STEALING MELONS.

I always took great pleasure in having a neat garden. I felt larger than common if I succeeded in raising cucumbers earlier than my neighbors ; as if nature favoured me especially. I had the earliest and best kind of fruits. But I was greatly perplexed for a long time with thieving boys. Almost every night in the season of fruit, my garden was visited, trees damaged, and rich flowers trampled down. I tried various ways to protect my grounds,––had watch-dogs, but they were shot or poisoned—set traps, but they never caught anything except now and then one of my own cats. As John Hobbs says,

“ Traps, every one knows are no safeguard to apples,
Big dogs seldom bite one, and guns never shoot ;
The chivalrous schoolboy each obstacle grapples,
And never desists till he pockets the fruit.”

Finally I built a wall of solid mason work about my garden ; but that did not answer. It was only by accident that I found out the way to save one’s fruit ; and noticing in the papers divers cautions to young rogues, I think it worth while to publish somewhat of my experience.

I have come to the conclusion that boys are as much influenced by malice as by love of good eating in such thieving. If they know a man to be close-fisted, they will wrench open his fingers in some way. When I was a Freshman at the University, people about the college complained very much of their fruit being stolen by the students, and only one man escaped—and he was the only one who sent up a cart load of excellent apples and distributed them among the college boys.

I might have known if I had thought of my own boyhood, that the way to manage boys is to treat them kindly. They have a natural code of honor which forbids them to do him an injury who shows a regard for them. It is no compliment to a man that boys love to vex him. It is a pretty sure sign that he has not any soul to speak of.

“ What do you say, Joe ? shall we come the grab over them melons tonight ? It’s going to be as dark as thunder. Old Swipes will be snoring like ten men, before midnight.”

“ I should like the melons well enough, but we have to get over that pesky wall and”–––––––

“ Oh, pshaw, Jo ! I know a place where it’s easy getting over. I know the way like a book. Come, Jo ! will you go it ?”

Now, I dislike extremely to be an evesdropper, and I usually convey myself elsewhere, rather than allow my ears to be a highway for words not intended for me. But the conversation so intimately concerned my melons, which I had taken some pains to raise, that I kept quiet and listened to the whole plan of the young scapegraces—so that I might make it somewhat bothersome for them.
Ned proposed to get over the wall on the south side by the great pear tree, and cut directly across to the summer-house—just north of which were the melons.

Jo was a clever, thick-lipped fellow, loved good fruit exceedingly, that is to say, as well as he did to lounge in an opening in summertime in a soft sunny place, and smoke cigars, and obstinate as an ass. Get him once started to do a thing and he would stick to it, like a mud turtle to a negro’s toe, in spite of kicks or what not, till he had accomplished it. The other was a fiery dare-devil—didn’t care so much for the melons as for the fun of getting them.

I made all needful preparations for the visit ; put in brads pretty thick in scantling along the wall where they intended going over ; uncovered a large water vat that had been filled some time, from which in dry weather I was accustomed to water my garden ; dug a trench a foot deep or so, and placed slender boards over it, which were slightly covered with dirt, and just beyond them some little cords, fastened tightly—some eight inches from the ground. I picked all the melons I cared to preserve, leaving pumpkins and squashes about the size of melons in their places.

They were right in supposing that it would be dark ; but missed it a little in supposing “ Old Swipes,” as they called me, would be a-bed, though. The old man loves fun as well as they ; and a little sprinkling of grey hairs has not altogether subdued him. I have the honor of being like Washington in one respect—I can laugh as heartily as [1] any mortal man, I believe I can roll in a perfect ecstacy ; but as the old negro said of our country’s Father, “ he did all his laughing inside,” so do I. One would think I expect I am somewhat unfortunate in being permitted to have enjoyment of this sort without hanging out the sign as others do, for I am an old bachelor, and am disposed to believe that if I had a little more of an India rubberly phiz, I should have been married some forty times, ere this ; I mean I should have had so many opportunities or more,––as it is, Ichabod Swipes, Esq., with a flourishing business, and elegant establishment, and some ten thousand dollars, ready money, never had a decided nibble in the pond matrimonial.—What else could be the reason I cannot imagine, for truly I am not a bad specimen of human nature. But—

“ Whist, Jo ! Don’t you hear something ?

I think very probably they did ; for the words were hardly out of his mouth when there was a sound as of forcibly tearing fustian.

