Laddie, A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter V. The First Day of School
"Birds in their little nests agree. And why can't we?"
B-i-r-d-s, birds, i-n, in, t-h-e-i-r, their, l-i-t-t-l-e, little, n-e-s-t-s, nests, a-g-r-e-e, agree."
My feet burned in my new shoes, but most of my body was chilling as I stood beside Miss Amelia on the platform, before the whole school, and followed the point of her pencil, while, a letter at a time, I spelled aloud my first sentence. Nothing ever had happened to me as bad as that. I was not used to so much clothing. It was like taking a colt from the woods pasture and putting it into harness for the first time. That lovely September morning I followed Leon and May down the dusty road, my heart sick with dread.
May was so much smaller that I could have picked her up and carried her. She was a gentle, loving little thing, until some one went too far, and then they got what they deserved, all at once and right away.
Many of the pupils were waiting before the church. Leon climbed the steps, made a deep bow, waved toward the school building across the way, and what he intended to say was, "Still sits the schoolhouse by the road," but he was a little excited and the s's doubled his tongue, so that we heard: "Shill stits the schoolhouse by the road." We just yelled and I forgot a little about myself.
When Miss Amelia came to the door and rang the bell, May must have remembered something of how her first day felt, for as we reached the steps she waited for me, took me in with her, and found me a seat. If she had not, I'm quite sure I'd have run away and fought until they left me in freedom, as I had two years before. All forenoon I had shivered in my seat, while classes were arranged, and the elder pupils were started on their work; then Miss Amelia called me to her on the platform and tried to find out how much schooling I had. I was ashamed that I knew so little, but there was no sense in her making me spell after a pencil, like a baby. I'd never seen the book she picked up. I could read the line she pointed to, and I told her so, but she said to spell the words; so I thought she had to be obeyed, for one poetry piece I know says:
"Quickly speed your steps to school And there mind your teacher's rule."
I can see Miss Amelia to-day. Her pale face was lined deeper than ever, her drab hair was dragged back tighter. She wore a black calico dress with white huckleberries, and a white calico apron figured in large black apples, each having a stem and two leaves. In dress she was a fruitful person. She had been a surprise to all of us. Chipper as a sparrow, she had hopped, and chattered, and darted here and there, until the hour of opening. Then in the stress of arranging classes and getting started, all her birdlike ways slipped from her. Stern and bony she stood before us, and with a cold light in her pale eyes, she began business in a manner that made Johnny Hood forget all about his paper wads, and Leon commenced studying like a good boy, and never even tried to have fun with her. Every one was so surprised you could notice it, except May, and she looked, "I told you so!" even in the back. She had a way of doing that very thing as I never saw any one else. From the set of her head, how she carried her shoulders, the stiffness of her spine, and her manner of walking, if you knew her well, you could tell what she thought, the same as if you saw her face.
I followed that pencil point and in a husky voice repeated the letters. I could see Tillie Baher laughing at me from behind her geography, and every one else had stopped what they were doing to watch and listen, so I forgot to be thankful that I even knew my a b c's. I spelled through the sentence, pronounced the words and repeated them without much thought as to the meaning; at that moment it didn't occur to me that she had chosen the lesson because father had told her how I made friends with the birds. The night before he had been putting me through memory tests, and I had recited poem after poem, even long ones in the Sixth Reader, and never made one mistake when the piece was about birds. At our house, we heard next day's lessons for all ages gone over every night so often, that we couldn't help knowing them by heart, if we had any brains at all, and I just loved to get the big folk's readers and learn the bird pieces. Father had been telling her about it, so for that reason she thought she would start me on the birds, but I'm sure she made me spell after a pencil point, like a baby, on purpose to shame me, because I was two years behind the others who were near my age. As I repeated the line Miss Amelia thought she saw her chance. She sprang to her feet, tripped a few steps toward the centre of the platform, and cried: "Classes, attention! Our Youngest Pupil has just completed her first sentence. This sentence contains a Thought. It is a wonderfully beautiful Thought. A Thought that suggests a great moral lesson for each of us. `Birrrds--in their little nests--agreeee.'"
