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IV
THE STRUGGLES AND TRIUMPH OF
ISIDRO DE LOS MAESTROS

I—FACE TO FACE WITH THE FOE

RETURNING to his own town, after a morning spent in "working up" the attendance of one of his far and recalcitrant barrio-schools, the Maestro of Balangilang was swaying with relaxed muscle and half-closed eyes to the allegretto trot of his little native pony, when he pulled up with a start, wide awake and all his senses on the alert. Through his somnolence, at first in a low hum, but fast rising in a fiendish crescendo, there had come a buzzing sound, much like that of one of the sawmills of his California forests, and now, as he sat in the saddle, erect and tense, the thing ripped the air in ragged tear, shrieked vibrating into his ear, and finished its course along his spine in delicious irritation.

"Oh, where am I?" murmured the Maestro, blinking; but between blinks he caught the flashing green of the palay fields and knew that he was far from the sawmills of the Golden State. So he raised his nose to heaven, and there, afloat above him in the serene blue, was the explanation. It was a kite, a great locust-shaped kite, darting and swooping in the hot monsoon, and from it, dropping plumb, came the abominable clamour.

"Aha!" exclaimed the Maestro, pointing accusingly at the thin line vaguely visible against the skyline in a diagonal running from the kite above him to a point ahead in the road. "Aha! there's something at the end of that; there's Attendance at the end of that!"

With which significant remark he leaned forward in the saddle, bringing his switch down with a whizz behind him. The pony gave three rabbit leaps and then settled down to his drumming little trot. As they advanced, the line overhead dropped gradually. Finally the Maestro had to swerve the horse aside to save his helmet. He pulled up to a walk, and, a few yards further, came to the spot where string met earth in the expected Attendance.

The Attendance was sitting on the ground, his legs spread before him in an angle of forty-five degrees, each foot arched in a secure grip of a bunch of cogon grass. These legs were bare as far up as they went, and, in fact, no trace of clothing was reached until the eye met the lower fringe of an indescribable undershirt modestly veiling the upper half of a rotund little paunch; an indescribable undershirt, truly, for observation could not reach the thing itself, but only the dirt incrusting it so that it hung together, rigid as a knight's iron corselet, in spite of monstrous tears and rents. Between the teeth of the Attendance was a long, thick cheroot, wound about with hemp fiber, at which he pulled with rounded mouth. Hitched around his right wrist was the kite string, and between his legs a stick spindled with an extra hundred yards. At intervals he hauled hand-over-hand upon the taut line, and then the landscape vibrated to the buzz-saw song which had so compellingly recalled the Maestro to his eternal pursuit.

As the shadow of the horse fell upon him, the Attendance brought his eyes down from their heavenly contemplation, and fixed them upon the rider. A tremor of dismay, mastered as soon as born, flitted over him; then, silently, with careful suppression of all signs of haste, he reached for a big stone with his little yellow paw, then for a stick lying farther off. Using the stone as a hammer, he drove the stick into the ground with deliberate stroke, wound the string around it with tender solicitude, and then, everything being secure, just as the Maestro was beginning his usual embarrassing question:

"Why are you not at school, eh?"

He drew up his feet beneath him, straightened up like a jack-in-the-box, took a hop-skip-jump, and, with a flourish of golden heels, flopped head first into the roadside ditch's rank luxuriance.

"The little devil!" exclaimed the disconcerted Maestro. He dismounted and, leading his horse, walked up to the side of the ditch. It was full of the water of the last baguio. From the edge of the cane-field on the other side there cascaded down the bank a mad vegetation; it carpeted the sides and arched itself above in a vault. Within this natural harbour a carabao was soaking blissfully. Only its head emerged, flat with the water, the great horns wreathed incongruously with the floating lilies, the thick nostrils exhaling ecstasy in shuddering riplets.

Filled with a vague sense of the ridiculous, the Maestro peered into the recess. "The little devil!" he murmured: "He's somewhere in here; but how am I to get him, I'd like to know? Do you see him, eh, Mathusalem?" he asked of the stolid beast.

