From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume I, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 1-8.
BY BRET HARTE
As I do not suppose the most gentle of readers will believe that anybody’s sponsors in baptism ever wilfully assumed the responsibility of such a name, I may as well state that I have reason to infer that Melons was simply the nickname of a small boy I once knew. If he had any other, I never knew it.
Various theories were often projected by me to account for this strange cognomen. His head, which was covered with a transparent down, like that which clothes very small chickens, plainly permitting the scalp to show through, to an imaginative mind might have suggested that succulent vegetable. That his parents, recognizing some poetical significance in the fruits of the season, might have given this name to an August child, was an oriental explanation. That from his infancy he was fond of indulging in melons, seemed on the whole the most likely, particularly as Fancy was not bred in McGinnis’s Court. He dawned upon me as Melons. His proximity was indicated by shrill, youthful voices, as “Ah, Melons!” or playfully, “Hi, Melons!” or authoritatively, “You Melons!”
McGinnis’s Court was a democratic expression of some obstinate and radical property-holder. Occupying a limited space between two fashionable thoroughfares, it 2 refused to conform to circumstances, but sturdily paraded its unkempt glories, and frequently asserted itself in ungrammatical language. My window — a rear room on the ground floor — in this way derived blended light and shadow from the court. So low was the window-sill that, had I been the least disposed to somnambulism, it would have broken out under such favorable auspices, and I should have haunted McGinnis’s Court. My speculations as to the origin of the court were not altogether gratuitous, for by means of this window I once saw the Past, as through a glass darkly. It was a Celtic shadow that early one morning obstructed my ancient lights. It seemed to belong to an individual with a pea-coat, a stubby pipe, and bristling beard. He was gazing intently at the court, resting on a heavy cane, somewhat in the way that heroes dramatically visit the scenes of their boyhood. As there was little of architectural beauty in the court, I came to the conclusion that it was McGinnis looking after his property. The fact that he carefully kicked a broken bottle out of the road somewhat strengthened me in the opinion. But he presently walked away, and the court knew him no more. He probably collected his rents by proxy — if he collected them at all.
Beyond Melons, of whom all this is purely introductory, there was little to interest the most sanguine and hopeful nature. In common with all such localities, a great deal of washing was done, in comparison with the visible results. There was always some thing whisking on the line, and always some thing whisking through the court, that looked as if it ought to be there. A fish-geranium — of all plants kept for the recreation of mankind, certainly the greatest illusion — straggled under the window. Through its dusty leaves I caught the first glance of Melons3
His age was about seven. He looked older from the venerable whiteness of his head, and it was impossible to conjecture his size, as he always wore clothes apparently belonging to some shapely youth of nineteen. A pair of pantaloons, that, when sustained by a single suspender, completely equipped him, formed his every-day suit. How, with this lavish superfluity of clothing, he managed to perform the surprising gymnastic feats it has been my privilege to witness, I have never been able to tell. His “turning the crab,” and other minor dislocations, were always attended with success. It was not an unusual sight at any hour of the day to find Melons suspended on a line, or to see his venerable head appearing above the roofs of the outhouses. Melons knew the exact height of every fence in the vicinity, its facilities for scaling, and the possibility of seizure on the other side. His more peaceful and quieter amusements consisted in dragging a disused boiler by a large string, with hideous outcries, to imaginary fires.
Melons was not gregarious in his habits. A few youth of his own age sometimes called upon him, but they eventually became abusive, and their visits were more strictly predatory incursions for old bottles and junk which formed the staple of McGinnis’s Court. Overcome by loneliness one day, Melons inveigled a blind harper into the court. For two hours did that wretched man prosecute his unhallowed calling, unrecompensed, and going round and round the court, apparently under the impression that it was some other place, while Melons surveyed him from an adjoining fence with calm satisfaction. It was this absence of conscientious motives that brought Melons into disrepute with his aristocratic neighbors. Orders were issued that no child of wealthy and pious parentage should play with him. This mandate, 4 as a matter of course, invested Melons with a fascinating interest to them. Admiring glances were cast at Melons from nursery windows. Baby fingers beckoned to him. Invitations to tea (on wood and pewter) were lisped to him from aristocratic back-yards. It was evident he was looked upon as a pure and noble being, untrammelled by the conventionalities of parentage, and physically as well as mentally exalted above them. One afternoon an unusual commotion prevailed in the vicinity of McGinnis’s Court. Looking from my window I saw Melons perched on the roof of a stable, pulling up a rope by which one “Tommy,” an infant scion of an adjacent and wealthy house, was suspended in mid-air. In vain the female relatives of Tommy, congregated in the back-yard, expostulated with Melons; in vain the unhappy father shook his fist at him. Secure in his position, Melons redoubled his exertions and at last landed Tommy on the roof. Then it was that the humiliating fact was disclosed that Tommy had been acting in collusion with Melons. He grinned delightedly back at his parents, as if “by merit raised to that bad eminence.”1 Long before the ladder arrived that was to succor him, he became the sworn ally of Melons, and I regret to say, incited by the same audacious boy, “chaffed” his own flesh and blood below him. He was eventually taken, though, of course, Melons escaped. But Tommy was restricted to the window after that, and the companionship was limited to “Hi Melons!” and “You Tommy!” and Melons to all practical purposes, lost him forever. I looked afterward to see some signs of sorrow on Melon’s part, but in vain; he buried his grief, if he had any, somewhere in his one voluminous garment.
