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Mark Twain > Adventures Of Tom Sawyer > Chapter XXI

Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

Chapter XXI


VACATION was approaching. The schoolmaster, always severe, grew
severer and more exacting than ever, for he wanted the school to make a
good showing on "Examination" day. His rod and his ferule were seldom
idle now--at least among the smaller pupils. Only the biggest boys, and
young ladies of eighteen and twenty, escaped lashing. Mr. Dobbins'
lashings were very vigorous ones, too; for although he carried, under
his wig, a perfectly bald and shiny head, he had only reached middle
age, and there was no sign of feebleness in his muscle. As the great
day approached, all the tyranny that was in him came to the surface; he
seemed to take a vindictive pleasure in punishing the least
shortcomings. The consequence was, that the smaller boys spent their
days in terror and suffering and their nights in plotting revenge. They
threw away no opportunity to do the master a mischief. But he kept
ahead all the time. The retribution that followed every vengeful
success was so sweeping and majestic that the boys always retired from
the field badly worsted. At last they conspired together and hit upon a
plan that promised a dazzling victory. They swore in the sign-painter's
boy, told him the scheme, and asked his help. He had his own reasons
for being delighted, for the master boarded in his father's family and
had given the boy ample cause to hate him. The master's wife would go
on a visit to the country in a few days, and there would be nothing to
interfere with the plan; the master always prepared himself for great
occasions by getting pretty well fuddled, and the sign-painter's boy
said that when the dominie had reached the proper condition on
Examination Evening he would "manage the thing" while he napped in his
chair; then he would have him awakened at the right time and hurried
away to school.

In the fulness of time the interesting occasion arrived. At eight in
the evening the schoolhouse was brilliantly lighted, and adorned with
wreaths and festoons of foliage and flowers. The master sat throned in
his great chair upon a raised platform, with his blackboard behind him.
He was looking tolerably mellow. Three rows of benches on each side and
six rows in front of him were occupied by the dignitaries of the town
and by the parents of the pupils. To his left, back of the rows of
citizens, was a spacious temporary platform upon which were seated the
scholars who were to take part in the exercises of the evening; rows of
small boys, washed and dressed to an intolerable state of discomfort;
rows of gawky big boys; snowbanks of girls and young ladies clad in
lawn and muslin and conspicuously conscious of their bare arms, their
grandmothers' ancient trinkets, their bits of pink and blue ribbon and
the flowers in their hair. All the rest of the house was filled with
non-participating scholars.

The exercises began. A very little boy stood up and sheepishly
recited, "You'd scarce expect one of my age to speak in public on the
stage," etc.--accompanying himself with the painfully exact and
spasmodic gestures which a machine might have used--supposing the
machine to be a trifle out of order. But he got through safely, though
cruelly scared, and got a fine round of applause when he made his
manufactured bow and retired.

A little shamefaced girl lisped, "Mary had a little lamb," etc.,
performed a compassion-inspiring curtsy, got her meed of applause, and
sat down flushed and happy.

Tom Sawyer stepped forward with conceited confidence and soared into
the unquenchable and indestructible "Give me liberty or give me death"
speech, with fine fury and frantic gesticulation, and broke down in the
middle of it. A ghastly stage-fright seized him, his legs quaked under
him and he was like to choke. True, he had the manifest sympathy of the
house but he had the house's silence, too, which was even worse than
its sympathy. The master frowned, and this completed the disaster. Tom
struggled awhile and then retired, utterly defeated. There was a weak
attempt at applause, but it died early.

"The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" followed; also "The Assyrian Came
Down," and other declamatory gems. Then there were reading exercises,
and a spelling fight. The meagre Latin class recited with honor. The
prime feature of the evening was in order, now--original "compositions"
by the young ladies. Each in her turn stepped forward to the edge of
the platform, cleared her throat, held up her manuscript (tied with
dainty ribbon), and proceeded to read, with labored attention to
"expression" and punctuation. The themes were the same that had been
illuminated upon similar occasions by their mothers before them, their
grandmothers, and doubtless all their ancestors in the female line
clear back to the Crusades. "Friendship" was one; "Memories of Other
Days"; "Religion in History"; "Dream Land"; "The Advantages of
Culture"; "Forms of Political Government Compared and Contrasted";
"Melancholy"; "Filial Love"; "Heart Longings," etc., etc.

A prevalent feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted
melancholy; another was a wasteful and opulent gush of "fine language";
another was a tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words
and phrases until they were worn entirely out; and a peculiarity that
conspicuously marked and marred them was the inveterate and intolerable
sermon that wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every one
of them. No matter what the subject might be, a brain-racking effort
was made to squirm it into some aspect or other that the moral and
religious mind could contemplate with edification. The glaring
insincerity of these sermons was not sufficient to compass the
banishment of the fashion from the schools, and it is not sufficient
to-day; it never will be sufficient while the world stands, perhaps.
There is no school in all our land where the young ladies do not feel
obliged to close their compositions with a sermon; and you will find
that the sermon of the most frivolous and the least religious girl in
the school is always the longest and the most relentlessly pious. But
enough of this. Homely truth is unpalatable.

Let us return to the "Examination." The first composition that was
read was one entitled "Is this, then, Life?" Perhaps the reader can
endure an extract from it:

"In the common walks of life, with what delightful
emotions does the youthful mind look forward to some
anticipated scene of festivity! Imagination is busy
sketching rose-tinted pictures of joy. In fancy, the
voluptuous votary of fashion sees herself amid the
festive throng, 'the observed of all observers.' Her
graceful form, arrayed in snowy robes, is whirling
through the mazes of the joyous dance; her eye is
brightest, her step is lightest in the gay assembly.

"In such delicious fancies time quickly glides by,
and the welcome hour arrives for her entrance into
the Elysian world, of which she has had such bright
dreams. How fairy-like does everything appear to
her enchanted vision! Each new scene is more charming
than the last. But after a while she finds that
beneath this goodly exterior, all is vanity, the
flattery which once charmed her soul, now grates
harshly upon her ear; the ball-room has lost its
charms; and with wasted health and imbittered heart,
she turns away with the conviction that earthly
pleasures cannot satisfy the longings of the soul!"

And so forth and so on. There was a buzz of gratification from time to
time during the reading, accompanied by whispered ejaculations of "How
sweet!" "How eloquent!" "So true!" etc., and after the thing had closed
with a peculiarly afflicting sermon the applause was enthusiastic.

Then arose a slim, melancholy girl, whose face had the "interesting"
paleness that comes of pills and indigestion, and read a "poem." Two
stanzas of it will do:

"A MISSOURI MAIDEN'S FAREWELL TO ALABAMA

"Alabama, good-bye! I love thee well!
     But yet for a while do I leave thee now!
    Sad, yes, sad thoughts of thee my heart doth swell,
     And burning recollections throng my brow!
    For I have wandered through thy flowery woods;
     Have roamed and read near Tallapoosa's stream;
    Have listened to Tallassee's warring floods,
     And wooed on Coosa's side Aurora's beam.

"Yet shame I not to bear an o'er-full heart,
     Nor blush to turn behind my tearful eyes;
    'Tis from no stranger land I now must part,
     'Tis to no strangers left I yield these sighs.
    Welcome and home were mine within this State,
     Whose vales I leave--whose spires fade fast from me
    And cold must be mine eyes, and heart, and tete,
     When, dear Alabama! they turn cold on thee!"

There were very few there who knew what "tete" meant, but the poem was
very satisfactory, nevertheless.

Next appeared a dark-complexioned, black-eyed, black-haired young
lady, who paused an impressive moment, assumed a tragic expression, and
began to read in a measured, solemn tone:

"A VISION

"Dark and tempestuous was night. Around the
throne on high not a single star quivered; but
the deep intonations of the heavy thunder
constantly vibrated upon the ear; whilst the
terrific lightning revelled in angry mood
through the cloudy chambers of heaven, seeming
to scorn the power exerted over its terror by
the illustrious Franklin! Even the boisterous
winds unanimously came forth from their mystic
homes, and blustered about as if to enhance by
their aid the wildness of the scene.

"At such a time, so dark, so dreary, for human
sympathy my very spirit sighed; but instead thereof,

"'My dearest friend, my counsellor, my comforter
and guide--My joy in grief, my second bliss
in joy,' came to my side. She moved like one of
those bright beings pictured in the sunny walks
of fancy's Eden by the romantic and young, a
queen of beauty unadorned save by her own
transcendent loveliness. So soft was her step, it
failed to make even a sound, and but for the
magical thrill imparted by her genial touch, as
other unobtrusive beauties, she would have glided
away un-perceived--unsought. A strange sadness
rested upon her features, like icy tears upon
the robe of December, as she pointed to the
contending elements without, and bade me contemplate
the two beings presented."

This nightmare occupied some ten pages of manuscript and wound up with
a sermon so destructive of all hope to non-Presbyterians that it took
the first prize. This composition was considered to be the very finest
effort of the evening. The mayor of the village, in delivering the
prize to the author of it, made a warm speech in which he said that it
was by far the most "eloquent" thing he had ever listened to, and that
Daniel Webster himself might well be proud of it.

It may be remarked, in passing, that the number of compositions in
which the word "beauteous" was over-fondled, and human experience
referred to as "life's page," was up to the usual average.

Now the master, mellow almost to the verge of geniality, put his chair
aside, turned his back to the audience, and began to draw a map of
America on the blackboard, to exercise the geography class upon. But he
made a sad business of it with his unsteady hand, and a smothered
titter rippled over the house. He knew what the matter was, and set
himself to right it. He sponged out lines and remade them; but he only
distorted them more than ever, and the tittering was more pronounced.
He threw his entire attention upon his work, now, as if determined not
to be put down by the mirth. He felt that all eyes were fastened upon
him; he imagined he was succeeding, and yet the tittering continued; it
even manifestly increased. And well it might. There was a garret above,
pierced with a scuttle over his head; and down through this scuttle
came a cat, suspended around the haunches by a string; she had a rag
tied about her head and jaws to keep her from mewing; as she slowly
descended she curved upward and clawed at the string, she swung
downward and clawed at the intangible air. The tittering rose higher
and higher--the cat was within six inches of the absorbed teacher's
head--down, down, a little lower, and she grabbed his wig with her
desperate claws, clung to it, and was snatched up into the garret in an
instant with her trophy still in her possession! And how the light did
blaze abroad from the master's bald pate--for the sign-painter's boy
had GILDED it!

That broke up the meeting. The boys were avenged. Vacation had come.

NOTE:--The pretended "compositions" quoted in
this chapter are taken without alteration from a
volume entitled "Prose and Poetry, by a Western
Lady"--but they are exactly and precisely after
the schoolgirl pattern, and hence are much
happier than any mere imitations could be.

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