By Grace MacGowan Cooke (1863- )
Humorous Short Stories
[From Harper's Magazine, August, 1906. Copyright, 1906, by Harper &
Brothers. Republished by the author's permission.]
A boy in an unnaturally clean, country-laundered collar walked down a
long white road. He scuffed the dust up wantonly, for he wished to
veil the all-too-brilliant polish of his cowhide shoes. Also the
memory of the whiteness and slipperiness of his collar oppressed him.
He was fain to look like one accustomed to social diversions, a man
hurried from hall to hall of pleasure, without time between to change
collar or polish boot. He stooped and rubbed a crumb of earth on his
This did not long sustain his drooping spirit. He was mentally adrift
upon the Hints and Helps to Young Men in Business and Social
Relations, which had suggested to him his present enterprise, when
the appearance of a second youth, taller and broader than himself,
with a shock of light curling hair and a crop of freckles that
advertised a rich soil threw him a lifeline. He put his thumbs to his
lips and whistled in a peculiarly ear-splitting way. The two boys had
sat on the same bench at Sunday-school not three hours before; yet
what a change had come over the world for one of them since then!
"Hello! Where you goin', Ab?" asked the newcomer, gruffly.
"Callin'," replied the boy in the collar, laconically, but with
carefully averted gaze.
"On the girls?" inquired the other, awestruck. In Mount Pisgah you saw
the girls home from night church, socials, or parties; you could hang
over the gate; and you might walk with a girl in the cemetery of a
Sunday afternoon; but to ring a front-door bell and ask for Miss
Heart's Desire one must have been in long trousers at least three
years—and the two boys confronted in the dusty road had worn these
dignifying garments barely six months.
"Girls," said Abner, loftily; "I don't know about girls—I'm just
going to call on one girl—Champe Claiborne." He marched on as though
the conversation was at an end; but Ross hung upon his flank. Ross and
Champe were neighbors, comrades in all sorts of mischief; he was in
doubt whether to halt Abner and pummel him, or propose to enlist under
"Do you reckon you could?" he debated, trotting along by the
irresponsive Jilton boy.
"Run home to your mother," growled the originator of the plan,
savagely. "You ain't old enough to call on girls; anybody can see
that; but I am, and I'm going to call on Champe Claiborne."
Again the name acted as a spur on Ross. "With your collar and boots
all dirty?" he jeered. "They won't know you're callin'."
The boy in the road stopped short in his dusty tracks. He was an
intense creature, and he whitened at the tragic insinuation, longing
for the wholesome stay and companionship of freckle-faced Ross. "I put
the dirt on o' purpose so's to look kind of careless," he half
whispered, in an agony of doubt. "S'pose I'd better go into your house
and try to wash it off? Reckon your mother would let me?"
"I've got two clean collars," announced the other boy, proudly
generous. "I'll lend you one. You can put it on while I'm getting
ready. I'll tell mother that we're just stepping out to do a little
calling on the girls."
Here was an ally worthy of the cause. Abner welcomed him, in spite of
certain jealous twinges. He reflected with satisfaction that there
were two Claiborne girls, and though Alicia was so stiff and prim that
no boy would ever think of calling on her, there was still the hope
that she might draw Ross's fire, and leave him, Abner, to make the
numerous remarks he had stored up in his mind from Hints and Helps to
Young Men in Social and Business Relations to Champe alone.
Mrs. Pryor received them with the easy-going kindness of the mother of
one son. She followed them into the dining-room to kiss and feed him,
with an absent "Howdy, Abner; how's your mother?"
Abner, big with the importance of their mutual intention, inclined his
head stiffly and looked toward Ross for explanation. He trembled a
little, but it was with delight, as he anticipated the effect of the
speech Ross had outlined. But it did not come.
"I'm not hungry, mother," was the revised edition which the
freckle-faced boy offered to the maternal ear. "I—we are going over
to Mr. Claiborne's—on—er—on an errand for Abner's father."
The black-eyed boy looked reproach as they clattered up the stairs to
Ross's room, where the clean collar was produced and a small stock of
"You'd wear a necktie—wouldn't you?" Ross asked, spreading them upon
"Yes. But make it fall carelessly over your shirt-front," advised the
student of Hints and Helps. "Your collar is miles too big for me.
