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MR. LONGFELLOW came walking up Brattle Street. For many years, that had been his usual road home from Harvard Square. In his younger days, that way led him under the spreading chestnut-tree where the village smithy stood. But even forty years ago the blacksmith and his forge had long since gone, and the chestnut-tree did not spread out its arms so wide as it used to do. The necessary process of cutting off sections of the branches had begun, both for the much older Washington Elm, two or three blocks away, and for the Spreading Chestnut-tree. But if the blacksmith and his forge had gone, another interest still drew his steps in that direction, for Mr. Longfellow was quite apt even to go out of his way to have children along his path. The Washington Grammar School stood on Brattle Street directly opposite the old tree. All the boys knew him. And all the girls too. Some knew that his name was Mr. Longfellow. But that was not necessary. You just spoke to him, and he spoke to you. He seemed always to know your name, which pleased you, and the way he spoke your name pleased you, too, somehow. But then he knew everybody's name, all the boys' and girls', so there was not anything unusual about that. We all liked him, of course. Some one had said he was a poet, but we did not know exactly what that was. We liked him just as much, whatever it was.
It was a late spring day in 1880, near the first of June. It was in marble season. Five small boys from the lowest grade of the Washington Grammar School were playing marbles after school, a little farther up Brattle Street, at the corner of Mason. The streets met at a rather acute angle, and on the southeast corner, just opposite St. John's, the Chapel of the Episcopal Theological School, the sidewalk afforded a fine space of bare ground, trodden hard and smooth, plenty large enough for a game of big ring. The property on that corner was enclosed by a broad low wall, just the thing to lean against or to sit on while the other fellows were skirting around the circle to find the best place from which to shoot at the pyramid of marbles in the center, and a glorious place from which to pounce down with triumph in your nine-year-old heart, when your turn came, to fire at the scattered shots the failures your predecessors had left exposed to your accuracy.
It was pretty warm this afternoon, and Mr. Longfellow was carrying a pongee-colored, green-lined shade-umbrella. As he came along up Brattle Street, he stopped at the game of big ring. The boys all looked up, and two of them, in whom the precepts of family tradition were strong, took off their caps to him. The others just grinned and looked a little shy. Mr. Longfellow smiled and bowed around to all of them.
“Well, who 's ahead so far this afternoon?” “I am!” promptly responded a youngster who came from the poorer neighborhood on the other side of Mount Auburn Avenue. Mr. Longfellow stood there several minutes, watching one small boy after another choose his place on the ring, kneel and shoot, pick up his winnings and shoot again, or give way to the next with a protesting shake of his head against Fate. The old gentleman watched the game with real interest, smiling with congratulation at the winner over each marble knocked out of the ring, and sympathizing with you over each miss in a way that assured you of his certainty that next time you would do better. The game came to an end. All the marbles were knocked out and had found new homes in new pockets for a while. Marbles were stacked up in a pile in the middle of the ring for the new game. Mr. Longfellow started to move on. Just then one of the small boys looked up at him with one of those divining looks that go straight to the heart of a man. “Would n’t you like to play, sir?” Mr. Longfellow was very much pleased indeed, and he showed it. “Yes, I should. But I have no marbles. And I do not believe I could hit anything.” “I 'll lend you a shooter. And you need not put any marbles in. Need he?” He turned for confirmation of his generous proposal to the other boys. “No indeed!” came the answer in hearty chorus. “You might hit something. You could learn, anyhow. I did.” This assurance seemed to encourage Mr. Longfellow a great deal. He smiled genially through his large wavy white beard. He closed his umbrella and leaned it against the wall. The small boy dove into his bulging little breeches pocket and pulled forth a handful of marbles. He picked out a brown potter. “There! You can take that one.” “Do you think I can hit something with that one?” “It 's a brown potter! It has n’t often missed yet.” Mr. Longfellow crouched down on the sidewalk, while the small boy knelt beside him and duly instructed him in the proper way to hold and to shoot a champion brown potter. Mr. Longfellow tried, but the famous brown potter simply rolled off to one side. He tried again. A little better, but
not much. He proposed to give way now to the others and wait for his turn to come round again. But none of the little fellows would listen to that. He must keep at it until he got something. That was the only moment his cheery courage seemed to waver. Otherwise, no failure had seemed to dampen his genial spirits. “I don’t know about that,” he remarked. His young instructor promptly came to the rescue with encouragement. “You might
yet!” And Mr. Longfellow smiled again at once. His cheeriness returned—also his resources.
“Now you boys all take your turns. I want to see how each one of you shoots. Then maybe I can do better.” Each nine- or ten-year-old boy took his turn. Each now felt it incumbent upon him to give their good friend an example of marble-shooting that would encourage him and show him how to knock the putties out of the ring with force and with success. The incentive brought forth fine results. By the time all five had had their turn, most of the marbles had shot or rolled over the line into private ownership. Mr. Longfellow seemed to be entirely unselfish about it, urged each boy on to deeds of prowess, and seemed sincerely glad for every one's success. When his turn came round again, there was just one marble left to shoot at, and that was near the ring. “Now you can either shoot across the ring at it, or drive it all the way across from here. I guess you ’d better try from here. But you 'll have to shoot it awful hard.” The poet felt as if his future depended upon it, and he did his best. He tried from near at hand. The arc of failure was much smaller and the mark much larger near at hand. He shot. The potter did not go with force enough to get across the ring, but it did hit the mark a glancing blow upon the side. The marble rolled toward the circle and it stopped just on the line. “That's out! Oh yes, that's out! We'll call that out!” The generous clamor rose around the ring. Mr. Longfellow gratefully accepted the lenient interpretation of the rule that “On the line is in,” although he still had qualms of sportsmanship about it. “Do you call that out?” “Yes! Yes!” came a unanimous chorus of five kind young voices. Mr. Longfellow seemed really happy. “Pile 'm up, Billy, for another game!” one youngster sang out instantly. “Yours first. You got the last one.” This was addressed
to Mr. Longfellow.
But Mr. Longfellow had to go. No, he could not stay. “Perhaps another day,” he said. “But I
want to keep the marble that I won!” “Of course you can keep it,” his teacher told him. “It is yours.” He put it in his pocket, gave the best brown potter back, picked up his shade-umbrella, and smiling to them every one and calling each by name, as he said good-by, walked along up Brattle Street toward his house. That night the chief instructor told his mother all about it when he went to bed. “It was too bad! He could n't hit a thing. Really, he could n’t. But he was cheerful about it just the same. He 'd smile and try
again. I think that was—well—kind of brave in him, don't you Mother?”
Now forty years have made him understand the poet's cheerfulness on that occasion. And also, now that he does understand, Mr. Longfellow’s “cheerfulness” is not to be explained away by any forty years, nor by a hundred. His smiles came from his love of children, to whom he was a real person, not a mere grown-up; and he met his troubles, all of them, with the same cheerfulness as he displayed throughout his failure in playing marbles. That brown potter! Every mark on it that small boy remembers still! It was his special shooter! Long ago it disappeared. But there is much that boy would give right now to have that potter in his hand again!