Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 22 THE GRAY SISTERHOOD

  • Elizabeth House was hospitable to male visitors, and Dan found Sylvia ther_ften on the warm, still summer evenings, when the young women of th_ousehold filled the veranda and overflowed upon the steps. Sylvia's choice o_ boarding-house had puzzled Dan a good deal, but there were a good man_hings about Sylvia that baffled him. For example, this preparation fo_eaching in a public school when she might have had an assistant professorshi_n a college seemed a sad waste of energy and opportunity. She was going t_chool to her inferiors, he maintained, submitting to instruction as meekly a_hough she were not qualified to enlighten her teachers in any branch o_nowledge. It was preposterous that she should deliberately elect to spend th_ottest of summers in learning to combine the principles of Pestalozzi wit_he methods of Dewey and Kendall.
  • The acquaintance of Sylvia and Allen prospered from the start. She was no_nly a new girl in town, and one capable of debating the questions tha_nterested him, but he was charmed with Elizabeth House, which was the kind o_hing, he declared, that he had always stood for. The democracy of th_eranda, the good humor and ready give and take of the young women delighte_im. They liked him and openly called him "our beau." He established himsel_n excellent terms with the matron to the end that he might fill hi_utomobile with her charges frequently and take them for runs into th_ountry. When Dan grumbled over Sylvia's absurd immolation on the altar o_ducation, Allen pronounced her the grandest girl in the world and the glor_f the Great Experiment.
  • Sylvia was intent these days upon fitting herself as quickly as possible fo_eaching, becoming a part of the established system and avoiding none of th_rocesses by which teachers are created. Her fellow students, most of who_ere younger than she, were practically all the green fruitage of hig_chools, but she asked no immunities or privileges by reason of her colleg_raining; she yielded herself submissively to the "system," and establishe_erself among the other novices on a footing of good comradeship. During th_ot, vexatious days she met them with unfailing good cheer. The inspirin_xample of her college teachers, and not least the belief she had absorbed o_he Madison campus in her girlhood, that teaching is a high calling, eased th_ay for her at times when—as occasionally happened—she failed to appreciat_he beauty of the "system."
  • The superintendent of schools, dropping into the Normal after hours, caugh_ylvia in the act of demonstrating a problem in geometry on the blackboard fo_he benefit of a fellow student who had not yet abandoned the hope of enterin_he state university that fall. The superintendent had been in quest of _eacher of mathematics for the Manual Training School, and on appealing to th_ellesley authorities they had sent him Sylvia's name. Sylvia, the chalk stil_n her fingers, met his humorous reproaches smilingly. She had made him appea_idiculous in the eyes of her _alma mater_ , he said. Sylvia declined hi_ffer and smiled. The superintendent was not used to smiles like that in hi_orps. And this confident young woman seemed to know what she was about. H_ent away mystified, and meeting John Ware related his experience. War_aughed and slapped his knee. "You let that girl alone," the minister said.
  • "She has her finger on Time's wrist. Physician of the golden age. Remembe_atthew Arnold's lines on Goethe? Good poem. Sylvia wants to know 'the cause_f things.' Watch her. Great nature."
  • At seven o'clock on a morning of September, Sylvia left Elizabeth House t_egin her novitiate as a teacher. Allen had declared his intention of sendin_is automobile for her every morning, an offer that was promptly declined.
  • However, on that bright morning when the young world turned schoolward, Harwood lay in wait for her.
  • "This must never happen again, sir! And of course you may not carry m_ooks—they're the symbol of my profession. Seventeen thousand young person_bout like me are on the way to school this morning right here in Indiana. I_ould be frightfully embarrassing to the educational system if young gentleme_ere allowed to carry the implements of our trade."
  • "You can't get rid of me now: I never get up as early as this unless I'_atching a train."
  • "So much the worse for you, then!"
  • "There will be mornings when you won't think it so much fun. It rains an_nows in Indiana sometimes."
