The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter IV. Something More than Gestures
Wanting is--what? Summer redundant, Blueness abundant. Where is the blot?
Pearlie Watson, the new caretaker of the Milford school, stood broom in hand at the back of the schoolroom and listened. Pearlie's face was troubled. She had finished the sweeping of the other three rooms, and then, coming into Miss Morrison's room to sweep it, she found Maudie Ducker rehearsing her "piece" for the Medal Contest. Miss Morrison was instructing Maudie, and Mrs. Ducker would have told you that Maudie was doing "beautifully."
Every year the W. C. T. U. gave a silver medal for the best reciter, and for three consecutive years Miss Morrison had trained the winner; so Mrs. Ducker was naturally anxious to have Maudie trained by so successful an instructor. Miss Morrison had studied elocution and "gesturing." It was in gesturing that Maudie was being instructed when Pearlie came in with her broom.
It was a pathetic monologue that Miss Morrison had chosen for Maudie, supposed to be given by an old woman in a poorhouse. Her husband had died a drunkard and then her only son, "as likely a lad as you ever saw," had also taken to "crooked ways and left her all alone." One day a man came to visit the poorhouse, and poor "old Nan," glad of any one to talk to, tells all her story to the sympathetic stranger, asking him at last wouldn't he try to find and save her poor Jim, whom she had never ceased to pray for, and whom she still believed in and loved. Then she discovered the man to be in tears, and of course he turns out to be the long-lost Jim, and a happy scene follows.
It is a common theme among temperance reciters, but to Pearlie it was all new and terrible. She could not go on with her sweeping--she was bound to the spot by the story of poor old Nan and her woes.
Miss Morrison was giving Maudie instruction on the two lines:
"It is the old, sad, pitiful story, sir, Of the devil's winding stair."
Neither of them had time to think of the meaning--they were so anxious about the gestures. Maudie did a long, waving sweep with three notches in it, more like a gordon braid pattern than a stair, but it was very pretty and graceful, and Miss Morrison was pleased.
"And men go down and down and down To darkness and despair."
Maudie scalloped the air three times evenly to indicate the down grade.
"Tossing about like ships at sea With helm and anchor lost."
Maudie certainly gave the ships a rough time of it with her willowy left arm. Miss Morrison said that to use her left arm to toss the ships would add variety.
"On and on thro' the surging waves, Not caring to count the cost."
Maudie rose on the ball of her left foot and indicated "distance" with the proper Delsarte stretch.
* * *
It was dark when Pearl got home. "Maudie Ducker has a lovely piece," she began at once; "but she spoils it--she makes a fool of it."
The family were just at supper, and her mother said reprovingly, "O Pearlie! now, sure Miss Morrison is teaching her, and they do be sayin' she's won three medals herself.'"
"Well," Pearlie said, unconvinced, "them kind of carrin's-on may do fine for some pieces, but old women wid their hearts just breakin' don't cut the figger eight up in the air, and do the Dutch-roll, and kneel down and get up just for show--they're too stiff, for one thing. Ye can't listen to the story the way Maudie carries on, she's that full of twists and turnin's. Maudie and Miss Morrison don't care a cent for the poor owld woman."
"Tell us about it, Pearlie," the young Watsons cried. "Well," Pearl began, as she hung up her thin little coat behind the door, "this Nan was a fine, purty girl, about like Mary there, only she didn't have a good pa like ours; hers used to come home at night, full as ye plaze, and they were all, mother, too, scairt to death purty near. Under the bed they'd go, the whole bilin' of them, the minute they'd hear him comin' staggerin' up to the cheek of the dure, and they'd have to wait there 'ithout no supper until he'd go to sleep, and then out they'd come, the poor little things, eyes all red and hearts beatin', and chew a dry crust, steppin' aisy for fear o' wakin' him."
"Look at that now!" John Watson exclaimed, pausing with his knife half way to his mouth.
"That ain't all in the piece," Pearl explained; "but it's understood, it says something about 'cruel blows from a father's hand when rum had crazed his brain,' and that's the way poor Nan grew up, and I guess if ever any girl got a heart-scald o' liquor, she did. But she grew up to be a rale purty girl, like Mary Barrier, I think, and one day a fine strappin' fellow came to town, clerkin in a store, steady enough, too, and he sees Nan steppin' out for a pail of water one day and her singin' to herself, and sez he to himself: 'There's the girl fer me!' and he was after steppin' up to her, polite as ye plaze (Pearl showed them how he did it), and says he: 'Them pails is heavy for ye, miss, let me have them."
"And after that nothin' would do him but she must marry him, and he was as fine a lookin' upstandin' fellow as you'd see any place, and sure Nan thought there had never been the likes of him. After that she didn't mind the old man's tantrums so much, for she was thinkin' all the time about Tom, and was gittin' mats and dish-towels made. And they had a fine weddin', with a cake and a veil and rice, and the old man kept straight and made a speech, and it was fine. And now, Ma, here's the part I hate to tell yez--it seems so awful. They hadn't been married long before Tom began to drink, too."
