Schoolmistress

Excerpt from “Meadow Brook” 1857

By Mary Jane Holmes

Continued from Scribbling Women ~ pt. 5.4.0

     What would have ensued next I do not know, for at that moment Captain Thompson rode round the corner and called to his son, who, with mock deference, bowed politely to me and walked away. Disagreeable as Isaac Ross appeared in the presence of John Thompson, I found that when left to himself he was quite a different boy, and though he at first manifested some reluctance to taking another seat, he at last yielded the point, and for the remainder of the day conducted himself with perfect propriety.

     On the whole, the afternoon passed away rather pleasantly. And at night, when school was out, I started for my boarding-place quite content with teachers generally, and myself in particular. In passing the different houses which stood upon the road-side, I demeaned myself with the utmost dignity, swinging my short dross from side to side in imitation of a Boston lady who had once taught in our district, and whose manner of walking I greatly admired! From the window of Captain Thompson’s dwelling I caught a glimpse of two faces, which were hastily withdrawn, but I felt sure that from behind the curtains they were scanning my appearance, and I remember lowering my parasol a little, just to tantalize them! But when at last I was over the hill and out of sight, oh, how glad I was to be "Rosa Lee" again, free to pluck the sweet, wild flowers, to watch the little fishes in the running brook, or even to chase a white-faced bumblebee if I liked.

     About fifty rods from Mr. Randall’s stands one of those old-fashioned, gable-roofed houses, so common in some parts of New England, and here, at this time of which I am speaking, lived Mrs. Ross, the mother of Isaac, or Ike, a he was familiarly called. I had never met the lady, but as I approached the house and saw a tall, square-shouldered woman leaning on the gate, I naturally thought that it might be she, and on this point I was not long left in doubt for the moment I came within speaking distance, she called out, “How dy’ do, Miss Lee -- I suppose ‘tis? You pretty well? I’m Mis. Ross, Isick’s mother. He telled me that he had some fuss about a seat that he picked out more’n a moth ago, and thinks he orto have. I don’t never calkerlate to take sides with my children, ‘cause I’ve kept school myself, and I know how bad ‘tis, but I do hate to have Isick git a miff again the school ma’am on the first start, and if I’s you I’d let him have the seat instead of George Randall, for mebby folks’ll say you’re partial to George, bein’ that his father’s committee-man, and I’ve kept school enough to know that partiality won’t do.”

     As well as I could, I explained the matter to her, telling her I wished to do right, and meant to as far as I knew how.

     “I presume you do,” said she, “or I shouldn’t a’ taken the liberty to speak to you. I know you’s young, and I felt afeard you didn’t know what an undertakin’ it was to teach the young idee how to shute. The schoolma’ams have always thought a sight of me, and generally tell me all their troubles so I know jest how to take their part when the rest of the folks are again ‘em. Was Susan Brown to school? But she wasn’t-though, I know she wasn’t.”

     I replied that there was a little girl present of that name, and my companion continued: “Now I’ll give up, if Miss Brown has come round enough to send, when she was so dreadfully opposed to your teachin’, you’ve heered about it, I s’pose?”

     I answered that “I didn’t know that any one had opposed me except Mrs. Thompson.”

     “Oh, yes,” said she, assuming an injured look and tone. “everybody knows about that, and there’s some sense in their bein’ mad, for ‘twas plaguy mortifyin’ to Dell to offer to teach and be rejected by Mr. Randall, a man that none of the Thompsons would wipe their old shoes on, and then, ‘tisn’t every bigbug that will stoop to teach, for you know ‘tain’t considered first cut.”

     “No, I didn’t know it.” and so I said, but she assured me of the fact, quoting as authority, both Mrs. Thompson and Dell, who, I found, were her oracles in everything. After a time I brought her back to Mrs. Brown, whose husband, she said, was gone to sea, and who had herself applied for the school.

