BLACKAMOOR

By Ruth Landseer

Many will wonder how I managed to keep order in the schoolroom and give proper attention to the lessons with three baby woodchucks, a turtle, two squirrels and a young crow about the place. My fellow teachers will be inclined to say that the children would have eyes and ears for nothing else.

In point of fact it made little difference after my pupils became accustomed to the sight and sound of these "pets." Moreover, they were a source of endless pleasure and, I think, profit, for I gave little talks upon the habits and history of all these creatures, and sought to inculcate sentiments of compassion and love toward all living things.

This was my first school, however, and people wondered. The supervisor also wondered, and was skeptical. Several of the parents, who did not understand very well, complained to him that I kept a menagerie instead of a school. There were some, even, who did not wish to have their children taught natural history, because they came home and asked questions. They did not like it and deemed it quite unnecessary. They desired to have their children attend strictly to their "school studies."

It came about, therefore, that at the end of the second term the position was given to another teacher, and for one whole term my occupation was gone.

Yet my former pupils lamented so openly and said so much at home, that their small voices wrought a change of opinion, and at the beginning of the second year the school was given to me again. The teacher who had taken my place said a little spitefully, on leaving, that I had spoiled the school for any one else. She was a very worthy young lady, but one of those who scream at the sight of a spider, a mouse or a harmless snake.

Blackamoor came to school one morning in July, head downward, in the hands of one of my larger boys, named Wiggan Brown, who was a little inclined to thoughtless cruelty. On the part of children, indeed, cruelty is usually thoughtless. They are rarely cruel after they have been taught to think on the subject.

Wiggan and his older brother had taken Blackamoor from a nest in the top of a hemlock-tree. By this time the reader will have guessed that Blackamoor was the young crow which became one of our schoolhouse pets.

At first we built a pen for him at the farther corner of the schoolyard, where we kept him until he could fly. After that he was released, to stay with us or depart. He chose to stay, and during school hours usually sat on the ridge of the schoolhouse roof. At night he often accompanied me home, and lingered about the farmhouse or barns till school-time the next day. At the recesses he swaggered and hopped about with the children at play, often cawing uproariously.

If a dog or cat approached during school hours, Blackamoor would cry, "Har-r-r!" from the roof, and drive the intruder away. If it was a person, he cried "Haw!" quite sharply, on a different key. If another crow or large bird flew past, he turned up an eye and said "Hawh!" rather low. In fact, he kept us posted on all that was going on out-of-doors, for we soon came to know most of his signal-cries. The boys would glance up from their books and smile when they heard him.

Blackamoor had certain highly reprehensible traits. He was thievish, and we were obliged to keep an eye on him, or he would steal all our lead-pencils, pocket-handkerchiefs and other small objects. What he took he secreted, and was marvelously cunning in doing it.

He fell finally into a difficulty with a gang of Italian laborers who were excavating for a new railroad line that passed within a quarter of a mile of the schoolhouse. There were fifty-five of these Italians, and they had their camp in a grove of pines within plain sight of us. My pupils were afraid of these swarthy men, for they jabbered fiercely in an unknown tongue, and each one was armed with a sheath-knife.

On the whole, I thought it better that my boys should not go to their camp. But Blackamoor went there, and indeed became a constant visitor. There were probably titbits to be secured about their cooking-fires. For a time he nearly deserted the schoolhouse for the Italian camp in the pines, or at least was flying back and forth a great deal, "hawing" and "harring."

All appeared to go well for a while. Then one forenoon I heard loud shouts outside, and on going to the door, saw a hatless Italian pursuing Blackamoor across the pasture below the house. He was a very active young man, and was filling the air with stones and cries.

Blackamoor, however, was taking it all easily, flying low, but keeping out of reach. He had something in his beak.

Catching sight of me in the doorway, the Italian stopped, but gesticulated eagerly, pointing to the crow; and he said much that I failed utterly to comprehend.

I conjectured that Blackamoor had purloined something, and felt that I must keep him from going to the camp; but that was not easily accomplished. We tied him by the leg, but he tugged at the string till it was frayed off or came untied, and flew away.

But a crisis was at hand. The second morning afterward an alarming commotion began, as I was hearing a class in mental arithmetic. The house was surrounded by excited Italians. Stones rattled on the roof. Angry shouts filled the air. It was a mob. The children were terrified, and I was sufficiently alarmed myself, for a pane of glass crashed and clubs banged against the sides of the house.

Hastily locking the door, I peered out of the window. Certainly wild Indians could hardly have looked more savage than did those Italians, hurling stones and clubs at the house.

