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CHAPTER XVII

A SCHOOL-MEETING

OUR labors syrup-making that week and our evening efforts at translating Cζsar were tinged with a certain anxiety relative to the result of the school-meeting. A great deal appeared to us to depend on it. Addison, in particular, was much exercised and made several trips to the Corners, to ascertain the state of feeling in that quarter and also, as we surmised, to do a little electioneering on his own account. Thomas accompanied him one evening; and we learned afterwards that there had been hard words in Tibbetts' store which was also the post office; for by virtue of a petition which he had, himself, circulated two years previously Tibbetts had been appointed postmaster.

It was learned, too, that Tibbetts had been among the voters in that quarter of the district, with a paper, and partly by persuasion, partly by threats, had secured the names of a considerable number who thereby pledged themselves to vote as he indicated.

This bit of news so angered Addison, that he, in turn, began hatching plots.

We had with us then, for most of the time, two hired men, named Doane, Asa and James. Asa, in fact, might be said to live at the Old Squire's; and an agreement between him and us had already been entered into, to work at the farm for the ensuing season. At table that night Addison suddenly said, "Ase, you are a voter in this school district, did you know it?"

Asa laughed.

"Well, you are, if you choose to be," Addison insisted. "You are twenty-three years old and you call this your home."

The Old Squire looked up and seemed a little puzzled, but did not say anything, at first; at length he asked, "Do you pay a poll tax in this town, Asa?"

"Last year I did," replied Asa, in an injured tone. "They 'sessed me three dollars, and the Collector come and dunned me for it."

"That settles it!" cried Addison in triumph. "You can vote at our school-meeting, if you say this is your home."

"Then, Asa, you say so and vote on our side," cried Ellen. "You must, Asa, and help us beat Tibbetts and his clique."

"All right," replied Asa, laughing.

The Old Squire did not comment on this; but I thought that he did not seem wholly convinced.

Addison, however, cried out that here was one vote gained; and that evening he and Asa went out to the Corners together. The school-meeting was to come off three days later and during this time Halstead and I, with the girls, were obliged to do most of the syrup-making. Addison could scarcely work at all, he was so completely carried away by his interest in the coming election of school agent and his schemes for defeating Tibbetts. He would break off in the midst of the forenoon and start away across lots for the Corners, or to go up to Batchelder's, or to Murch's, and not return till noon; and at table he appeared to be in a brown study for most of the time.

Such undue interest in elections, either local or national, has sometimes a demoralizing tendency. In this instance we learned afterwards that Addison had gone to lengths which no one could soberly approve, and of which he was himself afterwards ashamed. But he was one of that sort of boys who, if they once set out to win a point, will labor day and night and leave no stone unturned, to accomplish it. This is a valuable trait in a good cause; but when it comes to securing votes for carrying an election, it often leads to surprising results. Addison did not really go so far as to buy votes; but he did hire Charles Melzar, one of the Corners young men, to come to work at cutting wood near our maple grove on the day of the school-meeting, promising him a gallon of syrup if he would work all day. That agreement was of course designed to keep him away from the meeting. Asa and he also hatched a plot which not only caused merriment, but a good deal of irrelevant joking, when the facts came out.

On the day before the school-meeting there had come what we termed a "robin snow," that is to say an inch of snow, perhaps, which soon went off. Asa and Addison were astir early that morning, and the former going to Neighbor Murch's, borrowed their hound dog. Leading the animal down across the meadows, he started a fox, or at least found the track of one, upon which he laid the hound. Then there was cheery music as the chase led over the cleared pasture lands above and beyond the Corners.

Waiting only till the hound was running well, Asa went to the Corners and got out Lige Davis, Jerry Cross and one other whose name I have now forgotten. Asa had not seen the fox, but he somehow made these three loafers believe that it was a "silver gray," the skin of which would be worth not less than thirty dollars. They therefore loaded their guns and set off with Asa over the hills, tramping deviously through wood-lots and over ridges, for four or five hours. At last, the hound ran the fox to a burrow in a steep pasture side, about two miles from the Corners; all concerned were by this time tired from the tramp; and if Lige and Jerry remembered the school-meeting at all in the excitement of getting a fox, they deemed it of minor importance.

