Under The Lilacs

Louisa May Alcott

Chapter 15 - Ben's Ride


Great was the mourning for Sancho, because his talents and virtues made him universally admired and beloved. Miss Celia advertised, Thorny offered rewards, and even surly Pat kept a sharp look-out for poodle dogs when he went to market; but no Sancho or any trace of him appeared. Ben was inconsolable, and sternly said it served Bab right when the dogwood poison affected both face and hands. Poor Bab thought so, too, and dared ask no sympathy from him, though Thorny eagerly prescribed plantain leaves, and Betty kept her supplied with an endless succession of them steeped in cream and pitying tears. This treatment was so successful that the patient soon took her place in society as well as ever, but for Ben's affliction there was no cure, and the boy really suffered in his spirits.

"I don't think it's fair that I should have so much trouble, - first losing father and then Sanch. If it wasn't for Lita and Miss Celia, I don't believe I could stand it," he said, one day, in a fit of despair, about a week after the sad event.

"Oh, come now, don't give up so, old fellow. We'll find him if he s alive, and if he isn't I'll try and get you another as good," answered Thorny, with a friendly slap on the shoulder, as Ben sat disconsolately among the beans he had been hoeing.

"As if there ever could be another half as good!" cried Ben, indignant at the idea; "or as if I'd ever try to fill his place with the best and biggest dog that ever wagged a tail! No, sir, there's only one Sanch in all the world, and if I can't have him I'll never have a dog again."

"Try some other sort of pet, then. You may have any of mine you like. Have the peacocks; do now," urged Thorny, full of boyish sympathy and good-will.

"They are dreadful pretty, but I don't seem to care about em, thank you," replied the mourner.

"Have the rabbits, all of them," which was a handsome offer on Thorny's part, for there were a dozen at least.

"They don't love a fellow as a dog does; all they care for is stuff to eat and dirt to burrow in. I'm sick of rabbits." And well he might be, for he had had the charge of them ever since they came, and any boy who has ever kept bunnies knows what a care they are.

"So am I! Guess we'll have an auction and sell out. Would Jack be a comfort to you? If he will, you may have him. I'm so well now, I can walk, or ride anything," added Thorny, in a burst of generosity.

"Jack couldn't be with me always, as Sanch was, and I couldn't keep him if I had him."

Ben tried to be grateful, but nothing short of Lita would have healed his wounded heart, and she was not Thorny's to give, or he would probably have offered her to his afflicted friend.

"Well, no, you couldn't take Jack to bed with you, or keep him up in your room, and I'm afraid he Would never learn to do any thing clever. I do wish I had something you wanted, I'd so love to give it to you."

He spoke so heartily and was so kind that Ben looked up, feeling that he had given him one of the sweetest things in the world - friendship; he wanted to tell him so, but did not know how to do it, so caught up his hoe and fell to work, saying, in a tone Thorny understood better than words, -

"You are real good to me -never mind, I won't worry about it; only it seems extra hard coming so soon after the other - "

He stopped there, and a bright drop fell on the bean leaves, to shine like dew till Ben saw clearly enough to bury it out of sight in a great flurry.

"By Jove! I'll find that dog, if he is out of the ground. Keep your spirits up, my lad, and we'll have the dear old fellow back yet."

With which cheering prophecy Thorny went off to rack his brains as to what could be done about the matter.

Half an hour afterward, the sound of a hand-organ in the avenue roused him from the brown study into which he had fallen as he lay on the newly mown grass of the lawn. Peeping over the wall, Thorny reconnoitred, and, finding the organ a good one, the man a pleasant-faced Italian, and the monkey a lively animal, he ordered them all in, as a delicate attention to Ben, for music and monkey together might suggest soothing memories of the past, and so be a comfort.

In they came by way of the Lodge, escorted by Bab and Betty, full of glee, for hand-organs were rare in those parts, and the children delighted in them. Smiling till his white teeth shone and his black eyes sparkled, the man played away while the monkey made his pathetic little bows, and picked up the pennies Thorny threw him.

"It is warm, and you look tired. Sit down and I'll get you Some dinner," said the young master, pointing to the seat which now stood near the great gate.

