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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Early Majority of Mr. Thomas Watts

By Richard Malcolm Johnston (1822–1898)

  • “O ’tis a parlous boy.”

  • LITTLE Tom Watts, as he used to be called before the unexpected developments which I propose briefly to narrate, was the second in a family of eight children, his sister Susan being the eldest. His parents dwelt in a small house situate on the edge of Dukesborough. Mr. Simon Watts, though of extremely limited means, had some ambition. He held the office of constable in that militia district, and in seasons favorable to law business made about fifty dollars a year. The outside world seemed to think it was a pity that the head of a family so large and continually increasing should so persistently prefer mere fame to the competency which would have followed upon his staying at home and working his little field of very good ground. But he used to contend that a man could not be expected to live always, and therefore he ought to try to live in such a way as to leave his family, if nothing else, a name that they wouldn’t be ashamed to hear mentioned after he was gone.

    Yet Mr. Watts was not a cheerful man. Proud as he might justly feel in his official position, it went hard with him to be compelled to live in a way more and more pinched as his family continued to multiply with astonishing rapidity. His spirits, naturally saturnine, grew worse and worse with every fresh arrival in the person of a baby, until the eighth. Being yet a young man, comparatively speaking, and being used to make calculations, the figures seemed too large as he looked to the future. I would not go so far as to say that this prospect actually killed him; but at any rate he took a sickness which the doctor could not manage, and then Mr. Watts gave up his office and everything else that he had in this world.

    But Mrs. Watts, his widow, had as good a resolution as any other woman in her circumstances ever had. She had no notion of giving up in that way. She gave up her husband, it is true, but that could not be helped; and without making much ado about even that, she kept going at all sorts of work, and somehow she got along at least as well after as before the death of Mr. Simon.

    A person not well acquainted with the brood of little Wattses often found difficulty in discriminating among them. I used to observe them with considerable interest as I went into Dukesborough occasionally, with one or the other or both of my parents. They all had white hair, and red chubby faces. It was long a matter of doubt what was their sex. Such was the rapidity of their succession, and so graduated the declivity from Susan downwards, that the mother used to cut all their garments after a fashion that was very general, in order that they might descend during the process of decay to as many of them as possible. Now, although I saw them right often, I had believed for several months, for instance, that little Jack was a girl, from a yellow frock that had belonged to his sister Mary Jane, but which little Jack wore until his legs became subjected to such exposure that it had to descend to Polly Ann, his next younger sister. Then I made a similar mistake about Polly Ann, who during this time had worn little Jack’s breeches, out of which he had gone into Mary Jane’s frock; and I thought on my soul that Polly Ann was a boy.

    In regard to Tommy, not only I, but the whole public, had been in a state of uncertainty in this behalf for a great length of time. Having no older brother, and Susan’s outgrown dresses being alone available, his male wardrobe was inevitably only half as extensive and various as by good rights, generally speaking, it ought to have been. Therefore Tommy had to make his appearance alternately in frock and breeches, according to the varying conditions of these garments, for a period that annoyed him the more the longer it extended, and finally began to disgust. Tom eagerly wished that he could outgrow Susan, and thus get into breeches out and out. But Susan in this respect, as indeed in almost all others, kept her distance in the lead.

    There was a difference, easily noticeable, in Tom’s deportment in these seasons. While in frocks it was subdued, retiring, and if not melancholy, at least fretful. Curiosity perhaps, or some other motive equally powerful, might and indeed sometimes did lead him outside of the gate; but never to linger there for any great length of time. If he had to go upon an errand during that season (a necessity which that resolute woman his mother enforced without the slightest hesitation), he went and returned with speed. Yet before starting out on such occasions, he was wont to be careful to give his hair such a turn that his manly head might refute the lie which Susan’s frock had told. For it is probable that there have been few, if indeed any, boys who were more unwilling either to be or to be considered of the opposite sex, than that same Tom Watts. I do not remember ever to have seen a boy whose hair had so high and peculiar a roach as his exhibited, especially when he wore his sister Susan’s frocks. Instead of being parted in the middle, it was divided into three parts. It was combed perfectly straight down on the sides of his head, and perfectly straight up from the top. An immense distance was thus established between the extremities of any two hairs which receded contiguously to each other on the border-lines.

