My Friend Smith A Story of School and City Life
By Talbot Baines Reed This is a curious book by the author. It does not surprise us, because it has a long school-life section, but then it goes on to describe in rather frightening detail the life of a young clerk in London, trying to survive on a miserable pittance, living in a cheap lodging-house, and trying to keep up socially with his contemporaries. He is loyal to his friends, and in particular to his friend Smith, whom he had met at school, which had been a school for troublesome and backward boys.
I think it rings very true. There is a foreword which is as enthusiastic as I am about the book. It still gives you a lot to think about. It was quite a true image even when I was young myself and trying to make my way in London, and from what I hear of the tribulations of the young, it is probably not far from the truth today.
Read the book yourself and see what you think. NH. MY FRIEND SMITH A STORY OF SCHOOL AND CITY LIFE
BY TALBOT BAINES REED
HOW I CAME TO BE SENT TO STONEBRIDGE HOUSE.
"It was perfectly plain, Hudson, the boy could not be allowed to remain any longer a disgrace to the neighbourhood," said my uncle.
"But, sir," began my poor old nurse.
"That will do, Hudson," said my uncle, decisively; "the matter is settled—Frederick is going to Stonebridge House on Monday."
And my uncle stood up, and taking a coat-tail under each arm, established himself upon the hearthrug, with his back to Mrs Hudson. That was always a sign there was no more to be said; and off I was trotted out of the dreaded presence, not very sure whether to be elated or depressed by the conversation I had overheard.
And indeed I never was quite clear as to why, at the tender and guileless age of twelve, I was abruptly sent away from my native village of Brownstroke, to that select and popular "Academy for Backward and Troublesome Young Gentlemen," (so the advertisement ran), known as Stonebridge House, in the neighbourhood of Cliffshire.
Other people appeared to divine the reason, and Mrs Hudson shook her head and wiped her eyes when I consulted her on the subject. It was queer. "I must be a very backward boy," thought I to myself, "for try as I will, I don't see it."
You must know I was an orphan. I never could recollect my mother—nor could Mrs Hudson. As to my father, all I could recall of him was that he had bushy eyebrows, and used to tell me some most wonderful stories about lions and tigers and other beasts of prey, and used now and then to show me my mother's likeness in a locket that hung on his watch- chain. They were both dead, and so I came to live with my uncle. Now, I could hardly tell why, but it never seemed to me as if my uncle appeared to regard it as a privilege to have me to take care of. He didn't whack me as some fellows' uncles do, nor did he particularly interfere with my concerns, as the manner of other uncles (so I am told), is. He just took as little notice as possible of me, and as long as I went regularly to Mrs Wren's grammar-school in the village, and as long as Mrs Hudson kept my garments in proper order, and as long as I showed up duly on state occasions, and didn't bring more than a square inch of clay on each heel (there was a natural affinity between clay and my heels), into his drawing-room, he scarcely seemed to be aware that his house possessed such a treasure as an only nephew.
The part of my life I liked least was the grammar-school. That was a horrid place. Mrs Wren was a good old soul, who spent one half of her time looking over her spectacles, and the other half under them, for something she never found. We big boys—for twelve is a good age for a dame's grammar-school—we didn't exactly get on at old Jenny Wren's, as she was called. For we gradually discovered we knew almost as much as she did herself, and it dawned on us by degrees that somehow she didn't know how to keep us in order. The consequence was, one or two boys, especially Jimmy Bates, the parish clerk's son, and Joe Bobbins, the Italian oil and colourman's son, didn't behave very well. I was sorry to see it, and always told them so.
They got us other boys into all sorts of scrapes and trouble. One day they would hide poor Jenny's spectacles, and then when search was made the lost treasure would be found in some one else's desk. Or they would tie cotton reels on the four feet and tail of the old tabby cat, and launch her, with a horrid clatter, right into the middle of the room, just as I or one of the others happened to be scampering out. Or they would turn the little boys' forms upside down, and compel them with terrible threats to sit on the iron feet, and then in the middle of the class "sneak" about them.
Poor Jenny couldn't manage the school at all, with such boys as Jimmy Bates and Joe Bobbins in it. Up to boys of ten she was all right; but over ten she was all at sea.
However, she worked patiently on, and taught us all she could, and once or twice gave us a horrible fright by calling up at our houses, and reporting progress there (Mrs Hudson always received her when she came up to my uncle's). And for all I know I might be at Jenny Wren's school still if a tremendous event hadn't happened in our village, which utterly upset the oldest established customs of Brownstroke.
We grammar-school boys never "hit" it exactly with the other town boys. Either they were jealous of us or we were jealous of them. I don't know, but we hated the town boys, and they hated us.
Once or twice we had come into collision, though they always got the best of it. One winter they snowballed us to such a pitch that as long as the snow was on the ground a lot of the little kids would no more venture to school alone than a sane man would step over the side of a balloon.
Another time they lined the street down both sides, and laughed and pointed at us as we walked to school. That was far worse than snowballs, even with stones in them. You should have seen us, with pale faces and hurried steps, making our way amid the jeers and gibes of our tormentors—some of the little ones blubbering, one or two of the bigger ones looking hardly comfortable, and a few of the biggest inwardly ruminating when and how it would best be possible to kill that Runnit the news-boy, or Hodge the cow-boy!
These and many other torments and terrors we "Jenny Wrenites" had endured at the hands of our enemies the town boys, on the whole patiently. In process of time they got tired of one sort of torment, and before their learned heads had had time to invent a new one, we had had time to muster up courage and tell one another we didn't care what they did.
Such a period had occurred just before my story opens. It was a whole month since the town boys had made our lives unhappy by calling, and howling, and yelling, and squeaking on every occasion they met us the following apparently inoffensive couplet:—
"A, B, C, Look at the baby!"
How we hated that cry, and quailed when we heard it! However, after about a fortnight's diligent use of this terrible weapon the town boys subsided for a season, and we plucked up heart again. Four whole weeks passed, and we were never once molested! Something must be wrong in the village! Of course we all came to the conclusion that the town boys had at last seen the error of their ways, and were turning over new leaves.
Rash dream! One day when we were least expecting it, the "Philistines were upon us" again, and this time their device was to snatch off our caps! It was too terrible to think of! We could endure to be hooted at, and pelted, and said "A, B, C" to, but to have our little Scotch caps snatched off our heads and tossed over pailings and into puddles, was too much even for the meek disciples of Jenny Wren. The poor little boys got their mothers to fasten elastics to go under their chins, and even so walked nearly half a mile round to avoid the market cross. It was no use, the manoeuvre was discovered, and not only did the youngsters have their caps taken, but were flipped violently by the elastics in the face and about the ears in doing so. As for us older ones, some ran, other walked with their caps under their tunics, others held them on with both hands. The result was the same; our caps were captured!
Then did Jimmy Bates, and Joe Bobbins, and Harry Rasper, and I, meet one day, and declare to one another, that this sort of thing was not to be stood.
"Let's tell Mother Wren," said one.
"Or the policeman," said another.
"Let's write and tell Fred Batchelor's uncle," said another. That referred to my relative, who was always counted a "nob" in the village.
"I say, don't do any," said the redoubtable Bobbins. "The next time they do it to me I mean to kick!"
The sentiment was loudly applauded, and a regular council of war was held, with the following decision. We four were to go home together that afternoon, and without waiting to be chased, would ourselves give chase to the first bully we saw, and take his cap! The consequences of course might be fearful—fatal; but the blood of the "Jenny Wrenites" was up. Do it we would, or perish in the attempt.
I think we all got a little nervous as the afternoon school wore on and the hour for departing approached. Indeed, when we were about to start, Bates looked very like deserting straight away.
"Oh, you three go on," he said, "I'll catch you up; I just want to speak to Jenny."
"No we don't," we all protested; "we'll wait here, if it takes you till midnight to say what you've got to say to Jenny."
This valiant determination put an end to Bates's wavering, and with a rueful face he joined us.
"Now, mind," said Rasper, "the first you see!"
"Well," exclaimed I, starting suddenly to run, "that's Cad Prog, the butcher-boy, there; come along."
So it was! Of all our enemies Cad Prog was the most truculent, and most feared. The sight of his red head coming round the corner was always enough to strike panic into a score of youngsters, and even we bigger boys always looked meek when Prog came out to defy us.
He was strolling guilelessly along, and didn't see us at first. Then suddenly he caught sight of us approaching, and next moment the blue apron and red head disappeared with a bolt round the corner.
"Come on!" shouted Rasper, who led.
"So we are!" cried we, and hue and cry was made for Cad Prog forthwith.
We sighted him as we turned the corner. He was making straight for the market. Perhaps to get an axe, I thought, or to hide, or to tell my uncle!
"Come on!" was the shout.
It's wonderful how a short sharp chase warms up the blood even of a small boy of twelve. Before we were half down the street, even Bates had no thought left of deserting, and we all four pressed on, each determined not to be last.
The fugitive Prog kept his course to the market, but there doubled suddenly and bolted down Side Street. That was where he lived; he was going to run into his hole then, like a rabbit.
We gained no end on him in the turn, and were nearly up to him as he reached the door of his humble home.
He bolted in—so did we. He bolted up stairs—so did we. He plunged headlong into a room where was a little girl rocking a cradle—so did we. Then began a wild scuffle.
"Catch him! Take his cap off!" cried Bobbins.
"He hasn't got a cap!" cried Rasper—"butcher-boys never have!"
"Then pull off his apron!" was the cry.
In the scuffle the little girl was trodden on, and the cradle clean upset. A crowd collected in the street. Cad Prog roared as loud as he could, so did his little sister, so did the baby, so did Jimmy Bates, so did Joe Bobbins, so did Harry Rasper, so did I. I did not care what happened; I went for Cad Prog, and have a vague idea of my hand and his nose being near together, and louder yells still.
Then all of a sudden there was a tramp of heavy footsteps on the stairs, and all I can remember after that was receiving a heavy cuff on my head, being dragged down into the street, where—so it seemed to me for the moment—at least a million people must have been congregated; and, finally, I know not how, I was standing in the middle of my uncle's study floor, with my coat gone, my mouth bleeding, and my cap, after all, clean vanished!
It was a queer plight to be in. I heard a dinning in my ears of loud voices, and when I looked at the bust on the top of the bookcase it seemed to be toppling about anyhow. Some people were talking in the room, but the only voice I could recognise was my uncle's. He was saying something about "not wanting to shield me," and "locking-up," the drift of which I afterwards slowly gathered, when the village policeman—we only had one at Brownstroke—addressing my uncle as "your honour," said he would look in in the morning for further orders.
At this interesting juncture the bust began to wobble about again, and I saw and heard no more till I woke next morning, and found Mrs Hudson mopping my forehead with something, and saying, "There now, Master Freddy, lie quite still, there's a good boy."
"What's the matter?" said I, putting up my hand to the place she was washing.
It was something like a bump!
"It's only a bruise, Master Freddy—no bones broken, thank God!" said she, motioning me to be silent.
But I was in no mood to be silent. Slowly the recollection of yesterday's events dawned on me.
"Did they get off Cad Prog's apron," I inquired, "after all?"
Of course, the good old soul thought this was sheer wandering of the mind, and she looked very frightened, and implored me to lie still.
It was a long time before I perceived any connection between our chase of the redoubtable Cad Prog up Side Street yesterday and my lying here bruised and in a darkened room to-day. At last I supposed Mr Prog must have conquered me; whereat I fired up again, and said, "Did the other fellows finish him up?"
"Oh, dear me, yes," said the terrified nurse; "all up, every bit—there now—and asked for more!"
This consoled me. Presently a doctor came and looked at my forehead, and left some powders, which I heard him say I was to take in jam three times a day. I felt still more consoled.
In fact, reader, as you will have judged, I was a little damaged by the adventure in Side Street, and the noble exploit of my companions and myself had not ended all in glory.
A day or two after, when I got better, I found out more about it, and rather painfully too, because my uncle landed one day in my bedroom and commenced strongly to arraign me before him.
He bade me tell him what had happened, which I did as well as I could. At the end of it he said, "I suppose you are not aware that for a day or two it was uncertain whether you had not killed that child that was in the room?"
"I?" I exclaimed. "I never touched her! Indeed I didn't, uncle!"
"You knocked over the cradle," said my uncle, "and that's much the same thing."
I was silent. My uncle proceeded.
"And I suppose you are not aware that the barber who tried to take you down the stairs is now in the hospital with an abscess on his leg, the result of the kick you gave him?"
"Oh, I can't have done it, uncle—oh, uncle!"
And here I was so overwhelmed with the vision of my enormities and their possible consequences that I became hysterical, and Mrs Hudson was summoned to the rescue.
The fact was, in the account of the fray I appear to have got credit for all the terrible deeds that were there done; and I, Master Freddy Batchelor, was, it appeared, notorious in the village as having been guilty of a savage and felonious assault upon one C. Prog, of having also assaulted and almost "manslaughtered" Miss Prog the younger, and further of having dealt with my feet against the shin of one Moppleton, a barber, in such manner as to render him incapable of pursuing his ordinary avocations, and being chargeable on the parish infirmary; besides sundry and divers damage to carpets, crockery, glass, doorposts, kerb-stones, and the jacket of the aforesaid C. Prog. On the whole, when I arose from my bed and stepped once more into the outer world, I found myself a very atrocious character indeed.
At home I was in disgrace, and abroad I was not allowed to wander beyond my uncle's garden, except to church on Sunday under a heavy escort. So on the whole I had not a very good time of it. My uncle was terrifically glum, and appeared to think it most audacious if ever I chanced to laugh or sing or express any sentiment but deep grief and contrition in his presence. Mrs Hudson read me long lectures about the evil of slaying small children and laming barbers, and I was occasionally moved to tears at the thought of my own iniquities. But at the age of twelve it is hard to take upon oneself the settled gloom of an habitual criminal, and I was forced to let out at times and think of other things besides my wicked ways. I got let off school—that was one alleviation to my woe—and being free of the garden I had plenty of opportunity of letting off the steam. But it was slow work, as I have said; and I was really relieved when, a week or two afterwards, my uncle made the announcement with which this chapter begins.
How I fared, first at Stonebridge House, and subsequently in the City Life for which it was meant to train me, will be the theme of this particular veracious history.
HOW I MADE MY FIRST ACQUAINTANCE WITH STONEBRIDGE HOUSE.
The eventful Monday came at last, and with my little box corded up, with Mrs Hudson as an escort, and a pair of brand-new knickerbockers upon my manly person, I started off from my uncle's house in the coach for Stonebridge, with all the world before me.
I had taken a rather gloomy farewell of my affectionate relative in his study. He had cautioned me as to my conduct, and given me to understand that at Stonebridge House I should be a good deal more strictly looked after than I had ever been with him. Saying which he had bestowed on me a threepenny-bit as "pocket-money" for the term, and wished me good-bye. Under the circumstances I was not greatly overcome by this leave- taking, and settled down to make myself comfortable for my long drive with Mrs Hudson to Stonebridge.
Mrs Hudson had been my nurse ever since I could remember, and now the poor old soul and I were to part for good. For she was to see me safely inside the doors of Stonebridge House, and then go back, not to my uncle's (where she would no longer be needed), but to her own home. Of course she was very much depressed by the prospect, and so indeed was I. For a good while we neither of us said much. Then, by way of changing the subject and beguiling the way, she began to address to me long and solemn exhortations as to my conduct at the new school. She knew as much about "schools for backward and troublesome boys" as I did; but that was no matter.
She made me promise, for one thing, that I would make a point of wearing a clean collar three times a week; and, for another, of calling the housekeeper's attention to the very first sign of a hole in my socks. (As my socks, by the way, usually showed the daylight in upon six out of the ten toes, and one out of the two heels every time I took off my boots, I was promising a lot when I made this bargain!) Further, I was to see my Sunday clothes were always hung on pegs, and not laid in drawers; and my blue necktie, mind, was not to be touched till my black- and-pink was past work.
From these matters she passed on to my conduct towards my new masters and companions.
"Mind and always tell them the truth straight out, Freddy," she said, "and say 'sir' whenever you speak to Mr Ladislaw—and say your prayers regularly night and day, won't you? and be very careful to use your own comb and brush, and not lend them about to the other young gentlemen."
Mrs Hudson, you see, had an easy way of flying from one topic to another. Her exhortations were crowded with pieces of good advice, which may have sounded funny when all strung together, but were each of them admirable taken separately. I of course promised her everything.
The journey was a long one, but the day was bright, and we had a good basketful of provender, so it was not tedious. At length the driver turned round, and said we should come in sight of Stonebridge at the next turn of the road.
My spirits began to sink for the first time. Dismal and all as Brownstroke had been, how did I know I should not be happier there, after all, than at this strange new place, where I knew no one? I wished the driver wouldn't go so fast. Mrs Hudson saw my emotion, I think, for she once more opened fire, and, so to speak, gathered up the last crumbs of her good counsel.
"Oh, and Freddy dear," fumbling nervously in her pocket, and letting down her veil, "write and tell me what they give you to eat; remember, pork's bad for you, and leave your cuffs behind when you go out bird's- nesting and all that. Mind, I'll expect to hear about everything, especially about whether you get warm baths pretty regularly, and if Mr Ladislaw is a good Christian man—and look here, dear," she continued hurriedly, producing a little parcel from the depths of her pocket, "you're not to open this till I'm away, and be sure to take care of it, and don't—"
"That there chimbley," interrupted the driver at this stage, "is the fust 'ouse in Stonebridge."
Five minutes later we were standing in the hall of Stonebridge House.
It didn't look much like a school, I remember thinking. It was a large straggling building, rather like a farmhouse, with low ceilings and rickety stairs. The outside was neat, but not very picturesque, and the front garden seemed to have about as much grass in it as the stairs had carpets. As we stood waiting for some one to answer our ring, I listened nervously, I remember, for any sound or trace of my fellow "backward and troublesome boys," but the school appeared to be confined to one of the long straggling wings behind, and not to encroach on the state portion of the house.
After a second vigorous pull at the bell by our coachman, a stern and scraggy female put in her appearance.
"Is this Frederick Batchelor?" she inquired, in tones which put my juvenile back up instantly.
"Yes, this is Master Freddy," put in the nervous Mrs Hudson, anxious to conciliate every one on my behalf. "Freddy, dear, say—"
"Is that his box?" continued the stern dame.
"Yes," said Mrs Hudson, feeling rather chilled; "that's his box."
