William Dean Howells
- March 1, 1837, Martins Ferry, Ohio
- May 11, 1920, Manhattan, New York
- Novelist, short story writer
- Civil War, class issues
His name was really Perez Armando Aldeano, but in the end everybody called him the amigo, because that was the endearing term by which he saluted all the world. There was a time when the children called him “Span-yard,” in their games, for he spoke no tongue but Spanish, and though he came from Ecuador, and was no more a Spaniard than they were English, he answered to the call of “Span-yard!” whenever he heard it. He came eagerly in the hope of fun, and all the more eagerly if there was a hope of mischief in the fun. Still, to discerning spirits, he was always the amigo, for when he hailed you so, you could not help hailing him so again, and whatever mock he put upon you afterwards, you were his secret and inalienable friend.
The moment of my own acceptance in this quality came in the first hours of expansion following our getting to sea after long detention in the dock by fog. A small figure came flying down the deck with outspread arms, and a joyful cry of “Ah, amigo!” as if we were now meeting unexpectedly after a former intimacy in Bogotá; and the amigo clasped me round the middle to his bosom, or more strictly speaking, his brow, which plunged into my waistcoat. He was clad in a long black overcoat, and a boy’s knee-pants, and under the peak of his cap twinkled the merriest black eyes that ever lighted up a smiling face of olive hue. Thereafter, he was more and more, with the thinness of his small black legs, and his habit of hopping up and down, and dancing threateningly about, with mischief latent in every motion, like a crow which in being tamed has acquired one of the worst traits of civilization. He began babbling and gurgling in Spanish, and took my hand for a stroll about the ship, and from that time we were, with certain crises of disaffection, firm allies.
There were others whom he hailed and adopted his friends, whose legs he clung about and impeded in their walks, or whom he required to toss him into the air as they passed, but I flattered myself that he had a peculiar, because a primary, esteem for myself. I have thought it might be that, Bogotá being said to be a very literary capital, as those things go in South America, he was mystically aware of a common ground between us, wider and deeper than that of his other friendships. But it may have been somewhat owing to my inviting him to my cabin to choose such portion as he would of a lady-cake sent us on shipboard at the last hour. He prattled and chuckled over it in the soft gutturals of his parrot-like Spanish, and rushed up on deck to eat the frosting off in the presence of his small companions, and to exult before them in the exploitation of a novel pleasure. Yet it could not have been the lady-cake which lastingly endeared me to him, for by the next day he had learned prudence and refused it without withdrawing his amity.
This, indeed, was always tempered by what seemed a constitutional irony, and he did not impart it to any one without some time making his friend feel the edge of his practical humor. It was not long before the children whom he gathered to his heart had each and all suffered some fall or bump or bruise which, if not of his intention was of his infliction, and which was regretted with such winning archness that the very mothers of them could not resist him, and his victims dried their tears to follow him with glad cries of “Span-yard, Span-yard!” Injury at his hands was a favor; neglect was the only real grievance. He went about rolling his small black head, and darting roguish lightnings from under his thick-fringed eyes, and making more trouble with a more enticing gayety than all the other people on the ship put together.
The truth must be owned that the time came, long before the end of the voyage, when it was felt that in the interest of the common welfare, something must be done about the amigo. At the conversational end of the doctor’s table where he was discussed whenever the racks were not on, and the talk might have languished without their inspiration, his badness was debated at every meal. Some declared him the worst boy in the world, and held against his half-hearted defenders that something ought to be done about him; and one was left to imagine all the darker fate for him because there was nothing specific in these convictions. He could not be thrown overboard, and if he had been put in irons probably his worst enemies at the conversational end of the table would have been the first to intercede for him. It is not certain, however, that their prayers would have been effective with the captain, if that officer, framed for comfort as well as command, could have known how accurately the amigo had dramatized his personal presence by throwing himself back, and clasping his hands a foot in front of his small stomach, and making a few tilting paces forward.
