Story type: Literature
The schoolmistress of Pine Clearing was taking a last look around her schoolroom before leaving it for the day. She might have done so with pride, for the schoolroom was considered a marvel of architectural elegance by the citizens, and even to the ordinary observer was a pretty, villa-like structure, with an open cupola and overhanging roof of diamond-shaped shingles and a deep Elizabethan porch. But it was the monument of a fierce struggle between a newer civilization and a barbarism of the old days, which had resulted in the clearing away of the pines–and a few other things as incongruous to the new life and far less innocent, though no less sincere. It had cost the community fifteen thousand dollars, and the lives of two of its citizens.
Happily there was no stain of this on the clean white walls, the beautifully-written gilt texts, or the shining blackboard that had offered no record which could not be daily wiped away. And, certainly, the last person in the world to suggest any reminiscences of its belligerent foundation was the person of the schoolmistress. Mature, thin, precise,–not pretty enough to have excited Homeric feuds, nor yet so plain as to preclude certain soothing graces,–she was the widow of a poor Congregational minister, and had been expressly imported from San Francisco to squarely mark the issue between the regenerate and unregenerate life. Low-voiced, gentlewomanly, with the pallor of ill-health perhaps unduly accented by her mourning, which was still cut modishly enough to show off her spare but good figure, she was supposed to represent the model of pious, scholastic refinement. The Opposition–sullen in ditches and at the doors of saloons, or in the fields truculent as their own cattle–nevertheless had lowered their crests and buttoned their coats over their revolutionary red shirts when SHE went by.
As she was stepping from the threshold, she was suddenly confronted by a brisk business-looking man, who was about to enter. “Just in time to catch you, Mrs. Martin,” he said hurriedly; then, quickly correcting his manifest familiarity, he added: “I mean, I took the liberty of running in here on my way to the stage office. That matter you spoke of is all arranged. I talked it over with the other trustees, wrote to Sam Barstow, and he’s agreeable, and has sent somebody up, and,” he rapidly consulted his watch, “he ought to be here now; and I’m on my way to meet him with the other trustees.”
Mrs. Martin, who at once recognized her visitor as the Chairman of the School Board, received the abrupt information with the slight tremulousness, faint increase of color, and hurried breathing of a nervous woman.
“But,” she said, “it was only a SUGGESTION of mine, Mr. Sperry; I really have no right to ask–I had no idea”–
“It’s all right, ma’am,–never you mind. We put the case square to Barstow. We allowed that the school was getting too large for you to tackle,–I mean, you know, to superintend single-handed; and that these Pike County boys they’re running in on us are a little too big and sassy for a lady like you to lasso and throw down–I mean, to sorter control–don’t you see? But, bless you, Sam Barstow saw it all in a minit! He just jumped at it. I’ve got his letter here–hold on”–he hastily produced a letter from his pocket, glanced ever it, suddenly closed it again with embarrassed quickness, yet not so quickly but that the woman’s quicker eyes were caught, and nervously fascinated by the expression “I’m d—-d” in a large business hand–and said in awkward haste, “No matter about reading it now–keep you too long–but he’s agreed all right, you know. Must go now–they’ll be waiting. Only I thought I’d drop in a-passin’, to keep you posted;” and, taking off his hat, he began to back from the porch.
“Is–is–this gentleman who is to assist me–a–a mature professional man–or a–graduate?” hesitated Mrs. Martin, with a faint smile.
“Don’t really know–I reckon Sam–Mr. Barstow–fixed that all right. Must really go now;” and, still holding his hat in his hand as a polite compromise for his undignified haste, he fairly ran off.
Arrived at the stage office, he found the two other trustees awaiting him, and the still more tardy stage-coach. One, a large, smooth-faced, portly man, was the Presbyterian minister; the other, of thinner and more serious aspect, was a large mill-owner.
“I presume,” said the Rev. Mr. Peaseley, slowly, “that as our good brother Barstow, in the urgency of the occasion, has, to some extent, anticipated OUR functions in engaging this assistant, he is–a–a–satisfied with his capacity?”
“Sam knows what he’s about,” said the mill-owner cheerfully, “and as he’s regularly buckled down to the work here, and will go his bottom dollar on it, you can safely leave things to him.”
“He certainly has exhibited great zeal,” said the reverend gentleman patronizingly.
“Zeal,” echoed Sperry enthusiastically, “zeal? Why, he runs Pine Clearing as he runs his bank and his express company in Sacramento, and he’s as well posted as if he were here all the time. Why, look here;” he nudged the mill-owner secretly, and, as the minister’s back was momentarily turned, pulled out the letter he had avoided reading to Mrs. Martin, and pointed to a paragraph. “I’ll be d—-d,” said the writer, “but I’ll have peace and quietness at Pine Clearing, if I have to wipe out or make over the whole Pike County gang. Draw on me for a piano if you think Mrs. Martin can work it. But don’t say anything to Peaseley first, or he’ll want it changed for a harmonium, and that lets us in for psalm-singing till you can’t rest. Mind! I don’t object to Church influence–it’s a good hold!–but you must run IT with other things equal, and not let it run YOU. I’ve got the schoolhouse insured for thirty thousand dollars–special rates too.”
The mill-owner smiled. “Sam’s head is level! But,” he added, “he don’t say much about the new assistant he’s sending.”
“Only here,” he says, “I reckon the man I send will do all round; for Pike County has its claims as well as Boston.”
“What does that mean?” asked the mill-owner.
“I reckon he means he don’t want Pine Clearing to get too high-toned any more than he wants it too low down. He’s mighty square in his averages–is Sam.”
Here speculation was stopped by the rapid oncoming of the stage-coach in all the impotent fury of a belated arrival. “Had to go round by Montezuma to let off Jack Hill,” curtly explained the driver, as he swung himself from the box, and entered the hotel bar-room in company with the new expressman, who had evidently taken Hill’s place on the box-seat. Autocratically indifferent to further inquiry, he called out cheerfully: “Come along, boys, and hear this yer last new yarn about Sam Barstow,–it’s the biggest thing out.” And in another moment the waiting crowd, with glasses in their hands, were eagerly listening to the repetition of the “yarn” from the new expressman, to the apparent exclusion of other matters, mundane and practical.
Thus debarred from information, the three trustees could only watch the passengers as they descended, and try to identify their expected stranger. But in vain: the bulk of the passengers they already knew, the others were ordinary miners and laborers; there was no indication of the new assistant among them. Pending further inquiry they were obliged to wait the conclusion of the expressman’s humorous recital. This was evidently a performance of some artistic merit, depending upon a capital imitation of an Irishman, a German Jew, and another voice, which was universally recognized and applauded as being “Sam’s style all over!” But for the presence of the minister, Sperry and the mill-owner would have joined the enthusiastic auditors, and inwardly regretted the respectable obligations of their official position.
When the story-teller had concluded amidst a general call for more drinks, Sperry approached the driver. The latter recognizing him, turned to his companion carelessly, said, “Here’s one of ’em,” and was going away when Sperry stopped him.
“We were expecting a young man.”
“Yes,” said the driver, impatiently, “and there he is, I reckon.”
“We don’t mean the new expressman,” said the minister, smiling blandly, “but a young man who”–
“THAT ain’t no new expressman,” returned the driver in scornful deprecation of his interlocutor’s ignorance. “He only took Hill’s place from Montezuma. He’s the new kid reviver and polisher for that University you’re runnin’ here. I say–you fellers oughter get him to tell you that story of Sam Barstow and the Chinaman. It’d limber you fellers up to hear it.”
“I fear there’s some extraordinary mistake here,” said Mr. Peaseley, with a chilling Christian smile.
“Not a bit of it. He’s got a letter from Sam for one of ye. Yere, Charley–what’s your name! Com yere. Yere’s all yer three bosses waiting for ye.”
And the supposed expressman and late narrator of amusing stories came forward and presented his credentials as the assistant teacher of Pine Clearing.
Even the practical Mr. Sperry was taken aback. The young man before him was squarely built, with broad shoulders, and a certain air of muscular activity. But his face, although good-humored, was remarkable for offering not the slightest indication of studious preoccupation or mental training. A large mouth, light blue eyes, a square jaw, the other features being indistinctive–were immobile as a mask–except that, unlike a mask, they seemed to actually reflect the vacuity of the mood within, instead of concealing it. But as he saluted the trustees they each had the same feeling that even this expression was imported and not instinctive. His face was clean-shaven, and his hair cut so short as to suggest that a wig of some kind was necessary to give it characteristic or even ordinary human semblance. His manner, self-assured yet lacking reality, and his dress of respectable cut and material, yet worn as if it did not belong to him, completed a picture as unlike a student or schoolmaster as could be possibly conceived.
Yet there was the letter in Mr. Peaseley’s hands from Barstow, introducing Mr. Charles Twing as the first assistant teacher in the Pine Clearing Free Academy!
