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The Home Monthly

by Willa Cather.

From The Home Monthly, VI (April 1898):  10-11.


O! the world was full of the summer time, And the year was always June, When we two played together In the days that were done too soon. O! every hand was an honest hand, And every heart was true. When you were the king of the corn-lands And I was a queen with you. When I could believe in the fairies still, And our elf in the cotton-wood tree, And the pot of gold at the rainbow's end And you could believe in me.

Speckle Burnham sat on Mary Eliza's front porch waiting until she finished her practicing. Apparently he was not in a hurry for her to do so. He shuffled his bare feet uneasily over the splintery boards when the dragging, hopeless thumping within quickened in tempo to a rapid, hurried volley of sounds, telling that Mary Eliza's "hour" was nearly over and that she was prodding the lagging moments with fiery impatience.

Indeed, cares of state were weighing heavily upon Speckle, and he had some excuse for gravity, for Speckle was a prince in his own right and a ruler of men.

In Speckle Burnham's back yard were half-a-dozen store boxes of large dimensions, placed evenly in a row against the side of the barn, and there was Speckle's empire. It had long been a cherished project of the boys on Speckle's street to collect their scattered lemonade stands and sidewalk booths and organize a community; but without Speckle's wonderful executive ability the thing would never have been possible.

In the first place, Speckle had the most disreputable back yard in the community. It would have been quite out of the question to have littered up any other yard on the street with half-a-dozen store boxes and the assorted chattels of their respective occupants. But Speckle's folks had been farming people, and regarded their back yard as the natural repository for such encumbrances as were in the way in the house; and Speckle was among them. Speckle had offered his yard as a possible site for a flourishing town, and the other boys brought their store boxes and called the town Speckleville in honor of the founder.

Now it must not be thought that Speckleville was a transient town, such as boys often found in the morning and destroy in the evening. Speckle's especial point was organization. No boy was allowed to change his business or his place of business without due permission from the assembled council of Speckleville. Jimmy Templeton kept a grocery stocked with cinnamon barks, soda crackers, ginger snaps and "Texas Mixed"—a species of cheap candy which came in big wooden buckets;—these he pilfered from his father's store. Tommy Sanders was proprietor of a hardware store, stocked with bows and arrows, sling shots, pea shooters and ammunition for the same. "Shorty" Thompson kept a pool room with a table covered with one of his mother's comforters. Dick Hutchinson ran the dime museum where he fearlessly handled live bull snakes for the sum of a few pins and exhibited snapping turtles, pocket gophers, bullets from Chattanooga, rusty firearms, and a piece of the rope with which a horse thief had been lynched. Reinholt Birkner was the son of the village undertaker and was a youth of a dolorous turn of mind and insisted upon keeping a marble shop, where he made little tombstones and neat caskets for the boys' deceased woodpeckers and prairie dogs, and for such of the museum specimens as sought early and honored graves.

Speckle, by reason of inventive genius and real estate monopoly, held all the important offices in the town. He was mayor and postmaster, and he conducted a bank, wherein he compelled the citizens to deposit their pins, charging them heavily for that privilege and lending out their own funds to them at a ruinous usury, taking mortgages on the stock and business houses of such unfortunates as failed to meet their obligations promptly. His father was a chattel broker in the days when money changed hands quickly in the country beyond the Missouri, and from his tenderest years Speckle had been initiated into the nefarious arts of the business. But although his threats many a time caused poor delinquents to tremble, I never heard of him actually foreclosing on any one, and I can assert on good authority that when Dick Hutchinson's father failed in business, causing great consternation throughout the village, Speckle went to Dick privately and offered to lend him a few hundred pins gratis to tide him over any present difficulties.

