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It's high noon for Tom
and the Rivermouth bully

From Story of a Bad Boy
By Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Bad Boy illustration There was one person, however, who cherished a strong suspicion that the Centipedes had had a hand in the business; and that person was Conway. His red hair seemed to change to a livelier red, and his sallow cheeks to a deeper sallow, as we glanced at him stealthily over the tops of our slates the next day in school. He knew we were watching him, and made sundry mouths and scowled in the most threatening way over his sums.

Conway had an accomplishment peculiarly his own -- that of throwing his thumbs out of joint at will. Sometimes while absorbed in study, or on becoming nervous at recitation, he performed the feat unconsciously. Throughout this entire morning his thumbs were observed to be in a chronic state of dislocation, indicating great mental agitation on the part of the owner. We fully expected an outbreak from him at recess; but the intermission passed off tranquilly, somewhat to our disappointment.

At the close of the afternoon session it happened that Binny Wallace and myself, having got swamped in our Latin exercise, were detained in school for the purpose of refreshing our memories with a page of Mr. Andrews's perplexing irregular verbs. Binny Wallace finishing his task first, was dismissed. I followed shortly after, and, on stepping into the playground, saw my little friend plastered, as it were, up against the fence, and Conway standing in front of him ready to deliver a blow on the upturned, unprotected face, whose gentleness would have stayed any arm but a coward's.

Seth Rodgers, with both hands in his pockets, was leaning against the pump lazily enjoying the sport; but on seeing me sweep across the yard, whirling my strap of books in the air like a sling, he called out lustily, "Lay low, Conway! Here's young Bailey!" Conway turned just in time to catch on his shoulder the blow intended for his head. He reached forward one of his long arms -- he had arms like a windmill, that boy -- and, grasping me by the hair, tore out quite a respectable handful. The tears flew to my eyes, but they were not the tears of defeat; they were merely the involuntary tribute which nature paid to the departed tresses.

In a second my little jacket lay on the ground, and I stood on guard, resting lightly on my right leg and keeping my eye fixed steadily on Conway's -- in all of which I was faithfully following the instructions of Phil Adams, whose father subscribed to a sporting journal.

Conway also threw himself into a defensive attitude, and there we were, glaring at each other motionless, neither of us disposed to risk an attack, but both on the alert to resist one. There is no telling how long we might have remained in that absurd position, had we not been interrupted.

It was a custom with the larger pupils to return to the play-ground after school, and play baseball until sundown. The town authorities had prohibited ball-playing on the Square, and, there being no other available place, the boys fell back perforce on the school-yard. Just at this crisis a dozen or so of the Templars entered the gate, and, seeing at a glance the belligerent status of Conway and myself, dropped bat and ball, and rushed to the spot where we stood.

"Is it a fight?" asked Phil Adams, who saw by our freshness that we had not yet got to work.

"Yes, it's a fight," I answered, "unless Conway will ask Wallace's pardon, promise never to hector me in future -- and put back my hair!"

This last condition was rather a staggerer.

"I sha'n't do nothing of the sort," said Conway, sulkily.

"Then the thing must go on," said Adams, with dignity. "Rodgers, as I understand it, is your second, Conway? Bailey, come here. What's the row about?"

"He was thrashing Binny Wallace."

"No, I wasn't," interrupted Conway; "but I was going to because he knows who put Meeks's mortar over our door. And I know well enough who did it; it was that sneaking little mulatter!" pointing at me.

"O, by George!" I cried, reddening at the insult.

"Cool is the word," said Adams, as he bound a handkerchief round my head, and carefully tucked away the long straggling locks that offered a tempting advantage to the enemy. "Who ever heard of a fellow with such a head of hair going into action!" muttered Phil, twitching the handkerchief to ascertain if it were securely tied. He then loosened my gallowses (braces), and buckled them tightly above my hips. "Now, then, bantam, never say die!"

Conway regarded these business-like preparations with evident misgiving, for he called Rodgers to his side, and had himself arrayed in a similar manner, though his hair was cropped so close that you couldn't have taken hold of it with a pair of tweezers.

"Is your man ready?" asked Phil Adams, addressing Rodgers.

"Ready!"

"Keep your back to the gate, Tom," whispered Phil in my ear, "and you'll have the sun in his eyes."

Behold us once more face to face, like David and the Philistine. Look at us as long as you may; for this is all you shall see of the combat. According to my thinking, the hospital teaches a better lesson than the battle-field. I will tell you about my black eye, and my swollen lip, if you will; but not a word of the fight.

You'll get no description of it from me, simply because I think it would prove very poor reading, and not because I consider my revolt against Conway's tyranny unjustifiable.

I had borne Conway's persecutions for many months with lamb-like patience. I might have shielded myself by appealing to Mr. Grimshaw; but no boy in the Temple Grammar School could do that without losing caste. Whether this was just or not doesn't matter a pin, since it was so-a traditionary law of the place. The personal inconvenience I suffered from my tormentor was nothing to the pain he inflicted on me indirectly by his persistent cruelty to little Binny Wallace. I should have lacked the spirit of a hen if I had not resented it finally. I am glad that I faced Conway, and asked no favors, and got rid of him forever. I am glad that Phil Adams taught me to box, and I say to all youngsters: Learn to box, to ride, to pull an oar, and to swim. The occasion may come round, when a decent proficiency in one or the rest of these accomplishments will be of service to you.

In one of the best books ever written for boys are these words:

"Learn to box, then, as you learn to play cricket and football. Not one of you will be the worse, but very much the better, for learning to box well. Should you never have to use it in earnest there's no exercise in the world so good for the temper, and for the muscles of the back and legs.

Bad Boy illustration "As for fighting, keep out of it, if you can, by all means. When the time comes, if ever it should, that you have to say 'Yes' or 'No' to a challenge to fight, say 'No' if you can-only take care you make it plain to yourself why you say 'No.' It's a proof of the highest courage, if done from true Christian motives. It's quite right and justifiable, if done from a simple aversion to physical pain and danger. But don't say 'No' because you fear a licking and say or think it's because you fear God, for that's neither Christian nor honest. And if you do fight, fight it out; and don't give in while you can stand and see."

And don't give in when you can't! say 1. For I could stand very little, and see not at all (having pommelled the school pump for the last twenty seconds), when Conway retired from the field. As Phil Adams stepped up to shake hands with me, he received a telling blow in the stomach; for all the fight was not out of me yet, and I mistook him for a new adversary.

Convinced of my error, I accepted his congratulations, with those of the other boys, blandly and blindly. I remember that Binny Wallace wanted to give me his silver pencil-case. The gentle soul had stood throughout the contest with his face turned to the fence, suffering untold agony. A good wash at the pump, and a cold key applied to my eye, refreshed me amazingly. Escorted by two or three of the schoolfellows, I walked home through the pleasant autumn twilight, battered but triumphant. As I went along, my cap cocked on one side to keep the chilly air from my eye, I felt that I was not only following my nose, but following it so closely, that I was in some danger of treading on it. I seemed to have nose enough for the whole party. My left cheek, also, was puffed out like a dumpling. I couldn't help saying to myself, "If this is victory, how about that other fellow?"

"Tom," said Harry Blake, hesitating.

"Well?"

"Did you see Mr. Grimshaw looking out of the recitation-room window just as we left the yard?"

"No was he, though?"

"I am sure of it."

"Then he must have seen all the row."

"Shouldn't wonder."

"No, he didn't," broke in Adams, "or he would have stopped it short metre; but I guess be saw you pitching into the pump which you did uncommonly strong -- and of course he smelt mischief directly."

"Well, it can't be helped now," I reflected.

"-As the monkey said when he fell out of the cocoanut tree," added Charley Marden, trying to make me laugh.

It was early candle-light when we reached the house. Miss Abigail, opening the front door, started back at my hilarious appearance. I tried to smile upon her sweetly, but the smile, rippling over my swollen cheek, and dying away like a spent wave on my nose, produced an expression of which Miss Abigail declared she had never seen the like excepting on the face of a Chinese idol.