  • He still resented the idea of her sacrifice, as he called it, in the cause o_ducation. They were now so well acquainted that they were not always carefu_o be polite in their talk; but he had an uneasy feeling that she didn'_holly approve of him. All summer, when they had discussed politics, she ha_voided touching upon his personal interests and activities. His alliance wit_assett, emphasized in the state convention, was a subject she clearl_voided. This morning, as he kept time to her quick step, he craved he_nterest and sympathy. Her plain gray suit and simple cloth hat could no_isguise her charm or grace. It seemed to him that she was putting herself _ittle further away from him, that she was approaching the business of lif_ith a determination, a spirit, a zest, that dwarfed to insignificance his ow_reoccupation with far less important matters. She turned to glance back at _roup of children they had passed audibly speculating as to the character o_eacher the day held in store for them.
  • "Don't you think they're worth working for?" Sylvia asked.
  • Dan shrugged his shoulders.
  • "I suppose more lives are ground up in the school-teaching machine than in an_ther way. Go on! The girl who taught me my alphabet in the little red school- house in Harrison County earned her salary, I can tell you. She was seventee_nd wore a pink dress."
  • "I'm sorry you don't approve of me or my clothes. Now Allen approves of me: _ike Allen."
  • "His approval is important, I dare say."
  • "Yes, very. It's nice to be approved of. It helps some."
  • "And I suppose there ought to be a certain reciprocity in approval an_isapproval?"
  • "Oh, there's bound to be!"
  • Their eyes met and they laughed lightheartedly.
  • "I'm going to tell you something," said Dan. "On the reciprocal theory I can'_xpect anything, but I'm lonesome and have no friends anyhow, so I'll give yo_ chance to say something withering and edged with a fine scorn."
  • "Good! I'll promise not to disappoint you."
  • "I'm going to be put on the legislature ticket to-day—to fill a vacancy. _uppose you'll pray earnestly for my defeat."
  • "Why should I waste prayers on that? Besides, Allen solemnly declares that th_eople are to be trusted. It's not for me to set my prayers against the wil_f the pee-pull."
  • "If you had a vote," he persisted, "you wouldn't vote for me?"
  • "I should have to know what you want to go to the legislature for befor_ommitting myself. What _are_ you doing it for?"
  • "To do all the mischief I can, of course; to support all the worst measure_hat come up; to jump when the boss's whip cracks!"
  • She refused to meet him on this ground. He saw that any expectation he migh_ave that she would urge him to pledge himself to noble endeavor and hig_chievements as a state legislator were doomed to disappointment. He was take_back by the tone of her retort.
  • "I hope you will do all those things. You could do nothing better calculate_o help your chances."
  • "Chances?"
  • "Your chances—and we don't any of us have too many of coming to some goo_ometime."
  • "I believe you are really serious; but I don't understand you."
  • "Then I shall be explicit. Just this, then, to play the ungrateful part of th_rank friend. The sooner you get your fingers burnt, the sooner you will le_he fire alone. I suppose Mr. Bassett has given the word that you ar_raciously to be permitted to sit in his legislature. He could hardly do les_or you than that, after he sent you into the arena last June to prod the sic_ion for his entertainment."
  • They were waiting at a corner for a break in the street traffic, and he turne_oward her guardedly.
  • "You put it pretty low," he mumbled.
  • "The thing itself is not so bad. From what I have heard and read about Mr.
  • Bassett, I don't think he is really an evil person. He probably didn't star_ith any sort of ideals of public life: you did. I read in an essay the othe_ight that the appeal of the highest should be always to the lowest. Bu_ou're not appealing to anybody; you're just following the band wagon to th_entre of the track. Stop, Look, Listen! You've come far enough with me now.
  • The walls of my prison house loom before me. Good-morning!"
  • "Good-morning and good luck!"
  • That night Sylvia wrote a letter to one of her classmates in Boston. "I'm _chool-teacher," she said,—"a member of the gray sisterhood of American nuns.
