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THE SICK SCHOLAR.
BY CHARLES DICKENS.
The schoolmaster had scarcely arranged the room in due order, and taken his seat behind his desk, when a white-headed boy with a sunburnt face appeared at the door, and stopping there to make an awkward bow, came in and took his seat upon one of the forms. The whiteheaded boy then put an open book, much thumb-worn, upon his knees, and, pushing his hands into his pockets, began counting the marbles with which they were filled.
Soon afterward another white-headed little boy came straggling in, and after him a red-headed lad, and after him two more with white heads, and then one with a flaxen poll, and so on until there were about a dozen boys in all, with heads of every color but gray, and of ages from four
years old to fourteen years or more ; for the legs of the youngest were a long way from the floor when he sat upon
the form, and the eldest was a heavy, good-tempered, foolish fellow, about half a head taller than the schoolmaster.
At the top of the first form — the post of honor in the school - was the vacant place of the little sick scholar, and at the head of the row of pegs on which the hats and caps were hung one peg was left empty. No boy thought of touching seat or peg, but many a one, as the remembrance of their delicate playmate came to mind, looked from the empty spaces to the schoolmaster, and whispered to his idle neighbor behind his hand.
Then began the hum of learning the lessons and getting them by heart, the sly whispers, the stealthy game,
and all the noise and drawl of school; and in the midst of the din sat the poor schoolmaster, vainly trying to fix his mind upon the duties of the day, and to forget his little sick friend. But it was plain that his thoughts were wandering from his pupils, and being drawn more and more to the willing scholar whose seat was vacant. None knew this better than the idlest boys, whose misconduct became greater and more daring — eating apples under the master's eye, pinching each other in sport or malice, and cutting their names in the very legs of his desk.
The puzzled dunce, who stood beside it to say his lesson out of book, looked no longer at the ceiling for forgotten words, but drew closer to the master's elbow and boldly cast his eyes upon the page. If the master did chance to rouse himself and seem alive to what was going on, the room became suddenly silent, and no eyes met his but wore a thoughtful and deeply humble look; then, as he again became lost in thought, the noise broke out afresh, and ten times louder than before.
Oh, how some of those idle rogues longed to be outside, and how they looked at the open door and window, as if they half intended to rush violently out, plunge into the woods, and be wild boys and savages from that time forth. What rebellious thoughts of the cool rivers and some shady bathing place beneath willow trees, with branches dipping in the water, kept tempting that sturdy boy, who sat fanning his flushed face with a spelling book, wishing himself a whale, or a fly, or anything but a boy at school on that hot, sunny day!
Heat! Ask that other boy, whose seat being nearest the door gave him an opportunity to sneak quietly into the garden and drive his companions to madness by dip
ping his face into the bucket of the well and then rolling on the grass — ask him if there were ever such a day as that, when even the bees were diving deep down into the cups of flowers and stopping there, as if they had made up their minds to go out of business and make honey no
The lessons over, writing time began; and there being but one desk, and that the master's, each boy sat at it in turn and toiled at his crooked copy, while the master walked about. The room was more quiet now; for the master would come and look over the writer's shoulder, and tell him kindly to observe how such a letter was turned in such a copy on the wall, and bid him take it for his model. Then he would stop and tell them what the sick child had said last night, and how he had longed to be among them once again; and so gentle was the schoolmaster's manner that the boys seemed quite sorry that they had worried him so much, and ate no more apples, cut no more names, inflicted no more pinches for full two minutes afterward.
“I think, boys,” said the schoolmaster, when the clock struck twelve, “ that I shall give an extra half holiday this afternoon.'
The boys, led on and headed by a tall boy, raised a great shout, in the midst of which the master was seen to speak, but could not be heard. As he held up his hand, however, in token of his wish that they should be silent, they were good enough to leave off, as soon as the longestwinded among them were quite out of breath.
“ You must promise me first," said the schoolmaster,
“ that you'll not be noisy, or, at least, if you are, that you'll go away and be so — away out of the village, I mean.'
There was a general murmur in the negative.
“ Then, pray, don't forget, there's my dear scholars," said the schoolmaster, “what I have asked you, and do it as a favor to me. Be as happy as you can, and likewise be mindful that you are blessed with health. Good-by, all !"
“ Thank you, sir,” and “good-by, sir,” were said a great many times, and the boys, much to their own astonishment and that of the master, went out very slowly and softly.
But there was the sun shining and there were the birds singing, as the sun only shines and the birds only sing on holidays and half holidays; there were the trees waving to all free boys to climb and nestle among their leafy branches; the hay tempting them to come and scatter it in the pure air; the green corn gently beckoning toward wood and stream; the smooth ground, seeming smoother still in the blending lights and shadows, and inviting to runs and leaps and long walks, no one knows whither. It was more than boy could bear, and with a joyous whoop the whole company took to their heels and sped away, shouting and laughing as they went.
“ 'Tis natural, thank Heaven!” said the poor schoolmaster, looking after them ; “ I am very glad they didn't mind me.”
Toward night, the schoolmaster walked over to the cottage where his little friend lay sick. Knocking gently at the cottage door, it was opened without loss of time. He entered a room where a group of women were gathered