A MALE QUARTETTE
They never stood upon the concert stage together – these four members of my male quartette.
Had they done so, they would have furnished an unparalleled study for an artist.
Nor were they all singers; at any rate, I never knew of but two of them to sing, albeit one of them could whistle with such proficiency as to have shared first honors with the champion whistler of the county. All the same, I call them my male quartette. And why indeed should I not? They were all mates; they were four in number; they all bore the time-honored name of John; they were all town “characters”. In some way they all fitted into the daily program at our little wayside rural school. They were part and parcel of the landscape as much as the Morrison Woods or the North Branch. We expected their coming and going as we did the sunrise, the change of the moon or the week-end holiday. In short, we boys and girls of School District Number One imagined that a kind Providence had set them down in our little corner of the universe for our especial edification and amusement. They were to us what the movies are to the boys and girls of the present generation.
Allow me to put on my copper-toed boots, dear reader, and be a child again just for to-day.
In a brief little seance with you I may be able to call up the shades of my male quartette and exhibit them in their proper setting.
It is a balmy September afternoon as I sally forth from Fenton’s Store. With my pockets bulging with apples from the old orchard, I go down through the woods, climb over the splintery fence into Morrison’s pasture, cross the branch on the stepping-stones, and approach the schoolhouse. I must hurry, for the teacher is ringing her tinkly little hand-bell, and a dozen boys and girls of varying size, age and mentality, but of uniform ambition – none at all – are dragging themselves over the foot-scuffed threshold. Panting and puffing, I bring up the rear, and provoke a frown on the face of the teacher for being the tail end of the procession.
We seat ourselves on the rude, homemade plank benches whose backs and seats form an angle which the builder intended to be exactly ninety degrees, but which has the unhappy faculty of seeming to contract at least five degrees for every hour the seats are occupied. I cannot touch the floor with my copper-toed boots. This misfortune, however, is not to be regretted, since I can swing my legs – a partial compensation for being obliged to sit on a straight-back seat. The teacher calls the roll; then we all duck our heads to search for our Webster Franklin Readers.
As a beginning for the afternoon’s performance – an overture – so to speak Jonas is called out to do his stunt. Jonas is learning to read by the alphabet method; that is, he is learning the A-B-C’s. For the twentieth time the teacher pointed at and named the first four letters of the alphabet as they are set forth on the first page of the Webster-Franklin Primer. For the twentieth time Jonas has repeated them after her; but when she asks him to say them without help, he is dumb. Snatching the book from his hands, she explodes in a tone of voice somewhat more emphatic than is supposed to be decorous in schoolroom, “A-B-C-D! Say it, Jonas!
“A.-B-D–C!” replies Jonas, with an especially strong emphasis on the misplaced letters.
A rap is heard on the entry door. Flutteringly the teacher rises and opens the door.
In shambles the portly frame of the town superintendent of schools. He gives the teacher’s hand a pump-handle shake, frowns at the four corners of the ceiling, (not because he feels ugly, but because he thinks it looks business-like), takes the only chair in the room – the one the teacher has been using and makes himself at home over in the corner. The teacher in a sheepish voice commends Jonas for his splendid lesson, sends him to his seat, and calls Rufus’ class. Now Rufus is somewhat more advanced than Jonas, in that he has mastered the alphabet with the exception of the letters Q and Z. He is now reading, after a fashion; that is, he spells out the word and the teacher tells him what it is.
Superintendent: Waal1 what does h-a-t spell?
Rufus: Dunno .
Superintendent: Waall, what d’yer wear on yer head?
The superintendent is stumped and knows it. Leaving the rest of the recitation to the skill of the teacher he settles down for a snooze which extends through the next two recitations.
The slamming of a door brings him to a consciousness of the time and place.
Rising to depart he blows his nose, clears his throat; licks his lips and addresses us as follows:
“Boys and Girls, I hev enjoyed my visit with you today. I see by your ready answers that you study your lessons well. I know you love to go to school. (Snicker to right of me).
“I know you love your teacher,” (Smiling and bowing at the teacher and she bowing and smiling in return). ”When I was a boy I didn’t hev such advantages as you hev. I hed to buy my own books or go without. In winter when the wind was a-howl in ‘ out-doors I hed to set in a schoolhouse het
by a fireplace over in the corner,” (Snicker to the I left of me): ” while you hev a nice box-stove in the middle of the room which sends its welcome rays of heat in all directions.
