Elsie Venner/Chapter XII

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THE APOLLINEAN INSTITUTE. (With Extracts from the "Report of the committee.")

The readers of this narrative will hardly expect any elaborate details of the educational management of the Apollinean Institute. They cannot be supposed to take the same interest in its affairs as was shown by the Annual Committees who reported upon its condition and prospects. As these Committees were, however, an important part of the mechanism of the establishment, some general account of their organization and a few extracts from the Report of the one last appointed may not be out of place.

Whether Mr. Silas Peckham had some contrivance for packing his Committees, whether they happened always to be made up of optimists by nature, whether they were cajoled into good-humor by polite attentions, or whether they were always really delighted with the wonderful acquirements of the pupils and the admirable order of the school, it is certain that their Annual Reports were couched in language which might warm the heart of the most cold-blooded and calculating father that ever had a family of daughters to educate. In fact, these Annual Reports were considered by Mr. Peckham as his most effective advertisements.

The first thing, therefore, was to see that the Committee was made up of persons known to the public.

Some worn-out politician, in that leisurely and amiable transition-state which comes between official extinction and the paralysis which will finish him as soon as his brain gets a little softer, made an admirable Chairman for Mr. Peckham, when he had the luck to pick up such an article. Old reputations, like old fashions, are more prized in the grassy than in the stony districts. An effete celebrity, who would never be heard of again in the great places until the funeral sermon waked up his memory for one parting spasm, finds himself in full flavor of renown a little farther back from the changing winds of the sea-coast. If such a public character was not to be had, so that there was no chance of heading the Report with the name of the Honorable Mr. Somebody, the next best thing was to get the Reverend Dr. Somebody to take that conspicuous position. Then would follow two or three local worthies with Esquire after their names. If any stray literary personage from one of the great cities happened to be within reach, he was pounced upon by Mr. Silas Peckham. It was a hard case for the poor man, who had travelled a hundred miles or two to the outside suburbs after peace and unwatered milk, to be pumped for a speech in this unexpected way. It was harder still, if he had been induced to venture a few tremulous remarks, to be obliged to write them out for the "Rockland Weekly Universe," with the chance of seeing them used as an advertising certificate as long as he lived, if he lived as long as the late Dr. Waterhouse did after giving his certificate in favor of Whitwell's celebrated Cephalic Snuff.

The Report of the last Committee had been signed by the Honorable, ___________late __________ of ___________, as Chairman. (It is with reluctance that the name and titles are left in blank; but our public characters are so familiarly known to the whole community that this reserve becomes necessary.) The other members of the Committee were the Reverend Mr. Butters, of a neighboring town, who was to make the prayer before the Exercises of the Exhibition, and two or three notabilities of Rockland, with geoponic eyes, and glabrous, bumpless foreheads. A few extracts from the Report are subjoined:

"The Committee have great pleasure in recording their unanimous opinion, that the Institution was never in so flourishing a condition....

"The health of the pupils is excellent; the admirable quality of food supplied shows itself in their appearance; their blooming aspect excited the admiration of the Committee, and bears testimony to the assiduity of the excellent Matron.

"......moral and religious condition most encouraging, which they cannot but attribute to the personal efforts and instruction of the faithful Principal, who considers religious instruction a solemn duty which he cannot commit to other people.

"......great progress in their studies, under the intelligent superintendence of the accomplished Principal, assisted by Mr. Badger, [Mr. Langdon's predecessor,] Miss Darley, the lady who superintends the English branches, Miss Crabs, her assistant and teacher of Modern Languages, and Mr. Schneider, teacher of French, German, Latin, and Music....

"Education is the great business of the Institute. Amusements are objects of a secondary nature; but these are by no means neglected....

"......English compositions of great originality and beauty, creditable alike to the head and heart of their accomplished authors.... several poems of a very high order of merit, which would do honor to the literature of any age or country.... life-like drawings, showing great proficiency.... Many converse fluently in various modern languages.... perform the most difficult airs with the skill of professional musicians....

"......advantages unsurpassed, if equalled by those of any Institution in the country, and reflecting the highest honor on the distinguished Head of the Establishment, SILAS PECKHAM, Esquire, and his admirable Lady, the MATRON, with their worthy assistants...."