"The dirty spalpeen!" John angrily.
"Ye may well say that, Pa, after all she had to stand from the old man. But that's what the piece said:
"But Tom, too, took to drinkin'; He said 'twas a harmless thing; So the arrow sped and my bird of hope Came down with a broken wing."
The Watson family were unanimous that Tom was a bad lot!
"Tom cut up worse than the old man, and she used to have to get some of the neighbours to come in and sit on his head while she tuk his boots off, and she'd have clean give up if it hadn't been for her little boy, like Danny there; but if I ever thought that our Danny would go back on us the way that young Jim went back on his ma, I don't know how I'd stand it."
"What did he do, Pearlie?" Mary asked.
"Soon as he got big enough nothin' would do him but he'd drink too, and smoke cigarettes and stay out late, and one day stole somethin', and had to scoot, and she says so pitiful:
'I've never seen my poor lost boy From that dark day to this.'
Then the poorwoman goes to the poorhouse, mind you!"
"God help us!" cried Mrs. Watson, "did it come to that?"
"Yes, Ma; but what d'ye think? One day a finelookin' man came in to see all the old folks, silk hat and kid gloves on him and all that, and this poor woman got talkin' to him, and didn't she up and tell him the whole story, same as I'm tellin' you, only far more pitiful, and sure didn't she end up by beggin' him to be kind to her poor Jimmy if he ever comes across him; and tellin' him how she always prays for him and knows he'll be saved yet. She never held it against the young scamp that he never writ back even the scratch of a pen, just as full of excuses for him as Ma would be if it was one of you lads," and Pearl's voice quivered a little.
"But sure, now, it is wonderful how things turn out!" Pearlie went on, after she had wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her checked apron, "for wasn't this Jim all the time forninst her, and her not knowin' it, and didn't he grab her in his arms and beg her to forgive him; and he cried and she cried, and then he took her away with him, and she had a good time at last."
The next day Pearl borrowed the book from Maudie Ducker and learned the words, and for several evenings recited them to her admiring and tearful family. Then, to make it more interesting, Pearl let the young Watsons act it. Jimmy spoke right up and says he: "I bo'r to be the old man, and come home drunk," but as this was the star part, Jimmy had to let Tommy and Billy have it sometimes.
The first scene was the father's spectacular homecoming. The next scene was the wedding, and Jimmy made the speech after Pearl had coached him, and in most feeling terms he warned his son-in-law against the flowing bowl, and told what a good girl his little Nancy was, and what a bad pa he'd been; and then he broke down and cried real tears, which Pearl said was "good actin'." The third scene was where Tom came home drunk. It was somewhat marred by Mary, who was playing the part of the broken-hearted bride, and was supposed to burst into tears when she saw the condition of her husband, and say:
"So the arrow has sped and my bird of hope Comes down with a broken wing."
Now Mary had her own ideas of how intemperate husbands should be dealt with, and she had provided herself with a small, flat stick as she sat waiting in what was supposed to be joyful anticipation for her liege lord's homecoming. When she discovered his condition she cut out the speech about the "bird of hope," and used the stick with so much vigour that it seemed he was in more danger than the bird of hope of having a broken wing. Billy, the bridegroom, was naturally indignant, but his father was disposed to approve of Mary's methods. "Faix, I'm thinkin'," he said, "there'd be less of it if they got that every time they cum home that way."
Scene IV was the young son (Patsey) fleeing from the hands of justice. Pearlie hid him behind the flour-barrel until the two sleuths of the law, Danny and Tommy, passed by, and then he was supposed to do his great disappearing act through the cellar window.
Scene V was the most important of all. It was the poorhouse, and required a good deal of stage-setting. All evidences of wealth had to be carefully eradicated. The cloth was taken from the table, and the one mat lifted off the floor. Newspapers were pinned over the windows, and the calendars were turned with their faces to the wall. The lamp with the cracked chimney was lighted instead of the "good lamp," and then Pearlie, with her mother's old black shawl around her shoulders, ceased to be Pearlie Watson and became poorhouse Nan, widowed, deserted, old as the world itself, with heartbreak and tears.
John Watson sat and listened to her with a growing wonder in his heart, but as the story went on even he forgot that it was Pearl, and shed many unashamed tears over the sorrows of poorhouse Nan.
Camilla came in one night and heard Pearl recite it all through.
