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Yesterday I was in the old neighborhood, and, to my surprise, learned that the old log school house was still standing. So I set out alone to visit it. I found it rotten and shaky, serving as a sort of barn in which a farmer stows his oats, straw and corn fodder. The genius of learning has long since flown to finer quarters. The great old chimney had been torn down or had fallen, the broad boards of the roof, held on by weight poles, were deeply covered with moss and mould, and over the whole edifice hung a gloom--a mist of decay.
I leaned upon a worm fence hard by and gazed through the long vacant side window, underneath which our writing shelf used to be, sorrowfully dallying with memory; not altogether sorrowfully either, for the glad faces of children that used to romp with me on the old play ground floated across my memory, clothed in the charming haze of distance, and encircled by the halo of tender affections. The wind sang as of old, and the bird songs had not changed a jot. Slowly my whole being crept back to the past. The wonders of our progress were all forgotten. And then from within the old school room came a well remembered voice, with a certain nasal tw.a.n.g, repeating slowly and sternly the words:
"_Arma virumque cano_;" then there came a chime of silver tones--"School is out!--School is out!" And I started, to find that I was all alone by the rotting but blessed old throne and palace of the pedagogue.
AN IDYL OF THE ROD.
It was as pretty a country cottage as is to be found, even now, in all the Wabash Valley, situated on a prominent bluff, overlooking the broad stretches of bottom land, and giving a fine view of the wide winding river. The windows and doors of this cottage were draped in vines, among which the morning glory and the honeysuckle were the most luxuriant; while on each side of the gravelled walk, that led from the front portico to the dooryard gate, grew cl.u.s.ters of pinks, sweet-williams and larkspurs. The house was painted white, and had green window shutters--old fashioned, to be sure, but cosy, homelike and tasty withal. Everything pertaining to and surrounding the place had an air of methodical neatness, that betokened great care and scrupulous order on the part of the inmates.
About the hour of six on a Monday morning, in the month of May, a fine, hearty, intelligent looking lad of twelve years walked slowly up the path which led from the old orchard to the house. He was dressed in loose trowsers of bottle green jeans, a jacket of the same, heavy boots and a well worn wool hat. The boy's shoulders stooped a little, and a slight hump discovered itself at the upper portion of his back. His face was strikingly handsome, being fair, bright, healthful, and marked with signs of great precocity of intellect, albeit it wore just now an indescribable, faintly visible shade, as of innocent perplexity, or, possibly, grief. His mind was evidently not at ease, but the varying shadows that chased each other across the mild depths of his clear, vivacious eyes would have stumped a physiognomist. Between a laugh and a cry, but more like a cry; between defiance and utter shame, but more like the latter; his cheeks and lips took on every shade of pallor and of flush. He shrugged his shoulders as he moved along, and cast rapid glances in every direction, as if afraid of being seen. "Whippoo-tee, tippoo-tee-tee-e!" sang a great cardinal red bird in the apple tree over his head. He flung a stone at the bird with terrible energy, but missed it.
The mistress of the cottage was at this time in the kitchen preparing for the week's washing, for do not all good Hoosier housewives wash on Monday? She was a middle aged, stoutly built, healthy matron, sandy haired, slightly freckled, blue eyed and quick in her movements. Usually smiling and happy, it was painful to see how she struggled now to master the emotions of great grief and sadness that constantly arose in her bosom, like spectres that would not be driven away.
A bright eyed, golden haired la.s.s of sixteen was in the breakfast room washing the dishes and singing occasional s.n.a.t.c.hes from a mournful ditty. It was sad, indeed, to see a cloud of sorrow on a face so fresh and sweet.
Mr. Coulter, the head of the family, and owner of the cottage and its lands, stood near the centre of the sitting room with his hands crossed behind him, gazing fixedly and sadly on the picture of a sweet child holding a white kitten in its lap, which picture hung on the wall over against the broad fire-place. A look of sorrow betrayed itself even in the dark, stern visage of the man. He drew down his s.h.a.ggy eyebrows and occasionally pulled his grizzled moustache into his mouth and chewed it fiercely. Evidently he was chafing under his grief.
The cottage windows were wide open, as is the western custom in fine weather, and the fragrance of spice wood and sa.s.safras floated in on the flood tide of pleasant air, while from the big old locust tree down by the fence fell the twittering prelude to a finch's song. A green line of willows and a thin, pendulous stratum of fog marked the way of the river, plainly visible from the west window, and through the white haze flocks of teal and wood ducks cut swiftly in their downward flight to the water. A golden flicker sang and hammered on the gate-post the while he eyed a sparrow-hawk that wheeled and screamed high over head. The dew was like little mirrors in the gra.s.s.
The lad entered the kitchen and said to his mother, in a voice full of tenderness, though barely audible:
"Mammy, where's pap?"
