by Eugene Wood
THE SAINTED MEMORY
OF HER WHOM, IN THE DAYS BACK HOME, I KNEW AS “MY MA MAG”
AND WHO WAS MORE TO ME THAN I CAN TELL, EVEN IF MY TARDY WORDS COULD REACH HER
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED
“That she who is an angel now
Might sometimes think of me”
THE OLD RED SCHOOL-HOUSE
THE REVOLVING YEAR
THE FIREMEN’S TOURNAMENT
THE DEVOURING ELEMENT
THE COUNTY FAIR
CHRISTMAS BACK HOME
GENTLE READER: – Let me make you acquainted with my book, “Back Home.” (Your right hand, Book, your right hand. Pity’s sakes! How many times have I got to tell you that? Chest up and forward, shoulders back and down, and turn your toes out more.)
It is a little book, Gentle Reader, but please don’t let that prejudice you against it. The General Public, I know, likes to feel heft in its hand when it buys a book, but I had hoped that you were a peg or two above the General Public. That mythical being goes on a reading spree about every so often, and it selects a book which will probably last out the craving, a book which “it will be impossible to lay down, after it is once begun, until it is finished.” (I quote from the standard book notice). A few hours later the following dialogue ensues:
“Aren’t you ‘most done reading?”
“Just as soon as I finish this chapter.” A sigh and a long wait.
“Did you lock the side-door?” No answer.
“Henry! Did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Did you lock the side-door?”
“In a minute now.”
“Yes, but did you?”
“M-hm. I guess so.”
“‘Guess so!’ Did you lock that side-door? They got in at Hilliard’s night before last and stole a bag of clothes-pins.”
“Oh, put down that book, and go and lock the side-door. I’ll not get a wink of sleep this blessed night unless you do.”
“In a minute now. Just wait till I finish this . . . “
“Go do it now.”
Mr. General Public has a card on his desk that says, “Do it Now,” and so he lays down his book with a patient sigh, and comes back to it with a patent grouch.
“Oh, so it is,” says the voice from the bedroom. “I remember now, I locked it myself when I put the milk-bottles out . . . . I’m going to stop taking of that man unless there’s more cream on the top than there has been here lately.”
“Oh, what is it?”
“Aren’t you ‘most done reading?”
“In a minute, just as soon as I finish this chapter.”
“How long is that chapter, for mercy’s sakes?”
“I began another.”
“Aren’t you coming to bed pretty soon? You know I can’t go to sleep when you are sitting up.”
“Oh, hush up for one minute, can’t ye? It’s a funny thing if I can’t read a little once in a while.”
“It’s a funny thing if I’ve got to be broke of my rest this way. As much as I have to look after. I’d hate to be so selfish . . . . Henry! Won’t you please put the book down and come to bed?”
“Oh, for goodness sake! Turn over and go to sleep. You make me tired.”
Every two or three hours Mrs. General Public wakes up and announces that she can’t get a wink of sleep, not a wink; she wishes he hadn’t brought the plagued old book home; he hasn’t the least bit of consideration for her; please, please, won’t he put the book away and come to bed?
He reaches “THE END” at 2:30A.M., turns off the gas, and creeps into bed, his stomach all upset from smoking so much without eating anything, his eyes feeling like two burnt holes in a blanket, and wishing that he had the sense he was born with. He’ll have to be up at 6:05, and he knows how he will feel. He also knows how he will feel along about three o’clock in the afternoon. Smithers is coming then to close up that deal. Smithers is as sharp as tacks, as slippery as an eel, and as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. Always looking for the best of it. You need all your wits when you deal with Smithers. Why didn’t he take Mrs. General Public’s advice, and get to bed instead of sitting up fuddling himself with that fool love-story?
That’s how a book should be to be a great popular success, and one that all the typewriter girls will have on their desks. I am guiltily conscious that “Back Home” is not up to standard either in avoirdupois heft or the power to unfit a man for business.
Here’s a book. Is it long? No. Is it exciting? No. Any lost diamonds in it? Nup. Mysterious murders? No. Whopping big fortune, now teetering this way, and now teetering that, tipping over on the Hero at the last and smothering him in an avalanche of fifty-dollar bills? No. Does She get Him? Isn’t even that. No “heart interest” at all. What’s the use of putting out good money to make such a book; to have a cover design for it; to get a man like A. B. Frost to draw illustrations for it, when he costs so like the mischief, when there’s nothing in the book to make a man sit up till ‘way past bedtime? Why print it at all?
You may search me. I suppose it’s all right, but if it was my money, I’ll bet I could make a better investment of it. If worst came to worst, I could do like the fellow in the story who went to the gambling-house and found it closed up, so he shoved the money under the door and went away. He’d done his part.
And yet, on the other hand, I can see how some sort of a case can be made out for this book of mine. I suppose I am wrong – I generally am in regard to everything – but it seems to me that quite a large part of the population of this country must be grown-up people. If I am right in this contention, then this large part of the population is being unjustly discriminated against. I believe in doing a reasonable amount for the aid and comfort of the young things that are just beginning to turn their hair up under, or who rub a stealthy forefinger over their upper lips to feel the pleasant rasp, but I don’t believe in their monopolizing everything. I don’t think it ‘s fair. All the books printed – except, of course, those containing valuable information; we don’t buy those books, but go to the public library for them – all the books printed are concerned with the problem of How She can get Him, and He can get Her.
Well, now. It was either yesterday morning or the day before that you looked in the glass and beheld there The First Gray Hair. You smiled a smile that was not all pure pleasure, a smile that petered out into a sigh, but nevertheless a smile, I will contend. What do you think about it? You’re still on earth, aren’t you? You’ll last the month out, anyhow, won’t you? Not at all ready to be laid on the shelf? What do you think of the relative importance of Love, Courtship, and Marriage? One or two other things in life just about as interesting, aren’t there? Take getting a living, for instance. That ‘s worthy of one’s attention, to a certain extent. When our young ones ask us: “Pop, what did you say to Mom when you courted her?” they feel provoked at us for taking it so lightly and so frivolously. It vexes them for us to reply: “Law, child! I don’t remember. Why, I says to her: ‘Will you have me?” And she says: ‘Why, yes, and jump at the chance.'” What difference does it make what we said, or whether we said anything at all? Why should we charge our memories with the recollections of those few and foolish months of mere instinctive sex-attraction when all that really counts came after, the years wherein low passion blossomed into lofty Love, the dear companionship in joy and sorrow, and in that which is more, far more than either joy or sorrow, “the daily round, the common task?” All that is wonderful to think of in our courtship is the marvel, for which we should never cease to thank the Almighty God, that with so little judgment at our disposal we should have chosen so wisely.
If you, Gentle Reader, found your first gray hair day before yesterday morning, if you can remember, ‘way, ‘way back ten or fifteen years ago . . . er . . . er . . . or more, come with me. Let us go “Back Home.” Here’s your transportation, all made out to you, and in your hand. It is no use my reminding you that no railroad goes to the old home place. It isn’t there any more, even in outward seeming. Cummins’s woods, where you had your robbers’ cave, is all cleared off and cut up into building lots. The cool and echoing covered bridge, plastered with notices of dead and forgotten Strawberry Festivals and Public Vendues, has long ago been torn down to be replaced by a smart, red iron bridge. The Volunteer Firemen’s Engine-house, whose brick wall used to flutter with the gay rags of circus-bills, is gone as if it never were at all. Where the Union Schoolhouse was is all torn up now. They are putting up a new magnificent structure, with all the modern improvements, exposed plumbing, and spankless discipline. The quiet leafy streets echo to the hissing snarl of trolley cars, and the power-house is right by the Old Swimming-hole above the dam. The meeting-house, where we attended Sabbath-school, and marveled at the Greek temple frescoed on the wall behind the pulpit, is now a church with a big organ, and stained-glass windows, and folding opera-chairs on a slanting floor. There isn’t any “Amen Corner,” any more, and in these calm and well-bred times nobody ever gets “shouting happy.”
But even when “the loved spots that our infancy knew” are physically the same, a change has come upon them more saddening than words can tell. They have shrunken and grown shabbier. They are not nearly so spacious and so splendid as once they were.
Some one comes up to you and calls you by your name. His voice echoes in the chambers of your memory. You hold his hand in yours and try to peer through the false-face he has on, the mask of a beard or spectacles, or a changed expression of the countenance. He says he is So-and-so. Why, he used to sit with you in Miss Crutcher’s room, don’t you remember? There was a time when you and he walked together, your arms upon each other’s shoulders. But this is some other one than he. The boy you knew had freckles, and could spit between his teeth, ever and ever so far.
They don’t have the same things to eat they used to have, or, if they do, it all tastes different. Do you remember the old well, with the windlass and the chain fastened to the rope just above the bucket, the chain that used to cluck-cluck when the dripping bucket came within reach to be swung upon the well-curb? How cold the water used to be, right out of the northwest corner of the well! It made the roof of your mouth ache when you drank. Everybody said it was such splendid water. It isn’t so very cold these days, and I think it has a sort of funny taste to it.
Ah, Gentle Reader, this is not really “Back Home” we gaze upon when we go there by the train. It is a last year’s bird’s nest. The nest is there; the birds are flown, the birds of youth, and noisy health, and ravenous appetite, and inexperience. You cannot go “Back Home” by train, but here is the magic wishing-carpet, and here is your transportation in your hand all made out to you. You and I will make the journey together. Let us in heart and mind thither ascend.
I went to the Old Red School-house with you. Don’t you remember me? I was learning to swim when you could go clear across the river without once “letting down.” I saw you at the County Fair, and bought a slab of ice-cream candy just before you did. I was in the infant-class in Sabbath-school when you spoke in the dialogue at the monthly concert. Look again. Don’t you remember me? I used to stub my toe so; you ought to recollect me by that. I know plenty of people that you know. I may not always get their names just right, but then it’s been a good while ago. You Il recognize them, though; you’ll know them in a minute.
THE OLD RED SCHOOL-HOUSE
Oh, the little old red school-house on the hill, (2d bass: On the hill.)
Oh, the little old red school-house on the hill, (2d bass: On the hi-hi-hi-yull)
And my heart with joy o’erflows, Like the dew-drop in the rose,*
Thinking of the old red SCHOOL-HOUSE I o-o-on the hill, (2d tenor and 1st bass: The hill, the hill.)
THE MALE QUARTET’S COMPENDIUM.
* I call your attention to the chaste beauty of this line, and the imperative necessity of the chord of the diminished seventh for the word “rose.” Also “school-house” in the last line must be very loud and staccato. Snap it off.
If the audience will kindly come forward and occupy the vacant seats in the front of the hall, the entertainment will now begin. The male quartet will first render an appropriate selection and then . . . . Can’t you see them from where you are? Let me assist you in the visualization.
