by Louise Mack (1870-1935)
A proud country school teacher meets his match in a pupil’s equally proud mother.
When Ernest Rawson, B.A., was appointed to the head-mastership of Waradgeree Superior Public School, the town hugged itself complacently, and imagined its children’s names in the Sydney dailies among the lists of candidates who had passed the Junior with many A’s.
Jimmie Rush, the chemist’s son, had “got through” last year with 3 B’s: Elinor Manning, the eldest daughter of the C.P.S., had passed with 2 A’s and 2 B’s, and had won immortality and the silver medal for geography; John Sanders, from Boolee Boolee, would have had 3 B’s and 3 A’s after his name had he not been plucked in the prelim. These three had coached themselves, too; had worked early and late to gain the knowledge which the old schoolmaster called scornfully “very small beer,” and the township felt that its local talent deserved nothing less than a B.A. from Sydney University to nurture the processes of its development.
Ernest Rawson, B.A., was pale-haired, with a large, straight nose. He had neither beard nor moustache: yet he could hardly be said to be clean-shaven. His upper-lip was a remarkable thing in its way, for it was so long that Nature had made an attempt at a pleat in the middle of it. He had a high, square, very shiny forehead, and wavering eyebrows, and his eyes suggested late hours and bad print. You knew at a glance that mathematics were his strong point, and you could imagine him translating the Bucolics into absolute grammar, with the kind of literalness that affects one like a slate-pencil drawn at right angles across a new slate.
His French accent was painstaking. “Lar Sooard et lar Fanlarnde composed oon royome large dongveerong …” His theory about French was that every syllable must be rendered into English-sounding equivalents, and he represented to his class that the difference of pronunciation between on, an, en, was ong, am, unn.
* * * *
He stood in the space of floor before the rising lines of desks one Monday morning, and tapped the black-board impatiently with his piece of chalk.
“Come now, you girls. Can’t anybody do this? Now look here, you boys. A certain party buys a load of wood.” He spoke slowly, and all the raw edges of his voice came into one’s mental vision.
“Please, sir, there’s somebody knockin’ at the door.” A boy in the back seat was stretching up his arm, his five fingers working convulsively at the end of it.
Rawson walked across the schoolroom and opened the door.
A little woman, with a black velvet toque resting on her dark, frizzy hair, walked in.
“Are you Mr. Rawson? ” she asked.
He bowed his little, stiff, public-school bow.
“I have come to see you about my daughter’s analysis.”
He brought a chair forward, but she declined to sit down. She stood beside his desk, with her frilled parasol resting lightly against her left shoulder, and her right foot advanced a little beneath the skirt of her red dress.
“Your daughter’s analysis?” he repeated after her.
“I am Mrs. Sam Landers,” said she.
“Oh,” said Rawson. He was not enlightened by that.
“Yes. And I have come about Edie’s analysis. Now, Mister Rawson, I am a person who speaks my mind. Every Saturday I have Edie bring her books to me, and I look carefully through her exercises. And, Mister Rawson, last Saturday she showed me some analysis she had done for you, and I can assure you, Mister Rawson, it completely overwhelmed me. Now, Mister Rawson, I have studied analysis. I know analysis. And I know that nobody can ever make anything but a verb stand in the predicate. ”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” said Rawson, somewhat roughly.
She laid an exercise-book on the table before her, opened it, and began to turn the leaves for a certain place.
“Mister Rawson, you gave my daughter this sentence to analyse—“He—often—told—his—children — that — his —own — father — was — a—soldier— still, ’ and she analysed it in this way: Subject, ‘father’; enlargement, ‘his own’; predicate, ‘was a soldier’ ; extension, ‘still.’ She put ‘was a soldier’ in the predicate, and you allowed it to go uncorrected.”
* * * *
Rawson recovered himself a little. He could see the boys and girls sitting with intent expressions in their eyes, and their mouths a little open, the better to hear with.
“Wait a bit.” He turned to the class. “You boys, do this sum, and stop your gaping.” He chalked a sum on the blackboard with lightning swiftness, said “Fire away,” put down his chalk, and turned to his visitor.
“I’d like to know what you mean by this.”
“Don’t assume that tone,” severely. “I have come here to enquire into the matter as much for your good as for mine.”
“I corrected that exercise,” said Rawson. “That ought to be quite sufficient. I’m not in the habit of teaching the women as well as their children.”
Mrs. Landers’ mouth curled downwards till the corners of it all but touched her chin-bone. It lingered there a minute, and she looked steadily at him with her head well hack and murmured, “Blunted instinct!”
“And I’ll have to ask you not to interrupt me again, please, in the middle of my teaching.”
“But I will interrupt you, Mister Rawson. I speak my mind — at the root of all real education lies analysis, I must have my children taught it correctly. Now, Mister Rawson, I studied English. I was five years studying, I matriculated and I very nearly became a doctor. And I thoroughly understand analysis. It was a subject in which I always took highest marks.”
“That analysis was quite right,” contemptuously.
“Mister Rawson, nothing but a verb can ever go in the predicate.”
“Allow me, Mrs. Landers; the verb ‘to be’ cannot stand alone in the predicate.”
“Mister Rawson, nobody can teach me analysis.”
“You can see my authorities for it, if you like.”
“I don’t care about authorities. I know analysis, and I know.”
“Well, look here, Mrs. Landers, I’m not going to waste time arguing with you. I don’t know who you are, or anything about you, but you’ll have to — (You boys, what are you looking round at? Give me the square root of 5678934 — at once) — find some other way to learn English than by interrupting me. L am not going to put up with it.”
“Your expressions are extremely coarse.” Again the sweep of lip to chin-bone. “But really, what can one expect from a public school-master?” Her voice died away along a sentence which ended with the words “much brains as a rabbit.”
Rawson’s temper had now swelled itself to its limits, and was prepared to burst over.
“I will trouble you to make yourself scarce,” he said. “I can’t stop humbugging like this, I’ve got my work to do.”
He waved his chalk towards the door, then turned to the blackboard and began to set tremendous sums upon it with incredible rapidity.
By and bye the door slammed a little, and he knew she had gone.
* * *
Now, Mrs. Landers lived in the only two-storey house in Waradgeree, and from the height of her two stone storeys, and her superior education, she considered herself the one intellectual light of the place. Her husband was Inspector of Dingoes, and her position in the society of the district was an assured one. Everybody called on her, and she either returned their calls, or not, as she pleased, but none of the station families round about ever asked her to come and stay with them from Friday till Monday, and that was Waradgeree’s most frequent form of invitation to its friends. It was 15 years since she had come to Waradgeree, and for 15 years Waradgeree had called her husband poor Sam Landers.
And for 15 years she had made her visits of inspection to the public school, and one teacher after another had fought her, and been snubbed by her, and insulted her, and her children had been taken away and sent back, and taken away again, and sent back again, till they hardly knew whether they were at school or not.
Those sentences of Rawson’s: “I will trouble you to make yourself scarce,” and “I can’t stop humbugging here like this” rankled in her with exceeding bitterness. She told Sam about it at dinner, and rolled her eyes, and curled her lips, and emphasized her “Misters,” and said “I said,” and “he said,” and “I said,” and “he said,” till Sam said, “You’re a fool,” and went and smoked a sad pipe on the verandah. He believed in her intellect as firmly as she herself believed in it, but he was ashamed for her, all the same.
She was not ashamed, though. Notes began to pour in on Ernest Rawson; “Kindly allow Miss Landers to leave school at four sharp. Honoria Landers.” (That was because he had kept Edith in ten minutes after four to explain a proposition to her.) Or, “Mrs. Landers will trouble Mr. Rawson to correct Miss Landers’ exercises in pencil, not red ink.” Or, “Mrs. Landers would like more particular attention directed to her daughter’s handwriting.”
Verbal messages came too. “Ma says will you look at that grammar you corrected? She thinks you made a mistake.” “Ma says she would like me to have more arithmetic, and not so much algebra.” “Ma says will you please teach me my French verbs negatively? They always have them in the Junior.” Rawson’s face used to turn white with wrath sometimes, and, had Edith Landers not been his most promising candidate for the forthcoming examination, he would have found some means of ridding the school of her, and thus of her mother’s interference.
As it was he put a curb on himself for a while, ignored all the notes and messages, and worked away at his cramming system with the light of a great star shining on his near future, the star of the highest honor of the Junior, the Fairfax Prize, which he dreamed of winning for his school through Edith Landers.
One day she worked an arithmetic paper with such accuracy that he was startled into a sudden revelation of his dreams.
“Look here,” he said in a roughly jubilant voice, waving the paper at her; “if you keep on in this style you’ve got a jolly good show for tile Fairfax. Just you work down-right hard for a bit and you’ll get it.”
She went home joyfully and told her parents. Sam’s face brightened and vicarious vanity shone in his fatherly eyes. But Mrs. Landers’ face grew strangely long. The honor of this would be to Rawson!
* * *
The time came for sending in the names of candidates, and Rawson announced to the school one day that those who were going up must bring their fees next morning, and he himself would forward them to the Registrar with their applications. It was next morning that Edith Landers stayed away for the first time that quarter.
Rawson was furious, and as soon as school was out he put on his hat and went to find the reason of her absence. In High-street he met Sam, and told him where he was going.
“Why,” said Sam, “didn’t they tell you? Mrs. Landers and Edie went down to Sydney by the mail-train last night for a few days’ change. Edie must have forgotten about the fees. Will it matter? I will pay them now.”
Rawson was very angry. “She ought to lose no time now,” he said; “but, of course, that’s your look-out.”
“Perhaps she will work while she’s away,” said Sam. “I know nothing about it.’’
“Perhaps,” said Rawson, stiffly.
“And, at any rate, Mrs. Landers will be back in a week.” So he sent her name in, and his own under it, to show that it was he who had coached and crammed and pressed her, and it was he who was the author of her glory.
But when one week was up she did not return. Nor when two weeks were up, nor three, nor a month.
In fact, it was a whole month after the exam, before she and Mrs. Landers were seen in Waradgeree again. They stayed on and stayed on, and Mrs. Lander’s letters to Sam ignored the subject of the Junior, and Rawson bit his fingers half-way to the quick, and fumed, and fretted, and thinned away under his eyes with worry, and grew unhealthily pale with rage and anxiety, and on the day of the exam, cursed Mrs. Landers with the curses common to his kind.
* * * *
In November the results were published, and in November Mrs. Landers and Edith came home.
Simultaneously one morning two people in their respective homes were straining their eyes down the lists of names in the just-arrived daily papers. The eyes travelled along the A’s, B’s, C’s. D’s, on, on, till they reached L’s. There they stopped.
Rawson, in his schoolroom, gasped. Mrs. Landers, on her verandah, turned a filmy green.
“Well, I’m dashed!”
“Oh, Edith, Edith!”
There, among the L’s, were two announcements: -
Landers, Edith Honoria, Eng. B, Arith. B, Geog. B. Coached by Honoria Landers, “Froombi,” Waradgeree.
Landers, Edith Honoria, Eng. B, Arith. B, Geog. B. Coached by Ernest Rawson, B.A., Waradgeree Public School.
Mrs. Landers had taken her to Sydney, and sent her up for examination as her own pupil.
Rawson had sent her name in with his list, and the confusion resulted in the double announcement.
And she had passed just as badly as it was possible for any candidate to pass. Indeed, there would have been more honor in not passing at all.
Waradgeree knew all about it ten minutes after, and, to outsiders, the joke was a creamy one. The richest of the cream lay in the fact that both the “coaches ” now refused to acknowledge poor little miserable Edith as a pupil. “Mr. Rawson prepared her.” ‘‘Mrs. Landers took her away from me.” But to Ernest Rawson there was no joke, for all his pupils had done infamously, and the township was crying out that he had over-crammed them; and to Mrs. Landers the cream was of the very sourest.
Louise Mack, In a Country School (The bulletin, 11 Dec 1897: 28)