The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter III. "Knowledge is Power"
Pap wunct he scold and says to me, Don't play too much, but try To study more and nen you'll be A great man by and by. Nen Uncle Sidney says: "You let Him be a boy and play. The greatest man on earth, I bet, 'Ud trade with him to-day."
----James Whitcomb Riley.
Pearl started to school one Monday morning. She felt very brave until she got into the girls' hall, where the long row of "store" coats, fur caps and collars seemed to oppress her with their magnificence.
Maudie Ducker's 'coon coat and red scarf seemed to be particularly antagonistic, and she hung her mother's cut-down coat and her new wool toque as far from them as possible.
Outwardly calm, but with a strong tendency to bolt for home, Pearl walked into the principal's room, and up to his desk, where he sat making his register.
He looked up inquiringly and asked curtly: "What-do you want?"
"I am comin' to school, if you please," Pearl said calmly.
"What do you know?" he asked, none too gently, for it was one of his bad days.
"Not much yet," Pearl said, "but I want to know a whole lot."
He put down his pen and looked at her with interest. "We've plenty of room for people who don't know things, but want to. We're short of that kind. We've plenty of people here who think they know a lot and don't want to know any more, but you're an entirely new kind."
Pearl laughed--the easy, infectious laugh that won for her so many friends.
"You see," she said, "I've got to learn as fast as I can, now while the money lasts, for there's so many of us. I'm ignorant for me age, too. I'm thirteen now, and I haven't been to school since I was ten, but I should be able to learn a whole lot, for I'm going to come as long as this dress lasts anyway, and I've got sateen sleeves to put on over it past the elbows to save it, for that's where it'll likely go first, and I'm takin' long steps to keep my boots from wearin' out, and I'm earnin' a little money now, for I've got the job of takin' care of the school, me and Jimmy."
The schoolmaster forgot that he was discouraged, forgot that he had been having a hard time with Grade VIII's geography, forgot that he had just made up his mind to quit teaching. He saw nothing but a little girl standing eagerly before him, telling him her hopes, and depending on him to help her to realize them.
He put out his hand impulsively, and took hers.
"Pearl," he said, "you're all right!"
That night, when Pearl went home, she gave her family the story of the Magna Charta, drawing such a vivid picture of King John's general depravity that even her father's indignation was stirred.
"That lad'll have to mend his ways," he said seriously, as he opened the stove door to get a coal for his pipe, "or there will be trouble coming his way."
"And you bet there was," Pearl replied. "What did they do but all git together one day, after they got the crop cut, and they drawed up a list of things that he couldn't do, and then they goes to him, and says they: 'Sign this, yer Highness;' and he takes the paper and wipes his glasses on his hanky, and he reads them all over polite enough, and then he says, says he, handing it back: 'The divil I will!'"
"Did he really say that, Pearlie?" her Mother asked.
"Did he?" Pearl said scornfully. "He said worse than that, Ma; and then they says, says they: 'Sign it, or there'll be another man on yer job.' And says he, brave as ye please: 'I'll see ye some place before I sign it,' and with that what did they do but jist sit down where they were, lit their pipes, as unconcerned as could be, and says they: 'Take yer time, your Highness, we're not in a hurry; we bro't our dinners,' says they, 'an' we'll stay right here till ye find yer pen,' and they just sat there on their hunkers talkin' about the crops and the like o' that, until he signed it; which he did very bad-mannered, and flung it back at them and says he: 'There now, bad cess to yez, small good it'll do yez, for I'm the King,' says he, 'an' I'll do as I blame please, so I will. The King can do no wrong,' says he. 'Well, then,' says one of them, foldin' up the Magna Charta and puttin' it away careful in his breast pocket, 'the King can't break his word, I guess,' and wid that he winks at the rest of them, and they says, says they: 'That's one on you, yer Majesty!' But they couldn't put him in good humour, and they do say, Ma, that when the company was gone that that man cut up somethin' rough, cursed and swore, and chewed up sticks, and frothed at the mouth like a mad dog, and sure, the very next day, when he was driving through a place called 'The Wash,' drunk as an owl, he dropped his crown, and his little satchel wid all his good clothes in it, and him being the way he was he never heard them splash. When he missed them he felt awful, and went back to hunt for them, puddlin' round in his bare feet for hours, and some say he had et too many lampreys, whatever that is, for his breakfast, but anyway, he got a cowld in his head and he died, so he did."