Yet through it all I had a suspicion that the demonstration was directed at Blackamoor rather than against us; for I fancied that I had heard our bird say "Haw!" a moment before the hubbub burst forth. Still it was decidedly alarming while it lasted, and continued for a much longer time than was pleasant. I judged it more prudent to keep the door locked than to go forth to remonstrate.

Finally, after a great bombardment, the outcries and racket subsided, and with a vast sense of relief, I saw the Italians retiring across the pasture to their camp. As a matter of course the children carried home terrible accounts of what had occurred, and our small community waxed indignant over what was deemed an outrage by lawless foreigners.

The suspicion, however, remained with me that Blackamoor was at the bottom of all the trouble. I had the boys catch him and make him fast again, this time with a small dog-chain, which he could not bite off. He cawed vigorously, but we kept him at anchor for a week or more. And meanwhile the Italian camp was moved to a point six miles farther along the line of the new railway.

At a schoolhouse in the country it is often difficult to get small repairs made. Early that season the boys had broken a pane of glass in the low attic window at the front end of the house. I had been trying to get it replaced for two months; and now we had two panes broken. At last I bought new glass and a bit of putty and with the aid of Wiggan and another boy, set the panes myself one night after school.

But while setting the attic pane we made a singular discovery. In the low, dark loft, just inside the hole of the broken pane, lay a heap of queer things which caused us first to stare, then to laugh. The like, I am sure, was never found in the loft of a New England sehoolhouse before. I made a list. There were:

  The much soiled photograph of an Italian baby.
  Three photographs of pretty Italian girls.
  Four very villainous old pipes.
  Many straws of macaroni.
  An old felt hat.
  A dirty stick of candy.
  Five small silver coins.
  An harmonica.
  An odd sort of flute.
  The bonnet of an Italian baby.
  Four soiled red bandannas.
  A black wallet containing about a dollar in silver.
  Two tin cups.
  Two pictures of peasants.
  Two plugs of tobacco.

These are but samples. All told, there were at; least ninety articles. It was Blackamoor's hoard; and all the while we were overhauling it he cawed and hawed in great glee!

That night we talked it over, and decided that restoration was our only proper course. The long-suffering Italians were now six miles away; but on Saturday we procured a pair of farm horses and a wagon with three seats for our journey of reparation. The purloined articles were put in a large basket, and we set up a perch in the wagon, to which Blackamoor was chained in token of punishment. After this manner six of us drove to the new camp.

When we arrived the gang was hard at work in a cutting; but when, one after another, they caught sight of our wagon, with Blackamoor atop, exclamations, not of a complimentary nature, burst forth all along the line.

But I beckoned to their Irish "boss," and after showing him our basket and explaining the circumstances, asked him to allow each of the men to take what belonged to him.

"Ah, sure!" replied the foreman, with a broad grin. "Here, all of you," he shouted down the cutting, "come get your trinkets what the crow stole!"

Wonderingly, the gang gathered round the wagon. But when they saw the basket and what was in it, the liveliest expressions of satisfaction arose. Each seized his own.

I had the foreman say to them how very sorry we were that our bad bird had given them so much trouble. Then followed, in response, as pretty a bit of politeness as I have ever witnessed.

The Italians took off their hats and bowed all round. One of them then made a little speech, which the Irish boss translated after his own fashion, somewhat like this:

"It's all right, they say. You are most good. They thank you with all their hearts. They are sorry you have had to come so far. You are a very, very kind signorina."

The foreman grinned apologetically. "They want to sing you a song," he said.

I said that we should be delighted. Immediately four of them stepped forth together and sang. It was an Italian song, and had a refrain so plaintive that I often catch myself trying to hum it.

"Now, then, get back to your work, men!" shouted the boss, and so this odd little episode ended.

Yet it was not wholly ended, either, for in October, as the gang tramped back along the road-bed of the railway, going home with all their packs and bundles, one of those who had sung came up to the schoolhouse and laid a little bouquet of frost flowers and red autumn leaves on the doorstep.

Catching sight of me through the window, he nodded brightly, pointed to the bouquet, nodded again, then hurried on after his fellows. I went to the door, and when they saw me there, half a hundred old hats were raised and hands were waved in token of farewell.

I thought of our previous fears and of the hard things that had been said, and was ashamed. Again the truth of that humane old proverb came home to me:

"Almost everybody is a good fellow if you treat him right."

And Blackamoor?

A few days later Blackamoor deserted us. A large flock of his wild kindred was mustering in the vicinity for the autumn migration. We concluded that he had joined his tribe—and were not inconsolable.