Chapter XXI
 
   Vacation was approaching. The schoolmaster, always severe, grew severer
and more exacting than ever, for he wanted the school to make a good
showing on "Examination" day. His rod and his ferule were seldom idle
now-at least among the smaller pupils. Only the biggest boys, and young
ladies of eighteen and twenty, escaped lashing. Mr. Dobbins' lashings were
very vigorous ones, too; for although he carried, under his wig, a
perfectly bald and shiny head, he had only reached middle age, and there
was no sign of feebleness in his muscle. As the great day approached, all
the tyranny that was in him came to the surface; he seemed to take a
vindictive pleasure in punishing the least shortcomings. The consequence
was, that the smaller boys spent their days in terror and suffering and
their nights in plotting revenge. They threw away no opportunity to do the
master a mischief. But he kept ahead all the time. The retribution that
followed every vengeful success was so sweeping and majestic that the boys
always retired from the field badly worsted. At last they conspired
together and hit upon a plan that promised a dazzling victory. They swore
in the sign-painter's boy, told him the scheme, and asked his help. He had
his own reasons for being delighted, for the master boarded in his
father's family and had given the boy ample cause to hate him. The
master's wife would go on a visit to the country in a few days, and there
would be nothing to interfere with the plan; the master always prepared
himself for great occasions by getting pretty well fuddled, and the
sign-painter's boy said that when the dominie had reached the proper
condition on Examination Evening he would "manage the thing" while he
napped in his chair; then he would have him awakened at the right time and
hurried away to school.
In the fulness of time the interesting occasion arrived. At eight in
the evening the schoolhouse was brilliantly lighted, and adorned with
wreaths and festoons of foliage and flowers. The master sat throned in his
great chair upon a raised platform, with his blackboard behind him. He was
looking tolerably mellow. Three rows of benches on each side and six rows
in front of him were occupied by the dignitaries of the town and by the
parents of the pupils. To his left, back of the rows of citizens, was a
spacious temporary platform upon which were seated the scholars who were
to take part in the exercises of the evening; rows of small boys, washed
and dressed to an intolerable state of discomfort; rows of gawky big boys;
snowbanks of girls and young ladies clad in lawn and muslin and
conspicuously conscious of their bare arms, their grandmothers' ancient
trinkets, their bits of pink and blue ribbon and the flowers in their
hair. All the rest of the house was filled with non-participating
scholars.
The exercises began. A very little boy stood up and sheepishly recited,
"You'd scarce expect one of my age to speak in public on the stage,"
etc.-accompanying himself with the painfully exact and spasmodic gestures
which a machine might have used-supposing the machine to be a trifle out
of order. But he got through safely, though cruelly scared, and got a fine
round of applause when he made his manufactured bow and retired.
A little shamefaced girl lisped, "Mary had a little lamb," etc.,
performed a compassion-inspiring curtsy, got her meed of applause, and sat
down flushed and happy.
Tom Sawyer stepped forward with conceited confidence and soared into
the unquenchable and indestructible "Give me liberty or give me death"
speech, with fine fury and frantic gesticulation, and broke down in the
middle of it. A ghastly stage-fright seized him, his legs quaked under him
and he was like to choke. True, he had the manifest sympathy of the house
but he had the house's silence, too, which was even worse than its
sympathy. The master frowned, and this completed the disaster. Tom
struggled awhile and then retired, utterly defeated. There was a weak
attempt at applause, but it died early.
"The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" followed; also "The Assyrian Came
Down," and other declamatory gems. Then there were reading exercises, and
a spelling fight. The meagre Latin class recited with honor. The prime
feature of the evening was in order, now-original "compositions" by the
young ladies. Each in her turn stepped forward to the edge of the
platform, cleared her throat, held up her manuscript (tied with dainty
ribbon), and proceeded to read, with labored attention to "expression" and
punctuation. The themes were the same that had been illuminated upon
similar occasions by their mothers before them, their grandmothers, and
doubtless all their ancestors in the female line clear back to the
Crusades. "Friendship" was one; "Memories of Other Days"; "Religion in
History"; "Dream Land"; "The Advantages of Culture"; "Forms of Political
Government Compared and Contrasted"; "Melancholy"; "Filial Love"; "Heart
Longings," etc., etc.
A prevalent feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted
melancholy; another was a wasteful and opulent gush of "fine language";
another was a tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words and
phrases until they were worn entirely out; and a peculiarity that
conspicuously marked and marred them was the inveterate and intolerable
sermon that wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every one of
them. No matter what the subject might be, a brain-racking effort was made
to squirm it into some aspect or other that the moral and religious mind
could contemplate with edification. The glaring insincerity of these
sermons was not sufficient to compass the banishment of the fashion from
the schools, and it is not sufficient to-day; it never will be sufficient
while the world stands, perhaps. There is no school in all our land where
the young ladies do not feel obliged to close their compositions with a
sermon; and you will find that the sermon of the most frivolous and the
least religious girl in the school is always the longest and the most
relentlessly pious. But enough of this. Homely truth is unpalatable.
Let us return to the "Examination." The first composition that was read
was one entitled "Is this, then, Life?" Perhaps the reader can endure an
extract from it:
"In the common walks of life, with what delightful emotions does the
youthful mind look forward to some anticipated scene of festivity!
Imagination is busy sketching rose-tinted pictures of joy. In fancy, the
voluptuous votary of fashion sees herself amid the festive throng, 'the
observed of all observers.' Her graceful form, arrayed in snowy robes, is
whirling through the mazes of the joyous dance; her eye is brightest, her
step is lightest in the gay assembly.
"In such delicious fancies time quickly glides by, and the welcome hour
arrives for her entrance into the Elysian world, of which she has had such
bright dreams. How fairy-like does everything appear to her enchanted
vision! Each new scene is more charming than the last. But after a while
she finds that beneath this goodly exterior, all is vanity, the flattery
which once charmed her soul, now grates harshly upon her ear; the
ball-room has lost its charms; and with wasted health and imbittered
heart, she turns away with the conviction that earthly pleasures cannot
satisfy the longings of the soul!"
And so forth and so on. There was a buzz of gratification from time to
time during the reading, accompanied by whispered ejaculations of "How
sweet!" "How eloquent!" "So true!" etc., and after the thing had closed
with a peculiarly afflicting sermon the applause was enthusiastic.
Then arose a slim, melancholy girl, whose face had the "interesting"
paleness that comes of pills and indigestion, and read a "poem." Two
stanzas of it will do:

A MISSOURI MAIDEN'S FAREWELL TO ALABAMA

But yet for a while do I leave thee now!
Sad, yes, sad thoughts of thee my heart doth swell,
And burning recollections throng my brow!
For I have wandered through thy flowery woods;

Have roamed and read near Tallapoosa's stream;
Have listened to Tallassee's warring floods,
And wooed on Coosa's side Aurora's beam.
Yet shame I not to bear an o'er-full heart,

Nor blush to turn behind my tearful eyes;
Tis from no stranger land I now must part,
Tis to no strangers left I yield these sighs.
Welcome and home were mine within this State,

Whose vales I leave-whose spires fade fast from me
And cold must be mine eyes, and heart, and tete,
When, dear Alabama! they turn cold on thee!"

There were very few there who knew what "tete" meant, but the poem was
very satisfactory, nevertheless.
Next appeared a dark-complexioned, black-eyed, black-haired young lady,
who paused an impressive moment, assumed a tragic expression, and began to
read in a measured, solemn tone: