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A Great Year of Our Lives
At the Old Squire's
A Great Year of Our Lives
At the Old Squire's
THE NEW SCHOOLMASTER
THE winter school at the Old Squire's was to begin on Monday following Thanksgiving; and for several weeks our interest and attention had centered about the old red schoolhouse, down at the forks of the road, leading to the Corners.
They have built a new schoolhouse there now in place of the large old red one, a neat, modern structure, painted white, with new patent desks and chairs, also adjustable blackboards and globe; and there are portraits of Washington, Lincoln, Lafayette and Ben. Franklin on the walls. It is a great improvement; every one says so; yet I cannot help missing the old red one where I went to school that first winter after coming to Maine.
The day they tore the old house down I really felt quite sad. It does not seem like the same place there now, and memory runs back somewhat regretfully, as I pass to those old eventful winter terms under Master Joel Pierson, Master Cummings, Master French and young Thomas Jefferson Cobb who was drowned in the Kennebec. Excellent teachers they were; possibly there are as good instructors now, but I cannot help doubting it.
We set great store by our winter school then, and so would boys and girls at present, if they had but ten weeks a year, — for only girls and little boys attended the summer school. Throughout the entire year we doted on that coming winter term of school.
Really, we made remarkable progress; those old masters pushed us lovingly on. In one winter, when fourteen, my cousin Addison mastered Greenleaf's National Arithmetic and could perform every example in it; but to do this he had worked morning and evening as well as during school hours. Those teachers possessed the gift of firing our hearts with an ambition to learn. How did they do it? Their own hearts were in it. To this day I feel the thrill of Master Pierson's enthusiasm and his faith in us, as he laid out long lessons and somehow made us feel sure that we could learn them. What a true friend he was! I take off my hat reverently to his memory.
They were all good teachers, every one — but no, there was an exception. We did have one poor teacher, yes, he was a bad teacher. It came about in a singular way. It was "the year rum reigned in No. II," — for that was the way we always referred to it. That winter — the winter of 1867 — there was a strange state of things at the old schoolhouse. I shall have to explain it a little.
In Maine at that time, each 'and every country school district governed itself and managed its own affairs. A school meeting of the legal residents of the district was held every spring to elect a school agent, bid off teacher's board, fuel, etc. The agent chosen hired the teachers and was in charge of the school property. The day of centralism and supervisors was not yet. In the matter of its school business every district was a small republic, largely independent of the town or county in which it was situated.
The system had its advantages, also a few disadvantages. It kept the people keenly alive to the interests of their school. An abuse of it was the tendency on the part of agents, sometimes, to hire teachers in whom they were personally interested from kinship, or otherwise. But as a rule, there was an honest intent on the part of the agent to get the best teachers he could for the money.
In No. II harmony had prevailed for years. There had been few dissensions, until the spring of 1866. Then an element of discord and disorder entered, and I must needs admit that the cause of it was the State Liquor Law.
Now the "Maine Law", so called, has done an untold amount of good. It would be indeed strange, however, if some abuses had not attended its enforcement. The law sometimes fomented animosity and set not only school districts but whole towns by the ears. Yet there are many who hold that intemperance is an evil so terrible that it is better to set people by the ears than to ignore it, — but we need not go into that here.
Three-fourths of the families, or heads of families, in No. II were temperate, law-abiding citizens, but we had one bad man among us.
For some reason Nature, in fashioning men, does not always produce a good citizen. It must needs be owned that there are many bad jobs, and one of the worst of these was our neighbor, Tibbetts, out at the Corners.
Tibbetts was one of those men who, their lives long, drag the community down hill. He sold rum in defiance of the State Law; and he manufactured the rum himself; that is to say, he made four barrels from one by the addition of substances deleterious to the human organism. In a smell and mean way he was a gambler and his "store" a resort for such as could be drawn into card games, "hustling" and dicing.
Personally, he was a heavy-set, wheezy man, much bloated from intemperance, red-faced, repulsive, yet possessed of strong vitality and not a little energy, abetted by great craftiness.
