LUCRETIA P. HALE — “I don’t like tiresome fables,” said Jack, throwing down an old book in which he had been trying to read; “it is so ridiculous making the beasts talk. Of course they never do talk that way, and if they did talk, they would not be giving that kind of advice But then they never did talk. Did you ever hear of a beast talking, Ernest, except in a fable?”
Ernest looked up from his book.
“Why, yes,” he said decidedly; “the horses of Achilles talked, don’t you remember?”
“Well, that was a kind of fable,” said Jack. “Our horses never talked. Bruno comes near it sometimes. But, Hester, don’t you think fables are tiresome? They always have a moral tagged on!” he continued, appealing to his older sister; for Ernest proved a poor listener, and was deep in his book again.
“I will tell you a fable about a boy,” said Hester, sitting down with her work, “and you shall see.”
“But don’t let the beasts speak,” said Jack, “and don’t let the boy give advice!”
“He won’t even think of it,” said Hester; and she went on.
“Once there was a boy, and his name was Oscar, and he went to a very good school, where he learned to spell and read very well, and do a few sums. But when he had learned about as much as that, he took up a new accomplishment. This was to fling up balls, two at a time, and catch them in his hands. This he could do wonderfully well; but then a great many other boys could. He, however, did it at home; he did it on the sidewalk; he could do it sitting on the very top of a board fence; but he was most proud of doing it in school hours while the teacher was not looking. This grew to be his great ambition. He succeeded once or twice, when she was very busy with a younger class, and once while her back was turned, and she was at the door receiving a visitor.
“But that did not satisfy him: he wanted to be able to do it when she was sitting on her regular seat in front of the platform; and every day he practised, sometimes with one ball and sometimes with another. It took a great deal of his time and all of his attention; and often some of the other boys were marked for laughing when he succeeded. And he had succeeded so well that the teacher had not the slightest idea what they were laughing at.
“All this was very satisfactory to him; but it was not so well for him at the end of the year, because it turned out he was behind-hand in all his studies, and he had to be put down into a lower room. But coming into another room with a fresh teacher, he had to learn his favorite accomplishment all over again. It was difficult, for she was a very rigid teacher, and seemed to have eyes in every hair of her head; and he sat at the other side of the room, so that he had to change hands somehow in throwing the balls and getting them into his desk quick without being seen. But there were a number of younger boys in the room who enjoyed it all very much, so that he was a real hero, and felt himself quite a favorite. He did manage to keep up better in his arithmetic, too, in spite of his having so little time for his books. Perhaps from having to watch the teacher so much, he did learn the things that he heard her repeat over and over again; and then he picked up some knowledge from the other boys. Still, all through his school term, he was sent about more or less from one room to another. The teachers could not quite understand why such a bright-looking boy, who seemed to be always busy with his lessons, was not farther on in his studies.
“So it happened, when they all left school, Oscar was himself surprised to find that the boys of his age were ahead of him in various ways. A large class went on to the high school; but Oscar, as it proved, was not at all fitted.
“And his father took him round from one place to another to try to get some occupation for him. He looked so bright that he was taken for an office-boy here and there; but he never stayed. The fact was, the only thing he could do well was to fling balls up in the air and catch them in turn, without letting them drop to the ground; and this he could only do best on the sly, behind somebody’s back. Now this, though entertaining to those who saw it for a little while, did not help on his employers, who wondered why they did not get more work out of Oscar.
“A certain Mr. Spenser, a friend of Oscar’s father, asked him to bring his boy round to his office, and he would employ him. ‘He will have to do a little drudgery at first, but I think we can promote him soon, if he is faithful.’
“So Oscar went with his father to Mr. Spenser’s office. Mr. Spenser started a little when he saw Oscar; but after talking awhile, he went to his table, and took from a drawer two balls. ‘My little boy left these here this morning,’ he said. ‘How long do you think,’ turning to Oscar, ‘you could keep them up in the air without letting them drop?’
