On Board the Esmeralda; or, Martin Leigh's Log
by John Conroy Hutcheson ___________ There is no doubt that John Hutcheson was a talented writer of books for teenagers. Most of his books were about the sea, but few of them were as well-written as this one. What is meant here is that his English style is very good, even when he brings in characters whose command of English is less perfect; and also that he drives his characters from one gripping situation to another.
The hero, Martin Leigh, is the son of a brave British Naval officer, who was killed in Africa when the boy is very young. The mother also dies, and Martin is left an orphan, to be brought up by his father's brother. He has a horrible time in this family, and Aunt Matilda is his chief tormentor. Eventually he is sent to a cheap boarding school with a prospectus in no way matched by reality. Again he has a horrible time, for several years, but is befriended by another boy, Tom. One year, on Guy Fawkes' Day, they perpetrate a misdemeanour far beyond what they should have done, and are sentenced to be expelled. They run away, and stow away in a little coaster. When they are discovered, the captain beats them even worse than the Headmaster of their school had done. So Martin, aged thirteen, has known nothing but hard times.
He meets with nice people, has a while in which he gets his act together, and then goes to sea again. This trip is full of adventure, near misses and disasters. Fire at sea, wrecked on the southern tip of South Anerica, and finally back home to the kind people who had befriended him when he had that early chance to settle down.
It is a well-written book, easy to read or to listen to, and I recommend it as one of Hutcheson's best. N.H. ___________
ON BOARD THE ESMERALDA; OR, MARTIN LEIGH'S LOG
BY JOHN CONROY HUTCHESON
It is strange what trifling events—little things apparently in themselves—seem to have the power of shaping our different destinies, and colouring, so to speak, the whole course of our subsequent life!
To illustrate this, I may state without exaggeration that, had it not been for Dr Hellyer's hat—taken in connection with the mischievous promptings of that madcap Tom Larkyns, my special chum at the time—it is more than probable that the grand climax which so abruptly brought my school-days to a close might have been averted; and, in that case, following out the argument, I should not have gone to sea; have never started on that disastrous voyage round Cape Horn which nearly terminated my then newly-commenced nautical career as summarily as my whilom academical studies had been put a stop to just previously; and, as a natural consequence, I should most certainly have never had the opportunity or necessity for spinning the present yarn. But, perhaps, the best plan for me to pursue, in order to make you fully understand the matter in all its bearings, will be to "begin at the beginning," as your regular 'longshore professional storytellers say, in the good old- fashioned way, without any more backing and filling, and veering and hauling, which mode of progression, as every decent sailor knows, only tends to take a craft off her proper true course, and make lots of leeway; whereas, if we sail on free, with a fair wind and a steady helm, you'll soon be able to follow in my wake and form a correct opinion of your own as to the merits of my logical conclusions.
I will now, therefore, put back again and select a fresh point of departure after this little bit of sea lawyering; so, here goes for a start in earnest!
My name is Martin Leigh, and my mother died shortly after I was born, worse luck for me! My father, who was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, being within a year or two subsequently killed in action up the Niger river on the west coast of Africa, I was left an orphan at a very early age, without having ever experienced, even in my most remote childish recollections, those two greatest of all blessings—a mother's love and parental guidance—which many who have been more fortunate than myself to possess are, as I have frequently noticed in after-life, but too often in the habit of undervaluing and making light of.
At the time of my birth, my father was abroad on service in the exercise of his profession, having no private fortune or other resources which would have enabled him to live at home on his half-pay; and on my mother's early death I was taken charge of at his request by his brother, a man considerably older than himself, with a wife and family of his own. Of course, while my father lived he made over a portion of the honorarium given him by a grateful country in return for exposing his life at the call of duty; but, on his suddenly succumbing to the effects of a murderous slug shot through the lungs, fired from the old flint musket of one of the King of Abarri's adherents, in the pestilential African stream up which he had gone to demolish a native stronghold that had defied the fetish of the British flag, this allowance for my support ceased, and I was thenceforth left a poor pensioner on my uncle's bounty. I will do my relative the justice of stating that I do not believe he would have grudged the extra expense I entailed on his already well-populated household, had it not been for my aunt. This lady, however, affectionately regarded me as an interloper from the very first; and I have a vivid memory, even now, of the aggravating way she had of talking about the food I ate and the clothes I wore out—although, goodness knows, my tailor's bill could not have amounted to much in those days, as I was invariably made the residuary legatee of my elder cousin Ralph's cast-off jackets and trousers, which, when pretty nearly dilapidated, used to be made over to my use, after being first cut down by my Aunt Matilda's own fair hands to suit my more juvenile proportions.
To make a long story short, I could plainly perceive, young as I was, long before I had cut my eye teeth, that I was looked upon as an uncalled-for incumbrance by my relatives, senior and junior alike—Aunt Matilda never being dissuaded, by any fear of hurting my feelings, from continually speaking of my pauper condition, and throwing it, as it were, in my face, wondering in her hypocritical way what special sin she could have committed that she should thus be afflicted in having to "deny her own children their rightful bread," that I, miserable orphan, might "wax fat and kick," as she said; while my cousins, who were a very mean lot, dutifully followed the example set them by their mother, in making me "realise my position," as they termed their cruel tyranny. Uncle George used sometimes to take my part when some hazy recollection of his dead brother came before his mind, declaring that as long as he had a crust to spare I should not want; still, as the incessant dropping of water will in the end wear away stone, so my aunt's persistent nagging and iteration of my shortcomings in resisting my cousins' bullying had their due effect in time.
The upshot was that, when I had just turned my twelfth year and had experienced a childhood of martyrdom which I trust few others situated like myself will ever have to undergo, my uncle came to the determination of sending me away to a cheap boarding-school at a distance, where I was to be taught and boarded and "found" for the munificent sum I believe of twelve pounds annually. The proviso was, I may add, especially insisted on by my Aunt Matilda, that I was not to return "home"—I beg that hearty word's pardon for so misapplying it— for the holidays at any period whatever, but was to spend my whole time under the academical roof-tree until my pupilage should expire.
Hitherto I had received no regular instruction whatever, and had it not been for the kind offices of a good-natured servant-maid, I would have been unable either to read or write. Indeed, I believe the neighbours must have gossiped about my neglected state and the position I occupied in the house, where I had to perform all sorts of menial offices, and was hardly ever allowed out of doors, except on Sundays, when I had to go to the chapel which my aunt attended. Be that as it may, at all events, I was told by my friend, the maid-servant aforesaid, that the minister of this chapel had remonstrated on my behalf. Thence came the determination on my uncle's part to send me to school; for I am certain that if my dear aunt could have had her own way, without the fear of being talked about in the locality, she would much rather have entrusted me to the care of the parochial authorities. However, in whatever way the matter was decided, I know that when I heard the news I felt inclined to jump for joy, considering "going to school," which is so dreaded at first by boys with happier homes than I had been accustomed to, would be a delightful deliverance from the misery to which I had been condemned from infancy in my uncle's house—living like an Ishmael, with every hand, save that of Uncle George and Molly the maid, raised against me.
"Now, Martin," said my uncle, when he informed me of the result of the family council held on my case, "as I'm only a poor man, I'm straining a point and crippling my means in order to send you to school; but I am doing it so that you may be educated to earn your own living, which you'll have to do as soon as the three years expire for which I have contracted with Dr Hellyer; after that it will be out of my power to do anything further for you."
"All right, uncle," said I, buoyantly, so carried away with excitement at the news that I almost felt kindly disposed towards my aunt, who was standing by, although she tried to damp my spirits as much as in her lay.
"You are only throwing away your money, George," she remarked acidly to my uncle. "He has always shown an ungrateful, thankless disposition; and his bad, undutiful temper will be certain to bring him to ruin!"
"Let us hope not," replied uncle, placidly. He was a quiet, easy-going business man, employed in the City, and used to let things quietly take their own course, except when sometimes they touched him too keenly to be left unnoticed. He then went on addressing me:
"You will have to be steady and diligent, making the most of your time; and the master will report to me every quarter as to your conduct and zeal in learning."
"Nice reports they'll be!" interposed my aunt, mockingly.
"Well, well," hurriedly concluded Uncle George, to get the thing ended as soon as possible. "Your fortune is all in your own hands, and I hope and trust, if only for your father's sake, you will turn out well! Remember, that if Dr Hellyer gives a good general report of you at the end of your three years' term, I'll try to get you into a City warehouse or office; but if you behave badly, why, you'll have to shift for yourself, and go your own course, as I shall wash my hands of you!"
There the conversation ended, with an intimation that I was to go to Dr Hellyer's school in three days' time.
