The main schoolroom in the Millville Academy was brilliantly lighted, and the various desks were occupied by boys and girls of different ages from ten to eighteen, all busily writing under the general direction of Professor George W. Granville, Instructor in Plain and Ornamental Penmanship.
Professor Granville, as he styled himself, was a traveling teacher, and generally had two or three evening schools in progress in different places at the same time. He was really a very good penman, and in a course of twelve lessons, for which he charged the very moderate price of a dollar, not, of course, including stationery, he contrived to impart considerable instruction, and such pupils as chose to learn were likely to profit by his instructions. His venture in Millville had been unusually successful. There were a hundred pupils on his list, and there had been no disturbance during the course of lessons.
At nine precisely, Professor Granville struck a small bell, and said, in rather a nasal voice:
“You will now stop writing.”
There was a little confusion as the books were closed and the pens were wiped.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the professor, placing one arm under his coat tails and extending the other in an oratorical attitude, “this evening completes the course of lessons which I have had the honor and pleasure of giving you. I have endeavored to impart to you an easy and graceful penmanship, such as may be a recommendation to you in after life. It gives me pleasure to state that many of you have made great proficiency, and equaled my highest expectations. There are others, perhaps, who have not been fully sensible of the privileges which they enjoyed. I would say to you all that perfection is not yet attained. You will need practice to reap the full benefit of my instructions. Should my life be spared, I shall hope next winter to give another course of writing lessons in this place, and I hope I may then have the pleasure of meeting you again as pupils. Let me say, in conclusion, that I thank you for your patronage and for your good behavior during this course of lessons, and at the same time I bid you good-by.”
With the closing words, Professor Granville made a low bow, and placed his hand on his heart, as he had done probably fifty times before, on delivering the same speech, which was the stereotyped form in which he closed his evening schools.
There was a thumping of feet, mingled with a clapping of hands, as the professor closed his speech, and a moment later a boy of sixteen, occupying one of the front seats, rose, and, advancing with easy self-possession, drew from his pocket a gold pencil case, containing a pencil and pen, and spoke as follows:
“Professor Granville, the members of your writing class, desirous of testifying their appreciation of your services as teacher, have contributed to buy this gold pencil case, which, in their name, I have great pleasure in presenting to you. Will you receive it with our best wishes for your continued success as a teacher of penmanship?”
With these words, he handed the pencil to the professor and returned to his seat.
The applause that ensued was terrific, causing the dust to rise from the floor where it had lain undisturbed till the violent attack of two hundred feet raised it in clouds, through which the figure of the professor was still visible, with his right arm again extended.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he commenced, “I cannot give fitting utterance to the emotions that fill my heart at this most unexpected tribute of regard and mark of appreciation of my humble services. Believe me, I shall always cherish it as a most valued possession, and the sight of it will recall the pleasant, and, I hope, profitable hours which we have passed together this winter. To you, in particular, Mr. Rushton, I express my thanks for the touching and eloquent manner in which you have made the presentation, and, in parting with you all, I echo your own good wishes, and shall hope that you may be favored with an abundant measure of health and prosperity.”
This speech was also vociferously applauded. It was generally considered impromptu, but was, in truth, as stereotyped as the other. Professor Granville had on previous occasions been the recipient of similar testimonials, and he had found it convenient to have a set form of acknowledgment. He was wise in this, for it is a hard thing on the spur of the moment suitably to offer thanks for an unexpected gift.
“The professor made a bully speech,” said more than one after the exercises were over.
“So did Bob Rushton,” said Edward Kent.
“I didn’t see anything extraordinary in what he said,” sneered Halbert Davis. “It seemed to me very commonplace.”
“Perhaps you could do better yourself, Halbert,” said Kent.
“Probably I could,” said Halbert, haughtily.
“Why didn’t you volunteer, then?”
“I didn’t care to have anything to do with it,” returned Halbert, scornfully.
“That’s lucky,” remarked Edward, “as there was no chance of your getting appointed.”
“Do you mean to insult me?” demanded Halbert, angrily.
“No, I was only telling the truth.”
Halbert turned away, too disgusted to make any reply. He was a boy of sixteen, of slender form and sallow complexion, dressed with more pretension than taste. Probably there was no boy present whose suit was of such fine material as his. But something more than fine clothes is needed to give a fine appearance, and Halbert’s mean and insignificant features were far from rendering him attractive, and despite the testimony of his glass, Halbert considered himself a young man of distinguished appearance, and was utterly blind to his personal defects.
