A STORY OF THE EARLY DAYS IN GLENGARRY
By Ralph Connor
I. THE SPELLING-MATCH
II. THE DEEPOLE
III. THE EXAMINATION
IV. THE NEW MASTER
V. THE CRISIS
VI. "ONE THAT RULETH WELL HIS OWN HOUSE"
VIII. FOXY'S PARTNER
IX. HUGHIE'S EMANCIPATION
X. THE BEAR HUNT
XI. JOHN CRAVEN'S METHOD
XII. THE DOWNFALL
XIII. THE FIRST ROUND
XIV. THE FINAL ROUND
XV. THE RESULT
GLENGARRY SCHOOL DAYS
The "Twentieth" school was built of logs hewn on two sides. The cracks were chinked and filled with plaster, which had a curious habit of falling out during the summer months, no one knew how; but somehow the holes always appeared on the boys' side, and being there, were found to be most useful, for as looking out of the window was forbidden, through these holes the boys could catch glimpses of the outer world—glimpses worth catching, too, for all around stood the great forest, the playground of boys and girls during noon-hour and recesses; an enchanted land, peopled, not by fairies, elves, and other shadowy beings of fancy, but with living things, squirrels, and chipmunks, and weasels, chattering ground-hogs, thumping rabbits, and stealthy foxes, not to speak of a host of flying things, from the little gray-bird that twittered its happy nonsense all day, to the big-eyed owl that hooted solemnly when the moon came out. A wonderful place this forest, for children to live in, to know, and to love, and in after days to long for.
It was Friday afternoon, and the long, hot July day was drawing to a weary close. Mischief was in the air, and the master, Archibald Munro, or "Archie Murro," as the boys called him, was holding himself in with a very firm hand, the lines about his mouth showing that he was fighting back the pain which had never quite left him from the day he had twisted his knee out of joint five years ago, in a wrestling match, and which, in his weary moments, gnawed into his vitals. He hated to lose his grip of himself, for then he knew he should have to grow stern and terrifying, and rule these young imps in the forms in front of him by what he called afterwards, in his moments of self-loathing, "sheer brute force," and that he always counted a defeat.
Munro was a born commander. His pale, intellectual face, with its square chin and firm mouth, its noble forehead and deep-set gray eyes, carried a look of such strength and indomitable courage that no boy, however big, ever thought of anything but obedience when the word of command came. He was the only master who had ever been able to control, without at least one appeal to the trustees, the stormy tempers of the young giants that used to come to school in the winter months.
The school never forgot the day when big Bob Fraser "answered back" in class. For, before the words were well out of his lips, the master, with a single stride, was in front of him, and laying two swift, stinging cuts from the rawhide over big Bob's back, commanded, "Hold out your hand!" in a voice so terrible, and with eyes of such blazing light, that before Bob was aware, he shot out his hand and stood waiting the blow. The school never, in all its history, received such a thrill as the next few moments brought; for while Bob stood waiting, the master's words fell clear-cut upon the dead silence, "No, Robert, you are too big to thrash. You are a man. No man should strike you—and I apologize." And then big Bob forgot his wonted sheepishness and spoke out with a man's voice, "I am sorry I spoke back, sir." And then all the girls began to cry and wipe their eyes with their aprons, while the master and Bob shook hands silently. From that day and hour Bob Fraser would have slain any one offering to make trouble for the master, and Archibald Munro's rule was firmly established.
He was just and impartial in all his decisions, and absolute in his control; and besides, he had the rare faculty of awakening in his pupils an enthusiasm for work inside the school and for sports outside.
But now he was holding himself in, and with set teeth keeping back the pain. The week had been long and hot and trying, and this day had been the worst of all. Through the little dirty panes of the uncurtained windows the hot sun had poured itself in a flood of quivering light all the long day. Only an hour remained of the day, but that hour was to the master the hardest of all the week. The big boys were droning lazily over their books, the little boys, in the forms just below his desk, were bubbling over with spirits—spirits of whose origin there was no reasonable ground for doubt.
Suddenly Hughie Murray, the minister's boy, a very special imp, held up his hand.
"Well, Hughie," said the master, for the tenth time within the hour replying to the signal.
The master hesitated. It would be a vast relief, but it was a little like shirking. On all sides, however, hands went up in support of Hughie's proposal, and having hesitated, he felt he must surrender or become terrifying at once.
"Very well," he said; "Margaret Aird and Thomas Finch will act as captains." At once there was a gleeful hubbub. Slates and books were slung into desks.
"Order! or no spelling-match." The alternative was awful enough to quiet even the impish Hughie, who knew the tone carried no idle threat, and who loved a spelling-match with all the ardor of his little fighting soul.
The captains took their places on each side of the school, and with careful deliberation, began the selecting of their men, scanning anxiously the rows of faces looking at the maps or out of the windows and bravely trying to seem unconcerned. Chivalry demanded that Margaret should have first choice. "Hughie Murray!" called out Margaret; for Hughie, though only eight years old, had preternatural gifts in spelling; his mother's training had done that for him. At four he knew every Bible story by heart, and would tolerate no liberties with the text; at six he could read the third reader; at eight he was the best reader in the fifth; and to do him justice, he thought no better of himself for that. It was no trick to read. If he could only run, and climb, and swim, and dive, like the big boys, then he would indeed feel uplifted; but mere spelling and reading, "Huh! that was nothing."
"Ranald Macdonald!" called Thomas Finch, and a big, lanky boy of fifteen or sixteen rose and marched to his place. He was a boy one would look at twice. He was far from handsome. His face was long, and thin, and dark, with a straight nose, and large mouth, and high cheek-bones; but he had fine black eyes, though they were fierce, and had a look in them that suggested the woods and the wild things that live there. But Ranald, though his attendance was spasmodic, and dependent upon the suitability or otherwise of the weather for hunting, was the best speller in the school.
For that reason Margaret would have chosen him, and for another which she would not for worlds have confessed, even to herself. And do you think she would have called Ranald Macdonald to come and stand up beside her before all these boys? Not for the glory of winning the match and carrying the medal for a week. But how gladly would she have given up glory and medal for the joy of it, if she had dared.
At length the choosing was over, and the school ranged in two opposing lines, with Margaret and Thomas at the head of their respective forces, and little Jessie MacRae and Johnnie Aird, with a single big curl on the top of his head, at the foot. It was a point of honor that no blood should be drawn at the first round. To Thomas, who had second choice, fell the right of giving the first word. So to little Jessie, at the foot, he gave "Ox."
"O-x, ox," whispered Jessie, shyly dodging behind her neighbor.
"In!" said Margaret to Johnnie Aird.
"I-s, in," said Johnnie, stoutly.
"Right!" said the master, silencing the shout of laughter. "Next word."
With like gentle courtesies the battle began; but in the second round the little A, B, C's were ruthlessly swept off the field with second-book words, and retired to their seats in supreme exultation, amid the applause of their fellows still left in the fight. After that there was no mercy. It was a give-and-take battle, the successful speller having the right to give the word to the opposite side. The master was umpire, and after his "Next!" had fallen there was no appeal. But if a mistake were made, it was the opponent's part and privilege to correct with all speed, lest a second attempt should succeed.
Steadily, and amid growing excitement, the lines grew less, till there were left on one side, Thomas, with Ranald supporting him, and on the other Margaret, with Hughie beside her, his face pale, and his dark eyes blazing with the light of battle.
Without varying fortune the fight went on. Margaret, still serene, and with only a touch of color in her face, gave out her words with even voice, and spelled her opponent's with calm deliberation. Opposite her Thomas stood, stolid, slow, and wary. He had no nerves to speak of, and the only chance of catching him lay in lulling him off to sleep.
They were now among the deadly words.
"Parallelopiped!" challenged Hughie to Ranald, who met it easily, giving Margaret "hyphen" in return.
"H-y-p-h-e-n," spelled Margaret, and then, with cunning carelessness, gave Thomas "heifer." ("Hypher," she called it.)
Thomas took it lightly.
Like lightning Hughie was upon him. "H-e-i-f-e-r."
"F-e-r," shouted Thomas. The two yells came almost together.
There was a deep silence. All eyes were turned upon the master.
"I think Hughie was first," he said, slowly. A great sigh swept over the school, and then a wave of applause.
The master held up his hand.
"But it was so very nearly a tie, that if Hughie is willing—"
"All right, sir," cried Hughie, eager for more fight.
But Thomas, in sullen rage, strode to his seat muttering, "I was just as soon anyway." Every one heard and waited, looking at the master.
"The match is over," said the master, quietly. Great disappointment showed in every face.
"There is just one thing better than winning, and that is, taking defeat like a man." His voice was grave, and with just a touch of sadness. The children, sensitive to moods, as is the characteristic of children, felt the touch and sat subdued and silent.
There was no improving of the occasion, but with the same sad gravity the school was dismissed; and the children learned that day one of life's golden lessons—that the man who remains master of himself never knows defeat.
The master stood at the door watching the children go down the slope to the road, and then take their ways north and south, till the forest hid them from his sight.
"Well," he muttered, stretching up his arms and drawing a great breath, "it's over for another week. A pretty near thing, though."