The interval passed like a whirlwind to me; for not only were my thoughts full of the new life on which I was entering, but there was in addition the very unusual bustle attendant on my being provided with a wardrobe—I for whom anything had been good enough before! My uncle, however, had now made it a sine qua non that I should be fitted out properly with decent clothes, and, consequently, my aunt was obliged to furnish me with a thorough rig, selected from my Cousin Ralph's surplus stock. One thing pleased me in this better than all else! It was that, instead of having my outer raiment composed, as previously, of Ralph's cast-off garments, I was measured for an entirely new suit of my own. This alone was an unexpected gratification; for I hated the fact of my being compelled to wear Ralph's discarded clothes. It had been gall and wormwood to me. I loathed myself for having to put them on, and loathed him as the malicious instrument that caused me to be so degraded—the more especially as my cousin would in "a friendly sort of way" frequently allude to the circumstance of the clothes having been formerly his, calling attention to my want of care in treating them properly!
All things have an end, fortunately, and the morning arrived at last when I had to bid farewell to the villa on the outskirts of Islington where I had passed so many miserable years. Molly, the servant-maid, was the only one in the house with whom I parted with any regret; and it was with feelings considerably more exultant than sad that I accompanied my uncle to the City in the omnibus which he always took to his place of business, that convenient vehicle passing by in its route the corner of the road where uncle lived.
Arriving at the London Bridge terminus, Uncle George ensconced me and my box in a train, bound for Beachampton, at which retired and out-of-the- way little watering-place was situated Dr Hellyer's school.
Handing me then my railway ticket and a two-and-sixpenny "tip," Uncle George gave me a hearty hand-shake, wishing me good-bye and a safe journey.
"Mind you be a good boy, and pay attention to your lessons," he said. "And—listen, Martin—should you ever be in any serious trouble, you can write and let me know. But mind," added Uncle George, "you mustn't forget, my boy, to address your letters to my office, and not to the villa; for your Aunt Matilda might not like the idea, you know, eh!"
"All right, Uncle George," I answered. "I will remember where to write to, never fear. Good-bye now, and thank you for all your kindness to me."
"Good-bye, Martin!" he echoed; and, as the train moved slowly out of the station, I really felt quite sorry to part with him; but, as the panting engine proceeded on its way, going faster as it emerged from the labyrinthic terminus on to the open line, dragging the groaning, wheezing, jolting carriages behind it—the clatter of the wheels and rattle of the coupling-chains keeping time with the puffs and pants of escaping steam—my temporary emotion at parting with Uncle George was banished by the exultant feeling of being set free, like a bird let loose from a cage.
I was only conscious that I was flying along to new scenes and new surroundings, where everything would be fresh and novel, and entirely unlike what I had previously been accustomed to at Tapioca Villa.
My journey "down the line" was a momentous matter to me in more ways than one; for, independently of the fact of its being the first opportunity I had ever had of riding in a railway train, it was while travelling down to Brighton, and thence along the endless south coast route past Shoreham and Worthing, that I had my first sight of the sea— that sea on whose restless bosom my floating home was to be made for many a year afterwards in good fortune and ill.
I must confess, however, that this first view of the element did not impress me very greatly, in spite of the tendency of my mind at that period to take a rose-coloured view of everything new that came within range of my vision, so long as it was totally disconnected with old associations of the Islington villa; for, from the window of the third- class carriage, whence I was peering out eagerly to see all that was to be seen, the marine horizon that stretched out before my gaze appeared more like a large inverted wash-hand basin than anything else, with the ships that were going up and down Channel, seeming to be sailing in a curve along its outer rim; while, instead of the vivid hue of cerulean blue that had been pictured in my imagination as the invariable tint of Neptune's domain, the sober tone of the tumid element was that of a dull brownish-grey, reflecting the unwholesome leaden-tinged sky above, and, there being no wind to speak of, there wasn't the ghost of a ripple perceptible on its sullen, silent surface!
Even novelty tires after a time, and long before I had reached my destination I had got heartily sick of railway travelling; so, I was very glad when, after changing carriages at a junction between Brighton and somewhere else on the line, sometimes going fast, sometimes slow, and thus crawling along landwise and seaward through miles of country for four hours or more, the train came to a standstill beside the platform of the little station to which I had been consigned on leaving London.
"'Champt'n! 'Champt'n!" cried out somebody with a cracked voice, and this sound approximating to the name of the place I was looking out for, combined with the fact that the engine began vigorously to blow off steam, I became convinced that I had arrived at my goal; so, out I got from the uncomfortable and cushionless carriage in which I had performed the toilsome journey, not forgetting, you may be sure, the box containing my grand rig-out of new clothes, which Aunt Matilda would not let me wear on the journey for fear, as she said, of my spoiling them. This box I had carefully kept on a seat beside me, in full view of my watchful eye, all the way, lest some accident might befall it, although not another soul save myself occupied the compartment.
When taking leave of me, Uncle George had said that some responsible person would meet me on my arrival at the station to take charge of me, from the "scholastic establishment;" and as I had conceived the most magnificent ideas of this place from a lithograph I had seen at the top of the prospectus referring to it, representing a palatial mansion standing in its own grounds, with a commanding view of the adjacent sea, I stared about the platform, expecting to see a gorgeous footman in livery or some other imposing personage, who would presently step up requesting me to take a seat in a coach-and-four or similar stately vehicle, and then drive me off in triumph to the educational mansion.
But, lo and behold! no footman or imposing personage made his appearance; nor did any one seem to be on the look-out for my insignificant self. My spirits began to sink almost to zero, which point they reached anon in the descending scale, when, as soon as everybody else who had come by the train had bustled out of the station, an old and broken-down looking porter, in a shabby velveteen jacket, standing on the other side of the line, shouted out to me across the rails in a tone of inquiry, and in a voice which I immediately recognised as that which had screeched out the name of the place as the train ran in—
"B'y fur Hellyer's, hey?"
I felt annihilated.
"Do you mean to ask whether I am the new pupil for Dr Hellyer's establishment?" I said—with some dignity, I flatter myself.
But that horrible porter was not a bit abashed!
"Yees," he drawled out in his cracked accents, with an intonation that clearly evinced the fact of his having been born in Sussex. "Hellyer's school i' the village, b'y, that's wat I mean! Y'er to come along o' me. Poot yer box on yer shoulder and crass the line, young maister, an' I'll shoo yer way down."
This was not to be borne.
I had been treated like a menial in my uncle's household, and had perforce to bear it, but I had made up my mind on leaving Tapioca Villa that I should never be so degraded again if I could possibly help it.
It wasn't likely, therefore, that I was now going to be at the beck and call of a railway porter, after all my boastful resolves—not quite!
I flew into a passion at once: I felt inclined to kill the unfortunate man.
"Come over and take up my box yourself, porter," I cried angrily, my face flaring up furiously as I spoke, I have no doubt. "I shall not forget, either, to complain to Dr Hellyer about your insolence."
"Ho, ho, ho, the-at be a good un," laughed the old man from his vantage- ground on the opposite platform. "I thinks I say un neow, an' you a- talkin' 'bout I!"
However, as I stamped my foot and repeated my order in a tone of command, he, evidently much surprised and obeying from the force of habit in one accustomed to yield to others, crossed over the line, the broad country yokel grin with which he had received my first reply, giving place to a surly look.
"Y'er a foine young bantam," he muttered grumblingly in his wheezy cracked voice, as he stooped to raise my precious box, "but I specs, young maister, yer'll soon ha' yer comb cut, sure-ly!"
I said nothing further to this sally, my anger having by this time evaporated; and the old man, poising the light load easily on one shoulder, walked leisurely out of the station without uttering another word, I following him also in silence.
Proceeding along a straggling street, which was more like a country lane than anything else, with a few shops scattered about here and there at intervals, for more than half a mile or more—he in front with my box, I closely stepping in the rear—after turning sharp round to the right and then to the left, past a little corner building which seemed to be a wayside inn, but was triumphantly lettered "hotel" along the top of its gable end, we at length debouched on to a solitary-looking semi-deserted row of red-brick houses that occupied one side of a wild-looking, furze- grown common, which I could perceive faced the sea; the sound of the low murmurs of the waves on the beach alone breaking the stillness of the desolate scene.
This terrace apparently consisted entirely of lodging houses, and it being the month of November, and the "season" of the little watering- place having closed, bills with "Apartments to Let" were exposed in the windows of almost all; almost, but not quite all, for my crack-voiced friend when he arrived about the middle of the row stopped in front of one of the most unprepossessing habitations of the lot, without any notice displayed like the others. Here, putting down my box on the steps, he rang a side-bell that gave out a melancholy clang for a moment, and caused quite a bustle of excitement in the two adjacent houses, heads being popped out to see who the unexpected new-comers might be.
"Here be un," said the old porter, taking off his leathern cap, and wiping his forehead with what looked like a tattered "Danger" flag that had been used up on the line and discarded from further service.
"Oh!" I ejaculated, having nothing further to say, for, on seeing the grand establishment I had anticipated dwarfed to such very humble proportions, I felt terribly small and contemptible in my own sight. The dignity that I had so recently aired at the old man's expense shrank into nothingness, and I was quite relieved that he did not take advantage of the opportunity to "put me down a peg or two."
