Read CHAPTER XXI - LAST DAYS of A Boy's Town , free online book, by William Dean Howells, on

I HAVE already told that my boy’s father would not support General Taylor, the Whig candidate for President, because he believed him, as the hero of a pro-slavery war, to be a friend of slavery.  At this time he had a large family of little children, and he had got nothing beyond a comfortable living from the newspaper which he had published for eight years; if he must give that up, he must begin life anew heavily burdened.  Perhaps he thought it need not come to his giving up his paper, that somehow affairs might change.  But his newspaper would have gone to nothing in his hands if he had tried to publish it as a Free Soil paper after the election of the Whig candidate; so he sold it, and began to cast about for some other business; how anxiously, my boy was too young to know.  He only felt the relief that the whole family felt for a while at getting out of the printing business; the boys wanted to go into almost anything else:  the drug-business, or farming, or a paper-mill, or anything.  The elder brother knew all the anxiety of the time, and shared it fully with the mother, whose acquiescence in what the father thought right was more than patient; she abode courageously in the suspense, the uncertainty of the time; and she hoped for something from the father’s endeavors in the different ways he turned.  At one time there was much talk in the family of using the fibre of a common weed in making paper, which he thought he could introduce; perhaps it was the milk-weed; but he could not manage it, somehow; and after a year of inaction he decided to go into another newspaper.  By this time the boys had made their peace with the printing business, and the father had made his with the Whig party.  He had done what it must have been harder to do than to stand out against it; he had publicly owned that he was mistaken in regard to Taylor, who had not become the tool of the slaveholders, but had obeyed the highest instincts of the party and served the interests of freedom, though he was himself a slaveholder and the hero of an unjust war.

It was then too late, however, for the father to have got back his old newspaper, even if he had wished, and the children heard, with the elation that novelty brings to all children, old or young, that they were going away from the Boy’s Town, to live in another place.  It was a much larger place and was even considered a city, though it was not comparable to Cincinnati, so long the only known city in the world.

My boy was twelve years old by that time, and was already a swift compositor, though he was still so small that he had to stand on a chair to reach the case in setting type on Taylor’s inaugural message.  But what he lacked in stature he made up in gravity of demeanor; and he got the name of “The Old Man” from the printers as soon as he began to come about the office, which he did almost as soon as he could walk.  His first attempt in literature, an essay on the vain and disappointing nature of human life, he set up and printed off himself in his sixth or seventh year; and the printing-office was in some sort his home, as well as his school, his university.  He could no more remember learning to set type than he could remember learning to read; and in after-life he could not come within smell of the ink, the dusty types, the humid paper, of a printing-office without that tender swelling of the heart which so fondly responds to any memory-bearing perfume:  his youth, his boyhood, almost his infancy came back to him in it.  He now looked forward eagerly to helping on the new paper, and somewhat proudly to living in the larger place the family were going to.  The moment it was decided he began to tell the boys that he was going to live in a city, and he felt that it gave him distinction.  He had nothing but joy in it, and he did not dream that as the time drew near it could be sorrow.  But when it came at last, and he was to leave the house, the town, the boys, he found himself deathly homesick.  The parting days were days of gloom; the parting was an anguish of bitter tears.  Nothing consoled him but the fact that they were going all the way to the new place in a canal-boat, which his father chartered for the trip.  My boy and his brother had once gone to Cincinnati in a canal-boat, with a friendly captain of their acquaintance, and, though they were both put to sleep in a berth so narrow that when they turned they fell out on the floor, the glory of the adventure remained with him, and he could have thought of nothing more delightful than such another voyage.  The household goods were piled up in the middle of the boat, and the family had a cabin forward, which seemed immense to the children.  They played in it and ran races up and down the long canal-boat roof, where their father and mother sometimes put their chairs and sat to admire the scenery.

