Boycotted and other stories
By Talbot Baines Reed Here are fifteen of the most eccentric short stories you can imagine. To make the job more difficult the hard copy of the book from which I worked was in very poor condition, with the pages extensively browned.
That said, in the way of my poor workmanship making me blame my tools, I do not think I have made too much of a mess of it, and you should be able to gain much enjoyment from reading the book.
The whole ensemble is not really very long, about two-thirds of the length of a typical book by this author. So go ahead and see how you get on. NH. BOYCOTTED AND OTHER STORIES
BY TALBOT BAINES REED
THE SCHOOL CUTS ME.
I hardly know yet what it was all about, and at the time I had not an idea. I don't think I was more of a fool than most fellows of my age at Draven's, and I rather hope I wasn't an out-and-out cad.
But when it all happened, I had my doubts on both points, and could explain the affair in no other way than by supposing I must be like the lunatic in the asylum, who, when asked how he came to be there, said, "I said the world was mad, the world said I was mad; the world was bigger than I was, so it shut me up here!"
It had been a dismal enough term, as it was, quite apart from my troubles. That affair of Browne had upset us all, and taken the spirit out of Draven's. We missed him at every turn. What was the good of getting up the football fifteen when our only "place-kick" was gone? Where was the fun in the "Saturday nights" when our only comic singer, our only reciter, our only orator wasn't there? Who cared about giving study suppers or any other sociable entertainment, when there was no Browne to invite?
Browne had left us suddenly. One day he had been the life and soul of Draven's, next morning he had been summoned to Draven's study, and that same evening we saw him drive off to the station in a cab with his portmanteau on the top.
Very few of the fellows knew why he had been expelled. I scarcely knew myself, though I was his greatest chum. On the morning of the day he left, he met me on his way back from Draven's study.
"I'm expelled, Smither," he said, with a dismal face.
"Go on," replied I, taking his arm and scrutinising his face to see where the joke was hidden. But it was no joke.
"I am," said he hopelessly: "I am to go this evening. It's my own fault. I've been a cad. I was led into it. It's bad enough; but I'm not such a blackleg as Draven makes out—"
And here for the first time in my life I saw Browne look like breaking down.
He wasn't going to let me see it, and hurried away before I could find anything to say.
If he hadn't told me himself, I should have called any one who told me Browne had been a cad—well, I'd better not say what I should have called him. I knew my chum had been a rollicking sort of fellow, who found it hard to say No to anybody who asked anything of him; but that he was a blackleg I, for one, would not believe, for all the Dravens in the world.
Hardly knowing what I did, I walked up to the master's study door and knocked.
"Come in." I could tell by the voice that came through the door I should do no good.
I went in. Mr Draven was pacing up and down the room, and stopped short in front of me as I entered. "Well?"
I wished I was on the other side of the door; but I wasn't, and must say something, however desperate.
"Please, sir, Browne—"
"Browne leaves here to-day," said Mr Draven coldly; "what do you want?"
"Please, sir, I hope you will—"
I forgot where I was and what I was saying. My mind wandered aimlessly, and I ended my sentence I don't know how.
Draven saw I was confused, and wasn't unkind.
"You have been a friend of Browne, I know," he said, "and you are sorry. So am I, terribly sorry," and his voice quite quavered as he spoke.
There was a pause, and I made a frantic effort to recall my scattered thoughts.
"Won't you let him off this time, sir?" I gasped.
"That, Smither, is out of the question," said the head master, so steadily and incisively that I gave it up, and left the room without another word. The fellows were trooping down the passage to breakfast, little guessing the secret of my miserable looks, or the reason why Browne was not in his usual place.
But the secret came out, and the school staggered under the shock. Mr Draven announced our comrade's departure kindly enough in the afternoon, adding that he had confessed the offence for which he was expelled, and was penitent. Two hours later we saw his cab drive off, and as we watched it disappear it all seemed to us like a hideous dream.
We said little about it to one another. We did not even care to inquire particularly into the offence for which he had suffered. But we moped and missed him at every turn, and wished the miserable term were ending instead of beginning.
This, however, is a long digression. I sat down to write the story of my own trouble, not Browne's. But the reader will understand now why I said that, as it was, apart from my own misfortunes, the term, which had still a month more to run when my story begins, had been a dismal one.
I was wandering about the playground one frosty November morning, beginning to hope that if a frost should come we might after all get a little fun at Draven's before the holidays came, when Odger junior, whistling shrilly, crossed my path.
Odger junior was not exactly my fag, for we had no fags at Draven's, and if we had had, I had not yet reached that pitch of dignity at which one fellow has the right to demand the services of another. Still Odger junior had, for a consideration, done a good many odd jobs for me, and I had got into the way of regarding him as a quasi-fag.
"Hullo, youngster!" said I, as we met, "there's going to be a stunning frost. Can't you smell it in the air? I wish you'd cut down to Bangle's and get me a pair of straps for my skates."
To my astonishment, not wholly unmixed with amusement, Odger junior regarded me majestically for a moment, and then, ejaculating the oracular phrase, "Oh, ah!" walked off, his four-foot-one drawn to its full height, his hands behind his back, and his mouth still drawn up for whistling, but apparently too overcome with dignity to emit the music which an observer would naturally be led to expect.
I was not on the whole a short-tempered youth. My laziness saved me from that. It certainly did occur to me on this bright frosty morning that it would be exhilarating both for young Odger and me if I were to go after him and kick him. But what was the use? He would enjoy it as much as I should. There would be plenty of ways in which to pay him out less fatiguing than an undignified chase round the playground. So I let him go, and grinned to think how much nicer monkeys are when they behave like monkeys, and not like men.
I had a lot of work to do in my study that morning before afternoon school, and so had very little time to think of Odger junior, or any one else. As it was, I was only just in time to take my usual place in the Greek class when Mr Draven sailed into the room and the lesson began.
I had been so flurried by my hasty arrival that I did not at first observe that the desk on my right, usually occupied by a boy called Potter, was vacant.
"Where's Potter?" I asked of my neighbour on the left. "Is he—why, there he is at Browne's old desk!" I added, catching sight of the deserter across the room.
Browne's desk had always been left empty since its late owner went. None of us had cared to appropriate it, and the sight of it day after day had fed our sorrow over his loss. It seemed to me, therefore, an act almost of disloyalty on Potter's part towards the memory of my old chum to install himself coolly at his desk without saying a word to anybody.
"What's he gone there for?" I inquired of Sadgrove on my left. "He's got no—"
"Don't talk to me!" said Sadgrove.
Sadgrove was in a temper, and I wasn't surprised. So was I, lazy as I was. We had all stuck to Browne through the term, and it was a little too much now to find a fellow like Potter, who professed to be Browne's friend too, stepping in this cold-blooded way into his place. Sadgrove was put up to construe, so there was no opportunity for further conversation, had we desired it.
I wasn't surprised that Potter avoided me in the playground after school. He guessed, I supposed, what I had to say to him, and had the decency to be ashamed of himself. However, I was determined to have it out, and that evening, after preparation, went up to his study. He was there, and looked guilty enough when he saw me.
"Look here, Potter," I began, trying to be friendly in spite of all. I got no further, for Potter, without a word, walked out of the door, leaving me standing alone in the middle of his study.
I had seen the working of a guilty conscience once or twice before at Draven's, but never knew it to work in quite so strange a manner as it did with Potter that evening.
There was nothing for it but to give him up as a bad job, and go to bed. Which I did; and awoke next morning in a forgiving mood.
It was always a scramble at breakfast on Saturdays at Draven's to see who could get nearest to the ham, for we sickened of the cold mutton they gave us on other days. This morning, to my gratification, I was "well up." That is, there were only two fellows before me, so that at any rate I was good for a fair, straight slice from the middle.
"Huzza!" said I, crowding up to Williams, who was next above me. "I've never had anything but knuckle all this—"
Williams faced round as he heard my voice; and then, without waiting to hear the end of my sentence, got up and took a seat at the lower end of the table.
"Poor beggar's out of sorts," said I to myself. "Another of his bilious attacks, I suppose," I added, moving up to his seat and addressing the proud occupant of the carver's chair. This fellow was Harrison, whom, next to Browne, we counted the oiliest fellow at Draven's. He could sing, and make puns, and though a long way behind Browne, was a popular, jovial companion.
He appeared not to hear my remark, but, hitching his chair a little away, began deliberately to carve a slice of ham.
He took a long time about it, and I watched him patiently till he was done. It was a prime ham, I could see, and, ashamed as I am to confess it, it made me feel amiable to all the world to find it was so.
"If they were all like this—" I began.
"There's room here, Harrison, old man," Williams called up the table.
Whereupon Harrison, plate in hand, went down to keep Williams company, leaving me for the first time in my life "top-hammer."
Somehow I did not enjoy the dignity quite as much as I should have expected. I was sorry Harrison had gone, for I wanted to speak to him about Potter, and I could not help fancying, from his unusual manner, that he was put out about something, and I thought he might have told me about it instead of chumming up to Williams. However, I was hungry, and took my slice of ham and passed the dish along to the fellow next me, who sat below the two empty chairs up which I had risen.
