Under The Lilacs

Louisa May Alcott

Chapter 6 - A Circulating Library


After supper that night, Bab and Betty sat in the old porch playing with Josephus and Belinda, and discussing the events of the day; for the appearance of the strange boy and his dog had been a most exciting occurrence in their quiet lives. They had seen nothing of him since morning, as he took his meals at the Squire's, and was at work with Pat in a distant field when the children passed. Sancho had stuck closely to his master, evidently rather bewildered by the new order of things, and bound to see that no harm happened to Ben.

"I wish they'd come. It's sundown, and I heard the cows mooing, so I know they have gone home," said Betty, impatiently; for she regarded the new-comer in the light of an entertaining book, and wished to read on as fast as possible.

"I'm going to learn the signs he makes when he wants Sancho to dance; then we can have fun with him whenever we like. He's the dearest dog I ever saw!" answered Bab, who was fonder of animals than her sister.

"Ma said - Ow, what's that?" cried Betty with a start, as something bumped against the gate outside; and in a moment Ben's head peeped over the top as he swung himself up to the iron arch, in the middle of which was the empty lantern frame.

"Please to locate, gentlemen; please to locate. The performance is about to begin with the great Flyin' Coopid act, in which Master Bloomsbury has appeared before the crowned heads of Europe. Pronounced by all beholders the most remarkable youthful progidy agoin'. Hooray! here we are!"

Having rattled off the familiar speech in Mr. Smithers's elegant manner, Ben begin to cut up such capers that even a party of dignified hens, going down the avenue to bed, paused to look on with clucks of astonishment, evidently fancying that salt had set him to fluttering and tumbling as it did them. Never had the old gate beheld such antics, though it had seen gay doings in its time; for of all the boys who had climbed over it, not one had ever stood on his head upon each of the big balls which ornamented the posts, hung by his heels from the arch, gone round and round like a wheel with the bar for an axis, played a tattoo with his toes while holding on by his chin, walked about the wall on his hands, or closed the entertainment by festooning himself in an airy posture over the side of the lantern frame, and kissing his hand to the audience as a well-bred Cupid is supposed to do on making his bow.

The little girls clapped and stamped enthusiastically, while Sancho, who had been calmly surveying the show, barked his approval as he leaped up to snap at Ben's feet.

"Come down and tell what you did up at the Squire's. Was he cross? Did you have to work hard? Do you like it?" asked Bab, when the noise had subsided.

"It's cooler up here," answered Ben, composing himself in the frame, and fanning his hot face with a green spray broken from the tall bushes rustling odorously all about him. "I did all sorts of jobs. The old gentleman wasn't cross; he gave me a dime, and I like him first-rate. But I just hate 'Carrots; ' he swears at a feller, and fired a stick of wood at me. Guess I'll pay him off when I get a chance."

Fumbling in his pocket to show the bright dime, he found the torn page, and remembered the thirst for information which had seized him in the morning. "Look here, tell me about this, will you? What are these chaps up to? The ink has spoilt all but the picture and this bit of reading. I want to know what it means. Take it to 'em, Sanch."

The dog caught the leaf as it fluttered to the ground, and carrying it carefully in his mouth, deposited it at the feet of the little girls, seating himself before them with an air of deep interest. Bab and Betty picked it up and read it aloud in unison, while Ben leaned from his perch to listen and learn.

"'When day dawned, land was visible. A pleasant land it was. There were gay flowers, and tall trees with leaves and fruit, such as they had never seen before. On the shore were unclad copper-colored men, gazing with wonder at the Spanish ships. They took them for great birds, the white sails for their wings, and the Spaniards for superior beings brought down from heaven on their backs."

"Why, that's Columbus finding San Salvador. Don't you know about him?" demanded Bab, as if she were one of the "superior beings," and intimately acquainted with the immortal Christopher.

"No, I don't. Who was he any way? I s'pose that's him paddlin' ahead; but which of the Injuns is Sam Salvindoor?" asked Ben, rather ashamed of his ignorance, but bent on finding out now he had begun.