With thanks in broken English the man gladly obeyed, and Ben begged to be allowed to make Jacko equally comfortable, explaining that he knew all about monkeys and what they liked. So the poor thing was freed from his cocked hat and uniform, fed with bread and milk, and allowed to curl himself up in the cool grass for a nap, looking so like a tired littie old man in a fur coat that the children were never weary of watching him.

Meantime, Miss Celia had come out, and was talking Italian to Giacomo in a way that delighted his homesick heart. She had been to Naples, and could understand his longing for the lovely city of his birth, so they had a little chat in the language which is all Music, and the good fellow was so grateful that he played for the children to dance till they were glad to stop, lingering afterward as if he hated to set out again upon his lonely, dusty walk.

"I'd rather like to tramp round with him for a week or so. Could make enough to live on as easy as not, if I only I had Sanch to show off," said Ben, as he was coaxing Jacko into the suit which he detested. "You go wid me, yes?" asked the man, nodding and smiling, well pleased at the prospect of company, for his quick eye and what the boys let fall in their talk showed him that Ben was not one of them.

If I had my dog I'd love to," and with sad eagerness Ben told the tale of his loss, for the thought of it was never long out of his mind.

"I tink I see droll dog like he, way off in New York. He do leetle trick wid letter, and dance, and go on he head, and many tings to make laugh," said the man, when he had listened to a list of Sanch's beauties and accomplishments.

"Who had him?" asked Thorny, full of interest at once.

"A man I not know. Cross fellow what beat him when he do letters bad."

"Did he spell his name?" cried Ben, breathlessly.

"No; that for why man beat him. He name Generale, and he go spell Sancho all times, and cry when whip fall on him. Ha! yes! that name true one; not Generale?" and the man nodded, waved his hands, and showed his teeth, almost as much excited as the boys.

"It's Sanch! let's go and get him now, right off! cried Ben, in a fever to be gone.

"A hundred miles away, and no clue but this man's story? We must wait a little, Ben, and be sure before we set out," said Miss Celia, ready to do almost any thing, but not so certain as the boys. "What sort of a dog was it? A large, curly, white poodle, with a queer tail?" she asked of Giacomo.

"No, Signorina mia, he no curly, no wite; he black, smooth dog, littel tail, small, so;" and the man held up one brown finger with a gesture which suggested a short, wagging tail.

"There, you see how mistaken we were. Dogs are often named Sancho, especially Spanish poodles; for the original Sancho was a Spaniard, you know. This dog is not ours, and I'm so sorry."

The boys' faces had fallen dismally as their hope was destroyed; but Ben would not give up. For him there was and could be only one Sancho in the world, and his quick wits suggested an explanation which no one else thought of.

"It may be my dog, - they color 'em as we used to paint over trick horses. I told you he was a valuable chap, and those that stole him hide him that way, else he'd be no use, don't you see? because we'd know him."

"But the black dog had no tail," began Thorny, longing to be convinced, but still doubtful.

Ben shivered as if the mere thought hurt him, as he said, in a grim tone, -

"They might have cut Sanch's off."

"Oh, no! no! they mustn't, - they wouldn't! How Could any one be so wicked?" cried Bab and Betty, horrified at the suggestion.

"You don't know what such fellows would do to make all safe, so they could use a dog to earn their living for 'em," said Ben, with mysterious significance, quite forgetting in his wrath that be had just proposed to get his own living in that way himself.

"He no your dog? Sorry I not find him for you. Addio, signorina! Grazia, signor! Buon giorno, buon giorno!" and, kissing his hand, the Italian shouldered organ and monkey, ready to go.

Miss Celia detained him long enough to give him her address, and beg him to let her know if he met poor Sanch in any of his wanderings; for such itinerant showmen often cross each other's paths. Ben and Thorny walked to the school-corner with him, getting more exact information about the black dog and his owner, for they had no intention of giving it up so soon.

That very evening, Thorny wrote to a boy cousin in New York, giving all the particulars of the case, and begging him to hunt up the man, investigate the dog, and see that the police made sure that every thing was right. Much relieved by this performance, the boys waited anxiously for a reply, and when it came found little comfort in it. Cousin Horace had done his duty like a man, but regretted that he could only report a failure. The owner of the black poodle was a suspicious character, but told a straight story, how he had bought the dog from a stranger, and exhibited him with success till he was stolen. Knew nothing of his history, and was very sorry to lose him, for he was a remarkably clever beast.

