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THE VILLAGE SCHOOLMASTER

THE VILLAGE SCHOOLMASTER

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Written by Hunter   
Sunday, 26 October 2008 16:20



In this by-place of nature there abode, in a remote period of American
history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight
[Footnote: Wight: a person.] of the name of Ichabod Crane; who
sojourned, or as he expressed it, "tarried," in Sleepy Hollow, for the
purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity. He was a native of
Connecticut, a state which supplies the Union with pioneers for the mind
as well as for the forest, and sends forth yearly its legions of
frontier woodmen and country schoolmasters. The cognomen of Crane was
not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with
narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of
his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole
frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at the
top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so
that it looked like a weathercock perched upon his spindle neck to tell
which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill
on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one
might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the
earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

In addition to his other vocations, he was the singing-master of the
neighborhood, and picked up many bright shillings by instructing the
young folks in psalmody. It was a matter of no little vanity to him on
Sundays, to take his station in front of the church gallery, with a band
of chosen singers, where, in his own mind, he completely carried away
the palm from the parson. Certain it is his voice resounded far above
all the rest of the congregation, and there are peculiar quavers still
to be heard in that church, and which may even be heard half a mile off,
quite to the opposite side of the mill-pond, on a still Sunday morning,
which are said to be legitimately descended from the nose of Ichabod
Crane. Thus, by divers little makeshifts, in that ingenious way which is
commonly denominated "by hook and by crook" the worthy pedagogue got on
tolerably enough, and was thought, by all who understood nothing of this
labor of head-work, to have a wonderful easy life of it. The
schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle
of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle gentleman-like
personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough
country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson.
His appearance, therefore, is apt to occasion some little stir at the
tea-table of a farm-house, and the addition of a supernumerary
[Footnote: Supernumerary: superfluous, unnecessary.] dish of cakes or
sweetmeats, or, peradventure, the parade of a silver teapot. Our man of
letters, therefore, was peculiarly happy in the smiles of all the
country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard,
between services on Sundays! gathering grapes for them from the wild
vines that overrun the surrounding trees, reciting for their amusement
all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering with a whole bevy of
them, along the banks of the adjacent millpond, while the more bashful
country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and
address.

From his half-itinerant life, he was a kind of travelling gazette,
carrying the whole budget of local gossip from house to house, so that
his appearance was always greeted with satisfaction. He was, moreover,
esteemed by the women as a man of great erudition, [Footnote: Erudition:
learning, scholarship.] for he had read several books quite through, and
was a perfect master of Cotton Mather's "History of New England
Witchcraft," in which, by the way, he most firmly and potently believed.

He was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple
credulity. His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting
it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his
residence in this spellbound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous
for his capacious swallow. It was often his delight, after his school
was dismissed in the afternoon, to stretch himself on the rich bed of
clover bordering the little brook that whimpered by his school-house,
and there con over old Mather's [Footnote: Cotton Mather: an American
clergyman, author, and scholar. Born in 1663, died in 1728. He took an
active part in the persecutions for witchcraft.] direful tales, until
the gathering dusk of the evening made the printed page a mere mist
before his eyes. Then as he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful
woodland, to the farm-house where he happened to be quartered, every
sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited
imagination,--the moan of the whippoorwill from the hillside, the boding
cry of the tree-toad, that harbinger of storm, the dreary hooting of the
screech-owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened
from their roost. The fire-flies, too, which sparkled most vividly in
the darkest places, now and then startled him, as one of uncommon
brightness would stream across his path; and if by chance a huge
blackhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him,
the poor varlet [Footnote: Varlet: rascal.] was ready to give up the
ghost, with the idea that he was struck with a witch's token. His only
resource on such occasions, either to drown thought or drive away evil
spirits, was to sing psalm-tunes; and the good people of Sleepy-Hollow,
as they sat by their doors of an evening, were often filled with awe at
hearing his nasal melody, "in linked sweetness long drawn out," floating
from the distant hill or along the dusky road.

Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was to pass long winter
evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire,
with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and
listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted
brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the
headless horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes
called him. He would delight them equally by his anecdotes of
witchcraft, and the direful omens and portentous sights and sounds in
the air, which prevailed in the earlier times of Connecticut; and would
frighten them wofully with speculations upon comets and shooting stars;
and with the alarming fact that the world did absolutely turn round and
that they were half the time topsy-turvy!

But if there was a pleasure in all this, while snugly cuddling in the
chimney corner of a chamber that was all of a ruddy glow from the
crackling wood fire, and where, of course, no spectre dared to show its
face, it was dearly purchased by the terror of his subsequent walk
homewards. What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path, amidst the
dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night! With what wistful look did he
eye every trembling ray of light streaming across the waste fields from
some distant window! How often was he appalled by some shrub covered
with snow, which like a sheeted spectre beset his very path! How often
did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the
frosty crust beneath his feet! and dread to look over his shoulder, lest
he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him! and how
often was he thrown into complete dismay by some rushing blast, howling
among the trees, in the idea that it was the galloping Hessian on one of
his nightly scourings!

--WASHINGTON IRVING.

[Footnote: Is this style of writing similar to that of any other
selections you have studied? Illustrate. Compare the kind of words used
here with the simple diction in "A Youthful Actor," "In Brittany," "The
Gold Trail." Does the author's humor seem to you unkindly? What other
selections have you studied in which this sort of humor is shown? What
courses of study do you imagine were given in Ichabod's school? Does
Ichabod seem a real character or only a caricature?]
 
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