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"Billy Brad, Convict" from Saturday Evening Post

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Saturday Evening Post
Billy Brad, Convict
by Ellis Parker Butler

In this case the convict did not come forth from prison with a pallid face and close-cropped hair, dragging one foot in memory of the chain gang, his life thenceforth a worthless husk. There was no less vividness in the rosiness of his cheeks now than when he went into the darkness half an hour earlier. His hair was still a tumble of gold. If one foot dragged behind the other it was because he always came downstairs that way, holding tight to the rail. The long and dire incarceration seemed; if anything, to have left him more joyous than ever. He was ready for a fresh career of crime. As he came down the stairs, his forgiving eyes beaming on his mother and the Martin twins at the foot, he put a finger of his free hand to his mouth.

"Billy Brad! Stop it! Stop eating your fingernails!" his mother commanded, and the hand dropped to his side. He smiled cheerfully.

"Billy Brad," said his mother, "I don't know what I am going to do with you if you don't stop eating your fingernails! Half an hour in that dark closet, and the first thing you do when you come out is to begin eating them again! I'm ashamed of you! And right before the Martin twins! You don't eat your fingernails, do you, girls?"

"Yes'm," said the twins in unison.

"And -- and -- Joey eats them, and -- and Eddie eats them, and -- and everybody eats them!" said Billy Brad cheerfully; and then added the awful truth: "And papa eats them."

"Well, your father will just have to stop it. If I have to --"

"But -- but the nangels in heaven, they don't not eat them," said Billy Brad with pious awe. "But -- but -- mamma?"


"Maybe -- maybe they eat the fevvers off from their wings."

'Billy Brad, Convict' by Ellis Parker Butler.

Mrs. Bradley had something important in the oven and she was in no mood to discuss whether the angels in heaven ate the feathers off their wings. She knew better than to begin such a discussion at such a time, for Billy Brad had a delightful and all-embracing imagination.

"Well," said Mrs. Bradley, "don't you let me catch you eating your fingernails again, that's all. Now go out and play with the twins."

Pray do not imagine that I am holding Mrs. Bradley up as a model mother or approving her methods of control. With that I have nothing to do. My own children are such model children that methods of control have never entered into the consciousness of our lives until quite recently. Of course, when one has a daughter in the high school one expects her to be a little severe now and then, but we try to bear it meekly, and though our taste in clothes and our manner of behavior in company and at the table often fail to meet with her approval, she has never shut us in a dark closet or taken a strap to us. At the most there have been a few words of kindly reproof. Though she cannot ignore our faults entirely, she deals gently with them, knowing that though we are far from perfection we are not viciously bad. I am sure she feels that in a general way we mean well and that in time she may make something of us.

"Angels don't either eat their feathers," said the Mabel May twin.

"So you don't know everything, Mister Smarty!" said the Dorothy Ann twin.

"Don't they?" asked Billy Brad as if deeply surprised. "What -- what do nangels eat?"

"Ice cream," said Dorothy Ann.

"Well -- well, nangels could make ice cream out of fevvers," said Billy Brad. "Fevvers and -- and -- some more fevvers. Soft fevvers off from where their wishbones is."

"They couldn't either," said Mabel May. "'Cause they don't have any ice cream freezers, Mister Smarty!"

"If -- if the nangels had ice cream freezers," said Billy Brad enthusiastically, "and the old ice cream freezers failed out of heaven they would fall down and -- and bust us on the head, wouldn't they? But you bet they wouldn't bust me on the head! I'd run away. I -- I'd run down into my papa's cellar and -- and --"

He stopped short.

"How do nangels make ice cream if they don't have any ice cream freezers, Mabel May?" he asked.

"They don't make it, they just have it," said Mabel May.

"It's the tops of the ice cream clouds," said Dorothy Ann.

"Oo!" exclaimed Billy Brad, remembering the vast heaped-up clouds that did look like ice cream. He rested his cheek against his hand and looked upward, like a dear little cherub in a picture of cherubim and seraphim. Heaven must indeed be a blessed place and the angels a happy folk!

