Dalton Hunter met me at the tiny station the day before school began. He was a strikingly handsome man - tall, with dark curly hair, snapping brown eyes and a slow smile which spread out evenly under his acquiline nose. He wore a beige silk shirt open at the neck to reveal a mat of masculine hair, brown squire's breeches gleaming English riding boots.
"Miss Sutton, I presume?" His inflection was lilting, his syllables clipped, his manner haughtily condescending.
Dalton proved to be a sparkling conversationalist as we drove through the countryside, and my tension began to ease as I looked forward to meeting his wife and moving into my new home.
"Have your crops been successful this year, Mr. Hunter?" I asked as we drove past fields where some golden grain still waved, waist-high, mile upon mile toward the horizon.
"I do not have to cultivate my land," he announced loftily, his tone leaving no doubt as to his attitude toward those whose survival depended. upon honest toil. "However, I do have a flower garden around the house."
I decided that my new landlord must be a man of means. Perhaps my new home would possess more of the amenities than some of the tiny farm houses we passed. As we jogged along in the sunlight I formed a mental picture of the Hunter home; it would be a two-story house with a fireplace, rocking chairs, gilt-framed pictures on the walls and patchwork quilts on all the beds.
At length we left the beaten trail and turned left. The lane was pitted with deep ruts and we pitched and jolted from one to another. I was so busy hanging on that I was barely conscious of the shack we were approaching until Dalton said, "Well, here we are!" in his cultured English voice, and jumped to the ground with feline grace. Barking dogs rushed at us from all directions but responded immediately to their master's "Down, boy! Quiet!" and stood around us, watching and wagging.
Was THIS the Hunter home? This flimsy diminutive dwelling, with the lean-to at the side? It must be! It was the only building in sight! To be sure, there was a flower garden, still colourful with late blooms, their glory somewhat dimmed by prairie dust. And the virgin prairie stretched away to the horizon, untended, untilled, its potential scorned by its owner. I had but a fleeting impression of my new surroundings for Dalton was lifting down my trunk and Introducing me to a delicate Dresden doll of a woman in a long black skirt and frothy white blouse.
"This is Miss Sutton, my dear. Take her in now and get her settled."
I grasped a tiny hand extended in introduction and gazed into two of the palest blue eyes I have ever encountered.
"And this is my sister, Miss Gage," said Mrs. Hunter in her soft childlike voice.
A second woman had appeared, resembling her sister but slightly as she demonstrated at once by grasping my hand in a firm clasp and looking at me with a look of obvious dependability.
"How do you do, Miss Sutton?" she said in a firm no-nonsense voice.
We passed into the one main room which boasted a piano covered with innumerable photographs of nieces and nephews abroad, four rickety chairs, a table with a bowl of flowers, an ugly locking stove, a double bed half concealed by a nondescript curtain, and a single cot in one corner.
Dalton swept through the room with my trunk on his shoulder saying, "This is your room, Miss Sutton. In here."
I followed behind dutifully. My 'room' proved to be the lean- to at the side of the house! The chinks in the walls offered through- way to bugs, dust and draughts. My only furnishings were a bed, washstand, chipped enamel pitcher and basin, and a derelict chest propped up by a stone where one leg was missing! I had a moment of pure panic as the door closed and I was left alone. As I unpacked my trunk and looked for a place to put my few possessions, tears ran down my cheeks and splashed, unheeded, on everything I picked up....
Once the supper dishes were cleared away I moved to the household's only table with the intention of preparing the work schedule for the eight grades I was to begin teaching in the morning and then getting to bed early to be fresh for my teaching ordeal.
"What play shall we do tonight?" exclaimed Dalton, rubbing his hands together, the light of expectation shining in his face.
"Let's do 'Macbeth'. We haven't had it in simply ages!"
Miss Gage picked up her worn copy of Shakespeare and plumped her self down on one of the wobbly chairs which she had placed near the stove. One of the dogs - the spaniel - immediately jumped into her lap, wagging his entire hind section as he overhung his inadequate perch. The night was chill and a fire from the stove warmed the crowded room. Miss Gage planted her feet firmly on top of the stove and adjusted her long skirts under the dog. Draughts skittered along the floor while the wind moaned around the tiny shack. Dalton and his wife each placed a chair near the stove, sat down and lifted their feet to the stove's inadequate top, meanwhile thumbing through their copies of Shakespeare for the first page of the play. They were barely seated before the two collie dogs jumped into a lap each and settled down in wagging anticipation. Two more dogs lay on the floor in tail-thumping expectation.
