The Cock of the Walk
by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
DOWN the road, kicking up the dust until he marched, soldier-wise, in a
cloud of it, that rose and grimed his moist face and added to the heavy,
brown powder upon the wayside weeds and flowers, whistling a queer,
tuneless thing, which yet contained definite sequences—the whistle
of a bird rather than a boy—approached Johnny Trumbull, aged ten,
small of his age, but accounted by his mates mighty.
Johnny came of the best and oldest family in the village, but it was in
some respects an undesirable family for a boy. In it survived, as fossils
survive in ancient nooks and crannies of the earth, old traits of race,
unchanged by time and environment. Living in a house lighted by
electricity, the mental conception of it was to the Trumbulls as the
conception of candles; with telephones at hand, they unconsciously still
conceived of messages delivered with the old saying, "Ride, ride," etc.,
and relays of post-horses. They locked their doors, but still had
latch-strings in mind. Johnny's father was a physician, adopting modern
methods of surgery and prescription, yet his mind harked back to cupping
and calomel, and now and then he swerved aside from his path across the
field of the present into the future and plunged headlong, as if for fresh
air, into the traditional past, and often with brilliant results.
Johnny's mother was a college graduate. She was the president of the
woman's club. She read papers savoring of such feminine leaps ahead that
they were like gymnastics, but she walked homeward with the gait of her
great-grandmother, and inwardly regarded her husband as her lord and
master. She minced genteelly, lifting her quite fashionable skirts high
above very slender ankles, which were hereditary. Not a woman of her race
had ever gone home on thick ankles, and they had all gone home. They had
all been at home, even if abroad—at home in the truest sense. At the
club, reading her inflammatory paper, Cora Trumbull's real self remained
at home intent upon her mending, her dusting, her house economics. It was
something remarkably like her astral body which presided at the club.
As for her unmarried sister Janet, who was older and had graduated from a
young ladies' seminary instead of a college, whose early fancy had been
guided into the lady-like ways of antimacassars and pincushions and wax
flowers under glass shades, she was a straighter proposition. No astral
pretensions had Janet. She stayed, body and soul together, in the old
ways, and did not even project her shadow out of them. There is seldom
room enough for one's shadow in one's earliest way of life, but there was
plenty for Janet's. There had been a Janet unmarried in every Trumbull
family for generations. That in some subtle fashion accounted for her
remaining single. There had also been an unmarried Jonathan Trumbull, and
that accounted for Johnny's old bachelor uncle Jonathan. Jonathan was a
retired clergyman. He had retired before he had preached long, because of
doctrinal doubts, which were hereditary. He had a little, dark study in
Johnny's father's house, which was the old Trumbull homestead, and he
passed much of his time there, debating within himself that matter of
Presently Johnny, assiduously kicking up dust, met his uncle Jonathan, who
passed without the slightest notice. Johnny did not mind at all. He was
used to it. Presently his own father appeared, driving along in his buggy
the bay mare at a steady jog, with the next professional call quite
clearly upon her equine mind. And Johnny's father did not see him. Johnny
did not mind that, either. He expected nothing different.
Then Johnny saw his mother approaching. She was coming from the club
meeting. She held up her silk skirts high, as usual, and carried a nice
little parcel of papers tied with ribbon. She also did not notice Johnny,
who, however, out of sweet respect for his mother's nice silk dress,
stopped kicking up dust. Mrs. Trumbull on the village street was really at
home preparing a shortcake for supper.
Johnny eyed his mother's faded but rather beautiful face under the
rose-trimmed bonnet with admiration and entire absence of resentment. Then
he walked on and kicked up the dust again. He loved to kick up the dust in
summer, the fallen leaves in autumn, and the snow in winter. Johnny was
not a typical Trumbull. None of them had ever cared for simple amusements
like that. Looking back for generations on his father's and mother's side
(both had been Trumbulls, but very distantly related), none could be
discovered who in the least resembled Johnny. No dim blue eye of
retrospection and reflection had Johnny; no tendency to tall slenderness
which would later bow beneath the greater weight of the soul. Johnny was
small, but wiry of build, and looked able to bear any amount of mental
development without a lasting bend of his physical shoulders. Johnny had,
at the early age of ten, whopped nearly every boy in school, but that was
a secret of honor. It was well known in the school that, once the
Trumbulls heard of it, Johnny could never whop again. "You fellows know,"
Johnny had declared once, standing over his prostrate and whimpering foe,
"that I don't mind getting whopped at home, but they might send me away to
another school, and then I could never whop any of you fellows."
