The Spelling-match





The "Twentieth" school was built of logs hewn on two sides. The cracks

were chinked and filled with plaster, which had a curious habit of

falling out during the summer months, no one knew how; but somehow the

holes always appeared on the boys' side, and being there, were found to

be most useful, for as looking out of the window was forbidden, through

these holes the boys could catch glimpses of the outer world--glimpses

worth catching, too, for all around stood the great forest, the

playground of boys and girls during noon-hour and recesses; an enchanted

land, peopled, not by fairies, elves, and other shadowy beings of

fancy, but with living things, squirrels, and chipmunks, and weasels,

chattering ground-hogs, thumping rabbits, and stealthy foxes, not

to speak of a host of flying things, from the little gray-bird that

twittered its happy nonsense all day, to the big-eyed owl that hooted

solemnly when the moon came out. A wonderful place this forest, for

children to live in, to know, and to love, and in after days to long

for.



It was Friday afternoon, and the long, hot July day was drawing to a

weary close. Mischief was in the air, and the master, Archibald Munro,

or "Archie Murro," as the boys called him, was holding himself in with

a very firm hand, the lines about his mouth showing that he was fighting

back the pain which had never quite left him from the day he had twisted

his knee out of joint five years ago, in a wrestling match, and which,

in his weary moments, gnawed into his vitals. He hated to lose his

grip of himself, for then he knew he should have to grow stern and

terrifying, and rule these young imps in the forms in front of him by

what he called afterwards, in his moments of self-loathing, "sheer brute

force," and that he always counted a defeat.



Munro was a born commander. His pale, intellectual face, with its square

chin and firm mouth, its noble forehead and deep-set gray eyes, carried

a look of such strength and indomitable courage that no boy, however

big, ever thought of anything but obedience when the word of command

came. He was the only master who had ever been able to control, without

at least one appeal to the trustees, the stormy tempers of the young

giants that used to come to school in the winter months.



The school never forgot the day when big Bob Fraser "answered back" in

class. For, before the words were well out of his lips, the master, with

a single stride, was in front of him, and laying two swift, stinging

cuts from the rawhide over big Bob's back, commanded, "Hold out your

hand!" in a voice so terrible, and with eyes of such blazing light, that

before Bob was aware, he shot out his hand and stood waiting the blow.

The school never, in all its history, received such a thrill as the next

few moments brought; for while Bob stood waiting, the master's words

fell clear-cut upon the dead silence, "No, Robert, you are too big to

thrash. You are a man. No man should strike you--and I apologize." And

then big Bob forgot his wonted sheepishness and spoke out with a man's

voice, "I am sorry I spoke back, sir." And then all the girls began

to cry and wipe their eyes with their aprons, while the master and Bob

shook hands silently. From that day and hour Bob Fraser would have slain

any one offering to make trouble for the master, and Archibald Munro's

rule was firmly established.



He was just and impartial in all his decisions, and absolute in his

control; and besides, he had the rare faculty of awakening in his pupils

an enthusiasm for work inside the school and for sports outside.



But now he was holding himself in, and with set teeth keeping back the

pain. The week had been long and hot and trying, and this day had been

the worst of all. Through the little dirty panes of the uncurtained

windows the hot sun had poured itself in a flood of quivering light all

the long day. Only an hour remained of the day, but that hour was to

the master the hardest of all the week. The big boys were droning lazily

over their books, the little boys, in the forms just below his desk,

were bubbling over with spirits--spirits of whose origin there was no

reasonable ground for doubt.



Suddenly Hughie Murray, the minister's boy, a very special imp, held up

his hand.



"Well, Hughie," said the master, for the tenth time within the hour

replying to the signal.



"Spelling-match!"



The master hesitated. It would be a vast relief, but it was a little

like shirking. On all sides, however, hands went up in support of

Hughie's proposal, and having hesitated, he felt he must surrender or

become terrifying at once.



"Very well," he said; "Margaret Aird and Thomas Finch will act as

captains." At once there was a gleeful hubbub. Slates and books were

slung into desks.



"Order! or no spelling-match." The alternative was awful enough to quiet

even the impish Hughie, who knew the tone carried no idle threat, and

who loved a spelling-match with all the ardor of his little fighting

soul.



