TSW Chapter 5.5

 

Schoolmistress

Excerpt from “Meadow Brook” 1857

By Mary Jane Holmes

 

     Of the many thousand individuals destined to become the purchasers of a copy of this work, the majority have undoubtedly been, or are still teachers, and of these many will remember the time when they fancied that to be invested with the dignity of a teacher was to secure the greatest amount of happiness which earth can bestow; Almost from my earliest remembrance it had been the one great subject which engrossed my thoughts, and frequently, when strolling down the shady hill-side which led to our schoolhouse, have I fancied myself the teacher, thinking that if such were really the case, my first act should be the chastisement of a half a score or more boys, who were in the daily habit of annoying me in various ways. Every word and action of my teacher, too, was carefully noted and laid away against the time when I should need them, and which came much sooner than I anticipated, for one rainy morning when Lizzie and I were playing in the garret, I overheard my father saying there was a chance for Rosa to teach school.

     “What, that child!” was my mother’s exclamation, but ere he could reply, ‘that child’ had bounded down two pairs of stairs, and stood at his elbow, asking, “Who it is? -- Where is it? -- And do you suppose I can get a certificate?”

     This last idea damped my ardor somewhat, for horrible visions came up before me, of the “Abbreviations” and “Sounds of the Vowels”, in both of which I was rather deficient.

     “You teach school! You look like it!” said my sister Juliet. “Why, in less than three days, you’d be teetering with the girls, if indeed you didn’t climb trees with the boys.”

     This climbing was undeniably a failing of mine, there being scarcely a tree on the farm on whose topmost limbs I hadn’t at some time or other been perched, but I was older now. I was thirteen two days before, and so I reminded Juliet at the same time begging of father to tell me all about it. It appeared that he had that day met with a Mr. Randall, the trustee of Pine District, who was in quest of a teacher. After learning that the school was small, father ventured to propose me, who, he said, “Was crazy to keep school.”

     “A dollar a week is the most we can give her,” returned Mr. Randall, “and if you’ll take up with that, mebby we’ll try her. New beginners sometimes do the best.”

     So it was arranged that I was to teach fifteen weeks for four dollars per month and board round at that! Boarding round! How many reminiscences do these two words recall to those who, like myself, have tried it, and who know that it has a variety of significations. That sometimes it is only another name for sleeping with every child in the family where your home for one week may chance to be -- for how can you be insensible to the oft-repeated whisper, “I shall sleep with her to-night -- ma said I might,” and of “ma’s” audible answer, “Perhaps, sis, she don’t want you to.” If “sis” is a clean cubby-looking little creature you do want her, but if, as it not infrequently happens, she is just the opposite, -- I draw a blank which almost every country school teacher in the land can fill merely saying that there is no alternative. We have got the district to please and we must do it some way or other.

     Again, “boarding round” means a quiet, cozy spot, where everything is so pleasant and cheerful, where the words are so kind and the smile of welcome so sweet, that you feel at once at home, and wish, oh, how you do wish, you could stay there all summer long, but it cannot be; -- the time of your allotted sojourn passes away and then with a sigh, if indeed you can repress a tear, you gather up your combs, brushes, and little piece of embroidery, to which some spiteful woman has said “You devote more time than to your school” and putting them in your satchel, depart for another home, sometimes as pleasant as the one you are leaving, sometimes not.

     But of these annoyances I knew nothing, and when Mr. Randall came to see me, calling me Miss Lee, and when I was really engaged, my happiness was complete. In a country neighborhood every item of news, however slight spreads rapidly, and the fact that I was to teach soon became generally known, creating quite a sensation, and operating differently upon different natures. One old gentleman, who, times innumerable, had held me on his knee, feeding my vanity with flattery, and my stomach with sweet-meats, was quite as much delighted as I, declaring, “He always knew I was destined to make something great.”

     Dear old man! When the snows of last winter were high piled upon the earth, they dug for him a grave in the frozen ground, and in the world where he now lives, he will not know, perhaps, that I shall never fulfill his prophesy.

     Aunt Sally Wright, who, besides managing her own affairs, kept an eye on her neighbors’, and who looked upon me as a “pert, forward piece,” gave her opinion freely.

     “What! That young one keep school! Is Deacon Leo crazy? Ain’t Rose stuck up enough now? But never mind. You’ll see who won’t keep out more’n half her time, if she does that.”

     Aunt Sally was gifted with the power of telling fortunes by means of tea-grounds, and I have always fancied she read that prediction in the bottom of her big blue cup, for how could she otherwise have known what actually happened! Ere long the news reached Pine District, creating quite an excitement, the older people declaring “They’d never send to a little girl.” While the juvenile portion of the inhabitants gave a contemptuous whistle or so in honor of the school ma’am elect. Mrs. Capt. Thompson, who boasted the biggest house, handsomest carpet and worst boy in Pine Hill, was wholly incredulous, until she one day chanced to meet with Aunt Sally, who not only confirmed it, but also kindly gave her many little items touching my character as a “Wild, romping minx, who was no more qualified for a teacher than for the Queen of England.” citing as proof of what she said, that only the year before she had seen me “Trying to ride on a cow.”