Never have I heard cooing sweetness to equal the melting tones in which Miss Amelia drawled those words. Then she continued, after a good long pause in order to give us time to allow the "Thought" to sink in: "There is a lesson in this for all of us. We are here in our schoolroom, like little birds in their nest. Now how charming it would be if all of us would follow the example of the birds, and at our work, and in our play, agreeee--be kind, loving, and considerate of each other. Let us all remember always this wonderful truth: `Birrrrds--in their little nests-- agreeeee!'"
In three steps I laid hold of her apron. Only last night Leon had said it would come, yet whoever would have thought that I'd get a chance like this, so soon.
"Ho but they don't!" I cried. "They fight like anything! Every day they make the feathers fly!"
In a backward stroke Miss Amelia's fingers, big and bony, struck my cheek a blow that nearly upset me. A red wave crossed her face, and her eyes snapped. I never had been so surprised in all my life. I was only going to tell her the truth. What she had said was altogether false. Ever since I could remember I had watched courting male birds fight all over the farm. After a couple had paired, and were nest building, the father always drove every other bird from his location. In building I had seen him pecked for trying to place a twig. I had seen that happen again for merely offering food to the mother, if she didn't happen to be hungry, or for trying to make love to her when she was brooding. If a young bird failed to get the bite it wanted, it sometimes grabbed one of its nestmates by the bill, or the eye even, and tried to swallow it whole. Always the oldest and strongest climbed on top of the youngest and fooled his mammy into feeding him most by having his head highest, his mouth widest, and begging loudest. There could be no mistake. I was so amazed I forgot the blow, as I stared at the fool woman.
"I don't see why you slap me!" I cried. "It's the truth! Lots of times old birds pull out bunches of feathers fighting, and young ones in the nests bite each other until they squeal."
Miss Amelia caught my shoulders and shook me as hard as she could; and she proved to be stronger than you ever would have thought to look at her.
"Take your seat!" she cried. "You are a rude, untrained child!"
"They do fight!" I insisted, as I held my head high and walked to my desk.
Leon laughed out loud, and that made everyone else. Miss Amelia had so much to do for a few minutes that she forgot me, and I know now why Leon started it, at least partly. He said afterward it was the funniest sight he ever saw. My cheek smarted and burned. I could scarcely keep from feeling to learn whether it were swelling, but I wouldn't have shed a tear or raised my hand for anything you could offer.
Recess was coming and I didn't know what to do. If I went to the playground, all of them would tease me; and if I sat at my desk Miss Amelia would have another chance at me. That was too much to risk, so I followed the others outdoors, and oh joy! there came Laddie down the road. He set me on one of the posts of the hitching rack before the church, and with my arms around his neck, I sobbed out the whole story.
"She didn't understand," said Laddie quietly. "You stay here until I come back. I'll go explain to her about the birds. Perhaps she hasn't watched them as closely as you have."
Recess was over before he returned. He had wet his handkerchief at the water bucket, and now he bathed my face and eyes, straightened my hair with his pocket comb, and began unlacing my shoes.
"What are you going to do?" I asked. "I must wear them. All the girls do. Only the boys are barefoot."
"You are excused," answered Laddie. "Three-fourths of the day is enough to begin on. Miss Amelia says you may come with me."
"Where are you going?"
Laddie was stripping off my stockings as he looked into my eyes, and smiled a peculiar little smile.
"Oh Laddie!" I cried. "Will you take me? Honest!"
He laughed again and then he rubbed my feet.
"Poor abused feet," he said. "Sometimes I wish shoes had never been invented."
"They feel pretty good when there's ice."
"So they do!" said Laddie.
