Benny's Disappearance by Mary Catherine Lee
Every year a few of the blest among the boys of Still Harbor were taken
to New Haven or New London to see the Greatest Show on Earth, while the
unlucky remainder were obliged to content themselves with what
imagination could do for them. But one memorable year Mr. P. T. Barnum
landed and magnified himself on our own fences. His magnanimity ran over
and flamed into Still Harbor, bringing all his miracles and monsters to
our very doors, as it were, and we had no more miserable boys. But we
had plenty of boys who aspired to be miracles and monsters, or boys who
essayed the trapeze, the tight rope, the flying leap and all sorts of
possible and impossible acrobatic contortions and distortions.
Eminent among these was Benny Briggs, for if you looked high enough, you
could see him any day with a balancing pole in his hand, walking on the
ridge-poles and fences, or making of himself all sorts of peduncles and
pendulums; bringing about in his own individual person the most
astonishing inversions, subversions and retroversions, and the most
remarkable twists and lurches and topsey-turveys and topplings-over.
But there was one opportunity that Benny's soaring ambition had not
embraced. His active mind had never yet discovered the possibility of a
real tight rope. For a real tight rope he languished, on a tight rope he
yearned to walk. The clothes line was a little too slender; his sister
Fanny's skipping rope was not only too slender, but too short; and these
were the only ropes of his acquaintance. The ridge-poles and fences only
mocked at his ideal. He wanted something that hung unsupported;
something airy; something worthy of the acrobatic art, upon which he
could walk with credit and grace, and, reaching the end, bow and kiss
his hand to the spectators, before returning. For this he searched by
day, and of this he dreamed by night. And one day he found it.
"Benny," said his mother on the morning of that day, "your grandmother
Potter has sent for you to come over. She's going to have uncle John's
and uncle Calvin's boys there. You'll like that, won't you?"
"Hi!" shouted Benny, throwing up his new straw hat, the sign and seal of
pleasant summer weather, "I'd like to see the fellow that wouldn't!"
At nine o'clock that morning—at exactly nine o'clock—Benny started.
His mother remembered it well, for she looked up at the clock and said:
"Now, don't hurry, Benny; go along easily and you'll get there before
ten," for grandmother Potter's was scarcely two miles back in the
country, and Benny thought nothing of stepping over there, especially
when inducements were offered.
He called his dog Sandy, and marched off with a light step and a light
heart; but his hands remained at home, that is to say, his hands were
nowhere so much at home as in his trousers pockets, and there they
reposed, while Benny paced along, whistling "Not for Joseph, not if I
knows it," and Sandy nosing it all the way. His mother watched him with
pride as usual; the neighbors saw him go by and said, "There goes Benny
Briggs; he hain't broken his neck yet, but I presume to say that'll be
the next thing he does."
Uncle John's and uncle Calvin's boys from New Haven, arrived early at
grandmother Potter's, a place which seemed to them to contain all the
pleasures of all the spheres, for grandmother's weakness was for boys,
and nothing suited her better than getting all her grandsons together
and giving them "full swing," as Abijah called it, and Abijah was made
by nature to help grandmother out in her benevolent plans. He instituted
jolly measures, and contrived possibilities of riot and revel that no
mortal ever thought of before. As circuses were the fashion in urchin
society, on that particular day, Abijah, like a wizard, had called up
out of the farm resources, and out of certain mysterious resources of
his own, that were so plainly of unearthly origin that it was of no use
in the world to try to look into or understand them, such a circus as
would have made not only P. T. Barnum, but the ancient Romans themselves
perfectly miserable with envy. There was the trapeze, the tight rope,
the—well, alas, I don't know the names of them all, having had a
limited education in such matters, but there they all were, whatever
they are called—those things that make a perfect, finished,
spal-en-did, be-yeu-ti-ful circus. There were hoops with tissue
paper pasted over them, to be jumped through by the most wonderful
bareback riders on earth, and old Tom, grandmother's own horse, was
perfectly safe as a trained Arabian steed, when 'Bijah was there to see
how the thing was managed. Everything was safe and sure and delightful
when 'Bijah had charge of it. Nothing ever went wrong, or upset, or came
to a sorry end with him or his plans. He knew what he was about, and
ends with him were even more brilliant and satisfactory than beginnings
and means. I shouldn't dare to fully tell you what good times the boys
had at grandmother Potter's, especially on Fourth of Julys,
Thanksgivings, Christmases and birthdays, for fear of making all the
boys who couldn't go there, discontented and low spirited for the rest
of their lives. I'm sorry for those boys, but at the same time I may as
well go on and tell them about Benny Briggs. He was preparing to be
very discontented and low spirited just at the moment when Joe and Will
and Harry and Rob and Charlie and Morris and Cad were shouting their
exultation at the only wonderful circus on earth. They all decided that
the performances were not to begin, however, until Benny Briggs arrived.
