A New Home: Who'll Follow
Life in the Clearings
First published in 1839
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The Schoolmaster's Dilemma
I have departed from all rule and precedent in these wandering sketches of mine. I believe I set out, a great many pages ago, to tell of the interesting changes, the progressive improvements in this model of a village of ours. My intention, as far as I had any, was to convey to the patient reader some general idea of our way of life in these remote and forgotten corners of creation. But I think I have discovered that the bent of my genius is altogether towards digression. Association leads me like a Will-o-the-wisp. I can no more resist following a new train of thought, than a coquette the encouraging of a new lover, at the expense of all the old ones, though often equally conscious that the old are most valuable. This attempt to write one long coherent letter about Montacute, has at least been useful in convincing me that History is not my forte. I give up the attempt in despair, and lower my ambition to the collection of scattered materials for the use of the future compiler of Montacutian annals.
Yet is seems strange, even to my desultory self, how I could have passed in silence the establishment of a weekly mail, that sweetener of our long delicious winter evenings—that rich atonement for all that we lack of fresh scandal and new news. Since this treasure was ours, I have learned to pity most sincerely those who get their letters and papers at all sorts of unexpected and irregular times; a shower of scattering fire, feeble and ineffectual—a dropping in at all hours seasonable and unseasonable, like some classes of visitors; coming often when one's mood is anything but congenial; and sure to stay away when one longs for company—gay ones intruding when we had determined to be blue and miserable, and sad ones casting their long shadows on our few sunny hours.
But a weekly mail! a budget that one waits and gets ready for; a regularly-recurring delight, an unfailing pleasure, (how few such have we!) hours, nay days, of delicious anticipation—sure harvest of past care and toil, an inundation of happiness! Let no one think he has exhausted all the sources of enjoyment till he has lived in the back-woods and learned to expect a weekly mail with its lap-full of letters and its tumultuous papers; a feast enjoyed by anticipation for a whole week previous, and affording ample materials for resumées for that which succeeds.
This pleasure has become so sacred in my eyes, that nothing vexes me so intolerably as seeing our lanky mail-bags dangling over the bony sides of Major Bean's lame Canadian, and bestridden and over-shadowed by the portly form of the one-eyed Major himself, trotting or rather hobbling down Main-street on some intermediate and unpremeditated day. Men of business are so disagreeable and inconsiderate! To think of anybody's sending fourteen interminable miles over bush and bog to B_____, up hill both ways, as everyone knows, just to learn the price of flour or salt three days sooner, and thereby spoiling the rest of the week, leaving an obv
jectless blank where was before a delicious chaos of hopes; substituting dull certainty for the exquisite flutterings of that sort of doubt which leaves us after all quite sure of a happy result. I have often thought I would not open up the treasures which reached me in this unauthorized, over-the-wall sort of way. I have declared that I would not have Saturday morning spoiled and the next week made ten days long. But this proper and becoming spirit has never proved quite strong enough to bear me through so keen a trial of all feminine qualities. One must be more or less than woman to endure the sight of unopened letters, longer than it takes to find the scissors. I doubt whether Griselidis herself would not have blenched at such a requisition, especially if she had been transplanted to the wilderness, and left behind hosts of friends, as well as many other very comfortable things.
Another subject of the last interest which I have as yet wholly neglected, is the new school-house, a gigantic step in the march of improvement. This, in truth, I should have mentioned long ago, if I could have found anything to say about it. It has caused an infinity of feuds, made mortal enemies of two brothers, and separated at least one pair of partners. But the subject has been exhausted, worn to shreds in my hearing; and whenever I have thought of searching for an end of the tangled clue, in order to open its mazes for the benefit of all future school-committees and their constituency, I have felt that every possible view of the case has been appropriated, and therefore must be borrowed or stolen for the occasion. I might indeed have given a description of the building as it now smiles upon me from the opposite side of the public square.
But the reader may imagine St. Paul's, St. Peter's, the Parthenon, the mosque of St. Sophia, or any edifice of that character, and then think of the Montacute school-house as something inexpressibly different, and he will have as good an idea of it as I could give him in half a page. I think it resembles the Temple of the Winds more nearly than any other ancient structure I have read of; at least, I have often thought so in cold weather, when I have beguiled the hours of a long sermon by peeping through the cracks at the drifting snow; but it is built of unplaned oak-boards, and has no under-pinning; and the stove-pipe sticking out of one window, looks rather modern; so the likeness might not strike everybody.
The school-ma'am, Miss Cleora Jenkins, I have elsewhere introduced to the reader. From April till October, she sways "the rod of empire;" and truly may it be said, "there through the summer day green boughs are waving," though I believe she picks the leaves off, as tending to defeat the ends of justice. Even the noon-spell shines no holiday for the luckless subjects of her domination, for she carries her bread and pickles rolled up in her pocket-handkerchief, and lunches where she rules, reading the while "The Children of the Abbey,"—which took her all summer,—and making one of the large girls comb her hair by the hour.
During the snowy, blowy, wheezy, and freezy months, the chair has been taken—not filled—by Mr. Cyrus Whicher—not Switcher,—a dignitary who had "boarded round" til there was very little of him left. I have been told, that he was of a portly and rather stolid exterior; had good teeth and flowing locks; but he was, when I knew him, a mere cuticle—a "skellinton," as Mr. Weller would say—shaped like a starved grey-hound in the collapsed stage, his very eyes faded to the color of the skim-milk which had doubtless constituted his richest potation, since he obtained the empty honors of a district school.