The three men looked hopelessly at each other. An air of fatigued righteousness and a desire to be spiritually at rest from other trials pervaded Mr. Peaseley. Whether or not the young man felt the evident objection he had raised, he assumed a careless position, with his back and elbows against the bar; but even the attitude was clearly not his own.
“Are you personally known to Mr. Barstow?” asked Sperry, with a slight business asperity.
“That is–you are quite well acquainted with him?”
“If you’d heard me gag his style a minute ago, so that everybody here knew who it was, you’d say so.”
Mr. Peaseley’s eyes sought the ceiling, and rested on the hanging lamp, as if nothing short of direct providential interference could meet the occasion. Yet, as the eyes of his brother trustees were bent on him expectantly, he nerved himself to say something.
“I suppose, Mr.–Mr. Twing, you have properly understood the great–I may say, very grave, intellectual, and moral responsibilities of the work you seek to undertake–and the necessity of supporting it by EXAMPLE, by practice, by personal influence both in the school and OUT OF IT. Sir, I presume, sir, you feel that you are fully competent to undertake this?”
“I reckon HE does!”
“Sam Barstow, or he wouldn’t have selected me. I presume” (with the slightest possible and almost instinctive imitation of the reverend gentleman’s manner) “his head is considered level.”
Mr. Peaseley withdrew his eyes from the ceiling. “I have,” he said to his companions, with a pained smile, “an important choir meeting to attend this afternoon. I fear I must be excused.” As he moved towards the door, the others formally following him, until out of the stranger’s hearing, he added: “I wash my hands of this. After so wanton and unseemly an exhibition of utter incompetency, and even of understanding of the trust imposed upon him–upon US–MY conscience forbids me to interfere further. But the real arbiter in this matter will be–thank Heaven!–the mistress herself. You have only to confront her at once with this man. HER decision will be speedy and final. For even Mr. Barstow will not dare to force so outrageous a character upon a delicate, refined woman, in a familiar and confidential capacity.”
“That’s so,” said Sperry eagerly; “she’ll settle it. And, of course,” added the mill-owner, “that will leave us out of any difficulty with Sam.”
The two men returned to the hapless stranger, relieved, yet constrained by the sacrifice to which they felt they were leading him. It would be necessary, they said, to introduce him to his principal, Mrs. Martin, at once. They might still find her at the schoolhouse, distant but a few steps. They said little else, the stranger keeping up an ostentatious whistling, and becoming more and more incongruous, they thought, as they neared the pretty schoolhouse. Here they DID find Mrs. Martin, who had, naturally, lingered after the interview with Sperry.
She came forward to meet them, with the nervous shyness and slightly fastidious hesitation that was her nature. They saw, or fancied they saw, the same surprise and disappointment they had themselves experienced pass over her sensitive face, as she looked at him; they felt that their vulgar charge appeared still more outrageous by contrast with this delicate woman and her pretty, refined surroundings; but they saw that HE enjoyed it, and was even–if such a word could be applied to so self-conscious a man–more at ease in her presence!
“I reckon you and me will pull together very well, ma’am,” he said confidently.
They looked to see her turn her back upon him; faint, or burst out crying; but she did neither, and only gazed at him quietly.
“It’s a mighty pretty place you’ve got here–and I like it, and if WE can’t run it, I don’t know who can. Only just let me know WHAT you want, ma’am, and you can count on me every time.”
To their profound consternation Mrs. Martin smiled faintly.
“It rests with YOU only, Mrs. Martin,” said Sperry quickly and significantly. “It’s YOUR say, you know; you’re the only one to be considered or consulted here.”
“Only just say what you want me to do,” continued Twing, apparently ignoring the trustees; “pick out the style of job; give me a hint or two how to work it, or what you’d think would be the proper gag to fetch ’em, and I’m there, ma’am. It may be new at first, but I’ll get at the business of it quick enough.”
Mrs. Martin smiled–this time quite perceptibly–with the least little color in her cheeks and eyes. “Then you’ve had no experience in teaching?” she said.
“You are not a graduate of any college?”
The two trustees looked at each other. Even Mr. Peaseley had not conceived such a damning revelation.
“Well,” said Mrs. Martin slowly, “perhaps Mr. Twing had better COME EARLY TOMORROW MORNING AND BEGIN.”
“Begin?” gasped Mr. Sperry in breathless astonishment.
“Certainly,” said Mrs. Martin in timid explanation. “If he is new to the work the sooner the better.”