After some discussion of the best modes of getting the fox out, Asa left them to watch the burrow, while he went off to borrow a shovel and crow-bar; but instead of immediately procuring these needful tools, he came across the country to the schoolhouse, leaving these three voters, guarding a fox's hole!

It was high time Asa was coming around, too, if he was to vote; for the meeting had been appointed for two o'clock in the afternoon, and it was three already. Addison, Halstead and I, and in fact nearly every boy in the district were there, as well as the men. There was antagonism between the two factions. Almost immediately after arriving the voters and also the boys drew asunder in two parties with covert glances to and fro, each side estimating the strength of the opposition. Tibbetts, a thick, heavy, rather corpulent man, with a face somewhat reddened from hard drinking, walked pompously about, hemming impatiently as he conversed in low, hoarse tones with the Corners men.

Before the meeting was called to order, Addison had taken a seat about midway the room, where he could hear much that was said on both sides. After every few minutes I noticed that he went to a window and glanced along the road. Several times, too, I observed that Tibbetts was watching him with an unmistakably hostile expression.

After a time Tibbetts called his boy (not his son, but a lad named Reuben Hale whom he had taken) and despatched him hastily on some errand. Reuben would not tell the other boys where he was going; but we saw that he went along our road instead of going back to the Corners, and that he was making haste.

Meanwhile the Old Squire arrived; and nearly every one in the district having by this time reached the schoolhouse, district clerk Batchelder rapped on the teacher's desk to call the meeting to order. The posted notice for the meeting was then read and some one nominated the Old Squire as "moderator." Every one seemed to say "Aye;" and he accordingly stepped to the desk and began business in the usual manner, calling for Mr. Glinds' account, as school agent, of the expenditures of school money during the year.

Neighbor Edwards made the usual motion to accept the account. Tibbetts seconded the motion, but took the opportunity to make a few remarks.

"I move to accept the agent's report," he said. "But in doing so I don't say I am satisfied with it. I ain't.

"Fact is," he continued, "that a few, fine-feelin' scholars in this district have got to runnin' things quite too much to suit their own notions. The agent had a good 'nough master hired, at a low price, in the fust place, to teach the school last winter. Samuel Lurvey was a smart boy, and he had grit enough to keep order, too. But he wasn't quite toney enough and high-flown enough to suit four or five scholars in this district, who all come from one place I could mention; so they began pickin' on him and plaguin' him. When they found he was like to warm their hides for 'em, they got in the Parson Supervisor, a lofty-nosed, finicky sort of man, and turned him out. It was all a cut-and-dried plan to drive Sam Lurvey out and get the man they wanted in his place. I saw through it all plain enough, from the beginning.

"Wal, they got their man and paid him about twice as much as would hire a good-enough master, and put off the school till into the dead of winter, too.

"And now I hear that they are planning to do the same thing agin, next winter. I heard the other day that these four or five scholars had already made a bargain with their man to take the school another winter, at his own price! Now what kind of a way is that to do business in a school district and in a free country? Have we got to be ruled here by a few little upstarts who think they know a great deal more than their elders?

"Now, I say no, and what I am here for to-day is to elect an agent who will do as he thinks best in spite of such nonsense, and will hire teachers as cheap as he can."

Tibbetts said this in a harsh, aggressive tone of voice and with many hard glances around the room. The ground he took was adroitly chosen, and in alluding to the liberties of voters, he had touched a responsive chord with many. Yet the most of those present knew that it was in reality an evil-minded appeal.

No one made any response, for some moments. All knew that there was ill-feeling; and no one desired to add to it, although the best men in the district differed from Tibbetts.

The Old Squire sat at the desk, dispassionately, as presiding officer, and did not make haste to close any discussion that might be needed to clear up the questions at issue. At last he said, "The motion to accept the report is seconded; those in favor will say aye," etc.

