THE TRUANT SCHOOLMASTER Edit
By Ernest N. Bagg Edit
Written for Short Stories 1899
From the first time arose opposition when, in the spring of 1760, a newcomer known as Isaac Barre was named as the Substitute Master of the South Grammar School, in Boston, Master John Lovel had been seriously ill for a month. The youngsters of the community were fast becoming demoralized, so their elders thought. "He is too young," said one, "He is too old," said some. "We know too little about him," declared others, dreading innovation of any sort. The grandsires of the town, too, shook their heads. Some recent accident which had deprived the stranger of his left eye, was an "evil sign," they said. The scar gave one view of his face a look of severity, entirely foreign to his youthful spirit and pleasing address. For in spite of this physical defect he made friends rapidly. "A musket-ball made that brand, or I've lost my reck'nin','' said an old man, himself deeply scarred from encounters with the Indians in days gone by. He was seated with others on the sunny side of a stranded boat on Windmill Point.
"One eye wise be better nor two foolish," said a companion, whose conversation, dealing largely with old "wives' sayings," as the proverbs of the people were called, gave him the local name of "The Oracle," "But he be a Tory, I'm thinking, an' more like to teach royalty than musketry," he added, chuckling at what he was pleased to consider a smart saying.
A selectman, Richard Bassett, had paused, in passing, to listen to the discussion. He was an ardent Whig.
"Then the sooner musketry arrays itself against royalty the better for all of us," he blurted, with clenched fists. "I, for one, hope our boys will speedily learn the art of war. Before long we shall be fighting, men and boys alike, for our liberties."
"But suppose he be a redcoat in disguise," said one ; "you would not have a foreigner teach our sons to bend the knee to a king, would you. Brother Richard ?"
"I would rather see my lad lay dead, as you know, than even listening to such teaching as that," replied Bassett sharply. "I shall learn more of this stranger. A masker!- A wolf in lamb's wool, I doubt not! If I find him such, he shall be jailed, or better still, sent out of harbor in an open boat without oars!" And he strode angrily away toward the town.
The old men looked after him, and at each other, and smiled.
"A sharp tongue makes an unstable rudder," sighed the "Oracle," looking out across the shimmering bay.
The Widow Acton's house on was the temporary home of Isaac Barre since his arrival by stage from some weeks previously. Thither the hot-headed selectman turned his steps, and would have attempted some vigorous and altogether indiscreet catechising on his own account, had he not met his friend, Samuel Adams, whose fame as a patriot was already abroad, on his way from a meeting of kindred spirits to his home near the Point. He listened attentively to Bassett's suspicions, and with difficulty dissuaded him from seeking an interview, likely to engender high words, and which might do, locally at least, serious harm to the cause of liberty. He declared he, too, had doubts of Barre's loyalty to the colonies. He volunteered to find out, if possible, the truth. He had to talk several minutes with Bassett before the latter was willing the matter should be left in Adams' hands, though the selectman well knew that Adams was usually relentless in pursuit of those of royalist tendencies.
The wily leader of the patriots watched Bassett safely out of sight, and then turned toward the widow's cozy home. The April sun shone brightly through diamond-shaped windowpanes upon the cleanest of hearths and the brightest of pewter, for a more tidy housewife than Dame Acton was not to be found in all the colonies. A native of old , her hospitality needed no encouragement, and she welcomed her neighbor with quaint courtesy.
After some preliminary pleasantries he made a guarded reference to the evident intelligence of her lodger, and the mystery connected with his antecedents. The widow, suddenly crossing the room to where he sat, said earnestly, as she laid her hand upon his arm.
"Why mask with me, good neighbor? M'sieur is a brave, true man — in every way worthy to teach the school, if that is what you would know. Why should people be so suspicious of a man whose only crime is that he is a stranger? But go and talk with him yourself. Yonder he sits under the elms with my son. I am glad my Philip has the companionship of such a man."
"A pretty traitor I may unearth," thought as he walked in the direction indicated. “Or perhaps he has deceived the widow too! Can I not entrap him into a confession?" he added, entering the shadow cast by the largest of a group of noble elms standing in what was then called Hanover Square. From the opposite side of the very tree of which afterward became famous rose the subdued murmur of voices. The role of “eavesdropper" was ordinarily an impossible one for the "Great Incendiary," as was soon after termed, to assume. But, provided the end were liberty, almost any means in those troublous times seemed justifiable. He crept as carefully as possible up to the tree and listened. A man of uncertain age, dressed in homespun simplicity, his cocked hat, placed squarely upon his head, giving him an air of being quite ready for any emergency, was conversing in a low and musical voice with the widow's lame son Philip, who lay stretched out upon the greensward beside him. The man held a young leaf in his hand and was evidently explaining to the lad something of its construction and unfolding. But what proved to the newcomer far more interesting than the botanical lesson was the small packet of closely written paper lying on the ground by the speaker's side. An ink horn with a curiously wrought silver lid sticking foremost in the sod, and a blackened quill, showed how recent the writing had been. The manuscript, though in a microscopic hand and in finished French, was astonishingly plain. Adams, himself familiar with French, bending lower and hardly daring to breathe, had no difficulty in reading what was evidently part of a letter to some person of rank upon the condition of affairs in .
"My Lord, it is for these reasons," this particular sheet began, "that I assure you His Majesty had best remove at once those most odious laws of recent and proposed enactment, and improve the first opportunity to secure friendly relations with a wide domain, whose inhabitants, even if on the very verge of insurrection, are also enthusiastic for permanent independence.
Their liberties are just as sacred as ours ! Beware now and here the writing ceased.
waited no longer. Stealthily retracing his steps to the widow's house, he penned a hurried note and left it in her charge for her lodger. That evening the new schoolmaster spent over an hour in the closely shuttered study where often wrote until late into the night. Arm in arm they strolled together on starlit Windmill Point, and the cordiality they expressed to each other on parting at the Widow Acton's gate showed how complete and sympathetic was the understanding between them.
Selectman Bassett's suspicions were entirely set at rest, albeit he was a little surprised by a letter next day from the influential John Hancock, in which were these words: "My friend Isaac Barre, who is nominated for temporary Master of the South Grammar School of Boston, is entitled to your cordial support, being mentally and in all other ways well qualified for the place."
In a few days the new schoolmaster was installed. In a week's time he had entirely won the hearts of the young, and so, of course, commended himself to all, so far as his abilities and address were concerned.
The summer came again, and with it the health of Master Lovel slowly returned. He would sit a few moments each day in the schoolroom. The new master's methods were widely different from his own ; but, beyond offering an occasional minor suggestion, he did not interfere, while he watched the proceedings with an amused and curious interest.
But suspicions are not easily downed. An overzealous member of the Committee of Public Safety one day intercepted a letter the schoolmaster had addressed to one "Col. Carleton, Quartermaster-General to His Majesty's Forces in , ," and learned enough from its contents to indicate that the writer must at some time have been, and perhaps was still, an officer of the Crown. This tamperer with the mails took care not to expose himself, but rumors at once became current that the town of Boston retained in its employ a British spy. It was a most unwelcome thought. The nerves of the populace were at the highest tension. People committed wrongs to which a second thought would never have consented. It was noticeable that the boys sought every opportunity when outside school hours to meet with and learn of the new master. Master Lovel could not restrain his jealousy when he discovered their devotion. He flew into a towering rage, and declared before an admiring audience in the public coffee house, that something should be done at once — but what — no one volunteered to decide! No one doubted Isaac Barre's courage. It was known that during a fierce wharf fight between drunken sailors one night near Salutation Inn, on , he suddenly appeared on the scene, disarmed single-handed the astonished combatants, and turned them over, unaided, to the watch. No one cared to precipitate a crisis while everybody was glad to await a more favorable opportunity.
It was fall again and school had resumed its long sessions. The attendance at the was largely increased. The scholars took hold of their studies “with ardor and earnestness," as the diary of an honored clergyman of that time declares. The people had but just heard of the surrender of and rejoiced accordingly. It was an uncommonly warm afternoon for September. The new master was sealed near an open window conducting a lesson in "ciphering" when rapidly approaching commotion in the street caused all within range of windows and doors to crane their necks quite after the manner of school children of the present day. A dozen or more determined looking citizens armed with flint-locks, staves and stones, pushed and dragged a stout stranger sailor, who, though bound with a cord, gave them a continual struggle. The master rose from his seat. Some of the young scholars ran shrieking from their benches and clung to the skirts of his coat, as the motley procession came onward beneath the trees of the schoolhouse yard, and halted directly in front of the open door. It was Selectman Bassett, holding a stout hickory cane in his hand, who seemed to be spokesman for the party.
