FADING FOOTPRINTS. OR THE LOWLY LIVES

OF LONG AGO

 

A  series of articles that appeared

in the 1879 Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 5 … The New Schoolmaster — a Stranger                                      Page 1

 

Cousin Ebenezer came puffing into the house one evening long, long ago with "Where's Uncle Aleck?”

 

"He has gone to the school meeting," my mother said, looking up from the flaxen thread gliding through her fingers.

 

"Sure!" said he, "this is the night, too, and though I'm not a householder and can't vote I must be there. Maybe they'll need some likely chap to 'lectioneer," and he rose to go.

 

We followed him to the door and in a low voice said: "Now Eb, don't let's have a cross master this winter! I'm tired of having my head thumped right an' left, and having to sit with the boys, and stand up with their hats on, and I don't want Jake Woodburn to get the school again. If Jake gets it I won't go, now, see if I do."

 

My mother had paused to move the thread to another hook on the flyers and heard this last threat, and in a very clear voice she said: "Take care, my lady! You will go to school and behave yourself and improve the time no matter who the teacher is. I don't care, either, if he whips you every day. If he does, I'll think he is doing his duty."

 

Eben winked slyly, and said: "Never mind, Zelle; we'll manage; we'll manage!"

 

The good, kind fellow started off on a run, jumped the low fence and was out of sight in a minute.

 

I rocked the baby; watched the little ones make a cat's cradle and a saw-mill with a string on their outspread fingers; counted the socks that hung on a pole suspended from the joists; wondered if it would kill a body if the hammer would fall from its place over the door and hit plumb on the head; imagined how old Tom, the cat, would look if his tail and ears were cut off short, and just as mamma rose to set away the wheel and stood shaking the dust and shives off her apron, we heard the stamping of father's feet at the door. My sister and myself, aged respectively seven and nine years, met him with, "O papa, who'll be our master in the winter! Who is he? Who?"

 

Now our father, to this day, is slow of speech, so slow that we always help him along; we anticipate; we say what we think he means to say in his own time and at his own pleasure; we rush in ahead of him; we pick up a word or a phrase and lug it along and offer it to him. How long he was in answering us! We said: "Say papa! say papa!" more than a dozen times, and seized his coat-tails and looked up into his face, but he shook the snow-flakes off his high, white fur-hat and hung it precise on its peg, shook his coat, smiled, turned the forestick with the glowing side out, looked to see if his watch compared favorably with the clock time, and then giving a short, little, gurgling laugh, he said: "You girls will catch it next winter; we hired a real live Yankee tonight, fresh from the shores of Lake Champlain."

 

"A Yankee, papa! Does he look like other folks? How does he talk? Did he bring a bundle of rods? And does he say 'heow' and 'keow,' and will he understand our way of talking?" and a lot of other interrogatories followed fast and followed faster.

 

Father said the directors were to pay the new teacher ten dollars a month, and he was to board round among the scholars. That delighted us; it was so funny to bring the master home with us after school. As father was one of those who employed him, our house would in all probability be his home at least one-third of the time.

 

School began the next Monday. We wore our best pressed flannel coatie and hood, and speckled mittens, and carried two turn-overs and two apples in our dinner-basket. We ran on early, in time to go with Mary Jane Flemming.

"How do you think the master will look?" said Mary Jane, to us.

 

"Oh, he'll be tall, and have black eyes, and curly rings of hair on his forehead, and wear a breast-pin," was the answer. "How do you say he'll look?"

 

"Well, like brother Whitford, the circuit preacher," said little Mary Jane.

 

When we went in the new master met us and bowed, and when he said: "Good-morning, ladies," his black eyes twinkled very prettily. His hand it was that opened the door. No other gentleman ever had opened a door for us before, and certainly no other one had ever called us "ladies." What a nice man the new master was! I tiptoed along in my heavy cow-hide stogas, as twisty as a flirt of a robin, essaying to swing my poor poky little bag of a blue flannel frock from side to side. As I reached up to place my dinner-basket on the rude, little, narrow shelf, the tips of my fingers couldn't quite push it back and it tipped over, and the turn-overs tumbled out and the span of apples followed after. Such luck,  just when I did so desire to impress that young man with my dexterity! He smiled very sweetly, and said: "O, O sissy! let me assist you." Then he gathered up the turn-overs and the apples and put them under the white cloth and took my hood and speckled mittens and hung them in their place.

 

I wriggled off to my seat, and he resumed his book at the desk. When he asked our names and ages. I had to spell my name over for him; he said he had heard the name of Rosalie, but never Rosella. I caught him looking at me a good deal, and it puzzled me fully as much as it flattered. I knew why. I was quite a large girl, and perhaps he thought I was a young lady — people had said that I looked older than nine years. Time would tell. If he escorted me home from spelling-school, then it would be because I was a young lady, sure.