Say! I've got a wad of white chewing-gum; would you flat it out and
stick it over the collar button? Maybe that would fill up some. You
kick my foot if you see me turning my head so's to knock it off."
"Better button up your vest," cautioned Ross, laboring with the
"careless" fall of his tie.
"Huh-uh! I want 'that easy air which presupposes familiarity with
society'—that's what it says in my book," objected Abner.
"Sure!" Ross returned to his more familiar jeering attitude. "Loosen
up all your clothes, then. Why don't you untie your shoes? Flop a sock
down over one of 'em—that looks 'easy' all right."
Abner buttoned his vest. "It gives a man lots of confidence to know
he's good-looking," he remarked, taking all the room in front of the
Ross, at the wash-stand soaking his hair to get the curl out of it,
grumbled some unintelligible response. The two boys went down the
stairs with tremulous hearts.
"Why, you've put on another clean shirt, Rossie!" Mrs. Pryor called
from her chair—mothers' eyes can see so far! "Well—don't get into
any dirty play and soil it." The boys walked in silence—but it was a
pregnant silence; for as the roof of the Claiborne house began to peer
above the crest of the hill, Ross plumped down on a stone and
announced, "I ain't goin'."
"Come on," urged the black-eyed boy. "It'll be fun—and everybody will
respect us more. Champe won't throw rocks at us in recess-time, after
we've called on her. She couldn't."
"Called!" grunted Ross. "I couldn't make a call any more than a cow.
What'd I say? What'd I do? I can behave all right when you just go to
people's houses—but a call!"
Abner hesitated. Should he give away his brilliant inside information,
drawn from the Hints and Helps book, and be rivalled in the glory of
his manners and bearing? Why should he not pass on alone, perfectly
composed, and reap the field of glory unsupported? His knees gave way
and he sat down without intending it.
"Don't you tell anybody and I'll put you on to exactly what grown-up
gentlemen say and do when they go calling on the girls," he began.
"Fire away," retorted Ross, gloomily. "Nobody will find out from me.
Dead men tell no tales. If I'm fool enough to go, I don't expect to
come out of it alive."
Abner rose, white and shaking, and thrusting three fingers into the
buttoning of his vest, extending the other hand like an orator,
proceeded to instruct the freckled, perspiring disciple at his feet.
"'Hang your hat on the rack, or give it to a servant.'" Ross nodded
intelligently. He could do that.
"'Let your legs be gracefully disposed, one hand on the knee, the
Abner came to an unhappy pause. "I forget what a fellow does with the
other hand. Might stick it in your pocket, loudly, or expectorate on
the carpet. Indulge in little frivolity. Let a rich stream of
Ross mentally dug within himself for sources of rich streams of
conversation. He found a dry soil. "What you goin' to talk about?" he
demanded, fretfully. "I won't go a step farther till I know what I'm
goin' to say when I get there."
Abner began to repeat paragraphs from Hints and Helps. "'It is best
to remark,'" he opened, in an unnatural voice, "'How well you are
looking!' although fulsome compliments should be avoided. When seated
ask the young lady who her favorite composer is.'"
"What's a composer?" inquired Ross, with visions of soothing-syrup in
"A man that makes up music. Don't butt in that way; you put me all
out—'composer is. Name yours. Ask her what piece of music she likes
best. Name yours. If the lady is musical, here ask her to play or
This chanted recitation seemed to have a hypnotic effect on the
freckled boy; his big pupils contracted each time Abner came to the
repetend, "Name yours."
"I'm tired already," he grumbled; but some spell made him rise and
When they had entered the Claiborne gate, they leaned toward each
other like young saplings weakened at the root and locking branches to
keep what shallow foothold on earth remained.
"You're goin' in first," asserted Ross, but without conviction. It was
his custom to tear up to this house a dozen times a week, on his
father's old horse or afoot; he was wont to yell for Champe as he
approached, and quarrel joyously with her while he performed such
errand as he had come upon; but he was gagged and hamstrung now by the
hypnotism of Abner's scheme.
