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In My Youth by  James Baldwin
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CHARITY AND PATIENCE

[411]

O
NE afternoon, upon returning from the lower deadening with a pair of young oxen which father had given me, I overtook Cousin Mandy Jane in the act of creeping down the barnyard bars. She had a basket of freshly dug potatoes on her arm, and I noticed that her hair was liberally greased and smoothly plastered over her forehead, and that she wore her newest gingham apron—sure signs of visitors.

"Well, who's come now?" I inquired, holding the nigh steer by his stumpy little horn.

"Oh, Robert thee cain't never guess," was the excited reply. "Hurry and unyoke the steers, and then I'll tell thee who they are and all about 'em."

I drove my little oxen into the barnyard, and in another minute, had loosened the yoke from their patient necks and turned them into the lane to graze the short grass in the fence corners.

"Now tell me," I demanded, growing impatient.

"Thee cain't never guess who it is," responded the palpitating young woman, her eyes twinkling and her front teeth showing broad between her thin lips.

"I don't want to guess," I answered tartly. "Thee promised to tell me, and thee must."

"Well then, it's Charity and Patience, if thee must know;" and she gave way to one of those rare, in- [412] imitable tee-hees which she usually held in reserve for occasions of great importance.

"Charity and Patience! Who's Charity and Patience?"

"Why, hain't thee heard? They're then two twin school-teachers that Isaac Wilson brung with him all the way from Filly Delfy when he was down there last month. They've come over to see if they cain't git a chance to teach a school somewhere round her; and they're settin' in the house right now. Isaac Wilson, he brung 'em over from Dashville in his spring wagon, and the he driv away ag'in, goin' round toward Duck Creek. But them there twins, I reckon they'll stay at our house a right smart spell—leastwise till they find out about them schools they want to git."

She rattled this speech off in breathless haste, glancing uneasily around as though fearful of being overheard.

"What do they look like, Cousin Mandy Jane?" I asked, apprehensive and in a mood that was nowise friendly to the strangers who had thus intruded themselves into our household.

"Oh, thee'll see," and her tone was somewhat reassuring. "Thee might take ary one of 'em for t'other, 'cause they're jist as nigh alike as two beans in the shell. Thee cain't never tell which to call Charity and which to call Patience."

"Well, I'm sure I'll never want to call 'em at all," I answered despondently. I was beginning to wonder how I could manage to endure the ordeal of meeting with strangers who, having come so vast a distance, must be so very strange indeed.

"If I was thee, Robert," advised Cousin Mandy Jane, [413] "I'd go and slick up a bit, and try to look nice and clean afore thee shows thyself to sich quality folks." And with that, she hastened down to the spring branch, to wash her potatoes in the flowing stream.

Feeling that her counsel was altogether proper and sensible, I followed her, keeping myself well concealed behind the currant bushes and the fence, lest spying eyes from the house might see me in my unpresentable state. The slicking-up process consisted of a thorough washing of face, hands, and feet in the pellucid waters of the branch, and careful dampening of my shock of towy hair, which somehow would never stay smooth or respectable. This being accomplished, I looked at the reflection of myself in nature's mirror, and felt ashamed. And Inviz, who now seldom came except to upbraid me, whispered over my shoulder:

"You're a pretty looking sight for quality folks to look at—shirt collar without a button—only one gallus to hold your britches up—both knees with patches on them—and a big patch on your behind. Why, you look just like a scarecrow in the corn-field, and—"

And just then, my dear Leonidas, a great terror seized hold of me and my heart stood still; for I heard footsteps and low voices behind me, and felt sure that I was in the dread presence of the twin teachers. Doubtless they had caught sight of me from the cabin door, and had come down to the spring branch to surprise me. Escape there was none, and soon, with trembling limbs I turned about and faced my doom.

