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Authors: James A. Michener

The Fires of Spring

BOOK: The Fires of Spring
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The Fires of Spring
is a work of historical fiction. Apart from the well-known actual people, events, and locales that figure in the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to current events or locales, or to living persons, is entirely coincidental.

2014 Dial Press Trade Paperback Edition

Copyright © 1949 by James A. Michener
Copyright renewed © 1976 by Random House LLC
Excerpt from
copyright © 1974 by James A. Michener

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

and the H
colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC, in 1949.

eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-5138-2


The Poorhouse

David Harper could scarcely sit still. It was Friday afternoon, and Miss Clapp was reading from the blue book. For three weeks now she had been reading about Hector and Achilles. This afternoon Hector would go forth to battle. David, who had been a Trojan for almost a month, shivered with excitement. He knew that when Achilles met a real fighter things would be different.

Then Miss Clapp closed the book!

“What happened next?” David cried.

Miss Clapp smiled primly. “We’ll find out next week.”

“Oh!” David gasped. He was eleven that year, and next Friday was as far away as next year.

Miss Clapp gave a self-contented smile. With her left hand she deftly tapped the pile of brown report cards. “I suppose you know why I had to stop early today,” she said unctuously. Like all teachers, she savored the little climaxes that were permitted her.

“Report cards!” the children in Grade Five chimed.

Miss Clapp smiled warmly, as if her students had mastered the multiplication table. As she called the happy litany of names, each child went forward to receive the decisive card. Returning to their seats, the children stole furtive glances at their grades. Those who were pleased smiled.

“David Harper.”

David rose, sandy-haired, freckled, grinning. Miss Clapp handed him his card. Holding it against his badly worn shirt, he sneaked a quick glance at the grades: “Doylestown Public Schools. Grade Five. English 71. Spelling 82. Geography 74. Arithmetic …” He gasped. There it was again. That horrible mark! “Arithmetic 99.”

“What’s the matter, David?” Miss Clapp inquired.

“Arithmetic!” he blurted out, thrusting his face back toward the teacher.

“What’s the matter with arithmetic?” Miss Clapp asked in astonishment.

“It’s 99 again. I didn’t miss a single question all month.”

“No, he didn’t!” the boys of Grade Five cried, egging their classmate on.

Carefully Miss Clapp placed the remaining cards on her desk. She stood very tall and folded her hands. Then, instead of growling, she smiled softly at David and said quietly, “Of course you didn’t miss any questions, David. But nobody is good enough for 100. Never.”

“But I didn’t miss any!” the little boy argued stubbornly.

“Of course you didn’t,” Miss Clapp reasoned patiently. “But 100, David! That means the very best that anyone could ever do. Ninety-nine means good, but you could do better.”

The incentive was lost on David. He pointed his stumpy nose at the desk and argued, “How could I get more right than all of them? How could I?”

Miss Clapp ignored the boy’s anger. Softly she reasoned, “Were your papers as neat as they could have been? Were your 5’s made with one line? Was your pencil always sharpened?”

The nose dropped to half mast. “Oh,” David grunted. “That’s what you mean?”

“Yes. That’s what 100 means.”

David released a huge grin. “Good! Next month I’ll do all those things, too.”

“And if you do,” Miss Clapp said quietly, “your mark will still be 99.”

David gritted his teeth and stared at his teacher. He was mad, fighting mad. He wished he knew a thousand swear words. Abruptly he went to his seat and shook his head at Harry Moomaugh. “Teachers are crazy!” he whispered. “Especially Miss Clapp.”

The teacher heard this but ignored it. “Gracey Kelley,” she called.

A thin, scrawny girl with red spots on her face rose from the back of the room. She lived in Worthington’s Alley and was almost always dirty. But when she passed David on this day he saw that she was wearing a pretty red dress. She swung her way up the aisle and received her card. Clutching it in her hand, she smiled bravely at the rest of the children. Her marks were poor, but she didn’t care. She had on a good dress.

But from the second row another little girl said in a loud whisper, “That used to be Mary Gray’s dress!”

Right away David remembered. Of course it was Mary’s old dress! But the whisper was so loud that Gracey Kelley heard it, too. The bitter words struck her in the face and in the heart. Dropping her report card, she threw her long arms over her face and broke into impulsive sobbing.

Miss Clapp, unaware of what had happened, left her desk and tried to comfort Gracey. “Don’t cry,” she pleaded. “You’ll get better marks next month.”

Gracey Kelley turned away. “It’s my dress,” she wept. One of the boys laughed nervously and she swung on the class, her eyes deep with hate. “I hate you all!” she screamed. Then she slapped Miss Clapp’s hands away and rushed into the cloakroom. David could hear her sobbing there and kicking at the wall. Miss Clapp hurried after her, and when the teacher came back to the room, she was crying, too. Seeing this, the little girl whose cruel whisper had launched the trouble also began to cry.

David leaned over and whispered to his friend, Harry Moomaugh, “I told you Miss Clapp was nuts.”

