Back in April of 2018 I wrote about Bobby in Movieland, a novel written by the man some have called the “Catholic Horatio Alger,” and now I’m reviewing a second adventure from the pen of Francis J. Finn, S.J.
Sixteen-year-old Abe Thompson, newly fired from his job as a butcher’s boy, was sitting on a boat landing considering stealing a small skiff when along came fourteen-year-old Clarence Esmond, dressed in a white sailor suit. Clarence was in search of “the bright-eyed goddess of adventure” and told Abe he’d pay him to take him a mile up the river to see Pictured Rocks.
The boys were soon in the stolen boat, rowing to their destination. Clarence told of the expensive boarding school he’d been attending, and Abe made up stories about how dangerous the river was, except for a few places safe enough to swim in, and that many boys had drowned. When they got to shore Abe pulled the boat to safety, then hid the oars and paddle. They climbed to the top of the multi-colored Pictured Rocks, and when they descended and returned to the shore Abe said it was a safe place to go swimming. But after Clarence removed his sailor suit (he had a swimming suit on underneath it) Abe declared there was an even better swimming place a short distance away. He had Clarence get into the boat – which was without oars or a paddle – then he pushed the boat into the river’s current, said his companion would be drowned if he tried to swim to shore, then he stole all the money from the pocket of the sailor suit, and ran off.
Clarence drifted downriver, thinking of how upset his parents would be if he didn’t return by noon, as promised, to the hotel where they’d been staying. He made an attempt at prayer but his parents had never given him much religious instruction, saying he could choose whether or not to be a believer when he was older. The day was hot, so he crawled under one of the boat seats to protect himself from sunburn. He remembered the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer and, after reciting that, he fell asleep.
While Clarence slept, wealthy Mr. Esmond went down to the boat landing in search of his son. He learned that a boy in a sailor suit had been seen going off with no-account Abe Thompson. A man with a motorboat took Esmond to Pictured Rocks, where they found the sailor suit. Mr. Esmond sent the motorboat owner off to bring a search party to drag the river. He would spare no expense to find his only child, but he feared his son had drowned.
Some time later Clarence awoke and realized the boat was no longer drifting, but was being pulled, so he got out from beneath the seat, startling a gypsy named Ben, who’d seen the boat and thought it was unoccupied. The boat was pulled to the shore, and Clarence saw a small band of gypsies watching him. While Ben went to get some old clothes for Clarence the nasty gypsy leader, Pete, asked the boy about his family, and if they were rich. Clarence soon learned Pete would beat him whenever the boy disobeyed orders, plus there were times when he was beaten for no reason at all.
Clarence was not the only captive in the gypsy camp. There was a girl named Dora, who was a devote Catholic, and who never stopped praying to be returned to her family. During Clarence’s captivity he and Dora spent most of their time together. The gypsies were always watching them, but the children were often able to speak to each other. Dora told how she’d gone alone to an early-morning Mass, and when she was walking home a dam burst, flooding the town. She’d run for safety, then tripped and fell, and would have drowned if Ben – who’d ridden to town to pay a fine to release his father, Pete, from jail – hadn’t come by and rescued her from the floodwaters. Ben, his wife Dorcas, and their three children were all kind and good, and they loved being taught about Jesus. All of the other Gypsies hated Christianity, and were angered by Dora’s constant praying, but they seemed to be afraid to hurt her.
After a few days Clarence realized it would be easier for him to escape without Dora, and that it would up to him to find help for the girl. They were traveling beside the water and there was a small island about halfway across the river. One of Ben’s younger brothers said he could beat Clarence in a swimming race to the island and back and, with Ben’s permission, the race began. Clarence was the faster swimmer, but then he seemed to begin drifting downstream to the end of the isle, and when he was near land he began flailing about and went underwater. The gypsies and Dora thought he’d drowned, but the boy was hiding within willow tree branches at the island’s edge. After the gypsies left he began floating on his back downriver, while praying as Dora had taught him.
The next morning at Campion College (a Catholic boarding school for high school boys) John Rieler gave into temptation and asked to be excused early from his morning class, for he desired to sneak out of the building, go down to the river and take a short swim, for it was a hot September day. After he left class he rushed down to the dock, stripped off most of his clothes, dove into the water, and discovered a boy drowning. He rescued the boy, who was blue from the chill of being in the river all night, helped him up to the college, then told him to ring the bell and ask to see the Rector. He couldn’t go in with him because he’d get into trouble for swimming without permission. Would you be surprised to learn the boy was Clarence Esmond?
Clarence was let into the school by the Brother-porter, who went to tell the Rector that a blue boy in a swimming suit wanted to see him. The Rector, Father Keenan, fed and clothed the boy and, when he learned his name, said they were dragging the river for him. Clarence replied: “They might as well stop; it’s no use.” After Clarence was sent to the infirmary to get some sleep the Rector went to his room to read the morning paper and learned of a dreadful railroad wreck. Among the list of missing persons were Mr. and Mrs. Esmond. Father Keenan got busy making phone calls, writing letters and sending telegrams. He had the river dragging project discontinued, asked the hotel owner to come and identify Clarence as being a former guest, and learned Clarence’s parents were still missing.
After Clarence awoke from his nap he told Father Keenan of his adventures with the gypsies, and when he was asked Dora’s last name he had to admit that he hadn’t thought to ask what it was. The rescued boy refused to tell how he got from the river to the door of the school, and that would have remained a mystery if John Rieler’s conscience hadn’t caused him to fess up to breaking school rules to go swimming. When Father Keenan learned of the boy’s misdeeds he punished him by telling him he would not be allowed to swim in the river from December through April. (If you’re going to break school rules it pays to save someone’s life while you’re at it.)
Later in the day Clarence was told that his parents were missing and that, until they were found, he would be a guest at Campion College. For the first few days of his stay he would be the roommate of a senior named Will Benton. Readers soon learn that Will had a sister named Dora, who’d drowned during a recent flood. Could it be that his sister hadn’t really died?
Father Keenan contacts people far and near, asking to be informed of any gypsies passing through the area. When he learns of a nearby gypsy encampment he obtains the use of a motor (a/k/a automobile) and sets out with a driver, plus Clarence, John Rieler and Will Benton in an attempt to save Dora. I won’t give details about the events leading up to the final chapter, but will say that there is a happy ending.
I enjoyed this 1916 novel. Clarence was both good and likable, as was almost everyone in the story, with the exception of nasty gypsy leader Pete, and his equally nasty wife. The story was not overly pious, and there was a lot of humor, which softened the one genuinely sad part. At the very end I learned Clarence was the Cupid of Campion College, apparently because there was a time when cupid had a second meaning that wasn’t connected to chubby cherubs shooting arrows that caused people to fall in love.
If you’d like to read Cupid of Campion it can be downloaded, free of charge, at: