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Nov. 1, 19—.
Well, Justice Sherman may be a sheep herder and a son of the pasture, but I hae me doots. I know a hawk from a handsaw if I was born and bred in the backwoods. I know it isn’t polite to doubt people’s word, and he seemed to be telling an absolutely straight story when he told how he beat his way across from Texas, but for all that there’s some mystery about him. His manners betrayed him the first time he ever sat down to the table with us. Even though he limped badly and was still awfully wobbly, he stood behind my mother’s chair and shoved it in for her and then hobbled over and did the same for me.
You can see it, can’t you? The table set in the kitchen—for our humble cot does not boast of a dining room—father and Jim Wiggin collarless and in their shirtsleeves, and the stranded sheep herder waiting upon mother and me as if we were queens. For no reason at all I suddenly became abashed. I felt my face flaming to the roots of my hair, and absentmindedly began to eat my soup with a fork, whereat Jim Wiggin set up a great thundering haw! haw! Jim had been a sheep herder before he came to take care of father’s horses, and it struck me forcibly just then that there was a wide difference between him and the stranger within our gates.
I said something to father about it that night when we were out in the stable together giving Sandhelo his nightly dole. Father rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, a sign that a thing is of no concern to him.
“Don’t you get to worryin’ about the stranger’s affairs,” he advised mildly. “If he’s got something he doesn’t want to tell, you ain’t got no business tryin’ to find it out. Tend to your own affairs, I say, and leave others’ alone. There ain’t nobody goin’ to be pestered with embarrassing questions while they’re under my roof.”
So I promised not to ask any questions. Just about the time the stranger’s foot was well enough to walk on, Jim Wiggin stepped on a rusty nail and laid himself up. Justice Sherman was a godsend just then because men were so hard to get, and father hired him to help with the horses until Jim was about again. Father begged me again at this time not to ask him anything about his past.
“Just as soon as he thinks we’re gettin’ curious he’ll up and leave,” he said, “and that would put us in a bad way. Help is so scarce now I don’t know where I would get an extra man. Seems almost as though the hand of Providence had sent him to us.”
It was perfectly true. Since so many men had gone into the army it was next thing to impossible to get any help on the farms except good-for-nothing negroes that weren’t worth their salt. It seemed, indeed, an act of Providence to cast an able man at our door just at this juncture. So I promised again not to bother the man with questions.
Indeed, it bade fair to be an easy matter not to ask him any questions. Beyond a few polite words at meals he never said anything at all, and as he had moved his sleeping quarters to a small cabin away from the house I saw very little of him, and I suppose we never would have gotten any better acquainted if your letter hadn’t come that Friday. Friday is the worst day of the week for me, because after five days of constant set-to-ing with Absalom Butts my philosophy is at its lowest ebb. This week was the worst because I had a visitation from the school board to see how I was getting on, and, of course, none of the pupils knew a thing and most of them acted as if the very devil of mischief had gotten into them. Elijah Butts gave me a solemn warning that I would have to keep better order if I wanted to stay in the school, and Absalom, who had been hanging around listening, made an impudent grimace at me and laughed in a taunting manner. If I hadn’t needed the money so badly I would have thrown up the job right there.
Then, on top of that, came your letter describing the supergorgeousness of your college rooms, and when I thought of the room I had planned to have at college this winter, adjoining yours, my heart turned to water within me and melancholy marked me for its own. I wept large and pearly tears which Niagara-ed over the end of my nose and sizzled on the hot stove, as I stood in the kitchen stirring a pudding for supper. Get the effect, do you? Me standing there with the spoon in one hand and your letter in the other, doing the Niobe act, quite oblivious to the fact that I was not the only person in the county. I was just in the act of swallowing a small rapid which had gotten side-tracked from the main channel and gone whirlpooling down my Sunday throat, when a voice behind me said, “Did you get bad news in your letter?”
I jumped so I dropped the letter right into the pudding. I made a savage dab at my eyes with the corner of my apron and wheeled around furiously. There stood the Justice Sherman person looking at me with his solemn black eyes. I was ready to die with shame at being caught.
“No, I didn’t,” I exploded, mopping my face vehemently with my apron, and thereby capping the climax. For while I had been reading your letter and absently stirring the pudding it had slopped over and run down the front of my apron, and, of course, I had to use just that part to wipe my face with. The pudding was huckleberry, and what it did to my features is beyond description. I caught one glimpse of myself in the mirror over the sink and then I sank down into a chair and just yelled. Justice Sherman doubled up against the door frame in a regular spasm of mirth, although he tried not to make much noise about it. Finally he bolted out of the door and came back with a basin of water from the pump, which he set down beside me.
