The Flight Of Pony Baker – William Dean Howells
‘The Flight of Pony Baker’ will at once commend itself to boys and their elders because it is the work of William Dean Howells. Mr. Howells knows the modern American boy so thoroughly, his ambitions and traits, his temptations and joys, that one is predisposed to like Pony Baker. He lived in a small country town and was petted by his mother much to his disgust, and sternly suppressed by his father; and of course, being a boy, he planned to run away to the Indians, and, later, he made up his mind to join a circus-what boy has not? But through all these phases of his young life our author brings Pony Baker, showing his old-time charm of narration. The days are those before the war; the scene is in a little Ohio river town; and the characters are real boys and real girls. Pony Baker decides upon flight from his home, and the most admirable humor is shown in narrating his various attempts at absconding, not one of which becomes known to his unsuspecting parents until the book’s close; and even this attempt is not carried very far.
The Flight Of Pony Baker.
Excerpt from the text:
If there was any fellow in the Boy’s Town fifty years ago who had a good reason to run off it was Pony Baker. Pony was not his real name; it was what the boys called him, because there were so many fellows who had to be told apart, as Big Joe and Little Joe, and Big John and Little John, and Big Bill and Little Bill, that they got tired of telling boys apart that way; and after one of the boys called him Pony Baker, so that you could know him from his cousin Frank Baker, nobody ever called him anything else.
You would have known Pony from the other Frank Baker, anyway, if you had seen them together, for the other Frank Baker was a tall, lank, tow-headed boy, with a face so full of freckles that you could not have put a pin-point between them, and large, bony hands that came a long way out of his coat-sleeves; and the Frank Baker that I mean here was little and dark and round, with a thick crop of black hair on his nice head; and he had black eyes, and a smooth, swarthy face, without a freckle on it. He was pretty well dressed in clothes that fitted him, and his hands were small and plump. His legs were rather short, and he walked and ran with quick, nipping steps, just like a pony; and you would have thought of a pony when you looked at him, even if that had not been his nickname.
That very thing of his being dressed so well was one of the worst things that was done to him by his mother, who was always disgracing him before the other boys, though she may not have known it. She never was willing to have him go barefoot, and if she could she would have kept his shoes on him the whole summer; as it was, she did keep them on till all the other boys had been barefoot so long that their soles were as hard as horn; and they could walk on broken glass, or anything, and had stumped the nails off their big toes, and had grass cuts under their little ones, and yarn tied into them, before Pony Baker was allowed to take his shoes off in the spring. He would have taken them off and gone barefoot without his mother’s knowing it, and many of the boys said that he ought to do it; but then she would have found it out by the look of his feet when he went to bed, and maybe told his father about it.
Very likely his father would not have cared so much; sometimes he would ask Pony’s mother why she did not turn the boy barefoot with the other boys, and then she would ask Pony’s father if he wanted the child to take his death of cold; and that would hush him up, for Pony once had a little brother that died.
Pony had nothing but sisters, after that, and this was another thing that kept him from having a fair chance with the other fellows. His mother wanted him to play with his sisters, and she did not care, or else she did not know, that a girl-boy was about the meanest thing there was, and that if you played with girls you could not help being a girl-boy. Pony liked to play with his sisters well enough when there were no boys around, but when there were his mother did not act as if she could not see any difference. The girls themselves were not so bad, and they often coaxed their mother to let him go off with the other boys, when she would not have let him without. But even then, if it was going in swimming, or fishing, or skating before the ice was very thick, she would show that she thought he was too little to take care of himself, and would make some big boy promise that he would look after Pony; and all the time Pony would be gritting his teeth, he was so mad.
Once, when Pony stayed in swimming all day with a crowd of fellows, she did about the worst thing she ever did; she came down to the river-bank and stood there, and called to the boys, to find out if Pony was with them; and they all had to get into the water up to their necks before they could bear to answer her, they were so ashamed; and Pony had to put on his clothes and go home with her. He could see that she had been crying, and that made him a little sorry, but not so very; and the most that he was afraid of was that she would tell his father. But if she did he never knew it, and that night she came to him after he went to bed, and begged him so not to stay in swimming the whole day any more, and told him how frightened she had been, that he had to promise; and then that made him feel worse than ever, for he did not see how he could break his promise.
