The Master of the Shell
By Talbot Baines Reed I did find the start of this book to be rather annoying, for it can never have been realistic that a school would advertise for a form-master and house-master. Even in those days it would have been absolutely normal that a house-master would undergo a long period as a junior master before even being asked to take a house at some time in the future. This would be something like five years on the staff, and then a further ten years before actually taking charge of a house. As for being Master of the Shell, again, there would be a period of probation while a young man was learning the ropes about teaching, before he would become head of a Block, such as Shell. In my school there was a Shell, but it was rather a side alley, rather than the broad avenue leading to the Sixth Form. It was usual for the Head of a Block to be a man who had done his fifteen years as a house master, and who had therefore been on the staff for thirty years or more.
One last point about appointing a young master to a school: he would be expected to play a full part in sport or other outdoor activities. Our hero had indeed been an Oxford Blue, and he could have got a job on the basis of this and his academic record. But he would never have been accepted if he mentioned that he was planning soon to marry, for the school needed him heart and soul as a bachelor for at least five years. On the other hand it was quite desirable that he should marry before becoming a house master, though on the whole the most excellent house masters are the unmarried ones.
It takes quite a few chapters to get past the welter of nineteenth century school-boy slang before we get to any decisive fresh action. There was another house-master, who was an exceedingly nasty man. Some of the boys lay a trap for him, catch him, tie him up with a rope, and leave him for the night in the boot box, after which none of the boys will admit to this misdemeanour. By chance the hero, Mr Railsford, finds out who did it, but under circumstances which make it impossible for him to tell anyone. The nasty man tries to pin the deed on him, and it comes to the point where he has to resign rather than tell.
Luckily he is saved at the very last moment, so late that his cab has arrived to take him to the station. When all is revealed, it is the nasty man that has to resign. We are left to presume that the school continued harmoniously for many a year, with Railsford still a house master, and Master of the Shell. N.H. THE MASTER OF THE SHELL
BY TALBOT BAINES REED
The reader is requested kindly to glance through the following batch of letters, which, oddly enough, are all dated September 9th, 18—-:
Number 1.—William Grover, M.A., Grandcourt School, to Mark Railsford, M.A., Lucerne.
"Grandcourt, September 9th.
"Dear Railsford,—I suppose this will catch you at Lucerne, on your way back to England. I was sorry to hear you had been seedy before you left London. Your trip is sure to have done you good, and if you only fell in with pleasant people I expect you will have enjoyed yourself considerably. What are you going to do when you get home—still follow the profession of a gentleman at large, or what? Term opened here again last week, and the Sixth came back to-day. I'm getting more reconciled to the place by this time; indeed, there is no work I like better than teaching, and if I was as certain it was as good for the boys as it is congenial to me I should be perfectly contented. My fellow-masters, with an exception or two, are good fellows, and let me alone. The exceptions are harder to get on with.
"As for the boys, I have a really nice lot in my house. One or two rowdies, who give me some bother, and one or two cads, with whom I am at war; but the rest are a festive, jovial crew, who tolerate their master when he lets them have their own way, and growl when he doesn't; who work when they are so disposed, and drop idle with the least provocation; who lead me many a weary dance through the lobbies after the gas is out, and now and then come and make themselves agreeable in my rooms when I invite them.
"I fancied when I came here I should get lots of time to myself—enough perhaps to write my book on Comparative Political Economy. Vain hope! I haven't time to turn round. If my days were twenty-six hours I should scarcely then do all I ought to do here. Ponsford is getting old, and leaves the executive to his lieutenants. He sits aloft like Zeus, hurls a thunderbolt now and then, and for the rest acts as a supreme court of appeal. Bickers, my opposite neighbour, is still a thorn in my side. I don't know how it is, I try all I know, but I can't get on with him, and have given him up. Moss, I believe, who is Master of the Shell and head of a house, has come to the end of his endurance, and there is some talk of his throwing up his place here. It would be a pity in many ways, and it might be hard to get a good man in his place.
"By the way, if there is a vacancy, why should not you enter the lists? I see you smile at the idea of anyone exchanging the profession of gentleman at large for that of Master of the Shell. But it's worth a thought, any how. Let us know where and how you are; and if you can run down this way for a Sunday, do, and make glad the heart of your friend,—
No. 2.—Arthur Herapath, Esquire, Lucerne, to Sir Digby Oakshott, Baronet, Grandcourt.
"Dear Dig,—Here's a game! The gov's been and lost a lot of the luggage, and ma won't go home without it, so we're booked here for a week more. He's written to Ponsford to say I can't turn up till next week, and says I'm doing some of the mug, so as not to be all behind. Jolly good joke of the gov.'s, isn't it? Catch me mugging here!
"Stunning place, this! We went a picnic to—I say, by the way, while I remember it, do you know it's all a howling cram about William Tell? There never was such a chap! This is the place he used to hang out in, and everyone says it's all my eye what the history says about him. You'd better let Moss know. Tell him, from inquiries made by me on the spot, I find it's all humbug, and he'd better get some chap to write a new history who knows something about it. I was asking Railsford—by the way, he's a stunning chap. We ran up against him on the Saint Gothard, and he's been with us ever since. No end of a cheese! Rowed in the Cambridge boat three years ago, Number 4, when Oxford won by two feet. He says when you're rowing in a race you see nothing but the fellow's back in front of you. He's 6 feet 2, and scales 12 stone 14 pounds. That's why they put him Number 4; but he rowed stroke in his college boat. He's having a lot of fag about our luggage, but I'm in no hurry for it to turn up.
"How are all the fellows? I guess I'm missing a lot of fun this week. Get some of them to keep something; till I come back. How's Tilbury? By the way, who am I stuck with this term? I don't want to get chummed again with that young ass Simson. Tell Moss that. Any more rows with Bickers's lot? There will be when I come back! I've got half a dozen of them in my eye. Gov. says I'll have to wake up this term. What a go! If I don't scrape into the Shell at Christmas, he says he'll know the reason why! So look out for no-larks.
"This fellow Railsford's put me up to a thing or two about mugging. He was a hot man at Cambridge, and says he knew Grover. He's gone with Daisy up a mountain to-day. Wanted to take me, too, but I told them I didn't see it. I tried it once, that was enough for me! Ta-ta, old man; keep your pecker up till I come, and then mind your eye!
"A. Herapath, Ll.D."
Number 3.—From Miss Daisy Herapath to Miss Emily Sherriff.
"My Dearest Milly,—We are in such trouble! Two of our boxes have been lost between Como and here. One of them contained my new black grenadine with the Spanish lace. I have positively nothing to wear; and had to appear at table d'hote in my blue serge and one of mamma's shawls. Just imagine! It is such a sad end to our holiday. I am longing to get home. Travelling abroad is all very nice, but one gets tired of it. I feel I shall like to settle down in town once more.
"Poor papa has had so much trouble with the boxes, and must, have spent pounds in telegrams. It was really Arthur's fault. He sent the porter who was booking the luggage for us to get him some chocolate from the buffet, and the consequence was the train went off before all the boxes were put in the van. Dear Milly, never travel abroad with your young brother!
"I have been quite lazy about sketching the last few days. I can't tell you how lovely some of the sunsets have been. It is the regular thing to sit out in the hotel grounds and watch them. I wish so often you could be here to share my pleasure, for papa and mamma are afraid to sit out, and Arthur is so unpoetical! There are a great many Americans here. The fashion of short steeves seems quite to be coming in again! I shall have to get mine altered as soon as I come home. Some of our party went up the Rigi to-day. The view from the top was beautiful; but the place is spoiled by the crowds of people who go up. I so much prefer the quieter excursions.
"I must go to bed now, dearest Milly. It will be lovely to see you soon. When one is away from home, one feels more than ever how nice it would be to have one's friends always about one. (What a lot of 'ones'!)
"Ever your very loving friend,—
"P.S.—We met the Thompsons at Como. Did you know Edith was to be married this autumn, quite quietly, in the country? The Walkleys are here, and one or two other people we know. Arthur has struck up with a Cambridge fellow, named Railsford, whom we met on the Saint Gothard, and who took so much trouble about the luggage. It is so nice for Arthur to have a companion. Dearest Milly, he (M.R.) was one of the party who went up the Rigi to-day; he speaks German so well, and is so attentive to mamma. Don't be too horribly curious, darling; I'll tell you everything when I get home. (He is so good and handsome!)"
Number 4.—Francis Herapath, Esquire, Merchant, to James Blake, Esquire, Solicitor.
"Private and Confidential.
"Dear Blake,—Being detained here owing to a miscarriage of some of our luggage, I write this instead of waiting till I see you, as it may be another week before we are home.
"During our travels my daughter has become engaged to a Mr Mark Railsford, apparently a very desirable and respectable young man. You will wonder why I trouble you about such a very domestic detail. The young gentleman was very frank and straightforward in making his proposal, and volunteered that if I desired to make any inquiries, he was quite sure that you, his late father's solicitor, would answer any questions. I have no doubt, from the readiness with which he invited the inquiry and his satisfaction in hearing that you and I were old friends, that you will have nothing to say which will alter my favourable impression. Still, as my child's happiness is at stake, I have no right to omit any opportunity of satisfying myself. Anything you may have to say I shall value and treat as confidential.
"I understand Mr R., under his father's will, has a small property; but of course it will be necessary for him now to find some occupation, which with his abilities I have no doubt he will easily do. As usual, the young people are in a hurry to know their fate, so it will be a charity to them to reply as soon as convenient. Excuse the trouble I am giving you, and, with kind regards to Mrs B. and your sister,—
"Believe me, yours faithfully,—
Number 5.—Mark Railsford to William Grover, Grandcourt.
