Cressy

Contents:
Author: Bret Harte

Chapter I.

As the master of the Indian Spring school emerged from the pine woods into the little clearing before the schoolhouse, he stopped whistling, put his hat less jauntily on his head, threw away some wild flowers he had gathered on his way, and otherwise assumed the severe demeanor of his profession and his mature age—which was at least twenty. Not that he usually felt this an assumption; it was a firm conviction of his serious nature that he impressed others, as he did himself, with the blended austerity and ennui of deep and exhausted experience.

The building which was assigned to him and his flock by the Board of Education of Tuolumne County, California, had been originally a church. It still bore a faded odor of sanctity, mingled, however, with a later and slightly alcoholic breath of political discussion, the result of its weekly occupation under the authority of the Board as a Tribune for the enunciation of party principles and devotion to the Liberties of the People. There were a few dogeared hymn-books on the teacher’s desk, and the blackboard but imperfectly hid an impassioned appeal to the citizens of Indian Spring to "Rally" for Stebbins as Supervisor. The master had been struck with the size of the black type in which this placard was printed, and with a shrewd perception of its value to the round wandering eyes of his smaller pupils, allowed it to remain as a pleasing example of orthography. Unfortunately, although subdivided and spelt by them in its separate letters with painful and perfect accuracy, it was collectively known as "Wally," and its general import productive of vague hilarity.

Taking a large key from his pocket, the master unlocked the door and threw it open, stepping back with a certain precaution begotten of his experience in once finding a small but sociable rattlesnake coiled up near the threshold. A slight disturbance which followed his intrusion showed the value of that precaution, and the fact that the room had been already used for various private and peaceful gatherings of animated nature. An irregular attendance of yellow-birds and squirrels dismissed themselves hurriedly through the broken floor and windows, but a golden lizard, stiffened suddenly into stony fright on the edge of an open arithmetic, touched the heart of the master so strongly by its resemblance to some kept-in and forgotten scholar who had succumbed over the task he could not accomplish, that he was seized with compunction.

Recovering himself, and re-establishing, as it were, the decorous discipline of the room by clapping his hands and saying "Sho!" he passed up the narrow aisle of benches, replacing the forgotten arithmetic, and picking up from the desks here and there certain fragmentary pieces of plaster and crumbling wood that had fallen from the ceiling, as if this grove of Academus had been shedding its leaves overnight. When he reached his own desk he lifted the lid and remained for some moments motionless, gazing into it. His apparent meditation however was simply the combined reflection of his own features in a small pocket-mirror in its recesses and a perplexing doubt in his mind whether the sacrifice of his budding moustache was not essential to the professional austerity of his countenance. But he was presently aware of the sound of small voices, light cries, and brief laughter scattered at vague and remote distances from the schoolhouse—not unlike the birds and squirrels he had just dispossessed. He recognized by these signs that it was nine o’clock, and his scholars were assembling.

They came in their usual desultory fashion—the fashion of country school-children the world over—irregularly, spasmodically, and always as if accidentally; a few hand-in-hand, others driven ahead of or dropped behind their elders; some in straggling groups more or less coherent and at times only connected by far-off intermediate voices scattered on a space of half a mile, but never quite alone; always preoccupied by something else than the actual business on hand; appearing suddenly from ditches, behind trunks, and between fence-rails; cropping up in unexpected places along the road after vague and purposeless detours—seemingly going anywhere and everywhere but to school! So unlooked-for, in fact, was their final arrival that the master, who had a few moments before failed to descry a single torn straw hat or ruined sun-bonnet above his visible horizon, was always startled to find them suddenly under his windows, as if, like the birds, they had alighted from the trees. Nor was their moral attitude towards their duty any the more varied; they always arrived as if tired and reluctant, with a doubting sulkiness that perhaps afterwards beamed into a charming hypocrisy, but invariably temporizing with their instincts until the last moment, and only relinquishing possible truancy on the very threshold. Even after they were marshalled on their usual benches they gazed at each other every morning with a perfectly fresh astonishment and a daily recurring enjoyment of some hidden joke in this tremendous rencontre.

It had been the habit of the master to utilize these preliminary vagrancies of his little flock by inviting them on assembling to recount any interesting incident of their journey hither; or failing this, from their not infrequent shyness in expressing what had secretly interested them, any event that had occurred within their knowledge since they last met. He had done this, partly to give them time to recover themselves in that more formal atmosphere, and partly, I fear, because, notwithstanding his conscientious gravity, it greatly amused him. It also diverted them from their usual round-eyed, breathless contemplation of himself—a regular morning inspection which generally embraced every detail of his dress and appearance, and made every change or deviation the subject of whispered comment or stony astonishment. He knew that they knew him more thoroughly than he did himself, and shrank from the intuitive vision of these small clairvoyants.