     Mrs. Capt. Thompson, who was blessed with an overwhelming sense of propriety, was greatly shocked, saying “She’d always thought Mr. Randall knew just enough to hire a child”, and consoling herself with the remark that “It was not at all probable? I’d get a certificate.”

     On this point I was myself a little fearful. True, I had been “sent away” to school, and had been flattered into the belief that I possessed far more book knowledge than I did, but this, I knew, would avail me nothing with the formidable committee who held my destiny in their hands. They were unbiased in my favor, and had probably never heard of me, as they lived in an adjoining town. But “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” and determining not to fail, I ransacked the cupboard, where our school books were kept, bringing thence Olney’s Geography, Colburn’s Arithmetic, History of the United States, Grammars, etc., all of which were for days my constant companions, and I even slept with one or more of them under my pillow, so that with the earliest dawn I could study. Whole pages of Geography were committed to memory, all the hardest problems in Colburn were solved, a dozen or more of compound relatives were parsed and disposed of to my satisfaction at least, and I was just beginning to feel strong in my own abilities when one Monday morning news was brought us that at three o’clock that afternoon all who were intending to teach in the town of S----- were to meet at the house of the Rev. Mr. Parks, then and there to be questioned of what they knew and what they didn’t know. This last referred to me, for now that the dreaded day had come, I felt that every idea had suddenly left me, while, to increase my embarrassment, I was further informed that as there had the year previous been some trouble among the School Inspectors, each of whom fancied that the other did not take his share of the work, the town had this year thought to obviate the difficulty by electing nine.

     One was bad enough, but at the thought of nine men in spectacles my heart sank within me, and it was some time ere I could be persuaded to make the trial. In the midst of our trouble, Aunt Sally, whose clothes on Monday mornings were always swinging on the line before light, and who usually spent the afternoon of that day in visiting, came in, and after learning what was the cause of my flushed cheeks said, by way of comforting me, “That she didn’t wonder an atom if I felt streaked, for ‘twant no ways likely I’d pass!”

     This roused my pride, and with the mental comment that “I’d pass for all her.” I got myself in readiness, Juliet lending me her green veil and Anna her fine pocket handkerchief, while mother’s soft warm shawl was wrapped lovingly about me, and Lizzie slipped into my pocket the Multiplication Table, which she thought I might manage to look at slily in case of an emergency, on our way father commenced the examination by asking me the length of the Mississippi, but I didn’t know as it had a length, and in despair he gave up his questioning.

     Oh, how sombre and dreary seemed the little parlor into which we were ushered by the servant, who, on learning our business, looked rather doubtfully at me, as much as to say, “You surely can’t be one of them?” In a short time the parlor was filled, the entire nine being there. Not one was absent, and in a row directly opposite, they sat, some tipped back in a lounging attitude, some cutting their finger nails with their pen-knives, while others sat up stiff and stern, the whole presenting a most formidable appearance. There were eight of ten candidates present, and unfortunately for me, I was seated at what I called the foot of the class. It seemed that most of them were acquainted. And as I was almost the only stranger present, it was but natural that they should look at me rather more than I liked. My pantalets evidently attracted their attention, but by dint of drawing up my feet and pushing down my dress I hoped to hide my short-comings.

     When, at last, the examination commenced, I found, to my great delight that Geography was the subject introduced, and my heart beat high, for I thought of-the pages I could repeat and ardently longed for a chance to display! Unfortunately for me they merely questioned us from the map, and breathlessly I awaited my turn. At length the young lady who sat next to me was asked “What two rivers unite and form the Ohio?” I looked at her sidewise. The bloom deepened on her cheek, and I was sure she had forgotten. Involuntarily I felt tempted to tell her, but did not, and Mr. Parks, looking inquiringly at me, said, “Perhaps the next one can. Ahem!”

     He caught sight of my offending pantalets and thinking me some child who had come with her sister, was about to pass me by. But I was not to be slighted in that way, particularly when I knew the answer, so, with the air of one who, always at the foot, accidently spells the word right and starts for the head, I spoke out loud and distinctly, “Allegheny and Monongahela “ glancing at my father just in time to catch a nod of encouragement.

     “The Nine” were taken by surprise, and instantly three pairs of eyes with glasses and six pairs without glasses were brought to bear upon me. For reasons best known to themselves, they asked me a great variety of question: All of which I answered correctly, I believe, at least they made no comment, and were evidently vastly amused with their new specimen, asking me how old I was, and exchanging smiles at my reply, “Thirteen, four weeks ago to-day,“ One of my fellow-teachers, who sat near me, whispered to her next-neighbor, “She’s older than that, I know.” for which remark I’ve never quite forgiven her. Arithmetic was the last branch introduced, and as mathematics was rather my forte, I had now no fear of failing but I did! A question in Decimals puzzled me, and coloring to my temples, I replied, “I don’t know.” while two undeniable tears dropped into my lap.

     “Never mind, sis,” said one of the nine. "You know most everything else and have done bravely.”

     I was sure of my certificate then as I was fifteen minutes afterwards when a little slip of paper was given me, declaring me competent to teach a common school. I thought it was all over, and was adjusting mother’s Shaw and tying on Juliet’s-veil, when they asked me to write something that they might see a specimen of my penmanship. Taking the pen, I dashed off with a flourish “Rosa Lee,” at which I thought they peered more curiously than need be -- and one of them, Dr. Clayton, a young man, and a handsome one, too, said something about its being “very poetical”. He hadn’t seen the Negro song then.