"In the front room, Billy," replied the matron solemnly, quaveringly.
Pa.s.sing into the breakfast room, Billy looked at his sister and a flash of sympathetic sorrow played back and forth from the eyes of one to those of the other; then he went straight into the sitting room and handed something to Mr. Coulter. It was a moment of silence and suspense. Out in the orchard the cherry and apple blooms were falling like pink and white snow.
The man looked down at his boy sadly, sorrowfully, regretfully. He drew his face into a stern frown. The lad looked up into his father's eyes timidly, ruefully, strangely. It was a living tableau no artist could reproduce. It was the moment before a crisis.
"Billy," said the father gravely, "I took your mother and sister to church yesterday."
"Yes, sir," said Billy.
"And left you to see to things," continued the man.
"Yes, sir," replied the boy, gazing through the window at the flicker as it hitched down the gate-post and finally dropped into the gra.s.s with a shrill chirp.
"And you didn't water them pigs!"
"O-o-o! Oh, sir! Geeroody! O me! ouch! lawsy! lawsy! mercy me!"
The slender scion of an apple tree, in the hand of Mr. Coulter, rose and fell, cutting the air like a rapier, and up from the jacket of the lad, like incense from an altar, rose a cloud of dust mingled with the nap of jeans. Down in the young clover of the meadow the larks and sparrows sang cheerily; the gnats and flies danced up and down in the sunshine, the fresh soft young leaves of the vines rustled like satin, and all was merry indeed!
Billy's eyes were turned upward to the face of his father in appealing agony; but still the switch, with a sharp hiss, cut the air, falling steadily and mercilessly on his shoulders.
All along the green banks of the river the willows shook their shining fingers at the lifting fog, and the voices of children going by to the distant school smote the sweet May wind.
"Whippee! Whippee-tippee-tee!" sang the cardinal bird.
"O pap! ouch! O-o-o! I'll not forget to water the pigs no more!"
"S'pect you won't, neither!" said the man.
The wind, by a sudden puff, lifted into the room a shower of white bloom petals from a sweet apple tree, letting them fall gracefully upon the patchwork carpet, the while a ploughman whistled plaintively in a distant field.
"Crackee! O pap! ouch! O-o-o! You're a killin' me!"
"Shet your mouth 'r I'll split ye to the backbone in a second! Show ye how to run off fishin' with Ed Jones and neglect them pigs! Take every striffin of hide off'n ye!"
How many delightful places in the woods, how many cool spots beside the murmuring river, would have been more pleasant to Billy than the place he just then occupied! He would have swapped hides with the very pigs he had forgot to water.
"O, land! O, me! Geeroody me!" yelled the lad.
"Them poor pigs!" rejoined the father.
Still the dust rose and danced in the level jet of sunlight that fell athwart the room from the east window, and the hens out at the barn cackled and sang for joy over new laid eggs stowed away in cosy places.
At one time during the falling of the rod the girl quit washing the dishes, and thrusting her head into the kitchen said, in a subdued tone:
"My land! Mammy, ain't Bill a gittin' an awful one this load o' poles?"
"You're moughty right!" responded the matron, solemnly.
Along toward the last Mr. Coulter tip-toed at every stroke. The switch actually screamed through the air. Billy danced and bawled and made all manner of serio-comic faces and contortions.
"Now go, sir," cried the man, finally tossing the frizzled stump of the switch out through the window. "Go now, and next time I'll be bound you water them pigs!"
And, while the finch poured a cataract of melody from the locust tree, Billy went.
Poor boy! that was a terrible thrashing, and to make it worse, it had been promised to him on the evening before, so that he had been dreading it and shivering over it all night!
Now, as he walked through the breakfast room, his sister looked at him in a commiserating way, but on pa.s.sing through the kitchen he could not catch the eye of his mother.
Finally he stood in the free open air in front of the saddle closet. It was just then that a speckled rooster on the barn yard fence flapped his wings and crowed l.u.s.tily. A turkey c.o.c.k was strutting on the gra.s.s by the old cherry tree.
Billy opened the door of the closet. "A boy's will is the wind's will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts." Billy peeped into the saddle closet and then cast a glance around him, as if to see if any one was near.
At length, during a pleasant lull in the morning wind, and while the low, tenderly mellow flowing of the river was distinctly audible, and the song of the finch increased in volume, and the bleating of new born lambs in the meadow died in fluttering echoes under the barn, and while the fragrance of apple blooms grew fainter, and while the sun, now flaming just a little above the eastern horizon, launched a shower of yellow splendors over him from head to foot, he took from under his jacket behind a doubled sheep skin with the wool on, which, with an ineffable smile, he tossed into the closet. Then, as the yellow flicker rose rapidly from the gra.s.s, Billy walked off, whistling the air of that once popular ballad--
"O give me back my fifteen cents, And give me back my money," &c.