Both boys recognized their aunt; they had been too busy with each other before to look about. They stood silently by, Oscar grinning and Edmund frowning, while she apologized for their conduct. Then she turned to them and led them to an impromptu court of justice behind the wheel-house. The proceedings were brief. Oscar told his story. As usual, he related a perfectly plain, uncolored tale, making no excuse for himself.
"We were up on deck, Aunt Nellie and Aunt Nora, and Ned was reading and us boys wanted him to play shovel-board and he wouldn't; so just for fun, I tried to show the boys--while he was reading, you know--how near I could come to hitting his cap, and not hit it; and I made a mistake and hit it and just then the wind blowed and it went overboard, and the boys laughed and he jumped up and said, 'Who knocked my hat off?' and I said it was me, and he said he wasn't going to take any more bullying from me and up and hit me in the face and then I hit him back. I told him I was only fooling, but he didn't mind and kept on getting madder and hitting till I got mad too and--that's how it happened. But I didn't mean to knock his hat off, and I'll fight him all he wants on shore."
"I didn't know he was fooling," said Edmund, "and Aunt Nellie, it isn't just this time; I don't mind once; but it's all the time and--and I truly can't bear it!" The boy's pale face flushed as he spoke; his voice trembled over the last words and he turned his head away, winking his eyes hard. Oscar's own eyes grew round with amazement; it was all he could do to keep from whistling. He listened to his aunt's reproaches in silence, abstractedly sliding up and down a freshly tarred rope; and, at their close, when sentence was pronounced (keeping his high spirits below deck the rest of the day), he merely nodded his head and walked off saying: "All right, Aunt Nellie, that's fair enough, I am sure; I'll stay all right."
"Well!" said Mrs. Morris in a puzzled way, "did ever one see such a boy? I don't believe he cares a particle--Mercy!" The last ejaculation was caused by her seeing Oscar's back.
"Let him go," said Nora, who was shrewder than her sister; "don't say anything about that to-day; I'm not sure about his not caring."
Oscar went directly to the cabin. His young head was fully occupied trying to make out his cousin's behavior. The boys had never seen each other until they met in New York, about a week previous to sailing. It was Oscar's first visit East. The New York boys were amused by his Western way of speaking and showed their amusement openly. They made fun of his dress, too, which to be sure was rather queer, for his mother had been dead many years and the bishop, good man, was only anxious to encourage the tradespeople in his own town, and took whatever they were pleased to offer. Mrs.
Morris soon reformed his wardrobe, and Oscar went to work, himself, reforming his tormentors' manners with his fists. He was in the full career of his missionary work, and well covered with bruises, when it came time to sail.
Edmund was the only New York boy now left him. It happened that Edmund had taken little notice of Oscar, thinking him a rude, quarrelsome, noisy fellow; while Oscar had a slight opinion of Edmund--a boy who did not fight, or play games, and always afraid of soiling his clothes. He said to himself that he would "give Ned a pretty lively voyage." At first, Edmund was simply scornful; then he became irritated--at last, angry in good earnest. The quarrel was the sequel of a series of petty annoyances. Nevertheless it bewildered Oscar. Ned had not acted in the least as expected. He could fight; and though he fought in an ignorant, unskilful fashion that aroused Oscar's pity, he could fight vigorously, and take hard knocks without whimpering. Most marvelous of all, "Ned" whom he had pictured wrapt in self-admiration because he lived in New York and his father was so rich--Ned had been hurt by the teasing.
While he thought, the boy sat with his feet curled up under him on the long cabin seat that looks out on the sea; and his cheek was pressed against a little grimy hand. He could see the steel-blue waves moving toward the ship in wide scallops and the white sea-gulls flying between the ocean and the sky. Yet he hardly noticed them; so deeply was he thinking that he started when a hand was laid on his shoulder.
Then he saw and pulled Aunt Nora down beside him. "What were you thinking of?" said she.
"Of Ned," he answered. "He ain't so mean as I thought he was. At any rate, he ain't a coward."
"I could have told you better than that," said Nora. "Why, Oscar, once I saw him hold a mad dog so that some little girls could run away. He held it until a man came running up and knocked the poor beast over the head. It was Ned's favorite dog, too, and when it had drawn its last breath he sat down and cried over it."
"Humph," said Oscar, "he was pretty brave; what did you do?"
"I was in the house; I ran down to him, but when I got there the dog was dying. I heard Ned say, 'Oh! please kill him quick. Poor Louis!'"
"Guess he felt bad," said Oscar.
"He is fond of animals, even those most people dislike. Didn't you hear of his collection of snakes? He has tamed them so that he can do anything with them. Once, most unluckily, they got out of the box and came down stairs into the drawing-room which was filled with ladies."
"And they, every one, jumped on the chairs and hollered," said Oscar.
"They did precisely that, Oscar; every one except your Aunt Lizzie.
She stood still and told us how harmless the snakes were until, knowing her I suppose, they all glided up to her when _she_ climbed a chair, too, very quickly. Luckily Ned happened to be in the house and heard the commotion and ran in. He whipped the snakes up and wound them about his arm as coolly as though they had been pieces of rope."
Oscar was evidently impressed. But his prejudice made a last rally.
He muttered something about Ned's being a nice boy if he were not so "airy;" always "fussing about his clothes and talking in a mincing way--just like a New York boy."
"Do you remember," said Nora, "how the boys plagued you in New York, merely because you didn't talk and dress quite as they do?
Didn't you think it mean of them?"
"Mean as dirt," Oscar said promptly; "and I made 'em sick of it, too. I guess they won't try it on another Western feller!"
"But, my dear boy, don't you see you are doing the same thing? You tease Ned and make him unhappy because he doesn't dress and talk like the boys you know at home."
Oscar shrugged his shoulders; then he laughed. "Maybe you're right, Aunt Nora. Anyhow I didn't mean to be mean and I'm willing to make up if Ned is!"
Nora squeezed the little grimy hand so affectionately that he shrank back lest she should kiss him, "before everybody"--the erratic and inconsiderate conduct of women in kissing boys was one of his trials. However, she was more judicious. She went on: "I knew I could trust you to be just, Oscar. Only you must remember that Ned isn't impulsive like you; it takes him a long time to get over things. You have made him unhappy and he may not be ready to forgive you at a minute's notice. But if you persevere, I am sure he will understand you and you will be the best friends possible."
Privately, she resolved to try to soften Edmund's resentment before Oscar should speak to him. But the unfortunate Oscar did not let a moment slip. No sooner was his aunt's back turned to speak to an acquaintance than he darted away "to find Ned." Ned was easily found. He was lying in his berth so bundled up in a rug that only a patch of his hair was visible. The poor boy had been crying; but of course Oscar could not know that. He began in a loud, cheerful voice that grated on Edmund's nerves. "I say, Ned, s'pose we make up! we'd have lots more fun being friends; and I'll learn you how to box and everything."
"Say, Ned, are you 'sleep?"
"No, I'm not," came in a fierce, smothered voice from the heap on the berth, "and I wish you'd leave me alone!"
"Then you don't want to make up and be friends?" said Oscar, in a changed voice.
"No, I don't."
"All right for you, then!" said Oscar. With which withering sarcasm and a vast deal of dignity he marched out of the room. "Catch me trying that again," thought he.
Nevertheless his pride was soon conquered by his new admiration of Edmund and his longing for society. In a day or two he brought his best cap to his cousin, saying with assumed carelessness: "You can have it, if you want it, for the one I knocked overboard."
"Thanks," answered Edmund stiffly; "I don't want it; I've plenty of caps."
He met all Oscar's rough yet timid advances in the same spirit. He was always civil, but an iceberg would have been as companionable.
To Nora who remonstrated with him he said: "I can't help it; I don't like him and I never shall. He's bullied me all the voyage and now he thinks he has only to ask me and I'll make up. I wish he'd let me alone!"
"How unforgiving you are, Ned," said Nora, "don't you ever do wrong things yourself?"
"I never do mean things. And it's no use talking; I shall always despise him."
She said no more, thinking, "I will leave it to time. They will be so much together that they will have to like each other to be comfortable. If only Oscar doesn't lose his temper and take to tormenting him again!"
Happily Oscar kept his temper. He had a great notion of fairness and, once convinced that he had done wrong, he took his punishment unflinchingly, angry for the moment, sometimes, but bearing no malice.
By this time the voyage had ended and they were in Warwickshire, visiting an English friend of Mrs. Morris. It was while there that they went one afternoon to drink tea with Lady Margaret Vincent.
Lady Margaret was a Scotchwoman. She had married an Englishman (long since dead), and for many years had lived in England, but she travelled far and often, having even been to America, which is considered a prodigious journey in England.
Edmund was charmed with Lady Margaret's home. He could not look enough at the quaint old garden with its formal flower-beds and primly cut yew-trees, or the wonderful old house, the front of which had not been changed since Henry and Elizabeth. As they went through the hall, he gazed in an awe-stricken way at the great carved staircase and the walls where armor was hanging and strangely fashioned weapons. He felt as though he were stepping into the Middle Ages.
Meanwhile, Oscar, oblivious of the Middle Ages and every other improving subject, was getting acquainted with the page. Oscar had seen pages, for the first time, in New York. He pitied them; they couldn't like it, rigged out in those ridiculous clothes and never able to laugh or play. Always willing to talk, he did his best to amuse them. Now he was busy questioning James: Did his high collar hurt him? Did he have to rub up his buttons to keep them bright?
Did--here his aunt saw him and jerked him away.
From the hall they passed into a room as odd as delightful. All the woodwork was of oak, age-darkened to a brown-black, and most curiously carved. The mantelpiece had high pillars decorated with ribbons and scrolls and shields and griffin's heads cut out of the wood; and deep shelves on which were arranged queerly shaped and colored china vases, teapots and teacups. Oscar thought them ugly, wondering at the ladies' admiration. Before the doors and windows hung tapestry curtains in which pictures of hunting scenes were woven. The stuff was darned in so many places that Oscar quite pitied Lady Margaret who must have such old curtains; but Mrs.
Morris gave a little scream of delight and cried "Oh!" and "How priceless!" and something that sounded like "Goblins!" But though Oscar looked hard at the curtains to find the goblins, he saw none.
Then his eyes strayed over the polished floor and the dull-hued rugs, over ebony and ivory cabinets and stiff-backed chairs, to be fixed, finally, by a huge Wardian case.
There were rocks in the case, coated with moss; ferns and strange sea-weeds grew on the edge of the water; crabs clung below; lizards crept above; innumerable slimy things swam about, midway. The case stood on a long table. Near it, on another box, half a dozen snakes lay coiled into one indistinguishable mass. Under the table three monkey-like little creatures were dancing and chattering. A wee Scotch terrier ran about, sniffing at the guests' clothing. Before the fire of coals--for the day was chilly for June--was stretched a great white stag-hound. The room and all the animals made Oscar think of _Alice's Adventures in Wonderland_.
Lady Margaret was standing close to the staghound. Her tall, large figure was clad in black satin; her fair old face was framed by abundant white hair which had a gloss like silver; and her dark eyes were bright as her diamonds. She greeted them cordially, at once taking a fancy to Edmund because of his evident delight in animals. Perhaps she might have thought better of Oscar, had she not caught him in the act of winking at the page. Very soon she began to speak of the creatures about her. "Marmosets, my dears,"
clutching one of the little chatterers under the table; "they make a deal of noise, but like most noisy people's talk it doesn't mean much. This is my aquarium; the sea-horses are most odd, don't you think? And here," coolly pushing back her sleeve and plunging a plump, white arm into the water, "this, you know--just a frog! See how tame! And people call them ugly! That's all they know about it.
Look at his beautiful skin and his honest eye! Isn't he handsome, now? Here are some lizards, but they are not so interesting; quite pleasant, you know, but not fascinating, like frogs and snakes.
Yes, my lad, I dare say you will be wanting to see the snakes. Here they are. They are as tame as they are beautiful."
"She isn't going to take _them_ out in her hands, is she?"
Mrs. Morris whispered to her English friend.