ON a grassy knoll, beneath wide-spreading elms, sits Zela—or Zee, as she i_ommonly called—a girl of some nine or ten summers. She is in a brown study o_o pleasing character, judging by the rueful expression of her countenance,
as, gazing on vacancy with a rapt, see-nothing look, thoughts well up in he_ctive, chaotic brain, so nimbly as to tread on each other's heels. A pile o_ooks lies in her lap, and on them she muses, fitfully, in a truant hope o_earning her lessons.
Hark! a rustling is heard among the dry leaves, and listening, with eyes an_ars alert, the easily-diverted student espies a squirrel. Down go the books,
and off bounds Zee, almost as swiftly as her friend, nor halts till she ha_eached the tall pine up which the squirrel has gone, and to him she calls,
with many endearing names; but the rogue can set her at defiance from th_ree-top, whence he looks perkily down into her upturned face.
Retracing her steps, she collects her scattered books, and indulging her habi_f thinking aloud, she blurts out impetuously, as she flops down on the knoll:
“What's the good of this big world, with nothing but lessons all the time? Wh_on't girls go to school out in the woods, such a lot of live lesson-books a_here are here? If I were a bird or a butterfly, I'd spoil all the lesson-
books I could find. Out here in the woods everything is plain, but nowher_lse; I'm all in a muddle, and can't get out of it. Bother the lessons! ther_s no beginning, no end to them; no one will teach me how to learn them,
because I'm a ‘dunce.”’ Her head drops, and she weeps piteously, overweighte_ith grief for the time being. But the April sky soon clears, and furtivel_aising her eyes from her books, she is at her old work again, warring wit_er surroundings, fighting ghosts of her own creating, an unchildlik_oodiness prompting her to hide away in a little world all to herself.
She has a genius for discovering fairy-bowers in the out-of-the-way nooks i_hich her native place abounds. The spot in which her acquaintance is made i_ne of her “parlors,” with “beautiful trees for walls;” the earth is carpete_ith long grass; to her right is a sandy bank, dotted with primroses an_iolets and at her feet ripples a shallow brook, in which she ever and ano_abbles. The air is fragrant and full of melody, the birds are singing their
“Goodnight” hymn. Well the songsters understand the laws of harmony, and wai_n each other with exquisite taste; there is no discord, though a dozen smal_hroats are swelling with joyful notes. A keen perception of the beautifu_rrays Zee's fancy realm in rainbow hues; Nature is her inspiration, and,
jumping into the good dame's triumphal car, Zee is whirled whither she will.
Beside her, laid reverently down, is a bunch of violets neatly fringed wit_heir own green leaves, a peace-offering for Miss Pout on the morrow—the on_f her two governesses, the Misses Smirke and Pout, of whom Zee is in morta_read, though she knows no fear of bogie or of darkness. The pick o_verything presentable which falls to her lot is laid with a lowly curtsey o_he altar of her frowning deity; but Zee has to learn that such virtue is it_wn reward; Miss Pout is not to be bought—at least, by Zee; try how she woul_o win a smile, her offerings failed to propitiate; “black Monday” lasted al_he week.
With one twentieth the labor her sisters acquitted themselves with honor,
receiving from Miss Pout the coveted smile of approval; while on Zee fel_utting reproof, perhaps a ringing box on the ear or slap on the bar_houlders, making her every nerve vibrate under a sense of shame. School-days,
with their hopes deferred and pains realised, are, it is said, our “happies_ays;” a sorry look-out for a “dunce” like Zee, who breasted the full tide o_er stupidity alone, for she could keep pace with no class, and was therefor_elegated to assistant teachers. Miss Pout rarely condescended to notice “suc_ dunce,” but if she did tell Zee to “bring her books,” her name from thos_read lips made an Irish stew of her lessons, and the girl stood before he_overness like a scared silly goat. Out in the woods she could, now and then,
repeat a lesson exultingly. But to look in that stern face and think of a wor_as out of the question, Miss Pout insisted, of course, that Zee had no_ooked at her lessons when, in truth, they had absorbed all her play-hours.
Late at night and at early morn she pored over her books, sleeping on them, i_ vague hope that some beneficent fairy would whisper her lessons to her i_er dream; but, alas, with sunrise came the horrid drudgery of learning the_s best she could. Time faileth us to tell how many of her “gay and girlis_ours” were spent in the stocks, holding the backboard, or swinging the dumb-
bells as punishment for “returned lessons;” whereas, to learn “disgrac_essons” she was “kept in” on bread and water. Imagine an awkwardly shy gir_tanding in the stocks, in the middle of a large schoolroom, with a plate o_ry bread and a mug of cold water in her hands, of which bread and water sh_as to eat and drink, and to pick up every crumb she might chance to drop. Ah,
how she longed to cram the bread down Miss Pout's throat, wishing, the while,
it might choke her. Zee knew, too, that some seventy-odd pairs of mischievou_yes were enjoying a giggle at her expense; as nudging and twitting he_nmercifully, the owners of the all-seeing eyes asked on the sly: “How d'yo_ike dunces' fare?” The flash of Zee's eye and the color of her cheek may b_uessed; but, tiny-tit in the talons of the hawk, she took it all quietly, i_ot meekly.
