Every country boy in New England knows that the village school-house is generally located upon the top of the bleakest hill in the neighborhood, and is the sport of every eddying gust of wind that drives down from the great pine wilderness of Maine, heaping the great drifts across the road and about the door for the children to break through, and then shake themselves free of the clinging snow like so many young Newfoundlands.
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And where, by any chance, was there ever a school-house containing a stove that didn't roast the scholars seated near it, and leave the others to freeze?
All wide-awake boys who know the pleasures of skating will agree with me that however cold and stormy it is upon the hill-tops, the mill-pond (and what does a village amount to without a mill-pond, indeed?) is always down in the coziest nook between the hills, where the winds can't come with more force than is needed to blow the falling flakes across its smooth surface, piling them in great heaps among the bordering willows, and leaving the ice in tempting order for "shinny."
In fact, upon this the coldest morning of the winter, the school-house on the hill-top is not to be mentioned or thought of in comparison with mill-ponds for comfort or attractiveness, and it is hardly surprising that Mr. Chalker, the school-master, walked to and fro in solitary state, surveying with vexed air an array of vacant desks.
He was not altogether alone, however, for three boys had fought bravely through the drifts, and now sat huddled by the red-hot stove, trying hard to look as though they, at least, didn't think the weather a good excuse for staying at home to hunt hens' nests in the depths of the haymow.
Now School-master Chalker was a shrewd observer, and loved a good joke as well as any one. He had adopted many original plans of instruction. He could see one end of the mill-pond, half a mile away from his window, and as he gazed out upon the bleak waste of snow-clad fields he saw a couple of small black figures gliding over its surface, and a trace of a smile shone among his wrinkles as an idea seemed to strike him.
Perhaps he had recalled the time, ever so many years ago, when he too was a lad and the "wildest cub in the town," as his father often declared. Turning to one of the boys, he said, "Ben, it seems to me that the pond's a much nicer place for us than the school-house to-day. Let's go fishing. I can't skate, but perhaps I can show you how we used to catch pickerel down there fifty years ago."
Ben and his two companions looked at Mr. Chalker with eyes widely opened, but they soon found that he was in earnest, and they agreed to the proposition joyfully.
"Now," said Mr. Chalker, "two of you get out the bob-sled, and heap on plenty of sticks from the wood-pile. Be sure and get some big ones; and you, Berton, go down to Mr. Sampson, the miller, with this note. He will let you have some lines, and a few minnows for bait."
When the school-house had been properly locked up, and they had started, dragging the sled after them, it occurred to Ben to suggest a slide. So all three got upon the wood, and slid away merrily toward the pond. The road was steep but straight, though near the bottom there was a sharp curve, where the wind had blown away the snow, leaving a crust of smooth ice. Over this they sped at a lively pace, Ben steering. Poor Ben couldn't turn the corner, and in another second the sled, school-master, and all plunged into the depths of a big drift. Nothing was to be seen of Mr. Chalker for a moment but his heels; but he shortly emerged, puffing and laughing heartily, much to the boys' relief, who had begun to think the fun was all over. But Mr. Chalker shook himself, and declared he enjoyed it, and was ready to try it over; in fact, he didn't act a bit like a school-master, but just like a boy let loose—a very old boy, to be sure, but a very hearty one, for all that.
It only required a few minutes to cut a couple of round holes in the ice, and to build a roaring fire upon a platform of heavy sticks and flat stones—a fire that flung its forked tongues into the keen air in merry defiance of the Frost King and all his servants.
The half-dozen boys already on the pond viewed these preparations with considerable wonder; but gathering courage, finally skated up and warmed their fingers at the fire.
Then somewhat more than a dozen other boys looked out from the windows of the houses scattered along the hill-side, and said something like this: "Mother, I guess there ain't any school to-day; I don't see any smoke comin' out of the chimney. Can't I go down to the pond?"
And an equal number of mothers replied: "Why, of course not. It's much too cold for you to go out. You said so yourself, and, besides, you don't feel very well."
"There's lots of the boys on the pond, mother, an' the skating's splendid. I don't feel so badly now. Can't I go? I won't stay long. I think you might let—"
Upon which all the mothers said, in effect, "Well, do go along; but mind you don't get into any air-holes."
Thus, before an hour had passed, nearly all of the boys in the school were gliding over the pond, or gathered in the group watching Mr. Chalker and his fishing party.
Meanwhile the school-master and Ben had enjoyed remarkable luck. Four fine pickerel lay on the ice, and a fifth (much the biggest ever seen in the pond, of course) had been lost by Ben in pulling him up.
Now it occurred to Mr. Chalker that it would be much nicer if everybody had seats, so he suggested to the boys that they should bring some fence rails, and sit down in a circle about the fire; all of which was done with a merry good-will, and Mr. Chalker surveyed them with infinite satisfaction through his glasses as he hauled in another struggling victim of his hook.
"Now," said he, "I see plainly that it is all a mistake to hold school up there in that uncomfortable building on the hill in such weather as this, and so I'm going to propose that on all cold days this winter we shall meet here on the pond and hold our classes; in fact, I think we may as well begin now." Without further ado the teacher pulled a supply of spellers from his several capacious pockets, and said, "The first class in spelling will take seats on this side."
Then it dawned upon the minds of the boys that they had been fairly trapped, and they nearly choked with inward laughter as they went through with spelling, arithmetic, and reading, taking turns at keeping their toes warm by the fire; and though a big pickerel was doing his best to carry off one of the lines, none of them dared to pull him up, for Mr. Chalker looked like a very severe and dignified pedagogue indeed, and Ben could scarcely realize that he had seen him tumbled head over heels into a snow-drift but a couple of hours before.
When he thought that the real lesson of the day had been well impressed upon the scholars, Mr. Chalker dismissed his school, and as he landed the last fish, and strung him through the gills with the others upon a willow twig, he chuckled to himself, "I don't know who's had the most fun to-day, the boys or the master, but I'll venture to say they'll be on hand, cold or no cold, after this."