“SAY! TEACHER!”

The schoolhouse was ready. The books and tablets, pencils and
stereopticon pictures ordered by Mr. Carson, all had come. The little
house of the schoolteachers was ready, too. All that was wanting was the
pupils.

But there was little doubt about them—they would soon be coming, for
posted at corners of the main traveled roads, nailed on trees and tacked
on station and post office walls were placards bearing the information
that the Ravenel School was open and that all who wished to study would
be welcomed. To make plain the nature of the invitation even to those
who could not read, Carin painted on each placard a picture of the
schoolhouse, and put beyond it a beckoning hand, which, as she explained,
was her idea of sign writing.

“Why, even the groundhogs and chipmunks ought to be able to understand
that,” said Azalea.

Then the services of the carrier of the rural mail and of the doctor and
the preacher were asked. Miles McEvoy made it his business to send on
the good word by everyone he saw going mountainward. The grocer promised
to let no mountaineer leave his place without telling him of the news and
asking the person to whom he told it, to spread it far and wide.

So it came to pass that Azalea, sitting on the doorstep one morning after
her early breakfast, saw three heads appearing above the slope.

“Carin,” she called. “They’ve come!”

“Who? The gypsies?”

“No. The pupils. Oh, where is the key to the schoolhouse? Oh, Aunt
Zillah, do I look in the least like a teacher? Come, Carin, we must go
meet them.”

But Carin held back a little because she had a curiosity to see how
Azalea would meet these first seekers after knowledge. They were three
slender young creatures, two boys and a girl, the eldest twelve, the girl
not much younger, and the second boy a mere wisp of a child who looked as
if he had been dragged along for safe-keeping.

Azalea had rushed forth from her door impetuously, the key to the
schoolhouse in her hand, but Carin saw her check herself and walk toward
the children rather slowly. Anyone looking at her would have said she
was shy. But she was not half so shy as the children. They had a
certain dignity about them, it is true, and looked as if they were there
to face whatever might come, but they, too, came forward slowly, looking
from the corners of their eyes, and with their heads drooping. When
Azalea got near them they stopped, and she stopped too.

“Howdy,” said Azalea in the mountain fashion.

“Howdy,” said they.

A little silence fell.

“Have you come up here to get learning?” asked Azalea quaintly.

“Yes’m,” said they. The girl added, “Please ma’am.”

“It certainly does amaze me,” said Miss Zillah under her breath to Carin,
“the good manners all the mountain children have. It doesn’t matter from
what way-back cove they come, they seem to understand politeness.”

“Isn’t Azalea clever?” murmured Carin. “Now I would probably have
frightened them so that they’d have scampered away like rabbits.”

“The schoolhouse is over yon,” said Azalea. The three pupils nodded and
when she set out they followed. Carin joined them, walking a little
behind the others.

“What are your names?” she heard Azalea ask quietly—almost lazily.

“Coulter,” said the elder boy. “I’m Bud Coulter; my sister, she’s called
Mandy Coulter. And this here is Babe.”

Carin ran forward and held out her hand to the little one.

“Take my hand, Babe,” she said. The child drew back for a moment,
looking up in Carin’s face with something like fear; but when he saw
those beautiful blue eyes which Azalea loved so well, and the shining
mass of golden hair, his mouth opened slowly like one who sees a vision,
and when Carin had grasped his thin little hand in her own, he walked
beside her quietly, though his heart beat so that it made his homespun
blouse rise and fall.

“Thar’s a boy living over beyant us that aims to come to school if we
like it,” Mandy Coulter told Azalea.

“Hush up,” her brother whispered, poking her reprovingly in the ribs.
“Don’t be a tell-all.”

“Oh, you’ll like it, I reckon,” said Azalea. “Anyway, it’s worth while
to learn to read and write, isn’t it? People who get on in the world all
know how to read and write.”

“Sam Simms can’t read nor write none,” said Bud, “and he’s got six mules
and ten head of cattle and his own house and fields.”

Azalea flushed a little. It came back to her memory that it was a part
of the delight of mountain people to catch each other tripping. They
liked a tussle of wits; it was an intellectual game with them.

“Oh, well,” she said, “there’s more than one way of getting on, of
course. But Mr. Simms must have been a smart man to get all those things
without having reading and writing to help him. I don’t suppose there’s
another man in the country who could have done that and been so
ignorant.”

“Ignorant?” retorted Bud Coulter. “He ain’t ignorant. He knows just
what to do for sick horses and how to gather in swarming bees and lots of
other things.”

“How clever of him,” said Azalea. “I’d like to know him.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” declared Bud emphatically. “He’s about the meanest
man around. He can shoot like—”

Azalea stopped him on that last word. She knew quite certainly what it
was going to be.