It was rather a solitary meal, and I was glad when it was over and the bell rang for first school. There at least I should have the society of the sympathetic Sadgrove, who, as I knew, felt as sore as I did about Potters behaviour.
But, to my mortification as well as perplexity, Sadgrove I found, had cleared out his desk and removed his goods and chattels to a seat on the row behind mine, where he appeared to have met with a cordial welcome from his new neighbours.
I could not make it out. He always told me he liked his desk better than any, and would not change it even for Browne's. And here he was, for no apparent reason, on a lower form, at a smaller desk, and in— well, less select society.
As I sat in my place that morning, with an empty desk on each side of me, it began slowly to dawn on my mind that something was wrong somewhere.
The proceedings of Odger junior, Potter, Sadgrove, Williams, and Harrison, taken singly, were not of much importance, but taken as a whole I did not like them. I might be wrong. There might be no intention to cut me, and I could not think of anything I had done or said which would account for it. I would try, at any rate, to get to the bottom of it before I was many hours older.
So I went in search of my cousin, who was a few months my senior, and a particular chum of Williams.
"I say, Arthur, what did Williams cut me dead for this morning?"
Arthur looked uncomfortable and said—
"How should I know?"
"You do know," said I, "and I want to know why."
He coloured up, and made as though he would leave room. But my blood was up, and I stepped across door.
"Tell me this," I said. "Have these fellows cut on purpose or no?"
"You do know. Are they cutting me or no?"
He flushed up again, and then said hurriedly—
"Yes, we are!"
I AM BEATEN.
"Yes, we are."
The reader may think it strange when I tell him that my first sensation on receiving this momentous announcement was one of almost amusement, I knew it was a mistake, and that I had done nothing to merit the sentence which had been passed upon me. Draven's had put itself in the wrong, and I had pride enough to determine that I of all people was not going out of my way to put it right.
So I took my cousin's announcement coolly, and refrained from demanding any further explanations.
"Oh!" I said, with something like a sneer, and walked off; leaving him, so I flattered myself, rather snubbed.
I was boycotted!
There was something a trifle flattering in the situation. Brave men before my time had been boycotted. I had read their stories, and sympathised with them, and hated (as I hate still) the miscreants who, in the name of "patriotism" had acted the sneak's and coward's part to ruin them. Now I was going to taste something of their hardships at the hands of my "patriotic" schoolfellows; and my spirit rose as I resolved to hold up my head with the bravest of them.
Forewarned is forearmed; and when I went into school that afternoon I gave no one a chance of avoiding me. I spread myself out as comfortably as possible at my place, and shifted some of the papers and books which crowded my own desk into the vacant desks on either side of me, first ejecting rather ostentatiously a few papers and notebooks which had been left in them by their late owners.
I was conscious of one or two glances directed my way across the room; but these only added to my pleasure as I emptied Sadgrove's inkpot into my own, and proceeded cheerfully to cut my initials on Williams's desk. When I was put up to construe, I managed to get through my passage without any sign of trepidation; and when at last the class was dismissed, I took the wind out of the sails of my boycotters by remaining some minutes later than any one else, completing the decoration of my new quarters.
It was easy enough in the playground that afternoon to keep clear of my fellow human beings; and I had, as I persuaded myself, a jolly hour in the gymnasium all by myself. Fellows looked in at the door now and then, but did not disturb my peace; and it was rather gratifying than otherwise to feel that as long as I chose to occupy the place every one else would have to wait outside.
"After all," thought I, as I went to bed that night, "boycotting isn't as bad as people make it out. I've had all I wanted to-day. No one has annoyed me or injured me. I can do pretty much as I like; in fact, I do more than I ever used to be able to do. If any one is loser by it all, it's the other fellows, and not me. I rather enjoy it.
"Still," I could not help reflecting; as I turned over and went to sleep, "I think Harrison might have stuck by me."
When I woke next morning it was with a sense of something on my mind. I tried hard to persuade myself it was amusement, and went down to breakfast wondering how Draven's would keep it up. I found myself "top- hammer" again—or I should say "top-muttoner," for ham was a luxury reserved only for one day in the week—and the two chairs below me were again vacant.
I helped myself to a slice from the uninviting joint, and then artlessly pushed the dish along one place, opposite the first of the empty chairs, and proceeded to regale myself.
It was interesting to see the perplexity which my simple manoeuvre caused. The next fellow below me, out of reach three chairs away, had nothing for it but either to speak to me, which I calculated his vows would not allow him to do, or else ignominiously to walk up to the seat next mine and possess himself of the dish. He did the latter, and I scored one—the only "one" I scored for some time to come.
For Draven's, seeing I was defiant, felt hurt in its pride, and drew the blockade closer around me. It had expected at least that I should make some effort to win my way back into popularity, and it did not at all like, when it chose to boycott me, that I should boycott it. So gradually we forgot what the quarrel was about, and set ourselves to see who could hold out longest.
A manly, sensible, Christian occupation for fifty fellow-creatures during a dull winter month!
I never got the gymnasium to myself now, for whenever I went it was always full, and remained full till I was tired of waiting for a vacant bar or swing. As for football, hockey, paper-chasing, and the other school sports, I was, of course, excluded both by my own pride and the action of the school.
In fact, Draven's never pulled together so well at anything as they did at boycotting me during those few weeks. Their discipline was splendid. They all seemed to know exactly what to do and what not to do when I appeared on the scene, and any hopes I had of winning over a few stragglers to my side vanished before the blockade had lasted a week.
At first I didn't mind it. My mettle was up, I was excited, and the consciousness that I was unjustly treated carried me through.
But in a few days the novelty began to wear off, and I began to get tired of my own company. I still made the most of my elbow-room in class and at meals, but it ceased to be amusing.
I tried to work hard in my study every evening, and to persuade myself I was glad of the opportunity of making up for lost time; but somehow or other the distant sounds of revelry and laughter made Livy and Euclid more dull and uninteresting than ever. I tried to hug myself with the notion of how independent I was in school and out, how free I was from bores, how jolly the long afternoon walks were with no one hanging on at my heels, how dignified it was to hold up my head when all the world was against me. But spite of it all I moped.
Greatly to my disgust, Draven's did not mope. As I sat down in my study, or wandered, still more solitary, in the crowded playground, it seemed as if all the school except myself had never been in better spirits. Fellows seemed to have shaken off the cloud which Browne's expulsion had left behind. The football team was better than it had been for a year or two, and I overheard fellows saying that the "Saturday nights" were jollier even than last winter. In fact, it seemed as if, like Jonah, the throwing of me overboard had brought fine weather all round.
Still I was not going to give in. Draven's should be ashamed of itself before I met it half way!
So I watched with satisfaction my face growing pale day by day, and I aided this new departure in my favour by eating less than usual, giving up outdoor exercise, and staying up late over my lessons.
I calculated that at the rate I was going I should be reduced to skin and bones by the end of my term, and perhaps at my funeral Draven's would own they had wronged me. At present, however, my pallor seemed to escape their observation, and as for my late hours, all the good they did me was an imposition from Mr Draven for breaking rules.
As the days went on, I seemed to have dropped altogether out of life. I might have been invisible, for anything any one seemed to see of me. Even the masters appeared to have joined in the conspiracy to ignore me, and for a whole week I sat at my solitary desk without hearing the sound of my own voice.
My readers may scoff when I tell them that at the end of a fortnight I felt like running away. The silence and isolation which had amused me at first became a slow torture at last, and, poor-spirited wretch that I was, my only comfort was in now and then crying in bed in the dark.
I made up for this secret weakness by putting on a swagger in public, and rendered myself ridiculous in consequence. Draven's could hardly help being amused by a fellow who one day slunk in and out among them self-consciously pale, black under the eyes, with a hacking cough and a funereal countenance, and the next blustered about defiantly and glared at every one he met.
The fact was, having despaired of making a friend, my one longing now was to make an enemy. I would have paid all my pocket-money twice over for a quarrel or a fight with somebody. But that was a luxury harder to get even than a friendly word.
I tried one day.
I was mooning disconsolately round the playground, when I met young Wigram, the most artless youngster in all Draven's.
"You played up well in the second fifteen on Saturday," I said, as if I had spoken to him not five minutes ago, whereas, as a matter of fact, the sound of my own voice gave me quite a shock.
"Yes," began he, falling into the snare, "I was lucky with that run up from—er—I—beg pardon—good-bye," and he bolted precipitately.
It was a mild victory as far as it went, but it did not end there, for that afternoon I came upon a group in the playground, the central figure of which was the wretched Wigram, on his knees in the act of apologising humbly all round for having been cad enough to speak to me. It seemed a good chance for the long-wished-for quarrel, and I jumped at it.
"Let him go!" shouted I, breaking into the group and addressing the company generally. "If any one touches him he will have to fight me!"
Alas! they stared a little, and then laughed a little, and then strolled away, with Wigram among them, leaving me alone. After that I knew I was beaten, and might as well own it, for a disappointed enemy is a far worse failure than a disappointed friend.