As a sort of sop to Cerberus, and in order to try and maintain my position of independence a few moments longer, I drew out the odd sixpence which Uncle George had put into my hand along with the two shillings of my tip, giving it to the old porter with the air of one with whom such trifling coins were as plentiful as blackberries!
"Take that, my good man," said I, "for your trouble in showing me the way."
"H'm!" he grunted between his teeth, but whether meaning to thank me or not, I could not say; and then, without waiting for the door to be opened, as I naturally imagined, he turned on his heel, and made off back again towards the station.
I had to ring a second time at the side-bell before any person appeared to answer my summons; and then, sad be it to relate, the portal of the mansion was opened by a dirty, down-at-heels, draggle-tailed old woman instead of the staid, respectable man-servant who should have officiated as janitor to be in proper keeping with the brilliant prospectus before mentioned.
"Oh, it's you, is it!" exclaimed the old woman, who had drawn back the door gingerly as if she had expected some one else on possibly a hostile mission, for an expression of relief came over her face when she saw only me; and then, ushering me into a little room leading out of the hall, she left me there, telling me to sit down. I had brought my box in with me, you may be sure, otherwise this feat would have been impossible, as there was not a single chair in the apartment, the major portion of the furniture of the house, as I subsequently learnt, having been seized by the sheriff's officers for rent.
My first interview with Doctor Hellyer did not last very long; but it certainly was to the point, so far as it went towards impressing me with his ponderous personality, for he was a big, smooth-faced, fat, oily man, with a crafty look in his little twinkling eyes.
"Ah, Leigh—ah," said he on coming, presently, into the room, "you've come at last—ah?"
This "ah-ing" of his was a confirmed habit, for he never seemed able to begin or end a sentence without dragging in the ejaculation.
"Yes, sir," I replied, rising up from my box, and taking off my cap politely.
"Ah—I've had a nice character of you from your aunt, my dear young gentleman," he proceeded, blinking his little ferret-like eyes furiously, and with a dubious sort of grin expanding his wide mouth, which was furnished with a set of teeth like a shark's. "She tells me— ah—Master Leigh, that you are rude, and bold, and bad, and disobedient—ah—and that I shall have to keep a strict watch over your conduct; but I think—ah—you will find yourself in good hands here, my dee-er boy, really in good hands at last—ah!" and, smiling an ogreish smile, he rubbed the palms of the said members together up and down and over one another in a circular way as if he were kneading up a little ball of putty within them, and I was that ball!
Of course, as you may suppose, I offered no reply to this characteristic introductory address of Dr Hellyer, although the allusion he made to Aunt Matilda's treachery in trying to prejudice him against me—an attempt which, apparently, was as successful as it was intended to be— made me boil over with suppressed passion. It was just like her, I thought! I had hoped, on leaving Tapioca Villa, to have escaped the influence of her spiteful malignity; and yet here, at a distance, it was pursuing me still, when I really believed myself for ever beyond its reach.
The reflection so maddened me that, as I was unable at the time to give vent to my anger, my face flushed up as it always did when I was so roused by my temper getting the better of me; and I dare say I looked like a bellicose young turkey-cock.
My schoolmaster took advantage of the opportunity to "improve the occasion."
"Ah, I see," he went on, "your aunt was quite right in her estimate of your disposition; but, my dear excitable young friend, I must—ah—give you fair warning that if you feel inclined to be rude at any time, you'd better not be rude here, and if you are bold—ah—you'll get bowled out! Ah—that was an unintentional pun, Leigh, but I don't think you'll find me joking when I have to come to the point. Mind, I never flog a boy under any circumstances, but I've got an equally efficacious way of my own for making my pupils obey me, which never fails, and you'll probably have an early chance of getting familiar with it! Oh no, I never flog, but I've a way of my own, Master Leigh, a way of my own—ah!"
The infinite relish and gusto with which he repeated these last words of his are utterly indescribable; while the grin that overspread his fat countenance, wrinkling up its fleshy folds, can only be compared to the expression one sees carved out on those hideous gargoyles with which the architects of former days decorated the odd corners of our cathedrals.
I couldn't help shivering in my shoes; and Dr Hellyer, noticing this, evidently thought that he had made sufficient impression for a start, for, dropping his terrible, rolling, ponderous voice, he spoke to me more amiably.
"Now, leave your box here and it shall be taken up presently to the dormitory. Come along with me and I'll introduce you—ah—to your schoolfellows."
To hear was to obey; so, deserting my hitherto keenly-watched little property with many misgivings as to the chances of my ever setting eyes on it again, I followed Dr Hellyer out of the room and along a narrow passage that led directly to the back of the house. Throwing open a door at the further end, a flight of short stone steps was disclosed, descending to a wide yard or garden—that is, if one solitary tree in a remote corner supplied sufficient vegetation to give the place such a name—where I could see a lot of boys of all ages and sizes jumping about and otherwise diverting themselves.
"Ah—this is our—ah—playground, Leigh," explained the master, with a comprehensive wave of his arm; and, then, the chorus of yells, shouts, screams, and stray laughter that at first echoed through my ears, like the din of Pandemonium, having ceased as soon as the Doctor's presence in their midst was perceived by the boys, that worthy very briefly introduced me.
"Here's a new boy—ah—make friends with him; but, ah—no fighting!"
Having thus done as much as he thought necessary, the master withdrew, shutting the door that communicated with the house behind him; and I, going down the steps, with some little hesitation in the face of all the mass of boys who were now staring at me, with, it seemed to me, the concentrated look of one, found myself in a minute surrounded by them.
I was just like a solitary pigeon amongst a flock of rooks, for all, as if with a single voice, began eagerly shouting out a series of the most personal questions, without giving me time to answer them individually.
After a bit, the clamour somewhat ceased, and then a tall, slenderly- built chap, who appeared to be the cock of the school, came up to me, while the others formed a circle around us two, waiting for the upshot of their leader's action. It was enough to make one feel nervous, for they all became suddenly silent, although I could see one or two nudging each other and grinning gleefully, as if some highly interesting episode was expected at my expense.
"What is your name?" said the tall one.
"Martin Leigh," I replied, civilly, seeing no harm in the question.
"Oh, that's a fine name," observed my interlocutor, sneeringly; "I suppose you're the son of a duke, and a nobleman in disguise?"
"No," said I, calmly, put on my mettle by hearing the others sniggering at their leader's wit, as they thought it—"my father was an officer."
"That's a good one!" said the tall chap, with a stagey laugh; "I think he must have belonged to the Horse Marines—didn't he?"
At this there was a chorus of chuckles from the surrounding boys, with cries of "Go it, Slodgers!" and other impertinent interruptions, causing my quick temper to fire up.
"You're wrong again, 'Mr Sharp,'" I said, angrily. "He was an officer in the navy, and a gentleman—more than yours was, I should think."
"You impudent young beggar, what do you mean?" retorted the tall boy, taking a step nearer me, and raising his hand as if to give me a slap on the face; "your father was a sweep, you hound!"
"You lie!" I yelled out, in a white heat with passion; and, without waiting for him to give me the first blow, I sprang up and planted my fist between his eyes, knocking him back so suddenly that he would have fallen but for the others advancing closer and shoring him up, as it were, by their pressure, so that he couldn't tumble down.
"Oh, that's it, is it?" said my opponent, recovering himself at once quickly; and, before I could put up my hands, he had dealt me two swinging blows right and left, making my nose bleed and bringing me in a heap on to the ground.
I was not beaten, however, for I was on my feet again in a second, dashing in madly at him; and, but for the intervention of another boy, not quite so tall as my antagonist, but with much broader shoulders and of heavier weight, who got in between us and prevented further hostilities, I should probably have come to sad grief.
"Let him alone, Slodgers; he's only a new boy, remember," said this peacemaker, warning me off with one outstretched arm while he pushed back my antagonist with the other, as he was making for me again.
"I know he's a new boy; but the cheeky young beggar has given me a black eye, confound him! and the Doctor is safe to see it when we go in. I must pay him out for it, Larkyns; move away, and I'll thrash him within an inch of his life!"
With these words, the tall boy, or Slodgers, as he was called, made another rush at me; but the other interposed once more, and this time more forcibly.
"No, I tell you," said he, "let him alone, or I'll have to make you," and he gave Slodgers a quiet sort of tap on the chest that had the effect of at once stopping his advance, the bully and coward, as he seemed to me to be, retiring sulkily to the corner of the yard under the tree, accompanied by two of his select cronies, grumbling in an undertone about "somebody's" meddlesomeness in interfering with "other people's business," although he did not take any further notice of the stalwart Samaritan who had thus come so opportunely to my aid, baulking the summary vengeance he had intended taking on my unhappy head.
The other boys, too, were just as disgusted at the turn events had taken, for they had looked for rare sport in seeing me mauled by their champion. They also now went off in a body, leaving my protector and myself alone together, close to the steps where the little fracas had occurred.