"Lucerne, September 9th, 18—-.
"Dear Grover,—You have often in your lighter moods laughed at the humble individual who addresses you. Laugh once again. The fact is, I am engaged. I can fancy I see you reeling under this blow! I have been reeling under it for thirty-six hours.
"It's partly your fault. Coming over the Saint Gothard a week ago, I fell in with a family party, Herapath by name; father, mother, boy and girl. They had come part of the way by train, and were driving over the top. The boy and I walked, and I discovered he was at Grandcourt, and of course knew you, though he's not in your house, but Moss's. That's how you come to be mixed up in it. During the last hour or so Miss H—- walked with us, and before we reached the Devil's Bridge my fate was sealed.
"The ladies were in great distress about some lost luggage—lost by the kind offices of the boy—and I went back to Como to look for it. It lost me two days, and I never found it. However, I found the brightest pair of blue eyes when I got back. I will draw you no portraits, you old scoffer; but I challenge you to produce out of your own imagination anything to match it. I don't mind confessing to you that I feel half dazed by it all at present, and have to kick myself pretty often to make sure it is not a dream. The father, whom I bearded yesterday, nods his head and will say 'Yes' as soon as he's looked into my credentials. Meanwhile I am tolerated, and dread nothing except the premature turning up of the lost luggage.
"But, to be practical for once in my life. Amongst much that is delightfully vague and dreamy, one thing stands out very clear in my own mind at present. I must do something. My loafing days are over. The profession of a gentleman at large, with which you twit me, I hereby renounce. She will back me up in any honest work—she says so. I've confessed the way I wasted the last three years. She said she is glad she did not know me then. Oh my, William, it is all very well for you to scoff. I'm not ashamed to tell you what it is that has brought me to my senses. Don't scoff, but help a lame dog over a stile. My object in life is to have an object in life at present. Give me your counsel, and deserve the benediction of someone besides your friend, M.R."
The patient reader must infer what he can from these five letters. They are copied word for word from the original documents, and speak for themselves. I am unable to say whether the luggage was found—whether Miss Daisy got her sleeves altered to her liking—whether Arthur found any "fun" left on his arrival, a fortnight late, at Grandcourt, or how soon Mr Blake's reply to the father's letter reached Lucerne. All these momentous questions the reader can settle for himself as well as I can for him. He will at any rate be able to understand that when one day in October a telegram reached Railsford from Grandcourt with the brief announcement—"Vacancy here; see advertisement Athenaeum! am writing"—it created no small stir in the manly breast of the worthy to whom it was directed.
He went at once to Westbourne Park and held a cabinet council with his chief adviser, and again, on returning home, called his sisters into consultation. He wrote to his college tutor, drew up a most elegant letter to the governors, read a few chapters of Tom Brown's Schooldays, and then waited impatiently for Grover's promised letter.
"You will have guessed," said that letter, when it arrived, "from my telegram that Moss has resigned, and that there will be a vacancy for a house-master and Master of the Shell here at Christmas. You know how I would like to see you appointed. But—"
"But what?" inquired someone who read the letter over the reader's shoulder.
"I should not be your friend if I represented this place as a bed of roses, especially Moss's house. You'll have hard work to hold your own with the boys, and harder still with some of the masters. You will get more criticism than backing-up from head-quarters. Still it is a splendid opening for a man of courage like you; and all the school would profit by your success. Talk to Podmore about it; he'll give you good advice. So will Weston. Of course I can do nothing at all but look on sympathetically, and, if you try for the place and succeed, promise you at least one hearty welcome."
"It seems pretty clear it won't be child's play," said Railsford, folding up the letter.
"It would not suit you if it was," replied his adviser.
This brave speech went far to make up Railsford's mind.
In the house at Westbourne Park, particularly, the career opening before our hero was hailed with eager enthusiasm. "Dear Arthur" was in Moss's house, and at Christmas he would get his remove to the Shell. In both capacities he would have the protecting interest of his prospective brother-in-law, spread like an aegis over his innocent head. "It really seems almost a providential arrangement," said Mrs Herapath.
"I am sure it will be a great thing for Arthur," said Daisy.
"It makes one believe there's some truth in the saying that every man has his niche waiting for him somewhere in life," moralised Mr Herapath.
That evening a letter came from Arthur to Daisy. The boy, of course, knew nothing of Railsford's candidature.
"Such a flare-up!" wrote the youth. "Moss has got kicked out! He's jacked it up, and is going at Christmas. Jolly good job! He shouldn't have stopped the roast potatoes in the dormitories. Bickers's fellows have them; they can do what they like! Dig and I did the two mile spin in 11.19, but there was too much slush to put it on. All I can say is, I hope we'll get a fellow who is not a cad after Moss, especially as he will be Master of the Shell, and I'll get a dose of him both ways after Christmas. We mean not to let him get his head up like Moss did; we're going to take it out of him at first, and then he'll cave in and let us do as we like afterwards. Dig and I will get a study after Christmas. I wish you'd see about a carpet, and get the gov. to give us a picture or two; and we've got to get a rig-out of saucepans and kettles and a barometer and a canary, and all that. The room's 15 feet by 9, so see the carpet's the right size. Gedge says Turkey carpets are the best, so we'll have a Turkey. How's Railsford? Are you and he spoons still? Dig and the fellows roared when I told them about catching you two that time at Lucerne in the garden. You know, when I thought the window was being smashed? Could you lend me a bob's worth of stamps till Christmas? I'll pay you back. Dig says he once had a cousin who went spoons on a chap. He says it was an awful game to catch them at it. So, you see, we've lots to sympathise about. Love to all.
"I am, yours truly,—
"P.S.—Don't forget the stamps. Two bob's worth will do as well."
Daisy laughed and cried over this outrageous epistle, and hesitated about showing it to Mark. However, that happy youth only laughed, and produced half a crown, which he begged Daisy to add to her own contribution.
"That's the sort of Young England I like!" said he. "It will be like a canter on a breezy moor to come in contact with fresh life and spirit like this, after wasting my time here for three years."
"I expect you will find it breezy," said Daisy, recovering her smiles. "Arthur is a dreadful boy; it will be so good for him to have you."
At the end of a fortnight came a summons to Railsford, as one of six selected candidates, to appear and show himself to the governors. He had expected thus much of success, but the thought of the other five rendered him uncomfortable as he leaned back in the railway carriage and hardened himself for the ordeal before him. Grover had deemed it prudent not to display any particular interest in his arrival, but he contrived to pay a flying visit to his hotel that evening.
"There's only one fellow likely to run you close—an Oxford man, first- class in classics, and a good running-man in his day. I think when they see you they'll prefer you. They will have the six up in alphabetical order, so you'll come last. That's a mercy. Take a tip from me, and don't seem too anxious for the place, it doesn't pay; and keep in with Ponsford."
"Will he be there? Oh, of course. What sort of men are the governors?"
"Very harmless. They'll want to know your character and your creed, and that sort of thing, and will leave all the rest to Ponsford."
Next morning at 11.30 Railsford sat with his five fellow-martyrs in the ante-room of the governors' hall at Grandcourt. They talked to one another, these six unfortunates, about the weather, about the Midland Railway, about the picture on the wall. They watched one another as, in obedience to the summons from within, they disappeared one by one through the green baize door, and emerged a quarter or half an hour later with tinged cheeks, and taking up their hats, vanished into the open-air. Railsford was the only one left to witness the exit of the fifth candidate. Then the voice from within called, "Come in, Mr Railsford," and he knew his turn was come. It was less terrible than he expected. Half a score of middle-aged gentlemen round a table, some looking at him, some reading his testimonials, and one or two putting questions. Most of them indulgent to his embarrassment and even sharing it. Dr Ponsford, however, massive, stern, with his shaggy eyebrows and pursed mouth, was above any such weakness.
"What have you been doing since you left college?" demanded he, presently fixing the candidate with his eyes.
It was a home question. Railsford answered it honestly, if hesitatingly.
"I was unfortunately not under the necessity of working," he added, after going through the catalogue of his abortive studies, "that is, not for my livelihood." Some of the governors nodded their heads a little, as though they recognised the misfortune of such a position.
"And what places you under that necessity now?"
"I do not expect to remain a bachelor always, sir."
Here a governor chuckled.
"Ha, ha! Hymen comes to the rescue. Wonderful the revolutions he makes in young fellows' lives."
The governor had left school fifty-five years ago, and was rather proud to have remembered who Hymen was. The doctor waited with chilling patience till the interruption was over.
"You feel yourself competent to take charge of a house of forty to fifty boys, do you? as well as to conduct a class of seventy?"
"I have thought over the matter, and tried to realise the duties, and think I can succeed."
"Quite right; I like that. No brag," said another of the governors, in an aside.
"Your temper is good, is it? you are not likely to fall out with your fellow-masters, are you?"
"Yes, that's important," interjected a governor.
"I believe I am good-tempered and patient."
"Well, Mr Railsford, you may retire. If you are not busy elsewhere, you can remain a short time in the outer room."
Railsford retired, and for an interminable half-hour kicked his heels in the ante-chamber. He got to hate the picture on the wall and the ruthless ticking of the clock in the hall outside. Presently the door opened and his name was called. This time the spokesman was the chairman of the governors.
