Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter XIX. Speaking Pieces
The first of September came all too soon, and school began. Among the boys and girls who went trooping up to the "East Corner knowledge-box," as they called it, was our friend Ben, with a pile of neat books under his arm. He felt very strange, and decidedly shy; but put on a bold face, and let nobody guess that, though nearly thirteen, he had never been to school before. Miss Celia had told his story to Teacher, and she, being a kind little woman, with young brothers of her own, made things as easy for him as she could. In reading and writing he did very well, and proudly took his place among lads of his own age; but when it came to arithmetic and geography, he had to go down a long way, and begin almost at the beginning, in spite of Thorny's efforts to "tool him along fast." It mortified him sadly, but there was no help for it; and in some of the classes he had dear little Betty to console with him when he failed, and smile contentedly when he got above her, as he soon began to do, -- for she was not a quick child, and plodded through First Parts long after sister Bab was flourishing away among girls much older than herself.
Fortunately, Ben was a short boy and a clever one, so he did not look out of place among the ten and eleven year olders, and fell upon his lessons with the same resolution with which he used to take a new leap, or practise patiently till he could touch his heels with his head. That sort of exercise had given him a strong, elastic little body; this kind was to train his mind, and make its faculties as useful, quick and sure, as the obedient muscles, nerves and eye, which kept him safe where others would have broken their necks. He knew this, and found much consolation in the fact that, though mental arithmetic was a hopeless task, he could turn a dozen somersaults, and come up as steady as a judge. When the boys laughed at him for saying that China was in Africa, he routed them entirely by his superior knowledge of the animals belonging to that wild country; and when "First class in reading" was called, he marched up with the proud consciousness that the shortest boy in it did better than tall Moses Towne or fat Sam Kitteridge.
Teacher praised him all she honestly could, and corrected his many blunders so quietly that he soon ceased to be a deep, distressful red during recitation, and tugged away so manfully that no one could help respecting him for his efforts, and trying to make light of his failures. So the first hard week went by, and though the boy's heart had sunk many a time at the prospect of a protracted wrestle with his own ignorance, he made up his mind to win, and went at it again on the Monday with fresh zeal, all the better and braver for a good, cheery talk with Miss Celia in the Sunday evening twilight.
He did not tell her one of his greatest trials, however, because he thought she could not help him there. Some of the children rather looked down upon him, called him "tramp" and "beggar," twitted him with having been a circus boy, and lived in a tent like a gypsy. They did not mean to be cruel, but did it for the sake of teasing, never stopping to think how much such sport can make a fellow-creature suffer. Being a plucky fellow, Ben pretended not to mind; but he did feel it keenly, because he wanted to start afresh, and be like other boys. He was not ashamed of the old life; but, finding those around him disapproved of it, he was glad to let it be forgotten, even by himself; for his latest recollections were not happy ones, and present comforts made past hardships seem harder than before.
He said nothing of this to Miss Celia; but she found it out, and liked him all the better for keeping some of his small worries to himself. Bab and Betty came over Monday afternoon full of indignation at some boyish insult Sam had put upon Ben; and, finding them too full of it to enjoy the reading, Miss Celia asked what the matter was. Then both little girls burst out in a rapid succession of broken exclamations, which did not give a very clear idea of the difficulty, --
"Sam didn't like it because Ben jumped farther than he did -- "
"And he said Ben ought to be in the poor-house."
"And Ben said he ought to be in it pigpen."
"So he had! -- such a greedy thing, bringing lovely big apples, and not giving any one a single bite!"
"Then he was mad, and we all laughed; and he said, 'Want to fight?'
"And Ben said, 'No, thanky, not much fun in pounding a feather-bed.'"
"Oh, he was awfully mad then, and chased Ben up the big maple."
"He's there now, for Sam won't let him come down till he takes it all back."
"Ben won't; and I do believe he'll have to stay up all night," said Betty, distressfully.
"He won't care, and we'll have fun firing up his supper. Nut cakes and cheese will go splendidly; and may be baked pears wouldn't get smashed, he's such a good catch," added Bab, decidedly relishing the prospect.
"If he does not come by tea-time, we will go and look after him. It seems to me I have heard something about Sam's troubling him before, haven't I?" asked Miss Celia, ready to defend her protege against all unfair persecution.
"Yes,'m, Sam and Mose are always plaguing Ben. They are big boys, and we can't make them stop. I won't let the girls do it, and the little boys don't dare to, since Teacher spoke to them." answered Bab.
"Why does not Teacher speak to the big ones?
"Ben won't tell of them, or let us. He says he'll fight his own battles, and hates tell-tales. I guess he won't like to have us tell you, but I don't care, for it is too bad!" and Betty looked ready to cry over her friend's tribulations.
"I'm glad you did, for I will attend to it, and stop this sort of thing," said Miss Celia, after the children had told some of the tormenting speeches which had tried poor Ben.
Just then Thorny appeared, looking much amused. and the little girls both called out in a breath, "Did you see Ben and get him down?"
"He got himself down in the neatest way you can imagine;" and Thorny laughed at the recollection.
"Where is Sam?" asked Bab.
"Staring up at the sky to see where Ben has flown to."
"Oh, tell about it!" begged Betty.
"Well, I came along and found Ben treed, and Sam stoning him. I stopped that at once, and told the 'fat boy' to be off. He said he wouldn't till Ben begged his pardon; and Ben said he wouldn't do it, if he stayed up for a week. I was just preparing to give that rascal a scientific thrashing, when a load of hay came along, and Ben dropped on to it so quietly that Sam, who was trying to bully me, never saw him go. It tickled me so, I told Sam I guessed I'd let him off that time, and walked away, leaving him to hunt for Ben, and wonder where the dickens he had vanished to."
The idea of Sam's bewilderment amused the others as much as Thorny, and they all had a good laugh over it before Miss Celia asked, --
"Where has Ben gone now?"
" Oh, he'll take a little ride, and then slip down and race home full of the fun of it. But I've got to settle Sam. I won't have our Ben hectored by any one -- "
"But yourself," put in his sister, with a sly smile, for Thorny was rather domineering at times.
"He doesn't mind my poking him up now and then, it's good for him; and I always take his part against other people. Sam is a bully, and so is Mose; and I'll thrash them both if they don't stop."
Anxious to curb her brother's pugnacious propensities, Miss Celia proposed milder measures, promising to speak to the boys herself if there was any more trouble.
"I have been thinking that we should have some sort of merry-making for Ben on his birthday. My plan was a very simple one; but I will enlarge it, and have all the young folks come, and Ben shall be king of the fun. he needs encouragement in well-doing, for he does try; and now the first hard part is nearly over, I am sure he will get on bravely. If we treat him with respect, and show our regard for him, others will follow our example; and that will be better than fighting about it."
"So it will! What shall we do to make our party tip-top?" asked Thorny, falling into the trap at once; for he dearly loved to get up theatricals, and had not had any for a long time.
"We will plan something splendid, a 'grand combination,' as you used to call your droll mixtures of tragedy, comedy, melodrama and farce," answered his sister, with her head already full of lively plots.
"We'll startle the natives. I don't believe they ever saw a play in all their lives, hey, Bab?"
"I've seen a circus."
"We dress up and do ' Babes in the Wood,"' added Betty, with dignity.
"Pho! that's nothing. I'll show you acting that will make your hair stand on end, and you shall act too. Bab will be capital for the naughty girls," began Thorny, excited by the prospect of producing a sensation on the boards, and always ready to tease the girls.
Before Betty could protest that she did not want her hair to stand up, or Bab could indignantly decline the role offered her, a shrill whistle was heard, and Miss Celia whispered, with a warning look, --
"Hush! Ben is coming, and he must not know any thing about this yet."
The next day was Wednesday, and in the afternoon Miss Celia went to hear the children "speak pieces," though it was very seldom that any of the busy matrons and elder sisters found time or inclination for these displays of youthful oratory. Miss Celia and Mrs. Moss were all the audience on this occasion, but Teacher was both pleased and proud to see them, and a general rustle went through the school as they came in, all the girls turning from the visitors to nod at Bab and Betty, who smiled all over their round faces to see "Ma" sitting up "'side of Teacher," and the boys grinned at Ben, whose heart began to beat fast at the thought of his dear mistress coming so far to hear him say his piece.