"Wasn't that a bad state for the poor man to die in, childer dear," said Mrs. Watson, wishing to give Pearl's story a moral value; "and him full of wickedness and cursin'!"
"And lampwicks, too, Ma!" Bugsey added.
"Where he wuz now?" asked Danny, who had a theological bent.
"Faith, now, that's not an easy thing to say for certain," said the father gravely. "Things look pretty bad for him, I'm thinkin'."
After some discussion as to John's present address, Pearlie summed it up with a fine blending of charity and orthodoxy by saying: "Well, we just hope he's gone to the place where we're afraid he isn't."
The days passed fleet-footed with the Watson family--days full of healthy and happy endeavour, with plenty to eat, clothes to wear, Ma at home, and everybody getting a chance to be somebody. Pearl was the happiest little girl in the world. Every night she brought home faithfully what she had learned at school, at least the interesting part of it, and when the day's work had been dull and abstract, out of the wealth of her imagination she proceeded to make it interesting.
Under Pearl's sympathetic telling of it, they wept over the untimely fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, and decided that Elizabeth was a bad lot, and Mrs. Watson declared that if she "had aknowed all this before, she would never ha' called Mary, Mary Elizabeth, because that just seems like takin' sides with both parties," and she just couldn't "abear people that do that!"
Lady Jane Grey, the Princes in the Tower, Oliver Cromwell, the unhappy Charles I, were their daily guests, and were discussed with the freedom and interest with which dwellers in small towns are popularly supposed to discuss their neighbours.
All of the evening was not given up to pleasure. Pearl saw to it that each child did his stint of home work, and very often a spelling match was held, with Pearl as the teacher and no-fair-to-try-over. The result of this was that Teddy Watson, Class V; Billy Watson, Class III; Tommy and Jimmy Watson, Class IIA; Patsey and Bugsey Watson, Class I, were impregnable rocks at the head of their classes on whom the troublesome waves of "ei's" and "ie's," one "l" or two "l's," beat in vain.
Even John Watson, hard though his hands were with the handling of a shovel, was not immune from this outburst of learning, and at Pearlie's suggestion even he was beginning to learn! He filled pages of her scribbler with "John Watson," in round blocky letters, and then added "Millford, Manitoba."
"Now, Pa," Pearlie said one night, "ain't there some of yer friends ye'd like to write to, seein' as yer gettin' on so fine?"
John had not kept up a close touch with his friends down east since he came to Manitoba.
"It's fifteen year," he said, "since I left the Ottaway valley, but I'm thinkin' me sister Katie is alive. Katie was me oldest sister, but I'm thinkin' it would take a lot to kill her!"
"What was she like, Pa?" Pearl asked.
John smoked on reminiscently. "She was a smart girl, was Kate, wid her tongue. I always liked to hear her usin' it, on someone else. I mind once me poor, father and Katie went to a circus at Arnprior and father got into a bean and shell game. It looked rale easy at first sight, and me father expected to make a bunch o' money, but instead o' that, he lost all he had on him, and his watch, and so he came to Katie and told her what had happened. Well, sir, they say that Katie just gave a le'p and cracked her heels together, and, sir, she went at yon man, and he gave back the money, every cent of it, and me father's watch, too. The people said they never heerd language like Katie used yon time."
"She didn't swear, did she, John?' Mrs. Watson asked, in a shocked tone, giving him a significant look which, interpreted, meant that was not the time to tell the truth if the truth were incriminating.
"No," John said slowly, "Katie would not waste her breath swearin'. She told the man mostly what she thought of him, and how his looks struck her, and what he reminded her of. I mind she said a rang o' tang would lose friends if he changed faces with him, and a few things like that, but nobody could say that Katie used language unbecomin' a lady. She was always partick'ler that way."
"Would you like to write to her and see how she is, Pa?" Pearl asked.
"Well, now I don't care if I do," her father answered.
The letter was written with infinite pains. The composition was Pearlie's, and Pearlie was in her happiest mood, and so it really was a very pleasant and alluring picture she drew of how John Watson had prospered since coming west, and then, to give weight to it, she sent a snapshot that Camilla had taken of the whole family in their good clothes.