"We have been through your testimonials a second time, Mr Railsford, and are satisfied with them, both those which refer to your scholarship and those which relate to your character and other qualifications. We are also glad to know from you that you have fully considered the responsibilities of this very important post, and are prepared to enter upon them in a firm yet conciliatory spirit. The governors and head- master agree with me in considering that, taken as a whole, your qualifications are higher than those of the other candidates, and they, therefore, have agreed to appoint you to the vacant post. I trust it may result in our mutual satisfaction and the good of the school."
"VENI, VIDI, —"
If a light heart and faith in one's own good luck are omens of success, Mark Railsford undoubtedly entered on his new duties at Grandcourt under the most favourable of auspices. It would not have been to his discredit if his light heart had acknowledged even slightly the weight of the responsibility it was undertaking. But, as a matter of fact, it was all the lighter for that very responsibility. The greater the task, he argued, the greater the achievement; and the greater the achievement, the greater the triumph. A less sanguine hero might have been daunted by the pictures with which his nervous friends did their best to damp his ardour. Grover, delighted as he was at the success of his friend's application, took care to keep the rocks ahead well above the surface in all his letters and conversations. Railsford laughed him pleasantly to scorn.
Grover's was not the only attempt made to intimidate our hero. A week or so before he entered upon his duties, a nervous-looking man called to see him. It was Mr Moss, the late master.
"I hear you have been appointed to my house," he said, by way of explanation, "and I thought it would be only friendly to call and tell you the sort of thing you are to expect when you go there."
"Thanks, very much," said Railsford, with a smile of the corner of his mouth.
"You may be made of cast iron, or be possessed of the patience of a Job," began this cheery adviser. "If so, you're all right. I wasn't either."
"Did you find the boys unmanageable?"
"No—not more than other boys—all boys, of course, are the sworn foes of law and order, and nobody imagines anything else. No, your difficulties, if you have anything like my luck, will be more with your colleagues than your subjects."
"And how do they make themselves objectionable?" asked the new master, rather contemptuously.
Mr Moss did not miss the tone of this question, and fired up himself.
"Of course, if you don't mind being systematically snubbed at head- quarters—thwarted and slandered by your fellow-masters—baulked in every attempt to improve the condition either of your house or the school—and misrepresented and undermined in your influence among your boys, you may go up and enjoy it. I didn't. That's why I left."
"At any rate, I have one friend among the masters—Grover."
"Oh, poor Grover. He is the only master who can get on at all, and he does so by effacing himself on every possible occasion, and agreeing with everybody."
"Not a very noble character to hear of one's friend," said Railsford, who was beginning to get tired of this jeremiad.
"I don't blame him; he can stand more than you or I can."
"That, I suppose, is meant for a compliment to me?" said Railsford, laughing. "You think, then, I would be wise to back out before it is too late?"
"I don't say that, only—"
"Only you pity me. Thanks, very much."
That evening Railsford sent a line to Grover:—
"Tell me in two words why Moss left Grandcourt."
A telegram came next morning, "Incompatibility of temper."
Whereat the new master chuckled, and dismissed the lugubrious ex-master and his friendly warnings from his mind. But although the gloomy prognostications of his Job's comforters failed in the least to depress his spirits, one very small cloud hovered occasionally on the horizon. This was the attitude of his worthy and respected prospective pupil and brother-in-law, Arthur Herapath. That young gentleman, who had been prudently kept in the dark while term lasted, was, as may be imagined, considerably astounded on arriving home to be met with the news that the new master of the Shell at Grandcourt was to be Mark Railsford.
"What a lark!" he exclaimed.
Now, genial as the remark was, the tone in which it was uttered was not calculated to inspire confidence in the breasts of those to whom it was addressed. There was more of enjoyment in it than respect. Yet boys will be boys, and who can gauge the depths of a nature below the smiles that ripple on the surface?
It was little incidents like these which occasionally suggested to Railsford, far more forcibly than the lugubrious warnings of his officious friends, that the task before him at Grandcourt would tax his powers considerably. But, on the whole, he rejoiced that all would not be plain-sailing at first, and that there was no chance of his relapsing immediately into the condition of a humdrum pedagogue.
The Christmas holidays slipped away only too fast for Arthur and for Daisy. Mark, much as he felt the approaching separation from his betrothed, could not suppress a slight feeling of exultation as the day drew near when he was to "go, see, and conquer" at Grandcourt. His three idle years made the prospect of hard work now welcome; and the importance which everyone else attached to his new duties made him doubly keen for a fray on which so many eyes were turned.
Dr Ponsford had suggested, in terms which amounted to a mandate, that the new master might find it convenient to arrive at Grandcourt a day before the school returned, in order to take possession of his quarters and acquaint himself with the details of his coming duties. This arrangement was not altogether satisfactory, for it deprived Mark of the pleasure of his future brother-in-law's escort, which was a great loss, and also of the prospect of finding Grover at his journey's end, on which he had reckoned with some confidence. However, it was only the difference of a day, and during that day he would at least do his utmost to make a favourable impression on his chief. So, with a heart full of confidence, and a cab full of luggage, he set out gaily on his new career.
"Good-bye, Mark. You'll be good to my son, I know," said Mrs Herapath.
"Good-bye, my boy; take care of your health," said Mr Herapath.
"Good-bye, Mark," said Daisy.
"Ta-ta, old man," called Arthur. "See you to-morrow."
This last greeting, strange as it may seem, recurred to Railsford's memory more frequently than any of the others during the course of the long railway journey to Grandcourt. It took all sorts of forms as the day wore on. At first it seemed only a fraternal au revoir, then it became a rather serious promise, and finally sounded in his ears rather like a menace.
Here was he, going down like a prince to his coronation, and his subjects would "see him to-morrow." It had never occurred to him before that these subjects might have something to say to the ordering of the new kingdom, and that he should have to reckon with them, as well as they with him. The idea was not altogether comfortable, and he tried to shelve it. Of course he would get on with them. They would look up to him, and they would discover that his interests and theirs were the same. He was prepared to go some way to meet them. It would be odd if they would not come the rest to meet him. He turned his mind to other subjects. Still he wished he could be quite sure that Arthur's innocent "see you again to-morrow" had no double meaning for him.
The railway took him as far as Blankington Junction, about five miles from Grandcourt; and, as it would be some time before a Grandcourt train came up, he decided, after seeing his effects into a cab, to take advantage of the fine, frosty afternoon, and complete his journey on foot. He was, in fact, beginning to grow a little depressed, and the exercise would brace him up. He had, foolishly enough, looked forward to a somewhat different kind of advent, dropping, perhaps, with some little eclat on a school where Arthur had already proclaimed his fame among the boys, and where Grover had prepared him a welcome among the masters. Compared with that, this solitary backstairs arrival seemed tame and dispiriting, and he half regretted that he had not postponed his coming till to-morrow, even in the face of Dr Ponsford's suggestion.
A mile from Grandcourt he caught sight of the square red ivy-covered brick tower of the school among the trees. Even in winter it looked warm and picturesque. It was growing dark when he passed the lodge, and crossed the playing-field towards the school-house. The cabman was awaiting him in the square.
"Never gave me your name," explained he, "and nobody knows nothink about you here. Five miles is seven-and-six, and luggage is two bob more, and waiting another 'alf-hour's a crown,—namely, twelve shillings, and thank you, mister."
Railsford rang the bell at the porter's lodge. A small child of eight appeared.
"Where's your father?" asked the new master.
"Yout," replied the girl.
"Well, your mother?"
"Please, she's—she's in the churchyard along of my Aunt Sally."
"Well, run and— You mean she's dea—?"
The child nodded before he had finished his sentence.
"Is there anyone about?" inquired the perplexed new-comer.
"There's Mrs 'Astings, doing the floors in Bickers's."
Mrs Hastings was duly summoned, and arrived with her broom and kneeling-pad.
"My good woman, can you tell me the fare from Blankington here?"
The lady looked perplexed, then embarrassed, then angry.
"And you fetched me over from Bickers's—me, with my lame foot, over the cobbles—to ask me that! You oughter be ashamed of yerself, young man. Ask the cabman; he knows."
It was hopeless. Railsford assisted to unload the cab, and meekly gave the cabman the fare demanded.
"I am Mr Railsford, the new master," said he presently, overtaking Mrs Hastings, as she hobbled back in dudgeon to her work; "which are my rooms?"
"I'm sure I don't know. You're a day too early. All the rooms is up, and it will take us all our times to get them done against the school comes back to-morrow."
"It is an extraordinary thing," said Railsford, who began to feel his dignity somewhat put upon, "that Dr Ponsford should tell me to come to- day, and that no preparations—"
"'Tain't got to do with me. You'd best go to the doctor's house, out of that gate, across the little square, the house on the far side of the chapel."
Railsford, leaving his luggage stacked on the pavement outside the porter's lodge, started off with flushed cheeks to the lion's den. The doctor, said the maid, was in, but was at dinner. The gentleman had better call again in half an hour.
So Railsford, in the closing twilight, took a savage walk round the school precincts, in no mood to admire the natural beauties of the place, or to indulge in any rhapsodies at this near view of the scene of his coming triumphs. In half an hour he returned, and was shown into the doctor's study.
"How do you do, Mr —-;" here the doctor took up his visitor's card to refresh his memory—"Mr Railsford?"
"I was afraid, sir," said Mark, "I had mistaken your letter about coming to-day; there appears to be no one—no one who can—I have been unable to ascertain where I am to go."
The doctor waited patiently for the end of this lucid explanation.
"I rather wonder it did not suggest itself to you to call on me for information."