     “But between you and me,” she added, speaking in a whisper, “it’s a mighty good thing that she didn’t get it, for she ain’t the likeliest person that ever was, and nobody under the sun would have sent to her. Isick shouldn’t a gone a single day, for her morals is very bad, She used to belong to the Orthodox Church, but they turned her out for dancin’ at a party, and when she lived in Wooster she jined the ‘Piscopals, who, you know, let their members cut up all sorts -- -but, land sakes! how I’m talkin’! You must not breathe a word I say, for I make it a pint not to slander my neighbors, and if everybody minded their own business as well as I do, there wouldn’t be so much back bitin’ as there is. And that makes me think I’ve had a mind to caution you -- but no, I guess I won’t—mebby you’ll tell on’t.”

     Of course my curiosity was aroused, and of course I said I wouldn’t tell, whereupon she proceeded to inform me that Mrs. Randall was a very talkin’ woman, and I must be pretty careful in her presence. “You can tell me anything you wish to,” said she, “for I’m a master hand to keep a secret, but Mis’ Randall is forever in hot water. She and Mis’ Brown are hand in glove and both on ‘en turn up their noses at Mis’ Thompson and Dell, who never pretend to make anything of ‘em. I’m considerable intimate at the Captain’s, and I know all about it. Dell is smart as a steel trap, and it’s a pity she’s took such a dislike to you.”

     “I don’t think she ought to blame me,” said I, “for I didn’t know she wanted the school -- .”

     “Tain’t that altogether,” resumed Mrs, Rose, again speaking in a whisper, “‘Tain’t that altogether, and if you’ll never lisp a word on’t I’ll tell you the hull story.”

     I gave the required promise, and then Mrs. Ross proceeded to inform me that Dell was jealous of me.

     “Jealous!” I exclaimed. “How can that be?”

     “You remember Dr. Clayton, don’t you?” said she.

     “Yes, I remember him, but what has he to do with Mrs. Thompson’s being jealous of me?”

     “Why,” returned Mrs. Ross, “Dell’s kinder settin’ her cap for him, and I guess he’s a snickerin’ notion after her. Any way he comes there pretty often. Well, he was there the week after the examination, and told ‘em about you. He said you was as bright as a new guinea, and had better larnin’ than half the teachers, and than you had such a sweet name—Rose -- he like it. You orto have seen how mad Dell was at you after he was gone. I don’t believe she’ll ever git over it.”

     Here Ike called out --“the Johnny-cake was burnt’ blacker than his hat,” and forthwith Mrs. Ross started for the house, first bidding me “keep dark“, and telling me she hoped “I wouldn’t be partial to Mr. Randall’s children, for they needed lickin’ if ever young ones did -- they warn’t brought up like Isick, who was governed so well at home that he didn’t need it at school.”

     I was learning to read the world’s great book fast -- very fast -- -and with a slightly heavy heart I turned away, pausing once when Mrs. Ross, from the door-step, called to me, saying, that “She guessed I’d better’ give Isick the seat to-morrow, seein’ his heart was set on’t.”

     I found Mrs. Randall waiting to receive me in a clean gingham dress and apron, with her round, good-humored face shining as if it had been through the same process with the long line of snow-white linen, which was swinging in the clothes-yard. The little hair trunk had been removed to the “best room” which was to be mine. The big rocking-chair was brought out for me, the round tea-table, nicely spread, stood in the centre of the floor, and Mrs. Randall hoped I would make myself at home, and put up with her own rough ways if I could. To be sure she didn’t have things quite as nice as Mrs. Captain Thompson, but she did as well as she knew how, Dear Mrs. Randall! How my heart warmed toward her, and as I took my seat at the table, and she helped me to a larger slice of pure white honeycomb than I have ever before been allowed to eat at one time, I felt that I would not exchange her house for a home at Capt. Thompson’s.

     Without any intention of revealing what Mrs. Ross had imparted to me, I still felt a great curiosity to know Mrs. Randall’s opinion of her, so, after a time, I ventured to speak of my having seen her, and to ask when and where she taught school. With a merry laugh, Mrs. Randall replied, “I wonder, now, if she’s made your acquaintance so soon, she told you, I suppose, to come to her with all your troubles, for she knew just how to pity you, as she’d been a schoolma’am herself.”