All voted aye, as is customary on such a report.

Then after a moment I saw Addison get up from his seat. I was astonished that he should attempt to speak. I feared he would make a failure.

He rose quite coolly, however, and said, "Mr. Chairman, there is just a word I should like to say."

The Old Squire slowly nodded to recognize him.

Tibbetts, however, interposed. "I object," said he. "This youngster is not a voter. We're not here to hear boy's talk."

The Chairman looked a little perplexed.

But Addison said, "It is not necessary, I think, that a person should be a voter. Any one who has a legal interest in the proceedings of the meeting has a right to address it. I am a scholar, drawing money in this district, and have such an interest."

Tibbetts did not dispute this point; and just then Tim Darnley, from the back seat, drawled out, "Let the young rooster crow!"

This caused a laugh; and Addison, turning to him with a bow, and another to the Chairman, said, "Thank you. I will 'crow' quite briefly."

They laughed again at that; so he had the advantage of the laugh to begin on.

"I suppose," Addison said pleasantly, "that I am one of the four or five upstart scholars to whom the gentleman, our postmaster, has alluded. I wish to say that I think he has put the matter of our running the school to suit our own notions in an untrue light. I am sure that he is wholly misinformed about it. I think, too, that he has taken an unjust prejudice against us. All that I, or any one of the four or five others to whom he alludes, wanted last winter was a good school. We had a right to such a school, and a right to obtain it, if we could, by fair means. Now what were the facts? I will state them and state them correctly, although I may seem to contradict the gentleman in doing so. The agent hired Master Lurvey, believing that he would do well, no doubt. But he proved to be ignorant and wholly unfit. He was rough and rude, inflicting unreasonable punishments and using improper language in the schoolroom, not once or twice, but every day. To say that he was a good enough teacher' is merely to say what every scholar in school and every voter in this district knows to be false. The supervisor for these reasons advised him to withdraw, and he did so; — and here I want to say that Mr. Furness seemed to us all to be a well-educated and clear-minded man, and by no means 'lofty-nosed,' or 'finicky.' I should call him just the reverse of that.

"After Sam Lurvey left, we had no teacher, and it is true that six or eight of us were much in favor of hiring Joel Pierson. Why? Because he is known to be the best teacher in the town. Anything wrong in that?

"It is true, too, that we urged the agent to hire him, even although he had to pay a high price. That is what, I understand, the gentleman most objects to — the high price. For no one disputes that Master Pierson taught a fine school.

"Well, now, let's see about that high price and how it affected the length of the school. We who wanted Joel Pierson saw that point at once and knew that it would make the winter term short. What did we do? I'll tell you. We joined works, chopped cord-wood in the snow, got teams, drew it off to market at the village, and raised thirty-two dollars extra money, every cent of which we turned into the school money. With that money extra we had a week more school last term, with a good teacher, than we would have had if Sam Lurvey had taught out the term!

"We have some more money raised, too, which we are planning to add to the district's money for another winter, so as to have a longer school and give every scholar in the district the benefit of it.

"These are the facts about this matter, gentlemen. I should not get up here, at my age, to address you in school-meeting, if the truth had not needed telling."

With that Addison sat down; and I know that every one thought that he had made his points pretty well.

But Tibbetts was wrathy. "Wal, we've heard the young rooster," he exclaimed. "He's quite a crower, quite a palaverer, with self-conceit enough in his hide to tell us all what to do and what not to. But I guess the voters have got something to say about it, and I move that we proceed to elect a school agent. Great pity our young cock o' doodle here isn't old enough to have for agent. He would save us all the trouble of hiring masters and everything else. He knows all about it and more too."

Addison turned a little red, but kept smiling and said nothing further, although several laughed at Tibbetts' coarse raillery.

Immediately there was separation of voters into grows again where candidates for agent were proposed and discussed in low tones.

The Old Squire kept his seat in the desk after announcing that a vote for agent might now proceed, in the usual manner, which consisted simply in placing a hat on the desk in which each voter deposited his vote.

