VACATION was approaching. The schoolmaster, always severe, grew severer and
more exacting than ever, for he wanted
the school to make a good showing on
"Examination" day. His rod and his
ferule were seldom idle now -- at least
among the smaller pupils. Only the biggest boys, and
young ladies of eighteen and twenty, escaped lashing.
Mr. Dobbins' lashings were very vigorous ones, too; for
although he carried, under his wig, a perfectly bald
and shiny head, he had only reached middle age, and
there was no sign of feebleness in his muscle. As
the great day approached, all the tyranny that was
in him came to the surface; he seemed to take a vindictive pleasure in punishing the least shortcomings.
The consequence was, that the smaller boys spent their
days in terror and suffering and their nights in plotting
revenge. They threw away no opportunity to do the
master a mischief. But he kept ahead all the time.
The retribution that followed every vengeful success
was so sweeping and majestic that the boys always
retired from the field badly worsted. At last they conspired together and hit upon a plan that promised a
dazzling victory. They swore in the sign-painter's boy,
told him the scheme, and asked his help. He had his
own reasons for being delighted, for the master boarded
in his father's family and had given the boy ample
cause to hate him. The master's wife would go on a visit
to the country in a few days, and there would be nothing
to interfere with the plan; the master always prepared himself for great occasions by getting pretty well
fuddled, and the sign-painter's boy said that when the
dominie had reached the proper condition on Examination Evening he would "manage the thing" while he
napped in his chair; then he would have him awakened
at the right time and hurried away to school.
In the fulness of time the interesting occasion arrived. At eight in the evening the schoolhouse was
brilliantly lighted, and adorned with wreaths and festoons of foliage and flowers. The master sat throned
in his great chair upon a raised platform, with his
blackboard behind him. He was looking tolerably
mellow. Three rows of benches on each side and six
rows in front of him were occupied by the dignitaries of
the town and by the parents of the pupils. To his left,
back of the rows of citizens, was a spacious temporary
platform upon which were seated the scholars who were
to take part in the exercises of the evening; rows of
small boys, washed and dressed to an intolerable state
of discomfort; rows of gawky big boys; snowbanks of
girls and young ladies clad in lawn and muslin and
conspicuously conscious of their bare arms, their grandmothers' ancient trinkets, their bits of pink and blue
ribbon and the flowers in their hair. All the rest of
the house was filled with non-participating scholars.
The exercises began. A very little boy stood up and
sheepishly recited, "You'd scarce expect one of my
age to speak in public on the stage," etc. -- accompanying himself with the painfully exact and spasmodic
gestures which a machine might have used -- supposing
the machine to be a trifle out of order. But he got
through safely, though cruelly scared, and got a fine
round of applause when he made his manufactured
bow and retired.
A little shamefaced girl lisped, "Mary had a little
lamb," etc., performed a compassion-inspiring curtsy,
got her meed of applause, and sat down flushed and
Tom Sawyer stepped forward with conceited confidence and soared into the unquenchable and indestructible "Give me liberty or give me death" speech,
with fine fury and frantic gesticulation, and broke down
in the middle of it. A ghastly stage-fright seized him,
his legs quaked under him and he was like to choke.
True, he had the manifest sympathy of the house but
he had the house's silence, too, which was even worse
than its sympathy. The master frowned, and this completed the disaster. Tom struggled awhile and then
retired, utterly defeated. There was a weak attempt
at applause, but it died early.
"The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" followed;
also "The Assyrian Came Down," and other declamatory gems. Then there were reading exercises, and a
spelling fight. The meagre Latin class recited with
honor. The prime feature of the evening was in order,
now -- original "compositions" by the young ladies.
Each in her turn stepped forward to the edge of the
platform, cleared her throat, held up her manuscript
(tied with dainty ribbon), and proceeded to read, with
labored attention to "expression" and punctuation.
The themes were the same that had been illuminated
upon similar occasions by their mothers before them,
their grandmothers, and doubtless all their ancestors in
the female line clear back to the Crusades. "Friendship" was one; "Memories of Other Days"; "Religion
in History"; "Dream Land"; "The Advantages of
Culture"; "Forms of Political Government Compared
and Contrasted"; "Melancholy"; "Filial Love";
"Heart Longings," etc., etc.
A prevalent feature in these compositions was a
nursed and petted melancholy; another was a wasteful
and opulent gush of "fine language"; another was a
tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words
and phrases until they were worn entirely out; and
a peculiarity that conspicuously marked and marred
them was the inveterate and intolerable sermon that
wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every
one of them. No matter what the subject might be, a
brain-racking effort was made to squirm it into some
aspect or other that the moral and religious mind could
contemplate with edification. The glaring insincerity
of these sermons was not sufficient to compass the
banishment of the fashion from the schools, and it is
not sufficient to-day; it never will be sufficient while
the world stands, perhaps. There is no school in all
our land where the young ladies do not feel obliged to
close their compositions with a sermon; and you will
find that the sermon of the most frivolous and the least
religious girl in the school is always the longest and the
most relentlessly pious. But enough of this. Homely
truth is unpalatable.
Let us return to the "Examination." The first
composition that was read was one entitled "Is this,
then, Life?" Perhaps the reader can endure an extract from it:
"In the common walks of life, with what delightful
emotions does the youthful mind look forward to some
anticipated scene of festivity! Imagination is busy
sketching rose-tinted pictures of joy. In fancy, the
voluptuous votary of fashion sees herself amid the
festive throng, 'the observed of all observers.' Her
graceful form, arrayed in snowy robes, is whirling
through the mazes of the joyous dance; her eye is
brightest, her step is lightest in the gay assembly.