Still I clung on to my pride. Broken down as I was, and unnerved and damaged in my self-respect, there was but a week more of the term to run, and I would try to hold out till the end. If I could only do that, I was safe, for I would get my father to take me away at Christmas for good. No—would I?—that would be the biggest surrender of all. I could not think what I would do.
So I sat down and wrote to Browne for lack of any better occupation, and told him how I envied him his expulsion, and wished any such luck could happen to me.
Then I grimly set myself to endure the remaining days of my slow torture.
Oh, the silence of those days! The noise and laughter of the fellows was nothing to it. I could endure the one, and in my extremity was even glad of it. But the sealed lips of everyone that met me were like so many daggers.
At last I was really ill—or at any rate I was so reduced that unless relief came soon I must either capitulate or run away.
Even yet I found it hard to contemplate the former alternative. I met Harrison one morning in the passage. I suppose I must have looked specially miserable, for, contrary to his usual practice now, instead of looking away, he slackened speed as he came up and looked at me. Now was my time surely. I was famished for want of a friendly word or look, and my pride was at its last gasp. I believe I had actually begun to speak, when a sound in the passage startled us both, and we passed by as of old—strangers.
I rushed off to my study, ashamed and disappointed, and paced round it like a caged animal. What could I do? Should I write to some of the fellows? Should I tell Draven? or—should I escape?
Then it occurred to me, had not I a right to know why I was being treated like this? What had I done? Was I a sneak, or a leper, or a murderer, that I should thus be excommunicated and tortured? What a fool I had been, not to think of this before! Alas! it was too late now. My pride had made it impossible for me to speak the first word without surrendering all along the line; and even yet, at the eleventh hour, I could not face that. So I shut myself up for another day, miserable, nervous, and ill, and counted the minutes to bedtime.
The evening post brought a letter from Browne, and, thankful for any diversion, and the silent company even of a friendly piece of paper, I crawled off early to my study to make the most of my little comfort.
I started before I had read two lines, and uttered an exclamation of amazement.
"There's been a most frightful mistake. By the same post as brought your letter I got enclosed from Williams. What a set of cads they've been, and all my fault! I've written to Williams that if it's not all put right in twenty-four hours I'll come down, disgraced as I am, and tell Draven. I'm in too great a rage to write more. Unless I get a telegram 'All right!' by ten to-morrow morning I'll come.
Williams's letter enclosed—or rather part of it, for Browne had kept one sheet—was as follows, though my head was swimming so much at the time that I could scarcely take it all in.
"The fellows here haven't forgotten you, and they're showing it in a pretty decided way at present. About three weeks ago we discovered that Smither, who called himself your friend, was the sneak who went to Draven the morning you were expelled, and let out about you. He was seen coming from D.'s study early, and young Wright, who happened to be in the next room, heard him speaking about you. Well, we've boycotted him. Not a fellow is allowed to speak to him, or notice him, or go near him. Everybody's been bound over, and unless some one plays traitor, the place will get too hot for him before the term's up. And serve him right too. Harrison and I—"
Here the letter broke off.
I felt stunned; and, strange to say, the sudden discovery left me as miserable as it found me. I suppose I was ill; but for a short time my passion got the upper hand, and made it worse for me than if I had never known the truth.
But it didn't last long. There came a knock at the door, and, without waiting for an invitation, Harrison came into the room, looking so miserable and scared that I scarcely recognised him for a moment. He was evidently prepared for any sort of rebuff, and I despised myself far more than him as I heard the half-frightened voice in which he began.
"Smither, old man—"
He got no farther; or at least I did not hear any more. It seemed like a dream after that. I was dimly conscious of his hand on my arm and then round me. The next thing I was aware of was that I was lying in bed, with him sitting beside me sponging my forehead.
"Has the bed-bell rung?" I asked.
"My dear fellow, you've been in bed a fortnight," said he, bending over me; "but you mustn't talk now."
After awhile I asked again—
"Why are you here, then?" for the term had had only three days to run when I had been taken ill.
"We couldn't go, old man. The fellows begged Draven to let them stay till you were out of danger, and he did. They're all here. This is Christmas Day, and they will be glad to hear you are better. But really you mustn't talk, please."
"Tell the fellows to go home, then," I said, "and wish them a Merry Christmas, and say—"
"Really, old man," pleaded Harrison, looking quite frightened, "don't talk."
That was the quietest, but not the least hopeful Christmas Day I ever spent.
And when Draven's met again next term, I fancy most of us had got by heart the good Christmas motto, "Goodwill to men," and were mutually agreed that, whatever manly and noble sports we should engage in during the year, boycotting should not be one of them.
A TRUE STORY IN TWO
Ferriby had broken up. The rats and mice were having their innings in the schoolrooms, and the big bell was getting rusty for want of exercise. The door of the Lower Third had not had a panel kicked out of it for a whole week, and Dr Allsuch's pictures and sofas and piano were all stacked up in the Detention Room while their proper quarters underwent a "doing-up."
There was no mistake about the school having broken up. And yet, if it was so, how came we all to be there this Christmas week, instead of sitting at our own firesides in the bosoms of our own families, anywhere but at Ferriby?
When I say all, I mean all in Jolliffe's House; the others had cleared out. Bull's was empty, and Wragg's, across the quadrangle, had not a ghost of a fellow left. Nor had the doctor's. Every other house was shut up, but Jolliffe's was as full up as the night before a county match, and no sign of an exodus.
Of course the reader guesses the reason at once!
"I know," says one virtuous youth; "they'd all been detained for bad conduct, and stopped their holidays!"
Wrong, my exemplary one! Jolliffe's was the best behaved house in Ferriby, though I say so who should not. But any one could tell you so. For every thousand lines of imposition the other houses had to turn out Jolliffe's only had a hundred, and for every half-dozen canes worn out on the horny palms of Bull's and Wragg's, one was quite enough for us.
No; the fact was, one of our fellows had had scarlet fever a fortnight before the holidays, and as he was in and out with us for some days before it was discovered, sleeping in our dormitory, and sitting next to us in class it was a settled thing we were all in for it.
So the school was suddenly broken up, the other houses all packed off, the sickly ones among us—there were only one or two—removed to the infirmary, and the rest of us, under the charge of Jolliffe himself, invited to make the best of a bad job, and enjoy ourselves as well as we could, with the promise that if in three weeks no one else showed signs of knocking up, we should be allowed to go home.
Of course, we were awfully sold at first, and by no means in an amiable frame of mind. It is no joke to be done out of Christmas at home. What a dolt that Gilks was to get scarlet fever! Why could he not have waited till he got home?
But after a day or two we shook down, as British boys will, to our lot. After all, it was only a case of putting off our holiday, and meanwhile we were allowed to do anything we liked, short of setting the place on fire, or kicking up a row near the infirmary.
There were enough of us to turn out two good teams at football, or to run a big paper-chase across country, or get up a grand concert of an evening; and not too many of us to crowd into the long dormitory, where, for all we were interfered with, we might have prolonged our bolster matches "from eve to dewy morn."
In time we came to look upon our confinement as rather a spree than otherwise, and this feeling was considerably heightened by the arrival of several hampers at the beginning of Christmas week, including a magnificent one from Dr Allsuch himself, along with a message bidding us be sure and have a merry Christmas. We voted the doctor a brick, and drank his health in ginger beer, with great enthusiasm, to the toast of "Dr Allsuch, and all such bricks!"
It was on Christmas Eve, after a specially grand banquet off the contents of one of these hampers, that we crowded round the big common- hall fire in a very complacent frame of mind, uncommonly well satisfied and comfortable within and without.
"I don't know," said Lamb meditatively, cracking a walnut between his finger and thumb, and slowly skinning it—"I don't know; Gilks might have done us a worse turn after all."
"I rather wish he'd make a yearly thing of it," said Ellis. "They say he's pulled through all right."
"Oh yes, he's all right! and so are the other three. In fact, French and Addley never had scarlet fever at all. It was a false alarm."
"Well," said Lamb, "I'm jolly glad of it! I wouldn't have cared for any of them to die, you know."
Lamb said this in a tone as if we should all be rather surprised to hear him say so.
"Nobody ever did die at Ferriby, did they?" said Jim Sparrow, the youngest and tenderest specimen we had at Jolliffe's.
It was rather cheek of a kid like Jim to interpose at all in a conversation of his seniors, and it seemed as if he was going to get snubbed by receiving no reply, when Fergus suddenly took the thing up.
"Eh, young Jim Sparrow, what's that you're saying?"
Fergus was the wag of our house—indeed, he was the only Irishman we could boast of, and the fact of his being an Irishman always made us inclined to laugh whenever he spoke. We could see now by the twinkle in his eye that he was going to let off the steam at Jim Sparrow's expense.
"I said," replied Jim, blushing rather to find every body listening to him, "nobody's ever died at Ferriby, have they?"
Fergus gazed at him in astonishment.
"What!" exclaimed he, "you mean to say you never heard of poor Bubbles?"
"Bubbles? No," replied Jim, looking rather scared.
"Just fancy that!" said Fergus, turning round to us; "never heard of Bubbles!"
Of course we, who saw what the wag was driving at, looked rather surprised and a little mysterious.
"What was it?" inquired Jim Sparrow, looking half ashamed of himself.
"Eh? Well, if you never heard it, I'd better not tell you. It's not a nice story, is it, you fellows?"
"Horrible!" said Lamb, starting at another walnut.
"Oh, do tell me!" cried Jim eagerly, "I'm so fond of stories;" and he settled himself back in his chair rather uneasily, and tried to look as if it was all good fun.
"Well, if you do want it I'll tell you; but don't blame me if it upsets you, that's all!" replied the irrepressible Fergus.
Jim looked as heroic as he could, and wished he had never asked to be enlightened on the subject of Bubbles.
Fergus refreshed himself with an orange, stuck his feet into the fender, and began in a solemn voice.
"I suppose, Jim Sparrow, if you have never heard about Bubbles, you really don't know the history of the school at all. You don't even know how it came to be called Ferriby?"
"No," responded Jim, keeping his eyes on the fire.
"Ferriby is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words," proceeded Fergus, "which you may have heard—'fire' and 'boy.' Now I'll tell you about Bubbles!"
There was something very mysterious about the manner in which Fergus uttered these words, and we listened for what was to come almost as breathlessly as Jim Sparrow.
"It was early in this century," he said, "that a boy came to this school called Bubbles. No one knew where he came from. He had no parents, and never went home for the holidays. He was about your age, Sparrow, and just your build, and he was in the Lower Fourth."
"I'm going to be moved up this Christmas," interposed Jim hurriedly.
"Are you? So was Bubbles going to be moved up when what I'm going to tell you happened!"
It was getting dark, and for the last, few minutes all the light in the room had been caused by a jet of gas in the coals. That jet now went out suddenly, leaving us in nearly total darkness.
"It was a Christmas Eve. Everybody else had gone home for the holidays, and Bubbles was the only boy left in the school—Bubbles and a master whose name I won't mention."
"He was the Detention Master, wasn't he?" inquired Lamb's voice.
"Ah, yes. There's no harm in telling you that. Bubbles and the Detention Master were left all alone at Ferriby, Sparrow."
"Ye—es," said Sparrow softly, and making two syllables of the word.
"They'd had no hampers sent them, and as they sat round the fire that evening they knew both of them there was no Christmas dinner in the house. They had neither of them tasted food for some days, and had no money to buy any, and if they had had, the snow was too deep to get anywhere. They had tried making soup out of copybook covers, but it wasn't nourishing, and the soles of their boots which they tried to eat didn't sit well on their stomachs."
Some one choked at this point, greatly to the speaker's wrath.
"All right; some one seems to think it a laughing matter, so I'll stop."
"Oh no," cried one or two voices eagerly, "do go on. He only got a piece of apple the wrong way."
"Was it you laughed, Jim Sparrow?" demanded Fergus.
"Oh no," replied Jim, who was holding on rather tight to the sides of his chair.
"I don't like any one making fun of a serious thing like this," said Fergus. "I was saying the soles of their boots didn't sit well on their stomachs. They sat round the fire the whole evening, brooding and ravenous, and saying nothing. For a long time they both stared into the fire; then presently the master took his eyes off the fire and stared at Bubbles. Bubbles used to be fat, like you, Sparrow, but the last day or two he had got rather reduced. Still he was fairly plump; at least, so thought the master, as he looked first at him, then at the fire, and then thought of the empty larder downstairs."
It was too dark to see Jim Sparrow, but I could almost hear him turn pale, so profound was the silence.
"The fire was a big one, a roaring one, and howled up the chimney as if it was hungry too. Bubbles where he sat was close to it, in fact, his feet almost touched the bars. The master sat a little behind Bubbles, and his arm rested on the back of Bubbles's chair. 'To-morrow,' thought the master, 'he will be thinner, and next day only skin and bone.' Then he thought of the saying in the copy-books, 'Never put off till to- morrow what you can do to-day.' He sprang to his feet, seized Bubbles by the head and feet—there was a shriek and a yell—and next moment the master was alone in the room, and the chimney was on fire!"
At this last sentence the speaker, suiting the action to the word, had risen from his seat and suddenly pounced upon the unhappy Sparrow, who, already paralysed with terror, now fairly yelled and howled for mercy. Fergus dropped him back gently into his chair, and resuming his own seat, continued—
"There is very little to add. Under the ruins were found the remains of the master grasping in each hand a large-sized drumstick. Bubbles was never seen more. It was supposed he escaped without his legs on to the roof, and they do say that every Christmas Eve he revisits Ferriby, and tries to get down the chimney in search of his lost legs."
At the conclusion of this tragic story every one drew a long breath. Jim Sparrow, it was clear, had swallowed it from beginning to end, and one or two others of the juniors looked as if they would have been more pleased had the event not been made to happen on Christmas Eve, of all nights. But with these exceptions the whole thing seemed a very good joke, and greatly to the credit of Fergus's imagination.
"Oh, and I should say," added that doughty historian, as he poked up the fire into a blaze, "though it's not of much consequence, that this took place in this very house, they say in this very room. Funny story, isn't it, Sparrow?"
Sparrow had not yet sufficiently recovered from his fright to reply, but it was evident by his looks he considered it anything but funny. However, the talk soon veered round to other and more ordinary topics, in the midst of which, aided by the remnants of our feast, the spirits even of Jim Sparrow revived, so much so that by bedtime he was as cheerful as if he had never even heard the name of Bubbles.
Mr Jolliffe appeared on the scene as usual at ten o'clock, and read prayers. After which, advising us all to get a good night, and announcing that to-morrow being Christmas Day, we should not breakfast till nine, he trotted off to his quarters and left us.
We were all pretty ready to take his advice, for what with a sixteen- mile run across country in the afternoon, and our big dinner in the evening, the thought of bed seemed rather a comfortable prospect.
One or two of the fellows, however, fellows whom no exertion ever seemed to weary, protested against going to bed at ten o'clock, and took good care that those who did shouldn't sleep. We were used to that, and had to put up with it, and it must have been close upon the stroke of Christmas Day before they finally condescended to turn in and leave us in peace.
One by one the candles went out, the talk and the laughter gradually subsided, and even the grunts and twitches of the doughty heroes as they first gave themselves over to slumber died away in the darkness. For the first time since we rose that morning, a dead silence reigned in Jolliffe's.
In fact, as I lay awake and tried to get to sleep the silence seemed unnaturally profound. The tick of the big clock down in the hall struck on the ear with almost a thud, and the light breeze outside moaned among the ventilators and played chromatic scales through the keyhole in a fashion quite disturbing. I wished that wind would shut up, and that the clock would run down. How was a fellow to get to sleep with such a row going on?
And yet, next moment, the utter silence of the place disturbed me even more than the wind and the clock. Why, I actually seemed to hear the winking of my own eyes as I lay there. I wished some one would snore, or breathe hard, or roll over in his bed. But no, in all those thirty beds there was neither sound nor motion.
Nothing is so unpleasant as listening for sounds in a dead silence. I half wished—
Hullo! what was that? Rain on the window! Why can't rain drop straight instead of tapping at a fellow's window? It sounded like some one wanting to come in. I knew it was only rain; but supposing it had been somebody—a thief, for instance, or—or—Bubbles come to look after his legs!
I do not know what evil genius put the thought of Bubbles into my head. But once in, I could not get it out. Downstairs before the big fire I had laughed as loud as any one, and been as sure as sure could be that Fergus's story was all an invention of his fertile imagination. But, somehow, now that the lights were out, and the fellows all asleep, and the wind was moaning outside, and I lay sleepless on my bed, it did not seem so utterly preposterous.
Not that I believed in ghosts. Oh dear no. I hoped I was not such a fool as that, but supposing—
That rain again at the window! Why couldn't it stop startling a fellow in that way? Yes, supposing Fergus's story had been founded on fact, what a dreadful end to a boy Bubbles's end must have been!
"And they do say,"—the words seemed to echo in my ears—"that every Christmas Eve he re-visits Ferriby, and tries to get down the chimney in search of his lost legs."
Ugh! Why did not some of the fellows wake up? How unnaturally still they all were! I would have given all my pocket-money to two of them to start another steeplechase that moment over the beds. In fact, I had half a mind to—
As I reached this point a sudden noise made my blood run cold, and froze me to my bed.
It did not seem to be in the dormitory, or on the stairs outside, or in the quadrangle below. None of my companions appeared to have heard it, for they all slept on quietly, and the silence which followed was doubly as intense as that which had gone before. What could it be?
I do not fancy I was a particularly cowardly boy, but somehow that sound terrified me. I could neither move nor call out. All I could do was to lie and listen.
There it was again! this time not so sudden, but far more distinct. There was no mistaking it now. As sure as I lay there, it was something on the roof! It sounded like something crawling slowly and by fits and starts along the gutter just above the dormitory. Sometimes it seemed to spring upwards, as though attempting to reach a higher position, and then sullenly slip down and proceed on its crawling way.
Yes, without doubt Fergus had told the truth!
