Read CHAPTER IV. - TRIALS AT SCHOOL. of A Spoil of Office A Story of the Modern West , free online book, by Hamlin Garland, on ReadCentral.com.

The morning on which Bradley was to begin his term at the seminary was a clear, crisp day in later November.  He had rented a room in the basement of a queer old building, known as the Park Hotel, a crazy mansard-roofed structure which held at regular intervals some rash men attempting to run it as a hotel.

Bradley had rented this cellar because it was the cheapest place he could find.  He agreed to pay two dollars a month for it, and the use of the two chairs, and cooking stove, which made up its furnishing.  He had purchased a skillet and two or three dishes, Mrs. Councill had lent him a bed, and he seemed reasonably secure against hunger and cold.

He looked forward to his entrance into the school with dread.  All that Monday morning he stood about his door watching for Milton and seeing the merry students in procession up the walk.  The girls seemed so bright and so beautiful, he wondered how the boys could walk beside them with such calm unconcern.  Their laughter, their mutual greetings threw him into a profound self-pity and disgust.  When he joined Milton and Shepard, and went up the walk under the bare-limbed maple trees, he shivered with fear.  They all seemed perfectly at home, with the exception of himself.

Milton knowing what to expect smuggled him into the chapel in the midst of a crowd of five or six others, and thus he escaped the derisive applause with which the pupils were accustomed to greet each new-comer at the opening of a term.  He gave one quick glance at the rows of faces, and shambled awkwardly along to his seat beside Milton, his eyes downcast.  He found courage to look around and study his fellow-students after a little and discovered that several of them were quite as awkward, quite as ill at ease as himself.

Milton, old pupil as he was (that is to say, this was his second term), sat beside him and indicated the seniors as they came in, and among the rest pointed out Radbourn.

“He’s the high mucky-muck o’ this shebang,” Shep whispered.

“Why so?” asked Bradley, looking carefully at the big, smooth-faced, rather gloomy-looking young fellow.

Shep hit his own head with his fist in a comically significant gesture.  “Brains!  What d’ ye call ’em, Milt?  Correscations of the serry beltum.”

Shepard was a short youth with thick yellow hair, and a comically serious quality in the twist of his long upper lip.

Milton grinned.  “Convolutions of the cerebrum, I s’pose you’re driving at.  Shep comes to school to have fun,” Milton explained to Bradley.

“Chuss,” said Shep, by which he meant yes; “an’ I have it, too, betyerneck.  I enter no plea, me lord” ­

There came a burst of applause as a tall and attractive girl came in with her arms laden down with books.  Her intellectual face lit up with a smile at the applause, and a pink flush came into her pale cheek.  “That’s Miss Graham,” whispered Shepard; “she’s all bent up on Radbourn.”

The teachers came in, the choir rose to sing, and the exercises of the morning began.  Bradley thought Miss Graham, with her heavy-lidded, velvety-brown eyes, looked like Miss Wilbur.  Her eyes were darker, he decided, and she was taller and paler; in fact, the resemblance was mainly in her manner which had the same dignity and repose.

At Milton’s suggestion Bradley remained in his seat after the rest of the pupils had marched out to the sound of the organ.  Then Milton introduced him to the principal, who took him by the hand so cordially that his embarrassment was gone in a moment.  “Come and see me at eleven,” he said.  After a short talk with him in his room a couple hours later, his work was assigned.

“You’ll be in the preparatory department, Mr. Talcott, but if you care to do extra work we may get you into the junior class.  Jennings, look after him a little, won’t you?”

The principal was a kind man, but he had two hundred of these rude, awkward farmer-boys, and he could not be expected to study each one closely enough to discover their latent powers.  Bradley went away down town to buy his books, with a feeling that the smile of the principal was not genuine, and he felt also that Milton was a little ashamed of him here in the town.  Everything seemed to be going hard with him.  But his hardest trial came when he entered the classroom at one o’clock.