There could be no circus without Ben. No, indeed! There were stars of
the arena among them, of various magnitudes, but Benny was the comet
that outshone and outstripped them all.
"Why don't he come along?" said Charlie, dancing a double-shuffle on the
barn floor to let off his impatience.
"Let's go and look for him," said Joe, and they all shuffled off down to
the gate, thinking to see Benny with his nose pointed straight for that
gate, or as straight as could be expected, considering its faithfulness
in another direction. But no Benny was to be seen.
"He can't be far off," said Joe, seizing an opportunity to look at his
new silver watch, "for it's half-past ten now, and Ben is always here
before ten—always was, I mean."
"Let's go up to the top of the hill and meet him," proposed Will; "we
can see him from there anyhow."
So Charlie and Joe and Morris and Will and Cad started for the top of
the hill, while Harry and Rob, who were a good deal inclined to wait for
things to come to them, remained to swing on the gate.
The five spies soon returned and reported that Benny was nowhere to be
seen. Impatience now seized them all, and they flocked into the house to
put it to grandma whether it wasn't mighty queer that Ben Briggs hadn't
"He hasn't come?" exclaimed grandma, looking up over her glasses at
the clock. "Why, what can be the matter? It's almost eleven o'clock!"
"It's one minute and a quarter past," said Joe, appealing to his watch.
"Your clock's 'leven minutes slow."
"O, get out!" said Charlie, with a contemptuous sniff. "All the clocks
are either fast or slow, according to that turnip."
Here would have ensued a good deal of pro and con about watches, but
grandma held them to the subject of Benny Briggs. She drew from them
that they had been to the very top of the hill and couldn't see him
Grandma was surprised and disappointed. "It's incomprehensible," said
"O, I say, grandma," groaned Charlie, flopping into a chair and fanning
himself, with his hat, "what a big word! In-com-pre-hen-si-ble! And
the other day you said Prist-by-te-ri-an-ism! O my!"
"P-p-p-p-pooh!" stuttered Morris, who was always a little ahead of
everybody, except in conversation; "I know a l-l-l-l-longer word."
"Let's hear you say it, then," shouted the rest of the boys.
"Takes you to make long words," said Charlie.
"I-i-i-i-i-i-i"—began Morris, embarrassed by the evident want of
confidence in his ability.
"Go it!" said Charlie.
"Fire away!" said Joe.
"In-co-co-co-co-co" proceeded Morris.
"Spell it!" suggested Harry.
"I-n, in, c-o-m-e, come," spelled Morris with great fluency, and then
"Income!" exclaimed two or three voices disdainfully. "Call that a
long word? Ho-ho!"
"N-n-no; wa-wa-wa-wait a minute," implored Morris, tugging at a button
on his jacket, and fixing a studious, inquiring gaze on the kitchen
"Write it," said Will.
"I c-c-c-c-can't," said poor Morris gloomily.
"Give it up, then," recommended Joe.
"No sir," said Charlie, putting his feet up in a second chair and
making himself comfortable, "I don't give it up, sir; I'm going to know
what this bumper of a word is."