Archibald Munro had a steady purpose in life—to play the man, and to allow no pain of his—and pain never left him long—to spoil his work, or to bring a shadow to the life of any other. And though he had his hard times, no one who could not read the lines about his mouth ever knew how hard they were.
It was this struggle for self-mastery that made him the man he was, and taught him the secrets of nobleness that he taught his pupils with their three "R's"; and this was the best of his work for the Twentieth school.
North and south in front of the school the road ran through the deep forest of great pines, with underbrush of balsam and spruce and silver-birch; but from this main road ran little blazed paths that led to the farm clearings where lay the children's homes. Here and there, set in their massive frames of dark green forest, lay the little farms, the tiny fenced fields surrounding the little log houses and barns. These were the homes of a people simple of heart and manners, but sturdy, clean living, and clear thinking, with their brittle Highland courage toughened to endurance by their long fight with the forest, and with a self-respect born of victory over nature's grimmest of terrors.
A mile straight south of the school stood the manse, which was Hughie's home; two miles straight west Ranald lived; and Thomas Finch two miles north; while the other lads ought to have taken some of the little paths that branched east from the main road. But this evening, with one accord, the boys chose a path that led from the school-house clearing straight southwest through the forest.
What a path that was! Beaten smooth with the passing of many bare feet, it wound through the brush and round the big pines, past the haunts of squirrels, black, gray, and red, past fox holes and woodchuck holes, under birds' nests and bee-trees, and best of all, it brought up at last at the Deep Hole, or "Deepole," as the boys called it.
There were many reasons why the boys should have gone straight home. They were expected home. There were cows to get up from the pasture and to milk, potatoes that needed hoeing, gardens to weed, not to speak of messages and the like. But these were also excellent reasons why the boys should unanimously choose the cool, smooth-beaten, sweet-scented, shady path that wound and twisted through the trees and brush, but led straight to the Deepole. Besides, this was Friday night, it was hot, and they were tired out; the mere thought of the long walk home was intolerable. The Deepole was only two miles away, and "There was lots of time" for anything else. So, with wild whoops, they turned into the shady path and sped through the forest, the big boys in front, with Ranald easily leading, for there was no runner so swift and tireless in all the country-side, and Hughie, with the small boys, panting behind.
On they went, a long, straggling, yelling line, down into the cedar swamp, splashing through the "Little Crick" and up again over the beech ridge, where, in the open woods, the path grew indistinct and was easy to lose; then again among the great pines, where the underbrush was so thick that you could not tell what might be just before, till they pulled up at the old Lumber Camp. The boys always paused at the ruins of the old Lumber Camp. A ruin is ever a place of mystery, but to the old Lumber Camp attached an awful dread, for behind it, in the thickest part of the underbrush, stood the cabin of Alan Gorrach.
Alan's was a name of terror among all the small children of the section. Mothers hushed their crying with, "Alan Gorrach will get you." Alan was a small man, short in the legs, but with long, swinging, sinewy arms. He had a gypsy face, and tangled, long, black hair; and as he walked through the forest he might be heard talking to himself, with wild gesticulations. He was an itinerant cooper by trade, and made for the farmers' wives their butter-tubs and butter-ladles, mincing-bowls and coggies, and for the men, whip-stalks, axe handles, and the like. But in the boys' eyes he was guilty of a horrible iniquity. He was a dog-killer. His chief business was the doing away with dogs of ill-repute in the country; vicious dogs, sheep-killing dogs, egg-sucking dogs, were committed to Alan's dread custody, and often he would be seen leading off his wretched victims to his den in the woods, whence they never returned. It was a current report that he ate them, too. No wonder the boys regarded him with horror mingled with fearful awe.
In broad day, upon the high road, the small boys would boldly fling taunts and stones at Alan, till he would pull out his long, sharp cooper's knife and make at them. But if they met him in the woods they would walk past in trembling and respectful silence, or slip off into hiding in the bush, till he was out of sight.
It was always part of the programme in the exploring of the Lumber Camp for the big boys to steal down the path to Alan's cabin, and peer fearfully through the brush, and then come rushing back to the little boys waiting in the clearing, and crying in terror-stricken stage whispers, "He's coming! He's coming!" set off again through the bush like hunted deer, followed by the panting train of youngsters, with their small hearts thumping hard against their ribs.
In a few minutes the pine woods, with its old Lumber Camp and Alan's fearsome cabin, were left behind; and then down along the flats where the big elms were, and the tall ash-trees, and the alders, the flying, panting line sped on in a final dash, for they could smell the river. In a moment more they were at the Deepole.
O! that Deepole! Where the big creek took a great sweep around before it tore over the rapids and down into the gorge. It was always in cool shade; the great fan-topped elm-trees hung far out over it, and the alders and the willows edged its banks. How cool and clear the dark brown waters looked! And how beautiful the golden mottling on their smooth, flowing surface, where the sun rained down through the over-spreading elm boughs! And the grassy sward where the boys tore off their garments, and whence they raced and plunged, was so green and firm and smooth under foot! And the music of the rapids down in the gorge, and the gurgle of the water where it sucked in under the jam of dead wood before it plunged into the boiling pool farther down! Not that the boys made note of all these delights accessory to the joys of the Deepole itself, but all these helped to weave the spell that the swimming-hole cast over them. Without the spreading elms, without the mottled, golden light upon the cool, deep waters, and without the distant roar of the little rapid, and the soft gurgle at the jam, the Deepole would still have been a place of purest delight, but I doubt if, without these, it would have stolen in among their day dreams in after years, on hot, dusty, weary days, with power to waken in them a vague pain and longing for the sweet, cool woods and the clear, brown waters. Oh, for one plunge! To feel the hug of the waters, their soothing caress, their healing touch! These boys are men now, such as are on the hither side of the darker river, but not a man of them can think, on a hot summer day, of that cool, shaded, mottled Deepole, without a longing in his heart and a lump in his throat.
The last quarter of a mile was always a dead race, for it was a point of distinction to be the first to plunge, and the last few seconds of the race were spent in the preliminaries of the disrobing. A single brace slipped off the shoulder, a flutter of a shirt over the head, a kick of the trousers, and whoop! plunge! "Hurrah! first in." The little boys always waited to admire the first series of plunges, for there were many series before the hour was over, and then they would off to their own crossing, going through a similar performance on a small scale.
What an hour it was! What contests of swimming and diving! What water fights and mud fights! What careering of figures, stark naked, through the rushes and trees! What larks and pranks!
And then the little boys would dress. A simple process, but more difficult by far than the other, for the trousers would stick to the wet feet—no boy would dream of a towel, nor dare to be guilty of such a piece of "stuck-upness"—and the shirt would get wrong side out, or would bundle round the neck, or would cling to the wet shoulders till they had to get on their knees almost to squirm into it. But that over, all was over. The brace, or if the buttons were still there, the braces were easily jerked up on the shoulders, and there you were. Coats, boots, and stockings were superfluous, collars and ties utterly despised.
Then the little ones would gather on the grassy bank to watch the big ones get out, which was a process worth watching.
"Well, I'm going out, boys," one would say.
"Oh, pshaw! let's have another plunge."
"All right. But it's the last, though."
Then a long stream of naked figures would scramble up the bank and rush for the last place. "First out, last in," was the rule, for the boys would much rather jump on some one else than be jumped on themselves. After the long line of naked figures had vanished into the boiling water, one would be seen quietly stealing out and up the bank kicking his feet clean as he stepped off the projecting root onto the grass, when, plunk! a mud ball caught him, and back he must come. It took them full two hours to escape clean from the water, and woe betide the boy last out. On all sides stood boys, little and big, with mud balls ready to fling, till, out of sheer pity, he would be allowed to come forth clean. Then, when all were dressed, and blue and shivering—for two amphibious hours, even on a July day, make one blue—more games would begin, leap-frog, or tag, or jumping, or climbing trees, till they were warm enough to set out for home.
It was as the little ones were playing tag that Hughie came to grief. He was easily king of his company and led the game. Quick as a weasel, swift and wary, he was always the last to be caught. Around the trees, and out and in among the big boys, he led the chase, much to Tom Finch's disgust, who had not forgotten the spelling-match incident. Not that he cared for the defeat, but he still felt the bite in the master's final words, and he carried a grudge against the boy who had been the occasion of his humiliation.
"Keep off!" he cried, angrily, as Hughie swung himself round him. But Hughie paid no heed to Tom's growl, unless, indeed, to repeat his offense, with the result that, as he flew off, Tom caught him a kick that hastened his flight and laid him flat on his back amid the laughter of the boys.
"Tom," said Hughie, gravely and slowly, so that they all stood listening, "do you know what you kick like?"
The boys stood waiting.
In a moment Tom had him by the neck, and after a cuff or two, sent him flying, with a warning to keep to himself.