     The shadows of evening had long since fallen when we stopped at out door, where we found mother anxiously waiting for us. Very wistfully she looked in my face ere she asked the important question.

     “Yes, I’ve got one,” said I, bounding from the buggy, “and I’d like to be examined every day, it’s such fun.”

     “Didn’t you miss a word?” asked Juliet.

     “Oh, I’m so glad!” cried Lizzie.

     “Feel big, don’t you?” suggested Charlie, while Anna inquired “If I’d lost her pocket-handkerchief?”

     Ere long, exaggerated rumors reached Meadow Brook of the very creditable manner in which I had acquitted myself at the examination, whereupon Aunt Sally Wright was quite taken back. Soon rallying, however, she had recourse to her second prediction, which was that “I should not teach more than half the summer out.” Perhaps I wronged the old lady, but I cannot help thinking that the ill-natured stories concerning-myself, which she set afloat at Pine Hill, were in a measure the cause of her prophecy being fulfilled. Never before, to my knowledge, had she visited at Capt. Thompson but now she spent an entire day there, bringing back to us the intelligence that John Thompson, a boy just one year my senior, was going to stay at home that summer, as “Mis’ Cap’n Thompson hadn’t no idee I could teach him.”

     Added to this was the comforting assurance, that Cap’n Thompson was hoppin mad because Mr. Randall had hired me in preference to his sister Dell, who had herself applied for the school. This, as I afterwards learned, was the secret of the dislike which, from the first, the Thompsons entertained for me. They had no daughter, but the captain’s half sister Dell had lived with him ever since his marriage, and between her and their hopeful son John, the affections of himself and wife were nearly equally divided.

     Dell Thompson was a proud, overbearing girl, about eighteen years of age, who esteemed herself far better than her neighbors, with whom she seldom associated, her acquaintances living mostly at what was called “the Centre” of the town. It seems that she had applied for the summer school, but remembering that she had once called him a “Country clown and his wife ignorant and vulgar.”, Mr. Randall had refused her and accepted me, Notwithstanding that the people of Pine Hill generally disliked the Thompson’s, there was among them a feeling of dissatisfaction when it became known that I was preferred to Dell, who, they thought, would have given tone and character to the school, for, “It wasn’t every big bug who would stoop to teach.”

     Of this state of affairs I was fortunately ignorant, and never do I remember a happier morning than that on which I first took upon myself the responsibilities of a teacher. By sunrise, the little hair trunk, which grandma lent me, was packed and stood waiting on the door-step, where I had carried it, thinking thus to accelerate the movements of my father, who did not seem to be in any particular hurry, telling me, “He’d no idea that school would be commenced before we got there!” Grandma had suggested the propriety of letting down my dresses, a movement which I warmly seconded, but mother said “No, she did not like to see little girls dressed like grown up women.” so, in my new plaid gingham and white pantalets, I waited impatiently until the clock struck seven, at which time father announced himself ready.

     “When will you come home?” asked mother, as she followed me to the gate.

     “In three weeks,” was my reply, as I hounded into the buggy, which soon moved away.

     Pine Hill is not at all remarkable for its beautiful scenery, and as old Sorrel trotted leisurely along, down one steep hill and up another, through a haunted swamp, where a man had once, to his great terror, seen his departed wife, and over a piece of road, where little grassy ridges said, as plain as grassy ridges could say, that the travelers there were few and far between, my spirits lowered a little. But, anon, the prospect brightened, and in the distance we saw the white wall of Capt. Thompson’s residence gleaming through the mess of evergreens which surrounded it. This, however, soon disappeared, and for a mile or more my eye met with nothing save white birches, gray rocks, green ferns, and blackberry bushes, until suddenly turning a corner, we came to a halt before one of those slanting-roofed houses so common in New England. It was the home of Mr. Randall, and it was there I was to board the first week. In the doorway, eating bread and molasses, were his three children, who, the moment they saw us, set up a shout of “Somebody’s come, I guess it’s the school-ma’am!” and straightway they took to their heels as if fleeing from the presence of a tigress.

     After a moment, the largest of them ventured to return, and his example was soon followed by the other two, the younger of whom, after eyeing me askance, lisped out, “Don Thompthon thays he ain’t afraid of you, he can lick you like dunder!”

     This was a pleasant commencement, but I smiled down upon the little boy, petting his curly head, while father inquired for Mrs. Randall, who, we learned, was sweeping the school house. Leaving the hair trunk, which was used by the children for a horse ere we left the yard, we again set forward, and soon reached our place of destination, which, without shade-tree or ornament of any kind, stood half-way up a long, sunny hill, commanding a view of nothing save the weathercock of Capt. Thompson’s barn, which was visible across the orchard opposite. We found Mrs. Randall enveloped in a cloud of dust, her sleeves rolled up, and her head covered by a black silk handkerchief.

     “The room wasn’t fit for the pigs,” she said, “and ought to have been cleaned, but somehow nobody took any interest in school this summer, and I’d have to make it answer.”