As my boy could remember very few incidents of this voyage afterwards, I dare say he spent a great part of it with his face in a book, and was aware of the landscape only from time to time when he lifted his eyes from the story he was reading.  That was apt to be the way with him; and before he left the Boy’s Town the world within claimed him more and more.  He ceased to be that eager comrade he had once been; sometimes he left his book with a sigh; and he saw much of the outer world through a veil of fancies quivering like an autumn haze between him and its realities, softening their harsh outlines, and giving them a fairy coloring.  I think he would sometimes have been better employed in looking directly at them; but he had to live his own life, and I cannot live it over for him.  The season was the one of all others best fitted to win him to the earth, and in a measure it did.  It was spring, and along the tow-path strutted the large, glossy blackbirds which had just come back, and made the boys sick with longing to kill them, they offered such good shots.  But the boys had no powder with them, and at any rate the captain would not have stopped his boat, which was rushing on at the rate of two miles an hour, to let them pick up a bird, if they had hit it.  They were sufficiently provisioned without the game, however; the mother had baked bread, and boiled a ham, and provided sugar-cakes in recognition of the holiday character of the voyage, and they had the use of the boat cooking-stove for their tea and coffee.  The boys had to content themselves with such sense of adventure as they could get out of going ashore when the boat was passing through the locks, or staying aboard and seeing the water burst and plunge in around the boat.  They had often watched this thrilling sight at the First Lock, but it had a novel interest now.  As their boat approached the lock, the lower gates were pushed open by men who set their breasts to the long sweeps or handles of the gates, and when the boat was fairly inside of the stone-walled lock they were closed behind her.  Then the upper gates, which opened against the dull current, and were kept shut by its pressure, were opened a little, and the waters rushed and roared into the lock, and began to lift the boat.  The gates were opened wider and wider, till the waters poured a heavy cataract into the lock, where the boat tossed on their increasing volume, and at last calmed themselves to the level within.  Then the boat passed out through the upper gates, on even water, and the voyage to the next lock began.  At first it was rather awful, and the little children were always afraid when they came to a lock, but the boys enjoyed it after the first time.  They would have liked to take turns driving the pair of horses that drew the boat, but it seemed too bold a wish, and I think they never proposed it; they did not ask, either, to relieve the man at the helm.

They arrived safely at their journey’s end, without any sort of accident.  They had made the whole forty miles in less than two days, and were all as well as when they started, without having suffered for a moment from seasickness.  The boat drew up at the tow-path just before the stable belonging to the house which the father had already taken, and the whole family at once began helping the crew put the things ashore.  The boys thought it would have been a splendid stable to keep the pony in, only they had sold the pony; but they saw in an instant that it would do for a circus as soon as they could get acquainted with enough boys to have one.

The strangeness of the house and street, and the necessity of meeting the boys of the neighborhood, and paying with his person for his standing among them, kept my boy interested for a time, and he did not realize at first how much he missed the Boy’s Town and all the familiar fellowships there, and all the manifold privileges of the place.  Then he began to be very homesick, and to be torn with the torment of a divided love.  His mother, whom he loved so dearly, so tenderly, was here, and wherever she was, that was home; and yet home was yonder, far off, at the end of those forty inexorable miles, where he had left his life-long mates.  The first months there was a dumb heartache at the bottom of every pleasure and excitement.  There were many excitements, not the least of which was the excitement of helping get out a tri-weekly and then a daily newspaper, instead of the weekly that his father had published in the Boy’s Town.  Then that dear friend of his brother and himself, the apprentice who knew all about “Monte Cristo,” came to work with them and live with them again, and that was a great deal; but he did not bring the Boy’s Town with him; and when they each began to write a new historical romance, the thought of the beloved scenes amidst which they had planned their first was a pang that nothing could assuage.  During the summer the cholera came; the milkman, though naturally a cheerful person, said that the people around where he lived were dying off like flies; and the funerals, three and four, five and six, ten and twelve a day, passed before the door; and all the brooding horror of the pestilence sank deep into the boy’s morbid soul.  Then he fell sick of the cholera himself; and, though it was a mild attack, he lay in the Valley of the Shadow of Death while it lasted, and waited the worst with such terror that when he kept asking her if he should get well, his mother tried to reason with him, and to coax him out of his fear.  Was he afraid to die, she asked him, when he knew that heaven was so much better, and he would be in the care of such love as never could come to him on earth?  He could only gasp back that he was afraid to die; and she could only turn from reconciling him with the other world to assuring him that he was in no danger of leaving this.

I sometimes think that if parents would deal rightly and truly with children about death from the beginning, some of the fear of it might be taken away.  It seems to me that it is partly because death is hushed up and ignored between them that it rests such a burden on the soul; but if children were told as soon as they are old enough that death is a part of nature, and not a calamitous accident, they would be somewhat strengthened to meet it.  My boy had been taught that this world was only an illusion, a shadow thrown from the real world beyond; and no doubt his father and mother believed what they taught him; but he had always seen them anxious to keep the illusion, and in his turn he clung to the vain shadow with all the force of his being.