Johnny Trumbull kicking up the dust, himself dust-covered, his shoes, his
little queerly fitting dun suit, his cropped head, all thickly powdered,
loved it. He sniffed in that dust like a grateful incense. He did not stop
dust-kicking when he saw his aunt Janet coming, for, as he considered, her
old black gown was not worth the sacrifice. It was true that she might see
him. She sometimes did, if she were not reading a book as she walked. It
had always been a habit with the Janet Trumbulls to read improving books
when they walked abroad. To-day Johnny saw, with a quick glance of those
sharp, black eyes, so unlike the Trumbulls', that his aunt Janet was
reading. He therefore expected her to pass him without recognition, and
marched on kicking up the dust. But suddenly, as he grew nearer the spry
little figure, he was aware of a pair of gray eyes, before which waved
protectingly a hand clad in a black silk glove with dangling finger-tips,
because it was too long, and it dawned swiftly upon him that Aunt Janet
was trying to shield her face from the moving column of brown motes. He
stopped kicking, but it was too late. Aunt Janet had him by the collar and
was vigorously shaking him with nervous strength.
"You are a very naughty little boy," declared Aunt Janet. "You should know
better than to walk along the street raising so much dust. No
well-brought-up child ever does such things. Who are your parents, little
Johnny perceived that Aunt Janet did not recognize him, which was easily
explained. She wore her reading-spectacles and not her far-seeing ones;
besides, her reading spectacles were obscured by dust and her nephew's
face was nearly obliterated. Also as she shook him his face was not much
in evidence. Johnny disliked, naturally, to tell his aunt Janet that her
own sister and brother-in-law were the parents of such a wicked little
boy. He therefore kept quiet and submitted to the shaking, making himself
as limp as a rag. This, however, exasperated Aunt Janet, who found herself
encumbered by a dead weight of a little boy to be shaken, and suddenly
Johnny Trumbull, the fighting champion of the town, the cock of the walk
of the school, found himself being ignominiously spanked. That was too
much. Johnny's fighting blood was up. He lost all consideration for
circumstances, he forgot that Aunt Janet was not a boy, that she was quite
near being an old lady. She had overstepped the bounds of privilege of age
and sex, and an alarming state of equality ensued. Quickly the tables were
turned. The boy became far from limp. He stiffened, then bounded and
rebounded like wire. He butted, he parried, he observed all his famous
tactics of battle, and poor Aunt Janet sat down in the dust, black dress,
bonnet, glasses (but the glasses were off and lost), little improving
book, black silk gloves, and all; and Johnny, hopeless, awful, irreverent,
sat upon his Aunt Janet's plunging knees, which seemed the most lively
part of her. He kept his face twisted away from her, but it was not from
cowardice. Johnny was afraid lest Aunt Janet should be too much overcome
by the discovery of his identity. He felt that it was his duty to spare
her that. So he sat still, triumphant but inwardly aghast.