     I didn’t care particularly for the room, which, in truth, was dirty and disagreeable enough, but the words “nobody took any interest this summer”, affected me unpleasantly, for in them I saw a dim foreshadowing of all that ensued. Father, who was in a hurry, soon left me, bidding me “Be a good girl and not to get with the scholars.” From the window I watched him until he disappeared over the sandy hill, half wishing, though I would not then confess it, that I and the little trunk were with him. I was roused from my reverie by Mrs. Randall, who, for some time, had been looking inquisitively at me, and who now said, “Ain’t you but thirteen?”

     “No, Ma’am.” I answered.

   “Well,” she returned, “It beats all how much older you look I should s’pose you was full sixteen, if not more. But it’s all in your favor, and I guess you’ll be more likely to suit the deestrict though they’re afraid you hayen’t any government, and they’re terribly hard to suit. So, if I’s you,” she continued, “I’d hold a pretty tight rein at first. I give you full liberty to whip my young ones if they don’t behave. They know better than to complain at home.”

     Involuntarily I glanced at the clump of alders which grew near the house, and if they were somewhat diminished ere my reign was over, the “Deestrict” owed it to Mrs. Randall’s suggestion, after sitting awhile, she rose to go, telling me “She would expect me at night,” and then I was alone. I looked at my watch it was half-past eight and not a scholar yet. This was widely different from Meadow Brook, where, by seven, the house was generally filled with children, hallooing, quarreling over seats, and watching eagerly for the first sight of “The new schoolma’am.” Here the tables were turned, and the “schoolma’am” was watching for the scholars!

     Suddenly a large bumble-bee came buzzing in, and alighted on the window opposite. Like Sir Thomas the Good, in the Ingoldsby Legends, I have a passion for capturing insects, especially white-faced bumble-bees, and now I felt strongly inclined to mount the desks in pursuit of the intruder, but the thought “What if the scholars should detect me?” prevented, and to this day, I have never known whether that bumble-bee had a face white or belonged to the class of colored brethren! Ten minutes of nine, and I began to grow fidgety. I should have been more so, had I known how much is sometimes said about teachers not keeping their house. Five minutes of nine, and round the corner at the foot of the hill appeared a group of children, while from another direction came others, shouting for those in advance to “wait” which they did, and the whole entered the house together. A few of the girls made a slight obeisance, while the boys laughed, and throwing down their books in a very consequential manner, looked distrustfully at me. My age had preceded me, and in many of these childish hearts there was already a spirit of rebellion.

     Here I would speak about the impropriety of discussing a teacher’s faults in the presence of pupils, who will discover them soon enough, many a teacher starts disadvantageously because of some idle tale, which may or may not be true, but which, borne on the wings of gossip, reaches its place of destination, and is there thoughtlessly canvassed in the hearing of the children, who thus become prejudiced against a person they have never seen, and whom they otherwise might have liked, In my case the fault was my age which had evidently been discussed in the neighborhood, for, on opening my desk, I found inscribed upon the lid, in a bold schoolboy style, “Rosa Lee, aged 13“ to which was appended, in a more delicate hand, "Ancient—very!”

     Taking my India-rubber, I erased it while my scholars were settling the matter of seats, which, strange to say, they did without disputing, then there ensued a perfect silence and the eyes of all present turned inquiringly upon me, while, with sundry flourishes with my silver pencil, I proceeded to take down upon a big sheet of foolscap the names, ages, and “What studies do you intend to pursue?” of my pupils. After much talking and arranging the school was organized, but the first morning dragged heavily, and when l2 o’clock came, and I drew from my sachel the nice ginger snaps which mother had made, the sight of them, or the taste or something else, choked me so much that I was obliged to wink hard, and count the rows of trees in the orchard twice, ere I could answer the question addressed to me by one of the little girls.

     In the rear of the house was a long strip of dense woods, and wishing to be alone and out of sight of the sports in which I felt I must not join, I took my bonnet and wandered thither. Seating myself upon a mossy log, I tried to fancy that I was at home beneath the dear old grape-vine, the faintest rustle of whose broad green leaves would, at that moment, have been to me like the sweetest music. But it could not be. I was a school mistress -- -Miss Lee, they called me, and on my brow the shadows of life were thus early making their impress. Slowly to me dragged the hour which always before had been so short, and when at last I took my way back to the school, it seemed that in that short space I had lived an age. Often since, when I have looked upon young teachers hastening to their task, I’ve pitied them, for l knew full well how long and wearisome would be their first day’s labor.

     As I approached the schoolhouse I saw that something was the matter, for the scholars were greatly excited, and with voices raised to the highest pitch, were discussing something of importance. Thinking that my presents would perhaps restrain them from such noisy demonstrations, I hastened forward, but the babel rather increased than diminished, and it was with difficulty that I could learn the cause of all the commotion. George Randall was crying, while a little apart from him stood two boys, one of them apparently fourteen and the other twelve. They were strangers to me and instinctively I felt that they were in some way connected with the disturbance, and that the larger and more important looking was John Thompson a surmise which proved to be correct.