    All this was an artful attempt to divert public attention from the frock which intimated the female, to the head which asserted and which was supposed to establish the male. He once said to Susan:—

    “When they sees your old frock, they makes out like that they ’spicions me a gal; but when they looks at my har all roached up, then they knows who I am.”

    “Yes indeed,” answered Susan, “and a sight you air. Goodness knows, I’d rather be a girl, and rather look like one if I weren’t, than to look like you do in that fix.”

    But it was during the other season, that which he called his breeches week, that Tommy Watts was most himself. In this period he was cheerful, bold, notorious. He was as often upon the street as he could find opportunities to steal away from home; and while there, he was as evidently a boy as was to be found in Dukesborough or any other place of its size. In this happy season he seemed to be disposed to make up as far as possible for the confinements and the gloominesses of the other. So much so, indeed, that he had to be whipped time and time again for his unlicensed wanderings; and for many other pranks which are indeed common to persons of his age and sex, but which he seemed to have the greater temptation to do, and which he did with more zest and temerity than other boys, because he had only half their time in which to do them. Tom Watts maintained that if a boy was a boy, then he ought to be a boy; and as for himself, if he had to be a girl a part of the time, he meant to double on them for the balance. By them he meant his mammy, as he was wont to call his surviving parent. But she understood the method of doubling as well as he; for while she whipped him with that amount of good-will which in her judgment was proper, she not unfrequently cut short his gay career by reducing him to Susan’s frock, or (if it was not ready for the occasion) to his own single shirt. On such occasions he would relapse at once into the old melancholy ways. If Thomas Watts had been familiar with classical history, I have not a doubt that in these periods of his humiliation he would have compared his case with that of the great Achilles, whose mother had kept him in inglorious seclusion amid the daughters of Lycomedes. Yet, like that hero further in being extremely imprudent, no sooner would he recover his male attire than he would seem to think that no laws had ever been made for him, and he would rush headlong into difficulties and meet their consequences. Tom, as his mother used to say, was a boy of a “tremenjuous sperrit.” But it had come from her, and enough had been left in her for all domestic purposes. In every hand-to-hand encounter between the two, Thomas was forced to yield and make terms; but he resolved over and over, and communicated that resolution to many persons, that if he ever did obtain his liberty, the world should hear from him. His late father having been to a degree connected, as we remember, with the legal profession, Tom had learned one item (and that was probably the only one that he did learn sufficiently well to remember) of the law: that was, that young men of fourteen who had lost their fathers might go into court and choose their own guardians, and do other things besides. How he did long for that fourteenth birthday! The more he longed for it, the longer it seemed in coming. He had gotten to believe that if it ever should come, he would have lived long enough and had experience enough for all, even the most difficult and responsible purposes of human life.

    But events that must come will come, if we will only wait for them. In the process of time, which to the hasty nature of Tom seemed unreasonably and cruelly long in passing, he seemed to emerge from the frock for good and all. The latest inducement to a preparation for this liberty was a promise that it should come the sooner, provided he would improve in the care that he was wont to take of his clothes; for he had been a sad fellow in that item of personal economy. When this inducement was placed before him, he entered upon a new career. He abjured wrestlings with other boys, and all other sports and exercises, however manly, which involved either the tearing of his attire or contact with the ground. He even began to be spruce and dandyish; and the public was astonished to find that in the matter of personal neatness, Tom Watts was likely to become a pattern to all the youth of Dukesborough and its environs. His roach grew both in height and in sleekness; and when his hat was off his head, Tom Watts was the tallest-looking boy of his inches that I ever saw.