“He wouldn’t want to shoot me, would he?” she asked smilingly. “I only
wanted to meet him because he could do so many things, although he could
not do the best ones—he couldn’t read in books what other men thought,
and he couldn’t write down any of his own thoughts. That leaves him in a
bad way, doesn’t it? Many men not nearly so clever could get ahead of
him.” Azalea paused a moment. Then she cried: “Why, come in, quick, and
I can show you how to get ahead of him yourself.”

Bud’s calm was broken. He looked at Azalea for the first time as
“teacher.”

“Can you, now?” he asked.

She threw open the schoolroom door, showed the children where to put
their hats and ran to the blackboard.

“You must tell me your real name,” she said. “Surely it isn’t Bud?”

“No’m. It’s Laurence Babbitt Coulter.”

“Laurence Babbitt Coulter,” she wrote on the blackboard in very plain
letters. “Can you write that, Bud?”

“No’m.”

“Do you know your letters?”

“When I don’t forget.”

“By the end of the week,” said Azalea with decision, “you will know your
letters and you will be able to write your own name. Then you can do
something that Mr. Simms can’t do.”

The boy grinned.

“I can come it over him,” he said. He was again enjoying the encounter
of wits. This made Azalea say hastily:

“But of course, since he’s so much older than you, Bud, you mustn’t let
him know that you can come it over him.”

“Sure, I must,” cried the boy. “He’s been mean to my pa. He’s the
meanest man in these parts, and he’s got a son—at least it ain’t really
his son—it’s his brother’s son—who’s so meachin’ that he don’t even know
enough to be mean, and if that white-livered boob tries to come up here
to this here school—”

“Why, we’ll teach him how to write his name, too,” said Azalea
valorously.

“I won’t stay in no school that Skully Simms comes to,” declared Bud.

Azalea threw a glance at Carin, who was sitting in one of the school
seats beside Babe, and whose face had turned rather white. Carin had
been prepared for gratitude from the pupils; it had never occurred to her
that they would come to school in a warring attitude. Moreover, for the
first time she realized what a young girl Azalea still was. As her Zalie
stood there on the platform, her hair rumpled by the wind, her face
flushed with perplexity, her frock coming just below her shoe tops, she
looked very tender and youthful indeed. But she had what Sam Disbrow
would have called “the fighting stuff” in her.

“This school is for learning,” she said, “and learning has nothing to do
with friend or foe. It is for all alike. Chinamen with cues down their
backs, Arabs riding on camels over the desert, East Indians, all dressed
in white with turbans on their heads, may be learned. They live on the
other side of the world—quite on the other side of this great ball we
call the earth—but they have just as much right to get learning as we
have.”

Carin had an idea. She jumped from her seat and ran to the blackboard.

“Did you ever see a picture of a camel?” she asked.

Before the children could answer she had begun sketching one. She had
colored chalks, and in a moment or two her brown camel was surrounded by
a stretch of desert sand. Far off, a fronded palm indicated an oasis.
Then she began telling them what the picture meant; she told them of the
desert and the life on it, and of the old, old learning of the Arabs.
The children sat spellbound.

When she had finished, Azalea took up a piece of chalk.

“Now,” she said quietly but in a tone from which there was no demurring,
“we will learn our letters.”

Bud gave her one last defiant glance; then his eyes fell.

“Yes’m,” he said.

Half an hour later two more pupils came, one a red-headed boy named
Dibblee Sikes, the other a girl called Paralee Panther, with
astonishingly heavy eyebrows, a sullen look and only one arm. She was
the only one of the pupils who really knew how to read. Moreover, she
was, under all her sullenness, wild to learn more. With her heavy eyes
she watched every move that Carin or Azalea made; she listened eagerly
and yet as if only half understanding, to all they said.

After school was over, Azalea, more tired mentally than she ever
remembered to have been in her life, walked beside this girl for a way.

“How is it that you have been taught?” asked Azalea.

The girl did not seem to understand. At least, she failed to reply.

“Who taught you your letters?” Azalea asked again.

“A woman. She’s dead.”

“Did she live around here? Was it Mrs. Ravenel’s teacher?”

“No. We don’t belong hereabouts. We’ve just come.”

“Oh, is that so?” said Azalea with interest. “And do you live near?”

“Six miles from here.”

“No—not really! Oh, that’s too far for you to walk every day. Can’t you
live somewhere nearer while school lasts?”

“I’m content where I be.”

“But the walk—”

“I can walk it,” said the girl. Compared with her heavy sulkiness, Bud
Coulter’s habit of arguing was blitheness itself. However, as Azalea
turned at the house door to look after her strange group of pupils,
Dibblee, the red-headed boy, waved his hand, and little Babe Coulter
called: “Say, teacher, I’m coming nex’-day.”