“Here,” he said, “remove the marks of bloody carnage, before you scare the wolf from the door.”
So I scrubbed, wishing all the while that he would go away, and still furious for having made such a spectacle of myself. But he stayed around, and when I resembled a human being once more (if I ever could be said to resemble one), he came over and handed me the letter, which he had fished out of the pudding.
“Here’s the fatal missive,” he said, “or would you rather leave it in the pudding?”
“Throw it into the fire,” I commanded.
“That’s the right way,” he said approvingly. “I always burn bad news myself.”
“It wasn’t bad news,” I insisted.
“Then why the tears?” he inquired curiously. “Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean——”
He was smiling, but somehow I had a feeling that he was trying to cheer me up and not making fun of me. I was so low in my mind that afternoon that anyone who acted in the least degree sympathetic was destined to fall a victim. Before I knew it I had told him of my shipwrecked hopes and how your letter had opened the flood gates of disappointment and nearly put out the kitchen fire.
“College—you!” I heard him exclaim under his breath. He stared at me solemnly for a moment and then he exclaimed, “O tempora, O mores! What’s to hinder?”
“What’s to hinder?” I repeated blankly.
“Yes,” he said, “having the room anyway.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Why,” he explained, “you have a room of your own, haven’t you? Why don’t you fix it up just the way you had planned to have your room in college? Then you can go there and study and make believe you’re in college.”
I stared at him open-mouthed. “Make-believe has never been my long suit,” I said.
“Come on,” he urged. “I’ll help you fix it up. If you have any more tears prepare to shed them now into the paint pot and dissolve the paint.”
Before I knew what had happened we had laid forcible hands on the bare little cell I had indifferently been inhabiting all these years and transformed it into the study of my dreams. We cut a window in the side that faces in the direction of the mountains and made a corking window seat out of a packing case, on which I piled cushions stuffed with thistle down. We papered the whole place with light yellow paper, tacked up my last year’s school pennants and put up a book shelf. This last proved to be a delusion and a snare, because one end of it came down in the middle of the night not long afterward and all the books came tobogganing on top of me in bed. As a finishing touch, I brought out the snowshoes and painted paddle that were a relic of my Golden Age, and which I had never had the heart to unpack since I came home. When finished the effect was quite epic, though I suppose it would make Hinpoha’s artistic eye water.
Of course, it will never make up for not going to college, but it helped some, and in working at it I got very well acquainted with Justice Sherman all of a sudden. We had long talks about everything under the sun, and he continually bubbled over with funny sayings. He confided to me that he had never been so surprised in all his life as when I told him I wanted to go to college. You see, he had thought we were like the other poor whites in the neighborhood, and I was like the other girls he had seen. He didn’t take any interest in me until I bowled him over with the statement that I had already passed my college entrance exams.
All this time I never hinted that I suspected he was not the simple sheep herder he pretended to be. I had given father my word and, of course, had to keep it. But one afternoon the Fates had their fingers crossed, and Pandora like, I got my foot in it. I had driven Justice over to Spencer in the rattledy old cart with Sandhelo. On the way we talked of many things, and I came home surer than ever that he was no sheep herder. Once when the conversation lagged and in the silence Sandhelo’s heels seemed to be beating out a tune as they clicked along, I remarked ruminatingly, “There’s a line in Virgil that is supposed to imitate the sound of galloping horses.”
“Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit angula campam,”
quoted Justice promptly.
So he was on quoting terms with Virgil! But I remembered my promise and made no remarks.
A little later I was telling about the winter hike we had taken on snowshoes last year.
“You ought to see the sport they have on snowshoes in Switzerland,” he began with kindling eyes. Then he broke off suddenly and changed the subject.
So Texas sheep herders learn their trade in Switzerland! But again I yanked on the curb rein of my curiosity. I apparently took no notice of his remark, for just then a negro stepped suddenly from behind the bushes along the road and startled Sandhelo so that he promptly became temperamental and sat up on his haunches to get a better look at the apparition, and the mess he made of the harness furnished us plenty of theme for conversation for the next ten minutes.
“Lord, what an ape,” remarked Justice, gazing after the departing form of the negro shambling along the road, “he looks like the things you see in nightmares.”