The twins advanced trippingly, their faces beaming with good nature, their hands extended to grasp my own. They seemed not at all like my fancy had painted them. [414] Half my terror vanished instantly, and before a word had been spoken I felt as though we were already on fast and friendly terms with each other.

"And so this is Robert Dudley, isn't it?" said one.

"Isn't it?" echoed the other.

"How does thee do?" inquired the first.

"How does thee do?" repeated the second.

And to my renewed confusion, two pairs of hands seized upon me at the same moment, and two faces were bent so near to my own that I was filled with direst terror lest their owners should be moved to kiss me.

"My name is Charity," said one.

"My name is Patience," said the other.

"We saw thee coming down the pathway, and we thought we would follow thee and get acquainted," remarked Charity.

"Get acquainted," echoed Patience, and she squeezed my fingers till they ached.

Then before I had time to recover myself or to think once about being a scarecrow or any other inferior creature, the sisters began asking questions regarding dozens of things which were very commonplace and foolish, but which must have seemed to them truly interesting. They asked about the tall cattails that grew so rank near the other side of the branch and were then at their best; and they talked of the beauty of various other plants that I had always regarded as ugly weeds; and nothing would do but they must tuck up their dresses and run a race with me to pick a bunch of blue flowers which they had espied half-way across the orchard.

Returning to the spring-house, they must needs ask me all about the milk in the crocks, and the cream that we skimmed off the top of it, and how we churned butter, [415] and what we did with the buttermilk, and how the cheese press was operated; and they did all this inquiring so innocently and with such a show of ignorance that I began to think they were not school-teachers at all, but a pair of guileless creatures who knew nothing about common things, and were themselves very much in need of being taught. True, they looked intelligent; and they were dressed in store clothes and wore white collars with ribbon bows in front, and they talked very "proper," and spoke of books as though they knew somewhat about them. Moreover, they were not in the least stuck up, but seemed just like common folks, very plain and very well-behaved in all respects. What a pity that their lives had hitherto been cast in the crowded pent-up city!

After we had exhausted the spring-house and the spring branch and everything else that was in sight, we walked across the orchard, past the peach trees now laden with ripening fruit, and past the old ash hopper and the soap kettles—and there I had to pause for a while and explain all the mysteries of making lye and boiling soft soap; and finally we came to a halt at the barnyard bars, where the sisters were content to remain a while to gaze at the world of animated nature just beyond.

First, they admired the long rows of martins' nests under the eaves of the barn; and I had to explain the difference between a martin and a swallow, and describe the habits peculiar to each. Then they looked at the ducks and geese that were waddling and cackling around the barnyard; and the ignorance which they displayed concerning these most necessary fowls was truly astounding. Next, the hens and the lordly rooster became the subjects of comment and rapturous admiration, and the [416] fattening pigs in their narrow enclosure evoked many an exclamation of urban delight. Finally, one of the twins caught sight of my pair of steers strolling in the lane, and her curiosity immediately became manifest.

"See there, Charity!" she exclaimed. "See those beautiful cows just over there in that narrow street!"

"Those beautiful cows!" responded the sister.

"Yes, those beautiful cows! Of all the wonderful animals that were created for man's benefit and delight, I think that the cow is the most lovely, the most useful, and the most necessary."

"Most useful and most necessary," interrupted the other.

"Now just look at those two meek-eyed creatures nipping the luscious grass by the roadside. Think, sister, how that grass will be converted into wholesome, nourishing, foaming milk—perhaps for our breakfast to-morrow morning, or perhaps to be churned into butter for our bread when we are hungry. Did thee ever see anything so worthy of admiration?"

"Worthy of admiration?"

"Now, these two cows seem very small, and their horns are short, thus indicating that they are quite young."

"Quite young."

"But, Robert, am I not right in supposing that they already give a goodly quantity of milk?"

"A goodly quantity of milk?" echoed Charity; and both looked at me as though expecting reply.

