The New Assistant At Pine Clearing School
: Colonel Starbottle's Client And Other
The schoolmistress of Pine Clearing was taking a last look around her
schoolroom before leaving it for the day. She might have done so with
pride, for the schoolroom was considered a marvel of architectural
elegance by the citizens, and even to the ordinary observer was a
pretty, villa-like structure, with an open cupola and overhanging roof
of diamond-shaped shingles and a deep E
izabethan porch. But it was
the monument of a fierce struggle between a newer civilization and a
barbarism of the old days, which had resulted in the clearing away of
the pines--and a few other things as incongruous to the new life and far
less innocent, though no less sincere. It had cost the community fifteen
thousand dollars, and the lives of two of its citizens.
Happily there was no stain of this on the clean white walls, the
beautifully-written gilt texts, or the shining blackboard that had
offered no record which could not be daily wiped away. And, certainly,
the last person in the world to suggest any reminiscences of its
belligerent foundation was the person of the schoolmistress. Mature,
thin, precise,--not pretty enough to have excited Homeric feuds, nor yet
so plain as to preclude certain soothing graces,--she was the widow of
a poor Congregational minister, and had been expressly imported from
San Francisco to squarely mark the issue between the regenerate and
unregenerate life. Low-voiced, gentlewomanly, with the pallor of
ill-health perhaps unduly accented by her mourning, which was still cut
modishly enough to show off her spare but good figure, she was
supposed to represent the model of pious, scholastic refinement. The
Opposition--sullen in ditches and at the doors of saloons, or in the
fields truculent as their own cattle--nevertheless had lowered their
crests and buttoned their coats over their revolutionary red shirts when
SHE went by.
As she was stepping from the threshold, she was suddenly confronted by
a brisk business-looking man, who was about to enter. "Just in time to
catch you, Mrs. Martin," he said hurriedly; then, quickly correcting his
manifest familiarity, he added: "I mean, I took the liberty of running
in here on my way to the stage office. That matter you spoke of is
all arranged. I talked it over with the other trustees, wrote to Sam
Barstow, and he's agreeable, and has sent somebody up, and," he rapidly
consulted his watch, "he ought to be here now; and I'm on my way to meet
him with the other trustees."
Mrs. Martin, who at once recognized her visitor as the Chairman of
the School Board, received the abrupt information with the slight
tremulousness, faint increase of color, and hurried breathing of a
"But," she said, "it was only a SUGGESTION of mine, Mr. Sperry; I really
have no right to ask--I had no idea"--
"It's all right, ma'am,--never you mind. We put the case square to
Barstow. We allowed that the school was getting too large for you to
tackle,--I mean, you know, to superintend single-handed; and that these
Pike County boys they're running in on us are a little too big and
sassy for a lady like you to lasso and throw down--I mean, to sorter
control--don't you see? But, bless you, Sam Barstow saw it all in a
minit! He just jumped at it. I've got his letter here--hold on"--he
hastily produced a letter from his pocket, glanced ever it, suddenly
closed it again with embarrassed quickness, yet not so quickly but that
the woman's quicker eyes were caught, and nervously fascinated by the
expression "I'm d----d" in a large business hand--and said in awkward
haste, "No matter about reading it now--keep you too long--but he's
agreed all right, you know. Must go now--they'll be waiting. Only I
thought I'd drop in a-passin', to keep you posted;" and, taking off his
hat, he began to back from the porch.
"Is--is--this gentleman who is to assist me--a--a mature professional
man--or a--graduate?" hesitated Mrs. Martin, with a faint smile.
"Don't really know--I reckon Sam--Mr. Barstow--fixed that all right.
Must really go now;" and, still holding his hat in his hand as a polite
compromise for his undignified haste, he fairly ran off.
Arrived at the stage office, he found the two other trustees awaiting
him, and the still more tardy stage-coach. One, a large, smooth-faced,
portly man, was the Presbyterian minister; the other, of thinner and
more serious aspect, was a large mill-owner.
"I presume," said the Rev. Mr. Peaseley, slowly, "that as our good
brother Barstow, in the urgency of the occasion, has, to some
extent, anticipated OUR functions in engaging this assistant, he
is--a--a--satisfied with his capacity?"
"Sam knows what he's about," said the mill-owner cheerfully, "and as
he's regularly buckled down to the work here, and will go his bottom
dollar on it, you can safely leave things to him."