"Well, how are we ever going to know if Morris can't say it nor spell it
nor write it?" demanded Joe.
"Mebby he can thing it," said little Cad.
"Good for you, Caddy!" said Charlie. "You've hit it; Morris can sing
fast enough. Now, Morris, we'll sing, 'I love to go to Sunday-school,'
and you sing your word instead of those. Begin, boys! Sing loud,
So the boys all sang softly—
I love, I love, I love, I love,
I love to go to Sunday-school—
except Morris, who sang with a triumphant shout
I love, I love, I love, I love,
and the boys gave him three cheers.
At that moment grandma purposely left the pantry door open, and there,
disclosed to view, was a land of promise; a row of delicious little
cakes, with chocolate frosting, smiling on the pantry shelf. The boys
instantly crossed over to this inviting land and took possession, while
grandma, who was sometimes rather unwise in her loving kindness, looked
"I do wish Benny was here," said she. "Boys," she added, as if a new
thought had come to her, "go and tell 'Bijah I want to speak to him."
The boys clattered out—a stampede of young colts, it seemed—and soon
returned, each doing his part in bringing 'Bijah, for every separate boy
had hold of him somewhere, as if at the least laxity on their part there
was danger of his escape. 'Bijah grinned broadly and bore it bravely.
"'Bijah," said grandma Potter, "I must have Benny here to dinner; I
can't have his place vacant. What can have kept him away?" she added,
as if to herself. "I hope he hasn't been doing anything he ought not
to—he's such a little rogue."
"Wal, I d' know's I should be for goin' so fur's to say that, Mis'
Potter, but Benny is curis, and mebby he has slipped over to Spain
or France before comin' round here," said 'Bijah.
"O dear!" groaned grandmother, the names of these far-away regions
giving her a sense of exposure and danger, "I hope nothing has happened
to my Benny. 'Bijah, you must harness up and go over and see what's the
"Yes'm," said 'Bijah, turning to obey, and every boy set up a petition
that he should go in the long wagon and let them go too. So in the long
wagon they went, shouting and whistling and singing along, with their
eyes wide open to catch a sight of Benny, if by chance he should be
coming, loitering on his way. But not one of them looked in the right
In spite of Benny's frequent little derelictions from the path he might
have been expected to walk in, his mother was greatly surprised and
troubled to hear that he had not arrived at his grandmother's, and,
furthermore, that he had not been seen on the road.
"Why, nothing could have tempted him to stay away from grandma's," said
she. "Still," she added after a moment's reflection, "he may have gone
by the Brook road and met Johnny Barstow. If he has, and then stopped to
do a little fishing, he would never think how the time was flying. I
never saw a boy who had so little idea of time as Benny."
"Wal," said 'Bijah, "we'll go down the brook road way 'n see 'f we c'n
ketch this young trout."
So they returned by the Brook, but found no Benny, and Johnny Barstow
hadn't seen him.
Every ray of the calm smile which usually shone in grandma Potter's face
faded when she saw 'Bijah and the boys come back without Benny and heard
of their fruitless search. She sat silently down in her rocking-chair,
and her dear, sweet old face was pale.
"'Bijah," said she at length, "you must take the colt and the light
buggy and go—go somewhere—anywhere—everywhere, until you find him.
No, boys, you can't go. 'Bijah mustn't be hindered."
'Bijah was at a loss where to go, but he obeyed directions, and went
somewhere, anywhere, and it seemed as if he had been everywhere, and
inquired at every house in and about Still Harbor, along the shore, in
the woods and through the fields, but nobody had seen Benny since about
nine o'clock that morning.
At last he went again to see if Benny, perhaps, had got home.
"What!" cried Mrs. Briggs, when she saw 'Bijah come the second time, "he
hasn't come? You haven't found him? O, my boy, my boy!"
"O, now, Mis' Briggs, don't you go to worry about Benny," said 'Bijah.
"I never see a boy 't knew how to take care of himself better'n Benny.
He'll turn up all right, you'll see."
