A Sparrow's Nest

Mary E. Wilkins, in Good Cheer.

From Havana Journal September 10, 1887

“There's no use talking, I know the rent isn't paid!”

“Now, mother, don't worry; everything will turn out all right.”

“That's what you say. I don't see myself what's to hinder our being turned out on the street, if the rent isn't paid in two weeks.”

“Why, mother, you know Mr. King wouldn't do such a thing as that. He would wait a little while. He has always been real kind.”

“People can't wait forever.”

“Now, mother, don't sit here and worry about that all day.”

“I can't help it. It's nothing but worry all the time, as far as I can see.”

“Well, there isn't any use in it. Perhaps I shall get the Elliot School, who knows?” Sarah said, laughingly.

“You won't. You might have, if Florence Benton thought as much of you as she pretended to once. Judge Benton could get the place for you by lifting his little finger. But that's always the way, the poorer any one is and the more she needs it, the less she has done for her.”

“You're all discouraged this morning, mother. Now don't sit here and fret and make yourself sick. I've left everything where you can get it, and I'll come home early and bring something nice for supper. What do you want?”

“I don't want anything,” sighed her mother. Sarah Mayhew stooped and kissed her, then she hurried away. It was high time that she did. She had a mile to walk to her school, and it was already half-past eight.

It was raining very hard when she stepped out-of-doors. All the green tree boughs tossed in a mist, and the grasses bent over, they were so heavy with rain drops. The moment that she opened the door, she could hear the great roar of the river at the east. It was very high.

When she came to the Elliot School-house she looked at it longingly. It was a noble brick building, and accommodated several graded schools. There was shortly to be a vacancy in the corps of instructors; the assistant principal of the grammar school had resigned, the resignation to take effect at the close of the present term. Sarah had resolved to apply for the position, which meant six hundred dollars a year, and the ability to hire a pretty little tenement for herself and mother, which stood vacant near the school house.

Just after she passed the Elliot School she met Florence Benton. There was a strange young lady with her, probably some school friend, she thought to herself. She knew that Florence was home on a vacation; she attended a boarding school in a neighboring city.

The two girls in their pretty gray waterproofs came tripping along, laughing and talking in the rain. They held a silk umbrella between them airily. Florence's cheeks were a lovely pink from the damp, fresh wind; her dark eyes were radiant. She nodded in a gay, careless way to Sarah, as they passed, and did not stop talking to her friend.

Sarah plodded on, damp and shabby, her resolute face pale. This was the first time she had seen Florence since her return from school; they had been gradually drifting apart for two years, but this was the farthest drift of all. Florence had always stopped and greeted her pleasantly, although she rarely visited her nowadays. Sarah had told herself, many a time, that it was all natural enough, and that Florence was not to blame. They had been almost like sisters when they attended the village school together. Sarah had been at home in Florence's house, and Florence in hers; but now, of course, it must be different. Florence was in a city boarding-school. She was forming new acquaintances with girls who were of her own social standing. She could not have as much in common with Sarah Mayhew, and Sarah Mayhew ought not to expect it nor feel hurt.

As she went on, the roar of the river grew louder; the road curved more and more in its direction. Sarah's little school-house, which was in an outlying district of the village, was peculiarly situated. It stood in a meadow in an angle formed by the junction of a brook, known as “Stony Brook,” with the river. The brook was an inconsiderable stream, although it worked a grist-mill, and boasted of a dam two miles above. However, the flood of to-day would swell the tiniest rill, and Sarah, as she drew near her school-house, could hear the little angry song of the brook beside the roar of the river.

She doubted if she would find a pupil there, the nearest lived half a mile away; but eight were assembled, five boys and three girls. The oldest boy was nine, the youngest girl five. Her name was Bessie Morton; she was a pretty, black-eyed little thing. She had come under the guardianship of her older brother, but Sarah wondered how her mother had happened to let her.

Sarah built a fire in the little box stove, so the children could dry their wet clothes, then she begun the usual exercises of the school. It seemed almost a farce with this number of pupils, but Sarah was punctilious in the discharge of her duties; and, moreover, the school committee and the parents of this district were somewhat exacting. Sarah knew that, if they sent their children to school, they would expect them to be regularly and faithfully taught.

It was half an hour before noon. Sarah was about to call the scholars out on the floor to spell when suddenly they began whispering excitedly. She thumped her ruler upon the desk, but they paid no attention. A boy near the window had arisen and was looking out, and gesticulating wildly. All at once the other children left their seats and rushed toward him, pressing wildly up to the window.

Sarah brought her ruler down on her desk again.

“Children!” she cried out, sternly, “what does this mean?”