"Well?" said the master gravely.

There was the usual interval of bashful hesitation, verging on nervous hilarity or hypocritical attention. For the last six months this question by the master had been invariably received each morning as a veiled pleasantry which might lead to baleful information or conceal some query out of the dreadful books before him. Yet this very element of danger had its fascinations. Johnny Filgee, a small boy, blushed violently, and, without getting up, began hurriedly in a high key, "Tige ith got," and then suddenly subsided into a whisper.

"Speak up, Johnny," said the master encouragingly.

"Please, sir, it ain’t anythin’ he’s seed—nor any real news," said Rupert Filgee, his elder brother, rising with family concern and frowning openly upon Johnny; "it’s jest his foolishness; he oughter be licked." Finding himself unexpectedly on his feet, and apparently at the end of a long speech, he colored also, and then said hurriedly, "Jimmy Snyder—HE seed suthin’. Ask HIM!" and sat down—a recognized hero.

Every eye, including the master’s, was turned on Jimmy Snyder. But that youthful observer, instantly diving his head and shoulders into his desk, remained there gurgling as if under water. Two or three nearest him endeavored with some struggling to bring him to an intelligible surface again. The master waited patiently. Johnny Filgee took advantage of the diversion to begin again in a high key, "Tige ith got thix," and subsided.

"Come, Jimmy," said the master, with a touch of peremptoriness. Thus adjured, Jimmy Snyder came up glowingly, and bristling with full stops and exclamation points. "Seed a black b’ar comin’ outer Daves’ woods," he said excitedly. "Nigh to me ez you be. ’N big ez a hoss; ’n snarlin’! ’n snappin’!—like gosh! Kem along—ker— clump torords me. Reckoned he’d skeer me! Didn’t skeer me worth a cent. I heaved a rock at him—I did now!" (in defiance of murmurs of derisive comment)—"’n he slid. Ef he’d kem up furder I’d hev up with my slate and swotted him over the snoot—bet your boots!"

The master here thought fit to interfere, and gravely point out that the habit of striking bears as large as a horse with a schoolslate was equally dangerous to the slate (which was also the property of Tuolumne County) and to the striker; and that the verb "to swot" and the noun substantive "snoot" were likewise indefensible, and not to be tolerated. Thus admonished Jimmy Snyder, albeit unshaken in his faith in his own courage, sat down.

A slight pause ensued. The youthful Filgee, taking advantage of it, opened in a higher key, "Tige ith"—but the master’s attention was here diverted by the searching eyes of Octavia Dean, a girl of eleven, who after the fashion of her sex preferred a personal recognition of her presence before she spoke. Succeeding in catching his eye, she threw back her long hair from her shoulders with an easy habitual gesture, rose, and with a faint accession of color said:

"Cressy McKinstry came home from Sacramento. Mrs. McKinstry told mother she’s comin’ back here to school."

The master looked up with an alacrity perhaps inconsistent with his cynical austerity. Seeing the young girl curiously watching him with an expectant smile, he regretted it. Cressy McKinstry, who was sixteen years old, had been one of the pupils he had found at the school when he first came. But as he had also found that she was there in the extraordinary attitude of being "engaged" to one Seth Davis, a fellow-pupil of nineteen, and as most of the courtship was carried on freely and unceremoniously during schoolhours with the full permission of the master’s predecessor, the master had been obliged to point out to the parents of the devoted couple the embarrassing effects of this association on the discipline of the school. The result had been the withdrawal of the lovers, and possibly the good-will of the parents. The return of the young lady was consequently a matter of some significance. Had the master’s protest been accepted, or had the engagement itself been broken off?

Either was not improbable. His momentary loss of attention was Johnny Filgee’s great gain.

"Tige," said Johnny, with sudden and alarming distinctness, "ith got thix pupths—mothly yaller."

In the laugh which followed this long withheld announcement of an increase in the family of Johnny’s yellow and disreputable setter "Tiger," who usually accompanied him to school and howled outside, the master joined with marked distinctness. Then he said, with equally marked severity, "Books!" The little levee was ended, and school began.

It continued for two hours with short sighs, corrugations of small foreheads, the complaining cries and scratchings of slate pencils over slates, and other signs of minor anguish among the more youthful of the flock; and with more or less whisperings, movements of the lips, and unconscious soliloquy among the older pupils. The master moved slowly up and down the aisle with a word of encouragement or explanation here and there, stopping with his hands behind him to gaze abstractedly out of the windows to the wondering envy of the little ones. A faint hum, as of invisible insects, gradually pervaded the school; the more persistent droning of a large bee had become dangerously soporific. The hot breath of the pines without had invaded the doors and windows; the warped shingles and weather-boarding at times creaked and snapped under the rays of the vertical and unclouded sun. A gentle perspiration broke out like a mild epidemic in the infant class; little curls became damp, brief lashes limp, round eyes moist, and small eyelids heavy. The master himself started, and awoke out of a perilous dream of other eyes and hair to collect himself severely. For the irresolute, half-embarrassed, half-lazy figure of a man had halted doubtingly before the porch and open door. Luckily the children, who were facing the master with their backs to the entrance, did not see it.

Yet the figure was neither alarming nor unfamiliar. The master at once recognized it as Ben Dabney, otherwise known as "Uncle Ben," a good-humored but not over-bright miner, who occupied a small cabin on an unambitious claim in the outskirts of Indian Spring. His avuncular title was evidently only an ironical tribute to his amiable incompetency and heavy good-nature, for he was still a young man with no family ties, and by reason of his singular shyness not even a visitor in the few families of the neighborhood. As the master looked up, he had an irritating recollection that Ben had been already haunting him for the last two days, alternately appearing and disappearing in his path to and from school as a more than usually reserved and bashful ghost. This, to the master’s cynical mind, clearly indicated that, like most ghosts, he had something of essentially selfish import to communicate. Catching the apparition’s half-appealing eye, he proceeded to exorcise it with a portentous frown and shake of the head, that caused it to timidly wane and fall away from the porch, only however to reappear and wax larger a few minutes later at one of the side windows. The infant class hailing his appearance as a heaven-sent boon, the master was obliged to walk to the door and command him sternly away, when, retreating to the fence, he mounted the uppermost rail, and drawing a knife from his pocket, cut a long splinter from the rail, and began to whittle it in patient and meditative silence. But when recess was declared, and the relieved feelings of the little flock had vent in the clearing around the schoolhouse, the few who rushed to the spot found that Uncle Ben had already disappeared. Whether the appearance of the children was too inconsistent with his ghostly mission, or whether his heart failed him at the last moment, the master could not determine. Yet, distasteful as the impending interview promised to be, the master was vaguely and irritatingly disappointed.

A few hours later, when school was being dismissed, the master found Octavia Dean lingering near his desk. Looking into the girl’s mischievous eyes, he good-humoredly answered their expectation by referring to her morning’s news. "I thought Miss McKinstry had been married by this time," he said carelessly.

Octavia, swinging her satchel like a censer, as if she were performing some act of thurification over her completed tasks, replied demurely: "Oh no! dear no—not THAT."

"So it would seem," said the master.

"I reckon she never kalkilated to, either," continued Octavia, slyly looking up from the corner of her lashes.

"Indeed!"

"No—she was just funning with Seth Davis—that’s all."

"Funning with him?"

"Yes, sir. Kinder foolin’ him, you know."

"Kinder foolin’ him!"

For an instant the master felt it his professional duty to protest against this most unmaidenly and frivolous treatment of the matrimonial engagement, but a second glance at the significant face of his youthful auditor made him conclude that her instinctive knowledge of her own sex could be better trusted than his imperfect theories. He turned towards his desk without speaking. Octavia gave an extra swing to her satchel, tossing it over her shoulder with a certain small coquettishness and moved towards the door. As she did so the infant Filgee from the safe vantage of the porch where he had lingered was suddenly impelled to a crowning audacity! As if struck with an original idea, but apparently addressing himself to space, he cried out, "Crethy M’Kinthry likth teacher," and instantly vanished.

Putting these incidents sternly aside, the master addressed himself to the task of setting a few copies for the next day as the voices of his departing flock faded from the porch. Presently a silence fell upon the little school-house. Through the open door a cool, restful breath stole gently as if nature were again stealthily taking possession of her own. A squirrel boldly came across the porch, a few twittering birds charging in stopped, beat the air hesitatingly for a moment with their wings, and fell back with bashfully protesting breasts aslant against the open door and the unlooked-for spectacle of the silent occupant. Then there was another movement of intrusion, but this time human, and the master looked up angrily to behold Uncle Ben.