"I told my dog-man to look about for him, but he says he has probably been killed, with ever so many more; so there is an end of it, and I call it a mean shame."

"Good for Horace! I told you he'd do it up thoroughly and see the end of it," said Thorny, as he read that paragraph in the deeply interesting letter.

"May be the end of that dog, but not of mine. I'll bet he ran away; and if it was Sanch, he'll come home. You see if he doesn't!" cried Ben, refusing to believe that all was over.

"A hundred wiles off? Oh, he couldn't find you without help, smart as he is," answered Thorny, incredulously.

Ben looked discouraged, but Miss Celia cheered him up again by saying, -

"Yes, he could. My father had a friend who left a little dog in Paris; and the creature found her in Milan, and died of fatigue next day. That was very wonderful, but true; and I've no doubt that if Sanch is alive he will come home. Let us hope so, and be happy, while we wait."

"We will!" said the boys; and day after day looked for the wanderer's return, kept a bone ready in the old place if he should arrive at night, and shook his mat to keep it soft for his weary bones when he came. But weeks passed, and still no Sanch.

Something else happened, however, so absorbing that he was almost forgotten for a time; and Ben found a way to repay a part of all he owed his best friend.

Miss Celia went off for a ride one afternoon, and an hour afterward, as Ben sat in the porch reading, Lita dashed into the yard with the reins dangling about her legs, the saddle turned round, and one side covered with black mud, showing that she had been down. For a minute, Ben's heart stood still; then he flung away his book, ran to the horse, and saw at once by her heaving flanks, dilated nostrils, and wet coat, that she must have come a long way and at full speed.

"She has had a fall, but isn't hurt or frightened," thought the boy, as the pretty creature rubbed her nose against his shoulder, pawed the ground, and champed her bit, as if she tried to tell him all about the disaster, whatever it was.

"Lita, where's Miss Celia?" he asked, looking straight into the intelligent eyes, which were troubled but not wild.

Lita threw up her head, and neighed loud and clear, as if she called her mistress; and, turning, would have gone again if Ben had not caught the reins and held her.

"All right, we'll find her;" and, pulling off the broken saddle, kicking away his shoes, and ramming his hat firmly on, Ben was up like a flash, tingling all over with a sense of power as he felt the bare back between his knees, and caught the roll of Lita's eye as she looked round with an air of satisfaction.

"Hi, there! Mrs. Moss! Something has happened to Miss Celia, and I'm going to find her. Thorny is asleep; tell him easy, and I'll come back as soon as I can!"

Then, giving Lita her head, he was off before the startled woman had time to do more than wring her hands and cry out, -

"Go for the Squire! Oh, what shall we do?"

As if she knew exactly what was wanted of her, Lita went back the way she had come, as Ben could see by the fresh, irregular tracks that cut up the road where she had galloped for help. For a mile or more they went, then she paused at a pair of bars, which were let down to allow the carts to pass into the wide hay-fields beyond. On she went again, cantering across the new-mown turf toward a brook, across which she had evidently taken a leap before; for, on the further side, at a place where cattle went to drink, the mud showed signs of a fall.

"You were a fool to try there; but where is Miss Celia?" said Ben, who talked to animals as if they were people, and was understood much better than any one not used to their companionship would imagine.

Now Lita seemed at a loss, and put her head down, as if she expected to find her mistress where she had left her, somewhere on the ground. Ben called, but there was no answer; and he rode slowly along the brook-side, looking far and wide with anxious eyes.

"May be she wasn't hurt, and has gone to that house to wait," thought the boy, pausing for a last survey of the great, sunny field, which had no place of shelter in it but one rock on the other side of the little stream. As his eye wandered over it, something dark seemed to blow out from behind it, as if the wind played in the folds of a shirt, or a human limb moved. Away went Lita, and in a moment Ben had found Miss Celia, lying in the shadow of the rock, so white and motionless, he feared that she was dead. He leaped down, touched her, spoke to her; and, receiving no answer, rushed away to bring a little water in his leaky hat to sprinkle in her face, as he had seen them do when any of the riders got a fall in the circus, or fainted from exhaustion after they left the ring, where "do or die" was the motto all adopted.

In a minute, the blue eyes opened, and she recognized the anxious face bending over her, saying faintly, as she touched it, -

"My good little Ben, I knew you'd find me, - I sent Lita for you, - I'm so hurt, I couldn't come."

