldn't help listening. You spoke very loud, and I couldn't give up looking for that cone. I couldn't find any, and I heard all about the Simmonses' cats, and I know lots of other cats that haven't got good homes, and — I am going to be in it.”
“You ain't,” declared Arnold Carruth.
“We can't have girls in it,” said Johnny the mindful, more politely.
“You've got to have me. You had better have me, Johnny Trumbull,” she added with meaning.
Johnny flinched. It was a species of blackmail, but what could he do? Suppose Lily told how she had hidden him — him, Johnny Trumbull, the champion of the school — in that empty baby-carriage! He would have more to contend against than Arnold Carruth with socks and curls. He did not think Lily would tell. Somehow Lily, although a little, befrilled girl, gave an impression of having a knowledge of a square deal almost as much as a boy would; but what boy could tell with a certainty what such an uncertain creature as a girl might or might not do? Moreover, Johnny had a weakness, a hidden, Spartanly hidden, weakness for Lily. He rather wished to have her act as partner in his great enterprise. He therefore gruffly assented.
“All right,” he said, “you can be in it. But just you look out. You'll see what happens if you tell.”
“She can't be in it; she's nothing but a girl,” said Arnold Carruth, fiercely.
Lily Jennings lifted her chin and surveyed him with queenly scorn. “And what are you?” said she. “A little boy with curls and baby socks.”
Arnold colored with shame and fury, and subsided. “Mind you don't tell,” he said, taking Johnny's cue.
“I sha'n't tell,” replied Lily, with majesty. “But you'll tell yourselves if you talk one side of trees without looking on the other.”
There was then only a few moments before Madame's musical Japanese gong which announced the close of intermission should sound, but three determined souls in conspiracy can accomplish much in a few moments. The first move was planned in detail before that gong sounded, and the two boys raced to the house, and Lily followed, carrying a toadstool, which she had hurriedly caught up from the lawn for her object of nature to be taken into class.
It was a poisonous toadstool, and Lily was quite a heroine in the class. That fact doubtless gave her a more dauntless air when, after school, the two boys caught up with her walking gracefully down the road, flirting her skirts and now and then giving her head a toss, which made her fluff of hair fly into a golden foam under her daisy-trimmed straw hat.
“To-night,” Johnny whispered, as he sped past.
“At half past nine, between your house and the Simmonses',” replied Lily, without even looking at him. She was a past-mistress of dissimulation.
Lily's mother had guests at dinner that night, and the guests remarked sometimes, within the little girl's hearing, what a darling she was.
“She never gives me a second's anxiety,” Lily's mother whispered to a lady beside her. “You cannot imagine what a perfectly good, dependable child she is.”
“Now my Christina is a good child in the grain,” said the lady, “but she is full of mischief. I never can tell what Christina will do next.”
“I can always tell,” said Lily's mother, in a voice of maternal triumph.
“Now only the other night, when I thought Christina was in bed, that absurd child got up and dressed and ran over to see her aunt Bella. Tom came home with her, and of course there was nothing very bad about it. Christina was very bright; she said, ‘Mother, you never told me I must not get up and go to see Aunt Bella,’ which was, of course, true. I could not gainsay that.”
“I cannot,” said Lily's mother, “imagine my Lily's doing such a thing.”
If Lily had heard that last speech of her mother's, whom she dearly loved, she might have wavered. That pathetic trust in herself might have caused her to justify it. But she had finished her dinner and had been excused, and was undressing for bed, with the firm determination to rise betimes and dress and join Johnny Trumbull and Arnold Carruth. Johnny had the easiest time of them all. He simply had to bid his aunt Janet good night and have the watch wound, and take a fleeting glimpse of his mother at her desk and his father in his office, and go whistling to his room, and sit in the summer darkness and wait until the time came.
Arnold Carruth had the hardest struggle. His mother had an old school friend visiting her, and Arnold, very much dressed up, with his curls falling in a shining fleece upon a real lace collar, had to be shown off and show off. He had to play one little piece which he had learned upon the piano. He had to recite a little poem. He had to be asked how old he was, and if he liked to go to school, and how many teachers he had, and if he loved them, and if he loved his little mates, and which of them he loved best; and he had to be asked if he loved his aunt Dorothy, who was the school friend and not his aunt at all, and would he not like to come and live with her, because she had not any dear little boy; and he was obliged to submit to having his curls twisted around feminine fingers, and to being kissed and hugged, and a whole chapter of ordeals, before he was finally in bed, with his mother's kiss moist upon his lips, and free to assert himself.
