by Bret Harte
As I do not suppose the most gentle of readers will believe that
anybody's sponsors in baptism ever wilfully assumed the responsibility
of such a name, I may as well state that I have reason to infer
that Melons was simply the nickname of a small boy I once knew.
If he had any other, I never knew it.
Various theories were often projected by me to account for this
strange cognomen. His head, which was covered with a transparent
down, like that which clothes very small chickens, plainly permitting
the scalp to show through, to an imaginative mind might have suggested
that succulent vegetable. That his parents, recognizing some poetical
significance in the fruits of the season, might have given this name
to an August child, was an oriental explanation. That from his infancy,
he was fond of indulging in melons, seemed on the whole the most
likely, particularly as Fancy was not bred in McGinnis's Court. He
dawned upon me as Melons. His proximity was indicated by shrill,
youthful voices, as "Ah, Melons!" or playfully, "Hi, Melons!" or
authoritatively, "You Melons!"
McGinnis's Court was a democratic expression of some obstinate and
radical property-holder. Occupying a limited space between two
fashionable thoroughfares, it refused to conform to circumstances,
but sturdily paraded its unkempt glories, and frequently asserted
itself in ungrammatical language. My window--a rear room on the
ground floor--in this way derived blended light and shadow from
the court. So low was the window-sill that, had I been the least
disposed to somnambulism, it would have broken out under such
favorable auspices, and I should have haunted McGinnis's Court.
My speculations as to the origin of the court were not altogether
gratuitous, for by means of this window I once saw the Past, as
through a glass darkly. It was a Celtic shadow that early one
morning obstructed my ancient lights. It seemed to belong to an
individual with a pea-coat, a stubby pipe, and bristling beard.
He was gazing intently at the court, resting on a heavy cane,
somewhat in the way that heroes dramatically visit the scenes
of their boyhood. As there was little of architectural beauty
in the court, I came to the conclusion that it was McGinnis
looking after his property. The fact that he carefully kicked a
broken bottle out of the road somewhat strengthened me in the
opinion. But he presently walked away, and the court knew him
no more. He probably collected his rents by proxy--if he
collected them at all.
Beyond Melons, of whom all this is purely introductory, there was
little to interest the most sanguine and hopeful nature. In common
with all such localities, a great deal of washing was done, in
comparison with the visible results. There was always some thing
whisking on the line, and always some thing whisking through the
court, that looked as if it ought to be there. A fish-geranium--of
all plants kept for the recreation of mankind, certainly the
greatest illusion--straggled under the window. Through its dusty
leaves I caught the first glance of Melons.
His age was about seven. He looked older from the venerable whiteness
of his head, and it was impossible to conjecture his size, as he
always wore clothes apparently belonging to some shapely youth of
nineteen. A pair of pantaloons, that, when sustained by a single
suspender, completely equipped him, formed his every-day suit. How,
with this lavish superfluity of clothing, he managed to perform the
surprising gymnastic feats it has been my privilege to witness, I
have never been able to tell. His "turning the crab," and other
minor dislocations, were always attended with success. It was not
an unusual sight at any hour of the day to find Melons suspended
on a line, or to see his venerable head appearing above the roofs
of the outhouses. Melons knew the exact height of every fence in
the vicinity, its facilities for scaling, and the possibility of
seizure on the other side. His more peaceful and quieter amusements
consisted in dragging a disused boiler by a large string, with
hideous outcries, to imaginary fires.
Melons was not gregarious in his habits. A few youth of his own age
sometimes called upon him, but they eventually became abusive, and
their visits were more strictly predatory incursions for old bottles
and junk which formed the staple of McGinnis's Court. Overcome by
loneliness one day, Melons inveigled a blind harper into the court.
For two hours did that wretched man prosecute his unhallowed calling,
unrecompensed, and going round and round the court, apparently under
the impression that it was some other place, while Melons surveyed
him from an adjoining fence with calm satisfaction. It was this
absence of conscientious motives that brought Melons into disrepute
with his aristocratic neighbors. Orders were issued that no child
of wealthy and pious parentage should play with him. This mandate,
as a matter of course, invested Melons with a fascinating interest
to them. Admiring glances were cast at Melons from nursery windows.
Baby fingers beckoned to him. Invitations to tea (on wood and pewter)
were lisped to him from aristocratic back-yards. It was evident he
was looked upon as a pure and noble being, untrammelled by the
conventionalities of parentage, and physically as well as mentally
exalted above them. One afternoon an unusual commotion prevailed in
the vicinity of McGinnis's Court. Looking from my window I saw
Melons perched on the roof of a stable, pulling up a rope by which
one "Tommy," an infant scion of an adjacent and wealthy house, was
suspended in mid-air. In vain the female relatives of Tommy,
congregated in the back-yard, expostulated with Melons; in vain
the unhappy father shook his fist at him. Secure in his position,
Melons redoubled his exertions and at last landed Tommy on the
roof. Then it was that the humiliating fact was disclosed that
Tommy had been acting in collusion with Melons. He grinned
delightedly back at his parents, as if "by merit raised to that
bad eminence." Long before the ladder arrived that was to succor
him, he became the sworn ally of Melons, and, I regret to say,
incited by the same audacious boy, "chaffed" his own flesh and
blood below him. He was eventually taken, though, of course, Melons
escaped. But Tommy was restricted to the window after that, and
the companionship was limited to "Hi Melons!" and "You Tommy!"
and Melons to all practical purposes, lost him forever. I looked
afterward to see some signs of sorrow on Melons's part, but in
vain; he buried his grief, if he had any, somewhere in his one
At about this time my opportunities of knowing Melons became more
extended. I was engaged in filling a void in the Literature of the
Pacific Coast. As this void was a pretty large one, and as I was
informed that the Pacific Coast languished under it, I set apart
two hours each day to this work of filling in. It was necessary
that I should adopt a methodical system, so I retired from the
world and locked myself in my room at a certain hour each day,
after coming from my office. I then carefully drew out my portfolio
and read what I had written the day before. This would suggest
some alterations, and I would carefully rewrite it. During this
operation I would turn to consult a book of reference, which
invariably proved extremely interesting and attractive. It would
generally suggest another and better method of "filling in."
