Colonel Starbottle’s Client

The New Assistant at Pine Clearing School

Chapter I

Bret Harte

THE SCHOOLMISTRESS of Pine Clearing was taking a last look around her schoolroom before leaving it for the day. She might have done so with pride, for the schoolroom was considered a marvel of architectural elegance by the citizens, and even to the ordinary observer was a pretty, villa-like structure, with an open cupola and overhanging roof of diamond-shaped shingles and a deep Elizabethan porch. But it was the monument of a fierce struggle between a newer civilization and a barbarism of the old days, which had resulted in the clearing away of the pines—and a few other things as incongruous to the new life and far less innocent, though no less sincere. It had cost the community fifteen thousand dollars, and the lives of two of its citizens.

Happily there was no stain of this on the clean white walls, the beautifully-written gilt texts, or the shining blackboard that had offered no record which could not be daily wiped away. And, certainly, the last person in the world to suggest any reminiscences of its belligerent foundation was the person of the schoolmistress. Mature, thin, precise,—not pretty enough to have excited Homeric feuds, nor yet so plain as to preclude certain soothing graces,—she was the widow of a poor Congregational minister, and had been expressly imported from San Francisco to squarely mark the issue between the regenerate and unregenerate life. Low-voiced, gentlewomanly, with the pallor of ill-health perhaps unduly accented by her mourning, which was still cut modishly enough to show off her spare but good figure, she was supposed to represent the model of pious, scholastic refinement. The Opposition—sullen in ditches and at the doors of saloons, or in the fields truculent as their own cattle—nevertheless had lowered their crests and buttoned their coats over their revolutionary red shirts when she went by.

As she was stepping from the threshold, she was suddenly confronted by a brisk business-looking man, who was about to enter. “Just in time to catch you, Mrs. Martin,” he said hurriedly; then, quickly correcting his manifest familiarity, he added: “I mean, I took the liberty of running in here on my way to the stage office. That matter you spoke of is all arranged. I talked it over with the other trustees, wrote to Sam Barstow, and he’s agreeable, and has sent somebody up, and,” he rapidly consulted his watch, “he ought to be here now; and I’m on my way to meet him with the other trustees.”

Mrs. Martin, who at once recognized her visitor as the Chairman of the School Board, received the abrupt information with the slight tremulousness, faint increase of color, and hurried breathing of a nervous woman.

“But,” she said, “it was only a suggestion of mine, Mr. Sperry; I really have no right to ask—I had no idea”—

“It’s all right, ma’am,—never you mind. We put the case square to Barstow. We allowed that the school was getting too large for you to tackle,—I mean, you know, to superintend single-handed; and that these Pike County boys they’re running in on us are a little too big and sassy for a lady like you to lasso and throw down—I mean, to sorter control—don’t you see? But, bless you, Sam Barstow saw it all in a minit! He just jumped at it. I’ve got his letter here—hold on”—he hastily produced a letter from his pocket, glanced ever it, suddenly closed it again with embarrassed quickness, yet not so quickly but that the woman’s quicker eyes were caught, and nervously fascinated by the expression “I’m d——d” in a large business hand—and said in awkward haste, “No matter about reading it now—keep you too long—but he’s agreed all right, you know. Must go now—they’ll be waiting. Only I thought I’d drop in a-passin’, to keep you posted;” and, taking off his hat, he began to back from the porch.

“Is—is—this gentleman who is to assist me—a—a mature professional man—or a—graduate?” hesitated Mrs. Martin, with a faint smile.

“Don’t really know—I reckon Sam—Mr. Barstow—fixed that all right. Must really go now;” and, still holding his hat in his hand as a polite compromise for his undignified haste, he fairly ran off.

Arrived at the stage office, he found the two other trustees awaiting him, and the still more tardy stage-coach. One, a large, smooth-faced, portly man, was the Presbyterian minister; the other, of thinner and more serious aspect, was a large mill-owner.

“I presume,” said the Rev. Mr. Peaseley, slowly, “that as our good brother Barstow, in the urgency of the occasion, has, to some extent, anticipated our functions in engaging this assistant, he is—a—a—satisfied with his capacity?”

