Master Trandafir

excerpt  II Ever since the day I came back here, to our old little borough, I have hardly had one idle moment. I scoured all the familiar haunts that still brought to mind the childhood memories – the bright memories of a long gone childhood.I saw, on the banks of the Siret, the place where we little devils used to go for a swim. We would dabble in the waves, then come out on the bank and cover ourselves in mud from head to toe; we would then scorch under the familiar sun, get up again, chase each other all along the banks shrieking and yelling and then suddenly jump in the water all at one with deafening thuds and rainbows of drops.I saw again the grey willow groves where we used to go in great fear of badgers. The fear lasted until we came upon the blackberry thickets, where we would sit down for a feast and a good talk. Then back home across the fields, shrieking as we ran, as if a whole savage army had come upon the lands... And I also saw, at the edge of the borough, the rundown sheds, full of barrels, where we used to play hide-and-seek at night. Oh, the thrill of searching the dark corners, of rummaging through the hollow-sounding casks, of searching, through the attics lit by the occasional creeping white streaks of light, for the hidden playmates! And I remember that every time I had to mumble under my breath or to tell some joke for one of them to burst out laughing... it was the only way I could ever trace anything in that empty place!Many were the things that thrilled and gladdened my heart! I saw them all. And yet none was so moving, dear brother, as the spot – that's all that is left – where once the school stood.I went there, at once glad and fearful, in the midst of all that bustle of kids, on the first morning when my father took me to school, holding my hand; there was a pear tree there that made the most delicious pears of which the Master gave us two apiece at the start of each summer holiday; there was the yard where in winter we used to make snow giants, so tall we had to climb a ladder to stick a pipe in their mouth and two charcoals for eyes; so many things happened there, my friend – and now I feel a tender emotion sweeping over me again and once again I will tell you in this letter of Master Trandafir.He was a well-clad man, with a slightly balding crown and extremely kind eyes. When he smiled his long teeth, with a wide gap in the middle, showed from under his short-cut moustache. When he taught us how to recite heroic poems which he would speak in a loud voice and raise his right arm; when we sang in a choir he would hit his tuning fork against the corner of his desk, take it quickly to his right ear and, with a light frown, set the tone: Aaaaa! – and the boys answered with a thin murmur and waited with their eyes riveted on his hand which would suddenly go up. Then a warm burst of young voices gushed forth. At times when, on a Saturday afternoon, he had to read to us from Creangă's tales, he would look at us with kindness in his eyes, smiling tranquilly, holding the book closely at his breast, against his heart – and the classroom grew silent like a church.You will notice that I do not speak of grammar or arithmetic. Nor am I going to. We had a good, proper training in them; the boys learned each according to his skill; but these things seem so insignificant when compared to the other kind of learning, the spiritual one, that the Master gave us! And this learning he gave us not because he had to, because he was paid to, but because there was simply too much kindness in him and because there was in him something of the faith and virtue of an apostle. There, in that remote corner of the land, a teacher was his own master. None of the high-ranking inspectors ever bothered him; hardly anyone ever enquired about his school. Good or bad – he did what he reckoned ought to be done and nothing more. That is why our Master Trandafir was mighty surprised to receive, in one of his last years as a teacher, a visit from one of the high inspectors.Let me tell you how it came to pass.One day, through the gate of the yard, in came two strangers. The boys were in the classroom with the monitors while the Master, out in the garden, was overseeing the unloading of a hay cart. He was a diligent husbandman and liked to see everything done properly.The strangers draw near."Good day to you!""Thank you, my good gentlemen!"Master Trandafir looks at the strangers; the strangers look at Master Trandafir."Pray, sirs, what may you be wanting?""Well, look, if you please... we would like to see the school..." "By all means, just let me see this hay here taken care of. Maria! See to some refreshments! preserves, coffee! Take a seat over there, in the shade, on the porch, for a little while, to catch your breath...""We'd rather not, we are quite in a hurry...""Now, it won't take a moment. I'll be with you in a crack of the finger..."And so he shakes the straws off his clothes and invites the strangers into the classroom. There, more questions: how many people attend the classes, how many are registered. And the Master answers that all come as are registered and he rather wonders at the strangers' asking such questions. Inspectors they are not, for he knows the inspector well and he only comes two times a year. He comes rarely because he knows who he's dealing with. Well, now, perhaps they be higher assessors, who knows?One of them again:"Pray, be so kind and teach a lesson... just out of curiosity..."And the Master teaches a lesson, just like that, the way he always did it. He asks questions of the boys, he does some talking himself, tell things that even he himself finds touching. And here are the guests from the city looking at him with a sudden warmth in their eyes, they ask the children some questions in their turn, listen to a poem. The Master hits the tuning fork lightly against his desk: Aaaaa! And the class answers in a delicate breeze of young voices and they sing, they sing so heartily that even the Master likes it and he says at the end: "Well done, boys!"And the strangers ask him again, but with totally changed voices and a new light in their eyes, where he comes from, what schools he went to, what kind of life he lives; and the Master gives them half an answer and begins to wonder why these people are prying into his own affairs like that...He invites them to eat with him, they ask of him to forgive them for they cannot, they have to leave, so bids them have at least a glass of water, they thank him again. One of them takes his watch out of his pocket; the other says something in a respectful tone. And the one who seems to be the higher in rank makes to go. And then Master Trandafir whispers in an aside to the other, who has lagged behind a little:"If you don't mind my asking, my good sir... who do I have the pleasure to meet?""Me?... I am inspector so-and-so..." "Hm!" And Master Trandafir cocks a doubtful eye at the inspector. "Seriously, now!... what about the other gentleman?""The other is the minister!"This is too much; and the Master bursts out laughing."I'll be... you're a funny chap, you know! This is really funny.""You can't think I'm joking!""You reckoned I'd believe a thing like that? Why would the minister bother to come down here, to this poor abode of ours?"Then the other stranger turns around and with a smile shakes Master Trandafir's hand and congratulates him. And they both leave – and great was the amazement of our teacher when he later heard from the mayor's that the thin, straight stranger with a black moustache was indeed the minister of the schools.No, our master never taught us out of fear of any authority. He was fond of teaching us and we were like his own children to him – and never while we were under his care did we feel any different.He was slow to anger and when he did get angry he only used to say these words: "My good sir!"We felt the earth should open up and swallow us when he said "My good sir!" and frowned on us.I well remember the commotion when, on one occasion, there were rumors that they were going to move our Master to another village across the Siret. We gathered in the evening, all the boys, and we talked, some were crying, and we made a grave decision: to go with him across the Siret.But the Master did not leave; he remained there, on our land; and in our land they buried him. I went to see his grave. An oaken cross, darkened by the rains; above, a fir tree rustling with the lightest wind. Wild flowers growing from the black earth. Nailed to the cross, a small plate: "Here lies God's servant Neculai Trandafir..." and the rest of the words have faded away, the rain and the snow have erased them.The school where he used to teach me is gone, too. Now the boys study in a new building, tall and handsome. I have not gone to see it, though; I went to see the empty place where there used to be a low room, where we were cold in winter and hot in summer. In that place there lived a man. It is to his memory that I'm sending you this letter. Perhaps, who knows, you too will pause for a moment to think of this school teacher you have never met and pray God to give rest to his servant whose name will soon fade off from the cross on his grave. For the people who hurt and grieved him... long have they forgotten him!...And you will forgive me for wasting an hour of your time with these things that happened so long ago! 1907

by Mihail Sadoveanu (1880-1961)