The Schoolmaster, by Washington Irving
Hall, or The Humorists
There will be no mosse stick to the stone of Sisiphus, no
grasse hang on the heeles of Mercury, no butter cleave on the
bread of a traveller. For as the eagle at every flight loseth
a feather, which maketh her bauld in her age, so the traveller
in every country loseth some fleece, which maketh him a beggar
in his youth, by buying that for a pound which he cannot sell
again for a penny—repentance.
Among the worthies of the village that enjoy the peculiar confidence
of Master Simon, is one who has struck my fancy so much that I have
thought him worthy of a separate notice. It is Slingsby, the
schoolmaster, a thin, elderly man, rather threadbare and slovenly,
somewhat indolent in manner, and with an easy, good-humoured look, not
often met with in his craft. I have been interested in his favour by a
few anecdotes which I have picked up concerning him.
He is a native of the village, and was a contemporary and playmate of
Ready-Money Jack in the days of their boyhood. Indeed, they carried on
a kind of league of mutual good offices. Slingsby was rather puny, and
withal somewhat of a coward, but very apt at his learning; Jack, on
the contrary, was a bully-boy out of doors, but a sad laggard at his
books. Slingsby helped Jack, therefore, to all his lessons; Jack
fought all Slingsby's battles; and they were inseparable friends. This
mutual kindness continued even after they left the school,
notwithstanding the dissimilarity of their characters. Jack took to
ploughing and reaping, and prepared himself to till his paternal
acres; while the other loitered negligently on in the path of
learning, until he penetrated even into the confines of Latin and
In an unlucky hour, however, he took to reading voyages and travels,
and was smitten with a desire to see the world. This desire increased
upon him as he grew up; so, early one bright, sunny morning, he put
all his effects in a knapsack, slung it on his back, took staff in
hand, and called in his way to take leave of his early schoolmate.
Jack was just going out with the plough: the friends shook hands over
the farm-house gate; Jack drove his team a-field, and Slingsby
whistled, "Over the hills and far away," and sallied forth gayly to
"seek his fortune."
Years and years passed by, and young Tom Slingsby was forgotten; when,
one mellow Sunday afternoon in autumn, a thin man, somewhat advanced
in life, with a coat out at elbows, a pair of old nankeen gaiters, and
a few things tied in a handkerchief and slung on the end of a stick,
was seen loitering through the village. He appeared to regard several
houses attentively, to peer into the windows that were open, to eye
the villagers wistfully as they returned from church, and then to pass
some time in the church-yard reading the tombstones.
At length he found his way to the farm-house of Ready-Money Jack, but
paused ere he attempted the wicket; contemplating the picture of
substantial independence before him. In the porch of the house sat
Ready-Money Jack, in his Sunday dress; with his hat upon his head, his
pipe in his mouth, and his tankard before him, the monarch of all he
surveyed. Beside him lay his fat house-dog. The varied sounds of
poultry were heard from the well-stocked farm-yard; the bees hummed
from their hives in the garden; the cattle lowed in the rich meadow;
while the crammed barns and ample stacks bore proof of an abundant
The stranger opened the gate and advanced dubiously toward the house.
The mastiff growled at the sight of the suspicious-looking intruder;
but was immediately silenced by his master, who, taking his pipe from
his mouth, awaited with inquiring aspect the address of this equivocal
personage. The stranger eyed old Jack for a moment, so portly in his
dimensions, and decked out in gorgeous apparel; then cast a glance
upon his own thread-bare and starveling condition, and the scanty
bundle which he held in his hand; then giving his shrunk waistcoat a
twitch to make it meet its receding waistband, and casting another
look, half sad, half humorous, at the sturdy yeoman, "I suppose," said
he, "Mr. Tibbets, you have forgot old times and old playmates."
The latter gazed at him with scrutinizing look, but acknowledged that
he had no recollection of him.
"Like enough, like enough," said the stranger, "every body seems to
have forgotten poor Slingsby!"
"Why, no, sure! it can't be Tom Slingsby?"
"Yes, but it is, though!" replied the stranger, shaking his head.