"Oh, where? What shall I do? Had I better run up to the house?" asked Ben, overjoyed to hear her speak, but much dismayed by her seeming helplessness, for he had seen bad falls, and had them, too.

"I feel bruised all over, and my arm is broken, I'm afraid. Lita tried not to hurt me. She slipped, and we went down. I came here into the shade, and the pain made me faint, I suppose. Call somebody, and get me home."

Then she shut her eyes, and looked so white that Ben hurried away, and burst upon old Mrs. Paine, placidly knitting at the end door, so suddenly that, as she afterward said, "It sca't her like a clap o' thunder."

"Ain't a man nowheres around. All down in the big medder gettin' in hay," was her reply to Ben's breathless demand for "everybody to come and see to Miss Celia."

He turned to mount, for he had flung himself off before Lita stopped, but the old lady caught his jacket, and asked half a dozen questions in a breath.

"Who's your folks? What's broke? How'd she fall? Where is she? Why didn't she come right here? Is it a sunstroke?"

As fast as words could tumble out of his mouth, Ben answered, and then tried to free himself; but the old lady held on, while she gave her directions, expressed her sympathy, and offered her hospitality with incoherent warmth.

"Sakes alive! poor dear! Fetch her right in. Liddy, get out the camphire; and, Melissy, you haul down a bed to lay her on. Falls is dretful uncert'in things; shouldn't wonder if her back was broke. Father's down yender, and he and Bijah will see to her. You go call 'em, and I'll blow the horn to start 'em up. Tell her we'd be pleased to see her, and it won't make a mite of trouble."

Ben heard no more, fur as Mrs. Paine turned to take down the tin horn he was up and away.

Several long and dismal toots sent Lita galloping through the grassy path as the sound of the trumpet excites a war-horse, and "father and Bijah," alarmed by the signal at that hour, leaned on their rakes to survey with wonder the distracted-looking little horseman approaching like a whirlwind.

"Guess likely grandpa's had 'nother stroke. Told 'em to send over soon 's ever it come," said the farmer, calmly.

"Shouldn't wonder ef suthing was afire some'r's," conjectured the hired man, surveying the horizon for a cloud of smoke.

Instead of advancing to meet the messenger, both stood like statues in blue overalls and red flannel shirts, till the boy arrived and told his tale.

"Sho, that's bad," said the farmer, anxiously.

"That brook always was the darndest place," added Bijah; then both men bestirred themselves helpfully, the former hurrying to Miss Cella while the latter brought up the cart and made a bed of hay to lay her on.

"Now then, boy, you go for the doctor. My own folks will see to the lady, and she'd better keep quiet up yender till we see what the matter is," said the farmer, when the pale girl was lifted in as carefully as four strong arms could do it. "Hold on," he added, as Ben made one leap to Lita's back. You'll have to go to Berryville. Dr. Mills is a master hand for broken bones and old Dr. Babcock ain't. 'Tisn't but about three miles from here to his house, and you'll fetch him 'fore there's any harm done waitin'."

"Don't kill Lita," called Miss Celia from the cart, as it began to move.

But Ben did not hear her, for he was off across the fields, riding as if life and death depended upon his speed.

"That boy will break his neck," said Mr. Paine, standing still to watch horse and rider go over the wall as if bent on instant destruction.

"No fear for Ben, he can ride any thing, and Lita was trained to leap," answered Miss Celia, falling back on the hay with a groan, for she had involuntarily raised her head to see her little squire dash away in gallant style.

"I should hope so; regular jockey, that boy. Never see any thing like it out of a race-ground," and Farmer Paine strode on, still following with his eye the figures that went thundering over the bridge, up the hill, out of sight, leaving a cloud of cloud of dust behind.

Now that his mistress was safe, Ben enjoyed that wild ride mightily, and so did the bay mare; for Lita had good blood in her, and proved it that day by doing her three miles in a wonderfully short time. People jogging along in wagons and country carry-alls stared amazed as the reckless pair went by. Women, placidly doing their afternoon sewing at the front windows, dropped their needles to run out with exclamations of alarm, sure some one was being run away with; children playing by the roadside scattered like chickens before a hawk, as Ben passed with a warning whoop, and baby-carriages were scrambled into door-yards with perilous rapidity at his approach.