The twins, although they did not have cloud mountains of ice cream, were like two little angels themselves. They were perfectly dear children and everyone admitted it. You knew as soon as you saw them that they were innocent of guile and free from naughtiness. Their thoughts were thoughts of goodness and obedience, and their big blue eyes were mirrors of trustworthiness and truth. "Such innocent eyes," was often said of them. I believe their mother could have put a freshly laundered white lawn dress on each, with pale-pink hair bows and white stockings, and if she told them "Twins, you may sit on the front steps, but please keep clean until mother gets back," they would have kept clean. She might have gone to New York, enlisted in the Red Cross, gone to France, served through the war, returned by way of China and San Francisco -- and the twins would have been found on the front steps to greet her on her return, with not a wrinkle or a smudge. They would not have moved. At the most they would have said, every few months, "Oh, dear! I wish mamma would come home!"

And yet at the very moment when they sat beside Billy Brad talking of angels they were criminals in the eyes of the law.

As soon as Miss Orton learned that America had entered the war her very select kindergarten became a Child's Garden, putting off the only German-language word it had ever possessed, and Miss Orton took the plaster plaque of Frobel from the wall and put it in the furnace, first breaking it into small pieces. Immediately, too, the paper mats of gay colors, the folded rabbits and the evidences of years of eager child endeavor disappeared from the walls of the Child's Garden, and in their place blossomed flags -- the flag of our own dear country and those of its brave allies.

In her speech, in school and out, those particular adjectives and nouns were always coupled by Miss Orton -- "dear country" and "brave allies" -- and most often as "our own dear country" and "our brave allies," and thus, as Miss Orton spoke a little rapidly, it was not unnatural that there developed in the school a vast and patriotic enthusiasm for two rather vague places spoken of by the children as "arrondeer country" and "arbory valleys." In the mind of Billy Brad "arrondeer country" was pictured as something like the Catskill farm where he had spent the last summer and where he had once had the great treat of seeing a really truly deer in the lettuce patch. He did not doubt that the deer he had seen then was a genuine specimen of the "arrondeer" to which Miss Orton referred so often, and he was quite ready to grow up and fight and die -- as Miss Orton said all boys should -- for the "arrondeer country" or any other part of the Catskills. Regarding the location of the "arbory valleys" he was somewhat less sure, but he knew it was in France, because Miss Orton often spoke of "arbory valleys in France."

None the less the patriotic fervor for "arrondeer country" and "arbory valleys" as typified by the Stars and Stripes and the row of pretty silk flags beside it was genuine and lasting in Miss Orton's Child's Garden and it found an outlet in two practical works -- Thrift Stamps and tin foil. It was Miss Orton's ambition to have the Child's Garden excel any other school, private or public, in the number of Thrift Stamps sold and in the amount of tin foil collected. The tin foil was to be given to the Red Cross, to be sold for money to buy bandages. And Miss Orton's Child's Garden did lead. Now and then some other school in Westcote, or room in the public schools, stood at the top of the list in Thrift Stamp sales for one week, but the Child's Garden always regained the lead. In the matter of tin foil the same was true. It only needed a little talk by Miss Orton, beginning "Now, children," and including "arrondeer country" and "arbory valleys," to bring a small flood of quarters for Thrift Stamps, and ounce after ounce of tin foil.

Old John, who ran the small shop on the corner, said one day: "I can't make head ner tail out of the way this here Hudley's Own smokin' terbacker has took to sellin' all of a sudden. Used t' be the durn stuff laid on my shelf year in, year out, and all to once she started goin' and nobody hardly smokes nothin' else. Must be there is some sort of opium dope into it that folks gets the habit of."

He was far, far from the truth. Tender babes begged their fathers to smoke Hudley's Own. Each ounce and a half of it was done up in an ounce and a half of thick, luscious tin foil. Fathers that gagged on Hudley's Own smoked it for patriotism and peace -- peace at home, that is.

Dear guileless little ones! It was Tessie Dalrymple who discovered that "bad marks" on the blackboard could be canceled with tin foil -- but Tessie was always bright. It was Tessie who, alone of all the school, shot up her hand when Miss Orton asked who knew the motto of the United States.

"Yes, Tessie? What is the motto of the United States?" Miss Orton asked.

"Food will win the war," Tessie answered.

"No. Doesn't anyone know?"

"Frif' Stamps will win the war," said Billy Brad boldly.

"No, Billy Brad. Doesn't anyone here know?"

"Tim foil will win the war," said both Martin twins in eager unison.