At first thought one might say that such a person would have very little influence in any average community, and that it ought not to be difficult to suppress him. But in a state with a strict liquor law, such a man is often able to enlist strong support.
During the winter of 1865-6, Tibbetts' place was the scene of a brawl, ending in a manslaughter, and altogether became so scandalous, that the Old Squire felt it incumbent on him to enforce the "Law," with the result that Tibbetts was fined one hundred dollars and costs.
It followed, of course, that such a man would seek to be revenged, and the way Tibbetts took to spite us, was to get control of the school district. Not that he cared the least for the welfare of the school. It was purely for revenge; and he went about this with a cunning worthy of a better object.
Near his grocery at the Corners, he owned two ramshackle old houses, and in these he contrived to domicile, as tenants, two shiftless families who would do his bidding. He had also a son, Jerry Tibbetts, recently arrived at the age of twenty-one, who though absent from home still retained a residence there as a voter. That winter, too, he hired a man of his own stamp, to tend store for him, and had the fellow fetch his trunk and make his legal residence at the Corners.
Thus, before we were aware, he secured a majority in the school meeting of March, 1866, and elected a man of his own choosing, named Glinds, as school agent. There were but eighteen legal voters in the district, and as six of them were opponents of the Maine Law, two of them very intemperate, Tibbetts was able to get his man elected. Glinds was one of his rum-debtors.
When we young folks at the Old Squire's learned what had happened at school meeting, we were both angry and alarmed, particularly Addison, Theodora and Ellen, and our two young neighbors, Catherine and Thomas Edwards. These five were the best scholars in the district and had now but a few years more to attend school.
Before this, for three winters, the school had been taught by Master Pierson, a talented young man who was working his way through college. He excelled in algebra and English grammar. He hung the walls of the old schoolhouse with maps and charts of his own, and brought with him a cabinet organ, also his own property.
To secure the services of such a teacher, twenty-seven dollars per month — large wages then — was paid, with board. But never before had the school made such progress; in three winters No. II came to rank first in the town.
Hence we were all very desirous of having Master Pierson returned the following winter, and when it was learned that Glinds had been elected agent, a petition to this effect, bearing the names of forty out of forty-nine of the scholars in the district, was presented to him.
On reading it Glinds seemed confused, but made no reply, nor could we learn anything as to his intentions, if he had any; but Tibbetts gave out that no more high-priced teachers would be hired. The excuse was "economy," so often the pretext of those who wish to do wrong.
We knew from this that Master Pierson was lost to us and felt badly over it. Theodora, Ellen and Kate Edwards actually shed tears of regret and resentment. Being greatly interested, we made frequent inquiries, but during that whole season, till near Thanksgiving, we could learn nothing as to whom that old sot at the Corners meant to hire as our teacher. Tibbetts was gratifying his malice. Well he knew how he could best do so.
Proper care was not given the schoolhouse that season. Agent Glinds and Tibbetts did not deem such matters worthy of attention. In consequence there was diphtheria among the small pupils during the summer term, which the physician who attended them pronounced due to the bad sanitary condition there.
Shortly before Thanksgiving a rumor reached us that the new schoolmaster's name was Samuel Lurvey and that he hailed from Lurvey's Mills, ten or eleven miles from us. Some of the young folks had seen him. He was about twenty-one, they said, a large, strong young man, the son of "Old Jack Lurvey," the owner of the lumber mills. Those who knew him did not speak very highly of him, but they said that he had attended the village Academy for two years, and that his father wished him to teach.
Every one in that county knew Old Jack Lurvey, an illiterate man of violent temper who had become wealthy in the lumber business. It was said of him that, being unable to read or write, he kept his accounts with kernels of corn and beans of different colors, on the attic floor of his house, but that no one ever got the better of him in business matters.
To those who are interested in heredity, I may add here that this Lurvey's wife, our new master's mother, had been a servant girl of foreign birth, whom "Old Jack" married from a Portland tavern. While this ought not to be mentioned against the son, it may even show in apology for him, since his boyhood at home was amidst rude, rough associations, where violent outbursts of temper and bad language were of daily occurrence.