"'Walk quietly up the steps; ring the bell and lay your card on the
servant,'" quoted Abner, who had never heard of a server.
"'Lay your card on the servant!'" echoed Ross. "Cady'd dodge. There's
a porch to cross after you go up the steps—does it say anything about
"It says that the card should be placed on the servant," Abner
reiterated, doggedly. "If Cady dodges, it ain't any business of mine.
There are no porches in my book. Just walk across it like anybody.
We'll ask for Miss Champe Claiborne."
"We haven't got any cards," discovered Ross, with hope.
"I have," announced Abner, pompously. "I had some struck off in
Chicago. I ordered 'em by mail. They got my name Pillow, but there's a
scalloped gilt border around it. You can write your name on my card.
Got a pencil?"
He produced the bit of cardboard; Ross fished up a chewed stump of
lead pencil, took it in cold, stiff fingers, and disfigured the square
with eccentric scribblings.
"They'll know who it's meant for," he said, apologetically, "because
I'm here. What's likely to happen after we get rid of the card?"
"I told you about hanging your hat on the rack and disposing your
"I remember now," sighed Ross. They had been going slower and slower.
The angle of inclination toward each other became more and more
"We must stand by each other," whispered Abner.
"I will—if I can stand at all," murmured the other boy, huskily.
"Oh, Lord!" They had rounded the big clump of evergreens and found
Aunt Missouri Claiborne placidly rocking on the front porch! Directed
to mount steps and ring bell, to lay cards upon the servant, how
should one deal with a rosy-faced, plump lady of uncertain years in a
rocking-chair. What should a caller lay upon her? A lion in the way
could not have been more terrifying. Even retreat was cut off. Aunt
Missouri had seen them. "Howdy, boys; how are you?" she said, rocking
peacefully. The two stood before her like detected criminals.
Then, to Ross's dismay, Abner sank down on the lowest step of the
porch, the westering sun full in his hopeless eyes. He sat on his cap.
It was characteristic that the freckled boy remained standing. He
would walk up those steps according to plan and agreement, if at all.
He accepted no compromise. Folding his straw hat into a battered cone,
he watched anxiously for the delivery of the card. He was not sure
what Aunt Missouri's attitude might be if it were laid on her. He bent
down to his companion. "Go ahead," he whispered. "Lay the card."
Abner raised appealing eyes. "In a minute. Give me time," he pleaded.
"Mars' Ross—Mars' Ross! Head 'em off!" sounded a yell, and Babe, the
house-boy, came around the porch in pursuit of two half-grown
"Help him, Rossie," prompted Aunt Missouri, sharply. "You boys can
stay to supper and have some of the chicken if you help catch them."
Had Ross taken time to think, he might have reflected that gentlemen
making formal calls seldom join in a chase after the main dish of the
family supper. But the needs of Babe were instant. The lad flung
himself sidewise, caught one chicken in his hat, while Babe fell upon
the other in the manner of a football player. Ross handed the pullet
to the house-boy, fearing that he had done something very much out of
character, then pulled the reluctant negro toward to the steps.
"Babe's a servant," he whispered to Abner, who had sat rigid through
the entire performance. "I helped him with the chickens, and he's got
to stand gentle while you lay the card on."
Confronted by the act itself, Abner was suddenly aware that he knew
not how to begin. He took refuge in dissimulation.
"Hush!" he whispered back. "Don't you see Mr. Claiborne's come
out?—He's going to read something to us."
Ross plumped down beside him. "Never mind the card; tell 'em," he
"Tell 'em yourself."
"No—let's cut and run."
"I—I think the worst of it is over. When Champe sees us she'll—"
Mention of Champe stiffened Ross's spine. If it had been glorious to
call upon her, how very terrible she would make it should they attempt
calling, fail, and the failure come to her knowledge! Some things were
easier to endure than others; he resolved to stay till the call was
For half an hour the boys sat with drooping heads, and the old
gentleman read aloud, presumably to Aunt Missouri and themselves.