Suddenly a voice in a loud whisper at the other end of the dormitory exclaimed—
"Listen! I say, listen!"
It was Lamb's voice. There was at least some comfort in knowing that I was not the only one awake.
With a desperate effort I sat up in my bed and replied—
"Oh, Lamb, what is it?"
His only reply was a gasp, as the noises recommenced. The body, whatever it was, seemed to have dragged itself forward, so as to be now just over our heads. The ceiling above us went right up into the roof, and I could distinctly hear a rustling sound against the tiles, followed by an occasional upward leap, sometimes almost wild in its eagerness. How could I mistake these sounds? The chimney was immediately above us, and it was towards this goal, as I well knew, that the hapless and legless Bubbles was destined fruitlessly to aspire. At last one bound more frantic than the rest, followed by a sudden clatter of displaced tiles, unloosed my tongue, and I fairly cried out—
Half a dozen fellows were on the alert in an instant.
"Who's that called out?" cried one. "I'd like to scrag him."
"What's the row, whoever it is?" demanded Fergus.
"Hush! Listen!" was all I could reply.
There must have been something in my voice which bespoke my horror, for a dead silence ensued.
But not for long. Once more the dull, dragging sound, interrupted by the spasmodic and fruitless leaps!
A shudder went round the dormitory at the sound. They knew as well as I did what it meant.
"It's the ghost!" faltered Sparrow's trembling voice; and no one contradicted him. Fergus himself, like one suddenly confronted with a spirit of his own raising, seemed the most terrified of the lot, and I could hear him gasping as he sat petrified in his bed.
"Can't some one strike a light?" Lamb said presently.
All very well, but the matches were on the table, and to secure them one would have to get out of bed. No one seemed quite inclined for that.
As we lay endeavouring to screw up our courage to the necessary pitch, the sound once more recommenced, with a violent motion towards the edge of the roof. The moon at the same moment broke out from behind the clouds and shot its pale light in at the big windows. There was a momentary pause above us, and then, casting a sudden shadow across the dormitory floor, a dim white figure, as of a body without limbs, floated down outside the window. The moon once more was obscured, and we were left motionless and horrified in utter silence and darkness! What would come next?
How long we might have remained in suspense I can't say, had not Lamb and another fellow, by a combined effort of heroism, dashed arm in arm from bed and secured the matches. They were in the act of striking a light (one match had broken, and another had had no head)—they were in the act of striking a light when Lamb, who was close to the window, suddenly exclaimed—"Look!"
There was such terror in his tone that we knew only too well what he had seen. But where!
"Where?" I managed to gasp.
"There, down in the quad," he replied, pointing out of the window, but looking another way.
Curiosity is sometimes greater than fear, and for all my terror I could not resist the impulse to steal up to the window and look out. And others did the same.
It was as Lamb had said. There in the quadrangle below, moving restlessly to and fro, and swaying itself upward, as if in supplication, was the white form, erect but helpless. For a long time we gazed without a word. At last, one more hardy than the rest said—"What can it be?"
What a question! What could it be but—Bubbles! Still, when the question was once asked, it did occur to one or two of us that possibly we might have jumped to a conclusion too hastily. It's wonderful how hardy a fellow will get when he's got twenty fellows clustering round him.
"He's alive, anyhow," said one. "Call out to him, some one," suggested another. "You're nearest the window, Fraser," said another. Fraser was vice-captain of the second fifteen, and always touchy whenever his pluck was called in question.
"I'm not afraid," he said, in a voice which was hardly quite steady. And as he spoke he threw up the window, and called out hurriedly, and in rather deferential tones—"Who are you down there?"
I don't suppose Fraser ever did a pluckier thing than ask that question. We listened, all ears, for the reply. But none came. Only a faint moan, as the apparition swayed uneasily towards us, and even seemed to try to raise itself in our direction; but never a word we heard, and we closed the window again as much in the dark as to its identity as ever.
What could we do? We couldn't go to bed with Bubbles's or anybody's ghost wandering about in the quadrangle below us, that was evident. But how were we to solve the mystery, unless indeed—
It was a terrible alternative, but the only one. We thought of it a good bit before any one proposed it. At last Fraser himself said—
"Who's game to come down into the quad?"
Fraser was on his mettle, or he would never have been so mad. At first a dead silence was the only answer to his challenge. Then Lamb said—
"I don't mind."
If he didn't mind, why should he nearly choke saying so? However, he broke the ice, and others followed. I considered myself as good a man as Lamb any day (it was only my own opinion), and I wasn't going to be outdone by him now. So I volunteered. And one or two others who considered themselves as good as I volunteered too, until the forlorn hope numbered a dozen.
"Come along," said Fraser, who had armed himself with a lighted candle and led the way.
I think those who stayed behind felt a little dismayed when the last of us glided from the door and left them behind.
Still, as far as happiness of mind was concerned, they would not have gained much had they been of our party. For we descended the staircase in rather depressed spirits, starting at every creak, and—some of us— wishing twenty times we were safe back in the dormitory. But there was no drawing back now.
What a noise the bars of the big door made as we unfastened them, and what an ominous shriek the lock gave as we turned the key! Our one hope was that the ghost would have taken fright and vanished before we reached the quadrangle. But no! As we stepped out into the damp breezy night the first thing that met our eyes was the distant, restless figure of Bubbles!
By one consent we halted, and as we did so a gust of wind extinguished our leader's candle! What was to be done? I glanced up, and saw the lights twinkling at the far distant dormitory window. Oh, whatever possessed me to come on this wild errand!
"Now then, you fellows!" It was Fraser's voice, and more like himself too. "Now then, stick all together and—"
"Better get a light first," suggested some one. "Will you run back to the dormitory and get the matches?" asked our leader.
Nothing more was said about the light.
We advanced a few yards, and then halted again.
"Better speak to him, I think," said Lamb.
"All right," said Fraser. "Now then, who are you? What's your name there?"
His voice sounded loud and startling in the night air; but it was wasted breath. Never a word spoke Bubbles, but moaned as he struggled restlessly on the ground where he lay.
Fraser's spirits were rising every moment. "Oh, hang it!" he exclaimed. "I don't believe it's a ghost at all."
So saying, he made a further advance to within a few yards of the apparition.
If it wasn't a ghost, it was the most unearthly thing in the dark I ever saw as it lay there. We were still too far off to see it clearly, but it looked like some bloated creature without legs trying its hardest to rise on the feet that were not there.
"Do you hear?" shouted Fraser once more. "Why can't you speak and tell us who you are?"
The creature gave a long sigh by way of answer, but no more.
Fraser advanced another step, and we were preparing to follow, when the ghost slowly rose on end and made a sudden bound towards him!
In an instant we were back in the house, rushing pellmell up the stairs, and looking neither this way nor that till we were safe back in the dormitory with our companions.
We passed the remainder of that night dressed, and with candles burning, and it was not till morning broke that we dared once more look out of the window.
And then we discovered the mystery of Bubbles's ghost.
A small half-exhausted balloon, about five feet high, lay on the grass below, with enough gas in it still to toss about restlessly in the breeze, and now and then even to rise on end and drag its little car a few inches.
Where it came from and who it belonged to we never discovered. Probably some toy balloon let up by Christmas Eve revellers, who little thought it would alight on the roof of Jolliffe's, and after flopping about there for some minutes would finally tumble into the court below, and there act the part of Bubbles to a handful of scared schoolboys.
However, all's well that ends well, and among the many amusements which made that day a Merry Christmas to us all there was none over which we laughed more than "Bubbles's Ghost."
THE POETRY CLUB.
During one of my terms at G— (and in speaking of that famous old school it is quite unnecessary to mention more than the first letter of its name) a serious epidemic broke out. It affected chiefly the lower half of the upper school, and during the brief period of its duration it assumed so malignant a type that it is still a marvel to me how any one of its victims ever survived it. The medical and other authorities were utterly incompetent to deal with it. In fact—incredible as it may seem—they deliberately ignored its existence, and left the sufferers to pull through as and how they could. Had it been an ordinary outbreak, as, for instance, scarlatina or diphtheria, or even measles, they would have cleared the school between two "call-overs," and had us all either in the infirmary or in four-wheelers at our parents' doors. But just because they had not got this—the most destructive kind of all epidemics—down on their list of infectious disorders, they chose to disregard it utterly, and leave us all to sink or swim, without even calling in the doctor to see us or giving our people at home the option of withdrawing us from our infected surroundings.
I love the old place too well to dwell further on this gross case of neglect. The present authorities no doubt would not repeat the error of their predecessors. Should they be tempted to do so, I trust the present harrowing revelation may be in time to avert the repetition of the calamity of which I was not only a witness but a victim.
The fact is, in the term to which I allude, we fellows in the upper Fifth and lower Sixth took to writing poetry! I don't know how the distemper broke out, or who brought it to G—. Certain it is we all took it, some worse than others; and had not the Christmas holidays happily intervened to scatter us and so reduce the perils of the contagion, the results might have been worse even than they were.