"He certainly has exhibited great zeal," said the reverend gentleman
"Zeal," echoed Sperry enthusiastically, "zeal? Why, he runs Pine
Clearing as he runs his bank and his express company in Sacramento, and
he's as well posted as if he were here all the time. Why, look here;"
he nudged the mill-owner secretly, and, as the minister's back was
momentarily turned, pulled out the letter he had avoided reading to Mrs.
Martin, and pointed to a paragraph. "I'll be d----d," said the writer,
"but I'll have peace and quietness at Pine Clearing, if I have to wipe
out or make over the whole Pike County gang. Draw on me for a piano if
you think Mrs. Martin can work it. But don't say anything to Peaseley
first, or he'll want it changed for a harmonium, and that lets us in
for psalm-singing till you can't rest. Mind! I don't object to Church
influence--it's a good hold!--but you must run IT with other things
equal, and not let it run YOU. I've got the schoolhouse insured for
thirty thousand dollars--special rates too."
The mill-owner smiled. "Sam's head is level! But," he added, "he don't
say much about the new assistant he's sending."
"Only here," he says, "I reckon the man I send will do all round; for
Pike County has its claims as well as Boston."
"What does that mean?" asked the mill-owner.
"I reckon he means he don't want Pine Clearing to get too high-toned
any more than he wants it too low down. He's mighty square in his
Here speculation was stopped by the rapid oncoming of the stage-coach
in all the impotent fury of a belated arrival. "Had to go round by
Montezuma to let off Jack Hill," curtly explained the driver, as he
swung himself from the box, and entered the hotel bar-room in company
with the new expressman, who had evidently taken Hill's place on the
box-seat. Autocratically indifferent to further inquiry, he called out
cheerfully: "Come along, boys, and hear this yer last new yarn about Sam
Barstow,--it's the biggest thing out." And in another moment the waiting
crowd, with glasses in their hands, were eagerly listening to the
repetition of the "yarn" from the new expressman, to the apparent
exclusion of other matters, mundane and practical.
Thus debarred from information, the three trustees could only watch
the passengers as they descended, and try to identify their expected
stranger. But in vain: the bulk of the passengers they already knew, the
others were ordinary miners and laborers; there was no indication of the
new assistant among them. Pending further inquiry they were obliged
to wait the conclusion of the expressman's humorous recital. This was
evidently a performance of some artistic merit, depending upon a capital
imitation of an Irishman, a German Jew, and another voice, which was
universally recognized and applauded as being "Sam's style all over!"
But for the presence of the minister, Sperry and the mill-owner would
have joined the enthusiastic auditors, and inwardly regretted the
respectable obligations of their official position.
When the story-teller had concluded amidst a general call for more
drinks, Sperry approached the driver. The latter recognizing him, turned
to his companion carelessly, said, "Here's one of 'em," and was going
away when Sperry stopped him.
"We were expecting a young man."
"Yes," said the driver, impatiently, "and there he is, I reckon."
"We don't mean the new expressman," said the minister, smiling blandly,
"but a young man who"--
"THAT ain't no new expressman," returned the driver in scornful
deprecation of his interlocutor's ignorance. "He only took Hill's
place from Montezuma. He's the new kid reviver and polisher for that
University you're runnin' here. I say--you fellers oughter get him to
tell you that story of Sam Barstow and the Chinaman. It'd limber you
fellers up to hear it."
"I fear there's some extraordinary mistake here," said Mr. Peaseley,
with a chilling Christian smile.
"Not a bit of it. He's got a letter from Sam for one of ye. Yere,
Charley--what's your name! Com yere. Yere's all yer three bosses waiting
And the supposed expressman and late narrator of amusing stories came
forward and presented his credentials as the assistant teacher of Pine
Even the practical Mr. Sperry was taken aback. The young man before him
was squarely built, with broad shoulders, and a certain air of muscular
activity. But his face, although good-humored, was remarkable for
offering not the slightest indication of studious preoccupation or
mental training. A large mouth, light blue eyes, a square jaw, the other
features being indistinctive--were immobile as a mask--except that,
unlike a mask, they seemed to actually reflect the vacuity of the mood
within, instead of concealing it. But as he saluted the trustees they
each had the same feeling that even this expression was imported and not
instinctive. His face was clean-shaven, and his hair cut so short as to
suggest that a wig of some kind was necessary to give it characteristic
or even ordinary human semblance. His manner, self-assured yet lacking
reality, and his dress of respectable cut and material, yet worn as if
it did not belong to him, completed a picture as unlike a student or
schoolmaster as could be possibly conceived.
Yet there was the letter in Mr. Peaseley's hands from Barstow,
introducing Mr. Charles Twing as the first assistant teacher in the Pine
Clearing Free Academy!