Railsford wondered so too, and felt rather sheepish.
"Your train must have been late. I expected you an hour ago."
"I think we were up to time. I walked from Blankington here."
"Really—I wish I had known of your intention."
"I trust," said Railsford, struck by a horrible suspicion, "you were not waiting dinner for me."
"Not in the least," said the doctor, with a grim smile; "but I had calculated on taking you round before nightfall. We must defer our visit till the morning. Talking of dinner," he added, "you will be ready for something after your journey, will you not?"
As Railsford was nearly famishing, he could only colour up and reply—
The doctor rang the bell.
"See that Mr Railsford gets dinner. I have to go out," he added, "but you will, no doubt, make yourself at home;" and the great man withdrew, leaving the new master in a very crestfallen and disturbed state of mind.
If this was a sample of the sympathy he might expect at head-quarters, Moss's prognostications, after all, were not quite baseless. He made the best of his solitary dinner, and then sallied out in the dark to try to find the porter's lodge once more and rescue his luggage. That functionary was still absent, and Mark was compelled himself to haul his belongings in under cover, and leave word with the little girl that they were to be taken over to Mr Railsford's rooms as soon as her father came in. Then taking with him a bag which contained what he wanted for the night, he returned to the head-master's house and made a point of retiring to rest before his host reappeared on the scene.
Once more luck was against him.
"You vanished early last night," said the doctor, blandly, at breakfast next morning. "I brought Mr Roe in to supper, thinking you and he might like a chat about the work in the Shell, about which he could have given you some useful hints. However, early hours are very commendable."
"I am extremely sorry," faltered Railsford. "I had no idea you would be home so early. I should have liked to meet Mr Roe so much."
"Take some more coffee?" said the doctor.
After breakfast Mark was conducted in state to his house. The floors were all damp and the carpets up; beds and washstands were piled up in the passages, and nowhere was a fire to be seen.
"There are your rooms," said the doctor, pointing out a suite of three apartments opening one into the other, at the present time reeking of soft-soap and absolutely destitute of furniture. "You will find them comfortable and central. The inner room is the bedroom, the middle your private sitting-room, and this larger one the house-parlour. Now we will go to the dormitories and studies. You understand your head boys— those in the Sixth and Fifth—have a study to themselves; the Shell have studies in pairs, and the junior school-work in the common room. But all these points you will make yourself familiar with very shortly. As a house-master, you will of course be responsible for everything that takes place in the house—the morals, work and play of the boys are under your supervision. You have four Sixth-form boys in the house, who are prefects under you, and in certain matters exercise an authority of their own without appeal to you. But you quite understand that you must watch that this is not abused. The house dame, Mrs Farthing, superintends everything connected with the boy's wardrobes, but is under your direction in other matters. I shall introduce you to her as we go down.
"I refer you to the school time-table for particulars as to rising, chapel, preparation, and lights out, and so forth. Discipline on all these points is essential. Cases of difficulty may be referred to a session of the other masters, or in extreme cases to me; but please remember I do not invite consultation in matters of detail. A house- master may use the cane in special cases, which must be reported through the masters' session to me. So much for your house duties.
"As Master of the Shell, you preside at morning school there every day, and, as you know, have to teach classics, English, and divinity. In the afternoon the boys are taken by the French, mathematical, and chemical masters. But you are nominally responsible for the whole, and any case of insubordination or idleness during afternoon school will be reported to you by the master in charge, and you must deal with it as though you had been in charge at the time.
"Now come and make Mrs Farthing's acquaintance."
Mrs Farthing, a lean, wrathful-looking personage, stood in the midst of a wilderness of sheets and blankets, and received her new superior with a very bad grace. She looked him up and looked him down, and then sniffed.
"Very good, Mr Railsford; we shall become better acquainted, I've no doubt."
Railsford shuddered at the prospect; and finding that his luggage was still knocking about at the porter's lodge, he made further expedition in search of it, and at last, with superhuman efforts, succeeded in getting it transferred to his quarters, greatly to the disgust of Mrs Hastings, who remarked in an audible aside to her fellow-scrubber, Mrs Willis, that people ought to keep their dirty traps to themselves till the place is ready for them.
After which Railsford deemed it prudent to take open-air exercise, and await patiently the hour when his carpets should be laid and Grandcourt should wake up into life for the new term.
The combined labours of Mesdames Farthing, Hastings, Wilson, and their myrmidons had barely reached a successful climax that afternoon, in the rescue of order out of the chaos which had reigned in Railsford's house, when the first contingent of the Grandcourtiers arrived in the great square. Railsford, who had at last been permitted to take possession of his rooms and to unstrap his boxes, looked down from his window with some little curiosity at the scene below.
The solemn quadrangle, which an hour ago had looked so ghostly and dreary, was now alive with a crowd of boys, descending headlong from the inside and outside of four big omnibuses, hailing one another boisterously, scrambling for their luggage, scrimmaging for the possession of Mrs Farthing's or the porter's services, indulging in horseplay with the drivers, singing, hooting, challenging, rejoicing, stamping, running, jumping, kicking—anything, in fact, but standing still. In their own opinion, evidently, they were the lords and masters of Grandcourt. They strutted about with the airs of proprietors, and Railsford began to grow half uneasy lest any of them should detect him at the window and demand what right he had there.
The scene grew more and more lively. A new cavalcade discharged its contents on the heels of the first, and upon them came cabs top-heavy with luggage, and a stampede of pedestrians who had quitted the omnibuses a mile from home and run in, and one or two on tricycles, and one hero in great state on horseback. Cheers, sometimes yells, greeted each arrival; and when presently there lumbered up some staid old four- wheeler with a luckless new boy on board, the demonstration became most imposing.
"See you to-morrow!" thought Railsford to himself, as he peered down. Suddenly an unwonted excitement manifested itself. This was occasioned by an impromptu race between two omnibuses and a hansom cab, which, having been all temporarily deserted by their rightful Jehus, had been boarded by three amateur charioteers and set in motion. The hero in charge of the hansom cab generously gave his more heavily-weighted competitors a start of fifty yards; and, standing up in his perch, shook his reins defiantly and smacked his whip, to the infinite delight of everyone but the licenced gentleman who was the nominal proprietor of the vehicle. Of the omnibuses, one got speedily into difficulties, owing to the charioteer getting the reins a trifle mixed and thereby spinning his vehicle round in a semicircle, and bringing it up finally in the middle of the lawn, where he abruptly vacated his post and retired into private life.
The other omnibuses had a more glorious career. The horses were spirited, and entered into the fun of the thing almost as much as their driver. Railsford long remembered the picture which this youthful hero presented; with his face flushed, his head bare, his sandy hair waving in the breeze, his body laid back at an obtuse angle, as he tugged with both hands at the reins. The cab behind came on apace, its jaunty Jehu flourishing his whip and shouting loudly to his opponent to keep his right side. The crowd forgot everything else, and flocked across the grass with loud cheers for the champions.
"Wire in, hansom," shouted some.
"Stick to it, Dig," cried others.
How the mad career might have ended no one could tell; but at each corner the cab closed in ominously with its clumsy competitor, whose horses were fast getting beyond the control of their driver, while the vehicle they were dragging rocked and yawed behind them like a tug in a gale. Railsford was meditating a descent on to the scene, with a view to prevent a catastrophe, if possible, when a shout of laughter greeted the appearance on the scene of the lawful master of the omnibus, in headlong pursuit of his property. By an adroit cut across the grass this outraged gentleman succeeded in overtaking the vehicle and boarding it by the step behind; and then, amid delighted shouts of "Whip behind, Dig!" the spectators watched the owner skip up the steps and along the top, just as "Dig," having received timely warning of his peril, dropped the reins and skipped the contrary way along the top and down the back stairs, depositing himself neatly on terra firma, where, with admirable sang-froid, he joined the spectators and triumphed in the final pulling up of the omnibus, and the consequent abandonment of the race by the indignant hero of the hansom cab, who protested in mock heroics that he was winning hand over hand, and would have licked the 'bus to fits if Dig hadn't funked it.
In the altercation which ensued the company generally took no part, and returned, braced up and fortified by their few minutes' sport, to the serious business of identifying and extricating their luggage from the general melee, and conveying themselves and their belongings into winter quarters.
The new master was impressed by what he had seen—not altogether unfavourably. True, it upset in a moment all his dreams of carrying Grandcourt by the quiet magic of his own influence to the high level he had arranged for it. Still, the race had been a pretty one while it lasted, and both competitors had handled the ribbons well. They would be the sort of boys to take to him—an old 'Varsity Blue; and he would meet them half-way. Railsford's house should get a name for pluck and esprit de corps; and Railsford and his boys should show the way to Grandcourt! How Dr Ponsford and the "session of masters" would follow their lead it did not at present enter into the head of the vain young man to settle.
A knock came at his door as he stood lost in these pleasing reflections, and Grover entered.
"Here you are, then, old man," said he—"an old stager already. It was a great disappointment I could not be here when you got down."
"I wish you had. I have had not exactly a gay time of it."
And he related his experiences. Grover laughed.
"That's Ponsford all over," said he. "He's a fine fellow, but a bear. How do you like your quarters?"
"I've only just got into them, and really haven't had time to look round. And, to tell the truth, for the last ten minutes or so I've been so interested in the scene below that I had forgotten what I was doing. There was a most amusing chariot race between a cab and an omnibus."
Grover looked serious.
"I know," said he. "I'm afraid there will be trouble about that. It's as well, perhaps, you are not expected to know the chief offenders. One or two of them belong to your house."