Mr. Sperry could only gaze blankly at his brother official. Had they heard aright? Was this the recklessness of nervous excitement in a woman of delicate health, or had the impostor cast some glamour upon her? Or was she frightened of Sam Barstow and afraid to reject his candidate? The last thought was an inspiration. He drew her quickly aside. “One moment, Mrs. Martin! You said to me an hour ago that you didn’t intend to have asked Mr. Barstow to send you an assistant. I hope that, merely because he HAS done so, you don’t feel obliged to accept this man against your better judgment?”
“Oh no,” said Mrs. Martin quietly.
The case seemed hopeless. And Sperry had the miserable conviction that by having insisted upon Mrs. Martin’s judgment being final they had estopped their own right to object. But how could they have foreseen her extraordinary taste? He, however, roused himself for a last appeal.
“Mrs. Martin,” he said in a lower voice, “I ought to tell you that the Reverend Mr. Peaseley strongly doubts the competency of that young man.”
“Didn’t Mr. Barstow make a selection at your request?” asked Mrs. Martin, with a faint little nervous cough.
“Then his competency only concerns ME–and I don’t see what Mr. Peaseley has to say about it.”
Could he believe his senses? There was a decided flush in the woman’s pale face, and the first note of independence and asperity in her voice.
That night, in the privacy of his conjugal chamber, Mr. Sperry relieved his mind to another of the enigmatical sex,–the stout Southwestern partner of his joys and troubles. But the result was equally unsatisfactory. “Well, Abner,” said the lady, “I never could see, for all your men’s praises of Mrs. Martin, what that feller can see in HER to like!”
Mrs. Martin was early at the schoolhouse the next morning, yet not so early but that she discovered that the new assistant had been there before her. This was shown in some rearrangement of the school seats and benches. They were placed so as to form a horseshoe before her desk, and at the further extremity of this semicircle was a chair evidently for himself. She was a little nettled at his premature action, although admitting the utility of the change, but she was still more annoyed at his absence at such a moment. It was nearly the school hour when he appeared, to her surprise, marshaling a file of some of the smaller children whom he had evidently picked up en route, and who were, to her greater surprise, apparently on the best of terms with him. “Thought I’d better rake ’em in, introduce myself to ’em, and get ’em to know me before school begins. Excuse me,” he went on hastily, “but I’ve a lot more coming up, and I’d better make myself square with them OUTSIDE.” But Mrs. Martin had apparently developed a certain degree of stiffness since their evening’s interview.
“It seems to me quite as important, Mr. Twing,” she said drily, “that you should first learn some of your own duties, which I came here early to teach you.”
“Not at all,” he said cheerfully. “Today I take my seat, as I’ve arranged it, you see, over there with them, and watch ’em go through the motions. One rehearsal’s enough for ME. At the same time, I can chip in if necessary.” And before she could reply he was out of the schoolhouse again, hailing the new-comers. This was done with apparently such delight to the children and with some evidently imported expression into his smooth mask-like face, that Mrs. Martin had to content herself with watching him with equal curiosity. She was turning away with a sudden sense of forgotten dignity, when a shout of joyous, childish laughter attracted her attention to the window. The new assistant, with half a dozen small children on his square shoulders, walking with bent back and every simulation of advanced senility, was evidently personating, with the assistance of astonishingly distorted features, the ogre of a Christmas pantomime. As his eye caught hers the expression vanished, the mask-like face returned; he set the children down, and moved away. And when school began, although he marshaled them triumphantly to the very door,–with what contortion of face or simulation of character she was unable to guess,–after he had entered the schoolroom and taken his seat every vestige of his previous facial aberration was gone, and only his usual stolidity remained. In vain, as Mrs. Martin expected, the hundred delighted little eyes before her dwelt at first eagerly and hopefully upon his face, but, as she HAD NOT expected, recognizing from the blankness of his demeanor that the previous performance was intended for them exclusively, the same eager eyes were presently dropped again upon their books in simple imitation, as if he were one of themselves. Mrs. Martin breathed freely, and lessons began.
Yet she was nervously conscious, meanwhile, of a more ill-omened occurrence. This was the non-arrival of several of her oldest pupils, notably, the refractory and incorrigible Pike County contingent to whom Sperry had alluded. For the past few days they had hovered on the verge of active insubordination, and had indulged in vague mutterings which she had resolutely determined not to hear. It was, therefore, with some inward trepidations, not entirely relieved by Twing’s presence, that she saw the three Mackinnons and the two Hardees slouch into the school a full hour after the lessons had begun. They did not even excuse themselves, but were proceeding with a surly and ostentatious defiance to their seats, when Mrs. Martin was obliged to look up, and–as the eldest Hardee filed before her–to demand an explanation. The culprit addressed–a dull, heavy-looking youth of nineteen–hesitated with an air of mingled doggedness and sheepishness, and then, without replying, nudged his companion. It was evidently a preconcerted signal of rebellion, for the boy nudged stopped, and, turning a more intelligent, but equally dissatisfied, face upon the schoolmistress, began determinedly:–
“Wot’s our excuse for coming an hour late? Well, we ain’t got none. WE don’t call it an hour late–WE don’t. We call it the right time. We call it the right time for OUR lessons, for we don’t allow to come here to sing hymns with babbies. We don’t want to know ‘where, oh where, are the Hebrew children?’ They ain’t nothin’ to us Americans. And we don’t want any more Daniels in the Lions’ Den played off on us. We have enough of ’em in Sunday-school. We ain’t hankerin’ much for grammar and dictionary hogwash, and we don’t want no Boston parts o’ speech rung in on us the first thing in the mo’nin’. We ain’t Boston–we’re Pike County–WE are. We reckon to do our sums, and our figgerin’, and our sale and barter, and our interest tables and weights and measures when the time comes, and our geograffy when it’s on, and our readin’ and writin’ and the American Constitution in reg’lar hours, and then we calkilate to git up and git afore the po’try and the Boston airs and graces come round. That’s our rights and what our fathers pay school taxes for, and we want ’em.”
He stopped, looking less towards the schoolmistress than to his companions, for whom perhaps, after the schoolboy fashion, this attitude was taken. Mrs. Martin sat, quite white and self-contained, with her eyes fixed on the frayed rim of the rebel’s straw hat which he still kept on his head. Then she said quietly:–
“Take off your hat, sir.”
The boy did not move.
“He can’t,” said a voice cheerfully.
It was the new assistant. The whole school faced rapidly towards him. The rebel leader and his followers, who had not noticed him before, stared at the interrupter, who did not, however, seem to exhibit any of the authority of office, but rather the comment and criticism of one of themselves. “Wot you mean?” asked the boy indignantly.
“I mean you can’t take off your hat because you’ve got some things stowed away in it you don’t want seen,” said Twing, with an immovable face.
“Wot things?” exclaimed the boy angrily. Then suddenly recollecting himself, he added, “Go along! You can’t fool me! Think you’ll make me take off my hat–don’t you?”
“Well,” said Twing, advancing to the side of the rebel, “look here then!” With a dexterous movement and a slight struggle from the boy, he lifted the hat. A half-dozen apples, a bird’s nest, two birds’ eggs, and a fluttering half-fledged bird fell from it. A wave of delight and astonishment ran along the benches, a blank look of hopeless bewilderment settled upon the boy’s face, and the gravity of the situation disappeared forever in the irrepressible burst of laughter, in which even his brother rebels joined. The smallest child who had been half-frightened, half-fascinated by the bold, bad, heroic attitude of the mutineer, was quick to see the ridiculousness of that figure crowned with cheap schoolboy plunder. The eloquent protest of his wrongs was lost in the ludicrous appearance of the protester. Even Mrs. Martin felt that nothing she could say at that moment could lift the rebellion into seriousness again. But Twing was evidently not satisfied.
“Beg Mrs. Martin’s pardon, and say you were foolin’ with the boys,” he said in a low voice.
The discomfited rebel hesitated.
“Say it, or I’ll SHOW WHAT YOU’VE GOT IN YOUR POCKETS!” said Twing in a terribly significant aside.
The boy mumbled an apology to Mrs. Martin, scrambled in a blank, hopeless way to his seat, and the brief rebellion ignominiously ended. But two things struck Mrs. Martin as peculiar. She overheard the culprit say, with bated breath and evident sincerity, to his comrades: “Hadn’t nothing in my hat, anyway!” and one of the infant class was heard to complain, in a deeply-injured way, that the bird’s nest was HIS, and had been “stoled” from his desk. And there still remained the fact for which Twing’s undoubted fascination over the children had somewhat prepared her–that at recess the malcontents–one and all–seemed to have forgiven the man who had overcome them, and gathered round him with unmistakable interest. All this, however, did not blind her to the serious intent of the rebellion, or of Twing’s unaccountable assumption of her prerogative. While he was still romping with the children she called him in.
“I must remind you,” she said, with a slight nervous asperity, “that this outrageous conduct of Tom Hardee was evidently deliberated and prepared by the others, and cannot end in this way.”
