No. 5 … The New Schoolmaster — a Stranger                                      Page 2

 

"Was I gone very long?" she asked. "It did look so quiet in the grave-yard that I was tempted to go in a few minutes and loiter among the graves, and I met with the teacher there. He had his books beside him, and he looked as if he were sick. Poor boy, I wish I knew more about him, or knew how to approach him. He seems to have some secret sorrow. The very next time I meet him I will make bold to inquire about his affairs. He shall trust me; he needs me for his friend; I can see the hunger for friendship in his mournful countenance;" and my mother walked on faster, with this new resolve in her kind heart.

 

Ah me! The next time she saw him he was on a sick bed, raving in delirium, tossing his arms and tearing at the blisters on his breast and side. He was taken suddenly ill with fever, and the doctor's wife, worried with her babies, had neglected to look after his wants, thinking his sickness only ague. It had run on several days, and the disease was seriously advanced before much attention was drawn to his condition. Then a woman, a very trusty, capable, middle-aged woman, whom we children called Aunt Polly, was engaged to nurse him. The doctor said he would write to the sick man's relatives in the East, and they should remunerate her for her services.

 

In those days, in serious cases of sickness, no water was allowed the patient. Aunt Polly had orders not to give him cold water; and though her heart smote her when the poor man plead for it, she persistently denied him. The fever burned in his veins, his blood flowed like a liquid fire, and he besought her for just one sip. Aunt Polly turned his pillows to cool his head, changed the position of the bedclothes, fanned him and smoothed her hand over his throbbing brow, and comforted him with promises afterwhile of a "whole pitcherful, and a glass to drink out of."

The pitcher, with the drops gathering on the outside, and the crystal glass beside it, was a picture he could easily imagine, and it was so real and so tempting that he cried aloud in his distress. But the physician's word was not to be broken.

 

In a few days the fever ran its course, and he lay in a stupor. My mother called to see him again. He opened his eyes, looked at her and answered her in a dreamy way. Then he asked for "my little Rosy," and said he wanted her to come down.

 

When my mother came home and said the poor school-master wished to see me, and that the doctor feared he would die, I ran out to my old tree in the woods near the house, and lay among its gnarled roots and cried bitterly. Die! The master die away from his home! The thought was a terrible one for a little girl to think of! How could I stand it to go and see him lying on his death-bed! But my mother said I must, because he asked it; and though I screamed, and drew away, and said it would kill me of grief if I went, she put on my pink-and-white striped gingham dress, and a white cambric bibapron, and tied on my sunbonnet — tears running down her face all the time — and led me as far on the way as to the meadow-bars that opened into the lane. I sat down under the oak-tree to try and cry it all out before he'd see me; add as soon as the sobs grew softer, I went on as far as the two crabapple-trees, and sat down again. I couldn't quit crying. I was always ashamed to weep, so I went into the lower side of the grave-yard and sat and cried. From there I could see the open window, beside which stood his bed; could see the slow, measured movement of Aunt Polly's arm waving a little locust branch to and fro above the sick man. I could stand no more, and, burying my face in the long, cool grass, I lay and wept bitterly, and, afterwhile, sick and distressed, I stole back home.

 

Before he died, Aunt Polly asked him if he had any messages for his friends in New England. He looked at her long, and then his eyes closed and he shook his head mournfully, with a tremulous quiver of emotion, only murmuring: "Nothing, nothing, nothing." When the early morning dawned — the beautiful clear September — the master lay, clean shaven, robed in a white shroud, his jetty hair brushed away from his forehead; sunken-eyed, pallid in death — a death of torture and intense suffering. The physician had done all he could do: he had followed out the cruel treatment prescribed for such diseases in those early days. Poor master — poor stranger 1 who knows, did he think if his little Rosy came she would give him the cooling draught of water that he was dying for? The thought is one of anguish yet, and will be all through life.

 

He was a stranger, and his grave was made away at the back part of the grave-yard, next the palings, and under the tall oaks, whose friendly branches reached far out over the lonely spot. In the course of time the yard was enlarged, the fence set back, again, and again, and again — and now the grave is in the populous part of "the city of the dead."

 

A letter was written to New England informing the friends of the death of the young man, but no reply came. Another, and another, were sent, but no answer ever came, and when Aunt Polly asked for her pay, the town paid her from its poor fund. He was a stranger and homeless, and no relatives claimed him, so they felt no pang of humiliation and poignant sorrow over the thought that he was buried like a pauper. What would be done with his trunk, and books, and clothing? Who owned them? Who wanted them? To whom were they dear? Alas! a notice stuck up on the door of the school-house, said they would be sold at such a time at the steps of the tavern. And they were sold; men bid softly, reverently, not like the noisy sales in general. A light-footed, gay young man, who danced at every possible opportunity, a dashing, handsome fellow, bought the hat, and for years we could see the face of the master when we looked upon his hat, even though Bob wore it tipped back jauntily, or sidewise, or any way. We were hurt, smitten as with sudden pain all those years.

 

The little, old, red house with its two rooms stands yet just as it was when its low ceiling looked down upon the master's last sickness, his suffering, his cries for water, his moaning, and tossing, and wrestling with the fever fiend. We call it the "Tommy Martin House" now, and it stands nestled among lilacs, and roses, and snow-ball trees — a house common enough in the eyes of passers-by, and of those to whom its low walls breathe no sad history of a life that went out in darkness and sorrow. And the little office, on the hill, in which the master studied, and dreamed, and battled with poverty alone, and in a strange land — a neighbor of ours bought it for a smoke-house, and while he was moving it across the brook we went down to look at the little shell which had once held an honorable place among other offices. Ah, me I as we turned over the door, painted yellow—in the full, round, flowing hand of  the master, we read the penciled couplet from some  old poet, Burns, perhaps — something like this—we quote from memory:  "0 death! the poor man's friend,  His kindest and his best."

 

People forgot where the master's grave was, his old scholars puzzled themselves to recall the spot, but the little one who owed him so great a debt of gratitude never forgot that low mound, and one of her secret plans was to place a lasting memento thereon. It was years and years before she could accomplish it in her own way, but when an editor handed her a crisp ten-dollar bill for literary work, she laid it aside, waiting for more. When another bill came from the same source, a plain marble stone was ordered, and very quietly placed, and the simple inscription was, "The Stranger's Grave." That was long ago. Yesterday she stood beside it, and the sexton was with her, and the two planned how the dear old grave was to be made beautiful and greener than ever. And the sexton, fumbling at the brim of his hat in an embarrassed way, blundered out: "Might he a been 'a' consint or a lover o' your"n, miss, if I may be so bold."

 

And she looked up at the kind old man whose heart was as pitiful as a woman's, and she studied how to answer his question, never having yet naked herself what to her was the master — the man who touched her soul so tenderly, who had wakened new thoughts and aspirations — who had led her even then to see the beauty of a true and noble life — of a grand and gracious womanhood? and, with a smile that shone through tears, she answered, in the words of Jessie Carrol, from that sweet singer, Alice Carey:

 

“ He was less than lover, more than friend."

 

FADING FOOTPRINTS. OR THE LOWLY LIVES

OF LONG AGO

 

A  series of articles that appeared

in the 1879 Arthur’s Home Magazine

Back to Page 1                                        

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com