Too much praise cannot be awarded the brave-hearted girls who leave without a murmur their pleasant homes and agreeable companions and in answer to the call of duty or necessity, go forth alone into an untried world to take up the burdens and responsibilities of life. Friends at home never know what they suffer. If one real chapter from their lives, with all of its sorrows, temptations and unmentioned privations, could find its way to the happy firesides they have left, it would fill the doting parents' hearts with sadness. Regenia Underwood had few to regret her mishaps, or condole her sorrows. She was alone in the world, and a world, too, in which she was in many respects a stranger. Reared in an atmosphere of ease and refinement, she was illy prepared for the uncouth side of life she was so soon to enter. She was, of course, well educated. Without a thought of ever having any practical use for her education, she had finished the High and Normal school courses in the city of Mt. Clare. She never dreamed, when spending her six weeks in the "School of Practice," that stern necessity would some day demand an application of the knowledge attained. As she sat by the flickering wood fire, on the first night of her stay at Mrs. Landers', she ransacked her brain to recall any little scrap of theory concerning the first day in a new school, she had heard with indifference, if not with actual impatience. In vain she wished for some of her old notebooks, packed away in some dark closet at Mt. Clare, perhaps to be remembered, but never again to play any part in the real work of life. At last, by dint of hard, constant thinking, she managed to recall a few facts which would serve as a beginning, contenting herself with her partial preparation and relying on circumstances for future developments, she went to bed, to dream of schools of fretful children, stern trustees, and duties but indifferently performed, till the loud rapping of Mrs. Landers the following morning awakened her to meet her fate.
Her breakfast was not more than half finished when the door bell rang and the cheery voice and loud laugh of Mr. Foggs was heard in the front parlor. True to his promise, he was on hand to escort the new teacher to her school. To Regenia, Mr. Foggs, with all his kindness, had grown to be a somebody that she must tolerate, but could not esteem. His want of modesty, his coarse, unintentional familiarity filled her with a nameless dread. His exhibition of himself the evening before, concealed as it was by Mrs. Landers, had not escaped her sharp eyes. She was unaware, it is true, of the cause that had so transformed the man who had assumed a virtue, if he had it not, on the morning she first met him, but it was evident to her inexperienced eyes that Mr. Foggs was no better than he should be, considering the sacred office that he filled. She had therefore resolved to pursue his friendship no further than necessity compelled.
When she came down to the parlor prepared for school, she found Mr. Foggs impatiently awaiting her. He was conscious that his behavior the evening before was not of a nature to increase the new teacher's good opinion of him, and, therefore, he attempted to repair the supposed injury that his dignity had suffered by a liberal dose of politeness.
"Ah, good morning," he said, advancing to meet her and rubbing his hands expressive of his delight, "I hope you rested well and that you are in prime condition to wield the rod," he said, taking Regenia's hand and giving it another of those vise-like contractions that almost made her scream with pain.
"I am very well," she said, wincing with pain and extracting the ring that had buried itself in her tender flesh during the bear grasp that Mr. Foggs called handshaking.
"It is a beautiful day," he said as he opened the door. "One of those rare winter days that you never see in your climate."
And it was a beautiful day. The warm rays of the Southern sun fairly penetrated Regenia's heart as she walked along. As she listened to the incessant flow of Mr. Foggs' wagging tongue, she felt for such a day in January she could really feel happy, even in the company of Mr. Foggs.
"You have never been South, Miss Regenia?" he queried, as they walked along.
"Never before," replied Regenia.
"Then you have missed half your life. You will find us a broad-hearted, kindly disposed people, entirely different from what we are represented to be; entirely different," he added, repeating himself without apparent satisfaction.
"I should be very much surprised to find you other than kind. Hospitality is considered one of the cardinal virtues of southerners," Regenia ventured to say.
"Your school is over there," said Mr. Foggs, pointing toward the knoll, where Regenia could see a white building nestling among a clump of trees.
"How beautiful," she exclaimed. "It is not so far, after all," she thought. So busy had been her own thoughts that she had not observed the distance passed over.
"There are the children," she said, as she saw a number of little girls, bolder and less patient than the others running down the hill and across the foot-log to be the first to meet her. They stopped half afraid to come forward and greet her.
Regenia's woman's instinct immediately mastered the situation. She called out a pleasant good morning and taking each of them by the hand, she thanked them for being so thoughtful as to bring their greetings. The children answered never a word but walked back to the school, the fortunate ones holding her hands, while the others, with wide-eyed admiration, followed along behind.
A strange procession they made, the rotund, smooth-faced Mr. Foggs, the slender, refined girl, dressed in deep mourning, and the accompaniment of girls, of every color, age and size. As they reached the school, others came forward, boys and girls, some leading their little brothers or sisters, who hung back in awe of the new teacher. As they entered the school, Regenia was surprised to find every desk appropriated and the children sitting there as orderly as if the master had just stepped out, leaving them on their honor. Long before time to ring for the opening hour, she divined the cause of their phenomenal behavior. There were more pupils than desk room, almost two for one, and happy indeed was the pupil who by dint early rising had got there in time to seize and hold a desk. The less fortunate ones stood around the walls or seated themselves on the platform at the teacher's feet. When the bell tapped for order, those that could not find seats, crowded into the seats already occupied, to the discomfort, not so say disgust of the first possessors. Regenia did not know what to do. She gave her own chair to a disappointed little one who had had a seat in the beginning, but had been hustled out by some of the more aggressive. She cast her eyes at the chair held down by Mr. Foggs and inwardly measured the time that would have to elapse before she could give that to some of the children.
As the read the Twenty-third Psalm and looked out on the motley crowd of waiting children, she never before felt how precious were those simple words: "The Lord is my shepherd." Asking the children to rise, she bade them repeat after her the Lord's prayer. Solemn as the moment was to Regenia, she could not help noting that hand in hand go the sublime and ridiculous. Some of the children, in rising for prayers, kept one hand on the seat they had vacated in constant fear that some less devoted pupil would steal into it during the solemn moment. Others knelt—knelt on their seats and even then opened their eyes occasionally to make certain that they still held their own.
After the opening, Mr. Foggs blew his horn, and while he plastered Regenia with florid compliments, he did not fail to make plain the fact that she was there through the energy and forethought of Rev. Mr. Foggs.
Having finished his remarks, principally complimentary to himself, he left, after offering to call that evening and see that Miss Regenia found her way back home, an offer which Miss Regenia modestly but firmly declined. The exit of Mr. Foggs was a relief in more ways than one. In the first place, Regenia was anxious to secure his chair to seat a bright-eyed little boy who had been crowded off the platform and was sitting, with his bow legs doubled up under him, on the floor, the very picture of forlorn disappointment. In the second place, she was growing rather restless under the continual stare of so many pairs of eyes and wanted to begin work, but was not desirous of any company more critical than the children.
What to do first, she scarcely knew. It was evident that so many things were necessary that she hesitated where to begin. Finally as a sort of compromise between discordant intentions, she asked those who could read to come forward. According about half of the school rose as one man and made a rush for place in front of the platform. There was crowding and pushing, and tears and angry looks among the children that came forward, while those that were seated on the platform, at the teacher's feet, mostly small children, rolled themselves up like a spring curtain to save their toes from being trampled. Regenia smiled at the picture. She found on examination that there were almost as many grades and as many different kinds of readers as there were children. She separated them as best she could, putting them in temporary classes, according to size, and then, after seating part of them, finally succeeding in bringing a kind of order out of the chaos.
The children were eager to learn, for the most part kind and obedient, and in many a rough exterior, the teacher was not long in ascertaining that an angel slumbered. Books were the greatest hindrance to progress. Whole families had come to school, carrying, by turns, one book, the sole possession of four or five. The one book was expected to serve them all, irregardless of gradation. One little boy, a stranger to the intricacies of the alphabet, brought a dog-eared edition of the Old Testament. Who gave it to him or what he was expected to do with such a book was not apparent, but that he prized it highly was evident from the great care he took in keeping it constantly near at hand. No rollicksome game on the play ground could induce him to surrender for a moment the guardianship of that book—a lesson from which older and wiser heads might profit.
The first day had not ended before Regenia discovered that the poetry of the situation was every moment growing more prosaic. She saw before her nearly one hundred of raw nature's children; children coming from all kinds of environment; children whose little hearts, perchance, were to be for the first time thrilled by a gentle word; children that were unlovable, because they had never been loved. In their crude existence, she was for the first time to send a loving influence that would change their ideals, soften and subdue their hard lots, aye, prove the very savior of life unto life to many of them.
It was with a heavy heart that Regenia closed her school that day and slowly took her way down the hill, across the foot-log and set her face resolutely toward home. She indeed wondered if from these sad-eyed boys and girls trudging along at her heels she would ever be able to accomplish any lasting good. Comparing her school with the well ordered schools of her childhood, she had her serious doubts. She could not see, for the future is veiled, that forth from those surroundings would issue an influence whose power for good would water the barren places of time and tell in eternity. She little thought that sitting at her feet that day were boys whose noble lives would tell on the future, that from the lofty pinnacle to which some of those very children would rise, they would tell of her influence and bless and glory in the fact that she was born.
She stopped a moment in her reverie, and turning her thoughts from the school and its future, looked down the valley toward which the little stream was making its way, toward the black smoke of the Steel Plant. Flanking it on all sides stood row after row of shacks, as they are called—one-story frame houses stripped on the outside, unplastered and forming a refinement of the old quarters famous in slavery days. Here lived the parents of the children she was to teach. The houses for the most part contain two rooms and a loft, where the children, by the help of a ladder, climbed to sleep. Some of these houses were occupied by two families and not infrequently contained a boarder or two besides. The workmen came from every part of the state where colored men had opportunity to engage in skilled labor. It is useless to say that such environments and such a place, especially in its formative period, is a very hot bed of ignorance and vice. Hardly a night passed that forth from the low dives that were everywhere prevalent, some human being was not ushered, shot or cut to death. Whisky never more certainly performed the work of its fell master, the devil, than among these hard working Negroes on the outskirts of Grandville.
Before she had been many weeks a teacher, the children insisted that Regenia accompany them to their homes and meet their parents. She soon learned to move in and out among the rough crowds that stood about the doors of the shacks with as much confidence that she would be kindly received as if she had been at her own home. It was noticeable how the loud talk was subdued, and with what politeness the greatest swaggering bully about the furnace lifted his hat when Regenia passed by. In short her amiable disposition and unostentatious kindness soon made her the idol of the children's parents as well as of the children.
About a month after her arrival in Grandville, as she turned the corner on her way home from school one evening, she came face to face with Dr. Leighton. She knew him instantly, but hoping he had not recognized her mumbled out an excuse and hurried on.
"I have been up to your boarding house, Regenia, and had started out to meet you," said the doctor pleasantly.
Regenia, being cleverly caught, turned and spoke to him. "What in the world ever brought you here, of all places?" he said, friendly extending his hand, which she pretended not to see.
"I am winning my way as a teacher. What are you doing?" she interrogated in sharp contrast with his friendly greeting.
"This is my old home. I came to see my folks and also to look after you," he said laughingly. "You dropped out of the world so suddenly last December that finding you again comes in the nature of a resurrection."
"I am contented and well employed, and while I thank you for your solicitation, I am in no pressing need of a guardian," she said, giving the door bell a sharp jerk.
Mrs. Landers, came hurriedly to the door to ascertain who rang so imperatively. Seeing it was only Regenia, she lifted her eyes indicative of surprise, but spying Dr. Leighton, remarked, "Oh, it is you, doctor, come in."
If Regenia had thought to escape Dr. Leighton by taking refuge in Mrs. Landers' boarding house she was not long in discovering her mistake. Frank Leighton was better acquainted with this "most excellent woman" than Regenia ever would be, if she spent the remainder of a long life in her company. The doctor, therefore, not in the least abashed, entered, closed the door, talked as long as he desired, and after signifying his intention to call often, took his departure.
Chapter 17 -- Chapter 19