THE OLD SCHOOLMASTER
IT was a warm afternoon in September. The schoolhouse doors were wide open; flies buzzed around the big, rusty stove which would not be fired for another month; the place was quiet. All the children had burst out and dispersed in different directions almost a half hour ago.
All but one boy, Jacob Burnley. He was now on his hands and knees on the worn, gray, stone step at the side door of the schoolroom. He looked at the shining mica in the step and thought, "I wish that was all silver, and that it was mine." That day Jacob had very adroitly and rather unexpectedly to himself, taken a quarter from one of the desks at lunch hour, and had put it in his dinner pail. When school was out he was afraid to take the pail, fearing that the money might jingle and so betray him.
Now, he remembered that the old schoolmaster would be at his desk, as was his daily custom, long after the hour of dismissal. Jacob, therefore, was planning to creep in very silently his seat was second from the door get the pail, and run. He felt too guilty to go freely in for it, when many times before he had left it behind as of no consequence.
Jacob had put his head in, and was just drawing his bare feet up for a further movement when he heard words spoken. He drew quickly back, waited and listened. He could tell by the tone of voice that the schoolmaster was at prayer.
Jacob had always unconsciously recognized the religious influence of "Master." The schoolroom was evidence of the teacher's effort, with his rules one hundred altogether on the walls, for the purpose of character training. The old man
had a tender heart, and a sincere desire to touch the deeper life in his pupils.
"Oh, Lord," the schoolmaster's voice continued, "help me to guide my scholars in thy way, for narrow it is, and wide is the path that leadeth to destruction."
Jacob was not interested, and was just rising to a creeping position once more when his own name was spoken. "Oh, Lord, give me wisdom to direct Jacob Burnley. I know he is not straightforward: help me, our Father, to make an upright, manly boy of him." Jacob drew back the third time, his blood ran cold, he actually shivered. He waited, uncertain what to do. Just as the prayer was drawing to a close, he backed out quickly and almost noiselessly. Then he ran, he never had run so fast in all his life, past the church and the graveyard;
past the little village store; past the mill and up the stony hill behind it into the woods. His pace slackened for nothing, he stumbled, he floundered, up, up until he came to the spring and the little stream which bubbled over shining pebbles. There he dropped like one shot down, and lay motionless.
After an hour, during which time he had decided upon a dozen different courses of action the first being to run away, the second to play truant, the last, to go early to school and return the quarter he got up, washed his face at the brook, and went slowly home.
Jacob's home was not really a home, it was only a dwelling place, for his mother had died five years ago, and his father was busy and stern.
Jacob had been a lonely boy for some time, and his one good friend he saw it clearly now was the schoolmaster.
"I'll go very early tomorrow," Jacob was saying to himself, "and return the quarter; then I'll get the bucket of spring water so 'Master' can have a drink when he comes."
That night Jacob knelt to say his prayers. He had not bothered much about them for some time. Then, when he lay wideawake on his straw mattress, the one hundred rules, which "Master" had had repeated by all the scholars in unison every morning for years, seemed to flash with new meaning into the boy's inner vision.
"Always tell the truth and always keep your promises," he began, and repeated each rule to the end of the one hundredth.
The next morning Jacob was at school early; he put the quarter in Bill Downes's desk, went for the water, and was almost at the schoolhouse door when he met the teacher.
"Well, Jacob, you have just what I need, a cool drink," said the schoolmaster kindly.
Jacob put down the bucket, then in a guilty way he looked up into the Master's face. "You you I heard your prayer last night after school and you need not worry about me again."
The old man's face lit up, he placed both hands on Jacob's shoulders, peered into the boy's eyes and said, "My boy, I was not going to worry again, for I had put my burden into the hands of the Lord. He will uphold us both with the right hand of his righteousness."
They went into the schoolhouse together, and the Master's heart was happy all the day in the knowledge that he had won a friend.