They answered her with a piteous cry: “O teacher, teacher! Come here, come here quick! Just look. The water, the water! It's all around the school-house!”

Sarah went quickly to the nearest window, and saw that the meadow was flooded. The water was up to the sill of the first story windows.

The children clustered around her, clinging to her dress, and crying, “O teacher!” they sobbed, “what is it? What shall we do? How are we going to get home?”

Poor little Bessie Morton screamed for her mother.

Sarah was puzzled for a moment, then she knew. The dam two miles up the brook had given way. A dreadful misgiving seized upon her when she understood that, but she never changed a muscle of her resolute, smiling face.

“Hush,” said she, “what are you doing so for? Go back to your seats. I shall keep the first one who speaks in at recess.” The utter absurdity of that last remark struck Sarah as she spoke. She felt a nervous desire to laugh, but she looked steadily at the children with that strong, serene young face of hers, and they obeyed.

They stared at her a minute, then they stopped crying and went quietly back to their seats. If the teacher was not frightened, there was no danger, they argued.

Sarah remained by the window, looking out composedly. “The brook has overflowed a little,” she remarked, in an even voice. “It often happens on meadow land.”

Even as she spoke, she saw that the water was rising; she had been fixing her attention upon a little mossy knot in a great button-wood tree, which grew a few feet from the window. The water was certainly coming nearer to it.

This school-house had not been built for one originally. It was merely a small, two-story dwelling house, which had been moved here, and devoted to educational purposes, although it was painted red and had much of the conventional school-house look.

The school was held in the second story; the first was used for storing fuel, so doing away with the necessity for a woodshed.

Sarah turned to the children. “Remain in your seats, and keep quiet until I return,” she said, authoritatively. Then she stepped out into the entry and looked down stairs. She could not see the lower floor. Out here listening, without all those terrified faces looking into hers for a sign of weakness, she became convinced of something which she had suspected — the building trembled, as if it were stirring softly on its foundation. This was not a strongly built house, nor was it strongly set on the meadow. That Sarah knew. If the water rose a little more — if the force of the current grew a little stronger — what then? That Sarah Mayhew knew.

She looked out of the entry window toward the submerged street. If anybody would come. If she could see a boat gliding to the rescue between those dripping trees. Somebody must come, somebody must think of the terrible danger to which she and those helpless children were exposed. But the conviction gained upon her that the danger might be lapsed in certainty, and the worst over before those rescuers appeared. Whatever human help was to come at all must come quickly, and come from her.

“O Lord,” whispered Sarah Mayhew, “help me to save them.”

Standing there in that little, dark steaming entry, the horrible rush of the water in her ears, she gathered every energy which was in her for effort. She saw a long rope, which the children had used for their games in a corner, she picked it up and carried it into the school-room with her.

The poor children turned their pale, inquiring faces toward her. “Get out your spelling-books,” said she, calmly, “and study your lessons.”

The little things stared at her and obeyed. She went to the window and looked at the button-wood tree. If any tree would stand the pressure of the flood, that would. It did not seem as if that grand trunk could be stirred. Just opposite this window was a broad branch, stretching parallel to it, only a few feet away.

Sarah stood gazing at it a minute. Then she decided — the furniture of this school-room was rough and rustic; rude wooden desks, with slabs fastened to them for seats. Along two sides of the room ran long wooden benches; planks, merely, with supports.

Sarah dragged one of them up to the window, then she called the little boys. “Come here a minute, boys,” said she. They sprang. They had been watching her curiously.

“Now,” said she, coolly, “we'll all take hold of this together and lift the end up to the window.”

“Now, we want to push it across on to that tree branch.”

Sarah had some wiry muscle in her small arms, and the nine-year-old boy was stout for his age. They pushed the bench across. The support at the end caught on the branch and held firmly.

The children looked up at Sarah with bewildered faces.

“Are we going out there?” asked the oldest boy. The others began to whimper.

“Stop talking and wait until I tell you,” said the teacher. “Now I want you to all go out in the entry and put on your things, and get your dinner-pails.”

Sarah felt the house tremble very perceptibly as they went. One of them looked back. “The house shakes, teacher,” he said, with a sob.

“Be quick,” said she, “it won't do any harm.”

She tied on the little girl-baby's hood, and buttoned up her coat carefully, and put on her own poor waterproof cloak again. The children all huddled around her at the window, their dinner pails in their hands.

Sarah took up the children's “Copenhagen” rope, and slung it in a coil over her arm. Then she got on a chair, and stepped from that to the bench-bridge. It trod firm. She walked along a step and stood just outside the window. “Now, Willie,” she called to the oldest boy, “come right up here, behind me.”

He was a plucky little fellow, lithe and nimble as a squirrel. He sprang up promptly, and stood behind her, his pretty light hair tossing in the wind.

“Now,” said she, “take hold of my cloak, and hold on tight. Look right ahead at me, and walk straight. Don't be afraid.”

“I ain't a bit afraid!” said the little fellow, and followed.

They reached the great tree safely. Sarah seated the boy on one of the branches, lashed him to it with one end of the rope, and returned for another child.

Eight times Sarah Mayhew traversed that perilous bridge, three times she carried a child in her arms, who was afraid to walk, and shrunk back with frantic screams. The branch to which the bench was extended was a little lower than the window. It tilted a little as she advanced, but she never shrank nor swerved. That slender, girlish figure moved on through the thick river mist, over that frail support, as straight and unhesitating as any mechanical thing. Her nerves never rebelled against that unselfish, self-sacrificing mind.

At last she had them safe for the present, at all events, every one of them lashed to the splendid button-wood tree with their “Copenhagen” rope. They were huddled close together where the main branches left the trunk; poor babies in their little hats and coats, with their tin dinner-pails on their arms.

Sarah loosened the end of the bench from the branch, and it tilted down into the water with a splash.

The children, in their nervous terror, screamed out. “Now we can't get back,” they cried, and burst out in loud sobs.

“Hush,” said Sarah, “what are you crying for? You don't want to get back.”

She held the littlest girl in her lap, and tried to pacify her. She clung close to her and trembled.

“I want to go home,” she kept murmuring. “I want my mamma.”

Sarah, sitting there, saw a bird's nest on the branch not far from her. The bird fluttered down to it after a while. Somehow that little frail nest and little helpless bird in the button-wood tree encouraged Sarah. She kept her brave, patient eyes fixed upon it.

“See the bird in the nest,” she motioned to the children, but they paid little attention.

They were watching the school-house with frightened eyes. They could see it rock. “The school-house is moving, teacher,” they shrieked.

“I see it,” said she. “I wouldn't wonder if it sailed off like a boat.”

Sarah had a terrible anxiety in her heart. Suppose the house should float this way — would it overthrow the tree? Would it shake them from the branches? Suppose it should topple over, and its roof come crashing down upon them?

As the house rocked more, she watched it more steadily, as if her gaze could avert the danger. If the house merely floated along in the current everything would be well.

“It's going!” shrieked the children, “the school-house is going!”

The red school-house lurched their way, righted herself, then sailed, bobbing and wavering down the current. The button-wood tree trembled a little, that was all; some of the branches had been jostled.

The children watched the departing school-house with awe. “We would be gone down over the falls, an' been drownded, if we'd stayed in it,” said the nine-year old reflectively.

Sarah held Bessie close. Her heart was full of thankfulness, before which everything else paled. If these children were saved to their parents, what did anything else matter?

The rain had ceased, but they were surrounded by a thick mist, like a wall. They could not see a rod away. They could only hear that awful roar of water in the distance, and the soft lap of it around the button-wood trunk. Sarah talked to the children and tried to keep up their courage. She made them eat their dinners, but the time wore on heavily. Would help never come!

It was four o'clock before Sarah heard a sound of voices, faint halloos in the distance. “Children,” she cried, “they are coming! Your fathers are coming for you! Sing, sing quick, as loud as you can, so they will know where you are! Sing ‘Lightly Row.’”

Sarah led off the little tune they had sung so often in school. The children's sweet, weak voices chimed in. Never would music sound as sweet as that to those anxious ones coming over the flooded meadow in their boats. Guided by it they rowed straight for the button-wood tree.

“Here they are, and all safe, thank God!” said one, with a great sob. He was little Bessie's father.

Sarah watched them all taken down into the boats. She would not go herself until the last one was safe; she even helped untie the rope, but a great faintness and dizziness was coming over her.

She realized faintly that they were lifting her into a boat, she saw Judge Benton's face, then she knew no more.

When she came to herself she was lying on the bed in Florence Benton's pretty room, which she remembered so well. The doctor was there, and Mrs. Benton, and Florence's beautiful face was bending over her, with tears in the sweet eyes.

“O!” she cried, “she's better! mamma, she's better! O Sarah, you dear old Sarah, I am so glad. Mamma, she's smiling at me! O Sarah, I'll never treat you so again!”

It was a month later when Sarah came home from Florence's one evening — she had been there to tea. She entered the room and stood smiling at her mother a minute. Her eyes were shining, her cheeks were almost as rosy as Florence's. “Mother,” she said, “I've got the Elliot School.”