Whether in answer to this challenge or to some other irritant, the animal slowly opened one eye and ponderously let it fall shut again in what, to the heated imagination of the Maestro, seemed a patronising wink. Its head slid quietly along the water; puffs of ooze rose from below and spread on the surface. Then, in the silence, there rose a significant sound—a soft, repeated snapping of the tongue:

"Cluck, cluck."

"Aha!" shouted the Maestro, triumphantly, to his invisible audience. "I know where you are, you scamp; right behind the carabao; come out of there, pronto, dale-dale!"

But his enthusiasm was of short duration. To the commanding tongue-click the carabao had stopped dead-still and a silence heavy with defiance met the too-soon exultant cries. An insect in the foliage began a creaking call, and then all the creatures of humidity hidden there among this fermenting vegetation joined in mocking chorus.

The Maestro felt a vague blush welling up from the innermost recesses of his being.

"I'm going to get that kid," he muttered, darkly, "if I have to wait till—the coming of Common Sense to the Manila office! By gum, he's the Struggle for Attendance personified!"

He sat down on the bank and waited. This did not prove interesting. The animals of the ditch creaked on; the carabao bubbled up the water with his deep content; above, the abandoned kite went through strange acrobatics and wailed as if in pain. The Maestro dipped his hand into the water; it was lukewarm. "No hope of a freeze out," he murmured, pensively.

Behind, the pony began to pull at the reins.

"Yes, little horse, I'm tired, too. Well," he said, apologetically, "I hate to get energetic, but there are circumstances which——"

The end of his sentence was lost, for he had whisked out the big Colt, dissuader of ladrones, that hung on his belt, and was firing. The six shots went off like a bunch of firecrackers, but far from at random, for a regular circle boiled up around the dozing carabao. The disturbed animal snorted, and again a discreet "cluck-cluck" rose in the sudden, astounded silence.

"This," said the Maestro, as he calmly introduced fresh cartridges into the chambers of his smoking weapon, "is what might be called an application of Western solutions to Eastern difficulties."

Again he brought his revolver down, but he raised it without shooting and replaced it in its holster. From beneath the carabao's rotund belly, below the surface, an indistinct form shot out; cleaving the water like a polliwog, it glided for the bank, and then a black, round head emerged at the feet of the Maestro.

"All right, bub; we'll go to school now," said the latter, nodding to the dripping figure as it rose before him.

He lifted the sullen brownie and straddled him forward of the saddle, then proceeded to mount himself, when the Capture began to display marked agitation. He squirmed and twisted, turned his head back and up, and finally a grunt escaped him.

"El velador."

"The kite, to be sure; we mustn't forget the kite," acquiesced the Maestro, graciously. He pulled up the anchoring stick and laboriously, beneath the hostilely critical eye of the Capture, he hauled in the line till the screeching, resisting flying-machine was brought to earth. Then he vaulted into the saddle.

The double weight was a little too much for the pony; so it was at a dignified walk that the Maestro, his naked, dripping, muddy and still defiant prisoner a-straddle in front of him, the captured kite passed over his left arm like a knightly shield, made his triumphal entry into the pueblo.


II—HEROISM AND REVERSES

When Maestro Pablo rode down Rizal-y-Washington Street to the schoolhouse with his oozing, dripping prize between his arms, the kite like a knightly escutcheon against his left side, he found that in spite of his efforts at preserving a modest, self-deprecatory bearing, his spine would stiffen and his nose point upward in the unconscious manifestations of an internal feeling that there was in his attitude something picturesquely heroic. Not since walking down the California campus one morning after the big game, won three minutes before the blowing of the final whistle by his fifty-yard run-in of a punt, had he been in that posture—at once pleasant and difficult—in which one's vital concern is to wear a humility sufficiently convincing to obtain from friends forgiveness for the crime of being great.

A series of incidents immediately following, however, made the thing quite easy.

Upon bringing the new recruit into the schoolhouse, to the perfidiously expressed delight of the already incorporated, the Maestro called his native assistant to obtain the information necessary to a full matriculation. At the first question the inquisition came to a deadlock. The boy did not know his name.

"In Spanish times," the Assistant suggested, modestly, "we called them 'de los Reyes' when the father was of the army, and 'de la Cruz' when the father was of the church; but now, we can never know what it is."