The first tenor, the gentleman on the extreme left, is a stocky little man, with a large chest and short legs conspicuously curving inward. He has plenty of white teeth, ash-blonde hair, and goes smooth-shaven for purely personal reasons. His round, dough-colored face will never look older (from a distance) than it did when he was nine. The flight of years adds only deeper creases in the multitude of fine wrinkles, and increasing difficulty in hoisting his tiny, patent-leather foot up on his plump knee.
The second tenor leans toward him in a way to make another man anxious about his watch, but the second tenor is as honest as the day. He is only “blending the voices.” He works in the bank. He is going to be married in June sometime. Don’t look around right away, but she’s the one in the pink shirt-waist, the second one from the aisle, the one . . . two . . . three . . . the sixth row back. See her? Say, they’ve got it bad, those two. What d’ ye think? She goes down by the bank every day at noon, so as to walk up with him to luncheon. She lives across the street, and as soon as ever she has finished her luncheon, there she is, out on the front porch hallooing: “Oo-hoo!” How about that? And if he so much as looks at another girl – m-M!
The first bass is one of these fellows with a flutter in his voice. No, I don’t mean a vibrato. It’s a flutter, like a goat’s tail. It is considered real operatic.
The second bass has a great, big Adam’s apple that slides up and down his throat like a toy-monkey on a stick. He is tall, and has eyebrows like clothes-brushes, and he scowls fit to make you run and hide under the bed. He is really a good-hearted fellow, though. Pity he has the dyspepsia so bad. Oh, my, yes! Suffers everything with it, poor man. He generally sings that song about “Drink-ing! DRINK-ang! Drink-awng!” though he’s strictly temperate himself. When he takes that last low note, you hold on to your chair for fear you’ll fall in too.
But why bring in the male quartet?
Because “The Little Old Red School-house” is more than a mere collocation of words, accurately descriptive. It is what Mat King would call a “symblem,” and as such requires the music’s dying fall to lull and enervate a too meticulous and stringent tendency to recollect that it wasn’t little, or old, or red, or on a hill. It might have been big and new, and built of yellow brick, right next to the Second Presbyterian, and hence close to the “branch,” so that the spring freshets flooded the playground, and the water lapped the base of the big rock on which we played “King on the Castle,” – the big rock so pitifully dwindled of late years. No matter what he facts are. Sing ‘of “The Little Old Red Schoolhouse On the Hill” and in everybody’s heart a chord trembles in unison. As we hear its witching strains, we are all lodge brethren, from Maine to California and far across the Western Sea; we are all lodge brethren, and the air is “Auld Lang Syne,” and we are clasping hands across, knitted together into one living solidarity; and this, if we but sensed it, is the real Union, of which the federal compact is but the outward seeming. It is a Union in which they have neither art nor part whose parents sent them to private schools, so as not to have them associate with “that class of people.” It is the true democracy which batters down the walls that separate us from each other – the walls of caste distinction, and color prejudice, and national hatred, and religious contempt, all the petty, anti-social meannesses that quarrel with
“The Union of hearts, the Union of hands, And the flag of our Union forever.”
Old Glory has floated victoriously on many a gallant fight by sea and land, but never do its silver stars glitter more bravely or its blood-red stripes curve more proudly on the fawning breeze than when it floats above the school-house, over the daily battle against ignorance and prejudice (which is ignorance of our fellows), for freedom and for equal rights. It is no mere pretty sentimentality that puts the flag there, but the serious recognition of the bed-rock principle of our Union: That we are all of one blood, one bounden duty; that all these anti-social prejudices are just as shameful as illiteracy, and that they must disappear as soon as ever we shall come to know each other well. Knowledge is power. That is true. And it is also true: A house divided against itself cannot stand.
“The Flag of our Union forever!” is our prayer, our heart’s desire for us and for our children after us. Heroes have died to give us that, heroes that with glazing eyes beheld the tattered ensign and spent their latest breath to cheer it as it passed on to triumph. “We who are about to die salute thee!” The heart swells to think of it. But it swells, too, to think that, day by day, thousands upon thousands of little children stretch out their hands toward that Flag and pledge allegiance to it. “We who are about to LIVE salute thee!”
It is no mere chance affair that all our federal buildings should be so ugly and so begrudged, and that our school-houses should be so beautiful architecturally – the one nearest my house is built from plans that took the first prize at the Paris Exposition, in competition with the whole world – so well-appointed, and so far from being grudged that the complaint is, that there are not enough of them.
That So-and-so should be the President, and such-and-such a party have control is but a game we play at, amateurs and professionals; the serious business is, that in this country no child, how poor soever it may be, shall have the slightest let or hindrance in the equal chance with every other child to learn to read, and write, and cipher, and do raffia-work.
It is a new thing with us to have splendid school-houses. After all, the norm, as you might say, is still “The Old Red School-house.” You must recollect how hard the struggle is for the poor farmer, with wheat only a dollar a bushel, and eggs only six for a quarter; with every year or so taxes of three and sometimes four dollars on an eighty-acre farm grinding him to earth. It were folly to expect more in rural districts than a tight box, with benches and a stove in it. Never-the-less, it is the thing signified more than its outward seeming that catches and holds the eye upon the country school-house as you drive past it. You count yourself fortunate if, mingled with the creaking of the buggy-springs, you hear the hum of recitation; yet more fortunate if it is recess time, and you can see the children out at play, the little girls holding to one another’s dress-tails as they solemnly circle to the chant:
“H-yar way gow rand tha malbarry bosh, Tha malbarry bosh, tha malbarry bosh, H-yar way gow rand tha malbarry bosh
On a cay-um and frasty marneng.”
The boys are at marbles, if it is muddy enough, or one-old-cat, or pom-pom-peel-away, with the normal percentage of them in reboant tears – that is to say, one in three.
But even this is not the moment of illumination, when it comes upon you like a flood how glorious is the land we live in, upon what sure and certain footing are its institutions, when we know by spiritual insight that whatsoever be the trial that awaits us, the people of these United States, we shall be able for it! Yes. We shall be able for it.
If you would learn the secret of our nation’s greatness, take your stand some winter’s morning just before nine o’clock, where you can overlook a circle of some two or three miles’ radius, the center being the Old Red School-house. You will see little figures picking their way along the miry roads, or ploughing through the deep drifts, cutting across the fields, all drawing to the school-house, Bub in his wammus and his cowhide boots, his cap with ear-laps, a knitted comforter about his neck, and his hands glowing in scarlet mittens; and little Sis, in a thick shawl, trudging along behind him, stepping in his tracks. They chirrup, “Good-morning, sir!” As far as you can see them you have to watch them, and something rises in your throat. Lord love ’em! Lord love the children!
And then it comes to you, and it makes you catch your breath to think of it, that every two or three miles all over this land, wherever there are children at all, there is the Old Red Schoolhouse. At this very hour a living tide, upbearing the hopes and prayers of God alone knows how many loving hearts, the tide on which all of our longed-for ships are to come in, is setting to the school-house. Oh, what is martial glory, what is conquest of an empire, what is state-craft alongside of this? Happy is the people that is in such a case!
The city schools are now the pattern for the country schools: but in my day, although a little they were pouring the new wine of frothing educational reform into the old bottles, they had not quite attained the full distention of this present. We still had some kind of a good time, but nothing like the good times they had out at the school near grandpap’s, where I sometimes visited. There you could whisper! Yes, sir, you could whisper. So long as you didn’t talk out loud, it was all right. And there was no rising at the tap of the bell, forming in line and walking in lock-step. Seemingly it never entered the school-board’s heads that anybody would ever be sent to state’s prison. They left the scholars unprepared for any such career. They have remedied all that in city schools. Now, when a boy grows up and goes to Sing Sing, he knows exactly what to do and how to behave. It all comes back to him.
But what I call the finest part of going to school in the country was, that you didn’t go home to dinner. Grandma had a boy only a few years older than I was, and when I went a-visiting, she fixed us up a “piece.” They call it “luncheon” now, I think – a foolish, hybrid mongrel of a word, made up of “lump,” a piece of bread, and “noon,” and “shenk,” a pouring or drink. But the right name is “piece.” What made this particular “piece” taste so wonderfully good was that it was in a round-bottomed basket woven of splints dyed blue, and black and red, and all in such a funny pattern. It was an Indian basket. My grandma’s mother, when she was a little girl, got that from the squaw of old Chief Wiping-Stick.
The “piece” had bread-and-butter (my grandma used to let me churn for her sometimes, when I went out there), and some of the slices had apple-butter on them. (One time she let me stir the cider, when it was boiling down in the big kettle over the chunk-fire out in the yard. The smoke got in my eyes.) Sometimes there was honey from the hives over by the gooseberry bushes – the gooseberries had stickers on them – and we had slices of cold, fried ham. (I was out at grandpap’s one time when they butchered. They had a chunk-fire then, too, to heat the water to scald the hogs. And say! Did your grandma ever roast pig’s tails in the ashes for you?) And there were crullers. No, I don’t mean “doughnuts.” I mean crullers, all twisted up. They go good with cider. (Sometimes my grandma cut out thin, pallid little men of cruller dough, and dropped them into the hot lard for my Uncle Jimmy and me. And when she fished them out, they were all swelled up and “pussy,” and golden brown.
And there was pie. Neither at the school nooning nor at the table did one put a piece of pie upon a plate and haggle at it with a fork. You took the piece of pie up in your hand and pointed the sharp end toward you, and gently crowded it into your face. It didn’t require much pressure either.
And there were always apples, real apples. I think they must make apples in factories nowadays. They taste like it. These were real ones, picked off the trees. Out at grandpap’s they had bellflowers, and winesaps, and seek-no-furthers, and, I think, sheep-noses, and one kind of apple that I can’t find any more, though I have sought it carefully. It was the finest apple I ever set a tooth in. It was the juiciest and the spiciest apple. It had sort of a rollicking flavor to it, if you know what I mean. It certainly was the ne plus ultra of an apple. And the name of it was the rambo. Dear me, how good it was! think I’d sooner have one right now than great riches. And all these apples they kept in the apple-hole. You went out and uncovered the earth and there they were, all in a big nest of straw; and such a gush of perfume distilled from that pile of them that just to recollect it makes my mouth all wet.
They had a big red apple in those days that I forget the name of. Oh, it was a whopper! You’d nibble at it and nibble at it before you could get a purchase on it. Then, after you got your teeth in, you’d pull and pull, and all of a sudden the apple would go “tock!” and your head would fly back from the recoil, and you had a bite about the size of your hand. You “chomped” on it, with your cheek all bulged out, and blame near drowned yourself with the juice of it.