When he came under my care, in the course of his unhappy gyrations, I did my best to fatten him; and to do him justice, his efforts were not lacking: but one cannot make much progress in one week, even in cramming a turkey poult, and he went as ethereal as he came.
One additional reason for his "lean and hungry" looks I thought I discovered in his gnawing curiosity of soul—I suppose it would be more polite to say, his burning thirst for knowledge. When he first glided into my one only parlor, I asked him to sit down, expecting to hear his bones rattle as he did so. To my astonishment he noticed not my civility, but, gazing on the wall as who should say—"look you, how pale he glares!" he stood as one transfixed.
At length—"Whose profile is that?" he exclaimed, pointing to a portrait of my dear, cheerful-looking grand-mamma—a half-length, by Waldo.
I told him all about it, as I thought, but left room for a dozen questions at least, as to her relationship—whether by father or mother's side—her age when the picture was taken, &c., &c., &c.; and Mr. Whicher's concluding remark, as he doubled up to sit down, was—
"Well! she's a dreadful sober-lookin' old critter, ain't she now!" But ere he touched the chair, he opened again like a folded rule out of a case of instruments, and stood erect save head and shoulders.
"Is that a pi-anner?" he asked with a sort of chuckle of delight. "Well! I heard you had one, but I din't hardly believe it. And what's this thing?" twirling the music-stool with all his might, and getting down on his poor knees to look underneath both these curiosities.
"Jist play on it, will you?"
"Dinner is ready, Mr. Whicher: I will play afterwards."
He balanced for one moment between inanition and curiosity; then, "with his head over his shoulder turn'd," he concluded to defer pleaure to business. He finished his meal by the time others had fairly begun; and then, throwing himself back in his chair, said, "I'm ready whenever you be."
I could not do less than make all possible speed, and Mr. Whicher sat entranced until he was late for school: not so much listening to the tinkling magic, as prying into the nature and construction of the instrument, which he thought must have taken "a good bunch o' cypherin'."
That week's sojourn added a good deal to the schoolmaster's stores of knowledge. He scraped a little of the crystallized green off my inkstand to find out how it was put on; pulled up a corner of the parlor-carpet, to see whether it was "wove like a bed-spread;" whether it was "over-shot or under-shot;" and not content with ascertaining by personal inspection the construction of every article which was new to him, he pumped dry every member of the household, as to their past mode of life, future prospects, opinion of the country, religious views, and thoughts on every imaginable subject. I began to feel croupish before he left us, from having talked myself quite out.
One of his habits struck me as rather peculiar. He never saw a letter or a sealed paper of any kind that he did not deliberately try every possible method, by peeping, squeezing, and poking, to get at its contents. I at first set this down as something which denoted a more than usually mean and dishonest curiosity; but after I had seen the same operation performed in my presence without the least hesitation or apology, by a reverend gentleman of high reputation, I concluded that the poor schoolmaster had at least some excuse for his ill-breeding.
Mr. Whicher had his own troubles last winter. A scholar of very equivocal, or rather unequivocal character, claimed admission to the school, and, of all concerned, not one had courage or firmness to object to her reception. She was the daughter of a fierce, quarrelsome man, who had already injured, either by personal abuse, or by vexatious litigation, half the people in the place; and though all detested her, and dreaded contamination for their daughters, not a voice was raised—not a girl removed from the school. This cowardly submission to open and public wrong seems hardly credible; but I have observed it in many other instances, and it has, in most cases, appeared to arise from a distrust in the protecting power of the law, which has certainly been hitherto most imperfectly and irregularly administered in Michigan. People suppress their just indignation at many abuses, from a fear that they may "get into trouble;" i.e. be haled before an ignorant justice of the peace, who will be quite as likely to favor the wrong as the right, as interest or prejudice may chance to incline him. Thus a bad man, if he have only the requisite boldness, may trample on the feelings, and disturb the peace of a whole community.
When Hannah Parsons applied for admission to the district school, Mr. Whicher made such objections as he dared in his timidity. He thought she was too old—her mother said she was not nineteen, though she had a son of two years and upwards. And she did not wish to study anything but arithmetic and writing; so that there could be no objection as to classes. And the wretched girl forced herself into the ranks of the young and innocent, for what purpose or end I never could divine.
From this hour the unfortunate Whicher was her victim. She began by showing him the most deferential attention, watching his looks, and asking his aid in the most trivial matters; wanting her pen mended twenty times in the course of one copy, and insisting upon the schoolmaster's showing her again and again exactly how it should be held. She never went to school without carrying a tribute of some sort, a custard, or an apple,—apples are something with us,—or geranium leaf at least. Now these offerings are so common among school-children, that the wretched master, though writhing with disgust, knew not how to refuse them, and his life wore away under the anguish inflicted by his tormentor.
At length it was whispered that Hannah Parsons would again bring to the eye of day a living evidence of her shame; and the unfortunate schoolmaster saw himself the victim of a conspiracy.
It needed but this to complete his distraction. He fled in imbecile despair; and after the wonder had died away, and the scandal had settled on the right head, we heard no word of the innocent pedagogue for a long time. But after that came news, that Cyrus Whicher, in the wretchedness of his poverty, had joined a gang of idlers and desperadoes, who had made a vow against honest industry; and it is not now very long since we learned that he had the honor of being hanged in Toronto as a "Patriot."
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