"You are a plucky fellow," said my new friend, confidentially, as soon as the rest were out of hearing. "I don't think Master Slodgers has had such a prompt lesson before to correct that nasty way he has of frightening every new boy that comes here; but I tell you what, though, you mustn't go hitting out at big chaps like that, you know! Slodgers would have pounded you into a jelly if I hadn't interfered."
"I dare say he would," I replied, passionately, not having yet quite calmed down—the sight of the blood dropping from my poor nose adding to instead of abating from my courage. "But, I would have made him feel something first! I don't care if he had killed me! I would do the same again if he made fun of my father. He said I told lies when I was telling the truth."
"Well, well, that's all right," said my rescuer, soothingly. "I've no doubt I should have struck him, too, if I had been in your place. I like you for standing up to him so bravely, and that's the reason I took your part, independently of my always trying to stop his bullying. Slodgers is a cur at heart, and I dare say you would lick him in the end if you could hold out long enough, although I wouldn't advise you to tackle him until you know how to use your fists better, if I am not by! I think you said your name was Martin Leigh, to change the subject from the brute, eh?"
"Yes," I answered, readily; "and I must now thank you for your kindness in coming to my help."
"Oh, stow all that! May I call you Martin?"
"By all means," said I, gladly; "there's nothing I should like better."
"All right then, that's agreed. My name is Tom Larkyns, and you may call me Tom, if you like."
"May I?" I asked, deferentially, proud of his condescending to be on such cordial terms with me. "Won't it sound too familiar?"
"Nonsense," said he, laughing cheerily. "We'll swear a bond of eternal friendship, like Damon and Pythias," and he squeezed my hand in his strong grip, as if he meant it.
Tears came into my eyes; but not with pain. It was at the happy consciousness that at last I had come across some one who really cared for me personally. Uncle George's scanty amount of affection for me was due to the fact of my being his brother's child, while Molly, the maid- servant, the only one else who had ever evinced any kindly feeling towards me, had been actuated by pity for my forlorn and neglected condition amongst my own kindred; but Tom was my very own friend, mine by choice and selection. Had he not singled me out and taken my part, besides asking me to be his comrade? That alone would have made me his staunch ally, even without the proffer of his friendship; so, needless to say, I vowed there and then my fealty as his chum through thick and thin!
Presently, Tom took me round to a side door of the house, through which admittance was gained to the kitchen, where, procuring some water, he helped me to stop the bleeding from my nose, caused by Slodgers' blow, and otherwise wash away the traces of the combat. We subsequently returned to the "playground," Tom saying that we could remain there if we liked until the tea-bell rang, as it was a half-holiday, and there were no more lessons for the day.
The other boys had mostly gone in by this time, disappearing in batches of twos and threes, tired of being out in the bare yard, and having exhausted all attempts at amusing themselves. We remained here over an hour longer, walking up and down, exchanging confidences and forming the most wonderful plans of what we would do together bye-and-bye, not only while at school, but when we grew up and went into the world. I, of course, told him all about my cruel bringing-up under Aunt Matilda's auspices, and he imparted the information that he was almost an orphan like myself; his father, who was a clergyman, having died early and left his widowed mother with a large number of children to support on a scanty income; whence the fact of his being at such a poor second-rate school as Dr Hellyer's, about which Tom then proceeded to unfold the most wonderful revelations.
The master, he said, in spite of his generally having thirty boys at least, from whom he managed to get an income of six hundred a year or so, was always in hard straits, and at his wit's end for money; although, apparently, he could not have any great expenditure, the rent of the house or houses occupied by the school being cheap, his cost for the aid of masters not by any means excessive, and the boys' keep not too extravagant, judging by the meals they had. Dr Hellyer was "an ignorant, uncultivated brute," Tom averred, and his degree of "Doctor" was only derived from the fact of his having paid ten dollars to an American university to air this specious prefix to his scholastic name!
The whole school, my new friend told me, was a sham, for, instead of there being some dozen of masters, as stated in the prospectus sent to Uncle George, there were only two besides "The Doctor"—Mr Smallpage, the mathematical master, called by the boys "Smiley," on the lucus a non lucendo principle, I suppose, because his face ever bore an expression of gravity; and Monsieur Achile Phelan, professor of foreign languages and dancing, christened by Tom Larkyns "The Cobbler," on account of his teaching a certain number of extra-paying pupils how to "heel and toe."
Whatever was the reason for "The Doctor's" hardupishness, however, the fact was undeniable; and Tom said that for weeks at a time the establishment would be in a state of siege, from tradespeople coming after their "little accounts," which the master put off settling as long as he could. The old woman who had opened the door to me, my chum stated, was popularly believed to be the principal's maternal relative, as she kept a watchful eye upon the portal, besides presiding over the interior economy of the school. She was so sharp, Tom averred, that she could smell a "dun," experience having so increased the natural keenness of her scent.
Sometimes, too, Tom said, when Dr Hellyer could get no credit with the butcher, they lived on Australian tinned mutton, which he got wholesale from the importers, as long as three months at a stretch; and once, he pledged me his word, when the baker likewise failed to supply any more bread by reason of that long-suffering man's bill not having been paid for a year, Dr Hellyer, not to be beaten, went off to Portsmouth and bought a lot of condemned ship biscuits at a Government sale in the victualling yard, returning with this in triumph to the school, and serving it out to the pupils in rations, the same as if they had been at sea!
In the midst of all these interesting disclosures, a terrible drumming, buzzing noise filled the air.
"What's that din?" I asked Tom.
"Oh, that's the tea-gong," he replied. "We must go in now, as we'll get none if we are late, for the Doctor teaches punctuality by example."
"He told me he had 'a way of his own' for making his pupils obey him," said I.
"Did he? Ah, you'll soon find out what a brute he is! Let us look at your nose, though, Martin, before you go in. You recollect what he said about not fighting, eh?"
"Yes; does it look all right now?" I asked, anxiously.
"Pretty well," said Tom, critically examining the damaged organ. "A little bit puffy on the off side but I think it will pass muster, and you'll escape notice if that sneak Slodgers doesn't split about his eye—which I believe you've pretty nicely marked for him."
"Do you think he'll tell?" I whispered to Tom as we ascended the steps and he turned the handle of the door leading into the house.
"More than likely, if the Doctor pitches on to him! He will spin a fine story about your having attacked him, too, to excuse himself; for he's a liar as well as a cur and a bully. But, come on, Martin, look sharp! There's the second gong, and if we're not at table in our seats before it stops, it'll be a case of pickles!"
With these words, Tom dashed into the passage with me after him; and, after racing up a bare, carpetless flight of stairs, I found myself in a wide large room, which, the evening having closed in, was lighted up only by a single gas-burner. This made its bareness all the more apparent; for, with the exception of having a long table stretching from end to end—now covered with a semi-brownish white table-cloth, and cups and saucers and plates, not forgetting a monstrous big tin teapot like a Chinese junk, in the centre, and a couple of narrow deal forms without backs placed on either side for seats—the apartment had no other furniture, a broad shelf attached to the wall opposite the fireplace serving as a buffet, and an armchair at the head of the festal board, for the presiding master, completing its equipment.
Tom had whispered to me as we went up-stairs that either "Smiley" or "The Cobbler" would officiate at the tea-table, those two worthies taking that duty in turn; but this evening, strange to say, whether in honour of my arrival or on account of some other weighty motive, the seat of honour at the end of the table was filled by the portly form of the head of the establishment.
"By Jove!" ejaculated Tom, sliding into a vacant place along the form nearest the door, and motioning to me to follow his example, "something's up, or he wouldn't be here!"
Tom's supposition proved correct.
Something was "up" with a vengeance—at least as far as I was concerned.
As two or three others, late like ourselves, were scrambling into their places when Tom and myself took our seats, while the old woman who had opened the door for me was bustling about the table, filling a series of tin mugs from the Chinese junk teapot and passing them along towards the outstretched hands that eagerly clutched at them en route downwards from the head of the board, I hoped that my damaged face would have escaped notice, but the master's ferret-eyes singled me out apparently the instant I entered the room, for he pounced on me at once.
"Boy Leigh," he shouted out in his deep rolling voice, "stand up!"
I obeyed the order, standing up between the table and the form on which I had been sitting; but Dr Hellyer said nothing further at the time, after seeing me come to the attitude of "attention," as a drill sergeant would have termed it, and there I remained while the other pupils proceeded with their meal. You must remember that I was almost famishing, for I had had nothing to eat all day beyond the scanty breakfast which I was too much excited to eat before leaving my uncle's house at Islington in the morning; while the long journey by rail combined with the effects of the fresh sea air had made me very hungry.
It may be imagined, therefore, with what wolfish eyes I watched the boys consuming the piles of bread-and-butter which the old woman distributed, after serving out the allotted allowance of tea in each pupil's mug! Tom looked up at me sympathisingly every now and then between the bites he took out of the thick hunches on his plate; but the fact of my starving state did not appear to affect his appetite. This made me feel hurt at my chum's indifference to my sufferings, envying the while every morsel he swallowed, and wondering when my suspense would cease; and, although I had not then heard of the tortures of the classic Tantalus, my feelings must have much resembled those of that mythical person during this ordeal.