The perusal of this Report did Mr. Bernard more good than a week's vacation would have done: It gave him such a laugh as he had not had for a month. The way in which Silas Peckham had made his Committee say what he wanted them to--for he recognized a number of expressions in the Report as coming directly from the lips of his principal, and could not help thinking how cleverly he had forced his phrases, as jugglers do the particular card they wish their dupe to take--struck him as particularly neat and pleasing.

He had passed through the sympathetic and emotional stages in his new experience, and had arrived at the philosophical and practical state, which takes things coolly, and goes to work to set them right. He had breadth enough of view to see that there was nothing so very exceptional in this educational trader's dealings with his subordinates, but he had also manly feeling enough to attack the particular individual instance of wrong before him. There are plenty of dealer's in morals, as in ordinary traffic, who confine themselves to wholesale business. They leave the small necessity of their next-door neighbor to the retailers, who are poorer in statistics and general facts, but richer in the every-day charities. Mr. Bernard felt, at first, as one does who sees a gray rat steal out of a drain and begin gnawing at the bark of some tree loaded with fruit or blossoms, which he will soon girdle, if he is let alone. The first impulse is to murder him with the nearest ragged stone. Then one remembers that he is a rodent, acting after the law of his kind, and cools down and is contented to drive him off and guard the tree against his teeth for the future. As soon as this is done, one can watch his attempts at mischief with a certain amusement.

This was the kind of process Mr. Bernard had gone through. First, the indignant surprise of a generous nature, when it comes unexpectedly into relations with a mean one. Then the impulse of extermination,--a divine instinct, intended to keep down vermin of all classes to their working averages in the economy of Nature. Then a return of cheerful tolerance,--a feeling, that, if the Deity could bear with rats and sharpers, he could; with a confident trust, that, in the long run, terriers and honest men would have the upperhand, and a grateful consciousness that he had been sent just at the right time to come between a patient victim and the master who held her in peonage.

Having once made up his mind what to do, Mr. Bernard was as good-natured and hopeful as ever. He had the great advantage, from his professional training, of knowing how to recognize and deal with the nervous disturbances to which overtasked women are so liable. He saw well enough that Helen Darley would certainly kill herself or lose her wits, if he could not lighten her labors and lift off a large part of her weight of cares. The worst of it was, that she was one of those women who naturally overwork themselves, like those horses who will go at the top of their pace until they drop. Such women are dreadfully unmanageable. It is as hard reasoning with them as it would have been reasoning with Io, when she was flying over land and sea, driven by the sting of the never-sleeping gadfly.

This was a delicate, interesting game that he played. Under one innocent pretext or another, he invaded this or that special province she had made her own. He would collect the themes and have them all read and marked, answer all the puzzling questions in mathematics, make the other teachers come to him for directions, and in this way gradually took upon himself not only all the general superintendence that belonged to his office, but stole away so many of the special duties which might fairly have belonged to his assistant, that, before she knew it, she was looking better and feeling more cheerful than for many and many a month before.

When the nervous energy is depressed by any bodily cause, or exhausted by overworking, there follow effects which have often been misinterpreted by moralists, and especially by theologians. The conscience itself becomes neuralgic, sometimes actually inflamed, so that the least touch is agony. Of all liars and false accusers, a sick conscience is the most inventive and indefatigable. The devoted daughter, wife, mother, whose life has been given to unselfish labors, who has filled a place which it seems to others only an angel would make good, reproaches herself with incompetence and neglect of duty. The humble Christian, who has been a model to others, calls himself a worm of the dust on one page of his diary, and arraigns himself on the next for coming short of the perfection of an archangel.

Conscience itself requires a conscience, or nothing can be more unscrupulous. It told Saul that he did well in persecuting the Christians. It has goaded countless multitudes of various creeds to endless forms of self-torture. The cities of India are full of cripples it has made. The hill-sides of Syria are riddled with holes, where miserable hermits, whose lives it had palsied, lived and died like the vermin they harbored. Our libraries are crammed with books written by spiritual hypochondriacs, who inspected all their moral secretions a dozen times a day. They are full of interest, but they should be transferred from the shelf of the theologian to that of the medical man who makes a study of insanity.