But certainly Speckle had a right to be autocratic, for it was Speckle's fecund fancy more than his back yard that was the real site of that town, and his imagination was the coin current of the realm, and made those store boxes seem temples of trade to more eyes than his own. A really creative imagination was Speckle's—one that could invent occupations for haIf-a-dozen boys, metamorphize an express wagon into a street car line, a rubber hose into city water works, devise feast days and circuses and public rejoicings, railway accidents and universal disasters, even invent a Fourth of July in the middle of June and cause the hearts of his fellow townsmen to beat high with patriotism. For Speckle, by a species of innocent hypnotism, colored the mental visions of his fellow townsmen until his fancies seemed weighty realities to them, just as a clever play actor makes you tremble and catch your breath when he draws his harmless rapier. And, like the play actors, Speckle was the willing victim of his own conceit. What matter if he had to peddle milk to the neighbor women at night? What matter even if he were chastised because he had lost the hatchet or forgotten to dig around the trees on his father's lots? To-morrow he was the founder of a city and a king of men!

So the inhabitants of Speckleville had dwelt together in all peace and concord until Mary Eliza Jenkins had peered at them through the morning-glory vines on her back porch and had envied these six male beings their happiness; for although Mary Eliza was the tom-boy of the street, the instincts of her sex were strong in her, and that six male beings should dwell together in ease and happiness seemed to her an unnatural and a monstrous thing. Furthermore, she and Speckle had played together ever since the days when he had been father to all her dolls and had rocked them to sleep, and until the founding of Speckleville he had openly preferred her to any boy on the street, and she bitterly resented his desertion.

Once, in a moment of rashness, the boys invited her over to a circus in Speckle's barn, and after that Speckle knew no peace of his life. Night and day Mary Eliza importuned him for admittance to his town. She hung around his back porch as soon as she was through practicing in the morning; she nudged him and whispered to him as she sat next to him at Sunday school; she waylaid him while he was taking his cow out to pasture and sprang upon him from ambush when he was taking his milk in the evening, even offering to accompany him and carry one of the pails. Taking his milk was the prime curse of Speckle's life and he weakly accepted her company, especially to the house of the old woman who kept the big dog. When Speckle went there alone he usually played he was a burglar.

Now Speckle himself had really no objection to granting Mary Eliza naturalization papers and full rights of citizenship, but the other boys would not hear of it.

"She'll try to boss us all just like she bosses you," objected Tommy Sanders.

"Anyhow, she's a girl and this ain't a girl's play. I suppose she'd keep a dressmaking shop and dress our dolls for us," snorted Dick Hutchinson contemptuously.

"Put it any way you like, she'll spoil the town," said Jimmy Templeton.

"You began it all yourself, Temp. You asked her to the circus, you know you did," retorted Speckle.

Poor Speckle! He had never heard of that old mud-walled town in Latium that was also founded by a boy, and where so many good fellows dwelt together in jovial comradeship until they invited some ladies from the Sabine hills to a party, with such disastrous results.

On this particular morning Speckle had come over to, if possible, persuade Mary Eliza to desist from her appeals, and he sat in the sunshine gloomily awaiting the interview. Presently a triumphant "one, two, three, FOUR," and a triumphant bang announced that her hour of penal servitude was over for the day, and she dashed out on the porch.

"Well, have you made them?" she demanded.

Speckle braced himself and came directly to the point.

"I can't make them, Mary 'Liza, and they say you'd get tired and spoil the town."

"O stuff! What makes them say that?"

"Well, it's 'cause you're a girl, I guess," said Speckle reflectively, wrinkling the big yellow freckle on his nose that was accountable for his nickname.

"Girl nothin'! I'd play I was a man, and that's all you do. M. E. Jenkins—that's what I'll have over my store. I've got the signs already made. 'Delmonico Resteraunt, M. E. Jenkins, Prop.' Come, Speckle, you know I can skin a cat as well as you can and I can beat Hutch running, can't I now?"

"Course you can. I'd like to have you in, Mary 'Liza," remonstrated Speckle.