She slipped in the house with Carin beside her, to find Miss Zillah and
Mrs. McEvoy waiting anxiously to get a report of the first day’s work.

“Them Coulters,” said Mrs. McEvoy when she heard the name of the first
pupils mentioned, “are the ones that have a war with the Simmses.
They’ve kept it up for twenty years and more. Seems like they’re set on
seeing which can kill the others off.”

“Oh,” cried Azalea, “is it really one of those dreadful mountain
quarrels? Mrs. McEvoy, do you suppose we could do anything to break it
up?”

Mis’ Cassie threw an amused and commiserating look at Azalea, who was
looking, for her, white-faced and nervous—not that Azalea’s cheeks could
really fade out completely.

“I don’t think I’d aim to do that,” she said dryly. “You ’tend to your
teaching, Miss Azalea, and perhaps the light of learning may show them
the folly of walking in dark ways.”

Carin was telling about Paralee Panther.

“Oh, one of them Panthers,” said Mrs. McEvoy. “They’re strangers.
Nobody takes to them much—can’t get it out of them where they come from
nor what they aim to do. They’ve all got heavy looks, but that girl’s
the worst of the lot.”

“She’s quite a contrast to Dibblee Sikes,” mused Carin.

“Now, there’s a right peart boy!” exclaimed Mrs. McEvoy with unusual
enthusiasm. “He’s a blessing to his mother, and a fine friendly lad
altogether.”




It was time to get supper and Carin and Azalea insisted on helping Miss
Zillah, though they would have been particularly glad to have snuggled
down on the settee and forgotten the world. They had promised Annie
Laurie that Aunt Zillah should not be allowed to get weary and they were
determined to keep their word. But after supper Miss Zillah insisted on
stacking the dishes away until morning. She said she wanted to sew and
talk, and that doing the dishes the next day would help her to pass the
time. So while she put some tiny tucks in a summer frock for Annie
Laurie, the girls told her of everything that had happened during the
day. Miss Zillah was rather dismayed.

“I don’t understand about those children,” she said. “Their spirits
don’t seem to be right.”

However, by the end of the week, there was much more encouraging news to
give her. The children who joined the school along toward the last of
the week were milder and better mannered than those who had come at
first. It seemed as if the more obstinate and ill-tempered had come
first to try out the young teachers. Poor Skully Simms, the nephew of
the man who had a “war” with the Coulters, dared not show his face. Mrs.
McEvoy heard that he was “wishful” to come, but was afraid of Bud
Coulter. One day Azalea caught a glimpse of a face at the window, and
after school Dibblee Sikes told her that it was Skully Simms.

“He’s jest pestered to know what we-all are doing,” he said. “But he’s
skeered of Bud.”

“I might ride down and see him,” said Azalea. “Perhaps I could coax him
to come.”

“Then if he got in bad with Bud and there was blood-shedding,” said
Dibblee wisely, “you’d be taking blame to yourself. It might break up
the school, ma’am. That would do harm to the whole lot of us. Folks
around here don’t believe in stirring up the Coulters and Simms.”

“‘Let sleeping dogs lie,’” quoted Azalea. “Perhaps you’re right. You
know the neighbors and I don’t.”

She was glad when Keefe O’Connor volunteered to come in every afternoon
and teach the upper class boys geography and what he called “current
history.” He had a notion that what they needed more than anything else
was to have some notion of what was going on in the outside world. He
said he always managed to be followed by a New York newspaper no matter
how far in the backwoods he went. He had left Rowantree Hall, partly
because he had no wish to put the family to further trouble, but chiefly
because he wanted to be nearer the school, where he meant to lend a hand
now and then. A tent appeared miraculously on the mountainside, to which
Keefe proudly gave the name of “home.” He arose early and painted during
the morning hours; then, after his dinner, cooked in the open, he helped
at school. After that, as the shadows deepened and lay across the
slopes, he went back to his canvas and brushes. Carin was wild to join
him, but the truth was that those first few days of teaching drained
every drop of strength in her, and Azalea and Aunt Zillah hurried her
into her bed immediately after supper.

“It wouldn’t be so bad,” she complained to Aunt Zillah, half laughing and
half in earnest, “if it wasn’t for that dreadful Paralee Panther. She
seems like a bad dream; the only trouble is I can’t wake up. I’d like to
think I had imagined her. But she is real and needs us more, I suspect,
than anybody else in the school.”

“She’s always frowning and watching,” Azalea added. “It makes me want to
scream. Carin, did you ever see anybody with such heavy eyelids? And
Aunt Zillah, she watches at us from the corners of her eyes. Don’t you
just hate a trick like that?”