"No, except his umbrella, and a few—"
"Take the box up to my room," said the lady to a boy who appeared at this moment. "Where is the key?"
"I've got that, marm," replied Mrs Hudson, warming up a little, "and I should like to go over his things myself as they are unpacked."
"Wholly unnecessary," replied the female, holding out her hand for the key. "I see to everything of that kind here."
"But I mean to open the box!" cried Mrs Hudson, breaking out into a passion quite unusual with her.
I, too, had been getting the steam up privately during the last few minutes, and the sight of Mrs Hudson's agitation was enough to start the train.
"Yes," said I, swelling out with indignation, "Mrs Hudson and I are going to open the box. You sha'n't touch it!"
The female appeared to be not in the least put out by this little display of feeling. In fact, she seemed used to it, for she stood quietly with her arms folded, apparently waiting till we both of us thought fit to subside.
Poor Mrs Hudson was no match for this sort of battle. She lost her control, and expressed herself of things in general, and the female in particular, with a fluency which quite astonished me, and I did my little best to back her up. In the midst of our joint address a gentleman appeared on the scene, whom I correctly divined to be Mr Ladislaw himself.
Mr Ladislaw was a short, dapper man, in rather seedy clothes, with long sandy hair brushed right back over the top of his head, and no hair at all on his face. He might have been thirty, or he might have been fifty. His eyes were very small and close together; his brow was stern, and his mouth a good deal pulled down at the corners. Altogether, I didn't take to him at first glance, still less when he broke into the conversation and distinctly took the part of Mrs Hudson's adversary.
"What is all this, Miss Henniker?" he said in a quick, sharp voice, which made me very uncomfortable.
"This is Mr Jakeman's servant," answered the female. "She was talking a little rudely about Frederick Batchelor's luggage here."
"And so was I!" I shouted valiantly. "It's not your luggage, and you sha'n't have it, you old—beast!"
The last word came out half-involuntarily, and I was terribly frightened as soon as it had escaped my lips.
I do not know how Mr Ladislaw or Miss Henniker took it, for I dare not look up. I heard Mrs Hudson utter a mild protest, and next moment was conscious of being taken firmly by the hand by Mr Ladislaw and led to the door from which he had just emerged.
"Remain here, Batchelor," said he, sternly, "till I come back."
There was something in his voice and manner which took the spirit out of me, and he might have spared himself the trouble of locking the door behind him. I found myself in a small study, with shelves on the walls and a writing-table in the window, which looked out on to a playground, where, in the distance, I could catch sight of three boys swinging.
This first prospect of my future companions so interested me that I had actually nearly forgotten all about poor Mrs Hudson, when Mr Ladislaw entered the study and said—"The person is going now, Batchelor. If you like you can say good-bye."
I flew out into the hall. Mrs Hudson was there crying, alone. What we said, and how we hugged one another, and how desperately we tried to be cheerful, I need not relate. I was utterly miserable. My only friend, the only friend I had, was going from me, leaving me in this cheerless place all alone. I would have given worlds to return with her. Mr Ladislaw stood by as we uttered our last farewells.
"Be a good boy, Freddy, dear; be a good boy," was all she could say.
"So I will, so I will," was all I could reply. Then she turned to where the coach was waiting. But once more she paused, and drew from her pocket another parcel, this time a box, of the nature of whose contents I could readily guess.
"It's only a few sweets, dear. There, be a good boy. Good-bye, Freddy!"
And in another minute the coach was grating away over the gravel drive, and I stood utterly disconsolate in Stonebridge House, with my box of sweets in one hand and Mr Ladislaw at the other.
Some of my readers may have stood in a similar situation. If they have, I dare say they can remember it as vividly as any incident in their life. I know I can. I remember instinctively ramming the box into one of my side trousers pockets, and at the same time wondering whether both the hats hanging on the pegs were Mr Ladislaw's, or whether one of them belonged to some one else.
Then suddenly it came over me that the former gentleman stood at my side, and all my misery returned as he said—
"I will take you to Miss Henniker, Batchelor; follow me."
The sound of the wheels of Mrs Hudson's coach were still audible down the road, and as I turned my back on them and followed Mr Ladislaw up the carpetless stairs, it seemed as if I was leaving all hope behind me.
I found Miss Henniker in the middle of a large parlour, with my box lying open on the ground beside her, and some of my vestments already spread out on the table. A half inclination to renew the rebellion came over me, as I thought how poor dear Mrs Hudson had been triumphed over; and all these tokens of her kindly soul, folded so neatly, inventoried so precisely, and all so white and well aired, had here fallen into strange hands, who reverenced them no more than—than the shirts and collars and cuffs of I do not know how many more "backward or troublesome" boys like myself. But I restrained my feelings.
"I will leave Batchelor in your charge for the present," said Mr Ladislaw. At the same time he added something in an undertone to Miss Henniker which I did not catch, but which I was positive had reference to the dear departed Mrs Hudson, whereat I fumed inwardly, and vowed that somehow or other I would pay Miss Henniker out.
When Mr Ladislaw was gone Miss Henniker continued her work in silence, leaving me standing before her. She examined all my clothes, looked at the mark on every collar, every sock, and scrutinised the condition of every shirt-front and "dicky." At last she came to my Sunday suit, at the sight of which I remembered all of a sudden my nurse's injunction, and said, as meekly as possible, "Oh, if you please, Mrs Hudson says those are to be hung up, and not laid flat!"
Miss Henniker stared at me as if I had asked her her age!
"Silence!" she said, when she could sufficiently recover herself; "and—"
"And," continued I, carried away with my subject, and really not hearing her remonstrance—"and, if you please, I'm to have three clean collars a week, and you're to darn—"
"Frederick Batchelor!" exclaimed Miss Henniker, letting drop what she had in her hand, and stamping her foot with most unwonted animation; "did you hear me order you to hold your tongue? Don't dare to speak again, sir, till you're spoken to, or you will be punished."
This tirade greatly surprised me. I had been quite pleased with myself for remembering all Mrs Hudson's directions, and so intent on relieving my mind of them, that I had not noticed the growing rage of the middle- aged Henniker. In after years, when this story was told of me, I got the credit of being the only human being, who all by himself, had succeeded in "fetching" the Stonebridge housekeeper. At present, however, I was taken aback by her evident rage, and considered it prudent to give heed to her admonition. The unpacking was presently finished, and the scarlet in the Henniker's face had gradually toned down to its normal tint, when, turning to me, she silently motioned me to follow her. I did so, along a long passage, in which there were at least two turnings. At the end of this was a door leading into a room containing half a dozen beds. Not a very cheerful room—long and low and badly lighted, with only two washstands, and a rather fusty flavour about the bedclothes. Don't suppose, at my age, I was critical on such points; but when I take my boy to school, I do not think, with what I know now, I shall put him anywhere where the dormitory is like that of Stonebridge House.
"That," said Miss Henniker, pointing to one of the beds, "is your bed, and you wash at this washstand."
"Oh," said I, again forgetting myself; "you are to be sure my brush and comb—"
"Silence, Batchelor!" once more reiterated Miss Henniker.
From the dormitory I was conducted to the schoolroom, and from the schoolroom to the dining-room, and from the dining-room to the boot- room, and my duties were explained in each.
It was in the latter apartment that I first made the acquaintance of one of my fellow "troublesome or backwards."
A biggish boy was adopting the novel expedient for getting on a tight boot of turning his back to the wall and kicking out at it like a horse when I and my conductress entered.
The latter very nearly came in for one of the kicks.
"Flanagan," said she, "that is not allowed. I shall give you a bad mark for it."
Flanagan went on kicking till the end of the sentence, and then subsided ruefully, and said, "The bothering thing won't come on or off, please, ma'am. It won't come on with shoving."
"If your boots are too small," replied the lady, solemnly, begging the question, "you must write home for new ones."
"But the bothering things—"
"Batchelor," said Miss Henniker, turning to me, "this is the boot-room, where you will have to put on and take off your boots whenever you go out or come in. This boy is going out, and will take you into the playground with him," and away she went, leaving me in the hands of the volatile Flanagan.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
It was a horribly dark place, this boot-room, and I could scarcely see who it was who was questioning me. He seemed to be a big boy, a year or two older than myself, with a face which, as far as I could make it out, was not altogether unpleasant. He continued stamping with his refractory boots all the time he was talking to me, letting out occasionally behind, in spite of Miss Henniker.
"Who are you? What's your name?" he said.
"Fred Batchelor," I replied, deferentially.
"Batchelor, eh? Are you a backward or a troublesome, eh?"
This was a poser. I had never put the question to myself, and was wholly at a loss how to answer. I told Flanagan so.
"Oh, but you're bound to know!" he exclaimed. "What did they send you here for, eh?"
Whereupon I was drawn out to narrate, greatly to Flanagan's satisfaction, the affair of Cad Prog and his baby sister.
"Hurrah!" said he, when I had done. "Hurrah, you're a troublesome! That makes seven troublesomes, and only two backwards!" and in his jubilation he gave a specially vigorous kick out behind, and finally drove the obstinate boot home.
"Yes," said he, "there was no end of discussion about it. I was afraid you were a backward, that I was! If the other new fellow's only a troublesome too, we shall have it all to ourselves. Philpot, you know," added he confidentially, "is a backward by rights, but he calls himself one of us because of the Tuesday night jams."
"Is there another new boy too?" I inquired, plucking up heart with this friendly comrade.
"Oh! he's coming to-morrow. Never mind! Even if he's a 'back' it don't matter, except for the glory of the thing! The 'troubs' were always ahead all Ladislaw's time, and he's no chicken. I say, come in the playground, can't you?"
I followed rather nervously. A new boy never takes all at once to his first walk in the playground; but with Flanagan as my protector—who was "Hail fellow, well met," with every one, even the backwards—I got through the ordeal pretty easily.
There were eight boys altogether at Stonebridge House, and I was introduced—or rather exhibited—to most of them that afternoon. Some received me roughly and others indifferently. The verdict, on the whole, seemed to be that there was plenty of time to see what sort of a fellow I was, and for the present the less I was made to think of myself the better. So they all talked rather loud in my presence, and showed off, as boys will do; and each expected—or, at any rate, attempted—to impress me with a sense of his particular importance.
This treatment gave me time to make observations as well as them, and before the afternoon ended I had a pretty good idea whom I liked and whom I did not like at Stonebridge House.
Presently we were summoned in to a bread-and-cheese supper, with cold water, and shortly afterwards ordered off to bed. I said my prayers before I went to sleep, as I had promised good Mrs Hudson, and, except for being shouted at to mind I did not snore or talk in my sleep—the punishment for which crimes was something terrific—I was allowed to go to sleep in peace, very lonely at heart, and with a good deal of secret trepidation as I looked forward and wondered what would be my lot at Stonebridge House.
HOW A MYSTERIOUS NEW BOY CAME TO STONEBRIDGE HOUSE.
When I rose next morning, and proceeded to take my turn at the washstand, and array my person in the travel-stained garments of the previous day, it seemed ages since I had parted with Brownstroke and entered the gloomy precincts of Stonebridge House.
Everything and everybody around me was gloomy. Even Flanagan seemed not yet to have got up the steam; and as for the other boys—they skulked morosely through the process of dressing, and hardly uttered a word. It was a beautiful day outside; the sun was lighting up the fields, and the birds were singing merrily in the trees; but somehow or other the good cheer didn't seem to penetrate inside the walls of Stonebridge House.
I tried to get up a conversation with Flanagan, but he looked half- frightened and half guilty as I did so.
"I say," said I, "couldn't we open the window and let some fresh air in?"
(Mrs Hudson had always been strong on fresh air.)
"Look-out, I say," said Flanagan, in a frightened whisper; "you'll get us all in a row!"
"In a row?" I replied. "Who with?"
"Why, old Hen; but shut up, do you hear?" and here he dipped his face in the basin, and so effectually ended the talk.
This was quite a revelation to me. Get in a row with Miss Henniker for speaking to one of my schoolfellows in the dormitory! A lively prospect and no mistake.
Presently a bell rang, and we all wended our way down stairs into the parlour where I had yesterday enjoyed my tete-a-tete with Miss Henniker. Here we found that lady standing majestically in the middle of the room, like a general about to review a regiment.
"Show nails!" she ejaculated, as soon as all were assembled.
This mysterious mandate was the signal for each boy passing before her, exhibiting, as he did so, his hands.
As I was last in the procession I had time to watch the effect of this proceeding. "Showing nails," as I afterwards found out, was a very old- established rule at Stonebridge House, and one under which every generation of "backward and troublesome boys" who resided there had groaned. If any boy's hands or nails were, in the opinion of Miss Henniker, unclean or untidy, he received a bad mark, and was at once dismissed to the dormitory to remedy the defect.
One or two in front of me suffered thus, and a glance down at my own extremities made me a little doubtful as to my fate. I did what I could with them privately, but their appearance was not much improved.
At last I stood for inspection before the dreadful Henniker.
"Your hands are dirty, Batchelor. A bad mark. Go and wash them."
The bad mark, whatever it might mean, appeared to me very unjust. Had I known the rule, it would have been different, but how was I to know, when no one had told me?
"Please, ma'am, I didn't—"
"Two bad marks for talking!" was my only reply, and off I slunk, feeling rather crushed, to the dormitory.
I found Flanagan scrubbing at our basin.
"Ah," said he, "I thought you'd get potted."
"I think it's a shame," said I.
"Look-out, I say," exclaimed Flanagan, skipping away as if he'd been shot, and resuming his wash at the other basin.
Presently he came back on tip-toe, and whispered, "Why can't you talk lower, you young muff?"
"Surely she can't hear, here up stairs?"
"Can't she? That's all you know! She hears every word you say all over the place, I tell you."
I went on "hard all" at the nail-brush for a minute or so in much perplexity.
"Keep what you've got to say till you get outside. Thank goodness, she's rheumatic or something, and we can open our mouths there. I say," added he, looking critically at my hands, "you'd better give those nails of yours a cut, or you'll get potted again."
I was grateful for this hint, and felt in my pocket for my knife. In doing so I encountered the box of sweets Mrs Hudson had left in my hand yesterday, and which, amid other distractions, I had positively forgotten. "Oh, look here," said I, producing the box, delighted to be able to do a good turn to my friendly schoolfellow. "Have some of these, will you?"
Flanagan's face, instead of breaking out into grateful smiles, as I anticipated, assumed a sudden scowl, and at the same moment Miss Henniker entered the dormitory!
Quick as thought I plunged the box back into my pocket, and looked as unconcerned as it was possible to do under the trying circumstances.
"Flanagan and Batchelor, a bad mark each for talking," said the now painfully familiar voice. "What have you there, Batchelor?" added she, holding out her hand. "Something Mrs Hudson gave me," I replied.
"I wish to see it."
I was prepared to resist. I could stand a good deal, but sheer robbery was a thing I never fancied. However, a knowing look on Flanagan's face warned me to submit, and I produced the box.
The lady took it and opened it. Then closing it, she put it in her own pocket, saying—
"This is confiscated till the end of the term. Flanagan and Batchelor, 'Show nails.'"
We did show nails. Mine still needed some trimming before they were satisfactory, and then I was bidden descend to the parlour for prayers.
Prayers at Stonebridge House consisted of a few sentences somewhat quickly uttered by Mr Ladislaw, who put in an appearance for the occasion, followed by a loud "Amen" from Miss Henniker, and in almost the same breath, on this occasion, the award of a bad mark to Philpot for having opened his eyes twice during the ceremony.
After this we partook of a silent breakfast, and adjourned for study. Miss Henniker dogged us wherever we went and whatever we did. She sat and glared at us all breakfast time; she sat and glared at us while Mr Ladislaw, or Mr Hashford, the usher, were drilling Latin grammar and arithmetic into us. She sat and glared while we ate our dinner, and she stood and glared when after school we assembled in the boot-room and prepared to escape to the playground. Even there, if we ventured to lift our voices too near the house, a bad mark was shot at us from a window, and if an unlucky ball should come within range of her claws it was almost certainly "confiscated."
I don't suppose Stonebridge House, except for Miss Henniker, was much worse than most schools for "backward and troublesome boys." We were fairly well fed, and fairly well taught, and fairly well quartered. I even think we might have enjoyed ourselves now and then, had we been left to ourselves. But we never were left to ourselves. From morning to night, and, for all we could tell, from night till morning, we were looked after by the lady housekeeper, and that one fact made Stonebridge House almost intolerable.
We were lounging about in the so-called "playground" that afternoon, and I was beginning to discover a little more about some of my new schoolfellows, when there appeared walking towards us down the gravel path a boy about my own age.
He was slender and delicate-looking, I remember, and his pale face contrasted strangely with his almost black clustering hair and his dark big eyes. He wasn't a handsome boy, I remember thinking; but there was something striking about him, for all that. It may have been his solemn expression, or his square jaw, or his eyes, or his brow, or his hair, or the whole of them put together. All I know is, that the sight of him as he appeared that afternoon walking towards us in the playground, has lived in my memory ever since, and will probably live there till I die.
"Here comes the new boy," said Philpot. Of course we all knew it must be he.
"And a queer fish, too, by all appearances," responded Flanagan.
"Very queer indeed," said Hawkesbury. Hawkesbury was one of the two "backwards,"—but for all that he was the cleverest boy, so the others told me, in the whole school.
"He doesn't seem very bashful," said another.
Nor indeed did he. He sauntered slowly down the path, looking solemnly now on one side, now on the other, and now at us all, until presently he stood in our midst, and gazed half inquiringly, half doubtfully, from one to the other.
I know I felt a good deal more uncomfortable than he did himself, and was quite glad when Flanagan broke the solemn silence.
"Hullo, youngster, who are you, eh?"
"Smith," laconically replied the new boy, looking his questioner in the face.
There was nothing impudent in the way he spoke or looked; but somehow or other his tone didn't seem quite as humble and abject as old boys are wont to expect from new. Flanagan's next inquiry therefore was a little more roughly uttered.
"What's your Christian name, you young donkey? You don't suppose you're the only Smith in the world, do you?"
We laughed at this. It wasn't half bad for Flanagan.
The new boy, however, remained quite solemn as he replied, briefly, "John Smith."
"And where do you come from?" said Philpot, taking up the questioning, and determining to get more out of the new-comer than Flanagan had; "and who's your father, do you hear? and how many sisters have you got? and why are you sent here? and are you a backward or a troublesome, eh?"