Noon-time the girls used to count the seeds:
“One I love, two I love, three my love I see; Four I love with all my heart, and five I cast away. Six he loves; seven she loves; eight . . . eight . . . “
I forget what eight is, and all that follows after. And then the others would tease her with, “Aw, Jennie!” knowing who it was she had named the apple for, Wes. Rinehart, or ‘Lonzo Curl, or whoever. And you’d be standing there by the stove, kind of grinning and not thinking of anything in particular when somebody would hit you a clout on your back that just about broke you in two, and would tell you “to pass it on,” and you’d pass it on, and the next thing was you’d think the house was coming down. Such a chasing around and over benches, and upsetting the water-bucket, and tearing up Jack generally that teacher would say, “Boys! boys! If you can’t play quietly, you’ll have to go out of doors!” Play quietly! Why, the idea! What kind of play is it when you are right still?
Outdoors in the country, you can whoop and holler, and carry on, and nobody complains to the board of health. And there are so many things you can do. If there is just the least little fall of snow you can make a big wheel, with spokes in it, by your tracking. I remember that it was called “fox and geese,” but that’s all I can remember about it. If there was a little more snow you tried to wash the girls’ faces in it, and sometimes got yours washed. If there was a good deal of wet snow you had a snowball fight, which is great fun, unless you get one right smack dab in your ear – oh, but I can’t begin to tell you all the fun there is at the noon hour in the country school, that the town children don’t know anything about. And when it was time for school to “take up,” there wasn’t any forming in line, with a monitor to run tell teacher who snatched off Joseph Humphreys’ cap and flung it far away, so he had to get out of the line, and who did this, and who did that – no penitentiary business at all. Teacher tapped on the window with a ruler, and the boys and girls came in, red-faced and puffing, careering through the aisles, knocking things off the desks with many a burlesque, “oh, exCUSE me!” and falling into their seats, bursting into sniggers, they didn’t know what at. They had an hour and a half nooning. Counting that it took five minutes to shovel down even grandma’s beautiful “piece,” that left an hour and twenty-five minutes for roaring, romping play. If you want to know, I think that is fully as educational and a far better preparation for life than sitting still with your nose stuck in a book.
In the city schools they don’t think so. Even the stingy fifteen minutes’ recess, morning and afternoon, has been stolen from the children. Instead is given the inspiriting physical culture, all making silly motions together in a nice, warm room, full of second-hand air. Is it any wonder that one in every three that die between fifteen and twenty-five, dies of consumption?
You must have noticed that almost everybody that amounts to anything spent his early life in the country. The city schools have great educational advantages; they have all the up-to-date methods, but the output of the Old Red Schoolhouse compares very favorably with that of the city schools for all that. The two-mile walk, morning and evening, had something to do with it, not only because it and the long nooning were good exercise, but because it impressed upon the mind that what cost so much effort to get must surely be worth having. But I think I know another reason.
If the city child goes through the arithmetic once, it is as much as ever. In the Old Red School-house those who hadn’t gone through the arithmetic at least six times, were little thought of. In town, the last subject in the book was “Permutation,” to which you gave the mere look its essentially frivolous nature deserved. It was: “End of the line. All out!” But in the country a very important department followed. It was called “Problems.” They were twisters, able to make “How old is Ann?” look like a last year’s bird’s nest. They make a big fuss about the psychology of the child’s mind nowadays. Well, I tell you they couldn’t teach the man that got up that arithmetic a thing about the operation of the child’s mind. He knew what was what. He didn’t put down the answers. He knew that if he did, weak, erring human nature, tortured by suspense, determined to have the agony over, would multiply by four and divide by thirteen, and subtract 127 – didn’t, either. I didn’t say “substract.” I guess I know they’d get the answer somehow, it didn’t matter much how.
In the country they ciphered through this part, and handed in their sums to Teacher, who said she’d take ’em home and look ’em over; she didn’t have time just then. As if that fooled anybody! She had a key! And when you had done the very last one on the very last page, and there wasn’t anything more except the blank pages, where you had written, “Joe Geiger loves Molly Meyers, “and,” If my name you wish to see, look on page 103,” and all such stuff, then you turned over to the beginning, where it says, “Arithmetic is the science of numbers, and the art of computing by them,” and once more considered, “Ann had four apples and her brother gave her two more. How many did she then have?” There were the four apples in a row, and the two apples, and you that had worried over meadows so long and so wide, and men mowing them in so many days and a half, had to think how many apples Ann really did have. Some of the fellows with forked hairs on their chins and uncertain voices – the big fellows in the back seats, where the apple-cores and the spit-balls come from knew every example in the book by heart.
And there is yet another reason why the country school has brought forth men of whom we do well to be proud. At the county-seat, every so often, the school commissioners held an examination. Thither resorted many, for the most part anxious to determine if they really knew as much as they thought they did. If you took that examination and got a “stiff kit” for eighteen months, you had good cause to hold your head up and step as high as a blind horse. A “stiff kit” for eighteen months is no small thing, let me tell you. I don’t know if there is anything corresponding to a doctor’s hood for such as win a certificate to teach school for two years hand-running; but there ought to be. A fellow ought not to be obliged to resort to such tactics as taking out a folded paper and perusing it in the hope that some one will ask him: “What you got there, Calvin?” so as to give you a chance to say, carelessly, “Oh, jist a ‘stiff-kit’ for two years.”
(When you get as far along as that, you simply have to take a term in the junior Prep. Department at college, not because there is anything left for you to learn, but for the sake of putting a gloss on your education, finishing it off neatly.)
And then if you were going to read law with Mr. Parker, or study medicine with old Doc. Harbaugh, and you kind of run out of clothes, you took that certificate and hunted up a school and taught it. Sometimes they paid you as high as $20 a month and board, lots of board, real buckwheat cakes (“riz” buckwheat, not the prepared kind), and real maple syrup, and real sausage, the kind that has sage in it; the kind that you can’t coax your butcher to sell you. The pale, tasteless stuff he gives you for sausage I wouldn’t throw out to the chickens. Twenty dollars a month and board! That’s $4 a month more than a hired man gets.
But it wasn’t alone the demonstration that, strange as it might seem, it was possible for a man to get his living by his wits (though that has done much to produce great men) as it was the actual exercise of teaching. Remember the big boys on the back seats, where the apple-cores and the spit-balls come from. The school-director that hired you gave you a searching look-over and said: “M-well-l-l, I’m afraid you haint hardly qualified for our school – oh, that’s all right, sir; that’s all right. Your ‘stiff-kit’ is first-rate, and you got good recommends, good recommends; but I was thinkin’ – well, I tell you. Might’s well out with it first as last. I d’ know’s I ort to say so, but this here district No. 34 is a poot’ tol’able hard school to teach. Ya-uss. A poot-ty tol’able hard school to teach. Now, that’s jist the plumb facts in the matter. We’ve had four try it this winter a’ready. One of ’em stuck it out four weeks – I jimminy! he had grit, that feller had. The balance of ’em didn’t take so long to make up their minds. Well, now, if you’re a mind to try it – I was goin’ to say you didn’t look to me like you had the heft.
Like to have you the worst way. Now, if you want to back out . . . . Well, all right. Monday mornin’, eh? Well, you got my sympathies.”
I believe that some have tried to figure out that St. Martin of Tours, ought to be the patron saint of the United States. One of his feast-days falls on July 4, and his colors are red, white and blue. But I rather prefer, myself, the Boanerges, the two sons of Zebedee. When asked: “Are ye able to drink of this cup?” they answered: “We are able.” They didn’t in the least know what it was; but they knew they were able for anything that anybody else was, and, perhaps, able for a little more. At any rate, they were willing to chance it. That’s the United States of America, clear to the bone and back again to the skin.
You ask any really great man: “Have you ever taught a winter term in a country school?” If he says he hasn’t, then depend upon it he isn’t a really great man. People only think he is. The winter term breeds Boanerges – sons of thunder. Yes, and of lightning, too. Something struck the big boys in the back seats, as sure as you’re a foot high; and if it wasn’t lightning, what was it? Brute strength for brute strength, they were more than a match for Teacher. It was up to him. It was either prove himself the superior power, or slink off home and crawl under the porch.
The curriculum of the Old Red School-house, which was, until lately, the universal curriculum, consisted in reading, writing, and arithmetic or ciphering. I like the word “ciphering,” because it makes me think of slates – slates that were always falling on the floor with a rousing clatter, so that almost always at least one corner was cracked. Some mitigation of the noise was gained by binding the frame with strips of red flannel, thus adding warmth and brightness to the color scheme. Just as some fertile brain conceived the notion of applying a knob of rubber to each corner, slates went out, and I suppose only doctors buy them nowadays to hang on the doors of their offices. Maybe the teacher’s nerves were too highly strung to endure the squeaking of gritty pencils, but I think the real reason for their banishment is, that slates invited too strongly the game of noughts and crosses, or tit-tat-toe, three in a row, the champion of indoor sports, and one entirely inimical to the study of the joggerfy lesson. But if slates favored tit-tat-toe, they also favored ciphering, and nothing but good can come from that. Paper is now so cheap that you need not rub out mistakes, but paper and pencil can never surely ground one in “the science of numbers and the art of computing by them.” What is written is written, and returns to plague the memory, but if you made a mistake on the slate, you could spit on it and rub it out with your sleeve and leave no trace of the error, either on the writing surface or the tables of the memory. What does the hymn say?
“Forget the steps already trod,
And onward urge thy way.”
The girls used to keep a little sponge and some water in a discarded patchouli bottle with a glass stopper, to wash their slates with; but it always seemed to me that the human and whole-hearted way was otherwise.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic, – these three; and the greatest of these three is arithmetic. Over against it stands grammar, which may be said to be derived from reading and writing. Show me a man that, as a boy at school, excelled in arithmetic and I will show you a useful citizen, a boss in his own business, a leader of men; show me the boy that preferred grammar, that read expressively, that wrote a beautiful hand and curled his capital S’s till their tails looked like mainsprings, and I will show you a dreamer and a sentimentalist – a man that works for other people. While I have breath in me, I will maintain the supereminence of arithmetic. There is no room for disputation in arithmetic, no exceptions to the rule. Twice two is four, and that’s all there is about it: but whether there be pronunciations, they shall cease; whether there be rules of grammar, they shall vanish away. Why, look here. It’s a rule of grammar, isn’t it, that the subject of a sentence must be put in the nominative case? Let it kick and bite, and hang on to the desks all it wants to, in it goes and the door is slammed on it. You think so? What is the word “you?” Second person, plural number, objective case. Oh, no; the nominative form is “ye.”
Don’t you remember it says: “Woe unto you, ye lawyers”? Those who fight against: “Him and me went down town,” fight against the stars in their courses, for the objective case in every language is bound and determined to be The Whole Thing. Arithmetic alone is founded on a rock. All else is fleeting, all else is futile, chaotic – a waste of time. What is reading but a rival of morphine? There are probably as many men in prison, sent there by Reading, as by Rum.
“Oh, not good Reading!” says the publisher.
“Not good Rum, either,” says the publican.
Fight it out. It’s an even thing between the two of you; Literature and Liquor, Books and Booze, which can take a man’s mind off his business most effectually.