It was fast dawning upon him that his aunt was not a little boy. He was
not afraid of any punishment which might be meted out to him, but he was
simply horrified. He himself had violated all the honorable conditions of
warfare. He felt a little dizzy and ill, and he felt worse when he
ventured a hurried glance at Aunt Janet's face. She was very pale through
the dust, and her eyes were closed. Johnny thought then that he had killed
He got up—the nervous knees were no longer plunging; then he heard a
voice, a little-girl voice, always shrill, but now high pitched to a
squeak with terror. It was the voice of Lily Jennings. She stood near and
yet aloof, a lovely little flower of a girl, all white-scalloped frills
and ribbons, with a big white-frilled hat shading a pale little face and
covering the top of a head decorated with wonderful yellow curls. She
stood behind a big baby-carriage with a pink-lined muslin canopy and
containing a nest of pink and white, but an empty nest. Lily's little
brother's carriage had a spring broken, and she had been to borrow her
aunt's baby-carriage, so that nurse could wheel little brother up and down
the veranda. Nurse had a headache, and the maids were busy, and Lily, who
was a kind little soul and, moreover, imaginative, and who liked the idea
of pushing an empty baby-carriage, had volunteered to go for it. All the
way she had been dreaming of what was not in the carriage. She had come
directly out of a dream of doll twins when she chanced upon the tragedy in
"What have you been doing now, Johnny Trumbull?" said she. She was
tremulous, white with horror, but she stood her ground. It was curious,
but Johnny Trumbull, with all his bravery, was always cowed before Lily.
Once she had turned and stared at him when he had emerged triumphant but
with bleeding nose from a fight; then she had sniffed delicately and gone
her way. It had only taken a second, but in that second the victor had met
He looked now at her pale, really scared face, and his own was as pale. He
stood and kicked the dust until the swirling column of it reached his
"That's right," said Lily; "stand and kick up dust all over me. WHAT have
you been doing?"
Johnny was trembling so he could hardly stand. He stopped kicking dust.
"Have you killed your aunt?" demanded Lily. It was monstrous, but she had
a very dramatic imagination, and there was a faint hint of enjoyment in
her tragic voice.
"Guess she's just choked by dust," volunteered Johnny, hoarsely. He kicked
the dust again.
"That's right," said Lily. "If she's choked to death by dust, stand there
and choke her some more. You are a murderer, Johnny Trumbull, and my mamma
will never allow me to speak to you again, and Madame will not allow you
to come to school. AND—I see your papa driving up the street, and
there is the chief policeman's buggy just behind." Lily acquiesced
entirely in the extraordinary coincidence of the father and the chief of
police appearing upon the scene. The unlikely seemed to her the likely.
"NOW," said she, cheerfully, "you will be put in state prison and locked
up, and then you will be put to death by a very strong telephone."
Johnny's father was leaning out of his buggy, looking back at the chief of
police in his, and the mare was jogging very slowly in a perfect reek of
dust. Lily, who was, in spite of her terrific imagination, human and a
girl, rose suddenly to heights of pity and succor. "They shall never take
you, Johnny Trumbull," said she. "I will save you."
Johnny by this time was utterly forgetful of his high status as champion
(behind her back) of Madame's very select school for select children of a
somewhat select village. He was forgetful of the fact that a champion
never cries. He cried; he blubbered; tears rolled over his dusty cheeks,
making furrows like plowshares of grief. He feared lest he might have
killed his aunt Janet. Women, and not very young women, might presumably
be unable to survive such rough usage as very tough and at the same time
very limber little boys, and he loved his poor aunt Janet. He grieved
because of his aunt, his parents, his uncle, and rather more particularly
because of himself. He was quite sure that the policeman was coming for
him. Logic had no place in his frenzied conclusions. He did not consider
how the tragedy had taken place entirely out of sight of a house, that
Lily Jennings was the only person who had any knowledge of it. He looked
at the masterful, fair-haired little girl like a baby. "How?" sniffed he.
For answer, Lily pointed to the empty baby-carriage. "Get right in," she
Even in this dire extremity Johnny hesitated. "Can't."
"Yes, you can. It is extra large. Aunt Laura's baby was a twin when he
first came; now he's just an ordinary baby, but his carriage is big enough
for two. There's plenty of room. Besides, you're a very small boy, very
small of your age, even if you do knock all the other boys down and have
murdered your aunt. Get in. In a minute they will see you."
There was in reality no time to lose. Johnny did get in. In spite of the
provisions for twins, there was none too much room.
Lily covered him up with the fluffy pink-and-lace things, and scowled.
"You hump up awfully," she muttered. Then she reached beneath him and
snatched out the pillow on which he lay, the baby's little bed. She gave
it a swift toss over the fringe of wayside bushes into a field. "Aunt
Laura's nice embroidered pillow," said she. "Make yourself just as flat as
you can, Johnny Trumbull."