But Hughie, with a saucy answer, was off again on his game, circling as near Tom Finch as he dared, and being as exasperating as possible, till Tom looked as if he would like a chance to pay him off. The chance came, for Hughie, leading the "tag," came flying past Tom and toward the water. Hardly realizing what he was doing, Tom stuck out his foot and caught him flying past, and before any one knew how it had happened, poor Hughie shot far out into the Deepole, lighting fair on his stomach. There was a great shout of laughter, but in a moment every one was calling, "Swim, Hughie!" "Keep your hands down!" "Don't splash like that, you fool!" "Paddle underneath!" But Hughie was far too excited or too stunned by his fall to do anything but splash and sputter, and sink, and rise again, only to sink once more. In a few moments the affair became serious.
The small boys began to cry, and some of the bigger ones to undress, when there was a cry from the elm-tree overhanging the water.
"Run out that board, Don. Quick!"
It was Ranald, who had been swinging up in the highest branches, and had seen what had happened, and was coming down from limb to limb like a squirrel. As he spoke, he dropped from the lowest limb into the water close to where Hughie was splashing wildly.
In an instant, as he rose to the surface, Hughie's arms went round his neck and pulled his head under water. But he was up again, and tugging at Hughie's hands, he cried:
"Don't, Hughie! let go! I'll pull you out. Let go!" But Hughie, half-insensible with terror and with the water he had gulped in, clung with a death-grip.
"Hughie!" gasped Ranald, "you'll drown us both. Oh, Hughie man, let me pull you out, can't you?"
Something in the tone caught Hughie's ear, and he loosed his hold, and Ranald, taking him under the chin, looked round for the board.
By this time Don Cameron was in the water and working the board slowly toward the gasping boys. But now a new danger threatened. The current had gradually carried them toward the log jam, under which the water sucked to the falls below. Once under the jam, no power on earth could save.
"Hurry up, Don!" called out Ranald, anxiously. Then, feeling Hughie beginning to clutch again, he added, cheerily, "It's all right. You'll get us." But his face was gray and his eyes were staring, for over his shoulder he could see the jam and he could feel the suck of the water on his legs.
"Oh, Ranald, you can't do it," sobbed Hughie. "Will I paddle underneath?"
"Yes, yes, paddle hard, Hughie," said Ranald, for the jam was just at his back.
But as he spoke, there was a cry, "Ranald, catch it!" Over the slippery logs of the jam came Tom Finch pushing out a plank.
"Catch it!" he cried, "I'll hold this end solid." And Ranald caught and held fast, and the boys on the bank gave a mighty shout. Soon Don came up with his board, and Tom, catching the end, hauled it up on the rolling logs.
"Hold steady there now!" cried Tom, lying at full length upon the logs; "we'll get you in a minute."
By this time the other boys had pulled a number of boards and planks out of the jam, and laying them across the logs, made a kind of raft upon which the exhausted swimmers were gradually hauled, and then brought safe to shore.
"Oh, Ranald," said Tom, almost weeping, "I didn't mean to—I never thought—I'm awfully sorry."
"Oh, pshaw!" said Ranald, who was taking off Hughie's shirt preparatory to wringing it, "I know. Besides, it was you who pulled us out. You were doing your best, Don, of course, but we would have gone under the jam but for Tom."
For ten minutes the boys stood going over again the various incidents in the recent dramatic scene, extolling the virtues of Ranald, Don, and Thomas in turn, and imitating, with screams of laughter, Hughie's gulps and splashings while he was fighting for his life. It was their way of expressing their emotions of gratitude and joy, for Hughie was dearly loved by all, though no one would have dared to manifest such weakness.
As they were separating, Hughie whispered to Ranald, "Come home with me, Ranald. I want you." And Ranald, looking down into the little white face, went. It would be many a day before he would get rid of the picture of the white face, with the staring black eyes, floating on the dark brown water beside him, and that was why he went.
When they reached the path to the manse clearing Ranald and Hughie were alone. For some minutes Hughie followed Ranald in silence on a dog-trot, through the brule, dodging round stumps and roots and climbing over fallen trees, till they came to the pasture-field.
"Hold on, Ranald," panted Hughie, putting on a spurt and coming up even with his leader.
"Are you warm enough?" asked Ranald, looking down at the little flushed face.
"Are you dry?"
"Indeed, you are not too dry," said Ranald, feeling his wet shirt and trousers, "and your mother will be wondering."
"I'll tell her," said Hughie, in a tone of exulting anticipation.
"What!" Ranald stood dead still.
"I'll tell her," replied Hughie. "She'll be awful glad. And she'll be awful thankful to you, Ranald."
Ranald looked at him in amazement.
"I think I will jist be going back now," he said, at length. But Hughie seized him.
"Oh, Ranald, you must come with me."
He had pictured himself telling his mother of Ranald's exploit, and covering his hero with glory. But this was the very thing that Ranald dreaded and hated, and was bound to prevent.
"You will not be going to the Deepole again, I warrant you," Ranald said, with emphasis.
"Not go to the Deepole?"
"No, indeed. Your mother will put an end to that sort of thing."
"Mother! Why not?"
"She will not be wanting to have you drowned."
Hughie laughed scornfully. "You don't know my mother. She's not afraid of—of anything."
"But she will be telling your father."
This was a matter serious enough to give Hughie pause. His father might very likely forbid the Deepole.
"There is no need for telling," suggested Ranald. "And I will just go in for a minute."
"Will you stay for supper?"
Ranald shook his head. The manse kitchen was a bright place, and to see the minister's wife and to hear her talk was to Ranald pure delight. But then, Hughie might tell, and that would be too awful to bear.
"Do, Ranald," pleaded Hughie. "I'll not tell."
"I am not so sure."
"Sure as death!"
Still Ranald hesitated. Hughie grew desperate.
"God may kill me on the spot!" he cried, using the most binding of all oaths known to the boys. This was satisfactory, and Ranald went.
But Hughie was not skilled in deceiving, and especially in deceiving his mother. They were great friends, and Hughie shared all his secrets with her and knew that they were safe, unless they ought to be told. And so, when he caught sight of his mother waiting for him before the door, he left Ranald, and thrilling with the memory of the awful peril through which he had passed, rushed at her, and crying, "Oh, mother!" he flung himself into her arms. "I am so glad to see you again!"
"Why, Hughie, my boy, what's the matter?" said his mother, holding her arms tight about him. "And you are all wet! What is it?" But Hughie held her fast, struggling with himself.
"What is it?" she asked again, turning to Ranald.
"We were running pretty fast—and it is a hot day—and—" But the clear gray-brown eyes were upon him, and Ranald found it difficult to go on.
"Oh, mother, you mustn't ask," cried Hughie; "I promised not to tell."
"Not to tell me, Hughie?" The surprise in the voice was quite too much for Hughie.
"Oh, mother, we did not want to frighten you—and—I promised."
"Then you must keep your promise. Come away in, my boy. Come in, Ranald."
It was her boy's first secret from her. Ranald saw the look of pain in the sweet face, and could not endure it.
"It was just nothing, Mrs. Murray," he began.
"Did you promise, too, Ranald?"
"No, that I did not. And there is nothing much to tell, only Hughie fell into the Deepole and the boys pulled him out!"
"Oh, mother!" exclaimed Hughie, "it was Ranald. He jumped right down from the tree right into the water, and kept me up. You told yourself, Ranald," he continued, delighted to be relieved of his promise; and on he went to give his mother, in his most picturesque style, a description of the whole scene, while Ranald stood looking miserable and ashamed.
"And Ranald was ashamed for me to tell you, and besides, he said you wouldn't let me go to the Deepole again. But you will, won't you mother? And you won't tell father, will you?"
The mother stood listening, with face growing whiter and whiter, till he was done. Then she stooped down over the eager face for some moments, whispering, "My darling, my darling," and then coming to Ranald she held her hand on his shoulder for a moment, while she said, in a voice bravely struggling to be calm, "God reward you, Ranald. God grant my boy may always have so good and brave a friend when he needs."
And from that day Ranald's life was different, for he had bound to him by a tie that nothing could ever break, a friend whose influence followed him, and steadied and lifted him up to greatness, long after the grave had hidden her from men's sight.
The two years of Archibald Munro's regime were the golden age of the school, and for a whole generation "The Section" regarded that period as the standard for comparison in the following years. Munro had a genius for making his pupils work. They threw themselves with enthusiasm into all they undertook—studies, debate nights, games, and in everything the master was the source of inspiration.
And now his last examination day had come, and the whole Section was stirred with enthusiasm for their master, and with grief at his departure.
The day before examination was spent in "cleaning the school." This semi-annual event, which always preceded the examination, was almost as enjoyable as the examination day itself, if indeed it was not more so. The school met in the morning for a final polish for the morrow's recitations. Then after a speech by the master the little ones were dismissed and allowed to go home though they never by any chance took advantage of this permission. Then the master and the bigger boys and girls set to work to prepare the school for the great day. The boys were told off in sections, some to get dry cedar boughs from the swamp for the big fire outside, over which the iron sugar-kettle was swung to heat the scrubbing water; others off into the woods for balsam-trees for the evergreen decorations; others to draw water and wait upon the scrubbers.
It was a day of delightful excitement, but this year there was below the excitement a deep, warm feeling of love and sadness, as both teacher and pupils thought of to-morrow. There was an additional thrill to the excitement, that the master was to be presented with a gold watch and chain, and that this had been kept a dead secret from him.
What a day it was! With wild whoops the boys went off for the dry cedar and the evergreens, while the girls, looking very housewifely with skirts tucked back and sleeves rolled up, began to sweep and otherwise prepare the room for scrubbing.
The gathering of the evergreens was a delightful labor. High up in the balsam-trees the more daring boys would climb, and then, holding by the swaying top, would swing themselves far out from the trunk and come crashing through the limbs into the deep, soft snow, bringing half the tree with them. What larks they had! What chasing of rabbits along their beaten runways! What fierce and happy snow fights! And then, the triumph of their return, laden with their evergreen trophies, to find the big fire blazing under the great iron kettle and the water boiling, and the girls well on with the scrubbing.
Then, while the girls scrubbed first the benches and desks, and last of all, the floors, the boys washed the windows and put up the evergreen decorations. Every corner had its pillar of green, every window had its frame of green, the old blackboard, the occasion of many a heartache to the unmathematical, was wreathed into loveliness; the maps, with their bewildering boundaries, rivers and mountains, capes, bays and islands, became for once worlds of beauty under the magic touch of the greenery. On the wall just over his desk, the master wrought out in evergreen an arching "WELCOME," but later on, the big girls, with some shy blushing, boldly tacked up underneath an answering "FAREWELL." By the time the short afternoon had faded into the early evening, the school stood, to the eyes of all familiar with the common sordidness of its everyday dress, a picture of artistic loveliness. And after the master's little speech of thanks for their good work that afternoon, and for all their goodness to him, the boys and girls went their ways with that strangely unnameable heart-emptiness that brings an ache to the throat, but somehow makes happier for the ache.
The examination day was the great school event of the year. It was the social function of the Section as well. Toward this event all the school life moved, and its approach was attended by a deepening excitement, shared by children and parents alike, which made a kind of holiday feeling in the air.
The school opened an hour later than ordinarily, and the children came all in their Sunday clothes, the boys feeling stiff and uncomfortable, and regarding each other with looks half shy and half contemptuous, realizing that they were unnatural in each other's sight; the girls with hair in marvelous frizzes and shiny ringlets, with new ribbons, and white aprons over their home-made winsey dresses, carried their unwonted grandeur with an ease and delight that made the boys secretly envy but apparently despise them. The one unpardonable crime with all the boys in that country was that of being "proud." The boy convicted of "shoween off," was utterly contemned by his fellows. Hence, any delight in new clothes or in a finer appearance than usual was carefully avoided.
Ranald always hated new clothes. He felt them an intolerable burden. He did not mind his new homespun, home-made flannel check shirt of mixed red and white, but the heavy fulled-cloth suit made by his Aunt Kirsty felt like a suit of mail. He moved heavily in it and felt queer, and knew that he looked as he felt. The result was that he was in no genial mood, and was on the alert for any indication of levity at his expense.
Hughie, on the contrary, like the girls, delighted in new clothes. His new black suit, made down from one of his father's, with infinite planning and pains by his mother, and finished only at twelve o'clock the night before, gave him unmixed pleasure. And handsome he looked in it. All the little girls proclaimed that in their shy, admiring glances, while the big girls teased and petted and threatened to kiss him. Of course the boys all scorned him and his finery, and tried to "take him down," but Hughie was so unfeignedly pleased with himself, and moved so easily and naturally in his grand attire, and was so cheery and frank and happy, that no one thought of calling him "proud."
Soon after ten the sleighloads began to arrive. It was a mild winter day, when the snow packed well, and there fluttered down through the still air a few lazy flakes, large, soft, and feathery, like bits of the clouds floating white against the blue sky. The sleighs were driven up to the door with a great flourish and jingle of bells, and while the master welcomed the ladies, the fathers and big brothers drove the horses to the shelter of the thick-standing pines, and unhitching them, tied them to the sleigh-boxes, where, blanketed and fed, they remained for the day.
Within an hour the little school-house was packed, the children crowded tight into the long desks, and the visitors on the benches along the walls and in the seats of the big boys and girls. On the platform were such of the trustees as could muster up the necessary courage—old Peter MacRae, who had been a dominie in the Old Country, the young minister and his wife, and the schoolteacher from the "Sixteenth."
First came the wee tots, who, in wide-eyed, serious innocence, went through their letters and their "ox" and "cat" combinations and permutations with great gusto and distinction. Then they were dismissed to their seats by a series of mental arithmetic questions, sums of varying difficulty being propounded, until little white-haired, blue-eyed Johnnie Aird, with the single big curl on the top of his head, was left alone.
"One and one, Johnnie?" said the master, smiling down at the rosy face.
"Three," promptly replied Johnnie, and retired to his seat amid the delighted applause of visitors and pupils, and followed by the proud, fond, albeit almost tearful, gaze of his mother. He was her baby, born long after her other babies had grown up into sturdy youth, and all the dearer for that.
Then up through the Readers, till the Fifth was reached, the examination progressed, each class being handed over to the charge of a visitor, who forthwith went upon examination as truly as did the class.
"Fifth class!" In due order the class marched up to the chalk line on the floor in front of the master's desk, and stood waiting.
The reading lesson was Fitz-Greene Halleck's "Marco Bozzaris," a selection of considerable dramatic power, and calling for a somewhat spirited rendering. The master would not have chosen this lesson, but he had laid down the rule that there was to be no special drilling of the pupils for an exhibition, but that the school should be seen doing its every-day work; and in the reading, the lessons for the previous day were to be those of the examination day. By an evil fortune, the reading for the day was the dramatic "Marco Bozzaris." The master shivered inwardly as he thought of the possibility of Thomas Finch, with his stolidly monotonous voice, being called upon to read the thrilling lines recording the panic-stricken death-cry of the Turk: "To arms! They come! The Greek! The Greek!" But Thomas, by careful plodding, had climbed to fourth place, and the danger lay in the third verse.
"Will you take this class, Mr. MacRae?" said the master, handing him the book. He knew that the dominie was not interested in the art of reading beyond the point of correct pronunciation, and hence he hoped the class might get off easily. The dominie took the book reluctantly. What he desired was the "arith-MET-ic" class, and did not care to be "put off" with mere reading.
"Well, Ranald, let us hear you," he rather growled. Ranald went at his work with quiet confidence; he knew all the words.
"Page 187, Marco Bozzaris.
"At midnight in his guarded tent, The Turk lay dreaming of the hour When Greece, her knee in suppliance bent, Should tremble at his power."
And so on steadily to the end of his verse.
The next was "Betsy Dan," the daughter of Dan Campbell, of "The Island." Now, Betsy Dan was very red in hair and face, very shy and very nervous, and always on the point of giggles. It was a trial to her to read on ordinary days, but to-day it was almost more than she could bear. To make matters worse, sitting immediately behind her, and sheltered from the eye of the master, sat Jimmie Cameron, Don's youngest brother. Jimmie was always on the alert for mischief, and ever ready to go off into fits of laughter, which he managed to check only by grabbing tight hold of his nose. Just now he was busy pulling at the strings of Betsy Dan's apron with one hand, while with the other he was hanging onto his nose, and swaying in paroxysms of laughter.
Very red in the face, Betsy Dan began her verse.
"At midnight in the forest shades, Bozzaris—"
Pause, while Betsy Dan clutched behind her.
("Tchik! tchik!") a snicker from Jimmie in the rear.
"—his Suliote band, True as the steel of—"
("im-im,") Betsy Dan struggles with her giggles.
"Elizabeth!" The master's voice is stern and sharp.
Betsy Dan bridles up, while Jimmie is momentarily sobered by the master's tone.
"True as the steel of their tried blades, Heroes in heart and hand. There had the Persians thousands stood—"
("Tchik! tchik! tchik,") a long snicker from Jimmie, whose nose cannot be kept quite in control. It is becoming too much for poor Betsy Dan, whose lips begin to twitch.
("im-im, thit-tit-tit,") Betsy Dan is making mighty efforts to hold in her giggles.
"—had the glad earth (tchik!) drunk their blood, On old Pl-a-a-t-t-e-a-'s day."
"Elizabeth Campbell!" The master's tone was quite terrible.
"I don't care! He won't leave me alone. He's just—just (sob) pu—pulling at me (sob) all the time."
By this time Betsy's apron was up to her eyes, and her sobs were quite tempestuous.
"James, stand up!" Jimmie slowly rose, red with laughter, and covered with confusion.
"I-I-I di-dn't touch her!" he protested.
"O—h!" said little Aleck Sinclair, who had been enjoying Jimmie's prank hugely; "he was—"
"That'll do, Aleck, I didn't ask you. James is quite able to tell me himself. Now, James!"
"I-I-I was only just doing that," said Jimmie, sober enough now, and terrified at the results of his mischief.
"Doing what?" said the master, repressing a smile at Jimmie's woebegone face.
"Just-just that!" and Jimmie touched gingerly with the point of his finger the bows of Betsy Dan's apron-strings.
"Oh, I see. You were annoying Elizabeth while she was reading. No wonder she found it difficult. Now, do you think that was very nice?"
Jimmie twisted himself into a semicircle.
"Come here, James!" Jimmie looked frightened, came round the class, and up to the master.
"Now, then," continued the master, facing Jimmie round in front of Betsy Dan, who was still using her apron upon her eyes, "tell Elizabeth you are sorry."
Jimmie stood in an agony of silent awkwardness, curving himself in varying directions.
"Are you sorry?"
"Well, tell her so."
Jimmie drew a long breath and braced himself for the ordeal. He stood a moment or two, working his eyes up shyly from Betsy Dan's shoes to her face, caught her glancing at him from behind her apron, and began, "I-I-I'm (tchik! tchik) sor-ry," (tchik). Betsy Dan's look was too much for the little chap's gravity.
A roar swept over the school-house. Even the grim dominie's face relaxed.
"Go to your seat and behave yourself," said the master, giving Jimmie a slight cuff. "Now, Margaret, let us go on."
Margaret's was the difficult verse. But to Margaret's quiet voice and gentle heart, anything like shriek or battle-cry was foreign enough, so with even tone, and unmodulated by any shade of passion, she read the cry, "To arms! They come! The Greek! The Greek!" Nor was her voice to be moved from its gentle, monotonous flow even by the battle-cry of Bozzaris, "Strike! till the last armed foe expires!"
"Next," said the dominie, glad to get on with his task.
The master breathed freely, when, alas for his hopes, the minister spoke up.
"But, Margaret, do you think Bozzaris cheered his men in so gentle a voice as that?"
Margaret smiled sweetly, but remained silent, glad to get over the verse.
"Wouldn't you like to try it again?" suggested the minister.
Margaret flushed up at once.
"Oh, no," said his wife, who had noticed Margaret's flushing face. "Girls are not supposed to be soldiers, are they, Margaret?"
Margaret flashed a grateful look at her.
"That's a boy's verse."
"Ay! that it is," said the old dominie; "and I would wish very much that Mrs. Murray would conduct this class."
But the minister's wife would not hear of it, protesting that the dominie could do it much better. The old man, however, insisted, saying that he had no great liking for this part of the examination, and would wish to reserve himself, with the master's permission, for the "arith-MET-ic" class.
Mrs. Murray, seeing that it would please the dominie, took the book, with a spot of color coming in her delicate, high-bred face.
"You must all do your best now, to help me," she said, with a smile that brought an answering smile flashing along the line. Even Thomas Finch allowed his stolid face a gleam of intelligent sympathy, which, however, he immediately suppressed, for he remembered that the next turn was his, and that he must be getting himself into the appearance of dogged desperation which he considered suitable to a reading exercise.
"Now, Thomas," said the minister's wife, sweetly, and Thomas plunged heavily.
"They fought like brave men, long—"
"Oh, Thomas, I think we will try that man's verse again, with the cries of battle in it, you know. I am sure you can do that well."
It was all the same to Thomas. There were no words he could not spell, and he saw no reason why he should not do that verse as well as any other. So, with an extra knitting of his eyebrows, he set forth doggedly.
Thomas's voice fell with the unvarying regularity of the beat of a trip-hammer.
"But, Thomas, wait a minute. You see you must speak these words, 'To arms! They come!' differently from the others. These words were shrieked by the sentries, and you must show that in your reading."
"Speak them out, man," said the minister, sharply, and a little nervously, fearing that his wife had undertaken too great a task, and hating to see her defeated.
"Now, Thomas," said Mrs. Murray, "try again. And remember the sentries shrieked these words, 'To arms!' and so on."
Thomas squared his shoulders, spread his feet apart, added a wrinkle to his frown, and a deeper note of desperation to his tone, and began again.
The master shuddered.
"Now, Thomas, excuse me. That's better, but we can improve that yet." Mrs. Murray was not to be beaten. The attention of the whole school, even to Jimmie Cameron, as well as that of the visitors, was now concentrated upon the event.
"See," she went on, "each phrase by itself. 'An hour passed on: the Turk awoke.' Now, try that far."
Again Thomas tried, this time with complete success. The visitors applauded.
"Ah, that's it, Thomas. I was sure you could do it."
Thomas relaxed a little, but not unduly. He was not sure what was yet before him.
"Now we will get that 'sentries shriek.' See, Thomas, like this a little," and she read the words with fine expression.
"You must put more pith, more force, into those words, Thomas. Speak out, man!" interjected the minister, who was wishing it was all over.
"Now, Thomas, I think this will be the last time. You have done very well, but I feel sure you can do better."
The minister's wife looked at Thomas as she said this, with so fascinating a smile that the frown on Thomas' face deepened into a hideous scowl, and he planted himself with a do-or-die expression in every angle of his solid frame. Realizing the extreme necessity of the moment, he pitched his voice several tones higher than ever before in his life inside a house and before people, and made his final attempt.
"An-hour-passed-on: the-Turk-awoke: That-bright-dream-WAS-his-last."
And now, feeling that the crisis was upon him, and confusing speed with intensity, and sound with passion, he rushed his words, with ever-increasing speed, into a wild yell.
There was a moment of startled stillness, then, "tchik! tchik!" It was Jimmie again, holding his nose and swaying in a vain effort to control a paroxysm of snickers at Thomas' unusual outburst.
It was like a match to powder. Again the whole school burst into a roar of uncontrollable laughter. Even the minister, the master, and the dominie, could not resist. The only faces unmoved were those of Thomas Finch and the minister's wife. He had tried his best, and it was to please her, and she knew it.
A swift, shamed glance round, and his eyes rested on her face. That face was sweet and grave as she leaned toward him, and said, "Thank you, Thomas. That was well done." And Thomas, still looking at her, flushed to his hair roots and down the back of his neck, while the scowl on his forehead faded into a frown, and then into smoothness.
"And if you always try your best like that, Thomas, you will be a great and good man some day."
Her voice was low and soft, as if intended for him alone, but in the sudden silence that followed the laughter it thrilled to every heart in the room, and Thomas was surprised to find himself trying to swallow a lump in his throat, and to keep his eyes from blinking; and in his face, stolid and heavy, a new expression was struggling for utterance. "Here, take me," it said; "all that I have is thine," and later days brought the opportunity to prove it.
The rest of the reading lesson passed without incident. Indeed, there pervaded the whole school that feeling of reaction which always succeeds an emotional climax. The master decided to omit the geography and grammar classes, which should have immediately followed, and have dinner at once, and so allow both children and visitors time to recover tone for the spelling and arithmetic of the afternoon.
The dinner was an elaborate and appalling variety of pies and cakes, served by the big girls and their sisters, who had recently left school, and who consequently bore themselves with all proper dignity and importance. Two of the boys passed round a pail of water and a tin cup, that all the thirsty might drink. From hand to hand, and from lip to lip the cup passed, with a fine contempt of microbes. The only point of etiquette insisted upon was that no "leavings" should be allowed to remain in the cup or thrown back into the pail, but should be carefully flung upon the floor.
There had been examination feasts in pre-historic days in the Twentieth school, when the boys indulged in free fights at long range, using as missiles remnants of pie crust and cake, whose consistency rendered them deadly enough to "bloody" a nose or black an eye. But these barbaric encounters ceased with Archie Munro's advent, and now the boys vied with each other in "minding their manners." Not only was there no snatching of food or exhibition of greediness, but there was a severe repression of any apparent eagerness for the tempting dainties, lest it should be suspected that such were unusual at home. Even the little boys felt that it would be bad manners to take a second piece of cake or pie unless specially pressed; but their eager, bulging eyes revealed only too plainly their heart's desire, and the kindly waiters knew their duty sufficiently to urge a second, third, and fourth supply of the toothsome currant or berry pie, the solid fruit cake, or the oily doughnut, till the point was reached where desire failed.
"Have some more, Jimmie. Have a doughnut," said the master, who had been admiring Jimmie's gastronomic achievements.
"He's had ten a'ready," shouted little Aleck Sinclair, Jimmie's special confidant.
Jimmie smiled in conscious pride, but remained silent.
"What! eaten ten doughnuts?" asked the master, feigning alarm.
"He's got four in his pocket, too," said Aleck, in triumph.
"He's got a pie in his own pocket," retorted Jimmie, driven to retaliate.
"A pie!" exclaimed the master. "Better take it out. A pocket's not the best place for a pie. Why don't you eat it, Aleck?"
"I can't," lamented Aleck. "I'm full up."
"He said he's nearly busted," said Jimmie, anxiously. "He's got a pain here," pointing to his left eye. The bigger boys and some of the visitors who had gathered round shouted with laughter.
"Oh, pshaw, Aleck!" said the master, encouragingly, "that's all right. As long as the pain is as high up as your eye you'll recover. I tell you what, put your pie down on the desk here, Jimmie will take care of it, and run down to the gate and tell Don I want him."
Aleck, with great care and considerable difficulty, extracted from his pocket a segment of black currant pie, hopelessly battered, but still intact. He regarded it fondly for a moment or two, and then, with a very dubious look at Jimmie, ran away on his errand for the master.