He knew no one, of course, and the long, narrow room was filled with riotous boys and girls all much younger than himself.  All the desks seemed to be occupied and he was obliged to run the gauntlet of the entire class in his search for a seat.  As he walked down the room so close to the wall that he brushed the chalk of the blackboard off upon his shoulder, he made a really ludicrous figure.  All of his fine, free, unconscious grace was gone and his strength of limb only added to his awkwardness.

The girls were of that age where they find the keenest delight in annoying a bashful fellow such as they perceived this new-comer to be.  His hair had been badly barbered by Councill and his suit of cotton diagonal, originally too small and never a fit, was now yellow on the shoulders where the sun had faded the analine dye, and his trousers were so tight that they clung to the tops of his great boots, exposing his huge feet in all their enormity of shapeless housing.  His large hands protruded from his sleeves and were made still more noticeable by his evident loss of their control.

“Picked too soon,” said Nettie Russell, with a vacant stare into space, whereat the rest shrieked with laughter.  A great hot wave of blood rushed up over Bradley, making him dizzy.  He knew that joke all too well.  He looked around blindly for a seat.  As he stood there helpless, Nettie hit him with a piece of chalk and someone threw the eraser at his boots.

“Number twelves,” said young Brown.

“When did it get loose?”

“Does your mother know you’re out?”

“Put your hat over it,” came from all sides.

He saw an empty chair and started to sit down, but Nettie slipped into it before him.  He started for her seat and her brother Claude got there apparently by mere accident just before him.  Bradley stood again indecisively, not daring to look up, burning with rage and shame.  Again someone hit him with a piece of chalk, making a resounding whack, and the entire class roared again in concert.

“Why, its head is wood!” said Claude, in apparent astonishment at his own discovery.

Bradley raised his head for the first time.  There came into his eyes a look that made Claude Russell tremble.  He again approached an empty chair and was again forestalled by young Brown.  With a bitter curse he swung his great open palm around and laid his tormenter flat on the floor, stunned and breathless.  A silence fell on the group.  It was as if a lion had awakened with a roar of wrath.

“Come on, all o’ ye!” he snarled through his set teeth, facing them all.  As he stood thus the absurdity of his own attitude came upon him.  They were only children, after all.  Reeking with the sweat of shame and anger which burst from his burning skin, he reached for a chair.

Nettie, like the little dare-devil that she was, pulled the chair from under him, and he saved himself from falling only by wildly clutching the desk before him.  As it was, he fell almost into her lap and everybody shrieked with uncontrollable laughter.  In the midst of it, Miss Clayson, the teacher, came hurrying in to silence the tumult, and Bradley rushed from the room like a bull from the arena, maddened with the spears of the toreador.  He snatched his hat and coat from the rack and hardly looked up till he reached the haven of his little cellar.

He threw his cap on the floor and for a half hour raged up and down the floor, his mortification and shame and rage finding vent in a fit of cursing such as he had never had in his life before.  All awkwardness was gone now.  His great limbs, supple and swift, clenched, doubled, and thrust out against the air in unconscious lightning-swift gestures that showed how terrible he could be when roused.

At last he grew calm enough to sit down, and then his mood changed to the deepest dejection.  He sank into a measureless despair.  A terrible ache came into his throat.

They were right, he was a great hulking fool.  He never could be anything but a clod-hopper, anyway.  He looked down at his great hand, at his short trousers, and the indecent ugliness of his horrible boots, and studied himself without mercy to himself.  He acknowledged that they were hideous, but he couldn’t help it.

Then his mind took another turn and he went over the history of that suit.  He didn’t want it when he bought it, but he found himself like wax, moulded by the soft, white, confidential hands of the Jew salesman, who offered it to him as a special favor below cost.  In common with other young men of his sort he always felt under obligation to buy if he went into a store, even if there were nothing there that suited him.  He knew when he bought the suit and paid eleven dollars for it that he would always be sorry, and its cheapness now appalled him.