The play began. Not only did the three people play a character each, but each dog was made to mime a part while the words were spoken for it in a distinctly different voice by the person holding it! I couldn't believe my eyes or ears!
As the play progressed, the night grew more chilly and the scruffy carpet heaved ever higher with draughty gusts. My papers lay unheeded in front of me as I sat transfixed. I imagined the ghost of the Bard standing beside me as we witnessed what must be the world's most unusual production of his tragic epic.
At length the dramas - both old and new - ended. The Hunters retired behind the flimsy curtain. Miss Gage donned a voluptuous flanelette nightgown and climbed into the corner cot from which audible snores soon emanated. My solitary lamp flickered long that night as I wrested with a combination of the first day's schedule, my fears of inadequacy as a teacher, this new loneliness, and the fantastic menage of which I was not a part.
In bed at last in my draughty lean-to, I gazed long into the night at the stars clearly discernable through the many chinks in the walls....
I awakened early the next morning with a jolt. This was to be my first day of teaching! Suddenly I felt totally inadequate, and slipped further down into my bedcovers, pulling them up over my head to try to postpone the coming of this day.
"What am I doing here?" I asked myself wildly. "Just three months ago I was a student in a classroom myself, back at the convent.
How can I go into that schoolroom and take the responsibility for eight grades - and all by myself?"
And then I remembered the words of one of the nuns.
"Be stern on your first day," she had said. "If you don't, you will have chaos. You can soften later!"
Well, I would be strict, you could count on that! I tossed the warm covers aside and got dressed in the chilly air. With Mabel's help and the little my father could give me from the sale of his beloved greys, the victoria and some other 'unnecessary articles', I had bought a new suit for my new career. It was grey, flecked with blue. The Norfolk jacket fit nicely over my new blue blouse. Looking in the cracked mirror, I decided that I looked somewhat less panic-stricken than I felt, and I opened the door into the main room to greet the Daltons and Miss Gage.
I was far too nervous to eat much, so decided to gather up my work and books and be on hand at the school house in good time to meet the students.
I opened the door of the new building and looked around. Eight grades - in this one room! And I was responsible for everything!
But before the panic rose again, I heard a horse, and turned to see a tall boy dismount and shyly look over his shoulder at me as he tied the horse to a tree.
"Good morning," I said as heartily as I could, "My name is Miss Sutton, and I'm your new teacher."
"Good morning," the boy mumbled, his face reddening and he scuffed his bare foot in the dust of the yard.
He told me he had to ride five miles to get to school! That was ten miles a day round trip. And he had to do his chores each morning before he left home I it suddenly hit me that he was as nervous as I was! These youngsters saw very few strangers, and it was only natural that they would be apprehensive about a new teacher. I began to feel some of the tension easing away as he and I talked.
Singly or in twos, children began to arrive. There were seventeen when everyone was seated in class. I looked at their shining faces in turn. Some dropped their eyes in shyness. Others fidgeted, uncomfortable at my scrutiny. I found myself laying aside the work schedule for the day. It was far more important that we become acquainted. Suddenly the words came.
"Good morning, class. My name is Miss Sutton, and although we don't know one another at all yet, we have a great deal in common. I lived on a farm too, and I know all about milking cows, churning butter, feeding chickens......" and the strain was broken for us all as I found myself talking easily about life on the farm.
As I asked each pupil his or her name I also asked what each one wanted to become some day. They all spoke up. Some had impractical dreams of pure escape from farmer-life, while others spoke of cattle-raising, increasing land holdings, extending crops... Most of the girls -wanted to marry and have children, but one wanted to become a nurse and another shyly admitted to wanting to become a teacher.
We didn't accomplish much work that first day, but we did establish a link of communication that served us well for the foundation of our academic studies...
Life with the Hunters was an education in itself! The mornings were so cold that I used to have to chip the ice formed on my enamel wash basin before I could dip into that icy water. We 'tub bathed' once a week. The water for a bath was heated on the inadequate stove, kettle after kettleful and poured into the tub which Dalton had carried into my room. By the time I climbed in it was almost cold again! The rest of the time we all made do with sponge baths. It was too perishing cold and draughty in that little lean-to of to linger over any ablutions!
