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- Aladdin O'Brien - 1/32 -
BY GOUVERNEUR MORRIS
"It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea, That a maiden there lived whom you may know By the name of Annabel Lee. And this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me. I was a child and she was a child"--
It was on the way home from Sunday-school that Aladdin had enticed Margaret to the forbidden river. She was not sure that he knew how to row, for he was prone to exaggerate his prowess at this and that, and she went because of the fine defiance of it, and because Aladdin exercised an irresistible fascination. He it was who could whistle the most engagingly through his front teeth; and he it was, when sad dogs of boys of the world were met behind the barn, who could blow the smoke of the fragrant grapevine through his nose, and swallow the same without alarm to himself or to his admirers. To be with him was in itself a soulful wickedness, a delicious and elevating lesson in corruption. But to be with him when he had done wrong, and was sorry for it (as always when found out), that was enough to give one visions of freckled angels, and the sweetness of Paradise in May.
Aladdin brought the skiff into the float, stern first, with a bump. Pride sat high upon his freckled brow, and he whistled piercing notes.
"I can do it," he said. "Now get in."
Margaret embarked very gingerly and smoothed her dress carefully, before and after sitting down. It was a white and starchy dress of price, with little blue ribbons at the throat and wrists--such a dress as the little girl of a very poor papa will find laid out on the gilt and brocade chair beside her bed if she goes to sleep and wakes up in heaven.
"Only a little way, 'Laddin, please."
The boy made half a dozen circular, jabbing strokes, and the skiff zigzagged out from the float. It was a fine blue day, cool as a cucumber, and across the river from the deserted shipyards, where, upon lofty beamings, stood all sorts of ships in all stages of composition, the frequent beeches and maples showed pink and red and yellow against the evergreen pines.
"It's easy 'nough," said Aladdin. And Margaret agreed in her mind, for it is the splash of deeds rather than the skill or power which impresses a lady. The little lady sat primly in the stern, her mitted paws folded; her eyes, innocent and immense, fastened admiringly upon the rowing boy.
"Only 'bout's far's the cat-boat, 'Laddin, please," she said. "I oughtn't to of come 't all."
Somehow the cat-boat, anchored fifty yards out and straining back from her moorings, would not allow herself to be approached. For although Aladdin maintained a proper direction (at times), the ocean tide, setting rigidly in and overbearing the current of the river, was beginning to carry the skiff to some haven where she would not be.
Aladdin saw this and tried to go back, catching many crabs in the earnestness of his endeavor. Then the little girl, without being told, perceived that matters were not entirely in the hands of man, and began to look wistfully from Aladdin to the shore. After a while he stopped grinning, and then rowing.
"Can't you get back, 'Laddin?" said the little girl.
"No," said the boy, "I can't." He was all angel now, for he was being visited for wrong.
The little girl's lips trembled and got white.
"I'm awful sorry, Margaret."
"What'll we do, 'Laddin?"
"Just sit still, 'n' whatever happens I'll take care of you, Margaret."
They were passing the shipyards with a steady sweep, but the offices were closed, the men at home, and no one saw the distressed expedition. The last yard of all was conspicuous by a three-master, finished, painted, sparred, ready for the fragrant bottle to be cracked on her nose, and the long shivering slide into the river. Then came a fine square, chimneyed house with sherry-glass-shaped elm-trees about it. The boy shouted to a man contorted under a load of wood. The man looked up and grinned vacantly, for he was not even half-witted. And they were swept on. Presently woods drew between them and the last traces of habitation,--gorgeous woods with intense splashes of color, standing upon clean rocks that emphatically divided the water from the land,--and they scurried into a region as untroubled by man as was Eden on the first morning. The little boy was not afraid, but so sorry and ashamed that he could have cried. The little girl, however, was even deeper down the throat of remorse, for she had sinned three times on Sunday,--first, she had spoken to the "inventor's boy"; second, she had not "come straight home"; third, she had been seduced into a forbidden boat,--and there was no balm in Gilead; nor any forgiveness forever. She pictured her grand, dark father standing like a biblical allegory of "Hell and Damnation" within the somber leathern cube of his books, the fiercely white, whalebone cane upon which he and old brother gout leaned, and the vast gloomy centers at the bases of which glowed his savage eyes. She thought of the rolling bitter voice with which she had once heard him stiffen the backs of his constituents, and she was sore afraid. She did not remember how much he loved her, or the impotence of his principles where she was concerned. And she did not recollect, for she had not been old enough to know, that the great bitter voice, with its heavy, telling sarcasm, had been lifted for humanity--for more humanity upon earth.
"Oh, 'Laddin," she said suddenly, "I daren't go home now."
"Maybe we can get her in farther up," said Aladdin, "and go home through the woods. That'll be something, anyhow."
Margaret shuddered. She thought of the thin aunt who gave her lessons upon the pianoforte--one of the elect, that aunt, who had never done wrong, and whom any halo would fit; who gave her to understand that the Almighty would raise Cain with any little girl who did not practise an hour every day, and pray Him, night and morning, to help her keep off the black notes when the white notes were intended. First there would be a reckoning with papa, then one with Aunt Marion, last with Almighty God, and afterward, horribile dictu, pitchforks for little Margaret, and a vivid incandescent state to be maintained through eternity at vast cost of pit-coal to a gentleman who carried over his arm, so as not to step on it, a long snaky tail with a point like a harpoon's.
Meanwhile, Aladdin made sundry attempts to get the boat ashore, and failed signally. The current was as saucy as strong. Now it swept them into the very shade of the trees, and as hope rose hot in the boy's heart and he began to stab the water with the oars, sent them skipping for the midriver. Occasionally a fish jumped to show how easy it was, and high overhead an eagle passed statelily in the wake of a cloud. After the eagle came a V of geese flying south, moving through the treacherous currents and whirlpools of the upper air as steadily and directly as a train upon its track. It seemed as if nature had conspired with her children to demonstrate to Margaret and Aladdin the facility of precise locomotion. The narrow deeps of the river ended where the shore rolled into a high knob of trees; above this it spread over the lower land into a great, shallow, swiftly currented lake, having in its midst a long turtlebacked island of dense woods and abrupt shores. Two currents met off the knob and formed in the direction of the island a long curve of spitting white. Aladdin rowed with great fervor.
"Do it if you can, 'Laddin," said the little girl.
It seemed for one moment as if success were about to crown the boy's effort, for he brought the boat to an exciting nearness to the shore; but that was all. The current said: "No, Aladdin, that is not just the place to land; come with me, and bring the boat and the young lady." And Aladdin at once went with the current.
"Margaret," he said, "I done my best." He crossed his heart.
"I know you done your best, 'Laddin." Margaret's cheeks were on the brink of tears. "I know you done it."
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