He swung me to the ground, and we crossed the road, climbed the fence, and in a minute our redbird swamp shut the schoolhouse and cross old Miss Amelia from sight. Then we turned and started straight toward our Big Woods. I could scarcely keep on the ground.
"How are the others getting along?" asked Laddie.
"She's cross as two sticks," I told him. "Johnny Hood hasn't shot one paper wad, and Leon hadn't done a thing until he laughed about the birds, and I guess he did that to make her forget me."
"Good!" cried Laddie. "I didn't suppose the boy thought that far."
"Oh, you never can tell by looking at him, how far Leon is thinking," I said.
"That's so, too," said Laddie. "Are your feet comfortable now?"
"Yes, but Laddie, isn't my face marked?"
"I'm afraid it is a little," said Laddie. "We'll bathe it again at the creek. We must get it fixed so mother won't notice."
"What will the Princess think?"
"That you fell, perhaps," said Laddie.
"Do the tears show?"
"Not at all. We washed them all away."
"Did I do wrong, Laddie?"
"Yes, I think you did."
"But it wasn't true, what she said."
"That's not the point."
We had reached the fence of the Big Woods. He lifted me to the top rail and explained, while I combed his waving hair with my fingers.
"She didn't strike you because what you said was not so, for it was. She knew instantly you were right, if she knows anything at all about outdoors. This is what made her angry: it is her first day. She wanted to make a good impression on her pupils, to arouse their interest, and awaken their respect. When you spoke, all of them knew you were right, and she was wrong; that made her ridiculous. Can't you see how it made her look and feel?"
"I didn't notice how she looked, but from the way she hit me, you could tell she felt bad enough."
"She surely did," said Laddie, kissing my cheek softly. "Poor little woman! What a world of things you have to learn!"
"Shouldn't I have told her how mistaken she was?"
"If you had gone to her alone, at recess or noon, or to-night, probably she would have thanked you. Then she could have corrected herself at some convenient time and kept her dignity."
"Must I ask her pardon?"
"What you should do, is to put yourself in Miss Amelia's place and try to understand how she felt. Then if you think you wouldn't have liked any one to do to you what you did to her, you'll know."
I hugged Laddie tight and thought fast--there was no need to think long to see how it was.
"I got to tell her I was wrong," I said. "Now let's go to the Enchanted Wood and see if we can find the Queen's daughter."
"All right!" said Laddie.
He leaped the fence, swung me over, and started toward the pawpaw thicket. He didn't do much going around. He crashed through and over; and soon he began whistling the loveliest little dancy tune. It made your head whirl, and your toes tingle, and you knew it was singing that way in his heart, and he was just letting out the music. That was why it made you want to dance and whirl; it was so alive. But that wasn't the way in an Enchanted Wood. I pulled his hand.
"Laddie!" I cautioned, "keep in the path! You'll step on the Fairies and crush a whole band with one foot. No wonder the Queen makes her daughter grow big when she sends her to you. If you make so much noise, some one will hear you, then this won't be a secret any more."
Laddie laughed, but he stepped carefully in the path after that, and he said: "There are times, Little Sister, when I don't care whether this secret is secret another minute or not. Secrets don't agree with me. I'm too big, and broad, and too much of a man, to go creeping through the woods with a secret. I prefer to print it on a banner and ride up the road waving it."
"Like,--`A youth who bore mid snow and ice, A banner with a strange device,'" I said.
"That would be `a banner with a strange device,'" laughest Laddie. "But, yes--something like!"
"Have you told the Princess?"
"I have!" Laddie fairly shouted it.
"Docs she like secrets?"
"No more than I do!"
"There you go!" said Laddie. "Zeus, but the woman is beginning to measle out all over you! You know as well as any one that there's something wrong at her house. I don't know what it is; I can't even make a sensible guess as yet, but it's worse than the neighbours think. It's a thing that has driven a family from their home country, under a name that I have doubts about being theirs, and sent them across an ocean, `strangers in a strange land,' as it says in the Bible. It's something that keeps a cultured gentleman and scholar raging up and down the roads and over the country like a madman. It shuts a white-faced, lovely, little woman from her neighbours, but I have passed her walking the road at night with both hands pressed against her heart. Sometimes it tries the Princess past endurance and control; and it has her so worn and tired struggling with it that she is willing to carry another secret, rather than try to find strength to do anything that would make more trouble for her father and mother."
"Would it trouble them for her to know you, Laddie?"
"So long as they don't and won't become acquainted with me, or any one, of course it would."
"Can't you force them to know you?"
"That I can!" said Laddie. "But you see, I only met the Princess a short time ago, and there would be no use in raising trouble, unless she will make me her Knight!"
"But hasn't she, Laddie?"
"Not in the very littlest least," said Laddie. "For all I know, she is merely using me to help pass a lonely hour. You see, people reared in England have ideas of class, that two or three generations spent here wash out. The Princess and her family are of the unwashed British. Father's people have been here long enough to judge a man on his own merits."
"You mean the Princess' family would think you're not good enough to be her Knight?"
"And we know that our family thinks they are infidels, and wicked people; and that if she would have you, mother would be sick in bed over it. Oh Laddie!"
"What are you going to do?"
"That I must find out."
"When it will make so much trouble, why not forget her, and go on like you did before she came? Then, all of us were happy. Now, it makes me shiver to think what will happen."
"Me too," said Laddie. "But look here, Little Sister, right in my face. Will you ever forget the Princess?"
"Then how can you ask me to?"
"I didn't mean forget her, exactly. I meant not come here and do things that will make every one unhappy."
"One minute, Chick-a-Biddy," said Laddie. Sometimes he called me that, when he loved me the very most of all. I don't believe any one except me ever heard him do it. "Let me ask you this: does our father love our mother?"
"Love her?" I cried. "Why he just loves her to death! He turns so white, and he suffers so, when her pain is the worst. Love her? And she him? Why, don't you remember the other day when he tipped her head against him and kissed her throat as he left the table; that he asked her if she `loved him yet,' and she said right before all of us, `Why Paul, I love you, until I scarcely can keep my fingers off you!' Laddie, is it like that with you and the Princess?"
"It is with me," said Laddie. "Not with the Princess! Now, can I forget her? Can I keep away from even the chance to pass her on the road?"
"No," I said. "No, you can't, Laddie. But can you ever make her love you?"
"It takes time to find that out," said Laddie. "I have got to try; so you be a woman and keep my secret a little while longer, until I find a way out, but don't bother your head about it!"
"I can't help bothering my head, Laddie. Can't you make her understand that God is not a myth?"
"I'm none too sure what I believe myself," said Laddie. "Not that there is no God--I don't mean that--but I surely don't believe all father's teachings."
"If you believe God, do other little things matter, Laddie?"
"I think not," said Laddie, "else Heaven would be all Methodists.
As for the Princess, all she has heard in her life has been against there being a God. Now, she is learning something on the other side. After a while she can judge for herself. It is for us, who profess to be a Christian family, to prove to her why we believe in God, and what He does for us."
"Well, she would think He could do a good deal, if she knew how mother hated asking her to come to our house; and yet she did it, beautifully too, just to give her a chance to see that very thing. But I almost made her do it. I don't believe she ever would alone, Laddie, or at least not for a long time yet."
"I saw that, and understood it perfectly," said Laddie. "Thank you, Little Sister." He picked me up and hugged me tight. "If I could only make you see!"
"But Laddie, I do! I'm not a baby! I know how people love and make homes for themselves, like Sally and Peter are going to. If it is with you about the Princess as it is with father and mother, why I do know."
"All right! Here we are!" said Laddie.
He parted the willows and we stepped on the Magic Carpet, and that minute the Magic worked. I forgot every awful, solemn, troublous thing we had been talking about, and looked around while Laddie knelt and hunted for a letter, and there was none. That meant the Princess was coming, so we sat on the throne to wait. We hadn't remembered to bathe my cheek, we had been so busy when we passed the water, and I doubt if we were thinking much then. We just waited. The willow walls waved gently, the moss carpet was spotted with little gold patches of sunlight, in the shade a few of the red flowers still bloomed, and big, lazy bumblebees hummed around them, or a hummingbird stood on air before them. A sort of golden throbbing filled the woods, and my heart began to leap, why, I don't know; but I'm sure Laddie's did too, for I looked at him and his eyes were shining as I never had seen them before, while his cheeks were a little red, and he was breathing like when you've been running; then suddenly his body grew tense against mine, and that meant she was coming.
Like that first day, she came slowly through the woods, stopping here and there to touch the trunk of a tree, put back a branch, or bend over a flower face. Brown as the wood floor was her dress, and cardinal flowers blazed on her breast, and the same colour showed on her cheeks and lips. Her eyes were like Laddie's for brightness, and she was breathing the same way. I thought sure there was going to be something to remember a lifetime--I was so excited I couldn't stand still. Before it could happen Laddie went and said it was a "beautiful day," and she said "it didn't show in the woods, but the pastures needed rain." Then she kissed me. Well if I ever! I sank on the throne and sat there. They went on talking like that, until it was too dull to bear, so I slipped out and wandered away to see what I could find. When I grew tired and went back, Laddie was sitting on the Magic Carpet with his back against the beech, and the Princess was on the throne reading from a little book, reading such interesting things that I decided to listen. After a while she came to this:
"Thou are mated with a clown, And the grossness of his nature, will have weight to bear thee down."
Laddie threw back his head, and how he laughed! The Princess put down the book and looked at him so surprised.
"Are you reading that to me because you think it appropriate?" asked Laddie.
"I am reading it because it is conceded to be one of the most beautiful poems ever written," said the Princess.
"You knew when you began that you would come to those lines."
"I never even thought of such a thing."
"But you knew that is how your father would regard any relationship, friendly or deeper, with me!"
"I cannot possibly be held responsible for what my father thinks."
"It is natural that you should think alike."
"Not necessarily! You told me recently that you didn't agree with your father on many subjects."
"Kindly answer me this," said Laddie: "Do you feel that I'm a `clown' because I'm not schooled to the point on all questions of good manners? Do you find me gross because I plow and sow?"
"You surprise me," said the Princess. "My consenting to know and to spend a friendly hour with you here is sufficient answer. I have not found the slightest fault with your manners. I have seen no suspicion of `grossness' about you."
"Will you tell me, frankly, exactly what you do think of me?"
"Surely! I think you are a clean, decent man, who occasionally kindly consents to put a touch of human interest into an hour, for a very lonely girl. What has happened, Laddie? This is not like you."
Laddie sat straight and studied the beech branches. Father said beech trees didn't amount to much; but I first learned all about them from that one, and what it taught me made me almost worship them always. There were the big trunk with great rough spreading roots, the bark in little ridges in places, smooth purple gray between, big lichens for ornament, the low flat branches, the waxy, wavy-edged leaves, with clear veins, and the delicious nuts in their little brown burrs. The Princess and I both stared at the branches and waited while a little breath of air stirred the leaves, the sunshine flickered, and a cricket sang a sort of lonesome song. Laddie leaned against the tree again, and he was thinking so hard, to look at him made me begin to repeat to myself the beech part of that beautiful churchyard poem our big folks recite:
"There, at the foot of yonder nodding beech, That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high, His listless length at noontide he would stretch, And pore upon the brook that babbles by."
Only he was studying so deeply you could almost feel what was in his mind, and it was not about the brook at all, even if one ran close. Soon he began talking.
"Not so bad!" he said. "You might think worse. I admit the cleanliness, I strive for decency, I delight in being humanely interesting, even for an hour; you might think worse, much worse!
You might consider me a `clown.' `A country clod.' Rather a lowdown, common thing, a `clod,' don't you think? And a `clown'!
