Study Guide

Far Away and Long Ago

by W. H. Hudson

Far Away and Long Ago eText - Chapter XVIII - The New Schoolmaster

Chapter XVIII - The New Schoolmaster

Mr. Trigg recalled--His successor--Father O'Keefe--His mild rule and love of angling--My brother is assisted in his studies by the priest-- Happy fishing afternoons--The priest leaves us--How he had been working out his own salvation--We run wild once more--My brother's plan for a journal to be called The Tin Box--Our imperious editor's exactions--My little brother revolts--The Tin Box smashed up--The loss it was to me.

The account of our schooling days under Mr. Trigg was given so far back in this history that the reader will have little recollection of it. Mr. Trigg was in a small way a sort of Jekyll and Hyde, all pleasantness in one of his states and all black looks and truculence in the other; so that out of doors and at table we children would say to ourselves in astonishment, "Is this our schoolmaster?" but when in school we would ask, "Is this Mr. Trigg?" But, as I have related, he had been forbidden to inflict corporal punishment on us, and was finally got rid of because in one of his demoniacal moods he thrashed us brutally with his horsewhip. When this occurred we, to our regret, were not permitted to go back to our aboriginal condition of young barbarians: some restraint, some teaching was still imposed upon us by our mother, who took, or rather tried to take, this additional burden on herself. Accordingly, we had to meet with our lesson-books and spend three or four hours every morning with her, or in the schoolroom without her, for she was constantly being called away, and when present a portion of the time was spent in a little talk which was not concerned with our lessons. For we moved and breathed and had our being in a strange moral atmosphere, where lawless acts were common and evil and good were scarcely distinguishable, and all this made her more anxious about our spiritual than our mental needs.

My two elder brothers did not attend, as they had long discovered that their only safe plan was to be their own schoolmasters, and it was even more than she could manage very well to keep the four smaller ones to their tasks. She sympathized too much with our impatience at confinement when sun and wind and the cries of wild birds called insistently to us to come out and be alive and enjoy ourselves in our own way.

At this stage a successor to Mr. Trigg, a real schoolmaster, was unexpectedly found for us in the person of Father O'Keefe, an Irish priest without a cure and with nothing to do. Some friends of my father, on one of his periodical visits to Buenos Ayres, mentioned this person to him-this priest who in his wanderings about the world had drifted hither and was anxious to find some place to stay at out on the plains while waiting for something to turn up. As he was without means he said he would be glad of the position of schoolmaster in the house for a time, that it would exactly suit him.

Father O'Keefe, who now appeared on the scene, was very unlike Mr. Trigg; he was a very big man in black but rusty clerical garments. He also had an extraordinarily big head and face, all of a dull, reddish colour, usually covered with a three or four days' growth of grizzly hair. Although his large face was unmistakably, intensely Irish, it was not the gorilla-like countenance so common in the Irish peasant- priest--the priest one sees every day in the streets of Dublin. He was, perhaps, of a better class, as his features were all good. A heavy man as well as a big one, he was not so amusing and so fluent a talker out of school as his predecessor, nor, as we were delighted to discover, so exacting and tyrannical in school. On the contrary, in and out of school he was always the same, mild and placid in temper, with a gentle sort of humour, and he was also very absent-minded. He would forget all about school hours, roam about the gardens and plantations, get into long conversations with the workmen, and eventually, when he found that he was somewhat too casual to please his employer, he enjoined us to "look him up" and let him know when it was school-time. Looking him up usually took a good deal of time. His teaching was not very effective. He could not be severe nor even passably strict, and never punished us in any way. When lessons were not learned he would sympathize with and comfort us by saying we had done our best and more could not be expected. He was also glad of any excuse to let us off for half-a-day. We found out that he was exceedingly fond of fishing--that with a rod and line in his hand he would spend hours of perfect happiness, even without a bite to cheer him, and on any fine day that called us to the plain we would tell him that it was a perfect day for fishing, and ask him to let us off for the afternoon. At dinner time he would broach the subject and say the children had been very hard at their studies all the morning, and that it would be a mistake to force their young minds too much, that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and so on and so forth, and that he considered it would be best for them, instead of going back to more lessons in the afternoon, to go for a ride. He always gained his point, and dinner over we would rush out to catch and saddle our horses, and one for Father O'Keefe.

The younger of our two elder brothers, the sportsman and fighter, and our leader and master in all our outdoor pastimes and peregrinations, had taken to the study of mathematics with tremendous enthusiasm, the same temper which he displayed in every subject and exercise that engaged him--fencing, boxing, shooting, hunting, and so on; and on Father O'Keefe's engagement he was anxious to know if the new master would be any use to him. The priest had sent a most satisfactory reply; he would be delighted to assist the young gentleman with his mathematics, and to help him over all his difficulties; it was accordingly arranged that my brother was to have an early hour each morning with the master before school hours, and an hour or two in the evening. Very soon it began to appear that the studies were not progressing smoothly; the priest would come forth as usual with a smiling, placid countenance, my brother with a black scowl on his face, and gaining his room, he would hurl his books down and protest in violent language that the O'Keefe was a perfect fraud, that he knew as much of the infinitesimal calculus as a gaucho on horseback or a wild Indian. Then, beginning to see it in a humorous light, he would shout with laughter at the priest's pretentions to know anything, and would say he was only fit to teach babies just out of the cradle to say their ABC. He only wished the priest had also pretended to some acquaintance with the manly art, so that they could have a few bouts with the gloves on, as it would have been a great pleasure to bruise that big humbugging face black and blue.

The mathematical lessons soon ceased altogether, but whenever an afternoon outing was arranged my brother would throw aside his books to join us and take the lead. The ride to the river, he would say, would give us the opportunity for a little cavalry training and lance- throwing exercise. In the cane-brake he would cut long, straight canes for lances, which at the fishing-ground would be cut down to a proper length for rods. Then, mounting, we would set off, O'Keefe ahead, absorbed as usual in his own thoughts, while we at a distance of a hundred yards or so would form in line and go through our evolutions, chasing the flying enemy, O'Keefe; and at intervals our commander would give the order to charge, whereupon we would dash forward with a shout, and when about forty yards from him we would all hurl our lances so as to make them fall just at the feet of his horse. In this way we would charge him a dozen or twenty times before getting to our destination, but never once would he turn his head or have any inkling of our carryings-on in the rear, even when his horse lashed out viciously with his hind legs at the lances when they fell too near his feet.

We enjoyed the advantage of the O'Keefe regime for about a year, then one day, in his usual casual manner, without a hint as to how his private affairs were going, he said that he had to go somewhere to see some one about something, and we saw him no more. However, news of his movements and a good deal of information about him reached us incidentally, from all which it appeared that during his time with us, and for some months previously, Father O'Keefe had been working out his own salvation in a quiet way in accordance with a rather elaborate plan which he had devised. Before he became our teacher he had lived in some priestly establishment in the capital, and had been a hanger- on at the Bishop's palace, waiting for a benefice or for some office, and at length, tired of waiting in vain, he had quietly withdrawn himself from this society and had got into communication with one of the Protestant clergymen of the town. He intimated or insinuated that he had long been troubled with certain scruples, that his conscience demanded a little more liberty than his church would allow its followers, and this had caused him to cast a wistful eye on that other church whose followers were, alas! accorded a little more liberty than was perhaps good for their souls. But he didn't know, and in any case he would like to correspond on these important matters with one on the other side. This letter met with a warm response, and there was much correspondence and meetings with other clerics-Anglican or Episcopalian, I forget which. But there were also Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Methodist ministers, all with churches of their own in the town, and he may have flirted a little with all of them. Then he came for his year of waiting to us, during which he amused himself by teaching the little ones, smoothing the way for my mathematical brother, and fishing. But the authorities of the church had not got rid of him; they heard not infrequently from him, and it was not pleasant hearing. He had come, he told them, a Roman Catholic priest to a Roman Catholic country, and had found himself a stranger in a strange land. He had waited patiently for months, and had been put off with idle promises or thrust aside, while every greedy pushing priest that arrived from Spain and Italy was received with open arms and a place provided for him. Then, when his patience and private means had been exhausted, he had accidently been thrown among those who were not of the Faith, yet had received him with open arms. He had been humiliated and pained at the disinterested hospitality and Christian charity shown to him by those outside the pale, after the treatment he had received from his fellow-priests.

Probably he said more than this: for it is a fact that he had been warmly invited to preach in one or two of the Protestant churches in the town. He did not go so far as to accept that offer: he was wise in his generation, and eventually got his reward.

Our schoolmaster gone, we were once more back in the old way; we did just what we liked. Our parents probably thought that our life would be on the plains, with sheep and cattle-breeding for only vocations, and that should any one of us, like my mathematical-minded brother, take some line of his own, he would find out the way of it for himself: his own sense, the light of nature, would be his guide. I had no inclination to do anything with books myself: books were lessons, therefore repellent, and that any one should read a book for pleasure was inconceivable. The only attempt to improve our minds at this period came, oddly enough, from my masterful brother who despised our babyish intellects--especially mine. However, one day he announced that he had a grand scheme to put before us. He had heard or read of a family of boys living just like us in some wild isolated land where there were no schools or teachers and no newspapers, who amused themselves by writing a journal of their own, which was issued once a week. There was a blue pitcher on a shelf in the house, and into this pitcher every boy dropped his contribution, and one of them--of course the most intelligent one--carefully went through them, selected the best, and copied them all out in one large sheet, and this was their weekly journal called The Blue Pitcher, and it was read and enjoyed by the whole house. He proposed that we should do the same; he, of course, would edit the paper and write a large portion of it; it would occupy two or four sheets of quarto paper, all in his beautiful handwriting, which resembled copper-plate, and it would be issued for all of us to read every Saturday. We all agreed joyfully, and as the title had taken our fancy we started hunting for a blue pitcher all over the house, but couldn't find such a thing, and finally had to put up with a tin box with a wooden lid and a lock and key. The contributions were to be dropped in through a slit in the lid which the carpenter made for us, and my brother took possession of the key. The title of the paper was to be _The Tin Box,_ and we were instructed to write about the happenings of the week and anything in fact which had interested us, and not to be such little asses as to try to deal with subjects we knew nothing about. I was to say something about birds: there was never a week went by in which I didn't tell them a wonderful story of a strange bird I had seen for the first time: well, I could write about that strange bird and make it just as wonderful as I liked.

We set about our task at once with great enthusiasm, trying for the first time in our lives to put our thoughts into writing. All went well for a few days. Then our editor called us together to hear an important communication he wished to make. First he showed us, but would not allow us to read or handle, a fair copy of the paper, or of the portion he had done, just to enable us to appreciate the care he was taking over it. He then went on to say that he could not give so much time to the task and pay for stationery as well without a small weekly contribution from us. This would only be about three-halfpence or twopence from our pocket-money, and would not be much missed. To this we all agreed at once except my younger brother, aged about seven at that time. Then, he was told, he would not be allowed to contribute to the paper. Very well, he wouldn't contribute to it, he said. In vain we all tried to coax him out of his stubborn resolve: he would not part with a copper of his money and would have nothing to do with The Tin Box. Then the Editor's wrath broke out, and he said he had already written his editorial, but would now, as a concluding article, write a second one in order to show up the person who had tried to wreck the paper, in his true colours. He would exhibit him as the meanest, most contemptible insect that ever crawled on the surface of the earth.

In the middle of this furious tirade my poor little brother burst out crying. "Keep your miserable tears till the paper is out," shouted the other, "as you will have good reason to shed them then. You will be a marked being, every one will then point the finger of scorn at you and wonder how he could ever have thought well of such a pitiful little wretch."

This was more than the little fellow could stand, and he suddenly fled from the room, still crying; then we all laughed, and the angry editor laughed too, proud of the effect his words had produced.

Our little brother did not join us at play that afternoon: he was in hiding somewhere, keeping watch on the movements of his enemy, who was no doubt engaged already in writing that dreadful article which would make him a marked being for the rest of his life.

In due time the editor, his task finished, came forth, and mounting his horse, galloped off; and the little watcher came out, and stealing into the room where the Tin Box was kept, carried it off to the carpenter's shop. There with chisel and hammer he broke the lid to pieces, and taking out all the papers, set to work to tear them up into the minutest fragments, which were carried out and scattered all over the place.

When the big brother came home and discovered what had been done he was in a mighty rage, and went off in search of the avaricious little rebel who had dared to destroy his work. But the little rebel was not to be caught; at the right moment he fled from the coming tempest to his parents and claimed their protection. Then the whole matter had to be inquired into, and the big boy was told that he was not to thrash his little brother, that he himself was to blame for everything on account of the extravagant language he had used, which the poor little fellow had taken quite seriously. If he actually believed _The Tin Box_ article was going to have that disastrous effect on him, who could blame him for destroying it?

That was the end of The Tin Box; not a word about starting it afresh was said, and from that day my elder brother never mentioned it. But years later I came to think it a great pity that the scheme had miscarried. I believe, from later experience, that even if it had lasted but a few weeks it would have given me the habit of recording my observations, and that is a habit without which the keenest observation and the most faithful memory are not sufficient for the field naturalist. Thus, through the destruction of the Tin Box, I believe I lost a great part of the result of six years of life with wild nature, since it was not until six years after my little brother's rebellious act that I discovered the necessity of making a note of every interesting thing I witnessed.