OLD HEARTH STONES, AND THE TALES THEY TELL

A  series of articles that appeared

in the 1876 Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 4 … The Yankee Schoolmaster   Page 1

 

This is a very plain matter-of-fact story, mine is, how the schoolmaster came to marry Tot Lenox long, long ago, and to one of his scholars, too. There is not much point to the story, the plainest narrative, like unto some of the plain, even lives about us, and yet these unvarnished stories, so natural and so true to life, are the best stories after all.

 

There was to be a school meeting held in the old log school-house on the evening of the 18th of November, 1820. There were two candidates wanting the position of teacher — "master" they called it in those days. The wages were to be ten dollars a month, and the teacher was to "board round."

 

"Could I have a little bit of a taller dip, Peggy, to take with me to the school meetin' to-night? No matter 'f 'tain't mor'n two inches long," said Mr. Lenox, school director, to his wife, as he stood up before the fire and pulled up his linsey shirt collar and fixed around his neck a three-cornered piece of coarse gingham, which he tied in front.

 

Then he took down a little switch — which was kept for other purposes — from two pegs on the mantel, and began to switch his arms and legs and over his shoulders right briskly. That was meant for a thorough dusting.

 

Tot, the eldest daughter, was putting flax on a distaff at the other side of the cabin, humming a little camp-meeting revival song as she did so; but so intent was she watching the operation of her hands, that the rousing spiritual song got no further than the monotonous chorus of: "And a begging I will go, I will go. And a begging I will go."

 

"I hate to break in onto your hime, Charlotte," said her father; "but look'ee here an' see 'f I'm fixed right about the thrapple," and he ran his fingers inside of the clumsey gingham knot that came quite under one ear. "It don't feel quite 'cordin' to the rule somehow," and he twisted his head and rolled out his tongue like a choked ox.

 

Tot laughed merrily as she ran her hand around the cone of light, soft, silky flax on the distaff to gather up any airy bit of the flossy stuff that might be hanging loosely, then she struck the lower end of the loaded distaff down into its place in the arm that stood out from the wheel, turned it back, and looking up, said: "W'y, father, you can grub out saplings and burn brush and make rails, but when it comes to puttin' on a handkecher and tying a knot, you do make funny work of it, One'd think you were a hangman instead of a peaceable school director."

 

The bulky gingham assumed a very different appearance after her deft little fingers had rolled and folded it into the usual shape, and tied it in a comely knot, and given the loose ends a little flirt to make her father appear smart and dashing.

 

Perhaps a dozen men were congregated in the log school-house. It was dark, except the light that came from a roaring fire of logs in the wide, open fireplace.

 

"We'll have a little more light, I guess," said Mr. Lenox, as he came in, feeling the responsibility of his office, and taking from his wamus pocket the bit of candle, he lighted it at one end of the blazing fore stick, took out his jack-knife, ran the point of the blade through the end of the candle and stuck it up against the wall. He rubbed his hands together in a satisfied way, then sat down and sighed restfully, and as though he had done more than his duty.

 

One of the candidates was the oldest son of the old blacksmith in the village, and the other was a stranger from the State of New Hampshire, a young man who had aimlessly wandered out West, and finding himself among a busy, working people, was obliged to do something for a living.

 

Questions were asked the two young men by the directors, who were likewise the examining committee; such questions as: "Where is the Bay of Fundy?" "What is the longest river in South America?" "Do you spell the word 'director' with or without a k?" "What is the difference between a rod square and a square rod?" "If you caught two of your boys in school fighting, would you whip them or make them whip each other?" "Would you, or would you not, treat on Christmas?" "Would you make the grown scholars obey the rules the same as the small ones?"

 

Both young men answered satisfactorily, but the choice of the directors was the young Yankee, and he was employed at ten dollars a month — was to board round and have his washing and mending thrown in. Hr was to teach eleven days each two weeks, was to keep good order in time of school, and if either party became dissatisfied, he was to make it known and some sort of an amicable arrangement was to be made.

 

Now, the eyes of more than one country maiden have glittered with pleasurable excitement as she has asked the question: "What kind of a looking young man is the new schoolmaster?" So it was nothing strange if Tot did held the rim of the buzzing little wheel with one hand while the flaxen thread lay in the soft fingers of the other, and her right foot almost poised itself above the worn treadle as she asked the same question of her father on his return home that night.