The morning of the contest an emergency meeting of the W. C. T. U. was hurriedly called at the home of Mrs. Francis. What was to be done? Maudie Ducker and Mildred Bates had the measles, and could not recite, which left only four reciters. They could do with five, but they could not go on with four. The tickets were sold, the hall rented, the contest had been advertised over the country! Who could learn a recitation in a day? Miss Morrison was sent for. She said it was impossible. A very clever pupil might learn the words, but not the gestures, and "a piece" was nothing without gestures. Mrs. White again exclaimed: "What shall we do?"
Mrs. Francis said: "We'll see what Camilla says."
Camilla came and listened attentively while the woes of the W. C. T. U. were told her. It was with difficulty that she restrained an exclamation of delight when she heard that they were short of reciters. "Pearl Watson knows Maudie's selection," she said quietly, "and recites it very well, indeed!'
"Impossible!" Miss Morrison exclaimed. "She has had no lessons."
"I think she watched you training Maudie," Camilla ventured.
"Only once," Miss Morrison replied, "and she can not possibly know the gestures; but we will be glad to have any one fill in. People will not expect her to do very well when she has had no training," she added charitably.
When Camilla returned to the kitchen she was smiling gently. "There's a surprise coming to little Miss Morrison," she said.
* * *
That night the hall was full to the door, and people stood in the aisles. Everybody loves a contest. Pearl and the other four contestants sat in a front seat. The latter were beautifully dressed in white net over silk, with shoes and stockings of white, and numerous bows of ribbon.
By the draw that Miss Morrison made, Pearl came last on the programme, and Miss Morrison kindly asked the chairman to explain that Pearl had had no training whatever, and that she had only known that she was going to recite that morning Miss Morrison wished to be quite fair!
Camilla sat beside Pearl. She had dressed Pearl for the occasion, and felt rather proud of her work as she sat beside Contestant No. 5. Pearl's brown hair was parted and brushed smoothly back, and tied with two new bright red ribbons--Camilla's gift. It did not occur to Pearl that she was in the race for the medal. She was glad of a chance to fill in and help the contest along.
John Watson, Mrs. Watson, and all the little Watsons were present, and filled two side seats. Mr. Francis had heard something from Camilla that caused him to send tickets to the whole Watson family, and even come himself, which was an unprecedented event.
Lucy Bates was the first contestant, and made her parents and many admiring relatives very proud of the a flutter of lace.
Maude Healy--the star reciter of the Hullett neighbourhood--recited "How Father Signed the Pledge," in a good, clear, ringing voice, and the Hullett people thought they were just as sure of the medal as if they saw the chairman pinning it on Maude.
Two other girls recited, with numerous gestures, selections of the same class; in which wayward sons, stormy nights, and railway accidents figured prominently.
Then the chairman made the explanation in regard to Pearl's appearance, and asked her to come forward and recite. Camilla gave her hand an affectionate little squeeze as she left the seat, and, thus fortified, Pearlie Watson faced the sea of faces unflinchingly. Then came that wonderful change--the little girl was gone, and an old woman, so bowed, so broken, began to tell her story, old enough to most of us, but strong always in its gripping pathos--the story of a child cheated of her birthright of happiness because some men will grow rich on other men's losses and fatten on the tears of little children. The liquor traffic stood arraigned before the bar of God as the story went on, unfolding darker and darker chapters in the woman's life. It had been the curse that had followed her always, had beaten and bruised her, never merciful.
The people saw it in its awfulness, and the pity of it rolled over them as they listened to that sad, old, cracked voice.
When she came to the place where she begged the well-dressed stranger to try and save her boy, and, clasping her trembling hands besought the God of Heaven to bear with her Jim a little longer, and let her see the desire of her heart, her son redeemed and forgiven, there was an audible sob from some one in the back of the hall, and many a boy away from home, careless and forgetful of his own mother, remembered her now with sudden tenderness. The words of the prayer were stiff and unnatural, but when did the Spirit of God depend upon felicity of expression? It can abound wherever there is the honest heart, and when Pearl, with tears flowing down her cheeks, but with voice steady and clear, thanked the God of all grace for sending her the answer to her prayers, even the dullest listener got a glimmering of the truth that there is "One behind the shadows who keeps watch above His own."
When Pearl had finished, the audience sat perfectly motionless, and then burst into such a tornado of applause that the windows rattled in their casings.
John Watson sat still, but his heart was singing within him "Pearlie, Pearlie, God bless her!"
When the judges met for their decision it was found that they had forgotten to mark Pearl as to memory, gesture, pronunciation, etc., as their rules required them to do.
Father O'Flynn, the little Irish priest, wiping his eyes suspiciously, said: "Gentlemen, my decision is for Number 5." The other two nodded.
And so it came about that Pearlie Watson was once more called to face the large and cheering audience, while Father O'Flynn, with many kind words, presented her with the W. C. T. U. oratorical prize.
Miss Morrison went home that night disturbed in spirit, wondering if, after all, there might not be something more in it than gestures, voice, memory, and articulation.