Mrs Hunter was so stiff with cold on many mornings that Dalton had to carry the tiny figure, wrapped in blankets, and place her near the stove until she could move again. Miss Gage bustled about in a highly capable manner, acting as unobtrusive guardian over her younger sister.
In spite of the apparent barrenness of their lives, these people were truly self-sufficient in themselves. They did not mix with their neighbours, nor did they miss this friendship. They really loved the West, and never 'let down' or became sloppy in their habits, their dress or their manners. The two women changed every afternoon into a different outfit from that worn in the morning. When Dalton went into town on one of his rare trips, he would buy his wife a gift of jewelry over which she would exclaim in genuine appreciation.
"Why doesn't he buy her something to make her workload a little less heavy?" I often wondered. But he never did, nor did she ever ask for anything.
The Hunter dogs were both disciplined and devoted. They obeyed instantly and were treated as valued family members. Mrs. Hunter had conceived, Miss Gage confided to me one day, but had miscarried through carrying heavy loads of firewood and water. Dalton had apparently been highly displeased at the prospect of parenthood, and relieved when the prospect was terminated.
One day Mrs. Hunter remarked to me in her childlike voice, "I wouldn't want a family, Miss Sutton. Animals are realty much better, don't you think? Cleaner, you know, and with none of the frightening things that happen with people!" and she shuddered.
The acting skill of the Hunters and Miss Gage was occasionally diverted from Shakespeare or poetry-reading to performing tableaux vivants. A sheet, with strategically placed lamps, divided actors from audience. The variety of voices and accents those people could perform was absolutely fantastic!
In the Autumn, when all the sheaves had been gathered, the district celebrated with a special evening.
For several days beforehand, mothers and daughters would pore over old favoured recipes for something special for the daughter's 'box lunch' which would be auctioned at the gala event.
New dresses would be made in the evenings when all the chores ware finished for the day. The women would gather around the lamps and stitch and tuck and fit and hem on the new dresses. The single men would shine their brasses and mend their bridles, for it would be the social event of the year.
At last the night arrived. Farmers brought their families, the girls carefully carrying their boxes containing a meal for two. New hair ribbons matched the new dresses, and an air of excitement hung over all.
The auctioneer gathered all the box lunches together and the bidding began. Some box lunches want for $25.00 or $30.00! Many had been the hint to a favoured young man about which box he was to bid on! Then, when a box had been bought, the man and the girl who had made it, went off together to share the contents.
There was a dance afterwards, and a caller and fiddler kept feet dancing and tapping, heads nodding to the beat, and hands clapping until the first streaks of the new day appeared in the eastern sky.
I found one friend - Dorothy. She was near my own age and lived on a nearby farm. She occasionally visited during a tableaux vivants evening and was thoroughly impressed by the talent, if not the welcome extended to her by Dalton, who was totally aloof from all his neighbours.
One day, Dorothy and I decided to find something different to do. It was Saturday, and I had ridden over to her parents' farm. Everyone else was off doing something, when Dorothy and I suddenly decided to dress up in her brother's clothes and go into town! No one would know who we were. What fun!
With hair tucked up under hats, we rode our horses into the village. No one appeared to pay very much attention to us and we began to giggle at the success of our little game.
When we rode back to the farm, Dorothy and I were delighted with our venture, But Dorothy's mother was very upset with me.
"Th' ideer of you, Mlz Sutton, bein' th' teecher an' all, dressin' up In men's clothes and goln' inta town!"
Dorothy's mother was not the only one upset with me. I was summoned to appear before a special meeting of the School Board!
The evening of reckoning came. In apprehension, I had dressed in my most conservative manner. The little schoolhouse was grimly silent as the men gathered and found places to sit. Finally the President rose to his feet.
"Miz Sutton! It's cum t' our attention that yew got dressed up in some man's clothes an' that yew then went paradin' around town in 'em!"
He paused, apparently waiting for me to say something.
"Well, it's true that just for some fun, my friend and I dressed up in men's clothes. But that hardly makes me a loose woman, does it?" I retorted, angry because a prank was being taken so seriously.
"Miz Sutton. We don't think it fittin' fer our teechers t' go about in men's pants!"
On and on he went. The rest of the Board nodded their heads in agreement from time to tine.
Finally, the President concluded, "Ye know, Miz Sutton, we need t' look up t' a teecher around here!"
© Copyright 2023