Thorny had recommended Marco Bozzaris, but Ben preferred John Gilpin, and ran the famous race with much spirit, making excellent time in some parts and having to be spurred a little in others, but came out all right, though quite breathless at the end, sitting down amid great applause, some of which, curiously enough, seemed to come from outside; which in fact it did, for Thorny was bound to hear but would not come in, lest his presence should abash one orator at least.
Other pieces followed, all more or less patriotic and warlike, among the boys; sentimental among the girls. Sam broke down in his attempt to give one of Webster's great speeches, Little Cy Fay boldly attacked
"Again to the battle, Achaians!"
and shrieked his way through it in a shrill, small voice, bound to do honor to the older brother who had trained him even if he broke a vessel in the attempt. Billy chose a well-worn piece, but gave it a new interest by his style of delivery; for his gestures were so spasmodic he looked as if going into a fit, and he did such astonishing things with his voice that one never knew whether a howl or a growl would come next. When
"The woods against a stormy sky Their giant branches tossed; "
Billy's arms went round like the sails of a windmill; the "hymns of lofty cheer" not only "shook the depths of the desert gloom," but the small children on their little benches, and the school-house literally rang "to the anthems of the free!" When "the ocean eagle soared," Billy appeared to be going bodily up, and the "pines of the forest roared" as if they had taken lessons of Van Amburgh's biggest lion. "Woman's fearless eye" was expressed by a wild glare; "manhood's brow, severely high," by a sudden clutch at the reddish locks falling over the orator's hot forehead, and a sounding thump on his blue checked bosom told where "the fiery heart of youth" was located. "What sought they thus far?" he asked, in such a natural and inquiring tone, with his eye fixed on Mamie Peters, that the startled innocent replied, "Dunno," which caused the speaker to close in haste, devoutly pointing a stubby finger upward at the last line.
This was considered the gem of the collection, and Billy took his seat proudly conscious that his native town boasted an orator who, in time, would utterly eclipse Edward Everett and Wendell Phillips.
Sally Folsom led off with "The Coral Grove," chosen for the express purpose of making her friend Almira Mullet start and blush, when she recited the second line of that pleasing poem,
"Where the purple mullet and gold-fish rove."
One of the older girls gave Wordsworth's "Lost Love" in a pensive tone, clasping her hands and bringing out the "O" as if a sudden twinge of toothache seized her when she ended.
"But she is in her grave, and O, the difference to me!
Bab always chose a funny piece, and on this afternoon set them all laughing by the spirit with which she spoke the droll poem, "Pussy's Class," which some of my young readers may have read. The "meou" and the "sptzz" were capital, and when the "fond mamma rubbed her nose," the children shouted, for Miss Bab made a paw of her hand and ended with an impromptu purr, which was considered the best imitation ever presented to an appreciative public. Betty bashfully murmurred "Little White Lily," swaying to and fro as regularly as if in no other way could the rhymes be ground out of her memory.
"That is all, I believe. If either of the ladies would like to say a few words to the children, I should be pleased to have them," said Teacher, politely, pausing before she dismissed school with a song.
"Please, 'm. I'd like to speak my piece," answered Miss Celia, obeying a sudden impulse; and, stepping forward with her hat in her hand, she made a pretty courtesy before she recited Mary Howitt's sweet little ballad, "Mabel on Midsummer Day."
She looked so young and merry, and used such simple but expressive gestures, and spoke in such a clear, soft voice that the children sat as if spell-bound, learning several lessons from this new teacher, whose performance charmed them from beginning to end, and left a moral which all could understand and carry away in that last verse, --
"'Tis good to make all duty sweet, To be alert and kind; 'Tis good, like Littie Mabel, To have a willing mind."
Of course there was an enthusiastic clapping when Miss Celia sat down, but even while hands applauded, consciences pricked, and undone tasks, complaining words and sour faces seemed to rise up reproachfully before many of the children, as well as their own faults of elocution.
