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Oct. 15, 19—.
And to think, after all that fuss I made about not getting a letter from you that day, I didn’t have time to open it for three whole days after it finally arrived! You remember where I left off the last time, with the strange man I had found in Sandhelo’s stable out of his head on the kitchen lounge? Well, he kept on like that, lying with his eyes shut and occasionally saying a word or two that didn’t make sense, all that night and all the next day. Then on Sunday he developed a high fever and began to rave. He shouted at the top of his voice until he was hoarse; always about somebody pursuing him and whom he was trying to run away from. Then he began to jump up and try to run outdoors, until we had to bar the door. It took all father and Jim Wiggin and I could do to keep him on the lounge. We had a pretty exciting time of it, I can tell you. Of course, all the uproar upset mother and she had another spell with her heart and took to her bed, and by Tuesday night things got so strenuous that I had to dismiss school for the rest of the week and keep all my ten fingers in the domestic pie.
I don’t know who rejoiced more over the unexpected lapse from lessons, the scholars or myself. I never saw a group of children who were so constitutionally opposed to learning as the twenty-two stony-faced specimens of “hoomanity” that I had to deal with in that little shanty of a school. They’d rather be ignorant than educated any day. I just can’t make them do the homework I give them. Every day it’s the same story. They haven’t done their examples and they haven’t learned their spelling; they haven’t studied their geography. The only way I can get them to study their lessons is to keep them in after school and stand over them while they do it. Their only motto seems to be, “Pa and ma didn’t have no education and they got along, so why should we bother?”
The families from which these children come are what is known in this section as “Hard-uppers,” people who are and have always been “hard up.” Nearly everybody around here is a Hard-upper. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be here. The land is so poor that nobody will pay any price for it, so it has drifted into the hands of shiftless people who couldn’t get along anywhere, and they work it in a backward, inefficient sort of way and make such a bare living that you couldn’t call it a living at all. They live in little houses that aren’t much more than cabins—some of them have only one or two rooms in them—and haven’t one of the comforts that you girls think you absolutely couldn’t live without. They have no books, no pictures, no magazines. It’s no wonder the children are stony-faced when I try to shower blessings upon them in the form of spelling and grammar; they know they won’t have a mite of use for them if they do learn them, so why take the trouble?
“What a dreadful set of people!” I can hear you say disdainfully. “How can you stand it among such poor trash?”
O my Belovéds, I have a sad admission to make. I am a Hard-upper myself! My father, while he is the dearest daddy in the world, never had a scrap of business ability; that’s how he came to live in this made-out-of-the-scraps-after-every-thing-else-was-made corner of Arkansas. He never had any education either, though it wasn’t because he didn’t want it. He doesn’t care a rap for reading; all he cares for is horses. We live in a shack, too, though it has four rooms and is much better than most around here. We never had any books or magazines, either, except the ones for which I sacrificed everything else I wanted to buy. But I wanted to learn,—oh, how I wanted to learn!—and that’s where I differed altogether from the rest of the Hard-uppers. They’re still wagging their heads about the way I used to walk along the road reading. The very first week I taught school this year I was taking Absalom Butts (mentioned in my former epistle) to task for speaking saucily to me, and thinking to impress him with the dignity of my position I said, “Do you know whom you’re talking to?”
And he answered back impudently, “Yer Bill Adamses good-for-nothing daughter, that’s who you are!”
You see what I’m up against? Those children hear their parents make such remarks about me and they haven’t the slightest respect for me. Did you know that I only got this job of teaching because nobody else would take it? Absalom Butts’ father, who is about the only man around here who isn’t a Hard-upper, and is the most influential man in the community because he can talk the loudest, held out against me to the very end, declaring I hadn’t enough sense to come in out of the rain. As he is president of the school board in this township—the whole thing is a farce, but the members are tremendously impressed with their own dignity—it pretty nearly ended up in your little Katherine not getting any school to teach this winter, but when one applicant after another came and saw and turned up her nose, it became a question of me or no schoolmarm, so they gave me the place, but with much misgiving. I had become very much discouraged over the whole business, for I really needed the money, and began to consider myself a regular idiot, but father said I needn’t worry very much about being considered a good-for-nothing by Elijah Butts; his whole grudge against me rose from the fact that he had wanted to marry my mother when she was young and had never forgiven father for beating him to it. That cheered me up considerably, and I determined to swallow no slights from the family of Butts.
Since then it’s been nip and tuck between us. Young Absalom is a big, overgrown gawk of fourteen with no brain for anything but mischief. His chief aim in life just now is to think up something to annoy me. I ignore him as much as possible so as not to give him the satisfaction of knowing he can annoy me, but about every three days we have a regular pitched battle, and it keeps me worn out. His sister Clarissa hasn’t enough brain for mischief, but her constant flow of tears is nearly as bad as his impudence.