"Now, then speak up like a man. Here's the master. Give him your message !"
"If I had been alone one instant, thy tongue would wag on a new plan," exclaimed the sailor. "FU talk when and where I please without your telling. Ho, Schoolmaster! Come out !" He shouted the last words so suddenly that the nearest bystanders shrank back a little.
"Aye ! Come out. Schoolmaster ! Come out in your true guise ! Greet thy comrade here ! He has a message hidden away, somewhere for you from King George, like as not. But I shall read it before he gives it up!" exclaimed the fiery Bassett.
A slightly increased pallor was the schoolmaster's only outward sign of excitement.
"Silence !" he exclaimed, quite as much to the men as to the smaller children who through fear had renewed their cries. A look of recognition, so swift as to be unnoticed by the shrewdest captor, passed between him and the sailor.
"What does this unseemly disturbance mean ?" he demanded sternly of the leaders of the party.
Bassett was on the point of making some reply, when the captive turned toward the citizen nearest him, addressed him fretfully as if complaining of the severity of his bonds, in French, yet in a perfectly audible tone, "L'Major, I must see you at once and alone."
"What jargon is this?" asked the citizen, tightening his grasp. "No, I shall not let you go, even if you do 'Major' me. You spoke good English a moment ago!"
The schoolmaster looked quickly from one to. another. Not one in the crowd knew a word of French. By the greatest good fortune the invalid and erudite Master Lovel had gone for the day.
"Perhaps I can speak with him in his own tongue," said Barre, obligingly. Then, in a tone of harsh inquiry, as if reprimanding the sailor for the whole affair, using the Gascon dialect which he knew the man best understood, he said :
"Tell it quickly in Gascon, none of these people can understand."
The seaman was an adept in dissembling. He began tugging at the ropes again. Raising his voice angrily as if demanding release :
"L'Major is ordered to convey in person to the Crown the news of the fall of ." Here he paused while the captors tightened their bonds. Tugging still harder he cried out also in French : "Captain Deane, with the frigate Juno, awaits you off town since . He sails at once," he added fretfully, as if despairing of his captor's pity.
The tone and expression of the sailor was so totally unlike that of a person who was imparting information that the bystanders were completely deceived. The schoolmaster turned to Bassett with a look of mingled despair and amusement.
"Let him go, men. He is no rogue, only light-headed," he added, tapping his forehead significantly. "You heard how he wanders from one tongue to another, prattling of and speaking very bad French. Your rejoicings of the victory have turned his head."
Most of the witnesses were convinced that this was true. Richard Bassett, however, was not yet fully satisfied.
"We will give this fellow safe conduct back to salt water where he came from in his cockle shell of a boat," he said. "When we have examined the papers he may have, we will bring you anything that concerns yourself. And, look'ee 1 The Committee of Safety have set a guard near your lodgings to see that this friend of yours does not return. Do not let us keep you longer from your pupils !" he added with a sneer.
"Your sarcasm is ill-timed," said the schoolmaster quickly. "One of the town fathers should set these pupils a better example. As for this man who has done you no harm, and whom you are treating with unnecessary severity, it matters little to me whether you carry him to or . But 'Squires Hancock and Adams would never sanction this unlawful treatment of a poor, harmless stranger against whom you have unproved suspicions."
He turned abruptly and entered the schoolhouse door. An angry response was on the peppery tongue of Richard Bassett, but when he saw the faces of the school children at the windows, something told him to refrain. With ardor somewhat dampened, the crowd passed down the street, dragging with them a seemingly sullen captive, who in reality was inwardly rejoicing over the successful discharge of duty and the chance of speedy escape. Isaac Barre went on with the interrupted recitations as if nothing had happened. Not the slightest allusion did he make to the episode. But Philip Acton, wiser than his years, pondered deeply the things he had seen and heard.
Philip and his teacher walked slowly home together when school was done.