Her troubles, moreover, followed her home, whither she carried a note fro_iss Pout, requesting that her “downright obstinacy” might receive furthe_hastisement from her father. A broad hint was given as to the purport of th_ote, but goosie never dreamed of losing it; nor, indeed, would it have serve_er turn, since her sisters received strict injunctions to tell their parent_hat Zee's “conduct” had been. So, note in hand, the girl slunk alone unde_he shaow of the houses, feeling certain that “you're in disgrace” was printe_n capital letters all over her. After a severe reprimand from her father,
such days ended in her being sent to bed, drowned in tears, on a bread an_ater supper. Her sisters made satisfactory progress, hence the faith of he_arents in her lady teachers, whose school was unequalled for well twinin_outhful twigs, was boundless. Indeed, so busy was the home in which Zee's lo_as cast, that there was no time to note that the shoe pinched any on_articular child.
Zee could scramble through hedges and up trees of a come-at-able size in ques_f a nest; why not up the tree of knowledge? No thought of young ladyis_eterred her, she only wished that girls dressed like boys; frocks would tel_ales of climbing. But, oh, dear! if a nest of young birds were secured, th_ee pets invariably died in the night of the “pinch.” Plying mamma wit_uestions as to what the “pinch” might mean, boy and girls contemplated th_ate of their unfledged darlings with blank dismay; little did they think,
simple souls, that the father was the medicineman. Then, too, Zee could make-
believe in the storyline more than a little; her perceptions being the cleare_hrough not being over much clogged with learning, her ways of looking a_hings and her ideas generally were wholly a matter of intuition, although,
despite her duncehood, she revelled in the choice juvenile literature of he_ay—“Jack-the-Giant-Killer,” and such like stories, she devoured wholesale.
One or other of these books might have been found thrust down the bosom of he_ress, above which the too-obtrusive volume peeping, not unfrequently betraye_he heedless girl to Miss Pout, who levied black-mail _instanter_.
Some folk cannot see an inch before them; Zee, on the contrary, sees too much,
and seeing at a glance how much is required of her, the little she might hav_ccomplished became impossible. She was never told that, little by little, da_y day, the whole would gradually be acquired; she could have given the sens_f her lessons, as do the youth of to-day, though she could not sufficientl_ocalise her powers to commit words, possessing no meaning to her dorman_aculties, to memory; there was, in fact, too little of the parrot about he_o learn readily by rote; and yet, she evidenced a surprising aptitude i_arnering information from all which transpired around her.
Frisky and tricky, withal, much of the wrong in the school may have been lai_t her door; yet never was there a more innocent scapegoat. She liked Mis_out too well at a distance to play pranks with her or her belongings; ther_as no chance of stealing a march upon her; indeed, suspicious of evil, sh_niffed mischief in the air, and nipped it in the bud. One article of he_reed, suggestive of cunning and duplicity, in reference to culprits, was: “N_ne is ever found out the first time.” Thus, by scenting Lucifer a long wa_ff, her young ladies were in danger of being “possessed;” yet were the_odels of propriety compared to the modern miss in-her-teens
Deep down out of sight, Zee nursed the conviction that Miss Pout delighted t_eap insult and indignity upon her, but she really may have caused her mor_nxious thought than did any other scholar; it was impossible to look in th_right, young face, and write her down an “idiot.” Being ignorant of all mode_f developing natural gifts, Miss Pout believed in the cramming system; and,
in refusing to be crammed, Zee left her at her wit's end. Nevertheless, ben_r break was this lady's inflexible decree, and to have to deal with a saplin_ough enough to rebound under the high pressure brought to bear upon it was _ew and bitter experience doubtless; and resenting the failure of her belauded
“system” of moulding the young idea, Miss Pout may have emptied the vials o_er wrath on the head of the hapless Zela.
For Miss Smirke, Zee had a grain of respect; though she, too, believed in th_ramming system, she was less cruel with it; there was, however, one threa_he held over the girl's head with torturing effect. Pointing to a mysteriou_arcel on the top of a corner cupboard in the schoolroom, she would say, wit_larming emphasis: “I'll have the steel collar taken down and fastened roun_our neck, miss; you incorrigible dunce!” This was misery's climax, for _otion obtained among the girls that the neck came out of the steel collar al_wry, the head hind-side foremost. This star-chamber implement had never bee_een; the girls believed in it nevertheless, nor could Lucifer himself hav_empted one of them to have touched that mysterious parcel. Furthermore, Mis_mirke repeatedly upbraided Zee before the whole school with “picking he_ather's pocket by being such an incorrigible dunce”—a taunt that cut Zee t_he quick; yet even while she winced, she was inwardly ready with the retort:
“You, not I, are the pick-pocket. I could learn if you would but teach me i_he right way.”
After having been kept perseveringly at school for many long years, Zee'_arents were told by Miss Smirke that “it was simply picking their pockets t_eep such a dunce at school,” which really meant that the square girl woul_ot fit the round hole. So the Misses Smirke and Pout washed their hands o_er with loud-sounding regrets, being denied the gratification of pointing t_ee as “finished in our seminary.” The light that was in her concerning book-
lore was darkness which could be felt; she failed to learn because her min_as already full to repletion.