Railsford looked uncomfortable. It had not occurred to him till now that the proceeding which had so moved his interest and amusement was a breach of discipline.
"I hope I shall not be called upon to deal with it," said he.
"No. I hear Ponsford has the matter in hand himself."
And the friends went on to talk of other matters.
After a while Grover hastened away to his own house, leaving Railsford somewhat uneasy in his mind.
If Dr Ponsford were to question him on the subject of the chariot race, he felt that he would be seriously compromised at the outset of his career. He knew at least the nickname of one of the delinquents; and had actually, by standing and watching the contest without protest, been an accessory to the offence. He busied himself forthwith in his unpacking, and studiously avoided the window until daylight departed, and the court below became silent and deserted.
Just about four o'clock another knock sounded at his door, and Arthur Herapath presented himself, leading by the arm the tawny-haired hero of the chariot race.
"What cheer, Marky?" cried the brother-in-law to be. "Here we are. Had a spiffing spin up from the station, hadn't we, Dig? This it Dig, you know, Sir Digby Oakshott, Baronet, M.P., A.S.S., and nobody knows what else. He and I have bagged Sykes' old room, just over here."
Railsford in his shirt-sleeves, and hemmed round by his luggage, looked up rather blankly at this friendly oration. However, his dignity came to his rescue.
"How are you both? I hope we're to have a good steady term, my boys. Go to your study now—later on we must have a talk."
Arthur looked at his friend and winked; Sir Digby was visibly agitated, and grinned vehemently at a cobweb in the corner of the ceiling.
"All serene," said the former. "By the way, Daisy was all right when I left her, and sent her love and a—"
"Do you hear me, Arthur? Go to your study."
"Oh, all right—but there was a message from the gov. I was to be sure and give you directly I saw you. He says I can have a bob a week pocket-money, and you're to give it to me, and he'll owe it to you at the end of the term. I'd like the first now, please."
"Go immediately to your room," shouted Railsford, as near to losing his temper as his future brother-in-law had ever seen him. "How dare you disobey me?"
"Well, but it was a message from the gov., and—I say, Dig," added he, turning to his friend with a nudge, "you cut when Mark tells you."
Dig departed, and Railsford weakly fell in with the arrangement of the junior, and allowed him to remain and deliver the rest of his domestic messages.
"Now, look here, Arthur," said the master, closing the door and facing his unabashed future kinsman, "we must come to an understanding at once. During term time I forbid you to mention Daisy's name, either to me or anybody else, unless I wish it—"
The boy whistled. "What, have you had a row, then? Is it all broken off? My eye, what will—"
"Rubbish!" said Mark, scarcely able to keep grave; "it's neither one nor the other. But I don't choose you should talk of her, and I insist on being obeyed."
"Jolly rough not to be able to talk about one's own sister!" interposed the innocent.
"Of course, I mean not in connection with me," said Railsford. "And another thing, you must not call me Mark, but Mr Railsford, while term lasts."
"All serene, Mr Railsford, old man! Jolly stiff, though, between brothers, isn't it?"
"You must treat me as if I were merely your master, and no other relative."
"How queer! Mayn't I even be fond of you?"
"Yes, as your master. I count on you, mind, to set a specially good example to the other boys, and back me up in every way you can. You will be able to do a great deal if you only try."
"I'm game! Am I to be made a prefect, I say, Mark—Mr Railsford, I mean?"
"And remember," said Mark, ignoring the question, "that we are here to work, and not to—to drive omnibuses."
Arthur brightened up suddenly.
"You saw the race, then? Stunning spurt round the last lap, only Dig hadn't any stay in him, and the cab had the inside berth. I say, don't let anybody know it was Dig, will you? He'd get in rather a mess, and he's going to put it on hard this term to make up."
Could anything be more hopeless than the task of impressing this simple- minded youth with a sense of his duty and deportment towards the new Master of the Shell?
Railsford gave the attempt up, and the school-bell happily intervened to make a diversion.
"That's for dinner. It's generally at two, you know; but on opening day it's 4.30," said the boy. "We shall have to cut, or we shall be gated, I say."
"Well, you must show me the way," said Mark. "I'm ready."
"You'll have to wear your cap and gown, though," replied Arthur, "or you'll get in a row."
Railsford hastened to rectify the omission, and next moment was standing in the great square beside his lively young pilot, amid a crowd of boys hastening towards the school hall.
"We'd better do a trot," said the boy.
"We shall do it all right, I think," said the master, whose dignity revolted against any motion more rapid than quick walking. Arthur, trotting at his side and encouraging him from time to time to "put it on," detracted a little from the solemnity of the procession. The bell was just ceasing to ring as they entered the hall, and for the first time Railsford found himself in the presence of the assembled school.
Arthur had darted off to his own table, leaving his companion to find his way to the masters' table at the head of the hall, where all his colleagues were already in their places, standing for grace.
Railsford, considerably flurried, slipped into the place which Grover had reserved for him just as the head boy present began to recite the Latin collect, and became painfully aware that his already damaged character for punctuality was by no means enhanced in the severe eyes of Dr Ponsford. The new master glanced round a little nervously at his colleagues. Grover introduced him to a few of the nearest, some of whom received him with a friendly greeting, others eyed him doubtfully, and one or two bristled up grimly. The eclat of his first appearance at Grandcourt had paled somewhat, and he was thankful to have Grover to talk to and keep him in countenance.
"Tell me who some of these men are," he whispered. "Which is Roe?"
"On the other side of me. He has the house next to mine. You, I, Roe, and Bickers have the four sides of the Big Square."
"Which is Bickers?"
"The man with the black beard—last but one on the other side."
Railsford gave a furtive look down the table, and encountered the eyes of Mr Bickers fixed discontentedly on him.
A lightning flash at midnight will often reveal minute details of a scene or landscape which in the ordinary glare of day might pass unnoticed by the observer. So it was in this sudden chance encounter of glances. It lasted not a moment, but it was a declaration of war to the knife on one side, hurled back defiantly on the other.
"Not a bad fellow if you don't stroke him the wrong way," said Grover.
"Oh," said Railsford, in a tone which made his friend start. "Who is beyond him?"
"Lablache, the French master; not very popular, I fancy."
And so on, one master after another was pointed out, and Railsford formed his own opinions of each, and began to feel at home with several of them already. But whenever his eyes turned towards the end of the table they invariably encountered those of Bickers.
There was not much general conversation at the masters' table. Dr Ponsford rarely encouraged it, and resented it when it arose without his initiative.
The buzz and clatter at the boys' tables, however, growing occasionally to a hubbub, amply made up for any sombreness in the meal elsewhere; and Railsford, having exhausted his inquiries, and having failed to engage one of his neighbours in conversation, resigned himself to the enjoyment of the animated scene. He was not long in discovering the whereabouts of his youthful kinsman, whose beaming face shone out from the midst of a bevy of particular friends, while ever and again above the turmoil, like a banner in the breeze, waved the tawny mane of Sir Digby Oakshott. It amused Railsford to watch the group, and when now and then they looked his way, to speculate on what was the subject of their conversation. Perhaps Arthur had been telling them of the new master's athletic achievements at Cambridge, and how he had rowed his boat to the head of the river; or possibly he had been describing to them some of the big football-matches which he, Mark, had taken his young friend to see during the holidays; or maybe they were laying down some patriotic plan for the future good of Railsford's house. His heart warmed to the boys as he watched them. It was a pity, perhaps, he could not catch their actual words.
"Seems jolly green," said Dig.
"So he is. Blushes like a turkey-cock when you talk about spoons. Never mind, he's bound to be civil to us this term, eh, Dig? We've got the whip hand of him, I guess, over that summer-house business at Lucerne."
Here Dig laughed.
"Shut up! He'll hear!"
"What's the joke?" demanded a bullet-headed, black-eyed boy who sat near.
"What, didn't I tell you, Dimsdale? Keep it close, won't you? You see that chap with the eyeglass next to Grover. That's Railsford, our new master—Marky, I call him. He's engaged to Daisy, you know, my sister. Regular soup-ladles they are."
Here Dig once more laughed beyond the bounds of discretion.
"What an ass you are, Dig!" expostulated Arthur; "you'll get us in no end of a mess."
"Awfully sorry—I can't help. Tell Dimsdale about—you know."
"Don't go spreading it, though," said Arthur, shutting his eyes to the fact that he was confiding his secret to the greatest gossip in Grandcourt, and that one or two other heads were also craned forward to hear the joke. "I caught them going it like one o'clock in the hotel garden at Lucerne—it was the first time I twigged what was up; and what do you think he called my sister?"
"What?" they all demanded.
"Keep it close, I say. Ha, ha!—give you a guess all round; Dig knows."
"Pussy cat," suggested one.
"Jumbo," suggested another.
"Cherubim," suggested a third.
Arthur shook his head triumphantly.
"Out of it, all of you. You can tell 'em, Dig."
Dig composed his features once or twice to utter the word, but as many times broke down. At last in high falsetto he got it out,—
The laugh which greeted this revelation penetrated to the upper region, and caused Dr Ponsford to rise on his seat and look in the direction of the uproar.
At the same moment the Sixth-Form boy at the head of the table left his place and bore down on the offenders.
"Cave!" muttered Arthur, purple in the face; "here's Ainger."
Instantly the party was thoroughly buried in its bread and cheese.
"Was that you, Oakshott, making that row?"
"I was only saying something to Herapath," replied the innocent; "I'm sure I didn't make a row."