The new boy gazed in grave bewilderment at the questioner during this speech. When it was ended, he quietly proceeded to move off to another part of the playground without vouchsafing any reply.
But Philpot, who was on his mettle, prevented this manoeuvre by a sudden and dexterous grip of the arm, and drew him back into the circle.
"Do you hear what I say to you?" said he, roughly, emphasising his question with a shake. "What on earth do you mean by going off without answering?"
"It's no business of yours, is it?" said the new boy, mildly.
"Yes," exclaimed Philpot, "it is. You don't suppose we fellows are going to be humbugged by a young sneak like you, do you?"
"I sha'n't tell you, then!" quietly replied Smith.
This astounding reply, quietly as it was uttered, quite took away Philpot's breath, and the breath of all of us. We were so astonished, indeed, that for some time no one could utter a word or make up his mind what to do next.
Then gradually it dawned on the company generally that this defiant, stuck-up youngster must immediately be put down.
"Come here!" said Philpot, as majestically as he could.
Smith remained where he was, as solemn as ever. But I, who stood near, could detect a queer light in his black eyes that looked rather ominous.
When one fellow, in the presence of an admiring audience, grandly orders a junior to "Come here!" and when that junior coolly declines to move, it is a very critical situation both for the boy who orders and the boy who disobeys. For the one, unless he follows up his brag, will pretty certainly be laughed at; and the other, unless he shows the white feather and runs away, will generally come in for a little rough usage. This seemed likely to happen now. As Smith would not come to Philpot for a thrashing, Philpot must go to Smith and thrash him where he stood. And so doubtless he would have done, had not Mr Hashford appeared at that very moment on the gravel walk and summoned us in to preparation.
This interruption was most unsatisfactory. Those who wanted to see what the new boy was made of were disappointed, and those whose dignity wanted putting to-rights were still more disappointed.
But there was no helping it. We trailed slowly indoors, Philpot vowing he would be quits with the young cub some day, and Hawkesbury, in his usual smiling way, suggesting that "the new boy didn't seem a very nice boy."
"I know what I should do," said Flanagan, "if I—"
"A bad mark to Flanagan for not coming in quietly," said the voice of Miss Henniker; and at the sound the spirit went out from us, and we remembered we were once more in Stonebridge House.
"Preparation" was a dreadful time. I knew perfectly well, though I could not see her, that Miss Henniker's eyes were upon me all the time. I could feel them on the back of my head and the small of my back. You never saw such an abject spectacle as we nine spiritless youths appeared bending over our books, hardly daring to turn over a leaf or dip a pen, for fear of hearing that hateful voice. I could not help, however, turning my eyes to where the new boy sat, to see how he was faring. He, too, seemed infected with the depressing air of the place, and was furtively looking round among his new schoolfellows. I felt half fascinated by his black eyes, and when presently they turned and met mine, I almost thought I liked the new boy. My face must somehow have expressed what was passing through my mind, for as our eyes met there was a very faint smile on his lips, which I could not help returning.
"Batchelor and Smith, a bad mark each for inattention. That makes four bad marks to Batchelor in one day. No playground for half a week!"
Cheerful! I was getting used to the lady by this time, and remember sitting for the rest of the time calculating that if I got four bad marks every day of the week, that would be twenty-eight a week, or a hundred and twelve a month; and that if four bad marks deprived me of half a week's playground, one month's bad marks would involve an absence of precisely fourteen weeks from that peaceful retreat; whereat I bit my pen, and marvelled inwardly.
The dreary day seemed as if it would never come to an end. My spirits sank when, after "preparation," we were ordered up stairs to tea. How could one enjoy tea poured out by Miss Henniker? Some people call it the "cup that cheers." Let them take tea one afternoon at Stonebridge House, and they will soon be cured of that notion! I got another bad mark during the meal for scooping up the sugar at the bottom of my cup with my spoon.
"Surely," thought I, "they'll let us read or play, or do as we like, after tea for a bit?"
Vain hope! The meal ended, we again went down to our desks, where sheets of paper were distributed to each, and we were ordered to "write home"! Write home under Miss Henniker's eye! That was worse than anything!
I began, however, as best I could. Of course, my letter was to Mrs Hudson. Where she was, was the only home I knew. I was pretty certain, of course, the letter would be looked over, but for all that I tried not to let the fact make any difference, and, as I warmed up to my task, I found my whole soul going out into my letter. I forgot all about its contents being perused, and was actually betrayed into shedding a few tears at the thought of my dear absent protectress.
"I wish I was back with you," I wrote. "It's miserable here. The sweets you gave me have been stolen by that horrid old—"
At this interesting juncture I was conscious of somebody standing behind me and looking over my shoulder. It was Miss Henniker!
"Give me that," she said.
I snatched the letter up and tore it into pieces. I could stand a good deal, as I have said, but even a boy of twelve must draw the line somewhere.
Miss Henniker stood motionless as I destroyed my letter, and then said, in icy tones—
"Follow me, Batchelor."
I rose meekly, and followed her—I cared not if it was to the gallows! She led me to her parlour, and ordered me to stand in the corner. Then she rang her bell.
"Tell Mr Ladislaw I should like to see him," said she to the servant.
In due time Mr Ladislaw appeared, and the case for the prosecution forthwith opened. My misdemeanours for the entire day were narrated, culminating with this last heinous offence.
"Batchelor," said Miss Henniker, "repeat to Mr Ladislaw word for word what you were writing when I came to you."
I know not what spirit of meekness came over me. I did as I was told, and repeated the sentence verbatim down to the words, "The sweets you gave me have been stolen by that horrid old—"
"Old what?" said Mr Ladislaw.
"Old what?" said Miss Henniker, I hesitated.
"Come, now, say what you were going to write," demanded Mr Ladislaw.
"Old what, Batchelor?" reiterated the Henniker, keeping her eyes on me.
I must be honest!
"Old beast," I said in a low tone.
"I thought so," said the lady. "Batchelor has called me a beast twice since he came here, Mr Ladislaw."
"Batchelor must be punished," said Mr Ladislaw, who, I could not help privately thinking, was a little afraid of Miss Henniker himself. "Come to my study, sir."
I came, followed of course by the Henniker; and in Mr Ladislaw's study I was caned on both hands. Miss Henniker would, I fancy, have laid it on a little harder than the master did. Still, it was enough to make me smart.
But the smart within was far worse than that without.
"Return to the class-room now, and write at once to your uncle, Mr Jakeman," said Miss Henniker, "and to no one else."
I returned to the room, where I found an eager whispered discussion going on. When a boy was taken off for punishment by the Henniker, those who were left always had a brief opportunity for conversation.
The subject of discussion, I found, was Smith, who sat apart, with no paper before him, apparently exempt from the general task. As usual, he was looking solemnly round him, but in no way to explain the mystery. At last Hawkesbury, the "pet" of the school—in other words, the only boy who seemed to get on with Miss Henniker and Mr Ladislaw—had walked up to Mr Hashford's desk, where the usher sat in temporary authority, and had said, "Oh, Smith, the new boy, hasn't any paper, Mr Hashford."
"No, I was told not to give him any," said the usher, terrified lest the Henniker should return.
"I wonder why?" said Hawkesbury.
"Yes, it is strange," replied Mr Hashford; "but please go to your place, Hawkesbury; Miss Henniker will return."
Hawkesbury had reported this brief conversation to his fellows, and this was what had given rise to the discussion I found going on when I returned from my caning. It was soon cut short by the Henniker's reappearance; but the mystery became all the greater when it was seen that no notice was taken of the new boy's idleness, and that at the close of the exercise, when we were all called upon to bring up our letters, his name was distinctly omitted.
My effusion to my uncle was brief and to the point.
Dear Uncle Jakeman,—Miss Henniker wishes me to say that I have had five bad marks to-day. I have also been caned hard on both hands for writing to dear Mrs Hudson, and for calling Miss Henniker bad names. I hope you are very well. Believe me, dear uncle, your affectionate nephew,—
With the exception of striking out the "dear" before Mrs Hudson this letter was allowed to pass.
In due time and to my great relief the bell rang for bed, and glad of any chance of forgetting the hateful place, I went up stairs to the dormitory.
The new boy, I found, was to occupy the bed next mine, at which I was rather pleased than otherwise. I could not make out why I should take a fancy to Smith, but somehow I did; and when once during the night I happened to wake, and heard what sounded very much like a smothered sob in the bed next mine, I at least had the consolation of being sure I was not the only miserable boy at Stonebridge House.
HOW SMITH AND I TOOK A BREATH OF FRESH AIR AND PAID FOR IT.
As "circumstances over which I had no control" prevented my joining my fellow troublesome and backward boys in their daily retreat to the playground for the next few days, I had only a limited opportunity of seeing how the new boy settled down to his new surroundings.
Inside Stonebridge House we were all alike, all equally subdued and "Henpecked." The playground was really the only place where any display of character could be made; and as for three days I was a prisoner, Smith remained as much a mystery to me at the end of the week as he had been on the day of his arrival.
I could, however, guess from his looks and the looks of the others that he was having rather a bad time of it out there. Hawkesbury used to come in with such a gracious smile every afternoon that I was certain something was wrong; and Philpot's flushed face, and Rathbone's scowl, and Flanagan's unusual gravity, all went to corroborate the suspicion. But Smith's face and manner were the most tell-tale. The first day he had seemed a little doubtful, but gradually the lines of his mouth pulled tighter at the corners, and his eyes flashed oftener, and I could guess easily enough that he at least had not found his heart's content at Stonebridge House.
My term of penal servitude expired on Sunday; and in some respects I came out of it better than I had gone in. For Mr Hashford had the charge of all detained boys, and he, good-hearted, Henniker-dreading usher that he was, had spent the three days in drilling me hard in decimal fractions; and so well too, that I actually came to enjoy the exercise, and looked upon the "repeating dot" as a positive pastime. Even Miss Henniker could not rob me of that pleasure.
"Batchelor," whispered Flanagan to me, as we walked two and two to church behind the Henniker that Sunday, "that new fellow's an awfully queer cove. I can't make him out."
"Nor can I. But how's he been getting on the last day or two?"
"Getting on! You never knew such scenes as we've had. He's afraid of nobody. He licked Philpot to fits on Thursday—smashed him, I tell you. You never saw such a demon as he is when his dander's up. Then he walked into Rathbone; and if Rathbone hadn't been a foot taller than him, with arms as long as windmills, he'd have smashed Rathbone."
"Did he try it on you?" I inquired.
"No—why should he?" said the sturdy Flanagan; "time enough for that when I make a brute of myself to him. But I dare say he'd smash me too. It's as good as a play, I tell you. That time he did for Philpot he was as quick with his right, and walked in under his man's guard, and drove up at him, and took him on the flank just like—"
"A bad mark to Flanagan for talking, and to Batchelor for listening," rose the voice of Miss Henniker in the street.
This public award made us both jump, and colour up too, for there were a lot of ladies and gentlemen and young ladies close at hand, all of whom must have distinctly heard the Henniker's genial observation. However, I was most curious to hear more of Smith. Flanagan and I both had colds the rest of the way and finished our conversation behind our handkerchiefs.
"Have you heard any more about him?" asked I. "Not a word. He's as close as an owl. Hawkesbury says Hashford told him he came here straight from another school. By the way—keep your handkerchief up, man!—by the way, when I said he's afraid of no one, he is afraid of Hawkesbury, I fancy. I don't know why—"
"I don't think I like Hawkesbury, either. He's got such an everlasting grin."
"So will you have if you don't talk lower, you young idiot," said Flanagan. "Yes, it's the grin that fetches Smith, I fancy. I grinned at him one day, meaning to be friendly, but he didn't half like it."
I laughed at this, greatly to Flanagan's wrath. Luckily, however, no evil consequences happened, and we reached church without any more bad marks.
Of all days, Sunday at Stonebridge House was the most miserable and desperate. We had not even the occupation of lessons, still less the escape to the playground. After church, we were marched back to the school, and there set to read some dry task book till dinner.
And after dinner we were set to copy out a chapter of Jeremiah or some other equally suitable passage from beginning to end on ruled paper, getting bad marks as on week days for all faults. After this came tea, and after tea another dreary march forth to church. But the culminating horror of the day was yet to come. After evening church—and there really was a sense of escape and peace in the old church, even though we could not make out the sermon—after evening church, we were all taken up to Miss Henniker's parlour, and there doomed to sit perfectly still for a whole hour, while she read aloud something by one of the very old masters. Oh, the agony of those Sunday evenings!
I have sat fascinated by that awful voice, with a cramp in my leg that I dared not stir to relieve, or a tickling in the small of my back from which there was no escape, or a cobweb on my face I had not the courage to brush away. I have felt sleep taking possession of me, yet daring neither to yawn, nor nod my head, nor wink my eyes. I have stared fixedly at the gas, or the old china ornament on the mantelpiece, till my eyes became watery with the effort and I have suffered all the tortures of a cold in the head without the possibility either of sniffing or clearing my throat!
It made no difference to Miss Henniker that she was reading aloud. She had her eye on every one of us the whole time, nay, more than ever; and many a bad mark was sprinkled up with her readings.
"Once more, dearly beloved—Batchelor, a bad mark," became to me quite a familiar sound before I had been many Sundays at Stonebridge House.
This particular Sunday evening I thought I should go mad, at least, during the first part of the performance. I couldn't sit still, and the more I tried the more restless I became. At last, however, some chance directed my eyes to where the new boy was sitting in a distant corner of the room, and from that moment, I can't tell why, I became a model of quiet sitting. I found myself forgetting all about the cobwebs, and Mrs Hudson, and the china ornament, and the small of my back, and thinking of nothing but this solemn, queer boy, with his big eyes, and black hair, and troubled face. The more I looked at him the more sorry I felt for him, and the more I wished to be his friend. I would—
"Batchelor, repeat the last words I read," broke in Miss Henniker.
She thought she had me, but no! Far away as my thoughts had been, my ears had mechanically retained those last melodious strains, and I answered, promptly, "Latitudinarianism of an unintelligent emotionalism!"
One to me! And I returned to my brown study triumphant, and pretty secure against further molestation.
I made up my mind, come what would, I would speak to the new boy and let him see I was not against him.
Some one will smile, of course, and say, sarcastically, "What a treat for the new boy!" But if he only knew with what fear and trembling I made that resolution, he would acquit Fred Batchelor of any very great self-importance in the matter.
Bedtime came at last, and, thankful to have the day over, we crawled away to our roosts. The new boy's bed, as I have said, was next mine, and I conceived the determination, if I could only keep awake, of speaking to him after every one was asleep.
It was hard work that keeping awake; but I managed it. Gradually, one after another dropped off, and the padding footsteps overhead and the voices below died away till nothing was heard but the angry tick of the clock outside and the regular breathing of the sleepers on every hand.
Then I softly slid out of bed and crawled on my hands and knees to Smith's bed. It was an anxious moment for me. He might be asleep, and wake up in a fright to find some one near him; or he might be awake and resent my intrusion. Still I determined I would go to him, and I was rewarded.
"Is that Batchelor?" I heard him whisper as I approached his bed.
"Yes," I answered, joyfully, and feeling half the battle over.
"Come in," said he, moving to make room for me.
"Oh no!" I said, in terror at the very idea. "Suppose I fell asleep. I'll kneel here, and then if any one comes I can crawl back."
"What is it?" Smith said, presently, after a long and awkward pause.
I was thankful that he broke the ice.
"Oh," I whispered, "aren't you jolly miserable here, I say?"
"Pretty!" said he. "Aren't you?"
"Oh, yes! But the fellows are all so unkind to you."
Smith gave a little bitter laugh. "That doesn't matter," he said.
"Doesn't it? I wish I was bigger, I'd back you up—and so will Flanagan, if you let him."
"Thanks, old man!" said the new boy, putting his hand on my arm. "It's not the fellows I mind, it's—" and here he pulled up.
"Old Henniker," I put in, in accents of smothered rage.
"Ugh!" said Smith; "she's awful!"
But somehow it occurred to me the Henniker was not what Smith was going to say when he pulled up so suddenly just before. I felt certain there was something mysterious about him, and of course, being a boy, I burned to know.
However, he showed no signs of getting back to that subject, and we talked about a lot of things, thankful to have scope for once for our pent-up feelings. It was one of the happiest times I had known for years, as I knelt there on the hard carpetless floor and found my heart going out to the heart of a friend. What we talked about was of little moment; it was probably merely about boys' trifles, such as any boy might tell another. What was of moment was that there, in dreary, cheerless Stonebridge House, we had found some interest in common, and some object for our spiritless lives.
I told him all about home and my uncle, in hopes that he would be equally communicative, but here he disappointed me.
"Are your father and mother dead too?" I said.
"Not both," he replied.
It was spoken in a tone half nervous, half vexed, so I did not try to pursue the subject.
Presently he changed the subject and said, "How do you like that fellow Hawkesbury?"
"Not much; though I don't know why."
Smith put out his hand and pulled my face close to his as he whispered, "I hate him!"
"Has he been bullying you?" I inquired.
"No," said Smith. "But he's—ugh—I don't know any more than you do why I hate him. I say, shall you be out in the playground to-morrow?"
"Yes, unless I get four bad marks before. I've two against me already."
"Oh, don't get any more. I want to go for a walk."
"A walk!" I exclaimed. "You'll never be allowed!"
"But we might slip out just for a few minutes; it's awful never to get out."
It was awful; but the risk. However, I had promised to back him up, and so I said where he went I would go.
"If it was only to climb one tree, or see just one bird on the bushes," he said, almost pathetically. "But I say, ain't you getting cold?"
I was not, I protested, and for a long time more we continued talking. Then at last the creaking of a board, or the noise of a mouse, startled us in earnest, and in a moment I had darted back to my bed. All was quiet again.
"Good-night, old boy," I whispered.
"Good-night, old man. Awfully good of you," he replied. "I'll come to you to-morrow."
And not long after we were both sound asleep.
I managed to keep down my bad marks below four next day, so that I was able once more to take my walks abroad in the playground.
It was with a little feeling of misgiving that I sallied forth, for Smith was at my side, reminding me of our resolution to escape, if only for a few minutes, to the free country outside. I would greatly have preferred not trying it, but Smith was set on it, and I had not the face to leave him in the lurch.
The far end of the playground, beyond the swings, broke into a patch of tangled thicket, beyond which again a little ditch separated the grounds of Stonebridge House from the country outside.