     It seemed that Isaac Ross, one of the new comers, had some weeks before selected for himself a corner seat, which, as he was not present in the morning, had been taken by George Randall, who knew nothing of Isaac’s intentions, and who now refused to give it up. A fight was the result, most of the scholars taking sides with George, while Isaac was urged on and encouraged by John Thompson, who, though not a pupil, had come up “To see how he like thee schoolma’am.” As a matter of course an appeal was made to me, to know “If George hadn’t the best right to the seat!”

     Perhaps I was wrong, but I decided that he had, at the same time asking Isaac, “If he were coming to school.”

     “I ain’t goin’ to anything else.” said he, glancing towards John, who with a wicked leer at me, knocked off one of the little boys’ hats and then threw it up in air.

     What would have ensued next I do not know, for at that moment Captain Thompson rode round the corner and called to his son, who, with mock deference, bowed politely to me and walked away. Disagreeable as Isaac Ross appeared in the presence of John Thompson, I found that when left to himself he was quite a different boy, and though he at first manifested some reluctance to taking another seat, he at last yielded the point, and for the remainder of the day conducted himself with perfect propriety.

     On the whole, the afternoon passed away rather pleasantly. And at night, when school was out, I started for my boarding-place quite content with teachers generally, and myself in particular. In passing the different houses which stood upon the road-side, I demeaned myself with the utmost dignity, swinging my short dross from side to side in imitation of a Boston lady who had once taught in our district, and whose manner of walking I greatly admired! From the window of Captain Thompson’s dwelling I caught a glimpse of two faces, which were hastily withdrawn, but I felt sure that from behind the curtains they were scanning my appearance, and I remember lowering my parasol a little, just to tantalize them! But when at last I was over the hill and out of sight, oh, how glad I was to be "Rosa Lee" again, free to pluck the sweet, wild flowers, to watch the little fishes in the running brook, or even to chase a white-faced bumblebee if I liked.

     About fifty rods from Mr. Randall’s stands one of those old-fashioned, gable-roofed houses, so common in some parts of New England, and here, at this time of which I am speaking, lived Mrs. Ross, the mother of Isaac, or Ike, a he was familiarly called. I had never met the lady, but as I approached the house and saw a tall, square-shouldered woman leaning on the gate, I naturally thought that it might be she, and on this point I was not long left in doubt for the moment I came within speaking distance, she called out, “How dy’ do, Miss Lee -- I suppose ‘tis? You pretty well? I’m Mis. Ross, Isick’s mother. He telled me that he had some fuss about a seat that he picked out more’n a moth ago, and thinks he orto have. I don’t never calkerlate to take sides with my children, ‘cause I’ve kept school myself, and I know how bad ‘tis, but I do hate to have Isick git a miff again the school ma’am on the first start, and if I’s you I’d let him have the seat instead of George Randall, for mebby folks’ll say you’re partial to George, bein’ that his father’s committee-man, and I’ve kept school enough to know that partiality won’t do.”

     As well as I could, I explained the matter to her, telling her I wished to do right, and meant to as far as I knew how.

     “I presume you do,” said she, “or I shouldn’t a’ taken the liberty to speak to you. I know you’s young, and I felt afeard you didn’t know what an undertakin’ it was to teach the young idee how to shute. The schoolma’ams have always thought a sight of me, and generally tell me all their troubles so I know jest how to take their part when the rest of the folks are again ‘em. Was Susan Brown to school? But she wasn’t-though, I know she wasn’t.”

     I replied that there was a little girl present of that name, and my companion continued: “Now I’ll give up, if Miss Brown has come round enough to send, when she was so dreadfully opposed to your teachin’, you’ve heered about it, I s’pose?”

     I answered that “I didn’t know that any one had opposed me except Mrs. Thompson.”

     “Oh, yes,” said she, assuming an injured look and tone. “everybody knows about that, and there’s some sense in their bein’ mad, for ‘twas plaguy mortifyin’ to Dell to offer to teach and be rejected by Mr. Randall, a man that none of the Thompsons would wipe their old shoes on, and then, ‘tisn’t every bigbug that will stoop to teach, for you know ‘tain’t considered first cut.”

     “No, I didn’t know it.” and so I said, but she assured me of the fact, quoting as authority, both Mrs. Thompson and Dell, who, I found, were her oracles in everything. After a time I brought her back to Mrs. Brown, whose husband, she said, was gone to sea, and who had herself applied for the school.

     “But between you and me,” she added, speaking in a whisper, “it’s a mighty good thing that she didn’t get it, for she ain’t the likeliest person that ever was, and nobody under the sun would have sent to her. Isick shouldn’t a gone a single day, for her morals is very bad, She used to belong to the Orthodox Church, but they turned her out for dancin’ at a party, and when she lived in Wooster she jined the ‘Piscopals, who, you know, let their members cut up all sorts -- -but, land sakes! how I’m talkin’! You must not breathe a word I say, for I make it a pint not to slander my neighbors, and if everybody minded their own business as well as I do, there wouldn’t be so much back bitin’ as there is. And that makes me think I’ve had a mind to caution you -- but no, I guess I won’t—mebby you’ll tell on’t.”