Finally their restless eyes discerned the two Claiborne girls walking
serene in Sunday trim under the trees at the edge of the lawn. Arms
entwined, they were whispering together and giggling a little. A
caller, Ross dared not use his voice to shout nor his legs to run
"Why don't you go and talk to the girls, Rossie?" Aunt Missouri asked,
in the kindness of her heart. "Don't be noisy—it's Sunday, you
know—and don't get to playing anything that'll dirty up your good
Ross pressed his lips hard together; his heart swelled with the rage
of the misunderstood. Had the card been in his possession, he would,
at that instant, have laid it on Aunt Missouri without a qualm.
"What is it?" demanded the old gentleman, a bit testily.
"The girls want to hear you read, father," said Aunt Missouri,
shrewdly; and she got up and trotted on short, fat ankles to the girls
in the arbor. The three returned together, Alicia casting curious
glances at the uncomfortable youths, Champe threatening to burst into
giggles with every breath.
Abner sat hard on his cap and blushed silently. Ross twisted his hat
into a three-cornered wreck.
The two girls settled themselves noisily on the upper step. The old
man read on and on. The sun sank lower. The hills were red in the west
as though a brush fire flamed behind their crests. Abner stole a
furtive glance at his companion in misery, and the dolor of Ross's
countenance somewhat assuaged his anguish. The freckle-faced boy was
thinking of the village over the hill, a certain pleasant white house
set back in a green yard, past whose gate, the two-plank sidewalk ran.
He knew lamps were beginning to wink in the windows of the neighbors
about, as though the houses said, "Our boys are all at home—but Ross
Pryor's out trying to call on the girls, and can't get anybody to
understand it." Oh, that he were walking down those two planks,
drawing a stick across the pickets, lifting high happy feet which
could turn in at that gate! He wouldn't care what the lamps said then.
He wouldn't even mind if the whole Claiborne family died laughing at
him—if only some power would raise him up from this paralyzing spot
and put him behind the safe barriers of his own home!
The old man's voice lapsed into silence; the light was becoming too
dim for his reading. Aunt Missouri turned and called over her shoulder
into the shadows of the big hall: "You Babe! Go put two extra plates
on the supper-table."
The boys grew red from the tips of their ears, and as far as any one
could see under their wilting collars. Abner felt the lump of gum come
loose and slip down a cold spine. Had their intentions but been known,
this inferential invitation would have been most welcome. It was but
to rise up and thunder out, "We came to call on the young ladies."
They did not rise. They did not thunder out anything. Babe brought a
lamp and set it inside the window, and Mr. Claiborne resumed his
reading. Champe giggled and said that Alicia made her. Alcia drew her
skirts about her, sniffed, and looked virtuous, and said she didn't
see anything funny to laugh at. The supper-bell rang. The family,
evidently taking it for granted that the boys would follow, went in.
Alone for the first time, Abner gave up. "This ain't any use," he
complained. "We ain't calling on anybody."
"Why didn't you lay on the card?" demanded Ross, fiercely. "Why
didn't you say: 'We've-just-dropped-into-call-on-Miss-Champe. It's-a
-pleasant-evening. We-feel-we-must-be-going,' like you said you would?
Then we could have lifted our hats and got away decently."
Abner showed no resentment.
"Oh, if it's so easy, why didn't you do it yourself?" he groaned.
"Somebody's coming," Ross muttered, hoarsely. "Say it now. Say it
The somebody proved to be Aunt Missouri, who advanced only as far as
the end of the hall and shouted cheerfully: "The idea of a growing boy
not coming to meals when the bell rings! I thought you two would be in
there ahead of us. Come on." And clinging to their head-coverings as
though these contained some charm whereby the owners might be rescued,
the unhappy callers were herded into the dining-room. There were many
things on the table that boys like. Both were becoming fairly
cheerful, when Aunt Missouri checked the biscuit-plate with: "I treat
my neighbors' children just like I'd want children of my own treated.
If your mothers let you eat all you want, say so, and I don't care;
but if either of them is a little bit particular, why, I'd stop at
Still reeling from this blow, the boys finally rose from the table and
passed out with the family, their hats clutched to their bosoms, and
clinging together for mutual aid and comfort. During the usual
Sunday-evening singing Champe laughed till Aunt Missouri threatened to
send her to bed. Abner's card slipped from his hand and dropped face
up on the floor. He fell upon it and tore it into infinitesimal
"That must have been a love-letter," said Aunt Missouri, in a pause of
the music. "You boys are getting 'most old enough to think about
beginning to call on the girls." Her eyes twinkled.