The Maestro dashed to a solution. "All right," he said, cheerily. "I caught him; guess I can give him a name. Call him—Isidro de los Maestros."

And thus it was that the urchin went down on the school records, and on the records of life afterward.

Now well pleased with himself, the Maestro, as is the wont of men in such state, sought for further enjoyment.

"Ask him," he said, teasingly, pointing with his chin at the newly-baptised but still unregenerate little savage, "why he came out of the ditch."

"He says he was afraid that you would steal the kite," answered the Assistant, after some linguistic sparring.

"Eh?" ejaculated the surprised Maestro.

And in his mind there framed a picture of himself riding along the road with a string between his fingers; and, following in the upper layers of air, a buzzing kite; and, down in the dust of the highway, an urchin trudging wistfully after the kite, drawn on irresistibly, in spite of his better judgment, on and on, horrified but fascinated, up to the yawning school-door.

It would have been the better way. "I ought to go and soak my head," murmured the Maestro, pensively.

This was check number one, but others came in quick succession.

For, the morning after this incident, the Maestro did not find Isidro among the weird, wild crowd gathered into the annex (a transformed sugar storehouse) by the last raid of the Municipal Police.

Neither was Isidro there the next day, nor the next. And it was not till a week had passed that the Maestro discovered, with an inward blush of shame, that his much-longed-for pupil was living in the little hut behind his own house. There would have been nothing shameful in the overlooking—there were seventeen other persons sharing the same abode—were it not that the nipa front of this human hive had been blown away by the last baguio, leaving an unobstructed view of the interior, if it might be called such. As it was, the Municipal Police was mobilised at the urgent behest of the Maestro. Its "cabo," flanked by two privates armed with old German needle-guns, besieged the home and, after an interesting game of hide-and-go-seek, Isidro was finally caught by one arm and one ear, and ceremoniously marched to school. And there the Maestro asked him why he had not been attending.

"No hay pantalones," (there are no pants), Isidro answered, dropping his eyes modestly to the ground.

This was check number two, and unmistakably so, for was it not a fact that a civil commission, overzealous in its civilising ardour, had passed a law commanding that everyone should wear, when in public, "at least one garment, preferably trousers"?

Following this, and an unsuccessful plea to the town tailor, who was on a three weeks' vacation on account of the death of a fourth cousin, the Maestro shut himself up a whole day with Isidro in his little nipa house; and behind the closely-shut shutters engaged in some mysterious toil. When they emerged again the next morning, Isidro wended his way to the school at the end of the Maestro's arm, trousered!

The trousers, it must be said, had a certain cachet of distinction. They were made of calico-print, with a design of little black skulls sprinkled over a yellow background. Some parts hung flat and limp as if upon a scarecrow; others pulsed like a fire-hose in action with the pressure of flesh compressed beneath, while at other points they bulged pneumatically in little footballs. The right leg dropped to the ankle; the left stopped, discouraged, a few inches below the knee. The seams looked like the putty mountain-chains of the geography class. As the Maestro strode along he threw rapid glances at his handiwork, and it was plain that the emotions that moved him were somewhat mixed in character. His face showed traces of a puzzled diffidence, as that of a man who has come in a sack-coat to a full-dress affair; but after all it was satisfaction that predominated, for after this heroic effort he had decided that Victory had at last perched upon his banners.

And it really looked so for a time. Isidro stayed at school at least during that first day of his trousered life. For when the Maestro, later in the forenoon, paid a visit to the Annex, he found the Assistant in charge standing disconcerted before the urchin who, with eyes indignant and hair perpendicular upon the top of his head, was evidently holding to his side of the argument with his customary energy.

Isidro was trouserless. Sitting rigid upon his bench, holding on with both hands as if in fear of being removed, he dangled naked legs to the sight of who might look.

"Que barbaridad!" murmured the Assistant, in limp dejection.

But Isidro threw at him a look of black hatred. This became a tense, silent plea for justice as it moved up for a moment to the Maestro's face, and then it settled back upon its first object in frigid accusation.

"Where are your trousers, Isidro?" asked the Maestro.