He entered with a slow exasperating step, lifting his large boots very high and putting them down again softly as if he were afraid of some insecurity in the floor, or figuratively recognized the fact that the pathways of knowledge were thorny and difficult. Reaching the master’s desk and the ministering presence above it, he stopped awkwardly, and with the rim of his soft felt hat endeavored to wipe from his face the meek smile it had worn when he entered. It chanced also that he had halted before the minute stool of the infant Filgee, and his large figure instantly assumed such Brobdingnagian proportions in contrast that he became more embarrassed than ever. The master made no attempt to relieve him, but regarded him with cold interrogation.

"I reckoned," he began, leaning one hand on the master’s desk with affected ease, as he dusted his leg with his hat with the other, "I reckoned—that is—I allowed—I orter say—that I’d find ye alone at this time. Ye gin’rally are, ye know. It’s a nice, soothin’, restful, stoodious time, when a man kin, so to speak, run back on his eddication and think of all he ever knowed. Ye’re jist like me, and ye see I sorter spotted your ways to onct."

"Then why did you come here this morning and disturb the school?" demanded the master sharply.

"That’s so, I sorter slipped up thar, didn’t I?" said Uncle Ben with a smile of rueful assent. "You see I didn’t allow to COME IN then, but on’y to hang round a leetle and kinder get used to it, and it to me."

"Used to what?" said the master impatiently, albeit with a slight softening at his intruder’s penitent expression.

Uncle Ben did not reply immediately, but looked around as if for a seat, tried one or two benches and a desk with his large hand as if testing their security, and finally abandoning the idea as dangerous, seated himself on the raised platform beside the master’s chair, having previously dusted it with the flap of his hat. Finding, however, that the attitude was not conducive to explanation, he presently rose again, and picking up one of the school-books from the master’s desk eyed it unskilfully upside down, and then said hesitatingly,—

"I reckon ye ain’t usin’ Dobell’s ’Rithmetic here?"

"No," said the master.

"That’s bad. ’Pears to be played out—that Dobell feller. I was brought up on Dobell. And Parsings’ Grammar? Ye don’t seem to be a using Parsings’ Grammar either?"

"No," said the master, relenting still more as he glanced at Uncle Ben’s perplexed face with a faint smile.

"And I reckon you’d be saying the same of Jones’ ’Stronomy and Algebry? Things hev changed. You’ve got all the new style here," he continued, with affected carelessness, but studiously avoiding the master’s eye. "For a man ez wos brought up on Parsings, Dobell, and Jones, thar don’t appear to be much show nowadays."

The master did not reply. Observing several shades of color chase each other on Uncle Ben’s face, he bent his own gravely over his books. The act appeared to relieve his companion, who with his eyes still turned towards the window went on:

"Ef you’d had them books—which you haven’t—I had it in my mind to ask you suthen’. I had an idea of—of—sort of reviewing my eddication. Kinder going over the old books agin—jist to pass the time. Sorter running in yer arter school hours and doin’ a little practisin’, eh? You looking on me as an extry scholar—and I payin’ ye as sich—but keepin’ it ’twixt ourselves, you know—just for a pastime, eh?"

As the master smilingly raised his head, he became suddenly and ostentatiously attracted to the window.

"Them jay birds out there is mighty peart, coming right up to the school-house! I reckon they think it sort o’ restful too."

"But if you really mean it, couldn’t you use these books, Uncle Ben?" said the master cheerfully. "I dare say there’s little difference—the principle is the same, you know."

Uncle Ben’s face, which had suddenly brightened, as suddenly fell. He took the book from the master’s hand without meeting his eyes, held it at arm’s length, turned it over and then laid it softly down upon the desk as if it were some excessively fragile article. "Certingly," he murmured, with assumed reflective ease. "Certingly. The principle’s all there." Nevertheless he was quite breathless and a few beads of perspiration stood out upon his smooth, blank forehead.

"And as to writing, for instance," continued the master with increasing heartiness as he took notice of these phenomena, "you know ANY copy-book will do."

He handed his pen carelessly to Uncle Ben. The large hand that took it timidly not only trembled but grasped it with such fatal and hopeless unfamiliarity that the master was fain to walk to the window and observe the birds also.

"They’re mighty bold—them jays," said Uncle Ben, laying down the pen with scrupulous exactitude beside the book and gazing at his fingers as if he had achieved a miracle of delicate manipulation. "They don’t seem to be afeared of nothing, do they?"