Now, one poet in a school is bad enough; and two usually make a place very uncomfortable for any ordinarily constituted person. But at G— it was not a case of one poet or even two. There were twenty of us, if there was one, and we each of us considered our claim to the laurel wreath paramount. Indeed, like the bards of old, we fell to the most unseemly contentions, and hated one another as only poets can hate.
It was my tragic lot to act as hon. secretary to the "Poetry Club," which constituted the hospital, so to speak in which our disease worked out its course during that melancholy term. Why they selected me, it is not for me to inquire. Some of my friends assured me afterwards that it was because, having no pretensions or even capacity to be a poet myself, I was looked upon as the only impartial member of our afflicted fraternity. No doubt they thought it a good reason. Had I known it at the time I should have repudiated the base insinuation with scorn. For I humbly conceived that I was a poet of the first water; and had indeed corrected a great many mistakes in Wordsworth and other writers, and written fifty-six or fifty-seven sonnets before ever the club was thought of. And Stray himself, who was accounted our Laureate, had only written thirty-four, and they averaged quite a line less than mine!
Be that as it may, I was secretary of the club, and to that circumstance the reader is indebted for the treat to which I am about to admit him. For in my official capacity I became custodian of not a few of the poetical aspirations of our members; and as, after the abatement of the disease, they none of them demanded back their handiwork—if poetry can ever be called handiwork—these effusions have remained in my charge ever since.
Some of them are far too sacred and tender for publication, and of others, at this distance of time, I confess I can make nothing at all. But there lies a batch before me which will serve as a specimen of our talents, and can hardly hurt the feelings of any one responsible for their production.
Our club, as I have said, was highly competitive in its operations. It by no means contented us each to follow his own course and woo his own muse. No, we all set our caps at the same muse and tried to cut one another out. If I happened to write an ode to a blackbird—and I wrote four or five—every one else must write an ode to a blackbird too; until the luckless songster must have hated the sound of its own name.
It was no easy work finding fit subjects for these poetic competitions. But the papers lying here before me remind me at least of one which excited great interest and keen rivalry. Complaints had been made that the club had hitherto devoted itself almost altogether to abstract rhapsodies, and had omitted the cultivation of itself in the epic or heroic side of its genius. On the other hand, the abstract rhapsodists protested that any one could write ballads, and that the subject to be chosen should at least be such as would admit of any treatment. One member suggested we should try the fifth proposition of the first book of Euclid, as being both abstract and historical—but he was deemed to be a scoffer. Eventually Stray said, why not take a simple nursery rhyme and work upon it, just as musicians take some simple melody as the theme of their great compositions?
It was a good idea, and after some consideration—for we had most of us forgotten our nursery rhymes—we fixed upon the tragical history of "Jack and Jill;" and decided to deal with it.
The understanding was that we might treat it any way we liked except— notable exception—in prose!
And so we went off to our studies and gave ourselves up to our inspirations. The result, the reader shall judge of for himself. Only he shall never know the real names of the poets; nor will anything induce me to disclose which particular production was the performance of the humble Author of this veritable narrative.
I will select the specimens haphazard, and distinguish them only by their numbers.
Number 1 was a follower of the classic models, and rendered the story in Homeric fashion.
Attend, ye Nine! and aid me, while I sing The cruel fate of two whom heaven's dread king Hurled headlong to their doom. Scarce had the sun His blazing course for one brief hour run When Jack arose and radiant climbed the mount To where beneath the summit sprang the fount. Nor went he single; Jill, the beauteous maid, Danced at his side, and took his proffered aid. Together went they, pail in hand, and sang Their love songs till the leafy valleys rang. Alas! the fount scarce reached, the heedless swain Turned on his foot and slipped and turned again. Then fell he headlong: and the woe-struck maid, Jealous of his fell doom, a moment stayed And watched him; then to the depths she rushed And shared his fate. Behold them, mangled, crushed. Weep, oh my muse! for Jack, for Jill your tears outpour, For hand-in-hand they'll climb the hill no more.
After this somewhat severe version of the story it is a relief to turn to the lighter rendering of the same affecting theme by Number 2. Number 2 was evidently an admirer of that species of poetry which begins everything at the wrong end, and seems to expect the reader to assist the poet in understanding what it is the latter is driving at.
What's the matter, Jack? Lost your head, poor wight! I always told you the block wasn't screwed on too tight. Tumbled? Is that it? It's a mercy you lit on your head. Nothing brittle in that;—if you'd come on your feet instead— Broke it? No, never! You have? I knew it was slightly cracked: Never mind that there was nought to come out—that's a comforting fact! What! two of you? Who is the other? Not Jill, I declare! Is her head cracked too? On my word, you're a pair. Have I seen a pail lying about? Why, no, I have not. Pails don't grow wild on this hill—that is, that I wot. Oh, you dropped it, you did? Oh, I see, 'twas your pail, And it tumbled you both o'er the rock? That's your tale. It may turn up somewhere, perhaps. So you fell Off the edge of the path that leads up to the well? Well, all's well that ends well, at least so 'tis said; But next time you'd better stay down, and try to fall uphill instead.
Some of us at the time thought highly of this performance. I remember one fellow saying that Number 2 seemed to have caught the spirit of Mr Browning without his vagueness, which was a very great compliment.
Number 3's poetry ran chiefly in dramatic lines. He therefore boldly threw the narrative into dialogue form:—
Shepherdess.—Alas, my Jack is dead!
Shepherd.—I mourn for lovely Jill.
Both.—A common fate o'ertook them on the hill.
Shepherdess.—I watched them go—him and the hateful minx.
Shepherd.—I smiled to mark his footsteps on the brinks.
Both.—Cruel deceiver he/she! shameless intriguer she/he!
Shepherdess.—'Twas she who lured him o'er the cruel ledge.
Shepherd.—'Twas he who basely dragged her to the edge.
Both.—Oh! faithless he/she! oh! monstrous traitor she/he!
Shepherdess.—Her fate no tongue shall mourn, no eye shall weep; Shepherd.—His doom was all deserved upon the steep.
Both.—Oh! hapless he/she! oh! wicked wicked she/he!
Shepherdess.—Take warning, Shepherd; trust no faithless Jill.
Shepherd.—Nor you, fair nymph, with Jack e'er climb a hill.
Both.—Oh, woe is me! and woe, oh woe is thee!
Shepherdess.—With thee, poor youth, I fain would shed a tear.
Shepherd.—Maiden, with thee I'd sit and weep a year.
Both.—Wouldst thou but smile, I too would dry mine eye; Nay, let's do both, and laugh here till we cry.
Number 4 was a specimen of the simple ditty style which leaves nothing unexplained, and never goes out of its course for the sake of a well- turned phrase.
When Jack was twelve and Jill was ten Their mother said, "My dear children, I want you both to take the pail We bought last week from Mr Gale, And fill it full of water clear, And don't be long away, do you hear?" Then Master Jack and Sister Jill Raced gaily up the Primrose Hill, And filled the pail up to the top, And tried not spill a single drop. But sad to tell, just half way down Jack tripped upon a hidden stone, And tumbled down and cut his head So badly that it nearly bled. And Jill was so alarmed that she. Let drop the pail immediately And fell down too, and sprained her hand, And had to go to Dr Bland And get it looked to; while poor Jack Was put to bed upon his back.
Number 4 regarded his performance with a certain amount of pride. He said it was after the manner of Wordsworth, and was a protest against the inflated style of most modern poetry, which seemed to have for its sole object to conceal its meaning from the reader. We had a good specimen of this kind of writing from Number 5, who wrote in blank verse, as he said, "after the German."
I know not why—why seek to know? Is not All life a problem? and the tiniest pulse Beats with a throb which the remotest star Feels in its orbit? Why ask me? Rather say Whence these vague yearnings, whither swells this heart, Like some wild floweret leaping at the dawn? 'Tis not for me, 'tis not for thee to tell, But Time shall be our teacher, and his voice Shall fall unheard, unheeded in the midst! Still art thou doubtful? Then arise and sing Into the Empyrean vault, while I Drift in the vagueness of the Ambrosian night.
We none of us dared inquire of Number 5 what was the particular bearing of these masterly lines upon the history of Jack and Jill. I can picture the smile of pitying contempt with which such a preposterous question would have been met. And I observe by the figures noted at the back of this poem that it received very few marks short of the highest award.
Number 6 posed as democratic poet, who appealed to the ear of the populace in terms to which they are best accustomed.
'Twas a lovely day in August, at the top of Ludgate Hill I met a gay young couple, and I think I see them still; They were drinking at the fountain to cool their parching lips, And they said to one another, looking up between their sips—
Chorus—I'd sooner have it hot, love; I'd rather have it hot; It's nicer with the chill off—much nicer, is it not?
They took a four-wheel growler for a drive all round the town, And told the knowing cabby not to let his gee-gee down; But they'd scarcely got to Fleet Street when their off-hind-wheel went bang, And they pitched on to the kerb-stone, while the crowd around them sang—
Chorus—I'm glad you've got it hot, love; I'm pleased you've got it hot; It's nicer with the chill off—much nicer, is it not?