"Don't tell falsehoods. Do fifty lines, and next time you'll be sent up."
"That's a nice lark," muttered the baronet as the senior retired. "It was you chaps made the row, and I get potted for it. But I say," added he, as if such a mishap were the most common of incidents, "that isn't a bad joke, is it? Fancy calling Herapath's sister—"
"Cave, shut up!" exclaimed Arthur, dealing his friend a ferocious kick under the table; "they've got their eyes on us. Don't play the fool, Dig."
Railsford was aroused from the pleasant contemplation of this little comedy by a general rising, in the midst of which the doctor, followed by his staff, filed out of the hall into the governor's room adjoining, which was ordinarily used as a masters' withdrawing-room. Here Railsford underwent the ordeal of a series of introductions, some of which gave him pleasure, some disappointment, some misgivings, and one at least roused his anger.
"Mr Bickers," said Dr Ponsford, "let me introduce Mr Railsford. You will be neighbours, and ought to be friends."
"I am proud to know Mr Railsford," said Mr Bickers, holding out his hand; "Grandcourt, I am sure, is fortunate."
Railsford flushed up at the tone in which this greeting was offered; and touching the proffered hand hurriedly, said, with more point than prudence—
"I heard of Mr Bickers from my predecessor, Mr Moss."
It was some satisfaction to see Mr Bickers flush in his turn, as he replied, with a hardly concealed sneer—
"Ah, poor Moss! He was a great flatterer. You must not believe half he says about his absent friends."
"Railsford," said Grover, taking his friend by the arm, and anxious to interrupt what promised to be an uncomfortable dialogue, "I must introduce you to Roe. He had charge of the Shell for some years, and can give you some hints which will be useful to you. You'll like him."
Railsford did like him. Mr Roe was one of the best masters at Grandcourt, and his university career had been as brilliant in athletics, and more brilliant in scholarship, than his younger colleagues. He had a quiet voice and manly bearing, which bespoke a vast fund of power latent beneath the surface; and Railsford, for once in his life, experienced the novel sensation of standing in the presence of a superior. Mr Roe accepted Mark's apologies for his non-appearance the evening before with great good-humour, and invited him to his rooms to spend an evening and talk over school-work.
"You are not likely to have much leisure at first. I wish you had a quieter house; but a little good government and sympathy will go a long way towards bringing it up to the mark. As to the Shell, you will find that pretty easy. It wants more management than teaching—at least, I found so. If once the boys can be put on the right track, they will go pretty much of their own accord. It's easier to guide them than drive them; don't you think so?"
"I have no experience yet; but that is my idea, certainly."
"Then you'll succeed. Have you been introduced to Monsieur Lablache? This is Mr Railsford, the new Master of the Shell, monsieur."
Monsieur shrugged himself ceremoniously. He had a big moustache, which curled up in an enigmatical way when he smiled; and Railsford was at a loss whether to like him or dislike him.
"We shall be friends, Meester Railsford, I hope," said the foreigner; "I have much to do wiz ze young gentlemen of the Sell. Helas! they try my patience; but I like them, Meester Railsford, I like them."
"I only wish I knew whether I liked you," inwardly ejaculated the new master, as he smiled in response to the confession.
A bell put an end to further conference, and Mark went off in a somewhat excited state of mind to his own house.
Mr Roe's few words stuck in his mind—especially one of them.
What did he mean by classing sympathy and good government together in the way he had? How can you reduce a disorderly house to order by sympathy?
However, he had no leisure for guessing riddles that night.
A FRIENDLY CHAT.
If Mark Railsford had been left with no better guide to his new duties and responsibilities than the few hurried utterances given by Dr Ponsford during their tour through the premises that morning, his progress would have been very slow and unsatisfactory. It was part of the doctor's method never to do for anyone, colleague or boy, what they could possibly do for themselves. He believed in piling up difficulties at the beginning of an enterprise, instead of making smooth the start and saving up the hard things for later on. If a master of his got through his first term well, he would be pretty sure to turn out well in future. But meanwhile he got as little help from head-quarters as possible, and had to make all his discoveries, arrange his own methods, reap his own experiences for himself.
Grover had good reason to know the doctor's peculiarity in this respect, and took care to give his friend a few hints about starting work, which otherwise he might never have evolved out of his own consciousness.
Amongst other things he advised that he should, as soon as possible, make the acquaintance of the head boys of his house, and try to come to a good understanding with them as to the work and conduct of the term. Accordingly four polite notes were that evening handed by the house- messenger to Messrs. Ainger, Barnworth, Stafford, and Felgate, requesting the pleasure of their company at 7.30 in the new master's rooms. The messenger had an easy task, for, oddly enough, he found the four gentlemen in question assembled in Ainger's study. They were, in fact, discussing their new house-master when his four little missives were placed in their hands.
"What's the joke now, Mercury?" asked Barnworth.
The messenger, who certainly was not nicknamed Mercury on account of the rapidity of his motions or the volatility of his spirits, replied, "I dunno; but I don't see why one letter shouldn't have done for the lot of yer. He's flush with his writing-paper if he isn't with his pounds, shillings and pence!"
"Oh, he's not tipped you, then? Never mind, I'm sure it wasn't your fault!"
Mercury, in private, turned this little sally over in his mind, and came to the conclusion that Mr Barnworth was not yet a finished pupil in manners. Meanwhile the four letters were being opened and perused critically.
"'Dear Ainger'—one would think he'd known me all my life!" said Ainger.
"'I shall be so glad if you will look in at my rooms,'" read Barnworth. "He evidently wants my opinion on his wall-paper."
"'At 7.30, for a few minutes' chat'—nothing about tea and toast, though," said Stafford.
"'Believe me, yours very truly, M. Railsford.' So I do believe you, my boy!" said Felgate. "Are you going, you fellows?"
"Must," said Ainger; "it's a mandate, and there's no time to get a doctor's certificate."
"What does he want to chat about, I wonder?" said Stafford.
"The weather, of course!" growled Barnworth; "what else is there?"
Stafford coloured up as usual when anyone laughed at him.
"He wants to get us to take the oath of allegiance, you fellows," said Felgate. "'Will you walk into my parlour? said the spider to the fly,' that's what he means. I think we'd better not go."
Ainger laughed rather spitefully.
"It strikes me he'll find us four fairly tough flies. I mean to go. I want to see what he's like; I'm not at all sure that I like him."
"Poor beggar!" murmured Barnworth. "Now my doubt is whether he likes me. He ought to, oughtn't he, Staff?"
"Why, yes!" replied that amiable youth; "he doesn't look as if he was very particular."
"Oh, thanks, awfully!" replied Barnworth.
The amiable coloured up more than ever.
"I really didn't mean that," he said, horrified at his unconscious joke. "I mean he doesn't seem strict, or as if he'd be hard to get on with."
"I hope he's not," said Ainger, with a frown. "We had enough of that with Moss."
"Well," said Felgate, "if you are going, I suppose I must come too; only take my advice, and don't promise him too much."
Railsford meanwhile had transacted a good deal of business of a small kind on his own account. He had quelled a small riot in the junior preparation room, and intercepted one or two deserters in the act of quitting the house after hours. He had also gone up to inspect the dormitories, lavatories, and other domestic offices; and on his way down he had made glad the hearts of his coming kinsman and the baronet by a surprise visit in their study. He found them actively unpacking a few home treasures, including a small hamper full of ham, a pistol, some boxing-gloves, and a particularly fiendish-looking bull-dog. The last- named luxury was the baronet's contribution to the common store, and, having been forgotten for some hours in the bustle of arrival, was now removed from his bandbox in a semi-comatose state.
"Hullo!" said Railsford, whose arrival coincided with the unpacking of this natural history curiosity, "what have you got there?"
Oakshott's impulse, on hearing this challenge, had been to huddle his unhappy booty back into the bandbox; but, on second thoughts, he set it down on the mat, and gazing at it attentively, so as not to commit himself to a too hasty opinion, observed submissively that it was a dog.
It is melancholy to have to record failure, in whatever sphere or form; but truth compels us to state that at this particular moment Mark Railsford blundered grievously. Instead of deciding definitely there and then on his own authority whether dogs were or were not en regle in Railsford's house, he halted and hesitated.
"That's against rules, isn't it?" said he.
"Against rules!" said Arthur, crimson in the face—"against rules! Why, Dig and I had one a year ago, only he died, poor beast; he had a mill with a rat, and the rat got on to his nose, and punished him before—"
"Yes," said the master; "but I shall have to see whether it's allowed to keep a dog. Meanwhile you must see he does not make a noise or become a nuisance."
"All serene," replied Dig, who had already almost come to regard the new master as a sort of brother-in-law of his own; "he's a great protection against rats and thieves. My mother gave him to me—didn't she, Smiley?"
Smiley was at that moment lying on his back all of a heap, with his limp legs lifted appealingly in the air, and too much occupied in gasping to vouchsafe any corroboration of his young master's depositions.
Railsford departed, leaving the whole question in an unsettled condition, and not altogether satisfied with himself. He knew, the moment he was outside the door, what he ought to have said; but that was very little consolation to him. Nor was it till he was back in his own room that he remembered he had not taken exception to the pistol. Of course, having looked at it and said nothing, its owner would assume that he did not disapprove of it. And yet he really could not sit down and write, "Dear Grover,—Please say by bearer if pistols and bull-dogs are allowed? Yours truly, M.R." It looked too foolish. Of course, when he saw them written down on paper he knew they were not allowed; and yet it would be equally foolish now to go back to the study and say he had decided without inquiry that they were against rules.
