Horatio Alger is notorious for having written highly predictable stores about poor children (almost universally boys) who are moral and eventually patronized by wealthy people and so given success. Last count there were probably 100 or more of them before he died.
Occasionally one has more in it than just the same story in different words. Here is one, Robert Coverdale’s Struggle; Or, on the Wave of Success.
So far: Robert has succeeded in winning the trust of a lonely hermit dude in New England where he lives after his drunkard uncle dies trying to rob him. He is then sent out on a mission to find the hermit’s long lost son who was kidnapped by Charles Waldo, a scheming relative. The son, under the assumed name of Bill Benton, was forced to do farm work for a cruel family called the Badgers. In desperation, he runs away to a friendly neighbor’s.
About ten minutes after Bill Benton left his little chamber an ill-looking man, whose garb and general appearance made it clear that he was a tramp, came strolling across the fields. He had made some inquiries about the farmers in the neighborhood, and his attention was drawn to Nathan Badger as a man who was likely to keep money in the house.
Some tramps are honest men, the victims of misfortune, not of vice, but Tom Tapley belonged to a less creditable class. He had served two terms in a State penitentiary without deriving any particular moral benefit from his retired life therein. His ideas on the subject of honesty were decidedly loose, and none who knew him well would have trusted him with the value of a dollar.
[*The idea at the time behind “penitentiaries” was that they would incite the inmates to penitence for their crimes and cause their reformation*]
Such was the man who approached the Badger homestead.
Now it happened that Mrs. Badger and Andrew Jackson had gone to make a call. Both intended to be back by nine o’clock, as neither wished to lose the gratification of being near by when Bill Benton received his flogging. As for Mr. Badger, he was at the village as usual in the evening.
[*Andrew Jackson is their son who, in true Alger fashion, in a bully and a coward*]
Thus it will be seen that as Bill also had left the house, no one was left in charge.
Tom Tapley made a careful examination of the house from the outside, and his experienced eyes discovered that it was unprotected.
“Here’s luck!” he said to himself. “Now what’s to prevent my explorin’ this here shanty and makin’ off with any valuables I come across?”
Two objections, however, occurred to the enterprising tramp: First, it was not likely at that time in the evening that he would be left alone long enough to gather in his booty, and, secondly, the absent occupants of the house might have money and articles of value on their persons which at present it would be impossible to secure.
The front door was not locked. Mr. Tapley opened it, and, finding the coast clear, went upstairs. Continuing his explorations, he made his way to the little attic chamber usually occupied by the bound boy.
“Nobody sleeps here, I expect, though the bed is rumpled,” he said to himself. “There’s two boys, I’ve heard, but it’s likely they sleep together downstairs. I guess I’ll slip into bed and get a little rest till it’s time to attend to business.”
The tramp, with a sigh of enjoyment, for he had not lately slept in a bed, lay down on Bill’s hard couch. It was not long before drowsiness overcame him and he fell asleep.
In the meantime the three absent members of the family came home. First Mrs. Badger and Andrew Jackson returned from their visit.
“Your father isn’t home yet, Andrew,” said his mother.
“I hope he will come soon, for I’m sleepy,” said Andrew.
“Then you had better go to bed, my darling.”
“No, I won’t. I ain’t goin’ to lose seein’ Bill’s flogging. I hope father’ll lay it on well.”
“No doubt the boy deserves it.”
“What do you think he had the impudence to say to me, mother?” asked Andrew.
“I shall not be surprised at any impudence from the young reprobate.”
“He wanted me to beg his pardon for strikin’ him with a whip, as he said I did.”
“Well, I never did!” ejaculated Mrs. Badger. “To think of my boy apologizing to a low, hired boy like him!”
“Oh, he’s gettin’ awful airy, ma! Shouldn’t wonder if he thought he was my equal!”
“There’s nothing but a flogging will subdue such a boy as that. I ain’t unmerciful, and if the boy showed a proper humility I wouldn’t mind doin’ all I could for him and overlookin’ his faults, but when he insults my Andrew, I can’t excuse him. But there’s one thing I can’t understand: He didn’t use to be so bold.”
“I know what has changed him, ma.”
“What is it, Andrew?”
