This nightmare occupied some ten pages of manuscript

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 signpainter’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 signpainter’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

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 happy.

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 brainracking 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 today; 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 ballroom 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:


“Alabama, goodbye! 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’erfull 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
unperceived–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 signpainter’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.