"It seems to me," Mrs. Watson said one night, "like as if we are gettin' on too prosperous. The childer have been gettin' on so well, and we're all so happy like, I'm feart somethin' will happen. This is too good to last."
Mrs. Watson had a strain of Highland blood in her, and there was a Banshee in the family two generations back, so it was not to be wondered at that she sometimes indulged in gloomy forebodings.
Every day she looked for something to happen. One day it did. It was Aunt Katie from "down the Ottaway!"
Aunt Kate Shenstone came unannounced, unheralded by letter, card, or telegram. Aunt Kate said you never could depend on the mails--they were like as not to open your letter and keep your stamp! So she came, carrying her two telescope valises and her handbag. She did not believe in having anything checked--that was inviting disaster!
Aunt Kate found her way to the Watson home under the direction of Wilford Ducker, who had all his previous training on the subject of courtesy to strangers seriously upset by the way Jimmy Watson talked to him when they met a few days afterward.
"You see, John," Mrs. Shenstone said to her brother, when he came home, "it seemed so lucky when I got your letter. I always did want to come to Manitoba, but Bill, that's my man, John, he was a sort of a tie, being a consumptive; but I buried Bill just the week before I got your letter."
"Wus he dead?" Bugsey asked quickly.
"Dead?" Aunt Kate gasped. "Well, I should say he was." "My, I'm glad!" Bugsey exclaimed.
Aunt Kate demanded an explanation for his gladness.
"I guess he's glad, because then you could come and see us, Auntie," Mary said. Mary was a diplomat.
"'Tain't that," Bugsey said frankly. "I am glad my Uncle Bill is dead, cos it would be an awful thing for her to bury him if he wasn't!"
Mrs. Shenstone sat down quickly and looked anxiously around her brother's family.
"John," she said, "they're all right wise, are they?"
"Oh, I guess so," he answered cheerfully, "as far as we can tell yet, anyway."
At supper she was given the cushioned chair and the cup and saucer that had no crack. She made a quick pass with her hand and slipped something under the edge of her plate, and it was only the keen eyes of Danny, sitting beside her, that saw what had happened, and even he did not believe what he had seen until, leaning out of his chair, he looked searchingly into his aunt's face.
"She's tuck out her teeth!" he cried. "I saw her."
Pearlie endeavoured to quiet Danny, but Mrs. Shenstone was by no means embarrassed. "You see, Jane," she said to Mrs. Watson, "I just wear them when I go out. They're real good-lookin' teeth, but they're no good to chew with. There must be something wrong with them. Mother never could chew with them, either--they were mother's, you know and I guess they couldn't ha' been made right in the first place."
Patsey, who was waiting for the second table, came around and had a look at them.
"Them's the kind to have, you bet," he said to Tommy, who was also one of the unemployed; "she can take them out if they ache, and let them ache as much as they've' a mind to." Tommy had had some experience with toothache, and spoke with feeling.
Mrs. Shenstone was a woman of uncertain age, and was of that variety of people who look as old when they are twenty-five as they will ever look. She was dressed in rusty mourning, which did not escape the sharp eyes of her young nephews.
"When did you say Uncle Bill died?" Jimmy asked.
"Just four weeks to-morrow," she said, and launched away into an elaborate description of Bill's last hours.
"Did you get yer black dress then?" Mary asked, before Pearl could get her nudged into silence.
"No; I didn't," Aunt Kate answered, not at all displeased with the question, as Pearl was afraid she might be. "I got this dress quite a while agone. I went into black when mother died, and I've never seen fit to lay it off. Folks would say to me: 'Oh, Mrs. Shenstone, do lay off your mournin',' but I always said: 'Mother's still dead, isn't she? and she's just as dead as she ever was, isn't she? Well, then, I'll stick to my crape,' says I; and besides, I knew all along that Bill was goin' sooner or later. He thought sometimes that he was gettin' better, but, land! you couldn't fool me, him coughin' that dreadful hollow cough and never able to get under it, and I knew I was safe in stickin' to the black. I kept the veil and the black gloves and all laid away. They say keep a thing for seven years and you'll find a use for it, if you've any luck at all. I kept mine just six years, and you see, they did come in good at last."