"My gracious! twelve years old and not know your Quackenbos!" laughed Bab, much amused, but rather glad to find that she could teach the "whirligig boy" something, for she considered him a remarkable creature.

"I don't care a bit for your quackin' boss, whoever he is. Tell about this fine feller with the ships; I like him," persisted Ben.

So Bab, with frequent interruptions and hints from Betty, told the wonderful tale in a simple way, which made it easy to understand; for she liked history, and had a lively tongue of her own.

"I'd like to read some more. Would my ten cents buy a book?" asked Ben, anxious to learn a little since Bab laughed at him.

"No, indeed! I'll lend you mine when I'm not using it, and tell you all about it," promised Bab; forgetting that she did not know "all about it" herself yet.

"I don't have any time only evenings, and then may be you'll want it," begun Ben, in whom the inky page had roused a strong curiosity.

"I do get my history in the evening, but you could have it mornings before school."

"I shall have to go off early, so there won't be any chance. Yes, there will, - I'LL tell you how to do it. Let me read while I drive up the cows. Squire likes 'em to eat slow along the road, so's to keep the grass short and save mowin'. Pat said so, and I could do history instead of loafin' round!" cried Ben full of this bright idea.

"How will I get my book back in time to recite?" asked Bab, prudently.

"Oh, I'll leave it on the window-sill, or put it inside the door as I go back. I'll be real careful, and just as soon as I earn enough, I'll buy you a new one and take the old one. Will you?"

"Yes; but I'll tell you a nicer way to do. Don't put the book on the window, 'cause teacher will see you; or inside the door, 'cause some one may steal it. You put it in my cubby-house, right at the corner of the wall nearest the big maple. You'll find a cunning place between the roots that stick up under the flat stone. That's my closet, and I keep things there. It's the best cubby of all, and we take turns to have it."

"I'll find it, and that'll be a first-rate place," said Ben, much gratified.

"I could put my reading-book in sometimes, if you'd like it. There's lots of pretty stories in it and pictures," proposed Betty, rather timidly; for she wanted to share the benevolent project, but had little to offer, not being as good a scholar as Bab.

"I'd like a 'rithmetic better. I read tip-top, but I ain't much on 'rithmetic"; so, if you can spare yours, I might take a look at it. Now I'm goin' to earn wages, I ought to know about addin' 'em up, and so on," said Ben, with the air of a Vanderbilt oppressed with the care of millions.

"I'll teach you that. Betty doesn't know much about sums. But she spells splendidly, and is always at the head of her class. Teacher is real proud of her, 'cause she never misses, and spells hard, fussy words, like chi-rog-ra-phy and bron-chi-tis as easy as any thing."

Bab quite beamed with sisterly pride, and Betty smoothed down her apron with modest satisfaction, for Bab seldom praised her, and she liked it very much.

"I never went to school, so that's the reason I ain't smart. I can write, though, better 'n some of the boys up at school. I saw lots of names on the shed door. See here, now," - and scrambling down, Ben pulled out a cherished bit of chalk, and flourished off ten letters of the alphabet, one on each of the dark stone slabs that paved the walk.

"Those are beautiful! I can't make such curly ones. Who taught you to do it?" asked Bab, as she and Betty walked up and down admiring them.

"Horse blankets," answered Ben, soberly.

"What!" cried both girls, stopping to stare.

"Our horses all had their names on their blankets, and I used to copy 'em. The wagons had signs, and I learned to read that way after father taught me my letters off the red and yellow posters. First word I knew was lion, 'cause I was always goin' to see old Jubal in his cage. Father was real proud when I read it right off. I can draw one, too."

Ben proceeded to depict an animal intended to represent his lost friend; but Jubal would not have recognized his portrait, since it looked much more like Sancho than the king of the forest. The children admired it immensely, however, and Ben gave them a lesson in natural history which was so interesting that it kept them busy and happy till bedtime; for the boy described what he had seen in such lively language, and illustrated in such a droll way, it was no wonder they were charmed.