"You would not leave without saying 'good-by' to me, would you?" the boy suddenly asked.
"I was afraid you understood what the sailor said to-day," responded Isaac Barre. "Can I trust you, my dear lad, to say nothing about it to any one just now? All will one day be explained. I cannot say more now."
For answer the boy's eyes filled with tears. Slipping his arm through the teacher's sturdy one, they walked silently on.
For an hour the next morning the boys waited and wondered why the teacher did not come. At that moment the ponderous frigate Juno was standing out to sea, with every inch of canvas spread, and land fast fading from sight behind. On its deck, his civilian's dress changed for military cloak and the uniform of a Major in the British service, stood the man who had so endeared himself to the youth of while himself a student of American manners and customs. His thoughts were of his pupils, but his face was set resolutely toward his native shores and the fulfilment of duty.
The boys who were lounging about the schoolhouse yard or playing on the neighboring green quickly took their places on the rough benches when the former master, John Lovel, with Samuel Adams and two other citizens was seen approaching and were found awaiting their elders with an air of respectful attention.
"Master Lovel permits me to explain the absence of your late master," said , without more ado, addressing the school. "You have lately had the honor of a personal acquaintance with a soldier distinguished for his bravery, and in the line of early promotion in the British Army. But he is one of 's warmest friends, and a. man whom you will do well to emulate. You may never see him again, though he hopes to visit us again at no distant day. He left late last night, but he left with me a letter for his pupils which I have the pleasure of reading to you:
"Beloved friends : — My hasty departure, without either explanation or farewells, you will, when you know the truth, condone. I long desired to study Americans, not as the English were told of them, but as they actually were. Impossible as this seemed for a busy soldier, an extended leave of absence while recovering from wounds received in the late Siege of gave me the opportunity. I much enjoyed playing for a time the part of a citizen. To make my identity the more secure I have seemed to take no interest in your military affairs. It is now safe to confess that my heart has always throbbed in response to the brave music of your patriot fife and drum.
"I thank you earnestly for your zeal and industry in learning, not more than for your uniform kindness to me. An imperative order demands my immediate presence in . It so happens that any other farewell than this would be only a delay. You may later learn of my humble efforts in behalf of freedom for the Colonies of . I hope that Master Lovel may speedily recover, and that he may find the principles of liberty indelibly impressed upon your youthful minds. 'Get wisdom, get understanding !”Farewell.
"Your Most Ob't, Humble Sv't,
"Isaac Barre. "Late Major in and Adjutant-General under the lamented Wolfe, now attached to the Forces of the Crown under General Sir Jeffrey Amherst."
Master Lovel was so far recovered as to resume his place at the head of the school at once. The boys, though not wholly relishing the change, accepted it gracefully, and astonished their parents as well as their former teacher with the effects of their recent good discipline in both scholarship and deportment.
Philip Acton was the proud possessor of an ink-horn with a lid of silver, given him on the memorable night of Major Barrels departure. When the boy died greatly mourned in the following year, this valued relic, together with a little packet of letters received from the tender-hearted soldier, were, at Philip's urgent request, buried with him.
Through all the stirring events that followed in quick succession the passage of the odious Stamp Act, against which Barre, as a member of Parliament, so valiantly fought, and the thrilling scenes around the famous elms in Hanover Square, which he had learned to love so well — ^Samuel Adams and Selectman Bassett, as well as the pupils of the South Grammar School, watched with keenest interest the career of the knightly defender of their cause abroad. The two former were foremost in the movement which ultimately placed a handsome portrait of the British patriot Barre in Faneuil Hall. If you will look earnestly at his engraved portrait in its frame in the Bostonian Society's "Council Chamber," you will get a good idea of the man who, it is believed, wrote the stirring and famous letters of Junius.
Out on Windmill Point, in sheltered spots, the old men of the town continued to sit on sunny autumn afternoons. Two weeks after the truant schoolmaster's departure, the aged veteran of the Indian wars, taking a pinch of sniilT, remarked :
"The Major were a fine man, all but the ugly mark the Frenchman's bullet plowed in his forehead!"
For a full minute no one spoke. "Better's a friend's frown nor a foe's smile," murmured the "Oracle," as he watched the white sails standing out to sea.