"O well, I don't care so much about getting in your old town anyhow, only my father keeps the bakery and I could have cookies and cream puffs and candy to sell in my store, chocolates and things, none of your old Texas Mixed, and I thought I could be a good deal of use in your town."

"Say, Mary 'Liza, do you mean that? I guess I'd better tell them. I guess I'll tell them to-night," said Speckle, with a new interest.

"O do, Speckle, and do get me in!" cried Mary Eliza, as she hopped gleefully about on one foot. "You know you can if you want to 'cause it's in your yard. And we can have Strawberry for a ring horse when we have circuses. His tail isn't all rubbed off like your Billy's and he can be a pony in the side show, too."

Speckle did not reply at once. He was wondering whether Mary Eliza could meet the large demands on the imagination requisite to citizenship in Speckleville. He was not wholly certain as to the enduring qualities of feminine imagination, but he did not know exactly how to express his doubts, so he remained silent.

"What are you thinking about now?" demanded Mary Eliza.

"O nothing. I'll see them about it tonight."

"And if they don't let me in I'll know it's all your fault," called Mary Eliza threateningly, as she dashed into the house.

That evening after Speckle had taken his milk he hung the empty pails on the fence and went around to interview each of the boys privately. He suspected that by seeing them separately he could best appeal to their individual weaknesses. He bribed Dick Hutchinson with a dozen of his rarest tin tobacco tags, all with euphuistic names such as "Rose Leaf" and "Lily of the Valley," which his uncle had sent him from Florida. He won Reinhold Birkner with promises of many a solemn funeral cortege for Mary Eliza's deceased pets, and charmed "Shorty" Thompson's ears with stories of the cream puffs from old Jenkin's bakery. Over Jimmy Templeton he had no hold, Jimmy being of that peculiarly odious species of humanity that is thoroughly upright and without secret weakness. So he merely told him of the consent of the other boys and used his personal influence for all it was worth.

"All right, if you fellows say so," Temp replied gravely. He was soaking cat tails in the kerosene can preparatory to a torch-light procession of the Speckleville Republican Club. "I won't be the man to kick, but you mark my word, Speckle, she'll spoil the town. Girls always spoil everything a boy's got if you give 'em a chance."

That night after Speckle's mother had annointed his sunburned face with cold cream and he had climbed into bed and was reposing peacefully on his stomach, enjoying the only real comfort he had had that day, he heard a violent "tic-tac" at the window at the head of his bed.

"Hello, Temp, is that you?" he called.

"No, Speckle, it's me. Did you make them?" whispered Mary Eliza.

"Yes, I made them," replied Speckle, rather wearily.

"O, Speckle, you are a dandy! I just love you, Speckle!" and Mary Eliza pounded and scratched joyfully at the screen as she departed.

The next day Speckle vacated his piano box, the largest and most commodious structure in his town, and fitted it up for Mary Eliza with a lavishness which astonished his comrades. In the afternoon Mary Eliza made her triumphant entry into Speckleville with an old-fashioned carpet sack in one hand and a Japanese umbrella in the other.

She was all smiles and sweetmeats and showed neither resentment nor embarassment at her chilling reception. She set forth her cream puffs and chocolates and in half an hour the Delmonico restaurant was the center of interest and commercial activity.

I shall not attempt to rehearse all the arts and wiles by which Mary Eliza deposed Speckle and made herself sole imperatrix of Speckleville. She made it her business to appeal to every masculine instinct in the boys, beginning with their stomachs. When first a woman tempted a man she said unto him, "Eat." The cream puffs alone would have assured her victory, but she did not stop there. She possessed cunning of hand and could make wonderful neckties of colored tissue paper, and stiff hats of pasteboard covered with black paper and polished with white of egg, which she disposed of for a number of pins. She became the star of the circus ring, and it was considered a great sight to behold Mary Eliza attired in blue cambric tights with an abundance of blonde locks, made by unraveling a few feet of new heavy rope, flowing about her shoulders, executing feats of marvelous dexterity upon the flying trapeze.