     My flushed cheeks betrayed the fact that Mrs. Randall had guessed rightly, and after a moment she continued:

     “Her keeping school amounts-to this. When she was a girl, a friend of hers who was teaching wanted to go away for two days, and got Mis’ Ross, then Nancy Smedly, to take her place, and that’s the long and short of her experience. She’s a meddlesome woman, and makes more trouble in the district than anybody else. She tried to make Mis’ Brown think she was misused, because we wouldn’t hire her instead of you, who applied first, and for a spell, I guess Mis’ Brown was a little sideways, but she’s a sensible woman and had got all over it.”

     I was about to tell her of the trouble between George and Ike, when she anticipated me by saying, “George says he and Ike fit about a seat and I’ve hired him to give it up peaceably, for if Mis’ Ross gets miffed in the beginning, there’s no knowing what kind of a row she’ll raise, and you are so young I feel kinder tender of you.”

     If there were tears in my eyes they were not tears of grief, and if, I was pleased with Mrs. Randall before, I liked her ten times better now, for I saw in her a genuine sincerity which convinced me she was my friend indeed. To be sure she was rather rough and unrefined, but her heart was right, and in her treatment of me, she was always kind and considerate, making ample allowance for my errors and warmly defending me when she thought I was misused. If in every District there were more like Mrs. Randall, the teacher’s lot would not be one half so hard to bear as oftentimes it is.

     When I woke next morning I heard the large raindrops pattering against the window, and pushing aside the curtain, I saw that the dark-heavy clouds betokened a dull rainy day. Involuntarily I thought of the old garret at home, where, on such occasions we always resorted, “Raising cain generally.” as Sally said, and when, with umbrella, blanket-shawl, and overshoes, I started for school, I looked and felt forlorn indeed. Raining as it was, it did not prevent Mrs. Ross from coming out with the table-spread over her head, to tell me that “Though she never warn’t an atom particular and never meant to interfere with teachers, as she knew just what it was, she did hope I’d give Isick the seat, and not be partial to George Randall.”

     I replied that “I’d see to it,” and was hurrying along, when she again stopped me to know “what I’d got in my dinner basket that was good.”

     Afterwards I found it to be one of her greatest peculiarities, this desire to know what her neighbors had to eat, and I seldom passed her door that she did not inquire of me concerning the kind of fare I had at the different places where I boarded. When I reached the schoolhouse, I found George Randall transferring his books to another part of the room, at the same time telling Isaac “He could have the disputed seat if he wanted it.”

     With the right kind of training and influence Isaac Ross would have been a fine boy, for there were in his disposition many noble traits of character, and when he saw how readily George gave up the seat, he refused to take it, saying, “He didn’t care a darn where he sat -- one place was as good as another.”

     The day was long and dreary enough. Not more than half the children were there, and I found it exceedingly tiresome and monotonous, sitting in that hard, splint-bottomed chair, and telling Emma Fitch and Sophia Brown, for the hundredth time, that the round letter was “O” and the crooked one “S”. The scholars, too, began to grow noisy, and to ask me scores of useless questions. Their lessons were half learned, and if I made a suggestion, I was quickly informed that their former teacher, Sally Damm, didn’t do so. Even little Emma Fitch, when I bade her keep her eyes on the book instead of letting them wander about the room, lisped out that “Thally Damm let her lookd off.” a fact I did not dispute when I found that she had been to school all winter without learning a single letter by sight, though she could repeat the entire alphabet forward and back and be all the while watching a squirrel on the branches of the tree which grew near the window!

     Before night a peculiar kind of sickness, never dangerous, but decidedly disagreeable, began to creep over me, and had it not been for the mud, I should probably have footed it to Meadow Brook, where alone could be found the cure for my disease. Just before school was out a little boy cried to go home, and this was the one straw too much. Hastily dismissing the scholars, I turned towards the windows and my tears fell as fast as did the rain in the early morning.

     “The sohoolma’am’s cryin’, -- she is. I saw her.”, circulated rapidly among the children, who all rushed back to ascertain the truth for themselves.

     “I should think she would cry.“ said one of the girls-to her brother, “You acted ugly enough to make anybody cry, and if you don’t behave better tomorrow, Jim Maxwell, I’ll tell mother!”

