XVIII. A Day of Difficulties
 

All were in their seats and the teacher had called a class. Carlt Homer came in.

"You're ten minutes late," said the teacher.

"I have fifteen cows to milk," the boy answered.

"Where do you live?"

"'Bout a mile from here, on the Beach Plains."

"What time do you begin milking?"

"'Bout seven o'clock."

"I'll go to-morrow morning and help you," said the teacher. "We must be on time--that's a necessary law of the school."

At a quarter before seven in the morning, Sidney Trove presented himself at the Homers'. He had come to help with the milking, but found there were only five cows to milk.

"Too bad your father lost so many cows--all in a day," said he. "It's a great pity. Did you lose anything?"

"No, sir."

"Have you felt to see?"

The boy put his hand in his pocket.

"Not there--it's an inside pocket, way inside o' you. It's where you keep your honour and pride."

"Wal," said the boy, his tears starting, "I'm 'fraid I have."

"Enough said--good morning," the teacher answered as he went away.

One morning a few days later the teacher opened his school with more remarks.

"The other day," said he, "I spoke of a thing it was very necessary for us to learn. What was it?"

"To obey," said a youngster.

"Obey what?" the teacher inquired.

"Law," somebody ventured.

"Correct; we're studying law--every one of us--the laws of grammar, of arithmetic, of reading, and so on. We are learning to obey them. Now I am going to ask you what is the greatest law in the world?"

There was a moment of silence. Then the teacher wrote these words in large letters on the blackboard; "Thou shalt not lie."

"There is the law of laws," said the teacher, solemnly. "Better never have been born than not learn to obey it. If you always tell the truth, you needn't worry about any other law. Words are like money--some are genuine, some are counterfeit. If a man had a bag of counterfeit money and kept passing it, in a little while nobody would take his money. I knew a man who said he killed four bears at one shot. There's some that see too much when they're looking over their own gun-barrels. Don't be one of that kind. Don't ever kill too many bears at a shot."

After that, in the Linley district, a man who lied was said to be killing too many bears at a shot.

Good thoughts spread with slow but sure contagion. There were some who understood the teacher. His words went home and far with them, even to their graves, and how much farther who can say? They went over the hills, indeed, to other neighbourhoods, and here they are, still travelling, and going now, it may be, to the remotest corners of the earth. The big boys talked about this matter of lying and declared the teacher was right.

"There's Tunk Hosely," said Sam Price. "Nobody'd take his word for nuthin'."

"'Less he was t' say he was a fool out an' out," another boy suggested.

"Dunno as I'd b'lieve him then," said Sam. "Fer I'd begin t' think he knew suthin'."

A little girl came in, crying, one day.

"What is the trouble?" said the teacher, tenderly, as he leaned over and put his arm around her.

"My father is sick," said the child, sobbing.

"Very sick?" the teacher inquired.

For a moment she could not answer, but stood shaken with sobs.

"The doctor says he can't live," said she, brokenly.

A solemn stillness fell in the little schoolroom. The teacher lifted the child and held her close to his broad breast a moment.

"Be brave, little girl," said he, patting her head gently. "Doctors don't always know. He may be better to-morrow."

He took the child to her seat, and sat beside her and whispered a moment, his mouth close to her ear. And what he said, none knew, save the girl herself, who ceased to cry in a moment but never ceased to remember it.

A long time he sat, with his arm around her, questioning the classes. He seemed to have taken his place between her and the dark shadow.

Joe Beach had been making poor headway in arithmetic.

"I'll come over this evening, and we'll see what's the trouble. It's all very easy," the teacher said.

He worked three hours with the young man that evening, and filled him with high ambition after hauling him out of his difficulty.

But of all difficulties the teacher had to deal with, Polly Vaughn was the greatest. She was nearly perfect in all her studies, but a little mischievous and very dear to him. "Pretty;" that is one thing all said of her there in Faraway, and they said also with a bitter twang that she loved to lie abed and read novels. To Sidney Trove the word "pretty" was inadequate. As to lying abed and reading novels, he was free to say that he believed in it.

"We get very indignant about slavery in the south," he used to say; "but how about slavery on the northern farms? I know people who rise at cock-crow and strain their sinews in heavy toil the livelong day, and spend the Sabbath trembling in the lonely shadow of the Valley of Death. I know a man who whipped his boy till he bled because he ran away to go fishing. It's all slavery, pure and simple."

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto the ground," said Ezra Tower.

"If God said it, he made slaves of us all," said young Trove. "When I look around here and see people wasted to the bone with sweat and toil, too weary often to eat the bread they have earned, when I see their children dying of consumption from excess of labour and pork fat, I forget the slaves of man and think only of these wretched slaves of God."

But Polly was not of them the teacher pitied. She was a bit discontented; but surely she was cheerful and well fed. God gave her beauty, and the widow saw it, and put her own strength between the curse and the child. Folly had her task every day, but Polly had her way, also, in too many things, and became a bit selfish, as might have been expected. But there was something very sweet and fine about Polly. They were plain clothes she wore, but nobody save herself and mother gave them any thought. Who, seeing her big, laughing eyes, her finely modelled face, with cheeks pink and dimpled, her shapely, white teeth, her mass of dark hair, crowning a form tall and straight as an arrow, could see anything but the merry-hearted Polly?

"Miss Vaughn, you will please remain a few moments after school," said the teacher one day near four o'clock. Twice she had been caught whispering that day, with the young girl who sat behind her. Trove had looked down, stroking his little mustache thoughtfully, and made no remark. The girl had gone to work, then, her cheeks red with embarrassment.

"I wish you'd do me a favour, Miss Polly," said the teacher, when they were alone.

She blushed deeply, and sat looking down as she fussed with her handkerchief. She was a bit frightened by the serious air of that big young man.

"It isn't much," he went on. "I'd like you to help me teach a little. To-morrow morning I shall make a map on the blackboard, and while I am doing it I'd like you to conduct the school. When you have finished with the primer class I'll be ready to take hold again."

She had a puzzled look.

"I thought you were going to punish me," she answered, smiling.

"For what?" he inquired.

"Whispering," said she.

"Oh, yes! But you have read Walter Scott, and you know ladies are to be honoured, not punished. I shouldn't know how to do such a thing. When you've become a teacher you'll see I'm right about whispering. May I walk home with you?"

Polly had then a very serious look. She turned away, biting her lip, in a brief struggle for self-mastery.

"If you care to," she whispered.

They walked away in silence.

"Do you dance?" she inquired presently.

"No, save attendance on your pleasure," said he. "Will you teach me?"

"Is there anything I can teach you?" She looked up at him playfully.

"Wisdom," said he, quickly, "and how to preserve blueberries, and make biscuit like those you gave us when I came to tea. As to dancing, well--I fear 'I am not shaped for sportive tricks.'"

"If you'll stay this evening," said she, "we'll have some more of my blueberries and biscuit, and then, if you care to, we'll try dancing."

"You'll give me a lesson?" he asked eagerly.

"If you'd care to have me."

"Agreed; but first let us have the blueberries and biscuit," said he, heartily, as they entered the door. "Hello, Mrs. Vaughn, I came over to help you eat supper. I have it all planned. Paul is to set the table, I'm to peel the potatoes and fry the pork, Polly is to make the biscuit and gravy and put the kettle on. You are to sit by and look pleasant."

"I insist on making the tea," said Mrs. Vaughn, with amusement.

"Shall we let her make the tea?" he asked, looking thoughtfully at Polly.

"Perhaps we'd better," said she, laughing.

"All right; we'll let her make the tea--we don't have to drink it."

"You," said the widow, "are like Governor Wright, who said to Mrs. Perkins, 'Madam, I will praise your tea, but hang me if I'll drink it.'"