That night Arnold Carruth realized himself as having an actual horror of his helpless state of pampered childhood. The man stirred in the soul of the boy, and it was a little rebel with sulky pout of lips and frown of childish brows who stole out of bed, got into some queer clothes, and crept down the back stairs. He heard his aunt Dorothy, who was not his aunt, singing an Italian song in the parlor, he heard the clink of silver and china from the butler's pantry, where the maids were washing the dinner dishes. He smelt his father's cigar, and he gave a little leap of joy on the grass of the lawn. At last he was out at night alone, and — he wore long stockings! That noon he had secreted a pair of his mother's toward that end. When he came home to luncheon he pulled them out of the darning-bag, which he had spied through a closet door that had been left ajar. One of the stockings was green silk, and the other was black, and both had holes in them, but all that mattered was the length. Arnold wore also his father's riding-breeches, which came over his shoes and which were enormously large, and one of his father's silk shirts. He had resolved to dress consistently for such a great occasion. His clothes hampered him, but he felt happy as he sped clumsily down the road.
However, both Johnny Trumbull and Lily Jennings, who were waiting for him at the rendezvous, were startled by his appearance. Both began to run, Johnny pulling Lily after him by the hand, but Arnold's cautious hallo arrested them. Johnny and Lily returned slowly, peering through the darkness.
“It's me,” said Arnold, with gay disregard of grammar.
“You looked,” said Lily, “like a real fat old man. What have you got on, Arnold Carruth?”
Arnold slouched before his companions, ridiculous but triumphant. He hitched up a leg of the riding-breeches and displayed a long, green silk stocking. Both Johnny and Lily doubled up with laughter.
“What you laughing at?” inquired Arnold, crossly.
“Oh, nothing at all,” said Lily. “Only you do look like a scarecrow broken loose. Doesn't he, Johnny?”
“I am going home,” stated Arnold with dignity. He turned, but Johnny caught him in his little iron grip.
“Oh, shucks, Arnold Carruth!” said he. “Don't be a baby. Come on.” And Arnold Carruth with difficulty came on.
People in the village, as a rule, retired early. Many lights were out when the affair began, many went out while it was in progress. All three of the band steered as clear of lighted houses as possible, and dodged behind trees and hedges when shadowy figures appeared on the road or carriage-wheels were heard in the distance. At their special destination they were sure to be entirely safe. Old Mr. Peter Van Ness always retired very early. To be sure, he did not go to sleep until late, and read in bed, but his room was in the rear of the house on the second floor, and all the windows, besides, were dark. Mr. Peter Van Ness was a very wealthy elderly gentleman, very benevolent. He had given the village a beautiful stone church with memorial windows, a soldiers' monument, a park, and a home for aged couples, called “The Van Ness Home.” Mr. Van Ness lived alone with the exception of a housekeeper and a number of old, very well-disciplined servants. The servants always retired early, and Mr. Van Ness required the house to be quiet for his late reading. He was a very studious old gentleman.
To the Van Ness house, set back from the street in the midst of a well-kept lawn, the three repaired, but not as noiselessly as they could have wished. In fact, a light flared in an up-stairs window, which was wide open, and one woman's voice was heard in conclave with another.
“I should think,” said the first, “that the lawn was full of cats. Did you ever hear such a mewing, Jane?”
That was the housekeeper's voice. The three, each of whom carried a squirming burlap potato-bag from the Trumbull cellar, stood close to a clump of stately pines full of windy songs, and trembled.
“It do sound like cats, ma'am,” said another voice, which was Jane's, the maid, who had brought Mrs. Meeks, the housekeeper, a cup of hot water and peppermint, because her dinner had disagreed with her.
“Just listen,” said Mrs. Meeks.
“Yes, ma'am, I should think there was hundreds of cats and little kittens.”
“I am so afraid Mr. Van Ness will be disturbed.”
“You might go out and look, Jane.”
“Oh, ma'am, they might be burglars!”
“How can they be burglars when they are cats?” demanded Mrs. Meeks, testily.
Arnold Carruth snickered, and Johnny on one side, and Lily on the other, prodded him with an elbow. They were close under the window.
“Burglars is up to all sorts of queer tricks, ma'am,” said Jane. “They may mew like cats to tell one another what door to go in.”
“Jane, you talk like an idiot,” said Mrs. Meeks. “Burglars talking like cats! Who ever heard of such a thing? It sounds right under that window. Open my closet door and get those heavy old shoes and throw them out.”
It was an awful moment. The three dared not move. The cats and kittens in the bags — not so many, after all — seemed to have turned into multiplication-tables. They were positively alarming in their determination to get out, their wrath with one another, and their vociferous discontent with the whole situation.
“I can't hold my bag much longer,” said poor little Arnold Carruth.
“Hush up, cry-baby!” whispered Lily, fiercely, in spite of a clawing paw emerging from her own bag and threatening her bare arm.
Then came the shoes. One struck Arnold squarely on the shoulder, nearly knocking him down and making him lose hold of his bag. The other struck Lily's bag, and conditions became worse; but she held on despite a scratch. Lily had pluck.
Then Jane's voice sounded very near, as she leaned out of the window. “I guess they have went, ma'am,” said she. “I seen something run.”
“I can hear them,” said Mrs. Meeks, querulously.
“I seen them run,” persisted Jane, who was tired and wished to be gone.