     Of course my curiosity was aroused, and of course I said I wouldn’t tell, whereupon she proceeded to inform me that Mrs. Randall was a very talkin’ woman, and I must be pretty careful in her presence. “You can tell me anything you wish to,” said she, “for I’m a master hand to keep a secret, but Mis’ Randall is forever in hot water. She and Mis’ Brown are hand in glove and both on ‘en turn up their noses at Mis’ Thompson and Dell, who never pretend to make anything of ‘em. I’m considerable intimate at the Captain’s, and I know all about it. Dell is smart as a steel trap, and it’s a pity she’s took such a dislike to you.”

     “I don’t think she ought to blame me,” said I, “for I didn’t know she wanted the school -- .”

     “Tain’t that altogether,” resumed Mrs, Rose, again speaking in a whisper, “‘Tain’t that altogether, and if you’ll never lisp a word on’t I’ll tell you the hull story.”

     I gave the required promise, and then Mrs. Ross proceeded to inform me that Dell was jealous of me.

     “Jealous!” I exclaimed. “How can that be?”

     “You remember Dr. Clayton, don’t you?” said she.

     “Yes, I remember him, but what has he to do with Mrs. Thompson’s being jealous of me?”

     “Why,” returned Mrs. Ross, “Dell’s kinder settin’ her cap for him, and I guess he’s a snickerin’ notion after her. Any way he comes there pretty often. Well, he was there the week after the examination, and told ‘em about you. He said you was as bright as a new guinea, and had better larnin’ than half the teachers, and than you had such a sweet name—Rose -- he like it. You orto have seen how mad Dell was at you after he was gone. I don’t believe she’ll ever git over it.”

     Here Ike called out --“the Johnny-cake was burnt’ blacker than his hat,” and forthwith Mrs. Ross started for the house, first bidding me “keep dark“, and telling me she hoped “I wouldn’t be partial to Mr. Randall’s children, for they needed lickin’ if ever young ones did -- they warn’t brought up like Isick, who was governed so well at home that he didn’t need it at school.”

     I was learning to read the world’s great book fast -- very fast -- -and with a slightly heavy heart I turned away, pausing once when Mrs. Ross, from the door-step, called to me, saying, that “She guessed I’d better’ give Isick the seat to-morrow, seein’ his heart was set on’t.”

     I found Mrs. Randall waiting to receive me in a clean gingham dress and apron, with her round, good-humored face shining as if it had been through the same process with the long line of snow-white linen, which was swinging in the clothes-yard. The little hair trunk had been removed to the “best room” which was to be mine. The big rocking-chair was brought out for me, the round tea-table, nicely spread, stood in the centre of the floor, and Mrs. Randall hoped I would make myself at home, and put up with her own rough ways if I could. To be sure she didn’t have things quite as nice as Mrs. Captain Thompson, but she did as well as she knew how, Dear Mrs. Randall! How my heart warmed toward her, and as I took my seat at the table, and she helped me to a larger slice of pure white honeycomb than I have ever before been allowed to eat at one time, I felt that I would not exchange her house for a home at Capt. Thompson’s.

     Without any intention of revealing what Mrs. Ross had imparted to me, I still felt a great curiosity to know Mrs. Randall’s opinion of her, so, after a time, I ventured to speak of my having seen her, and to ask when and where she taught school. With a merry laugh, Mrs. Randall replied, “I wonder, now, if she’s made your acquaintance so soon, she told you, I suppose, to come to her with all your troubles, for she knew just how to pity you, as she’d been a schoolma’am herself.”

     My flushed cheeks betrayed the fact that Mrs. Randall had guessed rightly, and after a moment she continued:

     “Her keeping school amounts-to this. When she was a girl, a friend of hers who was teaching wanted to go away for two days, and got Mis’ Ross, then Nancy Smedly, to take her place, and that’s the long and short of her experience. She’s a meddlesome woman, and makes more trouble in the district than anybody else. She tried to make Mis’ Brown think she was misused, because we wouldn’t hire her instead of you, who applied first, and for a spell, I guess Mis’ Brown was a little sideways, but she’s a sensible woman and had got all over it.”

     I was about to tell her of the trouble between George and Ike, when she anticipated me by saying, “George says he and Ike fit about a seat and I’ve hired him to give it up peaceably, for if Mis’ Ross gets miffed in the beginning, there’s no knowing what kind of a row she’ll raise, and you are so young I feel kinder tender of you.”

     If there were tears in my eyes they were not tears of grief, and if, I was pleased with Mrs. Randall before, I liked her ten times better now, for I saw in her a genuine sincerity which convinced me she was my friend indeed. To be sure she was rather rough and unrefined, but her heart was right, and in her treatment of me, she was always kind and considerate, making ample allowance for my errors and warmly defending me when she thought I was misused. If in every District there were more like Mrs. Randall, the teacher’s lot would not be one half so hard to bear as oftentimes it is.

     When I woke next morning I heard the large raindrops pattering against the window, and pushing aside the curtain, I saw that the dark-heavy clouds betokened a dull rainy day. Involuntarily I thought of the old garret at home, where, on such occasions we always resorted, “Raising cain generally.” as Sally said, and when, with umbrella, blanket-shawl, and overshoes, I started for school, I looked and felt forlorn indeed. Raining as it was, it did not prevent Mrs. Ross from coming out with the table-spread over her head, to tell me that “Though she never warn’t an atom particular and never meant to interfere with teachers, as she knew just what it was, she did hope I’d give Isick the seat, and not be partial to George Randall.”