Turning this method over reflectively in my mind, I would finally
commence the new method which I eventually abandoned for the
original plan. At this time I would become convinced that my
exhausted faculties demanded a cigar. The operation of lighting
a cigar usually suggested that a little quiet reflection and
meditation would be of service to me, and I always allowed myself
to be guided by prudential instincts. Eventually, seated by my
window, as before stated, Melons asserted himself. Though our
conversation rarely went further than "Hello, Mister!" and "Ah,
Melons!" a vagabond instinct we felt in common implied a communion
deeper than words. In this spiritual commingling the time passed,
often beguiled by gymnastics on the fence or line (always with
an eye to my window) until dinner was announced and I found a
more practical void required my attention. An unlooked-for
incident drew us in closer relation.
A sea-faring friend just from a tropical voyage had presented me
with a bunch of bananas. They were not quite ripe, and I hung them
before my window to mature in the sun of McGinnis's Court, whose
forcing qualities were remarkable. In the mysteriously mingled
odors of ship and shore which they diffused throughout my room,
there was lingering reminiscence of low latitudes. But even that
joy was fleeting and evanescent: they never reached maturity.
Coming home one day, as I turned the corner of that fashionable
thoroughfare before alluded to, I met a small boy eating a banana.
There was nothing remarkable in that, but as I neared McGinnis's
Court I presently met another small boy, also eating a banana. A
third small boy engaged in a like occupation obtruded a painful
coincidence upon my mind. I leave the psychological reader to
determine the exact co-relation between the circumstance and the
sickening sense of loss that overcame me on witnessing it. I
reached my room--the bananas were gone.
There was but one that knew of their existence, but one who frequented
my window, but one capable of gymnastic effort to procure them, and
that was--I blush to say it--Melons. Melons the depredator--Melons,
despoiled by larger boys of his ill-gotten booty, or reckless and
indiscreetly liberal; Melons--now a fugitive on some neighborhood
house-top. I lit a cigar, and, drawing my chair to the window,
sought surcease of sorrow in the contemplation of the fish-geranium.
In a few moments something white passed my window at about the level
of the edge. There was no mistaking that hoary head, which now
represented to me only aged iniquity. It was Melons, that venerable,
He affected not to observe me, and would have withdrawn quietly,
but that horrible fascination which causes the murderer to revisit
the scene of his crime, impelled him toward my window. I smoked
calmly, and gazed at him without speaking. He walked several times
up and down the court with a half-rigid, half-belligerent expression
of eye and shoulder, intended to represent the carelessness of
Once or twice he stopped, and putting his arms their whole length
into his capacious trousers, gazed with some interest at the
additional width they thus acquired. Then he whistled. The singular
conflicting conditions of John Brown's body and soul were at that
time beginning to attract the attention of youth, and Melons's
performance of that melody was always remarkable. But to-day he
whistled falsely and shrilly between his teeth. At last he met
my eye. He winced slightly, but recovered himself, and going to
the fence, stood for a few moments on his hands, with his bare
feet quivering in the air. Then he turned toward me and threw
out a conversational preliminary.
"They is a cirkis"--said Melons gravely, hanging with his back to
the fence and his arms twisted around the palings--"a cirkis over
yonder!"--indicating the locality with his foot--"with hosses, and
hossback riders. They is a man wot rides six hosses to onct--six
hosses to onct--and nary saddle"--and he paused in expectation.
Even this equestrian novelty did not affect me. I still kept a fixed
gaze on Melons's eye, and he began to tremble and visibly shrink in
his capacious garment. Some other desperate means--conversation with
Melons was always a desperate means--must be resorted to. He recommenced
"Do you know Carrots?"
I had a faint remembrance of a boy of that euphonious name, with
scarlet hair, who was a playmate and persecutor of Melons. But I
"Carrots is a bad boy. Killed a policeman onct. Wears a dirk knife in
his boots, saw him to-day looking in your windy."
I felt that this must end here. I rose sternly and addressed Melons.
"Melons, this is all irrelevant and impertinent to the case. You took
those bananas. Your proposition regarding Carrots, even if I were
inclined to accept it as credible information, does not alter the
material issue. You took those bananas. The offense under the Statutes
of California is felony. How far Carrots may have been accessory to the
fact either before or after, is not my intention at present to discuss.
The act is complete. Your present conduct shows the animo furandi to
have been equally clear."
By the time I had finished this exordium, Melons had disappeared, as
I fully expected.
He never reappeared. The remorse that I have experienced for the part
I had taken in what I fear may have resulted in his utter and complete
extermination, alas, he may not know, except through these pages. For
I have never seen him since. Whether he ran away and went to sea to
reappear at some future day as the most ancient of mariners, or whether
he buried himself completely in his trousers, I never shall know. I
have read the papers anxiously for accounts of him. I have gone to
the Police Office in the vain attempt of identifying him as a lost
child. But I never saw him or heard of him since. Strange fears have
sometimes crossed my mind that his venerable appearance may have been
actually the result of senility, and that he may have been gathered
peacefully to his fathers in a green old age. I have even had doubts
of his existence, and have sometimes thought that he was providentially
and mysteriously offered to fill the void I have before alluded to.
In that hope I have written these pages.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~