Mr. Spoutsound, the Speaking Master — the Exhibition
NOW comes winter the sixth, of my district education. Our master was as insignificant a personage as is often met with beyond the age of twenty-one. He ought to have been pedagogue in that land of littleness, Lilliput. Our great fellows of the back seat might have tossed him out of the window from the palm of the hand. But he possessed certain qualifications, and pursued such a course that he was permitted to retain the magisterial seat through his term, and indeed was quite popular on the whole.
He was as remarkable for the loudness and compass of his voice, as for the diminutiveness of his material dimensions. How such a body of sound could proceed from so bodiless an existence, was a marvel. It seemed as unnatural as that a tremendous thunder-clap should burst from a speck of cloud in the sky. He generally sat with the singers on the Sabbath, and drowned the feebler voices with the inundation of his bass.
But it was not with his tuneful powers alone, that he "astonished the natives." He was imagined to possess great gifts of oratory likewise. "What a pity it is that he had not been a minister!" was said. It was by his endowments and taste in this respect that he made himself particularly memorable in our school. Mr. Spoutsound had been one quarter, to an academy where declamation was a weekly exercise. Finding in this, ample scope for his vocal extraordinariness (a long-winded word, to be sure, but so appropriate), he became an enthusiastic votary to the Ciceronian art. The principal qualification of an orator in his view, was height, depth, and breadth of utterance, — quantity of sound. Of course, he fancied himself a very lion in oratory. Indeed, as far as roaring would go, he was a lion. This gentleman introduced declamation, or the speaking of pieces, as it was called, into our school. He considered "speaking of the utmost consequence in this country, as any boy might be called to a seat in the legislature, perhaps, in the course of things." It was a novelty to the scholars, and they entered with their whole souls into the matter. It was a pleasant relief to the dullness of the old-fashioned routine.
What a rummaging of books, pamphlets, and newspapers now took place, to find pieces to speak! The American Preceptor, the Columbian Orator, the Art of Reading, Scott's Elocution, Webster's Third Part, and I know not how many other ancients, were taken down from their dusty retirement at home, for the sake of the specimens of eloquence they afforded. Those pieces were deemed best by us grandsons of the Revolutionists, which most abounded in those glorious words, Freedom, Liberty, Independence, and other spirit-kindling names and phrases, that might be mentioned. Another recommendation was high-flown language, and especially words that were long and sonorous, such as would roll thunderingly from the tongue. For, like our district professor, we had the impression that noise was the most important quality in eloquence. The first, the second, and the third requisite was the same; it was noise, noise, noise. Action, however, or gesticulation, was not omitted. This was considered the next qualification of a good orator. So there was the most vehement swinging of arms, shaking of fists, and waving of palms. That occasional motion of the limb and force of voice, called emphasis, was not a characteristic of our eloquence, or rather it was all emphasis. Our utterance was something like the continuous roar of a swollen brook over a mill-dam, and our action like the unintermitted whirling and clapping of adjacent machinery.
We tried our talent in the dramatic way likewise. There were numerous extracts from dramatic compositions scattered through the various reading-books we had mustered. These dialogistic performances were even more interesting than our speechifying in the semblance of lawyers and legislators. We more easily acquired an aptitude for this exercise, as it was somewhat like that every-day affair, conversation. In this we were brought face to face, voice to voice, with each other, and our social sympathies were kindled into glow. We talked with, as well as at, folks. Then the female portion of the school could take a part in the performance; and who does not know that dialoguing, as well as dancing, has twice the zest with a female partner? The whole school, with the exception of the very least perhaps, were engaged, indeed absorbed, in this novel branch of education introduced by Mr. Spoutsound. Some, who had not got out of their Abs, were taught, by admiring fathers and mothers at home, little pieces by rote, and made to screech them out with most ear-splitting execution. One lad in this way committed to memory that famous piece of self-puffery beginning with the lines,
"You'd scarce expect one of my age
To speak in public on the stage."
Memorus Wordwell committed to memory and parroted forth that famous speech of Pitt, in which he so eloquently replies to the charge of being a young man.
Cicero at Athens was not more assiduous in seeking the "immense and the infinite" in eloquence, than we were in seeking the great in speaking. Besides half an hour of daily school time set apart for the exercise, under the immediate direction and exemplification of the master, our noonings were devoted to the same, as far as the young's ruling passion, the love of play, would permit. And on the way to and from school, the pleasure of dialogue would compete with that of dousing each other into the snow. We even "spoke" while doing our night and morning work at home. A boy might be seen at the wood-pile hacking at a log and a dialogue by turns. Or perhaps, after dispensing the fodder to the tenants of the barn, he would mount a half-cleared scaffold, and out-bellow the wondering beeves below.
As the school drew towards a close, Mr. Spoutsound proposed to have an exhibition in addition to the usual examination, on the last day, or rather the evening of it. Our oratorical gifts and accomplishments must be publicly displayed; which is next to publicly using them in the important affairs of the town, the State, or the country.
"An exhibition! — I want to know! can it be?" There had never been anything like it in the district before, nor indeed in the town. Such a thing had scarcely been heard of, except by some one whose uncle or cousin had been to the academy or to college. The people of the district were wide awake. The younger portion of them could hardly sleep nights.
The scholars are requested to select the pieces they would prefer to speak, whether speeches or dialogues; and to arrange among themselves who should be fellow-partners in the dramatical performances. The master, however, retained the right of veto on their choice. Now, what a rustle of leaves and flutter of lips in school-hours, and noisier flapping of books and clatter of tongues at noon, in settling who shall have which, and who speak with whom. At length all is arranged, and mostly to the minds of all. Then, for a week or two before the final consummation of things eloquent, it was nothing but rehearsal. No pains were spared by any one that he might be perfect in the recollection and flourishing-off of his part. Dialoguists were grouped together in every corner. There was a buzz in the back seat, a hum in the closet, a screech in the entry, and the very climax of vociferation in the spelling-floor. Here the solos (if I may borrow a term from music) were rehearsed under the immediate criticism of Mr. Spoutsound, whose chief delight was in forensic and parliamentary eloquence. The old schoolhouse was a little Babel in the confusion of tongues.