Indeed, Mary Eliza possessed certain talents which peculiarly fitted her to dwell and rule in a boy's town. Otherwise she could never have brought disaster and ruin upon the town of Speckleville. For all boys will admit that there are some girls who would make the best boys in the world—if they were not girls.

It soon befell that Mary Eliza's word, her lightest wish, was law in Speckleville. Half the letters that went through Speckle's post-office were for her, and even the phlegmatic Reinholt Birkner made her a beautiful little tombstone with a rose carved on it as an ornament for her center table.

Meanwhile Speckle—poor, deposed Speckle, sat by without demur and without more than an occasional pang of jealousy and watched the success of his protege, learning, as many another monarch had done before him, how pleasant it sometimes is to serve.

Now, alas! it is time to introduce the tragic motif in this simple chronicle of Speckleville, to bring about the advent of the heavy villian into the comedy. He came in the form of a boy from Chicago, to spend the summer with his aunt just across the street from Speckle's home. From the first he found small favor in the eyes of the Speckleville boys. To begin with, he invariably wore shoes and stockings, a habit disgustingly effeminate to any true and loyal Specklevillian. To this he added the grievance of a stiff hat, and on Sundays even sunk to the infamy of kid gloves. He also smoked many cubeb cigarettes—corn-silks were considered the only manly smoke in Speckleville—and ate some odorous confection to conceal his guilt from his mamma. The good citizens of Speckleville all looked with horror upon these gilded vices—all, save one, perhaps.

The first time the New Boy visited the town he bought a cream puff of Mary Eliza, and on being told that the price of the same was ten pins, he laughed scornfully, saying that he did not carry a pin-cushion and had not brought his work-box with him. He then threw down a nickel upon the counter. Now to offer money to a citizen of Speckleville was an insult, like offering a bribe, and the boys were painfully surprised when Mary Eliza accepted that shameful coin, bestowing upon the purchaser a smile more desirable than many cream puffs.

After that the New Boy came often, usually confining his trade to the Delmonico resteraunt, where he hung about telling of his trip on Lake Michigan and his outings in Lincoln park, while the proprietor listened with greedy ears. He persisted in paying for his purchases in coppers and nickels, and Mary Eliza persisted in accepting the despised currency, while the Speckleville boys went about with a secret shame in their hearts, feeling that somehow she had disgraced herself and them. They began to wonder as to just what a girl's notion of the square thing was, a question that has sometimes vexed older heads.

As for Mary Eliza, although she sometimes joined with the boys in a laugh at his expense, she by no means shared the general dislike of the New Boy. She thought his city clothes and superior manners very impressive, and felt more grown up and important when in his company. Even his letters, which were always written on real note paper with a monogram at the top and signed SEMPER IDEM seemed vastly more dignified than the rude scrawls of the other boys.

She had tact enough to know that this fine young gentleman would never wear tissue paper neckties, so she made him a red paper rose, which he wore, daily perfuming it with Florida water. Speckle had noted the growing discontent in his town, and sought to conceal Mary Eliza's disgraceful conduct and shield her from open contempt by asking her to make him a paper rose. But she laughed heartlessly with a wink at the New Boy and said she had no more paper. I doubt if any of the rebuffs his gallantry may have received in after years ever cut Speckle as that wink did.

Matters hastened from bad to worse in the town. The days came and went as days will, but over Mary Eliza's throne there was the shadow of the New Boy. The crisis came at last when in a meeting of the city council Mary Eliza boldly proposed admitting the New Boy to the town. Her motion was greeted by indignant howls and hisses and Speckle blushed to the roots of his red hair.

"Very well," said Mary Eliza, "if you won't have him in then I won't be in either. Him and me'll start another town over in his yard."

"You can just go and do it, then! We won't have that Chicago dude hanging around here any longer!" howled councilman Sanders, knocking over his chair.

