The day of Rebecca's arrival had beenFriday, and on the Monday following shebegan her education at the school whichwas in Riverboro Centre, about a mile distant.
Miss Sawyer borrowed a neighbor's horse andwagon and drove her to the schoolhouse, interviewingthe teacher, Miss Dearborn, arranging for books,and generally starting the child on the path thatwas to lead to boundless knowledge. Miss Dearborn,it may be said in passing, had had no specialpreparation in the art of teaching. It came to hernaturally, so her family said, and perhaps for thisreason she, like Tom Tulliver's clergyman tutor,"set about it with that uniformity of method andindependence of circumstances which distinguish theactions of animals understood to be under theimmediate teaching of Nature." You remember thebeaver which a naturalist tells us "busied himselfas earnestly in constructing a dam in a room upthree pair of stairs in London as if he had been layinghis foundation in a lake in Upper Canada. Itwas his function to build, the absence of water or ofpossible progeny was an accident for which he wasnot accountable." In the same manner did MissDearborn lay what she fondly imagined to befoundations in the infant mind.
Rebecca walked to school after the first morning.
She loved this part of the day's programme. Whenthe dew was not too heavy and the weather was fairthere was a short cut through the woods. She turnedoff the main road, crept through uncle Josh Woodman'sbars, waved away Mrs. Carter's cows, trod theshort grass of the pasture, with its well-worn pathrunning through gardens of buttercups and white-weed, and groves of ivory leaves and sweet fern.
She descended a little hill, jumped from stone tostone across a woodland brook, startling the drowsyfrogs, who were always winking and blinking in themorning sun. Then came the "woodsy bit," withher feet pressing the slippery carpet of brown pineneedles; the "woodsy bit" so full of dewy morning,surprises,--fungous growths of brilliant orange andcrimson springing up around the stumps of deadtrees, beautiful things born in a single night; andnow and then the miracle of a little clump of waxenIndian pipes, seen just quickly enough to be savedfrom her careless tread. Then she climbed a stile,went through a grassy meadow, slid under anotherpair of bars, and came out into the road again. havinggained nearly half a mile.
How delicious it all was! Rebecca clasped herQuackenbos's Grammar and Greenleaf's Arithmeticwith a joyful sense of knowing her lessons. Herdinner pail swung from her right hand, and shehad a blissful consciousness of the two soda biscuitsspread with butter and syrup, the baked cup-custard,the doughnut, and the square of hard gingerbread.
Sometimes she said whatever "piece" she was goingto speak on the next Friday afternoon.
"A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers,There was lack of woman's nursing, there was dearth ofwoman's tears."How she loved the swing and the sentiment of it!
How her young voice quivered whenever she came tothe refrain:--"But we'll meet no more at Bingen, dear Bingen on the Rhine."It always sounded beautiful in her ears, as shesent her tearful little treble into the clear morningair. Another early favorite (for we must rememberthat Rebecca's only knowledge of the great worldof poetry consisted of the selections in vogue inschool readers) was:--"Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,And I'll protect it now."When Emma Jane Perkins walked through the"short cut" with her, the two children used to renderthis with appropriate dramatic action. EmmaJane always chose to be the woodman because shehad nothing to do but raise on high an imaginaryaxe. On the one occasion when she essayed thepart of the tree's romantic protector, she representedherself as feeling "so awful foolish" that sherefused to undertake it again, much to the secretdelight of Rebecca, who found the woodman's rolemuch too tame for her vaulting ambition. Shereveled in the impassioned appeal of the poet, andimplored the ruthless woodman to be as brutal aspossible with the axe, so that she might properlyput greater spirit into her lines. One morning, feelingmore frisky than usual, she fell upon her kneesand wept in the woodman's petticoat. Curiouslyenough, her sense of proportion rejected this assoon as it was done.
"That wasn't right, it was silly, Emma Jane; butI'll tell you where it might come in--in Give meThree Grains of Corn. You be the mother, andI'll be the famishing Irish child. For pity's sakeput the axe down; you are not the woodman anylonger!""What'll I do with my hands, then?" askedEmma Jane.
"Whatever you like," Rebecca answered wearily;"you're just a mother--that's all. What doesYOUR mother do with her hands? Now here goes!
"`Give me three grains of corn, mother,Only three grains of corn,'T will keep the little life I haveTill the coming of the morn.'"This sort of thing made Emma Jane nervous andfidgety, but she was Rebecca's slave and hugged herchains, no matter how uncomfortable they made her.
At the last pair of bars the two girls weresometimes met by a detachment of the Simpson children,who lived in a black house with a red door anda red barn behind, on the Blueberry Plains road.
Rebecca felt an interest in the Simpsons from thefirst, because there were so many of them and theywere so patched and darned, just like her own broodat the home farm.