“It’s that Dick Schmidt. Dick treats him as if he was his equal, and that makes him put on airs.”
“Then Dick lowers himself–though, to be sure, I don’t hold him to be equal to you! The Badgers are a better family than the Schmidts, and so are the Coneys, which was my name before I was married.”
“I wonder whether Bill’s asleep?” said Andrew.
“You might go to the foot of the stairs and listen,” said his mother.
Andrew followed his mother’s advice, and, opening the door at the foot of the attic stairs, was astonished to hear the deep breathing which issued from Bill’s chamber.
“Ma,” he said, “Bill is snoring like a house afire.”
“Reckless boy! Does he make so light of the flogging which your father has promised him?”
“I don’t know. He’s gettin’ awful sassy lately. I do wish father would come home.”
“I think I hear him now,” said Mrs. Badger, listening intently.
Her ears did not deceive her.
Soon the steps of the master of the house, as he considered himself, were heard upon the doorstep, and Mr. Nathan Badger entered.
“I’m glad you’ve come, pa. Are you goin’ to flog Bill now?”
“Yes, my son. Get me a stout stick from the woodshed.”
Andrew Jackson obeyed with alacrity.
Armed with the stick, Mr. Badger crept upstairs, rather astonished by his bound boy’s noisy breathing, and, entering the darkened chamber, brought the stick down smartly on the astonished sleeper.
In about two minutes Mrs. Badger and Andrew, standing at the foot of the stairs, were astonished by the noise of a terrible conflict in the little attic chamber, as if two men were wrestling.
There was the sound of a heavy body flung on the floor, and the voice of Mr. Badger was heard shouting:
“Help! help! murder!”
“The young villain’s killing your father!” exclaimed the astonished Mrs. Badger. “Go up and help him!”
“I don’t dare to,” said Andrew, pale as a sheet.
“Then I will!” said his mother, and she hurried upstairs, only to be met by her husband, who was literally tumbled downstairs by the occupant of the attic chamber.
Husband and wife fell together in a heap, and Andrew Jackson uttered a yell of dismay.
In all the confidence of assured victory, Mr. Nathan Badger, seeing the dim outline of a figure upon the bed, had brought down his stick upon it with emphasis.
“I’ll l’arn you!” he muttered in audible accents.
It was a rude awakening for Tom Tapley, the tramp, who was sleeping as peacefully as a child.
The first blow aroused him, but left him in a state of bewilderment, so that he merely shrank from the descending stick without any particular idea of what had happened to him.
“Didn’t feel it, did yer?” exclaimed Mr. Badger. “Well, I’ll see if I can’t make yer feel it!” and he brought down the stick for the second time with considerably increased vigor.
By this time Tom Tapley was awake. By this time also he thoroughly understood the situation or thought he did. He had been found out, and the farmer had undertaken to give him a lesson.
“That depends on whether you’re stronger than I am,” thought Tom, and he sprang from the bed and threw himself upon the astonished farmer.
Nathan Badger was almost paralyzed by the thought that Bill Benton, his hired boy, was absolutely daring enough to resist his lawful master. He was even more astounded by Bill’s extraordinary strength. Why, as the boy grappled with him, he actually felt powerless. He was crushed to the floor, and, with the boy’s knee upon his breast, struggled in vain to get up. It was so dark that he had not yet discovered that his antagonist was a man and not a boy.
Nathan Badger had heard that insane persons are endowed with extraordinary strength, and it flashed upon him that the boy had become suddenly insane.
The horror of being in conflict with a crazy boy so impressed him that he cried for help.
[*Those stereotypes of mental illness from the past were once pretty widely believed*]
Then it was that Tom Tapley, gathering all his strength, lifted up the prostrate farmer and pitched him downstairs just as Mrs. Badger was mounting them, so that she and her husband fell in a breathless heap on the lower stairs, to the indescribable dismay of Andrew Jackson.
Mrs. Badger was the first to pick herself up.
“What does all this mean, Mr. Badger?” she asked.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” said Mr. Badger ruefully.
“You don’t mean to say you ain’t a match for a boy?” she demanded sarcastically.
“Perhaps you’d like to try him yourself?” said her husband.