The amigo had a mimic gift which he liked to exercise when he could find no intelligible language for the expression of his ironic spirit. Being forbidden visits in and out of season to certain staterooms whose inmates feigned a wish to sleep, he represented in what grotesque attitudes of sonorous slumber they passed their day, and he spared neither age nor sex in these graphic shows. When age refused one day to go up on deck with him and pleaded in such Spanish as it could pluck up from its past studies that it was too old, he laughed it to scorn. “You are not old,” he said. “Why?” the flattered dotard inquired. “Because you smile,” and that seemed reason enough for one’s continued youth. It was then that the amigo gave his own age, carefully telling the Spanish numerals over, and explaining further by holding up both hands with one finger shut in. But he had the subtlety of centuries in his nine years, and he penetrated the ship everywhere with his arch spirit of mischief. It was mischief always in the interest of the good-fellowship which he offered impartially to old and young; and if it were mere frolic, with no ulterior object, he did not care at all how old or young his playmate was. This endeared him naturally to every age; and the little blond German-American boy dried his tears from the last accident inflicted on him by the amigo to recall him by tender entreaties of “Span-yard, Span-yard!” while the eldest of his friends could not hold out against him more than two days in the strained relations following upon the amigo’s sweeping him down the back with a toy broom employed by the German-American boy to scrub the scuppers. This was not so much an injury as an indignity, but it was resented as an indignity, in spite of many demure glances of propitiation from the amigo’s ironical eyes, and murmurs of inarticulate apology as he passed.
He was, up to a certain point, the kindest and truest of amigos; then his weird seizure came, and the baby was spilled out of the carriage he had been so benevolently pushing up and down; or the second officer’s legs, as he walked past with the prettiest girl on board, were hit with the stick that the amigo had been innocently playing shuffleboard with; or some passenger was taken unawares in his vanity or infirmity, and made to contribute to the amigo’s passion for active amusement.
At this point I ought to explain that the amigo was not traveling alone from Ecuador to Paris, where it was said he was to rejoin his father. At meal-times, and at other rare intervals, he was seen to be in the charge of a very dark and very silent little man, with intensely black eyes and mustache, clad in raven hues from his head to the delicate feet on which he wore patent-leather shoes. With him the amigo walked gravely up and down the deck, and behaved decorously at table; and we could not reconcile the apparent affection between the two with a theory we had that the amigo had been found impossible in his own country, and had been sent out of Ecuador by a decree of the government, or perhaps a vote of the whole people. The little, dark, silent man, in his patent-leather boots, had not the air of conveying a state prisoner into exile, and we wondered in vain what the tie between him and the amigo was. He might have been his tutor, or his uncle. He exercised a quite mystical control over the amigo, who was exactly obedient to him in everything, and would not look aside at you when in his keeping. We reflected with awe and pathos that, as they passed together, it was his privilege to see the amigo asleep, when that little, very kissable black head rested innocently on the pillow, and the busy brain within it was at peace with the world which formed its pleasure and its prey in waking.
It would be idle to represent that the amigo played his pranks upon that shipload of long-suffering people with final impunity. The time came when they not only said something must be done, but actually did something. It was by the hand of one of the amigo’s sweetest and kindest friends, namely, that elderly captain, off duty, who was going out to be assigned his ship in Hamburg. From the first he had shown the affectionate tenderness for the amigo which was felt by all except some obdurate hearts at the conversational end of the table; and it must have been with a loving interest in the amigo’s ultimate well-being, that taking him in an ecstasy of mischief, he drew the amigo face downwards across his knee, and bestowed a chastisement which was morally a caress. He dismissed him with a smile in which the amigo read the good understanding that existed unimpaired between them, and accepted his correction with the same affection as that which had given it. He shook himself and ran off with an enjoyment of the joke as great as that of any of the spectators, and far more generous.
In fact there was nothing mean in the amigo. Impish he was, or might be, but only in the sort of the crow or the parrot; there was no malevolence in his fine malice. One fancied him in his adolescence taking part in one of the frequent revolutions of his continent, but humorously, not homicidally. He would like to alarm the other faction, and perhaps drive it from power, or overset it from its official place, but if he had the say there would be no bringing the vanquished out into the plaza to be shot. He may now have been on his way to France ultimately to study medicine, which seems to be preliminary to a high political career in South America; but in the mean time we feared for him in that republic of severely regulated subordinations.
We thought with pathos of our early parting with him, as we approached Plymouth and tried to be kodaked with him, considering it an honor and pleasure. He so far shared our feelings as to consent, but he insisted on wearing a pair of glasses which had large eyes painted on them, and on being taken in the act of inflating a toy balloon. Probably, therefore, the likeness would not be recognized in Bogotá, but it will always be endeared to us by the memory of the many mockeries suffered from him. There were other friends whom we left on the ship, notably those of the conversational end of the table, who thought him simply a bad boy; but there were none of such appeal as he, when he stood by the guard, opening and shutting his hand in some ironical adieu, and looking smaller and smaller as our tender drifted away, and the vast liner loomed immense before us. He may have contributed to its effect of immensity by the smallness of his presence, or it may have dwarfed him. No matter; he filled no slight space in our lives while he lasted. Now that he is no longer there, was he really a bad little boy, merely and simply? Heaven knows, which alone knows good boys from bad.