(With a comprehensive sweep of his arms). “I hope you all reelize your great advantages.
(Snicker behind me). “You must all study hard and improve each fleetin’ minute; for who knows but that some future president of these free and independent United states of Americy may be a-settin here before me? “
With this eloquent peroration, he gives the teacher’s hand another pump handle shake, and takes himself out of the room.
The breath of the warm September afternoon is wafted in through the open window. The corn leaves rustle in the field across the way. A bumble-bee, in quest of goldenrod and other late-blooming flowers, goes zooming by. A friendly cow, feeling herself unable to give “cream. with all her might” on the fodder which nature has provided in Morrison’s pasture, thrusts her head through the old rail fence at the rear of the schoolhouse, and noisily sniffs at the grass in the school yard.
Squeak, squeak, squeak, goes the old fence as Friendly’s strong shoulders press against it.
Munch, munch, munch goes old Friendly, as she greedily gobbles up the school-yard grass.
A half-stifled snicker is heard in one corner of the room, and everybody ducks his head behind his book, for the quick eye of the teacher is trying to locate the cause of the disturbance. In the breathless silence which follows – breathless except for old Friendly’s rather loud respiration – a half
grown rooster in a neighboring farmyard, feeling himself called upon to assert the “majesty of his sex, attempts to crow”,- with his half-grown voice, at which every urchin in the schoolroom – including Jonas, Rufus and a possible future president – breaks out in unrestrained laughter.
The teacher raps for order, and threatens an immediate application of the ruler to the first one who dares to laugh again. Silence prevails. The bumblebee has found his nectar and is zooming back by the open window to his nest. A big green bottle-fly buzzes aimlessly around the roam, and with the regularity of a clock-tick, bangs his head against the grimy ceiling. Down in the valley the brook tumbles along on its seaward course, and its monotonous music is borne to our ears like the sound of far-off silver bells.
Presently there is the sound of somebody whistling. Clear and sweet the notes of some old familiar song float through the open window. Nearer and nearer it comes. Some urchin bolder than the rest of us – perhaps a future president – whispers “Old Man King!” Sure enough, it is Old Man King – John Number One first tenor in my male quartette. We hardly know his name is John, or that he can be called by the universal title of Mister. We call him Old Man King, not out of disrespect for his age or station, but more as a term of affection and veneration. We all like the old fellow, and he apparently likes us. At any rate he ought to, for we never throw snowballs at him in winter nor other missiles in summer. Whenever he passes the school at recess, he invariably stops whistling long enough to wish us a pleasant good morning or good-afternoon, and to give us a smile from his kindly face. But here he comes, still whistling, whistling. Now, while the teacher’s back is turned, I’ll risk standing on tiptoe to get a good view of the old man as he passes the open window.
He’s a firmly-jointed old fellow of three score and ten, medium in height, slightly stooping in the shoulders. As he walks along he leans forward as if to catch up with his nose. His shirt is white as snow; his denim overalls, with legs tucked into strong cowhide boots, are as blue as the sky.
His battered straw hat, bleached by the sun of many summers, is the shape of an old-fashioned beehive, and its brim, in the back, rests on his shoulders. To help guide his steps he carries a staff which he grasps with his strong right hand, while on his left arm, he carries the inevitable basket of eggs. His face is well-rounded, quite free from old-age wrinkles, smooth-shaven, except for a fringe of white Horace Greeley whiskers which extends from ear to ear under his chin. On he goes, his mouth screwed into that eternal pucker, whistling, whistling, whistling.
Class after class is called, questioned and dismissed. The monotony of the sleepy afternoon is enlivened by the class in grammar, composed of the big boys and girls who read in the Fifth Reader. With many titters and snickers, which call forth scathing remarks from the teacher, they conjugate the verb love in all moods and tenses. Now comes a quiet study period. The brook murmurs on; the bottle-fly continues his zig-zag course; everybody turns sleepy.
“Recessl” announces the teacher, and everybody wakes up. With great decorum we all march out in line until we get beyond the teacher’s eye; then with two skips and a jump we land in the school yard without troubling the threshold and front steps.