 

"Oh, fair to middlin', I should say," was the reply, given in an equivocal sort of a way that showed ho felt all the responsibility of his office.

 

"Curly hair or straight, father?" said Tot, smiling.

 

"Well, kind of a mixtur', neither very curly nor very straight, I should give," said he, untying his gingham neck-cloth and hanging it on a pole over his head, one that had been used to dry pumpkins on.

 

"Does he wear a wamus or a coat an' jacket, father? and is he smart, and does he use — use — nice big words when he talks, like the circuit riders do?" said the poor child, her blue eyes wide open.

 

"Charlotte Asenathl did I ever!" said the mother, looking up from the stitches on the needle that she was counting off; "you'll not get your stent done, and not one step will you go to bed afore you do! You'll be very apt  to find out whether the young Yankee schoolmaster can handle the rod 'fore you've gone many days to school, an' if you don't, it'll be 'cause he's partial."

 

"I think, mother, I get my share of the rod at home," said the girl, looking up and attempting to smile, but her voice began to falter before the whole of the sentence was out, and it ended very brokenly and with a pitiful sob that could not be checked.

 

"I mean that my children shall mind me, and shall do just exactly as I want them to, and if they deserve it, I will whip them if they are forty years old," said the mother, pitching her thin voice higher than the occasion demanded.

"Come, mother! mother! keep cool, you have a nation sight better children than some women have," said the husband, in a conciliating tone.

 

"Well, it's just because I don't spare the rod, Lenox, you know it is. Children are naterally depraved like; Sattan seems to have a 'biding place in all young uns, and there's no surer way of makin' good men and women of them than to use the rod freely. That just reminds me, father, that I want you to bring me up a good armful of whips the first time you are down at the black swamp."

 

"Tut, tut I why, Peggy Ann, you forget that Tot is fifteen now in a few days, and Mary is past twelve, both such a help to you, too. Why, you ought for to begin to make companions out o' them instead o' drubbin' them like you would a pair o' balky calves. Seems to me you should turn over a new leaf with the gals," said the father, in a kind voice.

 

"Never!" said she. "I'll whip them whenever I think they need it, if they're as old as was Jerusalah. That's the way I was brought up, and what's good for me is surely good for my young uns," and the mother bobbed her head backwards and forwards in a very positive way.

 

"If mother would only tell me before she —" began poor Tot, in a quivering voice, which died out in a wail of weeping, and the shrill tones of her mother calling out: "You Charlotte Lenox! Will you dare to interfere when I am talking peaceably to your father!" and she raised her hand as though a fierce blow was ready to descend upon the child's head.

 

The reader can readily understand, now that he has had a glimpse into the home-life of Tot, why the starving girl, unused to kindness and a stranger to sympathy, yearning for intelligent companionship, her budding intellect beginning to develop, why she asked, in her poor blind way, if the new school-teacher used the kind of words the circuit rider did.

 

The warp for the web of linen sheets had to be finished before Tot could start to school. Her mother told her so, and she worked early and long and late to get the tiresome task completed.

 

Mary and Tom and Will liked the new teacher, and repeated the wonderful stories he told them about the geography of other countries, of the planets, of the manners and customs of different tribes of people, of the flowers of the South, and the icy bleakness of the frigid North. Tot coaxed them to tell all the new things that they heard from this marvellous Yankee schoolmaster.

 

"I do hope he'll not come here to board until I have gone to school awhile," she said to Mary, "for you know, after we are all well acquainted, it will be pleasant."

 

But the very next Monday night he did go there to board, and under circumstances that toTot were appalling. The mother had been cross and fault-finding all day, and it culminated in the evening in whipping the two girls and two boys for a trifle that trebly magnified itself in the mother's eyes, a playful tussle among the four that ended in the youngest getting hurt and crying loudly.

 

She whipped all of them, and then, because the girls endeavored to explain and show her that merriment, not anger, was the cause of it all, she angrily caught up some bits of flaxen cord and tied the girls fast.

 

Tot was pushed down upon the floor rudely and tied to the low bed-post — closely tied; while Mary was as securely pinioned down in a chair. The boys were sent off to bed without their suppers, though it was barely sunset.