“How ever could she have lost her arm?” wondered Carin. “A boy might
have shot his off, but it’s strange for a girl to have lost an arm.”

“Oh, well,” said Aunt Zillah philosophically, “we came up here to find
some queer people, and we’re not disappointed. Queerness often means
unhappiness, that’s what I’ve discovered. If you girls succeed in doing
what you came up to do and help these poor people out of some of their
troubles and drawbacks, perhaps they won’t be so queer.”

The evenings at home—they called the cottage “home” now and had named it
the “Oriole’s Nest”—were very restful and delightful. If Carin went to
bed, she did so on the couch in the sitting room, so that she might be
with the others. Sometimes Aunt Zillah sewed—always for Annie Laurie—and
sometimes she read aloud. Azalea had some crocheting with which she
busied herself. Mrs. Carson had taught her to make some beautiful
things, and Azalea had developed a sort of passion for them. She wanted
to make something lovely for everyone she loved; and Mrs. Carson’s last
gift to her had been a great quantity of beautiful wools of many delicate
shades.

Keefe O’Connor dropped in the little house evenings, too, and added to
the gayety by “picking” on the guitar which he had borrowed from the
McEvoys. Sitting on the doorstep, his handsome head thrown back against
the casing, his dark eyes fixed with something like yearning affection on
the group in the room, he crept, brotherly fashion, into the heart of
each of them. He did not explain himself—said nothing of his parents, of
his past, of his means of living—yet he seemed to have for his own
Bohemian purposes, all that he needed, and to be happy in spite of that
curious wistfulness which everyone felt who came near him.

“It does seem as if he was honing for something,” Mrs. McEvoy said one
day when he was under discussion. “It may only be liver trouble, of
course. If so, I could help him out there. I’ve got three bottles of
liver special that I ain’t never took. Or if it’s indigestion or
rheumatism, there again I could be of aid to him. I was saying to Miles
the other night, seems as if, since you folks came, I didn’t pay half the
attention to my medicine that I used to. Aside from them two bottles in
the kitchen, I don’t call on none of them.”

“And if those two bottles weren’t sitting where you could see them,” said
Miss Zillah with unusual boldness, “probably you wouldn’t be taking the
medicine from them. I do say, Mrs. McEvoy, and I’ll abide by it, that
health is nine-tenths a matter of good food, good air and a happy heart.”

“Oh, la,” said Mrs. McEvoy with more temper than any of them had yet seen
in her, “it’s easy for you to say that, Miss Pace, when you’ve got your
health. But if you’d been through what I have—”

She could not bring herself to finish, but suddenly remembering that she
had some baking to do, left hastily and walked with unusual swingings of
her body down the path that led to her home.

The path was getting pretty well worn now, and the dwellers in the
Oriole’s Nest were well pleased that it was so. They were attached to
Mis’ Cassie McEvoy, and were a good deal worried that she seemed
displeased with them.

“I’d like to knock Bluebeard and the Princess Madeline off the shelf and
break them to flinders,” said Carin. They all called Mrs. McEvoy’s
favorite bottles by the names Azalea had given them. “It could be done
so accidentally that she’d think it was the cat.”

“No, she wouldn’t,” said Miss Zillah firmly. “Don’t you try anything
like that, Carin. Folks have to work out their own liberty. It can’t be
done for them by anybody else, though a little help may be given now and
then. I think I’ll bake some of those cookies that Mis’ Cassie likes,
and I can send some over to her when Mr. McEvoy comes with the milk. I
wouldn’t have her offended with me for anything.”

Miss Zillah always contrived to be busy, it seemed, and she could keep
those around her busy, too. She was quite determined that there should
be nothing slipshod about the Oriole’s Nest, and had laid out a fine set
of rules for work which had to be followed. Even Keefe—who had soon
fallen into the way of having his dinner with them—had his duties. At
night, when Miss Zillah supervised the last offices of the day, it was he
who brought in the pails of fresh water from the spring, and who filled
the wood box. When he had said good night—lingering a little—Miss Zillah
locked the doors and drew the curtains. Then she waited till the girls
were snug in bed, and kissing them with gentle seriousness, turned out
the light.

It made it a touch less lonely for them all to hear Keefe whistling on
his way to his tent-home. He had made it quite “shipshape” and he took a
genuine pride in it. But he did not sleep in it; instead, he slung his
hammock from the trees and rested there in moonshine or star-light. Even
a light rain could not drive him in. Then, in the morning early, having
cooked his breakfast, he was off with his painter’s kit. But his duties
seemed always to take him past the door of the Oriole’s Nest, and as he
passed he called out mockingly:

“Say, teacher.”

It won him a blithe signal from some one—possibly from all three of the
cottage dwellers.