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Just Mary | Effie M. Williams

The Spelling Bee

Roy Harmon’s letters, his pictures, and curios that he sent to Mary was not cause to make things better for her in her stepmother’s home. Instead things grew worse and worse, until, at the age of fourteen, life was almost unbearable to her. Practically all the work of the home was left to her, but try as she might there was never anything done just right. Her stepmother never failed to humiliate her all she could if anyone chanced to be there. There were two more children in the home now—Henry, aged two, and a small baby girl, Rosa, just three months of age. As more children came into the home there was less room for those who were there, and so Mary was crowded out. At the rear of the kitchen was a little room used for storage. To get to the room one must go around to the back of the house and enter from an outer door. Mary was pushed out to this room, and her bed was reduced to a straw bed on the floor. It was not an uncommon thing for her to awaken to find rain coming through the cracks, or the snow sifting through on her face. She had become a real Cinderella, for she did the work and had the poorest accommodations about the place. She knew she was not there because it was really necessary, for there was the front room, which was always used as a spare room for company, and the bed was always dressed in snowy whiteness. But her stepmother would never hear to her occupying that bed at all. If Mary would ever mention the rain or the snow coming in through the cracks in her room her stepmother would say, “Well, that is better than you deserve.”

When Mary said, “Why don’t you put Caroline out there to sleep with me then?” Myra replied, “Caroline doesn’t have to go out there to sleep, and I shall teach you how to speak to me like that.” Mary suffered a severe whipping because of what Myra called her “impertinence.”

Mary could not go to her father with anything, for he had become cross and sullen, never giving a kind word to any of the children nor to his wife, and seldom spoke when about the place. Many times days would pass without Mary hearing his voice. Often she was glad, because it was nearly always raised to high pitch and that to find fault with something about the place. But through it all Mary could not forget the pleasant times they had had together and his devotion to her in her early childhood. She could not think that her father was altogether bad when she recalled pleasant memories of the past.

Winter had passed and time came to close the district school. After a short program given by the pupils in the school it was to be closed with an old-fashioned spelling bee. Caroline and Nancy had been attending school and were given a part in the program. As an invitation was given to all the parents to attend, Myra made preparation to go with the children—planning on Mary’s remaining at home to care for the younger ones. Mary longed to attend that spelling bee, but she did not know how to arrange it that she might go, for she knew if she should mention the fact to her stepmother, there would be no chance for her to get there at all. So the days went by and the evening came for the program and the spelling bee.

They were all seated around the table when Myra said, “Dan, I want you to get cleaned up a little and go with me tonight to the schoolhouse.”

“Huh,” said Dan, “and what is that for?”

Upon being informed as to what was taking place he said, “And what about Mary? Can’t she go with you and help you with the children? I do not care to go at all, and do not mean to go, but I shall keep Elmer and Ellen, and I think that you and Mary can manage the rest of them.”

Here Myra flew into a rage, as she very often did, but Dan had become very obstinate and he said, “Very well then, if Mary doesn’t go none of the others need go either.”

So turning to Caroline and Nancy he said, “Do you hear what I said? You need not go to the schoolhouse this evening for your mother is not going and neither am I.”

There was another scene in the Dennison home in which Dan came out the victor, for Mary went to the spelling bee that night, with Otis holding onto one arm and carrying baby Rose in the other arm. She was dressed in a garment made from one of her stepmother’s old dresses, and her shoes were laced with a calico string, but her heart sang because she was attending the spelling bee.

Miss Myers, the teacher, met them at the door and took Caroline and Nancy to their places among the other pupils. The Dennisons were not the first ones there, and more kept coming until the house was filled. You could see eager expectancy written on all their faces as proud parents came to hear their children do their part in the program. Lanterns and lamps here and there about the room furnished sufficient light and there was chattering all over the room. Miss Myers looked at her watch again and again and seemed to be very much agitated, for the time had come when she meant to begin the program and still one boy was not there. At the very last minute here he came, all bundled up and with a flannel cloth about his neck.

Mary sat near the door and heard Miss Myers say, “Oh, I have been so uneasy, Mrs. Peffers, for I feared Fred was not coming and I do not know what I should have done had he not come, for you know he has the main part in the program and it would have been ruined had he stayed away.”