He looked at her with a face so exasperatingly expressionless that she could have slapped it as if it had belonged to one of the older scholars, and said,–“But it HAS ended. It’s a dead frost.”
“I don’t know what you mean; and I must remind you also that in this school we neither teach nor learn slang.”
His immobile face changed for an instant to a look of such decided admiration that she felt her color rise; but he wiped his expression away with his hand as if it had been some artificial make-up, and said awkwardly, but earnestly:–
“Excuse me–won’t you? But, look here, Mrs. Martin, I found out early this morning, when I was squaring myself with the other children, that there was this row hangin’ on–in fact, that there was a sort of idea that Pike County wasn’t having a fair show–excuse me–in the running of the school, and that Peaseley and Barstow were a little too much on in every scene. In fact, you see, it was just what Tom said.”
“This is insufferable,” said Mrs. Martin, her eyes growing darker as her cheeks grew red. “They shall go home to their parents, and tell them from me”–
“That they’re all mistaken–excuse me–but that’s just what THEY’RE GOIN’ TO DO. I tell you, Mrs. Martin, their little game’s busted–I beg pardon–but it’s all over. You’ll have no more trouble with them.”
“And you think that just because you found Tom had something in his hat, and exposed him?” said Mrs. Martin scornfully.
“Tom HADN’T anything in his hat,” said Twing, wiping his mouth slowly.
“Nothing?” repeated Mrs. Martin.
“But I SAW you take the things out.”
“That was only a TRICK! He had nothing except what I had up my sleeve, and forced on him. He knew it, and that frightened him, and made him look like a fool, and so bursted up his conspiracy. There’s nothin’ boys are more afraid of than ridicule, or the man or boy that make ’em ridiculous.”
“I won’t ask you if you call this FAIR to the boy, Mr. Twing?” said Mrs. Martin hotly; “but is this your idea of discipline?”
“I call it fair, because Tom knew it was some kind of a trick, and wasn’t deceived. I call it discipline if it made him do what was right afterwards, and makes him afraid or unwilling to do anything to offend me or you again. He likes me none the worse for giving him a chance of being laughed out of a thing instead of being DRIVEN out of it. And,” he added, with awkward earnestness, “if you’ll just leave all this to ME, and only consider me here to take this sort of work which ain’t a lady’s–off your hands, we’ll just strike our own line between the Peaseleys and Pike County–and run this school in spite of both.”
A little mollified, a good deal puzzled, and perhaps more influenced by the man’s manner than she had imagined, Mrs. Martin said nothing, but let the day pass without dismissing the offenders. And on returning home that evening she was considerably surprised to receive her landlady’s extravagant congratulations on the advent of her new assistant. “And they do say, Mrs. Martin,” continued that lady enthusiastically, “that your just setting your foot down square on that Peaseley and that Barstow, BOTH OF ‘EM–and choosing your own assistant yourself–a plain young fellow with no frills and fancies, but one that you could set about making all the changes you like, was just the biggest thing you ever did for Pine Clearing.”
“And–they–consider him quite–competent?” said Mrs. Martin, with timid color and hesitating audacity.
“Competent! You ask my Johnny.”
Nevertheless, Mrs. Martin was somewhat formally early at the schoolhouse the next morning. “Perhaps,” she said, with an odd mixture of dignity and timidity, “we’d better, before school commences, go over the lessons for the day.”
“I HAVE,” he said quickly. “I told you ONE rehearsal was enough for me.”
“You mean you have looked over them?”
“Got ’em by heart. Letter perfect. Want to hear me? Listen.”
She did. He had actually committed to memory, and without a lapse, the entire text of rules, questions, answers, and examples of the lessons for the day.