She was not exactly a bad mother, and she was not exactly a good mother. If she had been really a good mother she would have let him do whatever he wanted, and never made any trouble, and if she had been a bad mother she would not have let him do anything; and then he could have done it without her letting him. In some ways she was good enough; she would let him take out things to the boys in the back yard from the table, and she put apple-butter or molasses on when it was hot biscuit that he took out. Once she let him have a birthday party, and had cake and candy-pulling and lemonade, and nobody but boys, because he said that boys hated girls; even his own sisters did not come. Sometimes she would give him money for ice-cream, and if she could have got over being particular about his going in swimming before he could swim, and pistols and powder and such things, she would have done very well.
She was first-rate when he was sick, and nobody could take care of him like her, cooling his pillow and making the bed easy, and keeping everybody quiet; and when he began to get well she would cook things that tasted better than anything you ever knew: stewed chicken, and toast with gravy on, and things like that. Even when he was well, and just lonesome, she would sit by his bed if he asked her, till he went to sleep, or got quieted down; and if he was trying to make anything she would help him all she could, but if it was something that you had to use a knife with she was not much help.
It always seemed to Pony that she begrudged his going with the boys, and she said how nice he used to keep his clothes before, and had such pretty manners, and now he was such a sloven, and was so rude and fierce that she was almost afraid of him. He knew that she was making fun about being afraid of him; and if she did hate to have him go with some of the worst boys, still she was willing to help in lots of ways. She gave him yarn to make a ball with, and she covered it for him with leather. Sometimes she seemed to do things for him that she would not do for his sisters, and she often made them give up to him when they had a dispute.
She made a distinction between boys and girls, and did not make him help with the housework. Of course he had to bring in wood, but all the fellows had to do that, and they did not count it; what they hated was having to churn, or wipe dishes after company. Pony’s mother never made him do anything like that; she said it was girls’ work; and she would not let him learn to milk, either, for she said that milking was women’s work, and all that Pony had to do with the cow was to bring her home from the pasture in the evening.
Sometimes when there was company she would let him bring in a boy to the second table, and she gave them all the preserves and cake that they could eat. The kind of company she had was what nearly all the mothers had in the Boy’s Town; they asked a whole lot of other mothers to supper, and had stewed chicken and hot biscuit, and tea and coffee, and quince and peach preserves, and sweet tomato pickles, and cake with jelly in between, and pound-cake with frosting on, and buttered toast, and maybe fried eggs and ham. The fathers never seemed to come; or, if the father that belonged in the house came, he did not go and sit in the parlor with the mothers after supper, but went up-town, to the post-office, or to some of the lawyers’ offices, or else a store, and talked politics.
Pony never thought his mother was good looking, or, rather, he did not think anything about that, and it always seemed to him that she must be a pretty old woman; but once when she had company, and she came in from the kitchen with the last dish, and put it on the table, one of the nicest of the other mothers came up, and put her arm around Pony’s mother, and said:
“How pretty you do look, Mrs. Baker! I just want to kiss you on those red cheeks. I should say you were a girl, instead of having all those children.”
Pony was standing out on the porch with his five sisters, and when he looked in through the door, and saw his mother with her head thrown back laughing, and her face flushed from standing over the stove to cook the supper, and her brown hair tossed a little, he did think that she was very nice looking, and like the girls at school that were in the fourth reader; and she was very nicely dressed, too, in a white muslin dress, with the blue check apron she had been working in flung behind the kitchen door, as she came into the sitting-room carrying the dish in one hand. He did not know what the other mother meant by saying “all those children”; for it was a small family for the Boy’s Town, and he thought she must just be fooling.
Sometimes his mother would romp with the children, or sing them funny, old-fashioned songs, such as people used to sing when the country was first settled and everybody lived in log cabins. When she got into one of her joking times she would call Pony “Honey! Honey!” like the old colored aunty that had the persimmon-tree in her yard; and if she had to go past him she would wind her arm around his head and mumble the top of it with her lips; and if there were any of the fellows there, and Pony would fling her arm away because he hated to have her do it before them, she would just laugh.
Of course, if she had been a good mother about everything else Pony would not have minded that, but she was such a very bad mother about letting him have fun, sometimes, that Pony could not overlook it, as he might have done. He did not think that she ought to call him Pony before the boys, for, though he did not mind the boys’ calling him Pony, it was not the thing for a fellow’s mother, and it was sure to give them the notion she babied him at home. Once, after she called him “Pony, dear!” the fellows mocked her when they got away, and all of them called him “Pony, dear!” till he began to cry and to stone them.
