XIV. A Day at the Linley Schoolhouse
 

A remarkable figure was young Sidney Trove, the new teacher in District No. 1. He was nearing nineteen years of age that winter.

"I like that," he said to the trustee, who had been telling him of the unruly boys--great, hulking fellows that made trouble every winter term. "Trouble--it's a grand thing I--but I'm not selfish, and if I find any, I'll agree to divide it with the boys. I don't know but I'll be generous and let them have the most of it. If they put me out of the schoolhouse, I'll have learned something."

The trustee looked at the six feet and two inches of bone and muscle that sat lounging in a chair--looked from end to end of it.

"What's that?" he inquired, smiling.

"That I've no business there," said young Mr. Trove.

"I guess you'll dew," said the trustee. "Make 'em toe the line; that's all I got t' say."

"And all I've got to do is my best--I don't promise any more," the other answered modestly, as he rose to leave.

Linley School was at the four corners in Pleasant Valley,--a low, frame structure, small and weathered gray. Windows, with no shade, or shutter, were set, two on a side, in perfect apposition. A passing traveller could see through them to the rocky pasture beyond. Who came there for knowledge, though a fool, was dubbed a "scholar." It was a word sharply etched in the dialect of that region. If one were to say skollur-r-r, he might come near it. Every winter morning the scholar entered a little vestibule which was part of the woodshed. He passed an ash barrel and the odour of drying wood, hung cap and coat On a peg in the closet, lifted the latch of a pine door, and came into the schoolroom. If before nine, it would be noisy with shout and laughter, the buzz of tongues, the tread of running feet. Big girls, in neat aprons, would be gossiping at the stove hearth; small boys would be chasing each other up and down aisles and leaping the whittled desks of pine; little girls, in checked flannel, or homespun, would be circling in a song play; big boys would be trying feats of strength that ended in loud laughter. So it was, the first morning of that winter term in 1850. A tall youth stood by the window. Suddenly he gave a loud "sh--h--h!" Running feet fell silently and halted; words begun with a shout ended in a whisper. A boy making caricatures at the blackboard dropped his chalk, that now fell noisily. A whisper, heavy with awe and expectation, flew hissing from lip to lip--"The teacher!" There came a tramping in the vestibule, the door-latch jumped with a loud rattle, and in came Sidney Trove. All eyes were turned upon him. A look of rectitude, dovelike and too good to be true, came over many faces.

"Good morning!" said the young man, removing his cap, coat, and overshoes. Some nodded, dumb with timidity. Only a few little ones had the bravery to speak up, as they gave back the words in a tone that would have fitted a golden text. He came to the roaring stove and stood a moment, warming his hands. A group of the big boys were in a corner whispering. Two were sturdy and quite six feet tall,--the Beach boys.

"Big as a bull moose," one whispered,

"An' stouter," said another.

The teacher took a pencil from his pocket and tapped the desk.

"Please take your seats," said he.

All obeyed. Then he went around with the roll and took their names, of which there were thirty-four.

"I believe I know your name," said Trove, smiling, as he came to Polly Vaughn.

"I believe you do," said she, glancing up at him, with half a smile and a little move in her lips that seemed to ask, "How could you forget me?"

Then the teacher, knowing the peril of her eyes, became very dignified as he glanced over the books she had brought to school. He knew it was going to be a hard day. For a little, he wondered if he had not been foolish, after all, in trying a job so difficult and so perilous. If he should be thrown out of school, he felt sure it would ruin him--he could never look Polly in the face again. As he turned to begin the work of teaching, it seemed to him a case of do or die, and he felt the strength of an ox in his heavy muscles.

The big boys had settled themselves in a back corner side by side--a situation too favourable for mischief. He asked them to take other seats. They complied sullenly and with hesitation. He looked over books, organized the school in classes, and started one of them on its way. It was the primer class, including a half dozen very small boys and girls. They shouted each word in the reading lesson, laboured in silence with another, and gave voice again with unabated energy. In their pursuit of learning they bayed like hounds. Their work began upon this ancient and informing legend, written to indicate the shout and skip of the youthful student:--

The--sun--is--up--and--it--is--day--day?--day.

"You're afraid," the teacher began after a little. "Come up here close to me."

They came to his chair and stood about him. Some were confident, others hung back suspicious and untamed.

"We're going to be friends," said he, in a low, gentle voice. He took from his pocket a lot of cards and gave one to each.

"Here's a story," he continued. "See--I put it in plain print for you with pen and ink. It's all about a bear and a boy, and is in ten parts. Here's the first chapter. Take it home with you to-night--"

He stopped suddenly. He had turned in his chair and could see none of the boys. He did not move, but slowly took off a pair of glasses he had been wearing.

"Joe Beach," said he, coolly, "come out here on the floor."

There was a moment of dead silence. That big youth--the terror of Linley School--was now red and dumb with amazement. His deviltry had begun, but how had the teacher seen it with his back turned?

"I'll think it over," said the boy, sullenly.

The teacher laid down his book, calmly, walked to the seat of the young rebel, took him by the collar and the back of the neck, tore him out of the place where his hands and feet were clinging like the roots of a tree, dragged him roughly to the aisle and over the floor space, taking part of the seat along, and stood him to the wall with a bang that shook the windows. There was no halting--it was all over in half a minute.

"You'll please remain there," said he, coolly, "until I tell you to sit down."

He turned his back on the bully, walked slowly to his chair, and opened his book again.

"Take it home with you to-night," said he, continuing his talk to the primer class. "Spell it over, so you won't have to stop long between words. All who read it well to-morrow will get another chapter."

They began to study at home. Wonder grew, and pleasure came with labour as the tale went on.

He dismissed the primer readers, calling the first class in geography. As they took their places he repaired the broken seat, a part of which had been torn off the nails. The fallen rebel stood leaning, his back to the school. He had expected help, but the reserve force had failed him.

"Joe Beach--you may take your seat," said the teacher, in a kind of parenthetical tone.

"Geography starts at home," he continued, beginning the recitation. "Who can tell me where is the Linley schoolhouse?"

A dozen hands went up.

"You tell," said he to one.

"It's here," was the answer.

"Where's here?"

A boy looked thoughtful.

"Nex' t' Joe Linley's cow-pastur'," he ventured presently,

"Will you tell us?" the teacher asked, looking at a bright-eyed girl.

"In Faraway, New York," said she, glibly.

"Tom Linley, I'll take that," said the teacher, in a lazy tone. He was looking down at his book. Where he sat, facing the class, he could see none of the boys without turning. But he had not turned. To the wonder of all, up he spoke as Tom Linley was handing a slip of paper to Joe Beach. There was a little pause. The young man hesitated, rose, and walked nervously down the aisle.

"Thank you," said the teacher, as he took the message and flung it on the fire, unread. "Faraway, New York;" he continued on his way to the blackboard as if nothing had happened.

He drew a circle, indicating the four points of the compass on it. Then he mapped the town of Faraway and others, east, west, north, and south of it. So he made a map of the county and bade them copy it. Around the county in succeeding lessons he built a map of the state. Others in the middle group were added, the structure growing, day by day, until they had mapped the hemisphere.

At the Linley schoolhouse something had happened. Cunning no sooner showed its head than it was bruised like a serpent, brawny muscles had been easily outdone, boldness had grown timid, conceit had begun to ebb. A serious look had settled upon all faces. Every scholar had learned one thing, learned it well and quickly--it was to be no playroom.

There was a recess of one hour at noon. All went for their dinner pails and sat quietly, eating bread and butter followed by doughnuts, apples, and pie.

The young men had walked to the road. Nothing had been said. They drew near each other. Tom Linley looked up at Joe Beach. In his face one might have seen a cloud of sympathy that had its silver lining of amusement.

"Powerful?" Tom inquired, soberly.

"What?" said Joe.

"Powerful?" Tom repeated.

"Powerful! Jiminy crimps!" said Joe, significantly.

"Why didn't ye kick him?"

"Kick him?"

"Yes."

"Kick him?

"Kick him."

"Huh! dunno," said Joe, with a look of sadness turning into contempt.

"Scairt?" the other inquired.

"Scairt? Na--a--w," said Joe, scornfully.

"What was ye, then?"

"Parr'lyzed--seems so."

There was an outbreak of laughter.

"You was goin' t' help," said Joe, addressing Tom Linley.

A moment of silence followed.

"You was goin' t' help," the fallen bully repeated, with large emphasis on the pronoun.

"Help?" Tom inquired, sparring for wind as it were.

"Yes, help."

"You was licked 'fore I had time."

"Didn't dast--that's what's the matter--didn't dast," said big Joe, with a tone of irreparable injury.

"Wouldn't 'a' been nigh ye fer a millyun dollars," said Tom, soberly.

"Why not?"

"'Twant safe; that's why."

"'Fraid o' him! ye coward!"

"No; 'fraid o' you."

"Why?"

"'Cos if one o' yer feet had hit a feller when ye come up ag'in that wall," Tom answered slowly, "there wouldn't 'a' been nuthin' left uv him."

All laughed loudly.

Then there was another silence. Joe broke it after a moment of deep thought.

"Like t' know how he seen me," said he.

"'Tis cur'us," said another.

"Guess he's one o' them preformers like they have at the circus--" was the opinion of Sam Beach. "See one take a pig out o' his hat las' summer."

"'Tain't fair 'n' square," said Tom Linley; "not jest eggzac'ly."

"Gosh! B'lieve I'll run away," said Joe, after a pause. "Ain' no fun here for me."

"Better not," said Archer Town; "not if ye know when yer well off."

"Why not?"

"Wal, he'd see ye wherever ye was an' do suthin' to ye," said Archer. "Prob'ly he's heard all we been sayin' here."

"Wal, I ain't said nuthin' I'm 'shamed of," said Sam Beach, thoughtfully.

A bell rang, and all hurried to the schoolhouse. The afternoon was uneventful. Those rough-edged, brawny fellows had become serious. Hope had died in their breasts, and now they looked as if they had come to its funeral. They began to examine their books as one looks at a bitter draught before drinking it. In every subject the teacher took a new way not likely to be hard upon tender feet. For each lesson he had a method of his own. He angled for the interest of the class and caught it. With some a term of school had been as a long sickness, lengthened by the medicine of books and the surgery of the beech rod. They had resented it with ingenious deviltry. The confusion of the teacher and some incidental fun were its only compensations. The young man gave his best thought to the correction of this mental attitude. Four o'clock came at last--the work of the day was over. Weary with its tension all sat waiting the teacher's word. For a little he stood facing them.

"Tom Linley and Joe Beach," said he, in a low voice, "will you wait a moment after the others have gone? School's dismissed."

There was a rush of feet and a rattle of dinner pails. All were eager to get home with the story of that day--save the two it had brought to shame. They sat quietly as the others went away. A deep silence fell in that little room. Of a sudden it had become a lonely place.

The teacher damped the fire and put on his overshoes.

"Boys," said he, drawing a big silver watch, "hear that watch ticking. It tells the flight of seconds. You are--eighteen, did you say? They turn boys into oxen here in this country; just a thing of bone and muscle, living to sweat and lift and groan. Maybe I can save you, but there's not a minute to lose. With you it all depends on this term of school. When it's done you'll either be ox or driver. Play checkers?"

Tom nodded.

"I'll come over some evening, and we'll have a game. Good night!"