The Spelling Bee

The Chronic Loafer stretched his legs along the counter and rested his
back comfortably against a pile of calicoes.

“I allus held,” he said, “that they hain’t no sech things ez a
roarinborinallus. I know some sais they is ’lectric lights, but ’hen I
seen that big un last night I sayd to my Missus, an’ I hol’ I’m right, I
sayd that it was nawthin’ but the iron furnaces over the mo’ntain. Fer
s’pose, ez the Teacher claims, they was lights at the North Pole–does
you uns believe we could see ’em all that distance? Well now!”

He gazed impressively about the store. The Patriarch, the Miller and
the G.A.R. Man were disposed to agree with him. The School Teacher was
sarcastic.

“Where ignorance is bliss ’twere folly to be wise,” he said. He tilted
back on two legs of his chair and adjusted his thumbs in the arm-holes of
his waistcoat, so that all eight of his long quivering fingers seemed to
be pointing in scorn at the man on the counter.

The Loafer rolled slowly over on one side and eyed the pedagogue.

“Ben readin’ the almanick lately, hain’t ye?” he drawled.

“If you devoted less time to the almanac and more to physical geography,”
retorted the Teacher, “you’d know that the Aurora Borealis hain’t a light
made on _terra firma_ but that it is a peculiar magnetic condition of
the atmosphere. And the manner in which you pronounce it is exceedingly
ludicrous. It’s not a roarinborinallus. It is spelled _A-u-r-o-r-a
B-o-r-e-a-l-i-s_.”

The Loafer sat up, crossed his legs and embraced his knee, thus forming a
natural fortification behind which he could collect his thoughts before
hurling them at his glib and smiling foe. He gazed dully at his rival a
moment; then said suddenly, “My pap was a cute man.”

“He hasn’t left any living monument to his good sense,” said the Teacher.

The Loafer looked at the Storekeeper, who was sitting beneath him on
an empty egg-crate. “Do you mind how he use to say that Solerman meant
‘teacher’ ’hen he sayd ‘wine’; how Solerman meant, ‘Look not upon the
teacher ’hen he is read,’ fer a leetle learnin’ leaveneth the whole lump
an’ puffs him up so—-”

The pedagogue’s chair came down on all four legs with a crash. His
right thumb left the seclusion of his waistcoat, his right arm shot out
straight, and a trembling forefinger pointed at the eyes that were just
visible over the top of the white-patched knee.

“See here!” he shouted. “I’m ready for an argyment, but no callin’ names.
This is no place for abuse.”

The Loafer resumed his reclining attitude and fixed his gaze on the dim
recesses of the ceiling.

“I hain’t callin’ no one names,” he said slowly, “I was jest tellin’ what
my pap use to say.”

“Tut-tut-tut, boys,” interrupted the Patriarch, thumping the floor with
his stick. “Don’t git quarrelin’ over sech a leetle thing ez the meanin’
o’ a word. Mebbe ye’s both right.”

The Tinsmith had hitherto occupied a nail keg near the stove, unnoticed.
Now he began to rub his hands together gleefully and to chuckle. The
Teacher was convinced that his own discomfiture was the cause of the
other’s mirth.

“Well, what are you so tickled about?” he snapped.

“Aurory Borealis. Perry Muthersbaugh spelled down Jawhn Jimson on that
very word. Yes, he done it on that very word. My, but that there was a
bee, Perfessor!”

“Now ’fore you git grindin’ away, sence you’ve got on spellin’,” said the
Chronic Loafer, “I want to tell a good un—-”

“Let him tell us about Perry Muthersbaugh,” said the Teacher in decisive
tones. The title “professor” had had a softening effect, and he repaid
the compliment by supporting the Tinsmith’s claim to the floor.

Compelled to silence, the Chronic Loafer closed his eyes as though
oblivious to all about him, but a hand stole to his ear and formed a
trumpet there to aid his hearing.

“Some folks is nat’ral spellers jest ez others is nat’ral musicians,”
began the Tinsmith. “Agin, it’s jest ez hard to make a good speller be
edication ez it is to make a good bass-horn player, fer a felly that
hain’t the inborn idee o’ how many letters is needed to make a word’ll
never spell no better than the man that hain’t the nat’ral sense o’ how
much wind’s needed to make a note, ’ll play the bass-horn.”

“I cannot wholly agree with you,” the Teacher interrupted. “Give a child
first words of one syllable, then two; drill him in words ending in
_t-i-o-n_ until—-”

“We won’t discuss that, Perfessor. It don’t affect our case, fer Jawhn
Jimson was a nat’ral speller. You never seen the like. Give him a
word o’ six or seven syllables an’ he’d spell it out like it was on a
blackboard right before him. ’Hen he was twenty he’d downed all the
scholars in Happy Grove an’ won about six bees. Then he went to Pikestown
Normal School, an’ ’hen he come back you never knowd the beat. He hed
stedied Lating an’ algebray there, but I guesst he must also ’a’ spent
considerable time a-brushin’ up his spellin’, fer they was only one felly
’bout these parts could keep with him any time at all. He was my frien’
Perry Muthersbaugh, who tot up to Kishikoquillas.