 

When I gave him my age I was careful to say, "eight goin' on nine.'' He was twenty-two. He came from the State of Vermont; had wandered off West and, finally, in his travels had taken a liking to the hills that shut in our pretty little village; they rose up like the native hills of New England — why not tarry here and he one of us, and make this his abiding place? Alas for the poor man, little did he know what these hills would be to him!

 

That first day at noon I carried my dinner-basket to the master with the white cloth turned aside showing the nest of turn-overs and apples. He took an apple and a piece of one of the little pies, thanking me kindly. While he sat eating, he essayed conversation, but blundering on my odd name and not emphasizing the right syllable, he stopped, blushed and said: "May I call you Rosy?" I laughed a little in a 'shamed way, and whirled round on one foot, and then called his attention to the mark left on the floor by the nails in the heel of my shoe.

 

"I would like to talk a little if you will listen, sis," said he, and his dark eyes looked very serious. "Are you listening?"

"Yes, sir," I replied, taking up the corner of my apron and twisting it up like a doughnut, at which Mary Jane Flemming laughed.

 

"Well, Rosy, you are old enough to study grammar. I shall feel very sorry if you spend all this winter only reading, and writing, and studying Parley's geography. You would like grammar, wouldn't you? It is the science of language; would teach you how to write and speak with propriety. When you are a young lady, you will regret it if you do not improve the time now. I hope to do you good, and be a blessing to you while I am your teacher. Will you study it?" he asked.

"Maybe papa won't buy me a grammar-book," I said, nodding my head and drawing nearer to him.

 

"Yes, my little one, he will do it," said the new teacher, and he laid his hand on my head and smoothed my rough hair, and his touch was magnetic, and I felt that the Yankee school-master was my friend and was interested in my welfare.

Did he look like my ideal school-master? No, he was not very tall, was thick set, heavily bearded, very dark complexion, hair black as jet, features coarse, but his eyes were very pretty, bright and sparkling, and kindly, and when he listened to one in conversation, or laughed, they were very beautiful. But to me he was perfect.

The grammar was obtained, and in a few days others were willing to take up the new study, and a class was formed, and this branch was introduced into our school for the first time.

 

We do not remember many incidents of that winter. The teacher used to play with us on the ice; the creek ran just below the school-house. We recall one time in which we formed lines — the boys on one side and the girls on the other — on the frozen creek, and the teacher sailed up and down the line on skates, performing some remarkable feats that astonished the boys and won their admiration. Another time we remember a strange funeral procession, in the bleakest of cold winter days, passing the schoolhouse along the winding creek road — the funeral of a very wealthy man; and the body was borne to his grave in one of those great big blue wagons, covered with white canvas, the cover running high up before and behind, drawn by five or six broad, fat, draught horses. No person rode in the wagon with the coffin; it had plenty of room, for those great team-wagons took in loads of from eighteen to thirty-three barrels of flour.

 

The teacher leaned his face against the windowsill and saw that weird procession passing, when, suddenly rising, he tapped on the desk and said: "Let us all go quietly after the funeral has passed; remember what the occasion is, and conduct yourselves properly." As we all filed out of the door, he said, "Well, Rosy," and took my hand and led me over the bridge and up the hill to the lonely graveyard.

 

It is a desolate, dreary, sad incident to remember —  the little, old, widowed woman, dressed in deep black, leading a round-faced, very rosy, very bright-eyed child, an adopted daughter, little Betty Simmons, followed by nieces, and nephews, and cousins, and second-cousins, and third-cousins, all looking glum, and wearing funereal faces. And tall men in drab overcoats, and knit woolen caps down over their ears  — willing men, who spat within their palms when they seized the shovels and attacked the shifting sand and the great frozen lumps of earth. When they tumbled them down, clattering and rattling upon the coffin, the master's hand tightened its hold of mine; the fingers' clasp was like a vice; and as I looked up into his dark face, I saw the tears gathering on the long lashes, and his lips compressed and tremulous.

 

What were the thoughts of the master? I wondered then, I wonder now. He was a stranger, he was far from the land of his nativity; we had no assurance that the name by which we called him was the name the mother gave him. Why was he among us? Why was he reticent of his former life? What memory, if any, came to him as he stood beside that cavernous grave? In these busy, rushing times, "men may come and men may go," and we make no note of it; but in those long-ago times, a stranger inside of our gates was a rarity.

 

Only the day after the funeral it was, that we had a fight with our little friend, Mary Jane. We pulled hair, and tossed each others' bonnets up on the root of the school-house, and she said I looked just like old Polly Watkins. Polly was a roily-poly old Dutch woman of wonderful circumference, who went about helping people on butchering days, and who could do wonders in the way of making edibles out of pigs' feet, tongues, ears, jaws, tails, livers, top knots, etc., and whose sausage could be measured by fathoms, with never a bulge nor a break in it. And then, after all the work was done up on such occasions, and the floor mopped, Polly must needs dance to show how nimble she was after the day's work.

 

And I looked like pursy little Polly! That was more than I could stand, and I said she was the very out-and-out image of old Cynthia!

 

Now, Cynthia was a queer, tall, black, bug-eyed, striding woman, who had a beard like a man and a voice like a coarse, hollow reed. She worked at weaving; her little shop stood on the street, and she was very poor and bold; and Cynthia's name was not above reproach at all, at all.

 

That was a crack shot. Mary Jane could stand a joke, enjoyed fun, but her gray eyes blazed with the ire of anger, and she sprang at me like a tigress, and buried her clutching fingers in the tow that covered my head. In self-defense, I caught the blue ribbon about her neck, and twisted it round and round; our feet tangled together, and we fell and tussled on the dusty floor like puppies.

 

That moment the master entered, his hat pushed back off his forehead, a smile on his face and in his beautiful eyes; but his countenance changed, and he stood the image of distress and mortification.

 

"O my little girls, my little girls!" he said, as he held up his hand in abhorrence.

 

How could I lose his esteem! I snatched after it with the despairing cry of, "O master, she called me — she called me — old Polly Watkins I Oh! oh, dear! oh, dear! oh, dear!" and I banged my head down on the nearest desk and screamed frantically.

 

Mary Jane raised a responsive howl, with, "And don't you think she called me old Cynthia, master!"

 

"I am so sorry; my two dear little girls that I was so proud of!" he said, in a grieved and broken voice, and he patted us on the shoulders.

 

I loved my kind teacher; and now how could he ever, ever like me after he had seen me rolling on the floor, red and angry, with vicious fingers clutched in my frowzy hair, and my red digits choking my little classmate vengefully! It was too much! If I could have died then and there, my most earnest wish would have been granted.

 

He stepped to the door and turned the key, and we three were alone. In a low, sweet, soft voice he lectured us, oh, so tenderly, and kindly, and lovingly, that it almost broke our hearts! That lecture impressed itself into my memory, every word of it, and I resolved, God helping me, that I would be a womanly little girl, and, if I lived, would endeavor to be a good woman and lead a useful life. Every kind word cut like a knife; we expected he would whip us both, and if he had the punishment would not have been half so severe. It was the bitterest ordeal I ever passed through, to sit there, red and tearful, with scutched-up hair and dusty and disarranged clothing, and a purple, scratched face, with great sobs chasing each other, and listen to that refined gentleman addressing us as though were young ladies, while, like a thread of gold running through the kind reprimand, we could see that his loftiest, and purest, and holiest ideal was that of a noble and exalted womanhood. I never felt such abject humiliation as I experienced on that memorable occasion.

 

We recall another incident. One winter day the snow fell all day, especially fast in the afternoon. Our mother was troubled about how we two would reach home in the evening. Our papa was threshing with the flail in the barn, and did not look out doors after dinner, and knew nothing of our predicament At the close of school, the teacher carried home the only little one for whom no conveyance came. We two started homeward. In those days, it was before the era, even of pantalets for little girls, and the sensible article of apparel, drawers, had not been devised. As far as to where the road forked, the boys broke a path, but from there on there was no guide as to location of a road, save the fences on each side. It was a terrible walk. I would take a step, and stop and drag my sister through the snow after me. We had to stop and rest and take breath frequently. About half way home, we heard a voice railing, and saw the master coming. He was frightened, and had hurried to our rescue. He took my sister in his arms, gathered up a handful of his coatskirt for me to take hold of, and we panted along up the hill and reached home almost exhausted. My mother's gratitude was ample recompense. I remember how the tears flowed when she thanked him again and again, and she walked about so excitedly that she did not know what she was doing.

 

In the spring, after the close of the term of school, his occupation gone, the master began to think what he should engage in, and it was not long until the village physician persuaded him to study medicine. He was to board with the doctor while he prosecuted his studies. We saw him frequently sitting beside the door of the little office that stood on the hill, his book on his knee, his head bowed on his hand. People said: "How studious!" "How strange that he does not become homesick!" or, "Perhaps his home was not pleasant." And some speculated as to why he came away nil here to tarry among strangers. They said: "Maybe he has been jilted." And young men, backed up by their inquisitive sisters, endeavored to find a solution of the mystery, but they never found it. He admired women, loved little children, was pleased to sit and converse, but he made no very intimate friends, and confidants of none. Perhaps he had nothing to confide —nothing to hide in the past; and mayhap the future, based on poverty, held nothing cheering and nothing beautiful — who can tell?

 

My mother, kindest woman, often said: "I wish there was something we could do for the poor teacher; he seems lonely and unhappy; I long to do something for his comfort, and make him cheerful and glad."

 

One day in the following autumn she came home from the village store. We met her under the sycamore tree, and helped carry her groceries.

 

 

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com