     After the delivery of this speech, the entire group moved away, leaving me alone, and sure am I there was never a more homesick child than was the one, who with her head lying upon the desk, sat there weeping in that low dirty schoolroom, on that dark, rainy afternoon. Where now was all the happiness I had promised myself in teaching? Alas, it was rapidly disappearing, and I was just making up my mind to brave the ridicule of Meadow Brook, and give up my school at once, when a hand was laid very gently on my shoulder, and a voice partially familiar said, “What’s the matter, Rose?”

     So absorbed was I in my grief, that I had not heard the sound of footsteps, and with a start of surprise I looked up and met the serene, handsome eyes of Dr. Clayton, who stood by my side. He had been to visit a patient, he said, and was on his way home, when, seeing the door ajar, he had come in, hoping to find me there, “But I did not expect this.” he continued, pointing to the tears on my cheek. “What is the matter? Don’t the scholars behave well, or are you homesick?”

     At this question I began to cry so violently, that the doctor, after exhausting all his powers of persuasion, finally laid his hand soothingly on my rough, tangled curls, ere I could be induced to stop, then, when I told him how disappointed I was, how I wished I had never tried to teach and how I meant to give it up, he talked to me so kindly, so brother like, still keeping his hand on my shoulder, where it had fallen when I lifted up my head, that I grew very calm, thinking I could stay in that gloomy room forever, if he were only there! He was, as I have said before, very handsome, and his manner was so very fascinating, and his treatment of me so much like what I fancied Charlie’s would be, were he a grown up man and I a like girl, that I began to like him, very, very much, thinking then that my feeling for him was such as a child would entertain for a father, for I had heard that he was twenty-seven, and between that and thirteen there was, in my estimation, an impassable gulf.

     “I wish I had my buggy here,” he said at last, after consulting his watch, which pointed to half-past five, “I wish I had my buggy here, for then I could carry you home. You’ll wet your feet, and you ought not to walk. Suppose you ride in my lap, but no,” he added, quickly, “you’d better not, for Mrs. Thompson and Mother Ross would make it neighborhood talk.”

     There was a wicked look in his eye as he said this, and I secretly wondered if he entertained the same opinion of Dell, that he evidently did of her sister. At length, shaking my hand, he bade me goodbye, telling me that the Examining Committee had placed me and my school in his charge, and that he would probably visit me officially on Thursday of the following week. Like a very foolish child, I watched him until a turn in the road hid him from view, and then, with a feeling I could not analyze, I started for my boarding place, thinking that if I gave up my school I should wait until after Thursday.

     In the doorway, with her sleeves rolled up above her elbows, and her hair, as she said herself, “at sixes and sevens“, was Mrs. Ross, who, after informing me that “It had been a desput rainy day.” asked, “If I knew whether Dr. Clayton had been to Captain Thompson’s?”

     There was no reason why I should blush at this question, but I did, though my sun bonnet fortunately concealed the face from my interrogator, who, without waiting for an answer, continued, “He drove past here about fifteen minutes ago, and I guess he’s been sparkin Dell.”

     It must have been an evil spirit surely which prompted my reply that “He had been at the schoolhouse with me.”

     “How you talk! Isick never said a word about it!” was Mrs. Ross’s exclamation, the blank expression of her face growing still more blank when I told her that he did not come until the scholars were gone.

     “You two been there all sole alone since four o’clock, I’ll give up now! I hope Dell Thompson won’t find it out, for she’s awful slandersome, but,” she added, coming to the gate, and speaking in a whisper, “I’m glad on’t, and mebby she’ll draw in her horns, if she finds that some of the under crust, as she calls ‘em, can be noticed by Dr. Clayton as well as herself.”

     Equivocal as this compliment was, it gratified me, and from that moment felt a spirit of rivalry towards Dell Thompson. Still, I did not wish her to know of Dr. Clayton’s call, and so I said to Mrs. Ross, who replied, “You needn’t be an atom afeard of my tattlin’. I know too well what ‘tis to be a schoolmarm, and have the hull Deestrict peekin’ at you. Do if you’ve anything you want kept, I’m the one, for I can be still as the grave. Did the doctor say anything about Dell, but he didn’t, I know, and ‘tain’t likely-he said anything about anybody.”