Which shall it be: tag, blind man’s bluff, or a hoss-race? Just as we decide on hoss-race, Rufus shouts, “Telegraph” and Jonas, “ Noospaper!” for, coming in sight over the hill is a boney old horse, afflicted with the heaves, drawing a rattly old buckboard upon the edge of whose seat is perched John, Number Two of my male quartette.
His body, clad in a flowing linen duster, is long and lank. His legs, too long for their cramped position, look like jackknives two-thirds closed. His face, long and thin in itself, is effectively accentuated by a long, thin tuft of whiskers which trails from the end of his pointed chin.
His nose, naturally peaked, has been made more so by constant use in prying into other people’s business. Especially picturesque is he now as he returns from the village, munching peanuts with his toothless gums. We boys call him Old Telegraph and Old Newspaper because he spreads all sorts of gossip. The elders of the town call him Long John, probably because of his height of six-feet-four; possibly also because of his long-windedness in conversation and in singing. It was only last Sunday that I saw him standing over in the southwest corner of the meetinghouse, clad in a freshly laundered linen duster, towering in height above all his neighbors, and singing with great gusto and independence of execution, putting the loud pedal on the last note of every stanza, and holding it there until the organ and the rest of the congregation had stopped from sheer exhaustion.
But get out of the road, boys! He’s applying the birch to old Dobbin so as to make a mad rush by this pesky pack of sassy whelps. Children are ever so-much worse than they were when he was young, and the world is fast going to the dogs. Old Dobbin, encouraged by the birch, kicks up a cloud of dust which serves the purpose of a smoke screen; but he makes very little advance in speed. Tortoise-like he worries along, until he enters the safety zone, and is lost to sight beyond the hill.
Now that Old Newspaper is out of the way, we can have our hoss-race. No, let’s go over to Morrison’s barn and see the new litter of pigs; we’ll have just time enough before the bell rings.
While the girls jump rope in the school yard, every mother’s son races over to see the new-born pigs.
Some of the elders of the neighborhood, hearing of the new pig family, are there before us, all offering free advice as to the proper methods of bringing up pigs. Jim Huntoon tells how he used to do it over in Cabot, while Ed Dwinell brings the latest news in the study of pig culture from som~here ‘way up north. But the sage of this pig conference is Jolm Timson – John Number Three of my male quartette – who insists that pigs will be pigs, and hogs, hogs, whatever the method employed to feed or shelter them. Standing in the center of the group, he is, by reason of age and wisdom, the one to say the final word. Tall and firmly built, slightly stooping, picturesque in an abundant but unkempt growth of hair and beard, clad in a long smock of homespun, with trousers tucked into his bootlegs, one might have taken him for an old-world genius who had risen from the peasant class, who, out of sentiment, still clung to the peasant’s smock – the badge of honest labor. In France he might have been mistaken for Millet; in Russia, for Tolstoy: but here in District Number One he is only Uncle John Timson. Like a true stoic, he never gets excited over wind and weather, nor does he ever get in a hurry. When his neighbors are plowing the land, he is gathering his sap buckets in the sugar orchard; when they are cultivating corn, he is planting it; when they are harvesting their hay, he is sitting under his juniper tree watching his grass grow. When someone suggests that in order to have a good crop of hay, there must be heavy rainfall in the spring, and especially in the month of May, Uncle John, never saying a word, but with a frown of disapproval on his brow, slowly reaches down to the hem of his smock, lifts it up, fumbles in his pocket for his snuffbox, taps on the cover, and after much more ceremony of the same sort inhales a liberal portion of the brown powder. After everybody has forgotten that somebody has said that a moist month of May is essential to a good hay crop” Uncle John, refreshed by his pinch of snuff, exclaims, “Hmp! Jes’ soon hev a wet June!”
But there goes the school bell! Whereupon the solemn procession of future voters and tax-payers marches back to the schoolhouse – back to an hour of geography and spelling, accompanied by much fidgeting by the younger set, and yawns from the elderly people in their teens. The long hand of the
clock, which seems to have an invisible weight hanging to it to impede its speed during the last half hour before four o’clock, finally stands upright on the figure twelve, and proclaims the end of a perfect school-day. All signs of fatigue take to themselves wings as the noisy line of young humanity future presidents and all – bounds pell-mell into the school yard and races for home.