The boys stood about, looking on, and laughing a little at everything that occurred; — for it is thus that the American boy gets his education in local government affairs.

Addison, I noticed, still kept an eye out the window along the roads; and I saw that Tibbetts whom I watched covertly, as a common enemy, was uneasy and went several times to the window, himself.

The two candidates at length agreed on were our neighbor, Mr. Murch, and Simeon Davis at the Corners. Murch was our man, of course; while Davis was the candidate of the Tibbetts party.

Quite slowly the voters approached the hat, one by one, and dropped in their votes, each consisting of a bit of paper having the candidate's name written on it, with a lead pencil. Addison had brought two sheets of paper and wrote the votes. Tibbetts stood by and watched each vote as written. Each knew almost exactly how the score stood between the two parties, from the outset.

After fifteen minutes, perhaps, the Chairman asked, "Are your votes all in, gentlemen? If so we will make the count."

"No," said Tibbetts. "I have not voted yet. I call for more time." It was plain that he was waiting for something, or some one.

"Very well," responded the Old Squire. "I suppose there need be no haste, although as much or more time than usual has elapsed."

"'Val, I claim more time," said Tibbetts. "So be it," replied the Chairman.

For ten minutes or more Tibbetts conversed with first one, then another of his party; he then called little Jimmy Davis out of doors and sent him off it a run towards the Corners. Re-entering the house he asked for a temporary suspension of the vote for agent and proposed that a vote for district clerk should be first taken, also that the matter of teacher's board and schoolhouse fuel should be considered.

"This is unusual — to interrupt a vote in process of polling," remarked the Old Squire. "I'm not sure that I have any warrant for so doing." After some little discussion, however, the votes in the hat were thrown in the stove, and the strength of the two parties tested by voting for a clerk.

A tie-vote resulted. No choice being effected, the fuel was set up and bid off by Mr. Wilbur at forty cents per week; and as usual the Old Squire took the teacher's board at the nominal sum of one dollar per week; that, indeed, was the old gentleman's annual offer, in order to prolong the school.

Mr. Edwards, our candidate for clerk, then withdrew; and the other, William Darnley, was unanimously elected. This was a mere maneuver, however, to bring Tibbetts to time; the office of clerk is unimportant.

By this time it was four o'clock; and the meeting having been called for two o'clock, there was no longer any excuse for delay.

"We will now revert to the vote for agent," said the Chairman. Addison again wrote two sets of votes and the hat was placed on the desk for them. Still Tibbetts held back his vote, talking with his men and glancing out of the window from time to time. The Old Squire was on the point of calling for a count, when Addison whispered a word to him and again there was a delay of some minutes. We then heard feet in the entry outside and Asa Doane entered with the general appearance of a man who has made a forced march.

"They are now voting for school agent, Asa," Addison remarked. "The candidates are Cyrus Murch and Simeon Davis. Will you have a vote?"

"I object!" shouted Tibbetts. "I challenge his vote. He is not a legal voter."

"Yes, I be," said Asa, stoutly. "I pay a poll tax in this town and I've made my home at the Old Squire's for the last two or three years. I keep my trunk and all my things there. It's the only home I've got, anyhow. Ain't that so, Squire?"

The old gentleman corroborated his statement, as to his trunk, and said that so far as he knew, Asa had no other domicile.

In great glee Addison handed Asa a Murch vote which he deposited in the hat.

Tibbetts was furious and made use of strong language, denouncing Asa's ballot as a fraud and threatening legal measures. Asa began to approach him, evidently with the intention of demonstrating his rights by the strong arm; and the Old Squire called vigorously for order. Hasty feet were heard now again in the entry, and Charles Melzar came in, looking somewhat sheepish as well as out of breath. I shall never forget how Addison's countenance fell at sight of him. He seemed a good deal astonished as well as chagrined. The fact was that Tibbetts had sent so forcible and perhaps so threatening a message to Melzar, up in our sap-woods, that the latter had judged it best to break his compact with Addison and hurry to the scene of the election.

