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A short story by Harriet S. Caswell

Edward Barton

Title:     Edward Barton
Author: Harriet S. Caswell [More Titles by Caswell]

My schoolmate Edward Barton, or 'Ned' as he was usually called by the boys, was such an odd character in his way, that I trust my readers will pardon me for introducing him to their notice. His father was a physician in a distant village, and was justly esteemed among the residents of the place. He had an extensive practice both in the village and surrounding country, and his time was very much occupied; and as Ned grew up he proved a source of constant anxiety to his father, who, being unable to keep him under his own eye, at length decided to send him to reside with some relatives in a farming district some twenty miles distant from his home. Ned's disposition was a singular compound of good and evil, and his conduct depended in a great measure, upon the companions he associated with. He was easily persuaded, and often during his father's frequent and lengthened absences from home he played truant from school, and associated with the worst boys in the village. I well remember the first morning he entered our school. He was then about twelve years of age; but, owing to his carelessness and inattention, he had made but slight progress in study. I learned afterwards that he had so long borne the names of "dunce" and "blockhead" in the school he attended in his own village, that he supposed himself to be really such, and made up his mind that it was useless for him to try to be anything else: and I think when our teacher first called him up for examination he was inclined to be of the same opinion. The teacher first addressed him by saying, "How far have you advanced in reading, my boy?" "Don't know sir, never thought anything about how far I've been." "Well, at least," replied the master, "you can tell me the names of the books you have studied, in reading and spelling." "Oh, yes," replied the boy, "I've been clean through 'Webster's Elementary and the Progressive Reader.'" "Can you tell me the subject of any of your lessons?" "I can just remember one story about a dog that was crossing a river on a plank with a piece of meat in his mouth, and when he saw his shadder in the water, made a spring at it and dropped the meat which he held in his mouth, and it was at once carried away by the current." "Well," said the teacher, "as you remember the story so well, you can perhaps tell me what lesson we can learn from this fable." "I thought," replied the boy, "when I read the story, that the best way is to hold on to what we are sure of, and not grab after a shadder and lose the whole." "Your idea is certainly a correct one," said the master, "and now we will turn to some other branch of study; can you cipher?" "Don't know, I never tried," replied the boy, with the greatest coolness imaginable. "Well," replied the teacher, "we will after a time see how you succeed, when you do try. Can you tell me what the study of Geography teaches us!" "O," said the boy, "geography tells all about the world, the folks who live in it, and 'most every thing else." The master then asked him some questions regarding the divisions of land and water, and for a short time he answered with some degree of correctness. At length, while referring to the divisions of water, the master said "can you tell me what is a strait?" This question seemed a "puzzler" to him, and for some moments he looked down as if studying the matter; when the question was repeated in rather a sharp tone, it seemed he thought it wiser to give an answer of some kind than none at all, and he replied: "When a river runs in a straight course, we call it straight, and when it twists and winds about, we call it crooked." "A river is not a strait," replied the teacher with the manner of one who prayed for patience. "Well! at any rate," said the boy, "straight is straight, and crooked is crooked, and that is all I know about it." It was evident from the teacher's manner that he was half inclined to think the boy was endeavoring to impose upon him by feigning ignorance; and he dismissed him to his seat for the time being, thinking, no doubt, that he had met with a case out of the common order of school experience. It seems that the boy had never before attended school with punctuality, and it required a long time to teach him to observe anything like system either in his conduct or studies. Our teacher though very firm, was mild and judicious in his government; and, thinking that possibly Ned's disposition had been injured by former harshness at school, resolved to avoid inflicting corporal punishment as long as possible; and try upon him the effect of kindness and mild persuasion. He had one very annoying habit, and that was he would very seldom give a satisfactory answer if suddenly asked a direct question, and often his reply would be very absurd, sometimes bordering on downright impudence. The master noticed one afternoon, after calling the boys from their play at recess, that Ned had not entered the school-room with the others. Stepping to the door, he found him seated very composedly in the yard, working busily upon a toy he was fashioning with a knife from a piece of wood. "Why do you remain outside, Edward, after the other boys are called in?" said the master. "Cos I did'nt come in, sir," replied Ned, without looking up, or even pausing in his employment. This was too much for the patience of any one; and seizing him by the arm the master drew him into a small room which adjoined the school-room; and bestowed upon him, what Ned afterwards confidentially informed us, was "a regular old-fashioned thrashing." I was not aware till then that the style of using the rod was liable to change, but it would seem that Ned thought otherwise; and if his screams upon this occasion were taken as proof in the matter, I should be inclined to think the old-fashioned method very effective. The whipping which Ned received created quite a sensation among us boys, for it was not often that Mr. S. used the rod. We began to have our fears that as he had got his "hand in," more of us might share the fate of poor Ned. In a very serious conversation which we held upon the matter, on our way home that evening, some of us asked Ned, why he screamed so loud. "I thought," said he, "if I hollered pretty well, he would think he'd licked me enough and stop; but I don't see what great harm I did any way. He asked why I stayed out; and I said, cos I did'nt go in, and I am sure I could'nt give a better reason than that." Time passed on, and by degrees Ned dropped many of his odd ways; and began to make tolerable progress in study; but still, much patience and forbearance was necessary on the part of the teacher. He had the same habit of frequently giving absurd answers in his class, as well as upon other occasions; but after a time his stupid answers were much less frequent, and Mr. S. began to indulge the hope that he would soon overcome the habit entirely. When he had attended school for about six months, as was the custom two or three times a year, we passed under what to the school boys was an "awful review" in presence of those awe-inspiring personages, termed in those days the school-trustees, and any other friends of the school who might chance to be present. We all, even to the teacher, had our fears lest Ned (who had not yet entirely discontinued the practice) should give some of his comical answers when questioned by our visitors; but the day came, and with it the school-trustees and a number of other friends. The classes were first examined in reading and spelling; and Ned acquitted himself much better than we had dared to hope; and we began to think he might pass the afternoon without making any serious blunder. After the reading and spelling lessons, the class was summoned for examination in Geography. Elated by his success in reading and spelling, Ned took his place with a pompous consequential manner, as if expecting to win countless laurels for his proficiency. He got along very well till some one put the question, "What may the Island of Australia properly be called on account of its vast size?" "One of the Pyramids," answered Ned in a loud confident voice. The gentleman who was questioning us looked astounded, and there fell an awkward silence, which was only broken by the half-smothered laughter of the others in the class. The teacher wishing to get over the matter in some way, at length said, "I am surprised, Edward, that you should give so senseless an answer to so simple a question." Now, one very striking peculiarity in Ned's character was his unwillingness to acknowledge himself in the wrong, however ridiculous his answer might be; and he was disposed to argue his point up on this occasion. "Any way," said he, "the Pyramids are large, and so is Australia; and I thought it might sometimes be called a pyramid for convenience of description." The idea of Ned entering into an argument with the trustees of the school, struck the rest of the boys as so extremely ludicrous, that our long pent-up mirth found vent in a burst of laughter through the whole class, and no one present had the heart to chide us; for it was with intense difficulty that the elderly gentlemen maintained their own gravity. The teacher was obliged to exercise his authority before Ned could be silenced; and the remaining part of the examination proved rather a failure. I know not how it happened, but from that day there was a marked improvement in Edward Barton, in every respect. He attended the school for two years; and when he left us it was to accompany his parents to one of the far Western States. His father had relatives residing in the West, and had received from them such glowing accounts of the country, that he decided upon removing thither. Any one who saw Ned when he left us would almost have failed to recognize him as the same boy who entered the school two years previous. Mr. S. was his friend as well as his teacher; and during the second year of his stay took a deep interest in him; he had thoroughly studied his disposition, and learned to bear with his faults, and under his judicious management Ned began really to make good progress in study. We had all become attached to him, and were all sorry when he left us. He was much elated with the prospect of his journey to the West; and talked much of the wonders he expected to behold on his way thither. He came one day at the noon-hour to collect his books and bid us good-bye, his father having come to take him home for a short time before setting out on their journey. The boys were all on the play ground when he entered the school-room to bid his teacher good-bye. When he came out he looked very sober, and there was a suspicious moisture in his eyes which very much resembled tears. Instead of the usual noisy mirth on the play ground there was almost complete silence, while Ned shook hands with us one by one, saying, "he would tell us all the wonders of the Western world when he came back." Years have rolled by with their various changes since that day; he has never yet returned; and I have only heard from him two or three times during the time. My last tidings were, that he was married and settled down to a life of industry upon a fine farm, in his western home; but I sometimes, when I think of him, even yet wonder, if he has learned the difference between the "Pyramids of Egypt" and the "Island Continent of Australia."

[The end]
Harriet S. Caswell's short story: Edward Barton