It took him some little time to find Don, and meanwhile the master's attention was drawn away by his duty to the visitors. The pie left to Jimmie's care had an unfortunately tempting fringe of loose pieces about it that marred its symmetry. Jimmie proceeded to trim it into shape. So absorbed did he become in this trimming process, that before he realized what he was about, he woke suddenly to the startling fact that the pie had shrunk into a comparatively insignificant size. It would be worse than useless to save the mutilated remains for Aleck; there was nothing for it now but to get the reproachful remnant out of the way. He was so busily occupied with this praiseworthy proceeding that he failed to notice Aleck enter the room, flushed with his race, eager and once more empty.
Arriving at his seat, he came upon Jimmie engaged in devouring the pie left in his charge. With a cry of dismay and rage he flung himself upon the little gourmand, and after a short struggle, secured the precious pie; but alas, bereft of its most delicious part—it was picked clean of its currants. For a moment he gazed, grief-stricken, at the leathery, viscous remnant in his hand. Then, with a wrathful exclamation, "Here, then, you can just take it then, you big pig, you!" He seized Jimmie by the neck, and jammed the sticky pie crust on his face, where it stuck like an adhesive plaster. Jimmie, taken by surprise, and rendered nerveless by the pangs of an accusing conscience, made no resistance, but set up a howl that attracted the attention of the master and the whole company.
"Why, Jimmie!" exclaimed the master, removing the doughy mixture from the little lad's face, "what on earth are you trying to do? What is wrong, Aleck?"
"He ate my pie," said Aleck, defiantly.
"Ate it? Well, apparently not. But never mind, Aleck, we shall get you another pie."
"There isn't any more," said Aleck, mournfully; "that was the last piece."
"Oh, well, we shall find something else just as good," said the master, going off after one of the big girls; and returning with a doughnut and a peculiarly deadly looking piece of fruit cake, he succeeded in comforting the disappointed and still indignant Aleck.
The afternoon was given to the more serious part of the school work—writing, arithmetic, and spelling, while, for those whose ambitions extended beyond the limits of the public school, the master had begun a Euclid class, which was at once his despair and his pride. In the Twentieth school of that date there was no waste of the children's time in foolish and fantastic branches of study, in showy exercises and accomplishments, whose display was at once ruinous to the nerves of the visitors, and to the self-respect and modesty of the children. The ideal of the school was to fit the children for the struggle into which their lives would thrust them, so that the boy who could spell and read and cipher was supposed to be ready for his life work. Those whose ambition led them into the subtleties of Euclid's problems and theorems were supposed to be in preparation for somewhat higher spheres of life.
Through the various classes of arithmetic the examination proceeded, the little ones struggling with great seriousness through their addition and subtraction sums, and being wrought up to the highest pitch of excitement by their contest for the first place. By the time the fifth class was reached, the air was heavy with the feeling of battle. Indeed, it was amazing to note how the master had succeeded in arousing in the whole school an intense spirit of emulation. From little Johnnie Aird up to Thomas Finch, the pupils carried the hearts of soldiers.
Through fractions, the "Rule of Three," percentages, and stocks, the senior class swept with a trail of glory. In vain old Peter MacRae strewed their path with his favorite posers. The brilliant achievements of the class seemed to sink him deeper and deeper into the gloom of discontent, while the master, the minister and his wife, as well as the visitors, could not conceal their delight. As a last resort the old dominie sought to stem their victorious career with his famous problem in Practice, and to his huge enjoyment, one after another of the class had to acknowledge defeat. The truth was, the master had passed lightly over this rule in the arithmetic, considering the solution of problems by the method of Practice as a little antiquated, and hardly worthy of much study. The failure of the class, however, brought the dominie his hour of triumph, and so complete had been the success of the examination that the master was abundantly willing that he should enjoy it.
Then followed the judging of the copy-books. The best and cleanest book in each class was given the proud distinction of a testimonial written upon the first blank page, with the date of the examination and the signatures of the examiners attached. It was afterwards borne home in triumph by the happy owner, to be stored among the family archives, and perhaps among the sacred things that mothers keep in their holy of holies.
After the copy-books had been duly appraised, there followed an hour in which the excitement of the day reached its highest mark. The whole school, with such of the visitors as could be persuaded to join, were ranged in opposing ranks in the deadly conflict of a spelling-match. The master, the teacher from the Sixteenth, and even the minister's wife, yielded to the tremendous pressure of public demand that they should enter the fray. The contest had a most dramatic finish, and it was felt that the extreme possibility of enthusiasm and excitement was reached when the minister's wife spelled down the teacher from the Sixteenth, who every one knew, was the champion speller of all the country that lay toward the Front, and had a special private armory of deadly missiles laid up against just such a conflict as this. The tumultuous triumph of the children was not to be controlled. Again and again they followed Hughie in wild yells, not only because his mother was a great favorite with them all, but because she had wrested a victory from the champion of the Front, for the Front, in all matters pertaining to culture and fashion, thought itself quite superior to the more backwoods country of the Twentieth.
It was with no small difficulty that the master brought the school to such a degree of order that the closing speeches could be received with becoming respect and attention. The trustees, according to custom, were invited to express their opinion upon the examination, and upon school matters generally. The chairman, John Cameron, "Long John," as he was called, broke the ice after much persuasion, and slowly rising from the desk into which he had compressed his long, lank form, he made his speech. Long John was a great admirer of the master, but for all that, and perhaps because of that, he allowed himself no warmer words of commendation than that he was well pleased with the way in which the children had conducted themselves. "They have done credit to themselves," he said, "and to their teacher. And indeed I am sorry he is leaving us, for, so far, I have heard no complaints in the Section."
The other trustees followed in the path thus blazed out for them by Long John. They were all well pleased with the examination, and they were all sorry to lose the master, and they had heard no complaints. It was perfectly understood that no words of praise could add to the high testimony that they "had heard no complaints."
The dominie's speech was a little more elaborate. Somewhat reluctantly he acknowledged that the school had acquitted itself with "very considerable credit," especially the "arith-MET-ic" class, and indeed, considering all the circumstances, Mr. Munro was to be congratulated upon the results of his work in the Section. But the minister's warm expression of delight at the day's proceedings, and of regret at the departure of the master, more than atoned for the trustees' cautious testimony, and the dominie's somewhat grudging praise.
Then came the moment of the day. A great stillness fell upon the school as the master rose to make his farewell speech. But before he could say a word, up from their seats walked Betsy Dan and Thomas Finch, and ranged themselves before him. The whole assemblage tingled with suppressed excitement. The great secret with which they had been burdening themselves for the past few weeks was now to be out. Slowly Thomas extracted the manuscript from his trousers pocket, and smoothed out its many folds, while Betsy Dan waited nervously in the rear.
"Oh, why did they set Thomas to this?" whispered the minister's wife, who had a profound sense of humor. The truth was, the choice of the school had fallen upon Ranald and Margaret Aird. Margaret was quite willing to act, but Ranald refused point-blank, and privately persuaded Thomas to accept the honor in his stead. To this Thomas agreed, all the more readily that Margaret, whom he adored from a respectful distance, was to be his partner. But Margaret, who would gladly have been associated with Ranald, on the suggestion that Thomas should take his place, put up her lower lip in that symbol of scorn so effective with girls, but which no boy has ever yet accomplished, and declared that indeed, and she would see that Tom Finch far enough, which plainly meant "no." Consequently they had to fall back upon Betsy Dan, who, in addition to being excessively nervous, was extremely good-natured. And Thomas, though he would greatly have preferred Margaret as his assistant, was quite ready to accept Betsy Dan.
The interval of waiting while Thomas deliberately smoothed out the creases of the paper was exceedingly hard upon Betsy Dan, whose face grew redder each moment. Jimmie Cameron, too, who realized that the occasion was one of unusual solemnity, was gazing at Thomas with intense interest growing into amusement, and was holding his fingers in readiness to seize his nose, and so check any explosion of snickers. Just as Thomas had got the last fold of his paper straightened out, and was turning it right end up, it somehow slipped through his fingers to the floor. This was too much for Jimmie, who only saved himself from utter disgrace by promptly seizing his nose and holding on for dear life. Thomas gave Jimmie a passing glare and straightened himself up for his work. With a furious frown he cleared his throat and began in a solemn, deep-toned roar, "Dear teacher, learning with regret that you are about to sever your connection," etc., etc. All went well until he came to the words, "We beg you to accept this gift, not for its intrinsic value," etc., which was the cue for Betsy Dan. But Betsy Dan was engaged in terrorizing Jimmie, and failed to come in, till, after an awful pause, Thomas gave her a sharp nudge, and whispered audibly, "Give it to him, you gowk." Poor Betsy Dan, in sudden confusion, whipped her hand out from under her apron, and thrusting a box at the master, said hurriedly, "Here it is, sir." As Thomas solemnly concluded his address, a smile ran round the room, while Jimmie doubled himself up in his efforts to suppress a tempest of snickers.
The master, however, seemed to see nothing humorous in the situation, but bowing gravely to Thomas and Betsy Dan, he said, kindly, "Thank you, Thomas! Thank you, Elizabeth!" Something in his tone brought the school to attention, and even Jimmie forgot to have regard to his nose. For a few moments the master stood looking upon the faces of his pupils, dwelling upon them one by one, till his eyes rested upon the wee tots in the front seat, looking at him with eyes of innocent and serious wonder. Then he thanked the children for their gift in a few simple words, assuring them that he should always wear the watch with pride and grateful remembrance of the Twentieth school, and of his happy days among them.