To this all the rest echoed a wrathful assent. It was the utterance of an old grievance.

Mary Eliza arose with great dignity and began to pack her wares into her carpet-bag. She made no display of ill humor, and talked cheerfully of her new town as she wrapped up her candies in tissue paper; the boys stood by and watched her, they did not believe she would go. But Mary Eliza departed even as she had come, with her carpet-bag in her hand and her Japanese parasol tilted gaily over her head, while Speckle held the gate open for her, feeling that his illusions were vanishing fast.

"I'll send over for my box in the morning, Speckle, and you must all come over to our town and buy things, and we'll come over and buy things at yours," she called after him.

The treachery, the infamy of her deception never seemed to have occurred to her. It was as though Coriolanus, when he deserted Rome for the camp of the Volescians, had asked the Conscript Fathers to call on him and bring their families!

"She'll be back to-morrow all right enough," said Speckle.

But on the morrow the New Boy came for the piano box, and by noon Mary Eliza was fairly installed across the street, making paper neckties for the New Boy and canvassing the neighborhood for the New Boy's town. There could be no doubt that she had transferred her allegiance.

The Speckleville boys went resolutely to their stores and bought and sold and made a great show, but they had little heart in it all. They missed the cream puffs and the paper ties, and they missed something else more than these—something they could not name. If Speckle had chanced to confide in his young uncle, who was in the rapturous tortures of his first love affair, he would have been told that it was the "eternal feminine" they missed, and he would have been as much in the dark as before.

Mary Eliza had put herself at the head of everything, and now nothing went on without her. After the manner of her kind, she had come where she was not wanted, made herself indispensable, and gone again, taking with her, oh, so much more than her parasol and chocolate creams!

Everything went wrong in Speckleville that afternoon, and after the day was over the citizens of that passing village were quarreling violently, not, as in former times, because every one wanted to do something in a different way, but because no one wanted to do anything at all.

"It's all your fault, Speckle. We ought never to have her in, and we wouldn't if it hadn't been for you."

"Well, now she's gone," protested Speckle, "so why can't we go on like we did before?"

No one attempted to answer. It was scarcely a wise question to ask.

"I always told you she'd spoil the town, Speckle, and now she's done it," said Jimmy Templeton.

"Well, you fellows seemed mighty glad to get her after she came, anyway, and you needn't put your lip in, Temp; you loafed around her store like a ninny," retorted Speckle, who felt that his persecution was more than he could bear.

Jimmy was not in a mood to endure a jibe at his weakness and by way of an answer he biffed Speckle one on the side of his nose, and it required the united strength of their fellow citizens to part them.

"I'm not going to stay in your old town any longer. I can have more fun in my own yard, and I'm going to take my things home," announced Dick Hutchinson, as he began pocketing the properties of his museum.

"I'll be darned if I do!" cried Jimmy Templeton. "And I'll thank you to give me my pins out of your old tin box, Mr. Speckle."

Speckle had woes enough without a run on his bank, but when Providence helps a man to trouble it is usually generous and dishes out all manner of calamities, regardless of what he may already have on his plate. Speckle sat there until he had paid out the last pin from his spice box. The boys all fell to packing their belongings as though fleeing from a doomed city, and they ceased not from making unkind remarks as they did so. Even Reinholt Birkner gathered up his chisels and monuments, all save one big block of granite that was too heavy for him, and that stood by his store box like a white tombstone. Under Speckle's very eyes his town vanished as many another western town has done since then.

"lt's all your fault, Speckle!" bawled Jimmy Templeton, as he vaulted over the back fence, and Speckle, after having said all the swear words he knew, went off to the barn to smoke innumerable corn-silk cigarettes and to wonder at the queer way things are run down here.

After he had taken his milk that night he heard Mary Eliza laughing as she played tag with the New Boy under the electric light, and he sat down with his empty pails in his deserted town, as Caius Marius once sat among the ruins of Carthage.