Ready-Money Jack was on his feet in a twinkling, thrust out his hand,
gave his ancient crony the gripe of a giant, and slapping the other
hand on a bench, "Sit down there," cried he, "Tom Slingsby!"
A long conversation ensued about old times, while Slingsby was regaled
with the best cheer that the farm-house afforded; for he was hungry as
well as wayworn, and had the keen appetite of a poor pedestrian. The
early playmates then talked over their subsequent lives and
adventures. Jack had but little to relate, and was never good at a
long story. A prosperous life, passed at home, has little incident for
narrative; it is only poor devils, that are tossed about the world,
that are the true heroes of story. Jack had stuck by the paternal
farm, followed the same plough that his forefathers had driven, and
had waxed richer and richer as he grew older. As to Tom Slingsby, he
was an exemplification of the old proverb, "a rolling stone gathers no
moss." He had sought his fortune about the world, without ever finding
it, being a thing oftener found at home than abroad. He had been in
all kinds of situations, and had learned a dozen different modes of
making a living; but had found his way back to his native village
rather poorer than when he left it, his knapsack having dwindled down
to a scanty bundle.
As luck would have it, the Squire was passing by the farmhouse that
very evening, and called there, as is often his custom. He found the
two schoolmates still gossiping in the porch, and according to the
good old Scottish song, "taking a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang
syne." The Squire was struck by the contrast in appearance and
fortunes of these early playmates. Ready-Money Jack, seated in lordly
state, surrounded by the good things of this life, with golden guineas
hanging to his very watch-chain, and the poor pilgrim Slingsby, thin
as a weasel, with all his worldly effects, his bundle, hat, and
walking-staff, lying on the ground beside him.
The good Squire's heart warmed towards the luckless cosmopolite, for
he is a little prone to like such half-vagrant characters. He cast
about in his mind how he should contrive once more to anchor Slingsby
in his native village. Honest Jack had already offered him a present
shelter under his roof, in spite of the hints, and winks, and half
remonstrances of the shrewd Dame Tibbets; but how to provide for his
permanent maintenance was the question. Luckily the Squire bethought
himself that the village school was without a teacher. A little
further conversation convinced him that Slingsby was as fit for that
as for any thing else, and in a day or two he was seen swaying the rod
of empire in the very school-house where he had often been horsed in
the days of his boyhood.
Here he has remained for several years, and, being honoured by the
countenance of the Squire, and the fast friendship of Mr. Tibbets, he
has grown into much importance and consideration in the village. I am
told, however, that he still shows, now and then, a degree of
restlessness, and a disposition to rove abroad again, and see a little
more of the world; an inclination which seems particularly to haunt
him about springtime. There is nothing so difficult to conquer as the
vagrant humour, when once it has been fully indulged.
Since I have heard these anecdotes of poor Slingsby, I have more than
once mused upon the picture presented by him and his schoolmate,
Ready-Money Jack, on their coming together again after so long a
separation. It is difficult to determine between lots in life, where
each one is attended with its peculiar discontents. He who never
leaves his home repines at his monotonous existence, and envies the
traveller, whose life is a constant tissue of wonder and adventure;
while he who is tossed about the world, looks back with many a sigh to
the safe and quiet shore which he has abandoned. I cannot help
thinking, however, that the man that stays at home, and cultivates the
comforts and pleasures daily springing up around him, stands the best
chance for happiness. There is nothing so fascinating to a young mind
as the idea of travelling; and there is very witchcraft in the old
phrase found in every nursery tale, of "going to seek one's fortune."
A continual change of place, and change of object, promises a
continual succession of adventure and gratification of curiosity. But
there is a limit to all our enjoyments, and every desire bears its
death in its very gratification. Curiosity languishes under repeated
stimulants, novelties cease to excite surprise, until at length we
cannot wonder even at a miracle.
He who has sallied forth into the world, like poor Slingsby, full of
sunny anticipations, finds too soon how different the distant scene
becomes when visited. The smooth place roughens as he approaches; the
wild place becomes tame and barren; the fairy tints that beguiled him
on, still fly to the distant hill, or gather upon the land he has left
behind; and every part of the landscape seems greener than the spot he