“You uns mind the winter we hed the big blizzard, ’hen the snow covered
all the fences an’ was piled so high in the roads that we hed to drive
th’oo the fiel’s. They was a heap sight goin’ on that year–church
sosh’bles, singin’ school an’ spellin’ bees. Me an’ Perry Muthersbaugh
was buddies, an’ not a week passed ’thout we went some’eres together.
Fore I knowd it him an’ Jawhn Jimson was keepin’ company with Hannah
Ciders. She was jest ez pretty ez a peach, plump an rosy, with the
slickest nat’ral hair an’ teeth you uns ever seen. She was fond o’
edication, too, so ’hen them teachers was after her she couldn’t make
up her min’. She favored both. Perry was good lookin’ an’ steady an’ no
fool. He’d set all evenin’ along side o’ her an’ never say nawthin’ much,
but she kind o’ thot him good company. It allus seemed to me that Jimson
was a bit conceity an’ bigitive, but he was amusin’ an’ hed the advantage
of a normal school edication. He kind o’ dazzled her. She didn’t know
which of ’em to take, an’ figured on it tell well inter the winter. Her
color begin to go an’ she was gittin’ thin. Perry an’ Jawhn was near
wild with anxiousness an’ was continual quarrelin’. Then what d’ye s’pose
they done?”

“It’ll take a long time fer ’em to do much the way you tells it,” the
Chronic Loafer grumbled.

“She give out,” continued the Tinsmith, not heeding the interruption,
“that she’d take the best edicated. That tickled Jawhn, an’ he blowed
around to his frien’s how he was goin’ to send ’em invites to his
weddin’. Perry jest grit his teeth an’ sayd nawthin’ ’cept that he was
ready. Then he got out his spellin’ book an’ went to sawin’ wood jest ez
hard an’ fast ez he could.”

“That there reminds me o’ my pap.” The Chronic Loafer was sitting up
again.

“Well, if your pap was anything like his son,” said the Teacher, “I guess
he could ’a’ sawed most of his wood with a spellin’ book.”

The author of this witticism laughed long and loud, having support in the
Miller and the G.A. R. Man. The Patriarch put his hand under his chin and
dexterously turned his long beard upward so that it hid his face. In the
seclusion thus formed he had a quiet chuckle all to himself, for he was a
politic old person and loath to offend.

“Boys, boys,” he said when the mirth was subsiding, “remember what the
Scriptur’ sais—-”

“Pap didn’t git it from the Scriptur’,” said the Loafer complacently. “He
use to give it ez a text tho’, somethin’ like this, ‘He that goeth at
the wood-pile too fast gen’rally breaketh his saw on the fust nail an’
freezeth all winter.’”

“Not ef he gits the right kind o’ firewood–the kind that hasn’t no
nails,” said the Miller hotly.

“Huh!” exclaimed the Loafer, and he sprawled out upon the counter once
more.

The Tinsmith took up the narrative again.

“It was agreed that the two teachers ’ud hev it out at the big spellin’
bee ’tween their schools the follyin’ week. The night set come. Sech a
crowd ez gathered at the Happy Grove school house! They was sleighin’,
an’ fer a quarter of a mile in front o’ the buildin’ they was nawthin’
but horses hitched to the fences. The room was decorated with greens
an’ lighted with ile lamps fer the occasion, an’ was jest packed. All
the seats was filled with girls. The men was lined three deep along the
walls an’ banked up on top of one another at the back. On one side o’ the
platform, settin’ on a long bench under the blackboard, was the sixteen
best scholars o’ Happy Grove school led be Jawhn Jimson. He was smilin’
an’ conferdent, an’ gazed longin’ at Hannah Ciders, who was on one o’ the
front seats an’ ’peared rather nervous.

“Perry Muthersbaugh come up to me ez I was standin’ be the stove warmin’
up, an’ I whispered him a few words of encouragement, tho’ I felt sorry
fer him. He was a leetle excited but ’lowed it ’ud come out all right.
Then he tuk his place on the other side o’ the platform with his sixteen
scholars, an’ the proceedin’s begin.

“Teacher Long from Lemon township give out the words, while me an’
another felly kep’ tally. The first word was soupeny. Perry missed it.
He spelled it _s-u-p-e-n-a_. It jest made me sick to hev to mark down
one agin his side. Jimson tuk it, spelled it all right, an’ commenced to
smile. Muthersbaugh looked solemn. The next felly on his side spelled
supersedes correct, while the girl beside Jawhn missed superannuation.
Happy Grove and Kishikoquillas was even.




“I tell you uns it was most excitin’ to see them trained spellers
battlin’. They kep’ it up fer half an hour, an’ ’hen they quit Happy
Grove hed two misses less than Kishikoquillas. Jimson was smilin’
triumphant. Perry didn’t do nawthin’ but set there quiet like.

