On Our Selection, by Steele Rudd

Chapter 24.

A Lady at Shingle Hut.

Miss Ribbone had just arrived.

She was the mistress of the local school, and had come to board with us a month. The parents of the score of more of youngsters attending the school had arranged to accommodate her, month about, and it was our turn. And didn’t Mother just load us up how we were to behave — particularly Joe.

Dad lumbered in the usual log for the fire, and we all helped him throw it on — all except the schoolmistress. Poor thing! She would have injured her long, miserable, putty-looking fingers! Such a contrast between her and Sal! Then we sat down to supper — that old familiar repast, hot meat and pumpkin.

Somehow we didn’t feel quite at home; but Dad got on well. He talked away learnedly to Miss Ribbone about everything. Told her, without swearing once, how, when at school in the old country, he fought the schoolmaster and leathered him well. A pure lie, but an old favourite of Dad’s, and one that never failed to make Joe laugh. He laughed now. And such a laugh! — a loud, mirthless, merciless noise. No one else joined in, though Miss Ribbone smiled a little. When Joe recovered he held out his plate.

“More pumpkin, Dad.”

“If — what, sir?” Dad was prompting him in manners.

“IF?” and Joe laughed again. “Who said ‘if’? — I never.”

Just then Miss Ribbone sprang to her feet, knocking over the box she had been sitting on, and stood for a time as though she had seen a ghost. We stared at her. “Oh,” she murmured at last, “it was the dog! It gave me such a fright!”

Mother sympathised with her and seated her again, and Dad fixed his eye on Joe.

“Didn’t I tell you,” he said, “to keep that useless damned mongrel of a dog outside the house altogether — eh? — didn’t I? Go this moment and tie the brute up, you vagabond!”

“I did tie him up, but he chewed the greenhide.”

“Be off with you, you —” (Dad coughed suddenly and scattered fragments of meat and munched pumpkin about the table) “at once, and do as I tell you, you ——”

“That’ll do, Father — that’ll do,” Mother said gently, and Joe took Stump out to the barn and kicked him, and hit him against the corn-sheller, and threatened to put him through it if he didn’t stop squealing.

He was a small dog, a dog that was always on the watch — for meat; a shrewd, intelligent beast that never barked at anyone until he got inside and well under the bed. Anyway, he had taken a fancy to Miss Ribbone’s stocking, which had fallen down while he was lying under the table, and commenced to worry it. Then he discovered she had a calf, and started to eat THAT. She didn’t tell US though — she told Mrs. Macpherson, who imparted the secret to mother. I suppose Stump didn’t understand stockings, because neither Mother nor Sal ever wore any, except to a picnic or somebody’s funeral; and that was very seldom. The Creek wasn’t much of a place for sport.

“I hope as you’ll be comfortable, my dear,” Mother observed as she showed the young lady the back-room where she was to sleep. “It ain’t s’ nice as we should like to have it f’ y’; we hadn’t enough spare bags to line it all with, but the cracks is pretty well stuffed up with husks an’ one thing an’ ’nother, and I don’t think you’ll find any wind kin get in. Here’s a bear-skin f’ your feet, an’ I’ve nailed a bag up so no one kin see-in in the morning. S’ now, I think you’ll be pretty snug.”

The schoolmistress cast a distressed look at the waving bag-door and said:

“Th-h-ank you-very much.”

What a voice! I’ve heard kittens that hadn’t their eyes open make a fiercer noise.

Mother must have put all the blessed blankets in the house on the school-teacher’s bed. I don’t know what she had on her own, but we only had the old bag-quilt and a stack of old skirts, and other remnants of the family wardrobe, on ours. In the middle of the night, the whole confounded pile of them rolled off, and we nearly froze. Do what we boys would — tie ourselves in knots and coil into each other like ropes — we couldn’t get warm. We sat up in the bed in turns, and glared into the darkness towards the schoolmistress’s room, which wasn’t more than three yards away; then we would lie back again and shiver. We were having a time. But at last we heard a noise from the young lady’s room. We listened — all we knew. Miss Ribbone was up and dressing. We could hear her teeth chattering and her knees knocking together. Then we heard her sneak back to bed again and felt disappointed and colder than ever, for we had hoped she was getting up early, and wouldn’t want the bed any longer that night. Then we too crawled out and dressed and tried it that way.

In answer to Mother at breakfast, next morning, Miss Ribbone said she had “slept very well indeed.”

We didn’t say anything.

She wasn’t much of an eater. School-teachers aren’t as a rule. They pick, and paw, and fiddle round a meal in a way that gives a healthy-appetited person the jim-jams. She didn’t touch the fried pumpkin. And the way she sat there at the table in her watch-chain and ribbons made poor old Dave, who sat opposite her in a ragged shirt without a shirt-button, feel quite miserable and awkward.

For a whole week she didn’t take anything but bread and tea — though there was always plenty good pumpkin and all that. Mother used to speak to Dad about it, and wonder if she ate the little pumpkin-tarts she put up for her lunch. Dad couldn’t understand anyone not eating pumpkin, and said HE’D tackle GRASS before he’d starve.

“And did ever y’ see such a object?” Mother went on. “The hands an’ arms on her! Dear me! Why, I do believe if our Sal was to give her one squeeze she’d kill her. Oh, but the finery and clothes! Y’ never see the like! Just look at her!” And Dad, the great oaf, with Joe at his heels, followed her into the young lady’s bedroom.

“Look at that!” said Mother, pointing to a couple of dresses hanging on a nail —“she wears THEM on week-days, no less; and here” (raising the lid of a trunk and exposing a pile of clean and neatly-folded clothing that might have been anything, and drawing the articles forth one by one)—“look at them! There’s that — and that — and this — and ——”

“I say, what’s this, Mother?” interrupted Joe, holding up something he had discovered.

“And that — an’——”

“Mother!”

“And this ——”

“Eh, Mother?”

“Don’t bother me, boy, it’s her tooth-brush,” and Mother pitched the clothes back into the trunk and glared round. Meanwhile, Joe was hard at his teeth with the brush.

“Oh, here!” and she dived at the bed and drew a night-gown from beneath the pillow, unfolded it, and held it up by the neck for inspection.

Dad, with his huge, ungainly, hairy paws behind him, stood mute, like the great pitiful elephant he was, and looked at the tucks and the rest — stupidly. “Where before did y’ever see such tucks and frills and lace on a night-shirt? Why, you’d think ’t were for goin’ to picnics in, ’stead o’ goin’ to bed with. Here, too! here’s a pair of brand new stays, besides the ones she’s on her back. Clothes! — she’s nothin’ else but clothes.”

Then they came out, and Joe began to spit and said he thought there must have been something on that brush.

Miss Ribbone didn’t stay the full month — she left at the end of the second week; and Mother often used to wonder afterwards why the creature never came to see us.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33