    Resolute as was the Widow Watts, she had respect for her word, and was not deficient in love for her offspring. Besides, it was getting to be high time for Tom to go to school, if he ever was to go. Now in a school, I maintain, if nowhere else, it is undeniably to be desired that everybody’s sex should be put beyond doubt. Even a real girl in a school of boys, or a real boy in a school of girls, it is probable, would both feel and impart considerable embarrassment. This would doubtless be much increased in case where such a matter was in doubt. There is no telling what a difference an uncertainty in this behalf would make, not only in the hours of study, but even, and to a perhaps greater extent, in those of play. I have lived in the world long enough to feel justified in saying that suspicions and doubts are more efficacious than facts in producing embarrassments and alienations. Oh, it is no use to say anything more upon the subject! Mrs. Watts had sense enough to have respect for public sentiment; and when Tom was ready for school, Susan’s frock had to be laid aside. However, Mary Jane, who was a fast grower, went into it with the taking of only a little tuck, and nothing was wasted.

    Tom Watts, therefore, avowedly and notoriously, for good and for all and forever, became a boy. When he stepped out of Susan’s frock for the last time, and stepped into a new pair of trousers which had been made for the purpose of honoring the occasion, he felt himself to be older by many years; and if not as sleek, he was at least as proud, as any snake, when with the incoming spring he has left his old skin behind him and glided into the sunlight with a new one.

    The neat habits which he had adopted from policy, he continued to practice, to his mother’s great delight. It was really a fine thing to observe the care he took with his clothes; and the manly gait he assumed would have led unthinking persons almost to conclude that the having been confounded so long with the other sex had begotten a repugnance for the latter which might never be removed. Such was the rapidity of his strides towards manhood, that some females of his acquaintance not unfrequently spoke of him as Mr. Thomas Watts; while others went further, left off the Thomas altogether, and called him Mr. Watts.

    But time, which is ever making revelations that surprise mankind, was not slow to reveal that Mr. Watts had not yet been fully understood. He had been going to school to Mr. Cordy for several weeks in the winter, and was believed to be making reasonable progress. He had now passed his thirteenth year, and had gone some distance upon his fourteenth. He had long looked to that day as the commencement of his majority. A guardian (or, as he was wont to say, a gardzeen) was an incumbrance which he had long determined to dispense with. This was not so much, however, because there would not be a thing for an official to manage except the person of Mr. Thomas himself, as that he had no doubt—not a shadow of a doubt, in fact—that such management would be more agreeable, more safe, and in every way better, in his own hands than in those of any other person of his acquaintance.

    Mr. Cordy’s school was in a grove of hickory and oak at the end of the village opposite to the one at which Mrs. Watts’s cabin stood. At the hither end of this grove was another small school, of girls, kept by Miss Louisa Wilkins. She was from Vermont, and was a young lady of about twenty-eight years, very fair, somewhat tall, and upon the whole rather good—certainly a cheerful—looking face. For I should remark that Dukesborough, which ever held Augusta in view, had in the pride of its ambition abolished the system of mixed schools; and though the number of children was rather limited to allow of great division, still Dukesborough would have, and did have, two institutions of learning. Miss Wilkins had under her charge about fifteen girls, ranging from eight years old to fourteen. Prominent among them were Miss Adeline Jones, Miss Emily Sharp, Miss Lorinda Holland, Miss Jane Hutchins, and Mr. Watts’s elder sister, Susan.

    Mr. Watts’s relations to this institution seemed to have been started by accident. One morning, as with lingering but not unmanly steps he was passing by on his way to his own school, he spied Miss Wilkins through the window in the act of kindling a fire. As her face was turned from him, he had the opportunity, and he used it, to observe her motion for several moments. Whether because the kindling-wood was damp, or Miss Wilkins was not expert, I would not undertake at this late day to say; but the fire would not make a start: and the lady, apparently bent upon getting warm in some way, threw down the tongs and walked rapidly up and down the room. Observing Mr. Watts, and possibly suspecting that he was a person of an accommodating disposition, she requested his assistance. He yielded promptly, and it did Miss Wilkins good to see how quickly the blaze arose and the genial warmth radiated through the room. The artificial heat at once subsided, and she smiled and thanked him in a way that could not soon be forgotten. Then she inquired his name, and was surprised and gratified to know that so manly a person as he was should be the brother of one of the best and most biddable girls in her school.