"I guess you were good and glad, weren't you, Auntie?" asked Tommy.
Mrs. Watson and Pearl apologized as best they could for Tommy.
"That's all right, now, Jane," Mrs. Shenstone said, chuckling toothlessly; "youngsters will out with such things, and, now since you've asked me, Tommy, I am not what you'd call real glad, though I am glad poor Bill's gone where there ain't no consumption, but I miss him every minute. You see, he's been with me sittin' in his chair for the last four years, as I sat beside him sewin', and he was great company, Bill was, for all he was so sick; for he had great sperrits, and could argue somethin' surprisin' and grand. 'You're a good girl, Katie,' was the last words he ever said. I never was no hand to make a big palaver, so just as soon as the funeral was over I went right on with my sewin' and finished up everything I had in the house, for I needed the money to pay the expenses; and, besides, I made the first payment on the stone--it's a lovely one, John, cost me $300, but I don't mind that. I just wish Bill could see it. I often wish now I had set it up before he went, it would ha' pleased him so. Bill was real fond of a nice grave, that is, fixed up nice--he took such an interest in the sweet alyssum we had growin' in the garden, and he showed me just how he wanted it put on the grave. He wanted a horseshoe of it acrost the grave with B. S. inside, made of pansies. You see B. S. stands for Bill Shenstone, Blacksmith!
"He was a real proud man, yer Uncle Bill was, and him just a labourin' man, livin' by his anvil. Mind you, when I made him overalls I always had to put a piece of stuff out on the woodpile to fade fer patches. Bill never could bear to look at a patch of new stuff put on when the rest was faded."
"Well, he couldn't see the patch, could he, auntie?" Jimmy asked, making a shrewd guess at the location of it.
"Maybe he couldn't," Bill's wife answered proudly. "But he knew it was there."
"Where he wuz now?" Danny asked, his mind still turning to the ultimate destiny.
Mrs. Shenstone did not at once reply, and the children were afraid that her silence boded ill for Bill's present happiness. She stirred her tea absent-mindedly. "If there's a quiet field up in heaven, with elm-trees around it," she said at last; "elm-trees filled with singin' birds, a field that slopes down maybe to the River of Life, a field that they want ploughed, Bill will be there with old Bess and Doll, steppin' along in the new black furrow in his bare feet, singin':
There's a city like a bride, just beyond the swellin' tide.
He always said that would be heaven for him 'thout no harp or big procession, and I am sure Bill would never hear to a crown or such as that. Bill was a terrible quiet man, but a better-natured man never lived. So I think, Tommy, that your Uncle Bill is ploughin' down on the lower eighty, where maybe the marsh marigolds and buttercups bloom all the year around--there's a hymn that says somethin' about everlasting spring abides and never witherin' flowers, so I take it from that that the ploughin' is good all the year around, and that'll just suit Bill."
When the meal was over, Aunt Katie complacently patted her teeth back into place. "I never like no one to see me without them," she said, "exceptin' my own folks. I tell you, I suffer agonies when there's a stranger in for a meal. Now, Jane, let's git the children to bed. Mary and Pearl, you do the dishes. Hustle, you young lads, git off your boots now and scoot for bed. I never could bear the clatter of children. Come here, and I'll loosen your laces"--this to Bugsey, who sat staring at her very intently. "What's wrong with you?" she exclaimed, struck by the intent look on his face.
"I'm just thinkin'," Bugsey answered, without removing his eyes from the knothole on the door.
"And what are you thinkin'?" she demanded curiously.
"I'm just thinkin' how happy my Uncle Bill must be up there...ploughin'...without any one to bother him."
Mrs. Shenstone turned to her brother and shook her head gravely: "Mind you, John," she said, "you'll have to watch yon lad--he's a deep one."
Aunt Kate had only been a few days visiting at her brother John's when the children decided that something would have to be done. Aunt Kate was not an unmixed blessing, they thought.
"She's got all cluttered up with bad habits, not havin' no family of her own to raise," Pearl said. "She wouldn't jump up and screech every time the door slams if she'd been as used to noises as Ma is, and this talk about her nerves bein' all unstrung is just plain silly--and as for her not sleepin' at nights, she sleeps as sound as any of us. She says she hears every strike of the clock all night long, and she thinks she does; but she doesn't, I know. Anyway, I'm afraid Ma will get to be like her if we don't get her stopped."