The captains took their places on each side of the school, and with

careful deliberation, began the selecting of their men, scanning

anxiously the rows of faces looking at the maps or out of the windows

and bravely trying to seem unconcerned. Chivalry demanded that Margaret

should have first choice. "Hughie Murray!" called out Margaret;

for Hughie, though only eight years old, had preternatural gifts in

spelling; his mother's training had done that for him. At four he knew

every Bible story by heart, and would tolerate no liberties with the

text; at six he could read the third reader; at eight he was the best

reader in the fifth; and to do him justice, he thought no better of

himself for that. It was no trick to read. If he could only run, and

climb, and swim, and dive, like the big boys, then he would indeed feel

uplifted; but mere spelling and reading, "Huh! that was nothing."



"Ranald Macdonald!" called Thomas Finch, and a big, lanky boy of fifteen

or sixteen rose and marched to his place. He was a boy one would look at

twice. He was far from handsome. His face was long, and thin, and dark,

with a straight nose, and large mouth, and high cheek-bones; but he had

fine black eyes, though they were fierce, and had a look in them that

suggested the woods and the wild things that live there. But Ranald,

though his attendance was spasmodic, and dependent upon the suitability

or otherwise of the weather for hunting, was the best speller in the

school.



For that reason Margaret would have chosen him, and for another which

she would not for worlds have confessed, even to herself. And do you

think she would have called Ranald Macdonald to come and stand up beside

her before all these boys? Not for the glory of winning the match and

carrying the medal for a week. But how gladly would she have given up

glory and medal for the joy of it, if she had dared.



At length the choosing was over, and the school ranged in two opposing

lines, with Margaret and Thomas at the head of their respective forces,

and little Jessie MacRae and Johnnie Aird, with a single big curl on

the top of his head, at the foot. It was a point of honor that no blood

should be drawn at the first round. To Thomas, who had second choice,

fell the right of giving the first word. So to little Jessie, at the

foot, he gave "Ox."



"O-x, ox," whispered Jessie, shyly dodging behind her neighbor.



"In!" said Margaret to Johnnie Aird.



"I-s, in," said Johnnie, stoutly.



"Right!" said the master, silencing the shout of laughter. "Next word."



With like gentle courtesies the battle began; but in the second

round the little A, B, C's were ruthlessly swept off the field with

second-book words, and retired to their seats in supreme exultation,

amid the applause of their fellows still left in the fight. After

that there was no mercy. It was a give-and-take battle, the successful

speller having the right to give the word to the opposite side. The

master was umpire, and after his "Next!" had fallen there was no appeal.

But if a mistake were made, it was the opponent's part and privilege to

correct with all speed, lest a second attempt should succeed.



Steadily, and amid growing excitement, the lines grew less, till there

were left on one side, Thomas, with Ranald supporting him, and on the

other Margaret, with Hughie beside her, his face pale, and his dark eyes

blazing with the light of battle.



Without varying fortune the fight went on. Margaret, still serene, and

with only a touch of color in her face, gave out her words with even

voice, and spelled her opponent's with calm deliberation. Opposite her

Thomas stood, stolid, slow, and wary. He had no nerves to speak of, and

the only chance of catching him lay in lulling him off to sleep.



They were now among the deadly words.



"Parallelopiped!" challenged Hughie to Ranald, who met it easily, giving

Margaret "hyphen" in return.



"H-y-p-h-e-n," spelled Margaret, and then, with cunning carelessness,

gave Thomas "heifer." ("Hypher," she called it.)



Thomas took it lightly.



"H-e-i-p-h-e-r."



Like lightning Hughie was upon him. "H-e-i-f-e-r."



"F-e-r," shouted Thomas. The two yells came almost together.



There was a deep silence. All eyes were turned upon the master.



"I think Hughie was first," he said, slowly. A great sigh swept over the

school, and then a wave of applause.



The master held up his hand.



"But it was so very nearly a tie, that if Hughie is willing--"



"All right, sir," cried Hughie, eager for more fight.



But Thomas, in sullen rage, strode to his seat muttering, "I was just as

soon anyway." Every one heard and waited, looking at the master.



"The match is over," said the master, quietly. Great disappointment

showed in every face.



"There is just one thing better than winning, and that is, taking defeat

like a man." His voice was grave, and with just a touch of sadness. The

children, sensitive to moods, as is the characteristic of children, felt

the touch and sat subdued and silent.



There was no improving of the occasion, but with the same sad gravity

the school was dismissed; and the children learned that day one of

life's golden lessons--that the man who remains master of himself never

knows defeat.



The master stood at the door watching the children go down the slope to

the road, and then take their ways north and south, till the forest hid

them from his sight.



"Well," he muttered, stretching up his arms and drawing a great breath,

"it's over for another week. A pretty near thing, though."





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