    This accident, trifling in appearance, led to consequences. Mr. Watts had frequent opportunities of rendering this same service, and others of an equally obliging nature. These gave him access to the school in its hours of ease; and the care that he took of his clothes, and the general manners that he adopted, were reaching to a height that approached perfection. If the roach on the summit of his head was not quite as high as formerly (a depression caused by his having now a hat to wear), it was not any less decided and defiant.

    Yet he never seemed disposed to abuse his privileges. Although he was there very often, he usually had little to say to any of the young ladies, and seemed to try to pay the utmost respect to all the mistress’s rules and regulations in regard to the intercourse of her pupils with the opposite sex. It must be admitted that Mr. Watts had not advanced lately in his studies to the degree that was promised by his opening career. But Mr. Cordy was a reasonable man, and upon principle was opposed to pushing boys along too fast. Mrs. Watts, although not a person of education herself, yet suspected from several circumstances that her son was not well improving the little time which she could afford to send him to school. But his deportment was such an example to the younger children that she had not the heart to complain, except in a very general way.

    Of all persons of Mr. Watts’s acquaintance, his sister Susan was the only one who seemed to fail to appreciate his manly habits. She used to frown dreadfully upon him, even when he seemed to be at his very best. Sometimes she even broke into immoderate laughter. While the former conduct had no influence, the latter used to affect him deeply. He would grow very angry and abuse her, and then become even more manlike. But when Susan would think that he was carrying matters into extremes, she would check him somewhat in this wise:—

    “Now lookee here, Tom, if you talk to me that way, I shall tell ma what’s the matter with you; and if you don’t quit being such a man, and stop some of your foolishness, I’ll tell her anyhow.”

    Threats of this sort for a time would recall Mr. Watts at least to a more respectful treatment of his sister. Indeed, he condescended to beg her not to mention her suspicions, although he assured her that in these she was wholly mistaken. But Susan did know very well what he was about; and it is probable that it is high time I should explain all this uncommon conduct. The truth is, Susan had ascertained that so far from having the repugnance to ladies that had been feared at first might grow out of his remembrance of the long confusion of the public mind touching his own sex, Mr. Thomas Watts had already conceived a passion that was ardent and pointed and ambitious to a degree which Susan characterized as “perfectly redickerlous.”

    But who was the young lady who had thus concentrated upon herself all the first fresh worship of that young manly heart? Was it Miss Jones, or Miss Sharp? Was it Miss Holland, or Miss Hutchins? Not one of these. Mr. Thomas Watts had, with one tremendous bound, leaped clear over the heads of these secondary characters, and cast himself at the very foot of the throne. To be plain, Mr. Watts fondly, entirely, madly loved Miss Louisa Wilkins, the mistress and head of the Dukesborough Female Institution.

    Probably this surprising reach might be attributed to the ambitious nature of his father, from whom he had inherited this and some other qualities. Doubtless, however, the recollection of having been kept long in frocks had engendered a desire to convince the world that they had sadly mistaken their man. Whatever was the motive power, such was the fact. Now, notwithstanding this state of his own feelings, he had never made a declaration in so many words to Miss Wilkins. But he did not doubt for a moment that she thoroughly understood his looks, and sighs, and devoted services. For the habit which all of us have of enveloping beloved objects in our hearts, and making them, so to speak, understand and reciprocate our feelings, had come to Mr. Watts even to a greater degree perhaps than if he had been older. He was as little inclined and as little able to doubt Miss Wilkins as to doubt himself. Facts seemed to bear him out. She had not only smiled upon him time and time again, and patted him sweetly on the back of his head, and praised his roach to the very skies; but once, when he had carried her a great armful of good fat pine-knots, she was so overcome as to place her hand under his chin, look him fully in the face, and declare that if he wasn’t a man, there wasn’t one in this wide, wide world.