But the worst of her ways was about powder, and her not wanting him to have it, or not wanting him to have it where there was fire. She would never let him come near the stove with it, after one of the fellows had tried to dry his powder on the stove when it had got wet from being pumped on in his jacket-pocket while he was drinking at the pump, and the fellow forgot to take it off the stove quick enough, and it almost blew his mother up, and did pretty nearly scare her to death; and she would not let him keep it in a bottle, or anything, but just loose in a paper, because another of the fellows had begun to pour powder once from a bottle onto a coal of fire, and the fire ran up the powder, and blew the bottle to pieces, and filled the fellow’s face so full of broken glass that the doctor was nearly the whole of that Fourth of July night getting it out. So, although she was a good mother in some things, she was a bad mother in others, and these were the great things; and they were what gave him the right to run off.
Pony had a right to run off from some of the things that his father had done, but it seemed to him that they were mostly things that his mother had put his father up to, and that his father would not have been half as bad if he had been let alone. In the Boy’s Town the fellows celebrated Christmas just as they did Fourth of July, by firing off pistols and shooting crackers, and one Christmas one of the fellows’ pistols burst and blew the ball of his thumb open, and when a crowd of the fellows helped him past Pony’s house, crying and limping (the pain seemed to go down his leg, and lame him), Pony’s mother made his father take Pony’s pistol right away from him, and not let him have it till after New Year’s; and what made it worse was that Pony had faithfully kept his promise to her that he would not fire anything out of his pistol but paper wads, while all the other fellows were firing shot, and tacks, and little marbles, out of theirs; and some of them tried to shame him into breaking his word, and he had to stand their calling him cry-baby, and everything.
Then, she would not let his father get him a gun to go hunting with, because he would have to fire something besides wads out of that, and would be sure to kill himself. Pony told her that he would not kill himself, and tried to laugh her out of the notion, but it was no use, and he never had a gun till he was twelve years old; he was nine at the time I mean. One of the fellows who was only eight was going to have a gun as soon as his brother got done with his.
She would hardly let his father get him a dog, and I suppose it was something but Pony’s disappointment about the gun that made her agree to the dog at last; even then she would not agree to his having it before it had its eyes open, when the great thing about a puppy was its not having its eyes open, and it was fully two weeks old before he was allowed to bring it home, though he was taken to choose it before it could walk very well, and he went every day afterwards to see how it was getting along, and to watch out that it did not get changed with the other little dogs. The first night after he got it to his own house, the dog whined so with homesickness that it kept everybody awake till Pony went to the woodshed, where it was in the clothes-basket, and took it into his own bed; then it went to sleep, and did not whine a bit. His father let him keep it there that one night, but the next he made him put it out again, because he said it would get the house full of fleas; and he said if it made much more trouble he would make Pony take it back.
He was not a very good father about money, because when Pony went to ask him for a five-cent piece he always wanted to know what it was for, and even when it was for a good thing a fellow did not always like to tell. If his father did not think it was a good thing he would not let Pony have it, and then Pony would be ashamed to go back to the boys, for they would say his father was stingy, though perhaps none of them had tried to get money from their own fathers.
Every now and then the fellows tried to learn to smoke, and that was a thing that Pony’s father would not let him do. He would let him smoke the drift-wood twigs, which the boys picked up along the river shore and called smoke-wood, or he would let him smoke grapevine or the pods of the catalpa, which were just like cigars, but he was mean about real tobacco. Once, when he found a cigar in Pony’s pocket, he threw it into the fire, and said that if he ever knew him to have another he would have a talk with him.
He was pretty bad about wanting Pony to weed his mother’s flower-beds and about going regularly to school, and always getting up in time for school. To be sure, if a show or a circus came along, he nearly always took Pony in, but then he was apt to take the girls, too, and he did not like to have Pony go off with a crowd of boys, which was the only way to go into a show; for if the fellows saw you with your family, all dressed up, and maybe with your shoes on, they would make fun of you the next time they caught you out.
He made Pony come in every night before nine o’clock, and even Christmas Eve, or the night before Fourth of July, he would not let him stay up the whole night. When he went to the city, as the boys called the large town twenty miles away from the Boy’s Town, he might get Pony a present or he might not, but he would not promise, because once when he promised, he forgot it, and then Pony’s mother scolded him.