Before a month had passed, Mr. Twing’s success was secure and established. So were a few of the changes he had quietly instituted. The devotional singing and Scripture reading which had excited the discontent of the Pike County children and their parents was not discontinued, but half an hour before recess was given up to some secular choruses, patriotic or topical, in which the little ones under Twing’s really wonderful practical tuition exhibited such quick and pleasing proficiency, that a certain negro minstrel camp-meeting song attained sufficient popularity to be lifted by general accord to promotion to the devotional exercises, where it eventually ousted the objectionable “Hebrew children” on the question of melody alone. Grammar was still taught at Pine Clearing School in spite of the Hardees and Mackinnons, but Twing had managed to import into the cognate exercises of recitation a wonderful degree of enthusiasm and excellence. Dialectical Pike County, that had refused to recognize the governing powers of the nominative case, nevertheless came out strong in classical elocution, and Tom Hardee, who had delivered his ungrammatical protest on behalf of Pike County, was no less strong, if more elegant, in his impeachment of Warren Hastings as Edmund Burke, with the equal sanction of his parents. The trustees, Sperry and Jackson, had marveled, but were glad enough to accept the popular verdict–only Mr. Peaseley still retained an attitude of martyr-like forbearance and fatigued toleration towards the new assistant and his changes. As to Mrs. Martin, she seemed to accept the work of Mr. Twing after his own definition of it–as of a masculine quality ill-suited to a lady’s tastes and inclinations; but it was noticeable that while she had at first repelled any criticism of him whatever, she had lately been given to explaining his position to her friends, and had spoken of him with somewhat labored and ostentatious patronage. Yet when they were alone together she frankly found him very amusing, and his presumption and vulgarity so clearly unintentional that it no longer offended her. They were good friends without having any confidences beyond the duties of the school; she had asked no further explanation of the fact that he had been selected by Mr. Barstow without reference to any special antecedent training. What his actual antecedents were she had never cared to know, nor he apparently to reveal; that he had been engaged in some other occupations of superior or inferior quality would not have been remarkable in a community where the principal lawyer had been a soldier, and the miller a doctor. The fact that he admired her was plain enough to HER; that it pleased her, but carried with it no ulterior thought or responsibility, might have been equally clear to others. Perhaps it was so to HIM.
Howbeit, this easy mutual intercourse was one day interrupted by what seemed a trifling incident. The piano, which Mr. Barstow had promised, duly made its appearance in the schoolhouse, to the delight of the scholars and the gentle satisfaction of Mrs. Martin, who, in addition to the rudimentary musical instruction of the younger girls, occasionally played upon it herself in a prim, refined, and conscientious fashion. To this, when she was alone after school hours, she sometimes added a faint, colorless voice of limited range and gentlewomanly expression. It was on one of these occasions that Twing, becoming an accidental auditor of this chaste, sad piping, was not only permitted to remain to hear the end of a love song of strictly guarded passion in the subjunctive mood, but at the close was invited to try his hand–a quick, if not a cultivated one–at the instrument. He did so. Like her, he added his voice. Like hers, it was a love song. But there the similitude ended. Negro in dialect, illiterate in construction, idiotic in passion, and presumably addressed to the “Rose of Alabama,” in the very extravagance of its childish infatuation it might have been a mockery of the schoolmistress’s song but for one tremendous fact! In unrestrained feeling, pathetic yearning, and exquisite tenderness of expression, it was unmistakably and appallingly personal and sincere. It was true the lips spoken of were “lubly,” the eyes alluded to were like “lightenin’ bugs,” but from the voice and gestures of the singer Mrs. Martin confusedly felt that they were intended for HERS, and even the refrain that “she dressed so neat and looked so sweet” was glaringly allusive to her own modish mourning. Alternately flushing and paling, with a hysteric smile hovering round her small reserved mouth, the unfortunate gentlewoman was fain to turn to the window to keep her countenance until it was concluded. She did not ask him to repeat it, nor did she again subject herself to this palpable serenade, but a few days afterwards, as she was idly striking the keys in the interval of a music lesson, one of her little pupils broke out, “Why, Mrs. Martin, if yo ain’t a pickin’ out that pow’ful pretty tune that Mr. Twing sings!”
Nevertheless, when Twing, a week or two later, suggested that he might sing the same song as a solo at a certain performance to be given by the school children in aid of a local charity, she drily intimated that it was hardly of a character to suit the entertainment. “But,” she added, more gently, “you recite so well; why not give a recitation?”
He looked at her with questioning and troubled eyes,–the one expression he seemed to have lately acquired. “But that would be IN PUBLIC! There’ll be a lot of people there,” he said doubtfully.
A little amused at this first apparent sign of a want of confidence in himself, she said, with a reassuring smile, “So much the better,–you do it really too well to have it thrown away entirely on children.”
“Do YOU wish it?” he said suddenly.