Ross growled like a stoned cur. Abner took a sudden dive into Hints
and Helps, and came up with, "You flatter us, Miss Claiborne,"
whereat Ross snickered out like a human boy. They all stared at him.
"It sounds so funny to call Aunt Missouri 'Mis' Claiborne,'" the lad
of the freckles explained.
"Funny?" Aunt Missouri reddened. "I don't see any particular joke in
my having my maiden name."
Abner, who instantly guessed at what was in Ross's mind, turned white
at the thought of what they had escaped. Suppose he had laid on the
card and asked for Miss Claiborne!
"What's the matter, Champe?" inquired Ross, in a fairly natural tone.
The air he had drawn into his lungs when he laughed at Abner seemed to
relieve him from the numbing gentility which had bound his powers
since he joined Abner's ranks.
"Nothing. I laughed because you laughed," said the girl.
The singing went forward fitfully. Servants traipsed through the
darkened yard, going home for Sunday night. Aunt Missouri went out and
held some low-toned parley with them. Champe yawned with insulting
enthusiasm. Presently both girls quietly disappeared. Aunt Missouri
never returned to the parlor—evidently thinking that the girls would
attend to the final amenities with their callers. They were left alone
with old Mr. Claiborne. They sat as though bound in their chairs,
while the old man read in silence for a while. Finally he closed his
book, glanced about him, and observed absently:
"So you boys were to spend the night?" Then, as he looked at their
startled faces: "I'm right, am I not? You are to spent the night?"
Oh, for courage to say: "Thank you, no. We'll be going now. We just
came over to call on Miss Champe." But thought of how this would sound
in face of the facts, the painful realization that they dared not say
it because they had not said it, locked their lips. Their feet were
lead; their tongues stiff and too large for their mouths. Like
creatures in a nightmare, they moved stiffly, one might have said
creakingly, up the stairs and received each—a bedroom candle!
"Good night, children," said the absent-minded old man. The two
gurgled out some sounds which were intended for words and doged behind
the bedroom door.
"They've put us to bed!" Abner's black eyes flashed fire. His nervous
hands clutched at the collar Ross had lent him. "That's what I get for
coming here with you, Ross Pryor!" And tears of humiliation stood in
In his turn Ross showed no resentment. "What I'm worried about is my
mother," he confessed. "She's so sharp about finding out things. She
wouldn't tease me—she'd just be sorry for me. But she'll think I went
home with you."
"I'd like to see my mother make a fuss about my calling on the girls!"
growled Abner, glad to let his rage take a safe direction.
"Calling on the girls! Have we called on any girls?" demanded
clear-headed, honest Ross.
"Not exactly—yet," admitted Abner, reluctantly. "Come on—let's go to
bed. Mr. Claiborne asked us, and he's the head of this household. It
isn't anybody's business what we came for."
"I'll slip off my shoes and lie down till Babe ties up the dog in the
morning," said Ross. "Then we can get away before any of the family is
Oh, youth—youth—youth, with its rash promises! Worn out with misery
the boys slept heavily. The first sound that either heard in the
morning was Babe hammering upon their bedroom door. They crouched
guiltily and looked into each other's eyes. "Let pretend we ain't here
and he'll go away," breathed Abner.
But Babe was made of sterner stuff. He rattled the knob. He turned it.
He put in a black face with a grin which divided it from ear to ear.
"Cady say I mus' call dem fool boys to breakfus'," he announced. "I
never named you-all dat. Cady, she say dat."
"Breakfast!" echoed Ross, in a daze.
"Yessuh, breakfus'," reasserted Babe, coming entirely into the room
and looking curiously about him. "Ain't you-all done been to bed at
all?" wrapping his arms about his shoulders and shaking with silent
ecstasies of mirth. The boys threw themselves upon him and ejected
"Sent up a servant to call us to breakfast," snarled Abner. "If they'd
only sent their old servant to the door in the first place, all this
wouldn't 'a' happened. I'm just that way when I get thrown off the
track. You know how it was when I tried to repeat those things to
you—I had to go clear back to the beginning when I got interrupted."
"Does that mean that you're still hanging around here to begin over
and make a call?" asked Ross, darkly. "I won't go down to breakfast if
Abner brightened a little as he saw Ross becoming wordy in his rage.
"I dare you to walk downstairs and say,
'We-just-dropped-in-to-call-on-Miss-Champe'!" he said.
"I—oh—I—darn it all! there goes the second bell. We may as well
"Don't leave me, Ross," pleaded the Jilton boy. "I can't stay
here—and I can't go down."
The tone was hysterical. The boy with freckles took his companion by
the arm without another word and marched him down the stairs. "We may
get a chance yet to call on Champe all by herself out on the porch or
in the arbor before she goes to school," he suggested, by way of
putting some spine into the black-eyed boy.
An emphatic bell rang when they were half-way down the stairs.
Clutching their hats, they slunk into the dining-room. Even Mr.
Claiborne seemed to notice something unusual in their bearing as they
settled into the chairs assigned to them, and asked them kindly if
they had slept well.
It was plain that Aunt Missouri had been posting him as to her
understanding of the intentions of these young men. The state of
affairs gave an electric hilarity to the atmosphere. Babe travelled
from the sideboard to the table, trembling like chocolate pudding.
Cady insisted on bringing in the cakes herself, and grinned as she
whisked her starched blue skirts in and out of the dining-room. A
dimple even showed itself at the corners of pretty Alicia's prim
little mouth. Champe giggled, till Ross heard Cady whisper:
"Now you got one dem snickerin' spells agin. You gwine bust yo' dress
buttons off in the back ef you don't mind."
As the spirits of those about them mounted, the hearts of the two
youths sank—if it was like this among the Claibornes, what would it
be at school and in the world at large when their failure to connect
intention with result became village talk? Ross bit fiercely upon an
unoffending batter-cake, and resolved to make a call single-handed
before he left the house.
They went out of the dining-room, their hats as ever pressed to their
breasts. With no volition of their own, their uncertain young legs
carried them to the porch. The Claiborne family and household followed
like small boys after a circus procession. When the two turned, at
bay, yet with nothing between them and liberty but a hypnotism of
their own suggestion, they saw the black faces of the servants peering
over the family shoulders.
Ross was the boy to have drawn courage from the desperation of their
case, and made some decent if not glorious ending. But at the
psychological moment there came around the corner of the house that
most contemptible figure known to the Southern plantation, a
shirt-boy—a creature who may be described, for the benefit of those
not informed, as a pickaninny clad only in a long, coarse cotton
shirt. While all eyes were fastened upon him this inglorious
ambassador bolted forth his message:
"Yo' ma say"—his eyes were fixed upon Abner—"ef yo' don' come home,
she gwine come after yo'—an' cut yo' into inch pieces wid a rawhide
when she git yo'. Dat jest what Miss Hortense say."
As though such a book as Hints and Helps had never existed, Abner
shot for the gate—he was but a hobbledehoy fascinated with the idea
of playing gentleman. But in Ross there were the makings of a man. For
a few half-hearted paces, under the first impulse of horror, he
followed his deserting chief, the laughter of the family, the
unrestrainable guffaws of the negroes, sounding in the rear. But when
Champe's high, offensive giggle, topping all the others, insulted his
ears, he stopped dead, wheeled, and ran to the porch faster than he
had fled from it. White as paper, shaking with inexpressible rage, he
caught and kissed the tittering girl, violently, noisily, before them
The negroes fled—they dared not trust their feelings; even Alicia
sniggered unobtrusively; Grandfather Claiborne chuckled, and Aunt
Missouri frankly collapsed into her rocking-chair, bubbling with
mirth, crying out:
"Good for you, Ross! Seems you did know how to call on the girls,
But Ross, paying no attention, walked swiftly toward the gate. He had
served his novitiate. He would never be afraid again. With cheerful
alacrity he dodged the stones flung after him with friendly, erratic
aim by the girl upon whom, yesterday afternoon, he had come to make a