Tibbetts at once approached Melzar and put a vote in his hand, with the air of a man who is leading a horse to its stall. Rather shamefacedly Melzar put the vote in the hat, Addison regarding him meantime with a look of withering scorn.

It is not customary for a candidate to vote for himself; but Tibbetts, after another glance along the road, put a vote in Davis' hand and the latter approached the hat and voted.

Addison, however, instantly beckoned our Mr. Murch who came up and did likewise — both candidates voting for themselves! This is legal, but in bad taste.

A count of the votes was then called. The hat was very closely watched and carefully emptied of its contents. Tibbetts stood by and saw every slip of paper as the Old Squire read the name on it. The clerk recorded the votes, then, while all stood expectant, counted them and announced that Mr. Murch had received seventeen votes, and Mr. Davis eighteen. Davis was then declared elected; and the Old Squire administered the usual oath of office to him. Our party was defeated. Tibbetts openly exulted and swaggered about the room. He was in nowise inclined to be good-natured, either; the absence of Lige Davis and Tim Darnley had given him much uneasiness; he evinced greater spite against Addison than ever.

"You little impertinent, over-forward jack-a-dandy, you," he exclaimed, shaking his fist toward him. "You didn't fetch it off, did ye! If you's my boy, I'd take ye home and tan yer hide with a hoss-whip."

Addison paid no attention to this outburst; he did not much care for idle talk like that; but Asa Doane shouldered snugly up to Tibbetts and, looking in his face, said, "What's that you remarked, Mr. Tibbetts?" Tibbetts did not think it well to repeat it.

The new agent took the schoolhouse key from the old one, and we all went home.

On our side we felt sure that our cause had been that of education and of progress. But a majority of the voters had decided against us and the result had to be borne with patience. The majority must rule in our land even if the majority is mistaken and, alas, evil intentioned. For it is useless to dispute that the majority is sometimes in the wrong. There is then but one thing for the more intelligent minority — patience.

Addison hardly spoke on the way home; he felt so badly, in fact, that he could scarcely eat supper. There was deep gloom throughout the house. Theodora and Ellen had met us in the yard as we returned; and Addison's first words to them were, "No Joel next winter. It will be another Sam Lurvey. Tibbetts has beaten us."

If we had heard even of war or other sudden national calamity there could hardly have been longer faces at the supper table, although Halstead enjoyed Addison's extreme discomfiture.

"Gram!" he broke forth. "You ought to have heard our young rooster crow down at school-meeting! He's going to make a champion crower, I tell you. He flapped his wings in big style but he dropped them a little when he saw Charles Melzar come in."

No one laughed or paid the least attention to this sally. Then Asa Doane tried to create a diversion and cheer us up, by relating how he had left Lige Davis and Tim Darnley watching at the fox-hole, while he was racing across the country to vote. That raised a slight wave of merriment; for it was evident that this prank had greatly disturbed Tibbetts who was expecting them and awaiting their arrival, to vote his ticket throughout the meeting.

Asa's account of the stratagem was the first the Old Squire had heard of the matter. He listened to the story, but did not laugh at it. "Asa, did you get those fellows off up there to keep them from school-meeting?" he asked.

"Wal, Squire," said Asa, looking a little queer, "I thought 'twas a good morning for foxin'; and I kinder thought, too, that they might as well be foxin' as votin' on the wrong side."

"Asa, I'm ashamed of you!" exclaimed the old gentleman; but he was looking at Addison instead of Asa, when he said it; and I noticed that Addison colored up more than I had ever seen him before. It was a day of mortification for him. All his efforts had failed; and his scheming, too, had gone for naught. Worse still, it had added a shade of disgrace to our defeat. No cause is ever much strengthened by ruses like that compact with Melzar.

As soon as supper was over, Addison set off for the sugar lot and I followed him; for we had neglected the sap during the whole afternoon. On coming where Melzar had chopped wood till near four o'clock, Addison stopped and flew out in a greater burst of temper than I had ever before seen him indulge in. "The sneak!" he exclaimed. "Promised me fair and square — and broke his word the moment my back was turned! Not one drop nor sniff of syrup will I give him for what he has done. I'll see him in Guinea first!"

"I suppose he didn't dare refuse to quit, after Tibbetts sent for him," said I. Ad fairly stamped the snow he was so charged with pent-up ire. "O, that old rascal!" he exclaimed. "But I will worst him yet!"(shaking his fist at a maple). "By the great Horn Spoon, I will beat him yet!"

After this Addison scarcely uttered a word all the evening, a circumstance which led Halstead to remark that our "young rooster" had lost his voice. But we were all somewhat glum at the Old Squire's, for a week or more, so strong a hold had this contest taken upon us, and so much that was unpleasant and regrettable mingled with the mortification of defeat. I remember that little Wealthy gave a sigh at the breakfast table one morning and said she hoped there never would be another school-meeting. "Why?" said Halstead.

"'Cause," grumbled Wealthy shortly. "It has made us all 'most sick. Ad's sick, and Doad is sick; and Nell is as mumpy as she was when she had the real mumps."

The Old Squire glanced around and remarked that it was time we forgot that school-meeting and turned our thoughts in healthier directions. The old gentleman attempted a diversion by speaking of Fast Day which was appointed for the seventeenth of April. Theodora tried to second the effort, by remarking pleasantly that we might improve the day by fasting, to do penance for any recent errors or mistakes we 'might have committed. This little sally was meant for a harmless pleasantry; but Addison, who was very sore on the subject of recent errors, took it home to himself and cast a rather sour glance at the well-meaning humorist. I saw her trying to explain it away to him out in the wood-house after breakfast. Addison, in fact, had fallen into a bad state of mind; he was abstracted and evidently harbored revengeful thoughts.

For some reason, misfortunes as well as storms appear to come in groups. Next afternoon, while hauling our hogshead of maple syrup home from the Aunt Hannah Lot, we met with a disaster which quite confounded us, and was a source of chagrin ever afterwards.

During the fortnight or more that we had been boiling sap, the syrup had been stored daily in a molasses hogshead which had been bought at the village, cleansed and set for the purpose in a back corner of the sap-house.

But now that the sap had ceased to flow and syrup-making was over for the season, Addison and I yoked old Bright and Broad, put them to the ox-sled — for the farm road to the lot was still icy — and drove over to get the season's product of sweets, to be divided between us and the Old Squire at home.

The hogshead was full, or nearly so, but after driving the bung carefully we rolled it on the sled and trigged it securely, as we thought, with two large sticks of four-foot wood. It was very heavy, weighing not less than eight hundred pounds; I remember that it was all we could both do to roll it upon the sled.

Addison then set off to drive home with it. Near the line fence between the Aunt Hannah Lot and the old farm there is a little ascent of a hundred feet in length or more, with hazel clumps on each side of the farm road. As the oxen were toiling slowly up this ascent, they suddenly stopped. A bear, as we afterwards saw by its tracks, had crossed the road here that very morning. Horned cattle as well as horses will smell a bear for hours after one has passed.

At first the oxen snuffed the ground; then they bawled and sprang furiously forward. The jerk displaced the trig. Off went the hogshead, and away it rolled down the hill!

I was coming on behind the sled. By the time the hogshead reached me, it was going so rapidly that I had to jump for my life to get out of the way. It whirled past, rolled off the lower side of the road and struck a maple stump.

When it struck the stump, out flew both heads, and the syrup was thrown at least ten feet each way! Glug, glug, out it went, and ran down over a dirty snowbank!

Addison and I stood petrified at the suddenness and extent of the catastrophe.

The snowbank absorbed the entire contents of the hogshead. That day there was one sweet spot in Maine, sweeter than "sweet home."

Gram and the girls were great mourners.

The Old Squire said very little about it.

As for Addison and myself, our disgust was too great for words.


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