The three men looked hopelessly at each other. An air of fatigued
righteousness and a desire to be spiritually at rest from other trials
pervaded Mr. Peaseley. Whether or not the young man felt the evident
objection he had raised, he assumed a careless position, with his back
and elbows against the bar; but even the attitude was clearly not his
"Are you personally known to Mr. Barstow?" asked Sperry, with a slight
"That is--you are quite well acquainted with him?"
"If you'd heard me gag his style a minute ago, so that everybody here
knew who it was, you'd say so."
Mr. Peaseley's eyes sought the ceiling, and rested on the hanging lamp,
as if nothing short of direct providential interference could meet the
occasion. Yet, as the eyes of his brother trustees were bent on him
expectantly, he nerved himself to say something.
"I suppose, Mr.--Mr. Twing, you have properly understood the great--I
may say, very grave, intellectual, and moral responsibilities of the
work you seek to undertake--and the necessity of supporting it by
EXAMPLE, by practice, by personal influence both in the school and OUT
OF IT. Sir, I presume, sir, you feel that you are fully competent to
"I reckon HE does!"
"Sam Barstow, or he wouldn't have selected me. I presume" (with the
slightest possible and almost instinctive imitation of the reverend
gentleman's manner) "his head is considered level."
Mr. Peaseley withdrew his eyes from the ceiling. "I have," he said to
his companions, with a pained smile, "an important choir meeting to
attend this afternoon. I fear I must be excused." As he moved towards
the door, the others formally following him, until out of the stranger's
hearing, he added: "I wash my hands of this. After so wanton and
unseemly an exhibition of utter incompetency, and even of understanding
of the trust imposed upon him--upon US--MY conscience forbids me to
interfere further. But the real arbiter in this matter will be--thank
Heaven!--the mistress herself. You have only to confront her at once
with this man. HER decision will be speedy and final. For even Mr.
Barstow will not dare to force so outrageous a character upon a
delicate, refined woman, in a familiar and confidential capacity."
"That's so," said Sperry eagerly; "she'll settle it. And, of course,"
added the mill-owner, "that will leave us out of any difficulty with
The two men returned to the hapless stranger, relieved, yet constrained
by the sacrifice to which they felt they were leading him. It would be
necessary, they said, to introduce him to his principal, Mrs. Martin,
at once. They might still find her at the schoolhouse, distant but a few
steps. They said little else, the stranger keeping up an ostentatious
whistling, and becoming more and more incongruous, they thought, as they
neared the pretty schoolhouse. Here they DID find Mrs. Martin, who had,
naturally, lingered after the interview with Sperry.
She came forward to meet them, with the nervous shyness and slightly
fastidious hesitation that was her nature. They saw, or fancied
they saw, the same surprise and disappointment they had themselves
experienced pass over her sensitive face, as she looked at him; they
felt that their vulgar charge appeared still more outrageous by contrast
with this delicate woman and her pretty, refined surroundings; but they
saw that HE enjoyed it, and was even--if such a word could be applied to
so self-conscious a man--more at ease in her presence!
"I reckon you and me will pull together very well, ma'am," he said
They looked to see her turn her back upon him; faint, or burst out
crying; but she did neither, and only gazed at him quietly.
"It's a mighty pretty place you've got here--and I like it, and if WE
can't run it, I don't know who can. Only just let me know WHAT you want,
ma'am, and you can count on me every time."
To their profound consternation Mrs. Martin smiled faintly.
"It rests with YOU only, Mrs. Martin," said Sperry quickly and
significantly. "It's YOUR say, you know; you're the only one to be
considered or consulted here."
"Only just say what you want me to do," continued Twing, apparently
ignoring the trustees; "pick out the style of job; give me a hint or
two how to work it, or what you'd think would be the proper gag to fetch
'em, and I'm there, ma'am. It may be new at first, but I'll get at the
business of it quick enough."
Mrs. Martin smiled--this time quite perceptibly--with the least
little color in her cheeks and eyes. "Then you've had no experience in
teaching?" she said.
"You are not a graduate of any college?"
The two trustees looked at each other. Even Mr. Peaseley had not
conceived such a damning revelation.
"Well," said Mrs. Martin slowly, "perhaps Mr. Twing had better COME
EARLY TOMORROW MORNING AND BEGIN."
"Begin?" gasped Mr. Sperry in breathless astonishment.
"Certainly," said Mrs. Martin in timid explanation. "If he is new to the
work the sooner the better."