He got well of the cholera, but not of the homesickness, and after a while he was allowed to revisit the Boy’s Town.  It could only have been three or four months after he had left it, but it already seemed a very long time; and he figured himself returning as stage-heroes do to the scenes of their childhood, after an absence of some fifteen years.  He fancied that if the boys did not find him grown, they would find him somehow changed, and that he would dazzle them with the light accumulated by his residence in a city.  He was going to stay with his grandmother, and he planned to make a long stay; for he was very fond of her, and he liked the quiet and comfort of her pleasant house.  He must have gone back by the canal-packet, but his memory kept no record of the fact, and afterwards he knew only of having arrived, and of searching about in a ghostly fashion for his old comrades.  They may have been at school; at any rate he found very few of them; and with them he was certainly strange enough; too strange, even.  They received him with a kind of surprise; and they could not begin playing together at once in the old way.  He went to all the places that were so dear to him; but he felt in them the same kind of refusal, or reluctance, that he felt in the boys.  His heart began to ache again, he did not quite know why; only it ached.  When he went up from his grandmother’s to look at the Faulkner house, he realized that it was no longer home, and he could not bear the sight of it.  There were other people living in it; strange voices sounded from the open doors, strange faces peered from the windows.

He came back to his grandmother’s, bruised and defeated, and spent the morning indoors reading.  After dinner he went out again, and hunted up that queer earth-spirit who had been so long and closely his only friend.  He at least was not changed; he was as unwashed and as unkempt as ever; but he seemed shy of my poor boy.  He had probably never been shaken hands with in his life before; he dropped my boy’s hand; and they stood looking at each other, not knowing what to say.  My boy had on his best clothes, which he wore so as to affect the Boy’s Town boys with the full splendor of a city boy.  After all, he was not so very splendid, but his presence altogether was too much for the earth-spirit, and he vanished out of his consciousness like an apparition.

After school was out in the afternoon, he met more of the boys, but none of them knew just what to do with him.  The place that he had once had in their lives was filled; he was an outsider, who might be suffered among them, but he was no longer of them.  He did not understand this at once, nor well know what hurt him.  But something was gone that could not be called back, something lost that could not be found.

At tea-time his grandfather came home and gravely made him welcome; the uncle who was staying with them was jovially kind.  But a heavy homesickness weighed down the child’s heart, which now turned from the Boy’s Town as longingly as it had turned towards it before.

They all knelt down with the grandfather before they went to the table.  There had been a good many deaths from cholera during the day, and the grandfather prayed for grace and help amidst the pestilence that walketh in darkness and wasteth at noonday in such a way that the boy felt there would be very little of either for him unless he got home at once.  All through the meal that followed he was trying to find the courage to say that he must go home.  When he managed to say it, his grandmother and aunt tried to comfort and coax him, and his uncle tried to shame him, out of his homesickness, to joke it off, to make him laugh.  But his grandfather’s tender heart was moved.  He could not endure the child’s mute misery; he said he must go home if he wished.

In half an hour the boy was on the canal-packet speeding homeward at the highest pace of the three-horse team, and the Boy’s Town was out of sight.  He could not sleep for excitement that night, and he came and spent the time talking on quite equal terms with the steersman, one of the canalers whom he had admired afar in earlier and simpler days.  He found him a very amiable fellow, by no means haughty, who began to tell him funny stories, and who even let him take the helm for a while.  The rudder-handle was of polished iron, very different from the clumsy wooden affair of a freight-boat; and the packet made in a single night the distance which the boy’s family had been nearly two days in travelling when they moved away from the Boy’s Town.

He arrived home for breakfast a travelled and experienced person, and wholly cured of that longing for his former home that had tormented him before he revisited its scenes.  He now fully gave himself up to his new environment, and looked forward and not backward.  I do not mean to say that he ceased to love the Boy’s Town; that he could not do and never did.  But he became more and more aware that the past was gone from him forever, and that he could not return to it.  He did not forget it, but cherished its memories the more fondly for that reason.

There was no bitterness in it, and no harm that he could not hope would easily be forgiven him.  He had often been foolish, and sometimes he had been wicked; but he had never been such a little fool or such a little sinner but he had wished for more sense and more grace.  There are some great fools and great sinners who try to believe in after-life that they are the manlier men because they have been silly and mischievous boys, but he has never believed that.  He is glad to have had a boyhood fully rounded out with all a boy’s interests and pleasures, and he is glad that his lines were cast in the Boy’s Town; but he knows, or believes he knows, that whatever is good in him now came from what was good in him then; and he is sure that the town was delightful chiefly because his home in it was happy.  The town was small and the boys there were hemmed in by their inexperience and ignorance; but the simple home was large with vistas that stretched to the ends of the earth, and it was serenely bright with a father’s reason and warm with a mother’s love.