This was the state into which too much work and too much responsibility were bringing Helen Darley, when the new master came and lifted so much of the burden that was crushing her as must be removed before she could have a chance to recover her natural elasticity and buoyancy. Many of the noblest women, suffering like her, but less fortunate in being relieved at the right moment, die worried out of life by the perpetual teasing of this inflamed, neuralgic conscience. So subtile is the line which separates the true and almost angelic sensibility of a healthy, but exalted nature, from the soreness of a soul which is sympathizing with a morbid state of the body that it is no wonder they are often confounded. And thus many good women are suffered to perish by that form of spontaneous combustion in which the victim goes on toiling day and night with the hidden fire consuming her, until all at once her cheek whitens, and, as we look upon her, she drops away, a heap of ashes. The more they overwork themselves, the more exacting becomes the sense of duty,--as the draught of the locomotive's furnace blows stronger and makes the fire burn more fiercely, the faster it spins along the track.

It is not very likely, as was said at the beginning of this chapter, that we shall trouble ourselves a great deal about the internal affairs of the Apollinean Institute. These schools are, in the nature of things, not so very unlike each other as to require a minute description for each particular one among them. They have all very much the same general features, pleasing and displeasing. All feeding-establishments have something odious about them,--from the wretched country-houses where paupers are farmed out to the lowest bidder, up to the commons-tables at colleges and even the fashionable boarding-house. A person's appetite should be at war with no other purse than his own. Young people, especially, who have a bone-factory at work in them, and have to feed the living looms of innumerable growing tissues, should be provided for, if possible, by those who love them like their own flesh and blood. Elsewhere their appetites will be sure to make them enemies, or, what are almost as bad, friends whose interests are at variance with the claims of their exacting necessities and demands.

Besides, all commercial transactions in regard to the most sacred interests of life are hateful even to those who profit by them. The clergyman, the physician, the teacher, must be paid; but each of them, if his duty be performed in the true spirit, can hardly help a shiver of disgust when money is counted out to him for administering the consolations of religion, for saving some precious life, for sowing the seeds of Christian civilization in young ingenuous souls.

And yet all these schools, with their provincial French and their mechanical accomplishments, with their cheap parade of diplomas and commencements and other public honors, have an ever fresh interest to all who see the task they are performing in our new social order. These girls are not being educated for governesses, or to be exported, with other manufactured articles, to colonies where there happens to be a surplus of males. Most of them will be wives, and every American-born husband is a possible President of these United States. Any one of these girls may be a four-years' queen. There is no sphere of human activity so exalted that she may not be called upon to fill it.

But there is another consideration of far higher interest. The education of our community to all that is beautiful is flowing in mainly through its women, and that to a considerable extent by the aid of these large establishments, the least perfect of which do something to stimulate the higher tastes and partially instruct them. Sometimes there is, perhaps, reason to fear that girls will be too highly educated for their own happiness, if they are lifted by their culture out of the range of the practical and every-day working youth by whom they are surrounded. But this is a risk we must take. Our young men come into active life so early, that, if our girls were not educated to something beyond mere practical duties, our material prosperity would outstrip our culture; as it often does in large places where money is made too rapidly. This is the meaning, therefore, of that somewhat ambitious programme common to most of these large institutions, at which we sometimes smile, perhaps unwisely or uncharitably.

We shall take it for granted that the routine of instruction went on at the Apollinean Institute much as it does in other schools of the same class. People, young or old, are wonderfully different, if we contrast extremes in pairs. They approach much nearer, if we take them in groups of twenty. Take two separate hundreds as they come, without choosing, and you get the gamut of human character in both so completely that you can strike many chords in each which shall be in perfect unison with corresponding ones in the other. If we go a step farther, and compare the population of two villages of the same race and region, there is such a regularly graduated distribution and parallelism of character, that it seems as if Nature must turn out human beings in sets like chessmen.