At the expiration of, I suppose, about twenty minutes, within which interval every one of the busy crowd round the table had made short work of his portion, not leaving a crumb behind as far as I could notice, the master, pushing back his armchair, got on his feet, an example immediately followed by all the boys, and, all standing up, he said grace.
This ended, the boys, with much shuffling of feet on the bare boards composing the floor of the apartment, were about to rush out en masse, when Dr Hellyer arrested the movement.
"Stop!" he cried in stentorian tones, drowning the clatter of feet and whispering of voices; "the pupils will remain in for punishment!"
Every face was turned towards him, with astonishment, expectancy, and dread marked in each feature; and, with a gratified grin on his broad flabby countenance, he remained for a moment or two apparently gloating with gusto over the consternation he had created, amidst a stillness in which you could have heard a pin drop.
After holding all hearts for some time in suspense in this way, glaring round the room with an expression of diabolical amusement, such as a cat may sometimes assume when playing with a mouse before finally putting it out of its misery, Dr Hellyer spoke again. It was to the point.
"Boy Leigh," he exclaimed, "come here."
I advanced tremblingly to where he stood. Though I was pretty courageous naturally, his manner was so strange and uncanny that he fairly frightened me.
"What is the matter with your nose?" was his first query, as soon as I had come up close to him, pointing with his fat forefinger at the injured member, which I had vainly thought would have escaped the observation of his keen eye.
"I—I—I've hurt it, sir," said I, in desperation.
"Boy Leigh, you are not truthful," was his answer to this, shaking the fat forefinger warningly in my face, rather too near to be pleasant. "You've been fighting already, and that against my express injunctions; and now, you attempt to conceal the effects of your disobedience by telling a falsehood—worse and worse!"
"I—I really couldn't help it; it wasn't my fault, sir," I pleaded.
"Ah, worse still! He who excuses, accuses himself," said the stern Rhadamanthus. "Boy Slodgers, approach."
My whilom opponent of the playground thereupon came up to where I was in front of the Doctor; when on closer inspection, I could see that he was in a fair way of having a splendid pair of black eyes from the blow I had given him. This was some satisfaction, and put a little more pluck into me as I faced my judge. I trembled no longer.
"Boy Slodgers, what's the matter with your eyes?" asked Dr Hellyer of the fresh culprit, in the same searching way in which he had interrogated me.
"Please, sir, Leigh hit me, sir," said the sneak, glibly, in a whining voice that was very different to the bullying tone he had adopted when catechising me before our "little unpleasantness" occurred.
"Ah—Leigh—ah—you see my boys tell the truth," observed the Doctor parenthetically to me; and then, turning again to Slodgers, he said, inquiringly, "And, I suppose, you then—ah—returned his blow?"
"Oh no, please, sir," replied he, confirming what Tom had told me of his inveracity; "I happened to have my hand up, sir; and, rushing at me in his fury, he ran against it, sir, that's all. I wouldn't have hurt him, sir, for the world, as I know your orders, sir, about fighting."
"Good boy! I'm glad you pay attention to my wishes, Slodgers, and as the fight wasn't of your seeking, I'll let you off without an imposition, as I had at first intended. You can go back to your place, Slodgers. I see—ah—ha—too, you've been punished already, which is another reason for my leniency;" and so saying, the Doctor dismissed him.
Would you believe it? That cur went down the long room again with the most unblushing effrontery, after telling those flagrant falsehoods he had done about me! I really don't know which I was the more angry with—at him, for cooking up that story about me, or with Dr Hellyer for believing him! The latter had not done with me yet, however.
"Now, my pugilistic young friend," he said to me aloud, so that all the boys could hear, "you and I have a little account to settle together. Hold out your hand!"
Nerving myself up to the inevitable, I stretched out my right palm; and "whish"—with the sound that a flail makes when wielded by an experienced thresher—Dr Hellyer came down, right across my fingers, with a tingling blow from a broad flat ruler, which he must have kept concealed behind his back, as I had not seen it before. He seemed to throw all his strength into the stroke.
The pain made me jump, but I didn't cry out or make the slightest exclamation. I would have bitten my lips through first; for all the boys were looking on, with the expectation probably of hearing me yell out—especially that sneak Slodgers, who, I made up my mind, should not be gratified by any exhibition of yielding on my part.
"The other now!" cried the Doctor; and, "whack" came a second dose of the flat ruler on my left digits.
"The right again!" sang out the big brute, I obeying without wincing after the first stroke; and so he went on, flaying my poor hands until he had given me six "pandies," as the boys called the infliction, on each, by which time both of my palms were as raw as a piece of ordinary beefsteak, and, I'm certain, far more tender.
"That will do for a first lesson—ah—Martin Leigh," said my tormentor, when he had concluded this performance. "You can go now, but, mark me, the next time I hear of your fighting you shall have a double portion! Boys, you're dismissed."
With these parting words, Dr Hellyer waved me off; on which I followed slowly after the rest, who had at once rushed off from the room.
Being the last, when I got outside the door, all the boys had disappeared, with the exception of Tom, whom I found waiting for me at the head of the stairs.
I felt inclined to be indignant with him at first for not speaking up for me and contradicting the false statement of Slodgers; but Tom soon persuaded me that such a course on his part would probably only have increased my punishment and brought him in for it as well, without doing good to either of us, or harming the cur who had told such lies about me.
"Dr Hellyer," said Tom, "always takes everything Slodgers says for gospel, and it's not a bit of use going against him when brought to book. The only way for you to pay him out, Martin, will be to learn to use your fists properly, and give him a good thrashing some day when we are out of doors. You will then only get some more 'pandies' like what you had just now, and I think the gratification of punching his head ought to be worth that."
"Right you are, Tom," I replied. "I'm game for it: I will never feel happy till I make him acknowledge the lie he told to-day against me."
"Bravo, that's hearty," said Tom. "You're a big fellow for your age, and with a little training will soon be a match for that cur, as he's a coward at heart. But, look here, Martin—see, I didn't forget you, as I believe you thought I did at tea-time. I saved this for you, as I could see you were hungry."
The good-hearted chap had managed to stow away a thick slice of bread- and-butter in his trousers pocket, and this he now brought out and handed to me. It was dirty and greasy, and had little bits of paper sticking to it, from the mixed assortment of articles amidst which it had been crammed; but, as it was the first morsel of food I had given me after my long fast, I received it from my chum with the utmost gratitude, putting my teeth through it without delay. I really think that it was the most appetising thing I had ever tasted in my life, up to the present, and I longed for more when I had finished it up, although, alas, no more was then to be had!
Little as it was, however, this slight apology for a meal made me feel better and stronger; so, I told Tom, after I had swallowed the bread- and-butter, that I was fit for anything, which pleased him very much.
"You're just the sort of fellow I thought you were," said he, clapping me on the back. "I have been looking out for a chum like you ever since I came here, and we'll have fine times together, my boy! But, come along now, and put your hands under the pump—the cold water will pain you at first, but it will do a world of good, and to-morrow the hands'll feel all right."
So saying, Tom, catching hold of my arm, lugged me off down-stairs, and through a lot of mysterious passages and dark ways, to the wash-house at the back of the kitchen again. Arrived here, he pumped away for a good half-hour on my hands, in spite of all my entreaties to the contrary; but, at the end of that time, although they were almost benumbed, the pain from the Doctor's pandies had passed away, and the palms, which had been previously almost rigid, had regained their flexibility.
"There, that's enough for the present," said Tom, quite out of breath with his exertions at the pump-handle, kindly taking out his pocket- handkerchief and gently dabbing my hands with it until they were dry. "I think they'll do now, and won't pain you to-morrow; but you must try, old fellow, and avoid getting another taste of the Doctor's ruler till they're a bit more recovered."
At that moment the gong struck up again its ringing, buzzing, drumming sound, and I pricked up my ears, in the vain hope of having a meal at last.
"Is that for supper?" I asked him, recollecting well what it had rung for before.
"Oh no," answered Tom, "we never get anything else after tea here of an evening. That's the call to go to sleep: 'Early to bed, early to rise,' you know, Martin! I didn't think it was so late; look sharp and follow me, and I'll show you the way to the dormitories. There are two of them, and I don't know which room you'll be sent to—I hope mine, but we'll soon see, as 'Smiley' arranges all that."
Passing back through the same passages again by which we had descended from the eating-room—or "refectory," as Dr Hellyer styled that bare apartment—and up a second flight of stairs beyond, Tom leading the way, we finally reached a long chamber which must have stretched along the whole front of the house, immediately above the room devoted to meals.
Some twenty beds were ranged down the length of this dormitory, in the same way as is customary in a hospital ward, some of them already occupied by boys who had quietly undressed, while the rest of the fellows were hurriedly pulling off their clothes and preparing their toilets for the night.
At the door of the dormitory stood a tall, cadaverous-looking man of some fifty years or thereabouts whom I had not before seen. To him Tom now briefly introduced me in the most laconic fashion.