There was another pause. The master suddenly turned from the window. "I tell you what, Uncle Ben," he said with prompt decision and unshaken gravity, "the only thing for you to do is to just throw over Dobell and Parsons and Jones and the old quill pen that I see you’re accustomed to, and start in fresh as if you’d never known them. Forget ’em all, you know. It will be mighty hard of course to do that," he continued, looking out of the window, "but you must do it."

He turned back, the brightness that transfigured Uncle Ben’s face at that moment brought a slight moisture into his own eyes. The humble seeker of knowledge said hurriedly that he would try.

"And begin again at the beginning," continued the master cheerfully. "Exactly like one of those—in fact, as if you REALLY were a child again."

"That’s so," said Uncle Ben, rubbing his hands delightedly, "that’s me! Why, that’s jest what I was sayin’ to Roop"—

"Then you’ve already been talking about it?" intercepted the master in some surprise. "I thought you wanted it kept secret?"

"Well, yes," responded Uncle Ben dubiously. "But you see I sorter agreed with Roop Filgee that if you took to my ideas and didn’t object, I’d give him two bits* every time he’d kem here and help me of an arternoon when you was away and kinder stand guard around the school-house, you know, so as to keep the fellows off. And Roop’s mighty sharp for a boy, ye know."

* Two bits, i. e., twenty-five cents.

The master reflected a moment and concluded that Uncle Ben was probably right. Rupert Filgee, who was a handsome boy of fourteen, was also a strongly original character whose youthful cynicism and blunt, honest temper had always attracted him. He was a fair scholar, with a possibility of being a better one, and the proposed arrangement with Uncle Ben would not interfere with the discipline of school hours and might help them both. Nevertheless he asked good-humoredly, "But couldn’t you do this more securely and easily in your own house? I might lend you the books, you know, and come to you twice a week."

Uncle Ben’s radiant face suddenly clouded. "It wouldn’t be exactly the same kind o’ game to me an’ Roop," he said hesitatingly. "You see thar’s the idea o’ the school-house, ye know, and the restfulness and the quiet, and the gen’ral air o’ study. And the boys around town ez wouldn’t think nothin’ o’ trapsen’ into my cabin if they spotted what I was up to thar, would never dream o’ hunting me here."

"Very well," said the master, "let it be here then." Observing that his companion seemed to be struggling with an inarticulate gratitude and an apparently inextricable buckskin purse in his pocket, he added quietly, "I’ll set you a few copies to commence with," and began to lay out a few unfinished examples of Master Johnny Filgee’s scholastic achievements.

"After thanking YOU, Mr. Ford," said Uncle Ben, faintly, "ef you’ll jest kinder signify, you know, what you consider a fair"—

Mr. Ford turned quickly and dexterously offered his hand to his companion in such a manner that he was obliged to withdraw his own from his pocket to grasp it in return. "You’re very welcome," said the master, "and as I can only permit this sort of thing gratuitously, you’d better NOT let me know that you propose giving anything even to Rupert." He shook Uncle Ben’s perplexed hand again, briefly explained what he had to do, and saying that he would now leave him alone a few minutes, he took his hat and walked towards the door.

"Then you reckon," said Uncle Ben slowly, regarding the work before him, "that I’d better jest chuck them Dobell fellers overboard?"

"I certainly should," responded the master with infinite gravity.

"And sorter waltz in fresh, like one them children?"

"Like a child," nodded the master as he left the porch.

A few moments later, as he was finishing his cigar in the clearing, he paused to glance in at the school-room window. Uncle Ben, stripped of his coat and waistcoat, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up on his powerful arms, had evidently cast Dobell and all misleading extraneous aid aside, and with the perspiration standing out on his foolish forehead, and his perplexed face close to the master’s desk, was painfully groping along towards the light in the tottering and devious tracks of Master Johnny Filgee, like a very child indeed!

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Chicago: Bret Harte, "Chapter I.," Cressy, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in Cressy (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920), Original Sources, accessed December 11, 2019, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8WPJR7P63EAWCEC.

MLA: Harte, Bret. "Chapter I." Cressy, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in Cressy, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920, Original Sources. 11 Dec. 2019. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8WPJR7P63EAWCEC.

Harvard: Harte, B, 'Chapter I.' in Cressy, ed. . cited in 1920, Cressy, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 11 December 2019, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8WPJR7P63EAWCEC.