Now all you gay young couples, list to my fond appeal, Beware of four-wheel growlers with spokes in their off-hind-wheel; And when you go up Ludgate Hill, all on a summer day, Don't drink much at the fountain; or if you do, I say— Be sure and take it hot, love; be sure and take it hot; It's nicer with the chill off—much nicer, is it not?
This poem was not highly marked, although Number 6 confessed he had sat up all night writing it. He thought we had missed the underlying philosophy of his version, and was sorry for it. As he said, the first essential of a poem is that it should be read, and he believed no one could deny that he had at least written up to that requirement.
There was a more serious moral hidden in Number 7's version, which was stated to be on the models of the early sonnets:—
Two lovers on one common errand bound, One common fate o'erwhelms; and so, me-seems, A fable have we of our daily round, Who in these groves of learning here are found Climbing Parnassus' slopes. Our aim is one, And one the path by which we strive to soar; Yet, truer still, or ere the prize be won, A common ruin hurls us to our doom. 'Twere best we parted, you and I; so, Fate, Baulked of her double prey, may seek in vain, And miss us both upon the shadowy plain.
The writer of Number 8 I always suspected of being a borrower of other people's ideas. In fact it seemed as if he must have had "A Thousand and One Gems" open before him while he was at work, and to have drawn liberally from its pages.
The way was long, the night was cold, And Jack and Jill were young and bold. "Try not the hill," the old man said, "Dark lowers the tempest overhead." A voice replied far up the height, "We've many a step to walk this night." Ah, luckless speech! ah, bootless boast! Two minutes more and they were lost. Who would not weep for Jack and Jill? They died, though much against their will. And the birds of the air all fell sobbing and sighing As they heard of these two unfortunates dying.
The concluding line (which was the only original one in the poem) was specially weak, and Number 8, I observe, only received one vote, and that was probably given by himself.
But, for originality and humour, Number 9's version was the most distinguished of the lot. With it I conclude, and if I may express an unbiassed opinion, many years after the memorable contest, I consider it far and away the best version of the story of Jack and Jill I have ever met with.
Jack and Jill Went up a hill To fetch a pail of water, Jack fell down And broke his crown, And Jill came tumbling after.
EIGHTEEN HOURS WITH A "KID."
[Copy of a holiday letter from Gus. Cutaway, of the Upper Remove, Shellboro', to his particular chum and messmate. Joseph Rackett]:—
Dear Jossy,—If you want a motto in life, I'll give you one—"'Ware kids!" Don't you have anything to do with kids, unless you want to lose all your pocket money, and be made a fool of before the fellows, and get yourself in a regular high old mess all round.
You needn't think I don't know what I'm talking about. I do. Promise you'll never say a word to anybody, especially to any of the fellows, and I'll tell you.
It was on breaking-up day. You know, all of you went off by the 2 train, and I had to wait till the 3:15. That's the worst of going through London; the trains never go at the right time. It came in up to time, for a wonder, and I bagged a second-class carriage to myself, and laid in some grub and a B.O.P. and made up my mind to enjoy myself.
What do you think? Just as the bell was ringing, a female with a kid rushed on to the platform and made a dive for my carriage. I can tell you I was riled. But that wasn't half of it.
"Are you going to Waterloo, young gentleman?" asks the female, as out of breath as you like.
"Yes—why?" said I.
"Would you be so kind as to look after Tommy? His father will be there to meet him. He's got his ticket; haven't you, Tommy? Say 'Thank you' to the kind young gentleman. Bye, bye; be a good boy."
"Right forward," sings out the guard.
"Love to daddy," says the female.
"Stand away from the train," shouts the porter.
And then we were off. And here was I, left alone in a carriage with a kid called Tommy, that I was to give over to a chap called daddy at Waterloo!
How would you have liked it yourself, Jossy? I was awfully disgusted. And, of course, till the train was off, I never thought of saying, "I can't," and then it was too late. I can tell you it's a bit rough on a fellow to be served that way. If ever you're going by train and see a female and a kid coming along, hop out of the carriage till you see which carriage they get into; and then go and get into another.
I made up my mind I'd leave the little cad to himself, so I started to read. At least I pretended to. Really I took a good squint at him while he wasn't looking. He was a kid of about four and a half, I fancy, with a turnippy head and a suit of togs that must have been new, he was so jolly proud of them. He sat staring at the lamp and swinging his legs for a good bit. Then he got hold of the window-strap and fooled about with that. Then he remembered his swagger togs and looked himself all over, and stuck his hands in his pocket. He twigged me looking at him as he did so.
"I've got a knife," he said, as cool as if he'd known me a couple of terms.
"Who said you hadn't?" I responded.
"It's in my pocket," he said.
"Oh," said I. I didn't want to encourage him.
He pulled it out, staring at me all the time. Then he slipped down off the seat and brought it up to me.
"Open it," he said.
"Open it yourself," said I.
"I can't," said he. "Open it! Open it!"
"All right, keep your temper," said I, and I opened it. A beastly blunt thing it was. "There you are; take it."
"I want to sit beside you," he said, when he'd got it.
"Do you? I don't want you. Haven't you got all the rest of the carriage?"
"Lift Tommy up," he whined.
I'd a good mind to chuck him out of the window.
"Lift yourself up," I said, "and shut up. I want to read." Then I'm bothered if the young cad didn't begin yelling! Just because I didn't lift him up. I never saw such a blub-baby in all my life. I couldn't make out what he was up to at first. I thought he was curtseying and seeing how long he could hold his breath. But when it did come out, my eye! I thought the engine-driver would hear. I was in a regular funk; I thought he'd got a fit or something; I never heard such yelling. He was black in the face over it, and dancing. I'd a good mind to pull the cord and stop the train. But I thought I'd see if I could pull him round first.
So I picked him up and stuck him up on the seat. Would you believe it, Jossy? The moment he was up he stopped howling and began grinning. It had all been a plant to get me to lift him up; and as soon as he'd made me do it he laughed at me!
I can tell you it's not pleasant to be made a fool of, even by a kid.
"I'm sitting beside you now," he said, as much as to tell me he'd scored one off me.
I was too disgusted to take any further notice of him. I suppose he saw I was riled, and began to be a bit civil. He pulled a nasty sticky bit of chocolate out of his pocket and held it up to my nose.
"A sweetie for you," he said.
I didn't want to have him yelling again, so I took it. Ugh!—all over dust and hairs, and half melted.
He watched me gulp it down, and then, to my relief, got hold of the Boy's Own Paper and began looking at the pictures. He got sick of that soon, and went and looked out of the window. Then he came and sat by me again, and began to get jolly familiar. He stroked my cheeks with his horrid sticky hand, and then climbed up on the seat and tried to lark with my cap. Then just because I didn't shut him up, he clambered up on my back and nearly throttled me with his arms round my neck; and— what do you think?—he began to kiss me!
That was a drop too much.
"Stow it, kid!" I said.
"Dear, dear!" he said, getting regularly maudlin, and kissing me at about two a second.
"Let go, do you hear? you're scrugging me."
"Nice mannie," he said.
I didn't know what to do until I luckily thought of my grub.
"Like a bun?" said I.
He let me go and was down beside me like a shot. You should have seen him walk into that bun! His face was all over it, and the crumbs were about an inch deep all over the place. When he got near the end of bun Number 1, he looked up as near choking as they make them, and said—
"I like buns awfully."
"All right, have another," said I. You see as his governor was going to meet him in town, it didn't matter much to me if he got gripes at night. Anything to keep him quiet.
After the third bun he was about full up, and said he was thirsty. I couldn't make the young ass understand that I had no water in the carriage. He kept on saying he was thirsty for half an hour, till we came to a station. I had made up my mind I would get into another carriage at the first stop we came to; but, somehow, it seemed rather low to leave the kid in the lurch. So I bought him a glass of milk instead, which set him up again. Nobody else got in the carriage—knew better—and off we went again.
He'd got an awful lot to say for himself; about dicky-birds and puff- puffs, and dogs, and trouser-pockets and rot of that sort, and didn't seem to care much whether I listened or no. Then, just when I thought he had about run dry and was getting sleepy, he rounded on me with—
"Tell me a story."
"Me? I don't know any stories."
"Oh yes; a funny one, please."
"I tell you I don't know any—what about?"
"'The Three Bears.'"
"I don't know anything about 'three bears,'" said I.
"Do! do!! do!!!" he said, beginning to get crusty.
So I did my best. He kept saying I was all wrong, and putting me right; he might just as well have told it himself. I told him so. But he took no notice, and went on badgering me for more stories.
I can tell you I was getting sick of it!
When I made up a story for him to laugh at, he looked so solemn and said—
"Not that; a funny one."
And when I told him a fairy tale, he snapped up and said he didn't like it.
It ended in my telling him the "The Three Bears" over and over again. It was about the sixty-fifth time of telling that we got to Vauxhall, and had to give up tickets.
"Now, young 'un, look out for your governor when we get in—I don't know him, you know."
The young ass didn't know what I meant.
"Look out for daddy, then," I said.
He promptly stuck his head out of the window and said the ticket- collector was daddy; then that the porter was; then that a sweep on the platform was.
It wasn't very hopeful for spotting the real daddy at Waterloo. I told him to shut up and wait till we got there.
When we got there, I stuck him up at the window, as large as life, for his governor to see. There were a lot of people about; but I can tell you I was pretty queer when no one owned him. We hung about a quarter of an hour, asking everybody we met if they'd come to meet a kid, and watching them all go off in cabs, till we had the platform to ourselves.
"Here's a go, kid!" said I; "daddy's not come."
"I 'spex," says he, "when the middling-size bear found his porridge eaten up, he wondered who it was."
"Shut up about the bears," said I. "What about your gov.—your daddy? Where does he live?"
"In London town," said he, as soon as I could knock those bears out of his head.
"Whereabouts? What street?"
"Do you mean to say—look here, what's your name? Tommy what?"
"It's Tommy," he said.
"I know that. Is it Tommy Jones, or Tommy Robinson, or what?"
"It's Tommy," he repeated. "My name's Tommy." Here was a nice go! Stranded with a kid that didn't know his own name, or where his governor lived! The worst of it was, I had to stop in London that night as there was no train on. My pater had written to get a room for me at the Euston Hotel, so that I should be on the spot for starting home first train in the morning.
I was regularly stumped, I can tell you. It never turned a feather on the kid, his governor not turning up; and I couldn't make the idiot understand anything. He hung on to me singing and saying, "Who's been tasting my porridge and eaten it all up?" or else cheeking the porters, or else trying to whistle to make the trains go.
I thought I'd better leave word with the station-master where I'd gone, in case any one turned up; and then there was nothing for it but to take a cab across to the hotel.
The kid was no end festive to have a ride in the cab. It would have been in a little better taste if he'd held his tongue, and shown a little regret for the jolly mess he'd let me into. But, bless you, he didn't care two straws.
"What will daddy say when he can't find you?" I said, trying to get him to look at things seriously.
"Daddy will say, 'Who's been sitting in my chair, and broken the bottom out?'" said he, still harping on those blessed bears. I gave him up after that, and let him jaw on.
When we got to the hotel I was in another fix. The chap in charge said he'd got instructions about one young gentleman, but not two.
"Oh, I'm looking after this boy," said I, "till tomorrow: I'll have him in my room."
The chap looked as if he didn't like it. And, of course, just when he was thinking it over, the young cad must go and cheek him.
"What makes that ugly man so red on his nose?" he asks at the top of his voice, for every one to hear.
The chap was no end riled at that, and looked as if he'd kick us out. When he'd cooled down he said—
"You wait here; I'll attend to you presently."
That was a nice go! If I had had tin enough I should have gone somewhere else; but I'd only got enough for the journey to-morrow, and so thought I'd better hang on here, where the governor had arranged.
The lid went on anyhow while we were waiting in the hall. He ran and stood in front of people, and he pulled waiters' coat-tails, and got mixed up with the luggage, and called out to me to know where the ugly red-nosed man had gone. At last I had to pull him in.
"Look here, kid!" said I; "if you don't hold your jaw and sit here quietly, I'll give you to a policeman."
"Tell me about the bears, then."
Oh, how I loathed those bears! Think of me, captain of my eleven, in that rackety hall, with people coming and going, and a row enough to deafen you, telling a kid about The Three Bears! You may grin, Jossy; but I was reduced to it.
After a time the hotel chap came and said we were to have a double- bedded room, and he should charge half-extra for the kid, and if we wanted dinner we'd better look sharp, as it was just beginning.
So we went up and washed—at least I had to wash the kid's sticky hands and face for him—and then came down to table d'hote. I was in a regular funk lest any of our fellows, or any one I knew, should see me. We got squeezed in between a lady in grand evening dress, and a professor chap with blue spectacles; and as they were both attending to their neighbours, I hoped we might scrape through without a scene.
You should have seen that kid tuck in! I mildly suggested that he'd better not have any mock-turtle soup; but he began to get up steam for a bowl and a half, so I gave it up.
He said it was ugly stuff, but for all that he polished off a plate of it, and then walked into salmon. After that he had a turn at roast pork and apple sauce, and after that a cabinet pudding and some Gorgonzola cheese. He was very anxious to have some beer, like the professor, or some wine, like the lady; but I put my foot down there, and let him have lemonade instead. You should have seen people stare at him! The professor glared as if he was a rum animal.
"Your brother?" said he.
"Not exactly," said I.
"Uncommon appetite. Would you mind telling me in the morning what sort of night he had? I shall be curious to know."
The lady glared too, chiefly because the kid had sprinkled her silk dress with melted butter, and pork gravy and lemonade. He caught her eye once, and said out loud to her—
"Our cat's called Flossy; what's your cat called?"
The lady turned away; whereupon the kid began his cheek again.
"That lady," said he to me and the company at large, "has got a nice dress and a nasty face. I like nice faces bestest—do you?"
"Shut up, or I'll clout your ear," snarled I, in a regular perspiration of disgust.
"What's clout?" inquired he. Then, feeling his ears, "My ears don't stick out like that man's over there, do they?"
"Do you hear? shut up, you little fool!"
"We've got a donkey at home, and his—"
Here I could stand it no longer, and lugged him off, whether he liked it or no. He was just as bad in the reading-room. He wouldn't sit still unless I told him stories, and made a regular nuisance of himself to the other people. Then (I suppose it was his big feed) he began to get crusty, and blubbered when I talked sharply to him, and presently set up a regular good old howl.
"Why don't you put the child to bed?" said a lady; "he's no business up at this hour."
Nice, wasn't it?
I had to sneak off with him upstairs, howling all the way. He wouldn't stop till I gave him a mild cuff on the head. That seemed to bring him round enough to demand the "The Three Bears" once more.
Anything to keep him still; so at it I went again.
Then I told him to go to bed; and he told me to undress him, as he couldn't do the buttons.
I can't make out how I got him out of his togs. Then he kicked up no end of a shine because I was going to stick him in bed without his bath.
"I've got no bath," said I; "wait till the morning."
"Tommy wants his bath. Bring it! bring it!!" he shrieked.
Finally I had to mess him about in a basin in cold water, which set him yelling worse than ever. Then I had to put him in my night-gown, for he'd got none of his own.
"I want to get in beside you," he said, as I stuck him in bed.
"I'm not going to bed yet," said I; "not likely, at eight o'clock!"
More yells; and a chambermaid came and knocked at the door to know what was the matter.
I tried all I knew to quiet him down. He wouldn't listen to me, not even when I tried to tell him his "Three Bears." He bellowed out one incessant "Want to get in beside you! Want to get in beside you!!" till finally I chucked up the sponge and actually went to bed to oblige him.
He simmered down after that; and I began to hope he'd drop off and get to sleep. But bless you, Jossy, was it likely, after those buns and the dinner he'd had?
We had a fearful night, I can tell you. He kicked till I was black and blue, and rolled over and over till I hadn't a stitch on me. Then he wanted some water to drink. Then he wanted the gas alight. Then he began to blubber for his mother. Then he wanted the clothes on. Then he wanted them off. Then he got his feet entangled in the night-gown. Then he wanted some chocolates. Then he wanted to know who was talking in the next room. Then he wanted the pillow turned over. Then he wanted a story told him, and shut me up before I'd begun one sentence of it. Then he wanted me to put my arm round him. Then he wanted me to lie over on the edge of the bed. Then he had a pain in his "tummy," and called on me to make it well, and howled because I couldn't.
Poor little beggar! He was in a jolly bad way, and I couldn't well cut up rough; but I can tell you it was the worst night I ever spent. He didn't quiet down till about three in the morning; and then he went off with his head on my chest and his hand on my nose, and I daren't for the life of me shift an inch, for fear of bringing it all on again.
I suppose I must have dropped off myself at last; for the next thing I remember, it was broad daylight, and the young cad was sitting on the top of me as merry as a cricket, trying to prize my eyes open with his fingers.
"Can't you let a chap be?" grunted I; "haven't you made a beast enough of yourself all night without starting again now?"
"I want to see your eyes," said he.
Then he began to jump up and down on the top of me, and explained that he was "riding in the puff-puff."
I wished to goodness he was! Of course I had to wake up, and then we had those brutal "Three Bears" on again for an hour, till it was time to get up.
He insisted on being tubbed all over, with soap, and criticised me all the while.
"Boys who spill on the carpet must be whipped," said he. "Mother will whip you, and you'll cry—ha, ha!"
"I don't care," said I, "as long as she clears you off."
He never seemed to understand what I said, and wasn't a bit set down by this.
Then came the same old game of getting him into his togs, and parting his horrid hair, and blowing his nose, and all that.
I can tell you I was about sick of it when it was done.
When we got down in the hall, the first chap we met was the hotel man.
"There's the ugly man with the red nose," sings out the kid. "I can see him—there is he!" pointing with all his might.
"Look here, young gentleman," said the man, coming to me, "we aren't used to be kept awake all night by your noise or your baby's. You may tell your papa he needn't send you here again. There's half a dozen of my visitors leaving to-day, because they couldn't get a wink of sleep all night."