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Chapter 21

Eloquence and the Master’s Gilded Dome

VACATION WAS APPROACHING. The schoolmaster, always sever, grew
severer and more exacting than ever, for he wanted the school to make a good
showing on “Examination” day. His rod and his ferule were seldom idle now-at
least among the smaller pupils. Only the biggest boys, and young ladies of
eighteen and twenty escaped lashing. Mr. Dobbins’s lashings were very
vigorous ones, too; for although he carried, under his wig, a perfectly bald and
shiny head, he had only reached middle age and there was no sign of feebleness
in his muscle.

As the great day approached, all the tyranny that was in him came to the
surface; he seemed to take a vindictive pleasure in punishing the least
shortcomings. The consequence was, that the smaller boys spent their days in
terror and suffering and their nights in plotting revenge. They threw away no
opportunity to do the master a mischief. But he kept ahead all the time. The
retribution that followed every vengeful success was so sweeping and majestic
that the boys always retired from the field badly worsted. At last they conspired
together and hit upon a plan that promised a dazzling victory. They swore-in the
sign-painter’s boy, told him the scheme, and asked his help. He had his own
reasons for being delighted, for the master boarded in his father’s family and
had given the boy ample cause to hate him. The master’s wife would go on a
visit to the country in a few days, and there would be nothing to interfere with
the plan; the master always prepared himself for great occasions by getting
pretty well fuddled, and the sign-painter’s boy said that when the dominie had
reached the proper condition on Examination Evening he would “manage the
thing” while he napped in his chair; then he would have him awakened at the
right time and hurried away to school.

In the fullness of time the interesting occasion arrived. At eight in the evening
the school-house was brilliantly lighted, and adorned with wreaths and festoons
of foliage and flowers. The master sat throned in his great chair upon a raised
platform, with his blackboard behind him. He was looking tolerably mellow.
Three rows of benches on each side and six rows in front of him were occupied
by the dignitaries of the town and by the parents of the pupils. To his left, back
of the rows of citizens, was a spacious temporary platform upon which were
seated the scholars who were to take part in the exercises of the evening; rows of
small boys, washed and dressed to an intolerable state of discomfort; rows of
gawky big boys; snow-banks of girls and young ladies clad in lawn and muslin
and conspicuously conscious of their bare arms, their grandmothers’ ancient
trinkets, their bits of pink and blue ribbon and the flowers in their hair. All the
rest of the house was filled with nonparticipating scholars.

The exercises began. A very little boy stood up and sheepishly recited, “You’d
scarce expect one of my age to speak in public on the stage, etc”- accompanying

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