He was still debating this knotty point when a knock at the door apprised him that his expected guests had arrived. Alas! blunder number two trod hard on the heels of number one! He had no tea or coffee, not even a box of biscuits, to take off the edge of the interview and offer a retreat for his own inevitable embarrassment and the possible shyness of his visitors. The arrangements for that reception were as formal as the invitations had been. Was it much wonder if the conference turned out stiff and awkward? In the first place, as all four entered together, and none of them were labelled, he was quite at a loss to know their names. And it is a chilling beginning to a friendly chat to have to inquire the names of your guests. He shook hands rather nervously all round; and then, with an heroic effort at ease and freedom, said, singling out Felgate for the experiment—
"Let me see, you are Ainger, are you not?"
It was a most unfortunate shot; for nothing could have been less complimentary to the jealous and quick-tempered captain of the house than to be mistaken for his self-conceited and unstable inferior, with whom, he was in the habit of congratulating himself, he had little or nothing in common.
"No, sir," said Felgate, omitting, however, to confess his own name, or point out the lawful owner of the name of Ainger.
The master tried to smile at his own dilemma, and had the presence of mind not to plunge further into the quicksands.
"Which of you is Ainger?" he inquired.
"I am, sir," replied the captain haughtily.
"Thank you," said Mark, and could have eaten the word and his tongue into the bargain the moment he had spoken. This was blunder number three, and the worst yet! For so anxious was he to clear himself of the reproach of abasing himself before his head boys, that his next inquiries were made brusquely and snappishly.
"I am, sir."
"I am, sir."
"I am, sir."
That was all over. The master smiled. The boys looked grave.
"Won't you sit down?" said the former, drawing his own chair up to the hearth and poking the fire.
Ainger and Felgate dropped into two seats, and Stafford, after a short excursion to a distant corner, deposited himself on another. Barnworth—there being no more chairs in the room—sat as gracefully as he could on the corner of the table.
"I thought it would be well," began Railsford, still dallying with the poker—"won't you bring your chair in nearer, Stafford?"
Stafford manoeuvred his chair in between Ainger and Felgate.
"I thought it would not be a bad thing—haven't you a chair, Barnworth? dear me! I'll get one out of the bedroom!"
And in his flurry he went off, poker in hand, to the cubicle.
"What a day we're having!" murmured Barnworth.
Stafford giggled just as Railsford re-entered. It was awkward, and gave the new master a very unfavourable impression of the most harmless boy in his house.
"Now," said he, beginning on a new tack, "I am anxious to hear from you something about the state of the house. You're my police, you know," he added with a friendly smile.
Stafford was the only one who smiled in response, and then ensued a dead silence.
"What do you think, Ainger? Do things seem pretty right?"
"Yes," said Ainger laconically.
"Have you noticed anything, Barnworth?"
"There's a draught in the big dormitory, sir," replied Barnworth seriously.
"Indeed, we must have that seen to. Of course, what I mean is as to the conduct of the boys, and so on. Are the rules pretty generally obeyed?"
It was Stafford's turn, and his report was disconcerting too.
"No, sir, not very much."
The new master put down the poker.
"I am sorry to hear that; for discipline must be maintained. Can you suggest anything to improve the state of the house?"
"No, sir," replied Felgate.
This was getting intolerable. The new master's patience was oozing away, and his wits, strange to say, were coming in.
"This is rather damping," he said. "Things seem pretty right, there's a draught in the big dormitory, the rules are not very much obeyed, and nothing can be suggested to improve matters."
The four sat silent—the situation was quite as painful to them as to Mark.
The latter grew desperate.
"Now," said he, raising his voice in a way which put up Ainger's back. "You four boys are in the Sixth, and I understand that the discipline of the house is pretty much in your hands. I shall have to depend on you; and if things go wrong, of course I shall naturally hold you responsible."
Ainger flushed up at this; while Stafford, on whom the master's eyes were fixed, vaguely nodded his head.
"I am very anxious for the house to get a good name for order, and work—and," added he, "I hope we shall be able to do something at sports, too."
Here, at least, the master expected he would meet with a response. But Ainger, the boy chiefly interested in sports, was sulking; and Barnworth, who also was an athlete, was too absorbed in speculating what remark was maturing itself in Felgate's mind to heed what was being said.
"I suppose the house has an eleven—for instance?"
"Yes, generally," said Stafford.
Felgate now came in with his remark.
"Something ought to be done to prevent our house being interfered with by Mr Bickers," said he; "there are sure to be rows while that lasts."
"Oh," said Railsford, who had heard rumours of this feud already; "how are we interfered with?"
"Oh, every way," replied Ainger; "but we needn't trouble you about that, sir. We can take care of ourselves."
"But I should certainly wish to have any difficulty put right," said the new master, "especially if it interferes with the discipline of the house."
"It will never be right as long as Mr Bickers stays at Grandcourt," blurted Stafford; "he has a spite against everyone of our fellows."
"You forget you are talking of a colleague of mine, Stafford," said Railsford, whom a sense of duty compelled to stand up even for a master whom he felt to be an enemy. "I can't suppose one master would willingly do anything to injure the house of another."
Ainger smiled in a manner which offended Railsford considerably.
"I am sorry to find," he said, rather more severely, "that my head boys, who ought to aim at the good of their house, are parties to a feud which, I am sure, can do nobody any good. I must say I had hoped better things."
Ainger looked up quickly. "I am quite willing to resign the captaincy, sir, if you wish it."
"By no means," said Railsford, a little alarmed at the length to which his protest had carried him, and becoming more conciliatory. "All I request is that you will do your best to heal the feud, so that we may have no obstacle in the way of the order of our own house. You may depend on me to co-operate in whatever tends in that direction, and I look to you to take the lead in bringing the house up to the mark and keeping it there."
At this particular juncture further conference was entirely suspended by a most alarming and fiendish disturbance in the room above.
It was not an earthquake, for the ground beneath them neither shook nor trembled; it was not a dynamite explosion, for the sounds were dull and prolonged; it was not a chimney-stack fallen, for the room above was two storeys from the roof. Besides, above the uproar rose now and then the shrill yapping of a dog, and sometimes human voices mingled with the din.
Railsford looked inquiringly at his prefects.
"What is that?" he said.
"Some one in the room above, sir," replied Barnworth. "It was Sykes' study last term," added he, consulting Ainger. "Who's got it this time?"
"Nobody said anything to me about it," said the house-captain.
"The room above this is occupied by Herapath and Oakshott," interposed Railsford.
The captain made an exclamation.
"Did they get your leave, sir?"
"Not exactly; they told me they were going to have the study this term, and I concluded it was all right. Is it not so?"
"They are Shell boys, and have no business on that floor. All the Shell boys keep on the second floor. Of course, they'll say they've got leave."
"I'm afraid they will think so. Is there any other claimant to the study?"
"No; not that I know of."
"Perhaps they had better remain for the present," said the master. "But I cannot imagine what the noise is about. Will you see, Ainger, as you go up?"
This was a broad hint that the merry party was at an end, and no one was particularly sorry.
"Wait a second in my room, you fellows," said Ainger, on the stairs, "while I go and shut up this row."
The mystery of this disorder was apparent as soon as he opened the door. The double study, measuring fifteen feet by nine, was temporarily converted into a football field. The tables and chairs were piled on one side "in touch"; one goal was formed by the towel-horse, the other drawn in chalk on the door. The ball was a disused pot-hat of the baronet's, and the combatants were the two owners of the study versus their cronies and fellow "Shell-fish"—Tilbury, of the second eleven, and Dimsdale, the gossip. There had been some very fine play on both sides, and a maul in goal at the towel-horse end, in which the dog had participated, and been for a considerable period mistaken for the ball. Hinc illae lacrymae.
At the moment when Ainger looked in, Herapath's side had scored 35 goals against their adversaries' 29. The rules were strict Rugby, and nothing was wanted to complete the sport but an umpire. The captain arrived in the nick of time.
"Offside, Dim!—wasn't he, Ainger? That's a place-kick for us! Hang the dog! Get out, Smiley; go and keep goal. See fair play, won't you, Ainger?"
To this impudent request Ainger replied by impounding the ball. "Stop this row!" he said peremptorily. "Tilbury and Dimsdale, you get out of here, and write fifty lines each for being off your floor after eight."
"We only came to ask Herapath what Latin we've to do this term; and there's no preparation for to-morrow."
"Well, if this is your way of finding out about your Latin, you know just as much up-stairs as down here. Be off; and mind I have the lines before dinner to-morrow."
The two champions retired disconcerted, leaving the captain to deal with the arch offenders.
"First of all," said he, "what business have you in this study?"
"Oh, Railsford knows we're here; we told him, and he didn't object."
"Don't you know you ought to come to the prefects about it?"
Oddly enough, both the boys had completely forgotten.
"Besides," explained Dig, "as Railsford and Herapath are sort of brother-in-laws, you know, we thought it was all right."
The reason did not appear very obvious; but the information was interesting.
"Oh, that's it, is it?" asked the captain. "What relation is he to you?"
"He's spoons on my sister Daisy."
The captain laughed.
"I hope she's like her brother," said he.
The two culprits laughed vociferously. It was worth anything to them to get the captain in a good-humour.
"Well, if that's the case," said Ainger, "I shan't have anything to do with you. You've no right on this floor; you know that. If he chooses to let you be, he'll have to keep you in order. I don't pity him in the room underneath."
"I say, do you think he could hear us easily—when we were playing?"
"Oh, no, not at all," said the captain, laughing.
"Really! I say, Ainger, perhaps we'd better have a study up-stairs, after all."
"Thanks; not if I know it. You might pitch over my head instead of his. I suppose, too, he's allowed you to set up that dog?"
"Yes; it's a present from Dig's mother. I say, he's not a bad-looking beast, is he?"
"Who? Dig? Not so very," said the captain, quite relieved to be able to wash his hands of this precious couple.
He departed, leaving the two worthies in a state of bewildered jubilation.
"What a splendid lark!" exclaimed Arthur. "We shall be able to do just what we like all the term. There! we're in luck. Mark thinks Ainger's looking after us; and Ainger will think Mark's looking after us; and, Diggy, my boy, nobody will look after us except Smiley—eh, old dog?"
Smiley, who had wonderfully recovered since an hour ago, here made a playful run at the speaker's heels under the belief that the football had recommenced; and the heart-rending yelps which Railsford heard in the room below a few moments later were occasioned by an endeavour to detach the playful pet's teeth from the trouser-ends of his owner's friend.
The Master of the Shell retired to bed that night doubtful about his boys, and doubtful about himself. He was excellent at shutting stable doors after the abstraction of the horses, and could see a blunder clearly after it had been committed. Still, hope sprang eternal in the breast of Mark Railsford. He would return to the charge to-morrow, and the next day, and the next. Meanwhile he would go to sleep.
The discussion in the captain's room had not been unanimous.
"Well," said Felgate, when Ainger returned, "how do you like him?"
"I don't fancy I shall get on with him."
"Poor beggar!" drawled Barnworth. "I thought he might have been a good deal worse, myself."
"So did I," said Stafford. "He was quite shy."
"No wonder, considering who his visitors were. We were all shy, for the matter of that."
"And I," said Felgate, "intend to remain shy. I don't like the animal. He's too fussy for me."
"Just what he ought to be, but isn't. He'll let things go on, and make us responsible. Cool cheek!" said Ainger. "However, the row overhead will wake him up now and then. Fancy, young Herapath, unless he's making a joke, which isn't much in his line, says Railsford's engaged to his sister; and on that account the young beggar and his precious chum get leave to have Sykes' study and do what they like. They may, for all I shall interfere. If it's a family affair, you don't catch me poking my nose into it!"
"Engaged, is he?" cried Felgate, laughing. "What a joke!"
"It's nothing to do with us," said Barnworth, "whether he is or not."
"Unless he goes in for favouritism; which it seems he is doing," said Ainger.
"Well, even so, you've washed your hands of young Herapath, and he's a lucky chap. But having done so, I don't see what it matters to us how many wives or sweethearts he has."
"It seems to me," said Ainger, who was still discontented, "we shall get no more backing from him than we did from Moss. I don't care twopence about that young ass Herapath; but if the house is to go on as it was last term, and we are to be interfered with by Bickers and nobody to stand up for us, we may as well shut up at once, and let him appoint new prefects."
"Yes, but are you sure he won't back us up?" drawled Barnworth. "I'm not a betting man, like Stafford, but I have a notion he'll come out on our side."
Ainger grunted sceptically, and announced that he had to unpack; whereat his comrades left him.
Few persons at Grandcourt gave the captain of Railsford's house credit for being as honest as he was short-tempered, and as jealous for the honour of his house as he was short-sighted as to the best means of securing it. And yet Ainger was all this; and when he went to bed that night Railsford himself did not look forward more anxiously to the opening term than did his first lieutenant.
ARTHUR AND THE BARONET SETTLE DOWN FOR THE TERM.
The reader is not to imagine that Railsford's house contained nobody but the four prefects of the Sixth-form and the sedate tenants of the study immediately over the master's head, who belonged to the Shell. On the contrary, the fifty boys who made up the little community were fully representative of all grades and classes of Grandcourt life. There was a considerable substratum of "Babies" belonging to the junior forms, who herded together noisily and buzzed like midges in every hole and corner of the house. Nor were Herapath and Oakshott, with their two cronies, by any means the sole representatives of that honourable fraternity known as the Shell, too mature for the junior school, and yet too juvenile for the upper forms. A score at least of Railsford's subjects belonged to this noble army, and were ready to wage war with anybody or anything—for a consideration.
Still ascending in the scale, came a compact phalanx of Fifth-form heroes, counting some of the best athletes of the second eleven and fifteen, and yet not falling in with the spirited foreign policy so prevalent in the rest of the house. On an emergency they could and would turn out, and their broad backs and sturdy arms generally gave a good account of themselves. But as a general rule they grieved their friends by an eccentric habit of "mugging," which, as anybody knows, is a most uncomfortable and alarming symptom in a boy of a house such as Railsford's. True, there were among them a few noble spirits who never did a stroke of work unless under compulsion; but as a rule the Fifth- form fellows in Railsford's lay under the imputation of being studious, and took very little trouble to clear their characters. Only when the school sports came round, or the house matches, their detractors used to forgive them.
The four prefects, to whom the reader has been already introduced, divided among them the merits and shortcomings of their juniors. Ainger and Felgate, though antagonistic by nature, were agreed as to an aggressive foreign policy; while Barnworth and of course the amiable Stafford considered there was quite enough work to do at home without going afield. Yet up to the present these four heroes had been popular in their house—Barnworth was the best high jumper Grandcourt had had for years, and Ainger was as steady as a rock at the wickets of the first eleven, and was reported to be about to run Smedley, the school captain, very close for the mile at the spring sports. Stafford, dear fellow that he was, was not a particularly "hot" man at anything, but he would hold the coat of anyone who asked him, and backed everybody up in turn, and always cheered the winner as heartily as he condoled with the loser. Felgate was one of those boys who could do better than they do, and whose unsteadiness is no one's fault but their own. His ways were sometimes crooked, and his professions often exceeded his practice. He meant well sometimes, and did ill very often; and, in short, was just the kind of fellow for the short-tempered, honest Ainger cordially to dislike.
Such was the miscellaneous community which Mark Railsford found himself called upon to govern. It was not worse than a good many masters' houses, and had even its good points.
And yet just now it was admitted to be in a bad way. The doctor had his eye on it, and there is nothing more adverse to reform than the consciousness that one has a bad name. The late master, Mr Moss, moreover, had notoriously found the place too hot for him, and had given it up. That again tells against the reputation of a house. And, lastly, although it had a few good scholars and athletes, who won laurels for the school, there seemed not enough of them to do anything for the house, which had steadily remained at the bottom of the list for general proficiency for several terms.
If you inquired how all this came about, you would hear all sorts of explanations, but the one which found most favour in the delinquent house itself was summed up in the single word "Bickers." The origin of the deadly feud between the boys of Railsford's and the master of the adjoining house was a mystery passing the comprehension even of such as professed to understand the ins and outs of juvenile human nature. It had grown up like a mushroom, and no one exactly remembered how it began. Mr Bickers, some years ago, had been a candidate for the Mastership of the Shell, but had been passed over in favour of Mr Roe. And ever since, so report went, he had been actuated by a fiendish antipathy to the boys who "kept" in the house of his rival. He had worried Mr Moss out of the place, and the boys of the two houses, quick to take up the feuds of their chiefs, had been in a state of war for months. Not that Mr Bickers was a favourite in his own house. He was not, any more than Mr Moss had been in his. But any stick is good enough to beat a dog with, and when Mr Bickers's boys had a mind to "go for" Moss's boys, they espoused the cause of Bickers, and when Mr Moss's boys went out to battle against those of Bickers's house, their war-cry was "Moss."
Much legend had grown up round the feud; but if anyone had had patience to examine it to the bottom he would probably have found the long and short to be that Mr Bickers, being unhappily endowed with a fussy disposition and a sour and vindictive temper, had incurred the displeasure of the boys of his rival's house, and not being the man to smooth away a bad impression, had aggravated it by resenting keenly what he considered to be an unjust prejudice against himself.
This little digression may enable the reader, if he has had the patience to wade through it, to form an idea of the state of parties in that particular section of Grandcourt which chiefly came under Railsford's observation. With Roe's and Grover's houses on the other side of the big square, his boys had comparatively little to do as a house, while with the remote communities in the little square they had still less in common.
But to return to our story. The first week of the next term was one of the busiest Mark Railsford ever spent. His duties in the Shell began on the second day, and the opening performance was not calculated to elate his spirit. The sixty or seventy prodigies of learning who assembled there came from all houses. A few were bent seriously on work and promotion, the majority were equally in different about the one and the other, and the remainder were professional idlers—most successful in their profession.
Such were the hopeful materials which Railsford was expected to inspire with a noble zeal in the pursuit of classics, history, and divinity. It would have bets as easy—at least, so it seemed to the master—to instruct he monkey-house at the Zoological Gardens. The few workers (scarcely one of whom, by the way, was in his own house) formed a little coterie apart, and grabbed up whatever morsels of wisdom and learning their master could afford to let drop in the midst of his hand-to-hand combat with the forces of anarchy and lethargy. But he had little to say to them. His appeals were addressed to the body of gaping, half- amused, half-bored loungers in the middle of the room, who listened pleasantly and forgot instantaneously; who never knew where to go on, and had an inveterate knack of misunderstanding the instructions for next day's work. They endured their few morning hours in the Shell patiently, resignedly, and were polite enough to yawn behind their books. They were rarely put out by their own mistakes, and when occasionally the master dropped upon them with some penalty or remonstrance, they deemed it a pity that anyone should put himself so much about on their account.