Somewhat confused, but more irritated by his abruptness, she replied, “Why not?” But when the day came, and before a crowded audience, in which there was a fair sprinkling of strangers, she regretted her rash suggestion. For when the pupils had gone through certain calisthenic exercises–admirably taught and arranged by him–and “spoken their pieces,” he arose, and, fixing his eyes on her, began Othello’s defense before the Duke and Council. Here, as on the previous occasion, she felt herself personally alluded to in his account of his wooing. Desdemona, for some occult reason, vicariously appeared for her in the unwarrantable picture of his passion, and to this was added the absurd consciousness which she could not put aside that the audience, following with enthusiasm his really strong declamation, was also following his suggestion and adopting it. Yet she was also conscious, and, as she thought, as inconsistently, of being pleased and even proud of his success. At the conclusion the applause was general, and a voice added with husky admiration and familiarity:–
“Brayvo, Johnny Walker!”
Twing’s face became suddenly white as a Pierrot mask. There was a dead silence, in which the voice continued, “Give us ‘Sugar in the Gourd,’ Johnny.”
A few hisses, and cries of “Hush!” “Put him out!” followed. Mrs. Martin raised her eyes quickly to where her assistant had stood bowing his thanks a moment before. He was gone!
More concerned than she cared to confess, vaguely fearful that she was in some way connected with his abrupt withdrawal, and perhaps a little remorseful that she had allowed her personal feelings to interfere with her frank recognition of his triumph, she turned back to the schoolroom, after the little performers and their audience had departed, in the hope that he might return. It was getting late, the nearly level rays of the sun were lying on the empty benches at the lower end of the room, but the desk where she sat with its lid raised was in deep shadow. Suddenly she heard his voice in a rear hall, but it was accompanied by another’s,–the same voice which had interrupted the applause. Before she could either withdraw, or make herself known, the two men had entered the room, and were passing slowly through it. She understood at once that Twing had slipped out into a janitor’s room in the rear, where he had evidently forced an interview and explanation from his interrupter, and now had been waiting for the audience to disperse before emerging by the front door. They had evidently overlooked her in the shadow.
“But,” said the stranger, as if following an aggrieved line of apology, “if Barstow knew who you were, and what you’d done, and still thought you good enough to rastle round here and square up them Pike County fellers and them kids–what in thunder do you care if the others DO find you out, as long as Barstow sticks to you?”
“I’ve told you why, Dick,” returned Twing gloomily.
“Oh, the schoolma’am!”
“Yes, she’s a saint, an angel. More than that–she’s a lady, Dick, to the tip of her fingers, who knows nothing of the world outside a parson’s study. She took me on trust–without a word–when the trustees hung back and stared. She’s never asked me about myself, and now when she knows who and what I have been–she’ll loathe me!”
“But look here, Jim,” said the stranger anxiously. “I’ll say it’s all a lie. I’ll come here and apologize to you afore HER, and say I took you for somebody else. I’ll”–
“It’s too late,” said Twing moodily.
“And what’ll you do?”
They had reached the door together. To Mrs. Martin’s terror, as the stranger passed out, Twing, instead of following him as she expected, said “Good-night,” and gloomily re-entered the schoolroom. Here he paused a moment, and then throwing himself on one of the benches, dropped his head upon a desk with his face buried in his hands–like a very schoolboy.
What passed through Mrs. Martin’s mind I know not. For a moment she sat erect and rigid at her desk. Then she slipped quietly down, and, softly as one of the last shadows cast by the dying sun, glided across the floor to where he sat.
“Mrs. Martin,” he said, starting to his feet.
“I have heard all,” she said faintly. “I couldn’t help it. I was here when you came in. But I want to tell you that I am content to know you only as you seem to be,–as I have always found you here,–strong and loyal to a duty laid upon you by those who had a full knowledge of all you had been.”
“Did you? Do you know what I have been?”
Mrs. Martin looked frightened, trembled a moment, and, recovering herself with an effort, said gently, “I know nothing of your past.”
“Nothing?” he repeated, with a mirthless attempt at laughter, and a quick breath. “Not that I’ve been a–a–mountebank, a variety actor–a clown, you know, for the amusement of the lowest, at twenty-five cents a ticket. That I’m ‘Johnny Walker,’ the song and dance man–the all-round man–selected by Mr. Barstow to teach these boors a lesson as to what they wanted!”
She looked at him a moment–timidly, yet thoughtfully. “Then you are an actor–a person who simulates what he does not feel?”
“And all the time you have been here you have been acting the schoolmaster–playing a part–for–for Mr. Barstow?”
The color came softly to her face again, and her voice was very low. “And when you sang to me that day, and when you looked at me–as you did–an hour or two ago–while you were entertaining–you were–only–acting?”
Mr. Twing’s answer was not known, but it must have been a full and complete one, for it was quite dark when he left the schoolroom–NOT for the last time–with its mistress on his arm.