The Squire's Sixpence

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Pot Of Gold (D. Lothrop Company; Boston: 1892)

Patience Mather was saying the seven-multiplication table, when she heard a heavy step in the entry.

“That is Squire Bean,” whispered her friend, Martha Joy, who stood at her elbow.

Patience stopped short in horror. Her especial bugbear in mathematics was eight-times-seven; she was coming toward it fast — could she remember it, with old Squire Bean looking at her?

“Go on,” said the teacher severely. She was quite young, and also stood in some awe of Squire Bean, but she did not wish her pupils to discover it, so she pretended to ignore that step in the entry. Squire Bean walked with a heavy gilt-headed cane which always went clump, clump, at every step; beside he shuffled — one could always tell who was coming.

“Seven times seven,” begun Patience trembling — then the door opened — there stood Squire Bean.

The teacher rose promptly. She tried to be very easy and natural, but her pretty round cheeks turned red and white by turns.

“Good-morning, Squire Bean,” said she. Then she placed a chair on the platform for him.

Good-morning,” said he, and seated himself in a lumbering way — he was rather stiff with rheumatism. He was a large old man in a green camlet cloak with brass buttons.

“You may go on with the exercises,” said he to the teacher, after he had adjusted himself and wiped his face solemnly with a great red handkerchief.

“Go on, Patience,” said the teacher.

So Patience piped up in her little weak soprano: “Seven times seven are forty-nine. Eight times seven are” — She stopped short. Then she begun over again — “Eight times seven” —

The class with toes on the crack all swayed forward to look at her, the pupils at the foot stepped off till they swung it into a half-circle. Hands came up and gyrated wildly.

“Back on the line!” said the teacher sternly. Then they stepped back, but the hands indicative of superior knowledge still waved, the coarse jacket-sleeves and the gingham apron-sleeves slipping back from the thin childish wrists.

“Eight times seven are eighty-nine,” declared Patience desperately. The hands shook frantically, some of the owners stepped off the line again in their eagerness.

Patience's cheeks were red as poppies, her eyes were full of tears.

“You may try once more, Patience,” said the teacher, who was distressed herself. She feared lest Squire Bean might think that it was her fault, and that she was not a competent teacher, because Patience Mather did not know eight-times-seven.

So Patience started again — “Eight times seven” — She paused for a mighty mental effort — she must get it right this time. “Six” — she began feebly.

“What!” said Squire Bean suddenly, in a deep voice which sounded like a growl.

Then all at once poor little Patience heard a whisper sweet as an angel's in her ear: “Fifty-six.”

“Eight times seven are fifty-six,” said she convulsively.

“Right,” said the teacher with a relieved look. The hands went down. Patience stood with her neat little shoes toeing out on the crack. It was over. She had not failed before Squire Bean. For a few minutes, she could think of nothing but that.

The rest of the class had their weak points, moreover their strong points, overlooked in the presence of the company. The first thing Patience knew, ever so many had missed in the nine-table, and she had gone up to the head.

Standing there, all at once a terrible misgiving seized her. “I wouldn't have gone to the head if I hadn't been told,” she thought to herself. Martha was next below her; she knew that question in the nines, her hand had been up, so had John Allen's and Phœbe Adams'.

This was the last class before recess. Patience went soberly out in the yard with the other girls. There was a little restraint over all the scholars. They looked with awe at the Squire's horse and chaise. The horse was tied after a novel fashion, an invention of the Squire's own. He had driven a gimlet into the schoolhouse wall, and tied his horse to it with a stout rope. Whenever the Squire drove he carried with him his gimlet, in case there should be no hitching-post. Occasionally house-owners rebelled, but it made no difference; the next time the Squire had occasion to stop at their premises there was another gimlet-hole in the wall. Few people could make their way good against Squire Bean's.

There were a great many holes in the schoolhouse walls, for the Squire made frequent visits; he was one of the committee and considered himself very necessary for the well-being of the school. Indeed if he had frankly spoken his mind, he would probably have admitted that in his estimation the school could not be properly kept one day without his assistance.

Patience stood with her back against the school fence, and watched the others soberly. The girls wanted her to play “Little Sally Waters sitting in the sun,” but she said no, she didn't want to play.

Martha took hold of her arm and tried to pull her into the ring, but she held back.

“What is the matter?” said Martha.

“Nothing,” Patience said, but her face was full of trouble. There was a little wrinkle between her reflective brown eyes, and she drew in her under lip after a way she had when disturbed.

When the bell rang, the scholars filed in with the greatest order and decorum. Even the most frisky boys did no more than roll their eyes respectfully in the Squire's direction as they passed him, and they tiptoed on their bare feet in the most cautious manner.

The Squire sat through the remaining exercises, until it was time to close the school.

“You may put up your books,” said the teacher. There was a rustle and clatter, then a solemn hush. They all sat with their arms folded, looking expectantly at Squire Bean. The teacher turned to him. Her cheeks were very red, and she was very dignified, but her voice shook a little.

“Won't you make some remarks to the pupils?” said she.

Then the Squire rose and cleared his throat. The scholars did not pay much attention to what he said, although they sat still, with their eyes riveted on his face. But when, toward the close of his remarks, he put his hand in his pocket, and a faint jingling was heard, a thrill ran over the school.

The Squire pulled out two silver sixpences, and held them up impressively before the children. Through a hole in each of them dangled a palm-leaf strand; and the Squire's own initial was stamped on both.

“Thomas Arnold may step this way,” said the Squire.

Thomas Arnold had acquitted himself well in geography, and to him the Squire duly presented one of the sixpences.

Thomas bobbed, and pattered back to his seat with all his mates staring and grinning at him.

Then Patience Mather's heart jumped — Squire Bean was bidding her step that way, on account of her going to the head of the arithmetic class. She sat still. There was a roaring in her ears. Squire Bean spoke again. Then the teacher interposed. “Patience,” said she, “did you not hear what Squire Bean said? Step this way.”

Then Patience rose and dragged slowly down the aisle. She hung her head, she dimly heard Squire Bean speaking; then the sixpence touched her hand. Suddenly Patience looked up. There was a vein of heroism in the little girl. Not far back, some of her kin had been brave fighters in the Revolution. Now their little descendant went marching up to her own enemy in her own way. She spoke right up before Squire Bean.

“I'd rather you'd give it to some one else,” said she with a curtesy. “It doesn't belong to me. I wouldn't have gone to the head if I hadn't cheated.”

Patience's cheeks were white, but her eyes flashed. Squire Bean gasped, and turned it into a cough. Then he began asking her questions. Patience answered unflinchingly. She kept holding the sixpence toward him.

Finally he reached out and gave it a little push back.

“Keep it,” said he; “keep it, keep it. I don't give it to you for going to the head, but because you are an honest and truthful child.”

Patience blushed pink to her little neck. She curtesied deeply and returned to her seat, the silver sixpence dangling from her agitated little hand. She put her head down on her desk, and cried, now it was all over, and did not look up till school was dismissed, and Martha Joy came and put her arm around her and comforted her.

The two little girls were very close friends, and were together all the time which they could snatch out of school hours. Not long after the presentation of the sixpence, one night after school, Patience's mother wanted her to go on an errand to Nancy Gookin's hut.

Nancy Gookin was an Indian woman, who did a good many odd jobs for the neighbors. Mrs. Mather was expecting company, and she wanted her to come the next day and assist her about some cleaning.

Patience was usually willing enough, but to-night she demurred. In fact, she was a little afraid of the Indian woman, who lived all alone in a little hut on the edge of some woods. Her mother knew it, but it was a foolish fear, and she did not encourage her in it.

“There is no sense in your being afraid of Nancy,” she said with some severity. “She's a good woman, if she is an Injun, and she is always to be seen in the meeting-house of a Sabbath day.”

As her mother spoke, Patience could see Nancy's dark harsh old face peering over the pew, where she and some of her nation sat together, Sabbath days, and the image made her shudder in spite of its environments. However, she finally put on her little sunbonnet and set forth. It was a lovely summer twilight; she had only about a quarter of a mile to go, but her courage failed her more and more at every step. Martha Joy lived on the way. When she reached her house, she stopped and begged her to go with her. Martha was obliging; under ordinary circumstances she would have gone with alacrity, but to-night she had a hard toothache. She came to the door with her face all tied up in a hop-poultice. “I'm 'fraid I can't go,” she said dolefully.

But Patience begged and begged. “I'll spend my sixpence that uncle Joseph gave me, and I'll buy you a whole card of peppermints,” said she finally, by way of inducement.

That won the day. Martha got few sweets, and if there was anything she craved, it was the peppermints, which came, in those days, in big beautiful cards, to be broken off at will. And to have a whole card!

So poor Martha tied her little flapping sunbonnet over her swollen cheeks, and went with Patience to see Nancy Gookin, who received the message thankfully, and did not do them the least harm in the world.

Martha had really a very hard toothache. She did not sleep much that night for all the hop-poultice, and she went to school the next day feeling tired and cross. She was a nervous little girl, and never bore illness very well. But to-day she had one pleasant anticipation. She thought often of that card of peppermints. It had cheered her somewhat in her uneasy night. She thought that Patience would surely bring them to school. She came early herself and watched for her. She entered quite late, just before the bell rang. Martha ran up to her. “I haven't got the peppermints,” said Patience. She had been crying.

Martha straightened up: “Why not?”

The tears welled out of Patience's eyes. “I can't find that sixpence anywhere.”

The tears came into Martha's eyes too. She looked as dignified as her poulticed face would allow. “I never knew you told fibs, Patience Mather,” said she. “I don't believe my mother will want me to go with you any more.”

Just then the bell rang. Martha went crying to her seat, and the others thought it was on account of her toothache. Patience kept back her tears. She was forming a desperate resolution. When recess came, she got permission to go to the store which was quite near, and she bought a card of peppermints with the Squire's sixpence. She had pulled out the palm-leaf strand on her way, thrusting it into her pocket guiltily. She felt as if she were committing sacrilege. These sixpences, which Squire Bean bestowed upon worthy scholars from time to time, were ostensibly for the purpose of book-marks. That was the reason for the palm-leaf strand. The Squire took the sixpences to the blacksmith who stamped them with B's, and then with his own hands, he adjusted the palm-leaf.

The man who kept the store looked at the sixpence curiously, when Patience offered it.

“One of the Squire's sixpences!” said he.

“Yes; it's mine.” That was the argument which Patience had set forth to her own conscience. It was certainly her own sixpence; the Squire had given it to her — had she not a right to do as she chose with it?

The man laughed; his name was Ezra Tomkins, and he enjoyed a joke. He was privately resolving to give that sixpence in change to the old Squire and see what he would say. If Patience had guessed his thoughts —

But she took the card of peppermints, and carried them to the appeased and repentant and curious Martha, and waited further developments in trepidation. She had a presentiment deep within her childish soul that some day she would have a reckoning with Squire Bean concerning his sixpence.

If by chance she had to pass his house, she would hurry by at her utmost speed lest she be intercepted. She got out of his way as fast as she could if she spied his old horse and chaise in the distance. Still she knew the day would come; and it did.

It was one Saturday afternoon; school did not keep, and she was all alone in the house with Martha. Her mother had gone visiting. The two little girls were playing “Holly Gull, Passed how many,” with beans in the kitchen, when the door opened, and in walked Susan Elder. She was a woman who lived at Squire Bean's and helped his wife with the housework.

The minute Patience saw her, she knew what her errand was. She gave a great start. Then she looked at Susan Elder with her big frightened eyes.

Susan Elder was a stout old woman. She sat down on the settle, and wheezed before she spoke. “Squire Bean wants you to come up to his house right away,” said she at last.

Patience trembled all over. “My mother is gone away. I don't know as she would want me to go,” she ventured despairingly.

“He wants you to come right away,” said Susan.

“I don't believe mother'd want me to leave the house alone.”

“I'll stay an' rest till you git back; I'd jest as soon. I'm all tuckered out comin' up the hill.”

Patience was very pale. She cast an agonized glance at Martha. “I spent the Squire's sixpence for those peppermints,” she whispered. She had not told her before.

Martha looked at her in horror — then she begun to cry. “Oh! I made you do it,” she sobbed.

“Won't you go with me?” groaned Patience.

“One little gal is enough,” spoke up Susan Elder. “He won't like it if two goes.”

That settled it. Poor little Patience Mather crept meekly out of the house and down the hill to Squire Bean's, without even Martha's foreboding sympathy for consolation.

She looked ahead wistfully all the way. If she could only see her mother coming — but she did not, and there was Squire Bean's house, square and white and massive, with great sprawling clumps of white peonies in the front yard.

She went around to the back door, and raised a feeble clatter with the knocker. Mrs. Squire Bean, who was tall and thin and mild-looking, answered her knock. “The — Squire — sent — for — me” — choked Patience.

“Oh!” said the old lady, “you air the little Mather-gal, I guess.”

Patience shook so she could hardly reply.

“You'd better go right into his room,” said Mrs. Squire Bean, and Patience followed her. She gave her a little pat when she opened a door on the right. “Don't you be afeard,” said she; “he won't say nothin' to you. I'll give you a piece of sweet-cake when you come out.”

Thus admonished, Patience entered. “Here's the little Mather-gal,” Mrs. Bean remarked; then the door closed again on her mild old face.

When Patience first looked at that room, she had a wild impulse to turn and run. A conviction flashed through her mind that she could outrun Squire Bean and his wife easily. In fact, the queer aspect of the room was not calculated to dispel her nervous terror. Squire Bean's peculiarities showed forth in the arrangement of his room, as well as in other ways. His floor was painted drab, and in the center were the sun and solar system depicted in yellow. But that six-rayed yellow sun, the size of a large dinner plate, with its group of lesser six-rayed orbs as large as saucers, did not startle Patience as much as the rug beside the Squire's bed. That was made of a brindle cow-skin with — the horns on. The little girl's fascinated gaze rested on these bristling horns and could not tear itself away. Across the foot of the Squire's bed lay a great iron bar; that was a housewifely scheme of his own to keep the clothes well down at the foot. But Patience's fertile imagination construed it into a dire weapon of punishment.

The Squire was sitting at his old cherry desk. He turned around and looked at Patience sharply from under his shaggy, overhanging brows.

Then he fumbled in his pocket and brought something out — it was the sixpence. Then he began talking. Patience could not have told what he said. Her mind was entirely full of what she had to say. Somehow she stammered out the story: how she had been afraid to go to Nancy Gookin's, and how she had lost the sixpence her uncle had given her, and how Martha had said she told a fib. Patience trembled and gasped out the words, and curtesied, once in a while, when the Squire said something.

“Come here,” said he, when he had sat for a minute or two, taking in the facts of the case.

To Patience's utter astonishment, Squire Bean was laughing, and holding out the sixpence.

“Have you got the palm-leaf string?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Patience, curtesying.

“Well, you may take this home, and put in the palm-leaf string, and use it for a marker in your book — but don't you spend it again.”

“No, sir.” Patience curtesied again.

“You did very wrong to spend it, very wrong. Those sixpences are not given to you to spend. But I will overlook it this once.”

The Squire extended the sixpence. Patience took it, with another dip of her little skirt. Then he turned around to his desk.

Patience waited a few minutes. She did not know whether she was dismissed or not. Finally the Squire begun to add aloud: “Five and five are ten,” he said, “ought, and carry the one.”

He was adding a bill. Then Patience stole out softly. Mrs. Squire Bean was waiting in the kitchen. She gave her a great piece of plum-cake and kissed her.

“He didn't hurt you any, did he?” said she.

“No, ma'am,” said Patience, looking with a bewildered smile at the sixpence.

That night she tied in the palm-leaf strand again, and she put the sixpence in her Geography-book, and she kept it so safely all her life that her great-grandchildren have seen it.