XIX. Amusement and Learning
 

There was much doing that winter in the Linley district. They were a month getting ready for the school "exhibition." Every home in the valley and up Cedar Hill rang with loud declamations. The impassioned utterances of James Otis, Daniel Webster, and Patrick Henry were heard in house, and field, and stable. Every evening women were busy making costumes for a play, while the young rehearsed their parts. Polly Vaughn, editor of a paper to be read that evening, searched the countryside for literary talent. She found a young married woman, who had spent a year in the State Normal School, and who put her learning at the service of Polly, in a composition treating the subject of intemperance. Miss Betsey Leech sent in what she called "a piece" entitled "Home." Polly, herself, wrote an editorial on "Our Teacher," and there was hemming and hawing when she read it, declaring they all had learned much, even to love him. Her mother helped her with the alphabetical rhymes, each a couplet of sentimental history, as, for example:--

  "A is for Alson, a jolly young man,
  He'll marry Miss Betsey, they say, if he can."

They trimmed the little schoolhouse with evergreen and erected a small stage, where the teacher's desk had been. Sheets were hung, for curtains, on a ten-foot rod.

A while after dark one could hear a sound of sleigh-bells in the distance. Away on drifted pike and crossroad the bells began to fling their music. It seemed to come in rippling streams of sound through the still air, each with its own voice. In half an hour countless echoes filled the space between them, and all were as one chorus, wherein, as it came near, one could distinguish song and laughter.

Young people from afar came in cutters and by the sleigh load; those who lived near, afoot with lanterns. They were a merry company, crowding the schoolhouse, laughing and whispering as they waited for the first exhibit. Trove called them to order and made a few remarks.

"Remember," said he, "this is not our exhibition. It is only a sort of preparation for one we have planned. In about twenty years the Linley School is to give an exhibition worth seeing. It will be, I believe, an exhibition of happiness, ability, and success on the great stage of the world. Then I hope to have on the programme speeches in Congress, in the pulpit, and at the bar. You shall see in that play, if I mistake not, homes full of love and honour, men and women of fair fame. It may be you shall see, then, some whose names are known and honoured of all men."

Each performer quaked with fear, and both sympathy and approval were in the applause. Miss Polly Vaughn was a rare picture of rustic beauty, her cheeks as red as her ribbons, her voice low and sweet. Trove came out in the audience for a look at her as she read. Ringing salvos of laughter greeted the play and stirred the sleigh-bells on the startled horses beyond the door. The programme over, somebody called for Squire Town, a local pettifogger, who flung his soul and body into every cause. He often sored his knuckles on the court table and racked his frame with the violence of his rhetoric. He had a stock of impassioned remarks ready for all occasions.

He rose, walked to the centre of the stage, looked sternly at the people, and addressed them as "Fellow Citizens." He belaboured the small table; he rose on tiptoe and fell upon his heels; often he seemed to fling his words with a rapid jerk of his right arm as one hurls a pebble. It was all in praise of his "young friend," the teacher, and the high talent of Linley School.

The exhibition ended with this rare exhibit of eloquence. Trove announced the organization of a singing-school for Monday evening of the next week, and then suppressed emotion burst into noise. The Linley school-house had become as a fount of merry sound in the still night; then the loud chorus of the bells, diminishing as they went away, and breaking into streams of music and dying faint in the far woodland.

One Nelson Cartright--a jack of all trades they called him--was the singing-master. He was noted far and wide for song and penmanship. Every year his intricate flourishes in black and white were on exhibition at the county fair.

"Wal, sir," men used to say thoughtfully, "ye wouldn't think he knew beans. Why, he's got a fist bigger'n a ham. But I tell ye, let him take a pen, sir, and he'll draw a deer so nat'ral, sir, ye'd swear he could jump over a six-rail fence. Why, it is wonderful!"

Every winter he taught the arts of song and penmanship in the four districts from Jericho to Cedar Hill. He sang a roaring bass and beat the time with dignity and precision. For weeks he drilled the class on a bit of lyric melody, of which a passage is here given:--

"One, two, three, ready, sing," he would say, his ruler cutting the air, and all began:--

  Listen to the bird, and the maid, and the bumblebee,
    Tra, la la la la, tra, la la la la,
  Joyfully we'll sing the gladsome melody,
    Tra, la, la, la, la.

The singing-school added little to the knowledge or the cheerfulness of that neighbourhood. It came to an end the last day of the winter term. As usual, Trove went home with Polly. It was a cold night, and as the crowd left them at the corners he put his arm around her.

"School is over," said she, with a sigh, "and I'm sorry."

"For me?" he inquired.

"For myself," she answered, looking down at the snowy path.

There came a little silence crowded with happy thoughts.

"At first, I thought you very dreadful," she went on, looking up at him with a smile. He could see her sweet face in the moonlight and was tempted to kiss it.

"Why?"

"You were so terrible," she answered. "Poor Joe Beach! It seemed as if he would go through the wall."

"Well, something had to happen to him," said the teacher.

"He likes, you now, and every one likes you here. I wish we could have you always for a teacher."

"I'd be willing to be your teacher, always, if I could only teach you what you have taught me."

"Oh, dancing," said she, merrily; "that is nothing. I'll give you all the lessons you like."

"No, I shall not let you teach me that again," said he.

"Why?"

"Because your pretty feet trample on me."

Then came another silence.

"Don't you enjoy it?" she asked, looking off at the stars.

"Too much." said he. "First, I must teach you something--if I can."

He was ready for a query, if it came, but she put him off.

"I intend to be a grand lady," said she, "and, if you do not learn, you'll never be able to dance with me."

"There'll be others to dance with you," said he. "I have so much else to do."

"Oh, you're always thinking about algebra and arithmetic and those dreadful things," said she.

"No, I'm thinking now of something very different."

"Grammar, I suppose," said she, looking down.

"Do you remember the conjugations?"

"Try me," said she.

"Give me the first person singular, passive voice, present tense, of the verb to love."

"I am loved," was her answer, as she looked away.

"And don't you know--I love you," said he, quickly.

"That is the active voice," said she, turning with a smile.

"Polly," said he, "I love you as I could love no other in the world."

He drew her close, and she looked up at him very soberly.

"You love me?" she said in a half whisper.

"With all my heart," he answered. "I hope you will love me sometime."

Their lips came together.

"I do not ask you, now, to say that you love me," said the young man. "You are young and do not know your own heart."

She rose on tiptoe and fondly touched his cheek with her fingers.

"But I do love you," she whispered.

"I thank God you have told me, but I shall ask you for no promise. A year from now, then, dear, I shall ask you to promise that you will be my wife sometime."

"Oh, let me promise now," she whispered.

"Promise only that you will love me if you see none you love better."

They were slowly nearing the door. Suddenly she stopped, looking up at him.

"Are you sure you love me?" she asked.

"Yes," he whispered.

"Sure?"

"As sure as I am that I live."

"And will love me always?"

"Always," he answered.

She drew his head down a little and put her lips to his ear. "Then I shall love you always," she whispered.

Mrs. Vaughn, was waiting for them at the fireside. They sat talking a while.

"You go off to bed, Polly," said the teacher, presently. "I've something to say, and you're not to hear it."

"I'll listen," said she, laughing.

"Then we'll whisper," Trove answered.

"That isn't fair," said she, with a look of injury, as she held the candle. "Besides, you don't allow it yourself."

"Polly ought to go away to school," said he, after Polly had gone above stairs. "She's a bright girl."

"And I so poor I'm always wondering what'll happen to-morrow," said Mrs. Vaughn. "The farm has a mortgage, and it's more than I can do to pay the interest. Some day I'll have to give it up."

"Perhaps I can help you," said the young man, feeling the fur on his cap.

There was an awkward silence.

"Fact is," said the young man, a bit embarrassed, "fact is, I love Polly."

In the silence that followed Trove could hear the tick of his watch.

"Have ye spoken to her?" said the widow, with a serious look.

"I've told her frankly to-night that I love her," said he. "I couldn't help it, she was so sweet and beautiful."

"If you couldn't help it, I don't see how I could," said she. "But Polly's only a child. She's a big girl, I know, but she's only eighteen."

"I haven't asked her for any promise. It wouldn't be fair. She must have a chance to meet other young men, but, sometime, I hope she will be my wife."

"Poor children!" said Mrs. Vaughn, "you don't either of you know what you're doing."

He rose to go.

"I was a little premature," he added, "but you mustn't blame me. Put yourself in my place. If you were a young man and loved a girl as sweet as Polly and were walking home with her on a moonlit night--"

"I presume there'd be more or less love-making," said the widow. "She is a pretty thing and has the way of a woman. We were speaking of you the other day, and she said to me: 'He is ungrateful. You can teach the primer class for him, and be so good that you feel perfectly miserable, and give him lessons in dancing, and put on your best clothes, and make biscuit for him, and then, perhaps, he'll go out and talk with the hired man.' 'Polly,' said I, 'you're getting to be very foolish.' 'Well, it comes so easy,' said she. 'It's my one talent'"