“This is very absurd, Mr. Badger. You know very well he’s weak for a boy of sixteen, and he hasn’t had anything to eat since morning.”
“If you think he’s weak, you’d better tackle him,” retorted Nathan. “I tell you, wife, he’s got the strength of a man and a strong man, too.”
“I don’t understand it. Tell me exactly what happened.”
“Well, you saw me go upstairs with the stick Andrew Jackson gave me,” said Mr. Badger, assuming a sitting position. “I saw the boy lyin’ on the bed, snoring and I up with my stick and brought it down pretty hard. He quivered a little, but that was all. So I thought I’d try it again. He jumped out of bed and sprang on me like a tiger, grinding his teeth, but not saying a word. I tell you, wife, he seemed as strong as a horse. I couldn’t get up, and he sat and pounded me.”
“The idea of being pounded by a small boy!” ejaculated Mrs. Badger.
“Just what I’d have said a quarter of an hour ago!”
“It seems impossible!”
“Perhaps it does, but it’s so.”
“He never acted so before.”
“No, and he never hit Andrew Jackson before, but yesterday he did it. I tell you what, wife, I believe the boy’s gone crazy.”
“Crazy!” ejaculated Mrs. Badger and Andrew in a breath.
“Just so! When folks are crazy they’re a good deal stronger than it’s nateral for them to be, and that’s the way with Bill Benton.”
“But what could possibly make him crazy?” demanded Mrs. Badger incredulously.
“It may be the want of vittles. I don’t know as we’d orter have kept him without his dinner and supper.”
“I don’t believe a bit in such rubbish,” said Mrs. Badger, whose courage had come back with the absolute silence in the attic chamber. “I believe you’re a coward, Nathan Badger. I’ll go upstairs myself and see if I can’t succeed better than you did.”
“You’d better not, wife.”
“Oh, don’t go, ma!” said Andrew Jackson, pale with terror.
“I’m going!” said the intrepid woman. “It shan’t be said of me that I’m afraid of a little bound boy who’s as weak as a rat.”
“You’ll find out how weak he is,” said Mr. Badger. “I warn you not to go.”
“I’m goin’, all the same,” said Mrs. Badger. “You’ll see how I’ll tame him down. Give me the stick.”
“Then go if you’re so plaguy obstinate,” said her husband, and it must be confessed that he rather hoped his wife, who had ventured to ridicule him, might herself meet with a reception that would make her change her tune somewhat.
Mrs. Badger, stick in hand, marched up to the door of the attic and called out boldly:
“Open the door, you young villain!”
“How does she know I’m young?” thought Tom Tapley, who was on guard n the room. “Well, now, if she wasn’t such an old woman I should feel flattered. I guess I’ll have to scare her a little. It wouldn’t be polite to tumble her downstairs as I did her husband.”
[*Note that even tramps in Alger’s stories have chivalrous instincts (:*]
“Have you gone crazy?” demanded Mrs. Badger behind the door.
“Not that I know of,” muttered the tramp.
“Perhaps you think you can manage me as well as Mr. Badger?” she continued.
“I should smile if I couldn’t,” commented Tom Tapley. “That woman must think she’s extra strong to be a match for me!”
“I’m coming in to whip you till you cry for mercy!”
“Really, she’s a pretty spunky old woman!” thought the tramp. “If I can’t hold my own against her, I’ll sell myself for old rags!”
Mrs. Badger pushed open the door, saw dimly the outline of the tramp and struck at it with the stick.
But alas! the stick was wrenched from her hand, a pistol, loaded only with powder, was discharged, and the intrepid lady, in a panic, flew out of the room and downstairs, tumbling into her husband’s arms.
Nathan Badger was delighted at his wife’s discomfiture. She couldn’t taunt him any longer.
“I told you so!” he chuckled. “How do you like tacklin’ him yourself, my dear? Wouldn’t you like to try it again? Ho! ho!”
“Mr. Badger, you’re a fool!” exclaimed his wife sharply.
“It strikes me you’re a little in that way yourself, Mrs. Badger. Did you give him a floggin’? Ho, ho! you were in a great hurry to come away!”
“Mr. Badger, he fired at me with a pistol. I tell you he’s a dangerous boy to have in the house.”