What contributed to feed his vanity was his position as the son of the richest man in Millville. Indeed, his father was superintendent, and part owner, of the great brick factory on the banks of the river, in which hundreds found employment. Halbert found plenty to fawn upon him, and was in the habit of strutting about the village, swinging a light cane, neither a useful nor an ornamental member of the community.
After his brief altercation with Edward Kent, he drew on a pair of kid gloves, and looked about the room for Hester Paine, the lawyer’s daughter, the reigning belle among the girls of her age in Millville. The fact was, that Halbert was rather smitten with Hester, and had made up his mind to escort her home on this particular evening, never doubting that his escort would be thankfully accepted.
But he was not quick enough, Robert Rushton had already approached Hester, and said, “Miss Hester, will you allow me to see you home?”
“I shall be very glad to have your company, Robert,” said Hester.
Robert was a general favorite. He had a bright, attractive face, strong and resolute, when there was occasion, frank and earnest at all times. His clothes were neat and clean, but of a coarse, mixed cloth, evidently of low price, suiting his circumstances, for he was poor, and his mother and himself depended mainly upon his earnings in the factory for the necessaries of life. Hester Paine, being the daughter of a well-to-do lawyer, belonged to the village aristocracy, and so far as worldly wealth was concerned, was far above Robert Rushton. But such considerations never entered her mind, as she frankly, and with real pleasure, accepted the escort of the poor factory boy.
Scarcely had she done so when Halbert Davis approached, smoothing his kid gloves, and pulling at his necktie.
“Miss Hester,” he said, consequentially, “I shall have great pleasure in escorting you home.”
“Thank you,” said Hester, “but I am engaged.”
“Engaged!” repeated Halbert, “And to whom?”
“Robert Rushton has kindly offered to take me home.”
“Robert Rushton!” said Halbert, disdainfully. “Never mind. I will relieve him of his duty.”
“Thank you, Halbert,” said Robert, who was standing by, “I won’t trouble you. I will see Miss Paine home.”
“Your escort was accepted because you were the first to offer it,” said Halbert.
“Miss Hester,” said Robert, “I will resign in favor of Halbert, if you desire it.”
“I don’t desire it,” said the young girl, promptly. “Come, Robert, I am ready if you are.”
With a careless nod to Halbert, she took Robert’s arm, and left the schoolhouse. Mortified and angry, Halbert looked after them, muttering, “I’ll teach the factory boy a lesson. He’ll be sorry for his impudence yet.”
Mrs. Rushton and her son occupied a little cottage, not far from the factory. Behind it were a few square rods of garden, in which Robert raised a few vegetables, working generally before or after his labor in the factory. They lived in a very plain way, but Mrs. Rushton was an excellent manager, and they had never lacked the common comforts of life. The husband and father had followed the sea. Two years before, he left the port of Boston as captain of the ship Norman, bound for Calcutta. Not a word had reached his wife and son since then, and it was generally believed that it had gone to the bottom of the sea. Mrs. Rushton regarded herself as a widow, and Robert, entering the factory, took upon himself the support of the family. He was now able to earn six dollars a week, and this, with his mother’s earnings in braiding straw for a hat manufacturer in a neighboring town, supported them, though they were unable to lay up anything. The price of a term at the writing school was so small that Robert thought he could indulge himself in it, feeling that a good handwriting was a valuable acquisition, and might hereafter procure him employment in some business house. For the present, he could not do better than to retain his place in the factory.
Robert was up at six the next morning. He spent half an hour in sawing and splitting wood enough to last his mother through the day, and then entered the kitchen, where breakfast was ready.
“I am a little late this morning, mother,” he said. “I must hurry down my breakfast, or I shall be late at the factory, and that will bring twenty-five cents fine.”
“It would be a pity to get fined, but you mustn’t eat too fast. It is not healthful.”
“I’ve got a pretty good digestion, mother,” said Robert, laughing. “Nothing troubles me.”
“Still, you mustn’t trifle with it. Do you remember, Robert,” added his mother, soberly, “it is just two years to-day since your poor father left us for Boston to take command of his ship?”
“So it is, mother; I had forgotten it.”
“I little thought then that I should never see him again!” and Mrs. Rushton sighed.
“It is strange we have never heard anything of the ship.”
“Not so strange, Robert. It must have gone down when no other vessel was in sight.”
“I wish we knew the particulars, mother. Sometimes I think father may have escaped from the ship in a boat, and may be still alive.”
“I used to think it possible, Robert; but I have given up all hopes of it. Two years have passed, and if your father were alive, we should have seen him or heard from him ere this.”
“I am afraid you are right. There’s one thing I can’t help thinking of, mother,” said Robert, thoughtfully. “How is it that father left no property? He received a good salary, did he not?”