From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume IV, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 654-665.
THE COUPON BONDS
BY J. T. TROWBRIDGE
(Mr. and Mrs. Ducklow have secretly purchased bonds with money that should have been given to their adopted son Reuben, who has sacrificed his health in serving his country as a soldier, and, going to visit Reuben on the morning of his return home, they hide the bonds under the carpet of the sitting-room, and leave the house in charge of Taddy, another adopted son.)
Mr. Ducklow had scarcely turned the corner of the street, when, looking anxiously in the direction of his homestead, he saw a column of smoke. It was directly over the spot where he knew his house to be situated. He guessed at a glance what had happened. The frightful catastrophe he foreboded had befallen. Taddy had set the house afire.
“Them bonds! them bonds!” he exclaimed, distractedly. He did not think so much of the house: house and furniture were insured; if they were burned the inconvenience would be great indeed, and at any other time the thought of such an event would have been a sufficient cause for trepidation; but now his chief, his only anxiety was the bonds. They were not insured. They would be a dead loss. And, what added sharpness to his pangs, they would be a loss which he must keep a secret, as he had kept their existence a secret, — a loss which he could not confess, and of which he could not complain. Had 655 he not just given his neighbors to understand that he had no such property? And his wife, — was she not at that very moment, if not serving up a lie upon the subject, at least paring the truth very thin indeed?
“A man would think,” observed Ferring, “that Ducklow had some o’ them bonds on his hands, and got scaret, he took such a sudden start. He has, hasn’t he, Mrs. Ducklow?”
“Has what?” said Mrs. Ducklow, pretending ignorance.
“Some o’ them cowpon bonds. I rather guess he’s got some.”
“You mean Gov’ment bonds? Ducklow got some? ’Tain’t at all likely he’d spec’late in them without saying something to me about it. No, he couldn’t have any without my knowing it, I’m sure.”
How demure, how innocent she looked, plying her knitting-needle, and stopping to take up a stitch! How little at that moment she knew of Ducklow’s trouble and its terrible cause!
Ducklow’s first impulse was to drive on and endeavor at all hazards to snatch the bonds from the flames. His next was to return and alarm his neighbors and obtain their assistance. But a minute’s delay might be fatal: so he drove on, screaming, “Fire! fire!” at the top of his voice.
But the old mare was a slow-footed animal; and Ducklow had no whip. He reached forward and struck her with the reins.
“Git up! git up! — Fire! fire!” screamed Ducklow. “Oh, them bonds! them bonds! Why didn’t I give the money to Reuben? Fire! fire! fire!”
By dint of screaming and slapping, he urged her from a trot into a gallop, which was scarcely an improvement 656 as to speed, and certainly not as to grace. It was like the gallop of an old cow. “Why don’t ye go ’long?” he cried, despairingly.
Slap! slap! He knocked his own hat off with the loose end of the reins. It fell under the wheels. He cast one look behind, to satisfy himself that it had been very thoroughly run over and crushed into the dirt, and left it to its fate.
Slap! slap! “Fire! fire!” Canter, canter, canter. Neighbors looked out of their windows, and, recognizing Ducklow’s wagon and old mare in such an astonishing plight, and Ducklow himself, without his hat, rising from his seat and reaching forward in wild attitudes, brandishing the reins, and at the same time rending the azure with yells, thought he must be insane.
He drove to the top of the hill, and, looking beyond, in expectation of seeing his house wrapped in flames, discovered that the smoke proceeded from a brush-heap which his neighbor Atkins was burning in a field near by.
The revulsion of feeling that ensued was almost too much for the excitable Ducklow. His strength went out of him. For a little while there seemed to be nothing left of him but tremor and cold sweat. Difficult as it had been to get the old mare in motion, it was now even more difficult to stop her.
“Why, what has got into Ducklow’s old mare? She’s running away with him! Who ever heard of such a thing!” And Atkins, watching the ludicrous spectacle from his field, became almost as weak from laughter, as Ducklow was from the effects of fear.
At length Ducklow succeeded in checking the old mare’s speed and in turning her about. It was necessary to drive back for his hat. By this time he could hear a chorus of shouts, “Fire! fire! fire!” over the hill. He had 657 aroused the neighbors as he passed, and now they were flocking to extinguish the flames.
“A false alarm! a false alarm!” said Ducklow, looking marvelously sheepish, as he met them. “Nothing but Atkins’s brush-heap!”
“Seems to me you ought to have found that out ’fore you raised all creation with your yells!” said one hyperbolical fellow. “You looked like the Flying Dutchman! This your hat? I thought ’twas a dead cat in the road. No fire! no fire!” — turning back to his comrades, — “only one of Ducklow’s jokes.”
Nevertheless, two or three boys there were who would not be convinced, but continued to leap up, swing their caps, and scream “Fire!” against all remonstrance. Ducklow did not wait to enter his explanations, but, turning the old mare about again, drove home amid the laughter of the by-standers and the screams of the misguided youngsters. As he approached the house, he met Taddy rushing wildly up the street.
“Thaddeus! Thaddeus! Where ye goin’, Thaddeus?”
“Goin’ to the fire!” cried Taddy.
“There isn’t any fire, boy.”
“Yes, there is! Didn’t ye hear ’em? They’ve been yellin’ like fury.”
“It’s nothin’ but Atkins’s brush.”
“That all?” And Taddy appeared very much disappointed. “I thought there was goin’ to be some fun. I wonder who was such a fool as to yell fire just for a darned old brush-heap!”
Ducklow did not inform him.
“I’ve go to drive over to town and get Reuben’s trunk. You stand by the mare while I step in and brush my hat.”
Instead of applying himself at once to the restoration of his beaver, he hastened to he sitting-room, to see that the bonds were safe.658
“Heavens and ’arth!” said Ducklow
The chair, which had been carefully planted in the spot where they were concealed, had been removed. Three or four tacks had been taken out, and the carpet pushed from the wall. There was straw scattered about. Evidently Teddy had been interrupted, in the midst of his ransacking, by the alarm of fire. Indeed, he was even now creeping into the house to see what notice Ducklow would take of these evidences of his mischief.
In great trepidation the farmer thrust in his hand here and there, and groped, until he found the envelope precisely where it had been placed the night before, with the tape tied around it, which his wife had put on to prevent its contents from slipping out and losing themselves. Great was the joy of Ducklow. Great also was the wrath of him when he turned and discovered Taddy.
“Didn’t I tell you to stand by the old mare?”
“She won’t stir,” said Taddy, shrinking away again.
“Come here!” And Ducklow grasped him by the collar.
“What have you been doin’? Look at that!”
“ ‘Twan’t me!” beginning to whimper and ram his fists into his eyes.
“Don’t tell me ’twan’t you!” Ducklow shook him till his teeth chattered. “What was you pullin’ up the carpet for?”
“Lost a marble!” sniveled Taddy.
“Lost a marble! Ye didn’t lose it under the carpet, did ye? Look at all that straw pulled out!” shaking him again.
“Didn’t know but it might ’a’ got under the carpet, marbles roll so,” explained Taddy, as soon as he could get his breath.
“Wal, sir,” — Ducklow administered a resounding box 659 on his ear, — “don’t you do such a thing again, if you lose a million marbles!”
“Hain’t got a million!” Taddy wept, rubbing his cheek. “Hain’t got but four! Won’t ye buy me some to-day?”
“Go to that mare, and don’t you leave her again till I come, or I’ll marble ye in a way you won’t like.”
Understanding, by this somewhat equivocal form of expression, that flagellation was threatened, Taddy obeyed, still feeling his smarting and burning ear.
Ducklow was in trouble. What should he do with the bonds? The floor was no place for them after what had happened; and he remembered too well the experience of yesterday to think for a moment of carrying them about his person. With unreasonable impatience, his mind reverted to Mrs. Ducklow.
“Why ain’t she to home? These women are forever a-gaddin’! I wish Reuben’s trunk was in Jericho!”
Thinking of the trunk reminded him of one in the garret, filled with old papers of all sorts, — newspapers, letters, bills of sale, children’s writing-books, — accumulations of the past quarter of a century. Neither fire nor burglar nor ransacking youngster had ever molested those ancient records during all those five-and-twenty years. A bright thought struck him.
“I’ll slip the bonds down into that worthless heap o’ rubbish, where no one ’ull ever think o’ lookin’ for ’em, and resk ’em.”
Having assured himself that Taddy was standing by the wagon, he paid a hasty visit to the trunk in the garret, and concealed the envelope, still bound in its band of tape, among the papers. He then drove away, giving Taddy a final charge to beware o setting anything afire.
He had driven about half a mile, when he met a peddler. 660 There was nothing unusual or alarming in such a circumstance, surely; but, as Ducklow kept on, it troubled him.
“He’ll stop to the house now, most likely, and want to trade. Findin’ nobody but Taddy, there’s no knowin’ what he’ll be tempted to do. But I ain’t a-goin’ to worry. I’ll defy anybody to find them bonds. Besides, she may be home by this time. I guess she’ll hear of the fire-alarm and hurry home: it’ll be jest like her. She’ll be there, and trade with the peddler!” thought Ducklow, uneasily. Then a frightful fancy possessed him. “She has threatened two or three times to sell that old trunkful of papers. He’ll offer a big price for ’em, and ten to one she’ll let him have ’em. Why didn’t I think on’t? What a stupid blunderbuss I be!”
As Ducklow thought of it, he felt almost certain that Mrs. Ducklow had returned home, and that she was bargaining with the peddler at that moment. He fancied her smilingly receiving bright tin-ware for the old papers; and he could see the tape-tied envelope going into the bag with the rest. The result was that he turned about and whipped his old mare home again in terrific haste, to catch the departing peddler.
Arriving, he found the house as he had left it, and Taddy occupied in making a kite-frame.
“Did that peddler stop here?”
“I hain’t seen no peddler.”
“And hain’t yer Ma Ducklow been home, nuther?”
And, with a guilty look, Taddy put the kite-frame behind him.
Ducklow considered. The peddler had turned up a cross-street: he would probably turn down again and stop at the house, after all: Mrs. Ducklow might by that time 661 be at home: then the sale of old papers would be very likely to take place. Ducklow thought of leaving word hat he did not wish any old papers in the house to be sold, but feared lest the request might excite Taddy’s suspicions.
“I don’t see no way but for me to take the bonds with me,” thought he, with an inward groan.
He accordingly went to the garret, took the envelope out of the trunk, and placed it in the breast-pocket of his overcoat, to which he pinned it, to prevent it by any chance from getting out. He used six large, strong pins for the purpose, and was afterwards sorry he did not use seven.
“There’s suthin’ losin’ out o’ yer pocket!” bawled Taddy, as he was once more mounting the wagon.
Quick as lightning, Ducklow clapped his hand to his breast. In doing so he loosed his hold of the wagon-box and fell, raking his shin badly on the wheel.
“Yer side-pocket! It’s one o’ yer mittens!” said Taddy.
“You rascal! How you scared me!”
Seating himself in the wagon, Ducklow gently pulled up his trousers-leg to look at the bruised part.
“Got anything in your boot-leg to-day, Pa Ducklow?” asked Taddy, innocently.
“Yes, — a barked shin! — all on your account, too! Go and put that straw back, and fix the carpet; and don’t ye let me hear ye speak of my boot-leg again, or I’ll boot-leg ye!”
So saying, Ducklow departed.
Instead of repairing the mischief he had done in the sitting-room, Taddy devoted his time and talents to the more interesting occupation of constructing his kite-frame. He worked at that until Mr. Grantly, the minister, driving by, stopped to inquire how the folks were.662
“Ain’t to home: may I ride?” cried Taddy, all in a breath.
Mr. Grantly was an indulgent old gentleman, fond of children: so he said, “Jump in;” and in a minute Taddy had scrambled to a seat by his side.
And now occurred a circumstance which Ducklow had foreseen. The alarm of fire had reached Reuben’s; and, although the report of its falseness followed immediately, Mr. Ducklow;s inflammable fancy was so kindled by it that she could find no comfort in prolonging her visit.
“Mr. Ducklow’ll be going for the trunk, and I must go home and see to things, Taddy’s such a fellow for mischief. I can foot it; I shan’t mind it.”
And off she started, walking herself out of breath in anxiety.
She reached the brow of the hill just in time to see a chaise drive away from her own door.
“Who can that be? I wonder if Taddy’s ther’ to guard the house! If anything should happen to them bonds!”