Johnny obeyed, but he was obliged to double himself up like a jack-knife.
However, there was no sign of him visible when the two buggies drew up.
There stood a pale and frightened little girl, with a baby-carriage
canopied with rose and lace and heaped up with rosy and lacy coverlets,
presumably sheltering a sleeping infant. Lily was a very keen little girl.
She had sense enough not to run. The two men, at the sight of Aunt Janet
prostrate in the road, leaped out of their buggies. The doctor's horse
stood still; the policeman's trotted away, to Lily's great relief. She
could not imagine Johnny's own father haling him away to state prison and
the stern Arm of Justice. She stood the fire of bewildered questions in
the best and safest fashion. She wept bitterly, and her tears were not
assumed. Poor little Lily was all of a sudden crushed under the weight of
facts. There was Aunt Janet, she had no doubt, killed by her own nephew,
and she was hiding the guilty murderer. She had visions of state prison
for herself. She watched fearfully while the two men bent over the
prostrate woman, who very soon began to sputter and gasp and try to sit
"What on earth is the matter, Janet?" inquired Dr. Trumbull, who was paler
than his sister-inlaw. In fact, she was unable to look very pale on
account of dust.
"Ow!" sputtered Aunt Janet, coughing violently, "get me up out of this
dust, John. Ow!"
"What was the matter?"
"Yes, what has happened, madam?" demanded the chief of police, sternly.
"Nothing," replied Aunt Janet, to Lily's and Johnny's amazement. "What do
you think has happened? I fell down in all this nasty dust. Ow!"
"What did you eat for luncheon, Janet?" inquired Dr. Trumbull, as he
assisted his sister-inlaw to her feet.
"What I was a fool to eat," replied Janet Trumbull, promptly. "Cucumber
salad and lemon jelly with whipped cream."
"Enough to make anybody have indigestion," said Dr. Trumbull. "You have
had one of these attacks before, too, Janet. You remember the time you ate
strawberry shortcake and ice-cream?"
Janet nodded meekly. Then she coughed again. "Ow, this dust!" gasped she.
"For goodness' sake, John, get me home where I can get some water and take
off these dusty clothes or I shall choke to death."
"How does your stomach feel?" inquired Dr. Trumbull.
"Stomach is all right now, but I am just choking to death with the dust."
Janet turned sharply toward the policeman. "You have sense enough to keep
still, I hope," said she. "I don't want the whole town ringing with my
being such an idiot as to eat cucumbers and cream together and being found
this way." Janet looked like an animated creation of dust as she faced the
chief of police.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, bowing and scraping one foot and raising more
He and Dr. Trumbull assisted Aunt Janet into the buggy, and they drove
off. Then the chief of police discovered that his own horse had gone. "Did
you see which way he went, sis?" he inquired of Lily, and she pointed down
the road, and sobbed as she did so.
The policeman said something bad under his breath, then advised Lily to
run home to her ma, and started down the road.
When he was out of sight, Lily drew back the pink-and-white things from
Johnny's face. "Well, you didn't kill her this time," said she.
"Why do you s'pose she didn't tell all about it?" said Johnny, gaping at
"How do I know? I suppose she was ashamed to tell how she had been
"No, that was not why," said Johnny in a deep voice.
"Why was it, then?"
Johnny began to climb out of the baby-carriage.
"What will she do next, then?" asked Lily.
"I don't know," Johnny replied, gloomily.
He was out of the carriage then, and Lily was readjusting the pillows and
things. "Get that nice embroidered pillow I threw over the bushes," she
ordered, crossly. Johnny obeyed. When she had finished putting the
baby-carriage to rights she turned upon poor little Johnny Trumbull, and
her face wore the expression of a queen of tragedy. "Well," said Lily
Jennings, "I suppose I shall have to marry you when I am grown up, after
Johnny gasped. He thought Lily the most beautiful girl he knew, but to be
confronted with murder and marriage within a few minutes was almost too
much. He flushed a burning red. He laughed foolishly. He said nothing.