"New boy, Mr Smallpage," he said.
"Oh, new boy—Leigh, I suppose, eh?" replied this gentleman in an absent sort of way—"Is he in your charge, Larkyns?"
"Well, sir," said Tom, rather at a loss to answer this question, not wishing to tell an untruth and yet desirous for certain reasons that I should be associated with him, "I've made friends with him, that's all."
"Ah, then, he can have that vacant bed next yours," decided Mr "Smiley," kindly, seeing Tom's drift.
"Thank you, sir," said my chum in a gleeful tone at having his wish gratified. "Come along with me, Martin, and I will show you your place. Is it not jolly?" he whispered to me as we proceeded up the room along the centre space left vacant between the two rows of beds lining the walls on either side, "why, it's just the very thing we wanted!"
Tom's bed and mine were close to one of the windows in the front of the house, which fact delighted me very much, as I thought I should be able to see the sea as soon as I woke in the morning.
My chum, however, threw a damper on this reflection by suggesting that, when the first gong sounded our reveille at six o'clock AM, we should have such sharp work before us to dress and get down to the refectory in the quarter of an hour allowed us for the operation, that unless I wished to lose my breakfast—a dreadful contingency considering the then empty state of my body—I should have precious little time for star- gazing!
Tom's mention of "shovelling on my clothes," as he delicately termed the act of dressing, immediately reminded me of my box, which I had quite forgotten all about ever since my leaving it behind me in the little room out of the hall on the termination of my first interview with Dr Hellyer.
"I wonder where it is?" I asked Tom.
"Oh, it has been brought up-stairs all right. The old woman would see to that," he said.
"Then where is it?" I inquired. "I want my night-shirt now."
"It is probably in the locker room," replied my chum, "shall I ask Smiley to let us go and see?"
"Do, if you don't mind," said I; and Tom, whisking down the room in a somewhat neglige costume, readily obtained the requisite "permit of search." He then beckoned me to follow him towards a second door communicating from the dormitory with a smaller apartment beyond, whose sides, I observed on entering within, were buttressed from floor to ceiling with a series of diminutive square wooden chests, ranged along the walls on top of one another, like the deed boxes noticeable in the private office of a solicitor in large practice, and all numbered in similar fashion, seriatim, with large black figures on their front faces.
"Every boy has one of these lockers to stow his traps in," explained Tom, "and Smiley said you could have 31, next to mine, which is 30—just in the same way, old fellow, as our beds are alongside—good of him, isn't it?"
"Yes," I replied, "he seems a kind chap."
"He is," said Tom; "but, come, Martin, if your box is here you'd better bundle in your things at once, and leave it out on the landing for the old woman to take down again to the cellar, where all our trunks and such-like are kept."
My box was soon found; and my scanty wardrobe being quickly removed to the numbered receptacle allotted to me, Tom and I returned to the dormitory, where, as I had taken care to bring back with me the garment I required for present exigencies, we both soon made an end of our toilets and jumped into our respective beds.
I had expected that as soon as all the boys were under the sheets, the mathematical master would have left the room; but, no, "Smiley," much to my surprise, proceeded to undress, and occupy a large bed at the end of the dormitory close to the entrance.
Under these circumstances, therefore, instead of the row that would otherwise have gone on, in the absence of any presiding genius of order, the room was soon hushed in quiet repose; and, the last thing I can recollect hearing, ere dropping to sleep, after wishing Tom a sotto voce "good night," was the sound of the many-voiced sea as the waves whispered to each other on the beach—the gentle lullaby noise it made, to the fancy of my cockney ears, exactly resembling that created by the distant traffic of the London streets in the early hours of the morning to those living within the city radius.
A SECRET CONSPIRACY.
I awoke from a confused dream of having a quarrel with Aunt Matilda at Tapioca Villa about taking the tea-tray up to the parlour, and, in my passion at being condemned to exercise Molly's functions, kicking over the whole equipage, and sending all the cups and saucers flying down the kitchen stairs—where I could hear them clattering and crashing as they descended—to the far different reality that, instead of being still under my uncle's roof at Islington, I was actually at school at Dr Hellyer's. And that dreadful gong which had interrupted my slumbers, and which must once have belonged to a mandarin of the most warlike tendencies, and of three buttons at least, judging by the din it was capable of, was banging away down-stairs and reverberating through the house; while the score of boys or so, who occupied the dormitory along with Tom and myself, were jumping out of bed and dressing as hurriedly as they could in the semi-darkness of the wintry morning, which the twinkling of the solitary gas-jet, still alight near the door, over Smiley's couch, rendered even more dusky and dismal by contrast.
The windows were shrouded in a thick white fog, that had come up with the rising tide from the sea, which I was thus prevented from seeing had I the time to spare to look out; although, the thought of doing so never crossed my mind, for, independently of the noise of the gong and the scurrying of the other fellows out of the room as soon as they were partly dressed, being suggestive of my also hurrying on my clothes as quickly as I possibly could, I hardly needed Tom's reminder to "look sharp!" Really, no sooner had I stood on my feet and been thoroughly roused, than I was assailed by such a feeling of ravenous hunger that it would have been quite sufficient inducement for me to make haste without any further spur to my movements. I certainly did not intend to be late for breakfast—this morning at all events—and so I told Tom!
Within less than two minutes, I think, I had scrambled into my shirt and trousers; and, throwing my other garments over my arm in imitation of Tom, I was racing along with him down to the lavatory in the lower regions where our ablutions had to be performed. Thence, there was another mad rush up-stairs again to the refectory, which we reached before the second gong, calling us to the matutinal meal, had ceased to sound.
Porridge, with mugs of skim sky-blue milk-and-water, and a couple of slices of bread-and-butter for each pupil, comprised the bill of fare; but it might have been a banquet of Lucullus from the way I did justice to it after my prolonged fast. Noticing my voracity, the old woman, who, as on the evening before, acted as mistress of the ceremonies, gave me an extra allowance of porridge, which made me her friend thenceforth—at least at meal-times, that is!
On breakfast being cleared away, the "refectory," by the simple process of removing the dirty table-cloth from the long table occupying the centre of the apartment, was converted into a school-room, Dr Hellyer coming in immediately after a third gong had rung for a short interval, and taking the armchair at the head—that seat of honour which had been temporarily filled by "the Cobbler" during our meal being vacated by Monsieur Phelan with much celerity as soon as the Doctor's expansive countenance was seen beaming on us through the doorway, "like the sun in a fog," as Tom whispered to me.
The great man had not long taken his seat before he called me up to him, and, with many "ah's," interrogated me as to my acquirements. He was evidently not greatly impressed with my proficiency; for, severely commenting on the ignorance I displayed for a boy of my age, he relegated me to the lowest class, under Mr Smallpage, or "Smiley," who set me tasks in spelling and the multiplication table, after which school regularly began for the rest.
Books were produced in the most extraordinary and mysterious fashion from hidden cupboards, and desks improvised out of hinged shelves of deal affixed to the walls, and supported by brackets likewise movable, one of the forms along the centre table being shifted for the accommodation of those taking writing lessons; and, at intervals, Dr Hellyer had up a batch of boys before his throne of office, rigidly putting them under examination, varied by the administration of "pandies," and the imposition of ever so many lines of Caesar to be learnt by heart, when they failed in construing it.
At sharp eleven, a large clock over the fireplace, with a round face like that of our podgy preceptor, telling the time, Dr Hellyer pushed back his chair as a sign that our morning studies were over; and the boys then all trooped out into the playground for an hour, coming back again punctually at twelve to dinner in the re-transformed room, at the summons of the inveterate gong.
As the butcher had been lately conciliated apparently, there was no recourse to tinned meats of Australian or South American brand on the first occasion of my partaking of this meal at the establishment. Roast beef, and plenty of it, was served out to us, with the accompaniment of potatoes and cabbage, vegetables being cheap at that time on account of the watering-place's season being ended; while such of the pupils whose parents paid extra for the beverage, in the same way as they did for French and dancing lessons from the "Cobbler," were supplied with a mug apiece of very small beer—the remainder, and far larger proportion of us, being allowed cold water "at discretion."
After dinner came afternoon school, lasting till four o'clock; when followed another hour's diversion in the playground; and then, tea, similar to the repast I had been a spectator, but not partaker of, the evening before. After tea a couple of hours' rest were allowed for reflection, in the same apartment, during which time the boys were supposed to learn their lessons for the next morning, but didn't—Dr Hellyer relegating his authority at this period of the day generally to Smiley, who went to sleep invariably when in charge of the room, or the Cobbler, who as invariably sneaked out and left the pupils to themselves, when the consequences may be readily imagined.
At eight o'clock, to bring this category of our day's doings to a close, the final gong sounded a tattoo, sending us all aloft, like poor Tom Bowling, to the dormitories to bed.
