The Poor Schoolmaster

by Grace Greenwood

Some forty or fifty years ago, there lived at Glenarm, near the castle, a poor schoolmaster, named Philip O'Flaherty.

Philip, though a very quiet, well meaning man, was singularly unfortunate in all but one thing—he had an excellent wife. Yet she, poor woman, was but "a weakly body," while, as for Philip, if any sickness whatever was going about, he was sure to catch it. He was a sort of Irish "Murad the Unlucky," nothing seemed to prosper with him. His potatoe-crop always fell short—if he took a fancy to keep a few ducks, or geese, a thieving fox carried them on—his pigs ran away, and he had not even "the poor man's blessing"—children, to comfort him. One after another, his babes were borne to the churchyard, and his cabin was left silent and lonely.

Poor Philip, though a schoolmaster, was not very remarkable for learning. In truth, he was a good deal behind the times, and his few scholars, if at all clever, soon got beyond him, and left him. When his wife was well, she did more than her part toward their support, and when she was ill, they fared very poorly, I assure you.

One September night, Philip and his wife sat alone in their cabin, more than usually dejected and sorrowful. They had just buried their last child—a baby-boy, only a few months old, but as dear to them as though he had grown to their hearts for years.

There was a terrible storm on the coast that night; the winds almost shook their old cabin to pieces, and torrents of rain were fast quenching the peat fire upon the hearth. Suddenly they were startled by hearing the sound of a gun, above the roaring of the sea. "There's a ship in distress!" cried Philip—"God help the poor creatures, for it's an awful night to be on the deep!" "Amen!" said Nelly, solemnly.

Soon after they heard the shouts of fishermen and cottagers, hurrying to the shore, and, protecting themselves as well as they could, they joined their neighbors—hoping to do some good upon the beach.

They arrived just in time to see the distressed vessel dashed upon a rock, and to witness a still more dreadful sight—the falling of a bolt of fire, from the black sky, right on to the ship—which in a few moments was enveloped in flames! No boatman, however brave, dared put out through the wild breakers to rescue the passengers and crew—and in the morning it was announced along that coast, that an unknown ship had gone down, in storm and fire, with every soul on board! But no—one little babe had been taken from the arms of its dead mother, and though apparently lifeless, was restored, by Nelly O'Flaherty, the schoolmaster's wife, who took it home to her cabin, where it was doing well. There was no mark upon the few fragments of clothing which remained upon the mother and child, when they reached the shore, by which it could be told who or what they were—but they both had a delicate look, which made the peasants think that they belonged to "the quality."

Nelly took the poor foundling at once to her heart—clad him in her dead baby's clothes, and would not hear to his being taken to the almshouse. "God," she said, "knew what was the best almshouse for the pretty little cherub, when He sent it to cheer the lone cabin of the childless."

As a matter of course, unlucky Philip took cold from the exposure of that stormy night, and had one of his fevers, which confined him several weeks. The first day that he was able to get out, he walked down to the bay, with his wife, to say good-bye to some friends, who were going to America. After the ship had set sail, they sat for a long time on the shore, watching it sadly and silently. "Ah, Nelly," said Philip at last, "if it weren't for my faver and your being burdened with that strange baby, sure we might work and earn enough to take us to America. Faith, that shipwreck was a misfortune to us, entirely!"

"Sure, and it was no such thing," said Nelly; "what's a faver more or less to you, avourneen; and has it not given us a beautiful boy, to take the place of our little dead Phil? 'Twas the Lord sent him, and He'll not let him bring us any trouble."

"The Lord,—why, Nelly, woman, do you suppose He ever busies himself with the likes of us?" said the schoolmaster, bitterly.

"Philip, avick, what do you mean?" exclaimed Nelly, in astonishment.

"I mean," replied her husband, "that our cabin is so small and poor, and the castle near by so big and grand, that it's natural Providence should overlook us just, and attend to the affairs of the quality. It's the way of the world."

"It may be the way of the world, but it's no the way with God, Philip. Our cabin is bigger than a sparrow's nest, afther all, and we—even you, miserable sinner, as ye are, 'are of more value than many sparrows.' 'The likes of us,' indade! Have ye ever come yet to sleeping in a stable in Bethlehem, among cows and sheep and asses? Answer me that! Ah, it's ashamed of you, I am, Philip O'Flaherty."

The next morning, this poor couple sat down to a breakfast of only half a dozen potatoes and a little salt.

"Philip, dear," said Nelly, sadly, when they had finished, "these are our last potatoes—I have sold all the rest to pay our rent, and the Doctor's little account, just."

"Blessed Saints!" exclaimed Philip, "what'll we do?"

"I'm afraid we must ask charity, till we can get work," said Nelly.

"No, no! I can't do that! I will die first!" cried Philip; then laying his face down on the table, he burst into tears and sobbed out—"Oh Nelly, darling, I wish I were dead and out of your way!—sure I'm no use in the world."

Nelly clasped the "strange baby" to her heart and murmured—"God help us!" Just at that moment, there came a knock at the cabin door—she opened it and dropped a respectful curtesy. It was the Earl, and a gentleman in mourning, who as soon as he saw the baby that Nelly held, caught it in his arms and began kissing it, and weeping over it, crying out that he had found his boy! The Earl explained that the stranger was a kinsman of his, a Scotch Laird, whose wife had been lost in the wreck, a few weeks before, while on her way to visit her relatives at the castle, with her child and servants. He said, they had not received the letter announcing her coming—so had not thought of looking for friends among the drowned and burned who were washed ashore after the wreck; but they had heard of the child so miraculously saved, and hoped that it might be their kinsman's son.

When Nelly fully realized that she must lose her adopted child, she fell at the feet of the father, crying with tears and sobs,—"Oh, sir, I cannot let him go! I warmed him out of the death-chill at my heart—I gave him my own dead darling's place! It will kill me, just, to part with him!"

"And you shall not part with him, my good woman," said the Laird—"the child must have a nurse—he should have none but you. I will take you and your husband with me to Scotland, if you will come!"

So, to make a long story short, the poor schoolmaster and his wife were provided with a comfortable home for the rest of their days, for their kindness to the little shipwrecked boy, who was always dear to them, and always returned their love.

Many others may adopt poor foundlings and care for them tenderly, and yet never have rich lords come to claim their charges and reward them so generously; but the Lord of all will not fail to ask for his "little ones" at last,—and to those who do good to "the least of these" He has promised rewards more glorious than the greatest earthly monarch could give—and He will keep his word.