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| Home | Reading Room Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm

Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm
by Kate Douglas Wiggin

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The day of Rebecca's arrival had been
Friday, and on the Monday following she
began her education at the school which
was in Riverboro Centre, about a mile distant.
Miss Sawyer borrowed a neighbor's horse and
wagon and drove her to the schoolhouse, interviewing
the teacher, Miss Dearborn, arranging for books,
and generally starting the child on the path that
was to lead to boundless knowledge. Miss Dearborn,
it may be said in passing, had had no special
preparation in the art of teaching. It came to her
naturally, so her family said, and perhaps for this
reason she, like Tom Tulliver's clergyman tutor,
"set about it with that uniformity of method and
independence of circumstances which distinguish the
actions of animals understood to be under the
immediate teaching of Nature." You remember the
beaver which a naturalist tells us "busied himself
as earnestly in constructing a dam in a room up
three pair of stairs in London as if he had been laying
his foundation in a lake in Upper Canada. It
was his function to build, the absence of water or of
possible progeny was an accident for which he was
not accountable." In the same manner did Miss
Dearborn lay what she fondly imagined to be
foundations in the infant mind.

Rebecca walked to school after the first morning.
She loved this part of the day's programme. When
the dew was not too heavy and the weather was fair
there was a short cut through the woods. She turned
off the main road, crept through uncle Josh Woodman's
bars, waved away Mrs. Carter's cows, trod the
short grass of the pasture, with its well-worn path
running through gardens of buttercups and white-
weed, and groves of ivory leaves and sweet fern.
She descended a little hill, jumped from stone to
stone across a woodland brook, startling the drowsy
frogs, who were always winking and blinking in the
morning sun. Then came the "woodsy bit," with
her feet pressing the slippery carpet of brown pine
needles; the "woodsy bit" so full of dewy morning,
surprises,--fungous growths of brilliant orange and
crimson springing up around the stumps of dead
trees, beautiful things born in a single night; and
now and then the miracle of a little clump of waxen
Indian pipes, seen just quickly enough to be saved
from her careless tread. Then she climbed a stile,
went through a grassy meadow, slid under another
pair of bars, and came out into the road again. having
gained nearly half a mile.

How delicious it all was! Rebecca clasped her
Quackenbos's Grammar and Greenleaf's Arithmetic
with a joyful sense of knowing her lessons. Her
dinner pail swung from her right hand, and she
had a blissful consciousness of the two soda biscuits
spread with butter and syrup, the baked cup-custard,
the doughnut, and the square of hard gingerbread.
Sometimes she said whatever "piece" she was going
to speak on the next Friday afternoon.

"A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers,
There was lack of woman's nursing, there was dearth of
woman's tears."

How she loved the swing and the sentiment of it!
How her young voice quivered whenever she came to
the refrain:--

"But we'll meet no more at Bingen, dear Bingen on the Rhine."

It always sounded beautiful in her ears, as she
sent her tearful little treble into the clear morning
air. Another early favorite (for we must remember
that Rebecca's only knowledge of the great world
of poetry consisted of the selections in vogue in
school readers) was:--

"Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I'll protect it now."

When Emma Jane Perkins walked through the
"short cut" with her, the two children used to render
this with appropriate dramatic action. Emma
Jane always chose to be the woodman because she
had nothing to do but raise on high an imaginary
axe. On the one occasion when she essayed the
part of the tree's romantic protector, she represented
herself as feeling "so awful foolish" that she
refused to undertake it again, much to the secret
delight of Rebecca, who found the woodman's role
much too tame for her vaulting ambition. She
reveled in the impassioned appeal of the poet, and
implored the ruthless woodman to be as brutal as
possible with the axe, so that she might properly
put greater spirit into her lines. One morning, feeling
more frisky than usual, she fell upon her knees
and wept in the woodman's petticoat. Curiously
enough, her sense of proportion rejected this as
soon as it was done.

"That wasn't right, it was silly, Emma Jane; but
I'll tell you where it might come in--in Give me
Three Grains of Corn. You be the mother, and
I'll be the famishing Irish child. For pity's sake
put the axe down; you are not the woodman any longer!"

"What'll I do with my hands, then?" asked
Emma Jane.

"Whatever you like," Rebecca answered wearily;
"you're just a mother--that's all. What does
YOUR mother do with her hands? Now here goes!

"`Give me three grains of corn, mother,
Only three grains of corn,
'T will keep the little life I have
Till the coming of the morn.'"

This sort of thing made Emma Jane nervous and
fidgety, but she was Rebecca's slave and hugged her
chains, no matter how uncomfortable they made her.

At the last pair of bars the two girls were
sometimes met by a detachment of the Simpson children,
who lived in a black house with a red door and
a red barn behind, on the Blueberry Plains road.
Rebecca felt an interest in the Simpsons from the
first, because there were so many of them and they
were so patched and darned, just like her own brood
at the home farm.

The little schoolhouse with its flagpole on top and
its two doors in front, one for boys and the other
for girls, stood on the crest of a hill, with rolling
fields and meadows on one side, a stretch of pine
woods on the other, and the river glinting and
sparkling in the distance. It boasted no attractions
within. All was as bare and ugly and uncomfortable
as it well could be, for the villages along the river
expended so much money in repairing and rebuilding
bridges that they were obliged to be very economical
in school privileges. The teacher's desk and chair
stood on a platform in one corner; there was an
uncouth stove, never blackened oftener than once
a year, a map of the United States, two blackboards,
a ten-quart tin pail of water and long-handled dipper
on a corner shelf, and wooden desks and benches
for the scholars, who only numbered twenty in
Rebecca's time. The seats were higher in the back of
the room, and the more advanced and longer-legged
pupils sat there, the position being greatly to be
envied, as they were at once nearer to the windows
and farther from the teacher.

There were classes of a sort, although nobody,
broadly speaking, studied the same book with anybody
else, or had arrived at the same degree of proficiency
in any one branch of learning. Rebecca in
particular was so difficult to classify that Miss Dearborn
at the end of a fortnight gave up the attempt
altogether. She read with Dick Carter and Living
Perkins, who were fitting for the academy; recited
arithmetic with lisping little Thuthan Thimpthon;
geography with Emma Jane Perkins, and grammar
after school hours to Miss Dearborn alone. Full to
the brim as she was of clever thoughts and quaint
fancies, she made at first but a poor hand at composition.
The labor of writing and spelling, with the
added difficulties of punctuation and capitals, interfered
sadly with the free expression of ideas. She
took history with Alice Robinson's class, which
was attacking the subject of the Revolution, while
Rebecca was bidden to begin with the discovery
of America. In a week she had mastered
the course of events up to the Revolution, and in
ten days had arrived at Yorktown, where the class
had apparently established summer quarters. Then
finding that extra effort would only result in her
reciting with the oldest Simpson boy, she delib-
erately held herself back, for wisdom's ways were
not those of pleasantness nor her paths those of
peace if one were compelled to tread them in the
company of Seesaw Simpson. Samuel Simpson was
generally called Seesaw, because of his difficulty in
making up his mind. Whether it were a question
of fact, of spelling, or of date, of going swimming
or fishing, of choosing a book in the Sunday-school
library or a stick of candy at the village store, he
had no sooner determined on one plan of action
than his wish fondly reverted to the opposite one.
Seesaw was pale, flaxen haired, blue eyed, round
shouldered, and given to stammering when nervous.
Perhaps because of his very weakness Rebecca's
decision of character had a fascination for him, and
although she snubbed him to the verge of madness,
he could never keep his eyes away from her. The
force with which she tied her shoe when the lacing
came undone, the flirt over shoulder she gave her
black braid when she was excited or warm, her
manner of studying,--book on desk, arms folded,
eyes fixed on the opposite wall,--all had an abiding
charm for Seesaw Simpson. When, having obtained
permission, she walked to the water pail in the
corner and drank from the dipper, unseen forces
dragged Seesaw from his seat to go and drink after
her. It was not only that there was something akin
to association and intimacy in drinking next, but
there was the fearful joy of meeting her in transit
and receiving a cold and disdainful look from her
wonderful eyes.

On a certain warm day in summer Rebecca's
thirst exceeded the bounds of propriety. When she
asked a third time for permission to quench it at the
common fountain Miss Dearborn nodded "yes," but
lifted her eyebrows unpleasantly as Rebecca neared
the desk. As she replaced the dipper Seesaw
promptly raised his hand, and Miss Dearborn
indicated a weary affirmative.

"What is the matter with you, Rebecca?" she asked.

"I had salt mackerel for breakfast," answered Rebecca.

There seemed nothing humorous about this reply,
which was merely the statement of a fact, but an
irrepressible titter ran through the school. Miss
Dearborn did not enjoy jokes neither made nor
understood by herself, and her face flushed.

"I think you had better stand by the pail for five minutes,
Rebecca; it may help you to control your thirst."

Rebecca's heart fluttered. She to stand in the
corner by the water pail and be stared at by all
the scholars! She unconsciously made a gesture
of angry dissent and moved a step nearer her seat,
but was arrested by Miss Dearborn's command in
a still firmer voice.

"Stand by the pail, Rebecca! Samuel, how many
times have you asked for water to-day?"

This is the f-f-fourth."

"Don't touch the dipper, please. The school has
done nothing but drink this afternoon; it has had
no time whatever to study. I suppose you had something
salt for breakfast, Samuel?" queried Miss
Dearborn with sarcasm.

"I had m-m-mackerel, j-just like Reb-b-becca."
(Irrepressible giggles by the school.)

"I judged so. Stand by the other side of the pail, Samuel."

Rebecca's head was bowed with shame and wrath.
Life looked too black a thing to be endured. The
punishment was bad enough, but to be coupled in
correction with Seesaw Simpson was beyond human

Singing was the last exercise in the afternoon,
and Minnie Smellie chose Shall we Gather at the
River? It was a baleful choice and seemed to hold
some secret and subtle association with the situation
and general progress of events; or at any rate there
was apparently some obscure reason for the energy
and vim with which the scholars shouted the choral
invitation again and again:--

"Shall we gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river?"

Miss Dearborn stole a look at Rebecca's bent head
and was frightened. The child's face was pale save
for two red spots glowing on her cheeks. Tears
hung on her lashes; her breath came and went
quickly, and the hand that held her pocket
handkerchief trembled like a leaf.

"You may go to your seat, Rebecca," said Miss

Dearborn at the end of the first song. "Samuel,
stay where you are till the close of school. And let
me tell you, scholars, that I asked Rebecca to stand
by the pail only to break up this habit of incessant
drinking, which is nothing but empty-mindedness
and desire to walk to and fro over the floor. Every
time Rebecca has asked for a drink to-day the whole
school has gone to the pail one after another. She
is really thirsty, and I dare say I ought to have
punished you for following her example, not her for
setting it. What shall we sing now, Alice?"

"The Old Oaken Bucket, please."

"Think of something dry, Alice, and change the
subject. Yes, The Star Spangled Banner if you
like, or anything else."

Rebecca sank into her seat and pulled the singing
book from her desk. Miss Dearborn's public explanation
had shifted some of the weight from her
heart, and she felt a trifle raised in her self-esteem.

Under cover of the general relaxation of singing,
votive offerings of respectful sympathy began to
make their appearance at her shrine. Living Perkins,
who could not sing, dropped a piece of maple
sugar in her lap as he passed her on his way to the
blackboard to draw the map of Maine. Alice Rob-
inson rolled a perfectly new slate pencil over the
floor with her foot until it reached Rebecca's place,
while her seat-mate, Emma Jane, had made up a
little mound of paper balls and labeled them
"Bullets for you know who."

Altogether existence grew brighter, and when
she was left alone with the teacher for her grammar
lesson she had nearly recovered her equanimity,
which was more than Miss Dearborn had. The last
clattering foot had echoed through the hall, Seesaw's
backward glance of penitence had been met
and answered defiantly by one of cold disdain.

"Rebecca, I am afraid I punished you more than I
meant," said Miss Dearborn, who was only eighteen
herself, and in her year of teaching country schools
had never encountered a child like Rebecca.

"I hadn't missed a question this whole day, nor
whispered either," quavered the culprit; "and I don't
think I ought to be shamed just for drinking."

"You started all the others, or it seemed as if
you did. Whatever you do they all do, whether you
laugh, or miss, or write notes, or ask to leave the
room, or drink; and it must be stopped."

"Sam Simpson is a copycoat!" stormed Rebecca
"I wouldn't have minded standing in the corner
alone--that is, not so very much; but I couldn't
bear standing with him."

"I saw that you couldn't, and that's the reason
I told you to take your seat, and left him in the
corner. Remember that you are a stranger in the
place, and they take more notice of what you do,
so you must be careful. Now let's have our
conjugations. Give me the verb `to be,' potential mood,
past perfect tense."

"I might have been "We might have been
Thou mightst have been You might have been
He might have been They might have been."

"Give me an example, please."

"I might have been glad
Thou mightst have been glad
He, she, or it might have been glad."

"`He' or `she' might have been glad because
they are masculine and feminine, but could `it'
have been glad?" asked Miss Dearborn, who was
very fond of splitting hairs.

"Why not?" asked Rebecca

"Because `it' is neuter gender."

"Couldn't we say, `The kitten might have
been glad if it had known it was not going to be drowned'?"

"Ye--es," Miss Dearborn answered hesitatingly,
never very sure of herself under Rebecca's fire;
"but though we often speak of a baby, a chicken, or
a kitten as `it,' they are really masculine or feminine
gender, not neuter."

Rebecca reflected a long moment and then asked,
"Is a hollyhock neuter?"

"Oh yes, of course it is, Rebecca"

"Well, couldn't we say, `The hollyhock might
have been glad to see the rain, but there was a weak
little hollyhock bud growing out of its stalk and it
was afraid that that might be hurt by the storm;
so the big hollyhock was kind of afraid, instead of
being real glad'?"

Miss Dearborn looked puzzled as she answered,
"Of course, Rebecca, hollyhocks could not be
sorry, or glad, or afraid, really."

"We can't tell, I s'pose," replied the child; "but
_I_ think they are, anyway. Now what shall I say?"

"The subjunctive mood, past perfect tense of
the verb `to know.'"

"If I had known "If we had known
If thou hadst known If you had known
If he had known If they had known.

"Oh, it is the saddest tense," sighed Rebecca
with a little break in her voice; "nothing but IFS,
IFS, IFS! And it makes you feel that if they only
HAD known, things might have been better!"

Miss Dearborn had not thought of it before,
but on reflection she believed the subjunctive mood
was a "sad" one and "if" rather a sorry "part of speech."

"Give me some more examples of the subjunctive,
Rebecca, and that will do for this afternoon," she said.

"If I had not loved mackerel I should not have
been thirsty;" said Rebecca with an April smile,
as she closed her grammar. "If thou hadst loved
me truly thou wouldst not have stood me up in the
corner. If Samuel had not loved wickedness he
would not have followed me to the water pail."

"And if Rebecca had loved the rules of the
school she would have controlled her thirst," finished
Miss Dearborn with a kiss, and the two parted friends.



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