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The Country School
IN the central villages of the country towns it is possible during the leisure of the winter months to get up social diversions that are quite grand. But to whatever dazzling height of attraction these may attain, I doubt if they ever have the charm and naturalness to be found in the schoolhouses of the outlying hamlets. The characteristic gathering is one where, aside from the enjoyment afforded by the meeting of neighbors in friendly converse, there is a programme including recitations, music, and possibly a dialogue. The items of such a programme are handled with more style in the larger places, but in the ornate town celebrations the individuality that glows from each participant in the schoolhouse merry-makings is apt to get smoothed out into mannerism.
Of course, in certain ways the isolation of an outlying hamlet is a handicap, and it is apt to be a source of regret to the inhabitants. They are largely dependent on themselves for diversion; and yet if this results in their putting forth extra efforts to make the local life pleasant and interesting, the isolation may be a blessing in disguise.
In the attempt to brighten the long winter evenings, there are various social gatherings at the homes; but the schoolhouse is the place of meeting on the more important occasions, and the children of the school furnish the backbone of these rustic festivities. The literary material on which the children draw for subjects is often artificial or commonplace; yet they themselves are so sure to be entertaining and original that you readily forget the respects in which their performance falls short of a technical ideal. They each have a piece to speak; and in addition to that all of them together come out on the floor several times and form in rows with the teacher beside them, and sing such songs as they have learned. They depend a great deal on their their teacher; for she picks out the verses for them to memorize, drills them, and when they stand before the audience, she is near at hand ready to prompt when they forget the words.
Trimming the Christmas tree.
Speaking his piece.
The audience always takes special pleasure in listening to a spicy and picturesque dialogue; but space limitations and the difficulty of managing a lot of children, full of excitement over the glory of the occasion, make it unwise to attempt anything very elaborate. It is not, however, easy to find dialogues that will fit the need of the schoolhouse either in matter or manner. What is wanted is something short, requiring few actors, and having a homely quaintness of expression and of situations that shall be pleasant and natural from the child’s point of view. Sometimes a dialogue from a book or magazine can be cut down and adapted; but the two little plays which follow were written for the occasions when they were acted, and they were produced with entire success. By that I do not mean there was no blundering. The mistakes and accidents were half the fun, and were applauded as heartily as that which was done most cleverly. Whatever the lacks of the performers, the dialogues themselves are of a sort that seemed excellently suited to the place. A corner of the schoolroom was curtained off and fitted up in the rude likeness of a room in an old-fashioned farmhouse. At the back of the apartment was an open fireplace made of a dry-goods box, with the inside roughly painted to imitate smoke-blackened bricks. Several ancient chairs were scattered about, and there was a cot-bed, a bureau, lamp, and clock. The first of the dialogues was acted at a Christmas celebration, the other on the evening of Washington’s Birthday. The former was entitled
Tommy (pawing out the contents of a bureau drawer). Well, I don’t see where ma put those stockings. No, they ain’t here.
Freddy. We’ll have to make the old ones do, then. I don’t know what Santa Claus’ll think of us for hanging up such things. See there, now! (Runs his arm into the long stocking, and his fingers come out sprawling through a hole at the other end.)
A hunt for stockings.
Tommy. The presents that Santa Claus puts in’ll all tumble out at the bottom. Here, you stop that, Freddy! You’re tearing the hole bigger.
Freddy. We’ll have to tie up that hole to make the stocking any good. Got any string, Tommy?
Tommy. I guess so. (Pulls a lot of things out of his pockets and puts them on the bureau.) Yes, there’s some. Now you hold the stocking, and I’ll tie it up.
Freddy (as they do the tying). Tommy, what do you say to stayin’ up and ketchin’ old Santa Claus just after he has come down the chimney and is filling our stockings?
Tommy. I don’t believe we could do it. He doesn’t come till twelve o’clock, and we’d get to sleep before then, even if we was to try our hardest to keep awake.
Freddy. I’ll tell you how we can fix the business. There’s the alarm-clock. Set it to go off at twelve, and that’ll bring our eyes open in no time. We’ll turn the light down and go to bed with our clothes on, and so be all ready to pop out on the old fellow.
Making ready for Santa Claus.
