The “Twentieth” school
was built of logs hewn on two sides. The cracks
were chinked and filled with plaster, which had a curious
habit of falling out during the summer months, no
one knew how; but somehow the holes always appeared
on the boys’ side, and being there, were found
to be most useful, for as looking out of the window
was forbidden, through these holes the boys could
catch glimpses of the outer world glimpses
worth catching, too, for all around stood the great
forest, the playground of boys and girls during noon-hour
and recesses; an enchanted land, peopled, not by fairies,
elves, and other shadowy beings of fancy, but with
living things, squirrels, and chipmunks, and weasels,
chattering ground-hogs, thumping rabbits, and stealthy
foxes, not to speak of a host of flying things, from
the little gray-bird that twittered its happy nonsense
all day, to the big-eyed owl that hooted solemnly
when the moon came out. A wonderful place this
forest, for children to live in, to know, and to love,
and in after days to long for.
It was Friday afternoon, and the long,
hot July day was drawing to a weary close. Mischief
was in the air, and the master, Archibald Munro, or
“Archie Murro,” as the boys called him,
was holding himself in with a very firm hand, the
lines about his mouth showing that he was fighting
back the pain which had never quite left him from the
day he had twisted his knee out of joint five years
ago, in a wrestling match, and which, in his weary
moments, gnawed into his vitals. He hated to lose
his grip of himself, for then he knew he should have
to grow stern and terrifying, and rule these young
imps in the forms in front of him by what he called
afterwards, in his moments of self-loathing, “sheer
brute force,” and that he always counted a defeat.
Munro was a born commander. His
pale, intellectual face, with its square chin and
firm mouth, its noble forehead and deep-set gray eyes,
carried a look of such strength and indomitable courage
that no boy, however big, ever thought of anything
but obedience when the word of command came.
He was the only master who had ever been able to control,
without at least one appeal to the trustees, the stormy
tempers of the young giants that used to come to school
in the winter months.
The school never forgot the day when
big Bob Fraser “answered back” in class.
For, before the words were well out of his lips, the
master, with a single stride, was in front of him,
and laying two swift, stinging cuts from the rawhide
over big Bob’s back, commanded, “Hold out
your hand!” in a voice so terrible, and with
eyes of such blazing light, that before Bob was aware,
he shot out his hand and stood waiting the blow.
The school never, in all its history, received such
a thrill as the next few moments brought; for while
Bob stood waiting, the master’s words fell clear-cut
upon the dead silence, “No, Robert, you are too
big to thrash. You are a man. No man should
strike you and I apologize.”
And then big Bob forgot his wonted sheepishness and
spoke out with a man’s voice, “I am sorry
I spoke back, sir.” And then all the girls
began to cry and wipe their eyes with their aprons,
while the master and Bob shook hands silently.
From that day and hour Bob Fraser would have slain
any one offering to make trouble for the master, and
Archibald Munro’s rule was firmly established.
He was just and impartial in all his
decisions, and absolute in his control; and besides,
he had the rare faculty of awakening in his pupils
an enthusiasm for work inside the school and for sports
But now he was holding himself in,
and with set teeth keeping back the pain. The
week had been long and hot and trying, and this day
had been the worst of all. Through the little
dirty panes of the uncurtained windows the hot sun
had poured itself in a flood of quivering light all
the long day. Only an hour remained of the day,
but that hour was to the master the hardest of all
the week. The big boys were droning lazily over
their books, the little boys, in the forms just below
his desk, were bubbling over with spirits spirits
of whose origin there was no reasonable ground for
Suddenly Hughie Murray, the minister’s
boy, a very special imp, held up his hand.
“Well, Hughie,” said the
master, for the tenth time within the hour replying
to the signal.
The master hesitated. It would
be a vast relief, but it was a little like shirking.
On all sides, however, hands went up in support of
Hughie’s proposal, and having hesitated, he felt
he must surrender or become terrifying at once.
“Very well,” he said;
“Margaret Aird and Thomas Finch will act as
captains.” At once there was a gleeful hubbub.
Slates and books were slung into desks.
“Order! or no spelling-match.”
The alternative was awful enough to quiet even the
impish Hughie, who knew the tone carried no idle threat,
and who loved a spelling-match with all the ardor
of his little fighting soul.
The captains took their places on
each side of the school, and with careful deliberation,
began the selecting of their men, scanning anxiously
the rows of faces looking at the maps or out of the
windows and bravely trying to seem unconcerned.