The little schoolhouse with its flagpole on top andits two doors in front, one for boys and the otherfor girls, stood on the crest of a hill, with rollingfields and meadows on one side, a stretch of pinewoods on the other, and the river glinting andsparkling in the distance. It boasted no attractionswithin. All was as bare and ugly and uncomfortableas it well could be, for the villages along the riverexpended so much money in repairing and rebuildingbridges that they were obliged to be very economicalin school privileges. The teacher's desk and chairstood on a platform in one corner; there was anuncouth stove, never blackened oftener than oncea year, a map of the United States, two blackboards,a ten-quart tin pail of water and long-handled dipperon a corner shelf, and wooden desks and benchesfor the scholars, who only numbered twenty inRebecca's time. The seats were higher in the back ofthe room, and the more advanced and longer-leggedpupils sat there, the position being greatly to beenvied, as they were at once nearer to the windowsand farther from the teacher.
There were classes of a sort, although nobody,broadly speaking, studied the same book with anybodyelse, or had arrived at the same degree of proficiencyin any one branch of learning. Rebecca inparticular was so difficult to classify that Miss Dearbornat the end of a fortnight gave up the attemptaltogether. She read with Dick Carter and LivingPerkins, who were fitting for the academy; recitedarithmetic with lisping little Thuthan Thimpthon;geography with Emma Jane Perkins, and grammarafter school hours to Miss Dearborn alone. Full tothe brim as she was of clever thoughts and quaintfancies, she made at first but a poor hand at composition.
The labor of writing and spelling, with theadded difficulties of punctuation and capitals, interferedsadly with the free expression of ideas. Shetook history with Alice Robinson's class, whichwas attacking the subject of the Revolution, whileRebecca was bidden to begin with the discoveryof America. In a week she had masteredthe course of events up to the Revolution, and inten days had arrived at Yorktown, where the classhad apparently established summer quarters. Thenfinding that extra effort would only result in herreciting with the oldest Simpson boy, she delib-erately held herself back, for wisdom's ways werenot those of pleasantness nor her paths those ofpeace if one were compelled to tread them in thecompany of Seesaw Simpson. Samuel Simpson wasgenerally called Seesaw, because of his difficulty inmaking up his mind. Whether it were a questionof fact, of spelling, or of date, of going swimmingor fishing, of choosing a book in the Sunday-schoollibrary or a stick of candy at the village store, hehad no sooner determined on one plan of actionthan his wish fondly reverted to the opposite one.
Seesaw was pale, flaxen haired, blue eyed, roundshouldered, and given to stammering when nervous.
Perhaps because of his very weakness Rebecca'sdecision of character had a fascination for him, andalthough she snubbed him to the verge of madness,he could never keep his eyes away from her. Theforce with which she tied her shoe when the lacingcame undone, the flirt over shoulder she gave herblack braid when she was excited or warm, hermanner of studying,--book on desk, arms folded,eyes fixed on the opposite wall,--all had an abidingcharm for Seesaw Simpson. When, having obtainedpermission, she walked to the water pail in thecorner and drank from the dipper, unseen forcesdragged Seesaw from his seat to go and drink afterher. It was not only that there was something akinto association and intimacy in drinking next, butthere was the fearful joy of meeting her in transitand receiving a cold and disdainful look from herwonderful eyes.
On a certain warm day in summer Rebecca'sthirst exceeded the bounds of propriety. When sheasked a third time for permission to quench it at thecommon fountain Miss Dearborn nodded "yes," butlifted her eyebrows unpleasantly as Rebecca nearedthe desk. As she replaced the dipper Seesawpromptly raised his hand, and Miss Dearbornindicated a weary affirmative.
"What is the matter with you, Rebecca?" sheasked.
"I had salt mackerel for breakfast," answeredRebecca.
There seemed nothing humorous about this reply,which was merely the statement of a fact, but anirrepressible titter ran through the school. MissDearborn did not enjoy jokes neither made norunderstood by herself, and her face flushed.
"I think you had better stand by the pail for fiveminutes, Rebecca; it may help you to control yourthirst."Rebecca's heart fluttered. She to stand in thecorner by the water pail and be stared at by allthe scholars! She unconsciously made a gestureof angry dissent and moved a step nearer her seat,but was arrested by Miss Dearborn's command ina still firmer voice.
"Stand by the pail, Rebecca! Samuel, how manytimes have you asked for water to-day?"This is the f-f-fourth.""Don't touch the dipper, please. The school hasdone nothing but drink this afternoon; it has hadno time whatever to study. I suppose you had somethingsalt for breakfast, Samuel?" queried MissDearborn with sarcasm.
"I had m-m-mackerel, j-just like Reb-b-becca."(Irrepressible giggles by the school.)"I judged so. Stand by the other side of the pail,Samuel."Rebecca's head was bowed with shame and wrath.
Life looked too black a thing to be endured. Thepunishment was bad enough, but to be coupled incorrection with Seesaw Simpson was beyond humanendurance.
Singing was the last exercise in the afternoon,and Minnie Smellie chose Shall we Gather at theRiver? It was a baleful choice and seemed to holdsome secret and subtle association with the situationand general progress of events; or at any rate therewas apparently some obscure reason for the energyand vim with which the scholars shouted the choralinvitation again and again:--"Shall we gather at the river,The beautiful, the beautiful river?"Miss Dearborn stole a look at Rebecca's bent headand was frightened. The child's face was pale savefor two red spots glowing on her cheeks. Tearshung on her lashes; her breath came and wentquickly, and the hand that held her pockethandkerchief trembled like a leaf.
