Bread and Nell Jenkins
‘You teachers have to be awful careful or the whole district’ll be down on your neck'
WHENEVER I think of those days of mine spent on the prairie, I think of Bread and Nell Jenkins.
It was only after I accepted a school in the country, and thus for the first time came in contact with the soil, that I really appreciated that meaning of— bread. For I was born and bred
• L. of t rout for my srr~-:r~ a~r!tr.t :~t\. Not sweep of 4 0 •`r oe1r of freshly - ncr rn' •artn, or in nrc role ,tft'r tne rour,C • at am . a fir of autumn .. N : - tnntr acre nn;ev those -. a ay~.. otter anoi r rouch it b-er, : n the ratti• -~f r a;~-oa-' h over the `or)tJ,estofl. • .4 oj LondonCrc roa-se n': of M:in;gnt. and a~s w'o~ •r :r;e mrs cur in n-c G:ohe Tneatre. -. oar was bread a houznt and sold, like chewing c-inn;. P~rrnaps a little more newssary. because, wnen I was four,' I did not a n; of chewing gum, - a_A -. -,_:,__ ,t ___,J
but demanded a 'piece of bread and jam.’ I remember buying my first loaf, clutching ten cents in my hot palm, and trotting down to the bakery shop; with wonderfilled. fascinated eyes, watching the revolving electric oven, and waiting for the baker to remove the warm, soft, savory loaves. That was bread to me. Something the baker made. I never thought of essentials, until I went out to the Elton School District.
\7ERY well do I remember my first prairie dawn. I v had not slept that night, but had tossed and turned, tossed and turned, thinking the while of the parting from my family in Calgary; of the long ride in the hot, malodorous train; of my stepping off into the midnight darkness at the little, box-like station; of the sinking feeling which assailed me when the surly station agent said: "There’s nobody in from Elton District ’cept Bill Jenkins, and a young gal like you can’t go out with him!”; of my relief when a gaunt, bewhiskered farmer appeared from the black maw of night, and demanded: “Are you the new teacher for Elton District? I’m Fowler, the secretar;,'.'' Then there was that long ride in the rattling fiiver. past silent farm houses. My taciturn driver made but one remark. Pointing to a square frame building, shining white through the darkness, he said, “That’s you: school. Most of the kids is pretty good. Look cut for the Jenkins boy, Young Ed. Daisy Jenkins is kindo’
.Jenkins! I had begun to hate that name. Jenkins . . .
But now, it was morning, and I was looking out upon that great level expanse, the prairie. So flat was it, that r.ar: hands might have loosened a portion of the Sahara * ar.d here laid it down. Before my eyes, too, was a -. which gave fertility. Fertility in the golden ■'h-at: fertility in the rich black of ploughed '.ar c In ::,e eastern sky, the lingering sunrise, loath to shedding its soft glow; the whole vast prairie seerr.ee to oe waiting, in sweet contentment, for the strengtner.tr.g of the dilatory sun. And from that moment, something of the prairie’s lure took hold of my heart. I was to love this level land, yet hate it; I know
its strange beauty—yet harsh ugliness—will haunt me till I die.
But my appreciation of the morning was drowned by a feeling of nervousness; nine o’clock was approaching with terrifying swiftness, and doubt of successfully acting my role as school teacher was assuming colossal proportions in my mind. I spent the spare minutes before breakfast feverishly attempting to draw up a time-table for ‘six or seven grades,’ and ‘about twenty or thirty children.’ This vague information had been volunteered by Mrs. Fowler the previous night, as she served me with rnilk and gingerbread, before showing me to my scrupulously clean little room with its sloping ceiling, and recently varnished, but slightly rickety, furniture. She had boasted: “I’ve kept the teacher for seven years, and always give good satisfaction. Board thirty a month. I do your washin’. You do your ironin’. . . ”
As I worked at the Chinese puzzle of a time-table, I was conscious of scurryings and bustlings in the house. Carne a pausing of footsteps before my door, and an audible whisper: “Gee, bet the teacher ain’t up yet.” Through my register floated a whimper from regions below. “I don’t wanna go to school! I bet the teacher will lick me!”
Being overcome by my usual shyness, I could not bring myself to go downstairs; thrusting my time-table—by this time a weird conglomeration of strange hieroglyphics —into my pocket, I stacked up an armful of school books. Then waited. I heard a scraping of chairs. Voices. Finally: “Miss Dell! Breakfast!” Mrs. Fowler’s summons.
Slowly I descended the narrow stairs, to meet a battery of eyes. The family were seated at table; six children, all stares and freckles; their mother, small, prematurely gray, face lined, hands rough and big-knuckled; her husband, looking rather unkempt, with hair wild and sticking up like a clothes brush; a big shy boy of twenty or thereabouts, whose eyes clung to his plate.
“Miss Dell, these here are the kids. Now, kids, I hope you behave for Miss Dell to-day. George lights your fires, and cleans up your school. Lick him good if he’s lazy.”
At this point, the plump cheeks of a bullet-headed lad became incarnadined.