But "Old Jack" had sent his son to the Academy and was now determined that he should "keep school." It transpired afterwards that he had a private understanding with Tibbetts to hire Samuel Lurvey senior was not averse to a glass of rum at times, himself.
Young Master Lurvey was to be paid seventeen dollars per month; he would have been dear at less. At Lurvey's Mills municipal affairs went on as "Old Jack" dictated; in a small way he was an adroit politician and knew how to manage people. Even before our school began a curious instance of his craftiness showed itself.
Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving, Addison and I, with my cousin Halstead, were cutting up turnips and beets for the young cattle at the west barn, when we heard bells, and, looking out, saw that an elderly pan, driving a spirited chestnut horse, with new sleigh and bear-skin robes, had come up the lane. The man got out and hitched his horse to a post and we noticed that he tested the ring in the post carefully.
"That looks like Old Jack Lurvey, our new master's father," whispered Addison. "Wonder what he's come for?"
Lurvey senior glanced at the house, then came to the open barn door, nodded and inquired for the Old Squire who was away from home that day. He did not seem greatly disappointed, looked at our live stock, asked how we fed them, and talked for some time, addressing himself mostly to Addison.
"What think o' that colt o' mine, young man?" he at length said to him.
"He's a handsome one," replied Addison.
"Yes, he is a good colt, and he's a pretty stepper, too," continued our visitor. "Never drawed rein over a boss I liked better. Hop in and let me show ye how he handles a sleigh."
Addison was a little surprised, but buttoned up his coat and got in the sleigh beside the owner of the colt, who turned and drove down the lane and out on the road at a fine pace.
As much as half an hour passed before they came back to the foot of the lane, where our caller put Addison down and drove away. The latter came back to the barn, but seemed preoccupied; he was smiling covertly.
"How did you like the 'stepper?' " I asked him.
"O very well," said he absently. But later in the winter he told us what had passed.
It would appear that Lurvey senior had learned that Addison was the most advanced scholar in the school district and the boy who had most influence. After "talking horse" awhile, he turned the conversation to school matters and the subject of his son, soon to be our teacher. Very adroitly he sounded Addison as to his good-will toward him.
"Now, my Sam's all right on book-larnin', I guess," he remarked; "but he's young and never teached before; and he may have some ways that some of ye, over here, may not quite take to, at fust." (It would seem that Old Jack was not blind to certain of his son's traits and deficiencies.)
"Now I'm anxious to have him git through all right," Lurvey senior continued. "I can see that you know 'bout how a school oughter be run; and I can see that ef a boy like you went in fer the master and stood up fer him, stiff and strong, 'twould make a big diffrunce with the other scholars. An' you can see, yerself, that 'twill be better to stand by him and all pull together fer a good school than to pull apart. So I ax ye, as a favor, to go in for my Sam, good and solid; and" (lowering his voice) "I never axes any-buddy to help me for nothing; here's a nice new five dollar bill ter slip into yer vest pocket."
Addison had already begun to mistrust what was coming. He was a good deal taken aback, none the less, but gathered his wits to extricate himself from a position so equivocal and delicate, and he got out of it pretty well.
"O I want a good school, Mr. Lurvey," said he.
"I'll help the master in every way I can to make the school a success. I like money, too, Mr. Lurvey. I would be glad of that five dollars. Still, as I do not yet know how much I may be able to help him, I would not like to take this beforehand. If I find that I have been of any real service to your son, at the close of the school, I will remind you of this."
Old Jack was not wholly satisfied. It was not what he wanted. He said no more, however; but he was much too keen a man not to form a favorable opinion of Addison's sagacity, and he always kept him in mind. Several years later, quite unexpectedly, he made him a proposition to take charge of a wood-pulp manufacturing business in which he had embarked.