"No, children," said Miss Orton; "the motto of arrondeer country is E Pluribus Unum. It means many in one, because there are many states in our union, just as -- just as there are many pieces of tin foil in a pound. One wee little piece of tin foil cannot do much, but when all the little pieces are put together they make a pound, and so saving even the little pieces helps arrondeer country --"

"And -- and it helps arbory valleys too!" said Billy Brad.

"Yes, it helps our brave allies too," said Miss Orton.

"And -- and it cancels the bad marks off from onto the blackboard too!" said Billy Brad, and then added piously: "And -- and I'm going to get a whole lot of tim foil and cancel all, all, all my bad marks off!"

"I am sure that would be very desirable," said Miss Orton.

Now the reason the Martin twins were criminals had to do with their innocence and patriotism. Mabel May had three beautiful big War Savings Stamps and four Thrift Stamps over, and Dorothy Ann had three beautiful big War Savings Stamps and four Thrift Stamps over. This very morning they had bought four more Thrift Stamps each, and Miss Orton had smiled as she took the pennies and gave the twins the stamps.

"You are dear little twinnies!" she said, and the twinnies felt a glow of honest satisfaction. It was a proper enough transaction and all right -- except for one thing: That morning there being a hand-organ man with a monkey they had gone round the block on their way to school. Being good children they did not wait in the neighborhood of the organ and monkey until the tardy bell tolled. They went ahead.

Thus it was that when they passed the newsstand on the corner Mabel May stopped and cried breathlessly: "Oo! What luck!"

And no wonder! There on the newsstand was a whole heap of pennies -- dozens of pennies, handfuls!

"Oo!" echoed Dorothy Ann.

They gathered all the pennies into their plump little hands and hurried away with them. Dear little things, they did not know any better! It was clearly treasure-trove, like tin foil found in the gutter. Anyway, pennies were made for Thrift Stamps.

So now as Billy Brad and the twins discussed the angels and their food Mabel May said: "I got to buy some candy. Miss Orton, she said so."

"And I got to buy some candy too," said Dorothy Ann.

"Because we had too many pennies, didn't we, Dorothy Ann?" said Mabel May. "We had so many pennies there was some left over. So Miss Orton said 'I guess you better buy some candy, because you bought so many Frift Stamps, and -- and you better buy some candy, for because you bought so many Frift Stamps,' didn't she, Dorothy Ann?"

"Yes, because we had -- Oo! -- lots of pennies!" said Dorothy Ann.

"Oo-oo, yes!" cried Mabel May enthusiastically. "Hamfuls. And we found all of 'em, didn't we Dorothy Ann?"

"Oo-oo, yes!" cried Dorothy Ann.

Billy Brad moved uneasily in his tight little breeches. From some long-past dream or from the vasty pictures his imagination could conjure up at need he drew inspiration.

"And -- and once I founded a whole lot of pennies, I did!" he declared.

"Billy Brad! You did not!"

"I did too! And -- and I looked the old pennies, and -- and I boughted Frif' Stamps, I did. And -- and I helpted arrondeer country, I did. And -- and I founded some more whole big lot of pennies, I did. And -- and I boughted Frif' Stamps, I did. And I helpted arbory valleys."

"Why, Billy Brad!" exclaimed Mabel May. "You never found any pennies!"

"I did so!" said Billy Brad.

"Well, anyway," said Dorothy Ann, "you never found any this morning! You didn't find any round on the other street on a big red box!"

"I did so!" said Billy Brad.

Now this was pure imagination. There was no excuse for it. Had he been given a chance Billy Brad might have developed the tale to such heights of impossibility that no one would have believed him, such as declaring that he rode to the red box on the back of a chicken, or flew through the air in an airplane, or found so many pennies that he had to get the steam road roller to pull them. But Tessie Dalrymple intervened.

She came skipping up to the trio, chanting "I -- got -- a -- pen-ny! I -- got -- a -- pen-ny!" just in time to hear Billy Brad's "I did so!"

"What did you did so, Billy Brad?" she asked.

"I -- I founded a whole lots of pennies on a red box, and I boughted a whole lot of Frif' Stamps, I did!"

"Not hamfuls!" said Dorothy Ann.