Mr. Sperry could only gaze blankly at his brother official. Had they
heard aright? Was this the recklessness of nervous excitement in a woman
of delicate health, or had the impostor cast some glamour upon her? Or
was she frightened of Sam Barstow and afraid to reject his candidate?
The last thought was an inspiration. He drew her quickly aside. "One
moment, Mrs. Martin! You said to me an hour ago that you didn't intend
to have asked Mr. Barstow to send you an assistant. I hope that, merely
because he HAS done so, you don't feel obliged to accept this man
against your better judgment?"
"Oh no," said Mrs. Martin quietly.
The case seemed hopeless. And Sperry had the miserable conviction that
by having insisted upon Mrs. Martin's judgment being final they had
estopped their own right to object. But how could they have foreseen her
extraordinary taste? He, however, roused himself for a last appeal.
"Mrs. Martin," he said in a lower voice, "I ought to tell you that the
Reverend Mr. Peaseley strongly doubts the competency of that young man."
"Didn't Mr. Barstow make a selection at your request?" asked Mrs.
Martin, with a faint little nervous cough.
"Then his competency only concerns ME--and I don't see what Mr. Peaseley
has to say about it."
Could he believe his senses? There was a decided flush in the woman's
pale face, and the first note of independence and asperity in her voice.
That night, in the privacy of his conjugal chamber, Mr. Sperry relieved
his mind to another of the enigmatical sex,--the stout Southwestern
partner of his joys and troubles. But the result was equally
unsatisfactory. "Well, Abner," said the lady, "I never could see, for
all your men's praises of Mrs. Martin, what that feller can see in HER
Mrs. Martin was early at the schoolhouse the next morning, yet not so
early but that she discovered that the new assistant had been there
before her. This was shown in some rearrangement of the school seats and
benches. They were placed so as to form a horseshoe before her desk, and
at the further extremity of this semicircle was a chair evidently for
himself. She was a little nettled at his premature action, although
admitting the utility of the change, but she was still more annoyed
at his absence at such a moment. It was nearly the school hour when
he appeared, to her surprise, marshaling a file of some of the smaller
children whom he had evidently picked up en route, and who were, to her
greater surprise, apparently on the best of terms with him. "Thought
I'd better rake 'em in, introduce myself to 'em, and get 'em to know me
before school begins. Excuse me," he went on hastily, "but I've a lot
more coming up, and I'd better make myself square with them OUTSIDE."
But Mrs. Martin had apparently developed a certain degree of stiffness
since their evening's interview.
"It seems to me quite as important, Mr. Twing," she said drily, "that
you should first learn some of your own duties, which I came here early
to teach you."
"Not at all," he said cheerfully. "Today I take my seat, as I've
arranged it, you see, over there with them, and watch 'em go through the
motions. One rehearsal's enough for ME. At the same time, I can chip in
if necessary." And before she could reply he was out of the schoolhouse
again, hailing the new-comers. This was done with apparently such
delight to the children and with some evidently imported expression into
his smooth mask-like face, that Mrs. Martin had to content herself with
watching him with equal curiosity. She was turning away with a sudden
sense of forgotten dignity, when a shout of joyous, childish laughter
attracted her attention to the window. The new assistant, with half a
dozen small children on his square shoulders, walking with bent back and
every simulation of advanced senility, was evidently personating,
with the assistance of astonishingly distorted features, the ogre of a
Christmas pantomime. As his eye caught hers the expression vanished, the
mask-like face returned; he set the children down, and moved away. And
when school began, although he marshaled them triumphantly to the very
door,--with what contortion of face or simulation of character she was
unable to guess,--after he had entered the schoolroom and taken his seat
every vestige of his previous facial aberration was gone, and only his
usual stolidity remained. In vain, as Mrs. Martin expected, the hundred
delighted little eyes before her dwelt at first eagerly and hopefully
upon his face, but, as she HAD NOT expected, recognizing from the
blankness of his demeanor that the previous performance was intended for
them exclusively, the same eager eyes were presently dropped again upon
their books in simple imitation, as if he were one of themselves. Mrs.
Martin breathed freely, and lessons began.