Still, merely as a matter of taste, I will defend the quality of McGuffey’s School Readers against all comers. I don’t know who McGuffey was; but certainly he formed the greatest intellects of our age, present company not excepted. The true test of literature is its eternal modernity. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. It always seems of the age in which it is read. Now, almost the earliest lection in McGuffey’s First Reader goes directly to the heart of one of the greatest of modern problems. It does not palter or beat about the bush. It asks right out, plump and plain: “Ann, how old are you?”
Year by year, until we reached the dizzy height of the Sixth Reader, were presented to us samples of the best English ever written. If you can find, up in the garret, a worn and frayed old Reader, take it down and turn its pages over. See if anything in these degenerate days compares in vital strength and beauty with the story of the boy that climbed the Natural Bridge, carving his steps in the soft limestone with his pocket knife. You cannot read it without a thrill. The same inspired hand wrote “The Blind Preacher,” and who that ever can read it can forget the climax reached in that sublime line: “Socrates died like a philosopher, but Jesus Christ like a god!”
Not long ago I walked among the graves in that spot opposite where Wall Street slants away from Broadway, and my feet trod on ground worth, in the market, more than the twenty-dollar gold pieces that would cover it. My eye lighted upon a flaking brownstone slab, that told me Captain Michael Cresap rested there. Captain Michael Cresap! The intervening years all fled away before me, and once again my boyish heart thrilled with that incomparable oration in McGuffey’s Reader, “Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one.” Captain Cresap was the man that led the massacre of Logan’s family.
And there was more than good literature in those Readers. There was one piece that told about a little boy alone upon a country road at night. The black trees groaned and waved their skinny arms at him. The wind-torn clouds fitfully let a pale and watery moonlight stream a little through. It was very lonely. Over his shoulder the boy saw indistinct shapes that followed after, and hid themselves whenever he looked squarely at them. Then, suddenly, he saw before him in the gloom, a gaunt white specter waiting for him – waiting to get him, its arms spread wide out in menace. He was of our breed, though, this boy. He did not turn and run. With God knows what terror knocking at his ribs, he trudged ahead to meet his fate, and lo! the grisly specter proved to be a friendly guide-post to show the way that he should walk in. Brother (for you are my kin that went with me to public school, in the life that you have lived since you first read the story of Harry and the Guide-post, has it been an idle tale, or have you, too, found that what we dreaded most, what seemed to us so terrible in the future has, after all, been a friendly guide-post, showing us the way that we should walk in?
McGuffey had a Speller, too. It began with simple words in common use, like a-b ab, and e-b eb, and i-b, ib, proceeding by gradual, if not by easy stages to honorificatudinibility and disproportionableness, with a department at the back devoted to twisters like phthisic, and mullein-stalk, and diphtheria, and gneiss. We used to have a fine old sport on Friday afternoons, called “choose-up-and-spell-down.” I don’t know if you ever played it. It was a survival, pure and simple, from the Old Red School-house. There was where it really lived. There was where it flourished as a gladiatorial spectacle. The crack spellers of District Number 34 would challenge the crack spellers of the Sinking Spring School. The whole countryside came to the school-house in wagons at early candle-lighting time, and watched them fight it out. The interest grew as the contest narrowed down, until at last there were the two captains left – big John Rice for District Number 34, and that wiry, nervous, black-haired girl of ‘Lias Hoover’s, Polly Ann. She married a man by the name of Brubaker. I guess you didn’t know him. His folks moved here from Clarke County. Polly Ann’s eyes glittered like a snake’s, and she kept putting her knuckles up to the red spots in her cheeks that burned like fire. Old John, he didn’t seem to care a cent. And what do you think Polly Ann missed on? “Feoffment.” A simple little word like “feoffment!” She hadn’t got further than pheph — ” when she knew that she was wrong, but Teacher had said “Next!” and big John took it and spelled it right. She had a fit of nervous crying, and some were for giving her the victory, after all, because she was a lady. But big John said: “She missed, didn’t she? Well. And I spelled it right, didn’t I? Well. She took her chances same as the rest of us. ‘Taint me you got to consider, it’s District Number 34. And furthermore. AND FURTHERMORE. Next time somebuddy asts her to go home with him from singin’-school, mebby she won’t snigger right in his face, and say ‘No! ‘s’ loud ‘at everybuddy kin hear it.”
It’s quite a thing to be a good speller, but there are people who can spell any word that ever was, and yet if you should ask them right quick how much is seven times eight, they’d hem and haw and say: “Seven tums eight? Why – ah, lemme see now. Seven tums – what was it you said? Oh, seven tums eight. Why – ah, seven tums eight is sixty-three – fifty-six I mean.” There’s nothing really to spelling. It’s just an idiosyncrasy. If there was really anything useful in it, you could do it by machinery -just the same as you can add by machinery, or write with a typewriter, or play the piano with one of these things with cut paper in it. Spelling is an old-fashioned, hand-powered process, and as such doomed to disappear with the march of improvement.
One Friday afternoon we chose up and spelled down, and the next Friday afternoon we spoke pieces. Doubtless this accounts for our being a nation of orators. I am far from implying or seeming to imply that this is anything to brag of. Anybody that can be influenced by a man with a big mouth, a loud voice, and a rush of words to the face – well, I’ve got my opinion of all such.
Oratory and poetry – all foolishness, I say. Better far are drawing-lessons, and raffia-work, and clay-modeling than: “I come not here to talk,” and “A soldier of the Legion lay dying at Algiers,” and “Old Ironsides at anchor lay.” (I observe that these lines are more or less familiar to you, and that you are eager to add selections to the list, all of them known to me as well as you.) That children, especially boys, loathe to speak a piece is a fact profoundly significant. They know it is nothing in the world but foolishness; and if there is one thing above another that a child hates, it is to be made a fool in public. That’s what makes them work their fingers so, and gulp, and stammer, and tremble at the knees. That is what sends them to their seats, after all is over, mad as hornets. This is something that I know about. It happened that, instead of getting funny pieces to recite as I wanted to, discerning that one silly turn deserves another, my parents, well-meaning in their way, taught me solemn things about: “O man immortal, live for something!” and all such, and I had to humiliate myself by disgorging them in public. The consequence was, that not only on Friday afternoons but whenever anybody came to visit the school, I was butchered to make a Roman holiday. Teacher was so proud of me, and the visitors let on that they were tickled half to death, but I knew better. I could see the other scholars look at one another, as much as to say: “Well, if you’ll tell me why!” Even in my shame and anger I could see that. But there is one happy memory of a Friday afternoon. Determined to show my friends and fellow-citizens that I, too, was born in Arcadia, and was a living, human boy, I announced to Teacher: “I got another piece.”
“Oh, have you?” cried she, sure of an extra O-man-immortal intellectual treat. “Let us hear it, by all means.”
Whereupon I marched up to the platform and declaimed that deathless lyric:
“When I was a boy, I was a bold one.
My mammy made me a new shirt out o’ dad’s old one.”
All of it? Certainly. Isn’t that enough? That was the only distinctly popular platform effort I ever made. I am proud of it now. I was proud of it then. But the news of my triumph was coldly received at home.
I don’t know whether it has since gone out of date, but in my day and time a very telling feature of school exhibitions was reading in concert. The room was packed as full of everybody’s ma as it could be, and yet not mash the children out of shape, and a whole lot of young ones would read a piece together. Fine? Finest thing you ever heard. I remember one time teacher must have calculated a leetle mite too close, or else one girl more was in the class than she had reckoned on; but on the day, the two end girls just managed to stand upon the platform and that was all. They recited together:
“There was a sound of revelry by night And Belgium’s capital . . . . “
I forget the rest of it. Well, anyhow, they were supposed to make gestures all together. Teacher had rehearsed the gestures, and they all did it simultaneously, just as if they had been wound up with a spring. But, as I said, the two end girls had all they could do to keep on the platform, and it takes elbow room for: “‘T is but the car rattling over the stony street,” and one girl – well, she said she stepped off on purpose, but I didn’t believe her then and I don’t now. We had our laugh about it, whichever way it was.
We had our laugh . . . . Ah, life was all laughter then. That was before care came to be the shadow at our heel. That was before black Sorrow met us in the way, and would not let us pass unless we gave to her our dearest treasure. That was before we learned that what we covet most is, when we get it, but a poor thing after all, that whatsoever chalice Fortune presses to our lips, a tear is in the bottom of the cup. In those happy days gone by if the rain fell, ‘t was only for a little while, and presently the sky was bright again, and the birds whistled merrily among the wet and shining leaves. Now “the clouds return after the rain.”
It can never be with us again as once it was. For us the bell upon the Old Red School-house calls in vain. We heed it not, we that hearkened for it years ago. The living tide of youth flows toward the school-house, and we are not of it. Never again shall we sit at those old desks, whittled and carved with rude initials, and snap our fingers, eager to tell the answer. Never again shall we experience the thrill of pride when teacher praised us openly. Never again shall we sit trembling while the principal, reads the note, and then scowls at us fiercely with: “Take off your coat, sir!” Ah, me! Never again, never again.
Well, who wants it to be that way again? We’re men and women now. We’ve duties and responsibilities. Who wants to be a child again? Not I. Let me stick just at my present age for about a hundred years, and I’ll never utter a word of complaint.
“We-a love the Sunday-school.
We-a love the Sunday-school.
(Girls) – So do I.
(Boys)-So do I.
(School) – We all love the Sunday-school.”
Some people believe that when General Conference assigned them to the Committee on Hymn-Book Revision, power and authority were given unto them to put a half-sole and a new heel on any and all poetry that might look to them to be a little run over on one side. If they felt as I do about the lines that head this article they would have “Sunday” scratched out and “Sabbath” written in before you could bat an eye. The mere substitution of one word for another may seem a light matter to a man that has never composed anything more literary than an obituary for the Western Advocate of Sister Jane Malinda Sprague, who was born in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, in 1816, removed with her parents at a tender age to New Sardis, Washington County, Ohio, where, etc., etc. If he wanted to extract a word he would do it, and never even offer to give the author gas. But I know just how it hurts. I know or can imagine how the gifted poet that penned the deathless lines I have quoted must have walked the floor in an agony until every word and syllable was just to suit him, and so, though I feel sure he meant to write “Sabbath-school,” I don’t dare change it.
To most persons one word seems about as good as another, Sunday or Sabbath, but when there are young people about the house you learn to be careful how you talk before them. Now, I would not go so far as to say that “Sunday” is what you might call exactly rowdy, but er . . . but . . . er . . . Let me illustrate. If a man says, “It’s a beautiful Sunday morning,” like enough he has on red-and-green stockings, baggy knickerbockers, a violet-and-purple sweater, a cap shaped like a milk-roll, and is smoking a pipe. He very likely carries a bagful of golf-sticks, or is pumping up his bicycle. But if a man says, “This beautiful Sabbath morn,” you know for a certainty that he wears a long-tailed black coat, a boiled shirt, and a white tie. He is bald from his forehead upward, his upper lip is shaven, and his views and those of the late Robert Reed on the disgusting habit of using tobacco are absolutely at one.