"Oo!" said Tessie Dalrymple. "Oo! That's stealing! They can put you in jail for that, Billy Brad. If you found a whole lot of pennies on a red box they belonged to the newsman, and they were his, and you stole them, so you'd better look out or a policeman will come and put you in jail."

Billy Brad thinking of this dismal possibility looked sad. It did not occur to him for an instant to deny that he had stolen the pennies. The important point was how he was to get out of jail if a policeman put him in jail.

"Well -- well," he said, "if a nold pleeceman puts me in jail my papa will come and kick the old jail all down, he will! And -- and he'll shoot the old pleeceman, he will! And -- and I'll take a cannon and I'll shoot the old jail all down too."

"Well, you'd better not steal any more pennies!" said Miss Dalrymple; and she went hippety-hopping on her way to Old John's shop.

The twins looked at each other, white of face and frightened. They moved away from Billy Brad as if in some way he were responsible for the crime for which they might be called upon to suffer.

"Twinnies!" called their mother.

"Yes, mamma!" they answered.

"All right, don't go far away!"

"No, mamma!"

Mabel May looked at Dorothy Ann.

"Old John's ain't far away," she said.

"No; it ain't far at all. Mamma always lets us go to Old John's when we want to."

"So we can go now if we want to," argued Mabel May. "Because Miss Orton told us to buy some candy."

"Yes, and she's our teacher, she is," agreed Dorothy Ann.

Hand in hand they went toward Old John's little shop, passing Tessie Darlymple as she returned.

The door of Old John's shop was not open, and it was not closed; it was ajar. It was just sufficiently ajar so the alarm bell did not ring as the twins entered. They stood before the candy case, waiting patiently until Old John should come to wait on them. He was not in just then. The twins, their noses against the glass of the case, sighed as they looked at the heaps and heaps of candy, but they were not thinking of candy.

"Oo-oo!" said Dorothy Ann. "He's got lots of tim foil!"

"He won't care if we have some," said Mabel May, "for arrondeer country."

"Because Miss Orton wants us to have some for arrondeer country," said Dorothy Ann.

"And for arbory valleys," said Mabel May.

"Because Old John would want us to take some for arbory valleys," said Dorothy Ann. "Sol I'll take this piece."

"This piece" happened to be the tin foil that enclosed a beautiful oblong of rich brown chocolate, and Dorothy Ann removed the paper label and peeled off the tin foil, putting it in her pocket.

"And I'll take these pieces," said Mabel May; and she denuded a lovely pile of chocolate nut bars of their tin foil wrappings.

They did a faithful and conscientious job. They removed all the tin foil from all the candy. They were honest about it. They ate none of the candy, but they took every smitch of tin foil.

"There's some more," said Mabel May, and she pointed to the smoking tobacco on the shelf.

Dorothy Ann removed the wrapper from one package of Hudley's Own, and unbent the heavy tin foil that was inside the paper wrapper. The tobacco did not stay in a neat cube. It disintegrated in her hands and sifted through her fingers.

"I guess we hadn't better unopen the tobacco, Mabel May," she said. "It comes all to pieces."

Just then she sneezed violently. Mabel May sneezed also. They both sneezed. Thereupon they fled, and Billy Brad -- a penny in his hand -- looked back at them as he passed them on his way to Old John's. So it was that Old John entering his shop from the back saw Billy Brad folding a piece of nice thick Hudley's Own tin foil.

"My land! My land! My good land!" exclaimed Old John as he saw the interior of his candy case.

"I can't understand it, ma'm," he said to Billy Brad's mother when he had led Billy Brad home by the arm a few minutes later. "The first thing I thought was 'Robbed!' And it looked like somebody had gone through the place from top to bottom; but when I come to look there wasn't a thing gone that I could see. Just malicious mischief, I call it. Pure deviltry, coming in and ripping things up, and spilling things over, like a young hoodlum."

"But that isn't like Billy Brad," said Mrs. Bradley. "If he had taken a few pieces of candy -- children don't always know they should not take candy -- and I did give him a penny to buy candy with --"

"It was smokin' tobacco he was ripping up," said Old John. "He had a package of Hudley's Own --"

"Tin foil!" exclaimed Mrs. Bradley.

"For -- for arbory valleys," said Billy Brad. "For -- for arrondeer country. For because the Shermans shooted them in the legs, and -- and in the arms, and -- and in the belly, and -- and in the --"

"Never mind where!" said Mrs. Bradley commandingly. "Why did you take that tin foil, Billy Brad? Why?"

