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"THE IMPORTANT MAN"
EVERY eye was on him. Truth to say, he was a handsome fellow, nearly six feet tall, of fine form and strong. His face was fresh and ruddy, his hair abundant, curly and black. On his upper lip a faint black mustache was beginning to show and gave him a youthful appearance, despite his size and weight.
Handsome was the word for him, externally at least, and shy looks of admiration showed on the faces of Adriana, Octavia and other large girls in the back seat. Hitherto our schoolmasters had not been remarkable for good looks, but this was a handsome one. He wore a stylish, dark suit and was of the type of young men who set off their clothes well.
First impressions are sometimes quite erroneous, but it seemed to us boys that his glance around was hard and morose. He appeared sullen and disdainful, as if displeased at the start, and his first words were, as he laid his books and a very large ruler on the desk, "I don't want to hear another such a noise when I come into this house. If I do, there'll be trouble for somebody."
It was not a gracious remark to open school with, but there was justice in it; the most of us felt it so. The noise had been outrageous, but it was still enough now. He began to take off his overcoat, and thereupon Addison went down to the desk, bade him good-morning and showed him the two pegs always reserved for the master's hat and coat. "We do not often have such a noise," Addison then said apologetically, as he took his seat.
It was but common courtesy to a stranger in our schoolhouse, but the new master stared at Addison in a suspicious way, without even saying good-morning in response. But no doubt he was somewhat uncertain, or embarrassed, and too much on his guard. He had just come from an interview with Tibbetts and Glinds; and it is likely that the rum-seller had not given many of us a good character.
After removing his coat, Master Lurvey advanced to the stove and holding his hands to the warmth, ran his eyes slowly around the room again.
"Well, you all mean to know me the next time you see me, I guess," said he at length. "You seem to like the looks of me, by the way you stare."
No doubt we were all watching him rather more attentively than true politeness warrants. With this hint the most of the scholars took up their books.
"Oh, you needn't begin to study just yet," said he. "I've got something to say to ye before we begin lessons."
Thereupon we laid our books down and tried to sit without looking at our new master, since he resented our regards. He stepped up behind his desk, took up his ruler and began in a set tone of voice to make us an address which, evidently, he had thought over in advance.
"I don't doubt," he went on, after a little pause, "that you all want to have a good school. I want you to have a good school, too. The first thing to have is good order. I shall make such rules as I think you ought to have, and when I make a rule I expect you all to obey it prompt — promptly," he added.
"If any boy here thinks he can get around a rule I make, he will find out his mistake quick. Order is the first thing, and order I'll have if I have to fertile ten boys a day.
"When I give out a lesson, too, I expect that it will be learned, right off, that day. I shall give only such lessons as I think suitable.
"I shall not expect that you will all be running to me to do sums for you in school hours, or here in the schoolroom. I've seen enough of that sort of thing. It isn't the teacher's business to do hard sums in school hours. If you have hard sums that you cannot do, after you have tried them for two or three days, fetch them to me at night, when school is dismissed. If I have time I'll take them home with me and do them for you, and will hand them to you done on paper. Then I shall expect you to look them over and explain them to the others. But don't you think that I have come here to do hard sums for you all the time, for I 'haven't. I'm here to give you your lessons and hear them."
It would be difficult to describe the harsh and defiant tone in which these remarks were delivered to us. It was evident that the new master was resolved to govern us strictly, and also that ho had a distaste for hard sums.
"Generally," he continued, after pausing for a while to give his words time to take effect in our minds, "generally I shall have you read in the Testament, mornings, and I want you all to read up loud and plain. But this morning I will read part of a chapter myself, so you can see how I want you to read."
He then took a Testament from his books and read to us a portion of the fifth chapter of John, wherein is described the miracle of healing the impotent man. He read loud and slow, with long pauses. We noticed that he pronounced the word impotent as important. Many of the forty or more pupils probably did not know the difference. I recall being in doubt myself, yet it occurred to me that I had never heard of an "important man" in the Gospels.
The mistake would probably have passed as a slip of the tongue; but our young instructor saw fit to comment on what he had read, after he closed the book. "You all see," said he, "that this was an important man. That's why so much is said about him. That's why he was healed. He was a very important man."
I knew now that something was wrong and glanced at Theodora. She blushed and sat looking very uncomfortable. I saw her steal a look toward Addison, but that pledged ally of the schoolmaster was gazing steadfastly at his hands. A curious kind of hush pervaded the room.
The master put away his Testament and looked around on us again. "You heard me read," he remarked. "That's the way I want you to read. Readin' is the most important thing in school. So first of all this morning, I'm going to call out the class in the Fifth Reader. All who read in the Fifth Reader come to the front seats. I want to see what kind of readers you are, and whether you know the rules of readin', or not."
As many as twenty of us found our Readers and ranged ourselves on the front seats, facing the floor and the master's desk.
"I want to hear one of you read," said he. "This young lady right in front of me — she looks as if she thought she could read. I'll hear her."
He opened the Reader to a selection, called A Plea for Blennerhassett, and named the page. "Read the first section," said he.
The "young lady" whom he had selected chanced to be Catherine Edwards, one of the best readers in the school. She flushed a little at being addressed in a manner so pointed, but immediately complied with the request, reading fluently and well, as any good reader would.
"There! That's about what I thought. Just about what I expected," commented the master in a tone far from flattering to Catherine. "That's the way you've been reading here, I suppose. Runnin' on like that; no regard for yer stops; no regard for the rules of readin'. Young lady, do you know what the rules of readin' are?"
Catherine was much embarrassed. "Why, yes," said she. "I think I do, but I'm afraid I do not quite understand what you mean, Mr. Lurvey."
"Oh, yes, yes, I thought so. I thought you didn't know," said the master. "I knew ye didn't. Now listen to me. I'll teach ye something. After a comma, stop long enough to count one. After a semicolon, stop long enough to count two. After a colon, stop long enough to count three. After a period let yer voice fall and stop long enough to count four. The whole class now, repeat the rules of readin' after me."
We all repeated the above "rules," after our teacher, sentence by sentence.
"Now, young lady, read that section again and read it according to rule," said the new master.
"But is that really necessary, Mr. Lurvey?" Catherine ventured to ask. "If the voice is allowed to fall at a period, and a new sentence is properly begun, isn't that enough?"
"What do you suppose rules are for?" exclaimed the master in a loud, harsh tone. "Let the voice fall and stop long enough to count four — every time."
Catherine was a spirited girl and resented the tone in which she was answered. "Certainly, Mr. Lurvey," she replied. "The only reason why I asked, was that our teacher last winter instructed us differently."
The master slapped his book down on the desk. "Now look here!" he exclaimed, "I don't care what the teacher last winter did! Maybe he didn't know his business. I don't know and don't care. I teach by rule and I want you to go by rule. Next may read."
The next chanced to be Theodora who sat with Catherine. She also was a good reader. But she now attempted to make pauses, according to "rule," and her section consequently seemed to pause and hop along so oddly that we all laughed. No one could help laughing.
The master flushed. "Silence!" he shouted in a tremendous voice. "What are you laughing at? That's the way to read," he asserted stoutly. "Slowly and distinctly and accordin' to rule; only of course you needn't be quite so slow, counting four, as that last young lady was. Count four right off smart, as if you had some life in you."
He went on lecturing us and spent fully an hour that morning drilling a class of good readers in the practice of pausing long enough to count four after every sentence!
After the Fifth Reader, the Fourth, Third and Second were called out and put through the same drill.
The class in the National Arithmetic was next called. It consisted of Addison, Theodora, Catherine, Myra Batchelder and two others. They had been through the book the previous winter and wished merely to review it. The new master did not even inquire as to their progress, but opening the book hastily, assigned as their next day's lessons, the two rules for Reduction Ascending and Reduction Descending.
"Learn those two rules by heart," said he and shut the book.
Addison now ventured to say to him pleasantly that they knew these rules in principle, and could give them in substance, if called for, at any time.
"Now, I don't want to hear any such excuses as that," replied the master. "That is just an excuse to shirk studyin'. We are going to do thorough work here this term. You've got to learn every rule by heart, or I will keep you on it till you do. There's nothing like having rules by heart. At the end of the term I shall call for all these rules and every one of you must be able to give any rule that I call for by heart. I am going to beat the rules of this Arithmetic into you so that you never'll forget 'em if you live to be as old as Methuselah."
"But Mr. Lurvey," said Catherine who had not yet recovered her equanimity, "they would perhaps have a different kind of Arithmetic by that time."
"Now look here, young lady!" exclaimed the master, "I don't want any more nonsense from you. When I am speakin', I don't expect to be broke in on by anybody. When I want scholars to speak to me, I will let them know it. The next time any one interrupts me like that, they'll be sorry for it."
He looked around upon us in a very determined, not to say savage, manner; and it was plain to see that he fully meant what he said. Catherine sat regarding him with mingled indignation and fear. It was not an auspicious opening for a pleasant term. Our new master appeared to regard us as his enemies. Catherine and Theodora were good scholars who wished to be on the best of terms with the teacher and aid him in all respects; they rarely or never needed even to be cautioned as to their deportment, and naturally were aggrieved to be treated so rudely.
When the lower class in the Practical Arithmetic — my own class — was called, the master gave us the same two rules in Reduction which had been assigned to the higher class in the National. "They are important rules," said he. "Learn them by heart for to-morrow."
When school was dismissed for the noon intermission of one hour, Addison again approached the new master and, mentioning to him that his boarding place was to be with us, offered to escort him thither, and they went away together. Certain of the others also went home.
