The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter VI. Pearl's Unruly Conscience
We turn unblessed from faces fresh with beauty, Unsoftened yet by fears, To those whose lines are chased by love and duty And know the touch of tears.
----Ella Wheekr Wikox.
The Watson family attended school faithfully all winter. Pearl took no excuses from the boys. When Tommy came home bitterly denouncing Miss Morrison, his teacher, because she had applied the external motive to him to get him to take a working interest in the "Duke--Daisy--Kitty" lesson, Pearl declared that he should be glad that the teacher took such a deep interest in him. When Bugsey was taken sick one morning after breakfast and could not go to school, but revived in spirits just before dinner-time, only to be "took bad" again at one o'clock, Pearl promulgated a rule, and in this Aunt Kate rendered valuable assistance, that no one would be excused from school on account of sickness unless they could show a coated tongue, and would take a tablespoonful of castor oil and go to bed with a mustard plaster (this was Aunt Kate's suggestion), missing all meals. There was comparatively little sickness among the Watsons after that.
Aunt Kate was a great help in keeping the household clothes in order. She insisted on the children hanging up their own garments, taking care of their own garters, and also she saw to it that each one ate up every scrap of food on his or her plate, or else had it set away for the next meal. But in spite of all this Aunt Kate was becoming more popular.
Thus relieved of family cares, Pearl had plenty of time to devote to her lessons and the progress she made was remarkable. She had also more time to see after the moral well-being of her young brothers, which seemed to be in need of some attention--at least she thought so when Patsey came home one day and signified his intention of being a hotel-keeper when he grew up, because Sandy Braden had a diamond as big as a marble. Patsey had the very last Sunday quite made up his mind to be a missionary. Pearl took him into her mother's room, and talked to him very seriously, but the best she could do with him was to get him to agree to be a drayman; higher than that he would not go--the fleshpots called him!
Jimmy became enamored of the railway and began to steal rides in box-cars, and once had been taken away and had to walk back five miles. It was ten o'clock when he got home, tired happy. He said he was "hungry enough to eat raw dog," which is a vulgar expression for a little boy nine years old.
Even Danny began to show signs of the contamination of the world, and came swaggering home one night feeling deliciously wicked smoking a liquorice pipe, and in reply to his mother's shocked remonstrance had told her to "cut it out."
Those things had set Pearl thinking. The boys were growing up and there was no work for them to do. It was going to be hard to raise them in the town. Pearl talked it over with Mr. Burrell, the minister, and he said the best place to raise a family of boys was the farm, where there would be plenty of employment for them. So Pearl decided in her own mind that they would get a farm. It would mean that she would have to give up her chance of an education, and this to her was a very bitter sacrifice.
One night, when everyone else was asleep, even Aunt Kate, Pearl fought it all out. Every day was bringing fresh evidences of the evil effects of idleness on the boys. Jimmy brought home a set of "Nations" and offered to show her how to play pedro with them. Teddy was playing on the hockey team, and they were in Brandon that night, staying at a hotel, right within "smell of the liquor," Pearl thought. The McSorley boys had stolen money from the restaurant man, and Pearl had overheard Tommy telling Bugsey that Ben McSorley was a big fool to go showing it, and Pearl thought she saw from this how Tommy's thoughts were running.
All these things smote Pearl's conscience and seemed to call on her to renounce her education to save the family. "Small good your learnin' 'll be to ye, Pearl Watson, if yer brothers are behind the bars," she told herself bitterly. "It's not so fine ye'll look, all dressed up, off to a teachers' convention in Brandon, readin' a paper on 'How to teach morals,' and yer own brother Tommy, or maybe Patsey, doin' time in the Brandon jail! How would ye like, Pearlie, to have some one tap ye on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me for troublin' of ye, Miss Watson, but it's visitor's day at the jail, and yer brother Thomas would like ye to be after stepping, over. He's a bit lonesome. He's Number 23!'"
Something caught in her throat, and her eyes were too full to be comfortable. She slipped out of bed and quietly knelt on the bare floor. "Dear God," she prayed, "ye needn't say another word. I'll go, so I will. It's an awful thing to be ignorant, but it's nothin' like as bad as bein' wicked. No matter how ignorant ye are ye can still look up and ask God to bless ye, but if ye are wicked ye're re dead out of it altogether, so ye are; so I'll go ignorant, dear Lord, to the end o' my days, though ye know yerself what that is like to me, an I'll try never to be feelin' sorry or wishin' myself back. Just let me get the lads brought up right. Didn't ye promise someone the heathen for their inheritance? Well, all right, give the heathen to that one, whoever it was ye promised it to, but give me the lads--there's seven of them, ye mind. I guess that's all. Amen."
The next day Pearl went to school as usual, determined to make the best use of the short time that remained before the spring opened. All day long the path of knowledge seemed very sweet and alluring to her. She had been able to compute correctly how long eighteen cows could feed on a pasture that twenty-six horses had lived on eighteen days last year, the grass growing day and night, three cows eating as much as one horse; in Literature they were studying "The Lady of the Lake," and Alan-bane's description of the fight had intoxicated her with its stirring enthusiasm. Knowledge was a passion with Pearl; "meat and drink to her," her mother often said, and now how was she to give it up?
She sat in her seat and idly watched the children file out. She heard them racing down the stairs. Outside, children called gaily to each other, the big doors slammed so hard the windows rattled and at last all was still with the awful stillness of a deserted school.
It was a warm day in March, a glorious day of melting sunshine, when the rivers begin to think of spring, and 'away below the snow the little flowers smile in their sleep.
Pearl went to the window and looked out at the familiar scene. Her own home, straggling and stamped with poverty, was before her. "It does look shacky but it's home, and I love it, you bet," she said. "Nobody would ever know to look at it the good times that goes on inside." Then she turned and looked around the schoolroom, with its solemn-looking blackboards, and its deserted seats littered with books. The sun poured into the room from the western windows and a thousand motes danced in its beams. The room smelled of chalk and ink and mothballs, but Pearl liked it, for to her it was the school-smell.
"I'll purtend I am the teacher," Pearl said, "just for once. I'll never be one now; I'm goin' to give up that hope, at least I'm goin' to try to give it up, maybe, but I'll see how it feels anyway." She sat in the teacher's chair and saw the seats filled with shadowy forms. She saw herself, well-dressed and educated, earning a salary and helping to raise her family from ignorance and poverty.
"I am Miss Watson now," she said, as she opened the register and called the names of her own making. "Me hair is done like Miss Morrison's, all wadded out around me head, wid a row of muskrat houses up the back, the kind I can take off and comb on the palm o' me hand. I've got gold-fillin' in me teeth which just shows when I laugh wide, and I'll do it often, and I've got a watch wid a deer's head on it and me name on it, R. J. P. Watson, and I can talk like they do in books. I won't ever say 'I've often saw,' I'll say 'I have invariably observed.' I suppose I could say it now, but it doesn't seem to fit the rest of me; and I'll be sittin' here now plannin' my work for to-morrow, and all the children are wonderin' hard what I'm thinkin' of. Now I'll purtend school is out. There's three little girls out there in the hall waitin' to take me hand home, nice little things about the size I used to be meself. I may as well send them home, for I won't be goin' for a long time yet." She went into the hall and in a very precise Englishy voice dismissed her admiring pupils. "I am afraid I will be here too long for you to wait, childer dear," she said, "I have to correct the examination papers that the Entrance class wrote on to-day on elementary and vulgar fractions, and after that I am goin' for a drive with a friend"--she smiled, but forgot about the gold filling. "My friend, Dr. Clay, is coming to take me. So good-bye, Ethel, and Eunice, and Claire," bowing to each one.
Pearl heard the scamper of little feet down the stairs, and kissed her hand three times to them.
"I'll just see if he's coming," she murmured to herself, going to the window.
He was coming, in her imagination and in reality. Dr. Clay was driving up to the school, looking very handsome in his splendid turn-out, all a-jingle with sleigh-bells. Pearl was so deep in her rainbow dream she tapped gaily on the window. He looked up smiling and waved his hand to her.
Just then Miss Morrison came out and he helped her into the cutter and they drove away. At the same moment Miss Watson with the gold-filled teeth, and the merry widow puffs, disappeared and Pearl Watson, caretaker of the Millford School, in a plain little serge dress, beginning to wear in spite of sateen sleeve protectors, turned from the window with a sudden tightening of the heart, and sought the refuge of her own seat, and there on the cool desk she laid her head, sobbing softly, strange new tears that were not all pain!