The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter X. The New Pupils
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The soul that rises with us, our life's star, Has had elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar, Not in entire forgetfulness, not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God--who is our Home.
When school opened after the Easter holiday, the Watson family began to attend. It was two miles to the bare little schoolhouse at the cross-roads. The road lay straight across the prairie, green now with the tender green of spring, and dotted thick with blue anemones. A prairie fire, the fall before, had burned away all the old grass, and so everywhere the country was of the richest dazzling green, varied only in the shades--the tender, soft green of the young wheat, the bluish green of the oat-fields, with here and there splendid groves of poplars, making a scene which, to Pearl's eyes, was of untold beauty.
Away to the south the Tiger Hills were veiled in blue smoke, as if some distant prairie fire was raging through the meadows beyond. Across the long reach of upland pasture--swiftly and almost noiselessly--swept the mixed train of the Canadian Northern, its huge smoke plume standing straight up in the morning air, white and gray like billows of chiffon, suddenly changing to deepest black.
"They're stokin' up for the grade," Jimmy said, as he stood watching it. Jimmy had not stolen rides on freight-cars without learning something.
Danny, although not quite of school age, was with the party because he refused to stay at home. Aunt Kate encouraged him in the idea, and made him a pair of pants and fixed up a striped sweater of Bugsey's for him. So Danny, fully clothed in boy's attire, was very much in evidence.
When they were crossing the fire-guard around the school, Bugsey grew faint-hearted and began to cry. "I'm feart he'll bate me," he whimpered.
Bugsey had been to school in Millford, of course, but his teacher there had been Miss Morrison, and the teacher here was a man.
Patsey showed signs of being infected with the tear-germ, too, and so Pearlie quickly forged ahead with the unaffected members of her party, to get them under cover before they had time to think of it.
School was called when she arrived in haste and walked up to the teacher's desk, followed by Danny, Mary, Jimmy, and Tommy. Danny was hiding his face in her skirts. Tommy and Jimmy were outwardly calm, but Pearl knew that it would take very little to stampede them.
"We're coming to school, if you please," Pearl said, keeping a tight hold of Danny.
The teacher was a man of middle-age, with heavy eyebrows and great dignity of manner. He looked at the Watson family in silence.
"Speak to them, or they'll bolt," Pearl said, with the authority that comes of being the eldest girl in a large family.
The teacher saw the situation and rose to it. "Come here, Johnny," he said at a venture. "Are you a little gun-shy?"
"My name ain't Johnny, if yer meanin' me," said Jimmy, with a fine show of courage.
Pearl introduced her flock hastily and told the teacher to hang on to Danny while she went for the others.
When Pearl came in leading the other two boys the teacher exclaimed in wonder.
"This'll be all until winter-time," Pearl assured him, "and then Teddy and Billy will be comin'."
"I guess we're sure of the Government grant now," the teacher said, smiling. He helped Pearl to convince the boys that they were in the hands of friends, and even brought out the contents of his pocket and searched through his desk to get Danny to take a cheerful view of life again.
The Watson family, when they were at last settled in their new seats, did a great deal to relieve the bareness of the dingy school-room. All at once the room seemed to be very much alive and stirring.
While the teacher was busy with the boys, Pearl's sharp eyes were looking over her new schoolmates. Instinctively she knew that the pale little girl ahead of her must be Libby Anne Cavers. She had wondered often, since coming to the farm, how Libby Anne would regard the Watson family. Would she think that they had taken away her old home? Impulsively Pearl leaned over and presented Libby Anne with a new slate-rag securely anchored by a stout string to the neck of a small bottle filled with water. This new way of slate-cleaning had not yet reached the Chicken Hill School, where the older method prevailed, and as a result, Libby Anne's small slate-rag was dark gray in colour and unpleasant in character, and nearly always lent to her less provident neighbours.
Libby Anne turned her pale face and frightened eyes toward the big new girl, and in that glance Pearl read all her sad child history. Libby Anne was just what she had pictured her to be, little and thin and scared. She put her hands on Libby Anne's thin shoulders and, drawing her back, whispered in her ear: "I like ye, Libby Anne."
Libby Anne's face brightened, though she made no reply. However, in a few minutes she pulled the cork from the little bottle and gave her slate a vigorous cleaning with the new rag, and Pearl knew her oblation of friendship had been favourably received.
Mr. Donald, the teacher, was a student of human nature, as every successful teacher must be, and before the day was over he was sure that in Pearl Watson he had a pupil of more than ordinary interest. At the afternoon recess he called her to his desk and asked her about her previous school experience.
Pearl told him frankly her hope and fears. "I want to learn," she said. "I want to know things, because I love to learn, and besides, I have to be able to tell the boys and Mary what's what. We're awful poor, but we're happy, and there's none of us real stupid. All we want is a chance. I just ache to know things. Do you ever?" she asked him suddenly.
"I do, Pearl," he answered. "I do, indeed."
"Oh, well," she said, "I guess you know all of the things I'm thinkin' about; but I suppose the farther a person goes the more they see that they don't know.