“Well, I was almost afraid to let him come,” replied Mrs. Peffers, “for really he has been sick all day and has such a sore throat and is so hoarse. I do not know whether he can take his part or not, but he says he means to go through with it. I know the boy has fever, although he will not admit it. I am afraid the night air will not do him any good, but maybe it will not make him any worse, for I have him wrapped up extra good, and have a piece of flannel about his neck. I told him that he might remove that while he is doing his part in the program.”

Miss Myers then led Mrs. Peffers to a seat near the front. The program began with the children all taking their places and doing their part. Caroline’s and Nancy’s names were called, and they each gave a recitation. Mary’s heart beat a rat-a-tat in her bosom as they each delivered the recitation that she had taken so much pains to help them commit to memory, and as they did their part without any blunder she felt that she had been rewarded for all her efforts. How cute they looked in their new dresses and hair ribbons; dresses that Mary had made for them! Mary felt proud of them as she listened to them speak their pieces that night before that houseful of people.

The little ones were first on the program and then came the older pupils with a little play, “The Old Schoolmaster,” in which Fred Peffers took the part of the old schoolmaster. He came before his pupils in frock tail coat, whiskers, and spectacles, with a rod in hand which he frequently used on some mischievous boy. The audience roared with laughter at some of the antics among the mischievous boys when the schoolmaster’s back was turned, and at some of the ridiculous things which he tried to teach them. The play ended with the schoolmaster’s taking a nap in his chair and a boy loosing a bee which he had in a bottle, so that it made its escape up the schoolmaster’s trouser leg just as Miss Sally, an old maid, came to visit the school. The curtain was drawn as the schoolmaster awoke and tried to get rid of the troublesome bee.

This ended the program, and there was an intermission of fifteen minutes. Then they were again called to order for an old-fashioned spelling bee in which Miss Myers asked that all take part. Henry and Rose were both asleep, lying on top of desks, and when all were called to take part Myra stood with the other mothers in the district. When Mary saw her leave the baby, she too left Henry lying on the desk where she had been sitting and took her place with the others around the wall.

When all arrangements had been made the spelling began with Miss Myers pronouncing the words. Only one trial was given at a word, and if it was misspelled, it was passed on to the next one and the one who missed took his seat. Miss Myers took the old red-backed speller and opened it at the front, pronouncing the first words of only one syllable. The first round around the wall several took their seats, for some of the older ones missed some simple word. Several times more around and so many had taken their seats that Mary was now standing beside her stepmother and therefore spelling against her.

“Audacious,” pronounced Miss Myers.

It was now Myra’s turn to spell, and all could see that she was very uncertain about the word. She stood haltingly as Miss Myers again pronounced the word, and then spelled in a questioning way, “a-u-d-a-s-h-u-s.”

Miss Myers smilingly said, “Next.”

It was not any question with Mary as to how it was spelled, for she could see it in her mind’s eye—on page eighty-three of the speller, on the left side of the book, in the third column of spelling—and so she spelled it unhesitatingly, “a-u-d-a-c-i-o-u-s.”


Myra took her place with the others who had missed their words, but her face was scarlet and her eyes flashed fire. She felt humiliated in being outspelled by her stepdaughter.

But Miss Myers kept pronouncing words and those around the wall kept spelling until there were only two left standing, and they were Mary and Frank Fletcher, the latter a cousin of Myra’s. Five minutes passed, and the two were still standing, each spelling with a positiveness which convinced their listeners that they knew the words.

Miss Myers had turned to the back of the old speller, to find some more difficult words, when off the desk rolled Henry, landing in the seat below and letting out a frightened scream.

Myra rose to her feet, and in a sharp tone of voice said, “Mary, I think you have stood there long enough; if you had been there with your little brother where you belong he would not have rolled off the desk. Go on now and take care of him.”

Mrs. Peffers had already lifted him in her arms and silenced him, so that he lay back in her arms and went to sleep again. She said, “Let her alone, and I shall see after him.”

So Mary kept her place beside Frank, spelling her words positively. Frank stumbled over some of his words uncertainly, but Mary caught her words and from the first letter to the last letter there was not an uncertain action about her. She knew them, knew just where they appeared on the page in the old speller, and could see them in mind’s eye as Miss Myers pronounced them to her.