    Such was the course of his true love, when its smoothness suffered that interruption which so strangely obtrudes itself among the fondest affairs of the heart. Miss Susan had threatened so often without fulfillment to give information to their mother, that he had begun to presume there was little or no danger from that quarter. Besides, Mr. Watts had now grown so old and manlike that he was getting to be without apprehension from any quarter. He reflected that within a few weeks more he would be fourteen years old, when legal rights would accrue. Determining not to choose any “gardzeen,” it would follow that he must become his own. Yet he did not intend to act with unnecessary notoriety. His plans were, to consummate his union on the very day he should be fourteen; but to do so clandestinely, and then run away, not stopping until he should get his bride plump to Vermont. For even the bravest find it necessary sometimes to retreat.

    Of the practicability of this plan he had no doubt, because he knew that Miss Wilkins had five hundred dollars in hard cash—a whole stockingful. This sum seemed to him immensely adequate for their support in becoming style for an indefinitely long period of time.

    As the day of his majority approached, he grew more and more reserved in his intercourse with his family. This was scarcely to be avoided now, when he was already beginning to consider himself as not one of them. If his conscience ever upbraided him as he looked upon his toiling mother and his helpless brothers and sisters, and knew that he alone was to rise into luxury while they were to be left in their lowly estate, he reflected that it was a selfish world at best, and that every man must take care of himself. But one day, after a season of unusual reserve, and when he had behaved to Miss Susan in a way which she considered outrageously supercilious, the latter availed herself of his going into the village, fulfilled her threat, and gave her mother full information of the state of his feelings.

    That resolute woman was in the act of ironing a new homespun frock she had just made for Susan. She laid down her iron, sat down in a chair, and looked up at Susan.

    “Susan, don’t be foolin’ ’long o’ me.”

    “Ma, I tell you it’s the truth.”

    “Susan, do you want me to believe that Tom’s a fool? I knowed the child didn’t have no great deal of sense; but I didn’t think he was a clean-gone fool.”

    But Susan told many things which established the fact beyond dispute. In Mr. Thomas’s box were found several evidences of guilt. There was a great red picture of a young woman, on the margin of which was written the name of Miss Louisa Wilkins. Then there was wrapped carefully in a rag a small piece of sweet soap, which was known by Susan to have been once the property of Miss Wilkins. Then there were sundry scraps of poetry, which were quite variant in sentiment, and for this and other reasons apparently not fully suited for the purposes for which they were employed. Mr. Watts’s acquaintance with amatory verses being limited, he had recourse to his mother’s hymn-book. Miss Wilkins was assured how tedious and tasteless were the hours. Her attention was directed alternately to Greenland’s icy mountains and India’s coral strand. She was informed that here he was raising his Ebenezer, having hitherto thus safely come. But immediately afterwards his mind seemed to have been diverted to thoughts of distant travel, and he remarked that his home was over Jordan, and he suggested to Miss Wilkins that if she should get there before he did, she might tell them he was a-coming. Then he urged Miss Wilkins to turn, sinner, turn, and with great anxiety inquired why would she die? These might have passed for evidences of a religious state of mind, but that they were all signed by Miss Wilkins’s loving admirer, Thomas Watts. Indeed, in the blindness of his temerity he had actually written out his formal proposition to Miss Wilkins, which he had intended to deliver to her on the very next day. This had been delayed only because he was not quite satisfied either with the phraseology or the handwriting. As to the way in which it would be received, his ardent soul had never entertained a doubt.