"I'm going to teach the primer class in the morning," said Polly, as she filled the tea-kettle.

"Look out, young man," said Mrs. Vaughn, turning to the teacher. "In a short time she'll be thinking she can teach you."

"I get my first lesson to-night," said the young man. "She's to teach me dancing."

"And you've no fear for your soul?"

"I've more fear for my body," said he, glancing down upon his long figure. "I've never lifted my feet save for the purpose of transportation. I'd like to learn how to dance because Deacon Tower thinks it wicked and I've learned that happiness and sin mean the same thing in his vocabulary."

"I fear you're a downward and backsliding youth," said the widow.

"You know what Ezra Tower said of Ebenezer Fisher, that he was 'one o' them mush-heads that didn't believe in hell'? Are you one o' that kind?" Proclaimers of liberal thought were at work there in the north.

"Since I met Deacon Tower I'm sure it's useful and necessary. He's got to have some place for his enemies. If it were not for hell, the deacon would be miserable here and, maybe, happy hereafter."

"It's a great hope and comfort to him," said the widow, smiling.

"Well, God save us all!" said Trove, who had now a liking for both the phrase and philosophy of Darrel. They had taken chairs at the table.

"Tom," said he, "we'll pause a moment, while you give us the fourth rule of syntax."

"Correct," said he, heartily, as the last word was spoken. "Now let us be happy."

"Paul," said the teacher, as he finished eating, "what is the greatest of all laws?"

"Thou shalt not lie," said the boy, promptly.

"Correct," said Trove; "and in the full knowledge of the law, I declare that no better blueberries and biscuit ever passed my lips."

Supper over, Polly disappeared, and young Mr. Trove helped with the dishes. Soon Polly came back, glowing in her best gown and slippers.

"Why, of all things! What a foolish child!" said her mother. For answer Polly waltzed up and down the room, singing gayly.

She stopped before the glass and began to fuss with her ribbons. The teacher went to her side.

"May I have the honour, Miss Vaughn," Said he, bowing politely. "Is that the way to do?"

"You might say, 'Will you be my pardner,'" said she, mimicking the broad dialect of the region.

"I'll sacrifice my dignity, but not my language," said he. "Let us dance and be merry, for to-morrow we teach."

"If you'll watch my feet, you'll see how I do it," said she; and lifting her skirt above her dainty ankles, glided across the floor on tiptoe, as lightly as a fawn at play. But Sidney Trove was not a graceful creature. The muscles on his lithe form, developed in the school of work or in feats of strength at which he had met no equal, were untrained in all graceful trickery. He loved dancing and music and everything that increased the beauty and delight of life, but they filled him with a deep regret of his ignorance.

"Hard work," said he, breathing heavily, "and I don't believe I'm having as much fun as you are."

The small company of spectators had been laughing with amusement.

"Reminds me of a story," said the teacher. "'What are all the animals crying about?' said one elephant to another. 'Why, don't you know?--it's about the reindeer,' said the other elephant; 'he's dead. Never saw anything so sad in my life. He skipped so, and made a noise like that, and then he died.' The elephant jumped up and down, trying the light skip of the reindeer and gave a great roar for the bleat of the dying animal, 'What,' said the first elephant, 'did he skip so, and cry that way?' And he tried it. 'No, not that way but this way,' said the other; and he went through it again. By this time every animal in the show had begun to roar with laughter. 'What on earth are you doing?' said the rhinoceros. 'It's the way the reindeer died,' said one of the elephants.

"'Never saw anything so funny,' said the rhinoceros; 'if the poor thing died that way, it's a pity he couldn't repeat the act.'

"'This is terrible,' said the zebra, straining at his halter. 'The reindeer is dead, and the elephants have gone crazy.'"

"Sidney Trove," said the teacher, as he was walking away that evening, "you'll have to look out for yourself. You're a teacher and you ought to be a man--you must be a man or I'll have nothing more to do with you."