At about this time my opportunities of knowing Melons became more extended. I was engaged in filling a void in 5 the Literature of the Pacific Coast. As this void was a pretty large one, and as I was informed that the Pacific Coast languished under it, I set apart two hours each day to this work of filling in. It was necessary that I should adopt a methodical system, so I retired from the world and locked myself in my room at a certain hour each day, after coming from my office. I then carefully drew out my portfolio and read what I had written the day before. This would suggest some alterations, and I would carefully rewrite it. During this operation I would turn to consult a book of reference, which invariably proved extremely interesting and attractive. It would generally suggest another and better method of “filling in.” Turning this method over reflectively in my mind, I would finally commence the new method which I eventually abandoned for the original plan. At this time I would become convinced that my exhausted faculties demanded a cigar. The operation of lighting a cigar usually suggested that a little quiet reflection and meditation would be of service to me, and I have always allowed myself to be guided by prudential instincts. Eventually, seated by my window, as before stated, Melons asserted himself. Though our conversation rarely went further then “Hello, Mister!” and “Ah, Melons!” a vagabond instinct we felt in common implied a communion deeper than words. In this spiritual commingling the time passed, often beguiled by gymnastics on the fence or line (always with an eye to my window) until dinner was announced and I found a more practical void required my attention. An unlooked-for incident drew us in closer relation.
A sea-faring friend just from a tropical voyage had presented me with a bunch of bananas. They were not quite ripe, and I hung them before my window to mature in the sun of McGinnis’s Court, whose forcing qualities 6 were remarkable. In the mysteriously mingled odors of ship and shore which they diffused throughout my room, there was lingering reminiscence of low latitudes. But even that joy was fleeting and evanescent: they never reached maturity.
Coming home one day, as I turned the corner of that fashionable thoroughfare before alluded to, I met a small boy eating a banana. There was nothing remarkable in that, but as I neared McGinnis’s Court I presently met another small boy, also eating a banana. A third small boy engaged in a like occupation obtruded a painful coincidence upon my mind. I leave the psychological reader to determine the exact co-relation between the circumstance and the sickening sense of loss that overcame me on witnessing it. I reached my room — the bananas were gone.
There was but one that knew of their existence, but one who frequented my window, but one capable of gymnastic effort to procure them, and that was — I blush to say it — Melons. Melons the depredator — Melons, despoiled by larger boys of his ill-gotten booty, or reckless and indiscreetly liberal; Melons — now a fugitive on some neighborhood house-top. I lit a cigar, and, drawing my chair to the window, sought surcease of sorrow in the contemplation of the fish-geranium. In a few moments something white passed my window at about the level of the edge. There was no mistaking that hoary head, which now represented to me only aged iniquity. It was Melons, that venerable, juvenile hypocrite.
He affected not to observe me, and would have withdrawn quietly, but that horrible fascination which causes the murderer to revisit the scene of his crime, impelled him toward my window. I smoked calmly, and gazed at him without speaking. He walked several times up and down the court with a half-rigid, half-belligerent expression 7 of eye and shoulder, intended to represent the carelessness of innocence.
Once or twice he stopped, and putting his arms their whole length into his capacious trousers, gazed with some interest at the additional width they thus acquired. Then he whistled. The singular conflicting conditions of John Brown’s body and soul were at that time beginning to attract the attention of youth, and Melons’s performance of that melody was always remarkable. But to-day he whistled falsely and shrilly between his teeth. At last he met my eye. He winced slightly, but recovered himself, and going to the fence, stood for a few moments on his hands, with his bare feet quivering in the air. Then he turned towards me and threw out a conversational preliminary.
“They is a cirkis” — said Melons gravely, hanging with his back to the fence and his arms twisted around the palings — “a cirkis over yonder!” — indicating the locality with his foot — “with hosses, and hossback riders. They is a man wot rides six hosses to onct — six hosses to onct — and nary saddle” — and he paused in expectation.
Even this equestrian novelty did not affect me. I still kept a fixed gaze on Melons’s eye, and he began to tremble and visibly shrink in his capacious garment. Some other desperate means — conversation with Melons was always a desperate means — must be resorted to. He recommenced more artfully.
“Do you know Carrots?”
I had a faint remembrance of a boy of that euphonious name, with scarlet hair, who was a playmate and persecutor of Melons. But I said nothing.
“Carrots is a bad boy. Killed a policeman onct. Wears a dirk knife in his boots, saw him to-day looking in your windy.”8
I felt that this must end here. I rose sternly and addressed Melons.
“Melons, this is all irrelevant and impertinent to the case. You took those bananas. Your proposition regarding Carrots, even if I were inclined to accept it as credible information, does not alter the material issue. You took those bananas. The offense under the Statutes of California is a felony. How far Carrots may have been accessory to the fact either before or after, is not my intention at present to discuss. The act is complete. Your present conduct shows the animo furandi to have been equally clear.”
By the time I had finished this exordium, Melons had disappeared, as I fully expected.
He never reappeared. The remorse that I have experienced for the part I had taken in what I fear may have resulted in his utter and complete extermination, alas, he may not know, except through these pages. For I have never seen him since. Whether he ran away and went to sea to reappear at some future day as the most ancient of mariners, or whether he buried himself completely in his trousers, I never shall know. I have read the papers anxiously for accounts of him. I have gone to the Police Office in the vain attempt of identifying him as a lost child. But I never saw or heard of him since. Strange fears have sometimes crossed my mind that his venerable appearance may have been actually the result of senility, and that he may have been gathered peacefully to his fathers in a green old age. I have even had doubts of his existence, and have sometimes thought that he was providentially and mysteriously offered to fill the void I have before alluded to. In that hope I have written these pages.
1 Elf.Ed. — This is a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book II, line 5:
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised
To that bad eminence.