Tommy. Good for you, Freddy! That’s just the thing. You hang up the stockings and put up the signs we made, and I’ll wind the alarm. (Freddy hangs the stockings on some nails at either side of the fireplace, and next to one pair of stockings adjusts a placard on which he has lettered his name, and next to the other pair a similar placard which bears Tommy’s name. Meanwhile, Tommy winds the alarm.)
Freddy. But what are we going to do with Santa Claus when we ketch him?
Tommy. I hadn’t thought of that. We’ll have to make some kind of an excuse, ‘cause he might get mad.
Freddy. I know! We just want to find out if there really is a Santa Claus. We’ll tell him what Sammy Tompkins said about there not being any Santa, and he’ll say we did exactly right.
Tommy. That’s so, I guess he will. Well, turn down the lamp and we’ll go to bed. There, crawl in. Now, let’s see who’ll snore first. (Both fall to imitating snoring and they laugh a little and kick about, but soon quiet into sleep.)
Santa Claus. (Comes in softly.) All right. Everybody sleeping. Well, well, stockings all labelled. That’s lettering! (Puts down his sack and from it fills the stockings. Just as he finishes doing this, the alarm goes on; that is, some one behind the curtain sets off a clock at the proper moment. Santa tumbles in great terror to the floor.) Great Cæsar’s cats! what was that? In all the ten thousand years, more or less, that I’ve travelled up and down this old world, I’ve never heard anything like that. Must have been a new invention or an earthquake. (Looks about fearfully.)
The boys go to bed.
Tommy. (He has risen on his elbow and speaks in a whisper.) There’s Santa. He acts kind o’ scared.
Freddy (also in a whisper). Now’s our time, then!
Both Boys. (They jump from the bed, dash across the floor, and grab Santa Claus by the shoulders.) There, we’ve got you!
Santa Claus. Why, what’s the matter? Hold on, hold on!
Tommy. Yes, we’ll hold on. We’ve got you!
Santa Claus (getting up). Well, now, what are you boys after, anyway? What was that noise I heard?
Freddy. (He hangs on to one of Santa’s hands, while Tommy clings to the other.) Oh, that was nothin’. It was just one of these little alarm-clocks to wake up by.
Santa Claus. Was that all? I thought the earth had cracked and was going to pieces. But what has got into you boys to come pitching on to me the way you did?
Tommy. Why, we just wanted to know if there was a Santa Claus or not. That’s all. Sammy Tompkins said there wa’n’t. But we knew there was.
Santa faces the audience.
Santa Claus. Of course there is. Don’t you see all those things I’ve put in your stockings, and don’t you see that tree all loaded? Well, boys, I can’t stop any longer. (Shakes hands.) I wish you a Merry Christmas (turns toward the audience), and I wish you all a Merry Christmas.
The only things bought for the occasion were the beards of the two old men. The rest of the material for costumes was hunted up in home closets and garrets. Often there was no very close resemblance attained to the characters represented, but there was always a sincere attempt to get a distinct individuality, and the result was in every instance satisfactorily entertaining. The scene was made to bear some resemblance to an old-time farmhouse kitchen, with an open fireplace and straight-backed chairs. This setting, even in its crudities, was much to the liking of the children who were the actors, and they went through the play effectively, where they would have failed, had it been something finer that was outside the range of their experience. The touch of the grotesque in the names and conversation and general get-up of the old men appealed strongly to the children’s imaginations, as did also the masquerade costuming of the other characters.
Going in the woods for the Christmas tree.
Ephraim. (Seated by his fireside reading a paper. Yawns.) Oh hum! I’m gettin’ sleepy so early. If the children wa’n’t away, I’d wind the clock and go to bed. (Slow, heavy footsteps are heard outside. Ephraim rises stiffly and stands expectant, while Jabez enters.) What! that you, Jabez? Glad to see you. (They shake hands, and Ephraim resumes his chair.) Have a seat, Jabez, have a seat.
Jabez. Well, I will in a minute, when I get warmed up. Kind o’ shivery out to-night. (Takes off his hat and stands with his back to the fire.) Where’s Israel and Maria?
Ephraim. Oh, they packed up yesterday and went down to Boston to spend a week visitin’ some of Maria’s relatives that live there.