My way leads back over the brook, up through the pasture, up through the woods, with delays now and again for which tempting clumps of asters, goldenrod and everlasting are responsible.
Just as I am about to make the usual detour through the orchard to replenish my depleted supply of apples, I hear the familiar squeak and rattle of a buckboard, and a voice admonishingly break out with, “Gi-gi-git up thar ol’ hoss!” and the last-but-not-least member of my male quartette, John Colby – John number Four – comes into sight.
He looks today as he always looks – as he looked on the day I saw him, for the first time to remember him, with his dark blue eyes set in a jolly, round, smooth-shaven face, with a beech leaf, which is supposed to have medicinal qualities, deftly plastered over an imaginary cancer on his lower lip. Long, thin, iron-gray hair flows out from under the brim of a tall stovepipe hat which antedates the Civil War. He wears the same black overcoat that he always wears except in the coldest winter weather – black, that is, except where the sun has turned it to a rusty green on the shoulders. But he has stopped his horse and is beckoning me.
“Bu-bu-bub!” (He calls all boys ‘Bub’). “Will ye cu-cu-cut me a s-s-stick?”
“Sure thing!” I answer, and, whipping out my jackknife, I cut him the straightest little beech sapling in the woods. With no audible word of thanks, he tries it out on Dobbin’s ribs, and, with another, “Gi-gi-git up thar, ol’’ hoss!” he is lost to sight on the wood road.
John Number Four is locally famous for two things – the way he harvests his hay crop, and the character of his hired men. In haying time, instead of gauging his work by the weather, he mows grass for a week, rain or shine; then he rakes and carts it, for a week, rain or shine. As a result, some of his hay is over-dry, some of it over-damp, some of it – most of it blackened by alternate wettings and dryings. Why his barns are not burned every year from spontaneous combustion is a subject of wonder to all the neighbors. No doubt that special dispensation of Providence which cares for drunken men and idiots, also sees that John’s barns are exempt from the ordinary laws of cause
For a hired man John always has a half-wit. Why, no one knows, unless it be that the half-wits are more productive for the wages expended. It is even reputed that John carries in his vest pocket a fool directory; for no sooner does one half-wit become dissatisfied with his lot and leave John to milk his cows alone than another half-wit, perhaps a quarter-wit, pops up as if by magic to take up the burdens of his predecessor so willingly laid down.
Time was when John Number Four supplemented the income of his ill managed farm by the tuition from a singing-school. On winter evenings the old North Schoolhouse was packed once a week with boisterous pupils, old and young, who came together, not so much to learn how to “read music” as to see and hear the old man perform. Being a stammerer, it was rather difficult for him to count aloud when beating time with his baton (the but of a horsewhip). Thus, in triple time” he would mumble “One” t-t-t-two” three!” To get the pitch John would whack his tuning-fork on the teacher’s desk” and” holding it to his ear” say, “Hmmmmmm– do-do-do-dooo– mi– s-s-s-solll—Everybody s-s-s-sound!” (meaning take the pitch). A deafening yell, sufficient to blow off the schoolhouse roof, would follow, whereupon the old man, rapping for order, would plead, “Try to b-b-b-be a leetle more do-do-do-docile!”
But I am wasting time ruminating about what happened in my father’s boyhood days. I must pick up a few apples and go home to fill the wood-box and feed the chickens.
First of all I’ll kick off my copper-toed boots – an exercise which brings me back to this present year of Grace.
Still sits the schoolhouse by the road,
A ragged beggar sleeping;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And blackberry vines are creeping,
but it was long ago deserted, and a modern transportation bus gathers up not the children, but the grandchildren of my schoolmates and lands them right side up at a consolidated school in the village. where the seats are not so hard and straight as they were in my old schoolhouse, and where a professional superintendent comes and goes without falling asleep. Whether he holds out the hope that some boy in that consolidated school may become “president of these free and independent United States of America”, do not know.
I only know that my old superintendent was mistaken. Most of those old-time superintendents of the North Country schools were mistaken; although in the national political conventions of 1924, it was whispered in Cleveland and muttered in New York that a certain old-time superintendent once made that speech in a little district school in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, and that a certain red-headed, barefoot boy who answered to the name of “Cal.” sat before him, heard the speech, and fulfilled the prophecy.