Another leaf was turned; and Miss Myers then began to pronounce words taken from the French language and used in the English language. Several words were pronounced, each taking their turn in spelling, and then came the word rendezvous to Frank. He stood hesitatingly for some time before trying to spell. When Miss Myers pronounced it for him the second time he began in an uncertain manner, “r-e-n-d-a-v-o-u.”


Mary caught the word and spelled positively, “r-e-n-d-e-z-v-o-u-s,” and pronounced it also.


Then the old schoolhouse rang with cheers. It did not take a personal acquaintance with Myra to convince one that she was angry because of the turn of events that evening, for her face bore the appearance of an approaching storm. Just as soon as they could get away at the close of the night’s entertainment they were gone, and poor Mary had to bear the sharpness of her tongue all the way home. But as Otis walked by her side, holding to her arm, he whispered to her, “I never was so tickled in all my life as I was when you beat spelling, and I know Papa will be, too. But didn’t it make Mother mad when you beat her?”

Mary was indeed proud that she had carried off the honors of being the best speller there that evening. Many were surprised because no one thought of Mary being anything else than a slave in the Dennison home, and as she had not been to school since nine years of age this was truly a surprise to all. Dan was delighted when the news was broken to him the next morning at the breakfast table, and when told that Mary spelled the word that his wife had missed he burst into a loud, “Ha, ha!” This, of course, started another scene in the Dennison home on which we shall draw the curtain.

Two days after the close of school the news was circulated over the community that the Peffers’ children had measles and that Frank had them the evening of the spelling bee at the schoolhouse, so that he exposed all the children in the community. True enough, in a short time those children who had not had measles came down with them, and in many homes some of the older people. Caroline and Nancy came down with them first in the Dennison home; then Ellen and Otis; but Mary had not yet taken them. Ellen was quite ill of them, but the other children were only confined to their beds a few days. Poor Mary had much to do, and then when she had finished her work at night, she would pile on her straw bed in the lean-to for a night’s rest.

Three weeks had passed and the two little ones in the Dennison home took measles; then Elmer and finally Mary. It was now the last week in April and a cool rain was falling, but Mary lay on her straw bed in the old lean-to off the kitchen. There had been another scene in the home. Dan was going about in one of his sullen moods; and Mary had been sick for two days before he inquired as to why she was not about the place. About this time Otis stole up to him and said, “Papa, Mary is awful sick; she won’t talk to me at all, and her bed covers are as wet as can be.”

“Well, where is she?” inquired Dan. Otis led him to the little storeroom, and there he saw his eldest daughter on her straw bed, damp from the rain that had come through the cracks in the wall. He saw she was quite ill and that something must be done.

When he informed Myra of her condition, she said, “Well, she is your young one, not mine, and if you want anything done for her, do it.”

Dan was not slow in doing something, for he immediately went to the spare room, and with the aid of Caroline soon had the bed ready for Mary, only to be opposed by Myra, who declared she should not be placed in the best room they had. She said her children got over the measles without having the best there was in the house, and she meant to see to it that Mary did, too. This brought forth another scene in the Dennison home, but Dan came out the victor, for, taking Mary in his arms, he carried her to the front bedroom where he laid her on the best bed in the house.

Mary lay there for many days, hovering between life and death; pneumonia had set in, and Mary was a very sick girl. Aunt Millie came to Dan’s aid in caring for her, and the two of them nursed her back to health again.

It was by the bedside of his eldest daughter that Dan Dennison came to himself and found what Mary really meant to him. Over and over he would chide himself for his neglect of her. Many times while she raved in delirium, he would sit by her bedside weeping and cry out, “Oh, Elsie, Elsie; I have been so neglectful of yours and mine. I have forfeited the right of being called a father, for I have not been one.” And one night as he and his sister watched by her bedside, expecting the little spark of life to flee at any time, he fell upon his knees and cried out, “Oh, God, if you will but spare her, I promise you to be a better father than I have ever been and never neglect her again.” Her severe illness proved what she really meant to him. He knew that, had she not been neglected and left to sleep in the open, when ill of measles, the other affliction would not have come on her. But he was untiring in his attention to her and in his care of her. After several days of doubtful watching, Mary began to amend.

When she did recover, the front bedroom was now Mary’s room, and she no longer had to go to the old lean-to off the kitchen.