To this thicket, therefore, we wandered, after "showing ourselves" on the swings for a few minutes, for the sake of allaying suspicions. The other fellows were most of them loafing about on the far side of the gravel yard, where the marble holes were; so we managed to make our escape pretty easily, and found ourselves at length standing on the breezy heath. Once there, Smith's whole manner changed to one of wild delight. The sense of freedom seemed to intoxicate him, and the infection seized me too. We scampered about in a perfectly ridiculous manner; up hills and down hollows, leaping over bushes, chasing one another, and, in fact, behaving exactly like two kids (as we were), suddenly let loose from confinement.
"I say," said I, all out of breath, "suppose we run clean away, Smith?"
Smith pulled up in the middle of a scamper, and looked up and down on every side. Then the old solemn look came as he replied, "Where to, that's it?"
"Oh, Brownstroke, if you like; or your home. Let's turn up, you know, and give them a jolly surprise."
Smith's face clouded over as he said, hurriedly, "I say, it's time to be going back, or we shall get caught."
This was an effectual damper to any idea of flight, and we quickly turned back once more to Stonebridge House.
We found our gap all right, and strolled back past the swings and up the gravel walk as unconcernedly as possible, fully believing no one had been witness of our escapade. We were wrong.
Hawkesbury came up to us as we neared the house, with the usual smile on his face.
"Didn't you hear me calling?" he said. "You know it's against rules to go out of bounds, and I thought—"
"What! who's been out of bounds?" said the voice of the Henniker at that moment.
Hawkesbury looked dejected.
"Who did you say, Hawkesbury, had been out of bounds?"
"I'd rather not tell tales," said Hawkesbury, sweetly.
"I've been out of bounds," blurted out Smith, "and so has Batchelor. I asked him to come, and Hawkesbury has been spying and—"
"Silence," cried Miss Henniker. "Smith and Batchelor, follow me."
We followed duly to Mr Ladislaw's study, where we were arraigned. Hawkesbury was sent for as evidence. He came smiling, and declared he may have been mistaken, perhaps it was two other boys; he hoped we should not be punished, etcetera. Smith was nearly breaking out once or twice during this, and it was all I could do to keep him in. Hawkesbury was thanked and dismissed, and then, with the assistance of Miss Henniker, Mr Hashford, and Mr Ladislaw, Smith and I were birched, and forbidden the playground for a fortnight, during which period we were required to observe absolute silence.
So ended our little adventure out for a puff of free air! Among our fellows we gained little enough sympathy for our misfortunes. Flanagan was the only fellow who seemed really sorry. The rest of the ill- conditioned lot saw in the affair only a good opportunity of crowing over their ill-starred adversary, and telling me it served me right for chumming up to such a one.
One day, greatly to my surprise, when the Henniker was away superintending the flogging of Flanagan for some offence or other, Hawkesbury came over and sat beside me.
"Oh," said he, softly, "Batchelor, I've been wanting to tell you how sorry I am I helped get you into your scrape. I didn't mean—I was only anxious for you to know the rule. I hope you'll forgive me?" and he held out his hand.
What could I do? Perhaps he was telling the truth after all, and we had thought too badly of him. And when a big boy comes and asks pardon of a small one, it is always embarrassing for the latter. So I gave him my hand, and told him I was sure he did not mean it, and that it did not matter at all.
"Thanks, Batchelor," he said, smiling quite gratefully. "It's a relief to me."
Then I watched him go on what I knew was a similar errand to Smith, but, as I expected, his reception in that quarter was not quite so flattering as it had been in my case. I could see my chum's eyes fire up as he saw the elder boy approach, and a flush come over his pale cheeks. I watched Hawkesbury blandly repeating his apology, and then suddenly, to my astonishment and consternation, I saw Smith rise in his seat and throw himself furiously upon his enemy. Hawkesbury was standing near a low form, and in the sudden surprise caused by this attack he tripped over it and fell prone on the floor, just as Miss Henniker re-entered.
There was a brief pause of universal astonishment, then the Henniker demanded, "What is this? Tell me. What is all this, Hawkesbury?"
Hawkesbury had risen to his feet, smiling as ever, and brushing the dust from his coat, replied softly, "Nothing, really nothing, ma'am. I fell down, that's all."
"I knocked you down!" shouted Smith, panting like a steam-engine, and trembling with excitement.
"Oh," said Hawkesbury, kindly, though not quite liking the downright way in which the adventure had been summed up. "It was only play, Miss Henniker. My fault as much as Smith's. He never meant to be so rough. Really."
"Silence, both!" said Miss Henniker. "Smith, follow me!"
"Oh, Miss Henniker, please don't punish him," said Hawkesbury.
"Silence," replied the Henniker, icily. "Come, Smith."
Miss Henniker had the wonderful art of knowing by instinct who was the culprit in cases like this. She was never troubled with a doubt as to her verdict being a right one; and really it saved her a great deal of trouble.
Smith was haled away to justice, where, in addition to a flogging and further term of imprisonment, he was reduced for a given period to a bread-and-water diet, and required publicly to beg Hawkesbury's pardon.
That there might be no delay about the execution of the last part of the sentence, the culprit was conducted back forthwith to the schoolroom, accompanied by Miss Henniker and Mr Ladislaw.
"Hawkesbury," said the latter, addressing the injured boy, "I have desired Smith to beg your pardon here and now for his conduct to you. Smith, do as you have been told."
Smith remained silent, and I who watched him could see that his mind was made up.
"Do you hear Mr Ladislaw, Smith?" demanded the Henniker; "do as you are bid, at once."
"Please, sir," began Hawkesbury, with his pleasant smile.
"Silence, Hawkesbury," said the Henniker. "Now, Smith."
But she might have been addressing a log of wood.
"Do you hear what I say to you?" once more she exclaimed.
Smith only glared at her with his big eyes, and resolutely held his tongue.
"Then," said Mr Ladislaw, "Smith must be publicly punished."
Smith was punished publicly; and a more repulsive spectacle I never wish to witness. A public punishment at Stonebridge House meant a flogging administered to one helpless boy by the whole body of his schoolfellows, two of whom firmly held the victim, while each of the others in turn flogged him. In the case of an unpopular boy like Smith, this punishment was specially severe, and I turned actually sick as each of the cowardly louts stepped up and vented their baffled wrath upon him. Hawkesbury, of course, only made the slightest pretence of touching him; but this of all his punishment seemed to be the part Smith could bear least. At last, when it was all over, the bruised boy slunk back to his desk, and class proceeded.
That night, as I knelt beside my poor chum's bed, he said, "We've paid pretty dear for our run on the heath, Fred."
"You have, old man," I replied.
Smith lay still for some time musing, then he said, "Whatever do they mean by forgiving enemies, Fred?"
Smith didn't often get on these topics, and I was a little nervous as I replied, "What it says, I suppose."
"Does it mean fellows like Hawkesbury?"
"I should say so," said I, almost doubtful, from the way in which he spoke, whether after all I might not be mistaken.
"Queer," was all he replied, musingly.
I tried hard to change the subject.
"Are you awfully sore, Jack?" I said. "Have one of my pillows."
"Oh no, thanks. But I say, Fred, don't you think it's queer?"
"What, about forgiving your enemies? Well, yes it is, rather. But, I say, it's time I cut back. Good-night, old man."
And I crept back to bed, and lay awake half the night listening to him as he turned from side to side in his sleep, and feeling that everything and everybody was queer, especially my friend Smith.
CHAPTER OF MISFORTUNES BEFEL MY FRIEND SMITH AND ME.
The summer wore on, and with it the gloom of Stonebridge House sunk deeper and deeper into our spirits. After a week or two even the sense of novelty wore off, and we settled down to our drudges' doom as if we were destined all our lives never to see any place outside the Henniker's domain.
If it hadn't been for Smith I don't know how I should have endured it. Not that we ever had much chance of enjoying one another's society. In school it was wholly impossible. In the playground (particularly after our recent escapade), we had very little opportunity given us; and at night, when secretly we did contrive to talk, it was with the constant dread of detection hanging over us.
What concerned me most of all, though, was the bad way in which Smith seemed to get on with every one of his schoolfellows except me, and— perhaps Flanagan. With the bullies, like Philpot and Rathbone, he was at daggers drawn; towards the others he never took the trouble to conceal his dislike, while with Hawkesbury an explosion seemed always, imminent.
I could not understand why he got on so badly, especially with Hawkesbury, who certainly never made himself disagreeable, but, on the contrary, always appeared desirous to be friendly. I sometimes thought Smith was unreasonable to foster his instinctive dislike as he did.
"Jack," said I one night as he was "paying a call" to my bedside—"Jack, I'm half beginning to think Hawkesbury isn't so bad a fellow after all."
"Why?" demanded Smith.
"Oh, I don't know. He's done me one or two good turns lately."
"Well, he helped me in the Latin the other day, of his own accord, and—"
"Go on," said Smith, impatiently.
"And he gave me a knife to-day. You know I lost mine, and he said he'd got two."
"I'd like to catch him doing a good turn to me, that's all," said he. "I'd cure him of that!"
I didn't like to hear Smith talk like this. For one thing, it sounded as if he must be a great deal less foolish than I was, which nobody likes to admit; and for another thing, it seemed wrong and unreasonable, unless for a very good cause, to persist in believing nothing good about anybody else.
So I changed the subject.
