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Colin of the Ninth Concession
Chapter XX - What Auld Peggy overheard at the Cross-roads

COLIN had proved a faithful boy, and had worked for the widow even more earnestly and industriously, if that were possible, than her own children. He took the deepest interest in everything relating to the farm and to the welfare of his adopted mother’s family, and when the day to pay the interest on the mortgage came around, no one was more anxious than he to know that the money was on hand. During the summer months Colin worked on the farm, helping to plant and gather the crop, and displaying the greatest energy and ingenuity in his efforts to serve Mrs. McNabb. In the late fall and winter months Colin attended the public school, where, unfortunately, Simon Smallpiece was still the master. That worthy, by his scheming and obsequiousness, had been able to hoodwink the trustees, and he still held the fort, notwithstanding his growing unpopularity and the sinister stories that were being spread about the settlement concerning him.

"It’s no’ f’r a puir auld body like me tae be interferin’ in they matters," said Auld Peggy to Mrs. McNabb one day, about this time. "But Ah maun jist tell ‘e what Ah seen and heered wi’ my ain een an’ ears. Ah wis comin’ doon th’ rawd frae Tuffy’s Corners twa nichts agone, an’ whan Ah cam’ near tae th’ spoat whar th’ rawds cross, Ah heered voices, an’ Ah paused tae lussen, an’ what dae ye think Ah seen an’ heered?"

Here Auld Peggy paused, as her habit always was when she came to the interesting part of her story. She could not refrain from tantalising her listener, and, if possible, provoking even greater curiosity than was already aroused.

One excellent plan to adopt in hastening Auld Peggy’s story was to underestimate its importance. These subtle tactics the widow thoroughly understood, and so, in disinterested tones, she opined that it was probably John Malcolm scolding Muckle Peter for drinking his beer when his back was turned.

"Teuch, Mustress McNabb! Will ye naver be wise?" responded Auld Peggy, with warmth, and thoroughly disgusted at her host’s obtuseness. "Ah wad ask ye tae guess, but ye naver could. Na, na, — it wis na ane else than th’ maister an’ Kearstie Roberts, yoan braw sonsie lassie wi’ th’ braid shouthers, th’ little wut, an’ th’ superflouty (this was the biggest word that Auld Peggy ever attempted) o’ gigglin’. Kearstie wis urgin’ Simon tae marry her. There wis na gigglin’ aboot th’ puir lassie yoan nicht, an’ Ah couldna but feel f’r her, f’r she maun jist hae trusted th’ betrayer, believin’ he wis sae guid a man thet he wadna deceive her.

"Ah tell ‘e what, Mustress McNabb, Ah could naver bring mysel’ tae trust yoan man. Ah tuk a scunner tae hum a’most frae th’ first, an’ whan Ah used tae see hum coortin’ Kearstie, Ah intended tae warn Mustress Roberts. But she an’ her guid maun hed aye sicna exalted opeenion o’ th’ maister, an’ aye talkit sae high aboot his great attainments an’ Christian qualities, ‘f’r,’ said Mustress Roberts, ‘dis he na teach in th’ Sawbathskule an’ lead in prayer whan th’ meenister’s awa’ ? ‘—thet Ah feared she wadna believe aught again’ him.

"Wall, th’ shoart an’ th’ lang o’t," continued Auld Peggy, "is thet th’ maister has betrayed puir Kearstie, an’ mark ma words, although Ah heered hum gie her his soalem promise an’ vow thet he’d marry her wi’in twa months, Ah dinna believe he’ll dae onything o’ th’ kind, but wull leave th’ puir lassie tae rassel wi’ her trouble alane."

Auld Peggy’s recital brought real pain to the heart of Mrs. McNabb, who, on this occasion, did not doubt the old woman’s story, as it corroborated the hints which a few of the inhabitants were beginning to drop.