"You may go to your seat, Rebecca," said MissDearborn at the end of the first song. "Samuel,stay where you are till the close of school. And letme tell you, scholars, that I asked Rebecca to standby the pail only to break up this habit of incessantdrinking, which is nothing but empty-mindednessand desire to walk to and fro over the floor. Everytime Rebecca has asked for a drink to-day the wholeschool has gone to the pail one after another. Sheis really thirsty, and I dare say I ought to havepunished you for following her example, not her forsetting it. What shall we sing now, Alice?""The Old Oaken Bucket, please.""Think of something dry, Alice, and change thesubject. Yes, The Star Spangled Banner if youlike, or anything else."Rebecca sank into her seat and pulled the singingbook from her desk. Miss Dearborn's public explanationhad shifted some of the weight from herheart, and she felt a trifle raised in her self-esteem.
Under cover of the general relaxation of singing,votive offerings of respectful sympathy began tomake their appearance at her shrine. Living Perkins,who could not sing, dropped a piece of maplesugar in her lap as he passed her on his way to theblackboard to draw the map of Maine. Alice Rob-inson rolled a perfectly new slate pencil over thefloor with her foot until it reached Rebecca's place,while her seat-mate, Emma Jane, had made up alittle mound of paper balls and labeled them"Bullets for you know who."Altogether existence grew brighter, and whenshe was left alone with the teacher for her grammarlesson she had nearly recovered her equanimity,which was more than Miss Dearborn had. The lastclattering foot had echoed through the hall, Seesaw'sbackward glance of penitence had been metand answered defiantly by one of cold disdain.
"Rebecca, I am afraid I punished you more than Imeant," said Miss Dearborn, who was only eighteenherself, and in her year of teaching country schoolshad never encountered a child like Rebecca.
"I hadn't missed a question this whole day, norwhispered either," quavered the culprit; "and I don'tthink I ought to be shamed just for drinking.""You started all the others, or it seemed as ifyou did. Whatever you do they all do, whether youlaugh, or miss, or write notes, or ask to leave theroom, or drink; and it must be stopped.""Sam Simpson is a copycoat!" stormed Rebecca"I wouldn't have minded standing in the corneralone--that is, not so very much; but I couldn'tbear standing with him.""I saw that you couldn't, and that's the reasonI told you to take your seat, and left him in thecorner. Remember that you are a stranger in theplace, and they take more notice of what you do,so you must be careful. Now let's have ourconjugations. Give me the verb `to be,' potential mood,past perfect tense.""I might have been "We might have beenThou mightst have been You might have beenHe might have been They might have been.""Give me an example, please.""I might have been gladThou mightst have been gladHe, she, or it might have been glad.""`He' or `she' might have been glad becausethey are masculine and feminine, but could `it'
have been glad?" asked Miss Dearborn, who wasvery fond of splitting hairs.
"Why not?" asked Rebecca"Because `it' is neuter gender.""Couldn't we say, `The kitten might havebeen glad if it had known it was not going to bedrowned'?""Ye--es," Miss Dearborn answered hesitatingly,never very sure of herself under Rebecca's fire;"but though we often speak of a baby, a chicken, ora kitten as `it,' they are really masculine or femininegender, not neuter."Rebecca reflected a long moment and then asked,"Is a hollyhock neuter?""Oh yes, of course it is, Rebecca""Well, couldn't we say, `The hollyhock mighthave been glad to see the rain, but there was a weaklittle hollyhock bud growing out of its stalk and itwas afraid that that might be hurt by the storm;so the big hollyhock was kind of afraid, instead ofbeing real glad'?"Miss Dearborn looked puzzled as she answered,"Of course, Rebecca, hollyhocks could not besorry, or glad, or afraid, really.""We can't tell, I s'pose," replied the child; "but_I_ think they are, anyway. Now what shall I say?""The subjunctive mood, past perfect tense ofthe verb `to know.'""If I had known "If we had knownIf thou hadst known If you had knownIf he had known If they had known.
"Oh, it is the saddest tense," sighed Rebeccawith a little break in her voice; "nothing but IFS,IFS, IFS! And it makes you feel that if they onlyHAD known, things might have been better!"Miss Dearborn had not thought of it before,but on reflection she believed the subjunctive moodwas a "sad" one and "if" rather a sorry "part ofspeech.""Give me some more examples of the subjunctive,Rebecca, and that will do for this afternoon," shesaid.
"If I had not loved mackerel I should not havebeen thirsty;" said Rebecca with an April smile,as she closed her grammar. "If thou hadst lovedme truly thou wouldst not have stood me up in thecorner. If Samuel had not loved wickedness hewould not have followed me to the water pail.""And if Rebecca had loved the rules of theschool she would have controlled her thirst," finishedMiss Dearborn with a kiss, and the two partedfriends.