We who remained then opened our lunch baskets and while refreshing ourselves compared notes, so to speak, in a quiet way. At length I ventured to ask Catherine how she liked the new master. She did not reply for some time, but merely glanced at me. "If you want to know what I think," she said at last, in a low tone, "I think he is a great rude fellow. I don't think he knows much, either." My cousin Ellen agreed with her. Theodora would not express an opinion. She said there were some advantages in learning rules "by heart;" it strengthened the memory. But Catherine made sport of such rules. Between them, she and cousin Ellen had quietly christened the new master "the important man." Theodora was so much disappointed that she took but a small share of the lunch. She had hoped to make fine progress during this term. Addison and she expected to go on with algebra, in which they had made a beginning under Master Pierson.
On the other hand, Adriana Darnley and Octavia Sylvester were much impressed by our new master's appearance. "Oh, but isn't he fine lookin'!" Adriana went about saying to all of us. "We never had such a 'handsome schoolmaster before. He's real stylish lookin'." Octavia agreed with her. "I wish he boarded at our house," said Adriana, — overhearing which Catherine and Ellen exchanged wondrous-wise glances.
At one o'clock Addison and the new master returned, and in the afternoon we were again drilled in reading by "rule." Afterwards the class in English grammar was called to the recitation seats.
"Now I suppose," said Master Lurvey, "that you've been in the habit here of spending an hour a day, parsing and construin'."
"Yes, Mr. Lurvey," replied Ellen.
"I thought you'd say so," said he with a sneer. "I expect that some young lady "(glancing toward Catherine) "will tell me that the master last winter had you do that. I've been hearing a good deal about that tremendous master, last winter, the tremendous great Mr. Pierson! But let me tell you all right here that he don't scare me a bit.
"Now, see here, parsin' and construin' is a waste of time, and I shall not waste time on it. So you can carry those parsing books home with you. It's a miserable waste of time. What you want in life is the rules of grammar, and that's what I'm going to give ye. Take Nouns and Pronouns for to-morrow, and see that you have every word of it. Take your seats."
As we did so, I recollect glancing at Addison. His face was a study. Catherine and Theodora looked bewildered. Adriana was trying to have Mr. Lurvey notice that she approved him.
"I suppose there are geography classes," the new master remarked, presently. "Will any one tell me how many?"
"There were three last winter, Mr. Lurvey," said Addison.
"Oh, yes, yes, yes, 'last winter!' "exclaimed the new master with a laugh. "There 'tis again. This school seems to be all last winter.' Nothin' but last winter.' But you're going to have something different this winter. I shall teach geography on a new plan. This book (Colton and Fitch's) you use here, takes ye flying all over creation and when you get back, you don't know where you are.
"Now, listen; you are going to begin geography with this town you're living in, and then this county, and then this state."
That seemed a rather good idea to me; it sounded practical.
"How many of you know anything about your own State of Maine?" the new master demanded, reproachfully.
The question was so general that no one replied.
"How many of ye know what the largest river in yer own State of Maine is?"
"The Penobscot," said Addison, smiling, and not to have us all seem boo ignorant. "It is said, however, that as much or more water flows in the Kennebec, in a year," he added.
"I didn't suppose you knew," said the master in an overbearing tone. "And no matter about that last part. You're not supposed to know more than your books.
"What is the largest lake in Maine? Perhaps this very bright young lady who knew so much about arithmetic this morning can tell me," he continued with sarcasm, looking at Catherine.
"Moosehead Lake," replied Catherine, indifferently, as one grown weary.
"Oh, you did happen to know that," commented the master. "Do you say it is a large or a small lake?"
"Large," replied Catherine. She cast a sudden keen look at the new master, and to our astonishment, added, "It is the largest body of fresh water in the world!"
We looked for another outburst of sarcasm. But to our still greater astonishment the new master said nothing.
"The lesson to-morrow will be the map of Maine," he announced, after making a note with a pencil. "That's for all three classes."
I stole a glance at Catherine, as we went to our seats. Her eyebrows were arched in a peculiar way. Addison's face wore a curious smile. In my own mind, an odd query was turning itself over: did he know?
Exercises in spelling followed, the master then said, "Lay aside your books." But Addison raised his hand.
"Well, young man, what is it?" said Master Lurvey rather gruffly. "There is one class, sir, that has not yet been called to-day," Addison replied.
"The class in algebra."
"Did you have a class in algebra last winter, under the great Mr. Pierson?" asked the master ironically.
"We had algebra last winter and the winter before," replied Addison.
"Didn't you know that that was contrary to law?" demanded Master Lurvey. "It's against the law to teach algebra in a common school like this."
"I have heard that a teacher is not obliged to teach algebra unless he is willing," said Addison. "I did not know there was any law forbidding it."
"There are lots of things you don't know," retorted the master. He laughed condescendingly. "Not but that I would be willing enough to teach algebra," said he, offhand. "Fact, I'd like to. But I've been warned not to teach it. The agent warned me not to. I'd like to, but I can't lay myself liable to the law, you know. So we won't have it. Lay aside your books.
"Now, remember what I said about noise here, mornings. When I come into this house to-morrow morning every boy is to be in his seat, every girl, too, with their Testaments out, ready to read.
"Another thing: I've seen some of you whispering in school to-day. No more whispering. You hear that. School is dismissed."