“Sam knows what he’s about,” said the mill-owner cheerfully, “and as he’s regularly buckled down to the work here, and will go his bottom dollar on it, you can safely leave things to him.”

“He certainly has exhibited great zeal,” said the reverend gentleman patronizingly.

“Zeal,” echoed Sperry enthusiastically, “zeal? Why, he runs Pine Clearing as he runs his bank and his express company in Sacramento, and he’s as well posted as if he were here all the time. Why, look here;” he nudged the mill-owner secretly, and, as the minister’s back was momentarily turned, pulled out the letter he had avoided reading to Mrs. Martin, and pointed to a paragraph. “I’ll be d——d,” said the writer, “but I’ll have peace and quietness at Pine Clearing, if I have to wipe out or make over the whole Pike County gang. Draw on me for a piano if you think Mrs. Martin can work it. But don’t say anything to Peaseley first, or he’ll want it changed for a harmonium, and that lets us in for psalm-singing till you can’t rest. Mind! I don’t object to Church influence—it’s a good hold!—but you must run it with other things equal, and not let it run you. I’ve got the schoolhouse insured for thirty thousand dollars—special rates too.”

The mill-owner smiled. “Sam’s head is level! But,” he added, “he don’t say much about the new assistant he’s sending.”

“Only here,” he says, “I reckon the man I send will do all round; for Pike County has its claims as well as Boston.”

“What does that mean?” asked the mill-owner.

“I reckon he means he don’t want Pine Clearing to get too high-toned any more than he wants it too low down. He’s mighty square in his averages—is Sam.”

Here speculation was stopped by the rapid oncoming of the stage-coach in all the impotent fury of a belated arrival. “Had to go round by Montezuma to let off Jack Hill,” curtly explained the driver, as he swung himself from the box, and entered the hotel bar-room in company with the new expressman, who had evidently taken Hill’s place on the box-seat. Autocratically indifferent to further inquiry, he called out cheerfully: “Come along, boys, and hear this yer last new yarn about Sam Barstow,—it’s the biggest thing out.” And in another moment the waiting crowd, with glasses in their hands, were eagerly listening to the repetition of the “yarn” from the new expressman, to the apparent exclusion of other matters, mundane and practical.

Thus debarred from information, the three trustees could only watch the passengers as they descended, and try to identify their expected stranger. But in vain: the bulk of the passengers they already knew, the others were ordinary miners and laborers; there was no indication of the new assistant among them. Pending further inquiry they were obliged to wait the conclusion of the expressman’s humorous recital. This was evidently a performance of some artistic merit, depending upon a capital imitation of an Irishman, a German Jew, and another voice, which was universally recognized and applauded as being “Sam’s style all over!” But for the presence of the minister, Sperry and the mill-owner would have joined the enthusiastic auditors, and inwardly regretted the respectable obligations of their official position.

When the story-teller had concluded amidst a general call for more drinks, Sperry approached the driver. The latter recognizing him, turned to his companion carelessly, said, “Here’s one of ’em,” and was going away when Sperry stopped him.

“We were expecting a young man.”

“Yes,” said the driver, impatiently, “and there he is, I reckon.”

“We don’t mean the new expressman,” said the minister, smiling blandly, “but a young man who”—

That ain’t no new expressman,” returned the driver in scornful deprecation of his interlocutor’s ignorance. “He only took Hill’s place from Montezuma. He’s the new kid reviver and polisher for that University you’re runnin’ here. I say—you fellers oughter get him to tell you that story of Sam Barstow and the Chinaman. It’d limber you fellers up to hear it.”

“I fear there’s some extraordinary mistake here,” said Mr. Peaseley, with a chilling Christian smile.

“Not a bit of it. He’s got a letter from Sam for one of ye. Yere, Charley—what’s your name! Com yere. Yere’s all yer three bosses waiting for ye.”

And the supposed expressman and late narrator of amusing stories came forward and presented his credentials as the assistant teacher of Pine Clearing.

Colonel Starbottle’s Client - Contents    |     The New Assistant at Pine Clearing School - Chapter II

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