Isidro relaxed his convulsive grasp of the bench with one hand, canted himself slightly to one side, just long enough to give an instantaneous view of the trousers, neatly folded and spread between what he was sitting with and what he was sitting on, then swung back with the suddenness of a kodak shutter, seized his seat with new determination, and looked eloquent justification at the Maestro.

"Why will you not wear them?" asked the latter.

"He says he will not get them dirty," said the Assistant, interpreting the answer.

"Tell him when they are dirty he can go down to the river and wash them," said the Maestro.

Isidro pondered over the suggestion for two silent minutes. The prospect of a day spent splashing in the lukewarm waters of the Ilog he finally put down as not at all detestable, and, getting up to his feet:

"I will put them on," he said, gravely.

Which he did on the moment, with an absence of hesitation as to which was front and which was back, very flattering to the Maestro.

That Isidro persevered during the next week, the Maestro also came to know. For now, regularly every evening, as he smoked and lounged upon his long, cane chair, trying to persuade his tired body against all laws of physics to give up a little of its heat to a circumambient atmosphere of temperature equally enthusiastic; as he watched among the rafters of the roof the snakes swallowing the rats, the rats devouring the lizards, the lizards snapping up the spiders, the spiders snaring the flies in eloquent representation of the life struggle, his studied passiveness would be broken by strange sounds from the dilapidated hut at the back of his house. A voice imitative of that of the Third Assistant who taught the annex, hurled forth questions which were immediately answered by another voice, curiously like that of Isidro.

Fiercely: "Du yu ssee dde hhett?"

Breathlessly: "Yiss I ssee dde hhett."

Ferociously: "Show me dde hhett."

Eagerly: "Here are dde hhett."

Thunderously: "Gif me dde hhett."

Exultantly: "I gif yu dde hhett."

Then the Maestro would step to the window and look into the hut from which came this Socratic dialogue. And on this wall-less platform, which looked much like a primitive stage, a singular action was unrolling itself in the smoky glimmer of a two-cent lamp. The Third Assistant was not there at all; but Isidro was the Third Assistant. And the pupil was not Isidro, but the witless old man who was one of the many sharers of the abode. In the voice of the Third Assistant, Isidro was hurling out the tremendous questions; and, as the old gentleman who represented Isidro opened his mouth only to drule betel-juice, it was Isidro who, in Isidro's voice, answered the questions. In his rôle as Third Assistant he stood with legs akimbo before the pupil, a bamboo twig in his hand; as Isidro the pupil, he plumped down quickly upon the bench before responding. The sole function of the senile old man seemed that of representing the pupil while the question was being asked and receiving, in that capacity, a sharp cut across the nose from Isidro-the-Third-Assistant's switch, at which he chuckled to himself in silent and liquid joy.

For several nights this performance went on with gradual increase of vocabulary in teacher and pupil. But when it had reached the "Do you see the apple-tree?" stage, it ceased to advance, marked time for a while, and then slowly but steadily began sliding back into primitive beginnings. This engendered in the Maestro a suspicion which became certainty when Isidro entered the schoolhouse, one morning just before recess, between two policemen at port arms. A rapid scrutiny of the rollbook showed that he had been absent a whole week.

"I was at the river cleaning my trousers," answered Isidro, when put face to face with this curious fact.

The Maestro suggested that the precious pantaloons, which, by the way, had been mysteriously embellished by a red stripe down the right leg and a green stripe down the left leg, could be cleaned in less than a week, and that Saturday and Sunday were days specially set aside in the Catechismo of the Americanos for such little family duties.

Isidro understood; and the nightly rehearsals soon reached the stage of:

"How menny hhetts hev yu?"

"I hev ten hhetts."

Then came another arrest of development, and another decline, at the end of which Isidro, again making his appearance flanked by two German needle-guns, caused a blush of remorse to suffuse the Maestro by explaining with frigid gravity that his mother had given birth to a little pickaninny brother and that, of course, he had had to help.

