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Liberty
January 28, 1939, pp 40-45

Schoolmaster's Empire

by Howard Fast

 

TODAY, even before Captain Heeny spoke to him, Mr. Adams had a feeling that this was the last day of school. He had a pleasant half hour talking with Maud Carter, but even that could not raise his spirits. And at this time pleasant half hours were few and far between.

The tall thin schoolmaster, peering nearsightedly through his spectacles, stood at the door to the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse stood in the center of the common; behind it were the stables; it was in a very protected position.

He held his rule in his hand, and he tapped it against his knuckles anxiously as the pupils filed in. All told, there were twenty-two pupils, ages ranging from six to sixteen.

There had been twenty-seven, the added five over sixteen. Now they were on the firing steps of the stockade; taking their places as men. They always grinned at Mr. Adams when he passed them.

As usual, Sam Hardy and Martin Crane were tardy. They even lingered at the door to watch old Caleb take aim. They stood there until his long rifle gushed flame, and they joined in with his shrill yell of triumph.

Mr. Adams said, with just a touch of irony: "I perceive you're early again."

They grinned at him, and he shooed them inside. They didn't take him seriously. From inside the schoolhouse came the rising hum of many voices.

Mr. Adams called: "Silence — please'."

Then he saw Captain Heeny approaching, walking slowly, as if his huge bulk had at last become too heavy for him. His small blue eyes blinked rapidly, and he had a smudge of gunpowder on his cheek.

The schoolmaster could see that Heeny had something important to say, yet each minute the noise in the schoolhouse grew in volume. Soon they would be completely out of hand. Mr. Adams waited, impatient.

Captain Heeny said: "And how're you comin' on, Adams?"

"We're progressing, sir — considering the circumstances."

"I know, I know. You've done a fine thing — keepin' the children outa trouble." Three of the children were his own. He was sincerely glad that the schoolmaster could take some of the burden from his shoulders.

"It's a long time now." Mr. Adams sighed. "It's nine days now. I was hoping the siege would be lifted."

The captain's eyes traveled from wall to wall. The four walls of the stockade enclosed perhaps an acre of ground. Against the walls, under the firing steps, were the tiny cabins of the homesteaders, Virginia men who had beaten across the mountains into Kentucky. They lined the firing steps now, a sprinkling of men and boys, stooped with weariness and stained with powder. The schoolhouse also served as a meetinghouse. To one side of it were eight fresh graves.

"If a man could break for Boone's Station—" the captain said slowly. "Boone's no man to be holdin' back. Frank Hale goes over the wall tonight, and God's hand with him. We're out of powder, Adams; maybe two loads to a man. So if they attack tonight it's all over. When I think about the children—"

Mr. Adams nodded. He was thinking perhaps it would be the last day at school. He had felt that before. Frank Hale would dare the forest for Boone's Station. He had never seen Boone, a mythical figure. But perhaps a man like Frank Hale, tall, lithe, with the cunning of an Indian—

He sighed. Heeny said, nodding at the door: "You might tell them something — not much." He walked away slowly. Across the common Mr. Adams saw Frank Hale, leaning on his rifle and talking to Maud Carter. Two rifles cracked on the firing steps; two loads less. Mr. Adams had thought of great things — an empire where a man of learning might be a man of destiny. Now it was almost over.

He went inside. He walked through to the front of the room and smacked his rule sharply against his desk. Martin Heeny was shrilling at the top of his lungs. I'll have to speak to his father, Mr. Adams thought. Yet would he? Did any of them realize it was the end?

"Silence — please!" Mr. Adams said. "Take your places."

They slid into seats. Sam Hardy had a devilish weapon, a willow wand with the soft core removed. He used it to pelt others with little pellets of clay, to create general disorder. But he was clever, and somehow Mr. Adams was never quick enough to see the wand in use. Now he found himself watching for it; he had been trying to make up his mind to give Sam a good hiding.

A rifle cracked, blurred through the walls. The children were silenced for a moment, looking at each other curiously — without fear but curiously.

A load less. Why did they waste powder? It was said that old Caleb never missed. There were still red forms at the forest's edge. Men fought. Some day these children—

There was a board of home-quarried slate; now Mr. Adams drew four vertical lines upon it. Teaching twenty-two children of various ages at the same time, he had to meet problems. He had gone to Harvard, and he loved to dream of how it had been there. A university like that in this land—

Over the first column he wrote: "Six to eight. 2 x 2, 3 x 3, 4 x 4. Add following: 4, 6, 93, 21." In the second column: "Eight to twelve. Give the dates of the Battle of Hastings; the—"

A sullen plop and a screech of pain. The class was chattering and laughing. He whirled to meet Sam Hardy's clear, innocent eyes. The willow wand was gone. Sadie Morris held up a clay pellet. She had tears in her eyes. The little savage! Mr. Adams strode down the aisle, and his rule cracked across Sam Hardy's knuckles. The face remained innocent, a trifle amused. All the whipping in the world could not destroy that; the same stuff as the men outside. Yet he had to instill respect; they didn't respect him: they were chattering like little animals.

He stilled them finally. At his last column; that was his love. Boys aged fourteen to sixteen. He believed in current events, in keeping them aware of the world without. He wrote: "Write a short paper describing the campaigns of the Continental Army in the past year."

They were out finally, like prisoners released. He hadn't told them it was the last day; he had been unable to do that.

Mr. Adams stood in front of the schoolhouse. He was only a few years over thirty, yet old. He had come into the wilderness with his dreams, yet here he was a schoolmaster in a besieged backwoods stockade. With twenty-two pupils.

He polished his spectacles. Maud Carter was coming toward him. Maud Carter was unmarried and lovely. With brown hair, brown eyes, and clear sun-tanned skin, she walked with the free stride of the land. She was twenty-three, and that was old already in a land where a woman could not be alone.

She stopped by him, and together they watched the children. He took pleasure in feeling her near him, her strength and assurance. He had talked to her about things he spoke of to no one else.

"Captain Heeny told you?" she asked him.

He nodded. "I was to tell them something, but I couldn't. Maybe it's better they don't know."

She said: "Frank's going to make a try for Boone's Station. I'm wondering how a man can know the wilderness — to dare. It's a mighty danger."

"Yes—"

She looked at him curiously, the tall thin man with the high brow, the dreamy, myopic blue eyes, the black homespun coat. Why had he come here? It was a land for men of strength.

Almost spitefully she said: "He asked me to marry him, before he went. He asked for a woman's hand to give him strength when he was alone in the forest."

Mr. Adams nodded, his eyes fixed upon her face. He could understand a woman wanting such a man. And with such a woman a man could fashion the world. He had dreamed of Maud Carter as his wife; he had fashioned countless speeches in his mind that would win her. With her beside him, he could be brave about what would come — even if the stockade were taken, he could be brave.

"You have nothing to say, Mr. Adams?" she demanded.

"He's a fine, strong man," Mr. Adams said.

"Some men are, Mr. Adams."

He said: "I'm sorry, Miss Carter."

That was defeat. She spun on her heel and walked away. Slowly, his long figure bowed, Mr. Adams crossed the common. It was late afternoon now. The guards on the western wall of the stockade were grim silhouettes. No sound from the forest, and beyond the green wall nothing moved. They had too much respect for the long rifles of the men on the firing steps. Yet they would attack again, and then it would be the end.

AS he walked, Mr. Adams received many cheerful greetings. He was well liked, and these people had an almost religious respect for learning; they realized it was the only barrier between themselves and the wilderness. Their cheerfulness was a strange thing; even now, when it was almost the end, they remained cheerful. Mr. Adams could see in them the seed of the future. When he thought that way, his skin rose in strange little prickles.

He came to a group of men who were gathered about Frank Hale. He was waiting for sunset, when he would go. Frank Hale, tall, lithe, eager, and unafraid, nodded to their terse advice. He was a boy of twenty-four. He stood there, nodding, smiling now and then.

"You'll find Boone a willing man." Heeny said, "a strong, willing man. You'll make haste, Frank. It ain't like we kin hold out—"

"I know. I'll run by night, like a heron flies." He was smiling and eager and sure.

"He's a cunning one," old Caleb said. "A rare cunning one."

Night came; now and again a bullet pattered into the logs that made a wall for the stockade. The guards paced on the firing steps, and their cries were sure and clear:

"All's well!"

Mr. Adams paced the inside of the wall, deep in his own loneliness. Ordinarily he would think of tomorrow's lesson, perhaps a lecture to all the class on the Declaration of Independence. He had read an account of it in a Boston newspaper. It was a fine document, and it had significance for the future. Ordinarily; yet — if they attacked tonight...

He saw Frank Hale standing with Maud Carter, whispering. He tried to turn away, but they saw him, and Hale flung his mocking smile after the schoolmaster. Mr. Adams could not hate the boy. If she loved him and he was going to his death? Mr. Adams walked on. Tired, there would be no sleep tonight. There would be no sleep for any one.

He stood on the firing step with others when Frank Hale was ready to go. He would go with Maud Carter's love. Hale stood there with his slim Pennsylvania rifle; he would fade into the night, and perhaps there would be help from Boone's Station in time. On the ground, Mrs. Hale, his mother, wept silently; other women tried to comfort her. Mr. Adams heard the hum of their voices. Then Hale dropped into the night.

After that, there was a terrible tenseness in the stockade. They were waiting—

There was a single shot, then others. There was a wild triumphant cry; no cry in the world vas like the cry of a red man in triumph.

Mrs. Hale wept openly. Captain Heeny strode back and forth, clenching and unclenching his hands. Old Caleb sobbed in agony.

Mr. Adams said: "You'll do something — surely?"

They shrugged their shoulders; there was nothing to do. They stood on the firing steps, staring out into the night.

Mr. Adams walked across the common; he was thinking he would go into the schoolhouse. In its quiet he might find something of himself again, prepare himself. In his mind there was only the picture of Hale — laughing, vibrant Hale — a man he wanted to hate and could not hate.

He saw Maud Carter. He would have avoided her now, but she came to him.

"Mr. Adams!" she cried. "Mr. Adams — they've taken him!"

He nodded. Did she think he didn't feel it? Did she imagine there was any one in the stockade who did not feel it? Because she loved him—

"Mr. Adams, can't they do something?"

"I'm afraid not. We have no ammunition. And if he's dead—"

"Dead? You would believe that?"

"What can we do?" he demanded helplessly.

"What cowards men are — to send him out there!"

"You love him," Mr. Adams said. He stared at her. In the night, she was a slim shadow of life, vibrant, the sort of life that had been Frank Hale. "I loved you," Mr. Adams said, the words pouring out of him. "I would have done anything for you. I would go out there, into the night — after him—"

Her mouth was open, her head nodding. She whispered: "I'm sorry — I was not meaning to put the blame upon you." She walked away then.

After that, he knew what he would do; hardly believed himself, yet knew what he would do. He wasn't afraid; as if it were entirely plausible that he should do this. He went to his cabin, found a hunting knife which he rarely used, and thrust it into his belt. He was no shot with a rifle, and a rifle would only get in his way.

HE mounted one of the firing steps. The guards were spaced evenly, quite near to him. It would be difficult, but the night was dark; that would help. Afterward, it didn't matter.

Waiting until the guards turned, he calculated the height of the stockade. The man near him was Moss Early. He said:

"Looks like all hell after Frank, Mr. Adams."

Mr. Adams nodded. He was nervous now. Was it fright? If they didn't give him a chance, would he go back?

Then the guards turned, and he slipped over the wall. A moment he hung by his hands, dropped then, landed awkwardly and sprawled on the ground. When he rose, there vas a sharp pain in his leg and his spectacles were lost; he couldn't look for them. He managed to run awkwardly toward the forest. The guard on the stockade bawled out something. He heard the words: "Poor fool—"

He was running, limping. Back there, they would be thinking that he had gone mad, mad entirely. He thought of going back.

He went on — more slowly now, taking a strange satisfaction out of the knowledge that he would not go back. He was nervous perhaps, but hardly afraid. He had no complete plan of action. If he could rescue Hale — or, if not, reach Boone's Station. That was a long distance through trackless forest; he was no woodsman.

The black edge of the forest loomed up. Mr. Adams hesitated. He went on, and the forest closed over him. Now he longed for the security of the stockade. Yet he went on.

He saw something in front of him. He saw something loom up — vague, dusky forms. Without his spectacles, they were only shadows. He attempted to fight, and wire fingers closed on his throat. He gasped, tried to scream. He felt the rank smell of many bodies close to him. His head reeled, and then the darkness was complete and all-pervading.

He came to himself in the light of a great fire about which were gathered many dark forms. They resolved themselves into Indians, most of them sleeping, some crooning a strange, weird song. There was a smell of burnt meat; half a roasted deer lay near him.

He sat up with difficulty. His hands were tied behind him, and his head ached. Near him, sitting with his back to a tree, bound too, was Frank Hale. There was a gash across his face, and dried blood. When he saw Mr. Adams, he smiled and nodded.

Beside Frank Hale, on a fallen log, sat two British officers, smoking pipes calmly, their legs crossed, their neat scarlet uniforms strangely out of place here. One was middle-aged, mustached; the other a clean-shaven subaltern. They nodded at him.

"A schoolmaster," the subaltern said.

Evidently Hale had told them.

Mr. Adams studied the officers curiously. They bore out a theory of his, that the wave of Indian attacks upon the frontier outposts were actually a campaign in the war. He had always insisted that the only salvation of the West was for the East to win the war. Perhaps they would listen to him now.

He asked with all the dignity he could muster: "What do you propose to do with us?"

"Take you back to Detroit."

MR. ADAMS was conscious that Hale watched him. He attempted to keep his voice from trembling. "You know that you are making war on women and children."

"Your stockade is an outpost of war," the subaltern smiled, knocking out his pipe.

"You have no mercy—"

"We'll leave that to you, schoolmaster. There's a long walk to Detroit and time to teach it."

Hale was smiling; he said: "Englishman, I wish these ropes were off."

"Perhaps — sometime."

They went into their tent. The fire burnt down. Most of the Indians lay on the ground now, sleeping.

Hale said: "Well, schoolmaster?"

Mr. Adams attempted to smile. Hale saw, and for once Mr. Adams imagined he saw a dawning respect in the boy's eyes. It was almost triumph.

"God help them — back there," Mr. Adams said.

"Why did you come?"

"I thought I might help. Miss Carter—"

"What of her?" Hale asked eagerly.

"She loves you," Adams forced himself to say. "I thought — for her—"

Hale laughed. Then, for along time, they sat in silence. The fire became a heap of glowing embers.

Hale said nothing. Mr. Adams dozed; his head ached; his throat pained him. He dozed, thinking vaguely of a lesson for tomorrow. He reflected upon the strangeness of tragedy — how one does not comprehend it until afterward. He thought of a historical study for his older pupils. He would draw an analogy — between Rome and England.

Opening his eyes, he saw that Hale was closer to him. Hale's lips formed a soft word. Mr. Adams blinked. Somehow, Hale was drawing his bound body over the ground. Mr. Adams noticed how the boy's muscles contorted with the effort, how the veins in his neck swelled out. Very close now; the fire barely threw a glimmer of light.

Then Hale's teeth fastened upon Mr. Adams' bonds. If some dusky painted figure were to leap up, fire point-blank? Mr. Adams could hear the frantic pumping of his own heart.

It seemed hours that he felt the crunching teeth. Hours — and it would be light soon. How did Hale have the strength to go on? He felt the boy's beard rubbing his skin.

Then his bonds had parted. His hands were numb, limp. He rubbed them, bent down and untied his feet. Hale's bonds took longer, because the boy's wrists were swollen. Hale whispered in his ear:

"Softly — follow me."

HE threaded a way through the camp. He walked with marvelous ease. Behind him, Mr. Adams was conscious of the noise of his own feet. Why didn't Hale go into the forest immediately?

They came to the other edge of the camp. The dark figures lay at Mr. Adams' feet.. Some snored. He was overcome by a wave of panic. His foot pained him. He had to limp, to make noise.

At the forest's edge were piled several ironbound casks. They bore the stamp of the British crown, and one, open, revealed a gray-black gritty powder.

Hale stooped, hoisted one of the casks on to his shoulders. Mr. Adams knew that even if he attempted it, he could not bear the weight of a cask back to the camp. He followed Hale as if in a dream. He followed the swaying cask on the broad shoulders.

At the gate of the stockade, Hale raised his voice and shouted. A shot rang out from the forest, a shrill, angry scream. The gate opened, and the two of them stumbled in. Then Mr. Adams lay on the ground, exhausted, while many men crowded about them.

Mr. Adams sat up; he would have to explain, yet he was unable to speak. Captain Heeny was there, repeating: "I never — I never seen the like of it."

Old Caleb said: "A schoolmaster— I wus never un fur learnin', but a schoolmaster!"

Mrs. Hale came running, sobbing and crying her praise to God at the same time. So quickly were the people of the stockade there that Mr. Adams guessed no one had slept. Maud Carter wept unashamed, but she didn't go to Frank Hale.

Captain Heeny whispered: "Gun-powder — a cask of powder— a thousand loads—"

Frank Hale was lying calmly. When Mr. Adams attempted to protest, he met Hale's mocking smile.

"All him," Hale said, his voice the slow Virginia drawl." He came along into camp, slit my bonds, and found the powder."

The women were giving thanks. Their voices rose in a hymn. Mr. Adams protested: "No — no, please—"

"He's too modest a man to admit to cunning," Hale drawled.

Mrs. Hale was clinging to his hand.

Old Caleb said: "It's a wonder for a schoolmaster."

"I'll sleep now," Mr. Adams said. "I'm tired—"

He walked to his cabin, followed by an admiring throng. Maud Carter, close to him, cried:

"Mr. Adams — please!"

He shook his head, said: "I'm tired, Miss Carter — if you'll pardon me."

He hardly saw her face, how it set, how she walked apart from the rest. He went on. His head ached. At the door to his cabin, they left him. Inside, he threw himself on his bed, fully dressed. His head was whirling. Hale had made a mockery of him. Maud Carter wished to thank him for saving the life of the man she loved. All a mockery—

He fell asleep thinking vaguely of his lesson for the morrow, a political and historical. lesson. The school would go on. He saw himself in his proper place, and then his dreams were nothing. Men would make the frontier, but he would remain a backwoods schoolmaster.

THAT way, he fell asleep, while all night long people in the stockade lauded his achievement, while Frank Hale drawled his praise, perhaps earnestly, while Maud Carter wept—

He slept restlessly. In the morning he missed his spectacles. While rifles covered the forest, one of the men slipped outside the stockade and found them in the grass. He was glad to have them back, to have the assurance again. He polished them carefully.

Captain Heeny came to him and said: "Reckon it's pretty near over, Adams. From what Hale says. they've had their bellyful. Another day or two, perhaps."

"I'll be grateful."

"Yer a modest man, but take what's due. How's the school?"

"Progressing — but some of the pupils—" He was thinking of Sam Hardy; if he only had the courage to give him the hiding he deserved!

He saw Maud Carter across the stockade; but she avoided his glance. Had Hale told her yet?

When he reached the schoolhouse most of the children were already inside. Sam Hardy was tardy, but even Sam Hardy walked quietly inside.

There was an ominous, respectful silence. For the first time since Mr. Adams had been teaching, he would be listened to, attended to. For the first time, he was a hero in their eyes, a strong man among strong men.

For that moment he had the pride and satisfaction and the happiness; for that moment, while his twenty-two children gazed at the backwoods schoolmaster in respectful, worshiping silence.

Then he saw Maud Carter step into the doorway, stand there watching him. Then he knew it was a mockery.

He took his place behind the desk, and he told them the actual story of the night before. He didn't spare himself; he tore himself down bit by bit, leaving only the picture of a frightened schoolmaster.

He saw Sam Hardy snicker. There were other smiles, a hum of talk. Frank Hale's brother laughed aloud.

He turned to his slate board and drew the four columns. Six to eight — addition, multiplication. Eight to twelve — long division—

A dull plop marked the work of the willow wand. The chalk dropped from his hand and he turned around. Maud Carter still stood in the doorway, her face very strange. Sam Hardy smiled his knowing smile, and the willow wand was gone.

Taking off his glasses, he wiped them nervously. He didn't wish to look at Maud Carter, yet his eyes were drawn to her. She had a sort of smile on her face.

HE put on his spectacles. He took up his rule, said, "Sam Hardy," thinking to himself, There's no other way than to give the boy a hiding.

Sam Hardy's innocent gray eyes were filled with a calm knowledge of his teacher. He had an instinctive knowledge of back-woods schoolmasters, how they were the same, their weaknesses. They were a breed he knew, and he was confidently superior.

Mr. Adams repeated: "Sam Hardy—" Then he faltered. This and the night before were too much. In Sam Hardy's eyes he saw himself.

Class dismissed," he said weakly. Then he sank down behind his desk, his face in his hand, while the children rushed out into the sunlight, whooping, screaming.

He sat there until Maud Carter was in front of him, Then he glanced up, nodded, and said: "I tried to tell them last night, Miss Carter. I had no wish to rob Hale's glory."

She whispered: "The glory is all yours—"

"I know what I am, Miss Carter."

"I know what you are, Mr. Adams," she said. "Before he went, I told Frank Hale I loved you. Then you went after him. You're a fool for knowing women, Mr. Adams, but you're the best and bravest man I know."

"A backwoods schoolmaster, Miss Carter—"

"I would be a backwoods schoolmaster's wife."

Then he rose, took her in his arms. Then his dreams were a real thing — a burning, real thing that would always be before him.

THE END


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