"That's it, Pearl," he said, smiling. "The larger the circle of light, the larger the darkness around it."
Pearl pondered a minute.
"That's just what I've often thought, but I didn't know how to say it. Well," she went on, "I often wonder what makes the wind blow, and what makes you fall when you step off things, and how does the hail come when it's scorchin' hot; and I've often wondered what holds the clouds up, and I'd like to know what's goin' on, and what people think about things."
She stopped suddenly, and looked closely into his face. She had to be sure of a sympathetic listener.
"Go on, Pearl," Mr. Donald said, kindly. "I am interested. Tell me what else you are wondering about."
"Well," she said, "I'll tell you the biggest wonder I have. I would not tell it to every one, for if they've never thought of it it is just as well for them, for there's a danger of thinkin' too far in it. I am wonderin' often why God let the bad men crucify the dear Lord, and Him that kind and sweet and gentle. I often think about it at night, and can't sleep. I think about all the angels, big strappin' fellows, flyin' around the cross, feelin' so sorry for Him, and just wantin' so bad to hold Him up in their arms, but knowin' they dassent interfere without orders, and I often imagine to meself that the word did come to the angels to jump in and save Him, and I can just see how tender they would lift Him down from the cross, and the two poor fellows with Him, and they would float away off into the blue sky, leaving the bad people down below, the soldiers and the high priests and all of them, gawkin' up, wid their mouths open, watchin' them growin' smaller and smaller, until they were gone clean from sight; and then Pilate would say to them: 'Didn't I tell you to watch what you were about? Let me tell yez, ye have put your foot in it good and plenty this time.' But then I think of what really did happen, and it just breaks my heart to think of it."
Pearl's tears overflowed her eyes, but she wiped them away and went on steadily. "I wonder if you could tell me why it happened, Mr. Donald. I know God did it for the best. I am not sayin' a word against Him, mind ye, for I know what He's like, and how good He is, and all; but it was awful to let our Lord die that like."
Mr. Donald felt his own heart strangely moved at the little girl's distress.
"I am not very well up in these things, Pearl," he said; "but if He hadn't died he could not have shown us the resurrection."
"Oh, I don't mind Him dyin'," said Pearl quickly. "Everybody has to die, and when they've lived right and done the best they could for every one, it is just glorious to die and go home. It's just like people comin' home from college with their examination papers marked high, and their certificates and medals to show how hard they worked; or I guess it's more like soldiers comin' home all tired out, and sunburnt, showing their scars--we can show our hands all hard with work for other people, and our faces cheerful and patient. That's what'll count up there, I guess. It's all right to die, but I can't see why He had to die that way--it was terrible, and it wasn't comin' to Him."
"Perhaps it was to show us how much He loved us," the teacher said gently.
"He shows us that in lots of ways," Pearl said. "He says He loves us, and ye can't live one day without feelin' that there's love in the world, and I'm sure it didn't come from anywhere else but God--oh, no, it didn't need, that to show us."
The teacher was looking at her in wonder.
"I tell you what to do, Pearl. Ask Mr. Burrell; he'll be able to tell you."
After school that night Pearl opened the theological discussion again.
"Mr. Donald," she said, "don't you think we should try to get some one to preach here and have a Sunday-school? These children here, except Lib. Cavers, don't know anything about the Bible. I've been asking them about Easter Sunday. They don't know anything about it, only it's a time to see how many eggs you can hold, and they think that God is a bad word It would just be fine if we could have a Sunday-school and learn verses. Our Jimmy got a black Testament for fifty verses, said exactly like the book. You would be superintendent, wouldn't you?"
Mr. Donald coloured painfully. "I don't know, Pearl--we'll see," he said evasively.
That night when he went back to his boarding-place--the big brick house on the hill--he was strangely disturbed and troubled. He had told himself years ago that religion was a delusion, a will o' the wisp. But there was something in Pearl's face and in her words that seemed to contradict the logic of his reasoning.
Charles Donald was a man who tried hard to make a stoic of himself, to convince himself that he was past feeling the stings of evil fortune. He had suffered so deeply that he told himself that nothing could ever hurt him again. A spiritual numbness had come upon him, which he took to be the compensation for the variety of hard knocks he had experienced. He was a genial, pleasant, gentle man, but his face bore that look of settled sadness that comes into the eyes of people for whom the world has held an awkward hour.
He was regarded by the people in the school district as a good teacher, and, indeed, he had quite conscientiously put before his pupils as much of the curriculum as they could conveniently grasp. He was kind and patient with his pupils always, but he had never exerted himself to change their outlook upon life, or to put nobler ideals before them.
"They are happier as they are," he often thought to himself. "The ox in the field, so long as the grass is good, is happier than most of us with all our wisdom, and well he should be, for his days are free from care, and when his days are over there's the quick blow and the sharp knife, and that is not so bad."
But after Pearl came to school, he found himself going over his neglected library to find the books that would throw light on the many questions that she brought forward, and every evening he went carefully over the lessons, taking a distinct pride now in making them of interest to her.
In this way, having more to employ his thoughts, he soon began to think of the past less sadly. Pearl's optimism was contagious.