     I replied, that he talked with me about my school, and then as I heard the clock strike six, I walked along. Looking back as I entered Mrs. Randall’s gate, I saw Mrs. Rose’s old plaid shawl and brown bonnet disappearing over the hill as fast as her feet could take them, but I had no suspicion that her destination was Captain Thompson’s! I did not know the world then as well as I do now, and when the next morning I met Dell Thompson, who stared at me insolently, while a haughty sneer curled her lip, I had not idea that she was jealous of me, little Rosa Lee, whose heart was lighter, and whose task seemed far easier on account of Dr. Clayton’s past and promised visit.

     Saturday night came at last, and very-joyfully I started home-on foot, feeling not at all burdened with the compliments of my patrons or the esteem of my pupils. Oh, what a shout was raised at the shortness of my three weeks, as I entered our sitting-room! All laughed at me, except my mother. She was not disappointed, and when I drew Carrie’s little rocking chair to her side, and told her how hard my head was aching, she laid her soft hand caressingly upon my brow, and gently smoothing my short curls, bathed my forehead in camphor until the pain was gone. Had there been no one present but our own family, I should probably have cried, but owing to some untoward circumstance Aunt Sally Wright was there visiting that afternoon, and as a teacher I felt obliged to maintain my dignity before her prying eyes, Almost her first salutation to me was, “Well, Rosa, so you’ve grown old since you left home?”

     “I do not understand what you mean.” I answered.

     “Why, I mean,“ said she, “that somebody told me that Mrs. Green told her, that Major Pond’s wife told her, that Mary Down’s said, that Nancy Rice heard Mis’ Cap’n Thompson say that you told Dr. Clayton you was sixteen!”

     I knew that the subject of my age had not come up between me and the doctor, but it was useless to deny a story so well authenticated, so I said nothing, and Aunt Sally continued, “They do say you thrash ‘em round about right.” while mother asked, “Who Dr. Clayton was?”

     "Why, he’s a young pill-peddler, who’s taken a shine to Rosa, and staid with her alone in the schoolhouse until pitch dark.” said Aunt Sally, her little green eyes twinkling with the immense satisfaction she felt.

     Greatly I marveled as to the source when she obtained this information which so greatly exceeded the truth, and considering that no one knew of the doctor’s call but Mrs. Ross, it really was a wonder! She was proceeding with her remarks, when we were summoned to the supper table, where green tea had so good an effect upon her, that by the time she was blowing her third cup, she began to unbend, repeating to me several complimentary remarks which she said came from Mrs. Ross. By this I knew that she had Pine Hill as well as Meadow Brook on her hands, and, indeed ‘twas strange how much Aunt Sally did manage to attend to at once, for, besides keeping her son’s wife constantly fretted, and her daughter continually quarreling with her husband by her foolish interference, there was scarcely a thing transpired in the neighborhood in which she did not have a part. Not a marriage was in prospect but she knew something bad of both parties, not a family jar occurred in which she did not have a finger. Not a man owed more than he was worth, but she had foreseen it from the first in the extravagance of his wife. But everybody in Meadow Brook knew Aunt Sally, and it was a common saying, that “Her tongue was no slander.” So I did not feel as much annoyed as I otherwise should at her spiteful remarks, which continued with little intermission until dark, when, gathering up her snuff box, knitting, and workbag, she started for home.

     The next day was the Sabbath, and if at church, I did now and then cast a furtive glance at the congregation, to see if they were looking at me because I was a “schoolma’rm,” it was a childish vanity, which I have long since forgiven, as I trust my reader will do. Among the audience was our minister’s young bride, and when, after church, he introduced her to me, saying to her, “This is Rose, who, I told you, was only thirteen and teaching school.” I felt quite reconciled to my lot, and thought that after all, it was an honor to be a teacher.


"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights - Andre-Norton-Books.com
Donated by - Estate of Andre Norton

 Digitized and edited by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ May 2015

Duplication (in whole or parts) of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.