Yet she was nervously conscious, meanwhile, of a more ill-omened
occurrence. This was the non-arrival of several of her oldest pupils,
notably, the refractory and incorrigible Pike County contingent to whom
Sperry had alluded. For the past few days they had hovered on the verge
of active insubordination, and had indulged in vague mutterings which
she had resolutely determined not to hear. It was, therefore, with some
inward trepidations, not entirely relieved by Twing's presence, that she
saw the three Mackinnons and the two Hardees slouch into the school
a full hour after the lessons had begun. They did not even excuse
themselves, but were proceeding with a surly and ostentatious defiance
to their seats, when Mrs. Martin was obliged to look up, and--as the
eldest Hardee filed before her--to demand an explanation. The culprit
addressed--a dull, heavy-looking youth of nineteen--hesitated with an
air of mingled doggedness and sheepishness, and then, without replying,
nudged his companion. It was evidently a preconcerted signal of
rebellion, for the boy nudged stopped, and, turning a more intelligent,
but equally dissatisfied, face upon the schoolmistress, began
"Wot's our excuse for coming an hour late? Well, we ain't got none. WE
don't call it an hour late--WE don't. We call it the right time. We call
it the right time for OUR lessons, for we don't allow to come here to
sing hymns with babbies. We don't want to know 'where, oh where, are the
Hebrew children?' They ain't nothin' to us Americans. And we don't want
any more Daniels in the Lions' Den played off on us. We have enough of
'em in Sunday-school. We ain't hankerin' much for grammar and dictionary
hogwash, and we don't want no Boston parts o' speech rung in on us the
first thing in the mo'nin'. We ain't Boston--we're Pike County--WE are.
We reckon to do our sums, and our figgerin', and our sale and barter,
and our interest tables and weights and measures when the time comes,
and our geograffy when it's on, and our readin' and writin' and the
American Constitution in reg'lar hours, and then we calkilate to git
up and git afore the po'try and the Boston airs and graces come round.
That's our rights and what our fathers pay school taxes for, and we want
He stopped, looking less towards the schoolmistress than to his
companions, for whom perhaps, after the schoolboy fashion, this attitude
was taken. Mrs. Martin sat, quite white and self-contained, with her
eyes fixed on the frayed rim of the rebel's straw hat which he still
kept on his head. Then she said quietly:--
"Take off your hat, sir."
The boy did not move.
"He can't," said a voice cheerfully.
It was the new assistant. The whole school faced rapidly towards him.
The rebel leader and his followers, who had not noticed him before,
stared at the interrupter, who did not, however, seem to exhibit any of
the authority of office, but rather the comment and criticism of one of
themselves. "Wot you mean?" asked the boy indignantly.
"I mean you can't take off your hat because you've got some things
stowed away in it you don't want seen," said Twing, with an immovable
"Wot things?" exclaimed the boy angrily. Then suddenly recollecting
himself, he added, "Go along! You can't fool me! Think you'll make me
take off my hat--don't you?"
"Well," said Twing, advancing to the side of the rebel, "look here
then!" With a dexterous movement and a slight struggle from the boy, he
lifted the hat. A half-dozen apples, a bird's nest, two birds' eggs,
and a fluttering half-fledged bird fell from it. A wave of delight
and astonishment ran along the benches, a blank look of hopeless
bewilderment settled upon the boy's face, and the gravity of the
situation disappeared forever in the irrepressible burst of laughter,
in which even his brother rebels joined. The smallest child who had been
half-frightened, half-fascinated by the bold, bad, heroic attitude of
the mutineer, was quick to see the ridiculousness of that figure crowned
with cheap schoolboy plunder. The eloquent protest of his wrongs was
lost in the ludicrous appearance of the protester. Even Mrs. Martin felt
that nothing she could say at that moment could lift the rebellion into
seriousness again. But Twing was evidently not satisfied.
"Beg Mrs. Martin's pardon, and say you were foolin' with the boys," he
said in a low voice.
The discomfited rebel hesitated.
"Say it, or I'll SHOW WHAT YOU'VE GOT IN YOUR POCKETS!" said Twing in a
terribly significant aside.
The boy mumbled an apology to Mrs. Martin, scrambled in a blank,
hopeless way to his seat, and the brief rebellion ignominiously ended.
But two things struck Mrs. Martin as peculiar. She overheard the culprit
say, with bated breath and evident sincerity, to his comrades: "Hadn't
nothing in my hat, anyway!" and one of the infant class was heard to
complain, in a deeply-injured way, that the bird's nest was HIS, and had
been "stoled" from his desk. And there still remained the fact for which
Twing's undoubted fascination over the children had somewhat prepared
her--that at recess the malcontents--one and all--seemed to have
forgiven the man who had overcome them, and gathered round him with
unmistakable interest. All this, however, did not blind her to the
serious intent of the rebellion, or of Twing's unaccountable assumption
of her prerogative. While he was still romping with the children she
called him in.
"I must remind you," she said, with a slight nervous asperity, "that
this outrageous conduct of Tom Hardee was evidently deliberated and
prepared by the others, and cannot end in this way."