Growling like a she-bear, the poor mother hung the kettle of mush high up on the crane, where it could cook slowly without burning, and taking the pails, she went off to milk the cows.

 

The sisters were crying and talking to each other in a low voice, and pulling at their thongs, and bewailing their cruel fate, when a brisk step came up to the door, a brisker stamping of snowy boots and a gentle rap sounded. They were both fast enough, they pulled violently to loosen themselves, but it was no use, their vigilant keeper had done her work well, she did nothing by halves.

 

"Can't you possibly get up, Mary, even with the chair fast to you, and open the door?" said Tot, the beads of sweat standing on her white forehead.

 

"I'll try — ugh! Ugh!” said the sister, and she did manage to hobble along like the veriest cripple that ever walked, the legs of the chair tapping upon the floor like the two staffs that an old man essays to travel with.

 

Just as she reached the door, it was opened from the outside, and there, with his hat in hand, gracefully, stood the Yankee schoolmaster.

 

"Why, Mary!" he said, as he laid his hand on her head and smoothed back the disordered hair, but divining something amiss, he said no more. Her chair came down upon the bare floor with a noise, for she had stood doubled up as long as she could. He sat down near the fire. The side of his face was turned toward the poor, sorrowing, limp creature cuddled down in a heap close up to the outside corner bed-post. She knew that people could see out from the corners of the eyes, and, abashed and humiliated beyond expression, she drew herself up into as small a compass as possible and breathed low. At last the pent-up sobs began to grow audible — they would come, though she closed her lips tightly and made her eyes as cold and steely as possible. How she longed to be away out in the snowy woods among the dead leaves that heaped up under the drifts. All her life she had thought the snows were cruel, but then they were precious and good, and how she longed to lie down among them with her bare face.

 

She thought then that she would never, never go to school, she did not want to; what to her was a limited education with the goadings of the merciless rod and the humiliation of a daily scolding and taunting that made life a burden and the day she was born accursed.

 

When the mother came in with the milk-pails, she hardly knew what to say when she saw a handsome young man sitting beside the fire, quietly looking into the bed of glowing embers, and thoughtfully resting his face upon his hand.

She stammered out something, gave the fire a punch with the big wooden shovel, peered down into the pot of mush, and lighting a candle, stood it on the little shelf on the rude mantel above his head. The flickering light shone all through the cabin and revealed the situation of the poor, ashamed girls. That was her opportunity to punish them the sorest by a few well-selected words.

 

"Now, huzzies, I'm ready to loose ye," she said, with an attempt at a laugh, but which was only a sound of mockery. '' You see, master, how it is. I don't 'low that any woman in these parts has such trollops to deal with as I have. There's not a day that I do not have to drub them or punish them in some sort of a way. I've boxed their ears, and pulled their hair, and thrashed them till I was clear out of breath, and yet it does no good. It seems as if Sattan was in them, for they'll up and laugh before the welts have done smarting. I'm sure I don't know what'll ever become of them at this rate. Hold up here!" she said, as she stooped down over Tot and began picking at the knot, which by this time was a very hard knot indeed.

 

Poor Charlotte! the gathering storm of pent-up sorrow and anguish and emotion broke out into a pitiful cry of shame and mortification, as she buried her face in her hands and wept aloud, crying: "Oh, if I could only die!"

 

The words and the hopelessness of the voice touched the tenderest chords in the heart of the young teacher, and looking around, he saw the mother nicking angrily at the knot which her fingers could never untie. He saw the bowed head of the poor girl, and without any apology he took out his knife, and going up to the captive, cut the thong that so humiliated the abject creature.

 

"So, you've gone and done it, sir," said the mother, not knowing whether to scold him or not.

 

"Yes, madam, begging your pardon, and I would advise you to adopt another kind of treatment for your daughter, she is old enough to be treated like a woman," and he smiled on the irate mother benignly, and looking up into his handsome face, she softened and said: "Think so? Well, maybe it might be as well."

 

A painful quiet settled down on the household that evening. The father was sad, and tried to dispel the shadow with talks about his steers, and his clearing, and milk sickness, and the coons getting at his crops of corn, and the prices of ginseng and columbo roots. The mother asked the new teacher how old a woman his grandmother was, whether butter was a ready sale in the East or not, and whether they used "pasnips and such" for cow-feed.

 

 

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com