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Two Little Savages
By Ernest Thompson Seton
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1962 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Glenyan & Yan
YAN was much like other twelve-year-old boys in having a keen interest in Indians and in wild life, but he differed from most in this, that he never got over it. Indeed, as he grew older, he found a yet keener pleasure in storing up the little bits of woodcraft and Indian lore that pleased him as a boy.
His father was in poor circumstances. He was an upright man of refined tastes, but indolent—a failure in business, easy with the world and stern with his family. He had never taken an interest in his son's wildwood pursuits; and when he got the idea that they might interfere with the boy's education, he forbade them altogether.
There was certainly no reason to accuse Yan of neglecting school. He was the head boy of his class, although there were many in it older than himself. He was fond of books in general, but those that dealt with Natural Science and Indian craft were very close to his heart. Not that he had many—there were very few in those days, and the Public Library had but a poor representation of these. "Lloyd's Scandinavian Sports," "Gray's Botany" and one or two Fenimore Cooper novels, these were all, and Yan was devoted to them. He was a timid, obedient boy in most things, but the unwise command to give up what was his nature merely made him a disobedient boy—turned a good boy into a bad one. He was too much in terror of his father to disobey openly, but he used to sneak away at all opportunities to the fields and woods, and at each new bird or plant he found he had an exquisite thrill of mingled pleasure and pain—the pain because he had no name for it or means of learning its nature.
The intense interest in animals was his master passion, and thanks to this, his course to and from school was a very crooked one, involving many crossings of the street, because thereby he could pass first a saloon in whose window was a champagne advertising chromo that portrayed two Terriers chasing a Rat; next, directly opposite this, was a tobacconist's, in the window of which was a beautiful effigy of an Elephant, laden with tobacco. By going a little farther out of his way, there was a game store where he might see some Ducks, and was sure, at least, of a stuffed Deer's head; and beyond that was a furrier shop, with an astonishing stufted Bear. At another point he could see a livery stable Dog that was said to have killed a Coon, and at yet another place on Jervie Street was a cottage with a high veranda, under which, he was told, a chained Bear had once been kept. He never saw the Bear. It had been gone for years, but he found pleasure in passing the place. At the corner of Pemberton and Grand streets, according to a schoolboy tradition, a Skunk had been killed years ago and could still be smelled on damp nights. He always stopped, if passing near on a wet night, and sniffed and enjoyed that Skunk smell. The fact that it ultimately turned out to be a leakage of sewer gas could never rob him of the pleasure he originally found in it.
Yan had no good excuse for these weaknesses, and he blushed for shame when his elder brother talked "common sense" to him about his follies. He only knew that such things fascinated him.
But the crowning glory was a taxidermist's shop kept on Main Street by a man named Sander. Yan spent, all told, many weeks gazing spellbound, with his nose flat and white against that window. It contained some Fox and Cat heads grinning ferociously, and about fifty birds beautifully displayed. Nature might have got some valuable hints in that window on showing plumage to the very best advantage. Each bird seemed more wonderful than the last.
There were perhaps fifty of them on view, and of these, twelve had labels, as they had formed part of an exhibit at the Annual County Fair. These labels were precious truths to him, and the birds:
Partridge or Ruffed Grouse
Rosebreasted Grosbeak Sawwhet Owl
Scarlet Tanager * * * * * * *
were, with their names, deeply impressed on his memory and added to his woodlore, though not altogether without a mixture of error. For the alleged Wood-thrush was not a Woodthrush at all, but turned out to be a Hermit Thrush. The last bird of the list was a long-tailed, brownish bird with white breast. The label was placed so that Yan could not read it from outside, and one of his daily occupations was to see if the label had been turned so that he could read it. But it never was, so he never learned the bird's name.
After passing this for a year or more, he formed a desperate plan. It was nothing less than to go inside. It took him some months to screw up courage, for he was shy and timid, but oh! he was so hungry for it. Most likely if he had gone in openly and asked leave, he would have been allowed to see everything; but he dared not. His home training was all of the crushing kind. He picked on the most curious of the small birds in the window—a Sawwhet Owl, then grit his teeth and walked in. How frightfully the cowbell on the door did clang! Then there succeeded a still more appalling silence, then a step and the great man himself came.
"How—how—how much is that Owl?'"
Yan's courage broke down now. He fled. If he had been told ten cents, it would have been utterly beyond reach. He scarcely heard what the man said. He hurried out with a vague feeling that he had been in heaven but was not good enough to stay there. He saw nothing of the wonderful things around him.