He looked at her with a face so exasperatingly expressionless that
she could have slapped it as if it had belonged to one of the older
scholars, and said,--"But it HAS ended. It's a dead frost."
"I don't know what you mean; and I must remind you also that in this
school we neither teach nor learn slang."
His immobile face changed for an instant to a look of such decided
admiration that she felt her color rise; but he wiped his expression
away with his hand as if it had been some artificial make-up, and said
awkwardly, but earnestly:--
"Excuse me--won't you? But, look here, Mrs. Martin, I found out early
this morning, when I was squaring myself with the other children, that
there was this row hangin' on--in fact, that there was a sort of idea
that Pike County wasn't having a fair show--excuse me--in the running of
the school, and that Peaseley and Barstow were a little too much on in
every scene. In fact, you see, it was just what Tom said."
"This is insufferable," said Mrs. Martin, her eyes growing darker as
her cheeks grew red. "They shall go home to their parents, and tell them
"That they're all mistaken--excuse me--but that's just what THEY'RE
GOIN' TO DO. I tell you, Mrs. Martin, their little game's busted--I beg
pardon--but it's all over. You'll have no more trouble with them."
"And you think that just because you found Tom had something in his hat,
and exposed him?" said Mrs. Martin scornfully.
"Tom HADN'T anything in his hat," said Twing, wiping his mouth slowly.
"Nothing?" repeated Mrs. Martin.
"But I SAW you take the things out."
"That was only a TRICK! He had nothing except what I had up my sleeve,
and forced on him. He knew it, and that frightened him, and made him
look like a fool, and so bursted up his conspiracy. There's nothin'
boys are more afraid of than ridicule, or the man or boy that make 'em
"I won't ask you if you call this FAIR to the boy, Mr. Twing?" said Mrs.
Martin hotly; "but is this your idea of discipline?"
"I call it fair, because Tom knew it was some kind of a trick, and
wasn't deceived. I call it discipline if it made him do what was right
afterwards, and makes him afraid or unwilling to do anything to offend
me or you again. He likes me none the worse for giving him a chance of
being laughed out of a thing instead of being DRIVEN out of it. And," he
added, with awkward earnestness, "if you'll just leave all this to
ME, and only consider me here to take this sort of work which ain't
a lady's--off your hands, we'll just strike our own line between the
Peaseleys and Pike County--and run this school in spite of both."
A little mollified, a good deal puzzled, and perhaps more influenced by
the man's manner than she had imagined, Mrs. Martin said nothing, but
let the day pass without dismissing the offenders. And on returning home
that evening she was considerably surprised to receive her landlady's
extravagant congratulations on the advent of her new assistant. "And
they do say, Mrs. Martin," continued that lady enthusiastically, "that
your just setting your foot down square on that Peaseley and that
Barstow, BOTH OF 'EM--and choosing your own assistant yourself--a plain
young fellow with no frills and fancies, but one that you could set
about making all the changes you like, was just the biggest thing you
ever did for Pine Clearing."
"And--they--consider him quite--competent?" said Mrs. Martin, with timid
color and hesitating audacity.
"Competent! You ask my Johnny."
Nevertheless, Mrs. Martin was somewhat formally early at the schoolhouse
the next morning. "Perhaps," she said, with an odd mixture of dignity
and timidity, "we'd better, before school commences, go over the lessons
for the day."
"I HAVE," he said quickly. "I told you ONE rehearsal was enough for me."
"You mean you have looked over them?"
"Got 'em by heart. Letter perfect. Want to hear me? Listen."
She did. He had actually committed to memory, and without a lapse, the
entire text of rules, questions, answers, and examples of the lessons
for the day.
Before a month had passed, Mr. Twing's success was secure and
established. So were a few of the changes he had quietly instituted.
The devotional singing and Scripture reading which had excited the
discontent of the Pike County children and their parents was not
discontinued, but half an hour before recess was given up to some
secular choruses, patriotic or topical, in which the little ones under
Twing's really wonderful practical tuition exhibited such quick and
pleasing proficiency, that a certain negro minstrel camp-meeting
song attained sufficient popularity to be lifted by general accord to
promotion to the devotional exercises, where it eventually ousted the
objectionable "Hebrew children" on the question of melody alone. Grammar
was still taught at Pine Clearing School in spite of the Hardees and
Mackinnons, but Twing had managed to import into the cognate exercises
of recitation a wonderful degree of enthusiasm and excellence.
Dialectical Pike County, that had refused to recognize the governing
powers of the nominative case, nevertheless came out strong in classical
elocution, and Tom Hardee, who had delivered his ungrammatical protest
on behalf of Pike County, was no less strong, if more elegant, in his
impeachment of Warren Hastings as Edmund Burke, with the equal sanction
of his parents. The trustees, Sperry and Jackson, had marveled, but
were glad enough to accept the popular verdict--only Mr. Peaseley still
retained an attitude of martyr-like forbearance and fatigued toleration
towards the new assistant and his changes. As to Mrs. Martin, she seemed
to accept the work of Mr. Twing after his own definition of it--as of a
masculine quality ill-suited to a lady's tastes and inclinations; but it
was noticeable that while she had at first repelled any criticism of him
whatever, she had lately been given to explaining his position to her
friends, and had spoken of him with somewhat labored and ostentatious
patronage. Yet when they were alone together she frankly found him very
amusing, and his presumption and vulgarity so clearly unintentional that
it no longer offended her. They were good friends without having any
confidences beyond the duties of the school; she had asked no further
explanation of the fact that he had been selected by Mr. Barstow
without reference to any special antecedent training. What his actual
antecedents were she had never cared to know, nor he apparently to
reveal; that he had been engaged in some other occupations of superior
or inferior quality would not have been remarkable in a community where
the principal lawyer had been a soldier, and the miller a doctor. The
fact that he admired her was plain enough to HER; that it pleased her,
but carried with it no ulterior thought or responsibility, might have
been equally clear to others. Perhaps it was so to HIM.
Howbeit, this easy mutual intercourse was one day interrupted by what
seemed a trifling incident. The piano, which Mr. Barstow had promised,
duly made its appearance in the schoolhouse, to the delight of the
scholars and the gentle satisfaction of Mrs. Martin, who, in addition to
the rudimentary musical instruction of the younger girls, occasionally
played upon it herself in a prim, refined, and conscientious fashion.
To this, when she was alone after school hours, she sometimes added a
faint, colorless voice of limited range and gentlewomanly expression. It
was on one of these occasions that Twing, becoming an accidental auditor
of this chaste, sad piping, was not only permitted to remain to hear the
end of a love song of strictly guarded passion in the subjunctive
mood, but at the close was invited to try his hand--a quick, if not a
cultivated one--at the instrument. He did so. Like her, he added his
voice. Like hers, it was a love song. But there the similitude ended.
Negro in dialect, illiterate in construction, idiotic in passion, and
presumably addressed to the "Rose of Alabama," in the very extravagance
of its childish infatuation it might have been a mockery of the
schoolmistress's song but for one tremendous fact! In unrestrained
feeling, pathetic yearning, and exquisite tenderness of expression, it
was unmistakably and appallingly personal and sincere. It was true the
lips spoken of were "lubly," the eyes alluded to were like "lightenin'
bugs," but from the voice and gestures of the singer Mrs. Martin
confusedly felt that they were intended for HERS, and even the refrain
that "she dressed so neat and looked so sweet" was glaringly allusive
to her own modish mourning. Alternately flushing and paling, with a
hysteric smile hovering round her small reserved mouth, the unfortunate
gentlewoman was fain to turn to the window to keep her countenance until
it was concluded. She did not ask him to repeat it, nor did she again
subject herself to this palpable serenade, but a few days afterwards, as
she was idly striking the keys in the interval of a music lesson, one
of her little pupils broke out, "Why, Mrs. Martin, if yo ain't a pickin'
out that pow'ful pretty tune that Mr. Twing sings!"
Nevertheless, when Twing, a week or two later, suggested that he might
sing the same song as a solo at a certain performance to be given by the
school children in aid of a local charity, she drily intimated that it
was hardly of a character to suit the entertainment. "But," she added,
more gently, "you recite so well; why not give a recitation?"
He looked at her with questioning and troubled eyes,--the one expression
he seemed to have lately acquired. "But that would be IN PUBLIC!
There'll be a lot of people there," he said doubtfully.
A little amused at this first apparent sign of a want of confidence in
himself, she said, with a reassuring smile, "So much the better,--you do
it really too well to have it thrown away entirely on children."
"Do YOU wish it?" he said suddenly.
Somewhat confused, but more irritated by his abruptness, she replied,
"Why not?" But when the day came, and before a crowded audience, in
which there was a fair sprinkling of strangers, she regretted her rash
suggestion. For when the pupils had gone through certain calisthenic
exercises--admirably taught and arranged by him--and "spoken their
pieces," he arose, and, fixing his eyes on her, began Othello's defense
before the Duke and Council. Here, as on the previous occasion, she felt
herself personally alluded to in his account of his wooing.