Accustomed as I was to seeing low-down niggers, this one struck me as being the worst specimen nature had ever produced. He had the features of a baboon, and the flapping rags of the grotesque garments he wore made him look like a wild creature.
“Do you have many such intellectual-looking gentlemen around here?” asked Justice, twisting his neck around for a final look at the fellow. “I’d hate to meet that professor at the dark of the moon.”
“Oh, they’re really not as bad as they look,” I replied. “They look like apes, but they’re quite harmless. They’re shiftless to the last degree, but not violent. They’re too lazy to do any mischief.”
“Just the same, I’d rather not get into an argument with that particular brother, if it’s all the same to you,” answered Justice. “He looks like mischief to me.”
“He doesn’t look like a prize entry in a beauty contest,” I admitted.
With all that talk about the negro Justice’s remark about Switzerland went unheeded, but I didn’t forget it just the same. I thought about it all the rest of the afternoon and it was as plain as the nose on your face that there was some mystery about Justice Sherman. A sheep herder who spouted Virgil at a touch, quoted continually from the classics, had refined manners and had traveled abroad, couldn’t hide his light under a bushel very well. Another thing; he wasn’t a Texan as he had led us to believe. He talked with the crisp, clear accent of the North, and the fuss he made about the negro in the road that afternoon betrayed the fact that he was no southerner. Nobody around here pays any attention to niggers, no matter how tattered they are. We’re used to them, but northerners always make a fuss.
The question bubbled up and down in my mind, keeping time to the bubbling of the soup on the stove; why was this educated and refined young man working for thirty dollars a month as a handy man around horses on a third-rate stock farm in this God-forsaken part of the country? Then a suspicion flashed into my mind and at the dreadful thought I stopped stirring with the upraised spoon frozen in mid-air. Then I gathered my wits together and started resolutely for the table. I had promised father I would never ask Justice Sherman anything about his past, but here was something that swept aside all personal obligations and promises. I found him with father in the stable working over a sick colt. I marched straight up to him and began without any preamble.
“See here, Justice Sherman,” I said, “are you hiding yourself to avoid military service? Are you a slacker?”
Justice Sherman straightened up and looked at me with flashing eyes. “No, I’m not!” he shouted in a voice quite unlike his.
I never saw anyone in such a rage. His face was as red as a beet and his hair actually stood on end. “I registered for the service,” he went on hotly, “and wasn’t called in the draft. I tried to enlist and they wouldn’t take me. I was under weight and had a weak throat. If anyone thinks I’m a slacker, I’ll——” Here he choked and had a violent coughing spell.
I stared at him, dazed. I never thought he could get so angry. He looked at me with hostile, indignant eyes. Then he straightened up stiffly and walked out of the stable.
“I won’t stay here any longer,” he exploded, still at the boiling point. “I won’t be insulted.”
“I apologize,” I said humbly. “I spoke in haste. Won’t you please consider it unsaid?”
No, he wouldn’t consider it unsaid. He wouldn’t listen to father’s pathetic plea not to leave him without a helper. We suspected him of being a slacker and that finished it. He would leave immediately. Down the road he marched as fast as he could go without ever turning his head.
A worm in the dust was much too exalted to describe the way I felt. With the best of intentions I had precipitated a calamity, taking away father’s best helper at a critical time, to say nothing of my losing him as a companion. I was too disgusted with myself to live and chopped wood to relieve my feelings. After supper I hitched up Sandhelo and drove to Spencer to post a letter. I am not in the least sentimental—you know that—but all along the road I kept seeing things that reminded me of Justice Sherman and the fun we had had together. Now that he was gone the days ahead of me seemed suddenly very empty, and desolation laid a firm hand on my ankle.
Also, I had an uncomfortable recollection that it was right along here we had met the horrid negro, and I became filled with fear that I would meet him again. The fear grew, and turned into absolute panic when I approached that same clump of bushes and in the dusk saw a figure rise from behind them and lurch toward the road. I pulled Sandhelo up sharply, thinking to turn around and flee in the opposite direction, but Sandhelo refused to be turned. When I pulled him up he sat back and mixed up the harness so he got the bit into his teeth, and then he jumped up and went straight on forward, with a squeal of mischief. When we were opposite the figure in the road Sandhelo stopped short and poked his nose forward just the way he used to do when Justice Sherman came into his stall.
“Hello,” said a voice in the darkness, and then I saw that the figure in the road was Justice Sherman. His bad ankle had given out on him and he had been sitting there on the ground waiting for some vehicle to come along and give him a lift to Spencer.