Not alone a regard for respectability, but the hankering to be historically accurate, urges me to make the change I speak of. Originally the institution was a Sunday-school, and not very respectable either. I should hate to think any of my dear young friends were in the habit of attending such a low-class affair as Robert Raikes conducted. Sunday-schools were for “little ragamuffins,” as he called them, who worked such long hours on week-days (from five in the morning until nine at night) that if they were to learn the common branches at all it had to be on a Sunday. A ragged school was bad enough in itself, putting foolish notions into the heads of gutter-brats and making them discontented and unhappy in their lot; but to teach a ragged school on Sunday was a little too much. So Robert Raikes encountered the most violent opposition, although from that beginning dates popular education in England.
To be able to read is no Longer a sign that Pa can afford to do without the young ones’ wages on a Saturday night, and can even pay for their schooling. It is no longer a mark of wealth or even of hard-won privilege, but the common fate of all; to know the three R’s, and Sunday is not now set apart for secular instruction. So good and wholesome an institution as the Sunday-school was not permitted to perish, but was changed to suit the environment. It is now become the Sabbath-school for the study of the Bible, a Christian recrudescence of the synagogue. For some eighteen centuries it was supposed that a regularly ordained minister should have exclusive charge of this work. At rare intervals nowadays a clergyman may be found to maintain that because a man has been to college and to the theological seminary, and has made the study of the Scriptures his life-work (moved to that decision after careful self-examination) that therefore he is better fitted to that ministry than Miss Susie Goldrick, who teaches a class in Sabbath-school very acceptably. Miss Goldrick is in the second year in the High School, and last Friday afternoon read a composition on English Literatoor, in which she spoke in terms of high praise of John Bunion, the well-known author of ” Progress and Poverty.” Miss Goldrick is very conscientious, and always keeps her thumbnail against the questions printed on the lesson-leaf, so as not to ask twice, “What did the disciples then do?”
It were a grave error to suppose that no secular learning is acquired in the modern Sabbath-school. I remember once, when quite young, speaking to my teacher, in the interval between the regular class work and the closing exercises, about peacocks. I had read of them, but had never seen one. What did they look like? She said a peacock was something like a butterfly. I have always remembered that, and when I did finally see a peacock, I was interested to note the essential accuracy of the description.
Also, one day a new lady taught our class, Miss Evans having gone up to Marion to spend a Sunday with her brother, who kept a stove store there, and this new lady borrowed two flower vases from off the pulpit and a piece of string from Turkey-egg McLaughlin to explain to us boys how the earth went around the sun. We had too much manners to tell her that we knew that years and years ago when we were in Miss Humphreys’s room. I don’t remember what the earth going around the sun had to do with the lesson for the day, which was about Samuel anointing David’s head with oil – did I ever tell you how I anointed my own head with coal oil? – but I do remember that she broke both the vases and cut her finger, and had to keep sucking it the rest of the time, because she didn’t want to get her handkerchief all bloodied up. It was a kind of fancy handkerchief, made of thin stuff trimmed with lace – no good.
The Sabbath-school may be said to be divided into three courses, namely, the preparatory or infant-class, the collegiate or Sabbath-school proper, and the post-graduate or Mr. Parker’s Bible-class.
What can a mere babe of three or four years learn in Sabbath-school? sneers the critic. Not much, I grant you, of justification by Faith, or Effectual Calling; but certain elementary precepts can be impressed upon the mind while it is still in a plastic condition that never can be wholly obliterated, come what may in after life. Prime among these elementary precepts is this: “Always bring a penny.”
Some one has said, “Give me the first seven years of a child’s life and I care not who has the remainder.” I cannot endorse this without reserve; but I maintain as a demonstrated fact: “Bring up a child to contribute a copper cent, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” It was recently my high privilege to attend a summer gathering of representative religious people in the largest auditorium in this country. Sometimes under that far-spreading roof ten thousand souls were assembled and met together. This fact could be guessed at with tolerable accuracy from the known seating capacity, but the interesting thing was that it could be predicated with mathematical certainty that exactly ten thousand people were present, because the offertory footed up exactly one hundred dollars. What an encouragement to these faithful infant-class teachers that have labored unremittingly, instant in season and out of season, saying over and over again with infinite patience, “Always bring a penny,” to know that their labor has not been in vain, and that as a people we have made it the rule of our lives always to bring a penny – and no more.
I have often tried to think what a Sabbath-school must be like in California, where they have no pennies. It seems hardly possible that the institution can exist under such a patent disability, and yet it does. Do they work it on the same principle as the post-office in that far-off land where you ‘cannot buy one postal card because the postmaster cannot make change, but must buy five postal cards or two two-cent stamps and a postal? In other words, does a nickel, the smallest extant coin, serve for five persons for one Sunday or one person for five Sundays? I have often wondered about this.
Subsidiary instruction in the preparatory course consists of sitting right still and being nice, keeping your fingers out of Johnny Pym’s eye, because it hurts him and makes him cry, not grabbing in the basket when it goes by, even though it does have pennies in it, coaching in a repertory of songs like: “Beautiful, Beautiful Little Hands,” “You in Your Little Corner and I in Mine,” ” The Consecrated Cross-Eyed Bear,” “Pass Around the Wash-Rag” – the grown folks call that “Pass Along the Watchword” and stories about David and Goliath, Samson and the three hundred foxes with fire tied to their tails, Moses in the bulrushes, the infant Samuel, Hagar in the wilderness, and so forth. The clergy have often objected that these stories, being told at the same period of life with those about Santa Claus, “One time there was a little boy and he had a dog named Rover,” the little girl that had hair as black as ebony, skin as white as snow, and cheeks as red as blood, because her Ma, who was a queen by occupation, happened to cut her finger with a black-handled knife along about New Year’s – the clergy, I say, have often objected that all these matters, being brought to a child’s attention at the same period in its life, are likely to be regarded in after years as of equal evidential value. I am not much of a hand to argue, myself, but I should like to have one of these carping critics meet my friend, Mrs. Sarah M. Boggs, who has taught the infant-class since 1867, having missed only two Sundays in that time, once, in 1879, when it stormed so that nobody in town was out, and once, last winter a year ago, when she slipped off the back porch and hurt her knee. I can just see Sister Boggs laying down the law to anybody that finds fault with the infant-class, let him be preacher or who. Why the very idea! Do you mean to say, sir – I guess Sister Boggs can straighten him out all right.
No less faithful is Mr. Parker, the leading lawyer of the town, who conducts the Bible-class. I believe one morning he didn’t get there until after the last bell was done ringing, but otherwise his record of attendance compares favorably with Sister Boggs’s. Both teachers agree to ignore the stated lesson for the day, but whereas Sister Boggs leads her flock through the flowery meads of narration, Mr. Parker and his class have camped out by preference for the last forty years in the arid wilderness of Romans and Hebrews and Corinthians First and Second, flinging the plentiful dornicks of “Paul says this” and “Paul says that” at each other’s heads in friendly strife. Mr. Parker’s class is also very assiduous in its attendance upon the Young People’s meetings, seemingly holding the dogma, “Once a young person always a young person.” The prevailing style of hairdressing among the members is to grow the locks long on the left side of the head, and to bring the thin layer across to the right, pasted down very carefully with a sort of peeled onion effect.
There is a whole lot of them, and they jower away at each other all through the time between the opening and the closing exercises, having the liveliest kind of a time getting over about two verses of the Bible and the whole ground of speculative theology.
Immeasurably more impermanent in method and personnel is the regular collegiate department, the Sabbath-school proper. In the early days, away back when sugar was sixteen cents a pound, the thing to do was to learn Scripture verses by heart. If you were a rude, rough boy who didn’t exactly love the Sunday-school as much as the hymn made you say you did, but still one who had rather sing it than stir up a muss, you hunted for the shortest verses you could find and said them off. From four to eight was considered a full day’s work. But if you were a boy who put on an apron and helped your Ma with the dishes, a boy who always wiped your feet before you came in, a boy that never got kept in at school, a boy that cried pretty easy, a nice, pale boy, with bulging blue eyes, you came to Sabbath-school and disgorged verses like buck-shot out of a bag. The four-to-eight-verse boys sat and listened, and improved their minds. There was generally one other boy like you in the class, and it was nip-and-tuck between you which should get the prize, until finally you came one Sunday, all bloated up with 238 verses in your craw, and he quit discouraged. The prize was yours. It was a beautiful little Bible with a brass clasp; it had two tiny silk strings of an old-gold color for bookmarks, and gilt edges all around that made the leaves stick together at first. It was printed in diamond type, so small it made your ears ring when you tried to read it.
Other faculties than that of memory were called into action in those days by problems like these: “Who was the meekest man? Who was the strongest man? Who was the father of Zebedee’s children? Who had the iron bedstead, and whose thumbs and great-toes were cut off?” To set a child to find these things in the Bible without a concordance seems to us as futile as setting him to hunt a needle in a haystack. But our fathers were not so foolish as we like to think them; they didn’t care two pins if we never discovered who had the iron bedstead, but they knew that, leafing over the book, we should light upon treasure where we sought it not, kernels of the sweetest meat in the hardest shells, stories of enthralling interest where we least expected them, but, most of all, and best of all, texts that long afterward in time of trouble should come to us, as it were the voice of one that also had eaten the bread of affliction, calling to us across the chasm of the centuries and saying: “O, tarry thou the Lord’s leisure: be strong and He shall comfort thine heart.”
In the higher classes, that still were not high enough to rank with Mr. Parker’s, the exegetical powers were stimulated in this wise: “‘And they sung a hymn and went out.’ Now what do you understand by that?” We told what we “understood,” and what we “held,” and what we “believed,” and laid traps for the teacher and tried to corner him with irrelevant texts wrenched from their context. He had to be an able man and a nimble-witted man. Mere piety might shine in the prayer-meeting, in the class-room, at the quarterly love-feast, but not in the Sabbath-school. I remember once when Brother Butler was away they set John Snyder to teach us. John didn’t know any more than the law allowed, and we made him feel it, until finally, badgered beyond endurance, he blurted out that all he knew was that he was a sinner saved by grace. Maybe he couldn’t just tell where to find this, that, and t’ other thing in the Bible, but he could turn right to the place where it said that though a body’s sins were as scarlet, yet they should be white as snow. It was regarded as a very poor sort of an excuse then, but thinking it over here lately, it has seemed to me that maybe John had the root of the matter in him after all.