I explained, as delicately as I could, that the two meek-eyed creatures were not cows but young oxen, and that I had been breaking them to draw loads and do light work in the clearing. I informed the, moreover, that [417] milk was not usually obtained from young oxen but from their mothers.

"Their mothers, sister Charity!"

"Yes, the young oxen have mothers, sister Patience. Only think of it."

"Only think of it! We've often read about oxen, but these are the first we have ever seen. I suppose the dear creatures know thy voice when thee speaks to them?"

"Yes," I replied, and to demonstrate the fact, I cried out, "Whoa haw, Dan! Git ep!" and instantly the red steer left off his grazing and turned into the road.

"Well, isn't that wonderful!" exclaimed both the sisters at once. "What was the name thee called her by?"

"I called him Dan; but his full name is Daniel Webster, 'cause we never know on which side of the fence we'll find him.

The sisters laughed, but whether in derision or approbation I was by no means sure.

"What is the other one's name?" asked Patience.

"We call him Hen for short," I answered. "His full name is Henry Clay, 'cause he don't ever want to be president."

There was another ripple of laughter, and I turned my face away, feeling certain that I had said something very foolish and improper; but there was some relief in the thought that I had learned it all from father.

"What funny names thee has for thy pets!" said Charity.

"Yes, what funny names!" echoed Patience.

And then, to my unbounded relief, Cousin Mandy Jane came running to inform the twins that supper was on [418] the table and the victuals were impatiently waiting for their attendance. "The biscuits will all git cold if you don't hurry in and eat 'em," she urged. And so, the two strangers tripping away at her behest, I was released from further services as their guide.

I waited at the gate until they had disappeared in the cabin, and then I sauntered down the lane, communing sweetly with Inviz.

"Charity and Patience! What funny names, and what funny women! I like them, don't thee? They are so common and so kind, and more than that they are so ready to learn things."

"Yes," answered my playmate, "they are simply great. They are as funny as Cousin Sally, and not a bit more stuck up. But oh, how green they are, not to know a duck from a goose, or a steer from a cow!"

"Well, they will soon learn about such things," I said apologetically. "City folks can't be expected to know everything."

"No, nor school-teachers, neither."

"But only think of it, Inviz. These two women have come all the way from the place where William Penn treated the Indians, just to teach us Hoosiers our A B C's and the multiplication table."

"Yes. We'll learn book things from them, and they'll learn real things from us, and we will all be better off."

And thus there came into our lives another influence—yes, two of them if you please—to help in broadening our outlook upon the world and placing our feet firmly upon the solid highway of progress.

Through father's growing influence in politics, no less than through his diplomatic way of managing neighborhood affairs, the twin teachers were not long in being [419] provided for. In accordance with the revised law of the state, a school meeting was held in the new schoolhouse in "Deestrict Number Five" for the purpose of selecting a teacher for the ensuing school term, soon to begin.

There were but two candidates for the position; and of the sixteen votes cast, Benjamin Barnacle receive four, and Patience the remaining twelve. If "Old Benny" had been chosen, he, as a lord of creation, would have been paid the princely salary of five dollars a week; but Patience, being only a female, was rated at twenty-five per cent. discount, and when her contract was finally closed with the trustees, she was obliged to be content with the promise of forty-five dollars for the full term of twelve weeks.

"It's too much to pay to any woman," remarked Abner Jones, who had ten children and was taxed eighteen cents for the support of the public schools. "A man teacher for me, allers!"

"But there are compensations," said 'Lihu Bright, always inclined to philosophize. "We have a total amount of forty-five dollars, neither more nor less, to devote to the education of the poor children in this deestrict. If we hire a man at five dollars a week, these children can have only nine weeks' schooling. If we hire a woman at three-seventy-five, they will have twelve weeks. So you see there is a direct advantage in employing a female."

At about this time, through father's continued good efforts, the other twin teacher, Charity, obtained permission to teach the "Monthly Meetin' School," provided she could secure a sufficient number of signers to her article, each signer agreeing to pay her one dollar [420] "per each scholar signed," for a term of ten weeks' instruction.

The article was beautifully written on a sheet of blue foolscap, and the number of branches which she therein agreed to teach was truly remarkable:—"spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic through the Rule of Three, modern geography, English grammar to the rules of syntax, history, and botany."

"What sort of stuff is that there botany?" inquired one of the Monthly Meetin' committee men.

Not one of his colleagues could tell. It was doubtless some newfangled branch of learning, good enough for the quality folks down in Philadelphia, but of no use to the plain common people of our Settlement. Charity was called upon to explain, and she did this so satisfactorily that the committee at once approved of her article and gave her authority to go ahead and secure as many signers as she could. She accordingly proceeded to visit each and every family of Friends in the Settlement, "just to get acquainted, thee knows," as she smilingly informed them.

At the end of a week she returned to our house triumphant, having obtained the signatures of nineteen parents and the promised of thirty-seven and a half scholars.

"Only think of it, sister," she exclaimed, "I will be making three dollars and seventy-five cents a week—just the same that thee will be making in thy school."

"Yes, only think of it," responded Patience.

And they were both content.

As I have elsewhere intimated, my Leonidas, the public schools in our state had, up to this time, bee but slightly esteemed. The well-to-do people were suspicious [421] of them, believing that they were merely a kind of charitable institution designed to benefit only the children of the needy. The poorer folk, scorning to be recipients of alms, and having little use for book-learning, were in nowise anxious to patronize them. The churches regarded them with disfavor, for the law forbade the teaching of any religious creed. The very name of "hoosier" had become synonymous with backwoods illiteracy, and there were not a few, even in our Settlement, who looked upon learning as a dangerous thing. While, therefore, private institutions and "meetin' schools" flourished in a certain limited sense, the "deestrict schools" went begging, with wretched schoolhouses, inefficient teachers, and a scanty attendance of pupils. But now, at length, as we were beginning to emerge from the Middle Ages, a new era in education was dawning: new school laws were coming into force, and with a wise and energetic state superintendent at the head of affairs, the cause of public instruction was beginning to receive an impetus from which it has not yet recovered.

Since Deestrict School Number Five and the Dry Forks Monthly Meetin' School were about equally distant from our house, although in opposite directions, it was arranged that the twins should board with us, they paying mother the sum of twenty-five cents a week besides making their own bed and helping with the housework. They were robust and fearless, and no matter what the condition of the weather or the roads, they seemed thoroughly to enjoy the walk of three miles, morning and evening, to and from their respective institutions of learning.

As I have just said, the public schools were looked upon with suspicion; and for that reason, Charity's subscrip- [422] tion school was crowded with pupils at a dollar a scholar, while her sister's deestrict school, which was free to all, was very slimly attended. Father, although he was practically at the head of educational affairs in the Settlement, shared in the general prejudice and openly encouraged it.

"I hope," he said, addressing a meeting of our neighbors for the discussion of the general welfare—"I hope that not one of you who can spare a dollar for the purpose of educating his children will ever think of making use of the free district school. That school is for the benefit of our poorer neighbors who have not been blessed in basket and store as you have been. You should pay your taxes cheerfully and do all that you can to promote and encourage such schools, for they are founded in charity; but we should not deny to our own children the benefits of the meeting school, where they may be safeguarded from evil influences and properly instructed in religion and morals, which are the foundations of prosperity."

When therefore the time arrived for the schools to open, it was tacitly understood that I should become Charity's pupil but not a pupil of charity; and father's name, with the promise of one scholar, headed the list of signers to her article.

"Robert," said Patience, as were about to start out on the first morning, "does thee know what I wish more than anything else?"

"No. Thee will have to tell me."

"Well, then, I wish thee was twins, like me and Charity."

"Why so?" I inquired, wondering how such a thing might be.

"Because then there would be two of thee, and one [423] twin could be Charity's scholar and t'other one could be mine. Does thee see?"

I laughed at her queer conceit, and as I did so, a vision appeared of two tow-headed, barefooted boys, exactly alike, going in opposite directions, each with his books under his arm and his dinner pail in his hand. "Yes," I answered, "that would be very nice, and I have a mind that I would like it right smart."

"But since thee ain't twins and can't never be twins," said Patience, "I think maybe we might fix it up another way."

"How?"

"Well, what if thee could go to Charity's school one day and to mine the next? Wouldn't that be fine?"

"I think it would, if father would let me."

"I'll ask him now," and she went immediately and laid the matter before him.

He smiled, then frowned and hesitated, and finally in his stiffest manner refused to consider her proposition.

"I have due respect for thy skill as a teacher," he said, "but I can not say that I admire thy judgment as a woman. Such a splitting up of interests as thee suggests would lead only to confusion and the subversion of good discipline. It would spoil the boy. It must not be."

And thus the matter was settled. For the space of ten fleeting weeks I became Charity's willing scholar at school, but Patience's devoted friend and comrade during many an hour out of school.

Do you ask what branches I studied?

Being permitted to have my own way in the matter of selection, I chose everything that was mentioned in Charity's "article," not even omitting the botany. "I [424] think I might as well get our money's worth," I remarked to Cousin Mandy Jane, knowing that I would have her judicious approval; and Patience, overhearing me, sweetly smiled and rejoined, "That's right, Robert. Just thee keep sister Charity busy." And so I did, but in more ways than one.

With a tutor so wide-awake and efficient, I certainly ought to have received a training that was worth a hundred times the paltry dollar that father paid for my tuition. The school, the discipline, the manner of instruction—how different was everything from that which had characterized the administration of my former teacher, Benjamin Barnacle! Each day was a day of progress, and many were the refreshings that were mine during those few brief weeks of instruction. But, for reasons which I shall explain later on, I fell deplorably short of the standard which I might have attained.

And then, there were my almost daily rambles in the fields or woods with my out-door mentor, Patience. She was to me a sort of visible Inviz, grown up and become surprisingly human. Together we drove the cows home from the pasture, and on Seventh-day mornings when there was no school, we gathered hazelnuts in the thickets or went botanizing in the deadenings. I found that she knew next to nothing about the commonest things, not being able to distinguish wheat from oats or a robin from a quail, but she was delightfully appreciative and always brimming with enthusiasm. Her tomboyish ways—known only to our family—were a great trial to mother, who declared that nature had made a mistake in her borning; but good Aunt Rachel came to the rescue by affirming that, in such a case, nature only was to be blamed; and so all was forgiven.

[425] How I missed the dear, old, cavernous fireplace with its cheer of flame, and the great warm hearth with its glowing coals inspiring visions and awakening dreams of the glory that was past! Never again would I experience the joy of lying prone in the ruddy light, my elbows on the hearth, my head propped in my hands, a book before my eyes, and the soft breath of Inviz upon my cheek as he peeped over my shoulder and shared my ecstasy. The rayless cookstove with its lids and dampers was no doubt a household convenience, and it was modern—but it was as uninspiring as a barn door and as unsympathetic as a roofless hut on a rainy day.

"The old fireplace was good company in itself," said Inviz on one of his rare brief visits. "It was poetry with many pictures interspersed, but this ugly black thing with its cooking odors and its treacherous heat, it nothing but dull dry prose as uninteresting as a spelling-book."

"Yes," I agreed, "it is as dry as the writings of George Fox or the book of Discipline. But it is all that we have now, and I suppose that we must try to get along with it and make believe that we like it."

"That will be your best plan," he answered, "for you are a growing boy and you will become used to it. But as for me, I can not live in a place where there is not firelight and everything is so gloomy and matter-of-fact; and, besides, you have become so big and so worldly-wise that it is hard for me to get along with you any more. So I am going away to find a cheerier place and more congenial company elsewhere. Farewell."

A tight hug, a warm kiss, and he was gone.

"I will come to see you once in a while—once in a long while," he said tremulously as he flitted away.

My cheeks were wet with tears—my tears and his [426] intermingled—as I pulled open the sliding hearth of the iron abomination and raked out two or three coals in the vain endeavor to extract a little inspiration and comfort therefrom. I set myself to the study of the next day's lesson in history—a dry-as-dust account of soldiers slain and cities bombarded—but it was a dreary task, and the end of half an hour I was conscious chiefly of strained eyes and a feeling of overwhelming loneliness. Presently I felt a hand upon my shoulder—a hand heavier and more material than that of Inviz—and the friendly voice of Patience aroused me from my despondency.

"Promise me something, Robert," she said.

"Promise thee what?" I answered in a tone of irritation.

"Promise me that thee will never neglect thy lessons in order to read it, and I will show thee a book that I brought with me from Philadelphia."

"What is it?" I inquired, my interest languidly growing.

"It is a book. Does thee promise?"

"Yes; I promise."

"Come, then," and she led the way to the curtained corner where all her possessions were stored. She opened the little old hair trunk which she had brought from the East, and displayed to my view a largish brand-new volume which immediately excited the reading hunger within me to an overpowering degree.

"I wish thee to read this book with great care," she said; "and if thee will try to model they life upon its instructions, I am sure that thee will be much improved by it."

I took it from her hands. It smelled as though it had [427] just fallen from the press. I looked greedily at the title-page: "The Child at Home, by John S. C. Abbott." What promises of companionship and instruction were there!

"I will make thee a present of that book if thee will be perfect in all thy lessons every day until Christmas."

I held it tight in my hands and thought what a beautiful addition it would make to my rapidly growing library.

"O Patience, thee is so good. I will try my best to do as thee says."

"Thee may begin to read it now, and we will settle its ownership later on," she said. "I had a mind to give it to Isaac Wilson's little granddaughter in Dashville. Maybe thee's heard of her;—her name is Edith—Edith Meredith.—And if thee don't make good at Christmas time, I promise thee it shall yet be hers."

I made no reply, but I felt the hot blood rushing to my cheeks, and my hand trembled. How did Patience know? Had she heard me talking in my dreams? I fingered the leaves uneasily, and stammered something that was unintelligible.

"I wish thee to read the book, anyway," continued Patience, seeming not to notice my confusion; "and thee may begin it right now."

She closed the lid of the trunk with a slam, and locked it, and our interview was ended. I sat down by the candlestand with Uncle Abbott's inspiring volume wide open before me, and there I remained, reading without intermission, until literally driven to bed. I call the book an inspiring volume, and to me at that particular stage in my life, it was truly uplifting and very helpful. It was extremely didactic and fatherly, and much of it was what children, nowadays, would call "goody-goody," [428] turning up their noses, meanwhile. But, to the docile and domestic children of threescore years ago, the maxims and precepts and godly examples therein presented were incentives to noble living and many worthy ambitions. All hail to thee, Uncle John S. C.! The world may never know nor justly appreciate the good that was done through the influence of thy preachy, old-fashioned, long-forgotten Child at Home; nevertheless I know that some of the good seeds which it scattered took root and grew up and flourished to the betterment of many souls.

But, my dear Leonidas, let me whisper to you that that book was never added to my library. From the day that it was lent me until the day following Christmas, the number of my failures at school was so great that I was more than once in disgrace and threatened with the hickory.

"Robert is very low in his recitations to-day," reported Charity. "He might do much better if he would."

"And I offered him a prize if he would be perfect," said Patience. "I can't understand why he does so poorly."

Nevertheless, after Christmas, when it became definitely known that on account of my failures the Child at Home  had been presented to the little lady in Dashville, it was observed that my recitations and deportment were greatly improved—indeed, were beyond reproach.


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