“Then come the final test–the spellin’ down. After a recess o’ ten
minutes the sides lined up agin, an’ ’henever one missed a word he hed
to go sit in the aud’ence. They spelled an’ spelled tell they was no
one left but Jawhn Jimson an’ Perry Muthersbaugh, standin’ glarin’ at
each other an’ singin’ out letters. It was a grand sight. Hannah Ciders
was pale an’ tremblin’, fer she knowd the valley of an idle word then.
The aud’ence was most stretchin’ their necks outen joint they was so
interested. Two lamps went out an’ no one fixed them. The air was blue
with steam made be the snow meltin’ offen the fellys’ boots, the stove
begin to smoke, an’ the room was suffocatin’, yit no one thot to put up a
winder, the excitemen’ was so bad.

“Sech words ez penultimate, concatenation, pentateuch an’ silhouette
come dead easy to them teachers. They kep’ glarin’ at each other an’
spellin’ like their life depended on it. Poor Long’s voice got weaker an’
weaker givin’ out words, an’ I was that nervous I could hairdly see. They
spelled all the _ations_ an’ _entions_, all the words endin’ in _i-s-m_,
_d-l-e_ an’ _ness_, tell it seemed they’d use up the book. Perry was
gittin’ more excited. Jimson’s knees was tremblin’ visible.

“Then Rorybory Allus was give out. You could ’a’ heard a pin drop in that
room. Jimson he begin slow, ez ef it was dead easy: ‘_A-r-o-r-a_, Aurora;
_b-o-r_, Aurora Bor; _e-a-l-i-s_, Aurora Borealis.’

“A mumble went over the room. He seen he was wrong an’ yelled, ‘_A-u_, I
mean!’

“‘Too late,’ sais Long. ‘Only one chancet at a time. The gentleman who
gits it right first, wins.’

“Jawhn was white ez a sheet, an’ his face an’ han’s was twitchin’ ez he
stood there glarin’ at Perry. Muthersbaugh looked at the floor like he
was stedyin’. I seen Hannah Ciders lean for’a’d an’ grip the desk with
her han’s. Then I knowd she’d made up her min’ which she favored.

“He begin, ‘_A-u_, au; _r-o-r_, ror, Auror; _a_, Aurora; _B-o-r-e_, bore,
Aurora Bore; _a-l_, al, Aurora Boreal–’ Then he stopped, an’ looked up
at the ceilin’, an’ stedied.

“I seen tears in Hannah Ciders’ eyes ez she leaned for’a’d, not
breathin’. I seen Jimson grin, an’ knowd he remembered he’d left out the
_u_ an’ ’ud spell it jest ez quick ez he got a chancet. I believed Perry
was goin’ to say _a_, that it was all up with him an’ that Hannah Ciders
knowd too late who she favored.

“All o’ a sudden the door flew open an’ they was a cry: ‘Hoss thief!
thieves! Some un’s run off with Teacher Jimson’s sleigh.’

“You uns never seen sech a panic. The weemen jumped up an’ yelled. The
men all piled outen the door. Jawhn Jimson climbed th’oo the winder, an’
Teacher Long dropped his spellin’ book an’ followed. To my surprise Perry
Muthersbaugh never moved. He jest stood there lookin’ at Hannah Ciders
an’ smilin’ while she gazed back. I was gittin’ outen the winder among
the last an’ turned to see ef Perry was ahint me–that’s how I noticed
it. Fer three minutes them two stared at each other an’ I stared at them,
not knowin’ what to make of it. Meantime the room was cleared. Outside we
heard the sleigh-bells ringin’ ez the boys started off after the thieves;
we heard Jawhn Jimson an’ Teacher Long callin’ to ’em to go in this an’
that direction; we heard the weemen complainin’ because so many’d hev to
walk home.

“Jest then the rear winder, right back o’ where Perry was standin’, slid
up an’ his young brother Sam stuck in his head. He looked ’round, an’ he
seen the coast was clear. Then he whispered, ‘I give that ’larm in time,’
Perry, didn’t I? Teacher Jimson’s horse is hitched right here ahint the
school-house, an’ you can take her home jest ez soon ez the last o’ these
fools gits away.’

“Perry wheeled round an’ run at the youngster, ketchin’ him be the collar
an’ draggin’ him inter the room.

“‘What you mean,’ sais he, shakin’ him like a rat. ‘What you mean be
spoilin’ the bee?’

“Sam begin to yowl. ‘I seen ye was stuck,’ he sais, ‘an’ I thot I’d help
ye out.’

“With that Perry th’owed his brother off into a corner o’ the room. Then
he stood up straight an’ looked Hannah Ciders right in the eye.

“‘He thot I was stuck,’ he sayd, steppin’ off the platform an’ walkin’ up
to the girl. ‘But I ain’t. The last syllable’s _e-a-l-a-s_!

“‘No,’ she answers quiet like. ‘It’s _e-a-l-i-s_–but that ain’t no
difference.’”

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