But significant events in the family did not stop there. After birth, death stepped in for its due. Isidro's relatives began to drop off in rapid sequence—each demise demanding three days of meditation in retirement—till at last the Maestro, who had had the excellent idea of keeping upon paper a record of these unfortunate occurrences, was looking with stupor upon a list showing that Isidro had lost, within three weeks, two aunts, three grandfathers, and five grandmothers—which, considering that an actual count proved the house of bereavement still able to boast of seventeen occupants, was plainly an exaggeration.

Following a long sermon from the Maestro, in which he sought to explain to Isidro that he must always tell the truth for sundry philosophical {{|hwe|reasons|reasons—a}} statement which the First Assistant tactfully smoothed to something within range of credulity by translating it that one must not lie to Americanos, because Americanos do not like it—there came a period of serenity.


III——THE TRIUMPH

There came to the Maestro days of peace and joy. Isidro was coming to school; Isidro was learning English. Isidro was steady, Isidro was docile, Isidro was positively so angelic that there was something uncanny about the situation. And with Isidro, other little savages were being pruned into the school-going stage of civilisation. Helped by the police, they were pouring in from barrio and hacienda; the attendance was going up by leaps and bounds, till at last a circulative report showed that Balangilang had passed the odious Cabancalan with its less strenuous school-man, and left it in the ruck by a full hundred. The Maestro was triumphant; his chest had gained two inches in expansion. When he met Isidro at recess, playing cibay, he murmured softly: "You little devil; you were Attendance personified, and I've got you now." At which Isidro, pausing in the act of throwing a shell with the top of his head at another shell on the ground, looked up beneath long lashes in a smile absolutely seraphic.

In the evening the Maestro, his heart sweet with content, stood at the window. These were moonlight nights; in the grassy lanes the young girls played graceful Spanish games, winding like garlands to a gentle song; from the shadows of the huts came the tinkle-tinkle of serenading guitars and yearning notes of violins wailing despairing love. And Isidro, seated on the bamboo ladder of his house, went through an independent performance. He sang "Good-night, Ladies," the last song given to the school, sang it in soft falsetto, with languorous drawls, and never-ending organ points, over and over again, till it changed character gradually, dropped into a wailing minor, an endless croon full of the obscure melancholy of a race that dies.

"Goo-oo-oo nigh-igh-igh loidies-ies-ies; goo-oo-oo nigh-igh-igh loidies-ies-ies; goo-oo-oo-oo nigh-igh-igh loidies-ies-ies-ies," he repeated and repeated, over and over again, till the Maestro's soul tumbled down and down abysses of maudlin tenderness, and Isidro's chin fell upon his chest in a last drawling, sleepy note. At which he shook himself together and began the next exercise, a recitation, all of one piece from first to last syllable, in one high, monotonous note, like a mechanical doll saying "papa-mamma."

"Oh-look-et-de-moon -she-ees-shinin-up-theyre-oh-mudder-she -look-like-a-lom-in-de -ayre-lost-night-she-was -smalleyre -on-joos-like-a -bow-boot-now -she-ees-biggerr-on-rrraon-like-an-O."

Then a big gulp of air, and again:

"Oh-look -et -de -moon -she -ees -shinin -up -theyre, etc.——"

An hour of this, and he skipped from the lyric to the patriotic, and then it was:


"I-loof-dde-name-off-Wash-ing-ton,
I-loof-my-coontrrree-tow,
I-loof-dde-fleg-dde-dear-owl-fleg,
Off-rrid-on-whit-on-bloo-oo-oo!"


By this time the Maestro was ready to go to bed, and long in the torpor of the tropic night there came to him, above the hum of the mosquitoes fighting at the net, the soft, wailing croon of Isidro, back at his "Goo-oo-oo nigh-igh-igh loidies-ies-ies."

These were days of ease and beauty to the Maestro, and he enjoyed them the more when a new problem came to give action to his resourceful brain.

The thing was: For three days there had not been one funeral in Balangilang.

In other climes, in other towns, this might have been a source of congratulation, perhaps, but not in Balangilang. There were rumours of cholera in the towns to the north, and the Maestro, as President of the Board of Health, was on the watch for it. Five deaths a day, experience had taught him, was the healthy average for the town; and this sudden cessation of public burials—he could not believe that dying had stopped—was something to make him suspicious.

It was over this puzzling situation that he was pondering at the morning recess, when his attention was taken from it by a singular scene.

