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 come.

"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 coming.

Grandma was surprised and disappointed. "It's incomprehensible," said she.

"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 stopped short.

"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 floor.

"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, Morris."

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 greatly pleased.

"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 matter."

"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 direction.

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 Sound?

'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 eleventh hour.

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.



'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 himself."

'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 enchanting boughs.

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!"