The Cent School
EUNICE SWAIN, the old woman who kept it, lived alone in a little old house, in which men and women of her blood had lived ever since one of them had built it with long labor and patience and sober pride in its paneling, and mahogany, and cunningly curved brick fireplaces. It had been a fine house then, and a big one; now it was like a little shrunken gentlewoman, who keeps her refinement of speech, and her gentle ways, though frowning fortune denies her daintiness of dress and living. It sheltered adequately its present owner; some day she would die, and be buried, and the old house would be torn down, or made over to suit the fancy of some one who could not bear with its limitations. Eunice Swain remembered when it was full and running over with happy children, her brothers and sisters, dressed in Quaker gray, and speaking the speech of the Friends. Those eager boys and girls were all gone now, along the sea-path, into the world, and whether their journeying had ended in an ocean grave, or a sheltered chimneycorner, at least they had never come back to her again. She too came of generations of seafaring folk; she too had the hunger of the sea in her blood, that will not let people sleep in their beds for thinking of distant skies and strange, untrodden shores; but fate, which holds temperament in an iron hand, had kept her fast to the island, and she had never seen farther into the world than one might see from the tower of the South Church, or the scuttle of her own old house. When the leaves were off the trees one could see quite a bit of sea from there, and maybe a sail, which might as well as not be bound for the other side of the world, as in the old heroic days of wind and weather and whales.
A Cent School is so called because the children who come to it bring each one a cent, clutched tightly in a little hand, or knotted in the corner of a handkerchief, a daily offering. If the cent is forgotten, or lost on the way, the child goes home for another, that is all, and has a scolding for carelessness into the bargain. The littlest children go to it — used to go, rather, for indeed this should all be in the past tense rather than the present, the Cent School being a thing of the past and, as one might say, a great-aunt of the present kindergarten, an old woman from the country, who is rather plain in her ways. Eunice Swain would have thought a kindergarten foolishness. Her children did not come to school to be amused, but to work. She put them on benches in her big kitchen, because it was warm there, and sat in the dining-room door, and taught them, or chastised them, as the spirit bade her. She taught the three R’s, and manners, and truth-telling, and above all, humility, impressing on these infants, daily, that they belonged to a generation, not of vipers exactly, but of weaklings.
“ Thee will never be what thy grandfather was, Zenas Macy,” cried Eunice Swain to a freckled atom with sea-blue eyes. “ He owned his ship, and made seven voyages round the world. And what is thee! ”
The atom wriggled uneasily on his bench. What indeed!
“ Mary ’Liza Hussey, say nine times. Thee can’t! Say seven times. Thee can’t! Thy great-aunt, ’Liza Mary, was at the head of the arithmetic class when I went to school.”
Mary ’Liza looked at her teacher unabashed, having heard at home that she was a queer old woman. She would have liked to be impertinent but dared not, for fear of consequences, immediate and tangible consequences, that smarted. So she held her tongue and was presently given a sum that had to do with so many barrels of sperm oil on one wharf, and so many on another, to be added together correctly in the space of five minutes. And again she longed to speak her scorn, for any child knew that there were no longer barrels of sperm oil on any wharf, but was afraid and did her sum, or did it not — deponent saith not further.
Eunice Swain had a good many children at her school, because it was cheap, and disposed safely of little children who could not go anywhere else. They came in long straggling procession at half-past eight every morning, up the street, and round the corner to the kitchen door (being forbidden to come any other way, except on snowy or rainy days, when they could come in by the front door, because it was nearer), and were sent along a highway of newspapers to their appointed place. The hall was lined with shelved closets, full of china, into which the children peered fearfully, as they went by. Some of them had heard their parents say that Eunice Swain was selling her old things to Off Islanders to get money enough to live on, and they told the others and discussed it in whispers at recess time; but none of them believed it. They did not see how any one who got all those pennies every morning could need any more money. She used to put them on a table by her side, and the children counted them with sly glances; sometimes there were as many as twenty-five, or twenty-six. If she needed more money than that she must be mean — just mean.
There were other closets in the house of the Cent School: one very deep one in the big chimney, where rusks were kept, rusks being massive buns of a sweet and clinging disposition, like the ideal woman. Some people said they were “ filling,” but the sobbing little boys and girls who were led to the closet and soothed and fed found no fault with them, save that she never gave them all they wanted, because she was mean, and kept them to eat herself. She must have missed every morsel of food out of her meagre living, but she gave nevertheless, with an open-handed generosity; it was a family trait, that had never had much honor in its own country even in the old, rich days. The Meeting frowned on lavishness. Those clear-eyed, Spirit-seeking Quakers loved money, and came out of visions of God in his Glory to drive hard bargains with the widow and the orphan; all quite simply and sincerely, believing that they were serving God. They predicted destitution for Captain Swain’s children, to the third and fourth generation. If they were let to look down out of heaven, they must have been satisfied with their prophetic gift, seeing the straits of Eunice Swain. She had no rest from care all day, brushing straws of gain together to make her a wisp of livelihood, counting her pennies with an anxious eye, taking down and showing and selling Nankin and Canton and Lowestoft, cup by cup, and plate by plate, ripping and cleaning and piecing old gray gowns, that, being cobbled and worn, made her look like Rumpelstiltskin’s wife. Little she cared, defiant, valorous old woman that she was, though mothers of children, looking from the window, said, “ Look at Eunice Swain! Is n’t she a sight ? I don’t know as I ought to send the children to an old witch like that.”
The children of the Cent School outgrew it in a year or two, generally, and went elsewhere, and other little children came in their places, and straggled up the narrow street, and fidgeted on the old benches, and comported themselves in all ways as their predecessors had done. They were perennially young, but Eunice Swain was older, and smaller, and more bent than ever. With a handkerchief tied around her head because of draughts, she sat in the doorway, with her table and her pennies and a stinging switch, and taught them forcibly, and held them with a strong hand, for she was the remnant of a mighty race. It is not on record that any of the children ever loved her, save one, maybe, but they felt her strength, and bent before that, rather than before a switch held in a shaking old hand, which could not alarm such tough little sea-urchins as they.
Some of the children she had taught were men and women by now, and looked back upon her rule, through a softening mist of years, not unkindly. Zenas the atom, for example, was a right personable young fellow, a carpenter by trade, in spite of his family traditions. Sometimes he brought a bundle of shingles up under his arm, and patched Eunice Swain’s old roof for her. She would watch him, standing half out of the scuttle, with an old spy-glass in her hand.
“ Take care thee does n’t fall, Zenas. It’s a steep slope.”
“ I won’t fall, Miss Eunice. I’ve got the rope fast to your big chimney. See! I’ve taken mine out. It cost something, but Mary ’Liza was afraid it mought fall, and they ’re big ugly things anyway; see ? I’m doing real well; I could afford it.”
“ Thee does n’t follow the sea, Zenas.”
Zenas hammered vigorously. “I made a couple v’yages on the Abel W., and I been to Boston on the William P., but I give it up. Carpenterin”s better business, see, with these Off Islanders buyin’ houses and throwin’ out porches or bathrooms, or whatever. I like it, see, and I’m doin’ real well. Sight anything in the Sound, Miss Eunice?”
Eunice Swain had the spy-glass fixed on the distant streak of sea. “ One of those big schooners they build down in Maine — beating south’ards. A sixmaster, I make her. Has thee ever seen one near by, Zenas ? That would be a fine sight.”
“ Give me a hold of the glass,” said Zenas, forgetting that he was a carpenter by trade. “ Beatin’ south’ards, so she be.”
He looked long and earnestly, shut the glass together with a sigh, and handed it back.
“Yes, I’ve seen ’em to Boston. ’T is a pretty sight — a pretty sight — the vessels in a big town.” Zenas looked at his hammer distastefully. “ I’m goin’ scallopin’ some this winter,” he said suddenly and quite violently, as if some one had said he should not. “ See! How’s school gettin’ on, Miss Eunice ? ”
“ Not quite as many as there used to be when thee was small, Zenas.”
“ No,” said Zenas, still violently, “ there ain’t. There ain’t as many children in this town as there used to be. People don’t have ’em the way they use to, see! Nor they ain’t the same kind of children when they do have ’em. If I had a boy like these boys I see round the streets here, I’d kill him.” Zenas stopped and blushed, being a New Englander, and a newly married man. He ripped off several shingles and threw them to the yard below. “ I’ll pick ’em up for you before I go; good kindling,” he said gruffly. “ If you should ever feel like selling that glass, Miss Eunice, I’d give you as much for it as any one would. It’s a handy thing to have in the house — a good glass.”
“ I was thinking I’d try to keep the glass, Zenas,” said Eunice Swain, quite gently, “ but if I cannot — I’ll remember that thee wants it — thank thee. Will thee shut the scuttle and make it fast to the steps when thee finishes, Zenas?”
“ Sure,” said Zenas, beginning to hammer furiously.
Eunice Swain crept down the heavy, clumsy steps into the attic. The added light from the open scuttle made the chalk writings on the beams stand out clearly: “Sailed, Ship Fortune; Sighted, Brig Dinah; Lost, with all hands, the Mary; Never heard from, Schooner Good Will,” each with its accompanying date; chronicles that still last, though the hands that wrote them are forgotten dust, and the good ships rot beneath the deep sea. She read them over, slowly, leaning forward, then crept on down two more flights to the little south chamber, where she slept.
Zenas the younger was born some six months after this conversation, a puling infant. Four fleet years made him into a square-headed, square-shouldered little boy, freckled and impudent, through the laws of heredity and by no fault of his own. No questioning pangs of humility troubled his heart; more even than most children was he convinced of the supreme unwisdom of those who had given him being, and who for that most insufficient reason claimed the right to mould his life according to their foolish wills. That he should sit in a Cent School on a sunshiny September day seemed to him no part of the Infinite Purposes, and he had lagged and loitered on the way until it was long past the hour when school begins; yet when at last he sat on the end of a bench, swinging his square legs, he was the first child there. In his hand he held an apple, that his mother had given him to appease him, with an accompanying whisper: “ Never mind! I guess she’ll let you go home, when she sees how ’t is, but your pa says you got to go.”
He had despised her for wanting to appease him, but he had taken the apple, nevertheless, and now sat, eating it, with large, resentful bites, as if it had been his father.
“ When school takes in, thee must n’t eat apples, Zenas,” said Eunice Swain kindly.
Zenas nodded, not because he agreed with her, but because speech was abhorrent to him when he was eating.
“ Thee’s never been to school before ? ”
Zenas nodded again.
“ The other little children are very late. Thee must never be late to school, Zenas.”
Zenas had finished his apple. He spoke — slowly: “They ain’t comin’. They ain’t nobody comin’ but me.”
Eunice Swain did not answer him. She sat very still, looking at the empty benches, without seeming to see them.
“ I guess I’ll go home,” said Zenas distinctly.
Eunice Swain’s black eyes snapped; she tightened the handkerchief on her head, as a knight might look to the clasp of his helmet before the battle.
“ If thee is the only one, Zenas, then I shall have more time to give thee, which will be good for thee. Stand up, Zenas!”
Something in Zenas’s square head told him to stand up.
“ Does thee see this letter ? This is the letter A. Say A, Zenas.”
And Zenas, standing respectfully, said, “ A.”