The comparative scarcity of polemical athletes and the relative plenty of the Miss Susie Goldrick kind of teachers, apparently called into being the Berean Lesson Leaf system, with its Bible cut up into lady-bites of ten or twelve verses, its Golden Topics, Golden Texts, its apt alliterations, like:
and its questions prepared in tabloid form, suitable for the most enfeebled digestions, see directions printed on inside wrapper. Among the many evidences of the degeneracy of the age is the scandalous ignorance of our young people regarding the sacred Scriptures, which at the very lowest estimate are incontestably the finest English ever written. Those whose childhood antedates the lesson leaf are not so unfamiliar with that wondrous treasure-house of thought. It is not for me to say what has wrought the change. I can only point out that lesson leaves, being about the right size for shaving papers, barely last from Sunday to Sunday, while that very identical Bible with the blinding type that I won years and years ago, by learning verses, is with me still. Yes, and as I often wonder to discover, some of those very verses that I gobbled down as heedlessly as any ostrich are with me still.
Remain to be considered the opening and closing exercises, principally devoted, I remember, to learning new tunes and singing old ones out of books with pretty titles, like “Golden Censer,” “Silver Spray,” “Pearl and Gold,” “Sparkling Dewdrops,” and “Sabbath Chimes.” I wasn’t going to tell it, but I might as well, I suppose. I can remember as far back as “Musical Leaves.” There must be quite a lot of people scattered about the country who sung out of that when they were little. I wish a few of us old codgers might get together some time and with many a hummed and prefatory, “Do, mi, Sol, do; Sol, mi . . . mi-i-i-i,” finally manage to quaver out the sweet old tunes we learned when we were little tads, each with a penny in his fat, warm hand: “Shall we Gather at the River?” and “Work, for the Night is Coming”; and what was the name of that one about:
“The waves shall come and the rolling thunder shock Shall beat upon the house that is founded on a rock, And it never shall fall, never, never, never.”
What the proper English tune is to “I think when I read that sweet story of old” I cannot tell, but I am sure it can never melt my heart as that one in the old “Musical Leaves.” with its twistful repetitions of the last line:
“I should like to have been with Him then, I should like to have been with Him then, When He took little children like lambs to His fold, I should like to have been with Him then.”
I fear we could not sing that without breaking down. As we recall it, we draw an inward fluttering breath, something grips our throats and makes them ache, our eyes blur, and a tear slips down upon the cheek, not of sorrow – God knows not all of sorrow – but if we had it all to live over again, how differently we – oh, well, it’s too late now, but still.
Leafing over my little girl’s “Arabian Nights” the other day, when I came to the story of “The Enchanted Horse,” I found myself humming, “Land ahead! Its fruits are waving.” My father used to lead the singing in Sabbath-school, and when he was sol-fa-ing that tune to learn it, I was devouring that story, and was just about at the picture where Prince What’s-his-name rises up into the air on the Enchanted Horse, with his true love hanging on behind, and all the multitude below holding their turbans on as they look up and exclaim: “Well, if that don’t beat the Dutch!”
And another tune still excites in me the sullen resentment that it did when I first heard it. In those days, just as a fellow got to the exciting part in “Frank at Don Carlos’s Ranch,” or whatever the book was, there was kindling to be split, or an armful of wood to be brought in, or a pitcher of water from the well, or “run over to Mrs. Boggs’s and ask her if she won’t please lend me her fluting-iron,” or “run down to Galbraith’s and get me a spool of white thread, Number 60, and hurry right back, because then I want you to go over to Serepta Downey’s and take her that polonaise pattern she asked me to cut out for her,” or – there was always something on hand. So what should one of these composers do – I don’t know what ever possessed the man – but go write a Sabbath-school song with this chorus:
“There’ll be something to do,
There’ll be something to do,
There’ll be something for children to do: On that bright shining shore,
Where there’s joy evermore,
There’ll be something for children to do.”
I suppose he thought that would be an inducement!
One of these days America is going to be the musical center of the world. When that day is fully come, and men sit down to write about it, I hope they won’t forget to give due credit to the reed organ, Stephen Foster, and the Sabbath-school. The reed organ had a lot to do with musical culture. It is much decried now by people that prefer a piano that hasn’t been tuned for four years; but the reed organ will come into its own some day, don’t forget. Without it the Sabbath-school could not have been. Anybody that would have a piano in a Sabbath-school ought to be prosecuted.
When music, heavenly maid, was just coming to after that awful lick the Puritans hit her, the first sign of returning life was that people began to tire of the ten or a dozen tunes to which our great-grandfathers droned and snuffled all their hymns. In those days there was raised up a man named Stephen Foster, who “heard in his soul the music of wonderful melodies,” and we have been singing them ever since – “‘Way Down upon the Swanee Ribber,” and “Old Kentucky Home,” and “Nellie Gray,” and the rest. Then Bradbury and Philip Phillips and many more of them began to write exactly the same kind of tunes for sacred words. They were just the thing for the Sabbath-school, but they were more, much more.
You know that when a fellow gets so he can shave himself without cutting half his lip off, when it takes him half an hour to get the part in his hair to suit him, when he gets in the way of shining his shoes and has a pretty taste in neckties, he doesn’t want to bawl the air of a piece like the old stick-in-the-muds up in the Amen corner or in Mr. Parker’s class. He wants to sing bass. Air is too high for him anyhow unless he sings it with a hog noise. Oh, you get out! You do, too, know what a “hog noise” is. You want to let on you’ve always lived in town. Likely story if you never heard anybody in the hog-pasture with a basket of nubbins calling, “Peeg! Peeg! Boo-eel Booee!” A man’s voice breaks into falsetto on the “Boo-ee!” Well, anyhow, such a young man as I am telling you of would be ashamed to sing with a hog noise. He wants to sing bass. Now the regular hymn-tunes change the bass as often as they change the soprano, and if you go fumbling about for the note, by the time you get it right it is wrong, because the tune has gone on and left you. The Sabbath-school songs had the young man Absalom distinctly in view. They made the bass the same all through the measure, and all the changes were strictly on the do, sol and fa basis. As far as the other notes in the scale were concerned, the young man Absalom need not bother his head with them. With do, sol and fa he could sing through the whole book from cover to cover as good as anybody.
When people find out what fun it is to sing by note, it is only a step to the “Messiah,” two blocks up and turn to the right, as you might say. After that, it is only going ahead till you get to “Vogner.” Yes, and many’s the day you called the hogs. Don’t tell me.
Once a month on Sunday evenings there were Sabbath-school concerts. The young ones sat in the front seats, ten or twelve in a pew. “Now, children,” said the superintendent, “I want you all to sing loud and show the folks how nice you can sing. Page 65. Sixty-fi’th page, ‘Scatter Seeds of Kindness.’ Now, all sing out now.” We licked our thumbs and scuffled through the book till we found the place. We scowled at it, and stuck out our mouths at it, and shrieked at it, and bawled at it, and did the very best we knew to give an imitation of two hundred little pigs all grabbed by the hind leg at once. That was what made folks call it a concert.
There were addresses to the dear children by persons that teetered on their toes and dimpled their cheeks in dried-apple smiles as us. Some complain that they do not know how to talk to children and keep them interested. Oh, pshaw! Simple as A B C. Once you learn the trick you can talk to the little folks for an hour and a half on “Banking as Related to National Finance,” and keep them on the quiver of excitement. Ask questions. And to be sure that they give the right answers (a very important thing) remember this: When you wish them to say “Yes, sir,” end your question with “Don’t they?” or “isn’t it?” When you wish them to say “No, sir,” end your question with “Do they?” or “Is it?” When you wish them to choose between two answers, mention first the one they mustn’t take, then pause, look archly at them, and mention the one they must take. Thus:
Q. – Now, dear children, I wonder if you can tell me where the sun rises. In the north, doesn’t it ?
A. – Yes, sir.
Q. – Yes, you are right. In the north. And because it rises in the north every afternoon at three, how do we walk about? On our feet, do we?
A. – No, sir.
Q. – No. Of course not. Then how is it we do walk about? On our ears or – (now the look) on our noses?
A. – On our noses.
This method, if carefully and systematically employed, was never known to fail. It is called the Socratic method.
The most interesting feature of the monthly Sabbath-school concert is universally conceded to be the treasurer’s report. So much on hand at the last meeting, so much contributed by each class during the month last past, so much expended, so much left on hand at present. We used to sit and listen to it with slack jaws and staring eyes. Money, money, oceans of money! Thirty-eight cents and seventy-six cents and a dollar four cents! My!
The librarian’s report was nowhere. It was a bully library, too, and contained the “Through by Daylight” Series, and the “Ragged Dick” Series, and the “Tattered Tom” Series, and the “Frank on the Gunboat” Series, and the “Frank the Young Naturalist” Series, and the “Elm Island” Series – Did you ever read “The Ark of Elm Island”, and “Giant Ben of Elm Island”? You didn’t? Ah, you missed it – and the “B. O. W. C.” Series – and say! there was a book in that library – oo-oo! “Cast up by the Sea,” all about wreckers, and false lights on the shore, and adventures in Central Africa, and there’s a nigger queen that wants to marry him, and he don’t want to because he loves a girl in England – I think that’s kind of soft – and he kills about a million of them trying to get away. You want to get that book. Don’t let them give you “Patient Henry” or “Charlie Watson, the Drunkard’s Little Son.” They’re about boys that take sick and die – no good.
It was a bully library, but the report wasn’t interesting. Major Humphreys’s always was. He was the treasurer because he worked in the bank. He came from the Western Reserve, and said “cut” when he meant coat, and “hahnt” when he meant heart. I can shut my eyes and hear him read his report now: “Infant-class, Mrs. Sarah M. Boggs, one dolla thutty-eight cents; Miss Dan’ells’s class, fawty-six cents; Miss Goldrick’s class, twenty-faw cents; Mr. Pahnker’s class, ninety-three cents; Miss Rut’s class, naw repawt.”
Poor old Miss Root! There was hardly ever any report from her class. Often she hadn’t a penny to give, and perhaps the other old ladies, who found the keenest possible delight in doing what they called “running up the references,” had no more, for they were relics of an age when women weren’t supposed to have money to fling right and left in the foolish way that women will if they’re not looked after – shoes for the baby, and a new calico dress every two or three years or so.
Yes, it is rather interesting for a change now and then to hear these folks go on about what a terrible thing the Sabbath-school is, and how it does more harm than good. They get really excited about it, and storm around as if they expected folks to take them seriously. They know, just as well as we do, that this wouldn’t be any kind of a country at all if we couldn’t look back and remember the Sabbath-school, or if we couldn’t fix up the children Sunday afternoons, and find their lesson leaves for them, and hunt up a penny to give to the poor heathen, and hear them say the Golden Text before they go, and tell them to be nice. Papa and mamma watch them from the window till they turn the corner, and then go back to the Sunday paper with a secure sort of feeling. They won’t learn anything they oughtn’t to at the Sabbath-school.
THE REVOLVING YEAR
“‘It snows!’ cries the schoolboy, ‘Hurrah!’ And his shout is heard through parlor and hall.”
MCGUFFEY’s THIRD READER.
(Well, maybe it was the Second Reader. And if it was the Fourth, what difference does it make? And, furthermore, who ‘s doing this thing, you or me?)
Had it not been that never in my life have I ever heard anybody say either “It snows!” or “Hurrah!” it is improbable that I should have remembered the first line of a poem describing the effect produced upon different kinds of people by the sight of the first snowstorm of winter. Had it not been for the plucky (not to say heroic) effort to rhyme “hall” with “hurrah” I should not have remembered the second, and still another line of it, depicting the emotions of a poor widow with a large family and a small woodpile, is burned into my memory only by reason of the shocking language it contains, the more shocking in that it was deliberately put forth to be read by innocent-minded children. Poor Carrie Rinehart! When she stood up to read that, she got as red as a beet, and I believed her when she told me afterward that she thought she would sink right through that floor. Of course, some had to snicker, but the most of us, I am thankful to say, were a credit to our bringing up, and never let on we heard it. All the same it was a terrible thing to have to speak right out loud before everybody. If any of the boys (let alone the girls), had said that because he felt like saying it, he would have been sent in to the principal, and that night his daddy would have given him another licking.
Even now I cannot bring myself to write the line without toning it down.
“‘It snows!’ cries the widow. ‘Oh G – d!'”
At the beginning of winter, I will not deny, that the schoolboy might have shouted: “It’s snowin’! Hooee!” when he saw the first snow flakes sifting down, and realized that the Old Woman was picking her geese. A change is always exciting, and winter brings many joyous sports and pastimes, skating, and snowballing, and sliding down hill, and – er – er – I said skating didn’t I? and – er – Oh, yes, sleigh-riding, and – er – Well, I guess that’s about all.
Skating, now, that’s fine. I know a boy who, when the red ball goes up in the street-cars, sneaks under his coat a pair of wooden-soled skates, with runners that curl up over the toes like the stems of capital letters in the Spencerian copy-book. He is ashamed of the old-fashioned things, which went out of date long and long before my day, but he says that they are better than the hockeys. Well, you take a pair of such skates and strap them on tightly until you can’t tell by the feel which is feet and which is wooden soles, and you glide out upon the ice above the dam for, say about four hours, with the wind from the northwest and the temperature about nine below, and I tell you it is something grand. And if you run over a stick that is frozen in the ice, or somebody bumps into you, or your feet slide out from under you, and you strike on your ear and part of your face on the ice, and go about ten feet ah, it’s great! Simply great. And it’s nice too, to skate into an air-hole into water about up to your neck, and have the whole mob around you whooping and “hollering” and slapping their legs with glee, because they know it isn’t deep enough to drown you, and you look so comical trying to claw out. And when you do get out, it takes such along time to get your skates of, and you feel so kind of chilly like, and when you get home your clothes are frozen stiff on you – Oh, who would willingly miss such sport?
And sleigh-riding! Me for sleigh-riding! You take a nice, sharp day in winter, when the sky is as blue as can be because all the moisture is frozen out of the air, a day when the snow under the sleigh runners whines and creaks, as if thousands of tiny wineglasses were being crushed by them, and the bells go jing-jing, jing-jing on the frosty air which just about takes the hide off your face; when you hold your mittens up to your ears and then have to take them down to slap yourself across the chest to get the blood agoing in your fingers; when you kick your feet together and dumbly wonder why it is your toes don’t click like marbles; when the cold creeps up under your knitted pulse-warmers, and in at every possible little leak until it has soaked into your very bones; when you snuggle down under the lap-robe where it is warm as toast (day before yesterday’s toast) and try to pull your shoulders up over your head; when a little drop hangs on the end of your nose, which has ceased to feel like a living, human nose, and now resembles something whittled to a point; when you hold your breath as long as you can, and your jaw waggles as if you were playing chin-chopper with it – Ah, that’s the sport of kings! And after you have got as cold as you possibly can get, and simply cannot stand it a minute longer, you ride and ride and ride and ride and ride and ride and ride and ride and ride. Once in a while you turn out for another sleigh, and nearly upset in the process, and you can see that in all points its occupants are exactly as you are, just as happy and contented. There aren’t any dogs to run out and bark at you. Old Maje and Tige, and even little Bounce and Guess are snoozing behind the kitchen stove. All there is is just jing-jing, jing-jing, jing-jing, not a bird-cry or a sound of living creature. jing-jing, jing-jing. . . . . Well, yes, kind o’ monotonous, but still . . . . You pass a house, and a woman comes out to scrape off a plate to the chickens standing on one foot in a corner where the sun can get at them, and the wind cannot. She scrapes slowly, and looks at you as much as to say: “I wonder who’s sick. Must be somebody going for the doctor, day like this.” And then she shudders: “B-b-b-oo-oo-oo!” and runs back into the house and slams the door hard. You snuffle and look at the chimney that has thick white smoke coming out of it, and consider that very likely a nice, warm fire is making all that smoke, and you snuffle again, and ride and ride and ride and ride and ride and ride and ride and ‘ride. And about an hour and a half after you have given up all hopes, and are getting resigned to your fate, you turn off the big road and up the lane to the house where you are going on your pleasure-trip, and you hop out as nimble as a sack of potatoes, and hobble into the house, and don’t say how-de-do or anything, but just make right for the stove. The people all squall out: “Why, ain’t you ‘most froze?” and if you answer, “Yes sum,” it’s as much as ever. Generally you can’t do anything but just stand and snuffle and look as if you hadn’t a friend on earth. And about the time you get so that some spots are pretty warm, and other spots aren’t as cold as they were, why then you wrap up, and go home again with the same experience, only more so. Fine! fine!
It’s nice, too, when there’s a whole crowd out together in a wagon-bed with straw in it. There’s something so cozy in straw! And the tin horns you blow in each other’s ear, and the songs you sing: “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,” and “Waw-unneeta! Waw-unneeta, ay-usk thy sowl if we shud part,” and “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” and “Johnny Shmoker,” and that variation of “John Brown’s Body,” where every time you sing over the verse you leave off one more word, and somebody always forgets, and you laugh fit to kill yourself, and just have a grand time. And maybe you take a whole lot of canned cove oysters with you, and when you get out to Makemson’s, or wherever it is you’re going, Mrs. Makemson puts the kettle on and makes a stew, cooking the oysters till they are thoroughly done. And she makes coffee, the kind you can’t tell from tea by the looks, and have to try twice before you can tell by the taste. Ah! winter brings many joyous sports and pastimes. And you get back home along about half-past two, and the fire’s out, and the folks are in bed, and you have to be at the store to open up at seven – Laws! I wish it was so I could go sleigh-riding once more in the long winter evenings, when the pitcher in the spare bedroom bursts, and makes a noise like a cannon.
And sliding down hill, I like that.
What? Coasting? Never heard of it. If it’s anything like sliding down hill, it’s all right. For a joke you can take a barrel-stave and hold on to that and slide down. It goes like a scared rabbit, but that isn’t so much the point as that it slews around and spills you into a drift. Sleds are lower and narrower than they used to be, and they also lack the artistic adornment of a pink, or a blue, or a black horse, painted with the same stencil but in different colors, and named “Dexter,” or “Rarus,” or”Goldsmith Maid.” These are good names, but nobody ever called his sled by a name. Boggs’s hill, back of the lady’s house that taught the infant-class in Sunday-school, was a good hill. It had a creek at the bottom, and a fine, long ride, eight or ten feet, on the ice. But Dangler’s hill was the boss. It was the one we all made up our minds we would ride down some day when the snow was just right. We’d go over there’ and look up to the brow of the hill and say: “Gee! But wouldn’t a fellow come down like sixty, though?”
We’d look up again, and somebody would say: “Aw, come on. Less go over to Boggs’s hill.”
“Thought you was goin’ down Dangler’s.”
“Yes, I know, but all the other fellows is over to Boggs’s.”
“A-ah, ye’re afraid.”
“Y’ are teether.”
“I dare you.”
“Oh, well now — “
“I double dare you.”
“All right. I will if you will. You go first.”
“Nah, you go first. The fellow that’s dared has got to go first. Ain’t that so, Chuck? Ain’t that so, Monkey?”
“I’ll go down if you will, on’y you gotta go first.”
“Er – er – Who all ‘s over at Boggs’s hill?”
“Oh, the whole crowd of ’em, Turkey-egg McLaughlin, and Ducky Harshberger, and – Oh, I don’ know who all.”
“Tell you what less do. Less wait till it gets all covered with ice, and all slick and smooth. Then less come over and go down.”
“Say, won’t she go like sixty then! Jeemses Rivers! Come on, I’ll beat you to the corner.”
That was the closest we ever came to going down Dangler’s hill. Railroad hill wasn’t so bad, over there by the soap-factory, because they didn’t run trains all the time, and you stood a good chance of missing being run over by the engine, but Dangler’s Well, now, I want to tell you Dangler’s was an awful steep hill, and a long one, and when you think that it was so steep nobody ever pretended to drive up it even in the summer-time, and you slide down the hill and think that, once you got to going.
Fun’s fun, I know, but nobody wants to go home with half his scalp hanging over one eye, and dripping all over the back porch. Because, you know, a fellow’s mother gets crosser about blood on wood-work than anything else. Scrubbing doesn’t do the least bit of good; it has to be planed off, or else painted.
Let me see, now. Have I missed anything? I’ll count ’em off on my fingers. There’s skating, and sleigh-riding, and sliding down hill, and Oh, yes. Snowballing and making snow-men. Nobody makes a snow-man but once, and nobody makes a snow-house after it has caved in on him once and like to killed him. And as for snowballing – Look here. Do you know what’s the nicest thing about winter? Get your feet on a hot stove, and have the lamp over your left shoulder, and a pan of apples, and something exciting to read, like “Frank Among the Indians.” Eh, how about it? In other words, the best thing about winter is when you can forget that it is winter.
The excitement that prompts “It snows!” and “Hurrah!” mighty soon peters out, and along about the latter part of February, when you go to the window and see that it is snowing again – again? Consarn the luck! – you and the poor widow with the large family and the small woodpile are absolutely at one.
You do get so sick and tired of winter. School lets out at four o’clock, and it’s almost dark then. There’s no time for play, for there’s all that wood and kindling to get in, and Pap’s awful cranky when he hops out of bed these frosty mornings to light the fire, and finds you’ve been skimpy with the kindling. And the pump freezes up, and you’ve got to shovel snow off the walks and out in the back-yard so Tilly can hang up the clothes when she comes to do the washing. And your mother is just as particular about your neck being clean as she is in summer when the water doesn’t make you feel so shivery. And there’s the bottle of goose-grease always handy, and the red flannel to pin around your throat, and your feet in the bucket of hot water before you go to bed – Aw, put ’em right in. Yes, I know it’s hot. That’s what going to make you well. In with ’em. Aw, child, it isn’t going to scald you. Go on now. The water’ll be stone-cold in a minute.” Oh, I don’t like winter for a cent. Kitchoo! There, I’ve gone and caught fresh cold.
