The Bringing-Out of Byra Klack
THERE were frivolous young teachers at Jefferson School who never gave their scholars a thought after school-hours; but Miss Hickerson, of the Eighth Primary, was not of them. She was as proud of the progress of Hattie Klack at 10 P. M. as at 10 A. M., and as ready to consider seriously the problem of Byra Klack’s backwardness.
Some teachers in her place would have felt that the problem resolved itself into how to get rid of a pupil who threatened to become a permanency in the Eighth Primary, but not so with Miss Hickerson. Hers was a purely altruistic and professional concern at the failure of Byra Klack to advance as became her years; a concern wholly unshared by Byra Klack herself.
“ How can I draw her out ? ” she would ask Mr. Dresser, the principal.
With the care of something like eight hundred other pupils upon him, — including a considerable percentage of poor scholars, — Mr. Dresser would willingly have been excused from minute consideration of Byra Klack’s case.
“ There will always be some like that,” he would say, pardonably enough regarding Byra Klack, whom he did not know by sight, categorically rather than personally.
If he had known her by sight, it is at least doubtful whether his interest would have been materially increased. An undersized girl of fourteen, shabby of clothes and rather tousled of hair, she was in no way conspicuous in the ranks of the Eighth Primary except for somewhat longer skirts, poor scholarship, and blameless deportment. Hattie, on the other hand, was always to the fore, acquitting herself of every task with dazzling distinction, and frantically signaling eagerness to tackle supernumerary problems.
It was currently reported in Eighth Primary circles that Hattie Klack was Miss Hickerson’s “ pet; ” and, as a matter of fact, twenty-five years of teaching in the public schools had deepened rather than diminished Miss Hickerson’s appreciation of a good pupil. That she was still capable of earnest endeavor in behalf of one so poor as Byra argued her, what in truth she was, no ordinary woman.
“There is simply nothing to take hold of,” she would confide to Mr. Dresser; “ not a spark of ambition — or anything ! ”
“ You’ll just have to do the best you can,” Mr. Dresser would pronounce, in default of any more definite counsel. As if there could be any doubt of her doing her best!
Certainly she had done her best for Byra Klack, enforcing every penalty made and provided for poor scholarship, exhausting every incitement to good —including appointment to the honorable position of Collector of Papers. This last move she subsequently considered ill-advised. The small concern which Byra Klack had hitherto manifested as to her scholastic standing dwindled to the vanishing point.
“ No, I did n’t get through,” she would say cheerfully, after a “ test,” in answer to inquiries, — “ but I took up the papers ! ”
Hardly more successful was Miss Hickerson’s attempt to prod her slumbering ambition with the splendid example of Hattie. Not yet eleven, Hattie had caught up with her in the Eighth Primary and was reasonably sure to pass her.
“Hattie’s caught up with me,” Byra would tell people, overflowing with pride in Hattie’s powers. “ Hattie never has missed promotion yet.” And Hattie would volubly confirm the statement.
“ And she’s nearly as tall as me, too,” Byra would add. “ Soon she’ll be bigger ’n me! ”
That Hattie should surpass her in everything, even in the matter of inches, she obviously accepted as the most natural thing in the world.
Quite unabashedly, she got Hattie to help her with her lessons, and congratulated herself on the feasibility of doing so; Hattie, with dresses to her knees, and a mouth showing disproportionately large new teeth protruding in unexpected places, conceding the service with no lack of buoyant patronage.
The first mark on deportment that Byra got that session she incurred by her eagerness to communicate to a friend the news of an exceptionally brilliant achievement of Hattie’s. The lines were forming in the hallways to march out to recess, and the Eighth Primary pupils were thus in close contiguity to the Sixth Grammar.
“ Hattie got ninety-seven! ” she seized the opportunity to announce to Herbert Hokpins.
“ What did you get ? ” he inquired in a gruff whisper. It was not an ill-natured gruffness, but one which went with the downiness of his freckled face. Herbert Hopkins was not as old for the Sixth Grammar as Byra Klack was for the Eighth Primary, but he was old.
“ I ain’t going to tell you,” she said, with a jerk of her shabby, gray-cloaked shoulder.
But the monitor had her name down, and after recess, when it was read out, she laid her head down on her desk and wept.
Subsequently it developed that his name had been taken down too.
“ But that wa’n’t nothing,” he said.
Habitually, Herbert Hopkins declined to submit to the trammels of formal grammar. A certain roughness and readiness of diction was but suitable to one who had seen so much of life — in consequence of being put to work by a drunken grandmother, his only relative, at the earliest age eligible to unregulated childlabor; and who, at that very time, enjoyed the dignity of being employed after schoolhours in a green-grocery. It was the one, as it happened, upon which the Klacks bestowed their not particularly welcome patronage. Byra had got to know him by being sent there on errands, and she appreciated to the full the honor of the acquaintance.
Actually, he did n’t have to bring excuses to school for absence or anything ! — because, the drunken grandmother being dead, he had n’t anybody to write them. It was a unique distinction, making emphatically for respect, though he himself took it modestly. There was in him no disposition to boast of his advantages; not even of living alone in a little room back of the green-grocery, completely his own master in the small remnant of the day which remained after school and business hours, and on the whole of Sundays.
There was about him a manly carelessness which made him almost venerable in the eyes of Byra, despite the fact that he was nearly as short for his age as she was for hers. It was, though, with him, a very sturdy brevity.
“ That wa’n’t nothing,” he said of the demerit. “ It takes fifty to expel you.”
His way and hers lay along the same narrow, hilly side street. It was not a prosperous section of the city, and the back views of premises are not apt to be the best; particularly under the sallow afternoon light of a November day.
“ The only thing is,” he added, “ I have n’t got no time to be kept in.”
“ I reckon dinner’ll be all over when I get home,” Byra remarked with her customary placidity. Not to be on hand at dinner, in the Klack establishment, might well mean more than a cold meal, — or rather somewhat less, — there were so many mouths to feed! For a married daughter and her family shared the not too abundant space in the Klack home; while common to son-in-law and fatherin-law was a chronic difficulty in finding and keeping “ places,” to the serious disturbance of systematic provision for the joint housekeeping expenses.
“ I won’t have time for no dinner,” Herbert remarked — not as boasting. It was simply not in human nature not to bring out the fact of such pressure of occupation — merely as a fact. “ You don’t have time for nothing much, staying in a green-grocery. ’T was ’most eleven last Saturday night before we shut up.”
He whistled slightly to add to the offhand effect of his words.
“ Two of my sisters stay in stores,” Byra remarked. “ They come home awful tired sometimes.”
She was glad she could contribute something to a topic so much above the level of her own experience. Not that she felt any imperative need of keeping up the conversation. It would have seemed to her entirely fitting that she should receive with mere passive gratitude such verbal crumbs as he should throw her over his shoulder, as he walked homeward half a pace ahead of her, at the width of the pavement.
“ I dunno but what I’ll have a greengrocery of my own, some o’ these days,” he let fall, with admirable indifference.
With speechless respect, Byra received the announcement. Already he wore cuffs on Sundays. No superiority of destiny upon his part could have surprised her.
“ Hattie says she’s going to be a schoolteacher,” she said, with a dim impulse to match glories. “ Hattie ’most never is kept in! ”
“ Being kept in ain’t nothing,” said Herbert. He picked up a pebble, aimed it with accuracy at a cat reposing peacefully on a shed-roof, and discharged it with telling effect. “I’d just soon been kept in to-day as not.”
“’T ain’t so awful bad,” Byra agreed. Even the disgrace of a mark on deport ment was enormously alleviated by sharing it with one who could take it with such high distinction of bearing.
The street sloped upward. Notoriously hill-climbing should be done with a certain measure of deliberation. Therefore it was, no doubt, that instead of using to the full the advantage of his manly stride, he kept unincreased the distance between them, going on just a little ahead, at the extreme verge of the sidewalk, his books slung over his shoulder by the encompassing strap.
“ I reckon the books are awful hard in the Sixth Grammar,” Byra said, gazing deferentially upon his burden.
“ They are pretty hard, if you don’t have no time, hardly, to study,” he conceded, with manifest pride of preoccupation.
“ Hattie gets her lessons awful quick,” said Byra. “ Hattie can do denominate numbers! ”
“ Denominate numbers! ” said Herbert. “ Denominate numbers ain’t nothing. You got to be doing denominate numbers all the time in a green-grocery! ”
Never in all her acquaintance with him had she enjoyed so extended a conversation; their intercourse, indeed, except that incidental to the purchase and vending of green-groceries, having been limited to cordial interchanges of “ Hello, Byra! ” and “ Hello, Herbert! ” though it is true that in his professional capacity he had always shown a friendly interest by no means warranted by the anxiety of his superiors for the Klack patronage. He positively would not allow her to buy frost-bitten potatoes or wilted greens or doubtful eggs. Nay, he even gave her what snatches of instruction he might, in the hurried moments at his disposal, in the eternal principles of green-grocery selection. “ Pick out kind o’rough eggs,” for example, he adjured her earnestly. “ Slick eggs ain’t no good! ”
Much as she appreciated his professional consideration, his personal condescension was more. Putting from her eyes the filaments of neutral-tinted hair, blown out from the abundant mass under the faded red felt hat, she looked about her with a feeling of expansion. The unkept-ins were at play in the streets.
“ Hattie can beat everybody hopscotching,” she said.
He made no pretense of interest in Hattie’s hop-scotching; but she had expected none in that, or any other subjeet which she might introduce. She spoke but from the fullness of her content in the honorable comradeship which was, for the nonce, vouchsafed to her.
“ Hazel’s cutting another tooth,” she hazarded again. “ It makes her cry a lot; but she’s awful cute! ”
“ Who’s Hazel? ” he demanded.
“ Hazel’s my sister’s baby. She ain’t but ten months old, and she can say bish and coo-coo, and a whole lot o’ things. I mind her when I’m at home, and I’m making her a dress at school, in sewing lessons. Only Miss Hickerson says she don’t know whether I can go on with sewing lessons, I do so awful poor in arithmetic and things.”
“ Shucks!” he said. “ Arithmetic and things ain’t nothing! You beat ’em on some things all right! ”
Unaffected astonishment reigned upon Byra’s face.
“ I don’t reckon I’ll get a certificate on deportment,” she said, “ now I’ve got this demerit.”
“ Certificates on deportment ain’t nothing,” he said. “ I wa’n’t talking about no deportment.”
“ I can sew some,” she recommenced — “ but not so awful good.”
“I ain’t talking about no sewing! ” he rejoined.
She was too nonplussed even for a further guess at his meaning.
“ What’s the matter with being the prettiest girl at Jefferson School?” he said.
Hattie, triumphantly hop-scotching in the street, greeted her with friendly derision as she approached the undesirable residence, forlornly in need of paint, which sheltered the Klack and Pinner families — or overflowed with them into the surrounding area.
Ain’t worth a dollar ! ”
chanted Hattie with shrill exuberance from among the juvenile friends and connections swarming upon the uneven brick pavement.
The keenness of Byra’s sensitiveness upon the subject of being kept in might well have become blunted by the familiarity of the experience; and yet, so goaded, she was accustomed to grow red and tearful, and tacitly plead for mercy. To-day she went on through the front gate, unmoved.
“ Being kept in ain’t nothing,” she said, with spirit and idiom alike superb and alike surprising.
Being kept in, I repeat, had always been a common incident in her school career, on account of the weakness of her scholarship. It became more common than ever when the impeccability of her deportment departed, and her name began to figure with frequency in the monitor’s fatal list.
“ It takes fifty demerits to expel you! ” she said, in answer to Hattie’s scathing commentary upon the growing imperfection of her record.
Every day when the lines were forming to march out to the stirring strains evoked by Miss Jones of the Kindergarten Department from the cabinet organ at the head of the central stairway, there came from the Sixth Grammar ranks the splendid temptation of a “ Hello, Byra! ” How could she refrain from an answering “ Hello, Herbert ” ? It was not possible for the monitor always to catch one in the reckless act. When she did, she was very apt to put down both names. Duly Byra would decline her head upon her desk and cry — but the subsequent walking home together was not unpleasant.
The dress of Hattie, as has been remarked, was to her knees, Byra’s was almost to her shoe-tops. Otherwise they were the same, except as chance differences were introduced in the utilization of cast-off dresses of the older sisters, who, working in stores, were precluded from shabbiness.
In the public schools there was perfect liberty to be shabby; and there was this advantage in that, among others — if Byra and Hattie had not been so shabby all the week they could not possibly have had the right “ dressed-up ” feeling on Sundays. Nevertheless, Byra, without consultation with Hattie, began suddenly to wear her Sunday dress to school. Nor could she give any reason for the innovation. When pressed by Hattie for an explanation, she could only say that she did it “ just so.”
From Mrs. Klack, who bore up under her many cares through a disposition which took care lightly, no opposition was to be looked for. Constitutionally indulgent, she was perfectly willing for Byra to wear what she pleased when she pleased; the more so, as Byra’s wardrobe was a perfectly fixed quantity, and the wearing-out of her Sunday dress entailed consequences to no one but herself.
Despite Byra’s lapse from the high perfection of her former standard of conduct, Miss Hickerson began to be encouraged.
“ She is beginning to get some ideas of neatness and order,” she told Mr. Dresser; “ and she really is learning denominate numbers, at last. I can’t help thinking that hitherto she has been perfectly satisfied with getting a deportment certificate, and that her losing all chance of that — though why she has fallen back in deportment so, I can’t imagine — has been a blessing in disguise.”
It was a case unique in her pedagogical experience; reminding her in a shadowy way of that of Donatello in the Marble Faun.
Always she had had an illogical liking for Byra. She was glad to embrace any opportunity of encouraging her.
“ You get on very well with denominate numbers, now, Byra,” she said kindly.
Byra looked up with animation from her example. For the first time Miss Hickerson noticed the clear green-gray of her eyes, the low curve of her dun eyebrows, the way her dun hair grew upon her forehead, the faint young bloom of her cheeks.
“ You have to do denominate numbers all the time in a green-grocery,” she said, with a spontaneous application of the subject to practical life which at once pleased and astonished her teacher.
Passing the green-grocery on her way to and from school, it was no wonder that the thought of it was familiar to her mind. It was not a very splendid greengrocery, but, really, with trays of oranges and apples set out on one side of the door, winter vegetables on the other, plumply nude fowls garnishing the entrance, there was something about it not unattractive, even to the passer-by.
For the mere sake of long acquaintance, it was but natural that Byra should look in as she passed; the more so as she no longer went in. The strained relations between the Klack-Pinner household and the management had culminated in a decisive break, and all her errands now in quest of supplies lay in the direction of a rival store. Personally she had not been involved in the unpleasantness, nor had Herbert Hopkins. Both had been at school when an order from her family — transmitted through the oldest Pinner — had been dishonored, and the youthful emissary sent back, empty-handed, bearing a message more curt than courteous. The next day, Byra held her head down, when the lines were forming to march out at recess, and did not respond to Herbert’s “ Hello, Byra! ” though the monitor was not even looking, and Miss Jones was playing the organ with the loudest stops pulled out. But she need not have been ashamed. So elaborately he demonstrated his entire ignorance of the affair, — abstaining even from any comment upon the cessation of her visits to the establishment, — that insensibly her ease with him returned. Once more the perilous exchange of “Hello, Byra!” and “ Hello, Herbert! ” in the hallway was a purple patch upon the day of each.
Then, suddenly, it ceased. The Sixth Grammar line which had known Herbert Hopkins, for the time being knew him no more. And through the school percolated the news that Herbert Hopkins was “ suspended,”
“ For fighting,” Hattie could add, with her usual unctuous superiority of information.
It was not strange, as I have said, that Byra should glance into the familiar recesses of the green-grocery as she went by; but there was small chance of the issuance of a “Hello, Byra!”—the green-grocery existence of Herbert Hopkins, when he was not, with professional deftness, doing denominate numbers, being passed, as a rule, with his nobler half engulfed in the depths of potato, apple, and other barrels. Sometimes, though, he withdrew his head in the nick of time; for example, on the Friday following his retirement from school, when she was going by, with Hattie, in the morning.
The customer to whom he was selling turnips poked him with her umbrella.
“ I have n’t got time for you to be staring into the street! ” she said, with asperity.
On Sunday, in all the glory of cuffs of the largest purchasable size, he was standing as usual on the pavement in front of the church with the other “ fellows,” when the congregation broke up. As the Klacks and Pinners straggled homeward, — the older girls with their respective beaus, Hattie with a flock of her contemporaries,— Byra lagged in the rear, accommodating herself to the short steps of the next-to-the-youngest Pinner, who had remained over from the infant class to the church services, to the considerable disturbance of the congregation. In a casual way, Herbert caught up with her.
“I s’pose you’ve heard about me being suspended,” he said.
She would have liked to tender her sympathy; but it was hard to find words adequate to the crushing occasion.
“Yes, I’ve heard,” she answered in awe-stricken tones.
“ Being suspended ain’t nothing,” he said. And he seemed to mean it. He had the effect almost of being tall, as he walked beside her, at the width of the pavement — so high he held his head. “ I beat him good — and I’d do it again. I ain’t going to have nobody writing your name up on walls.”
“ Writing my name up on walls ? ” she queried blankly. “ What’s anybody writing my name up on walls for ? ”
“It’s about me — about me loving you,” he said. “ And it’s all right about that. Only it ain’t none o’ Joe Garber’s business; and shan’t nobody write up your name on a wall! ”
Hattie, skipping up behind from an excursion part way home with a friend, caught an imperfect fragment of the conversation.
“My name’s been on the blackboard five weeks,” she remarked. “ Byra don’t never get on the Roll of Honor.”
“ The Roll of Honor ain’t nothing,” said Herbert. Hattie had skipped on.
“ Seems like,” he said, “ ain’t nothing nothing to me — but just you! ”
Hattie was very bright, unquestionably; but it was not until she perceived that Herbert was actually walking with Byra up to her own gate, — the gate upon which Hattie at that good moment was engaged in swinging, — that her fine intelligence really took hold of the case.
The instant he left, came her question.
“ Herbert Hopkins is your sweetheart, ain’t he ? ” she demanded, her face illumined with characteristic greediness for knowledge.
Byra turned toward the house.
“ I don’t know,” she said absently. Not that there was any shadow of doubt in her own mind — but little girls can’t expect to be told everything.