But when he clattered into town, intense interest was felt in this barefooted boy on the foaming steed, and a dozen voices asked, "Who's killed?" as he pulled up at the doctor's gate.

"Jest drove off that way; Mrs. Flynn's baby's in a fit," cried a stout lady from the piazza, never ceasing to rock, though several passers-by paused to hear the news, for she was a doctor's wife, and used to the arrival of excited messengers from all quarters at all hours of the day and night.

Deigning no reply to any one, Ben rode away, wishing he could leap a yawning gulf, scale a precipice, or ford a raging torrent, to prove his devotion to Miss Celia, and his skill in horsemanship. But no dangers beset his path, and he found the doctor pausing to water his tired horse at the very trough where Bab and Sancho had been discovered on that ever-memorable day. The story was quickly told, and, promising to be there as soon as possible, Dr. Mills drove on to relieve baby Flynn's inner man, a little disturbed by a bit of soap and several buttons, upon which he had privately lunched while his mamma was busy at the wash-tub.

Ben thanked his stars, as he had already done more than once, that he knew how to take care of a horse; for he delayed by the watering-place long enough to wash out Lita's mouth with a handful of wet grass, to let her have one swallow to clear her dusty throat, and then went slowly back over the breezy hills, patting and praising the good creature for her intelligence and speed. She knew well enough that she had been a clever little mare, and tossed her head, arched her glossy neck, and ambled daintily along, as conscious and coquettish as a pretty woman, looking round at her admiring rider to return his compliments by glance of affection, and caressing sniffs of a velvet nose at his bare feet.

Miss Celia had been laid comfortably in bed by the farmer's wife and daughter; and, when the doctor arrived, bore the setting of her arm bravely. No other serious damage appeared, and bruises soon heal, so Ben was sent home to comfort Thorny with a good report, and ask the Squire to drive up in his big carry-all for her the next day, if she was able to be moved.

Mrs. Moss had been wise enough to say nothing, but quietly made what preparations she could, and waited for tidings. Bab and Betty were away berrying, so no one had alarmed Thorny, and he had his afternoon nap in peace, - an unusually long one, owing to the stillness which prevailed in the absence of the children; and when he awoke he lay reading for a while before he began to wonder where every one was. Lounging out to see, he found Ben and Lita reposing side by side on the fresh straw in the loose box, which had been made for her in the coach-house. By the pails, sponges and curry-combs lying about, it was evident that she had been refreshed by a careful washing and rubbing down, and my lady was now luxuriously resting after her labors, with her devoted groom half asleep close by.

"Well, of all queer boys you are the queerest, to spend this hot afternoon fussing over Lita, just for the fun of it!" cried Thorny, looking in at them with much amusement.

"If you knew what we'd been doing, you'd think I ought to fuss over her, and both of us had a right to rest!" answered Ben, rousing up as bright as a button; for he longed to tell his thrilling tale, and had with difficulty been restrained from bursting in on Thorny as soon as he arrived.

He made short work of the story, but was quite satisfied with the sensation it produced; for his listener was startled, relieved, excited and charmed, in such rapid succession, that he was obliged to sit upon the meal-chest and get his breath before he Could exclaim, with an emphatic demonstration of his heels against the bin, -

"Ben Brown, I'll never forget what you've done for Celia this day, or say 'bow-legs' again as long as I live

"George! I felt as if I had six legs when we were going the pace. We were all one piece, and had a jolly spin, didn't we, my beauty?" and Ben chuckled as he took Lita's head in his lap, while she answered with a gusty sigh that nearly blew him away.

Like the fellow that brought the good news from Ghent to Aix," said Thorny, surveying the recumbent pair with great admiration.

"What follow?" asked Ben, wondering if he didn't mean Sheridan, of whose ride he had heard.

"Don't you know that piece? I spoke it at school. Give it to you now; see if it isn't a rouser."

And, glad to find a vent from his excitement, Thorny mounted the meal-chest, to thunder out that stirring ballad with such spirit that Lita pricked up her ears and Ben gave a shrill "Hooray!" as the last verse ended.

"And all I remember is friends flocking round, As I sat with his head 'twixt my knees on the ground, And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine, As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine, Which (the burgesses voted by common consent) Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent."