One Friday, at noon, a room full of schoolgirls had put away their books, and sat waiting to be dismissed. Amy, a tanned little girl, was in a great hurry to be free. She had one foot out in the aisle, and her hand was on her desk, all ready to spring from her seat as soon as the signal was given.
“Now children, I’m inviting you all to come back to school this afternoon,” said the teacher. “Since you usually have Friday afternoons off, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to. But I shall be here at two, and hope to find a few of my scholars, at least; those who love me, and love school.”
There were many blank faces at this. All wanted the holiday. The industrious scholars were tired, and needed the usual rest. Those who found it tiresome to labor, and loved to be in the open air, like Amy, were eager to be set free for a long afternoon. Some of the older girls smiled, and nodded to each other. The teacher almost laughed out at the vexation of Amy, who pouted, and looked cross. When anyone turned towards her with a questioning look, as if to say, “Are you coming, Amy?” she shook her head with a frown, as if to say, “Indeed, I shall not.”
“You are dismissed,” said the teacher.
Amy scampered off in such haste that she left her bag. Some of the girls stayed behind and begged to know why there was to be school.
“That is my secret,” said the teacher, smiling.
“Do we have to come?” they asked.
“No, you don’t have to. I would be happy if you did come. And I think you will enjoy it.”
And so all the students came. Everyone, that is, but Amy. About the middle of the afternoon there was a knock at the schoolroom door. The teacher’s voice called out, “Who is it? Is that you, Amy?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said through the door. “I want my bag.”
“Oh! Then you have not come to school?”
“No, ma’am—it is already past three o’clock!”
“Well, if you will change your mind, you may come in, now! I will not note you as tardy.”
One of the girls opened the door a crack and peeped out mischievously at Amy.
“I have company waiting for me,” said Amy. “I cannot change my mind. Besides it is pleasanter out of doors, this warm afternoon. So do get my bag, Anna, and let me go.”
“Very well,” said Anna, “go back farther from the door, so that you cannot look in, and you shall have your bag, little goose!”
Amy wanted to know what was going on that she was wasn’t allowed to look at, and had half a mind to go in to school, anyway. But the idea of being prisoner for the rest of the afternoon, and the jingling of some coins in her bag, turned her feet from the door. As she went away, she heard a loud laugh, and a murmur of merry voices. She stopped, and half turned round. “I wish I had gone in,” she thought, “but I am ashamed to do it now. They would all have such a laugh, to see me, after all. No, I’ll go… I’ll buy some nuts.”
A ragged, impudent looking girl, a head taller than Amy, was waiting for her in the street. Her name was Lucy Wayland. As she was poor, Amy’s mother had wished to help her earn something, and so had employed Lucy to do chores about the house now and then. Lately, she had not been allowed to come to the house, for Amy’s mother had suspected her of stealing some things. Amy did not know this. But she did know that Lucy was not a good girl, and she felt ashamed of her disorderly appearance, as they walked side by side. Though she was taught not to be proud, she knew that her mother would not like to have her spend time with such a companion. She felt very uncomfortable and discontented all the afternoon, though Lucy was full of smiles and flattery, and Amy was glad to have anyone to speak to. The girls she usually played with were all back in the schoolroom.
They cracked the nuts together, and then went off into the woods, where Amy’s clothes soon became quite as ragged as Lucy’s, for sadly her dress and socks got torn in many places, as she tried doing the things Lucy did. For the first time in her life Amy climbed a tree. She was a long time perched in the branches, before she could gather courage to get down again. She came to the ground all in a heap, like a bag of sand, while Lucy swung herself about like a monkey.
Amy did not know where she was, and Lucy brought her out of the wood opposite Mrs. Wayland’s door. “See, mother,” she bawled, as a brown cap, with dirty red ribbons, appeared at a window, “Here’s the squire’s daughter.”
“Come in, miss, and rest yerself, if you ain’t too proud to come under a poor person’s roof,” said Mrs. Wayland.
“La, she ain’t proud a mite,” said Lucy, leading Amy along. “She played with me this whole afternoon.”
Amy picked her way over the black, greasy mud to the doorstep. There she slipped, and fell into the arms of the woman, who kissed her two or three times, and carried her into the house.
As Amy looked about the room, she was astonished to see many things which had been missing at home. She recognized at once a pair of scissors, which they had searched all over the house for, some weeks before. A piece of carpet said, “How do you do, old friend?” almost as plain as speech. A handkerchief, which lay in the window, had her own name on it. If it hadn’t been for that, she would never have guessed that it had ever been white. She could hardly help but see these things, but she tried not to seem to be looking at them. Since she had made herself Lucy’s companion, she felt that she couldn’t say anything, though she felt rather ashamed of her.