“ Get off my coat-tail,” whispered Joe.—“ There goes one flap, as sure as––––––. Why get off Ned.” And Ned was off—and one leg of his breeches, too, nearly as I supposed, for he was ah-ing and oh-ing, and was all the time telling Joe he believed there were nails in the side of the wall, for something had scratched him tremendously, and torn his breeches all to pieces. Joe sympathised with him, for he said half his coat was hanging up there somewhere.

The boys were more in earnest than ever, thinking that I had driven nails there on purpose to injure people and to tear their clothes.

“ The old close-fisted bloat begrudges a little fruit.”

They started on, hand in hand ; for Ned believed he knew the way. They had gotten beyond the trees a little, when something went swash ! swash ! into the water vat—“ Gosh,” was the first exclamation I heard after that, and coughing and sneezing as though some one had the horse distemper—and then—

“ By—by thun—thunder ! That water smells rather old !”

Ned was a little disposed to cut dirt for home, but the other’s “ puppy-to-a-root-ativeness," [1] was too [2] much excited to listen to any such proposition.

They thought to stop a little time and listen for fear they had roused some one by their floundering in the water—and be drained of their extra moisture somewhat. I thought I should burst forth into a roar of laughter as I listened to their whispering surprise—at the sudden revelation of a cistern of water there.

“ Never heard anything about it before ; how odd that we should both tumble into it.”

“ The old fellow must have fixed it on purpose to drown people in.”

They concluded they had not been heard, and shortly pushed on again for the melons. They presently perceived there was something unstable about the ground they were cautiously passing over. They whispered to each other what I could not distinctly hear—something about traps, and started to run to get beyond this suspicious footing. Both were caught by the cords and headlong they went into a heap of briars and thristles and the like, placed there for their especial accommodation.

“ Such a gitten’ up stairs !” muttered one.

“ Nettles and thistles—by Jemima Stott ! how they prick !”

They determined to go on more cautiously.

“ How thick they are, Jo ! Come here. There’s more than a dozen fat ones right here !”

Down they sat in the midst of them, and seemed to conclude that they had gotten pay for their mishaps.

“ Here, Jo, take this muskmelon. Isn’t it a hunker ! Slash into it !”

“ It cuts tremendous hard, Jim. Jim—it’s a squash.”

“ No it isn’t,” said the other. “ It’s a new kind. Old Swipes sent to Rhode Island for the seed.”

“ Well the old chap got sucked in, that’s all.”

“ Here let me gouge into this watermelon—there goes half a dollar ! I’ve broke my knife.”

“ If I did not know it was a watermelon, I should say it was a pumpkin.”

What further they did, while I went to the stable and unmuzzled the dog, and led him into the garden, I cannot say. That they took long steps, the onion beds and flower plats revealed in the morning.

I thought that the boys on the whole, must conclude that they had paid dear for the whistle, for they had not tasted of a melon, got scratched, clothes torn, were as wet as drowned rats, and pretty essentially frightened—so the next morning I sent invitations to all the young people in the village, to a feast of melons in the evening—particularly to Ned and Jo—on the principle of returning good for evil—and thinking that possibly it might be useful in the treatment of boys as well as men. My rooms were crowded betimes with a bright-eyed throng. Old Swipes looked confounded sour, I suppose.

They would not have come, I presume, had it not been that my nephew, a great favorite with them, was spending the summer with me, for they obviously disliked me, and I don’t know why they should do otherwise, for I had never noticed them, or appeared towards them as though they were worth noticing.

I went into my study, and soon such a whirlwind of fun as they raised. It was rich music—their silvery laughter.

I was well paid for the expense and trouble I had been at raising the largest, and best melons, by the rich sound of their hilarious voices. It brought before me the sunny days of my youth and its loved associations. Glorious days ! I love to think of them.
My melons were never disturbed again.

THE RECEIPT.—Don’t be harsh to boys.—Treat them as though they were going to be men, honest, and true presently. Meet fun with fun, and don’t forget them when your nicest fruit is ripe. Newspaper paragraphs, dog-traps, and frowns, are not half so potent for presersving apples and the like, as kindness. [3]

American Protector.


Notes:

Source: New York Spirit of the Times 15.51 (14 February 1846): 601. (University of Virginia Alderman Library).

Erin Bartels prepared this typescript.

[1] Orignal text omits final quotation mark. .”
[2] Original text reads “to.”
[4] Although the location of this tale is not given, its subject and appearance in Porter's publication make it noteworthy. One could imagine Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in such a "scrape."

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