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HOME > Classical Novels > Being a Boy > VII FICTION AND SENTIMENT
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The boy farmer does not appreciate school vacations as highly as his city cousin. When school keeps he has only to "do chores and go to school,"—but between terms there are a thousand things on the farm that have been left for the boy to do. Picking up stones in the pastures and piling them in heaps used to be one of them. Some lots appeared to grow stones, or else the sun every year drew them to the surface, as it coaxes the round cantelopes out of the soft garden soil; it is certain that there were fields that always gave the boys this sort of fall work. And very lively work it was on frosty mornings for the barefooted boys, who were continually turning up the larger stones in order to stand for a moment in the warm place that had been covered from the frost. A boy can [Pg 48] stand on one leg as well as a Holland stork; and the boy who found a warm spot for the sole of his foot was likely to stand in it until the words, "Come, stir your stumps," broke in discordantly upon his meditations. For the boy is very much given to meditations. If he had his way he would do nothing in a hurry; he likes to stop and think about things, and enjoy his work as he goes along. He picks up potatoes as if each one was a lump of gold just turned out of the dirt, and requiring careful examination.

Although the country boy feels a little joy when school breaks up (as he does when anything breaks up, or any change takes place), since he is released from the discipline and restraint of it, yet the school is his opening into the world,—his romance. Its opportunities for enjoyment are numberless. He does not exactly know what he is set at books for; he takes spelling rather as an exercise for his lungs, standing up and shouting out the words with entire recklessness of consequences; he grapples doggedly with arithmetic and geography as something that must be [Pg 49] cleared out of his way before recess, but not at all with the zest he would dig a woodchuck out of his hole. But recess! Was ever any enjoyment so keen as that with which a boy rushes out of the school-house door for the ten minutes of recess? He is like to burst with animal spirits; he runs like a deer; he can nearly fly; and he throws himself into play with entire self-forgetfulness, and an energy that would overturn the world if his strength were proportioned to it. For ten minutes the world is absolutely his; the weights are taken off, restraints are loosed, and he is his own master for that brief time,—as he never again will be if he lives to be as old as the king of Thule, and nobody knows how old he was. And there is the nooning, a solid hour, in which vast projects can be carried out which have been slyly matured during the school-hours; expeditions are undertaken, wars are begun between the Indians on one side and the settlers on the other, the military company is drilled (without uniforms or arms), or games are carried on which involve miles of running, and an [Pg 50] expenditure of wind sufficient to spell the spelling-book through at the highest pitch.

Friendships are formed, too, which are fervent if not enduring, and enmities contracted which are frequently "taken out" on the spot, after a rough fashion boys have of settling as they go along; cases of long credit, either in words or trade, are not frequent with boys; boot on jack-knives must be paid on the nail; and it is considered much more honorable to out with a personal grievance at once, even if the explanation is made with the fists, than to pretend fair, and then take a sneaking revenge on some concealed opportunity. The country boy at the district school is introduced into a wider world than he knew at home, in many ways. Some big boy brings to school a copy of the Arabian Nights, a dog-eared copy, with cover, title-page, and the last leaves missing, which is passed around, and slyly read under the desk, and perhaps comes to the little boy whose parents disapprove of novel-reading, and have no work of fiction in the house except a pious fraud called "Six Months in a Convent," [Pg 51] and the latest comic almanac. The boy's eyes dilate as he steals some of the treasures out of the wondrous pages, and he longs to lose himself in the land of enchantment open before him. He tells at home that he has seen the most wonderful book that ever was, and a big boy has promised to lend it to him. "Is it a true book, John?" asks the grandmother; "because if it isn't true, it is the worst thing that a boy can read." (This happened years ago.) John cannot answer as to the truth of the book, and so does not bring it home; but he borrows it, nevertheless, and conceals it in the barn, and lying in the hay-mow is lost in its enchantments many an odd hour when he is supposed to be doing chores. There were no chores in the Arabian Nights; the boy there had but to rub the ring and summon a genius, who would feed the calves and pick up chips and bring in wood in a minute. It was through this emblazoned portal that the boy walked into the world of books, which he soon found was larger than his own, and filled with people he longed to know.

[Pg 52]

And the farmer-boy is not without his sentiment and his secrets, though he has never been at a children's party in his life, and, in fact, never has heard that children go into society when they are seven, and give regular wine-parties when they reach the ripe age of nine. But one of his regrets at having the summer school close is dimly connected with a little girl, whom he does not care much for,—would a great deal rather play with a boy than with her at recess,—but whom he will not see again for some time,—a sweet little thing, who is very friendly with John, and with whom he has been known to exchange bits of candy wrapped up in paper, and for whom he cut in two his lead-pencil, and gave her half. At the last day of school she goes part way with John, and then he turns and goes a longer distance towards her home, so that it is late when he reaches his own. Is he late? He didn't know he was late, he came straight home when school was dismissed, only going a little way home with Alice Linton to help her carry her books. In a box in his chamber, which he has lately [Pg 53] put a padlock on, among fish-hooks and lines and bait-boxes, odd pieces of brass, twine, early sweet apples, popcorn, beech-nuts, and other articles of value, are some little billets-doux, fancifully folded, three-cornered or otherwise, and written, I will warrant, in red or beautifully blue ink. These little notes are parting gifts at the close of school, and John, no doubt, gave his own in exchange for them, though the writing was an immense labor, and the folding was a secret bought of another boy for a big piece of sweet flag-root baked in sugar, a delicacy which John used to carry in his pantaloons pocket until his pocket was in such a state that putting his fingers into them was about as good as dipping them into the sugar-bowl at home. Each precious note contained a lock or curl of girl's hair,—a rare collection of all colors, after John had been in school many terms, and had passed through a great many parting scenes,— black, brown, red, tow-color, and some that looked like spun gold and felt like silk. The sentiment contained in the notes was that which was common in [Pg 54] the school, and expressed a melancholy foreboding of early death, and a touching desire to leave hair enough this side the grave to constitute a sort of strand of remembrance. With little variation, the poetry that made the hair precious was in the words, and, as a Cockney would say, set to the hair, following:—
"This lock of hair,
Which I did wear,
Was taken from my head;
When this you see,
Remember me,
Long after I am dead."

John liked to read these verses, which always made a new and fresh impression with each lock of hair, and he was not critical; they were for him vehicles of true sentiment, and indeed they were what he used when he inclosed a clip of his own sandy hair to a friend. And it did not occur to him until he was a great deal older and less innocent to smile at them. John felt that he would sacredly keep every lock of hair intrusted to him, though death should come on the wings of cholera and [Pg 55] take away every one of these sad, red-ink correspondents. When John's big brother one day caught sight of these treasures, and brutally told him that he "had hair enough to stuff a horse-collar," John was so outraged and shocked, as he should have been, at this rude invasion of his heart, this coarse suggestion, this profanation of his most delicate feeling, that he was only kept from crying by the resolution to "lick" his brother as soon as ever he got big enough.

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