Mrs. Wayland gave Lucy some money, and told her to get some things for supper. As Amy waited for her to get back, she began to feel quite uncomfortable, and wished she had stayed at the school after all. But Lucy soon returned, with something rolled up in brown paper, and a bag of crackers.
“Well! Couldn’t ye get no more butter than that for four cents? You needn’t a got the best kind. Two crackers short! You’ve eaten ’em, comin’ home, you scamp!”
“He never gave me another one,” cried Lucy, angrily. But she whispered to Amy, “I mean, if lies are true.”
“I must go home,” said Amy, half ready to cry.
“I shan’t let you stir till after supper,” said Lucy. “We’re going to have cracker toast. I guess you don’t get anything better than that, at home.”
“Can’t you eat with poor folks for once?” said the woman, in a sneering voice. “Our vittles is clean, if our house ain’t.”
Amy was very hungry, and having resolved just to taste the crackers, ate so heartily that the last one was toasted before she and Lucy were satisfied.
“Now I must go home as fast as I can,” she cried, seeing that the sun was almost down. “What will mother think?”
“You needn’t tell her where you been,” says Lucy. “You can tell her that—”
“Yes, tell her where ye took supper, and was treated to the best, and no harm come to ye,” said the woman. “I suspected you was run away, all the time. You ain’t so proud yerself, but your mammy would have cut her hand off, rather than set down to eat with me, I’m sure.”
“I wish I knew the way home,” said Amy, sighing.
“Lucy, go along with her,” said the old woman.
And so Amy started for home with Lucy. She imagined that every person who met them was shocked to see her in such company. As she came near home, she found there was quite a hubbub in the neighborhood. Her brothers and sisters had been sent in every direction in search of her. And she was mortified to hear Lucy cry out triumphantly, “The lost is found, safe and sound. She’s only been over to our house, takin’ tea.”
Amy’s mother told Lucy she could not hire her anymore, and rebuked her for having been a bad example to Amy, who was several years younger than herself.
“All the thanks poor folks get,” muttered Lucy. “I’ve took good care of her, given her a first rate supper, and fetched her home, that’s all. I never asked her to go along with me.”
“Why, Amy!” said her mother, in a low voice. “Have you been eating with those who don’t even have enough for themselves! That is not like you!”
Amy went sobbing to hide herself in bed. Lucy was sent home, with a load of provisions, and forbidden to come to the house again.
There were many knowing glances at Amy’s downcast looks and burning cheeks when the family met at breakfast the next morning, but no one said a word to make her more unhappy. Neither did her sisters say anything about what happened in school Friday afternoon. Amy listened when she heard them talking together, hoping to catch a word or two to relieve her curiosity about it, but in vain. Once something was said about “beautiful feathers,” but the speaker checked herself, with an air of mystery, looking mischievously at Amy. Monday morning came, and Amy went to school. She did not go with her sisters, as usual, but followed a little way behind.
“Good morning, Amy. How did you enjoy the afternoon, Friday?” asked the teacher, as Amy slunk to her seat.
“Not at all. I wish I had been at school, I am sure. I’ll come next time. Or, I’ll come next Wednesday, all alone, if you will let me, Miss Eliza. Will you let me come?”
“You may come, and welcome, but I shall not be able to show you what the girls saw on Friday. They were not mine, and I had to return them afterward.”
“I do not know what the girls saw. They did not tell me. Did they write, and do math, and draw?”
“A friend lent me Audubon’s Birds, and so I decided to let my students see them.”
“Live birds? Perhaps they were stuffed, though.”
“No, better than that. They were large pictures, not only of the birds themselves, but of the places where they live, and their way of life.”
“The heron wading, and the kingfisher fishing, you know.”
“One wild scene had a fog over it, looking so natural that one of the girls jumped when I spoke, and said she thought for a moment she was there all alone, among the reeds and bushes, watching the birds who were flying and hopping about there.”
“Oh!” groaned Amy, again.
“I was sorry you were not with us,” said the teacher, “and I knew you would be very sorry today. Try to love school, and you will love it. I love it, myself, though I get very tired, especially when my little Amy is restless and needs watching.
“Oh, I will not need watching any more, dear Miss Eliza. I will be just as busy when you are not looking, and get all my lessons very perfectly. I shall be happier, I know, if I am good.”
“Yes, indeed; then you will not think of the schoolroom as a place to be rebuked and punished in. And if you are busy, you will not be watching the clock, and thinking how long the morning is. We busy folks are often quite surprised when the bell rings for lunch.”
And so Amy tried being a good girl, and found that she did indeed enjoy it. She loved Miss Eliza with her whole heart, and now no longer cried herself to sleep at night for not having done well in school. She now desired to do well, and she applied herself so that she became worthy of praise.