     I replied that “I’d see to it,” and was hurrying along, when she again stopped me to know “what I’d got in my dinner basket that was good.”

     Afterwards I found it to be one of her greatest peculiarities, this desire to know what her neighbors had to eat, and I seldom passed her door that she did not inquire of me concerning the kind of fare I had at the different places where I boarded. When I reached the schoolhouse, I found George Randall transferring his books to another part of the room, at the same time telling Isaac “He could have the disputed seat if he wanted it.”

     With the right kind of training and influence Isaac Ross would have been a fine boy, for there were in his disposition many noble traits of character, and when he saw how readily George gave up the seat, he refused to take it, saying, “He didn’t care a darn where he sat -- one place was as good as another.”

     The day was long and dreary enough. Not more than half the children were there, and I found it exceedingly tiresome and monotonous, sitting in that hard, splint-bottomed chair, and telling Emma Fitch and Sophia Brown, for the hundredth time, that the round letter was “O” and the crooked one “S”. The scholars, too, began to grow noisy, and to ask me scores of useless questions. Their lessons were half learned, and if I made a suggestion, I was quickly informed that their former teacher, Sally Damm, didn’t do so. Even little Emma Fitch, when I bade her keep her eyes on the book instead of letting them wander about the room, lisped out that “Thally Damm let her lookd off.” a fact I did not dispute when I found that she had been to school all winter without learning a single letter by sight, though she could repeat the entire alphabet forward and back and be all the while watching a squirrel on the branches of the tree which grew near the window!

     Before night a peculiar kind of sickness, never dangerous, but decidedly disagreeable, began to creep over me, and had it not been for the mud, I should probably have footed it to Meadow Brook, where alone could be found the cure for my disease. Just before school was out a little boy cried to go home, and this was the one straw too much. Hastily dismissing the scholars, I turned towards the windows and my tears fell as fast as did the rain in the early morning.

     “The sohoolma’am’s cryin’, -- she is. I saw her.”, circulated rapidly among the children, who all rushed back to ascertain the truth for themselves.

     “I should think she would cry.“ said one of the girls-to her brother, “You acted ugly enough to make anybody cry, and if you don’t behave better tomorrow, Jim Maxwell, I’ll tell mother!”

     After the delivery of this speech, the entire group moved away, leaving me alone, and sure am I there was never a more homesick child than was the one, who with her head lying upon the desk, sat there weeping in that low dirty schoolroom, on that dark, rainy afternoon. Where now was all the happiness I had promised myself in teaching? Alas, it was rapidly disappearing, and I was just making up my mind to brave the ridicule of Meadow Brook, and give up my school at once, when a hand was laid very gently on my shoulder, and a voice partially familiar said, “What’s the matter, Rose?”

     So absorbed was I in my grief, that I had not heard the sound of footsteps, and with a start of surprise I looked up and met the serene, handsome eyes of Dr. Clayton, who stood by my side. He had been to visit a patient, he said, and was on his way home, when, seeing the door ajar, he had come in, hoping to find me there, “But I did not expect this.” he continued, pointing to the tears on my cheek. “What is the matter? Don’t the scholars behave well, or are you homesick?”

     At this question I began to cry so violently, that the doctor, after exhausting all his powers of persuasion, finally laid his hand soothingly on my rough, tangled curls, ere I could be induced to stop, then, when I told him how disappointed I was, how I wished I had never tried to teach and how I meant to give it up, he talked to me so kindly, so brother like, still keeping his hand on my shoulder, where it had fallen when I lifted up my head, that I grew very calm, thinking I could stay in that gloomy room forever, if he were only there! He was, as I have said before, very handsome, and his manner was so very fascinating, and his treatment of me so much like what I fancied Charlie’s would be, were he a grown up man and I a like girl, that I began to like him, very, very much, thinking then that my feeling for him was such as a child would entertain for a father, for I had heard that he was twenty-seven, and between that and thirteen there was, in my estimation, an impassable gulf.

     “I wish I had my buggy here,” he said at last, after consulting his watch, which pointed to half-past five, “I wish I had my buggy here, for then I could carry you home. You’ll wet your feet, and you ought not to walk. Suppose you ride in my lap, but no,” he added, quickly, “you’d better not, for Mrs. Thompson and Mother Ross would make it neighborhood talk.”

     There was a wicked look in his eye as he said this, and I secretly wondered if he entertained the same opinion of Dell, that he evidently did of her sister. At length, shaking my hand, he bade me goodbye, telling me that the Examining Committee had placed me and my school in his charge, and that he would probably visit me officially on Thursday of the following week. Like a very foolish child, I watched him until a turn in the road hid him from view, and then, with a feeling I could not analyze, I started for my boarding place, thinking that if I gave up my school I should wait until after Thursday.

     In the doorway, with her sleeves rolled up above her elbows, and her hair, as she said herself, “at sixes and sevens“, was Mrs. Ross, who, after informing me that “It had been a desput rainy day.” asked, “If I knew whether Dr. Clayton had been to Captain Thompson’s?”