  • All over this astonishing country my sisters of this honorable order rise u_n the morning, even as you and I, to teach the young idea how to shoot. _ook with veneration upon those of our sisterhood who have grown old in th_lassroom. I can see myself reduced to a bundle of nerves, irascible, worthless, ready for the scrap-pile at, we will say, forty-two—only twent_ears ahead of me! My work looks so easy and I like it so much that I went i_right to the dictionary to look up the definition of teacher. I find that I'_ne who teaches or instructs. Think of it—I! That definition should be revise_o read, 'Teacher: one who, conveying certain information to others, reads i_ifty faces unanswerable questions as to the riddle of existence.' 'School: _lace where the presumably wise are convinced of their own folly.' Note well, my friend: I am a gray sister, in a gray serge suit that fits, with whit_uffs and collar, and with chalk on my fingers. Oh, it's not what I'm require_o teach, but what I'm going to learn that worries me!"
  • Lüders's shop was not far from Sylvia's school and Allen devised many excuse_or waylaying her. His machine being forbidden, he hung about until sh_ppeared and trudged homeward with her. Often he came in a glow from th_abinetmaker's and submitted for her judgment the questions that had bee_ebated that day at the shop. There was something sweet and wistful an_harming in his boyishness; and she was surprised, as Harwood had been fro_he first, by the intelligence he evinced in political and social questions.
  • He demanded absolute answers to problems that were perplexing wise men al_ver the world.
  • "If I could answer that," she would say to him, "I should be entitled to _onument more enduring than brass. The comfort and happiness of mankind isn'_o be won in a day: we mustn't pull up the old tree till we've got a new on_lanted and growing."
  • "The Great Experiment will turn out all right yet! Some fellow we never hear_f will give the lever a jerk some day, and there will be a rumble and a flas_nd it will run perfectly," he asserted.
  • The state campaign got under way in October, and Harwood was often discusse_n relation to it. Allen always praised Dan extravagantly, and was ever aler_o defend him against her criticisms.
  • "My dad will run the roller over Bassett, but Dan will be smart enough to ge_rom under. It's the greatest show on earth—continuous vaudeville—thi_olitics! Dan's all right. He's got more brains than Bassett. One of thes_ays Dan will take a flop and land clean over in the Thatcher camp. It's onl_ matter of time. Gratitude and considerations like that are holding him back.
  • But I'm not a partisan—not even on dad's side. I'm the philosopher who sits o_he fence and keeps the score by innings."
  • It seemed to her, in those days and afterward, that Allen symbolized th_nknown quantity in all the problems that absorbed him. His idealism was not _hing of the air, but a flowering from old and vigorous roots. His politic_as a kind of religion, and it did not prove upon analysis to be either s_antastical or so fanatical as she had believed at first. As the day_hortened, he would prolong their walk until the shops and factorie_ischarged their employees upon the streets. The fine thing about the peopl_as, he said, the fact that they were content to go on from day to day, doin_he things they did, when the restraints upon them were so light,—it prove_he enduring worth of the Great Experiment. Then they would plunge into th_hick of the crowd and cross the Monument plaza, where he never failed to pa_ tribute in his own fashion to the men the gray shaft commemorated. In thes_alks they spoke French, which he employed more readily than she: in his hig_oods it seemed to express him better than English. It amused him to apply ne_ames to the thoroughfares they traversed. For example, he gayly rename_onument Place the Place de la Concorde, assuring her that the southward vist_n the Rue de la Méridienne, disclosing the lamp-bestarred terrace of the ne_ederal Building, and the electric torches of the Monument beyond, was highl_eminiscent of Paris. Sylvia was able to dramatize for herself, from th_bundant material he artlessly supplied, the life he had led abroad during hi_ong exile: as a youngster he had enjoyed untrammeled freedom of the street_f Paris and Berlin, and he showed a curiously developed sympathy for th_ives of the poor and unfortunate that had been born of those earl_xperiences. He was a great resource to her, and she enjoyed him as she woul_ave enjoyed a girl comrade. He confessed his admiration for Marian in th_rankest fashion. She was adorable; the greatest girl in the world.
  • "Ah, sometime," he would say, "who knows!"