“Oh, no, Mrs. Badger, you can manage him just as easy!”
“Shut up, Mr. Badger! How did I know he had a pistol? I tell you it’s a serious thing! Before morning, you, and Andrew Jackson, and me may be dead corpses!”
At this awful statement Andrew Jackson burst into a terrified howl.
“I’ll tell you what we’d better do, Mr. Badger. We’ll go into our room and lock ourselves in.”
“Let me come in, too,” said Andrew. “He’ll kill me! He hates me!”
“Yes, my darling, you may come, too!” said his mother.
So the valiant three locked themselves up in a chamber and listened nervously.
But Tom Tapley was already out of the house. He made his escape over the roof, fearing that the neighborhood would be roused and his safety endangered.
So passed a night of unparalleled excitement in the Badger homestead.
Early the next morning the three Badgers held a council of war.
It was unanimously decided that something must be done, but what that something should be it was not easy to determine.
Mr. Badger suggested that the town constable should be summoned.
“The boy has committed assault and battery upon our persons, Mrs. Badger,” he said, “and it is proper that he should be arrested.”
“Shall I go for the constable?” asked Andrew Jackson. “I should like to have him put in jail. Then we should be safe.”
“The constable would not be up so early, Andrew.”
[*A constant reveal in these kinds of books is the rather part-time, non-professional nature of the law*]
“Besides,” said Mrs. Badger, “we shall be laughed at for not being able to take care of a single small-sized boy.”
“You know what he is capable of, Mrs. Badger. At least you did when you came flyin’ down the attic stairs into my arms!”
“Shut up, Mr. Badger,” said his wife, who was ashamed when she remembered her panic. “You’d better not say anything. He got you on the floor and pounded you–you a full-grown man!”
“I’d like to pound him!” said Badger, setting his teeth hard.
“It’s a pity if three of us can’t manage him without calling in a constable,” continued Mrs. Badger, who, on the whole, had more courage than her husband.
“What do you propose, wife?” asked Nathan.
“I propose that we all go up and seize him. He is probably asleep and can’t give any trouble. We can tie him hand and foot before he wakes up.”
“Capital!” said Mr. Badger, who was wonderfully assured by the thought that his young enemy might be asleep. “We’ll go right up.”
“He may be awake!” suggested Andrew Jackson.
“True. We must go well armed. I’ll carry the gun. It will do to knock the pistol out of his hand before he gets a chance to use it.”
“Perhaps so,” assented Mrs. Badger.
“And you, Andrew Jackson, what can you take?”
“I’ll take the poker,” said the heroic Andrew.
“Very good! We had better arm ourselves as soon as possible or he may wake up. By the way, Mr. Badger, where is the ball of twine? It will be useful to tie the boy’s hands.”
“If his hands are tied he can’t work.”
“No, but I will only keep them tied while I give him a thrashing. You can take possession of his pistol and hide it. When he is thoroughly subdued we will untie him and send him to work.”
“Without his breakfast?” suggested Andrew.
“No, he has already fasted since yesterday morning, and it may make him desperate. He shall have some breakfast, and that will give him strength to work.”
Andrew Jackson was rather disappointed at the decision that Bill was to have breakfast, but on this point he did not venture to oppose his father.
The plan of campaign having been decided upon, it only remained to carry it out.
Mr. Badger took the old musket and headed the procession. His wife slipped downstairs and returned with the kitchen broom and a poker. The last she put in the hands of her son.
“Use it, Andrew Jackson, if occasion requires. You may be called upon to defend your father and mother. Should such be the case, do not flinch, but behave like a hero.”
“I will, ma!” exclaimed Andrew, fired perhaps by the example of the great general after whom he was named. “But you and pa must tackle him first.”
“We will!” exclaimed the intrepid matron. “The disgraceful scenes of last evening must not again be enacted. This time we march to certain victory. Mr. Badger, go on, and I will follow.”
The three, in the order arranged, advanced to the foot of the stairs, and Mr. Badger slowly and cautiously mounted them, pausing before the door of the room that contained, as he supposed, the desperate boy.
“Shall I speak to him before entering?” he asked in a tone of indecision, turning back to his wife.
