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No. 4 … The Yankee Schoolmaster Page 2
And the teacher, poor fellow! he could see nothing but the crouching form securely fastened to the bedpost — could hear nothing but the wailing cry of the young creature wishing for death. He had never before been brought in contact with any species of sorrow; the easy, careless, happy, aimless boy of twenty-two summers, he had glided along the years as one would glide adown the unruffled windings of a beautiful stream.
The two little boys that had been sent off to bed supperless had sobbed themselves to sleep, and there they lay in the far corner of the cabin in a low bed, before which was hung an old quilt of some nondescript pattern, the tear-stains on their dirty little cheeks. The girls were sitting out alone on the timber that lay beside the corn-crib; they were crying softly, and wiping their tears on the bib-apron which Mary wore; they sat close together, nestled as it were, for the snow covered the earth, and the bold winds were biting sharp, and the stinging frost swept through the air.
"Oh, there's nothing to live for!" Tot said, sobbing and looking up into the tops of the dead girdled trees that surrounded the poor bleak cabin. "Father whips us, and mother scolds and complains at all we do, and she thrashes us just for the love of it; and we have no books, and I can't get to go to school. Oh, dear! oh, dear! I wish mother cared one-quarter as much for us girls as she does for the flax crops and the useless webs of linen. It's nothing but spin, spin, spin, until my back is growing crooked, and I'm so tired of the work that, asleep or awake, I can see nothing but the long thread of flax, and hear nothing but the everlasting buzz of the little wheel. And, Mary, I'm growing so cross! Don't you think every time I feel the rod I just wish mother was dead, so I do!" and the poor girl buried her face on her knees as she sat crouched up into a heap, and her whole frame shook with the magnitude of that most forlorn of all sorrows — brute punishment inflicted on the shrinking, quivering body of a sensitive child.
"Well, we needn't care 'cause the master saw us; I'm sure I don't," said Mary, "for I know he pities us, and thinks we've got a queer mother."
"Oh, I'll never go to school now!" said Tot. "How can I? Why, I'm most fifteen, and, only think! tied up like a dog for killing sheep! Oh, dear! oh, dear!" and the girl sobbed as though her heart would break.
Afterwhile they stole in at the back door. Just then the mother had swung the pot of yellow mush down from the crane, and standing it on the floor beside a bare table, on which were three tin cups, a crock of milk and three iron spoons, she said: "Well, let's have some supper now."
The farmer drew his chair up close beside the pot, the wife did the same, and the stranger, with a little hesitancy, carried his chair and placed it near the homely supper.
"Help yourself, stranger," said Mrs. Lenox, tipping up the crock, pouring out some milk for the teacher, and handing him the brimming cup and spoon.
They dipped their spoons down into the mush, and carried a quantity of it with steady hand, which they put into the milk, and from thence into their mouths.
"Come and eat, girls," said the father.
"We don't want anything," was the low reply.
"Ar'n't ye hungry?"
"No, sir." And with shamed faces they retired long before the others. Tot cried herself to sleep with her tear-swollen face buried in her pillow.
Before that term of school closed, the lithe switches from the black swamp ceased coming in weekly installments into the cabin, because there was no use for them. Perhaps just as much use as ever, but — they did not come.
The Yankee schoolmaster soon became a welcome visitor; indeed, when his week came to board there, he often forgot and stayed two weeks, and it gave pleasure to the whole family. They all spelt in the long evenings, and studied geography, and he set extra copies for the sisters, and made extra pens for them, and showed them how to hold them, with the feather end pointing directly over the shoulder.
He saw more to attract him toward the studious little fifteen-year-old Tot than any observer could account for. She was sad-eyed, and her hair was the color of the flax she spun, and her step was slow, and she was always looking at the landscape, gathering common flowers, admiring stones of different colors, mimicking the birds that sang in the depths of the hazel thickets, and reading everything that her searching hands could find, and yet, though everybody called her strange, and odd, and eccentric, and laughed at her queer ways, the teacher saw none of these except to admire and to rejoice over.
At the close of his second term, he returned to his parental home in the East, but he missed the one face that was all the world to him, and he very naturally longed to go back again — the magnet to the pole.
In time the shy, homely girl grew into a ripe woman, not cultivated as the world calls it culture, but she saw clearly, and made the most of the few poor opportunities that a hard fate cast in her way. One day she was busy transplanting some flowers from the well-remembered black swamp to the low brookside banks below the cabin. She was down on her knees, her sleeves rolled up, and her sunbonnet hanging on her shoulder by the ties, when an approaching step drew her attention, and she looked up, rosy and startled.
"My schoolmaster!" she said.
"Yes, little Tot, all yours," was the reply; and the first friend of her lonely girlhood looked upon her with wonder and pleasure in his sparkling eyes. How she had changed in those two long years I She had grown tall and straight, her features were good, and the short hair that the mother had always kept closely cut, was long and rippling and of a sunny brown color.
She had told him in the few letters she had written in reply to his, that she was no longer a little girl, but he was not prepared for this marvellous change.
"Dear little Tot," he said, looking at her again and again.
"Charlotte is my name now," she replied; "I like it best."
That evening, after the family were all abed, Tot and the schoolmaster sat on the bench outside the cabin door, under the sheltering lengths of a grape-vine. They were talking of his home in the East.
"Little Tot," said he, and his voice trembled with emotion, "you remember once you were in bondage dire, and like a gay knight I came to the rescue. I would shield and save you again. I would shelter you under the wings of my love in a home congenial and beautiful, little Tot. You are starving here, your very soul is perishing for the food I could give you; have you no answer, little Tot."
Both of her hard, toil-worn hands hesitatingly reached out, and with a cry that stifled itself in her breast, she laid them in his open palm. That was what the moonlight saw as it came down brokenly among the leaves of the grape-vine above their bowed heads. And the full moon of the next month looked down upon them at the old homestead of his father's, happy as mated robins, Mr. and Mrs.—the Yankee schoolmaster and his western wife, little Tot.
© 2011 Peggy Mershon Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org
OLD HEARTH STONES, AND THE TALES THEY TELL
A series of articles that appeared
in the 1876 Arthur’s Home Magazine