"For -- for because the motto of arrondeer country ain't not Frif' Stamps," said Billy Brad. "For because the motto of arrondeer country is tim foil."

"Oh dear!" said Mrs. Bradley despairingly. "I wish your father was here. I'm sure what Billy Brad did is bad enough, but not as bad as you think. I'm sure he's not malicious. He would not willfully destroy or steal --"

"He -- he took a whole big handful of pennies from Mike's newsstand, Mrs. Bradley," said Tessie Dalrymple. "He did so! He did, this morning! He told the twins he did."

"Aha! So 'twas him done that job too!" said Old John. "Mike was tellin' me of it. Over two dollars was pinched on him this morning --"

"Billy Brad!" exclaimed Mrs. Bradley. "Billy Brad, did you take those pennies?"

"For to buy Frif' Stamps for arrondeer country," said Billy Brad eagerly. "And -- and I founded lots of pennies on a big red box! And -- and dollars! And -- and --"

"Now wait!" said Mrs. Bradley. "You didn't find any dollars, and you know it, Billy Brad! How did you happen to go where the pennies were?"

"Why -- why a great big bear corned into our yard --"

"Oh dear!" said Mrs. Bradley helplessly. "When he begins telling about bears and elephants and cows I know he's making it all up. When he begins to tell about bears I don't know what to believe. When he begins telling about bears nobody but his father can ever, ever get to the truth with him. But I promise you he shall be punished as he deserves, John."

"I don't say I want him walloped --" said Old John.

"And I shall not wallop him," said Mrs. Bradley. "I mean to pay you for whatever loss he has occasioned, and I shall make good whatever sum he took from Mike, but I do think he did not mean any malicious mischief. You didn't mean to be bad, did you, Billy Brad?"

"No! And -- and a big old bear corned into my yard --"

"I think it is just patriotism -- tin foil and Thrift Stamps and our own dear country, and our brave allies -- and he is so little he does not quite understand it all. I think he was just trying to help. But I will punish him. We have to be punished for ignorance sometimes. Billy Brad, I want you to go up to the dark closet, and shut yourself in, and stay there half an hour. Until I call you."

"Yes, mamma," said Billy Brad, and like, a little soldier he started up the stairs.

"And, Billy Brad! Mind! If you eat your fingernails I shall whip you!"

"Yes, mamma!"

It was not half an hour later, not ten minutes later, that Mrs. Martin came running across the lawn, a twin in either hand. She called to Mrs. Bradley before she was on the porch, and met her at the foot of the stairs just inside the house.

"My dear!" she exclaimed. "I came just as rapidly as I could, because I couldn't bear to think of that angel pet shut up in the closet! The twins bawled -- simply bawled! -- and I couldn't make sense of what they said until I did understand from Tessie. The twins robbed the paper man, and the twins took the tin foil from Old John! I'm not going to whip them or punish them at all, because I know they are such good girls and thought they were being patriotic and lovely! And Billy Brad never took a penny or a piece of Old John's tin foil --"

"Billy Brad!" called his mother, with that pleasant friendly inflection that means all is forgiven.

"Yes, mamma?" came, muffled, from the dark closet.

"You can come down now, Billy Brad," called Mrs. Bradley.

"Yes, mamma," said Billy Brad.

But he did not come down at once. He did not burst joyously from the closet and rush down the stairs. He was putting on his shoes. He came forth finally and hesitated shyly at the top of the stairs, seeing Mrs. Martin and the twins at the bottom of the flight. He came down slowly.

"It's all right, Billy Brad," said his mother. "You're a good boy, and I'm sorry I told you to shut yourself in the closet. You are a dear little patriot, and tonight I'll tell your father to tell you all about it, so you can understand it."

She turned away, to enter the living room with Mrs. Martin, and Billy Brad stood by the newel post, facing the innocent blue-eyed twins. Mrs. Bradley gave him a final suspicious glance.

"Billy Brad!" she cried. "You didn't eat your fingernails?"

"No mamma!" he said, letting his own big innocent eyes rest on hers; and Mrs. Bradley went into the other room, and Billy Brad looked at Mabel May.

"But I ate my toenails," he said triumphantly.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:10:53am USA Central
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