Jabez. Sho! they did, did they? Hadn’t heard of it! Ephraim. Yes, and they perposed that the children should go over to stay with their uncles and aunts at the Corners so I could go to Boston, too. But I told ‘em they wouldn’t ketch me kitin’ off so far at my age. Might get killed or something, you know.
Jabez. That’s so! Don’t take much to get killed nowadays. Keeps you pretty busy, I s’pose, lookin’ after the children and all the housework and barnwork besides?
Ephraim. Well, the children are gettin’ old enough to help more’n you’d think — John, especially. He’s most as good as a man about the work outdoors. To-night they’ve all gone off somewhere.
Jabez. Didn’t they tell you where they was goin’?
Ephraim. No. Said ‘twas a secret. It’s some school party, like enough. They hitched into the pung right after supper and off they went, the whole bilin’ of ‘em. I don’t know as I ought to ‘a’ let little Jim and Polly go; but John promised faithful to see to ‘em and get ‘em home airly.
Jabez. Well, they all stopped over to our house. That’s the way I happened to drop in. They kep’ at me to step over here an’ see you, sayin’ you’d be lonesome and one thing and another, until I come.
Ephraim. Ha, ha! they’re up to some rinktum or other, I’ll be bound. But set down, Jabez.
Jabez. (Seating himself and holding out his hands toward the blaze.) Fire feels good a cold night like this. Ephraim. So’t does, and I guess I’d better be puttin’ on another stick. There ain’t many has these roarin’ open fires in these times. You ain’t had nothin’ over to your place but stoves these twenty years, have you?
Comfort by the open fire.
Jabez. No, all our fireplaces was bricked up long ago. What’s that? (Straightens up, and looks toward the window.) I thought I heard sleigh bells turnin’ into the yard.
Ephraim. Sounds like the pung, but the children wouldn’t be comin’ back yet-awhile.
Jabez. I ain’t dressed up for company!
Ephraim. I ain’t neither, nor the house ain’t! (Both get up nervously. Outside there are cries of “Whoa, whoa!” followed by a stamping of feet and then a rap at the door.) Well, there they be, whoever ‘tis! (Steps toward the door, when a crowd of children in costume burst in.)
John. (Dressed as Washington.) Wish you both a Merry Christmas!
Ephraim. Is that you, John? What you up to anyway? ‘Tain’t Christmas!
Children. Well, it’s Washington’s Birthday!
Ephraim. Is it? I declare, I believe it is. I’d forgot.
The children surprise their grandpas.
Polly. (Dressed as a little Eskimo.) This is a s’prise party, Grandpa!
Jabez. (Nudges Ephraim.) She’s a cute one.
John. Yes, that’s what it is, and we dressed up to represent a few characters for you. We tried to make some poetry to speak; but when it rhymed it wa’n’t sense, and when it was sense it wa’n’t poetry. So we give that up mostly, and we’ll have to tell you straight out what we are. Now, I’m General Washington, the father of his country, first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.
Susy. And I’m Martha, his wife, mother of her country, second in peace, second in war, and second in the hearts of her countrymen. That’s what John said.
Jabez. Well, I don’t know but you be! I hadn’t thought of that.
The German. I came from Germany to help make this great country.
The Irishman. I came from Ireland to help make this great country.
The Italian. And I came from Italy to help make this great country. (Suspended from his shoulders he carries a box with a leg underneath, a cloth over the top, and a crank attached to make it look like a hand-organ. Turns the crank while some one behind the curtain plays “Yankee Doodle” on a comb or harmonica.)
The Dude. Where I came from there’s no one knows, (After he speaks he marches across the stage and
back, takes off his stovepipe hat and makes a low bow to the audience.)
(After he speaks he marches across the stage and back, takes off his stovepipe hat and makes a low bow to the audience.)
From the land of cold and snow.
All the children. We all help make
Jabez. You done well, children, and your grandfathers are both proud of you, ain’t we, Ephraim?
Ephraim. Sartain, sartain, we are that, and I’m goin’ to skirmish around in the buttery and see if I can’t find some refreshments. But first let’s join in a hearty cheer for Washington and Liberty!
All. Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!