From Three Short Stories (Woman's Home Companion September, 1901)
When Marion Willis became a school-mistress in the Glendale public school at twenty-two she regarded her employment as a transient occupation, to be terminated presently by marriage. She possessed an imaginative temperament, and one of her favorite and most satisfying habits was to evoke from the realm of the future a proper hero, shining with zeal and virtue like Sir Galahad, in whose arms she would picture herself living happily ever after a sweet courtship, punctuated by due maidenly hesitation. This fondness for letting her fancy run riot and evolve visions splendid with happenings for her own advancement and gladness was not confined to matrimonial day-dreams. On the morning when she entered the school-house door for the first time the eyes of her mind saw the curtain which veils the years divide, and she beheld herself a famous educator, still young, but long since graduated from primary teaching. She forgot the vision of her Sir Galahad there. Nor were the circumstances of her several day-dreams necessarily consistent in other respects. It sufficed for her spiritual exaltation that they should be merely a fairy-like manifestation in her own favor. But though she loved to give her imagination rein, the fairy-like quality of these visions was patent to Miss Willis, for she possessed a quiet sense of humor as a sort of east-wind supplementary to the sentimental and poetic properties of her nature. She had a way of poking fun at herself, which, when exercised, sent the elfin figures scattering with a celerity suggestive of the departure of her own scholars at the twinkle of the bell for dismissal.
Then she was left alone with her humor and her New England conscience, that stern adjuster of real values and enemy of spiritual dissipation. The same conscience was a vigilant monitor in the matter of her school-teaching, despite Miss Willis' reasonable hope that Sir Galahad would claim her soon. The hope would have been reasonable in the case of any one of her sex, for every woman is said to be given at least one opportunity to become a wife; but in the case of Miss Willis nature had been more than commonly bounteous. She was not a beauty, but she was sweet and fresh-looking, with clean, honest eyes, and a cheery, gracious manner such as is apt to captivate discerning men. She was one of those wholesome spirits, earnest and refined, yet prone to laughter, which do not remain long unmated in the ordinary course of human experience. But her conscience did not permit her to dwell on this advantage to the detriment of her scholars.
Miss Willis lived at her home with her mother. They owned their small house. The other expenses were defrayed from the daughter's salary; hence, strict economy was obligatory, and the expenditure of every five-dollar bill was a matter of moment. Miss Willis' father had died when she was a baby. The meager sum of money which he left had sufficed to keep his widow and only child from want until Marion's majority. All had been spent except the house; but, as Miss Willis now proudly reflected, she had become a bread-winner, and her mother's declining years were shielded from poverty. They would be able to manage until Sir Galahad arrived, and when he came one of the joys of her surrender would be that her mother's old age would also be brightened.
Glendale, as its name denotes, had been a rustic village. When Miss Willis was engaged (to teach school, not to be married) it was a thriving, bustling, overgrown, manufacturing town already yearning to become a city. By the end of another five years Glendale had realized its ambition, and Miss Willis was still a teacher in its crowded grammar-school. How the years creep, yet how they fly, when one is busy with regular, routine employment! The days are such a repetition of each other that they sometimes seem very long, but when one pauses and looks back one starts at the accumulation of departed time, and deplores the swiftness of the seasons.
Five years had but slightly dimmed the freshness of Miss Willis' charms. She was as comely as ever. She was a trifle stouter, a trifle less girlish in manner, and only a trifle — what shall we call it? — wilted in appearance. The close atmosphere of a school-room is not conducive to rosiness of complexion; and the constant strain of guiding over forty immature minds in the paths of knowledge will weigh upon the flesh though the soul be patient and the heart light. Miss Willis' class comprised the children whose average age was twelve to thirteen — those who had been in the school three years. They were both boys and girls. They remained with her a year before being passed on. She had begun with the youngest children, but promotion had presently established her in this position.
Forty immature minds — minds just groping on the threshold of life — to be watched, shaped and helped for ten months, and their individual needs treated with sympathy and patience. For ten months — the school term — then to be exchanged for a new batch, and so from year to year. Glendale's manufacturing population included several nationalities, so that the little army of scholars which sat under Miss Willis' eye included Poles, Italians, negroes, and now and then a youthful Chinaman, as well as the sons and daughters of the merchant, the tailor, the butcher and baker and other citizens whose title as Americans was of older date. It was not easy to keep the atmosphere of such a school-room wholesome, for the apparel of the poorest children, though often well darned, was not always clean, and the ventilating apparatus represented a political job. But it was Miss Willis' pride that she knew the identity of every one of her boys and girls, and carried it by force of love and will written on her brain as well as on the desk-tablets, which she kept as a safeguard against possible lapses of memory. She loved her classes, and it was a grief to her at first to be obliged to pass them on at the end of the school year. But habit reconciles us to the inevitable, and she presently learned to steel her heart against a too sensitive point of view in this respect, and to supplement the bleeding ties thus rudely severed with a fresh set without crying her eyes out. Yet though faithful teachers are thus schooled to forget, they rarely do, and Miss Willis found herself keeping track, in her mind's eye, of her little favorites — some of them youthful reprobates — in their progress up the ladder of knowledge and out into the world.
But what of Sir Galahad? He had dallied, but about this time — the sixth year of her life as a teacher — he appeared. Not as she had imagined him — a lover of great personal distinction, amazing talents, compelling virtues and large estates; yet, nevertheless, a presentable being in trousers, whose devotion touched her maidenly heart until it reciprocated the passion which his lips expressed. He was a young bookkeeper in a banker's office, with a taste for literary matters and a respectable gift for private theatricals. A small social club was the medium by which they became intimate. Sir Galahad was refined and gentlemanly in appearance and bearing, a trifle too delicate for perfect manliness, yet, as Miss Willis' mother justly observed, a gentle soul to live with. He had a taste for poetry, and a sentimental vein which manifested itself in verses of a Wordsworthian simplicity descriptive of his lady love's charms. No wonder Marion fell in love with him, and renounced, without even a sigh of regret, her vision of a husband with lordly means. Sir Galahad had only his small means, which was not enough for a matrimonial venture. They would wait, in the hope that some opportunity for preferment would present itself. So for three years — years when she was in the heyday of her comeliness — they attended the social club as an engaged couple, and fed their mutual passion on the poets and occasional chaste embraces. Marion felt sure that something would happen before long to redeem the situation and establish her Sir Galahad in the seat to which his merit entitled him. Her favorite vision was of some providential catastrophe, even an epidemic or wholesale maiming by which the partners of the banking-house and all in authority over her lover should be temporarily incapacitated, and the entire burden of the business be thrown on his shoulders long enough to demonstrate his true worth. As a sequel she beheld him promptly admitted to partnership and herself blissfully married.
The course of events did not respect her vision. After they had been engaged nearly four years Sir Galahad came to the conclusion one day that the only hope of establishing himself in business on his own account was (to repeat his own metaphor) to seize the bull by the horns and go West. Marion bravely and enthusiastically seconded his resolution, and fired his spirit by her own prophesy as to his rapid success. Western real estate for Eastern investors was the line of business to which Sir Galahad decided to fasten his hopes. He set forth upon his crusade protesting that within a twelve-month he would win a home for Marion and her mother in the fashionable quarter of St. Paul, Minnesota, and carrying in his valise a toilet-case tastefully embroidered by his sweetheart, in a corner of which were emblazoned two hearts beating as one.
Marion returned to her scholars more than ever convinced that her employment was but a transient occupation. What followed was this: Sir Galahad put out his sign as a broker in Western real estate for Eastern investors, and fifteen months slipped away before he earned more than his bare living expenses. He had carried with him his poetic tastes and his gift for private theatricals. The first of these he exercised in his fond letters home; the second he employed for the entertainment of the social club in St. Paul, to which he presently obtained admittance. By the end of the second year he was doing better financially, but his letters to Marion had become less frequent and less frank in regard to his own circumstances and doings. There came a letter at last from Sir Galahad — a letter of eight pages of soul stress and sorrow, as he would call it, and of disingenuous wriggling, as the world would call it — in which he explained as delicately as was possible under the circumstances that his love for Miss Willis had become the love of a brother for a sister, and that he was engaged to be married to Miss Virginia Crumb, the only daughter of Hon. Cephas I. Crumb, owner and treasurer of the Astarte Metal Works, of Minnesota. Exit Sir Galahad! And following his perfidy Marion's imagination evoked a vision of revenge in which she figured as the plaintiff in a breach-of-promise suit, and had the fierce yet melancholy joy of confronting him and his new love face to face before a sympathizing judge and jury. But her New England conscience and her sense of humor combined disposed of this vision in a summary fashion, so that she let Sir Galahad off with the assurance that it was a happiness to her that he had discovered how little he cared for her before it was too late. Then her New England conscience bade her settle down to her teaching with a grim courage, and be thankful that she had never been unfaithful to her work. Also her sense of humor told her that she must not assume all men to be false because Sir Galahad had been. It was then, when she needed him sorely, that destiny introduced Jimmy on the scene.
Jimmy was no Sir Galahad. He was a chunky, round-faced school-boy with brown hair, which, when it had not been cut for a month, blossomed into close, curly tangles. At first sight Jimmy was dull-eyed, and in the class his mental processes were so slow that he had already acquired among his mates the reputation of being stupid. The teacher who had taught him last confided to Miss Willis that she feared Jimmy was hopeless. Hopeless! Somehow the word went to Marion's heart. Not that she was hopeless; far from it she would have told you. But her sense of humor did not conceal from her that in spite of her grin-and-bear-it mien she was far from happy. At any rate, the suggestion that Jimmy was hopeless awoke a sympathetic chord in her breast, so that she looked at him more tenderly on the day after she had been told. Jimmy was slow of speech and rather dirty as to his face. There were warts on his hands, and his sphinx-like countenance was impassive almost to the point of stolidity. Somehow, though, Miss Willis said to herself, in her zeal to characterize him fairly, the little thirteen-year-old product of democracy (Jimmy was the son of a carpenter and a grocer's daughter) suggested power; suggested it as a block of granite or a bulldog suggests it. His compact, sturdy frame and well-poised head, with its close, brown curls, seemed a protest in themselves against hopelessness. On the third day he smiled; it was in recess that she detected him at it. An organ-grinder's monkey in the school-yard called it forth, a sweet, glad smile, which lit up his dense features as the sun at twilight will pierce through and illuminate for a few minutes a sullen cloud-bank. Miss Willis saw in a vision on the spot a refuge from hopelessness. Behind that smile there must be a winsome soul. That spiritless expression was but a veil or rind hiding the germs of sensibility and reason. This was discovery number one. After it came darkness again so far as outward manifestation was concerned. Jimmy's attitude toward his lessons appeared to be one of utter density. He listened with blank but slightly lowered eyes. When questioned he generally gurgled inarticulately, as though seeking a response, then broke down. Occasionally he essayed an answer, which revealed that he had understood nothing. Oftener he sought refuge in complete silence. But hope had been stimulated in Miss Willis' breast, and she relaxed neither scrutiny nor tenderness. One day matters were brought to a head by the thoughtless jest of a classmate, a flaxen-haired fairy, who, in the recess following one of Jimmy's least successful gurgles, crept up behind him and planted upon his curls a brown-paper cap, across which the little witch had painted “DUNCE” in large capital letters.
Jimmy did not know what had happened. For a moment he thought perhaps that he had been introduced to some new game. But the jeers of the children checked the rising smile and led him to pluck at his forehead. As he gazed at the fool's cap in his hand a roar of merciless laughter greeted his discovery. Miss Willis had realized the fairy's deed too late to prevent the catastrophe. The sharp tap of her ruler on the desk produced a silence interjected with giggles. The fairy was a successful scholar and would not have harmed a fly willingly. It was a case of fun — the rough expression of an indisputable fact. Jimmy was such a dunce that he ought really to wear the brand as a notice to the world. What Miss Willis said by way of reproof to the fairy is immaterial. If Jimmy heard it he gave no sign. He dropped his head upon his desk and was sobbing audibly. The bewildered children harkened to the protest against cruelty with that elfin look which mischievous youth dares assume, while the culprit stood with a finger in her mouth, not quite understanding the enormity of her conduct. In a moment more they were in the school-yard and Miss Willis was beside Jimmy's desk patting his tangled head. He wept as though his heart would break.
“No matter, Jimmy; it was only a thoughtless jest. She didn't mean to hurt your feelings.”
Her words and variations on the same theme called forth successive bursts of sobs. Only silence diminished their intensity. When at last they had become only quiverings of his shoulders he looked up and said, with a wail of fierce despair, but with a grasp upon self which was a fresh revelation:
“It's true; it's true! She did it because I'm so stupid!”
Thereupon his shoulders shook again convulsively, and he burst into fresh grief.
Marion's arms were about him in an instant. “Jimmy, Jimmy, it is not true! You are not stupid! You and I will fight it out together! Will you trust me, Jimmy?”
He sobbed, but she could perceive that he was listening. Had her hope become his? Surely they were words he had never heard before.
“Jimmy, listen to me. I have found out something, and all owing to that ridiculous dunce-cap. It is I who have been stupid. I never knew until now how much you wish to learn and to improve. You are not stupid, Jimmy. I am sure of it. You are slow, but you and I will put our heads together and make the best of that. Will you try with me, Jimmy?”
The curly head was raised again. His tear-stained eyes looked out at her shyly, but with a beam of astonished gratitude. From his quivering lips fell a low but resolute “Yes, ma'am!”
“We will begin to-day. We need each other, Jimmy.”
As a work of art grows slowly from confusion and lack of form to coherence and definiteness to the moral joy of its maker, so her experience in human plastic enterprise filled the heart of Miss Willis with a vital happiness. For two years — day in and day out — she never flagged in her task of giving sight to the eyes, and ears to the mind of the unshaped clay which fate had put into her hands for making or marring. How patient she had to be! How ingenious, vigilant and sympathetic! Through working upon the souls of Jimmy's father and mother by pathetic appeal she obtained permission to keep him an hour after school each day and drill him step by step, inch by inch. She brought her midday meal and shared it with him. In the evening she framed cunning devices to lure his budding intelligence. And from the very first she beheld her figure of human ignorance respond to her gentle molding. Jimmy's soul was first of all a hot-spring of ambition, the evidences of which, when recognized, were ever paramount. But how blocked and intricate were the passages through which this yearning for fame sought to equip the functions of its own being. Sometimes it seemed even to her as though she would never dissipate the fog-bank which tortured his intelligence. But Jimmy was patient, too, and his bulldog features were but the reflex of a grim tenacity of purpose. At the end of the first year she reported that he was unfit to be promoted, in order that she need not lose him just when he needed her most. She was able to make clear to Jimmy that this was not a disgrace, but a sign of progress. But when the end of the second year came she passed him on. Her task was done. The dull, clouded brow was clear with the light of eager reason; the still struggling faculties had begun to understand that in slowness there was the compensation of power, and were resolute with hope.
“Good-by, Miss Willis. I'm going to be at the head of my class next year; see if I'm not!”
So said Jimmy as he left her. She hesitated a moment, then stooped and kissed him. It made her blush, for she had never kissed a pupil before, nor any one but her mother since Sir Galahad. It made Jimmy blush, too, for he did not know exactly what to make of it. So they parted, and Jimmy went up the ladder of knowledge for two years more at that school. He was not the head of his class; he was number five the first year and number three the second. When he graduated he promised to write; but, boy-like, he never did, so he vanished into the open polar world, and was lost to the eyes of the woman who had grown gray in his service.
Yes, Miss Willis had grown gray. That is, there were more or less becoming threads of silver in her maiden tresses, and the dignity of middle age had added inches to her waist and a few interesting lines to her forehead. There was no new Sir Galahad on the horizon even of her day-dreams, and her mother was in failing health. Mrs. Willis continued now to fail for five years — years which taxed her daughter's strength, though not her affection. Pupils came and went — pupils to whom she gave herself with the faithfulness of her New England conscience — but no one exactly like Jimmy. He remained unique, yet lost in the stress of life. When her mother died she settled down as an incorrigible old maid, and her day-dreams knew no more the vision of a love coming from the clouds to possess her. Nor did the years bring with them realization of that other vision — herself enthroned in the public mind as a wonderful educator to whom the world should bow. She was only Miss Marion Willis, the next to the oldest and the most respected teacher of the Glendale grammar-school. So she found herself at the end of twenty-five years of continuous service. It did occur to her as a delightful possibility that the authorities or scholars or somebody would observe this quarter-centennial anniversary in a suitable manner, and a vision danced before her mind's eye of a surprise-party bearing a pretty piece of silver or a clock as a memorial of her life-work. But the date came and passed without comment from any source, and Marion's sense of humor made the best of it by drinking her own health on the evening of the day in question, and congratulating herself that she loved her work and was happy. At that supper there was no guest save Jimmy's tintype, which she fetched from the mantelpiece and leaned against the cake-basket on the table. Jimmy stood now not only for himself, but for a little army of struggling souls upon whom her patient intelligence had been freely lavished.
Of course, Jimmy was found. Miss Willis had always felt sure that he would be. But ten years more had slipped away before he was brought to light. One day she discovered his name in the newspaper as a rising political constellation, and she was convinced, without the least particle of evidence to support her credulity, that the James in question was her Jimmy. His name had suddenly become prominent in the political firmament on account of his resolute conduct as the mayor of a Western city. The public had been impressed by his strength and pluck and executive ability, working successfully against a gang of municipal cutthroats, and his name was being paraded over the country.
“I've half a mind to write to him and discover if it's he,” Miss Willis said to herself. “How surprised he would be to receive a postal-card ‘Are you my Jimmy?’” But somehow she refrained. She did not wish to run the risk of disappointment, though she was sure it was he. She preferred to wait and to watch him now that she had him under her eye again. This was an easy thing to do, for Jimmy the Mayor became Jimmy the Governor before two years passed, and one morning Miss Willis found facing her in the “Daily Dispatch” a newspaper cut of large dimensions which set her heart beating as it had not throbbed since the days of Sir Galahad. It was a portrait of her Jimmy; Jimmy magnified and grown into a hirsute man, but the same old Jimmy with the tangled hair, serious brow and large, pathetic eyes. Miss Willis laughed and Miss Willis cried, and presently, after she had time to realize the full meaning of what had happened, she had a vision of Jimmy in the White House, and herself, a venerable yet hale old woman, standing beside him in a famous company, and Jimmy was saying before them all, “I wish to make you acquainted with my dear teacher — the woman to whom I owe my start in life.” The idea tickled her imagination, and she said to herself that she would keep the secret until that happy day arrived. What a delightful secret it was, and how surprised he would be when she said to him, “I suppose you don't recognize me, Jimmy?” Then perhaps he would embrace her before everybody, and the newspapers would have her picture and give the particulars of her life.
Jimmy was not elected President until four years later, and in the meantime Miss Willis kept her secret. When he was nominated, and the details of his career were eagerly sought for, it was announced by the press that in early life he had attended the Glendale grammar-school, and the fact was regarded by the authorities as a feather in the school's cap, and was commemorated during the campaign by the display in the exhibition hall of a large picture of the candidate festooned with an American flag. It was vaguely remembered that he had been under Miss Willis, among other teachers, but the whole truth was unknown to anybody, and Marion's New England spirit shrank from obtaining glory and sympathy through brag. She hugged her secret, and bore it with her intact when she took her departure for Washington to attend the inauguration ceremonies. She did not tell the authorities where she was going when she asked for a leave of absence — the first she had ever requested in all her years of service. She was setting forth on the spree of her life, and her spirit was jubilant at the thought of Jimmy's amazement when he found out who she was.
A day came at last, after the new chief magistrate had taken the oaths of office and was in possession of the White House, when the American public was at liberty to file past their President and shake his hand in their might as free men and free women. Miss Willis had not been able to obtain a location near enough to the inauguration proceedings to distinguish more than the portly figure of a man, or to hear anything except the roar of the multitude. But now she was to have the chance to meet Jimmy face to face and overwhelm him with her secret. Little by little the file of visitors advanced on its passage toward the nation's representative, and presently Miss Willis caught her first glimpse of Sir Galahad — her real Sir Galahad. Her heart throbbed tumultuously. It was he — her Jimmy; he beyond the shadow of a doubt; a strong, grave, resolute man; the prototype of human power and American intelligence.
Her Jimmy! She let her eyes fall, for it would soon be her turn, and her nerves were all tingling with a happy mixture of pride and diffidence. Her vision, her dearest vision was about to be realized. There was no chance for delusion or disappointment now. So it seemed. Yet as she stood there waiting, with her New England conscience and her sense of humor still alive, of a sudden her imagination was seized by a new prospect. Why should she tell her secret? What was the use? There he stood — her Jimmy — good, great and successful, and she had helped to make him so. Nothing could ever deprive her of that. The truth was hers forever. She was only an elderly spinster. Perhaps he would have forgotten. He was but fifteen when he left her, and he had never written to her during all these years. Very likely he did not realize at all what she had done for him. Nothing which he could do for her now would add to the joy of her heart. Secret? To share it with him might spoil all. The chances were it was her secret only; only she could understand it. Some one at her ear was asking her name — she was close to the President now. Suddenly she heard her name called, and stepping forward she was face to face with her soul's knight and he was holding her hand.
“I am very glad to see you, Miss Willis,” she heard him say.
She had been stepping shyly, with her eyes lowered. At his words, spoken in a voice which for all its manliness was still the same, she looked up into his face, and murmured, as she pressed his fingers:
“God bless you, sir!”
She did not even say “Jimmy.” Then she passed, and — and her secret was safe.
Six months later Miss Willis was found one morning dead in her bed. She had died peacefully in her sleep. When her personal effects were administered there was noticed on the mantelpiece in her sitting-room a mounted tintype, on the paper back of which were two inscriptions. Of these the upper, in faded ink, contained a date forty years prior, and the legend “From Jimmy.” The other, recent and written with the pen of an elderly person, ran as follows, “Portrait of the President of the United States as a school-boy.”