It has been intimated that any popularity which Simon ever possessed was beginning to wane, and once the process began it went on rapidly. The marvel is that a man like Simon, so heartless and cruel, and so utterly devoid of human feelings and ideals, without which no individual should be allowed to teach children, had been permitted for so long a time to hold the school. The means by which he managed to do so, however, have been explained. He had gone on practising his cruelties upon the children, and, in many cases, had almost extinguished in the youngsters those finer and gentler graces which are so beautiful, and the cultivation of which is so desirable. The man never seemed to possess a single ideal. He did not even exalt truth-speaking and truth-acting; indeed, his daily conduct served to break down any ideals which the children may have acquired elsewhere. It was of course impossible for him to inculcate manliness in the pupils, for he never understood what it was himself. The pupils whose parents were prominent and influential he praised and exalted, the children whose parents were poor and uninfluential he oppressed and degraded. Simon had been known to lift Colin and other pupils right off the floor by their ears, and this he did for the "fun of the thing," as he would say. When he was in a rage he thought nothing of dragging children out of their seats by their ears or hair.

In the event of his taws being mislaid or lost, he would cut heavy rods or gads from the trees surrounding the schoolhouse, and with these rough instruments of torture he would belabour the children upon the most sensitive parts of their hands, bare feet, and bare legs. Nothing seemed to give him such unalloyed delight as to make the barefooted children dance while he switched them unmercifully on their bare feet. It was not only in the administration of corporal punishment that he was brutal, and God knows he was brutal in that respect, but it was in his sneers and partiality that his most cruel work was done.

Many years have passed over both Simon’s head and mine since the day, soon after his departure, when the discovery was made by me of his conduct towards Colin and the others. For years I carried the resolve in my heart to thrash the man on sight; and often, when I reached the words "as we forgive those who trespass against us," Simon’s repulsive figure would rise before my mental vision and almost bar the utterance.

God knows I would not like to be unjust to Simon, nor judge him harshly, for I am now an old man, but when I recall the bright young lives into which he sowed the tares of distrust, unfairness, untruthfulness, and cruelty, when he should have sown the seeds of manliness and kindness, and the thrice-sacred seeds of truth and honour, I am tempted to curse the hour that saw his birth.

Lest the reader might think that I have overdrawn the picture of the injustice and cruelties practised by Simon upon his pupils, I quote an extract from a volume entitled "Shanty, Forest, and River Life in the Backwoods of Canada," written by the Rev. Joshua Fraser, who assisted in looking after the spiritual welfare of the Presbyterian settlers in Eastern Ontario fully fifty years ago, and who often officiated in the Scotch Settlement, where the scenes in this story are laid. Mr. Fraser writes : "As I have intimated, he (the teacher) was severe in his codeof discipline. ‘Severe’ did I say? that is no word for it. His castigations and punishments were simply horrible, yea, fiendish. I firmly believe that the old man thought, and had an honest, conscientious conviction in his soul, that the begin-ning and end of all sound and effective imparting of knowledge lay in the tips of the taws. Whatever his theory was, this was his practice, anyhow. I don’t think that more horrible thrashings were ever inflicted, either in ancient or modern times, than those which the unhappy youths had to undergo in that old square stone schoolhouse in the village of Lanark, Ontario, at the merciless hands of old Robert Mason. His taws were the most horrible instrument of torture that could be imagined. Leather was dear in those days, and as the taws were stolen at every possible opportunity that occurred, the ‘maister’ found it too costly a business to go to the shoemaker every time he required a new pair; so he would rummage around the barnyards of the neighbours until he found an old horse trace which had been thrown away, and had been drying and hardening in the sun for months. Then his soul would be delighted, and he would forthwith fashion it into the direst weapon of castigation that the heart of man or demon could devise. He would pare down one end of it so that he could conveniently wield it with both hands, and the other end he would slice into three or four tails, and then singe and harden them in the fire to give them more weight and sting. With this awful weapon, perhaps five feet in length, in his hand, he would go to work as deliberately as a man in chopping down a tree. I have seen as many as a dozen pupils ranged before him, each waiting in gloomy silence his turn to undergo chastisement. If it was in warm weather, each one, as he came forward, had to lay his hand down on the cold stove (which was never removed summer or winter), and then, after a long, deliberate wipe of his forehead, shaggy eyebrows, nose, mouth, and chin, with his left hand, he would bring down the taws upon the hand of the luckless culprit with a mighty pegh! just as you hear a man give with every swing of the axe upon the tree before him. After each one had received his dozen or more allotted ‘licks,’ the old man would be somewhat exhausted, but I believe it was a pleasant kind of exhaustion to him, and kept him in good humour for hours afterwards."

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