"Ma backed her up to-day when she said my face was dirty just after I had washed it, so she did," Mary said with a grieved air.
Nearly every one of them had some special grievance against Aunt Kate.
"Let's make her sign a Charta," Tommy said, "like they did with John."
The idea became immensely popular.
"She won't sign it," said Bugsey, the pessimist. "Let her dare to not," said Jimmy gravely, "and she shall know that the people are the king."
Pearl said that it would do no harm to draw up the paper anyway, so a large sheet of brown paper was found, and Pearl spread it on the floor. Mrs. Watson and Aunt Kate had gone downtown, so every person felt at liberty to speak freely. Pearl wasn't sure of the heading and so wrote:
Mrs. Kate Shenstone
Please take notice of these things, and remember them to do them, and much good will follow here and hereafter.
She read it over to the others, and everybody was well pleased with it.
After receiving suggestions from all, the following by-laws were recommended to govern the conduct of Aunt Kate in future:
1. Keep your nerves strung.
Just then the cry was raised that she was coming, and the Magna Charta was hastily folded up, without receiving the signatures.
Aunt Kate, who was very observant, suspected at once that the children had been "up to something."
"What have you youngsters been up to now, while we were away?" she demanded.
There was a thick silence. Mrs. Watson asked the children to answer their Auntie.
Mary it was who braved the storm. "We've been drawing up a list of things for you," she said steadily.
Aunt Kate had seen signs of rebellion, and had got to the place where she was not surprised at anything they did.
"Give it here," she said.
"Wait till it's signed," Pearl said. "It's Charta, Aunt Kate," she went on, "like 'King John to sign."
"I didn't hear about it. Pearl explained.
"Let me see it, anyway." Pearl gave her the document, and she retired to her room with it to look it over.
"Say, Pearl," said Jimmy, "go in there and get out my catapult, will you? She may sign it and then cutup rough."
There was no more said about it for several days, but Aunt Kate was decidedly better, though she still declared she did not sleep at night, and Pearl was determined to convince her that she did. Aunt Kate was a profound snorer. Pearl, who was the only one who had ever heard her, in trying to explain it to the other children, said that it was just like some one pulling a trunk across the room on a bare floor to see how they would like it in this corner, and then, when they get it over here, they don't like it a bit, so they pull it back again; "and besides that," Pearl said, "she whistles comin' back and grinds her teeth, and after all that she gets up in the mornin' and tells Ma she heard every hour strike. She couldn't hear the clock strike anyway, and her kickin' up such a fuss as she is, but I'm going to stop her if I can; she's our aunt, and we've got to do our best for her, and, besides, there's lots of nice things about her."
The next morning Pearl was very solicitous about how her aunt had slept.
"Not a bit better," Aunt Kate said. "I heard every hour but six. I always drop off about six."
"Did you really hear the clock last night, Auntie?" Pearl asked with great politeness.
"Oh, it's very little you youngsters know about lying awake. When you get to the age of me and your mother, I tell you, it's different I get thinkin', thinkin', thinkin', and my nerves get all unstrung."
"And you really heard the clock?" Pearl said. "My, but that is queer!"
"Nothin' queer about it, Pearl. What's queer about it, I'd like to know?"
"Because I stopped the clock," Pearl said, "just to see if you could hear it when it's stopped," and for once Aunt Kate, usually so ready of speech, could not think of anything to say.
Aunt Kate went to bed early the next night, leaving the children undisturbed to enjoy the pleasant hour as they had done before she came. The next morning she handed Pearl the sheet of brown paper, and below the list of recommendations there it was in bold writing:
"Kate W. Shenstone."
"See that, now," said Pearl triumphantly, as she showed it to the children, "what it does for you to know history!"
"Say," said Jim, "where could we get some of them things, what did you call them, Pearl?"
"'Twouldn't do any good, she wouldn't eat them," Billy said.
"Lampreys or lampwicks, or somethin' like that."
"Now, boys," said Pearl, "that's not right. Don't talk like that. It ain't cheerful."