Chivalry demanded that Margaret should have first
choice. “Hughie Murray!” called out
Margaret; for Hughie, though only eight years old,
had preternatural gifts in spelling; his mother’s
training had done that for him. At four he knew
every Bible story by heart, and would tolerate no liberties
with the text; at six he could read the third reader;
at eight he was the best reader in the fifth; and
to do him justice, he thought no better of himself
for that. It was no trick to read. If he
could only run, and climb, and swim, and dive, like
the big boys, then he would indeed feel uplifted;
but mere spelling and reading, “Huh! that was
“Ranald Macdonald!” called
Thomas Finch, and a big, lanky boy of fifteen or sixteen
rose and marched to his place. He was a boy one
would look at twice. He was far from handsome.
His face was long, and thin, and dark, with a straight
nose, and large mouth, and high cheek-bones; but he
had fine black eyes, though they were fierce, and
had a look in them that suggested the woods and the
wild things that live there. But Ranald, though
his attendance was spasmodic, and dependent upon the
suitability or otherwise of the weather for hunting,
was the best speller in the school.
For that reason Margaret would have
chosen him, and for another which she would not for
worlds have confessed, even to herself. And do
you think she would have called Ranald Macdonald to
come and stand up beside her before all these boys?
Not for the glory of winning the match and carrying
the medal for a week. But how gladly would she
have given up glory and medal for the joy of it, if
she had dared.
At length the choosing was over, and
the school ranged in two opposing lines, with Margaret
and Thomas at the head of their respective forces,
and little Jessie MacRae and Johnnie Aird, with a single
big curl on the top of his head, at the foot.
It was a point of honor that no blood should be drawn
at the first round. To Thomas, who had second
choice, fell the right of giving the first word.
So to little Jessie, at the foot, he gave “Ox.”
“O-x, ox,” whispered Jessie,
shyly dodging behind her neighbor.
“In!” said Margaret to Johnnie Aird.
“I-s, in,” said Johnnie, stoutly.
“Right!” said the master, silencing the
shout of laughter. “Next word.”
With like gentle courtesies the battle
began; but in the second round the little A, B, C’s
were ruthlessly swept off the field with second-book
words, and retired to their seats in supreme exultation,
amid the applause of their fellows still left in the
fight. After that there was no mercy. It
was a give-and-take battle, the successful speller
having the right to give the word to the opposite side.
The master was umpire, and after his “Next!”
had fallen there was no appeal. But if a mistake
were made, it was the opponent’s part and privilege
to correct with all speed, lest a second attempt should
Steadily, and amid growing excitement,
the lines grew less, till there were left on one side,
Thomas, with Ranald supporting him, and on the other
Margaret, with Hughie beside her, his face pale, and
his dark eyes blazing with the light of battle.
Without varying fortune the fight
went on. Margaret, still serene, and with only
a touch of color in her face, gave out her words with
even voice, and spelled her opponent’s with
calm deliberation. Opposite her Thomas stood,
stolid, slow, and wary. He had no nerves to speak
of, and the only chance of catching him lay in lulling
him off to sleep.
They were now among the deadly words.
Hughie to Ranald, who met it easily, giving Margaret
“hyphen” in return.
Margaret, and then, with cunning carelessness, gave
Thomas “heifer.” ("Hypher,” she called
Thomas took it lightly.
Like lightning Hughie was upon him. “H-e-i-f-e-r.”
“F-e-r,” shouted Thomas. The two
yells came almost together.
There was a deep silence. All eyes were turned
upon the master.
“I think Hughie was first,”
he said, slowly. A great sigh swept over the
school, and then a wave of applause.
The master held up his hand.
“But it was so very nearly a tie, that if Hughie
is willing ”
“All right, sir,” cried Hughie, eager
for more fight.
But Thomas, in sullen rage, strode
to his seat muttering, “I was just as soon anyway.”
Every one heard and waited, looking at the master.
“The match is over,” said
the master, quietly. Great disappointment showed
in every face.
“There is just one thing better
than winning, and that is, taking defeat like a man.”
His voice was grave, and with just a touch of sadness.
The children, sensitive to moods, as is the characteristic
of children, felt the touch and sat subdued and silent.
There was no improving of the occasion,
but with the same sad gravity the school was dismissed;
and the children learned that day one of life’s
golden lessons that the man who remains
master of himself never knows defeat.
The master stood at the door watching
the children go down the slope to the road, and then
take their ways north and south, till the forest hid
them from his sight.
“Well,” he muttered, stretching
up his arms and drawing a great breath, “it’s
over for another week. A pretty near thing, though.”