In the school at Whilomville it was the habit,
when children had
progressed to a certain class, to have them devote Friday afternoon to what
was called elocution. This was in the piteously ignorant belief that orators
were thus made. By process of school law, unfortunate boys and girls were
dragged up to address their fellow-scholars in the literature of the
mid-century.2 Probably the children who were most capable of expressing
themselves, the children who were most sensitive to the power of speech,
suffered the most wrong. Little blockheads who could learn eight lines of
conventional poetry and could get up and spin it rapidly at their
classmates did not undergo a single pang. The plan operated mainly to
agonize many children permanently against arising to speak their thought to
Jimmie Trescott had an idea that by exhibition of undue ignorance he
could escape from being promoted into the first class room which exacted
such penalty from its inmates. He preferred to dwell in a less classic shade
rather than venture into a domain where he was obliged to perform a certain
duty which struck him as being worse than death. However, willy-nilly, he
was somehow sent ahead into the place of torture.
Every Friday at least ten of the little children had to mount the stage
beside the teacher's desk and babble something which none of them
understood. This was to make them orators. If it had been ordered that they
should croak like frogs, it would have advanced most of them just as far
Alphabetically Jimmie Trescott was near the end of the list of victims,
but his time was none the less inevitable. "Tanner, Timmens, Trass, Trescott
-- " He saw his downfall approaching.
He was passive to the teacher while she drove into his mind the
incomprehensible lines of "The Charge of the Light Brigade":
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward --
He had no conception of a league. If in the ordinary course of life
somebody had told him that he was half a league from home, he might have
been frightened that half a league was fifty miles; but he struggled
manfully with the valley of death and a mystic six hundred, who were
performing something there which was very fine, he had been told. He learned
all the verses.4
But as his own Friday afternoon approached he was moved to make known to
his family that a dreadful disease was upon him and was likely at any time
to prevent him from going to his beloved school.
On the great Friday when the children of his initials were to speak their
pieces, Dr. Trescott was away from home, and the mother of the boy was
alarmed beyond measure at Jimmie's curious illness which caused him to lie
on the rug in front of the fire and groan cavernously. She bathed his feet in hot mustard water until they were lobster-red. She also placed a mustard plaster on his chest. He announced that these remedies did him no good at all -- no good at
all. With an air of martyrdom he endured a perfect downpour of motherly
attention all that day. Thus the first Friday was passed in safety. With singular patience he sat before the fire in the dining-room and
looked at picture books, only complaining of pain when he suspected his
mother of thinking that he was getting better.
The next day being Saturday
and a holiday, he was miraculously delivered from the arms of disease and
went forth to play, a blatantly healthy boy.
He had no further attack until Thursday night of the next week, when he
announced that he felt very, very poorly. The mother was already chronically
alarmed over the condition of her son, but Dr. Trescott asked him questions
which denoted some incredulity. On the third Friday Jimmie was dropped at
the door of the school from the doctor's buggy. The other children, notably
those who had already passed over the mountain of distress, looked at him
with glee, seeing in him another lamb brought to butchery. Seated at his
desk in the school-room, Jimmie sometimes remembered with dreadful
distinctness every line of "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and at other
times his mind was utterly empty of it. Geography, arithmetic, and spelling
-- usually great tasks -- quite rolled off him. His mind was dwelling with
terror upon the time when his name should be called and he was obliged to go
up to the platform, turn, bow, and recite his message to his fellow-men.
Desperate expedients for delay came to him. If he could have engaged the
services of a real pain, he would have been glad. But steadily, inexorably,
the minutes marched on towards his great crisis, and all his plans for
escape blended into a mere panic fear.
The maples outside were defeating the weakening rays of the afternoon
sun, and in the shadowed school-room had come a stillness in which
nevertheless one could feel the complacence of the little pupils who had
already passed through the flames. They were calmly prepared to recognize as
a spectacle the torture of others.5
Little Johnnie Tanner opened the ceremony. He stamped heavily up to the
platform and bowed in such a manner that he almost fell down. He blurted
out that it would ill befit him to sit silent while the name of his fair
Ireland was being reproached, and he appealed to the gallant soldier before
him if every British battle-field was not sown with the bones of sons of the
Emerald Isle. He was also heard to say that he had listened with deepening
surprise and scorn to the insinuation of the honorable member from North
Glenmorganshire that the loyalty of the Irish regiments in her Majesty's
service could be questioned. To what purpose, then, he asked, had the blood
of Irishmen flowed on a hundred fields? To what purpose had Irishmen gone to
their death with bravery and devotion in every part of the world where the
victorious flag of England had been carried? If the honorable member for
North Glenmorganshire insisted upon construing a mere pothouse row between
soldiers in Dublin into a grand treachery to the colors and to her Majesty's
uniform, then it was time for Ireland to think bitterly of her dead sons,
whose graves now marked every step of England's progress and yet who could
have their honors stripped from them so easily by the honorable member for
North Glenmorganshire. Furthermore, the honorable member for North
It is needless to say that little Johnnie Tanner's language made it
exceedingly hot for the honorable member for North Glenmorganshire. But
Johnnie was not angry. He was only in haste. He finished the honorable
member for North Glenmorganshire in what might be called a gallop.
Susie Timmens then went to the platform, and with a face as pale as death
whisperingly reiterated that she would be Queen of the May. The child
represented there a perfect picture of unnecessary suffering. Her small lips
were quite blue, and her eyes, opened wide, stared with a look of horror at
The phlegmatic Trass boy, with his moon face only expressing
peasant parentage, calmly spoke some undeniably true words concerning
In his seat Jimmie Trescott was going half blind with fear of his
approaching doom. He wished that the Trass boy would talk forever about destiny. If the
school-house had taken fire he thought that he would have felt simply
relief. Anything was better. Death amid the flames was preferable to a
recital of "The Charge of the Light Brigade." But the Trass boy finished his
remarks about destiny in a very short time. Jimmie heard the teacher call
his name, and he felt the whole world look at him. He did not know how he
made his way to the stage. Parts of him seemed to be of lead, and at the
same time parts of him seemed to be light as air, detached. His face had
gone as pale as had been the face of Susie Timmens. He was simply a child in
torment; that is all there is to be said specifically about it; and to
intelligent people the exhibition would have been not more edifying than a
He bowed precariously, choked, made an inarticulate sound, and then he
"Half a leg -- "
"League," said the teacher, coolly.
"Half a leg -- "
"League," said the teacher.
"League," repeated Jimmie, wildly.
"Half a league, half a league, half a league onward."
He paused here and looked wretchedly at the teacher.
"Half a league," he muttered -- "half a league -- "
He seemed likely to keep continuing this phrase indefinitely, so after a
time the teacher said, "Well, go on."
"Half a league," responded Jimmie.
The teacher had the opened book before her, and she read from it:
"All in the valley of Death
Rode the --
Go on," she concluded.
"All in the valley of Death
Rode the -- the -- the"
He cast a glance of supreme appeal upon the teacher and breathlessly
whispered, "Rode the what?"
The young woman flushed with indignation to the roots of her hair.
"Rode the six hundred,"
she snapped at him. The class was arustle with delight at this cruel display. They were no
better than a Roman populace in Nero's time.
Jimmie started off again:
"Half a leg -- league, half a league, half a league onward,
All in the valley of death rode the six hundred.
Forward -- forward -- forward -- "
"The Light Brigade," suggested the teacher, sharply.
"The Light Brigade," said Jimmie. He was about to die of the ignoble pain
of his position. As for Tennyson's lines, they had all gone grandly out of his mind
leaving it a whited wall.
The teacher's indignation was still rampant. She looked at the miserable
wretch before her with an angry stare. "You stay in after school and learn that all over again," she commanded.
"And be prepared to speak it next Friday. I am astonished at you, Jimmie. Go
to your seat."
If she had suddenly and magically made a spirit of him and left him free
to soar high above all the travail of our earthly lives she could not have
overjoyed him more. He fled back to his seat without hearing the low-toned
gibes of his schoolmates. He gave no thought to the terrors of the next
Friday. The evils of the day had been sufficient, and to a childish mind a
week is a great space of time.
With the delightful inconsistency of his age he sat in blissful calm and
watched the sufferings of an unfortunate boy named Zimmerman, who was the
next victim of education. Jimmie, of course, did not know that on this day
there had been laid for him the foundation of a finished incapacity for
public speaking which would be his until he died.6