Zee's is a dual nature strongly marked; will it prove gold or dross? Would yo_ike to see her, poor timid fawn, with all a tiger's fierceness? She is n_oll-cherub, but living, quivering flesh and blood, with long gaunt limbs tha_ill come too far through her frocks. She is a tall “dunce;” so much the wors_or her. Her head is small, and over a good open brow, too lofty for a woman,
waves glossy black hair, falling in natural curls round her well-forme_houlders; hazel eyes, full of fire and frolic, express the ever-varyin_motions of the soul, and her nut-brown complexion is healthfully rosy. But,
alas! that we must confess it, she has no nose, or, to say the least, it i_ike herself, “peculiar.” Hence, those who admire Vauxhall misses of wafer-
like superficiality and skin-deep prettiness will dismiss Zee with a shrug,
since, to this shallow age, a nose is as necessary as a grandmother of ancien_edigree. Zee can boast of the latter, though not of the former. Nose or n_ose, however, our cottage girl is to be presented with rustic simplicity. W_ave seen gardens laid out with patrician state, but to us they are not hal_o sweet as the cotter's well-kept plot of ground, where the cabbage and th_ily grow side by side.
We envy not the clods of earth who can see no form nor comeliness in Zee'_ind. Mind, indeed! those who know her best doubt whether she has one, and t_uch her mind is a sealed book; yet hers is no barren soul: she is open t_mpressions, though not to instruction, as then imparted. As shaggy withou_nd within as a Shetland pony, she is a forlorn hope to herself and to he_riends, who can make nothing of the inexplicable girl of the untamable soul.
Put on her mettle, she goes great lengths, yet an instinctive sense of righ_ulls her up, so that she is not more often betrayed into youthful excesse_han are her more proper sisters, who make a smooth path to their feet b_milingly accepting all things as they are. Whereas Zee's path is strewn wit_harp flints, which she fretfully hurls at others because they cut her ow_eet; yet would she not knowingly set foot upon a worm. Her one fault to th_rtificial is, that she has more faith in herself than in others;
nevertheless, the shrine at which she offers sacrifice is as shapeless an_uthless as an Indian's. Singular in all she says and does, she is seasonabl_n nothing, yet asks to be appreciated _as she is_ , without a hope of bein_nderstood, because of a prevailing disingenuous-ness, against which her fier_oung soul revolts with fierce impatience. Defiance flashing in her eye an_ttitude, nothing shapes itself to her liking, and she bows to conventionalis_ith ill grace, provoking hostility, instead of winning love. “Dunce” thoug_he was, had she been less intractable she would have doubtless received mor_onsideration at the hands of all.
Because soulless children are easily managed, parents elect to have thei_hildren as much alike as peas in a pod; an ignoble self-love, as deep-roote_s virulent, refusing to die to self sufficiently to make variety welcome. An_t is unthankful work to disturb conventionalism's despotic sway; men o_ittle faith look with evil eye on the angel that agitates the pool; yet ar_yriads of the mentally impotent now waiting for the troubling of the water_f a higher, truer, life for youth and age; into which waters they wil_resently plunge and bring up gems from the ocean of thought, Living see_hall never die, however slow of growth. Sow it broadcast! the fertilising su_nd shower shall produce its harvest of rich fruit.
Zee did not make herself; God knows what he is about; the twists and curls o_haracter, so hateful to the superficial, are wisely intwined; so excellent,
indeed, that it were unwise to rule off the irregularities; the very knots ar_eautiful when polished, and in the polishing of them the child who is t_arve his own niche in the temple of life will need the encouragement o_armest sympathy. And there are so few, even at this hour, able t_iscriminate between the child who can learn but will not, and the child wh_ould learn but cannot, that the latter is too often sadly persecuted.
Take heart of grace, little dunce, wherever thou art; let not discouragement'_cy touch congeal the warm current of thy blood and give thee heart-sickness.
Use thy brains, child; look at life with wide-open eyes; ask the reason why o_verything, and above all _think_ —think earnestly about what thou art doin_nd find out the best way of doing it; then, though books be a dead languag_o thee, other and better knowledge than is possessed by the majority of me_hall furnish that upper story of thine. With thine every sense alive t_eaven's beauties and earth's deformities thou canst not glide down stream, a_o others, singing to thyself sweet lullaby; in the yet future thy forcefu_ature shall help to dethrone the despot “custom,” whose senseles_enomination blocks the path of progress more hopelessly than do the snow_lps. “Custom” _e.g._ , unreasoning self-love, makes our hoards of thought an_f things so entirely our own, that we stand by error and retard truth, to th_acrifice of all which should be most precious. But be not daunted, littl_ee; thou aimest at too much, little ant, thy one grain of corn is burden to_eavy for thee still; do well thy work, and thou shalt hearten some weary on_lodding life's thorny highway, thorniest always to those whom the gentl_hepherd takes into his special training.