Desdemona, for some occult reason, vicariously appeared for her in the
unwarrantable picture of his passion, and to this was added the absurd
consciousness which she could not put aside that the audience, following
with enthusiasm his really strong declamation, was also following his
suggestion and adopting it. Yet she was also conscious, and, as she
thought, as inconsistently, of being pleased and even proud of his
success. At the conclusion the applause was general, and a voice added
with husky admiration and familiarity:--
"Brayvo, Johnny Walker!"
Twing's face became suddenly white as a Pierrot mask. There was a dead
silence, in which the voice continued, "Give us 'Sugar in the Gourd,'
A few hisses, and cries of "Hush!" "Put him out!" followed. Mrs. Martin
raised her eyes quickly to where her assistant had stood bowing his
thanks a moment before. He was gone!
More concerned than she cared to confess, vaguely fearful that she was
in some way connected with his abrupt withdrawal, and perhaps a little
remorseful that she had allowed her personal feelings to interfere with
her frank recognition of his triumph, she turned back to the schoolroom,
after the little performers and their audience had departed, in the hope
that he might return. It was getting late, the nearly level rays of the
sun were lying on the empty benches at the lower end of the room, but
the desk where she sat with its lid raised was in deep shadow.
Suddenly she heard his voice in a rear hall, but it was accompanied by
another's,--the same voice which had interrupted the applause. Before
she could either withdraw, or make herself known, the two men had
entered the room, and were passing slowly through it. She understood at
once that Twing had slipped out into a janitor's room in the rear,
where he had evidently forced an interview and explanation from his
interrupter, and now had been waiting for the audience to disperse
before emerging by the front door. They had evidently overlooked her in
"But," said the stranger, as if following an aggrieved line of apology,
"if Barstow knew who you were, and what you'd done, and still thought
you good enough to rastle round here and square up them Pike County
fellers and them kids--what in thunder do you care if the others DO find
you out, as long as Barstow sticks to you?"
"I've told you why, Dick," returned Twing gloomily.
"Oh, the schoolma'am!"
"Yes, she's a saint, an angel. More than that--she's a lady, Dick,
to the tip of her fingers, who knows nothing of the world outside a
parson's study. She took me on trust--without a word--when the trustees
hung back and stared. She's never asked me about myself, and now when
she knows who and what I have been--she'll loathe me!"
"But look here, Jim," said the stranger anxiously. "I'll say it's all a
lie. I'll come here and apologize to you afore HER, and say I took you
for somebody else. I'll"--
"It's too late," said Twing moodily.
"And what'll you do?"
They had reached the door together. To Mrs. Martin's terror, as the
stranger passed out, Twing, instead of following him as she expected,
said "Good-night," and gloomily re-entered the schoolroom. Here he
paused a moment, and then throwing himself on one of the benches,
dropped his head upon a desk with his face buried in his hands--like a
What passed through Mrs. Martin's mind I know not. For a moment she sat
erect and rigid at her desk. Then she slipped quietly down, and, softly
as one of the last shadows cast by the dying sun, glided across the
floor to where he sat.
"Mrs. Martin," he said, starting to his feet.
"I have heard all," she said faintly. "I couldn't help it. I was here
when you came in. But I want to tell you that I am content to know you
only as you seem to be,--as I have always found you here,--strong and
loyal to a duty laid upon you by those who had a full knowledge of all
you had been."
"Did you? Do you know what I have been?"
Mrs. Martin looked frightened, trembled a moment, and, recovering
herself with an effort, said gently, "I know nothing of your past."
"Nothing?" he repeated, with a mirthless attempt at laughter, and a
quick breath. "Not that I've been a--a--mountebank, a variety actor--a
clown, you know, for the amusement of the lowest, at twenty-five cents a
ticket. That I'm 'Johnny Walker,' the song and dance man--the all-round
man--selected by Mr. Barstow to teach these boors a lesson as to what
She looked at him a moment--timidly, yet thoughtfully. "Then you are an
actor--a person who simulates what he does not feel?"
"And all the time you have been here you have been acting the
schoolmaster--playing a part--for--for Mr. Barstow?"
The color came softly to her face again, and her voice was very low.
"And when you sang to me that day, and when you looked at me--as
you did--an hour or two ago--while you were entertaining--you
Mr. Twing's answer was not known, but it must have been a full and
complete one, for it was quite dark when he left the schoolroom--NOT for
the last time--with its mistress on his arm.