But when he came to say his words of farewell, and to thank them for their goodness to him, and their loyal backing of him while he was their teacher, his voice grew husky, and for a moment wavered. Then, after a pause, he spoke of what had been his ideal among them. "It is a good thing to have your minds trained and stored with useful knowledge, but there are better things than that. To learn honor, truth, and right; to be manly and womanly; to be self-controlled and brave and gentle—these are better than all possible stores of learning; and if I have taught you these at all, then I have done what I most wished to do. I have often failed, and I have often been discouraged, and might have given up were it not for the help I received at my worst times from our minister and from Mrs. Murray, who often saved me from despair."
A sudden flush tinged the grave, beautiful face of the minister's young wife. A light filled her eyes as the master said these words, for she remembered days when the young man's pain was almost greater than he could bear, and when he was near to giving up.
When the master ceased, the minister spoke a few words in appreciation of the work he had done in the school, and in the whole Section, during his three years' stay among them, and expressed his conviction that many a young lad would grow into a better man because he had known Archibald Munro, and some of them would never forget what he had done for them.
By this time all the big girls and many of the visitors were openly weeping. The boys were looking straight in front of them, their faces set in an appearance of savage gloom, for they knew well how near they were to "acting like the girls."
After a short prayer by the minister, the children filed out past the master, who stood at the door and shook hands with them one by one. When the big boys, and the young men who had gone to school in the winter months, came to say good by, they shook hands silently, and then stood close about him as if hating to let him go. He had caught for them in many a close base-ball match; he had saved their goal in many a fierce shinny fight with the Front; and while he had ruled them with an iron rule, he had always treated them fairly. He had never failed them; he had never weakened; he had always been a man among them. No wonder they stood close about him and hated to lose him. Suddenly big Bob Fraser called out in a husky voice, "Three cheers for the captain!" and every one was glad of the chance to let himself out in a roar. And that was the last of the farewells.
THE NEW MASTER
Right in front of the school door, and some little distance from it, in the midst of a clump of maples, stood an old beech-tree with a dead top, and half-way down where a limb had once been and had rotted off, a hole. Inside this hole two very respectable but thoroughly impudent red squirrels had made their nest. The hole led into the dead heart of the tree, which had been hollowed out with pains so as to make a roomy, cosy home, which the squirrels had lined with fur and moss, and which was well stored with beechnuts from the tree, their winter's provisions.
Between the boys and the squirrels there existed an armed neutrality. It was understood among the boys that nothing worse than snowballs was to be used in their war with the squirrels, while with the squirrels it was a matter of honor that they should put reasonable limits to their profanity. But there were times when the relations became strained, and hence the holidays were no less welcome to the squirrels than to the boys.
To the squirrels this had been a day of unusual anxiety, for the school had taken up again after its two weeks' holidays, and the boys were a little more inquisitive than usual, and unfortunately, the snow happened to be good for packing. It had been a bad day for nerves, and Mr. Bushy, as the boys called him, found it impossible to keep his tail in one position for more than one second at a time. It was in vain that his more sedate and self-controlled partner in life remonstrated with him and urged a more philosophic mind.
"It's all very well for you, my dear," Mr. Bushy was saying, rather crossly I am afraid, "to urge a philosophic mind, but if you had the responsibility of the family upon you—Goodness gracious! Owls and weasels! What in all the woods is that?"
"Can't be the wolves," said Mrs. Bushy, placidly, "it's too early for them."
"Might have known," replied her husband, quite crossly; "of course it's those boys. I wonder why they let them out of school at all. Why can't they keep them in where it is warm? It always seems to me a very silly thing anyway, for them to keep rushing out of their hole in that stupid fashion. What they do in there I am sure I don't know. It isn't the least like a nest. I've seen inside of it. There isn't a thing to eat, nor a bit of hair or moss. They just go in and out again."
"Well, my dear," said his wife, soothingly, "you can hardly expect them to know as much as people with a wider outlook. We must remember they are only ground people."
"That's just it!" grumbled Mr. Bushy. "I only wish they would just keep to themselves and on the ground where they belong, but they have the impudence to come lumbering up here into our tree."
"Oh, well," replied his partner, calmly, "you must acknowledge they do not disturb our nest."
"And a good thing for them, too," chattered Mr. Bushy, fiercely, smoothing out his whiskers and showing his sharp front teeth, at which Mrs. Bushy smiled gently behind her tail.
"But what are they doing now?" she inquired.
"Oh, they are going off into the woods," said Mr. Bushy, who had issued from his hole and was sitting up on a convenient crotch. "And I declare!" he said, in amazed tones, "they haven't thrown one snowball at me. Something must be badly wrong with them. Wonder what it is? This is quite unprecedented."
At this Mrs. Bushy ventured carefully out to observe the extraordinary phenomenon, for the boys were actually making their way to the gate, the smaller ones with much noisy shouting, but the big boys soberly enough engaged in earnest conversation. It was their first day of the new master, and such a day as quite "flabbergastrated," as Don Cameron said, even the oldest of them. But of course Mr. and Mrs. Bushy knew nothing of this, and could only marvel.
"Murdie," cried Hughie to Don's big brother, who with Bob Fraser, Ranald Macdonald, and Thomas Finch was walking slowly toward the gate, "you won't forget to ask your pa for an excuse if you happen to be late to-morrow, will you?"
Murdie paid no attention.
"You won't forget your excuse, Murdie," continued Hughie, poking him in the back.
Murdie suddenly turned, caught him by the neck and the seat of his trousers, and threw him head first into a drift, from which he emerged wrathful and sputtering.
"Well, I hope you do," continued Hughie, "and then you'll catch it. And mind you," he went on, circling round to get in front of him, "if you want to ask big Bob there for his knife, mind you hold up your hand first." Murdie only grinned at him.
The new master had begun the day by enunciating the regulations under which the school was to be administered. They made rather a formidable list, but two of them seemed to the boys to have gone beyond the limits of all that was outrageous and absurd. There was to be no speaking during school hours, and if a boy should desire to ask a question of his neighbor, he was to hold up his hand and get permission from the master. But worse than all, and more absurd than all, was the regulation that all late comers and absentees were to bring written excuses from parents or guardians.
"Guardian," Thomas Finch had grunted, "what's that?"
"Your grandmother," whispered Don back.
It was not Don's reply that brought Thomas into disgrace this first day of the new master's rule, it was the vision of big Murdie Cameron walking up to the desk with an excuse for lateness, which he had obtained from Long John, his father. This vision breaking suddenly in upon the solemnity of Thomas Finch's mind, had sent him into a snort of laughter, not more to the surprise of the school than of himself. The gravity of the school had not been greatly helped by Thomas sheepish answer to the master's indignant question, "What did you do that for, sir?"
"I didn't; it did itself."
On the whole, the opening day had not been a success. As a matter of fact, it was almost too much to expect that it should be anything but a failure. There was a kind of settled if unspoken opinion among the children that no master could ever fill Archibald Munro's place in the school. Indeed, it was felt to be a kind of impertinence for any man to attempt such a thing. And further, there was a secret sentiment among the boys that loyalty to the old master's memory demanded an attitude of unsympathetic opposition to the one who came to take his place. It did not help the situation that the new master was unaware of this state of mind. He was buoyed up by the sentiments of enthusiastic admiration and approval that he carried with him in the testimonials from his last board of trustees in town, with which sentiments he fully agreed, and hence he greeted the pupils of the little backwoods school with an airy condescension that reduced the school to a condition of speechless and indignant astonishment. The school was prepared to tolerate the man who should presume to succeed their former master, if sufficiently humble, but certainly not to accept airy condescension from him.
"Does he think we're babies?" asked Don, indignantly.
"And did you see him trying to chop at recess?" (REE'cis, Hughie called it.) "He couldn't hit twice in the same place."
"And he asked me if that beech there was a maple," said Bob Fraser, in deep disgust.
"Oh, shut up your gab!" said Ranald, suddenly. "Give the man a chance, anyway."
"Will YOU bring an excuse when you're absent, Ranald?" asked Hughie.
"And where would I be getting it?" asked Ranald, grimly, and all the boys realized the absurdity of expecting a written excuse for Ranald's absence from his father. Macdonald Dubh was not a man to be bothered with such trifles.
"You might get it from your Aunt Kirsty, Ranald," said Don, slyly. The boys shouted at the suggestion.
"And she could do it well enough if it would be necessary," said Ranald, facing square round on Don, and throwing up his head after his manner when battle was in the air, while the red blood showed in his dark cheek and his eyes lit up with a fierce gleam. Don read the danger signal.
"I'm not saying she couldn't," he hurried to say, apologetically, "but it would be funny, wouldn't it?"
"Well," said Ranald, relenting and smiling a little, "it would be keeping her busy at times."
"When the deer are running, eh, Ranald," said Murdie, good-naturedly. "But Ranald's right, boys," he continued, "give the man a chance, say I."