YAN, though not strong, revelled in deeds of brawn. He would rather have been Samson than Moses—Hercules than Apollo. All his tastes inclined him to wild life. Each year when the spring came, he felt the inborn impulse to up and away. He was stirred through and through when the first Crow, in early March, came barking overhead. But it fairly boiled in his blood when the Wild Geese, in long, double, arrow-headed procession, went clanging northward. He longed to go with them. Whenever a new bird or beast appeared, he had a singular prickling feeling up his spine and his back as though he had a mane that was standing up. This feeling strengthened with his strength.
All of his schoolmates used to say that they "liked" the spring, some of the girls would even say that they "dearly loved" the spring, but they could not understand the madness that blazed in Yan's eyes when springtime really came—the flush of cheek— the shortening breath—the restless craving for action—the chafing with flashes of rebellion at school restraints—the overflow of nervous energy—the bloodthirst in his blood—the hankering to run—to run to the north, when the springtime tokens bugled to his every sense.
Then the wind and sky and ground were full of thrill. There was clamour everywhere, but never a word. There was stirring within and without. There was incentive in the yelping of the Wild Geese; but it was only tumult, for he could not understand why he was so stirred. There were voices that he could not hear—messages that he could not read; all was confusion of tongues. He longed only to get away." If only I could get away. If—if Oh, God!" he stammered in torment of inexpression, and then would gasp and fling himself down on some bank, and bite the twigs that chanced within reach and tremble and wonder at himself.
Only one thing kept him from some mad and suicidal move—from joining some roving Indian band up north, or gypsies nearer—and that was the strong hand at home.
His Adjoining Brothers
YAN had many brothers, but only those next him in age were important in his life. Rad was two years older—a strong boy, who prided himself on his "common sense." Though so much older, he was Yan's inferior at school. He resented this, and delighted in showing his muscular superiority at all opportunities. He was inclined to be religious, and was strictly proper in his life and speech. He never was known to smoke a cigarette, tell a lie, or say "gosh" or "darn." He was plucky and persevering, but he was cold and hard, without a human fiber or a drop of red blood in his make-up. Even as a boy he bragged that he had no enthusiasms, that he believed in common sense, that he called a spade a spade, and would not use two words where one would do. His intelligence was above the average, but he was so anxious to be thought a person of rare sagacity and smartness, unswayed by emotion, that nothing was too heartless for him to do if it seemed in line with his assumed character. He was not especially selfish, and yet he pretended to be so, simply that people should say of him significantly and admiringly: "Isn't he keen? Doesn't he know how to take care of himself?" What little human warmth there was in him died early, and he succeeded only in making himself increasingly detested as he grew up.
His relations to Yan may be seen in one incident.
Yan had been crawling about under the house in the low wide cobwebby space between the floor beams and the ground. The delightful sensation of being on an exploring expedition led him farther (and ultimately to a paternal thrashing for soiling his clothes), till he discovered a hollow place near one side, where he could nearly stand upright. He at once formed one of his schemes—to make a secret, or at least a private, workroom here. He knew that if he were to ask permission he would be refused, but if he and Rad together were to go it might receive favourable consideration on account of Rad's self-asserted reputation for common sense. For a wonder, Rad was impressed with the scheme, but was quite sure that they had "better not go together to ask Father." He "could manage that part better alone," and he did.
Then they set to work. The first thing was to deepen the hole from three feet to six feet everywhere, and get rid of the earth by working it back under the floor of the house. There were many days of labour in this, and Yan stuck to it each day after returning from school. There were always numerous reasons why Rad could not share in the labour. When the ten by fourteen-foot hole was made, boards to line and floor it were needed. Lumber was very cheap—inferior, second-hand stuff was to be had for the asking—and Yan found and carried boards enough to make the workroom. Rad was an able carpenter and now took charge of the construction. They worked together evening after evening, Yan discussing all manner of plans with warmth and enthusiasm—what they would do in their workshop when finished—how they might get a jig-saw in time and saw picture frames, so as to make some money. Rad assented with grunts or an occasional Scripture text—that was his way. Each day he told Yan what to go on with while he was absent.
The walls were finished at length; a window placed in one side; a door made and fitted with lock and key. What joy! Yan glowed with pleasure and pride at the triumphant completion of his scheme. He swept up the floor for the finishing ceremony and sat down on the bench for a grand gloat, when Rad said abruptly:
"Going to lock up now." That sounded gratifyingly important. Yan stepped outside. Rad locked the door, put the key in his pocket, then turning, he said with cold, brutal emphasis:
"Now you keep out of my workshop from this on. You have nothing to do with it. It's mine. I got the permission to make it." All of which he could prove, and did.