     There was no reason why I should blush at this question, but I did, though my sun bonnet fortunately concealed the face from my interrogator, who, without waiting for an answer, continued, “He drove past here about fifteen minutes ago, and I guess he’s been sparkin Dell.”

     It must have been an evil spirit surely which prompted my reply that “He had been at the schoolhouse with me.”

     “How you talk! Isick never said a word about it!” was Mrs. Ross’s exclamation, the blank expression of her face growing still more blank when I told her that he did not come until the scholars were gone.

     “You two been there all sole alone since four o’clock, I’ll give up now! I hope Dell Thompson won’t find it out, for she’s awful slandersome, but,” she added, coming to the gate, and speaking in a whisper, “I’m glad on’t, and mebby she’ll draw in her horns, if she finds that some of the under crust, as she calls ‘em, can be noticed by Dr. Clayton as well as herself.”

     Equivocal as this compliment was, it gratified me, and from that moment felt a spirit of rivalry towards Dell Thompson. Still, I did not wish her to know of Dr. Clayton’s call, and so I said to Mrs. Ross, who replied, “You needn’t be an atom afeard of my tattlin’. I know too well what ‘tis to be a schoolmarm, and have the hull Deestrict peekin’ at you. Do if you’ve anything you want kept, I’m the one, for I can be still as the grave. Did the doctor say anything about Dell, but he didn’t, I know, and ‘tain’t likely-he said anything about anybody.”

     I replied, that he talked with me about my school, and then as I heard the clock strike six, I walked along. Looking back as I entered Mrs. Randall’s gate, I saw Mrs. Rose’s old plaid shawl and brown bonnet disappearing over the hill as fast as her feet could take them, but I had no suspicion that her destination was Captain Thompson’s! I did not know the world then as well as I do now, and when the next morning I met Dell Thompson, who stared at me insolently, while a haughty sneer curled her lip, I had not idea that she was jealous of me, little Rosa Lee, whose heart was lighter, and whose task seemed far easier on account of Dr. Clayton’s past and promised visit.

     Saturday night came at last, and very-joyfully I started home-on foot, feeling not at all burdened with the compliments of my patrons or the esteem of my pupils. Oh, what a shout was raised at the shortness of my three weeks, as I entered our sitting-room! All laughed at me, except my mother. She was not disappointed, and when I drew Carrie’s little rocking chair to her side, and told her how hard my head was aching, she laid her soft hand caressingly upon my brow, and gently smoothing my short curls, bathed my forehead in camphor until the pain was gone. Had there been no one present but our own family, I should probably have cried, but owing to some untoward circumstance Aunt Sally Wright was there visiting that afternoon, and as a teacher I felt obliged to maintain my dignity before her prying eyes, Almost her first salutation to me was, “Well, Rosa, so you’ve grown old since you left home?”

     “I do not understand what you mean.” I answered.

     “Why, I mean,“ said she, “that somebody told me that Mrs. Green told her, that Major Pond’s wife told her, that Mary Down’s said, that Nancy Rice heard Mis’ Cap’n Thompson say that you told Dr. Clayton you was sixteen!”

     I knew that the subject of my age had not come up between me and the doctor, but it was useless to deny a story so well authenticated, so I said nothing, and Aunt Sally continued, “They do say you thrash ‘em round about right.” while mother asked, “Who Dr. Clayton was?”

     "Why, he’s a young pill-peddler, who’s taken a shine to Rosa, and staid with her alone in the schoolhouse until pitch dark.” said Aunt Sally, her little green eyes twinkling with the immense satisfaction she felt.

     Greatly I marveled as to the source when she obtained this information which so greatly exceeded the truth, and considering that no one knew of the doctor’s call but Mrs. Ross, it really was a wonder! She was proceeding with her remarks, when we were summoned to the supper table, where green tea had so good an effect upon her, that by the time she was blowing her third cup, she began to unbend, repeating to me several complimentary remarks which she said came from Mrs. Ross. By this I knew that she had Pine Hill as well as Meadow Brook on her hands, and, indeed ‘twas strange how much Aunt Sally did manage to attend to at once, for, besides keeping her son’s wife constantly fretted, and her daughter continually quarreling with her husband by her foolish interference, there was scarcely a thing transpired in the neighborhood in which she did not have a part. Not a marriage was in prospect but she knew something bad of both parties, not a family jar occurred in which she did not have a finger. Not a man owed more than he was worth, but she had foreseen it from the first in the extravagance of his wife. But everybody in Meadow Brook knew Aunt Sally, and it was a common saying, that “Her tongue was no slander.” So I did not feel as much annoyed as I otherwise should at her spiteful remarks, which continued with little intermission until dark, when, gathering up her snuff box, knitting, and workbag, she started for home.

     The next day was the Sabbath, and if at church, I did now and then cast a furtive glance at the congregation, to see if they were looking at me because I was a “schoolma’rm,” it was a childish vanity, which I have long since forgiven, as I trust my reader will do. Among the audience was our minister’s young bride, and when, after church, he introduced her to me, saying to her, “This is Rose, who, I told you, was only thirteen and teaching school.” I felt quite reconciled to my lot, and thought that after all, it was an honor to be a teacher.

 

 

 

 

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"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
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