"There's our bells," cried Thomas Finch, as the deep, musical boom of the Finch's sleigh-bells came through the bush. "Come on, Hughie, we'll get them at the cross." And followed by Hughie and the boys from the north, he set off for the north cross-roads, where they would meet the Finch's bob-sleighs coming empty from the saw-mill, to the great surprise and unalloyed delight of Mr. and Mrs. Bushy, who from their crotch in the old beech had watched with some anxiety the boys' unusual conduct.
"There they are, Hughie," called Thomas, as the sleighs came out into the open at the crossroads. "They'll wait for us. They know you're coming," he yelled, encouragingly, for the big boys had left the smaller ones, a panting train, far in the rear, and were piling themselves upon the Finch's sleighs, with never a "by your leave" to William John—familiarly known as Billy Jack—Thomas' eldest brother, who drove the Finch's team.
Thomas' home lay a mile north and another east from the Twentieth cross-roads, but the winter road by which they hauled saw-logs to the mill, cut right through the forest, where the deep snow packed hard into a smooth track, covering roots and logs and mud holes, and making a perfect surface for the sleighs, however heavily loaded, except where here and there the pitch-holes or cahots came. These cahots, by the way, though they became, especially toward the spring, a serious annoyance to teamsters, only added another to the delights that a sleigh-ride held for the boys.
To Hughie, the ride this evening was blissful to an unspeakable degree. He was overflowing with new sensations. He was going to spend the night with Thomas, for one thing, and Thomas as his host was quite a new and different person from the Thomas of the school. The minister's wife, ever since the examination day, had taken a deeper interest in Thomas, and determined that something should be made out of the solemn, stolid, slow-moving boy. Partly for this reason she had yielded to Hughie's eager pleading, backing up the invitation brought by Thomas himself and delivered in an agony of red-faced confusion, that Hughie should be allowed to go home with him for the night. Partly, too, because she was glad that Hughie should see something of the Finch's home, and especially of the dark-faced, dark-eyed little woman who so silently and unobtrusively, but so efficiently, administered her home, her family, and their affairs, and especially her husband, without suspicion on his part that anything of the kind was being done.
In addition to the joy that Hughie had in Thomas in his new role as host, this winter road was full of wonder and delight, as were all roads and paths that wound right through the heart of the bush. The regular made-up roads, with the forest cut back beyond the ditches at the sides, were a great weariness to Hughie, except indeed, in the springtime, when these ditches were running full with sun-lit water, over the mottled clay bottom and gravelly ripples. But the bush roads and paths, summer and winter, were filled with things of wonder and of beauty, and this particular winter road of the Finch's was best of all to Hughie, for it was quite new to him, and besides, it led right through the mysterious, big pine swamp and over the butternut ridge, beyond which lay the Finch's farm. Balsam-trees, tamarack, spruce, and cedar made up the thick underbrush of the pine swamp, white birch, white ash, and black were thickly sprinkled through it, but high above these lesser trees towered the white pines, lifting their great, tufted crests in lonely grandeur, seeming like kings among meaner men. Here and there the rabbit runways, packed into hard little paths, crossed the road and disappeared under the thick spruces and balsams; here and there, the sly, single track of the fox, or the deep hoof-mark of the deer, led off into unknown depths on either side. Hughie, sitting up on the bolster of the front bob beside Billy Jack, for even the big boys recognized his right, as Thomas' guest, to that coveted place, listened with eager face and wide-open eyes to Billy Jack's remarks upon the forest and its strange people.
One thing else added to Hughie's keen enjoyment of the ride. Billy Jack's bays were always in the finest of fettle, and pulled hard on the lines, and were rarely allowed the rapture of a gallop. But when the swamp was passed and the road came to the more open butternut ridge, Billy Jack shook the lines over their backs and let them out. Their response was superb to witness, and brought Hughie some moments of ecstatic rapture. Along the hard-packed road that wound about among the big butternuts, the rangey bays sped at a flat gallop, bounding clear over the cahots, the booming of the bells and the rattling of the chains furnishing an exhilarating accompaniment to the swift, swaying motion, while the children clung for dear life to the bob-sleighs and to each other. It was all Billy Jack could do to get his team down to a trot by the time they reached the clearing, for there the going was perilous, and besides, it was just as well that his father should not witness any signs on Billy Jack's part of the folly that he was inclined to attribute to the rising generation. So steadily enough the bays trotted up the lane and between long lines of green cordwood on one side and a hay-stack on the other, into the yard, and swinging round the big straw-stack that faced the open shed, and was flanked on the right by the cow-stable and hog-pen, and on the left by the horse-stable, came to a full stop at their own stable door.
"Thomas, you take Hughie into the house to get warm, till I unhitch," said Billy Jack, with the feeling that courtesy to the minister's son demanded this attention. But Hughie, rejecting this proposition with scorn, pushed Thomas aside and set himself to unhitch the S-hook on the outside trace of the nigh bay. It was one of Hughie's grievances, and a very sore point with him, that his father's people would insist on treating him in the privileged manner they thought proper to his father's son, and his chief ambition was to stand upon his own legs and to fare like other boys. So he scorned Billy Jack's suggestion, and while some of the children scurried about the stacks for a little romp before setting off for their homes, which some of them, for the sake of the ride, had left far behind, Hughie devoted himself to the unhitching of the team with Billy Jack. And so quick was he in his movements, and so fearless of the horses, that he had his side unhitched and was struggling with the breast-strap before Billy Jack had finished with his horse.
"Man! you're a regular farmer," said Billy Jack, admiringly, "only you're too quick for the rest of us."
Hughie, still struggling with the breast-strap, found his heart swell with pride. To be a farmer was his present dream.
"But that's too heavy for you," continued Billy Jack. "Here, let down the tongue first."
"Pshaw!" said Hughie, disgusted at his exhibition of ignorance, "I knew that tongue ought to come out first, but I forgot."
"Oh, well, it's just as good that way, but not quite so easy," said Billy Jack, with doubtful consistency.
It took Hughie but a few minutes after the tongue was let down to unfasten his end of the neck-yoke and the cross-lines, and he was beginning at his hame-strap, always a difficult buckle, when Billy Jack called out, "Hold on there! You're too quick for me. We'll make them carry their own harness into the stable. Don't believe in making a horse of myself." Billy Jack was something of a humorist.
The Finch homestead was a model of finished neatness. Order was its law. Outside, the stables, barns, stacks, the very wood-piles, evidenced that law. Within, the house and its belongings and affairs were perfect in their harmonious arrangement. The whole establishment, without and within, gave token of the unremitting care of one organizing mind, for, from dark to dark, while others might have their moments of rest and careless ease, "the little mother," as Billy Jack called her, was ever on guard, and all the machinery of house and farm moved smoothly and to purpose because of that unsleeping care. She was last to bed and first to stir, and Billy Jack declared that she used to put the cats to sleep at night, and waken up the roosters in the morning. And through it all her face remained serene, and her voice flowed in quiet tones. Billy Jack adored her with all the might of his big heart and body. Thomas, slow of motion as of expression, found in her the center of his somewhat sluggish being. Jessac, the little dark-faced maiden of nine years, whose face was the very replica of her mother's, knew nothing in the world dearer, albeit in her daily little housewifely tasks she felt the gentle pressure of that steadfast mind and unyielding purpose. Her husband regarded her with a curious mingling of reverence and defiance, for Donald Finch was an obstinate man, with a man's love of authority, and a Scotchman's sense of his right to rule in his own house. But while he talked much about his authority, and made a great show of absolutism with his family, he was secretly conscious that another will than his had really kept things moving about the farm; for he had long ago learned that his wife was always right, while he might often be wrong, and that, withal her soft words and gentle ways, hers was a will like steel.
Besides the law of order, another law ruled in the Finch household—the law of work. The days were filled with work, for they each had their share to do, and bore the sole responsibility for its being well done. If the cows failed in their milk, or the fat cattle were not up to the mark, the father felt the reproach as his; to Billy Jack fell the care and handling of the horses; Thomas took charge of the pigs, and the getting of wood and water for the house; little Jessac had her daily task of "sorting the rooms," and when the days were too stormy or the snow too deep for school, she had in addition her stent of knitting or of winding the yarn for the weaver. To the mother fell all the rest. At the cooking and the cleaning, and the making and the mending, all fine arts with her, she diligently toiled from long before dawn till after all the rest were abed. But besides these and other daily household duties there were, in their various seasons, the jam and jelly, the pumpkin and squash preserves, the butter-making and cheese-making, and more than all, the long, long work with the wool. Billy Jack used to say that the little mother followed that wool from the backs of her sheep to the backs of her family, and hated to let the weaver have his turn at it. What with the washing and the oiling of it, the carding and the spinning, the twisting and the winding, she never seemed to be done. And then, when it came back from the weaver in great webs of fulled-cloth and flannel and winsey, there was all the cutting, shaping, and sewing before the family could get it on their backs. True, the tailor was called in to help, but though he declared he worked no place else as he worked at the Finch's, it was Billy Jack's openly expressed opinion that "he worked his jaw more than his needle, for at meal-times he gave his needle a rest."