Alner, the youngest, was eighteen months younger than Yan, and about the same size, but the resemblance stopped there. His chief aim in life was to be stylish. He once startled his mother by inserting into his childish prayers the perfectly sincere request: "Please, God, make me an awful swell, for Jesus sake." Vanity was his foible, and laziness his sin.
He could be flattered into anything that did not involve effort. He fairly ached to be famous. He was consuming with desire to be pointed out for admiration as the great this, that or the other thing—it did not matter to him what, as long as he could be pointed out. But he never had the least idea of working for it. At school he was a sad dunce. He was three grades below Yan and at the bottom of his grade. They set out for school each day together, because that was a paternal ruling; but they rarely reached there together. They had nothing in common. Yan was full of warmth, enthusiasm, earnestness and energy, but had a most passionate and ungovernable temper. Little put him in a rage, but it was soon over, and then an equally violent reaction set in, and he was always anxious to beg forgiveness and make friends again. Alner was of lazy good temper and had a large sense of humour. His interests were wholly in the playground. He had no sympathy with Yan's Indian tastes—" Indians in nasty, shabby clothes. Bah! Horrid!" he would scornfully say.
These, then, were his adjoining brothers.
What wonder that Yan was daily further from them.
BUT the greatest event of Yan's then early life now took place. His school readers told him about Wilson and Audubon, the first and last American naturalists. Yan wondered why no other great prophet had arisen. But one day the papers announced that at length he had appeared. A work on the Birds of Canada, by ..., had come at last, price one dollar.
Money never before seemed so precious, necessary and noble a thing. "Oh! if I only had a dollar." He set to work to save and scrape. He won marbles in game, swopped marbles for tops, tops for jack-knives as the various games came around with strange and rigid periodicity. The jack-knives in turn were converted into rabbits, the rabbits into cash of small denominations. He carried wood for strange householders; he scraped and scraped and saved the scrapings; and got, after some months, as high as ninety cents. But there was a dread fatality about that last dime. No one seemed to have any more odd jobs; his commercial luck deserted him. He was burnt up with craving for that book. None of his people took interest enough in him to advance the cash even at the ruinous interest (two or three times cent per cent) that he was willing to bind himself for. Six weeks passed before he achieved that last dime, and he never felt conscience-clear about it afterward.
He and Alner had to cut the kitchen wood. Each had his daily allotment, as well as other chores. Yan's was always done faithfully, but the other evaded his work in every way. He was a notorious little fop. The paternal poverty did not permit his toilet extravagance to soar above one paper collar per week, but in his pocket he carried a piece of ink eraser with which he was careful to keep the paper collar up to standard. Yan cared nothing about dress—indeed, was inclined to be slovenly. So the eldest brother, meaning to turn Alner's weakness to account, offered a prize of a twenty-five-cent necktie of the winner's own choice to the one who did his chores best for a month. For the first week Alner and Yan kept even, then Alner wearied, in spite of the dazzling prize. The pace was too hot. Yan kept on his usual way and was duly awarded the twenty-five cents to be spent on a necktie. But in the store a bright thought came tempting him. Fifteen cents was as much as any one should spend on a necktie—that's sure; the other ten would get the book. And thus the last dime was added to the pile. Then, bursting with joy and with the pride of a capitalist, he went to the book-shop and asked for the coveted volume.
He was tense with long-pent feeling. He expected to have the bookseller say that the price had gone up to one thousand dollars, and that all were sold. But he did not. He turned silently, drew the book out of a pile of them, hesitated and said, "Green or red cover?"
"Green," said Yan, not yet believing. The book-man looked inside, then laid it down, saying in a cold, business tone, "Ninety cents."
"Ninety cents," gasped Yan. Oh! if only he had known the ways of booksellers or the workings of cash discounts. For six weeks had he been barred this happy land—had suffered starvation; he had misappropriated funds, he had fractured his conscience, and all to raise that ten cents—that unnecessary dime.
He read that book reverentially all the way home. It did not give him what he wanted, but that doubtless was his own fault. He pored over it, studied it, loved it, never doubting that now he had the key to all the wonders and mysteries of Nature. It was five years before he fully found out that the text was the most worthless trash ever foisted on a torpid public. Nevertheless, the book held some useful things; first, a list of the bird names; second, some thirty vile travesties of Audubon and Wilson's bird portraits.
Excerpted from Two Little Savages by Ernest Thompson Seton. Copyright © 1962 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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