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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 indom itable 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 outside.
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 doubt.
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 spell ing; 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 nothing."
"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 McRae 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.
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 succeed.
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.
"Parallelopiped!" challenged Hughie to Ranald, who met it easily, giving Margaret "hyphen" in return.
"H-y-p-h-e-n," spelled Margaret, and then, with cunning carelessness, gave Thomas "heifer." ("Hypher," she called it.)
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."
From the Trade Paperback edition.