But in spite of his apparent cheerfulness, 'Bijah was a good deal
troubled himself. Where could Benny be, unless at the bottom of the
'Bijah in his search had already been to Mr. Briggs' store to inquire
for Benny, and in starting to go there again, he met Mr. Briggs coming
home. He and 'Bijah discussed the possibilities and probabilities of
Benny's case, and Mr. Briggs agreed to send word over to grandma Potter
if Benny came home, and 'Bijah agreed to come directly over and tell
his father and mother if Benny should reach his grandmother's at the
The eleventh hour arrived, however, and still no Benny. The boys sat in
the barn door and wondered in voices hushed almost to whispers, where
Benny could be.
"Where is Benny?" asked little Fanny again and again. "O, where is
Benny?" moaned his poor mother; and the question sank like lead into his
father's heart. Grandma raised her gentle eyes and asked it of Heaven
itself, and you, my children, by this time are asking it of me. I feel
bound to tell you this much: Benny was—I shudder to say it—Benny was
enduring the fate once proposed for Mr. Jefferson Davis.
The sun was getting low, the shadows were long on the grass, and Benny's
pitiful shadow as it lengthened, stretched nearer and nearer home. Ah,
would he ever get there himself again?
It was milking time. 'Bijah sat milking the cows in the barnyard, when
in bounced Sandy. He hadn't come on Benny's account, that was plain. He
was thirsty, and begged for milk, which he had frequently had from
the hand of 'Bijah. He was no story-book dog—only quite a commonplace
fellow, who hadn't the faintest idea that he ought to have arrived here
hours ago, and won fame for himself by showing the way to Benny.
However, you'll see presently that he wasn't to blame for that.
THEY START IN SEARCH OF BENNY.
'Bijah stopped milking and sprang to his feet.
"Hello!" said he, "Sandy, I vum! That means 't Benny ain't fur off. You
don't ketch that feller to stir a peg from Benny 'f he c'n help
'Bijah gave Sandy some milk, feeling sure that if Benny was on earth,
Sandy would go straight back again to where he had left him. Benny was
not on earth, but Sandy, having finished his refreshment, without even
waiting to return thanks, trotted off across lots at a great pace,
'Bijah following in hot pursuit. Away they splashed through the marshy
meadows; jump, they went over the stone walls. "Land!" said 'Bijah.
"Where be you a-goin'?" as Sandy leaped across a ditch into the great
Kingsbury orchard. Mr. Kingsbury had died a year before. His wife had
closed the old homestead and gone to live with her daughter, and the
farm had been for sale ever since. 'Bijah sprang over the ditch and came
sprawling into the orchard.
When he had picked himself up, Sandy was nowhere to be seen. The
loneliness of the deserted farm and the soberness of approaching evening
were all about him.
"Hello!" he shouted, and he thought he heard a response. "Hello!" he
repeated, and he was sure of a faint, faint cry, towards which he
bounded, shouting, "Benny, Benny!" and presently directly over his head
he heard a voice which seemed to come from Heaven, saying:
"'Bijah, O 'Bijah, here, up here!"
'Bijah looked toward the sky, and behold, dangling from one of the
topmost branches of a famous big sour apple-tree, a pair of sturdy boy's
legs! And there was Sandy, lying on the ground beneath them.
"Jericho!" said 'Bijah; and he hadn't much more than said it before he
was scrambling up the tree like a great ourang-outang. With some
difficulty he unhooked Benny and brought him to earth, and his great
warm heart swelled with tender pity as he returned home with the poor
boy in his arms; and his shoulder was as wet with Benny's tears when he
reached there, as if he had been out in a thunder storm.
I dare say you will partly guess the story of Benny's misfortune, but
for the sake of those who are not good guessers, I shall tell you that
he had taken a fancy to cut across a corner of the Kingsbury farm that
morning, to make the distance to his grandmother's shorter, in his
unwise fashion, never considering that climbing walls and fences,
paddling through the marshy meadows and contriving to get over the ditch
would more than overbalance the few steps he saved.
When he reached the Kingsbury orchard, where all the apple boughs were
trained in horizontal lines, with a view to making them bear well, his
head seemed to swim with suggestions of tight ropes. Around and above
the air was filled with golden opportunities as near to tight ropes as
Paradise is near to Heaven itself. These precious opportunities
whispered to Benny, the charming visions beckoned, and Benny felt that
if it cost him two and sixpence, he must have a walk on some of those
Everything was just as it had been left when Mr. Kingsbury died. Against
one of the trees stood a ladder, and scattered all about under the trees
were the limbs that had been lopped off, under his direction, the very
day when he fell with apoplexy. Here and there they had been gathered up
in bristling piles.
Benny ascended into one after another of these blissful trees. At first
he walked on the lowest boughs, but gradually went higher and higher,
until he promenaded fearlessly on the very topmost. He bowed, he kissed
his hand, he turned and returned, he was happy and time sped swiftly by.
He was so absorbed in his delight, that he heard, as one who hears not,
a wagon go rattling along the road, and the shouting, whistling and
singing of boys. It was past noon before he recalled the object with
which he had left home that morning. He sat upon the very pinnacle of
achievement—that is to say, he sat upon the very highest point in the
orchard, his head up, his spirits up, with such a decidedly upward
tendency that it was hard for him to make up his mind to descend to the
plane of common life. However, he thought it must be something past ten
o'clock, so he slipped himself off his pinnacle, or was in the act of
doing so, when he missed his hold and went off with a sudden jerk.
Something scraped the whole length of his back, and seemed to hold him
in a relentless grip. It was the stump of a small branch, which had
caught him by the bottom of his loose jacket, and slipped up under it
quicker than a wink, as Benny slid down. It was one of those things of
which we say, "You couldn't do it again to save your life."
And there Benny, exalted, hung. The tips of his toes just touched a
bough below; with the tips of his fingers and thumb he could reach and
pick at the end of a branch above. He tried to throw his legs up and
catch on some salient point. He struggled to reach his elbows up and
pull himself back. He would have unbuttoned his jacket, and, slipping
his arms out, dropped to the ground, but it looked a long way, and
directly below him was a pile of the lopped-off branches, with their
sharp ends sticking up towards him like the spikes of cruel
chevaux-de-frise, and he didn't fancy dropping on those. He shouted
for help, but there was no one to hear him on the deserted farm, and the
few farmers who rattled by in their wagons paid no heed to a boy's
shout. Boys are always shouting, and the more hideous the noises they
make the more it is like them. Sandy, who had remained asleep in the
grass while Benny performed his manœuvres, thought no more of this
one than he had thought of the others. He supposed it was a part of the
fun—the very best part of it—as he opened one eye and saw those legs
dancing in air; and Benny's yells were the things to be expected of
Benny. But when Benny shouted, "Go, Sandy, go home!" and various other
commands to Sandy, hoping the dog might go and bring some one to his
rescue, as dogs always do in stories, Sandy sat upon his hind legs and
looked at Benny in amazement. These were remarks that had never been
made to him before, and he couldn't guess for his life what they meant.
Never had he been sent home. He had stuck to Benny through thick and
thin, during all his eventful life, and he meant to do it now. So there
he did stick, until he saw by the shadows that it was about milking
time, and being thirsty, to say nothing of hungry, and observing that
Benny was still engaged in dancing and tilting on the tips of his toes,
Sandy excused himself, went after his milk, and brought back deliverance
to Benny, as we have seen.
Poor, poor Benny! The joy of his return called out more tears than
smiles. Worn and faint and nervous, he was put to bed at grandma
Potter's, and it was many days before he was the same old Benny Briggs
again. In one respect he was never quite the same. His views in respect
to tight ropes had met with a radical change.
P. S. If any of you boys should say as Charlie Potter did, "Pooh! if
I'd been Benny Briggs I could have got down out of that tree," I'll
say to you as Benny said to him:
"Humph! I'd like to see you try it!"