The "batas" of the school were flocking and pushing and jolting at the door of the basement, which served as stable for the municipal carabao. Elbowing his way to the spot, the Maestro found Isidro at the entrance, gravely taking up an admission of five shells from those who would enter. Business seemed to be brisk; Isidro had already a big bandana handkerchief bulging with the receipts, which were now overflowing into a great tao hat, obligingly loaned him by one of his admirers, as one by one those lucky enough to have the price filed in, feverish curiosity upon their faces.

The Maestro thought it might be well to go in also, which he did without paying admission. The disappointed gatekeeper followed him. The Maestro found himself before a little pink-and-blue tissue-paper box, frilled with rosettes.

"What have you in there?" asked the Maestro.

"My brother," answered Isidro, sweetly.

He cast his eyes to the ground and watched his big toe drawing vague figures in the earth, then, appealing to the First Assistant, who was present by this time, he added, in the tone of virtue which will be modest:

"Maestro Pablo does not like it when I do not come to school on account of a funeral, so I brought him [pointing to the little box] with me."

"Well, I'll be——," was the only comment the Maestro found adequate at the moment.

"It is my little pickaninny brother," went on Isidro, becoming alive to the fact that he was a centre of interest; "and he died last night of the great sickness."

"The great what?" ejaculated the Maestro, who had caught a few words.

"The great sickness," explained the Assistant. "That is the name by which these ignorant people call the cholera."

For the next two hours the Maestro was very busy.

Firstly he gathered the "batas" who had been rich enough to attend Isidro's little show and locked them up—with the impresario himself—in the little town jail close by. Then, after a vivid exhortation upon the beauties of boiling water and reporting disease, he dismissed the school for an indefinite period. After which, impressing the two town prisoners, now temporarily out of home, he shouldered Isidro's pretty box, tramped to the cemetery, and directed the digging of a grave six feet deep. When the earth had been scraped back upon the lonely little object, he returned to town and transferred the awe-stricken playgoers to his own house, where a strenuous performance took place.

Tolio, his boy, built a most tremendous fire outside and set upon it all the pots and pans and cauldrons and cans of his kitchen arsenal, filled with water. When these began to gurgle and steam, the Maestro set himself to stripping the horrified bunch in his room; one by one he threw the garments out of the window to Tolio, who, catching them, stuffed them into the receptacles, poking down their bulging protest with a big stick. Then the Maestro mixed an awful brew in an old oilcan, and, taking the brush which was commonly used to sleek up his little pony, he dipped it generously into the pungent stuff and began an energetic scrubbing of his now absolutely panic-stricken wards. When he had done this to his satisfaction and thoroughly to their discontent, he let them put on their still steaming garments, and they slid out of the house, aseptic as hospitals.

Isidro he kept longer. He lingered over him with loving and strenuous care, and after he had him externally clean proceeded to dose him internally from a little red bottle. Isidro took everything—the terrific scrubbing, the exaggerated dosing, the ruinous treatment of his pantaloons—with wonder-eyed serenity.

When all this was finished, the Maestro took the urchin into the dining-room and, seating him on his best bamboo chair, he courteously offered him a fine, dark perfecto.

The next instant he was suffused with the light of a new revelation. For, stretching out his hard little claw to receive the gift, the boy had shot at him a glance so mild, so wistful, so brown-eyed, filled with such mixed admiration, trust, and appeal, that a a queer softness had risen in the Maestro from somewhere down in the regions of his heel, up and up, quietly, like the mercury in the thermometer, till it had flowed through his whole body and stood still, its high-water mark a little lump in his throat.

"Why, Lord bless us-ones, Isidro," said the Maestro, quietly. "We're only a child, after all, a mere baby, my man. And don't we like to go to school?"

"Señor Pablo," asked the boy, looking up softly into the Maestro's still perspiring visage, "Señor Pablo, is it true that there will be no school because of the great sickness?"

"Yes, it is true," answered the Maestro. "No school for a long, long time."

Then Isidro's mouth began to twitch queerly, and, suddenly throwing himself full length upon the floor, he hurled out from somewhere within him a long, tremulous wail.