"It will be very hard on me," stated Lily, "to marry a boy who tried to
murder his nice aunt."
Johnny revived a bit under this feminine disdain. "I didn't try to murder
her," he said in a weak voice.
"You might have, throwing her down in all that awful dust, a nice, clean
lady. Ladies are not like boys. It might kill them very quickly to be
knocked down on a dusty road."
"I didn't mean to kill her."
"You might have."
"Well, I didn't, and—she—"
"She spanked me."
"Pooh! That doesn't amount to anything," sniffed Lily.
"It does if you are a boy."
"I don't see why."
"Well, I can't help it if you don't. It does."
"Why shouldn't a boy be spanked when he's naughty, just as well as a girl,
I would like to know?"
"Because he's a boy."
Lily looked at Johnny Trumbull. The great fact did remain. He had been
spanked, he had thrown his own aunt down in the dust. He had taken
advantage of her little-girl protection, but he was a boy. Lily did not
understand his why at all, but she bowed before it. However, that she
would not admit. She made a rapid change of base. "What," said she, "are
you going to do next?"
Johnny stared at her. It was a puzzle.
"If," said Lily, distinctly, "you are afraid to go home, if you think your
aunt will tell, I will let you get into Aunt Laura's baby-carriage again,
and I will wheel you a little way."
Johnny would have liked at that moment to knock Lily down, as he had his
aunt Janet. Lily looked at him shrewdly. "Oh yes," said she, "you can
knock me down in the dust there if you want to, and spoil my nice clean
dress. You will be a boy, just the same."
"I will never marry you, anyway," declared Johnny.
"Aren't you afraid I'll tell on you and get you another spanking if you
"Tell if you want to. I'd enough sight rather be spanked than marry you."
A gleam of respect came into the little girl's wisely regarding blue eyes.
She, with the swiftness of her sex, recognized in forlorn little Johnny
the making of a man. "Oh, well," said she, loftily, "I never was a
telltale, and, anyway, we are not grown up, and there will be my trousseau
to get, and a lot of other things to do first. I shall go to Europe before
I am married, too, and I might meet a boy much nicer than you on the
"Meet him if you want to."
Lily looked at Johnny Trumbull with more than respect—with
admiration—but she kept guard over her little tongue. "Well, you can
leave that for the future," said she with a grown-up air.
"I ain't going to leave it. It's settled for good and all now," growled
To his immense surprise, Lily curved her white embroidered sleeve over her
face and began to weep.
"What's the matter now?" asked Johnny, sulkily, after a minute.
"I think you are a real horrid boy," sobbed Lily.
Lily looked like nothing but a very frilly, sweet, white flower. Johnny
could not see her face. There was nothing to be seen except that delicate
fluff of white, supported on dainty white-socked, white-slippered limbs.
"Say," said Johnny.
"You are real cruel, when I—I saved your—li-fe," wailed Lily.
"Say," said Johnny, "maybe if I don't see any other girl I like better I
will marry you when I am grown up, but I won't if you don't stop that
Lily stopped immediately. She peeped at him, a blue peep from under the
flopping, embroidered brim of her hat. "Are you in earnest?" She smiled
faintly. Her blue eyes, wet with tears, were lovely; so was her hesitating
"Yes, if you don't act silly," said Johnny. "Now you had better run home,
or your mother will wonder where that baby-carriage is."
Lily walked away, smiling over her shoulder, the smile of the happily
subjugated. "I won't tell anybody, Johnny," she called back in her
"Don't care if you do," returned Johnny, looking at her with chin in the
air and shoulders square, and Lily wondered at his bravery.
But Johnny was not so brave and he did care. He knew that his best course
was an immediate return home, but he did not know what he might have to
face. He could not in the least understand why his aunt Janet had not told
at once. He was sure that she knew. Then he thought of a possible reason
for her silence; she might have feared his arrest at the hands of the
chief of police. Johnny quailed. He knew his aunt Janet to be rather a
brave sort of woman. If she had fears, she must have had reason for them.
He might even now be arrested. Suppose Lily did tell. He had a theory that
girls usually told. He began to speculate concerning the horrors of
prison. Of course he would not be executed, since his aunt was obviously
very far from being killed, but he might be imprisoned for a long term.
Johnny went home. He did not kick the dust any more. He walked very
steadily and staidly. When he came in sight of the old Colonial mansion,
with its massive veranda pillars, he felt chilly. However, he went on. He
passed around to the south door and entered and smelled shortcake. It
would have smelled delicious had he not had so much on his mind. He looked
through the hall, and had a glimpse of his uncle Jonathan in the study,
writing. At the right of the door was his father's office. The door of
that was open, and Johnny saw his father pouring things from bottles. He
did not look at Johnny. His mother crossed the hall. She had on a long
white apron, which she wore when making her famous cream shortcakes. She
saw Johnny, but merely observed, "Go and wash your face and hands, Johnny;
it is nearly supper-time."
Johnny went up-stairs. At the upper landing he found his aunt Janet
waiting for him. "Come here," she whispered, and Johnny followed her,
trembling, into her own room. It was a large room, rather crowded with
heavy, old-fashioned furniture. Aunt Janet had freed herself from dust and
was arrayed in a purple silk gown. Her hair was looped loosely on either
side of her long face. She was a handsome woman, after a certain type.
"Stand here, Johnny," said she. She had closed the door, and Johnny was
stationed before her. She did not seem in the least injured nor the worse
for her experience. On the contrary, there was a bright-red flush on her
cheeks, and her eyes shone as Johnny had never seen them. She looked
eagerly at Johnny.
"Why did you do that?" she said, but there was no anger in her voice.
"I forgot," began Johnny.
"Forgot what?" Her voice was strained with eagerness.
"That you were not another boy," said Johnny.
"Tell me," said Aunt Janet. "No, you need not tell me, because if you did
it might be my duty to inform your parents. I know there is no need of
your telling. You MUST be in the habit of fighting with the other boys."
"Except the little ones," admitted Johnny.
To Johnny's wild astonishment, Aunt Janet seized him by the shoulders and
looked him in the eyes with a look of adoration and immense approval.
"Thank goodness," said she, "at last there is going to be a fighter in the
Trumbull family. Your uncle would never fight, and your father would not.
Your grandfather would. Your uncle and your father are good men, though;
you must try to be like them, Johnny."
"Yes, ma'am," replied Johnny, bewildered.
"I think they would be called better men than your grandfather and my
father," said Aunt Janet.
"I think it is time for you to have your grandfather's watch," said Aunt
Janet. "I think you are man enough to take care of it." Aunt Janet had all
the time been holding a black leather case. Now she opened it, and Johnny
saw the great gold watch which he had seen many times before and had
always understood was to be his some day, when he was a man. "Here," said
Aunt Janet. "Take good care of it. You must try to be as good as your
uncle and father, but you must remember one thing—you will wear a
watch which belonged to a man who never allowed other men to crowd him out
of the way he elected to go."
"Yes, ma'am," said Johnny. He took the watch.
"What do you say?" inquired his aunt, sharply.
"That's right. I thought you had forgotten your manners. Your grandfather
"I am sorry. Aunt Janet," muttered Johnny, "that I—"
"You need never say anything about that," his aunt returned, quickly. "I
did not see who you were at first. You are too old to be spanked by a
woman, but you ought to be whipped by a man, and I wish your grandfather
were alive to do it."
"Yes, ma'am," said Johnny. He looked at her bravely. "He could if he
wanted to," said he.
Aunt Janet smiled at him proudly. "Of course," said she, "a boy like you
never gets the worst of it fighting with other boys."
"No, ma'am," said Johnny.
Aunt Janet smiled again. "Now run and wash your face and hands," said she;
"you must not keep supper waiting. Your mother has a paper to write for
her club, and I have promised to help her."
"Yes, ma'am," said Johnny. He walked out, carrying the great gold
timepiece, bewildered, embarrassed, modest beneath his honors, but little
cock of the walk, whether he would or no, for reasons entirely and forever
beyond his ken.