It must be confessed that the position in which Mr. Bernard now found himself had a pleasing danger about it which might well justify all the fears entertained on his account by more experienced friends, when they learned that he was engaged in a Young Ladies' Seminary. The school never went on more smoothly than during the first period of his administration, after he had arranged its duties, and taken his share, and even more than his share, upon himself. But human nature does not wait for the diploma of the Apollinean Institute to claim the exercise of it, instincts and faculties. These young girls saw but little of the youth of the neighborhood. The mansion-house young men were off at college or in the cities, or making love to each other's sisters, or at any rate unavailable for some reason or other. There were a few "clerks,"--that is, young men who attended shops, commonly called "stores,"--who were fond of walking by the Institute, when they were off duty, for the sake of exchanging a word or a glance with any one of the young ladies they might happen to know, if any such were stirring abroad: crude young men, mostly, with a great many "Sirs" and "Ma'ams" in their speech, and with that style of address sometimes acquired in the retail business, as if the salesman were recommending himself to a customer, "First-rate family article, Ma'am; warranted to wear a lifetime; just one yard and three quarters in this pattern, Ma'am; sha'n't I have the pleasure?" and so forth. If there had been ever so many of them, and if they had been ever so fascinating, the quarantine of the Institute was too rigorous to allow any romantic infection to be introduced from without.

Anybody might see what would happen, with a good-looking, well-dressed, well-bred young man, who had the authority of a master, it is true, but the manners of a friend and equal, moving about among these young girls day after day, his eyes meeting theirs, his breath mingling with theirs, his voice growing familiar to them, never in any harsh tones, often soothing, encouraging, always sympathetic, with its male depth and breadth of sound among the chorus of trebles, as if it were a river in which a hundred of these little piping streamlets-might lose themselves; anybody might see what would happen. Young girls wrote home to their parents that they enjoyed themselves much, this term, at the Institute, and thought they were making rapid progress in their studies. There was a great enthusiasm for the young master's reading-classes in English poetry. Some of the poor little things began to adorn themselves with an extra ribbon, or a bit of such jewelry as they had before kept for great occasions. Dear souls! they only half knew what they were doing it for. Does the bird know why its feathers grow more brilliant and its voice becomes musical in the pairing season?

And so, in the midst of this quiet inland town, where a mere accident had placed Mr. Bernard Langdon, there was a concentration of explosive materials which might at any time change its Arcadian and academic repose into a scene of dangerous commotion. What said Helen Darley, when she saw with her woman's glance that more than one girl, when she should be looking at her book, was looking over it toward the master's desk? Was her own heart warmed by any livelier feeling than gratitude, as its life began to flow with fuller pulses, and the morning sky again looked bright and the flowers recovered their lost fragrance? Was there any strange, mysterious affinity between the master and the dark girl who sat by herself? Could she call him at will by looking at him? Could it be that--? It made her shiver to think of it.--And who was that strange horseman who passed Mr. Bernard at dusk the other evening, looking so like Mephistopheles galloping hard to be in season at the witches' Sabbath-gathering? That must be the cousin of Elsie's who wants to marry her, they say. A dangerous-looking fellow for a rival, if one took a fancy to the dark girl! And who is she, and what?--by what demon is she haunted, by what taint is she blighted, by what curse is she followed, by what destiny is she marked, that her strange beauty has such a terror in it, and that hardly one shall dare to love her, and her eye glitters always, but warms for none?

Some of these questions are ours. Some were Helen Darley's. Some of them mingled with the dreams of Bernard Langdon, as he slept the night after meeting the strange horseman. In the morning he happened to be a little late in entering the schoolroom. There was something between the leaves of the Virgil which lay upon his desk. He opened it and saw a freshly gathered mountain-flower. He looked at Elsie, instinctively, involuntarily. She had another such flower on her breast.

A young girl's graceful compliment,--that is all,--no doubt,--no doubt. It was odd that the flower should have happened to be laid between the leaves of the Fourth Book of the "AEneid," and at this line,

         "Incipit effari, mediaque in voce resistit."

A remembrance of an ancient superstition flashed through the master's mind, and he determined to try the Sortes Virgilianae. He shut the volume, and opened it again at a venture.--The story of Laocoon!

He read with a strange feeling of unwilling fascination, from "Horresco referees" to "Bis medium amplexi," and flung the book from him, as if its leaves had been steeped in the subtle poisons that princes die of.