He always swore at himself for this weakness before the salesman, and yet, year by year he had been cheated in the same way.  For the first time, however, he saw his clothing in all its hideousness.  Those cruel girls and grinning boys had shown him that clothes made the man, even in a western school.  The worst part of it was that he had been humiliated by a girl and there was no redress.  His strength of limb was useless here.

He sat there till darkness came into his room.  He did not replenish the coal in the stove that leered at him from the two broken doors in front, and seemed to face him with a crazy, drunken reel on its mis-matched legs.  He was hungry, but he sat there enjoying in a morbid way the pang of hunger.  It helped him someway to bear the sting of his defeat.

It was the darkest hour of his life.  He swore never to go back again to that room.  He couldn’t face that crowd of grinning faces.  He turned hot and cold by turns as he thought of his folly.  He was a cursed fool for ever thinking of trying to do anything but just dig away on a farm.  He might have known how it would be; he’d got behind and had to be classed in with the children; there was no help for it; he’d never go back.

The thought of Her came in again and again, but the thought couldn’t help him. Her face drove the last of his curses from his lips, but it threw him into a fathomless despair, where he no longer defined his thoughts into words. Her face shone like a star, but it stood over a bottomless rift in the earth and showed how impassable its yawning barrier was.

There came a whoop outside and a scramble at the door and somebody tumbled into the room.

“Anybody here?”

“Hello, where are you, Brad?”

He recognized Milton’s voice.  “Yes, I’m here; but wait a minute.”

“Cæsar, I guess we’ll wait!  Break our necks if we don’t,” said the other shadow whom he now recognized as Shep Watson.  “Always live in the dark?”

They waited while he lighted the dim little kerosene lamp on the table.  “O conspiracy, shamest thou to show thy dangerous brow by night,” quoted Shep in the interim.

“Been ’sleep?” asked Milton.

“No.  Se’ down, anywheres,” he added on second thought, as he realized that chairs were limited.

“Say, Brad, come on; let’s go over t’ the society.”

“I guess not,” said Brad sullenly.

“Why not?” asked Milton, recognizing something bitter in his voice.

“Because, I aint got any right to go.  I aint goin’ t’ school ag’in.  I’m goin’ west.”

“Why, what’s up?”

“I aint a-goin’, that’s all.  I can’t never ketch up with the rest of you fellers.”  His voice broke a little, “an’ it aint much fun havin’ to go in with a whole raft o’ little boys and girls.”

“Oh, say now, Brad, I wouldn’t mind ’em if I was you,” said Milton, after a pause.  He had the delicacy not to say he had heard the details of Bradley’s experience.  “We all have to go through ’bout the same row o’ stumps, don’t we, Shep?  The way to do with ’em is to jest pay no ’tention to ’em.”

But the good-will and sympathy of the boys could not prevail upon Bradley to go with them.  He persisted in his determination to leave school.  And the boys finally went out leaving him alone.  Their influence had been good, however; he was distinctly less bitter after they left him and his thoughts went back to Miss Wilbur.  What would she think of him if he gave up all his plans the first day, simply because some mischievous girls and boys had made him absurd?  When he thought of her he felt strong enough to go back, but when he thought of his tormentors and what he would be obliged to endure from them, he shivered and shrank back into despondency.

He was still fighting his battle, when a slow step came down the stairs ending in a sharp rap upon the door.  He said, “Come in,” and Radbourn, the most powerful and most popular senior, entered the room.  He was a good deal of an autocrat in the town and in the school, and took pleasure in exercising his power on behalf of some poor devil like Bradley Talcott.

“Jennings tells me you’re going to give it up,” he said, without preliminary conversation.

Bradley nodded sullenly.  “What’s the use, anyhow?  I might as well.  I’m too old, anyhow.”

Radbourn looked at him a moment in silence.  “Put on your hat and let’s go outside,” he said at length, and there was something in his voice that Bradley obeyed.

Once on the outside Radbourn took his arm and they walked on up the street in silence for some distance.  It was still, and clear, and frosty, and the stars burned overhead with many-colored brilliancy.

“Now I know all about it, Talcott, and I know just about how you feel.  But all the same you must go back there to-morrow morning.”

“It aint no use talkin’, I can’t do it.”

“Yes, you can.  You think you can’t, but you can.  A man can do anything if he only thinks he can and tries hard.  You can’t afford to let a little thing like that upset your plans.  I understand your position exactly.  You’re at a disadvantage,” he changed his pace suddenly, stopping Bradley.  “Now, Talcott, you’re at a disadvantage with that suit.  It makes you look like a gawk, when you’re not.  You’re a stalwart fellow, and if you’ll invest in a new suit of clothes as Jennings did, it’ll make all the difference in the world.”

“I can’t afford it.”

“No, that’s a mistake, you can’t afford not to have it.  A good suit of clothes will do more to put you on an equality with the boys than anything else you can do for yourself.  Now let’s drop in here to see my friend, who keeps what you need, and to-morrow I’ll call for you and take you into the class and introduce you to Miss Clayson, and you’ll be all right.  You didn’t start right.”

When he walked in with Radbourn the next morning and was introduced to the teacher, Nettie Russell stared in breathless astonishmemt.  He was barbered and wore a suit which showed his splendid length and strength of limb.

“Well said!  Aint we a big sunflower!  My sakes! aint we a-coming out!” “No moon last night.”  “Must ’a ben a fire.”  “He got them with a basket and a club,” were some of the remarks he heard.

Bradley felt the difference in the atmosphere, and he walked to his seat with a self-possession that astonished himself.  And from that time he was master of the situation.  The girls pelted him with chalk and marked figures on his back, but he kept at his work.  He had a firm grip on the plow-handles now, and he didn’t look back.  They grew to respect him, at length, and some of the girls distinctly showed their admiration.  Brown came over to get help on a sum and so did Nettie, and when he sat down beside her she winked in triumph at the other girls while Bradley patiently tried to explain the problem in algebra which was his own terror.

He certainly was a handsome fellow in a rough-angled way, and when the boys found he could jump eleven feet and eight inches at a standing jump, they no longer drew any distinctions between his attainments in algebra and their own.  Neither did his poverty count against him with them.  He sawed wood in every spare hour with desperate energy to make up for the sinful extravagance of his new fifteen dollar suit of clothes.

He was sawing wood in an alley one Saturday morning where he could hear a girl singing in a bird-like way that was very charming.  He was tremendously hungry, for he had been at work since the first faint gray light, and the smell of breakfast that came to his senses was tantalizing.

He heard the girl’s rapid feet moving about in the kitchen and her voice rising and falling, pausing and beginning again as if she were working rapidly.  Then she fell silent, and he knew she was at breakfast.

At last she opened the door and came out along the walk with a tablecloth.  She shook her cloth, and then her singing ceased and Bradley went on with his work.

“Hello, Brad!” called a sudden voice.

He looked up and saw Nettie Russell’s roguish face peering over the board fence.

“Hello,” he replied, and stood an instant in wordless surprise.  “I didn’t know you lived there.”

“Well, I do.  Aint tickled to death to find it out, I s’pose?  Say, you aint so very mad at me, are yeh?” she added insinuatingly.

He didn’t know what to say, so he kept silent.  He noticed for the first time how childishly round her face was!

She took a new turn.  “Say, aint you hungry?”

Bradley admitted that he had eaten an early breakfast.  He did not say it was composed of fried pork and potatoes and baker’s bread, without tea, coffee, or milk.

The girl seemed delighted to think he was hungry.

“You wait a minute,” she commanded, and her smiling face disappeared from the top of the fence.  Brad went to work to keep from catching cold, wondering what she was going to do.  She reappeared soon with a fat home-made sausage and a couple of warm biscuits which she insisted upon his taking.

“They’re all buttered and ­they’ve got sugar on ’em,” she whispered significantly.

“Say, you eat now, while I saw,” she commanded, coming around through the gate.

She had put on her fascinator hood, but her hands and wrists were bare.  She struggled away on a log, putting her knee on it in a comically resolute style.

“The saw always goes crooked,” she said in despair.  Bradley laughed at her heartily.

“Say, do you do this for fun?” she asked, stopping to puff, her cheeks a beautiful pink.

“No, I don’t.  I do it because I’m obliged to.”

She threw down the saw.  “Well, that beats me; I can’t saw, but I can cook.  I made them biscuits.”  She challenged his opinion, as he well knew.

“They’re first rate,” he admitted, and they were friends.  She watched him eat with apparent satisfaction.

“Say, I can’t stay here, I’ll freeze.  Are yeh going to be here till noon?”

“Yes.”

“Well, when I whistle you come in and get some grub, will yeh?” Bradley smiled back at her laughing face.

“This ain’t your folks’ wood pile.”

“What’s the difference?” she replied.  “You jest come in, will yeh?”

“Yes, I’ll come.”

“Like fun you will!  Honest?” she persisted.

“Hope to die,” he said solemnly.

“That’s the checker,” she said, and disappeared with a click of the tongue.

Bradley worked away in a glow of cheerfulness.  It was astonishing how much this little victory over a roguish girl meant to him.  He had changed one person’s ridicule to friendship, and it seemed to be prophetic of other victories.

The time seemed very short that forenoon.  Once or twice Nettie came out to bring some news about the cooking.

“Say, I’m making an apple pie.  I’m a dandy on pies and cakes.”

“I guess they would be ‘pizen’ cakes.”

She threw an imaginary club at him.

“Well, if that ain’t the sickest old joke!  You’ll go without any pie if you get off such a thing again.”

But as dinner-time drew on he felt more and more unwilling to go into the kitchen.

He heard her whistle, but he remained at the saw-horse.  It would do in the country, but not here.  He had no right to go in there and eat.

There was a note of impatience in her voice when she looked over the fence and said, “Why don’t you come?”

“I dassant!”

“Oh, bother!  What y’ ’fraid of?”

“What business have I got to eat your dinner?  This aint your wood-pile.”

“Say, if you don’t come in I’ll ­I dunno what!”

“Bring it out here, it’s warm.”

“I won’t do it; you’ve got to come in; the old man’s gone up town and mother won’t throw you out.  There isn’t anybody in the kitchen.  Come on now,” she pleaded.

Bradley followed her into the house, feeling a good deal like a very large dog, very hungry, who had followed a child’s invitation into the parlor, and felt out of place.

He sat down by the fire, and silently ate what she placed before him, while she chattered away in high glee.  When Mrs. Russell came in, Nettie did not take the trouble to introduce him to her mother, who moved about the room in a wordless way, smiling a little about the eyes.  She was entirely subject to her daughter.  She heard them discussing lessons and concluded they were classmates.

Bradley went back to his wood-sawing and soon finished the job.  As he shouldered his saw and saw-buck, Nettie came out and peered over the fence again.

“Say, goin’ to attend the social Monday?”

“Guess not.  I ain’t much on such things.”

“It’s lots o’ fun; we spin the platter and all kinds o’ things.  I’m goin’,” she looked archly inviting.

Bradley colored.  He was not astute, but hints like this were not far from kicks.  He looked down at his saw as he said, “I guess I won’t go, I’ve got to study.”

“Well, good-by,” she said without mortification.  She was so much of a child yet that she could be jilted without keen pain.  “See y’ Monday,” she said as she ran into the house.

Someway Bradley’s life was lightened by that day’s experience.  He went home to his bleak little room in a resolute mood.  He sat down at his table upon which lay his algebra, determined to prepare Monday’s lessons, but the pencil fell from his hand, his head sank down and lay upon the open page before him.  Wood sawing had worn him down and algebra had made him sleep.