I wish it would hurry up and come spring.
“When the days begin to lengthen,
The cold begins to strengthen.”
Now, you know that doesn’t stand to reason. Every day the sun inches a little higher in the heavens. His rays strike us more directly and for a longer time each day. But it’s the cantankerous fact, and it simply has to stand to reason. That’s the answer, and the sum has to be figured out somehow in accordance with it. Like one time, when I was about sixteen years old, and in the possession of positive and definite information about the way the earth went around the sun and all, I was arguing with one of these old codgers that think they know it all, one of these men that think it is so smart to tell you: “Sonny, when you get older, you’ll know more ‘n you do now – I hope. “Well, he was trying to tell me that the day lengthened at one end before it did at the other. I did my best to dispel the foolish notion from his mind, and explained to him how it simply could not be, but no, sir! he stood me down. Finally, since pure reasoning was wasted on him, I took the almanac off the nail it hung by, and – I bedog my riggin’s if the old skidama link wasn’t right after all. Sundown keeps coming a minute later every day, while, for quite a while there, sun-up sticks at the same old time, 7:3o A.M. Did you ever hear of anything so foolish?
“Very early, while it is yet dark,” the alarm clock of old Dame Nature begins to buzz. It may snow and blow, and winter may seem to have settled in in earnest, but deep down in the earth, the root-tips, where lie the brains of vegetables, are gaping and stretching, and ho-humming, and wishing they could snooze a little longer. When it thaws in the afternoon and freezes up at sunset as tight as bricks, they tell me that out in the sugar-camp there are great doings. I don’t know about it myself, but I have heard tell of boring a hole in the maple-tree, and sticking in a spout, and setting a bucket to catch the, drip, and collecting the sap, and boiling down, and sugaring off. I have heard tell of taffy-pullings, and how Joe Hendricks stuck a whole gob of maple-wax in Sally Miller’s hair, and how she got even with him by rubbing his face with soot. It is only hearsay with me, but I’ll tell you what I have done: I have eaten real maple sugar, and nearly pulled out every tooth I had in my head with maple-wax, and I have even gone so far as to have maple syrup on pancakes. It’s good, too. The maple syrup came on the table in a sort of a glass flagon with a metal lid to it, and it was considered the height of bad manners to lick off the last drop of syrup that hung on the nose of the flagon. And yet it must not be allowed to drip on the table-cloth. It is a pity we can’t get any more maple syrup nowadays, but I don’t feel so bad about the loss of it, as I do to think what awful liars people can be, declaring on the label that ‘deed and double, ‘pon their word and honor, it is pure, genuine, unadulterated maple syrup, when they know just as well as they know anything that it is only store-sugar boiled up with maple chips.
Along about the same time, the boys come home with a ring of mud around their mouths, and exhaling spicy breaths like those which blow o’er Ceylon’s isle in the hymn-book. They bear a bundle of roots, whose thick, pink hide mother whittles off with the butcher-knife and sets to steep. Put away the store tea and coffee. To-night as we drink the reddish aromatic brew we return, not only to our own young days, but to the young days of the nation when our folks moved to the West in a covered wagon; when grandpap, only a little boy then, about as big as Charley there, got down the rifle and killed the bear that had climbed into the hog-pen; when they found old Cherry out in the timber with her calf between her legs, and two wolves lying where she had horned them to death – we return to-night to the high, heroic days of old, when our forefathers conquered the wilderness and our foremothers reared the families that peopled it. This cup of sassafras to-night in their loving memory! Earth, rest easy on their moldering bones!
Some there be that still take stock in the groundhog. I don’t believe he knows anything about it. And I believe that any animal that had the sense that he is reputed to have would not have remained a mere ground-hog all these years. At least not in this country. Anyhow, it’s a long ways ahead, six weeks is, especially at the time when you do wish so fervently that it would come spring. We keep on shoveling coal in the furnace, and carrying out ashes, and longing and crying: “Oh, for pity’s sakes! When is this going to stop?” And then, one morning, we awaken with a start Wha – what? Sh! Keep still, can’t you? There is a more canorous and horn-like quality to the crowing of Gildersleeve’s rooster, and his hens chant cheerily as they kick the litter about. But it wasn’t these cheerful sounds that wakened us with a start. There! Hear that? Hear it? Two or three long-drawn, reedy notes, and an awkward boggle at a trill, but oh, how sweet! How sweet! It is the song-sparrow, blessed bird! It won’t be long now; it won’t be long.
The snow fort in the back-yard still sulks there black and dirty. “I’ll go when I get good and ready, and not before,” it seems to say. Other places the thinner snow has departed and left behind it mud that seizes upon your overshoe with an “Oh, what’s your rush?” In the middle of the road it lies as smooth as pancake-batter. A load of building stone stalls, and people gather on the sidewalk to tell the teamster quietly and unostentatiously that he ought to have had more sense than to pile it on like that with the roads the way they are. Every time the cruel whip comes down and the horses dance under it, the women peering out of the front windows wince, and cluck “Tchk! Ain’t it terrible? He ought to be arrested.” This way and that the team turns and tugs, but all in vain. Somebody puts on his rubber boots and wades out to help, fearing not the muddy spokes. Yo hee! Yo hee! No use. He talks it over with the teamster. You can hear him say: “Well, suit yourself. If you want to stay here all night.”
And then the women exult: “Goody! Goody! Serves him right. Now he has to take off some of the stone. Lazy man’s load!”
The mother of children flies to the back-door when school lets out. “Don’t you come in here with all that mud!” she squalls excitedly. “Look at you! A peck o’ dirt on each foot. Right in my nice clean kitchen that I just scrubbed. Go ‘long now and clean your shoes. Go ‘long, I tell you. Slave and slave for you and that’s all the thanks I get. You’d keep the place looking like a hogpen, if I wasn’t at you all the time. I never saw such young ones since the day I was made. Never. Whoopin’ and hollerin’ and trackin’ in and out. It’s enough to drive a body crazy.”
(Don’t you care. It’s just her talk. If it isn’t one thing it’s another, cleaning your shoes, or combing your hair, or brushing your clothes, or using your handkerchief, or shutting the door softly, or holding your spoon with your fingers and not in your fist, or keeping your finger out of your glass when you drink – something the whole blessed time. Forever and eternally picking at a fellow about something. And saying the same thing over and over so many times. That’s the worst of it!)
Pap and mother read over the seed catalogues, all about “warm, light soils,” and “hardy annuals,” and “sow in drills four inches apart.” It kind of hurries things along when you do that. In the south window of the kitchen is a box full of black dirt in which will you look out what you’re doing? Little more and you’d have upset it. There are tomato seeds in that, I’ll have you know. Oh, yes, government seeds. Somebody sends ’em, I don’t know who. Congressman, I guess, whoever he is. I don’t pretend to keep track of ’em. And say. When was this watered last? There it is. Unless I stand over you every minute – My land! If there’s anything done about this house I’ve got to do it.
Between the days when it can’t make up its mind whether to snow or to rain, and tries to do both at once, comes a day when it is warm enough (almost) to go without an overcoat. The Sunday following you can hardly hear what the preacher has to say for the whooping and barking. The choir members have cough drops in their cheeks when they stand up to sing, and everybody stops in at the drug store with: “Say, Doc, what’s good for a cold?”
Eggs have come down. Yesterday they were nine for a quarter; to-day they’re ten. Gildersleeve wants a dollar for a setting of eggs, but he’ll let you have the same number of eggs for thirty cents if you’ll wait till he can run a needle into each one. So afraid you’ll raise chickens of your own.
Excited groups gather about rude circles scratched in the mud, and there is talk of “pureys,” and “reals,” and “aggies,” and “commies,” and “fen dubs!” There is a rich click about the bulging pockets of the boys, and every so often in school time something drops on the floor and rolls noisily across the room. When Miss Daniels asks: “Who did that?” the boys all look so astonished. Who did what, pray tell? And when she picks up a marble and inquires: “Whose is this?” nobody can possibly imagine whose it might be, least of all the boy whose most highly-prized shooter it is. At this season of the year, too, there is much serious talk as to the exceeding sinfulness of “playing for keeps.” The little boys, in whose thumbs lingers the weakness of the arboreal ape, their ancestor, and who “poke” their marbles, drink in eagerly the doctrine that when you win a marble you ought to give it back, but the hard-eyed fellows, who can plunk it every time, sit there and let it go in one ear and out the other, there being a hole drilled through expressly for the purpose. What? Give up the rewards of skill? Ah, g’wan!
The girls, even to those who have begun to turn their hair up under, are turning the rope and dismally chanting: “All in together, pigs in the meadow, nineteen twenty, leave the rope empty,” or whatever the rune is.
It won’t be long now. It won’t be long.
“For lo; the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; the fig-tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines, with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise my love, my fair one and come away.”
THE SONG OF SOLOMON.
Out in the woods the leaves that rustled so bravely when we shuffled our feet through them last fall are sodden and matted. It is warm in the woods, for the sun strikes down through the bare branches, and the cold wind is fended off. The fleshy lances of the spring beauty have stabbed upward through the mulch, and a tiny cup, delicately veined with pink, hangs its head bashfully. Anemones on brown wire stems aspire without a leaf, and in moist patches are May pinks, the trailing arbutus of the grown-ups. As we carry home a bunch, the heads all lopping every way like the heads of strangled babies, we can almost hear behind us in the echoing forests a long, heart-broken moan, as of Rachel mourning for her children, and will not be comforted because they are not. The wild flowers don’t look so pretty in the tin cups of water as they did back in the woods. There is something cheap and common about them. Throw ’em out. The poor plants that planned through all the ages how to attract the first smart insects of the season, and trick them into setting the seeds for next years’ flowers did not reckon that these very means whereby they hoped to rear a family would prove their undoing at the hands of those who plume themselves a little on their refinement, they “are so fond of flowers.”
Old Winter hates to give up that he is beaten. It’s a funny thing, but when you hear a person sing, “Good-a-by, Summer, good-a-by, good-a-by,” you always feel kind of sad and sorry. It’s going, the time of year when you can stay out of doors most of the time, when you can go in swimming, and the Sunday-school picnic, and the circus, and play base-ball and camp out, and there’s no school, and everything nice, and watermelons, and all like that. Good-by, good-by, and you begin to sniff a little. The departure of summer is dignified and even splendid, but the earth looks so sordid and draggle-trailed when winter goes, that onions could not bring a tear. Old winter likes to tease. Aha! You thought I was gone, did you? Not yet, my child, not yet!” And he sends us huckleberry-colored clouds from the northwest, from which snow-flakes big as copper cents solemnly waggle down, as if they really expected the schoolboy to shout: “It snows! Hurrah!” and makes his shout heard through parlor and hall. But they only leave a few dark freckles on the