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Zanita: A Tale of the Yo-semite (1872) by Thérèse Yelverton


It would require volumes to narrate the troubles, trials, mishaps, adventures, and vicissitudes I went through in my earnest endeavor to carry out the minister’s precepts,—“to train up the child in the way she should go.” This aphorism ignores entirely that the child had a way of her own, from which she was equally determined not to depart, and training in the ordinary sense was, therefore, quite out of the question. It was struggling, urging, persuading, forcing, coaxing, arguing; but as for all this putting her in the right way and fancying she would not depart from it, that was as effective as pouring water into a sieve and expecting it to remain.

I do not believe that the right way ever has an attraction for children; unless breaking the crockery-ware, scratching enameled surfaces, cutting triangular holes in a texture which the ingenious loom had contrived to make a compact drapery, be deemed right and proper. Some children have a propensity to stand on their heads, most of them for performing surgical operations on their own persons with purely mechanical instruments, such as cleavers, corkscrews, hoot-hooks, etc.; few children who do not prefer wet shoes to dry ones if there is a puddle within their reach; few who do not try to possess exactly that object which they see cherished by their little neighbors,—stories of the man in the moon in no way abating their covetousness.

Thus training a child contrary to nature is very like training the spots on a leopard to grow in streaks, by constantly stroking them in the required direction. I do not know what effect the process might have if persistently followed; but it could not be much more hopeless than the training of Zanita in the way the minister said she ought to go; nor do I believe that Zanita, although a little peculiar, was altogether an exception. For most children are trained in the way they should go, yet it would be difficult to find the individual who has not departed from it directly he became his own master.

Most boys try smoking as soon as they leave school, and experiment in the use of spirits, simply because they have been forbidden. Their own sense, or sensation, may deter them from continuing the practice, but they do not abstain because they have been instructed in the right way and will not depart from it.

Habit is doubtless a wonderful director and guide; but some children, such as Zanita, are of such a volatile, erratic temperament, that habit seems impossible to them, unless under the form of regularity in irregularity.

With her instruction we had no difficulty; her perceptive faculties were so keen that she speedily mastered any task set before her. She had no taste for music, and, therefore, we did not urge her to learn; for to have made her practice so much per day would have been to attempt training her in one of those ways in which she would not go. It is certain that a man may lead the horse to the water, but he cannot make him drink.

With a view more to obtaining a little discipline than any amount of learning, of which she had already too much, I sent her to a day-school in Oakland; but soon discovered that instead of being trained herself, she was exercising dominion over all the other girls, little and big. She could tell a great deal they did not know of natural history, ornithology, and mechanics, and was quite beyond the control of mistress or tutors. She was soon expelled for determined insubordination.

She could not be made to understand this was a disgrace; but took it in her usual stoical way, and remarked,—

“Well, after all, aunty, I would rather you taught me; for you tell me about a great many more interesting things than they did at school.”

For drawing she displayed no taste, if some little talent for her efforts consisted in strong caricatures. Her cattle would have lame legs, or broken horns, or too curly tails; and her faces usually squinted, or had teeth projecting like Nell’s, or enormous beards flying, or mop-heads like old Methley’s, or any monstrosity she might chance to meet in the street. Not wishing to train this propensity I wasted no time upon her drawing, unless occasionally to get her a model, which she usually caricatured.

Another interval passed in which we kept her at home, and got on tolerably well upon ordinary occasions; for the child was never bad-tempered or fretful, never had recourse to weeping, or distressed herself about any reprimand or opposition. But upon any particularly important occasion, if we had friends visiting us, or if we went upon an excursion, Zanita was sure to come out in full force, and conduct her-self shockingly, so that all my neighbors pitied me, and shook their heads, saying derisively,—

“Poor Mrs. Brown! she has a nice time of it with that child; and never corrects her either. It is strange how a sensible man like the Professor can allow his wife to carry out such vagaries, and the child no kith or kin to them. It’s sheer romantic nonsense; just because her mother died up among those wild mountains, where it does not appear quite the thing for a respectable female to go, among bears and brambles of all kind; and makes the child that she has no more conscience than a squirrel. She jumped upon our hog and rode him round the lot, with her face to his tail; and our minister, who had just come from the East, took her for one of my children, and inquired if that was California sport. I never was so mortified in my life, and took the liberty of mentioning the circumstance to Mrs. Brown, who only remarked that Zanita was very primitive in her playfellows; never having had children she fraternized with animals.”

One friend, however, took an interest in the wonderful precocity of the child; this was Mrs. Primer, who kept a very superior Young Ladies’ Seminary at San Jose. She became charmed with Zanita’s conversation about the habits of animals and plants,—information she had gleaned from Kenmuir,—and her shrewd remarks upon everything she saw. She regarded her escapades as mere espieglerie and evidence of genius. She was, like myself, fascinated with her brilliant imagination, and no doubt thought she would make her quite a show pupil if properly managed. But in that “if “ lay the whole conclusion.

Willing to give her every chance, it was arranged that Zanita should go on trial for three months to Mrs. Primer’s establishment.

Zanita in no way objected. She was ever ready for any change that promised her adventure; and she was no more troubled at leaving her home in Oakland than she had been at quitting her father and the Valley. Her self-reliance made her quite adequate to going among strangers, for she usually had the best of any encounter, and was perfectly fearless.

For the first three weeks, Zanita must have been on her best behavior, and displayed such talent that Mrs. Primer wrote me that she was perfectly enraptured with the girl, and was not surprised that I had adopted such a prodigy.

The letters that followed were not as enthusiastic; for although she could not cease from admiring Zanita’s talents, yet she had certain powers that indeed might bring about a brilliant career, which were nevertheless dangerous in school.

Her power of mimicry, that might make her a great actress, thoroughly demoralized and disorganized the school; for girls when once set giggling are hopelessly beyond control.

Unfortunately one of the teachers, a person of great merit and erudition, was subject to a nervous affection of the face, causing a spasmodic twitching, which Miss Zanita had succeeded in imitating so amusingly, that whenever she practiced it the whole class were inevitably convulsed with laughter. To attempt to disgrace her by sending her out of the room was no avail, for, upon the first opportunity, when the class had become steady and penitent, she would boldly repeat her offense with equal success.

The following week I was informed that she had turned her attention to the Professor of French, an old gentleman of the ancien régime who was a snuff-taker, and usually drew out his tortoise-shell box, tapped and took a pinch of snuff before examining a pupil’s théme. Zanita had pro-cured a bit of oil-cloth about the same color, made a box, and audaciously imitated him in snuffing before his very eyes. The Professor felt very badly about it, and expressed his unwillingness to teach a young lady who could so ungratefully turn him into ridicule, the more especially as she had been his favorite pupil and best French scholar.

Moreover, Mrs. Primer informed me that Zanita’s persistent insubordination was becoming detrimental to the discipline of the school; that she had acquired so much power over the risible faculties of the young ladies as to be able to throw them into a state of disorder any moment she pleased, and was fast making caricatures fashionable in the establishment.

It was useless to attempt to punish her, as she could not be made to feel that she was under any disgrace. If a task was imposed upon her she learned it with the utmost dispatch, and, as a matter of course, it cost her no trouble, and she never took it to heart as such. If she were confined in her own room, she seemed rather to enjoy it than otherwise; and being given dry bread she would eat it heartily, remarking that it was just like “camping out” when they never had butter, and Cozy used to cry for it. “I wish Cozy were here now; wouldn’t she yell and make a bother.”

Although Zanita was by no means indifferent to good things, yet upon occasion she could content herself with a dry crust and despise her little injuries.

Mrs. Primer concluded by saying that although still of the opinion that my protégé would make a most brilliant character, if properly trained, she could not believe that a school was the atmosphere that she needed; in fact she would contaminate half the class before her own reform could be accomplished. Under these circumstances she regretted that she must ask me to take my daughter away before the term specified had expired, and that she would prepare her to leave the following day but one, if I could kindly come for her, else she could be sent under care of some friend.

Thus Zanita returned, as blithe as ever; and was extremely diverting in her graphic descriptions of the boarding-school.

The Professor used to take infinite amusement from her eccentricities; there had from the first appeared to exist a kind of truce between them; she never played him any tricks, for she was too wily to make him her victim, and never evinced anything but stolid indifference to his teaching. But usually she was keenly alive even to the most abstruse of his conversations, and delighted him by her bright intelligence.

To my remonstrances my husband would reply,

“My dear, she is a born actress and cannot help it. She must go on the stage, where she may play a part all her life long.”

“She imitates even you, behind your back,” I said, “and does it uncommonly well; with a book in hand, a pair of scissors for an eye-glass, her feet crossed upon another chair, and her mouth puckered up, just as you often hold yours when absorbed in reading.”

The Professor laughed. “I would like to see her; I should then know how I look.”

“The other day,” I continued, “she had taken her pose after this fashion, but as I don’t encourage her Professor, I therefore pretended not to observe the caricature, and said, ’Zanita! what are you doing with your feet upon that chair?’ ‘Surely, aunty, you can see,’ she naively re-marked. I had to ignore my question, and bid her put down her feet and the scissors.”

The Professor chuckled at my dilemma.

“She is more than a match for you, my dear, I am afraid!”

I was anxious that she should still continue her French under the instruction of a native of the country, in order to preserve the good accent she had acquired; and hearing that there was a Parisian lady teaching in the best seminary in Oakland, I had no difficulty in having her join the class; and, as usual, her progress was highly satisfactory. With Martha to accompany her to and from this place, the arrangement seemed to answer for a time. She learned a good deal of science from the Professor, for my husband, although I say it, was a kind of encyclopedia which could not be approached without its imparting some valuable learning; and I attended to her general education.

Almost every year we were accustomed to make any excursion to the Mountains and Valley of Ah-wah-nee, and it was curious to note the progress of the two children. Zanita, though under the highest civilized training we could give her, remained as wild as the untamed deer of her native mountains; indeed, she would leap among the tall brackens with as much agility and zest as any young fawn; and I believe would have been as happy to winter in a cave as a cinnamon hear. Whilst Rosie grew in that exquisite feminine grace so attractive in adolescent womanhood.

During these periods I used to give as much attention as possible to Rosie’s music and drawing, for which she had all the talent which her sister lacked; and, even as a child, her sketches from nature possessed that delicacy of touch and selection which reminded me of her poor mother.

I brought her all the books that Zanita had used, and her father, with this assistance, forwarded her instruction. So little Rosie progressed well, if not so brilliantly as Zanita; and was the happiest little fairy that ever dwelt in sylvan glades, and danced by moonlight round the mossy rings.

The great drawback to the new system of study was not long in developing itself, and grew out of Zanita’s readiness to form acquaintances without any particular ceremony of introduction or choice of any special locality, or unusual circumstance or contingency. If she met a boy spinning a top, she would insist upon lending her assistance; or if she spied a peculiarly shaped box or bundle, she would promptly ask the possessor what it contained, and desire that it should be opened and let her examine. She once stopped a little girl carrying home a lady’s bonnet, and instantly had it out of the box inspecting it, and declaring it was a “perfect fright”; she then put it on her head, to the amusement of passers-by and the dismay of Martha and the little messenger. Ere long she had introduced herself to half of Oakland and made herself very notorious.

Next: Zanita Among NunsContentsPrevious: Breaches of Decorum

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