“Jack, over there, my husband’s nephew, comes from Calgary, like you. So I guess he’s all right. Now, Dickie, quit that snufflin’! He’s afraid you’re goin’ to lick him on his fust mornin’. Well, let’s eat.”
IT was not long before I was trudging the mile to the school—lard pail and books clutched to my bosom. How long that mile seemed! At the school gate, I turned and looked back, to behold the Fowler
children, trailing in desultory fashion towards the hall of learning. Two were carrying a pail of water, in the manner of Jack and Jill. No pump in the school grounds, I decided. Bringing up the rear was Dicky, with a brother attached to each hand, said brothers evidently having a difficult time dragging their protesting kinsman to his doom.
Finding the door unlocked, I went through the cloakroom into the main room. I beheld three rows of the old fashioned double desks, these being mounted on strips of wood in order—I conjectured—to facilitate quick removal for a dance; blackboards shining like a negro’s face; chalk and brushes laid out on the ledge; bare walls. An odor of soap and varnish clinging everywhere. Evidently poor George had worked assiduously in anticipation of the arrival of the Omniscient Me. And by this time, the Omniscient Me was experiencing a shaking sensation about the knees. I endeavored to drown my nervousness by placing work on the boards.
Children arriving. Some on foot, others horseback, one overflowing family in a dilapidated democrat. The majority congregated about the steps, only a few being bold enough to enter the room—very ostentatiously to place books in their desks, while eyes covertly gave me a critical, though more or less friendly, inspection. A wistful, long-legged girl of ten slipped into a seat opposite the desk, and raised her gaze slowly to my face; a timid, frightened air hung about her like a cloud. Another girl, fresh-faced, smiling, came up, and said shyly: “Good morning, Miss Dell.” Proffered me flowers, and lingered.
She offered: “The Jenkins family ain’t late. They’re in sight half a mile off. They’re generally late. There’s Ed and Daisy, and two little kids. ’Sides them, there’s a lotta others, but they’re too big to come to school.” “Who’s the girl in front of the desk?”
“Esther Ralston. Say, teacher, can we play house at noon? I’m gonna be the mother, and Ella the father, and Gladys the doctor!” She giggled. “The kids will all git the measles. I got some red chalk from last year to
put spots on them.” She added resentfully, “S’pose Daisy will push herself on us!”
“She can be the mother-in-law. What will Esther be?”
Lowering her voice, with an air of great secrecy later, I realized she was giving an unconscious, yet comical, imitation of her elders—“Ma won’t let me play with her. You know, Nell Jenkins looks after her,an’ ” Then, as if repenting her garrulity, she moved away.
Nervously, I glanced at my watch. Ten to nine. In a few minutes, a buggy rattled up. A lad of fifteen jumped therefrom, his sister driving on to the barn.
He announced: “Hear we gotta pie-face for a teacher. Betchu I make her mad, by gosh!” and commenced cuffing smaller boys in a pretence of wrestling with them.
My hands trembled as I arranged a pile of books. I had recognized my enemy . . . Nine o’clock. The bell. Clang! Clang! Startlingly loud it sounded. The children lined up in front of the steps. Weakly, from me: “Girls forward! . . . Boys—forward! ...” I hadn’t the nervous energy to go through the formula of mark time, left, right, left, right. They marched by me, shooting side glances, and, once in the room, took the places they had occupied the previous term. They were orderly enough.
With knees attempting to knock together in a trembling Charleston, I walked up, to face twenty-five pairs of eyes.
“We will now say the ‘Lord’s Prayer.’ All please bow your heads.
“ ‘Our Father, which art in heaven’ ”—all the time, I was thinking—that Jenkins boy is going to give trouble, I can see it in his eye—“ ‘Hallowed be Thy name’ ” somebody snickered then, bet it was Ed Jenkins—■
It seems the prayer was a sacrilege on my part. It wasn’t. I was extremely perturbed, that was all.
The prayer was ended. “Seats,” I said weakly. My next move was to ascertain the number of pupils in the grades, and to assign work to each. Eight grades, with one to four pupils.
And I placated the timid beginners by giving them ‘pretty pictures from the nice Eaton’s catalogue to cut out.’
As the minutes passed, I found, to my astonishment, that the children were more afraid of me, than I was of them. This stupendous discovery gave me a measure of confidence, and the assured air I adopted evidently awed the restive Ed and his bold-faced sister, for they were working hard, or pretending to, which was almost as good. The two youngest members of the House of Jenkins did nothing but snuffle; for them, handkerchiefs were the unknown quantity.
Finally, recess, and then the bell again.
Ed was rather late for line, as he had come slowly, dragging his feet across the yard. He marched with slouching mien, and an exasperating, bow-legged style of walking. I decided that my lines were too slack, and resolved to enforce the ancient ‘left, right’ law in the afternoon. But I said nothing then, thus making my first great mistake. For young Ed was ‘testing me out,’ that is, staging a bit of byplay to see if I registered anger.
I did not. But some minutes later, did. Not towards him, but towards his sister. Therefore, he was struck with an idea of amazing brilliance—mainly, that I would ‘run down the gals,’ but was ’afeard of boys.’
He waited until the big-eyed, innocent little tots, in grade one, went straggling up to the board. Then he raised his hand, and requested a drink from the time honored water pail.
Two minutes later up shot his hand again, and began to wave frantically.
“Your hand isn’t a flag, Ed. What do you want?”
“Please, may I have a drink?” This with a cherubic expression.
“Of course not! You just had one. Do some work for a change.”
I turned my back, and was printing ‘The Little Red Hen’ on the board, when, all at once, I became conscious fjof an ominous hush. No pens scratching, no book leaves rustling. I swung about.
Ed had tiptoed to the pail, and, with an air of injured innocence, was enjoying a nice, long, cool draught. His impertinent eyes were regarding me above the dipper’s shiny side. It lowered, revealing his grimy face one wide grin . . .
A wave of hot anger swept over me, to leave me tense. In a voice so low, so surprisingly
repressed, that I did not recognize it as my own, I said:
So I met Nell Jenkins and talked to her for
His grin faded. Apprehensively, he glanced around at the children. Their heads were drooping, as if they themselves were involved in the Water Pail Scandal. With every passing second, the ominous hush was deepening. I know my head was thrust forward—a la, Napoleon—and that my face was the hue of boiled beets. He met my eyes; perhaps there was ‘the power in my eye that bowed the will,’ for he obeyed my order.
There was only one thing to do for such a case of gross disobedience. We all know that little formula—at least teachers, and fathers of families, are cognizant of it— “Hold out your hand!” said hand invariably being very grimy. It is grasped in the teacher’s left hand, while she wields the instrument of torture with her right.
In my case, the situation was slightly incongruous, as Edward towered above me by some four inches. But I was angrier than I ever had been in my life, and hated him with a deep and deadly hatred. I presume he sensed it, for he was strangely humble and docile.
The formula worked, for he returned to his place, and sat there, deeply sunk in the Valley of Humiliation. The rest were very quiet, and worked industriously, but during the noon hour, when congregated with their dinner pails on the shady side of the school, they most thoroughly ‘rubbed it in’ to Mr. Jenkins.
• “Served you right! You ain’t got no call takin’ a drink.” And so on, their voices floating through open windows to me, as I sat at the desk, attempting to choke down a thick meat sandwich, and a slab of gingerbread. Finally, I observed the outcast retire from the group, and engage in a gloomy and solitary game of ball.
The afternoon dragged away . . .
T HAD looked for disapproval from Mrs. Fowler, but instead received approbation. As I entered the kitchen, after trudging the long, warm mile homewards, she looked up from her ironing board with, “Well, I hears you strapped that Ed. It’s a fine thing, too. One of that tribe always plays a monkey trick the fust day on a new7 teacher. I’d strap him good once a week! Them Jenkinses is a bad lot. Nell and Cora and all of ’em.” “Nell Jenkins? Let me see, doesn’t she look after that quiet little Ralston girl?”
She pressed her lips together. Then--” Well, yes.
Now, that Nell---”
Crash! From regions above. Resounding smacks and howls of, “Quit, Mary! Ma! Make Mary quit hittin’ me! Mary jogged my elbow, and made me bust the pitcher. Ma—aaaa!” But ‘Ma’ already was halfway up the
stairs, and I heard no more of Nell for some days, although my curiosity had been aroused.
THE hot August w7eek passed. I managed to contrive a time-table that worked fairly wrell. Our day opened with the lusty singing of, ‘O Canada.’ Next, I would make some remark, such as “Now7, children, how7 many cleaned their teeth and washed their necks and ears this morning?” and then we would get down to business. My hours were one mad, frenzied rush, but finally came the weary statement, “Your homework for to-night is-”
But it was only the eighth grade who were burdened with homework, for I realized that the children had enough chores about the farm to keep them busy.
I had no more serious trouble, though it was necessary to lay down strict rules, and never to slacken discipline. I took it upon myself to organize games at recess, and supervise them, for the Jenkins children needed watching, as they were a bad influence. Caught Ed swearing. It was just one of the ABC words to the Book of Profanity, but it was bad enough. He w7as twothirds through the book already, and very willing to teach less educated brethren. Lecture the first time, but the next punishment was to be—oh! that strap! A teacher has a great life, provided she doesn’t weaken.
some time. She seemed starved for companior."No! NO! NO!..... THE loneliness of the prairie affected my spirits like a deadening drug, and made me morose and melancholy. Every fibre of my being longed for a stroll down Calgary's Eighth Avenue on a Saturday night. The lights! The crowds! . . . But all I could do, was stroll down the road by the lig! t of the moon, and look at the fence posts. However, on the first Saturday, I endeavored to cheer myself up by indulging in a horseback ride. It proved to be pleasure mixed with bumps. Yet the world was a blaze of golden sunshine and yellow wheat,
It was Esther Ralston who was left entirely to herself. She was meek and timid, and recoiled sensitively at every sign of icy disdain on the part of the girls. I soon slipped into the habit of having her help me about the room, and it was whispered, “Teacher’s pet!”
and it was good to be alive. Fate decreed that my haphazard ride should bring me to the home of Esther Ralston. I was wondering
who lived in that square
apron. “Teacher! Teacher!” She ran to the road, and urged, “Come in, and see Nell. Please! The Jenkins children were not altogether socially ostracized. The boys—though evidently they had been told not to associate with Ed—did, because they were slightly afraid of him. For he, being very much aware
of the fact that he was the biggest boy in the school, was fond of bullying. Continually, I had to catch him up on this pleasant little habit. And his sister was bold; she forced herself upon the other girls. But many a time I saw her go up to a group, and they w7ould deliberately turn their backs, and arms linked,
white house, when Esther, rushed out, waving her
walk away. The two smallest members of the House of Jenkins played with each other, utterly indifferent to the coldness of their mates. She confided to me that her mother was dead, and that Nell Jenkins was ‘my daddy's housekeeper.’ Inwardly, I wondered, “Is she left so severely alone simply because of her association with Nell Jenkins?” I was soon to learn.
Continued on page 38
Continued from page 7
ship; showed me through the spick and
span house, served tea and cake, and told
me about her employer. And, as I ob-
served her, it seemed to me that a white
light shone from her forehead, to illumine
her whole face. It was just that she gave
me an impression of innate purity, of
During an absence of Esther’s, she said,
Poor Esther! She has no mother. Her father is called queer around here, be-
cause he isn’t friendly to anyone. He feels awfully bad about his wife dyin’. Jist
comes in, and eats his meal, then goes out again. Spends his evenin’s helpin’ Esther with her work, and talkin’ about
her mother. He moved out from his last
farm, jist to git away from memories of
her,I guess.” Anxiously, she looked at
me. “Do you think it is all right to be his
housekeeper? There’s nobody else around
here to take the position. He met me in
town the first day he came, and asked
me to look after Esther. She had taken a kind of fancy to me. Father wanted me to, ’cause I git good wages, and give him some.” She flushed slightly, and dropped her eyes. “I was glad to git away from home. But this farm is so far away from everywhere, and l am lonely sometimes.” I tried to answer brightly. “Well,, you can listen in at the phone. Everybody does.”
She smiled slowly. “I don’t "ever listen.”
“Yes, it might be awkward, for they
might be talking about you. Everyone
seems to be under discussion.” y I bitterly regretted making that re-
mark. For the flush upon her cheeks
deepened painfully; her nervous fingers
began twisting her handkerchief. We were
both relieved when Esther came running
in. I left soon after, but not before mak-
ing a promise to come and partake of
Sunday dinner with them. Nell said, “Perhaps—you’d rather not come.” But
I laughed her doubt away.
The bomb burst when I casually in-
formed Mrs. Fowler that I would be
taking Sunday dinner with Nell Jenkins. Immediately the woman ordered her
daughter from the room. In a hushed,
shocked voice: “I’ve been meaning to tell you about them Jenkinses, but somehow, ain’t got around to it. They’re an awful
family. Awful! The boys and their Pop
drink tumble, and swear, and what not,
but that’s not the worst. And the girls
have an awful reputation. There’s Cora,
then Rose, and then Nell. Now-”
And so on, and so on—a muddy tale of
humans sunk low. Never before, in all my sheltered years, had I come in such direct contact with a certain type of life, and I know my face grew hot. Most certainly,
the Jenkins’ family were a moral cancer
sore to the community. “And that Nell!
She calls herself housekeeper to that
Ralston, but-” etc, etc. “He’s a queer
chap; won’t have anything to do with anybody. Picks up with the Jenkins tribe first day he comes. That stamps him for what he is.” Grudgingly, “I do say Nell
isn’t as bad as Rose and Clara yet, but
she’s only seventeen, and has spent a lot
of time with her grandmother, over Harville way. She ain’t a bad old lady.” With a sage nod, “But Nell can’t help being rotten, what with the family and up-
bringing she’s had. Mrs. Jenkins, she’s
been dead these five years or so, an’ Cora
looks after the house. Rose isn’t home.
God knows where she is.”
She finished her tirade with,“You
teachers have to be awful careful. The
whole district will be down on your neck if you go there for dinner, and if you make
friends with her. It will make your row
mighty hard to hoe here if you take up with her.”
I saw her point. Even a teacher must
eat. So that evening, I phoned Nell, and
explained that stress of school work kept me from accepting her kind invitation.
There was a tiny pause, then, “It’s all
right.” Her voice very brave. But I felt
like the meanest person on earth or Mars
or elsewhere. I could not make myself
believe that Nell was ‘rotten.’ I had
heard her story in regard to her position
in the Ralston household, and believed
her. I wondered if there were anyone
else in the whole district who trusted her.
There was one person: Mr. Fowler’s nephew, Jack.
Sunday afternoon he joined me, as I sat in the shade cast by a row of trees
bordering the vegetable garden. I had left the house, because Mrs. Fowler was at the phone, and I could hear,—“Yes,
the teacher didn’t know anything about
her, and Nell Jenkins had the nerve to
ask her for dinner. I put Miss Dell wise,
It wasn’t her fault.” The poor lady
thought she was smoothing my way
nicely, but I was more indignant than
delighted at her tactics,
I was pondering about my troubles, when Jack came over, and very awkWardly stood beside me, whittling a stick, Then he blurted out: “Say, don’t you believe all that about Nell. She’s a nice girl, I know she is.” I looked up at him. “What makes you think so?” Very constrainedly, “Well, the first week I was, here, I met Bill Jenkins in
town, one Saturday, and he drove me out. We stopped at his house. Well, we played
cards after supper, and Clara and Rose
were there, and I guess I got pretty
drunk, and tried to walk home. I ended up by sinking down in a kind of a stupor
in the field behind the Jenkins place,
Well—Nell—came out, and—bathed my
face—and—brought me back to con-
sciousness.” All the time, he was whittl-
ing nervously; the knife slipped from his
hand, and he retrieved it awkwardly.
“That was nice of her,” I said, now not looking at him.
His voice was husky. “She—she told
me never to go back to the Jenkins place,
She said, ‘It’s awful, Jack. It’s no place
for a nice clean boy like you. Promise me to leave the Jenkins tribe alone.’ Well, I
said I would. And that’s why I don’t
think she’s like the rest of them. Do you?” “No,” I agreed, glancing up at his red, embarrassed face. And in my turn, I told
him the greater part of my conversation
with Nell. He was fairly beaming by the
time I had finished. “Good old Nell. I
know she’s straight. They think Ralston’s
cracked around here, just because he’s
surly, and keeps to himself. But he isn’t
a bad guy, because I’ve talked to him.” That conversation marked the beginning of the friendship between Jack and myself. Poor Jack! I felt sorry for
him sometimes. He was so shy and awk-
ward in front of most; the children de-
lighted in teasing him, and Mr. and Mrs.
Fowler continually were nagging him to
‘tend to your work, and leave your old machinery alone.’ For he always was tinkering with machinery. He confided to me, “I like the city.” His eyes grew
wistful. “My father was a machinist in a
big cement mill near Calgary. Oh! Boy!
I used to go in the shop, and muss around, A pause. Then—“He was killed there.” Quite late in the Autumn he told me more of Nell. He chanced to be walking
from school with me, in a strangely
beautiful evening of soft sunset and
yellow moon rising.
“Gee, I’m getting tired of the farm.
Do you know, that night I got drunk,
uncle and aunt got hold of it, and made
an awful row. And I was nineteen! They treat me like a kid! By gosh, I’ve stuck
it out near two years since that row!”
We stood a moment, watching a rabbit bound over the yellow fields.
“Do you know,” he laid, abruptly,
“when Nell said, ‘It’s no place for a nice
clean boy like you,’—she was holding a
Conti?lued on page 40
(`ont~nned from page 38
lantern up—the light fell full on her face. Somehow, she looked like my mother to me. Like the last time I saw my mother, when I was just a kid. She said, ‘Be a nice clean boy, Jackie.’ That’s about all I remember of her. She was dying. Say, I’ll beat you in a race to the house.”
Jack and I ran. He won . . .
We humans are ashamed of our emotions.
rT'HE fall passed with its harvesting.
A train of thought was started in my mind. There was the golden wheat, and before its coming—the planting of the seed, rain, sunshine. The golden wheat, and from it—bread. Bread. And for lack of Bread, there falls to the world’s lot— famine, misery, poverty, revolution . . .
So, now I appreciate a slice of bread, and realize its importance above a stick of chewing gum. And I take off my hat (such as it is) to the Canadian farmer, for his gift of bread to humanity.
All this wisdopi was imparted to me, as I saw the yellow sheaves; the chaff, like star dust, rising from the threshing machine; the cook car with its hotcheeked, busy manageress; the children in the sun of late afternoon, carrying out an extra ‘snack’ to the workers. And lastly, the engine, behind it threshing machine, cook car, bunk house, chugging from the yard in the abrupt darkness after twilight. The men were singing. Singing because the harvest was gathered in; the good harvest, the golden harvest. Smiling from the door, was the happy-faced farmer’s wife, with her children crowding around her. And, in the granary, kernels of wheat to the world better than money.
XTOVEMBER days were soon upon us.
November, and cold. My pupils tramped and rode through the drifts, arriving with reddened hands and faces, and on many a bitter day with a frozen nose or cheek to their credit. Yet even the smallest child was eager to come; often a six-year-old would arrive, crying from cold, only to warm up in front of the roaring fire, and be quite cheerful again in five minutes.
To the invincible spirit of the prairie child cold is—nothing. He has been
brought up on the naked fury of the elements. He wants to learn, and he does learn. It became the rule, on cold days, for us to spend the first half hour in marching about the room; then this time would be made up by extra hard studying about the stove, with the little ones given the privilege of being the nearer to the blessed heat.
They work hard; hard at home, hard at school. One thing I noticed was their almost pathetic delight in something novel—as a bright, catchy song, or a booklet made on a Friday afternoon. Early, I resolved that I would hold a dance and raise money for a Christmas tree, and planned a concert for the last event ...
The children seldom missed a day— they were engaged in ‘practisin’ for the concert.’ They said: “It’s gonna be better’n last year. Betchu it’ll be better’n Harville School’s!” Our program consisted of a drill, songs, humorous recitations, a play of my composition. How my hands ached after pounding away at the old organ in the school!
We found time to hold a dance in the schoolhouse, sending out a cordial invitation by word of mouth and posters to Everybody. Even if a man lacked a flivver, it did not put him outside the pale. The ‘open sesame’ was some coin of the realm. ‘Gentlemen pay at the door, ladies please bring cake and sandwiches.’
The dance was the social event of the season. I, charmingly (?) garbed in rose taffeta, assisted by several ladies, becomingly arrayed in reds, whites and blues, and some other colors, like purple and green, cut the ices, (cakes), while a bevy of pretty maidens—all attractive members of the younger set—poured the tea and coffee. To a convivial group
assembled outside the schoolhouse, a bevy of pretty youths poured whiskey. The room where festivities were held, was tastefully decorated with washed blackboards, and smoking iansps. A good time was had by all, the refreshments being the most enjoyed and masticated item of the evening’s entertainment, although the square dances ran a close and dusty second.
For me. the direct result of this social event was a weary night’s work, pouring over Eaton’s catalogue, in the choosing of presents for twenty-five children. All had written a letter to Santa Claus, which letters I was dishonorable enough to read. One dear child asked for an aeroplane, another for a horse with harness, page sixty, another for ‘a real live baby like on page thirty, number XWT499, please Santa.’ I was obligèd to compromise with such mediocre things as toy aeroplanes and horses and dolls.
YATHILE busy with Christmas prepara* * tions, I had not forgotten Nell Jenkins, and wrote home, stating her case to my mother. Imagine my joy, when I received this reply:
‘I was talking to Mrs. Fletcher, the well known student of sociology, about Nell, and she is most anxious to take the girl into her home. To be frank, she wants to m; ke a case study of the girl. Mrs. Fletcher is of that school who believe that one’s environment need not mold one’s character entirely.
‘If the girl has any good stuff in her at all, Mrs. Fletcher will give her a home, and later some training which will enable her to earn her own living.
‘But that is not the best piece of news. The Superintendent of schools here thinks he can make a place for you in one of the suburban schools after Xmas.’
So now, I was assured of two things; I could release Nell from her prison house, and, as I had no desire to hold the school after Christmas, would not have to be so careful about stepping on the district’s corns of prejudice. Therefore, the very next Saturday, I very brazenly rode over to Nell’s . . .
She opened the door. “You!” she exclaimed. Her eyes were red, her face tearstreaked.
“Won’t you let me in? I’m sorry for what happened.”
“Of course, teacher.” She stepped aside, hastily daubing her eyes with her handkerchief.
She cried again that day, when I said, “I believe in you, Nell. And I’m going to take you away, Christmas.”
I told her the glad tidings of great joy.
At first, she would not believe it, her eyes were amazing things, what with their tearfully incredulous delight.
Then--“But—Miss Dell, father
won’t let me go. Cora’s goin’ away New Year’s day, and I have to go home, and look after the place. I jist have to! It’s too expensive hirin’ a girl—and—and no decent girl would go to the Jenkins place.”
“Well, Cora will have to stay home.”
“You don’t know Cora. She’s set on goin’, and she’ll go. She isn’t afraid of anybody, except Dad, and he’ll let her leave home as long as I’m around. She wants to git to Calgary, where’s there’s more life. She’s got some kind of a job. And she’s crazy about that Peters fellow. He’s works in a garage in the city.”
“Oh, well, just tell your father he’ll have to hire a girl.”
A shudder ran through Nell. Her hands clenched. “No! No! He’s—I’m afraid of him, te. cher! I can’t tell him. He wouldn’t let me go!”
I could well believe she was afraid of ] er father. Strangely enough, I had never seen him except at a distance, but had heard about him. That was quite enough; I had no desire to make his acquaintance.
Very calmly, I made the remark, “Well, then you’ll run away.”
Conti;ued on page 42
Continued from page 40
“Yes, you can. If worse comes to the worst, we can prove at law that your father is not fitted to take care of you. Even if you are under twenty-one, it doesn’t mean you are compelled to remain at home.”
"But I can’t run away! I’m afraid!”
It took me an hour to calm her fears. But, before I left, the plans were laid. Christmas concert on a Wednesday night ; I was to leave early Thursday morning for Uarville, the nearest town. Jack, the driver of the fliver stage would stop for Nell. Once in Uarville, hop on the train, and away! Very simple. It was lucky the Ralston house was on the main road; Nell’s own home was not.
HP HE concert was a heavy burden on my mind. We did all we could to make it a success. The children practised every spare minute, but even they were getting a trifle tired of the same lines, the same actions, the same songs and recitations. Children are like that; at first interest blazes high, but after a time, as they travel the weary road to perfection, the flames of enthusiasm have to be fanned quite frequently.
The concert pursued me home, as did the marking of Christmas examination papers. Mrs. Fowler would marshal her children into the ‘parlor,’ below my room, and through the register would float: “Now, Dicky, say your piece.”
Dicky, quite obligingly, complied.
“I cannot make a speech!” This in one mad, mad rush.
“ ’Cause—’cause—’cause—I’m— too little!” (Last two words brought out jerkily and triumphantly, much in contrast to the slow ‘hesitation waltz’ effect of the first two words).
His mother interrupted, “You left out a word. ’Cause I’m too little yet\ “Say ‘yet’, at the end of the line, dear. ’Cause I’m too little yetV ”
From a young incorrigible: “Say, I’m gittin’ tired sittin’! Say ‘yet,’ baby! For cat’s sake, say ‘yet.’ Baaaaab-y! Can’t you rem----”
His mother—“For shame! When you were his age you couldn’t even talk, let alone recite! Now, Dicky! ’Cause I’m— go on—’cause I’m—”
Dicky, almost in tears, “ ’Cause I’m too little YET, but we’re glad you’re here, YOU BET!!”
My young hopeful knew the last two words, bringing them out with the explosiveness of a bursting bomb. Loud applause came from the restless audience, iupplemented by the fond parent’s, ’’Ain’t he sweet? Mother’s baby boy! Now, girls, sing, ‘Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!’ ”
Which they did. At least, I surmise it was that popular song, though I couldn’t recognize the tune. And then the boys would go through their parts in the play, and so on.
This kind of thing often floated up to me, as I have the bad habit of listening with one ear, if I think someone is discussing my numerous faults; just one ear, however. “Gee Whizzzz! SHE makes me sick!” (I was known as ‘SHE’ at my boarding house. ‘SHE’ did this, ‘SHE’ did that.) “SITE told us that we gotta dress up as niggers, and put black on our faces, and we’re gonna sing three songs. SHE makes me sick, SHE does!” “Sh-sh! SHE might hear you. But one song’s enough! The program’s gonna be too long. SHE better be careful!”
And so on. Criticism on all sides. Not limited to the Fowler family, either.
But I was used to it by this time. Criticism of my affairs outside of school work, too. All very well to make a fuss because I failed to promote Nellie from grade one to grade eight in three months, or because Jimmy got three marks less in arithmetic than that ‘bonehead Ed Jenkins.’ All very well to raise violent objection for the reason that ‘my Gladys didn’t git as nice a piece of cheesecloth
for her drill dress as did Ella.’ Yes, it was quite all right for Mrs. Smith to object to the fact that Sonny hadn’t learnt his A B C’s, but ‘some newfangled thing called sounds,’ and that “Sonny goes around the house sayin’ ‘sh-sh-sh-shut, sh-sh-sh-shall,’ like he was tellin’ his own Ma to shut up, Miss Dell!”
But please, would they refrain from criticizing my hat, or the fact that I didn’t ‘hit the hay’ at eight-thirty, but read and wrote instead, or the fact that I didn’t fall in love with the eligible young men of the district. “But perhaps they don’t like her. The last two teachers married here. I wonder if she will?” Evidently, the last two teachers had carried off the matrimonial prizes, as the only eligibles remaining for my greedy hands were a lugubrious Irishman, in whose shanty water was scarce, and whiskey was plenty, and a gentleman who spent his evenings poring over the pretty ladies in the catalogue. And what chance had I against those slender, lissome dames?
/'"''AME the night of the concert. The '^school was gayly decorated with bells and streamers of crepe paper; in one corner stood a lordly Christmas tree, laden with gifts. Long before eight o’clock, the rude benches were filled; the air was tense with expectation. The coal shed— for this night a dressing room—was the Mecca for flustered children, who were all ‘dolled up,’ in their ‘Sunday’ apparel. I assumed the role of their guiding mentor, though inwardly I was as excited as a young playwright at the opening of his first play.
Well—the concert proved a huge success. That audience in the country was far more appreciative, I am convinced, than any Broadway audience in New York ever was, is, or will be. At first, my pupils were nervous, ‘Jingle Bells’ being slightly tremulous, and Dicky’s ‘YOU BET!’ very shrill. During his ‘piece,’ his mother’s anxious lips were moving with his; when he finished, and tumultuous applause arose, he ran and buried a blushing face in her lap. Towards the end, came my play—the people laughed in a gratifying and uproarious manner at my choice jokes. Then the negro minstrels! These performed on tennis rackets in lieu of banjos. The first selection, ‘Massa’s in de cold, cold ground,’ was not in the least funereal, but rather smacked of the singsong of a rowdy political meeting; then came ‘Ole Blaaa-ck Choe!’ and ‘Guuu-d Ni-te Laaaaa-deees,’—all the negroes’ mournful and long-drawn out howls being accompanied by loud squawks from the rheumatic organ, and a shuffling and stamping of feet supposed to be a representation of a negro dance.
Last, but most certainly not least, either in size or importance, was Santa Claus. In spite of his centuries of labor on behalf of the young, he came frisking in writh a great jingle of bells, and brave in fur coat and mask, I mean face, that was very jolly looking, even though the nose was ‘bunged in,’ and the beard kept dripping cotton wool everywhere. He presented a very expansive front to the giggling audience, which front was not so expansive after a pillow fell from under his coat. But he covered an awkward moment by flourishing it with,“My wife gave me this for Christmas!”
The children were pathetically delighted with their gifts, and I wras presented with three rousing cheers, and a leather handbag. There was only one fly in the ointment—Nell was not present.
I asked Esther, “Where’s Nell?”
She was worried. “Why, we left early, Dad and I, and she said she would follow with Cora. Nell had made her a dress, and Cora was coming to put it on, and Nell had to stay and help her dress.”
I looked around for Cora. "Where’s Cora Jenkins?” The information was volunteered, “She jist left with Bob Peters.”
Jack came shouldering through the
Continued on page 44
Continued from page 42
crowd to me. Jack, you know, was in the secret, and had been almost as excited as Nell, at the prospect of her release. "Where’s Nell, Miss Dell?”
I told him all I knew. Abruptly, he turned, and left the schoolhouse.
TN THE steely early morning, I went away from the district forever, and not without a tinge of regret. Mrs. Fowler wished me ‘good luck,’ and wept a few tears. “You’ve worked so hard, Miss Dell, and we’re all grateful.” Mr. Fowier drove the car, he informed me that ‘Jack got hold of Sis jist before the concert bust up, and said he would be stayin’ the night with Tom Leeds, and might not be back in time to take you.” I wondered. Jack was so dependable. Already worried about Nell, I became frantically so. Perhaps Jack had discovered an obstacle in the way of our plans! Nell might never get away from her home if I did not take her. It was now or never . . .
I asked Mr. Fowler to stop a moment at Ralston’s, and ran to the house. Esther met me with an anxious face. “Nell isn’t here. Her clothes aren’t here. Her father’s taken her to his house, ’cause he left a note sayin’ so. He took her last night, when we were away at the tree!” The blow had fallen. I felt sick at heart. If Nell was with her father, well— But at the station, another surprise awaited me. As the agent shook hands heartily, he said, “Swell concert, Miss Dell! I fair split myself laughing! Say, old man Jenkins is blustering around, looking for his daughter Nell. He’s as mad as a bull with a red rag waving in front of him. Jist in time, Miss Dell! Here’s your ticket, there’s your train! It only stops two seconds!”
No time to look about. Where was Nell? Hurried good-byes. Affable trainman swinging me up the steps. Train moving. In the coach. A teacher from up the line shrieking, “If it isn’t Vic Dell! Merry Christmas! Won’t it be great to see the little old cow town again? I forget what a street car looks like. Say, did you get all your salary?”
And then I saw Nell! Nell and Jack, waving excited hands.
After all, it was very simple. Jack had
been intending to go to the city with us. “I’m twenty-one next week, and Dad left some money for my use when I came of age.” When he had become anxious about Nell the previous night, he had gone straight to the Jenkins house. Not to the door, but to the window. There was Nell, with her father berating her. Finally, the father had stepped into the adjacent room. Jack had tapped on the window, and attracted her attention; she had raised the window, to receive his urgent whisper, “Be at the road at four o’clock. Can you manage it!”
She had. Jack, in a car he had borrowed from Leeds, had driven her to the town above Harville, and there they had caught the train. It was a clever ruse which deceived Mr. Jenkins completely.
Nell said: “Cora suspected something. She knew Dad wouldn’t let her go to Calgary if I left. So she managed it in such a way, that I waited for her last evening, thinking that she wanted to try a dress on. And then, after Mr. Ralston and Esther left, Dad came, and made me go with him.”
And Jack and Nell looked at each other. Well, you know the kind of look! I felt like an ancient maiden aunt, all ready to raise mittened hands, and say: “God bless you, my children!”
"pOUR years later, I was placing T orange blossoms in the shimmering veil around Nell’s head—a veil as softly intangible as ivory mist rising from a river. I stepped back . . . Never in my life again, am I convinced, shall I see such a picture of virginal purity. Her face, so sweetly flushed above the roses in her arms; the white satin falling in lustrous folds about her. And her eyes, so shining!
She whispered to me, before she went downstairs to pack:
“That day you came to me, with the good news from your mother, and I was crying—I was sick of living—such stories going around about me—and father wanting me again—I had nearly decided to—” She didn’t say the word. But I knew by the horror in her eyes. Suicide.
I do not blame the district. They were merely endeavoring to prevent a moral cancer sore from spreading throughout the community.
But we are all blind. Blind . . .