"I say," said I, "what are you going to do these holidays?"
"Stay here," said he. "Are you going home?"
"What!" I exclaimed. "Stay here for four weeks with the old Hen? Why ever, Jack?"
"Don't know—but that's what I've got to do. Are you going home?"
"I suppose so," said I, with an inward groan. "But, Jack, what will you do with yourself?"
"Much as usual, I expect. Sha'n't get much practice in talking till you come back!" added he, with a low laugh.
"Jack, why don't you go home?" I exclaimed. "Are you in a row there, or what? You never tell me a word about it."
"Look-out, I hear some one moving!" cried Smith, and next moment he was back in his bed.
I was vexed. For I half guessed this alarm had been only an excuse for not talking about home, and I didn't like being silenced in that way. Altogether that night I was a good deal put out with Smith, and when presently he whispered across "Good-night," I pretended to be asleep, and did not answer.
But I was not asleep, and could not sleep. I worked myself first into a rage, then into an injured state, and finally into a miserable condition over my friend Smith.
Why should he keep secrets from me, when I kept none from him? No, when I came to think over it, I did not keep a single secret from him! Did he think I was not to be trusted, or was too selfish to care? He might have known me better by this time. It was true I had told him my secrets without his asking for them; in fact, all along he had not seemed nearly as anxious as I had been for this friendship of ours. My conscience stung me at this last reflection; and there came upon me all of a sudden a sense of the utter desolation of this awful place without a single friend! No, I determined it should take more than a little pique to make me cast away my only friend. And with the thought, though it must have been far on in the night, I slipped from my bed and crawled to his.
He was fast asleep, but at the first touch of my hand he started up and said, "What's the row?"
"I'm sorry, Jack; but I was in a temper to-night, and couldn't go to sleep till I made it up."
"A temper! what about?" said he. "I didn't know you were."
"I fancied you wouldn't—that is, that you thought—you didn't trust me, Jack."
"You're the only fellow I do trust, Fred, there," said he, taking my arm. Then, with a sigh, he added, "Why shouldn't I?"
"What a beast I was, Jack!" cried I, quite repentant. "I don't—"
"Hush!" said Jack. Then, whispering very close to my ear, he added, "There are some things, you know, I can't tell even you—about home—"
There was a sound in the room, as of a boy, suddenly aroused, starting up in his bed. Our blood turned cold, and we remained motionless, hardly daring to breathe, straining our ears in the darkness.
Suddenly the boy, whoever he was, sprang from his bed, and seizing the lucifers, struck a light.
It was Hawkesbury! I had almost guessed it. I felt Jack's hand tighten on my arm as the sudden glare fell full upon us, and Hawkesbury's voice cried, "Oh, you fellows, what a start you gave me! I couldn't make out what the talking was. I thought it must be thieves!"
At the same moment the dormitory door opened, and a new glare lit up the scene. It was Miss Henniker in her dressing-gown, with a candle.
"What, talking? Who was talking?" she said, overhearing Hawkesbury's last exclamation.
It was a queer picture that moment, and I can recall it even now. Hawkesbury standing in his night-shirt in the middle of the room. I, as lightly clad, crouching transfixed beside my friend's bed, who was sitting up with his hand on my arm. And the Henniker there at the door, in her yellow-and-black dressing-gown and curl-papers, holding her candle above her head, and looking from one to the other.
"Who was talking?" she demanded again, turning to Hawkesbury.
Hawkesbury, smiling, returned to his bed, as he replied, "Oh, nothing. I think I must have been dreaming, and woke in a fright."
But as he spoke his eyes turned to us two, and Miss Henniker's followed naturally. Then the whole truth dawned upon her.
I rose from my knees and walked sheepishly back to my bed.
"What are you doing out of your bed, sir?" demanded she.
It was little use delaying matters by a parley, so I replied, bluntly, "Talking to Smith."
"And I," added the loyal Smith, "was talking to Batchelor!"
"Silence!" cried the Griffin. "Batchelor, dress immediately, and follow me!"
I did as I was bid, mechanically—that is, I slipped on my knickerbockers and slippers—and found myself in a couple of minutes, thus airily attired, following Miss Henniker, like a ghost, down the long passage. She led the way, not, as I expected, to the parlour, or to Mr Ladislaw's room, but conducted me upstairs and ushered me into a small and perfectly empty garret.
"Remain here, Batchelor!" said she, sternly.
The next moment she was gone, locking the door behind her, and I was left shivering, and in total darkness, to spend the remainder of the night in these unexpected quarters.
My first sensation was one of utter and uncontrollable rage. I was tempted to fling myself against the door, to shout, to roar until some one should come to release me. Then as suddenly came over me the miserable certainty that I was helpless, and that anything I did would be but labour lost, and injure no one but myself. And, Smith, too! It was all up with our precious secret parleys; perhaps we should not even be allowed to see one another any more. In my misery I sat down on the floor in a corner of my dungeon and felt as if I would not much care if the house were to fall about my ears and bury me in the ruins. Cheerful reflection this for a youth of my tender years!
As I sat, shivering and brooding over my hard fate, I heard footsteps ascending the stairs. When you are sitting alone in an empty room, at the dead of night, this is never a very fascinating sound, and I did not much enjoy it.
And as I listened I could make out that the footsteps belonged to two people. Perhaps I was going to be murdered, I reflected, like Prince Arthur, or the two boys in the Tower! At the same moment a streak of light glimmered through the crack of the door, and I heard a voice say, "Come this way, Smith."
So Smith, too, was going to be locked up for the night. My heart bounded as for an instant it occurred to me it would be in my dungeon! No such good fortune! They passed my door. At any rate, my chum should know where I was, so I proceeded to make a demonstration against my door and beseech, in the most piteous way, to be released. Of course, it was no use, but that did not matter; I never expected it would.
I listened hard to the retreating footsteps, which stopped at the end of the passage. Then a door opened and shut again, a key turned, one pair of steps again returned past my door, and as I peeped through the keyhole I had a vague idea of a yellow-and-black gown, and knew that the Henniker had gone back to her place.
If only Smith had been shut up next door to me I might have been able to shout to him so that he could hear, but what chance was there when three or four rooms at least divided us? After all, except that he was near me, and knew where I was, things were not much better than they had been before. So I sat down again in my corner and sulkily watched the first glimmers of dawn peep in at the little window. It must be about 3 a.m., I thought. And that meant four good hours before any chance of a release came. And as it was, my feet were pretty nearly dead with cold, and a thin nightgown is not much covering for a fellow's body and arms. It rather pleased me to think the adventure might end fatally, and that at my inquest Miss Henniker might be brought in guilty of manslaughter.
It must be breezy, for those leaves have been tapping away at my window the last minute or so pretty hard. Bother the leaves! And yet, when you come to think of it, you do not often hear leaves tap as hard as that! My window will be smashed in if they keep it up at that rate. So I get up lazily and approach the scene of action.
I nearly screamed as I did so, for there, close up against the window, was a face! I was so taken aback that it took me a good minute to recover my wits and perceive that the apparition was none other than my faithful friend Jack Smith, and that the tapping I had been giving the leaves such credit for had been his eager attempts to attract my attention.
I sprang to the window, jubilant, and opened it.
"Oh, Jack! hurrah! However did you get here?"
"Oh, you have spotted me at last, have you?" said he, with a grim smile. "I've been here five or ten minutes."
"You have!" exclaimed I.
"Yes. My window opened on to this ledge, too; so I didn't see why I shouldn't come."
"You might have fallen and killed yourself. But I say, Jack, won't you come in? Even if we do get caught things can't be much worse than they are."
"I know that—so I think you'd better come out."
"What for?" exclaimed I, in astonishment.
"To get away—anywhere," said he.
In a moment I was up on the window-sill, scrambling out on to the ledge beside him. The fresh morning breeze blew on my face as I did so, and a glorious sense of freedom took hold of both our drooping spirits. We needed no words. Only let us get free!
"Come along," said Jack, crawling along the narrow ledge which ran round the top of the house.
"How shall we get down?" I asked.
"That's what I want to find out," said Jack. "Isn't there a water-pipe or something in front?"
Carefully we made our perilous journey round the side of the house towards the front. Smith leaned over and peered down.
"Yes," said he, "there's a water-pipe we could easily slide down, if we could only get at it. Look!"
I looked over too. The ground seemed a long way below, and I felt a trifle nervous at the prospect of trying to reach it by such unorthodox means as a water-pipe, even could we get at that pipe. But the ledge on which we were overhung the side of the house, and the pipe began under it, just below where we stood.
"We must try, anyhow," said Jack, desperately. "I'll go first; catch hold of my hands, Fred."
And he was actually going to attempt to scramble over and round under the ledge, when he suddenly paused, and cried, "Hold hard. I do believe this bit of ledge is loose!"
So it was. It shook as we stood upon it.
"We might be able to move it," said Jack.
So we knelt down and with all our might tugged away at the stone that divided us from our water-pipe. It was obstinate at first, but by dint of perseverance it yielded to pressure at last, and we were able triumphantly to lift it from its place.
It was easy enough now reaching the pipe. But here a new peril arose. Sliding down water-pipes is an acquired art, and not nearly as easy as it seems. Jack, who volunteered to make the first descent, looked a little blue as he found the pipe was so close to the wall that he couldn't get his hands round, much less his feet.