“Women are funny,” Harry agreed.

“What’s the matter with Gracey Kelley?” David demanded. “All that fuss about a dress! Everybody knows I wear your second-hand clothes. So what?” The two good friends shrugged their shoulders, but David was disturbed, for from the cloakroom came the inconsolable sobbing of a heartbroken girl.

The poorhouse lay three miles south of Doylestown among the wonderful rolling hills of Bucks County. Hunched up in back of the poorhouse truck, David watched the familiar sights as he sped homeward. Down the long hill, out of town, past the fine, winding bridge at Edison, then up a hill,
through some woods, and there before him were the two long, gray buildings of the poorhouse.

To David these bleak stone buildings were not the last stop of the world’s defeated. Not at all! For nearly a month they had been the walls of Troy, and would be for three more searching weeks. Then, although David did not yet know it, the poorhouse walls would become the home of Lancelot. Later, Oliver Twist would live there. Indeed, it was more fun living in a poorhouse than almost any kind of place you could imagine.

But right now David was worried. Because if the poorhouse was truly his castle, he now had the unpleasant job of visiting the witch that lived in the dungeon. As long as he could remember he had lived at the poorhouse with his Aunt Reba. She was in charge of the women’s building, and long ago she had brought David to the two forbidding buildings. His parents were dead—“No better than they should have been,” his aunt said—and he had come to live with the ugly, unloving witch.

Gingerly, he edged his way into the women’s building. The air was hot, smelly with the strong juice they used for keeping bedbugs under control. A very old woman in blue and white denim winked at David and shrugged her shoulder toward Aunt Reba’s door. “She’s in there,” the old woman said with pleased and obvious loathing.

David took a deep breath. “Oh, well,” he sighed, knocking lightly on the door.

From within came a harsh, sharp cry, “Komm in.” Reluctantly David pushed open the door. Before him stood a thin woman of forty. Her hair was stringy and her face was sallow. She didn’t come out in front, the way Miss Clapp did. She never smiled. Her eyes were a watery blue, and never since David had lived with her had her thin lips kissed him. Whatever she did, she did grudgingly as if she wanted to save something of each act for herself. “You’re late” she said, reaching for the pen.

Without looking at the card—for she hated schools—she scratched her obligatory signature on the cover. “You’re late,” she repeated.

“I missed the bus,” David explained reluctantly.

“So!” she mimicked in Pennsylvania Dutch. “I missed the
, yet.” She spoke in an angry sing-song, accenting the first word of each sentence, singing the last. “It’s
ing money, I suppose we were.

“I was talking with Harry Moomaugh,” David confessed.

, was it?” she hissed. “
nice, talking when you should be
, yet.” Angrily she reached out and smashed her hand against David’s ear. He stumbled sideways against a chair.

“Get aht!” his aunt commanded. He recovered his balance and went to the door. In the hallway he was embarrassed by a half dozen old poorhouse women who had been eavesdropping. One of them patted him on the shoulder, but he merely grinned at her.

“She can’t hurt me,” he said.

When David was ten he had moved from the women’s building into a room of his own on the long hall where the most interesting men in the world lived. There had been many bad moments in the poorhouse during the first ten years when he lived with Aunt Reba, but the past fifteen months had been like a wonderful dream. Now, as he climbed the stairs to his own hall, a glow of fine joy engulfed him. One more step, and he would turn to the right, and there would be the long hall with the many doors and the many, many friends. As always, he paused on the top step and closed his eyes. Then he turned and slowly opened them. And there at the far end of the hall, sitting on his bench, was Old Daniel.

“Hello, Daniel!” David cried.

“Hello, David!” the thin old man chirped back.

Happily, the young boy moved down the hall. From every door old men called greetings and some fell in behind him as he moved like a young god to the bench where Old Daniel waited.

“How was school?” Daniel asked. He was more than seventy, a drying-up old man with a full set of false teeth that clicked when he talked. He had gossamer hair, and flint-sparked blue eyes, and a terrible pain in his stomach that never quite went away. “Isn’t this the day for your report card?”

A crazy Dutchman moved in close to David. He was a madman, but not mad enough to be placed in the mad cells. He was harmless, a kind of wonderfully vacant house that had known much fine living. The people had moved away, but the house, like a memory, was left to stand. “Yes!” this eager madman cried. “It’s report time.” He clamped a tremendous hand on David’s shoulder, and when David’s bones
began to hurt the boy pulled away and smiled up at the big, mad Dutchman.

“Let’s see your card,” Old Daniel said, reaching out a hand that was mostly bone and delicate fingers. The frail old man tenderly removed the card from its folder and studied the grades.

“Read ’em,” cried a tall, gaunt man with no teeth.

“English 71,” Old Daniel intoned.

“English is wery hard,” the mad Dutchman said.

“Spelling 82.”

“Spelling,” said the madman, “is wery difficult.”

BOOK: The Fires of Spring
2.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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