"In such delicious fancies time quickly glides by,
and the welcome hour arrives for her entrance into
the Elysian world, of which she has had such bright
dreams. How fairy-like does everything appear to
her enchanted vision! Each new scene is more charming
than the last. But after a while she finds that
beneath this goodly exterior, all is vanity, the
flattery which once charmed her soul, now grates
harshly upon her ear; the ball-room has lost its
charms; and with wasted health and imbittered heart,
she turns away with the conviction that earthly
pleasures cannot satisfy the longings of the soul!"
And so forth and so on. There was a buzz of gratification from time to time during the reading, accompanied by whispered ejaculations of "How sweet!"
"How eloquent!" "So true!" etc., and after the thing
had closed with a peculiarly afflicting sermon the
applause was enthusiastic.
Then arose a slim, melancholy girl, whose face had
the "interesting" paleness that comes of pills and indigestion, and read a "poem." Two stanzas of it will do:
"A MISSOURI MAIDEN'S FAREWELL TO ALABAMA
"Alabama, good-bye! I love thee well!
But yet for a while do I leave thee now!
Sad, yes, sad thoughts of thee my heart doth swell,
And burning recollections throng my brow!
For I have wandered through thy flowery woods;
Have roamed and read near Tallapoosa's stream;
Have listened to Tallassee's warring floods,
And wooed on Coosa's side Aurora's beam.
"Yet shame I not to bear an o'er-full heart,
Nor blush to turn behind my tearful eyes;
'Tis from no stranger land I now must part,
'Tis to no strangers left I yield these sighs.
Welcome and home were mine within this State,
Whose vales I leave -- whose spires fade fast from me
And cold must be mine eyes, and heart, and tete,
When, dear Alabama! they turn cold on thee!"
There were very few there who knew what "tete"
meant, but the poem was very satisfactory, nevertheless.
Next appeared a dark-complexioned, black-eyed,
black-haired young lady, who paused an impressive
moment, assumed a tragic expression, and began to
read in a measured, solemn tone:
"Dark and tempestuous was night. Around the
throne on high not a single star quivered; but
the deep intonations of the heavy thunder
constantly vibrated upon the ear; whilst the
terrific lightning revelled in angry mood
through the cloudy chambers of heaven, seeming
to scorn the power exerted over its terror by
the illustrious Franklin! Even the boisterous
winds unanimously came forth from their mystic
homes, and blustered about as if to enhance by
their aid the wildness of the scene.
"At such a time,so dark,so dreary, for human
sympathy my very spirit sighed; but instead thereof,
"'My dearest friend, my counsellor, my comforter
and guide -- My joy in grief, my second bliss
in joy,' came to my side. She moved like one of
those bright beings pictured in the sunny walks
of fancy's Eden by the romantic and young, a
queen of beauty unadorned save by her own
transcendent loveliness. So soft was her step, it
failed to make even a sound, and but for the
magical thrill imparted by her genial touch, as
other unobtrusive beauties, she would have glided
away un-perceived -- unsought. A strange sadness
rested upon her features, like icy tears upon
the robe of December, as she pointed to the
contending elements without, and bade me contemplate
the two beings presented."
This nightmare occupied some ten pages of manuscript and wound up with a sermon so destructive of
all hope to non-Presbyterians that it took the first prize.
This composition was considered to be the very finest
effort of the evening. The mayor of the village, in
delivering the prize to the author of it, made a warm
speech in which he said that it was by far the most
"eloquent" thing he had ever listened to, and that
Daniel Webster himself might well be proud of it.
It may be remarked, in passing, that the number
of compositions in which the word "beauteous" was
over-fondled, and human experience referred to as
"life's page," was up to the usual average.
Now the master, mellow almost to the verge of
geniality, put his chair aside, turned his back to the
audience, and began to draw a map of America on
the blackboard, to exercise the geography class upon.
But he made a sad business of it with his unsteady hand,
and a smothered titter rippled over the house. He
knew what the matter was, and set himself to right it.
He sponged out lines and remade them; but he only
distorted them more than ever, and the tittering was
more pronounced. He threw his entire attention upon
his work, now, as if determined not to be put down by
the mirth. He felt that all eyes were fastened upon
him; he imagined he was succeeding, and yet the tittering continued; it even manifestly increased. And well
it might. There was a garret above, pierced with a
scuttle over his head; and down through this scuttle
came a cat, suspended around the haunches by a
string; she had a rag tied about her head and jaws
to keep her from mewing; as she slowly descended she
curved upward and clawed at the string, she swung
downward and clawed at the intangible air. The
tittering rose higher and higher -- the cat was within
six inches of the absorbed teacher's head -- down, down,
a little lower, and she grabbed his wig with her desperate
claws, clung to it, and was snatched up into the garret
in an instant with her trophy still in her possession!
And how the light did blaze abroad from the master's
bald pate -- for the sign-painter's boy had GILDED it!
That broke up the meeting. The boys were avenged.
Vacation had come.
NOTE:-- The pretended "compositions" quoted in
this chapter are taken without alteration from a
volume entitled "Prose and Poetry, by a Western
Lady" -- but they are exactly and precisely after
the schoolgirl pattern, and hence are much
happier than any mere imitations could be.