Such was the ordinary routine of our life at the Doctor's, according to my two years' experience, the only exception being that our meals varied, as to quantity and quality, in direct proportion to the Doctor's credit in the neighbouring town; for, I will do our preceptor the justice to state that, should fortune smile on him, in respect to the facilities afforded him by the tradespeople with whom he dealt, he treated us with no niggard hand and we fared well; while, should the fickle goddess Fortune frown, and provisions be withheld by the cautious purveyors thereof until ready money was forthcoming, then we suffered accordingly, there being a dearth upon the land, which we had to tide over as best we could, hoping for better times. Every Wednesday and Saturday, too, there was no afternoon school, the boys on these half- holidays being either allowed additional exercise in the so-called "playground," or taken out for long dreary walks under the escort of Smiley or the Cobbler; and on Sundays we were always marched to church in state, be the weather what it might, wet or fine, Dr Hellyer leading the van on these high parade occasions—in full academical costume, and wearing a most wonderful sort of archdiaconal hat that had a very imposing effect—with the two assistant masters acting as the rearguard, and closing the procession.
In summer we used to have more latitude in the way of outdoor exercise, the boys being taken down every morning to bathe in the sea, when the tide allowed, before breakfast; or, if the far out-reaching sands were not then covered with water, later on in the day. We had also cricket and football on the common during the hours of relaxation spent in winter on the barren playground in the rear of the house. Sometimes, in our solemn walks under charge of the under-masters, we occasionally encountered "the opposition school" or college fellows belonging to a large educational institution near us, when it was no rare occurrence for a skirmish to ensue between the two forces, that led to the most disastrous results, as far as subsequent "pandies" and impositions from the Doctor were concerned, or, rather, those who had to undergo them!
This, of course, was in the working terms—when the school was in full blast, so to speak, and everything carried on by rule in regular rotation; but, at vacation time, when all the boys had dispersed to their several homes and were enjoying themselves, as I supposed, to their heart's content, in their respective family circles, the life that I led was a very different one. As at my uncle's house, I was still the solitary Ishmael of the community, doomed to spend holidays and periods of study alike under the academical roof.
The first of those educational interludes during my stay at the establishment occurred at Christmas, shortly after I had taken up my residence there, and the thought of all the jollity and merry-making my more fortunate schoolfellows would have at that festive season, about which they naturally talked much before the general breaking-up, made me feel very lonesome when left behind at Beachampton; although I did not for a moment desire to return to Tapioca Villa, in order to share the delightful society of my relatives there. However, this feeling wore off in a few days, and long before the boys came back I had learnt to be pretty well contented with my solitary lot.
But, when the midsummer recess came round, in due course, matters had altered considerably for the better on my being again left behind in my glory; and, but for the fact of being deprived of the close companionship of my constant chum Tom, I can honestly say that my life was far happier than when the school was going on as usual.
I was alone, it is true, but then I had the great counterbalancing advantage of almost entire liberty of action, being allowed to roam about the place at my own sweet will and pleasure, with no lessons to learn, and the only obligation placed on me that of reporting myself regularly at meal-times; when, as the penalty for being late consisted in my having to go without my dinner or tea, as the case might be, and I possessed an unusually sensitive appetite which seldom failed to warn me of the approach of the hour devoted to those refections, even when I was out of earshot of the gong, I earned a well-founded reputation for the most praiseworthy punctuality—the lesson I had when I first arrived at the school having given me a wholesome horror of starvation!
In my wanderings about the neighbourhood I explored the country for miles round. As for the beach, I investigated it with the painstaking pertinacity of a surveying officer of the hydrographic department of the Admiralty mapping out some newly-discovered shore. I knew every curve and indentation of the coast eastwards as far as Worthing, with the times of high and low water and the set of the tides, and was on familiar terms with the coastguardsmen stationed between Eastbourne and Preston and thence westwards. Crabs, too, and zoophytes, sea anemones, and algae, were as keenly my study as if I were a marine zoologist, although I might not perhaps have been able to describe them in scientific language; while, should a stiff south-westerly gale cast up, as it frequently did amongst other wreckage and ocean flotsam and jetsam, fresh oysters torn from carefully cultivated beds further down the coast, none were sooner acquainted with the interesting fact than I, or gulped down the savoury "natives" with greater gusto—opening them skilfully with an old sailor's jack-knife, which was a treasure I had picked up amidst the pebbly shingle in one of my excursions.
My chief resort, however, when I could steal away thither without being perceived from the school, was the quay close to the entrance to the harbour, at the mouth of the little river which there made its efflux to the sea.
Here the small coasting craft and Channel Island steamers of low draught of water that used the port would lay up while discharging cargo, before going away empty or in ballast, as there was little export trade from the place; and it was my delight to board the different vessels and make friends with the seamen, who would let me go up the rigging and mount the masts to the dog-vane, the height of my climbing ambition, while telling me the names of the different ropes and spars and instructing me in all the mysteries of shipping life, in which I took the deepest interest.
I was a born sailor, if anything.
There is no use in my denying the fact I must have inherited it with my father's blood!
Once, Dr Hellyer spying about after me, on account of my not having turned up either at dinner or tea—a most unusual circumstance—found me messing with the hands in the fo'c's'le of a coal brig.
I recollect he pushed me along back to the school the whole way, holding me at arm's length by the scruff of the neck; and, besides the infliction of a round dozen of "pandies" and an imposition of five hundred lines of Virgil's Aeneid to learn by heart, threatened me with all sorts of pains and penalties should he ever catch me going down to the quay again.
But, all his exhortations were of no avail! Go to the harbour amongst the vessels I would, whenever I could get an opportunity of sneaking away unnoticed; and, the more I saw of ships and sailors, the more firmly I made up my mind to go to sea as soon as I saw a chance of getting afloat, in spite of the very different arrangements Uncle George had made for my future walk in life—arrangements that were recalled to my mind every quarter in the letters my relation periodically wrote to me after the receipt of the Doctor's terminal reports on my character and educational progress. These latter were generally of a damaging nature, letting me in for a lecture on my bad behaviour, coupled with the prognostication, which I am sure really came from Aunt Matilda through this side wind, that unless I mended my ways speedily I should never be promoted to that situation of clerk in uncle's office which was being held open for me as soon as I was old enough, and the thought of which—with the enthralling spell of the ocean upon me—I hated!
To tell the strict truth, these quarterly reports of Dr Hellyer in respect of my conduct were not wholly undeserved; for, with the exception of displaying a marked partiality for mathematics, which, fortunately for my subsequent knowledge of navigation, Mr Smallpage kindly fostered and encouraged to the best of his ability, my studies were terribly irksome to me, and my lessons being consequently neglected, led to my having impositions without number. I believe I must have learnt the whole of Virgil by heart, although I could not now construe the introductory lines of the first book of the Aeneid; and as for history I could then, nor now, no more tell you the names of the Roman emperors, or the dates of accession of the various Kings of England, than I could square the circle, or give you the cubical contents of the pyramids of Egypt off-hand.
The personal rows, too, that I got into with Dr Hellyer were innumerable; and I really think he wore out three flat rulers while I was a member of the school, in inflicting his dearly-loved "pandies" on my suffering palms.
The most important of these, what I may term "private differences," between my worthy preceptor and myself, after my first experience of his "way" of making the boys obey him, without flogging them, arose from the same cause—Master Slodgers, my enemy from the date of my entrance within the select academy, although, if you recollect, he did not "get the best of me" even then!
Some six months after that memorable occasion, having developed much bone and sinew in the meantime, besides cultivating the noble art of self-defence under the tuition of my chum Tom, I challenged the lanky cur on the self-same ground where he had first assailed me; when I gave him such a beating that he could not leave his bed in the dormitory for nearly a week afterwards. For this—what I considered—just retaliation, I received the encomiums of the majority of the fellows, who detested Slodgers for his sneaking as well as bullying ways with the youngsters; but Dr Hellyer, with whom he still continued a favourite, took my triumph in such ill part, that he treated me to no less than six dozen "pandies," incarcerating me besides in an empty coal cellar, on a diet of bread and water, in solitary confinement below for the same length of time that Slodgers was laid up ill in bed above stairs.
However, after that day I had it all my own way with the boys, for I was strongly-built and thick-set for my age, looking two years older than I really was. I could fight and lick all the rest of the fellows at the time, not excepting even Tom my instructor, although he and I were much too good friends to try conclusions on the point, and I was the acknowledged leader of the school. Athletics, indeed, were my strong point, for I may say, almost without egotism, that I had so cultivated my muscles to the sad neglect of my proper studies, that I could swim like a fish, dive like an Indian pearl hunter, run swifter than anybody else, and play cricket and football with the best; but, as far as my real school duties were concerned, I'm afraid I was a sad dunce, as I was always at the bottom of my class.
I am now approaching the period to which these reminiscences of my school-days have all along tended, albeit I have been a long time in reaching it.
You may remember my calling your attention to the fact of the Doctor always marching us to church on Sundays, and heading the procession, wearing a most peculiar-looking hat the while?
Well, "thereby hangs a tale," as a wise jester says in one of Shakespeare's plays.