Peradventure, Old Jack's influence had assisted his son in passing his examination before a member of the town School Committee. There was much wonder as to this later in the winter. Then, however, we knew very little of our new master save by hearsay, and hoped to have a good school. Theodora, I remember, was feverishly anxious as to this. On Saturday evening before school began, Monday, there was a general muster of our school books from the "book cupboard." Theodora even tried some of the hard examples in the National Arithmetic, which she had been able to perform at the close of school the winter before.
"O dear, it seems as if I had forgotten everything I ever knew!" she lamented. "I cannot get these right!"
"It will all come back to you, Doad, after a day or two at school," said Addison to comfort her. But she was far from reassured.
"If I have forgotten how to do this sum in Equation of Payments, when I worked it so many times last winter, it's of no use for me to study at all!" she declared disconsolately. "I cannot do it now to save my life!"
"Doad, you've fed chickens too long this summer. Your head has weakened!" cried Halstead to hector her; but he had himself forgotten how far he had advanced in his own arithmetic, and even did not know his own book, by sight!
In order to lengthen the winter school, the Old Squire had, long before, made a standing offer to the district to board the master at the nominal sum of one dollar per week, if no one else wished to board him at that rate. Master Pierson had been so popular that, expecting he would return, the Batchelder family in the district had bid off the board at ninety-five cents, to have him with them evenings. But now, on Saturday, Mrs. Batchelder, hearing who was to teach, called and asked us to board the master. Not wholly pleased, the Old Squire and Gram assented, and the "east chamber" was put in order. He was expected Sunday evening, but did not arrive.
How well I recall that Monday morning and our setting off for school!
According to former law and custom, the old schoolhouse stood at the geographical center of the school district, at a place where three roads diverged, one to the Corners half a mile away, one to the Old Squire's farm and our neighbors beyond us, and the third to the Darnley neighborhood.
It was a cloudy morning; snow had fallen during the night, but by eight o'clock a blithe smoke was rising from the schoolhouse chimney, and from that time on till nine, groups of the scholars could be seen approaching along all three roads. Some had even gone before eight, Newman Darnley and Alfred Batchelder among the number, in order to secure the best seats. There were benches and desks for about fifty pupils, placed in four rows, opposite the teacher's higher desk, with one much longer seat on each side, flanking the floor and stove. On either hand of the teacher's desk was an enclosed "Cuddy," one for the girls' wraps, the other for the boys' caps, and the water-pail and dipper. The outer door was also at the right of the teacher's desk, between it and the boys' cuddy.
The boys occupied two rows of seats and one of the long seats on the north side of the schoolhouse, and the girls an equal number on the south side. The back seat was the place of honor and seniority, and the next seat, most preferred, was the long seat flanking the floor and stove.
There were five of us from the Old Squire's that morning. Halstead, however, had gone on in advance. As the distance was considerable and the road snowy we carried a lunch basket which was generally in charge of Theodora. Catherine and Thomas Edwards had come to go with us, also Edwin and Elsie Wilbur, and the two Murch boys, Willis and Ben, who lived farther along our road. Octavia Sylvester and Adriana Darnley, Newman's sister, joined us near the schoolhouse door.
A tremendous hubbub of voices was heard inside. Disputes concerning seats were running high. Our Halstead, Alfred Batchelder and Billy Glinds had got possession of the long seat on the boys' side, and were holding it against all corners. Newman Darnley and Absum Glinds were threatening to eject them. A scuffle appeared certain. Several other disputes were passing the argument stage.
Altogether forty-seven scholars had arrived. Thomas and I pushed for a bench next to the back seat, got into it and put our books on the desk, in sign of possession. We dared not leave it, however, and sat there for some time holding the fort.
It was past nine o'clock, and thus far no one of us had seen or heard anything of the new teacher; but now suddenly above the din of contention a jingle of bells was heard outside, and Ned Wilbur cried, "The master's coming! Here he is!"
A lively scramble followed, and those who had not secured seats took what was left, grumbling angrily; but the most of us had our eyes fixed on the door.
It opened and the new master walked in.