“Certainly not; it will put him on his guard. Keep as still as you can. We want to surprise him.”
To account for what followed it must be stated that Dick Schmidt awakened his visitor early and the two went down to breakfast. Mr. Schmidt was going to the market town and found it necessary to breakfast at five o’clock. This happened fortunately for Bill, as he was able to obtain a much better breakfast there than at home.
When breakfast was over he said soberly:
“Dick, I must go back.”
“Why do you go back at all?” said Dick impulsively.
“I must. It is the only home I have.”
“I wish you could stay with me.”
“So do I, but Mr. Badger would come after me.”
“I suppose he would. Do you think he will flog you?”
“I am sure he will.”
“I’d like to flog him–the brute! Don’t take it too hard, Bill. You’ll be a man some time, and then no one can punish you.”
Poor Bill! As he took his lonely way back to the house of his tyrannical employer in the early morning he could not help wishing that he was already a man and his days of thraldom were over. He was barely sixteen. Five long, weary years lay before him.
[*The age of majority in the common law world was 21 at the time*]
“I’ll try to stand it, though it’s hard,” murmured Bill. “I suppose he’s very mad because I wasn’t home last night. But I’m glad I went. I had two good meals and a quiet night’s sleep.”
It was not long before he came in sight of home.
Probably no one was up in the Badger household. Usually Bill was the first to get up and Mrs. Badger next, for Andrew Jackson and his father were neither of them fond of early rising.
The front and back doors were no doubt locked, but Bill knew how to get in.
He went to the shed, raised a window and clambered in.
“Perhaps I can get up to my room without anybody hearing me,” he reflected.
He passed softly through the front room into the entry and up the front stairs. All was quiet. Bill concluded that no one was up. He came to the foot of the attic stairs, and his astonished gaze rested on the three Badgers, armed respectively with a gun, a broom and a poker, all on their way to his room.
“Were they going to murder me?” he thought.
Just then Andrew Jackson, who led the rear, and was therefore nearest to Bill, looked back and saw the terrible foe within three feet of him.
He uttered a loud yell, and, scarcely knowing what he was about, brought down the poker with force on his mother’s back, at the same time crying:
“There he is, ma!”
Mrs. Badger, in her flurry, struck her husband with the broom, while her husband, equally panic-stricken, fired the musket. It was overloaded, and, as a natural result, “kicked,” overthrowing Mr. Badger, who in his downward progress carried with him his wife and son.
Astonished and terrified, Bill turned and fled, leaving the house in the same way he entered it. He struck across the fields and in that moment decided that he would never return to Mr. Badger unless he was dragged there. He felt sure that if he did he would be murdered.
He had no plans except to get away. He saw Dick Schmidt, bade him a hurried good-by and took the road toward the next town.
For three days he traveled, indebted to compassionate farmers for food. But excitement and fatigue finally overcame him, and he sank by the roadside, about fifty miles from the town of Dexter, whence he had started on his pilgrimage.
[*He meets up with Robert and is told his true name and they prepare to return to New England*]
During this week Robert’s attention was drawn to the following paragraph in a copy of the Dexter Times, a small weekly paper, which he found in the reading room of the hotel:
“A DESPERATE YOUNG RUFFIAN.–We understand that a young boy in the service of Mr. Nathan Badger, one of our most respected citizens, has disappeared under very extraordinary circumstances. The evening previous to his departure he made an unprovoked attack upon Mr. and Mrs. Badger, actually throwing Mr. Badger downstairs and firing a pistol at Mrs. Badger. He was a small, slight boy, but the strength he exhibited was remarkable in thus coping successfully with a strong man. Mr. Badger thinks the boy must have been suddenly attacked by insanity of a violent character.”
[*Note that the hotel had a “reading room”. After this they return to his true home*]
One letter he wrote to Charles Waldo–a scathing letter denouncing him for his infamous conduct and threatening severe punishment if he ever again conspired against his happiness. Mr. Waldo did not answer the letter for very shame. What excuse or apology could he possibly offer?
[*This I find nearly impossible to believe, even for the time. A man has his only son kidnapped and virtually enslaved for years and finally gets him back almost by accident, and lets the person responsible off with an angry letter?*]