I had just completed my two years' residence under the academical roof; the summer vacation had come and gone; the boys were all back again at school, and settled down for the winter term; the month of October had flown by with unlagging footsteps; and November had come in, gloomy and dismal, with white fogs and sea mists—such as haunt some parts of the southern coasts in the autumn.
The "Fifth" was a great anniversary at the establishment.
If Guy Fawkes' Day were uncared for elsewhere, we at all events held the memory of the defunct conspirator in high reverence; and invariably did it such honour by the explosion of gunpowder, in the shape of squibs and crackers as our means afforded.
The pocket-money of those having friends with long purses was saved up for weeks beforehand for this purpose; while any boys without a regular allowance had to "beg or borrow," so that they might contribute to the general fund.
The couple of odd shillings Uncle George had slipped into my hand on leaving London, had, of course, melted away long ago, and, until this year, he never seemed to think of renewing the tip, supposing, perhaps, that I did not want anything, for I was too proud to ask him; but at Michaelmas, when my birthday came round—I was just fourteen then—he quite unexpectedly sent me a post-office order for half-a-sovereign in the possession of which I felt as rich as Croesus.
Tom, naturally, was told of the arrival of this enormous treasure instantly. Indeed, he accompanied me on the next half-holiday, when we were allowed out, to get the order cashed; but beyond expending about eighteenpence in hot three-corner jam tarts and ginger beer, at a favourite confectioner's patronised by the school, we devoted the sum to purchasing the best fireworks we could get for the money, carrying our explosives back to the school carefully concealed on our persons, and secreting them in our lockers.
"We'll have such a lark!" said Tom.
"Won't it be jolly!" I chimed in, with equal enthusiasm—adding, however, a moment afterwards, as the reflection occurred to me, "What a pity, though, Tom, that the Fifth falls this year on a Sunday? I declare, I never thought of it before!"
"Nor I," said he, and both our faces fell six inches at least.
But, Tom's soon brightened up again, as some happy thought flashed across his mind.
"Why, it'll be all the better, Martin," he cried out, greatly to my surprise.
"How can that be?" I exclaimed, indignantly. "The Doctor will never allow us to have our bonfire, I'm sure!"
"Hush, you stupid," said Tom. "I do declare your brains must be wool- gathering! Stop a minute and listen to me."
He then whispered to me a plan he had thought of for signalising "the glorious Fifth," in spite of Dr Hellyer, and in a manner which that worthy would never dream of. It was a scheme quite worthy of Tom's fertile imagination.
"Oh, won't it be a lark!" I cried, when he had finished; and we both then burst into an ecstasy of laughter at the very idea of the thing.
OUR PLOT AND ITS RESULTS.
"Now, mind," said Tom, after a pause in our giggling, "we won't tell any one else about it!"
"No," I agreed; "it will be all the more fun to keep it to ourselves, and, besides, there will be less chance of our being found out."
True to our compact, not a word of our conspiracy was breathed to a soul in the school; and the eventful day approached at last, if not "big with the fate of Caesar and of Rome," pregnant with a plan for astonishing our master, and celebrating the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot in a manner never known before in the traditions of the establishment— although, perhaps, perfectly in keeping with the idea of the original iconoclast, whose memory we intended to do honour to in fitting manner.
When Dr Hellyer awoke to the knowledge of the fact that the Fifth of November fell this year on a Sunday, had he generously made allowance for the patriotic feelings of his pupils, and allowed them to have their usual annual firework demonstration on the Saturday prior, which happened to be a half-holiday, the matter might have been harmoniously arranged, and Tom and I been persuaded at the last moment to abandon our daring enterprise—possibly, that is, though I doubt it much.
But, no. Dr Hellyer grasped the chance afforded him by the fortuitous cycle of dates as a splendid opportunity for putting down what had been a yearly bete noir to him; and so, he rushed madly on to his fate.
After dinner in the refectory, on the third of the month—two days beforehand, so as to give them clear notice of his intentions, in order not be accused of taking them unawares, and causing them to lay out their savings uselessly—just as the boys were going to rush out of the room for their usual hour's relaxation before afternoon school, he detained them, with a wave of his well-known fat arm and the sound of his rolling accents.
"Boys," he cried, "wait a moment! I have—ah—determined that—ah—as Guy Fawkes' day this year—ah—will be next Sunday, when—ah—of course—ah—you will be unable with any regard for the solemn associations—ah—of the—ah—Sabbath, be—ah—able to celebrate it in your usual fashion—ah—that—ah—you must—ah—postpone—ah—your—ah bonfire—ah—till next year."
A loud murmur ran round the room at this, an expression of popular opinion which I had never heard previously in the school.
The master, however, was equal to the occasion.
"Silence!" he roared out at the pitch of his voice, making the ceiling ring again, dropping his "Ahs" and drowning the sibillation of the malcontents by sheer dint of making a superior amount of noise. "Any boy I catch hissing, or otherwise expressing disapproval of my orders, had better look out, that's all! There will be no celebration of Guy Fawkes' day here, do you hear me! No, neither this year, nor next year, nor any year again, so long as I am master of this school! You can disperse now; but, mark my words, any one found letting off a squib or cracker, or discovered to be in the possession of gunpowder, or other explosive compound, will have to render an account to me. Boys, you're dismissed!"
Bless you, when Dr Hellyer ceased speaking there was a silence that could almost be felt, and we all sneaked out of the room with corresponding quietude—adjourning to the playground as if we were going to attend a funeral instead of going out for diversion!
But, it was a silence that meant mischief, a quietude that was next door to hatching a mutiny; and, when we had got outside, there was a general howl of indignation that the Doctor could not have helped hearing, although the door communicating with the house was closed and he was still in the refectory in front, while we were at the rear of the establishment.
Of course, as was natural at such a crisis, the boys grouped themselves into little coteries, considering what should be done in such an unlooked-for emergency. Even Slodgers, the sneak, pretended to be as angry as anybody, desiring to have revenge for the deprivation of our annual gala show; but Tom and I kept aloof from all, and held our own counsel, much to the disgust of Slodgers, as we could easily see, for the cur wanted to hear what we might suggest so that he could go and report to Dr Hellyer.
We were too wary birds for Slodgers, however; we were not going to be caught, like young pigeons, with his chaff—no, we knew better than that!
We agreed with the mass of our schoolfellows that the Doctor's arbitrary proclamation was an act of unmitigated tyranny and a "jolly shame;" but, beyond that, Slodgers could get nothing out of us, although we listened cordially to all the others had to say, and regulated our procedure accordingly.
"I vote," said Batson, one of the big boys like Tom and I were now, "that we buy our fireworks on Saturday, in spite of what Old Growler has declared, and if he does not allow us to let them off in the evening, why we'll have 'a grand pyrotechnic display,' as the newspapers say, at night in the dormitories."
"Hear, hear!" shouted all the fellows in rapturous enthusiasm at such a bold idea; and even Tom and I wondered whether this plan would not be better than ours. But it was only for a moment. Reflection told us that the Doctor would certainly hear of our doings in time, through Slodgers, to nip the brilliant design in the bud ere it could be matured; so, while the majority of the boys devoted all their spare cash on the Saturday afternoon, when some of us were allowed to go into the town, in the purchase of squibs and crackers, and Roman candles, we declined all share in the enterprise on the plea of having no money—an excuse readily recognised, as the finances of most of the pupils were known to be not in a flourishing condition.
While Batson and his confreres took advantage of the half-holiday to go out to buy these fireworks, Tom and I remained indoors, he on the plea of indisposition and I for the ostensible purpose of writing out an imposition; but we both utilised the time thus afforded us by artfully removing the store of combustibles we had already secreted in our lockers, bringing them down-stairs, and placing them for safety and concealment in the cellar below, where our boxes were kept.
It was a timely precaution.
Slodgers had evidently played the sneak as usual, although keeping up the semblance all the while of being one of the prime movers in the pyrotechnic display suggested by Batson. Indeed, he went so far as to buy and bring home a shilling's-worth of detonating powder to aid the contemplated feu de joie; but, no sooner had the boys got in and gone up-stairs to arrange their clothes for Sunday, as was our custom before tea-time every Saturday afternoon, than Dr Hellyer, accompanied by Smiley and the Cobbler, and the old woman, who had the keenest eye of the lot for the detection of contraband stores, came round to the dormitories on an exploring and searching expedition. There was a grand expose of the conspiracy, of course, at once; for, the contents of all the lockers were turned out and the newly-purchased fireworks confiscated to the last cracker!
"Ah—you can't deceive me!" exclaimed the Doctor, as he departed triumphantly, his arms and those of his assistants loaded with the spoils of their raid, "I told you I would not have any fireworks in my school this year, and shall keep my word, as you see! You have only to thank yourselves—ah—for wasting your money! But, for disobeying my orders the boys will all stop in next week on both half-holidays;" and, so concluding his parting address, with a triumphant grin on his huge round face, he went out, leaving the baffled conspirators in agonies of rage, swearing vengeance against the unknown spy who had betrayed their preparations.