"Now we will sing," said Teacher, and a great clearing of throats ensued, but before a note could be uttered, the half-open door swung wide, and Sancho, with Ben's hat on, walked in upon his hind-legs, and stood with his paws meekly folded, while a voice from the entry sang rapidly, --
"Benny had a little dog, His fleece was white as snow, And everywhere that Benny went, The dog was sure to go. He went into the School one day, which was against the rule; It made the children laugh and play To see a dog --"
Mischievous Thorny got no further, for a general explosion of laughter drowned the last words, and Ben's command "Out, you rascal!" sent Sanch to the right-about in double-quick time.
Miss Celia tried to apologize for her bad brother, and Teacher tried to assure her that it didn't matter in the least, as this was always a merry time, and Mrs. Moss vainly shook her finger at her naughty daughters; they as well as the others would have their laugh out, and only partially sobered down when the Bell rang for "Attention." They thought they were to be dismissed, and repressed their giggles as well as they could in order to get a good start for a vociferous roar when they got out. But, to their great surprise, the pretty lady stood up again and said, in her friendly way, --
"I just want to thank you for this pleasant little exhibition, and ask leave to come again. I also wish to invite you all to my boy's birthday party on Saturday week. The archery meeting is to be in the afternoon, and both clubs will be there, I believe. In the evening we are going to have some fun, when we can laugh as much as we please without breaking any of the rules. In Ben's name I invite you, and hope you will all come, for we mean to make this the happiest birthday he ever had."
There were twenty pupils in the room, but the eighty hands and feet made such a racket at this announcement that an outsider would have thought a hundred children, at least, must have been at it. Miss Celia was a general favorite because she nodded to all the girls, called the boys by their last names, even addressing some of the largest as "Mr." which won their hearts at once, so that if she had invited them all to come and be whipped they would have gone sure that it was some delightful joke. With what eagerness they accepted the present invitation one can easily imagine, though they never guessed why she gave it in that way, and Ben's face was a sight to see, he was so pleased and proud at the honor done him that he did not know where to look, and was glad to rush out with the other boys and vent his emotions in whoops of delight. He knew that some little plot was being concocted for his birthday, but never dreamed of any thing so grand as asking the whole school, Teacher and all. The effect of the invitation was seen with comical rapidity, for the boys became overpowering in their friendly attentions to Ben. Even Sam, fearing he might be left out, promptly offered the peaceful olive-branch in the shape of a big apple, warm from his pocket, and Mose proposed a trade of jack-knives which would be greatly to Ben's advantage. But Thorny made the noblest sacrifice of all, for he said to his sister, as they walked home together, --
"I'm not going to try for the prize at all. I shoot so much better than the rest, having had more practice, you know, that it is hardly fair. Ben and Billy are next best, and about even, for Ben's strong wrist makes up for Billy's true eye, and both want to win. If I am out of the way Ben stands a good chance, for the other fellows don't amount to much."
"Bab does; she shoots nearly as well as Ben, and wants to win even more than he or Billy. She must have her chance at any rate."
"So she may, but she won't do any thing; girls can't, though it 's good exercise and pleases them to try. "
"If I had full use of both my arms I'd show you that girls can do a great deal when they like. Don't be too lofty, young man, for you may have to come down," laughed Miss Celia, amused by his airs.
"No fear," and Thorny calmly departed to set his targets for Ben's practice.
"We shall see," and from that moment Miss Celia made Bab her especial pupil, feeling that a little lesson would be good for Mr. Thorny, who rather lorded it over the other young people. There was a spice of mischief in it, for Miss Celia was very young at heart, in spite of her twenty-four years, and she was bound to see that her side had a fair chance, believing that girls can do whatever they are willing to strive patiently and wisely for.
So she kept Bab at work early and late, giving her all the hints and help she could with only one efficient hand, and Bab was delighted to think she did well enough to shoot with the club. Her arms ached and her fingers grew hard with twanging the bow, but she was indefatigable, and being a strong, tall child of her age, with a great love of all athletic sports, she got on fast and well, soon learning to send arrow after arrow with ever increasing accuracy nearer and nearer to the bull's-eye.
The boys took very little notice of her, being much absorbed in their own affairs, but Betty did for Bab what Sancho did for Ben, and trotted after arrows till her short legs were sadly tired, though her patience never gave out. She was so sure Bab would win that she cared nothing about her own success, practising little and seldom hitting any thing when she tried.