“Oscar was much pleased. Here was his chance; at this office the kind of thing he could do was wanted. So he dexterously took the balls, and flung them up and down, and might have kept at it all the morning but that Mr. Spenser said at last, ‘That will do, and it is more than enough.’ He said, turning to Oscar’s father: ‘As soon as I saw your boy I thought I recognized him as a boy I saw one day in the school flinging balls up in the air on the sly behind his teacher’s back. I’m sorry to see that he keeps up the art still. But I felt pretty sure that day that he couldn’t have learned much else. I should be afraid to take him into my office with a propensity to do things on the sly, for I have other boys that must learn to be busy. Perhaps you can find some other place for Oscar.’
“But Oscar could not find the kind of place.
“His friend, Seth Clayton, had been fond of collecting insects all through his school years. Oscar used to laugh at his boxes full of bugs. But Seth used to study them over, and talk about them with his teacher, who told him all she knew, and helped him to find books about them. And it was when she was leaning over a beautiful specimen of a night-moth that Oscar had performed his most remarkable feat of keeping three balls in the air for a second and a half. This was in their last school year.
“And now, after some years more of study, Seth was appointed to join an expedition to go to South America and look up insects along the Amazon and in Brazil.
“‘Just what I should like to do,’ said Oscar; for he had studied a little about the geography of South America, and thought it would be fun catching cocoanuts with the help of the monkeys, and have a salary too. ‘That is something I really could do,’ said Oscar to Seth. But Seth went, and Oscar was left behind.
“Will Leigh had the best chance, perhaps. He used to be a great crony of Oscar. He went through the Latin School, and then to Harvard College. ‘He was always burrowing into Latin and Greek,’ said Oscar; ‘much as ever you could do to get an English word out of him.’
“Well, he was wanted as professor in a Western college; so they sent him for three years to a German university to study up his Hebrew. But he was to travel about Europe first.
“‘I wish they would send me,’ said Oscar. ‘Travelling about Europe is just what I should like, and just what I could do. It is a queer thing that just these fellows that can work hard, and like to work too, get the easiest places, where they have only to lie back and do nothing!’
“Even some of the boys who were behind him in school and below him in lower classes came out ahead. Sol Smith, whom Oscar always thought a stupid dunce, had the place in Mr. Spenser’s office that he would have liked.
“‘Mr. Spenser took Sol out to his country place in the mountains,’ Oscar complained, ‘where he has boats and plenty of fishing. I know I could have caught a lot of trout. It is just what I can do. But that stupid Sol, if he looked at a trout, he probably frightened it away.’
“It was just so all along through life. Oscar could not find exactly the place he was fitted for. One of his friends, Tracy, went out West as engineer. ‘I could have done that,’ said Oscar; ‘I could have carried the chain as easy as not. It is a little hard that all the rest of the fellows tumble into these easy places. There’s Tracy making money hand over hand.’
“The next he heard of him Tracy was in the legislature. ‘That I could do,’ said Oscar. ‘It is easy enough to go and sit in the legislature, with your hands in your pockets, and vote when your turn comes; or you needn’t be there all the time if you don’t choose.’
“So they put Oscar up for the legislature; but he lost the vote, because he forgot to sign his name to an important note, in answer to one of his ‘constituents.’ He tried for Congress, too, but without success. He talked round among his friends about running for President. There was the great White House to live in. He would be willing to stay all summer. He felt he should be the right person, as he had never done anything, and would offend no party.
“But even for President something more is needed than catching half-a-dozen balls without letting them fall to the ground.
“Once, indeed, he had thought of joining a circus; but he could not equal the Chinese juggler with the balls, and it tired him to jump up and down. His father got him the place of janitor at an art building; but he made mistakes in making change for tickets, and put wrong checks on the umbrellas and parasols, so that nobody got the right umbrella. He was really glad when they dismissed him, it tired him so. It was harder work than flinging balls——”
“Look at here, you need not go on,” said Jack, interrupting his sister. “I never did it but just once in school, and that was when you happened to come in and speak to Miss Eaton. I was real ashamed that you caught me at it then, and I have never had the balls at school since, or thought of them.”
“The beast has spoken,” said Ernest, looking up from his book.
Jack made a rush at his brother. “Oh! stop,” said Ernest; “let us find out what became of Oscar.”
“He has married,” said Hester, “and his wife supports him.”
**Lucretia Peabody Hale (USA; 1820-1900), The Last of the Peterkins with Others of Their Kin, , Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1908