Taken all in all, you can guess that I didn’t shed any tears about having to close the school that Tuesday to help take care of the sick man. Anything, even sitting on a delirious stranger, was a relief from the constant warfare of teaching school. It was in the midst of this mess that your letter came, and lay three whole days before I had time to open it.
On Saturday the sick man stopped raving and struggling and lay perfectly motionless. Jim Wiggin looked at his white, sunken face, and remarked oracularly, “He’s a goner.”
Even father shook his head and asked me to ride Sandhelo over to Spencer and fetch the doctor again. I went, feeling queer and shaky. Nobody had ever died in our house and the thought gave me a chill. I wished he had never come, because the business had upset mother so. Besides that, the man himself bothered me. Who was he, wandering around like that among strangers and dying in the house of a man he had never seen? How could we notify his family—if he had a family? I couldn’t help thinking how dreadful it would be if my father were to be taken sick away from home like that, and we never knowing what had become of him. I was quite low in my mind again by the time I had come back with the doctor.
But while I had been away a change came over the sick man. He still lay like dead with his eyes closed, but he seemed to be breathing differently. The doctor said he was asleep; the fever had left him. He wasn’t going to die under a strange roof after all. When he wakened he was conscious, but the doctor wouldn’t let us ask him any questions. He slept nearly all day Sunday and on Monday I went back to school. When I came home Monday night I had the surprise of my young life. When I looked over at the lounge to see how the sick man was to-day I saw, not a man, but a boy lying there. A white-faced boy with a sensitive, beautiful mouth, wan cheeks and great black eyes that seemed to be the biggest part of his face. My books clattered to the floor in my astonishment. Father came in just then and laughed at my amazed face.
“Quite a different-looking bird, isn’t he?” he said. “The doctor was in again to-day and shaved him. It does make quite a difference, now, doesn’t it?” he finished.
Difference! I should say it did! I had thought all the while that he was a man, because he wore a beard; it had never occurred to me that the hair had grown out on his face from neglect, and not because he wanted it there.
“I suppose I must have looked frightful,” said the boy in a weak voice, but with a smile of amusement in his eyes. Those were the first words I had heard him speak to anyone, and that was the first time he had had his eyes wide open and looked directly at me. For the life of me I couldn’t stop staring at him. I couldn’t get over how beautiful he was. He had been so repulsive before, with his hair all matted and his face discolored by bruises; now his hair was clipped short and was very soft and black and shiny. One small transparent hand lay on top of the blanket. He didn’t look a day over eighteen.
He lay there half smiling at me and suddenly for no reason at all I felt large and awkward and sloppy. Involuntarily my hand flew to the back of my belt to see if I was coming to pieces, and I stole a stealthy glance at my feet to see if the shoes I had on were mates. I was glad when he closed his eyes and I could slip out of the room unnoticed. I suppose mother wondered why I was so long getting supper ready that night. But the truth of the matter is I spent fifteen minutes hunting through my bureau drawers for that list of rules of neatness that Gladys made out for me last summer, and which I had never thought of once since coming home. I unearthed them at last and applied them carefully to my toilet before reappearing in the kitchen. My hair was very trying; it would hang down in my eyes until at last in desperation I tucked it under a cap. As a rule I loathe caps. Just as soon as this letter reaches you, Gladys, will you send me that recipe for hand lotion you told me you used? My hands are a fright, all red and rough. Don’t wait until the letters from the other girls are ready, but send the recipe right on by return mail.
After supper that night we talked to the man on the couch. At first he seemed very unwilling to tell anything about himself. We finally got from him that his name was Justice Sherman; that he was from Texas, where he had been working on a sheep ranch; that he had left there and gone up into Oklahoma and had worked at various places; that he had gradually worked his way into Arkansas; that he had fallen in with bad men who had attacked and robbed him and left him lying senseless in the road with his head cut open; that he had wandered around several days in the rain half out of his head, trying to get someone to take him in, but he looked so frightful that everyone turned him out and set the dogs on him, until finally he had stumbled over a stone and broken his ankle and dragged himself into our stable and crept into Sandhelo’s stall. That’s what had made him crumple up on the floor the day I found him when he tried to get up. He had fainted from the pain.
We asked him if he wouldn’t like us to write to his family or his friends and he answered wearily that he had no family and no friends in particular that he would care to notify. Then he closed his eyes and one corner of his mouth drew up as if with pain. Poor fellow, I suppose that ankle did hurt horribly.
Now, you best and dearest of Winnebagos, let the dear Round Robin letter come chirping along just as soon as you can, and I’ll promise not to let it lie three days this time before I read it.
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