And `gross' on top of that!"
"What can you mean?" asked the Princess.
"Since you don't seem to share the estimate of me, I believe I'll tell you," said Laddie. "The other day I was driving from the gravel pit with a very heavy load. The road was wide and level on either side. A man came toward me on horseback. Now the law of the road is to give half to a vehicle similar to the one you are driving, but to keep all of it when you are heavily loaded, if you are passing people afoot or horseback. The man took half the road, and kept it until the nose of his horse touched one of the team I was driving. I stopped and said: `Good morning, sir!
Do you wish to speak with me?' He called angrily: `Get out of my way, you clod!' `Sorry sir, but I can't,' I said. `The law gives me this road when I am heavily loaded, and you are on foot or horseback.'"
"What did he do?" asked the Princess.
And from the way she looked I just knew she guessed the man was the same one I thought of.
"He raised his whip to strike my horse," said Laddie.
"Ah, surely!" said the Princess. "Always an arm raised to strike. And you, Man? What did you do?" she cried eagerly.
"I stood on my load, suddenly," said Laddie, "and I called: `Hold one minute!'"
"And he?" breathed the Princess.
"Something made him pause with his arm still raised. I said to him: `You must not strike my horse. It never has been struck, and it can't defend itself. If you want to come a few steps farther and tackle me, come ahead! I can take it or return it, as I choose.'"
"Go on!" said the Princess.
"That's all," said Laddie, "or at least almost all."
"Did he strike?"
"He did not. He stared at me a second, and then he rode around me; but he was making forceful remarks as he passed about `country clods,' and there was an interesting one about a `gross clown.' What you read made me think of it, that is all."
The Princess stared into the beech branches for a time and then she said: "I will ask your pardon for him. He always had a domineering temper, and trouble he had lately has almost driven him mad; he is scarcely responsible at times. I hesitate about making him angry."
"I think perhaps," said Laddie, "I would have done myself credit if I had recognized that, and given him the road, when he made a point of claiming it."
"Indeed no!" cried the Princess. "To be beaten at the game he started was exactly what he needed. If you had turned from his way, he would have considered you a clod all his life. Since you made him go around, it may possibly dawn on him that you are a man. You did the very best thing."
Then she began to laugh, and how she did laugh.
"I would give my allowance for a quarter to have seen it," she cried. "I must hurry home and tell mother."
"Does your mother know about me?" he demanded. "Does she know that you come here?"
The Princess arose and stood very tall and straight.
"You may beg my pardon or cease to know me," she said. "Whatever led you to suppose that I would know or meet you without my mother's knowledge?"
Then she started toward the entrance.
"One minute!" cried Laddie.
A leap carried him to her side. He caught her hands and held them tight, and looked straight into her eyes. Then he kissed her hands over and over. I thought from the look on her face he might have kissed her cheek if he had dared risk it; but he didn't seem to notice. Then she stooped and kissed me, and turned toward home, while Laddie and I crossed the woods to the west road, and went back past the schoolhouse. I was so tired Laddie tied the strings together and hung my shoes across his shoulders and took me by the arm the last mile.
All of them were at home when we got there, and Miss Amelia came to the gate to meet us. She was mealy-mouthed and good as pie, not at all as I had supposed she would be. I wonder what Laddie said to her. But then he always could manage things for every one. That set me to wondering if by any possible means he could fix them for himself. I climbed to the catalpa to think, and the more I thought, the more I feared he couldn't; but still mother always says one never can tell until they try, and I knew he would try with every ounce of brain and muscle in him. I sat there until the supper bell rang, and then I washed and reached the table last. The very first thing, mother asked how I bruised my face, and before I could think what to tell her, Leon said just as careless like: "Oh she must have run against something hard, playing tag at recess." Laddie began talking about Peter coming that night, and every one forgot me, but pretty soon I slipped a glance at Miss Amelia, and saw that her face was redder than mine.