“Get in,” I said briefly, helping him up, and he got in beside me without a word. We drove to Spencer in silence and he made no move to get out when we got there. I mailed my letter and then turned and drove homeward. About half way home he spoke up and apologized for being so hasty, and wondered if father would take him back again. I reassured him heartily and we were on the old footing of intimacy by the time we reached home.
We found father standing in front of the house talking to a negro whom we recognized as the one we had met in the road that afternoon. Father greeted Justice Sherman with joy and relief.
“You pretty nearly came back too late,” he said. “Here I was just hiring a man to take your place.” Then he turned to the negro and said, “It’s all off, Solomon. I don’t need you. My own man has come back. You go along and get a job somewhere else.”
The negro shuffled off and I fancied that he looked rather resentful at being sent away.
“Father,” I said, when the creature was out of earshot, “you surely weren’t going to hire that ape to work here?”
“Why not?” answered father. “I have to have a man to help with the horses, and this fellow came up to the door and asked for work, so I promised him a job.”
“But he’s such a terrible looking thing,” I said.
Father only laughed and dismissed the subject with a wave of his hands. “I wasn’t hiring him for his looks,” he answered. “He said he could handle horses and that was enough for me.”
So Justice Sherman came back to us and the subject of military service was never broached again.
About a week after his return, and when Jim Wiggin was able to be about again, Justice Sherman walked into the kitchen with a mincing air quite unlike his ordinary free stride. He had been to Spencer for the mail.
“Tread softly when you see me,” he advised. “I’m a perfessor, I am.”
I looked up inquiringly from the potato I was paring.
“Behold in me,” he went on, “the entire faculty of the Spencer High School. I am instructor in Latin, Greek, mathematics, science, history, English and dramatics; also civics and economics.”
“You don’t mean really?” I asked.
“Really and truly, for sartain sure,” he repeated. “The last faculty got drafted and left the school in a bad way. I heard about it down at the post-office this afternoon and went over and applied for the job. The hardened warriors that compose the school board fell for me to a man. I recited one line of Latin and they applauded to the echo; I recited a line of gibberish and told them it was Greek, and they wept with delight at the purity of my accent. Then they cautiously inquired if I was qualified to teach any other branches and I told them that I also included in my repertoire cooking, dressmaking and millinery. This last remark was intended to be facetious, but those solemn old birds took it seriously and forthwith broke into loud hosannas. I was somewhat mystified at the outbreak until I gathered from bits of conversation that the extravagant township of Spencer had intended to hire two high school teachers this year, as the last incumbent’s accomplishments had been rather brief and fleeting, but what was the use, as one pious old hairpin by the name of Butts delicately put it, what was the use of paying two teachers when one feller could do the hull thing himself? Then he shook me feelingly by the hand and said he knowed I was a bargain the minute he laid eyes on me. O Tempora, O Mores! Papers were brought and shoved into my yielding hands, the writ duly executed, and I passed out of the door a fully fledged ‘perfessor’ with a six-months’ contract. Smile on me, please, I’m a bargain!” And he danced a hornpipe in the middle of the floor until the dishes rattled in the cupboard.
I stared at him speechless. He teach high school? And the things he mentioned as being able to teach! History, French, mathematics, physics, literature, philosophy, Latin, Greek! Quite a well-rounded sheep herder, this! The mystery about him deepened. It was clear now that he was a college graduate. Again I revised my estimate as to his age, and decided he must be about twenty-three or four. Why would he be willing to teach a farce of a high school like the one in Spencer?
Then in the midst of my puzzling it came over me that I did not want him to leave us, and that I would miss him terribly. Of course, he would go to live in Spencer.
“Are you going to board with any of the school board?” I asked jealously, that being what the last “faculty” had done.
“Board with the Board?” he repeated. “Neat expression, that. Not that I know of. I haven’t been requested to vacate my present quarters yet, or do I understand that you are even now serving notice?”
A thrill of joy shot through me. Maybe he would still live in the little cabin on our farm.
“I thought of course you would rather live near the school,” I said. “It’s six miles from here. Why don’t you?”
“‘I would dwell with thee, merry grasshopper,’” he quoted. “That is, if I am kindly permitted to do so.”
And so we settled it. He is to ride with Sandhelo in the cart every day as far as my school, then drive on to Spencer, and stop for me on the way home. What fun it is going to be!
Yours, summa cum felicitate,
P. S. Sandhelo sends three large and loving hee-haws.
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