    “Well, well!” exclaimed his mother, after getting through with all this irrefragable evidence. “Well, well! I never should a’ b’lieved it. But I suppose we live and larn. Stealin’ out of my hime-book too! It’s enough to make anybody sick at the stomach. I knowed the child didn’t have much sense; but I didn’t know he was a clean-gone fool. Yes, we lives and larns. But bless me, it won’t do to tarry here. Susan, have that frock ironed all right, stiff and starch, by the time I git back. I sha’n’t be gone long.”

    The lady arose, and without putting on her bonnet, walked rapidly down the street.

    “What are you lookin’ for, Mrs. Watts?” inquired an acquaintance whom she met on her way.

    “I’m a-looking for a person of the name of Mr. Watts,” she answered, and rushed madly on. The acquaintance hurried home, but told other acquaintances on the way that the Widow Watts have lost her mind and gone ravin’ distracted. Soon afterwards, as Mr. Watts was slowly returning, his mind full of great thoughts and his head somewhat bowed, he suddenly became conscious that his hat was removed and his roach rudely seized. Immediately afterwards he found himself carried along the street, his head foremost and his legs and feet performing the smallest possible part in the act of locomotion. The villagers looked on with wonder. The conclusion was universal. Yes, the Widow Watts have lost her mind.

    When she reached her cabin with her charge, a space was cleared in the middle by removing the stools and the children. Then Mr. Watts was ordered to remove such portions of his attire as might oppose any hindrance whatever to the application of a leather strap to those parts of his person which his mother might select.

    “O mother, mother!” began Mr. Watts.

    “No motherin’ o’ me, sir. Down with ’em,” and down they came, and down came the strap rapidly, violently.

    “O mammy, mammy!”

    “Ah, now! that sounds a little like old times, when you used to be a boy,” she exclaimed in glee, as the sounds were repeated amid the unslackened descent of the strap. Mrs. Watts seemed disposed to carry on a lively conversation during this flagellation. She joked her son pleasantly about Miss Wilkins; inquired when it was to be, and who was to be invited? Oh, no! she forgot: it was not to be a big wedding, but a private one. But how long were they going to be gone before they would make us all a visit? Mr. Watts not only could not see the joke, but was not able to join in the conversation at all, except to continue to scream louder and louder, “O mammy, mammy!” Mrs. Watts, finding him not disposed to be talkative, except in mere ejaculatory remarks, appealed to little Jack, and Mary Jane, and Polly Ann, and to all, down even to the baby. She asked them, did they know that Buddy Tommy were a man grown, and were going to git married and have a wife, and then go away off yonder to the Vermonties? Little Jack, and Polly Ann, and Baby, and all, evidently did not precisely understand; for they cried and laughed tumultuously.

    How long this exercise, varied as it was by most animated conversation, might have continued if the mother had not become exhausted, there is no calculating. Things were fast approaching that condition, when the son declared that his mother would kill him if she didn’t stop.

    “That,” she answered between breaths, “is—what—I—aims—to do—if—I can’t git it—all—all—every—spang—passel—outen you.”

    Tom declared that it was all gone.

    “Is you—a man—or—is you—a boy?”

    “Boy! boy! mammy,” cried Tom. “Let me up, mammy—and—I’ll be a boy—as long—as I live.”

    She let him up.

    “Susan, whar’s that frock? Ah, there it is. Lookee here. Here’s your clo’es, my man. Mary Jane, put away them pantaloonses.”

    Tom was making ready to resume the frock. But Susan remonstrated. It wouldn’t look right now, and she would go Tom’s security that he wouldn’t be a man any more.

    He was cured. From being an ardent lover, he grew to become a hearty hater of the principal of the Dukesborough Female Institution; the more implacable upon his hearing that she had laughed heartily at his whipping. Before many months she removed from the village; and when two years afterwards a rumor came that she was dead, Tom was accused of being gratified by the news. Nor did he deny it.

    “Well, fellers,” said he, “I know it weren’t right, I knew it were mean; but I couldn’t’ a’ kep’ from it ef I knowed it would ’a ’kilt me.”