Out of breath as she was, she quickened her pace, and trudged on, flushed, perspiring, panting, until she reached the house.
“Thaddeus!” she called.
No Taddy answered. She went in. The house was deserted. And, lo! the carpet torn up, and the bonds abstracted!
Mr. Ducklow never would have made such work, removing the bonds. Then somebody else must have taken them, she reasoned.
“The man in the chaise!” she exclaimed, or rather made an effort to exclaim, succeeding only in bringing forth a hoarse, gasping sound. Fear dried up articulation. Vox faucibus hæsit.663
And Taddy? He had disappeared, been murdered, perhaps, — or gagged and carried away by the man in the chaise.
Mrs. Ducklow flew hither and thither (to use a favorite phrase of her own), “like a hen with her head cut off;” then rushed out of the house and up the street, screaming after the chaise, —
“Murder! murder! Stop thief! stop thief!”
She waved her hands aloft in the air frantically. If she had trudged before, now she trotted, now she cantered; but, if the cantering of the old mare was fitly likened to that of a cow, to what thing, to what manner of motion under the sun, shall we liken the cantering of Mrs. Ducklow? It was original; it was unique; it was prodigious. Now, with her frantically waving hands, and all her undulating and flapping skirts, she seemed a species of huge, unwieldy bird, attempting to fly. Then she sank down into a heavy, dragging walk, — breath and strength all gone, — no voice left even to scream “murder!” Then, the awful realization of the loss of the bonds once more rushing over her, she started up again. “Half running, half flying, what progress she made!” Then Atkins’s dog saw her, and, naturally mistaking her for a prodigy, came out at her, bristling up and bounding and barking terrifically.
“Come here!” cried Atkins, following the dog. “What’s the matter? What’s to pay, Mrs. Ducklow?”
Attempting to speak, the good woman could only pant and wheeze.
“Robbed!” she at last managed to whisper, amid the yelpings of the cur that refused to be silenced.
“Robbed? How? Who?”
“The chaise. Ketch it.”
Her gestures expressed more than her words; and, Atkins’s 664 horse and wagon, with which he had been drawing out brush, being in the yard near-by, he ran to them, leaped to the seat, drove into the road, took Mrs. Ducklow aboard, and set out in vigorous pursuit of the slow two-wheeled vehicle.
“Stop, you, sir! Stop, you, sir!” shrieked Mrs. Ducklow, having recovered her breath by the time they came up with the chaise.
It stopped, and Mr. Grantly, the minister, put out his good-natured, surprised face.
“You’ve robbed my house! You’ve took —”
Mrs. Ducklow was going on in wild, accusatory accents, when she recognized the benign countenance.
“What do you say? I have robbed you?” he exclaimed, very much astonished.
“No, no! not you! You wouldn’t do such a thing!” she stammered forth, while Atkins, who had laughed himself weak at Mr. Ducklow’s plight earlier in the morning, now laughed himself into a side-ache at Mrs. Ducklow’s ludicrous mistake. “But did you — did you stop at my house? Have you seen our Thaddeus?”
“Here I be, Ma Ducklow!” piped a small voice; and Taddy, who had till then remained hidden, fearing punishment, peeped out of the chaise from behind the broad back of the minister.
“Taddy! Taddy! how came the carpet —”
“I pulled it up, huntin’ for a marble,” said Taddy, as she paused, overmastered by her emotions.
“And the — the thing tied up in a brown wrapper?”
“Pa Ducklow took it.”
“Yes; I seen him.”
“Oh, dear!” said Mrs. Ducklow, “I never was so beat! Mr. Grantly, I hope — excuse me — I didn’t know what I 665 was about! Taddy, you notty boy, what did you leave the house for? Be ye quite sure yer Pa Ducklow —”
Taddy replied that he was quite sure, as he climbed from the chaise into Atkins’s wagon. The minister smilingly remarked that he hoped she would find no robbery had been committed, and went his way. Atkins, driving back, and setting her and Taddy down at the Ducklow gate, answered her embarrassed “Much obleeged to ye,” with a sincere “Not at all,” considering the fun he had had a sufficient compensation for his trouble. And thus ended the morning adventures, with the exception of an unimportant episode, in which Taddy, Mrs. Ducklow, and Mrs. Ducklow’s rattan were the principal actors.