“Well, close that window, anyway, for I know I hear them, even if they have gone,” said Mrs. Meeks. The three heard with relief the window slammed down.
The light flashed out, and simultaneously Lily Jennings and Johnny Trumbull turned indignantly upon Arnold Carruth.
“There, you have gone and let all those poor cats go,” said Johnny.
“And spoilt everything,” said Lily.
Arnold rubbed his shoulder. “You would have let go if you had been hit right on the shoulder by a great shoe,” said he, rather loudly.
“Hush up!” said Lily. “I wouldn't have let my cats go if I had been killed by a shoe; so there.”
“Serves us right for taking a boy with curls,” said Johnny Trumbull.
But he spoke unadvisedly. Arnold Carruth was no match whatever for Johnny Trumbull, and had never been allowed the honor of a combat with him; but surprise takes even a great champion at a disadvantage. Arnold turned upon Johnny like a flash, out shot a little white fist, up struck a dimpled leg clad in cloth and leather, and down sat Johnny Trumbull; and, worse, open flew his bag, and there was a yowling exodus.
“There go your cats, too, Johnny Trumbull,” said Lily, in a perfectly calm whisper. At that moment both boys, victor and vanquished, felt a simultaneous throb of masculine wrath at Lily. Who was she to gloat over the misfortunes of men? But retribution came swiftly to Lily. That viciously clawing little paw shot out farther, and there was a limit to Spartanism in a little girl born so far from that heroic land. Lily let go of her bag and with difficulty stifled a shriek of pain.
“Whose cats are gone now?” demanded Johnny, rising.
“Yes, whose cats are gone now?” said Arnold.
Then Johnny promptly turned upon him and knocked him down and sat on him.
Lily looked at them, standing, a stately little figure in the darkness. “I am going home,” said she. “My mother does not allow me to go with fighting boys.”
Johnny rose, and so did Arnold, whimpering slightly. His shoulder ached considerably.
“He knocked me down,” said Johnny.
Even as he whimpered and as he suffered, Arnold felt a thrill of triumph. “Always knew I could if I had a chance,” said he.
“You couldn't if I had been expecting it,” said Johnny.
“Folks get knocked down when they ain't expecting it most of the time,” declared Arnold, with more philosophy than he realized.
“I don't think it makes much difference about the knocking down,” said Lily. “All those poor cats and kittens that we were going to give a good home, where they wouldn't be starved, have got away, and they will run straight back to Mr. Jim Simmons's.”
“If they haven't any more sense than to run back to a place where they don't get enough to eat and are kicked about by a lot of children, let them run,” said Johnny.
“That's so,” said Arnold. “I never did see what we were doing such a thing for, anyway — stealing Mr. Simmons's cats and giving them to Mr. Van Ness.”
It was the girl alone who stood by her guns of righteousness. “I saw and I see,” she declared, with dangerously loud emphasis. “It was only our duty to try to rescue poor helpless animals who don't know any better than to stay where they are badly treated. And Mr. Van Ness has so much money he doesn't know what to do with it; he would have been real pleased to give those cats a home and buy milk and liver for them. But it's all spoiled now. I will never undertake to do good again, with a lot of boys in the way, as long as I live; so there!” Lily turned about.
“Going to tell your mother!” said Johnny, with scorn which veiled anxiety.
“No, I'm not. I don't tell tales.”
Lily marched off, and in her wake went Johnny and Arnold, two poor little disillusioned would-be knights of old romance in a wretchedly commonplace future, not far enough from their horizons for any glamour.
They went home, and of the three Johnny Trumbull was the only one who was discovered. For him his aunt Janet lay in wait and forced a confession. She listened grimly, but her eyes twinkled.
“You have learned to fight, John Trumbull,” said she, when he had finished. “Now the very next thing you have to learn, and make yourself worthy of your grandfather Trumbull, is not to be a fool.”
“Yes, Aunt Janet,” said Johnny.
The next noon, when he came home from school, old Maria, who had been with the family ever since he could remember and long before, called him into the kitchen. There, greedily lapping milk from a saucer, were two very lean, tall kittens.
“See those nice little tommy-cats,” said Maria, beaming upon Johnny, whom she loved and whom she sometimes fancied deprived of boyish joys. “Your aunt Janet sent me over to the Simmonses' for them this morning. They are overrun with cats — such poor, shiftless folks always be — and you can have them. We shall have to watch for a little while till they get wonted, so they won't run home.”
Johnny gazed at the kittens, fast distending with the new milk, and felt presumably much as dear Robin Hood may have felt after one of his successful raids in the fair, poetic past.
“Pretty, ain't they?” said Maria. “They have drank up a whole saucer of milk. 'Most starved, I s'pose.”
Johnny gathered up the two forlorn kittens and sat down in a kitchen chair, with one on each shoulder, hard, boyish cheeks pressed against furry, purring sides, and the little fighting Cock of the Walk felt his heart glad and tender with the love of the strong for the weak.