The expected day at length arrives. There must be, of course, the usual examination in the afternoon. But nobody attended this but the minister, and the committee who engaged the master. The people of the district all intended to be at the exhibition in the evening, and examination was "just nothing at all" with that in prospect. And, in fact, it was just nothing at all; for the "ruling passion" had swallowed up very much of the time that should have been devoted to the really important branches of education.
After the finishing of the school, a stage was erected at the end of the spelling-floor, next to the desk and the closet. It was hung round with checked bed-blankets, in the semblance of theatrical curtains, to conceal any preparations that might be necessary between the pieces.
The exhibition was to commence at half past six. Before that time, the old school-house was crowded to the utmost of its capacity for containing, by the people not only of our district, but of other parts of the town. The children were wedged into chinks too narrow for the admission of the grown-up. Never were a multitude of living bodies more completely compressed and amalgamated into one continuous mass.
On the front writing-bench, just before the stage, and facing the audience, sat the four first, and some of the most interesting performers on the occasion, viz., players on the clarionet, violin, bass-viol, and bassoon. But they of the bow were sorely troubled at first. Time and space go together with them, you know. They cannot keep the first without possessing the latter. As they sat, their semibreves were all shortened into minims, indeed into crotchets, for lack of elbow-room. At length the violinist stood up straight on the writing-bench, so as to have an unimpeded stretch in the empty air, above the thicket of heads. His fellow-sufferer then contrived to stand so that his long bow could sweep freely between the steady heads of two broad-shouldered men, out of danger from joggling boys. This band discoursed what was to our ears most eloquent music, as a prelude to the musical eloquence which was to be the chief entertainment of the occasion. They played intermediately also, and gave the winding-off flourish of sound.
At forty minutes past six, the curtain rose; that is, the bed-blankets were pulled aside. There stood Mr. Spoutsound on the stage, in all the pomp possible to diminutiveness. He advanced two steps, and bowed as profoundly from height to depth as his brevity of stature would admit. He then opened the exhibition by speaking a poetical piece called a Prologue, which he found in one of the old reading-books. As this was originally composed as an introduction to a stage performance, it was thought appropriate on this occasion. Mr. Spoutsound now put forth in all the plenitude of his utterance. It seemed a vocal cataract, all torrent, thunder, and froth. But it wanted room, — an abyss to empty into; and all it had was the remnant of space left in our little school-room.
A few of the audience were overwhelmed with the pour and rush and roar of the pent-up noise, and the rest with admiration, yea, astonishment, that the schoolmaster "could speak so."
He ceased — it was all as still as if every other voice had died of envy. He bowed — there was then a general breathing, as if the vocals were just coming to life again. He sat down on a chair placed on the stage; then there was one general buzz, above which arose, here and there, a living and loud voice. Above this, soon arose the exaltation of the orator's favorite march; for he deemed it proper that his own performance should be separated from those of his pupils by some length and loftiness of music.
Now the exhibition commenced in good earnest. The dramatists dressed in costumes according to the character to be sustained, as far as all the old and odd dresses that could be mustered up would enable them to do so. The district, and indeed the town, had been ransacked for revolutionary coats and cocked-up hats and other grand-fatherly and grand-motherly attire.
The people present were quite as much amused with the spectacle as with the speaking. To see the old fashions on the young folks, and to see the young folks personating characters so entirely opposite to their own; for instance, the slim, pale-faced youth, by the aid of stuffing, looking, and acting the fat old wine-bibber; the blooming girl of seventeen, putting on the cap, the kerchief, and the character of seventy-five, &c., — all this was ludicrously strange. A very refined taste might have observed other things that were strangely ludicrous in the elocution and gesticulation of these disciples of Mr. Spout-sound; but most of the company present were so fortunate as to perceive no bad taste to mar their enjoyment.
The little boy of five spoke the little piece
"You'd scarce expect one of my age," &c.
I recollect another line of the piece which has become singularly verified in the history of the lad. It is this —
"Tall oaks from little acorns grow."
Now, this acorn of eloquence, which sprouted forth so vigorously on this occasion, has at length grown into a mighty oak of oratory on his native hills. He has flourished in a Fourth of July oration before his fellow-townsmen.
Memorus Wordwell, who at this time was eleven years old, yelped forth the aforementioned speech of Pitt. In the part replying to the taunt that the author of the speech was a young man, Memorus "beat all." Next to the master himself, he excited the greatest admiration, and particularly in his father and mother.
But this chapter must be ended, so we will skip to the end of this famous exhibition. At a quarter past ten, the curtain dropped for the last time; that is, the bed-blankets were pulled down and put into the sleighs of their owners, to be carried home to be spread over the dreamers of acts, instead of being hung before the actors of dreams. The little boys and girls did not get to bed till eleven o'clock that night, nor all of them to sleep till twelve. They were never more the pupils of Mr. Spoutsound. He soon migrated to one of the States beyond the Alleghany. There he studied law not more than a year certainly, and was admitted to the Bar. It is rumored that he soon spoke himself into the legislature, and as soon spoke himself out again. Whether he will speak himself into Congress is a matter of exceeding doubt. I have nothing more to add respecting the speaking master, or the speaking, excepting that one shrewd old man was heard to say on leaving the school-house, exhibition night, "A great cry, but little wool."