She hustled me unceremoniously into the presence of my grandfather in the sitting-room. Captain Nutter, as the recognized professional warrior of our family, could not consistently take me to task for fighting Conway; nor was he disposed to do so; for the Captain was well aware of the long-continued provocation I had endured.

"Ah, you rascal!" cried the old gentleman, after hearing my story. "Just like me when I was young -- always in one kind of trouble or another. I believe it runs in the family."

Bad Boy illustration "I think," said Miss Abigail, without the faintest expression) on her countenance, "that a table-spoonful of hot-dro-" The Captain interrupted Miss Abigail peremptorily, directing her to make a shade out of cardboard and black silk to tie over my eye. Miss Abigail must have been possessed with the idea that I had taken up pugilism as a profession, for she turned out no fewer than six of these blinders.

"They'll be handy to have in the house," says Miss Abigail, grimly.

Of course, so great a breach of discipline was not to be passed over by Mr. Grimshaw. He had, as we suspected, witnessed the closing scene of the fight from the school-room window, and the next morning, after prayers, I was not wholly unprepared when Master Conway and myself were called up to the desk for examination. Conway, with a piece of court-plaster in the shape of a Maltese cross on his right cheek, and I with the silk patch over my left eye, caused a general titter through the room.

"Silence!" said Mr. Grimshaw, sharply.

As the reader is already familiar with the leading points in the case of Bailey versus Conway, I shall not report the trial further than to say that Adams, Marden, and several other pupils testified to the fact that Conway had imposed on me ever since my first day at the Temple School. Their evidence also went to show that Conway was a quarrelsome character generally. Bad for Conway. Seth Rodgers, on the part of his friend, proved that I had struck the first blow. That was bad for me.

"If you please, sir," said Binny Wallace, holding up his hand for permission to speak, "Bailey didn't fight on his own account; he fought on my account, and, if you please, sir, I am the boy to be blamed, for I was the cause of the trouble."

This drew out the story of Conway's harsh treatment of the smaller boys. As Binny related the wrongs of his playfellows, saying very little of his own grievances, I noticed that Mr. Grimshaw's hand, unknown to himself perhaps, rested lightly from time to time on Wallace's sunny hair. The examination finished, Mr. Grimshaw leaned on the desk thoughtfully for a moment and then said:

"Every boy in this school knows that it is against the rules to fight. If one boy maltreats another, within school-bounds, or within school-hours, that is a matter for me to settle. The case should be laid before me. I disapprove of tale-bearing, I never encourage it in the slightest degree; but when one pupil systematically persecutes a schoolmate, it is the duty of some head-boy to inform me. No pupil has a right to take the law into his own hands. If there is any fighting to be done, I am the person to be consulted. I disapprove of boys' fighting; it is unnecessary and unchristian. In the present instance, I consider every large boy in this school at fault, but as the offence is one of omission rather than commission, my punishment must rest only on the two boys convicted of misdemeanor. Conway loses his recess for a month, and Bailey has a page added to his Latin lessons for the next four recitations. I now request Bailey and Conway to shake hands in the presence of the school, and acknowledge their regret at what has occurred."

Conway and I approached each other slowly and cautiously, as if we were bent upon another hostile collision. We clasped hands in the tamest manner imaginable, and Conway mumbled, "I'm sorry I fought with you.'

"I think you are,' I replied, drily, "and I'm sorry I had to thrash you."

"You can go to your seats," said Mr. Grimshaw, turning his face aside to hide a smile. I am sure my apology was a very good one.

I never had any more trouble with Conway. He and his shadow, Seth Rodgers, gave me a wide berth for many months. Nor was Binny Wallace subjected to further molestation. Miss Abigail's sanitary stores, including a bottle of opodeldoc, were never called into requisition. The six black silk patches, with their elastic strings, are still dangling from a beam in the garret of the Nutter House, waiting for me to get into fresh difficulties.

Author's Note: The books quoted in this chapter is "Tom Brown's School Days at Rugby"



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Text from "Story of a Bad Boy" by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, 1869. Drawings from the early Riverside edition and other early editions.

Reprinted online courtesy of SeacoastNH.com
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